Whither the Paranormal in Secular Studies?

Joseph O. Baker encourages the study of nonreligion to look beyond the study of baker_pic_smallatheists and skeptics, and explore what he calls the doubly castoff, the supernatural.

I want to briefly address a cryptid in the proverbial room of secular studies.  In our rush to study secularities empirically, we have made great progress on examining topics such as atheism, particularly in terms of ideology and social movements (Cimino and Smith 2014; LeDrew 2015), as organized communities (Smith 2013, 2017), patterns of psychological dispositions (Norenzayan and Gervais 2013), and more generally as a culturally constructed yet socially relevant category (Lee 2015; Zuckerman, Galen, and Pasquale 2016).  Considering how little research there was of this kind a decade ago, these are indeed encouraging signs of vitality.  But other dimensions within the broader umbrella of “nonreligion” have gone unexplored.

For example, despite an expanded understanding of the social psychologies of supernatural disbelief, spirits still haunt secular studies just out of sight (or off the page), much as they do religious studies (Kripal 2010) and the social sciences more generally—particularly psychology (see McClenon 1984).  That is to say, secular studies is in no way alone in ignoring—or in the case of organized skeptic groups, condemning—the paranormal.  Indeed, the paranormal is, by definition, the doubly damned castoff of both organized religions and secular scientism.[1]  Yet damnation doesn’t make the paranormal go away.  It always returns.

But enough about us academics.  Let’s talk about why it matters.  If we look at individuals who respond to survey questions about religious affiliation or preference with “none” while simultaneously believing in God in some way, the paranormal abounds.  Whether we call this group nonaffiliated believers, spiritual but not religious, believing without belonging, or any other such analogous label, there’s enough paranormalism present to make an open minded researcher take notice.  I’ll make the case briefly with samples of Americans because that is the data I have readily available to address these questions. To be clear, I think this topic is worth investigating in any and all other cultural contexts, using a wide range of methods, both qualitative and quantitative.

As the percentage of Americans who claim no religion has increased from 7% in 1991 to 22% by 2016 according to the General Social Surveys, the increase has occurred much more among nonaffiliated believers than among non-theists (Baker and Smith 2015).  To take a parallel and relevant issue that also has a question on the GSS over time, the percentage of Americans believing in life after death was 77% in 1973, 81% in 1991, and 81% again in 2016.[2]  So while the proportion of the population who self-identify as nonreligious tripled in the last 25 years, the proportion believing in life after death has been a paragon of stability.  What happened when at least 30 million people drop out of organized religion while still believing in life after death?  For one thing, ghost tours become really popular (check your local listings).

Using the 2006-2014 waves of the GSS, I looked at the percentage of American atheists, agnostics, and nonaffiliated believers who said that astrology was “sort of” or “very” scientific, rather than “not at all scientific.”  At 39%, nonaffiliated believers are much higher than atheists (23%) and agnostics (24%). Since the GSS does not have measures of paranormalism other than astrology in recent raves, we have to look to other data sources for more information.  The 2014 Baylor Religion Survey, a national sample of American adults collected by Gallup (n = 1572), included a handful of paranormal belief items.  Figure 1 presents the outcomes for atheists, agnostics, and nonaffiliated believers for the percentage who agree with the following statements: “some places are haunted by spirits”; “there is good evidence that aliens visited earth”; “some people can use the power of their minds to move objects without touching them”; and “Bigfoot will one day be discovered.”

Over half of nonaffiliated believers agree that hauntings are real, compared to 24% of agnostics and 11% of atheists.  It’s worth pointing out that this is also a non-trivial percentage of non-theists, even though nonaffiliated believers are clearly much more inclined to spirit beliefs (see Baker and Bader 2014; Eaton 2015).  Nonaffiliated believers are also far more likely to believe in telekinesis and alien visitation than atheists and agnostics.  Further, using a modified version of the general RELTRAD typology of American religious traditions (Steensland et al. 2000) that distinguishes different types of secularities, nonaffiliated believers report the highest levels of belief in three of these items compared to all the other religious tradition categories (Evangelical Protestant, Mainline Protestant, Black Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and all other religions).  Nonaffiliated believers are also more likely than agnostics and atheists to believe Bigfoot will be discovered; however, mainline Protestants get the prize for highest level of belief in the elusive ‘Squatch.  At least they are coming out ahead in something.

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Generally speaking, however, there is a considerable amount of paranormalism among a particular segment of religious nones compared to members of other religious groups, and especially compared to non-theists.  And there are other interesting connections inside this general relationship.  Specifically, there is a high degree of overlap between intensive paranormal and religious experiences for individuals outside of organized religions.  A person who claims to talk to God is also much more likely to claim a UFO sighting if s/he is not strongly tethered to organized religion (Baker, Bader and Mencken 2016).  Consequently, studying people outside of organized religion can and should also mean grappling with those who continue to have intensive physiological and psychological experiences, both “religious” and paranormal.

So what are we to make of all this?  Although I cannot enumerate here all the interesting and worthwhile research questions these patterns raise (see Bader, Baker, and Mencken 2017 on the wider implications of paranormalism), I have three general suggestions.  First, as I noted, it’s worth testing this relationship in other cultural contexts with samples from different populations.  Whether elevated levels of paranormalism hold among nonaffiliated believers in different locations, cultural contexts, cohorts, status categories, etc. is an open question, and certainly one worth exploring.

Second, better qualitative and quantitative studies are needed on nonaffiliated believers.  This goes for agnosticism as well, but since I’m focusing on the paranormal here, nonaffiliated believers are certainly “where the action is” for paranormalism.  Seeking out those who are disconnected from organized religion while maintaining supernatural and spiritual beliefs, practices, and experiences should be at the forefront of secular studies.  I know this cuts against many people’s understandings of what it means to be “truly” secular, but allow me to appeal to our collective sense of ambition and intellectual propriety.  For the worse, the “of religion” disciplines, particularly psychology and sociology, have largely cast out the paranormal, aside from occasional attempts to account for the persistence of “superstition.”  So here sits an enormous, narratively rich, culturally viable and variable, and, I think it’s fair to say, publically popular topic of inquiry scorned by those who own and police what counts as studying “religion.”  “Religion’s” loss can be our gain, if we are so inclined.  Thus far, we aren’t.

This brings us to my final point.  Concurrently with academe, secular skeptic movements have played a prominent role in attempting to exorcise the paranormal from science (Hess 1993).  Theoretically-oriented scholars should study the conflicts between paranormalists and skeptics—both academic and popular—over what counts as legitimate knowledge, beliefs, and experiences.  Doing so provides a space for cultural analysis at the nexus of religion, science, and the paranormal, and can offer insight into the social boundaries and dimensions of each of these separate, and sometimes antagonistic, endeavors.  This perspective has already been proven insightful in historical work (e.g., Taves 1999), but looking at the contemporary cultural boundaries between organized secular movements and the paranormal—with an eye on those simultaneously outside organized religions and secularisms who often end up the most interested in the paranormal—offers a rich vein of subtopics with theoretical import.

Anathema as it may seem, it’s time to take secular studies ghost hunting.  The spirits, and a veritable gaggle of the “spiritual but not religious” and other such supernatural pluralists are already there, whether we want them to be or not.[3]  Ignoring it won’t make them go away.  And their narratives have much to teach us about secularisms, religions, and paranormalisms.

 


[1] Most social scientists have defined the paranormal only in relation to its banishment from institutional science, but this only half the story.  As we have outlined elsewhere, an understanding of the paranormal as rejected by both science and organized religion makes sense of the complex empirical patterns observed between religiosity and paranormalism (Bader, Baker, and Mencken 2017).

[2] These percentages exclude respondents who said they “don’t know” whether there is life after death.  If we include the “don’t know” respondents as not believing in life after death, the percentages are 70% in 1973, 72% in 1991, and 73% in 2016.

[3] I ran all the analyses presented for people who reported being spiritual while also reporting on a religious salience question that they were not religious.  Although slightly lower on levels of paranormalism than the broader category of nonaffiliated believers, those who are spiritual but not religious still showed relatively high levels of paranormalism (percent believing: haunting 41%, aliens 25%, telekinesis 27%, Bigfoot 7%).


References

Bader, Christopher D., Joseph O. Baker, and F. Carson Mencken.  2017.  Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts, and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture, 2nd edition.  New York: NYU Press.

Baker, Joseph O. and Christopher D. Bader.  2014.  A Social Anthropology of Ghosts in Twenty-First-Century America.  Social Compass 61(4): 569–593.

Baker, Joseph O., Christopher D. Bader, and F. Carson Mencken.  2016.  A Bounded Affinity Theory of Religion and the Paranormal.  Sociology of Religion 77(4): 334–358.

Baker, Joseph O. and Buster G. Smith.  2015.  American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems.  New York: NYU Press.

Cimino, Richard and Christopher Smith.  2014.  Atheist Awakening: Secular Activism and Community in America.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Eaton, Marc A.  2015.  “Give us a Sign of Your Presence”: Paranormal Investigation as a Spiritual Practice.  Sociology of Religion 76(4): 389–412.

Hess, David J.  1993.  Science in the New Age: The Paranormal, Its Defenders and Debunkers, and American Culture.  Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press.

Kripal, Jeffrey J. 2010.  Authors of the Impossible: The Paranormal and the Sacred.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

LeDrew, Stephen.  2015.  The Evolution of Atheism.  New York: Oxford University Press.

Lee, Lois.  2015.  Recognizing the Non-religious, Reimagining the Secular.  New York: Oxford University Press.

McClenon, James.  1984.  Deviant Science: The Case of Parapsychology.  Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Norenzayan, Ara and Will Gervais.  2013.  The Origins of Religious Disbelief.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 17(1): 20–25.

Smith, Jesse M.  2013.  Creating a Godless Community: The Collective Identity Work of Contemporary American Atheists.  Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52(1): 80–99.

Smith, Jesse M. 2017.  Can the Secular Be the Object of Belief and Belonging? The Sunday Assembly.  Qualitative Sociology 40:83–109.

Steensland, Brian, Jerry Z. Park, Mark D. Regnerus, Lynn D. Robinson, W. Bradford Wilcox, Robert D. Woodberry.  2000.  The Measure of American Religion: Toward Improving the State of the Art.  Social Forces 79(1):291–318.

Taves, Ann.  1999.  Fits, Trances, and Visions: Experiencing Religion and Explaining Experience from Wesley to James.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Zuckerman, Phil, Luke W. Galen, and Frank L. Pasquale.  2016.  The Nonreligious: Understanding Secular People and Societies.  New York: Oxford University Press.


Joseph O. Baker is an Associate Professor at the Department of Sociology & Anthropology at East Tennessee State University. His research interests includes the sociologies of religion, deviance, and culture, particularly patterns of religiosity and secularity, “folk” beliefs, public views of science, paranormal subcultures, penology, criminological theory, and theories of religion.

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2 thoughts on “Whither the Paranormal in Secular Studies?

  1. Thanks for the interesting findings.
    What is the theoretical import of these findings?
    Most human beings believe in souls, spirits, gods and demons, and some of them are likely to believe in telekinesis. Truly secular individuals, who don’t report any beliefs in souls and other spiritual entities, are a minority, and are unlikely to believe in hauntings, telekinesis, or Bigfoot.

    The psychology of religion has not banished any such beliefs from its purview, at least the way I practice it. I hate to plug my own work, but if you look at Psychological Perspectives on Religion and Religiosity (2015), you will see that the topic is discussed in detail, and here is how it is introduced:
    “Official” doctrines and “unofficial” popular beliefs and practices are united by a subjectivist worldview (Zusne & Jones, 1982) based on non-materialism. Both religions and para-religious belief systems, such as beliefs in “telepathy,” astrology, or communication with the dead, posit a causal system which is both cosmic and personal, challenging the impersonal reality of nature”.

    What you found is that religious nones are religious, and non-affiliated believers are believers. So we have a group of religious believers who are low on participation in rituals and congregations, but are otherwise religious, so it’s no great surprise that they are open to “para-religious” ideas.

    All beliefs about spirits and spirit powers should be investigated under the one heading of religion.
    What you are reporting are normal, (not paranormal) religious beliefs, ideas about the spirit world and the power of spiritual entities. Questions about ESP or hauntings should be included in any research on religiosity. Later on, we should drop the “paranormal” or “para-religious” (as well as the “spiritual”) labels altogether, and just talk about religion.

  2. My thanks to Professor Beit-Hallahmi for engaging the work and providing a critique. Allow me to respond to the most important criticisms, which are built on two assumptions about what “actually” counts as religion, both of which I think are culturally problematic and limiting to what we can study with regard to secularities.

    To say that the paranormal is “actually” religion is to overlook the cultural distinctions between these categories of beliefs and experiences, as well as the different organizational patterns of each. Book store managers put “paranormal” and “religious” romance books in different sections because they cater to different audiences. Or consider cultural distinctions related to stigma. The paranormal is stigmatized to a greater degree than traditional organized religions. Measure deviance as social response and it is no contest. If I tell my coworkers I believe in God, no one will bat an eye. If I tell them I’ve been abducted by aliens, my hard earned cultural capital, and by extension their credibility, will be on the line. The main point is this: if cultural distinctions are made out in the empirical world, we as researchers should take them seriously and not dismiss them.

    Likewise, saying that people who explicitly identify as having no religion are “actually” religious discredits people’s ability to understand their own lives. It’s as if we are saying, “We as researchers really know you’re religious, despite what you say about yourself.” Why not take people’s understandings of their own experiences, identities, and lives as meaningful? If I say I have no religion, why should academics get to tell me “no, actually you are religious”?

    More to the issue of research findings, greater granularity in studies of secularity is certainly needed, and there are a number of outcomes beyond supernatural beliefs where such distinctions are important. The empirical research is catching up quickly on this front.

    As for whether psychology has banished the paranormal, I am referring to the institutional marginalization of parapsychology rather than saying no psychologists look at paranormal beliefs. But it should be noted that psychological studies of the paranormal typically get classified as examinations of “superstition,” and some recent papers even go as far as calling it the study of “bullshit.” Fine as far as it goes, but the stigma in the labels is evident. To be clear, I have used, and will continue to use psychological studies of supernatural belief and often find great value in them, including those of Professor Beit-Hallahmi, whose pioneering empirical work on both religion and secularity I much admire. Hell, I even like the studies about “bullshit.” But I also think it is fair to question the conceptual adequacy of theoretical frameworks that omit cultural distinctions between religion and the paranormal, or classify all supernatural beliefs as the same, and thus as culturally monolithic.

    And I don’t intend to single out psychologists by any means. We sociologists are certainly no better, tending instead to just ignore the paranormal. Religious studies and anthropology have more thoroughly considered the paranormal, and that is often where those of us interested in this topic go for insight, regardless of what we field we call home.

    Most importantly for those of us who study secularities, if we limit secular studies only to people with no supernatural beliefs at all, it will be a narrow sub-field indeed. However, if we take cultural distinctions and self-narratives seriously, then there is much diversity to study on the margins of both religion and secularism, and in the vast area between, some of which includes the “paranormal.” But if we don’t take cultural distinctions and self-identification seriously, messy though they may be, we will: 1) impose our own conceptions onto the world rather than listening to the empirical data, and 2) unnecessarily limit the topics we examine. I’m hopeful that, collectively, we will do neither.

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