This was in the 1950s but the doctor has been proven right over the ensuing years. As medical science has gotten better at resuscitating patients who at one time would have died from injury or illness we have all become increasingly familiar with what is called the Near Death Experience. All of the aspects of the NDE can be and have been explained by science without recourse to the supernatural. I'm not interested or competent to write a full article on the subject but would refer you to 50 popular beliefs that people think are true by Guy Harrison as a good entry level discussion and the books listed at the end of each chapter under the headline Go Deeper on a variety of subjects including NDEs.
For my purposes I want to zero in on the peacefulness of the dying process. The 'anesthesia of death' as the doctor explained it to my mother years ago. As blood flow slows and ultimately stops leading to cellular death of the brain NDE reports often relate a sensation of extreme peace rather than continued agitation, panic and even terror as is experienced when the brain is still fully functioning and fighting to cling to life.
A NDE is what Alan Segal in his brilliant work Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife In Western Religion refers to as a Religious Attributed Altered State of Consciousness or RAASC. That is to say, an ASC that occurs then is given religious imagery by our own minds and with the help of others to bring it in line with the common religious belief of our culture. The alternative is a Religiously Inspired Altered State of Consciousness (RIASC) in which the individual takes extraordinary measures with the full intent of forcing himself/herself to have a 'spiritual experience.'
Often the person experiencing a NDE comes back with a changed attitude towards life. This is reported both in cases when the NDE formed the basis of a RAASC or when it did not. The person is, briefly at least, unafraid of death. All Altered States of Consciousness are just that: an alteration in our consciousness through which we perceive the world, not a revelation of a spiritual or supernatural world. As such the impact brought about by such an experience tends to fade and disappear unless the person engages in a conscious and active attempt to cling to the feeling as the conscious mind begins to reclaim its rightful place as our only window on the world around us.
This relaxing of our fear of dying brought about by physical trauma to the brain as the upper levels of our mind are shut down through lack of blood flow indicates this fear is a product of our environment rather than innate. I would suggest the philosopher Stephen Cave's book Immortality as further reading in this area. Cave makes what I believe to be a common mistake however when he relates the survival instinct to a questing after immortality by simply not dying. The fact that people fight to stay alive shows they full well understand, no matter what they our told by their religion, that death is final and there is no afterlife or coming back. It's acknowledging your mortality and living a life with that knowledge not as a peripheral comment on the end of life but as the basis for life itself. Back to Alan Segal and the relatively late introduction of the concept of immortality into the religions of the West for more on those ideas. But Cave's work is not to be dismissed. His conclusion more than makes up for this slight misstep.
Fear of death, and religion itself, is a function of the human imagination. As a Christian Atheist (oxymoron, of course, but one that clarifies which God doesn't exist) I would offer two quotes attributed to the self-proclaimed apostle and proto-Gnostic Saul/Paul (Elaine Pagels The Gnostic Paul is good for further reading on that subject).
First, he shows the innate flaw in Pascal's Wager when he says:
"For if in this life only my hope resides then I am, of all men, most miserable."
And in another place:
"The sting of death is sin."
Clearly, religion without an afterlife is a source of misery, not comfort. The basis of this misery, the 'sting of death', comes from the belief that our sins, as taught to us by religion, not merely the things we personally feel bad about doing, will be un-forgiven and we will suffer eternal punishment.
NDE/RAASCs show that as the higher brain function of the human imagination closes up shop as we die then the misery engendered by religion and the teaching of sin and salvation and damnation leak away from our minds the actual experience of dying itself is rather pleasant even though a permanent, one-way passage from existence to non-existence.
I have stated in other places:
Atheism makes good on all the promises religion makes and fails to keep.
The NDE leaves many people to have a however fleeting feeling of the absence of the fear of death. This is brought about through the closing down of the human imagination where high concepts such as religion and immortality dwell and the opening up to the prospect of impending death as something that is not to be feared but rather to be accepted as natural.
Cut off the RAASC tendency and just leave the experience as it is without further explanation attuned to religious beliefs and you are getting close to what the world would be like without God.
A world that we can live in, right now and not after death. A world without religion, without God, without sin and punishment in an afterlife. Yes, without reward as well, but the rewards promised in Heaven are now yours to have and enjoy while you are still alive. And these rewards can be shared with others. You don't have to send the rest of the world to Hell in order to have Heaven.
Imagine a world where no one is taught religion. Where there is no sting of death because there is no sin. A world in which when we harm someone else it is to the person we harmed that we need to make amends and ask forgiveness. Imagine living a life without fear and shame. Where the greatest moral precept is "Live and let live."
A world in which all people grow up with an acceptance of their own mortality. A world where we accept our position as animals within a complex biosphere. A world where we are part of the environment and not some special creature given dominion over the rest of life on our planet.
A world where children are cherished and not abused and used physically or sexually or mentally by religion.
As I write this the bookshelves and talk shows are still fascinated by the alleged vision of Colton Burpo as related by his father Todd in Heaven Is For Real. That this alleged vision came out gradually over a period of months following his NDE is typical of a RAASC and is guided by his father in an act of child abuse his son may never recover from.
Most certainly. In the medical field there is a delightfully whimsical term for a terrible disorder where a parent gets their own emotional and often financial needs met by convincing others their child is ill with all manner of diseases. It's called Munchhausen by Proxy. What we have in the case of Todd Burpo is religion at its most vile. We have a father who is deliberately using his own child in order to create a cottage industry from which he will profit both mentally, emotionally and financially.
Is it his parental right to do this to his child?
Should he be prohibited from doing this to his child by the same sort of laws that are applied to other cases of child abuse?
Yes, undeniably this is what would happen to this monster in a better world.
But we don't live in a better world. We live in one dominated by superstition where magicians walk on water and dead men return to life.
Can we take this world and, starting today, move from here into this better world, a world where all of the old gods are destroyed, as the childhood of the human race ends and we as a species become adults?
Yes, we can. We have only a little over three hundred years in striving to destroy an evil that has had dominance for three thousand years. Yes, it may take us three thousand years to undo the damage that his been done to our species. And yet we have already made a good start in that direction.
Growing up is hard to do, believe me I'm a Baby Boomer and the childishness I see in the generations born since makes us look like sophisticated intellectuals in comparison. But over the last half of the 20th and the opening decade of the 21st Centuries we have been losing ground.
We can lose, but only if we choose to stop fighting.
Death is nothing to be feared. Life is nothing to cling to.
Freedom is all that matters.
And, as John Le Carre put it:
We have given away far too many freedoms in order to be free. Now it's time to take some back.