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.