The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

This is a guest post by Eric Steinhart, Professor of Philosophy at William Paterson University.

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life conducted a survey which reports on the percentages of belief among respondents.  The survey is statistically sound and thus indicates that similar percentages hold in the American public.  The percentages are:

  • 24% believe in reincarnation, that people will be reborn in this world again and again.  And 22% of Christians believe in reincarnation.  (And a Christian who believes in reincarnation is about as consistent as an atheist who believes in God.)
  • 26% believe there is “spiritual energy located in physical things like mountains, trees, crystals”.  And 23% of Christians believe this.
  • 25% believe in “Astrology, that the positions of stars/planets can affect people’s lives”.  And 22% of Christians believe this.
  • 23% believe in “Yoga not just as exercise but as a spiritual practice” while 21% of Christians believe in it.
  • 29% have felt they were “in touch with someone who has already died.”  In 1990 is 17%; in 1996 is18%; and by 2009 is 29%.
  • 18% have “seen or been in the presence of a ghost.”  In 1990 is 9%; in 1996 is 9%; and by 2009 is 18%.
  • 49% say they “have had a religious or mystical experience.”  The question has been asked since 1962 and there has been a steady and significant increase.  In 1962, only 22% reported having had a religious or mystical experience.

The data from the Pew Forum is corroborated by two Gallup polls.  The first Gallup poll is from 2001 while the second Gallup poll is from 2005.  The Gallup polls ask about a much wider range of spiritualist beliefs (such as channelling, etc.).

The data suggest that the monolithic Christian identity pattern in America (with tight control on personal and social belief-structures) is breaking down.  They also suggest that woo is widespread, persistent, and increasing.  The increase in woo parallels the rise of atheism in America.  As Christianity breaks down, both atheism and woo increase.

Strictly speaking, all this woo is entirely consistent with atheism in both its narrow and broad senses – none of these beliefs either involve or entail the existence of any deities, theistic or otherwise.   Of course, none of this woo is consistent with scientific naturalism, rationalism, or skepticism.  And since atheists are often inspired by those three stronger positions, atheists often are opposed to woo.

So what should those of us do who are committed to either scientific naturalism, rationalism, or skepticism?  Attacking the believers in woo does not seem likely to have much effect; if it were a productive strategy, then woo should be decreasing as atheism increases – and yet atheism and woo are increasing together.  Calling people stupid or telling them that their brains don’t work right is not a way to win friends or influence people.  On the contrary, it is a self-defeating approach.  So don’t do it.  If you say that anybody who’s had a mystical or religious experience is crazy, you’ve just offended about half of the American population.  Superior and deeper strategies are needed.

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Irene Delse

    => Posting data from a Pew study on what Americans believe, with link: first step completed with success.

    => Following with data about which atheists call every believer stupid or crazy, and in which circumstances… Fail, fail, abort mission!

    ****

    Ah, well. Maybe this simple program is not so easy to implement, after all.

  • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

    Calling people stupid or telling them that their brains don’t work right is not a way to win friends or influence people. On the contrary, it is a self-defeating approach. ,em>So don’t do it. If you say that anybody who’s had a mystical or religious experience is crazy, you’ve just offended about half of the American population. Superior and deeper strategies are needed.

    Well, I’m on the record opposing calling them stupid, but what’s wrong with educating people about the ways that all our brains don’t work right and how to correct them? If people cannot handle even that much truth without being offended, then why ever think they will be amenable to truthful thinking?

    Why not just start with making information about how cognitive biases work in general into common places. Cognitive biases are fun to learn about because people love finding out how tricks are done. They feel in on a secret and feel like they can avoid being fooled. It’s quite natural that James Randi and Penn Jillette are skeptics whose lure to the public was that they were illusionists (and in the case of Jillette, a magician who made a career of letting audiences know how old routines worked after performing them).

    There’s a way to educate people about how their brains fail. It might isolate a 25% who are impenetrable but why not have any hope that with more decades of mainstreaming atheism there cannot be adequate educational push back against woo?

    • SAWells

      “what’s wrong with educating people about the ways that all our brains don’t work right and how to correct them?”

      YES. This.

      We all have to watch out for the Idols of the Tribe, the Den, the Marketplace and the Theatre, as Bacon put it.

    • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

      Nothing’s wrong with educating people. So far, it hasn’t had much effect.

      It may be more effective to figure out ways to build emotionally and cognitively satisfying paths from the woo to more reasonable positions.

      Or it may be even more effective to build practices that would short-circuit woo-generation, lots of which appears to come from an over-aroused limbic system (e.g. some of the woo comes from anxiety and fear about the future, short-circuit the fear, you pre-empt the woo).

  • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com jayman777

    Of course, none of this woo is consistent with scientific naturalism, rationalism, or skepticism.

    I suppose, by definition, the supernatural/paranormal may be inconsistent with “scientific naturalism” (I’m not sure how you define the term). But, if you’re sure you’ve witnessed the supernatural/paranormal, then it is rational to reject metaphysical naturalism.

    You also falsely assume that those who believe in the supernatural/paranormal are not skeptical. Many such people try to find natural explanations and they can’t. You can call them irrational but you need to provide an actual argument to that effect.

    Calling people stupid or telling them that their brains don’t work right is not a way to win friends or influence people. On the contrary, it is a self-defeating approach.

    I would also add that, if a skeptic is asked to explain an alleged supernatural/paranormal event, that he not change the account to fit his naturalistic theory. For example, if the witnesses claim to have gotten close to the ghost don’t claim that the witnesses were too far away from the ghost to examine it closely. This tactic is basically an admission you can’t provide a natural explanation.

    Superior and deeper strategies are needed.

    It seems to me that it is an epistemological question. The problem the naturalist faces is coming up with a reasonable, consistent epistemological standard that he applies in all walks of his life. I would be interested to see what standard you propose that doesn’t lead one to accept the existence of at least some forms of “woo” (by the way, isn’t this term also an attack on the believer and thus self-defeating?).

  • freethinker

    The way to deal with superstition is not to be polite to it, but to tackle it with all arms, and so rout it, cripple it, and make it forever infamous and ridiculous. Henry Louis Mencken

  • James

    What about just calling their supernatural beliefs stupid? When people have deeply held convictions based on faith there seems to be no way not offend someone. I agree that attacking the person is not productive, but often you are dealing with people who are unable to separate the idea from the person themselves.

    • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com jayman777

      James:

      What about just calling their supernatural beliefs stupid? When people have deeply held convictions based on faith there seems to be no way not offend someone.

      But many of the people in the survey are not basing their beliefs on blind faith (I assume you are referring to blind faith). Rather, they are basing the belief on direct experience. So are you saying they are stupid for believing their own eyes (and other senses)? If not, then how are such people “stupid”? If so, then how do you propose we acquire any knowledge at all?

    • James

      Thanks for making my point.

  • John Morales

    Eric Steinhart:

    Attacking the believers in woo does not seem likely to have much effect; if it were a productive strategy, then woo should be decreasing as atheism increases – and yet atheism and woo are increasing together.

    Hm.

    It seems to me you’ve not looking at the totality of the dataset; you concede that is theism is down and atheism is up; hence, it must be the case that of that number that stop being theistic, some go into other woo, and some adopt a more naturalistic stance.

    (That represents a net gain for non-wooishness — so something is being productive)

    • John Morales

      [erratum]

      Leaving aside my extraneous ‘is’, I mean by the above that theism is itself woo. :)

  • Stacy

    So what should those of us do who are committed to either scientific naturalism, rationalism, or skepticism?

    We make a united effort to get critical thinking taught in U.S. public schools, as a subject, beginning in grade school.

  • Pen

    A few days ago, I sat and listened with a straight face to my hostess, who is a relative stranger, explain to me about her previous life during which she escaped from a well-known prison. What, indeed, can you do?

  • King of New Hampshire

    I agree that calling people stupid is not always the best way to win them over, but sometimes it is. Still…

    Imagine that the level of woo in America has been steadily increasing. This new woo, so obviously made up bullshit without even a hint of tradition, finally drives the atheists over the edge and brings the skeptics out with frothing mouths and furious words. The rational people verbally attack the wooheads with insults. A significant number of woowoos then break ranks and join with the science crowd and we see atheists growing as fast as fluffbrains. This story is equally consistent with the data and has enough fodder to back it. So why are you pushing one possible explanation at the expense of others? If I’m right, we’re losing precious members to a misdiagnosis.

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Insults and other verbal attacks from furious and frothing mouths. That’s your approach to making people more rational.

      Yes, there really is a need for greater critical thinking education in this country and atheists need to sign right up along with everybody else.

  • Wes

    Calling people stupid or telling them that their brains don’t work right is not a way to win friends or influence people. On the contrary, it is a self-defeating approach. So don’t do it. If you say that anybody who’s had a mystical or religious experience is crazy, you’ve just offended about half of the American population. Superior and deeper strategies are needed.

    I refer you to Greta’s recent post about differing goals among atheists. Not everyone is out to make friends and influence people. Obviously, being more rude than necessary is not recommended, but telling people that their beliefs are false and that they have cognitive biases is one of *the best* ways to influence people. Often, it doesn’t end up convincing the person you’re talking with, but it might convince the other people listening. We shame racists and sexists into either changing their beliefs, or keeping quiet. We laugh at and mock Mormons, the Pope, and all kind people with silly beliefs. It can be a very effective strategy, depending on your goals.

  • http://www.ericsteinhart.com Eric Steinhart

    It’s always amazing to me how everything I say gets so quickly and easily translated by atheists back into the same old familiar Abrahamic or even Christian conceptual scheme.

    None of the experiences or beliefs mentioned above has anything to do with God or with Christianity or faith or theological doctrine.

    Most of the woo discussed above is directly experiential. For instance, you see or have other direct perception-like experience of the ghost, the dead loved one, etc. All of this woo is really pre-religious — religions are ways of interpreting it, regulating it, and so on.

    It’s really depressing to see that so many atheists are committed to Christianity, exactly insofar as they are unable to think outside of its conceptual system.

    • Freemage

      Eric: That’s where the discussion of cognitive bias and critical thinking comes in. Direct experience is a HORRIBLE form of evidence, unless it’s backed up and confirmed by others, preferably those with no stake in things is concerned. People need to be made to understand that yes, they can be fooled by their own brains (such as only remembering those bits the “psychic” actually scored hits during a cold-reading), and yes, they can fill in gaps on actual sensory data to make an experience seem to fit into a predisposed belief (such as sensing the presence of grandma’s ghost).

    • http://biblicalscholarship.wordpress.com jayman777

      Freemage:

      Direct experience is a HORRIBLE form of evidence

      Is it really a horrible form of evidence? How horrible are you talking? I am having the experience that a computer monitor is in front of me right now. What are the odds a computer monitor is actually in front of me? 1%? 5%? 10%? 25%?

      unless it’s backed up and confirmed by others

      The problem, on your view, is that this confirmation is mediated through your direct experience, which is a horrible form of evidence. There’s no escape from the horrible form of evidence that is direct experience.

    • Stacy

      It’s always amazing to me how everything I say gets so quickly and easily translated by atheists back into the same old familiar Abrahamic or even Christian conceptual scheme

      Wait, what? Who did that?

      Most of the woo discussed above is directly experiential.

      Sure. So is a lot of Christianity. Many committed believers have “a personal relationship with Jesus”. It’s not all Abrahamic religious dogma…but it’s all woo (supernaturalism).

      what’s wrong with educating people about the ways that all our brains don’t work right and how to correct them? If people cannot handle even that much truth without being offended, then why ever think they will be amenable to truthful thinking?

      Why not just start with making information about how cognitive biases work in general into common places.

      Exactamundo.

  • Stacy

    Re me, at #7:

    Damn it, guys, I’m serious. Why don’t we make this a priority of our movement?

    I’m talking about Critical Thinking being taught along with Reading, Writing, and ‘Rithmetic. Teaching about how to analyze arguments. Pointing out how advertisements and other forms of propaganda work (that’s a good place to start with little kids). Education about cognitive biases.

    Beginning with age-appropriate introductions to the subject in elementary school.

    If we ever seriously made this a plank and pushed for it, there would be pushback, believe me. But the pushback itself would be revealing.

    • Wes

      I’m with you. That’s been on my “to-do” list for a while, and I’d love to see it as a larger part of the movement.


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