Sunday, September 28, 2008

Check your brain at the door, please ... (Part 2)

Okay, so I made my own church sign reader board message; a twist on the Luther quote appearing on yesterday’s post. The impetus for this new reader board message was my fascination with Look Who’s Irrational Now, an article by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway which appeared in the Wall Street Journal on September 19. (Hats off to Bradford over at Telic Thoughts for posting on this article Friday.) As Hemmingway reports it, Baylor University recently contracted with Gallup to do a poll on “What Americans Really Believe.” The results were quite interesting, and no doubt counter-intuitive for some. It seems that the stronger one’s Christian faith, the less likely one is to believe in such paranormal phenomena as palm reading, astrology, Atlantis, haunted houses, or Bigfoot. Other studies sited in the article suggest a positive correlation between education and some superstitions. It turns out that faith is a better safeguard against superstitious beliefs than education. Some will no doubt object that faith itself is superstition. On the other hand, perhaps G.K. Chesterton had it right when he said (through his fictional character Father Brown), "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."

Let’s continue this discussion of the relationship between faith and reason: could it be that faith actually grounds its possessor in reality? Far from reason being the enemy of faith, these studies suggest that faith is the friend of reason.

I consider myself to be a “believing skeptic”. Is that a hopeless oxymoron? Or does my faith in God serve as stable foundation for healthy skepticism? So ...

"Faith is the greatest friend that reason has."


I am anxious to read your comments....


RBH said...

A couple of brief comments. First, I really want to see the original questions and data (particularly the cross-tabs) of that study. I haven't found the original yet, but only seen a few news reports and blog posts on it.

Second, as you noted, the exclusion of religious beliefs from the set of superstitious beliefs seems arbitrary to me. :)

What is the essential difference, if any, between believing that a man died and was bodily resurrected or that demons roam the earth, and believing that walking under a ladder is bad luck or that a rabbit foot will bring you luck? Perhaps Christian belief merely acts to inoculate believers against alternative superstitions and not against superstitions as an inclusive set.

AMW said...

Perhaps Christian belief merely acts to inoculate believers against alternative superstitions and not against superstitions as an inclusive set.

Perhaps, but let's not forget that where there are monopolies, quantity tends to be limited.

Cliff Martin said...


If we accept your idea that Christian faith serves to "inoculate believers against alternative superstitions," shouldn't we expect that the same would be true of other "superstitions?" For example, are astrology believers less prone to believe in alien abductions than the general population? There is likely no data available, but would you agree that is unlikely?

For me, a better explanation is that Christians look at the world as an ordered place, governed by consistent laws, just as Einstein noted (and I'm sure how many non-believers such as yourself would view the world.) Christian faith may not be the only source of a more healthy, reality-based world-view, but it may be one such source.

I believe this world-view likely explains why I am dubious of most paranormal claims, and why I trust science.

Pete said...

Funny, I consider myself a "believing skeptic" as well, though I doubt any of the skeptics on the internet would accept me:) I am totally skeptical of basically all paranormal claims including coming from modern day Christian sources (except those from the Bible of course:) and would want clear scientific evidence for any such nonsense. However, being skeptical finally pushed me to start to consider some themes within my own tradition. From that, I have become skeptical of the historicity of a good amount of the OT and also the idea that there are demons roaming around. For the former, I think there is a lot of evidence for an alternate history and a lot of internal evidence of a story constructed over time from several sources, some mutually exclusive. I don't take Genesis 1-11 as history at the very least. So the former for me is just finally recognizing and admitting what is reality given the plethora of evidence.

The latter, our world being haunted by demons, is more true skepticism. I of course don't have any proof that there world is not chalk full of demons this very moment. But I have absolutely no evidence that this is true either, and given this it seems the more likely explanation is that there are none. Okay, there Bible does seem to suggest they are alive and present, so I guess this is where my skepticism is finally overruling my faith. And yet, sometimes I can accept their existence on the Bible, but then if there interaction with the world is indistinguishable from
a world where they don't even exist, then why should I care? I love when we say the greatest lie Satan ever told was that he didn't exist. Good! Keep acting like you don't exist.

I think this is probably the point where I have crossed the line and parted ways from my conservative friends. Is it okay to still ask Jesus to forgive me if I don't involve demons in my regular day to day decision making and don't shudder when from the pulpit I am warned about our spiritual battle with the dark forces. I seem perfectly capable of sinning all on my own, and suspect my own sin outweighs by order of magnitude any change in behavior that might be induced by demons secretly modifying the biochemistry in my head...

I remember reading a thread recently discussing demonic influence. One guy, a conservative presbyterian, knew he was often attacked by spiritual forces... and why(?), because he often had negative thoughts about his wife. Okay, to his credit he did recognize it might just be is own flesh (another undefined concept). Here is a paragraph "When I think negative thoughts about my wife, I often pause first to see if the thoughts are really from me or am I being influenced by demonic forces . . . because I love my wife". Apparently love and conflict are mutually exclusive to the point that demons must play a role.

Stephen Douglas said...


You and I have a lot in common.

As for the main question: no. For me, faith is the notion that all the mechanical stuff means something more than the sum of its parts.

This notion is acquired by various means. Sometimes it is assumed by those being raised to believe it; some have reasoned through to it philosophically; many come to believe it when they come in contact with a religion that claims to understand that meaning and is credible in its own right. No doubt it's sometimes just a hunch. This "faith" means nothing more than a rejection of the absolutely unprovable notion of materialism and the belief that there is a system for understanding universal purpose that makes sense. You could say that you haven't found a faith system with an externally defined objective purpose for the universe that is sufficiently credible, but even rejecting dozens of religions that fail your test cannot logically prove there is no such meaning, because a negative cannot be proved.

On this point, I like the illustration of Francis Collins. He instructs to take a piece of paper and draw a circle that represents all the truth of the universe. Then he says to draw a circle inside that circle that represents human understanding. No one ever draws more than a fairly small dot, because the unknowns of the universe are recognized as being great indeed by almost everyone. He then asks, "What is the chance that the evidence for God lies somewhere outside your little dot?" This is obviously no proof or even evidence for faith, much less for Christianity in general. But it does rightly subject our hopelessly myopic trust of our own experiences to scrutiny. The fact that atheists even try to compose their own meaning for the universe suggests that there is a near-ubiquitously recognized assumption on the part of humanity to see things beyond the observed. In fact, that's one of the few things that truly separate us from other animals.

Did I ever get around to answering the question? :P

Tom said...

Cliff, these are a good couple of interesting posts. I know with my own history, I was taught that astrology, palm reading, card reading, Big Foot, etc. was nonsense and that it was the Devil and his cohorts trying to present false truth since they can't produce the real thing! I think if one's convictions are that something is bringing "truth", then the other stuff is mullarky.

It would be nice to get a hold of some real numbers and understand how they collected the data. One thing in the Baylor report is that they say only 4% of the American population is atheist. And while I enjoy Bill Maher, I cringe when he starts talking medicine because there he doesn't know what he is talking about, as Mollie Hemingway noted.

And that leads to an interesting point. What percent of atheists really believe in other superstition? And perhaps more importantly, the studies talk about "educated" people, but I'm not sure what that means. Is that trade school and any liberal arts degree? I would bet so. I would be curious to hear how scientists and level of science education correlate with superstition. (Although, come to think of it, one of my immunologist professors still thinks colds come from being out in the cold....)

Cliff Martin said...


Not sure you did address the question. But you certainly waxed eloquent in not doing so! You present some interesting theistic arguments. But I am unclear about why you believe that faith is not a friend of reason. Could you elaborate?


No doubt the mind-control of fundamentalism contributes to faith resulting in skepticism of other paranormal phenomena (as was your experience). But I am suggesting that healthy faith will have the same effect naturally, because people of faith see a created cosmos governed by unchanging natural laws which only the Creator is privileged to circumvent.

I agree with you and RBH that it would be helpful to see the raw data behind this article. I would also question the 4% atheist statistic, although that number is apparently hard to measure. The Wikipedia article of Demographics of Atheism has numbers all over the chart based on a variety of studies, some higher than 4%, some lower. The atheist apologists I’ve heard suggest the number is 11%, which I believe is unwarranted.

Two factors contribute to the difficulty of an accurate count. 1) Many secularists who are practical atheists will not go so far as to assert personal atheism, and 2) Many atheists are still in the closet.

”What percent of atheists really believe in other superstition?” is an interesting question. Because by definition skepticism is behind atheism, we might assume that atheists are non-superstitious as a lot. But are they?

Stephen Douglas said...


I apologize for soapboxing a little and ignoring your main question. My soliloquy was not tangential to begin with, but it snowballed that way.

The way I originally understood your question was, I see now, a bit incorrect. What I meant to say by "no" was that I do not think there is any particular boon to the exercise of logic and reason yielded by a belief in the metaphysical; by no means did I intend to imply that they were inimical to one another, however.

Now, from your response to RBH, it appears that you're asking if the observation that our universe is ordered by natural laws is best understood from within (or maybe just "compatible with"?) a belief that there is a reality that transcends our experience and observance, leaving aside particulars of the faith/superstition in question. To that, I'd change my answer to "maybe". If you say "compatible with", I'd say "yes", definitely.

AMW said...


Don't sweat it if Maher's not a good (read: consistent) atheist. He claims to be a libertarian, but he's about the worst (read: inconsistent) libertarian I've ever come across.

I think he mostly chooses labels for himself to say what he's not. So to him, libertarian = not a member of the two major parties. Likewise, to him it's probably the case that atheist = not a monotheist.

In years prior to Religulous coming out, I've heard he referred to himself as an "apatheist." Good chance he's just jumping on the New Atheist train now that it's built up a head of steam.

Steve Martin said...

Hi Cliff,
Hey, if I saw that sign on a church, I'd be inside in a flash.

I know I can be a disagreeable sort of guy, so it pains me to say that I happen to agree with this entire post. Oh, well, maybe I can change the title of the sign - how about "Faith can be a great friend of Reason" - not as hard hitting but probably more accurate.

Tom said...

Just to add to my previous comment, when people have their idea of ultimate truth, they regard alternative ideas as suspicious. So, fundamentalists are likely to view contradictory science like evolution as bunkum, as well as astrology, palm reading, etc., but it is probably this same skepticism of alternatives that makes them think other variants of Christianity are crazy. For example, I can imagine Mormons believing Jehovah's Witnesses as having very wigged out ideas and vice versa.

The point is, the more fanatical one is about their beliefs, the less likely they will explore alternatives. At the same time, not having convictions seems antithetical to being human. We need opinions and in many cases, it seems we strive to have an ingroup of people who also have those beliefs and an outgroup for people who oppose. Both groups validate in their own way. The ingroup is obvious, but there is also an independent streak in us, too, perhaps even increasing with education, that we seek to differentiate ourselves from others, to be better than them in some respect, even if imagined. We position ourselves to have outgroups. We love to have enemies. The stronger ones convictions are, especially when not based on evidence, the more dynamic that ingroup-outgroup relationship becomes.

Psiloiordinary said...

Sorry Folks,

I am lost right at the beginning.

I can't see any kind of mechanism or logical way in which faith can be a passing acquaintance with reason let alone a friend.

Simply stating that it is a foundation simply seems to replace the word friend with the word foundation without explaining anything.

Any chance of a 101 remedial class on this one for me?



Cliff Martin said...

Hi Psi,
I started to answer here, and then decided that your question merited a separate post, which should appear shortly ...
~ Cliff

Daniel said...

"Believing Skeptic". Wow! Now I finally know what I am. I had never thought of that before, but it certainly resonates with my current views. Great post!