Ouija Ouija Woo Woo 2

Question from Kamil:
I would like to ask you your opinion on Ouija boards.

Originally, I would have thought they were just peoples’ imaginations, but recently, I made one with my family and we played for fun. We were asking questions and getting answers. Apparently we were talking to some guy who lived during the 1500s in Qatar named Carvel. It was all fun and we got a good laugh. However, then something interesting (kind of spooky) took place. My parents asked for fun if I would ever get married (I am very young). The answer was yes. Then we asked, what country will she be from, and the answer was Sweden. Finally, we asked the name, and got “Hilvy”. A few months passed, and I didn’t think anything of it. However, I was bored one day and googled “Hilvy”. To my surprise, it came up as a Swedish name! I asked my parents and they said they had never heard of that name before. Now I am shocked that this was able to come up with an ethnically Swedish name when we didn’t know it. I don’t know what to think of that. My parents joke if I ever really do meet a Hilvy maybe it will mean something.

I have also heard a catalog of anecdotes where people claim they were playing as kids and objects around the house went flying, garbage cans, clocks, etc. Some people say they have seen strange things, and even some murder mysteries have apparently been solved with Ouija boards. My question is, do you think these anecdotes as well as my anecdote prove that spirits are around us communicating or no? I doubt all these people lie about having strange experiences after using these boards. Do you think this proves a life after death?

Answer by SmartLX:
No, the anecdotes don’t prove anything. They’re anecdotes, without a shred of evidence or corroboration, which is significant for an activity that is necessarily done in a group. Fortunately there’s an easy way to make ouija boards look silly, which I’ll get to.

When even one person with a finger on the pointer has an idea where to go while everyone else is aimless, everyone else will go with the strongest force without knowing where it came from. If one person at your session happened to know that Hilvy is a Swedish name (and it does seem to be a common one) they could have spelled it out, and even spelled “Sweden” to set it up.

If you really want to test the power of a Ouija board then get the same group back together, blindfold every participant, and have an observer capture video of the board. People might still have an idea of where “yes” and “no” are, so ask questions that require answers to be spelled out. You’ll probably find that the pointer doesn’t just spell garbage but frequently lands in the spaces between characters, giving no valid answer at all. It’s already happened on camera.

I’m not suggesting that every legible answer or even letter has been forced on the pointer by cheating participants. Ideomotor effects can drive people’s muscles to make countless tiny adjustments without them realising if they know what they expect to happen, say if the pointer looks like it’s going to narrowly miss a letter, or if half of an obvious word has been spelled out. The more people “at the wheel”, the more difficult the specific moves are to attribute.

Even if ouija boards did work with all “drivers” blindfolded, attributing the information to real ghosts would be the next near-impossible task. You’d need to treat the board the way a skeptic would treat any self-proclaimed psychic, asking specific questions about the future that can be unambiguously proved wrong, and similar questions about the past and present that not only no one in the room could know, but only a specific deceased person would know.

Incidentally, how would “Carvel” even know who you’ll marry? In whose model of the afterlife do ghosts exist and know the future, on top of their own past?

Grandma Sees Dead People

Question from Deco:
Ok, so I don’t know if this is really an “ability”, but my grandmother prides herself on having this sort of ESP where she can apparently detect the death of a person while it is taking place. I was skeptical of it, and I asked her a bit about it. She told me that at least 50 times in her life, she has had this sensation or feeling when someone dies. It has come to her in the form of dreams where she will have a dream about a person and being with them in heaven or some form of afterlife, and then she will wake up, and find out at the time of her dream that the person really did die. She has also had what I assume are hypnogogic hallucinations where she will see a person’s face in what she assumes is in the form of a ghost, and then see the devil’s face, and then later find out the person died. One of the weirdest examples is the time that her cousin died. She had a dream of him coming to her and saying that he had drowned. The next day, she found out that he did in fact drown. She has had these dreams with religious imagery, e.g. sometimes she claims Jesus tells her these messages, sometimes it’s family, seeing devils, angels, etc.

I guess my question is, put aside the fact that these claims sound too good to be true, let’s say if she could prove it, would that constitute proof of souls of the passed on communicating with her? Or, could there be another explanation for it that doesn’t require a supernatural component? Perhaps our brains have a method of picking this stuff up that we are not aware of, and her brain interprets the info in a certain way which causes her to dream with a religious background? Or could it be a combination of an active mind, (constantly thinking of people close to her and worrying about them) so sometimes when she has these sensations they are true? Maybe with this she counts the hits, ignores the misses?

Being an Orthodox Christian, I would like nothing more than for this to be true, but I am asking for an atheist perspective here, which is why I am posting it to an atheist community. I have asked many Orthodox Christians and received their opinions, now I want yours. My grandfather says that he has also seen my grandmother get these hits a lot, and he is very surprised by it, but he himself says he doesn’t think it points to the supernatural, even though he admits he cannot explain it. I guess I’m just curious. I don’t want you guys to just dismiss it as “lying” or “fake”, I mean, you can think it is a lie or fake, but I am asking kind of for fun, let’s just assume for a second that this ability were as true as I am claiming, what would you say? Would you then suddenly believe in afterlife and a spiritual realm, or would you still say “I don’t know, but I can’t conclude it is really anything supernatural”?

Answer by SmartLX:
My first question would be, on any of these 50+ occasions, did your grandmother tell anyone else (e.g. your grandfather) that she’d had one of these experiences before checking to confirm? Ideally, did she name the person or give a description before receiving any information from the outside world? (Someone’s always dying somewhere.) This is what would show that she wasn’t just claiming these after the fact.

That’s the all-important skepticism out of the way, and you’ve done a good job of this too by bringing up two possible sources of confirmation bias. So, let’s play with your enormous “if”. If she really were being informed through visions alone of the deaths of particular people, I’d be satisfied that something supernatural was going on, because visions can’t do that via natural means except by pure coincidence. They don’t convey information from outside the person’s senses, they can only work with what the senses are receiving and whatever the brain conjures up for itself, from memory and imagination.

The question would be by what specific supernatural means she was getting it (assuming someone wasn’t in her bedroom subconsciously feeding her the info). Interaction with the souls of the dying/dead would be one possibility, but not the only one. Someone living could be using conscious or unconscious telepathy to send her images of the newly dead. She could be psychic herself, and able to see the faces of those about to die, slightly before or after the time of death, but without help from their souls.

One specific point against the soul hypothesis is that the visions apparently aren’t consistent in their depiction of the afterlife. They could all be different aspects of the same afterlife system, or they could just be contradictory flights of fancy accompanying the real information regarding the identity or appearance of the deceased.

You’ve realised for yourself the difficulty a religious person would face when discussing even a confirmed supernatural effect: actually claiming credit for it on behalf of the “right” supernatural entities from your model of the spiritual world, as opposed to the countless others people believe in, plus the ones no one has thought of yet. Atheists would be challenged if something like this were proved beyond doubt, but in most cases the first thing to go would not be their atheism but rather their materialism. But then, there are already plenty of non-materialist atheists who do believe in ghosts, souls, psychics and so on, because they have a spiritual model in mind that does not include any gods. I’m not one of them, but they’ve written in before.

Psychology 20 Questionnaire

Question from :
I’m currently taking Psychology 20 in school and would like to ask you a few questions about atheism for a project on spirituality if you have the time. The questions are:

1. How does your faith or understanding of the world shape your worldview?
2. How do you justify your actions (good and bad) for your belief system?
3.What gives you meaning and purpose?
4.What are ways you express yourself and why?
5. How do you view the idea of the soul and/or the afterlife?

Hoping for a quick response and thank you for taking the time to answer.

Answer by SmartLX:
Not my quickest response ever, but not bad. Here we go.

1. My view of the world is that it’s shaped and influenced by natural forces, which are powerful but undirected and certainly not worth pleading with. I’m acutely aware that many do not feel this way, so I see what appears to be a great deal of effort wasted because it’s spent trying to please gods that I don’t think are there.

2. I care for myself, and as a social animal I care for the people around me. My awareness of the world beyond my immediate surroundings extends that expression of care to all the people of the world, generally speaking. I justify my actions in terms of the benefit and harm they do to myself and other people, not necessarily in that order, with a view to maximising benefit and minimising harm. The exact meanings of those two quantities I often re-evaluate based on the situation, so that I’m not thinking in a way that doesn’t apply to the circumstances at hand.

3. I choose what my purposes are. From personal achievements to the welfare of selected others (that is, not all purposes are selfish), I devote myself to realising those things I want to bring to fruition. This gives my life meaning to me, and to many others, though not to everyone. This is enough, because whether my life matters to all strangers is not something I worry about.

4. I speak, I write, I sing, I draw, I work, I dance, I play, I struggle, I love. I do these things because I can.

5. The soul does not appear to exist, because identity and consciousness are products of the brain and are damaged or destroyed when the brain is. After the death of the brain there is nothing left of a person to experience any kind of afterlife.

An Early Ticket To The Afterlife

Question from Douglas:
Do people who commit suicide go to heaven? Just watched the movie “The Discovery” on Netflix.

Answer by SmartLX:
Obviously The Discovery is a science fiction story, not a documentary, but like all good sci-fi it’s intended to provoke people to think about the real world and where we’re headed. Besides, (MILD SPOILERS) where they go in the movie isn’t exactly heaven so it doesn’t inform this question much.

I don’t think people who commit suicide go to heaven, because I don’t think there’s an afterlife, let alone a heaven, for anyone to go to. The identity is destroyed with the shutdown of the brain and it no longer exists to go anywhere.

Regardless, I’m against people committing suicide in most cases because of its straightforward consequences in this world: your own life ends with no possible chance of improving your circumstances or anyone else’s, and lasting anguish can be inflicted on those you leave behind.

I say “most cases” because I’m also in favour of voluntary euthanasia or assisted/accompanied suicide, when a person has reached a measured conclusion that continuing to live is too painful to justify any potential benefits. Organisations like Dignitas do a good job of making the decision and the action carefully considered, rational, compassionate processes with a minimum of drama.

I’m aware of course that religious approaches to this question are very different. If taking life is a sin, then suicide gives one no time to absolve or atone for the sin of taking one’s own life, so the shortcut to heaven is barred. This has a practical religious purpose in both the religious and secular view. For the religious, suicide prevents one from serving the mysterious purpose one’s deity has for one. For anyone on the outside looking in, it’s a simple way of preventing belief in an ideal afterlife from sending a religion’s followers to an early grave and depopulating the religion.

The exception which gives a religious rationale for suicide is sacrifice. If you get something important done by putting yourself in harm’s way, this might very well be your holy purpose, whether to be a martyr who gathers support or to take a lot of unbelievers with you. So really, there are religious reasons both to die and not to die and you can twist it any way you want, which is dangerous.

A Moment in Hell

Question from Mirek:
There seems to be many hellish NDEs with the same imagery:

A person sees absolute darkness, hears people suffering, feels sadness, coldness, emptiness, then calls out to God or Jesus, and a white light, or God’s hand appears and takes them out.

Here is an example from George Foreman:


Another example is a pastor who was electrocuted when he was an atheist, and saw the same thing, called out to God, was pulled out.

Do these similarities give hell more credence?

Answer by SmartLX:
Not really. The main reason is that multiple genuine NDEs aren’t the only explanation for the similarity regarded by many as plausible. There are two other major factors likely to contribute.

One, the standard NDE story is by now traditional and very well-known. If someone who’s at least familiar with it has an ordinary dream or hallucination during a life-threatening situation, it is likely to follow the same pattern as it’s what the victim expects on some level. If there is no memory or a fragmented memory of the period, the existence of this very specific expectation for the experience can shape a memory over time until it fits very well. And if someone just makes up an NDE story, they will deliberately follow the pattern to match the expectation of their audience.

Two, people going through the physical and mental states associated with near or temporary “death” are likely to have similar physiological reasons to experience certain things, even if they’re not fully understood. The white light in the distance, for instance, is consistent with temporary tunnel vision caused by lack of blood or oxygen to the eyes, growing brighter when the supply returns. Scientific American went into this six years ago.

I can take another approach to your question. Supposed visits to Hell, or samples of what you feel in Hell (coldness, emptiness, etc.) are potent emotional appeals but they don’t make much sense in most Christian theologies. God isn’t supposed to literally pull souls out of Hell, and certainly not after only a few moments. Your judgement happens, then either you stay in Hell forever or you never even see it. If on the other hand God is only showing you a vision of Hell instead of actually dangling you in there, He could supposedly do that at any time, not just when you’re at death’s door.

Seeking the Source of Hell

Question from Jakob:
Hello, I am back again. So my fear of hell has came back a little, just a little. So anyway do you know of any good books on the origin of hell and similar Christian mythology?

Answer by SmartLX:
Hell’s a little bit specific for a whole book. There is The History of Hell by Alice K. Turner, which is mostly focused on changing visual depictions of it. All I could immediately find besides that were essays by the devout like this one, podcasts like this one, and of course the mostly neutral fact dump on Wikipedia. If anyone has a good read to share, feel free to comment. (Yes, thank you, we know about the Bible.)

Books on Christian mythology are plentiful, but mostly focused on the Christ story and its parallels in earlier pagan mythology.

I think it might be just as useful for you to read about all the different concepts of the afterlife throughout history to see how plain it is that no living person knows what happens, good or bad. That means no one has the authority to threaten you with, or warn you about, any kind of hell – unless you hear it directly from the other side somehow. Listen out if you like, but don’t get your hopes up.

A Relatively Simple Afterlife Question

Question from Jason:
Besides our energy living on for all eternity (watch 10 Myths About Death at 1:50) is any other afterlife possible? Is any, all (especially regarding Hell) of http://www.evangelicaloutreach.org/ telling the truth? I am Fira777 on YouTube.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve written a great deal on the afterlife, because of course many are curious about (or troubled by, or desperate to salvage) the idea. The simple answer to your question is that anything is possible (science does not support an afterlife in any meaningful sense, but the mechanism of the supposed soul may be beyond science if real) but if the Evangelical Outreach page is correct about any of this stuff, it is not because they know for sure. They are relaying their interpretation of the scriptures they accept as the word of God, and they are right or wrong if the text is. “Telling the truth” is subjective based on what one believes; one can be honest and still wrong.

What Nightmares May Come

Question from Chelsea:
Besides disrespect for the planet and a willingness (or even eagerness) to die for a religious cause, what are other negative consequences of maintaining belief in an afterlife?

Answer by SmartLX:
Well, don’t belittle those two points for a start, because they can cause a whole lot of damage all by themselves. But we’ll cover a few more things.

Most people don’t go as far as being eager or even willing to die, but the idea that there’s another life can make people more accepting of death – usually not very much their own, but the deaths of others. When we hear of tragedies and atrocities, the religious may comfort themselves with the idea that the victims are now in heaven, and in some cases that can sabotage the public will to prevent these events from recurring. Famine in Africa is a good example; some may think all those poor kids are better off dead, which isn’t conducive to donations. 9/11 was a bad example, as the mad rush to fight the perceived Islamist threat sprang from the American people’s fear that they were now personally at risk.

If you think someone you love is just the other side of the proverbial veil, you may start thinking you can reach them somehow. Self-proclaimed mediums all over the world can make a good living by exploiting people desperate for one more chance to hear from their late parents, or their late children. Some people have seriously hurt themselves financially by essentially becoming addicted to the faint hope of restoring a lost connection or mending a broken heart, when in fact this pursuit can poison and prolong the grieving process.

The most commonly and directly harmful aspect of belief in an afterlife, though, is the fear that it may not be a good one. Children are evidently and routinely traumatised by direct and indirect threats of hellfire and God’s permanent disapproval, in some cases to an extent comparable with sexual abuse. Several people have written to ATA about the fear they continue to feel for months or years after they stop believing in God, so deep has it burrowed into their psyche. (I call this “faithdrawal”, and it fades but very slowly.) Anytime I can spare a child from this potentially lifelong ordeal, I will regard as among my best deeds in life.

Left Christianity, but Hell followed you out?

Question from Chris:
I was raised Christian until I found a Jewish website that explained how the New Testament contradicts the Old. I now describe myself as agnostic, but I’m still afraid that there may be a hell. This is stopping me from living my life and while I doubt that I’ll become a Christian again, I sometimes wonder if there’s any chance the Jewish faith was right.

Is there any way that I might be able to let go of this fear? Maybe some way to make a firm decision on whether or not I should be religious? People have advised me to learn more about religion and the world in general; maybe there’s something specific I should look at?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to faithdrawal, which is my word for the lingering emotional aftereffects of strong religious belief, chief among them fear and guilt. That fear might stick around for a while even if you stop believing entirely. The more often you can register that your level of fear is unjustified, the quicker it will fade, but probably only by small degrees.

If you think the Jewish version of Hell is the most likely to be real, it certainly doesn’t warrant the same kind of fear as the Christian Hell because it is NOT a place of eternal torment. Read this Jewish article on the subject: their name for it is Gehinnom, and it’s light-heartedly described as a “spiritual washing machine” that prepares your soul for Heaven. It’s closer to the Christian concept of purgatory; while it’s not something to look forward to, there’s a purpose to the suffering and most importantly there’s light at the end of the tunnel.

So that’s what to keep in mind when you’ve got your figurative yarmulke on, but the rest of the time it’s good to read up on conflicting reports of Hell from different religions, and even different denominations of the same one. It’s the strongest sign we have that no one really knows anything about it, or has any authority to tell you what to fear. Not only that, but the reasons a soul is sent to Hell are mutually exclusive between different religions and denominations. Beyond the obvious fact that you can only proclaim one kind of faith which denies all the others, the rules for living are different all round. That means it’s futile to try to behave any particular way in order to avoid Hell because you’re almost certainly doing something wrong. That sounds pessimistic but it can at least free you from micro-managing everything you do, and give you a sense of community as you’re in the same unreliable boat as everyone else.

You can make a decision about how devoutly to keep to the tenets of whatever religion you choose to adhere to, but how religious you are is not really your decision to make. Your level of belief is influenced by what you see, read and hear. You could immerse yourself in religious media and after long enough you might no longer doubt it, or avoid it altogether and slowly forget, but this is artificially reinforcing a bias and does not reflect reality. Regardless, I can tell you that being more religious is very unlikely to make you less afraid of Hell. If you accept its existence and its specific nature as dictated by your religion, your work is cut out for you as you are acutely aware of what you must do, and not do. You’re also surrounded by people who don’t share your faith, aren’t living right and are therefore bound for Hell, emphasising how easy it is to fall short and pay the price.

Better to get on with life, I say. Just be a person in the world, do what you can to be a good one, improve life for others, have your fun when it’s not hurting anyone. Thoughts of the afterlife tend to take a backseat when you live in the now.

Heaven’s Cold Comfort

Question from Tsahpina:
If the religious really believe there is an afterlife and/or paradise, for those who believe in such, why do they cry when someone dear to them dies and why are they afraid of their own death?
I do not mean this as rhetorical question, but since Ivery much doubt any religious person is capable to answer this sincerely, then let it be, for such religious people, rhetorical only. but i would like a real reason, if there might be one, like, they are leaving their dear ones or a dear one is leaving them, but then, they are going to their loved ones who had already died and the ones that remain here will sooner or later join them. so, why not rejoice for the going to paradise, big deal, i mean.

Answer by SmartLX:
The short answer is that an afterlife doesn’t make everything about death okay even if it’s real.

We’ll leave aside the idea that some believers don’t really believe we go to Heaven or nurse serious doubts. if you don’t really accept the doctrine then of course it won’t help you when you’re faced with death, so that’s that. We’ll consider the case for people who really do believe instead.

No matter what happens after death, the person is gone from this life and this world. In an undeniable sense the person is separated from us and lost to us. If you love the person, this is a great loss which you will mourn no matter where you think the person is going, because you’ll never see or talk to them again for the rest of your life. If you knew someone you loved was going to live quite comfortably but not contact you in any way for several decades, would it make it perfectly all right that you’d see them again afterwards? Of course not, while it might provide some consolation it would still be a huge wrench in the here and now. Likewise, if you’re the one going away, you wouldn’t see anyone you knew potentially for years.

The Christian afterlife, similarly to many others, is a double-edged sword. You find out right at the beginning whether you will spend eternity in Heaven or Hell, and there is no assurance to be had before that point. You just have to follow the rules as laid out by your particular denomination, and hope you got them right AND they’re the right rules. Sins are remembered even if you’ve forgotten them, so you doubt your own mind. All men and women are sinners by nature and tainted with Original Sin, so you keep your fingers crossed that you’ve cleaned it all off with your piety and prostration and didn’t miss a spot. It’s truly nerve-wracking, even if you think you’ll be okay in the end. And if someone else is dying, you have no way of knowing whether they’ve confessed every sin, performed every rite, crossed every T and dotted every i.

So if someone is fearful and sorrowful of death I don’t doubt the steadfastness of their beliefs. I feel great pity that their beliefs aren’t helping as much as they were probably led to believe they would.