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Why People Believe Weird Things

Our faith in the supernatural is perfectly natural.

Psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have all come forward with theories to explain, as Michael Shermer expressed it as the title of a book, “why people believe weird things.” Shermer, a leading non-believer of the supernatural, takes the traditional skeptical view grounded in psychology. Filled with uncertainty, life can often be frightening, leading many to gravitate to what he considered “pseudoscience, superstition, and other confusions of our time.” Belief in an afterlife or some kind of “grand design” is comforting and assuring, providing order to the universe. Mythologies, religions, and the occult all have roots in the pre-scientific age, Shermer pointed out, these kinds of beliefs forged before reason and rationalism dominated intellectual discourse. The faith in some kind of god or spiritual plane of existence laid the foundation for today’s popularity of ESP, UFOs, and ghosts, he argued, any phenomena outside the rigid boundaries of science an alluring and perhaps irresistible proposition.

Wendy Kaminer has approached the topic through a more sociological lens. As she discussed in her book Sleeping With Extra-Terrestrials, our obsession with the supernatural is a product of our “evangelical culture” and “confessional society.” A belief in everything from guardian angels to past lives reflects our emphasis on feelings and emotions, i.e., thinking with our “heart” rather than our head. The New Age movement and other expressions of magical thinking offer “psychic comfort and community,” Kaminer added, and a conviction that we ourselves are somehow divine. “Faith reveals what reason can’t discern,” she wrote, our common attraction to mystery and the fantastic providing a strong sense of belonging.

Anthropologists also have good reasons “why we believe.” Evolution has conditioned us to believe things are alive when we are not quite sure, some suggest, it being a far better survival strategy to assume that that big brown formation over yonder is a hungry bear than just a rock. Thinking that the thing that just went bump in the night is a ghost instead of rusty pipes could thus very well be instinctual, one more reason it should not be surprising that the supernatural is often accepted as truth. Control too, or more accurately the lack of it, is responsible for much of our supernatural ways, anthropologists argue. “In the absence of perceived control, people become susceptible to detecting patterns in an effort to regain some sense of organization,” wrote Bruce Hood, a fancy way of saying that the mind actively looks for explanations. Anxiety or economic distress make people that much more interested in feeling a sense of control, this perfectly in synch with the consistent spike in paranormalism experienced during tough times or social/political turmoil. “Perceptually, the world is chronically ambiguous and requires an interpretation,” summed up Stewart Guthrie, professor emeritus of anthropology at Fordham University and author of Faces in the Clouds, this accounting for everything from the Virgin-Mary-in-the-burrito phenomenon to the “peak experience” Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell reported while in space in 1971.

John F. Schumaker, author of Wings of Illusion, echoed this anthropological view. “Magic, religion, and all forms of reality distortion are simply species-specific responses unique to the human animal,” he argued, an adaptive technique making us feel more secure and protected. Any “amplified state of consciousness” helped humans deal with the not very appealing idea that life is “chaos followed by oblivion.” Normal intelligence is simply not enough, this line of thinking goes, with humans capable of suspending reason and logic in order to construct different kinds of mythologies. Creating illusion and escaping reality provide self-worth, meaningfulness, and power, functioning as a kind of “counter-intelligence.” To Schumaker, suggestibility was the “most fascinating of all human characteristics,” and a way we were different from all other forms of life.