Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Look Who's Irrational Now: It's the Wall Street Journal

One of my persistent critics left a link to a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, by columnist Mollie Ziegler Hemingway, hoping to show me the error of my ways. Alas for my critic, Hemingway's article is so deeply flawed that I can't let it pass. Someone has to refute this illogical article.

Hemingway tries to claim that Christianity makes people more rational, and less susceptible to superstition, such as belief in ghosts, spirits, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, communicating with the dead, and other superstitions. And indeed, the WSJ cites studies that "prove" this: The more conservative or evangelical a person is, the less likely they are to believe in these superstitions.

Have you spotted the flaw in this logic yet?

The problem is that Hemingway divides the world into three camps: Christian (presumably the "true" belief system), supersition, and Atheist. But that's wrong. The factual foundation for belief in Yahweh is just as weak as belief in ghosts, astrology, communicating with the dead, reincarnation, and thousands of other acts of pure faith.

In other words, there are only two camps, not three: People who rely on faith, and people who derive their understanding from observable facts and rational deductions based on those facts. Thus, where the Christian sees evangelical beliefs as a way to push out false religions, the Atheist merely sees a large number of undistinguished faiths that compete with each other for believers. There is no fundamental difference between Christianity and other supersitions. This is very hard for most Christians to accept, and it frequently leads authors like Hemingway into this same logical fallacy.

From a memetic point of view, there is a large collection of faith-memeplexes that are competing for survival, competing for believers. Christianity is one of the most successful of these memeplexes, because among other things, it developed a strong Intolerance Meme that requires exclusivity from its adherents. Thus, it's no surprise that Christianity and "superstitions" are incompatible.

So all WSJ article really has to say is that the Christian Intolerance Meme is pretty successful. If a person buys into the Christian memeplex, they're less likely to accept any of the other faith-memeplexes.

From an Atheist point of view, the author of the WSJ article hasn't said anything interesting about Atheism at all. All the auther did is show that faith-based systems compete with each other. No surprise there.


  1. Remind us again of the difference between people of faith and people of gullibility.


  2. Don't forget... Rupert Murdoch owns the WSJ now. It's officially a propaganda rag.

  3. Craig,

    First of all, Hemingway is only reporting on a study. She didn't do the study and the study itself is not an opinion piece. Read more carefully next time.

    Here's the key quote since you missed it before:

    "'What Americans Really Believe,' a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians."

    I noticed you didn't deal with that portion at all. Nor did you touch on Bill Maher who is a perfect case in point of what the study shows.

    It is interesting, however, that you reject out of hand the empirical evidence. I thought atheists just follow the evidence wherever it leads....You don't suppose that atheists start out with the desired outcome in their head and then reason circularly from there, do you?

  4. I'd like to see the definitions for "superstition" used in this study or whatever it may be. For all I know right now, without looking at the article or study's outline, "superstition" may have been defined as "believing the Bible is not wholly literal/is false".

    That certainly fits the description I read in Ryan's comment.

  5. "I noticed you didn't deal with that portion at all. Nor did you touch on Bill Maher who is a perfect case in point of what the study shows."

    Ah, he did deal with it, actually. You didn't bother actually read him and absorb what he was saying. It's all covered in the distinction he makes between believers in superstition and those who utilize reason: this "study" makes the usual conservative Christian assumption that Christianity is the Truth, and thus it is not a superstition, and thus it is a third category set apart from reason and superstition.

    This is the fundamental mistake you are making: you think this "study" shows Christians to be less superstitious, and that's simply wrong. The hidden assumption of the "study" is that Christianity isn't a superstition because it is "true"; so it interprets Christians not believing in some superstitions as evidence of "rationality" when in fact it is simply evidence of religious dogma: Christians feel compelled to disbelieve certain superstitions (non-Christian superstitions) for dogmatic, religious reasons, and not for rational reasons.

    And no rationalist or skeptic has to defend Bill Maher: just because Maher doesn't believe in God doesn't make him a rationalist or a skeptic of any kind. The Raelians don't believe in God, either, but no one holds them up as examples of rationalism or skepticism.

    This "study" is like most of these "studies", an opinion piece masquerading as social science. If it doesn't bother to explore WHY people are answering the questions the way they do, it's meaningless.


  6. Cont....

    Take, for instance, Big Foot. The questions, "do you believe in Big Foot", "is Big Foot real", "do you, on the available evidence, believe Big Foot is real" or "is it possible that an animal like Big Foot could exist" are all very different questions that could be answered differently by the same person depending on the context or how the person understood the question or what his available background knowledge of the subject matter was. A simple yes/no question cannot get to the root issue of whether the person is answering the question rationally or irrationally.

    A religious person who doesn't believe in certain "superstitions" because he believes his religion forbids it, isn't making a rational decision based on the available evidence, he's adhering to a perceived religious dogma.

    An irreligious person, who, say, believes in Big Foot because he's researched the issue and thinks the evidence favors the existence of Big Foot, may not be thinking irrationally at all; that question would have to be explored further to discover exactly how his reasoning is working on the issue, how he is weighing the evidence and evaluating the evidence and what sources he considers reliable, etc.

    Lots of people have been wrong about something, without being irrational. Lots of people have been right about something, but for irrational reasons.

    This "study" does nothing to explore that problem, it's simply a hatchet job designed to push a particular point of view: a conservative Christian point of view, ie, "Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion".

    If you think that's an unbiased source of "research", I've got a bridge in Brooklyn I'd like to sell you. This is just another variation on the conservative Christian trope, ie, G.K. Chesterton's old chestnut "when people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything".

    Well, no, not true, not if you are a rationalist and a skeptic, no you don't believe in "anything". Conservative Christians think everyone must "think" like they do, ie, religiously; so they project their own illogic and superstition on to everyone else.

    I'm sorry Bill Maher upsets you people so much, be we aren't answerable for all of the idiotic things he may or may not believe in.

  7. According to some polls, 55% of Americans believe in the Rapture. Now maybe those poll numbers are not reliable, but there are still an awful lot of Americans who believe some bat-sh!t crazy things that are not only irrational and contrary to all known Laws of Nature, but which are also superstitious by any rational definition of that word.

    Does anyone reading this really believe that Baylor's Institute for Studies of Religion asked anyone if they believed in the Rapture? Or that they would ever classify the Rapture as a superstition?

    Baylor University is a conservative Christian college in Waco, Texas. They, or rather their Institute for Studies of Religion, designed this "study", not Gallup. Gallup just asked people the questions assigned to them by Baylor. There's nothing "scientific" or objective about this study.

  8. "It is interesting, however, that you reject out of hand the empirical evidence."

    If you think that this "study" constitutes "empirical evidence", then you really are pretty thick. We've pointed out the numerous fallacies in this study, now please answer them.

  9. From the article: "21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force"

    Hey, I can make up statistics and turn the meanings of words on their heads, too! This is easy:

    52% of vegetarians eat meat.

    42% of pacifists are front-line infantrymen and have earned multiple combat medals.

    65% of teetotalers regularly enjoy shots of whiskey at their local tavern.

    33% of celibates employ prostitutes and engage in wife swapping parties with swingers.

    Hey, anything's possible when you can change the meaning of words to whatever is convenient for you at the moment.

  10. "Ten percent of atheists pray at least weekly and 12% believe in heaven."

    And thus aren't atheists. Wow, what great "empirical evidence" you got there, Ryan. What other kinds of "empirical evidence" do you have? Square triangles? Two dimensional spheres? Invisible pink unicorns? Silent sounds? Three wheeled unicycles?

    I mean, you're the expert on "empirical evidence", why don't you wow us with your empiricism.

  11. Interesting read on Baylor's rather cavalier attitude towards "the empirical evidence":


    Gregory S. Paul

    A growing body of research by sociologists and major survey organizations shows that the population of the United States is becoming significantly less religious. Other first-world nations have secularized even more extensively. Yet this year Baylor University, a conservative Christian institution, released another installment in its series of widely cited studies contending exactly the opposite. Baylor researchers declare that America is as religious as it has always been, and that belief in religion is a universal characteristic displayed by all peoples around the world. These findings contradict those of many other social science practitioners – and in a direction favorable to Baylor’s interests as a Baptist institution. A close look at the way relevant statistics have been handled by Baylor and its premier researcher, Rodney Stark, suggests that key data is being presented in a way that misrepresents significant social trends and may serve to mislead the public."

  12. I will grant you that social sciences lack the precision of the natural sciences. It is true that they derive their credibility from the objectivity attributed to any pursuit that attaches itself to the term "science" or "scientific." Nevertheless, by the standards of objectivity and best practices among sociologists, the Stark study holds water, and therefore criticism of its findings should correspond to specific questions answered in the survey.

    One of its merits is that it is far more detailed than previous surveys on the general topics of belief in God and religious practice, and therefore it corrects the errors of vagueness present in those earlier studies. Anyone who reads the actual survey results ( could never make or accept the straw-man arguments that populate Craig A. James' article and those of its defenders.

    This is yet another example of skeptics avoiding the intellectual rigor and discipline required for anything approaching an objective analysis. Instead, James makes ad hominum arguments, redefines terms, and applies the standard epithets ("irrational," "unscientific," etc.) in order to marginalize his opponents. It's a common strategy for privileging you own assumptions and biases.

    "Memeplex" is a pseudo-scientific contrivance to discredit opposing viewpoints using guilt by association and demagoguery. It's the old tar and feather technique.

    Stark doesn't present superstition as an third alternative to the two worldviews in question. He merely selects a handful of specific questions commonly identified as superstitious and compares the responses of self-identified theists with those of self-identified atheists. Correlations are then drawn from how many respondents in each category adhere to superstitious, unscientific beliefs.

    In 2009, Stark makes this observation about initial criticism of his study:

    "It's important for him, as a militant atheist, to believe that religion will disappear very soon, and he believes we are covering that up," Stark said. "But we are legitimate researchers here. I conducted the first national religion surveys in the '60s, and I am absolutely astonished at these accusations. It isn't like a bunch of the old Baptists at Baylor snuck out into the woods and found a bunch of crazy evangelicals to take our survey."

    Another sociologist offers his assessment of the study:

    Dr. Roger Finke, professor of sociology and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University, said despite the complexity of other issues in the Baylor survey, the quality of the survey is unquestionably valid. A total of 1,648 adults from across the country were randomly selected and answered more than 350 items on the survey, which was conducted by the Gallup organization.

    "They used recommended methods for collecting information, especially since they worked with Gallup," he said. "The Baylor team has done what they should do in this area."

    For a sociological refutation of the thoroughly dis-proven secularization hypothesis, see

  13. This sounds disheartening: "The aim is to combine the highest standards of scholarship with a serious commitment to faith, resulting in studies that not only plumb basic questions, but produce results that are relevant to religious organizations, address moral controversies, and contribute to social health."

    Taken from the opening of the study, this statement makes clear the institutes bias: "with a serious commitment to faith" and "produce results that are relevant to religious organizations". The institute is committed not to the search for truth and the production of results that are objective, but committed to faith and the production of results that serve that faith.

    Is their any argument that this institute would even be capable of producing an objective study that undermines faith?


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