Markie Soposky, religious studies and gender studies
Written for REL-R300: Religion, Atheism and Spirituality
Instructor: Prof. Stephen Selka
It was… spring semester my freshman year of high school and I had a bio final the next day and needed to study, and my mom was like flipping shit at me and I was sobbing… and I was feeling my body going numb… but I have to study for this final so I’m trying to study… all of the sudden everything went black. (Bridget [name changed] 2015)
A near-death experience, what Bridget begins to describe above, is defined by the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) as “A lucid experience associated with perceived consciousness apart from the body occurring at the time of actual or threatened imminent death.” For our purposes—as in relating back to spirituality and religion—I would also like to use this simpler phrase: a soul that is “surviving death” (Fox 13). Many of these experiences are very similar and they tend to be relatively consistent. There are reports of meeting dead loved ones, people of history, and—most importantly for us—a being of light.
Raymond A. Moody, Jr is considered to be the “founding father…of ‘near-death studies’” (Fox 13-14). His first book, Life after Life, was published in 1975. In it, he considers one of life’s greatest questions: What is it like to die? Moody’s research combines aver 150 accounts of near-death experiences and was among the first to do so. He focuses mainly on two types of experiences: clinical death and the “close brush with death” (Moody 17). A clinical death is when someone is pronounced brain dead. This means that all vital signs stop and as far as a doctor can tell, the person is dead. A “close brush with death” occurs in instances like Bridget’s. This means that someone does not die, but almost does, as in cases with attempted suicide or car accidents.
Carol Zaleski provides one of the next most significant accounts of near-death experiences. Her book, Otherworld Journeys: Accounts of Near-death Experience in Medieval and Modern Times, was published in 1987. What makes this text so significant compared to the others that came before it is Zaleski’s efforts to bring religion into the mix. Zaleski argues that the phrase “being of light” is ““interpretation-rich and culture-specific” (Fox 88) and that each individual experiences it differently, often based on their religious background. This being said, Zaleski argues that each experience is unique because there is “no common core to religious experience” (Fox 88), despite the fact that people experience similar themes.
Zaleski starts the conversation surrounding near-death experiences and religion. This “being of light” that many encounter is very real, at least in this new “dimension of reality” that the soul travels to after death (Moody 13). I argue that embracing the “being of light” is what makes many religious people shift to embracing spirituality. Later, I will unpack the differences between traditional religion and spirituality as well as the changes that develop in a person post-NDE.
Before diving further into this conversion, I would first like to discuss this “being of light” in more depth. Moody reports that this being is the “most incredible common element” (Moody 62) across all of the testimonies. For our purposes, the most important aspect of this being is the consistent feeling of “total love and acceptance” (Moody 61) that people experience. This being may or may not interact with the person, but when it does, it is unfailingly loving. One testimony goes as follows:
I got up and walked into the hall to go get a drink, and it was at that point, as they found out later, that my appendix ruptured. I became very weak, and I fell down. I began to feel a sort of drifting, a movement of my real being in and out of my body, and to hear beautiful music. I floated on down the hall and out the door onto the screened-in porch. There, it almost seemed that clouds, a pink mist really, began to gather around me, and then I floated right straight on through the screen, just as though it weren’t there, and up into this pure crystal clear light, an illuminating white light. It was beautiful and so bright, so radiant, but it didn’t hurt my eyes. It’s not any kind of light you can describe on earth. I didn’t actually see a person in this light, and yet it has a special identity, it definitely does. It is a light of perfect understanding and perfect love.
The thought came to my mind, “Lovest thou me?” This was not exactly in the form of a question, but I guess the connotation of what the light said was, “If you do love me, go back and complete what you began in your life.” And all during this time, I felt as though I were surrounded by an overwhelming love and compassion. (Moody 62-63).
Zaleski also identifies this “being of light” throughout her research. She, like Moody, notes that this light “radiates wisdom and compassion” (Zaleski 124). She provides the following testimony:
It was a dynamic light, not like a spotlight. It was an incredible energy—a light you wouldn’t believe. I almost floated in it. It was feeding my consciousness feelings of unconditional love, complete safety, and complete, total perfection… It just powed into you. (Zaleski 125)
As well as:
It’s impossible to describe. It truly can’t be put into words. If one could put a definition on peace and love, or describe it, make it tangible, you might get pretty close. I didn’t want to ever leave that brilliance! (Zaleski 125)
This being is interpreted in many different ways, all of which seems to correlate to the near-death experiencer’s religious background. For example, most Christians seem to relate this “being of light” as Jesus or the Holy Spirit or some other Biblical character, while Jews tend to equate it to an angel. That being said, there are typically no actual physical characteristics to this grand being, just light. Moody tells of a man who had absolutely no religious background before his experience. This man also simply identified a “being of light” (Moody 59). This goes to say that even religious people tend to stray away from the strict, physical characteristics of a higher power because of their experiences. The typical old man with a long beard sitting on his throne in the sky, which is an image that many use to describe God, is not an image that these experiences confirm. Instead, their narratives depict a more spiritual being, one that completely lacks any physical characteristic other than blinding light. All of these descriptions of a higher power depends on the person’s account of their experience, and their background play a large role in their reports.
There are many other similar familiarities that align with near-death experiences. Among the most common of these are traveling through a tunnel, feeling like one is outside of one’s body, meeting dead family members or people of history, and overwhelming feelings of peace and love and joy. Fox, in his book Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience, proposes this question: Is there an underlying, common core to near-death experience? (109). He seems to conclude that these experiences are in fact all the same, but the reports are different. This is to say that, because of cultural and religious differences in the background, the language used when recounting near-death experiences differs. For example, Fox describes a testimony from an African woman who, instead of describing traveling through some sort of tunnel, recounts feeling like she was inside of a hallowed out gourd, specifically a “big calabash with a big opening” (Fox 137). The language used in this account is “appropriate to an African setting” (Fox 137), instead of the Western picture of a tunnel. Regardless of this distinction, these experiences are largely consistent.
Bridget, the beginning of whose near-death experience was quoted above, also describes similar phenomenon. While she personally did not feel like she encountered a “being of light,” she does describe being in a “solid space… almost like a black box theatre” where she did not feel alone. She remembers not a being or God or anything present, but instead just knowing that it was not her time. Bridget recounts her near-death experience as follows:
I was really unhappy with my life and just like everything, ever and so I was like “Fuck this” and so… I ODed on a bunch of pills. I took like… ten Xanax… like hefty Xanax…. I was 15. I just started feeling my body going numb, and I was like “okay”… but my mom was yelling at me and freaking out because I had a biology final the next day. It was… spring semester my freshman year of high school and I had a bio final the next day and needed to study, and my mom was like flipping shit at me and I was sobbing… and I was feeling my body going numb… but I have to study for this final so I’m trying to study… all of the sudden everything went black. I literally felt like my body shut down. There was this moment of being in a solid space, and… I wouldn’t say that there was any light or anything but I definitely did not feel alone… and I just like, I kind of felt almost, not like God or anything, but I felt like it wasn’t my time, and there was something impeding me from moving forward into what would have been light or whatever… so I was like okay, clearly this isn’t my time and so I got out of it… and came back and made myself throw up and went on studying for my bio final… I got a B plus and was really proud… but like afterward I was just, way more aware, I think, of the things that aren’t necessarily coincidental.
So how does one make the move from religious to spiritual after these types of experiences? First, we must make the distinction between religious and spiritual. To Jodi Long, a researcher of near-death experiences at NDERF, religion is “…the routine, social structure and practices of a group,” whereas spirituality lacks the “dogma associated with religion” and is “…the actual feeling of love and the conscious exercise of free will to bring one closer to God.” Long conducted a study in 2002 among accounts of near-death experience. The people of this study were asked to submit their experience to the NDERF website, and those experiences were thus analyzed. Then, each person whose experience met NDERF’s standards was asked a couple of questions: 1) “Your religious background at time of experience (Faith/denomination (or ‘None’)”, and 2) “Your religious background currently (Faith/denomination (or ‘None’).” (Long 2002). The results are as follows:
As you can see, the amount of people who, pre-NDE, considered themselves “spiritual/universal” increased dramatically post-NDE (Long 2002). Spirituality is often associated with positivity and a one-ness with themselves and the world. It is also interesting and important to point out that “Buddhist/eastern” and “New age, Wiccan, Pagan” numbers also increased (Long 2002). Typically, these religious categories are seen as less rigid than traditional religion and require that a person feel connected to themselves and the world around them, thus they very often fall into the common perception of spirituality. It is also important to note that the “Atheist” category (which was already pretty small) diminished completely (Long 2002).
Another study, conducted by Dr. Pirn van Lommel of the Netherlands, analyzed the near-death experiences of cardiac patients who were successfully resuscitated. These types of experiences would fall under Moody’s category of clinical deaths. This study compared the lives of NDE patients after two years, and again after eight years. Van Lommel makes an attempt, like Moody and Zaleski before him, to identify some of the common themes across near-death experiences. Of the people in his study, 56% identified “positive emotions” and 23% experienced “communication with light” (van Lommel 2041).
Van Lommel’s research actually contradicted Long’s in that the people of his study did not feel more spiritual post-NDE. However, van Lommel does report increased feelings of understanding the meaning of life, appreciation of the little things, understanding oneself and others, and overall generally stronger feelings of love, empathy, and acceptance (van Lommel 2042). His study also reports a decrease in the fear of death. All of these are characteristics that we generally attribute to spirituality, whether or not the people of van Lommel’s study identify themselves as spiritual.
In her personal account, Bridget describes her journey to spirituality. Currently identifying as a Lutheran, she admits that—before her near-death experience—she was unreligious. However, post-NDE, Bridget says that she became a “more spiritual person and being spiritual eventually led… to me becoming Christian again.” Bridget also states that she, similarly to van Lommel’s study, felt generally “more life aware” in that she began to appreciate and notice the little things around her, like “how beautiful the trees look in September.”
There is no doubt that many people who have near-death experiences endure the same core phenomenon. From feeling like they are in a closed space or tunnel to encountering a celestial “being of light,” these experiences tend to be universal across cultures and religions. It can also be shown that, post-NDE, people tend to lean towards spirituality instead of religion. While this is not always the case, as we can see in the van Lommel study, Moody, Zaleski, and Long attribute a conversion to spirituality to embracing this “being of light.” Even if one does not necessarily identify themselves as spiritual, they may still feel more compassionate and loving overall post-NDE. After all, experiencing death forces one to realize that life is precious.
To close, Bridget finishes our interview with these thoughts about the difference between religion and spirituality:
I wouldn’t say religion is at the core of my being, as much as I like tradition and religion. I think spirituality is a part of me, whereas religion is something I chose to have in my life. (2015).
Bridget’s testimony shows that spirituality is so often about personal experiences and not something that one choses to believe, as religion often is. Near-death experiences inspire these feelings of being spiritually connected, be it to the world or to oneself.