Sunday, March 20, 2011

Supernaturalism in an age of science

By Steve Rensberry   

 The brute facts of existence can be a hard thing to bear for us mere mortals, so much so that throughout nearly every culture and nation on earth there are people who wrap themselves around a set of beliefs that have neither grounding in science nor in simple, everyday common sense. Even in the year 2011, it's fair to say that modern humanity is nearly awash in a sea of supernaturalism, religious ideology, magical thinking and paranormal obsessions--its respective adherents each convinced that there is more than enough evidence to prove as true their own unique set of propositions.
   Of the approximate 6.7 billion people who live on planet earth, a clear minority, about 14 to 16 percent according to some estimates, are considered secular. About 2 billion people adhere to some form of Christianity, 1.5 billion to Islam, 900 million to Hinduism, 400 million to Confucianism or some other type of traditional Chinese religion, and 375 million to Buddhism. Some researchers have estimated the total number of religions in the world at more than 4,000. Some say it is as high as 10,000. Add to this the scores of people who believe in ghosts and other such apparitions, and in such things as alien-piloted UFOs, werewolves, the Loch Ness monster, ESP, reincarnation, astrology, telepathy, clairvoyance, channeling, prophets and psychics. See: Religious facts, Adherents, Paranormal.
   Why the persistence of so many contradictory, other-worldly beliefs? May I suggest that the answer could lie simply in the way the human mind reacts to threats, primarily the threat of death. In the face of near certainty, what else is a mind to do but to attempt to convince itself for comfort's sake that death is only a portal to another life, a better life where justice will prevail and happiness will reign? Belief, as such, is little different than an assertion.
   Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry and former editor-in-chief of Free Inquiry magazine writes: "The domain of the religious, I submit, is evocative, expressive, emotive. It presents moral poetry, aesthetic inspiration, performative ceremonial rituals, which act out and dramatize the human condition and human interests, and seek to slake the thirst for meaning and purpose. Religions--at least the religions of revelation--deal in parables, narratives metaphors, stories, myths; and they frame the divine in human (anthropomorphic) form. They express the existential yearnings of individuals endeavoring to cope with the world that they encounter and find meaning in the face of death. Religious language in this sense is eschatological. Its primary function is to express hope." (Are Science and Religion Compatible?, Skeptical Inquirer, Vol. 26.2, March/April 2002).
   On the face of it, supernaturalism represents a profound denial of temporal reality. This world is but a shadow of the real world. The characteristic pattern is one of magical thinking and a host of associative errors pertaining to causation, filtered through and heightened by that wonderful faculty of the human mind known as the imagination. Cause and effect, for the deeply religious and superstitious, is a phenomenally personal experience of unfathomable breadth, dimension and illogic.
   What place is there, really, for cause and effect when the master of all cause an effect is worlds beyond us? What place is there for freedom of thought in a world where an omniscient and omnipresent being called "God" knows all and sees all? None. Apart from the intractable march of biological death, the tyranny of matter itself may provide another clue as to why humanity gravitates toward a belief in the supernatural.
   Former Rand Corporation member and philosopher Emmanuel George Mesthene gives his assessment of the "tyranny of matter."  (Macmillan Publishing Co., Philosophy and Contemporary Issues, 1972 edition, eds: John R. Burr and Milton Goldinger.)
   "The consciousness of physical impossibility has had a long and depressing history. One might speculate that it began with early man's awe of the bruteness and recalcitrance of nature. Earth, air, fire, and water -- the eternal, immutable elements of ancient physics--imposed their requirements on men, dwarfed them, outlived them, remained indifferent when not downright hostile to them . . . . From that day to this, only the language has changed as successive ages encountered and tried to come to terms with physical necessity, with the sheer 'rock-bottomness' of nature. It was submitted to as fate in the Athenian drama. It was conceptualized as ignorance by Socrates and as metaphysical matter by his pupils. It was labeled evil by the pre-Christians. It has been exorcized as the Devil, damned as flesh, or condemned as illicit by the Church. It has been the principle of nonreason in modern philosophy, in the form of John Locke's Substance, as Immanual Kant's formless manifold, or as Henri Bergson's pure duration. It has conquered the mystic as nirvana, the psyche as the Id, and recent Frenchmen as the blind object of existential commitment . . . . It would be difficult to overestimate the consequences of this recalcitrance of the physical on the thinking and outlook of men."