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Religion Department hosts 3rd annual Panel about the Dead


Halloween music filled the Anspach Auditorium on Wednesday Oct. 28 as students entered eager to listen to various religion professors discuss the "Dead Who Don't Leave."

Philosophy and Religion faculty Kelly Murphy introduced the panel and explained that each of them would be discussing a topic of their choosing related to spirits, ghosts and things that accompany Halloween. Each of the speakers presented for about seven minutes, educating students on their topic of interest.

First to present was Religious Area Chair and Professor, Guy Newland. His topic was "Ghost Month" a tradition in Taiwan during the month of August, where people are afraid to swim because ghosts come out of the ocean. "Ghost Month" is a mixture of folklore and Buddhist traditions, rooting from a Buddhist scripture where a person's mother died and became a hungry ghost. In Buddhism, there are six realms, one being the ghost realm.

The month is dedicated to the ancestor's who have passed and is a way for families to provide offerings to them. The tradition is also rooted in Daoism because the birthday of the guardian of the Daoist underworld takes place in August. In addition to discussing the tradition, Newland also spoke about how Taiwan is a modern country, economically sound and has low crime rates; but it is still has roots to the original culture of Eastern Asia.

"In my specific topic, I was trying to draw a general conclusion about human life that goes beyond religious culture," Newland said. "Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there's an inescapable fact that we are related to dead people and we cannot help but be shaped by people we don't know who lived long before us. People will reflect and think about that and wonder, 'what does that mean?' There's a way in which our identity is shaped by the people of the past. The question is, what do we choose to emphasize and how can we construct ourselves based on religion or spirits?"

Next on the panel was Philosophy and Religion Faculty member Sara Moslener discussing Spiritualism and social activism in the 19th century. She opened with a personal experience involving her friends in graduate school trying to summon Jackie Kennedy, then went on to explain the history of talking to the dead.

Spiritualism started with two teenage girls who claimed they could communicate with spirits. They asked a spirit in their home questions and learned that he had died there and was buried in the basement. Shortly after this, people became interested and wanted to learn how to hold Séances. Moslener explains that these people were highly educated and of high status, but still believed in these spirits. She discusses the rules of a Séance, as well as how Spiritualism relates to Christianity.

In addition to discussing religious aspects of the Spiritualism, she also talked about how it was determined that the "divine light" could be found within everyone and that there was a spiritual and social equality. This sparked the first wave of feminism, in a way, because these women had the power to talk to spirits. Ideologies of the time were that women had negative energy and were passive and empathetic, making them a perfect medium and laying the foundation for equality between the sexes.

"We often see these things that don't make sense, like people claiming they can talk to the dead or that god talks to them," Moslener said. "We see these things as strange, but if we understand the history we can understand what is occurring today. It makes so much sense that at the height of this new republic, people want this personal and divine experience. It explains so much about populism and religion in the United States. I guess, for me I hear these weird things at first, but then think, 'hey this actually makes sense."

Philosophy and Religion faculty Laurel Zwissler took on the topic of Paganism and the origins of the Halloween that is celebrated today. She chose to zero in on one specific group from the Pagan religion, Wiccans. Some people identify being a Wiccan with practicing historical witchcraft. She discussed that Halloween is also considered the holiday of Samhain, the day that the horned god dies.

The holiday is a way to celebrate and honor the connection to the Earth and how it is also a cross quarter, between solstices, on the Wiccan 'Wheel of the Year.' Halloween represents the harvest, death and rebirth and many worlds becoming one. Families who practice Paganism may set up alters to honor the season, family that has passed and the gods and goddesses of the religion.

"When I'm teaching my classes I call this my anthropologist lens," Zwissler said. "When I see a worldview thats so different from my own I just get gleeful. At the end of the day I just think about how amazing people are and they can create crazy, beautiful worlds for themselves, including myself. I get a rush out of recognizing how diverse and creative humanity can be. It's really fun to learn about all the ways that people make sense of their worlds. Plus, you get to talk about things and relate with people on certain aspects of culture."

The final speaker of the evening was Philosophy and Religion faculty Todd Tremlin. His discussion was more focused on the brain and why people believe in ghosts, ghouls, gods and the afterlife. To begin, he showed a recent poll of people who believe in these types of things and then went into talking about the brain. He discussed three concepts: the Agency Detection Device which is responsible for detecting things that move in the environment, Pareidolia which is a phenomenon where people see faces in nonliving things, and the Theory of Mind which is the belief that everything has a mind or intention. 

Tremlin gave real world examples of these concepts which happen automatically, such as seeing the religious figure Madonna from oil blown onto a window after a storm, or seeing faces on the surface of the moon. He talked about decoupling, seeing mind without body, and how ghosts, gods or deceased family members are "minds" without body. They are non-physical spirits which are a natural by-product of the brain's mental mechanisms.

"I think we all like teaching these humanities courses because nowadays a lot of it is lost," Tremlin said. "When I went to college, it was about understanding the world in which we live, whereas now it's more about skills and getting a job. Education should be focused on making sense of people and why they do the things they do. The things learned in these religion and humanities courses stay with you when you travel the world and are learning new things, they help connect the experience."

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