Centre Article 165: Faith and Reason: It Seems that the Irrational and Superstitious are the Atheists

September 22, 2008 - Iain Benson

My friend Professor John von Heyking invariably brings useful and important things to my attention. His recent reference hits a home run. He referred to an article that appeared this past week in the Wall Street Journal. In that estimable organ, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway writes about a recently published study out of Baylor University which reconfigures (or ought to) how many people speak about the so-called "credulity" of religious believers. See: "Look Who's Irrational Now," Wall Street Journal, September 18, 2008.

This article is required reading for all those who are fed up with the likes of Richard Dawkins who speak as though only atheists have a corner on Reason and that "faith" (by which they invariably mean "religious faith") is irrational.

Ms. Hemingway's excellent article shows that far from religious believers being more credulous than the average religious sceptic, they are, in fact, less likely to believe in a host of things such as the paranormal.

Describing the study, Hemingway notes:

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.

It is easy to lampoon religious believers as "irrational" because they hold certain beliefs that are not subject to empirical measurement. Slight reflection, however, shows that all human beings have to, by necessity, live within non-empirical reliance and that most of our central notions about the State, law and politics (to take just these) depend upon just such non-empirical conceptions.

Can you weigh "justice" in and scale or show someone the scientific description for "the dignity of the human person?" No you cannot. But here is an important point. While most proudly scientific atheists would affirm both justice and "dignity" in their frameworks for law and the State, they do so in contradiction to their central thesis about the chance based (or meaninglessness) of the universe. It is the religious believers who at least have a consistent theory for their beliefs. So who is being irrational?

Is it those religious people whose conclusions about such things as the dignity of human life flow from their beliefs in an ordered and cosmologically purposed universe who are rational or, on the other hand, is it those who somehow find a ground for dignity emerging out of chance and primordial slime? In the latter view after all we live not in a purposed teleological universe in which creation imposed a meaning and reality but one based on fluke in which our "social contracts" are merely provisional staging posts in a world the overarching reality of which is power (survival of the fittest) fitting us for a daily war of all against all? Oh, and if you say, "well all against all doesn't work biologically so evolution provides the framework for "dignity" I suggest you tell that to the latest materialistic revolutionary you encounter down the barrel of a gun. It makes a great deal of difference whether it is blind chance who holds the scale of justice or some conceptions of "justice" rooted in a convictions that there is order within a created cosmos that is not a merely random chaos.

I think the religious believers have it on the coherence test. But there is more.

Hemingway notes that the Baylor study confirms earlier work which shows that the gullible are, in fact, the atheists:

This is not a new finding. In his 1983 book "The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener," sceptic 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....

So as we have often said in Centre for Cultural Renewal articles: "everyone is a believer, the question is, not whether, but in what we believe." There is a deep irony in an atheistic prayer that ought to run as follows: "Lord I don't believe, help my unbelief" but that is exactly what the evidence suggests exists for many atheists.

As Hemingway points out:

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.

This theme, the beliefs of the supposed "non-believers" was a common focus of many pieces of writing by that gadfly of sceptics, G.K. Chesterton (1878 - 1936). One of his rarer works is entitled "Superstitions of the Sceptic" but it is in his novel Manalive, that the theme takes its most powerful and pointed form.

Those who have read it (and it is available through Amazon) can never forget the image of the Cambridge don, Emerson Eames, recanting at pistol point his sceptical philosophy and admitting he does, despite his superficial pessimism, love life and that such a love of life is something to celebrate not decry. One would like to prescribe a therapeutic reading course of Chesterton ("read two essays and call me in the morning") to those many sceptics whom, it appears, are now awash in not only superstition but their own, often irrational, beliefs.

Posted in Cultural Renewal.

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Originally Published

date: September 22, 2008
publisher: Cardus Centre for Cultural Renewal