The NDEs Keep Coming

Question from Halil:
Hello, I wanted to know what atheists think of this testimony, and if it scares them.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not scary if you don’t already believe. When trying to threaten kids about the boogeyman, they have to believe it exists to some extent before they buy into the fear. This does not do a good job of supporting the existence of God, Hell or an afterlife at all.

Here are some but certainly not all of the reasons why not. Folks are free to comment and chip in.

– The guy had taken a variety of hallucinogenic drugs, some of which (e.g. LSD) can have after-effects causing hallucinations years later.
– His solid Catholic upbringing had primed his brain with all the imagery he needed to subconsciously pull together an authentic Christian afterlife experience for himself.
– His cardiologist didn’t understand how he survived, but his cardiologist wasn’t there for the accident and might not have been able to understand where the electricity traveled even if he had. His survival is a mystery, not necessarily a miracle.
– His conversion came at the hands of a travelling evangelist whose day job is to give people amazing conversion experiences, and after what he’d been through he was ripe for it.
– His back pain appeared as mysteriously as it disappeared. It could have been in his head, or a temporary effect of the electric shock on his back muscles, but it’s not as if a well-known chronic condition was miraculously cured. (In a similar vein, I know of an American healer who would lay hands on people and announce that he had cured small tumours, which had never been detected beforehand and obviously didn’t show up afterwards.)
– This page asks for money at the bottom. They’ll say anything, and since the story is a personal account that no one else can contradict they’re free to say anything.

The NDE From Hell

Question from Halil:
Ok, so on YouTube there are a variety of videos on some pro-Christian channels that encompass interviews of Christians who apparently were sinners, did not go to church, drank alcohol, masturbated, etc. and they talk about how they had Near Death Experiences or visions while they were sleeping where they visited hell. Some describe hell as flames with many demons, and very loud screams, others describe it as a dark quiet place without God.

One experience kind of frightened me. It was about an elderly priest who used to be a firefighter when he was younger. He states that he took drugs often, smoked weed, drank, etc. He said he went to Sunday school for 12 years growing up, but that he never read the Bible. Then he said his parents were not happy that he drank / took drugs, so he stopped. One day, he was at work and somehow got electrocuted, and then he said he could still see clearly, suddenly, he saw utter darkness, and had a life review showing all of his sins ever committed. Then he saw demons, which mocked him, and told him “we got you now” very much like the demons in Howard Storm’s NDE story. This priest also saw fires, called out to God, and His right hand came and pulled him out of the fire. Suddenly he was back at work and people came running as they heard him screaming. Then, he went to the hospital, and decided that he knew that hell was real.

What do you think could be an explanation of this experience? Do these so called “visions” give any of you atheists chills in case it is right? I am not Christian, but do Christians believe that they would see demons in hell? Because many of these hell stories always seem to have demons that mock God and torture the people experiencing them. Also, how could a brain come up with such graphic imagery?

Answer by SmartLX:
The extreme variety with which Hell is supposedly perceived tells you for a start that most (if not all) of these people are not seeing accurate visions, even if they’re telling the truth about what they remember.

This priest’s story has him spending a long time unconscious with his body and brain in an extreme state of distress. He sees many of the most well-known elements of the Christian story of the afterlife: a review of his sins, fires and sadistic demons in Hell because he had sinned, the literal hand of God saving him. If he was brought up in a Christian family or community even without believing, he would associate all these images with death and it’s the first place his mind would go in these circumstances whether in a dream or in a hallucination. Of course no Christian dogma states that God will immediately save you from Hell once you’re already sent there; instead that’s the point at which it’s too late to avoid your fate. As a priest, he’ll have had to find a way to reconcile his own story with the doctrine of his denomination.

Finally, brains came up with all the graphic imagery you’ve ever seen in a book, painting, sculpture, movie or video game. Artists see it all in their heads before they create it, and to their great frustration sometimes the images in their heads are much grander than what they can bring into reality. The dream of a brain near death can be a wild place.

Near Death Extrapolations

Question from Chris:
There are many near death experiences where the person goes to heaven and comes back.
How does this happen?
Are they making it up or what?
There are stories of people with the brain completely shut off so that there is no memory or ability to dream.
Any help would be great and I love your web site. Keep up the great work.

Answer by SmartLX:
Betty Bowers’ site is down right at the moment, but Bowers herself is actually a fictional character in a larger satire of fundamentalist religion called the Landover Baptist Church. There are plenty of real people with similar claims though.

Perhaps some are making it up for their own reasons (to make money selling books about their experiences, for example) but many are just describing what they think happened. Dreams and hallucinations during periods where the brain is almost dying can produce experiences which to the victims are indistinguishable from real supernatural out-of-body events.

The problem with the claims of zero brain activity is that if they’re telling the story, their brain function obviously returned at some point. Brains go through transitional states; between the initial loss of consciousness and the total cessation of brain function there’s at least a short period of partial brain function, and between restarting the brain and regaining consciousness there’s another period of partial function. If a claimed NDE happens in one of these two transitional periods, an unconscious victim with no sense of time might later think it happened right in the middle. It doesn’t make for good evidence of personal experiences not requiring brain function.

As I said in the previous post, I had a huge argument about this five years ago, and little has changed since then. Check it out if you like.

Michael Prescott Tries Theology

Question from Lukas:

First of all I want to thank this site for the answers I received so far. It really helps in discussions with believers.

Now to my new question which is rather long. A friend of mine who is a believer sent me a web address of a blog where he gives his reasons why he is a believer – he is a fan of Michael Prescott. I could not find good answers for these things:

(Shortened for quick reading, but see the full piece here)

1. The anthropic principle and cosmic coincidences. It is now a commonplace of astrophysics and cosmology that our universe appears to be “fine-tuned” to be orderly and habitable.

2. The origin of life. The old idea that the first living cell came together spontaneously by pure chance is no longer seriously argued, now that scanning electron microscopy has shown us the fantastic complexity of even the “simplest” cell.

(Points 1 and 2 are the ones that apparently persuaded Anthony Flew.)

3. All attempts to ground morality in naturalistic laws or brute physical facts have (in my opinion) failed, leaving us with two choices: either moral values are subjective and arbitrary, or they are objective but grounded in something outside nature.

4. Materialism, the view that the physical world is all that exists and that mind is, at best, only an epiphenomenon (i.e., trivial side effect) of matter, leads to a debased view of human beings, who are seen as mere animals, machines, robots, or vehicles for genetic reproduction. The dignity of man is incompatible with philosophical materialism.

5. On a personal level, I feel that life simply has no meaning if “this is all there is.”

6. In studying history, I became aware of the very large contribution to human happiness, well-being, and moral advancement made by religion.

7. Finally, after being an extreme skeptic with regard to paranormal phenomena, I began to study the field and found that much of the evidence was unexpectedly strong. This includes evidence for life after death, such as near-death experiences and the better-documented cases of apparitions, deathbed visions, and mediumship.

If you could please answer these questions I would be very glad.

Also thanks again for your time and this site its really great. Thanks for the answer and have a nice day.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your friend has thrown everything but the kitchen sink at you, and it only took him one link. Let’s dive into the pile, and see if crime writer Prescott has uncovered any real-life mysteries.

1. See my pieces on the fine tuning argument together here. Some of the main points:
– The term “fine-tuned” presumes a tuner in the first place.
– The fact that life is only supported on one tiny world within light years suggests that if it’s tuned at all it’s very poorly tuned.
– Some of the “tuned” constants could actually vary by a great deal and still allow life to form.
– We know at least one universe exists, and a multiverse hypothesis merely posits the existence of more of them. A god is completely without precedent in science and observation.

2. Prescott is just plain wrong here. The idea that the original proto-biology coalesced without being directed to do so is seriously argued, and there are a number of quite detailed models currently in play. He’s also wrong about the unlikelihood of new information emerging from disorder without a capital-M Mind to guide it, because it happens all the damn time. I recently argued this very point here.

3. We can argue about religious vs secular morality, but when you get down to it Prescott is just arguing that if there’s no god there’s no objective morality and this would be bad. Something is not more or less likely to be true based on whether it’s good or bad for us; an earthquake that kills millions is just as real as the discovery of a vaccine that saves millions. To suggest otherwise is a well-recognised logical fallacy called an argument from consequences.

4. Similarly, here he’s only saying that it’s better not to look at ourselves from a materialistic perspective (I disagree), and not bothering to actually argue that materialism is false. Same issue as #3.

5. If he can only find meaning in life if there’s a god, that’s his problem. To say it’s an actual argument supporting the existence of one, even to himself, is a third argument from consequences. Besides, I can find meaning in life without a god, and so can others.

6. Even if he’s right about the historical benefits of widespread religion, it’s a total non-sequitur to say that means there’s a god. Religion can have done everything it’s reliably recorded as having done over the millenia without the assistance of a single real deity. Such is the power of human belief and cooperation, for good or ill.

7. Even if paranormal phenomena were real, he’d have a lot of trouble linking them to any particular god. As for near-death experiences, that consciousness survives death is exactly the claim which lacks empirical evidence. I had my biggest discussion of this almost exactly five years ago on the old site (now archived, so don’t try to comment there) and in my estimation little of relevance has changed since.

So, all up there’s not much “philosophy of religion” from Prescott which is new. If Prescott is happy to use this stuff to convince himself, fine, but it doesn’t convince me.

Hizzle Is Fo Rizzle?

Question from Josh:
“A young boy emerges from life-saving surgery with remarkable stories of his visit to heaven.” I don’t buy this for one minute, but some of my religious friends hound me for an explanation. How would you explain this? I tell them it is a shame.

Answer by SmartLX:
It is rather a shame. Thanks to Heaven Is For Real, for the rest of Colton Burpo’s life people may well want to talk to him about something he barely remembers more than anything he achieves afterwards.

What Colton Burpo didn’t already know about what was going on in the real world while he was unconscious, he could have guessed (for instance that his extremely religious parents were praying). If any of the real-world revelations still seem too unlikely, the father and author Todd Burpo admits a period at the beginning of the poor kid’s interrogation when Todd hadn’t thought not to ask leading questions. There’s no telling what he fed Colton.

As for Colton’s descriptions of heaven, he could have picked up any amount of theological geography from his father before the event. Despite this, he recounted a great deal of detail which doesn’t match the Bible at all. Some believers have rejected the whole thing on this basis, but there are many others who simply ignore what Colton got “wrong” even as they proclaim what he got “right”.

There’s a decent critique of the book and the kid’s story here, written by a Christian apologist academic of all people. He’s one of those for whom the “wrong” theology is a dealbreaker. So you see, even many of the faithful aren’t happy with Colton’s testimony.

Ask from the Past: can it ALL be wrong?

“Only faith makes a miracle seem at all likely, all things considered.”

(When the archived ATA site was restored, a short list of unanswered questions were found in the approval queue. I’ll be answering them here in Ask from the Past.)

Question from Mike1234:
What about all the things that people have seen like ghost or anything physical or somthing happening out of the norm, is it all just mental and in your head. There have been so many things that people have seen or strange things happening to people that you may of never heard, but in order to not believe in a god everything would have had to been mental or proved scientifically.

According to what i have heard people have had broken arms healed in front of their face and even someone on tv said they have seen a limb regenerate in front of their face.Yes i know some people can be liars, but for every sigle one to be a lie or just something mental would be really rare out of the all those people who had a experience which is probably tons and tons of people. People have become unblind physically at crusades or other supposable things happening according to what i have heard.

Or somebody on tv said that god took him to hell and then brought him back. He said he came out of his body and was physically in hell and then Jesus took him out telling him that many of his own people don’t believe in this place. His wife saw him on the ground holding his head and then jesus brought him back. He said it wasn’t a dream and it was real.or what about some guy getting hit by a semi or car or something and was told by police that he was dead on arrival but somebody, who happened to be a christian out of nowhere started praying for him for about maybe 15 minutes or so, and im not sure if he even knew the guy or not, and the guy cam back. The guy who was hit talked about his experience and how he actually saw a gate ahead of him and how the bible describes it and all, but as soon as he was approaching it he went back into his body.

I am not saying that this is true or anything even though the people sound like they are really telling the truth, but for every single experience to be a lie or something mental or something that can be scientifical would be hard. It would seem like it would take more faith to say that everyone of those is a lie or something else rather then to believe one and have to believe in some type of divine being.

It would take something akin to faith to say with absolute certainty that every one of those claims was utterly false, especially without hearing them all first-hand. That’s why atheists don’t tend to do that.

Perhaps a man did manage to regenerate a limb on the spot, I don’t know. I’ll wait for the evidence, if any. Since it’s extremely unlikely given the little that I know about human anatomy, I’ll assume for the moment that it didn’t really happen. If I’m wrong and evidence comes along later, I’ll be surprised and fascinated.

You raise an interesting point about the sheer number of extraordinary claims, Mike. Just how unlikely is it that all of these people are either wrong or lying? Not as unlikely as you’d think at a glance. Even if several such claims emerged every day, you must remember that such claims are picked up and trumpeted by the media wherever they’ve come from. Out of six billion people, if something has a chance of a million to one you would still expect it to happen to six thousand of them. If it’s newsworthy, the whole world might well hear about most of them.

What’s more difficult to calculate is the probability of a miracle, versus the probability of a lie or an error. What makes a lie likely is that telling an extravagant lie often gets a lot of attention, and can be profitable. You can usually understand why a claimant would be lying if he or she is. What tends to make an error likely, on the other hand, is usually the state of the claimant at the time of the event. You can imagine what I mean by that.

Only faith makes a miracle seem at all likely, all things considered.