[Previously published in Humanist Voices]
This morning, I reflected on belief in Canada over coffee. In particular, belief in the ‘other worldly’. Where, in John von Neumann’s (Poundstone, 2015) terms, propositions, as these describe the world, about material things or abstract objects, come in three states — yes, no, or maybe — based on the question, for instance, “Does X exist?” Yes, X exists; no, X does not exist; or, maybe, X might exist. Where the other worldly exists, does not exist, or might exist, most seem contained in the lattermost categorization.
So, “Does Apollo (or Cthulhu, or Ahura Mazda) exist?” The technical categorization remains: possible, or “maybe.” For all intents and purposes, most humanists will choose, “No.” The former as a technical, logical selection; the latter as a functional, utilitarian selection. Both work in context. In surveys of belief, Canadians, a little under half at 47%, believe in ghosts (Ipsos Reid, 2006).
If reduced to 30,000,000 for the total Canadian population, that means ~15,000,000 Canadians believe in ghosts, in the other worldly, in the supernatural. Many small towns will host ghost, haunted house, and cemetery tours with scant, or no, evidence for the claims. At the same time, the revenue from these tourist activities might prevent, whether passive or active, appropriate investigation into the evidentiary basis of the claims to the ghosts, the hauntings of the house, or the spirit-wanderings of the cemeteries. Some might think, “Why ruin business?” Indeed.
If the percentage of the Canadian population from the survey, and other surveys and other beliefs parallel this finding about ghosts, then many Canadians, in spite of functional living in numerous areas of life — work, school, paying taxes, raising kids, being neighbourly, and so on, live in a world of other worldliness, of the supernatural, of the magical-mystical. Many Canadians aren’t living in the natural world, in their minds’ eyes. They live in a world of magic.
Maybe, it feels cozier.
But what about the serious implications for the reality of death? To return to the libretto, the belief in ghosts seems, at first evaluation, in denial of death. Death as, not necessarily but “for all intents and purposes,” final. The dead are gone, and aren’t coming back — as most humanists would, likely, say, “…for all intents and purposes.” I am reminded of Ezra Pound (Stock, 2017). Who in his Cantos, when speaking of the “Gods,” stated:
“The Gods have not returned. ‘They have never left us.’
They have not returned.” (Pound, n.d.)
For all intents and purposes…’The dead have not returned. ‘They have never left us.’ They have not returned.’