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?

New Age Present

Okay, so I admit I’m curious. As my “six month” subscription to TAPS Paramagazine continues into its second year, itself somewhat paranormal, I get the feeling that I’m witnessing the birth of a new religion. I’ve been in this business long enough to know that new religions are hardly rare, but this one seems an accidental entry into the field. Now ghosts and religion are natural enough as corollaries. Both involve afterlife concerns and the unknown. Having watched TAPS Paramagazine feature fairies, tarot cards, and zombies, however, I wonder if the distinctions are becoming blurred. In this latest issue (January/February) many of the articles make explicit mention of God. God and ghost in the same breath, with the exception of a particularly holy spirit, is an odd combination, given the biblical injunction against mediums.

Spiritualism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was descried by famous debunkers such as Harry Houdini and accepted by famous intellectuals like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. It is that liminal area that stays out of the reach of traditional Christianity and Judaism, but strays into the afterlife-prepared psyche. If the dead are out there, they should be able to communicate. Right? And with God’s full approval, so it seems. This latest issue alone suggests that UFOs may be demonic, that clergy may be legitimately interested in ghosts, God may speak through dead children, and that one may become addicted to paranormal investigation. Sounds like a recipe for a New Age mythology. Throwing in light-hearted contributions about the Walking Dead, and suddenly zombies become real as well. Oh, and skunks have a special wisdom.

Traditional Christianity cautions against all of these things (except skunks). When it comes to the supernatural, it claims, there is only one super, supernatural being. The rest are charlatans and wannabes. The Bible certainly does not encourage consorting with ghosts, and yet, in this New Age milieu it is possible to find any remotely spiritual entity touted as proof of reality beyond reality. As Bader, Mencken, and Bader observe in Paranormal America, citizens of this country are inclined to believe. Where does belief lead when there is no pole-star to guide the ship? I sense that we may be steering into uncharted waters. Anyone want to volunteer to be captain? Religions always get to make up their own rules, so feel free to devise your own compass.

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?

Theory of Everything

Over the weekend my wife pointed out an interesting story on MSNBC pointing out that superstitious beliefs are becoming more common. While reason may dictate that as it becomes more obvious that reason explains everything the supernatural will fade from the human explanatory repertoire. Instead, scientists are using reason to explain why this does not appear to be happening. Many neuroscientists suggest that something in the brain predisposes us to believe, while other scientists suggest it may be in the DNA. For whatever reason, we are inclined to believe in outside agency.

The article is an introduction to the book Paranormal America by Christopher Bader and Carson Mencken. I’ve read some of Bader’s work before and it is admirable for its balance. He tends not to judge the phenomena but raises the question why people believe what is, frankly, often unbelievable. What stands out in such discussions is that religion is often classed separately from the “paranormal.” Paranormal is generally anything outside the accepted bounds of science. Supernatural, apparently, is anything that makes blatant claims to be outside the reach of science. With recriminations frequently flying both directions, I suggest maybe a reworking of definitions might be in order. Science, by definition, can explain all phenomena that exist. Supernatural, by definition, cannot be quantified. Too many mutually exclusive truths.

For many decades many scientists have been seeking a grand unified theory, something that explains everything. This they hope to do without recourse to the supernatural. When they arrive at this theory or formula, predictably, those who believe God is bigger than all this will claim that God is simply outside the system. Perhaps the net needs to be widened. We know that we humans do not possess the keenness of senses that our animal friends have. Various creatures see, heard, smell, taste and touch with such exquisite sensitivity that we can only be jealous. Some can sense magnetic fields, while some flowers follow the sun without the benefit of any eyes. We, in our presumption, think we see and measure all that is to be seen and measured. Hamlet would disagree. I can’t wait to read Bader and Mencken’s book, but I’m inclined to think that even when a grand unified theory arises there will still be room for philosophers, and maybe even theologians.