Mere days before millions across the world celebrated the birth of a person in whom he publicly, stridently, and defiantly refused to believe, author Christopher Hitchens died at the age of 62.
Hitchens, whose 2007 book God Is Not Great made him a major celebrity in his adopted homeland America, died in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of Stage IV esophageal cancer. Hitchens was a cigarette smoker and, by his own admission, a heavy drinker — a lifestyle he euphemistically called “Bohemian.” In an interview with PBS’ Charlie Rose after the cancer diagnosis, asked if he now regretted that “lifestyle,” Hitchens’ startling answer was “no”. He saw it as a “wager” he had made in return for writing well — and, not his words, the attendant fame and fortune.
In a debate in 2010 with former UK Prime Minister (and Catholic convert) Tony Blair over faith and religion, Hitchens likened God to a “celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea.” So adamant was Hitchens about his atheism that he even pre-emptively ruled out his death-bed conversion.
Douglas Wilson, who knew Hitchens, writes in Christianity Today, Dec. 16, 2011:
“In a number of interviews during the course of his cancer treatments, he [Hitchens] discussed the prospect of a ‘death bed’ conversion, and it was clear that he was concerned about the prospect. But, he assured interviewers, if anything like that ever happened, we should all be certain that the cancer or the chemo or something had gotten to his brain. If he confessed faith, then he, the Christopher Hitchens that we all knew, should be counted as already dead. In short, he was preparing a narrative for us, just in case…. This is interesting…because, when he gave these interviews, he was manifestly in his right mind, and the thought had clearly occurred to him that he might not feel in just a few months the way he did at present. The subject came up repeatedly, and was plainly a concern to him.”
As I explained in my post of November 13, 2011, while we can all argue what constitutes as evidence for the existence of God, atheism — the belief that there is no God — is utterly indefensible on logical grounds. For to make such an assertion requires that one has TOTAL knowledge of all there is in the universe. Only then can one confidently proclaim that something — in this case God — does not exist. One would think that an intelligent — some even say brilliant — man such as Hitchens would have thought of that.
There is also something else that Hitchens neglected or refused to consider.
There are reports after reports of the curious phenomenon called Near Death Experiences (NDE), a term coined by Raymond Moody, M.D. and Ph.D. in philosophy and psychology, in his 1975 book Life After Life.
NDE refers to a broad range of personal experiences associated with impending death, encompassing multiple possible sensations including detachment from the body; feelings of levitation; extreme fear; total serenity, security, or warmth; the experience of absolute dissolution; and the presence of a light. These phenomena are usually reported after an individual has been pronounced clinically dead or otherwise very close to death, hence the term near-death experience.
Many NDEs include a feeling of leaving the body. The individual can see his/her body — in a hospital bed or on the surgery table — as well as see and hear what people in the room are doing or saying. Later, upon “waking up,” the Near Death Experiencer (NDEr) is able to verify that what s/he had heard and seen were true.
According to a Gallup poll, approximately eight million Americans claim to have had a near-death experience.
After over 30 years of research, scientists have concluded that NDEs cannot be explained by current science. On Sept. 2–4, 2011, the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDS) — founded in 1981 to promote responsible, multi-disciplinary exploration of NDEs — organized a conference in Durham, N.C., for NDE researchers to present their findings.
Bruce Greyson, M.D. and director of the Division of Perceptual Studies at the University of Virginia, maintains that NDEs are an indication that the mind is independent of the brain because impaired brain functions would be expected during the clinical situation that the NDErs underwent, but his research found no corresponding impairment of mental functions in NDErs. He explains:
“In most cases, people’s mental functioning is better in the NDE than [it] is during our normal waking life. Their thinking is faster, is clearer, is more logical, they have more control over their chain of thought, their senses are more acute, their memories are more vivid. If you ask somebody about their near-death experience that happened 15 years ago, they tell it as if it happened yesterday. If you ask them [about] other experiences from their life at the same time, they are very fuzzy memories, if they have any at all. […] When you think that these experiences, which are characterized by enhanced thought processes [that] take place when the brain is not functioning well or sometimes not functioning at all since it is in cardiac arrest or deep anesthesia—times when brain science would tell us that you shouldn’t be able to think or perceive or form memories—it becomes quite clear that we can’t explain this thing on the basis of brain physiology.”
Another scientist at the conference, neurosurgeon Eben Alexander, gave personal testimony to Dr. Greyson’s conclusion.
In 2008, Dr. Alexander contracted acute bacterial meningitis, which damages the neocortex, and went into a coma, spending six days on a ventilator. But he had a NDE during his coma in which he had vivid experiences involving multiple senses, such as vision, hearing, and smell. For days after the coma, Alexander struggled to speak and recall memories before the coma. No one with this kind of severe brain damage is expected to fully recover, but Alexander did. He asks:
“My brain right now—I think it recovered pretty well—could not do anything close to what my brain was doing [during my NDE]. How does a dying brain end up getting far, far more powerful and able to handle these tremendous loads of information instantaneously and put it altogether?”
See also the NDE account of a Chicago medical doctor who clinically died during an emergency procedure. Click here.
For centuries, philosophers have debated whether the human mind is separate from body. The phenomenon of Near Death Experiences not only is empirical evidence of that separation, NDEs also point to the existence of the soul. How else can a person who is clinically dead — whose brain has ceased to function — be able to see and hear?
Perhaps what we call “mind” is just another word for “soul.”
Toward the end of his life, Christopher Hitchens told an interviewer who questioned him about his atheism: “No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind. But I like surprises.”
I betcha Hitchens had the surprise of his life….
See also my post on medical doctor Duncan MacDougall’s experiment suggesting that our soul weighs 21 grams.
UPDATE (Nov. 27, 2014):
Click here for the fascinating case, reported by cardiac surgeon Lloyd W. Rudy (1934-2012), of a patient declared dead for at least 20 minutes who returned to life and accurately described events that took place in the operating room which he could not have seen because his eyes had been taped shut to protect his corneas during the operation.