The afterlife is an oxymoron

To look further into the theme of the current magazine issue "Belief is back," the Faith Column will

When I first began conducting psychological research on people’s concepts of the afterlife, I’ll confess that I did so from the perspective of a sceptic. The idea that the soul could be liberated from the physical body at death, float off into the sky like a helium balloon, be plucked off by demons somehow able to get their claws into something that lacked a physical substance, or cleverly inveigle itself into a brand new zygote to start all over again, was a little puzzling to me.

When I thought about it some more, the notion that somehow the soul could be conscious of the whole ethereal shebang without having the luxury of a physical brain, seemed positively odd. How could the soul see such miraculous sights while the visual cortex was rapidly decomposing under the earth, or embrace with immaterial limbs of bodiless loved ones who couldn’t be recognised by their formless physical appearance, or experience pain and pleasure in the absence of skin and sensory receptors? I couldn’t fathom how so many people throughout history could genuinely believe in something so breathtakingly bizarre.

Looking back now after a decade’s worth of data collection on people’s strong psychological bias to reason that the mind survives death (interestingly enough, even those who claim not to believe in the afterlife yet reify death as a “state” of non-being and interminable blackness), frankly I’m embarrassed to say that I was ever a sceptic at all. Scepticism, of course, leaves the door open for being proven wrong. It implies that one is waiting for better, more convincing data. Yet when it comes to something as fantastically illogical as the hereafter, there should never have been a door there to begin with.

There are some questions, you see, that science isn’t obligated to entertain, not because they’re unanswerable and sacred, not because scientists are “mere mortals” with limited knowledge, but because they’re not genuine questions. For a researcher to ask, “Is there a soul?” is tantamount to a psychiatrist spending time and effort trying to determine whether the voices in a patient’s head are real or imaginary. It’s a question that shouldn’t even occur to us to ask. Rather, we’re more than justified in asserting, on the most basic and defensible grounds of theoretical parsimony, that the afterlife is an attribute of the mind, not veridical reality.

Now that researchers are beginning to do just that, we can finally make some empirically informed headway in understanding how and why human minds cast such fantastical shadows. Surprisingly enough, people’s simple desire for there to be an afterlife is just part of the picture, it seems. Newly discovered cognitive factors, such as the inability to effectively imagine non-being, are also important.

But, for those averse to the most banal scientific reason, for those still made queasy by inconvenient existential realities, take heart, I’m certain there’s plenty of gobbledygook data out there to keep your dreams of an afterlife alive and well.

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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.