Sunday, November 02, 2008

superstition and Christianity

Once hanging out in the lunchroom at my office, the subject of fortune telling came up. I was only mildly surprised that some of the religious Hindus from India believed in fortune telling. Sure, they were highly educated, but superstition was part of their upbringing. And if their education had not prompted them to give up Hinduism, then there is no particular reason to think that it would make them give up their other supernatural beliefs. What surprised me is that even the Americans in the room mostly believed in fortune-telling, and even the hard-core atheist would not dismiss it out of hand. This was a man who dismisses the idea of God as a silly superstition, but cannot bring himself to dismiss palm-reading and astrology as silly superstitions. What's going on here?

This article by Mollie Ziegler Hemingway may provide part of the answer:
... a comprehensive new study ... 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 ..., far from being resistant to superstition, tend to be much more likely to believe in the paranormal and in pseudoscience than evangelical Christians.
Hemingway provides a pointed example of a man who thinks that he is too logical and grounded to believe in the superstition of Jesus:
"You can't be a rational person six days of the week and put on a suit and make rational decisions and go to work and, on one day of the week, go to a building and think you're drinking the blood of a 2,000-year-old space god," comedian and atheist Bill Maher said ...

In fact, [Maher] is a fervent advocate of pseudoscience. The night before his performance on Conan O'Brien, Mr. Maher told David Letterman -- a quintuple bypass survivor -- to stop taking the pills that his doctor had prescribed for him. He proudly stated that he didn't accept Western medicine. On his HBO show in 2005, Mr. Maher said: "I don't believe in vaccination. . . . Another theory that I think is flawed, that we go by the Louis Pasteur [germ] theory." He has told CNN's Larry King that he won't take aspirin because he believes it is lethal and that he doesn't even believe the Salk vaccine eradicated polio.
And note that Maher seems to believe that Jesus was actually an alien visitor (this is a common belief of the out-there crowd), otherwise the reference to a "space god" makes no sense.

Furthermore, Maher has said that human-caused global warming is simply a fact and insulted George Bush for expressing doubts about it. Get that: he is a logical, fact-driven thinker who doubts that the Salk vaccine eradicated polio --one of the most well-documented facts of medical science-- yet anyone who expressed doubt about the most extreme interpretation of some sparse data and a few mutually contradictory climate models is an idiot.

It is pretty clear what is going on here, at least in the case of Bill Maher. His scientific views are driven by his socio/political views. He doesn't make up his mind on the basis of the evidence, but on the basis of what is most beneficial to his social and political agenda.

And I don't think this is unusual. Humans today --all humans, including hard-nosed scientists and skeptical atheists-- are no different than they were a thousand years ago when superstition was the reigning mode of thought. They like to think that the scientific revolution created a major change in human thinking, and that they, as the true children of that revolution inherited this new mode of right thinking. This justifies their sanctimonious condescension to everyone else. If you don't think like they think, then you just missed the revolution in thought; you are stuck in the old way of thinking.

What they don't know is that Christianity is the new way of thinking. It is Christianity that drove the spirits out of the trees and the demons out of the fire and made the world into a law-driven place. It is Christianity that made science possible. This idea of the battle between religion and science is a myth. It never happened. In the days of Galileo, there were Christians on both sides of the issue, so it makes no sense at all to say that it was a battle between the Christians and the scientists. This was a battle within Christianity over whether men would have the freedom of their own consciences or they would be physically forced to follow the doctrines of the Church. In reality, the trial of Galileo was a battle in the ongoing Reformation, the movement to break the chains of the Catholic church. It was in no way a battle of Christianity vs. free thought but a battle among Christians of enforced Catholic dogma vs. free thought.

Christianity has always been a force against superstition. Atheists blame the Salem witch trials on Christianity, but they neglect the fact that witch trials were an ancient custom, far predating Christianity. The Salem witch trials were not an instance of Christianity showing how superstitious it is, but rather the last gasp of an evil superstitious custom as it was stamped out by Christianity. Christianity continued to thrive long past the Salem witch trials, but witch trials died out. Why is that, if Christianity causes witch trials?

Actually, witch trials have not died out, they have just changed their superstitious grounds. Modern witch trials involve the "recovered memories" of unbalanced young women or the bizarre fantasies of young children who are kept in a room for hours and encouraged to make up sexual stories about their parents or daycare providers.

The fact is that very few people are really the hard-nosed materialists that they portray themselves as. Almost everyone has beliefs about the supernatural. Christian beliefs about the supernatural are largely centered around just what is revealed in the Bible. For non-Christians, it is whatever strikes their fancy. Fortune-telling and haunted houses and universal elixirs may be less common among scientists, but they have picked up modern superstitions in the forms of alien visitors who will one day rescue us from ourselves or who left us messages in the past, mysterious life forces that can be modified by crystals or magnets or needles, Kirlian photography, plants with emotions, pyramid effects, meditation magic, mental powers, reincarnation, recovered memories from past lives, thetans...

I've noted before how scientists are so horrified about creationism --which is about what happened in the past and doesn't effect us today-- but don't care about the real harm done by fortune tellers and superstitious medical quacks. Either they believe in these things themselves or they are not motivated to make a big deal out of it when they don't have the motivation of religious hatred. It is not science, but Christianity that preserves us from superstition.

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