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The Ghost in Our Machine World

Vodou ritual, Haiti Billtacular/Flickr

Anthropologist T.M. Luhrmann observes that supernaturalism is alive and well, even in our materialist culture. Excerpt:

Scholars sometimes talk about this supernaturalization as a kind of “re-enchantment” of the world — as a growing awareness that the modern world is not stripped of the magical, as the German sociologist Max Weber and so many others once thought, but is in some ways more fascinated than ever with the idea that there is more than material reality around us. In part, I think, this is because skepticism has made the supernatural safe, even fun. It turns out that while many Americans may think that there are ghosts, they often don’t believe that ghosts can harm them.

There is, however, a deeper reason. Just as spiritualism became a means to hold on to the supernatural claims of religion in the face of science in the 19th century, the supernaturalism of our own time may enable something similar. The God that has emerged in the post-1960s “renewalist” Christianity practiced by nearly a quarter of all Americans is vividly supernatural — a Jesus who walks by your side just as Jesus walked with his disciples. This assertion that the supernatural is natural helps to make the case for God in a secular age, because it promises people that they will know by experience that God is real.

Reading this reminded me of a conversation I had last week in Boston, with the Haitian immigrant driver of my taxi from Logan Airport to Boston College. I noticed that he was listening to a Christian radio station, so I asked him about faith. He was happy to talk about it.

He said one of the oddest things about living in Boston is the blindness of so many of the people there to the supernatural. “I drive people from Harvard and MIT all the time,” he said. “When they find out I’m from Haiti, they want to talk about vodou. They don’t believe any of it.”

From the backseat, I saw him smile, in a “those poor fools” kind of way.

“I tell them, you need to go to Haiti and see for yourself. This stuff is real. When you see it with your own eyes, you don’t doubt it.”

He told me a few extremely creepy stories about things he has seen, and that happened to his family there. He became grave, and said that there is very real, very dark spiritual power in vodou, and that we Americans are far too naive about spiritual reality.

“When my sons became 15, I took them to Haiti to show them,” he said. “I told them, you need to know for yourself what’s really out there.”

The implication was that being raised in America, they are blind to a dimension of reality with which they, and all of us, have to struggle, no matter where we live. He went on: “Sometimes I have college students in the back seat of my cab who try to have sex when I’m driving them home from the bar. I tell them to stop it, you don’t know what you’re doing!”

In context, he meant not so much “stop it, you’re behaving badly,” but “stop it, you don’t understand the spiritual darkness you’re embracing here.” Fascinating.

I’ve often wondered why some geographical locales seem to be more active with supernatural activity than others. To what extent is it because they really do have more of it, and to what extent is it because the local people are more sensitive to what is there, and everywhere?

Anyway, I agree with the cab driver: if you see it and experience it firsthand, as I have done (not in Haiti, but in Louisiana), you will find radical doubt to be profoundly implausible.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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