Ghosts: An Atheist Touchstone

ArchimedesArchimedes (circa 200s BCE) jumped out of his bath and ran through his Greek city naked screaming, “I found it! I understand!” when he realized that by using water displacement, he could figure out the volume of a highly irregularly shaped object — in this case, the King’s new crown. Now knowing the crown’s volume he could divide by its weight and then calculate the crown’s density to see if it was truly made of gold or was fake — a mission given to him by the king who did not want to cut open the crown to find out. Good thing he did, the crown was authentic.

Even when gold is right on the surface, it is useful to test its purity. In Archimedes times, and for millennia prior, people did this with a stone called a “touchstone”. The stone, made of slate or certain other rocks, had a fine grain dark surface that would clearly display a shiny visible trace of soft metals when rubbed against it. These traces would have different colors and thus a sample could be compared to other samples to find out its metal’s purity.


The word “touchstone” is also used metaphorically to mean an intellectual method to expose the validity of a concept. In today’s post I am going to use “ghosts” as a touchstone to expose different sorts of atheists.

I have written previous posts sharing some of my personal experiences with ghosts:

Recently I put down one of our three dogs — he was 17 years-old, senile, scared and sick. I saw his ghost around our house for a couple of weeks.

Japanese Footless GhostAre ghosts real? I don’t know. I’ve had ghost experiences and I’ve heard things hard to explain, but I tend to think there is no such thing. But if you read my post of “Traffic Light Epistemology” and “Many Selves“, you can see why I am OK not being definitive on the issue.  You’d think someone with my experiences would tend to say they believe in ghosts, but I have lots of other experiences point to natural explanations.  One experience is the fact that different countries tell different stories about their ghosts.  Japanese ghosts, for instance, are famous for not having feet. The cultural limitations to ghosts point to their mentally contrived nature.

For those interested, I’d like to share a superb article I read in the London Review of Books entitled “Ghosts of the Tsunami” by Richard Parry — a British journalist/author specializing in East Asia. It is a long article but full of great ghost stories he heard concerning the possession of apparently normal people by the ghosts of those killed in the Japanese tsunami of 2011.  The story speaks of a priest who removes these possessing ghosts and helps them move on “to the light”.  Similar youtube stories can be found concerning 911 victims ghosts. Is there non-ghost ways to explain these stories — I am pretty sure there are.

Some Atheists believe in ghosts, some don’t. Some atheists want the word “atheist” to mean non-belief in anything supernatural, not just non-belief in theist-god(s). As my readers know, I could care less about fixing definitions, but I do care about the ideas behind them.  I’m OK with a large variety of Atheists. Heck, Christians come in large varieties too.

One thing that stops people from understanding each others beliefs, is lack of experience. I understand smokers, because I still miss chewing and smoking tobacco, even though I know they are bad for me. Likewise, I totally understand people who see ghosts, because I have seen them — even as an atheist I have seen them.

I think atheists who have had “supernatural” experiences are less prone to call religious people “deluded” than atheists who have had weird experiences. Yesterday I had an argument with John Loftus at his blog, Debunking Christianity, where in his comments he claimed “I think Christians are all deluded since faith is always irrational.”

“Deluded” is a favorite word of many atheists — it is a malady which they feel that they themselves are totally free of.  But try to show them that they are highly mistaken or deluded, and they hunker down to preserve their rhetoric.  They love to use the accusation of “deluded” in their hyper-rational atheism, and they won’t give it up!

Apparently about 18% of Americans feel they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost — these include both Atheists and Christians. Are all of those folk (myself included) wackos? Naive? Deluded? Mistaken? or in touch with the other world?

Ghosts can be a touchstone for atheists. Those atheists who have seen ghosts or had mystical experiences generally view religious folks very differently than atheists who have led a life without these experiences. Is that surprising? No, I think not. Is it surprising that many ghost-seeing atheists don’t believe in ghosts, or that many atheists who formerly talked to Jesus now feel those personal conversations were simply a contrivance of their brain? No, I think not. But such facts often startle believers. Believers wonder for how anyone can have such amazing experiences and later deny them. But the point is, folks like me don’t deny the experiences, we just question our past interpretations.

Please do read the article on Japan ghosts if you have time. I wonder how Christians would explain how a Japanese Buddhist priest is able to successfully get ghosts out of people by chanting the Heart Sutra and sprinkling holy water when these Christians consider their Sutra as nonsense and their water as not holy. Maybe because ghosts are ghosts and everyone’s religious explanation is wrong. And atheists who think these folks are deluded, seem fated to not understand.

This post is not meant to debate the reality of ghosts. It is not meant to argue definitions. Instead, I am hoping to illustrate how we often think, feel, categorize based on our experiences and not just based on pure reason.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

34 responses to “Ghosts: An Atheist Touchstone

  1. I’ve had a few tremendously odd experiences, including a framed photo flying off the mantle and smashing on the ground. I’ve conducted many, many, many seances in my youth and cannot for the life of me figure out what was going on. I could hold a seance with just one other person (which i did numerous times) and the glass would fly around, always spelling out nonsense, but flying around nonetheless. I would like an explanation to that.

    That said, i have a theory regarding ghosts. They are energy residues; echoes. By memory alone i can walk through the house i grew up in as a child.When i imagine this am i perhaps triggering some latent residue which i left there in the walls? Are my imaginings re-animating that residue?

  2. @ John,
    Interesting story. Concerning your theory. If it is residual “energy” from dead people, why couldn’t those people, when alive, do amazing things with the same energy? Energy claims have been tested and always proven wrong, no matter what Kung Fu movies claim.

    But what do you think, John, does having those sort of unexplained, odd experiences soften up an atheist’s categorical theorizing about theists and supernatural stuff?

  3. psychprof

    Extraordinary belief (from ghosts to ESP to conspiracy theories) is one of my areas of interest; my dissertation research was related, and I have taught many courses over the years that focus on such belief, from different perspectives. The processes of believing–the processing of perceptual evidence, social influences, critical evaluation–are just as “normal” for believing in ghosts (or bigfoot, or ufo abduction…) as for any other sort of beliefs we hold. There is nothing abnormal about these people; they are “deluded” only in the most trivial sense (and people who misunderstand a scientific concept–like, say, they don’t quite understand evolution, and are closet lamarckians–and believe it to be true despite their misunderstanding, are equally “deluded”, even if their belief does happen to line up with reality).

    In interviews, I have often said “there are many very good reasons to believe in ghosts; the thing is, none of those reasons involve ghosts actually existing.” A good understanding of our sensory, perceptual, cognitive and memory processes leads to a very different appreciation of ghost-belief.

    Despite over a century of very vigorous searching, and despite extraordinary popularity in the media (which, by the way, is part of a self-propelling culture of ghost-belief), there is no reason to think the self survives past death, or that ghosts are any other sort of paranormal phenomenon. But there is no reason to think less of believers. Understanding “them” is part of understanding “us”.

  4. I don’t think the dead people are animating anything, rather the living are. But as i said, its just a theory.

    Does it soften up supernatural positions? Not necessarily. One must, however, always keep their mind open.

  5. @ psychprof,
    I totally agree. You don’t think my post said otherwise, do you?

  6. psychprof

    Oh, no–I was agreeing with you–the only thing I wanted to add was that there is research that supports you. And that the appropriate areas of study, in my opinion, is *not* parapsychology, but in experimental psychology. The phenomenon we are looking at, after all, is not “ghosts”, but rather “belief in ghosts”, which is properly seen as a subset of “belief”, which we have a robust research record on.

    Your post is well-reasoned, appropriate, accurate… and the neat thing is, you could have made an even stronger case by noting that your ideas are not merely the result of musing, but are supported by decades of pointed research.

  7. @ psychprof,
    Ah, thanx.

  8. @psychprof,
    BTW, I don’t like saying “research says” unless I can quote. See my post on the same. But my undergrad was psych and I have read much cognitive science stuff too. So, my thoughts weren’t born from pure “musing”. That said, I could always be grossly wrong.

  9. @psychprof: I have a big interest in your field as well but since I studied engineering in college I’ve gotten my information mainly from some books or articles here an there, and from that I lean toward the same conclusions you have expressed. But I don’t lean strongly because I haven’t read enough. If you could provide some good links to more info on research that has been done that strengthens your statement: “Despite over a century of very vigorous searching … there is no reason to think the self survives past death, or that ghosts are any other sort of paranormal phenomenon”, then I’d really appreciate it.

    @Sabio: I agree with all the perspectives you have written here regarding suggestions of ways to view others and the types of words that are useful to use. I try not to get into debates about it because I did once and saw that it wasn’t very productive. Everyone has their own styles, but calling people delusional just doesn’t fit mine. Your point is well taken that we all are deluded in some ways but that doesn’t mean it helps to always say that to people. I think for me the best analogy is that we could theoretically say that the definition of the word stupid is “lacking intelligence or common sense”, so I should call people stupid because they sometimes act in ways that properly fit that definition and it is ok to state the truth even if it hurts. I prefer instead to simply describe why their thinking could be wrong instead of putting labels on it that just make the person mad and less likely to hear my point of view.

  10. There is no mention of Ghosts in the Revealed Book of the truthful religion from the One-True-God. Those who believe in ghosts believe out of superstition; and have weak psyche.

  11. @Howie : 02/13/2014 at 10:30 am

    I think instead of labeling others as “stupid” or “deluded” that you rightly said just makes the person mad and less likely to hear one’s point of view; I think the right approach is that one should give one’s good reasons and arguments and tell the other person that his point of view is unreasonable.


  12. I think you are identifying the difference between a naturalist and an atheist.

    An atheist can believe in ghosts spirits esp and other supernatural things and still be an atheist. A naturalist can’t. Now I suppose a naturalist could accept that ghosts exist but he would require that they were a natural phenomena.

    As for ghosts being driven out by Buddhists, I tend to think God reveals himself in different ways to different people. What he expects of us is dependent on what he gives us. I think this principle is illustrated in the Gospel of Luke 12:47:

    “The servant who knows the master’s will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants will be beaten with many blows. 48 But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.”

  13. @ trueandreasonable :02/13/2014 at 12:45 pm
    “An atheist can believe in ghosts spirits esp and other supernatural things and still be an atheist.”

    I don’t get you exactly. How an Atheist can believe in ghosts spirits esp while he is not ready to accept the existence of One-True-God?

    Similarly: How can a naturalist accept ghosts etc as a natural phenomenon while he is not ready to accept the One-True-God who exists and the nature has come into existence at His command?

    This would be a dire contradiction, I think.

    Please elaborate your viewpoint.

    Any Atheist or Naturalist could also respond, please.

  14. @paarsurrey,
    “Atheist” is used in many ways — like many words.

    (1) A: not + Theist: believer in intervening, all caring deity.

    (2) Some people, like you, assume that to call yourself an atheist, you must not believes in ghosts and spirits and afterlife. But Definition number 1 does not entail that.

    So, not all atheists are naturalists, or materialists or …. There are lots of different sorts of atheists.

  15. @ trueandreasonable,
    Yes, the “touchstone” reveals the presence of non-naturalists alloys. 🙂
    But the ghost touchstone also reveals a different perceptual/cognitive temperament — irrespective of the reality of ghosts.

    Thus a naturalist could see ghosts, but to believe in them would be odd, unless you understand self as I do (see the link in my post). For part of the brain will believe and part won’t. So does the person believe? I think “belief” is a highly mistaken idea — and the core mistake in doctrinal Christianity.

    As for your Bible quote — I think such thinking is silly of course, but I’m not arguing salvation-punishment folly here.

    Otherwise, you made good points.

  16. Marc

    Sabio – Thanks for the interesting observations. Because the experiences seem to be fairly common, do most people view them as indicators of another (perhaps spiritual) dimension?

  17. I ain’t afraid of no ghosts! 😉

    Let me tell you about the ghost of Fluffy. Fluffy was the cat that my wife brought with her when she moved in with me. Fluffy lived with us just long enough for me to get attached to her, so, of course, she proceeded to get sick and die. For quite some time after she passed, I kept thinking I saw her around the house, eventually this stopped, and when I thought about it, I had the same phenomena occur when she was alive. I’d think i’d see her out of the corner of my eye, but she’d be someplace else.

    I don’t believe in ghosts, an afterlife, or reincarnation. I do believe in recycling though, and am oddly troubled by the fact that we bury our dead in element resistant boxes, that don’t allow for their molecules to go back to the earth. That makes me want one of these: This Awesome Urn Will Turn You into a Tree After You Die. Something appeals to me about my molecules rejoining the circle of life.

    Sabio said “I wonder how Christians would explain how a Japanese Buddhist priest is able to successfully get ghosts out of people by chanting the Heart Sutra and sprinkling holy water when these Christians consider their Sutra as nonsense and their water as not holy.”

    Easy, demonic mimicry, I’ve known plenty of Christians, including myself, when I was a Christian, who believed that all the miracles of other religions were shows put on by demons to steer people away from The One True Faith™.

    I used to judge people as delusional a lot more back when I was a Christian. Now I’m a little more careful with that term, because I know I am capable of deluding myself every single day.

  18. Sabio,
    There is no mention of Archimedes in the Revealed Book of the truthful religion from the One-True-God. Those who believe in Archimedes believe out of superstition; and have weak psyche. There is no mention of Japan either in that book.

  19. Hi Sabio – not sure if psychprof will answer my questions in my last comment. Any links or books you would recommend on this topic?

  20. psychprof

    Howie–sorry, I had not been keeping up with comments. Sabio was kind enough to email me, though… In part, finding a nice source for you is difficult simply because the research community has considered this settled science for so long that it is not actively mentioned. (The flip side of this can be seen in the number of descriptions of paranormal researchers that claim they are working under a new paradigm, going beyond traditional science, etc.) That said, I think it best to look at four different prongs of attack, and sources to get you started on each.

    Four prongs:

    First—while psychologists still have competing views on the nature of consciousness (for instance, mind-brain identity theories vs. teleological behaviorists vs. distributed self models), none of these models have seen the need to invoke any sort of spirit that could conceivably exist independently of a living organism. Our vocabulary of ghosts long precedes our understanding of physiological psychology; the more we know about our brains and our behavior, the less need there is to invoke any sort of mind, let alone spirit. (yes, there is a small fringe of psychologists who disagree, but they are pushed into smaller and smaller corners—for instance, invoking quantum physics as a mechanism for dualism, a claim that does not hold up to scrutiny.)

    Click to access Stoerig_P_Chap_25_Cambridge_Handbook_of_Consciousness.PDF

    Second—although psychology is perhaps the most appropriate science for addressing ghostly claims, it must also be noted that ghosts violate the observed laws of physics and biology. No theory of ghosts has been proposed that does not depend on wholesale differences from accepted biology and/or physics (indeed, you’ll have to look long and hard to come up with someone willing to take a stab at what, precisely, a ghost is, and how it might have the characteristics it is alleged to have, given that definition). (frankly, this is basic biology and physics, though Stenger has written on it specifically) (especially chapters 9 and 11)

    Also, the third source above—Clarke’s introduction addresses this question nicely.

    Third—Belief in ghosts is, to some extent, independent of any theory of what ghosts are; that is, we can look at the psychology of belief itself, and of sensation, perception, memory, cognition… and see plenty of reasons that someone who is ignorant of these areas might well be confident in an unfounded belief. (Shermer is a popular writer rather than a scientist, but it’s popular enough that your library might have it.)

    Fourth—the history of spiritualist research is fascinating and filled with fraud. From the earliest days (when William James, who did believe, nevertheless was forced to admit that the evidence supporting his belief could not be expected to convince others, and who further had to admit that he had witnessed improprieties in séances that were advanced as good evidence of ghosts. Wilhelm Wundt felt obliged to write, expressing his disbelief after a colleague had claimed that the participants in a séance (which had included Wundt) had witnessed evidence of spirits. Wundt felt they had seen nothing that a conjurer or stage magician couldn’t have contrived—which, of course, presaged the involvement of individuals like Harry Houdini, and later James Randi, whose expertise in stage magic allowed them to see the tricks that scientists were not trained to catch.

    This one is tougher—these are journal articles from a century ago or more. I have my copies, but that doesn’t help you much. Oh, but here’s a treat: Houdini’s “A Magician Among The Spirits”–A-Magician-Among-the-Spirits_165751.html

    Randi’s “Flim-Flam” is in the same vein

    I’ll have to look at my office for the titles of some of the early journal articles—you may be able to find them. To their credit, the Journal of Parapsychology recognized they had a problem, and now evaluates papers based on methodological soundness rather than on results. In my opinion, the problem remains that some phenomena appear paranormal simply because of the researchers’ ignorance of normal psychological function (this comment in no way is intended to describe all parapsychological researchers).

  21. @ Marc:
    I think so. Don’t you?

    Mike aka:
    I totally agree with your cat explanation, and think that is exactly what happened with both my Mom and my dog.

    Yeah, I think it is hard to call people “delusional” if at some point of your own apparently normal life you radically disbelief former positions you held.

    LOL !

    There you go!

    Superb, thank you!
    If you click the “Notify me” button below your comment, you will be e-mailed comments and thus follow. But I realize people don’t want their boxes full.

  22. I tend to stop reading blogs that don’t let me subscribe to followup comments. I’m glad yours allows that, Sabio.

  23. @ Mike: me too. And I must confess, I am a bit irritated by drive-through commentors. I wish people would follow for a short while just to see if someone replies to their comment and then unfollow later if they don’t enjoy the thread. But that is me.

  24. @Takis Konstantopoulos :02/14/2014 at 6:15 pm

    “There is no mention of Archimedes in the Revealed Book of the truthful religion from the One-True-God. Those who believe in Archimedes believe out of superstition; and have weak psyche. There is no mention of Japan either in that book.” Unquote

    Though your post is addressed to Sabio; but the contents suggest that it pertains to me, if I have correctly understood.

    The Revealed Book as clearly mentioned in its beginning is for ethical, moral and spiritual guidance for the human beings from the One-True-God; it is not a history book. It has left the science ,arts and other fields, pertaining to material and physical realms, open to be dealt with without restraint till they don’t interfere with the above realms.

    I think you understand now.

  25. @psychprof: All I can say is wow! Thank you so much for taking the time to respond with all of those links as well as your insight. I’ve started reading them and have copied and pasted your entire comment into my reference file on religion.

    @Sabio: Thanks for e-mailing psychprof for me!

  26. @paarsurrey:
    The Revealed Book of the One-True-God does not mention ghosts, as you correctly observed earlier.
    I added that the Revealed Book of the One-True-God does not mention Archimedes.

    Neither ghosts nor Archimedes have anything to do with morality (although we can question the latter because Archimedes existed and made lots of important contributions which influenced humanity, but ghosts do not exist). So, your statement on ghosts and my statement on Archimedes are both compatible with your last claim.

    In fact, I may as well add that the Revealed Book of the One-True-God does not mention, as far as I remember, cannibalism.

  27. @Takis Konstantopoulos :02/14/2014 at 6:15 pm

    Further to my above comments I have to add that the Revealed Book is not a book of names of persons or places; neither it claims to be a text book of science or history. It is appropriate if one sees the world atlas to locate Japan or a list of scientists for Archimedes and of course one could Google for both. The Revealed Book does not prohibit one to do a little research.

    It is a mistake if one consults the Revealed Book in this connection

    It is not at all a superstition to believe in the existence of Japan or Archimedes.

    How such a thought occurred to you? Please

  28. @Takis Konstantopoulos:02/15/2014 at 10:59 am

    Did you open topics on “Revealed Books” and “Why Quran in Arabic” at your own blog as requested in the topic”” Reason and Passion: in religion and government and “Language & Religion as Decorations” at this blog ?

    Please do it now.

  29. @paarsurrey:
    I’m sorry, but I don’t think I will do it. There are no “revealed books”. All books are written by people, and this fellow, Muhammad, was just an ordinary (or extraordinary and skillful) guy. There is no such thing as allah or ahura mazda or krishna. People invent deities for several reasons, and, some people benefit from illusions. But some don’t. Morality has nothing to do with religion either. There is no point in discussing further with you because you are convinced that there are “revealed books”, “allahs”, and so on, and–what is worse–you base your conviction on the fact that the book written by this Muhammad mentions that it is perfect and gives reasons for it. I can write books like that and mention that my books are perfect and give more convincing reasons that they are perfect. If I were cunning, like Mohammad (a pedophile–by modern standards), Joseph Smith (a con-man) or Ron Hubbard (a pulp fiction writer), I could start a new religion, more perfect than the existing ones and, maybe, make a lot of money too. But I don’t want to waste my time with nonsense. Nonsense like those introduced by Mr Mohammad, Mr Hubbard or Mr Smith. Sorry, I do not wish to continue the conversation with you because I am being cynical and sarcastic in all my replies to you (sorry) and there is no way that one can make you understand what logic is. (Having said that, I know you mean well, and understand that you feel you are a good person. It’s just that it is absolutely impossible to communicate!)

  30. @paarsurrey,
    It is clear you wish to talk to Takis and off thread topics to argue about your sect of Islam. Please take these conversations to Takis’ blog.
    This thread is about ghosts.

  31. Earnest

    @ Sabio regarding paarsurrey, my thoughts exactly.

    I used to believe in ghosts as individuals unto themselves until I reflected on a college experience. I lived in a house with 2 other guys, senior year, studying, enjoying a relatively muted social life, basically no drugs or alcohol. There was a large vent in the floor of the common area where the heat from the basement furnace would come up through the floor and heat the house by convection. One of the guys made a joke about the floor grate being “the gateway to Hell” or some similar nonsense. But for some reason, when I would hear the furnace turn on after that, I began having faint then stronger images of demons waiting under the carpeted floor. I started walking entirely around the grate to avoid them.

    Then one day the visions just stopped when I got angry about my modified behavior and how stupid it was .

    It got me thinking that the demons/ghosts were products of my own hysterical self-hypnosis. The images are still emotive to this day, but they are contained somewhere in my own mind.

  32. Excellent story, Earnest. Great analysis.

  33. My wife and I had a very disturbing ghost experience many years ago. I was an agnostic at the time. Today I’m am one of the many varieties Christians you speak of, I believe in Universal Salvation. I am maligned by some Christians for this view. Anyway, this spirit actually physically interacted with both my wife and I and even left claw marks down my back. The experience was so disturbing to my wife she refuses to live in that area. So people most certain do have these experiences.

    I was researching the doctrine of Universal Salvation when I found your “touchstone” article. That is the Greek word in the Book of Revelation translated as “tormented” in the lake of fire brimstone. It means a “touchstone”, for testing the purity of gold. It is the imagery of refining gold, very different imagery than what is presented in our modern English bible translations.

    My world view is always changing as I learn. Ghosts are a personal experience I have had, there is no doubt for me. That did impact my agnosticism at that time, Obviously the existence of a spiritual realm increases the possibility of God existing significantly.

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