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The Death and Afterlife Book: The Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death

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The Death and Afterlife Book: Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death, Life After Death, James R. Lewis

The Death and Afterlife Book: The Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death, and Life After Death, by James R. Lewis

When we die, is that it? Is that the end, or is there some form of “life” after our physical death? Most people and most religions have believed in some form of afterlife — but what exactly have they believed and why?

Summary

Title: The Death and Afterlife Book: The Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death, and Life After Death
Author: James R. Lewis
Publisher: Visible Ink Press
ISBN: 157859135X

Pro:
• Provides information from many cultures
• Offers unique perspectives on important theologians
• Good basic reference to have on this topic

Con:
• No solid information on skepticism

Description:
• Explains nature and variety of afterlife and after-death beliefs
• Over 250 articles of varying lengths in dictionary format
• Each entry offers suggestions for more information and further reading

Book Review

There exist many books about afterlife beliefs, but James R. Lewis’ The Death and Afterlife Book: The Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death, and Life After Death offers a particularly comprehensive look at such beliefs from around the world, thus providing readers which a resource not commonly available. The book contains over 250 articles arranged in a dictionary format. Some entries are only a few pages while others run over several pages, and each has a list of sources for further reading.

Unfortunately, it starts out on a sour note as Raymond Moody, in his forward, writes:

    “...there is a life after death, but one cannot fully realize it until one achieves a certain kind of maturity, for one cannot attain the realization by applying ordinary rules of inference or through ordinary ways of learning. This knowledge is not for the immature or the young...”

Skeptics, evidently, just aren’t “mature” enough to know what he knows — something he achieved through means not amenable to normal critical thinking, conveniently enough. Fortunately, Lewis does not resort to such ad hominems either in his introduction or in the rest of the book. Instead, he focuses on the nature of afterlife beliefs themselves.

One of the strengths of the book is its multicultural approach. Most information does relate to Western beliefs and Western religious perspectives, but there is still quite a lot of information on the beliefs from other regions of the world and other religious traditions. For example, the entry on Africa, which is the second in the book, provides very extensive material on ancestor cults, funeral rites, and more.

Another strength is the fact that it provides a unique perspective on some old names which should otherwise be familiar. Every reference work on religion or philosophy mentions, for example, Thomas Aquinas, but Lewis discusses his views on the afterlife — something not usually covered in other sources.

A principle weakness, however, is the dearth of skeptical information and skeptical perspectives on afterlife beliefs. Skepticism does not appear at all in the index, doesn’t have its own entry, and, when mentioned in other articles, the position is not presented very strongly. This is perhaps the most definitive skeptical statement in the book:

    “It has been argued that it is not reasonable to consider NDEs as evidence of survival unless other naturalistic causes for these experiences can be excluded. It is possible that all NDEs can be explained by naturalistic causes, such as psychological, physiological, neurological, or pharmacological manifestations. Religious beliefs, wishful thinking, or medications such as morphine may facilitate the experience.”
The Death and Afterlife Book: Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death, Life After Death, James R. Lewis

The Death and Afterlife Book: The Encyclopedia of Death, Near Death, and Life After Death, by James R. Lewis

    “Also, disturbance of brain functions and cerebral anoxia are known to cause hallucinations, which may occur in nearly all dying patients.”

In addition, there are no entries on drugs like ketamine or hallucinogens which produce experiences like those reported by people who claim to have visited a realm beyond physical existence. There is also nothing on the work of Dr. Michael Persinger, who has created a machine which allows him to produce OBEs and NDEs in research subjects. On the other hand, the book also doesn’t present the afterlife beliefs as if they were definite fact — the beliefs are simply described as they are. Nevertheless, a fair presentation of the skeptical position would have made the book more balanced.

This is probably a good book for both skeptics and believers looking for a basic reference on afterlife beliefs. It provides a wide range of information about beliefs from all over the world and attempts to present them in a fair and objective manner. It’s not a perfect reference, but it is a good one to have around if you need to be able to research and read on the topic.

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