Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A (very!) quick and dirty cross-cultural study of "supernatural" beliefs and experiences (with special attention to reincarnation)

1. According to to a 2009 study by the Pew Research Forum 65% of Americans "express belief in or report having experience with at least one of these diverse supernatural phenomena":

1. reincarnation
2. spiritual energy located in physical things
3. yoga as spiritual practice
4. the "evil eye" and/or
that certain people can cast curses or spells that cause harm
5. astrology
6. having been in touch with the dead
7. consulting a psychic
8. having a ghostly encounter

Some of the more specific findings include:
  • 25% of Americans believe "the position of the stars/planets can affect people's lives."
  • 26% believe that "spiritual energy [is] located in physical things like mountains, trees, crystals."
  • 24% believe in reincarnation.
  • 29% reported "having been in contact with the dead."
  • 16% of Americans believe in the "evil eye" and/or that "certain people can cast curses or spells that cause harm."
Most of the 65% who answered positively for one of these also answered positively for at least one other "supernatural" (Pew's term) belief or practice. Almost 1 in 5 Americans (18%) answered positively for at least four of the eight beliefs and practices in Pew's survey.

Pew also found that the number of Americans who have "ever had a religious or mystical experience" has more than doubled over the last six decades, going from 22% in 1962 to 49% in 2009. For white Evangelical Christians the 2009 number was a whopping 70%, and for African Americans, regardless of religion, it was 69%.

2. These results from American respondents are remarkably similar to the results that Pew obtained with their 2010 religious survey of people in Sub-Saharan Africa. In that study Pew asked Africans about 11 different beliefs and practices associated (according to Pew researchers) with African Traditional Religions. It was found that 25% of those surveyed reported "high levels of belief and practice" in ATR, despite the fact that many of these same Africans identified themselves as either Christian or Muslim.

Pew's criterion for "high levels of belief and practice" was positive responses to 7 out of the 11 criteria that people were asked about. So we can very roughly ompare the 18% of Americans who responded positively to 4 out of 8 "supernatural" criteria to the 25% of Africans who responded positively to 7 out of 11 criteria. Such a comparison clearly indicates that Americans are not all that different from Africans in terms of propensity to non-Christian "supernatural" beliefs and experiences.

Here are the 11 criteria (7 beliefs and 4 practices) that Pew used in their sub-Saharan Africa survey:

1. belief in the protective power of certain spiritual people
2. the power of juju and other sacred objects
3. the evil eye
4. witchcraft
5. evil spirits
6. the protective power of sacrificial offerings to ancestors
7. reincarnation
8. visiting traditional healers
9. owning sacred objects
10. participating in ceremonies to honor ancestors
11. participating in traditional puberty rituals

The Pew Sub-Saharan Africa study also provides some data on what they call "intense religious experiences", but this is approached rather differently from the similar sounding question addressed to Americans. In the US subjects were simply asked if they had ever personally had "a religious or mystical experience", to which 49% answered "yes" (as already mentioned above). Here is how the Pew report describes their findings concerning "intense religious experiences" among sub-Saharan Africans:
Many Christians and Muslims in sub-Saharan Africa experience their respective faiths in a very intense, immediate, personal way. For example, three-in-ten or more of the people in many countries say they have experienced a divine healing, witnessed the devil being driven out of a person or received a direct revelation from God. Moreover, in every country surveyed that has a substantial Christian population, at least half of Christians expect that Jesus will return to earth during their lifetime. And in every country surveyed that has a substantial Muslim population, roughly 30% or more of Muslims expect to personally witness the re- establishment of the caliphate, the golden age of Islamic rule that followed the death of Muhammad.

Many of these intense religious experiences, including divine healings and exorcisms, are also characteristic of traditional African religions. Within Christianity, these kinds of experiences are particularly associated with Pentecostalism, which emphasizes such gifts of the Holy Spirit as speaking in tongues, giving or interpreting prophecy, receiving direct revelations from God, exorcising evil and healing through prayer. About a quarter of all Christians in four sub-Saharan countries (Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Nigeria) now belong to Pentecostal denominations, as do at least one-in-ten Christians in eight other countries. But the survey finds that divine healings, exorcisms and direct revelations from God are commonly reported by African Christians who are not affiliated with Pentecostal churches.
[pp. 13-14]
Because the question of "intense religious experiences" was framed so differently in the two studies, any comparison must be approached with great caution. Nonetheless, a very general indication is given that in both America and sub-Saharan Africa "intense" religiosity is quite common.

Also, see this follow-up post with a country-by-country breakdown for belief in reincarnation in the sub-Saharan African nations included in the Pew study: Belief in Reincarnation in Sub-Saharan Africa.

3. Let's also take a look at Pew's 2006 10-country survey of Pentecostal Christians, with special attention to the results for the United States. Although this study was focussed on Pentecostalists, Pew also gathered data from "the general public" for comparison.

Pew's multi-country Pentecostal study allows for more direct comparison between American and African individuals, although fewer African countries were included (there were a total of 19 sub-Saharan countries in the 2010 study, whereas the 2006 study included only three African countries: Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa).

The Pew Pentecostal study found that 64% of all Americans (from the "general public" -- not just Pentecostalists) reported that they pray to God outside of religious services every day. The average in Kenya, Nigeria and South Africa combined was only slightly higher: 70%.

This might not sound especially "supernatural", but prayer obviously and directly implies some belief in one or more Beings that one is praying "to". Four other, perhaps more obvious, measures of supernatural beliefs are speaking in tounges, divine healings, receiving direct divine revelations, and either personally witnessing or participating in exorcism. The results for these are as follows (again it should be emphasized that these are results for the "general public" and not just Pentecostalists or Christians):

Frequent participation in Church services where speaking in tongues occurs
American 14% || South African 11% || Kenyan 19% || Nigerian 9%

Personally witnessed divine healings
American 29% || South African 38% || Kenyan 71% || Nigerian 62%

Personally received direct divine revelations
American 26% || South African 33% || Kenyan 39% || Nigerian 41%

Personal experience with exorcisms
American 11% || South African 33% || Kenyan 61% || Nigerian 57%

4. While we are at it, let's look at the 2008 European Values Survey results on the question of belief in reincarnation. These numbers were already reported on in an earlier post, but here they are again, and now including Bulgaria, Cyprus (and Northern Cyprus), Czech Republic, Denmark, Georgia, Great Britain, Greece, Iceland, Slovak Republic, Slovenia, Sweden, & Turkey which were not included in that earlier post (and this still doesn't include all countries surveyed):

1/3 or more believe in reincarnation
Latvia 41.9% (2.3M)
Lithuania 37.4% (3.4M)
Ukraine 37.1% (46.3M)
Iceland 36.2% (0.3M)
Russian Federation 33.0% (142.0M)
1/4 or more
Portugal 31.4% (10.6M)
Estonia 30.7% (1.3M)
Belarus 30.6% (9.9M)
Ireland 30.5% (4.4M)
Northern Cyprus 30.5% (0.3M)
Bulgaria 29.8% (7.6M)

Austria 28.8% (8.3M)
Turkey 28.4% (74.8M)
Switzerland 28.0% (7.6M)
Great Britain 27.8% (62.0M)
1/5 or more
Finland 24.7% (5.3M)
Hungary 23.2% (10.0M)
Northern Ireland 23.2% (1.7M)
Spain 23.1% (45.6M)
Serbia 22.6% (7.4M)
France 22.6% (62.3M)
Sweden 22.6% (9.3M)
Bosnia-Herzegovina 22.4% (3.8M)
Romania 21.8% (21.5M)
Armenia 21.5% (3.1M)
1/6 or more
Slovenia 19.4% (2.0M)
Italy 19.2% (60.2M)
Albania 19.1% (3.1M)
Netherlands 18.8% (16.4M)
Germany 18.4% (82.1M)
Denmark 18.4% (5.5M)
Norway 18.4% (4.8M)
Czech Republic 17.6% (10.7M)
Cyprus 17.5% (0.9M)
Belgium 17.5% (10.7M)
Poland 17.4% (38.1M)
Greece 17.4% (11.3M)
less than 1/6
Croatia 16.2% (4.4M)
Slovak Republic 13.0% (5.4M)
Georgia 11.3% (4.4M)

Azerbaijan 7.1% (8.7M)

(These show what percentage of people answered "yes" to Question 31 on the 2008 European Values Study: "Do you believe in reincarnation?" Numbers in parentheses are total population for each country. Here is a handy link so that you can go and look up the data yourself. Countries in bold were not included in the earlier post tabulating these survey results on this blog. Countries in bold brick red were not included in the original version of this post and were added on 3/30/11)

5. "Why belief in reincarnation?" (in lieu of a conclusion, for now ...)

One of the things that emerges from this quick and dirty cross-cultural study is that certain "supernatural" ideas and experiences appear to be quite resilient. Reincarnation especially stands out because it is found ubiquitously in all parts of Europe, in the US, and in heavily Christianized (and Islamized) post-colonial sub-Saharan Africa.

In his 2006 study of earlier European Values Study results (prior to 2008), Erlendur Haraldsson drew attention to the special status of reincarnation:
Why Belief in Reincarnation?

Let us not ask the question of why people believe in life after death for, every religion supports it; but rather why people believe in reincarnation. Reincarnation does not only go against the scientific view but also against the dominant religious view in our part of the world.

[Erlendur Haraldsson, Nordic Psychology, 58, 171-180. The full text is available at Prof. Haraldsson's website.]
Therefore, belief in reincarnation provides us with a kind of psycho-spiritual marker of sorts, indicating the degree to which a significant portion of the population is able to resist sometimes quite intense ideological pressures.

In the specific case of persistent widespread belief in reincarnation in Europe, Haraldsson posits three different, complementary, explanations for this phenomenon: (1) the survival of ("indigenous") pre-Christian beliefs, (2) the importation of ("foreign") non-Christian beliefs, and (3) individuals arriving at the idea of reincarnation independently (Haraldsson does not use the words "indigenous" and "foriegn", which are quoted in the "ironic" sense, not to indicate actual direct quotation):
It is easy to point to three factors that may have had an impact on how relatively widespread the belief in reincarnation is.

First are pre-Christian beliefs in Scandinavia as well as other parts of Europe. The ancient Nordic poems in the Poetic Edda were first recorded in writing in Iceland in the 13th century but stem from the pre-Christian era (Sigurðsson 1999). From their contents we can assume that the Scandinavians believed in reincar- nation. E. g., in the poem Helgakvida Hundingsbana it is stated that the female hero Sigrun was Svava reborn. In a commentary in the Poetic Edda we read: it was the belief in olden times that men were born again, but that is now called old women's superstition (Hollander, 1928, p. 237).

There are even cases where arguments were made as to why a certain person was believed to be another person reborn. Some of them resemble rare cases of children who claim to remember a former life (Stevenson, 2003; Haraldsson, 2001, 2003).

Pre-christian literary sources from other parts of Europe tell a similar story. Plato discusses “metempsychosis” in several of his works (Phaedo 81c-82b, Phaedrus 248c-249b, the Republic 617d-620e, and Timaeus 41-42, 90c-92c.). Caesar writes in his book on the Gallic Wars (which took place in present-day France) “The cardinal doctrine which they [the schools of the Druids] seek to teach is that souls do not die, but after death pass from one body to another” (Caesar, Book VI, 14). Roman historians refer to a similar belief among the Germans (for example Appian of Alexandria: 1987-89). Celtic poems from pre-Christian Ireland contain stories of rebirth (Chadwick, 1955-56; Meyer & Nutt, 1897) similar to those in the Poetic Edda. These sources give us reasons to assume that belief in rebirth was common in Europe before Christianization.

Secondly, from the 18th century onwards Western and Asian scholars and religious leaders introduced Hindu and Buddhist religious scriptures and philosophies to Europeans and they received considerable attention (Zander, 1999). This was particularly the case in the 19th and 20th century when societies and movements were established in Europe that made the doctrine of reincarnation an integral part of their teaching.

Thirdly and lastly, some people may, when brooding on the question of whether some part of their nature survives death, intuitively have found reincarnation a plausible concept or possibility.
[p. 177]
The full title of Haraldsson's paper is quite a mouthful: Popular psychology, belief in life after death and reincarnation in the Nordic countries, Western and Eastern Europe. As mentioned above, the pdf for this article is available for download at Erlendur Haraldsson's website, which is very much worth a visit!