Double standards for irrational beliefs

Via Jerry Coyne, I came across an excellent 2006 essay titled My God Problem by science journalist Natalie Angier in which she tackles something that also bothers me, which is the way that so many scientists seem to be so concerned about surveys that show low levels of acceptance of the theory of evolution while ignoring, let alone trying to counter, evidence of much worse anti-scientific thinking.

Yet I can’t help feeling tetchy about the limits most [scientists] put on their complaints. You see, they want to augment this particular figure—the number of people who believe in evolution—without bothering to confront a few other salient statistics that pollsters have revealed about America’s religious cosmogony. Few scientists, for example, worry about the 77 percent of Americans who insist that Jesus was born to a virgin, an act of parthenogenesis that defies everything we know about mammalian genetics and reproduction. Nor do the researchers wring their hands over the 80 percent who believe in the resurrection of Jesus, the laws of thermodynamics be damned.

She provides an example of this double standard in action.

Consider the very different treatments accorded two questions presented to Cornell University’s “Ask an Astronomer” Web site. To the query, “Do most astronomers believe in God, based on the available evidence?” the astronomer Dave Rothstein replies that, in his opinion, “modern science leaves plenty of room for the existence of God . . . places where people who do believe in God can fit their beliefs in the scientific framework without creating any contradictions.” He cites the Big Bang as offering solace to those who want to believe in a Genesis equivalent and the probabilistic realms of quantum mechanics as raising the possibility of “God intervening every time a measurement occurs” before concluding that, ultimately, science can never prove or disprove the existence of a god, and religious belief doesn’t—and shouldn’t—”have anything to do with scientific reasoning.”

How much less velveteen is the response to the reader asking whether astronomers believe in astrology. “No, astronomers do not believe in astrology,” snarls Dave Kornreich. “It is considered to be a ludicrous scam. There is no evidence that it works, and plenty of evidence to the contrary.” Dr. Kornreich ends his dismissal with the assertion that in science “one does not need a reason not to believe in something.” Skepticism is “the default position” and “one requires proof if one is to be convinced of something’s existence.”

In other words, for horoscope fans, the burden of proof is entirely on them, the poor gullible gits; while for the multitudes who believe that, in one way or another, a divine intelligence guides the path of every leaping lepton, there is no demand for evidence, no skepticism to surmount, no need to worry.

Why this glaring double standard? One could blame this on the widespread acceptance of the ‘respect for religion’ trope that requires people to tread gingerly around the issue of religious beliefs while uncompromisingly rejecting similar magical thinking in the non-religious sphere. But in the case of scientists, Angier suspects that there may be a more pecuniary factor at play, and that is the need to have continued taxpayer support for their endeavors.

Scientists have ample cause to feel they must avoid being viewed as irreligious, a prionic life-form bent on destroying the most sacred heifer in America. After all, academic researchers graze on taxpayer pastures.

I recognize that science doesn’t have all the answers and doesn’t pretend to, and that’s one of the things I love about it. But it has a pretty good notion of what’s probable or possible, and virgin births and carpenter rebirths just aren’t on the list. Is there a divine intelligence, separate from the universe but somehow in charge of the universe, either in its inception or in twiddling its parameters? No evidence. Is the universe itself God? Is the universe aware of itself? We’re here. We’re aware. Does that make us God? Will my daughter have to attend a Quaker Friends school now? I don’t believe in life after death, but I’d like to believe in life before death. I’d like to think that one of these days we’ll leave superstition and delusional thinking and Jerry Falwell behind. Scientists would like that, too. But for now, they like their grants even more.

I don’t think that scientists, despite being largely skeptics and nonbelievers of various stripes, necessarily need to be crusaders against religion. That should be a personal choice. Science is served best when scientists focus on their research and don’t get distracted by issues that are not directly related to it.

But if scientists, for whatever reason, decided to weigh in on matters of religion and public policy, then in the interests of truth and intellectual integrity we need to be consistent and treat all irrational beliefs in the same way and eliminate the current double standard. We have to honestly state that there is no evidentiary difference between religious beliefs and (say) astrology.


  1. jamessweet says

    If I were going to try really hard to be an apologist for this sort of double-standard, I would argue that while a disbelief in evolution represents a systemic error about thinking about the world which applies again and again, the belief in a single virgin birth and resurrection two thousand years ago is a mistake with bounded consequences. (Most) Christians don’t believe that resurrections and virgin births are occurring all around us, and their understanding of the (im)possibility of those things is basically unimpacted, except in that one single two-millenia-old incident.

    A bigger problem, then, perhaps, is the number of Americans who believe in angels, devils, the power of prayer, etc. Those are systemic mistakes with repeated applicability.

    I also have to bring my “20% Hypothesis” into this conversation. My hypothesis is this: For any fact which is counter-intuitive, or existentially unsettling, or an uncomfortable truth, or is in any way even very very slightly challenging for humans to accept as true, even in the absence of reinforcing factors such as religion you are still going to have at least 5% and often as much as 20% of the population who refused to accept that fact. I point, for example, to Iceland, which has the absolute lowest rate of Creationism of any country at ~18%. I point to belief in Bigfoot. I point to the number of people who fail to identify that the Earth takes one year to orbit the Sun.

    So once you get a false belief down to about 20%, I sort of feel like it becomes a low priority. Too often you just aren’t going to do any better. With Creationism in the US hovering at 40-50% over the last several decades, clearly we can do better there. And off the top of my head, I seem to remember something like 70+% of Americans believe in angels. Yech.

  2. Mano Singham says

    Actually we can be more precise about the number of people who will believe anything, however crazy. It is the crazification factor of 27%.

    That should be the target. When we reach it, our work is pretty much done.

  3. jamessweet says

    Hahaha, love it. I’m glad I’m not the only person to have observed that effect.

  4. ollie says

    Interesting. You see just the opposite at Unitarian Churches. They correctly dismiss the Christian myths as nonsense (virgin births, resurrections, etc.) but many of these people happily embrace homeopathy, healing crystals, Tarot cards, etc.

    They accept evolution (so they say) but also all sorts of woo as well.

    Many people are happy to apply logic, reason and science…to the beliefs of others…but not to what they “know” to be true.

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