review of Sharon Hewitt Rawlette’s book Beyond Death

I loved Rawlette’s book on metaethics, but this one—where she argues that the dead genuinely visit the living and children have real memories of past lives—was always going to be a tougher sell for me.

I’m biased toward interpreting all such reported events as some combination of coincidence, misunderstanding, hallucination, and deception, for two general reasons:

  1. It’s the simplest explanation for why this stuff is rare. Why do we need to inspect the case of (to take one example from the book) a man who died and allegedly appeared to two women way back in 1857? Why haven’t we all had such experiences, or at least know lots of people who have?
  2. The phenomena often seem to support mutually incompatible worldviews. (Even in the book, Rawlette quotes one person who says their near-death experience taught them that people must be reincarnated until they “are good enough”, while a footnote on the same page (113) quotes another person who says their NDE taught them reincarnation is not for that purpose.)

(As an aside: I also think these are two major weaknesses in Christian apologetics. Endless ink has been spilled arguing that a handful of historical reports are best explained by the hypothesis that the Christian God is real and performed miracles. This may indeed be the simplest explanation of those reports, considered in isolation; but accepting this explanation makes a whole lot of other things much harder to explain, including the lack of clear divine appearance/intervention at most times and places, and the reporting of miracles by adherents of incompatible religions.)

But Rawlette would deny my claim that reports of contact with the dead are rare. She says, for example, that:

Rawlette relies on various compilations of anecdotes, and seems particularly reliant on a few authors like Erlendur Haraldsson and Ian Stevenson. I think really evaluating this book would require researching those sources in detail. Some of the stories and patterns described are indeed striking.