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Demographics of Belief

by Michael Shermer, May 31 2011

The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.

According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:1

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4

Although the specific percentages of belief in the supernatural and the paranormal across countries and decades varies slightly, the numbers remain fairly consistent that the majority of people hold some form of paranormal or supernatural belief.5 Alarmed by such figures, and concerned about the dismal state of science education and its role in fostering belief in the paranormal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted its own extensive survey of beliefs in both the paranormal and pseudoscience, concluding with a plausible culprit in the creation of such beliefs:

Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41 percent) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60 percent) agreed with the statement “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of science and the scientific process.6

I too would like to lay the blame at the feet of the media, or science education in general, because the fix then seems straightforward—just improve how we communicate and educate science. But that’s too easy. In any case, the NSF’s own data do not support it. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half of educated people fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increased, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.

Perhaps a deeper cause may be found in another statistic: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. So one solution here is teaching how science works in addition to the rote memorization of scientific facts. A 2002 article in Skeptic magazine entitled “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism,” presented the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: “Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.”7 The scientific method is a teachable concept, as evidenced in the NSF study that found that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) of science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses) of science education. So maybe the key to attenuating superstition and belief in the supernatural is in teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. I have believed this myself for my entire career in science and education. If I didn’t believe it I might not have gone into the business of teaching, writing, and editing science in the first place.

Alas, I have come to the conclusion that belief is largely immune to attack by direct educational tools, at least for those who are not ready to hear it. Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist of the times, which is affected in part by education, but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.

DOWNLOAD my reading of the prologue (48MB MP3)
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References

  1. www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris_Poll_2009_12_15.pdf
  2. www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx

    Similar percentages of belief were found in this 2005 Gallup Poll:

    Psychic or Spiritual Healing 55%
    Demon possession 42%
    ESP 41%
    Haunted Houses 37%
    Telepathy 31%
    Clairvoyance (know past/predict future) 26%
    Astrology 25%
    Psychics are able to talk to the dead 21%
    Reincarnation 20%
    Channeling spirits from the other side 9%
  3. www.gallup.com/poll/19558/Paranormal-Beliefs-Come-SuperNaturally-Some.aspx
  4. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/5017910.stm
  5. Gallup News Service. 2001. “Americans’ Belief in Psychic Paranormal Phenomena is up Over Last Decade.” June 8.
  6. National Science Foundation. 2002. Science Indicators Biennial Report. The section on pseudoscience, “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience,” is in Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Understanding and Public Attitudes. Go to: www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7h.htm.
  7. Walker, W. Richard, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl. 2002. “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism.” Skeptic, Vol. 9, No. 3, 24–25.
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Rating: 4.9/5 (8 votes cast)
Demographics of Belief, 4.9 out of 5 based on 8 ratings

Recommended Reading

42 Responses to “Demographics of Belief”

  1. Ovidiu says:

    Hi Michael,

    I see this book is in audio also.
    Let me send readers to audible, it’s a great resource:
    http://www.audible.com/pd/ref=sr_1_1?asin=B0052EFWUW&qid=1306835177&sr=1-1

  2. Trimegistus says:

    Understanding science and religious belief are not opposed. We don’t need to worry about that 76% who believe in Jesus — it’s the 55% who don’t believe Darwinian evolution we should concentrate on. Education rather than confrontation.

    Bear in mind that the birth of modern science took place in an environment far more fervently Christian than 21st century America. However convenient it may seem to blame those awful god-botherers for the public’s lack of interest in science, I really don’t think it’s the root cause.

    Our real target should be the sloppy educational standards created and taught by “professional educators” and the idiocy of “professional” science reporting in the media. If people learn sound science in school and when they watch the news, it doesn’t matter what they hear on Sunday morning.

  3. Paul says:

    I ordered the book from Amazon a few days ago and look forwarded to completing it (I read as much on Amazon as Amazon would allow.

    @Trimegistus- Education rarely works by itself from my experience. Confrontation certainly has it’s place. Perhaps not at the level of the casual “believer” but most definitely at the level of teacher or scammer and with the sloppy journalists looking for the sensational.

  4. Locklin says:

    @Trimegistus, you go ahead and help educate that 55% about Evolution. Your work will leave society a far better place and many here will applaud your efforts. Just don’t expect others to avoid applying critical thinking and a healthy dose of scientific skepticism to your zombie god.

  5. Mario says:

    In my case I can cite my profession, most of my colleagues spent 8 years at university studying the science of our body physiology and pathology, yet without a doubt 9 out 10 of them would fit into this statistics, furthermore a very good percentage would claim that homeopathic and herbal medicine is underrated and should be included in our curricula. I have neurologist friends that spend their day looking at fMRI scans and degenerative disorders and yet almost all of them refuse to engage in any discussion regarding how absurd the ghost in the machine idea is from an anatomical perspective.

    Then again I’m talking about Latin-America, and needless to say we are by far more prone to magical and animistic kind of thinking, religion is gaining more ground here and actually becoming the major force behind politics reforms but in more subtle way than in US.

  6. Max says:

    Wow, 23% believe in witches?!

    It would be funny if scientists said they don’t believe in the theory of evolution because they object to using the b-word.

  7. Sly Cotto says:

    I’m no scientist, but I am fairly literate with respect to science and the scientific method. That being said, I have to say that Science is not the only field where basic critical thinking skills are lacking or learned.
    My wife is an English teacher. She majored in English, not Education, so her background is more in analysis of literature than it is in the “art” of educating.
    If I may make a blanket statement… Americans today do not read critically.
    If this simple skill was taught more effectively, and appreciated by the public, then people could read two differing opinions, whether relating to science, politics, religion, or nearly any other topic,… and they would be able to sift through the fallacies and nonsense presented by one side or the other and come to logical conclusions!
    So, yes… teaching how science works is crucial… but teaching “critical thinking” skills in subjects such as English, and other liberal arts, can be as important. Let’s not forget that as we try to affect the necessary changes to the way students are taught in the future.

  8. Max says:

    Jews are half-way there, so let’s just convert folks to Judaism as a first step :-p

    From the Harris Poll:
    “Jews are, of course, very unlikely to believe in the basic elements of Christianity. They are also less likely than all
    adults to believe in miracles (63% vs. 76%); heaven (48% vs. 75%); the survival of the soul (37% vs. 71%); angels (36% vs. 72%); hell (21% vs. 61%); and the devil (7% vs. 60%).
    Jews are by far the most likely to believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution (80% vs. 45%) and the least likely to believe in
    creationism (20% vs. 40%). They are also less likely than all adults to believe in ghosts (10% vs. 42%), UFOs (20% vs. 32%), astrology (19% vs. 26%); and witches (8% vs. 23%).”

  9. Max says:

    “Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing.”

    At least more people believe in the theory of evolution than believe in creationism. That’s something.

  10. Tom says:

    Out of curiosity, is belief in Jesus marked as being the same semantically as belief in evolution, in this poll? Would it be similar if you put ‘belief in gravity’?

  11. Retired Prof says:

    I had a recurring dream that came true, and I might have considered it supernatural if my mother hadn’t debunked it for me. I dreamed about a second-hand store in northeastern Oklahoma. In the dream it was never clear which town it was in, but I knew it was north of the latitude of Heavener, but probably farther west. It stood just north of town on the east side of the highway at a shallow S curve, and in the dream I always approached it from the south; I would go inside and browse among fascinating hunting and fishing equipment. It didn’t have the same arrangement inside in each dream, but it always looked the same on the outside.

    Then, on a trip going south on US 69 across Oklahoma, I looked to the left as I approached Pryor and recognized the store I had so often dreamed about–even on the reverse approach it was unmistakable. I had no time to stop then, but with my mother I came back to it another time and shopped there. The actual interior was not like any of the versions I had dreamed.

    She pointed out that when I was a child and a teenager, we had often traveled on Highway 69 to visit my paternal grandmother and (after my parents’ divorce) my father. We talked it over and realized I must have often yearned to stop there as we drove past, then forgotten the place consciously but retained the subconscious image that showed up in the dream.

    It seems possible that at least a few other cases of dreams “coming true” could have a similar non-supernatural explanation.

    Of course, most cases result from mere random juxtaposition; given the thousands of dreams a person may have, some coincidences will occur–maybe as many as half of us will experience one. The dreams involved will seem prophetic; the rest will simply count as normal dream-traffic, if they are remembered at all. For these reasons it doesn’t seem outlandish that more than half of Canadians and Britons claim to have had a dream or premonition that came true.

  12. I don’t “believe in” evolution and I hate it when people who should know better use that phrase.

    I ACCEPT the theory of evolution as a valid scientific theory, just like quantum theory and the theory of gravitation. I don’t “believe in” either one of those, either.

    C’mon, Michael … that’s what the creationists and IDers like to here is talk of “believing in” evolution. Send that book back to your editor!

    • Steve says:

      I see this too much in science ed circles that i am a part of…

      Dumbass: I don’t believe in evolution.
      Sane Man: Well, I don’t either…I ACCEPT it based on the evidence.

      The average person doesn’t know (let alone understand) the evidence that supports evolutionary theory, big bang theory, etc. These are sci ed tactics used (for good reasons) to demonstrate that there are good reasons to believe evolution is true.

      Most people likely read/take classes and see/understand the evidence for some proposition, and the acceptance of that proposition just becomes part of their conceptual framework that they carry around. Eventually, the arguments and evidence are forgotten, but their acceptance of it is not.

      My point is that although you hate it when people say they “believe” in evolution, I get irritated when people say “Hey, I don’t believe it either…I accept it based on the evidence.” It’s like you’re trying to outsmart or one-up the person. Forget semantics and just talk evidence. I’d be willing to bet that when the average person uses the buzzphrase “I ACCEPT it, not believe it!” that they couldn’t articulate to you the evidence. Not accusing you personally of this, of course, just have heard too many people say this without qualification.

      • Steve, sometimes semantics is important, and this is a case in question.

        IDers, et al want to claim evolution is just like religious faith, so they have good reason to love it when people talk about “belief” in evolution.

        Beyond that, religious “belief” (and “faith”) are used differently than for non-religious mental states.

      • Steve, sometimes semantics is important, and this is a case in question.

        IDers, et al want to claim evolution is just like religious faith, so they have good reason to love it when people talk about “belief” in evolution.

        Beyond that, religious “belief” (and “faith”) are used differently than for non-religious mental states.

      • tmac57 says:

        I think that the non-religious have historically been pushed around, and dictated to by the majority religious enough.Why should we now let them take two perfectly good words away from our vocabulary, because we allow them to decide what the usage means.Screw that! Now, I BELIEVE that I will have a beer,and I have FAITH that I will enjoy it!

      • tmac57 says:

        Oh,and if anyone wants to take my last statement,and make it into a T-Shirt,then you have my blessing ;)

      • Max says:

        Creationists also say “evolution is only a theory,” so are we supposed to stop calling it the theory of evolution?

      • Steve says:

        Max,

        I have no idea what the relevance of your statement is to my original statement. No, of course, I don’t think we should stop calling it the theory of ev. We should be spending time articulating what theory means in the context of scientific discourse and how it departs from common usage of the word theory.

      • Max says:

        Steve,

        I was replying to SocraticGadfly.

      • Steve says:

        SG,

        I agree that IDiots love it when people fling the words “believe” or “faith” around when talking about evolution because then they can attack evoloution (or big bang theory, for that matter) as a religion. But the “faith” they espouse (faith that there is an invisible man in the sky who answers prayers and condemns gay people) is much different than saying I have “faith” (hope) that a scientific theory best explains the evidence.

        While I accept that semantics can be important, my point was that too many people use the phrase “I accept it, not believe it” when in fact, they don
        t accept it, they do believe it.

      • Well, that’s a legitimate point.

        That said, as a good naturalist, and a good empiricist follower of David Hume, I normally use the word “believe” for a statement based on previous inductive findings, such as, “I believe the sun will come up tomorrow.”

        Believe in this sense has the same denotative means as it does for religious believers but entirely different connotative angles.

  13. Wayne says:

    Most of what people perceive from day to day about science relates to health. Early in my life, more than 50 years ago, some doctors still said that smoking was quite healthy. We came to know otherwise. Most doctors are not practicing scientists, but that distinction is subtle. Most Americans are now bombarded multiple times per hour multiple hours per day with television ads that shout, “Ask your doctor if [this very expensive drug invented by scientists] is for you!” The profit motive could not be more visible. Elsewhere, scientists do not agree among themselves about the safety, or not, of long-term use of cellphones. Is it any wonder that many unschooled people don’t readily accept assertions coming out of science? And even many schooled people? A healthy skepticism could be, well, healthy.

  14. Trimegistus says:

    As it happens, I’m an atheist myself — but I’m that rare type who isn’t burdened with adolescent rebellion against Mom & Dad’s church, so I don’t sling around insults like “zombie god.” NOT HELPING.

    • Erik Jay says:

      I almost answered that moron for you. How he inferred your being a Christian from your post is beyond me. Good reply — that attitude is DESTRUCTIVE to our aims.

      • Stray says:

        Ah, don’t let it bug you too much. I’m NOT an atheist and the “zombie” guy’s comments bothered me not in the least.

        Anyway, just bought Mr. Shermer’s book this PM. After hearing his interview on Point of Inquiry, I am really, REALLY looking forward to this read!

  15. Galileeo says:

    Come on guys. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution is Only a tenuous theory. I Accept that some of it seems to be born out by empirical investigation, like all theories, but so much is unproven and quite amenable to contradiction when we take an honest look at the Cambrian Explosion and other scientific phenomena that continue to show us Skeptics that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Do you, in good conscience, believe we truly understand Gravity, Dark matter, Dark energy, String Theory, The reason there is something rather than Nothing, Life, DNA, Intelligence from Primordial Soup!

    Give me a break!

    • Your point is?

      While we may not know every detail that produced the Cambrian explosion, nonetheless, on a smaller scale today, when a niche opens up to new life forms, evolutionary variation can occur rapidly.

      Beyond that, if it’s amenable to scientifically investigatable contradiction, want to provide some links to scientifically based “refutation” of it?

      Second, cosmology has ZERO to do with evolution.

      Third, the fact that many puzzles of cosmology are not understood today has ZERO to do with the intelligence of cosmologists and astrophysicists, and also has ZERO to do with the intelligence of skeptics.

      Fourth, misspelling the name “Galileo” might actually have something to do with lack of intelligence.

      • Erik Jay says:

        I slays enjoy your posts, Mr. Fly. As to your final comment, however, it may be that the young (and/or naive) fellow purposely spelled “Galileo” wrong. I am guessing his name (one of ‘em) might be “Lee.” As to your other remonstrances, well done. But it is 100 to 1 against his “getting it.”

  16. This alone is not evidence that someone is a believer in the irrational:

    “more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred”

    I think this happens to everyone. The rational among us are simply able to keep these incidents in perspective with all the other times our dreams *didn’t* appear to predict something in the real world. It would be more accurate for your purposes to say something like “more than half believe their dreams or premonitions have reliable predictive power”.

    Also, I notice “witches” isn’t qualified at all. I have a lot of pagan friends who self-identify as witches. I guess I’d have to be part of that kooky 23% who believes in witches, because I’m pretty sure my friends exist.

    • Max says:

      I can “feel” when someone is looking at me if they’re in my field of view.
      I can tell who’s calling before I pick up the phone, thanks to caller ID, timing, and expected calls.
      It’s intuition, but it’s not paranormal.

      And I believe that many flying objects are unidentified (UFOs).

  17. Tim from BC says:

    Oh good, yet another book from Michael Shermer on belief. Where have I read that before? Oh yeah…pretty much all his other books.

    Don’t get me wrong, “Why People Believe Weird Things” is a classic, and I’ve been subscriber to Skeptic Magazine since 2003, but I’m getting kind of bored by the “great man” himself. Maybe it’s because he keeps writing the same book, referencing his other books, and the same surveys….or maybe it’s the Libertarian politics that has crept into his version of skepticism, or maybe it’s his arrogant aloof attitude and black T-shirts that remind be of a less witty Simon Cowell….but I won’t be buying this book.

  18. CJG says:

    clever rebuttal!

  19. Nyk says:

    I am missing 2 questions:

    “Do you believe in human neurological unity?” (i.e., that there is no difference in average intelligence between any two groups of people, despite having lived long enough in dramatically different environments and the fact that it took just a few thousand years for wolves to evolve into dogs and just a few hundred for Ashkenazi Jews to reach an average IQ of 110 – albeit with some negative genetic side effects)

    “Do you believe that human evolution stopped 50,000 years ago, right before the initial human population split off and the resulting populations were pretty much reproductively isolated?”

  20. Dale Headley says:

    As a former science teacher, I know whereof I speak when I say that there are VERY FEW competent science teachers in America. These teachers should have taken a course in college called “Teaching Critical Thinking.” Why didn’t they? Oh that’s right – THERE WEREN’T ANY! The education system in America is geared toward 19th century goals of producing profitable workers, not deep thinkers. Americans, by and large, want to be told what to think, which is why they attend churches.

  21. Martha Bunfield says:

    Before you read too much into these numbers, the researchers have actually admitted that their sample had significant selection bias and that the results are so uncertain that they themselves don’t even know what the error bars are.
    Also, read this article:
    http://www.pbs.org/mediashift/2008/11/poll-crashers-tilt-unscientific-polls-their-way311.html
    And watch this video:
    http://www.evtv1.com/player.aspx?itemnum=9472

  22. Jon says:

    I cringe when I see such statistics. I wonder how many of these believers would opt for a psychic (or priest, rabbi, minister, etc.) to cure their strep throats, pneumonia and the like. In my experience, they are the first ones in line demanding 500 mg of Zithromax or other myocins. Healers rarely enter the picture when reality intrudes on myth. Suddenly science is god.

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