The Supernatural as Natural, Healthy, and Banal

By Jeffrey J. KripalOctober 28, 2018

The Supernatural as Natural, Healthy, and Banal

Supernatural by Clay Routledge

AS A HISTORIAN of religions, I have been studying religion comparatively for three decades now. At late mid-career, I have entered what I affectionately call my “crabby stage.” “Crabby” because people continue to speak and write about religion without really engaging the humanistic study of religion, which is two hundred years old, and fantastically sophisticated. This review is an expression of that crabbiness, which I want to own as my own and not as a reflection on the obvious integrity and insights of this book and its author.

If I had to sum up my reactions to this recent example of academic psychology and cognitive science — a study of the psychology of belief and disbelief — I would say that I genuinely like the author (this is not an empty compliment, as Clay Routledge reveals a good deal of himself and his biography); and that I have little problem with his social scientific research results or theoretical arguments about the cognitive nature of religion taken in their weak forms. But that I have a very big problem with those same arguments when they present themselves in their strong forms, that is, as a full or even remotely adequate explanation of religion, much less of the supernatural. In the end, “cognitive” does not come close to capturing the life-changing ecstasies and sheer terrors of supernatural presences actually encountered or experienced, although it may well capture more of what we mean by “religious belief” and “ideation.” Allow me to take you quickly through this liking, this no problem, this big problem, and these actual encounters.


No Problem

Clay Routledge is a clear and likable writer. He tells funny stories and reveals much of himself, often in a vulnerable and heart-warming way. The book begins with Routledge at a swim meet of his son, reflecting on the “superstitions” and “magical” thinking of amateur and professional athletes (both deeply problematic expressions for the historian of religions, by the way, since both categories have historically been used as polemical devices to beat up on other people’s religious experiences and expressions that do not fit into one’s own specific, usually Christian or Protestant, orthodoxy). We later learn that his father was a pastor and missionary of gentle and firm faith of the Southern Baptist tradition who died a noble but long, grueling death from a terrible neurological disease. These personal moments of the book are not gratuitous. They mean something really important. They mean that when Routledge writes of how the human existential awareness of death helps generate supernatural beliefs and thinking around transcendent truths, which is clearly the central point of the book, he is not excluding himself or his own family from these arguments. That is intellectual integrity.

We also meet Routledge jumping on a bed as a boy dressed in a Superman costume, complete with a Velcro-attached cape, wanting to fly. I can relate. I did the same as a boy, except I was Batman, and all I had was a bath towel and a safety pin from my mom. It was 1968 or so (that is, the era of the Adam West campy “Batman” television series, which, of course, I had no idea was “campy”). We also watch Routledge, again as a boy, take off on his bike on a homemade ramp and tumble over the handlebars to various back-to-earth bruises and skin scrapes. My younger brother Jerry did that, spectacularly.

Routledge’s point here is about the worldwide fantasy of flying and how such a wish, given science’s natural laws, is really quite impossible, if not actually dangerous. Actually, that is the double point of the whole book: such supernatural beliefs and thinking are universal, natural, even eminently understandable in the light of modern cognitive research. They are also mistaken. Routledge never quite says the latter. He is more diplomatic than me. But it is clear enough. There is simply no way to read this book and think that the author would entertain the possibility that there is something fundamentally true about the content of religious belief: that we might well possess something like a soul that survives bodily death; that there might actually be invisible presences populating “the invisible world” (the presence of this phrase in the book’s subtitle is a pure marketing tool); that human beings might be capable of extraordinary functioning that we might as well call “miraculous” or “magical.” Supernatural beliefs and thinking are only functionally true in these pages. They make us healthy, even happy. Mormons live longer than non-Mormons. The Amish are less stressed. Prayer helps calm and heal. Religious belief produces meaning and helps people cope with stress. Religion — at least statistically — is good. But none of this is substantively true — that is, none of this can tell us anything important about the real world. Apparently, only science can do that.

The list of conclusions drawn from the social scientific research of Routledge and his colleagues is long and impressive:

People need meaning because they die. Supernatural thinking gives people meaning and encourages them to believe that they don’t die. Meaning making, positing purpose, and religious thinking are all more an intuitive, “gut,” or “heart” process than they are a rational, analytical, or “head” one. People who believe are generally healthier and happier than people who do not. Negative supernatural agents (demons or Satan, for example) also supply meaning, particularly to highly religious people whose meaningful world is threatened. Atheists sometimes engage in supernatural thinking and show clear physiological responses (galvanic skin response, for example) to religious fears without knowing it. It is extremely rare for an individual to avoid any and all influence of supernatural thinking. Those who manage this unusual feat (professional scientists and secular intellectuals) probably can only do so through considerable training and constant vigilance, since it is quite unnatural and not how our brains normally work. Modern paranormal beliefs serve the same set of meaning-giving functions that traditional religious beliefs do, although it is not clear if they work as well as traditional beliefs. The less a person is identified with a traditional faith, the more likely he or she is to hold paranormal beliefs. Supernatural beliefs come with many social, physical, and mental benefits, as they help people cope with stress, perceive meaning in unavoidable stress or suffering, and function as blueprints for healthy living. The religious search for meaning can sometimes become extreme and lead to things like the deaths of children denied medical intervention by the fundamentalist faith of their parents, suicide bombers, and potentially dangerous apocalyptic beliefs that prevent or discourage concerted social action to address real-world problems like environmental degradation. Such dangerous supernatural beliefs are not the norm, however. In the end, a common humanity and shared cognitive functioning unite believers and atheists alike. Believers are not generally anti-science, and atheists are as moral as believers. Accordingly, we should stop thinking in terms of exclusive poles or extremes and accept the supernatural tendencies that unite us all, believer and unbeliever.


My Big Problem

This seems solid enough, but parts of it appear inherently contradictory, if not actually self-dissolving. What do we make, for example, of the fact that in Routledge’s world humanity is united around a tendency to believe in transcendent truths that are not in fact true, not in any sense his science would appreciate anyway? Is that really a solid ground for something as important as a species-wide unity? To play with a gospel image, this is a house built on shifting sand, or on nothing at all.

This fundamental self-contradiction leads directly to what I consider the real problem of the book — my “big problem,” as I call it. This problem arises when we start asking questions about Routledge’s metaphysical assumptions — that is, what he thinks is real and how these assumptions or beliefs control the questions he and his colleagues are asking (and answering) with their research methods.

These metaphysical assumptions appear to boil down to a quite conventional materialism derived from a common, indeed consensus interpretation of modern science. For such a worldview, all supernatural thinking and beliefs can only be in the end false and mistaken. They work, but there is nothing to their content or claims. In short, there really is no such thing as the supernatural. It is all natural (read: material), and we know what that is and how it works because we now have science. Human beings might search for transcendent meaning around the world, but, really, there is no meaning to be found in the universe. No transcendence. We know that, again, because of science.

In Routledge’s more technical terms, all “teleological thinking” — which is to say, thinking that posits some end, purpose, or goal to the universe or a human life, that is, some ultimate meaning — is really nothing more than a collection of “teleological errors,” errors, which Routledge is able to show, are often encouraged and so increased when individuals become more aware of death. This seems reasonable enough, and I have no issue with some of the specific teleological errors Routledge lists (thinking that forest fires intend to clean the forest or rivers want to move water). What becomes problematic is when he implies or states that purpose and goal are, in principle, erroneous. What becomes problematic is when Routledge makes very strong metaphysical assumptions, but can only demonstrate them with very humble experimental evidence.

Take, for example, Routledge’s claim that the statement “The world has a grand purpose” is a teleological error. How exactly does he know that this is in error? Because most scientists hate all teleological thinking, and have sought for a century and a half, since Darwin, to drive every vestige of it from their professional ranks? What, then, to make of the fine-tuning phenomenon in modern cosmology? Either Routledge does not know (I doubt this) or does not tell his readers that cosmologists have long observed, often to their own dogmatic horror, that the fundamental forces of the universe (things like the expansion rate of the cosmos and the weak and strong nuclear forces) appear precisely and uncannily “set up” or “fine-tuned” for life and consciousness to evolve. As if, as the theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson put it in his usual honest and blunt way, the cosmos knew what, or who, was coming billions of years hence — exactly as if “the world has a grand purpose.” So Routledge’s implicit materialism and its pointless universe is by no means as “scientific” as he seems to assume. At the end of the day, such a meaningless materialism is an interpretation of science, not science.

Allow me a single telling counter-example to highlight this problem. The great American sociologist of religion Peter Berger, who did more than anyone to show how the “sacred canopy” of religion and our very experience of “reality” itself are “socially constructed” and, therefore, relative to culture, place, and time, once offered the very cogent suggestion that perhaps we project meaning and divinities everywhere and always because human nature, everywhere and always, is itself innately meaningful and essentially divine. Perhaps we project and then worship as “other” what we secretly are. Berger would have been the last person to deny the cognitive elements of religious belief and thinking, but he did not mistake these for the whole story, or even the most interesting part of it. He could think in two directions, up and down, at once. It was a circle for him, not a line.


Supernatural Encounters

Despite what philosophically untrained scientists claim, science is clearly not an innocent, purely objective method. Our methods of knowing and testing determine what we can see, even what we consider to be real.

Take, for example, Routledge’s privileged mode of research — the statistical analysis of questionnaire results. Such methods can tell us all sorts of valuable things, many of which I just listed above. I work all the time with social scientific colleagues who employ them, and I learn a great deal from them, as I have here from Routledge. But I am also concerned about what such methods cannot tell us, what they must miss. What such methods must always miss, of course, are the intimate details, felt nuances, intuitions, and drop-your-jaw features of actual religious experience, particularly in their most extreme and unrepeatable forms, which statistical analyses in effect erase or ignore as unimportant outliers, anomalies, or, the conventional scientist’s favorite magic spell, “anecdotes.” The problem here is that these are the same extreme, “anecdotal” forms of supernatural encounter that inevitably created the later religious ideas and beliefs in the first place. Do you think Jesus just kept resurrecting so that the proper statistical analyses could be performed? Such extremes may not be statistically significant, then, but they are historically significant. Indeed, they are the single most significant historical factor of the entire history of religions — the sine qua non of religion itself.

Toward this same claim, let us not mistake an actual supernatural encounter with religion. The latter abstraction names a much “later” social, narrative, ritual, and institutional development and cultural encoding of real — as in “really experienced” — anomalous events. It is the latter real events that many would want to call “supernatural,” that is, “beyond” or “above” (super-) the natural order.

A real supernatural encounter, then, is not something one daily “cognizes,” or commonly “believes,” which is all a questionnaire can pick up and measure. Such an encounter occurs when a palpable force or energy enters your bedroom or body, engages you in fantastic, terrifying sexual ways, and then seems to suck you clean out of your body until you think you are having a heart attack or are being electrocuted (this happened to me). A supernatural encounter is when a giant, nine-foot bat-like monster flies next to your speeding car and scares the living crap out of you and your teenage friends on a lonely road. A supernatural encounter is when the tree in your backyard keeps bursting into flames, spontaneously, on camera, after you were traumatized by a UFO encounter on a fishing trip.

Routledge dismisses all such phenomena as lacking any empirical evidence, as nothing but “subjective” (despite the fact that they clearly contain all sorts of objective dimensions). He even compares a supernatural experience to watching a sunset or enjoying a concert. But, although it is perfectly true that aesthetic and musical experiences can morph into profound mystical experiences, a real supernatural encounter or mystical awakening is nothing like the ordinary experience of watching a sunset or listening to music.

What Routledge means when he writes that such events lack any “empirical evidence,” of course, is that such phenomena cannot be fit into the scientific method: they do not show up in a controlled laboratory, cannot be replicated, measured, predicted, and modeled mathematically. Basically, he confuses what can be scientifically studied in a laboratory with what is and what actually happens. Basically, he ignores actual experience and fetishizes experiment, and then confuses the latter with reality itself. That is my big problem.

I just finished a book with a woman named Elizabeth Krohn. Elizabeth, exactly like Routledge and his colleagues, once considered all beliefs in an afterlife or in a soul to be useful social fictions, ideas that make us feel good, comfort us, and make us good citizens, nothing more. Then she was hit by lightning in the parking lot of her Houston synagogue. An elaborate journey to a paradisiacal garden followed (a visionary experience which she fully recognizes was shaped and determined by her own beliefs and desires, by the way). The synesthetic garden was filled with unearthly colors, living lights, and gentle telepathic voices encoded with many teachings (what Routledge would recognize as “supernatural beliefs”), including teachings about the nature of the soul, the reincarnation process, and the soul’s double or “angel.”

To make matters worse (or better), not long after Elizabeth returned, she found herself dreaming of plane crashes and earthquakes that would then play out on the next day’s news. Dreams one day, CNN the next. All disturbingly empirical. Eventually, she learned to write little emails to herself to establish, for herself anyway, that she was not going crazy, since that is what her culture told her. Here, of course, in the precognitive dream we have another very dramatic example of an “end” or “meaning” or “goal” flowing back from the future — that is, we have a “teleological” phenomenon, which is not supposed to happen but does all the time.

My point is not that everything, or anything, that Elizabeth says now about the soul and the afterlife is necessarily true and worthy of our belief. My point is that very little of this is a direct result of self-reported “thinking” or “believing,” that is, anything simply or only cognitive. Her experience is clearly partly cognitive, of course, in its particular cultural expression and linguistic forms. She “heard” English in the garden, not Swahili, and she has perfectly rational reasons to believe what she believes (she heard and saw these truths, after all). Her visionary experience is also deeply historical, since much of it, as I point out in the book I wrote with her, Changed in a Flash, can be traced back to Kabbalistic teachings and figures (Kabbalah is a general term for the Jewish mystical traditions). Still, biographically speaking, the origins of Elizabeth’s “supernatural beliefs” and “supernatural thinking” do not lie in beliefs, thinking, or historical sources of any ordinary sort. Nor do they lie in her religion. She is still upset with the rabbis that would not offer her any spiritual advice about the single most important experience of her life, and she experiences little profundity in the services of her Reform synagogue. Such origins rather lie in the extreme, once-in-a-lifetime altered states of her near-death experience and its direct visionary experience, which is also, yes, cognitively and historically conditioned. Again, think up, think down. Think both ways.

Elizabeth’s extraordinary experience is rare, but it is not that rare. The history of religions is filled with similar cases, some of them even more extreme and “impossible.” To return to the caped wonders of Clay and Jeff jumping on their boyhood beds, consider the truly mind-bending case of levitation or “flying” in Joseph of Cupertino (1603–1663), the Italian Franciscan friar who was witnessed flying or levitating close-hand by hundreds of people, including major political leaders. A Catholic Superman in a brown costume.

Figures like Elizabeth and Joseph, of which there are hundreds, indeed thousands, never appear in Supernatural. That would really mess things up for its author. Similarly, when Routledge wants to talk about the power of prayer, he does not give the reader a real medical miracle story (of which there are countless examples in the literature, all completely unexplainable by any present medical or biological channel). He gives the reader an easily explained story of a bag of groceries appearing on a doorstep. Routledge’s example, of course, proves his point. Similarly, when he writes of Reiki and energy healing, he states simply that there is no empirical evidence for such energies and that such practices are only about providing security, completely ignoring the simple fact that people report the experienced reality of these energies over and over again. My wife is a casual energy healer. When she passes her hands an inch or so over my injured lower back, I can distinctly feel a magnetic “ball” pushing down into the spine. This is not a “belief” or a “thought” on my part, and it has absolutely nothing to do with me wanting to feel secure. This is an electromagnetic field that, frankly, makes me nervous. I would not call it “supernatural,” by the way.

Elizabeth, Joseph, and my wife’s magnetic hands, of course, do not show up in the research methods of academic psychology, partly because Joseph is long dead, but mostly because such researchers consider all such experiences nothing more than illusions of the traumatized brain, mistakes of the historical record (without the slightest proof to establish this presumption), or wishful thinking designed to make us feel better. But they also do not show up because these cases cannot in principle appear as statistically significant on their questionnaires, if indeed they can appear at all.

Such robust experiences are indeed statistically rare, can seldom, if ever, be repeated on call, and — here is the social point — they are often kept secret out of fear of public shaming and professional denial. Elizabeth kept her story out of the public for almost 30 years out of fear that she and her children would be mocked and marked. This is what the psychologists and cognitive scientists may not see: they are participating in and reinforcing with their methods and materialist assumptions the social censorship of the full human experience.

This, I admit, is a deeply contrarian position, contrary to both conventional science and traditional religion. I am not exactly alone in my convictions, but I am hardly cheering from a crowd here. Indeed, most of us now live in the world that Routledge describes so well in Supernatural, a world that is sometimes comforting and useful but that is entirely “natural,” averaged out, and devoid of anything “super.” This is the same banal, statistically leveled world of the psychologist’s questionnaire, in which everything is carefully determined and controlled by the questions (and materialist assumptions) of the academic. This is a world in which meaning is a healthy mirage; all truth worth having is repeatable and tested “scientific” truth, and our deepest human aspirations — our religious aspirations — are reduced to little more than socially useful psychological functions empty in their claims and hopes.

That world increasingly feels like a prison to me — one, moreover, that we have built with the bricks and bars of our own categories and methods. If the historical records mean anything, such prison walls are largely imaginary. Who can, who will walk through them? And what will they find on the other side?


Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University.

LARB Contributor

Jeffrey J. Kripal holds the J. Newton Rayzor Chair in Philosophy and Religious Thought at Rice University. He is the author of numerous works, including two co-authored books with gifted experiencers: The Super Natural: Why the Unexplained Is Real, with Whitley Strieber (Tarcher/Penguin, 2016); and Changed in a Flash: One Woman’s Near-Death Experience and Why a Scholar Thinks It Empowers Us All, with Elizabeth Krohn, which will be released this fall by North Atlantic Books.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!