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Across the Great Divide

“The Minefield between Paranormal Belief and Religion”

We’ve covered how to blend spiritual work into paranormal investigations in one of the earliest series for this column; and how the psychology of perception shapes our paranormal experiences; as well as a plethora of discussions on how scientific principles and methods apply to paranormal research. Through it all, we’ve seen that the realm of parapsychology is a very unique and complex field with theories that span the entire spectrum of human experience- from philosophy and spirituality to environmental science and physics.

Recent surveys suggest that more than 67% of Americans hold some sort of belief in paranormal activity, and that number is expected to increase according to research by sociologists and other scholars. That interest is, of course, driven by entertainment on both the large and small screen from the likes of the Paranormal Activity movies and ghost hunting “reality” shows.

More than half of Americans also believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life- or at least the probability of it. This is largely due to the advancement of technology capable of searching the universe for planets in the “habitable zone,” those capable of either creating or sustaining life in even its most basic forms such as those recently announced by NASA.

Statistically speaking, those who express a belief or personal experience in paranormal activity are not the odd ones out anymore as the cultural landscape of America changes. It used to be that to say you had a ghost in your house was met by a raised eyebrow and a call to the men in the white coats. Now it is met by fascination. By contrast, Europeans tend to think it odd if your house is the only one on the block not haunted.

The widening interest in the paranormal has taken on a model that sociologists point out goes back to the earliest hunter-gatherer societies. While men typically want to go out and capture something to prove its existence, women tend to want to use that information to improve themselves, become better people, and help others.

Sociologists Christopher Bader and F. Carson Mencken of Baylor University and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University report in their new book, Paranormal America, that unmarried and cohabiting individuals are far more likely to embrace the paranormal.

On a side note, they also found that Republicans were “significantly less interested” in the paranormal than Democrats or independents.

At the core, though, they found that a conventional lifestyle and the firm grip of conformity were strong factors in non-believers while those with highly unconventional attitudes tended to look at explanations beyond the confines of mainstream thought.

Over the years, the most controversial- yet frequent- discussions that I’ve been part of on the subject revolve around the delicate minefield that exists between religion and the paranormal.

The groups most likely to remain on the side of non-belief are atheists, fundamentalist Christians, and Jews. In fact, the most committed of those individuals-, those who attend services weekly- are among the least likely to hold paranormal beliefs. Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God are also highly unlikely to entertain the existence of ghosts, clairvoyance, and other related phenomena.

However, a new generation of spirituality seekers is opening their minds- and their wallets- to the belief in the paranormal and other phenomena not easily discussed among the more mainstream of religions.

There are some stark contrasts among the debates regarding the relationship between religion and the paranormal. Some suggest that those whose beliefs are outside that of mainstream religion embrace the paranormal as a substitute for a personal philosophy. Others say that religious individuals, who are already open to transcendent ideas and godly abilities, would be more likely to hold paranormal beliefs.

Most people tend to occupy the middle of the spectrum, though. These individuals, who are not regular attendees of services, have an interest in religion but maintain a greater acceptance in the paranormal. Belief in paranormal topics was found, for example, to be at its highest among people with more liberal views of the Bible.

What is particularly interesting is that the very core of most religions contains concepts and imagery that is very much paranormal and unexplainable. Many shrug of ghosts as being the stuff of fantasy, yet hold an adamant belief in angels, demons, and other spirits who carry out the will of God and the Devil.

What of clairvoyance, telepathy, and other related phenomena? Was Joan of Arc crazy or did she really have a telepathic link with God? Muhammad received his visions through dreams with the angel Gabriel. The very basis of religion, it seems, demands a belief in the paranormal in order to make sense of the stories that have been passed down since antiquity of angels and demons walking among us and carrying out magical acts that defy logic and science.

Perhaps the answer lies out there, in the middle of that minefield that lies between religion and the paranormal. Are you brave enough to unlearn what you have learned and step into the unknown? See you out there.

© 2013 R. Wolf Baldassarro/Deep Forest Productions