Can you be an atheist and also believe in the paranormal?

I belong to an amazing group on Facebook called “Chill AF Atheist Women”. It is so nice to interact with a group of progressive, like-minded women. Their posts go from heartbreaking to hilarious and everything in between. It’s a good place to go for advice and you can’t usually say that about the internet. I love being a part of this group. 

Anyway, not too long ago in this group, I saw this question asked — “Can you be an atheist and also believe in ghosts?” To my surprise, not only did many of the women believe in ghosts, some had had first-hand paranormal experiences.

I have strong feelings about this topic. Many of you know I have schizoaffective disorder. I was diagnosed at 21 and today live a very normal life thanks to medication. Before treatment, I had visual and auditory hallucinations that I referred to as “ghosts”. I would believe that places were haunted and that people were possessed. It was a whole new world for me when antipsychotic medication stopped my hallucinations. 

Today I don’t believe in the paranormal. I think there’s an earthly explanation for everything. I don’t doubt people have experiences; I just think there must be explanations — even if we don’t have that explanation yet. 

Also, sometimes I think believing in ghosts is admitting people have souls, and I don’t believe in that either. 

So what do you think? Can you believe in the paranormal as an atheist? Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever had a paranormal experience?


  1. ed says

    Of course you can. Our brains are very good at holding contradictory beliefs at the same time. Just look at all the scientists who believe in gods.

    • Richard Innocent says

      You can be a scientist and a Christian at the same time. Science doesn’t disprove theism, as far as I can tell.

  2. Bruce Fuentes says

    Paranormal = Supernatural. Belief in supernatural seems counter to being an atheist. I have had a few friends claim to be atheists and believe in ghosts. They are in fact not atheists no matter what they say. They believe in an afterlife which implies a belief in some sort of “higher” existence. As a matter of fact, most of them have drifted toward rather freaky versions of christianity.

  3. brucegee1962 says

    I think you have two questions here. The answer to the question in the title is obviously “Yes,” based on your own experience. Many atheists can and do believe in ghosts, and doing so does not somehow make them less of an atheist.
    Your implied question, though, is “Is it rational for an atheist (or anyone else) to believe in ghosts?” My answer to that would be more nuanced.

    I’ve never had the experience of seeing something that appeared to be paranormal. Occam would suggest that the existence of a rare and poorly understood psychological state, similar to psychotically or hynagogically induced hallucinations, is a more likely explanation for the experiences people report than the idea that people have “spirits” that survive after death and return to haunt the living. So since first person accounts are all we have to go on for this phenomenon, I would say “Your evidence isn’t enough to convince me” to someone who believed in ghosts.

    HOWEVER, I might feel differently if I had actually had one of those experiences myself. Since I haven’t had one, it’s impossible for me to say how convincing the evidence of having a ghostly experience would feel. Other skeptics have (rarely) had such experiences that turned them into believers. Can I categorically state that, if I something like a ghost or a UFO in circumstances where I felt myself to be fully in control of my faculties, I would remain an unbeliever? I don’t think so.

    As a former theist, I feel that I did have all the evidence that other theists had, and after many years I finally rejected it as proving nothing. So if you want me to compare the two beliefs, I’d say that I don’t believe in anything paranormal, but I’m a bit less certain my rejection of those who claim to have experienced ghosts or UFOs than I am in my certainty that deities are codswallop.

  4. Pierce R. Butler says

    First, we have to define “atheist” – one who absolutely denies existence of gods, or one who says available evidence does not override the null hypothesis?

    Second, let’s define “paranormal” for present purposes: unexplained phenomena, or manifestation of “spiritual” (god-type) forces?

    An atheist of the first type would seem obligated to deny paranormal events of the second type. Otherwise: “Whatcha got?”


    If you are rational, you leave room for unknown unknowns. Otherwise you are assuming god-powers for yourself, claiming you truly know everything and there’s no u-u’s. Even wrote a short piece recently exploring what an all-knowing god does upon encountering a u-u.

  6. StonedRanger says

    I too place paranormal with the supernatural. Until it is proven there is something there, I see no reason to believe it.

  7. Katydid says

    I don’t believe in the supernatural, but I do think it’s a fun thing to read/watch/think about. I typically enjoy books/movies/stories by the campfire that feature ghosts, but I don’t believe in them.

  8. Owlmirror says

    Ghosts came up last year, and I’ll link to the answer I wrote then.

    With regards to the atheist aspect, I suppose it’s possible to believe that there are various spirits all over the place, but that none of them are the creator and/or sufficiently powerful to be called “God”.

    • Owlmirror says

      I thought I put the link in, but I seem to have botched that. So, here’s the text that I was trying to link to:


      I sometimes try to think about how to argue for the nonexistence of such things, and my current attempt is something like this:

      1) Are ghosts made of atoms, or something like atoms? If so, how do the atoms of the ghost get from inside the original person’s head/body to outside of the head/body? How do they hold together? How do they move? How do they do the things they do to cause the experiences that people have with ghosts?

      2) Are ghosts made of something completely unlike atoms, yet can somehow sometimes interact with atoms? After all, if they never interacted with atoms, we could never see, hear, or feel them. But ghost experiences are based on seeing, hearing, or feeling something. So what are these non-atom-like things that ghosts are made of?

      3) Given that the options are that:
      a) either ghosts are made of something like atoms that should be detectable, like all atoms are, yet have never been so detected, or
      (b) made of something completely not like atoms yet can interact with atoms, even though such a thing is theoretically impossible ¹ , or
      (c) people who think they have seen or experienced ghosts have been making a mistake (hallucinations, apophenia, etc)
      . . . going with (c) is the most reasonable option.

      (Sean Carroll has more posts on this topic, but the above is a good start)

  9. nickmagerl says

    Why do we ask “Do you believe in ghosts” rather than the more precise question: “Do you believe ghosts exist”. Seems to me the first is somewhat undefined and leads to fuzzy answers. The second question allows me to answer; “I can’t say they don’t exist but I can say they don’t matter.”

  10. sonofrojblake says

    Burden of proof is with those who say there are ghosts. Anyone here NOT carrying a camera every waking minute and leaving it charging by their bed? Google xkcd settled.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *