Sea of Faith, Yorkshire


From our last meeting

We had good attendance at the June meeting for an excellent talk 'Spiritualism in a post-modern era' by Bobbie Stephens Wright. Bobbie found herself, reluctantly, to have psychic gifts after undergoing a faith healing (in which she also had no faith). As a deep-dyed sceptic (her father was a marxist materialist, though her mother and grandmother belonged to the Spiritualist Church) Bobbie decided to research spiritualism for her postgraduate work at Newcastle University.

Her analysis uses concepts from the British school of psychoanalysis, especially from Melanie Klein. The self can undergo psychic splitting, where part of it is dissociated and seems to sense, and act, under external control. Full projection involves attributing one's own intentions to another person or agent. Splitting of the self (eg into good and bad parts) is a normal part of development, but, as for many psychological conditions, the process can go much further than the norm and become a hardened idiosyncrasy. Stress can start this sequence. Attention-seeking may also play a part, and where a 'psychic' has a credulous audience the ingredients are present for displays of psychic skills.

Psychic skills include empathy, in the specific form of being able to detect audience members with life experiences matching those of the psychic. Credulous audiences do not react sceptically to the psychic's (often inaccurate) first probings; rather, they seize on a hit when it comes, giving the psychic the start they need for more and more accurate hits.

Bobbie herself is not aware of how this empathic detection of targets in the audience is achieved, but she is convinced that shared experience plays a part. More than this, she thinks that projection of part of herself into the target is occurring. Supporting this idea is an incident told to her (by someone who viewed it as a religious experience) where the man concerned had spent several hours square-bashing with other soldiers. As they lay exhausted in the barracks afterwards, he felt he had sudden clear awareness of the other men's thoughts. Checking on some of these, he found they were accurate, and caused something of a stir (not least in himself).

Post-modernism highlights that there are multiple realities, depending on the different viewpoints and values of observers, which lead them to select differently from the basic physical reality, and cultural resources, around them. People experiencing psychic phenomena may interpret them as supernatural, rather than psychological, depending on their background. However, Bobbie argues, against Don Cuppitt, that there is more to this than creating the
experience through language alone. Cupitt's is a purely intellectual approach which leaves out the roles of emotion, and everyday patterns of social interaction, that can lead to specific skills and actions being acquired, and being interpreted as religious (or not).

In discussion, we were able to share some similar experiences of projection and apparent clairvoyance. A Quaker's experience was feeling strongly pushed on the elbow to stand and minister, though no-one had touched her. This was an impressive and memorable experience, even though she interpreted it as a dissociation of part of herself. The only problem we were left with after Bobbie's analysis was that some of the instances of clairvoyance reported were highly specific in a way not fully accounted for by general shared experience, for example knowing personal names, and sensing (accurately) that an accident had befallen a close relative. These could perhaps be coincidences, or reflect subconscious reasoning. Research has shown that such reasoning does take place, and that coincidences occur more often than people habitually guess. We should also weigh accurate premonitions against the many that turn out to be false.