Monday, 15 February 2016

Sceptics & Believers: Why can’t we all just get along?

I'm a sceptic and an atheist. I come to these conclusions from the available evidence and what I’ve experienced. I think and believe there are no ghosts or a God, but I don't know. None of us can. I don't feel these are extreme positions but by taking them I am already part of a particular 'camp'.

The 'sceptic' vs 'believer' debate in relation to the paranormal, God and religion has become very polarised. I feel this limits both sides of the argument with few minds being converted either way. It makes it difficult to occupy the middle ground. One of the reasons I set up the Parapsychology Society at Manchester Metropolitan University was to bring about constructive debate on the paranormal.

Psychology students are a sceptical bunch and rightly so. The majority in the scientific community are atheists. A study in the US found that only 40% of prominent scientists believed in a God compared 70-80% in the general population. This shouldn’t be surprising as a truly enquiring mind will assess all the information and evidence for God and the paranormal is sketchy at best. So a large cohort of people will therefore reject it out of hand. 

In the UK general levels of belief in God are lower at 35-40% (BBC and YouGov, 2004) showing there are large cultural differences. Similar results are found in levels of paranormal belief. 3 in 4 Americans believe at least one paranormal belief. The highest being Extra Sensory Perception (ESP) and haunted houses. The same is true in the UK, although gender played more of a role with higher numbers of women endorsing certain items (astrology, contacting the dead) (Gallup, 2005).

It is an unfortunate by-product of this that believers are sometimes framed as uneducated, misinformed or irrational. We often hear the phrase: ‘An extraordinary claim requires extraordinary proof’ (Truzzi, 1978:11).It is at this point that we reach an impasse. Believers cannot provide sufficient evidence for their claims and sceptics will not accept anecdotal or introspective accounts. So where do we go from here?

I think the sceptical community can be commended for promoting critical thought. “There is a distinct difference between having an open mind and having a hole in your head from which your brain leaks out.” (James Randi). However, some take it further and seek to convert minds, similar to a religion (?). There is a great deal of hope and faith invested in these beliefs which needs to be acknowledged. I would like there to be ghosts and an afterlife, I just don't think there is. Likewise, the paranormal community must concede that they are unlikely to get the evidence needed to change sceptical minds. 

Some movement within these positions could facilitate constructive debate. The furore on the Dawkins/Church of England prayer debate is a case in point. I hope the work I have done over the past two years with the parapsychology society, talking to people about their paranormal experiences, hosting events, my Twitter and Blog will influence this in some small way. I'm coming to the end of my studies now but will try and carry on fighting the good fight for a non-threatening, liberal, middle ground - how very British! 

          Jack Nicholson, Mars Attacks (1996)


Scott, Eugenie. "Do Scientists Really Reject God?: New Poll Contradicts Earlier Ones". Reports of the National Center for Science Education. National Center for Science Education.
"More Than 9 in 10 Americans Continue to Believe in God". (2011)
“What The World Thinks Of God" . (2004) BBC News
"Telegraph YouGov poll". (2004) The Daily Telegraph
Gallup Poll – USA, Canada and Britain (2005)
Truzzi, M. (1978) ‘On the extraordinary: An attempt at clarification’ Zetetic Scholar, 1, (1), pp.11-22

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