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Religion and Paranormal Belief

Author(s): Alan Orenstein


Source: Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 41, No. 2 (Jun., 2002), pp. 301-311
Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Society for the Scientific Study of Religion
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Religion and Paranormal Belief

ALAN ORENSTEIN

This ar-ticleuses a Canadian national sample to examinethe relationshipbetween conventionalreligious belief,


chur-chattendance, and belief in paranor-malphenomena. Greater religious belief is str-onglyassociated with
greater-par-anor-mal belief. Churchattendance (and other-measur-esof religious participation)are only weakly
associated withparanormalbelief until conventionalreligious belief is statisticallycontrolled;once this is done,
chur-chattendance is str-onglyassociated with loweredpar-anormalbelief. Togethei;these two religious
gr-eater-
variables explain about one-quarterof the variance in paranor-malbelief, makingthem the strongestpredictor-s
that have yet to be identified.

INTRODUCTION

In 1978, using a survey sample from the San FranciscoSMSA, RobertWuthnow(1978:75)


concludedthat "noneof the usual backgroundvariablestypically associatedwith otherkinds of
beliefs or attitudesshows anyrelationship"withbeliefs aboutESPorreportsof havingexperienced
ESP."Theonly characteristicswe havebeen ableto examinethatseem to be consistentlyassociated
with ESP in the Bay Area have had to do with religion."
Otherresearchhas identifiedsome consistentcorrelatesof paranormalbeliefs-particularly
genderandage (Irwin1993). Nevertheless,it remainstruethattherehas been only limited success
in describingthe social location of and the social influenceson paranormalbeliefs and reported
paranormalexperiences.As for religion, it has not provento be a very strongor a very consistent
predictor.
There is evidence that members of the most conservativedenominationsscore lowest in
believing paranormalclaims, while more liberal denominationsscore higher (Donahue 1993).
However, Emmons and Sobal (1981) show that this orderingholds only for certain types of
paranormalphenomena(such as ESP andclairvoyance)but not for othertypes (such as astrology
andbelief in ghosts) and thatsome denominationsseem to violate the ordering(Lutheransbeing
unexpectedlyhigh and Episcopaliansunexpectedlylow in paranormalbelief). Reviewing this
literature,Irwin (1993:13) concludes that the specific religion or denominationwith which an
individualidentifies"appearsto have no bearingon paranormalbelief."
Studiesof religion'srelationshipwith the paranormalhave often been guidedby the question
of whetherparanormalbeliefs have become a substitutefor (or a functionalalternativeto) main-
streamreligion. Fromthis perspective,it is expected that people who are outside of mainstream
religionwill be mostin needof an alternativeset of ideasthatcanaddressthe samekindsof ultimate
questionsthatreligion addresses(Emmonsand Sobal 1981). More specifically,respondentswho
have no religious preference,or do not hold conventionalreligious beliefs, and/ordo not partici-
pate in conventionalreligious activitiesshouldbe disproportionatelyattractedby the paranormal.
The firstof these hypothesesis thatpeople withoutreligious affiliations(who answer"none"
when asked about their religious preference) are more likely to believe in and to experience
paranormalphenomena.The available data are mixed. Emmons and Sobal (1981) found that
"nones"are more likely to believe paranormalclaims but the correlationswere low and many
were not statisticallysignificantwhen backgroundcharacteristicswere controlled.A Texas study

Alan Orensteinis a researchconsultantwho can be r-eachedat Box 375, Prides Crossing,Massachusetts,01965. Email:
saor-en@aol.com

Journalfor the ScientificStudyof Religion 41:2 (2002) 301-31]


302 JOURNALFOR THE SCIENTIFICSTUDY OF RELIGION

(MearsandEllison2000), in whichpurchasingNew Age books andtapesis the dependentvariable,


found a similar pattern:"nones"were the most frequentpurchasers,but not after their social
backgroundswere controlled.In contrast,Wuthnow(1978) reportsthatcomparedto those whose
preferenceis a conventionalreligious group, "nones"are more sure that ESP exists (40 percent
vs. 32 percent) and more likely to reporthaving experiencedESP themselves (60 percent vs.
55 percent),althoughthe size of these differences must be consideredmodest. Bainbridgeand
Stark(1980) foundthatcomparedwith otherstudents,those with no religionwere morefavorable
towardthe occult on only three out of seven items and that the differences were only a few
percentagepoints. Finally, Fox (1992) found that "nones"in a national sample did not report
more paranormalor more deja vu experiences.The hypothesisthatthe paranormalhas a special
appealfor those withouta religious preferencehas extremelylimited support.
A second hypothesisis thatpeople who hold conventionalreligiousbeliefs will be less likely
to supporttheparanormal.To measurereligiousbelief, Sheils andBerg (1977) presentrespondents
with statementssuch as: "IthinkthatHeavenand Hell are actualplaces."To measureparanormal
belief, they use statementssuch as: "Ithinkit is possible for some people to communicatedirectly
from mind to mind."With college studentsas subjects,they found that the greaterthe religious
belief, the less likely the individualis to believe in psychic events. However,using this same
methodologywith anothercollege sample,TobacykandMilford(1983) founda morecomplicated
pattern:high religiousbelief was associatedpositively with belief in precognitionandwitchcraft,
negativelywith spiritualism,and nonsignificantlywith belief in mental telepathy,extraordinary
life forms, and superstitiousness.
Contraryto the hypothesis that belief in the paranormalis an alternativeto conventional
religion, some studies have concluded that greater religious belief is associated with greater
paranormalbelief. Wuthnow(1978) comparesthose who "definitelybelieve"and "don'tbelieve"
in God and findsthatthe firstgroupis six percentagepoints higherin believing in ESP.Emmons
and Sobal (1981), using Galluppolling data,examine 12 religious andparanormalitems andfind
that they all correlatepositively with each other "even if only slightly."Goode (2000a) reports
the same resultwith a college sample.
Goode (2000a, 2000b) arguesthat a positive relationshipbetween religious and paranormal
belief is to be expectedbecause both belief systems violate knownlaws of science. For the tradi-
tionalistChristian,Goode (2000a:31) writes, it is not thatmuch of a leap "fromspiritsto ghosts,
fromthe wrathof God to King Tut'scurse, from miraclesat Lourdesto psychic surgery,from the
powerof prayerto therapeutictouch, from angels to aliens."Wuthnow(1978:71) also arguesthat
thereis a similaritybetween religious and paranormalbeliefs: "ESPand religion both affirmthe
existence of realitiesbeyond the mundaneexistence of everydaylife." Similarly,Bainbridgeand
Stark(1980:25) contendthat"peoplewho believe humanshave souls thattranscendthe material
world alreadyshare some of the assumptionsbehind belief in ESP."Despite these arguments,
the availablestudiesdo not clearly show whetherreligious belief is positively related,negatively
related,or unrelatedto paranormalbelief.
A thirdhypothesisderivingfrom a functionalalternativesperspectiveis thatpeople who do
not attendreligiousserviceswill be morelikely to believe in the paranormal.The evidencefor this
hypothesisis also mixed:Greeley(1975), Wuthnow(1976), andBainbridgeandStark(1980) sup-
portit; a numberof studies find no relationship(Sheils and Berg 1977; MacDonald1995; Mears
and Ellison 2000); and Haraldsson(1981), using an Icelandic sample, finds the opposite rela-
tionship.Some of these writerssuggest thatchurchauthoritieshave a self-interestin disparaging
paranormalclaims because they fear thatthese claims will providean alternativesource of reve-
lation and legitimacythatis not underthe church'scontrol(Greeley 1975; Wuthnow1978). This
suggests thatvariablesthatindicatecommitmentto religious organizationsshouldbe associated
with loweredparanormalbelief, butif this is so, the availabledatado not showit veryconvincingly.
Finally, in addition to religious belief and religious attendance, studies have examined
variablessuchas self-ratedreligiosity,the perceivedimportanceof religionin therespondent'slife,
RELIGIONAND PARANORMALBELIEF 303

and even the frequencyof prayer.Roughly equal numbersof studies show thatgreaterreligiosity
is associatedwith morebelief in the paranormal(Haraldsson1981;Irwin1985;MacDonald1995)
and with less belief in the paranormal(Emmonsand Sobal 1981; Donahue 1993; Zinnbaueret al.
1997).
In sum, if religious variablesarekey to understandingthe social basis for paranormalbeliefs
and experiences, as Wuthnowmaintains,the available studies do not point to any clear pattern
of results. Most studies have producedresults that are meager in size; too many findings are
based on studentsamples;religiousvariableshave usuallybeen examinedwithoutcontrollingfor
backgroundcharacteristicsthatmight show the resultsto be spurious;and it is extremelyrarefor
a study to examine more than a single religious variableat a time. This articleuses data from a
Canadiannationalsample to provide a more substantialtest of the connectionbetween religion
and paranormalbeliefs.

THE DATA

Everyfive yearssince 1975, ProjectCanada,directedby ReginaldW.Bibby of the University


of Lethbridge,has administereda mailed questionnaireto a representativesample of Canadians.
These data(andthe methodologicaldetailsof theircollection) areavailablefor downloading(at no
cost) throughthe website of the AmericanReligion DataArchiveat the Departmentof Sociology
of the PennsylvaniaState University.
This article makes use of the most recent data set available, from 1995, which included
1,765 cases. Roughly half these respondentshad participatedin prior surveys (including 236
who answeredall five surveys)and roughlyhalf (949) were new respondentswho were selected
randomlyfrom telephone directoriesin 228 communities that were stratifiedby province and
by community size. The sample is intended to describe the Canadianpopulationwithin four
percentagepoints.
The 1995 survey was 20 pages in length and focused on social issues, intergrouprelations,
and religion. It took from one to two and a half hours to complete. After mailing the survey
instrument,sending a postcardreminder,and mailing a second copy of the instrument,the return
rate was 61 percent.

MEASURING PARANORMAL AND RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

The 1995 Project Canada survey had 18 items that sought to measure the acceptance of
conventionalreligious teachings and paranormalbeliefs. Seventeen of these items were mixed
togetherat the same location on the questionnaire,so thatit is fairto say thatthe paranormalwas
presentedin a religious context. This sometimes makes it difficultto interpretindividualitems.
One item askedwhetherthe respondentbelieves in "life afterdeath."Is this a Christianbelief
or a paranormalbelief? This item correlateswith a questionaboutextrasensoryperception(ESP)at
+0.22 buthas muchstrongerrelationshipswithbelievingin heaven(+0.64) andin God (+0.62). A
seconditem askswhetherit is possible "tocommunicatewith the dead."This item is morestrongly
related to ESP (+0.36) than to either the heaven (+0.15) or God (+0.18) questions. To decide
which beliefs are paranormal,their content and correlationswith other items were examined,
picking those items thathave the lowest relationshipswith conventionalreligious beliefs.
A paranormalscale (with a Chronbach'salpha of 0.80) was constructedfrom six items.
Each asked:"Do you believe in the following?"Here is the exact wording:
1. ESP
2. That some people have psychic powers
3. Thatyou have experiencedan event before it happened
4. Astrology
304 JOURNALFOR THE SCIENTIFICSTUDY OF RELIGION

5. Thatit's possible to communicatewith the dead


6. Thatyou will be reincarnated
The response categories were "Yes, definitely,""Yes, I think so," and two similar "no"re-
sponses. Combiningthe two "yes" categories (and excluding roughly 100 nonrespondentsper
item), 55.6 percentof the samplereportsome level of belief in ESP,54.5 percentin psychic pow-
ers, 42.4 percentreportpersonalexperiencewith precognition,29.6 percentbelieve in astrology,
17.7 percentin communicationwith the dead, and 24 percentin reincarnation.About one-third
of those who agree to each item do so "definitely."These figuresrepresenta substantiallevel of
acceptanceof the paranormal,particularlyfor the firstthreeitems thatposit extraordinaryhuman
abilities.
A religious belief scale composed of six items (with an alphaof 0.91) was also developed.
Respondentswere asked if they believe in:
1. Heaven
2. Hell
3. Angels
4. God
5. Thatyou have experiencedGod's presence
6. Life afterdeath
The high rate of supportfor these items suggests that the term "conventionalreligious be-
liefs" is not a misnomer. Sixty-eight percent reportedbelief in heaven; 48.4 percent in hell;
57.9 percentin angels; 81.6 percentin God; 43.7 percenthave experiencedGod's presence;and
66.9 percentare believers in life after death. It is importantto note, as both Emmonsand Sobal
(1981) andGoode (2000a) found, thatall the paranormalbeliefs in the ProjectCanadasurveyare
positively correlatedwith all the conventionalreligiousbeliefs. Outof 153 correlationsinvolving
18 belief items (abouthalf of themparanormal),only one coefficienthad a negativesign andonly
14 coefficients with positive signs were below +0. 1.2 It is on the basis of this type of pervasive
associationthatGoode (2000a:31) arguesthat"havinga traditionalChristianbackgroundlays the
foundationfor many paranormalisms."

RESULTS

Initial Results

Table 1 providesan initial test of the threehypothesesderivedfrom a functionalalternatives


perspective.
The firstthreerowscompareProtestants,Catholics,andthose who answer"none"when asked
about their religious preference.The questionnaireincluded six additionalreligious categories,
such as Hinduand Jewish,but only 63 respondentsselected them, too few to analyze separately.
One-hundred-fifty-four respondents(9 percentof those who answeredthe religious prefer-
ence question) were "nones."Table 1 shows that 33.1 percent of Catholics score high on the
paranormalbelief scale (in percentageanalyses, all scales are divided into threeequal groupsas
closely as theirdistributionswill allow).3Among Protestantsand "nones,"the figuresare lower:
24.9 percent and 25.3 percent,respectively.The differencebetween these three religious cate-
gories is statisticallysignificantbeyondthe 0.01 level using chi-square.Clearly,however,the data
provide no supportat all for the hypothesis that "nones"will be more likely to believe in the
paranormal,which is the hypothesisbeing tested.
The second panel of Table 1 tests whether those who hold conventionalreligious beliefs
are less likely or more likely to hold paranormalbeliefs. In the first column, 9.7 percent of
those who score in the bottomgroupon the measureof conventionalreligious belief arehigh on
RELIGIONAND PARANORMALBELIEF 305

TABLE 1
PERCENT HIGH ON PARANORMAL SCALE BY
RELIGIOUS VARIABLES

% High on Paranormalscale N
A. Preference
Protestant 24.9 904
Catholic 33.1 577
"None" 25.3 154
B. Religious belief
Low 9.7 680
Medium 38.8 536
High 39.6 548
C. Churchattendance
Low 27.0 523
Medium 34.6 673
High 20.6 515

paranormalbelief; among those who are high in conventionalreligious belief, 39.6 percentare
high in paranormalbelief (there is no difference between the middle and high religious belief
categories).
In correlationandregressionanalyses,the full rangeof the religiousbelief andthe paranormal
belief scales (bothwith scores from 6 to 24) can be used. The correlationbetweenthe two scales is
+0.35, which is statisticallysignificantbeyond the 0.01 level. Clearly,these data side with those
studies that show a positive connectionbetween religious and paranormalbelief.
The thirdpanel of Table 1 gives dataon how often respondentsreportattendanceat religious
services. The nine responses,rangingfromneverto severaltimes a week, havebeen collapsedinto
three categories.Those who attendreligious services most often ("nearlyevery week" or more)
are least likely to believe in the paranormal;a reversalin the orderingof the other categories
weakens the relationship.The correlationbetween attendanceand paranormalbelief is small but
statisticallysignificant,at -0.10.
To summarize,Table 1 shows that people without a religious preferenceare no more likely
to hold paranormalbeliefs, thatholding conventionalreligious beliefs is stronglyand positively
relatedto holding paranormalbeliefs, and thatregularchurchattendanceis relatedto a reduced
acceptanceof the paranormal,but this effect is quite small.

Joint Effects

It should not be surprisingthatpeople who believe in religious teachingsare likely to attend


religiousservices(thecorrelationis +0.56 in thesedata).Andyet, thelast sectionshowedthatthese
two variablesworkin oppositedirections.Conventionalreligiousbelief is stronglyassociatedwith
heightenedparanormalbelief, while frequentreligious attendanceis weakly relatedto lowered
paranormalbelief. Because of this directionaldifference,it is possible thateach of these religious
variablesis suppressingthe effect of the other.
Table 2 examines the joint effect of religious belief and religious attendance.At each of the
threelevels of religiousbelief, higherattendancereducesparanormalbelief, an effect thatwas less
consistent and less strong when attendancewas examined on its own. As an example, consider
those whose views put them in the middle of the religious belief scale: high paranormalbelief
varies from 54.6 percent among those who rarely attendchurch to 31.2 percent in the middle
306 JOURNALFOR THE SCIENTIFICSTUDY OF RELIGION

TABLE 2
PERCENT HIGH PARANORMAL BELIEF BY RELIGIOUS BELIEF
AND RELIGIOUS ATTENDANCE

Low Religious Belief Middle Religious Belief High Religious Belief


Low churchattendance 10.9% 54.6% 78.0%
(459) (216) (100)
Middle churchattendance 10.2% 31.2% 50.8%
(128) (173) (120)
High churchattendance 1.6% 22.4% 23.6%
(63) (134) (318)

attendancegroupto 22.4 percentamongthose who attendchurchfrequently.In otherwords,with


religiousbelief held constant,therearesizabledifferencesin paranormalbelief thatareassociated
with religious attendance.
Table 2 also shows that holding constant religious attendance,greaterreligious belief is
associated with greaterparanormalbelief. For example, looking at those in the middle of the
churchattendancescale, 10.2 percentof the low religiousbelief group,31.2 percentof the middle
group, and 50.8 percentof the high religious belief groupdisplay high belief in the paranormal,
anothersizable result.
These effects can be presentedmoresuccinctlyusing partialcorrelations.As reportedearlier,
thezero-ordercorrelationbetweenreligiousattendanceandtheparanormalbelief scale is -0. 10. A
partialcorrelationwas calculatedcontrollingfor the religiousbelief scale. The partialcorrelation
is -0.38. Measuredby the amountof varianceexplained, this partialcorrelationis more than
14 times strongerthanthe originalcorrelation.Similarly,the zero-ordercorrelationbetween the
religious belief scale and the paranormalscale is +0.35. The partialcorrelationincreases to
+0.50 when religious attendanceis controlled.This partialcorrelationexplainstwice the amount
of varianceas the originalcorrelation.
Paranormalbelief is stronglyinfluencedby both religious belief and religious participation.
In fact, these variablesappearto be the strongestpredictorsof paranormalbelief that have yet
to be identified.However,because these variablesoperatein differentdirections,they must be
examinedtogetherin orderto observe theirtruestrength.

Indicators of Religious Participation

If churchattendancelowers paranormalbelief, as these data demonstrate,this may also be


true of other indicatorsof involvementin formal religious groups. Four additionaltests were
conducted.
A three-itemreligiouspracticescale was constructedbased on how often respondentsreport
that they pray, read the Bible, and say grace (each item uses seven responses from "daily"to
"never").Despite the small numberof items, Chronbach'salphafor this scale is 0.81. Religious
practicehas no correlation(only +0.01) with the paranormalbelief scale, but this increases to
-0.33 when religious belief is controlled.In addition,the correlationbetween religious belief
and paranormalbelief increasesfrom +0.35 to +0.48 when religious practiceis controlled.
A second scale (with an alpha of 0.77) could be constructedfor only those respondents
who identify as Protestantsor Catholics (N = 1,481). After giving their religious preference,
the questionnaireasked whetherthe religious groupthey named is "importantto you," whether
respondentsare "deeplycommitted"to it, and whetherthey are "veryinvolved right now."The
responses were "yes"~and "no."~ This measure of involvementin religious organizationshas a
correlationof -0.12 with the paranormalbelief scale. When religious belief is controlled,the
RELIGIONAND PARANORMALBELIEF 307

partialcorrelationincreases to -0.36. The correlationbetween religious belief and paranormal


belief (which is +0.30 for this subsample) increases to +0.44 when religious involvementis
controlled.
Finally,two single items were examined.All respondentswere asked:"Howimportantis the
following to you?-Religion." This is similarto the type of questionthat is being used by many
studies to measurereligiosity.This item has a correlationof +0.04 with paranormalbeliefs, but
a partialcorrelationof -0.26 when religious belief is controlled.The effect of religious belief
increasesfrom +0.35 to +0.42 aftercontrollingfor religiosity.
Respondents were also asked whether they are a member of a church or temple, with
36.4 percentindicatingthat they are. The correlationwith paranormalbelief is only -0.09 but
increasesto -0.28 afterreligiousbelief is controlled.The correlationof religious andparanormal
belief increasesfrom +0.35 to +0.43 afterchurchmembershipis controlled.
The variablesin this section are all indicatorsof involvementin formal religion. All these
variables are strongly correlatedwith church attendance(these data have not been presented)
and all of them show the same pattern.At the zero-orderlevel, they have a small relationship
or no relationshipwith paranormalbeliefs. Once religious belief is statisticallyheld constant,
theireffect is substantialandconsistentlynegative:greaterreligiousinvolvementor participation,
as measuredin any of these ways, is associated with lowered belief in the paranormal.Also,
controllingfor any of these religious involvementvariablesincreasesthe already-strongpositive
associationbetweenreligiousbelief andparanormalbelief, althoughthisincreaseis smallerin size.

Organizational Memberships

If differentindicatorsof religious participationall lower paranormalbelief, as these data


demonstrate,this might also be true of organizationalparticipationin general. The argument
would go like this: thatthe kinds of people who participatein religious activitiesarelikely to also
belong to othertypes of organizations,such as service andfraternalassociations,politicalgroups,
and sports clubs. In these other groups, they learn the normativebeliefs of their community,
which are not likely to include supportof the paranormal.Thus it may be their organizational
involvementsin general, and not specifically their religious participation,that is lowering their
belief in the paranormal.
The Project Canada survey provides data on membershipsin 17 types of organizations,
datathat do not supportthe argumentsjust advanced.First,thereis no relationshipin these data
betweennumberof organizationalmembershipsandeitherreligiousbelief (r = +0.02) orreligious
attendance(r = +0.04). Second,thereis no relationshipbetweenorganizationalmembershipsand
paranormalbelief: 29.1 percentof people with no membershipsand 27.2 percentof those with
one or more membershipsare high on the paranormalscale; the correlation(using the full range
of both variables)is -0.01 and does not increasewhen religious belief is controlled(the partial
correlationis +0.001). Third,analysesnot beingpresentedshowthatcontrollingfor organizational
membershipsdoes not affect the strengthof the negativeassociationbetween churchattendance
and paranormalbelief. Clearly,it is somethingspecific aboutreligious participation,and notjust
organizationalparticipationin general,thatis associatedwith loweredparanormalbelief.

Testing for Spuriousness

Table3 presentsa regressionequationin which paranormalbelief is predictedfrom whether


a respondentis a "none,"from conventionalreligiousbelief, fromchurchattendance,andfrom an
assortmentof backgroundvariables-gender, age, a five-level measureof educationattainment,
whetherthe respondenthas been divorced,and how often he or she has changedresidence over
the past decade. These sociodemographiccharacteristicshadbeen shown in preliminaryanalyses
to be relatedto the paranormalbelief scale.
308 JOURNAL STUDY
FORTHESCIENTIFIC OFRELIGION

TABLE 3
REGRESSION EQUATIONSFOR PARANORMAL
BELIEFS (BETA WEIGHTS)
Regressors
Religiousbelief +0.60*** +0.53***
Churchattendance -0.43*** -0.39***
"Nones" -0.02 -0.02
Female +0. 18***
Age -0.07***
Education -0.05**
Divorced +0.05***
Moved +0.07***
N 1,593 1,516
AdjustedR2 24.5% 29.8%
levelsare:***
Note:Usinga two-tailedtest,significance 1percent;
**5 = percent.

The adjustedvariance in paranormalbelief explained by the three religious variables is


24.5 percent(Column 1). Since being a religious "none"does not have a statisticallysignificant
beta weight, it is religious belief and attendancethat are responsiblefor this strongrelationship.
The beta weights also show (as did the percentagesand partialcorrelations)that conventional
religious belief has a strongerrelationshipto paranormalbelief than does religious attendance
(analysesnot presentedshow thateven when a scale is formedthatincludes additionalindicators
of religious participationin orderto improvethe measurementof this variable,religious belief
continuesto have the strongereffect).
All the backgroundvariableshave significant,thoughmostly small, betaweights. Genderhas
the strongestimpact:using percentagesandwithoutcontrols,38 percentof womenand21 percent
of men arehigh on the paranormalbelief scale. Divorcedpeople, youngerpeople, andpeople who
are more geographicallymobile have a slightly greaterbelief in the paranormal.Educationhas
the weakest beta weight: in the zero-orderdata, there are no statisticallysignificantdifferences
between any of the educationcategories until attendanceat graduateor professionalschool is
reached,at which point paranormalbelief declines modestly.4
Backgroundcharacteristicsreduce the beta weights for the religious variablesby a small
amount.Column 2 shows that these relationshipsremain strong:the effects of religious belief
and religious attendanceare not due to the sociodemographiccharacteristicsof believers and
attenders.

DIscussIoN

To summarizethe majorfindings of this research:(1) people who do not reporta religious


preferenceare no more likely than others to believe in paranormalphenomena;(2) people who
believe in conventionalreligiousteachingsaremorelikely to believe in the paranormal;(3) people
who attendchurchfrequentlyare less likely to believe in paranormalphenomena,althoughthe
zero-orderrelationshipis weak; (4) both the positive effect of conventionalreligious belief and
the negativeeffect of churchattendanceare increasedwhen the othervariableis statisticallycon-
trolled,with the effect on churchattendancebeing stronger;(5) a varietyof measuresof religious
participationall show the same patternof effects as churchattendance;(6) there appearsto be
somethingspecific aboutreligious participation,and not organizationalparticipationin general,
that is reducing paranormalbelief; (7) the positive effect of religious belief and the negative
RELIGIONAND PARANORMALBELIEF 309

effect of religious participationremain when other backgroundcharacteristicsare statistically


controlled;and (8) religious belief has a strongerassociation with paranormalbelief than does
religious participation.
One implicationof these resultsis thatparanormalbeliefs areprofoundlyreligiousin nature.
Hardlyany of the people who score low on the scale of conventionalreligious belief are strong
supportersof the paranormal(in Table 1, only 9.7 percent).These datacome close to the assertion
that some amountof religious belief is a necessaryconditionfor paranormalbelief.
Much of the paranormalcommunityis eager to demonstratethatthoughtsor consciousness
can have effects that do not operatethough known physical processes (Jahnand Dunne 1987;
Blackmore2001). Tothereligiouslyinclined,this soundsverysimilarto talkingabouttheimmortal
soul. It should not be surprisingthat people who have faith in hidden spiritualcauses also have
faith in hiddenparanormalcauses thatmake sense to them because of theirreligious beliefs.
These data emphasize the importanceof religious participationin decreasing paranormal
belief. Above all, this findingmakesa methodologicalpoint.In manystudieson paranormalbelief,
religionhas eitherbeen representedby a single variable(suchas denominationor religiosity)or by
two or morevariablesthatareexaminedone at a time, withoutany possibilityof seeing theirjoint
effect. This is the equivalentof stoppingthe analysis afterfindingthatthe zero-ordercorrelation
between religious attendanceand paranormalbelief is -0.10. Most studies have reportedthis
type of small association, both positive and negative, while much largerrelationships(if these
Canadiandataare any guide) were thereto be foundhad it been recognizedthatreligion involves
a complex nexus of belief and participationand thatthis needs to be reflectedin a more complex
dataanalysis.
These data show that somethingspecific aboutreligious attendanceor participationreduces
belief in the paranormal,since other types of organizationalinvolvementsdo not have the same
effect. The data are no help in determininghow this effect is being produced.It is one thing to
argue,as was done earlier,thatreligious authoritieshave a vested interestin denying legitimacy
to the paranormal.It is anotherthing to specify how religious participationmanagesto suppress
paranormalbelief among people whose religious views would seem to predisposethem to these
beliefs.
A particularlyintriguingcomparisonin these datais between religious variablesand educa-
tional attainment.There have been numerouscalls for upgradingscience educationin orderto
combatparanormalbeliefs (Eve 1991; Ede 2000). However,the effects of educationare so small
that it appearsthat values and faith ratherthan rationalityare the drivingfactors in paranormal
belief. Moreover,if paranormalbeliefs are as closely attachedto religious beliefs as these data
indicate,were the schools to presenta skepticalpositionregardingthe paranormal,they wouldrun
the risk of arousinga religiously-basedopposition. Some observerssuggest that the legitimacy
of science itself is underattackby supportersof the paranormal(Kurtz1992).
These datahaverelevanceto the questionof whetherthe paranormalis a functionalalternative
to religion. Othershave arguedthatif this is true,then the least religious people shouldhave the
greatestneed for an alternative(Emmons and Sobal 1981). However,"nones,"who profess no
religious affiliationare not strongsupportersof the paranormal,while it is precisely those people
who hold the most traditionalreligiousviews who are the strongestsupporters.These two results
are not compatiblewith a view of the paranormalas a compensatorymechanismfor something
missing in the lives of the irreligious.
If interestin the paranormalis not drivenby the irreligious,perhapsit needs to be interpreted
in the context of contemporaryreligion. Commentatorshave pointed to the growthof a highly
individualized,voluntarystyle of religionoverthe last 30 years,particularlyamongbabyboomers
(Roof 1993;Hoge et al. 1994).This style emphasizespersonalchoice, is ambivalentaboutreligious
authority,focuses on experientialpractice and personal growth, and mixes together spiritual
stimuli from different traditions.It is a style that is affecting many institutions;for example,
Siahpush (1998) presentsevidence that a similar style, that he calls postmodern,underliesthe
310 JOURNALFOR THE SCIENTIFICSTUDY OF RELIGION

use of alternativemedicine.The fact thatourrespondentscombinetraditionalreligiousteachings


and paranormalbeliefs and do so outside of the churchsuggests a type of postmodernspiritual
journey. While this journey may ultimately be leading some voyagers away from established
religions, the fact that they can retaincore religious beliefs makes it is easier for the curious to
begin and to sustainthejourney (Ellwood 1979).

NOTES

1. An objection to combining differentparanormalbeliefs or experiences into one scale is that this "may artificially
reduce the predictivepower of variablesthat are importantpredictorsof only one or a few of the items in the scale,
and may lead to the developmentof faulty theoreticalmodels" (MacDonald 1995:369). This is an argumentthat
could be applied to many researchareas, not just the paranormal.In fact, most availablestudies have used one or
more paranormalbeliefs as dependentvariablesratherthan constructinga scale. The result has usually been small
differencesin the predictorsfor each belief, none of which the authorscould explain. Combiningsurvey items to
producea more valid measureseems fully appropriate.
2. An item on whether"some UFO's are from other planets"appearedlater in the questionnairein an area removed
from the other 17 religious and paranormalitems. It producedseven of the low correlationsand the only negative
correlation.This may be due to eitherthe contentor location of this item.
3. Because of the distributionof cases, 42.2 percentof respondentsarescoredas "low"on the scale of paranormalbelief,
29.9 percentare "medium,"and 27.8 percentare "high."For conventionalreligious belief, the three groups include
38.6 percent, 31.1 percent, and 30.3 percent of respondents.On both scales, a missing item was given a value at
the item's midpoint(2.5); analyses show that this did not affect the results. On church attendance,30.6 percentof
respondentswere scored as "low,"39.3 percentas "medium,"and 30.1 percentas "high."Because churchattendance
is based on a single item, 53 missing cases are excluded from the analysis.
4. Among respondentswhose highest level of formal education is grade school, 29.1 percent have high scores on
paranormalbelief in the zero-orderdata. For the high school, technical or communitycollege, and undergraduate
college groups, the figures are 30.8 percent, 32.6 percent, and 25.3 percent,respectively.There are no statistically
significantdifferencesbetween these educationalcategories, althoughthe percentagein the college group is a little
low. Among those who attendedgraduateandprofessionalschools, 19.8 percentare high in paranormalbelief, which
is significantlydifferentthanthe othercategories.

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