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David Briggs

David Briggs

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The Complicated Connection Between Religion and the Paranormal

Posted: 02/ 6/11 07:57 PM ET

Don't expect Hollywood to give up the ghosts.

The parade of paranormal entertainment filling American screens -- from the movie Paranormal Activity 2 to television shows such as Ghost Hunters, Psychic Investigators and Paranormal State -- is meeting an intense interest in otherworldly experiences, new research shows.

More than two-thirds of Americans have paranormal beliefs, sociologists Christopher Bader and F. Carson Mencken of Baylor University and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University report in their new book Paranormal America from New York University Press.

And the interest is only expected to increase, scholars say, with the growth of immigrant populations more open to paranormal beliefs.

Not everyone is interested. Those with no religious beliefs, Jewish people and the most committed Christians are among the least likely to believe in UFOs or psychics or Bigfoot.

But a generation of spiritual seekers are opening their minds and bank accounts to beliefs, practices and experiences that are not recognized by science and not associated with mainstream religion.

Whether it is a study showing nearly half of Americans believe extraterrestrials absolutely or probably exist, or ghost-hunting groups and documentary producers rushing to find the latest "haunted" house, interest in paranormal phenomena has entered the mainstream.

"What we can say with certainty is that we live in a paranormal America," write Bader, Mencken and Baker. "Put another way, the paranormal is normal."

Men hunt, women gather in New Age

In the 1980s, the actress Shirley MacLaine was ridiculed for discussing her interest in channeling, reincarnation and UFOs in her book Out on a Limb. But research indicates she may have been less a wacky outcast and more representative of the population than the image ingrained by late-night comics suggested.

The average American holds slightly more than two paranormal beliefs, report Bader, Mencken and Baker.

"Statistically, those who report a paranormal belief are not the oddballs," the researchers said.

But there are major differences in the types of people who gravitate toward different paranormal phenomena. Bigfoot conventions are almost all-male outings, while psychic affairs attract a largely female audience.

The 2005 Baylor Religion Survey found that women are twice as likely as men to believe in astrology, that people can communicate with the dead (a big reason Medium lasted for seven TV seasons) and that at least some psychics can foresee the future. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to believe in UFOs.

"Women tend to want to improve themselves, to become better people," said Bader, who is also a director of the Association for Religion Data Archives. "Men tend to want to go out and capture something, to prove it's real."

In reviewing the research, other findings reported by Bader, Mencken and Baker include:

• Belief in Bigfoot, ghosts, psychic abilities and other paranormal phenomena declines noticeably with increases in age and income.
• Unmarried and cohabiting individuals are far more likely to embrace the paranormal. Asked whether they have had any of five paranormal experiences from witnessing a UFO to contacting spirits, the typical unmarried respondent claimed close to two experience, while the average married respondent had no paranormal experiences.
• Republicans are "significantly less interested" in the paranormal than Democrats or independents.

Overall, the researchers said, conventional lifestyles and stakes in conformity are strong predictors of paranormal beliefs, with highly unconventional people the most likely to turn to otherworldly possibilities beyond the realm of traditional religion.

Spiritual and paranormal

There are conflicting theories about the relationship between religion and the paranormal. Among them are the idea those outside mainstream religion would be more likely to embrace the paranormal as a substitute set of beliefs. Another theory holds that religious individuals, already open to transcendent ideas, would also be more likely to hold paranormal beliefs.

What Bader, Mencken and Baker find in their research is that both individuals with no religious beliefs and the most committed individuals -- those who attend services weekly -- are among the least likely to hold paranormal beliefs. Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God are also highly unlikely to hold paranormal beliefs.

It is in the middle, among people who have an interest in religion but who are not regular attenders, that there is greater belief in the paranormal. Belief in paranormal topics is at its highest level among people with more liberal views of the Bible, researchers said.

What does all this mean for the future?

The researchers say the aging of America's population and projected gains in income likely will reduce belief in some aspects of the paranormal, but the increase in immigration and the tailoring off of conservative religious growth is expected to lead to increased interest.

Going out on their own limb, the researchers predict that by 2050 nearly three-quarters of Americans will report at least one paranormal belief.

Be prepared, and forewarned: Paranormal Activity 3 is coming

David Briggs writes the Ahead of the Trend column for the Association of Religion Data Archives.

 

Follow David Briggs on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ReligionData