I recently shared a copy of Newsweek magazine with a good friend of mine, after reading the cover story Heaven is Real: One Doctor’s Experience with the Afterlife. I picked the magazine up myself specifically because the cover story intrigued me, albeit with a very different perspective from the way that I suspected it would intrigue my friend.
This post isn’t specifically about my views on god (or God, if you prefer), but it is probably helpful to give at least a little bit of explanation. If I have to label myself, I choose “atheist”, although that certainly isn’t a clear term to describe an extremely complicated subject. I am certain only that I will never identify as “Christian”, “Muslim” or “Jewish” – but I leave myself open to thinking about the subject of god in any number of ways.
My friend is Christian and I envy the clarity of her faith.
The article that I passed along recounts the experience of a neurosurgeon, Dr. Eben Alexander, who, previously convinced that “afterlife” experiences recounted by patients were caused by their own brain chemistry – not any true spiritual journey, has his own near death experience. He describes an experience of puffy white clouds, ephemeral beings and feelings of complete peace. Dr. Alexander’s argument for changing his opinion on the subject is not because he, himself, had an experience – but that his brain was uniquely incapable of consciousness at the time due to his illness. His own journey contradicted his previously held assumptions about the science behind the experiences, that required some level of active brain function.
The article is an interesting read, and I recommend that you check it out regardless of your belief in an afterlife.
After sharing the article, my friend asked me what I thought of the article – and I have since struggled to give her my answer. I did think that Dr. Alexander made a compelling argument that we should, perhaps, re-examine our assumptions about out-of-body, near death experiences. I’m not able to fact-check the neuroscience in the article, but assuming that he is correct about the biology of his experience – our current explanations don’t hold true.
Does that make me think that Dr. Alexander did, in fact, journey to heaven during his comatose state? That all of those patients before him did, in fact, find themselves in the heaven that we read about as children? Here’s where I hesitate to be too open with my own beliefs. If he believes that he was in heaven, if he now has a deeper faith that makes him more connected to his life and his purpose… I think that’s an amazing sign of faith and miraculous in its own right. Why does it matter what I think?
My most passionate belief on the subject of “faith” is that it is personal and meaningful to every person in his/her own way. I don’t want to convince someone to believe the same things that I do. In matters of “faith”, I have no illusions of being “right”. It’s not a subject of factual arguments and I have no desire to change anyone’s mind.
With that said, I did, of course, have my own thoughts after reading Dr. Alexander’s recounting of events. The article didn’t change my own mind about heaven. In the specific case of out-of-body experiences, I think our brains are translating something far more complicated into something far more simple that we can understand and process in our human lives. I don’t believe that after death we journey to a place in the clouds where we find eternal peace. I don’t believe there are angels waiting to guide us. I don’t believe that our ancestors exist in a specific location where we can “join” them. It’s not that I don’t believe that there is something bigger in the universe – and that we’re a part of that something even after our human lives have ended. I think there are infinite mysteries that we can’t even fathom or dream of that are so much larger than what we know.
My thoughts? I think we have a lot more to learn about our brain chemistry and about our ability to create and translate emotions into sensory experiences. But as for my thoughts of heaven, those haven’t changed at all. I still think we don’t know anything at all about what comes next.