Anyone familiar with the philosophical history of atheism knows that twentieth century British scholar A. J. Ayer is one of the most prominent atheists of the modern period. He was a leading figure in the movement known as Logical Positivism, and his Language, Truth, and Logic is one of the definitive statements of this radical empiricist orientation. Like other positivists, Ayer did not merely reject theism as false but insisted that the claim that there is a God is cognitively meaningless. (He made the same claim about moral statements, by the way, which he claimed to be nothing more than expressions of emotion.)
Toward the end of his life, Ayer had a near death experience, the content of which he reported in his fascinating essay “What I Saw When I Was Dead.” Upon its publication, many were surprised to learn that, despite this seemingly supernatural experience, Ayer did not budge from his atheism but remained convinced that there is no God. Indeed, for a long time after reading the essay, I was puzzled over this.
But twelve years later Ayer’s attending physician, Dr. Jeremy George, revealed that Ayer might not have been completely forthcoming about his experience and the actual conclusion he drew from it. Dr. George claimed that Ayer confided to him, “I saw a divine being.” Then Ayer added, “I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.” Well, now that’s quite a confession. If true, Ayer’s change of mind would certainly rival that of Antony Flew in terms of significance. Indeed, if Flew had a challenger in the twentieth century as the “the world’s most notorious atheist” (as the subtitle of Flew’s recent book tags him), Ayer is probably it.
But is Dr. George’s account to be trusted? Read Peter Foges’ recent essay in Lapham’s Quarterly, entitled “An Atheist Meets the Masters of the Universe”, and judge for yourself. I would also recommend reading all of the comments that follow. It’s an instructive conversation that well illustrates the fundamental differences in outlook between theists and atheists.