The paranormal: America’s new religion?

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I would be interested to hear how many Teeming Brain readers find aspects of their own beliefs and experiences described by this extremely interesting article at Pacific Standard, and/or how many of you have observed the trend it identifies playing out in the lives of people you know. That trend, by the way, is “a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal,” as both science and traditional Judeo-Christian religiosity fail to fulfill deep human longings, resulting in the rise and increasing prevalence in America (and elsewhere) of a paranormal-themed religious syncretism that amounts to “a new religious worldview.”

[E]verywhere you look in the United States today, the supernatural is more culturally important, more acceptable, and just. . . more than it’s ever been before. Paranormal-themed media of all types have surged, in fiction obviously, but also in non-fiction too, where the past few years have brought us everything from The Most Terrifying Places in America to Psychic Tia to The Monster Project. Then there are the Bigfoot hunts, the ghost hunting tool reviews, the UFO spotting iPhone apps — we can’t get enough of this stuff.

This should come as no surprise. Despite our reputation as a science-minded superpower, America has always had a predilection for the unseen. It has ebbed and flowed with us for as long as this nation has existed, in the form of the 18th-century pilgrim mystics, the domesticated poltergeists that knocked on command in the 19th, and even in the academically inclined parapsychologists of the 20th. Whether you believe in these ideas or not is almost immaterial: the paranormal is an inescapable ingredient in the American identity that has shaped and been shaped by our society for centuries.

Perhaps that makes it all the more meaningful that today’s supernatural surge is not just another cycle of the same old thing, but a fundamental shift in how we approach the paranormal. It’s democratic, laden with jargon, and endlessly customizable — in short, it’s the DIY American techno-religion of the 21st century.

. . . [According to Tok Thompson, a folklorist at the University of Southern California,] “Even though it’s done great things for the iPads, I don’t think science has done very well at answering the big questions like, What happens when I die? In fact, science has absolutely nothing to say about that right now, and people want to know.”

. . . “A certain kind of American is no long going to the Bible for his or her worldview, they’re going to science,” says Jeffrey Kripal, a religion scholar at Rice University who has studied the interaction between pop culture and the paranormal. But, he adds, “they’re then linking that science up with these various spiritual currents, which have been in America for at least a century and a half, and they’re basically building a new religious worldview.”

Full article: “The Church of the Paranormal

Image courtesy of hyena reality / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD and GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES.

Posted on February 25, 2014, in Paranormal, Religion & Philosophy and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 16 Comments.

  1. I have not yet read the article, but it always baffles me that we can talk about religion and the paranormal as if they were two different things. This is a cultural bias. There is no more proof that Jesus could part water than there is that people can speak to animals telepathically. In fact, I would say, there is more proof on the telekinesis, way more proof, than there is on the existence of God.

    • I agree that the distinction between “supernatural religious” and “supernatural paranormal” is tenuous and arbitrary. But I appreciate the writer’s clarification of exactly how the distinction is being made: “More than two-thirds of Americans hold at least one paranormal — unsanctioned by religion — belief.” Obviously, this is a fluid definition whose dynamics can shift according to the prevailing mainstream cultural situation.

    • You’re striking on an important point. Since paranormal phenomenon is the collapse between objective and subjective phenomenon, it cannot be empirically measured , since the numinous is elusive and hides from the profane. There must always be a sanctified balance between the two modes of experience for the separation to give way and the subjective to spill into objective experience.

      • sorry what I mean is the paranormal is the collapse between the subjective and objective within a field, that is sanctified, bordered. the experience has to be entreated, and can only arise if the space is pure from the profane. the profane is anyone who has not subjectively reconciled to be participating. so, by its nature cannot be empirically proven because the process of arriving scientifically at falsifiable claims of paranormal events implies that the purified seal had already been broken

  2. There’s very little paranormal in that article. Ghost hunting ? Who cares. The paranormal is the collapse between subjective and objective experience of reality. In order for subjective boundaries to fall away within conventional reality , to experience poltergeist effects and alchemical sensations and so on… you need everyone within that field to reconcile . the Numinous is the sacred itself . It will not show itself where there is pollution or where a field has not been made. This is really an article about nothing. The only major news magazine I know of making real articles about this kind of thing such as reiki and yoga is Salon . That’s the real story since the dawn of the new millennium has been the growth of adherents to the Shinto religion in the western world. Nobody notices?

    //

    “If you go back to the beginning of the UFOs in the 1940s and ’50s and ’60s, and you look at reports from different countries, the aliens were everything you can imagine,” says Christopher Bader, a sociologist at Chapman University. In Russia, people reported one-eyed giants; in South America, hairy little monsters. “But what happened is that the U.S. popularized the idea of this little grey thing [the egg-headed, big-eyed alien] and that image has become so pervasive that it’s basically killed off the other aliens around the globe.”

    / You can thank Whitley Strieber for this. The alien head emblazoned on the cover of Communion was the origin for how this happened. Just thought I would mention that .

    • Yes, the article barely skims the surface of the things you mention, Daniel, and that collapse of the subjective/objective divide really is the heart of what the paranormal as such is really about. But I still find the piece to be really worthwhile and interesting, because the sociocultural trends that it focuses on are significant in their own right. Regardless of how dumb and trivial the Ghost Hunters phenomenon (for example) really is when contrasted with the more serious and fundamental issues associated with the transformation of consciousness and identity involved in true paranormal/supernatural realities and phenomena, it appears to have had a real impact on collective sociocultural views, attitudes, and actions. And even the fundamental garishness and silliness of the basic “ghost hunting” meme itself in its current guise — which, as detailed in the article, pointedly recalls various aspects of the spiritualist movement of a century-plus ago — doesn’t negate the fact that this much attention being given to nominally “supernatural” matters on a wide scale in the midst of a nominally secular-scientific cultural milieu is significant. Or at least that’s the way I see it. (Additionally, I think the fact that the writer quotes Jeff Kripal and the scholars who conducted the Baylor paranormal survey and wrote Paranormal America automatically elevates it above the level of mere vapid, popularizing drivel.)

      • yeah I caught Kripal in there. I agree with you. It’s just I think the studies and questions being posed to people, at this critical juncture can be more specific. Do you do these practices? X, Y, Z? Yes or no. Have you gotten reiki attunement? have you gotten reiki treatment? yes or not separate questions. how many people have done this in N.America? who are they? tell me their stories. do a documentary. do investigative journalism of these people. it’s gotta be a conspiracy ! this seems so obvious to me as to what is happening. and it doesn’t have to be reiki it can be charismatic christians too. who are these people show these people on camera talking about their experiences. this is possible this is allowable.

  3. This is a great example of a S.Korean drama in modern times because it just aired and I’ve only seen the first episode so far. It’s an important parallel, I think.

    This is not the fringe of the mainstream this is really in S.Korea -the- mainstream, hot young actors and actresses, pop idols, high glitz and glamour, and an audience who identifies and responds with high ratings. S.Korea is post apocalypse. Under The Dome by Stephen King
    is a show that is dawning apocalypse in America. S.Korea is really beyond that point and it’s like looking into a possible future of 1st world countries. It’s very scifi. Japan by contrast has really regressed, the paranormal is on the fringe or in private lives simply not visible.

    S.Korea defies much of the western occult raison d’être, it’s out there it’s in your face, it is explicit, it is painful and tragic – morally ambiguous – and it is in plain view. They take you into the shrines, they take you inside the lives of these people and how gnosticism affects their daily lives (S.Korea is heavily Christianized), and beyond this it is the government’s national strategy of soft power.

  4. Television shows about ghost chasing .. I don’t think America has really gone post-apocalypse until I see more shows like Under The Dome about young people , the next generation, having the paranormal being an important and fundamental aspect of their lives. America is not at that point yet, S.Korea and countries like Thailand are trailblazing uber modern or modernizing countries that are resisting secularization.

  5. oh here’s a better and longer trailer for that new show , Bride of the Century … http://youtu.be/F0ua95HncDw

    A family curse. Ritual soul sacrifice. Early on in the first episode you also see a great example of prayer, communion, and noetic judgment in stark opposition to secular ideals of rationality. These spiritual ideas , that are terrifying, are fundamentally tied to their sense of humanism.

  6. HazardJGibbons

    The article was somewhat lame, I agree, but did anyone else get chills when reading “The paranormal is a commodity for everyone, a brand for new markets, a product for export. We’ve created the spiritual Whopper. You can have it your way.” ? Reminds me of a nebulous, multi-monopolist corporation dreaming……

    Or perhaps I’m being too future oriented (I’m on a sci fi kick lately). What really gives me chills is that our noughties equivalent of the 80’s DIY indie-punk scene is ghost hunting and squatching; punk is dead, but its ghost is a bunch of dudes in flannel running around in dilapidated houses; not too different, they’ve just replaced guitars with infared cameras and microphones

    • I’d recommend studying S.Korean shamanism. I know I’ve said this a lot already but I really do feel it is important in respect to what you’re talking about . S.Korean shamans aren’t healers. In fact, they’re notoriety primarily stems from a belief that being around them could make one extremely ill. They’re sorcerers capable of shapeshifting and becoming immortal, but they also hold the keys to the heart, community solidarity, and reconciliation with fate. They’re needed, but also despised, as I said. They hold a paradoxical place in Korean society. It would be as if your local priest was also the local skin walker.

      Browse the reiki forum on reddit for … a single week, and you will see this McDonald’s attitude on enlightenment, you can have it your way, have a coke and a smile, give way extremely quickly .

    • The spiritual marketplace, and I think people are far more aware of this now, the good vibes are all there, but the anxiety on forums like reddit reveal the truth that they’re all mostly in a dark place. They’re sold on positive qualities, but in the experiences of most of these people that veneer is very thin and behind it is a community of very paranoid people.

  7. I was born in February 1969 and came of age in the 80’s. Having been raised Protestant, I was encouraged to ask questions and explore my religion. When I began asking questions of FAITH I was faced with a dilemma. The tools I needed to continue my Spiritual Evolution either didn’t exist or were frowned upon to such a degree that they constituted “sin” in the eyes of the church. Being preteen/early teen I went to my friends for answers and insight. I discovered that they too were facing similar trials in their lives.

    At the age of 16 I followed the route of St. John’s exile through Greece and Turkey. I fully expected to break bread with Men and Women of strong faith and conviction. What didn’t expect was meeting people with the same questions and struggles. The more I watched and listened the more I discovered that my trials were not exclusive to me alone. It wasn’t until I spent time in the Monastery of St. John that I begin to fully appreciate the “paranormal/ Magick” side of my connection to God. Something wonderful happened that words can never give justice to. I “woke up”. At first I thought I was “special”, that I was the only one. As time and lessons have come and gone I’ve come to the realization that I’m not unique.

    Since the first encounter with our surrounding environment we’ve looked above and below for the bigger answers to our questions. We built temples and made sacrifices all in the quest for those answers. “Paranormal” is just another word to describe what we don’t know or understand about that quest. The Journey we are on is older then recorded history. The difference is the level of technology that allows for instant communication and greater tools that allow more people to seek answers as well as questions. Our Evolution as Humans will continue as long as we continue to breath.

    Are more people turning to “non- traditional” places for solace, protection, answers and tools to hold onto? It’s a difficult question to answer with any degree of certainty and definitely worthy of a much wider discourse.

    That’s all for now! Be well, TLS

    • Thanks to Facebook, I think everyone interested in religion now is also interested in the paranormal. Not just reiki and yoga, but also the growth in Mormonism, Evangelical Christianity and so on.. all of those more mystical groups are exploding, and the churches that might have reserved the laying on of hands for ordination of priests ? well those churches are shrinking rapidly, and closing. why belong to a church, without being offered priesthood , or the highest possibilities of spiritual attainment etc that the officials of the church enjoy. People in modern times have realized that those experiences are far more common than they were brought up to believe. and that’s the mega shift happening now, generally. but the media will keep chasing ghosts..

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