Will science banish superstition for ever?

No more religion means no more superstition. Right?

That’s what proponents of evangelical atheism have said, going back to Voltaire. Recent claims that religion is an outcome of lower intelligence are artifacts of poor study design. A more recent finding that very religious people (along with very irreligious ones) show hippocampal shrinkage points, in the study authors’ own view, to the stress created by non-standard beliefs, regardless of their content. Still, the atheists might have a point this time: Take away religion and superstition goes with it.

Prominent sceptic and psychologist Michael Shermer offers a rationale for that view in The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies — How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truth. This has been handily summarized by fellow new atheist A. C. Grayling in an article in Nature:

”As a 'belief engine', the brain is always seeking to find meaning in the information that pours into it. Once it has constructed a belief, it rationalizes it with explanations, almost always after the event. The brain thus becomes invested in the beliefs, and reinforces them by looking for supporting evidence while blinding itself to anything contrary. Shermer describes this process as “belief-dependent realism” — what we believe determines our reality, not the other way around.”

He offers an evolution-based analysis of why people are prone to forming supernatural beliefs ... . Our ancestors did well to wonder whether rustling in the grass indicated a predator, even if it was just the breeze. Spotting a significant pattern in the data may have meant an intentional agent was about to pounce. Shermer and Grayling exempt their own beliefs because, they argue, they are governed by science.

Very well, what does the evidence show?

The opposite, actually. In Britain, during National Science Week (2003), University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman and associates surveyed 2068 people on superstitious behaviour. They found, among other things, that

“The current levels of superstitious behaviour and beliefs in the UK are surprisingly high, even among those with a scientific background. Touching wood is the most popular UK superstition, followed by crossing fingers, avoiding ladders, not smashing mirrors, carrying a lucky charm and having superstitious beliefs about the number 13.”

Twenty-five percent of the people who claimed a background in science were very or somewhat superstitious.

Another finding of note:

“People become less superstitious as they age - 59% of people aged 11-15 said they were superstitious, compared to 44% of people aged between 31-40 and just 35% of the over 50s. These findings do not suggest that superstitious behaviour and beliefs will be consigned to the past. Instead, they are strongly held by the younger members of society.”

One wonders, did the older people “become” less superstitious or - raised in a somewhat more culturally Christian society - they had simply not become as superstitious as the younger, secular-raised folk.

US findings support that view. Baylor University conducted a detailed survey on the state of religion ( 2007-08) and reported a similar outcome:

”It remains widely believed that religious people are especially credulous, particularly those who identify themselves as Evangelicals, born again, Bible believers and fundamentalists. However, the ISR researchers found 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.”

A 2008 Scripps-Howard Ohio University poll also showed that

“People who have attended church recently and who identify themselves as born-again Evangelical Protestants are much less likely to have seen UFOs or to believe in the possibility of extraterrestrial intelligence than people with little or no involvement with organized religion.”

Reflecting on the problem of theory trumping evidence regarding claims about the bad effects of religion, British physicist David Tyler observes

“We are witnessing atheist scholars promoting ideas that reinforce their personal worldview, but we need to be asking how far their research is affected by bias. They (like all researchers) need to be challenging their own favoured perspectives, and engaging with the best arguments coming from those who differ from them. All the signs are that they are not doing this. Shermer lumps all beliefs together and shows no interest in interacting with those whose beliefs are based on evidence. Grayling reviews Shermer to congratulate him on his insights. The message is passed down to popularisers who regurgitate this false analysis.

As we have seen, if hostile accounts of the effect of traditional theistic religion depended on evidence, there just wouldn’t be very many of them.

Previous articles in this series:

religion rot your intelligence?

religion rot teenagers’ brains?

religion shrink your brain?

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.


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