…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,” he told Cash. “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.”
(Ayer never wrote or spoke of this conversation with the doctor who saved his life—not to his wife, nor to Nicholas his adult son. It may be that he had no recollection of it. When it came to light as result of Dr. George’s contacting William Cash, both my mother-in-law and Nicholas were skeptical. Why, though, would one doubt the word of an upstanding and seemingly discreet senior consultant physician? I have no reason to disbelieve him.)
When Ayer was released by his doctors a month later, friends and family did notice that he’d changed.
“He became so much nicer after he died,” was the mordant way my mother-in-law, Dee Wells, put it to Cash. “He was not nearly so boastful. He took an interest in other people.”
What she also noticed is that as his life ebbed away, Ayer began spending a great deal of time with Father Frederick Copleston, his former opponent in the BBC debate. Until then they’d never been particularly close, though Ayer had grudging respect for Copleston’s muscular mind. (The erudite Jesuit had taken on Bertrand Russell on the BBC a year before arguing with Ayer, to defend St. Thomas Aquinas’ five metaphysical proofs of god’s existence, not a position guaranteed to endear him to many modern rationalists). Nevertheless, in the last year of his life, Ayer spent many hours in Copleston’s company, talking and arguing about who knows what. The must have made an odd couple seated together in the darkest recesses of London’s Garrick Club. The Catholic divine even graced Ayer’s scrupulously secular cremation.
“In the end, he was Freddie’s closest friend,” said Dee. “It was quite extraordinary.”
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