Roughly half of Icelanders believe in the existence of elves. So strong is their belief, in fact, that it halts construction and road projects, among other things.
NPR covers the story here.
What perhaps heightens the shocking nature of their belief in elves is that Iceland is a very high-tech culture. By 1999, over 82% of the population had access to a computer, and had 1,007 mobile phones per 1,000 residents by 2006. Iceland also has a 100% literacy rate, and produces an enormous number of citizens with PhDs.
Fascinating. I could just imagine a famous Icelandic philosopher arguing that belief in elves is properly basic. Sort of puts the notorious Great Pumpkin Objection to Alvin Plantinga's Reformed Epistemology in a whole new light. According to Plantinga, properly basic belief in God is triggered in a motley variety of circumstances: looking at the starry heavens triggers the belief, "God made all this"; reading a Bible passage triggers the belief, "God disaproves of what I've done"; an eight-year-old's belief in God is triggered by living in a community of people who talk and act as though Christianity is true; etc.
Similarly, an Icelander's elf belief could be triggered in a variety of circumstances: e.g., while working on a road in a patch of countryside, your tractor breaks unexpectedly. It triggers the belief, "The elves disapprove of what I'm doing"; a young Icelander is raised in a community of people who talk and act as though elves exist, and this triggers their elf belief; walking through the foggy hillside, it triggers the belief, "I'm in elf territory"; an elf-medium (no, really, there are such things. Listen to the NPR link above.) comes over to inspect your backyard and make peace with the elves before you tear out a big rock and replace it with a jacuzzi. The experience triggers the belief, "The elves are now at peace with me", etc.
SECOND UPDATE: This just keeps getting more and more interesting. An Icelander named Sindri gives more details here. Sindri's anecdotes are fascinating, but perhaps the most eye-opening part is the bit about how there are sophisticated elf-believers who regularly debate atheists about it.
UPDATE: Here are the results of a recent poll on belief in elves among Icelanders:
13 percent of participants in the study said it is impossible that elves exist, 19 percent found it unlikely, 37 percent said elves possibly exist, 17 percent found their existence likely and eight percent definite. Five percent did not have an opinion on the existence of elves...About 1,000 people participated in the questionnaires.
So, to paraphrase a bit, the distribution of degrees of credence among Icelanders wrt elves looks like this:
"Yes, without a doubt, elves exist": 8%
"Yes, elves probably exist": 17%
"Well, I don't know, but their existence is a real possibility": 37%
"Elves? Nah, probably not": 19%
"Without at doubt, elves do not exist": 13%
This is an interesting distribution of credence wrt elves. But we can't settle how many Icelanders believe in elves unless we have a reasonable idea of what level of credence is required for belief.
'Belief' is a slippery term. Clearly certitude counts as belief, and so at least 8% of Icelanders believe in elves. But you can believe things without a feeling of certainty: I believe my cat will come home from his prowl and eat his dinner, but I don't have an unwavering certitude about it. So belief admits of degrees -- it's not all-or-nothing.
What about thinking that something's probable? Does that count as believing it? This seems to be what's going on in my belief about my cat coming home tonight: I think it's very probable that he'll come home, and this counts as believing he'll come home. On this construal, the 17% who think the existence of elves is probable count as believing in elves as well.
Often people speak as though they allow mere mental assent to count as belief. That seems too weak, as there seem to be clear cases where people mentally assent to things that don't affect their behavior at all. So perhaps belief requires the disposition to act in certain ways. This makes sense of ordinary usage of 'believe', as people often speak as though belief requires the disposition to act as though the proposition assented to is true.
But how strong must such dispositions be? If the standards are too high -- say, they require dispositions as strong as our disposition to act as though the ground beneath us is solid (we step on it without hesitation, utterly confident that it'll support our weight), then very few people -- much less than 8%, I imagine -- will count as having religious belief.
So perhaps some will say the "strong, deep dispositions" account of belief sets the bar too high. But then what strength of disposition is required to count as believing something? Affecting one's behavior just a little bit? Well, when you think that something is a live possibility, it can affect your dispositions to act significantly. If you think it a live possibility that a black widow is in the storage shed you're about to open -- or that a burglar is in your house -- that can: set off a chain of deliberation about what you'll do next, raise your anxiety significantly, affect your plans, etc. So it's tough to say where belief begins. It comes in degrees, and ranges from the very faint to the very firm. And degree of belief corresponds to strength of conviction and strength, scope, and depth of disposition to act as though the claim assented to is true.
On this account, then, thinking that something's a live possibility counts as believing it in at least some cases, if only to a minimal degree, depending on how "live" that possibility is to you. If so, then belief entails that a chunk of that 37% of Icelanders who think the existence of elves is a live possibility count as believing in elves. No doubt that belief is fairly weak in many cases. Still, that degree is sufficient to affect their thoughts, feelings, and behavior (e.g., it prevents many Icelanders from doing landscaping, construction, or road development projects, for fear of angering the elves, as reported in the NPR story).
So to return to the issue at hand, we can say that roughly half of Icelanders believe that elves exist, where some have a very low level of belief, some have a very high level of belief, and everyone else falls somewhere in between.
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