Backlash against “heaven tourism” memoirs does a disservice to the genuinely curious

Critics assume readers seek only confirmation of their prejudices.

Visions of the afterlife tend to be commonplace. (Photo: Donika Sadiku / Flickr Commons)

Visions of the afterlife tend to be commonplace. (Photo: Donika Sadiku / Flickr Commons)

If you never have, you owe it to yourself to visit Aeon magazine.  The often illuminating British site publishes essays on science, philosophy, and society. In To heaven and back, Mya Frazier writes about a genre of memoirs that emerged in Christian publishing during the last decade sometimes known as “heaven tourism.” At least three of them became mainstream bestsellers: Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy’s Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back by Todd Burpo, 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, and The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven by Kevin and Alex Malarkey. As you can see by the titles, they amount to prolonged variations of the near-death experience (NRE). The genre has increasingly come under attack, with the boy of the last title since admitting he invented his story for the attention it garnered him.

Ms. Frazier notes:

Secularists and atheists denounced the ‘heaven tourism’ genre as cliché-ridden and vacuous; spiritual kitsch for the superficial seeker.

But Ms. Frazier claims she “is more sympathetic than skeptical, considering my atypical lens: as a Catholic-raised, born-again backslider turned unrepentant agnostic, I immediately recognised the desperation on each page.” She found a quote by anthropologist T M Luhrmann that may explain the idealized vision of heaven by evangelicals.

This God is so real, so accessible, and so present, and so seamlessly blends the supernatural with the everyday, that the paradox places the need for the suspension of disbelief at the centre of the Christian experience. The supernatural is presented as the natural, and yet the believer knows that it is not. [Emphasis added.]

Ms. Frazier comments:

It’s an insight that contradicts the going stereotype of the evangelical right as a roving mob of fervent believers, immutable in faith, and immune from doubt. That’s not what’s going on at all, Luhrmann argues. By imagining God as ‘hyperreal’, He is imagined as realer than real, ‘so real that it is impossible not to understand that you may be fooling yourself, so real that you are left suspended between what is real and what is your imagination’.

That about sums it up. But Ms. Frazier writes that “advances in the neurosciences explain away near-death experiences as electrochemical processes or normal brain function gone awry.” Wrong: those advances were only used in a longshot attempt to deny that NDEs occur. Arguably, it was the result of at least as much desperation as that demonstrated by those she refers to above who suspend belief to embrace a saccharine view of heaven.  The Near Death Experience Research Foundation has posted 3,900 NREs. If only one percent of them were genuine, that amounts to 390, a number difficult to write off.

My main issue with Ms. Frazier’s piece is that she seems to assume that we only wish to learn about what heaven is like in order to confirm the childlike visions still propagated by many religions about the afterlife. But I would submit that many are not just seeking validation for their preconceived notions about the afterlife, but are genuinely curious about its nature. During the search, it’s inevitable that one encounters some real clinkers, in the psychic as well as the evangelical worlds.

Finally, let’s return to “heaven tourism.” Without being aware of it, whoever coined the phrase is actually pointing out a need — for guidebooks to the afterlife. I know they exist in traditional religions (the Tibetan Book of the Dead). I’m also aware that more and more individuals feel free to admit their atheism, with its concomitant lack of belief in an afterlife. But — secular, religious, and/or spiritual — if you’re intrigued by the idea of an afterlife and what it’s actually like, a good place to start is with Journey of Souls: Case Studies of Life Between Lives, the first in a series of books by Dr. Michael Newton.

Beginning with reincarnation as a starting place, Dr. Newton hypnotized numerous individuals to find out what they might remember about the period between their previous life and this life. You don’t have to believe any of it (I have some reservations), but it gives you a plausible framework with which to imagine an afterlife. Helps, too, with the culture shock once you get there!

Two years ago this July I explored reincarnation and the afterlife in a Scholars & Rogues post titled When faith only deepens our fear of death: Belief in reincarnation can open the door to a whole host of anxieties about death.

3 replies »

  1. Hmmm. I’ve read this post twice and feel like I need to comment, but I’m not really sure why. I suppose because something about it creates a mental disconnect for me. I don’t see a reason to bash Heaven Tourism. I cant see where it hurts anything. I think what’s blowing my mind is describing those who want to believe in reincarnation and heaven as “genuinely curious”. It seems to me the point of your post is that they’re not curious at all, and want to be even less curious. They’re driven by a need for affirmation, not curiosity.

  2. Comment on Backlash of: Heaven Tourism
    I agree with the assessment of the more saccharine accounts of Heaven that most people have embraced over the years, that might include angels with wings and halos. Enjoyed reading your piece on life after death. It’s a shame that some of these accounts that you refer to (Malarkey) make the profound event all that much more unbelievable to skeptics. I do have my own perspective after my NDE that you might find interesting if not informative. I think that most people’s beliefs fall into some grey area where science and religion overlap, leaving room on each side of for different personal belief systems.
    I would share with you that although I was in heaven (my belief only), I was aware that I was apart from my wife and family, I saw and spoke to my father who had passed years earlier and although he looked quite different, I recognized him right away. It was him that sent me back, much to my disappointment. Some may consider my event a little boring by society’s standards, since I saw no bright colors nor imposing archangels… only deep, totally consuming peace.
    My point is that although unable to communicate with the living, I was aware of what had happened, and was comfortable with it. This event was so profound that it changed my perspective on life and how I presented to others. The peace I was gifted through certainty and clarity eliminated all fear of death and, as you might imagine, changed the way I live now, which in my opinion is the most valuable facet of my story. For me, the term “Heaven Tourism” conjures up visions of carnival entertainment and cheapens the serious nature of this experience for some who might be “genuinely curious”.
    I’m not asking you to believe me or validate my experience… I’m just offering an additional perspective to consider in forming your own opinion.
    This link might sum it up better than I have
    …Brian A. McLaughlin, Author
    “A Flight Without Wings”