Only 48 percent of Australians say they believe in ghosts or the possibility they may exist, but 69 percent say the same for the soul, according to new research.
The survey of 1000 people, conducted by McCrindle Research for the Center for Public Christianity, asked respondents about their openness to the existence of various spiritual realities: ghosts, miracles, angels, a higher power / God, soul, ultimate meaning or purpose in life, and life after death.
The results show that, as a nation, we may not be as skeptical as we think.
In an interview in 2005, poet Les Murray was asked how comfortable he felt to be “the voice of an eccentric Australian, a rural poet speaking for urban culture, a Roman Catholic speaking for a largely secular people”. He replied:
I just speak the way it is. I’m a Catholic and I don’t believe that other people are secular. I think most intellectuals are secular or are asked to pretend. But the wider range varies greatly …
This new survey supports Murray’s intuition.
For example, on the miracle question: about a third of people (31.2 percent) answered “I believe it exists”; nearly a third (29.1 percent) said “I am open to the possibility that this exists”. Some chose to be “unsure” or “impossible,” but only 13.8 percent were willing to say they did not believe there were miracles.
The young and the restless
Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the youngest age group – 18-26 years – who expressed the most openness to immateriality: 49 percent said they believed in the soul, and 48 percent in life after death (in both cases, the other 28 percent were open to the possibility of ).
The percentage that said “I believe this doesn’t exist” about any option never rose to double digits for this cohort (9 percent for ghosts, only 4 percent for life after death).
In contrast, the oldest age group (76+) was much more skeptical: a full 40 percent said they didn’t believe in ghosts, and 28 percent denied the possibility of life after death.
The gender gap isn’t that surprising for some. Men on average are twice as likely as women to tick the “I believe this doesn’t exist” box.
When it comes to the existence of God or a higher power, men and women say they believe in or open to him on almost the same level. But the rest, women are more willing to express faith: 50 percent to 38 percent for the soul, 38 percent to 30 percent for the afterlife, 34 percent to 26 percent for angels.
It follows a continuing trend, across a number of religions and cultures, that associates women with a higher level of religiosity and sees atheists leaning towards men. American sociologist of religion Rodney Stark thought:
Every religious movement I’ve seen is disproportionately female … we don’t quite understand why, even though my student Alan Miller has a brilliant insight in saying, we have to stop asking why women are more likely to be religious and ask why men are more likely no religion. And she suggests that, why are men more likely to be criminals? Likewise, risk-taking, petty behavior, and men are more susceptible to it. It might even be biological for all we know.
Australians are the most united (as we can see at comparable survey elsewhere) in the ideas we have or are soul – that we are more than just what our bodies are made of.
Overall, 69.7 percent of respondents said they believed in or were open to the existence of the soul, with 14.7 percent unsure, 5.7 percent considering it impossible, and 9.9 percent saying they did not believe the soul existed.
While the concept of the soul may be traditionally embedded in religious belief systems, the fact that belief in or openness to it persists at a higher level than related concepts such as God (57.9 percent) or life after death (59.6 percent) suggests that it touches something. which is important to 21st century Australians, especially young people.
Jamaican theologian J. Richard Middleton explains that the popularly understood soul – often as a kind of essential self, distinct from the body – is more of an ancient Greek idea than a Christian one. The account help us understand why it might be interesting today:
For Plato, I think, the idea of the soul is a point of stability and universality in the world. Since the world is a flux, everything disappears, but the soul is the immaterial part of you that never changes – it’s just that I s You, and it’s immortal. I think people need something that is out of this world to cling to, something transcendent. And if you don’t have God, you will find a substitute. I think the soul serves as a substitute for God in our world, as something to cling to.
Negative views can interpret our attachment to the soul in accordance with the narcissism of contemporary life; a more generous person might see in the data the outline of the intuition that is ingrained in us problem, regardless of how fragile and short our lives are.
Middleton is candid about where he thinks we will find what we are looking for: “I think go to the real source, seek God. The soul is pale second best, in my opinion.”
This doesn’t mean that people have to be closed to old sources. In a separate question, respondents were asked about their views this Easter on claims that Jesus Christ has risen from the dead: 23.6 percent said they believe this happened; 15.8 percent believed not. Others thought it was possible (19.7 percent) or impossible (12.8 percent).
But the most popular answer, 28.3 percent, was “I don’t know.” There is humility that Les Murray might appreciate. As he wrote in his poem, the Church:
Desire to be right
Has decomposed in large quantities
But some come to God
Hope is wrong.
Natasha Moore is a researcher at the Center for Public Christianity.