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Belief in the existence of spiritual entities is arguably one of the earliest manifestations of modern human thought. In seeking the origins of religious ideas, anthropologists in the Nineteenth century looked to indigenous peoples around the world for examples of bygone primitive beliefs. What they found were multitudes of cosmological systems that differed drastically to from the accepted mechanistic world-view of Victorian physics – worlds inhabited by spirits and other supernatural entities, where magic was both widespread and efficacious. Sir E.B. Tylor dubbed this near-universal acknowledgment of invisible agencies “animism,” a term derived from the Latin word anima, meaning soul. Tylor became convinced, from his reading of the ethnographic data, that animism represented the foundation of modern religious concepts. Indeed, he defined religion itself as the “belief in spiritual beings.”

Any examination of our modern popular culture will demonstrate that the supernatural still permeates our thoughts and ideas about the world. Flicking through television channels today we find countless programmes devoted to ghost hunting, as well as platform mediumship demonstrations. As often as we are told that we are living in a “modern,” “secular” society, animism, in one form or another, is still very much an aspect of our cultural lives. The very idea of spirits appears to be a surprisingly resilient one. Why do we keep coming back to animism?

Anthropology: Spirits as Agents

Anthropology, in dealing specifically with the magico-religious practices of the world’s cultures, has often come into contact with spirits. As such, there is a vast and fascinating anthropological literature pertaining to spirits and how best to understand and interpret them. Like any other scientific discipline, anthropology has been through many theoretical paradigms, in the Kuhnian sense, and will continue to do so. Each paradigmatic perspective offers a different way of understanding what spirits are. Some of the earliest anthropological theorisers, for example E.B. Tylor and J.G. Frazer, were of the opinion that spirits were nothing more than superstitious nonsense – outmoded conceptions long since “evolved out,” giving way to more “advanced” ways of looking at the world. To the late Victorian mindset, European culture (British in particular), was of the highest order in terms of intellectual development, consequently the beliefs and practices of so-called “primitives” could be nothing more than illusory, based on false perceptions and self-delusion, and irrational. Tylor, for instance, hypothesised that belief in spirits arises from incorrectly assuming that the figures we encounter in our dreams are the disembodied spirits of the dead.

It would be an oversight, however, to suggest that all Victorian anthropologists were so embedded in their own culture that they could not, or would not, bring themselves to wonder whether there was any rational basis to the belief in spirits. Andrew Lang, a Scottish academic, saw parallels between the ethnographic reports of distant lands, and the development of the Spiritualist movement in the second half of the Nineteenth century. Lang considered anthropology to be a unique tool in assessing the ontological status of the increasing number of paranormal claims, specifically through making use of the discipline’s comparative approach.

Later anthropological paradigms continued to carry the torch of their Nineteenth century predecessors. Functionalism, a position that understands social and cultural phenomena as mechanisms for maintaining social cohesion (e.g. shared rituals and beliefs bring group members together), looked upon supernatural beliefs from a perspective that a priori denied them any form of ontological reality. In this view, spirits are seen as nothing but social facts performing a specific function within a given society. Questions of reality are replaced by questions of function. Such perspectives have been dominant in anthropology for many years, and have led to social-protest interpretations of mediumship and spirit possession, providing a means for women in traditionally repressive societies to vent their frustrations in a socially acceptable manner.

During the twentieth century, anthropologists underwent a distinct shift in focus away from grand theories (such as “functionalism”), towards a much more experiential understanding of culture. Cultures are, after all, lived-in constructs, and human beings are by no means uni-dimensional entities: we experience life and culture in different ways, and our understanding is built on our experiences of the world (empiricism in its simplest form). Grand theories like functionalism are now often thought to be overly reductive, incapable of encompassing such complexity. In order to fit ethnographic facts comfortably into the functional framework, key aspects must be either omitted or explained away in terms that do not contradict or transcend the limits of functional theory. Anthropologists have realised that through participating fully in a culture, and immersing ourselves in other life-ways, we can come closer to understanding it the way a native of that culture does. This realisation was a significant step in anthropological method, which for a long time has tried desperately to maintain a sense of distanced objectivity: an assumption that somehow there was a distinct cognitive difference between the anthropologist and his/her subjects.

Edith Turner is, perhaps, the most vocal advocate of this new approach in anthropology. While participating, physically and emotionally, in a healing ceremony amongst the Ndembu in Zambia, Turner caught sight of an ostensible spirit form: the Ihamba. The experience came as such a surprise to Turner in that it pointed her to the realisation that anthropologists had long made the fundamental mistake of refusing to listen to their informants, particularly with regard to the supernatural. Since discovering for herself the efficacy of spirit rituals through deep participation, Turner has advocated an abandoning of “positivists denial” in favour of actually listening to what our informants have to say. To this effect anthropologists have begun to, at the very least, treat these issues with seriousness, some even to the extent of utilising spirits as informants for their research. In certain situations, therefore, anthropology has begun to treat spirits as vital sources of information about the societies through which they make themselves known. Spirits, like human beings, are now seen as active agents in their own right, and it has been realised that they cannot comfortably be reduced to fit within academic culture’s preferred ontological viewpoint. Such an ethnocentric perspective simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny when applied to the world of lived experience.

Parapsychology: Survival vs. Super-Psi

Next to anthropology, parapsychology is a discipline that has long been concerned with trying to understand the nature of spirits. The initial founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in London in 1882, being essentially the birth of modern parapsychology, was inspired by the need to seriously study the claims of spiritualists and the increasing number of individuals claiming mediumistic abilities in the late Nineteenth century. Nevertheless, despite nearly 130 years of strict objective investigation, psychical research is still tackling the issue of whether or not some sort of spirit survives physical death.

Parapsychology has not given the notion of spirits an easy ride, and especially not the idea that spirits of the deceased communicate through the bodies and minds of entranced mediums. A rival hypothesis has been suggested to account for the apparent successes of certain mediums in retrieving information that they could not possibly have known: the super-psi hypothesis. Put simply the super-psi hypothesis argues that, contrary to the belief of the medium, the information retrieved during mediumship sessions is not achieved through the agency of spiritual beings, but rather is affected effected by the medium’s own psi abilities (clairvoyance, clairaudience, etc. See Stephen Braude’s 1992 article “Survival or Super-Psi?” for a more detailed exposition). Information, therefore, is not dictated by discarnate spirits, but, is rather, is telepathically retrieved from the minds of living human beings. This hypothesis has sparked a great deal of debate within the parapsychological community, with some arguing that mediumship provides evidence in support of the “survival hypothesis,” and others seeing these phenomena as evidence for the existence of super-psi abilities.

Despite the criticisms laid on the survival hypothesis (and there have been many), certain researchers have continued to support it. Advocates of survivalism have argued that the super-psi hypothesis provides an explanation that is far too convoluted, while the notion of distinct discarnates answers some of the most challenging issues associated with mediumship and other forms of spirit incorporation parsimoniously, with ease. Researchers such as Gary Schwartz, and Julie Beischel of the Windbridge Institute, for example, have been working towards the development of triple and quadruple blinded research procedures as a means to assess the validity of mediumship readings, with exciting results.


Whatever the case with regard to the definitive ontological status of spirits, their persistence in our thoughts is strikingly evident. Thus far they have succeeded in surviving not only the transition from the world of the living to that of the dead, but also the intense scepticism and rational inquiry of over a century’s worth of psychical research and secular scholarship. Given the uncertain status of the ongoing debate, the spirits look set to puzzle and persist for a while longer yet.

“THE PERSISTENCE OF SPIRITS” is an extract from Engaging the Anomalous by Jack Hunter, PhD. published by August Night Books.

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