Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Who's Irrational Now? The Same People That Always Were

A reader sent me this article in the Wall Street Journal (a Murdock production) about a study which gathered data confirming something I considered a given: that fundamentalist Christians believe in nonreligious paranormal events (Atlantis, the Loch Ness monster, ghosts) less so than do nonreligious people.

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.

Indeed, it isn't. I recall reading the same study they reference years ago:

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.

Of course they are, and the reason should be obvious. The more fundamentalist the Christian, the more binary their view of the world: something is either consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ as written in the Holy Gospel of the Bible, or it isn't. Those things that aren't are rejected. Naturally, this is going to lead to the rejection of practically any other viewpoint or epistemology, the good and the bad, science and nonreligious pseudoscience alike. You'd get the same exact results polling a guy with brain damage who could say nothing but "no".

Oh, except for all that baseless nonsense about talking burning bushes, a virgin giving birth, and dead people coming back to life after being dead for days. Somehow those ideas, and the intellectual mess that comes with it are given a pass from being labeled "superstitious" because, well, just because. So the study tells us that people immersed in an exclusionary belief system reject other belief systems. Color me amazed.

Instead of recognizing this, Murdock's writer Mollie Ziegler Hemingway decides it somehow validates criticizing atheism through an attack on Bill Maher. Maher supposedly said the following:

"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"

Cute, and on point with regard to putting people following irrational belief systems in positions of power where their decisions will be influenced by said irrationality. But sadly, generally, his statement is wrong. How nice it would be if the world were that simple. However the same creationist that would be a nightmare as a biologist might do just fine as a carpenter or mathematician, where his religion and reality would rarely conflict. Compartmentalization is the norm in humanity, not the exception.

So it is with Bill Maher, who holds his share of goofy beliefs, mainly having to do with medicine (he's a Big Pharma conspiracy guy as well as a supporter of PETA). He does OK with science until it gets near that subject, and then he gets goofy, just like anyone with a hole of irrationality in their cognitive processes. It doesn't make him any less astute an observer of religious irrationality. In similar vein, a believer in a risen Jesus may have no trouble seeing Maher's medical irrationalities for what they are.

Ms. Hemingway hopes her readers won't notice this inherent contradiction in her argument, which is why, as so many do on the right these days (a la Coulter), she doesn't make it explicit. She's trying to give religion points in the "who is more rational" wars by implicating Maher as an irrational person. But the only way to do that is to claim that his one set of irrational views brands him entirely irrational on all others, which is exactly what Maher is wrong about. If Maher's PETA support merits the irrational badge, then so does your support of Jesus, Ms. Hemingway. If you can compartmentalize (which is obvious), then so can Maher. You can't have it both ways.

Oh, and Maher doesn't claim to base his entire life and view of reality on his pharmacrap the way you claim to with the Bible. So that sort of gives him a leg up on you, as it does for everyone who believes in bigfoot (fight over Michael Medved if you must), and similar cognitively isolated views. As long as the people who believe in Atlantis and martian abductions don't start thinking their beliefs can save them from death, while all others will burn in torment for all eternity, they're still more rational than you are. One doesn't have to be perfect to be superior.


Hector said...

"...believe in nonreligious paranormal events (Atlantis, the Loch Ness monster, ghosts) less so than do nonreligious people. "

Only the last one of that list is paranormal. The other two are more mythical.

"The more fundamentalist the Christian, the more binary their view of the world: something is either consistent with the teachings of Jesus Christ as written in the Holy Gospel of the Bible, or it isn't. Those things that aren't are rejected."

I disagree with your analysis. Several items you and the article listed are ACCEPTABLE (ie, not "consistent" or "inconsistent") to a fundamentalist. Examples: Lochness monster, Bigfoot, Atlantis, communicating with the dead (remember the witch of Endor?), dreams foretelling the future (remember the story of Pharaoh?) And yet, according to the research, more atheists believe in these things than fundies. So, what you call "obvious," obviously isn't

ScienceAvenger said...


It's obvious if you understand how fundamentalists view the world. All is permissible through Yahweh (which covers all your counterexamples), yet can be considered evil or impossible by other means. It matters not whether the issue is paranormal or mythical, or whether someone else considers it acceptable. All that matters is whether THEY consider it consistent with their religious views, and if it isn't, its gone. They aren't rejecting evolution or any of their other traditional hot issues per a rational analysis of the avalable evidence, so where's the basis for assuming they do so with Nessie?

All you are pointing out is that they are inconsistent in how they do this, which is true, but old news.

Julia Moravcsik, PhD said...

The study compared people who often go to church and those who rarely go to church. It said nothing about atheists.