Near-Death Experience, Religion, and Spirituality  by Jody A. Long, J.D.
 

 
NDERF Home Page
NDE Stories
Share NDE (Web Form)

ABSTRACT:  One of the last frontiers of study surrounds spirituality and NDE.  However, this is a highly sensitive issue due to the nature of religion.  What this study attempts to do is to objectively look at the data submitted by NDErs to the website and to categorize the answers.  Questions that are analyzed include pre and post NDE religious preference, and changed beliefs.  There are some surprising results that focus on universal purpose and order gained from NDE understandings.

KEY WORDS:  near-death experience; religion, spirituality; God, universal order, purpose, soul

Near-Death Experience, Religion, and Spirituality
by Jody

Reprint requests may be sent to Jody A. Long, J.D. at

INTRODUCTION

My first research project involved Soulmates and near-death experience (NDE).  (Long, 2002).  Those who had a near-death experience are those people who have died or had an imminent life-threatening event and subsequently come back to life.  During the time of "death" there was an experience or a collection of memories.  What was interesting about the research was that for an overwhelming majority of NDErs, they used the words "spiritual" and "love" interchangeably.  The more love they felt, the more spiritual the experience.  Many would refer to spirituality and contrast it with religion.  Religion was considered the routine, social structure and practices of a group.  However, spirituality lacked the dogma associated with religion.  Instead of words and habits, it is the actual feeling of love and the conscious exercise of free will to bring one closer to God. 

Along the same lines, M. Scott Peck, M.D., defines love as the will to extend one's self for the purpose of nurturing one's own or another's spiritual growth (Peck, 1998, p. 81).  He outlines four stages of spiritual growth: 1) chaotic/antisocial; 2) formal/institutional; 3) skeptic/individual; and 4) mystical/communal (Peck, 1993, pp. 119-126). To that I would add stage 5 which would be the stage of becoming. 

About twenty percent of the people fall into the first stage (Peck, 1993, p. 121).  He terms these people as chaotic because this stage includes unprincipled people in which spirituality is absent.  Moreover, the term of antisocial refers to people who are self-serving, manipulative, great actors but incapable of forming loving relationships. 

The second category is used to describe those who need structure in their lives (Peck, 1993, p. 122).  In this category are the religious church-goers, scientists who maintain the status quo, and people with a regimented mentality such as military or authoritarian.  One distinguishing feature of this group is they have a tendency to externalize God and generally envision God as masculine.  By externalization, God is thought of as up and out there rather than within each of us.  One of the big keys to this group is ritual and the reluctance to change that ritual.  Truth-seekers and scientists are an integral part of the third category (Peck, 1993, p. 124).  He admits that stage four is a bit nebulous (Peck, p. 125). However, he describes these people with a sense of universality and those who see the connection in all life.  I would add stage 5 based upon NDE observations (Long, 2002).  These are the people who don't just talk about love and spirituality, they actually become spirit.  These are the true saints that are able to take the love they know from the other side and to make their earth reality "as above, so below."  They are love incarnate on earth.

Out of a total of 280 NDErs, this study analyzes responses to questions about pre- and post-religious preferences.  One of the most challenging areas of NDE research surrounds religion.  If one recalls the relatively recent disagreement between Michael Sabom and Kenneth Ring then this study may be controversial due to the sensitive nature of religious issues (JNDS, 2000). Therefore, I want to stress that this study does not endorse one religion over another.  It certainly does not try to prove or disprove a religious belief.  And most certainly, this study does not involve proselytizing.  The following are only observations drawn from data submitted by NDErs.  The reader can draw their own conclusions from the data.       

METHODOLOGY

This study is a retrospective review of data received from an Internet survey on the Near Death Experience Research Foundation (NDERF) website www.nderf.org (Long, 2002). Out of a total of 626 experiences submitted to the website, 302 of these experiences met the research definition of NDE as defined as, "A lucid experience associated with perceived consciousness apart from the body occurring at the time of actual or threatened imminent death"  (Long).  It was then determined which of the 302 NDEs answered the pre and post NDE questions about religious preference.  The one question asks for "Your religious background at time of experience (Faith/denomination (or 'None')" and the other question asks for "Your religious background currently (Faith/denomination (or 'None')."   Both questions gave option button selection choices of "Conservative/fundamentalist,"  "Moderate," and "Liberal."  There was also a description box provided below the option buttons.

Dr. Dr. Jeff developed an Excel based chi-square calculation engine based on over 2,000 data points.  Calculations are automatically updated when new data is added.  Comparison data from this chi-square engine were used in analysis.

The answers to questions regarding post-NDE religious preference were further categorized into a religious shift, a religious change, or tabulated as no change.  The categories for "too young" and "no response" were not used since they would not provide valid responses for the religious change analysis.  This left 267 analyzable NDErs who responded to the question. 

This analysis recognizes the distinction between religion and spirituality.  Those placed in the religious shift category did not change their religion, but changed the way they practiced their religion.  People reporting a shift, were further scored according to the direction of the shift.  The first category was those reporting a deeper faith, more spirituality, or avoidance of organized religion.  The second category consisted of those who returned to traditional religious practices or who moved towards religion when formerly reporting little or no religious practices before the NDE. 

The criteria for scoring a change were those NDErs moving from one religion to a different belief system.  Again, the responses were further tabulated into three categories depending on the direction of change.  The first and second category was the same direction as used for analyzing a shift.  An "unknown" category was added for when there was not enough information in the narrative to tell in which direction the change occurred.

Another analysis involved the explanation responses to the question, "Did you have any changes of attitudes or beliefs following the experience?"  Out of 286 responses, 36 (12.6%) were no response.  Out of the remaining 250 responses, 220 (88%) had narrative explanations.  Out of 220 narratives, 199 (90.45%) answered "yes" to changed beliefs.  These explanations were reviewed to see what beliefs changed or what areas of life the answer focused on.  Then the answers were categorized into general areas of focus.  Some people had several areas of focus, so may have counted in several categories.  Answers could be grouped into negative NDE effects (5), Dying/mortality (66), Religious/spiritual (81), lifestyle change(37), and paranormal events(7).  Answers were further analyzed to see what were the most common changed beliefs among NDErs.

RESULTS

Part of the study was to determine how people categorize their religious preference after their NDE.  A prototype methodology based on theoretical and empirical work by Rosch (1978) establishes a definition of what Rosch called "fuzzy categories."  These are categories that have no simple classical definition and shade off into conceptually related categories or concepts.

Religion and spirituality can be very fuzzy categories.  The meaning of God, Jesus, and Buddha will be very different depending who you talk to, and so will the way individuals practice their faith.  The extremes range from atheist to a non-practicing member of an organized religion, to those who describe themselves as religious or spiritual.  As part of the survey, people were questioned about their pre-NDE religious background and then asked what their religious preference was after the NDE.  Options were Conservative/Fundamentalist, Moderate, Liberal, and a narrative response box.  Out of 280 participants, 7 (2.5%) did not respond to the post-NDE religious question and 68 (24.3%) did not respond to the pre-NDE religious preference question.

A coding system for the responses to the open-ended question about religious preferences was devised based on how NDErs responded to the question.  The percentage of NDErs who mentioned a coding category is as follows:

 

 Post NDE

%

Pre NDE

%

Christian

72

25.71

60

21.43

Spiritual/Universal

49

17.50

2

0.71

Catholic

29

10.36

16

5.71

None

25

8.93

27

9.64

Buddhist/eastern

11

3.93

2

0.71

New age, Wiccan, Pagan

10

3.57

0.00

0.00

Jewish

7

2.50

4

1.43

Agnostic

7

2.50

8

2.86

Too young to know

6

2.14

7

2.50

Mormon

4

1.43

2

0.71

Native American

2

0.71

0.00

0.00

Uncertain

1

0.36

0.00

0.00

Other

0

0.00

6

2.14

Atheist

0

0.00

4

1.43

no response

7

2.50

68

24.29

Religious

0

0.00

12

4.29

Only selected option buttons with no added narrative response

liberal

22

7.86

20

7.14

moderate

22

7.86

35

12.50

conservative

6

2.14

7

2.50

The largest religious preference after their NDE was Christian (25.71%), followed by spiritual (17.5%), and Catholic (10.36%).  Prior to the NDE, the highest category didn't want to talk about religious preferences (24.29%), followed by Christian (21.43%), Moderate (12.5%), and none (9.64%).  

Out of 146 respondents, the majority of people in any category (65%) stay within the same religious category regardless of whether they consider themselves conservative, moderate, or liberal.

It is interesting to see that the largest group of NDErs place themselves within the moderate category (45.2%), while people who label themselves as conservative are 26% and liberals account for 28.8% of the NDE population.  This fact by itself is not significant because each person subjectively placed themselves in a non-defined category of conservative, moderate, or liberal.  Nonetheless, it is interesting to see how many people changed within each category.  The trend being that the more liberal a person is before the NDE, the less likely they will be to change religions (16.7%).  Conversely, the more conservative a person is before the NDE, the more likely they will change religions (50%).  

DISCUSSION

In a recent Dutch NDE study headed by van Lommel, he noted that during the 8 year prospective study that the life-change inventory had statistically significant values in the areas of social attitude, religious attitude, attitude towards death and a category of "others" (van Lommel, p. 2042).  The social attitude listed the factors of showing own feelings, acceptance of others, more loving, empathic, understanding others, and involvement in family.  Religious attitudes that were significant included understanding the purpose of life, sense inner meaning of life, and an interest in spirituality.  The attitude to death showed a marked decline in the fear of death and a belief in life after death.  The other category consisted of an interest in the meaning of life, understanding oneself, and an appreciation of ordinary things.  This study corroborates the findings of the Dutch study and expands on these concepts.

When looking at the expected and observed outcomes, the chi square test shows whether the observed difference is due to chance or if it is statistically significant.  The lower the p value, the less the difference is due to chance alone.  A p value under .01 is usually considered statistically significant.  The chi square test yields some fascinating correlations between the following: 

                                                                           p value
Life change and changed beliefs:                             4.28E-15
Universal order and paranormal gifts                        3.45E-11
Universal order and life change                                1.17E-10
Life change and paranormal gifts                             3.75E-07
Universal order and life change                                6.14E-06
Universal order and life review                                 6.14E-06
Life change and decision to return                            5.93E-06
Life review and changed beliefs                                6.03E-05
Life review and life change                                      5.36E-05
Other beings and decision to return                          5.38E-05

While it is no surprise that changed beliefs would correlate with a life change, some of the other correlations are surprising.  The most plausible theory that fits the data is that the perception of universal order and purpose after the NDE is the key to understanding the changes NDErs go through after returning to earth.  These new understandings result in changed beliefs and life changes.  The universal order and purpose may be different than what we are taught here on earth, hence the motivation for changes.  Paranormal gifts may be part of the greater universal order. We have a purpose for being on earth and we are not alone in the decision to come to earth.  Lastly, it is interesting to note that while the category of "religious background now" did show statistical significance when compared to the above mentioned categories, the p values were not as high and ranged from 1.35E-03 for paranormal gifts to 0.20 for changed beliefs.  Therefore, it is plausible that "religious preference now" is not as important as practicing the religion with the new spiritual understandings of the NDE.

While causality cannot be drawn from these correlations, one can gain a sense of how these categories relate to each other by reviewing the comments about changed beliefs.  The main changed beliefs that will be discussed are the largest categories of dying and mortality, religion and spirituality, and life changes.  Since this paper primarily focuses on religion and spirituality, the largest category will be discussed last.

Lifestyle change comprised of the third largest grouping of answers (18.9%).  Lifestyle changes included answers about living life to its fullest and with a sense of purpose.  NDErs talked about living according to the golden rule of "do unto others."  They talked about the importance of relationships, being kinder to others, being more compassionate, stopping to smell the roses, service to others, and becoming non-materialistic. 

The second largest group commented on dying and mortality.  They talked about the lack of fear of death and the certainty that life continues beyond death (33.7%).  There are two comments that sum up the common sentiments expressed on this subject:  1) "Our religions don't even come close to the experience, emotion or description of love.  The spirit self lives on." And 2) "I don't fear death.  I KNOW there is existence after death.  I know there is a beautiful, loving place beyond death's door that is waiting for me.  I know kindness and true love is the key to unlocking the answers to life."

As mentioned above, the largest area of changed beliefs concerned religion and spirituality (41.3%).    NDErs who talked about religion (13.8%) were mainly adamant about their renewed commitment to their faith or a new found commitment that did not exist before, representing 10.2% of the total.  There were 3.1% of those comments that were strongly anti-religious by denouncing organized religion.  For two people, they indicated that they already believed in God prior to the experience.  Interestingly, only one person returned to their faith because they were convinced there was a hell. 

According to Kimberly Clark-Sharp, a noted NDE researcher and author, she indicated that she had not met one person who had a negative experience who did not return to their religion (Clark-Sharp, 2002).  Of the 10 people who indicated that they changed or shifted towards religion, as opposed to spirituality, only two had a frightening experience.

"Spirituality" was the changed belief that the majority of NDErs mentioned (27.6%).  Comments that were placed in this category were things like, "I've learned to forgive, Also, I am profoundly aware of the oneness of all, the presence of God, and that ALL of creation is spirit!" or "I realized that life is too short to worry about things, to love humanity, I have more compassion now, I don't feel afraid of death.  Life is a precious gift.  The individual I was before the experience is gone." Others commented on God, by saying "NOW I KNOW THERE IS A GOD," "There is definitely a LIVING GOD no matter what anyone calls God," or "I have become closer to God and have no doubts about what lies beyond this world for us."  The comments had more of a feel of oneness, connection, universality, unconditional love, and talked about God in a manner non-specific to any one religion. 

Noteworthy, are the comments about pre- and post-religious preferences.   Out of 267 NDErs, the largest category of NDErs (119 or 44.6%) reported no change in their religion.  However, many NDErs did tend to shift their beliefs in their particular religion (78 or 29.2%).  For 87.2% of these NDErs, the shift was in the direction of spirituality.  There was also a group of NDErs who changed religions (69 or 25.8%).  Of those reporting a change, 71.0% changed in the direction of spirituality, 4.3% changed to a more religious background, while 24.7% the direction of change could not be determined based upon their comments. The categories of those who shifted or changed in religion represents a total of 55.1% of the respondent total.  Of this 55.1% of those who shifted or changed religions, 79.6% of these people shifted or changed in the direction of spirituality.  This trend is consistent with the data above that shows the marked change of spirituality that goes from 2 (0.71%) people as pre NDE religious preference to 49 (17.5%) people reporting post NDE religious preference as spiritual/universal.

There are a few other trends that bear commenting on.  "Spirituality" was looked at as moving from the dogma of organized religion to actually living the spirit of the religion.  It is a bit ironic that Christians who changed to Buddhism considered this a more liberal religion.  Many people considered moving from "religion" to "having no religion" as a liberal move.  There were many people who considered it "spiritual" to move from externalized organized religion, to their internalized own form of spirituality, as a liberal change that is more in keeping with the universal order observed from their NDE.  Many people found that church was unnecessary and concentrated on development for all people, and religions, with a tendency towards universality. 

For those who answered "none" to the pre- and post-religious preference question, based on the comments, one cannot say that these people are not spiritual.  However, one can probably say that they are not active in their religious practices.  Another factor could be response bias.  Those that were affected enough by the experience to tell someone about it would probably be more likely to share their experience and to fill out the web survey.  

Paranormal gifts, such as telepathy, hands on healing, precognition, empathy, the ability to see spirits, or any other such gift that may have been labeled as taboo by organized religions, may actually be a part of who we are, rather than abnormalities.  The high correlation between universal order/purpose and paranormal gifts, could suggest that paranormal gifts are a part of the universal order and purpose. This would need to be studied further and is beyond the scope of this paper.

One aspect that cannot be ignored is that the universal purpose and order seems to be more defined in those that experience the tunnel, the light, reunion or meeting with beings, and the life review.  Typically, love is the one emotion that is mentioned as the overriding message of the entire NDE.  It would be interesting to score participants based upon the Kenneth Ring's WCEI scale to see how closely having a core experience correlates to spirituality.  Again, that is beyond the scope of this paper.

This study shows that spirituality and religion do play a big part in the perceptions of NDErs.  They also provide a key towards integrating the NDE with the experiences on earth.  In many ways this is very exciting, because it puts NDErs at the forefront of a spiritual movement.  The categories of life change and death/mortality are also features of religion.  What NDErs say about these categories follow with main tenets from major religions. We are taught to live with a view towards our own mortality.  Many think of heaven and hell, so they live accordingly.  Mostly, everyone learns several golden rules as a child.  Do these phrases sound familiar:  "do unto others," "it is better to give than receive," "love thy neighbor as thyself"?  Many of our core societal teachings mirror principals that NDErs affirm after coming back to earth.  On the other hand, there is a lot of resistance to change from the status quo.  These people cannot yet assimilate what, according to Peck, a level three or four person might be trying to convey to them. 

Unfortunately, those who are at level one or two on the spiritual-growth ladder, will use the standard rhetoric to discount the authenticity of NDE.  They will do their best to discredit research or to keep mankind from evolving through the spiritual steps necessary for reunion with God.  One would be hard-pressed to find any middle ground between the different levels.  However, I think that we may be able to find commonality when one goes back to Peck's definition of love in the introductory comments.  Most people can understand that love is nourishment of self and others, and thereby a spiritual act.  The basis for Christian ethics can be summarized by two rules, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart. . ." and "Love your neighbor as yourself."1  This may not be so far from what NDErs define as spirituality. 

1  These rules were a statement of Jesus in Matthew 22:37-40 and Luke 10:25-8, when he brought together two statements from the Old Testament, one from Deuteronomy (6:5 "Love the Lord your God with all your heart...") and the other from Leviticus (19:18 "Love your neighbor as yourself").

I'd like to give a hearty thanks to Rev. John Price for his editorial suggestions.

I'd also like to give a hearty thanks to John Paul Long, Ph.D. Professor Emeritus in Pharmacology, University of Iowa, for his editorial and research comments. 

REFERENCES

Clark-Sharp, Kimberly, Interview, November 25, 2002.

JNDS (Summer 2000),  Ring, K Religious Wars in the NDE Movement: Some Personal Reflections on Michael Sabom's Light & Death, Sabom, M. Response to Kenneth Ring's Religious Wars in the NDE Movement: Some Personal Reflections on Michael Sabom's Light & Death, Gibson, A. Religious Wars or Healthy Competition in the NDE Movement?

Long, J. and Long, J. (2002) http://www.nderf.org

Peck, M. (1998, 2nd Ed.) The Road Less Traveled New York, NY: Touchstone.

Peck, M. (1993) Further Along the Road Less Traveled New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Rosch, E. (1978) Principles of categorization. In E. Rosch & B.B. Lloyd (Eds), Cognition and categorization,  Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.  27-48.

van Lommel, P. et al. (2001) Near Death Experience In Survivors of Cardiac Arrest: A Prospective Study in the Netherlands, The Lancet, 358, 2039-2042.

 

Web site last updated: 08/23/17 07:22:28 AM -0500

We appreciate our visitors: Hit Counter
(Counter set 12/11/02)