Does a secular worldview lead to greater rejection of pseudoscience?

Introduction

In Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion (pg. 23-24), he asks us to imagine “a world with no religion … no suicide bombers, no 9/11 no 7/7, no Crusades, no witch-hunts, no Gunpowder Plot, no Indian partition, no Israeli/Palestinian wars, no Serb/Croat/Muslim massacres, no persecution of Jews as ‘Christ-killers,’ no Northern Ireland ‘troubles,’ no ‘honour killings,’ no shiny-suited bouffant-haired televangelists fleecing gullible people of their money” [Dawkins2006, pg. 23-24]. Similar, Christopher Hitchens argued that religion is “violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism, tribalism, and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children.” [Hitchens2007, pg. 56].

Many writers regard modern science, and the generally nontheistic, secular worldview that typically accompanies it, as a bulwark against both religion and pseudoscience, ranging from young-earth creationism and intelligent design to spurious health remedies and UFOs (see Creationism and Intelligent design). Even the late astronomer Carl Sagan (whom the present author generally admires) wrote that science was a “candle in the dark,” protecting society from the onslaught of pseudoscience [Sagan1998a].

It is undeniably true that many (certainly not all) in the Judeo-Christian world have historically embraced pseudoscience such as young-earth creationism, and many of these same movements now face the unpleasant task in extricating themselves from what is an increasingly untenable worldview. For full discussion, see the author’s pages Evolution (in particular Creationism and Intelligent design), Philosophy, Physics and Theology.

But is it always true that the pseudoscience is synonymous with religion? Does religion have a monopoly on pseudoscience?

Religious belief and pseudoscience

In a recent article by Clay Routledge, published in the New York Times, the author asks whether belief in God is correlated with a belief in various forms of pseudoscience [Routledge2017]. Citing a Pew Research Center study, he notes that the percentage of Americans who confidently declare that God exists dropped from 71% in 2007 to 63% in 2014. Yet roughly 33% still believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and possibly harm humans, and roughly 66% still believe in paranormal phenomena of some sort, ranging from reincarnation to psychic powers. What’s more, these numbers are “much higher than they were in previous decades.”

Citing other studies [Lipka2015; Swami2015], Routledge notes that people who do NOT frequently attend church are “twice as likely to believe in ghosts” as regular church attenders, and the less religious a person is, the more he or she is likely “to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena” [Routledge2017].

Routledge summarizes by emphasizing that, according to various studies, belief systems such as the above are “poor substitutes for religion”.

They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

A related phenomenon can be seen by examining the recent outbreaks of measles. In 2015 the U.S. suffered its worst measles outbreak in 20 years [Salzberg2015]. These outbreaks have occurred in areas with relatively low vaccination rates, which, in most cases, are due to parents that are convinced that vaccination causes autism or other medical conditions, and that the government is covering up the fact. This is in spite of the fact that the one (and only) study claiming a link was later thoroughly debunked, and numerous other in-depth studies have found no link whatsoever [CDC2017].

Interestingly, these outbreaks have often occurred in relatively “liberal” areas, characterized by high levels of education and income, a mostly politically liberal orientation, and relatively lower levels of religiosity. For example, in a recent study of vaccination in Northern California, unvaccination rates were particularly high in some counties (e.g., Marin County, San Francisco County and Alameda County) well-known to be highly educated and highly secular [Millman2017].

Along these same lines, the areas mentioned in the previous paragraph are also known to be hotbeds of opposition to genetically modified foods, in spite of the fact that a 2016 comprehensive report by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences found “no differences that would implicate a higher risk to human health from eating GE foods than from eating their non-GE counterparts” [NAS2016]. The exact same three counties of Northern California mentioned above are also hotbeds of the anti-smart-meter movement, which again has not the scantest support in peer-reviewed scientific literature [Barringer2011].

In short, it seems many of the secular left have merely substituted one religion (an anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, anti-science, government conspiracy “religion”) for another (traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism).

Conclusion

As Routledge noted (see above), these alternate (and unscientific) belief systems are generally rather poor substitutes for religion, even from a strictly secular point of view. What’s more, these belief systems completely miss out on the many benefits of religious practice:

  1. A 1999 study, which involved a nine-year follow-up analysis of 21,000 American adults, found that religious attendance of at least once per week resulted in seven additional years of life expectancy. What’s more, this effect mostly remained in place even after adjusting for various social factors and health behaviors [Hummer1999].
  2. A 1997 study of 5286 weekly church attendees in Alameda County, California found that these persons were 25% less likely to die than infrequent church attendees. These results were attributed in part to better health practices, expanded social involvement, exercising more, and remaining married longer [Strawbridge1997].
  3. In a 1998 study of 1931 elderly adults (55 years and older), weekly church attendees experienced the lowest rates of mortality in the study group, while non-attendees experienced the highest rates. This study also showed that volunteer work in addition to church attendance contributed to even longer life expectancy [Oman1998].
  4. A 1999 study of 4000 seniors (64 years and older) found that the death hazard was 46% lower for frequent church attendees, compared with infrequent church attendees. As noted in other studies, frequent church attendees were physically healthier, had better social support, and displayed a set of healthier lifestyle behaviors [Koenig1999].
  5. A 2004 study comparing Utah residents who are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) with those who are not LDS confirmed, not surprisingly, that the LDS members had much lower rates of tobacco, alcohol and drug usage than the non-LDS group, since these substances are strongly discouraged by the Church. The study found that life expectancy was 77.3 years for LDS males versus 70.0 years for non-LDS males, and 82.2 years for LDS females versus 76.4 for non-LDS females. Interestingly, however, the study noted that differences in rates of tobacco use explains only about 1.5 years of the 7.3 year gap for males, and only 1.2 years of the 5.8 year gap for females. The author suggests that this additional gap may be due to better overall physical health, better social support and other lifestyle practices [Merrill2004].

Along this line, Michael Shermer, a well-known skeptic who has criticized claims of religion and supernatural effects on numerous occasions, has noted that religion has its undeniable positive side [Shermer2000]:

However, for every one of these grand tragedies there are ten thousand acts of personal kindness and social good that go unreported. … Religion, like all social institutions of such historical depth and cultural impact, cannot be reduced to an unambiguous good or evil.

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