Who believes in the evil eye?

A friend pointed me to a new Pew survey, Many Americans Not Dogmatic About Religion. It shows the general finding that though Americans are a religious people, they're moderately ecumenical in their practices and beliefs. I was concerned in particular though with the resurgence of supernatural beliefs with the decline of institutional religious orthodoxy.

The back story to this is that many psychologists posit that humans have an innate predisposition toward supernatural beliefs because of the cognitive biases we're hardwired with. For example, it isn't a coincidence that almost all human societies seem to have the idea of what we would term ghosts, or that systematic astrology arose independent several times. Naive intuitions about mind-body duality or inferences one might make from the repetitive action of the stars against the cosmos are evoked by our common hardwire.

Organized "higher religion" changed this somewhat, channeling and leveraging some intuitions (the afterlife, gods, etc.), but marginalizing others (ghosts, demigods, etc.). In particular, there has always been a tension between the relatively narrow set of beliefs acceptable to religious professionals and the elites, and the more general and diverse array of superstitions in circulation among the populace. Religious "reform" movements often aim at extirpating folk religion whose general outlines seem culturally universal; e.g., relics, veneration of local saints and demigods, and traditional fertility festivals. This was evident in both the Protestant and Catholic Reformation, and also among Muslim and Hindu fundamentalists, who attempt to strip out what they perceive to be exogenous accretions to the "true religion."

With the decline in institutional religion in the West one would predict folk beliefs to reemerge, as the control of mass belief by the elites is no longer enforced by the state or higher institutions. The Pew survey seem to point a bit to this, there is a general trade-off in religious orthodoxy and attendance and belief in supernatural concepts which are outside the purview of Western Christianity. Below the fold I've shown the pairwise absolute and relative differences between categories in terms of their acceptance of various non-orthodox supernatural concepts.


Reincarnation Yoga Spiritual energy Astrology Evil Eye
Male – Female -7 -8 -3 -7 -3
(Male – Female)/Female -25% -30% -11% -25% -17%
White – Black -13 1 4 -7 -18
(White – Black)/Black -38% 5% 20% -24% -62%
(18-29) – (65+) 8 19 14 12 8
[(18-29) – (65+)]/65+ 44% 158% 82% 67% 80%
College – HS -6 3 -8 -12 -11
(College – HS)/(HS) -21% 14% -29% -40% -50%
Repub – Dem -13 -16 -13 -17 -7
(Repub – Dem)/Dem -43% -52% -43% -55% -37%
Conserv – Liberal -15 -24 -17 -14 0
(Conserv – Liberal)/Liberal -45% -62% -49% -47% 0%

Here's the original table:

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Does yoga count as a "supernatural concept"? At least as it is practiced in the US these days? My wife goes to a yoga class three times a week, and the way she describes it is far from any sort of spiritual or meditative practice--it's more like a high-intensity exercise regime with very little spiritual overtones; most people seem to do it only for its material benefits, whatever they may be. Also, apparently you have to spend a lot of money on yoga stuff.

moopheus, i think you're right. yoga by *origin* though has a strong underpinning in the religious-philosophical tradition of india.

I see "The Evil Eye" everytime Palin is on my TV. But at the same time, she is living proof that there is no god - no god could be so evil as to inflict her willingly upon us.

I was also a bit bemused by the inclusion of yoga. Then I found this in Wikipedia: "In 1989, the Vatican declared that Eastern meditation practices such as Zen and yoga can 'degenerate into a cult of the body'. In spite of the Vatican statement, many Roman Catholics bring elements of Yoga, Buddhism, and Hinduism into their spiritual practices.
Some fundamentalist Christian organizations consider yoga practice to be coherent to its religious background and therefore a non-Christian religious practice."

Wait until they find out my Tai Chi class is just a front for an evil Taoist cult.

By Sandgroper (not verified) on 10 Dec 2009 #permalink

The assumption that some of these are specifically not connected to religions doesn't seem warranted. For example, the notion of an evil eye occurs among Orthodox Jews and does so in a way that is not marginalized by the more Orthordox. Indeed, it is far more common among the more religious end than on the less religious end. Chassidim also have beliefs that tie quite closely into reincarnation ideas as well as astrology.

Since the more religious end of the Orthodox are much more likely to identify with conservative politics. I suspect that if one looked at a purely Jewish sample one would see very different looking data.

One of the most interesting things in this survey is the general tendency for apparently more liberal individuals to be more likely to believe in these sorts of superstitions. I'd be very curious to see if one controlled for religion whether this would remain the case.

I'm not sure that the spiritual energy question is well posed. Depending on how one interprets it that could be a very conventional religious belief as a normal part of some religions or a much more fringe notion.

I'm surprised by the high percentage of reincarnation beliefs in general and the very high percentage of such beliefs in blacks. I would not have expected such a high fraction. It seems like a belief that is culturally uncommon. Indeed, if I had to guess I would have guessed that whites would have a higher proportion believing in reincarnation given the trendy nature of some Eastern religions.

Finally, I'm not sure your generalization about ghosts is accurate. While every culture seems to have some sort of notion of a vague spirit type entity, they aren't always connected to dead people (or at least are only very weakly connected).

I find this faintly amusing, insofar the fact that the far right seems to be unfortunately gaining ground in the United States.

People are fucking weird.

By Katharine (not verified) on 10 Dec 2009 #permalink

Nice to see something here about the credulity of democrats rather than the low intelligence of republicans.

And I second Katherine.

The Silk Road served as the ancient worldâs information super highway where ideas and philosophies were exchanged. From my limited knowledge I think the paleo-Christians borrowed heavily from the Buddhist philosophy of reliquary (religious artifacts). Many of Jesus teaching resonate with Taoist concepts of peace, forgiveness, and (dare I say it?) exorcism. It seems logical that the Internet should resurrect this exchange of ideas.

This highlights the ignorance of the modern left. I can't tell you how many "well-educated" Progressives I know who believe a laundry list of vacuous stupidity. Auras, spiritual "energy", harmonic resonances, palm-reading, astrology ... they go along with their moronic Gaia earth worship and various nutjob nutrition beliefs.

There is no idea so stupid that I haven't met a liberal who believes it fervently.

Interesting article. The only part that raised my eyebrow was the statement that ". . many psychologists posit that humans have an innate predisposition toward supernatural beliefs because of the cognitive biases we're hardwired with."

That creates the impression that we just can't help it because our minds are attracted to woo. I'd put it a bit differently. We are hard-wired to believe what feels good to us. Security feels very good. Security is knowing with certainty what the future brings. Supernatural beliefs are social beliefs that create the feeling that the future is more knowable and decipherable than it is without those beliefs. That therefore brings greater security (it feels better) than admitting that we have a poor ability to predict the future with any accuracy.

Many resist science because they seek the security that religion and other supernatural beliefs offer.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

Jim, I assure you that the right is just as susceptible to believing in nonsense as the left. How about the Iraqi weapons of mass destruction program or the ability of the free market to correct itself for the benefit of all participants. I think conservatives tend to be far more religious than liberals. The only difference is in the types of beliefs that make conservatives or liberals feel good.

By Ray in Seattle (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

Bans on Yoga have been mentioned several times in the last few years in the Indian Muslim and Malaysian press (and probably in other Muslim countries that I dont know of). Each such fatwa is followed by an even funnier attempt by some "moderate" muslim to have his cake and eat it too by stressing the non-spiritual side of Yoga and offering advice about how one can benefit from its "exercise" or "harmless" aspects without getting contaminated by its Hindu superstition elements.
Jim, why limit your observation to "liberals"? Every conceivable political group will have individuals who believe in every conceivable type of nonsense. Dont agree? look at the Nazis. Would you regard them as liberals? Or look at Sarah Palin and her friends and their belief that a rather vengeful version of a famous Jewish prophet is about to return and his return will be accompanied by the most extraordinary events (rapture, the beast, other endtimes nonsense, you can fill in the details).