The headline writers of Washingtonpost.com ought to win an award for the dumbest question of December. In a sentence promoting their discussion board for "The Secularist’s Corner," they wrote: "One in four Americans believe in 'spiritual forces' like ghosts. Is belief in the supernatural unlike the traditional story of Christmas?"
Is the traditional nativity story of Jesus unlike the story of... Casper the Friendly Ghost? Is the writer here an adult?
The headline is also goofy: "Christmas ghosts abound." Susan Jacoby, the unbeliever who hosts "The Secularist’s Corner," didn’t ask this question in her discussion-starter. She did suggest that Americans will believe all kinds of nonsense. Her headline was "You name it, Americans believe it." As an atheist, she doesn’t see any contradiction in embracing Jesus and New Age beliefs. It's implied they’re equally wacky:
A new survey by the Pew Forum on Religion And Public Life shows that approximately one in four Americans believe either in reincarnation, astrology, or the presence of a "spiritual force" in such objects as crystals — sometimes in all three. Furthermore, the proportion of Americans who claim to have had personal encounters with ghosts has doubled since 1996 — from nine percent to more than 18 percent.
Such beliefs often coincide with mainstream western religious faiths. Catholics and mainline Protestants are the biggest believers in New Age supernatural phenomena, while evangelical Protestants register lower levels of such beliefs. (Right-wing evangelical churches have often denounced even such holidays as Halloween, which they connect with witchcraft.)
I don’t see any contradiction between belief in one form of supernaturalism — say, a God who becomes man, dies for our sins, and rises from the dead — and another, such as the belief that the position of the stars affects human behavior. Do you think that there is any significant harm to society from a widespread minority belief in such phenomena as ghosts and extra-sensory perception? Are these beliefs an impediment to public understanding of scientific issues like the necessity for vaccinations or global warming?
My colleague Brent Baker would read that last sentence and say: Jacoby thinks global warming is a necessity?
Jacoby shouldn't really walk into a discussion of belief and unbelief and then say she sees "no contradiction" between say, orthodox Christianity (with a rigorous or "rigid" theology) and syncretism (with a tolerant, whatever-floats-your-boat approach that doesn't attempt rigor). Can't she signal she's intelligent enough to know the difference?
Pew's numbers are cause for concern for traditional Christians, showing that even people who claim to attend religious services regularly can express beliefs in Eastern or New Age spiritual concepts that contradict their churches' teachings. As a Catholic, I can say that I've rarely heard a priest sermonize against astrology or reincarnation or Eastern and New Age concepts, and my priests aren't unorthodox.
It's possible that a few survey-takers might have misunderstood the question, and truly seen no theological contradiction with Christianity. A Christian certainly believes in spiritual beings (like angels) and might suggest that belief in reincarnation means they believe in the promise that our bodies will be reunited with our souls when Jesus comes again.
Jacoby can't resist making a liberal crack at the end about the ghostly presence of Dick Cheney continuing to haunt the political scene:
Finally, why are Americans twice as likely to think they have been visited by a ghost as they were in 1996? (I have the idea that the frequent spectral presence of former Vice President Dick Cheney on television may have something to do with the increased number of ghost-sightings.)