Britt’s sister (known around these parts as “Zealot Sister”) and I recently made it official– we are Facebook friends. Along with her brother, Patrick, we now form a powerful triumvirate– ready to resurrect Britt’s Middle Child Syndrome at a moment’s notice*. It is an honor to be part of the Stockton coterie. Paige and I have often traded respectful debate on matters religious. She is a faithful Catholic. I am a Jewish something or other. But, true to one of the basic tenets of this blog, we are respectful of each other’s beliefs.
A recent exchange:
PAIGE: What is the debatable topic of the day, Mr. Safran?
(I was out for dinner, but replied with the following:)
STEVE: I’d love to know why people believe in ghosts.
PAIGE: Enjoy your evening. Next time— ghosts versus saints. Are they the same?
Oooh. Love that. She turned it into a question, and Jews love questioning and debating questions rather than insisting upon answers. So let me try:
And let me begin by stipulating something I do not believe: There are saints. I will stipulate there are saints, and they are watching us, listening to our prayers and sometimes answering them in the affirmative. Again, I absolutely do not believe this, and yet, out of respect for Paige’s beliefs– so stipulated.
Ghosts, I believe, fall into a different category. Actually, four categories:
- A famous person, haunting a famous place (i.e., Abe Lincoln in the White House).
- A dead relative, sticking around to guide you from the beyond. (Booooo! Don’t marry Kevinnnnn! He’s a jerrrrrrrrk!”)
- The run of the mill, sheet-covered ghost, whose only goal in the afterlife is to scare you. You know, a jerk.
- The ghost trying to scare people out of the old amusement park so a corrupt realtor can buy the land cheap, only to be unmasked by a group of meddling teens and their anthropomorphic dog.
Of these four, I only buy the last. At least it’s a plausible scenario. People do stupid things for greed. Faking a “haunting” is conceivable and, in fact, the basis for reality TV shows.
I am in the majority– but not by much. A HuffPost/YouGov poll from 2013 shows that 45 percent of Americans believe in ghosts or that the spirits of dead people can come back in some places and situations (Think: Seances, Ouija boards, to get back at you when you lied upon their souls to get to second base with a girl, etc.).
Further, Pew Research found that 18 percent of Americans assert they have seen or been in the presence of a ghost.
Based upon that data, my reaction was: “Sure, the highly religious people are the ones who must be most likely to believe in ghosts. Ghosts are, after all, the embodiment (as it were) of life after death.”
The Pew study says people who go to worship services weekly are less than half as likely (11%) to see ghosts as those who attend services less frequently (23%).
So what’s the big deal? People can believe in ghosts or not, right? Well, let’s look at other things people believe, keeping in mind that 47% believe in ghosts:
A Gallup question in 2009 asked “Do you think racism against blacks is or isn’t widespread?” 49% of whites said it was not widespread.
61% of Americans still believe others beside Lee Harvey Oswald were involved in the assassination of President Kennedy.
38% of Americans do not believe Barack Obama was born in the United States.
These are our phantoms. Racism is demonstrably widespread. There is absolutely no credible evidence that anyone other than Oswald was involved in the Kennedy assassination. (If there were, imagine what the people who knew about it would have earned in book rights, knowing about the first American coup.) And Barack Obama was born in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Therein lies the danger of believing in ghosts. The ghosts of conspiracy, the phantom lies, and the ghouls in Aunt Mable’s closet are all the same thing: desires to authenticate unreal things. They are the desires to make us think we know something other people do not. They are the desires to make us think there is a power keeping information from us. They become our folk stories and they endure, as superstitions do, no matter the evidence.
So while saints, we have stipulated, are real… ghosts are not. And yet these ghosts are dangerous and damaging and downright scary. And like all un-real things, these ghosts materialize in the darkness when we isolate ourselves from opinions that do not conform to our own. Or even when we fail to stipulate, for the sake of respect and argument and the search for truth, that saints are real.
But Scooby? That dude’s legit. Like me, he’s scared of the havoc the boogie man in the rubber mask can wreak. And he’s palpably relieved when the light of day reveals the charlatan and his fear-mongering ways. And man, can he eat.
*Editors note: No, I’m really happy you guys are all friends now. I’ll just be over here in my little corner… not listening to you craft blonde jokes or anything. Whatever.