Re-examining religious and paranormal beliefs in mid-1970s Britain

A recent YouGov survey shed interesting light on levels of religious beliefs and other forms of belief in contemporary Britain. This BRIN post takes a historical turn by analysing one of the few available surveys enabling assessment of religious and paranormal beliefs in Britain the post-war period. The analysis is based on a Gallup opinion poll undertaken in May 1975, based on a sample of adults aged 16 and older in Britain. The dataset and accompanying documentation for this survey were obtained from the United Kingdom Data Service. Taken as a whole, post-war Gallup polling in Britain provides an important resource for studying change and continuity in popular religion (for more information see Field, 2015a).

This survey dataset is particularly useful because it allows analysis of the relationship between religious and paranormal beliefs in the British public, and the nature of the association between them. For example, was the relationship between religious and paranormal beliefs tending towards a mutually-exclusive one, in which the holding of the former tended to preclude affirmation of the latter? On the other hand, did individuals subscribe to a mixture of religious or paranormal beliefs and – perhaps – were those who held religious beliefs more likely – than those who did not – to believe in paranormal phenomena? Analysis of this survey can hopefully tell us something about the incidence, patterning and overlap of the two types of belief in mid-1970s Britain.

First, Table 1 shows the distribution of responses for religious and paranormal beliefs, based on the distinction between ‘traditional religious’ and ‘non-traditional religious beliefs’ set out in Gill et al. (1998) and Gill (2003).[i] Field uses a distinction between ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’ beliefs in his recent book on religious change in Britain during the ‘long 1950s’, with the former set of beliefs coming within the ‘framework of traditional Christianity’ (2015b: 74). For each belief, Table 1 shows the proportions responding ‘yes’, ‘no’ or ‘don’t know’. The survey asked about five religious beliefs and eleven paranormal beliefs.

The most prevalent religious belief was in God (71%), followed by believing in heaven (50%). Three other religious beliefs were subscribed to by varying minorities (around a third for life after death, and one fifth for belief in the devil and in hell). Overall, expressed belief in paranormal phenomena varied markedly in British society in the mid-1970s, highest at 51% for being able to forecast (and 48% for thought transference) and lowest at 12% for black magic (and 13% for exchanging messages with the dead). The proportions saying they did not know also varied across the different belief items – highest at 22% for life after death (religious beliefs) and 20% for reincarnation (paranormal beliefs).

 

Table 1: Overall profile of religious and paranormal beliefs

  Yes

(%)

No

(%)

Don’t know (%)
Traditional religious beliefs
God 71 17 12
Heaven 50 36 14
Life after death 35 43 22
Devil 20 72 9
Hell 19 72 9
Classic paranormal beliefs
Being able to forecast 51 36 13
Thought transference 48 37 15
Faith healing 43 42 15
Hypnotism 41 48 10
Horoscopes 28 66 7
Reincarnation 23 58 20
UFOs 20 66 14
Lucky charms 20 75 5
Ghosts 18 72 10
Black magic 13 79 8
Exchanging messages 12 77 11

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

Note: Percentages rounded and sum across the rows. Distinction amongst types of belief based on that used in Gill et al. (1998) and Gill (2003).

 

Beliefs and sociodemographic groups

The next step in the analysis is to move beyond profiling overall levels of belief and to look at levels of belief across different social groups. Table 2 reports the proportion within each sociodemographic group saying they believe in each religious belief.  Tables 3(a) and 3(b) do the same for the set of paranormal beliefs.

The more notable areas of difference for religious belief concern sex, age group and religious affiliation. Religious beliefs, in mid-1970s Britain, were always more common amongst women than men (82% and 60%, respectively, expressed belief in God; 59% and 39%, respectively, expressed belief in heaven). Some beliefs were generally more common amongst older, as compared to younger, age groups (God and heaven). Based on religious affiliation, unsurprisingly religious beliefs were much more likely to be subscribed to amongst those with some form of denominational allegiance  (highest amongst Catholics). Those with no religious affiliation exhibited some level of religious belief (a quarter said they believed in God and nearly a fifth believed in in life after death). There are somewhat variant results for levels of belief based on social grade, and the marked difference in belief in God and heaven based on age completed education needs to factor in the tendency for who finished at an earlier age being drawn from the older generations in society.

 

Table 2: Religious beliefs by socio-demographic group (percent saying ‘yes’)

God Heaven Hell Devil Life after death
Overall 71 50 19 20 35
Men 60 39 15 16 26
Women 82 59 23 23 44
Aged 16-24 66 41 21 21 33
Aged 25-34 60 43 16 19 31
Aged 35-44 69 47 18 20 30
Aged 45-54 74 49 17 16 33
Aged 55-64 81 58 20 23 37
Aged 65+ 83 65 23 20 46
*Education: 14 or under 80 59 19 18 38
Education: 15 66 43 17 18 30
Education: 16 71 51 20 23 31
Education: 17 66 48 26 26 44
Education: 18 or over 60 35 22 20 42
Social grade: AB 67 48 27 27 38
Social grade: C1 66 45 17 18 35
Social grade: C2 71 48 19 18 34
Social grade: DE 77 56 19 20 36
Church of England 76 52 17 16 34
Church of Scotland 80 57 10 10 40
Nonconformist 84 57 23 20 56
Catholic 87 78 43 44 40
Other religion 67 50 35 36 38
No religion 22 7 6 9 18

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May  1975.

*Refers to the age at which a respondent completed their full-time education.

Belief in paranormal phenomena also varied across social groups in Britain in the mid-1970s, as shown in Tables 3(a) and 3(b). As with religious beliefs, women were more likely than men to hold paranormal beliefs (most marked in relation to horoscopes; the exception being belief in UFOs).The patterns of age groups show that younger people were more predisposed to express belief in some paranormal phenomena, and the oldest age group (65 and over) were least likely to do so for some of these beliefs. These age-related differences are particularly evident for belief in black magic, ghosts, hypnotism and UFOs, with younger people expressing higher levels of belief than older people. On the other hand, belief in faith healing tended to be higher amongst older age groups.

Based on religious belonging, there is no consistent pattern for those with no affiliation to be clearly more likely to profess belief in the paranormal. For many beliefs, they are eclipsed by those belonging to particular Christian denominations (or affiliated with some other religious group). As with religious beliefs, there were no consistent differences for social grade. Paranormal belief did tend to be higher amongst those who completed their education later on.

 

Table 3(a): Paranormal beliefs by sociodemographic group (percent saying ‘yes’)

Reincarnation Hypnotism Black magic Horoscopes Thought Transference
Overall 23 41 13 28 48
Men 19 40 12 15 43
Women 26 42 14 39 52
Aged 16-24 25 50 23 31 48
Aged 25-34 20 54 17 26 53
Aged 35-44 16 48 11 23 44
Aged 45-54 21 40 12 31 50
Aged 55-64 26 33 9 28 52
Aged 65+ 27 20 6 27 40
*Education: 14 or under 25 28 7 30 45
Education: 15 17 42 12 24 39
Education: 16 21 52 16 29 55
Education: 17 34 62 30 22 50
Education: 18 or over 25 59 23 28 65
Social grade: AB 25 54 17 20 59
Social grade: C1 22 48 15 22 58
Social grade: C2 22 43 13 25 44
Social grade: DE 23 31 11 38 40
Church of England 24 42 13 29 49
Church of Scotland 25 35 7 42 35
Nonconformist 25 35 9 29 57
Catholic 24 35 10 21 46
Other religion 29 47 21 35 55
No religion 9 48 17 17 39

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

*Refers to the age at which a respondent completed their full-time education.

 

Table 3(b): Paranormal beliefs by sociodemographic group (percent saying ‘yes’)

Ghosts UFOs Faith healing Being able to forecast Lucky charms Exchanging messages
Overall 18 20 43 51 20 12
Men 16 24 38 45 14 11
Women 20 16 47 56 26 13
Aged 16-24 28 28 38 57 25 15
Aged 25-34 22 24 38 58 18 12
Aged 35-44 14 20 35 49 13 7
Aged 45-54 23 22 51 44 25 16
Aged 55-64 12 12 51 52 23 10
Aged 65+ 7 10 45 45 16 10
*Education: 14 or under 12 13 46 46 23 13
Education: 15 18 20 38 52 18 10
Education: 16 19 25 39 55 17 9
Education 17 26 26 38 58 12 12
Education: 18 or over 33 31 50 58 19 20
Social grade: AB 16 23 44 50 16 12
Social grade: C1 22 23 50 57 14 13
Social grade: C2 19 20 38 49 19 10
Social grade: DE 15 17 42 49 27 13
Church of England 20 21 47 54 24 12
Church of Scotland 10 8 33 40 12 8
Nonconformist 16 13 49 56 11 9
Catholic 18 21 29 50 20 11
Other religion 21 26 53 59 26 22
No religion 15 22 32 34 7 10

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

*Refers to the age at which a respondent completed their full-time education.

 

Table 4 sheds some light on the crossover of religious and paranormal beliefs amongst the British public in the mid-1970s by showing levels of paranormal belief based on responses to the religious belief questions. That is, we can compare levels of belief in the paranormal amongst those who did or who did not express belief in God, in heaven, and so on.The association between religious and paranormal beliefs

When individuals are grouped by belief in God, belief in the paranormal tended to be highest amongst those who expressed believed in God; not those who expressed disbelief in God. The same pattern is evident when individuals are grouped based on belief (or not) in heaven, in hell, in the devil and in life after death. In other words, there is no obvious basis for saying that religious and paranormal beliefs tended to be mutually exclusive belief systems amongst many individuals. In actual fact, those who held religious beliefs were more likely than those who did not to express belief in a range of paranormal phenomena. Of course, often significant proportions of those who did not subscribe to particular religious did affirm belief in paranormal phenomena, but usually they were outranked by those who did hold common religious beliefs.

 

Table 4: Paranormal beliefs by religious beliefs (percent saying ‘yes’)

  Hypnotism Black magic Horoscopes Thought transference Ghosts UFOs
God Yes 39 13 31 50 20 20
No 45 14 18 41 13 17
Heaven Yes 36 13 33 51 20 21
No 44 13 21 43 15 19
Hell Yes 45 22 36 61 32 29
No 39 10 25 45 14 18
Devil Yes 45 26 36 61 36 27
No 39 9 26 44 13 17
Life after death Yes 49 18 37 61 29 24
No 34 10 22 37 9 15
Faith healing Being able to forecast Lucky charms Exchanging messages Reincarnation
God Yes 48 52 23 14 29
No 28 50 12 5 8
Heaven Yes 50 55 26 15 36
No 32 47 14 8 9
Hell Yes 55 60 25 24 44
No 39 49 19 9 19
Devil Yes 56 61 28 26 39
No 39 48 19 8 19
Life after death Yes 58 63 25 22 43
No 31 44 18 7 10

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

 

Table 5 looks at the association between these types of belief in reverse: that is, it shows levels of religious belief based on ‘yes’ and ‘no’ responses to the questions on paranormal belief. So, for example, of those who expressed a belief in hypnotism, 68% expressed belief in God, compared to 75% of those who did not believe in hypnotism (and so on).

 

Table 5: Religious beliefs by paranormal beliefs (percent saying ‘yes’)

  God Heaven Hell Devil Life after death
Hypnotism Yes 68 44 21 22 42
No 75 55 17 16 29
Black magic Yes 68 48 32 38 48
No 72 50 16 16 33
Horoscopes Yes 79 60 25 25 47
No 68 46 16 17 30
Thought transference Yes 75 53 25 25 45
No 70 47 13 13 25
Ghosts Yes 79 55 34 39 56
No 71 49 15 15 30
UFOs Yes 72 54 28 27 43
No 73 51 17 18 35
Faith healing Yes 79 58 25 26 47
No 65 45 15 14 25
Being able to forecast Yes 73 53 23 23 43
No 73 50 15 16 28
Lucky charms Yes 83 64 24 28 44
No 68 47 18 17 33
Exchanging messages Yes 82 63 38 42 66
No 71 49 17 17 31
Reincarnation Yes 92 79 37 34 67
  No 64 39 13 15 23

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

 

A belief typology

Given Tables 4-5 presented the finely-grained detail of how paranormal beliefs are associated with religious beliefs and vice versa, it is helpful to try and distil the essence of this messy and complex association between different types of belief. As a final step in profiling the nature of belief in the British population in mid-1970s, belief indices for religious and paranormal beliefs were computed (based on all of the different beliefs utilised above), in order to arrive at an overall typology of belief. This was undertaken based on the procedures and category labels set out in Rice (2003: 103-104).[ii] Producing two separate belief indices and then looking at the association between them produces a four-fold typology of belief (‘sceptics’; ‘classic paranormal believers’; ‘traditional religious believers’; ‘full believers’), and allows us, in broad terms, to see the proportions contained within each belief type. The results of this analysis are shown in Table 6 (for all individuals) and in Tables 7-8 (respectively, for women and men).

 

Table 6: Belief typology (ALL)

Tend not to believe in traditional religious phenomena Tend to believe in traditional religious phenomena

 

Tend not to believe in classic paranormal Sceptics: 52% Traditional religious believers: 24%
Tend to believe in classic paranormal phenomena Classic paranormal believers: 10% Full believers: 14%

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

Note: Based on the analytical procedures set out in Rice (2003: 103-104), and using the same category labels.

 

We can say that in the mid-1970s – and probably rather surprisingly – about half (52%) could be categorised as ‘sceptics’ – that is, they tended not to believe in traditional religious beliefs and paranormal beliefs, on the basis of the typology constructed based on Rice’s procedures (2003). One in ten (10%) tended to believe in only paranormal phenomena, outranked by the larger share who were ‘traditional religious believers’ (24%). When the belief typology is reproduced for women and men separately, we can see that women were more likely to have ‘full believers’ and ‘traditional religious believers’, and less likely to have been ‘sceptics’. There was no difference in the proportion of ‘classic paranormal believers’ amongst women and men. Again, it should be noted that this typology is based on a single snapshot of popular beliefs from a one post-war survey – of course the results could well be different if varied sets of religious and paranormal beliefs were used; and a more nuanced typology could be applied to the data.

 

Table 7: Belief typology (WOMEN)

Tend not to believe in traditional religious phenomena Tend to believe in traditional religious phenomena

 

Tend not to believe in classic paranormal Sceptics: 42% Traditional religious believers: 30%
Tend to believe in classic paranormal phenomena Classic paranormal believers: 10% Full believers: 19%

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

Note: Based on the analytical procedures set out in Rice (2003: 103-104), and using the same category labels.

 

Table 8: Belief typology (MEN)

Tend not to believe in traditional religious phenomena Tend to believe in traditional religious phenomena

 

Tend not to believe in classic paranormal Sceptics: 64% Traditional religious believers: 18%
Tend to believe in classic paranormal phenomena Classic paranormal believers: 10% Full believers: 9%

Source: Author’s analysis of Gallup opinion poll, May 1975.

Note: Based on the analytical procedures set out in Rice (2003: 103-104), and using the same category labels.

 

Summary

The empirical results reported above showed that, overall, religious and paranormal beliefs were subscribed to by varying segments of the adult population in mid-1970s Britain. In terms of belief across different social groups, women were consistently more likely affirm belief in both religious tenets and paranormal phenomena. The results for the belief typology showed that, in more general terms, women were more likely to have been ‘full believers’ and ‘traditional religious believers’ than men.

Of course, analysing a single survey from the mid-1970s (and no claims are made here that this period is – or is not – of particular note for studying religious change in general or beliefs in particular in post-war Britain) provides a very limited window into the incidence, patterning and overlap of religious and paranormal beliefs within the British public in the post-war period. However, given the coverage of both types of belief in the survey – generally not available in other survey datasets available to academic researchers, certainly those held at the UKDS – the modest empirical findings presented and discussed here may offer some nuggets of interest to sociologists of religion and social historians focusing on the British context, however time-bound the analysis may be. Replicating this exercise using a contemporary sample survey of the British adult population, with suitable coverage of both religious and paranormal beliefs, may shed some light on areas of change in popular belief across the intervening decades.

 

References and further reading

Clements, B. (2016), Surveying Christian Beliefs and Religious Debates in Post-War Britain. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Field C. D. (2015a), Religion in Great Britain, 1939-99: A Compendium of Gallup Poll Data. BRIN Working Papers on Religious Statistics. Working Paper 2. February 2015. Available at: http://www.brin.ac.uk/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/Religion-in-Great-Britain-1939-99-A-Compendium-of-Gallup-Poll-Data.pdf

Field, C. D. (2015b), Britain’s Last Religious Revival? Quantifying Belonging, Behaving, and Believing in the Long 1950s. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Gill, R. (2003), The Empty Church Revisited. London: Ashgate.

Gill, R., Kirk Hadaway, C. and Marler, P. L. (1998), ‘Is Religious Belief Declining in Britain?’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 37(3): 507-516.

Rice, T. W. (2003), ‘Believe It Or Not: Religious and Other Paranormal Beliefs in the United States’, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 42(1): 95-106.

Social Surveys (Gallup Poll) Limited. Gallup Poll, May 1975. [data collection]. UK Data Service. SN: 1330, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-1330-1.

[i] For ‘non-traditional religious beliefs’ Gill et al (1998) noted that: ‘These items reflect a heterodox collection of ideas with decidedly cultic and “pre-Christian’ connotations. They are often disparaged as “superstitious.” Such beliefs may also connect to more recent new religious or “new age” movements with antiinstitutional, nonmaterialistic, and nonrational features’ (512).

[ii] The religious belief index was created by adding up responses towards the five religious beliefs and the paranormal belief index was created by adding up responses towards the eleven paranormal beliefs. For each individual in the sample, a value of 1 was assigned for each phenomenon they did not believe in (‘yes’ responses) and a value of 2 for each phenomenon they did believe in (‘no responses’). ‘Don’t know’ responses were assigned a value of 1.5. The indices ranged from 5-10 for the religious beliefs and 11-22 for the paranormal beliefs. Both indices were then divided into two categories. For the religious belief index, scores of 5–7.5 were given the value of 1 and scores of 8-10 were given the value of 2. For the paranormal belief index, scores of 11-16.5 were given the value of 1 and scores of 17-22 were given the value of 2. For more information, and to see this analysis undertaken for beliefs in the United States, see Rice (2003: 103-104).


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