I was contacted a week ago by the BBC World Service to comment on the findings of a survey conducted by the public theology think tank, Theos. The survey of over 2000 UK residents revealed that on average, 40% believe in ghosts, 70% believe in the human soul, 55% believe in heaven and 27% believe in reincarnation. I don’t know why everyone was so surprised by these figures. I had already predicted them in “SuperSense.” No, I am not psychic. It’s just that people are remarkably consistent when it comes to believing in the supernatural. The last Gallup poll in 2005 revealed similar prevalence of supernatural beliefs, haunted houses (40%), astrology (24%), communication with the dead (27%) and the possibility of witches (13%).
What’s more, there is little evidence that the UK is any more “rational” than our American cousins as I give these percentages in the book. Yes, the UK is more secular than the US where 9 out of 10 people say then believe in God but we are no less susceptible to supernatural beliefs. As GK Chesterton allegedly commented, “When a Man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.”
That does not mean we should throw in the towel and give up on scientific education. Far from it. While supernatural beliefs may be inevitable that does not mean that they are always acceptable. Sometimes beliefs are used to justify cruelty and killings (see my earlier posts on ‘muti’ killings in Africa and the slaughter of albinos for their body parts). Those of you of a strong enough constitution may want to see the horrific and distressing footage of witch-burning in Africa posted on Hemant Metha’s Friendly Atheist site but I warn you it is probably the worst thing you will ever witness. [I am updating this section as the video has already upset a number of you so I suggest you seriously consider whether you should watch it]
I have not posted this link to be morbidly gratuitous, but simply to remind me that supernatural beliefs are not just a trivial interest restricted to black cats and walking under ladders but rather a fundamental component of human behavior that leads people to some of the worst acts imaginable. In SuperSense I discuss other outrages such as the virgin-cure myth and cases of cannibalism that are equally based on supernatural beliefs.
With regard to the murder of elderly tribe members condemned as witches, commentators have accused religion and supernatural belief as being primarily responsible for such acts but I question whether these acts are more to do with poverty and desperation in a lawless society or one that permits such behavior. Attacking the weak and vulnerable is a common terror strategy. In the West, we tend to have short memories when it comes to considering the worst chapter of human genocide in Europe. I wonder whether we would revert to similar practices if our society similarly deteriorated.
So while I think that belief in the supernatural is universal, that does not mean we have to tolerate the crimes against humanity done in its name. But it is better to know the extent of the problem and understand its true nature and origins if you want to prevent such atrocities.