Skeptiko Interview and Discussion Now Live!
"Dr. Gregory Shushan’s research into near-death experience across cultures
rankles skeptics and believers."
This is how Alex Tsakiris of Skeptiko website headlined my recent interview. I like this description because it shows that I've been successful in treating this subject with as much objectivity as possible. If it were uncontroversial, there would have been little point in doing the research in the first place!
The interview touches on a wide range of subjects surrounding near-death experiences across cultures, from problems with interpreting historical accounts to the kinds of objections I've encountered in my work.
Hardline skeptics refuse to accept even that there is such a thing as a "near-death experience" that transcends cultures. They believe (and I use that word deliberately) that all experience is not just culturally influenced, but culturally constructed. This means that pre-existing beliefs about an afterlife "create" accounts of NDEs, rather than vice versa. The idea that extraordinary experiences such as NDEs can generate new beliefs across cultures is viewed as nonsensical. Along with the work of scholars such as David Hufford, James McClenon, Allan Kellehear and others, my research disproves this "hard constructivist" stance once and for all.
On the other hand, those who believe that NDEs are evidence of an afterlife are often unhappy to learn that NDEs can differ widely across cultures. They want to know that their own idea of the afterlife is the correct one: that they will enter a tunnel, meet a particular being of light, have a life review, and so on. They don't want to hear about the fact that in many NDEs in different cultures there is no tunnel per se (though there is darkness and light), that the identity of the "being of light" differs by individual (and is not universal anyway), and that life reviews are rare.
Both camps must go through various mental gymnastics to preserve their beliefs - and usually that involves refusing to see similarities as similarities, or refusing to acknowledge difference. Because if there is such a thing as NDEs across cultures, house of cards #1 falls. And if NDEs vary between cultures, house of cards #2 falls. This means that both stances require denying evidence. In my recent book I present such evidence - including dozens of historical examples of people in indigenous societies stating that they based their afterlife beliefs on NDEs. I also summarize over a hundred examples of indigenous NDE accounts, and explore how they were integrated into the ritual and belief systems of many societies. I also explore the reasons why NDEs were seen in negative terms in other societies, or were even unknown.
And these issues are apart from the use of similarities between NDEs to support theories that NDEs are "all in the brain" - as well as theories that they're actually evidence of an afterlife!
The implications of both the similarities and differences between NDEs across cultures are explored in this interview - and, of course, in my books and articles.
When you've finished the interview, you can head over to Skeptiko's forum and join in the discussion about it. I'll pop in on occasion to answer questions.