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

But the biggest factor that produces skepticism for the strange is church attendance. Thirty-one percent of people who never go to church scored high for paranormal belief. But those attend church more than once a week scored a basement low of only 8 percent.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life found similar results in their "Many Americans Mix Multiple Faiths" report in 2009. Only 8 percent of "white evangelicals" who attended church weekly believed in astrology, for example, compared with 23 percent who attended less often. That held up for "white mainline" churches as well with 15 percent of people who attended weekly believing in astrology compared to 27 percent of those who attended less frequently.

While religious people are often the targets of fraud, that vulnerability may have more to do with trust than general gullibility. "The underlying issue, I think, is the question of mutual trust," said Nancy Ammerman, a Boston University professor of religion and sociology who was quoted in a story from the Religion News Service "These schemes rely on and exploit that trust, and people within religious communities tend to have high levels of trust for others within their community."

Another professor at Baylor University, Earl L. Grinols was also quoted in the RNS story that he thought higher levels of fraud in religious communities comes not from them being actually more gullible, but because of the "mistaken" perception that they are more gullible. Plus, he said, it is just easier to network in a religious community.

But don't try selling them Bigfoot or tarot cards.

The reason conservative religious people have lower belief in the occult and paranormal comes from their adherence to their religious beliefs. There isn't room for other beliefs. "Both LDS and Christians in general have some pretty severe limits on the nature and extent of the supernatural," Stark said.

But Stark doesn't blame people for assuming that conservative religious people might be more superstitious. "It's not such a totally weird assumption that supernaturalism encourages belief in supernaturalism. It just turns out that it is not so. There is an orthodox supernaturalism and they don't go for the rest."

You are free to think religious people are superstitious, he said, but you just can't generalize it to other superstitions. Stark also had some advice for parents who don't want their children to believe in paranormal claims.

"Education won't do it," he said. "If you don't want your kid to believe in Bigfoot don't send him to school, send him to Sunday school."

e-mail: mdegroote@desnews.com

Twitter: twitter.com/degroote

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