Sometimes, you have to read all the way to the end of an article to find that Time is still asking, like their famous 1966 cover, "Is God Dead?" At the end of its January 29 cover story (or cover essay) by Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker, the academic drops the typical bomb: religion "devalues life on earth," and the "most famous practioners" of belief in God in our time "hijacked the airliners on 9/11."
In the closing section, titled "Toward A New Morality" (that would be "post-religious morality"), Pinker sought to rebut author Tom Wolfe. He asserted:
...few scientists doubt that they will locate consciousness in the activity of the brain. For many nonscientists, this is a terrifying prospect. Not only does it strangle the hope that we might survive the death of our bodies, but it also seems to undermine the notion that we are free agents responsible for our choices -- not just in this lifetime but also in a life to come. In his millennial essay "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died," Tom Wolfe worried that when science has killed the soul, "the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase 'the total eclipse of all values' seem tame."
MY OWN VIEW IS THAT THIS IS backward: the biology of consciousness offers a sounder basis for morality than the unprovable dogma of an immortal soul. It's not just that an understanding of the physiology of consciousness will reduce human suffering through new treatments for pain and depression. That understanding can also force us to recognize the interests of other beings -- the core of morality...
And when you think about it, the doctrine of a life-to-come is not such an uplifting idea after all because it necessarily devalues life on earth. Just remember the most famous people in recent memory who acted in expectation of a reward in the hereafter: the conspirators who hijacked the airliners on 9/11.
Think, too, about why we sometimes remind ourselves that "life is short." It is an impetus to extend a gesture of affection to a loved one, to bury the hatchet in a pointless dispute, to use time productively rather than squander it. I would argue that nothing gives life more purpose than the realization that every moment of consciousness is a precious and fragile gift.
Time intersperses Pinker's article with throw-away brief sidebars by academics like Michael Gazzaniga, a liberal member of the White House bioethics commission, and well-known atheist Daniel Dennett, advertised as the author of "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon." Later in the cover package, an essay by Robert Wright references Darwinism, atheist Richard Dawkins, and the totally repugnant "ethicist" Peter Singer on the origins of morality.