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Can we explain supernatural beliefs and ostensibly paranormal experiences without invoking religion?
A growing number of psychologists believe that may be possible. There is no doubt that levels of belief in supernatural phenomena are high, not only in modern western societies but in all known societies, both historically and geographically. Does this indicate that such phenomena are genuinely paranormal? Or might it be the case that paranormal forces really do not exist, as most scientists would assume? If that is the case, we can learn a lot about human psychology by investigating the factors that might lead someone to believe they have had a psychic experience when in fact they have not.
The primary aim of anomalistic psychology is to develop and, where possible, empirically test such non-paranormal accounts. Thus explanations have been proposed for a wide range of bizarre experiences including, for example, alien abduction claims, ghostly encounters, dowsing, precognitive dreams, near-death experiences, mediumship, and psychic healing. Within a relatively short period of time, anomalistic psychologists have provided plausible explanations for many such experiences in terms of a range of recognised psychological factors such as hallucinations, false memories, the placebo effect and so on.
Clearly, not all such experiences involve a religious element but many do, most notably claims relating to faith healing, the power of prayer, near-death experiences, and arguably other experiences relating to the possibility of life after death, such as apparitional experiences and alleged communication with the dead. These experiences can often be profound and life-changing to those who have them but that does not in itself in any way prove that they involved forces currently beyond scientific explanation. For many people, these experiences, whether first-hand or recounted by others, serve to reinforce their particular religious belief system. If anomalistic psychology can provide explanations in terms of normal psychological processes this might undermine religious faith in some people. But in the final analysis science is concerned with the attempt to understand the true nature of the universe we live in –not with providing us with a picture of reality that corresponds to the way we might like it to be. We may follow Laplace who, when asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in his work on celestial mechanics, replied that he “had no need for that particular hypothesis.”
Recent theorists have argued persuasively that our brains have evolved in such a way that we have a natural predisposition to believe in God (or gods) and other supernatural beings. As a species, one of our greatest strengths is our ability to see patterns and meaning in the world around us and to discern cause and effect relationships between different events. But there may be a price to pay for this ability insofar as we may sometimes see meaningful connections when we are in fact faced with randomness. From the evolutionary perspective, the costs of thinking we see meaning when there is none vastly outweigh the costs of failing to see meaning when it is present. In seeing meaning in randomness some may think they discern the hand of God at work and take comfort in that. However, it would perhaps be preferable to rely not on supernatural intervention to solve the problems that face us as a society but instead to depend upon human endeavour, ingenuity and cooperation.
Chris French is a Professor of Psychology and Head of the Anomalistic Psychology Research Unit at Goldsmiths, University of London. He edits the British magazine, The Skeptic.