Tuesday, July 13, 2021

An Important Book On Near-Death Experiences

I recently read Gregory Shushan's Near-Death Experience In Indigenous Religions (New York, New York: Oxford University Press, 2018), which is an important book in many contexts. You can watch an interview Shushan did with Alex Tsakiris here. The video will give you an overview of the book and a lot of other information about it and some related issues. When I cite the book below, my references in parentheses will be to an approximate location in the Kindle version.

Shushan has argued that near-death experiences (NDEs) and some related phenomena have had a large role in originating and shaping religions. The book under consideration here focuses on three groups of indigenous religions, ones in North America, Africa, and Oceania. He doesn't limit his examination to NDEs as typically defined, but instead includes a broader range of phenomena, such as shamanic activity. You can watch his interview with Tsakiris for an explanation of what he included and why. Since he covers multiple centuries of material, you can see developments over time, such as what these indigenous groups believed prior to coming into contact with Christianity and other movements, how they interacted with Christian missionaries, how their beliefs persisted and changed afterward, and so on.

He provides examples of testimony from these indigenous people that their religious beliefs originated in or were influenced by phenomena like NDEs. On some occasions, these indigenous groups told Christian missionaries that they knew Christianity was false because of their experiences with such phenomena. Some NDEs were of a broadly Christian nature, and some were of a partly Christian and partly non-Christian nature, but it seems that most were non-Christian or even anti-Christian.

Shushan's inclusion of such a variety of phenomena has advantages and disadvantages. One major advantage, one I'd like to see more people discussing, is that it highlights how connected or potentially connected so many of these phenomena are. I've said before that I think deathbed experiences (e.g., visions people have on their deathbed) may be the same type of phenomenon as NDEs, but in a different context. Shushan makes the point that shamanic activity may involve the same sort of experiences we see in NDEs. Whatever it is that triggers NDEs may be triggering much of what we see elsewhere. Or there might be differing triggers, but the same or highly similar experiences that are triggered. We might be compartmentalizing things too much. It could be, and I suspect it is the case, that there are more connections among paranormal phenomena than is typically suggested.

And that brings up another one of the strengths of Shushan's book. I've said that though I think there's no one explanation for all NDEs, most of them involve a dreamlike state the soul enters when prematurely separated from the body. (You can access a collection of my posts on NDEs here.) Shushan refers to the dreamlike model of H.H. Price as the best explanation for NDEs. That model isn't identical to mine, but there's some overlap. I take the dreamlike state to be one that's not only pre-afterlife (the people involved return to this life), but also significantly different than what the afterlife is like (a possibility acknowledged by Shushan, 5423). Under my view, NDEs are paranormal and have an objective element to them and give us some information about the afterlife, but that information is minimal, and the objective element is accompanied by a large subjective component. Shushan seems to think the objective element is larger and more significant than I think it is. But there's a lot of agreement between our views, and we both think the analogy to dreams is a good one. To his credit, Shushan takes on the issue of how to best explain NDEs, he gives a significant amount of attention to it, and the explanation he offers has a lot of merit.

Notice the implications of the two paragraphs above when they're combined. If so much of what we see in these paranormal contexts is of such a subjective nature, then the argument that those phenomena contradict organized religion is weakened accordingly, and the argument for basing our view of the afterlife and related issues on these phenomena is likewise weakened. Proponents of organized religion are often overly antagonistic toward the paranormal, and proponents of the paranormal are often overly antagonistic toward organized religion. That's partly because of some false assumptions and misinterpretations on both sides.

When the subject of differences among NDEs comes up in his interview with Tsakiris (48:30), Shushan uses whether NDEs include tunnels and whether they involve a life review as examples. I agree with him that such differences among NDEs don't have much significance. But there are many differences of a more significant nature, and Shushan's book provides a lot of examples.

My impression is that the NDEs among these indigenous groups are generally of a more earthly nature than what we typically see in a setting like the modern United States. The indigenous NDEs largely involve a continuation of life on earth or a realm highly similar to earth, with a lot of focus on activities like visiting relatives and friends, eating, and dancing. In a modern NDE account in the United States, you're more likely to get a backdrop in a more non-earthly realm, the people you encounter tend to differ more from what they were like in this life, the theology is different than what you find in indigenous NDEs, the moral standards often differ, and so forth. Sometimes the differences are of a more subtle nature (e.g., the absence of any interest shown in a particular topic that is shown interest in another NDE, how the priorities in one NDE differ from those in another), and I think people often overlook those differences because of that subtlety. That's not just true with regard to how a modern NDE in the United States compares to an NDE among these indigenous groups, but also with regard to how one NDE in the United States compares to another.

You'll have to read Shushan's book to get the full picture of what he presents there. But I'll cite some examples of aspects of these NDEs and the surrounding cultural context that many people in the modern world would consider problematic in a variety of ways (bad theology, bad ethics, etc.). Shushan cites a variety of phenomena, not just what we typically think of as NDEs, as I explained earlier. And he includes some cultural traditions that may have little or no connection to any type of paranormal activity. There's some merit to his idea that the religious beliefs of these cultures were originated and/or shaped to some extent by paranormal activity, and individuals in these cultures sometimes explicitly referred to such influence. But it's often difficult or impossible to know what came from paranormal experiences and what didn't. I'll cite some examples from his book that vary in the likelihood that they came from a paranormal event.

Before I get to those examples, I want to discuss some of the problems with the accounts of these indigenous groups. Because of the nature of the cultures, we don't have the sort of records we'd like to have. We don't get the higher quality of NDE research we have in some modern cultures. And some of the indigenous accounts are suspicious for various reasons. In one account, a man is turned away from heaven because he's not baptized (631). That sort of NDE reflecting some degree of Christian influence was countered by another in which a woman claimed to have gone to "the heaven of the French - a realm of fire where Christians burned souls in order to possess them" (641). While such NDEs cited for or against Christianity sometimes occurred in largely suspicious circumstances, most of what Shushan discusses in his book isn't of that nature. You're going to get some degree of fraud, faulty memories, misinterpretation, and such in any culture and any era, but what matters more are the more credible accounts and the general thrust of the material as a whole. If the paranormal experiences of these cultures had been highly similar to what we see in places like the modern United States and modern Europe, we wouldn't expect to see such little trace of that similarity in the records we have and so much trace of such different experiences. In his book and in his interview with Tsakiris, Shushan discusses some of the reasons why we should believe we have largely accurate accounts of paranormal experiences among these groups, in spite of problems like what I've referred to above. Having said all of that, I'll move on to providing some examples of what Shushan discusses in his book.

A "wicked man" went to a hellish realm, but was delivered from it by a deity (presumably a non-Christian one, since this a pre-Christian account) who sent him back to this life "in order to teach his people how to avoid such negative fates" (again, presumably by a non-Christian means). While some of these accounts involved two afterlife regions, "the notion coexisted alongside beliefs in a single realm for all" (590). Just after those comments, Shushan refers to a belief that people of different cultures go to different realms of the afterlife. That's a common theme among these indigenous groups. Often, there are racial or cultural divisions in the afterlife, such as one region for Europeans and another for people belonging to the indigenous group in question. We often hear of how there's a lack of doctrines, dogmas, teachings, and such in NDEs. But Shushan refers to accounts of people coming back from their NDEs with "doctrines and admonitions" (722; see, also, 864, 1439, 1470, 1491, etc.). There are reports of violence in the afterlife (3326), people carrying weapons (753), dismemberment (4140), and so forth. One man "grew hungry, and when he saw game animals regretted that he did not have his gun with him" (753). There are accounts referring to how some animals go to the afterlife, whereas dogs don't go there (1125). There's a reference to a life review experienced by a horse (1241). There are many aspects of these accounts that a lot of people in the modern world would find suspiciously strange, embarrassing, and such: returning to your body after an NDE by falling through a trap door, then throwing a coin and following it to find the location of your body (732); encountering unusually large objects, such as a giant dog or a giant strawberry (775); a man dressed as a raven (775); moss growing on the foreheads of people in the afterlife who died long ago (845); meat with eyes in it that were watching the person having the experience (1004); people eating lizards, snakes, and horned toads (1063); "drinking a little blue man in a cup" (1241); etc. Some individuals were "taunted", "insulted", and such by predeceased friends they met in the afterlife (775). And "some men described a world filled with women eager to become their wives" (775). A woman had an NDE in which "her two previous husbands started fighting over her" (1054). Another NDE account refers to a figure in the afterlife who "chooses for his consorts the most beautiful of the female ghosts when they arrive in deadland" (3304). One man "met his aunts, who took him to a dance where everyone was merry, though some of his relatives and companions were missing heads or limbs" (803). "Those who drowned or burned to death would continue to do so in the afterlife." (833) Those who died with an illness retained that illness, and those who died in the weakness of old age remained old and weak (3304). A man who had an NDE in a hospital in the early twentieth century recounted it in an autobiography. Among other details, the NDE involved an encounter with Maasaw, a creator deity carrying a club, who chased him. Some clowns helped him escape by jumping off a canyon and landing on another clown (1103). There's an account involving an experience with the sun god A'po (1305). In another NDE, a man encountered "a previously unknown creator deity, Quilentsuten" (1491). Other accounts combine Christian and indigenous elements (e.g., 1545, 1665). Though we often hear about positive deathbed experiences that people have, Shushan refers to how "these apparitions were often seen as fearsome or menacing" (2961).

Characteristics like these are accompanied by others that are more like what you typically get in something like a modern NDE account in the United States. But even those details that are more familiar to and more liked by modern Westerners are often problematic to some extent, for reasons I've discussed in other posts. Keep in mind what I said earlier about the more subtle aspects of NDEs (and other phenomena), aspects that often get overlooked or underestimated. Think about the implications of the lack of interest shown in God in so many NDEs, how satisfied the experiencers often are with such a trivial afterlife (e.g., eating, dancing, hunting, visiting with relatives and friends with little or no indication that they want to mature much beyond the life they lived on earth), and so on.

When attempting to explain problematic aspects of NDEs, it's sometimes suggested that God, gods, or some other entity is accommodating people. Individuals are given an afterlife experience they'll be more familiar with, more comfortable with, and so forth. That sort of explanation has a lot of merit in some contexts, like the clothing people wear or whether they travel through a tunnel during the NDE. But an accommodation hypothesis is much more problematic in other contexts, such as where major theological and moral issues and contradictions are involved. One of the questions we should ask is how likely it is that people would be accommodated in ways like the ones discussed above. How much of a need would there be for such accommodations, and are they the sort of accommodations we'd expect God or whatever other entity involved to make? You can include further qualifiers to make a model more plausible (Shushan discusses some potential scenarios in his book), such as suggesting that people progress into higher and higher stages of the afterlife over time. So, the sort of primitive view of the afterlife we see in some NDEs would eventually progress into something better. People will learn over time, their interests will improve, their moral standards will improve, etc. But we still have to ask how much sense it makes to say that people start with NDEs that are as primitive as some NDEs are, whether the apparently problematic elements of some NDEs seem to make enough sense as being part of such a model of the afterlife (e.g., what purpose something like "drinking a little blue man in a cup" would have), how well the model in question can be reconciled with the evidence we have for organized religion (primarily the evidence for the truthfulness of Christianity, I would argue), etc.

I think the most likely option is that NDEs and some other phenomena are a dreamlike state the soul enters when prematurely separated from the body, which gives us only minimal information about the afterlife, an afterlife that's significantly different than what we see in NDEs. But Shushan raises other possibilities, some of which I haven't given much consideration. These issues are large and complicated. Shushan's book covers a lot of ground, including some that's unique or rare, and he cites a lot of sources along the way. I want to look into some of them. We need a lot more people doing a lot more work on these issues.


  1. Related to the issue of Christianity and the paranormal, I was recently listening to an interview with Joshua Cutchin on fairy folklore, Jinn, changelings and related topics and how they intersect with modern paranormal phenomena like UFO and ghost encounters:


    One interesting thing that stood out (around minute 38:00) is the claim that certain secular Muslims have had encounters with Jinn and ended it by calling on the name of Allah. He uses this to argue against the claim many Christians make that people ending UFO encounters by calling on the name of Jesus is evidence for the Christian worldview, specifically that demons are behind UFOs. I've heard similar things from people like Timothy Renner (of the Strange Familiars podcast). The claim is that it's not a specific God but just having belief in general that seems to drive off supernatural forces. I know of some Christians who have done research into prayers to Christ ending abduction encounters who claim instances of calling on other gods being successful in ending the encounters are relatively rare, but it's hard to know if bias is at play there. I think the Christian worldview could explain multiple prayers having supernatural effects (much the same way pagans can perform magic or have a certain amount of protection from negative spiritual powers) but I think this issue is worth studying in greater detail. It would be interesting to know if one could determine the frequency of different sorts of prayers working.

    I often hear secular supernaturalists who research the paranormal scoff at the "everything is demons" approach many Christians take. I think this is partly justified but I think it also rests on taking the same caricatuted and reductionist view of demons that many fundamentalists have. As scholars like Michael Heiser and others have noted, the biblical view of the spiritual realm is much more diverse and nuanced than most modern readers recognize, and I would guess the extra biblical reality of it is at least as complex as the extra biblical reality of civilizations like Egypt or Assyria. The biblical data likely barely scratches the surface. There are many things we don't know.

    For example, we know that all fallen supernatural powers are in rebellion against God, but do we know they all always work together? Do they have factions, squabbles? Are some working towards their own ends? They may even if they're all ostensibly working towards the same ultimate goal or under the same leader. Rebellion is after all in their nature. Have they produced any spiritual offspring after their fall that might also be at work in the world? We don't know but it's at least possible, especially if one takes a supernatural interpretation of Genesis 6. Are they all as bad as they possibly could be or like humans is there a range to their rebellion? This one probably depends on whether one thinks common grace is the only thing that keeps humans from being as bad as they possibly could be, and whether any similar thing might exist for fallen spirits (I'm dubious but it's worth considering). My point is that there's actually a lot to consider under the heading of "It's all demons" that many people, Christians and non Christians, don't really consider.

    1. Yes, the demonic explanation is more complicated than people often make it out to be. Demons range across a spectrum, and so do other beings. That's true not just with regard to how evil or good they are, but also with regard to other characteristics. I've discussed the example of mental capacities in the context of poltergeists. If a living human with paranormal abilities encounters a deceased human with a malfunctioning mind, for example, there are going to be a lot of variables involved in how they interact. It's not just a matter of power. See here for some comments I made about possession, exorcism, and related issues a few years ago.

      We should start by judging whether there's adequate evidence that something paranormal is involved in a situation. Is there anything paranormal that needs to be explained to begin with? If there is something paranormal, we can go on to ask if it seems to be of a personal or impersonal nature. If it's personal, there's a wide range of possible explanations, including conscious or unconscious activity by living humans, a category Christians frequently overlook or underestimate. In a context like alleged alien encounters or exorcism, you could have one living human interacting with another. Or something going on with the subconscious of a living human. Or a living human interacting with a deceased one. Even when a demon is involved, a demon could depart for a variety of reasons. I'm not aware of any reason to think all or most alleged alien encounters are demonic, that invoking Jesus always ends any such encounter, or that a demon would never depart under any other circumstances (invoking Allah or whatever else).

      I've written about parallels between UFO and poltergeist phenomena, and we could include other categories, like hauntings. Given the extent to which paranormal human activity (among both living and dead humans) seems to be involved in poltergeists and hauntings, the parallels between those phenomena and UFO events adds weight to the idea that the latter have a human element as well. Demons could be involved, in all three of these types of cases and elsewhere, but they don't have to be, and their involvement could be accompanied by the involvement of paranormal activity by one or more other sources. Similarly, a person can be responsible for various sins he's involved in, yet be influenced to some extent by a demon or a combination of sources, including a demon.