We were delighted this afternoon to find some rare vintage Barbara Kay on the National Post‘s Full Comment blog, where she suggests that “belief in God is a prophylactic against superstition.” (This, surely, is one of the more mind-boggling contentions an atheist is ever likely to read.) Kay’s evidence comes (second-hand) from a new book from the Baylor University Press, What Americans Really Believe, which is based largely on the absolutely fascinating survey data collected by Gallup on behalf of the university’s Institute for Studies of Religion. We haven’t read the book, we should stress—though we’ve gone through much of component data from the 2006 survey, which is available on the Institute’s website—and neither has Kay. She acknowledges that she’s getting her data from “a review in the September 19th Wall Street Journal,” by which we can only conclude she means an opinion column by one Mollie Ziegler Hemingway.
That Ziegler Hemingway’s name doesn’t appear in Kay’s piece strikes us as somewhat odd given that it is, functionally, identical. Both argue that the data put the lie to atheistic smugness about the collective intelligence of the pious. Both offer Bill Maher’s new film, Religulous, and a recent Saturday Night Life sketch on home schooling, as classic examples of the smugness in question. The only statistics Kay cites from the book are also cited in Ziegler Hemingway’s article. Both point to corroborating data from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. Both quote Maher on the matter of Louis Pasteur’s germ theory and his (Maher’s) skepticism about vaccinations. Kay did dig up and dismiss a positive review of Religulous—which she refuses to see, natch—from the Kansas City Star. But other than that, we can’t find much that she’s contributed to the argument.
And that argument had some problems to begin with. Out of respect for its original arguer, we’ll quote Ziegler Hemingway:
The Gallup Organization, under contract to Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion, asked American adults a series of questions to gauge credulity. Do dreams foretell the future? Did ancient advanced civilizations such as Atlantis exist? Can places be haunted? Is it possible to communicate with the dead? Will creatures like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster someday be discovered by science?
The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.
Even among Christians, there were disparities. While 36% of those belonging to the United Church of Christ, Sen. Barack Obama’s former denomination, expressed strong beliefs in the paranormal, only 14% of those belonging to the Assemblies of God, Sarah Palin’s former denomination, did. In fact, the more traditional and evangelical the respondent, the less likely he was to believe in, for instance, the possibility of communicating with people who are dead.
For those who find atheistic smugness unbearable, such as ourselves, there’s much to like about these findings: Okay, young fella with the Che shirt, a shocking number of Americans do indeed think Revelations will one day come true. But a shocking number of your college-educated friends believe in Ouija boards and haunted houses. In fact, we’re sure there’s all sorts of hare-brained beliefs—9/11 trutherism comes immediately to mind—that are more common among the godless. But let’s stay on the topic of 9/11. How, we wonder, does one go about squaring Kay’s “God as prophylactic against superstition” argument with the fact that (from Gallup’s 2006 findings) “those who attend church more are much more likely to … believe that [Saddam] Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks”? We’re talking 52 per cent of evangelical Protestants here, and 48.5 per cent of weekly church-attenders versus 24.4 per cent of those who stay home of a Sunday. Ouija boards are harmless fun—or harmless, anyway. Believing Saddam (or Mossad for that matter) masterminded 9/11 is neither of those things.
Could it be that those who believe the Bible is the literal truth are more likely to believe all sorts of other things are literal truth—things that emphatically aren’t? Could it be that people are simply less likely to dabble in beliefs that they’re told, every Sunday, will earn them a first-class ticket to hell? Makes sense to us. But we’re not here to rank our misbegotten beliefs. Let she who is without superstition write the first column, we say. (Just save a bit of the action for Barbara Kay, will ya?) We hereby suggest, without much statistical evidence to back it up, that troglodytic credulousness transcends religion, class, race, educational achievement, brainpan size and age. And we’re sure all our readers agree.