Search for meaning in a weird and wonderful world

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aYou could always blame the millennium. Belief in the paranormal is up and in God is down in, according to the latest survey. Almost half of twentysomethings believe that ghosts exist. Yet they are considerably less likely to believe in the Almighty.

Although the figures, in an ICM poll of 1,000 people each interviewed for two hours, published in the Daily Mail yesterday, show that the public are more likely to believe in preternatural activities, they also reveal a diminishing basis for such beliefs. The statistics show that those claiming to have had direct experience of weird phenomena have decreased, according to Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, one of the academic world's leading sceptical experts on the paranormal.

It is a historical fact that a resurgence of apocalyptic beliefs characterise the turn of a century but most particularly a millennium. The decline of orthodox religion appears only to have nurtured this, with the blossoming of a New Age-ism which places personal fulfilment at the heart of spirituality. For example, celebrating the Celtic Fire Festival (pictured) at the beginning of Spring.

You could blame the media. Our television screens are afflicted by a rash of strange-but-true programmes which, lacking any pretence at investigative rigour, present the paranormal as entertainment.

But a number of factors combine here. The scientific method may promote rationalism but science has created miracle technologies which seem little short of magic - for example an Internet which allows musicians in different countries to play along to the same song.

The survey's definition of "paranormal" is so loose that, as psychologist Susan Blackmore of the University of the West of England points out, it would cover any physical phenomena that we don't yet fully understand - like consciousness. It confuses the paranormal with the supernatural and lumps God in with spoon-bending. Telepathy and psychokinesis - if they exist - are still phenomena. They are facts about the world. By contrast a supernatural event, like the Resurrection, is something which transforms human experience. A Jesus beamed up to heaven would be a bit of sci-fi paranormal; a resurrected Christ who transforms the life of those who believe constitutes a heightening or fulfilment of the natural - it alters how we read the world now. It is about searching for meaning in the events of the world.

A medium who tells us that the spirits of the dead try to get in touch with their living relatives makes dying sound like going to Australia. The transcendent view is that death is the end of our life story and that resurrection is another order of being.

It was a distinction which G K Chesterton understood well enough. "When people cease to believe in something," he once said, "they do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything."