A Lot of Americans Think the Spirit World Exists

A new study shows that 57 percent of Hispanics believe in otherworldly beings—and the percentage is even higher among evangelical Protestants.
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Modernity be damned: It's 2014, and the spirit world is alive and well. Even in secular life, mild superstitions loom; just look at the popularity of Paranormal Activity, haunted-house tours, and teen books and shows and movies that involve cemetery-related dares. These rituals may seem casual and goofy, but they're rooted in a deep cultural preoccupation with the dead and the possibility that shapeless, spooky spirits lurk among us.

Spirits have more of a formal role in religious life. Possession and exorcism are part of Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam. The Bible has stories of angels speaking to Abraham, Jacob, and David; in Genesis, creatures called Nephilim walk the earth. Many Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians pray for saints to intervene in their lives; the Vatican routinely reviews miracles claimed to be caused by the holy figures of the Church. 

But what do most people actually believe about the spirit world? A new Pew study on Hispanic-American religious belief attempts to provide part of an answer to this question, with fascinating results: It shows that spirits are still pretty popular in modern life. Here's what researchers found, sorted by religious group, church attendance, and country of origin:

Pew Research Center, "The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States," 2014

These three beliefs are all somewhat spiritually amorphous. Saints are a squarely Christian concept, but "spiritual beings"? Likewise, spiritual possession shows up in church teachings across denominations, but magic and witchcraft? Less so.

The breakdown by denomination reveals a lot. Catholics are most likely to believe that it's possible to talk to spirits, saints or otherwise—they rank about 10 percentage points higher than the other groups on this issue. On the other hand, Hispanic Protestants, and particularly evangelical Protestants, are by far the most likely to believe in possession—three-quarters of that group think this is possible, compared to somewhat more than half of Catholics and somewhat less than half of unaffiliated people. In general, Protestants—a quickly growing segment of the Hispanic-American population—are most likely to believe it's possible to have direct encounters with spirits and the divine, including healings, revelations, possessions, and the ability to speak in tongues.

Pew Research Center, "The Shifting Religious Identity of Latinos in the United States," 2014

But in all of this data, the most captivating part is what these groups have in common: Among all of them, huge proportions said they believe in various kinds of spirits. It's not surprising that the unaffiliated were the most dubious, but even so, roughly 40 percent of them said they believe in possession, witchcraft, and the ability to talk to spirits. 

These beliefs are particularly interesting in the Hispanic context. Spirit traditions vary widely across Latin America—for example, the survey found that Hispanic-Americans with Salvadoran roots were much more likely than any other group to believe in possession. Certain spirit-related rituals have become prominent in the United States, especially predominately Mexican traditions like celebrating the Day of the Dead and praying to Santa Muerte, Our Lady of the Holy Death. These seem to both draw from and transcend religious belief—they provide latent, powerful suggestions about the nature of the world around us, tools for navigating the mystery of life and death. Clearly, these are not backwater beliefs only held by the deeply religious or the culturally isolated, as certain stereotypes might suggest; for lots of people, the spirit world is real. This idea can be a lot of different things—sacred and secular, spooky and silly. Ghosts may often be treated as jokes or anachronisms, but for many, they still secretly haunt the heart.

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Emma Green is an associate editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the National Channel, manages TheAtlantic.com’s homepage, and writes about religion and culture.

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