Religious Education and the Paranormal: Discussing Anomalous Experiences in the RE Classroom

In recent years, scholarly attention in academic religious studies has shifted towards a focus on paranormal topics as an avenue for deepening our understanding of religion more generally. Jeffrey J. Kripal, for instance, has argued in his books Authors of the Impossible (2010) and Mutants and Mystics (2011), that the paranormal is ‘our secret in plain sight,’ and that it is deeply entwined in the histories of many of the world’s religions. Historian of religion Darryl Caterine (2011) has similarly recently referred to the paranormal as a modern analogue of religion, and, slightly earlier, Emmons & Sobal (1981) have suggested that paranormal beliefs serve as functional alternatives to traditional religious beliefs. There is ample reason, therefore, to take the paranormal seriously in the context of the study of religion (Laycock, 2015a, 2015b).

It should also be recalled than many religions are built around the extraordinary experiences, preternatural charisma and miraculous abilities of their founders: think, for example, of Moses’ encounter with YHWE on Mount Sinai, the angel Jibrail’s revelation of the Qu’ran to the Prophet Muhammed (pbuh), Guru Nanak’s visionary revelation of the oneness of Waheguru, or the many miracles (temporary suspensions of the laws of nature), performed by Jesus Christ, and recorded in the Christian Gospels. Many more recent religious developments also have their origins in ostensibly paranormal experiences and phenomena, see especially Spiritualism, Mormonism, and a range of UFO religions, such as Raelianism and the Aetherius Society.

For many, however, paranormal and religious belief are viewed as something that ought to  be eradicated, as a form of ‘pseudoscientific,’ or even ‘pre-scientific,’ thought.1 Popular sceptical atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and James ‘The Amazing’ Randi, are particularly vocal in this regard. In a 1998 article on the paranormal, for instance, Dawkins concludes quite certainly that ‘[t]he paranormal is bunk,’ and Randi is famous for denouncing all paranormal claims as ‘Woo-Woo’ (whatever that might actually mean). And yet, in spite of such denunciations, claims and accounts of paranormal experiences and phenomena are still extraordinarily common: no amount of labeling such claims as ‘bunk’ and ‘woo’ rids us of the fact that people do indeed seem to have genuine anomalous experiences (Castro, Burrows & Wooffitt, 2014), and that these experiences often play an important and transformative role in peoples’ lives (Kennedy et al., 1994), regardless of their ultimate ontological reality. The paranormal is also deeply enmeshed within our popular culture, it is everywhere (Kripal, 2011).

Any account of religion, including the teaching of Religious Education in schools (Holt, 2014), therefore, ought to be able to deal with such apparent supernatural manifestations in a critical but open minded manner. Once we have recognised the connection between religion and the paranormal,2 the question becomes ‘how should we face up to, and then teach about, the extraordinary nature of the foundations of the world’s religions, as well as the paranormal experiences of pupils in school?’

This paper will explore some of the ways in which paranormal themes might be used as a means to promote deeper thinking about a range of topics in the secondary religious education classroom, as well as some of the reasons why Religious Education teachers might consider engaging with paranormal themes in their lessons.

Experiencing the Paranormal in Childhood

In addition to the links between the paranormal and the origins of the world’s religious systems, there is yet another reason that Secondary R.E. teachers might consider taking an interest in the paranormal. It is probable that many young people will encounter a wide range of paranormal themes over the course of their social and personal development, whether through ghost stories and popular movies, or accounts of paranormal experiences and beliefs related to them by friends, family members and parents (Braswell, Rosengren & Berenbaum, 2012).

Research has also found that children are particularly prone to anomalous, transpersonal and religious experiences (Armstrong, 1984; Tamminen, 1994, p. 66; Hoffman, 1998; Hart, 2004). Indeed, my own exploratory classroom based research with Year 7 pupils at a large Secondary School in Shropshire found that, in a sample of 3 R.E. classes (75 pupils), 48% claimed to have had an experience that they thought was paranormal, and 62% claimed to believe in the paranormal. These are particularly high percentages, especially when compared to the number of pupils who claimed to be religious 28% (Hunter, 2016). This data, although relying on a relatively small sample size, suggests that paranormal beliefs and experiences are more prevalent than traditional religious beliefs.

It the author’s contention that it might be useful for Religious Education classrooms to provide a safe and supportive environment within which young people can make sense of such experiences and ground them within a wider conceptual framework. An exploration of such experiences in the classroom could be understood as an important aspect of the development of children’s spirituality, which is a fundamental requirement of Religious Education teaching in schools (see OFSTED, 2015 and Hay, 1998 for a discussion of the importance of spirituality in education, for example).

All too often paranormal experiences are understood as delusional, or as the product of underlying psychopathology in mainstream Western culture, while other cultural and sub-cultural systems provide alternative explanatory frameworks that might be helpful (and perhaps less distressing), for those who are prone to anomalous experiences (Grof & Grof, 1989). R.E. teachers might, therefore, consider providing a broad range of possible interpretations of paranormal experiences, perhaps taking influence from the open-minded approach outlined in the undergraduate textbook Anomalistic Psychology (2012), which presents a refreshingly pluralistic perspective on anomalous experience without bias towards any particular interpretation or explanation.3 Such an approach might allow young people to form their own, critical and well informed, conclusions about the nature of their own experiences, as well as those of others (including the kinds of experiences recorded in the world’s religious traditions).

Constructivist Pedagogies and Dreams

One method by which the extraordinary aspect of religion might be approached in the classroom setting is through the implementation of a constructivist approach to teaching and learning, building on the educational theories of Jean Piaget and Lev Vygotsky, that builds new learning onto the foundations of pupils’ own prior knowledge and understanding (Grimmitt, 2000). One approach to teaching about unusual experiences in the context of Religious Education scholarship is that advocated by Kate Adams (2001, 2003, 2008), who has suggested that pupils’ own dreams, and their experiences within them, might provide a useful framework for developing an understanding of the role of religious experience in the world religions. She writes:

The topic of dreams can […] contribute to those aspects of the curriculum that relate to learning about religion: learning about factual and conceptual aspects of religion in ways that are relevant to children […] The specific value of [dreams] in R.E. Lies in its experiential realm, that is, in the realm of some of the children’s experience, which can be used to enhance the effectiveness of teaching (Adams, 2008, p. 62).

In line with the constructivist framework, then, using pupils’ own dream experiences as a gateway to understanding difficult concepts in Religious Education (one example might be the role of prophetic dreams, or of visions, in religious scriptures), is effective precisely because it allows pupils to form links between the subject matter and their own personal experiences.

Alternative Pedagogies for Discussing Anomalous Experience in R.E.

Another possible avenue towards achieving this goal might be to employ a completely different model of learning to the classical learning theories and pedagogies discussed in the previous sections. For example, an alternative pedagogy for R.E. can be found in Jeffrey Kripal’s proposal for an ‘initiatory approach’ to the study of religion. Kripal argues that ‘[…] a truly effective pedagogy needs to identify the existential costs of the modern study of religion’ and that both teachers and students should ‘own up to the radicalism of what we are actually doing in the study of religion’ (Kripal, 2014, p. xii). The radicalism Kripal refers to here is R.E.’s exploration of alternative modes of conceiving of and understanding the world around us. In other words, good teaching of R.E. ought to embrace this element of openly exploring the experience of religious adherents, rather than focussing solely on dry doctrine and ‘know-that’ facts. Through focussing specifically on the experiential dimension of religion, and the possibility of other ontological systems, pupils will encounter a breadth of religious experience, from the everyday experience of religious worship, to much more extravagant experiences of transcendence and communion with the divine.

Kripal’s course is intended for University level students of comparative religion, but nevertheless I feel that his call for a more immersive, radical and existentially aware mode of teaching and learning about religion could be of benefit to secondary school teaching as well. There must be a way of making the learning experience more meaningful and interesting to young people, a way of allowing them access to alternative modes of understanding the world – and this could be through relating the learning back to their own personal experiences, making it relevant to their lives, and encouraging pupils to think about what it means to them and their own perspective on the world.

Experiential R.E.

David Hay (2000), for example, has suggested some possible methods by which this kind of approach could be introduced into the classroom with activities that challenge pupils visual perceptions and allow them to think in different ways about the things they perceive. Hay writes:

Properly conducted [R.E. teaching] is more like deconstruction or de-indoctrination, helping to question hidden cultural assumptions that constrain our possibilities as human beings (Hay, 2000, p. 74).

Hay further suggests that R.E. teachers have three tasks that they must attend to:

Helping students to keep an open mind.
Exploring different ways of seeing.
Encouraging immediacy of awareness (Hay, 2000, pp. 74-77).

Through an emphasis on the experiential dimension of religion, it should be possible to foster a more tacit understanding of differing religious perspectives, including a wide range of anomalous experiences, and so move away from purely explicit, fact-based, learning – we can approach a dimension of knowledge and understanding that cannot be expressed in any other way. Such an approach fits comfortably into an emerging approach to the study of religion that goes by the label ‘cognitive, empathetic engagement’ (see below), which seeks to promote an open-minded, exploratory, non-dogmatic and reflexive approach to the study of religion. Perhaps through this kind of approach it might be possible to foster an attitude of respect and understanding relating to anomalous experiences (as well as towards religion and different modes of conceiving of the world), which can often play an important role in the lives of many people.

Participatory Learning: An Ethnographic Approach

Another example could be drawn from anthropology, and specifically the work of Edith Turner, who has argued in favour of an experiential approach to the study of religion (Turner, 1998). Turner argues that in order to truly understand a religious system, it is essential to experience it in as complete and immersive a way as possible, arguing that ‘anthropologists need training to see what the Natives see’ (Turner, 1993, p.11). This call has also been echoed in the work of Fiona Bowie (2013), who has coined the term ‘cognitive, empathetic engagement’ to refer to an active process of cognitive participation in alternative ontological systems in order to achieve an ‘insider,’ or ‘near-insider’ perspective.

Just as Turner and Bowie call for anthropologists to ‘see what the Natives see,’ so R.E. teachers might aim to encourage pupils to see the world through the eyes of the religion under study. In this way the study of religion can become more meaningful to the pupils, embracing what Kripal referred to as the ‘existential’ dimension, with learning having a basis in personal experience, as a grounding for understanding the personal experiences of others. Perhaps it might be possible to incorporate more immersive activities into the classroom, activities that don’t rely so heavily on preprinted worksheets, with a greater emphasis on the personal lived experience of religious adherents, paranormal experients, and pupils alike, rather than focusing solely on doctrine.

The Paranormal as an R.E. Teaching Tool

Building on this constructivist approach, and taking into account the prevalence of paranormal themes and topics in popular culture (with which many pupils will no doubt be familiar), the paranormal could also be used as a tool to aid teaching in R.E. lessons about traditional, but tricky, religious concepts.debates that draw upon pupils’ own feelings and ideas about ghosts or UFOs, and what they are/are not, for example could be used in the context of a wider discussion about the nature of God (My own experiments linking questions about UFOs to the nature of God in the context of an R.E. lesson are described below), and encouraging pupils to think critically about accounts of paranormal phenomena (i.e. Speculations on the possible causes and mechanisms of certainly widely known paranormal phenomena, or the weighing up of alternative explanations), could be used as a springboard for class discussions about religious miracles. Grimmitt (2000) writes of the aim of Vygotsky’s constructivist approach to learning:

[…] the process that Vygotsky is advocating is one whereby the teacher is aware of the pupils’ constructions and deliberately seeks to build upon, extend and challenge them with alternative ways of responding to the subject matter being studied (Grimmitt, 2000, p. 209).

Through explorations of paranormal topics, pupils can be encouraged to develop their own informed opinions on a range of religious phenomena. A colleague of the author has, for example, even employed paranormal phenomena as a means to instigate discussions on what makes an event or experience specifically ‘religious’ in nature.

The Paranormal in Practice: UFOs and the Nature of God

Before concluding this paper we will briefly reflect upon an instance in which, as part of my own experience as a trainee R.E. teacher, I used the paranormal (UFOs) as a springboard for discussing ‘who or what is God?’ with two Year 7 R.E. classes.
In keeping with the constructivist awareness of the need to understand the extent of each pupil’s prior knowledge, beliefs and experiences (upon which any learning in the lesson must necessarily be built), before presenting new information, I started the lesson with an activity about UFOs. I put up a PowerPoint slide featuring several images of UFOs and asked pupils to work together in pairs to discuss their own ideas about what UFOs are, whether they believe in them, and why. I asked each pupil to write out three questions that they would ask about UFOs on sticky post-it notes.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-21-41-10

The following questions are examples of what the class came up with:

“Do you even exist?”
“Why are UFOs usually thought of as a round shape?”
“Are they secret military testings?”
“Has anyone ever made any contact with a UFO?”
“If they aren’t real what are they?”
“How long have UFOs been around?”
“How many times has a UFO been sighted?”
“Are UFOs real? Or something in disguise?”

Once pupils had done this, I asked for feedback from each group to tell me one of the questions they would ask. I then asked the pupils why they thought we were talking about UFOs in an R.E. Lesson, so that it was the pupils making the connection themselves. Responses included that both religion and the question of UFOs revolve around belief, and we explored these issues a little further through deepening of questioning. I then explained how it is possible to ask many of the same questions about God as we can about UFOs, such as “Is God real?”, “Is God imaginary?”, “Why do people believe in God?”, “Have you ever had an experience of God?”, and so on.

screen-shot-2016-10-13-at-21-46-47

I then introduced the class to the main theme of the lesson, which was to think about who or what God might be. We then moved on, again as part of the general constructivist progression of the lesson, to think about pupils’ own ideas about God (building up from their own prior knowledge), including thoughts about what God might be like, whether God exists and whether and why/why not they believe in God. This was done collaboratively in table groups, with pupils working together to put together a mind-map of their ideas on an A3 sheets of paper. Pupils were given 15 minutes to complete this exercise. Once they had finished, each table group fed-back some of the ideas they had come up with, and other groups were encouraged to add in extra ideas and detail to their own diagrams, thus incorporating alternative perspectives and showing clear progress. This activity worked particularly well, and the pupils were well-engaged. Some of their responses to the question ‘Who or What is God?’ are included below:

 “I don’t believe in God because I can’t think there is someone ‘watching over us,’ I don’t think like that.”
“I am not entirely sure about God because I have my doubts from scientific theories.”
“I think people have made God up.”
“I think God is a spirit.”
“Because so many people believe in God so maybe he is real.”
“How can there be a big person in the sky?”
“Character from story.”
“He could be imaginary.”
“If God was real there would be peace in the world and not war.”
“God is not real because nobody has seen him.”

These responses to the question ‘Who or what is God?’ are particularly insightful. The pupils were evidently thinking deeply about the question, their responses show a degree of creativity and critical thinking that is very impressive, and there is a range of perspectives from those who believe in God, to those who are agnostic, and those who are atheistic. It is this author’s opinion that beginning the lesson with a discussion of UFOs, and encouraging pupils to formulate their own questions about the UFO phenomenon, enabled them to make progress and think more critically and creatively about the nature of God.

Conclusions

Martin (1994) has highlighted the benefits of incorporating pseudoscience and the paranormal into science education programs. He writes:

The goal should not be to instil such beliefs in students but to get them to think critically about such beliefs. Science education…should not be narrowly conceived. The goal of science education should not just be to get students to understand science but to be scientific…Learning to think critically about pseudoscientific and paranormal beliefs is part of being scientific’ (Martin, 1994:357).

The development of critical thinking skills, in itself, is reason enough to include explorations of the paranormal in the R.E. classroom. This, coupled with OFSTED’s requirement to provide an opportunity for young people to develop their spirituality in school-based education, presents ample reasons to take the paranormal seriously in R.E. Arguing along slightly different lines, Radford (1999) considers religious education to be ‘the process of exploring spiritual experience through the conceptual frameworks of religious texts, and of seeking to find meaning in those texts that is relevant to the development of the spiritual interests of pupils’ (1999, p. 166). Through engaging with pupils own experiences and beliefs about the paranormal, Radford’s definition of religious education could be put into action.

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