Recently, I watched “Houdini”, a mini-series based on the magician’s life. In one scene, a supporter of of the Spiritualist Movement and the fledgling field of Parapsychology declares to a skeptical Houdini, “It is science”. Houdini counters, “It is religion masquerading as science.” Similar notions and pseudoscience that were seen over a century ago are still being applied under the guise of “paranormal research” today. The only real difference is that gadgets have changed, equipped with more flashing lights and the venues have moved from private parlor rooms to national television. There are still believers taken in by unscrupulous con artists such as cold readers and pseudoscientists and are blinded by their own biases. They cling to the words of their favorite para-celebrities as gospel, and cannot be dissuaded by reason.
A few weeks ago, during a conversation on Facebook about how the paranormal community should strive find new “heros” to worship, religion was brought into the discussion. The point was made that there are strong parallels between religious fanatics and paranormal fanatics, and I agree. The concepts of an afterlife and a soul are rooted in various religions throughout human history. According to a 2009 Harris Poll of religious beliefs, 71% of respondents believe in soul survival after death. This is relevant to paranormal researchers, as we explore claims and try to understand why some people believe an experience might be paranormal and why others resist or even reject rational explanations for their experiences or “evidence”. As Michael Shermer explains in his book The Believing Brain:
“Beliefs come first, explanations for beliefs follow. I call this process belief-dependent realism, where our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it.”
Later, he discusses cognitive bias:
“Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive heuristics that guarantee that they are correct.”
Despite the title at the top, I’m not really asserting that zealous paranormal enthusiasts are forming an actual religion, but there are strong parallels to consider. Ninian Smart, a pioneer in secular religious studies, suggested in his book The Religious Experience of Mankind that there are six dimensions to a religion: 1) The Ritual Dimension, where believers congregate in sanctified spots to pray, worship, or give offerings. 2) The Mythical Dimension, where believers are taught and share stories of the origin of their deities and creation. 3) The Doctrinal Dimension where doctrines are created to explain and give a system of belief to the stories. 4) The Ethical Dimension where a code of ethics is incorporated, and often used to determine a believer’s fate after death. 5) The Social Dimension, in which a religion is more than systems of belief, but are organizations with communal and social significance. 6) The Experiential Dimension in which believers hope to have contact with the spiritual through ritual, and ultimately, experience that world.
I see similarities in these dimensions and the paranormal community. For example, The Ritual Dimension could be seen in paranormal conventions, where like minded enthusiasts gather and reinforce their beliefs and pay homage to their “leaders”, the para celebrities they watch on TV. In the Doctrinal Dimension, where people share unsubstantiated ideas which reinforce their larger belief, such as 1% of orbs are paranormal, ghosts disrupt electromagnetic fields, children and animals are more perceptive to ghosts, etc. The Social Dimension can be seen in paranormal social media groups, paranormal teams forming “families”, fans bonding over their favorite paranormal TV shows and para celebrities. Finally, and this is probably the strongest parallel, The Experiential Dimension, where believers desire to and attempt to contact the other side, and capture proof of it. Many paranormal enthusiasts become upset or even hostile when their beliefs, their “evidence”, or their “heros” are challenged. Some, to the point of fanaticism.
During the several years I’ve been an administrator for paranormal sites and been writing my blog, I’ve encountered people who, even though they asked for opinions, got angry with me when I offered rational explanations for their claims or evidence. Some of these kind loving folks responded that they hoped I get pushed by an unseen force or tormented by negative entity so “then you’ll believe”. (Happy to report it hasn’t happened.) These kinds of responses are not unique to me. I have several friends who have been stalked, harassed and threatened just for giving educated opinions challenging a paranormal claim or supposed evidence. This behavior reinforces how for some, these beliefs are deeply entrenched and serve a bigger purpose for the believer, to provoke such anger and even hatred toward anyone who might contradict them.
One disturbing example of this is when Military Veterans Paranormal did extensive research on a famous haunted location and discovered that the history and ghost stories told on tours, TV, and books over the years, were false. This prompted a harsh backlash from some zealots in the paranormal community who went so far as to state they wished their members had been killed during their military service. Let’s step back and look at this: people wished harm on other people over debunking a ghost story. I could see anger for those who perpetuated the false stories, but not for those who uncovered the truth. If anyone had a reason to be angry, it would be the owners who might face a loss in revenue. But according to the group, the owners were supportive of their findings. While discussing this situation with Kenny Biddle and Lou Castillo on their show “Geeks and Ghosts”, Lou, a military veteran, likened those critics to terrorists he fought in combat. At first glance that might seem extreme, but really it isn’t. The only difference is that terrorists act on their beliefs, but the same unreasonable anger and unjustified hatred is there.
Another disconcerting example is when serious discrepancies surfaced concerning one para-celebrity’s education and military credentials he has been presenting in his bio on various sites over the years. Naturally, this upset people who honestly earned their degrees and is disrespectful to military veterans who have put themselves at risk to serve our country. Instead of striving to set the record straight and producing evidence to disprove the accusations, this person went on the offensive and made “hit lists” of his “stalkers”, even posting a woman’s home address on his Facebook page. As disturbing as this behavior is, what’s more unsettling is how some of his fans defended him and joined in on the attacks of his perceived “enemies”. From an early age, most of us were taught lying is wrong, so why would people who most likely never met this man, or at the most snapped a picture with him at some convention somewhere, defend his behavior and attack the people who simply exposed the discrepancies? This is speculation, but it is possible that the ideas he promotes in his book and TV show may reinforce a larger belief system for them, and anything that weakens one link threatens the chain as a whole.
My purpose here isn’t to judge or criticize religious or paranormal beliefs, since I harbor a few of my own. We all carry our own biases, and it is easy to let emotions override reason when it comes to anything we feel passionate about. But it doesn’t get us any closer to answers we claim we are seeking if we label ourselves investigators. That is why I encourage critical thinking in paranormal research, to help us keep our biases in check and distinguish fact from fantasy.
Michael Shermer, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies – How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths
New York: Times Books 2011, 5, 258
Ninian Smart, The Religious Experience of Mankind
New York, Charles Scribner’s Sons 1969