Title: The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal
Author: Paul Kurtz
Publisher: Prometheus Books.
• Combines critiques of religion and paranormal
• Examines specific beliefs and general trends
• Good explanation and defense of skepticism
• Explanation & defense of skepticism & scientific method
• Critiques of Jewish, Christian and Muslim beliefs
• Critiques of paranormal beliefs
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 their popularity.
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 temptation": 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 of religion. 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 pseudo-explanations 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 false beliefs:
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 fronts.
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 beliefs.