imageJeff Schweitzer, you wrote in the Huffington Post:

We’ve seen the bright light. We’ve been to heaven and back. The latest best seller is about a round trip visit to the netherworld. The book has broken all sales records for the publisher, Thomas Nelson, which specializes in Christian publications. The protagonist is an 11-year-old boy who claims he died, went to heaven and returned to the living to give us his tale in Heaven is for Real: a Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back. The book is titled under non-fiction, because after all the father claims that everything the boy says in the book is "all true."

What a great formula for success: to a broth of established religious superstition add a pinch of life, death and heaven, stir in some pabulum, add a cute little innocent boy and simmer until a gullible public anxious to hear anything to validate a belief in the unbelievable lines up to buy the story — and voila, a best seller. The boy’s journey is presented to us by his father, the Rev. Todd Burpo, who leads a small evangelical congregation in Nebraska. The book is co-written by Lynn Vincent who gave us that stirring tale, Going Rogue, with Sarah Palin. Note that the trip to heaven happened to a boy who coincidentally comes from an evangelical family who already believed in an afterlife prior to the brief visit there; and that we are taken on his journey by a writer with an established conservative agenda. What we are not told is why anybody would want to return to earth from heaven — after all, it’s heaven.

The success of this book, and others akin, demonstrates an odd paradox about the faithful. We are told by believers that faith needs no proof. Faith alone is sufficient to believe in God. Any attempt to refute the existence of any higher power using logic, evidence or reasoning is shut down with a dismissal of rationalism as a secular plot perpetrated by humanists incapable of understanding the meaning of faith. But oh how those same believers immediately glom onto "evidence" for their beliefs like iron shavings to a magnet, no matter how ridiculous or absurd, quickly forgetting the idea that faith needs no proof. So people cite as evidence, of which they purportedly have no need, weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, out-of-body experiences and Christ’s image captured on the Shroud of Turin.

Here we go again: the Shroud of Turin.

Jeff, on April 8th, you wrote:

Without an ability to reason critically, people believe in weeping statues of the Virgin Mary, the existence of a carved face on Mars, out-of-body experiences, and Christ’s image captured on the Shroud of Turin. 

And I wrote:

Is it because I believe in something religious that I lack an ability to reason critically? I’ll give you the weeping statues, the silly face on Mars, and out-of-body stuff. You are probably right. In the first two instances, the evidence is clearly against such things. In the third case there is little evidence other than personal testimony in favor out-of-body experiences. And, so far, cognitive science studies suggest that these are only sensations (though the work is far from complete).

When it comes to the Shroud of Turin, there is a rich body of scientific research (by real scientists, dozens of them, who I suspect can reason critically)  that suggests that the relic might be or could be authentic. If we confine ourselves to prestigious peer-reviewed scientific journals, those with the highest standards, there is not a single standing argument against authenticity. Extend thinking beyond science to history (by real academic historians, dozens of them, who I suspect can reason critically) and there is a body of evidence that suggests it is probably real.

I’ll bet we get back to this issue of critical reasoning.

The burden of proof when citing evidence to substantiate faith is disturbingly low. Here is the truth filter in the Burpo case, according to the father’s logic about this son: "If he was making it up, he would have gotten something wrong. But he got nothing wrong. He got it all right. That’s what started our journey."

So let’s see. The boy got nothing wrong (repeated again as the opposite, he got everything right). That’s it. That’s the proof. We are not told against what metric that right and wrong are measured, or how the father evaluated that since he has not yet made the journey himself. But the boy got everything right (got nothing wrong), so we are off and running.

Did you read the book, Jeff. I don’t agree with the metric. And certainly I’ve expressed my reservations. But the metric was, as stated in the book, an interpretation from the New Testament, particularly the Book of Revelations. Now my interpretation is different than the Rev. Burpo’s. He is clearly a Biblical literalist and fundamentalist. I am not. The metric he uses is invalid, as far as I’m concerned. Critical thinking, Jeff, includes fair statements. Here we go:

The commercial success of Heaven is for Real is a sad consequence of our declining public schools, which have failed to teach our youth how to evaluate dubious claims. This inability to think critically matters. Political candidates can make absurd claims, factually untrue and easily verified as false, which are accepted as Gospel by the faithful. Thinking critically matters to our very survival unless we wish to succumb to demagogues.

Thinking critically matters if we wish to maintain a viable economy in a future based on high tech. A society that is largely scientifically illiterate will clearly be ill equipped to survive in the 21st century, unable to guide advances in science and technology toward the greater good. Although understanding basic science is critical to everyday life in a technology-driven world, the subject is given grossly inadequate treatment in most public schools today. As a result, people are often poorly equipped to understand the complexities of an issue before forming an opinion about the costs and benefits of adopting or restricting a particular technology. They believe a boy went to heaven and back.

The inability to think critically underlies many of our cultural wars. Nearly all the great ethical challenges facing society today are exacerbated to some extent by rapid advances in science and technology. Current political, religious and educational institutions are improperly armed to address the moral consequences ensuing from scientific achievements. In any society dominated by religion and religious morality, technology often proceeds at a pace greater than society’s ability to address the associated moral dilemmas. The issue of therapeutic cloning offers a prime example. Religious bias and scientific illiteracy combine powerfully to restrict a technology with extraordinary potential for good, with little associated risk. The solution is not to retard technologic advances, from which people benefit greatly, but to adapt school curricula accordingly and accelerate the adoption of an ethical code capable of addressing these challenges. But we can’t do that if people believe a boy went to heaven and back.

I don’t know if the boy went to heaven and back. I have my doubts. It doesn’t fit my worldview. It doesn’t accord well with a scientific worldview. But critical thinking demands more than mere dismissal, which is really all that you offer. That, Jeff, is fundamentalism-of-another-kind. What, really, is your argument?

Atheism has tried to capture the high ground in the burden of proof argument. And if Atheism owns it than an Atheist can claim the boy did not go to heaven for it is unproven. And if Atheism owns it, then the Shroud of Turin is a fake no matter what the evidence because the proof bar has not been reached. Doesn’t sound like critical thinking to me, Jeff.

Full article: Jeff Schweitzer: Heaven Can Wait