[Warning: There are spoilers in this post, particularly for Netflix’s Crime Scene: Disappearance at the Cecil Hotel.]
I’m a big fan of paranormal stuff. I love the X-Files and listening to paranormal podcasts (Astonishing Legends, Lore and the Cryptonaut Podcast being my favorites in the genre).
But I’m also a big skeptic. What draws my interest to the paranormal is not really a belief in the existence of most of the things that are described, but a love of the stories themselves. I’m often listening for the seeds of something to include in worldbuilding or fiction, where the “reality” of an event or phenomenon doesn’t really matter. If you’d like some examples of my skepticism, I’ve placed some of my personal conclusions on popularly-discussed topics below.1
I’m inclined to disbelieve the supernatural (or extraterrestrial/”ultraterrestrial”) nature of such phenomena. I’m fascinated by the propensity of humans to misinterpret, misremember and create narrative out of unrelated details, as well as the ideas and “memes” that gain widespread cultural traction. And, of course, the stories.
A great example: the disappearance and tragic death of Elisa Lam at the Cecil Hotel (as recently documented on Netflix). I remember seeing the video of Ms. Lam in the elevator on the internet, pitched as evidence of something (never quite defined) that was “supernatural,” and remember it being cited in the description of a “Bloody Mary”-like game played with an elevator (this may have been Astonishing Legends or Cryptonaut, if memory serves). Just some of hundreds of ways that video (which seemed eerier because the police had slowed it down in hopes that that would make it easier to recognize the person in it before they released it to the public) was pointed to as “evidence” of the supernatural. But it wasn’t: it was a recording of someone with very real mental health issues in the throes of a delusional break that tragically led to her death.
But part of me wants to believe: the world would be more interesting if we were being visited by extraterrestrials and dimensional-traveling bigfoots and mothmen, being regularly haunted by the spirits of the deceased and influenced by supernatural forces that interact with us in unseen ways. If I’m mostly Scully, I’m a little Mulder, too.
And, given my general epistemological skepticism, I’m willing to leave the possibilities open. Even as I vehemently disagree with ancient alien theories as based in racism and a lack of understanding that humans 4,000 years ago were just as intelligent as humans today (if lacking the benefit of the additional millennia of experimentation and gathered knowledge we enjoy), I do admit the possibility that Earth has at some time been visited by intelligent life from other planets. At the end of the day, I wasn’t there and I cannot be sure what actually happened. I realize that and admit that; while I defer to skeptical assessments, I’m not so arrogant as to assume my suppositions couldn’t be incorrect.
Alright, what the hell is all of this about, really? In listening to these podcasts and watching these shows, I’ve been thinking a lot about how my religious faith differs (or doesn’t) from the fervent belief of many in the supernatural nature of these phenomena. I’m reminded of a Dan Bern song, “Talkin Alien Abduction Blues,” which includes the lyrics: “But once a week I meet with twelve/Other folks who’ve been abducted too/I tell my story/They tell theirs/I don’t believe them, though.”2
Funny because it’s true, maybe. My faith in Christianity, ultimately, is a belief in the supernatural. Is it different from belief in more “folkloric” topics I’ve described above? The knee-jerk Christian reaction is: “Of course, it is; how dare you!” The knee-jerk atheist reaction is: “Of course it’s not; just one more delusion.” If you’ve been reading this blog for long (or have heard my wife speak about me), you know that “it’s a bit more nuanced then that” would be my motto, if I had one.
But what, if anything, makes them different? I’m going to lay out my own thoughts (perhaps arguments) here, but they are for you to agree with or deny as you will. Go ahead; I won’t know the difference.
How are the subjects alike?
Belief, Lack of Evidence, Personal Experience
The very thing that raises the question at all is the combination that: (1) there are people who believe in either the paranormal or religion, and (2) there is insufficient evidence–and, when it comes down to it, no real methodology–for proving the objective existence of either.2 And yet, there are people whose personal experiences (myself included) have led to a staunch belief in one or the other (or both).
But we know that experiences may be deceiving. Our perceptions sometimes lie, we often see what we want to see, and memories can be problematic (we see this most often in inconsistent bystander accounts of the same event, but a far more dramatic demonstration is the false memories “recovered” from children during the Satanic Panic of the 80’s).
Proof Remains a Possibility
At the same time, the possibility of one day having undeniable proof of the truth of these beliefs remains open. It is possible that, someday, someone will catch a sasquatch, or capture an alien or their craft, that the Ark of the Covenant will be discovered, or that Jesus will come again. This possibility lends a weight to beliefs that leads people to focus on seeking that proof over understanding the meaning of the beliefs. In the case of the paranormal, the former may be the proper focus; in the case of the latter, I’ve argued (and will continue to) that the meaning of the beliefs is more important than proving them.
Reliant on Core Assumptions
Another way that these ideas share a background for comparison is that they both tend to rely on assumptions about the way existence works. In the case of Christianity, there is a foundational belief that there is a spiritual reality and purpose to the world we experience. Without that belief, there is no need to examine whether Christianity might accurately describe reality. Likewise, without a belief that some part of a human being survives death, there’s no need to investigate ghosts or EVPs.
How Might We Separate the Types of Belief?
If we’re going to believe in the existence of any objective truth to existential realities (which I do), then there is, perhaps, a simple answer: something is true or not regardless of whether I (or anyone else) believe. So, then, it is possible for one thing to be true (“Black-Eyed Kids” for example) and the other (Christ’s resurrection) to be false. As stated above, the issue is not one of the truth, but of our inability to demonstrably demonstrate the truth. We are, at the end of the day, left with choosing to believe in one or the other based on experience, logical thought and what (fragmentary) objective evidence we have.
As an aside on this topic, some aspects of the supernatural may be falsifiable in the local event because they are revealed to have been a hoax. For example, the table rappings and Spiritualist performances of the Fox sisters. But such revealed hoaxes don’t answer questions about the phenomenon as a whole–disproving the Fox sisters doesn’t disprove the ideas of Spiritualism. Of course, as hoaxes mount in a particular field, we are, probably rightfully, more and more inclined not to believe in the claims and assertions of that specific field or idea.
Without an ability to test the objective truth of our beliefs, or to truly share those experiences we might have had that convict us of our beliefs, one of the remaining tools to test these sorts of ideas (whether religious or paranormal) is the internal consistency of the details of the idea. The more speculation a narrative requires to answer the questions of “why is this happening” or “why is this happening this way?”, the less believable it is. This is true of both fiction and stories purported to be truthful. Where supposition about the nature of reality is necessary to fill these gaps, faith and belief in the paranormal are similar. Where a lot of gap-filling is necessary to make the story make sense as a cohesive narrative, we have an even greater issue. This happens quite a bit in alien encounters, where the story often involves a lot of “why would they [the aliens] do that, or need to do that”, “why would the aliens be confused by X when they have technology that allows them to safely and [presumably] quickly traverse the cosmos?”, “what’s the point of that encounter at all?”
As a set of disparate individual stories, cobbled together to form some sort of cohesion in the lore of Ufology, there is, naturally, a good deal of confusion and contradiction between the ideas themselves–making for, at least, a lot of passionate and fascinating argument about what “is really going on.”
I’ve argued elsewhere that Christianity, taken as a whole, presents a very coherent argument about the nature and meaning of reality. Yes, there are contradictions in the scriptures. Yes, they were also created in different times and places by different people. But together, we are given a cogent depiction of a creator God who is interested in love, goodness, and relationship over black and white rules, and who is willing to sacrifice and to stand with creation in the pursuit of those things. Even if on a narrative and intuitive level, the thrust of Christianity as a set of beliefs just seems to have much more substance than most paranormal “theories.” To me, this is the result of Christian scriptures being “God-breathed,” not a demand for dogged literalism.
And, yes, there are (myself included!) lots of people arguing about Christianity. The difference from most paranormal arguments, though, is that arguments between believers are less focused on “what is going on”–which is largely a settled matter of the faith–and more on, “what does it mean?”
Meaning and Purpose
Here is where paranormal beliefs and religious ones differ most greatly, and we should, I think, separate paranormal beliefs into two camps here for fair comparison.
In the first camp are those beliefs that seek to tell us something about the world around us, that are attempts at observation and description of immediate reality in a manner loosely approximating “scientific.” Ufology usually falls into this camp (but can blend with the other), as does the search for cryptids. These types of belief can be readily separated from religious ideologies as being fundamentally oriented toward a different goal and subject.
In the second camp are those that seek to describe something about greater or ultimate reality–beliefs in demons, ghosts, malevolent and beneficent spirits, ESP and psychic abilities. These beliefs are closer to being religious in nature–in some cases should rightly be considered religious ideas. Nevertheless, they usually lack guidance for the living of one’s life (save perhaps for warnings against certain kinds of behavior) or the kind of theological depth of explanatory power for the broader meaning of existence.
To be certain, Christianity makes assertions about the (supernatural) nature of ultimate reality. But it is less interested, actually, in describing in detail the cosmic structure of things and more interested in providing a source of meaning and guidance on how to live a meaningful, fulfilling, and joyful life in the here and now. Jesus sometimes speaks of the “world to come,” and of ultimate judgment, and of the eternal life of the person. But he is more focused in his ministry in answering the question, “How, then, should we live?” There is the fundamental difference between paranormal beliefs that attempt mostly to describe some asserted aspect of reality and religious belief, which is more interested in providing both practical and cosmically meaningful guidance on dealing with our existence and lives–both in senses quotidian and ultimate.
Maybe it just comes down to this: similar issues of epistemology, existential and objective truth, and our own desires and emotional needs exist for both belief in the paranormal and in religious faith. I tell my story, and they tell theirs. I don’t believe them, though.
1 (1) The Dyatlov Pass Incident: Based on my understanding of the known facts, I think it is highly likely that the Soviet military was testing aerial mines in the area, causing the injuries and panic that led to the deaths of the skiers. Not as sexy as infrasound or mythical beasts, but much more grounded in the probabilities.
(2) The Ourang Medan: A myth; the ship never existed.
(3) Most places where applicable: The Great Horned Owl. C.f. the Mothman, the Jersey Devil and Kelly Hopkinsville.
(4) “Black-Eyed Kids” and a number of similar phenomena: an urban legend perpetuated by societal anxieties and the popularity of “creepypasta” stories. See the “Zozo” legend, especially.
(5) Shadow people: errors in human perception (with pareidolia and personification) in some cases, night terrors in others.
(6) EVPs: pareidolia combined with (intentionally) low-grade equipment susceptible to electromagnetic interference and picking up stray radio signals.
2 If you take nothing else away from this post, look up Dan Bern. He’s an underappreciated genius of music, having written hundreds of songs in a multitude of styles, all of them witty, thoughtful and highly entertaining. I recommend starting with “Jerusalem”, “Marilyn”, “I’m Not the Guy”, “Eva” and, of course “Talkin’ Alien Abduction Blues.”
3 As I’ve argued elsewhere, science–while it tells us much of value about the world we live in, from evolution to germ theory, tectonics to particle physics–cannot comment on the existence of the supernatural, whether faith-based or based in folklore, because it cannot create falsifiable theories and experiments based upon hypotheses in line with the scientific method. A refusal to accept the limitations of science quickly makes a religion out of science that then falls subject to the same issues we’re discussing. It is my belief that the rational person should both accept what science can tell us about our existence (preferring science to literal readings of scriptures when discussing the physical world) and what it cannot (preferring metaphysics, contemplation, mystic experience and religion or spirituality to tell us about the meaning of it all).