God: "Any questions?"

Daniel raises his hand.

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There are questions I have, relative to God, that I've never seen acceptably answered and, in most cases, haven't even seen asked. I'd be interested in someone giving me convincing answers to any of these. By "convincing," I mean from my point of view. I am the person looking to be convinced here. It will do no one any good to give me an answer that satisfies the person giving it but not me -- no one's mind will be changed by that.

Here they are. I could think up more, given time, but I have to call an end to this at some point.

1. In the human body, and in the bodies of many other animals, the digestive system and the respiratory system share the same entrance into the body, at the back of the throat. That is where the trouble begins. All of us have experienced the distress caused by food missing its target, taking the wrong path and starting on its way to the lungs. Our body reacts in panic, we start choking, coughing, trying to expel the food. Often we correct the problem, but sometimes we don't. Many people through history have died as a result of food taking the wrong branch at the fork in the road, blocking their airway and irreversibly preventing them from having the air they needed to live. All of that could be avoided if we had bodies where food entered in one place and air in a different one. Whenever I hear someone say that the world and everything in it is the result of "Intelligent Design," I think of the airway and wonder: how intelligent is that design? Forcing the digestive and respiratory systems to use the same input entry, causing frequent permanent breakdowns, would be classified as a design defect in a mechanism built by humans. No intelligent designer would choose to make it that way, given the obvious problem that the design causes. So my question is: Why would God make it that way? Could the whole thing instead be an accident? A result of a set of evolutionary steps of which no one was in charge? That seems a lot more likely to me.

Anyone trying to answer that for me: Don't bother with anything like "It gives God a way to end our lives when He decides He wants to." That makes no sense whatever to me. God is "all powerful." He doesn't need to pre-install an internal mechanism for the purpose of killing us. If He wants someone dead, He can just point a finger and say, "You're dead."

2. The basic, central belief of the Christian faith (at least in most branches of it) is that God sent His son, Jesus, into the world to die on our behalf, so that we could have life everlasting (after we depart this world), and that as long as we believe, sincerely, that Jesus was the son of God and lived and died for that purpose, we will be saved. (John 3:16.) The problem, from my point of view, is that that sounds so much more like grand opera than sensible strategy. My question is: If God wants us to live forever, why did He need to go through all that elaborate and rather dramatic complication to make it happen? Regardless of how Satan might figure into it (I'm sure some people will use Satan, or more specifically the version of Satan believed in by many Christians, as an explanation), it's hard to say why a being with the sort of powers God is supposed to have would be hamstrung by arbitrary rules to the point that he finally thinks, "Wait, what if I have a son by an Earthly mother -- never mind what it is about him that somehow makes him genetically my son -- and have my own Chosen People kill him, then I'll bring him back to life, and then I'll give everyone a free pass if they believe my son died to save them? Yeah, that should work! Oh, and I apologize to all those people who lived and died before my son arrived. I thought of all this too late for them. Nothing I can do."

As I point out in the chapter on the Bible, no other significant world religion bases entry into the afterlife on a gimmick like that. I can make no sense of it. If we can't possibly earn our way into Heaven, I can understand the idea that there should still be some sign of our sincerity God would want us to show, but that could easily be taken care of by God demanding that we believe in Him and that we say something like, "I know you will save me by your grace, God, thank you so much!" And that grace from God could have been in place from the very start, so that untold generations wouldn't have missed out on it. For me, it's the idea of God waiting for thousands of years, and then suddenly sending a son to open a path to salvation because for some reason, despite His omnipotence, He couldn't do it any other more straightforward way, that I find completely inexplicable.

3. Proponents of "Intelligent Design" as a replacement for the Theory of Evolution claim that it is clearly impossible for a life form as complex as Humanity simply to "just happen"; that some intelligent being must have designed it. My own objections to describing the design itself as "intelligent" aside (see question 1, above), my question here is: Isn't God more complex than a human? Why is it impossible that the human race can "just happen," but perfectly okay that God "just happened"? I have never heard anyone address that.

Explanations involving description of God as a "timeless" being, saying that He is unaffected by Time and doesn't require a "beginning," introduce a wide range of new problems, including taking us back to question 2 again: why, in that case, would He would insert His son into history after many, many centuries without a Savior had gone by, denying salvation to all those who lived before? If He is outside Time, He can see all of His creation as a finished product at once. If He wanted His creation to include eternal life for its occupants, why arrange for it several millennia after the starting point?

4. If we are to experience life-after-death, in Heaven or Hell, as people universally visualize it, it is absolutely required that our self-awareness and memories be able to exist independently of our physical bodies. We know that our physical bodies will die, but we expect our self-awareness and memories to go on. While we're alive, we picture our departed loved ones looking down on us from above, and being proud of (or horrified by) the things we are doing with our lives; and then after we die, we imagine it will be our turn to do the same thing.

It is easy to see why people thousands of years ago might have believed that that is possible, when no one had any idea what the brain is or what its functions are, but to maintain that belief today requires ignoring a thousand known and demonstrated facts. Sudden physical trauma to the brain, or the slow build-up of damage from Alzheimer's Disease, can rob us of all of those memories we believe we're all going to take with us into the afterlife. The fact that our memories have physical existence in the brain and are vulnerable to physical damage shows that they are part of our body, and not something that can have an existence separate from our body. Imagining that we can take our memories, a part of the physical world, with us after we die is very much like imagining we can ride to Heaven on a city bus.

You may be thinking: wait, I accept that memories can be lost through damage in the brain -- in fact, memories are lost all the time even without damage. We often forget things. Admittedly the loss is profound in Alzheimer's. But even when I forget things, I am still me and I know I'm me. That's not something I will lose. And after I die, it will define me in the afterlife.

Think again. Let me offer some excerpts from the book The Curse of the Self: Self-Awareness, Egotism, and the Quality of Human Life, by Mark R. Leary. As for Dr. Leary's qualifications to write authoritatively about the mind and the self, he is a professor of psychology and neuroscience (the science of the brain) at Duke University, and "self and identity" is his research specialty. The following passages are from the book:

If you are like most people, you may have the vague sense that there is, inside your head, a small, experiencing "thing" that registers your experiences, thinks your thoughts, and feels your feelings -- some sort of conscious entity "in there" that is the center of your awareness, thought, and conscious experience. Many people report that this mental presence is at the core of whom they really or most essentially are, and some people have the sense that their body is just a vehicle for carrying around this important mental entity....

We know relatively little about the brain structures that are associated with self-awareness, but neuroscientists are beginning to investigate where and how the brain creates self-awareness and our sense of self.

Dr. Leary then describes the frontal lobes of the brain, which are immediately behind the forehead, and says:

Case studies and experiments over the past 150 years have shown that damage to the frontal lobes produces disturbances of self and awareness. For example, people with damage to their frontal lobes are typically completely unconcerned about their injuries. Despite the fact that they understand fully that their injury is quite serious, they simply do not seem interested in it -- much as if the problem were someone else's rather than their own! As one researcher observed, frontal lobe patients "seem to be entirely uninterested in themselves as persons." Clearly, something about their sense of self has gone awry.

Dr. Leary then goes on to describe further symptoms, all of them suggesting that people with frontal lobe injuries no longer have that "me" inside them that functions as the observer of their lives.

There is a serious problem here, relative to the afterlife. If our self-awareness is independent of the body, then nothing that happens to the body could affect it in any way (because that's exactly what "independent" means). But we see that's not the case. It is dependent on the body, and that means it can't survive the body's death.

My point is: along with our memories (certainly at least some of them), this self-awareness, the me inside me that thinks about me-being-me, would have to persist in the afterlife for the whole idea of "afterlife" to make any sense -- in the afterlife, without any of my memories of me or awareness of being me, what's left? How is it "me" in any sense? Read that first paragraph again, from Dr. Leary's book. If you believe in the afterlife, isn't that paragraph describing exactly the part of yourself that you believe is going to experience the afterlife? It is that perception of me-inside-me, that sense that "[our] body is just a vehicle for carrying around this important mental entity," that gave rise to the concept of the "soul." Yet in reality our self-awareness physically occupies a specific part of the brain, and can be obliterated by physical damage to that part. How does that fit with the idea of it being something separate from your body that can drift away after you die?

Someone who is reading this (or who would only read it if forced to) might say at this point: Okay, perhaps my experience in Heaven won't be quite how I had visualized it. I won't have my memories, and I won't have my self-awareness. But perhaps that was never the point of Heaven. Maybe I should think of Heaven as a place where I would simply feel the joy of being in the presence of God. I wouldn't need the awareness of myself; in fact, perhaps it is all about losing my individuality in becoming unified with God's Creation. That is what Heaven could be: not thoughts, not memories, not myself, just that pure joy.

That certainly would be a philosophically interesting way of looking at it. But that doesn't work either. Emotions, such as joy, don't overlay your existence and react to it from outside it. Exactly like memories and self-awareness, emotions are a function of the brain, and are physically located in a particular part in the brain, in this case the limbic system. The following is from Breaking the Emotional Health Barriers, by Dr. Reuben Phiri, Principal Doctor at Merrindale Medical Centre in Melbourne, Australia:

The limbic system is the seat of all emotion. People who have head injuries that damage the limbic connections between the neocortex and the limbic system are emotionless. Such people can function normally in all aspects but are very poor at social interaction.

Passion depends on the limbic system. It is a known fact that people work most efficiently when driven by passion for what they do. People with damage to the limbic system lack passion for anything. As a result they may perform poorly at work, have no hobbies and are not fun to be with.

So for anyone who is thinking that your emotions are something mystical and spiritual rather than a physical process taking place in your brain... they aren't. Like the other parts of your selfhood I have been talking about, emotions are created by electrical activities in the neurons of our brains, and are subject to damage and loss.

Anyone who responds to me by saying "The Lord will make the spirits of people with brain damage whole again in Heaven" is missing the point. (So don't bother.) To repeat the above points in more unified form: our memories of ourselves, our awareness of being ourselves, and our emotions in reaction to our experiences, these things are the very core of anything that could be called an afterlife. It is simply not an afterlife without at least some of those things. But the entire idea of any of those things surviving our death is based on the belief that they have an existence that is independent of the body. They don't. They are a physical part of the brain, with physical locations in it. They are not "spirits" with a separate existence of their own that can depart from the body at death: if that were the case, they could not be crippled when the brain is damaged. And we aren't taking any parts of our brain with us when we go, any more than we can take parts of our kidneys with us.

So this, then, is my question here, and I put it last, in this chapter, because it is so central to nearly everyone's religious beliefs: How can there be an afterlife?

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All of the above questions are important. Important to me, anyway. But if you read any of them and are struggling to come up with answers that make sense to you, then they are important to you too.

Keep thinking about it. Come up with some new questions of your own. If you are a devout Christian, or a devoted follower of any religion, and you have stayed with me this far (unlikely, but who knows?), and if you feel any discomfort about asking questions about your religion, then make that your first question: Why can't it be questioned?