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The Carletonian

Cultural relics

<ir="ltr">Growing up, I was a pretty imaginative kid, and I’ve certainly had my share of sleepless nights hiding under covers. But my parents never validated my (totally normal) fear of the things going bump in the night. They held no delusions about the reality of ghosts, and thereby expelled any delusional belief that may have carried over from my childhood to the present. But simply explaining the non-existence of ghosts is a boring and useless task: it’s not as though I’ll be able to convince people that the ghost their relatives claim to see doesn’t exist.

Ghosts are the souls of dead animals or people that obtain physical reality. Thus belief in ghosts is predicated on two false assumptions. First, souls are traditionally believed not to possess physical reality, or only symbolic reality in the form of personal gods or totems. However, by becoming visible to humans, ghosts do take on physical reality. For a non-physical entity to take on physical reality at will is absurd, but I expect this logic will be lost on true believers.

Secondly, souls do not exist, and therefore manifestations of souls such as ghosts cannot exist. There is no evidence or biological need for a soul. All social manifestations usually attributed to souls are better explained by social and psychological science. The soul is culturally associated with our deepest feelings; love, joy, sadness, fear, and existentialism. Yet there is not physical reality in the feelings themselves—only in their biological basis. I recognize that many people find it disturbing to believe that feelings most central to their emotional experience are just the product of neurological activity: to you I can only say “too bad”.

I can afford an abbreviated explanation of my proof against the existence of souls because no evidence exists for me to surmount. This abbreviated explanation—there is no need or evidence for the expressed item—is essentially the argument for atheism. I’ll be clear that atheism is a further unprovable belief, at least technically: one cannot prove without a doubt that there is no God. But I believe the next best thing is provable; God certainly does not exist in the way that institutions of religion or culture believe. In giving God definition, religion provides the means to logically eliminate Him. Similarly, by defining ghosts as non-physical manifestations of souls, I’m able to show that their non-physicality and their basis in the dogma of souls belies the possibility of their existence.

Let me now make a claim: belief in ghosts is itself a manifestation of cultural hegemony. The conception of ghosts most common in the popular culture today ascribes them non-human characteristics such as luminescence and levitation. These characteristics are rooted in Northern European paganism, and belies Judeo-Christian beliefs and traditional conceptions of ghosts held by non-Europeans around the world. The Nordic Pagan conception of souls as clouds of white steam arises from the belief that the breath of death (the air expelled from a corpse’s lungs upon death) during winter is actually a soul leaving the body.  This belief is only found outside of Northern European culture in Inuit culture; harsh winters seem requisite for the cultural development of this belief. The belief that souls have characteristics like steam has persisted despite blatantly different biblical conceptions of ghosts. For example; when Jesus Christ appeared to the disciples after the resurrection, he proved to the disciples that he was not a ghost by allowing them to touch his body, feeling the scars of his crucifixion (Luke 24: 37-39). He must not have appeared spectral.  

Yet descriptions of ghosts in the United States from fervent believers almost universally describe them as spectral in some way; levitating, luminescent, or non-corporeal. Though some pop culture depictions do differ (like in The Sixth Sense), true belief in America tends to follow the spectral, European tradition. And this tradition has bled into the traditional beliefs of victims of colonization around the world.

In my experience, the most fervent believers in paranormal activity are disadvantaged whites who often espouse conservative and unsophisticated Christian theology. To me, the belief in ghosts feels like a cultural relic that is ascientific. This is not the main problem with believing in ghosts. Modern fascination with the paranormal is a product of forced syncresis with traditional religious practices from around the world (think “Indian burial grounds” and the false belief that burning sage to get rid of ghosts is a traditional American Indian practice). Indeed, by exertion of cultural pressure against diverse communities around the world, belief in ghosts and similar irrationality contributes to the drowning of traditional religions whose belief is integral to preserving their cultures.

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