Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World by Clay Routledge

Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World
by Clay Routledge
Oxford University Press, 2018


Clay Routledge, professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, argues in his new book, Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World, that belief in phenomena that transcend the physical realm is not only not confined to those who are deeply religious but is an inherent human impulse, even among atheists. According to Routledge, humans have an ingrained need to perceive meaning in the world, and supernatural forces—gods, ghosts, Heaven—help to imbue the world with meaning. Thus, people believe in the supernatural not because they are unintelligent or misguided, but because of an evolutionarily-ingrained need to create meaning, and this is true of the religious and nonreligious alike.

This argument stems from terror management theory, or TMT. According to TMT, humans, like all other animals, have an innate desire to survive and pass on their genes. However, unlike any other species, humans have developed such advanced intelligence that they have grown aware of the fact that their struggle in this life is ultimately futile and that they will one day die and be forgotten. The anxiety—or terror, if you will—that this causes leads humans to find ways of feeling “more than mortal,” as Routledge likes to put it: methods of finding some path to convincing themselves that they can attain immortality. In short, the knowledge of death is what makes humans so motivated to find meaning in life. Belief in the supernatural, especially in a cosmic drama—God versus Satan, for instance—or in an afterlife, are especially powerful ways of doing this. As Routledge puts it:

These beliefs served a number of functions for our ancestors. They helped turn an often chaotic and unpredictable world into a world of design and order by offering creation stories that proclaim that everything happens for a reason. They provided explanations for otherwise seemingly unexplainable phenomena by invoking controlling supernatural agents. . . . However, at the core of supernatural thinking is the promise that there is more to existence than our brief time on this planet, and there is more to being human than being an animal.

A fascinating thesis, no doubt. However, one gets the sense that this book could have been much shorter had Routledge not Googled for all of the Pew Research Statistics, personal anecdotes, well-known news stories, and common knowledge about religion and spirituality in order to stretch his argument to the length of a book. But this lazy brand of pop psychology aside, he does describe some compelling studies. He reports dozens of experiments demonstrating that even atheists or avowed materialists believe in the supernatural, they just do not know it.

Perhaps one of the most convincing is one where atheists and believers were told to recite statements in which they called on God to do terrible things to them (an example, “I wish God would turn my friends against me”). While making these statements, the experimenters measured the research participants’ skin conductance level, the amount of electrical current reaching their skin—a measure often used in neuroscience and psychology to measure strong reactions to fearful stimuli. One would expect that atheists, who do not believe in God, would be unaffected by calling on an entity that they believe to be a fiction to make them miserable. But this is not what their skin conductance level showed. Indeed, atheists showed the same level of physiological arousal when asking God to do something awful to them as believers did. Thus, even atheists, at some unconscious level, believe that God could influence their lives. Atheists may pay lip service to materialism, but they cannot escape the innate urge to believe in an all-powerful deity. Further, even if materialists can escape the belief in God, Routledge shows, they may turn to belief in other, nonreligious types of supernatural agents. Atheists tend to be more likely to believe in ghosts, and to believe that extraterrestrial life exists and has visited Earth and influenced human history, for example.

Routledge then goes on to enumerate both the many benefits and dangers of supernatural beliefs. Being more religious, he reports, is associated with greater psychological well-being as well as better physical health, because many religions mandate healthy practices, such as abstaining from alcohol, exercising, spending time with other people, and providing a feeling that one has a watching and protective fatherly figure (God). Alternately, supernatural beliefs occasionally motivate suicide bombers, or a desire to indoctrinate young children with creationist beliefs in public schools. The section of the book dealing with such things is where the author confuses belief in supernatural agents with religious practice. While it is clear that being religious has many health benefits, there is no necessary reason to believe that any of the findings he reports are based on belief in God or angels, per se. Most of the benefits he describes are due to activities extraneous to theism—the threat of Hellfire is not a requirement to go jogging.

Some of his arguments in this section are also decidedly unscientific. He claims at one point that religion makes people more optimistic, and then expostulates on the psychological benefits of optimism. Except that he does not actually present any data indicating that religious people are more optimistic than nonreligious people. He just figures that because religionists get to look forward to going to Heaven after they die and know that there is a cosmic plan put in place by God, they should have a cheerier outlook on life, and leaves it at that.

Routledge closes, finally, with an uninspiring and unconvincing chapter about how understanding religionists’ and atheists’ supernatural beliefs can help us find a “common humanity.” Apparently delusions about ghosts and alien invasions will unite the world. While he has an interesting thesis and plenty of research to back it up, this is a confused book that—amazingly, at barely two-hundred pages—feels bloated.  

Karel Carpenter is a graduate student and writer living in the United States.