Death, Unicorns and Haters..

A number of possible blog topics seem to be possible today. I could talk about the recent Religion Dispatches interview – and all the negative comments, there and elsewhere, in response (more positive was this one). I won’t – some commenters make useful points, but many seem to have only read the first line or two.  I think it best to edge away from responding to every comment made – and re-engage with ones that seem actually interesting in a few months, as dust settles. [Though it may be worth quoting the opening of the book – as people seem to think I am actually threatening violence: When… …I want to punch their face. Hard. But I don’t; partly because it is a poor way to recruit students, and also because it is probably wrong. And I am a coward who fears retaliatory pain.  There is no threat here people!]

The other topic, as those who follow me on twitter will know, is an obsession (though I am now recovering a little) with Unicorn Healing – and claims such as this one:

 Unicorns have agreed for the first time to join with a human healer in helping us remove negative energy from our earth.

But I’ll leave that alone too. What I did want to look at was death. A number of those who do (or will, I anticipate, knowing some of the destinations of review copies) object to the book have done so on the grounds that either (a) I can’t be sure that we don’t survive death or (b) we do survive death. As those who’ve read the book will know – I am fairly emphatic:

The end is what death is. It is its fullness of meaning. Its end-ness is what inhabits the concept most fully. To repeat the mantra of non-end-ness to death is to stand with eyes closed, fists clenched and to scream against a hurricane. The new age approach is to dwell beneath a duvet of (self)deception and hope that the dawn’s fresh light will chase away the demons. The demon of death is not scared of daylight though, and walks proud through our circles of protection; lord of nature, rather than repelled by it.

I stand by this. To accept any other view is to allow for a life where death takes on a different value: and therefore one where life does also. Even if we allow an epistemological wobble here – and demand that I concede that life-beyond-death may be possible, I am not sure this matters. Even though the burden of proof ought to be elsewhere, we might concede the possibility. But does it matter if we do so? I would argue that it does not. In the absence of evidence (and if NDEs are the best we have, that is looking fairly flimsy) that is clear – perhaps a better way to put my view here, is that we should live as if death is absolute and total annihilation of all we are and ever could be.

We can still concede it as possible that it could be otherwise – but knowing nothing of it, that mere possibility, with so little to seem to commend it, seems to do nothing to alter the existential realities we know that we do face.

14 thoughts on “Death, Unicorns and Haters..

  1. “(a) I can’t be sure that we don’t survive death or (b) we do survive death.”

    We do survive death. That blog post you wrote and this comment that I’m leaving now contain bits of me and bits of you embedded within them. They can survive our deaths, as do any of the other words we speak into existence. Plato, Thomas Jefferson, and Emily Dickinson are more alive today than they were when their bodies hobbled around.

  2. <i.There is no threat here people!]

    Yes there is. What you are saying is that, if not for you being such a decent coward, your fist would be in their face.

    If I said, “When people tell me they’re Jewish I want to punch their face…” there would be no moral difference.

    What I wish is this: I wish it actually beggared as much belief as it ought to that someone who could write this stuff is a Professor — of philosophy.

    This is what we are reduced to arguing with. Somebody who thinks that because I say I’m spiritual but not religious I am afraid of death when I’ve written many times on the subject,, not engaged when not only am but know there is no evidence to support the idea that people with my beliefs are not, and that I’m stupid and will believe just about anything when I am quite sure that I know more of the evidence for all these subjects than this professor, from laboriously reading the evidence at bitter length,

    I could argue against this. I had a whole thing laid out — about how evidential I am, about how there are actually reasonable debates and no-one has a right to prejudge conclusions, how careful the people I know in this stuff are, about how much I value intellectual integrity, about how long the history of being ‘spiritual but not religious’ is (millennia), about what it has given the world, about how it can never disappear because it happens to human beings all the time, about the importance of mysticism, about the sheer insolence of trying to cut off rational debate under the guise of advocating it, about bothering to do your research if you’re so damn rational, and above all, about how much I resent be lectured to by just another Dawkins on the make.

    Actually there is a huge debate to be had about death. Just about every major mystical tradition involves direct confrontation with death rather than trying to change its status. The NDE evidence is not flimsy either, and I bet I know it better than you.

    But you know what? I can’t be bothered.

    What an irony it is that this guy has written on desire in Buddhism, looks pretty good too, just the sort of thing I was going to check out to go with my recent investigations of Epicureanism. Looks quite sorted. Should have kept to the stuff with integrity.

    The last time I saw this crap on the internet it was an ignorant Christian bigot spouting it. I’ve decided I prefer him. Anything but one more tinpot atheist Hitler. Anything. Because the ignorant Christian bigot had one thing left separating him from the level of hell normally reserved for Murdoch journalists — he had manners.

    I’ve absolutely had enough of this kind of demagoguery. Shame on any professor of philosophy who could write this stuff. Shame.

  3. I clicked ‘approve’ of Jason’s comment here – not because I agree, but because I thought it fair that I have give him an answer to his first point…

    He has a more fulsome version of these points over on his blog post at – which some may enjoy..

    Anyway – above he writes (when I note that there is no threat in the opening of the book/RD interview):

    “Yes there is. What you are saying is that, if not for you being such a decent coward, your fist would be in their face.

    If I said, “When people tell me they’re Jewish I want to punch their face…” there would be no moral difference.”

    [Is SBNR an ethnicity? Like being Jewish, or is it an optional self-description? Saying I feel anger as a result of a statement is honesty, an admission of weakness or a character flaw if you like…]

    Actually – as I make clear in the book – and elsewhere – there is no intention of harm – there is a rhetorical flourish to express intense annoyance: which I admit to – and then seek to investigate the root of.

    I then go on to claim that the root of my annoyance (which I continue to note is my problem) stems from what I see as a fundamental false dichotomy between ‘religion’ and ‘spirituality’ – which the book then explores more.

    I am not going to get into the arguments here about NDEs because I think (though some clearly have other views) the evidence is nowhere even close to making any difference. Does the possibility of brief death-survival indicate anything that should alter how we interpret our finitude and mortality? I think NDE evidence is a long way from offering us enough for that to be altered.


    Finally – “how much I resent be lectured to by just another Dawkins on the make.” – you weren’t lectured to. You chose to read it.. But ignoring that – in the most recent talk I did on this subject, it was many of the Dawkins-like atheists who were most vocally annoyed: when I suggested that atheism had need of theological resources in its development.


    I have resisted getting into comment-wars elsewhere – and I will do here – but I thought that the ‘shame on you’ stuff was a bit much, and thought a one-off brief reply was called for.

    1. I’m thrilled you’ve put one comment through and replied with integrity. Thanks. I’m not angling for a long conversation.

      The “dichotomy between spirituality and religion” is a huge subject. Have a look at a post of mine that actually challenges you on the real issues if you like — for example this one on S.N. Balagangadhara, a distinguished theorist who has a good argument that Hinduism or Taoism are not religions, and thus the SBNR count gets pretty high doesn’t it? (And why not, with no universally accepted definition of religion in the first place.)

      Many other posts on my blog pay serious attention to confrontation with death, including the last — via Epicurus, as I mentioned, whom Seneca quoted as saying, “Rehearse death!”, and who did not believe there was anything beyond it. I’ve spent time comparing him with Kundalini yogis who taught me similarly… as an SBNR then to be so rudely accused of not doing the very thing which I and those I respect do constantly do strikes me as really ridiculous. Wouldn’t you agree?

      I am not going to get into the arguments here about NDEs because I think (though some clearly have other views) the evidence is nowhere even close to making any difference.

      Don’t worry — I’m not about to get into long online debates on this or any topic — whether you put my comments through or not, this will be the last. (Yes of course I “chose to read” your remarks, because I care about this subject matter and what’s more I know about it.)

      But when it comes to NDE evidence for example, whether or not you want to discuss it, one Scientific American link does not close the case. There is a discussion there, a discussion about evidence, and a very serious and rational one. You cannot unilaterally close it — even by saying “I am fairly emphatic”. You don’t need to take sides in the debate to understand that it’s ongoing and massively relevant. We don’t have to talk about neuroransmitters and EEGs to get to that point. If we did, I trust we would be willing to delve hard.

      Nor is it the job even of well-educated web bystanders to tell you figures on how many people have experienced other phenomena without any religious beliefs — hint: it’s a substantial proportion of the population — and thus find themselves with one foot in the category you dislike whether they care to be or not. Nor to remind you about Stanislav Grof, or Gopi Krishna or Robert Crookall or Jenny Wade, or a thousand others who answer the SBNR description as sane rational human beings in the middle of a conversation with serious ramifications — or Jung or Maslow for heaven’s sakes. And every single one of these, even those who have written of the serious psychological necessity of confronting death, is just running away from it? Come on.

      I notice no unicorn healers among them, nor red herring healers for that matter.

      As I mentioned in the post you did let through, the necessity to confront death is a commonplace of mysticism. It has been written about at length by SBNRs including myself and on behalf of everyone I’ve mentioned and more I resent the implication that SBNR = big softie. Even if NDE evidence were super-strong, it doesn’t change the importance of that confrontation — but it may well change the manner of it and certainly does change the conversation about it. So do lots of other things. If you’re interested in one take my own blog has plenty.

      Of course I don’t object to you having a reasoned opinion on any of this. I object to the way you begin your book. How can you possibly start it that way and then shout “haters!” at anyone who objects?

      Since you’re the expert on desire, haven’t you said that you desire, and strongly desire, to punch in the face a group of people which (on good research) includes roughly 20% of the US population for example, most of whom are just stumbling away from the Church? A group arguably embracing anyone historically from William James to Giordano Bruno to the authors of the Yuan You or the Derveni papyrus? I didn’t claim these people constitute an ethnicity! I claim that if you are serious about your claim that these people are all unserious, you are better off to write seriously. Your approach is that of an internet troll. That is what I continue to consider shameful.

      From someone with such a well-reviewed book on the Pāli Canon, too, which I might even pick up at some stage, since as I say that subject interests me. As your reply here demonstrates that you are not just a boor I may even pick up this book to refute some of it. But I don’t want debates on these most important subjects to begin in this debased manner! So it’s unlikely.

      I suppose you could always apologise.

      1. Quick reply- I think the Spiritual/Religious distinction is (as you note) historically complex (and interesting) – though overall I’m still more tempted to see the distinction as unhelpful.

        My concerns in the book are the term as a contemporary trope…

        Quick comment on: “desire to punch” (can’t resist re desire) : we have lots of desires, ethics is (I’d argue) partly about how respond to their arising- not about (only) not having them in the first place. I may have the desire- and not let it become an intention: that is (in Buddhist sense) the kusala response.. The arising of a desire is a state to be observed – not cause for moral condemnation?

        Apologise? I really hope it doesn’t genuinely offend- and I’d be sorry of it did. Most readers have seen it for the attempt at rhetoric that it was intended as…

  4. Come on, this isn’t about the basic differences between desire and action, in any tradition. You know very well that your rhetoric only works because you imply the emotion is justified as the action is not.

    It isn’t this “flourish” that’s offensive, it’s idea that SBNR as a whole “makes us stupid and afraid”, so much so that your anger flourish is to be seen as sympathetic. That’s your sales pitch for your book Professor,

    So you are at least somewhat “tempted to see the distinction as unhelpful?” How come anyone who isn’t so tempted is stupid and afraid? And ‘makes us’ so? And how come you don’t talk about those SNBRs who belie this kind of cheap shot?

    If I read your book will I find any serious discussion of the points and names i raised?

    My concerns in the book are the term as a contemporary trope…

    The facts and discussion I referenced were contemporary and most of the names.

    I really hope it doesn’t genuinely offend- and I’d be sorry of it did.

    I doubt we’ll get past the conditional tense here. I admit though that Dawkins would never get this far. 🙂

    1. why do you think accusing someone of being a professor is an insult? you speak of evidence but you present no evidence whatsoever. what do you think evidence actually means? do you think any rational person is afraid or even convinced by you insane diatribe or just embarrassed by
      your performance stupidity?

      1. why do you think accusing someone of being a professor is an insult?

        I don’t, as you’ll see if you slow down and read what I actually wrote.

        As for evidence and so on, hey, you are the kind of guy I was writing about on my blog this morning. There’s plenty of evidence and I’m planning to lay it all out in a detailed response to Dispirited, already referred to plenty of it in this thread if you want to follow it up. But I know you won’t look at it, and will instead haul out words like ‘insane’. And that’s fine! I won’t be listening, and I don’t recommend you listen to me either.

        But your friend Professor Webster is an atheist of a different colour. He doesn’t just reach for the invective. Maybe you think he’s unwise in encouraging a lunatic like me — maybe he thinks he’s unwise. But I’ve decided to read his work carefully precisely because he has the capacity and maybe the desire to think about this stuff. Since he “liked” my post this morning, I guess he’s not too upset about it. I’m impressed that despite my anger (and his publicity invective) he is not simply an arrogant dismissivist.

        Best wishes Dr. Large.

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  6. I think this argument is conflating a number of different issues and groups.

    (1) The boundaries between religion, spirituality, mysticism, philosophy, and magic have been disputed for centuries.

    (2) Many people are leaving organised religion and seeking alternatives. Some but not all identify as SBNR, and for some it may be vague, woolly, and new-agey, and for others it might be that they are atheists with spirituality, or some other identity. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are fluffy bunny idiots, or that they fear death. However, there might be a high correlation between SBNR identity and pick’n’mix spirituality, new-ageyness, and fear of death.

    (3) If you opt for a label of any kind, whether it is SBNR, Pagan, Christian or whatever, people will often associate it with the worst exemplars of that label rather than the best. But every religious and spiritual identity includes both sensible people and idiots.

  7. Helen

    As a ‘Dawkins -like atheist’ (your term) I enjoyed the book, the topic is an interesting one and you know your subject.
    However I think the subject of death deserves more analysis than it was given in Dispirited. You repeatedly referred to the idea of confronting death as frightening and depressing. I agree many people do not want to contemplate their own death and try to find ways of ignoring the prospect.
    To me the prospect of my own death would be more alarming if I really believed it was not the end, and I would be compelled to endure an eternal existence in heaven surrounded by my ancestors.
    What is wrong with Hitch’s comment along the lines of leaving while the party is still in full swing is better than ‘this party is going on forever and you can’t leave.’
    It is still not the done thing to talk about death, maybe that is part of what draws people to spirituality.
    The manner of our dying is what probably really concerns most of us more. We would all like to die peacefully and painlessly, and unfortunately in the UK the supernatural beliefs of a minority of the population still prevent us from having a rational debate on issues associated with death.

  8. Jason Chambers

    I await delivery of my copy of dispirited eagerly. I often wonder though,which is a more comforting proposition – the idea that when I die,I the character of Jason Chambers, cease to exist. Or the idea that some part of me – my thoughts for want of a better description – exist somewhere else. The former seems very simple. No pain, no worry, no concerns about money or friends. no stress. simply an end, a nothingness. The later worries me, as isnt my character or the part of me that many would suggest will survive the physical death so inextricably linked with the physcial World and my experiences on the physical World that whatever part of me did exist would no longer be a full represenation of me?

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