Beyond Natural

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.

Changing Times

Demons are an embarrassment.  The typical scholar of the historical Jesus can’t avoid the fact that one of Jesus’ main activities is exorcism.  You can go the whole way through seminary not hearing about that aspect even as you become very well acquainted with the two-source hypothesis.  That’s why I found Graham H. Twelftree’s Jesus the Exorcist: A Contribution to the Study of the Historical Jesus so refreshing.  Here is someone willing to address the topic generally swept off the table.  If the gospels are to be believed, then Jesus was an exorcist.  And if he was an exorcist, that must imply a thing or two about demons, no matter how embarrassing.  There’s a lot to this question, of course, and things are never as simple as they seem.

Many of those who look for the Jesus of history suggest that the Galilean sage simply accepted the framework of his era in which various diseases such as epilepsy were considered demonic.  As he healed such people—also somewhat of an embarrassment since it implies the supernatural—he understood their maladies in the same way his contemporaries did.  That tidy package, however, doesn’t sit well with narratives that assume a world full of demons.  Things have changed since the first century, of course.  After the Middle Ages demons fell out of favor.  And yet, the gospels remain pretty much unchanged, trying to fit into a new worldview.  This is the uncomfortable place in which those who seek the historical Jesus find themselves.

Twelftree approaches and analyses the text at its word.  The casting out of demons was an eschatological (end-times) act.  It was the beginning of the end for the evil spirits that torment this world.  Of course, two thousand years have come and gone and, according to some, demons are still with us.  The number of requested exorcisms has been on the rise.  The end times have lasted a lot longer than anyone anticipated.  It’s beginning to look like politicians can do what God seems reluctant to affect.  Bringing about the end of the world is no matter of clearing the house of demons, but rather letting evil take the helm.  If that’s a mixed metaphor, let’s just say demons are masters of confusion.  Since medical science has given us a great deal of comfort and relief from suffering, we’re glad to let demons go as the explanation of diseases.  But that doesn’t make things any easier for those looking at the first century when, as Twelfree demonstrates, Jesus was an exorcist.

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.

Build a God

One of the more amusing gifts to find its way under my tree was a Design Your Own Deity magnetic play set. Since I have roughly only this brief holiday break for play in the entire year, I hope to make the most of it. Nevertheless, things like this always suggest something a bit more profound than they were possibly intended to do. The origin of deities is, by its nature, an unresolved question. Partly it’s because regardless of the reality of gods, religions are human constructions. Claims for revelation are frequently made, but the implementation is always our own. We can’t help but think that divinities are motivated by the same kinds of things that people are. I suspect that’s because we make gods in our own image.


Historically there are few religions that were admittedly made up. We tend to treat with scorn more recent religions since we’ve become skeptical of a make-your-own deity talking to a person in the post-Enlightenment world. It’s much easier to believe if we say it happened long, long ago. Before we had the reassuring uniformitarianism of science, much could be left to the meddling of deities. Once we had a naturalistic paradigm, the door seemed to have slammed shut on supernatural explanations. Gods, who had been persons, now became symbols and symbols seemed to be less important than the real thing. Hadn’t we been designing our own deities all along? Now don’t we feel silly!

One of the common misconceptions of modernity is that ancient people weren’t very smart. We believe that because they lacked our technology. Looking at the way technology now demands most of my time, I wonder if that’s right. In the light of gadgets, deities have been squeezed out. I’m quite aware that the career choices I’ve made—involved with thinking about gods in some description—are hopelessly outmoded in the technological world. Still, as I look at the political landscape I see that we are still in the process of making our own deities. My play set includes some pretty exotic divinities. One that it seems to be lacking is Mammon. Of course, it’s best not to offend the currently reigning god, even if it is just a symbol.

American Possession


Exorcism seems an especially appropriate trope these days. Embedded evil has to be faced squarely and forced out before it kills its host. I recently rewatched The Exorcism of Emily Rose. This is a most unusual horror film in that the story is born by a courtroom drama over whether the priest overseeing the ritual was responsible for the death of Emily Rose. Famously based on a true story, the movie raises a more basic question than whether it “really happened”—what is the viewpoint through which we view the world? We see from the very beginning that the case is actually a contest between two powerful law firms. Each wants a lawyer that can shred the case of the other. The prosecutors engage Ethan Thomas, a very religious Methodist, against the defense’s Erin Bruner, an agnostic. Believing Emily’s case to be purely medical, Thomas asserts that had she stayed on her medication Emily would’ve remained alive with the prospects of a healthy life. Fearing a complete loss, Bruner takes a risky counter-approach: what is Emily really was possessed?

The obligatory scary scenes are shown, of course. They are flashbacks inserted into the course of the trial, but nevertheless disturbing for all their calm, rational framing. The real question, as the story plays out, is can a supernatural worldview be allowed in a court of law. Ironically, such a worldview is already present when a witness swears on the Bible. This particular movie doesn’t show those scenes, but it would’ve been a fair point for Ms. Bruner to make. Clearly the court can’t decide if demons are real, but it can allow that possibility. It’s a classic case of science versus religion. Nevertheless, both sides make use of science. The anthropologist on the stand is dismissed by the religious Mr. Thomas. He has no time for Catholic, or any other religions’, superstition.

Many strange choices were made for this particular cinematic piece, but the story works nevertheless. Those who believe in spiritual realities are allowed to live them out only to a point. The legal system decides if a religion has gone too far. I couldn’t help but wonder if, in a post-truth world, any clear standard of rationality can possibly hold. But questioning universally accepted truths and subverting them to personal preferences its almost if we’ve actually reached the stage of “all those in favor of general relativity say ‘aye.’” As I say, the film was more timely than anticipated. Demons, after all, often appear in the guise of an angel of light. Especially for those motivated by fear.

Cinematic Reality

monstersmadEven without the results of the recent presidential election, I would be reading about horror movies. One of the reasons is that I wonder what the appeal might be—why do I put myself in a dark room with an uncertain future? Until recently academics had thought this was something only unreflective, uneducated people did. As is often the case, such as with the electoral college, the numbers tell a different story. Andrew Tudor’s Monsters and Mad Scientists: A Cultural History of the Horror Movie is an example of what happens when a sociologically oriented film critic explores the genre. Although not overwhelming, there are plenty of tables and charts, showing the various trends of horror films from the 1930s up through the mid 1980s. Tudor analyzes what makes us afraid and the main sources of that fear: science, supernatural, and psyche. Since these are all day-to-day things it seems that movies express the basic human condition.

Reading a book published in the ‘80s, however, makes you wonder what might have been missed. We’ve had more than three decades of further horror movies and although categories may be useful, and perhaps even stable, recent events unlock further fears. I suspect there will be a comeback of Nazis in scary movies over the next few years. Horror is, after all, a reflection of those who are willing to be honest about what scares them. There’s plenty of subject matter lying about the headlines of the past weeks.

What I found especially interesting is, at least in the 1980s, statistically the great majority of films featured a supernatural threat. Of these, Tudor notes, the vampire is by far the most popular. We’ve had a dalliance with zombies since then. And I’ve seen plenty of examples where extraterrestrials form the threat. Even ghosts have staged a somewhat unexpected comeback. And movies of demons have proliferated. The supernatural does indeed scare us. I’m not sure that we can quantify it as easily as we used to. Unlike earlier generations of scholars, I’m beginning to see the horror inherent in much of society. We’ve created a scary world with even more scary possibilities. The thing about monsters is they have no sympathy. They are cold, calculating, and all about meeting their own unnatural needs. All the rest of us are just, not to put too fine a point on it, their food. I have a feeling that we’ll be seeing much more of this in days to come.

Holy Haunted Book

Religion is one of those words that defies easy definition. As I’ve suggested before, you know it when you see it, but trying to pin the idea down is a different matter. Consequently, religion is closely related to a number of other areas of interest: philosophy, ethics, monsters, and the paranormal, to name a few. I was interested, therefore to see a blog post recently concerning a “haunted Bible.” Call me naive, but the thought had never occurred to me before: could a holy book be haunted? Churches are notorious for housing ghosts, of course. As someone who’s spent overnight retreats in churches I can vouch for the fact that a sanctuary after dark is a naturally eerie place. I’ve never seen a ghost in a church, however, and I’m not entirely convinced they exist, and if they do, what they might be. In any case, a haunted Bible is a different story.

David Weatherly is a fairly well-known paranormal writer. My web search brought up his blog where he explains that the haunted Bible was for sale on eBay with an asking price of $180,000. The owner, who remains anonymous, claimed to take no responsibility for any damage the supernatural scripture might cause. Instead of thinking that we have here a genuine haunted leather scripture, I know it can be nothing other than a genuine hoax (not on Weatherly’s part). Realtors know well that a haunting can, in today’s climate, counterintuitively drive the price of a house up. With people hungry for some element of the supernatural in their lives, and ghost hunters of all sorts on their televisions, they are willing to shell out a few more dollars to have a spirit around. And since ghosts can’t sign contracts, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be there once you move in. The supernatural can, it turns out, be the perfect scam.

If items can be haunted, I suppose a Bible might as well. When an owner, however, turns down an offer of 50,000 pounds that odor you’re smelling is that of a rat. I love old books. I have a few around that have more than a century’s weight on them. Looking at used bookstores longingly, I see first editions of Poe or Shakespeare that sell for far less than the asking price of the most printed book in the western world. Bibles, if you know where to look, can be had for free. I’ve got at least a dozen of them myself. Nothing makes fakery quite so clear as greed. No wonder the haunted Bible was such a disconnect. There’s nothing paranormal about love of money. That’s all too normal for anyone who tries to sell a Bible for implied spirituality.


To Nature, and Beyond

VaticanProphIt might seem odd to differentiate the supernatural from an established world religion like Roman Catholicism. After all, be premise of traditional Christianity is based on a miracle or two. Church officials, however, are not naive. It has been known from the early centuries of the church that although miracles are still from time-to-time proclaimed, they are a relative rarity. Few are claimed, like Jesus of Nazareth, to have the ability to summon the supernatural at will. When my wife gave me a copy of John Thavis’s The Vatican Prophecies, I wondered if this might be a sensationalist exploration of “the hidden Vatican” and its penchant for keeping things hushed. After all, the subtitle is Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions, and Miracles in the Modern Age. Thavis, however, is one of the most even-handed writers on the topic I might imagine. Clearly respectful of the Catholic faith, he doesn’t go after any pet theories or conspiracies. He lets those in the church answer with their own words. And those words paint a fascinating picture.

Beginning with the concept of holiness, Thavis shows that the point of the spiritual life is not to seek signs. Nevertheless, signs are reported. Apparitions of Mary have a long history, as does the shroud of Turin. Those who write about such things often have a clear bias, but Thavis gives the facts, interviews those who know, and offers a narrative full of possibilities. The supernatural can take a darker turn, however, as his chapter on demons and angels demonstrates. Although demons have been cast into the outer darkness by science, it doesn’t prevent people from apparently being possessed. And of course miracles come under scrutiny, particularly in the context of making saints. Prophecy, in the sense of knowing the future, is the last major topic up for discussion.

The Vatican Prophecies is a curious book that seems neither credulous or overly skeptical. It’s more like reporting than it is declaring what is or isn’t possible. Yes, the Roman Catholic Church does still profess miracles, but a vast number of them that come up for testing fail. Scientists serve as expert witnesses and personal claims are not sufficient to win the day. Although there are a few characters in this account, the majority of those mentioned in the book are understated, thoughtful individuals who happen to know they can’t decide what really happens or not. Instead, they simply deal with it. For those of use who live in a world of uncertainty, this book is a most apt introduction to topics taken seriously by some very intelligent people.

Books of 2015

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It’s the end of 2015 and looking at my records on Goodreads it looks like I read 100 books this year. That tends to be my goal mark, but after twelve months of reading I like to think back over which were the books that have made the biggest impact on me over the year. Joe Bageant’s Deer Hunting with Jesus remains on the most important list. It is joined by Andrew Newberg’s How God Changes Your Brain, Spencer Wells’ Pandora’s Seed, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger, and Paul Levy’s Dispelling Wetiko. Bageant, Dreger, and Levy especially address some of the root causes of social ills and even make suggestions about how to address them. Newberg offers advice on how to improve brain functioning and Wells taps into the ever-important issue of care for our planet. I read some good academic titles as well: Diana Walsh Pasulka’s Heaven Can Wait, Darren J. N. Middleton’s Rastifari and the Arts, and Ronald Hutton’s The Triumph of the Moon.

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Being a religionist, books with supernatural themes are always of interest. Among these I found intriguing Michael Murphy’s The Future of the Body, David J. Hufford’s The Terror that Comes in the Night, Ardy Sixkiller Clarke’s Encounters with Star People, and Jeannie Banks Thomas’s Putting the Supernatural in Its Place. It seems important to have reasonable people address unconventional issues. These are related to books on monsters, noteworthy among which were: M. Jess Peacock’s Such a Dark Thing, Kim Paffenroth’s Gospel of the Living Dead, Brenda S. Gardenour Walter’s Our Old Monsters, and Lisa Morton’s Ghosts. Long ago I realized that I no longer needed to justify including monsters or the supernatural categorically with religion. They share too many roots to be separated out artificially.

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Finally, it was also a year of novels. Pride of place here goes to Robert Repino’s debut, Mort(e). I am compelled to mention Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam, John Green’s Paper Towns, Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and Valerie Martin’s The Ghost of the Mary Celeste. Although I’m not much of a fantasy reader, Tod Davies’ The Lizard Princess has stayed with me since reading it. For any of these books you’ll find an individual blog post from this year. That’s not to say that other books I read weren’t good. Nearly every book I post on Goodreads has a write-up here. I tend to like most books I read, although I’m occasionally disappointed when a book does’t reach its full potential. 2015 was a rich year of reading and I’m looking forward to a very literate 2016.

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Supernatural Quest

SupernaturalTwo things we’re told about the supernatural: one, it doesn’t exist and two, it can’t be studied. Of course the vast majority of people in the world don’t buy into number one and hardly care about number two. Both, it seems to me, could be wrong. As Jeannie Banks Thomas says in her introduction to Putting the Supernatural in Its Place: Folklore, the Hypermodern, and the Ethereal, belief in the supernatural is not declining. In fact, the more we’re told by cocksure scientists that all of reality is quantifiable and material, the more we become aware of the many exceptions to the rules. Of course, “supernatural” may be a misnomer. It could be that anything sloughed off into that category is simply not understood well enough to be empirically studied. Thinking back over the history of science I find it ironic that the very system that had to convince people that something couldn’t be seen (many gases) could be deadly. Now if it can’t be seen it can’t exist. We certainly don’t want any deities hanging out around here.

But back to the book. Putting the Supernatural in Its Place is a folkloric study of place. The contributors to the volume look at popular beliefs, some serious, some not, that accrue around certain places. As I’ve often stated on this blog, we are aware as humans that some places are fraught with meaning. Scientifically we know this shouldn’t be true, but we feel it when we approach any space of significance. The contributors to Thomas’ book look to some very interesting places: New Orleans, Salem, St. Ann’s Retreat, Lily Dale, Japan, and even movies and the internet. If any of these places aren’t familiar to you, it’s worth picking up a copy of this accessible book to learn more. Supporting folklore is a very good thing. Folklore, after all, is the wisdom of the people.

The places in this book are rumored to be haunted by ghosts, witches, zombies, vampires, and even fairies. Folklorists, of course, don’t try to prove that beliefs are true. Like any academic they study and analyze. The main form of exploration for the non-academic is the legend quest. Many of us have gone legend questing from time to time. A place where something happened is said to have a certain feel or manifestation, so we go to see what it’s all about. If such trips are given religious sanction we call them pilgrimages. We want to see. But more than that, we want to experience something that the past has left behind. In the part of the year when each night grows longer than the last, my thoughts turn to what is usually termed “the supernatural.” And I, for one, am glad to have able guides along the way to make the simple voyage into a quest.

Heavenly Beings

FromAngelsToAliens Religious tolerance suggests that it’s less important what you believe than it is that you believe. After all, where you are born—socioeconomically as well as geographically—determines which options are open to you. And now that the world is virtually inter-connected, the media must play into the idea of what we believe as concepts mix and brew and distill. Lynn Schofield Clark’s From Angels to Aliens: Teenagers, the Media, and the Supernatural, is a study that takes all of this seriously. We know teens as the ultimate disenfranchised demographic. For those of us who were once there, no doubt concerning that status exists. But what of teens in an age where God seems to be effacing and angels and aliens invading? At least according to the media. Clark interviews several teens and their families about their belief in the supernatural, and, in keeping with what the statistics of national surveys continually show, belief in some world beyond ours is indeed deeply rooted. Many youth, however, have trouble distinguishing angels from aliens.

Not literally, of course. Rather, supernatural entities are so much a part of our media experience, and church attendance so little, that clear ideas of how these things all fit together, if they do, are lacking. Scientists are looking for life in space while denying that if it exists it ever could have intentionally travelled here. We are, after all, the most intelligent species in an infinite universe. (Did I say that belief in God was effacing?) Socially, however, angels are much more acceptable than aliens. Belief in aliens is easily equated with mental instability, while belief in angels is normal, if not a little naive. To the average person, it seems that we’re not alone. As many popular media portray, however, God remains silent and we have to wonder if there’s anyone really driving a universe with no real up or down and with an exploding singularity at its center. It’s all a little disorienting—rather like being a teenager.

Clark remains wonderfully open-minded as she asks her questions to the younger generation. I felt a bit of recognition when she mentioned her church experiences in theologically conservative western Pennsylvania, the area in which I grew up, and where neither aliens nor angels were particularly uncommon. And we were in a media black hole in those days. Stations from Pittsburgh or Erie didn’t boost their signal to reach those of us in the boondocks with much reception beyond the big three. Of course, there was nothing beyond ABC, CBS, and NBC. Well, there was PBS in the background, but this was a universe still awaiting its big bang. Angels were good, aliens were evil, and God never remained silent for very long. And nobody really cared what teenagers thought. We have evolved since then, but we still look to the sky and wonder who, if anyone, is out there.

Poe Knows

CambridgeEdgarAllanPoeA recent trip to Baltimore prompted me to read Benjamin F. Fisher’s The Cambridge Introduction to Edgar Allan Poe. Well, that and the fact that I had purchased the book from an overstock table on a visit to a local indie bookstore (support your local!). Poe is a difficult writer to get to know. His personal life seems to have been largely an effort to find financial security while he knew his intellect was greater than those who employed him, and yet he was the one left without means. His literary talent, now considered one of the brightest constellations in the American writers’ heavens, was denigrated and demeaned and not fully appreciated until after he died of unknown causes in a city where he no longer lived. There is a profound sadness about Poe, and he seems a tragic figure. I do wonder, however, whether success would have ruined him. The more society woos you, the more you’re willing to lower your standards, I shouldn’t wonder. Not that I would know.

GhostsKnowFisher’s guide is a basic introduction that only toys here and there with Poe’s religious outlook. I’ve not run across much about Poe and religion, but there is a deep spiritual awareness, along with ratiocination, in his tales and poems. I suspect it might go back to the fact that religion and fear are so tightly intertwined. If a religious element is missing, it sometimes leaves a reader hungry. I’d also been reading Ramsey Campbell’s Ghosts Know concurrently with Fisher. This is a novel where a skeptical radio talk-show host takes on a stage psychic to see who really knows who might’ve killed a young girl. As the story unfolds it becomes less and less likely that the psychic is tapping into anything other than individuals’ wish projections.

While I found both of these books interesting, I pondered the fact that Poe referred to the scariest elements in his works as “terror of the soul.” The supernatural in Poe, as Fisher points out, is often really just a projection of an interior state of one of the characters—the eponymous tell-tale heart is guilt breaking through, not an undead heart beating. In an era where belief in the soul is waning, scary books seem less frightening. We’ve been robbed of both the supernatural and the soul, so what is left to fear? If death is only a more profound kind of sleep and morals are only a matter of social convention, then we are truly alone in this vast universe. Of what should we be afraid? Still, when the night stretches on for many long hours this December, I find myself inclined toward Poe and I wonder if ghosts truly do know.

Graveyard Culture

TheGraveyardBook During an Ancient Near Eastern Religions course a few years back, one of my students commented that something was like “in American Gods.” I suppose my quizzical look betrayed that I wasn’t familiar with the book, and, aghast, he said, “you’ve never heard of Neil Gaiman?” The funny thing about being a professional academic is, if you want to be good at it, there is little time to read. Popular culture is vast; I’ve never even heard of “Gangnam Style.” But I did subsequently read American Gods, and from then on I’ve been picking up Neil Gaiman books as a special treat in my literary diet. A couple years back another friend recommended The Graveyard Book, so I read it over my brief holiday break. It is the time of year for treats. Gaiman’s fantasy worlds, although seldom explicitly deity-populated, tangle the real world with the supernatural—just the juncture where religion emerges. Although defining religion is not as straightforward as looking it up in a dictionary, you can nevertheless feel when you’re in its realm.

Nobody Owens was raised in a graveyard among ghosts. Since science tells us there are no such things, religion steps up to the challenge with suggestions of an afterlife. Whether or not there’s a Heaven or Hell, ghosts partake in that uncanny milieu we call religion. And since this is fantasy, there are other mystical creatures as well. In Bod’s world werewolves are called “Hounds of God” and they are on the good side. Ironically, the only clergy mentioned (along with various political figures) are actually ghouls. The world of the dead involves a religion of its own where an altar and chalice lie deep beneath a special grave and a human sacrifice makes up the climax of the story.

Religion, of course, occurs where the supernatural meets regular people. We dismiss it at our own peril. When Bod attends school his teachers guess he must be from a religious family because he doesn’t have a computer or any electronic devices. Religion eschews such progress. And yet it touches on the real world. I recognized Highgate Cemetery almost from page one. It could be that my own visit there just last year was fresh enough in my mind that Gaiman’s descriptions naturally took over. Or it could be that since I walk that imaginary line that we recognize as religion every day I recognize its more familiar features. Neil Gaiman’s popularity is a testimonial to how we still need the hidden world unexplained by science. We may call it fiction but it is just as real in the human mind as anything in the quantum universe.

Super Sensitive?

As not infrequently happens, I take my reading cues from others. In general I am reading half a dozen books at any one time, so when I finish one I cast around for something of a similar genre. One book that I just finished I learned about from my cyber-friend Sabio Lantz’ Triangulations blog – Bruce M. Hood’s Supersense: Why We Believe in the Unbelievable. Hood is a respected psychology professor, and his writing style is engaging. The book itself, while fascinating in its ability to offer an overarching theory to explain why people believe in the supernatural, is deeply disturbing. I grew up in a family where the supernatural was taken for granted. Many of Hood’s explanations are cogent and logical, but that was not what I found to be distressing.

The overall premise of the book is that if science cannot measure a phenomenon, it is “super”-natural. If it exists in nature, science can define it. To me this seems far too limiting. It assumes that science has already probed the infinite aspects of an infinite universe. Yes, we understand (to a degree) matter. We have discovered the sub-atomic world with its quarks and other tiny bits. We understand a great deal about energy as well. Could there not be, however, an entirely natural aspect of either matter or (more likely) energy that science has not yet learned to measure? And could not this aspect be a piece of the larger universe that we inhabit? In other words, when all that is not defined by science is “supernatural” then we have already decided on the limits of our world.

From a psychological viewpoint, I find Hood’s analysis quite agreeable. The human psyche does have a need to find the supersense in the world. We do look for irrational causes. Not all unexplained phenomena are supernatural, however. It is a semantic trap. If we define “supernatural” as anything outside of current understanding, then his thesis stands. If, however, we define “supernatural” as that which violates physical laws not as they are currently understood but as they actually are, then who is to say whether there is anything supernatural at all? “Unexplained” and “supernatural” are not the same thing. Such a distinction would not be troubling were it not for the fact that Hood defines “reality” (another problematic concept) only in terms of “scientifically known.” If it has not been measured by science, a phenomenon is not real since our physical brains (measured by science) are the filters through which we experience the world. There is no room for what has not yet been found.

Far more distressing than that is his assertion that freedom is an illusion. One of the most distasteful theological travesties ever is the concept of predestination. The idea that a loving God would create most people to suffer eternal torment simply to fulfill his own arbitrary assignment of justice is something for which Presbyterianism can never be forgiven. It is about the most immoral God that can be imagined. The same goes for the psychological premise that we must react according to our biology. I found myself wondering why Hood wrote the book at all, if life is all predetermined. What if he had chosen not to write it, or to write it differently? You could argue that this too was predetermined, but does this not simply justify the income and fame of those who are “important people”? It runs a true danger of being terribly bourgeois, if not downright supportive of eugenics. Not that Hood would advocate such an action, but any time predetermination is raised, it presents the grandest of excuses for the most heinous of behaviors. Even the psychological observations that support it may have been misunderstood. Of course, if you disagree with me, don’t blame me; it was predestined that I should write this.

That having been said, I found Supersense overall to be a wonderfully fascinating book. At points Hood’s argument seems to consist of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy he rejects as unscientific, but if this can be irrationally forgiven, there is much useful material to be gleaned from this book.

Go Fish

You are what you eat. That trite truism has been kicking around for a few decades now, and although it has been an aphorism to encourage healthy eating it does convey a deeper truth. Scientists working in Africa have determined that the hominid diet of roughly two million years ago led to rapid brain expansion (rapid on an evolutionary scale, of course), according the New Jersey Star-Ledger. Remains found in Kenya, featuring a Rutgers University archaeologist, have indicated a widely varied diet of fish, turtles, and crocodiles among ancient hominids. Apparently these animals provide valuable nutrients for brain development, a somewhat disturbing piece of information for us vegetarians.

The more I have pondered this information, the more it has become evident that the concept of God has undergone considerable evolution. As I have noted several times in the past, religious behavior emerges at the very least in the Paleolithic Era of human development. What those non-literate ancestors thought or believed about “God” is long lost, but it seems to have persisted into modern conceptions of divinity. Belief in supernatural beings is attested world-wide, and therefore is a true human universal. (There are, of course, non-theistic religions and individuals, but all cultures show some measure of belief in the supernatural.)

In those moments when I am free to ponder what this might mean, I wonder about the earliest conceptions of the divine. It seems likely that this being was like a hominid, able to respond in kind to placating gestures on the part of early humans. An abstraction simply doesn’t fit easily into minds focused on the practical aspects of survival without the guidance of professional theologians. That early God was able to, but not obligated to assist our fearful ancestors with the struggles of daily life. That aspect of the divine being has not changed in many millennia. Even today many religious individuals still consume fish, a food approved even for meat-free days, by God himself.

Early images of God?