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. Among the most notable miraculous relics of Catholicism is the much publicized "blood" of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. Since the 14th century, a substance said to be the dried blood of the martyred saint periodically liquefies and reddens, indicating good years and bad according to legend. Virtually the entire metropolitan congregation turns out once a year to wait anxiously as the miracle proclaims the city's fate. The explanation is absolutely trivial. Many substances, including mixtures readily available to medieval chemists, have the property exhibited by the purported blood.
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.
In these stories providing evidence for the faithful that their beliefs can be substantiated by worldly happenings, the storyteller is often shocked or surprised at finding the evidence, amazed that out of nowhere the statue of the Virgin Mary started weeping blood. So we are not surprised to learn that the Burpo family was "completely unprepared to have this discussion" and that the father said, "I questioned my son, too." I suspect most parents would if their son mentioned a vacation in heaven.
Since the human brain is the organ generating these silly thoughts of unreason that allow adults to accept the fantasy world of a 4-year-old as true, my doctorate in neurophysiology prompts me to challenge the embarrassing nonsense. We know from established experiments in neurobiology that many experiences described by the faithful, including visions of god, can be replicated in the laboratory with relatively simple manipulation of brain function. Simple rotating magnetic fields directed at the temporal lobe will do the trick. But others dispute the experimental design, and claim that the subsequent religious or spiritual experience reported by subjects was a consequence only of their particular degree of suggestibility, not any manipulation of neuronal activity through external magnetic fields. In either case, a spiritual experience can be induced in the laboratory, even if only as a placebo effect. Fire a few temporal lobe neurons and God is your witness, or vice versa.
How can the audience for this book be so easily duped? Because this is what we have become: Former NASA administrator Dan Goldin, while defending funding for the space agency, was famously asked, "Why are we building meteorological satellites when we have the Weather Channel?" That silliness is no more ridiculous than believing a boy went to heaven and back. Everything is possible and nothing is absurd when unconstrained by fact, reason or reality.
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.
The degradation of our institutions of education are nowhere better illustrated than by the issue of evolution as taught in the United States. The evangelical battle against this established fact exemplifies all that is wrong with our schools. Evolution is one of the most successful, thoroughly documented scientific discoveries in human history. However, more than 75 years after the trial of State of Tennessee v. John Thomas Scopes and despite incredible advances in biology, many public school boards strive to eliminate the teaching of evolution from the curriculum. Rather than keeping apace of scientific advances, the U.S. system of education has fallen woefully behind. That is why Newsweek asks on its cover, "How Dumb Are We?" If a scientific discovery as important, mainstream and established as evolution can be a source of controversy for school curricula, even if only in a few states and only sporadically, society is extraordinarily vulnerable to the results of a general decline in science training at the most elementary levels.
More than 40 years elapsed after the Scopes trial before the Supreme Court ruled in 1968 that banning the teaching of evolution was unconstitutional (Epperson v. Arkansas). The anti-evolutionists then changed tactics by attempting to equate evolution with a religious belief, arguing that evolution was not an established fact. The word theory associated with the discovery was grossly misunderstood or intentionally twisted by those seeking to force on public school students a single religious view of creation. Creationists and their allies express no reservations about teaching the Theory of Relativity as fact, but they attempt to sow confusion by absurdly calling evolution a belief on equal standing with the Theory of Creation.
Teaching evolution is equal to teaching that the Earth is a sphere or that the sun is the center of the solar system. All are established facts. Some may still believe that the sun revolves around the Earth as the Bible implies, but including such an idea in a school curriculum is unacceptable. Teaching creation according to Genesis also would require the science curriculum in public schools to include the notion that a great fish swallowed Jonah, that Joshua made the sun stand still, that Noah put a breeding pair of every animal species on a boat and that the Earth was created in six days, along with a host of other literal interpretations of the Bible.
How can society hope to teach children the basics of science, which are essential for being able to evaluate the moral implications of technical issues, when forced to fight this primitive battle? The public education system is broken and desperately needs focused attention, but civil society is forced to divert time and resources to a ridiculous battle more appropriate to the 1600s. But fight we must. The religious right must be stopped to ensure that children receive an education that prepares them for modern life in a technologically advanced society.
Without winning the battle on teaching evolution, there is no hope of conquering scientific illiteracy in general. Understand that Heaven is for Real is sold as non-fiction. Failure to improve our literacy has serious consequences. Ignorance of scientific principles prevents the public from distinguishing the dangerous from the harmless and from preventing the abuse of science for malevolent purposes. On the basis of bad science, governments support costly efforts to enforce ill-conceived laws to protect consumers from nonexistent or negligible risk, while draining resources from areas of critical need.
Ignorance of science allows the public to be deceived by a barrage of dubious claims. The anti-vaccine movement is a classic case. Vaccines are one of the greatest achievements of modern medicine, saving hundreds of millions of lives and improving the quality of life for countless others, but because of medical illiteracy and misplaced religious zeal, some parents are, in a display of dangerous ignorance, forcing school boards across the country to accept students with no vaccination history.
Vaccinations however are only the tip of a dangerous iceberg. Scientific illiteracy is pervasive, and the list of consequences almost endless. The public is unable to filter exaggerated claims by environmental groups (Alar in apples) from legitimate concerns (global climate change). People opposed to irradiated food ignore the existence of more than 50 known strains of E. coli that can cause bloody diarrhea, kidney failure and death. This is a typical case of poor risk-benefit analysis. People are duped by claims of harmful emissions from cellphones. Life-saving diagnostic X-rays are eschewed from fear of radiation, and vulnerable people are persuaded to rely on crystals and astrology for guidance.
The success of Heaven is for Real is a symptom of a cancer eating away at society's vital organs. In a healthy community the publication of such a book would be laughable, a joke to be dismissed on late night television and then soon forgotten like a freak show at the local circus. Yet we publish the book as non-fiction and see sales approaching 3.5 million copies. That any American would take this seriously should cause us all to weep in frustration and fear. Unless we educate ourselves to dismiss such nonsense our future is in peril.
Jeff Schweitzer is a scientist, former White House senior policy analyst and author of 'A New Moral Code' (Jacquie Jordan, Inc.). Follow Jeff Schweitzer on Facebook.