Sunday, February 17, 2013

Belief in the Supernatural

Perhaps the most significant division, when it comes to belief, is not that between religious believers and atheists, but those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not. I use "supernatural" in the colloquial sense. Somebody who believes in a deistic God but who does not believe that God intervenes in the universe that He (She? It?) has created is effectively an atheist and an anti-supernaturalist. At least, I do not know of any life-changing and commitment-demanding religion that is based upon a hands-off Deity, one that simply sits in the Seventh Heaven and smiles down at us beatifically. It seems to be a requirement of religious belief that God takes an active interest in our affairs, and makes demands upon us.

Liberal, demythologized religion, like liberal Protestantism and liberal Judaism, seems to ossify as soon as it is created.

This belief in the supernatural is the real leap of faith-- I don't mean that it is unreasonable, but that it utterly changes the mental universe you live in.

I mentioned the dinner party I attended on Saturday, where the last half hour or so was devoted to an impassioned debate about Catholicism. At one point, two of the ladies were discussing Lourdes, and I asked one of them whether she believed the stories of the Lourdes visionaries. "No", she said. She was not aggressive about it but it was obvious that she didn't even begin to think that it was in any way possible.

This is how Matthew Parris, the journalist and former politician, describes his own utter lack of belief in a miraculous cure performed by the late John Paul II:

"But how can you be sure?" Oh boy, am I sure. Oh great quivering mountains of pious mumbo-jumbo, am I sure. Oh fathomless oceans of sanctified babble, am I sure. Words cannot express my confidence in the answer to the question whether God cured a nun because she wrote a Pope's name down. He didn't. Mere language does no justice to my certainty about whether God might be waiting for the return to their Biblical lands of the Israelites, before arranging the Second Coming. He isn't.

I understand this feeling. Sometimes, when I am praying in front of the tabernacle in a deserted Church or chapel, I imagine how I would react if Christ or the Blessed Mother or an angel were to appear to me at that moment. I find it impossible to imagine. If somebody I knew and trusted told me such a thing had happened to them, I would find it extremely difficult to believe them.

I have never had anything obviously or (or even not-so-obviously) supernatural happen to me. I am, in fact, temperamentally a sceptic. I know a woman who is very decidedly an atheist but who refuses to go into a certain room for fear of ghosts. She doesn't believe in ghosts, but she's still jittery. Well, I do believe in the supernatural, and I would sleep in a haunted house with no fear whatsoever, other than the fear of a living intruder.

I know that some unbelievers must hear our talk of Red Sea crossings, miraculous healings, visions, levitations, answered prayers and angelic visitations and assume, charitably, that it must all be a manner of speaking, or a metaphor-- that we might believe in God and (maybe) in the miracles and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, but that Old Testament stories and the feats of the apostles and saints are not to be taken at face value. Nobody is going to challenge you in a church or at a theology seminar for talking like that. You can talk about Adam and Eve while being non-committal about whether the tale is a fable intended to explain original sin or whether it actually happened.

When I was making my way to belief in Christianity, this matter of the supernatural was a big stumbling-block. I could find no evidence that anything supernatural had ever happened. There had been mounds upon mounds of scientific research into the paranormal, and none of it had turned up so much as a blob of ectoplasm. The only evidence of the supernatural that I could find were within the Christian tradition; the Turin Shroud, the miracle at Fatima, the Lourdes visionaries, Our Lady of Guadalupe, the blood of St. Januarius. Of course, all these are open to question by sceptics, but they were not easily dismissed.

But miracles and other supernatural occurences weren't just a kind of necessary embarrassment that I learned to live with. A Christianity without them wouldn't have had much appeal to me. Sceptic as I was, I longed for the supernatural and the miraculous as a hart pants for the streams. I had always loved horror stories and ghost stories and fantasy stories. I could sympathize with Samuel Johnson's view on ghosts: "All argument is against it; but all belief is for it."

Why were stories of the uncanny, the supernatural and the ghostly such ubiquitous features of human life? It wasn't as though they were merely a preoccupation of eccentrics, or a minor theme in human culture. They seemed to be absolutely central to every national folklore since the beginning of time. Even the most cursory knowledge of Irish folklore would tell you that its most prominent ingredients are supernatural; banshees, fairies, leprechauns, witches. The same seems to be true of other national folklores. The folk mind seems to turn towards the supernatural like a compass's needle turning to magnetic North. Even the modern day urban legend thrives upon stories of the supernatural, with tales of vanishing hitchhikers and of prophetic dreams saving people from plane crashes and other disasters.

Why is this? Why was realism a late-comer to human storytelling? Why do we seem to be made for the supernatural? I found it all extremely suggestive. I could easily imagine things being otherwise. I could imagine a world where the idea of the supernatural hardly existed.

How could spooky and supernatural stories have survived for so many centuries if they simply didn't happen? Mind you, I'm not arguing that this proves that they did happen. It just seems extraordinary that they should be so resilient.

From a rationalist point of view, religion and the social respectability of religion is surely a bizarre thing. Children are sent to religious schools where they are taught that various physically impossible events ocurred and continue to occur. Rabbis and priests and other religious figures are given a place at the table at highbrow discussions-- say, at an academic debate or a current affairs panel show-- even though they openly avow (from an atheist point of view) utterly crazy beliefs, beliefs at variance with all experience and everyday expectation.

I myself become frustrated with religious apologists who seem to concentrate more or less exclusively on rather abstract questions when defending theistic belief. For instance, it is fairly common for Catholic apologists to exalt Catholicism's commitment to absolute, timeless Truth as against postmodern relatavism or as against an instrumentalist theory of knowledge, and to put this forward as a reason for belief. But I imagine many agnostics are less worried about such deep questions of metaphysics or epistemology than they are about talking donkeys, patriarchs with superhuman longevity, and the supernatural grace conferred by baptism. Now, I'm not denying the logic that, once you establish the legitimacy of theistic belief, the miraculous is no longer a priori objectionable. I just never want to feel that my side is skirting the difficulties.

I often wonder what the current state of play is with regard to belief in the supernatural. Are most people supernaturalists? It's true that astrologers and psychics continue to do a roaring trade, but do they only appeal to a minority? Have most people made their minds up about the possibility of the supernatural, or are they unsure? Do they think about it much? How could they not?

I guess that, being a dyed-in-the-wool sceptic with a firm belief in this supernatural, I am a part of the strangeness myself.


  1. Interesting that Parris doesn't put forward any arguments ... but that seems to be the way with some un-believers these days ... they don't need to make a case; sneering will do.

    1. Yes, Mark Shea has noted the same thing about exactly that quotation! The response of the rationalist would be that "extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence" but surely that is begging the question-- surely every assertion should be taken on its own merits, dispassionately, without prejudice.

  2. Mark Shea? I'm in good company, then!