Clay Routledge, author of the new book "Supernatural: Death, Meaning, and the Power of the Invisible World," was watching his university's football team play for the national championship on TV. There were about 20 of his friends in the room, when a girl of 9 or 10 twirled in. She pointed out that just because their team was ahead didn't mean they still couldn't lose.
One of the men told the girl to leave, saying that if she came back, she would jinx the game.
And everyone else just kept watching the TV, as if this guy had not just said something both mean and, well, crazy. How could a girl's being in or out of a TV room possibly affect the outcome of a football game?
To believe that cause-effect connection would be to believe in the supernatural. And that turns out to be something all of us, even the most hardened atheists, do.
Routledge studies why we believe what we believe and, in turn, how those beliefs affect us. Every day, most of us do some little things without thinking about what spiritual reality they represent. We miss a bus and think, "I wasn't meant to catch that one." We find a dollar and think, "Someone's looking out for me!" We take an umbrella in case it rains — but also to prevent it from raining. We act, in other words, as if there is a being, unseen and unknown, deeply concerned with the way our day (and life) is going.
This doesn't mean we're nuts. In fact, a belief in the supernatural may be hard-wired into humanity. But why? "A big area of my research is studying the underlying nature of the supernatural in the mind, especially issues related to fear, anxiety and uncertainty," said Routledge in a phone interview, "and our need to be part of something bigger than ourselves."
As the child of missionaries, Routledge was born in West Africa and grew up with religion all around him. One thing religion does very well, he says, is to provide some solace about death. Routledge quotes Larry King — yes, the CNN guy — as saying, "If you didn't die, there would be no religion."
But religion also makes us abler to deal with life. A 2010 USA Today/Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Americans believe that God answers prayers. That means most of us believe help is on the way, even if we don't know how or when it will appear.
A belief in God also seems to make people braver, for two reasons. First of all, it is an "anxiety buffer." Deep faith mitigates anxiety, as does the strong social network religion often offers.
Then, too, feeling as if you are in God's hands can be as reassuring as growing up bathed in the love of a supportive parent. If you are sure that someone is always there for you, you can go further out into the world because you know that that person will always be there when you need that person.
In short, religion is so powerful, so comforting and so helpful in making sense of the world that it is hard to live without. And that may be why many of the folks who say they don't believe in God become "more interested in other kinds of magical ideas," says Routledge. These range from conspiracy theories to paranormal activity. "The percentage of people who believe in ghosts is much higher among people who don't regularly attend church."
In today's smorgasbord society, fewer and fewer people affiliate with an established religion. Instead, they mix and match: a little yoga, a little Oprah, a dollop of Kabbalah...
But scratch a little deeper and you'll find a belief that the world somehow makes sense, even if we don't understand the plan.
As long as we keep pint-size skeptics out of the TV room.
Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of Free-Range Kids and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]) and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.