Freethought Heroine Award: A brush with death paints joyous life by Lauri Lebo

Lauri Lebo’s speech was given Oct. 8 at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh. She was introduced by Stephen Hirtle, chair of FFRF’s Executive Board:

Lauri Lebo is an author, radio station owner and former reporter from Harrisburg, Pa., where she was the principal local reporter covering the Kitzmiller v. Dover trial in 2004-05 while working for the York Daily Record.

You may have caught her in the Nova documentary “Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial,” where she was prominently featured, both because of her coverage and because her father, who owned Christian radio station WWII-AM in Harrisburg, sided with the Dover School Board in the controversy.

She’s an award-winning journalist and helped reopen murder cases from the 1969 race riot in York, Pa. She wrote her book, The Devil in Dover, from the perspective of a local resident and local reporter and the trial’s effects on the community.

The impact of the Dover case propelled Lauri into activism, and she’s now a spokeswoman for the Pennsylvania State Education Association. She’s also served on the board of the ACLU Pennsylvania.

The topic of today’s speech will change a bit, because Lauri nearly died this summer and is going to talk about an atheist’s perspective of a near-death experience.

It’s my honor to present Lauri Lebo with FFRF’s Freethought Heroine Award.

By Lauri Lebo

Thank you for having me here. It’s such an incredible honor. I mean, to be in the same company as Butterfly McQueen — in 1989, FFRF named her the first recipient of this award.

“They say the streets are going to be beautiful in Heaven. Well, I’m trying to make the streets beautiful here. . . . When it’s clean and beautiful, I think America is heaven. And some people are hell.”

Wow. Is that one still relevant, huh?

Eleven years ago, the school board in Dover, Pa., rewrote its science curriculum to include the concept of intelligent design. In 2005, it became the first constitutional test case of the notion. Its defenders claimed it was a rival to the theory of evolution, but, in fact, it was revealed in federal court to be nothing more than revamped creationism.

Thirteen parents and teachers, defending the First Amendment, stood up to their local school board’s religious bullying and sued the district. For those who might not remember, the case made national and international news. The day of the decision, there were news crews from Italy and Germany. And the plaintiffs were heard on newscasts in New Zealand and Indonesia.

Back then, I was the education reporter for the York Daily Record. I covered the trial and the events that took place in my backyard. I was so enthralled with this story that I left my newspaper to write a book about it — The Devil in Dover, which was published by the New Press.

After my book was published, I wrote for Religion Dispatches and other publications, covering these kind of culture war issues. For the past five years, I’ve worked in communications for PSEA, the teachers’ union. And I’m an executive officer of the Pennsylvania ACLU Board of Directors.

Things haven’t changed

Quite a few years have passed and a whole lot has happened since then. But in so many ways, things haven’t changed.

Perhaps the biggest irony, at least for me, was that after Judge John Jones’ decision, I honestly thought we had reached the high-water mark of the crazy. The Terri Schiavo case had just been defeated that summer. Hurricane Katrina had just happened. And Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton would soon be campaigning for the presidency — who both promised to steer us away from the religious zealotry that had appeared to have taken hold in the wake of 9/11.

When Obama was elected in 2008, I honestly believed that we had entered a new era of reason and enlightenment.

Look where we are now.

The trial was life-changing for me. It took my life in directions that I never expected to go. And, as a person who was never particularly interested in science before, it changed the way I look at the world.

I was writing about the trial and the amazing testimony from the scientists, parents and teachers, writing about the political divide in the Dover community and the school board members’ clear religious motivations, as well as the religious motivations of the Discovery Institute, which has long led the campaign at the national level to sneak creationism into science classes through craftily written legislation.

I also wrote about my father, who ran a fundamentalist Christian radio station and with whom I fought every day throughout the trial over who was right and who was wrong. And who, as I tried to make him understand, was lying for Jesus.

I chose to include his story and my relationship with him in my book as a mirror to the divide that was, and sadly, still is playing out in Dover and across the country.

But I’m going to talk about him today. And my reason for doing so is because of our shared genetic makeup and a recent experience that had led me back to his death.

For the past couple months, I have been wrestling with two weighty concepts — the price of putting one’s faith in God over science; and can one still find meaning as an atheist in a near-death experience?

But I digress.

My father was a devout Christian who chose faith in God over science. He ignored the pleas of his wife and children to see a doctor. He believed in faith healing and, so, each time he experienced the pain in his chest, he prayed it away. One week after Judge Jones issued his decision, my father was in Cumberland County prison, witnessing to one of the prisoners there. He put his head down on his bible. And died.

Ten and a half years later, on June 15, just like my father, I also died. I was clinically dead three times, in fact.

After a four-mile run that felt terrific, I began to feel a twinge in my chest. Within an hour, I was unable to speak due to the pain in the center of my chest, and my husband was racing me to the hospital.

I walked into the emergency rooms and was quickly hooked up to an EKG. A doctor looked at the results and said, “You’re having a heart attack.” To which I responded, “That’s not possible.”

About 10 minutes later, my clothes ripped off, and hospital staff running around like ants, I felt my arm go numb and the light in the room beginning to turn gray. Someone said, “She’s going under,” as someone else rushed in and led my husband out of the room. My husband left the room without turning around, and I realized he didn’t know what was happening — that I was dying.

Near-death experience

What came next I can only describe as a near-death experience. For almost everyone, a near-death experience is interpreted as a glimpse at the after-life. But how can you be a secular person and have a near-death experience? Right? But is there another way to process it?

I find it risky to discuss what came next with others because the couple times I’ve shared it, they’ve tended to interpret it through this worldview. I had mentioned it to one dear friend, who I now know is a Reiki master, and she immediately gave me the book, Proof of Heaven: A Neurosurgeon’s Journey into the Afterlife.

Which, I’ll be honest, made me feel disconnected from her. But I feel this [convention hall] is a safe space to share.

While I didn’t have the light, or the dead relatives, I did have a sense of soaring, bodiless, over a vast lush green landscape. It was so beautiful. And I can recall that sense of movement. Of looking down and seeing the landscape rushing by below me.

The moment I came back, I awoke to feelings of euphoria and well-being washing over me. I don’t know if I have ever been so blissfully happy. I tried to describe these experiences to my doctor and the nurses. I asked them, “Where am I?” And the doctor said, “Your heart stopped and we brought you back.”

In that moment, I was so annoyed with them. I wanted to go back to finish whatever it was that I had been experiencing. “I had the most awesome dream,” I told them. I tried to talk about it. Thankfully, they were preoccupied with other things, like keeping me alive. Because my heart stopped two more times in surgery.

So many details I can’t recall, even though I struggled to remember them before the pain came rushing back. I was overwhelmed by the whirl of activity around me, as people rushed to their tasks to keep me alive.

This is what the science says may have happened to me:

Noradrenaline is a stress hormone produced in a section of the mid-brain highly connected with other brain regions that mediate emotion and memory, such as the amygdala.

Also, a lot of drugs, such as ketamine, can mirror the euphoria often described in near-death experiences. Ketamine triggers the opioid systems in the brain and causes hallucinations and “out-of-body” sensations. The same systems can be triggered naturally in animals when under attack.

My faith is in science

Because I put my faith in science, in an amazing medical team at Harrisburg Hospital, and because I listened to my family, I get to be here today. But for so many people who I’ve talked to, that isn’t enough. I’ve had several people argue with me over this. That my three clinical deaths are proof of God’s existence.

I keep thinking, if God really wanted me to live, why did he make that poor medical team work so damn hard?

I was told that I was one of three cardiac arrests at the hospital just that night. I don’t know who lived and who died. But I’m going to bet that the odds weren’t good that we all made it.

While I’m a nice person and I try to do good things in this world, I’m not comfortable with this notion that God liked me better than the other people who came in that night. That’s actually a pretty scary concept.

My heart breaks for those who put all their faith in God, and all of us who have paid the price for this refusal to accept the science and reason — like my father. Like the parents who refuse to vaccinate their children and realize their mistake too late. And for the people who argue against climate change, even as Hurricane Matthew bears down on them.

The fact that I understand it was my brain firing off dopamine and noradrenaline perhaps in a desperate attempt to stay alive rather than a glimpse of the afterlife doesn’t make what I saw any less beautiful. Or less meaningful. No less than the fact that love is a reaction of oxytocin and other hormones triggered by our DNA.

And that the people who stood up for the First Amendment in Dover, Pa., did it out of a sense of altruism formed from our evolutionary need to pass on our genetic material.

As I poked around different peer-reviewed studies and papers on near-death experiences, I ran across a mention in The Lancet that people who have legitimate near-death experiences are likely to report having the same initial sense of well-being after cardiac arrest six months after. So far, this is true for me.

I continue to be struck by feelings of gratitude so powerful that I cry. I catch myself dancing sometimes for no reason whatsoever, which looks weird in the grocery store. I am dreaming and planning of all the wonderful things that I haven’t yet done, but that I have another chance to do. Like, for instance, organize a trip to the Galapagos with my wonderful friends made during the Dover trial. I am struggling to hold on to that feeling. I don’t want to let this go.

And honestly, talking about it helps remind me. So thank you for letting me talk about it.

It’s wonderful to be in a room filled with people who understand that we don’t need an afterlife to live rich full lives here now on this Earth.

Thank you.

I will end with an Emily Dickinson poem that FFRF put on the side of public buses in 2009:

Faith is a fine invention
When gentlemen can see
But microscopes are prudent
In an emergency!

Freedom From Religion Foundation