Pharyngula

The Credulity of Americans is Unquenchable
by Juno Walker

An evangelical pastor and his wife are making money off their 11 year-old son’s book about his near-death experience. If you think I sound cynical, you’re correct; unfortunately, it seems there are far too few Americans who share my skepticism.

But first, a little background about the story: the son, Colton, was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery for a burst appendix. Upon coming to, the boy recounted how “he had died and gone to heaven, where he met his great-grandfather; the biblical figure Samson; John the Baptist; and Jesus.” He said he even noticed that Jesus’ eyes were a sparkly blue. (Now, keep in mind that Jesus was a Jew, and while it’s not impossible for him to have blue eyes, the boy’s description more closely mirrors the typical Anglophilic portrayal of a long-haired, pasty-white Jesus with a goatee. Also keep in mind that Colton was only about 4 years-old when he had his “vision.” Do you think the images of Jesus he had seen up to that point would portray Jesus as a typical Jew of his day, or as an Anglo-Saxon hippie with blue eyes?)

Colton’s 163-page book has sold astonishingly well: there are currently more than 1.5 million copies in print, and it is on the New York Times best-seller list for two weeks now. Clearly many Americans have a strong need for this type of feel-good rubbish.

What’s not clear is whether he actually had a near-death experience, per se – I haven’t read the book (I refuse to spend money on it), and this article in the NYT isn’t clear; it merely says that he woke up from surgery and claimed he had died. Colton’s parents believe him, of course. They believe him so much that they published this book for him. And although Colton’s father says he was simply hoping for the publisher to break even, and that he plans on giving away most of the royalties, he is in fact keeping some of the money for “home improvements.” Well, there’s a nice plus. But as a Christian – and as a pastor – wouldn’t that money be better spent for the poor, the homeless, the sick, or other Christian goals?

Now, every parent wants to believe their kid. No parent wants to intentionally belittle and condescend to their child. And, given the parents’ religious faith, it’s easy to see how they are inclined to credulity.

But isn’t it more likely that something else is at work here? I mean, when you become a Christian, you make a commitment to a set of beliefs, a dogma, and the nature of a dogma is that you can’t doubt it and believe it at the same time. For example, a Christian can’t claim to be a Christian and doubt that Jesus was the son of God, or that he was raised from the dead. That’s the essence of being a Christian – at least from an evangelical point of view. And the typical believer can’t venture too far into the exegetical disputes over literal versus metaphorical interpretations; the theological ground there is too shaky – the fate of his eternal soul depends on it!

So the temptation to believe what would otherwise be met with a healthy skepticism and gentle patronization (e.g., if Colton woke up and said he died and met Alexander the Great), is so strong as to blind one from the more obvious explanation. The parents, of course, claim that Colton made reference to things that “there’s just no way he could have known.” The example they give is that the mother had had a miscarriage but never told Colton about it; but Colton had referenced it directly. This is a common refrain among those who have had near-death experiences.

But we know that our brains absorb a lot more stimuli via our senses than our “conscious minds” can register. I don’t intend to get into a discussion of consciousness – other than to say that no one really knows how to explain it yet – but there is literature out there documenting research and experiments related to human perception and human memory – but all too few people read this stuff.

And for all you parents out there – how many times have you been surprised at something your child has repeated to you that you were convinced they never could have known? How many times have you heard them parrot something that you swore they couldn’t hear or couldn’t understand?

What’s particularly sad is the effect this experience will have on Colton himself, as well as the effect his book will have on other credulous families with children. For his part, Colton, 7 years later, “now plays the piano and trumpet, is fascinated by Greek mythology, listens to Christian rock and loves Nebraska football.” That seems innocuous enough; but listen to what he says about his book: “”People are getting blessed, and they’re going to have healing from their hurts…I’m happy for that.”

He’s happy that people will believe a delusion as long as it makes them feel better. We are breeding generations of children who will gladly accept a lie instead of truth, so long as it makes them feel good. But one day, at some point in their lives, they will have no recourse to any real resilience in times of real crisis; they’re used to digesting the superficial bromides and platitudes our culture relishes. They won’t be able to digest a truly harrowing physical or psychological experience.

And don’t get me started on the further dampening of scientific curiosity and thinking this type of anecdote permits – and almost encourages.

And you know that if Colton were born a Buddhist, he would have seen the Buddha; if he were born a Muslim, he would have seen Muhammad; and if he were born a Hindu, he would have seen Krishna – or any of the other myriad deities in the Indian pantheon.

Stories like this one, especially when presented uncritically in a venue such as The New York Times, makes me truly pessimistic about the future of humankind.


By the way, there’s a poll by the Today show on this subject. Help it out.

Do you believe in heaven?
Colton Burpo had a near-death experience at the age of 4 during which, he says, he not only sat in Jesus’ lap, but met a sister lost to a miscarriage and his late great-grandfather — things of which he could have had no knowledge, his parents say. Do you believe there is a heaven?

64%
Yes.

28.6%
No.

7.3%
I’m not sure, but I hope so!