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Newsweek/DailyBeast: Scientific 'Proof' That Heaven Is Real?

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If you've been wondering, you can now put yourself at ease: Heaven is real. 

That comforting end to a discussion lasting thousands of years comes not from an evangelical group, not from a pastor, not from a mystic or a saint -- but from the cover of this week's Newsweek and its online counterpart The Daily Beast.

The story wastes no time telling us the author of the story, Eben Alexander, is a neurosurgeon at Harvard, and the son of a neurosurgeon. "I grew up in a scientific world... and had always believed there were good scientific explanations for the heavenly out-of-body journeys described by those who narrowly escaped death." Their "strange stories... didn't mean they had journeyed anywhere real." No religion or mysticism for him, in other words: He's a scientist

But his interpretation of those out-of-body journeys changed in 2008, when he slipped into a coma for seven days after contracting bacterial meningitis. During those seven days, he had an out-of-body experience of his own. And that gave him "a scientific reason to believe in consciousness after death." He is telling the story, he says, with "the logic and language of the scientist I am."

Here's his scientific argument for the existence of an afterlife:

While the neurons of my cortex were stunned to complete inactivity by the bacteria that had attacked them, my brain-free consciousness journeyed to another, larger dimension of the universe: a dimension I’d never dreamed existed and which the old, pre-coma me would have been more than happy to explain was a simple impossibility.

That's it for the science. No tables, charts or graphs, no data, no publications in scientific journals.

Having proved his case, Alexander then goes on to describe the experience. The highlight was a message about the secret of life, delivered in an unearthly language by a young woman with high cheekbones, deep-blue eyes and golden tresses. I know if I kept you in suspense you'd just skip ahead, so here it is, in Alexander's words:

The message had three parts, and if I had to translate them into earthly language, I’d say they ran something like this:

“You are loved and cherished, dearly, forever.”

“You have nothing to fear.”

“There is nothing you can do wrong.”

I have kept you in suspense about one thing. As you might have suspected, this is an excerpt from a forthcoming bookProof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon's Journey into the Afterlife, to be published later this month by Simon & Schuster. At this writing, it's No. 5 on the Amazon bestseller list, and it's not out yet.

Neither Simon & Schuster nor Newsweek/Daily Beast provided much information about Alexander, but his LinkedIn page identifies him as chief science officer at Eternea, in Lynchburg, Va. Eternea's website says it is a "research, educational and outreach organization" and its "mission is to advance research, education and applied programs concerning the physics of consciousness and the interactive relationship between consciousness and physical reality (e.g. matter and energy), and to enhance the understanding of spiritually transformative experiences."

I have no quibble with others' religious beliefs. Those who choose to accept Alexander's interpretation of his experiences are welcome to do so, as far as I'm concerned. 

But I strongly object to Alexander's, and Newsweek/Beast's and Simon & Schuster's collusion in dressing this up as scientific evidence for heaven, golden-locked lasses, and out-of-body experiences. There is nothing scientific about Alexander's claims or his"proof." We are all demeaned, and our national conversation is demeaned, by people who promote this kind of thing as science.

This is religious belief; nothing else.

I wouldn't bother to argue science with creationists who believe the world was made in six days; their beliefs are unshakeable. But the editors at Newsweek/Daily Beast and Simon & Schuster should know better. I have no doubt that all of the parties involved will make a large amount of money from this project -- money that will not, I suspect, be accepted as legal tender in their glittering afterlives.

This post originally appeared at the Knight Science Journalism Tracker.