Esquire’s debunking of the “Proof of Heaven” doctor is again available for free

August 30, 2015 • 9:45 am

This is just a note to let readers know that Luke Dittrich’s critique of Eben Alexander’s “proof of heaven” experience (and book) is back online at Esquire, and is no longer behind a paywall. For a while you had to pay to see it, which, given its importance, was annoying.

You may recall that Dittrich wrote a devastating piece (“The Prophet”), showing that neurosurgeon Eben Alexander’s “visit to heaven,” which supposedly occurred when his brain was nonfunctional during a coma produced by bacterial meningitis, was deeply dubious, and that Alexander also had a history of shady behavior.  I wrote about Dittrich’s piece, and about Alexander’s undeserved acclaim, in January of last year.

Nevertheless, Alexander’s book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlifewas a huge success, topping the New York Times‘s bestseller list for months, and ultimately selling more than two million copies (that translates into several million dollars for the author). Despite the fact that the book was pure bunk, its sales are a prime example of religious confirmation bias: people love books about visiting Heaven because it confirms what they want to believe. (Take note: if people didn’t really believe in Heaven as an actual prize they’d win for living a pious life, they wouldn’t seek this kind of confirmation. So much for the notion that religious belief is a form of “quasifictional credence”—something that believers don’t really believe in the same way they believe that Paris is in France.) And now it looks as if Proof of Heaven will become a Universal Pictures movie. 

I’ve gone on too long, but Dittrich’s piece, now free, is well worth reading, and a lesson in both the credulity of the public and the diligence of a reporter who seeks the truth as a ferret seeks a rabbit. It is a Professor Ceiling Cat Reading Recommendation.™

When rereading Dittrich’s piece, I came upon a subsequent (and short) piece he wrote giving his feelings about the “takedown”, a piece called “The Prophet, revisited.” Dittrich doesn’t want to be known as a debunker, but simply as a thorough reporter, and he said the following:

. . . The contours of the story I was working on were already clear. I’d already gathered more than a thousand pages of documents from four courts in two states, and had spoken with a host of Alexander’s former colleagues and friends. My reporting was beginning to make it pretty clear that Alexander’s bestselling book, Proof of Heaven, was a stew of factual inaccuracies, misrepresentations, and omissions. But that wedding gift, sitting there heavy as a brick, weighed on me. It was a reminder that Eben Alexander wasn’t just a character in a story. He was real. You could almost call him a family friend. And this article I was working on, well, it didn’t look like it was going to be a friendly one.

There’s no good way to resolve that sort of tension.

I could lean on a creaky old excuse: The ends justify the means. Over the past few millennia, many people have invested much faith and money in self-styled prophets who come bearing fresh revelations from God. When a new one emerges, shouldn’t his claims be subject to a rigorous fact-check, even if my grandfather knew his father?

In the end, though, I don’t claim to be a crusader, or even a debunker. I actually have very mixed feelings when people refer to this profile of Eben Alexander as a “takedown piece.” That implies a sort of gratuitous and single-minded intent that wasn’t there. To me, this profile isn’t all that different from other profiles I’ve done.

Which is to say, I piled up as much information as I could about the person I was profiling, then sifted through it, looking for the storyline hidden inside. In the case of Eben Alexander, it just happened to turn out that the most compelling storyline I found was the way the tale he’s been preaching doesn’t appear to match up with reality.

And that’s the case with all of these best-selling “I visited Heaven” stories. None of them have stood up to examination, and that’s beside the observation that different people describe Heaven in very different ways.

Other criticism of Alexander’s tale is documented on Wikipedia, including statements by Sam Harris as well as by the late Oliver Sacks, who wrote this in The Atlantic:

Alexander insists that his journey, which subjectively lasted for days, could not have occurred except while he was deep in coma. But we know from the experience of Tony Cicoria and many others, that a hallucinatory journey to the bright light and beyond, a full-blown NDE, can occur in 20 or 30 seconds, even though it seems to last much longer. Subjectively, during such a crisis, the very concept of time may seem variable or meaningless. The one most plausible hypothesis in Dr. Alexander’s case, then, is that his NDE occurred not during his coma, but as he was surfacing from the coma and his cortex was returning to full function. It is curious that he does not allow this obvious and natural explanation, but instead insists on a supernatural one.

To deny the possibility of any natural explanation for an NDE, as Dr. Alexander does, is more than unscientific — it is antiscientific. It precludes the scientific investigation of such states.

But, as they say, Alexander is crying all the way to the bank.


Finally, if you lack integrity, there’s a sure way to get rich. Simply engineer a near-death experience and then write a book that gives details about how you visited Heaven. If any topic guarantees a best-selling book, and lots of dosh, that one is it.

26 thoughts on “Esquire’s debunking of the “Proof of Heaven” doctor is again available for free

  1. A very well-written article, and not just in the sense of well-researched. I really enjoyed the temporal displacement by which he threaded the story together.

    What was really disappointing was that almost all of the comments (well, at least the first fifty or so) were completely credulously pro-Alexander. Yes, it appears that far too many people do believe this kind of nonsense.

  2. If Eben Alexander were sincere and confident in his claims, he would’ve made his complete medical records available to skeptical scientists. He hasn’t.

  3. Absolue drivel!! Why that book makes it to the top of the nonfiction best selling List Is telling!! And why fvf does not Is even more telling!! The sixty bucks i paid for a first ed of weit was an absolute bargain!!

  4. First thing to be thankful for is that this guy did not operate on you.

    The ugly bottom of religion and it’s prophets are always about money. It’s the con job that goes on as long as there is money to be made.

  5. Luke Dittrich’s article is very enlightening, as it itemizes how the doctor has had a repeated history of revising history to fit his needs.

    I think that rather than make a gob-smacking movie out of the book, the better movie would be one based on the article. It would be a fascinating dissection of a troubled but still interesting person who goes through life, casually telling little lies and bigger lies and even bigger lies.

  6. Let’s see, writing a book about heaven… and then create a new fringe religion out of it… even more money to be scammed of people!

    Sadly the people who would benefit the most from reading Dittrich’s article will never see it.

  7. I wonder why we never see books of NDEs from people who are bound for hell. Perhaps because they decide to stay?

    1. Actually there are several: “Hell Testimonies” by Mike Perlata, “23 Minutes in Hell” by Bill Weise, “A Divine Revelation of Hell” by Mary Baxter, “To Hell and Back” by Maurice Rawlings . . .I’ve seen some of these on sale at WalMart and KMart.

  8. What we need is a better of understanding of how so many people can be conned about so many things and out of so much money. From Alexander to leading presidential candidates, the beat goes on. P.T. Barnum was a sage. Is there some evolutionary explanation for this?

  9. What we need is a better of understanding of why so many people can be conned about so many things and out of so much money. From Alexander to leading presidential candidates, the beat goes on. P.T. Barnum was a sage. Is there some evolutionary explanation for this?

  10. It seems like the 2010s is the decade of heaven. More mainstream books and movies on the subject seem to have come out the past 5 years than the 50 before it.

  11. I just asked a friend of mine if she’d come across the book. Her sister gave it to her. She said she quit reading toward the end when it just got too goofy

    “Did you read it?” she asked. Me being the straight man, the immediate reply was, “I read very little fiction,” and I think that’s a perfect rreply.

  12. A preacher by the name of Kenneth Hagin claimed to have gone to hell. He became the forerunner of the current brand of prosperity Christianity, exemplified by the super-rich televangelists.

    Tall tales (whether delusions or outright lies) can be quite profitable.

  13. Many of you may have this same memory as me, of a Sunday School story. We were told the “true” story of a nasty little girl who went to heaven. Everyone had a garden to represent their life, and every member of her Church had a beautiful one. Then they came to hers and there was just one flower, struggling to survive.

    She was allowed to keep living and dedicated her life to making her garden in heaven beautiful. We were then all asked, “Don’t you want to have a beautiful garden too? Do you want everyone to see an ugly garden with your name on it? God and Jesus …” blah blah blah you know the rest.

    1. That’s so blatantly manipulative. Young minds have enough to deal with in the real world without having to navigate such a brier patch of superstitious offal. Sorry you went through that. I only remember making pipe cleaner sheep for a shoe box diorama. I feel so lucky…blessed.

      1. I wish I’d got to make sheep!

        I kept asking the teacher questions, which she couldn’t answer, and she didn’t like me at all because of it. She made it pretty obvious she didn’t like me either.

        I didn’t think she was a liar at that age. Maybe she wasn’t – I don’t know – she may have believed everything she was telling us. I just thought she was stupid. I was asking questions because I wanted information, and she was unable to supply it, which I found really frustrating.

        1. I’m glad you survived it and went on to live life in reality.
          When I was 8 or 9 I didn’t pay enough attention to technical details. All I know was that I was bored to tears making sheep. I sensed there was an attempted to persuade me of some larger message, but I wanted to get home as fast as possible so I could get on with the real work of being a kid: Goofing around. It wasn’t until later that I noticed that not everyone knew religion, like Santa, was just made up. It surprises me to this day.

        2. Oh yes, asking questions, many religious people I’ve met consider this a bad idea.
          My own journey to atheism began with a question when I was about 5. We had just heard the story about Cain and Abel, and I wondered where the wife of Cain came from, I mean Adam and Eve were the first people etc. I don’t remember the answer I got, but I do remember my dissatisfaction with it. Oh and I thought that god was really unfair to Cain, he brought his best fruits too!

  14. I hope Luke Dittrich’s critique gets a good distribution spread. Help stop this madness getting any further.
    But religion is big business, why are we surprised.
    Someone needs to tell Alexander that he is still not well, in fact, he is very sick.

  15. Just skimmed through Dittrich’s article. Good hatchet job (and I say that approvingly).

    Alexander’s ‘heaven’? – nothing new there, phony mediums have been peddling that stuff for decades.

    E Coli, as is well known, usually live in crap. The ones that infiltrated Alexander’s brain must have felt right at home.


  16. I woke up the other morning five minutes before my alarm went off: I thought to myself, “I just CAN’T get up right this minute; maybe I can doze off again…” I did, and in that five minutes had an awesome dream, the events in which seemed to last for an hour!

    A couple lived a good life: they were crossing the street one day when a drunk driver ran them both down, killing them instantly. They awoke to find themselves in Heaven, being shown around by St. Peter. He led them up a beautiful street (which, indeed, was paved with gold) to a huge mansion and said, “This is your new home.” They were, of course, flabbergasted and were even more so when St. Peter showed them the closets full of beautiful clothes that fit their new, young, healthy bodies perfectly. He showed them the dining room, with a table laden with delicacies of every kind; “-and you don’t have to worry about getting fat, or eating too much sodium, either- this IS Heaven, after all”, St.Peter remarked. The man looked out the window and said, “Say- is that a golf course over there? St. Peter replied, “Of course; it’s a masters-quality course that changes however you want it to; you can play with all of the old golfing greats, and it never rains! The man turned to his wife and said, “Damn you and your bran muffins! We could have been here ten years ago!

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