Monday, September 22, 2008

(Ir)religion and Irrationality

Religions serve at least two purposes, both important to humans. One is to help make sense of physical reality, explain (for instance) why living things appear to be brilliantly engineered creations. The other is to make sense of life, to answer questions about what we ought to be doing and why.

The development of science over the past few centuries provided a strong rival to religion for the first purpose, an explanation that not only covered the same territory but came with much stronger evidence for its truth. One might hear stories about occasional miracles at Lourdes or elsewhere, but one directly observed the miracles of science every time an electric light was turned on or an illness cured.

Science did not, however, provide an alternative for the second function. People responded, I think, in one of two ways. One was to retain a serious belief in the religion and reject those parts of modern science that they found inconsistent with it—in its more extreme form, the fundamentalist option. The other was to give up serious belief in the religion and adopt some substitute: Environmentalism, Liberal politics, Marxism (as in "liberation theology"), Objectivism, New Age superstitions.

Two recent events started me again thinking about this situation. One was a conversation with a college freshman very upset to discover that the church she was now attending blended environmentalism, which she does not believe in, with Christianity, which she does believe in. The other was a recent piece in the Wall Street Journal offering quite striking evidence, from polling data, that religious people are less superstitious, less given to a variety of what most of us would regard as irrational beliefs, than non-religious people.

The effect is not small.

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.

Which gets us back to a recent blog post and associated discussion—on whether the fact that people were religious was a reason to expect them to behave in irrational ways, hence a reason not to want a religious person as President. Judging by at least the evidence in the article, it's the other way round. It is the non-religious President we should be worried about—because who knows what he believes instead. He might convert a two foot rise in sea level to a hundred foot rise out of pure faith in an avenging Gaea.

Fortunately, he isn't running this time.

19 Comments:

At 1:57 PM, September 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

Shouldn't this read:

While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, nearly 100% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week believed in these sort of things.

Christians don't believe in the occult because that's one of the tennents of the religion.

 
At 2:10 PM, September 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Also you might want to be careful about taking the WSJ Opinion page at face value:

http://www.baylor.edu/content/services/document.php/72471.pdf

Table 54:
Religious Self-Identity and Belief in the Occult and Paranormal
Minimum Occult Belief level: 13%.
I suspect that given the fact that there were only 3700 people surveyed, that the are sample size issues for the population that goes to church more than 100 times a year.

 
At 2:11 PM, September 22, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

link to actual survey:

http://www.isreligion.org/research/surveysofreligion/isr_wave22007_survey.pdf

found at:

http://www.isreligion.org/research/surveysofreligion/

 
At 3:13 PM, September 22, 2008, Blogger Michael F. Martin said...

in this vein, you might enjoy David Wilson's books. I have Evolution for Everyone, although Darwin's Cathedral is more directly topical. An important idea presented in his books is that evolutionary theory in it's axiomatic form is not inconsistent with many traditional doctrines of religion (such as the Nicene Creed). This is huge for believers because group selection is actually a strong apologetic argument for adopting religious culture, if not belief.

 
At 3:23 PM, September 22, 2008, Anonymous Bruce said...

People also responded by treating religious stories as stories, rather than as historical fact. More moderate or liberal religious communities are then communities of people who believe in the importance of these stories. The Exodus from Egypt is a powerful story of freedom from oppression and tyranny, the importance of a people being governed by rules, etc., regardless of whether it actually happened.

Even stories like the Genesis creation stories can be read this way.

 
At 3:26 PM, September 22, 2008, Blogger jimbino said...

David,

I believe you make a serious, if common, mistake in equating religion with belief. Belief is only a part of it. Etymologically, "religion" has more to do with ritual and culture than with belief. That's the way it was with the classical Jews, Greeks and Romans.

You can be a Jew just by having a Jewish mother who sexually mutilates you at birth, and be a Catholic by secretly being baptized by an aunt or kidnapped by a Pope.

Since religion has as much to do with ritual as does faith or belief, any group "moment of silence" or "pledge of allegiance" or "oath of office" is in per se a religious ritual or observance forced upon the atheist, regardless of what he might be thinking or "believing" at that moment, just as his forcible circumcision or infant baptism would be.

Everyone born to a Muslim father in Saudi Arabia is a Muslim by law. Do you imagine that has anything to do with faith or belief?

 
At 5:05 PM, September 22, 2008, Anonymous billswift said...

I fail to see how having one giant irrationality is any better than having lots of little ones.

 
At 5:22 PM, September 22, 2008, Blogger Steamboat Lion said...

People who don't worship regularly are not the same thing as committed atheists such as myself who have arrived at that position through a deliberate process of reason.

People who profess some sort of vague belief in God or "spirituality" without adhering to a formal religion (evidenced by regular attendance) are just the sort I'd expect to believe in a whole range of superstitions (other than the ones promoted by formal religion).

I don't know about you, but I'd be very happy to have a person who holds reason as their highest guiding principle in the White House. Wouldn't be perfect but it would be a whole lot better than the alternatives.

 
At 7:55 PM, September 22, 2008, Anonymous MachineGhost said...

All this survey proves is that religious types are narrow-minded, not that non-religious types are more irrational. I've always found it ironic that religious types, most especially Christians, have the most extreme disbelief that anything can be learned about non-physical reality, including the afterlife. Isn't that domain supposed to be their forte, after all? Ironically, there's mounting scientific evidence for various paranormal phenomenom than there is for any religion.

Nevertheless, 31% is hardly anywhere near a majority, so the "news" about the survey is typical self-serving propaganda fron a religious institution. I also have to question the self-selection bias in why anyone non-religious would waste their time filling in that religious-biased survey.

However, if we're doomed by the "God module" in the brain to believe in at least something to the point of irrationality, than obviously that is a serious problem for someone who is not learned in the art of critical thinking. Most especially politicians.

 
At 7:16 AM, September 23, 2008, Blogger Jonathan said...

The Gallup survey is interesting. I speculate that some people have a need to believe in something irrational; most of them satisfy this need with religion, the others find substitutes. The really needy ones believe in religion plus anything else that comes their way.

It would also be interesting to repeat the survey in other countries. Perhaps similar results would be obtained, perhaps not.

I note that 69% of non-worshippers in the survey felt no need for substitutes. So I'm not unusual in that respect.

 
At 8:12 AM, September 23, 2008, Blogger phosphorious said...

It's interesting, I think, that the New Atheism focusses on Evolution, a theory which is well established, but actually of little practical consequence. Whether I evolved from a fish or was created by a god, my origins have no particular influence on how I act from day to day.

If I fail to believe in gravity, I am likely to make a fatal error; if I fail to believe in Evolution. . . so what, at least in immediate, practical terms.

So it doesn't surprise me that a belief in God, certainly not a scientifically respectable idea, could co-exist with a practical rationality about any number of things.

 
At 10:12 AM, September 23, 2008, Blogger David Friedman said...

"It's interesting, I think, that the New Atheism focusses on Evolution, a theory which is well established, but actually of little practical consequence."

Actually, evolution has some important consequences—but a lot of those who purport to believe in evolution don't believe in the consequences, a point I discussed in an earlier post.

http://daviddfriedman.blogspot.com/2008/08/who-is-against-evolution.html

 
At 10:22 AM, September 23, 2008, Blogger David Peterson said...

Lots of atheists believe in the government form of intelligent design. *rim shot*

 
At 1:20 PM, September 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

michael f. martin,

I'm not sure how you have read David Sloan Wilson's work but it certainly does not say this: "An important idea presented in his books is that evolutionary theory in it's axiomatic form is not inconsistent with many traditional doctrines of religion (such as the Nicene Creed)."

Sloan's ideas say very little about the content of any religious faith. Rather, his is a functionalist approach that widely supports the hypothesis that religion can serve a group-level adaptive function.

That's all.

 
At 1:21 PM, September 23, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The relationship between faith and reason - an age-old philosophical question. Thanks David for posting this.

That they are complimentary is argued fairly flawlessly in (St.) Thomas Aquinas's "Summa Contra Gentiles", written almost 800 years ago. Any discussion on this should include this monumental work. Note: It is preferable to read this in Latin as some English translations are inferior.

David, I am curious, did you ever study this and if so what are your thoughts?

 
At 2:28 PM, September 23, 2008, Anonymous RKN said...

It's interesting, I think, that the New Atheism focusses on Evolution, a theory which is well established, but actually of little practical consequence. Whether I evolved from a fish or was created by a god, my origins have no particular influence on how I act from day to day.

This is correct; I've shared the same point of view elsewhere on the web. The reason I think it's correct is because the theory is largely retrodictive, that is it relies on observations made today to infer what possibly happened in the past. Alas, we live our lives in the forward direction.

Neo-Darwinians will object that I'm overlooking the usefulness of the theory, i.e. its supposed ability to propose explanations for certain behaviors of modern organisms, including humans. While I find many of these explanations to be nothing more than phenomenological arm-waving, they are nevertheless absent any ethical guidance. In this sense, the theory is entirely agnostic.

Indifference to origin has an analogy in geology: regardless of whether you're a creationist or an atheist, mountains are fun to climb.

 
At 2:54 PM, September 23, 2008, Blogger Michael F. Martin said...

@anonymous 1:20 p.m.

Here's what D.S. Wilson writes in "Evolution for Everyone" (page 1):

"This is a book of tall claims about evolution: that it can become uncontroversial; that the basic principles are easy to learn; that everyone should want to learn them, once their implications are understood; that evolution and religion, those old enemies who currently occupy opposite corners of human thought, can be brought harmoniously together."

Perhaps you misunderstood what I meant to say. I'm not claiming that Wilson is in favor of the Nicene Creed or any religion in particular. But the evolutionary theory that he presents in this book is not inconsistent with traditional religious doctrines, including the Nicene Creed. The non-mutual exclusivity is what I understand him to be claiming in this, the first paragraph of the book.

There's way too much to be discussed in the comments here. Just wanted to try to be clear about why I was saying that about Wilson.

 
At 5:36 AM, September 30, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To micahel f martin:


"The non-mutual exclusivity is what I understand him to be claiming in this, the first paragraph of the book."

Fair enough.

Sloan's views in this important work (Darwin's Cathedral) are naturalistic--and his move toward religious groups as "functional" says really nothing about the content of religious groups. As such, any religious group can be studied naturalistically. That breaks down certain barriers, but one must ask--which ones. What is the import here? (see table 1.1, pg 45)

"But the evolutionary theory that he presents in this book is not inconsistent with traditional religious doctrines..."
What exactly does that mean? Any (and all!) religious doctrines fit into his purview precisely because it is naturalistic. If your religious worldview is non-adaptive, it fails (or adapts). Thus, one can study the Nicene Creed naturalistically and, of course, see how it would be perfectly "logical" to follow this as a function of the group.

I'm just not following your argument.

 
At 3:43 PM, September 30, 2008, Blogger Michael F. Martin said...

Like I said, too many ideas here to be discussed in the comments. I do think that one can make arguments for and against various religious doctrines on the basis of evolutionary theory, although I do not think that many will be testable (in reproducible experiments) in the sense that scientific arguments demand. And I do think that Christianity embodies an adaptive (and progressive) view of morality, although that is obscure in view of the Nicene Creed alone.

Perhaps you'd care to take up the discussion elsewhere?

 

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