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Religion and gullibility

Here are some video clips of people claiming to have supernatural powers.

In the first, magicians Penn and Teller debunk a person who claims that she can talk to dead people. (Language advisory)

Notice how, when she interviews the black man at the end about whom she has no inside information, she resorts to inferences based on racial stereotypes and simple hereditary similarities in order to make her guesses. She is clearly hoping that he has a father, uncle, or other father figure who died from heart disease. Such ‘mediums’ often play the odds this way.

In the next clip, Penn and Teller take a look at someone who claims that she can talk to animals using telepathy

In the third clip, Penn and Teller and fellow magician James Randi debunk Nostradamus-based predictions.

In the final one Penn and Teller take a look at an exorcist at work. (Language advisory)

What do all these things have in common? They all share one feature and that is that unscrupulous people are taking advantage of people’s gullibility about the existence of the supernatural and using their emotional needs to con them. A lot of people would love to talk with their dead loved ones, they would love to talk to their pets, they would love to know what lies in the future, they would love to think that their problems are caused by demons that can be removed by a simple procedure. Thus they are only too eager to believe charlatans who promise them that they can do these things.

But all this rampant naïve credulity about the supernatural has to have a source. Why are there so many people who are so willing to believe things for which there is no evidence? I think that it is because religion has softened their minds up since childhood, weakening their powers of reasoning and logic. It has taught them that there are mysterious things out there that are beyond the reach of normal logic and evidence and science, and that one must simply believe in them. Such people are easy prey to all the charlatans out there, out to make a quick buck.

It is necessary for their very survival that religious organizations cultivate a deliberate naivete in their flock. They may say they appealing to the virtues of unthinking faith for noble reasons but they are effectively making their religious followers susceptible to fraud.

In Christopher Hitchens’ book God is Not Great, he describes how religions depend upon and take advantage of people’s credulity.

It is not snobbish to notice the way in which people show their gullibility and their herd instinct, and their wish, or perhaps their need, to be credulous and to be fooled. This is an ancient problem. Credulity may be a form of innocence, and even innocuous in itself, but it provides a standing invitation for the wicked and the clever to exploit their brothers and sisters, and is thus one of humanity’s great vulnerabilities. No honest account of the growth and persistence of religion, or the reception of miracles and revelations, is possible without reference to this stubborn fact. (p. 160)

Without people being indoctrinated early on by religion, these other fraudsters would have a much harder time making a go of it. They depend on the dulling of reason and the intellect produced by religion in order to ply their trade.

Comments

  1. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    This is a very interesting post. I’ve long be an advocate for the
    scientific investigation and (to date, demonstrably universal)
    debunking of claims of supernatural and paranormal phenomena. These
    kinds of things are wonderful examples of the power of the application
    of the scientific method. And of course, if any of these supernatural
    phenomena were real and demonstrable, then science would be just as
    effective and proving these claims to be true. But it has never
    happened. I always like to point out that James Randi still has his
    million dollars.

    Having said this, however, I do have a bone to pick here. When you
    say “It is necessary for their very survival that religious
    organizations cultivate a deliberate naivete in their flock. They may
    say they appealing to the virtues of unthinking faith for noble
    reasons but they are effectively making their religious followers
    susceptible to fraud….” I would ask, what evidence do you have to
    support such a claim?

    Again, I am making my usual complaint here that perhaps you unfairly
    characterize all religious perspectives as manifesting those traits
    that are characteristic of fundamentalist/literalist perspectives. I
    will certainly grant you that if a particular religious perspective
    requires that the methods of science be rejected outright, because the
    application of such methods leads to a direct contradiction with
    specific doctrinal religious claims, then I agree this certainly
    weakens the likelihood that practitioners of such a particular
    religion will employ such methods when considering the plausibility of
    supernatural phenomena. And, in fairness, since the influence of
    fundamentalists/literalists in the US and around the world is
    significant, then in principle I suppose this could play an important
    role.

    But personally, I suspect that the reason why people are gullible has
    much less to do with the negative influence of religions as a whole
    much more to with the fact that many people simply do not understand
    (and do not wants to understand) how science works and how scientific
    evidence can be used to support or refute a particular claim.

    So perhaps the blame can be laid more at the feet of those of us who’s
    job it is to educate and convey what the power and value of science,
    and less at the feet of religion as a concept. I might argue that the
    fact that so many people are vulnerable to supernatural flim-flam has
    less to do with the pervasive influence of religion and more to do with
    the fact that scientists and those who advocate for the scientific
    method have not done a very good job of explaining why and how these
    claims should be investigated scientifically. So with the possible
    exception of fundamentalist religion of all kinds, I do not see much
    empirical evidence for your assertion that religion as a concept plays
    a significant factor in determining the vulnerability of any
    individual to false supernatural or pseudo-scientific claims.

    For example, it seems to me that if your supposition were true, then
    one might expect that people who live in Russia or mainland China —
    places where the influence of organized religion has been
    substantially diminished — would be significantly less inclined to be
    susceptible to the influence of superstitions, those who make claims
    supernatural abilities, and/or pseudo-scientific claims. But my
    understanding is that superstition and pseudo-science is alive and
    well in these places.

    Consider further, these tidbits (which I found on the web site of the
    British Humanist Association:)

    — Surveys in the UK: 1954 10% believed in ghosts; in 2004 42%.

    — In the UK: Before WWII the population who regularly went to church
    on Sundays was 40% to 50%. Today it is only 7.5 percent.

    So here is at least one counter-example of a modern society where it
    can be demonstrated that a dramatic decrease in the direct influence
    of the dominant religion is anti-correlated with with a likewise
    dramatic increase in the same population’s surveyed acceptance of at
    least one major supernatural belief, namely the existence of ghosts.

  2. says

    Corbin,

    Evidence is not necessary in the face of self-contradiction. Telling children from the earliest age that there is an invisible Magic Man who can do the most amazing things without being detected is hardly the thing to do if you want to do to build respect for reason, logic, and evidence, is it?

    Of course, people believe in these other things for other reasons as well. I have argued before that the desire to believe in an afterlife likely predates and may be antecedent to belief in god.

    But it beats me how you can instill in children an unquestioning belief in a Magic Man and then argue that all the people shown in the post are obviously frauds. The distinction between “fundamentalist” religion and “non-fundamentalist” religion seems to me to be more of a political division.

  3. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    Hmmm. I think I will stand by my post.

    First, I am a little surprised to hear you argue that you do “not need
    evidence” to support your assertion. I would think that given that
    you are attempting to make a persuasive argument, and given that the
    topic is controversial, and (mostly) given your general advocacy on
    behalf of the power of evidence, that this would be important,
    regardless of your topic. Even if all of your assumptions were dead-on
    accurate, and even if your logic was impeccable, you would still
    strengthen your claim if you were able to point to any kind of
    measurements or observable facts that would logically follow from your
    claim. Conversely, if you are unable or unwilling to provide
    empirical evidence to support your assertion when asked to do so,
    doesn’t this weaken the strength of your argument? Can you
    effectively argue that you do not need evidence to support your claim
    when it seems that your whole philosophy is based on the notion that
    nothing should be taken for granted without supporting evidence?

    Indeed, it seems to me that simply pointing out what appears — to you
    personally — to be a logical self-contradiction in the viewpoints of
    religious persons does not automatically imply a general gullibility
    of these selfsame persons to all kinds of supernatural claims. If
    exposure to and acceptance of any kind of religious ideas universally
    undermined respect for reason, logic, and evidence, then one might
    expect that religious people would be demonstrably handicapped and
    unqualified to apply critical thinking and the scientific method in
    all kinds of other situations where this was needed. But as you,
    yourself, have argued, there is no evidence to suggest that religious
    people who work as scientists, doctors, lawyers, etc., are in any way
    less capable of effectively performing their jobs just because they
    are religious.

    I also do not share your characterization of the distinction between
    fundamentalist vs. non-fundamentalist as essentially political. To my
    understanding the distinction is doctrinal, not political, and to just
    this extent it makes quite a big difference in terms of the logical
    implications of your argument. When you characterize a religious
    tradition as advocating an “unquestioning belief in a Magic Man” then
    this seems to me like a patently fundamentalist perspective. If, on
    the other hand, we have a more liberal religious perspective where the
    narratives represent metaphor and poetry, not empirical facts, then I
    do not see how can such a teaching automatically undermine a skeptical
    approach to specific claims of supernatural abilities.

    Further, I would say that to my mind the people shown in the video
    posts who are making claims of paranormal abilities are not
    “obviously” frauds. The charter of CSICOP, which provides a very
    effective guideline to my view, provide that we should not dismiss
    paranormal claims “a priori” (e.g., simply because we find them
    personally ridiculous). Instead we dismiss these claims because they
    can be objectively investigated and scientifically refuted (as was
    done nicely in these videos). The people are frauds because the
    claims that are made can be directly and measurably contradicted and
    falsified using the scientific method.

    In contrast, if a person has a liberal religious perspective where all
    of the religious teachings are to interpreted as poetry, not empirical
    truths, such teachings are subject to neither empirical verification
    nor refutation. And just to this extent, I believe, there is a
    qualitative difference between those who would make the kinds of
    in-principle-testable claims that were made in the video clips and
    those who would embrace a doctrinally “non-fundamentalist” (liberal)
    religious perspective.

  4. says

    Corbin,

    Are you making the claim that a non-fundamentalist religion consists of nothing more than metaphor and poetry, and that any claim that religion involves more than that is what makes it fundamental? If you claim that all religious beliefs and texts have the same status as metaphor and poetry, then I have no problems with religion, anymore than I have with Shakespeare.

    But almost all religions require their believers to believe in the most fantastical supernatural things at a very young age. That hardly seems the way to promote scientific thinking. The fact that large numbers continue, even after they reach adulthood, to refuse to apply to their religious beliefs the normal tenets of skepticism that they may apply elsewhere is surely evidence of a weakened commitment to reason.

  5. Corbin says

    Hi Mano,

    The answer to your question “Are you making a claim that a
    non-fundamentalist religion consists of nothing more than metaphor and
    poetry” is mostly yes, but before I make any attempt to defend this
    claim, I should say that I do not believe my criticism of your
    assertion — namely, that religion leads to increased gullibility
    in general regarding claims of the supernatural — depends much on the
    validity of this particular claim.

    As I said before, even if it were the case that I were to grant all of
    your general assumptions regarding the nature of religion, I am not
    persuaded that people who are raised in a religious environment will
    actually be significantly more gullible than anyone else to the sorts
    of supernatural claims you show in the video. Yes, this sounds
    plausible. And it might be true. But I do not know, and I can think
    of some things that are apparent counterexamples, and might work the
    other way. So in the absence of evidence to support your claim, I
    remain unpersuaded.

    Indeed, I would say that there is not really any such thing as an
    argument that you or anyone else can make where there is no obligation
    to consider evidence that might support a given claim. The claim that
    “religion generally causes people to be more gullible to bogus claims
    of supernatural phenomena” is a an assertion of fact, and it ought to
    be testable based on the expected consequences. In this case, for
    example, if what you say is true, then one ought to be able to show
    statistically in some kind of survey or psychological tests that
    people who are members of all kinds of religious organization have
    some measurable traits indicating that they are less skeptical about
    these sorts of claims or like this, relative to those who would not be
    members of any religious organizations. In my opinion, if you are
    unable to present measurable evidence, then this weakens your
    argument, regardless of any other considerations.

    By the way, regarding your point above that many people with religious
    beliefs fail to apply the standards of skepticism to these beliefs and
    that this fact is in itself evidence of a “weakened commitment to
    reason”: Even if I grant you premise as true, I do not see how this
    fact has much bearing on the question of gullibility to claims of
    supernatural phenomena in general. Indeed, you yourself have argued
    in the past that people who hold particular religious beliefs seem
    quite happy to dismiss others beliefs of the supernatural as highly
    implausible. I’ve even read one article a while back where the author
    claims that as the influence of organized religion in modern society
    wanes, there is an associated rise in fascination with the occult, New
    Age, pseudo-science, etc. in the general population. His claim was
    that there is a natural tendency towards belief in the supernatural,
    and as religion wanes, other things will come in to “fill the vacuum”.
    I am not sure if this idea is really true, but it would at least would
    explain the anti-correlation where declining attendance in church is
    accompanied by an increase in beliefs in ghosts. So crazy as it
    sounds, if people have a strong tendency to believe in the
    supernatural (and are therefore quite resistant to “reasoned”
    arguments of skeptics and atheists) then it might be the case that
    on average religion actually inoculates people against gullibility
    to being scammed by those who claim to have supernatural powers.

    Under this scenario, the trait of “gullibility” is not much effected
    by religious training or experience, and is instead either an
    “intrinsic” characteristic of a certain fraction of the population, or
    else is a characteristic that is governed by other variable in the
    upbringing environment or education. Admittedly, I have no
    particularly compelling evidence to support such a scenario, but in my
    view such a scenario is at least as plausible to me as your assertion
    that religion itself promotes gullibility. And, in consideration of a
    completely non-scientific assessment, if I were a betting man, I might
    have to put my money on this idea that gullibility is a largely
    “intrinsic trait”. I have three daughters, each ostensibly raised in
    the same “environment” and of these one is dramatically “gullible” to
    this sort of thing (we have to talk to her constantly about this
    business of drawing the line between “fantasy” vs. “reality”), while
    we have another daughter is sort of a “natural skeptic”, not buying
    into almost anything that anyone tells her without first checking the
    facts for herself. My (admittedly unsupportable) suspicion is that
    gullibility to supernatural and pseudo-scientific claims is wildly
    variable from person to person, being a by-product of temperament, and
    that this variability is generally not significantly influence by
    typical religious training, and (sadly) also apparently not very much
    influence by education training either — although I am not inclined
    to give up trying on this front.

    Now turning to this second issue, “Are you making the claim that a
    non-fundamentalist religion consists of nothing more than metaphor and
    poetry, and that any claim that religion involves more than that is
    what makes it fundamental?” I would say yes, but there are two
    caveats.

    The first is that I assume when you say “of nothing more than metaphor
    and poetry” you are talking about in the sense of not making specific
    claims that are to be taken as “factually and literally true” in the
    empirical sense of the word.

    I like your Shakespeare analogy quite a bit, actually. In some sense,
    I might say that the works of Shakespeare are “nothing more” than a
    bunch of made-up stories about events that never really happened. And
    at the same time — in a poetic sense — the works of Shakespeare are
    to some people deeply meaningful, profound, and life-changing. Or at
    least worth spending time with. For some people the poetic “truths”
    that are found between the pages of Shakespeare are of equal or
    greater value than the “factual truths” that can be demonstrated to
    many decimal places of significance through scientific endeavors.

    So I would say that this also applies for many adherents of
    non-fundamentalist religions. In these cases, the value of religion
    has very little to do with issues of factual or literal truths and
    instead has much more to do with what you might call poetic, artistic,
    and/or experiential “truths”. All of these kinds of “truths” are, it
    seems to me, generally inaccessible to any sort of scientific
    assessment one way or the other.

    Secondly, perhaps some would quibble with my definition of
    “fundamentalist”. I am not a scholar of religion or religious
    history, so I may well be using the term in a non-standard way. But
    to me, personally, would classify as “fundamentalist” pretty much any
    religious claim that is presented along with an assertion that the
    claim is to be interpreted as factually true.

    Of course there are degrees of fundamentalism, and religious groups
    can span the range from very fundamentalist (making explicit claims
    that there is a large set of beliefs and text that are all literally
    and factually true) to very liberal (making explicit claims that
    precisely none of the tenets and texts are to be taken as factually
    true). And there are religions that lie in between. A good example
    of a very liberal religious denomination would be the Unitarian
    Universalists which (as I understand it) actually take the time to
    rather explicitly look at a wide range of cultural and religious
    traditions, each time starting with the caveat that every tradition
    and text is to be interpreted metaphorically. I would say that in the
    case of most other “mainstream” religious traditions there is a mix of
    both fundamentalist and liberal views and which will dominate will
    vary greatly from denomination to denomination, and from local group
    to local group.

    I would say further that while fundamentalist religious perspectives
    seem to dominate the religious landscape in the US, it is also true
    that finding groups that advocate and/or happily tolerate dominantly
    liberal viewpoints are not hard to find either. It’s not hard to find
    books, blogs, etc. which are doctrinally liberal (and are also usually
    also socially progressive).

    In particular I would take issue with your assertion that “almost all
    religions require their believers to believe in the most fantastical
    supernatural things at a very young age.” I find it very implausible
    that “almost all” religions apply any such a requirement. This is
    certainly not my experience. I can think of many people I know who are
    members of religious groups that they attend which they selected, at
    least in part, because precisely no such requirement is imposed on
    them — or their children. So just to the extent that critics of
    religion characterize religion as doctrinally rigid and demanding, is
    the extent to which such criticisms are unfairly applied to those
    denominations and groups which impose no such doctrinal requirements.

    I am not sure of the numbers, and it certainly varies based on
    geographical location and other demographics, but religious
    organization that are doctrinally dominantly liberal or
    moderate-to-liberal are easy enough to find. They may be in the
    minority in our culture, but they are not a completely negligible
    minority. And when you criticize religion as a whole for having
    characteristics that are specific to fundamentalist perspectives,
    effectively lumping liberals in with everyone else, in my view you are
    doing something akin to stereotyping.

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