Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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A certain type of theology (or atheism) will identify the supernatural with divinity; in ordinary speech, especially since the 1960s, it means the "mysterious." David Martin (1969) pointed out the coincidence of a particular understanding of "religion" and of assumptions regarding the inevitability of "secularization": This understanding assumed the universality of dichotomies, such as that between the natural and the supernatural, which were peculiarly associated with the Platonic strand within the Western form of the Christian religion.

Thus the attention given to, and the meaning attributed to, the "supernatural," by the (ideological and/or academic) exponent of secularism has tended to be culture-specific, if not eccentric, from the point of view of the "ordinary person," whether in the pew or not. For most people, religion has been and is, on the whole, both natural and normal.

The definition of super-natural inevitably begs the question of the meaning of natural . A mechanistic worldview will impute to it "personal tinkering." A less dichotomized worldview will see it as "focused significance." Just as "religion is not so much different from the rest of life, but life at its most intense" (Cook 1918), so "there is nothing so natural as the supernatural" (Oman 1931).

Between these two understandings of religion and the supernatural lies the current popular meaning of the latter: those puzzling but rather secular happenings that mundane science cannot explain.

Edward I. Bailey


S. A. Cook, "Religion," in Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics (Edinburgh: Clark, 1918): 667-693

D. A. Martin, The Religious and the Secular (London: SCM, 1969)

J. Oman, The Natural and the Supernatural (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1931).

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