Religion at the Fringe: What Paranormal Investigations can offer Liberal Religion

The old atheist-theist divide that has plagued Unitarian Universalism for well over a hundred years now may have a new tool with which to build bridges both within and beyond our congregations – investigations into the paranormal.  I know, I know, I can see and hear the humanists and skeptics shaking their heads, clicking away and possibly not even reading the rest.  Wait.  Don’t dismiss this out of hand, for the science, the hard science behind investigating these paranormal phenomenon just  so happens to be telling us that something, we don’t know what, is probably going on and we’re going to need all of human learning, both science and theology, to figure it out and./or to figure out what it means for us.

Steve Volk’s recent book Fringe*ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable – And Couldn’t examines various area of the paranormal and reports on what we know and what we don’t yet know about phenomena such as UFO’s, ESP, Lucid, Dreaming, Prayer, Ghosts, and After Death Experiences.  The most fascinating take away for me has been how unscientific the scientists, skeptics, and materialists are in defense of, well, their belief in science and reason.  In case after case, the people doing the most scientific, controlled studies are supporters of these paranormal happenings.  They are also very modest about their findings.  When studies for the existence of ESP report statistical anomalies above the rate of chance, no one makes a claim that ESP exists, rather they claim we don’t know enough to say what is going on, but something is going on.  Brain scans taken while people speak in tongues show that they are not crazy, nor are they hallucinating, or faking, or just making it up.  Studies in lucid dreaming find that people can actually be taught to control their dreams. As far as we know, the brain scans don’t lie.  There even seems to be legitimacy behind some claims of near death experiences.  The science doesn’t so much prove that such experiences are due to random brain firings, the brain shutting down, or other skeptical explanations.  The science seems to show that something is happening, but we can’t say for certain what it is.

Sociologists have studied the conflict between skeptics and parapsychologists to find out how we conduct our scientific research.  What they found were people they called “scientific vigilantes” who “do not hold scientific degrees but appoint themselves guardians of ‘true’ science.”  Trevor Pinch, one of the sociologists involved in the study, says that the findings surprised him, he expected to find the skeptics were correct in their belief that parapsychologists were self-deceived and used shoddy experiments with poor control techniques. “What he found was the opposite: parapsychology researchers took the skeptics seriously, conducting experiments according to methods that kept pace with the most rigorous of the psychological sciences. Pinch says, ‘These were qualified, sincere researchers doing serious work, and they always had to deal with this group of people (skeptics) that were essentially engaged in a lot of name calling.’”

Scientist Stephen LaBerge, an investigator in lucid dreaming, says “It is clear, science is a sociological construct, and what gets accepted is in part a function of what has already been accepted.”

This rings true to my experience in UU congregations.   One of my favorite things about Unitarian Universalism is it a place where people of different spiritual approaches, including atheism and humanism are welcome.   Perhaps the thing that has surprised me most is to find that some UU’s behave just like any other fundamentalists.  Some of us hold to our own worldview, beliefs, and ideas about science and materialism and atheism so strongly as to be intolerant to the point of ridicule of anyone who doesn’t share their beliefs.

Unitarian Universalism is a both/and religious tradition.  We readily and heartily accept science and what science teaches us about ourselves and the universe, yet at the same time value and respect the spiritual and the mystical aspects of human religiousness that have come down to us through various traditions, especially the Judeo-Christian tradition from which we were born.  I am saddened by those who, at Christmas time, Easter time, and other times, denounce religious stories as mere myths, ridicule the practice of prayer, and consider most of religion in general to be a product of our evolution which humanity has outgrown.

Fringe*ology should reinforce for us the importance of being a religious tradition where science and spirituality meet.  All of us within Unitarian Universalism, even those among us who are theistic or Christian, practice a humanistic religion.  We understand and accept the findings of science, we do not practice or condone magical thinking, and yet we still hold open the possibility that science will discover as yet more remarkable things than we now understand, and maybe there will be things about the human condition and our universe that are and will remain unexplainable – a mystery.

This is the very essence of a liberal religion.  Revelation is not sealed.  There may always be more to learn and new information may impact our previous understandings and interpretations, both scientific and theological, of ourselves and our universe.

Both materialists and rationalists feel threatened when their worldview is challenged. Our religious role as Unitarian Universalists is to hold that space where we understand revelation is not sealed.  Standing in the mystery is our greatest spiritual practice and greatest religious gift.  Finding a middle way in the culture war between science and religion is how we assume our role as the religion of our time.

While Richard Dawkins uses the World Trade Center bombings of September 11, 2001 to claim that not only is religious faith wrong and stupid, it is also deadly because it gives people too much confidence in their own righteousness, an actual study of the data of suicide bombings reveals that religion isn’t a prime motivation for such acts.  Robert A. Pape’s book Dying to Win is a report on his study of 384 suicide bombings between 1983 and 2003.  Fifty-seven percent of those bombings were perpetrated by self-proclaimed secular groups.  Pape’s  Cutting the Fuse, published in 2010, draws on an even larger database of suicide bombings and confirms his earlier findings that nationalism and foreign occupation are major motivations for suicide bombings, not religion.

I’m not suggesting we stop being champions of evolution or teach The Secret in adult education classes.  I do hope that we practice our religion with a true and deep respect for the spiritual practices and traditions that have been our human inheritance and holding both religious and scientific claims to a rigorous standard that keeps us from the realm of magical thinking while at the same time admitting the wonder and pondering the possibilities of what still don’t know or understand.

I am encouraged by the growing movement within Unitarian Universalism to recover a language of reverence, and to make our religion, well, more religious.   I hope we can move further along this road without getting bogged down so much in arguments over theism and atheism.  This feels like so much wasted energy.

Volk’s book is a strong argument not for the separation of faith and reason, but for their marriage.  The book makes a strong case for seeking a third way, – faith and reason.  Volk’s reporting is the best scientific case I’ve yet seen for the reasonableness of mystery and learning to live with it, that the mystery points to something beyond – whether it is to something as of yet beyond our science and understanding or whether it is to something just beyond us entirely, we don’t know. And I am good with that. In fact, it is why I am a religious liberal, why I am a Unitarian Universalist, and why I am still a Christian above and beyond the need for the supernatural, and why I hold out hope for not only Unitarian Universalism, but religiously pluralistic humanity.

Steve Volk points to a community, in Texas, of all places, that just might have something to teach us about accepting divergent viewpoints.   Dozens of residents of Stephensville, TX reported sighting UFO’s on January 8,  2008.   What really happened, what did they actually see? Was it of extraterrestrial origin? Was it of  earthly origin but misrecognized or unrecognized such as a new type of military air craft?  After hearing all the claims of both those who saw something and all the debunkers and skeptics, Volk arrives at the same conclusion the people of Stephensville did:  it’s still a mystery.  And this, Volk says,  is Stephensville’s great gift to us – an example of how to agree to disagree.  “The people of Stephensville seem to have struck up a bargain among themselves, in which the believers go on believing, and the skeptics go on being skeptical. Either way, on Friday night, just the same, they all go watch the Yellow Jackets (the local high school) play football.”This is what Unitarian Universalism can offer – we can create a place for people to investigate the mystical that is also a place to be skeptical.  Perhaps the greatest thing we can offer is to claim our identity as a religion of agnostics and provide an example for others of how to live in the tension of the known and the unknown, the guardians of both faith and reason, watchdogs against a surety and a fundamentalism of either extreme.  For this to happen Unitarian Universalism has embrace or perhaps re-embrace the mystical, the counter part to reason that is the realm of intuition, emotion, the heart, and the soul.

First we must stop arguing with each other, and like the people of Stephensville, go deeply into being the people we say we are – a people who agree to disagree about conclusions while we continue to embrace the questions as more important and journey together into future.

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2 thoughts on “Religion at the Fringe: What Paranormal Investigations can offer Liberal Religion

  1. Thanks for this article!

    I’m always interested to hear where the scientific community apparently won’t engage with specific topics.

    I have to disagree with LaBerge’s statement though that science is the sociological construct that only makes room for certain ideas. I think rather that science is a way of thinking about the world, or a methodology, and the scientific community is the entity to which LaBerge is referring.

    That aside, I am sympathetic to the innate skepticism. The international scientific community has been under verbal assault for years from corporate interests, conspiracy theorists, extreme theists, and pseudo scientists. This includes anti-climate change people, theists who believe intelligent design belongs in the science class rather than philosophy, 911 doubters, folks who are convinced that the world governments and thousands of scientists are keeping cold fusion or other free energy secret, etc…

    My belief is that the combination of time and scientific progress (in thought and the individual involved) will result in a more broad scientific review of any studies related to the paranormal that are honest and adhere to scientific integrity. It reminds me of the controversy last century about classical physics vs. quantum physics. Particularly Einstein’s famous quote, “God doesn’t play dice with the world.” Even Einstein can be wrong…today physicists have successfully created logic circuits that rely on quantum mechanics, so the dice role and they are somehow predictable. How odd!

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