I often hear people say, “I am not religious, but I am spiritual.” What does that mean? That they don’t believe in the “holy spirit,” the basis of Abrahamic religions, but they believe in other spirits? Despite the long history of superstitious beliefs, there is not a shred of evidence that any kind of supernatural entity exists. Why do people believe this stuff?
Some folks claim that the brain emits an “aura” that they can detect and figure out what it is thinking. I am a retired electrical engineer, and in all of my 40+ year career, I never saw, or even heard of, an aura meter. And repeated tests have shown that the folks who claim they can detect it are either charlatans or deluded. Now, if they claim that they are detecting faint electromagnetic radiation, that’s a different matter. The brain is an electrical device, so theoretically, electrical charges moving around in the brain could generate such radiation. As far as I know, it has never been measured. Decoding it is another matter entirely.
But wait, I must admit that I am a spiritual person too. I frequently imbibe in those liquid spirits that come in a bottle. I never noticed that they made me spiritual, although when I was younger (a lot younger) they did seem to enhance a spirited interest in the fairer sex. But…ahem…let’s move on.
Why do most people believe in spirits? A recent article I read in Skeptical Inquirer magazine[i] suggests that dreams may have convinced primitive people that another “reality” exists in a spirit-world. As the article says, nobody knows exactly how or when religious belief originated, but it certainly happened in our prehistory, before the invention of writing. Indeed, most of human history happened before we had the capability to record it.
Archaeological evidence shows that ancient cultures believed that an individual lived on after death. People were buried with tools, weapons, and other items that would be needed in their “afterlife.” Vikings buried their kings with ships. Other cultures (shudder) sacrificed servants so that they could accompany their royalty into the spirit world.
But religious belief probably goes much further back than that. Humans dream when they sleep, and those dreams seem very real. Sometimes they are based on real life experiences, but I have had dreams that seem to have no connection to anything I have ever experienced. It’s not surprising that ancient people concluded that dreams were a window into another world…a “spirit” world. From there, it’s a short step to a supernatural being who is watching over us…and for crafty and manipulative people seeking power and wealth, a God that demands obeisance and, of course, lots of money.
[i] Religious Belief from Dreams?, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 44, January/February 2020, p. 51