Are Americans becoming less religious? While church affiliation is probably declining, don't expect the atheist revolution anytime soon:
Over one half (63 percent, to be exact) of young Americans 18-29 years old now believe in the notion that invisible, non-corporeal entities called "demons" can take partial or total control of human beings, revealed an October 2012 Public Policy Polling survey that also showed this belief isn't declining among the American population generally; it's growing.
Throughout last year, triumphal atheists and secularists had celebrated (and many of the religiously-inclined bemoaned) a 2012 survey, from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, which showed an increase, especially among young adults, in the number of Americans who declared no specific religious affiliation: a chunk of the population now up to almost 20 percent according to the survey. These Americans were dubbed the "nones."
The Pew survey finding was interpreted by some observers (who missed the fine print) as indicating that Americans are becoming less religious. But the survey didn't necessarily indicate that -- it simply showed that Americans, young Americans especially, are dropping out of organized religion.
Here's where it gets interesting: the Pew survey also showed that a whopping 85 percent of those "nones," Americans with no specific religious affiliation -- who comprise almost twenty percent of the overall population -- nonetheless had spiritual or supernatural beliefs and, as the October 2012 Public Policy Polling survey (link to PDF of survey results) revealed, that included belief in the reality of demons.
In the lead-up to the 2012 election liberal media pounced on the PPP survey's revelation that 68 percent of Republicans evinced belief in demon possession. The finding was ridiculed as scandalous and characteristic of an alleged Republican Party disconnect from reality.
Now, PPP was among the top five polling firms in terms of accuracy in forecasting the 2012 election results, so there is good reason to take the survey finding seriously.
But critics of the GOP who used the survey to attack Republicans typically missed or ignored the fact that PPP's survey also showed that 49 percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independent voters believed in demon possession too. In other words, a majority of Americans surveyed believed in demon possession.
And, PPP's survey revealed another astonishing fact; belief in demon possession seems to be growing.
While only 44% of Americans over 65 years of age surveyed by PPP believed in demon possession, 57% of Americans 47-65 did and, among the youngest group surveyed, Americans 18-29, 63% believed in demon possession. The demographic trend line seems obvious.
Just to make things perfectly clear, the Public Policy Polling survey was "Halloween-centric" -- also polling beliefs about ghosts and haunted houses. So it was unlikely that respondents thought the survey's question about demons, "Do you think it's possible for people to become possessed by demons, or not?," was asking about symbolic or figurative demons.
The PPP survey was asking respondents whether or not people could literally be possessed by evil spirits, in the style of actress Linda Blair, from the 1973 horror film The Exorcist.
We've been here before, of course:
During the 14th Century, in Germany, the populations of entire Jewish towns were massacred for an alleged Jewish role in spreading plague and, more generally, partnering with the devil. The massacres didn't stop the plague.
And consider the Salem Witch Trials: in that notorious episode of mass-hysteria, from 1692-1693 in Puritan New England hundreds of people were accused of witchcraft. Nineteen were hung. One, Giles Corey, was pressed to death by stones.
It's reported that around the same time, in North Andover, Massachusetts -- the true epicenter of the witch craze -- at least one dog was tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft.
Don't such fevers of irrationality lie safely in the past ?
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, many fundamentalists and conservative charismatic evangelicals came to the conclusion that the tumult of the 1960s and all that came with it -- the Civil Rights Movement, opposition to the Vietnam War, the women's liberation movement, the incipient gay rights movement, the hippie counterculture and rock music, the rise in crime that began almost exactly when the Beatles set foot on America's shores in 1964, civil unrest and riots in America's cities, and all the other challenges to orthodoxy -- stemmed from a underlying metaphysical cause:
Underneath of the tumult was, literally, a spiritual invasion. During the 1960s, a wave of invading demons had gained a beachhead on America's shores like the Allied troops storming France's Normandy beaches in 1944, and by the 1970s they were taking possession of individuals in massive numbers and even seizing whole geographic areas.
Wrote Texas megachurch pastor John Hagee in his 1973 book Invasion of Demons: The Battle Between God and Satan in Our Time,
"It is an invasion of demons, and is being spread like wildfire through the occult practices sweeping America in a satanic revival with demons for evangelists."
Hagee was no cultural outlier. By the 1990s his books were selling in the millions and his sermons went out on evangelical broadcast networks with global reach. In 2008, Republican Presidential nominee John McCain aggressively sought his political endorsement.
By the 1980s, "satanic panic" burst out from evangelical subculture into the secular mainstream amidst allegations that a vast, shadowy conspiracy of satan worshipers was preying on America's children. Beginning in 1982 in California's Kern County, based on a wave of legal cases sent dozens of men and women, accused of inflicting satanic ritual sexual abuse on children
Now, in our thoroughly modern era according to the Military Religious Freedom Foundation --a nonprofit which fights for the freedom-of-worship and freedom-of-belief rights of United States military personnel-- literature associating Jews with the devil is being distributed by military chaplains, on United States military bases and naval ships.
And witchcraft ? Consider: as of when she was picked by presidential candidate John McCain, 2008 Republican vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was a personal friend to not one but two professed witch hunters, apostles in a charismatic movement now sweeping global Christianity, whose leaders promote the need to fight witches and battle "territorial demons" believes to influence cities, and even whole geographic regions.
The notion that demonic forces, and people associated with them, are behind both personal tragedies and collective societal misfortune is not one that humanity, or at least America, has left behind.
But don't take that from me.
Any given day of the week, one can find televangelists proclaiming that this school massacre wasn't due to mental illness and easy access to assault weapons and high capacity magazines; and that destructive hurricane wasn't potentiated by global warming. No, such misfortunes stem from God's wrath at gay marriage and a lack of prayer in public schools.
Aren't those fringe beliefs ? Not really. Not any more.
The outgoing Chair of the House Science Committee thinks global warming is a massive hoax perpetrated by scientists, to get funding, and claims humans can't influence the weather, stating in 2011, "I don't think we can control what God controls."
A current Science Committee member thinks humans and dinosaurs cohabited the Earth and declares the Big Bang, evolution, and the science of embryology to be "lies straight from the pit of hell."
Isn't this just a case of a few misguided Republicans who somehow slipped through the cracks ?
Over the last year I've read countless opinion pieces, some from thinkers I deeply respect, lamenting an alleged rising irrationality on the American right and in the Republican Party.
Despite the alleged trend, a popular counter-narrative claims that rational thinking -- non-supernaturally-based modes of thought -- is simultaneously increasing among Americans in general.
But that may not be true at all; if you believe that your fellow citizens are becoming more rational you may be victim of a nasty phenomenon called incestuous amplification.
In short, incestuous amplification is a feedback loop in which propaganda (or bad information) is taken as truth (good information). The result is that people caught in this amplification loop become increasingly detached from reality or make faulty decisions because their underlying beliefs have become corrupted by the incestuous amplification process.
This is happening both on the American left and right, only in different ways.
Here's what I mean by that: people on the left have become increasingly aware that opinion leaders on the right (such as Rush Limbaugh) and members of the Republican Party are promoting ideas that are simply not grounded in empirically-determined fact.
For example, during the 2012 election at least one race for a U.S. Senate seat hinged upon a claim, by the Republican contender, that women who were raped could shut down their reproductive processes; thus, they would not become pregnant, if raped, unless they wanted to become pregnant.
As it turned out, that notion was grounded in medical thinking from the 13th or 14th Century, during which time people were also being burned alive, for witchcraft.
But this growing awareness doesn't seem to translate into knowledge of the very well funded and organized national-level movement, among politicized American right-wing Christianity, which is promoting such beliefs and has the power to shut down, for a few weeks at least, the government of the most powerful nation on Earth. Or, for that matter, loft one of its own into the race for the vice presidency of the United States:
Perhaps the greatest failure of our media establishment during the 2008 election was the failure to probe Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin's friendship with two religious leaders who had publicly boasted of hunting witches.
But perhaps that was to the good, because if news of Palin's ties to the New Apostolic Reformation had emerged, liberals and progressives might have become even more smug about their supposed grounding in evidence-based reality.
Since the mid-1980s, mainstream media has been noisily proclaiming the death of the religious right as a political movement, and poorly-informed mainstream media pundits downplay the influence of dominionism in American politics, even as some of the most prominent Senators in the GOP are publicly anointed to help "take dominion" over all sectors of society.
Many liberals and progressives believe in these factually-challenged narratives.
Meanwhile, during the current session of Congress, Republicans who reject the theory of Evolution and the reality of man-made climate change now sit on the science committees of the wealthiest and most militarily powerful nation on earth. Partisans of the religious right dominate entire U.S. states.
The religious right movement is gradually siphoning off funding from American public schools, redirecting that money to religious schools that teach from textbooks which reject Evolution, teach Young Earth creationism, and portray LGBT teens as hated by God and damned to hell -- as covered in the October 2013 issue of Rolling Stone magazine, in The Hidden War Against Gay Teens.
The movement is vacuuming billions of dollars each year through various federal funding streams -- for example, 1) through the George W. Bush-founded Faith Based Initiative, which continues under the Presidency of Barack Obama and gives money directly to churches and religious nonprofits, some of which practice faith-based discrimination; 2) through federal funding which pays for students to attend Young Earth creationist, biblical literalist, gay rights-unfriendly schools such as Jerry Falwell's Liberty University and Pat Robertson's Regent University; 3) annual USAID funding for international aid, which under George W. Bush was shifted from secular nonprofits to religious ones.
Most of these entities receiving such government money hold open at least the possibility that demon possession can cause various maladies, both physical and psychological -- including the alleged malady of non-heterosexual orientation.
But government largesse is far from the only factor, let alone the most important one, driving the growing belief in demons and demon possession. Besides the promotion of such ideas in charismatic churches across the nation, belief in demon casting gets promoted in breathless, shallow sensationalistic and almost wholly uncritical broadcasts from mainstream media, such as the Oprah network -- which has aired sympathetic footage of exorcist and faith healer Todd Bentley, who in the recent past has claimed to heal people, up onstage, by punching and kicking them with his biker boots, and National Geographic, which in October 2012 ran a credulous episode on exorcism featuring virulently anti-LGBT exorcists Kimberly Daniels, now an elected Jacksonville, FL city council member, and Bob Larsen (whose three comely female "teen exorcists" were also featured in a September 2013 BBC Vanguard segment), whose recently exorcism tour in the Ukraine was facilitated by the church network of charismatic apostolic church leader Alexey Ledyaev, who in turn has promoted the book The Pink Swastika by American evangelist Scott Lively.
Lively is currently being sued for "active participation in the conspiracy to strip away fundamental rights from LGBTI persons" the African country of Uganda. Lively's book The Pink Swastika claims that Hitler and top Nazis were homosexual and presents the Holocaust as an outgrowth of alleged homosexual psychopathology.
"Her avowed "demonbuster" persona includes performing exorcisms to cast out demons alleged to cause homosexuality, drug abuse, and insanity, claims that "the Jews own everything!" and that President Obama is part of a Harvard-based Illuminati plot, and a declaration of being grateful for the historical institution of American slavery without which, according to Kim Daniels, "I might be somewhere in Africa worshiping a tree." "
Such beliefs on the pervasive presence of demons in daily life, promoted by influential American evangelicals such as New Apostolic Reformation leader C. Peter Wagner and former Foursquare Church head Jack Hayford (who gave the closing prayer at the 54th Inaugural Prayer Service for President George W. Bush, in 2001, at the Washington National Cathedral) may be exerting a less-than wholesome effect on African evangelical culture:
In November 2012, one of the more influential publications in the world of American charismatic Christianity, Charisma magazine, published an article titled "Can You Be Raped by the Devil?" which explained,
"The two most identifiable sexual demons are the incubus, which is a male sexual demon that traditionally assaults women, and the succubus, which is a female sexual demon that assaults men. Sometimes they also lure people into homosexual behavior."
Only a few days later, across the Atlantic in Africa, the government controlled Ugandan news service New Vision revealed lurid details of a Ugandan woman whose marriage was described as "on the verge of collapsing" due to the nightly attacks of a sex demon.
C. Peter Wagner, Jack Hayford, Kimberly Daniels, and Todd Bentley are all part of the demon-obsessed charismatic neo-Pentecostal movement known as the New Apostolic Reformation, whose apostles and prophets have blessed and anointed numerous Republican political candidates -- such as 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin and 2011 presidential hopeful Rick Perry.
In 2003, the demonology-laced book Out Of Africa, co-edited by Wagner, featured contributions from internationally influential, rising Nigerian evangelists in Wagner's movement such as E.A. Adeboye -- credited by some as being the 49th most influential person on Earth.
In Uganda, Wagner's movement claims participation of top leaders in Uganda's two main born-again and Pentecostal umbrella groups, which are actively working to incite anti-LGBT sentiment in Uganda, where since 2009 a bill has loomed before Uganda's parliament that in its original version would mandate the death penalty for repeat acts of homosexuality and compel all Ugandan citizens to report suspected homosexuals to authorities or else face three-year prison sentences.