What is Paranormal? What is Occult?

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The mainstream religious press, who are currently congregating in Washington, are exploring the just-released data from the National Baylor Religion Survey on Americans’ Beliefs and Practices.

“Do Americans really believe in Santa Claus? Does God directly speak to people? Should the Bible be taken literally, word-for-word? These, along with other in-depth questions relating to religion, belief in the supernatural, and the voice of God, comprised the new wave of the National Baylor Religion Survey on Americans’ Beliefs and Practices.”

This survey, which polled 1,648 people (the Pew Forum, in contrast, surveyed 35,000 people), claims to hold some startling new information about what Americans believe, including the fact that liberal religionists are more likely to believe in the “paranormal”.

“The survey, which has a margin of error of four percentage points, also revealed that theological liberals are more apt to believe in the paranormal and the occult – haunted houses, UFOs, communicating with the dead and astrology – than do conservatives. Women (35 percent), blacks (41 percent), those younger than 30 (40 percent), Democrats (40 percent) and singles who are cohabitating (49 percent) were more likely to believe, the survey said.”

This point was used as a journalistic “gotcha” by M.Z. Hemingway to infer that the liberal-leaning United Church of Christ (Obama’s former denomination) was less “rational” than the conservative Assemblies of God (Sarah Palin’s former denomination).

“Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.”

Of course measuring “paranormal” and “occult” belief all depends on what you consider paranormal. For example, the ethic of spiritual warfare, which is common in many AoG churches, would certainly be considered an “occult” practice in any non-Christian context. In fact, many religious beliefs sanctified by various Christian denominations would be considered taboo if it was done by a circle of Wiccans instead of a church full of “believers”.

Then again, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this particular slant in the data. After all, Baylor is a conservative Southern Baptist college, and the survey questions are heavily skewed towards Christian modes of belief. Hence, the “big story” (so far) from the Baylor survey is that Americans love their guardian angels!

“The guardian angel encounter figures were “the big shocker” in the report, says Christopher Bader, director of the Baylor survey that covered a range of religious issues, parts of which are being released Thursday in a book titled What Americans Really Believe. In the case of angels, however, the question is a little stronger than just belief. Says Bader, “If you ask whether people believe in guardian angels, a lot of people will say, ‘sure.’ But this is different. It’s experiential. It means that lots of Americans are having these lived supernatural experiences.”

Belief that mystical entities are floating around protecting you? Sounds pretty occult to me.