Scientific Investigation of the “Dark Side”
by Ken R. Vincent, Ed.D.
(A lecture delivered to the Psi Beta Psychology Honor Society at Houston Community College, October, 2008 and published in the 2009 Universalist Herald, 160, 3, 14-17 as The Dark Side of Spiritually Transformative Experiences.
Religious experiences, currently known by the term, “Spiritually Transformative Experiences” (STEs) have been studied scientifically for the past 150 years by social scientists and biomedical researchers. For purposes of this study, Spiritually Transformative Experiences have been divided into four categories:
1) Religious/Spiritual/Mystical Experiences (RSMEs),
2) Near-Death Experiences (NDEs), 3) Death-Bed Visions (DBVs), and 4) After-Death
Communications (ADCs). While most reported STEs are “positive” in that they are pleasant and provide clarity or insight, a significant minority of reported cases are “negative” in that they are frightening. As indicated by the word, “Transformative,” the most consistent characteristic of both positive and negative STEs is that they CHANGE PEOPLE’S LIVES.
Most of you know me as a Professor of Psychology, but you may not realize that my main research focus over the past 20 years has been to ascertain the role that religious experience plays in the human psyche. The material I research can usually be found in no
more than one or two chapters of a Psychology of Religion textbook. Just let me remind you
again: Research into Spiritual Experiences CAN BE and IS conducted using the same
criteria that we use to investigate any other psychological phenomena (Vincent, 2006).
These include: 1) Case studies of transpersonal experience,
2) Sociological surveys that tell who and what percentage of the population have STEs,
3) Psychological tests that measure not only the mental health of the individual but also evaluate the depth of mystical experiences, 4) Biomedical and neuroscience testing, including the EEG, PET-scan, and functional MRI to, in some cases, document genuine altered states of consciousness and demonstrate that mystical experiences are not just wishful thinking; additionally EEGs and EKGs allow us to document death in NDEs that occur in hospitals,
5) Sociological and psychological investigations that assess the after-effects these experiences have on people, and
6) Controlled experimental research (such as Panke’s experiment testing psychedelics)
(Smith, 2000, pp. 99-105).
Even though we are talking about human experience that is basically “religious” in nature, scientists have a legitimate role to investigate it using all the tools of analysis at our disposal. In this way, we separate ourselves from the sensational and fictitious accounts of the National Enquirer and gradually move toward a greater understanding of the broad spectrum of human experience.
Spiritually Transformative Experiences - Surveys
Current research documents the following facts: 1) A large percentage of the population have experienced STEs, 2) The overwhelming majority of those having STEs are mentally normal and not psychotic, and 3) STEs change people’s lives for the better (Vincent, 2006).
To date, research has shown that negative STEs are far less common than positive ones. In his initial study of 3,000 cases of STEs sent to the Religious Experience Research Centre (RERC) (formerly at Oxford; now at University of Wales Lampeter), Sir Alister Hardy (1979, p. 28) found 4% negative. Somewhat later, using 4,000 cases at the RERC, Merete Jakobsen (1999, p. iv) also found 4% negative experiences. Recently, Zinzhong Yao and Paul
Badham (2007, pp. 9,45-46) of the RERC found in studying 3,196 Chinese that 56.7% had religious experiences, but only 8.5% of them were negative. They compared this to a 1987 British survey which found 12% negative experiences (Yao & Badham 2007, p. 185).
Regarding NDEs, in a monumental analysis of over 21 studies, Nancy Evans Bush (2006) found 17.2% of them to be negative. Also, most researchers of STEs feel that the numbers are under-reported because of the stigma
sometimes associated with having a negative STE.
Judgment and Afterlife in
Ancient and Modern World
Do Spiritually Transformative
Experiences prove the existence
of a God who interacts with
us personally? Do encounters
with dead humans prove the
existence of an afterlife? From my perspective, they point in that direction for this reason: Virtually all religions have their genesis in the Spiritually Transformative Experience of their founder. Also, the subsequent theology of virtually all ancient and contemporary religions includes some form of Judgment by Divine Beings and subsequent relegation to Heaven or Hell based on the ratio of good to bad deeds of the deceased person while on Earth. Hell, of course, is the ultimate experience of the “Dark Side.”
Before we go any further, it is important to realize that when one studies the experiential
aspect of comparative religion that THE ANGELS, SAINTS, AND JINN OF THE WEST = THE SMALL “g” GODS OF THE EAST because they perform the same function. This will become apparent as we look at some variations in cultural expectations surrounding Judgment.
In Ancient Egypt, we have a Judgment in the Book of the Dead whereby the heart of the deceased is weighed against a feather, and woe to those whose heart is heavy with sin!
This Judgment is presided over by the savior god Osiris and his wife Isis (Budge, 1895/1967, pp. 253-261).
Later, in Zoroastrianism (the religion of the Magi), Judgment is conducted by three angels whose duty is to weigh the good deeds against the bad deeds of the deceased. If his or her life reflects an overwhelming preponderance of GOOD deeds, they are allowed to proceed across a WIDE bridge; if the deceased has been more evil than good, the bridge becomes narrow, and he or she falls into hell.
This same bridge imagery lives on in Shiite Islam where it is the job of the Angel Gabriel to hold the divine scales of Judgment (Vincent, 1999, pp.5-6; Masumian, 1995, p.79).
In Judaism, according to the Book of Daniel (12:1-3), the Archangel Michael holds the scales of Judgment on which the deeds of the deceased are weighed. In Medieval Christian artwork, the Archangel Michael still holds the scales, but Jesus sits above him as judge.
Now let us move from West to East. In Hinduism and its children, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism, Yamaraj (King Yama) is the judge of the dead. In all these religions, weighing your good deeds against your bad deeds on the divine scales of justice determines not only whether or not you go to heaven or hell in the intermediate state but also the status of your next life after reincarnation (Masumian, 1995, pp.5-7, 143). To me, reincarnation is the only major theological difference in world religions. The East has it, and in the West, reincarnation is only a minority position (such as in the Christianity of the Gnostics and the Islamic sect of the Druze).
We see these same themes repeated in the Native American religions of North America, Mezzo-America, and South America where the themes of Paradise and Punishment are repeated (Nigosian, 2000, pp. 382, 384). In virtually all religions, assignment of the deceased to the “Dark Side” is either 1) determined by God’s emissaries or 2) determined by the natural law of the universe.
Now let us look at the “Dark Side” of the NDE. In an article in Psychiatry journal, Bruce Greyson and Nancy Evans Bush (1992) identified three types of negative NDEs.
1) The first type is the NDE that is initially frightening but later turns positive, most often after the person calls out to God or God’s emissary.
2) The second type is a non-existent or “eternal void” experience ─ in other words, an existential hell. 3) The third type is a “graphic and hellish landscape and entities.” In her book Blessing in Disguise, Dr. Barbara Rommer (2000, p. 87-96) adds a fourth category of a frightening life-review.
The following two examples describe distressing near-death experiences that turn positive. (Note that both contain graphic imagery of hell.)