Look who’s irrational now… everyone!

Baylor University, a private Baptist school in Texas, has just published the results of a survey of American religious belief.  One of the findings, which was picked up by the Wall Street Journal, is 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.

This comes right after the paragraph in which it is revealed that 55% of Americans believe they have a guardian angel watching over them, and preventing harm from coming to them, and that 45% of Americans have had at least 2 “religious encounters”, such as:

…hearing the voice of God, feeling called by God to do something, being protected by a guardian angel, witnessing and/or receiving a miraculous physical healing, and speaking or praying in tongues.

Unsurprisingly, the presumably Baptist researchers concluded that such experiences are central to American religion, and that adhering to a conservative brand of Christianity conveys resistance to belief in “the occult and paranormal”, ignoring the fact that the “religious encounters” are in fact instances of the paranormal.  They may be Christian paranormal, but they’re still paranormal: “denoting events or phenomena that are beyond the scope or understanding of normal scientific understanding” or if you prefer, Christian occult: “supernatural, mystical, or magical beliefs, practices, or phenomena”.

I’m sure there’s a wealth of information in the survey results regarding the supernaturalist beliefs of Americans, but from this non-theist, naturalist’s point of view, the main result is that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not engage in skeptical inquiry.  Their domains of credulity may be distinct (guardian angels vs. bigfoot) but on the whole, they are happy to accept extraordinary claims without any evidence backing them up.

I’m potentially open to an argument that rationality and skepticism are not neccesarily always favorable.  The second life lesson Robert McNamara put forward in The Fog of War was: “Rationality will not save us.”  He was speaking in the context of the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which several nominally rational people almost brought about a thermonuclear holocaust, and the firebombings of Dresden, Tokyo, and countless other cities in WWII.  The Tradgedy of the Commons is a failure based entirely on rational individual behavior, as was the tulipomania from which our financial system is currently suffering a serious hangover.  But on average, I’d say rationality and skeptical inquiry are things we (humanity) could do with a bit more of.

7 thoughts on “Look who’s irrational now… everyone!”

  1. I think the article has some confused points about it. For instance, it equivocates irrationality and credulity. Agreeing with Merriam-Webster, I take rationality to mean “agreeable to reason”. This is a large enough umbrella to include supernatual causes and effects. (That is, I haven’t come to the conclusion that the supernatural is inherently irrational.)

    The Baylor study probably has a lot of interesting data in it.

    For instance, I’m suprised that college-educated people get more credulous with additional education. This seems to go counter to the notion that with greater education comes greater skeptical inquiry (and hence greater resistance to religious belief(?)).

    On the whole, we should probably be wary of the study’s biases (e.g., credulity=irrationality) and conclusions (e.g., religion promotes “rationality”).

    The opposite of credulity is not Christianity; it’s skeptical inquiry. But sometimes the evidence and reason are in favor of a supernatural conclusion.
    I should be clear: the biases might be that of the WSJ reporter rather than the Baylor study authors.

    Here’s the Baylor press release on their survey of the U.S. religious landscape:


    I note that they didn’t even consider this aspect of their survey results (the credulity/Evangelical affiliation anti-correlation) as headline-worthy; it’s buried about halfway down the page.

  2. In brief, the linchpin of Christianity: Jesus of Nazareth died by crucifixion, remained dead for more than 24 hours, then came back to life.

    The reasons are too many to go into in a post, but I find any natural explanations flawed or unpersuasive and am basically left with an un-natural or super-natural explanation, along the lines of what the earliest eyewitness accounts say.

  3. My point is mainly that the authors of the study artificially separate Christianity from the paranormal and occult. Many of the religious experiences respondents describe are indistinguishable from astrology and alien abductions, except for the fact that they have Christian window dressing. We are a nation of credulous supernaturalists – primarily, but not exclusively of the Christian variety. A triumph of religious tolerance, that.

    And as a naturalist, I would suggest that by far the most likely explanation of Jesus’ miraculous resurrection is that he either didn’t die on the cross in the first place, or that he didn’t rise from the dead, that 2000 year old eyewitness accounts are unreliable (Or at least no more reliable than modern accounts of alien abductions, or 17th century accounts of witchcraft in Salem), and that to accept such an extraordinary claim without extraordinary evidence belies either a particular credulity, or an explicit willingness to suspend disbelief on the question, in exchange for admission to a supportive community of faith.

  4. You say you are a naturalist. How did you come to the conclusion that the only thing that exists is the physical world governed by natural laws?

    What leads you to believe 2000 year old accounts are unreliable? Is it because they are so old? You can’t just pitch out an ancient document because you don’t like what it says; you need good reasons. From your comparisons with witchcraft stories, it sounds more like you are discounting the accounts because they suggest the supernatural and your prior commitment to naturalism philosophically restricts you from taking any such account seriously. But it’s the existence of the supernatural that’s in question. Assuming it does not exist (i.e., naturalism) does not prove it does not; that would be circular reasoning.

    Regarding extraordinary claims: It sounds like you’re claiming that Jesus’ resurrection is patently unbelievable. The events described are contrary to the laws of nature and inconsistent with ordinary human experience. Any reasonable person should reject them out of hand, just as they would reject the claim that an unaided man flew faster than a speeding bullet.

    But this particular objection is inadmissible because it’s one of the things at issue. The verdict can’t be presumed; it must be proved by evidence. That’s the legal method. We don’t need extraordinary evidence for extraordinary claims. We just have to decide if the witnesses to the extraordinary events are believable given the standard tests of evidence.

    Regarding the last comment about a supportive community of faith; I don’t want to surround myself with people who believe a lie, regardless of the supposed community benefits.

    What do we need to establish Jesus’ resurrection? We need to show he was dead at point A in time and alive at point B in time. We need to demonstrate he was dead and then demonstrate he was alive; that’s it. There’s a record that he was dead. It is not contested among serious historians that Jesus died on a Roman cross. So we have Jesus dead on a Friday afternoon, executed on a Roman cross. A little later, we’ve got some other things. We’ve got an empty tomb. We’ve got people who claimed to have seen Jesus. That the disciples claimed to have seen him alive, this is not disputed. Then the question is this: What accounts for their claim that they saw Jesus resurrected from the dead? You don’t have too many options. One is they were hallucinating; all of them. Another one is that they were lying; all of them. Another one is, they saw the resurrected Jesus. Pretty much there’re only three options given the testimony of the ancient documents which most historians think is legitimate.

    Groups don’t have hallucinations like this; hallucinations happen inside people’s heads, they don’t happen outside in the middle of a room where everybody hears and sees the same thing. That’s the problem with hallucinations.

    What about lying disciples? This is probably the strongest response: They say they saw Jesus, but they were lying. It would be very unusual for people to die for a lie when they knew it was a lie. For the disciples to claim that Jesus had risen from the dead put them at mortal risk; and in fact many of them did die as a result. Those who believed them might have died for a lie, not knowing it was a lie, because they didn’t know–they’re just believing somebody else. But the disciples themselves, they would know if it wasn’t true.

    I find this to be a compelling argument. You have all of them, which according to the historical record, were at first running and hiding when Jesus was taken into custody. Then something happened that transformed them.

    When you look at the historical accounts, this is not a glowing report of the disciples’ faith (read: trust). What you see in the accounts is all of their lack of trust; this turns out to be evidence for the trustworthiness of those accounts. You have women in there giving information. If you’re going to make a phony story, you don’t put the salient details in the mouth of a woman since their testimony wasn’t trusted in the ancient world. You don’t talk about your lousy faith and that you disbelieved, all shaking in a corner. Unless, of course, it actually happened that way. The accounts don’t have the earmarks of fiction. It rings true for some of the reasons I’ve mentioned. This is why I take them seriously. And then you have to account for, Why did they believe the saw and heard a man who was previously dead? And the answer that makes the most sense is that they actually saw the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth.

  5. Why are you choosing to believe this one particular extraordinary claim, amidst the vast sea of extraordinary claims made in antiquity? Or do you find them all equally plausible?

    I think it’s entirely plausible that Jesus was executed by crucifixion and buried, and that his tomb was found empty three days later. Mary Magdalene, three weeping ladies, and the apostles subsequently claim to have seen him alive before ascending to heaven. These people were part of a religious and political movement – in fact they were its leaders, and there are no end of reasons why it might have seemed useful for them to imbue the memory of their leader with an especially supernatural aura. This doesn’t have to be a seen as a cynical interpretation. Many of the things their movement was advocating for were good. Are his teachings so fragile that they cannot stand as truths unto themselves, without his supernatural backing?

    The answer that feels best (to you) is that they actually saw the resurrected Jesus of Nazareth. There are many other answers which make more “sense” in the context of our everyday, repeatable, experience of the world. You say that holding this extraordinary event to the same standard as everyday existence is unfair – for what is being claimed, in fact, is its extraordinary nature. But that is also an entirely circular argument. I prefer to believe that the universe behaves according to natural laws which are self-consistent and comprehensible and subject to repeatable observation, and you prefer to believe that occasionally extraordinary things happen which are totally inconsistent with your everyday experience, and not subject to empirical investigation. From a purely philosophical point of view we can’t tell which belief is correct. The part that confuses me is how you choose this particular set of events to believe in, when the space of possible miracles is infinite.

  6. Many good questions and issues; it’s good, I’m stretching my brain… but I get frustrated pushing against the character limit (whatever it is).

    “You say that holding this extraordinary event to the same standard as everyday existence is unfair… that is an entirely circular argument.”

    I don’t know if that’s my view. In fact, I think we should hold the evidence for any event up to the usual standard for evidence we use in everyday existence.

    Singular events (Black swans, if you want) can happen. 9/11 happened. It is out of ordinary human experience. It’s extraordinary. But we believe it happened. Why? At first, all we really knew was that many people claimed they saw the Twin Towers get hit by planes and collapse. They also took footage. But why do we believe their claim? We believe the witnesses are credible (for whatever reason plus there were so many of them!) and believe the images we saw weren’t photoshopped. [Do we have good justification for believing this?]

    We took their word that what they say happened actually happened, based on the usual standard of evidence we use in everyday experience, even though it was an extraordinary event.

    One could say, “ah, but the attack on the Twin Towers is not inconsistent with the laws of physics and biology. There is a naturalistic explanation for the whole thing”. To which I could (perhaps) agree. But the main point is that though it was an extraordinary claim to begin with, we use the usual standards of evidence to come to the conclusion that it actually happened. We haven’t recreated it in a lab, or simulated it on the computer. In fact, I could probably disagree that a naturalistic explanation could be supplied for the whole thing. How does one naturalistically account for the hijackers motives and intentions? Why didn’t we simulate that on a computer and avoid the catastrophe in the first place. [But that’s another issue regarding the existence of a soul…]

    Regarding what may feel better, it doesn’t matter what answer I or you may like. What matters is the fact of the matter. Jesus’ resurrection does not make my life better; It might make my life harder. Besides, psychological confidence or certainty is not relevant to questions of objective fact, of what actually happened. I’m persuaded that any die-hard flat Earthers past or present are patently wrong about the shape of the world, despite their confidence.

    What you may prefer to believe is fine, but that reduces it to mere opinion. Having good reasons for what you believe is another matter. In any case, we both agree that “the universe behaves according to natural laws which are self-consistent and comprehensible and subject to repeatable observation”, and yes, in addition to this, I am convinced that extraordinary things outside my everyday experience happen (historical events like 9/11, for instance and Jesus’ resurrection for another). I don’t claim these extraordinary things are beyond empirical investigation (that which can be known through the five senses). The usual standard of evidence is based on what comes in through the five senses, which, in everyday experience, includes what others say they saw and heard.

    By the way, I still don’t understand on what grounds you think that the universe and natural law is all there is, was, or ever will be. How does one empirically verify that?

    Getting to the issues raised (pun?) about the resurrection:

    “Why are you choosing to believe this one particular extraordinary claim, amidst the vast sea of extraordinary claims made in antiquity? Or do you find them all equally plausible?”

    I do not find them all equally plausible, and admittedly I haven’t looked into the veracity of all the claims. If you can point me to a significant historical claim that I should look into, because it has enormous bearing on the nature of reality, then maybe I should look into it.

    I think Jesus’ case is such a claim and is unique in many regards, and merits great attention, mostly because of peculiar things he said about himself and his role in the universe. In some ways, his moral teachings are not especially unique; they were already in the Old Testament and in other religions. In that sense, some of the moral teachings are not fragile.

    But he drew attention to himself, not to his teaching. Most religious leaders minimize themselves and then their disciples deify them. Jesus affirmed his own divinity and then his disciples left him. He was executed not for what he taught but for who he said he was. He made many profound claims about himself, the kind of claims that would seem horribly arrogant if other said them (son of God, messiah, one who forgives sin, future judge of the world, door of salvation, savior, the only way of salvation).

    These teachings or claims about himself sound kind of insane, and so are quite fragile. I mean, was he right about these extraordinary claims? We can’t just concede he was a moral teacher, because that would be inconsistent with these nutty megalomaniac things he said about himself.

    But he doesn’t seem to be insane. The account of his life shows a man who was a calm in the center of swirling storm, a model of mental balance.

    Jesus teachings are also fragile because he taught about himself, and what he did is more central than the moral teachings he said. Take Buddha out of Buddhism, or Mohammad out of Islam, and the religion remains because each is based primarily on the teaching, not the person. But take Christ out of Christianity, and Christianity disappears.

    Christianity stakes its claim in the historical event of his resurrection, which vindicated his Jesus’ claims. If he didn’t resurrect, it’s a lie and we should abandon it. The early preacher Paul goes so far as to say that if the resurrection of Jesus is not a historical reality, the Christians “are of all men most to be pitied” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19). That’s a bold statement. And I agree.

    “and the apostles subsequently claim to have seen him alive before ascending to heaven”

    So you think they lied. Why? What would have “seemed useful to them” about this lie? If they actually followed the moral teachings of their leader, who spoke against lying, this would be an extraordinary breach of his wishes.

    They knew his extraordinary claims were false because he said he would come back to life and he didn’t. Why would they go their death because of this lie when recanting would save their life?

Leave a Reply