Thursday, September 25, 2008

Does religion protect us against pseudoscience?

A recent study from Baylor University suggests that the answer is yes. In "Look Who's Irrational Now" (Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2008), Mollie Ziegler Hemingway notes,
"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.
Now, that in itself should not be a surprising finding. For one thing, traditional religious groups tend to oppose occult practices, so the regular attender is likely to be aware of the group's negative view.

One can't help but recall King Saul and the Witch of Endor in 1 Sam 28:
When Saul saw the Philistine army, he was afraid; terror filled his heart.

6 He inquired of the LORD, but the LORD did not answer him by dreams or Urim or prophets.

7 Saul then said to his attendants, "Find me a woman who is a medium, so I may go and inquire of her."

"There is one in Endor," they said.

8 So Saul disguised himself, putting on other clothes, and at night he and two men went to the woman. "Consult a spirit for me," he said, "and bring up for me the one I name."

9 But the woman said to him, "Surely you know what Saul has done. He has cut off the mediums and spiritists from the land. Why have you set a trap for my life to bring about my death?"
Saul's original view, however "non-diverse", was the normal one for traditional Western monotheistic religion. The image here at Wikimedia Commons features Saul and the Witch, and - I think - pretty much captures the terminal goofiness of all that stuff.

Another interesting Baylor finding: Higher education does not affect whether people believe in ghosts, psychic healing, haunted houses, demonic possession, clairvoyance, and witches.

I am not sure what to make of this finding, as reported, because the beliefs are not all equally ridiculous. As Mario Beauregard and I noted in The Spiritual Brain, there is some laboratory evidence for telepathy as a consistent low-level effect.

And demonic possession is an especially difficult case for surveys. Traditional religions assume that possession is possible in principle, so adherents may say that they believe in it in principle. But they may almost always seek other explanations in practice, believing that God would not permit possession to happen to believers. That does not mean that they literally deny the possibility.

The haunted houses I will simply pass by ...

In any event, as for late night comic Bill Maher - the inspiration for Hemingway's Wall Street Journal piece - and the sponsor of Religulous, an anti-religious documentary:

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.
Wow. I am old enough to have been in the long line of people getting the Salk vaccine at my local elementary school in Regina, Saskatchewan, in 1956, and I remember the general disappearance of the polio scare in the following years.

Anyway, it turns out that traditional religion is an excellent prescriptive against many superstitions and much pseudoscience

Note: With "psychic healing," we need to define our terms carefully. There is massive evidence for the placebo effect (in research studies, people often get better because they believe they will). Is that psychic healing?

This qualification probably did not affect the surveys of religious folk because they would attribute the healing to the power of prayer and would not use the word "psychic" to explain matters. The main research question in recent yeas has been to distinguish between the effect of prayer for one's own health and prayer for the health of others - intercessory prayer - which, for many, is a religious duty.

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