On Faith On the Paranormal

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That religious editorial page/”conversation” that is the Washington Post’s “On Faith”, has asked its distinguished panel of experts to weigh in on a Gallup poll from 2005 that claims 3 in 4 Americans believe in at least one paranormal phenomena. So what does this hodge-podge of religious leaders, scholars, activists, and pundits have to say? Starhawk, the token Pagan panelist*, says that the “paranormal” is pretty darn “normal”.

“What is ‘normal’ is for people to have dreams, intuitions, hunches, flashes of inspiration, incidents of serendipity, and moments of deep connection that can’t be measured or predicted. The Wiccan and Pagan traditions train people to value and use our intuition and to awaken those states of awareness that go beyond the narrow band of what our culture recognizes. We develop tools for entering—and coming back from—altered states of awareness, and for discerning whether something is a true vision or a paranoid fantasy. Our rituals and ceremonies are designed to bring us into those deep states of connection.”

Next on the “On Faith” hit parade, you have the one-two punch of atheist Susan Jacoby who bemoans the deluded “junk thought” of the supernatural, and the “hucksters” who spread belief in paranormal events, while Charles “Chuck” Colson brings the standard warnings about “black magic”.

“We are made for contact with an unseen, spiritual realm. But if there are not responsible religious guidelines, this curiosity often leads into darker realms … The Christian teaching is that we can understand the supernatural only through the One who created both nature and that which is beyond nature, that we will one day understand it completely when we live in God’s presence. We are taught in the meantime to avoid things like the paranormal, which too easily fall into the realm of black magic.”

A bit more sensible is the Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who reminds readers that one person’s “paranormal” could very well be another persons religion.

“One person’s “paranormal” is another person’s religion. The first term is the one we use when we choose to be dismissive or pejorative in our description of a supposedly supernatural experience, or one that goes beyond the doctrines of the faith we follow, and the latter is what we call roughly the same experience which has gained acceptance from a critical mass of people, or those who control a particular religious system.”

The rest of the responses all fall somewhere between the pro-“paranormal” stance of Starhawk, the tolerance of Rabbi Hirshfield, and the skepticism/distrust of Jacoby and Colson. I would like to think that this look at paranormal belief belies a new willingness to explore issues important to religious minorities, but I fear not. No doubt they’ll go back to pissing off Catholics next week.

* Speaking of Wiccans and Pagans, that Gallup polls says that only 21% of Americans believe in the existence of Witches. So our PR folks have really got to get on the ball here.