Who is More Likely to be Superstitious and Believe in Pseudo-Science?

The charge of being “superstition” is usually leveled against Christians. A none too typical example can be found in an unimaginatively named blogpost, “Christianity is a Superstition” by an individual blogging under the pseudonym of Chatpilot – another back-sliding Christian who claims to have had a really good grasp of Christianity when he went to his “very fundamentalist, literalist church” until his mind was apparently polluted by the sirens’ call of the Jesus-mythers. Here’s what Chatpilot wrote about Christianity: 
As I stated in my previous post religious beliefs are taught, and not only are they taught they are passed down from generation to generation within a society. What is being taught? The former superstitions of ones ancient ancestors before they even understood what science was and how the world and particularly nature functioned. God was created in the imagination of a primitive mind with limited understanding and resources about the various phenomena of nature.

Wow, that’s pretty condemning. So, if I am to understand that Christianity is a religion filled with gullible people who believe a superstition, it would seem logical that Christians are much more likely to fall into the trap of believing other superstitions and pseudo-sciences than their enlightened atheist/secularist counterparts, eh?  Well, not so fast.

According to an article published by Baylor University entitled “Baylor Survey Finds New Perspectives On U.S. Religious Landscape” the exact opposite is true: the irreligious (which includes atheists and secularists) are more likely to be superstitious than Conservative Christians. The article was not shallow; rather, the authors stated that their mission was to “ask deeper questions than other surveys do.”  To that end, a “total of 1,648 adults chosen randomly from across the country answered more than 350 items in the survey, which was designed by the Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion (ISR) and conducted by the Gallup organization in the fall of 2007” and asked participants questions designed to describe “what they think about God, what is God like and how does that characterization influence other parts of their lives.”  In the section of the article sub-titled “Christianity and Superstition”, the article states: 
The Baylor Survey found that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology (Ch. 15, "Credulity: Who Believes in Bigfoot"). Still, it remains widely believed that religious people are especially credulous, particularly those who identify themselves as Evangelicals, born again, Bible believers and fundamentalists. However, the ISR researchers found that conservative religious Americans are far less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal than are other Americans, with self-identified theological liberals and the irreligious far more likely than other Americans to believe. The researchers say this shows that it is not religion in general that suppresses such beliefs, but conservative religion. "There's an old saying that a man who no longer believes in God is ready to believe in just about anything, and it turns out our data suggests it's true. That is to say, religious people don't believe this stuff, but there's no education effect," Stark said. Among other interesting findings on paranormal or occult beliefs: People who have read The Purpose-Driven Life or any book in the Left Behind series are less likely to believe in the occult and paranormal, while those who have read any book on dianetics or The Da Vinci Code are more likely to believe. (Emphasis added)

But that’s not all. Astronomy Education Review, in its 2011 issue, published an article entitled “Astrology Beliefs among UndergraduateStudents” which showed something rather interesting. 
A survey of the science knowledge and attitudes toward science of nearly 10000 undergraduates at a large public university over a 20-year period included several questions addressing student beliefs in astrology and other forms of pseudoscience. The results from our data reveal that a large majority of students (78%) considered astrology “very” or “sort of” scientific. Only 52% of science majors said that astrology is “not at all” scientific.

So turning the numbers around, 48% of science majors believe that astrology is at least somewhat scientific! That should be shocking to some.

Another study published by the Journal of Undergraduate Research in 2004 entitled “Religiosity, Locus of Control, and Superstitious Belief” further noted a lack of correlation between religiosity (as it is termed) and superstition. The abstract notes, “This study examines two possible correlates of superstition: religiosity and locus of control. ANOVA suggest that levels of religiosity do not have a significant relationship with levels of superstitious or paranormal beliefs.”  (The author of the study could not believe her own findings, so she had to add language suggesting reasons that her findings did not find a strong correlation in the Discussion area when they obviously should have. C’est la vie. Such a response is what many Christians have come to expect from secular-minded scientists: stick with the negative hypothesis about Christians, Christianity or Christian beliefs despite the evidence.)  

And this is not contrary to our experiences. Where do you find people who believe in pyramid power? Where is astrology in vogue? Where do people practice transcendental medication? Where do you find your books believing in Bigfoot, zodiac signs and Ouija Boards? In the church? No, usually in the up-scale neighborhoods of cities populated by the self-pronounced "smarter-than-Christians" elitists. 

So, what’s the explanation? Why is it that Christians (specifically, conservative Christians) seem less amenable to falling prey to superstitious ideas than the irreligious? There are several possibilities.

One is that Christians already believe in one big superstition, so there is no reason to believe in any other. As one commenter on the Yahoo! Answers page writes, “All this is saying is that believing one form of exclusive superstition makes one less likely to believe in other forms of superstition.” Really? This might make sense with belief in some types of superstitions or pseudo-scientific beliefs like tarot cards or witchcraft, but all? Nothing in Christianity says that a Christian cannot believe in Bigfoot or UFOs. In fact, since Christians believe in the afterlife, it would seem as if it would be more likely that Christians would believe in communicating with the dead or haunted houses. At least some people have suggested that the Star of Bethlehem was a astrological event that brought the wise men (astrologers) from the East. Wouldn’t that make it more likely that Christians would believe in astrology? The Biblical Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams was what got him out of prison, so why don't Christians believe in dream-interpretation the way that non-Christians do? Consequently, this seems like a rather shallow answer.

A second more compelling answer relates to the loss of a foundation of science. Consider this: science was originally birthed in the Christian western world – not the world of Asia or Africa or the Americas. And while there were some experimentation by the ancient Greeks, it never resulted in a real scientific revolution. Why not? The answer is partially because it is the Christian world view that gives rise to science because it provides a basis for believing that science tells us something real. If God created the universe as stated in the Book of Genesis, then the universe is not a dream, nor is it evil. Moreover, in studying the universe, people have a right to believe that their senses are telling them something and that the universe makes sense because it comes from a rational mind.

For secularists and atheists, there is no reason to believe that the universe is rational. In fact, while science depends for its “truth” upon the principle that the laws of nature are the only immutable thing, the scientists know that we not only have no proof that such underlying assumption is true. But we also have no reason to believe that our minds, which are themselves the product of an irrational universe, are truly reasoning rationally. Moreover, the very principles that we have set up are forever being overturned by new scientific worldviews. The Copernican model of the universe was overturned by the Galileo's model of the universe which, in turn, was up-ended by the relativistic universe of Einstein. Now, there is even news reports that the speed of light may not be constant – a potentially troubling concept for the Relativistic view of the Universe.

In a universe with no real ability to know things, why not believe in dreams, pyramid power, haunted houses and astrology?  After all, just because these things are thought to be ridiculous by today’s scientists is irrelevant since they really can’t know the truth anyway. The Astronomy Education Review provides support fot this view. One of the questions that the participants were asked for agreement or disagreement was that “there are phenomena that physical science and the laws of nature cannot explain.” 81% of the participants either agreed with this statement or strongly agreed with this statement. 81%! That's huge. (Incidentally, I agree with the statement, too.) For those who are irreligious and for whom (we are told) rationalism and science are the only tests of truth, this seems to be a resounding negation of the trust in science.

This failure to believe that science can tell us everything about the universe is behind my final basis for understanding this rise in superstition and pseudo-science, and it is nothing new. The venerable G.K. Chesterton noted this reason at least as early as 1926 in his book, The Everlasting Man. In that book, Chesterton made the following observation: 
Superstition recurs in all ages, and especially in rationalistic ages. I remember defending the religious tradition against a whole luncheon table of distinguished agnostics; and before the end of our conversation every one of them had procured from his pocket or exhibited on his watch chain some charm or talisman from which he admitted that he was never separated. I was the only person present who had neglected to provide himself with a fetish. Superstition recurs in a rationalist age because it rests on something which, if not identical with rationalism, is not unconnected with skepticism. It is at least very closely connected with agnosticism. It rests on something that is really a very human and intelligible sentiment, like the local invocations of the numen in popular paganism. But it is an agnostic sentiment, for it rests on two feelings: first that we do not really know the laws of the universe; and second that they may be very different to all that we call reason. Such men realize the real truth that enormous things do often turn upon tiny things. When a whisper comes, from tradition or what not, that one particular tiny thing is the key or clue, something deep and not altogether senseless in human nature tells them that it is not unlikely. (Everlasting Man, Part 1, Section 6)

In other words, as men allegedly become more rationalistic, it is at the expense to a very large part of the human psyche. Rationalists necessarily argue that these deep, ingrained feelings that people have are irrational and therefore should be ignored. But we can’t ignore them. It is part of who we are. We were (pardon the expression) made that way. We instinctively recognize that there is more to life than can be measured with a yardstick or expressed in mathematics.  There is a truth that is outside of the bounds of science – a truth which science cannot touch nor understand. And if we suppress that truth by trying to suppress Christianity then people will necessarily express it by other means. Rabbit’s feet, pyramid power, transcendental meditation, New Age philosophy, the occult, etc. etc. These are all examples of man reaching out to express what she already knows to be truth, but which the rational mind supposedly denies.

Those trying to stamp out the supernatural and Christianity will never succeed in stamping out the innate feeling and part of humanity that knows there is more out there than our microscopes, telescopes and scientific method can ever hope to explain. To paraphrase the words of the singer-songwriter Donovan, they may as well try and catch the wind. But Christians already have an answer for that ingrained understanding of the universe -- and that understanding is that God created the universe, cares for the universe, and saved the universe through Jesus Christ. That, my friend, ends any need for talismans.


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