It turns out an overwhelming majority of Americans believe in those mysterious, celestial beings. Belief in angels is most solid among Christian evangelicals at 97%, which doesn't seem terribly surprising. But belief in some type of angelic presence is also shared across a wide cultural spectrum, even among people who have no religious affiliation.
Protestants, women, Southerners, Midwesterners and Republicans were the most likely to believe in angels, although strong majorities in other groups also shared that faith. Belief in angels declined slightly with advanced education, from 87 percent of those with high school education or less to 73 percent of those with college degrees. Overall, 81 percent believed in angels.
One of the points made by Graham Hancock in his new book Supernatural is that religious belief is universal. These beliefs are not rational and not empirically provable, but they are part of every human civilization. He disputes the idea that religion is simply a means of providing comfort in a confusing world, by pointing out that religion is often counterproductive to cultural harmony. Many religious beliefs inspire fear as well as awe. And religious conflicts can escalate to open warfare. Hancock explores the human capacity for interfacing with the supernatural world that the highly reasonable dismiss as hallucinations. Hancock delves deep into shamanic practices, including the use of the notorious "vine of souls" ayahuasca. He posits the notion that the world we experience when we pierce the veil is not a disordered hallucination, but a separate reality accessible through the same brain that perceives this one.
In other words people cling to religious and spiritual beliefs because they experience them as real and tangible, even if their glimpses of this hidden reality are usually ephemeral. Such is the experience of Edward Pelz:
Edward Pelz, 80, of Grabill, Ind., said he believes that angels are guiding him, even though it's impossible to explain to anyone else.
"Have I ever seen one? Nope. We depict an angel as a person that's white, has a robe on, has wings on back. I'm not sure that's the way they look. So for me, I think sometimes there's angels that aren't that way."
Pelz recounted a story about a man who showed up to change his tire when he had a flat in Ohio five years ago.
"I look at life — I say, well maybe I had an angel with me here today. It could have been just another man doing a good deed."....
Pelz felt another spirit when he walked into his backyard on a winter's day — that of the wife he lost over two years ago. He called her Mom.
"She loved bluebirds," he said. "In the wintertime, we don't have bluebirds. I was out in the back, thinking, 'Mom I'd like to see you,' and this little bluebird comes by.
"I don't know, maybe that's an angel. It was just something I wanted to see. Maybe I imagined it. Next thing you know, it flew off. What is an angel? Is an angel something that has a heartbeat like us? Or is it ...?"
The thought trailed off.
Editor's Note: Graham Hancock's Supernatural is available in the bookstore. I will probably be writing more about the process of discovery Hancock leads the reader through in this amazing book. Really, one of the best books I've ever read.