Why the supernatural?

One common idea about religion is that religious worldviews are ones in which we endorse the existence of the supernatural—phenomena capable of affecting the world around us to alter the course of natural events: for example, divinities, spirits, or apersonal animistic forces. What, though, is the supernatural?

The concept of the supernatural involves more than just a distinction between this world—the one all around us—and another. By that we could mean any number of things, and some of them clearly aren’t contenders. In making such a distinction, we could mean something as innocuous as the difference between Earth and Mars. Or “world” can signify a network of concerns and endeavors—the business world, for example, or the art world, the world of the student or farmer. But clearly, one need not endorse the existence of the supernatural in order to believe in other worlds in these senses, and think that they sometimes impinge upon ours.

The supernatural, it would seem, has to be at a greater remove from us. Suppose, then, that in this spirit, we tried out a fairly expansive notion of this world—say, to include everything at some distance from us in space and time, so that the supernatural would have to be external to all of that: quite a far remove, indeed. This would still not be enough. The notion of the domain that includes everything at some spatiotemporal distance from us is simply that of the universe. And, views (e.g. from physics) that posit a distinction between the universe (ours) and others beside it aren’t thereby committed to the existence of the supernatural—not even if they include, in addition, the view that these other universes impinge upon ours (say, via wormholes or the like).

Of course, people often talk about the supernatural as in some way functioning according to different rules. As a result, to the frustration of the scientifically-minded among us, when people are criticized for their supernatural beliefs on the basis of well-established theories and forms of explanation from science, these criticisms often fall on deaf ears. To those who believe in the supernatural, such criticisms miss the point. Gods, spirits, omens, magic, and the like, they’ll respond, aren’t subject to such theories and explanations.

What, then, if we added to our distinction the notion that those other domains, distinct from the universe, don’t abide by the rules of this one—say, by the laws of nature? This still would not be enough. If, for example, we were to add to our many universes theory the notion that other universes operate according to different natural laws than our own, this wouldn’t by itself make it a theory committed to the existence of the supernatural.

What’s missing from such characterizations has to do, not with a what, but with a why. We won’t, I suggest, understand the notion if we simply search for definitions of the supernatural without reflecting on the reasons why we posit it. In particular, it’s essential to the concept that it answers to a certain sort of dissatisfaction with the world as we find it, and certain longings this dissatisfaction inspires.

These longings can be given a slogan: the world is not enough. The seeds for the supernatural, that is, are to be found in a certain restless discomfort, expressible in the question “Is this all there is? Is there nothing more?” The ‘this’ to which the question refers is the world in which we find ourselves, envisioned with certain of its features in relief: a world in which we suffer and die; in which, more often than not, injustice goes unpunished, and virtue goes unrewarded; in which the course of events is, by and large, just one damn thing after another—purposeless, meaningless, indifferent.

The longing for an answer to this question, in turn, gives birth to the conviction that this ‘something more’ must somehow be out there: that its absence is unthinkable, even unintelligible. In pursuit of this conviction, we try to envision it. Because of what drives our doing so, we envision it with certain characteristics. It must, of course, operate according to dramatically different rules than ‘this’. That is, its character must be sufficiently different from that of the world around us to soothe our panicked restlessness. However, to soothe us in this way, it mustn’t simply exist. It must be in some manner accessible. And this is because it will be of no comfort to us unless its existence offers us some escape route—some way of transcending the world as we find it: the intolerable awfulness of ‘this’.

The impulse to posit the supernatural, understood in this way, can indeed lead to the positing of another realm beyond our own. However, the idea that the supernatural must take such a form is, it seems to me, a bias created by a narrow-minded view all too common among people who effectively think of Christianity as the paradigm example of religion. That is, it’s Christianity that posits a hard and fast distinction between our world—the ‘fallen’ world, under the temporary or superficial sway of demonic forces—and that other one: heaven, that other place—domain of God.

Many other religions, though, simply have nothing resembling such a distinction. In Buddhism, for example, we don’t find a distinction between this world and another. Rather, we find something more like a distinction between appearance and reality. When confined to the world of appearance (the cycle of Saṃsāra), we seem to exist—these unities that each of us calls ‘myself’. Many things seem really worth our desire and aversion, and the satisfaction of these wants promises joy and happiness. However, in things as they really are, we aren’t anything in particular, but mere skandhas—piles or random scatterings with no well-founded distinction from each other or the world. And, the desires that our delusions of self induce can only lead to suffering.

The sense in which Buddhism is committed to a notion of the supernatural is that it posits an escape route from the world as we find it—from the conditions in which suffering is inevitable, and into those in which we’ll free from it once and for all. And this is what it has in common with Christianity. The supernatural is constituted by those conditions, distinct from those of the world as we find it, taken as necessary for some vision of escape from ‘this’. Such escape can take the form (as in Christianity) of the soul’s reunion with the divine in another, heavenly realm. It can (as in Buddhism) take the form of the lived realization of the real character of this realm. It can even take the form, not of such permanent escapes, but rather of temporary and limited reprieves—e.g. favors gained from the gods through obedience or the offering of gifts. Whatever form it takes, though, the longing for escape is essential to it. The supernatural is simply the cosmological correlate of soteriology.

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