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Demographics of Belief

The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.

According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:1

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4

Although the specific percentages of belief in the supernatural and the paranormal across countries and decades varies slightly, the numbers remain fairly consistent that the majority of people hold some form of paranormal or supernatural belief.5 Alarmed by such figures, and concerned about the dismal state of science education and its role in fostering belief in the paranormal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted its own extensive survey of beliefs in both the paranormal and pseudoscience, concluding with a plausible culprit in the creation of such beliefs:

Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41 percent) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60 percent) agreed with the statement “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of science and the scientific process.6

I too would like to lay the blame at the feet of the media, or science education in general, because the fix then seems straightforward—just improve how we communicate and educate science. But that’s too easy. In any case, the NSF’s own data do not support it. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half of educated people fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increased, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.

Perhaps a deeper cause may be found in another statistic: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. So one solution here is teaching how science works in addition to the rote memorization of scientific facts. A 2002 article in Skeptic magazine entitled “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism,” presented the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: “Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.”7 The scientific method is a teachable concept, as evidenced in the NSF study that found that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) of science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses) of science education. So maybe the key to attenuating superstition and belief in the supernatural is in teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. I have believed this myself for my entire career in science and education. If I didn’t believe it I might not have gone into the business of teaching, writing, and editing science in the first place.

Alas, I have come to the conclusion that belief is largely immune to attack by direct educational tools, at least for those who are not ready to hear it. Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist of the times, which is affected in part by education, but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.

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References

  1. www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris_Poll_2009_12_15.pdf
  2. www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx

    Similar percentages of belief were found in this 2005 Gallup Poll:

    Psychic or Spiritual Healing 55%
    Demon possession 42%
    ESP 41%
    Haunted Houses 37%
    Telepathy 31%
    Clairvoyance (know past/predict future) 26%
    Astrology 25%
    Psychics are able to talk to the dead 21%
    Reincarnation 20%
    Channeling spirits from the other side 9%
  3. www.gallup.com/poll/19558/Paranormal-Beliefs-Come-SuperNaturally-Some.aspx
  4. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/5017910.stm
  5. Gallup News Service. 2001. “Americans’ Belief in Psychic Paranormal Phenomena is up Over Last Decade.” June 8.
  6. National Science Foundation. 2002. Science Indicators Biennial Report. The section on pseudoscience, “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience,” is in Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Understanding and Public Attitudes. Go to: www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7h.htm.
  7. Walker, W. Richard, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl. 2002. “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism.” Skeptic, Vol. 9, No. 3, 24–25.
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God 2.0: Is the deity a nonlocal quantum mind?

The “Quantum Flapdoodle” of Deepak Chopra and his notion of the deity as a nonlocal quantum mind

Do you believe in God? In most surveys, about nine out of ten Americans respond in the affirmative. The other ten percent provide a variety of answers, including a favorite among skeptics and atheists, “which God?,” spoken in a smarmy manner and followed by a litany of deities: Aphrodite, Amon Ra, Apollo, Baal, Brahma, Ganesha, Isis, Mithras, Osiris, Shiva, Thor, Vishnu, Wotan, and Zeus. “We’re all atheists of these gods,” goes the denouement, “some of us go one god further.”

I have debated many a theologian who make the traditional arguments for God’s existence: the cosmological argument (prime mover, first cause), the teleological argument (the universe’s order and design), the ontological argument (if it is logically possible for God to exist then God exists), the anthropic argument (the fine-tuned characteristics of nature), the moral argument (awareness of right and wrong), and others. These are all reasons to believe if you already believe; if you do not already believe these reasons ring hollow and have been refuted by philosophers from David Hume to Daniel Dennett.

This last spring, however, I participated in a debate with a theologian of a different species—the New Age spiritualist Deepak Chopra—whose arguments for the existence of a deity take a radically different tact. Filmed by ABC’s Nightline and viewed by millions, Deepak hammered out a series of scientistic-sounding arguments for the existence of a nonlocal spooky-action-at-a-distance quantum force. Call it Deepak’s God 2.0.

In the Middle Ages scholars drew correspondences between the microcosm (the earth) and the macrocosm (the heavens), finding linkages between bodily organs, earthly minerals, and heavenly bodies that made the entire system interlocking and interdependent. Gold corresponds to the Sun, which corresponds to the Heart. Silver corresponds to the Moon, which corresponds to the Brain. Mercury corresponds to the planet Mercury, which corresponds to the Gonads. The four elements of Earth, Water, Air, and Fire were astrologically coupled to the four humor-based personality traits of melancholic, phlegmatic, sanguine, and choleric. In its essence Deepak’s New Age theology is a Middle Ages-inspired correspondence between macrocosm world events and microcosm quantum effects, an upgrade from God 1.0 to God 2.0, well captured in the following chart (inspired by my friend and colleague Stephen Beckner):

God 1.0 God 2.0
omnipresent
fully man/fully God
miracles
leap of faith
transubstantiation
Council of Rome
supernatural forces
heaven
hell
eternity
prayer
the Godhead
the Trinity
forgiveness of sin
virgin birth
resurrection
non-local
wave/particle duality
wave-function collapse
quantum leap
Heisenberg uncertainty principle
Copenhagen interpretation
anti-matter
dark energy
dark matter
space/time continuum
quantum entanglement
general relativity
special relativity
quantum erasure
quantum decoherence
virtual reality

Deepak believes that the weirdness of the quantum world (such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle) can be linked to certain mysteries of the macro world (such as consciousness). This supposition is based on the work of the tandem team of Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff, whose theory of quantum consciousness has generated much heat but little light in scientific circles.

Inside our neurons are tiny hollow microtubules that act like structural scaffolding. The conjecture is that something inside the microtubules may initiate a wave function collapse that leads to the quantum coherence of atoms, causing neurotransmitters to be released into the synapses between neurons and thus triggering them to fire in a uniform pattern, thereby creating thought and consciousness. Since a wave function collapse can only come about when an atom is “observed” (i.e., affected in any way by something else), “mind” may be the observer in a recursive loop from atoms to molecules to neurons to thought to consciousness to mind to atoms to molecules to neurons to….

In reality, the gap between microcosm quantum effects and macrocosm world events is too large to bridge. In his 1995 book The Unconscious Quantum (Prometheus Books) the University of Colorado particle physicist Victor Stenger demonstrates that for a system to be described quantum mechanically the system’s typical mass m, speed v, and distance d must be on the order of Planck’s constant h. “If mvd is much greater than h, then the system probably can be treated classically.” Stenger computes that the mass of neural transmitter molecules, and their speed across the distance of the synapse, are about three orders of magnitude too large for quantum effects to be influential. There is no microcosm—macrocosm connection. Subatomic particles may be altered when they are observed, but contrary to what Deepak believes, the moon is there even if no one looks at it.

Deepak’s use and abuse of quantum physics is what the Caltech quantum physicist and Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann calls “quantum flapdoodle,” which is when you string together a series of terms and phrases from quantum physics and assume that explains something in the regular macro world in which we live. “The mind is like an electron cloud surrounding the nucleus of an atom,” Chopra writes in his 2006 book Life After Death. “Until an observer appears, electrons have no physical identity in the world; there is only the amorphous cloud. In the same way, imagine that there is a cloud of possibilities open to the brain at every moment (consisting of words, memories, ideas, and images I could choose from). When the mind gives a signal, one of these possibilities coalesces from the cloud and becomes a thought in the brain, just as an energy wave collapses into an electron.”

Baloney. The microscopic world of subatomic particles as described by the mathematics of quantum mechanics has no correspondence with the macroscopic world in which we live as described by the mathematics of Newtonian mechanics. These are two different physical systems at two different scales described by two different types of mathematics. The hydrogen atoms in the sun are not sitting around in a cloud of possibilities waiting for a cosmic mind to signal them to fuse into helium atoms and thereby throw off heat generated by nuclear fusion. By the laws of physics of this universe, a gravitationally collapsing cloud of hydrogen gas will, if large enough, reach a critical point of pressure to cause those hydrogen atoms to fuse into helium atoms and give off heat and light in the process, and it would do so even if there were not a single mind in the entire cosmos to observe it.

God 2.0 has no more basis in scientific fact than God 1.0, no matter how many observers believe it is so.

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What I Believe — Science & the Power of Humanity

I believe in the power of science and humanity. Specifically, I believe that biodiversity is a good thing and that we have been rapacious in our treatment of the environment, although I think the environmental movement has greatly exaggerated our condition and that the environment is a lot more resilient than most environmentalists give it credit for. I don’t mind eating cows and fish, but dolphins and whales have big brains and they’re cool, so I don’t think we should kill them. I drive an SUV because I haul around bicycles, books, and dogs, but as soon as there is a bigger hybrid, I’ll buy it. And although I am a libertarian heterosexual who is about as unpink (in both meanings) as you can get, I believe people should have an equal opportunity to be unequal. As for evolution, it happened. Deal with it.

I don’t know why the God question is so interdigitated with political and economic issues, but it is. It shouldn’t be. It’s okay to be a liberal Christian or a conservative atheist. I am a fiscal conservative and a social liberal. I don’t think there is a God, or any sort of anthropomorphic being who needs to be worshipped, who listens to prayers, who keeps a moral scoreboard that will be settled in the end, or who cares one iota about who wins the Super Bowl.

This is why what we do in this life matters so much — and why how we treat others in the here and now is more important than how they might be treated in some hereafter that may or may not exist. If we knew for certain that there is an afterlife, we wouldn’t have great debates about it, and philosophers wouldn’t have spilled all that ink over the millennia wrangling over it. Since we don’t know, it makes more sense to assume there is no God and no afterlife, and act accordingly. That is, act as if what we do matters now. That way, we’ll think about the consequences of what we are doing.

I am sick and tired of politicians, and just about everyone else, kowtowing to the religious right’s hypersensitivities and politically correct “tolerance” for diversities of belief — as long as one believes in God — any God will do, except the God who promises virgins in the next life to pilots who fly planes into buildings. Those of us who do not believe in god have had enough of this rhetoric. This is America. We are supposed to be good and do the right thing, not because it will make us rich, get us saved, or reward us in the next life, but because people have value in and of themselves, and because it will make us all better off, individually and collectively. It says so, right there in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — products of a secular eighteenth-century Enlightenment movement.

Religion and politics should be treated as separate entities. Religion is private and politics is public. If you want more religion, go to church. If you want more politics, go to the capitol. Don’t go to church to politic, and don’t go to the capitol to preach. That’s a non-overlapping magisterium I can live with.

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Homo religious

Did humans evolve to be religious and believe in God? In the most general sense, yes we did. Here’s what happened.

Long long ago, in an environment far far away from the modern world, humans evolved to find meaningful causal patterns in nature to make sense of the world, and infuse many of those patterns with intentional agency, some of which became animistic spirits and powerful gods. And as a social primate species we also evolved social organizations designed to promote group cohesiveness and enforce moral rules.

People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking primates. We connect A to B to C, and often A really is connected to B, and B really is connected to C. This is called association learning. But we do not have a false-pattern-detection device in our brains to help us discriminate between true and false patterns, and so we make errors in our thinking: a Type I error is believing a pattern is real when it is not (a false positive) and a Type II error is not believing a pattern is real when it is (a false negative). Imagine that you are a hominid on the planes of Africa and you hear a rustle in the grass. Is it a dangerous predator or just the wind? If you assume it is a dangerous predator and it is just the wind, you have made a Type I error, but to no harm. But if you believe the rustle in the grass is just the wind when it is a dangerous predator, there’s a good chance you’ll be lunch and thereby removed from your species’ gene pool. Thus, there would have been a natural selection for those hominids who tended to believe that all patterns are real and potentially dangerous. I call this process patternicity (the tendency to find meaningful patterns in random noise) and agenticity (the tendency to believe that the world is controlled by invisible intentional agents who may mean us harm). This, I believe, is the basis for the belief in souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens, intelligent designers, government conspiracists, and all manner of invisible agents intending to harm us or help us.

People are religious because we are social and we need to get along. The moral sentiments in humans and moral principles in human groups evolved primarily through the force of natural selection operating on individuals and secondarily through the force of group selection operating on populations. The moral sense (the psychological feeling of doing “good” in the form of positive emotions such as righteousness and pride) evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were good either for the individual or for the group; an immoral sense (the psychological feeling of doing “bad” in the form of negative emotions such as guilt and shame) evolved out of behaviors that were selected for because they were bad either for the individual or for the group. While cultures may differ on what behaviors are defined as good or bad, the moral sense of feeling good or feeling bad about behavior X (whatever X may be) is an evolved human universal. The codification of moral principles out of the psychology of the moral sentiments evolved as a form of social control to insure the survival of individuals within groups and the survival of human groups themselves. Religion was the first social institution to canonize moral principles, and God as an explanatory pattern for the world took on new powers as the ultimate enforcer of the rules.

Thus it is that people are religious and believe in God.

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The Natural and the Supernatural

Cartoonist Sidney Harris once illustrated two scientists at a chalkboard. One has written, among mathematical equations, “Then a miracle occurs,” to which his colleague replies, “I think you need to be more specific here in step two.” This nicely sums up the relationship between science and religion: one deals in the natural while the other deals in the supernatural. And never the twain shall meet.

Were only it were so. Unfortunately, religions routinely make claims about the natural world that are in direct conflict with the scientific evidence. Young-Earth Creationists, for example, believe that the world was created around 6,000 years ago, about the same time that the Babylonians invented beer. These claims cannot both be correct, and anyone who thinks the former is right has relegated all of science (along with brains) to the dumpster of life. Many people of faith believe that prayer can cajole the deity into taking action in our world to do everything from healing cancers to winning wars. Yet a comprehensive controlled scientific study on the efficacy of prayer on healing, funded by the religiously-based Templeton Foundation and conducted at the prestigious Harvard Medical School, found no relationship between the two: subjects in the non-prayed for group did just as well (or poor) as those in the prayed for group. And why is it, scientists want to know, that prayer only seems effective for things that might have happened anyway, such as tumors going into remission. A more dramatic and unmistakably religious miracle that would shock even the most skeptical of scientists would be if prayers for amputees (especially our brave wounded Christian soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan) resulted in renewed whole limbs; i.e., a true miracle.

How, then, can we reconcile the natural and the supernatural? Most people keep them separated in logic-tight compartments, even scientists. Surveys conducted in 1916 and again in 1997 found that 40 percent of American scientists said they believe in God. As well, hundreds of millions of practicing Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and members of other faiths both believe in God and fully embrace science, even evolution: a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 68 percent of Protestants and 69 percent of Catholics accept the theory. So, demographically speaking, most people find no conflict between science and religion.

However, the natural world does not bend to the demographics of belief. Millions of people also believe in astrology, ghosts, angels, ESP, and all manner of paranormal piffle, but that does not make them real. The veracity of a proposition is independent of the number of people who believe it.

In conclusion, I go so far as to conclude: There is no such thing as the supernatural or the paranormal. There is only the natural, the normal, and mysteries we have yet to explain. God is a mystery, and the God of Abraham may very well be an eternal mystery for the simple reason that any God explicable through science and the laws of nature would, by definition, lose the status of supernatural and enter the realm of the natural. A God definable by science is not a God at all.

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