Converting Bigfoot: The gullibility of the religious

Those who identify with Christian beliefs less likely to believe in the paranormal

Published: Friday, April 15 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

WACO, Texas — Ask anybody you know: "Who is more gullible, a liberal Episcopalian or a conservative evangelical?"

Now if you define "gullible" as someone apt to believe things such as Bigfoot, UFOs, Atlantis, astrology and psychics, chances are you would say the conservative evangelical. Chances are also that even a conservative evangelical would sheepishly admit that their fellow evangelicals are probably a bit more gullible than your standard liberal Episcopalian.

Mormons don't escape either. "The Book of Mormon Musical," now on Broadway, according to Entertainment Weekly's "Pop Watch" blog, presents Mormons as gullible.

It doesn't surprise sociologist Rodney Stark that people respond this way. "The notion is that conservative religious people believe in all these 'superstitions' so they would believe in any superstition. And, of course, we know that liberals have no superstitions — they are open minded," said Stark who is a professor at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. "I hear evangelicals being ashamed and admitting, 'We are a bunch of superstitious people.' … They've been told again and again that's the way it is by the media."

But is it?

In his book, "What Americans Really Believe," Stark takes hard data from the 2005 Baylor Survey on Religion and tests to see who are the most gullible. A chapter titled "Credulity: Who Believes in Bigfoot" looks at survey statements, such as "Places can be haunted," "Some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds," "Creatures such as Bigfoot and Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science," "Astrology impacts one's life and personality" and "Astrologers, palm readers, tarot-card readers, fortune-tellers and psychics can foresee the future." Survey takers answered on a scale from strong agreement to strong disagreement or undecided.

The various answers were summed to create an "Index of Occult and Paranormal Belief."

So who is more likely to believe in the occult and paranormal?

Before we look at religious belief, let's look at other groups for contrast.

Women were more likely to believe — 20 percent of men scored high on the index compared to 35 percent of women.

People under 30-years-old were more likely to score high (40 percent) compared to people over 60 (17 percent).

Education didn't make a huge difference. Those with a high school diploma or less scored 28 percent while those with a post-graduate degree scored 23 percent.

The question that opened this article was "Who is more gullible, a liberal Episcopalian or a conservative evangelical?"

It turns out that conventional wisdom has it backward.

Only 13 percent of theologically conservative people scored high in belief in the occult and paranormal, while 40 percent of theologically liberal people were believers in, shall we say, extracurricular beliefs. Specifically part of the breakdown is, 41 percent of Episcopalians, 14 percent of members of the Assemblies of God, 32 percent of Catholics and 15 percent of Mormons scored high.

As Stark wrote, "Those who identify themselves with various forms of traditional Christianity are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans." Specifically, the more conservative the religious belief, the more likely a person is to look at strange phenomenon claims and say, "Pshaw!"

"It seems," Stark wrote in the book, "that the choice is either to believe in the Bible or in Bigfoot."

Self-identified atheists, however, and evangelicals score virtually the same, Stark said. "Atheists, who are not very many, tend to reject everything."

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