The Supernatural and “Supernatural” November 7, 2016Posted by Ubi Dubium in Rants, Responses.
Tags: atheism, binge watch, demons, evidence, ghosts, netflix, religion, Sam & Dean, Skepticism, supernatural, television
Oftentimes, during a conversation between a theist making a conversion attempt and an atheist, the topic of lack of evidence for the supernatural comes up. And sometimes the atheist demands, not only evidence that the supernatural exists, but some kind of an explanation for the mechanism by how it operates. But I don’t need that second part, and don’t think we need to demand it. If I had strong enough evidence that the supernatural existed, I’d accept that it did.
The theist will then usually protest about how there’s tons of evidence. Faith healing that’s not statistically better than placebos! A plane crashed and somebody survived! Just look at the trees! And other such stuff that isn’t good evidence for the supernatural.
What would a world look like where there was good evidence for the existence of the supernatural? I’ve found a really good example. I’ve just finished a binge watch on Netflix of the first eleven seasons of the series Supernatural (go figure). The basic setup, for those of you unfamiliar with the show, is a pair of brothers who travel the country saving people from various supernatural bad guys and monsters. In their world, this stuff really exists, and behaves in predictable ways. The brothers are often testing solutions to see what works, and researching into records to see what has been successful for other monster hunters in the past. For example, what works on a werewolf always works on a werewolf, but is not necessarily effective on a skinwalker or a vampire. The trunk of their car is filled with dozens of different weapons, to be prepared for anything they run into.
I’d like to look at the show’s treatment of demons in particular, since often theists claim that demons are real.
In this show, if someone is possessed by a demon, there’s no vague “I think they’re possessed because they said crazy things” or “I have a bad feeling”. Nope, in the Supernatural world, if you think someone is demon possessed, throw holy water on them. If it burns them, and they smoke and scream, there’s a demon. If they say “what did you do that for?” then it’s not a demon. (Could be something else, though. Best to run a few other tests.)
Demons can possess people without their permission, but can be evicted by someone else performing the exorcism incantation, upon which they exit from the possessed person visibly. No uncertain “I feel better now, so it must be gone” stuff. You can see it leave.
But if you want to kill it, you need a special demon knife. And there are specific rules and constraints on their behavior. They are unable to possess someone who has a warding tattoo:
If you trick one of them into standing on a devil’s trap, even if it’s under a carpet, they can’t leave until the trap outline is broken.
If you put specific items in a box, bury it at a crossroads, and say the right incantation, a crossroads demon will appear, ready to make a deal with you.
And there’s a lot more specifics on demons, that I won’t go into here. Each different sort of baddie in the series also has specific characteristics and weaknesses. Not some vague woo-woo “I feel a spirit in the room whose name starts with either a C or a J”. Nope, if there’s a ghost around, the temperature drops, the EM meter goes whoop, the ghost is usually visible and often solid, and they are repelled by cold iron or salt. You want to be rid of them? Find out what is tethering them to earth (usually remains of some kind) salt and burn that, and the ghost disappears in a burst of flame. Usually just in the nick of time, of course.
Sam and Dean don’t need to know the actual mechanism that makes all this possible. They just see it in action, every day. If theists could pull out examples of stuff like this, that’s predictable and testable and doesn’t line up with the laws of our physical universe, and our most thorough testing was unable to reveal any use of trickery or special effects, then I’d be willing to consider that the supernatural exists. I wouldn’t need to know how it works, I’d be fine with seeing that it does work.
But Sam and Dean’s world isn’t our world. The show even made this point by having the characters break through into our world at one point, where they found themselves on a TV set in Vancouver, and to their dismay found out that magic doesn’t work here!
Of course, I would not need a theist to show me exactly this evidence to establish that the supernatural is something more than their imagination. But extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Claiming the existence of an invisible realm full of invisible super-beings that interact with us? That’s really, really extraordinary. Show me evidence as strong as the characters are provided with on this show, or don’t bother.