By Andreas Hergovich, Reinhard Schott, and Martin Arendasy
A number of studies have examined the relationship between
paranormal belief and religiosity. In accordance with the hypothesis
that paranormal belief functions as a substitute for religious belief, some
authors have reported a negative relationship between paranormal belief
and measures of religious belief (Emmons & Sobal, 1981; Persinger &
Makarec, 1990; Beck & Miller, 2001). However, this negative relationship
could also be interpreted as a manifestation of rejection of at least some
paranormal beliefs (precognition and superstition) by the Catholic
Church (Goode, 2000; Sparks, 2001). In contrast to the substitution theory,
there exists the hypothesis that people who believe in angels or wondrous
healings also believe in other paranormal phenomena such as ghosts and
voodoo (Irwin, 1993; Rice, 2003). Thus, the paranormal is undoubtedly
a common characteristic of both religion and parapsychology, although
in our times the paranormal is probably losing its importance in most
religions. Related to the fact that the paranormal is common to religion
and parapsychology is the theory of a common worldview (Zusne & Jones,
1989). Religiosity and paranormal belief imply a belief in the existence
of phenomena that currently cannot be explained by science, be it
phenomena such as psi (extrasensory perception and psychokinesis) or
the belief in life after death or God. The acceptance of these phenomena
allows the believer to have a different worldview, one that shows the world
as being more humane and having greater meaning. Such an animistic
world does not obey mechanical scientific laws and is not reducible to
materialism. In line with this reasoning, some studies indicate a rather
small (around r = .20) but positive relationship between both constructs
(Haraldsson, 1981; Irwin, 1985; Goode, 2000). Thalbourne (2003) even
describes the substitution theory as an “urban myth” because in seven
out of nine studies he found positive correlations between paranormal
belief and religiosity (the coefficients were between r = .20 and r = .55).
For a German sample, Thalbourne and Houtkooper (2002) reported
a correlation of r = .54 between the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale and
Orenstein (2002) concluded that past studies could not clearly
show whether religious belief is related positively, negatively, or not at all to
A study by Thalbourne and O’Brien (1999) on Australian
participants shows that the direction of the relationship may depend
on the measurements selected. They obtained an almost significant
negative correlation (r = -.17) between the Australian Sheep-Goat Scale
(Thalbourne & Delin, 1993) and the Religion-Puritanism Scale from the
Wilson-Patterson Attitude Scale (Wilson, 1975), a correlation close to
zero with the subscale traditional religiosity (r = .07) from the Paranormal
Belief Scale (PBS, Tobacyk & Milford, 1983), and a significant and
positive coefficient with the religiosity scale of Haraldsson (derived from
Another reason why the previous results for the relationship
between religious belief and paranormal belief are difficult to compare
or generalise is the heterogeneity of the samples that were examined.
The samples differ not only with respect to ethnicity or nationality but
also, most importantly for this question, with respect to their religious
affiliation. For example, in the study by Thalbourne and O’Brien (1999),
the sample consisted mainly of Protestants; in a study by Thalbourne and
Hensley (2001), which reported a correlation of .30 between a religiosity
scale and the Icelandic Sheep-Goat Scale (Haraldsson, 1981), nearly one
third of the subjects from Washington University in St. Louis were Jewish,
Protestant, and Catholic, respectively. Other studies do not include
information concerning the religious affiliation of their sample, although
in some instances it can be guessed (e.g., Beck and Miller, 2001, who
found a negative relationship between paranormal belief and religiosity,
hinted that they recruited their subjects from a “Christian affiliated
institution”). Thalbourne and O’Brien (1999) analysed the influence of
current religious affiliations and showed that, aside from Spiritualists,
participants without religious affiliation had the highest belief in the
One aim of the current study was to assess the relationship
between religiosity and paranormal belief in a larger sample from Austria,
controlling for religious affiliation. The larger sample was used to ensure
that the different religious affiliations were represented, although it is
clear that in Austria, with its largely Catholic society, we would not get
an equal number of participants with a random sample. The other
purpose was to include not only different aspects of paranormal belief
but also different aspects of religious belief, such as intrinsic religiosity
and extrinsic religiosity, as was suggested by Sparks (2001). We had not
derived specific hypotheses for all variables investigated, but generally we
assumed that for participants without religious affiliation the relationship
between intrinsic religiosity and quest on the one hand and paranormal
belief on the other hand would be higher than for participants with
A total of 596 participants were selected for this study. They were
422 (70.8%) female and 174 (29.2%) male students from two universities
in Vienna: the Technical University (n = 126) and the main University of
Vienna (n = 470, of whom the majority, 64.8%, were psychology students).
The mean age of the total sample was 22.29, ranging from 18 to 65 (with
a standard deviation of 6.12). With respect to religious affiliation, 421
participants (70.6%) were Catholic; 92 (15.4%) were without religious
affiliation; 53 (8.9%) were Protestant; 20 (3.3%) were unspecified, other,
or single denominations (Taoist, Buddhist, Adventist, etc.); and 10 (1.7%)
All participants completed a questionnaire containing the PBS
(Tobacyk & Milford, 1983), the Intrinsic/Extrinsic Religiosity Scale of
Gorsuch and McPherson (1989) and the scale “quest” by Batson and
Schoenrade (1991) in German translation (Küpper & Bierhoff, 1999).
The PBS assesses paranormal belief across a wide domain, including
the subscales traditional religious belief (e.g., “There is a devil”; “There
is heaven and hell”), psi (e.g., “A person’s thoughts can influence the
movement of a physical object”), witchcraft (e.g., “Black magic really
exists”; “There are actual cases of death from Voodoo”), superstition (e.g.,
“Black cats can bring bad luck”; “If you break a mirror, you will have bad
luck”), spiritualism (e.g., “It is possible to communicate with the dead”;
“Reincarnation does occur”), extraordinary life forms (e.g., “The Loch
Ness monster of Scotland exists”; “Big Foot exists”), and precognition
(e.g., “Some people have the ability to predict the future”). The scale
consists of 25 items that are assessed on a 5-point scale. The scale intrinsic
religiosity is supposed to measure religiosity from inner conviction with
8 items on a 9-point Likert scale (sample item: “It is important for me
to devote time to personal thoughts and prayers”). Extrinsic religiosity
has an instrumental function as a source of well-being and consolation
and is measured with 6 items on a 9-point Likert scale (sample item: “I
go to church mainly to meet people I like”). Quest measures the degree
to which participants pose to themselves existential questions. The quest
scale consists of 12 items that are assessed on a 9-point Likert-scale (sample
item: “I persistently scrutinize my own religious convictions”).
Moreover, the sample was asked to specify socio-demographic
variables (age, sex) and attendance at church/religious gatherings. The
questionnaire also contained two single questions on 5-point Likert Scales
with regard to religious belief and paranormal belief (“How religious
would you describe yourself as being?” and “Do you believe in paranormal
calculated. The mean of the PBS was 71.01 (SD = 19.17) with a range from
25 to 121. The internal consistency (Cronbach’s Alpha) of the PBS was .91
for the whole sample. For the quest scale the mean was 59.47 (SD = 17.33)
with a range from 20 to 101. The internal consistency for quest was .83.
Intrinsic religiosity had a mean of 30.93 (SD = 13.21) with a range from 8 to
70. Cronbach’s Alpha was .81. For extrinsic religiosity the mean of the scale
was 17.15 (SD = 7.93), ranging from 6 to 43. The internal consistency was
.70. The correlations between the scales of religiosity (intrinsic religiosity,
extrinsic religiosity, quest, and traditional religiosity of the PBS) were not
significant except for the correlations between intrinsic and extrinsic
religiosity, r (594) = .52, p < .01, and between traditional religiosity and
quest, r (594) = .23, p < .01. For all variables, the assumption of normality
was satisfied, because the skewness of all variables was under 2 and the
kurtosis under 7 (Curran, West, & Finch, 1996).
A multivariate analysis of variance (MANOVA), with religious
affiliation (which contained only groups with a sufficient number of people
in our sample, i.e., Protestants, participants without religious affiliation,
and Catholics) as the independent variable, and the subscales of the PBS
(without traditional religious belief) as dependent variables, was calculated.
Although BOX M’s Test of multivariate normality was significant and the
number of participants in the groups was highly unequal, Mardia’s test
(DeCarlo, 1997) was not significant, suggesting that the violations are not
extreme. As a precaution, following the argumentation of Stevens (1996), we
selected the interpretation of the Pillai-Bartlett trace because of its greater
robustness against violations of the assumptions of multivariate normality
(Stevens, 1996). The results of the MANOVA revealed no significant
differences between the different religious affiliations, F (12, 1112) = 1.21,
Next, correlations between measures of religious belief and
paranormal belief were computed for the total sample (Table 1).
As can be seen, paranormal belief has substantial correlations with
self-reported religiosity (single question: “How religious would you describe
yourself as being?”). The correlation with the total score of the PBS (without
traditional religious belief) amounted to r (594) = .20, p < .001, and the
correlation with self-reported paranormal belief was r (594) = .22, p < .001.
For the PBS, the highest coefficients were found with the subscales psi and
spiritualism. Even higher correlations were recorded between traditional
religious belief (as part of the PBS) and the other PBS subscales.
(N = 566)
Quest Intrinsic Extrinsic Religiosity Church Tradit
*p < .05,**p < .01,***p < .001
index of religiosity as criterion and all subscales of paranormal belief
as predictors. Church: frequency of attendance of church/religious
gatherings; Religiosity: single question regarding religiosity; Tradit:
Quest Intrinsic Extrinsic Religiosity Church
Belief: single question regarding paranormal belief; Church: frequency
of attendance of church/religious gatherings; Religiosity: single question
regarding religiosity; Tradit: traditional religiosity.
Multiple correlations between the different indices of religiosity
and all aspects of paranormal belief revealed interesting results. (In Table
2, notice that the multiple correlations give no information on the direction
of the relationship, as the coefficients are necessarily positive.)
Not surprisingly, the relationship of paranormal belief to traditional
religiosity (which is part of the PBS) is the highest, and this is true for all
religious affiliations. For people without religious affiliation, paranormal
belief seems to be related to self-reported religiosity and intrinsic religiosity
(both coefficients are significantly higher than those of Catholics, p < .05;
the statistical comparison of the correlations follows Clauss & Ebner,
1982). For Protestants, on the other hand, the relationship with extrinsic
religiosity is stronger than for Catholics, multiple R (566) = .40 versus
R (566) = .12, p < .05. Apart from that, no differences are significant.
Regression analyses further clarified the type of relationship between
paranormal belief and religiosity with respect to religious affiliation. For
the regression analyses the criterion was the total score of the PBS (without
traditional religiosity). Predictors were self-reported religiosity, church
attendance, quest, and intrinsic respectively extrinsic religiosity. For the
total sample (n = 590), only self-reported religiosity (Beta = .24, p < .001)
and church attendance (Beta = .17, p < .01) were significant predictors of
paranormal belief, R (584) = .26, R
= .067, Durbin Watson = 1.84. For Catholics
(n = 419), as can be expected, the results were quite the same (self-reported
religiosity and church attendance were the only significant predictors of
paranormal belief). For Protestants (n = 52), self-reported religiosity (Beta
= .53, p < .01) and intrinsic religiosity (Beta = -.59, p < .01) were significant
predictors of paranormal belief, R(46) = .51, R
= .26, Durbin Watson = 2.26,
with intrinsic religiosity negatively related to paranormal belief. In contrast,
for participants without religious affiliation (n = 91), intrinsic religiosity was
the only, although positively related, significant predictor of paranormal
belief: Beta = .35, p < .05, R (85) = .45, R
= .20, Durbin Watson = 2.14.
(N = 421)
(N = 53)
p < .05,**p < .01,***p < .001
(N = 92)
Precognition .27** .24*
Tables 3-5 show in detail the correlations between the different
participants without religious affiliation, respectively.
Because the sample size was greater, many coefficients for the
Catholics are significant. Nevertheless, apart from traditional religiosity
(which possibly reflects response style, because these items were provided
within the questionnaire concerning paranormal belief), the relationship
between religiosity and paranormal belief seems not to be very high for
Catholics and Protestants. Confirming the results of the regression analyses,
for Protestants paranormal belief is to some extent negatively related to
intrinsic religiosity, and for participants without religious affiliation it
is the opposite. Participants without religious affiliation also reveal the
highest relationship between paranormal belief and intrinsic religiosity as
well as with self-reported religiosity. The correlation of the total score of
paranormal belief with intrinsic religiosity is r (90) = .42, p < .001 and with
self-reported religiosity, r (90) = .39, p < .001. Naturally, church attendance
or extrinsic religiosity plays no role for them.
In short, a moderate positive relationship was found between
paranormal belief and religiosity. The relationship was much stronger
for indices such as intrinsic religiosity or self-reported religiosity than
for measures of extrinsic religiosity (which show no correlations with
paranormal belief). If one compares the different religious affiliations, the
relationship between paranormal belief and religiosity is much higher for
participants without religious affiliation than for Catholics and Protestants.
(Protestants even show a negative relationship to paranormal belief, which
means the higher the intrinsic religiosity of Protestants, the lower is the
paranormal belief.) For these participants, intrinsic religiosity and self-
reported religiosity were, above all, strongly related to paranormal belief.
Studies previously undertaken to examine the relationship between
religiosity and paranormal belief have already been able to establish some
evidence of a positive relationship between these two constructs. The aim
of the current study was to consider different aspects of religiosity as well
as different aspects of paranormal belief. Another aim was to compare
the results with regard to religious affiliation. In contrast to some studies
(Beck & Miller, 2001; Emmons & Sobal, 1981), our results suggest an
overall positive relationship between traditional religiosity and the other
subscales of the PBS among Austrian students, especially with belief in
psi, spiritualism, and precognition, confirming the results of Haraldsson
(1981). Therefore, we conclude, contrary to Thalbourne and O’Brien
(1999), that the association between paranormal belief and religiosity is
not restricted to Iceland. However, it is necessary to exercise caution in
interpreting this result, as the high correlations among all subscales of
the PBS could also indicate the presence of answering in accordance with
response style. Aside from these results, for the entire sample, paranormal
belief is mainly related to self-reported religiosity (this is in line with
Thalbourne & Hensley, 2001) and to some extent also with the quest scale.
However, for Catholics the relationship to paranormal belief is small, as
it also is for Protestants, who even exhibit a negative correlation between
intrinsic religiosity and paranormal belief. Although participants without
religious affiliation report themselves as less religious, and although they
have the lowest values on all the religiosity scales (note, however, that only
extrinsic religiosity is significantly lower in comparison to Protestants and
Catholics), if they do believe in paranormal phenomena to some extent,
this belief is accompanied by religiosity (primarily intrinsic religiosity).
These results concerning the participants without religious affiliation are
partly in accordance with the hypothesis that paranormal belief functions
as a substitute for religious belief (Persinger & Makarec, 1990; Thalbourne
& O’Brien, 1999).
Perhaps past inconclusive results with respect to the relationship
between paranormal belief and religion can be explained by the fact
that most researchers either report correlations to support the thesis of a
relationship between paranormal belief and religiosity (such as Thalbourne
& Brien, 1999; Thalbourne & Hensley, 2001) or they report differences
between religious and nonreligious participants (such as Williams,
Taylor, & Hintze, 1989), but not both of the analyses (Tobacyk & Pirttilae-
Backman, 1992, are an exception). But from lower religiosity for believers
in paranormal phenomena it does not necessarily follow that on average
there is no relationship to paranormal belief. Thus, our results suggest a
modified version of the substitution hypothesis: for participants without
religious affiliation, paranormal belief is a possible substitute for traditional
religion, and if they report themselves as religious they believe across the
board in religion and the paranormal. But most of them believe neither in
paranormal phenomena (as is the case of people with a religious affiliation)
nor in a traditional religion; in all indices of religious belief, participants
without religious affiliation have the smallest values. In any case, it can be
assumed that people without religious affiliation do not differentiate much
between the contents of the paranormal and those of religion.
The results of our study underline that it is necessary to compare
different religious affiliations with regard to the relationship to paranormal
belief. They also show that both religiosity and paranormal belief are
multidimensional constructs that do not allow a simple answer to the
question of whether paranormal belief and religious belief are related.
Although we believe that our results can be generalized to some
extent, at least within Western societies, in some respects the validity of our
results is restricted to young students in Austria, who, despite the country’s
predominantly Catholic history, nowadays live in a rather secularized
cultural context and are not very religious in the traditional sense. It would
be interesting to see whether these results also hold for highly religious
people in the traditional meaning of the word. One other obvious limitation
of our research is that the group with a different religious orientation was
not of equal size to the others and that our sample did not contain enough
people of other major religions (e.g., Jews, Moslems, or Buddhists). Further
research is needed to accomplish this goal.
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