An Enchanted Universe, a Continuing Journey,
Open Minds, Postmodern Science,
And Respect for the Miracle
of Ordinary life.
from Douglas Todd of the Vancouver Sun
The paranormal in a positive light: By dismissing the paranormal as bunk, mainstream religions may be missing a golden opportunity, a new book suggests.
One of the most remarkable political careers in Canadian history began 75 years ago this MondayWilliam Lyon Mackenzie King, outwardly a colourless man, was first elected prime minister on Dec. 29, 1921. He would go on to serve 22 years, a record.
However, probably the most extraordinary thing about King was the secret that leaked out within a year of his death in 1950: he was a spiritualist. He regularly communicated through a medium with what he believed were the spirits of his dead mother and others.
If King’s spiritualism had leaked out earlier, his career would have been over. The idea of the paranormal disturbed a lot of educated people back then, and it certainly does now.
The academic and scientific communities overwhelmingly ridicule claims of the paranormal, or parapsychology, out of hand. Surprisingly, mainstream religion, including the Presbyterian church to which King maintained loyalty, also dismiss es the paranormal as bunk.
But the Canadian prime minister, whose governments prudently balanced marketplace competition with innovative programs for the unemployed, is just one of many upstanding citizens who have believed in the paranormal.
Other non-kooks convinced of its reality include philosophers William James andHenri Bergson, psychiatrists Carl Jung and (later) Sigmund Freud, physicists David Bohm, Nobel Prize-winner Brian Josephson and Thomas Edison and literary figuresWilliam Blake, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, William Butler Yeats and even crustyMark Twain.
As well as King, other Canadians fascinated with the paranormal include McGill University researcher Bernard Grad, turn-of-the-century psychoanalyst Maurice Bucke (a friend of poet Walt Whitman), Vancouver psychologist-author Leonard George and the Gitksan Indians of northern B.C.
The experiences and arguments of such proponents go under the microscope in a ground-breaking new book by a noted American philosopher of religion, David Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy and Spirituality (State University of New York Press).
Combining skepticism and open-mindedness, Griffin persuasively argues that the evidence for paranormal phenomena is overwhelming.
As a philosopher, Griffin also explains why the scientific and religious establishments lash out at paranormal research without scrutinizing the evidence. By dismissing the paranormal, he says, they are avoiding the need to make a wholesale shift in their worldviews.
Griffin examines repeatable cases of extrasensory perception (including sensing that a loved one in another city has died) and psychokinesis (moving a matchstick, say, without using one’s body). He also pores over evidence for life after death, including messages from mediums, visual apparitions of dead people, reincarnation and out-of-body experiences.
Griffin’s conclusion? Chicanery is involved in many paranormal claims. But even after fakery is weeded out, he says, evidence remains so heavy in favor of the paranormal that at least some of it must be true.
And, as James said long ago, it only takes one white crow to prove that not all crows are black. If even one example of paranormal activity is accurate, then, Griffin says, everything changes. Mainstream science, which views the universe as a complex machine, has to go through a paradigm shift.
But the paranormal is not soon going to be seen as normal. Even CBC Quirks and Quarks host Bob MacDonald, an otherwise broad-minded popularizer of science, argues against the paranormal by saying virtually no one in science takes it seriously.
It would be risky business to do so. Independent-minded scientists who challenge scientific orthodoxy by showing openness to the paranormal would be penalized and ostracized; their peer-judged research grants would dry up.
Meanwhile, many people in the religious community also view the paranormal as unacceptable, even a threat.
The paranormal, as Griffin say, throws into question claims of religious exclusivity. It would be a shock to many faithful Christians, Jews and Muslims to think that miracles – such as Jesus’ healings and appearance after his death – were not necessarily one-time supernatural events. Instead, if evidence is to be believed, miracles can happen now.
Oddly, the paranormal is also poo-poohed by most liberal religious people – even though their faith places less emphasis on exclusive claims to miracles or knowing the only route to salvation.
Liberal religious people are in trouble. They reject both supernaturalism, in which God is believed to act as a kind of omnipotent magician, as well as the paranormal. As a result, Griffin says liberal spirituality grows ever more tepid.
Unlike some schools of Buddhism and Hinduism, liberal Christianity and Judaism have ignored empirical evidence that minds, including a universal mind, can operate at a distance, Griffin says.
They’re losing, he says, a crucial opportunity to authenticate the power of prayer, to point to the distinct likelihood of an after life and embrace the universe as alive and suffused with a kind of intelligence. Griffin, like some other philosophers, uses the technical term panentheism to describe this “natural” spirituality.
Although Parapychology, Philosophy and Spirituality is by no means a breezy read, because it is painstakingly methodical, it is potentially revolutionary. It is for those seeking a religion that is not only intellectually defencible, but astonishing