No God, But…Angels?

Question from Joanne:
I’m doing an assignment on different religious beliefs on angels and I want to know if atheists believe in angels and what are atheist perspectives on angels? Does each person’s viewpoint differ based on personal belief or is there a general perspective? Also, what arguments/proofs are there to back up the atheist viewpoint on angels?
Thank you so much.

Answer by SmartLX:
I’ve had an awful month moving house, Joanne, I hope this isn’t too late to help you.

Atheists usually don’t believe in supernatural beings including angels, for the same reason they don’t believe in gods: there’s no good evidence that they’re real. Like with gods their non-existence is not certain, but you need a good reason to positively believe in something so exotic.

That said, through this site I have spoken to some atheists who believe in a few such beings, such as ghosts. They come to these beliefs through personal experiences they interpret as supernatural, even though they don’t sound very convincing to the rest of us. Angels are a special case however, because as defined in the lore of any religion they are created by a god and sent to participate in the affairs of humans. An atheist by definition does not believe in any gods, and therefore would not believe in any creature that can only have been created by gods. So while atheist viewpoints on ghosts, cryptozoology (e.g. Bigfoot) or supernatural forces like karma do vary, their attitude toward angels is a very general one of denial and dismissal.

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?

Ghosts On TV

Question from Chris:
What would you say about ghosts and paranormal activity?
It is hard to deny the existence of ghosts or haunted places. There are many videos like this –
– that show ghosts on tape and such.
How can you as an atheist explain this?
There are many documented cases of ghosts. Assuming that there is no God then how are there ghosts and spirits?

Answer by SmartLX:
There are many documented claims of ghosts, but not one confirmed actual ghost. Shows like Ghost Adventures in the video above do everything they can to convince viewers that that supernatural experiences occur, but with all the “evidence” they supposedly accumulate after multiple seasons they never bother to take their case to mainstream scientists for analysis. You eventually have to wonder whether the hosts and producers are at all sincere. (To their credit, the Ghost Adventures guys essentially filmed a retraction after their night vision camera caught a guest very obviously faking a poltergeist event. Whether or not they’re honest ghost hunters, that had to be embarrassing or at least annoying.)

There are indeed many videos purporting to capture ghosts or ghost activity, but they fall into two categories: those which have not been proven to be genuine, and those which have been proven not to be genuine. There are so many of them because not only are there many ways to fake such a video, there are many reasons to fake such a video. Many of these reasons, though not all, have to do with money. I’ll let you work out what they are. In the end there is just no available, substantive evidence for ghosts, so there’s no more reason to believe in ghosts than in gods. If you know of a particular video or story which you think does constitute substantive evidence, link to it in a comment and we’ll discuss it.

We actually have had a few people write in who claim to be atheists and yet believe in ghosts. Most of the time it’s because they’ve had an unexplained personal experience which convinced them, which is no good for then convincing anyone else but is very effective for creating belief in one person. The resulting rationales tend to posit that souls and an afterlife do exist but they’re not created or controlled by anything resembling a god, instead relying on supernatural energies and other non-divine phenomena. These atheist spiritualists therefore have a very decentralised concept of the afterlife, and of whatever non-ex-human spirits may exist in addition to ghosts. I say the same thing to them as I say to believers in gods: produce your evidence.

Ghost dog in the bedroom?

Question from Kirsten:
my aunt recently had to move house on a temporary basis,in the mean time i rent the house from her. since i moved in around 5 months ago a few things have happened.on the day moving in me and my partner heard a dog cry. it was not in the same room as us but as if it was upstairs. without knowing this story my cousin told me about a sighting of a dog on the stairs a few years ago. since my move in the house the bedroom door has shook quite bad and have heard scratches on the door. this however aint my main concern. recently at night time i have trouble breathing in the room. my heart rate seems to drop and on a few occasions me and my partner have woken in the night extremley hot even tho its cold outside. we have woke sweating. also i have very strange tastes in my mouth, sometimes there horrible and it stops me from sleeping. sometimes they are quite pleasent like cherryade although i havent drunk it. i am staring to get nervous of going to bed as the heart rate and breathing troubles are scaring me. is this signs of something in my house. if so what could it be. my uncle and aunt have said they heard scratch sounds too. but not the door or the tastes or heart rate episodes. they had the house for 10 years but do not know who lived there before. they are quite modern looking houses and can imagine they were only built around 15-20 years or so ago.

Answer by SmartLX:
I might know where the whimpering and the scratches are coming from: not the door, but either the walls or the ceiling. Possums, bats or other small mammals could be frequenting the cavities in your house. I had possums in my old roof on and off for months, and they had to scratch just to crawl around in there.

As for the heat and the strange tastes, a ghost is about the best you can hope for. There could be some chemical, mineral or metal, perhaps flaking off the roof or getting into the plumbing, that causes an adverse reaction. Otherwise you could have some medical issue independent of the house, and your partner might have caught it.

If I were you I’d go get myself checked out, seriously. Once you rule out poison and disease for your own safety, you can go about searching your place for critters, chemicals and other surprises. If something could be affecting your health, don’t just lie there and wonder.


“If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.”

Question from Robert:
What is an Atheists position on the paranormal, and what do you say to people who have experienced paranormal activity?

Answer by SmartLX:
Save the capital A, please. It’s not named after anyone, it’s not a complete philosophical “school” and it doesn’t trigger the special case for deities. You wouldn’t capitalise a theist, so you shouldn’t capitalise an atheist either.

There is no one atheist position on the paranormal – by which, from your title “Hauntings”, I assume you principally mean ghosts. We’ve had self-proclaimed atheists here arguing with other self-proclaimed atheists over whether ghosts exist. It’s not necessarily a contradiction for an atheist to believe in ghosts if he/she sees a way people can persist after their own deaths without the help of a god. Personally, while I know people leave behind great legacies when they die, I don’t think they continue to exist as literal ghosts. And I don’t think there’s any available, substantive evidence for any other “paranormal” phenomena, which for me puts them all in the same category as gods.

Thus, there’s nobody I’ve ever spoken to who I can be confident has actually experienced paranormal activity. When people say that they’ve experienced paranormal activity, which sometimes they do, I ask for their evidence and I discuss alternative explanations with them. If someone’s really interacted with a ghost and can prove it, wouldn’t we all want to be the first to know? Until then, I take each claim as it comes.

Ghosts: Physical Evidence (…not)

“…just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far.”

Question from Edgar:
I’ve met people who claim to have experienced, or known someone who has experienced, physical encouters with “ghosts”. They claim to have been scratched and had witnesses who testified to them(the scratches). Also, some claimed that they shared paranormal experiences. By that I mean, multiple people seeing or hearing the same thing. How can two or more people hallucinate, or imagine the same exact thing?

I am 19 years old and have considered myself an atheist since 8th grade. When a theist finds out I am a non-believer, they feel they have to challenge me. I have no trouble providing overwhelming evidence(to them) regarding evolution vs creationism. However, I am always stumped when the subject of ghosts emerges. When I am at a loss for words, and they feel they have “defeated” me, they inform me(in their most condescending tone) that I am so naive. That I will one day learn the error of my ways. I need help.

If people feel they have to challenge you, imagine what they throw at a website called Ask the Atheist.

To address the specific claims above, just because someone has real scratches doesn’t mean a ghost made them (anything could have), and assuming you have several people claiming the shared experience instead of just one guy saying others had it too, if something looks or sounds like a ghost in the first impression when multiple people are present, they may well think it is a ghost and reinforce each other’s belief or credulity.

Speaking more generally, what you’re dealing with is either anecdotal evidence or at best circumstantial evidence. The stories of shared experiences are not accompanied by photos or recordings so that others might share in them, so stories or anecdotes are all they are. The scratches might have been made by a ghost, or they might be from scraping a wooden bookcase without noticing before or during the event. None of it proves anything, or goes any distance towards establishing any facts.

Even more broadly speaking, just because you can’t explain something doesn’t make it supernatural. It merely makes it unexplained – so far. Out of the possible explanations, even if they’re quirky or unintuitive, it’s worth asking out loud whether all the natural explanations combined are less likely than an actual ghost of which there is now no trace.

If you’re dealing with any famous claims, rather than friend-of-a-friend stuff, send them in as questions or comments to this question and I’ll see if I can help with some basic research.


Ghosts and the Paranormal

“…if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.

Question from Rory:
When confronted by the issue of the existence of ghosts or spirits by a religious person I find myself stumped to find a scientific explanation to respond with.
Obviously many supposed sightings of ‘ghosts’ have been misunderstandings, camera trickery or an exaggerated memory.
Much like the stories of religion and the image of god, our perception of what a ghost is is entirely manmade; usually the image of a transparent human figure.
But suppose someone really did see something paranormal, irrefutably standing in front of them, maybe a human figure or some other unexplainable entity. Are there any scientific theories to explain these things? Is it possible to see reflections of the past, for example?
I should point out, I do not believe in the existence of ghosts and have never seen anything that I could ever perceive to be anything paranormal.
I am an atheist and don’t believe in much more than what we see and can be proven.
Neither do I believe in ghosts. I simply feel that when combatting an argument against someone who claims to have seen a ghost, the argument of the sighting potentially being anything and simply a misunderstanding comes across as vague and weak (although almost certainly true).

IF someone really did see a ghost, spirit or other supernatural entity, and could prove beyond reasonable doubt that they did (have fun imagining how), then naturalistic views of the universe would be challenged. That’s a big if. Significantly, this has not happened (or even been convincingly faked) in centuries of investigations and claimed sightings.

Thinking sideways for a moment, if the basketball at the next NBA finals were to suddenly fall upwards and get stuck under the scoreboard, the theory of gravity would be challenged and science would have a lot of catching up to do. That does not mean it’s at all likely to actually happen.

That said, since science is permanently in the business of correcting itself when new information and evidence come to light, it’s probably quite likely that phenomena will be observed which at first do not seem natural, but will ultimately be furnished with a natural explanation which is then confirmed by experiment.

James Randi has a word to describe such phenomena: perinormal rather than paranormal. Peri, as in “periphery”, implies that such things are right on the edges of human knowledge waiting to be discovered. When Randi was running his Million Dollar Challenge to test self-proclaimed psychics, it was his faint hope that a candidate would pass the test and demonstrate a real perinormal ability, and that the discovery of its mechanism would be well worth the prize money.

For the moment, however, there are no unambiguously demonstrated perinormal phenomena to consider, let alone genuinely paranormal. So we wait, and we investigate claims. The burden of proof is on those making the claims. Responses to unsubstantiated claims are necessarily vague, since an unsubstantiated claim tends to be devoid of useful, verifiable details. That doesn’t make the responses weak relative to the claims, it simply makes them appropriate.

One other point I should make is that if religious people are making claims of ghosts in order to support their religions, it’s worth asking them and yourself whether what they describe actually links exclusively to one religion. Otherwise they may in fact be describing events which, if true, suggest that they’re worshipping the wrong god or gods.



“The existence of spirits doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a god. There are religions out there with many various lesser spirits and no centralised deity.”

Question from Ron:
i have seen quite a few “spirit” beings (not good ones). i have checked online and many many other random people have had seen the same beings as me..doesnt it mean the spirit world exists? if all these people in diffent walks in life happen to see the same weird beings it must be more than a fluke
if the spirit world exists then god must exist

trust i would be very happy to hear “i am just hallucinating” for no apparent reason

If you are hallucinating or otherwise “seeing things”, and others have seen the same as you, then there might be something you and the other witnesses have in common which has made you see similar things – light conditions, medical conditions, etc. Not to say you’re necessarily impaired, but you never know.

Without details I can’t make very educated guesses about what you saw, and others reading this can’t tell whether their experiences might be the same. Therefore, feel free to comment and describe the apparitions and the circumstances in as much depth as you like. That will allow us out here to do the same research you did, and compare your story to those of others.

The existence of spirits doesn’t automatically mean that there’s a god. There are religions out there with many various lesser spirits and no central deity.