Supernatural? Ick.

I’m not entirely certain why I object to supernatural beliefs.

Sure, supernatural claims are, I think, invariably mistaken. But that alone is no reason to object. A false belief may still be socially useful, culturally meaningful, or commendable in a zillion different ways. Now, particular religions, including all the really popular ones, very often do obstruct what I happen to care about. Abrahamic monotheism is, I think, an especially potent source of political nastiness. But supernatural beliefs and forms of religiosity are quite variable. There are (and there are bound to be) ways of believing in gods and demons that I have to concede are at least harmless and even support what I care about. So maybe the rational thing to do would be to encourage more liberal, sweetness-and-light forms of faith. Since we are stuck with supernatural beliefs—and we are stuck with them—we might as well have the more benign variety be more socially dominant.

Yet I find myself irritated by all kinds of supernaturalism. Lots of religious people are generally supportive of science and liberal cosmopolitan ways of living together. They genuinely care for and help people, more than I do. (I have a misanthropic streak.) They say their supernatural commitments anchor the behavior that I admire. Indeed, this appears to be true. But still, I am irritated. Gods, ghosts, souls, prophets, revelations, mysticism—I can’t help but think that intelligent adults should not be in the grip of such beliefs. Even if they are harmless, even if they are beneficial, I consider supernatural beliefs unseemly.

And maybe that’s the best way to describe it. Part of my objection to supernatural beliefs is analogous to aesthetic disapproval. My first reaction is “ick,” and further reflection has never been able to dispel a trace of disgust with what I see as an aggressive affirmation of falsehoods.

Maybe my irritation is like discomfort with ugly architecture in a city. I can come to accept that commercial considerations drive most buildings, that cheap and ugly apartment blocks are nonetheless the best available to many people in the circumstances, that worrying about the aesthetics of public architecture is an elite preoccupation that can’t take precedence over more serious public problems, etc. etc. Still, I remain bothered by an ugly skyline, and faintly disgusted that we can’t do better.

I don’t think the “ick” factor is at the bottom of my uncompromising secular tendency, at least not in the sense of identifying any single fundamental objection to supernaturalism. (Many independent objections come together and support one another, usually.) Still, it’s important. Politically, I usually have to get over my irritations and hope to work together with liberal religious people. Yet the almost-aesthetic objection remains, and I need to occasionally rant about how bloody stupid the whole thing is.

About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University