Natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. Such trusting obedience is valuable for survival…On this model we should expect…that superstitions and other non-factual beliefs will locally evolve — change over generations … . —Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
Not long ago at a local pub, an acquaintance interrupted a conversation in progress to announce, “I know the truth about Christianity. I read The Da Vinci Code.” Now, it was not really the assertion itself that made my jaw drop as much as the confidence with which it was proffered.
Perhaps Richard Dawkins is right that superstition is in such bountiful supply that it demands explanation in terms of our dispositions. But, we may ask, who is more likely to believe wild-eyed superstitions these days, the religious or irreligious?
New social science is shedding light on this question, and the results may surprise you.
Just last week Rodney Stark, a respected scholar at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion, released a study entitled “What Americans Really Believe.” Stark and fellow researchers commissioned The Gallup Organization to poll Americans on questions of religious import.
Many of the fascinating findings of this year’s Baylor Religion Survey, which asks much deeper questions than typical religious surveys, center on atheists and the irreligious. For instance, despite making their authors rich, the neo-atheist books of the past few years seem to have produced few American converts: Atheism is holding steady at around four percent of the population. Even more intriguing, the majority of Europeans are not atheists.
Gallup asked questions regarding belief in things like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster, Atlantis, haunted houses, and astrology. Baylor’s researchers aggregated these figures, producing an index of paranormal belief. As Mollie Ziegler Hemingway reported in The Wall Street Journal, “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.”
Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.
Ignoring available data such as these, prominent atheists continue to claim that religion breeds gullibility and superstition while letting go of God hastens enlightenment.
For example, Nobel laureate in Physics Steven Weinberg, writing recently in the The New York Review of Books, argues for what he sees as major tensions between science and religion, especially traditional theistic belief. “The first source of tension,” he writes,
arises from the fact that religion originally gained much of its strength from the observation of mysterious phenomena—thunder, earthquakes, disease—that seemed to require the intervention of some divine being. There was a nymph in every brook, and a dryad in every tree. But as time passed more and more of these mysteries have been explained in purely natural ways. Explaining this or that about the natural world does not of course rule out religious belief. But if people believe in God because no other explanation seems possible for a whole host of mysteries, and then over the years these mysteries were one by one resolved naturalistically, then a certain weakening of belief can be expected.
Despite the scientific erudition of Weinberg and similar prophets of scientific materialism, myths like this continue to persist. And it is the persistence of this mythology which leads our secular elites to see discord between the scientific and religious outlooks.
Even many non-religious historians of science now understand that, far from perpetuating old superstitions, the Judeo-Christian tradition constituted a radical break with pagan thought. It posited a single rational mind behind the universe rather than myriad irrational spirits in the universe. This Gestalt shift was crucial in the rise of modern science. It is no accident that experimental science arose in the West where the idea of the intelligibility of nature took root, for it made sense to seek orderly laws of nature if there exists a rational lawgiver of the universe.
While the findings of the Baylor study appear counterintuitive, perhaps they shouldn’t. Once we lose “faith” in the rational intelligibility of the universe, what is left to dissuade us from the latest findings of UFO-logy?
The existential question facing science today is whether it can survive an intellectual milieu dominated by the materialist superstition.
Logan Paul Gage is a policy analyst with Discovery Institute in Washington, D.C.