Chapman University Survey Finds Majority of Americans Now Believe in Ancient Advanced Civilization, While a Third Believe in Ancient Astronauts
Something bad is going on in America, and I’m not entirely sure whom to blame. For the past few years Chapman University has conducted a Halloween-themed study of paranormal and superstitious beliefs tied to Americans’ worst fears. Included in the survey questions were items related to subjects of interest to us: ancient astronauts, lost advanced civilizations, etc. The latest survey was released this week, and for the first time a clear majority of American now professes to believe in a lost Ice Age civilization similar to Atlantis. Across the board, fringe history beliefs reached new heights. People write to me all the time to ask why I bother to talk about “crazy” topics like aliens and Atlantis. I am flabbergasted to report now that it is because more Americans now believe in Atlantis than do not.
The 2017 Chapman University Survey of American Fears Wave 4 found that 55% of Americans believe in Atlantis or another lost ancient super-civilization. Additionally, 35% now believe space aliens visited ancient people in the past. Such figures are simply astonishing, even after accounting for the fact that technically speaking Atlantis and aliens are not “paranormal” per se. The numbers are unprecedented in reputable surveying, but they are the culmination of a clear upward trend. The numbers are growing compared to the 2016 and 2015 surveys, as the chart below shows:
The numbers represent the percentage of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed with the statement. The survey did not ask about Atlantis in 2015.
The usual caveats apply, of course: Some of the questions are a bit ambiguous and might include some who have different definitions of “advanced” civilizations, or who imagine that a single vacationing alien stopped by Earth in the Carboniferous period.
But despite this, the general thrust is quite clear: Belief in fringe history topics is growing, and even Chapman University notes that Atlantis is now the single most popular fringe belief in America, eclipsing astrology and ghosts for the first time. It is also the first paranormal (as they call it) belief ever to command a clear majority among Americans, though this year ghosts also crossed that threshold, up from 46% in 2016.
This raises the question of why the number of believers seems to be rising in a time when the number of cable TV shows devoted to ancient astronauts and lost civilizations has declined markedly from their 2011-2013 peak, and when even major book releases in the category, such as Magicians of the Gods, were relative disappointments. Surely 48 million Americans didn’t suddenly develop a belief in Atlantis between 2016 and 2017. If they did, I do not want to live in a country where that many people are that easily influenced. That leaves us with a few potential answers. The survey might be flawed, oversampling believers each year. Or believers are more comfortable expressing their beliefs now than in past years, perhaps due to the rise of fake news and “alternative facts.” Or maybe the internet is actually radicalizing the public, and fringe claims spread through social media and via Putin’s ancient astronaut and lost civilization propaganda in outlets like Sputnik and RT is succeeding in destabilizing public belief in the authority of science. It seems difficult to imagine that tens of millions of people suddenly developed a belief in Atlantis, but whatever the cause, even if the survey over-counts believers by huge margins, the numbers are simply stunning. Fringe history is no longer fringe by volume, only by logic and reason, which is not really enough.
As in the past, Chapman University found that believers tend to be lower income, rural, and conservative—i.e., the History Channel’s and Destination America’s audience. Overall, women and racial minorities are more likely to believe in the paranormal, but because the results weren’t broken down by question, we can’t say whether there is a racial or gender difference between different beliefs.
I will confess to being shocked that a Graham Hancock-style lost civilization is now an accepted fact among a majority of Americans. I should not be, however. Anecdotally, it aligns with my own experiences. Most people I encounter who try to strike up conversations with me profess beliefs in either Atlantis or ancient astronauts, and it seems that this is not a fluke, only a total failure of public education and science advocacy.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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