Notes from the foxhole

Here’s a little story I’d like to share.

The American Medical Association has done a study showing that religious people are more likely to hang on to life for as long as possible.

From the BBC:

People with strong religious beliefs appear to want doctors to do everything they can to keep them alive as death approaches, a US study suggests.

Researchers followed 345 patients with terminal cancer up until their deaths.

Those who regularly prayed were more than three times more likely to receive intensive life-prolonging care than those who relied least on religion.

As well as receiving resuscitation, they were much more likely to be placed on mechanical ventilation in the last few days of life.

I wonder what was going through their minds in those last hours.

The study’s authors say that believers prolong life because they want to give God every chance to perform a miracle, and because they ‘believe they have a moral duty to choose life over death.’

Over at CiF Belief, Ed Halliwell falls over himself to avoid the obvious alternative explanation: that ‘when the prospect of extinction approaches, the illusion of eternity rapidly crumbles, and believers try desperately to maintain their denial by staving off oblivion.’

Halliwell does his best to undermine the study’s findings. Apparently, the problem with the research is that ‘it crudely lumps all religion together – as if there were a monolithic set of beliefs that can be used to define who is religious and what that means.’

This is what I would call the argument from intimidation. It goes like this: ‘The subject under discussion is really complicated, no one really understands it, but as I have a BA in theology I understand more than you do. So accept what I say as truth.’

Yes, religion is rich and complex and multifaceted. But all faiths have several common features. One is that there is some kind of continuation after death. The soul could ascend from the inert body into heaven (or descend into hell) or be reincarnated into a different physical form.

Bottom line, there are core beliefs shared by all religions. It’s no good saying ‘you need to have studied religion to make this sort of assertion’ because most religious people haven’t studied religion. We are always told that faith is what we make of it rather than what is written in blood in the holy books. It is possible, indeed necessary, to generalise about religion.

In this case, the study identified the pious by getting them to agree with a variety of statements, such as whether they ‘focused on religion to stop worrying about their problems’ or that religion ‘was the most important thing that kept them going’. These are exactly the kinds of attitudes that suggest someone is using their faith as an ego defence against reality rather than a tool to investigate it, so it’s hardly surprising they also claim to be resisting death because it’s the will of God.

This view is refreshing at a time when the statement ‘oh, it gives the poor people something to believe in’ is considered an argument to religion’s credit. Yet how does this ‘ego-defence against reality’ differentiate from what we call ‘spiritual nourishment in times of crisis’? Also, Halliwell doesn’t propose any methods of discerning real, earthy, genuine believers from people who are just deluding themselves.

He goes on to identify a ‘failure to differentiate between categories of religious experience’:

This is a conflation of the kind of pre-rational religion that says there’s an anthropomorphic God in the sky who’ll help you out if you pray, and the trans-rational kind that offers sophisticated tools for investigating experience from a first-person perspective. In the former, belief is primitive, magical and childish, just as its detractors claim. But religion of the latter type faces and embraces – rather than splits off from – life’s mysteries and uncertainties, and is able to integrate and complement the empirical knowledge produced by science.

So on the one hand we’ve got ‘bad religion’ (gigantic man with flowing beard, pitchfork-wielding demons, sinister organ music, witch burning etc) and ‘good religion’ (meditation, tantric sex, long pointless discussions, silent retreats in the Lake District). The trouble is, most religious believers – most of the people interviewed for the AMA study and any study of religious belief – will see life, the universe and everything in terms of the former, less sophisticated system of religion.

Apart from restricting their research to Shambhala Buddhists like Ed Halliwell, it’s hard to see how scientists can resolve this. Which of course is his point: religion is too wide, fascinating and complicated for us fundamentalist atheists to cram into our closed little minds.

The implication is that the godless should give up on trying to understand the big questions altogether, and leave such deep and contemplative matters to the theologians. The record of faith in contributing knowledge and progress to humanity’s understanding of the universe does not inspire confidence in that proposition.



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