(NYT Op-ed) Ross Douthat–Ghosts in a Secular Age

But the Elle essay suggests yet another understanding of how secularism interacts with spiritual experience. In this scenario, the key feature of the secular world-picture isn’t that it requires people to reinterpret their numinous experiences as strictly psychological events; it’s simply that it discourages people who have such experiences from embracing any kind of systematic (that is, religious/theological) interpretation of what’s happened to them, and then as a corollary discourages them from seeking out a permanent communal space (that is, a religious body) in which to further interact with these ultimate realities. Under secularism, in other words, most people who see a ghost or have a vision or otherwise step into the supernatural are still likely to believe in the essential reality of their encounter with the otherworldly or transcendent; they’re just schooled to isolate the experience, to embrace it as an interesting (and often hopeful) mystery without letting it call them to the larger conversion of life that most religious traditions claim that the capital-S Supernatural asks of us in return.

What secularism really teaches people, in this interpretation, isn’t that spiritual realities don’t exist or that spiritual experiences are unreal. It just privatizes the spiritual, in a kind of theological/sociological extension of church-state separation, and discourages people from organizing either intellectual systems (those are for scientists) or communities of purpose (that’s what politics is for) around their sense, or direct experience, that Something More exists.

This interpretation ”“ which I think is clearly part of the truth of our time ”” has interesting implications for the future of religion in the West….what you see in the Elle piece is that in the absence of strong institutions and theological systems dedicated to the Mysteries, human beings and human society can still make sense of these experiences through informal networks, private channels, personalized interpreters. And to the extent that these informal networks succeed in satisfying the human hunger for interpretation, understanding and reassurance ”” as they seem to have partially satisfied Peter Kaplan’s widow ”” then secularism might be more resilient, more capable of dealing effectively with the incorrigibility of the spiritual impulse, than its more arid and strictly materialist manifestations might suggest.

Read it all.


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