When my wife and I had our twin baby boys circumcised in our home last year, the Hasidic rabbi who performed the bris left us with a surprising parting gift: an amulet for protection against demons. It was a laminated card printed with Hebrew texts including imprecations against Lilith, a female demon of the night. Alluded to in the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud, she seduces men to sin and kills infants in their sleep. When I queried the rabbi about this, especially about some esoteric and incantation-like phrases on the card that I couldn’t decipher, he gracefully dodged, referring me to unspecified kabbalistic secrets.
Though amused by the curious souvenir, I was also glad to have it. I hung the card above our babies’ crib.
It was a reminder that, as much as we think of our age as cynical and literally disenchanted, supernatural belief has hardly been erased. In fact, it may be on the rise. A CBS poll in October reported that 48% of Americans believe in ghosts (and 22% claim to have seen one). Among those younger than 45, 54% believe, as opposed to 41% over that age. Belief in other forms of paranormal and occult phenomena is on the rise too: In the 1980s, 25% of Americans accepted the idea of alien abductions, for instance, but 40% say they do now, according to Newsweek.
CBS poll in October What individual surveys don’t capture is the impressive diversity within what psychologist William James called “the reality of the unseen,” or Puritan witch-hunter Cotton Mather called the “invisible world.” Polls ask mostly about well-known experiences — Have you used a Ouija board? — but neglect wilder phenomena.
A few weeks ago, I found myself seated on an airplane next to a lively, curly haired woman in her 50s. She introduced herself as a career and spiritual counselor and regaled me with accounts of reincarnation she has elicited from clients and from her own recovered memories. When I told this to a Jewish-born colleague, a cerebral guy who occupies a prominent media perch, he launched into a narrative of his supernatural encounters with spirit beings, mediated by a syncretist Brazilian church, Santo Daime, and aided by drinking a foul-tasting concoction mixed from psychotropic jungle vines and leaves.
A popular nightly radio program, “Coast to Coast AM” with George Noory, draws 3 million listeners nationwide and is devoted to sharing all types of experiences outside the mainstream. The show comes on at 9 p.m. in Seattle, where I live, and my ritual is to listen to Noory as I bustle around the kitchen, making dinner and drinking wine.
Listeners call up, one after another, with personal narratives of what Jewish mysticism would describe as the “other side” of existence. Sure, I’m skeptical about crop circles, conspiracy theories and cryptozoology. However, I’m also sympathetic to the late conservative philosopher and ghost-story writer Russell Kirk, who valued the paranormal for its suggestion that reality consists of more than mundane material processes. I get the persistent sense that something profound is affirmed by the eerie accounts on Noory’s show.
The latest scientific theory holds that particular brain functions evolved for purposes suited to the survival of the species, but then got “hijacked” by religious and other supernatural beliefs. Maybe that’s right, but explanations like that partake of a certain pat, naive quality reminiscent of a Rudyard Kipling “Just So Story” (“How the Leopard Got His Spots” … “How the Human Got His Belief in Demons”). They are also suspiciously unfalsifiable. If people had over the centuries completely abandoned the supernatural, evolutionary psychologists could spin out an equally plausible tale to explain that.
Another possibility is that the human need to believe in the unseen world itself points to, while not proving, the reality of hidden dimensions. It could be that materialism — the philosophical assumption that reality is nothing but physical stuff — is a prejudice rather than a fact. Perhaps an unseen reality does exist, revealed in flashes that can be confusing or misleading, to which we sometimes give flaky designations. Like “Bigfoot.”
Religions used to confidently navigate this twilight realm. Some faiths still do, quietly. When Louisiana’s Catholic governor, Bobby Jindal, was being considered as a running mate for John McCain, the fact that Jindal once participated in an exorcism became a briefly sensational media story. As for the rabbi who presided over our twins’ bris, the evangelistic branch of Judaism to which he belongs, Chabad, stands out as bucking the trend elsewhere in Judaism toward a pallid rationalism.
The same trend is mirrored in other faiths, especially the shrinking mainline Protestant denominations. It may be that such pallidness helps explain why Americans turn to florid paranormal beliefs, as opposed to traditional supernatural ideas. Indeed, U.S. polling data from Gallup, reported by Baylor University researchers, shows that belief in the occult is more common among non- or infrequent churchgoers or those belonging to a liberal Protestant denomination than it is among frequent churchgoers and conservative evangelicals.
Religious leaders representing respectable faiths, intimidated by secular prejudice, may wish to take note as they scan the empty pews. The human hunger for a vigorous, unapologetic interface with the unknown can’t be entirely repressed. As Sigmund Freud knew, the repressed has a way of returning.