Yesterday evening I spoke to the Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub group. It was a really enjoyable evening and I was glad to have been invited to speak by the organisers. Several people in the audience asked me about the potential for belief in paranormal ideas to cause harm to the believer and whether I personally think it’s okay for people to believe spiritualist ideas if they’re not harming others. These were some good topics to discuss but I didn’t have the chance to talk in depth about them at the time and I want to address them here.
One of the key messages I try to deliver in my public talks is that people have weird experiences. That’s a fact – I’ve had weird experiences, I know other non-believers who have had weird experiences and so on. Sometimes, for some people, these odd experiences can be profound and what one person would count as ‘just a bit odd’ someone else might consider to be significant. This could be because of things happening in their lives, because of their peer groups, their pre-existing belief systems and other such circumstances.
When I was asked if I thought it was okay for people to believe in paranormal ideas as long as they don’t harm people I answered that, in my opinion, of course it’s okay. If someone believes that ghosts are real based on an experience they’ve had then as long as they do nobody harm that’s fine. We are all entitled to believe or not believe in things, after all. As long as you don’t take offence to people questioning your claims related to your belief then I think that’s all cool.
Some people disagreed with me. This, I think, is because some people in the audience were worried that people who are in a vulnerable position may be preyed upon by bad people who see them as potential profit. Now, I’ve met plenty of non-believers who think “stupid” believers deserve what ever happens to them for being so ignorant, so it was lovely to see people seeing beyond that and sharing their concerns for their fellow humans. To see the human situation at the centre of a paranormal belief system truly requires an open mind. More skeptics like the Birmingham audience, I say.
I also completely get where they’re coming from too. But it gets really complicated when you try to define how someone who believes in something paranormal can harm another person or can be harmed. You might instantly think of psychic con-artists tricking believers out of their cash in return for a few psychological tricks, or the haunted venues who promise they’re haunted but don’t tell you about the man hiding in the attic making the knocking noises.
These are legitimate issues to be worried about. But what’s the alternative? Well, it’s to try with every bit of energy in your body to convince people that their paranormal beliefs are wrong or irrational – but is that actually useful? My opinion is that it isn’t useful at all. Firstly, you could actually push the person you’re trying to convince into the arms of the dodgy psychics and secondly, you might actually cause them harm yourself.
As I told the audience last night, as a paranormal researcher I sometimes find myself in the tricky position of communicating with people who are in a vulnerable place because of their circumstances and it would be inappropriate for me to work with them in any aspect. All that I can do is kindly suggest they speak to their GP about grief counselling, or listen to what they have to say from a neutral position (because some people just need to share their experiences and not be rejected because of them.)
It doesn’t achieve much but I’m fine with that because I understand the complexity of the human belief in the paranormal. I once wrote a piece called The Ghosts of Widowhood in which I touched upon the complex situation of paranormal beliefs forming part of the grieving process. In it I spoke about research published in the British Medical Journal in 1971 by W Dewi Rees. The paper was called The Hallucinations of Widowhood and showed that roughly half of those interviewed (293 widows and widowers) reported hallucinations or illusions (e.g. non-visual experiences) of their dead spouse/spouses, and that these experiences were most common in the first ten years following the death. The paper stated
There is real potential for the belief that these mourners have/had that their dead loved ones are/were still with them to make them vulnerable to the lecherous advances of con-artists, but at the same time these beliefs were helpful to them at the a very difficult time of their lives and it would be wrong to try and turn them away from that, even out of concern for their well-being.
I genuinely do not believe that there is a simple resolution to this topic. Not everybody who believes in the paranormal is in a vulnerable position, and paranormal belief doesn’t automatically make you stupid enough that you fall for scams but there is the potential for this to happen, yet at the same time it might not be useful to try and convince somebody that what they believe is wrong or irrational. I guess all that we can do is continue to call out the bad guys who would prey upon the grieving, continue look out for each other and continue to care about people regardless of what they do or do not believe.