Belief in the Paranormal and Religiosity
Sponsored by Missouri Western State University Sponsored by a grant from the National Science Foundation DUE-97-51113
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The proper APA Style reference for this manuscript is:
WILLIAMS, E. M. (2004). Belief in the Paranormal and Religiosity. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 7. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

Belief in the Paranormal and Religiosity
Missouri Western State University DEPARTMENT OF PSYCHOLOGY

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
The purpose of this study was to determine if there is a relationship between belief in the paranormal and religiosity. Eighty college students in introductory level psychology courses completed both a paranormal belief scale and a religious belief scale. The results indicate that there is a small, non-significant inverse correlation between religiosity and paranormal belief. Paranormal belief and religiosity are not significantly related to each other.

Large numbers of college students have been found to have paranormal beliefs (Hillstrom & Strachan, 2000). Due to the high interest in paranormal belief, it is important that the relationships between paranormal belief and other factors, such as religiosity, are studied. Hopefully, such studies will provide insight on the possible causes and effects of paranormal belief. First, however, the term paranormal must be defined. According to Tobacyk and Milford (1983, p.1029), paranormal occurrences must have, “(a) inexplicability in terms of current science, (b) explicability achieved only by major revisions in basic limiting principles of science, and (c) incompatibility with normative perceptions, beliefs, and expectations about reality.” Tobacyk and Milford also included traditional religious beliefs under the heading “paranormal,” but traditional religious belief/religiosity is not necessarily the same as paranormal belief. Many researchers have looked at paranormal belief and religious belief as separate phenomena.Multiple studies that have tried to correlate religiosity and paranormal belief, but there have been varied results. For example, one study concluded that there is a strong chance that belief in the paranormal is a substitute for religious beliefs, and that both religious belief and paranormal belief serve to lower death anxiety (Persinger & Makarec, 1990). However, Duncan, Donnelly and Nicholson (1992) found that paranormal belief was generally not related to religiosity. There were some instances were specific beliefs (déjà vu, ESP, etc.) had a slight inverse relationship with religiosity, which the authors concluded was in agreeance with Persinger and Makarec’s (1990) conclusion that belief in the paranormal may substitute for traditional religious beliefs. On the opposite side of the spectrum, Orstein’s (2002) study, completed in Canada, found that people who chose “none” as their religious preference were not any more likely to believe in the paranormal than participants who had a religious preference (in this study, only the data from those participants who chose “none,” “Protestant,” or “Catholic” were used). Orstein also found that there was a significant positive correlation between religious beliefs, which were measured by a 6-question scale asking how much, if any, the participant believed in God, angels, etc., and paranormal beliefs, which were also measured by a separate 6-item scale, asking how much participants believed in ESP, astrology, etc. However, participants who stated that they attend church regularly were slightly less likely to have paranormal beliefs. When the amount of religious belief was held constant, more significant negative correlations between church attendance and paranormal beliefs were found. Orstein believes that both religious participation and religious belief are, at this point in time, the strongest predictors of paranormal belief. It does need to be kept in mind, however, that residents of Canada may have markedly different beliefs than residents of the United States. It is difficult, and perhaps unwise, to try to generalize Orstein’s results to residents of the United States, due to the possible cultural variables that differ between the United States and Canada. Paranormal belief has also been compared to specific Protestant beliefs (Hillstrom & Strachan, 2000). The researchers created their own survey that was used to measure how much the participants agreed with traditional Protestant doctrines taken from the Bible. After administering the survey to college students at public and private universities, the researchers grouped the participants, based on the strength of their belief in the Protestant doctrines, into one of three groups: Believers, Nominal Believers, and Nonbelievers. The researchers then compared the each participant’s results of a paranormal belief survey with what religious belief group the participant was categorized under. The results were as follows: Nonbelievers were most likely to show greater belief in the paranormal, Nominal Believers showed less belief in the paranormal than Nonbelievers, and Believers were the least likely to indicate that they believed in the paranormal. The researchers think that knowing at least a little bit about Protestant doctrines may cause the participant to be less willing to admit to certain paranormal beliefs. This also may be the reason that other studies have found negative correlations between religious belief and paranormal belief. Although the literature on the relationship between paranormal belief and traditional religious belief is often conflicting, I am interested in seeing how much of a relationship exists, and what type of correlation exists between religious belief and paranormal belief. The purpose of this study is to determine if there is a negative correlation between religiosity (particularly “traditional” religious beliefs) and paranormal belief among college students.


Data were collected from 80 undergraduate students attending introductory level psychology courses at Missouri Western State College. The participants ranged in age from 18 to 54, with an average age of 21.46. There were 34 males and 44 females. Two participants did not indicate their sex. The names of the participants were not recorded to ensure anonymity. A small amount of extra credit was provided for participation.

The participants were asked to fill out two inventories for this particular study. The Religiousness Scale (Strayhorn, Weidman, & Larson, 1990) was used to measure religiosity. The Paranormal Belief Scale (Tobacyk & Milford, 1983) was used to measure paranormal belief. The Paranormal Belief Scale was modified slightly by removing the Traditional Religious Belief subscale, which consisted of the following items: “the soul continues to exist though the body may die,” “there is a devil,” “I believe in God,” and “there is a heaven and hell.” Those items were removed because religious beliefs were examined separately with the Religiousness Scale. The Religiousness Scale and the Paranormal Belief Scale were graded on 5-point scales, ranging from 0 to 4. The Paranormal Belief Scale response options ranged from 0 points for Strongly Disagree, to 2 points for Undecided, to 4 points for Strongly Agree. Questions 18 and 20 were reverse keyed. The response options for the Religiousness Scale varied. The lowest possible score a participant could receive on either scale was 0, indicating no belief. The highest possible score on the Paranormal Belief Scale was 63, and the highest possible score on the Religiousness Scale was 48. For both the Paranormal Belief Scale and the Religiousness scale, the higher a participant’s score is, the greater that person’s belief in that particular construct. The first page of each packet consisted of an instruction sheet that asked participants for their age, sex, and religious preference (Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Non-denominational Christian, none, other) (See Appendix A). Since this study shared participants with another study, an honesty scale was also included in the packet, but the scores on the honesty scale were not used in this study.

The scales were presented in a stapled packet. Each packet was assigned a different number from 1 to 80. The packets were handed out during two introductory psychology classes by the professor. All participants completed both the Religiousness Scale and the Paranormal Belief Scale. To control for possible researcher bias, the other researcher and I each gave instructions to a different class. To control for any sequencing effects, the order of the scales in each packet varied. There were six scale order possibilities (for example, paranormal-religiosity-honesty), and a roughly equal number of packets for each possibility were distributed. The participants were advised to not write their names on the packets to ensure anonymity. They were instructed to choose the response that most fit their beliefs for each question, and to be completely honest when responding. If a participant did not choose a response for a Paranormal Belief Scale item, the participant was assigned 2 points for that question, which would be the equivalent of a response of “undecided”. Only one participant failed to respond to an item on the Paranormal Belief Scale, and no participants failed to respond to an item on the Religiousness Scale.

The mean score for the Paranormal Belief Scale was 34.73, with a standard deviation of 10.87. The mean score for the Religiousness Scale was 22.66, with a standard deviation of 13.44. Males and females had roughly the same mean scores on both scales. Regarding the question on religious preference, the most common preference was “Non-denominational Christian,” with 30 participants choosing that response. Twenty one participants chose “Protestant,” 13 chose “Catholic,” 13 chose “None,” and 3 chose “Other,” including one participant who indicated that they were “Wiccan/semi-Southern Baptist.” No participants chose “Jewish.” See Figure 1 for a percentage summary of the religious preferences. A Pearson correlation was calculated to determine if participants’ paranormal belief scores and religiosity scores are inversely related. A very weak negative correlation that was not significant was found (r(78) = -.063, p = .016). Paranormal belief is not related to religiosity. See Figure 2 for a summary of the relationship between paranormal belief and religiosity.

The results show that although the relationship between belief in the paranormal and religiosity appears to be inverse, as was predicted, the two variables are not significantly related to one another. In general, the participants showed some disbelief in the paranormal. If the participants had chosen “undecided” as a response to every question, the mean score would have been 42. As it is, the mean score for this study was 34.73, indicating a slight inclination to not believe in paranormal occurrences. Being male or female did not really affect the level of either paranormal belief or religiosity. One interesting discovery is in regards to the mean religiosity score. Hypothetically, if a participant chose the middle response (2 points out of 4 possible points) on every question on the Religiousness Scale, the mean score would be 26. Notice that the average score for this study was 22.66 – lower than what would typically be considered average. If anything, I had expected that the religiosity score would be higher in this state, which is more conservative than liberal. The results are likely due to the problem of the participants not being a good representative sample of Missouri residents. The participants were all college students, and most of them were between the ages of 18-21. Because the sample is not even representative of Missouri residents, the results of this study would not be able to be generalized to the population of United States citizens. More diverse groups of people would have to be tested. The results of this study generally agree with Duncan, Donnelly and Nicholson’s (1992) study, in that religiosity does not seem to be related to paranormal belief. Unlike Orstein’s (2002) study, church attendance, although a part of the Religiousness Scale, was not studied independently from the participants’ total scores on the Religiousness Scale. It is possible that a further analysis of the relationship between church attendance and paranormal belief would show that there is a significant inverse relationship between the church attendance and belief in the paranormal, as was found in Orstein’s study. Considering that the participants scored lower than the expected average on both the Paranormal Belief Scale and the Religiousness Scale, it seems that, contrary to Persinger and Makarec’s (1990) conclusion, paranormal belief is not a substitute for traditional religious beliefs. If it was, there would be a stronger inverse relationship between paranormal belief and religiosity; participants with lower religiosity scores would have higher paranormal scores, and vice-versa. It would be interesting to find out if Missouri college students score lower than the Missouri population in general on the Religiousness Scale. If they do, a survey could be distributed to find out why. This study also did not examine the possible relationship between religious preference, religiosity and paranormal belief. The data on religious preference were collected as demographic information only. Tests to determine whether or not religious preference is related to religiosity and paranormal belief were not conducted. It is possible that groups of people with particular religious preferences (i.e. Catholic, Protestant, etc.) are more or less likely to believe in paranormal phenomena, similar to the previously mentioned study regarding “Believers,” “Nominal Believers,” and “Nonbelievers” (Hillstrom & Strachan, 2000). One issue with this study is that only two variables were examined-religiosity and paranormal belief. Those two variables are linked to so many other variables that a simple correlation between the two (as was done in this study) is not enough. Race, church attendance, social class, and many other variables may have an effect on belief in the paranormal and religiosity. Further tests should examine multiple variables to get a better picture of relationship between religiosity and paranormal belief. Another possible extension of this study would be to compare the religiosity and paranormal belief of participants in different areas of the country. It would be interesting to find out if people who reside in the so-called “Bible Belt,” consisting of the southern states, have less paranormal belief than people living in other areas of the country. If people living in those states did, in fact, have lower paranormal belief scores, would their religiosity scores be higher than average? There may also be a difference in the results if people living in rural areas were compared with people living in urban areas. Participants living in rural areas may be more likely to hold more traditional religious beliefs. I think that they are also more likely to believe in the paranormal, because people living in rural areas may hold more belief in the superstitions and old wives’ tales that are passed down through generations. All of these possible extraneous variables could offer explanations for the extremely varying results that different researchers have found when completing studies similar to this study. Even though the results of this study were not significant, I believe that some type of relationship does exist between paranormal belief and religiosity. The relationship may vary depending on what population is being studied (i.e. college students, Catholics, blue-collar workers, etc.), or it may depend on how much a participant conforms to society’s norms. There are so many variables to take into consideration when conducting studies on religiosity and paranormal belief that further research must be done to rule out extraneous variables before anyone can say with any confidence what type of relationship, if any, exists between religiosity and paranormal belief.

ReferencesDuncan, D. F., Donnelly, J. W. & Nicholson, T. (1992). Belief in the paranormal and religious belief among American college students. Psychological Reports, 70, 15-18. Hillstrom, E. L. & Strachan, M. (2000). Strong commitment to traditional Protestant religious beliefs is negatively related to beliefs in paranormal phenomena. Psychological Reports, 86, 183-189.Orenstein, A. (2002). Religion and paranormal belief. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 41, 301-311. Persinger, M. A. & Makarec, K. (1990). Exotic beliefs may be substitutes for religious beliefs. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 71, 16-18.Strayhorn, J. M., Weidman, C. S. & Larson, D. (1990). A measure of religiousness, and its relation to parent and child mental health variables. Journal of Community Psychology, 18, 34-43.Tobacyk, J. & Milford, G. (1983). Belief in paranormal phenomena: Assessment instrument development and implications for personality functioning. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 44, 1029-1037.

Appendix A

Figure1. Breakdown of participants’ religious preferences.Figure2. Relationship between paranormal belief and religiosity.

Figure 1

Figure 2

Submitted 12/7/2004 5:08:09 PM
Last Edited 12/7/2004 6:52:29 PM
Converted to New Site 03/09/2009

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