Ghosts, God and the Trouble With Ghosthunters.
Right, a quick post today, which will cheekily incorporate in the second half a re-post of some material I posted years ago on this very topic, because let’s face it, no one is going to click on a link to read another entry. Many of you know I have great respect for the sceptic writer/researcher Hayley Stevens, especially as she constantly manages to actually get out there and do real research, and to write more than I can. I put it down to my age – “it’s never how it used to be/what happened to all that energy?” Today Hayley has written an interesting piece on a site for young atheists, skeptics and freethinkers, The Heresy Club. I had to have a nose, despite being neither young, nor as it happens an atheist.
As usual Hayley’s article is excellent, well written and informative, and deals with real issues – an issue I care deeply about, the damage that poor research ethics in amateur ghost groups can do when they are let loose in private houses or even businesses and upset or scare people badly. Now I’m not going to quote Hayley’s article in full, because I want you to go read it for yourself. Do that now. No summary I give would be fair, because she makes several points.
However I am notoriously contrarian (freethinking?) so I’m going to disagree with one fundamental thing Hayley wrote, which is at the heart of the article for me, as an Anglican and a “ghosthunter” of sorts. She writes –
Looking back now, on those early years, I can see that the whole culture surrounding ghost hunting that I became involved with was a mish-mash of religious practices and beliefs that were all geared towards convincing the people involved that their very soul was in danger from evil at all times, and that invisible enemies were around us just waiting for us to mess up so that they could attack us psychically.
Now given in the past I have suggested that ghosthunting groups do sometimes take on the attributes of a religious group, and in fact enjoyed once a great discussion on the phone with Jeff Belanger where we talked about this, I can’t disagree too strongly. However, s always I’m going to raise issues.
Number one is the fact that in the sociology of religion defining what a religion or religious group is really proves difficult. Patriotism, political parties and ideologies, even perhaps scepticism or atheism are defined by some as having the same kind of principles involved, and hence “secular religions”. I don’t mean by this the people who used to turn up to sneer on Richard Dawkin’s forum and say “Atheism is a religion: he is your guru.” I’m talking about serious academic sociologists desperately trying to pin down what defines something as a religious behaviour. I happen to have spent a lot of my life as an academic studying religion: so I’m not going to get sidetracked in to a huge discussion of this, which would bore everyone. However it raises another point, which Alex Gabriel has already highlighted in the comments much better than I ever could! We can clearly see the Roman Catholic Church, or the CofE, or various other religions denominations are “religious” because of what they do and their detailed creeds. Yet those groups inpose really strict behavourial codes and ethical requirements on their members, and while I may claim to be an Anglican, many Anglicans might say “hey CJ you are not – you don’t go to Church enough/have shabby morals/dabble in the occult” or whatever. We know what these groups stand for – they are authoritarian in a real sense, and people who don’t do the “right” things get kicked out, or told they are “bad” members of the group.
Now some religions have very little in the way of formal dogmas, theology, doctrine and imposition. Hinduism is incredibly diverse, and hard for me to comprehend as a religion cos I’m used to this rather more authoritarian structure, but there are core beliefs, and social measures to ensure consistency of practice as far as I can see. Wicca is perhaps the best example of a theological anarchy – the various “wiccan denominations” have core theological beliefs, but those outsoide of the formal coven-structures, which in the 90′s I think though do not know comprised most of the self-proclaimed adherents of the Wiccan religion could believe an incredible diversity of things about the nature of the divine, afterlife, and karma etc. This “folk wicca” ran the risk of being mistaken for the coven traditions, and just because a complete loony did something vile in the name of the religion, well it was not in any way the fault of any other adherents of that faith. As Alex Gabriel wrote
“You hear a lot from New Agers and ecumenicals, don’t you, that the coercive and oppressive elements of religion are all from the institutional structures? But this is a brilliant example of how bad beliefs themselves can be oppressive.”
Yes I agree totally, well said Alex, and I’m no fan of heavy authoritarian religion, but I am painfully aware of the dangers posed by liberty of conscience. I absolutely hold the principle of freedom of religious belief and non-belief, but as anyone who knows me know I distinguish between beliefs and practices/behaviours. If a practice is illegal, and damaging to others, your freedom of belief does not make it right in my mind. Still we could disagree on this and still we are no closer to my actual issue with Hayley’s article.
Many ghosthunting groups do adopt a sort of “folk spiritualism”, and in some cases other religious beliefs, In the USA we see a lot of very religious ghosthunters – they often term themselves demonologists, and look at things in terms of a very religious paradigm, because the base culture there is profoundly religious compared with the UK. Yet in all my ghosthunting experience nearly none of the participants have been Christian believers, or held to any of the other mainstream faiths — with the exception of David Carter-Green, and on the social and academic side David Sivier. And in fact, belief in the paranormal does not seem to map well to what most people would see as “religious belief” in any way — in fact quite the opposite.
Now years ago I wrote a piece I consider one of the most important ton this blog, called “Are Education and Atheism Enemies of Reason”. The title was half joking half serious, but it’s so directly relevant to what we are talking about here i’m going to reproduce it before moving on to discuss the implications…
“The majority of Britons believe in heaven and life after death, new research suggests.” The BBC News story here is well worth reading, and shows some interesting things. Firstly we are a lot less sceptical about New Age ideas and certain fringe practices like astrology and tarot cards than we used to be – what Randi’s people categorize as “woo”. However we are more sceptical about certain aspects of the supernatural than a decade ago in 1998 – in short popular belief in the supernatural is constantly waxing and waning; I think I could have told you that. The popular culture of the 1970′s was far more sympathetic to parapsychology say than the 90′s were – and yet the 2000′s saw a sudden interest in Spiritualism connected with certain TV shows.
I have a rather heretical thought about ‘paranormal’ beliefs, and their relationship to atheism. I originally posed a question on Professor Dawkins forum as it was inspired by his show The Enemies of Reason. I am sure the Professor has better things to do than answer my questions though, (and he didn’t) and so I have revised it and asked it here.
I had been reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983) by noted mathematician, science writer and skeptic Martin Gardner. In 1976 Martin Gardner was a founder member of CSI(COP), which has done a great deal over the years in debunking paranormal claims and fighting the rise of superstition. Many readers of this blog may have his enjoyed his Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science.
In Chapter 3 of The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener – “Why I am not a Paranormalist” – Gardner mounts a blistering attack on superstition. It contains many of the themes touched in Dawkin’s The Enemies of Reason, and one curious disagreement.
Martin Gardner, 1983 wrote:
As always with such manias, causes are multiple: the decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated, the resurgence of Protestant Fundamentalism, disenchantment with science for creating a technology that is damaging the environment and building horrendous war weapons, increasingly poor quality of science instruction on all levels of schooling, and many other factors…
I found that first bit fascinating. Now Gardner is not Fundamentalist obviously, he is not a Christian, though he is a Fideist rejecting all special revelation, but remaining a theist. Like most scholars he sees Fundamentalism as arising recently (within the last century pretty much) and a bad thing– but he regards the “decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated” as a key factor in the rise of pseudo-science, cults and superstition?
It in no way justifies religious belief, but it is very interesting as a claim. OK, so I doubted. Gardner is a theist – he must be biased. What are his sources? Luckily he references them. It is the article Superstitions Old and New by William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark in The Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 4, Summer 1980.
Gardner says they
…reported on their surveys of how beliefs in certain aspects of the current occult mania correlated with religious faith. They found people with no professed religion were the most inclined to believe in ESP and extraterrestrial UFOs. Paranormal cults were strongest in areas where the traditional churches were weakest.
Never trusting anyone’s opinions I have just been through the Sheep/Goat tests from my 1993 Paranormal Beliefs Survey of attendees at a lecture series in Cheltenham. The test used by the group was an early Sheep/Goat test which measured some religious claims as well as paranormal ones. Later we adopted the 1979 New Australian Sheep/Goat Test by Michael Thalbourne, but this earlier version suited my purposes. There were 83 respondents, and while I have not had time to perform a proper statistical test – the data is on stapled questionnaires, not in electronic format and it’s too late to type it all in tonight – there does appear to be a very strong correlation between non-belief in God and belief in UFOs as alien visitors, and between non-belief in Jesus as divine and belief in both ghosts & magic, to give a few examples. I recall now being once asked asked if many parapsychologists were Christian – and I said none at all that I knew of, they were all atheists. I have just looked at my “psychics” who I sometimes work with on testing – only one identifies as Spiritualist, two as atheist (Atheism is VERY common among Spiritualists following the example of Arthur Findlay – indeed Roll’s Campaign For Philosophical Freedom is an atheist organization which makes Dawkins look like a vicar) and seven “none”; six more are unclassifiable.
Not one professed belief in any “orthodox” faith. Now I’m sure Dawkins would regard my Anglicanism as just as much superstitious woo as does say crystal power, so this is a false distinction to him: but the evidence seems to suggest to me that the modern irrationalist supernaturalism is inversely related to traditional (non-fundamentalist) religious beliefs. I think whoever misquoted G.K. Chesterton was right, even if as is possible Chesterton never actually said it “when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing: he believes in anything”. Correlation is not causality – and of course the better educated college students are more likely to believe in ghosts etc -
assuming the Skeptical Inquirer is cited correctly! So perhaps the increase in woo is just a by product of the decline of traditional religious belief, increased secularism and atheism, and better education? The evidence certainly seems to point that way???
I find this both interesting, amusing, and deeply ironic.
So I wrote a few years back, and I have discussed at length elsewhere the issues. What concerns me is that actually while Hayley as a rational sceptic may be an excellent investigator, “atheism” as a non-belief does not actually necessarily imply scepticism of any claim but the existence of a God. There are plenty of loony and not bright atheists, just as there are plenty of loony and thick as two short planks Christians out there. Furthermore, rationality does not always map to good personal ethics, as I think we all recognize, and even rational people make mistakes – though like the Christians who confess they are crap at it by definition (we are all sinners), they may spot the problem and be able to do something about it.
Still, it’s peoples right to believe what they like, and no one has a monopoly on how to investigate spooks etc, or say what we should believe. The actions/behaviours/practices which are damaging to others should however clearly be subject to scrutiny, and I’m absolutely in favour of higher ethical standards in the field. I just don’t think that religiosity, in the normal sense, is much to do with a lot of this — and I hope I have somehow made that point. Yes my personal research ethics may be terrible, as I often joke, but that stands completely independent of the actual religious framework I exist within (Church of England liberal, in case you wondered.)
So as Martin Gardner said, I think the decline of traditional religious belief may actually underlie, rather than be the opposite of, this explosion of popular ghosthunting. Still a great article by Hayley, and got me thinking as normal. Now I really must go do some work!