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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