BEFORE EXAMINING the problem of any possible conflict between psychical research
and religion it is necessary clearly to distinguish between psychical research
itself, defined as the critical scientific study of paranormal phenomena with a
view to establishing their existence and their nature, and a sort of
metapsychology which is, in fact, a system of religion or philosophy, such as
spiritualism or occultism. Adherents of such systems do not usually adopt a
scientific attitude or use scientific methods of searching for objective truth;
they are apt to behave in a partisan fashion, seeking to find in the facts at
their disposal the confirmation or illustration of their teachings which are
based not on experimental proof but on so-called revelations or messages
attributed to higher beings or discarnate spirits.
We have seen already how much harm has been done to genuine psychical research
by these ardent enthusiasts who have attempted to use it to further their own
theories, or whose main concern has been to obstruct all such critical work as
might eliminate the necessity for elaborate occultist systems, or lay bare the
emptiness of spiritualist phenomena.
With these distinctions in mind, let us see in what ways psychical research and
religion can come into contact, colliding or cooperating with one another.
As far as basic theory is concerned, if each of these questing activities of the
human spirit were confined to its own field, they would have no occasion to
meet. The religious point of view is on a different plane from that of
parapsychology. Miracles spring from causes far above those natural forces which
belong to the sphere of the latter. Doubtless psychical research will, and
should, on occasion examine paranormal phenomena whose ultimate cause is
supernatural; but it cannot reach or detect the supernatural as such, since this
is beyond its competence.
In a work written in 1954, Merveilleux métapsychique et miracle chrétien
(Psi-phenomena and Christian Miracles) Fr. de Tonquedec set himself to throw
light on the contrast between these two sets of apparently similar phenomena.
Among his most significant remarks are (p. 65): "Parapsychological phenomena are
derived from natural causes and circumstances, physical, physiological or
psychological, and therefore bear the mark of determinism"; and again
"Parapsychology as a whole remains within the realm of determinism, while
Christian miracle springs from beyond this realm in spontaneous obedience to the
liberty of its author, God."
Despite the supernatural appearance borne in certain cases by psychical
phenomena they remain by definition part of the natural order. It can therefore
be postulated that parapsychology can have no more occasion to come into
conflict with religion than do medicine or psychiatry, astronomy or
palaeontology. While these disciplines remain in their own field without
touching on questions of faith or morals they cannot be opposed to religion.
Science as such studies no more than data and their causes or antecedents in the
order of nature. If an occurrence is supernatural in origin, science can
establish that it has happened and analyse the circumstances which precede and
accompany it; but it cannot discover the ultimate explanation, which lies
outside its terms of reference.
 It is only honest, surely, to recognize
that the difficulty lies precisely in delimiting the frontiers of each
discipline. It is for instance useless and wrong to gloss over the fact that
however mistaken Galileo may have been in his theological ideas, where astronomy
was in question his views were more accurate than those of the theologians who
condemned him. Their respective fields had not been distinguished. [Trans.]
Psychical research works of integrity themselves recognize this; let us quote
only one of them, M. Robert Amadou, the former editor of La Revue
métapsychique, and author of La Parapsychologie. After having
asserted on p. 321 of his book that "parapsychology gives more embarrassment
than support to spiritualism", he adds "and as for that vital principle itself,
to which some attribute the psi-function, what has it in common with the image
of God, created for eternal beatitude?"
 This is a rather schizophrenic
distinction. Whatever "the vital principle" may be, it is clearly part of the
entire human being; and the entire human being is created to that end. [Trans.]
In parapsychology (p. 322) "there is nothing that can shed any light for us on
the soul and its survival, the soul and its immortality. For the immortal soul,
the divine spark within us, is neither the dwelling place nor the cause of
parapsychological phenomena"; (p. 293) "We have to dissect something sacred when
we adopt the attitude of psychical research. But the sacred which can be
dissected is not genuinely sacred. Let us thank psychical research for effecting
a necessary purification."
Psychical research cannot therefore rule out the possibility of intervention by
forces outside the natural order, without trespassing beyond its own field, and
losing competence and authority alike. It can and should however put this
question on one side, while it attempts to establish the reality of the
phenomena submitted for analysis, and to find an explanation valid in terms of
man's natural faculties, normal or supernormal. Psychical research as an
experimental science does not have to take into account either miraculous
agencies or the normal and religious circumstances of any given phenomenon, and
is not concerned with any religious or philosophical theories put forward to
explain the occurrence of that phenomenon.
In acting thus, it adopts an attitude like that of the Bureau des
Constatations médicales de Lourdes, of which more will be said presently. In
this committee, recruited only from doctors - of whom over 1,500 pass through
Lourdes every year - there can be no question of miracles, only of paranormal
cures which cannot be explained scientifically. Every doctor is admitted
whatever his religious convictions or materialist opinions, or even his
morality. The only things to be considered are his medical qualifications and
his specialized knowledge.
The committee makes no inquiry whatsoever into the religious circumstances which
may have accompanied or preceded the cures submitted to it. This medical body
has to set aside all religious and political considerations, and concentrate
solely on the following three questions:
1. Was this person ill? What was the exact diagnosis of his condition?
2. Is this person in fact cured?
3. Does this cure go beyond the processes of nature as we know them?
If the three answers are in the affirmative, the committee cannot of itself
decide that the cure is miraculous; that is not its business. It must, in such a
case, send the medical dossier on to a higher commission, composed of scientists
and theologians, sitting in Paris; this body alone is competent to investigate
the religious background and circumstances of the case, and to decide for or
against the possibility of a miracle. Its conclusions are then submitted to the
bishop of the diocese to which the patient belongs. Only he is authorized to
make the final decision.
In this way the Bureau works, like the parapsychologist, on the purely natural
and scientific level, without touching in any way on the part that supernatural
agencies may have played in paranormal healing.
Where trustworthy and conscientious psychical research workers are concerned we
should avoid imitating the attitude of certain timorous and wavering Lourdes
pilgrims who will hesitate to bring some apparently miraculous cure to the
attention of the Bureau des Constatations lest that committee of doctors
should deny, or at the very least abstain from recognizing, the supernatural
character of that cure. A true faith in the miraculous has no fear of an
objective critical study of a supposed miracle where it is entrusted to men of
intellectual integrity, free from the prejudices and preoccupations of the
partisan materialist scientists of the nineteenth century.
True miracle has nothing to fear from true science.
Although it is true to say that religion has nothing to fear from parapsychology
one cannot be so categorical about parapsychologists, for these are not only
minds in search of truth, but men, complex human beings, full of different
tendencies, opinions, prejudices, passions, men who tackle parapsychological
problems with a whole host of preconceived ideas which, even if repressed into
the subconscious by a genuine wish for objectivity, remain active and capable of
distorting the data received.
It must be said that the overwhelming majority of those who have devoted
themselves to psychical research have in France been either spiritualists or
materialists. Their partisan anti-religious attitude did not fail to influence
their work and to show itself in a certain unseasonable aggressiveness not
always sufficiently held in check by their more objective colleagues. It has
already been noted that M. Jean Meyer, who financed the first French centres for
psychical research, was a "militant spiritualist" who exercised a most
unfortunate influence on the general trend of their investigations and
Charles Richet was not a religious man. A destructive agnosticism pervaded
his approach to all religious concepts, and his scepticism with regard to the
possibility of divine intervention was obvious. He put Christian and pagan
miracles on the same plane. It seemed to him that, once all that sprang from
simplicity and credulity had been obviated, what remained was a matter of psi,
that little explored function of the human organism.
Of Joan of Arc he wrote: "Her voices and her visions were perceived by no one
else, so that it must be admitted that they were subjective. It would be an
over-simplification to suppose that they were ordinary hallucinations, for these
hallucinations were followed by too many hard facts and duly verified
predictions to be dismissed as the delirium of a madwoman... One can hardly
doubt that Joan was inspired. It is best to admit, as a probability, without
drawing any conclusions, that Joan of Arc had certain psychic powers." But the
case of the saint is cited between those of analogous paranormal phenomena
associated with Cicero, Tacitus and Brutus on the one hand, and instances of the
divination evinced by sleepwalkers, of haunted houses, and table-turning, on the
As for the cures at Lourdes, after quoting some of the most remarkable such as
those of De Rudder, and Gargam, Charles Richet concludes, "even if these case
records are accurate, they cannot be said to prove the existence of a new
parapsychological force. All they show is that the central nervous system
possesses, under certain conditions, a new and altogether extraordinary power
over organic phenomena." The assumption that there can be no possibility of
supernatural intervention is extremely striking.
Nearer to our own time
J. B. Rhine, who exercises a considerable influence among
contemporary psychical research workers, has no scruple in trespassing into the
spiritual sphere as a destroyer of all the most essential values of religion. In
his book The New World of the Mind (translated into French under the
misleading title Le Nouveau Monde de I'Esprit which in itself suggests
that he has gone beyond the frontiers of parapsychology), after alluding to "an
unprogressive religious leadership", he adds (p. 201): "... to these central
questions even the scholarly leadership in all the religious systems simply does
not have answers that would satisfy the ordinary standards of evidence of
everyday life... In the face of that realization dogmatic religion comes to
assume the shape and proportion of a gigantic group delusion, shutting itself
off deliberately from the tests of reality by which its position could be
verified, and by which its course towards greater positive knowledge would be
directed. For in this old attitude is an almost complete abandonment of realism,
a surrender to a system of unverified fantasy that in a single isolated
individual would be characterized as psychotic."
Of "the unverified authority of ancient manuscripts" (presumably the Bible) he
declares: "What magic spell has kept us all stymied so long in religion? What
enchantment keeps the world charting formulas that may be rubbish for all it
Even belief in an afterlife is ridiculed: "Religious ethics have for ages and
for many peoples of the world been oriented towards a life beyond the grave...
Yet no orthodox Church organization has ever undertaken to get the matter of a
future life investigated scientifically, as other problems have been..." Let us
stop there; it is enough to justify Fr de Tonquedec's criticism: "We are faced
here with the most opaque intellectualism, and in professing it Rhine is not so
far as he believes from the materialism against which he struggles with
praiseworthy zeal throughout his book."
 A number of other points should also be
made clear. First, that the French translation of the book, as quoted by Fr
Réginald-Omez, is a good deal more anti-religious than the original American
text. Second, that in their context the passages cited bear a different
connotation from that which they carry as set in isolation here. Thus, in its
setting, the paragraph about "a life beyond the grave" could not by any stretch
of imagination be thought to "ridicule belief" in that idea. Third, that in "the
Churches" to which Dr Rhine is accustomed, one or another of the highly
Protestant sects of America, Luther's traditional condemnation of "the harlot
Reason" in favour of an obscurantist emotionalism is still followed, and that
for Fundamentalists to doubt the literal inspiration of the Bible as it stands
(not as it is interpreted by the living authority of the Church) is anathema.
The final point, and it is vitally important in a world which can increasingly
talk and think only in the idiom of science, is that, as was maintained as far
back as the time of St Thomas Aquinas, there are not two incompatible truths,
theological and secular. Truth is one; and all that is must ultimately be
integrated into that single whole. Truth is one, in however many languages it
may be expressed; and it surely cannot be considered irreverent for men to
explore, discuss and define what they have discovered in their own terms if
these are the only ones intelligible to them. It must be remembered that
theological expressions have so often been distorted and misused over centuries
of religious controversy that to the majority of mankind they no longer succeed
in conveying their original meaning. The axiom that the scientist must not
multiply hypotheses must also be borne in mind. Without this indeed it is hard
to see how what is due to the natural though little understood activity of the
psi-function could be separated even in theory from the miraculous, the direct
action of God. It should be plain, moreover, that God can act indirectly through
psi, as through any other created thing. Psi is indeed often highly developed as
a by-product of contemplation; and there seems no reason to suppose that this
was not the case with St Joan, although Richet's remarks are so indignantly
dismissed. Bearing all this in mind it seems rather hard to condemn Dr Rhine as
anti-religious simply because he finds incomprehensible the ecclesiastical terms
he has come across, and wishes to use his own methods and idiom in the attempt
to establish the existence alike of psi, of a life beyond the grave, and of God
himself. The Times Literary Supplement reviewing The New World of the
Mind, in October 1948, noted that it was "written to refute the materialist
conception of human personality". The bitter Communist attacks on the works and
conclusions of Dr Rhine seem to prove that it has been successful in so doing;
this is hardly an anti-religious feat. [Trans.]
Finally, it is well known that Mrs.
Eileen Garrett, President of the
Parapsychology Foundation, who originated and directed the International
Conference for Parapsychological Studies at Utrecht in 1953 was for a time
involved in the Spiritualist movement, some of whose idioms are still retained
in her book My Life as a Medium, although she has long since left it and
adopted an almost completely neutral frame of mind towards the nature of her
powers and what they reveal.
These few examples are enough to illustrate the necessary distinction between
parapsychology (or psychical research) and parapsychologists (or psychical
research workers) before setting out to consider the relationship between this
science and religion.
It is of course possible to name psychical research workers untouched by any
hostility to religion; witness the following lines by M. Robert Amadou (La
Parapsychologie, p. 334): "One merit of parapsychology is that it
simultaneously protects us against superstition of various kinds and convinces
us that the holy, the mysterious and the supernatural cannot be explained away
in terms of their lesser reflections, that shadow is not substance, and that
neither man nor the world is God." And again: "This young scientific discipline
holds, and will continue to hold, the key to understanding many phenomena. It
does not, and it will not ever show that everything in the universe and in man
is wholly explicable in terms of the exact sciences."
Phenomena" by Fr. Réginald-Omez (London: Burns & Oates, 1959).