Several years ago, in an undergraduate course, I expressed skepticism about the efficacy of paranormal powers. After the lecture, a student approached me and rhetorically asked, "But ESP is real--don't you know that?" I assured her that, though I wasn't an expert on the matter, my impression was that the empirical evidence didn't support her claim. Maybe I'll look into the matter, I said. She walked away puzzled and irritated.
Not long after, I was put on my department's undergraduate committee and I foolhardily suggested that we offer a new course--a senior seminar on paranormalism. The subject seemed sufficiently non-traditional to attract students who might otherwise remain outside our curriculum. "Fine," the chair told me, "you teach it." The course inspired me to write a book on the topic and conduct a small survey on paranormal beliefs. My respondents were all college students--in other words, at least high school grads--all were young, and most had lived in urban or suburban communities. Frankly I was surprised by the strength of their faith in paranormal powers. Seven out of ten agreed with the statement, "some people have ESP," six out of ten believed that astrology is "scientific," and four out of ten believed that some numbers are "lucky."
Although they were not quite so strong, I was also surprised by the strength of my respondents' religious beliefs. A majority (55%) said that they believed in the material reality of heaven, over four out of ten said that angels exist, and a third believed that God created the world as it was narrated in the Bible.
But what didn't surprise me was how closely connected I found religion and paranormalism to be. Believers in the material existence of angels also tended to believe in ESP, astrology, and lucky numbers. They were also more likely to believe in UFOs as alien vehicles, and even a bit more likely to believe in King Tut's curse--admittedly, a small minority belief.
What's the connection? Traditional religion relies heavily on supernaturalism--the power of non-empirical forces and non-empirical evidence. By definition, paranormalism is a belief in powers that surpass or supposedly supersede scientific explanations or natural laws--and the validity of miracles, the creation, heaven and hell and angels and the devil as materially real are by their very nature paranormal.
There's another parallel, though. Traditional religious belief, with its reliance on fundamentalism, Biblical literalism, and strict creationism, has become marginalized, a minority expression of faith--in effect, fighting for its institutional and hegemonic life. No longer taught in public schools, creationism has become that "old-fashioned religion" whose expression has ceased to be the voice of the most respected and prestigeous religious denominations, an article of faith in the mainstream educational establishment, and the most influential media. The mainstream religions have become secularized, ecumenical, and interdeminational. Both old-fashioned religion and paranormalism--"new age" and "old"--have becomewhat deviantized in our secular society, pushed to the side, somewhat quaint, antiquated utterances of an earlier era.