We believe in angels
They are at the top of your Christmas tree, on cards and decorations. At this time of year angels are everywhere. But for a growing number of believers these heavenly beings are with us all the time, ready to help in times of need, birth or death.
Angels feature in Christian, Jewish and Muslim culture. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, angels announce the birth of Jesus and the New Testament recounts angels at every major event in Christ’s life to the Resurrection.
A recent survey reported that more than 75 per cent of Americans believed in angels and tapping into that belief is the most talked about show on US television this year. More than 4.5 million viewers sat down to enjoy a spectacular six-hour Mike Nichols television version of Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America on HBO. A key scene features a frumpy Mormon woman comforting an AIDS victim who says he is visited by angels.
Ravaged by disease and covered with sores, the man cries out to her, "I want to be done. I don’t want this. I reject this!" The woman, Hannah, played by Meryl Streep, whispers: "An angel is a belief with wings and arms that can carry you. It’s not to be afraid of. And if it can’t hold you up, seek for something new."
Other New Testament writers also speak of angels. St Paul assigns them ranks. He lists seven groups: angels, archangels, principalities, powers, virtues, dominions, and thrones. The Old Testament had spoken of only two orders: cherubim and seraphim - the latter is Hebrew for the "burning ones".
In Dante’s Divine Comedy angels appear as both messengers and guardians. By the Middle Ages Christian theology had developed an elaborate hierarchy of angels, who were associated with God, and fallen angels, or demons, who were led by Satan. Satan himself was considered the original fallen angel.
Angels and demons play similar roles in Islam and are often mentioned in the holy book, the Koran. Archangels were of higher rank than angels. In Jewish and Christian literature the four main archangels are Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel. In Islam, it is believed that four archangels guard the throne of Allah.
Terror, war and disease have been the hallmarks of the start of the third millennium. As church attendance faded at the end of the 20th century, faith and superstition were said to be on the way out.
But as the world has become more uncertain, the scramble for meaning and security has prompted a resurgence in religious belief.
A joint study conducted by Scripps Howard News Service and the EW Scripps School of Journalism, along with Ohio University, revealed that substantial numbers of Americans believe in angels. The survey asked 1,127 adults about their attitudes concerning angels.
Belief in angelic beings cuts across almost all ranges of education, income and lifestyle, says researcher Thomas Hargrove. "Women and young people are slightly more likely to believe than are men or older Americans, but a majority of almost every demographic group has faith in these supernatural beings."
Education did not seem to make a substantial difference in terms of willingness to believe. High school graduates were slightly more willing to believe in angels than their non-graduate counterparts (80 per cent to 77 per cent respectively). Students were even more likely to accept the proposition that heavenly beings visit earth (82 per cent), with graduates slightly less credulous at 74 per cent. But only 63 per cent of postgraduate students believed.
Respondents were asked: "Do you believe angels, that is, some kind of heavenly beings who visit Earth, in fact exist?" Seventy-seven per cent said yes, with 81 per cent of women answering yes and 72 per cent of men agreeing.
Church attendance and denominational affiliation were factors, with 90 per cent of those who attended church "recently" saying that they believed in angelic visitations. Born-again Christians were the most likely group to believe, at 92 per cent. Protestants and Roman Catholics displayed comparable rates of belief (83 per cent and 82 per cent respectively), with Jews less likely to answer in the affirmative, at 32 per cent.
Robert Graves, author of The Gospel According to Angels, says: "This is not specifically about Christianity, but rather a more general interest in spirituality. I believe interest in angels is healthy in the sense that if offers an opportunity to discuss spiritual matters."
Angels are also a component of a broader myths of the modern world, argues the writer Keith Thompson in his 1991 work, Angels and Aliens: UFOs and the Mythic Imagination.
Historical and present day accounts of flying saucers and visitors from space bear a striking resemblance to stories about angelic apparitions. Like the aliens, angels come from a sky-realm, perhaps another plane of existence, and are capable of marvellous deeds. They impart wisdom, often warnings of impending calamity, and leave the recipient in a transformed state of consciousness.
Robert Carroll, a sceptic and author, says: "Literally anything could be an angel and any experience could be an angel-experience. The existence of angels cannot be disproved.
"The downside of this tidy picture is that angels cannot be proved to exist, either. Everything that could be an angel could be something else. Every experience that could be due to an angel could be due to something else. Belief in angels, angel sightings and angel experiences is entirely a matter of faith."
Carroll says: "Traditional religions are not the only ones who love angels. New Age myth-makers have made an industry out of angels. Dozens of books connecting angels with everything from guidance in daily life to talking to the dead to psychic healing are published every year. Sales of angel figurines and other material products are brisk."
Paul Kurtz, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Buffalo and founder of the Council for Secular Humanism, adds: "This is all very disturbing, even tragic in a way. Angels have come back, as have other superstitions like a belief in vampires or satanic forces."
Kurtz says the mass media have "dramatised angels as being factual" and criticised a "decline in critical thinking and scientific literacy" among public figures and political leaders. "The marketplace of ideas is oozing with religiosity and superstition."
As the cards, gift wrap and decorations are bought, another marketplace is oozing, this time to the sound of cash registers ringing.
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