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Tuesday, January 3, 2012

How early religious beliefs about the afterlife may have been formed

I was listening to a Skeptiko podcast where Alex Tsakiris talks to Dr. Eben Alexander, a neurosurgeon who had a near-death experience (NDE), and I began to wonder what the first person to have a NDE may have experienced.  Could that be how people first learned of an afterlife?  Could this be how the earliest religions began?

Each person who has a NDE has a unique experience.  But many commonalities have been noted.  People often report being aware of being outside of their body and may be able to remember hearing doctors or nurses saying specific things or just floating around and being able to see things that they wouldn't be able to see from the position of their physical body.  They also often report seeing loved ones that have already passed on and possibly religious figures such as Jesus or some other divine beings like angels.  Traveling through a tunnel towards light is common factor as well as having a life review.  But despite commonalities, each experience is unique.  Sometimes cultural differences may even be a factor.

But differences shouldn't be surprising.  In life, we all have unique experiences everyday.  Our consciousness may be confined to our physical self, but we still have free will and make our own decisions.    We also have our own opinions and interpretations.  Our day to day lives may have their similarities, such as brushing teeth, going to work, having lunch, watching TV, etc.  But despite similarities, there are still differences.  We don't all use the same toothpaste.  We don't all have the same job or drive the same kind of car to work.  We don't necessarily like exactly the same foods or TV shows.  If you lived in a third world tribal society, you probably wouldn't being using toothpaste or watching any TV at all...but you'd still get up in the morning and you'd still want something to eat.  So if our day to day lives are unique with some similarities, why should it be surprising that the afterlife would be unique with some similarities?

But anyways, the question here is, could a NDE have been the origin of any number of ancient and possibly prehistoric religions?  Although many of the reports of NDEs come from people who have been revived on an operating table, there are instances where people have been mistakenly thought to be dead when they really weren't, and, in times past, there are even reports of people being mistakenly buried alive (you can see a Snopes article on that subject here).  So if people have been mistakenly thought to be dead in time's past, then it may also be possible that they may have experienced a NDE.  If so, then the story they may have told about their experience may have formed an ancient religion...especially if the stories were being told by someone everyone else had thought to be dead.

Of course, it's also entirely possible that some religious beliefs were formed by drug induced hallucinations or outright fabrications, but what if there is something more to it?  What if some beliefs began from a real experience?  What if religious beliefs that mirror common events that occur during a NDE are not the result of a person's preconceived notion of the afterlife, but because that is just the way it really is?


  1. Fantastic post. I love the way your mind works, Jeff. In fact, I have a post up along the same lines right now. Weird, huh? My father had an NDE and he couldn't describe accurately except to say there were colors that do not exist, flowers that do not exist and everyone was united. I had a dream a few months ago that changed my view of the heaven concept to a 4th-dimension type of situation. My father was in the dream, but there were several weird things. I could feel his skin's texture with my eyes and my senses were not necessary. He was the only real thing in the entire scene and everything else seemed oddly flat and wrong. He was everywhere at one time and a strange color, but not a color. I could make out every detail of his face and in my entire life I've never seen a face in a dream because I have facial amnesia. Some people in NDEs explain a dimension that makes our world seem plain, colors that are indescribable and blind people can see. I'm intrigued. Someone telling such a story could be so overzealous with the life-changing situation that (like those who come back and become religious), they could inspire others to be excited by their experience and follow their belief system that seems like it comes from an outside source (God figure).

  2. Hi Jeff,

    I also like your thoughts and writing. And think you may be very interested in The Lesley Flint Tapes if you have not run into them before - tons of descriptions of the `afterlife' told by those there to a medium.