Skepticism

Name That Logical Fallacy in the Wall Street Journal

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, a blogger at getreligion.org, just lucked out big time when the Wall Street Journal decided to publish one of her articles without bothering to read it. Apparently.

I’ve highlighted poor journalism a lot recently, but I think this is the first article in awhile that was published in a nationally recognized daily newspaper. In case you don’t feel like slogging through the entire thing, here’s her position:

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 here are is her supporting points point:

Some studies show religious people hold fewer (other) superstitious beliefs

The main study she references is the most recent religion survey from Baylor. Baylor’s surveys on religion rarely fail to disappoint in terms of juicy data to interpret (and, like with all surveys, spin to your advantage).

The finding that very religious people hold fewer superstitions makes perfect sense to those of us who are or were religious at one time. I was raised Baptist, and knew for a fact that if I ever touched an Ouija board I’d be dealing not with ghosts in the afterlife but with Satan or his various demons. I knew that anyone who claimed to have psychic powers was at best a liar and at worst a tool of Satan. Other unexplained phenomena? Satan. Aliens spacecraft? No way. No aliens are mentioned in the Bible. It’s probably just Satan.

Of course, this recent finding isn’t exactly news. The Baylor study agrees with past surveys like a 2001 Gallup poll of paranormal beliefs, which also showed that the religious are less likely to believe in some things, like aliens. That Gallup poll also showed that religious people were more likely to believe in other things, like demonic possession. Does that mean that being religious is better or worse? More people die every year trying to be cured of demonic possession than die trying to escape aliens.

Still, though, we’re missing the point. It’s not whether the irrational person in question is considered “religious.” The point is that the person believes in something irrational and dangerous — dangerous to themselves as well as dangerous to the betterment of society. Surely we wouldn’t use the Baylor study as the basis for a new method of creating a more skeptical population by indoctrinating them all in some (Christian?) religion. We’re much better off continuing to teach people how to think critically about all these topics, from transubstantiation to creationism to “The Secret” to Bigfoot.

As a good example of the ridiculousness of her argument, Hemingway ends her article by highlighting an atheist who happens to be irrational: Bill Maher. It’s well known that Maher holds some silly beliefs about Western medicine, including not believing in the efficacy of vaccination. So, is it Hemingway’s point that if Maher found (the Christian) god, he would suddenly find science? What if he became a member of the First Church of Christ, Scientist? Christian Scientists believe that the only way to treat disease is through faith healing and homeopathy. To reverse the scenario, would any skeptic or atheist suggest that a Christian Scientist who decided there was no god would automatically know that homeopathy is bunk?

No one with any knowledge of religion would suggest that not believing in a god automatically means you are less likely to believe in anything else. Hemingway has built up a strawman here. What Richard Dawkins, Chris Hitchens, and others have suggested is simply that irrational belief in a god can be a very dangerous thing and that the world would be a better place were that belief to be irradicated. You may agree with that sentiment or not, but please, don’t misrepresent their arguments.

Thanks to Chuck for the link. Cross-posted on the SGU Blog.

Rebecca Watson

Rebecca leads a team of skeptical female activists at Skepchick.org. She travels around the world delivering entertaining talks on science, atheism, feminism, and skepticism. There is currently an asteroid orbiting the sun with her name on it. You can follow her every fascinating move on Twitter or on Google+.

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41 Comments

  1. Of course not. If someone is locked into one particular superstition, you aren’t “in the market” for any others. Just as you observed in your commentary above, Rebecca.

    True story: When I was in college in the early 2000’s, one of my classmates told me during a class that he hated to read and write. I was then floored with his next revelation: His major was Journalism. :-o

    Need I say more?

  2. Some studies show religious people hold fewer (other) superstitious beliefs

    Yeah. When you hold the granddaddy of all superstitious beliefs, it’s kind of pointless to lower the level with smaller ones.

    As you pointed out, Rebeccle, religious belief is a one-stop shopping for covering all superstitions. People feel safe in the warm blanket coverage the belief in a deity provides.

  3. The story does not equate religious beliefs with paranormal beliefs. That, in itself, is a major flaw.

    If the Baylor study finds that “traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology,” is that not simply because the believers’ focus shifts from one set of unsubstantiated paranormal woo-woo to another?

    The story states:

    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.

    Perhaps, given the current climate among the general population here in Canada and in the United States, the apparently growing fear of everything combined with the seeming willlingness of a small majority (large minority?) of the population to live candle-free in Sagan’s “demon-haunted world,” perhaps there is some truth to the story in the sense that the new atheist campaign may drive some deeply wooish folks out of traditional paranormaland (fear of being associated with theist fanatics?) into more new agey, trendy, benign, soft, paranormaland.

    Just pondering possibilities.

  4. @SicPreFix: At least I keep my candle burning(and some others here and there are burning, too).

    I don’t see any point to fear formless, invisible threats. There are enough real ones in this world to satisfy the most paranoid. Personally, I think Sagan’s “Demon Haunted World” should be required reading in every high school.

  5. @Vene: Oh yeah, I totally forgot to even mention that bit of idiocy. I think we addressed it on Skepchick when that survey debuted in all its glory, but I should’ve called it out again.

    This just in: three people who answered a survey don’t know what the word “atheist” means.

  6. Maybe it’s just my take on it, but in my case atheism means that I don’t believe in the supernatural at all.

    No ghosts (holy, unholy, or unaligned), no demons, no spirits except those that come in fifths ( ;-) ), unicorns, angels (avenging or not) orcs, poltergeists, anal probing aliens, selkies, elementals, Nessies, or BEM’s.

  7. I have observed (warning: personal, biased observations ahead) that some people who believe in astrology, reincarnation, UFOs and the like tend to have a dim view of traditional religions (because those religions say that what they believe is false and/or evil, are “The Man”, and so on). So, according to the logic of Ms. Hemingway, should atheists be encouraging belief in New-Age woo-woo to turn people away from religion?

    (And here’s hoping that no study surfaces showing that child molesters are less likely to commit other crimes than regular people. Who knows what Ms. Hemingway would be calling for in such a case.)

  8. Quick anecdote for ya:

    I was raised Baptist (but it was the most “liberal” Christian church in town, or, at least, it was known as the most “liberal” church in town). Additionally, my Dad was/is a religious academic — he believes in Christianity but also has an intellectual understanding of what religion is, how it works, has a wide variety of knowledge of religions other than his own, etc.

    ANYWAY — point is, I was raised to believe in God, but no one ever mentioned Satan or demons or anything like that. If they did, it was in passing, usually in reference to a Bible story and not in reference to anything actually happening in every day contemporary life. No one around me emphasized damnation or dark arts or anything like that.

    So, it was with great surprise that I found out later in life that other (seemingly normal) people actually believed in demonic posession, black magic, that kind of stuff. I remember seeing a Christian rock video warning against the dangers of Dungeons & Dragons and Ouija boards, based on the assumption that these things actually had magical powers and could actually do something.

    I’d always been taught the exact opposite — that the Ouija board is fake, the spells in Dungeons and Dragons are pretened, etc. It might be preferable not to get “wrapped up” in the fantasy, but no one was actually going to summon anything magical either on purpose or on accident. So, these things held no power for me. It seems like if you really want people to turn away from Satan, just teach that he doesn’t have any power — don’t impress them with how great his power actually is. Giving respect to his demonic powers as if they actually exist probably serves more to attract kids to various forms of woo than it does to turn them off to various forms of woo — after all, the Ouija board is more fun if you actually believe it can do something. Right?

    Anyway, I don’t know what my point is other than I could see where one approach to religious belief could limit your belief in other equally non-factual stuff, but another approach could just open the door to all kinds of stuff (like believing in child sacrificing devil worshippers, faith healing, speaking in tongues, other various urban legends).

    Do they count all this stuff as extra-religious paranormal belief, or is it all wrapped up in religion? If you take two people who consider themselves religious and one doesn’t believe in faith healing, and the other does, does that make one of them not religious, or does it make one of them more gullible, or what?

  9. “The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won’t create a new group of intelligent, skeptical, enlightened beings. ”

    Fact is, campaign or no campaign, nothing is really going to change because people are dumb. Evolution did not favour people with big brains, but rather people with small brains who matured faster (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0803917105) we are all desended for the horny hominids not the smart ones.

    Evolution will not make humans super-smart in 000’s of years, evolution has no interest in “progress” just getting the genes out there. From a genes eye view all human smarts aren’t really required, all thats needed is just enough brains to avoid danger, find food and f*ck. In evolutionary terms the overweight 17 year old school dropout single mum with 5 kids by 5 dads is solid gold: get the genes out there in large numbers and fast. Those of us who control our fertility and maybe try to have one child at about 35 (if we’re not dried up by then which more than half of us will be), are a darwinian dead-end

    Sadly, the stupid, not the meek, will inherit the earth.

  10. @QuestionAuthority:

    For me it’s not that I’m unwilling or unable to believe in the supernatural; it’s that I have yet to see any compelling evidence that anything supernatural has happened or exists. Compelling evidence I suppose may change my mind. But having a belief in something that defines ones existence and is fundamentally core to all subsequent life decisions, and all the while having no evidence whatsoever to support this view, seems the pinnacle of irrational and magical thinking.

    I’ve got better things to do with my time.

  11. @JamesFox: …which is exactly why I don’t believe in the supernatural.

    To me, since none of the aformentioned have any scientific evidence for their existence, they are all equally nonexistent. If someone can show me some scientifically valid, unambiguous evidence for their existence, I’ll gladly reconsider my POV.

    Meanwhile, I’ll go on my merrily skeptical way. :-D

  12. @EdWood: That’s just it — lots of different people are skeptical about lots of different things. But the article is saying that “new atheism” encourages superstition. People prone to superstition are more likely to believe in such things regardless of whether they are religious or atheistic because neither of those words = skeptic.

  13. @drockwood: Not fundie, no. We went to church every Sunday when I was a kid, and when I was old enough I attended a youth group every week and was really into it. It wasn’t anything strict. Eventually we were just going to church on holidays, and now I don’t think my parents really go to church at all.

  14. Ah, see, here’s what’s really happening: Losing one’s faith creates a “belief vacuum”, causing all manner of strange ideas to rush into their brain. An extreme example is the case of Dewey Evers, a devout Baptist minister who, upon renouncing his faith, immediately began to believe that abominable snow pixies from Atlantis were stealing his nail clippings to power a spaceship for Elvis.

  15. @drockwood: Not at all. Ouija boards were spoken of in hushed terms by youth group leaders and pastors. It was understood that we were never to go near one. Also off-limits: Dungeons & Dragons and meditation. I distinctly remember a youth group lesson on a girl who meditated so deeply Satan took possession of her body. Scared the living shit out of me.

  16. @Steve:

    Yes, Parker Bros makes Ouija boards, but that’s not the only Ouija board out there… it’s sort of like saying that pizza comes from Domino’s.

    All anyone needs is something with numbers and letters and a movable planchette for the spiritghosts to push around to communicate.

    Embarrassingly, I was way into Ouija boards in college.

  17. I wonder how non-religious superstitions correlate with each other.

    Some of the people I know who believe one sort of woo are likely to believe any other sort of woo that gets media attention. For instance the ones who already believed in auras and acupuncture all bought chi machines when they came out and thought highly of the movie “What the Bleep Do We Know.”

    Granted “people I know who believe in auras” is not a good statistical basis from which to draw conclusions!

  18. “More people die every year trying to be cured of demonic possession than die trying to escape aliens.”

    Yet them aliens are gonna be the death of Lou Dobbs. He just keeps on obsessin’ over them aliens taking away Americans’ jobs. That can’t be good for his health.

  19. I had a neighbor that the Harry Potter books were evil because they set the stage for belief in witchcraft and magic. I think the truth is that traditional religions do the same thing. When become disillusioned with the established Church, they often tend to gravitate toward other types of Woo because, although they’ve left organized religion, they haven’t left belief in the supernatural behind. As a former Unitarian Universalist, I saw alot of this in their ranks – Methodist, Catholic, etc… refugees turning to paganism, new age claptrap and the like.

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