As reported by many media outlets, on May 17, the Pentagon informed a House panel that it has now tracked about 400 flying objects that it can reasonably categorize as Unidentified Flying Objects (UFOs) or Unidentified Aerial Phenomena (UPAs). This doesn’t necessarily mean the flying objects are, indeed, alien spaceships. The Pentagon officials speaking with the House panel suggested that many are likely drones. In 2017, the military’s report clearly stated that no alien encounters had ever been documented.
Even so, many Americans believe that at least some of the UFOs represent alien visits. Meanwhile, sundry others believe that Big Foot exists, that zombies can come and get you, that some especially endowed people can move objects and bend spoons just with the power of their thoughts, that your grandmother’s ghost might reasonably stand at the foot of your bed and protect you, and that Atlantis, a magnificent city of people who were half human and half god, existed about 2500 years ago in what are now the mudflats of Spain and was swept away in a tsunami. Who are these Americans who so easily believe the unproven and un-prove-able? New research by sociologists at the University of British Columbia and California State University at Fullerton may shed some light.
In a SOCIUS paper titled “Supernatural Sociology: Americans’ Beliefs by Race/Ethnicity, Gender, and Education,” the two sociologists —Drs. Tony Silva and Ashley Woody — analyzed data compiled in the 2020–2021 Chapman University Survey of American Fears, which queried 1,035 Americans. The Chapman University survey had asked about fears related to governmental policy, crime and victimization, natural and man-made disasters, life events, and various other phenomena both normal and paranormal. The newer Silva-Woody study examines the Chapman University survey data for correlates between beliefs and the race, gender, and education levels of the believers. Writing in their SOCIUS paper, Drs. Silva and Woody explain:
“Perceptions of reality do not occur within a vacuum…. Although most supernatural beliefs are not supported by modern science, they reflect collective social fears, desires, and perceptions of what it means to be human. Focusing on the ways in which supernatural beliefs vary by race, gender, and education illuminates how views that are seemingly personal may in fact be shaped by social forces. Accordingly, our research question is: How do beliefs about and fears of supernatural phenomena vary by race/ethnicity, gender, and education?
Communicating in an email, Dr. Silva noted that he and Dr. Woody had found that over 70% of people believe in some paranormal phenomena — and this is despite the fact that such beliefs are stigmatized. As had other scientists before them, Drs. Silva and Woody reported that not everyone who believes in one unusual phenomenon believes in them all. For example, someone might feel certain that Big Foot haunts the forests of Humboldt County in California but also think that the idea of UFO spaceships is preposterous. In general, the two sociologists found that, on the Chapman University Survey, more women than men had reported believing in ghosts and in wonders like hauntings that involved spiritual forces . Men more frequently reported believing in marvels like Big Foot and other phenomena that are unexplained but concrete. White people were more likely than black people to profess a belief in psychic healing and UFOs. Educated people (people with at least a bachelor’s degree) were less likely to believe in hauntings, alien visitations, Big Foot, or Atlantis.
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The Chapman University survey upon which the Silva-Woody analysis relied used nationally representative data. While the Silva-Woody analysis revealed that social categories like gender, race, and education strongly shape beliefs, the two sociologists did not make deep assessments about who believed what and why. They did, however, suggest a difference between men and women that may explain why women were more likely to believe in spiritual phenomena and men in phenomena that are concrete but not yet understood. As Dr. Silva explained in his email, “Masculinity in the Western world is often linked to rationality and stoicism, whereas femininity is often linked to emotional expressiveness, spiritualism, and intuition. Of course, there are exceptions, and understandings of masculine and feminine ideals have changed a lot over the past several decades. Nonetheless, the gender differences we found likely stem from the ways in which men’s and women’s understandings of masculine and feminine ideals shape their beliefs.”
Drs. Silva and Woody’s SOCIUS paper also suggested that cultures of origin may help explain the differences in fear and beliefs among people. For example, Asian Americans, who in their analysis of the Chapman University survey data, were more likely to fear zombies, may have been influenced by cultural traditions that include visitations from deceased ancestors. Black people, who proved more likely than Whites to believe in visits from space aliens and in hauntings, may have holdover inclinations reflecting the oral history among African slaves that featured tales of ghosts.
Even while it suggested that cultures of origins inform modern beliefs, the SOCIUS paper cautioned that such speculations are unverified and require more research. What’s more, because immigrant Americans are quickly assimilating into American culture, any cultural differences in fears and beliefs may not prove stable.
Dr. Silva’s primary areas of interest as a scholar are gender, sexuality, family, and the sociology of rural life. He normally conducts his research by analyzing nationally representative surveys and by conducting interviews that focus on the “why” of behaviors and beliefs. Prominent on his scholarly “to-do” list is a follow-up survey examining how self-ratings of masculinity and femininity relate to beliefs. He also plans a solo project in which he examines how sexual identify (gay/lesbian, bisexual, heterosexual, queer, and identification as nonbinary or transgender) relates to paranormal beliefs.