“Death is the last enemy: once we’ve got past that I think everything will be alright” – Alice Thomas Ellis
Most people want to feel smart. Or at least, not dumb. This is a problem as stupidity, like most human characteristics, is no doubt normally distributed in the population. I checked on this. As it turns out, human intelligence more or less follows the infamous “Bell Curve”, but tends to be a little fatter on the ends i.e. concentrations at the extreme ends of curious aggregates of monumental geniuses and drooling idiots. Feel free to interject here about the different kinds of intelligence if that’s how you roll. I’ll cover my ears. It’s not that you don’t have a point, it’s just that it sounds an awful lot like an excuse for poor test performance. Not that modern testing has all that much significance – not when we have object practical tests like understanding traffic laws, managing not to starve without resorting to cannibalism, or walking and chewing gum at the same time. Adequate skill at flint knapping or starting fires were version 1.0. Of course, the question arises whether it all matters. In the event of something that threatens species survival like a zombie apocalypse, it’s probably more important that you swing a bat really hard than you can do Calculus. Now ask yourself which is more likely, having to fight off hordes of the undead or finding the area under the curve. O.K., fine, it’s a toss up. Let’s just stick with the whole normal distribution idea. In non-statistical terms, it simply means there are roughly the same number of people who are smarter than average as there are people who are dumber than average, and the bulk of humanity falls somewhere in the middle. Unless you listen to the skeptics who on average (I’m sure the nature of their skepticism is normally distributed as well) reject religion in general and belief in paranormal in the specific.
Perhaps you’re saying, “Hold on there, Skippy…I’m a skeptic, but I believe in God (a god, gods, ghosts, psychokinesis, the Great Pumpkin Spirit, whatever…)”. No, no you’re not. You just don’t believe everything you hear, and keep those things that work for you. Good for you. It’s an important skill. You will live to reproduce as long as you are not too honest on your match.com profile. You’ve taken up philosophical residence in a split-level head, and that’s perfectly reasonable, as that’s how most of us manage to get through our days without wanting to murder ourselves or others. Your level of adjustment makes your mother proud. Or it would, if she wasn’t criticizing the character flaws of your latest boyfriend or terrible reading habits. You made a life choice and it works. I like whiskey and cigarettes. We’ve all got our crosses to bear, so to speak. You can believe in the Abrahamic God, but reject UFOs as extraterrestrial visitors, or that the ghost of your dear, departed uncle haunts the woodshed. The simple fact is that most people, at most times in history have believed in some element of the paranormal afoot in the universe. And perhaps you think your neighbor is a little touched in the head given his expectations for imminent Ragnarok, but you go with the flow. And he has a bitchin’ lawnmower that he lets you borrow. Sadly, the rise of physicalism and the scientific method as the pinnacle of human knowledge has created a particularly mean-spirited brand of professional skeptic that revels in the shortcomings of their fellow man all the while protesting that they are just trying to protect us not just from predatory charlatans, but from ourselves as well. They imagine a skewed distribution of intelligence in the human population that bunches up at the babbling moron end of the spectrum, and thus requires a logical explanation for why the unwashed masses believe in those phenomena designated as religious or supernatural, things that a physicalist universe has little to no place for. This is where the whole overarching notion that the explanation for human belief in gods or the paranormal is merely a function of “death anxiety” comes in.
Sure, I have death anxiety. That is, if you insist on putting a label on not wanting to die. I mean, I’m not going out of my way to avoid it or anything. No thirty day cleanses or cutting back on all the things that will inevitably kill me. Let’s not get too crazy. Evangelist skepticism, or more politely, the kind of skepticism that has websites, blogs, and lines up speaking engagements, and makes a career of the whole thing, is more often than not founded on the dubious notion that folks (a term by which they generally mean people who are clearly by their estimation, not their intellectual equal), believe in the paranormal because they are afraid of dying, and thus the perception that gods, ghosts, and the tooth fairy exist are related to a denial that you are born, die, and that’s all there is. No eternal life. No judgement. No implications to being an irredeemable, smug asshole while you are alive. One is born a sack of organic material, muddles through life spreading some genetics around, and croaks unceremoniously with no greater import than emptying the garbage. Thus the skeptics can point and laugh at the funny mass of humanity, and all their wishful thinking, and declare that belief in anything outside the prevailing physicalist paradigm is the function of neediness and desperation. To imagine that the universe is something more than molecules interacting in complex ways is therefore deemed to be a sign of mental illness. Or, if you want to get technical, our timid little unconsciousness, interfering with our reasoning.
Oh yeah? Them’s fighting words. And you can claim I’m setting up a straw man just to knock them down, but I defy anyone to go do a search through academic databases on “death anxiety” and “the paranormal”, and you will return a wealth of evidence on the fundamental nature of the skeptic belief that the only reason people believe in all manner of the preternatural is that they are afraid of dying. This aggravates me. Why? Because my “death anxiety” pales in comparison to the existential anxiety that motivates your skepticism.
Here’s my theory. Die-hard skeptics (you know who you are) are consumed with the possibility that existence isn’t all a meaningless mechanism. If we are just a convenient assemblage of organic material with no meaning, purpose, or value, getting up in the morning is a moot point and you can pretty much do as though wilt with little consideration for the species or the implications for the future. Pretty much my lifestyle already, but without the notion that I should save anybody from anything. Deep in the heart of the skeptic, they are trying to earn their crown in heaven, while denigrating everyone else for believing in such a ludicrous concept. Some deity, super-advanced alien, or prophetic ghost won’t save you, but a skeptic will. The question is what they are saving you from? The answer, although sometimes more politely phrased, is from your own ignorance. You’ve met this person. They’re probably your boss, and they talk about the bigger picture and long term planning, but in essence they are suggesting that in your pedestrian understanding of how things “really” work, you can’t possibly conceive of the grand scale upon which things operate, and which conveniently maintains their position in the hierarchy, which in this case is the pecking order of the acquisition of human knowledge. The history of this has been conveniently rewritten, so that if a follower of the great puppet-god Glycon happened across some eternal truth, they were simply a particularly observant, nascent scientist and skeptic.
I don’t have a dog in this race. It doesn’t matter if you believe or disbelieve in any particular controversial subject matter. A gray alien could shake my hand, and I’d probably still wonder if I wasn’t having some sort of psychotic break. My high hopes for the upcoming U.S. election are frankly more evidence of a psychotic break than any intimate encounter with Bigfoot that I might report. The point is, when a skeptic wants to suggest to you the myriad of ways in which your ignorance or death anxiety have resulted in a perception that is at odds with the gospel of physicalism, point out to them that stupidity is normally distributed, even among skeptics, and that their desire for there to be no repercussions for being an arrogant, self-satisfied jerk colors their interpretation of paranormal phenomena. Or you could just say that you took Pascal’s Wager because unlike them, you’ve come to terms with the fact that the house always wins.