Tuesday, May 12, 2015

On Near Death Experiences and Atheist Angst

Ascent to Heaven
Hieronymous Bosch (1450-1516)
A few years ago, I spent more than three months investigating the matter of Near Death Experiences (NDEs). I read and watched more than a hundred testimonials from people across the whole spectrum of religions, poured through the relevant scientific literature, and investigated ancient reports of similar phenomena, from the Tibetan Book of the Dead to Plato's Republic. I read both the older popular literature on the subject - like Dr. Raymond Moody's classic Life After Life - and the newer stuff - like Dr. Pim van Lommel's Consciousness Beyond Life. After all of this research, I came away thoroughly convinced that something is definitely happening to these people while they are, in every ordinary sense of the term, dead, i.e. flatline-unresponsive-no-measurable-brain-activity dead. That's also the current scientific consensus on the subject. What, exactly, they report of their experiences differs from case to case. But there are striking similarities found in nearly all NDEs. If you're interested to learn more about them, I recommend both of the above-mentioned books as highly accessible and widely available summaries of the data collected thus far. For my present purpose, however, I mention only three such similarities:

  • a heightened sense of reality, i.e. that the 'other world' seems more real than this one, even after returning to life
  • a feeling of timelessness, i.e. that mere seconds in this world are experienced as eons in the other
  • a life-review, usually combined with a kind of personal judgment, which evokes strong emotional responses in the subject

Now, atheists and agnostics like to point out that NDEs do not prove the existence of the afterlife as it is generally conceived by the world's religions. For one thing, we can't say the person was truly dead for the simple reason that they were brought back to life. That is, they must have continued on in a state between life and death without crossing over permanently into the state of death. Thus, no NDE can relate what it is like to come back from final, irreversible death. For another, while there are certain elements universal to nearly all NDEs, there are also great differences, some of which seem to reflect cultural expectations. Thus, we have reason to suspect that such persons are not experiencing some objective, otherworldly reality, but rather a projection of the mind caught in the final throes of death.

Most apologists for the veracity of NDEs like to get into debates with atheists and agnostics, going over all the experimental and anecdotal data I mentioned above in order to make a credible case for the existence of the afterlife. I am not one of those apologists. To be perfectly frank, I don't look to NDEs for confirmation of what I know to be true with the certainty of faith in God's revelation, and I don't think you should, either, gentle reader. But that's also not why I find them so interesting. What I find interesting about them is how uncomfortable they can make atheists. And here's why:

Let's grant that NDEs are not experiences of the other side, and do not reflect an objective reality beyond the pale of this world. Let's grant that they are the product of brain chemistry alone, as every self-respecting atheist is bound to believe. What remains? 

An intense experience marked by a heightened sense of reality lasting for what seems to be an unlimited amount of time involving a review of all of one's past actions which evokes strong emotional responses in the subject.

It doesn't matter one whit that this could all be happening in the brain alone. What matters is that it happens at all - and that it happens to atheists, too. Even if the atheist doesn't believe in the afterlife now, he would believe it while he's approaching death; in fact, he would feel that it's more real than his experience of normal life. And even if the entire experience takes no more than a few seconds in our time, to him it will seem like it takes ages. Again, even if he denies the existence of an objective moral law now, he will nonetheless be compelled to experience all the joy as well as all the pain he caused others during his life. In other words, even if the atheist denies the existence of an afterlife, there's a statistically high probability* that he will nonetheless experience something that will be, for him, indistinguishable from it.

And that's enough to give any atheist pause for thought.

*Depending upon the study, between 18% and 30% of all people who return from the brink of death go on to report having experienced an NDE. It is uncertain as to whether this is because only 30% have the experience, or because only 30% remember it, or because only 30% are willing to share what they experienced.

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