Contrary to common wisdom, older people are more likely than adolescents to turn to supernatural explanations for difficult events in their lives, from aging to dying. That is among the key findings in an international study from scholars at four major universities.
The finding suggests that science has not supplanted religion, and the two coexist for billions of people around the world because while science can explain many things, it "really isn't very good" at supplying answers to some of life's most difficult questions, said psychologist Cristine H. Legare of the University of Texas, Austin, in a telephone interview.
Chief among those questions may be simply this: Why me?
Legare, lead author of a study published in the current issue of Child Development, went to South Africa, where she had conducted earlier research on the AIDS epidemic, to see if people there still turn to witchcraft to explain the disease that has devastated much of that country. The answer, quite clearly, is yes, especially among older adults.
It's not just because of ignorance, she said. The people there are very much aware of the biomedical basis for AIDS, but with more than 40 percent of the people in some areas of South Africa infected with the disease, a clinical explanation is an incomplete answer.
"What became clear is people had different kinds of explanations to explain different aspects of the disease," she concluded, based on interviews with 366 participants who live in some of the hardest-hit areas. "Unprotected sex is seen as a reason for contracting the virus, but that doesn't explain the larger question of why me, and not somebody else. People would often give a supernatural explanation, including witchcraft."
People often said they got the disease because a witch put the wrong person in their path, or wanted to inflict punishment. Whatever the witch's motivation, it was someone else's fault, not the victim's.
The participants in the study were read a series of statements and asked to reject or endorse medical or supernatural (witchcraft) explanations for the disease.
The participants, whether young or old, clearly understood the medical explanation for how AIDS is transmitted, but children from 5 to 15 years old cited witchcraft as part of the explanation only about half the time. In contrast, all the adults thought witchcraft played a role.
"Importantly, bewitchment explanations were not the result of ignorance of biological causes," the study concludes. "Thus, they existed alongside and were not replaced by biological explanations."
Other authors of the study include Karl S. Rosengren of Northwestern University, E. Margaret Evans of the University of Michigan, and Paul L. Harris of Harvard, who have conducted similar studies around the world in an effort to better understand how culture influences cognitive processes. The studies show that belief in supernatural powers are cross-cultural and do not diminish with advances in science or increases in age.
That's especially clear in the South African research.
"It's not that people become less scientific with age," Legare said. Some things just seem to demand more of an explanation than science can provide.
"As you go through your life, there are many opportunities to experience very difficult events," she said. "That's the reality of the human experience. It's a fundamental truth of our species that we want to know why."
And as those difficult experiences add up, many turn more to supernatural, or religious, explanations as they age.
"Plenty of studies document that," Legare said. "Churches are full of older people. There are many different explanations for that, of course, but I think a tendency to endorse supernatural explanations increases as we age."
The research in South Africa focuses tightly on how that tendency is affected by local culture, particularly when death from a horrible disease comes so frequently.
Nearly everyone in South Africa has been affected in a "catastrophic" way, either by contracting the disease, losing a loved one to AIDS, or being orphaned as a young child when both parents die of AIDS.
"I spent a lot of time in the hospitals," Legare said. "There's a flood of people coming in. When they learn they have AIDS they will typically sit down with a nurse practitioner who will say there are treatments available but unfortunately we don't have the resources to provide you with those treatments. You go home, try to eat healthy food (where unemployment is more than 70 percent in some areas) and enjoy the rest of your short life.
"This is what people are told. If someone told me that, I would want another solution. I would say I don't want to go home and die without trying. I want to look for other options."
Belief in supernatural powers, whether it's witchcraft or religion, "provides people with a sense that there's someone out there who knows what's going on, there's some way to intervene. This is why prayer is so therapeutic for so many people."
Of course, just because something is therapeutic doesn't prove it's true.
"I am making absolutely no claim about the objective reality of any religion," she said.
But one thing she said she knows passionately: The people of an AIDS-ravaged country feel they've lost control of their surroundings, and they look for answers to some of life's toughest questions.
Why me? Maybe the witch did it. Or maybe not.
"There are many things that are useful to us that aren't true," Legare said.