FAITH & REASON: Now ghosts are more popular than God

Why is belief in the paranormal rising despite Britain's supposed scientific rationalism? Because, argues Andrew Brown, it offers the illusion of control in a world which seems increasingly wanton.

One of the oddest and least predicted facts about the last 50 years has been the inexorable rise of superstition. At a time when the whole world has been transformed by modern science (and in the places where that transformation is most complete) there is an almost complete rejection of the foundational beliefs of scientific rationality. This has not, as we all know, led to any resurgence in traditional religion or even what you might call traditional miracles. What has grown up instead is a mishmash of private beliefs, jostling uneasily together like ice floes on a chilly sea of ignorance. A newspaper poll this week suggested that far more people now believe in ghosts, or ESP, than go to church.

Most of the explanations for this phenomenon have come from the disgruntled losers: the scientists and the religious; both of whom incline to blame credulity of the masses. "When people do not believe in God, they do not believe in nothing, they believe in anything," said Chesterton, and this is a remark less profound than it is generally taken to be. As an analysis, it doesn't carry us much further than the socio-biologists' contention that people are born gullible and will believe anything their parents tell them and never think thereafter. How tough-minded socio-biologists have evolved from such a mass of credulity is never properly explained, of course.

I think it is more useful to ask what needs these beliefs are fulfilling. Obviously it is wrong to choose beliefs that are repugnant to truth simply because they make us feel better: but people who reason this far seldom go on to consider that bizarre and irrational beliefs, if they persist, must not only make people feel better, but not clash too violently with the truth, or possibly express truths which seem peripheral to what they are ostensibly about.

To take a simple example: many people believe that the end of the world is imminent, and foretold by prophecy. None the less, we can and should discriminate among these beliefs even when they are expressed in what seem to be the same words, by asking how they function in the lives of the people who hold them. The same belief can carry the message that the world is ultimately manageable and will turn out for the best, or that it is all hopeless and the best policy is suicide. There is a celebrated study of apocalyptic belief among the technicians who look after American nuclear missiles, which found that believing in the imminent divinely planned end of the world helped them to manage their anxieties about preparing for it - and so, probably made it less likely to happen, at least by accident. On the other hand, the followers of the Golden Temple Order, who also believe they will be raptured up to heaven in the skies, think it necessary to kill themselves first, and this minor doctrinal point has considerable practical consequences.

One of the important things about the surge of paranormal belief is how few consequences and costs it has. This is not immediately apparent. When people say they believe in astrology or in Tarot predictions, we are tempted to assume that they do so when these contradict other evidence. But of course they don't. There was a survey last autumn in which people were asked whether they believed in astrology - overwhelmingly they said they did. Would they base decisions on it? Overwhelmingly they would not.

So there is a sort of reasonableness behind this, even if it is the rationality of the emotions, responding to their own needs. But this sudden surge of emotional anarchy is surely on one level a response to the emotional emptiness of modern economic life. Individuals don't matter in a modern economy. That is what makes it so successful and at the same time so unsatisfying.

The paranormal, by contrast, offers a constantly shifting set of perspectives in which individuals matter; and the fluidity is part of its charm. It is like ambient music. As soon as you have gone through reading toes, you are on to homeopathy for cats, or feng shui. None of these relates to each other; none pretends to offer a coherent view of the universe; but all provide the central illusion that what we do makes a difference to the universe. Newspapers should not sneer at this too much, since the most successful ones are exactly those which convince their readers that they and their prejudices matter. Is it more dishonest to do so with horoscopes or news stories?

`Faith & Reason' is edited by Paul Vallely

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Clinical Lead / RGN

£40000 - £42000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: IT Sales Consultant

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT support company has a n...

Recruitment Genius: Works Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A works engineer is required in a progressive ...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Hire Manager - Tool Hire

£21000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client is seeking someone w...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent