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Credulity is an odd mix with atheism.

After all, the atheist has had to wade through a large network of theological ideas, parse them, critique them, and reject them. This requires incredulity to begin with, and it enlarges incredulity along the way. Such intellectual labor is like attending a seminary of impiety where multi-year courses hone students’ skepticism.

And so it shocks our sensibility to discover the rare atheist who believes in ghosts. And, yes, I have met a few atheistic ghost believers.

Ghost belief is likely older than belief in Gods and is probably traced to the dream life of prehistoric peoples, all of whom saw dead relatives and dead neighbors in their nighttime slumbers and reasoned therefore that the dead are still alive. Acts propitiating ghosts, like leaving little offerings of foodstuffs here and there, eventually became elaborate theistic liturgies appeasing the Gods.

Why would a modern atheist consider God to be as unbelievable as a Phoenix bird and yet find ghosts credible?

Perhaps it’s that ghosts do not have endless piles of holy books assembled on their behalf, or that ghosts do not have immense buildings erected for their worship, or that ghosts do not have venerable hymns choired in their names. Maybe it’s this underdog status that makes the credulous atheist sympathetic to the lowly ghost.

Or maybe ghostly atheists permit themselves one lone mental vice, since atheists otherwise practice an almost ascetic intellectual morality. This is not unlike celibate clerics who allow themselves to partake in Balvenie scotch whiskey and La Flor Dominicana Double Ligero cigars as compensation for doing without so many other creature comforts.

Or could it be the allure of the horror genre that makes ghosts appealing? Who doesn’t like a good ghost story?

Or maybe people who recently buried a loved one find special consolation in the hope that the dearly departed are still alive. Remember those TV shows where psychics communed with the ethereal remains of deceased relatives of a studio audience? The bereaved in the crowd wept briny tears when they heard from their mom on the other side.

Here is a proof of ghosts I heard recently: “I felt an eerie presence when my dog faced a corner in my den and barked wildly at thin air.”

Really? That’s a proof of ghosts?

Dogs have noses that smell things we cannot smell, and dogs have ears that hear things we cannot hear. Might your dog have smelled and heard a mouse inside the wall of your den? As to your eerie feelings, don’t you suppose your dog’s barking at thin air created those feelings in you? The very idea of ghosts is father to a feeling of the presence of ghosts. If you believe in ghosts you will eventually ‘feel’ their presence.

A few ancient Greek thinkers, and many thinkers since then, realized that everything about a human personality is assembled within the human body, and no continuation of personality can exist after the demise of a body. The ancients saw that a ghost was an impossible idea, and immortality was an absurd notion. (Although, no one needs to insist that a ghost lives forever.)

With what does a ghost see, lacking the body’s eyes? With what does a ghost hear, without the body’s apparatus for hearing? With what does a ghost speak, lacking a mouth and tongue? With what does a ghost feel, without the brain’s chemistry?

If an incorporeal God is incredible, why isn’t an incorporeal ghost equally so? And yet, in the wide wide wonderful world of metaphysics, you may now and then meet atheists who scoff at hardened declarations of God while announcing their own confirmed belief in ghosts.

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J. H. McKenna (Ph.D.) has taught the history of religion since 1999 at the University of California, where he has won teaching awards. He has published in academic journals and the LA Times, Huffington...