Oct 30 2008

Religion vs Superstition – Mande Barung Revisited

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Michael Egnor has managed to write his most incoherent blog entry ever, and that’s saying something.  I was actually impressed with how many errors and misconceptions he could cram into each sentence. Writing for the anti-evolution Discovery Institute, Egnor also reinforces the point I have been making recently that the Intelligent Design movement is not just anti-evolution but anti-science, and their primary strategy is to paint any scientific conclusion they find objectionable as “materialist ideology.”

This time Egnor is playing off the recent Baylor University survey on religious beliefs, and true to form he gets it completely wrong. He begins:

“Skeptical” atheist Steven Novella has a blog post on “Mande Barung,” an Indian version of the Himalayan Yeti and the North American Bigfoot. Novella ruminates on the credulity of one Dipu Marak, a local passionate believer in the shy mythical creature. Debunking Yeti sightings is low-hanging fruit for skeptics like Novella, whose skepticism knows no limits — except for his own materialist ideology, about which he is credulous to the bone. One wonders why atheist “skeptics” need to explain to their readership — presumably compliant atheist skeptics all — that Yeti probably don’t exist.

I see that now he has taken to using “skeptical” in scare quotes. Clearly Egnor does not understand the first thing about skeptical philosophy. First, he seems to equate it with being an “atheist”. He does not bother to define “atheist”, which is not a small point, especially since I am on record as describing myself as an agnostic. (The atheist vs agnostic discussion is for another post.) This is also important because he is pushing the “materialist ideology” theme – and the whole point of agnosticism is anti-ideology.

He also assumes that skepticism and atheism are the same, which is also not true. There is only about a 70% overlap between scientific skepticism and religious non-belief. And that works both ways – I know some atheists who I would not call skeptics. Egnor is content, in his typically intellectually lazy and sloppy manner, to clumsily paint this all with the same broad brush.

He also doesn’t bother to defend his accusation that I profess a materialist ideology. As I have explained multiple times in the past in this blog and elsewhere, skepticism (as with science) is about method, not belief.  But”materialist ideology” is the talking point of the DI so every issue will be shoe-horned into that theme.

Egnor then asks a question that is a setup to the main theme of his blog – why would I bother to tackle the “low hanging fruit” of Yeti? This is actually a legitimate question, if Egnor were actually sincere in asking it. I have also addressed this question in the past – skepticism is partly the study of why people believe strongly in things that are probably not true. Sometimes I take on demonstrably false beliefs as extreme examples of how the human “belief machine” goes awry. It is similar to presenting for teaching purposes an extreme medical case, where the pathology is far advanced. Such cases are easy to diagnose and will rarely be seen in practice, but they are useful for showcasing pathology so that it might be recognized in its more subtle forms.

But Egnor is not interested in skepticism, belief, or the philosophical differences between agnosticism and atheism. He is just setting himself up to completely misinterpret the recent Baylor religion survey. He writes:

Logan Gage explains why. Gage has a superb essay entitled, “Which Secular Superstition do you Believe?” Gage asks:

…[Who] is more likely to believe wild eyed superstitions these days, the religious or irreligious?

The answer, Gage observes, is unambiguous:

Unambiguous?  Perhaps that is what Gage concluded, but Egnor would have done well to go to the original sources rather than simply quoting Gage, who writes.

As Mollie Ziegler Hemingway reported in The Wall Street Journal, “While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.”…”In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.”

Mollie Ziegler Hemingway misinterpreted the results of this survey, and Gage continued her error, which was then repeated by Egnor.  The error is in trying to make sense of the survey by only considering a single axis of variation – religious vs non-religious. And yet Hemingway and Gage present the information that shows how problematic such a simplistic interpretation of this data is. Hemingway reported:

Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.

So while 8% of people who worship more than once a week believe in the paranormal, 31% of those who do not worship regularly do, and 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ do. This is “unambiguous”? Further, of the 31% who do not worship regularly only the minority are actually atheists. In fact, the figures quoted by Gage and Egnor (31% vs 8%) were about frequency of worship – not religious beliefs.

Gage hints at a more consistent interpretation of this data – although still manages to come to the wrong conclusion, which Egnor laps up greedily. This is not about being religious vs being skeptical. This is about the particular belief systems of conservative Christians – which includes the belief that the occult is evil and from Satan. This is really reflecting competing religions – conservative Christianity and New Age occultism.

But Egnor concludes:

It is amusing that, despite the pretensions of atheist “skeptics” such as Novella, atheists are much more likely to believe pseudoscientific claims such as UFOs, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, psychics, Atlantis, and astrology than are traditional religious believers. Four times as likely, to be precise (31% vs. 8%).

Wrong. First, Egnor is concluding that the members of the United Church of Christ are not “traditional religious believers.” Second the 31% was not among self-described atheists, but simply those who do not worship regularly – and the same survey shows that the vast minority of that group are actually atheists.

Also – Egnor’s conclusion (in addition to being factually incorrect) is logically absurd. Self-professed skeptics (certainly me, the majority of my readers, and members of the skeptical movement) demonstrably do not believe in UFO’s, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, or psychics.  It is almost by definition that skeptics do not believe in such things because they are not adequately supported by scientific evidence. What Egnor is trying to argue, in a bizarrely twisted fashion, is that those who promote rigorous adherence to scientific methodology and the questioning of all claims credulously believe in the paranormal.

This partly derives from the fact that he is failing to separate “skeptics” from “atheists” – they are not the same thing. His statement is incoherent when applied to skeptics. When applied to atheists it is more complex. The data show that many (but not all) atheists are indeed skeptics. For those who are not, some accept New Age beliefs, or Eastern mysticism. Some atheists are atheists because they reject the religion of their culture.

But none of this is reflected in the data quoted by Hemingway, Gage, and Egnor. This survey shows only that conservative Christianity is an incompatible belief system with New Age occultism.

Also – this survey is not the only information to be found on the relationship between religious belief and the paranormal. The parts of the survey quoted use worship as a measure of religiosity, and belief in communication with the dead as a measure of superstitious belief – but these are imperfect and narrow markers.

Other and more thorough studies have shown a more complex picture. For example, this 2005 study showed:

Past research has shown the following correlations between paranormal and religious beliefs: firstly, Tobayck and Milford (1983) found traditional religious belief to correlate positively with belief in witchcraft and precognition, but negatively with belief in spiritualism and non-significantly with belief in psi, superstition, and extraordinary life forms.  Clarke (1991) found slightly different results with religiosity correlating positively with belief in psychic healing and negatively with UFO belief.  Finally, Hillstrom and Strachan (2000) reported negative correlations between religiosity and beliefs in telepathy, precognition, PK, psychic healing, UFOs, reincarnation, and communication with the spirits.  As indicated earlier, the mixed results are largely due to the different measurements of paranormal belief used. Moreover, the measurement of religiosity was performed either by a simple measure of attendance or via the Traditional Religious Beliefs subscale on the RPBS.  

So past studies show that religiosity (depending on how you measure it) positively correlates with some superstitious or paranormal beliefs, negatively with others, and non-significantly with still others.  The results from the new study concluded:

In summary then, this study showed that religious beliefs and paranormal beliefs are indeed associated, confirming initial exploratory studies that suggested some kind of relationship between the two (Goode, 2000; Haraldsson, 1981).  The other mixed results reflect the need for further research in both religiosity and in particular paranormal beliefs to see if a consistent pattern of results may emerge.

Hmm….so a more thorough study, far better designed than the Baylor survey, using accepted standardized measures of religiosity and paranormal belief, show a positive correlation.

So Egnor gullibly cherry picked bad data, which he then misinterpreted, to make the argument that he and his cronies are less gullible than those who profess the anti-gullible philosophy of skepticism.  That’s about par for the course for Egnor.

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