Over an eighteen-month period during 1980 and 1981, George Gallup Jr utilised the resources of the Gallup Poll to investigate beliefs about life after death, publishing its findings in Adventures in Immortality in 1982. The book examined attitudes towards life after death, mystical experiences and near-death experiences (NDEs), using quantitative and qualitative data, both among the general public and those who had had NDEs, or ‘verge of death’ experiences as Gallup preferred to call them. A number of ‘leading scientists’ were surveyed separately. There were some limited international comparisons but the primary focus was on the United States.
A number of ‘entrances, or windows, on the afterlife’ were identified: physical accidents, childbirth, hospital operations and other illnesses involving drugs or anaesthetics, sudden illnesses outside hospital (in which drugs were less likely to be involved), criminal attacks, the deathbed, and religious visions, dreams, premonitions and other spiritual experiences. Fifteen per cent of respondents answered yes to the question ‘Have you, yourself, ever been on the verge of death or had a “close call” which involved any unusual experiences at that time?’ The survey identified a number of types of phenomena reported by those who had had NDEs, familiar in descriptions: out-of-body experiences, such as feelings of peace, a tunnel, life review, finding oneself in another world and encountering other beings there, and the return. Of the demographic variables (age, gender, class, race, occupation, educational attainment, region of residence, income, religious affiliation and frequency of church attendance), there was generally no relationship with incidences of NDEs. In addition to the questions concerning life after death, respondents were also asked about their views on reincarnation, extraterrestrial life and contact with the dead.
The chapter on psychological issues provides caveats that are crucial when analysing NDE reports. For example, there is what Gallup refers to as the epistemological issue, the problem of determining what the words used by experients actually refer to, if anything. Further, he notes the tendencies either to exaggerate or downplay experiences, the latter perhaps more likely through fear of ridicule. Thus the bald figures need to be treated with caution over and above the problem of sampling error. Even at that early stage in the development of near-death studies he refers to the danger of experients reporting in terms of what they have read, shaping the raw experience in terms of their expectations. Then there is the role of brain chemistry and how it might affect – or generate – the raw experience during trauma. In the space at his disposal Gallup can do little more than allude to these issues, but they have been taken on board since in NDE research.
The main text concludes with chapters outlining some views of scientists (they were less likely than the general population to accept a paranormal aspect to NDEs), a selection of Protestant, Catholic and Jewish doctrines (but little about Islam – eastern religions were excluded entirely), and what the findings of psychology have to say about it all. A lengthy appendix supplies an extensive range of data on which the commentary is based, with an outline of the methodology employed for the surveys. The sheer effort that went into collection gave confidence to researchers that what they were investigating was a phenomenon affecting a significant portion of the population rather than having to rely on occasional anecdotal reports. From that perspective it stands with Raymond Moody’s 1975 Life After Life as a pioneering study.
Unfortunately it is marred by George Gallup’s religious preoccupations. We rely on pollsters being objective, and doubtless the data gathering was scrupulous; but the biographical paragraph on the inside flap describes Gallup, among his professional qualifications, as Director of the Princeton Religion Centre, and co-author William Proctor had published books on religion. Gallup’s theological interests determined that a significant proportion of the questions would relate to the subject in various ways, and the theme is woven through the commentary. While noting the purpose of the exercise was not to provide proof of immortality, Gallup believed the results spoke for themselves, that is they bolstered the reality of a heaven. If they went beyond what can be gleaned from scripture, they did not contradict it and were therefore congruent with it. The discussion examines the possibility of a subjective origin for NDEs, and contrary views are included, but the weight is on the existence of the afterlife as according with Christian doctrines, and the Bible is frequently used as a source of ‘evidence’.
The book provides a very readable snapshot, but it inevitably feels dated both in the poll results (US demographics having changed considerably in the succeeding 35 years), and in the analysis. At the time the field of near-death studies was in its infancy and while the data were invaluable, a lack of sophistication in the treatment of the implications is evident. In particular Gallup does not reference previous research in any systematic way. As a popular book, academic depth has been sacrificed in the interests of readability. While noting this approach, Kenneth Ring, in a generally positive review in Anabiosis: The Journal for Near-Death Studies (December, 1982, pp. 160-65) concludes with the judgement: ‘An indispensable reference, Gallup’s book is sure to become a classic of its genre’. That verdict has not been borne out, but it is still a valuable contribution to the field, even one which has seen an explosion of research in the three plus decades since it was published.