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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Life and Style
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
musicBand's first new record for 20 years has some tough acts to follow
peopleAt least it's for a worthwhile cause
A new app has been launched that enables people to have a cuddle from a stranger
voicesMaybe the new app will make it more normal to reach out to strangers
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Life and Style
Sexual health charities have campaigned for the kits to be regulated
healthAmerican woman who did tells parents there is 'nothing to be afraid of'
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Foundation and KS1 Teacher

£100 - £140 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Foundation and Key Stage 1...

Geography Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Temporary Teacher of GEOGRAPHY ...

Supply Teachers needed in Salford!

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Randstad Education Manchester Secondary: Are you a ...

Nursery Assistant

Negotiable: Randstad Education Group: Nursery Assistants RequiredNursery Assis...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments