From Hollywood to the academy, nonbelievers are convinced that a decline in traditional religious belief would lead to a smarter, more scientifically literate and even more civilized populace.
The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won’t create a new group of intelligent, skeptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that’s not a conclusion to take on faith — it’s what the empirical data tell us.
So apparently religious belief, the kind usually associated with conservative, evangelical Christians, doesn’t encourage gullibility with regard to every wacky belief out there. On the contrary, they tend to be more grounded in terms of “paranormal belief” than irreligious people. I guess the old saying is true: “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
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.
And some supposedly rational non-believers are apparently so irrational that they can’t even keep straight what they believe.
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.
Maybe some of those atheists should cancel their subscription to the Skeptical Inquirer and use the money to buy a dictionary. The entry for “atheist” will be in the front under “Aa.”
I have to admit to being a little surprised. After years of being taught to think rationally about my faith and to consider evidences and reason in support of it, the evidence indicates that the very people against whom I was taught to defend my faith are themselves often more irrational than the Christians they attack.
While this discovery shouldn’t surprise me (because I have ample anecdotal evidence just from my own experience), it might surprise some of them to find that they have no reason to think themselves superior.
Read the whole column here: Look Who’s Irrational Now.