Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

Skip to comments.

What Happened When The Worlds Most Famous Atheist Had A Near Death Experience.
National Post | March 3 2001 | William Cash

Posted on 02/04/2004 5:20:15 PM PST by catonsville

Did atheist philosopher see God when he 'died'? William Cash National Post March 3, 2001

"I haven't told this to anybody before," said Dr. Jeremy George, senior consultant in the Department of Thoracic Medicine at London University's Middlesex Hospital. On the table in front of him were the official hospital notes of "Sir Alfred Ayer, date of birth 29/10/10, of 51 York Street, London, W1." We were discussing the incident of June, 1988, when the eminent 77-year-old British philosopher, arguably the most influential 20th century rationalist after Bertrand Russell, famously "died" in London University Hospital. His heart stopped for four minutes when he apparently choked on a slice of smoked salmon smuggled in by a former mistress. Three months later, while recuperating at his house in the south of France, the atheist author of Language, Truth and Logic, whose more than 50-year career was devoted to ridiculing all metaphysical statements, especially all Christian doctrine, as nonsense, wrote a lengthy article for Britain's The Sunday Telegraph, titled What I Saw When I Was Dead, about his bizarre visit to the other side and how, as a humanist philosopher, it had affected his view of death.

Ayer's article, with his vivid memory of being pulled toward a red light, "exceedingly bright, and also very painful," his encounters with the "ministers" of the universe, and his frustration as he tried to "cross the river" -- which he presumed was the Styx -- bears a very curious resemblance to similar reports of near-death experiences recalled by 63 survivors of cardiac arrest at Southampton General Hospital, and published last week in the science journal Resuscitation.

Dr. Peter Fenwick. of the Institute of Psychiatry in London, a leading consultant who was involved in the findings, said the collected data is the first medical evidence that proves the mind can continue to exist after the body is clinically dead, and that a form of afterlife is now scientifically explainable. "Those who return all report that they have been changed," he said. "Those who were religious found their faith renewed. Those who had no faith often acquired at least a belief in some form of afterlife".

However, in his article Ayer concluded his experience had done nothing to weaken his belief that there is no God. In a second article, titled Postscript to a Postmortem, Ayer added a further denial that the experience had led him to alter his secularist view that "there is no life after death". Ayer, after all, had good reason to rebut any suggestion he had changed his atheist convictions. From the late 1940s, he had been employed by the BBC to take on such opponents as Hugh Montefiore, Bishop of Birmingham, and Jesuit priest Martin D'Arcy, a friend of Evelyn Waugh, and to broadcast his vigorously humanist views. But did intellectual pride induce Freddie -- as he was known to many -- to compromise his version of the truth of what really happened during the four minutes of his clinical death?

Last year, after I wrote a play for the Edinburgh Festival about Ayer's near death experience, I received a letter from Dr. Jeremy George, who had been senior registrar in charge of Ayer while he was in hospital. He told me he had some new information he thought I might find "very interesting."

Dr. George was the duty doctor when Ayer was first admitted on May 31, 1988, after falling seriously ill with pneumonia after a lunch at the Savoy. By a strange coincidence, Dr. George had been a student at New College, Oxford in the 1970s when Ayer was at the college as Wykeham Professor of Logic. Although he was not taught by Ayer, Dr. George had met him. When the young doctor saw this "crumpled heap in a corner of the private wing," he immediately recognized him as Britain's most celebrated living philosopher. "He was very pleased that somebody knew who he was" said Dr. George, "He looked very blue. His oxygen level was virtually incompatible with life." Dr. George gave Ayer emergency oxygen and put him immediately in the intensive care unit, where his condition improved. "He would not have survived the day. I was amazed how lucid he became. I think he made a joke in Latin."

During Ayer's week in intensive care, the nurses turned a blind eye to his private supply of smoked salmon in the unit fridge provided by an old lover who left him for Graham Greene in the early 1950s but remained a close friend. Indeed, the hospital staff had to put a ban on the number of his female visitors, among them his latest girlfriend, a married Canadian woman with whom he was planning an adulterous weekend in Paris the moment he was discharged.

In the early evening of June 6, Ayer later wrote, he "carelessly tossed" a slice of salmon down this throat. Choking as it went the wrong way down, he was clinically dead for four minutes. The hospital notes state: "cardiac arrest with bradycardia, and asystole, but was resuscitated". Having been alerted by the nurse, who administered emergency procedures, Dr. George looked down Freddie's throat. "I found a lot of secretions and sputum but the smoked salmon was a red herring. There wasn't any that I could see. But I suppose it made a better story". In order to ascertain whether Ayer had suffered any brain damage, Professor Spiro, the senior consultant, and Dr. George then had to subject Ayer to a general knowledge quiz to test his brain.

"I think we asked him who the prime minister was, and what day was it," said Dr. George. "The answers quickly shut us up. They were all correct. He blew us out of the water. There was absolutely no brain damage. He was very lucid. I think he wanted to be asked more questions, such as the name the players of the winning football team of the First Division. We had no idea if he was making them up or not, we just assumed he got them right."

That same day, having finished his rounds, Dr. George returned to Ayer's bedside. "I came back to talk to him. Very discreetly, I asked him, as a philosopher, what was it like to have had a near-death experience? He suddenly looked rather sheepish. Then he said, 'I saw a Divine Being. I'm afraid I'm going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.' "He clearly said 'Divine Being,'" said Dr. George. "He was confiding in me, and I think he was slightly embarrassed because it was unsettling for him as an atheist. He spoke in a very confidential manner. I think he felt he had come face to face with God, or his maker, or what one might say was God.

"Later, when I read his article, I was surprised to see he had left out all mention of it. I was simply amused. I wasn't very familiar with his philosophy at the time of the incident, so the significance wasn't immediately obvious. I didn't realize he was a logical positivist." "I am amazed," said his widow Dee Wells, after I related the extraordinary confession Dr. George had passed on to me.

Their son, Nick Ayer, who had been with his father in hospital throughout his illness, and had slept in Ayer's private room, was also silent for a second when I told him the story, and then added: "It doesn't sound like a joke. It sounds extraordinary. He certainly never mentioned anything like that to me. I don't know what to make of it. When he first came round after he was 'dead' he said nothing of any of this. Nothing at all."

Nick said that he had long felt there was something possibly suspect about his father's version of his near death experience. "All this stuff about crossing the River Styx -- it just sounds too good to be true. There was three months between his time in hospital and when he decided to write the article in France. He never mentioned any of that business once. And I was with him all the time. I always thought it sounded more like a dream." According to Freddie's article, his first recorded words after he came round in hospital were to exclaim to the audience gathered around his bed:

"You are all mad." But again, Nick Ayer has no recollection of ever hearing any mention of this until the piece appeared three months later. So can Ayer's memory or his own words really be trusted? Freddie always claimed he devoted his life to the pursuit of Truth. But as Dee Wells was quick to point out when I visited her at York Street, where she has continued to live since Freddie's death, the truth could rapidly become meaningless for Freddie when it happened to suit him -- with women, for example.

Certainly it does seem very odd that Ayer, in either of his two detailed articles, did not so much as mention his conversation with Dr. George about having to rewrite all his books and works; if only -- in his usual fashion -- to dispose of it with his usual logical clarity. According to Freddie, and his newspaper piece, the first conversation he remembered having was with his ex-lover Beatrice Tourot, who was sitting on his bed. They spoke in French, with Ayer saying: "Did you know that I was dead ? It was most extraordinary, my thoughts became persons."

Freddie was discharged from hospital on July 3, 1988. He died a year later, having remarried Dee Wells (who had been his second wife and then became his fourth). Despite declaring himself a "born-again atheist," his friends and family noticed that Freddie -- like the 63 patients interviewed for last week's report -- certainly seemed to change.

"Freddie became so much nicer after he died," said Dee. "He was not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people." Ayer also told the writer Edward St. Aubyn in France that he had had "a kind of resurrection" and for the first time in his life, he had begun to notice scenery. In France, on a mountain near his villa, he said, "I suddenly stopped and looked out at the sea and thought, my God, how beautiful this is ... for 26 years I had never really looked at it before."

What is also undeniably true -- and has never been reported on -- is that at the end of his life, Freddie spent more and more time with his former BBC debating opponent, the Jesuit priest and philosopher Frederick Copleston, who was at Freddie's funeral at Golders Green crematorium.

"They got closer and closer and, in the end, he was Freddie's closest friend," said Dee. "It was quite extraordinary. As he got older, Freddie realized more and more that philosophy was just chasing its own tail."

Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first previous 1-2021-4041-6061-8081-99 last
To: js1138
I see no difference between what I experienced and what is being described by others in this thread.

What about the ones who aren't on drugs when it happens?

81 posted on 02/05/2004 7:22:56 PM PST by dubyagee
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 68 | View Replies]

To: retrokitten
Two days before my mom passed, I awoke to her saying "Goodbye...goodbye." I asked her who she was talking to. She said the ship was sailing and she couldn't get on yet.
82 posted on 02/05/2004 7:25:48 PM PST by dubyagee
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 72 | View Replies]

To: dubyagee
What about the ones who aren't on drugs when it happens?

I'm not sure what you mean by this. Near death does not really mean much unless it involves oxygen starvation in the brain. Simply having one's heart stop is irrelevant if there is a mechanical method for pumping blood to the brain.

The effects of oxygen starvation are similar to the effects of some drugs. So I am having trouble understanding how you could have a near death experience without having something -- at least temporarily -- wrong with the brain.

Visions in the absense of any brain abnormality would be an entirely different matter. I don't have any pat answer for that, althought I can see why people would be really reluctant to talk about them. the first impression would always be that the person is nuts. But I'm not going to judge anyone without knowing them.

83 posted on 02/05/2004 8:55:27 PM PST by js1138
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 81 | View Replies]

To: Oatka
I suspect that these experiences trigger a "religious" part of the brain

Please explain why such a part of the human brain would exist?

84 posted on 02/05/2004 9:32:49 PM PST by Ignatz (Helping people be more like me since 1960....)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 23 | View Replies]

To: js1138
Maybe you did die.
Ether can kill you, ya know.
85 posted on 02/05/2004 9:38:11 PM PST by Ignatz (Helping people be more like me since 1960....)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 40 | View Replies]

To: 3catsanadog
So I have been around many who were dying. I remember one lady on one of her last nights on earth reaching for the ceiling and saying "Pull me over, please pull me over."

My paternal grandfather died in the early 70s. Right before he died he suddenly sat up in bed and reached out for something. I think my grandmother asked him what he was seeing but he was already gone.

86 posted on 02/05/2004 11:27:11 PM PST by Canticle_of_Deborah
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 46 | View Replies]

To: catonsville
Ayer's article, with his vivid memory of being pulled toward a red light, "exceedingly bright, and also very painful,"

Is it just me or does this strike anyone else as not being a good thing?

87 posted on 02/05/2004 11:28:26 PM PST by Canticle_of_Deborah
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: catonsville
**What I Saw When I Was Dead, about his bizarre visit to the other side and how, as a humanist philosopher, it had affected his view of death.**

Will finish reading later.
88 posted on 02/06/2004 5:48:04 AM PST by Salvation (†With God all things are possible.†)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: catonsville
As he got older, Freddie realized more and more that philosophy was just chasing its own tail.

I loved this line. Thanks for the post.

89 posted on 02/06/2004 7:02:37 AM PST by MarMema
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: texgal
Nobody has returned from the dead since the resurrection of Christ.

Are you sure?

Mat 27:50 Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
Mat 27:51 And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
Mat 27:52 And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
Mat 27:53 And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
Note that the author, in writing after the fact, got a little ahead of himself in the telling and then added the clarification that this didn't happen until after Jesus' resurrection.
90 posted on 02/06/2004 11:33:34 AM PST by Some hope remaining.
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 26 | View Replies]

To: Some hope remaining.
You are right. I completely forgot about these verses. Mea Culpa!

Thanks for correcting me.

91 posted on 02/06/2004 6:28:11 PM PST by texgal (end no-fault divorce laws and return DUE PROCESS to our citizens))
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 90 | View Replies]

To: Ignatz
That was my sloppy term for that part of the brain, when stimulated, gives the person the feeling of a religious experience. Years back I read where neurosurgeons were able to recreate these experiences in just such a manner.

Put "NDE brain" in Google and check some of them out.

One of interest is at: but there are probably more from scientific sites.
92 posted on 02/06/2004 7:41:36 PM PST by Oatka
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 84 | View Replies]

To: catonsville
"She was clinically dead WITH NO BRAINWAVES. In other words nothing was going on in her mind. No brain activity."

Your post made me think of the Terri Schiavo case where Mrs. Schiavo has a severely atrophied cerebral cortex, yet seems to respond to those around her.

As to where consciousness "resides", to the best of my knowledge that question has no answer at this time.

All in all, this brings to my mind the line in the Old Testament to the effect that "I put before you today both life and death - therefore choose life."

I fear we haven't begun to examine how we treat the dying in light of what we are beginning to know about human experiences at the threshold of death.

Are these reports just artifacts of the shutting down of the bodies chemistry or are they something else?
93 posted on 02/06/2004 7:51:44 PM PST by GladesGuru (In a society predicated upon liberty, it is essential to examine principles - -)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 62 | View Replies]

To: texgal
No problem. It's pretty interesting, actually, to realize those verses are there and wonder why such a small mention is all there is. Especially considering they went into the city and appeared to many.
94 posted on 02/06/2004 8:12:31 PM PST by Some hope remaining.
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 91 | View Replies]

To: Oatka
I think you may have misunderstood my question: Why is the brain capable of religious experience?
Years ago, I read an interview (Omni magazine) with some scientist or "brain doctor" of some type, who said that spirituality must exist because the mind was capable of spiritual experience.
According to him, it "wouldn't be adaptive" if there were no spirituality. It made sense to me, and certainly gave me pause to consider!
95 posted on 02/08/2004 8:18:28 PM PST by Ignatz (Helping people be more like me since 1960....)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 92 | View Replies]

To: Ignatz
96 posted on 02/10/2004 8:48:27 AM PST by Publius6961 (40% of Californians are as dumb as a sack of rocks.)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 95 | View Replies]

To: catonsville
So you see, I tend to believe tales of people having near death experiences, of going to hell and being called out by female voices only to see their flesh being consumed.... I too had an indicative experience 10 years ago with my pneumonia, when I felt no pain all of a sudden and it was all calm, no fever, and I was floating along a dirt road, with bill boards on the left of pictures of starving Somalies ... with my cynical father's voice immitated, saying: "we surely are making too many children.", and I replied nothing, just astounded, almost feeling like to acknowledge.... and then I was all of a sudden swept around into a field nearby, and a dying brush of herbs lay there, a hand popping out the background picks it up and violently hits me on the head.... and there, I wake up, in fever and pain... knowing I went through near death, but not knowing to this day, WHO THIS VOICE CAME FROM (IT WAS SATAN WANTING ME TO LISTEN TO MY DAD! TRYING TO TELL ME TO AGREE AND GO TO HELL), and then, as I hesitated, I was honored to see the hand of God smacking me on the head with the last shrub of herb alive that I had not tended upon, but instead was made to think that making too many children was bad...

97 posted on 02/13/2004 12:11:23 PM PST by JudgemAll
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 1 | View Replies]

To: Zeroisanumber
And so many people's brains with all of their different life experiences come up with the same things while in basically the same state??? Your theory if correct should have people,s experiences as varied as their dreams.
98 posted on 04/10/2005 10:54:24 PM PDT by Bellflower (A new day is Coming!)
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 24 | View Replies]

To: Bellflower
And so many people's brains with all of their different life experiences come up with the same things while in basically the same state???

They don't. They first see a tunnel of white light, and then they dream up all sorts of whacked-out hallucenations including the usual: Dead relatives, Jesus, angels, etc. One guy in Philladelphia thought that he saw God and reported that God looked like Ronald McDonald.

The unusual thing is that the strongest beleivers in NDE are also people who tend to be fairly pious. Truly faithful people would understand that actual evidence of God or the afterlife would invalidate the true wonder of faith, and reduce us all to puppets carrying on a cruel play.

99 posted on 04/11/2005 8:26:15 AM PDT by Zeroisanumber
[ Post Reply | Private Reply | To 98 | View Replies]

Navigation: use the links below to view more comments.
first previous 1-2021-4041-6061-8081-99 last

Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.

Free Republic
Browse · Search
Topics · Post Article

FreeRepublic, LLC, PO BOX 9771, FRESNO, CA 93794 is powered by software copyright 2000-2008 John Robinson