I’ve read quite a few books about the supernatural. Often these books, which are mostly written by scientists, tend to show the problems with supernatural thinking. Clay Routledge, it seems to me, has a healthier approach. Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World isn’t an apology for the supernatural. In fact, Routledge is a psychological scientist. An open-minded one. The book isn’t an apology, but it does show how natural supernatural thinking is. This engagingly written study isn’t always easy to read—you have to be prepared to think about death a lot. But also meaning. Routledge makes a good case that the human search for meaning is related to our awareness of our own mortality. We know we’ll die, and we don’t want to believe our existence has been for naught. That doesn’t make all of us religious, but it does, perhaps, open us to the supernatural.
One of the main takeaways for me is that people misunderstand the power of religious motivation. Especially in the context of our current political climate. Many people can’t believe that supreme court justices would decide against laws that slow global warming. Survey after survey, however, indicates that strong belief in religion means having little or no concern about the world ending. In fact, for many it is a culmination devoutly to be attained. You don’t need surveys to learn this. You just need to talk to Fundamentalists. I grew up believing this world was a sinful, corrupt place soon to be destroyed. Further reflection on religion convinced me that this view was wrong, but I certainly understand it. Too often those trying to find solutions to such problems simply dismiss religion as a motivating factor. That’s a fatal error.
This is an insightful book. Although based on science it is neutral toward religion. Or I should say, the supernatural. Routledge demonstrates that even scientists, when tested in controlled circumstances, subscribe to some supernatural beliefs. They may be more abstract, such as the idea that things happen for a reason, or that we’ve been put here for a purpose (the teleological argument), but they are nevertheless present. To be human is to be a meaning-seeking creature. We may not be the only ones. Whether or not that’s the case, our drive for making sense of all this tends to move us toward the supernatural. Routledge ends with a plea for us to listen to one another. Pay attention, and care for, those who believe differently. We have a lot more in common than we have views that separate us.