Anthropologist Dr. Brian Hayden traces the long history of using supernatural claims to grab power.

photo by: Skeptiko


Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, you have been witness to the unspeakable horrors of the defendant’s heinous crimes.

That’s a clip from the new Netflix movie about Ted Bundy.

For years I’ve carried this guilt that I’m to blame for everything.

And yeah, we’re back to talking about the nature of evil.

it’s about another missing girl, isn’t it?

Ted, did you do it?


Not because I’m drawn to it but because avoiding it may be missing an opportunity to more fully understand, what I keep calling this extended consciousness realm.

Now as it turns out, today’s guest, the very excellent Dr Brian Hayden, has studied this evil, if you will, from a whole different perspective that traces it back to our earliest recorded history and what he’s discovered may cause you to rethink everything you think you know about evil.

Alex Tsakiris: Ted Bundy is back in the headlines through doing this big movie and everyone’s excited about it.

Dr Brian Hayden: Right.

Alex Tsakiris: The secret story and Ted Bundy, if you really dig into it, satanic worship again, and then he meets other folks were going, “Yeah, I’m connected with these spiritual forces,” and he is now trying to make this connection with the malevolent spiritual…

Dr Brian Hayden: Yeah, but he’s buying into a system that he feels is going to be able to let him do what he wants to do and that system, that conceptual system is really a product of secret societies and institutionalized religions. It didn’t exist before that.

Alex Tsakiris: Unless there’s a reality to it, right?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, that’s an open question. Is it one of our constructs, another self-serving construct of secret societies or is there any reality to it? And that is an open question.

Stay with me for my conversation with Dr Brian Hayden.


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Read Excerpts 


Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Dr Brian Hayden to Skeptiko. Brian is a member of the Royal Society of Canada for his contributions in archeology and had a distinguished career at Simon Fraser University, during which he authored several important academic books and many, many papers exploring the prehistory of religion, ritual and our relationship with the supernatural, just to name a few topics.

Brian, welcome to Skeptiko and thanks so much for joining me.

Dr Brian Hayden: Well thank you, it’s a pleasure to be here.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s start with the very basics, improve on my intro, who is Brian Hayden?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, I’m an archeologist, but I’ve always been trying to find out what the archeological remains represent, in terms of what people did, how they organized their societies, why things changed over time and in the later half of my career, I guess I got much more interested in the ritual life and how that fits in with everything else.

Alex Tsakiris: That’s awesome.

Dr Brian Hayden: I’d like to add that to try to find out some of these things, I’ve done a fair amount of travelling. In Australia I worked with the Australian Aborigines and then I also worked with the Mayan Indians. We do what’s called ethnoarchaeology, so that’s doing ethnography to find out what that reveals for the archeological remains. So I worked with the Mayan Indians for a number of years and then went to Southeast Asia to study feasting and the remains that that might leave, how it fitted in to society as well, and I’ve also worked in the Interior British Columbia with a number of indigenous groups there. So it’s been an interesting career.

Alex Tsakiris: Interesting indeed. It really is an amazing body of work. So many different points to grab onto it, but I thought I would share with people the path to this interview, because I think that’s part of the story, at least the story that I want to tell in this conversation.

I originally became interested in your work because I was, kind of exploring this thread of social engineering, secret societies, the nature of evil, human compromise as it relates to sexual stuff, the whole pedophilia stuff and the Pizzagate stuff and the Pedopope stuff, which is all real stuff if people care to investigate it, and a lot of people don’t care to investigate it. But it’s really what’s happening right now in our society and it’s in the news, if you look carefully beyond what is, kind of, the glossed over part.

But I don’t want to digress too far because that’s the stuff I was interested in, and then I had a Skeptiko listener, and I love it when this happens, but this [unclear 00:05:18] stepped forward and said, “Hey, there’s this guy who’s done some amazing academic research, looking at the prehistory of this,” and he was referring to you Dr Brian Hayden, and he said, “He’s looked at secret societies, going back to prehistory and aggrandizement and all of this kind of stuff,” and I was like, “Hey, that sounds great, but I’m a little bit skeptical because I know academics, particularly in Canada, a lot of times have to stay between some very narrow lines,” and he was like, “No.” And he sent me a quote from your book, a very excellent book, Shaman, Sorcerers and Saints: A Prehistory of Religion, which you wrote a few years ago, and here’s the quote from the book that he sent:

I think that aspiring elites increasing sought to restrict access to ecstatic contact with supernatural forces in order to claim privileged divine directives.

It’s a mouthful, but it’s really a powerful, powerful idea and I was like, “Wow, this is great. I’m onboard. This is a guy I have to talk to.”

Then literally, two days ago, I’m kind of doing some more research and I’m trying to figure this stuff out and I ran across another quote and I know this intros gone on a little bit, but I want to play for folks this next quote that I heard from a very nice interview you did on a podcast a few years ago called Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot. Let me play for folks this clip and then I think we’re going to have something to talk about.

What seems to be an inherent pension, inherent proclivity for engaging in rituals and for believing in the supernatural, stems from a fundamental biological adaptation that may be a million or more years old.

So there we go. So then I was kind of rocked back and said, “Oh, oh, this is again going to be another one of those materialist, kind of jam it back into a very narrow framework thing.”

So, I sent you an email and I said, “Hey Brian, where shall we go on this?” and you sent me a really cool email back, because I had reference, for example, Dr Dean Radin, Dr Jack Hunter, an anthropologist, he calls himself a para anthropologist because he’s open to these extended consciousness realities and how they might affect our understanding of archeology. And I also sent you a link to a show we did with Jan Van Ysslestyne, who studied the Ulchi shaman groups in Siberia for 30 years and reports back all of these extraordinary extended consciousness, supernatural experiences.

I just want to layout this groundwork for how we came to this interview, because we have so many cool things to talk about and now, we just have to figure out where to grab onto this and launch us into a conversation.

Dr Brian Hayden: Okay.

Alex Tsakiris: So, where shall we begin? I think we should begin with those two quotes of yours, that I mentioned; one from your book and the other from the interview that you did. How do we resolve those two? How are we to understand what you’re saying there?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, I have to say that both of those are really from, what you would call a materialist, if you like, an ecological viewpoint. I don’t think you can dismiss the materialist aspects, anymore than you can dismiss physics from explaining how toasters work and how we get people to the moon and things like that, but it’s not the whole picture either. So that’s my background.

My personal feeling is that physics and materialism and ecology does not account for the entire universe as we know it. But I have to say that for certain questions, like, how do you get somebody physically to the moon, physics is the base, materialism is the base. But if you look at the great physicists, I’m not sure if you know of Ken Wilber’s book, Quantum Questions, but that’s basically a compendium of the mystical writings of the great physicists of the world, like Heisenberg and Schrödinger and Einstein and De Broglie and Max Planck and Pauli and Eddington, who’s an astronomer. But all of these great physicists, they say that what we’re really looking at is just superficial stuff and it’s very selective and behind that there is something more that’s going on that we can’t really have access to.

Also in more contemporary times, there are physicists playing around with something called the anthropic principle, which is also pretty mystical in many of its manifestations. But these deal with other aspects of the universe and other questions. None of these guys would say, “No, we don’t need physics or materialism if we want to get to the moon.” They would always say, “Okay, well that’s a specific question we have to deal with.”

So, what I’m trying to say is that in academics, at least in my conception of academics, we have specific issues like getting to the moon or explaining human evolution or social evolution or cultural evolution if you like, and materialism and ecology is the best framework for dealing with those questions.

So that’s the framework that I’ve used, just like physics is the best framework for getting somebody to the moon.

Alex Tsakiris: But Brian, that’s interesting. I’m glad you bring up Heisenberg and Schrödinger, those guys are great. I’m not sure I am with you on how that history kind of evolves there, because they’re going down one path and then another group emerges, the shut up and calculate guys, right?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, yeah, I agree.

Alex Tsakiris: The shut up and calculate guys say, rightly so, which is, I think, your point, they say, “Look, we can sit here and have these philosophical arguments all day long, but in the meantime we have some incredible formulas, powerful mathematical models that have fallen out of this work we’ve done in quantum physics, that could provide us just as huge a leg forward in technology,” and they were right, and it did, and it led to computers and cell phones and the communications system we have. All of this stuff is based on these very reliable quantum physics understandings that we have. But in the meantime, they sidestepped the philosophical question that the mystics, like Schrödinger and the rest we’re talking about.

I don’t think the same actually applies in anthropology to a certain extent. So shut up and calculate works in a limited sense, so does shut up and excavate, if you will, for archeology. But when we start talking about the prehistory of religion and ritual and the rest of that, if we leave out our understanding of the relationship to the supernatural, we can’t confine that to a materialist explanation that completely denies that consciousness even exists. Which I think is stunningly absurd to me.

I admire the work that you’re doing, but you’re inside of an academic bubble that has this dogmatic understanding of consciousness, that isn’t just a shut up and calculate thing, it’s wrong, it’s been falsified. The best evidence we have suggests that the preconceptions they have about consciousness, let alone extended consciousness, is just completely falsified.

Dr Brian Hayden: I agree.

Alex Tsakiris: Isn’t that a huge problem?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, no, it’s part of the spectrum of scientific views that exist. I mean, Dean Radin is an academic, he’s part of the spectrum. There are those shut up and calculate guys, but they don’t represent everybody, and they don’t represent, certainly my perspective.

I’ve worked with people who are, what I would call, hard scientists and they just don’t have any truck with any of these issues of metaphysics or anything else. That’s not my view, it’s not Dean Radin’s view. It may be pretty common, but it’s not the whole thing.

Alex Tsakiris: Let’s be careful there because in the same breath we can say, “Hey, there are a lot of people now that are very drawn to the flat earth hypothesis.”

Dr Brian Hayden: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: It’s funny, I was watching the weather the other day and I never watch it, but the guy actually went through some explanation for how the earth turns in relationship to the sun, and I go, “My god, this is like a counter to… it’s directly responding to the number of people who believe in the flat earth theory.”

So my point is, we don’t take those people seriously and when we hear their ideas in this, kind of intellectual discourse, we then make further assumptions about where they’re coming from. And the same is true with the materialists, who don’t believe in consciousness or believe that consciousness is an illusion, which was the famous Daniel Dennett thing for the longest time. I mean 10 years ago it was even more popular. Now, unfortunately, the cutting edge, if you will, of consciousness science has kind of quietly moved away from that, because it was such an absurd idea.

Dr Brian Hayden: I agree.

Alex Tsakiris: I don’t think we should equate those two and put them on the same level of saying, “Well, everyone has an opinion.”

Now, let me add really quickly here Brian, because I don’t want to… You are on the edge; you and I are kind of on the same side. You’ve had to battle your entire academic career to get your voice in there that even says, “Hey guys, do we maybe even want to look at the fact that all of these folks I’m talking to are reporting contact with the supernatural.”

Dr Brian Hayden: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: What was that like for you and where do you come down at the end of the day on something like that?

Dr Brian Hayden: In the academic circle, I sort of skirted that issue. I’ve tried to frame questions that don’t directly address that problem, but in my personal life I have experienced a lot of things and there’s not too much doubt in my mind that there’s synchronicity that’s out there in the universe and there are a lot of things that Dean Radin was talking about, like precognition and a lot of things that we just can’t explain yet. So I’ve tried not to deal necessarily with that and leave that, sort of as an open question from an academic point of view.

What I have tried to do is look at the way people use some of these innate feelings, innate proclivities to try to manipulate them and get more power for themselves in society. And that’s why I started talking about some of the different personality types, because I think there’s a small group that really has manipulated themselves into a position of power and we see that today, obviously, with our political and economic system. The question is, how they got there, and I refer these people as aggrandizers and think that they’re always pushing or their own self-interest and they’re always pushing to find ways of increasing their self-interests and they’ve developed a whole series of strategies. I think control or claims to control of have exclusive access to the supernatural is one of those strategies that they’ve used to get control.

So that’s the way the problem, the academic problem that I framed to try to deal with and to what degree the claims about the spirit world are real and to what degree they are political manipulations, that’s a whole other question that’s open.

What I tried to show is that some of these claims are pretty self-serving, like the claim on the Plains Indians that if I, as a leader of a secret society, have sex with your wife then you can get some of my supernatural power by your relationship with her. That’s a claim about how the supernatural world is structured and how you can transfer power also through purchase, which is also fairly transparently self-serving. But you have to question, is this based in real terms about the way the supernatural world works or is this a simple manipulation to claim, an ideological claim about the ontology of the supernatural to promote individual self-interest?

I think you can find a lot of that issue in secret societies but it’s still…

Alex Tsakiris: Right, hold on. Let me jump in here, because we’ve got a really, really interesting and important jumping off point and I think it’s both the challenge, if you will, and the opportunity of your research, because we can go two ways. One, we can explore that topic right there, within the confines of this, kind of strict academic materialism, “Of course, there is no such thing as a spirit world. Of course, that’s all just…” Right? And then it’s kind of a strange conversation, because on one hand you’re lending credibility to that belief system, which sounds kind of strange, but you’re reserving this, “Oh, but of course I don’t believe any of that.”

I’m just telling you Brian, I appreciate this from you, that doesn’t come through. When I talk to you, what I hear is someone who says, “I think there’s a reality to that. I don’t know what that reality is, but I accept that there is a reality, but I can’t really go there because I’m inside of these confines.”

So the other way then to jump off, is to say, “Okay, there is some reality to that spirit world, we don’t know what it is, we don’t know the ontology of it and we probably never can because we’re on the wrong side of the equation, the wrong side of the telescope, if you will. But the best we can, we have to incorporate some reality of that into it, otherwise this just looks completely different.”

So which way do we jump on this?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, as I said, like Jack Connor’s take on how we get at reality, in terms of all of these different world views or cosmic views of different cultures and different individuals, all having snippets of the truth, if you can ever even talk about the truth, snippets of reality I guess, and Dean Radin’s approach saying, “Well, we’ve got to look at some commonalities here and see what’s common across cultures and that should give us one anchor,” to try to make some sense out of all of the variations that there is and all of the different practices.

So I think, from my personal perspective, there is… Let me say it this way. Dealing with questions of the supernatural and what’s real and what’s not, is an extremely difficult question, because it’s so complex, it’s one of those questions that I’ve not tried to deal with in a comprehensive way, I’ve just tried to point out that at least part of the claims about the supernatural are bogus, especially from secret society perspectives. But there is an unknowable portion that may have some insights into ultimate reality in there, including these transcendent, these ecstatic experiences, which may have a window, open up a window into other dimensions that the content that comes through from that is so varied that it’s unreliable.

Alex Tsakiris: It may be varied, but in some respects it’s so important to the overall question. It kind of dwarfs everything else. So, do we really want to talk about some Indian chief who is trying to get it on with some young… Tell it some story about his talking to the gods, or do we want to talk about his real communication with the gods?

Dr Brian Hayden: That’s the question, yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: I was just going to bring it down to a concrete level for the audience. One of the links I sent you was a show that I did with Jan Van Ysslestyne, who is this really interesting person. She runs a bookstore in Seattle, here’s her story, and a guy shows up in her bookstore, a Russian guy and says, “I’ve been studying the Ulchis, the original shaman in Siberia for all of these years and I’d like to give a presentation at your bookstore,” and she goes, “Great.” She’s so impressed that she says, “We ought to invite some of the Ulchi people over.”

So now this is an ongoing 30 years, 30 years in a row, she’s invited these Ulchi over. She’s studied them, she’s shared all of this information with folks.

So I really pushed her, because I felt like that was my job, I said, “So, Ulchi, great, they can do all of these things. Where’s the fucking iPhone?” and she says, “Well, I don’t know, but I’ve sat in a room with the Ulchi, with all of the doors and the windows closed and they’ve summoned up wind spirits and all of the papers in my house flew around in a tornado. And it wasn’t just me, it was a group of a dozen people and we all experienced it. And I walked out in nature with them and they called the animals forward and the animals came out of the forest like it was a fricking petting zoo.”

So, this is the reality that they experience, that to me trumps the piddly stuff of, is someone using their powers to get ahead or to beat somebody out of some money?

Dr Brian Hayden: Yeah, well absolutely. That kind of thing exists, absolutely, and the question is, what it tells us about the other dimensions and how the universe is structured, how it functions, how it works, and precognition as well and telepathy, etc.

As I say, it’s such a huge and difficult topic to deal with, to try to sort out what’s absolute, what’s real and what’s not. For me it was a difficult undertaking that I sort of backed off from, but I’ve had my own experiences and certainly have my own personal views on things like that.

From an academic point of view, I was just trying to point out that a lot of this stuff that did happen in these secret societies was smoke and mirrors and shams and they put on performances, not like the Ulchi, that sounded real. But the performances that they put on in these secret societies, at least a lot of them were put on, stage magic, and meant to deceive people and convince them of supernatural powers that didn’t necessarily exist.

That’s part of the difference between real shamanism and the secret society stuff, because secret societies recruit people on the basis of their wealth and their power, not on the basis of their shamanic abilities or their understanding of the supernatural or their intuitive abilities.

So, as a result, perhaps, they need to have this kind of stage magic because these guys, by and large, don’t have those abilities.

Alex Tsakiris: Well it’s both. I really appreciate your honestly and your ability to talks about the full spectrum of the experience and the reality, because I did feel like you were kind of hamstrung, which I totally understand. Your job with academia, you can only push the envelope so far and believe me, I respect that you were out there pushing the edge. So I’m totally cool that now we’re having this more broad-spectrum conversation, because there are lot of really interesting points, and you just hit on one of them, and I’d be very interested to get your opinion on this because it’s something I’ve tossed back and forth. I’ll give you a modern-day example, and that’s Uri Geller.

So Uri Geller is this guy, for people who don’t know, he’s originally an Israeli, this incredibly gifted psychic if you will.

Dr Brian Hayden: Yeah.

Alex Tsakiris: There are many accounts that he has genuinely laboratory tested abilities, and these were tested at Stanford Research Institute by Hal Puthoff and Russell Targ, two world class scientists. And when people say, “Oh, Uri Geller was able to trick them,” no way. Just go back and watch the videos that they did and the experimental protocols. Very easy to control for and Uri Geller showed this kind of psychic ability.

And then I did an interview not too long ago with Jacques Vallée, where Jacques Vallée said, “I was at the cafeteria table with Russell Targ and Uri Geller and he demonstrated it to me and I’m not fool, I get this.”

At the time, and here’s to your point, Uri Geller was clearly using stage magic when he went on stage and he was even outed as doing trickery and stage magic. So why is he mixing the two? And you can argue that maybe he had to because to perform it, to deliver it on demand like that. But I also wonder if there’s this other trickster, kind of deceptive aspect to this. What is your take, what is going on? Why are these two things coexisting and why are we trying to pull then apart and say there should be some pure shamanism, some pure connection to the spiritual, and yet we have these figures that are just mixing the two in a strange way?

Dr Brian Hayden: Well, shamans habitually mix the two as well, you know. I mean, there are some incredible accounts of shamanic precognition and things like that, but there are also lots of accounts of shamans using out and out trickery and stage magic to convince their patients that they have all of these powers, and that’s very effective in curing by the way. You get the placebo effect and if people believe they’re going to be cured, they tend to be cured a lot more effectively than if they don’t believe they’re going to be cured. So it’s a mixture, as you say.


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