I recently read an article that I found had interesting insights on the topic of paranormal and extraterrestrial beliefs of the nonreligious. I was surprised by the findings, and have a few comments of my own.
Here’s an interesting fact: People who are not religious are twice as likely to believe in ghosts and UFOs as those who are religious. It seems that the less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse ideas about hauntings, UFOs, intelligent aliens monitoring our lives and assorted government conspiracies.
These facts come from a new research study by Pew Research and Clay Routledge, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University. But perhaps most interesting are the conclusions the professor and his colleagues make about how this relates to our search for meaning. Routledge writes:The less religious the participants were, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning (resulted in) a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in UFOs and alien visitors.
This made me raise an eyebrow. But it also made a question come to mind.
The researchers seem to have concluded that the perceived meaninglessness of life as perceived by many irreligious people has driven them to find meaning. Apparently in UFO’s, conspiracy, the paranormal (well, aside from deity’s) and other sources.
I have to question if it is less a case of finding meaning than it is a case of just filling the void with another ideology. I wrote a lot in my early days as an atheist expat about the phenomenon of many atheists replacing one religion with another, this happening most often with very devoted religious believers turned atheists. Though the faith and ideology of religion are purged, the frameworks often remain. Hence why you can have the leader of Americas most prominent secular organization aside from the US government (American Atheists) regularly promote black and white dichotomy’s (“People are either theists or atheists, PERIOD!”) as logically and rationally correct.
Anyway, I suspect that embrace of seemingly irrational pursuits like conspiracy theory and the paranormal by irreligious individuals may be yet another branch of this phenomenon. Purging the ideologies of religion, but keeping some of the same frames of mind.
Which is understandable, really. The only thing harder than changing an actual ideology is changing the mindset that allows those like it to fester and conform. Call it a personal life lesson.
There’s just one problem with this. Routledge says that belief in ghosts and UFOS are poor substitutes for religion. While we all need something to believe in, a way to organize and understand the world around us, the researcher points out belief in the paranormal is “not part of a well-established social and institutional support system.” It also “lacks a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning.”
That seems rather obvious. Anyone who is going to take the time to read these findings likely either already knows that, or is ideologically blocked from coming to the conclusion.
On a related note, I can think of at least 2 variables that could impact the findings of this study that seem to be missing. One is the length of time in the nonreligious mindset. The other is one’s level of education.
First off, it has to be said that the diversity of people keeps the overly generalized rule of thumb conclusions at bay, in terms of cases like this. That said, however, one should be careful with assigning too much weight to conclusions that may change.
While an initial step away from religiosity may bring people to some interesting places, people may not stay there. It depends on how much time these people want to devote to evaluating these things. And to a degree, ones education also guides where they land.
You can’t really fault someone for not having a “deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning” if they were never exposed to such pursuits in life.
In The Super Natural, a book about UFOs and alien encounters, Jeffrey J. Kripal writes that “the human species is a mythmaking species. Just as birds instinctively build nests and bees build hives, we “make worlds”, mythical universes to live in. We have no choice. Human beings need meaning, which is to say story, in order to live, much as they need food and air. No human community can live without meaning.”
This need for meaning goes back to the advent of man, when myth was used to explain the world. Just like we never lost the “fight or flight” response, which dates back to prehistoric man fleeing from threats in the wild, we may still possess the need for archetypes, primitive mental images that inhabit our psyche. The renowned psychologist Carl Jung believed we inherited theses archetypes from our earliest human ancestors and that they’re present in the collective unconscious.
To that end, Jung believed that UFOs were in fact “archetypal images” and “involuntary automatic projections.” He wrote that: “UFOs could easily be conceived as “gods.” They are impressive manifestations of totality whose simple, round form portrays the archetype of the self.” When we lose touch with our innermost being, these archetypes make themselves known.
In all honesty, I don’t even know what to do with that. But I can concur that humans need . . . something.
Meaning. A purpose. A reason for being.
For many, the prescribed road maps of society and culture do the trick, right to the end. Others find purpose in the counters to status quos of both society and culture. And some others dwell even beyond that. If the city is society and culture, and the suburbs are the status quo counterculture than these people reside in the far unlit unknown. Where the streets have no name.
People need something to look forward to. Something to get them out of bed in the morning. Otherwise, what is the point?
I am unsure really, where else one could go with this. Because there really is nowhere else to go. There is no advice to give. Those in the city or the suburbs will generally find their way to something compatible.
Those who venture beyond the lighted boarders can find something to. It will just take more legwork and potential trailblazing. And there is nothing wrong with that really. The best inventions and the biggest civilization advances rarely come from the comfortable status quo.