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.


6 Responses to “An Atheist Meets God”


  1. Ken Pulliam

     

    Jim,

    I guess you would say that Ayers was guilty of paradigm-induced blindness? Well, I would say the same about you. I think that the reason you and other educated Christians hold on to what I see as a completely non-sensical evangelical faith is because of what you call a paradigm-induced blindness. Because of your prior faith commitment, you cannot see how utterly ridiculous evangelical Christianity really is. BTW, this is spoken by one who was an evangelical for nearly 20 years (nine of which was spent as a Bible college professor) with a Ph.D. in Theology from a conservative evangelical University.

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  2. Marc Belcastro

     

    This is rather fascinating. Assuming that George’s account is trustworthy (and I’m inclined to assume it is), what strikes me as particularly intriguing about Ayer’s experience is that he appears to have been convinced that he saw a divine being, not just some being. Of course, the fact of the whole experience itself is indeed remarkable. But Ayer’s belief that he’d seen a divine being, together with his remark about having to revise his work, is unique. Something about his experience presumably delivered the impression that a specific characteristic should be ascribed to the being he’d beheld.

    If Ayer, prior to the experience, truly thought that the idea of God’s existence was utterly meaningless, it must’ve been astounding for him to encounter (what he believed to be) such a being during the experience. I take it that, unlike a theist, Ayer’s positivist posture didn’t predispose him to having an experience of a divine being. If anything, one would reasonably expect him to have been predisposed in the opposite direction. It would surely be incredible, for example, if a mathematician claimed to have had a similar experience in which she discovered a prime number which was even and greater than two. Ayer didn’t have an experience of a being which he thought didn’t exist; he had an experience of a being the existence of which he thought was meaningless.

    I’m unfamiliar with the literature on near-death experiences, so perhaps there are other cases where a person has reported having an experience of something he originally believed to be completely devoid of meaning. Even if there are, Ayer’s experience, to my mind, is no less striking.

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  3. Ken Pulliam

     

    I don’t kow the particulars of Ayer’s experience but I don’t find it that surprising. Neurologists can explain many types of hallucinations . While Ayers may not have believed in a divine being, he was aware of the concept and thus used that concept in an attempt to understand his experience.

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  4. Jim Spiegel

     

    Ken,

    I’d encourage you to do a bit more research on near-death experiences. What cannot be accounted for naturalistically are such things as empirical corroborations of NDE reports, confirmed visual experiences by blind persons who have NDEs, and confirmed NDEs while the patient demonstrated no brain activity (a flat EEG). Tens of thousands of such accounts have been reported, and the data continues to grow. If just one of these reports is veridical (confirming the existence of the supernatural), this falsifies the naturalist thesis. How naturalists can be so confident in the face of this data is beyond me.

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  5. Dan Newcomb

     

    Ken

    A book I have just read that has a good section on NDEs is Dinesh Dsouza’s Life After Death. Also Dsouza discusses many other things in regards to life after death but from a completely secular point of view. He dosen’t rely on the Bible. It’s a good book, I think you would find it interesting.
    Sincerely,
    Dan
    PS I’m praying for you Ken. What is that text that says something like “…if we are faithless He is faithful.”.

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  6. Ken Pulliam

     

    Jim,

    I am very interested in NDE’s. I read Moody’s book back in the late 70’s when it first came out. I also read Maurice Rawling’s book Beyond Death’s Door which in contrast to Moody’s book talked about people who saw hell when they were near death. Of course since that time there has been lots of additional research and now neurology had advanced to the stage where it can offer some theories. At this stage, I prefer to take a wait and see attitude rather than just jumping to the conclusion that its proof of the supernatural. We know that in the past many of the things that man thought were supernatural have been explained in naturalistic terms.

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