JEFFERSONVILLE, Ind. — The Institute for the Study of Religious and Anomalous Experience (ISRAE) is looking for a home base from which to conduct its studies. The organization, founded by psychology professor Brian Laythe in 2009, is primarily a paranormal and parapsychology research group. However, as Laythe describes, they are also interested in occult practice and want to include the Pagan community in their work.
“Much of parapsychology studies ESP or the movement or influence of objects as well as hauntings and paranormal phenomena,” said Laythe in an interview with The Wild Hunt.
“Whereas scientific terminology is used [in parapsychology], many studies have shown relationships between meditation, related occult practice, and success in controlled ESP tasks […] In some ways, a direct parallel can be drawn between practical magic use and what parapsychology studies.”Laythe founded ISRAE as a campus group in 2009. His mission was to “expose students to paranormal claims using the scientific method.” Since that point, ISRAE has moved beyond the undergraduate college environment to become its own independent nonprofit organization with a group of dedicated researchers.
ISRAE’s current mission, as stated on the website, is to “conduct research studies and experiments, provide reliable education to the public, develop methods and technology for investigating paranormal phenomena, and publish our findings in peer-reviewed journals whenever possible.”
The subject of paranormal studies and parapsychology is often ignored and considered controversial. While the studied concepts, such as spirits and ghosts, are not unfamiliar or surprising to Pagans and occult practitioners, the discipline is rarely discussed in those specific terms within those communities.
It is often the case that paranormal investigations use Christian-based rhetoric in explaining such phenomena, making it difficult to reconcile practice with study. This is particularly evident in pop culture expressions of paranormal investigations (e.g. Resurrection, 1980; The Conjuring, 2013), in which the paranormal experience or a related entity is posited as evil and linked to Witchcraft.
Laythe said, “It is highly problematic that the primary source for non-Christian philosophies, practices, and religions, often come from uninformed Christian sources. Part of our goal is to alleviate that problem by conducting ethical studies and reliable and accurate information on occult practice in general.”
He also added that “not a single T.V. show […] practices anything close to a reliable scientific method for verifying paranormal claims. Producers want ratings and excitement, not valid science. Thus, most (if not all) shows promote shoddy practice and their own paranormal perspective. Not anything that would come close to science.”
That aside, Laythe doesn’t see a problem blending paranormal studies with magical work. In fact, he noted that their researchers come from many religious backgrounds and that they even have a hermetic organization working with them.
Laythe said, “A scientist is a scientist. We respect all religions, practices, and faiths.”
“Most people don’t separate phenomena (what physically occurred) from the interpretation (whether Christian, Pagan, or otherwise),” he noted. “Any legitimate parapsychologist or should be able to separate the two. In other words, something floating is something floating. Whether it was God, the Devil, an angel, or Odin is a function of peoples[sic] interpretation of the event.”
One of the areas Laythe would like to study more closely is occult religious practice, specially Wiccan or Witchcraft rituals. When asked why, he said simply, “Because little to no research exists. […] There are too many assumptions and myths out there.”
Laythe also believes that “social science would benefit from understanding the philosophies and practice of a growing population around the world.”
The organization is currently looking for a physical office from which they can base their operations. As Laythe recently told one local reporter, ISRAE would like to include a sacred ritual space for use by Wiccans, Witches and other occult practitioners.
When asked if such a space would be used solely for the institute’s study, or if it could it be used as a place to gather, Laythe said both.
“As a scientist, we cannot conduct experiments without the complete informed consent of a participant or group. Thus, safety and ethics are very important to us. However, we hope the general occult community would be encouraged by an opportunity to learn more about them (psychologically and paranormally) and contribute to unbiased research in ritual practice.”
ISRAE is currently looking for an individual or organization willing to donate a space or for the money to purchase one. Recent searches have reportedly garnered only “pushback” from neighbors, who don’t want paranormal research being done in their backyards.
In addition, there no grant opportunities for this work, as Laythen noted, and therefore the organization now relies completely on donations. Laythe said that they will continue the search, hoping to find a charitable organization and donors, who “believe in [their] projects” to assist.