As modern western culture continues in its post-Christian march away from religion, what is filling the gap of God? Does disbelief in God translate to disbelief in everything supernatural or transcendent? Recent evidence seems to indicate a resounding “NO.”
As much as we talk of a strictly materialistic and rationalistic landscape in our Scientistic society, there seems to be a lingering (and growing) sense that there must be “something out there” beyond us, something that doesn’t abide by the laws of the natural.
Just this week an article in the New York Times highlighted the fact that in Norway, one of Europe’s most secular countries, “God is out but spirits and ghosts are filling the vacuum.” The article states:
Ghosts, or at least belief in them, have been around for centuries but they have now found a particularly strong following in highly secular modern countries like Norway, places that are otherwise in the vanguard of what was once seen as Europe’s inexorable, science-led march away from superstition and religion.
While churches here may be largely empty and belief in God, according to opinion polls, in steady decline, belief in, or at least fascination with, ghosts and spirits is surging.
Also this week an article in the Wall Street Journal noted the surge in Hollywood and pop culture’s fascination with demons and possession: “Some 40 years after ‘The Exorcist,’ demonic possession is back, spewing out movies, TV shows and books.”
These include recent films like The Conjuring, The Witch, Paranormal Activity, The Possession and The Vatican Tapes; TV series like Cinemax’s forthcoming exorcism drama Outcast and Discovery’s Exorcism Live! and The Demon Files; and novels like The Merciless and A Head Full of Ghosts.
Fascination with demons and the supernatural also shows up in Rodney Ascher’s gripping (and terrifying) 2015 documentary The Nightmare, which you can watch on Netflix. The documentary examines sleep paralysis, a real phenomenon of debilitating and recurring dream encounters with “shadow man” characters (think Nightmare on Elm Street but real) and oppressive demonic presences. By interviewing those who suffer from sleep paralysis, The Nightmare leaves it up to the viewer to discern whether what they describe is a psychological rather than supernatural phenomenon, but the plagued dreamers themselves seem mostly to believe it’s the latter.
Not all pop culture today is taken up with a belief in the supernatural, however. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar last year, for example, made a point of demystifying the supernatural by showing that what appear to us as “ghosts” are simply phenomena of very advanced science.
Still, there does seem to be growing sense in the western world that our enclosed, naturalistic, secular order is insufficient. In A Secular Age Charles Taylor describes it as the “immanent frame,” which “constitutes a ‘natural’ order, to be contrasted to a ‘supernatural’ one, an ‘immanent’ world, over against a possible ‘transcendent’ one.”
If not God, humans will search for transcendence in other spiritual realms. We are hard-wired to believe in something beyond the material.
Perhaps this is why things like ghost-hunting, neo-paganism and Wicca are enjoying a resurgence in many parts of post-Christian Europe. I certainly saw evidence of this on a recent trip to the UK, particularly in one encounter in an Edinburgh restaurant.
I was eating dinner in this restaurant with eight others from my church (we were on a ministry trip together, visiting churches in the UK). It was a hip local restaurant with trendy design and great “New Scottish” food. However the more time we spent in the restaurant, the more we sensed a dark presence there. We noticed a very disturbing, large demon head statue mounted on the wall as decoration. Something was off about our waiter: he never smiled or made eye contact with any of us and seemed eager to get us out of the restaurant. A girl in our group with particular sensitivity to spiritual warfare was so affected by the place that she could hardly sit through the meal. As we left, she boldly asked the waiter if she could pray for him. He at first said no, then he twitched his head in a disturbing way and bowed slightly before saying “yes” and walking away. We don’t know his story or how that encounter affected him (if at all), but something spiritual was happening in that restaurant that night.
Of course it’s not hard for me to believe in supernatural encounters with darkness and the whole idea of spiritual warfare. I’m a Christian. I believe in a guy who cast out demons, healed people and was himself raised from the dead.
What’s encouraging to me is that even in the midst of our increasingly secular age, even those with no belief in God are at least open to belief in the supernatural. This is an important step if they are ever to believe in the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
I think the materialism of our age is sometimes overstated. We have to believe in something beyond this world and bigger than ourselves. We have to believe in something that transcends our immanent frame.