The Increasing Prevalence of Woo

The Increasing Prevalence of Woo December 29, 2011

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.

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