On the Near-Death Experience of an Atheist and Speculation on Its Effect

Whatever our experiences, our beliefs often win out. Our beliefs are not always divorced from what we want to be true, though they may be (by the same token) disconnected from reality. 

The subject of near-death experiences is a deep rabbit hole I have come to find out. I have listened to a number of testimonies recently of people who have had near-death experiences. Trying to make some sense of them led me to look up what Gary Habermas has to say about them. Habermas has been involved in the research of near-death experiences (NDEs) for a couple of decades.

This blog piece follows a summary of what Habermas says about NDEs. (See Habermas on Near-Death Experiences) I am picking up here where I left off about the near-death experience of the famous atheist, Sir Alfred Jules (AJ) Ayer, that is self-described in the article, What I Saw When I was Dead. This piece explores beyond the suggestions Habermas makes (that NDEs may be influenced by worldview) and gets behind the public persona of Ayer after his NDE.

To the extent that Ayer is “arguably the most influential 20th century rationalist after Bertrand Russel“, his encounter with a seemingly irrational near-death experience is interesting indeed.

Ayers, “whose more than 50-year career was devoted to ridiculing all metaphysical statements, especially all Christian doctrine, as nonsense“, wrote about his NDE not long after it happened. He described finding himself standing before a “red light, exceedingly bright….” that was “responsible for the government of the universe”. The light was “very painful even when I turned away from it”, and he recalled “creatures” that he believed were “in charge of space”. He tried to communicate with them to no avail, and he “became more desperate until the experience suddenly came to an end.”

Ayer’s public comments are contained in the piece linked above. Later, he concluded that his experience “was rather strong evidence that death does not put an end to consciousness”, but he added: “My recent experiences have [only] slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be.” He also publicly proclaimed that the experiences “have not weakened my conviction that there is no god”.

The last comments in Ayer’s account of his NDE are what lead Habermas to conclude that people see their NDEs through their worldview lenses. For instance, Ayer described the light as the being “responsible for the government of the world”. Another person might have described that being as God (or the Satan, perhaps). The comments at the end of Ayer’s account leave no room for wondering if his worldview had changed (at least, by this account). They had not.

If Ayer’s very circumspect view of his near-death experience seemed a little self-conscious about his own reputation as a famous 20th Century skeptic, the postscript he wrote later was a very conscious reaction to the alarm over “the world-wide publicity” his initial written recollection engendered. (See An Atheist Sees the Light by Joseph Pearce, the husband of Ayer’s step-daughter)

Displaying “pains to preserve his reputation”, according to Pearce, the longtime atheist, Ayer, walked back his earlier equivocation even further by clarifying that the experience did not, in fact, weaken his belief that there is no life after death, admitting only that it “weakened… my inflexible attitude towards that belief”.

“[Ayer] was the champion slayer of theological nonsense, the pioneer of logical positivism….”, says Pearce. A lifetime of influence might have been compromised in the admission that there is something “on the other side”.

Even so, Ayer carried on in the postscript for many paragraphs speculating about how life after death may work (including thoughts about dualism, resurrected bodies and reincarnated bodies). Methinks he may have protested too much to his fellow atheists about having appeared to give credence to such a thought as life after death!

In the end, though, it seems that Ayer stuck stubbornly to his atheism in public. “Despite the river, the light and the rude, dismissive, Masters of the Universe, the experience had turned him into ‘a born-again atheist,’ he maintained, reaffirming his conviction that God was a barbarous relic, the afterlife a fairy tale.”

One thing Ayer doesn’t do, though, is doubt his experience. People who report NDEs typically say the same thing, says Habermas: they say that the experience was utterly real, maybe more real than “real” experiences they have every day. There is no hint of Ayer walking back the details he recalled of his experience, even though he reneged on anything appearing to be a public renunciation of disbelief in God, life after death and atheism.

But that isn’t the end of the story. Ayer apparently conceded to one of his doctors that he saw “a Divine Being”. (See Atheist Philosopher Describes His Fascinating Near-Death Experience by Michael Liccione and “What I Saw When I Was Dead” by Dan Peterson) The account was initially reported by William Cash who was contacted by Dr. Jeremy George, the senior registrar in charge of Ayer while he was in hospital, after Cash wrote a play about Ayer’s NDE. (See “Did atheist philosopher see God when he ‘died’?”)

Dr. George recalls a conversation he had with Ayer while Ayer was still in the hospital recovering from his NDE.

“I came back to talk to him. Very discreetly, I asked him, as a philosopher, what was it like to have had a near-death experience? He suddenly looked rather sheepish. Then he said, ‘I saw a Divine Being. I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.’

“He clearly said ‘Divine Being,’” said Dr. George. “He was confiding in me, and I think he was slightly embarrassed because it was unsettling for him as an atheist. He spoke in a very confidential manner. I think he felt he had come face to face with God, or his maker, or what one might say was God.

“Later, when I read his article, I was surprised to see he had left out all mention of it. I was simply amused. I wasn’t very familiar with his philosophy at the time of the incident, so the significance wasn’t immediately obvious. I didn’t realize he was a logical positivist.”

When William Cash related the story from the doctor to Ayer’s son, Nick, his response was telling:

“Their son, Nick Ayer, who had been with his father in hospital throughout his illness, and had slept in Ayer’s private room, was also silent for a second when I told him the story, and then added: “It doesn’t sound like a joke. It sounds extraordinary. He certainly never mentioned anything like that to me. I don’t know what to make of it. When he first came round after he was ‘dead’ he said nothing of any of this. Nothing at all.”

“Nick said that he had long felt there was something possibly suspect about his father’s version of his near death experience.”

Did he change his view of reality based on his experience, even if only privately?

Ayer’s wife, Dee Wells, reported that Ayer became nicer “after he died”. “He was not nearly so boastful”, and he took an interest people. Ayer also spent a “great deal of time” Father Frederick Copleston, the well-known Jesuit historian of philosophy whom Ayer had debated in 1949 on the BBC radio about the existence of God. In fact, said Dee Wells, “In the end, [Copleston] was Freddie’s closest friend…. It was quite extraordinary.” (See also The Atheist and the Jesuit)



One line in the Cash article stands out to me. Dee Wells, the second (and fourth) wife of Ayer, responded to Cash’s question, whether Ayer’s memory or words could really be trusted, by saying, “the truth could rapidly become meaningless for Freddie when it happened to suit him — with women, for example.” My own conviction that arises from spending much time reading, listening and thinking about the nature of atheism and belief is that atheists are as prone as anyone to bend the truth to suit their own fancies. Atheists don’t have a corner on truth. Not even the most intelligent of them.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that believers are any more truthful (though it is my conviction that they are). “Honest” atheists, like Aldous Huxley, admit at times the desire to believe as one wishes only because one wishes it. The observation of Freud about religionists, that belief is just wish fulfillment, can be as readily said of atheists. For a person, like Ayer who made a name as an atheist, and for Huxley, who guarded his sexual freedom, belief in no God (no Cosmic Interferor, as CS Lewis put it) is also wish fulfillment.

Whatever our experiences, our beliefs, our worldviews, often win out. Our beliefs and worldviews are not always divorced from what we want to be true, though they may (by the same token) be disconnected from reality. An atheist has beliefs and a worldview as certainly as a Christian does.

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