by David Briggs
One of the biggest movie hits of the summer is about a haunted house in Rhode Island.
"The Conjuring," which claims to be based on a true story, taps into the public fascination with paranormal phenomena that is evident in scores of TV shows from “Ghost Hunters” to “Paranormal Witness” that populate the cable universe.
But what effect has all this attention to paranormal activity had on traditional religious beliefs? Is it a small or large step for Americans to move from the belief Jesus will return to Earth some day to believing in reincarnation?
The answers researchers are finding may both encourage and challenge congregational leaders. The most frequent attenders are the least likely to believe in ESP or psychics or UFOs, but those on the margins of congregations are among the most likely to hold paranormal beliefs.
Forget the conventional wisdom that nonreligious people would be most interested in crystal healings or ghosts.
“It really isn’t,” said sociologist Christopher Bader of Chapman University a leading researcher in the field. “It’s moderately religious people that get into the paranormal.”
Overall, there is no evidence of widespread defections from conventional Christian teachings to paranormal beliefs. In analyzing data from the 2008-2009 U.S. Congregational Life Survey, researcher Jack Marcum found relatively few worshipers held New Age beliefs or have had New Age experiences. Marcum, coordinator of research services for the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), also found majorities of Catholic, mainline Protestant and evangelical Protestant worshipers held traditional Christian beliefs in nearly every area.
Consider these findings from the congregational life survey:
- More than five in six worshipers believe in heaven and angels and that Jesus was raised bodily from the dead.
- Fewer than one in six worshipers believe in astrology or that extraterrestrial beings in spacecraft have visited the Earth.
- Eighty-eight percent of worshipers said they believe there is a life beyond death, but just 8 percent believe in reincarnation, or that after death a person's soul returns to Earth in another body.
An analysis of the 2005 Baylor Religion Survey showed people who attended worship services most frequently were the least likely to hold paranormal beliefs, sociologists Bader, F. Carson Mencken of Baylor University and Joseph Baker of East Tennessee State University reported in their book, “Paranormal America.” Those who believe the Bible is the literal word of God also were unlikely to hold paranormal beliefs.
But it was not people unaffiliated with mainstream religion who were the most likely to embrace the paranormal, researchers found. People who have an interest in religion but who are not regular attenders were found to have the most interest in the paranormal.
“Someone who attends church sometimes and believes that there is something supernatural about the Bible is the most likely to develop an interest in or already believe in paranormal topics,” Bader, Mencken and Bader said. “It appears that religion can have a conditioning effect that, unless actively curtailed, indeed makes the paranormal but a small step away.”
So how can churches strengthen religious beliefs and reduce demand for paranormal experiences? The answer appears to lie in developing vital congregations, where worshipers attend frequently and find spiritual fulfillment.
“People have a certain amount of spirituality they want in their life,” Bader said. “If they don’t get that need fulfilled, they’ll go and get it somewhere else.”
For congregations, many of whom already feel embattled by an increasingly secular culture, it is another challenge in an evolving spiritual marketplace.