Every writer (or reader, for that matter) can't help but watch the bookstore shelves. We know the relative dimensions of the Barnes & Noble sections better than the supermarket aisles. One trend I had noticed is the philosophy section growing significantly larger. About ten years ago, genuine philosophy books took up about two shelves, wedged between three bookcases of Religious Inspiration and two bookcases of New Age. Now, philosophy is occupying about two bookcases, with two whole shelves just dedicated to the "new atheism." About three shelves are given over to the "Philosophy and…" books. Evidently the popular culture has a taste for philosophy as long as it is liberally mixed with its favorite music, television, movies, and/or pulp fiction: "Philosophy and Superheroes". "Philosophy and Def Leppard". "Philosophy and Twilight". The publishing trend is noticing something the SKS has recognized for decades: people (especially young people) are interested in philosophic ideas, so long as they are made relevant to the things they care about, and framed up in compelling narratives instead of abstract principles.
Maybe it's just a matter of title inflation. After all, the big-box bookstore came into being in my lifetime, and now there's five times as much of everything. Christian Inspiration now has one side of an entire aisle. But still, the Long Tail is making for more and better philosophy offerings.
I've always been somewhat ambivalent about these "Philosophy and…" hybrids. I got into philosophy by reading popularizations like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which made high-falootin' thinkers accessible to a high school senior. So I'm usually for anything that brings the wisdom to the masses, no matter where they are at. On the other hand, it's a little sad that Plato can't get a hearing in our culture unless he dresses up in a clown suit. I'd feel a lot better about the popularizations if they led people to read the actual texts, or better yet, to write them.
I got an unexpected taste of the Philosophy and [insert pop culture fad] trend in a stocking stuffer this year: Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates. This is a sequel to Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar: Understanding Philosophy through Jokes. (I am notoriously difficult to shop for, Puritanical Stoic that I am, so a lighthearted book on philosophy was a safe bet for Santa to make.)
The book was . . . much better than I expected. The jokes were only so-so -- there were only one or two worth the retelling. What surprised me was how heavy the philosophy was. The book opens with a discussion of Ernest Becker's The Denial of Death, which is the correct place to start with talking about death, but it's no laugh riot. Kierkegaard gets a surprisingly detailed treatment as well, in spite of hilarious titles like "Fear and Trembling" and "The Sickness Unto Death". For all of their lighthearted banter, the authors don't pull any punches. They keep up the banter strictly because it's the only way to sugar coat a bitter pill. "We're all going to die, and that really sucks! Hahahahahahaha!" Rather than hewing to the chicken-soup recipe of feel-good visions of heaven, they deconstruct it. It turns out our common popular notions about the afterlife -- clouds, harps, meeting loved ones, etc. -- are more the result of paintings and movies than scripture, and the authors make it fairly clear that even a fundamentalist (especially a fundamentalist) will not find a lot of scriptural backing for a continued existence in the hereafter.
I give them credit for tackling not only the unpopular ideas, but the hard-to-understand ones, too. The nature of consciousness, qualia, time and eternity -- no philosophical distinction is too subtle for their undertaking. That's tough sledding, especially if you want to keep Joe Six-Pack's attention.
Even more surprising: the authors reference the same pop culture items that had been part of the SKS canon for years. For instance, Peggy Lee's "Is That All There Is?" or Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying." And best of all: Thornton Wilder's Our Town. I'm glad we're not the only ones who noticed.
After all their wise-cracking explanations, do they take a stand on anything? Do they have an answer to the question of Death? Not really . . . but they are mostly honest about it. They candidly admit that the promises of religion are not credible, the offerings of existentialism are cold comfort, and technological immortality is currently unobtainable and not even necessarily desirable. They have a consolation prize from Williams James, a get-out-of-angst-free card that defends our "right to believe anything that is live enough to tempt our will." In effect: "Unless you have direct contradictory evidence, you're free to believe whatever you darn well please. Whatever works for you, baby, that you're thing." That sounds like a great way to avoid offending anyone, but throws wide the gate to all kinds of rationalizations. As many devout Pastafarians can attest, once you're free to believe in something without evidence, you are free to believe anything . . . which ultimately devalues the very notion of belief. The whole reason we have beliefs is because they are true (at least, conditionally true), and truth helps us navigate the universe. If we use our beliefs to guide our actions, then there is an inevitably price to be paid for holding false beliefs. And if we don't use our beliefs to guide our actions – if a belief is so harmless that it has no impact on the way you live -- then it's hardly worth having, is it?
I'm quite surprised by your claim (or their claim) that the Bible provides no promise of immortality.
John 3:15: "That whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life."
Matthew 25:46: "And [the bad folks] shall go away into everlasting punishment: but the righteous into life eternal."
Give me ten minutes and I feel like I could pull a dozen like this.
Of course, that's peripheral to your main points. I love seeing real philosophy sugar-coated. I myself got the book "The Metaphysics of Star Trek" with great excitement, only to find myself tremendously disappointed--but not disappointed with the idea of the book, just its execution. These things can be done very well or very badly.
And, like you, I've never viewed the Red Queen's ability to "believe six impossible things before breakfast" as a great way of getting to any kind of truth, or even to live a useful life. There's a difference between "believe" and "assert." To believe something almost always implies that you think it would be true even if you didn't believe it!
I wasn't quite clear enough in the post. While the Bible is full of references to immortal life, it is important to understand that the original authors were not talking about an Afterlife: a ghostly existence in some other, non-material place. The original intent (as many, but not all, scholars reconstruct it) was that the dead would be resurrected into "the kingdom of God" -- that is, the dead would physically restored into this world when Jesus returned to it to establish a new world order. Presumably, it was the mixing of visions of "New Jerusalem" with other cultural notions of afterlife (the Jewish "Sheol", or the Greek Hades) that led later readers to imagine an immaterial Heaven as a part of the Christian doctrine.
The notion of an immaterial "soul" is a Greek idea, and probably not part of Jewish worldview in which Jesus was operating.
I think it's interesting to point all this out because I don't think most true believers are aware of how far their common notions of soul and afterlife may have drifted from their original context.
There is evidently a lot of ambiguity about how these things were interpreted, even early on. In the first century after Jesus' death there were schisms between Gnostics who believed in a "spiritual" (i.e. immaterial) resurrection and the established churches that insisted on a literal, physical resurrection. (Elaine Pagels has a pretty discussion of this in her book The Gnostic Gospels.)