Ross Douthat on Ghosts and Other Tales of the Unexplained…

Ross Douthat on Ghosts and Other Tales of the Unexplained… October 12, 2015

and the psychological lengths our secular chattering classes go to deny their experiences to keep the world safely materialistic.

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  • Darryl Harb

    Materialists invariably wind up embracing some form of superstition.

  • Nathaniel

    Anyone find it deeply ironic that Ross Douthat is using people to attack secularism whom 200 years ago would have been denounced as witches from the pulpit, and 200 years before that burned at the stake?

    How the mighty Catholic Church has fallen.

    • Eli

      Forest for the trees.

    • Hezekiah Garrett

      Not by the Church.

      With a library card a a wee bit of effort, you could correct your glaring ignorance, if only you had the will.

      • Nathaniel
        • LFM

          The link you point out is adequate as far as dates are concerned but misleading because it concentrates on denunciations of witchcraft by the Church, making it sound as if the witch hunt was somehow a peculiarly Catholic phenomenon and only briefly acknowledging that secular authorities and Protestant nations were involved too.

          The timeline does not make clear (that I can see at a glance) that the Church had no authority to carry out any form of physical punishment and that a sentence of burning could only be executed by the state. In fact, the secular authorities sustained the witch panic long after Church authorities were arguing against it. By the 16th century they were the instigators of most accusations of witchcraft, which was regarded as a form of treason, as well as the executors of punishments like burning, hanging and so forth.

          • Nathaniel

            I never claimed that Catholicism was the only game in town when it came to witch hunting. Not too many Catholics in Salem Massachusetts obviously.

            And to say that the Church had no formal power to punish people is a technicality at best. The reason that the notion of state and church separation was so important to the Founders of this nation was because painful lessons of European history where Church and state walked hand in hand.

            • LFM

              Regarding the first point, I’m sorry if I put words in your mouth, but you did emphasize the Catholic aspect of the witch hunt in your first comment.

              As for the Church having no formal power to punish being only a technicality, no, it wasn’t. The Church could not compel the state to punish anyone without the state’s full acquiescence except in those jurisdictions where the Church actually *was* the civil authority. (Such places did exist but were not the rule.) Church and state in medieval Europe worked closely together but often quarreled. In early modern Europe they were often at daggers drawn. The state *fought* the Church for the right to accuse (and not merely to punish) witches and pursued many such cases in defiance of papal and episcopal exhortations.

              Finally, the reason that the notion of church and state separation was so important to the Founding Fathers was not because of any fear that the Church might overstep its power. You forget or are ignorant of the fact that Britain had already shown Europe that it was perfectly possible to establish a church that was fully under the control of the state. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if your Democratic party today might wish that the FFs had followed Britain’s example. In any case, they did not do so: they chose not to establish any church, partly out of awareness of the nation’s religious pluralism, and partly to protect religion from becoming a mere arm of the secular state, as it was in Britain.

              • Nathaniel

                Technically, the Saudi Arabian government is the one that imprisons and executes people for stuff like blasphemy or the crime of apostasy, not mullahs or any of the formal religious apparatus present in the country. Do you think that means that said religious apparatus has no say on whom gets punished, and for what reasons?

                Or to use another example, in India recently an angry mob killed a Muslim man living in their community because they thought he had killed a cow. No one is currently being prosecuted for this crime. Do you think the fact that the state of India doesn’t formally, officially condone this religiously motivated mob killing bring much comfort to the family?

                I also quite agree that the Founders didn’t just have in mind protection of the state from the church when they made those institutions separate. While some Founders such as Thomas Jefferson didn’t have much use for organized religion, many others were quite observant. But it still doesn’t change the fact the Founders were quite keen on avoiding the persistent downfalls of giving chosen religions unbridled access to state power, formally or informally.

                • LFM

                  The two situations you name bear little relationship to the situation of the Catholic Church in medieval and later in early modern Europe. You are trying to say/do too much here: to criticize the Catholic Church; to criticize “organized religion” in general, as in the Saudi Arabian example you raise; and to go after religious enthusiasm even more broadly, as in the particular Indian example you cite. But these are three different phenomena, however similar they may seem to you because they all fall loosely under the heading of “religion”.

                  The situation of the Muslim faith in Saudi Arabia today does not resemble that of the Catholic Church in early modern Europe. Sunni Islam is not “organized” in the sense that the Catholic Church is. Its supreme authority is the Koran, not an institution with an accepted leader. Further, Sunni Islam admits no distinction between “Church” (i.e. “formal religious apparatus”) and State. In Saudi Arabia the state decides who is a blasphemer or apostate and carries out whatever it decides is the appropriate punishment. Mullahs may not agree but they are not the ultimate arbiters; the state is, by Sunni Muslim tradition.

                  In Catholic Europe, the Pope (and the Magisterium) was the ultimate arbiter of religious matters like blasphemy and apostasy, but secular leaders could ignore any Pope’s views and frequently did. Church and State were always at odds to some degree, having rejected Byzantine cesaropapism that put the authority of the state above that of the Church in matters of religion as well as secular issues. This led sometimes to competition between the two entities, and sometimes to outright war, and it should not be lightly dismissed, because it made it possible for people to criticize the state without blasphemy against their faith. Ultimately, it made the separation of Church and state easier, although that was not its original purpose.

                  This is too complicated to discuss in any satisfactory manner here. I only wanted to suggest that your conception of the relations between church and state in European history, esp. regarding witch hunting, is somewhat facile. [Edited for clarity Wed. October 14, 2015]

      • Joseph

        Why does she need a library card when she can google a well-informed, historically accurate, and totally objective site that doesn’t have an axe to grind from her smart phone that summarises all of history in one short web page? It’s the 21st century! {/sarcasm}

  • LFM

    Please, people, remember that fooling around with spirits can be extremely dangerous. While most of what happens to those who engage in such activities will be the result of wishful thinking or charlatanry, you never know who or what might answer when you call on the “Other Side”. If you want to make contact with dead relatives, try praying for them.