Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who rose to prominence from her former relationship with Donald Trump, testifies against her former attorney, Michael Avenatti, who is on trial for allegedly stealing $300,000 from Daniels (the money came from an advance for Daniels’ 2018 Autobiography). As part of his defense, Avenatti’s legal team attempts to discredit Daniels by referring to his paranormal and religious beliefs. In a June 2020 court filing, his attorneys wrote that Daniels “has made a number of bizarre and fantastical allegations that seriously call into question his veracity, mental state, and ability to testify competently.”
The document goes on to clarify that these claims involve things Daniels has said in interviews about paranormal investigation, psychic practices, and the practice of witchcraft. In June 2021 Facebook postDaniels replied, “Let me get this straight… They’re going to use my religious lie[fs] and profession to discriminate against me…”
I should note that Avenatti’s lawyers probably don’t care what his beliefs actually say about his competence, let alone what religious scholars like me have to say about it. They use a trial strategy to drive Daniels crazy in order to sway the jury and win the case. But we’re going to talk about it anyway.
Whatever her beliefs say about her, Daniels is certainly not alone. While traditional religious affiliation is in decline in the United States, paranormal belief is on the rise. The 2014 Baylor Religion Survey found that 52% of Americans hold at least one paranormal belief, including hauntings, UFOs as alien spacecraft, psychics, or cryptids such as Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster. . Sociologists Christopher D. Bader, Joseph O. Baker and F. Carson Mencken have found that, although demographic factors such as age, gender, income level, marital status, and economic marginalization affect the likelihood of a person holding a specific paranormal belief, paranormal belief in general is prevalent in all demographic groups. In other words, for Americans, the paranormal is quite… Ordinary. If paranormal belief makes you crazy, then the average American is crazy. This, however, does not even prevent some intellectuals from linking paranormal belief to lower intelligence.
Vocal and popular atheist writers, such as richard dawkins and Sam Harristo have loudly proclaimed that paranormal belief and religious belief in general are not sane. Even mainstream psychologists have sometimes tried to link paranormal and religious belief in cognitive deficits, such as lower intelligence or poor reasoning skills, but the evidence is mixed. Past studies have sometimes found links between Continued education and higher rates of paranormal belief. Chapman University’s 2014 survey of American fears found that nearly half of people with at least a college degree believe in hauntings. Ultimately, scholars of religious studies and cultural studies who focus on paranormal belief rarely view it as a hallmark of cognitive deficit in and of itself.
Other aspects of Daniels’ belief under attack are what some scholars would call his metaphysical spirituality. Metaphysical spirituality includes most types of beliefs about psychic abilities and many contemporary beliefs and practices labeled as witchcraft. Although Avenatti’s legal team wants to portray this type of spirituality as goofy, metaphysical religion has a long history in the United States, going back beyond mesmerism in the 18th century and advancing through spiritualism, new thought, theosophy and New Age spirituality. This type of spirituality, which is often concerned with the movement of energy, therapeutic practices and the power of the mind, seems to be gain popularity in the United States as traditional religious affiliation declines. In other words, there are many people who believe, like Daniels, that an individual’s personal energy can cause electrical devices to stop working, or that they can psychically locate what is lost, and they only seem to become more numerous and louder.
Ultimately, scholars of religious studies who examine paranormal and metaphysical beliefs see no reason to regard them as inherently different from traditional religious beliefs, such as Christian or Jewish beliefs and practices. Ironically, although their attitude towards them is ultimately very different, many scholars agree with atheists who argue that UFOs and ghosts are no harder to believe than a virgin birth and a parting sea. Christianity and Judaism may be more socially established in the United States, but in these traditions belief and practice are driven by the same religious and cultural forces as paranormal and metaphysical belief. Both types of spirituality are motivated by modes of knowing that do not always correspond to the modes of knowledge production of materialistic scientific thought. Both types of spirituality fulfill many of the same needs and desires and behave according to many of the same social patterns.
The Avenatti legal team hopes that when you hear that Daniels said she was tormented by a spirit in a haunted house, or that she claims psychic abilities that allow her to communicate with the dead, or that she practices sorcery allowing her to rid people of troublesome spirits, that you will call her crazy. As a scholar of religion, I cannot take this information as evidence that she is incompetent to testify or that she is less than sane. In fact, when it comes to these beliefs, it is a perfect part of the 21st century American spiritual landscape.