vivitar ghost James Butler/Flickr CC


Halloween is knocking at the door again, a reminder that just below the surface of modern scientific culture lies a fascination with the supernatural that simply will not go away. On the contrary, belief in ghosts and the world of spirits seems to be making a comeback. Whether to open the door to it is the question.

Over the next few days a small minority of Christians will attend religious services to honour “all the hallowed” souls who have attained heaven, and pray for the faithful departed who have not yet arrived there. Meanwhile, crowds of their fellow citizens of all faiths and none will find in the ancient anniversary an excuse to dress up as witches and ghosts, and dabble in themes which have long since been consigned to the “Dark Ages”.

Or so crusading secularists wish. If Richard Dawkins reads the New York Times he might have choked on his breakfast to see there last week that ghost hunting is flourishing in Norway, one of the most secularised nations in Europe. “God is out,” according to Methodist preacher and theologian Roar Fotland, “but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum.”

The Times story features a travel agency in the southern Norwegian town of Moss where “weird things” — inexplicable computer breakdowns, strange smells and noises and complaints from staff members of constant headaches — started happening. After trying all normal channels, so to speak, manager Marianne Haaland Bogdanoff “finally got help from a clairvoyant who claimed powers to communicate with the dead. The headaches and other problems all vanished.”

Ms Bogdanoff may have a commercial interest in haunted premises – ghost tourism is big; Google it and you get over 24 million results – but she is in good company.

“Even Norway’s royal family, which is required by law to belong to the Evangelical Lutheran Church, has flirted with ghosts, with a princess coaching people on how to reach out to spirits,” reports The Times. A television series called “The Power of Spirits” is now in its 10th season and “has around half a million viewers each Sunday, a huge audience in a country of just 5.1 million people and more than twice the number of regular churchgoers in Norway.”

“We are bigger than the Norwegian church,” the show’s presenter, Tom Stromnaess, said. He said he did not believe in ghosts as “creatures with white sheets and black eyes” but, though initially very skeptical about paranormal phenomena, he has come around to the view that forces exist that cannot be seen or understood.

Does this sort of thing (and examples could be multiplied from other countries) signal a return to, or at least an openness to religion? Perhaps, though some are doubtful. Prompted by the announcement in February of planning approval for the building of the first pagan temple in Iceland for a thousand years, British religion writer Andrew Brown suggested that the thirst of modern pagans is for rituals rather than beliefs.

“Paganism in this widespread general sense has an important lesson for Christianity. You hear it argued that liberal religion declined because it lets people believe anything, when in fact they want clear judgments. But there is lots of biblical teaching, from the condemnation of adultery to the duty of hospitality to asylum seekers, which the churches are very clear about and which simply makes them unpopular. What successful churches have is not demanding doctrine but demanding practices, rituals and observances which saturate everyday life. That’s what New Agery offers, with its crystals and cleansings. It’s what charismatic Christianity and folk Islam both provide.”

(Incidentally, that is why more Australians and New Zealanders will be worshipping at the shrine of the Rugby World Cup final this weekend than at church. They will don their colours, gather in bars and cafes, chant their songs and down their drinks with more passion than the average church congregation.)

Another writer commenting on the Times report is also doubtful that today’s spiritual inklings can lead anywhere. He points out that, while the Christian tradition has accommodated science – indeed, gave rise to it, according to many scholars – it is difficult for the most common forms of secularism [see, Dawkins] to accommodate religious beliefs. Without a “concrete and intellectually disciplined tradition like Christianity” there is no way to understand spiritual phenomena except as “weird things”.

The same writer continues:

“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.”

Well put.

And irrational beliefs are not always harmless. While one can mock the characters in this week’s US headline, “Salem witch wins protective order against notorious warlock”, it is shocking that a Florida mother and her two adult sons were beaten to death and had their throats slit in a “Wicca ritual killing” recently.

How the sheriff handling the case described it to reporters is also significant:

“It’s witchcraft, I’ll say that right now,” Sheriff David Morgan told the Pensacola News Journal. “You know, there are different factions of that. While it doesn’t bother me to release that particular thing, we most assuredly do not want to defame or demean any particular practice, if you will.”

His idea that one weird belief is as good as any other belief shows how the new spirituality can demean the whole of religion, or at least be used in that way by militant secularists. In other words, not only do the ghost hunters and wiccas not resist secular power, they actually make all believers more vulnerable to it.

Well, it is a long way from kids in witches hats knocking on the door to ritual slayings, and there is no necessary connection between the two. The take-home message is really this: Do the ghost hunters of Norway herald a new flowering of religious faith in Europe? Not the ghost of a chance.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.

Carolyn Moynihan

Carolyn Moynihan is the former deputy editor of MercatorNet