Now in Paperback: Proof of Heaven
by Eben Alexander
Simon & Schuster, 2012
Given a deeply undeserved and best-selling paperback reprint, Eben Alexander’s delusional screed Proof of Heaven continues to prove both that P. T. Barnum was right about the birth-rate of suckers and also that Dean Swift was right about how overwhelmingly humans fear being dead. Thanks to the author’s smiling, hugging appearances with Oprah Winfrey and other feel-good media personalities, the book’s contents will be familiar even to people who haven’t had the misfortune to read it: Alexander, a neurosurgeon, contracted a rare type of bacterial meningitis that temporarily shut down his neocortex (an area of the brain responsible for sensory awareness and conscious thought) and put him in a coma for a week. When he finally awakened from that coma, he began telling his friends and colleagues that while he’d been comatose and medicated, he’d experienced what’s known in our depressing fin-de-siecle era – in which any kind of horsecrap in the barnyard can get its own acronymn – as an “NDE” – a Near Death Experience.
His was not uncommon: he’d journeyed through a Gateway to encounter an Orb and receive the guidance of a beautiful woman while listening to haunting Spinning Melodies until he’s ushered into the presence of the Creator. He’s surrounded by feelings of warmth and acceptance; he’s disconnected from the hurly-burly pettiness of the working world; he’s told “you are loved and cherished, nothing you can do is wrong.” When he’s told he has to go back to life, he’s sad. When he wakes up, he feels certain it was all real – and that he was sent back for a reason, that reason being, with an utterly boring inevitability that has plagued mankind throughout its entire existence on Earth, to spread the word.
The word in this case is also not uncommon: that there’s more to existence than life, that death is not the end. Alexander recounts his earlier, unbelieving days (when he was known as Dr. Saul of Tarsus, one presumes) when he could be sympathetic to patients who told him of their own NDEs but he certainly didn’t believe them. He knew better, he tells us: the brain is an incredibly complex organ, but it’s entirely dependent on a steady supply of oxygen brought to it by the blood – cut off the oxygen, and the brain dies. And since the brain is the source of all thought and memory, when it dies the person dies too. Then his own brain shut down.
The crux of his new story is that the things he experienced couldn’t have been hallucinations, since the very part of his brain responsible for all sensory interpretation – his neocortex – wasn’t functioning (in a hyperactive sloppiness typical of the whole book, he keeps telling his readers that his neocortex “wasn’t there anymore,” that it was “gone” – even though he clearly hadn’t had the surgery necessary to make that true)(and wouldn’t be able to claim it afterwards if he had). The only possible answer is that all the stuff he says he experienced – the Orb, the Gateway, the Creator brimming with love – must have been real. Once he began reflecting on this, he became certain of its centrality:
I’m back from that place, and nothing could convince me that this is not only the single most important emotional truth in the universe, but also the single most important scientific truth as well.
As Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens (among others, including a great many Catholic theologians) have often pointed out, when a person says “I believe X and nothing could convince me not to,” that person has stopped being rational and has therefore lost any claim on the public attention. And yet the public continues to pay huge amounts of attention to this nonsense, despite the rather obvious arguments against it.
Not only are such NDE delusions commonly experienced by patients upon leaving any kind of prolonged disruption of their conscious awareness (since Alexander’s neocortex wasn’t functioning during his coma, he has no basis for flatly proclaiming when his delusions took place), and not only were those delusions formulated by Alexander much later (when he first woke up, according to his anxiously attending relatives, “You were just coming out of a coma, you weren’t at all fully aware of where you were or what was going on, you talked about all kinds of crazy stuff half the time”), but there’s also the, you’ll pardon the word, damning fact that the ‘afterlife’ Alexander claims to have seen just happens to coincide with the vaguely Christian conception currently prevalent in the West. “You are loved and cherished, nothing you can do is wrong” certainly isn’t anything Alexander would have been told in the afterlife of the ancient Egyptians or Greeks; he wouldn’t have heard it from Odin in Valhalla; indeed, he wouldn’t hear it in the afterlife of two-thirds of the religions currently being practiced today. The message he was sent back to promulgate, that “Love is, without a doubt, the basis of everything,” is a distinctly post-Vatican II Baby Boomer nursery-version even of the Catholic afterlife – it’s only noteworthy feature is that it’s more comforting than “Hydrogen is, without a doubt, the basis of everything.”
The whole thing starts off much the same as that moment we’ve all had where we wake from a dream and tell the first unlucky person we meet, “It all seemed so REAL.” But then it warps into the colossal, alarming bore of the person who’s still saying that even after lunch. In the real world, such a person would soon hear, “Well you know what, Eben? That dream you had where you were flying over beautiful fields in the presence of an angel? It didn’t really happen, any more than my dream about being on an island with George Clooney happened, so could you kindly drop it, because I’m late for my shift?” In the world of publishing, something else entirely happens.
“What happened to me was healing news,” Alexander tells us at one point. ” What kind of healer would I be I didn’t share it?”
As mentioned, Proof of Heaven is a massive bestseller.