Why do so many of us believe in angels – and what does it say about us?

8 May

Why do so many of us believe in angels?

In this post-truth age, I wasn’t all that surprised when I read that a third of people in the UK believe in angels, and that one in ten say they’ve experienced ‘the presence of angels’.

The findings, so far as I can tell, come from a YouGov poll conducted in March 2016 – just a few months before the referendum that delivered us Brexit.

It was published at a time when the then-justice secretary Michael Gove was trying to persuade us that “people in this country have had enough of experts” – those analytical and methodical enemies of the people. It was feelings, not facts, that mattered.

So yes, angels, why not?

Peter Stanford, author of Angels: A Visible and Invisible History. Image © Fernando Bagué

It was this statistic that piqued my interest. Securing my ticket to a presentation by former Catholic Herald editor Peter Stanford – my first Swindon Spring Festival event of 2019 – I was looking forward to some analysis of these findings.

I’m not sure I got it, but what I did get was a fascinating and entertaining history of angelology from Stanford, who has followed Judas: The Troubling History of the Renegade Apostle, and The Devil: A Biography, with Angels: A Visible and Invisible History.

Stanford took his audience on a whistle-stop tour of angels, and their place in theology, from the ancient Hindu texts of 2500 BC India to the Zoroastrian beliefs of pre-Islamic Persians.

It was during their exile in Babylon, explained Stanford, that the Hebrews assimilated the idea of angels into Judaism – ideas adopted by Christianity and Islam, both of whose religions are kick-started by an angel (Gabriel’s visit to Mary, and the same archangel’s revelation to Muhammad).

Our understanding and interpretation of – and enthusiasm for – angels, said Stanford, has changed over time.

They existed only to praise God, before He found another purpose for them: guarding the gates of Eden; banishing other angels who would question his authority; exacting His vengeance over humans – individuals or entire populations – who displeased Him; delivering messages to Virgins and Prophets.

The Protestant reformation played down the significance of angels – excluding books which appear in Catholic versions of The Bible, including The Book of Tobit, which introduces the concept of the guardian angel.

Renaissance artists informed our idea of what angels might look like – those winged androgynous males – while the Victorian Pre-Raphaelites gender-flipped them, giving us the female angels familiar from school nativities. Case in point: my daughter was an angel last year, and there’s no way any of her male classmates in non-speaking roles would countenance angelism, preferring instead to play Roman soldiers or, failing that, donkeys.

So why, when fewer than half of the UK population define themselves as ‘religious’, is there such a desire for angels today?

Stanford surmised that people turn to angels in times of trouble. The Jews adopted the comfort of angels during their exile, and clung to them during the Greek, then Roman, occupations.

In times of war, pestilence, and famine – and before they were relegated by earthly saints – the faithful but frightened turned to angels.

Today, Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North watches over drivers on the A1, while Angels by Robbie Williams is the song Britons would most like played at their funeral.

These days it can feel like we’re standing on a planet spinning out of control: Brexit has turned the British people against themselves and their politicians; there’s a madman in the White House; the economy is skewed towards the mega-rich; and a sense of environmental catastrophe lurks in the background.

We could all do with a guardian angel, sure. But does that really account for one-third of us turning to the heavenly hosts for succour?

Stanford prompted a discussion on left- and right-brain thinkers. Analytical and methodical people – Michael Gove’s experts – favour the left side of their brains; creative thinkers are led by the right. Do angels reside in the right side of our brains? More analysis, I suspect, is needed.

As I’ve said many times before, the best Swindon Festival events are those that introduce me to undiscovered knowledge, and send me away thinking. Since I left the Arts Centre my mind has been occupied by thoughts about angels.

I’ve been considering my occasional envy that religious friends can find comfort in their faith while I, an atheist, cannot.

And I’ve been thinking about our new political landscape, and the rise of populist leaders, and found myself wondering whether people open to the possibility of angels are more susceptible to the promises of populist rhetoric – is this why Trump courts the evangelical Christians?

After all, another YouGov poll, published late last year, suggested people who supported Brexit were considerably more likely to give credence to conspiracy theories – a favoured tool of populist leaders, which favours feeling over fact – than those who opposed it.

My mind is churning with thoughts and ideas, and I need to immerse myself in my own secular comfort blanket of discovery, learning, and knowledge to find calm.

So what’s it to be first: Zoroastrianism, or The Book of Tobit?

Words by Peter Davison. Image © Fernando Bagué.

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