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Investigating the supernatural

Watch humanist Deborah Hyde describe her passion for investigating supernatural claims
Ever since I was really young I definitely got a dark frisson from the supernatural side of stuff. My aunties were mad and would talk about these blood-curdling things, like poltergeists and stuff like that. So this started out as just an interest in the dark side of the supernatural but you can’t read about a lot of that, especially if you’re reading the right kinds of books, before you start to realise that it doesn’t exist. However, it sheds all sorts of insights onto the way that human beings work and that was the bit that really got me fascinated.
Well, we’re built for survival not truth. So the way that we see the world is actually pretty efficient but we don’t have the bandwidth to see everything all the time. As a result, we make fairly predictable errors and the reason for that is very sensible, because you know, we see faces in the clouds. It doesn’t really matter if you see faces in the clouds or if you see Jesus in a piece of toast but you only get to ignore a tiger once.
I think that you would be very hard put to ever get rid of the supernatural in most people’s lives. It seems to be relatively hardwired into us but one thing that we can do is - certainly education makes a difference when people know about their own perceptive and cognitive apparatus, they realize that we make some pretty systematic and regular mistakes, and they can, that we can understand, understanding our own natures, makes us realize how we get the universe wrong.
There are dangers associated with supernatural belief but the dangers tend to be worst under certain circumstances, when people are marginalized, when they’re poor, when they are subject to authorities, or authoritarian forces who can claim to cure or look after or control them. So even though perhaps rich metropolitan people don’t suffer much from witch hunts or from belief in supernatural depleting creatures, like vampires, that it still happens that there are witch hunts that people still suffer and if we understand the social and economic circumstances that lead to that kind of dynamic then hopefully we can use our own knowledge and our own perspectives on history to help to stop abuses today.
I think the modern study of the psychology of religion shows us that a humanist approach to life can provide everything. If you look about, you can have numinous experiences, people have mystical experiences when they look at something absolutely beautiful though, or when they contemplate the universe, when you realise that you’re going to be here once and this is very very important and the connections you make, and the things that you do are important. Everything you can get from religion you can also get from humanism if you want to but there isn’t the baggage and for me that’s why I’m drawn to it.

Deborah Hyde is a sceptic, folklorist, and cultural anthropologist. She is the Editor-in-Chief of The Skeptic magazine. She writes and lectures about superstition, cryptozoology, religion, and belief in the paranormal.

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