Philosopher and (almost) life-long atheist A. J. Ayer’s confession of religious belief

An Atheist Meets the Masters of the Universe

In the early evening of June 6, as Ayer later wrote, he “carelessly tossed” a slice of this salmon into his mouth.  It went down the wrong way and he choked.  Before the biomedical machinery in the ICU, flashing red, had managed to summon the emergency staff to his side at a run to revive him, Freddie had actually been clinically dead for four minutes.  The hospital notes simply stated: “cardiac arrest with bradycardia, and asystole.”

To give context to this mini medical drama it’s important to bear in mind that A.J. Ayer was an atheist.  Not just any old atheist — the atheist as far as millions of Britons were concerned.  In addition to establishing his reputation as one of the great analytic and rationalist philosophers of the century with such works as Language, Truth and Logic and the later Foundations of Empirical Knowledge, Ayer had spent most of his adult life putting the case very publicly on radio and television, as well as in print, for the “non-existence” of God — indeed arguing that the very idea of “God” was devoid of meaning, a position known in theology as igtheism.

. . . On the day of that first “death” (the second and final one occurred eleven months later), Dr. George returned to Ayer’s bedside.  “I came back to talk to him later that evening . . . Very discreetly, I asked him, as a philosopher, what was it like to have had a near-death experience?  He suddenly looked rather sheepish.  Then he said, ‘I saw a Divine Being.  I’m afraid I’m going to have to revise all my various books and opinions.’

“He clearly said ‘Divine Being,’” said Dr. George.  “He was confiding in me, and I think he was slightly embarrassed because it was unsettling for him as an atheist.  He spoke in a very confidential manner.  I think he felt he had come face to face with God, or his maker, or what one might say was God.

“Later, when I read his article, I was surprised to see he had left out all mention of it.  I was simply amused.  I wasn’t very familiar with his philosophy at the time of the incident, so the significance wasn’t immediately obvious.”

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