2006 Baylor Religion Survey

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Preach to the choir
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Crux of the matter
Speak of the devil
An act of faith

In 2006, Baylor University conducted a survey of religion and religious attitudes in the US, titled American Piety in the 21st Century: New Insights to the Depth and Complexity of Religion in the US.[1] The survey asked a variety of questions about religious beliefs, from the basic question as to what religion the respondent is affiliated with, to questions on politics, books, and other beliefs. Baylor is religiously affiliated, but a respectable university, so there is no reason to think the results are not legitimate; however this does not mean the survey itself is free of significant flaws, particularly in the section that is perhaps its most cited: paranormal beliefs by religious affiliation.

Paranormal beliefs[edit]

The study comes to the conclusion that certain religious affiliations (notably evangelical Protestantism) coincide with less belief in superstition and the paranormal. This might surprise many, but when one examines how they came up with this statistic, some flaws become readily apparent.

Based on a series of questions, and assigning figures to the results (which they do not provide data for, nor do they explain their methodology) they came up with the average alleged paranormal belief rate, based on religious affiliation, scored between 10 and 50, with lower numbers indicating less belief in the paranormal. The results were as follows:

These figures were the result of responses to 10 questions, in which the respondents were asked whether they agree with the following statements:

  1. Ancient advanced civilizations, such as Atlantis, once existed
  2. Some alternative treatments are at least as effective as modern medicine
  3. It is possible to influence the world through the mind alone
  4. Astrologers, palm readers, tarot card readers, fortune tellers and psychics can foresee the future
  5. Astrology impacts one's life and personality
  6. It is possible to communicate with the dead
  7. Places can be haunted
  8. Dreams can sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths
  9. Some UFOs are probably spaceships from other worlds
  10. Creatures such as Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster will one day be discovered by science

Simply reading the questions should reveal some immediate issues with how this study was undertaken, as we can see some of the questions are very vague. One of the sociologists involved even recognized this fact in hindsight,[2] asking whether "advanced ancient civilizations" existed without defining what "advanced" means, only modifying it with "such as Atlantis" without specifying it is Atlantis itself they are referring to can easily yield vastly different results depending on how the question is interpreted. If they wanted to measure belief in an ancient underwater city, they should have asked it directly. Instead, using a broad and relative definition of "advanced" one could see the question as being asked about the existence of civilizations such as ancient Greece (e.g., the first known analog computer,Wikipedia c. 2nd century BCE) or Egypt (e.g., the pyramids). Responding that ancient Greek civilization is not fictitious would then be counted as belief in the paranormal.

The question on alternative medicine is especially problematic. Christopher Bader, Assistant Professor of Sociology and one of the men behind the survey, stated they were referring to practices such as crystals or aromatherapy, but admitted the respondents (three-quarters of whom agreed with the statement) were likely thinking of slightly more mainstream treatments such as acupuncture. While the effectiveness of acupuncture can be debated endlessly, calling it "paranormal" is a bit of a stretch. Furthermore asking whether "Dreams can sometimes foretell the future or reveal hidden truths" could be interpreted as a question of psychology and the subconscious, if the "hidden truths" are truths about oneself.

Perhaps the greatest issue with this section of the survey was (inadvertently?) referenced in Bader's statement to USA Today, in which he spoke of millions of Americans who have beliefs in the paranormal "that don't fit under any religious umbrella" (emphasis added). Paranormal beliefs that do fall under a religious umbrella (or at least the Judeo-Christian umbrella) are given a free pass. When churches condemn certain paranormal beliefs among their members in favor of their own set of acceptable paranormal beliefs, is it any surprise evangelical Protestants have a slightly lower rate of professed belief in them than the population in general? Someone who believes it is possible to communicate with the dead believes in the paranormal, whereas someone who believes the dead have been resurrected by Jesus just has certain religious beliefs, which do not count as paranormal by this kind of biased interpretation. In the question about dreams foretelling the future, for instance, any Biblical literalists would have to agree, or contradict the stories of Joseph and Daniel. Considering "alternative medicine" can mean "Eastern medicine" and Eastern medicine is more likely to be associated with Eastern religions, it stands to reason that based on this figure alone, the "others", which would have to include Buddhists, Hindus, Shintoists, etc., would be the group with the highest belief in the paranormal. Had they asked about faith healing, we'd see very different results among the evangelicals.

We could attempt to further explore these issues, and perhaps calculate potentially more accurate rates of paranormal belief, if we omitted the vague or unclear questions, or those that do not necessarily relate to the paranormal at all. Or we could, if any of this data were included in the published survey. None of it is. They don't even explain what the numbers mean (they are not percentages), their margin of error, or even how they calculated them. One statistical breakdown they give is based on geography. For instance, we know that 14.3% of people in the Midwest believe that "Astrology impacts one’s life and personality", compared to 13.7% of people in the South, but they don't give any such figures by religious affiliation. We also see the results by gender, with women having higher rates of belief in all categories except alternative medicine (77.8% to 78.5% — a statistical dead heat), and UFOs (23.2% to 29.1%).

Paranormal experiences[edit]

There is a further section on paranormal experiences in the survey, and while it seems the results were not factored in to the paranormal beliefs statistics, it would create a new host of problems for the survey if they were. Respondents were asked if they ever had any of the following experiences:

  1. Used acupuncture or other forms of alternative medicine
  2. Consulted a horoscope to get an idea about the course of your life
  3. Called or consulted a medium, fortune teller or psychic
  4. Visited or lived in a house or place believed to be haunted
  5. Consulted a Ouija board to contact a deceased person or spirit
  6. Had a dream that later came true
  7. Witnessed an object in the sky that you could not identify (UFO)

The specific mention of acupuncture in this section sort of belies Bader's later statement that they weren't thinking of acupuncture when they asked about alternative medicine, but that is of little consequence. The absence of context and non-specificity is again an issue. Anyone who has ever had their tarot cards read for sheer entertainment purposes, who has visited certain popular tourist attractions like the Winchester MansionWikipedia or just so happened to visit allegedly haunted place on unrelated purpose, used a Ouji board as a tween, had a dream that later happened to come true (no matter how mundane the dream was, or whether they actively sought to make it come true), or witnessed something in they sky they couldn't identify (even if they were certain it wasn't aliens or anything paranormal, just something a bit out of the ordinary they couldn't quite identify) has this counted against them. In fact, someone who had a friend read their tarot cards for a lark, knowing there was nothing to it, would presumably have this counted as paranormal experience, whereas someone who refused to, fearing it was witchcraft, would be the more rational one.

The results in this section, for some reason, were not broken down by religious affiliation nor geography, but by gender, race, marital status, education, household income, and age. If the results were not incorporated into the rankings listed at the top, and were not in fact broken down by religious belief at all, and were, for that matter, not questions of religion or religious belief, we are left wondering why they were included on a survey of American Piety in the 21st Century at all?

See also[edit]