Esoteric Dissertations from a One-Track Mind

March 17, 2008

90 Minutes in Heaven: One Atheist’s Perspective

Filed under: books, religion — Tags: , — codesmithy @ 7:55 am

Upon the urging of one commenter, I read “90 Minutes in Heaven.” I managed to do so in one weekend which again makes me wonder why the people over at the New York Times have not taken the time to review it. It certainly isn’t because it takes too long to read.

I could bemoan the tone and numerous logical fallacies, however to concentrate on those would be a tad unfair. The book is not a polemic like “The God Delusion.” In fact, it isn’t really about 90 minutes in heaven either. At its core, it is about solidarity, hope, and coming to terms with a catastrophic life-altering change.

First, I’d like to talk a little bit about Piper’s experience in heaven. It is less than 10% of an approximately 200 page book. This is actually something to be thankful for, because it reads like two children trying to one-up one another. How wonderful was heaven?  More wonderful than the most wonderful thing you can imagine. Lest I be accused of exaggerating, I’ll let some quotes speak for themselves.

Without the slightest doubt, I know heaven is real. It’s more real than anything I’ve ever experienced in my life. I sometimes say, “Think of the worst thing that’s ever happened to you, the best thing that’s ever happened to you, and everything in between; heaven is more real than any of those things. – Longing for Home pg 194

Age expresses time passing, and there is no time there. All of the people I encountered were the same age they had been the last time I had seen them — except that all the ravages of living on earth had vanished. Even though some of their features may not have been considered attractive on earth, in heaven every feature was perfect, beautiful, and wonderful to gaze at. – My Time in Heaven pg 27

Besides heaven being melodious, luminous, brilliant, beautiful, perfect, etc., etc., ad nauseum. Piper provides one minor tweak to the biblical account.

One thing did surprise me: On earth, whenever I thought of heaven, I anticipated that one day I’d see a gate made of pearls, because the Bible refers to the gates of pearl. The gate wasn’t made of pearls, but was pearlescent — perhaps iridescent may be more descriptive. To me, it looked as if someone had spread pearl icing on a cake. The gate glowed and shimmered. – Heavenly Music pg 34

As is typical of these types of descriptions, it exists in a realm where words cease to have any meaning.

As for the miracles, it is hard to see any. Don Piper was declared dead. Piper therefore makes the logical leap that he was dead. No room for mistakes allowed in this declaration, despite a number of other mishaps Piper acknowledges during the course of the book. However, it remains unclear how thoroughly the police officers following behind the inmate driven semi, or the EMTs dispatched actually checked him.

The EMTs pronounced me dead as soon as they arrived at the scene. They stated that I died instantly. According to the report, the collision occurred at 11:45 A.M. The EMTs became so busy working with the others involved, that is was about 1:15 P.M. before they were ready to move me. They checked for a pulse once again. – From Heaven to Earth pg 37

Dick Onerecker was the first one to notice Don Piper was alive, and apparently prayed that Piper be delivered from “unseen injuries.” What this actually means is left open to interpretation, as its definition changes throughout the book. Piper initially interprets it to mean no brain trauma or internal injuries. Doctors confirm in the book that he had no injuries to his brain or organs in his thoracic cavity. By the final chapter, Piper just repeats the brain trauma portion of the deliverance. To me, it appears to be a post-hoc rationalization and moving goal posts. It is also perfectly consistent with his survival. He was never, in fact, clinically dead.

At the heart of the book is Piper’s personal transformation, his battle with depression and ever constant pain. The backdrop is set against not the life he had before, but actually experiencing heaven. It is exactly those twists in the details that make this story, which is a moving story in its own right and something I can definitely empathize with, fall completely tone-deaf and flat as a commentary on the human condition. On page 107 Piper describes his depression vanishing. Poof. Piper describes it as a miracle. I describe it as a contrivance. It is clear Piper’s depression didn’t just vanish. It came back to haunt him, in little everyday reminders of things he was no longer able to do. This is by far the most frustrating aspect of the book.

Piper faced finding what he describes as a “New Normal.” It is breaking down the barriers of expectations, letting people help you, and finding ways of helping other people in solidarity. Letting go of your expectations and dreams of your former life and finding hope and happiness in your new condition. If anything, I would expect Piper to recognize there is no way life is supposed to be. It is about adapting and changing. Disaster can come suddenly and at any moment, but the recovery is gradual and a constant struggle. Through it all, there is a love of other people, your friends and your family, your community, even a few people you wouldn’t expect who help with your personal adjustment and give you strength to go on. Which is why, when Piper describes his depression vanishing like turning off a switch I am saddened. It is an incomplete metamorphosis. It is a reversion to the expectations and attitudes that he had before the accident. As I described this aspect of frustration to my mother, she pondered whether or not Piper was planning on writing a sequel to address this deficiency. I can only hope that is the case.

In the end, I think most readers will find what they are looking for when reading “90 Minutes in Heaven.” As far as near-death experiences [NDE] go, Piper admits his attitudes in the final chapter.

I have no intention of trying to solve this [NDE] debate. I can only relate what happened to me. No matter what researchers may or may not try to tell me, I know I went to heaven. – The Why Questions pg 201

In the same way, some may not believe my account; they may think it was some kind of wish fulfillment during a point of severe trauma. I don’t have to defend my experience.

I know what happened to me. For those of us whose faith is in the reality of heaven, no amount of evidence is necessary. I know what I experienced. – The Why Questions pg 205

As Piper mentions throughout the book, he is not a particularly introspective person and doesn’t particularly focus on what happened, but rather why it happened.

I’ve devoted an immense amount of time to considering why it happened rather than what happened. – The Why Questions pg 201

In the final analysis, “90 Minutes in Heaven” is a moving story that is utterly hamstrung and incomplete by its reliance on religion and irrational belief. On the one hand, the organization of the church enabled a great deal of the story, especially help to a family going through a crisis. It also enables Piper to help other people who are going through similar struggles. He has lived their pain. However, much like Piper’s accident, the book is a mess, but the heart of it survives if you are willing to use your brain.

March 16, 2008

Remarks on Religion by Noam Chomsky

Filed under: culture, religion — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 10:48 am

Well, I’m a little more than half-way through “90 Minutes of Heaven.” With some luck, I should be able to finish it tomorrow, although I’m not sure if I’ll be able to write up a post about it by then. There is quite a bit I would like to say.

Chomsky has some remarks on religion to hold one over. I consider myself in more or less the same boat. I particularly agree with Chomsky’s sentiment: “I think irrational belief is a dangerous phenomenon, and I try to consciously avoid irrational belief.”

As a preface, like Chomsky, I do recognize that religion does do some good. The problem I have with it is how it masks the bad. I believe the only way that we are going to make it, as a species, is on a basis of liberty and recognition of individual human dignity. Humility and introspection are keys to recognizing past failures and correcting behaviors. I recognize that religious believers encompass a diverse group of people, but what I often find is a false modesty and a deliberate lack of introspection. If one feels the don’t fall into this group then fine, my criticism doesn’t apply. However, I find such an attitude permeates Piper’s book, and worse yet, he seems unaware of the issue.

For example, let’s take the issue of the seat belt. It is safe to say, if Don Piper hadn’t been wearing his seat belt, he would have died. He admits so himself on page 55 claiming that it was a miracle he was wearing one. Therefore, if it hadn’t been for Ralph Nader, I think it is safe to say Don Piper would not be alive today. The reason the Ford Escort held up to a head-on collision with a semi as well as it did was because of the crash-testing and safety devices Nader advocated. Yes, there were countless people who contributed to saving Don Piper’s life, the doctors who treated him, the engineers who designed the car, the people who built the bridge, among countless others. However, Ralph Nader raised the consciousness of automobile safety, which led to the distinct set of circumstances that helped save Piper’s life. This did not just happen. It was a result of hard work. Nader made great personal sacrifices in this regard and was actively targeted to be personally discredited. It therefore seems superficial to irrationally thank all these imaginary factors without recognizing a few that actually made a tangible difference.

However, Piper seems unable to because his intellectually lazy explanation stops with his decision to put on the seat belt that day, and he believes that was because of God. This is why religion and honest introspection appear to be so antithetical to me. If not in theory, but in practice. I want people to break through this God barrier, look deeper than the superficial explanation and try to gain a deeper understanding of the world that surrounds us. Thus, I’m not trying to attack God or religion, I’m attacking the thinking. In this sense, God is just the word used to defend stubborn ignorance. Religion is just the crutch people use to justify their disinterested and superficial understanding of the world.

March 9, 2008

90 Minutes with Richard Dawkins

Filed under: books, culture, media, religion — Tags: , , , — codesmithy @ 1:00 pm

Richard Dawkins came to University of California at Berkeley on his University Tour. Unfortunately, I ran into some traffic on the way over, and hence arrived late. Late, as it turned out, just wasn’t going to cut it. The event sold out. There was a book signing afterwards, but having left my hardcover edition at home I didn’t feel like picking up another copy just for Dawkins to sign it. Resigned to my fate, I returned home from the bust.

In the bigger scheme of things, it is no great loss. I had already read “The God Delusion.” I’m already an atheist. I’ve watched quite a few of his presentations online. I highly doubt he would have covered any ground that I was previously unaware of. The draw of going to such events are the questions from the audience, but those tend to be very hit or miss.

Although, it was my personal failure for not arriving early enough, only having seating for 705 people seems to guarantee some people would be left out. If they would have gone with Zellerbach Hall, everyone interested would have been able to attend. I imagine the student group setting up the lecture didn’t do so because of the cost differences, and possibly because they didn’t believe Dawkins would be able to sell out Wheeler Auditorium. If that is the case, Dawkins seems to be a character of unanticipated popularity.

Thus, I always find myself at a little bit of a loss looking at the best sellers list. There are many fine books on the paperback non-fiction best seller list. “The God Delusion” is sitting above Friedman’s “The World is Flat” at 14. However, look at 5 on the list, “90 Minutes in Heaven”? It has been on the list 71 weeks whereas Dawkins’ book has only been on the list for 9.

To my surprise, Amazon recommends buying “90 Minutes in Heaven” with “23 Minutes in Hell” by Bill Wiese, thus exposing a fatal flaw in Amazon’s recommendation system. It should be recommending “Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time” by Michael Shermer, but I digress. Although, I’m still searching for “56 Minutes in Purgatory” so I could rest easy knowing there was a modern version of the Divine Comedy, but so far no luck.

However, the underlying point is here criticism. Dawkins has been criticized a lot, from an absurd caricature on South Park to endless litanies of his shrillness and stridency in advocating atheism. It is telling that the New York Times has not reviewed “90 Minutes in Heaven.” However, Jim Holt plays his role as an enabler for religious belief with an excellent review of “The God Delusion.” I want to say, there is nothing wrong with the review. It is well written. Points are well-argued with context, although I might not agree with all of them. I honestly wish all reviews were done as well as Holt’s of “The God Delusion.”

It is unfortunately the intrinsic state of atheism to be unable to deliver an absolutist knockout blow. The crux of the problem is Descartes’ evil deceiver. We can be confident in our own thinking, but since our perceptions of the world are fallible, it is necessary to admit we could be mistaken about everything else. However, the probability of this being the case is very low. This uncertainty is why many philosophers go reaching to god, just like Descartes did. God provides a way to assert something with absolutes, however introducing god produces as many issues as it answers. It is also true that this abstract, necessary metaphysical god to assert certainty is very different from one that we would associate with any religion. It is at best a metaphysical crutch that allow seemingly sensible people to cram all their superstitious belief into and pretend it is OK. Hence, atheists are caught in a catch-22 with the superstitious enablers who apparently want to run away from Occam’s razor.

Again, the issue isn’t the review. It is what the New York Times chooses not to review. Holt complains of logical sloppiness in Dawkins’ book. How about holding that standard to “90 Minutes in Heaven?” What, one of their reviewers could not find time to read a 208 page book in one of 71 weeks it has been on the best sellers list? It is in the nonfiction section no less. I’ll bet there is more truth in “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien than “90 Minutes in Heaven,” but at least O’Brien had the decency to call his work fiction.

Look at what people are claiming about Piper’s story:

The first is that he was dead for 90 minutes. I don’t know that I’ve heard of anyone being dead for that long and being resuscitated. The second is that if they were, they were in fact helped by a physical or medical technician to be revived. Don Piper was not, he simply came back to life for no apparent reason other than God. The third is that he came out with no internal injuries which given his circumstances was improbable to the extreme. That is why I give him great credibility.

I don’t know if the author of the post actually knows how credibility is supposed to function, and I highly suspect it is a marketing piece but still let’s take the post author at his word and assume he read the book. Piper “came back to life for no apparent reason other than God.” Piper rose from the dead with no help. The man was not breathing, his heart was not pumping, he was dead for 90 minutes and just woke up. We know brain cells die within 5 minutes of not receiving oxygen, and this man survived 90. Piper can help write a book and preach afterwards. How is this not one of the most talked about medical case studies in history?

If Dawkins deserves to be publicly criticized for his “tone [being] smug and the logic occasionally sloppy.” Doesn’t Piper deserve the same? Dawkins isn’t the one claiming to have gone to heaven and to have been raised from the dead by God with no physical earthly help, after all.

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