Just in time for Halloween, a few days ago the New York Times had a story, "Many Americans Say They Believe in Ghosts. Do You?"
No, I don't. I also don't believe in God.
But lots of atheists do believe in paranormal phenomena, according to the story.
There are a number of different ways to quantify belief among Americans in so-called paranormal phenomena. One way is to ask a selection of people representative of the population if they believe in ghosts. In a 2019 IPSOS poll, 46 percent of respondents said they did.
Another is to ask what they fear. This year, according to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, about 9 percent of 1,035 adults surveyed said they feared ghosts, and the same amount said they feared zombies; many more people said they were afraid of government corruption, the coronavirus or widespread civil unrest.
The last time Gallup surveyed people about ghosts, in 2005, 32 percent of respondents said they believed in “ghosts or that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places and situations.” When Gallup asked the same question in 1990, the result was 25 percent.
Such beliefs have pervaded American culture and media for centuries. But some researchers are now studying whether their rise may be tied, in part, to the rise over the last few decades of Americans claiming no religious preference.
“People are looking to other things or nontraditional things to answer life’s big questions that don’t necessarily include religion,” said Thomas Mowen, a sociologist at Bowling Green State University.
For a continuing study on religion and paranormal belief, for example, Mr. Mowen said he is finding that “atheists tend to report higher belief in the paranormal than religious folk.”
So this shows that atheists are open to supernatural phenomena, even if God isn't part of them. Also, it shows that atheists can be as gullible as religious believers when it comes to accepting the existence of things that lack demonstrable evidence.
Last year, the share of Americans who belong to religious congregations fell below 50 percent for the first time in more than 80 years, according to a Gallup poll released in March. And the percent of people claiming no religion nearly tripled from 1978 to 2018, according to the General Social Survey.
Still, even as religious frameworks for thinking about the meaning of life and death have become less popular in the United States, the big existential questions inevitably remain.
The General Social Survey found that as religious affiliation declined over four decades, belief in the afterlife remained relatively steady: In 1978, about 70 percent of those surveyed believed in the afterlife, and about 74 percent reported the same in 2018.
As Joseph Baker, the co-author of the book “American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems,” put it: “People are outside of organized religions, but they still have this supernatural interest.”
I've got no problem with that. People should be free to pursue whatever interests they want, so long as they don't hurt others in the process.
If believing in an afterlife makes someone feel better, great. Life can be tough. Whatever works for you, go for it -- again, if this doesn't harm anyone else.
I'd much prefer to go on living after I die than to be dead and gone forever. Well, if the afterlife was pleasant, not hellish.
It's just really hard for me to believe in life after death in my current state of mind, though during my 35 years of religiosity I had no problem believing in both reincarnation and the preferable alternative of existing as a non-physical being in some higher realm of reality.
Yet I never believed in ghosts. I'm not sure why. After all, if I thought back then that it was possible for me to live on after my physical death, why couldn't others do the same as ghosts?
I guess one problem I had with ghosts is that they inhabit a difficult to believe in-between zone. Ghosts are physical enough to be visible to ordinary humans, yet supernatural enough to pass through walls and do other spooky stuff.
This could explain why more people believe in God than in ghosts. Of course, God also has a credibility gap. Somehow God is a supernatural being who also is able to produce physical effects in this world. But if God is omnipotent, that's no problem for God.
Ghosts, on the other hand, aren't viewed as omnipotent. (If any ghosts disagree, you can come visit on this Halloween night and set me straight.)