You May Not Believe in Ghosts, But Are You Scared of Them?

Katsuko Nagano, right, and Suiko Yoshida offer prayers for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami at their
Katsuko Nagano, right, and Suiko Yoshida offer prayers for the victims of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami at their family's grave, a day before the second anniversary of the disaster, in Rikuzentakata, Iwate Prefecture, northern Japan, Sunday, March 10, 2013. (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi)


The great Illusionist Derren Brown recently asked a group of people to bring the picture of a loved one to a gathering (a cheap copy rather than some original). When people arrived at the venue with their pictures he held up a Satanic Bible and described an 11th century rite contained within it. The rite itself was for people who wished to declare their allegiance to the devil. In exchange they would gain the protection of Satan, however it also meant that he would own their soul in the afterlife, torturing it for all eternity.

Part of the rite involved repeatedly stabbing the picture of a loved one while reciting some lines. What was interesting was the huge disparity between those who did not believe in the devil, or the idea that stabbing a picture of a loved one could have any effect whatsoever, and those who were willing to do the simple rite (a phenomenon well known in psychology).

There were 160 people in the room but only 11 were willing to undergo the rite. The truly bizarre thing was that only six people in the whole room actually had any belief in the existence of the devil and the idea of supernatural powers, everyone else found the idea absurd.

What this exposes is the way in which we are able to enact a belief in our material existence without actually believing it at a conscious level.

It also shows that, in this audience of mostly secular individuals, religious belief was still operative at a material, repressed level. You can watch the experiment here (it happens in the first four minutes)

The practice of Radical Theology involves attempting to expose this repressed existence of superstitious belief within people and help to break it. The argument, in brief, is that the central scandal of Christianity is an invitation to give up such superstitious certainties at a material level and fully embrace the world without unconscious religious support. This means moving from the idea of super-nature to the super within nature i.e. to an embrace and affirmation of the sacredness of existence freed from superstition. We see this move, for instance, with the early church activist Paul who wrote about how people could eat food sacrificed to gods (1 Corinthians 8: 4-13). What is interesting of course is that most of the people he was addressing, as part of this new movement called Christianity, did not believe in other gods. Yet still they were afraid to eat the food (hence Paul needed to tell them it was fine). This logic is beautifully captured in an old English saying that there was once an Englishman who was so brave, not only did he not believe in ghosts he was not even afraid of them.

The practice of Radical Theology (which must be distinguished from the theology found in most of the church today) is not aimed at our conscious belief or disbelief, but rather at helping to short-circuit the hardwiring that causes us to continue to believe without our (conscious) belief (and which makes society susceptible to the resurgence of superstition in forms like the New Age, Positive Thinking and Fundamentalism). In this way it helps us to see the world as magical rather than as a mundane collection of matter containing magic (something that Kester Brewin explores in his book After Magic: Beyond Super-Nature). This move cannot but remind us of the ancient notion of Incarnation: where matter is not a surface beneath which the sacred rests, but rather matter is the sacred.

The role of the Church in the Radical tradition then does not lie in simply getting people to embrace doubt, unknowing and complexity, nor in affirming existence and working towards the good. But in sounding out where our certainties exist in repressed ways and how our inability to embrace the world is often something that we are not even aware of. To understand the latter we simply have to acknowledge the reality that people are often depressed, yet don't even realise it (Pyrotheology is one example of Radical Church practice).

It is not uncommon for a person to go to a doctor because they are having trouble with heart palpitations, sleep deprivation etc. only to be told, to their surprise, that they are depressed. A common response to this can be disbelief followed by a defense that involves telling the doctor about how social they are: always being out with friends and family. The point, of course, is that frenetic social activity can be one of the signs of an unacknowledged depression. For it can hint at our inability to be alone with ourselves for even a few hours for fear of what we might find.

This is why Radical Theology has a message to those who consider themselves secular as well as to the religious. For superstitious belief continues to operate among those who say they do not believe in it.

Hence the Good News of the Radical tradition is simple: If you really want to lose belief then join the Radical church.