Now let’s get this straight. I am NOT a Spiritualist, a Spiritist, a psychic, a medium, or anything similar. I’m an Anglican Christian, and one who happens to be passionately interested in psychical research. Still it came as a surprise today to learn from the JREF of this –
Now as it happens today is the busiest I have been in a very long time, and I really did not intend to blog about anything, but as the old gal disappears, I felt a few words were in order. Firstly, my best wishes to everyone who was involved in the publication — I know only too well how traditional print and broadcast media are struggling to compete with new media claiming an increasing share of advertising revenues. ITN is the poster child for this issue; as more satellite channels and web advertising take up, commercial television has taken a huge hit. ITN have bounced back, with advertising revenues up, but a lot of traditional print media has suffered what may be an irreversible downturn, and had to look to internet editions and subscriber services to pick up the slack.
Secondly, I am aware of the byzantine politics of the Spiritualist movement, and the complex theological, administrative and personality clashes which sometimes (always?) arise. In this the Spiritualist National Union is much like any other church, or much like any other organisation, be it poetry club or gardening society.
In those two factors, economic issues and doubtless some political manoeuvring we see the immediate reasons for the decline of Psychic News (a newspaper that as long term reader of this blog may recall once featured me on the front page!). It is a shame, but possibly to be expected. And yet…
CJ is confuzzled…
The reason for my confusion is simple. While the actual reasons for the ending of publication are pretty straight forward — see the Paranormal Review blog for a good explanation and commentary — I am deeply puzzled as to why the Psychic New should have fallen a victim to the challenge of new media etc. While independent it was published by the SNU, and as such one might have expected it to be immensely popular among adherents of that organisation, which maintains a good number of churches, though possibly not enough to give the PN a future. Still, every time I go to Tesco to get my shopping I see this, and several similar publications…
There has been an explosion of ‘psychic’ publications. We have also this one…
and probably others I don’t know about. Back in the early years of this decade I noticed that Jane Millichip was changing LIVING TV from a channel that basically was Loaded magazine on screen, for the lads and laddettes, to something closer to the women’s interest magazines like Chat etc – a brilliant, visionary formula which paid off in spades. They brought Most Haunted to our screens, John Edwards, Colin Fry, Tony Stockwell, and a host of others. Above all, Derek Acorah became a household name.
I doubt Spiritualists were wildly enthusiastic: the few members of the SNU I know seemed concerned that the glitz and excitement of celebrity mediumship was at odds with their own experiences of ‘Spirit’, and there were as always accusations of fraud. It’s an odd fact, but spiritualism does seem to attract critical thinkers, perhaps because it is such an empirically based religion — it professes to demonstrate the reality of its theological claims on platforms in spiritualist churches up and down the country every week after all, and almost every spiritualist i have ever spoken to has been convinced by the evidence they have seen of afterlife communication — yet remain sceptical of the claims of other mediums they have also witnessed. As such, they can be difficult audience to address for their Class A mediums (a designation something like ‘vicar’, not a dangerous drug!) and I doubt many Church of England vicars could handle the level of criticism and empirical demands of a Spiritualist congregation. Quite the contrary to public perception in my opinion, spiritualists are not wild and wooly believers – they are often VERY sceptically minded folks, with a “i’ll believe when you show me proof” attitude.
As the 90’s ended and teenage Wiccan wannabes ceased to be fashionable and became more and more figures of ridicule, many who had been intoxicated by the promise of The Craft now wanted something more real, more empirical, and more directly answering to their needs – the need to see if their was a life after death, to deal with the terrible pain of bereavement, to deal with the inevitability of our personal deaths. These are real human concerns – you can find them on atheist forums, discussed and disected, just as much as in churches and in psychic groups.
Around 2003-2004 I think the UK underwent a major cultural transformation, as a TV-led taste for the psychic and for empircal rather than occult (in its literal sense of ‘hidden’) religions picked up. People did not just want comfort, vague promises of ‘pie in the sky when you die’ — they wanted proof. They wanted direct spiritual experiences – signs and wonders, something that the Charismatic Christian Churches had been providing since the late sixties, and especially in the late eighties and early nineties, and that Wicca had maybe provided for others. A religion that had in my youth been the staple of advertising jokes (I’m with the Woolwich/Toffee Crisp, etc, etc) and associated with elderly ladies and slightly dotty maiden aunts in the public mind suddenly became credible and relevant — and more than that, it provided something really appealing — the chance to experience the truth, not be told it second hand.
The years that Living TV and the psychic boom led to a population of facebook names like Bob Smith (medium) - an example I made up though there may be one – happens to coincide with the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, and the grim litany of names in the media of our fallen warriors. Historians always point out that the years of the the First World War marked a highpoint in Spiritualism (or so it is claimed) — yet after the grim death toll of the war it faded away again, and the Second World War does not seem to have seen a huge increase in numbers. I don’t know if there is a link, but there may be — please do comment with your thoughts on any of this, I’m no expert, I’m just thinking aloud!
And suddenly we have an explosion of popular interest in the paranormal and the psychic. Two other things arise from it — firstly, a plethora of Ghosthunting TV shows, following the path blazed by Most Haunted — and with them an explosion of paranormal research groups, up from maybe 30 in the late seventies to over 700 in the UK by 2006, if my memory of Dr Ciaran O Keefe’s research is correct – again a “hands on” empirical approach to finding out where spiritual truth stands. That ghosthunting group can be seen as a “New Religious Movements” is I think self evident – they are often technological approaches to ancient questions, a sort of hands-on theological investigation. Enquiring minds that might have been involved in a church group, or in a occult prctice, or in a scientific pursuit were more and more going out and seeking personal experience – if in the sixties they dropped acid and sought Nirvana, in the seventies looked to the skies for UFo’s and talked to space-brothers, and in the eighties joined a charismatic church or in the nineties a Wiccan coven, in the 2000’s these same peopel became ghosthunters or psychic, or organised sceptics…
Hey, something to offend everyone? Yes, I regard the modern development of many organised sceptic groups as allied to these same cultural phenomena, albeit a critical response to them. For established folks like CSI(COP), the JREF, or UK Skeptics it must be puzzling — now one can hardly throw a stick without hitting Sceptics in Little Snoring, or some other sceptical group. While the mainstream media has not been as kind to sceptics as the psychics – Derren Brown, James Randi and Penn & Teller made it by having other very real talents, ditto the immensely charismatic Dr Richard Wiseman, and Dr Susan Blackmore and Dr Chris French — there are now dozens it seems of sceptical podcasts (sceptics seem very New Media savvy) and while scepticism has been around as a movement since the 1950’s, i think the explosion of interest may well be a direct response to the ‘paranormalisation’ of our popular culture.
I’ll go a stage further, and even allege the New Atheists, and the public interest in Professor Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion and the TV shows he did on these subjects was a response to the same upswing of ‘empirical’ religion (undoubtedly strengthened immensely by 9/11 and the genuine fear of religious fanaticism and old fashioned xenophobia as alien religions and ethnicities become apparent on our streets.)
Ironically I think the thing the New Atheists and Dawkins champion, empiricism and science, have won the battle for the minds of the UK — and the strength of their victory, and the fear of faith based beliefs, can be seen in the upswing of empirically based ‘psychic’ and ‘ghosthunting’ faiths. The adherents of these “new religions” have taken on-board the dangers of dogma and blind faith, and arcane theological formulations, and are part of the scientifically minded “show me the evidence” culture of doubt and “I’ll believe it when I see it”. The Atheists are partly a response to some of the spiritual anarchy that has arisen as more and more weird claims are peddles as truth — I often offend by my statement that I prefer institutionalised religion to spiritual anarchy, but that is a discussion for another day — but the New Atheists are at least partially independent of all this – and share the same basic critique of taking things on faith many of the psychics, spiritualists and ghosthunters do as they reject the established faiths and go looking for themselves for the evidence.
The New Sceptics – they serve their role in the new religious landscape of the UK, providing (often badly, sometimes very well), a critique of the experiences that are taken as evidential by the ghosthunters and psychics, explaining them usually in terms of psychology, or less often having a stab at neurological explanations. New Scepticism is a response to the psychics and ghosthunters to some extent, as Dawkins and the New Atheists are a response to the established Churches?
So why did Psychic News fail?
Well we know the obvious reasons, and looking at the glossy covers of the “rival” psychic magazines, we can why people might pick them up – glossy, polished, exciting, rather then poor old Psychic News. As I have hinted above, “people hate noobs”; while SNU churches are undoubtedly welcoming to new members, the criticism and rational analysis I might expect to find of the celebrity mediums in a spiritualist church may make them appear stuffy or conservative to the fans of the big name mediums who pack out theatres all over the country, rather than spiritualist churches. We have seen this before – in Anglican resentment of John Wesley’s popular preaching in the 18th century, in the distaste for Charles Spurgeon’s evangelical meetings in the 19th century, in the at times snide response of the ‘traditional’ churches to the Charismatic churches in the 1980’s and 1990’s. And sometimes, as history has shown, the conservatives are right — one remembers the collapse of the Nine o clock Service rave-church back in the 90’s, and hell, plenty of big name psychics and mediums have been exposed — some like Colin Fry in the pages of Psychic News itself.
We see the same thing in ghosthunting circles – perhaps the SPR (www.spr.ac. uk ) could do more to reach the new ghosthunters, though it appears to me they are, in Atheism – many critiques of the New Atheists come from ‘old atheists’ rather than the religious — and even in scepticism, where politics and personality clashes are as apparent as in any human group. Enthusiastic ‘noobs’ (an internet culture term for a ‘newbie’) are often a little brash, a little over the top, a little – well ‘enthusiastic’ (in the 19th century sense) – for the tastes of the ‘establishment’.
If I am thinking correctly though, it is not really the fault of those ‘establishments’ though, because a sceptically empirically minded bunch, be they psychic practioners, ghosthunters, sceptics, or whatever, out to tear done the nonsense they perceive in popular belief, and to find out the facts for themselves, put the emphasis not on membership of a church, a certain prestige group, or any organisation that impedes their independent thinking, but in their own experiences, their own thoughts, and their own findings. None like chiefs – they smack of dogma – and none like idols much either. The new spiritualism may be a grass-roots movement that nods at organised Spiritualism, but can’t be bothered to check if their beliefs and experiences tally with the principles of the SNU or orthodox spiritualist theology, or to get out of bed to attend a service or meeting — this is religion for the ‘me’ generation, and they want a feel good Nescafe friendly morning read not an exposition of often technical spiritualist thinking and history: emotional, personal, experiential, not intellectual and institutionalised religion. The divide between the It’s Fate readers and the psychic news readers may be like the divide between the readers of Paranormal magazine and the ghosthunters and those who subscribe to the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research or the European Journal of Parapsychology – and that I think may be the key to why Psychic News has died, even as psychism as a belief system may be reaching its apogee in the uK??
Dunno, just some quick thoughts. I’d better go do some work, but I’d love to hear your comments…