12 January 2008

Ghosts, Ghouls, and God

EDIT: 14 Jan

For a while now, on and off, I've been trying to put together a biographical post about how I became an Atheist. It's turned out to be much, much larger than I had ever anticipated, and now I'm not really sure what I'll be able to do with it once it's finished. But in the meantime, I thought I would share a little piece I just wrote about a different side of the supernatural than the one we usually talk about here. If for no other reason, read it for the copious media links that may send you on a nice nostalgia trip.

The aspect of the supernatural that was the most influential in my early life is not the kind they tell you about in church.

I'm talking, of course, about all the little ghosts and ghouls that are everywhere you turn in our popular culture: vampires, skeletons, the undead...you name it, it freaked me the hell out. Now, growing up, I always thought of myself as being quite sanguine about most dangers in life, even life-threatening ones: car accidents, home invasion, tiger maulings, etc. I like to think I faced these prospects with all the hardy staunchness a boy in grade school could muster. But when it came to the other scary things that most boys my age took in stride, I went running. I even remember explaining it at the time: "if I can kill it, it doesn't bother me. It's just the stuff that's already dead..."

Thus, when my classmates were squealing with laughter over the simple, comical little ditty "The Ghost of John" in music class every October, I was busy covering my ears and shaking with abject terror. Despite being in his target age bracket at the height of his popularity, I never could pick up anything R.L. Stine ever wrote, nor could I ever sit through an entire episode of Nickelodeon's Are You Afraid of the Dark? (I knew the answer to that question already, thank-you-very-much). As though this weren't absurd enough, I was also terrified more than my fair share by the ghost of Jacob Marley every Christmas - and not just in his classic and genuinely creepy incarnation as Frank Finlay, either: Goofy and, later, Statler and Waldorf proved far more than I could handle (Oh, the chains! ::shudder::) Even on a show as benign as Sesame Street, the scene where Bert and Ernie dance with a reanimated Egyptian Mummy has burned itself into my memory as one of the most soul-crushingly ghastly things I've ever seen in my life. The same can be said of the Night on Bald Mountain sketch in Disney's Fantasia. Let's not even talk about the time my sister decided to take me to Spooky World. As icing on the cake, when I was seven my Father claimed to have been visited by the ghost of his then recently-deceased brother...in the room where I had been sleeping; needless to say (and I'm not making this up), after that particular event I didn't sleep quite as soundly again until approximately College.

I could go on, but I think I've made my point: getting abducted, squashed, thrown off a cliff, shot, stabbed - these were all things I could entertain in the abstract without so much as breaking a sweat. But just the thought of ghosts and skeletons could make me seriously lose my shit in a most uncomfortable way.

"So what?" you ask, "plenty of kids are afraid of the bogeyman. So you were a little weenie. Big deal." To which I respond with an emphatic YES! - I really was a giant weenie. But that's not the point. The point is how I dealt with it.

You see, my parents naturally found my crippling fear of the supernatural distressing, and did their best to help me conquer it. They told me over and over, with great patience and understanding, that the things that frightened me weren't real. If Pete Seeger's Abiyoyo the Giant existed anywhere on earth, surely modern man would have found him by now. There were no ghosts (Dad's brother notwithstanding), and skeletons never got up to walk around; there were no witches, no banshees, no devils, no monsters of any sort. They were simply all in my head.

And you know what? I accepted this explanation completely, and believed them implicitly. Their appeals to my rationality, my skepticism, my tiny little critical apparatus really worked, insofar as they helped me to understand that the things I was afraid of didn't have any objective reality.

But - and here's the crucial part - it didn't help one goddamned bit. I really, honestly knew with the same conviction that I know that objects fall and the earth is round, that there was absolutely no way that (for example) a skeletal hand could ever, ever reach up from underneath my bed to grab me while I was sleeping. But all the rational certainty in the world didn't mean squat to me, because once the mental image had taken hold, no amount of reason could ever eradicate it from my imagination. Eventually I managed to get over these crippling and totally irrational fears, but only through maturity and sheer force of will, because intellectually I had known all along that there was never anything to be afraid of. Even now (although by leaps and bounds less than when I was a child), if I let myself entertain creepy thoughts for long enough they will seize me in the same way, and despite having the keen mind of a seasoned materialist skeptic I'll be unable to think my way out of the jibbly-jibblies. I'm sure most of you can relate.

The reason I mention all of this is to explain how, very early on, I discovered that there there was a deep division between objective reality and the processes of my little mind, which conjured a world of horrible phantoms that were no less terrifying for their non-existence. (Sometimes I wonder if FDR wasn't talking about people like me back in his first inaugural address.) When I was scared I existed, simultaneously, in two different mentally-constructed worlds: one which was grounded in objective, observable reality, and the other that was dominated by the power of my imagination. After thinking on this for a while, I came to the understanding that human mental processes have the power to create fictions so powerful and so compelling that even a thoroughly rational person will have no choice but to act and react as though these fantasies were objectively real. His interactions with and emotional responses to the world, despite the grounding effect of reason, seem inevitably to give greater urgency to the more threatening world of the imagination.

Now I hope you all see how my rambling relates to religion. My own personal familiarity with the way this experience worked in my own mind is now a paradigm I use to try to understand how some intelligent and well-educated people can persist in their belief in god. Perhaps, for them, a religious world-view has the same effect and takes up the same mental real estate that ghosts did for me. Perhaps God, for them, lives so vividly in the imagination that, despite all rational evidence or belief to the contrary, they cannot help but act and react as though their fantasy were objectively real.

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