What is consciousness

Over the last couple of years, I’ve been thinking more and more about the nature of consciousness. My Zen meditation practice basically involves letting go of thoughts, letting go of the self, and simply experiencing consciousness without content. I have direct experiences from my meditation practice, as well as a reasonably wide reading of Zen and Buddhist masters and their experiences and understanding of consciousness, self and reality.  At times, I feel like I have had openings to experiences which have “enlightened” me about the nature of self, consciousness etc, but I have not really integrated these tastes of non-self into any sort of stable or mature understanding of reality.

I had read a few articles by philosophers who have explored the nature of consciousness, particularly the so-called hard problem of consciousness and last year read a review of a new book by Anil Seth which led me to think he had made advances from the neuroscience perspective.

Apart from my direct explorations through Zen meditation, breathwork and psychedelics, I also have worked with several Zen teachers and read extensively on consciousness in Buddhist literature and in the works of Ken Wilber, who has explored and mapped states and stages of consciousness in his writings. More recently, I read and reviewed Sam Harris’s book Waking Up, which also discusses the nature of consciousness and self.

So I decided I would read some of the key books and articles on consciousness from the philosophers and neuroscientists, to complement my experience and understanding gained from meditation and psychedelic explorations.

I bought the following books:

Anil Seth is a neurologist, Peter Godfrey-Smith a biologist and philosopher of science. Annaka Harris is a science writer (fun fact: also the wife of Sam Harris). Lewis-Williams and Pearce are both archaeologists. The final three are all philosophers. I guess the other relevant discipline I am missing is artificial intelligence research. I’ve read a little in this area and have found it mostly irrelevant to the issues relating to consciousness that I am interested in, and tedious reading to boot.

I browsed Chalmers book on consciousness and discovered the entire book ignores the entire knowledge base on states of consciousness, meditation, nondual states, etc. As if it’s irrelevant. So I quickly browsed the books by the other two philosophers, and the book by Anil Seth the neurologist. Not a single mention of meditation, altered states, psychedelics. I had bigger problems with Seth’s ideas, but will leave that to a separate review.

My initial reaction was to dismiss the philosophers as inhabiting a limited sterile corner of academia ignoring large parts of human experience. But then realized if I did that, I would be no better than them.

Ken Wilber has gone down this same path of integrating Western psychology and philosophy with Eastern first-person methods and understanding and has been largely ignored by academia and philosophers.  In part, because he does somewhat go over the top, and despite his focus on empirical methods, does seem to uncritically accept aspects of Tibetan Buddhism at more or less face value. Such as rebirth.

Sam Harris seems to get it more right. And his conclusions are very much aligned with mine. And even he gets dismissed by Western commentators as being arrogant. By telling them they cannot just critique from the outside, without trying the methods for themselves. So much for open-mindedness to all the relevant evidence.

For consciousness per se, which is a subjective experience, its clear that the objective methods of science are going to be at best marginally relevant. What is most relevant is the actual massive domain of experiences of consciousness. Particularly those focused not on the contents of consciousness (as the psychologists and neuroscientists like to do) but those focused on the exploration of consciousness per se when the contents are out of the way. The recent book by Anneka Harris is the only other one on my list above which examines what meditation tells us about consciousness.  And when I started reading it, I found it a superb discussion of the various issues and theories about consciousness.  So my next post will be a closer look at Harris’ book, and then I will dive into the philosophers.

Links to my later posts on consciousness are given below:

Anneka Harris on the fundamental mystery of consciousness Oct 6 2022

Consciousness Explained…..or Consciousness Ignored? Oct 16 2022

Christian beliefs in heaven and hell are not what Jesus taught

In two previous posts (here and here), I examined the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell across the world and in the major religions. Less than half of Christians in developed countries say they believe in hell, and only a slight majority in heaven. The USA is the major exception, with over 80% of Christians saying that they believe in heaven and in hell. Here I examine the extent to which the Christian belief in heaven and hell as places of reward and punishment after death are supported by either Biblical texts or the teachings of Jesus.

All 31 uses of the word “Hell” in the King James Version of the Old Testament are translations of the Hebrew word “Sheol”.  Sheol in the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible) is a place of still darkness which lies after death. The first mentions of Sheol associate it with the state of death and a sense of eternal finality. The generally brief mentions of Sheol seem to describe it as a place where both the righteous and the unrighteous dead go, regardless of their moral choices in life. The references can usually be interpreted as either a generic metaphor describing “the grave” which all humans end up in, or as representing an actual state of afterlife (Wikipedia).

Views on hell and the afterlife vary in Judaism, as in the Hebrew Bible. They range from belief that physical death is the end of life, through to an afterlife in Sheol, where humans descend after death. There is generally no concept of judgement or reward and punishment attached to it, though some Jews believe that many humans in Sheol have intense feelings of shame about their misdeeds and this constitutes suffering which makes up for the bad deeds.

This is quite similar to the conceptualization of hell in the TV series Lucifer, where people are trapped in hell loops of their own making out of shame and guilt, and that is the only torture going on in hell.

According to my analysis of the World Values Survey and the European Values Study (see here), Jews have the lowest prevalence of belief in hell at 38% among the major religions. Belief in hell is even lower at 32% for Jews in developed countries.

What does the New Testament have to say about hell? The New Testament was written in Greek with a smattering of Aramaic mixed in. Translators are often faced with words which don’t have an exact equivalent in a modern language, and the use of “hell” as the translation of several words varies quite substantially across various translations of the Bible. Here is a comparative table for selected versions from this source which I haven’t checked fully for accuracy. I have checked the count for the King James Version (KJV) against several sources, and they agree that “hell” is referenced 23 times in the KJV New Testament.

Twelve of the references in KJV New Testament are to the place name Gehenna, which is a valley just outside the city of Jerusalem where trash was burnt. So references to Gehenna may possibly carry an inference of fiery torment. The references are in Matthew (7 times), Mark (3), Luke (1) and James (1).

Ten of the occurrences of hell in the KJV New Testament translate the Greek Hades. Hades is the Greek underworld where all the dead go. The references are in Matthew (2), Like (2), Acts (2) and Revelations (4). There is another mention of Hades in Corinthians 15:55 which is translated simply as “grave”. There is a single mention of Tartarus, one of the realms of Hades which is a deep chasm, a place of darkness and torment. The reference in Peter 2:4 refers to Tartarus as the place where God cast angels that had sinned, to be chained in darkness and reserved unto judgement.

Most of the New Testament was written decades after Jesus died, and already included mythological elements common to several religions of the region. The concept of hell evolved over time, particularly when Christianity was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire and a selection of writings was chosen to become the official Bible around 382 CE.

Jesus died in either 30 CE or 33 CE. The Gospel of Mark probably dates from around the year 70 CE, Matthew and Luke around 85–90 CE, and John probably sometime in 90–110 CE. Various changes and additions may have continued as late as the 3rd century. To understand what the earliest recorded forms of Christian writing had to say about hell, I read the two oldest gospel texts, likely written around two decades after Jesus’ death, earlier than the four gospels of the New Testament.

Written in the 50s of the first century CE, only two decades after Jesus’ death, the Lost Gospel Q (for Quelle or Source) is significantly earlier than any of the four gospels of the New Testament. The basis for the “Q hypothesis” is the large amount of common material found in both Matthew and Luke, but not in Mark. Scholars have concluded that neither of the authors of Matthew or Luke knew of the other’s work, and that the common source must have been an earlier gospel, now lost. Unlike the narrative gospels of the NT, Q is a sayings gospel consisting almost entirely of sayings of Jesus, with very few stories about Jesus. The Lost Gospel Q is scholars’ best attempt to reconstruct the text, to uncover the pure voice of the Gospel Jesus.

Among the many gospels and other documents found at Nag Hammadi in 1945 was the Gospel of Thomas, another sayings gospel. When scholars realized that over one third of the sayings in the Gospel of Thomas were very similar to those probably contained in Q, this leant strong support to the Q theory. Some scholars date the original Greek manuscript to the 50s like Q, which means it was written before the New Testament Gospels, and thus more likely to be historically accurate. The Jesus Seminar determined that, for nine New Testament parables likely to have been told by Jesus, the Thomas Version was closest to the original in six cases.

The reconstructed text of Q contains 82 sayings of Jesus and the Gospel of Thomas 114. How many of these sayings mention heaven or hell? For hell (or any of the words translated as hell in the New Testament) the answer is simple: none.

The 6th saying in Q does refer to the devil, in the context of the devil tempting Jesus to turn a stone into bread while he was fasting for 40 days in the wilderness. There is no mention of hell or of the devil ruling over hell. This story is very similar to the story of Mara tempting the Buddha with visions of beautiful women to try to obstruct his meditation and enlightenment. And the message of the 6th saying is almost identical.

There is also a reference to Beelzebul, as the chief of the evil spirits. Saying 37 of Q describes Jesus as curing a man possessed by a demon, at which some in the crowd said Jesus was in league with Beelzebul. Jesus disputes this and the translation has him saying “So if Satan’s house is divided how can his kingdom survive?” and that he casts out demons by the finger of God. Beelzebul is one of the names of the Canaanite god Baal, but in Christian mythology is another name for Satan.

Both Q and Thomas have multiple references to heaven, the Kingdom of heaven, and the Kingdom of God. I have identified all the sayings in Q and Thomas which refer to heaven, the kingdom, and various alternate phrases.  Leaving aside several uses of the phrase “the heavens and the earth” which I see as a poetic reference to the universe or “everything”, and a single reference to “paradise” in Thomas 19 which is of Gnostic origin, the table below summarizes the number of sayings in which various references to heaven or the kingdom are made in Q and Thomas.

I am not sure of the extent to which these phrases represent direct translations of the original Coptic words (possibly itself translated from Greek or Syriac) or are variants introduced by the translators.

The “Kingdom of God” is also translated as “the realm of God” and the translators note that it is one of the most problematic phrases in the gospels. They actually used “realm of God” nine times in Q, compared to three for “kingdom of God”, but I have counted all “realm” references as “kingdom” references in the table above. The translators say that the Aramaic and Hebrew words used by Jesus are not referring to a place or territory but to a power that is coming to be, sometimes hidden and sometimes manifest. This sounds awfully like Buddhist writings that describe enlightenment or non-dual consciousness as ever-present but often hidden. In other words, a state of consciousness.

In fact, once I actually read all the sayings referring to the kingdom of heaven or other variants, it was quite clear that they do refer to an enlightenment state, ie. a state of non-dual consciousness always already present but usually hidden by everyday consciousness.

Q62 and T96 describe heaven as like leaven (yeast) in dough. T57 describes the kingdom of heaven as like wheat hidden among the weeds, and T76 as like a merchant who had goods and found a pearl hidden among them. The kingdom of heaven is clearly being described as like discovering something precious that has been there all along.

T109 similarly describes the kingdom as like a man who had a treasure hidden in his field without knowing it, and T113 says that the kingdom of the father is spread out on the earth and people do not see it.

In Q79, Jesus was asked, “when will the Kingdom of God arrive?” He replied, “You won’t be able to see the Kingdom of God when it comes. People won’t be able to say ‘it’s here’ or ‘it’s over there’. The Kingdom of God is among you.”

There are also several sayings where Jesus explicitly equates the kingdom with non-dual consciousness or enlightenment:

  • T3 mentions those who say the kingdom is in heaven or the kingdom is in the sea and dismisses them to explain “Rather the kingdom is within you and outside you”.
  • T22: “When you make the two one, and when you make the inner like the outer and the outer like the inner, and the upper like the lower, and when you make the male and the female into a single one, so that the mail is not male and the female not female, …. then you shall enter the Kingdom.

One saying of Thomas (T97) likens the kingdom of heaven to a woman carrying a jar of meal which empties out without her noticing. This quite unique saying implies that the kingdom of heaven can slip away if people are not careful. Q64 may also be relevant here: “Those who think that the realm of God belongs to them will be thrown out into the dark where they will cry tears of bitter regret.” These are definitely pointing to a state of consciousness which can potentially be lost, rather than to an eternal destination after death. And Q64 may even be warning that to grasp onto enlightenment is to lose it.

The Jesus of Q and Thomas is not the Messiah, the semi-mythical figure who will save humans who believe in him, but a wisdom teacher who is trying to explain to his listeners how they can enter the “realm of heaven” right here, right now. Jesus had a profound mystical experience, perhaps during his 40 days and nights in the desert, in which he experienced a non-dual state of consciousness where he was not separate but one with everything, where the inner was the outer and the outer the inner.

Like every mystic, he invents new language, poetic images, metaphors to try to describe his experience and encourage others to open to the same experience, and risks not being understood. He would have tried to communicate his experience in the context of the religious vocabulary he was familiar with and described it using terms such as heaven and God. And his common use of the term “father” for God would likely have been an attempt to convey the intimacy of the non-dual state where there are no boundaries and no “other”.

Although Q and Thomas are likely the earliest records of Jesus’ teaching, they should not be taken as a near transcript of things Jesus said. They are an early product of a developing tradition, recording sayings likely preserved orally, and predating most of the mythological elements later incorporated. It is noteworthy that neither of them contain any material about Jesus’ birth or death, let alone resurrection, and in both gospels it is his teachings, not his birth or crucifixion, which is important.

The clarity of Jesus’ teachings on the kingdom would have been filtered through at least one layer of memory of his disciples, and likely a second layer, contaminated by second layer understanding of other wisdom traditions such as Gnosticism or Neoplatonism. Some have attempted to identify Buddhist influences in the teachings of Jesus. From my reading of Q and Thomas, his sayings do not seem to have any clearly identifiable Buddhist terminology but rather to be the attempt of someone to describe his own enlightenment experience using poetic images and parables based in his own culture. Unlike the Buddha, he did not have a ready-made set of techniques (meditation) well known to others in his culture, which he could adapt as practices to facilitate the achievement of enlightenment. And so, inevitably, his teachings were turned from practices into beliefs by later generations of Christians.

As the Jesus tradition continued to develop, it incorporated many mythological themes from other Middle Eastern religious traditions, including death and resurrection after three days, and the myth of a paradise and a hell not of this earth, where the souls of the dead go after death. Probably after the first disciples and the second generation of followers, there were few traditions if any which preserved any understanding of Jesus’ actual message:  that the kingdom of heaven was right here now, waiting to be discovered like a treasure in a field, on this earth, not somewhere else in the future.

As for hell, it is not mentioned in Q or Thomas. The devil is mentioned twice, but only as an agent tempting Jesus to abandon his path to enlightenment. In few hundred years after Jesus’ death as the Christian religion developed and became the state religion of the Roman Empire, it incorporated a mythology of hell as a place of eternal torment for sinners. This was likely influenced by Zoroastrianism, a Persian religion which emphasizes a never-ending battle between good and evil — a contest between the religion’s God, Ahura Mazda, and an evil spirit, Ahriman. Its concept of hell involved the punishment of those who did evil in life, but it was also considered temporary and reformative, souls do not rest in eternal damnation. These beliefs almost certainly influenced all the Abrahamic religions, though Christianity’s notions of hell have also been heavily influenced by medieval views, particularly as expressed in the poetry of Dante and John Milton.

Modern Christianity, at least in developed countries other than the USA, is much more likely to preach that God is good, which makes it difficult to believe that God is also willing to have the vast majority of his children tortured forever and ever for any reason whatsoever, much less for crimes like accepting their sexuality or believing what their parents taught them, or not believing one or any of the many versions of Christianity.

Belief in heaven and hell – Part 2

In Part 1 of this post, I examined global variations in the prevalence of belief in heaven or hell, both in the total adult population and among Christians and those with other religious affiliations. I found that the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell among Christians in the USA is much higher than in any of the “West” culture zones, or the Orthodox East. In the developed countries other than the USA, only 52% of Christians say they believe in heaven, and significantly fewer say they believe in hell (42%). In contrast, Christians in the USA have a much higher level of belief, and similar levels of belief in heaven (85%) and hell (81%).

In social media, I’ve seen quite a few questions from Christians to atheists, essentially asking why they do not fear going to hell. And responses from atheists like myself, who simply cannot imagine how anyone could believe that a supposedly loving god would condemn people to eternal torture for a list of transgressions which seem to vary across flavors of Christianity and to be cherry-picked from a long list of sins mainly appearing in the Old Testament. A good starting point for understanding such different views are the levels and stages of moral development identified by Kohlberg [1]

Kohlberg’s theory proposes that there are three levels of moral development, with each level split into two stages. Kohlberg suggested that people move through these stages in a fixed order, and that moral understanding is linked to cognitive development. The three levels of moral reasoning include preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

The preconventional level is characterized by a morality determined by fear of punishment or expectation of reward. At the conventional level, moral decisions are based on the expectations of social groups or society at large. In modern societies, most children transition from the preconventional level around age 8-10 years to the conventional level. In late adolescence or adulthood, some adults move to the postconventional level, in which inter-individual’s judgements of good and bad become influenced by universal moral principles. If necessary, people at stage 6 may well take actions based on moral assessments derived from universal values, even if they conflict with laws and societal values. Kohlberg had relatively limited empirical data and estimated that around 10-15% of adults in developed countries reached the postconventional level.

There has been controversy around Kohlberg’s theory, particularly as to universality and applicability in non-Western cultures and as to whether people progress in a regular sequence through the levels and stages. Some studies that found around 20-30% of people appeared to regress to a lower stage in the years after finishing high school, and this led Kohlberg to refine his criteria to minimize the apparent regression by raising the threshold for the postconventional level. However, this resulted in lower prevalences of people at postconventional level, and some researchers argued that the postconventional level was not universal but specific to “Western” culture [2].

A 2007 review [3] of 120 studies in 42 countries found that “Kohlberg was in principle correct regarding the universality of basic moral judgment development, moral values, and related social perspective-taking processes across cultures.” In the years from late childhood to early adolescence, a qualitative shift from preconventional to conventional morality was observed across difference methods of assessment and diverse cultures. The shift typically occurs somewhat earlier for females and much later, if at all, for delinquents and prisoners.

The evidence suggests that moral stage development is facilitated by social perspective-taking opportunities. Higher stages of moral development were associated with education, social class, urban settings and in adults in volunteer community service, or in university or complex work settings. Gilligan [4] has further developed Kohlberg’s framework to take into account the somewhat different . Gebser [5] and Wilber [6, 7] have elaborated the link between these stages of individual development and the broad evolution of cultures over the course of human evolution through magic, mythic, rational, to integral stages. Wilber also refers to the mindsets associated with the three broad stages of moral values as egocentric, ethnocentric and worldcentric.

When it comes to religion, and specifically Christianity, people at preconventional level are motivated primarily by (future) divine punishments and rewards. People at this level interpret heaven and hell in literal terms as the places where they will be rewarded or punished after death for their actions (and in some cases even for their thoughts). This preconventional basis for moral decisions can easily be twisted into a basis for threatening non-believers or into a justification for violence as punishment for those who are perceived as sinful.

Religious people at the post-conventional level, by contrast, are not really concerned with punishments or rewards. Heaven and hell are not prominent concepts and indeed hell in particular is very unlikely to be believed to be an actual place as opposed to a metaphor. People at this level are rather concerned with following universal moral principles (love thy neighbour as thyself etc) and caring for others, even if that entails conflict with the laws or general social beliefs. It is these people who will protest against nuclear weapons or leave water in the desert for refugees.

At the conventional level, where most adults are, moral decisions and beliefs will be heavily dependent on the general level of education and cognitive development, the degree that their society encourages social perspective-taking, as well as the levels of belief in things like heaven and hell at societal level (from where the conventional moralist take their guidance). 

I think these factors go some way to explaining the differences in prevalence of belief in heaven and hell between the USA and most other developed countries.  Outside the USA, involvement in religious practice has been declining for decades, and atheism and non-religiousness have been increasing (see here). There are quite a few countries where the irreligious (atheist or religion unimportant) are a majority of the population. Most of these countries have high levels of education and a strong acceptance of the need for social safety nets such as universal health insurance, unemployment benefits, paid sick leave and parental level etc.

In contrast, the USA still has relatively high levels of religious belief and participation, an unusually high proportion of Christians who are fundamentalists, lower levels of education with fewer universal standards or curricula, and a very individualistic culture with very limited social safety nets and a fairly widespread belief that people who cannot pay for services should not get them.

In the USA, not only those at preconventional level, but also many religious people at conventional level, are likely to believe in heaven and hell because such beliefs are widespread in a culture which has large numbers of people with egocentric and ethnocentric mindsets.

In other high -income countries, not only are more religious people at a higher stage of moral development, but the general culture largely rejects belief in hell because it conflicts with universal moral principles (such as finite penalties for finite transgressions) and, for a large minority, because it is incompatible with a worldcentric mindset. For the many young people galvanized by the global existential issues facing humans today, a belief that the majority of people outside their culture/religion are destined for eternal torture is not only unacceptable but also unbelievable.


  1. Kohlberg, L. The Psychology of Moral Development: The Nature and Validity of Moral Stages (Essays on Moral Development, Volume 2). Harper & Row: 1984.
  2. Snarey, J. (1985). The cross-cultural universality of social-moral development: A critical review of Kohlbergian research. Psychological Bulletin, 97, 202–232.
  3. Gibbs, J. C., Basinger, K. S., Grime, R. L., & Snarey, J. R. (2007). Moral judgment development across cultures: Revisiting Kohlberg’s universality claims. Developmental Review, 27(4), 443–500. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.dr.2007.04.001  
  4. Gilligan, Carol. In a different voice: Women’s conceptions of self and of morality. Harvard Educational Review. 1977, 47(4), 481-517
  5. Gebser, Jean. The Ever-Present Origin, authorized translation by Noel Barstad with Algis Mickunas, Athens: Ohio University Press, 1985.
  6. Wilber, Ken. Up from Eden. Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981
  7. Wilber Ken. Integral Spirituality. Integral Books: Boston and London, 2007.

Belief in heaven and hell – Part 1

My father was a Protestant minister and I grew up in a rural Protestant culture in Australia, went to lots of church services and never heard anyone trying to claim hell was a real place rather than a metaphorical place. Belief in a real hell tends to be reserved for fundamentalists who are a relatively small proportion of Christians outside USA and some other countries. I think for religious people focused on love and kindness it is clear that hell is a mythological concept dating from primitive times and literally believing your God would torture people for eternity marks you out as having premodern values. While I don’t know about the distribution of the real beliefs of individuals in the Christian community I grew up with I was not aware on any discussion of hell as a real place.

Recently, on social media forums, I’ve seen quite a few questions from Christians asking why aren’t atheists terrified of ending up in hell. And assumptions (mainly from Americans) that belief in hell is the mark of being a Christian. At least in the mainstream media, hell tends to only get a mention as part of the rantings of fundamentalists and religious extremists. These are a tiny minority in Australia and Switzerland. So I decided to see what the data from the World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS) tell us about the prevalence of belief in heaven and hell.

Continue reading

Winter surfing on the Sunshine Coast

I returned to Australia with my son in late June this year. Our first trip back since the pandemic started. We stayed with my sister, who lives in Noosa on the Queensland Sunshine Coast. It was winter there, but Queensland winters are mild by European standards. We surfed at Sunshine Beach a number of times and thoroughly enjoyed it. Ocean temperature was on the cool side at 19-20 degrees C, but it was colder out of the water with air temperatures around 15-17 degrees and usually with a sea breeze.

Sunshine Beach life saver on duty

Most days there were a handful of people in the surf. On the day the photo above was taken, there were only two others in the water. The lifeguard was sitting in the truck. He did use his loudhailer twice to chastise my son, who was outside the flags and too far out.

Sunshine Beach

Near Death Experiences – Part 2

In my first post on near-death experiences (NDE), I recalled two incidents where I was knocked unconscious and would never have known if I had died (which was by no means unlikely). The following two incidents are quite different. In both cases I fell off a cliff and was fully conscious till I hit the ground below.

The first incident occurred on a solo cross-country ski trip in the Snowy Mountains of Australia. My friends and I had driven from Sydney through the night to arrive in Thredbo early Saturday morning. Our plan was to catch the chairlift up to the snow and then ski cross-country to the summit of Mt Kosciuszko, Australia’s highest mountain at 7,310 feet. However, the weather forecast was bad with strong winds and low visibility predicted in the summit region and my friends decided it was not a good idea to go. I was not happy, having driven all night to get there, and told them I would go on my own without them.  Not my brightest moment, although I had done this trip before and knew the route.

Mt Kosciuszko on a clear winter day

I skied the approximately six kilometres to Mt Kosciuszko without any problems. As I ascended to the summit, the wind became much stronger and the clouds blew in, reducing visibility to around 10 metres or less. I reached the summit, and then turned back, skiing so I thought back down the same ridge I had ascended. Visibility was very low and not too far along the ridge, I suddenly found myself airborn and falling fast. I had skied off a cliff in the white-out. I fell for long enough to have time to think about whether I knew of any cliffs on Kosciuszko or how high they were. There was no fear, and my life did not flash before my eyes, I was simply focused on figuring out whether I was in for a big fall. I landed in a deep drift of powder snow without any injury. 

I assumed I had skied off the north side of Kosciuszko (as it later turned out correctly) and that if I skied down the valley I was in I would come within a kilometre or so to a line of snow poles that marked the track from Seaman’s Hut back to the top of the chairlift. So I set off down the valley still with very low visibility and soon enough reached the snow poles. I started to ski east following the snow poles and the visibility was just enough that I could see the next snow pole from the one I was at. However, the snow was deep and after a little while the snow poles ahead of me disappeared under the snow. I tried skiing as far as I could keeping the last snow pole in sight but I could not find another. It was now late afternoon and I was concerned that I might have to spend the night on the snow. I had come out in a shirt and wind jacket and was carrying no additional warm clothing.

Then two more skiers appeared. They had also been trying to follow the snow poles back to Thredbo. With the three of us we were able to use our packs and items of clothing to extend the search area much further while marking the route back to the last pole. We were lucky and found the continuation of the snow pole line. And were able to get back to the chairlift just before dark in time to catch the last chairlift down.

If I had not come across the other two skiers, there would have been quite a chance that I got lost again in the snow and probably would not have survived the night.

In the second incident, I was descending a canyon in the Blue Mountains with two friends. I was setting up a rope to rappel down a waterfall about 15-20 metres high, and it was very slippery. As I walked out to the lip of the waterfall to throw the rope down, I thought “if I slip I will just grab the rope”. I did slip, and I grabbed the bottom end of the rope, not the upper part closest to the tree the rope was looped around. The waterfall was close to vertical. As I fell, I bounced off a couple of rock ledges which may have slowed my fall. I landed in a shallow pool at the bottom of the waterfall that had a flat rock bottom and was about 1 foot deep. By chance, I landed with my body absolutely horizontal, and got up and walked away with some bruises. If I had landed at any other angle I would have been dead or severely disabled. I yelled to my friends up top: “you don’t need a rope for this one”.

One of my friends on the final waterfall in this canyon

In this incident, the fall happened so fast, that I don’t recall having any thoughts whatsoever. I was just in the moment, experiencing the ride and finding myself lying flat in a shallow pool before I had had a chance to think of anything at all. In this type of NDE, everything happened quite fast, and if I thought at all it was practical thoughts like do I have any idea how far I will fall?  And in both cases, stupidity was the cause and sheer luck resulted in survival without injury.

The Wide Sky

Let me not spend my life
lamenting the world’s sorrows
for above
in the wide sky
the moon shines pure

ukiyo to mo
tsuki no sumikeru
hisakata no sora

— Saigyo

I came across this poem quite by accident.  But it really struck home, as I’ve been spending too much time thinking about the state of the world right now. The human race appears to be quite incapable of working together to address the existential crises of the pandemic, global heating and species extinctions, and overpopulation, as well as the rejection of reason and science dramatically exacerbating these potentially soluble crises.  Humans have not reacted to these crises in general by pulling together, given that collective action can indeed address and ameliorate, if not completely address, them. But ratherhave retreated back into tribes who blame the “other” for all their problems. It is indeed difficult sometimes to remember the moon shining pure in the wide sky.

Saigyō was the Buddhist name of Fujiwara no Norikiyo (1118–1190), a Japanese Buddhist monk-poet. He is regarded as one of the greatest masters of the tanka (a traditional Japanese poetic form). He influenced many later Japanese poets, particularly the haiku master Basho.

Saigyo was born into a branch of the Fujiwara clan, the most powerful family in Japan in the early 12th century. As a young man he joined the Hokumen Guards who served at the retired Emperor’s palace. Despite a seemingly assured future, he decided at the age of 23 to “turn from the world” and become a reclusive wandering Buddhist monk. He spent the rest of his life in alternating periods of travel and seclusion with occasional periodic returns to the capital at Kyoto to participate in imperial ceremonies. During this period, the second half of the 12th century, Japan was wracked by civil war

The translation of the poem above is by Meredith McKinney, who has published a selection of over 100 poems by Saigyo in the collection Gazing at the Moon: Buddhist Poems of Solitude (September 2021). The poems selected focus on Saigyo’s story of Buddhist awakening, reclusion, seeking, enlightenment and death. I can highly recommend this collection, which embodies the Japanese aesthetic of mono no aware — to be moved by sorrow in witnessing the ephemeral world.

Meredith McKinney is an award-winning translator of classical and modern Japanese literature, who lived and taught for around 20 years in Japan. She returned to Australia in 1998 and now lives near the small town of Braidwood, not far from Canberra where I lived until early 2000. I was interested to learn a little more about her, and was surprised to find out that she is the daughter of Judith Wright (1915-2000), one of Australia’s greatest poets and an activist for the environment and indigenous rights. For the last three decades of her life, Wright lived near Braidwood. She became completely deaf in 1992 after progressively losing her hearing since early adulthood.

Religiosity and atheism in younger adults

I recently came across a headline referring to a 2016 survey in Iceland which found that 0.0% of Icelanders 25 years or younger believe God created the world. My immediate impression was that this implied a zero per cent prevalence of atheism in this age group. When I read the article, I found that the relevant question gave respondents four options: the world was created in the big bang, the world was created by God, the world was created by other means, or no opinion. Outside of countries dominated by fundamentalist religious groups, most religious people would likely choose “created in the big bang”.  The survey actually found that 40.5% of respondents aged 25 years and younger said they were atheist, and 42% said they were Christians.

It is certainly the case that the prevalence of atheism is higher in younger ages in the developed countries where religiosity has been declining for decades.  So I thought I would take a look at the prevalence of atheism in younger adults aged 15-34 years from the Integrated Values Surveys [1-3]  that took place in the last wave, in the period 2017-2020. See my earlier posts (see here and here), which examined global, regional and country-level trends in religious belief and practice, for more details on the data and definitions of atheism and religiosity categories.

Countries with the highest prevalence of atheism and non-religion in 2017-2020

The following plot shows the prevalence of religious and irreligious adults for the 31 countries with the highest irreligious prevalence (atheists plus non-religious). China and South Korea lead these countries with irreligious prevalences over 80%, followed by Sweden, Czechia, New Zealand and Japan, with prevalences in the 70’s. In terms of atheism, there are 18 countries with prevalences over 50% in the 15-34 year age group, including Australia at 53%.

In these countries, the prevalence of practicing religious generally increases with age and the prevalence of atheists generally decreases with age.  The plot for the USA 2017 survey data below illustrates this.

Are these prevalence patterns predominantly due to ageing, time period or birth cohort?  Since period = birth year (cohort identifier) + age it is not possible to determine the separate effects of all three factors. Ageing as a driver of religiosity would imply that people become more religious as they get older, and this seems the least likely of the three factors to fit observed age patterns over time. 

Relative contribution of cohort and period to the overall trends in religiosity

I’ve attempted to estimate the relative contributions of birth cohort and period to the evolution of religiosity in the USA using a cohort projection model. I first used the data from all waves of the US surveys to impute religiosity prevalences for years 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010, and 2020. I then projected religiosity prevalences for each age group in 2020 assuming that those prevalences remained constant at the values that age group would have had in the past when it was aged 15-24. Comparing this with the actual prevalences for 2020 allows estimation of the proportion of the change in prevalence over time that is attributable to cohort effects.

For practicing religious, non-religious and atheists, the cohort projection explains around 25% of the overall change, the other 75% is attributable to period.  For the non-practicing religious, these proportions are reversed with 25% explained by period and 75% by cohort.

Projecting religiosity prevalences to 2030

My previous projections of religiosity to year 2020 were carried out using trends in all-ages-both sexes prevalences. I thought it would be interesting to explore projections at age-sex level for selected countries, given the likely variations in trends across age groups. I experimented with several statistical models including a period-cohort projection model, and a model that projected all four prevalences simultaneously, using seemingly unrelated regression techniques to constrain the prevalences to add to 100%.  It proved difficult to get sensible results from these models when not tailored to specific country data.  The disaggregation of survey data to 7 age groups for each sex resulted in highly variable prevalences across cells. The years for which surveys were available varied across countries in ways that made it difficult to develop generalized projection methods that were not sensitive to small number issues and outlier trends.

I eventually decided to do some quite simplistic projections for each age-sex category as follows:

  1. Project from last available wave to 2022 using short-term trends given by last two waves
  2. Project from 2022 to 2030 using longer-term trend from wave closest to year 2000 to last wave
  3. Adjust extreme trends to either the smaller of the short and long run trends, or to trends for neigbouring age-sex groups.

I carried out these projections for five high income countries with rising prevalence of atheism:  USA, Australia, Switzerland, United Kingdom and Sweden. The following plots illustrate the observed and projected prevalences for the four religiosity categories. The dashed lines denotes the projected trend for irreligion (non-religious plus atheist).

The nonreligious category includes people who state that they believe in God, but that they are non-religious and rate the importance of God as 8-10 at the not important end of a 10-point scale. In the table below, I summarize the projected prevalence of irreligion (nonreligious or atheist) in 2030 for the five countries for all ages combined and for the young adult age group 15-34 years.  The irreligion prevalence is generally higher in the younger age groups, and the 2030 value gives an indication of likely future trend for all ages.

Is irreligion likely to continue increase in the future? If the economies of high income countries continue to grow, with decreasing levels of poverty, and education levels continue to improve, it is likely that religiosity in these countries will decline in the longer term. The joint global crises of global warming and the pandemic, with rising populism and rejection of global institutions and actions, may on the other hand result in economic downturns that result in a stalling or reversal of the current religiosity trends. The situation in the USA where a religious minority is actively seeking to impose its values on the entire population, and undermining the democratic system to achieve that, may likely accelerate the turning away from religion of the young adult population. The USA already has one of the fastest rates of increase of irreligion in the last decade.


  1. EVS (2021): EVS Trend File 1981-2017. GESIS Data Archive, Cologne. ZA7503 Data file Version 2.0.0, https://doi.org/10.4232/1.13736
  2. EVS/WVS (2021). European Values Study and World Values Survey: Joint EVS/WVS 2017-2021 Dataset (Joint EVS/WVS). JD Systems Institute & WVSA. Dataset Version 1.1.0, doi:10.14281/18241.14.
  3. Haerpfer, C., Inglehart, R., Moreno, A., Welzel, C., Kizilova, K., Diez-Medrano J., M. Lagos, P. Norris, E. Ponarin & B. Puranen et al. (eds.). 2021. World Values Survey Time-Series (1981-2020) Cross-National Data-Set. Madrid, Spain  &  Vienna,  Austria:  JD  Systems  Institute  &  WVSA Secretariat. Data File Version 2.0.0, doi:10.14281/18241.15.

Maternal mortality and abortion restrictions

In my previous post, I estimated that 47% of pregnancies are unintended, and of these, 43% occur in countries where abortion is illegal or severely restricted. In countries where abortion is widely available, 71% of unintended pregnancies are aborted compared to 46% in countries with severe restrictions. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that around one-third of the 23 million induced abortions carried out each year in countries where abortion is severely restricted are performed under the least safe conditions, by untrained persons using dangerous and invasive methods. Safe abortion is an essential health care service. It is a simple intervention that can be effectively managed by a wide range of health workers using medication or a surgical procedure. In the first 12 weeks of pregnancy, a medical abortion can also be safely self-managed by the pregnant person at home.

Maternal mortality is defined as death while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management. The plot above shows the average maternal mortality ratio (MMR) per 1,000 live births for countries (and US states) grouped by access to abortion and culture zone for the year 2017 (see here for more details).

While countries that restrict abortion have higher MMRs than those that don’t for most of the culture zones, we cannot conclude that abortion restriction per se is responsible for the difference. Abortion restriction is also correlated with other determinants of higher MMR such as lower average income per capita, less access to health care, and higher levels of discrimination against women.

The global MMR has declined from 345 per 100,000 livebirths in 2000 to 212 per 100,000 livebirths in 2017, a 40% decrease in 17 years.  There have been substantial declines in MMR in every culture zone except for the Reformed West and Old West where MMR rates were already very low in 2000 and in the USA where rates have risen substantially during the 21st century.

The plot below takes a closer look at MMR trends in the USA, the Reformed and Old West, the Returned West and the Orthodox East. The latter two culture zones include the former Soviet bloc countries. With the exception of Poland in the Returned West, all these culture zones except the USA do not restrict access to abortion services and allow abortion on request or in some countries on “economic and social grounds”.

The maternal mortality ratio for the USA has increased from around 15 per 100,000 livebirths in 2000 to 23.8 in 2020, a 62% increase.  Abortion rates in States which now restrict abortion were similar to those in states which don’t until 2008 and afterwards diverged substantially. The rate for states with restrictions was 26.4 in 2020, 30% higher than the MMR of 20.2 for states without restrictions.

There has been considerable controversy about the substantial increase in maternal mortality in the USA, particularly as to whether it is associated with improvements in the identification and reporting of maternal deaths.  The addition of a pregnancy checkbox to death records from 2003 onwards is thought to have led to some increase in estimated MMRs in the early 2000s, but several studies have also identified that increasing restrictions on the general availability of reproductive health services have played a major role, particularly in states restricting access to abortion.

Hawkins et al (2019) found that a 20% reduction in the numbers of Planned Parenthood clinics resulted in an 8% increase in maternal mortality and states that enacted legislation to restrict abortions based on gestational age increased the maternal mortality rate by 38%.

A 2020 study by the Commonwealth Fund compared maternity care in the USA with 10 other developed countries and found that the USA has the highest maternal mortality among developed countries and that there is an overall shortage of maternity care providers (obstetrician-gynecologists and midwives). The USA has 12 to 15 providers per 1,000 livebirths, and all the other developed countries have a supply that is between two and six times greater. Although a large share of its maternal deaths occur postbirth, the U.S. is the only country not to guarantee access to provider home visits or paid parental leave in the postpartum period. In the early 2000s, WHO estimated that unsafe abortion accounted for around 13% of total global maternal deaths, then estimated to be around half a million deaths per year.  A more recent study by WHO staff and academic colleagues in 2014 estimated that abortion accounted for 7.9% of maternal deaths at global level between 2003 and 2009. Recent WHO estimates for global deaths by cause do not include deaths due to induced abortion. I have elsewhere used results from the Global Burden of Disease Study 2019 to estimate very approximately the proportion of maternal deaths due to abortion and miscarriage for the period 2015-2019. These would include induced abortion deaths as well as deaths due to spontaneous abortions and miscarriages.  The following plot shows the estimated average percent of maternal deaths attributed to abortion and miscarriage for countries with and without abortion restrictions in each culture zone.

Overall, I estimate that there were 75,500 deaths globally due to abortion and miscarriage in 2017 (these include spontaneous events as well as induced abortions). Of these 70,300 were in countries with abortion restrictions. Assuming the rate in countries with unrestricted abortion relates to the spontaneous events, I have estimated that abortion restrictions resulting in unsafe abortions caused 54,350 deaths in 2017.  If all abortions were safe, there would have been only 21,200 deaths globally due to spontaneous abortion and miscarriage in 2017.

Its quite possible these very back-of-the-envelope estimates are under-estimates. Classification of maternal deaths due to abortion, and more specifically unsafe abortion, is associated with a risk of misclassification. Even where induced abortion is legal, religious and cultural perceptions in many countries mean that women do not disclose abortion attempts and relatives or health-care professionals do not report deaths as such.

A medical abortion procedure uses the drugs mifepristone and misoprostol which can be taken in pill form up until the 12th week and are very safe. They require no surgery or anaesthesia. These drugs were developed in 1980 and first became available for induced abortions in France in 1987. It became available in the USA in 2000 and is on the WHO list of essential medicines. Cost and availability limits access in many parts of the developing world.

It is usually possible to carry out this procedure oneself at home. During the covid pandemic, a number of countries including the UK have made abortion accessible via an online consultation after which the pills are sent by post to the woman to take at home. The Netherlands-based charity Women on Web aims to prevent unsafe abortions by providing abortion pills to women in countries where safe abortion is available.

In December 2021, the FDA made permanent a covid-era policy allowing abortion pills to be prescribed via telehealth and distributed by mail in US states that permit it.Even before the FDA action,abortions induced by pills rose to more than 54 percent of all U.S. abortions in 2020, according to the Guttmacher Institute. Nineteen states have banned prescription of these pills via online consultation, requiring the woman visit a physician. And of course, in states which severely restrict abortion, this will require a completely unnecessary trip out of state.

Women on Web is making medical abortion available to women in the USA and elsewhere who are facing these restrictions. The cost for a woman to obtain the pills for a medical abortion is 90 Euros, or around 100 US dollars. You can donate to fund abortions for women unable to afford them here. Or to US based abortion funds here.

While legal abortions done under the guidance of a professional are the gold standard. Self-managed abortion can be safe, too, if you have the right information. But as I noted above, the banning of abortion typically goes hand-in-hand with restrictions on contraception and reproductive health services, as well as discrimination and other restrictions on women that result in higher maternal mortality rates, more femicide and abuse, less access to education and employment, and greater female poverty levels.

The removal of a basic reproductive rights for women in the USA is being driven by a minority, many of whom are fundamentalist Christians. According to a recent survey, white and Hispanic fundamentalists are the only religious group in the USA for which a majority oppose the legal availability of abortion (The Economist, May 7, 2022).

I discussed in a previous post how enforcement of social norms governing human fertility have been a major factor in pre-modern religions. For thousands of years, very high levels of child mortality and other survival pressures meant that most societies sought to ensure that women produced as many children as possible and discouraged divorce, abortion, homosexuality and contraception. Additionally sexual behaviour, particularly that of women and that not linked to reproduction, was strongly socially controlled to minimise uncertainty about paternity. Religion was the primary method of social control and pre-modern values regarding women’s rights, reproduction and sexuality are still dominant in most of the major religions, particularly fundamentalist forms. In a world facing overpopulation, global warming, habitat destruction and species extinction, it is crucial that outdated and cruel pre-modern values do not condemn women to reproductive slavery and an inability to control their own fertility, and reduce our ability to address these inter-related crises using all the tools and knowledge now available.