In The London Review of Books, British novelist Hilary Mantel has a review of a new compendium of the paranormal, the Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. It's not really a review, truth be told—how would one review a dictionary of UFOs, witchcraft, and telekinesis, anyway?—but it is a thoughtful and witty examination of the whole idea of the paranormal and how it functions in modern life. Here's my favorite paragraph:
In fact, if you hang around the anomalous long enough, you see that most people within its range have an unexpressed but quite sophisticated sense of ambiguity. They go to a ‘psychic fayre’ in a spirit of temporary suspension of disbelief; it is just as if they had picked up a novel. For a limited time, events unfold around them as a powerful second reality. They read the story, or listen to the dead talk in a public hall; two hours pass; they close the book or rise from their seat, they shut down that other world, run out into the high street and go looking for a pizza. In Britain, where mainstream religion is dwindling into a mix of apathy and superstition, alternative views are not part of the counter-culture but part of popular culture, with its extensive TV spooks programming and Mind-Body-Spirit events held every weekend in sports halls up and down the country: the ineffable now smells of stale sweat and hot feet. An olla podrida of new age hogwash is served up to anyone who has a spare tenner and seems likely to part with it. We are only in the market for fun-size beliefs, unlike the US, where the aggressive fundamentalist irrationality of evangelical Christianity moves real money around, affects how children are educated, and darkens believers’ perceptions of other cultures. On the whole, we have the better part: superstition is easier to accommodate in the body politic than religion. It is less divisive: no one ever went to war about what you should chant when you see a magpie, or was burned at the stake for denying the reality of the Loch Ness Monster.
I have to mildly object that there are plenty of us in the US who are perfectly happy with fun-size beliefs. I'm one of those who doesn't really believe this stuff—not really—but who has been known to drop everything and watch three episodes in a row of The UFO Files on the History Channel. I especially love their little marathons of other countries' Roswells—Russia's Roswell, China's Roswell, Brazil's Roswell, etc. There's even, as I recall, an episode about Texas's Roswell—Texas, of course, still being its own country, in spirit if not in actual legal fact anymore. And no, I haven't driven up from Austin to Stephenville to check out the sighting there. Not yet, anyway.
On the other hand, Texas is also where the Texas Education Agency's director of science lost her job because she was perceived as not being "neutral" about evolution. (No word yet on the TEA's stance on gravity and photosynthesis). So perhaps Ms. Mantel has a point.