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Mark Fox

Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Theologians, it appears, have largely ignored the near-death experience (NDE), which may seem a little surprising, since it might be supposed to form one of the few pieces of empirical evidence that could be interpreted as supporting some of their claims. Fox wrote his book in part to make his fellow-theologians more aware of the issues, but the non-religious reader should not be put off by this, for it will have plenty of interest for non-theologians and indeed for religious sceptics.

Fox provides a pretty comprehensive account of NDE research since the publication of Raymond Moody's study in 1975. He also includes some reports, not previously published, from the Religious Experience Research Centre at Lampeter, in South Wales. These are particularly interesting because they make it clear that 'NDE' is something of a misnomer. People can have 'NDEs' when they are not near death at all. There is no clear dividing line between NDEs and other kinds of altered consciousness, and Fox suggests that it may be better to abandon the term NDE altogether.

One of Fox's principal aims is to establish how far there is a 'core' or standard NDE. Moody made quite extensive claims of this kind but Fox does not think these have been sustained by later research, particularly if one takes the experiences of people in other cultures into account. About the only items that seem to be more or less universal are out-of-body experiences, episodes of darkness (sometimes though not always interpreted as a tunnel), meetings with deceased relatives, and encounters with benign and comforting lights (not necessarily interpreted as a person). Such experiences can occur in a wide range of circumstances, including walking, resting, meditating and simply sleeping. Fox maintains, with some justification, that this wide range of settings makes attempts to explain NDEs by means of physiological changes near death somewhat problematic.

One of the many useful things that one gets from this book is information about the backgrounds of some of the best-known researchers in NDEs. Moody apparently adopted some very odd-sounding views later in life. The final chapter describes some major disagreements that have arisen in what Fox calls the 'NDE movement', particularly between Michael Sabom and Kenneth Ring, two of its most prominent members.

Fox's view of the NDE is balanced; in fact, it is probably one of the best to have appeared. Some of the more enthusiastic researchers have claimed that they have produced evidence of dualism—that there is a soul separate from the body—but Fox does not think they have proved their case: 'twenty-five years after the coining of the actual phrase "near-death experience", it remains to be established beyond doubt that during such an experience anything actually leaves the body' [emphasis his].

17 November 2008

%T Religion, Spirituality and the Near-Death Experience
%A Mark Fox
%I Routledge
%C London
%D 2003
%G ISBN 0-415-28831-2
%P ix + 380pp
%K religion, parapsychology
%O paperback edition

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