The Religious Struggle over Cryptozoology

From Joe Laycock, a doctoral candidate studying religion and society at Boston University:

In 2003, Loren Coleman started the world’s first cryptozoology museum in Portland, Maine. Coleman’s International Cryptozoology Museum opened publicly in November 2009, and I recently made the trek north to see it. Cryptozoology—the search for animals not yet verified by Western science—is either a useful and legitimate zoological endeavor or a pseudoscience, depending on whom you ask. The media has focused intensely on the most legendary subjects of cryptozoology: the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, and the Yeti. But aside from “the big three,” cryptozoologists claim a number of recent discoveries, including the woodland bison, the giant panda, the okapi (an African mammal related to the giraffe), and the coelacanth—a fish once believed to have been extinct since the Cretaceous period.
You cannot get a degree in cryptozoology. It is not a scientific discipline but rather a network of investigators (often using their own funds) with training in zoology, anthropology, or marine biology. Cryptozoology often resembles scientific research before the advent of professionalization, when discoveries were made not by research institutions but by “men of science” epitomized by individuals like Benjamin Franklin.
Like the first museums of the Enlightenment, Coleman’s museum evolved from his private “cabinet of curiosities.” The collection features a variety of plaster casts made from possible Bigfoot prints, primate skulls, and unusual pieces of taxidermy. Prizes include an 8-foot statue of Bigfoot covered in musk oxen fur and the rather hideous “Feejee mermaid” prop from the film P.T. Barnum.
However, the real attraction of the museum is Coleman himself, who gives personal guided tours of the collection. Coleman has training in both anthropology and zoology, as well as a master’s degree in social work and uncompleted doctoral work in both social anthropology and sociology. He began doing field investigations in 1960. Since then, he has published 30 books as well as countless articles and is one of the foremost experts on cryptozoology in the world.
Having written on the religious dimension of a West Virginian cryptid known as the Mothman, I wanted to talk to Coleman about the strange relationship between cryptozoology and religion. As it turns out, the search for hidden animals attracts two very different religious elements: the New Age and creationism. Cryptozoology has long been associated in the public consciousness with UFOs, ghosts, and the paranormal. Meanwhile, some creationists see cryptozoology as a way to gain scientific support for their claims. For example, textbooks created for private schools by the Accelerated Christian Education program claim that the Loch Ness Monster disproves evolution.
Coleman seemed mildly annoyed that his work has gained these associations. When the term “cryptozoology” was coined by Ivan Sanderson in the 1930s, and then extended in the 1950s by Bernard Heuvelmans, the field built on a history of “romantic zoology,” a way for explorers and animal collectors to find new species. Often, this work included the study of folklore, hypothesizing that legends of monsters could have a basis in fact. Since the 1970s, the discipline has struggled to distinguish itself from paranormal research and other studies involving the anomalous, especially as media interest began to focus on cryptozoology at the close of the 20th century. However, the search for funding often compels cryptozoologists to work with television shows that juxtapose the hunt for cryptids alongside psychics, hauntings, and alien abduction. This has occasionally led to confusion as to what cryptozoologists actually do.
“I’m just not interested in ghosts and aliens,” said Coleman. Coleman’s approach is empirical, and he remains agnostic as to the existence of Bigfoot. “Belief in Bigfoot”, he argues, “is the providence of religion.” Many sociologists of religion agree; in fact, the Baylor Religion Survey has been monitoring belief in Bigfoot for some time (see table 19).
But why would New Agers and creationists both be drawn to the hunt for Bigfoot? For many in the West, Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859), as well as The Descent of Man (1871), seemed to confirm that religion and science had become incompatible. This perceived split inspired two very different responses.
In 1875, the Theosophical Society was established. Founders like Madame Helena Blavtasky sought to reconcile religion and science into an esoteric doctrine greater than both. Blavatsky’s writings describe enlightened beings from other planes of existence, the inhabitants of other planets, and a process of spiritual evolution that is largely at odds with Darwin’s ideas. Most of the features of the modern New Age milieu are derived from Theosophy.
In 1876, the first annual Niagara Bible Conference was held. This conference set the stage for the interdenominational fundamentalist movement. While early fundamentalists sought to reconcile religion and science, by the 1920s, a movement had begun to openly discredit evolution. This gave rise to several varieties of creationism and finally to what has been called “creation science.”
Both movements can be read as a religious response to the cultural authority of science. Within this struggle, the search for “the unexplained” becomes a powerful asset.
Because cryptozoology has positioned itself on the periphery of the scientific establishment, it offers these groups hope of undoing scientific paradigms and creating room for new sources of meaning and cultural authority. “Creation science” groups like Accelerated Christian Education and Answers in Genesis seek scientific credibility despite the overwhelming opposition of the scientific establishment. As such, they must rely heavily on fringe theories, sometimes distorting them to suit their own ends. The claim that Nessie disproves evolution is a case in point.
The periphery of science may also be a source of religious meaning unto itself.
If science “disenchanted” the world as Max Weber famously claimed, deviant fields of study like parapsychology and Ufology can offer a type of “re-enchantment” by introducing new mysterious forces into the world. A sighting of a cryptid is sometimes akin to what Rudolph Otto called “the wholly other,” an experience of both wonder and dread that takes on religious significance. In some cases, quasi-religious rites have formed around specific cryptids. Numerous rituals have been devised to summon Bigfoot and Nessie, often involving drums and chanting.
So what are we to make of cryptozoology? Perhaps we would do well to take Coleman’s advice to keep “an open but critical mind”—but it’s tough when spiritual seekers and polemicists are using it as ammunition against the scientific establishment.

Category: Expert Opinion

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12 Responses

  1. There is no need to invent things against the scientific establishment.
    Climategate is sufficient.
    Piltdown man is sufficient.
    Nebraska man is sufficient.
    Archaeoraptor is sufficient.
    Every few weeks another concrete claim from former times is shown to be wrong.

    And what does all that have to do with Bigfoot?

    Absolutely nothing.
    Some scientists deny he exists.
    Others know he exists.
    Some are in between those two camps, with an open mind.

    I know Christians that believe Bigfoot exists.
    I know others that deny it.
    I know atheists that believe he exists.
    I know others that deny it.

    There is no connection between bigfoot and religion any more than there is a connection between astronomy and political party.

  2. JavaBob says:

    I am a “Bigfoot” field researcher. I look for proof to either substantiate the existence of this creature or prove it. The vast majority of the people that I have met and discussed the subject of this possible creature with, are Christians and believe this creature is one of God’s creations.
    Some believe it is actually refereed to in the Bible. Some believe his may be a direct decedent of Esau or even Cain? I do not know, my quest is to find out if any of this is real or just hype. So far, the evidence that I have gathered suggests strongly, that it is a real animal.

  3. Louie says:

    Interestingly, the two scientists who have tried to prove the authenticity of Bigfoot “footprints” have both come from Mormon families…Grover Krantz and Jeffrey Meldrum. The latter is still a practicing Mormon and has published a “scientific” apologia for the Mormon doctrine on the “lost tribes of Israel” becoming the American Indians.

  4. Robin says:

    Perhaps Big Foot and his tribe are early ancestral Mormons. In fact, they may be final proof of the diaspora of the so-called Lost Tribes of ancient Israel. How can you explain their well-known affinity for matzah? Coincidence? I think not.

  5. Dan says:

    Seriously? Mormons? The less than 200 year old religion invented by some guy?….Ancestral? k.

  6. baccuss says:

    Funny. I think the mormon connection goes as far as…those areas have historical mormon emigrations and settlements. That’s why there are mormons there…duh.

  7. baccuss says:

    There is no connection to religion, but there is a connection to spirituality. If you dont think that…it means you have not studied the sightings.

  8. T. R. Eddy says:

    I saw a large cat one day while running around Lake Poway close to where I live. The far side of the lake is at the foot of a very rocky isolated Mt. named Woodson. This caty was knee high at the shoulders and the color of faded asphalt. A mottled gray. He was built like a Jaguar with rather short powerful legs. I would guess he weighed about 70-80 lbs. When he jumped into the brush towards the mountain he had a tail about a foot long. His paw print was about the size of your palm. I described this animal to the cat curator of the San Diego Zoo and was told there was no such animal. But, I saw him from fifty feet in bright sunlight and I’m not given to hallucinations. The only native cats here are Bob Cats and Mountain Lions and this was neither.

  9. Tahir says:

    Maybe Fallen Angels(Angels who fell from heaven and are trapped on our physical plane) are the real aliens from ufos, and are abducting people and animals to create the cryptids we now know, and hide them underground, but sometimes let them loose to confuse and scare us. We do know in Genesis 6 it talks about the sons of God creating Nephilim (a race of Giants) from marying human women, and the book of Enoch talks about the angels sinning with others animals also. Maybe the sins were Genetic Engineering, and perhaps the Fallen Angels created the Dinosaurs( Behemoth and Leviathan have never been identified, they only have dinosaur tails, but there is no proof they are dinosaurs), and perhaps God killed the Nephilim, dinosaurs, and mythical creatures in the Great Flood, but maybe the fallen angels are still around (and are mistaken for benevolent extraterrestrials) and are abducting people and animals to create cryptids and an army of Darkness in Revelation 9.
    Who knows? God knows! And He tells us in his Word the KJV Bible, read it!

  10. Huh? says:

    Seriously, fallen angels and the KJV bible? If I wanted to dissect specific wording, shouldn’t we debate the wording of the original Hebrew rather than a much later Scottish re-write of a Greek re-write?
    One can’t scientifically identify Leviathan or Behemoth anymore than one could identify Legion by name. They aren’t specifics individuals, they’re concepts.
    Worse than the religious fanatics that pick and choose from an old book is Terry Trainor who thinks disproved hypotheses (which climategate IS NOT) means science doesn’t work. Science is a process whereby ideas are analyzed, so of course some older ideas will be proven wrong. Nothing proven wrong about the climate concern yet. Keep making matters worse just to prove a point though, that will help!

  11. Jamie Bidewell says:

    Its becoming apparent that creationists are clutching at straws to try a validate there claims. I for one believe there are animal species that have yet to be catalogued. But i dont believe an all powerfull deity created them or that he created the lochness monster, ET or even Alf!

  12. Avi says:

    ^^ You forget to mention that Nebraska Man and Archaeoraptor were never widely believed among scientists. Piltdown Man did, but as you said, disproven ideas don’t mean science doesn’t work.

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