From this morning’s New York Post:
More than one-third of Americans believe that UFOs are real, and many think that witches, ghosts and angels are among us, according to a Harris poll released yesterday.
The survey also found that belief in God is overwhelming. Eighty percent of people polled think He exists, and 73 percent believe in heaven, while 59 percent think the devil is real.
According to the survey, only 47 percent of Americans believe in Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. That’s far fewer than the 61 percent of people who believe in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ.
Nothing very surprising there. It’s interesting to note one’s own reactions on reading a news item like that. The reaction must, I suppose, be personality-dependendent. It will fall somewhere in a range from: “I am surrounded by idiots!” to: “What an oddball freak I must be!” (I find myself closer to the latter end of that spectrum.)
News items like this also raise the cog-sci questions that our Mr. Hume is good at: What do people actually mean by any of this? Do they actually conduct their lives on the working assumption that the next stranger they meet may be an angel, a ghost, Satan, or a UFO crewman? (Ans: Obviously not.) How many could give a coherent account of the theory they reject? (Ans: Vanishingly few.) What does “believe” actually mean in this context? (Ans: Nothing very functional.)
Leaving aside the other items, I actually spent my childhood among people who believed in ghosts. They talked about them a lot. For some reason, mid-20th-century English people all had an I-swear-it’s-true ghost story they wanted to tell you, and ghost stories and ghost movies — here’s one of the best — were a staple of English pop culture in the 1940s and 1950s. The Monkey’s Paw was one of the first stories I ever knew (from hearing it on the radio circa 1950). I hardly ever hear present-day Americans talk like that, so I wonder how much substance there is to these beliefs.