Archimedes (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.
Are 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.