Recently someone emailed me about my "Heaven is NOT real, no matter what Eben Alexander says" post. She wondered why I thought his heaven seemed so Christian. To her, Alexander's account of the afterlife sounded more Hindu.
Well, I'm no expert on Hinduism, but that assertion seems dubious to me. A quick check-in with the Great God Google taught me some things about Hindu notions of the afterlife.
A Wikipedia article on the subject emphasizes Hindu belief in karma and reincarnation. We keep coming back to life on Earth, not an eternal life in "heaven." Heaven and hell are temporary resting places where the soul/atman gets its temporary rewards or punishments for a life well or crappily lived.
Another web site noted the same concepts, focusing a bit more on how one gets out of the cycle of birth-death-rebirth. Liberation comes when the soul drop merges with the god ocean. But this actually is how the way things always are. Moksha or liberation is simply waking up from the dream of separateness.
With these ideas in mind, let's look at how Eben Alexander described his vision of "heaven" in the Newsweek cover story. Here's some pertinent quotes.
Although I considered myself a faithful Christian...
I was in a place of clouds. Big, puffy, pink-white ones that showed up sharply against the deep blue-black sky.
Higher than the clouds—immeasurably higher—flocks of transparent, shimmering beings arced across the sky, leaving long, streamerlike lines behind them. Birds? Angels?
...I could see the surging, joyful perfection of what they sang.
For most of my journey, someone else was with me. A woman. ...Without using any words, she spoke to me. ... “You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.” “You have nothing to fear.” “There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Later, when I was back, I found a quotation by the 17th-century Christian poet Henry Vaughan that came close to describing this magical place, this vast, inky-black core that was the home of the Divine itself. “There is, some say, in God a deep but dazzling darkness ...”
...the unconditional love that I now know God and the universe have toward us.
One of the few places I didn’t have trouble getting my story across was a place I’d seen fairly little of before my experience: church.
And, most important, a painting of Jesus breaking bread with his disciples evoked the message that lay at the very heart of my journey: that we are loved and accepted unconditionally by a God even more grand and unfathomably glorious than the one I’d learned of as a child in Sunday school.
So, yeah, I do indeed feel that Eben Alexander's vision of heaven is a heck of a lot closer to Christian notions of the afterlife than that of Hindu, Buddhist, Taoist, or other non-monotheistic religions.
He believes that God loves and accepts us unconditionally. That sure sounds like a personal creator God to me, not an impersonal Brahman, Buddha-nature, or Tao. God supposedly cherishes us deeply, forever. No mention of karma, rebirth, illusion of individuality, or any other "Eastern" concepts at odds with Christianity.
But regardless of how Christian'y Alexander's tale is, the Big Question is: should we believe it? Short answer: no.
There are countless stories told by people about almost-dying-and-going-to-heaven. Now we have one more. Like I said in my initial post, I'm not aware of anybody who, say, was a Christian before their near-death experience of "heaven" and then recanted, becoming, say, a Buddhist.
Virtually everybody (and maybe I can eliminate the "virtually") sees what they expect to see. Or at least what their brain has conditioned them to see. Neuroscience knows that expectations, framing, prior experiences, and such affect what a person experiences.
Awareness isn't like a shiny clear mirror that reflects only what is really there. Prior awarenesses lead the brain in previously trod directions. So a Christian believer has visions of a Christian heaven. No surprise there.
I've come across several additional thoughtful critiques of Alexander's fantastical tale of the afterlife. I only wish that Alexander himself had thought about alternative explanations of his vision rather than taking it to be a true view of what happens after death.
Oh, but then he wouldn't have been able to write a book that, almost certainly, will be a best-seller. And put up a snazzy web site marketing it.
Those who prefer to think for themselves, rather than accept illusions of heaven, are invited to read PZ Myer's hard-hitting "Newsweek panders to the deluded again."
Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that line of crap before. “I’m a serious, hard-nosed scientist, I wouldn’t believe in that Christian stuff unless it was really true!” It’s a common trope. This guy was soaking in Christianity, wanted to believe in Christianity, and I don’t care if he was a Harvard neuroscientist, he was still vulnerable to self-delusion.
But here’s the real killer for me. People who go through these fantasies often tell of awe-inspiring insights that they receive and are quick to tell us how brilliant they were in Heaven. Alexander is no exception.
What were these concepts, you might wonder. He’s a neuroscientist; shouldn’t we expect some great “A-ha!” moments, some new powerful revelations about how the brain works that would revolutionize his field of study?
But of course not. He returns from his mind-expanding experience and does not sit down to write a revolutionary new paper on the science of the mind, but instead, as usual, writes a bunch of banal drivel about angels. This is the deep message that he shares with us that would have taken years to fully grasp, he claims.
“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”
“You have nothing to fear.”
“There is nothing you can do wrong.”
Here’s a deep message for you: brain damage can persuade you of the truth of some real bullshit.
l also enjoyed neuroscientist Colin Blakemore's "Is the afterlife full of fluffy clouds and angels?"
Dr Peter Fenwick, senior lecturer at King’s College, London, consultant at the Institute of Psychiatry, and president of the British branch of The International Association for Near Death Studies, acknowledges that there are deep problems in interpreting first-person memories of experiences that are supposed to have happened when the brain was out of action. Since the lucky survivor can only tell you about them after the event, how can we be sure that these things were perceived and felt at the time that their brains were messed up, rather than being invented afterwards?
The same problem applies to dreams, indeed to any memory. Memory is notoriously fallible, and is treacherously easily misled by expectation. The cognitive psychologist Elizabeth Loftus has done brilliant experiments showing how the recall of real experiences can be transformed by what people think should have happened, and by what they are told might have happened.
In 150 years the science of perception has taught us that the way we appreciate the world around us is as much dependent on our expectations, our experiences, our inferences, as it is on the hard evidence of images on our retinas or vibrations in our ears. Remember the occasions when you have seen a face in the flickering flames of a fire, or been certain that you saw a person in the distance as you walked along at night – only to discover that the face in the fire disappears with the next burst of flame and the person in the dark is just a letterbox.
Is it not significant that the NDEs of Christians are full of Biblical metaphor? Either this confirms the correctness of their particular faith or it says that NDEs, like normal perception and memory, are redolent of culture, personal prejudice and past experience. Perhaps if Eben Alexander were a Muslim, there would have been the mythical 72 virgins on the butterfly wing, rather than the bucolic one. If he were a Buddhist he would be called a de-lok, a person who has seemingly died, but who travels into bardo – an afterlife state – guided by a Buddhist deity.