Supernatural: A word with no useful meaning

I was inspired to write today because a Unitarian Universalist was, once again, bemoaning the “supernatural” elements of religion. I want to voice my clear and unrepentant disregard for such concerns. Why would I be so callous? Why am I, an educated and modern man, so unwilling to cast off the trappings of creator and spirit? Because the concept of “supernatural” is a silly one, and rejecting religious wisdom is not going to help our religious movement in any way.

“The bigotry of the nonbeliever is for me nearly as funny as the bigotry of the believer.”

~ Albert Einstein, as quoted by Robert N. Goldman

Let’s look for a definition for Supernatural that separates it from science. Merriam-Webster gives us: “of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe”. Sound isn’t visible, nor magnetic forces, so that isn’t very useful. They also give: “unable to be explained by science or the laws of nature”. As it stands today, gravity and the flow of time are beyond scientific explanation, so we can ignore that definition, as well. If we are talking about the creation of the universe that we inhabit, then anything that came before that moment, and maybe for several units of Planck time after, are beyond the scope of space/time as we experience it. Surely, then, whatever the origin of the universe is, it is “supernatural” by the definitions given.

So, what is supernatural? Is it using herbs to heal? Is it believing that you can change lead into gold if you could just get your science advanced enough? It is my position that the term “supernatural”, when used to dismiss a beliefs and actions that help people live fuller and happier lives, is a derogatory term with no more merit in an argument than saying, “I’m offended.” Something either works, or it does not, and what works cannot be dismissed for lack of explanation. Science has been a historical pursuit of explanations for why things work, and it started back when we could only explain them with myth and guesses. Some of the guesses held up better than others, but all science has been “superstition” until it is refined enough to be a provable, or disprovable, position statement. Even then, the equations of Issac Newton (a theist) concerning gravity turned out to fail us when we started looking at the scale of the solar system and the galaxy, and the geometry that you learned in high school doesn’t work in the Universe described by Einstein (who was a deist).

The fact is that what we really have are things that work and things that don’t; for the things that work, we have reasons that stand up to the available evidence, and those that do not. Science is a process of weeding out those explanations that do not fit the available evidence, or that do not do so as well as other explanations. It is not meant to dismiss the results. Having people pray for a person to get well in secret has been associated with significantly better recovery in some studies, and with increased stress and delays in another. Still, with the technology to finally monitor the activity of the brain during prayer and meditation, we are left having to apologize for mocking adherents of the past for touting the health and personal benefits of those practices.

We have guesses as to why these things work when they do and why some only work some of the time, for some people. The facts, though, point to a need to accept that there are things beyond our science, and that there is room for both as long as we do use both for those things that they are each suited to.

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