The Conversation

Responses and reverberations

Will Pope Francis Break the Church?

In May, Ross Douthat wrote that the new pope stirs high hopes among liberal Catholics and intense uncertainty among conservatives. Francis’s “moves and choices,” Douthat said, “have generated a revolutionary atmosphere around Catholicism.”

Mr. Douthat asks whether Pope Francis will break the Church. How? By publicly and unambiguously challenging the historically unprecedented unequal distribution of income and wealth? Perhaps Francis interprets the teachings of Jesus to be different from the “winner take all” creed of conservatives like Mr. Douthat. Perhaps Francis abhors deprivation, and the starvation of millions of those he has been charged with shepherding.
Mr. Douthat wants Jesus to be a conservative. He wants this pope to be a conservative. We get that. At this stage in the game, one can safely assume even Jesus understands that conservatives hope to monopolize his “brand.” The intentions of this pope may be much less complex than Mr. Douthat makes them out to be. It may simply be that this pope has a big, inclusive heart and an uncompromising conscience.
Michael G. Thomas
Sawyer, Mich.

Ross Douthat’s essay contained not a word about Pope Francis’s position on climate change, a most important threat to our planet that Francis could help solve by the simple expedient of reversing the Vatican’s 1968 condemnation of contraception.
That mistaken ban has contributed enormously to the overpopulation that is driving climate change. Removing the ban would reduce the abortion rate, save the lives and health of countless women, and improve life for millions of children.
Edd Doerr
President, Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Md.

Solving the Riddle of Near-Death Experiences

In April, Gideon Lichfield delved into what near-death experiences, or NDEs, might tell us about the nature of consciousness.

Gideon Lichfield’s article on near-death experiences is the most comprehensive and balanced overview of this topic I have read. But it did not consider the role of memory. The formation of long-term memories is readily disrupted even in a fully normal, awake brain. Simple distractions are enough to erase what is on our mental scratch pad and prevent it from being consolidated for later recall. I am not aware of any research showing that memory can be formed under anesthesia, much less in a brain that is “dead.”
Any mental experience is carried and expressed by way of nerve-impulse patterns in the brain. While these patterns are playing in real time, the experience is held in temporary working memory. If these electrical-activity patterns are shut down for any reason (deep anesthesia, cold, lack of blood supply, anoxia, electroshock, etc.), experiences cannot be shown as impulse-pattern representations. Thus, such experiences cannot exist as temporary working memory, much less as memory that can be recalled days later.
The 2013 report of an electrical spike in rats’ brains when their hearts were stopped reminds me of the study Joe Mikeska and I published 40 years ago. We noted that when a lab rat is decapitated (shutting off the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain), the EEG shows a massive discharge of long-duration (ultraslow-frequency) wave forms, followed by flatlining. Such a shift may occur during humans’ near-death experiences, but it is never looked for, because clinical EEG amplifiers are set to filter out such low-frequency wave forms.
W. R. Klemm
Senior Professor of Neuroscience, Texas A&M University
College Station–Bryan, Texas

Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the soul or mind actually does leave the body and float high above, as NDErs claim, how does it see and hear? There are no sounds in the real world for the soul to pick up; there are only sound waves. It is our ears that turn sound waves into sounds. Neither is there any imagery or color. The lens in the eye focuses light and creates an image, and the cone cells in the retina turn colorless wavelengths of light into colors. Without eyes and ears, the free-flying soul is as dark and silent as the mind of a person who has gone blind and deaf. The only imagery available would be memories from the past, real or fantasized—the stuff that dreams are made of. And that is probably where the truth is to be found. In this regard, it would be instructive to know whether NDErs were strong religious believers before their experience—that is, whether their mind was already “preloaded” with vivid imagery that matched their near-death experience. Furthermore, even if their mind did in fact leave their body and experience intense happiness, bright lights, and the other sensations reported, the logical leap from these “facts” to the frequent religious interpretations is enormous. The fact that many NDErs hurry to take the leap suggests that there may be more to their stories than scientific objectivity.
Jan Stengren
Hillsboro, Ore.

Gideon Lichfield replies:

My article did not address the question of how NDE memories might differ from other memories (something Mitch Liester, a psychiatrist mentioned in the article, is currently working on). Rather than doing a detailed review of the many materialist hypotheses about what’s “really” going on during NDEs, which has been done elsewhere, I wanted to focus on the science/spiritualism boundary: how spiritually minded doctors are trying to probe that boundary, and why most NDErs and scientists are on opposite sides of it.
From a materialist point of view, the debate about how a disembodied mind could see and hear is ludicrous, but so is the very idea of a disembodied mind, which makes the debate somewhat moot.
Quite a lot of NDErs weren’t religious believers before they had their experience, or at least claim not to have been. Could they have had some sort of predisposition to religious (or other spiritual) beliefs that they hadn’t previously expressed? Perhaps, but there’s no way of telling. It’s worth noting that some religious NDErs move away from their religion after the experience, because it can lead them to develop spiritual beliefs that conflict with their credos.

When Terror Reigns

In May, David A. Bell reviewed two new histories about the French Revolution, including The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, by Timothy Tackett, which examines the power of fear in driving the uprising. Bell wrote that in Tackett’s view, “the perpetrators of the Reign of Terror … had terrors of their own.”

David A. Bell, in criticizing Timothy Tackett’s The Coming of the Terror in the French Revolution, compares the use of terror in the French Revolution to the use of terror-inspiring language in the American Revolution. He cites incendiary language in the Declaration of Independence as an example. This raises an unasked, and almost unthought-of, question: What if our tone of terror had been tamped down and we hadn’t had a revolution? What would have happened? In a short period of time, our growth, strength, and distance would have solved the most egregious problems we had with the mother country, much like a child reaching the age of majority and becoming independent for all intents and purposes.

The United Kingdom passed an anti-slave-trading act in 1807, and completely outlawed the practice in 1833. This could very well have paved a reasonable and rational road to ending slavery in America without “the recent unpleasantness” of brother slaying brother to the tune of hundreds of thousands killed.
We would, of course, have our own democratic government, but would still be connected to the United Kingdom, as Canada is. Would Germany have attacked England during World War I if America had been unquestionably England’s ally from the start? If World War I had not occurred, would World War II have happened?
Just some thoughts to consider when pondering the results of spreading terror today.
Frank G. Crotty
Naples, Fla.


“The Mystery of Columba Bush,” by Hanna Rosin (June), stated that George
H. W. Bush was the vice president in 1979. Bush took office in 1981.