Near-Death Experience and the Origins of Afterlife Beliefs - Dr Gregory Shushan
In this seminar I review my research into the relationship between afterlife beliefs and certain types of ‘religious’ or ‘mystical’ experiences worldwide as found in the texts of early civilizations, and in the earliest ethnographic reports on indigenous societies. The key issue is the extent to which afterlife conceptions are consistent cross-culturally, and with the spontaneous, evidently universal near-death experience. In opposition to contemporary postmodernist-influenced assumptions that religious beliefs and experiences are entirely culturally constructed, I argue that afterlife conceptions in human societies are commonly formed not only by a combination of culture-specific socio-historical and environmental factors, but also universal cognitive factors and universal anomalous experiential factors. This is demonstrated by the existence of thematically consistent narratives of near-death experiences found in nearly all times and places, which in turn correspond to the widespread general similarities found in afterlife conceptions worldwide. This is despite differences in social organization and scale, and high degrees of cultural independence and geographical and chronological distance between the societies considered.
Gregory Shushan is author of the Grawemeyer Award-nominated Conceptions of the Afterlife in Early Civilizations: Universalism, Constructivism, and Near-Death Experience (Continuum Advances in Religious Studies, 2009). He has been Visiting Lecturer in Religious Studies at University of Wales Lampeter, Lecturer in the Study of Religions at University College Cork where he helped establish the first such department in the Republic of Ireland, guest lecturer in Anthropology of Religions at Swiss University, and Research Fellow at the Centro Incontri Umani (The Cross Cultural Centre) at Ascona, Switzerland. He has presented his research in seven different countries, and is the recipient of six academic awards, including the Gordon Childe Prize. He holds a Diploma in Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology from Birkbeck College (University of London), a BA in Egyptian Archaeology and an MA in Research Methods for the Humanities from University College London, and a PhD in Religious Studies from University of Wales Lampeter. He is currently a Research Fellow at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion, University of Oxford, researching comparative afterlife beliefs in indigenous religions worldwide in the context of shamanic and near-death experiences. The project is supported by a grant from the Perrot-Warrick Fund, Trinity College, Cambridge.