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Are NDEs Universal?

Are they universal? The cultural context of near-death experiences by Dr. Natasha Tassell-Matuma

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The recent RSP podcast with Professor Jens Schlieter provided an interesting discussion on a topic very close to my heart – that of near-death experiences (NDEs). Professor Schlieter speaks to his recent book, What Is It Like to be Dead?, which draws together historical first-hand accounts of Western NDEs from the 16th century through to 1975. Why stop at 1975 you may ask? Well, the truth is I simply don’t know, as I have yet to read the book (although it is now on my list of ‘must reads’)! But, it was around the early-70s that the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying) was becoming well known, while in the mid-70s a ground-breaking book was published by Dr. Raymond Moody. In Life After Life,,  Dr. Moody described unusual psychological occurrences that transcended the boundaries among space, time, and normal everyday perception and appeared to occur on the precipice between physical life and death. These occurrences he termed “near-death experiences”, thereby (re)introducing the expression into contemporary literature. Moody’s work is often touted as responsible for deeply embedding the term into the psyche of the general populace and sprouting the scholarly field of near-death studies (yes, there is such a field).

 

Despite not quite being alive when Life After Life was published, I am one of the by-products of Moody’s work, having proclaimed myself a near-death scholar and spending the past decade conducting research into the phenomenology and aftereffects of NDEs and other exceptional human experiences of consciousness. Over this time, I had the honour of chatting with hundreds of people who told me their NDE story. For many, I was the first person they had ever told about their experience, and the privilege of that is not lost on me. Overall, it has been an emotional but enlightening journey. I have learnt a lot about the substantial changes NDEs tend to facilitate in those who have them. I have learnt a lot about the changes they tend to facilitate in those who have not had them but simply heard about them from others. I have also learnt a lot about key features of NDEs that many people describe. Although Moody first proposed a prototypical NDE containing a total of 15 sequential features, no recorded NDEs to date, nor any that I have personally had disclosed to me, contained all the features outlined by Moody. Near-death scholars now consider NDEs to be comprised of any of a combination of cognitive, affective, paranormal, and transcendental features. An altered perception of time or a comprehensive review of past actions and their implications (often termed a ‘life review’) are commonly reported cognitive features. Feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and love, as well as ineffability, comprise some affective features. Transcendental features include seeing and/or conversing with deceased relatives or a ‘being of light’, entering another realm of existence, and coming to a border beyond that one is not able to progress. An ‘out-of-body’ experience (OBE) and perceived travel through a tunnel are commonly reported paranormal features.

 

The accounts I have had the privilege of hearing tended to include descriptions of a couple of these key features, which unfolded in any order (not sequentially). Mostly, these features are incredibly lucid in people’s minds but equally ineffable in that they struggle to find the words to describe exactly what is it is that occurred. For them, there are simply no words to adequately describe the noetic quality of their NDE. The only way they can communicate what occurred during their NDE is to utilise what I term ‘linguistic reference points’, which they obtain by drawing on the linguistic system (i.e., language) they are most familiar with. This linguistic system is most typically the one acquired within the socio-cultural context they have were raised and/or continue to live in. Languages reflect the cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies underlying cultures and are mutually constitutive in a culture’s practices, beliefs, ideologies, and norms. As such, when people speak, they are essentially drawing on a collective legacy that speaks to the socially-sanctioned worldview of the culture they affiliate with.

 

While this may appear to be a diversion from the topic of NDEs, it speaks to a key point raised by Professor Jens Schlieter in the podcast – the tantalising possibility offered by some that NDEs reflect a universal quality. That is, they are phenomenon that occur in all cultures, across all times, and in the same phenomenological way. He cites suggestions made linking the 14th century accounts of unusual experiences cited in Tibetan scriptures, such as those recounted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with more recently reported contemporary accounts of NDEs. It has been proposed the earlier Tibetan and modern accounts (often reported from ‘Western’ cultures) appear to approximate features now considered key elements of NDEs, despite being experienced by people in different cultural contexts, several centuries apart. As an example, he speaks to the OBE and how in Western reports  individuals often describe looking back and observing their own (seemingly dead) physical bodies from a disembodied position. In Tibetan accounts, the disembodied perspective often focuses on those around the physical body who are grieving, rather than focussing on the physical body itself. As Professor Schlieter hints at, despite such descriptions having differing foci points, which likely reflect the differing epistemological (and cosmological and ontological) realities of each culture, it is the element of disembodiment considered key to characterising the experience as an NDE.

 

It is logical to infer that experiences described in similar ways must reflect similar phenomenology. Yet, moving beyond logic, such conclusions need to be examined in light of development of the field of near-death studies. What I mean by this is that while useful and beneficial in its own right, the current field of near-death studies largely reflects the worldviews, values, and perspectives of Western cultural groups. Most studies have been conducted in and with samples/cases from the United States and Western Europe. Consequently, much of the academic information generated about NDEs derives from a Western lens or perspective and in many ways is treated as the ‘reference point’ for NDEs. An example of this is reflected in previous work critically evaluating the presence or absence of five specific NDE features (tunnel sensation, OBEs, life review, supernatural beings, and other-worldly location) across 16 journal articles describing non-Western NDEs (e.g., Kellehear, 2009). While some NDE features were evident in these cultures, others were not, and conclusions were reached suggesting such features are not present in non-Western NDEs. However, an alternative proposition is that the descriptions analysed may not have explicitly addressed these features in the same linguistic way as Western NDEs. As described above, it is equally possible the features believed evident in non-Western cultures were assumed similar to those reported in Western cultures, yet the terms used to describe the features were informed by distinct epistemologies, suggesting the phenomenology of the NDE was also distinct.

 

Equally, analyses of NDE accounts cross-culturally have been typically limited to cases published in Western literature, and often in the English language. This raises several concerns. Firstly, “Not all words or phrases have an English equivalent…not all social contexts are translatable, particularly outside their contexts ” (Kellehear, 2009, p. 154). Yet NDE research typically translates accounts into English, and it is the English versions of such accounts that are subsequently analysed. This makes it difficult to know for sure the extent translated NDE accounts accurately reflect the intent of the individual’s original native-language account. Secondly, contemporary NDE research is believed to suffer from under-reporting (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009), meaning many cases are unlikely to have the opportunity of being published to a wider forum, particularly those that remain ‘inaccessible’ to English-as-first-language-speaking researchers, who it is fair to say, comprise a large proportion of researchers in this area. Additionally, NDEs occurring prior to the era of written communication may not have been recorded or transmitted over time, so are likely to have been lost and not available for consumption outside of the community and era that they occurred. Some cultures also have a taboo on speaking of phenomena related to death (Tse, Chong, & Fok, 2003), which means published or even oral reports of NDEs may be severely limited in such cultures. Finally, it is not known to what extent NDE accounts are embedded within other modes of record-taking across cultures. For example, as an indigenous Māori person of Aotearoa New Zealand, I am aware accounts of unusual experiences approximating NDEs are recorded in oral traditions such as singing and physical artefacts such as carvings.

 

Because NDEs have effectively been studied from a Eurocentric perspective, conclusions regarding whether they reflect a universal principal (a phrase used by Professor Schlieter to describe suggestions by others that NDEs are universal) cannot be reached until a more thorough investigation of NDE-like experiences across a variety of cultural contexts is undertaken. I think this speaks well to a point made by Professor Schlieter towards the end of the podcast, in which he suggests difficulty in believing an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to religion. Rather than religion, however, I find it more apt to suggest it is difficult to believe an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to cultural systems and even more difficult to believe presumed NDE accounts could be interpreted without understanding the cosmological, ontological, and epistemological beliefs reflected by the language  individuals use to describe their experience.

 


References

Kellehear, A. (2005). Census of non-Western near-death experiences to 2005: Observations and critical reflections. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 135-158). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Tse, C. Y., Chong, A., & Fok, S. Y. (2003). Breaking bad news: a Chinese perspective. Palliative Medicine, 17, 339-343.

Zingrone, N. L., & Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: Features, circumstances, and incidence. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 17-40). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

 

On the details of the study of NDEs

On the details of the study of NDEs by Gregory Shushan

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

The notion expressed by both Prof. Cotter and Dr. Schlieter in their recent interview that near-death experiences (NDEs) have been discussed in academic contexts primarily from medical/materialist and “paranormal” approaches is somewhat overstated – particularly in the study of religions and related fields such as anthropology.  Those who have undertaken and published research adopting a “critical religious studies approach, looking at these narratives in their social and historical contexts” will be surprised at the claim that such works are “largely absent” (See the reading list at the end of this response.).

I have written an in-depth review of Schlieter’s What is it Like to be Dead?, which will appear this Spring in the Journal of Near-Death Studies (Shushan 2020).  I will resist repeating the points I made there and will instead comment mainly on the interview.  In the spirit of conversation with the podcast, I address points raised by the interview roughly in the order in which they appear in Cotter and Schlieter’s conversation.

  1. Schlieter’s definition of an NDE is somewhat idiosyncratic in the elements he chooses to highlight. His inclusion of going to a paradise or “Summerland” (a term he borrows from 19th century mediumship literature rather than NDE literature) and tours of the netherworld are actually less common than elements such as entering darkness and emerging into light, being instructed to return for a specific purpose, and others which he does not mention. Meeting “God or Jesus” is also comparatively rare, for most NDErs speak only of an unnamed spirit being, often radiating light; hence the attempt at a neutral descriptor in NDE studies, “being of light.”
  2. More seriously, Schlieter describes out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in terms that actually conflate two separate NDE elements: leaving the body and seeing the body from a vantage point outside it. This is methodologically problematic for it allows him to consider different accounts as being dissimilar when they do not correspond precisely to the parameters of his own somewhat idiosyncratic schema. Thus, if an account features a description of a person leaving the body but does not include seeing the body from a vantage point outside it, Schlieter does not consider it to be an out-of-body experience. The significance of diverse narratives describing leaving the body within an NDE context is thereby wholly lost, while the “difference” is enlisted as supportive of Schlieter’s constructivist notion that OBEs (or reports of them) only appeared later in NDE literature.  Such a notion is demonstrably not the case.
  3. Regarding the experience of French essayist Michel de Montaigne: it is important to note that references to the actual experience are diffuse, inexplicit, brief, and embedded in discussions on the circumstances surrounding it and various digressions. Indeed, much of what Schlieter quotes in his book is actually the confusional state Montaigne found himself in after reviving. Schlieter may very well be correct that Montaigne did not have an out-of-body journey to another realm or refer to any “afterdeath state,” but if so that would mean he did not have an NDE – he merely had a traumatic accident that affected his thoughts and experiences in ways he did not expect.  Or perhaps he did have an NDE and just chose not to write about it. The point is, the evidence is too slim to make any definite statements about the occurrence or content of this possible NDE.  Notwithstanding, what little can be gleaned about Montaigne’s experience is not necessarily entirely at odds with the more familiar model.  He described the moment of “death” as “like a flash of lightning that had pierced through my soul, and that was coming from the other world” (which, in his book, Schlieter interprets as simply a metaphor for shock rather than a description of an actual experience). Montaigne also reported positive feelings such as happiness, “sweetness and pleasure,” and noted a loss of the fear of death.  The fact that Montaigne quoted the 16th century Italian poet Tusso in relation to his revival could indicate an out-of-body experience, for the verse reads: “Because the soul her mansion half had quit; And was not sure of her return to it.”  Montaigne then described how “the functions of the soul” mirrored that of the body, echoing NDE reports of having a subtle or “virtual” body.  In any case, the existence of NDE reports that do have a more typical phenomenology prior to Montaigne and across cultures makes the significance Schlieter places on this one marginal account somewhat obscure.  In other words, the fact that Montaigne’s account may not correspond to what we typically think of as an NDE says nothing about NDEs before or after.  Most crucially, it has always been accepted that NDEs vary widely in their content and I know of no scholar who claims they are always “the same” across time and cultures.
  4. Regarding Francis Beaufort, Schlieter says that he was “the first who really had a classical near-death experience.” Few researchers would call Beaufort’s NDE “classical” for it is essentially only a life review along with feelings of calm at the prospect of drowning. Missing are the “classical” elements of out-of-body experience, seeing the body, traveling through darkness, emerging into light, encountering deceased relatives, a deity or being of light, being instructed to return, and so on.  There are many examples prior to Beaufort that contain such elements.  Nor is it “the first time we can see the life review phenomenon” in an NDE account.  Though uncommon, there are examples in medieval reports and earlier, and in non-Western cultures (particularly in the symbolic sense, i.e., being confronted with the all deeds of one’s life by various means).  The life review is, in any case, one of the least often reported NDE elements across cultures, and I would argue that it has been given undue attention in NDE studies.
  5. There really is no debate as to “if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon” – it has long been established that they are not. Having himself consulted some of the sources that discuss non-Western cases, Schlieter surely knows this.
  6. Not knowing Tibetan, Evans-Wentz did not participate in the translation of his edition of the Bardo Thodol, which he retitled the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He was merely the editor and facilitator. The main translator was Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, though other Tibetan scholars contributed after the Lama’s death.
  7. As discussed in my review (with references to examples), autoscopic NDEs and interest in seeing one’s own “dead” body are by no means exclusive to Western accounts. Likewise, there are Western and cross-cultural examples of NDErs seeing their grieving families and a variety of other earthly events.  These themes are simply not exclusive to particular cultures, regions, or times.  While the focus of the individual experiencer indeed differs and is apparently cultural in some cases, phenomenologically speaking both kinds of account describe the experience of the soul leaving the body and observing the physical surroundings from a vantage point outside it.  The fact that the cultural focus differs does nothing to change that, though it again allows Schlieter to make statements about the lack of correspondence between different accounts in order to bolster his claims of having revealed the construction of NDEs in modern Western discourse.   There are, however, identifiable cultural particularities to NDE accounts.  For example, in Western accounts individuals are more often sent back to life in order to fulfill a particular task or perform a certain function.  There are very few cases of “mistaken identity” returns as we find in India and China, for example, in which someone dies prematurely because the gods or spirits confused him or her with another person of the same name.  The “wrong” person is then returned to life, and presumably the correct one then dies.  Other particularities seem to correspond to social organization or scale. Only in small-scale societies, for example, do we find descriptions of walking along a path or road to the other world as opposed to ascending to it.
  8. Few NDErs report that they were “saved” by a “force” or deity. Indeed, by far the more common emotion expressed by NDErs is that they did not want to be “saved,” that they wished to remain in the other world and were resentful at being returned to life. The idea that NDE accounts are invented in order to explain being “saved” is thus unconvincing.
  9. More broadly, Schlieter suggests that NDErs invent accounts of experiences they did not in fact have in order to explain why they returned to life. On the one hand, this notion is again belied by the fact that NDE accounts bear strong similarities across cultures and time. The implication would be that people around the world and throughout history invent the same kind of “story” involving similar themes and ideas, simply in order to explain the fact of their revival.  On the other hand, the diversity of NDE accounts and their interpretation, as well as of beliefs about an afterlife, would make such a suggestion untenable.  The more parsimonious explanation is that people actually have experiences of the kind they are describing – an explanation that is, in fact, accepted for other kinds of extraordinary experiential phenomena.  For example, while we may not wish to accept that sufferers of sleep paralysis genuinely had a ghost or demon sitting on their chests while in a hypnogogic state, there is no argument for the non-occurrence of the phenomenon.  Similarly, we need not believe that NDEs are genuine experiences of an afterlife in order to believe that people have NDEs.
  10. Schlieter doubts that NDEs can happen to people who have never been exposed to religious ideas. It is unlikely that such a claim could ever be tested, for obviously even those raised as atheists in a secular society will nevertheless have at least some notion of the religious ideas of the culture in which they grew up.  However, the suggestion that NDEs are dependent on expectation or “disposition” has been proven false by a number of studies.  Paradoxically, Schlieter then outlines a scenario in which a person revives from a near death state and “the question of meaning pops up in their lives for maybe the first time ever” and they subsequently invent a narrative based on other accounts they have heard.  He even speculates on how such a person might talk themselves into believing that they really had such an experience (implying, of course, that they did not) by actively constructing false memories.  How this squares with the idea that NDEs mainly happen to religious people who expect them and have a disposition towards them is unclear.  At the same time, Schlieter clarifies that the experiences are meaningful and not to be “reduced to these factors,” but how that might be the case is obscure in light of his persistent arguments of the cultural construction and individual fabrication of NDE narratives.
  11. The suggestion that religious beliefs about the afterlife are responsible for the content of NDEs is, to some degree, an inversion of what the cross-cultural evidence tells us: that many cultures around the world have incorporated NDEs or elements of them into their belief systems. In my recent book (Shushan 2018) I found over 40 examples from indigenous societies alone, stating overtly that their culture’s afterlife beliefs arose from the experiences of individuals who evidently died and returned to life.  This is reflected on the microcosmic level by the many reports throughout history in which individuals changed their beliefs as a result of their NDEs. Indeed, this is one of the most consistently reported features of the phenomenon. This is certainly not to argue that the beliefs, or indeed the experiences themselves, are not influenced by prior ideas, religious or otherwise.  I fully agree with Cotter’s outline of such dynamics, that individual and cultural particularities influence our experiences and our interpretations of them, while our experiences in turn contribute to our individual and cultural particularities.  That is exactly what the evidence tells us.  Schlieter also agrees with this in the interview, though it seems to me the antithesis of what he writes in his book.  In any case, such mutual influence does not support a constructivist explanation of NDEs.  On the individual level, concerning contemporary accounts of NDEs, Schlieter seems to accept the notion that NDEs can inspire – i.e., precede – new religious beliefs in an afterlife.
  12. The name of the author mentioned as “Alexander Eben” is actually Eben Alexander.

Although Schlieter repeatedly qualifies that NDErs may have had experiences of the kind they describe and that we have no way of knowing whether they did or not, he continually privileges the unfounded assumption that they did not.  The majority of his book and interview operate under the philosophical commitment to the idea that narratives of such phenomena are not reports of actual experiences but are in fact entirely culturally constructed artifacts; i.e. they are invented.  This places him firmly within the tradition of postmodernist-influenced scholars who deny the possibility that extraordinary experiences can lead to religious or spiritual beliefs. In articles on this very subject (Shushan 2014, 2016a), I argue that such an a priori assumption is just that – an assumption, a philosophical stance.  It is not grounded in science, and it is not supported by the cross-cultural and historical evidence.  While Schlieter cited the 2016 article in his book, he did not engage with its arguments.

In sum, Schlieter does an excellent job with many elements of his valuable book – particularly in charting the increased awareness and popularity of NDEs in the West and the socio-cultural reasons for it.  Many of his wider claims, however, are extremely problematic as is much of his comparative methodology as outlined my review.


Further Reading

Abramovitch, H. (1988). “An Israeli account of a near-death experience: A case study of cultural dissonance.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 6, 175– 184.

Becker, C.B. (1993). Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Belanti, J., M. Perera, & K. Jagadheesan (2008). “Phenomenology of near-death experiences: A cross-cultural perspective.” Transcultural Psychiatry 45(1), 121– 33.

Counts, D.A. (1983). “Near-death and out-of-body experiences in a Melanesian society.” Anabiosis 3, 115– 35.

Fox, M. (2003). Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience. London: Routledge.

Hallowell, A.I. (1940). “Spirits of the dead in Salteaux life and thought.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 70, 29– 51.

Hultkrantz, A. (1957). The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition. Stockholm: Statens Etnografiska.

Kellehear, A. (1996). Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matlock, J. (2017). “Historical near-death and reincarnation-intermission experiences of the Tlingit Indians: Case studies and theoretical reflections.” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 35, 215–242.

McClenon, J. (1994). Wondrous events: Foundations of religious belief. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

McClenon, J. (2006). “Kongo near-death experiences: Cross-cultural patterns.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 25(1), 21– 34.

Potthoff, S.E. (2017). The Afterlife in Early Christian Carthage: Near-death Experiences, Ancestor Cult, and the Archaeology of Paradise. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.

Shushan, G. (2009). Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience. London: Continuum.

Shushan, G. (2013). “Rehabilitating the neglected ‘similar’: confronting the issue of cross-cultural similarities in the study of religions.” Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal 4(2), 48– 53.

Shushan, G. (2014). “Extraordinary experiences and religious beliefs: deconstructing some contemporary philosophical axioms.”  Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26, 384-416.

Shushan, G. (2016a). Cultural-linguistic constructivism and the challenge of near-death and out- of-body experience. In Bettina Schmidt (ed.) The Study of Religious Experience:  Approaches and Methodologies, 71– 87. London: Equinox.

Shushan, G. (2016b). “The Sun told me I would be restored to life”: Native American near-death experiences, shamanism, and religious revitalization movements.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 34(3), Spring, 127– 50.

Shushan, G. (2017). “He should stay in the grave”: cultural patterns in the interpretation of near-death experiences in indigenous African beliefs.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 35(4), 185-213.

Shushan, G. (2018a). Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Shushan, G. (2018b). “‘My heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.’: Afterlife myths, dreams, and near-death experiences in the cultures of the Pacific.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 36(3), 135-169.

Shushan, G. (2020). “Book Review: What is it Like to be Dead? by Jens Schlieter.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 38(1).  Forthcoming.

Shushan, G. (2021) The Historical Anthology of Near-Death Experiences.  Forthcoming.

Tassell-Matamua, N. (2013). “Phenomenology of near- death experiences: An analysis of a Maori case study.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 32(2), 107– 17.

Tassell-Matamua, N. & M. Murray (2014). “Near- death experiences: Quantitative findings from an Aotearoa New Zealand sample.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 33(1), 3– 29.

Wade, J. (2003). “In a sacred manner we died: Native American near- death experiences.”  Journal of Near- Death Studies 22(2), 83– 115.

Zaleski, C. (1987). Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death experiences in Medieval and Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press.

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

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Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

If you spot any errors in this transcription, please let us know at editors@religiousstudiesproject.com. If you would be willing to help with transcription, or know of any sources of funding for the broader transcription project, please get in touch. Thanks for reading.

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Podcasts

Are NDEs Universal?

Are they universal? The cultural context of near-death experiences by Dr. Natasha Tassell-Matuma

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

 

The recent RSP podcast with Professor Jens Schlieter provided an interesting discussion on a topic very close to my heart – that of near-death experiences (NDEs). Professor Schlieter speaks to his recent book, What Is It Like to be Dead?, which draws together historical first-hand accounts of Western NDEs from the 16th century through to 1975. Why stop at 1975 you may ask? Well, the truth is I simply don’t know, as I have yet to read the book (although it is now on my list of ‘must reads’)! But, it was around the early-70s that the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (author of On Death and Dying) was becoming well known, while in the mid-70s a ground-breaking book was published by Dr. Raymond Moody. In Life After Life,,  Dr. Moody described unusual psychological occurrences that transcended the boundaries among space, time, and normal everyday perception and appeared to occur on the precipice between physical life and death. These occurrences he termed “near-death experiences”, thereby (re)introducing the expression into contemporary literature. Moody’s work is often touted as responsible for deeply embedding the term into the psyche of the general populace and sprouting the scholarly field of near-death studies (yes, there is such a field).

 

Despite not quite being alive when Life After Life was published, I am one of the by-products of Moody’s work, having proclaimed myself a near-death scholar and spending the past decade conducting research into the phenomenology and aftereffects of NDEs and other exceptional human experiences of consciousness. Over this time, I had the honour of chatting with hundreds of people who told me their NDE story. For many, I was the first person they had ever told about their experience, and the privilege of that is not lost on me. Overall, it has been an emotional but enlightening journey. I have learnt a lot about the substantial changes NDEs tend to facilitate in those who have them. I have learnt a lot about the changes they tend to facilitate in those who have not had them but simply heard about them from others. I have also learnt a lot about key features of NDEs that many people describe. Although Moody first proposed a prototypical NDE containing a total of 15 sequential features, no recorded NDEs to date, nor any that I have personally had disclosed to me, contained all the features outlined by Moody. Near-death scholars now consider NDEs to be comprised of any of a combination of cognitive, affective, paranormal, and transcendental features. An altered perception of time or a comprehensive review of past actions and their implications (often termed a ‘life review’) are commonly reported cognitive features. Feelings of peace, joy, happiness, and love, as well as ineffability, comprise some affective features. Transcendental features include seeing and/or conversing with deceased relatives or a ‘being of light’, entering another realm of existence, and coming to a border beyond that one is not able to progress. An ‘out-of-body’ experience (OBE) and perceived travel through a tunnel are commonly reported paranormal features.

 

The accounts I have had the privilege of hearing tended to include descriptions of a couple of these key features, which unfolded in any order (not sequentially). Mostly, these features are incredibly lucid in people’s minds but equally ineffable in that they struggle to find the words to describe exactly what is it is that occurred. For them, there are simply no words to adequately describe the noetic quality of their NDE. The only way they can communicate what occurred during their NDE is to utilise what I term ‘linguistic reference points’, which they obtain by drawing on the linguistic system (i.e., language) they are most familiar with. This linguistic system is most typically the one acquired within the socio-cultural context they have were raised and/or continue to live in. Languages reflect the cosmologies, ontologies, and epistemologies underlying cultures and are mutually constitutive in a culture’s practices, beliefs, ideologies, and norms. As such, when people speak, they are essentially drawing on a collective legacy that speaks to the socially-sanctioned worldview of the culture they affiliate with.

 

While this may appear to be a diversion from the topic of NDEs, it speaks to a key point raised by Professor Jens Schlieter in the podcast – the tantalising possibility offered by some that NDEs reflect a universal quality. That is, they are phenomenon that occur in all cultures, across all times, and in the same phenomenological way. He cites suggestions made linking the 14th century accounts of unusual experiences cited in Tibetan scriptures, such as those recounted in the Tibetan Book of the Dead, with more recently reported contemporary accounts of NDEs. It has been proposed the earlier Tibetan and modern accounts (often reported from ‘Western’ cultures) appear to approximate features now considered key elements of NDEs, despite being experienced by people in different cultural contexts, several centuries apart. As an example, he speaks to the OBE and how in Western reports  individuals often describe looking back and observing their own (seemingly dead) physical bodies from a disembodied position. In Tibetan accounts, the disembodied perspective often focuses on those around the physical body who are grieving, rather than focussing on the physical body itself. As Professor Schlieter hints at, despite such descriptions having differing foci points, which likely reflect the differing epistemological (and cosmological and ontological) realities of each culture, it is the element of disembodiment considered key to characterising the experience as an NDE.

 

It is logical to infer that experiences described in similar ways must reflect similar phenomenology. Yet, moving beyond logic, such conclusions need to be examined in light of development of the field of near-death studies. What I mean by this is that while useful and beneficial in its own right, the current field of near-death studies largely reflects the worldviews, values, and perspectives of Western cultural groups. Most studies have been conducted in and with samples/cases from the United States and Western Europe. Consequently, much of the academic information generated about NDEs derives from a Western lens or perspective and in many ways is treated as the ‘reference point’ for NDEs. An example of this is reflected in previous work critically evaluating the presence or absence of five specific NDE features (tunnel sensation, OBEs, life review, supernatural beings, and other-worldly location) across 16 journal articles describing non-Western NDEs (e.g., Kellehear, 2009). While some NDE features were evident in these cultures, others were not, and conclusions were reached suggesting such features are not present in non-Western NDEs. However, an alternative proposition is that the descriptions analysed may not have explicitly addressed these features in the same linguistic way as Western NDEs. As described above, it is equally possible the features believed evident in non-Western cultures were assumed similar to those reported in Western cultures, yet the terms used to describe the features were informed by distinct epistemologies, suggesting the phenomenology of the NDE was also distinct.

 

Equally, analyses of NDE accounts cross-culturally have been typically limited to cases published in Western literature, and often in the English language. This raises several concerns. Firstly, “Not all words or phrases have an English equivalent…not all social contexts are translatable, particularly outside their contexts ” (Kellehear, 2009, p. 154). Yet NDE research typically translates accounts into English, and it is the English versions of such accounts that are subsequently analysed. This makes it difficult to know for sure the extent translated NDE accounts accurately reflect the intent of the individual’s original native-language account. Secondly, contemporary NDE research is believed to suffer from under-reporting (Zingrone & Alvarado, 2009), meaning many cases are unlikely to have the opportunity of being published to a wider forum, particularly those that remain ‘inaccessible’ to English-as-first-language-speaking researchers, who it is fair to say, comprise a large proportion of researchers in this area. Additionally, NDEs occurring prior to the era of written communication may not have been recorded or transmitted over time, so are likely to have been lost and not available for consumption outside of the community and era that they occurred. Some cultures also have a taboo on speaking of phenomena related to death (Tse, Chong, & Fok, 2003), which means published or even oral reports of NDEs may be severely limited in such cultures. Finally, it is not known to what extent NDE accounts are embedded within other modes of record-taking across cultures. For example, as an indigenous Māori person of Aotearoa New Zealand, I am aware accounts of unusual experiences approximating NDEs are recorded in oral traditions such as singing and physical artefacts such as carvings.

 

Because NDEs have effectively been studied from a Eurocentric perspective, conclusions regarding whether they reflect a universal principal (a phrase used by Professor Schlieter to describe suggestions by others that NDEs are universal) cannot be reached until a more thorough investigation of NDE-like experiences across a variety of cultural contexts is undertaken. I think this speaks well to a point made by Professor Schlieter towards the end of the podcast, in which he suggests difficulty in believing an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to religion. Rather than religion, however, I find it more apt to suggest it is difficult to believe an NDE could be experienced in the absence of exposure to cultural systems and even more difficult to believe presumed NDE accounts could be interpreted without understanding the cosmological, ontological, and epistemological beliefs reflected by the language  individuals use to describe their experience.

 


References

Kellehear, A. (2005). Census of non-Western near-death experiences to 2005: Observations and critical reflections. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 135-158). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

Tse, C. Y., Chong, A., & Fok, S. Y. (2003). Breaking bad news: a Chinese perspective. Palliative Medicine, 17, 339-343.

Zingrone, N. L., & Alvarado, C. S. (2009). Pleasurable Western adult near-death experiences: Features, circumstances, and incidence. In J. M. Holden, B. Greyson, & D. James (Eds.), The handbook of near-death experiences. Thirty years of investigation (pp. 17-40). Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger/ABC-CLIO.

 

On the details of the study of NDEs

On the details of the study of NDEs by Gregory Shushan

A Response to Episode 329 ” Near Death Experiences” with Jens Schlieter by Christopher R. Cotter

The notion expressed by both Prof. Cotter and Dr. Schlieter in their recent interview that near-death experiences (NDEs) have been discussed in academic contexts primarily from medical/materialist and “paranormal” approaches is somewhat overstated – particularly in the study of religions and related fields such as anthropology.  Those who have undertaken and published research adopting a “critical religious studies approach, looking at these narratives in their social and historical contexts” will be surprised at the claim that such works are “largely absent” (See the reading list at the end of this response.).

I have written an in-depth review of Schlieter’s What is it Like to be Dead?, which will appear this Spring in the Journal of Near-Death Studies (Shushan 2020).  I will resist repeating the points I made there and will instead comment mainly on the interview.  In the spirit of conversation with the podcast, I address points raised by the interview roughly in the order in which they appear in Cotter and Schlieter’s conversation.

  1. Schlieter’s definition of an NDE is somewhat idiosyncratic in the elements he chooses to highlight. His inclusion of going to a paradise or “Summerland” (a term he borrows from 19th century mediumship literature rather than NDE literature) and tours of the netherworld are actually less common than elements such as entering darkness and emerging into light, being instructed to return for a specific purpose, and others which he does not mention. Meeting “God or Jesus” is also comparatively rare, for most NDErs speak only of an unnamed spirit being, often radiating light; hence the attempt at a neutral descriptor in NDE studies, “being of light.”
  2. More seriously, Schlieter describes out-of-body experiences (OBEs) in terms that actually conflate two separate NDE elements: leaving the body and seeing the body from a vantage point outside it. This is methodologically problematic for it allows him to consider different accounts as being dissimilar when they do not correspond precisely to the parameters of his own somewhat idiosyncratic schema. Thus, if an account features a description of a person leaving the body but does not include seeing the body from a vantage point outside it, Schlieter does not consider it to be an out-of-body experience. The significance of diverse narratives describing leaving the body within an NDE context is thereby wholly lost, while the “difference” is enlisted as supportive of Schlieter’s constructivist notion that OBEs (or reports of them) only appeared later in NDE literature.  Such a notion is demonstrably not the case.
  3. Regarding the experience of French essayist Michel de Montaigne: it is important to note that references to the actual experience are diffuse, inexplicit, brief, and embedded in discussions on the circumstances surrounding it and various digressions. Indeed, much of what Schlieter quotes in his book is actually the confusional state Montaigne found himself in after reviving. Schlieter may very well be correct that Montaigne did not have an out-of-body journey to another realm or refer to any “afterdeath state,” but if so that would mean he did not have an NDE – he merely had a traumatic accident that affected his thoughts and experiences in ways he did not expect.  Or perhaps he did have an NDE and just chose not to write about it. The point is, the evidence is too slim to make any definite statements about the occurrence or content of this possible NDE.  Notwithstanding, what little can be gleaned about Montaigne’s experience is not necessarily entirely at odds with the more familiar model.  He described the moment of “death” as “like a flash of lightning that had pierced through my soul, and that was coming from the other world” (which, in his book, Schlieter interprets as simply a metaphor for shock rather than a description of an actual experience). Montaigne also reported positive feelings such as happiness, “sweetness and pleasure,” and noted a loss of the fear of death.  The fact that Montaigne quoted the 16th century Italian poet Tusso in relation to his revival could indicate an out-of-body experience, for the verse reads: “Because the soul her mansion half had quit; And was not sure of her return to it.”  Montaigne then described how “the functions of the soul” mirrored that of the body, echoing NDE reports of having a subtle or “virtual” body.  In any case, the existence of NDE reports that do have a more typical phenomenology prior to Montaigne and across cultures makes the significance Schlieter places on this one marginal account somewhat obscure.  In other words, the fact that Montaigne’s account may not correspond to what we typically think of as an NDE says nothing about NDEs before or after.  Most crucially, it has always been accepted that NDEs vary widely in their content and I know of no scholar who claims they are always “the same” across time and cultures.
  4. Regarding Francis Beaufort, Schlieter says that he was “the first who really had a classical near-death experience.” Few researchers would call Beaufort’s NDE “classical” for it is essentially only a life review along with feelings of calm at the prospect of drowning. Missing are the “classical” elements of out-of-body experience, seeing the body, traveling through darkness, emerging into light, encountering deceased relatives, a deity or being of light, being instructed to return, and so on.  There are many examples prior to Beaufort that contain such elements.  Nor is it “the first time we can see the life review phenomenon” in an NDE account.  Though uncommon, there are examples in medieval reports and earlier, and in non-Western cultures (particularly in the symbolic sense, i.e., being confronted with the all deeds of one’s life by various means).  The life review is, in any case, one of the least often reported NDE elements across cultures, and I would argue that it has been given undue attention in NDE studies.
  5. There really is no debate as to “if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon” – it has long been established that they are not. Having himself consulted some of the sources that discuss non-Western cases, Schlieter surely knows this.
  6. Not knowing Tibetan, Evans-Wentz did not participate in the translation of his edition of the Bardo Thodol, which he retitled the Tibetan Book of the Dead. He was merely the editor and facilitator. The main translator was Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, though other Tibetan scholars contributed after the Lama’s death.
  7. As discussed in my review (with references to examples), autoscopic NDEs and interest in seeing one’s own “dead” body are by no means exclusive to Western accounts. Likewise, there are Western and cross-cultural examples of NDErs seeing their grieving families and a variety of other earthly events.  These themes are simply not exclusive to particular cultures, regions, or times.  While the focus of the individual experiencer indeed differs and is apparently cultural in some cases, phenomenologically speaking both kinds of account describe the experience of the soul leaving the body and observing the physical surroundings from a vantage point outside it.  The fact that the cultural focus differs does nothing to change that, though it again allows Schlieter to make statements about the lack of correspondence between different accounts in order to bolster his claims of having revealed the construction of NDEs in modern Western discourse.   There are, however, identifiable cultural particularities to NDE accounts.  For example, in Western accounts individuals are more often sent back to life in order to fulfill a particular task or perform a certain function.  There are very few cases of “mistaken identity” returns as we find in India and China, for example, in which someone dies prematurely because the gods or spirits confused him or her with another person of the same name.  The “wrong” person is then returned to life, and presumably the correct one then dies.  Other particularities seem to correspond to social organization or scale. Only in small-scale societies, for example, do we find descriptions of walking along a path or road to the other world as opposed to ascending to it.
  8. Few NDErs report that they were “saved” by a “force” or deity. Indeed, by far the more common emotion expressed by NDErs is that they did not want to be “saved,” that they wished to remain in the other world and were resentful at being returned to life. The idea that NDE accounts are invented in order to explain being “saved” is thus unconvincing.
  9. More broadly, Schlieter suggests that NDErs invent accounts of experiences they did not in fact have in order to explain why they returned to life. On the one hand, this notion is again belied by the fact that NDE accounts bear strong similarities across cultures and time. The implication would be that people around the world and throughout history invent the same kind of “story” involving similar themes and ideas, simply in order to explain the fact of their revival.  On the other hand, the diversity of NDE accounts and their interpretation, as well as of beliefs about an afterlife, would make such a suggestion untenable.  The more parsimonious explanation is that people actually have experiences of the kind they are describing – an explanation that is, in fact, accepted for other kinds of extraordinary experiential phenomena.  For example, while we may not wish to accept that sufferers of sleep paralysis genuinely had a ghost or demon sitting on their chests while in a hypnogogic state, there is no argument for the non-occurrence of the phenomenon.  Similarly, we need not believe that NDEs are genuine experiences of an afterlife in order to believe that people have NDEs.
  10. Schlieter doubts that NDEs can happen to people who have never been exposed to religious ideas. It is unlikely that such a claim could ever be tested, for obviously even those raised as atheists in a secular society will nevertheless have at least some notion of the religious ideas of the culture in which they grew up.  However, the suggestion that NDEs are dependent on expectation or “disposition” has been proven false by a number of studies.  Paradoxically, Schlieter then outlines a scenario in which a person revives from a near death state and “the question of meaning pops up in their lives for maybe the first time ever” and they subsequently invent a narrative based on other accounts they have heard.  He even speculates on how such a person might talk themselves into believing that they really had such an experience (implying, of course, that they did not) by actively constructing false memories.  How this squares with the idea that NDEs mainly happen to religious people who expect them and have a disposition towards them is unclear.  At the same time, Schlieter clarifies that the experiences are meaningful and not to be “reduced to these factors,” but how that might be the case is obscure in light of his persistent arguments of the cultural construction and individual fabrication of NDE narratives.
  11. The suggestion that religious beliefs about the afterlife are responsible for the content of NDEs is, to some degree, an inversion of what the cross-cultural evidence tells us: that many cultures around the world have incorporated NDEs or elements of them into their belief systems. In my recent book (Shushan 2018) I found over 40 examples from indigenous societies alone, stating overtly that their culture’s afterlife beliefs arose from the experiences of individuals who evidently died and returned to life.  This is reflected on the microcosmic level by the many reports throughout history in which individuals changed their beliefs as a result of their NDEs. Indeed, this is one of the most consistently reported features of the phenomenon. This is certainly not to argue that the beliefs, or indeed the experiences themselves, are not influenced by prior ideas, religious or otherwise.  I fully agree with Cotter’s outline of such dynamics, that individual and cultural particularities influence our experiences and our interpretations of them, while our experiences in turn contribute to our individual and cultural particularities.  That is exactly what the evidence tells us.  Schlieter also agrees with this in the interview, though it seems to me the antithesis of what he writes in his book.  In any case, such mutual influence does not support a constructivist explanation of NDEs.  On the individual level, concerning contemporary accounts of NDEs, Schlieter seems to accept the notion that NDEs can inspire – i.e., precede – new religious beliefs in an afterlife.
  12. The name of the author mentioned as “Alexander Eben” is actually Eben Alexander.

Although Schlieter repeatedly qualifies that NDErs may have had experiences of the kind they describe and that we have no way of knowing whether they did or not, he continually privileges the unfounded assumption that they did not.  The majority of his book and interview operate under the philosophical commitment to the idea that narratives of such phenomena are not reports of actual experiences but are in fact entirely culturally constructed artifacts; i.e. they are invented.  This places him firmly within the tradition of postmodernist-influenced scholars who deny the possibility that extraordinary experiences can lead to religious or spiritual beliefs. In articles on this very subject (Shushan 2014, 2016a), I argue that such an a priori assumption is just that – an assumption, a philosophical stance.  It is not grounded in science, and it is not supported by the cross-cultural and historical evidence.  While Schlieter cited the 2016 article in his book, he did not engage with its arguments.

In sum, Schlieter does an excellent job with many elements of his valuable book – particularly in charting the increased awareness and popularity of NDEs in the West and the socio-cultural reasons for it.  Many of his wider claims, however, are extremely problematic as is much of his comparative methodology as outlined my review.


Further Reading

Abramovitch, H. (1988). “An Israeli account of a near-death experience: A case study of cultural dissonance.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 6, 175– 184.

Becker, C.B. (1993). Breaking the Circle: Death and the Afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale, IL:  Southern Illinois University Press.

Belanti, J., M. Perera, & K. Jagadheesan (2008). “Phenomenology of near-death experiences: A cross-cultural perspective.” Transcultural Psychiatry 45(1), 121– 33.

Counts, D.A. (1983). “Near-death and out-of-body experiences in a Melanesian society.” Anabiosis 3, 115– 35.

Fox, M. (2003). Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience. London: Routledge.

Hallowell, A.I. (1940). “Spirits of the dead in Salteaux life and thought.” Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 70, 29– 51.

Hultkrantz, A. (1957). The North American Indian Orpheus Tradition. Stockholm: Statens Etnografiska.

Kellehear, A. (1996). Experiences Near Death: Beyond Medicine and Religion. New York: Oxford University Press.

Matlock, J. (2017). “Historical near-death and reincarnation-intermission experiences of the Tlingit Indians: Case studies and theoretical reflections.” Journal of Near-Death Studies, 35, 215–242.

McClenon, J. (1994). Wondrous events: Foundations of religious belief. Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press.

McClenon, J. (2006). “Kongo near-death experiences: Cross-cultural patterns.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 25(1), 21– 34.

Potthoff, S.E. (2017). The Afterlife in Early Christian Carthage: Near-death Experiences, Ancestor Cult, and the Archaeology of Paradise. Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge.

Shushan, G. (2009). Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience. London: Continuum.

Shushan, G. (2013). “Rehabilitating the neglected ‘similar’: confronting the issue of cross-cultural similarities in the study of religions.” Paranthropology: Journal of Anthropological Approaches to the Paranormal 4(2), 48– 53.

Shushan, G. (2014). “Extraordinary experiences and religious beliefs: deconstructing some contemporary philosophical axioms.”  Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 26, 384-416.

Shushan, G. (2016a). Cultural-linguistic constructivism and the challenge of near-death and out- of-body experience. In Bettina Schmidt (ed.) The Study of Religious Experience:  Approaches and Methodologies, 71– 87. London: Equinox.

Shushan, G. (2016b). “The Sun told me I would be restored to life”: Native American near-death experiences, shamanism, and religious revitalization movements.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 34(3), Spring, 127– 50.

Shushan, G. (2017). “He should stay in the grave”: cultural patterns in the interpretation of near-death experiences in indigenous African beliefs.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 35(4), 185-213.

Shushan, G. (2018a). Near-Death Experience in Indigenous Religions.  New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Shushan, G. (2018b). “‘My heart sang within me, and I was glad to be dead.’: Afterlife myths, dreams, and near-death experiences in the cultures of the Pacific.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 36(3), 135-169.

Shushan, G. (2020). “Book Review: What is it Like to be Dead? by Jens Schlieter.”  Journal of Near-Death Studies 38(1).  Forthcoming.

Shushan, G. (2021) The Historical Anthology of Near-Death Experiences.  Forthcoming.

Tassell-Matamua, N. (2013). “Phenomenology of near- death experiences: An analysis of a Maori case study.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 32(2), 107– 17.

Tassell-Matamua, N. & M. Murray (2014). “Near- death experiences: Quantitative findings from an Aotearoa New Zealand sample.” Journal of Near-Death Studies 33(1), 3– 29.

Wade, J. (2003). “In a sacred manner we died: Native American near- death experiences.”  Journal of Near- Death Studies 22(2), 83– 115.

Zaleski, C. (1987). Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-Death experiences in Medieval and Modern Times. New York: Oxford University Press.

Near Death Experiences

Accounts of Near Death Experiences will no doubt be very familiar to listeners of the RSP and the broader public. From fictional accounts such as the Wizard of Oz or Flatliners, to self-reports which grew in popularity in the mid-twentieth century, many of us will be know narrative tropes such as the tunnel, the life review, and the out of body experience. Existing research has tended to, on the one hand, focus on the pathological elements of Near Death Narratives – attempting to ‘explain away’ the phenomenon in reductionistic terms – or, on the other hand, view such accounts as substantive proof of a ‘world beyond’. In today’s podcast, we showcase an approach which accepts reports of Near Death Experiences as discourse, and attempts to understand them in their social, cultural, and historical context. Further, we ask what is the relationship between these narratives and contemporary discourse on ‘religion’? Joining Chris Cotter in this podcast is Professor Jens Schlieter, who has admirably addressed these questions and more in his recent book What Is It Like To Be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity, and the Occult (OUP 2018).

In this episode, we discuss definitions of Near Death Experiences, how one might study reports of such experiences from a critical study of religion perspective, how such reports are related to modern societal developments such as ‘secularization’, individualization, and advances in medical science, as well as the impact of ‘religious’ meta-cultures upon these reports and the potential ‘religious’ functions they appear to serve.

Download this episode and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast on iTunes, Spotify, or YouTube. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us and consider becoming a member of our Patreon community with access to extra conversations and shorter classroom versions of our episodes. Or use our Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, groceries, or gifts.


Near-Death Experiences

Podcast with Jens Schlieter (13 April 2020).

Interviewed by Christopher Cotter.

Transcribed by Helen Bradstock.

Audio and transcript available at:

https://www.religiousstudiesproject.com/podcast/near-death-experiences/

Christopher Cotter (CC): Listeners to the Religious Studies Project, and indeed in society beyond, will be very familiar, I imagine, with the notion of near-death experiences. They’ve become quite a predominant theme in fictional narratives and across the internet. But within academic study there have been two approaches, possibly, to these. One would be to be hyper-medicalised, physiological, psychological – seeing them as phenomena to be explained away. Another approach would be to be seeing them as proof of life beyond, and using them in that sort-of context. But what’s been largely absent, up until now, has been a Critical Religious Studies approach; looking at these narratives in their social and historical context, and what they can tell us about our society and about our lives. Joining me today, to talk about near-death experiences, is Professor Jens Schlieter of the University of Bern. Professor Schlieter studied Philosophy, and Buddhist Studies, and Comparative Religion, in Bonn and Vienna and got his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Bonn. And he has held research positions at the University of Munich and the University of Bonn. He is currently at the University of Bern, where he is Professor for the Systematic Study of Religion and also Co-director for the Institute of Science of Religion. And his publications comprise contributions on methodological and theoretical questions in the study of religion, and Buddhist bioethics, and comparative philosophy. But of particular relevance today is his 2018 book with Oxford University press called, What Is It Like to be Dead? Near-Death Experiences, Christianity and the Occult. So first off, Professor Schlieter, welcome to the Religious Studies Project!

Jens Schlieter (JS): Thank you, Chris, for inviting me here.

CC: It’s wonderful to have you here in Edinburgh on this crisp winter’s day! I could just start off by asking you: what is it like to be dead, Professor Schlieter?! But, although it may be fairly obvious what got you interested – because it is such an inherently tantalising topic – what was it that got you interested in studying and writing about near-death experiences?

JS: The title, of course, is a little bit provocative. But it is, indeed, to be found in the Scriptures on near-death experiences. But I thought of the famous article by the philosopher Thomas Nagel writing an article on “What it is like to be bat?” And he argues that we don’t know, because we usually imagine ourselves hanging in a cave from the top. But we do not know what it is like for a bat to be a bat. And so there is, of course, a very important topic and the whole . . . . People claimed that they were actually dead, but the definition of death . . . usually we would define death as a status of irreversibility. So one cannot come back to life. So there is a paradox there. But on the other hand, these experiences of people very close to death, they must be taken seriously. Because people change their lives. They write large autobiographic narratives in which they define this experience as absolutely life-changing in regard to new spiritual views on themselves, on the soul, on the beyond, etc. So that was my initial interest in the whole. How can people describe something that we usually consider as impossible? Because this standpoint of describing the status after death cannot be taken. But obviously we have these narratives. So what do we do?

CC: Absolutely, and it really comes to the core methodological issue in the study of religion, I suppose, where all we have to go on is discourse, and what people say, and putting indescribable experiences into natural language – in the sense of, whether we’re talking about any experience of the supernatural, it inherently has to be described in language and be articulated in that way. So, yes. It quite nicely captures one of the core issues in the study of religion (5:00). But before we get any further, and you’ve already hinted at it there, but, what is a near-death experience? Just so that we’re all talking from the same page.

JS: Yes. I started by defining the methodological point of view on near-death experiences in the book as, let’s say, historical discourse study. So I looked at who defined near-death experience for the first time. Usually people claim that it was Raymond Moody, an American medical professional, a doctor. And he published a book in 1975, Life after Life, and there he speaks of near-death experiences – near-death experiences in the plural – claiming that he used the category to describe those narratives which he encountered in hospitals by survivors of, for example, heart attack, or nearly-drowned, or something like that. But in my book I can show that the term near-death experience is somewhat earlier used already by John C Lilley, in 1972. And he wrote an autobiography, Centre of the Cyclone. And there he describes, interestingly, a near-death experience on the basis that he himself was close to death, using LSD. And so he had visionary experiences triggered by LSD, but on the other hand he was ill, and administered himself an antibiotics, but obviously something went wrong. And so he was actually really close to death and in an almost comatose-like state And Raymond Moody read the book. But of course, for him, it was rather unsettling that it was an LSD experience. But in the book I can show that the LSD and near-death experiences co-evolved in the 1970s as a discourse. And it is not a new phenomenon. Already in the early nineteenth century people spoke of experiences close to death and what happens there, namely: life-review, out of body experiences – Oh! Here I get back to the question of definition! Sorry . . .

CC: That’s alright!

JS: Near-death experiences usually, in what Raymond Moody first systematised, encompass roundabout 15 different topoi – one may say, from a discourse perspective – namely: to get out of one’s body and to encounter one’s dead body from an elevated perspective, looking down at oneself lying in the bed; then there is the idea expressed that you get into something like a summer land, or paradise; that you encounter heavenly beings, or sometimes they are of help and guide you through the netherworld, sometimes they are frightening; also experiences of encountering other family members and friends who have died already – so after-death experience in the meaning that you enter a space where these are already there; but also a kind-of a barrier; and a heavenly voice – an experience of the presence of God or Jesus. And finally, to get back into the body. So these are elements. And Raymond Moody’s idea was these are usually in a kind-of continuous narrative. So they follow each other because they are a universal experience, mirrored, of course, into the individual backgrounds and so on (10:00). But, in general, he believed they really tell something about the after-death realm, and therefore these are real experiences. For me, of course, this is a metaphysical assumption that I can neither deny nor affirm with my research. And therefore I looked at them only as reports – reports of experiences. So, ok, the word “experience” usually means that you truly encounter something that transforms your point of view, that transforms you, probably totally, if it is a life-changing experience. But one can also say experiences are construed in the aftermath. After surviving the whole thing, people usually will ask themselves, “How did it happen that I personally survived? Why didn’t I die?” And I think these are really questions of meaning, of meaningfulness. And very often, at least in our culture, people tend to think of religion as providing an answer, and therefore looking for an answer why they survived. They had maybe visions – we don’t know because there is no way to figure out if these visions happen the way they say they were. But for them, of course, they are real. And we will never know. But what I can say, at least, in the book . . . . I show with various examples that certain narratives, for example, the one of the life-review – that you remember scenes and things in your early life, in your life unfolding, etc. – and that this life-review actually emerged in the narratives. It is not yet there in medieval reports of near-death experiences – if one can say they are near-death experiences, because usually they are deathbed visions by monks and nuns.

CC: Yes. And indeed you make the point in the book that, until recent decades I suppose, these experiences tended to be narrated by others: people telling of someone else’s experience. Whereas, there was a point at which there was the turn to the individual and the self-narrative. Which I think we’re probably going to get onto fairly shortly. So just before we get there, you’ve already given some hints at your methodology there, and it’s a fairly standard Religious Studies approach in the sense of: regardless of whether there is a reality or not, what we have to go on are people’s accounts of their experiences. And these accounts have impact and social impact. So let’s look at them and treat them at face value and just deal with the content, and the meaning, and etc., etc. Is there anything else that you’d like to sort-of caveat what you’re saying? Like, what was the body of material that you consulted?

JS: Well I thought it would be good to start with personal narratives, not those – as you mentioned – by others, so third-hand evidence. And narratives from a first-person point of view are, of course, very much connected to the emergence of autobiographies, of subjectivity, and usually one of the major figure in this emerging tradition was the French philosopher Montaigne. And he, in his essays, unravels a near-death experience interestingly. And major elements, that were of importance for reporters of near-death experiences that inform Moody, are not yet there. They are simply not there. But then there is Francis Beaufort. He was an admiral with the British navy. And he is the first who really had a classical near-death experience, at the end of the eighteenth century (15:00). He fell into Portsmouth harbour and nearly drowned as a young man. And decades later he reported his experience. And for the first time, we have this life-review phenomenon. So he said, “I could see scenes from my early childhood. Memories that I were not aware of that . . . I had these experiences”. So this is an interesting element in itself. So from the sixteenth century up to 1975, this is what the book covers. I decided not to look at sources from non-European cultures. There is, of course, an extensive discussion about if near-death experiences are purely a Western phenomenon, or if near-death experiences can be seen in Indian, Japanese, Chinese traditions. A very important element that is usually pointed out is the Tibetan Book of the Dead. It has been published by Oxford University Press in 1927, translated by Walter Yeeling Evans-Wentz in collaboration with native Tibetan Lama Kazi Dawa Samdup. And they were tremendously successful in popularising these Tibetan thoughts and rituals: what should be done if someone dies? And the idea is to guide them through the netherworld, of course, in the Tibetan context to encounter karmic delusions, and to be very frightened – because the consciousness principle has to navigate through its own complications, and so on. But to give you one example that it is quite important, to look very closely at the reported experiences. People usually say, “Well this is evidence that they are of a universal quality.” If you have Tibetans reporting such experiences in the fourteenth century or so, and modern Western evidence, so it seems to be . . . . But, for example, the idea that there is out-of-body experiences and one looks back at oneself. In the Western tradition it is very much the idea that you face yourself being dead. So the soul, or consciousness, hovering over the body, is interested to look at and to examine the body. Because the body is something foreign. Something that is no longer animated, but still a point of reference in this world etc. Whereas, in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, of course, due to the idea of reincarnation etc., the body is of no importance. And we can see that it is much more a social reality in the Tibetan Buddhist account of this moment where the soul, or consciousness – to be more precise, in the Tibetan Buddhist context. So the consciousness principle looks not at its former body, but at the weeping family members, and tries to convince them, “Oh I’m fine. Please, you do not help me if you weep. I can see you, but you obviously can no longer see me. But please, that’s not good for me. Because now I have the task I shall move forward to my next existence.” And best would be, of course, no longer to be reincarnated at all. So at the first sight that seems to be, “Ok, that’s an out of body experience.” But the narrated content is totally different in terms of epistemology, in terms of soteriology, and so on and so forth.

CC: Absolutely. So you started to get into the socio-cultural historic contexts within which near-death narratives are occurring. And much of your book, I guess, is looking at Western contexts as you say. And you do an excellent job of charting some of the contextual factors that might have shaped and led, perhaps, to what you might call an explosion of near-death narratives. So if you can, maybe, tell us about some of these modern societal developments that have gone hand-in-hand with near-death narratives? (20:00)

JS: Yes. I think this is a very important aspect. And I think, so far, there was little interest to look at the correlations. What is astonishing is the fact that, in the 1970s, major developments in the Western medical system were going on. For example, to declare people no longer dead with the criterion of heart failure, and other classical criteria that were used for ages to declare people dead if there is no longer brain activity. And there are, of course, measurements from the EEG etc. But that’s led to the situation that people without a functioning brain were declared dead. But their body was still, let’s say, alive, in a way. And of course it was seen as a major advantage also for transplantation of organs. And many of them can only be used in the body is fully intact. And, of course, with artificial respiration and so on. And the phenomena like coma, and locked -in syndrome, they were described at a new level – more scientifically defined, and so on. But in the general society these developments were considered as extremely unsettling. Because there was now an ambivalence: is someone dead or not dead? Only dead if declared to be dead. And shall we trust the physicians, the doctors in the intensive care unit if they say he or she is dead? Then we accept that? And so that was really unsettling. And on the other hand if, of course, due to circumstances that people were able to survive a certain period of very low brain activity and some of them had visionary accounts or visionary experiences, or let’s say, near-death experiences returning from such a state they said, “Well, in your medical perspective maybe we were that close to death that it was only a second that you may have decided to close the artificial attempts of sustaining my life. But I survived – and not only that, I had certain experiences that are absolutely central for my life that I would like to live from now onwards with different values.”

CC: So yes, I’m just pushing through because of time. But yes, we have those medical developments and, you know, people being sustained longer. And you describe how they move from mostly dying out of the hospital context, and moving into hospital contexts. You’ve got, also, all the different forms of medication which might have hallucinogenic properties, legal or illegal. But then there’s also individualisation within religion, beyond religion: the importance of individual narratives of the self. And then also, I guess, that all ties into a secularisation narrative as well. So you’ve got all of this going on, and then “Easter”, in quotation marks, influences coming in. You’ve already described the Tibetan Book of the Dead. So there’s lot going on, in the sixties and seventies, in terms of just rapid social development in these areas – which understandably facilitates the development and, I guess, dissemination of these near-death narratives. But I’m keen to get to the “religion” word, because we need to on the Religious Studies Project! And towards the end of the book you tackle that head on, and talk about how religious meta-cultures might have influenced and shaped the form and content of these near-death narratives (25:00). And then, also, you talk about the potential, I guess you would say, “religious functions” of the narratives. So maybe you should take us through some of that.

JS: Yes. I think usually, books of reporting individuals themselves, they do not very openly quote sources that inspired them. But if you look more closely at the whole near-death reporting genre, one can see that there are many spiritualists, many who are close to Western esotericism, for example: parapsychological accounts are very often combined with near-death accounts. For example, Eben Alexander who published a very, very successful book. So there are people who are usually in a way religious, and at the same time they are distant in regard to dogmas of established churches. So usually there’s something like this: they were brought up in very religious families, and they had a background of, let’s say, intensive socialisation within a religious tradition. And then they moved on, studied, for example, something on the signs of nature and medicine, or whatever – became more critical towards religion and towards establishment in particular. And then this happens. An event that in which they almost died. And I think it is very plausible to look at the phenomenon with this perspective. At this moment they revive their former emotion and that was inspired and formed by a very religious family life. But of course they are already stuffed with critical rationality. They are distant in regard to unfounded claims of traditional religious tradition. So the individual experience is, from my point of view, a very vital element of this late modern religiosity. And therefore one can say near-death experiences are probably prototypical for the development. People no longer believe that there is, let’s say, a life after death in terms of words traditional – especially of course the Catholic Church had to offer, but they have their individual experiences. And they think this is authentic par excellence. Because it is individual. So, in a way, one can say the whole phenomenon mirrors recent developments in Western societies and, on the other hand, I think they offer a certain kind-of a solution for the whole, because people can still continue to believe. And very often, also, one can see that they have a kind-of missionary attitude. That they really speak very freely on their near-death experiences, even though, very often, they note, “OK, I know that you are sceptical, and this is a materialistic society, and no-one will believe me.” But this is part, again, of the whole authenticity that they feel that they are in.

CC: And, I guess, even someone who was notionally “non-religious” – in scare quotes there – they’re part of a context. And the experience, whatever it is, is felt. And their interpretation will be informed by their context within which . . . . And the context will, I suppose, also influence the experience itself in the first place. Because people bring things to an experience. And then, afterwards, interpret it with the resources that are available to them. And especially once there is such an economy of a near-death experiences, then it’s going to take . . . . (30:00).

JS: Absolutely. Although I think it is rather a rare case in which one will have a near-death experience without ever being introduced to religious thought, rituals, and traditions before. Because I think, indeed, one has to have a certain disposition, and a certain expectancy for things to happen, in such experiences. But nevertheless, as I said at the beginning, if you would imagine yourself in the situation, or someone else in the situation – maybe he was not very religious, but survives a very tragic accident. Maybe other companions in the car died. And then you have the question of contingency – what sociologists always say in regard to religion. So the question of the reduction of contingency, namely: “I could have died here. It didn’t happen. So who saved me?” We usually attribute such survival to a force. We are continuously looking for explanations. We cannot live with no explanation, and simply to say that it was by chance, there was no other force involved at all. And so I would say this way of looking at a situation . . . . And, of course, many suffer from, let’s say, the injuries they have. So they are in hospital, they are alone, they are under medication. I don’t want to simply say that’s an outcome of that. I hope that’s clear that I think the whole is meaningful. It’s not simply to be reduced to such factors. But these factors are, or should be, taken into consideration too. So people alone, thinking at, and on, their lives – probably the question of meaning pops up in their lives for the first time ever. And then they, maybe, “Oh yes, there was a certain kind of light. Was there a being behind the light? Did I see a being? Although I do not believe . . . . But probably it was a being. And haven’t I heard some kind of message?” Because the whole thing, for them, is of course complicated too. They have to remember ecstatic experiences. And they cannot say what they experience the moment they experience that. So they have an epistemological problem, too.

CC: Yes. And again we’re right back to that. But putting sort-of non-falsifiable experience into words, after the event. And going back earlier in the interview, you mentioned earlier Montaigne. I have a tattoo of some words by Montaigne: “Fortis imaginatio generat casum”: a strong imagination creates its own reality.

JS: Yes, yes, absolutely

CC: But yes, there’s a sense, after an experience, one is only going to be able to interpret and articulate . . . . And human memory is an awful thing. Memory . . . like these eyewitness reports in criminal cases will say . . . .

JS: Absolutely.

CC: And these experiences – because they’re so intense, and profound, and are current at traumatic circumstances – they are going to be revisited, and rearticulated, and pondered time and time again. So we can’t say too much about the actual experience itself. But what you’re doing is looking at how people are articulating it, and what are the themes, and how that has impacts. We’re pretty much out of time. But I just wanted to sort-of finish with what might be – again, it’s been implicit throughout the interview – but what would be some of your take-home messages for the study of religion? And from your work with near-death experience? And what do you think others can take and apply, perhaps more broadly, in their own studies in this religion thing that we’re all so obsessed with?!

JS: Well, I think one of the general insights that I would consider central is that extraordinary experiences were, for some years, less studied because people thought, “Well it is a discourse, by religious practitioners, to speak about their extraordinary experiences.” (35:00) But I think there is really something in there that may help also to look at recent developments. For example, these books about near-death experiences – they are incredibly successful. Very often you have them in Amazon ranking lists on places five to three – and for weeks. So there is not only the experience, but also a large audience interested in this experience. So to study this as the phenomenon – as a part of the phenomenon of no-longer-institutionalised religion, but never-the-less as a part of a religious discourse where experience matters. And experience that very often has been only psychologised. And there are a lot of neuroscientific theories that simply say, “Well, it’s a dysfunctional brain that produces such delusions and you cannot take it seriously” And I think this simply a very short-sighted view of the whole. Because people change their whole life after the experience. Although, it would be very important to have a closer look at this phenomenon. This has not yet been researched, from my knowledge: an empirical study, that not only considers that the autobiography may be also an oral narrative of what has happened after the experience is considered, but also to look more closely at families, friends and really to corroborate evidence that it was a life-changing matter.

CC: Absolutely. So there’s on that final note, a potential research project for a Listener, or perhaps that’s your next research project, I don’t know? Well thank you so much, Professor Schlieter, for joining us on the Religious Studies Project. I’m looking forward to hearing how it goes down.

JS: Thank you very much. It was a pleasure.

CC: Good.

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