“What Americans Really Believe,” a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?
The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.
Now, I completely disagree with the larger point being made here, which is that it’s somehow more rational to believe in God/angels/the devil/etc. than in other aspects of the supernatural. Belief in the Holy Ghost, like a belief in haunted houses and generic ghosts, is built on a foundation of faith, not empirical evidence. Metaphysics is metaphysics, regardless of its intellectual history.
That said, it makes perfect sense that people who are regular churchgoers are less likely to believe in alternate (and somewhat less respectable) forms of the supernatural. After all, their metaphysical beliefs are tightly constrained by some ancient sacred texts. They don’t need astrology because they’ve got prayer.
This poll also reminded of a recent study that explored some of the underlying reasons that humans are so prone to “magical thinking”. The paper, led by Emily Pronin, consisted of two separate studies, but I’ll just discuss the first one, which used a voodoo hex to spook some Harvard summer students. Pronin’s experiment was simple: Harvard students were shown a voodoo doll and told that they were part of a study of “physical health symptoms that result from psychological factors…in the context of Haitian Voodoo.” Unbeknownst to the volunteers, the scientists had recruited a “confederate” as part of their experimental design. The confederate dressed and behaved normally with half of the participants – and very badly with the other half. He arrived late, tossed an extra copy of a consent form toward the trash can, but missed and left it on the floor. While the subjects read the voodoo death article, “he slowly rotated his pen on the tabletop, making a noise just noticeable enough to be grating.” In other words, the confederate acted like he deserved a hex.
The test participant was then assigned to play the “witch doctor.” The confederate was the “victim” and wrote his name on a slip of paper, which was attached to the voodoo doll. The newly-minted witch doctor and victim were then asked if they had any of 26 physical symptoms. With the witch doctor listening, the victim said that he had no symptoms.
The witch doctor was then left alone and told to think “concrete thoughts” about the victim. When the victim was brought back into the room, the witch doctor, again acting on instructions, stuck five pins into the Voodoo doll. The victim was again once again asked if he had any ailments. He now complained about a headache.
The witch doctor-participants then completed a subtle questionnaire asking whether they felt responsible for the victim’s headache. Sure enough, subjects confused their ill-intention with actual causation. “The participants led to generate evil thoughts about their victim were more likely than the neutral-thinking participants to believe that they caused his headache” the researchers reported.
In fact, test subjects who had thought bad things about the deserving victim were, on average, twice as likely to feel they were at least partially responsible for causing the headache than those who had neutral thoughts. What’s more, these witch doctors felt no guilt about what they thought they had done. Cronin speculates: “Perhaps participants saw the victim’s headache as a just reward for his unpleasant behavior.”
What’s the moral? Magical thinking is built into our brain at a pretty basic level. Although these Harvard students don’t really believe in Voodoo, a few experimental tricks can seduce them into delusion.