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Tackling the Big Questions

In 1997, Michael Shermer wrote I one of the classics of skepticism, Why People Believe Weird Things. He has continued to produce skeptical books at regular intervals, with topics as diverse as intelligent design, holocaust denial, and morality. His new book, Heavens on Earth, is his most ambitious yet. In it, he grapples with immortality, the afterlife, reincarnation, near-death experiences, the soul, heaven, utopias, and the meaning of life. These are topics usually relegated to the spheres of philosophy and religion, but Shermer approaches them through science, looking for evidence—or lack thereof.

The belief that death is not final is overwhelmingly common—even among a third of atheists and agnostics—but it is not supported by a shred of evidence. As the story goes, humans are terrified of dying, so they invented comforting narratives including God, a soul that survives the death of the body, resurrection, reincarnation, and methods they hope will extend life. Shermer questions assumptions such as whether contemplating death results in terror. In a survey, only 3 percent of respondents listed “fear of death” as a reason for their belief in God. Final statements of inmates on death row speak of love, not terror. Anthropologists interpret burial customs in terms of belief systems, but the earliest humans may have buried their dead for a more pragmatic reason: dead bodies rot and stink.

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