Ghosts in Norway

The_ScreamChesterton famously said that if people do not believe in God, they will believe in anything. And the historian Christopher Dawson wrote that in the absence of God, people will take as gods Hitler or Stalin. Both were arguing the same point: people are naturally religious, and they seek a system of beliefs in order to understand the transcendent nature of human existence.

In our own day, denial of that religious impulse results in a curious schizophrenia. The belief in ghosts, for example, now on the rise in ostensibly faithless places like Norway, coincides with the equally sharp loss of organized religion, or even widespread reflection on what religion is. “God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum,” the article quotes a professor Methodist preacher in Oslo. But what does that mean?

According to the secular imagination, this was not supposed to happen. Religion – by which is often meant churches – would disappear, to be replaced by science and empirical data. But this is not how it is turning out.

The challenge is that it is difficult for most common forms of secularism to accommodate religious beliefs. The contrary is not equally true. In the Christian tradition, science is perfectly compatible with religion and empiricism has a useful place in understanding the world, even if it is not the only criterion for that understanding. Indeed, there is a not insubstantial body of scholarship that argues Christianity enabled science by positing a comprehensible world according to the laws of nature. But for secularism, religion, either in organized churches or in “spiritual” positions such as the belief in the ghosts must be understood either as irrational or as pathology.

But jettisoning a concrete and intellectually disciplined tradition like Christianity has removed a way to understand spiritual phenomenon like, yes, whether ghosts exist. Replacing that tradition with a loose “postmodern” belief in various “weird things” (as the article calls them) completely severs the connection Christianity formed with empirical science. Further, postmodern faith of this type provides no resistance to secular power. Clairvoyants and ghost-hunters are no Thomas a Becket or Thomas More.

So these trends are not so much a challenge to secularism as a reinforcement of the secular state. It robs believers both of a ground to reality and a mode of resistance to those who treat their beliefs as well, a little spooky.

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