Monday, January 31, 2011

Werewolves, Evil Demon Possessions, Reincarnation, and God

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:  

School of Psychology, Cardiff University, Cardiff, UK.
Abstract
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. 


20 comments:

Patrick said...

“First, it is not an accident that as superstitiousness, supernaturalism, and paranormalism go up, education level goes down.”

This point is totally irrelevant. Whether or not a point of view is correct does not depend on the education level of a person holding such a point of view. There are very educated people who hold very strange beliefs. Furthermore I doubt that there is statistical evidence for the statement above. But even if that was the case one has to take into account that correlation does not necessarily mean causation.

“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.”

There is a false dichotomy here. You can believe in all things mentioned here at the same time.

“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.”

This statement is trivial. It is as if you say that there is a correlation between the belief in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligent life and the claim to have seen UFOs. Of course there is such a correlation. But it is of no relevance with respect to the question whether or not there is extraterrestrial intelligent life. Besides, here is a contradiction to the statement made above that religious people accept their own religious views yet at the same time inconsistently reject other religious claims.

“But it isn’t reasonable to believe that there were real witches at Salem or real black magic during the Inquisitions.”

It IS reasonable to believe this. In fact there is a general consensus among historians investigating these events, no matter what their religious or philosophical positions are, that there were indeed witches in the Early Modern Era. It is beyond doubt that there were people who regarded themselves as witches and performed magical acts aiming at doing harm to people by means of black magic.

yashwata.info said...

Patrick said, "there were indeed witches in the Early Modern Era. It is beyond doubt that there were people who regarded themselves as witches and performed magical acts aiming at doing harm to people by means of black magic."

Even if there were people who aimed at doing harm to people with black magic, they could not have succeeded, because there is no such thing as black magic. These were not real witches because there has never been a real witch.They could not cast spells -- only pretend to do so. They could not harm anyone. There is a big difference between people pretending to do witchcraft and actual witchcraft. When Matt says that there were no witches back then, he is not claiming that no one has ever pretended to be a witch. He is pointing out that no has ever really been a witch; in other words, no one has ever really used black magic, because there's no such thing.

Matt McCormick said...

Yashwata's right, Patrick. I'm really surprised you're making such an obvious mistake. Clearly, there is a difference between claiming to be a witch, thinking you are a witch, or even being justified in thinking you have magical powers, and actually having magical powers. Lots and lots of people have done the former. And I wouldn't think of denying that lots of people have thought or claimed to be witches--you seem to be attributing that denial to me. But what I deny, and what any reasonable person would deny, I think, is that the people who were identified as witches, such as those at Salem, or the ones accused to be witches by Sarah Palin's pastor, actually can harness supernatural, magical powers that defy natural laws. Lots of teenage girls read their Wicca books and even "cast spells," but none of them actually have magical powers. Do I really have to defend that claim? Is this the 21st century or the 14th?

MM

Patrick said...

Yashwata,

it’s good that you disambiguate the concept of witchcraft. As for your statement that witches could do no harm to anyone I must correct you. The performance of witchcraft could indeed be efficacious. You don’t have to believe in actual witchcraft to accept this. The efficacy of witchcraft can be put down to the fact that people who felt bewitched due to a person’s behaviour reacted with psychosomatic illnesses.

Matt,

whether or not there is actual witchcraft is according to me an open question. But with respect to the way you use the Salem witch trials so as to refute the historicity of the Resurrection it doesn’t matter how you answer it. Even if you take the view about the efficacy of witchcraft mentioned above, it is possible to accept the historicity of the Salem witchcraft trials and at the same time the historicity of the Resurrection. In other words, it is possible to deny the existence of actual witchcraft and at the same time believe that Jesus rose from the dead. As a matter of fact the view that the performance of magical acts is totally inefficacious and therefore an illusion was not invented by atheists but had a long tradition in Christian theology, going back at least to St. Augustine (354-430).

Matt said...

I enjoyed this post. Although, I'm considering suing for copyright... :P

I call this phenomena "polycrazyism." I've found it to be the case that you rarely find a person with only a single paranormal, supernatural or superstitious belief. They seem to come in packs.

The simple answer is that the lack of education prevents the individual of having an understanding and standard by which to determine the truth of various claims. Without such tools, all sorts of weird, easily falsifiable ideas will sneak in.

"Whether or not a point of view is correct does not depend on the education level of a person holding such a point of view."

Very true, however the education level often determines whether they hold the point of view out of sound reasoning, or sheer dumb luck. I have a bad feeling that most holders of true beliefs fall into the latter category.

"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 don't think there is a single causal arrow here. I think in the cognitive process, either type of belief can act as the "foot in the door" to allow the others in. It probably seems like the beginning is religiosity, however that may simply be an effect of early religious education. People, raised in a religious setting from childhood, will come to hold religious beliefs before they determine solid beliefs on other paranormal phenomena. The study would seem to support the hypothesis that neither type of belief is the ultimate cause for the other, but that either can allow the others to exist.

Matt

Chris said...

"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."

How do you come to this conclusion?



2. But it isn’t reasonable to believe that there were real witches at Salem or real black magic during the Inquisitions.

What are you using as "reasonable?" I suppose one could argue, it sure seemed reasonable to them at the time - which is usually the case. Hindsight, after all, is 20/20. Quite easy for us to point the finger now and say that was unreasonable...but that, I suppose would make us the "reasonable" majority.



3. Therefore, you should not accept the resurrection of Jesus on historical grounds...

Again, how do you come to this conclusion?

Matt McCormick said...

Chris, thanks for your interest. I've written about this Jesus argument at great length in earlier posts. Check those out for details. The idea is that when it is all considered, the historical evidence for the resurrection is pretty thin. So if you lower the bar of acceptability to the point that the weak evidence for Jesus justifies believing, then, to be consistent, you will also have to accept a whole mountain of other cases of alleged magic, demon possession, resurrections, miracles, ghosts, visitations, and other non-Christian supernatural claims from history that meet those standards as well or better than the Jesus story. If you just single out Jesus to accept on historical grounds and reject the others, you're being ad hoc and applying a double standard to get just those conclusions you favor. Consider how people will forgive a politician whose views they agree with but they will be exceedingly critical of one for the same faults if they reject her views.

Reasonable: As I said before, I am not arguing that it wasn't reasonable for the people at Salem to believe in witchcraft. What was justified in the 1700s is very different than what is justified now. I am pointing out that given what we know, we should now conclude that there was no real magic happening at Salem. If you bite the bullet and insist that there was, and I'm encountering this shocking reaction often now, then you've got a whole host of other problems with the view you're advancing. Hope that helps.

MM

Patrick said...

Matt, I don’t apply a double standard with respect to the Salem witch trials on the one hand and the Resurrection on the other hand. In both cases I regard the respective testimonies as reliable. What distinguishes these two cases is that for the former there is a plausible naturalistic explanation for the events described, whereas with respect to the latter no plausible naturalistic explanation has been presented. On pp. ix-xiv of his book about the Salem witch trials entitled “Witchcraft at Salem” (New York 1969) Chadwick Hansen puts the efficacy of witchcraft down to psychosomatic reactions in witnesses, caused by the suspected persons’ behaviour.

Matt McCormick said...

Ok, Patrick. That's clearer. But in fact, by denying that there is any plausible natural explanation in the case of Jesus while accepting it in the case of Salem, you ARE adopting a double standard. There are a variety of quite plausible, compelling hypotheses that would account for resurrection stories cropping up about a failed prophet 35-150 years after his death. I've detailed many of them in previous posts. In fact, since we have so little reliable information about what happened at Jesus' death, the field is even more open to natural possibilities than it is with Salem. The abundant information we have from Salem confines some of the naturalistic hypotheses, in ways that must remain unknown about Jesus. What I have typically found is that Christian apologetic work on the historical account of Jesus has led people to vastly overstate the real quality and quantity and reliability of the information we have about it. Once those exaggerations are brought into a reasonable range, the case that many people think is quite compelling for the resurrection evaporates.

MM

Patrick said...

As for the Resurrection, let’s look at the apostle Paul. According to 1 Corinthians 9,1 and 15,8 he had a first hand experience of the risen Jesus.

Paul had every reason not to believe in the Resurrection if there was even the slightest possibility that it could not have happened. Not only was his belief the cause of much hardship (see 1 Corinthians 4,9-13, 15,30-32, 2 Corinthians 11,16-33), but in addition he had to fear that in the end he would turn out to be a false witness about God (1 Corinthians 15,15). According to Philippians 3,3-10, before his conversion Paul was a well-respected member of the Jewish community, so he didn’t have to become a Christian to win fame. From 1 Corinthians 9,3-18, 2 Corinthians 2,17 and 1 Thessalonians 2,9 one can see that Paul was not looking for financial advantage. Therefore, such a motive for his activities can also be ruled out.

Chris said...

Hey Matt!

I think I would be more inclined to agree with you, if we were to say the evidence in both cases were equally valued.

Each witch trial (the 19 that resulted in exocution) I would argue should stand alone as a seperate incident. Thus, each case, with each of it's "evidence" should be looked at and examined - yes, with as much scruitiny as one would for Jesus' ressurection.

As, I'm sure you'd agree, some trials could be marked up to hysteria of the previous trials. And thus, would not fall into you a "have to" for acceptance, but could be thrown out entirely.

Now, as to conceeding that there could have been witches and witchcraft...I would have to say, yes - there could have been. Mainly because my belief, and experience allows for it.

To this date, however, I have never met a witch (of any kind) nor have I been the subject to witch craft. Nor voodoo for that matter - even AFTER being in New Orleans.

So, you could argue I have to ALLOW for it...and I would say, yes. Accept it? No.

I would now, like to take a slight issues as to regards to "evidence" of Jesus' resurrection. And your position that the evidence is not "reliable."

What is usually argued as reliable is evidence "outside" the Bible...which of course, I agree is lacking...but I would argue there's a perfectly reasonable reason, such evidence is NOT easily found outside the Bible.

As for "reliable" what is it about them, in short (or post the link if you please) that isn't reliable.

(I haven't seen your previous post on this, I appologize, but would very much like to read it.)

Thanks!

Chris

Patrick said...

Isn’t it begging the question to assume that religious or paranormal beliefs are delusions? As far as I know nobody has ever conclusively proven that such beliefs are false.

Chris said...

Patrick, you do make an interesting point.

As one could say there is quite a bit of evidence available to us to prove such events and happenings DO exist.

Just because I never have seen a ghost, or UFO, or "know" that I've been abducted, doesn't mean they don't exist - that would be foolish of me to say that just based only on my "lack" of experiences.

Skeptical?

You bet I am, especially about "paranormal" stuff...but, I do leave an open mind - as I believe nothing is gained by shutting the door completely.

Matt McCormick said...

Patrick and Chris, I really appreciate your taking the time to think about these arguments and respond. There are a lot of issues here, and they can't be easily dealt with in the comments section. If you'll look on the left side of the blog, there is a section heading "Troubles for Christianity." There are 30 or so essays linked there where I deal with the matters thoroughly and in detail. Many of the explanations you're asking for are there.

Patrick, if someone is raises serious doubts about the reliability of the source, like I'm doing, it won't be a sufficient response to quote the source to them like you're doing. There are too many unknowns, and too many layers of unreliability that the Bible accounts have gone through to get to us for us to simply read I Corinthians and accept those claims as true as you're doing. If I enumerate those doubts, as I have done in many of those essays, and you insist on taking the claims in the Bible as true without addressing the, then you're the one who is begging the question. The question is, are the quantity, quality, and reliability of the sources that gave us the Bible high enough to justify our accepting them as true? My argument has been that they are not. If you attempt to prove the reliability of the sources that gave us the Bible by quoting the Bible, then you're begging the question that is being asked. I hope that helps, and please take a look at those essays.
MM

Patrick said...

Matt, I pointed out that it is extremely unlikely that the apostle Paul simply made up his testimony about the Resurrection, as he had no reason to do so. The phenomena you point to in order to explain such a claim naturalistically cannot really explain this case, either.

The reference to the bereavement hallucinations may be a good point. The problem is that Paul’s experience cannot be put down to this phenomenon.

The same applies to the Asch effect. Paul obviously wasn’t under any peer group pressure to testify to the Resurrection.

The “Gorilla Problem” shows that witnesses fail to see things that exist. But with respect to the Resurrection the argument is that the witnesses saw something that didn’t exist. I don’t see what it was that the witnesses missed.

tinadot said...

Just stumbled on this blog so possible that this thought has already been posted but...on this tangent....I've always wondered if 'enlightened' experiences weren't really just the failure of cognitive functions that occur after days of not eating or moving (like with monks). Just saying, if I sat under a tree not eating or moving for days and days I would see the light too.

Sean said...

I would say the people who do give credit to other ridiculous supernatural claims are being more intellectually honest than those who reject similar claims outside their religious text, or if nothing else, they are at least being consistent. It is so difficult to argue these points to Christians, because they live life wearing their Christian goggles. Operating under the assumption the bible is true, you'll pull moves like Patrick did, and beg the question using the bible itself as evidence. Lets forget the fact that all writings about Jesus were written at least 40 years after his death, and these accounts contradict (however if you are wearing Christian goggles these contradictions can be explained away), and there are no contemporary accounts of Jesus or his followers; Patrick asks "Why would he lie?....the Bible says he was a respected member of...". I can think of dozens of reasons why somebody might lie, embellish, imagine, or be fooled into accepting ridiculous claims. I can think of no reason to accept accounts of the suspension of natural law based on 2000 year old texts, written by desert peasants.

Matt McCormick said...

Thanks Sean. I suppose this silly view is slightly improved with a bit more internal consistency. I think more often, these believers do not think that the world is rife with supernatural and magical forces. They certainly don't think that all of the comparable magical claims being made by Muslims, and non-Christian religions are all true. But when they are forced to bite the bullet by the Salem Witch Trials argument, they sheepishly acknowledge that, yes, there really were witches at Salem. When I get someone to make this admission in a debate, I take their embracing of the absurdity as 1) an indicator that I've won the debate, and 2) an indicator that they are two deep in the grip of an ideology to be able reason clearly any more.

One problem is that the famous disjunction being forced on us by the followers of C.S. Lewis: lunatic, liar, or Lord, is a false one. First, the question is not about what Jesus was, but what is reported about him by illiterate, Iron Age peasants in hearsay stories decades later from unknown sources. And the range of possible explanations about what may be going on with them, including Paul, is far wider than "lunatic or liar." There are a number of complicated psychological phenomena that I've described in detail in earlier posts that show how flimsy these apologetic attempts to divide an conquer are.

MM

Sean said...

Apologetic attempts...tell me about it! The Apologist so often pretend to be wearing their skeptic goggles and make good arguments for the existence of a deistic god, an argument that I'm sympathetic towards but ultimately reject, and then make a radical jump to conclude that this argument supports their theistic claims.

As for people being too deep in their ideology to reason clearly, I have ran across many people who are simply fascinated with the idea of the super natural, and take pleasure in exploring various supernatural claims. I'm fine with that, as long as they understand why I reject such claims, and they aren't taking it so far that it causes serious problems to their quality of life. Their is some power to wish thinking, and sometimes I wish I was capable of it.

And ultimately, you are right. Most people who claim to believe do not think the world is rife with "MagicK". Most people I run into don't really believe at all. They say they do because they were raised that way, and have a hard time separating from their childhood indoctorinations. When I ask these people the specifics on what they believe, it almost always turns out that their bases for morality is far better than anything they could have learned from scripture. I would be totally fine with these people if it wasn't for the fact that their claim to believe gives undue credit to the minority of delusional fanatics who are pushing their dogma on all of society.

Blamer .. said...

Just a few days ago I was asking if such studies existed and wondering about any correlations between unscientific beliefs.

A direct causal arrow to/from religion would be very surprising. Feedback loops less so. Genetics less still.

As Matt (with just the single post above) points out, education gives us tools for how to think. It doesn't tell us what to think or believe. The educated may turn out to be just as likely to hold a mystical belief, and yet more inclined to identify their personal belief as a claim about reality that can be evaluated. As per Sean, those examining their religious beliefs in the same way as their other beliefs tend towards deism, agnosticism, personalised spirituality, etc.