"I believe you can see a ghost, but that doesn’t mean I believe in ghosts."
In the fall of 2005, a novelist named Anne Rice published a book about the early life of Jesus. Along with a number of further volumes she says she intends to write in the future, she declared this her "life’s work."
Sorry, but a sop is not a sod just because she says so. Ms. Rice’s life’s work has been the writing of twenty-five mostly very long gothic novels mainly about vampires and other trots on the occult. These have sold more that 135 million copies and been made into films (I’m hazy on the latter point, but I think it’s true), making her one of the world's most popular and wealthiest authors.
As is so often the case, Ms. Rice’s late conversion to Christianity was the result of personal setbacks and brushes with mortality (although the novelist herself claims it is because she is a "tortured soul"—no argument there). And just as naturally, her switch from vampires to man-gods was widely seen as a "startling turnaround," a "complete change-up," and other words to that effect plucked from an approving press.
Not so, as I see it. As one internet wit commented, "It’s about time Anne Rice stopped writing about things like the dead coming back to life, drinking blood, and...oh."
There are few things as persistent in human nature as how we thrill to the idea of the supernatural, and the profligate, indiscriminate manner in which we adore its imaginary avatars. For it is not only Jesus and Allah that people like to pretend are there, but ghosts, aliens, signs from the stars, the walking dead, faeries, demons, angels, vampires, and a hundred others—or ten thousand, once they’re all listed. It is a roster which can never be finished, since there’s always one more species of gremlin, super-hero, or obscure god waiting to be counted.
Consider just a few of the most common superstituous creatures and ideas:
Ghosts. Allegedly, the spiritual form of deceased people who have not left this coil, commonly because their spirits "cannot rest." We can hardly conceive of individual entities without bodies, so ghosts accordingly have bodies, only they are whitish and translucent, and they drift about upon wafts of air rather than perambulate on foot.
Zombies. A sort of negative of the ghost, these are soulless bodies which climb back out of the ground again, usually in an alarming state of decay (but not too advanced a state—see above point regarding our conceptual need for bodies), which then stump around with their arms outstretched and blank expressions on their faces, apparently chasing people.
A logical thing to do might be to combine ghosts and zombies to make a single more functional type of creature, since each seems to possess what the other lacks. But the hybrid creatures would probably be indistinguishable from, say, White House press secretaries.
Witches. Currently, the contemporary image of the witch is cute and dusky little Emma Watson, who plays Hermione in the Harry Potter movies—a self-possessed and liberated girl, intelligent and highly capable. Witches do seem to be continuously improving their public image. They are still thought to run the gamut, however—from Samantha on "Bewitched" (a WASPish housewife who, by wiggling her nose, is able to invoke primitive special effects) to the Wicked Witch of the West in the Land of Oz, a hag-like and threatening character that your humble writer found deeply alarming when he was six. However friendly and harmless witches may be made to seem currently, it’s worthwhile remembering that thousands of innocent women were tortured, burned, and drowned for witchcraft once—mostly, we retrospectively presume, for being old, odd, vindictive, meddlesome, or for owning large numbers of cats, only the last of which could be countenanced today as a crime even remotely deserving of capital punishment.
Vampires. Hugely popular creatures with a highly developed mythology. Alleged to be based roughly on folk memories of a sadistic prince called Vlad the Impaler, vampires had a haphazard development until formalized by Bram Stoker in his 1905 novel Dracula. Count Dracula was then given his archetypal visual form by the actor Bela Lugosi in the 1931 film. Vampires are closely associated with bats, and I think (I am not up on my vampiriana) that they turn from bats to humans and back to bats again.
In both formats, they like to bite people in the neck and suck blood, supposedly mimicking a real type of bat that does this, and perhaps accessing the lustful human urge to suck on a lover’s neck and its subsequent conflations with actual consumption. For their part, vampire bats don’t actually "suck" blood, but rather make small cuts in the flesh (not always the neck) of their sleeping victims (often cattle), and then lap up the sanguinary trickle with their wee tongues—which is also gross, though not quite so appealingly bloodthirsty. The practice is not unknown among humans: Mongol soldiers in the fabled hordes of Genghis Khan sometimes lived while on the move by opening a vein in their horses’ necks and drinking the equine blood (they must have been charming company: it was also against their religion to bathe).
As with most superstitions, however, the vampire legend has solid roots—not in fact, but in fear. It was not until 1824, for instance, that it became legal in England to bury the dead body of a suicide without first driving a stake through the heart of the corpse…a ritual performed theretofore to prevent the miracle of an undesired resurrection.
Santa Claus. As everyone knows, Santa Claus is a jolly fat man in a red suit who travels in a flying sleigh pulled by flying reindeer (Occam’s Razor would dictate that the sleigh itself fly, dispensing with the livestock altogether, but then, logic is not what is wanted here). Once a year he travels the world bestowing magical munificence into the tills of retailers. Santa Claus is an extremely interesting imaginary character, whose case deserves far more consideration than I can devote to it here.
Aliens. Creatures from another planet, sufficiently advanced as to be able to travel across incomprehensibly vast interstellar distances, yet not quite clever enough to keep out of sight. These are a peculiar passion of large numbers of Americans (and perhaps people of other nations too), who seem to derive a deep thrill from the idea.
Occam’s Razor, which I just mentioned, is an antique philosophical idea suggesting that we should prefer simple and obvious explanations above needlessly complex and unlikely ones. (Medical diagnosticians, expressing the same idea in the vulgate, say, "When you hear hoofbeats, don’t think 'zebra.'") The whole notion of alien beings seems to act as a very powerful narcotic that strips from people the faculty of applying this principle.
It is tempting to rehearse in droll comic fashion some of the positively delightful inanities of this woeful genre of beliefs, but I must with regret forebear. One smallish thing worth mentioning, however, is that the late Dr. Carl Sagan, the astronomer, NASA scientist, and popularizer of science, traced parallels between "alien abduction" stories in recent decades and "demonic possession" stories of earlier times, finding in them a great deal of consonance, suggesting a common pathology.
Astrology. A got-up and tricked-out hodgepodge of ideas that assigns portents and omens to dates of the calendar and movements of planets and stars. Parts of it may be some sort of distant idiot cousin to personality typing. Legitimately, it is the creaky ancestor of astronomy and was one of the original Quadrivium, the higher quartet of the liberal arts. Ronald Reagan, through his wife Nancy, applied it to national decision-making in the U.S., a notion that cannot but appall anyone with a rational cast of mind—although, as it happened, what we didn’t know didn’t hurt us. (We hope.)
One way of curing the public of this particular infatuation in a hurry would be by providing horoscopes that are as vague, easily applied, and unprovable as the ones found in the newspaper—except not positive. "Pisces: Today you are being stalked by a demon. Your only hope of escape is to spot him; be sure to keep checking over your shoulder. Taurus: Someone you’ve been deceiving to is going to find out today. The fallout is going to be unpleasant in the extreme. And you won't see it coming, so don't try. Capricorn: Virulent and previously unknown germs await you: don’t touch anything! Sagittarius: An ancient curse will jump from your boss’s soul into yours unless you make the sign of the cross with your forefingers at him every time he looks at you." Etc.
Fortune-telling. Any of a vast number of strategies for foretelling "what will happen next," or what will become of the person who is having her fortune told. The image of the gypsy woman with the crystal ball is the archetype. This is most likely a back-formation: after sudden and unexpected events occur, it can seem unbelievable that ordinary life was proceeding as usual right up until the shocking event, and that there was not some portent of it in advance that we ought to have been looking for. Also, of course, a way of seeking reassurance against anxieties—for, in addition to hope, the future does hold terrors.
Quantum physics. There is, of course, a real scientific discipline called quantum physics—which doesn’t concern us here. Rather, the citing of various deep-sounding words from science, of which "quantum physics" is arguably the most prominent, has become commonplace as a quasi-mystical way of appropriating for the causes of irrationality the imprimatur and authority of science. Frequently, these days, when some self-appointed guru or religious pontificator is happily gassing on about one sort of fatuous bunkum or another, he or she will sometimes detour to throw quantum physics into the stew, in a vague way, in alleged support of some absurd claim or other. When quantum theory is thus roped into such a discussion, with no mention of how it relates, or what it is, or whether the speaker has any background or training in physics at all, then you may want to assume that you have encountered this second “meaning” of the term.
Alchemy. The belief that base metal (a.k.a. dross) can be turned into gold by some mysterious and arcane quasi-scientific process, viz., that money can be made out of nothing. Currently out of fashion, except on Wall Street.
Speaking with the dead. There was not long ago a network television show premised upon communication with the dead, the purpose of which seems to be to demonstrate how a nimble-minded, fast-talking charlatan can go about extracting coincidences from a credulous crowd.
Charitably, perhaps we could presume that grief dulls the critical faculties of those who are stricken with it, for this idea must surely be a phantasm born of grief. The departed, specific and vivid to the grieving parties in life, cannot, it seems to many, simply have ceased to be. This might be characterized as a cruel twist on every two-year-old’s delighted fascination with the game “peek-a-boo,” in which the temporarily hidden person is perceived to have gone out of existence only to miraculously reappear moments later. In the case of death, our pity and the sharpness of our sense of loss cause us to perceive that what has in fact gone out of existence must still reside someplace.
Curses. A form of wish-fulfillment fantasy, by means of which we might exact revenge on our enemies by simply wishing them ill, perhaps in some formalized manner. A routine movie premise, curses are evidently more scary and powerful if their origin is ancient and obscure, and (according to certain movies, at least) they can apparently exist in a sort of dormant state, waiting to be triggered by an adventuring hero who must then contend with them.
While an understandable (if immature) impulse, I can assure you that if curses worked, my sixth-grade math teacher would have died a horrible death covered from head to toe in vengeful fire ants. As it was, he survived my sixth-grade year in decent fettle, pestering and persecuting me the whole way through, and years after that besides.
The Rapture. Recently, interest in this topic has been rekindled through the agency of a hugely popular series of books. I haven’t read one, but according to what I hear, the idea is that everyone who believes in Christ will soon be swept up to heaven, and those of us who have insolence to not believe will be left behind down here on Earth.
Although I can indeed conceive a certain yearning for the entire Christian Right to abruptly disappear, I’ve never understood this preoccupation with the arrival of the Kingdom of Heaven. I mean, they’re going to heaven anyway, aren’t they? The most that a human being has ever lived is about a hundred and twenty years. That means that a hundred and twenty years is the very longest a Christian will possibly have to wait to get to heaven. That’s not really such a long time. And for most of us it will be a much shorter span of years anyway. Why demand that that heaven come to you? If you’re in such a hurry, jump off a bridge. (Many early Christians did just that sort of thing, courting and welcoming death casually and even enthusiastically as the gateway to a glorious afterlife, as vividly noted by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.)
Besides, common sense (and numerous comedians) suggest that if a Rapture is going to whisk all the holy people off to someplace else and leave the imperfect and the unholy ones behind, it has probably already happened.
Superman. A comic book character invented in 1932 that is an elaboration on the idea of the imaginary alter ego. Technically an alien, Superman has special powers: he is able to leap over tall buildings, outrun a speeding bullet, etc. He famously dresses in briefs over tights, presumably to show off his figure, and wears a smallish cape (alien fashion being reliably absurd), and, like most self-respecting franchises, he has a logo. Most impressively, he can disguise his face completely by putting on a suit and tie and a pair of eyeglasses (although I must say that the same disguise works perfectly well for me too).
Homeopathy. The astonishing, amazing, incredible practice of selling, for more than medicine costs, small amounts of water for use as medicine.
God. A sort of “deluxe personality,” in the words of one atheistic writer, by means of which, as Jennifer Michael Hecht writes, we willfully impose human features and concerns on an inhuman Universe. Also technically an alien, one supposes, although in this case that is not considered relevant. Currently, and for the last two millennia or so, the God in favor in the so-called “Western world” is Yahweh, a two-bit tinhorn local godlet from the provinces who, by tying his improbable star to the right people, made a memorable ascent through the ranks, whizzing past former heavies such as Jove, Odin, and Zeus as though they were standing still. Yahweh is by any measure a poor, primitive, vengeful, inconsistent, brusque, unsubtle, unintelligent, and ineffectual god, and spectacularly bad at logic, but you are not allowed to say so.
In Yahweh’s favor, it must be said that He did settle down quite a bit, and liberalize His attitudes considerably, once He became a parent.
"The" gods. When plural and accompanied by the definite article, refers to any or all of ten thousand and one deities from back when there were more than one. The most famous in the West are the gods of the ancient Greeks and the ancient Norse, both of which were mirror communities to their respective cultures except that they were composed of creatures possessed of magic powers and rampant will. If the Homeric epics are any indication, nearly the sole preoccupation of “the” gods was the manipulation of human affairs, the devising of unexpected little coincidences, and the creation of weather. Because they were known to be immortal, “the gods” must now be presumed to be living quietly in seclusion. Well, except for Ares/Mars/Thor, who unfortunately cannot be induced to follow the others into retirement.
The Loch Ness Monster. Along with Bigfoot, a.k.a. Sasquatch, “Nessie” is perhaps the leading representative in the category of big scary monsters no one ever sees. Rather than simply accept this apparently satisfactory arrangement and let it be, however, some people feel compelled to go looking—to the everlasting gratification of the Scottish Tourist Board.
Natural systems are arguably all about creatures evolving to exploit resources where surpluses occur. Thus, bats, which are flying mammals related to mice, evolved to fly about and catch bugs in the night, because birds, warm-blooded cousins of lizards, had already claimed the daylight hours for the exploitation of that resource. In fact, a large number of animals evolved to use the nighttime hours to earn their livings, because that work was available.
Human beings, meanwhile, are diurnal rather than nocturnal, so our senses work better in the light and we learned to fear things that howl in the night. And with excellent reason: before Edison, darkness was more profoundly dark, and before civilization there were indeed uncatalogued monsters at large in the nighttime, real dangers beyond the fringes of the campfire or the entrance of the cave. We thus evolved, as a perfectly sensible adaptation, to dread monsters, and to feel uneasy when we are alone and vulnerable in strange places. Now that these feelings are no longer strictly applicable, we use them to entertain ourselves.
As for Bigfoot, so far no idiot in a Sasquatch suit has gotten himself killed by an overexcited hunter, a minor miracle in and of itself.
Jesus. "Special pleading" for a certain type of folk hero common in early Middle Eastern myth. Prior to the invention of the Christian Church by Paul of Tarsus, there were any number of iterations of this hero myth, and a great many of them shared common features that modern Christians think are unique to "Jesus," including a virgin mother, astronomical portents of the birth, the jealousy of Kings, the performance of "white" magic, blood-sacrifice, and of course the cheating of death by resurrection. (The latter was surprisingly common in the news in the first century; there are numerous resurrections referred to, at times casually, even in the Bible.) What we call "Jesus" was most likely an archetype, although Christians allegedly persist in believing that the Jesus of the Bible was based to some degree on a real, living person.
Turtles. This is a common trope these days, but I had to put it in, since it illustrates with a pleasing simplicity such a large chunk of the difficulty of human metaphysics. The story goes that a small boy was asked what holds the world in place. The boy says, “That’s easy—a strong giant named Atlas holds it on his shoulders.” But what does Atlas stand on? “He stands on the back of an elephant.” And what does the elephant stand on? “On the back of a giant turtle.”
When asked what the turtle stands on, the little boy pauses, thinks for a moment, then says, “It’s just turtles, all the way down.”
All of these imaginary creatures assume a sort of rough hierarchy—cartoon characters and talking pigs at the low end, and Jesus, Allah, Mohammed, Vishnu, and Yahweh atop the heap. Not many modern Westerners "believe" in the literal truth of Spiderman, say, or Pinnochio—even those who love the movies. God and Jesus, to Christians, however, are of a completely different order, removed and separate from every other supernatural belief. The latter are serious and real, the former fanciful and fictional.
Religiosity demands these distinctions, of course. The more strictly religious the Christian, the stronger a bulwark he or she is likely to throw up between Christian supernatural characters and other supernatural characters.
But are they really so separate? The god-worshipper has to concede, first, that splayed outwards from God and Jesus in sometimes separate, sometimes recombinant offshoots is a family tree of not-always-compatible lesser characters, from the Virgin Mother to Mother Theresa to infallible spokesman for the divine ranging from Pat Robertson to the Pope to the President of the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Most Christians will set up their own dividing lines in very different places on such a diagram. Similarly, the undesirability of lumping all supernatural beings together is most clear if we select from the extremes: that is, Saints performing miracles on behalf of heaven are real and serious, trolls living under bridges who eat billy goats are fictitious and silly. Even for many serious intellectuals, such a division is still possible: the Universe may be naturalistic and Christ may have been a human prophet, in their view, without compromising their trust in a mysterious deistic god-force alive somewhere in the Universe.
"Strong atheists," i.e., strict rationalist materialists, think any hierarchy at all is a red herring. The real division, they would say, is simply between people who believe in the supernatural and those who don’t.
There is some support for this view if one surveys the beliefs of modern populations. For instance, a survey might show that 55% of Americans believe that aliens have visited Earth and left some sign of themselves behind, and that 60% of Americans believe in ghosts. So perhaps Jesus multiplying the fishes and loaves can be safely separated from Mr. Ed the talking horse, in type, kind, and degree—but what about a statue of the Virgin Mary shedding tears vs. alien messages encoded in crop-circles? Are those so far apart? What about tsunamis as evidence of God’s displeasure with liberals, vs. the apparition of a spirit from beyond the grave bearing a message for the living? (This also cuts at the most annoying thing about "faith." Faith is the notion that where god-worshipping is concerned, all suspension of disbelief and skepticism is voluntary but mandatory at the same time. The chief irony of it is that faith is manifestly never enough for the faithful, since they are forever grasping hopefully at straws of "evidence" and "proof" and authority for their beliefs, even extending, infamously, to oppression and physical coercion by torture. It's quite exasperating, really: if someone really has faith, then faith alone ought to be sufficient for them, and they should disdain all the pathetic attempts at proof and every presentation of "evidence," from splinters of the true cross to dubious modern "miracles" such as water mysteriously spurting from the trunk of a tree. But of course many do not.)
Wendy Kaminer contends a simple equation that could possibly be tested, if anyone had the inclination. And that is, that the more literally a Christian believes in God and Jesus, the more likely he or she is to believe in the supernatural in general—and the other way around, namely, that the less a person believes in other supernatural creatures or beings, the less likely he or she will be to also posit an actual God and a divine Jesus.
Anecdotal evidence for the former is thick on the ground. For instance, in my region of the country, many devoted religious parents refuse to let their children participate in the celebration of Halloween, I guess because it celebrates demons or something. To me that seems to give rather too much credence to a belief in ghosts, goblins, and witches. Crack many an earnest Christian, and you might well find a person with separate but passionate enthusiasms for other sorts of supernatural characters—angels or ghosts or aliens, perhaps—"off to one side" as it were.
Kaminer's contention might not be so, but it would be an interesting thing to find out...even though, if it were proved true, it would probably not dissuade true god-worshippers. And it is hardly needed by Freethinkers, who tend to believe that, in the words of the late Phil Davis, "It is not necessary to believe in supernatural beings to live a moral and ethical life."
Copyright 2007 by Michael C. Johnston—All Rights Reserved. This essay is from a book I wrote (under a pseudonym—I have never aborted a baby, but I am mindful of the dangers of attracting the attention of extremists—in other words, I am a chicken) called Coping With Christians. Christians will be consoled by the fact that the book is unavailable because no one ever wanted to publish it, meaning that I spent about a thousand hours working for nothing. (Anyone believe in the Trickster? He's one god who seems pertinent to me.) I still like the cover design, however, which I basically cribbed from the design of the cover of Jon Krakauer's Into the Wild.
Picture of Bigfoot on motorcycle from Creepy Canada.
Susan Jacoby, Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism
Jon Krakauer, Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith
Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction
The God Who Wasn't There (DVD)
Edward Gibbon, The Christians and the Fall of Rome (this beautiful little pamphlet contains two chapters from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. It's not an overtly skeptical document and is quite recommendable to Christians interested in the history of their religion. Also a fine sampling of Gibbon's magisterial English prose for those who have not, or might never, delve into the entire Decline.)
Jamie Whyte, Crimes Against Logic
Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
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