Stormy Daniels, the adult film star who rose to prominence as a result of her former relationship with Donald Trump, is testifying against her former lawyer, Michael Avenatti, who’s 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 is trying to discredit Daniels by referencing her paranormal and religious beliefs. In a June 2020 court filing, his lawyers wrote that Daniels “has made any number of bizarre, fantastical claims that call into serious question her truthfulness, mental state, and ability to competently testify.”
The document goes on to specify that these claims involve things Daniels has said in interviews about paranormal investigation, psychic practices, and practicing witchcraft. In a June 2021 Facebook post, Daniels replied: “Let me get this straight… They are going to use my religious belie[fs] and profession to discriminate against me…”
I should note that Avenatti’s lawyers probably don’t care what her beliefs actually indicate about her competence, let alone what religion scholars such as myself have to say about it. They’re employing a trial strategy to make Daniels look crazy in order to influence the jury and win the case. But we’re going to talk about it anyway.
Whatever her beliefs say about her, Daniels certainly isn’t alone. While traditional religious affiliation is in decline in the United States, paranormal belief is thriving. The Baylor Religion Survey of 2014 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, sex, income level, marital status, and economic marginalization do affect the likelihood that a person will hold a given specific paranormal belief, paranormal belief in general is widespread among all demographic groups. In other words, for Americans, the paranormal is quite… normal. If paranormal belief makes one crazy, then the average American is crazy. This, however, does not stop even some intellectuals from linking paranormal belief to lower intelligence.
Vocal and popular atheist writers, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have loudly proclaimed that paranormal belief and religious belief in general is less than sane. Even mainstream psychologists have sometimes tried to link paranormal and religious belief to cognitive deficits, such as lower intelligence or poor reasoning skills, but the evidence is mixed. Studies in the past have sometimes actually found links between more education and higher rates of paranormal belief. The 2014 Chapman University Survey on American Fears found that almost half of people with at least one college degree believe in hauntings. Ultimately, religious studies and cultural studies scholars who focus on paranormal belief rarely view it as a mark in itself of cognitive deficit.
Other aspects of Daniels’ belief being attacked are what some scholars would call her metaphysical spirituality. Metaphysical spirituality includes most types of belief about psychic abilities and many contemporary beliefs and practices labeled as witchcraft. Though Avenatti’s legal team wants to portray this type of spirituality as goofy, metaphysical religion has a long history in the United States, reaching back beyond Mesmerism in the eighteenth century and moving forward 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 mind, seems to be rising in popularity in the United States as traditional religious affiliation declines. In other words, there are plenty of people who believe, like Daniels, that an individual’s personal energy can make electric devices stop working, or that they can psychically locate what is lost, and they only seem to be getting more numerous and more vocal.
Ultimately, religious studies scholars who examine paranormal and metaphysical beliefs see little reason to consider them different in essence from traditional religious belief, such as Christian or Jewish belief and practice. Ironically, although their posture toward them is ultimately very different, many scholars are in agreement with atheists who argue that UFOs and ghosts are no more difficult to believe in than a virgin birth and a parted 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 kinds of spirituality are driven by ways of knowing that don’t always adhere to materialist scientific thinking’s ways of producing knowledge. Both kinds of spirituality meet many of the same needs and desires and behave according to many of the same social patterns.
Avenatti’s legal team is hoping that when you hear that Daniels reported being 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 witchcraft enabling her to rid people of troublesome spirits, that you’ll dismiss her as crazy. As a scholar of religion, I can’t take this information on its own as proof that she’s incompetent to testify or less than sane. In fact, as far as these beliefs anyway, she’s a perfectly normal part of the twenty-first century American spiritual landscape.