Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests


Ghosts, Aliens & the Hebrew Bible

posted by David Klinghoffer

The wild beasts of the desert shall also meet with the wild beasts of the island, and the satyr shall cry to his fellow; Lilith also shall rest there, and find for herself a place of rest (Isaiah 34:14).

Somehow it happened that my earlier comment about a secular age like ours being a Dark Age, an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, provoked a dispute among readers about space aliens. One atheist reader said there’s nothing positive about believing in them — or by extension, in God — if such (for the most part) unseen beings do not in fact exist. Another reader asked, in effect, But what if they do exist?

Apropos of that, I was cheered by a post on a website I heartily commend to you, GetReligion.org, about the persistence of a belief in ghosts even in secularized England.
Why cheered? Several month ago I wrote a piece for the L.A. Times reflecting on the amulet for protection against Lilith that our mohel (ritual circumciser) left with me after our twin boys were born. Lilith is a demon touched upon in the book of Isaiah but about whom the Talmud and later, mystical sources elaborate a great deal.

I’m a big fan of the late-night radio program Coast to Coast AM with George Noory, which deals with all sorts of phenomena of the supernatural side of existence. (I was delighted recently to discover that the terrific writer and blogger Ron Rosenbaum is also a fan, if somewhat disgruntled of late.) Talk of ghosts, aliens, and the rest, however flaky, always gives me a lift because it means that belief in what William James called the “reality of the unseen” has not yet been stamped by this Dark Age of secular ascendancy.
Excerpt from my Lilith essay:

Another possibility is that the human need to believe in the unseen world itself points to, while not proving, the reality of hidden dimensions. It could be that materialism — the philosophical assumption that reality is nothing but physical stuff — is a prejudice rather than a fact. Perhaps an unseen reality does exist, revealed in flashes that can be confusing or misleading, to which we sometimes give flaky designations. Like “Bigfoot.” 

Religions used to confidently navigate this twilight realm. Some faiths still do, quietly. When Louisiana’s Catholic governor, Bobby Jindal, was being considered as a running mate for John McCain, the fact that Jindal once participated in an exorcism became a briefly sensational media story. As for the rabbi who presided over our twins’ bris, the evangelistic branch of Judaism to which he belongs, Chabad, stands out as bucking the trend elsewhere in Judaism toward a pallid rationalism. 

The same trend is mirrored in other faiths, especially the shrinking mainline Protestant denominations. It may be that such pallidness helps explain why Americans turn to florid paranormal beliefs, as opposed to traditional supernatural ideas. Indeed, U.S. polling data from Gallup, reported by Baylor University researchers, shows that belief in the occult is more common among non- or infrequent churchgoers or those belonging to a liberal Protestant denomination than it is among frequent churchgoers and conservative evangelicals.

Religious leaders representing respectable faiths, intimidated by secular prejudice, may wish to take note as they scan the empty pews. The human hunger for a vigorous, unapologetic interface with the unknown can’t be entirely repressed. As Sigmund Freud knew, the repressed has a way of returning.

I absolutely love a ghost story if anyone cares to share a personal story along these lines.


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Steve

posted April 17, 2009 at 5:11 pm


David wrote: “Somehow it happened that my earlier comment about a secular age like ours being a Dark Age, an Age of Counter-Enlightenment, provoked a dispute among readers about space aliens. One atheist reader said there’s nothing positive about believing in them — or by extension, in God — if such (for the most part) unseen beings do not in fact exist. Another reader asked, in effect, But what if they do exist?”
Both those claims are problematic. Here is what I wrote in the thread:
“I think it’s very likely that there are no Gods. And if it likely that there are no God, then this should weigh in favor of its being good for people to believe that there are no Gods. Knowledge and justified beliefs are ends in themselves. For instance, someone’s belief that he has been abducted by aliens might help him avoid being clinically depressed. But there still would be something problematic about his believing that he has been abducted by aliens.
“Now if it were likely that there are one or more Gods, than this should weigh in favor of its being good for people to believe that there are one or more Gods. But I think it is very likely that there aren’t any Gods.”
First, not to quibble, but none of my claims were about the belief in the EXISTENCE of space aliens. Mine were claims about one’s believing that he or she has been ABDUCTED by aliens. There is a big difference. In the latter cause, the person believes that he has actually been brought into the aliens’ space ship.
Also, I didn’t claim that there is “nothing positive about believing” that one has been abducted by aliens. I said knowledge and justified belief are ends in themselves. But they are not the ONLY ends in themselves. For example, if a person hasn’t been abducted by aliens, it still might, overall, be good for the person to believe that he has been abducted by aliens if it keeps him from being so depressed that he commits suicide. In a subsequent post in the same thread, I wrote the following: “As I said, knowledge and justified beliefs are ends in themselves. However, they are not the ONLY ends in themselves. For instance, let’s say that some people know that person X was abducted by aliens. But let’s say that if X were to know that he was abducted by aliens, it would cause him to be so depressed that he would commit suicide. In this case, it might be better for him NOT to know that he had been abducted by aliens.”



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Steve

posted April 17, 2009 at 5:38 pm


David wrote: “Another possibility is that the human need to believe in the unseen world itself points to, while not proving, the reality of hidden dimensions.”
First, at least given what I think you mean by “unseen world,” some humans don’t need to believe “in the unseen world.” In fact, hundreds of millions of humans don’t believe that there is one. I believe that there is no spiritual realm or God or afterlife. I suppose that there might be other universes than ours, but I tend to do that. Everyone in my family doesn’t believe in an “unseen world.”
Also, here are three links that give some rough idea of n the number of people in the world who don’t believe in God:
http://atheism.110mb.com/
http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/paul07/paul07_index.html
http://www.nytimes.com/2007/03/04/world/asia/04china.html?_r=2&ref=world&oref=slogin
Second, that many people believe that X is true is irrelevant to whether one is warranted in believing that X is true or whether one knows that X is true. For example, many people believe that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. Many people believe in geocentrism. I’m sure that many people believe that the earth is flat disk that rests on the back of a giant tortoise. And I’m quite sure that all those beliefs are false. So that many people believe in “the unseen world” is irrelevant to whether I’m warranted in inferring that there is an unseen world.
David wrote: “It could be that materialism — the philosophical assumption that reality is nothing but physical stuff — is a prejudice rather than a fact.”
Some humans use language. I don’t know if that is “physical stuff.” Moreover, I don’t know for certain that there aren’t any Gods. But I think it is overwhelmingly likely that there aren’t any. For one thing, I haven’t experienced anything remotely similar to a God.
David wrote: “The same trend is mirrored in other faiths, especially the shrinking mainline Protestant denominations. It may be that such pallidness helps explain why Americans turn to florid paranormal beliefs, as opposed to traditional supernatural ideas. Indeed, U.S. polling data from Gallup, reported by Baylor University researchers, shows that belief in the occult is more common among non- or infrequent churchgoers or those belonging to a liberal Protestant denomination than it is among frequent churchgoers and conservative evangelicals.”
Whatever the cause of people believing that they have been abducted by aliens, I’m quite sure that they are mistaken.
David wrote: “Religious leaders representing respectable faiths, intimidated by secular prejudice, may wish to take note as they scan the empty pews. The human hunger for a vigorous, unapologetic interface with the unknown can’t be entirely repressed. As Sigmund Freud knew, the repressed has a way of returning.”
I know some humans that don’t “hunger for a vigorous, unapologetic interface with the unknown.,” for example, some of the people I went to high school with. Moreover, I don’t hunger to have an interface with God. I believe that there are no Gods. Similarly, I have no desire to have an interface with leprechauns. However, I do hunger to know many things that I don’t currently know. For example, I would like to know the exact sequence of events that resulted in inert becoming the first cells on earth about 3.8 billion years ago. I’d also like to know for sure whether Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I’m very confident that he did, but I’d like to know for certain.



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Steve

posted April 17, 2009 at 9:09 pm


I wrote: “I suppose that there might be other universes than ours, but I tend to do that.”
I meant: I suppose that there might be other universes than ours, but I tend to DOUBT that [there are].



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Tom

posted April 18, 2009 at 12:49 pm


Some New Age proponents have been able to reconcile aliens with the ‘divine’ theorizing that gods were merely highly evolved ETs:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l_ww8HXpcf8
I found the part about Jehovah teaching proper highgene to the Hebrews (rather than ritual purity) particularily amusing.
Some have theorized that the cloud of smoke on Mt. Sianih was an alien spaceship, the Transfiguration Christian account was hightech illumination, etc, etc. If one were ever to get bored with eccentric mainstream televangelism as entertainment then I suppose some of these theories could help pass the time of day.
Back to a previous debate, the problem with finding it better (in certain circumstances) for people to be duped into a false reality is that many of us wouldn’t hesitate to facilitate or be complicit in this kind of deception seeing as how it’s for the greater ‘good’. Then we end up with a pragmatic or sometimes Machiavelian philosophy, but then how can we be mad at politicians, AIG execs, congress, etc when they act on these principles and their duplicity is finally brought to light? Simply having a better grasp as regards technology, science, and so on won’t necessarily mean we’re going to be better off as a society because humans tend to exploit these to their own ends.
PS Richard Dawkins claimed to be liberated (not impeded from functioning) when he came to terms with a lack of deity. Perhaps it’s different based on the individual seeing as how he’s so highly evolved and better equiped to handle ‘reality.



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Steve

posted April 18, 2009 at 1:52 pm


Tom wrote: “PS Richard Dawkins claimed to be liberated (not impeded from functioning) when he came to terms with a lack of deity. Perhaps it’s different based on the individual seeing as how he’s so highly evolved and better equiped to handle ‘reality.”
My experience is that, for the overwhelming majority of people, if not all, not believing in God doesn’t make it harder to be ethical person or function at a high level. For instance, every atheist I know well is an ethical person. Moreover, the percentage of all Swedes who don’t believe in God is fairly high. Here is a passage from Zuckerman’s essay that I provided a link to: “According to Norris and Inglehart (2004), 64% of those in Sweden do not believe in God. According to Bondeson (2003), 74% of Swedes said that they did not believe in ‘a personal God.’ According to Greeley (2003), 46% of Swedes do not believe in God, although only 17% self-identify as ‘atheist.’ According to Froese (2001), 69% of Swedes are either atheist or agnostic. According to Gustafsoon and Pettersson (2000), 82% of Swedes do not believe in a ‘personal God.’ According to Davie (1999), 85% of Swedes do not believe in God.” And Sweden is a relatively ethical society. The society is highly democratic and respects freedom of speech and the press. Moreover, poverty is very low, infant mortality is low, life expectancy is relatively high, literacy rates are nearly universal, people are, overall, relatively well educated, and violent crime rates are low. Also, the society contributes a relatively good amount to science, philosophy, technology, art and music. I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for ABBA. This suggests that people not believing in God does not tend to not make it more difficult for them to be ethical and function well.
However, it is very important for people to be aware that how, if at all, a belief affects behavior is irrelevant to whether the belief is warranted or known to be true. For example, someone’s believing that the earth revolves around the sun may contribute to his doing bad things to others. But I’m quite sure that the earth revolves around the sun.



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Tom

posted April 18, 2009 at 3:57 pm


Since I became practicing I’ve found it much easier to be ethical, but I guess everyone has different criteria for what constitutes ethical behavior. Absent a personal relationship with the creator being ethical would be rather hard, like following a set of precepts or ‘jumping through hoops’ some may say.
All the qualities those groups attribute to Sweden are amicable; however they have one of the highest suicide rates and also a very high abortion rate. I don’t differentiate geographical semantics (whether one is inside or outside his mother’s womb) so in my view this nullifies the low infant mortality rate. Maybe the suicide thing is because they are so distraught about there not being any God.
Anyhow, I found this Hirsch article (David quoted him in another post) rather interesting (not to vere too far off course hopefully) since it hits closer to home for me (not that I plan on shooting anyone) being the rightwing extremist that I am ;-)
http://mrhirsh.com/2009/04/14/a-prophet-is-just-a-comedian-with-really-bad-timing.aspx



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