Dear Believer, You Know What It’s Like To Be an Atheist for All God’s Except Your Own

I’ve been thinking about the claims made by the video, “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], which is often beautiful in its depiction of human cultures. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

One of the points made in the video that I agree with is that religions are mutually exclusive. They teach different and incompatible doctrines, and so they cannot all be right. This is an important point that is often missed. Yet the video also proceeds to lump all religions together, stating that secular humanism is a better outlook. They don’t take religious claims on their own terms, preferring instead to reject them all.

It’s important to point out that not all religions believe there is a creator God, an author to all of time, space, reality and what they contain. Theistic religions (e.g. Judaism, Islam, Christianity) are distinct from non-theistic religions (like Buddhism), and very compelling arguments for the truth of theism have been proposed down through the centuries. Philosopher Alvin Plantiga gave a talk once called “Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Arguments,” and you can find a summary of some of the work that’s been done on these arguments here. There are many good reasons to be a theist.

Having said that – lets return to the Dear Believer video, and respond to their next objection:

Objection 3 – Religious believers are atheists too when it comes to other religions. They just believe in one more god than the atheist does.

“Truth is, you already know what it’s like to be an atheist for all gods but your own. The way you view them (other people) is the same way they view you. Every devout Hindu, for example, has embraced his faith for the exact same reasons you’ve embraced yours. Yet you do not find his reasons compelling, nor do you lose sleep at night wondering whether you’ll wake up in his hell. Given this, is it so hard to see why some of us just take our atheism one God further?”[2]

In other words, every religious person is like an atheist with regards the gods taught be other religions. The atheist just goes one god further – saying there are no gods.

This was first proposed by Richard Dawkins in The God Delusion book and has been picked up and used as a supposed axiom and conversation stopper by many atheists since. Perhaps these atheists don’t realise that – this claim has been clearly shown to make absolutely no sense whatsoever! It is the equivalent of saying, “the bachelor is married.” How can an unmarried man be married? That makes no sense – it’s a contradiction. So is the video’s “one god more” claim.

First – the “one god more” claim is a contradiction.

The “one god more” claim says the experience of atheism is like religious belief (“you already know what it’s like to be an atheist”). But is it right to do so?

Let’s define atheism as belief there is no god. Let’s define Christianity as the belief in the God of the Bible to the exclusion of every other God presented by other non-Biblical religions (Judaism and Christianity are on the same page till it comes to Jesus). Can you see why atheism and Christianity are not in the same category of belief? How can you liken atheism (there are no gods) and Christian belief (there is a single God)? You are trying to claim apples and oranges are the same when they aren’t. This claim makes no sense.

Second – the objection forgets that there are very good reasons to be a theist. I pointed towards some of those reasons above. There’s the argument from human reason, the moral argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, and so on. If there are arguments for theism, then surely you must show how all of these theistic arguments are flawed before atheism becomes a reasonable belief. And then you’ve got to explain what kind of atheism you have adopted. There are many different kinds. The objection seems oblivious…sounding like empty rhetoric.

Third – the “one god more” claim is like an acid that eats away at many important human disciplines beyond religion. Andy Bannister observes that the argument just goes too far. In any situation where we have a number of possible options, and we decide to choose X exclusively over Y or Z, the “one god more” skeptic could say “no – we must reject X, Y, and Z.” This would be devastating to the legal system, where evidence is sifted to arrive at a single judgement and just conviction of the guilty person. It would also devastate science, where evidence is assessed, and multiple models are suggested to explain the data. Eventually one scientific model becomes the winner, leaving failed hypotheses by the wayside. But not if the “one theory more” skeptic had his way![3] Nope – all options must be rejected.

Fourth – the “one god more” argument acts like an acid because it assumes all possibilities in religious terms are equally likely. It doesn’t care about the evidence at all. It has decided all options are as unlikely as each other, and so it rejects all of them without assessing the arguments for each. Can you see why that would be a devastating approach to take in the other disciplines I mentioned? If the argument doesn’t work in law or science, why should it be used in religious belief?

Fifth – the “one god more” argument makes a category mistake when it says, “Believers are atheists with regard Zeus, Thor, and the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I just go one god further.”

When you include God in a list like that, you are trying to make out that God is like an entity inside the universe. Yet the Christian view of God is not like that at all.

Imagine if I tried to claim J. R. R. Tolkien was in the same category as the Hobbits Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin? You would probably laugh, saying “You’re crazy. Tolkien is the author, and these Hobbits are his characters.” Exactly! That’s why the “one god more” argument makes a category mistake.

God is not like the entities we find in our universe. Rather, “all things that exist receive their being continuously from him, who is the infinite well-spring of all that is, in whom … all things live and move and have their being.”[4]

Summary:

The problem with the “one god more” argument is that it is contradictory and makes God out to be something he’s not. Further, it is very uncritical. It doesn’t care to look at the evidence for a claim, rather it just assumes all options are equally unlikely, and so decides to reject them all. This is a bad way to reason about everything in life. It is just a silly argument.

Also – consider this.

I engage with a lot of people who spend time arguing against the existence of God. I wonder whether they realise that when they do this, they tacitly admit that God exists.

  • To write books, tweets, blogs, or blog comments arguing against Christianity (for example) is to admit truth is important. If truth isn’t important, why does it matter what anyone believes?
  • Consequently, pursuing knowledge is a virtuous thing to do. It is beneficial to pursue a hard truth over a comfortable lie (as Carl Sagan said).
  • It is right to claim that justice matters, and morally bankrupt belief systems must be rejected on moral grounds.

Yet truth, the pursuit of knowledge, the existence of ultimate values like morality and justice cannot be grounded in atheism. They can only be grounded in a transcendent, personal God. They reflect his character, and they are therefore reflected in the universe he has created. A truly consistent atheist position would be to say:

nothing means anything because there is no ultimate meaning in the universe. So, it doesn’t matter what anyone believes and life is absurd. So my absurd beliefs can coexist with the Christian’s absurd beliefs. It doesn’t matter.

How interesting that – by seeking the truth of God’s supposed non-existence, the atheist often plays by God’s own rules![5]

In the next blog, I’ll address the next objection – “Religion is a crutch to make people feel better.”


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 06:43.

[3] Andy Bannister, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist Or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments, (Grand Rapids:Monarch Books, 2015), 52.

[4] David Bently Hart, “The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss,” quoted in Bannister, 57.

[5] Bannister, 59.

Dear Believer, What are the Chances Your Beliefs are Correct and All the Other Religious Beliefs are Wrong?

How does one know their exclusive belief claims are true? “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], is made by Plumbline Pictures and it poses this question. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

It vividly portrays various religious beliefs and contrasts them with a narration that is grounded in secular humanism. It attempts to force us to confront the claimed irrationality of our religious beliefs. They quote Mark Twain, who apparently said, “the easy confidence with which I know another man’s religion is folly teaches me to suspect that my own is also.”[2]

So – how compelling is the secular humanist argument against “religion” in this video? More importantly, how effective is it in challenging the exclusive truth claims made by Christianity?

In the previous post, we responded to their claim that religious belief is accidental based on our place of birth, and so therefore has no truth content. This post moves on to objection two:

Objection 2 – All religious devotees think their beliefs are the only correct ones. What are the odds that you, dear believer, are correct and everyone else is wrong?

“There are 2 dozen major religions … [and] more than 45,000 denominations of Christianity alone, each claiming to understand ultimate truth better than the rest. Each member of every faith is just as devoted and sincere and convicted as you. Did you know they also read infallible texts, have airtight apologetics, have experienced miracles…? Yet since every religion is mutually exclusive, they cannot all be right, right? If every member of every faith feels just as you do, what are the odds you are right?”[3]

I think the narrator is right when claiming the major religions are mutually exclusive. This is correct. They all have different beliefs around whether there is a God, who God is and what his nature and character is, the role of human effort in one’s religious observance, etc. He is also right to point out the sincerity of religious belief amongst the believers of different religions.

However – there are also some very major problems with the rest of this argument.

First – the veracity of religious belief is not determined by the number of people who hold to this belief.

Just because there are many people with religious beliefs that contradict Christianity, this does not mean that Christian belief is rendered false. Greg Reeves describes this idea as the “popularity contest” view of religion.[4] If the narrator is saying that the most popular belief system with the highest number of adherents is the correct one, then he has missed the point of religious belief in general and Christianity in particular.

Think of this another way. The sincerity of one’s religious belief has nothing to do with the truthfulness of that belief. I can honestly and sincerely believe that I will receive a Bugatti Chiron sports car for Christmas. The ultimate correctness of that belief is a different thing compared to the sincerity of my belief. Sincerity and truthfulness are two different things. And – as I already said – religion is not a popularity contest where someone’s belief must necessarily be false if someone else believes something different. Not at all.

Second – the narrator’s claim actually turns out to be self-refuting.

The religious popularity contest idea is a big problem for atheism. Now – atheists are sincere people. I know many sincere atheists. And I know any sincere religious believers as well. But studies consistently show that atheism is a much rarer belief system amongst human beings than religious belief is. Or, if you like, atheism is much LESS popular than Christianity.

In a recent Pew Research study, the largest single religious group was found to be the Christian group, measured at 31.2% of the world’s population. Muslims are measured at 24.1%, yet their group is also the fastest growing religion in the world today. Hindus, Buddhists and the others make up 28.7%. The unaffiliated are measured at only 16% and growing much more slowly than most other religious groups. Only a percentage of that unaffiliated group will qualify as atheists.[5]

This data is fascinating, and it reflects badly for atheism on the “belief as a popularity contest” idea. Atheists accounts for a very small percentage of the world’s population. If belief is a popularity contest, the atheist should trade up for Christianity, a much more popular belief system!

What the atheist will usually tell you is that – it is the content of atheistic belief that matters, not the size of their group. Well – its no surprise that the Christian understanding is the same. In other words, the size of the group, and even the rate of growth, are not actually related to the truthfulness of anyone’s belief. That this video claims it is, is simply incorrect, and misrepresents atheists as well as religious believers.

There’s also a complaint being made by the secular humanist narrator in this video. He laments, there are so many religions out there, there are too many to pick the correct one. I’m much more likely based on the odds to pick the WRONG one, he claims! Well – if you are playing a game of “pin the tail on the donkey”, shutting your eyes, and picking a religion at random, then yes. That’s right. But I know no one who actually does this. This suggestion is absurd. I think that on the whole people think deeply about spiritual matters, atheists and religious devotees alike. There’s no random choice being made here. I think the narrator’s complaint turns out to be rhetoric that is pretty dismissive of the very atheistic belief system that is being espoused by the video.

Rather than complaining about the number of religions in the world, what the atheist must do according to Reeves is to marshal evidence and show that atheism is a better choice. Please convince me that atheism does a better job of explaining the world than Christianity does.[6]

Third – this objection actually contradicts with other claims made in the same video.

Think about the first objection I identified in the video. Previously, we noted that the narrator complained that religious belief was linked to one’s place of birth, and this makes religious belief to be accidental and of no real value. But if the narrator is correct that religion is a popularity contest, as this second objection supposes, then you would expect religious beliefs to be passed on to your descendants, and so you would expect to find religious belief to be linked to your birth place. In other words, objection 1 objects to the very grounds being assumed by the narrator in objection 2! Are you confused yet? This is very bad reasoning on the part of the secular humanist narrator.

Further, towards the end of the video, we hear that the correct way to form beliefs is through logical deduction and reasoning and scientific methods and testing of hypotheses. So – belief systems are not the popularity contest assumed by the narrator in this objection after all. And these objections are turning out to be contradictory – this points to poor quality arguments.

Fourth – the claims made by the narrator are inconsistent in various ways.

First – he claims all belief systems have airtight apologetics. But this statement makes no sense. All belief systems cannot all have airtight apologetics. Only the one single correct belief system can have this. The others will lack the strong and reasoned arguments that the airtight belief system has. Having studied various world religions including Christianity, I think Christianity has the best reasoned defence compared to all the others.

Second – he talks about all belief systems having infallible texts. Well – does atheism have infallible texts? That seems highly unlikely to me. All religions may claim to have infallible texts. The challenge is for the adherent to that religion to present well reasoned arguments that support this claim. I think the notion of an “infallible text” assumes that one of the religions is correct above all the others.

Summary

This objection turns out to misunderstand the nature of belief, and the measure of a belief’s truthfulness. Sincerity and believer group size are irrelevant to truthfulness. It also suggests people choose a random approach when coming to a set of worldview beliefs. This is an unreasonable – and unkind – view of people that should be strongly. challenged.

Next time, we will turn to the third objection. Christians are atheists too, just for one more god than the atheist.


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 04:04.

[4] Greg Reeves, A response to “Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe?” part 1 of 2, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://twobooksapproach.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-response-to-dear-believer-why-do-you.html.

[5] The Changing Global Religious Landscape, Pew Research Centre, posted April 5th, 2017, accessed 24th December, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2017/04/05/the-changing-global-religious-landscape/.

[6] Reeves.

Dear Believer, You’re Beliefs are Only Due to Your Place of Birth

The striking video, “Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe?”[1], is often beautiful in its depiction of human cultures. You can watch it here – Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL) – YouTube.

The vibrancy and colours we are shown are mesmerizing, and the differences between the people and their religious practices are striking. It is also interesting that, while visually showing evidence of many different worldviews, the audio voiceover comes from yet another different worldview. You could describe the narrator’s worldview as – secular humanist.

This secular humanist voice assures us that the world religions are many and varied and all teach something different. We must abandon these superstitions; we must grow up, and learn how the world truly is so we can move forward in a positive direction. As Carl Sagan said, it is “far better to embrace a hard truth, than a reassuring fable.”[2]

So – how compelling is the secular humanist argument against “religion” in this video? More importantly, how effective is it in challenging the exclusive truth claims made by Christianity?

I can see six important arguments in this video, and I intend to respond to them one at a time. I think these are important arguments to address because they are very common today. And – judging by the comments section under the video – they resonate strongly with many people.

Here are the arguments:

  1. You’re only a religious devotee / believer because you were born into it.
  2. All devotees of their religion think their beliefs are the only correct ones. What are the odd that you, dear believer, are correct and everyone else is wrong?
  3. Religious believers are atheists too when it comes to other religions. They just believe in one more god than the atheist does.
  4. Religion is a crutch to make people feel better.
  5. It is arrogant to think you have the only right religion.
  6. It is arrogant to think humanity lives in a privileged place in the universe.

Objection 1 – You’re only a religious devotee / believer because you were born into it.

“Aren’t you suspicious that most people adopt the religion of the society in which they were born? Yet remain convinced they’ve found the one true faith? Did you know that most people choose it not for reasons, but because they were born into it? Can it be just an accident of geography?”[3]

I think the narrator is telling us that religious belief is accidental, it occurs because of events outside of a person’s control. We don’t control where we were born – right? If I was born in the US or Europe, I might become a Christian. If I was born in Saudi Arabia, I might be a Muslim. And so on.

In other words – he is saying the religious believer has no reasons for their belief.

Well – I would ask the narrator, how does he know that? Has he asked the people that are shown in the video if they have rational reasons for adopting their religious outlook? Given the lack of evidence for this discussion in the video, I suspect not. And so, this argument that “belief is always accidental” starts to look rather suspect.

Actually – this argument is deeply fallacious. It lacks the logical grounding required of every good and sound argument. I can see two fallacies here and there may be more.

First – this argument is self-refuting.

The claim is that since the believer’s religious outlook is a result of cultural conditioning, the religious beliefs themselves cannot therefore be true.

Can’t the same observation be made of any sort of secular humanist or non-believer? Perhaps you are an atheist because your parents were atheists. They did not go to church or introduce you to spiritual things. So – your atheism is a cultural thing. If that is the case, then by the video’s logic, there are therefore NO good reasons for your atheism.

The atheist might respond, “not at all. I’m an atheist based on evidence and good reasons.” Well, if that sort of evidenced belief is possible for you, then why is it impossible for the religious believer to have an evidence-based belief too?

Think of it this way – why must it be the case that only Christianity is cultural, and not atheism? This idea is clearly false.

The video says that, because a person’s beliefs are culturally conditioned, that the beliefs themselves cannot therefore be true. This applies equally to atheism, and so the argument is self-refuting.

Second – this argument commits the genetic fallacy.

Because the religious devotee was born into a belief system, that system is necessarily false. So, because the narrator finds the origin of one’s religious belief to be suspect, that belief cannot be true. This is a clear example of the genetic fallacy.

Genetic Fallacy – the alleged mistake of arguing that something is to be rejected because of its suspicious origins. More widely, any mistake of inferring something about the nature of some topic from a proposition about its origins.[4]

Why is this argument fallacious? Because it claims that just because a belief stems from one’s upbringing, this belief must be false. But that claim is simply false. Greg Reeves points out that someone’s religious belief MIGHT turn out to be untrue. But you would need to bring a valid argument to bear on that religious belief to ascertain that fact, not a fallacious argument like this one.[5]

This argument is weak because it seeks to discredit belief based on its source rather than evaluating that belief based on its merits. If there were no grounds for belief apart from the belief of your parents, then this argument would have strength to it. But that is absolutely not the case. There are many reasons that support Christian belief. It would be absurd for me to claim that I was a Christian simply because my parents were. Rather – I must explain why I have chosen to become and remain a Christian believer by giving reasons for my beliefs. This is what this blog site does.

Third – this argument backfires

It is increasingly the case that Christian belief has little to do with the culture that one is born into, because becoming a Christian involves the rejection of one’s parent’s beliefs. Christianity is growing in Africa, Asia and South America because believers are rejecting the traditional beliefs of their parents. Atheism, on the other hand, is growing in more wealthy nations.[6]

Perhaps it is atheism that is the true accident of birth right now. When one is born into a secular humanist society, atheism may turn out to be the default worldview. Maybe the atheist has their beliefs only because they were born into it?

For those who state that “atheism is not a belief,” then I would reply, “Really? I thought you believed it?”

In the next instalment, I’ll respond to objection 2 – every religious believer thinks they are in the only correct one, so what is the likelihood they are right?


[1] Dear Believer: Why Do You Believe? (ORIGINAL), Plumbline Pictures, posted 3rd May 2014, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xl_TrvIIcBY.

[2] Ibid., 8:55.

[3] Ibid., 01:51.

[4] Overview Genetic Fallacy, Oxford Reference website, Oxford University Press, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.oxfordreference.com/view/10.1093/oi/authority.20110803095847621.

[5] Greg Reeves, A response to “Dear Believer, Why Do You Believe?” part 1 of 2, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://twobooksapproach.blogspot.com/2012/11/a-response-to-dear-believer-why-do-you.html.

[6] The Age Gap in Religion Around the World, Pew Research Centre, posted June 13th, 2018, accessed 21st December, 2021, https://www.pewforum.org/2018/06/13/how-religious-commitment-varies-by-country-among-people-of-all-ages/.

NDE Experiences Complement Biblical Teaching

What happens when we die?

So far in this series I have explored some interesting evidence from Near Death Experiences (NDEs) that seem to suggest we go on – we do not cease to exist. I have argued a naturalistic dying brain theory fails to account for the OBE element of NDEs. Yet those who experience NDEs (NDErs) are most struck by their visit with beings in an unearthly world. Following her NDE, Mary Neale wrote a creed reminding her of what she learned; the truth of God’s promises in scripture, heaven exists, God is loving, daily divine support, and God’s purposes for her life.[1] I think the response of NDErs like Mary suggest NDEs complement the teaching of the Bible in three ways.

1) NDEs Do Not Supersede Scripture and the Christian Gospel, they Apply It

First, NDErs almost always experience a being of brilliant light in an otherworldly place who communicates overwhelming love and acceptance to them. This reminds me of Daniel’s vision of God. “His throne was flaming with fire, and its wheels were all ablaze. A river of fire was flowing, coming out from before him.”[2] Yet as the Psalmist reminds us, he also cares deeply for us because He, “created [our] inmost being … knit [us] together in [our] mother’s womb.”[3] God loves us. The scripture says, seek him and you will find him.[4]

The Christian NDE critic (NDEc) may object to NDErs claims of overflowing love and acceptance. Perhaps it sounds to the NDEc like universalism, the heretical idea that the Atonement is unlimited, applies to all people, and that all men will eventually be reconciled to God.[5] I think this worry is unwarranted. First, because Jesus exhibited deep love in his life; he said, “as I have loved you, so you must love one another,”[6] and Paul taught faith, hope, and love are vital for the Christian, but “the greatest of these is love.”[7] Perhaps the NDE experience is a divine gift to let some people experience the Bible’s idea of this love. Second, the love experienced by NDErs does not supersede the Christian gospel, it seems to illustrate it. Some NDErs like Ian McCormack find themselves in distressing darkness during the NDE and explicitly call to Jesus to save them. Ian describes being drawn out of darkness by the brilliant, loving light.[8] This aligns with the New Testament claim Jesus is the light of the world whose followers will not stay in darkness.[9] It is also illustrative that Jesus came to seek and save the lost.[10] Third, this love is reminiscent of the biblical God because, as J. P. Moreland observes, it challenges human cultural assumptions of highest goods being success, ancestor worship, honour or purity.[11] Rather, the Bible teaches love for God and people is the highest good.

But who or what does the mystical loving light represent? If it really is the God of the Bible, wouldn’t God reveal himself rather than leaving his identity vague and open to interpretation? On the contrary, scripture often reports times when God intervenes in human affairs while leaving his identity ambiguous. God’s angels visit Lot in Sodom but hide their identity,[12] Joshua encounters the mysterious commander of God’s army,[13] and Jesus comes to Israel as the divine Messiah yet many fail to recognise him.[14] An unidentified being of light is not at odds with God’s behaviour in scripture. Rather, it is consistent with it.

2) NDEs Seem Consistent With the God of Scripture Who Knows What I Need

The second alignment of NDEs with scripture comes in the apparently tailored nature of NDE experiences, designed to draw the NDErs toward God. Scripture shows this is the way Jesus engaged with friends and critics. For example, when the rich man asks Jesus how to inherit eternal life, the text says Jesus loved him and sensed a love for his wealth, so he challenged him to give it away and live a life loving and honouring God instead.[15] Likewise, in his debates with the Pharisees, Jesus saw through their piety observing they honoured God with their lips, yet their hearts were far from him.[16] NDEs seem consistent with God knowing our hearts, engaging with us in the way that will draw us towards himself.

The NDEc might object to the extra-biblical nature of these NDE experiences. Why should only some people have a special divine encounter prior to their ultimate death? Scripture seems to say it is better not to have this, because “blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”[17] Yet there is nothing in these words precluding a pre-mortem encounter with God. The apostle Paul may have had one of these experiences himself.[18] Surely if God opts to allow such a thing, he is free to do so. The NDEc may also object that Hebrews says we all die once, and then face the judgement.[19] Yet NDErs have not actually died yet, though they were close to their ultimate death. Consequently, because the NDErs remained alive, their NDE experience does not contradict the teaching of Hebrews.

3) NDErs Return With a Biblical Sense of God’s Purpose for People

The third alignment of scripture with NDErs experience is found in the sense of God’s plan for them involving hope, purpose, and beauty.[20] Scripture says our days are ordained by God before our birth,[21] and our lives matter because God has placed eternity in our hearts.[22] Further, God has a plan for us to, “do good works, which [He] prepared in advance for us to do.”[23] The NDErs returning sense of divine purpose seems aligned with God’s promises. Yet scripture also teaches the gospel message, God’s plan to save humanity. Do NDErs return with a new appreciation of this? Ian McCormack reportedly did, being instructed by God to “see things in a new light.”[24] A specially arranged, direct encounter with the loving God, and a sense of God’s purpose in one’s life, has transformed NDErs like McCormack to love people and seek to serve them. The gospel is about God welcoming us home. NDErs who experience this “being of light describe a love … [running] towards them [to] embrace them, value them … simply want[ing] them home.”[25] Perhaps NDErs experience the gospel more vividly than most. Further, the minority of hellish NDE experiences reported in Long’s study suggests while God wants no one to be lost, the possibility remains that those rejecting God’s love will spend their afterlife separated from God. NDEs therefore remain consistent with scripture’s teaching.

Conclusion

In this series, we have found that:

  • we found here and here that dying brain hypotheses do not account for the NDErs evidence
  • NDEs seem to be somewhat objective because sometimes they are shared by the living
  • Neuroscience gives reason to think that the human mind is only correlated to the brain, and can function when the brain is virtually absent, so its no great leap to suppose mind can exist apart from brain

Further – NDEs are consistent with the Bible’s teaching. We haven’t had time to discuss the fact that those of other religious traditions return from an NDE with their interpretation of a solidly Christian picture of the afterlife, rather than any other religious outlook.[26]

NDEs are common, and as we assess an NDErs account, we must remain open to the possibility that they have engaged in a supernatural circumstance which complements the Bible’s teaching. Taking this willing perspective on NDEs may encourage Christian believers in their hope of heaven, and it may challenge unbelievers to finally choose to believe in Jesus and so orient themselves toward an eternity with Him.


[1] Mary Neale, “Seven Lessons from Heaven,” quoted in Moreland, 214.

[2] Daniel 7:9-10, NIV.

[3] Psalm 139:13, NIV.

[4] I Chronicles 28:9, NIV.

[5] J. R. Root, “Universalism,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed., (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 1232.

[6] John 13:34, NIV.

[7] 1 Corinthians 13:13, NIV.

[8] John Burke, Imagine Heaven Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 138.

[9] John 8:12.

[10] Luke 19:10.

[11] J. P. Moreland, A Simple Guide to Experience Miracles Instruction and Inspiration for Living Supernaturally in Christ, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Reflective, 2021), 217.

[12] Genesis 19.

[13] Joshua 5:13-15.

[14] Moreland, 221.

[15] Matthew 10:17 – 22.

[16] Mark 7:7.

[17] John 20:29.

[18] 2 Corinthians 12:2.

[19] Hebrews 9:27.

[20] Moreland, 213.

[21] Psalm 139:16.

[22] Ecclesiastes 3:11.

[23] Ephesians 2:10.

[24] Burke, 263.

[25] Burke, 79.

[26] John Burke, Imagine Heaven: Near-Death Experiences, God’s Promises, and the Exhilarating Future that Awaits You, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2015), 141.

Troubling Brain Scans and NDEs

What happens when we die?

We’ve been talking in this series about the evidence for Near Death Experiences (NDEs). This evidence suggests people have retained vivid conscious awareness following clinical death, and they have gone to another place.

For biological naturalists, this is a hard claim to take seriously. The naturalist will typically assert that we are our brains. “Conscious states are entirely caused by lower level neurobiological processes in the brain.”[1] Our minds are an emergent property that comes from the physical stuff of the brain, and so when the brain ceases functioning, we cease to exist.

This view of the brain is very common. But that does not mean it is correct. Many people can believe something that later turned out to be false. Right? For centuries, people thought life emerged spontaneously; dust created fleas, rotting meat made maggots, and wheat in a dark place led to mice. It took scientists like Louis Pasteur to show that spontaneous generation was a commonly held, but false belief. Is it possible that the naturalist belief that we are our brains is a contemporary common, false belief also?

The evidence from NDEs argues against the naturalist understanding of mind and brain. If I go somewhere else after death, I cannot be my brain, because my brain has ceased to function. In fact – if my mind is non-physical but related to my brain, and if my mind can exist without my brain, then the claims of NDEs are probably what we would expect. And in this blog series, we have looked at just a few examples from the volumes of NDE accounts that exist.

But how would we be able to tell if our minds were separate from our brains? In our normal experience, don’t we engage with conscious beings who have brains?

Yes – of course. But even if I have only engaged with conscious beings with brains, that does not mean consciousness is GENERATED BY those people’s brains. It could also be that their conscious mind is simply closely CORRELATED TO their brain at this time. Further, there are medical cases of Hydrocephalus and Hydranencephaly that may suggest people do engage with conscious human subjects who have severely degraded, and even absent brain hemispheres. This supports the idea that mind is not created by brain, rather it is correlated to it.

Evidence from Hydrocephalus

Doctors have encountered instances where conscious people lack a normal, functioning brain. Hydrocephalus is a condition where fluid builds up in the skull and puts pressure on the brain tissue, causing damage to it and hindering personal development. In half of the most severe cases, the patient was mentally challenged. Michael Jones notes this is what we would expect if biological naturalism was right and – we are our brains. However, the other 50% of the severest cases of Hydrocephalus had IQs over 100 and functioned properly.[2]

Brain Scan Showing Hydrocephalus

Neurologist John Lorber has studied hundreds of cases of Hydrocephalus. In one case, he talks about a university student with an IQ of 126, a first-class honours degree in mathematics, and an active social life. Yet he had virtually no brain, just a thin layer of mantle a millimetre or so thick. His skull was mainly filled with cerebrospinal fluid.[3] Early onset Hydrocephalus in children has also been studied and it does not lead to degraded development in every case because some patients develop above average intelligence despite drastically reduced brain mantle volume.[4] Lorber has systematically studied a remarkable set of accounts that litter the medical literature and go back a long way.[5] Jones observes that these cases are anomalies if materialist views of the brain are true. Yet if it is right that consciousness is only correlated to the brain, they would be somewhat expected.[6]

Evidence from Hydranencephaly

Hydranencephaly as an even more severe condition involving cases where brain hemispheres do not develop at all and are absent. These patients are assumed to exist in a vegetative state because they lack the brain areas that supposedly produce consciousness.

Brain Scan Showing Hydranencephaly

Yet studies have been done on children suffering from Hydranencephaly who exhibit traits of consciousness. In some cases, they express themselves, display evidence of the experience of feelings like pleasure and joy, and they smile and laugh.[7] They are awake and responsive, can distinguish voices, and do not appear in a vegetative state. The British Medical Journal observes Hydranencephaly usually presents with severely delayed milestones during early childhood.[8] What is fascinating however is that development is delayed, not precluded due to a lack of evident brain hemispheres. Children without brains are slower to develop, but they do develop. One boy lived for many years and was able to interact with his family and his environment even though medically speaking there was no brain present in his skull.[9] Again, this situation is anomalous if the brain generates the mind. But if mind and brain are merely correlated, we would probably expect cases like this to sometimes occur.

Conclusion

This blog series has assessed some of the evidence for NDE’s which suggest that people have left their bodies at certain times, often close to or in a state of flat line clinical death, before returning from that state afterwards. Skeptics will argue that because the human mind and the brain are essentially the same thing, this clearly is a physical phenomenon, the dying brain. Yet we have seen why that conclusion does not satisfy the available evidence.

In this blog, we have summarised medical cases of Hydrocephalus and Hydranencephaly that suggest that human consciousness is not necessarily dependent on a complete brain anyway. If we are resistant to NDEs because of a biological naturalist view of personhood and the brain, I would suggest in the light of these cases, we need to rethink our position. If people can be conscious without a complete brain, then surely it is at least possible that human consciousness can go on once the physical body has died.

What about the theological implications of this? Are NDE claims at odds with the Bible’s teaching about life after death? Do they sound more mystical than Christian? We will pick up that important subject in the next instalment.


[1] John R. Searle, Mind A Brief Introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 79.

[2] Near Death Experiences: Irreducible Mind (Part 5), Inspiring Philosophy, accessed 4th December, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nnTVPCwPjhI.

[3] Lewin, R, “Is Your Brain Really Necessary?” Science, vol. 210, no. 4475, 19080, pp. 1232-1234.

[4] Berker, D. E., Goldstein, D. G., Larber, J. Priestly, D. B. and Smith, D. A. (1992), “Reciprocal neurological developments of twins discordant for hydrocephalus,” Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology, 34: 623-632, doi:10.1111/j.1469-8749.1992.tb11493x

[5] Lewin.

[6] Inspiring Philosophy.

[7] Aleman, Barb & Merker, Bjorn. (2014), “Consciousness without cortex: A hydranencephaly family survey,” Acta paediatrica (Oslo, Normway : 1992), 103. 10.1111/apa.12718.

[8] Hydranencephaly: a rare cause of delayed developmental milestones, BMJ Case Reports, published 2013,  accessed 4th December, 2021, https://casereports.bmj.com/content/2013/bcr-2013-009589.full.

[9] Bill Baskervill, Boy Born Without Brain Proves Doctors Wrong, AP News, 13th July, 1989, accessed 4th December, 2021, https://apnews.com/article/08099b98348a930469a232b9250f1509.