“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.