Religion & Paranormal
The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the
by Paul Kurtz. Published by Prometheus Books.
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Is there some basic connection between religious beliefs and
paranormal beliefs? Some commonality which helps explain not only
their similarities, but also why they have been so appealing to so
many people throughout human history? Although there are many books
which offer critiques of either religion or the paranormal, few are
willing to do both, probably because people who are skeptical of one
aren't necessarily skeptical of the other.
But Paul Kurtz is willing to create such a unified critique, and his
book The Transcendental Temptation is the result of his efforts. In
it, he argues that there are some striking similarities between
religion and the paranormal which can account for their natures and
The first part of the book comprises of a solid explanation and
defense of both skepticism and the scientific method. There are, on
the one hand, people who defend a practical stance towards knowledge
and belief - people who are usually called empiricists, rationalists
or skeptics. But on the other hand are people who are not content
with mundane reality and who are susceptible to claims about deeper
mysteries and truths which require faith for acceptance.
Being a skeptic does not mean disclaiming any access to knowledge in
the world - it is possible to form rational beliefs based upon the
use of reason and logic. Faith, however, is the antithesis of both
reason and logic. Following a lengthy critique of faith-based
religious and paranormal beliefs, including Jesus and other prophets,
UFOs, ESP and more, Kurtz examines one of the primary causes of
people accepting such faith: what he calls the "transcendental
The basis for this temptation is "magical thinking" - the belief that
people or events are "magical," in that they have access to an unseen
and hidden realm of power which lies behind our visible world but
which can nevertheless be tapped into and used to affect our lives.
People tend to associate such thinking with primitive cultures, but
it continues even today and early scholars of religion, like Sir
James G. Frazer, identified magical thinking as constituting the core
Magical thinking, whether involved with supernatural or paranormal
beliefs, requires two preconditions. The first is an actual ignorance
of the natural causes of events in question, and the second is the
assumption that, in the absence of an obvious natural cause, there
must be an unknown and un-natural cause.
These two factors in conjunction allow for the development of ad hoc
explanations, often relying upon an assumption that correlation
demonstrates causation. For example, praying just before something
good happens leads one to the belief that the positive event was
caused by the prayer.
This magical thinking is certainly irrational, in that it
deliberately bases conclusions upon a clear lack of demonstrable
evidence and without regard for logical coherence or consistency. It
is also anti-scientific because methodologically, science seeks
knowable, testable and repeatable explanations for events. Science
does not get involved with ad hoc pseudoexplanations which cannot be
tested or understood in by any coherent means.
But where does the temptation part come in? It is obvious how this
magical thinking can be described as "transcendental," because it
seeks to find explanations which transcend our normal world and
experience, but why are people tempted to accept these stories? The
explanation is twofold - first our innate creativity, and second our
penchant for seeking patterns. Together, they can lead people to
The imagination draws a fanciful picture of a transcendental reality,
some kind of celestial kingdom. Time and again theistic myth appeals
to the hungry soul; it feeds the creative imagination and soothes the
pain of living. There must be something beyond this actual world,
which we cannot see, hear, feel or touch. There must be a deeper
world, which the intellect ponders and the emotions crave. Here is
the opening for the transcendental impulse. Yes, says the
imagination, these things are possible. It then takes one leap beyond
mere possibility to actuality.
Religous and paranormal belief systems then become constructions of
this process of imagination. The patterns we see in events in our
lives become the symbols of this hidden world, open to view for those
who know enough to properly interpret and understand them. They thus
provide explanations for what is currently happening in our lives and
tell us where we are heading in the future, providing solace on both
Because of the comprehensiveness of Kurtz's analysis, this book
provides valuable insights which other books on skepticism and
atheism fail to offer. This volume provides not only extensive
critiques of specific beliefs in both religious and paranormal
circles, but also proposes a psychological explanation for those
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