|Trifid Nebula NGC6514 [Courtesy NASA]|
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?
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 recent study by researchers in London, analyzing the beliefs of atheists and agnostics across six nations (Brazil, China, Denmark, Japan, U.K. and U.S.A.), found similar, although not quite as striking results. In particular, they polled belief in ten items normally regarded as supernatural or paranormal: (a) life after death, (b) reincarnation, (c) astrology, (d) objects with mystical powers, (e) people with mystical powers, (f) significant events meant to be, (g) supernatural beings, (h) underlying forces of good or evil, (i) universal spirit or life force, and (j) karma. As a sample of the study's results, self-described atheists' beliefs in these items included 35% for astrology (China), 28% for significant events meant to be (U.K.), and 30% for underlying forces of good and evil (also U.K.). Self-described agnostics' beliefs were uniformly higher: 53% for astrology (China), 40% for significant events meant to be (U.K.), and 42% for for underlying forces of good and evil (also U.K.). In each case the percentage figures for atheists and agnostics were less than the corresponding figures for the general population, but not by a great margin: 60% for astrology (China), 62% for significant events meant to be (U.K.), and 58% for for underlying forces of good and evil (also U.K.) [Bullivant2019].
Even more extreme forms of pseudoscience are also on the rise in secular society. A recent essay in the New York Times defended practices such as new-age-style astrology, tarot cards, "crystal power" (stones with claimed healing powers) and more, all as unapologetic substitutes for more traditional forms of religion [Burton2018].
A related phenomenon can be seen by examining acceptance of strongly confirmed scientific consensus. For instance, in 2019 the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the nation has suffered its worst measles outbreak in more than 25 years [Stack2019]. 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, these same areas mentioned are well-known to be hotbeds of opposition to genetically modified foods. This opposition continues in spite of 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-technology, anti-vaccination, anti-GMO, anti-smart-meter, new age "religion") for another (traditional Judeo-Christian monotheism).
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.
For additional discussion, see
Intelligent design and