NBC News tacitly accepts Heaven

I thought it was great when tonight’s substitute anchorperson on NBC News, Savannah Guthrie, said that the last segment would be about Gene Wilder, who died today of Alzheimer’s. I looked forward to seeing some of his old film clips again, and hearing about his career. And I did. But then Guthrie said something that rankled. As best I can recall, it is this statement, referring to Gilda Radner

“Gene Wilder. . . . now reunited with his wife after decades of making us laugh.”

Well, it might refer simply to the fact that they’re reunited underground, but I seriously doubt that’s the implication. No, the implication is that they’re seeing each other again in the afterlife.

Much as I liked both Wilder and Radner, and would love to know that they’d see each other again, I know that it just ain’t so. What newswriter (anchors don’t write their own copy) would say such a thing—and get away with it? The sooner that newspapers and television stop tacitly assuming that we live on after death, the better.


  1. Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

    It’s just metaphor.

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      But a metaphor for what? That now they’re both dead? That would be pretty crass.

      • Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

        You beat me to it.

        I remember that debate where you drew some applause when you noted that when an assertion in the Bible is shown to be false then it becomes “just a metaphor.”

      • Dan McPeek
        Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:55 pm | Permalink

        Or as Trump would say, It’s just sarcasm.

      • Posted August 30, 2016 at 12:47 am | Permalink

        How about a metaphor for… together in eternity? Or, how about, language what it is, a simple figure of speech? like “Cross your fingers” or “Good grief”? As I know you know not everything needs to be taken precisely or literally.

        • Posted August 30, 2016 at 1:19 am | Permalink

          …all the time.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 30, 2016 at 10:41 am | Permalink

          But their minds and personalities don’t exist any more, while (depending on your cosmology and the mean density of the universe) “eternity” probably does exist. And is (will be) quite dull.
          Mismatched metaphors.

          • Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

            Empirically, their minds never did objectively exist. If you believe they did, that’s just part of a philosophical or religions belief system, not backed up (and certainly not required) by science.

            • gravelinspector-Aidan
              Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:40 am | Permalink

              Treating their skulls (and attached life-support systems) as black boxes, there does seem to be something in there that persists while the life-support is working. WTF it is is a separate question, which is way over my pay scale on biology, neurology and biochemistry. But there is something in there. What it is, is delicate, and I’ve seen people with interrupted life support systems who lose chunks of their minds and personalities. Even seen them recover some of the personality over a period of years. But there’s no evidence that it’s anything other than complex systems of neurology and biochemistry.

              • Gamall
                Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

                Since when do computers not “empirically […] objectively exist” ?

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:33 pm | Permalink

      A metaphor for what?

      • mikeyc
        Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

        “A metaphor for what?”

        For fear of death?

  2. Randall Schenck
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

    I was watching that as well but fortunately tuned out before that was said. All of our prayers will be with the family as we know that will do absolutely nothing for anyone, dead or alive.

    • Colin
      Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:46 pm | Permalink

      Nonsense! It will make the prayer-maker feel better, and how one feels is paramount.


      • Randall Schenck
        Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

        The payer-maker can feel better all he or she wants. It’s the pushing it out publicly that I do not need because that is nonsense. If you have to announce your religiosity out load and on the air, kind of like announcing how much money you have.

        • Colin
          Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

          Erm, ya, I was joking.

  3. Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:30 pm | Permalink

    Running through the entire argument is the assumption of the existence of other minds – that was ever “like” something to be Gilda or Gene. I mean if you’re going to be skeptical you might as well go all the way. If you *believe* that it was ever “like” something to be Gene Wilder, that is your personal belief. You don’t have to impose that on others and call it science.

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:55 pm | Permalink


      • Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Indeed. What are your assumptions? What are your beliefs? What scientific experiments bear on them?

  4. BobTerrace
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:35 pm | Permalink

    Too many other battles to fight. It makes some people feel better to believe that silliness.

    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

      This is hardly a battle; I just wrote a 5-minute post to call attention to what was said.

      • rickflick
        Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

        Yes, I think the fact that it strikes us as absurd but at the same time we know it’s part of the national gestalt. It is an indicator of the era in which we live. 50 or 100 years from now these news clips will be used for sociological education. A marker in human history. We will have gone beyond those sentiments by then. We will have other words closer to reality.

        • tomh
          Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:20 pm | Permalink

          That’s pretty optimistic. Two thousand years we haven’t gone beyond those sentiments, but we will in the next 50? I wish I could be around to see it.

          • Ken Phelps
            Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

            Yeah, I kind of agree. The coming demise of superstition is roughly equivalent to the second coming of Jesus in its elusiveness as far as I can see. It my end up rebranded, but The Crazy isn’t going anywhere.

            • rickflick
              Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

              I was just trying to add something uplifting. Ok, 1000 years then. 8-(

          • Robert Bray
            Posted August 31, 2016 at 9:18 am | Permalink

            But the rate of change in culture is not linear. Technologically, at least, the plot looks almost asymptotic. How about scientifically, where science ramifies into the question of what is the case with human reality? Assuming no world-catastrophe in the next two-three generations (a very large assumption, I admit), it is quite possible that superstitions such as the afterlife will indeed disappear from human culture.

        • gravelinspector-Aidan
          Posted August 30, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

          50 or 100 years from now these news clips will be used for sociological education.

          Hmmm, I’m not so sure about that. I see programmes reasonably often about the history of the early-middle part of last century, but in very little of it do I see, for example, the common fawning adulation of royalty (and their substitutes, celebrities) treated as an item of sociological education. More “coo, look at all the people waving flags” without any consideration of the whole mindset behind the waving of the flags.
          Going back a millennium, yes it is more common to see things like churches (cathedrals, parish churches, whatever) accompanied by comment on how it is hard these days to grasp the hold that religion had over the minds of the man on the Clapham omnibus (or the serf staring at the back end of an ox-power plough). There’s probably a point in there about how we can relate to what our grandparents did, but it is harder to relate to what our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-(great-great-great-great-, for variance in linege’s generation length) grandparents did.

  5. Colin
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 6:53 pm | Permalink

    It’s about as painful (to us rationalists) when the newscasters drag out the old “miracle” word when someone survives a disaster while many others died.

    I’ll be watching the broadcast with my wife in the room, and while the story is being told, I’ll start saying aloud: “Miracle….Miracle….c’mon, say it…..” and almost without exception we hear “miracle” and I let out some sort of loud sound which could be regarded as a cheer, but might also just be a expression of pain at mankind’s stupidity.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:00 am | Permalink

      It’s about as painful (to us rationalists) when the newscasters drag out the old “miracle” word when someone survives a disaster while many others died.

      What is the body count in the Italian earthquake? 241 is the most recent figure I can find (a day old). What a miracle that the omnipotent god of the BuyBull chose to kill these evil siners and not provide warning for the innocent in the area. Or, for that matter, protect her churches.

  6. George
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:12 pm | Permalink

    Wilder called himself a Jewish-Buddhist-Atheist. So NBC’s comment was disrespectful to him.

    • mordacious1
      Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

      Yes, that’s what is most irksome. If he was some nutty christian or a believing Jew, then maybe the media could say something like, “He believed in heaven and if there is a heaven, we’re sure he’s there with Gilda”. But to say that an atheist is in heaven, is a slap in the face. I’m sure most christians don’t believe he’s in heaven.

      • Doug
        Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        Yes, some comments on the internet are already saying “Gene and Gilda can’t be in heaven–they weren’t Christians!” I was wondering how long it would be before that sentiment showed up.

        • Doug
          Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:52 am | Permalink

          Although I just noticed that the quote only says that he is “reunited” with Gilda. It doesn’t say where . . .

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:03 am | Permalink

      So, his survivors have grounds for a libel suit. Because I definitely heard that report here in the UK, and the libel courts in the UK are notoriously expensive to those found guilty. (Plus, as a considerably more secular society than the States, being falsely impugned with religious belief” would be considered as a malicious falsehood here.)

  7. jeffery
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    I wouldn’t expect anything different on the part of the media: after all, we live in a society where the majority of people seem to believe in Adam and Eve over evolution; where the belief in demons and angels is similarly strong- the media is going to couch its “take” on a situation in terms that it thinks appeals to the widest possible audience. The media interpretation of reality will only change in response to a change in the thinking of the majority of their “consumer-base”; not before.

    I do find it amusing when someone attributes their escape from a life-threatening situation or illness to God, in an interview: they never seem to wonder just why it was that their God allowed them to be put into that situation in the first place.

  8. E.A. Blair
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:19 pm | Permalink

    Then there will be all those editorial “pearly gates” cartoons.

  9. bluemaas
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    Plus … … besides my hearing and subsequently recoiling at Ms Guthrie’s cringe – worthy newswoo re Mr Wilder’s “now being again” with Ms Radner, what I also did .not. hear from her is this weewoo – factoid: how, with that afterlife o’his, Mr Wilder can now actually .be. as polygymous as a ‘true’ Islamist or Mormon.

    Cuz whilst he remarried someone, Ms Karen Webb Boyer, within two years of Ms Radner’s dying who may or may not be still amongst The Breathing, Mr Wilder already had had two former wives afore Ms Radner soooo maybe they too are ‘there’ already.

    And already awaiting that ‘there’ heavenly reunitin’ – with – him afterlife deal.


    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:09 am | Permalink

      Blue, that’s a good point to remember. “Dear Xtian, do you look forward to meeting your spouse in eternity?”But of course.“And your ex-wife?”Oh, she’ll burn.“Strange, she and her pastor don’t think so.”
      It reminds me of gears. Link two gears together and it’s the basis of a range of wonderful machines. Put a third gear into contact with both of the others – not so good.

  10. Carey Haug
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:27 pm | Permalink

    I can’t help but wonder how his widow feels about his heavenly reunion with Gilda. When she dies and goes to Heaven, how will she fit in? I’m sure he loved both women. Is there bigamy in the afterlife? Maybe it’s better to accept that life ends at death than to contemplate this conundrum.

    • philfinn7
      Posted August 29, 2016 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

      Yes, why do people assume Gilda? He had two wives before Gilda as well as one later. Presumably all four will be be together.

      • darrelle
        Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

        I know the answer to this problem. Quantum!

    • Posted August 30, 2016 at 12:35 am | Permalink

      Ironically, there’s a quote from Jesus of Nazareth (which Christians somehow avoid acknowledging, a lot) which covers this little question: “In heaven there is neither marriage nor giving in marriage.” So they’ll all be there, but none of them will be married.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:13 am | Permalink

      Is there bigamy in the afterlife?

      Probably slightly more polyandry. Have to remember to see it from the woman’s point of view.
      The cartoonists really haven’t exploited this theme to anything like the extent they could have.

  11. W.Benson
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 7:47 pm | Permalink

    Ernst Haeckel said, only half-way in jest, something like heaven is not such a good idea: imagine spending all of eternity with your mother-in-law.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:14 am | Permalink

      What did Haeckel’s daughter-in-law say about eternity with him?

      • W.Benson
        Posted August 31, 2016 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

        Here is the quote:
        “The best and most plausible ground for athanatism is found in the hope that immortality will reunite us to the beloved friends who have been prematurely taken from us by some grim mischance. But even this supposed good fortune proves to be an illusion on closer inquiry; and in any case it would be greatly marred by the prospect of meeting the less agreeable acquaintances and the enemies who have troubled our existence here below. Even the closest family ties would involve many a difficulty. There are plenty of men who would gladly sacrifice all the glories of Paradise if it meant the eternal companionship of their “better half” and their mother-in-law. It is more than questionable whether Henry VIII. would like the prospect of living eternally with his six wives . . .” Haeckel, 1901, The Riddle of the Universe, p. 208.

  12. Scote
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:15 pm | Permalink

    Reminds me of when Stephen Fry called foul on that idea when being witnessed to by a Mormon in Salt Lake City:

    “at one point she said, “I just want to tell you a little about the church of the Latter Day Saints.” And we all politely stood and then she said how in the afterlife all families will be reunited. You’ll be with your families forever, so I put my hand up and said, “What happens if you’ve been good?” And she said, “Could you leave please?” Because everyone started laughing, but I mean what a ridiculous idea. How is that supposed to be attractive that you’re going to be stuck with every aunt and every cousin and every…? Good gracious, every you know alcoholic or slightly deviant uncle. I mean Jesus, it’s just the most awful destiny imaginable”


    • Posted August 29, 2016 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      “Could you leave please?”

      Yep, that’s religion’s MO.

  13. GBJames
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:20 pm | Permalink


    It doesn’t mean that I think I can actually give you health by saying the word.

    Figures of speech can be overthought.

    • RolandG
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 5:18 am | Permalink

      Your point?

      Guthrie also didn’t mean that she actually sends Wilder to be reunited with one of his wifes by saying those words.

      She used a religiously laden figure of speech without any need for it. A newsanchor should be better – and more neutral – than that.

      • GBJames
        Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:18 am | Permalink

        The roots of these figures of speech are as magic spells. Someone sneezes, say “God Bless” to keep them from losing their soul. Or “Gesundheit” to keep them in good health. Or “RIP” as if there is someone “resting” in peace or otherwise who will benefit from the comment.

        I think this is a similar example. It is a statement that two people who loved each other, and were loved by many of us, are both dead and gone and will be missed. I can imagine an atheist saying such a thing, although it wouldn’t be my style. But this is a pretty bland figure of speech and not, IMO, worth the energy to dispute.

  14. Ken Kukec
    Posted August 29, 2016 at 8:25 pm | Permalink

    I don’t recall hearing such insipid BS from Chet Huntley & David Brinkley.

    (The worst they did was shill for the sponsor with their “… and goodnight from Texaco.”)

  15. Posted August 30, 2016 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    Please explain this to me; why does not believing in some invisible Big Daddy in the sky also require that you not believe in psychic phenomena, non-standard phenomena in general, or the survival of the mind? There is a large and growing body of data supporting the theory of reincarnation, for example. Why are we supposed to write this off in order to be free of some lockstep religion?

    • tomh
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 12:54 am | Permalink

      Leslie Fish wrote;

      “There is a large and growing body of data supporting the theory of reincarnation, for example. Why are we supposed to write this off…”

      Well, I can write it off without ever seeing it. But that’s just me.

    • Steve Pollard
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 6:45 am | Permalink

      “There is a large and growing body of data supporting the theory of reincarnation”. No there isn’t. Show us your evidence. Until you actually have any, we are perfectly entitled to write off your assertion.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:03 am | Permalink

      The larger discussion is naturalism vs. supernaturalism, which involves the status, roles, and relationship between mind and matter. “God” is just one form of supernatural belief. Psychic phenomena, afterlife, reincarnation, souls, and so forth are others.

      The reason we are atheists has to do with how we approach the entire question of “is there good reason to believe in the supernatural?” It has little or nothing to do with tribes — by which I mean joining in to one group identity (“I’m a Christian!”) vs. another (“I’m Spiritual But Not Religious!”)

      The evidence and argument for the theory of reincarnation is just as weak as the evidence and argument for the theory of God. The legitimate data involving reincarnation points strongly towards alternate states of brain, not alternate states of existence.

    • Posted September 1, 2016 at 7:24 am | Permalink

      Short answer: It doesn’t.

      There certainly are atheists who believe in other supernatural woo.

      But most of the atheists hereabouts are naturalists first and reject all kinds of woo that lack credible evidence or are falsified by credible evidence. Sean Carroll’s talk at Skepticon 5 sets out how quantum field theory and the LHC results make it impossible for the human mind to exist beyond death. If you claim to have data to the contrary, you must also show how QFT and the LHC results are wrong – i.e., rewrite most of modern physics.

      /@ / Adelaide

      • Posted September 1, 2016 at 10:51 am | Permalink

        I have to say, I was pretty sure that the statistical nature of QM made any kind of certainty at that extent impossible. I’ll have to look into it further. What kind of “certain information” can be found in the double slit experiment? What kind of “certain information” leads so many physicists to embrace a “many worlds” explanation for all of the random results found at the quantum level?

        But also, why not go all the way and be skeptical of conscious minds in the *living* ? If certain knowledge of physics is THE explanation for all of my neighbor’s behaviors, then what kind of wacky supernatural thinking would lead me to say he has a *mind* in the first place ?!

        • rickflick
          Posted September 1, 2016 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

          I’m no expert by my understanding from Sean Carroll is that while the behavior in QM is statistical, the probabilities are known very accurately.

          On minds, I’d say we are pretty sure they are processes of the brains. That’s not a complete understanding, but it’s a good start. Carroll points out that QM is not the appropriate level of language to talk about such things as consciousness or free will, even if the very small arena is the basis for the elaborations above it.

  16. Posted August 30, 2016 at 1:07 am | Permalink

    Again, this is just an American thing. US News always follows the tropes:

    1) When people survive an accident or natural disasters, an ‘Angel’ was watching over them, or in some good way, ‘The Lord’ was personally involved
    2) After someone dies, they always go to heaven and are reunited with anyone they loved.

    Don’t try and stop them. It’s common practice and won’t change for another 3 or 4 decades.

    • Sastra
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:16 am | Permalink

      A habit of speech usually slips from being taken literally to being taken metaphorically only because there’s been a larger discussion taking place in the background on whether or not what’s been said is actually true — or morally right. The churning public dialogue takes place in a thousand ways, including the tactic of calling out knee-jerk expressions.

      Don’t try and stop us. It’s common practice for the goal of shifting culture in 3 or 4 decades.

  17. jay
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    People say stuff during times of death, and even if many don’t actually believe it, it’s customary and expected.

    This is not a science or theology program, it’s an obituary. They are saying the customarily expected.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:25 am | Permalink

      it’s an obituary. They are saying the customarily expected.

      you’re telling me that my obituary will be a thoughtless recitation of stock phrases, lightly salted with lines from my Wikipedia entry. I’d rather have an (old joke) “Oh bitchery!” written with loathing and attention to my warts by someone who actually gave a shit about me. Even if they did hate me.
      I’m tempted to head off to the abode of the Squidly One and check if he’s got ProfCC’s obitchery reasonably up to date.

  18. Priscilla Charybdis
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 6:09 am | Permalink

    “conventional pieties”

  19. Posted August 30, 2016 at 6:26 am | Permalink

    I suppose one way to express things that might satisfy both parties, particularly if the party of gods isn’t listening carefully, would be to say that the couple were “no longer separated by life”.

    • gravelinspector-Aidan
      Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      … which leads straight back to the problem of you, your last spouse, and your previous divorced spouse(s) meeting (with their spouses too, why not) meeting in the afterlife of someone else’s choice.

      • Posted August 30, 2016 at 2:18 pm | Permalink

        … there being no inference whatsoever that they were reunited in death! After all, it’s the one person remaining alive that experiences separation from the loved dead person. Dead people have nothing to experience and no means of experiencing those nothings.

  20. alexandra moffat
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Agree that pushing the concept of life after death is idiotic but one can read it as united in nothingness and memories. Do you expect anything better of NBC? It takes a certain amount of imagination and courage to reject the accepted myths – TV corps are not famous for either.

    • Posted August 30, 2016 at 7:00 pm | Permalink

      You don’t have to accept OR reject established myths; you simply don’t have to say ANYTHING! Why not something like “. . .he’ll be missed”?

      Is it essential in a t.v. obituary to utter some piety that invokes heaven? I don’t think so.

  21. Michelle Beissel
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 9:10 am | Permalink

    Pairing Wilder with just one of his wives is an additional filter to viewing eternity from the perspective of idealised love. A Christian regards basking in god’s love in the afterlife as a boon, so they also would regard other heavenly participants in that absolute manner, blocking out all the inanities and imperfections of reality, like the existence of numerous spouses. However, one doesn’t have to be religious to do something similar while alive.

  22. Ronald Wall
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    It does upset me when the media, TV, magazines and newspapers, assume that we all believe in an afterlife. Someday writers in this country should come to realize they cannot take that for granted. Their only goal is to please majority readers. Media writers need to have the backbone to acknowledge that many of us are agnostic and atheist.

  23. Another Tom
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    From what I’ve read he had four wives over the years. Wouldn’t it be kind of awkward to show up in the afterlife and run into all of them? Yes, I know one of them is still alive but what happens when she dies?

  24. Roan Ridgeway
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

    I suspect that the writer of the news copy deliberately included an afterlife reference to satisfy her/his compulsion to proselytize.

  25. Dale Franzwa
    Posted August 30, 2016 at 11:43 pm | Permalink

    I’m 24 hrs late on this comment but I’ll still make a slight correction. News anchors and reporters (in the US) do write their own copy. In fact, the news anchor at the networks (may work differently at local stations) is the Editor-in-Chief (so to speak) of that newscast. A substitute anchor won’t take over editorial responsibility but will write his/her own copy (with whatever behind-the-scenes help is necessary).

    The reason is partly one of pride. You’ll notice a little promo at the end of the newscast which, in effect, says: If you like what you saw here tonight, watch me tomorrow morning on my regular show. She is, at least involved in writing her own copy there as well.

    Therefore, you can’t conclude anything much about the network’s policy on religious belief from what that “sub” wrote. If it has any written policy at all, that would probably be “Don’t unnecessarily offend religious sentiments of the viewers.”

    Full disclosure, I taught mass media courses on the college level for a quarter century. So, any mistakes in the above are my own.

  26. Posted September 3, 2016 at 12:54 am | Permalink

    Once again, an “Inconvenient Truth” loses out to a “Convenient Lie.”

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