Monday, September 22, 2008

Christianity, Unbelievers, and the Paranormal

Ross Douthat and Michael Brendan Dougherty are crowing along with a recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece on what Americans believe. Quoting the WSJ:

"What Americans Really Believe," a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University yesterday, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology. It also shows that the irreligious and the members of more liberal Protestant denominations, far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
From which the crowing takes this form:
Anti-religionists ... bring to mind the assertion of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown character that all atheists, secularists, humanists and rationalists are susceptible to superstition: "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense, and can't see things as they are."
I hate to disrupt a perfectly good round of crowing, but isn't the explanation of this set of facts rather straightforward?

Namely, followers of "traditional Christian religion" are, among other things, people who receive and adhere to a specific set of teachings about the paranormal. Typically, this teaching is that the paranormal manifestation is not actually a space alien or a ghost or an actual ability to divine the future with astrology or palmistry but demonic intervention. I have heard this explanation of the paranormal for as long as I've been aware of the paranormal; Jesus himself attributes illnesses to demons and casts them thither and yon.

By contrast, people who do not receive or adhere to a specific set of teachings about the paranormal may fall prey to the one most frequently on offer -- that there are such things afoot. There are games being played here with the meaning of unbelievers: people without traditional Christian beliefs run the gamut from wishy-washy Christianity to purely agnostic with all sorts of attachments inbetween, but they are not to be confused with "atheists, secularists, humanists and rationalists." I find it difficult to believe that very many self-described (as opposed to WSJ-described) "atheists, secularists, humanists and rationalists" actually believe tales about ghosts, space aliens, lake monsters, fortune-telling, ESP, or the like. They may, I grant, be hesitant to declare these things absolutely do not exist, but their belief in the paranormal would scale with the quality and quantity of supporting evidence. That's the way of skeptics worthy of the name.

No comments: