Big Shoes

Belief in the supernatural seems to be alive here in the northwest. At least if the culture at Sea-Tac Airport is anything to go by. I’d noticed, last year, that a sasquatch graces a restaurant in the N terminal, where jets from Newark tend to land. This year we had a bit of a layover, so we strolled through the C concourse. There I found sasquatch approved salmon in the somewhat anomalous Hudson News. Then, as I sat in one of the stylish, Seattle seats, a young woman came up next to us and sat down wearing a Sasquatch Volleyball shirt. I’m past the age when I can get away with innocently asking young ladies if I can take a photo of their shirts, so you’ll just have to use your imagination for the latter. The point is, bigfoot has been mainstreamed.

When I was growing up you got pretty mercilessly teased if you expressed any interest in such things. Now that I’ve got a respectable career others can get away with what captured my imagination as a young man. I’ve never thought of myself as being ahead of the curve. Or really ahead of anything, for that matter. Still, I trust my instincts. Maybe religion will come back into vogue some day. Or maybe it will simply be called something else. A tainted name is difficult to live down. The supernatural—or paranormal—often shares conceptual territory with religion, and although the pews aren’t getting any fuller, the number of those looking for some kind of meaning in the unusual seems to be holding steady. Physics can take us only so far in understanding what it is to be human.

Times change. Yesterday’s jokes are today’s orthodoxies. Those who spend a great deal of time peering back into history won’t be surprised by this. What is true today is true for today. New facts will be discovered and if we lived long enough we’d find that the future world will believe quite differently than we do. Not that the truth is relative. It is, however, temporary. Massive religious wars have been fought over trying to keep truths timeless. The sad irony is that the truths had already changed by the time such wars had been waged. The more rational we become, it seems, the more we open the door for the supernatural. I won’t presume to be one declaring such truth. That would take more weight than I have to offer. And anyone making such a claim would have some awfully big shoes to fill.

Red Eye Religion

It is a slow news day when Bigfoot makes the front page of the New Jersey Star-Ledger (without a body being found, of course). Not even halfway through the article the word “supernatural” shows up. This illustrates once again my contention that paranormal and religion often share mental space. A few months back I posted on the recent book Paranormal America by Christopher D. Bader, 
F. Carson Mencken and 
Joseph O. Baker. The authors, sociologists by trade, expressed a revealing connection between religious belief and willingness to accept the paranormal. One exception stood out, however; professionals who engage the hunt for sasquatch often toe the line of science and disparage the popularizing notion that their quarry is supernatural. There’s no doubt that Bigfoot has a growing clientele. Whether mythic or biological, there can be little doubt that the big guy’s here to stay.

Appearing in the newspaper as a bit of New Jerseyana, the local tradition about Big Red Eye—the north Jersey version of Bigfoot—suggests instant comparison with the Jersey Devil, a tactic the paper takes. Similar to responses presented when religious behavior turns criminal, adding a light touch helps to ease the tensions. Both religion and the paranormal thrive in the realm of belief. As I waited all morning in the garage for car repairs yesterday, the incessantly chatty morning talk-show hosts were going on about some quote that the Tea Party had been compared to terrorists. One of the gambolers stated, in rather self-righteous tones, “they are entitled to their beliefs-the constitution protects our right to believe what we want,” or something to that affect. Belief is a very powerful motivator. Even those who thrive on science alone secretly imbibe.

The physical reality of a phenomenon is not the sole indication of its significance. People are meaning-seeking creatures. Our concepts of what life means range from nihilistic, to simple, to complex. Even those who claim life has no meaning arrived at that place after the search. The significance of the unseen, the unknown, is that it provides an Ebenezer for meaning. Does Bigfoot exist in New Jersey? I can’t say. If so, it would still not rank as the strangest thing I’ve seen here. Nevertheless, among the fervent critics and uncritical adherents a common bond exists. Belief can’t be measured in any laboratory (yet) but only the most naïve would assert that it doesn’t exist.

Do you want to believe?

Back to Paranormalcy

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?