After ‘Near-Death,’ Atheist Yields Slightly on Afterlife

Times Religion Writer

English philosopher Sir Alfred J. Ayer, regarded by some as the world’s most formidable atheist, told of a “near-death” experience this year and had the British public wondering, for a while, whether an influential voice for unbelief had been quieted.

Ayer, who will turn 88 in three weeks, known mainly for his “Language, Truth and Logic,” first published in 1936, wrote recently that he has weakened “slightly” on the question of an afterlife but not in his tenet that there is no God.

Ayer, who had been hospitalized in London for pneumonia, choked on a piece of salmon and was told by his doctor that his heart stopped for about four minutes before he was revived.

In recent years, anecdotal accounts have been published telling of some people who briefly “died” in a hospital and later recalled “seeing” a light at the end of a long tunnel, or variations thereof, before they regained consciousness. While some analysts have taken the similarity of many “experiences” to be clues to the existence of an afterlife, others have discounted such studies as speculative.


In that context, the editor of the London Sunday Telegraph reported in a personal column that “Freddy” (Ayer) had been technically dead in the hospital and was happy to report that there was nothing there.

But a letter appeared in the newspaper claiming, to the contrary, that Ayer had had a remarkable experience in those moments.

‘Confronted by a Red Light’

Ayer then wrote an article for the Sunday Telegraph. National Review, a New York-based, conservative magazine of commentary, published it in its Oct. 14 issue. Magazine Editor John O’Sullivan, an acquaintance of Ayer’s, commended the article as a “wry” postscript to the experience of a man he called “perhaps the most famous atheist living today.”


The philosopher wrote, “The only memory that I have of an experience, closely encompassing my death, is very vivid. I was confronted by a red light, exceedingly bright, and also very painful even when I turned away from it. I was aware that this light was responsible for the government of the universe. Among its ministers were two creatures who had been put in charge of space.”

Charged with seeing that space was kept in working order, the ministers had failed and space was like a “badly fitting jigsaw puzzle,” he wrote.

In what sounds like a nightmare on the cosmic level, Ayer said he recalled feeling that he needed to put aright the suddenly chaotic laws of nature and simultaneously extinguish the painful red light that seemed to be “signaling that space was awry.” Remembering that Einstein’s general theory of relativity treats space and time as a whole, “I thought I could cure space by operating upon time.”

Experience Suddenly Ended

Trying to make contact again with the ministers, Ayer said, “I then hit upon the expedient of walking up and down, waving my watch, in the hope of drawing their attention not to my watch itself but to the time which it measured. This elicited no response. I became more and more desperate, until the experience suddenly came to an end.”

His “experience” could have been a delusion, Ayer said, but he knew of one woman who had had a heart arrest and had said that all she remembered was that she must stay close to the red light.

Despite tre superficial indication that death does not put an end to consciousness, Ayer wrote, “the most probable hypothesis is that my brain continued to function although my heart had stopped.”

Reaffirms His Atheism


Proof of an afterlife is not proof of the existence of a deity, he said. “If, as I hold, there is no good reason to believe that a god either created or presides over this world, there is equally no good reason to believe that a god created or presides over the next world, on the unlikely supposition that such a thing exists,” he wrote.

Ayer recalled that a Christian philosopher friend once said whimsically that in the next world he hoped that “God will tell me whether there are a priori propositions.”

Ayer wrote that he thinks the only philosophical problem that might be clarified in a future life is the relationship between mind and body. He lamented, however, that “really we have no good reason to believe that our intellects will be any sharper in the next world, if there is one, than they are in this.”

Summing up, Ayer confessed that his recalled experiences “have slightly weakened my conviction that my genuine death, which is due fairly soon, will be the end of me, though I continue to hope that it will be. They have not weakened my conviction that there is no god.

“I trust that my remaining an atheist will allay the anxieties of my fellow supporters of the Humanist Association, the Rationalist Press, and the South Place Ethical Society.”