What Should We Call The Supernatural?

Many religions feature supernatural phenomena. Things like prophecy, divine knowledge, healing, spirit possession, astral projection, speaking in tongues, levitation, lack of need for food or water, and so on. They are typically presented as being beyond explanation from consensus naturalism[1].

As far as I can tell, these phenomena have natural explanations. I covered some of the ways that prophecy and healing work in previous posts. The others have similar (and overlapping) sets of tricks.

I was thinking today about what to call these phenomena in an upcoming post. Supernatural phenomena seems a bit credulous, Purported Supernatural Phenomena too wordy.

Then it occurred to me they are magic. They seem to be marvellous and mysterious, but actually rely on a set of tricks.

This isn’t news to the James Randi strand of skepticism, of course.

My only concern is that magic might still have too much of a connotation of being real.

[1] By which I mean that some believers don’t claim these phenomena to be ‘supernatural’ at all, but as perfectly natural phenomena. But in doing so they are typically making the point that the consensus picture of the natural world is overly limited: that there are things “beyond what science says is possible.”



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17 responses to “What Should We Call The Supernatural?

  1. Yeah, I hear your dilemma. So let me wonder out-loud:
    Magic, for me, is trying to affect things in a surprising way. So prophecy wouldn’t fall their. Indeed, self-improvement prayer seems not to be as magical as healing prayer, for instance. The problem is, that all this “supernatural stuff” or “extra-ordinary phenomena” can’t be comfortably packaged. Indeed religions grab all sorts of events, phenomena and put it under one umbrella. Coming up with one word seems to invite a common error of thinking about religion as one thing.

    Does that make sense? But I hear your dilemma, and it ain’t extra-ordinary! 😉

  2. Ian

    Coming up with one word seems to invite a common error of thinking about religion as one thing.

    Yeah. Very good point.

    But I find myself wanting to talk about religion as one thing. Or at least wanting to identify common threads, though I’m happy with fuzzy boundaries (some things we call religion may have relatively few of the threads, other things we don’t may show some of the same features).

    Is wanting some kind of theory of religion just a fools game? Hmm.

    Magic, for me, is trying to affect things in a surprising way.

    Hmm… on reflection it may not be the best term.

    I also think part of why it seemed so perfect is that it has a slightly derogatory and dismissive tone to it.

    Hey ho.


  3. Yeah, I can’t imagine how any general term won’t seem derogatory, naive or misleading to some camp. It is hard to keep everyone happy. Especially when everyone is bought into the same delusion about some one-thing called “religion”. Hell, we got a word for it, so it must exist! [sarcasm]

    But you already understand my repetitious spiel on that. Actually I may put up a sloppy post on that issue that I started earlier this morning. Thanx for the reply

  4. I have a slightly different problem in this direction. I think “magic” is a very appealing word to use in this sort of context, and it describes everything fairly well from a certain point of view, but it tends to be rather pejorative.

    That’s not necessarily a problem, but it is when I’m trying to explain these things to my boys. I want them to think for themselves, or at least not to believe in things because someone else does, which makes it important to choose neutral language.

    So on the one hand, magic is an obvious way of explaining things to small children in a language they understand, but on the other, it makes it sound like a trick, which may be my belief, but isn’t something I want to teach them as fact.

  5. Ian

    Thanks, and welcome to the blog. The pejorative sense is troubling, yes, and probably makes the term unwise to use.

    I wonder if just sticking with ‘supernatural’ and qualifying it explicitly is how it was to be.

  6. It seems to me that applying the term magic to the supernatural has some shortcomings. It might leave out some categories of the supernatural. For example, while magic is a deliberately-staged illusion, the supernatural is often sincerely believed in. For example, there is the supernatural experience which an individual claims to have had, like Paul’s encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus. And supernatural experiences reported by an individual can themselves be broken down into distinct categories: the individual may be lying, or may have hallucinated, or had a dream, or a vivid daydream, or may have met a magician. And their are probably still other possible explanations for such a report from an individual.

    And then there are supernatural events from long ago, which no-one alive has seen, but which are believed in because they are reported by a source with authority, such as the Bible, and which could have originated in any of the ways in which an individual’s report of the supernatural could have originated, and/or could have developed over time ways such as the mythicists’ beloved and over-used example of the game of Telephone.

    I would simply stay with the term supernatural, and acknowledge that the range of phenomena which it describes is both broad and complex.

  7. Ian

    Thanks Steven, I think you’re right.

  8. Reading Rees today made I spotted the word “paranormal” — I like that for one to use occasionally to describe some claims or experiences. Had you thought of it?

  9. Ian

    Yes, that is another thing around the same locus. Paranormal has some connotations for me that pull it away from where I want. The Paranormal is ghosts and poltergeists, to me, rather than miracles.

    I think the best thing is just to stick with supernatural, and qualify it explicitly.

  10. Yep, well that takes me back to my original comment: seeking one word to describe a huge variety of experiences begs for over-generalization, misunderstandings and more from the get-go.

    For instance, interpreting Aunt Mary’s cancer remission or your friends surviving a horrible motorcycle accident as a “miracle” is very different from seeing a ghost, which is very different from speaking in tongues which is very different from feeling God’s presence which is again different from receiving a prophecy. One word for all those would be problematic from the start, I’m afraid.

  11. Ian

    @sabio – I agree, very much so. There is no escaping unhelpful connotations.

    But I don’t agree they are very different things, at least at the level of detail I’m interested in.

    They all have three elements:
    1. A natural cause within consensus reality.
    2. Causes that are not readily apparent, that the affected person is not used to looking for, or (in some cases) that have been deliberately hidden.
    3. A ready interpretation outside of consensus reality that the affected person is primed to bring to mind.

    When I watched David Blane’s original Street Magic (gotta be 10, 15 years ago now?) I caught myself thinking “maybe he really is magic”. So well hidden was his method and so well primed was the interpretation he wanted to give.

    So the remission of cancer after prayer, the appearance of ghosts, the ability to speak in an unknown language, the ability to levitate during meditation, and age-old prophecies coming true, are all magic in that sense. They are all triggered by natural processes, in a person who can’t immediately see how they are being done and who has ready access to a supernatural explanation.

    It is that commonality I think it is important to keep.

    Of course, like all my categories, this is fuzzy round the edges. But it has a core that is solid enough to be useful, I think.

  12. Interesting.
    Events that:
    (1) Natural cause (AKA all things, so not useful as a condition)
    (2) Cause not readily apparent (Consciousness, Alternative Medicine and much much more)
    (3) Story generated due to priming (all stories, no?)

    Seems like the umbrella is too big.
    It is fun working on the taxonomy.

  13. Ian

    Its certainly larger than just religious supernatural events, yes. Deliberately.

    These criteria don’t exist in a vacuum, however. They are motivated by specific religious claims that I want to analyse. So I think they are useful.

  14. OK, well, I await the next step.

  15. Ian

    I’m not sure its quite a ‘next step’. I’ve looked at a couple of topics in this way already. But ultimately this is motivated by trying to figure out how religions (and what I’ve previously called quasi-religious movements) function.

    Of course with the proviso that ‘religions’ is always a vague concept.

  16. This was so interesting!

    I get a bit frustrated when I hear the word supernatural. I don’t think it means all that much. I know the definition, but I like the word magic better. Believe it or not, it sort of makes more sense.

    Let’s say we read Lisa Randall’s book which touches on parallel universes. Now, string theory and all that is not established, but in a very weak hypothetical sense it’s possible. So what if we discovered these were real? It would be incredible. So……at what point do we say it’s magic? I propose it’s at the point where we learn it’s real but it’s still filled with mystery.

    Something becomes science when we find tangible evidence for something. But think about the invisibility cloak they created. Well, it was a Harry Potter thing. Maybe it’s fully understood. It’s crazy interesting, but it lurks in the human realm still, with none of Harry’s magic world so it’s kind of boring in a relative way.

    What if we uncovered an afterlife? It might be as unexciting as some bacteria living on (okay I’m not explaining this well but you know what I mean) and a consciousness after death would be impossible to prove because presumably the consciousness is now transferred to another body.

    Yet if it became a reality, wouldn’t that be sort of magic or at least, magical? I’m not saying it’s in any other realm, simply that certain humans would find it a dream answered, in some ways.

  17. Ian

    Thanks Amelie. Yes, there are amazing, awe-inspiring, transporting things. I’m happy to call them magic. I’d say the same thing about experiences that are amazing: a magical night, for example.

    And I agree that there are things that are possible that would not seem supernatural. Dawkins, I think, called them ‘peri-normal’, which is as accurate as it is ugly.

    I slightly meant ‘magic’ in a different way though, to emphasize that, somewhere there is a trick. Like stage magic.

    My head always spins when I try to get definitions right, or even straight. So, in this post I was saying something a little more skeptical, but I also agree with your comment. And on alternate days I use the same words in very different ways. I guess as we all do!

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