Belief is a paranormal phenomenon. Or so it would seem. Having just finished the fascinating sociological study of Christopher Bader, F. Carson Mencken, and Joseph Baker, Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, the implications are thought-provoking. I’ve known the work of Christopher Bader, the lead researcher, for some time. Instead of trying to prove or disprove the phenomena under study, he performs a rare feat in actually addressing something most scholars avoid: what people really believe. As becomes clear throughout the book, a substantial majority of Americans believe in some paranormal phenomena at some level. The official story is that nobody believes this stuff, but the numbers beg to differ.
It is appropriate that such a topic should be undertaken by sociologists of religion. One of the difficulties the authors have is differentiating between religion and paranormal. Both religion and paranormal subjects involve going beyond empirical evidence. There is no “proof” that their objects of interest/devotion exist. The authors ultimately decide that what separates belief from God from belief in aliens is a matter of numbers: is it a generally accepted belief or one that is outside the norm (i.e., paranormal)? Since a vast majority of Americans believe in God, that is religion. Since far fewer believe in ghosts, they are paranormal. As I have suggested before, the main problem is one of definition. Religion stands on a continuum with “paranormal” beliefs. One society validates, the other it castigates.
I sensed a hesitation as I read this study. Grouping psychics alongside ghost hunters may seem reasonable, but how do Bigfoot and UFOs fit in? Those who research these latter topics often claim they are physical phenomena, as real as the keyboard I’m using, only undiscovered. Does an unsubstantiated phenomenon qualify as paranormal? Who decides what is really real? Academic institutions often distance themselves from subjects that might be suspect. (They also distance themselves from fair hiring practices as well, but that is perfectly normal.) It seems to me that the problem with “paranormal” comes in the grouping. Some of the individual subjects may indeed have merit: ghosts are perceived, reported, and some would say even photographed and recorded. They make up one of the earliest facets of religious belief. The psychic down the street has a less sure pedigree.
These fringe subjects, regardless of veracity, have a wide following. Even highly educated people generally believe in some form of “paranormal” phenomenon. Religion, widely accepted and practiced, ventures beyond the empirical as well. The difference is only, it seems, a matter of degree. Where is Fox Mulder when we really need him?