More than one-third of Australians believe in demons, in ghosts who can manipulate people and that aliens have visited Earth, according to bizarre new polling.
A survey of 1026 people by Essential Poll found 39 per cent believe angels and demons were active in the world. Similarly, 35 per cent said ghosts exist and influence their will on humans.
More than one-third of respondents also believed extra-terrestrials have visited us.
“There is a strong sense in which the world is going backwards,” Clive Hamilton, from the Public Ethics Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics at Charles Sturt University, told The New Daily.
“It looks like Australians are becoming more like Americans in their repudiation of the Enlightenment.”
According to the survey, one-fifth of people also believed “global warming is a hoax perpetrated by scientists”.
It also found 16 per cent of Australians believe vibrations from wind farms permanently damaged health and the fear that vaccines caused autism was supported by 14 per cent of people.
The results, published on Tuesday, speak to a possible rise in conspiratorial thinking and distrust of expert opinion.
Professor Hamilton, the founder and former executive director of the Australia Institute, said it was “bizarre”.
“It’s a manifestation of the ‘post-truth world’, which in effect means that ordinary citizens have been ’empowered’ to believe whatever they like,” he said.
“Many people now believe that being entitled to your own opinion means their opinions have the same weight as expert judgements based on scientific assessments.”
He said everyday people were not qualified to have quality opinions on climate science or vaccinations.
“We must listen to those who have acquired the right to speak through recognition of their work over many years by an expert peer group,” Professor Hamilton said.
“Lay opinions are not only worthless but harmful, as we see in the case of climate science denial.
“Yet there is a whole industry out there vigorously promoting anti-science, and their dupes occupy many seats in Parliament.”
However, Professor Hamilton said there was room for personal opinion on “superstitious” beliefs that did not cause harm.
Nick Enfield, head of the Post Truth Initiative at the University of Sydney, said post-truths were nothing new. But he said the internet perhaps “supercharged” the “democratisation of the information economy”.
“What is probably new is the speed, the intensity and the scale of the transfer of information now,” Professor Enfield told The New Daily.
He said people always had to trust others on matters they couldn’t understand for themselves.
“I’m not a climate scientist, and I have no way of evaluating it,” he said.
“I’m making a decision that I’m going to believe that. If I say, ‘I’m going to doubt that’, it’s partly a matter of trusting a different authority.”
Professor Enfield said this was especially true for religious groups. He said research showed people often committed to baseless beliefs in order to show allegiance to a community.
“It makes sense. It’s kind of rational from one point of view. But it’s also completely mad,” he said.
“What if it’s a belief that leads me to make poor decisions?
“There’s a limit point to how sensible that is, if it has consequences for your wellbeing.”
Why are pollsters asking about demons?
Essential Poll conducted the survey between September 22 and 25 in response to an article published in The Atlantic, in which writer Kurt Anderson argued Americans lived in a post-truth world.
Mr Anderson cited polling in the US, which found one-third of people believed “angels and demons are active in the world” and that global warming was a hoax.
He said a third of Americans also believed the government and pharmaceutical industry has “hidden evidence of natural cancer cures” and extra-terrestrials have visited or are visiting Earth.
About one-quarter of people believed vaccines cause autism, while 15 per cent believed the “media or the government adds secret mind-controlling technology to broadcast signals”. One quarter of Americans believed in witches, Mr Anderson said.