22 November 2010


Christopher D. Bader, F. Carson Mencken and Joseph O. Baker. Paranormal America: Ghost Encounters, UFO Sightings, Bigfoot Hunts and Other Curiosities in Religion and Culture. New York University Press, 2010.

Its not quite apparent from the title, but this is a study based around some of the questions asked in two surveys of religious attitudes and beliefs, conducted for the Baylor University Religion Survey Project by the Gallup organisation in 2005 and 2007:

These were questions which asked about belief in a variety of topics (with % of believers men/women in brackets); Atlantis and other ancient advanced civilisations (42/45) - a false positive I suspect, as "advanced civilisations" is not clearly defined; telekinesis (28/31); fortune telling, etc. (8/18); astrology (10/20); mediums (14/27); ghosts (32/45); extraterrestrial UFOs (29/23) and Bigfoot and other monsters (18/20).

A clear majority of Americans responded positively to at least one of the questions There are detailed examinations and correlations with income, education, religiosity, religious conservatism etc.. These results clearly show that the perception of believers as kooks and strange outsiders is not sustainable. There was however a strong inverse correlation between belief in the paranormal and religious and conservatism, far more people who believed God was "a cosmic force" held multiple paranormal beliefs than those who believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God. In American political terms, Democrats and Independents are likely to hold more paranormal beliefs than Republicans. People who cohabit are more likely to have multiple paranormal beliefs than those who are married and so on. The religiously conservative on the other hand are more likely to believe in personal devil or that they have received messages from God

The authors examine these reposes through a number of sociological lenses, in particular studies of deviance, and suggest that those who are less embedded in social structures, and have less to lose, are more likely to admit paranormal beliefs, as are those one might call "the adventurous" or "the experimenters".

Baylor University is a conservative Baptist university, through that does not seem to have massively biased this study, though it is worth bearing in mind, and certainly influenced the spin the university itself put on the results (see link above).

Translated to Britain, we might suspect that the figures for paranormal beliefs here would be higher, as there is a much smaller population of religious conservatives, and in some respects Britain as a more urban society is rather less conformist. Politically I would expect that (on 2010 voting) belief in the paranormal would run downwards across Green, LibDem, Labour, Conservative, and UKIP (I would hesitate to guess where the BNP would fit in!).

This book is not all dry statistics and social analysis, there are accounts of the authors' visits to a number of groups and activities, such as ghost hunters, UFO abductees (including one who remembers an abduction in a past life), Bigfoot hunters and Pentecostal Christians.

They draw a line between the paranormal generalist and the specialist, the latter represented by a conservative Christian Republican bank manager member of the National Rifle Association, who is adamant that Bigfoot is a paws-and-pelt animal with no connection "with all that paranormal nonsense", while the former is represented by an archetypal old lady in trailer park, who is not only a UFO abductee/contactee, but has had multiple paranormal experiences and was a pal of Jesus in one of her past lives. These do seem to represent extremes and come close to caricature. The authors did not have any paranormal experiences on these expeditions, though Bader admits that he and his wife once lived in a "haunted house" where she and a lodger had some odd experiences.

A more sombre interview was with Paul Ingram, a father who 'confessed' to Satanically abusing his daughters, because his daughters claimed that he had, after being influenced by a religious charismatic. Believing his daughters would never tell a lie, and under pressure from his pastor, Ingram 'confessed' to 'crimes' he had never committed.

Which leads into perhaps the vignette which sticks most in my mind; the replies of Obama and McCain to a church groups question as to whether they believed in evil. Obama's is thoughtful and considered, we can see evil anywhere, whether in the cruelty in Dafur or gang violence or child abuse at home, we can confront it, but if we believe we can eradicate evil from the world, we are going to end up doing a load of evil ourselves; McCain's is a simple demagogic rant in which he announces he will smash Bin Laden from the face of the earth, evil is exclusively related to a 'terrible other' the American demon of the moment.

This is an interesting study which is likely to be referred to by sociologists for some considerable time to come, and no doubt put to various, sometimes mutually contradictory, uses. - Peter Rogerson

No comments: