Are You a Sheep or a Goat?

Most Americans, like most other people around the world, are sheep.

Posted Apr 15, 2019

The history of the supernatural has been and continues to be divided into two basic camps:  believers (or “sheep,” as researcher Gertrude Schmeidler called them in 1943) and non-believers (“goats”).  Most Americans, like most other people around the world, are sheep, the numbers show, with some kind of supernaturalism thriving in this country since the famous Fox Sisters phenomenon of the 1840s.  (The allegedly clairvoyant girls from upstate New York were later proven fakes.)  It is often a personal experience with the supernatural that is responsible for turning even the most stalwart goat into a devout sheep, the most extreme example being losing a child.

Death, naturally, as in religion, has played a prominent role in determining one’s supernatural “quotient"; the inability or reluctance to completely lose a loved one frequently makes an individual much more likely to have an encounter with the other side.  Western countries such as England and the United States have been very hospitable to the idea of ghosts, as the absence of reincarnation in our spiritual tradition leaves a big hole for apparitions to walk right in.  Interestingly, ghosts have reflected their time and place, changing their identity to suit the cultural mores of the day.  Thoroughly modern in the 1920s and 1930s versus those of Shakespeare’s or Dickens’s day, ghosts became infused with the values of the self-help and New Age movements of the 1970s and 1980s, making them kinder, gentler dead people.  Today spirits are viewed as close personal friends, helping to guide us through the trials and tribulations of life.  Ghostbusting too has changed with the times, morphing from an eccentric hobby in the late 19th century to a professional, gear-intensive one in the early 21st.

While the tension between the sheep and the goats is one of the central threads of the story, Americans do not have to locate themselves on either side of the fence for the supernatural to play a part in their lives.  “Whether we consider ourselves believers in psychic phenomena or not, many of us have had something happen to make us wonder about the subject,” Diane Hennacy Powell wrote in The ESP Enigma, the rare individual who has not on occasion felt interconnected with others in some extraordinary way.  The sense that we have known things without knowing exactly how and the feeling that there is more to the universe than our five senses can detect are ways the supernatural plays out in everyday life among ordinary people.  For me, the ambivalence of those straddling the supernatural fence is more important and interesting than the certainty of the devout believers and non-believers who have captured the headlines.

As I (painfully) learned upon publication of my book Supernatural America, the ideological gap between sheep and goats has sometimes been big enough to make it seem like they were indeed two different kinds of species.  Goats have rejected the validity of the supernatural and paranormal on the grounds that whatever “data” has been produced is flawed or, more simply, that believers are gullible and have been deceived.  There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for “anomalous” phenomena, they say, the lack of definitive evidence in the field speaking for itself.  For someone within the academic community, “coming out” as a sheep could sabotage a career, he or she viewed as lacking the requisite amount of skepticism.  (“Suddenly I found that I was no longer welcome in certain professional conversations,” Stephen E. Braude recalled in his The Gold Leaf Lady and Other Parapsychological Investigations, his colleagues in philosophy now doubting his intellectual abilities.)

Sheep have countered that breakthrough scientific findings throughout history were similarly rejected, implying that those who blazed the parapsychological trail were just too ahead of their time.  Those most familiar with the many mysteries of the universe have pointed out that the conventional physical laws like time, space, and causation frequently do not apply, lending credence to paranormal phenomena.  “Such a priori dismissal of psi [paranormal cognition and action] is not only premature but often based on a limited worldview,” Harris L. Friedman and Stanley Krippner argued in Mysterious Minds, “one misunderstood as a simple linear system of cause-effect.”  Physical matter moving forward through time is not the only game in town, in other words, something that more scientists and people in general might keep in mind before rejecting wholesale the existence of things we cannot see, hear, touch, taste, or smell.

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