Nearly 60% of Americans Believe in the Devil

Here’s your disturbing thought of the day, courtesy of a new YouGov poll: 57% of Americans believe in an actual devil and only slightly less, 51%, think that this devil can “possess” someone. And perhaps most disturbing is that it doesn’t seem to matter all that much what age or political views one has.

A full 50% of those 18-29 believe in the devil, and 55% of Democrats (65% of Republicans). Women are more likely to believe in the devil than men by a 61-53% margin. Education also doesn’t seem to change things much: 51% of those with post-graduate degrees believe in the devil — higher than the 49% of those who dropped out of high school who believe in one. But religion does matter. Only 17% of Jews and 25% of Muslims believe in the devil (though there were only 4 Muslims in the survey, so not exactly a sample) — and 20% of those who say they don’t have a religion.

On the question of whether this devil can possess people, 50% of those 18-29 believe in it. 51% of Democrats and 54% of Republicans. But here only 39% of post-grads believe in possession, considerably lower than the percentage that believe in a devil. Perhaps most bizarre, 26% of those with no religion believe in possession while only 20% believe in the devil that supposedly possesses people.

Another weird aspect is that a much smaller percentage of people think that possession happens frequently or very frequently. If there really is a devil and demons out there to possess people, why would it only be an occasional thing? Do they only do it on special occasions?

POPULAR AT PATHEOS Nonreligious
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • John Pieret

    Well, there is that petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully of a demon that a lot of people believe in. Maybe that’s who they are talking about.

  • theguy

    “25% of Muslims believe in the devil (though there were only 4 Muslims in the survey, so not exactly a sample)”

    I find this (relatively) low percentage to be interesting, since the Qur’an explicitly mentions the devil several times.

    I’ve always wondered why God would create the Devil to begin with; If God is all-knowing, he might foresee that creating the Devil was a stupid move.

  • zenlike

    So 51% of the people would actually acquit someone when they are on a jury and the defendant claims that he acted because of possession by the devil (eg the son of sam defence). Scary thought.

    Also, when you have a post-grad degree, and you believe in an actual devil, please return your degree, you are clearly too stupid to have earned it.

  • sqlrob

    If there really is a devil and demons out there to possess people, why would it only be an occasional thing? Do they only do it on special occasions?

    All that pea soup adds up, they don’t have the time to make it all.

  • eric

    If there really is a devil and demons out there to possess people, why would it only be an occasional thing?

    *I* wouldn’t want to live inside Ed’s head. What makes you think Satan would?

    😉

    @3:

    So 51% of the people would actually acquit someone when they are on a jury and the defendant claims that he acted because of possession by the devil (eg the son of sam defence). Scary thought.

    That’s a bit of an extrapolation, don’t you think? First, if it was that effective a defense, I’m sure it’d be used a lot more than it is (which is…practically never?). The lack of lawyers touting this defense indicates a lack of jurers buying it.

    Secondly, it seems pretty clear to me that at least some of the respondents are answering hypothetically. They believe in principle that someone may be possessed by the devil, but if you start asking them about Alice, Bob, or Charlie specifically, the answer is likely to be no, no, no…

    Hypothetical answering also explains how more no-religionists believe in ‘a posessing devil’ than in ‘a devil.’ Obviously, some of them got confused and took the question to mean: “if there was a devil, could he posess people?”

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    @theguy #2 – “I’ve always wondered why God would create the Devil to begin with; If God is all-knowing, he might foresee that creating the Devil was a stupid move.”

    Thus, the theological masturbation about the problem of evil.

  • blf

    More than 50% of USAlienstanis believe in the small pebble that was in my shoe this morning? Groovy!

    Now if I can only convince them to donate funds to my bank account…

  • rdmcpeek43

    I’m one of the 60 percent who believe in devils. And the devils are ALL Republican politicians with a few? priests thrown in, plus Limbaugh, O’Reilly, Coulter, Robertson, et al. and a slew of crazy ass preachers. I ‘d better stop, I’m going to run out of space.

  • http://www.pixelated-reality.com Alareth

    Over the years I’ve often encountered people who seem more shocked and disturbed when I tell them I don’t believe in the devil than they are by my stated disbelief in God.

  • Poggio

    Interest in ethics and proper behaviour in social settings begins at a very early age, 5-6 years old usually, but many adults are unequipped with the vocabulary to discuss complex ethical behaviour with their children except in unsatisfactory black and white terms. It seems to me these numbers about belief in “devils” are the result of the dominance of religious language in early ethics discussions and that unfortunately most adults cede ethics discussions with their children to their christian shaman or cult leader (or other religious figure) instead of trying to educate themselves on what constitutes and – very importantly – how to describe ethical behaviour. These early childhood discussions are always foundational as children develop ethical maturity. Once formed, an ethics vocabulary is very difficult to supplant without education, even in adults, principally because ethics topics are rarely discussed (they cause undesired ’emotion’) and because the adults themselves have no prior educational experience outside their church’s religious cult. I don’t think the percentages described in this poll will change significantly until a greater number of adults stop allowing their religious cult to inform their ethics vocabulary.

  • Alverant

    And let me guess, this devil just so happens to support all the things the person doesn’t like. If you’re liberal the devil is conservative and vice versa for example. It’s no different than people projecting their opinions when they create god.

    An episode of “Through the Womrhole” they asked the question if we can eliminate evil. Near the end they talked about an experiment. Volunteers were divided into two groups and asked to watch a presentation by themselves. When they were done they were told they could take two dollar coins from a jar (using the honor system). Half the volunteers watched a segment on how science says we have free will. The other half saw a segment on how science says we do NOT have free will. The latter group was more likely to take more than the allowed coins when they were done. They concluded that believing in free will makes a person more moral.

    The point of mentioning it here is that demonic possession removes free will. So if you believe “the devil made me do it” then you’re going to “do it” more often and feel less guilt about it. This is also proof that Atheism (or at least not believing in a devil) does promote morality.

  • davem

    ” and 20% of those who say they don’t have a religion.”

    WTF? How can you not have a religion, yet still believe in the devil, a pert of 3 religions?

  • matty1

    @2

    “25% of Muslims believe in the devil (though there were only 4 Muslims in the survey, so not exactly a sample)”

    I find this (relatively) low percentage to be interesting, since the Qur’an explicitly mentions the devil several times.

    My guess is that they got one practising Muslim and three people who identify as Muslim for cultural reasons but don’t actually believe or at least not very much.

  • raven

    WTF? How can you not have a religion, yet still believe in the devil, a pert of 3 religions?

    It’s already been answered.

    Just look at the Tea Party/GOP, Sarah Palin, or any fundie xian minister.

    Ironically, the evidence that satan exists is far greater than the evidence that god exists. Even a lot of xians acknowledge that, claiming that satan and the demons run the world. If they do so, then what is god doing? He might as well be dead or nonexistent.

  • naturalcynic

    I’ve always wondered why God would create the Devil to begin with; If God is all-knowing, he might foresee that creating the Devil was a stupid move

    Since He’s omnipotent, He decided that He doesn’t have to be omnibenevolent. If He was, He’d be omni-bored. So why not???

  • naturalcynic

    And, if you don’t believe, ask Flip Wilson.

  • iknklast

    I don’t know, some of these people who are assuming that people mean this metaphorically may be giving people too much credit. I once worked in an office where everyone had at least a BS in biology, and most of us had an MS or higher. (Biology, keep that in mind!) 98% of the people in that office were creationists; of those, about 80% were young earth creationists. ALL OF THEM believed in a literal devil, with literal possessions, and thought that the Left Behind series was an actual description of what is about to happen any day now. They could “feel” demons in their rooms at night. They could “feel” Jesus. These people believed in literal, actual possession by devils, possession that could lead to all sorts of horrible things.

    I spent most of my two years there hiding under the desk…

  • Synfandel

    Perhaps most bizarre, 26% of those with no religion believe in possession while only 20% believe in the devil that supposedly possesses people.

    Yeah, here’s a news flash for them: They do so have a religion.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    WTF? How can you not have a religion, yet still believe in the devil, a pert of 3 religions?

    Most people who claim not to have a religion aren’t atheists. They often believe in god and various spiritual crap, they just don’t follow an organized religion. In many cases they’re too far gone to fit into one.

  • http://helives.blogspot.com heddle

    zenlike

    So 51% of the people would actually acquit someone when they are on a jury and the defendant claims that he acted because of possession by the devil (eg the son of sam defence). Scary thought.

    Really, you actually think that logic works? Because I believe in the devil I would necessarily vote to acquit a defendant who merely claimed the devil made him commit a crime? That’s not only bad logic (it simply does not follow–why must we assume he is telling the truth?) it is bad theology, since a very fundamental tenet of all the monotheistic religions is that man is free moral agent culpable for his own actions. And then, after that FAIL, you go on to request those who believe to return their degree because they are stupid?? After your display of “reasoning”? I pass. I’ll keep my Ph.D.

    Ed,

    If there really is a devil and demons out there to possess people, why would it only be an occasional thing?

    There is a theological answer based on one’s eschatology. Both amillennialists and postmillennialists believe that as a result of Christ’s victory Satan is already “bound” in a certain sense. In simple terms, the fight is over and the good guys won. His capabilities, in these views, have been greatly diminished. The Left-behinders do not share that perspective.

  • Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    it [defendant who merely claimed the devil made him commit a crime] is bad theology, since a very fundamental tenet of all the monotheistic religions is that man is free moral agent culpable for his own actions.

    Millions of Christians frequently demonstrate their belief in certain premises which directly contradict other premises. The idea that Satan is capable and responsible for causing a person to behave differently [worse] is a very popular Christian belief.

    For example,people who present Christians with inconvenient facts are frequently told that, “Satan is blinding us”. I.e., that we’re not in control of our faculties. Many a sermon’s been told from this same perspective.

    And then there’s all the claims that certain types of prayers were answered, a type that would require us to avoid the contradictory claim we’re, “culpable for [our] own actions”. For example, the relative of a salesman telling him that he landed the big contract because the relative prayed for him, which if true, would require God to direct the behavior of the buyer.

    And simply because you can find one theological assertion doesn’t mean a host of different assertions don’t contradict it; that’s an attribute of Christian theology along with religion in general.

  • Michael Heath

    heddle writes:

    Both amillennialists and postmillennialists believe that as a result of Christ’s victory Satan is already “bound” in a certain sense. In simple terms, the fight is over and the good guys won. His capabilities, in these views, have been greatly diminished. The Left-behinders do not share that perspective.

    Citation providing evidence for either position greatly appreciated. 😉

  • No One

    2 theguy

    I’ve always wondered why God would create the Devil to begin with; If God is all-knowing, he might foresee that creating the Devil was a stupid move.

    To alleviate boredom apparently.

  • http://helives.blogspot.com heddle

    Michael,

    Citation providing evidence for either position greatly appreciated. 😉

    Google “amillennialism satan bound” you’ll find some, such as this.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    …it is bad theology, since a very fundamental tenet of all the monotheistic religions is that man is free moral agent culpable for his own actions.

    I’m sorry, but that’s impossible to square with belief in possession, which by definition means that your behavior is controlled by someone (or something) else. Possessed people clearly can’t be morally culpable for their behavior, unless somehow they have the choice to stop being possessed at any time, which given the apparent necessity of exorcisms is not what anyone believes.

    I’m going to have to chalk this up to one of the many inconsistencies of religious belief.

  • busterggi

    Of course if they didn’t need an excuse for their god’s bad behavior they wouldn’t need a devil. If you’re a Christian or Muslim you pretty much have to believe in a devil or admit your god is a vicious prick.

  • Ichthyic

    Because I believe in the devil I would necessarily vote to acquit a defendant who merely claimed the devil made him commit a crime?

    since you claim to believe in the Devil, Heddley, how would you go about the process of eliminating it as a possible defense?

    seriously, I wanna hear the analytical steps you would take to eliminate it as a possibility.

    well?

  • Ichthyic

    Google “amillennialism satan bound”

    ah, but you yourself don’t sound so sure:

    His capabilities, in these views, have been greatly diminished.

    diminished, but not eliminated?

    seriously looking forward to see how you would eliminate the devil defense in court, if you START with the presumption it even exists to begin with.

  • Ichthyic

    Google “amillennialism satan bound” you’ll find some, such as this.

    from that cite:

    There have been at least four important millennial views, all involving the relation of the Christ to the millennium. Three of these are mutually exclusive concepts.

    LOL

    yeah, you keep right on believing you have the answers there, chuckles.

  • Ichthyic

    Also, when you have a post-grad degree, and you believe in an actual devil, please return your degree, you are clearly too stupid to have earned it.

    not so much stupid, as predisposed to credulity, either through genetics, cultural indoctrination, or usually both.

    intelligence itself does not correlate nearly as well with religious belief as authoritarianism does.

  • kylawyer

    OK, I call bullshit on this whole “poll.” First the initial question is simply, “Do your personally believe in the existence of the Devil or not?”, presupposes something important. There is a generally acceptable definition of the “devil.”as some form of anthropomorphic dark and evil being as alluded to in the Bible. There is no evidence to suggest this assumption is correct within the respondents to this poll. Thus, likely poll error, since we all tend to view definitions through the narrow scope of our own experience.

    Therefore, from that point forward the rest of the “poll” is moot. Because we do not have evidence of a generally accepted definition of “The Devil”, the rest of the questions like, “How often do you think people are possessed by the devil”, make no sense. Does this devil represent someone’s understand of a loose spiritual karma, a reflection of malevolent human actions and actors, or does it represent a red, pointy being with pitchfork who tortures people forever?

    Finally, for those of you who may not know it, YouGov.com is a notorious GOP push polling unit. And we all know that the Teabagger/Religious right control the current form of the GOP. So this poll, in terms of percentage of respondents/sample size, confirmation bias, etc., is about as accurate as something you would see on Worldnutdaily.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    not so much stupid, as predisposed to credulity, either through genetics, cultural indoctrination, or usually both.

    Heddle is anything but stupid. He is an extremely intelligent human being. His religiosity strikes many of us as irrational, but then again, what we think probably strikes him as irrational. Religion wouldn’t persist if dumbness alone is all it took. There are many other things going on, things that I would like to figure out.

    Long story short, he’s an excellent specimen requiring careful study. Don’t scare him off! We need him!

  • http://rationaldreaming.com tacitus

    Bit late to the party, but I have a different take on the polling numbers. I actually find it quite encouraging that only 57% of all Americans believe there is a literal devil, and only half of young Americans believe the same thing. No devil, no Hell, and more evidence that the belief in the existence of such things is not surviving increased scrutiny and rational inquiry. Fundamentalism needs Satan and Hell to thrive, ironically.

    If more people were forced to defend their belief in Hell beyond the typical “if there is no Hell, that lets monsters like Stalin and Hitler off the hook” the numbers will go even lower.

  • postman

    The surprising thing to me is that there is a sizable portion of Christians that don’t believe in the devil. I was taught (religiously indoctrinated) in school that the devil exists as a spiritual being. How would the christian mythos work without him, anyway?

    So, no, I don’t find it any more disturbing than their belief in god. It’s all part of the package. Abandon logic and critical thinking and there are no limits to the absurdities you will believe.

  • birgerjohansson

    The good thing about having an extra-terrestrial brain parasite* is that it makes me immune to demonic possession. As long as I care for it by eating human brains every six months** it will stay healthy and protect me.

    Presumably Ed has taken similar precautions.

    *not from Zeta Reticuli. It gated in from Andromeda.

    **Getting rid of the cadavers is the only major drawback.

  • http://polrant@blogspot.com democommie

    “Ironically, the evidence that satan exists is far greater than the evidence that god exists.”

    Not so. What IS evident is that most people tend to want to blame bad outcomes on an outside agency. Losing one’s job or a sports contest may not be a result of the devil’s work but losing a friend, lover, child, etc,, to disease or senseless criminal act–that’s a tragedy looking for an actor.

    As for all of the instances of demonic possession cataloged in medical journals and legal tomes–they’re right there, next to the verifiable eyewitness reports of unicorns shitting KrugerRands.

    @35:

    “**Getting rid of the cadavers is the only major drawback.”

    Where do you think all of the fucking teabaggers came from?

  • http://helives.blogspot.com heddle

    Area Man,

    I’m sorry, but that’s impossible to square with belief in possession, which by definition means that your behavior is controlled by someone (or something) else. Possessed people clearly can’t be morally culpable for their behavior, unless somehow they have the choice to stop being possessed at any time, which given the apparent necessity of exorcisms is not what anyone believes.

    I’m going to have to chalk this up to one of the many inconsistencies of religious belief.

    I don’t understand. In my previous response I indicated that I would not feel compelled to acquit someone who claimed to be possessed, as #3 suggested. And that Christianity (not uniquely) accepts man as a free moral agent. These are not at odds anymore than the fact that any secular system of laws that will also hold people accountable for crimes yet also consider possibilities such as insanity or coercion that relieve the defendant of some or all culpability. If a person was truly possessed and was coerced into committing a crime* then I would assume that god would not hold that person accountable.

    * Which seems to be more Hollywood than consistent with the cases of possession described in the bible. In the bible,the afflicted appeared sick/debilitated or insane, but not criminally insane or cunningly evil.

    ———————

    Ichthyic,

    seriously looking forward to see how you would eliminate the devil defense in court, if you START with the presumption it even exists to begin with.

    Barring some sort of supernatural demonstration in court I would dismiss it out of hand. This would be especially true in the case of someone saying “the devil came into me, made me commit this crime, and then left” which has no biblical precedent. If the person was acting like a person possessed as described in the bible, and I became convinced he was not acting, I would possibly vote to acquit but not on the grounds of demonic possession, rather on the grounds of insanity, because that would be the far likelier explanation.

    yeah, you keep right on believing you have the answers there, chuckles.

    Ah, so in spite of a decent effort you ultimately could not resist devolving into the argumentation methods you learned from your man-god (PZ).

    postman,

    The surprising thing to me is that there is a sizable portion of Christians that don’t believe in the devil.

    Bingo.

  • Nick Gotts

    you ultimately could not resist devolving into the argumentation methods you learned from your man-god (PZ). – heddle

    What a puerile man you are.

  • Ichthyic

    Heddle is anything but stupid. He is an extremely intelligent human being.

    so is Ken Miller, for what that’s worth.

    which is exactly why I said that authoritarianism correlates better than intelligence with religiosity.

    in fact, I’m just repeating the conclusions of MANY sociologists that have examined the behavior over the last 40 years.

  • Ichthyic

    Barring some sort of supernatural demonstration in court I would dismiss it out of hand.

    then can’t we dismiss your god out of hand?

    you are basing your decision on the lack of evidence, correct?

  • Ichthyic

    Bingo.

    ??

    does not follow from ANYTHING you have said previous.

    What a puerile man you are.

    yes, yes he is.

    always has been.

  • http://helives.blogspot.com heddle

    Ichthyic,

    ??

    does not follow from ANYTHING you have said previous

    I didn’t say it did. Or, since we are using caps: I didn’t SAY it did. “Bingo” is merely idiomatic for “I agree with what you just wrote.” It does not imply “because it agrees with what I have been saying all along.” Postman found it surprising that many Christians do not believe in Satan. So do I.

    Nick G and Ichthyic

    What a puerile man you are.

    Don’t forget your raison d’être. There must be something PZ has recently posted that the two of you can slaver over rather than engaging in garden-variety trolling.

  • cjcolucci

    I suppose this poll should be considere good news. After all, as Kyzer Soze tells us, the Devil’s greatest trick is persuading people he doesn’t exist, and if this poll is accurate, he isn’t up to the job.

  • busterggi

    The devil isn’t up to the job but then neither is his boss.

    BTW, I don’t believe in the devil but I believe in Kyzer Sose AND peanut butter.

  • http://www.pandasthumb.org Area Man

    I don’t understand. In my previous response I indicated that I would not feel compelled to acquit someone who claimed to be possessed, as #3 suggested. …If a person was truly possessed and was coerced into committing a crime* then I would assume that god would not hold that person accountable.

    Do you not see the disconnect here? I wouldn’t acquit anyone who claimed to be possessed either, because I don’t believe in possession. But if I did, and if I thought someone were truly possessed, then I would have to acquit that person. The whole idea of being possessed is that one is not responsible for one’s actions. That’s why they made it up! What part of that is hard to understand?

    The Christian belief in free moral agency, or whatever, clearly can’t be squared with the special case of possession, in which a person cannot be a free moral agent by definition. Maybe it’s just an exception to the rule. But for goodness sakes, please stop trying to say that possessed people are responsible for their behavior because they have a rational, moral choice. That is just fucking stupid.

  • http://helives.blogspot.com heddle

    Area Man,

    But if I did, and if I thought someone were truly possessed, then I would have to acquit that person.

    You have now moved the goalposts so to speak. You now write if I thought someone were truly possessed.. My comments were never assumed that precondition. They were directed at #3 who wrote:

    So 51% of the people would actually acquit someone when they are on a jury and the defendant claims that he acted because of possession by the devil

    That comment implies that the 51% who believe in the devil would vote to acquit as long as the defendant claimed to be possessed, not that they believed the defendant to be possessed. Is there some law that states if you believe the devil exists then you must accept any claim of possession? Of course not. What was never addressed is: what fraction of the 51% would believe a defendant who made the claim. Very few, I’d speculate. As I wrote, barring some supernatural display, I can’t imagine ever actually believing a defendant is possessed. Certainly not because he made the claim.

    The Christian belief in free moral agency, or whatever, clearly can’t be squared with the special case of possession, in which a person cannot be a free moral agent by definition.

    Yes it can be squared, trivially so. You are a free moral agent and are responsible for your choices unless you have some sort of impairment or are coerced including–if it is possible, by supernatural means. I do not even see what is difficult with the concept. You are morally culpable, barring mitigating circumstances. What is hard about that?

    But for goodness sakes, please stop trying to say that possessed people are responsible for their behavior because they have a rational, moral choice.. That is just fucking stupid.

    Yes it is. Good thing I never made that claim. Read my comment #20 again. There is no assumption of actual possession, only the assumption from #3 that the defendant claimed to be possessed. I said it would be bad theology to accept the claim, which #3 implied would be universal among the 51%, because the baseline assumption should be that the defendant is a free moral agent responsible for his decisions.