- The Supernatural in Society, Culture, and History ed. by Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton
In this edited volume, Dennis Waskul and Marc Eaton attempt to understand the supernatural through a social and cultural lens, looking at supernatural beliefs and experiences. The academic study of the supernatural is disregarded [End Page 367] by many scholars of the social sciences and humanities for a variety of reasons, primarily being that it is a disreputable field, as has been widely acknowledged in folklore studies. According to the editors, "our aim in this book is to compile research for experts trained in the social sciences and humanities into one reasonably comprehensive volume that illustrates, as our title suggests, the social, cultural, and historical significance of the supernatural" (p. 6). This is a noble task that is somewhat successful but impeded by the introduction.
To begin, I argue with Waskul and Eaton's premise that religious supernatural experiences should not be a part of discussions of the supernatural. While I agree with their idea that certain religious traditions give cultural authority to certain belief systems, I do not think it is possible to disentangle supernatural belief from religious belief. To ignore the connections between supernatural and religious belief systems or attempt to separate them will certainly lead to misunderstandings, at best, or a different type of cultural authority, at worst, where belief systems examined (be they religious or otherwise) are only the ones deemed important by academics rather than those most important to individuals and communities. A more nuanced understanding of belief systems would be useful here, even through a footnote, as without it, it may appear that the editors are ignoring all of the scholarship on the complexity of belief systems—when that does not seem to be their intention. Waskul and Eaton define the supernatural as "everything that we cannot make understandable using socially legitimated means of knowledge production—especially, in our era, the application of science, technology, and reason" (p. 7), which I feel is a better way to separate it from religious belief (even if I disagree with doing so, although I understand their need to set parameters). Religion can be one of the ways that we make the supernatural understandable, but even this definition fails, as it again does not take into account belief systems, where individuals, using their own logic and reason, make connections among their beliefs, even when they contradict each other.
The editors also argue that we cannot infer historical events as supernatural if they were interpreted as religious. While I agree it is best to use the terminology employed by individuals, I am not convinced that it should be the editors' concern. Rather, it seems that Waskul and Eaton do not want to include these experiences for other reasons. Again, I find this problematic because belief systems cannot be parceled into sections without an understanding of the complete system. The editors go on to define "paranormal" as "alleged psychic abilities that defy accepted scientific understanding of human mental capabilities" (p. 8), indicating that they are making a distinction between supernatural phenomena that go against the "laws of nature" (which they do not define, oddly enough, even though the definitions and parameters of the "laws of nature" or "natural law" certainly differ between individuals and communities) and paranormal phenomena, which they say "are assumed to violate social standards of what is considered normal" (p. 8n1). They retain the use of "paranormal investigators" for ghost hunters since that is the term preferred by the ghost hunting community. Waskul and Eaton also exclude psychic abilities (as paranormal) from the supernatural because they believe psychic abilities can be scientifically tested in laboratory settings (as in parapsychology). This is problematic as it ignores the longstanding tradition that these abilities are uncontrollable, since many individuals feel their abilities are a gift from God or nature—thus making the editors' other arguments moot because different individuals have different beliefs, including the belief that such abilities are hereditary, which is scientific and verifiable in theory even...