by Christopher Balzano
Outside of the paranormal community the belief in ghosts is often a leap of faith. Many paranormal investigators have had an experience that sparks their interest, but the average American never touched by the supernatural and still believes may be more open-minded based on his religious background or upbringing. Many religions embrace some level of supernatural foundation, and Christians often find themselves dealing with a conflict between what their religion says about the next world and the confusion raised by ghostly, unexplained experiences. The questions remain over whether religious belief discourages or encourages belief in the paranormal outside of the religion.
A recent poll by the Baylor University Institute for Studies of Religion has resulted in two new reports by sociologists F. Carson Mencken and Christopher D. Bader that examine the connection between the religious atmosphere of American Christians and supernatural beliefs ranging from the existence of aliens to belief in ghosts. Their results show many Christian denominations may actually invite open-mindedness to the paranormal because of their deep supernatural traditions. They refer to it as the “small step hypothesis,” where religious credence in one thing encourages followers to embrace other ideas that cannot be proven by science. According to Dr. Mencken, “It’s a small step between believing in angles to believing in ghosts or devils. Those people are likely to have paranormal beliefs as well.”
That small step also refers to a follower’s willingness to become involved with the paranormal in either a passive or active way. “They aren’t as concerned if you are playing with ghosts on the side,” says Bader. “Show up. Give us money once in a while, and go ahead and watch Ghost Hunters.” These are the people more likely to consult psychics or engage in numerology even though it is officially frowned upon by the religion. They also make up the growing number of people consuming paranormal products and slowly turning towards being an active part of the ghost hunting community.
Some are still slow to make the leap. Tim Weisberg is the host of Spooky Southcoast in New Bedford, Massachusetts, a show that features interviews with people from all aspects of the supernatural, from ghosts to Bigfoot to UFOs. “We can get some of the biggest names in the paranormal field on our program, and we won’t get a single phone call. But we could bring in the most obscure psychic or medium, and the every phone line will be lit up for the entire show. In fact, without our station subscribing to Arbitron ratings for our particular time slot, we pretty much gauge just how much local listenership we have by the volume of calls we get when we do an episode that features some sort or ‘readings.'” In other words, listeners are still more comfortable being active in the paranormal when it comes to reading the future, but the fact they know to call in means they are also listening to the shows on UFO abductions and haunted houses.
According to Mencken and Bader’s research, a bigger factor in the split between nodding at the Resurrection and approval of phantoms is the participants’ attendance at religious activities, either actual services or church-related events, and the pressure from those churches to become involved in those activities. “Certain denominations have a lot of tension,” says Mencken. That tension helps to mold paranormal beliefs outside of the religion. “They are the people who are very likely to not hold paranormal beliefs.”
The result of those high tension denominations can sometimes be recognition of things that cannot be explained, but not going outside of the religion to try and seek answers. According to Bader, “Those churches at the top end of the scale, they’re expected you to invest yourself completely in their belief system.”
This often means looking only at the paranormal accepted by the group. “They say they don’t believe in psychic abilities,” says Bader, “but they’ll speak in tongues. According to Mencken, “It’s highly specialized paranormal belief. They don’t score well on general paranormal beliefs. They may believe in demons but they do not believe in the power of ESP.”
The pressure to conform to the mystical side of the religion often extends to the daily routines of members. “The same groups that will keep the kids in on Halloween also put a lot of pressure on their member to be at church each week. They tend to do things in groups, often focused around the church with social control over members.”
Mencken and Bader believe they have created a baseline to compare future results. To date, the information they have received has not shown a marked increase in overall belief in ghosts or the average citizen taking a more active role in activities like ghost hunting, but the shift may happen in the future with the exposure of ghosts and the paranormal in the media. “I was interested in looking at to what extent we can look at paranormal beliefs as a dimension of spirituality,” says Mencken. “Is New Age a new religion?” Those answers might take years to measure, but for many the blurring may be as natural as going to church.
Conventional Christian Beliefs will appear in Review of Religious Research, December 2008. Their second, Round Trip to Hell, will appear in Sociology of Religion in 2009.