“The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth” – Niels Bohr
According to the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, 84% of the world’s population professes some form of religious faith, with the number of self-described agnostics or those unaffiliated with organized religion expected to shrink from 16% to 13% globally by 2050. The U.S. is an exception to this trend, with increasing numbers of individuals fleeing organized religion, but before you go crazy with thoughts of “American Exceptionalism”, note that according to sociologists Christopher Bader and F. Carson Mencken of Baylor University and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University, more than two-thirds of Americans have “paranormal beliefs”, defined as a belief in things not recognized by science and not associated with mainstream religion. This has led some to question whether or not the paranormal is the new normal, conveniently ignoring the fact that for the greater part of history, and for most members of the species, it always has been.
The parade of popular paranormal entertainment that marches across our screens seems to support the notion that there is increasing interest in otherworldly experiences, which surprisingly doesn’t include the nice guy getting the girl or your political representative voting in your interest. Aficionados of the deep weird should not hold their breath. No really, you shouldn’t. You could suffocate.
While there are plenty of vociferous skeptics out there ready to stridently denounce phenomenological anomalies as delusion, hallucination, and wishful thinking, folks just go right on believing, encountering, and searching for meaning in the strangeness of the universe. Yet, debunking strange phenomena and deriding the ignorance of the presumed peasantry that report and attempt to understand odd experiences is a popular pursuit among those who fancy themselves as enlightened intellectuals. Now, I’m a big advocate of mocking anybody for anything. Only apes and humans can laugh. We should take advantage of this. What I find curious is that while “spirituality” as an essential component of one’s ontological perspective on the universe is generally tolerated as a cultural expression and even lauded as positively civilizing, belief in the paranormal is more often than not described and treated as vaguely psychopathological.
Defining entire realms of inquiry as psychopathological is a means of controlling the discourse, a way of shaping reality to conform to a standard that is palatable in the hallowed halls of the ivory tower, the corridors of political power, and the institutions that regulate what is inside and outside the dominant ideology (from medicine to physics). This instrumental disregard for the paranormal, supernatural, or preternatural is an exercise of power, a confinement that needs no asylum by a process which Foucault succinctly described in The Birth of the Asylum, where he noted, “Everything was organized so that the madman would recognize himself in a world of judgment that enveloped him on all sides; he must know that he is watched, judged, and condemned; from transgression to punishment, as a guilt recognized by all”. It is not enough for the skeptic to explain away paranormal experience; the experiencer must recognize his guilt and complicity in perpetuating madness.
It is far harder for the skeptic to pathologize mainstream religion, precisely because of its institutionalization, that is to say it is embedded in a cultural complex that generally supports the structure of society. This is despite the fact that psychologists and psychiatrists have wrestled with the possibility that when it comes to spirituality vs. the supernatural, as observed by Heather Kranz, a Clinical Interviewer at the Menninger Clinic, “It is unlikely that science will ever be able to make an absolute distinction between what is symptomatic of psychopathology and what is merely an aspect of diverse human experience”. This argument dates back to Sigmund Freud, an atheist who concluded religion was a man-made illusion designed to keep us from eating one another, and William James, who maintained room in his theories of religion for the validity of mystical experience and the existence of unseen realities.
Thus, we fall back on science and its epistemology looking for an ontology, but can only do so effectively by demarcating the boundaries of reason, steadfastly distinguishing between contained belief and the anarchy of human experience, while scrupulously attacking transgressions in a abrogation of control in a search for comfort, or as Charles Fort once noted, “Every science is a mutilated octopus. If its tentacles were not clipped to stumps, it would feel its way into disturbing contacts. To a believer, the effect of the contemplation of science is of being in the presence of the good, the true, and the beautiful. But what he is awed by is mutilation”.
It is therefore regarded by the luminaries of rationality as a public service to debunk any and all claims of the paranormal, quickly and authoritatively. The etymology of the word “debunk” derives from the slang term “bunkum”, which itself is believed to have been a phonetic spelling of Buncombe, a county in North Carolina. “The usual story (by 1841) of its origin is this: At the close of the protracted Missouri statehood debates, supposedly on Feb. 25, 1820, N.C. Representative Felix Walker (1753-1828) began what promised to be a ‘long, dull, irrelevant speech,’ and he resisted calls to cut it short by saying he was bound to say something that could appear in the newspapers in the home district and prove he was on the job. ‘I shall not be speaking to the House,’ he confessed, ‘but to Buncombe’. Bunkum has been American English slang for “nonsense” since 1841” (Online Etymology Dictionary). In a sense, “to debunk” is an act of de-localization, in the same way that madness was once a profusion of individual signs, but needed to become diffuse in order to enact social exclusion of the universal other and stand sentry on the boundaries of polite society.
The history of human consciousness and its search for truth, to again borrow from Charles Fort, seems an attempt by the relative to be the absolute, or by the local to be universal, and the notion that there is a contiguity to phenomena, be they mundane or magical, is an act of stepping across the lines of classification, a usurping of control that all recognize as susceptible to pathologizing labels. This is why so many first person narratives of encounters with strange phenomena are prefaced with “I never believed in X, until I saw X myself”.
Skepticism regarding the paranormal purports to be an expansive stance, that in its frustration over the transgressions of an imaginary boundary, actively pathologizes enduring aspects of the human experience and only claims to want to lead the greater bulk of humanity out of the darkness of superstition and false hope into the light of reason, but as Robert Anton Wilson remarked, “You are precisely as big as what you love and precisely as small as what you allow to annoy you”. Perhaps our perception that the paranormal is becoming the new normal is merely evidence that once the ontological cat is out of the bag, you can never go back to Buncombe.