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Miller on Heaven

Most of us have heard stories of near-death experiences (NDE). The feeling of being out of the body and visions of tunnels, Heaven_by_Millerlight, even a gate or door, are the stuff of ubiquitous pop culture. These relatively rare experiences even provide a measure of reassurance for some religious believers primarily because of the oft-reported sense of being reunited with lost loved ones and sometimes even God, and the apparent resemblance of these experiences to traditional religious accounts of the afterlife. Nevertheless, as with all human experiences, NDEs are mediated by the circuitry of our brains. For this reason, and in telling witness to the bio-cultural nature of religion, Lisa Miller in her new book on Heaven: Our Enduring Fascination with the Afterlife takes up the topic of the scientific study of NDE alongside the Bible, art history, and Dante.

Miller’s book is meant to be a “history of heaven—from the earliest biblical conceptions of the afterlife to the theologians who frame our understandings to the convictions and perceptions of everyday people.” Miller draws on a wide range of sources and methods in her study including contemporary biblical scholarship, history, theology, and popular culture. Along the way she “raises debates and discussions not just about our visions of the afterlife, but about how our beliefs have influenced the societies we have built and the lifestyles to which we have subscribed, exploring the roots of our beliefs in heaven and how these have evolved throughout the ages to offer comfort and hope.”

Among the theories of the origins of belief in heaven (including divine revelation as reported in sacred texts and religious traditions of interpretation), Miller explores the biological notion, popular since the 1980s, that NDE itself produces, or at least reinforces, our ideas about the afterlife. For example, Miller entertains Andrew Newberg’s theory – or educated guess – that experiences of traveling in a “tunnel” is relatively easy to explain. Such sensations are the result of the visual system failing. Since peripheral vision fades first (as anyone who has fainted knows), the “tunnel” effect is not hard to account for – it is a symptom of the failure of our visual perception, evidence of dying not life after death. Newberg also proposes that the feelings of leaving one’s body and being vividly aware of past events and the like may be the result of both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems – usually mutually exclusive except in some mystical experiences and perhaps also around the time of death – being “on” at the same time. “The sympathetic nervous system kicks in when a car cuts you off on the highway; the parasympathetic system is in charge as you’re falling asleep.”

Miller also treats the physiological self-defense theory of NDE. According to this line of thinking, “in order to guard against damage during trauma, the brain releases protective chemicals that also happen to trigger intense hallucinations,” an idea made all the more plausible by the uncanny similarity between the effects of ketamine (a horse tranquilizer and “party drug”) and NDEs.

While Miller’s most sustained engagement is with the resources and insights of the humanities broadly construed it is surely a strong indication that unlike in past periods a responsible, thoughtful, discussion of religious phenomena of any kind involves discussion of the human sciences. For this reason, Heaven is notable and researchers in the biocultural aspects of religion may well find this book an interesting read - regardless of the conclusions drawn by its author. Perhaps works of this type can signal a period of greater cooperation across disciplines and even foster the sort of creative dialogue that would seem to be required by the biocultural complexity of religion.

For the original Newsweek piece adapted from Heaven on which this article is based see here.

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