There is a marvelous article in the Wall Street Journal today, written by Mollie Hemingway. Entitled “Look Who’s Irrational Now,” it takes a look at the question of who is more likely to believe in the paranormal and other oddities–traditional Christians, liberal Christians, or atheists/agnostics. The results are, shall we say, eye-opening:
“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 to suggest that guys like Richard Dawkins or Sam Harris believe in Atlantis or the Loch Ness monster (though Dawkins does think it’s possible that life was brought to Earth by aliens). Rather, it is evidence for the idea that there is no such thing as a spiritual vacuum. If people are not believers in traditional religion, they will find something else to fill the gap, whether it’s the paranormal, New Age mysticism, political ideology or the worship of science, etc. And “education,” the panacea that is supposed to solve all social problems and bring in the millenium, doesn’t always help:
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.
We can’t even count on self-described atheists to be strict rationalists. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that was issued in June, 21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force. Ten percent of atheists pray at least weekly and 12% believe in heaven.
But my favorite part is about Bill Maher, the minimally talented comic who has made a career out of embarrassing himself pontificating on stuff he knows nothing about–politics (far left) and religion (he’s against it):
On Oct. 3, Mr. Maher debuts “Religulous,” his documentary that attacks religious belief. He talks to Hasidic scholars, Jews for Jesus, Muslims, polygamists, Satanists, creationists, and even Rael — prophet of the Raelians — before telling viewers: “The plain fact is religion must die for man to live.”
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.
“The plain fact is religion must die for man to live”–if you can call that living.