Why Most People Believe in the Supernatural

Stephen Uhl

In September 2005, Rita, a huge Category 5 hurricane, was bearing down on Texas’s Gulf shores. The desperately frightened Texas governor ordered over a million people to make their exodus inland. After issuing historically dire warnings to these anxious citizens, the good governor told them to “say a prayer for Texas.”

One of our oldest defense mechanisms, wishful thinking, remains in common use today. This is the belief that wishing can somehow change reality or make things happen. A simple dictionary definition of wishful thinking is “the attribution of reality to what one wishes to be true and the tenuous justification of what one wants to believe.” Of course, wishes do sometimes become reality for two reasons: first, when we are directly or personally responsible for the wished-for result, we likely take at least some steps to achieve it; likewise, even when we are not directly responsible for the wished-for results, good things can and do happen. For example, if we are wounded or sick, Mother Nature is so bountiful that we often heal or get well, though we did nothing to bring about that good result other than wish for it.

Both scenarios reinforce our belief in the power of wishing; our wishes are fulfilled intermittently, but intermittent reinforcement is the strongest kind of psychological reinforcement. This principle helps explain why wishful thinking is so common. The associative thinker very easily concludes: “I wished for it, therefore it happened.” Post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after the act, therefore because of the act) is only sometimes true. There is no reliable connection between the wishful thinking and the outcome, even though a strong connection is frequently perceived by the wisher. The same holds for prayer.

Wishful Thinking, Prayer, and Hypnosis

Prayer is commonly an act of wishful thinking. And because prayer is frequently more hypnogenic than simple wishful thinking, prayer can take on an added level of effectiveness. When I say that prayer works sometimes, I really mean it. Prayer often works for the wishing believer who is doing the praying. Reliable objective research has clearly shown that prayers offered by others for someone’s improvement without that person’s knowledge have no effect on that person. However, when believers pray on a variety of topics, their wishes are more likely to come true than if they had not prayed. This is because of the hypnotic character of prayer.

In my psychological practice, I often used hypnosis, which is similar to modern meditation, to help my patients achieve their goals. I frequently dubbed hypnosis “meditation in high gear.” It is a most powerful and effective tool; it helps a person relax deeply, concentrate, and access his or her own personal powers. In fact, hundreds of my clients amazed themselves when they quit smoking, generally without withdrawal effects, after only one session of individual hypnosis.

Hypnotized or meditating persons are often surprised at their newly discovered strength and capabilities. Before being hypnotized, they considered themselves incapable of doing what they wanted or achieving what they needed for happiness; after hypnosis they see more clearly their own potential and their own ability to achieve their goals. After the hypnotized patients realized the magnitude of their own internal power, they rapidly progressed toward mental health and independence. For example, the patient now moves from the attitude of “I cannot quit smoking” to the conviction that “I can quit smoking.”

Prayer that is effective can appropriately be dubbed “self-hypnosis.” It helps the praying person relax and focus his or her attention and wishes. In so doing, the concentrating, praying person self-hypnotizes and becomes convinced that his or her goal is attainable. Buoyed by the resulting increase in confidence, the hopeful praying subject sometimes goes on to achieve the desired goal. Thus the praying subject is successful precisely as the hypnotized subject is successful: each realizes and uses a personal power beyond what he or she had previously thought possible.

Even though prayer does not work because of a higher power’s power, it is easy to see how it strengthens the faith of the believer in wishful thinking. Jesus Christ may have realized this when he commanded his followers not to pray publicly like the hypocrites but secretly or privately (Matthew 6:5–6). Private prayer is much more effective (for nonpolitical purposes) than public prayer, because personal concentration and meditative insights are much more likely in private than in public.

Understand how the self-hypnosis of prayer is sometimes so effective for the praying believers. Their achievement beyond what they had thought themselves capable of positively reinforces their act of self-hypnotic praying. This greater-than-expected personal achievement is intermittent, so it strongly reinforces the faith of the praying persons. Therefore, they become more convinced of the power of prayer while thinking that prayer gets its power from God rather than from within themselves. They prayed to their god; they got greater-than-expected results. Therefore, they attribute the results to God’s help; post hoc, ergo propter hoc.

Furthermore, the more convinced the praying persons become of the power of prayer, the more proficient they become at hypnotizing themselves, so the more effective each one’s self-hypnotic prayer becomes. Now you can understand how it is feasible for a person who does not under-stand hypnosis to attribute a supernatural power to prayer. Such reinforcement is a strong argument for millions (billions?) to believe in a higher power. For the person who understands hypnosis, however, prayer works not because some god changed his/her eternally changeless divine mind but because the self-hypnotizing subject changed his or her own mind, leading to increased personal effectiveness.

Even public prayer does actually have some desired effect at times. Most individuals are somewhat swayed by what the crowd seems to believe. The listening crowd is helped toward hypnosis by the repetitions or the soothing or authoritative voice of the preacher or politician. This believing crowd, led in prayer by an articulate leader, grows in unity until all or most in the crowd say “Amen” to the same thing. As the preacher or group leader employs hypnotic power, even unwittingly, he or she can readily strengthen the crowd’s self-reinforcing belief and help it reach some degree of mass hypnosis—even mass hysteria. (Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and many popular evangelical preachers have been masterful crafters of the convictions of crowds.) The power (for good or ill) that becomes obvious here is not a power above nature; it is the self-hypnotically induced power of increased conviction in individuals who earlier had been unconvinced of their power. This power is so great that it may be directed to repair a community, start a violent revolution, or increase contributions to or votes for all kinds of causes.

Stephen Uhl

Stephen Uhl was predestined by his mother to become a priest. Ten years into the priesthood, this former believer's doubts caused his divorce from the priesthood and the Church. On earning a PhD in psychology, Uhl enjoyed a thriving private psychology practice until retirement. He is the author of Out of God's Closet: This Priest Psychologist Chooses Friendly Atheism (Golden Rule Publishers, 2010), from which this article is excerpted.

In September 2005, Rita, a huge Category 5 hurricane, was bearing down on Texas’s Gulf shores. The desperately frightened Texas governor ordered over a million people to make their exodus inland. After issuing historically dire warnings to these anxious citizens, the good governor told them to “say a prayer for Texas.” One of our oldest …

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