Spook: Adventures in the Afterlife
by Mary Roach
W. W. Norton
July 2007, 228 pages, Â£14.99
From the number of atheist polemics hitting the bookstands in recent months, you could be forgiven for thinking we are entering a new era of scepticism and rationality. Yet in spite of the arguments emanating from scientific and philosophical corners, millions of people worldwide continue to hold to religious and spiritual beliefs that seemingly defy reason.
Author of the bestselling Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and self-confessed sceptic Mary Roach has entered into the debate with a review of the scientific evidence for what happens to her stiffs after they pass away. In a highly entertaining journey through the creepy, the wacky and the downright deceitful, Roach tackles reincarnation, ectoplasm, ghosts and whether the human soul has a weight.
Except for the reincarnation chapter, most of the “afterlives” explored are from Western traditions, predominantly 19th century-style spiritualism. This is probably wise, because Roach’s writing sometimes veers into a kind of superior sneer at the sheer silliness of it all. While it’s funny to read, it could have left her open to accusations of cultural insensitivity. It is much simpler to stick to widely disregarded beliefs held by only a small number. This is also a weakness, however. A large percentage of believers in an afterlife belong to major religions such as Christianity and Islam, which are barely covered in Roach’s examination.
Strangely enough, despite the lack of any unambiguous evidence and her strong pre-disposition to unbelief, Roach ultimately finds some room for a possible afterlife. There is no light-bulb moment, no Damascus Road experience, but the conclusion of the book seems to leave open the possibility that there are more things in Heaven and Earth than were dreamt of in the author’s imaginings. Perhaps this is the small gap between reason and wonder that religious people have usually called “faith”.