Does atheism make people superstitious?

What if I claimed that Christians — who believe in miracles, prayer, faith healing, demons, and inspired books — were less superstitious than atheists, who deny all those things? That would be absurd, right?

Not according to Mollie Hemingway. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, she claims that atheism makes people more superstitious than Christianity. To support this claim she cites a new study:

“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….

While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in [the paranormal], only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

Her conclusion from this data is that “the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won’t create a new group of intelligent, skeptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition.”

It seems that according to Ms. Hemingway, anyone who does not attend church is an atheist. But that’s simply not true. Many folks who believe in UFOs and New Age nonsense do not attend church, yet are not necessarily atheists, either.

The very core of the New Atheism movement is skepticism. It teaches that one should only believe things when there is sufficient evidence. And as anyone with an ounce of skepticism knows, there is no credible evidence for hauntings, communication with the dead, ESP or UFOs. 

In fact, I am very confident that your average evangelical Christian is far more superstitious than self-proclaimed atheists.

For instance, ask a Christian if they believe it is possible to communicate with people who are dead. Their automatic answer will likely be no. That’s what the poll would record. But after they answer, remind them of the story in the Bible where Saul asks the Witch of Endor to conjure up Samuel from the dead — which she does successfully. After complaining about being disturbed, Samuel foretells the future (1 Samuel 28).

I think you will find that virtually all Christians believe that story to be true, meaning they do think it is possible to communicate with the dead (and for fortunes to be told). Now do any atheists believe this story to be true, or any other stories of people conjuring up dead people? Who are the superstitious ones, atheists or Christians?

Ask a Christian if they believe in Ouija boards or psychics or UFOs, and they will say no. Press them, and you will find they often do believe there to be some kind truth to these claims, but they think that demons and devils are behind them. Who in the New Atheism movement believes such things?

Consider all the great debunkers of this century, from Carl Sagan to James Randi to Michael Shermer. All atheists. Where are the great Christian debunkers?

How can one say Christianity “greatly decreases belief” in superstition, when in fact they believe a book was written by God; that a witch conjured up a dead prophet; that a man-god was born of a virgin, raised people from the dead, rose from the grave, and will return again; that the shadow of an apostle healed the sick; that a invisible god in the sky listens to the prayers of billions every day through ESP!

If that is not superstition — believing in the supernatural without a shred of evidence — I don’t know what is.

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  • http://thinkingforfree.blogspot.com Eamon Knight

    That is, of course, the core fallacy of the editorial: that popular religion is, in itself, a superstition, and one with a multitude of subsidiary superstitions — prayers to the saints, pentecostalist manifestations, faith healings, end-times hysteria, etc, etc….. Note that Baylor U is a Baptist school, which may explain the lack of self-examination implicit in the conclusion.

    The only difference between religion and belief in astrology or palmistry is the unified cultural weight of the former.

    That being said, I do run across my share of atheists who seem to believe rather silly things (not spooky stuff, but not terribly skeptical thinkers, either).

    BTW: no list of modern debunkers is complete without Martin Gardner — who as it happens, is a sort of generic theist. But his Fads & Fallacies is a classic, which helped get me started on the whole skepticism thing (that, and talk.origins).

  • http://whyareyousofat.wordpress.com McBloggenstein

    Great post!

    You pointed out the main fallacy with her argument.

    She is assuming that just because someone does not follow the teachings of the bible, that they will automatically jump on some other bandwagon of unsubstantiated beliefs.

    She fails to realize that the main reason why athiests are athiests is because they are generally more skeptical about things that have little or no basis.

  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    “The Witch of Endor” …

    The Bible has Ewoks?

    • Red Dave

      roflmao

  • http://www.primordial-blog.blogspot.com/ Brian Larnder

    It’s also in how you word the questions in that survey. Do Christians believe in aliens? No, they believe that demons are running around masquerading as aliens. Do they beleive that the dead can communicate? No, that’s just Satan pretending to be their dead relatives in order to trick them. Palm readers are actually demon-possessed, which is how they have their powers. And notice the survey didn’t ask about superstitious nonsense like visiting angels or sighting of the virgin Mary?

  • Samuel Skinner

    Am I the only one who notices that these articles and issues come in spurts? There is a sudden increase in the “atheists are irrational” com chatter. I wonder who started the ball rolling…

  • brad

    Hi Daniel, I wouldn’t necessarily say that anything causes men [mankind] to be superstitious other than the common demonstrated tendency to believe in the supernatural. It is a characteristic of man-ness, or humanness if you will.

    I think that all of the questions you suppose to ask Christians are strawmen and you successfully knock these down with ease. I dont fault you for this, because the prevelance of faulty knowledge of the Word of God in modern evangelicalism gives you ample fodder. Nevertheless, your questions can be answered using sound logic and be consistent with life experience and the scriptures while avoiding the derrogatory term “superstitious”.

    Rom 1:18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness,
    Rom 1:19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
    Rom 1:20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
    Rom 1:21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened.
    Rom 1:22 Professing to be wise, they became fools,
    Rom 1:23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.

    • AnonymousAtheist18

      Awesome, only “men[mankind]” are stupid enough to believe in the paranormal!
      …oh wait, women believe in it too, but their beliefs are substandard. They don’t count!
      Sexist.

  • http://www.wazzasworthlesswitterings.blogspot.com wazza

    brad: how is believing that a book was written by an invisible man not superstitious?

  • Jabster

    I think you have to be careful that just because the University that made the study was possibly bias and the reporter who wrote the article is obviously bias it does mean that there’s not some truth in what is being said – saying that I would be interested to see the real data was and how this was all done as reporters have a habit of taking studies and then deciding what they mean. If you remove the obvious parts about the definition of an Atheist, how come believing in a Virgin birth isn’t considered supernatural etc. and just look at the point of whether removing religion would create a more rational people, well I can’t say I’m convinced that that is would. People can be gullible, stupid or whatever you wish to term it and if it’s not god then it’s just going to be something else that they believe in. It’s teaching people rational thought that is required and a natural product of that would be a down turn in religion.

  • http://www.adamus.nl Adamus

    Quote from the article: “We can’t even count on self-described atheists to be strict rationalists. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life’s monumental “U.S. Religious Landscape Survey” that was issued in June, 21% of self-proclaimed atheists believe in either a personal God or an impersonal force. Ten percent of atheists pray at least weekly and 12% believe in heaven.”

    …. who the hell did they interview to represent the ‘atheist’ viewpoint? An atheist that believes in a personal god, or a god of any kind, is not an atheist!

    This stuff is just too ridiculous. Such stupidity makes my brain bleed.

  • Jabster

    @Adamus: Yep that made me laugh as well. Maybe the self same atheists also describe themselves as vegetarians yet like to eat fish!

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Daniel Florien

    @Brad: In an argument, you can’t just say “you make straw men and tear them down” — you have to show they are straw men. Otherwise, your argument itself is perceived as a straw man.

    And I find it a little insulting you don’t think I know the Bible. I’ve read hundreds of theology and philosophy books — and most of the theology books are from conservatives. Perhaps you’d like to show me where my biblical/systematic theology or knowledge of the Bible is faulty instead of just making broad sweeping claims?

  • http://metroblog.blogspot.com Metro

    I notice that the article seems to conflate not attending church with being an atheist. But it doesn’t conflate attending church with being agnostic, for some reason.

    Which might also explain the results in the Pew Forum poll. Praying weekly might be something you do to fit in with your family, belief aside.

    Although I can’t figure out how anyone who claims belief in a personal god can claim atheism unless they think it simply means “not a churchgoer”.

  • Aspentroll

    I think articles like these are just feeble attempts to counteract
    what atheism means to them (xtians). If a priest, pastor or reverend sees his congregation getting smaller it may mean that his job is on the line. Of course they will write articles and hire actors like Ben Stein to make dumb movies to try and
    slow down their demise. Benny Hinn, Peter Popov, Pat Robertson all make huge amounts of money from the unfortunate brainwashed individuals who frequent their prayer tents. It’s only natural that they would want to keep the myth alive.

  • brad

    Hi Daniel, no need to take offense, my intended target is/was the modern evangelical community–which as I said I dont fault you for–gives you ample fodder.

    As far as the questions, they are indeed strawmen unless you’d rather classify them as disingenous. They are strawmen if in fact you belief that intelligent, careful thinking, and honest Christians *agree* that their thinking is superstitious. Your questions and answers are set up to make the Christian position look superstitious.

    The only claim I made is that it’s possible to believe much of what you said and avoid the “derrogatory term superstitious”.

    Hi wazza, what in the world inspired you to ask that question to me? I dont get it.

    brad

  • Dale Husband

    Re The claims by Mollie Hemingway:

    That’s exactly the sort of blatant intellecual dishonesty that actually converts many people to atheism, once they realize the absurdity of the claim.

  • http://www.wazzasworthlesswitterings.blogspot.com wazza

    Brad, the point is that you can’t say that the questions Daniel asks are strawman arguments because they’re based on a bad understanding of the bible… because believing that the bible was written by a supernatural being is itself superstitious. No amount of interpretation can change that.

  • brad

    Hi wazza, the questions are strawmen, because Daniel asked them with the purpose of getting an intended weak version of a common “answer” that he [Daniel] could frame as blind unreasonable faith, or superstition. The Christian faith is not always defended well, but Daniel chose to make example of the easiest, least sound, and most unreasonable characature of doctrine.

    I have no doubts that you consider the Bible to be just a bunch of superstitious writings, but I dont believe that you have good reasons for thinking that, they are just resaons that appeal to you.

    brad

  • http://unreasonablefaith.com Daniel Florien

    @Brad: I cited the beliefs that the Bible was written by God, miracles (like Jesus being born of a virgin and raising from the dead), prayer, angelic beings like demons…

    So those are the “the easiest, least sound, and most unreasonable characature of doctrine”? I thought they were pretty standard stuff, and I know many Christians who think those things are quite reasonable.

    Ones I didn’t even mention are the Trinity, transubstantiation, prophecy, speaking in tongues, singing love songs to Jesus and asking him into their hearts, predestination, eternal damnation in hell, creationism, the sinlessless of Christ, that millions of animals fit on a boat while God destroyed the earth, languages were created because God was afraid of a skyscraper, God killed all the firstborn of Egypt and parted the waters of the Nile, God stopped the earth rotating for Joshua (or was it the rotating sun?), three men were not burned in the fiery furnace, Jonah was swallowed and spit up by a giant fish, Balaam’s donkey talked to people, Nebuchadnezzar “ate grass like an ox” for “seven periods,” Elijah was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind and chariots of fire, Paul resurrected a man from the dead…

    Perhaps you could enlighten us on the more sound and reasonable doctrines of Christianity.

  • jonboy

    I’d like to submit that some of the confusion you seem to be detecting in the article’s conflation of ‘christian’ with ‘churchgoer’ and ‘atheist’ with ‘non-churchgoer’ comes from the intention of the article, rather than its content.

    No matter how you slice it, its clear that the writer is writing a piece favoring one side over the other. Once you realize that, however, you should be able to separate your own feelings from the evidence. The plain fact of the matter is that those who classify themselves as christian have a much higher occurrence of churchgoing than those who classify themselves as atheist. (I hope everyone agrees with me on this?) So when she extends her evidence (which mentions churchgoers and non-churchgoers) to christians and atheists, she is trying to advocate a point, but it does not step outside logical boundaries.

    As to whether religion and superstition are the same thing, it isn’t really the subject of that study. I would say they aren’t though. Can there be superstition within religion? Sure, just as there can be religion in superstition, but the two are far from identical. Believing weird things as part of a system that supports it is different from believing weird things in isolation.

  • Jabster

    @jonboy

    I not sure I really understand the point you are trying to make. You’re correct that logically the argument has some merit but this only true if it follows if you classify beliefs that are religious in nature as non-superstitious.

    I don’t think that anyone has claimed that religion and superstition are one and the same thing merely that religion contains what many non-believers, including in other religions, would class as superstitious. Could you expand on you last point concerning part of a system vs. in isolation as that would make your intent more clearer in my mind?

  • jonboy

    I just mean that the commonly understood meanings of superstition and religion are different from one another, which is why the article is not in itself contradictory. If your argument is that religion and superstition is the same thing (which is fine as far as it goes) then you can make the assertion that the article or study is/are inconsistent. However, since the common understanding of superstition *is* different from religion, it is not necessarily the case that the article and study are self-contradictory (although since an argument could be made that superstition and religion are roughly synonymous, there is certainly room to contest the assertions of the article.)

  • mark

    talk about botching a conclusion. The reason this survey produced these results is that Pastors speak out against divination and other similar “pagan” practices. However, if they looked a little further, the Bible actually encourages their efficacy, but simply warns them it is against “God’s Will.” In Judaism, it’s considered an un-ideal form of faith, though it is considered very real. Remember when God cursed Moses for making the water come from the rock? That is just one example of this. It’s funny how pop-christianity gets this wrong and simply attacks these practices as ineffective.

    And then of course, this is a very poorly conducted study, as it didn’t actually include a question of one’s self-described religious preference, but simply divided non-churchgoers into a broad and meaningless ‘athiest’ category.

  • nswipe92

    You may call us Christians whatever you want, do you believe in evolution? if so really think about it. the origin of life as evolution tells it. that first there was absolutely nothing at all, nothing shall i repeat it, nothing then out of no where (since there was nothing) something appeared and just exploded. this theory if it is true says that the first law of thermodynamics is false, lets see a theory against a law of science. I see that it takes more faith to believe in the big bang happening than it does to believe in Christianity honestly i dont have enough faith to be an atheist there are too many flaws and not enough proof. you said “What if I claimed that Christians — who believe in miracles, prayer, faith healing, demons, and inspired books — were less superstitious than atheists” well if it takes more faith to believe in evolution then your a huge hypocrite. In the past 1 or 2 decades more and more secular scientists that use to believe in evolution discard or come out and admit they hate towards God as their only reason to believe evolution. as professor Urey a winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry said ” All of us who study the origin of life find that the more we look into it, the more we feel it is too complex to have evolved anywhere… And yet we all believe as AN ARTICLE OF FAITH that life evolved from dead matter on this planet. It is just that its complexity is so great that it is hard for us to imagine that it did”so there you have it one of your own admitting it takes faith to believe in evolution.

    • AnonymousAtheist18

      Maybe you should read a little bit more about the Theory of Evolution and the law of the conservation of mass-energy! See below, this from David Mills’ “Atheist Universe”:

      “If mass-energy cannot be created or destroyed, and if the universe
      is entirely composed of mass-energy, then the law of the
      conservation of mass-energy may be extrapolated to this startling
      conclusion: the universe, in one form or another, in one
      density or another, always existed. There was never a time when
      the mass-energy comprising our universe did not exist, if only in
      the form of an empty oscillating vacuum or an infinitely dense
      theoretical point called a singularity, consisting of no volume
      whatsoever.”

      No scientist has ever claimed that the universe appeared ex nihilo… only Creationists do that.

  • http://www.sudokuarena.com/ SudokuArena.com

    Dear Daniel,

    maybe you don’t know, but science has discovered many proofs that God exists. Famous atheists and evolution scientists are prooving just that, Francis Collins (Genome project) or Anthony Flew (famous 20.ct atheist), just to name few of them, they turned to God.

    How to explain then when atheism and science is at its peek, scientists and evolutionists are coverting to God?
    They obviously had any possible argument that God don’t exists.
    So what happened to them?
    What they discovered about God (and life, nature and the world)?

  • Allie

    who the fuck cares
    i mean, i agree 100% with daniel, but attacking each others belief systems or lack of belief systems is silly, and will not get anyone anywhere.
    christians: do not try to prove that god exists. you never will. and stop trying to convert other people. let them make their own choices
    Atheists: stop trying to prove that god doesn’t exist. you never will. proof is relative to the extreme limitations of human perception. stop attacking christianity.

    everyone just live and let live. or at least fight in person; fighting on the internet is like competing in the special olympics: even if you win, you’re still retarded.

  • Red Dave

    I dont claim to be an “athiest”, I am a proud agnostic. I myself can niether prove nor dis-prove God. However I have much more in common with athiests than people of religious faith because I detest organized religion. I feel it brainwashes people and try actively to get them to believe rather than to think. It is also responsible for more misery on this earth than almost anything else.

    @Brad Do you know why you quoted Romans at us? Do you think it is going to frighten me? Make me think again? Is it a warning of some sort?

    Please try and understand this. I will not speak for others, but I believe many here feel the same way. You cannot frighten me with scripture. It just wont work anymore than me saying watch out, Frankenstiens behind you!

    If you believe in a loving God, who burns and tortures his disobediant children for all eternity, then you believe in a monstorous God. If any person did that, cooked thier disobediant child, you would be right on boat saying that they were sick or evil. Yet the christian God does that to everyone who does not believe as the “CHURCH” says.

    From one church to another they feel the same way. These days they talk less about that in public, as it is Politically incorrect. Yet each church teaches some form of it. Each demonination of chistianity thinks they are going to heaven, and the rest of the world can burn, and they are happy about that. They feel they are somehow the chosen ones, but even the church next door thinks your liable to burn. The entire Muslim world thinks all the Jews will roast, and all the christians, and the Christians feel the same way.

    Many poeple who feel as I do did not get here overnight, we are not decieved of the devil, we are not pawns of Satan. Rather the inverse is true. We have chosen NOT to be pawns of religion, we have chosen to THINK before believing, we have chosen a path of rational thought not emotional fear.

    As for myself, I am content in NOT understanding everything. I don’t have that impossible need. I dont have an illusion that the great “I” is somehow superior to you or anyone. I am simply content to grasp that my feeble human intellect is insufficient to hold all the data in the universe. I’ll leave those thoughts to some other ego maniacal individual to waste thier life on, while I enjoiy mine, sipping my ciffee and smelling the roses.

    So please, spare me the boogyman’s gonna get you arguments, they just waste time and space.


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