Monday, January 31, 2011
In the past, I’ve argued for a connection between religious beliefs and other paranormal, supernatural and superstitious views. The connection is important for several reasons.
First, it is not an accident that as superstitiousness, supernaturalism, and paranormalism go up, education level goes down. When people are ignorant, silly spiritual view proliferate. As they get more education and understand more science, they abandon the primitive views that haunted them before. One implication is that the overall credibility of religious people, particularly the ancient founders of the major religious movements is significantly undermined. The fact that a religion arose from Iron Age peasants, by itself, does not refute it. But it castes doubts and raises the burden of proof if we are to take them seriously.
Secondly, folks within religious communities tend not to see their own views as on a continuum with other “strange” views. To believe in God, or the return of Jesus from the dead, or in the conversion of juice and crackers into flesh and blood, is one thing, they insist. But believing in hauntings, voodoo, or other paranormal phenomena is quite distinct. For those of us on the outside, however, the distinction is usually lost. It would appear that the only real difference between authentic supernatural claims and the silly unfounded superstitions of the natives is a matter of familiarity. It never seems weird when it’s what you’ve know your whole life.
Third, if a significant proportion of the population is more susceptible to anomalous experiences as the result of abnormal brain function, and I have argued that they are, then we’d expect those people, all other things being equal, to be more prone in general to supernatural beliefs. If you are experiencing strange visions, hearing voices, having fugue states, hallucinations, or other strange moments as a result of brain function, and if you lack the education and science background to know any better, then of course you are going to conclude that there are ghosts, spirits are visiting you, God is communicating with you, or that you’ve got psychic powers. What else could it be? Furthermore, if you don’t understand basic statistical reasoning, confirmation bias, hedging, wishful thinking, ignoring base rates, or a host of other fallacies, and if you are surrounded by religious believers who are applying heavy pressure for a particular religious explanation, then it will be very hard to you to reason your way clear. And if humans are biological predisposed towards religious belief by a Hyperactive Agency Detector Device, or some other means, then escaping the clutches of religious delusions will be that much harder. (It is not a surprise that it has taken so many centuries for even a small percentage of the population to escape.)
A new study in Psychopathology gives us more support for the connection:
The prevalence of delusion-like beliefs relative to sociocultural beliefs in the general population.
School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK.
Background: Delusions are defined as false beliefs different from those that almost everyone else believes. The aim was to develop a new measure (the Cardiff Beliefs Questionnaire, CBQ) to establish the range and prevalence of delusion-like beliefs (DLB) and compare these to other types of beliefs in the general population. Sampling and Methods: A total of 1,000 participants completed the CBQ, which uniquely assesses a broader range of currently held beliefs [delusion-like (bizarre and non-bizarre), paranormal and religious and general political/social beliefs) using this large stratified sample. Results: Strong belief in 1 or more DLB was reported by 39% of the participants (91% reporting 'weak', 'moderate' or 'strong' belief in at least 1 DLB). Moreover, 25% endorsed at least 1 bizarre DLB (76% one or more at any strength). Endorsements of DLB were strongly correlated with paranormal and religious beliefs but not general political/social beliefs. Conclusions: Both bizarre and non-bizarre DLB are frequently found in the general population, lending support to the psychosis continuum account and need to revise key clinical criteria used to diagnose delusions. The good psychometric properties demonstrated by the CBQ indicate that this measure is a useful tool to investigate the wider continuum of beliefs held in the general population.
In less science speak, what Pechey and Halligan found, among other things, is that there is a strong correlation between being religious and other strange, delusional, bizarre, and paranormal beliefs. Never mind how they reconcile the combinations, the views that God is real, along with reincarnation, astrology, communications with the dead, evil demon possession, and black magic are rampant. That is, religious folks are more likely to have these other strange beliefs than non-religious folks. And people with bizarre paranormal beliefs are more likely to be religious.
Identifying the causal arrow here is tricky. It’s hard to know whether being religious makes one more favorable to strange paranormal beliefs, or the other way around, or if some third cause like our neural constitution is responsible for both propensities. I’d hesitate to sign on for any particular hypothesis at this stage, especially if it is a simple one. What is clear is that there are a lot of crazies out there, and they are crazier than you might have thought.
On a side note, if you were listening closely, you may have noticed a surprising revelation in my recent debates with Prof. Russell DiSilvestro. I have been pressing a more complicated version of this argument:
1. If you accept the resurrection of Jesus on historical grounds, then you must also accept a large number of other stories from history about paranormal events like real witchcraft at Salem and real black magic during the European Inquisitions.
2. But it isn’t reasonable to believe that there were real witches at Salem or real black magic during the Inquisitions.
3. Therefore, you should not accept the resurrection of Jesus on historical grounds.
There are a number of responses that believers have made to this argument, but much to my surprise, Prof. DiSilvestro bit the bullet and has conceded that there must have been real witches at Salem. And in the course of the debates he told many anecdotal accounts of strange, “unexplained,” and extraordinary things that Christians have seen such as word floating in the air, premonitions, spectral voices, and so on. For some people, the world is indeed a spooky place, teeming with supernatural forces and events.
Epiphenom, who brought this study to our attention, has done his usual excellent job of teasing out some interesting implications of the study: Most People are a Bit Crazy, and Believers are a Bit Crazier Than Most.
Posted by Matt McCormick at 10:39 PM