Is there a better way to offend a group of strangers than to discuss Near Death Experiences (NDE)?
The Christian evangelicals in the group will likely consider the average NDE account occult, evil or delusional. After all, only a small fraction of accounts include Jesus, and when they do, Jesus almost never says, “I’m Jesus”. Oddly enough, the atheist NDErs are loved unconditionally just like everyone else, and so are those of other “heathen” religions. Even the Christian NDErs are often shocked to learn of their previous lives, and that there is no judgement based on religious belief. No wonder organized Christianity has been terrified of the liberal nature of the NDE message over the last thirty years, cherry picking a handful of accounts here and there for mass market while blatantly ignoring the core message of the other thousands.
It should be obvious to any literate third grade child that NDE accounts, taken as a whole, do not fit traditional Christian doctrine AT ALL. How can the blood sacrifice of Jesus for the sins of a couple of naked people seduced by a talking snake in a garden created about a thousand years after the Sumerians invented glue, possibly have any value when everyone existed before they were born, had numerous other lives, and came into this world for various “missions”, “tasks”, or “purposes” which invariably involve learning, giving, receiving, and experiencing a higher form of love?
When literally thousands of people are coming back from death saying the same things again and again, what sort of mental contortions must a fundamentalist Christian have to make to continue upholding the exclusivity of their doctrines?
Witness for example, the gold metal cognitive gymnastics of Dinesh D’Souza (Life After Death: The Evidence). Somehow D’Souza manages to maintain his Christian fundamentalist beliefs despite using the NDE as his primary piece of evidence for survival after death. Apparently, he didn’t read the same 2,000 or so randomly submitted NDE stories that I have.
[Howard Storm] What is the best religion?
[Light Being/Jesus] The one which teaches you how to love.
In fact, according to the bulk of NDE accounts I’ve come across, it occurs to me that if we highlighted 1 John 4:8, and jettisoned the entire rest of the Bible, we’d have the complete message of the NDE intact, with absolutely nothing missing of any relevance whatsoever. Sure, we can argue over what the word “Love” actually means, but I suspect nobody is going to be shooting anyone over it, or protesting “Fags” on street corners because of it (Watch out Westboro Baptist Church- you’re in the “Bailiwick” of unconditional love).
Fortunately, that will probably be the only Bible verse you ever see on this blog.
Then there are the materialist reductionists in the crowd. They generally find it ridiculous that anyone would seriously consider survival of consciousness after death. After all, they learned that the religion of their childhood was false years ago, and never looked back. When asked any specific thing about NDE’s they’ll usually reveal a radical ignorance of the entire subject, offering trite explanations they believe easily dismiss the entire phenomenon. One must roll their eyes and calmly explain that administered drugs have been shown not to be associated with NDEs and oxygen deprivation is clearly not present in every NDE. These trite “explanations” sadly persist among popular atheist bloggers and podcasters who can’t be bothered to check into it, even though a cursory glance at the research will reveal a far deeper complexity and a thorough dismantling of their simplistic objections.
Classic NDEs happen under a wide variety of physiological circumstances. If anyone were able to correlate NDE elements with causes of death and physical states, you could rest assured they would have scrambled to write a book about it many years ago. So far it can’t be done. This is because precisely the same NDE elements happen to people who are oxygen deprived, not oxygen deprived, in a coma, struck by lightening, or nowhere near death at all! You can’t tell the stories apart based on the physical state the person was in. Obviously, the closer one really is to death, the more likely they are to have an NDE. Yet the same experience may happen to someone while simply driving their car!
That is central to the mystery. Identical features happen under this wide array of brain physiologies. That alone should be interesting enough to give everyone pause before claiming to know what is happening. But it gets fishier. The same experiences happen during brain states not generally considered capable of supporting conscious experiences by current neuroscience (after cardiac arrest, severe meningitis, coma). Yet it gets fishier still. It isn’t just that these people are conscious at these times where they shouldn’t be. They typically claim to have never been more lucidly aware or capable of sharper thought and mental clarity in their lives! Despite being one of the most important features of NDE accounts, this one is rarely mentioned. All that would be astonishing and unexpected, but it gets yet fishier. People are occasionally given information during their experiences about the future and about their lives that they could not have known. For example, here is an account from a pregnant woman who was told in the NDE that she would have a boy and that she would have to raise him alone, despite being happily married. It was a boy, and the marriage broke apart, forcing her to raise the child alone. David Bennett (Voyage of Purpose) learned in a future life review during his NDE that he would acquire cancer later in his life, but would survive it. The odds of survival of this type of metastasized cancer were close to zero, and doctors were reluctant to offer any hope. Bennett says that since he had already seen in the life review that he would survive the cancer, it gave him the determination to seek out his own doctors. He survived and is doing well today. Anita Moorjani was given a choice in her NDE whether or not to return to earthly life. She was in a coma due to an advanced cancer which had overtaken her body with tumors. In the NDE, she was told that if she chose to return, the cancer would quickly dissipate. She chose to return, and that is exactly what happened. Within four days, the tumors had shrunk 70%. The doctors were astounded. The story has been investigated and is well documented by medical records.
And I haven’t even mentioned the many accounts of people claiming to verify things they saw in the out of body state. The stories are a dime a dozen now, and accumulating. Staunch materialists either don’t know these stories exist, or they try to debunk them one by one as if each story is a one-off that requires its own unique and elaborate explanation. The extent of the creativity employed to debunk such cases stretches believability. For every one of these veridical claims we hear about, there are several others buried within online account submissions from anonymous NDErs you’ve never heard of.
Despite this litany of “fishy” elements stacked one after another, they aren’t the key features I personally find most compelling about NDEs. What I find most compelling after reading through many hundreds of accounts is the eerie similarities, the logical timing, and the consistent meaning in the experiences. It leaves me with the impression that something is actually going on. To read again and again how the resuscitation is timed perfectly with the decision to return or how the experience of unconditional love or the life review is timed logically within the narrative of the account, leaves the biological explanations routinely given to “explain” NDEs stranded in a bubble of stammering “just-so story” conjecture, with all their explanatory work left ahead of them. Unfortunately, to know this, one must do the work of reading many accounts. When you get to the point of boredom where you can say out loud what the experiencer you’ve never met before is about to say in the next paragraph, you’ll understand what I’m talking about. I cannot read them all to people or download the experience of reading them to anyone else. It takes a lot of time and an openness to the possibility that they may be real. Because of the work required, all the prior beliefs people bring to the table, and the conditioning and indoctrination that distorts the lenses through which each individual reads the NDE accounts, it is easy to understand why so many people who have opinions about NDEs are unaware of the bigger picture being presented. There are deep cognitive and cultural blinders at play.
In the end, considering this string of “fishy” phenomena associated with NDEs, one must honestly ask themselves whether they would have expected all of this to be associated merely with the quirks and idiosynchrocies of a dying brain, were they never to have heard of the NDE before now. It would be much easier to sort out if NDEs sounded precisely like drug trips or mind-addled hallucinations. But the vast majority do not. If NDEs generally consisted of talking “machine elves” and nonsensical communication with large insects, we could chalk it all up quickly to hallucination. But they do not. The clarity and value of the experience is so convincing that at least one Harvard trained materialist neuroscientist has become convinced of the primacy of consciousness after having one.
From a purely scientific perspective, I still think it is reasonable to maintain the position that somehow NDEs are entirely brain generated phenomena. I think it is also scientifically respectable to suspect that consciousness somehow is not generated by biology alone, and our assumption that electrical action potentials in cellular membranes mysteriously “compute” conscious awareness into existence is an entirely misguided footnote in the history of science and philosophy. I am genuinely open-minded to either possibility.
But the one attitude which I find utterly absurd is the attitude that there is no real mystery to explain. This attitude is not only negligent of the phenomenon itself, and clearly motivated by deep insecurities and politics, but it is also blind to the scientific endeavor to understand the nature of brain, mind and consciousness. It is an inexcusably stupid perspective motivated by the desire to obliterate the significance of a certain type of human experience (spiritual), merely because they give traction to a specific group of objectionable people (the religious). One may as well try to eliminate all discussion of olfaction because they aren’t fond of wine snobs who get off on the whiff of “earthy notes” in their glass.
Every explanation proposed about why NDEs occur is part of a shot-gun of speculation at this point, generally untestable. Something like twenty or more explanations (several contradicting each other) can be chosen ala carte as needed to fit each particular account. The people who invent these explanations often don’t believe in the other explanations. Multiple explanations are liberally employed to explain the same element across different accounts as needed. Obviously, if you have to use multiple explanations for the same element across different NDE accounts, it diminishes the likelihood the explanation is true, especially when the element is woven seamlessly and logically into a meaningful narrative. That approach is called “playing tennis without the net”.
This is the trick people use to say they can “explain” the NDE. The shot-gun approach should not be persuasive to any knowledgable person open-minded on the question of survival. The transparently disingenuous tactic is to completely ignore the most interesting aspects of NDEs entirely (not difficult if you don’t know they exist), thus building a prototypical straw-man experience which can be explained away. Any imaginable brain correlate will do just fine. Vision? Occipital lobe. Memory? Hippocampus. QED. The untestable hypotheses are later described as “explanations” in the popular press in order to generate mouse clicks, sell advertising, and drum up controversy.
A great paper was written recently to summarize the failure of physiological explanations of NDEs, and the need to remain open minded to future developments of NDE research.
If I knew nothing of NDEs, and assumed they were merely the dying brain shutting down, my instinctive expectation would be for a lot of chaotic and senseless hallucinations happening in a random and pointless order; hazy, unclear, and little to none of it remembered.
Oddly enough, it just doesn’t work that way. The NDE cuts to the heart of the deepest mysteries of the mind-body problem and the origin and nature of our greatest, most revered intuitions.
The third faction offended by NDEs, will be those who are certain we survive death, and want to inform you all about the afterlife, how it works, the color of your aura, how to heal yourself from past life trauma, your soul’s mission, and so on. They’ll talk about using spiritual talents to “manifest” various trivial displays of egoic status, hedonistic pleasures, and social dominance. Their version of the afterlife sounds like a scenario straight from a game of Dungeons&Dragons, where characters advance through hierarchies of power by accruing experience points and gaining special magical abilities. These afterlife beliefs are so blatantly Darwinian in nature, they would likely make the staunchest evolutionary biologist blush for having not come up with a more thorough description of primate social behavior himself. Because virtually everyone in this camp is either completely unaware of the natural forces behind Darwinian evolution or rejects their existence outright, the joke is utterly lost on them. Worse, one of the most potent fuels for the fire that motivates materialist dogmatism is the deep ignorance of the natural world found within this group of people. It certainly was for me.
Although this group prides itself on being post-religious, they’ve set up what amounts to a new religion, complete with the typical shunning of science and reason when convenient, in-grouping, radical narcissism, and sloppy acceptance of unverifiable claims. Any interpretation of NDEs which does not fit into their Marvel comic universe might lead to a lecture about how you need to “live in your heart” and not in your head. They believe themselves to be superior to others, despite maintaining beliefs about the world which are deeply ignorant and demonstrably false.
From personal experience, I can say that it was reading the entire Bible for myself in my teens which led me to reject Christianity. Then it was hanging around with New Age spiritualists which led me into full-fledged atheism by the age of thirty. But in recent years, it has been brushing shoulders with fellow atheists and materialists which has led me towards a more neutral attitude, skeptical of everything, including the very capacity of the human mind to grasp any sort of answer.
We are primates, with primate minds. We are deeply flawed and radically limited creatures. If you’re like me, you find a part of yourself and your history in each of these categories. You see how your thought has evolved through experience, and you see that there is no reason why this process should suddenly stop in your present state. There are areas of understanding you are not aware of that exist, that unfold over time.
It seems to be a process. Whether you are a New-Ager, a materialist, or an open-minded skeptic, I believe the understanding we arrive at through living is independent of our beliefs.