Religulous superstitions

Comedian Bill Maher's religion-mocking film Religulous opened over the weekend, and most reviewers seemed to like it. If it's funny, it works, seems to be the main criterion. Robert W. Butler of the Kansas City Star says: "The film is one-sided, less a measured argument than a bunch of rants and barbed observations. But it's also very funny, which trumps everything else."

I wonder if Mr Butler would have the same reaction to a film about film reviewers that was funny, even though it was basically a "bunch of rants and barbed observations." Perhaps he wouldn't be rolling in the aisles with quite the same abandon, but then anyone stupid enough to mock film reviewers in a film would have a very short career, wouldn't he? That's never the problem with mocking Christians, since they have no power to retaliate nowadays.

I don't intend to see the film myself, because unlike the vast majority of today's cultural cognoscenti, I myself don't find the mockery of what is sacred to others so very hilarious. But there's no disputing that beating up on religion is a surefire gambit for cheap laughs these days. On Saturday Night Live's season debut, homeschooling families were held up to ridicule, even though home-schooled kids are disproportionately represented in, and even courted by Ivy League universities because they perform so far above their institutionally educated peers.

The obvious lesson to draw from Hollywood's and other media's contempt for Sarah Palinesque believers is that they think people who are brought up not to believe in God are smarter, more reasonable and generally the kind of people smart-ass comedians and alpha atheist journalist Christopher Hitchens would want to hang out with.

Well, that's not the conclusion drawn by the Gallup Organization who, under contract to Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion, wrote the report "What Americans Really Believe," released on September 18. It seems that belief in God is a prophylactic against superstition. The report, according to a review in the September 19th Wall Street Journal, "Look Who's Irrational Now", by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, concludes that adherence to traditional Christianity guards against belief in "everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology."

Part of the methodology was to ask questions of their subjects, such as: Do dreams foretell the future? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? The answers provided an "index of belief" in the paranormal and in the occult. Some striking disparities between the irreligious and the religious popped out: Of those who said they never worship, 31% declared a strong belief in these phenomena, but of those who attend religious services more than once a week, only 8% did.

Furthermore, it reveals that the irreligious and the more liberal Protestant denominations are far more inclined toward belief in the paranormal and pseudoscience than evangelical Christians. In Barack Obama's former non-traditional church, the United Church of Christ, a full 36% expressed a firm belief in the paranormal, but only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God - Sarah Palin's traditional former house of worship - did so.

In plainer terms, the more traditional and evangelical the belief, the more resistant to pseudo-scientific cults and superstitions. Indeed, irreligious college students, supposedly the most intellectually hip amongst us, are far more likely than born-again Christian students to succumb to the blandishments of the paranormal. You'd think the more educated they got, the more skeptical they'd become, but no, a 2006 study in the Skeptical Inquirer revealed that less than 25% of freshman students believed in ghosts, psychic healing and so forth, but the percentage rose with seniority, ending with 34% of graduate students harbouring such ridiculous beliefs.

To really confuse the issue, it turns out that atheists provide terrific fodder for mockery, if only some film documentarian would read the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life's massive "U.S. Religious Landscape Survey" issued in June 2008. In this report, Mollie Ziegler Hemingway points out, we find that 21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a "personal God or an impersonal force." Huh? And - whaaaa? - it seems 10% of atheists pray once a week - minimally! - and 12% believe in heaven. This report has me in stitches already!

Bill Maher, you probably think, is one rational dude himself. But when you look at some of his "beliefs," speaking in tongues takes on new depth of respectability. Mr Maher advised David Letterman, who famously underwent a quintuple bypass, to stop taking the pills his doctor prescribed . As for his own health, Mr Maher does not take aspirin - he thinks it is lethal - and does not believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio, or so he confided to Larry king on CNN. Mr Maher also informed the world on his HBO show in 2005, "I don't believe in vaccination... Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." I'm thinkin' Maher and Scientologist Tom Cruise might get along fine. And uh, about that germ theory thing? I don't think I want to be shaking hands with Mr Maher any time soon. For all kinds of reasons.

Barbara Kay is a regular columnist for the Canadian daily, The National Post, where this article was first published.


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