By James A. Haught
Think of the amazing number of supernatural beliefs held by people:
Gods, goddesses, devils, demons, angels, heavens, hells, purgatories, limbos, miracles, prophecies, visions, auras, saviors, virgin births, immaculate conceptions, resurrections, bodily ascensions, faith-healings, exorcisms, salvation, redemption, messages from the dead, voices from Atlantis, omens, magic, clairvoyance, spirit-signals, divine visitations, incarnations, reincarnations, second comings, judgment days, astrology horoscopes, psychic phenomena, extra-sensory perception, telekinesis, voodoo, fairies, leprechauns, werewolves, vampires, zombies, witches, warlocks, ghosts, wraiths, poltergeists, dopplegangers, incubi, succubi, palmistry, tarot cards, ouija boards, levitation, out-of-body travel, magical transport to UFOs, Elvis on a flying saucer, invisible Lemurians in Mount Shasta, Thetans from a dying planet, etc., etc.
That’s about 60 varieties — and you can probably think of others I overlooked.
All these magical beliefs are basically alike. There’s no tangible evidence for any of them. You can’t test supernatural claims; you’re expected to swallow them by blind faith. The only “proof” for them is that they were “revealed” by some prophet, guru, astrologer, shaman, mullah, mystic, swami, psychic, soothsayer or “channeler.”
Well, considering the human brain’s vaunted power of logic, you’d think that people everywhere would reject magical assertions that can’t be verified. But the opposite is true. Billions of people embrace them. Almost all of humanity prays to invisible spirits and envisions a mystical realm. Virtually every leader invokes the deities. Supernaturalism pervades our whole species, in one form or another.
Around the planet, varying from culture to culture, the phenomenon is nearly universal. It consumes billions of person-hours and trillions of dollars. Millions of prayers to unseen beings are uttered every day, and millions of rituals performed. This extravaganza requires a vast array of priests and personnel, and a vast array of buildings and facilities. The cost is astronomical. Americans alone give $70 billion a year to churches — more than the national budgets of many countries. Other supernatural investment is enormous. For example, Americans spend $300 million a year on psychic hot-lines.
In this mighty ocean of spirituality, only a few rebels dare to ask: What if it’s all untrue? What if no spirit realm exists, and the whole enterprise is a fantasy? What if people don’t live after death? What if thousands of years of kneeling, praying, worshiping, sacrificing, fighting holy wars, torturing heretics and the like was, and continues to be, a monumental waste?
What if the emperor has no clothes?
What if the whole supernatural spectrum and its huge army of practitioners constitute a trillion-dollar fraud?
Well, we skeptics are fairly certain that the entire mystical realm is a delusion, a global self-deception. But few Americans agree with us. We are a tiny fringe, so outnumbered that it’s almost forbidden to voice our view. No television network or mainstream magazine or other mass medium would dare say that religion isn’t divine. And when we say it, hardly anyone listens.
To make matters worse, we’re losing ground in some intellectual circles. In the past, we could feel confident that the most intelligent, educated thinkers regarded miracle claims as bogus. But this former fact of life is being undercut by the trend called postmodernism.
In academia these days, many say that the “truths” of supernatural religion are just as valid as the “truths” of science or the “truths” of history learned through centuries of human experience. Postmodernists proclaim that all knowledge is subjective, merely the perceptions of the perceiver.
Well, I don’t want to bog down in deep extremes of philosophy — in the abstruse question of whether it’s possible to know anything beyond “cogito, ergo sum” (I think, therefore I am). Descartes showed that all I can know with certainty is that my mind exists, and is receiving impressions — and it’s only an assumption that the impressions are a valid picture of external reality.
Leaving that enigma aside, and looking at human reality as we live it, I think we can conclude that postmodernism is baloney. In our everyday, practical world, some things are real and others are bogus. Some things are trustworthy, and others aren’t. Some obviously work, and some obviously fail. We can see it through simple common sense.
If your child develops pneumonia, you don’t hire a witch-doctor to shake rattles and chant incantations — you seek antibiotics and the best professional care. You don’t consider one treatment as good as the other. In other words, you believe in science, not supernaturalism — because your intelligence has taught you that one is real and the other is quacko.
Or if your car breaks down, you don’t pray for the engine to be healed — you seek a skilled mechanic and a well-equipped garage. You know that prayer is no more effective than rattle-shaking — while the intelligent technology of motor repair really works (most of the time).
In fact, we could declare a universal law that is borne out in daily life time after time after time: Science works and prayer fails. Reason and logic bring enormous benefits to humanity — but supernaturalism brings little of value, and often brings terrible harm. Consider some examples:
Aztec priests cut out people’s hearts to appease an invisible feathered serpent and other magical gods. They also strangled children so their tears would satisfy the rain god. And they decapitated maidens, skinned them, and danced in their skins to please gods. Most sources say the Aztecs sacrificed about 20,000 victims a year. Yet, today, everyone knows that the invisible feathered serpent and other Aztec gods didn’t exist. So this ghastly slaughter was a total waste — hundreds of thousands of lives destroyed for nothing.
What benefit did this supernatural religion bring to the people? Would postmodernists say that Aztec beliefs were just as valid as our modern belief in science and democracy and human rights?
The Thugs of India strangled people for Kali, the goddess of destruction. Their theology held that Brahma the Creator was making new lives faster than Shiva the Destroyer could end them, so Shiva’s wife Kali wanted her followers to hunt unsuspecting humans and strangle them with sashes. Again, estimates say the Thugs were killing about 20,000 victims a year until British rulers stamped out the practice. Today, millions of Hindus still worship Kali — and occasional rumors of human sacrifice still surface — but most of the world doubts that there’s an invisible Kali who desires strangulations. So you see, supernatural beliefs caused horrible bloodshed, for nothing. They’re not just as valid as the rational, scientific outlook.
Next, think of the multitudes of “heretics” and “witches” who were tortured and killed by the Holy Inquisition – all in the name of the compassionate Jesus. Think of philosopher Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for saying the universe is infinite. Think of physician Michael Servetus, who discovered that blood circulates from the heart to the lungs. He was burned in Calvinist Geneva for doubting the Trinity.
All that torture and burning was declared to be “God’s will” — but nobody today actually believes it was. Even the church, if cornered, must concede that the claim of a divine mandate was false.
How many postmodernists would contend that the “truth” proclaimed by the inquisitors was genuine?
No, I think intelligent people who look at the world objectively perceive that some things are real, and others are unreal. To me, all supernaturalism belongs in the latter category. It’s the trillion-dollar fraud.
So — where does that leave us? Is humanity doomed to be forever mired in voodoo? Maybe not.
When I was a young thinker and knew everything, it was obvious to me that mysticism soon would vanish, because bright, educated, science-minded people would see that it’s all a fantasy.
As usual, I was wrong. In my lifetime, there has been an upsurge in fundamentalism, Pentecostalism and other sorts of magic. Fundamentalist Muslims became the deadliest terrorists. Fundamentalist Jews are wrecking democracy in Israel. Fundamentalist Christians want to restore Puritanism in America. Fundamentalist Hindus destroy mosques and battle fundamentalist Sikhs in India.
And yet, in spite of this soaring irrationalism, part of me still thinks my original hunch was right. Perhaps it’s just wishful thinking, but I predict that scientific agnosticism will blossom among intelligent people, especially in Western cultures. In fact, it’s happening now, insidiously.
America evolves constantly, in subtle increments that aren’t noticed until you look back. Remember the 1950s: Blacks were forbidden to enter white schools, restaurants, theaters, hotels, neighborhoods, pools and most workplaces. Gays were imprisoned for “sodomy.” Unmarried couples were arrested on “fornication” charges. Looking at the equivalent of a Playboy magazine or R-rated movie could land you in jail. Ditto for buying a lottery ticket or cocktail. Jews were banned from some clubs and subdivisions. Divorce and unwed pregnancy were hush-hush disgraces. It was a crime in some states to sell condoms, even to married couples.
Today, that era seems as unreal as the Civil War. It slipped away, but most of us were too busy to see it leaving. If we didn’t notice those profound cultural shifts, what others are creeping up on us now, undetected in the daily hubbub? Nobody can answer with certainty. Social tides are hard to chart. (Not even pundits saw that Soviet communism was about to evaporate.)
Well, I think America is going through another unseen transformation: the retreat of supernatural religion, at least among the educated class.
Although the Christian Coalition still can marshal millions of evangelicals for Republican candidates, and the Promise Keepers can fill arenas, I think the brightest Americans steadily are losing confidence in magic.
Hardly anyone today, as I said, trusts prayer to cure diseases. In fact, American society is so unanimous on this point that prayer-only parents who let their children die without medical care are prosecuted.
Politicians still invoke deities loudly, but in truth, they don’t really expect heaven to reach down and “bless” America. Government programs are based on pure humanism: people striving to improve daily life, without supernatural aid.
Even sophisticated ministers doubt the gods — although they usually hide their disbelief in pious-sounding words. Episcopal Bishop John Spong of New Jersey wrote a book, Why Christianity Must Change or Die, belittling the notion that “God is a supernatural being who rules the universe from on high.” Since there’s no magical god, he concludes, there likewise is no divine, resurrected, invisible redeemer.
Another book, The Meaning of Jesus, contrasts the views of two Episcopal thinkers. One of them, Ohio State University professor Marcus Borg, says Jesus wasn’t divine, wasn’t born of a virgin, wasn’t resurrected, and isn’t coming again. Of course, all this is camouflaged in a smokescreen of churchy euphemisms.
Think of it: Cautiously, evasively, some religious leaders are saying that the whole basis of Christianity is untrue. I’m sure that many intelligent preachers secretly share their view, but don’t dare say so.
Slowly, subtly, America is becoming like Europe, where supernatural religion has faded to a tiny fringe. One indicator of U.S. change is the disappearance since the 1950s of all those puritanical taboos rooted in church “thou shalt nots.” Another indicator is the traumatic shrinkage of “mainline” Protestantism, once the domain of the elite. I think the decline of those tall-steeple churches means that educated people have less faith in gods and heavens. The western world is turning more rational, more scientific. Education is dispelling superstition.
America’s Catholic hierarchy still denounces the “sin” of birth control, but members don’t listen. Evangelists still rant against sex, but most Americans no longer think sex is “dirty.” Fundamentalists still call gays evil, but society at large is more tolerant. Preachers proclaim “God’s will” on these topics, but it rings hollow.
Don’t get me wrong — religion and supernaturalism still are mighty. Around 40 million Americans worship each Sunday. No politician could be elected if he admitted atheism. New Age mysticism is blooming.
But, insidiously, subconsciously, the scientific outlook is winning among the educated, I think. Yale scholar Stephen Carter wrote a book titled The Culture of Disbelief, protesting that U.S. trend-setters no longer take religion seriously. Carter called it a sign of moral decay — but I call it a sign of rising mental honesty.
America is evolving — in a healthy direction. Despite all the pious posturing, if you look carefully through the daily tumult, you can see supernaturalism dying.
Final thought: As society turns more secular, some people give less thought to religion, and don’t ask whether it’s true or phony. But this evades a major issue of honesty. Steve Allen put it well in one of his books:
“I do not understand those who take little or no interest in the subject of religion. If religion embodies a truth, it certainly is the most important truth of human existence. If it is largely error, then it is one of monumentally tragic proportions — and should be vigorously opposed.”
Well, I hold the latter view, and try to oppose the trillion-dollar fraud. I think honesty requires it.
Although we questioners are greatly outnumbered, history is moving in our direction. Wise people are abandoning the supernatural. Someday, maybe, most of the educated class will follow. If it happens, we skeptics of today may be seen like the abolitionists who said slavery was wrong, or the feminists who sought equality for women. They were just a fringe, often ridiculed — but they eventually prevailed over the majority. Now the whole world looks back and knows they were right. I hope that this is our destiny.
(Haught is editor emeritus of West Virginia’s largest newspaper, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and a senior editor of Free Inquiry magazine. This article originally appeared in Church & State, July 1999.)