Nov 25, 2008

Aliens and Ghosts More Popular than God

The Vatican newspaper made news last week when it forgave John Lennon's notorious blasphemy. The world was startled when Lennon suggested that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and that Christianity would "go." Lennon's comments were far better reasoned and considered than the Vatican's current dismissal, as the musings of young buck overwhelmed by fame, allows.

The Vatican continues to take slow, lurching steps toward modernity. In another bold move, last spring, the director of the Vatican Observatory acknowledged that the universe is very large, indeed, and that it was not a violation of faith to believe in extraterrestrial life. But, the bitterest pill for the church to swallow is that both music and aliens have much more resonance with the populace than traditional religion. Ghosts too, it appears.

More people believe in aliens and ghosts than in God, a new survey finds, according to a British newspaper.

The survey, however, was done by a marketing firm in conjunction with the release of an X-Files DVD, and details of how the poll was conducted were not reported in the Daily Mail. Survey questions, depending on how they are written, can greatly skew results, along with how subjects are sampled.

That said, the poll of 3,000 people found that 58 percent believe in the supernatural, including paranormal encounters, while 54 percent believe God exists. Women were more likely than men to believe in the supernatural and were also more likely to visit a medium.

Indeed, humans are prone to believing in things they can neither see nor find logical evidence for.

AliensPerhaps the bigger news is that neither the church, nor the tsking of scientists, can disabuse people of their belief in things that cannot generally be independently verified or consistently perceived with the five senses.

Monsters are everywhere these days, and belief in them is as strong as ever. What's harder to believe is why so many people buy into hazy evidence, shady schemes and downright false reports that perpetuate myths that often have just one ultimate truth: They put money in the pockets of their purveyors.

The bottom line, according to several interviews with people who study these things: People want to believe, and most simply can't help it.

. . .

A related question: Does belief in the paranormal have anything to do with religious belief?

The answer to that question is decidedly nuanced, but studies point to an interesting conclusion: People who practice religion are typically encouraged not to believe in the paranormal, but rather to put their faith in one deity, whereas those who aren't particularly active in religion are more free to believe in Bigfoot or consult a psychic.

Yep. Left to our own devices we'll believe just about anything, I guess. Why is that, I wonder. Education doesn't seem to help. Indeed, college graduates are more open to the paranormal than freshmen.

Church orthodoxy has a long history of quibbling over what extrasensory perceptions are "of God" and which ones aren't. One of the more famous cases of such quibbling came about when Joan of Arc was burned as a heretic and a short 24 years later named a saint. Turns out she really was hearing the voices of saints, not the pagan idols of the "fairy tree."

Great attempts were made at Joan's trial to connect her with some superstitious practices supposed to have been performed round a certain tree, popularly known as the "Fairy Tree" (l'Arbre des Dames), but the sincerity of her answers baffled her judges. She had sung and danced there with the other children, and had woven wreaths for Our Lady's statue, but since she was twelve years old she had held aloof from such diversions.

It was at the age of thirteen and a half, in the summer of 1425, that Joan first became conscious of that manifestation, whose supernatural character it would now be rash to question, which she afterwards came to call her "voices" or her "counsel." It was at first simply a voice, as if someone had spoken quite close to her, but it seems also clear that a blaze of light accompanied it, and that later on she clearly discerned in some way the appearance of those who spoke to her, recognizing them individually as St. Michael (who was accompanied by other angels), St. Margaret, St. Catherine, and others. Joan was always reluctant to speak of her voices. She said nothing about them to her confessor, and constantly refused, at her trial, to be inveigled into descriptions of the appearance of the saints and to explain how she recognized them. None the less, she told her judges: "I saw them with these very eyes, as well as I see you."

My first thought, on reading of God's dismal poll numbers, is that those paranormal experiences are actually more tangible. Many people swear that they've actually seen aliens and ghosts. God, not so much. Although, in fairness, 4% isn't that great a disparity. The real challenge for organized religion is that God doesn't seem to present in the way "he's" described in scriptures. When we encounter some vaguely anthropomorphized entity, we're more inclined to call it an angel or an alien, than presume to call it the one true "God." The challenge for skeptical scientists, however, is that many people swear that they've actually seen aliens and ghosts. Who are you gonna believe? The double-blind studies or your own lyin' eyes?

It becomes difficult to disabuse people of something that is, for many, quite experiential, even if it can't be consistently replicated in a lab. How do you stop people consulting mediums when so many, who consider themselves quite average, have had experiences around the time of deaths; received messages, seen flashes of light, felt strange, unearthly breezes, and even had clearly definable visitations from their departed loved ones.

As long as people keep unintentionally "piercing the veil," no amount of reason will dissuade them from those pesky paranormal diversions.

Earlier this month Great Britain's minister in charge of science, of all people, admitted having a "sixth sense."

Lord Drayson, the government minister in charge of science, believes he has an uncanny ability “like a sixth sense” to know and predict some events instinctively.

The multi-millionaire businessman and Labour donor says he believes humans have strange abilities that are not widely understood. “In my life there have been some things I have known, and I don’t know why,” he said in an interview with The Sunday Times. “I think there is a lot we don’t understand about human capability.”

By way of explaining his sometimes uncanny insight, Lord Drayson cites Malcolm Gladwell's book Blink; a book one friend of mine describes "a book on intuition even men can understand."

Fairies at Play, a Toadstool Makes a Convenient Merry-Go- RoundIn Supernatural, Graham Hancock posits that the intriguing parallels between shamanic experiences, extraterrestrial encounters, and legends of the faerie folk, can be explained by psychotropes. Faeries are often depicted around fungi known for their psychadelic properties. Many shamanic cultures use various psychotropes. At issue, specifically, is DMT. DMT is a naturally occurring brain chemical. It's produced in minute, rapidly absorbed quantities by the pineal gland. It is also present in a variety of plants. But, ingesting those plants has no effect, because the stomach secretes an enzyme that immediately deactivates it. Ayahuasca is used by many native tribes, not because it has hallucinogenic properties of its own, but because it suppresses the enzyme that deactivates DMT. Mixed with plant material high in DMT, it creates a powerful hallucinogenic cocktail, that the shaman can use to access non-ordinary reality. But, it may also be, according to Hancock, that some people simply produce higher quantities of DMT in their brains. Such people could spontaneously access the hidden world, experiencing alien encounters, and who knows what else.

It's an intriguing theory, and one worthy of exploration. For myself, I don't know what makes me psychic. I just am. I've always seen and felt presences. I've always been able to feel what other people are feeling. And I fall in and out of non-ordinary reality, pretty much at will. Could that be, at least in part, due to an excess of DMT? Perhaps. Whatever it is, the one thing I'm quite certain of, and always have been, is that it is not a unique ability. It is not some special power. It's our human birthright. Everyone is psychic. Some of us are just more actively aware of it than others. For many people it only rises to consciousness in extraordinary circumstances, like during times of major transition. Or, as Gavin De Becker explains, in periods of danger, when a very basic intuition kicks in with warnings best heeded. We're all capable of perceiving beyond the five senses, and, try as they might, the best religious and scientific minds can't rob of us of that fundamental ability.

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