Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Who's irrational?

posted by Chet at 11:17 AM UTC

An interesting essay in the September 19 Wall Street Journal: Look Who's Irrational Now, by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway. The gist is this: Self-professed atheists are more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena -- astrology, Bigfoot, alien abductions, and the like -- and Evangelical Christians are least likely to believe.

Ziegler Hemingway references a new study from Baptist-affiliated Baylor University, funded by -- guess who? -- the John Templeton Foundation. Nothing wrong with the survey, of course. It is a useful look at who we are and what we believe. It is the slant that Hemingway (and Baylor) gives to the results that needs critique.

The suggestion is that Evangelical Christians are less superstitious than members of more liberal Christian denominations, and especially less superstitious than agnostics and atheists. Take that! Richard Dawkins.

That is to say, people who believe that there were dinosaurs on the ark are less superstitious than people who read their horoscope in the newspaper. Or to put it another way, people who have read the Left Behind novels are less superstitious than those who have read The Da Vinci Code. The implication is so fatuous as to be beyond comment.

There is no "gotcha" in Ziegler Hemingway's essay. What the Baylor study shows -- and we already knew -- is that humans have an insatiable appetite for baloney, and that applies to both atheists and Evangelicals. We want desperately to believe that we aren't ignored by the universe, and UFOs are as useful as guardian angels in affirming our cosmic importance.

I wonder what the Baylor researchers would find if they asked the same questions, say, of members of the American Academy of Science. We know that the great majority of members count themselves atheists or agnostics. I would bet my last dime that they are equally skeptical of the paranormal.

The great divide with regard to superstition is not between atheists and Evangelicals, but between skeptics and true believers of every ilk. What never ceases to amaze me is why we go searching for the supernatural and the paranormal, when the natural and the normal is so endlessly fascinating. The tiny insect that is at this moment crawling across the screen of my computer is a greater cause for awe than a choir of angels or a fleet of UFOs.