Psychosis, Religion, and Lingering Fear

Tomorrow afternoon I have a meeting at one of the oldest structures in the city which happens to be known as one of the most haunted locations in the state. In its current form, the structure is an arts center infamous for the many spirits that supposedly roam its halls. I am going there tomorrow because the arts program I work for is considering renting space there.

I’ve been to this building several times and each time I get a little nervous and hope I don’t experience anything strange – even though I’m an atheist who doesn’t believe in ghosts.

I’m returning to a question I’ve asked before: if you’re afraid of something you don’t believe in, does that mean you actually believe in it?

I don’t believe in spirits or people rising from the dead, but I still get a little scared.

I definitely have my reasons. As someone who struggles with schizoaffective disorder, many of my psychotic symptoms have been related to the paranormal. Antipsychotic medication changed my whole world and that’s actually when I decided to become an atheist. All of these unexplained things that were happening were suddenly explained when the medication worked. 

Even the revelations I experienced from taking medication don’t stop me from getting a little worked up about anything paranormal. Logically I know it isn’t real, but the fear is still there.

Can this question relate to anyone raised in religion?

I just wanted to ask this question again because I was curious if anyone could relate – perhaps a lingering fear from a religious history. For example, were you ever told you were going to hell, and even though you’re no longer a believer, you still get nervous that something bad might happen to you? Like an irrational fear you can’t shake? 

When you became a nonbeliever, were there any rules/sins you were still scared of? When you broke a rule or sinned and nothing happened, was it empowering?

The Evidence 

I bring up the paranormal thing a lot. I’m absolutely fascinated with it even though I’m a little scared. I don’t believe in ghosts or spirits but I do think there’s something to people’s experiences – we just don’t have a clear explanation yet.

As I mentioned above, I’ve already been to this building several times, and even though I get nervous, I have never once experienced anything weird there. That should be evidence enough to keep me calm. I know I’ll be anxious, but I also know that most likely nothing is going to happen.

Whether it’s mental illness, religion, or something else, I’m sure lingering fear can be trauma-related.

So what do you think? If you’re afraid of something you don’t believe in, does that mean you actually believe in it?


  1. sonofrojblake says

    “If you’re afraid of something you don’t believe in, does that mean you actually believe in it?”


    I can’t conceive of fearing something i know does not exist. I can imagine fearing e.g. a basilisk – can put myself in the position of someone who believes in monsters, and try to feel what they would feel, like an actor. But I can’t feel it, not really. Perhaps it’s a lack of imagination.


    Or, like the horse who won’t walk past a plastic bag on the ground, is this ultimately a fear of the unknown, and no matter how hard one bears down on a-theism, one is ultimately claiming to have proved a negative, while our logical brains and less logical emotions still know there are unknowns out there.

  3. Jean says


    I think it’s a lack of imagination on your part. I can easily conceive of being afraid of something that you don’t believe in because you’re not sure how you would react if something were to happen that others accredit to this unbelieved phenomenon. Especially in this case where someone has a history that relates to a similar phenomenon but due to untreated mental illness. People have automatic responses from their own history and that can be more scary than the event causing these responses.

    I may be wrong but I think ashes may be, unconsciously or not, afraid of their own reaction in view of any unexpected event more than this event being an actual ghost (which it wouldn’t be).

  4. Bruce says

    I think the John Morales point about alief may be relevant.
    But also, the original question implies that there is only one “you”, and for complex psychological things, that might be an oversimplification.
    It also highlights the big atheist point that people can’t really CHOOSE their beliefs, otherwise belief isn’t the relevant term. So theists who say to fake it until you make it are revealing that their beliefs are not what we would call sincere in any other context.
    More practically, I think this means that ashes got some involuntary childhood programming that got in more deeply seeded than is under conscious control. In other words, Ashes should remember that these fears are not coming from her own mind, but are coming from some deep storage where they were put long ago by others who overrode her consent. That means she is allowed to ignore such feelings even though they are coming from inside her brain. But as with everyone else, we aren’t responsible for the indoctrination we received by our surroundings as children. Like having a literal monkey jump on your back, it’s really there, but it’s NOT really part of you, even though it currently lives in your brain.

  5. Jerome says

    It sounds like you may have a fear not of ghosts, but a fear of *believing* in ghosts (or things that you don’t understand, generally). This is a kind of fear that all of us former theists have: a fear that if you let yourself think about something too much, then you might somehow succumb to that idea. Many theists fear thinking about science, because it might undermine their faith. But we know where that kind of thinking goes. Running from an idea makes it stronger and scarier.

    This is just my personal belief, but if you are an atheist and you also consider that there may be ghosts (or insert paranormal force X here) as well, then just let those ideas mingle in your mind and don’t actively fight it. There is nothing wrong with ideas that seem a bit contradictory, as long as we don’t force it on anyone else. Explore your emotions and ideas, and let them evolve naturally.

    Your beliefs belong to you, do not fear your own beliefs. If you are an atheist that is exploring the possibility of paracausal forces and entities, then it’s up to you to decide if that makes sense, not the community. Resist the voices that say we must be monolithic in this community. Be strong and own it!

  6. says

    As Bruce says — and as I said the last time this subject came up — there isn’t just one “you,” your mind is a very complex set of parts/functions/qualities, and those parts don’t always think or work together. There’s nothing at all unusual about one person consciously knowing a certain thing isn’t real (or is highly unlikely to manifest itself), while also having an irrational fear of the thing due to longstanding conditioning or deeply ingrained prior belief. Just one classic example: an adult child of abusive parents, who still reacts to beliefs his parents literally beat into him when he was young, even though his education and adult experience conclusively tell him the beliefs are false. If anyone tried to tell this person “your reaction proves you know, deep down, that your parents were right,” we would rightly kick them to the curb as the gaslighting pond-scum they are.
    (And no, an alleged “haunted house” with famous stories around it doesn’t really qualify as “the unknown.”)

  7. sonofrojblake says

    @Jean, 3:

    you’re not sure how you would react if something were to happen that others accredit to this unbelieved phenomenon

    The thing is, I am pretty sure how I’d react. I’m not immune to “jump scares”, and I have an irrational fear of spiders… but spiders exist. If something happened that others accredit to e.g. ghosts, I know exactly how I’d react – I’d seek the rational explanation, and be comfortable not necessarily being able to find it. Knowledge dispels fear, and I know what infrasound can do, and what sleep paralysis is, and so on. I have residual fear of hell or purgatory or whatever – I really have internalised that these things are fairy stories.

    I think this blasé attitude may come in part from decades of engaging in activities that require me to trust equipment. You may feel (rational) fear the first time you abseil or jump off a cliff… but when you do it ten or a hundred or a hundred thousand times, the fear is dispelled, regardless of how much others may fear it. I gave up bungee jumping when I realised I got absolutely no adrenaline rush from it. When you’ll jump off a cliff, or a bridge, or a building, or out of a plane and feel no fear the concept of being afraid of a spooky room seems ridiculous.

  8. lanir says

    A conflict between conscious beliefs and feelings from your subconscious mind doesn’t invalidate your conscious thoughts and choices. That seems like a self-gotcha. If all you do is glance at the idea and use trivial, shallow reasoning then it makes sense. But the moment you really look at it, it doesn’t hold up. If you think about prioritizing your other feelings over your conscious choices the problems become obvious.

  9. brightmoon says

    My ghost story involved the ghostly footsteps and an Old house that had no heat and wasn’t inhabited for a few years. Every morning I’d walk up to the front room to water the plants and every evening I’d hear footsteps walk down the corridor and the back door into the back bedroom would swing open . Just in case you think this involved real spirits, in houses with wooden floors and no heat . The wood fibers swell and if you walk on them , at night when the temperature changes the crushed fibers will pop back into place and that exactly mimics your footsteps. That’s why there are no ghostly footstep stories once people had central heating . There an old ghost story called the Middle Toe of The Right Foot which should be online as it’s long out of copyright.

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