Have You Ever Wondered Why Humans Are Attracted To The Spiritual?

As a boy I was a huge fan of the TV series The X-Files. Every week I would avidly tune-in to follow FBI Special Agents Mulder and Scully on their next investigation into those classified, unsolved cases of paranormal activity. Though I was too young to recognise it at the time (I was far too distracted by red-eyed aliens who could camouflage into trees, liver-eating mutants who could fit through drain pipes, and scientists whose shadow could vaporise people!) the character dynamics of the show’s two protagonists was a fascinating one. Fox Mulder readily believes in the existence of aliens and the paranormal. He’s convinced that “the truth is out there” despite the best efforts of corrupt authorities to cover it up. By contrast, his partner Dana Scully is a sceptic, a woman of science assigned to scientifically scrutinise Mulder’s work and allay the confirmation biases of his conspiracy theories by offering rational explanations for the phenomena they encounter.

Now you don’t need to be a fan of 1990s sci-fi dramas, however, to find questions of the supernatural intriguing. As I write this article it is close to Halloween and many of the houses in our street are plastered with everything from sinister-looking Jack O’Lanterns, inflatable ghouls, spiders the size of humans, and effigies of the undead emerging out of the front lawn – and I don’t even live on Elm Street!

But it’s not just a Halloween thing: Supernatural or fantasy dramas like Stranger Things, Charmed, or LOTR: The Rings of Power dominate viewing figures. Last year, the gambling organisation 888Poker revealed that 3 in every 4 Britons consider themselves to be superstitious. And despite the so-called decline of public interest in institutional religion, belief in God and life-after-death, or interest in extrasensory-perception psychics and self-help spiritualities around the laws of attraction, remain hardy perennials of human interest.

So just what is it about human experience that leads so many of us, across time and cultures, to be natural-born supernaturalists? Why is it that three centuries beyond the scientific enlightenment, so many of us retain an unshakeable, Mulder-esque curiosity for the paranormal that confounds our Scully-like naturalistic better judgements?

Have you ever wondered why humans are so attracted to the supernatural?

Sceptic scientist and author of The Believing Brain Michael Shermer argues that our common propensity for the transcendental is the result of our cognitive psychology. Supernatural beliefs are simply a vestige of two concepts left over from our evolutionary heritage: “patternicity” which he defines as “the human tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”, and “agenticity” – our tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible, intentional agents. Shermer writes:

The problem is that we did not evolve a baloney-detection device in our brains to discriminate between true and false patterns. So we make two types of errors: a type I error, or false positive, is believing a pattern is real when it is not; a type II error, or false negative, is not believing a pattern is real when it is. If you believe that the rustle in the grass is a dangerous predator when it is just the wind (a type I error), you are more likely to survive than if you believe that the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator (a type II error). Because the cost of making a type I error is less than the cost of making a type II error and because there is no time for careful deliberation between patternicities in the split-second world of predator-prey interactions, natural selection would have favored those animals most likely to assume that all patterns are real.[1]

In a similar vein, Christopher French professor of psychology and head of the Anomalisitc Psychology Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London suggests that we often believe in the supernatural because of the emotional crutch it offers us against the horror of oblivion: “The vast majority of us don’t like the idea of our own mortality. Even though we find the idea of ghosts and spirits scary, in a wider context, they provide evidence for the survival of the soul.”[2]

The problem, however, with explanations such as French and Shermer’s is that they are merely interpreting longings for God or the supernatural through a presupposed naturalistic framework. For them, paranormal phenomena can only ever be our evolutionary psychology playing tricks on us because they have already preconceived that the supernatural does not exist. But, as Alister McGrath highlights, this preconception is itself dependent upon belief  which is itself incapable of verification or falsification.[3] All Shermer and French offer is an explanation for why we might believe in the supernatural in the context of an exclusively natural universe. But isn’t the point to consider whether the universe is actually that way in the first place? And what if supernatural phenomena are not delusions but signs of ultimate reality beyond the physical universe? In that case, Shermer’s materialistic explanation of supernatural belief could simply be a direct product of  his own “anti-patternicity” or “anti-agenticy”. What is to say that French & Shermer’s atheist hypotheses are not just as guilty of what psychologist Jonathan Haidt calls the “emotional tail wagging the rationalist dog” as they accuse of believers in the supernatural? Couldn’t dis-belief in the supernatural prove as useful a psychological crutch as faith? For as Aldous Huxley once admitted regarding the basis for his scepticism: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find reasons for this assumption.”

In short, human psychology can only identify whether humans believe or disbelieve in the supernatural, as well as offer explanations for why this might be. It is, however, impotent to tell us whether the supernatural is actually real or not. But what if our supernatural intuitions are not simply the inconvenient, delusional residue of evolution? What if, rather than quickly dismiss them because of how they don’t fit within our materialist worldview we might allow them to ask serious questions about whether a materialist worldview is the right one after all?

After all, it is only within a world that operates according to regularities that we would be able to identify the presence of irregularities intervening into that system from the outside. Isn’t this fact is a staple premise of the supernatural genre? It is only because characters live in a world where things don’t fly off shelves by themselves or things don’t go bump in the night without something acting upon them that they can identify the presence of supernatural agency. This, of course, does not mean that some – perhaps even most – serious claims to paranormal activity are delusional, nor is it to claim that all the wonderful demons, witches and monsters currently occupying the houses in my street actually exist. Instead, it is simply to suggest that perhaps we shouldn’t dismiss supernatural claims so impetuously, most especially where those claims are made my hundreds of independent witnesses and can be substantiated with credible historical evidence, such as the claim that Jesus rose from the dead.

So if, as C.S. Lewis noted, our perennial human appetite for realities that transcend the natural universe is, in fact, indicative that those supernatural realities might indeed exist, then the truth truly is out there whether, like Mulder, we want to believe or not. And if the truth is out there then we have a moral responsibility to investigate it. Of course, if we suspect that the truth out there might be the kind of hideous, malevolent creature committed to our destruction that is so common to supernatural dramas then we may have good reasons for remaining agnostic. But what if the opposite is the case? What if, like the character Murph in Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar, we discover that behind the supernatural phenomena confronting us is a benevolent being; a being whose primary purpose in breaking into our world is to communicate information that ultimately leads to our salvation?

[1] Shermer, M. (2009) ‘Why people believe invisible agents control the world’. Scientific American. Available: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/skeptic-agenticity/#

[2] Cited in Wen, T. (2014) ‘’Why Do People Believe in Ghosts?’ The Atlantic. Available: https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/09/why-do-people-believe-in-ghosts/379072/

[3] McGrath, A (2020). Through A Glass Dimly. Hodder & Stoughton, pp. 172-173.