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."
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."
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