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We should stop believing in angels and become our own ‘guardian angels’

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Screen Shot 2023 08 02 at 10.40.07 AM We should stop believing in angels and become our own 'guardian angels'Is it because of ABBA’s song? Is that why such an embarrassing number of Americans still believe in angels?

Sure, “I believe in angels” is catchy and has an optimistic message (“Something good in everything I see”). But it lauds believing in fairy tales. And shouldn’t adult Americans by the 21st century have outgrown the fairy tale of supernatural beings?

ABBA’s lyrics say, “If you see the wonder of a fairy tale/ You can take the future even if you fail.” Do Americans consider angels a fairy tale?

Apparently not. Incredibly, about seven in 10 U.S. adults say they believe in angels, according to a new AP-Norc Center for Public Affairs Research poll. A similar number of adult Americans believe in heaven and the power of prayer, and 79 percent believe in God. Harder to fathom is the finding that a third of individuals with no religion believe in angels, including 2 percent of atheists (!), 25 percent of agnostics and 50 percent of those identified as “nothing in particular.” The findings are similar to a recent Gallup poll discovering that 69 percent of Americans believe in angels. Both polls found that more Americans believe in angels than devils (Gallup finds 58 percent and AP reveals 56 percent believe in the devil). That more people are rejecting belief in the devil is at least a step in the right direction.

But is Christianity truly a “wonderful fairy tale,” as ABBA sings? Are angels our BFF? Maybe the startlingly high numbers who say they believe in angels would plummet if they knew how the bible actually describes angels.

A guardian angel — a winged celestial being who looks out just for you — isn’t a typical biblical characterization. A few, not many, verses refer to angels guarding people (Exodus 23:30, Psalms 91:11–12, Daniel 6:22, Matthew 18:10). Angels pop up as props at key times in the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus. Biblical cherubim are generally protective, not necessarily protecting humans, but God’s property, such as in Genesis, where they guard the Garden of Eden with a flaming sword.

But in the main, you wouldn’t want to meet up with most of the angels described in the bible. Ezekiel 1:5–9 has a description of burnished bronze angels with feet “like the sole of a calf’s foot.” Revelations 10:1 is more frightening: “His face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire.”

Angel means “messenger” and many of their “messages” are deadly. Psalms 78:49 describes God unleashing “a band of destroying angels.” In Matthew 28:2–3, an angel’s appearance is preceded by a “great earthquake.”

Judges 5:23 describes cursing angels. God’s angel tells a runaway slave, Sarah’s slave Hagar, to return and submit to her master (Genesis 16:7–9). “The angel of the Lord” in 2 Kings 19:35 slaughters 185,000 Assyrians. In 2 Samuel 24:15–17, an angel stretches out his hand to destroy Jerusalem. 1 Chronicles 21 describes a destructive angel “ravaging every part of Israel.”

A genocidal angel leads the Israelites into battle to invade and conquer the Canaanites in Exodus 23:23–24. Angels cause blindness in Sodom. The final plague of Egypt, the death of the firstborn son (celebrated by Passover), was executed by the Angel of Death. In Revelations 12:7, the angel Michael fights against Satan and the enemies of God.

Even more ominous, it is the “angels [who] will come out and separate the evil from the righteous” in the Final Judgment (Matthew 13:49), who toss sinners into the “fiery furnace” where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:41-42) No wonder that when “an angel of the Lord appeared to them … they were filled with great fear” (Luke 2:9).

Isaiah 6:1–6 describes a weird class of angel, the seraphim, who likewise have no guardian angel role. These sycophantic six-winged creatures spend eternity exalting the biblical deity, fluttering around the throne and crying out, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole Earth is full of his glory.” Brown-nosing seems to be the lot of angels, going by Psalms 103:20, 148:1-2 and Luke 2:13-14.

Fallen angels (called demons), such as Lucifer, are those who rebel against God and get cast out of heaven. Maybe these are the angels supposedly believed in by 2 percent of atheists?

Freethought involves forming opinions about religion based on reason rather than faith, tradition or authority. It’s possible to have no religion but never rationally critique it, possibly including those 50 percent who identify in “nothing in particular” but believe in angels. Of course, it’s the active believers, 84 percent with a religious affiliation in the AP poll, who are most apt to allow for angels. Lisa Strand, FFRF’s director of operations, speculates that one reason for such high belief is because angels have “such good marketing.” Capitalism adores depicting cute angelic creatures. The word has also crossed into metaphor, as in FFRF Honorary President Steven Pinker’s secular treatise, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. Angel adherents undoubtedly consider it a harmless belief.

But the sooner we shed the propensity to suspend credulity, the better. Angels won’t come to rescue us. It’s up to us — and with climate change, pandemics and domestic and global political instabilities — we better start becoming our own “guardian angels.”

Thanks to Dan Barker for his expert help on biblical angels.

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