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Who's in the Video
Dr. Clay Routledge is a leading expert in existential psychology. His work examines how the human need for meaning in life influences and is influenced by different cognitive processes, self-regulation,[…]
In Partnership With
John Templeton Foundation

Intelligence is a double-edged sword. While it allows us to become enlightened and to make technological advances, it also causes great anxiety.

To help alleviate our anxiety, we turn to the supernatural — religion, ghosts, UFOs, and the paranormal.

Belief in the supernatural is largely driven by our need to cope with our own mortality and to make sense of a chaotic world.

CLAY ROUTLEDGE: Our great intelligence causes great anxiety. There's a burden to our cognitive enlightenment. As existential organisms, there's all sorts of supernatural beliefs that we invest in. There's the common ones that most people are familiar with- related to the religious traditions that we're part of- but there's also all sorts of other types of supernatural beliefs such as the belief in ghosts, a belief in other types of spirits, a belief in psychic powers, a belief in almost superhuman abilities like mind reading. We also invest in things that aren't necessarily hardcore beliefs, but that we might refer to as supernatural-lite, things like UFOs and aliens. Our interest in the supernatural is probably a story as old as our species. 

There's something about wanting to not be confined by earthly parameters. The story of supernatural thinking is a complex one, that is there's not just one source or one cause of our supernatural interest- but a big one is the realization of our mortality. Supernatural beliefs give us some sense that even though life on this planet is short, even though it's uncertain, there's a part of me that is more than that. There's a part of me that's beyond my material existence. I have some spiritual essence that transcends mortality. We also have to deal with the loss of loved ones, and supernatural beliefs help us deal with loss. When a loved one passes, we gain some sense of comfort in our sadness that we still remain connected to them in some way. In some way, the relationship persists even though they're not physically with us anymore. 

All animals, at some level, need to make sense of the external world. It helps to have some basic understanding of cause and effect. But what makes humans unique is not only do we need to make sense of our external world so we can navigate it, but we also have an internal world. We're very introspective. We're highly self-aware. And so we wanna make sense of our own lives, and supernatural beliefs can help us make sense of the external world by helping make it more orderly and predictable, but it also plays a critical role in helping us make sense of our own existence. At some level, all humans are aware of the fact that we're tiny. We're tiny in a lot of ways, right? If you think about our relative size in the Universe, we're just a tiny spec on a planet that's just a tiny part of a much larger Universe. 

In addition to that, if you think about the concept of time, that also makes us feel small. We know that our time on this planet is very brief in the grand scheme of things. Supernatural beliefs help us connect ourselves to something that solves that problem of smallness. Even though I'm only here for a brief moment in time, I am connected to others who have been here for a long time, and hopefully connected to others that will be here for a long time in the future. As humans who are highly introspective, we have all sorts of insecurities and personal struggles that we have to deal with. Supernatural beliefs, in a lot of ways, help us- they help offer guidance, they help us feel like there's some sense of order or purpose in our lives. They're part of that dialogue with the self. 

That's one of the reasons people pray for instance, is they want to have a conversation or connection with the divine as a way to help resolve some of their personal challenges and struggles. So there seems to be a lot of evidence that supernatural thinking is natural to humans- it's part of what it means to be a human, but that doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Critics of supernatural beliefs would think that they can make us believe in things that are just scientifically false. Supernatural beliefs can make people dogmatic, which can contribute to serious conflict, even war. At the same time, they are actually also quite good for us. That anxiety inspires us as part of the story of what makes us want to advance society, and to help others because we look beyond the mortal self. Supernatural beliefs help us feel like we're part of a meaningful, cosmic drama.