Education, Atheism – are they the enemies of Reason?

“The majority of Britons believe in heaven and life after death, new research suggests.” The BBC News story here is well worth reading, and shows some interesting things. Firstly we are a lot less sceptical about New Age ideas and certain fringe practices like astrology and tarot cards than we used to be – what Randi’s people categorize as “woo”.  However we are more sceptical about certain aspects of the supernatural than a decade ago in 1998 – in short popular belief in the supernatural is constantly waxing and waning; I think I could have told you that. The popular culture of the 1970’s was far more sympathetic to parapsychology say than the 90’s were – and yet the 2000’s saw a sudden interest in Spiritualism connected with certain TV shows.

I have a rather heretical thought about ‘paranormal’ beliefs, and their relationship to atheism. I originally posed a question on Professor Dawkins forum as it was inspired by his show The Enemies of Reason. I am sure the Professor has better things to do than answer my questions though, (and he didn’t) and so I have revised it and asked it here.

I had been reading The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener (1983) by noted mathematician, science writer and skeptic Martin Gardner. In 1976 Martin Gardner was a founder member of CSI(COP), which has done a great deal over the years in debunking paranormal claims and fighting the rise of superstition. Many readers of this blog may have his enjoyed his Fads & Fallacies In the Name of Science.

In Chapter 3 of  The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener  – “Why I am not a Paranormalist” – Gardner mounts a blistering attack on superstition. It contains many of the themes touched in Dawkin’s The Enemies of Reason, and one curious disagreement.

Martin Gardner, 1983 wrote:

As always with such manias, causes are multiple: the decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated, the resurgence of Protestant Fundamentalism, disenchantment with science for creating a technology that is damaging the environment and building horrendous war weapons, increasingly poor quality of science instruction on all levels of schooling, and many other factors…

I found that first bit fascinating. Now Gardner is not Fundamentalist obviously, he is not a Christian, though he is a Fideist rejecting all special revelation, but remaining a theist. Like most scholars he sees Fundamentalism as arising recently (within the last century pretty much) and a bad thing– but he regards the “decline of traditional religious beliefs among the better educated” as a key factor in the rise of pseudo-science, cults and superstition?

It in no way justifies religious belief, but it is very interesting as a claim. OK, so I doubted. Gardner is a theist – he must be biased. What are his sources? Luckily he references them. It is the article Superstitions Old and New by William Sims Bainbridge and Rodney Stark in The Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 4, Summer 1980. 

Gardner says  they

…reported on their surveys of how beliefs in certain aspects of the current occult mania correlated with religious faith. They found people with no professed religion were the most inclined to believe in ESP and extraterrestrial UFOs. Paranormal cults were strongest in areas where the traditional churches were weakest.

Never trusting anyone’s opinions I have just been through the Sheep/Goat tests from my 1993 Paranormal Beliefs Survey of attendees at a lecture series in Cheltenham. The test used by the group was an early Sheep/Goat test which measured some religious claims as well as paranormal ones. Later we adopted the 1979 New Australian Sheep/Goat Test by Michael Thalbourne, but this earlier version suited my purposes. There were 83 respondents, and while I have not had time to perform a proper statistical test – the data is on stapled questionnaires, not in electronic format and it’s too late to type it all in tonight – there does appear to be a very strong correlation between non-belief in God and belief in UFOs as alien visitors, and between non-belief in Jesus as divine and belief in both ghosts & magic, to give a few examples. I recall now being once asked asked if many parapsychologists were Christian – and I said none at all that I knew of, they were all atheists. I have just looked at my “psychics” who I sometimes work with on testing – only one identifies as Spiritualist, two as atheist (Atheism is VERY common among Spiritualists following the example of Arthur Findlay – indeed Roll’s Campaign For Philosophical Freedom is an atheist organization which makes Dawkins look like a vicar) and seven “none”; six more are unclassifiable.

Not one professed belief in any “orthodox” faith. Now I’m sure Dawkins would regard my Anglicanism as just as much superstitious woo as does say crystal power, so this is a false distinction to him: but the evidence seems to suggest to me that the modern irrationalist supernaturalism is inversely related to traditional (non-fundamentalist) religious beliefs. I think whoevermisquoted G.K. Chesterton was right, even if as is possible Chesterton never actually said it “when a man stops believing in God he does not believe in nothing: he believes in anything”. Correlation is not causality – and of course the better educated college students are more likely to believe in ghosts etc –

assuming the Skeptical Inquirer is cited correctly! So perhaps the increase in woo is just a by product of the decline of traditional religious belief, increased secularism and atheism, and better education? The evidence certainly seems to point that way???

I find this both interesting, amusing, and deeply ironic.

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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8 Responses to Education, Atheism – are they the enemies of Reason?

  1. Murray66 says:

    This certainly fits well with a similar comment I made about atheist fascination with Christianity. Perhaps all people intuitively know that we are all connected back to our original source. Refusing to admit to that source being God, they create a need for alternative explanations.

  2. rana says:

    i think atheism will distruct himself, cause denying God existance it actually asure that God exist.

  3. Pingback: In Praise of Epistemological Anarchism: Science, Ghosts and the Guardians of Order « "And sometimes he's so nameless"

  4. First off, lots of people believing something doesn’t make it true. So I’m not quite sure what you intend to convey by quoting numbers of believers. Lots of people believe the plotlines of soap operas are real, that doesn’t mean we should pander to them – but neither does it mean we should ban soap operas. Although now I come to think of it… nevermind.

    Secondly you seem to group athiests together as a single, unified group along with Dawkins. That’s just as bonkers as grouping all Christians together with the Ku Klux Klan, or all Muslims together with Al-Queda, or all Buddhists together with… oh, I can’t think of any Buddhist atrocities. Cosplay fans of the 1978 martial arts TV show “Monkey”, let’s say.

    Thirdly, I’m very, very wary of questionnaires which ask whether people “believe” or “follow” particular things, be they gods or UFOs or ghosts or orthodoxies or whatever. What exactly is being meant by “believe” or “follow”? I believe that a person that we call Jesus Christ did actually exist around 1-30AD give or take 50 years, and I think that many of the things He is reported to have said are good moral advice that I try to follow. Do I believe that He is the biological son of a giant Caucasoid hominid who lives in the clouds, sports an enormous white beard, always wears a dressing gown, can throw lightning bolts from His fingers and who created Earth from void in 144 hours? No. Do I believe that people have visually identified anomalous semi-transparent apparitions which seemed to them to be humanoid? Yes. Do I believe that these apparitions are connected to deceased humans? No. Do I believe that there are objects which we cannot identify which fly? Yes. Do I believe that intelligent non-terrestrial life has ever been in communication with Earth? No. Am I a Christian? Am I a follower of the Church of England? Am I an atheist? Do I believe in ghosts? In UFOs?

    Y’see, there are only really two points which matter. Firstly, can the concept in question be definitively proven? If so, fine, it’s an undeniable part of accepted reality and the conversation ends. If not, does it have other uses which make it valuable despite its deniability? Does the concept act as a good morality guide? Does the concept provide reassurance for the otherwise hopeless? Does it bring a supportive social circle along for the ride? Does it promote wealth? Promote happiness? Promote basic sanitary practices? Provide a framework for further study? Get you out of the house?

    As for the exact ins and outs of individual beliefs and disbeliefs, once you have got beyond the basic nuts-and-bolts definitive proof – i.e. once you have accepted that your non-provable beliefs might be factually incorrect – does it really matter? I don’t think it does. If you choose to believe one impossible thing before breakfast, but not two, does that really matter?

    We spend so much time and efforts focussing on factual accuracy, that we forget that the main point of most of these concepts is the other benefits (and sometimes drawbacks) that these beliefs and practices bring with them.

    The point of God is not that there is a God, the point of God is that you should be nice to people. The point of UFOs is not aliens, the point of UFOs is social interaction and an excuse to study engineering and cosmology, amongst other benefits. Belief is neither defined nor required, so we can just ditch it; asking about belief serves no purpose. Belief should be valued indirectly, by its fringe benefits.

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      This will take a while to respond to Andy as I’m busy at moment so I’ll reply properly later, but in response to your first point, no of course number of believers tells us nothing about the truth of a proposition – that is the Argumentum ad populum and nonsensical. However when you are discussion sociological shifts in the nature of beliefs, as I am here, numbers suddenly become relevant — because the point of my piece is to look at changes in the nature of UK beliefs, not if those beliefs are true or not. (that would be an ecumenical matter! 😉 ) I’ll respond shortly, just need to finish something and do some work…

      cj x

    • Chris Jensen Romer says:

      Right moving on, I certainly don’t intend to lump atheist together in any way beyond “they do not believe in God(s) or Goddess(es). People who do that are a real bugbear of mine, and i think I have written against tit on my blog. In fact I do note in the piece there are many Spiritualist Atheists, who are hardly followers of Dawkins! 🙂

      On point three, absolutely: in religious studies we talk about “self-report of beliefs” or “perceptions of beliefs” as the whole thing is even more complicated than you suggest here. I’ll blog on it one day, but yes, questionaires can be misleading. That is why I used the New Australian Sheep/Goat test in my example, and noted “professed belief” What we mean when we say we believe in something is as you accurately observe extremely complicated: I think I touch on this in my latest post.

      I’m VERY interested in your last few paragraphs, as that is something again I intend to write on as soon as time allows.I have just completed a post in which I was directly addressing (towards the end) “does it matter?”, and I think it does, when belief impinges on actual behaviors (“praxis” is the term we use in Theology and Religious Studies. If a belief does not, we tend to ignore it; people can profess to believe all sort of things, but the bottom line is if it impacts on behavior, as Festinger realized)( Nice tie in here with what I have been talking about in “Beyond Sally Morgan” or whatever I called it…

      There are real issues with whether we can KNOW about God or the “supernatural” in terms of our usual scientific methodologies: I am very boring on the subject, and while i have touched on it at my talk at Skeptics in the Pub and on this blog I will return to it soon 🙂 If you are interested have a look at my review of Professor Chris French talk at SitP Cheltenham to get a quick overview of how I’m thinking…

      Anyway I need to go do some proper work!
      cj x.

      • For Christianity the issue of “belief” really bothers me. The most important part of the religion is right there in the title; Christ-ianity; Christ. The religion should be about Christ; the good examples set by Christ and the parables narrated by Christ. The bits about God, Spirits or Angels are disposable, it’s not called God-ianity or Angel-ianity or Spirit-ianity, it’s called Christ-ianity. Instead, we are in the absurd position of having Bishops and Vicars wittering on about God and the Holy Spirit from cathedrals and abbeys that house souvenir shops that accept foreign credit cards. That’s so utterly illogical that I really cannot comprehend the confusion of ideas that has led to this state. If there’s one thing we really know about Christ, one story about his moral indignation that has multiple reliable sources, that survives translation from every angle and down all the ages, it is that Jesus was definitely, violently, opposed to money changing (converting foreign currency with commission) and money lending (credit with interest) taking place in temples. How can these people get so far up into the hierarchy of anything that calls itself a Christian organisation whilst these transactions are literally going on in front of them? If there’s one thing, one practical step that the Church of England could do in order to abide by the word of our Lord Jesus Christ, it would be to restrict souvenir shop purchases to cash and Sterling debit cards only.

  5. Thomas m says:

    He is stating a pretty well known fact that people who lose faith in one supernatural ideology generally replace it with one that offers a similar psychological crutch. Atheism doesn’t serve a psychological requirement for a sense of place in the world and while it may be part of ones identity, atheism doesn’t offer the same shared identity that conforming to a religion might bring. Along with the comforting element of belonging to a cohesive group.

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