Featured

The Story So Far

ATA was created in 2006 for the Rational Response Squad, famous for the Blasphemy Challenge and their Nightline debate with Ray Comfort and Kirk Cameron. In 2009 we archived the original site and moved to a new platform, which is where we are today.

I’m here to answer any questions or challenges you might have for atheists in general, along with site founder Jake. We’ve been around long enough already that it’s worth checking whether your question has already been answered, but we’re happy to tread old ground for new readers.

Welcome to Ask the Atheist. Ask away.

Edit: A couple of things if you’re new. Comments are fully moderated and your first post must be approved, so give it time to appear. If a new contribution is reliant enough on an existing answer, especially a recent one, it will go under that answer as a comment. It’s no judgement on you or your writing, we just like to keep discussions in one piece.

SmartLX

Dealing with Depression

Question from Sam:
I have been very, very depressed lately. Many factors attribute to this: My dad’s cancer, difficulty in finding a job, Trump, racial tension, global warming, plight of migrants etc. The world seems very bleak, and as a result, it’s getting harder and harder for me to resist religion as a means of comfort. I try so much to rely on science and logic for my troubles, but none of it makes me happy. I love movies but I’m scared that if I turn to that, I might hurt somebody in some way (b/c of the whole plight of child actors). Everything in me seems broken and hopeless. Is there anyway I can still be happy again?

Answer by SmartLX:
My wife is going through something similar. Assorted life challenges coupled with large-scale global tragedies and threats completely out of her control (Trump is a major focus, and we’re not even in America) lead to frequent bouts of depression in someone already prone to them. Honestly I wish I could do more to help her, because you never want to see the people you love suffer.

The difference between her and you is that she’s Catholic. She doesn’t seriously doubt God to my knowledge and never has. That’s why I can tell you that religion can be no help at all at times like this. Her thinking is not that God has a mysterious plan that somehow requires all this suffering for some greater good, but rather that God is punishing her specifically for past unidentified wrongs while allowing all this awfulness to happen. Faith is no comfort whatsoever in the day to day.

Perhaps if you gave in to religion you’d bring a different attitude. You’d tell yourself that God loves all of us and has a grand plan, or will come down and fix all this mess eventually, or at the very least everyone will get their just deserts after death. But as you know there’s no evidence for any of this, you would need to live with the fact that anything positive you claimed about God was your own naked assertion, either ignoring it as you prayed or trying to brainwash yourself into forgetting it. And frankly, if you have the kind of mind that generates depression from such disparate sources, God would probably become part of the misery in some way, just like he is for my wife.

Meanwhile, science and logic can be comforting (e.g. by telling you that there is no supernatural force driving the world to ruin, and each misfortune big and small has tangible causes which can potentially be addressed) but they can’t make real problems suddenly unreal, and their power to reverse depression has a natural limit as a result. You’re going through some awful things and so is the world, and the normal, expected reaction to these is sadness. Unemployment especially can feel worse and worse over time, I know.

First thing I can tell you is to go and see a damn movie. If it’s an old movie, it won’t affect the “plight” of any now-grown child actors who were in it. If it’s new, at least you’re helping everyone involved get more work, and it’s a lot better than reality television where child subjects lack even the meagre protections child actors have won over the years. Getting to know about particular child actors and their work can in a small way raise their profile and increase the chances that people will notice if they’re mistreated. Most importantly, if you need to feel some joy and you know one thing that’ll do it for you, and you can only imagine it hurting people in the abstract, don’t go looking for reasons to deny yourself. By all means choose your films carefully, but there are so many.

Next thing is to focus, as the famous Serenity Prayer says (in a sentiment dating back to Greek philosopher Epictetus), on the things you can control and not the things you can’t. There’s probably very little you can do about your father’s cancer, but you can greatly affect his comfort and state of mind, so be a good son. Potential employers make up their own minds about who to hire, but you can get out there and present the best possible version of yourself, taking pride in this regardless of their decision. Politicians have the power to affect national policy on immigration, the environment and so on, but you as a citizen can contact any politician you like, draw their attention in other ways, and even have a hand in their removal. Look into local or online activist groups and see if any are doing good work you’d like to join in. The point here is to give yourself a purpose, however short-term or arbitrary, other than mere survival. Purpose leaves a hole in the mind when it’s not there.

Speaking of joining, we are social creatures and none of us are meant to shoulder the burdens of the whole world alone. You can find groups specifically for your own issues (cancer support, job hunting, human rights, etc.) but joining any group, official or informal, will potentially put you in touch with people you can truly connect with on at least one level. A burden shared is a burden halved, and just knowing there are people you can talk to if you need to can be a very nice thought. If you’re an introvert like me then you may wish to control the amount of time you spend in company, but it’s still important to have that option.

Finally, I realise you’re un- or under-employed but some form of therapy or counselling may be what you ultimately need to get a handle on your runaway thoughts. I have no idea what’s available where you are but some form of pro bono, bulk-billed or volunteer program may exist that will put you in a room with someone who can give better mental health advice than I can. Doesn’t hurt to research it.

For now, just know that I truly hope you can find ways to feel better. There are people who don’t know you at all but feel for people like you and are working to improve the world for your sake. Good luck.

Direct and To the Point

Question from May:
why dont you believe in GOD

Answer by SmartLX:
I’m not sure anyone’s ever asked me this on the site without coupling it with an argument or challenge. There are a few different parts to it, or if you prefer it could be interpreted a couple of different ways, so I’ll try to cover all aspects in chronological order.

Have I ever believed in God?
Yes.

I went to a Catholic primary school and the family attended church at Easter and Christmas. Most of the authority figures in my life talked about God as if He was real, and the rest didn’t comment, so I accepted it. I would pray matter-of-factly, talking quietly to God as if He were a foot in front of my face.

How and when did I stop believing in God?
It was sometime between the ages of 11 and 26, and the how of it will explain why it’s such a broad estimate.

When I moved on from primary to a secular high school I had a go at preaching to a couple of my classmates, and was immediately met with challenges to the whole idea that I’d never had to face before. The problem of evil, my own hypocritical behaviour, stuff like that. I was so embarrassed and confused, without any proper spiritual guide to reassure me, that I immediately stopped talking about God and pretty much stopped thinking about God too, and this lasted through all of high school and university. I just focused on other things.

In 2006 I read about Richard Dawkins and the New Atheist movement. I didn’t understand the arguments for and against at that point, but after reading what atheism actually is, I asked myself whether I still believed in God. It was the first time in over a decade I had seriously meditated on the concept, and it no longer rang true. In the time that had passed, my emotional connection to faith had completely faded, so I felt no loyalty or fear and continued to question. I realised that I was an atheist, which means that the point when I became an atheist, whether instantly or gradually, might have been any time from 1992 onwards.

Why has my faith not been restored by any apologetics, experiences, evidence or anything else?
Because all of this combined has proved insufficient.

Carrying on from the above, once I knew I was an atheist I quickly learned of the low opinion many believers have of atheists and their reasoning. I specifically sought out the best available arguments in favour of the existence of God in case there was something obvious that I had missed and I was clearly misguided. I found that the flaws in each of these arguments are easy to identify (see my Great Big Arguments series). I eventually realised that they are only really useful for reassuring believers, who do not wish to see the flaws in arguments that support their position. I prayed again, as sincerely as I could, on advice from certain evangelists who were certain God Himself would answer. He never had answered my childhood prayers, and He didn’t start now. There was no longer any apparent reason to believe, so I did not and do not.

What would it take for me to believe in God?
Something major, but potentially quite simple.

An argument could come along which I haven’t considered yet, and which is actually as airtight (to put it formally, both valid and sound) as Christians believe the other arguments are. God could speak to me or otherwise send me a message in a way which could not be explained by a hoax, and had a low probability of being my hallucination or dream. Or I could get old, sick or injured and lose some of my mental faculties, so that when the existing arguments or supposed evidence is eventually presented to me again, I’m unable to remember or discern the flaws or counterpoints and I finally accept God because of a misconception. (Remember, even if I start to believe it won’t necessarily mean that I’ll be right.) That’s about all the ways I can think of.

But enough about me. May, please answer in the comments if you would: why do you believe in God (if indeed you do)? To be a little more specific, never mind the arguments you would give now for God’s existence – I would like to know what caused you to believe in the first place. If you have simply always believed, tell me why that is. Any other believers are free to throw in.

She’s a Beauty, Low Mileage and Only One Curse!

Question from Bubsy:
Are we actually cursed? Hear me out:

Last year, our car got hit 5 times while it was parked! I could see this happening once or even twice, but 5 times????

This year our car got dinged twice in parking lots, many many oil repairs, yesterday a person driving next to us made a lane change and swiped us, then today a stone hit our car, and broke the windshield. We just cannot catch a break. All our religious friends say it is a curse.

Answer by SmartLX:
Your religious friends would do well to check whether there is even such a thing as a curse of the right kind in their doctrines. They do exist in Christianity for instance, being powered by the devil so to speak, but simply accepting Jesus is protection enough that you can never be affected. (See here.) So if you’re religious yourself you can answer the question of whether it even CAN be a curse in your worldview.

If you’re getting hit a lot while parked, there are all kinds of obvious questions about where you park, how big your car is, your own driving skills, etc. Similar practical considerations can significantly affect the probabilities of all your other misfortunes. The recurring oil issue for example is down to the condition of your car and the competence (and ethics) of your regular mechanic. All up you’ve mentioned a total of nine events over two years (not counting the oil thing) which could of course be explained by pure bad luck, or some bad luck combined with poor general attitudes to driving in your area.

From a statistical perspective, someone who serves as an outlier (i.e. getting “favoured” way more than the average) is always going to wonder whether something special is going on, but in the vast population of motorists there are almost certain to be some outliers at any given time. (What are the chances that no one in the whole country will be super unlucky?) The chances of winning the lottery are incredibly slim, but there’s regularly a jackpot winner from somewhere (though they really come up against the odds when it comes to winning a second time).

My advice is simply to continue to drive and park with care, and if no one is actually out there gunning for you, you’ll eventually tend towards the average rate of car-damaging events, whatever that is. I tried to look it up but there aren’t many statistics outside of fatal accidents.

The Exodus: I Now Call To The Stand…EVERYBODY!

Question from Avi:
Could 3 million ppl be wrong?

Judaism unlike other religions makes the claim that exodus was witnessed by the entire Jewish ppl.
In the case of Jesus walking on water, there weren’t all that many witnesses and it is therefore hard to be certain of its validity. But exodus was witnessed by 3 million ppl.
How do atheists explain this?

Answer by SmartLX:
The point I make when discussing 1 Corinthians 15, which says 500 people supposedly saw the resurrected Jesus, is that an account of X number of witnesses is not the same as that many witness accounts. The Torah says 600,000 adult males saw the Exodus and the total figure of 3 million was estimated in the 1st century CE based on that. This is not 3 million or even 600,000 claims but rather the claim of just one writer in the 5th or 6th century BCE, regarding a supposed event in the 13th century BCE (best guess so far, among those that think it happened at all). That’s 700-800 years on, in a culture which did the vast majority of its storytelling and record-keeping via word of mouth – proudly so, as they celebrate with events like the Passover Seder.

This vast distance between the event and the documentation does not speak well for the authenticity of the event, especially in the absence of any other substantial evidence for it, and even several factors actively contradicting parts of it. More details here.

Steve Taylor on NDEs as Trips

Question from Uriad:
LX, I want to know if this sways your beliefs on afterlife.
https://www.google.ca/amp/s/www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/out-the-darkness/201810/near-death-experiences-and-dmt%3famp

Answer by SmartLX:
Why would it sway my beliefs?

What we have here is Steve Taylor the psychologist and NDE advocate rejecting the conclusions drawn by a group of psychedelic researchers (from their study, not the psychologist’s, and he doesn’t even link to it) on whether a specific psychedelic, DMT, gives experiences akin to near death experiences and therefore a psychedelic state might actually be a part of that experience when it happens. So it’s an attempt to eliminate one possible (partial) natural explanation for NDEs, in between plugs for Taylor’s book on spiritual “science”. This would only advance the case for supernatural NDEs significantly if it were the only possible natural explanation, which we can’t say that it is.

Even within the scope of what this piece is trying to do, it doesn’t get far. It argues that DMT has not been found to occur in the human body in large enough quantities to have this effect; the researchers do not suggest this, but rather that any psychedelic chemical (check the list) might work similarly. It differentiates between NDEs and deliberate psychedelic experiences on the basis of their after-effects, without even trying to separate the effects of the dream/hallucination from the life-altering consequences of almost dying, regardless of the experience at the time.

So you tell me, why would this sway any skeptic as opposed to merely reassuring believers?

The Reach of Original Sin

Question from Tim:
LX, I’m interested in your thoughts about something:

I’ve been thinking about crime and punishment lately for separate reasons from religion, but a related religious connotation entered my mind recently that I think needs exploring, and I’d like your thoughts on it.

As it relates to Christianity (and many other religions as well in some form or another) humanity has to suffer on planet Earth because a god was disobeyed by a young couple in a garden. The price of their disobedience was that they became “fallen”. Different definitions of what exactly that means abound, but the basic premise is that they went from a perfect state to the current state of existence that all humans currently find themselves in. That existence is definitely less that perfect, and involves all manner of things like sickness, disease, pain, suffering, heartbreak, bad luck, etc. If you are really unlucky you might have been born Jewish and killed in the holocaust, or born gay and thrown off a high rise in Iran. But no one escapes the wrath of this god, everyone has some kind of bad thing befall them from time to time.

And all of it is due to, from we are told, a couple of young people eating a piece of fruit off of a forbidden tree.

So I can’t help but wonder, in the midst of all this suffering throughout the history of humanity, how much longer people who had nothing to do with the decision of Adam and Eve will be made to pay for the choice of those two back in the day. In other words, when will the punishment fit the “crime”?

Answer by SmartLX:
Ah, the good old Problem of Evil. Trying to wrap my head around the continued existence of evil in a world with an all-powerful, all-knowing and entirely good deity is a major reason for my atheism. I didn’t simply renounce my faith because of the apparent conflict, though; the complexity of the problem caused my tween self to give up thinking about religion at all, and I had other things to focus on. This self-enforced sabbatical from theology went on for enough years that my emotional connections to faith faded completely. When I finally did come back to the subject, faith did not appear justified on an intellectual level, so there was nothing left to support it.

The story of Adam and Eve attempts to shift the responsibility for everything that’s wrong with our lives from God to the imperfect nature of humanity. Though you and I didn’t eat the apple, we’re marked with Original Sin as a result of the act itself, just so that God sees a reminder in all of us. Also, it could be reasoned (within the hypothesis of an actual Adam and Eve) that we’re of the same race as Adam so we are similarly flawed, and therefore liable to do something just as bad. God sees into people’s hearts, we’re told, so uncommitted crimes still count against us.

In a separate discussion over whether an eternity in Hell is justified for any possible sin, one Christian defense of God’s “policy” was that offending an infinitely powerful entity like God carries a punishment proportional to the entity, not the crime, and the punishment is therefore infinite. Whether or not this bit of logic is pure assertion, a Christian might apply this to Adam: as a finite being Adam could not absorb an infinite punishment, so it had to be extended to his descendants ad infinitum.

Speaking practically, Christianity will never allow humanity a clean slate. A large part of its pull is the idea that we all have work to do in order to redeem ourselves, and a relationship with Jesus is the only way to get that done. The threat of Hell is always there, even if Hell is seldom or never mentioned.

Mary in the Sun

Question from Jacob:
Hey, a friend showed me this video. I’d like to know what you think. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IvyUnmBjxm8&feature=youtu.be&t=113

Answer by SmartLX:
Looks fascinating, whatever it is.

It’s a pity this footage is the best we have. It was in 2011 but that’s still well into the age of smartphones. The shape that appears within the sun varies in its prominence, and at times seems to move slightly relative to other objects. I’m not inclined to think the video itself is a complete hoax, as the reactions of those present seem genuine enough. Without really knowing what the image actually looked like in detail, we can say very little about its source, so there’s no telling whether it was naturally or deliberately generated somehow.

The conclusion the local Roman Catholics (majority religion of the southern Ivory Coast) immediately drew was that it was an apparition of the Virgin Mary. People from another area might have interpreted it very differently, as the impression one gets is merely of a robed, hooded figure. Regardless of who it resembled, given that this was seven years ago widespread belief does not seem to have been significantly influenced by it, so as a hypothetical, literal sign from God it does appear to have failed in whatever large-scale goal it had.

Quite apart from everything else, I hope no one’s vision was damaged by staring directly at the centre of the sun for as long as the image appeared.

Lotta Stories ‘Bout Jesus, Ain’t There?

Question from Kole:
Hello, I have seen testimonies lately, about people meeting Jesus. A few are: Nasir Siddiki, (former Muslim who had really bad shingles and claimed Jesus saved him)

Afshin Javid (former Muslim who claims Jesus spoke to him in a jail cell)

A story of a former Muslim woman who claims she had gall stones so bad she was in the hospital, she was in so much pain, she called out to Jesus, he appeared, cured her. Then when the doctors came later, she had no gall stones, everyone was baffled

Many NDEs where a person has a hellish experience, they call out to Jesus, he suddenly transports them into a positive place.

The thing is, there are many examples of people claiming to have interacted with Jesus, and many claims state that when they call to him, a bright light appears right away. One man said he was in hell and when he started to say Jesus, before he could finish the light appeared. Afshin and Nassir, plus the former Muslim woman all describe a bright light appearing right away, after they call out to him, and they can talk to him, he helps them. There was even a few NDEs I came across where Muslims say they were in hell, or in a life threatening situation called out to Allah, no response. Then they tried “Jesus” and suddenly a light appeared and rescued them. Does this to you prove that Jesus is the correct way to go? Does this prove Jesus to you? If you were to google it I assure you that you would find similar stories. I just don’t get how this can be.

Answer by SmartLX:
As you can see I’ve added a couple of links above to where I’ve already addressed the claims of some of the people you mentioned. The woman, Amy Ghazal, is new to me but it’s similar to other tales we’ve had here, Siddiki’s in particular. Like what’s come before, we have only her word and not her hospital records.

In any case, it’s been on record since 1979 (see this article in the NMA’s journal) that gallstones can in some cases spontaneously dissolve or disperse. This is exactly why Ghazal was scanned again before surgery; the surgeon already knew he should double-check on the day, and while he would have been surprised to see the gallstones gone he would not have thought it a miracle. That was all down to her.

You hear so many of these conversion stories because there is a way for you to hear them, and it’s hard to miss. The 700 Club disseminated Ghazal’s story, and Javid was trumpeted by It’s a New Day. Christians eat up stories like this, it feeds directly into the “one lost sheep” mentality of redeeming those on the outer. That’s why televangelists and other preachers seek the stories out and parade them before you.

People convert the other way, of course, and it can be an equally intense experience; I daresay you’ll find some fascinating stories on this list. You just won’t hear about it on Western public access TV.

NDEs and Anaesthesia Awareness

Question from Uriadka:
“Dr. Jeffrey Long: The key thing is to know a few of the consistently seen elements of near-death experience that are the strongest evidence for their reality. For example, when you’re under general anesthesia, it should be impossible to have a lucidic organized remembrance at that time. In fact, under anesthesia, you’re typically so far under, with general anesthesia they often have to breathe for you. I mean you’re literally, brain shut down to the level of the brain stem and at that point in time some people have a cardiac arrest, their hearts stop, and of course, that’s very well documented. They monitor people very carefully that are having general anesthesia.

So, I have dozens and dozens of near-death experiences that occurred under general anesthesia and at this time, it should be, if you will, doubly impossible to have a conscious remembrance, and yet they do have near-death experiences at this time, and they’re typical near-death experiences. They have the same elements and appear to have them in the same orders as near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances. In fact, a critical survey question I asked was what their level of consciousness and alertness during the experience was.

Well, even under general anesthetics, under those powerful chemicals to produce sedation, if they had a near-death experience under general anesthesia, their level of consciousness and alertness was identical to near-death experiences occurring under all other circumstances.

There’s absolutely no way the skeptics can explain that away, it’s impossible.”

Let’s go even further: statistically, 1 in 10,000 people have anesthesia awareness. Yet in his study, he had 23 cases out of 2000 patients. They were lucid, had none of the terrible side effects most people have during AA. I think this may prove it.

Answer by SmartLX:
Anaesthesia awareness is a separate phenomenon from NDEs, with one very important difference.

For whatever reason – dosage, faulty equipment, body chemistry – the anaesthetic fails and the patient is not entirely unconscious throughout the whole procedure. This is of course a nightmare come true, as depending on the level of consciousness the patient can experience the sounds, smells and/or excruciating pain of surgery before they’re even able to open their eyes or move a muscle. But the whole reason it’s so scary is that you are unambiguously experiencing real things as they happen, which means it’s easy to determine when it occurred in retrospect even if you give no sign for the duration.

An experience interpreted as an NDE, on the other hand, can occur at any point between the initial loss of consciousness and when consciousness is ultimately regained. If the experience involves elements of the afterlife, there’s no way to place it based on earthly events. If there’s an out-of-body experience where the patient witnesses an event in the room, assuming the events are guessed right the NDE is simply assumed to have occurred at that point, but as you say there’s a period during which there’s not enough brain activity for any such experience. There is always a period before then, and a period after then, where the brain is in an intermediate state that allows dreams and hallucinations.

I made this basic point the last time you brought up this quote by Long, earlier this month. I did not propose that the episodes were happening during periods of anaesthesia awareness, because they really don’t have to. The brain has a pretty wild time dealing with general anaesthetic or any kind of forced unconsciousness at the best of times, and whenever it is active enough to paint an internal scene at the start or end, it will probably do so.

NDEs: The View From The Other Side

Question from Ruslana:
Hello!

I just browsed some of the recent questions/answers, and I wanted to kind of post a rebuttal to the individuals who claim that folks like Tsakiris, Long, and others are potentially proving NDEs. I would also like to know if you, SmartLX, agree with me, or not.

I myself am not aware of all the protocols being put in place for the “studies” that apparently “debunk” the current scientific theories of NDEs put in place. However, like you, SmartLX, have said– there is a huge argument from ignorance here. Sure these men are able to win debates against scientists who do not study NDEs on a regular basis, they can pull these “facts” of oxygen theory, hypoxia theory being debunked out of their debate hats. Once these “facts” are laid out, the skeptics they are debating do not have the liberty to pull out their phones, and check whether or not these studies cited are credible. I guess that is the fault of the skeptics to some extent, as they should be ready for these kinds of rebuttals. However, even if it were true that NDEs occur at the strangest times, and the non-skeptic side is correct that skeptics have incorrect explanations for the causes of NDEs, so what? Let’s give our opponents the benefit of the doubt here and cross off every single theory that we think could cause NDEs. That would at best get them half way to being correct. However, at the end of the day, we still cannot say that the cause of these NDEs is what they interpret them to be– a spirit leaving the body, only to return. Remember, there are still a whole lot of unanswered questions the skeptics are entitled to ask as well such as:
– why do NDEs contradict each other with their underlying messages? Tsakiris debated McCormack on this very topic, comparing McCormack, a man who claims he visited hell, and the NDE of another individual, who claims he or she was told that hell does not exist during his/her NDE. It cannot be that both are right. Therefore, one of them is right, or both are wrong. How can we determine who is correct, assuming one of them is?
– why does the order of NDEs, and the content within change from person to person? One person may have an OBE, followed by meeting a bright light, while another may have no OBE, but see a bright light and have psychic visions. People who believe in NDEs may argue that each soul is unique, and therefore requires a different teaching, hence why different people see different things. However, that seems like a large assumption given what we know
– some NDEs do have living people in them
– not one OBE has been verified under strict protocols. I remember reading some of the OBEs found in popular literature have been enhanced, embellished, or made up completely. An example is a blind individual who claimed they could see their doctor wearing two different coloured socks.
– why do we need brains if we have these amazing souls that can see, hear, and think more clearly than our “lousy” brains?
– why is it possible to have NDEs when we are not even “close” to death?
– NDEs are just that as well- Near Death, regardless of what hopeful people say, the NDEr did not die!

I admit there are things we cannot explain, and I am not saying NDEs are not real, but when these NDErs and people advocating for a non-materialist universe think that supposedly “debunking” our current theories on the causes of NDEs is equivalent to proving that we have souls capable of leaving the body and returning with information, they need to have a reality check. The fact is that the concept of “souls” or an “afterlife” is not particularly high on the totem pole of importance for science right now. If these individuals are so confident, then I look forward to seeing studies which actually prove that Thomas was able to tell the future from his experience, or that Jenny was really able to travel halfway across the world, and report what was going on while she was really “dead”. This would still obviously hold some subjectivity to it, but it would be a start.
My current answer to the cause of NDEs is: I don’t know –
however, I am not going to start pulling answers out of my butt.

Answer by SmartLX:
Quite right on the whole.
– Eliminating all available natural explanations merely leaves NDEs unexplained, not proven to be any kind of supernatural or divine.
– The matter cannot be settled in any kind of debate, for the reason you give: all kinds of claims can be made, but not fully researched and responded to in the time allotted. (Creationists also take advantage of this, hence the name of the “Gish gallop” technique of spewing out a huge number of claims exactly when there’s no time to address them all.)
– NDEs vary because people vary, and the doctrines the stories are required to support also vary. One story is intended to instill fear of Hell, another to reassure against the idea of Hell.
– Of course OBEs have not been verified under strict conditions, or else they’d be an accepted phenomenon. That is literally all it would take. To be fair, to engineer an NDE or crisis-related OBE in suitably strict conditions would probably require unethical conduct by any medical personnel involved. Think Flatliners.