Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Superstition and Unbelief

Friday's WSJ contained an interesting piece about a new study entitled What Americans Really Believe out from Baylor University and the Gallup organization. Some more information about the study is available from Baylor here. The full version is in book form from Baylor University Press and does not appear to be available online at this time.

From the WSJ piece:
"You can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god," comedian and atheist Bill Maher said earlier this year on "Late Night With Conan O'Brien."
"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.

The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?

The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama's former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin's former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener," skeptic and science writer Martin Gardner cited the decline of traditional religious belief among the better educated as one of the causes for an increase in pseudoscience, cults and superstition. He referenced a 1980 study published in the magazine Skeptical Inquirer that showed irreligious college students to be by far the most likely to embrace paranormal beliefs, while born-again Christian college students were the least likely.

Surprisingly, while increased church attendance and membership in a conservative denomination has a powerful negative effect on paranormal beliefs, higher education doesn't. Two years ago two professors published another study in Skeptical Inquirer showing that, while less than one-quarter of college freshmen surveyed expressed a general belief in such superstitions as ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance and witches, the figure jumped to 31% of college seniors and 34% of graduate students.... [Darwin: Insert your favorite joke about long term grad students here.]
Must we now suspect that Richard Dawkins and the folks from the Skeptical Enquirer are slipping out for a quick palm reading before publishing their debunkings of religious belief? It's amusing to picture, but no.

What's actually going on is rather more interesting.

According to the information on the Baylor site, the survey found 11% of Americans said they had "no religion" but of those only 4% described themselves as atheists who believed that nothing exists other than the physical world. The remaining two thirds, reject existing religions, yet live to the full Chesterton's quip that those who believe in nothing soon find themselves believing in everything.

So it's not necessarily the hard core atheists who are believing in astrology and Big Foot.

However, it's also interesting to see that the more "modern" Protestant denominations show signficantly higher rates of superstition than the "fundamentalist" ones. In a sense, though, it shouldn't be surprising. Fundamentalist forms of Protestantism are built around the idea that the universe is fundamentally knowlable -- though what they think they know differs from that which is held by others. Many mainline Protestants these days, on the other hand, are in the habit of defining reality by preference. In that case, why not assume that the resurrection was metaphorical, but that palm reading is real?

And there is, of course, the gnostic-inspired mysticism that sometimes floats around the periphery of modern Christiantiy. An interesting snippet from the Baylor site:
Among other interesting findings on paranormal or occult beliefs: People who have read The Purpose-Driven Life or any book in the Left Behind series are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, while those who have read any book on dianetics or The Da Vinci Code are more likely to believe.
I do not see any information in the WSJ article or the Baylor release about Catholics, but I wouldn't be surprised to see much the same divergence between "liberal" theology and non-church-going Catholic on the one hand and orthodox Catholics on the other that is found between fundamentalist and liberal Protestants.

And while one shouldn't unduly tar seriously atheists with this brush, there are of course those annoying public personalities who leave themselves wide open. From the WSJ article:
But it turns out that the late-night comic is no icon of rationality himself. In fact, he is a fervent advocate of pseudoscience. The night before his performance on Conan O'Brien, Mr. Maher told David Letterman -- a quintuple bypass survivor -- to stop taking the pills that his doctor had prescribed for him. He proudly stated that he didn't accept Western medicine. On his HBO show in 2005, Mr. Maher said: "I don't believe in vaccination. . . . Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." He has told CNN's Larry King that he won't take aspirin because he believes it is lethal and that he doesn't even believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio.


Foxfier said...


GAH I wish I could get these guys to spend a single year with my folks.

They'd learn about cause, effect and germ theory pretty bloody quick.....

Anonymous said...

interesting post, tx. My wife & I have discussed the reasons & "meanings" of dreams. I tend to think it is the brains way of dumping garbage or maybe reprocessing information. She points out the biblical dream episodes as showing they can mean something more. Thats about as far as I can fathom into this sort of thing.

Rick Lugari said...

Why can't you all just believe?!?!

A couple weeks ago I took an aspirin and fell asleep while syncing my astrological and bio-rhythm charts. While asleep an alien came and stood over my bed. He projected himself into my dreams and told me that Area 51 was a government cover up and that when Karl Rove isn't orchestrating terror attacks he's concealing visits from our extra-terrestrial friends. He removed my spleen for study, but injected me with a serum derived from ginseng which regenerated my spleen and immunized me from the common cold. He also said that the rest of the galaxy is watching our election closely and for the sake of the Universe 90% of the aliens are supporting Obama and that it would be all of them if it weren't for the selection of Sarah Palin (apparently she has overwhelming support of the Venusians and those in the red star district). He predicted that Obama would win by 101 electoral votes.