Mark Fox. Religion, Spirituality and the Near Death Experience. Routledge, 2003.
Mark Fox is a member of the research committee of the Religious Experience Research Unit at the University of Wales, Lampeter and a lecturer at Joseph Chamberlain college, Birmingham, and in this book he takes a detailed look at the NDE: both surveying existing investigations and making a new study based on old files in the RERU. The title should not let you be put off this study, because it is much more wide ranging than it suggests, and what theology there is applied very lightly. This is not a book which quotes the Bible at you.
What Fox does is seek to hunt out whether, as claimed, there are any culturally invariant core experiences behind the NDE, such as the tunnel and the light, and whether there is any good evidence which forces theology (or science for that matter) to confront dualism. The result is a very fair minded study which leads Fox to what one might call an agnostic conclusion. He concludes that both those who argue for the essentially paranormal nature of the NDE and their sceptical critics tend to over simplify the situation. Is there an invariant core? Maybe, but its not as clear cut as the believers suggest; is there evidence for a purely neurological explanation for the NDE, again Fox feels this is equivocal. Susan Blackmore’s explanations for example rely on taking the standard model of the NDE as propounded by Moody at face value.
Fox’s study of the material gathered by RERU, some of it from before the publication of Moody’s book, shows that this is an oversimplification. For example there may be references to periods of darkness, but rarely are these classed as tunnels, and when that word is used it tends to be in a more metaphorical sense than is usually intended.
Another feature that comes out of the RERU study is that Fox suspects that much of the material gathered by NDE researchers might be cut and pasted from longer narratives. Some of these in the RERU study are long and full of metaphysical speculation of the type sometimes associated with temporal lobe epilepsy. It’s a pity that he doesn’t reproduce any of these in full, but several of the excerpts show clear Spiritualist, Christian or Theosophical inspiration. Whether this is a common factor for all NDE experiencers or just the sort of the people who write to organisations like RERU is another matter.
One narrative of particular interest, in view of the some recent controversies in the UFO world, is a story which begins with a classic sleep paralysis episode in which the experiencer hears a roaring in her head and is unable to raise her head from the pillow; has an OBE associated with loneliness, heaviness, and terror; meets two boys, then feels despair then love; then journeys to a sort of hill top where a middle aged women sends her back. This is a classic example of the sort of vivid and powerful dream sometimes associated with sleep paralysis, which experiences cannot accept as a dream. Several other stories also have sleep paralysis features.
Fox makes a special examination of cases where it is claimed that the blind can see during NDE’s. He notes, that one of the most dramatic of these was supplied by the very same social worker who supplied the shoe on the ledge story often quoted in the OBEE literature, and said to have occurred in the very same hospital. I rather suspect that Fox takes the position “you might think that the investigator made up these stories but I couldn’t possibly comment” He points out that people who have been blind all their lives or since early childhood who have had sight restored by surgery actually have to be taught how to see.
One NDE experiencer claimed she saw things with absolute clarity but in black and white. Surely if she had indeed been totally blind since birth she could have no concept of what colour actually looked like, or indeed what sight was actually like. It may well be that the people making these claims, though registered blind do in fact have some residual sight from which they can build up models of what good sight looks like.
Fox raises several interesting issues of cultural influence on NDE accounts, noting the role of investigators who may ask more leading questions than they realise, the role of support groups, the role of memory, the all pervasive influence of culture, without which we cannot interpret the world at all.
In the final chapter Fox examines the civil war between Christians and New Agers into which the main NDE organisation, IANDS has fallen. One can’t help feeling this was inevitable once some NDE researchers abandoned research for proselytising. While unlike to satisfy fundamentalist believers or fundamentalist sceptics this is a most worthwhile study that I recommend. -- Peter Rogerson