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Dec 01 2013

#HeavenAndBack

So I watched this show with Anderson Cooper’s name on it; he didn’t bother to show up, so maybe he has some sense of shame. It was dreadful. It was three anecdotes about people who had experienced serious trauma, and then invented lovely narratives about a happy afterlife to make themselves feel better, or to justify their prior religious beliefs. There was no fact-checking. It was just these three women getting interviewed and telling unverifiable accounts of events that happened while they were unconscious.

First woman: She claims to have “died” in a kayaking accident in Chile. Her kayak was pinned underwater by a rock; she describes all of her sensations, including her legs breaking when her friends dislodged the boat and she was torn free by the current. Her friends were frantic, yet she’s happy to claim that they accurately described the passage of time, and that she was under water and deprived of oxygen for 30 minutes. She said she “gave herself up to god”, was visiting spirits/angels/whatever while resuscitation was attempted, and that she had a conversation with Jesus who told her she had to go back to take care of her husband. Her husband was later diagnosed with lung cancer. Thanks, Jesus! Also, she’s flogging a book

Verdict: completely unverified account of a “death”. This was a religious woman who experienced a serious trauma, and who had also experienced the death of a child and wanted to believe that there was a purpose to life. It was a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

CNN’s verdict: “Amazing”. Not one word of doubt about anything in the account.

Christian Mingles is advertising on this show, of course.

Second woman: Child growing up in Hong Kong, of Indian descent. A friend dies of cancer, and she becomes paranoid; she later is diagnosed herself with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She deteriorates under treatment, and later lapses into a coma. Claims to have heard doctors talking while she was in a coma, and that they said she was going to die within 24 hours. She was, she said, “in another world” where she felt peace, and her dead friends were all there. Dead people told her to go back and live, so she did.

She recovered consciousness, cancer goes into remission, she’s still alive. In fact, nothing in her account said she died at all.

Verdict: A lot of story telling and confabulation. Nothing remarkable in the story at all; Hodgkin’s has a roughly 80+% 5 year survival rate, and she was apparently getting good medical care.

CNN’s verdict: Accepted every bit of it without reservation. No attempt to verify any of the claimed facts, not that there was anything particularly unusual about it.

Third woman: Has a son with a serious heart condition. He and his mother engaged in a fair bit of Jesus talk. One day he collapses and is hospitalized, and claims to see a bright light and an angel. Later he collapses at his school again, and claims to have been in a good place and not wanting to come back. But “he came back for a reason”. The family does a lot of praying and bible reading. Then the son dies on Christmas day. He doesn’t come back.

Verdict: Absolutely nothing remarkable or unexplainable. No evidence of much of anything presented.

CNN’s verdict: Ends with a clip of a video of the dead boy holding up a sign saying he believes in god and angels.

Overall assessment: Gullible dreck, lots of fantasizing, no evidence presented of much of anything, and no critical thinking from the reporters at all. A disgrace.

I didn’t believe a word of it. There’s only one comment on the show website, and Randy didn’t believe it, either, but for rather different reasons.

This is all a liar, heaven is a holy place and those that Enter must be born again of the water and of the spirit, those that have excepted Jesus as their personal savior and have been born again of the baptism of the Holy Ghost will make it in.

I despair.

46 comments

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  1. 1
    sigurd jorsalfar

    I didn’t see the show, but I saw your tweet about it, PZ and so I followed the hashtag #heavenandback for a bit. The gullibility on display was utterly depressing.

  2. 2
    Francisco Bacopa

    The first case of the kayaking accident is completely unremarkable. People have been revived from near drowning in cold fresh water for centuries. The brain can remain fairly active during such accidents. It’s even how we do open heart surgery. They stop the heart with cold ice water. They even used to do it with no heart-lung machine, though they tried to work fast and lost some patients.

    The second case is no big deal. There are spontaneous remissions of dread diseases. There are people studying why this happens so they can figure out how to make it happen in others.

    And the third person died anyway.

    BTW, I have had some episodes of sleep paralysis and night terrors. I have always interpreted them as just weird things that have happened. But with the right cultural background I could have interpreted them as alien abductions or visions of the saints. They start with a dream of running or climbing. I lose control of my body and the air turns to molasses. There is a strange yellow glow and I feel for a moment that I am completely somewhere else, I can’t be inside my body because I lose all sensation about how my body is oriented and all sense of touch. Then I discover I cam move my limbs and I get a drink of water.

  3. 3
    mrevan

    I was baptised several times, as a child, and definitely feel that Jesus Christ deserves an exemption from saviorhood (saviorness? Savory flavor? Never found his body to be all that tasty, anyway. Most depictions of him are pretty tasteless, too.) Does that mean I’m in?

  4. 4
    raven

    Ironically, despite some xians hatred of the word “evolution”, religions evolve and quite rapidly. On the time scale of years.

    The in things these days are near countless fundie xian prophets claiming that god talks to them. The most common things god says are that he wants you to send his prophet money, do what he tells you to do, and vote for the Tea Party.

    Demons are also in, being everywhere, doing everything, and explaining everything.

    Heaven is real is moving up in the rankings of favorite delusions.

    Angels had a good run about 10 years ago but have slipped so far down that even the demons laugh at them.

    Gay hating is slowly moving down while atheist, Moslem, the poor, food stamps, and woman hating are slowly moving up. Science hating and evolution hating seems to be on the skids right now. Satan is holding his own but not making any gains.

  5. 5
    raven

    alien abduction – Wikipedia,

    People claiming to have been abducted are usually called “abductees” or …. These early abduction-like accounts have been dubbed “paleo-abductions” by UFO researcher … they estimate that tens of thousands (or more) North Americans had been … that 5–6 percent of the general population might have been abducted.

    The number of Americans abducted by UFO aliens runs around 15 million.

    The number of people who claim to have been to heaven and back is who knows, maybe two dozen.

    If heaven is real based on eyewitness accounts, the USA has to be the crossroads of the galaxy with hundreds of flights in every day of aliens with their anal probes.

  6. 6
    brianpansky

    since i’m pretty sure the excuse for this stuff is that people need to feel secure etc, i conceptualize these stories as if they are selling cars with rabbit’s feet hanging from the mirror, but no seat belts.

    the next time a serious problem comes around, the trick might not work, and they won’t have grown the cognitive coping tools to actually deal with it. And it isn’t their fault, it’s the fault of the people who sold them the faulty product.

    more angering: the seat belts rarely are advertised as more effective than rabbit’s feet in our society.

    makes me lose more hope for humanity.

  7. 7
    nuofthewater

    Well, there is only one comment on the video page (I don’t think people comment on the videos much), but there are 12,212 comments (!) on the actual CNN story about this:

    http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/29/us/to-heaven-and-back/index.html

    And the first/top rated comment is “Hallucinations of a brain bereft of oxygen.”

  8. 8
    garnetstar

    Just to underline Franciso @2′s point, there’s a old saying among ER doctors that “You’re never dead until you’re warm and dead.”

  9. 9
    twas brillig (stevem)

    Along with all my other “opinions” about such nonsense, I’m even more enraged at our (aka English) confusing vocabulary, Too many people use “excepted” instead of “accepted”. The definitions of the two words are practically polar opposites. So I always have to read it twice to make sense of what they are trying to say. E.G. the phrase, “…those that have excepted Jesus as their personal savior…” seems way too ridiculous to be taken at face-value. I don’t want to work so hard to be disgusted by this nonsense. Sorry for the sidebar… I’m getting my coat now… see ya later.

  10. 10
    chigau (違う)

    ER doctors are kinda creepy.
    bless ‘em
    (some of my best friends are …)

  11. 11
    screechymonkey

    The revived kayaker is clearly proof of what Aeron Damphair has been preaching about the Drowned God. All praise the Drowned God! That which is dead can never die, but rises again, harder and stronger!

  12. 12
    Naked Bunny with a Whip

    @stevem #9:

    I’m even more enraged at our (aka English) confusing vocabulary

    I doubt it’s a matter of confusing vocabulary. More likely it’s someone who doesn’t read very much trying to spell a word by sounding it out, sort of like when you see someone write “for all intensive purposes”. That’s why I wasn’t confused: I’m one of those inefficient readers who “hears” the words in his head.

  13. 13
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    @12:
    I took stevem to be making a general complaint (one I agree with) about English vocabulary, rather than criticizing any person in particular.

  14. 14
    Gregory in Seattle

    What gets so conveniently ignored is that these “near death experiences” are universal to the human experience: they occur to Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims, even (I would assume) atheists. And always, the people see what they expect to see, once they have made up their mind that they are dying. Buddhists see the Buddhist afterlife. Hindus see the Hindu afterlife. Muslims see the Muslim afterlife. I’m not sure what an atheist would see, but it would be interesting to get some anecdotes. In any case, they are not, and never have been, exclusively Christian. Until these yahoos can explain the Buddhist and Hindu and Muslim and Sikh and Jain and everyone else’s experiences, the “Heaven” explanation is rubbish.

  15. 15
    ChasCPeterson

    I miss Kenny.

  16. 16
    Giliell, professional cynic -Ilk-

    Well, either my dead grandpa regularly comes to visit me at night, or I’m dreaming.

  17. 17
    brucemartin

    Maybe Stevem #9 is on to something, or Randy is. Maybe we should all be “excepting Jesus” from consideration as being anyone’s savior.
    But the best evidence is that tunnel vision effects are reproducibly caused by low brain oxygen conditions, such as those of fighter pilots in distress. So does that mean the god of earth-based life is the oxygen molecule? That would change everything, … Or at least it would change the answer of everything to a mass of 32, as opposed to the previously accepted universal answer of 42.

  18. 18
    Ichthyic

    Gay hating is slowly moving down while atheist, Moslem, the poor, food stamps, and woman hating are slowly moving up. Science hating and evolution hating seems to be on the skids right now. Satan is holding his own but not making any gains.

    now imagine this is describing a horse race.

  19. 19
    Ichthyic

    “excepted” instead of “accepted”

    the one I see the most often?

    “duel” instead of “dual”.

    *shudders*

  20. 20
    stever

    If I win the Powerball lottery, one of the things I’ll do is order a few hundred billboards:

    “It’s” means “It is.” The possessive form of “it” is “its.”
    Just because a plural noun ends with “s” does NOT mean that it needs an apostrophe.
    Just because the spellchecker didn’t flag it doesn’t mean that you haven’t used the WRONG word.

  21. 21
    Nick Gotts

    If heaven is real based on eyewitness accounts, the USA has to be the crossroads of the galaxy with hundreds of flights in every day of aliens with their anal probes. – raven@5

    What could it be that makes American anuses particularly interesting from an alien point of view? As a non-American, I think I had better not speculate :-p

  22. 22
    drm0

    Ichthyic #19

    “excepted” instead of “accepted”

    the one I see the most often?

    “duel” instead of “dual”.

    To my foreign eyes, the most amusing confusion is between “principle” and “principal”. But I guess that can be excused for native speakers due to the homophony.

  23. 23
    Antiochus Epiphanes

    Why on earth did you watch this? Did you think that it might not be crap?

  24. 24
    Olav

    dõki #22,

    I am similarly amused by Americans writing “would of” instead of “would have”. Of course they pronounce it something like “wood’f”.

  25. 25
    eamick

    @24

    I am similarly amused by Americans writing “would of” instead of “would have”. Of course they pronounce it something like “wood’f”.

    They meant to write “would’ve,” a perfectly reasonable contraction.

  26. 26
    JJ831

    This reminds me of that horrible book Heaven is for Real that was on the best-seller list for a while about some young kid’s NDE and going to heaven. Of course the book the was actually written by his father, who happened to be a preacher or something. Gross.

  27. 27
    jpatters

    I had an NDE and all I saw was a creepy clown playing electric guitar in a poorly lit corridor.

  28. 28
    chimera

    Gregory @14

    Well I’m an atheist and I’ve had one. It was long ago and I wasn’t really an atheist then, I wasn’t anything really aside from curious about everything. It was at college. I was sitting on my bed meditating (breathing exercises and mantra). Suddenly, there was only the tunnel and a figure that I assumed was me spinning through it. Then, poof, the end of the tunnel. Nowhere. What I can best describe as floating in darkness. I said, “Where am I?” and got an answer. I got this answer like you do in dreams, there weren’t necessarily words or a voice but the closest experience is to say “a voice said”. So the voice said where I was and wherever that was sounded perfectly reasonable and logical to me there in space. I took that in for a few seconds and then the voice said, “Do you want to go back?” I said, “Go back where?” (I had no memory of anything). Then the voice told me all about my life (mostly visual images seemingly communicated to me). I said “That doesn’t sound too bad….” but before I could finish the sentence with, “but what happens if I stay here?”, I was whirling back through the tunnel and all of a sudden was sitting on my bed again.

    My roommate was sitting at her desk a few feet away from me. I asked her if she had seen anything strange. “No,” she said.

    I quit meditating after that. For many years, I regretted not being able to remember what the voice had called the place we were. But now, as I know quite a bit more about the mind and cognition, I believe that “the voice” never did “say” anything at all. Rather my mind attributed a “familiar info” label to the quandary I was feeling, probably post hoc.

  29. 29
    Ing

    If I win the Powerball lottery, one of the things I’ll do is order a few hundred billboards:

    “It’s” means “It is.” The possessive form of “it” is “its.”
    Just because a plural noun ends with “s” does NOT mean that it needs an apostrophe.
    Just because the spellchecker didn’t flag it doesn’t mean that you haven’t used the WRONG word.

    Yes yes it’s never tiring to have people constantly drone on and on and on about typos like that when they easily grasped the meaning behind the sentence. It is never tiring to have conversations stop for someone to show off their grammar boner and harangue someone about that.

  30. 30
    Rich Woods

    @jpatters #27:

    I had an NDE and all I saw was a creepy clown playing electric guitar in a poorly lit corridor.

    Sorry about that. If it’s any consolation, I’ve given up the clown costume in favour of jeans and a plain t-shirt, and the old-style energy-saving bulbs have long since been replaced with better modern types. Unfortunately I can’t say my chord changes have improved much.

  31. 31
    Rich Woods

    Several years ago I was out for a lunchtime walk when someone stuck a flyer in my hand. It was advertising a talk by a NZ guy who’d suffered some sort of accident during a dive. He was dragged out of the water and considered dead by his mates, but fortunately for him the ambulance got him to hospital in good time (no doubt with excellent onboard care) and he was successfully revived. He subsequently claimed to have seen and spoken with Jesus during the time he was dead, and was now inspired to travel the world spreading the Good News.

    I chucked the flyer in the bin. One man’s near-death experience is another man’s oxygen deprivation. I was briefly tempted to go along to the talk and see how many people turned up and were willing to believe the bloke’s interpretation of his NDE, and ask them why, but I had better things to do. Polish my shoes, maybe, or put the bins out.

  32. 32
    robro

    eamick @#25

    They meant to write “would’ve,” a perfectly reasonable contraction.

    Hardly…acceptable, perhaps, particularly in dialog, but it’s a rather ugly contraction.

  33. 33
    robro

    Bicarbonate @#28

    Suddenly, there was only the tunnel and a figure that I assumed was me spinning through it. Then, poof, the end of the tunnel.

    I had the same experience…twice! While under anesthesia having my broken arm set (same one, both times). Must be a sign. I’ve been chosen. Or else, I watched too much cheap TV science fiction.

  34. 34
    Rich Woods

    @Me, the clumsy editor #31:

    Gah! “One man’s near-death experience is another man’s oxygen deprivation” should have been “One man’s religious experience is another man’s oxygen deprivation”.

  35. 35
    Rich Woods

    @robro #33:

    Or else, I watched too much cheap TV science fiction.

    The Time Tunnel!

  36. 36
    robro

    raven @ #4

    Demons are also in, being everywhere, doing everything, and explaining everything.

    According to Robert Turcan (The Cults of the Roman Empire, early Christians were appalled at Dionysian cults for invoking demons. Funny how these things come back around.

  37. 37
    billgascoyne

    Christian Mingles is advertising on this show, of course.

    I was going to say something about not judging a program by the advertisers, pot-kettle-black, etc., but FTB seems to have upgraded the ad criteria for this site…

  38. 38
    John Horstman

    @Gregory in Seattle #14: Yeah, there’s a strong cultural component to the interpretation of NDEs. Whether it inflects the actual experience or simply the after-the-fact narrative interpretation is difficult to determine, since interviewing someone with a dying brain WHILE ze is hallucinating poses certain obvious challenges.

  39. 39
    Allan Frost

    Naked Bunny with a Whip:

    …sort of like when you see someone write “for all intensive purposes”

    Idiots! It’s supposed to be “for all in tents ‘n porpoises.”

  40. 40
    Tony! The Queer Shoop

    jpatters:
    You had an NDE with Pennywise?

  41. 41
    Jafafa Hots

    Standardized spelling is so new we can’t really be sure it will last anyway.

  42. 42
    golkarian

    So, judging by Randy’s comment, the people being interviewed weren’t all Christians?

  43. 43
    kalil

    @Gregory in Seattle #14,
    I haven’t had a NDE, but I did have an out-of-body experience when I took a fourteen-foot tumble off a scaffolding when I was about 10 years old. Looking back on it afterwards, though, there were definitely some details that were ‘off’, and the whole thing was very dream-like. My own (sadly, very difficult to test) hypothesis is that it’s the same set of mental processes that produce dreams – filling in a ‘gap’ in consciousness with something that sort of makes sense, and helping the mind cope with difficult emotional and physical circumstances. That this ‘filler’ tends to fit the societal and religious expectations of the dreamer is not surprising. In my case, I got an out-of-body experience, because that’s a) a familiar type of dream, b) a good ‘explanation’ for what had happened to me, and c) I lack any classic NDE-style preconceptions.

  44. 44
    tomtethys

    All these “religious” experiences and the religions, superstitions etc are a pretty good way of stalling the technological development of any civilisation. The negative feedback from any advance is immediate, aimed at the emotions and at present self perpetuating. Now if I were an alien bent on causing humanity suffering at minimal cost to myself, this is the path I would follow.
    Anybody religious care to comment?

  45. 45
    Azuma Hazuki

    I remember reading about a Christian missionary to Burma who had an NDE in which he was pursued by Yama-toots, which are Burmese Buddhist figures who are assistants and servants of Lord Yama, the judge of the dead (cf. Enma Daiou in Japanese Buddhism).

    That is rather good proof that the content of NDEs is cultural; Christians who are not exposed to other religions do not see things in their NDEs that are from other religions. Now, this does not mean an NDE does or does not mean anything about whether there is or is not an afterlife; I believe there is, and I also believe that NDEs are not evidence of it, since they can happen when your life is not in danger but you may think it is, or IIRC by trans-cranial magnetic stimulation of the right Sylvian fissure. Just that NDEs are indeed culturally-influenced.

  46. 46
    jpatters

    Tony:
    No, I was making an obscure pop-cultural reference to something, that is a weakness of mine. Important Things with Demetri Martin (A short-lived television show on Comedy Central) had a bit where Demetri was in a support group for people who had NDEs. They all saw a clown playing guitar, but everyone lies about it to the group, giving some variant of the culturally expected narrative.

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