Let’s ruin a perfectly pleasant Friday with a poll full of ugly reality.

The poll of 2,455 U.S. adults from Nov 7 to 13 found that 82 percent of those surveyed believed in God, a figure unchanged since the question was asked in 2005.

It further found that 79 percent believed in miracles, 75 percent in heaven, while 72 percent believed that Jesus is God or the Son of God. Belief in hell and the devil was expressed by 62 percent.

Darwin’s theory of evolution met a far more skeptical audience which might surprise some outsiders as the United States is renowned for its excellence in scientific research.

Only 42 percent of those surveyed said they believed in Darwin’s theory which largely informs how biology and related sciences are approached. While often referred to as evolution it is in fact the 19th century British intellectual’s theory of “natural selection.”

I keep hearing from people that criticizing religion is over-generalizing, that we shouldn’t judge it by the minority of fundamentalist loons who get all the attention in the media, or by those few, rare exploiters who represent religious beliefs poorly. I am sick of it. Ask people directly whether they believe literally in a damnable stupid doctrine like hell, and they don’t waffle, they don’t pose like pedants and maunder on about metaphysics and socioeconomic influences and tradition, the majority simply say “yes”. This is the reality. The majority of Americans do not think, they just accept this nonsense at face value, and we have to deal with stupidity on a national scale.

This is what it means:

More Americans believe in a literal hell and the devil than Darwin’s theory of evolution, according to a new Harris poll released on Thursday.

It is the latest survey to highlight America’s deep level of religiosity, a cultural trait that sets it apart from much of the developed world.

We are screwed up.

Can we please acknowledge this is a problem, rather than making excuses for it?

It seems that too many scholars of religion are in the business of either apologetics or denial. I found this debate between Natalie Angier and David Sloan Wilson infuriating for that reason; Wilson is a smart guy, but he has his eyes closed to the awful inanity of religious belief, waving it away with the Panglossian adaptationist rationalization that if it exists, it must have a productive and adaptive function. Here’s a beautiful example of the attitude I find intensely frustrating.

With apologies to Natalie, I think there’s a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you’re an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs.

In other words, never mind the obvious falsehoods, there has to be a good reason Americans are so dedicated to dismantling the whole field of biology. I could not believe Wilson actually said something so blind; it’s just not the way I can think, where we should be willing to overlook “obvious falsehoods”. Natalie’s reply is very good.

This reminds me of the White Queen who says, “I can believe six impossible things before breakfast.” First of all, this is the kind of thinking that can be easily manipulated. Second, this seems to be the antithesis of what science is about. Believing in something that isn’t true, because it motivates you to act, is not the kind of fundamental understanding that motivates science. If you believe you’re going to be resurrected after you die, which I think is a fairy tale, this is ultimately a dissatisfying way to promote life, and I don’t think that it’s going to get us anywhere as a culture. I think it’s a barrier that cultural evolution has to take us past. We need to move in the direction of accepting the universe as it truly is, rather than as we wish it to be.

If scientists won’t stand up for accuracy, empiricism, and an honest evaluation of reality, who will? The priests? Wilson is plainly in denial. Here he goes on about the causes of religion, and I think he’s partly right, but is intentionally overlooking a huge part of the story.

Other parts of the world, such as Europe, are becoming more secular, because the environment is favoring that. But the world as a whole is becoming more religious, more fundamentalist. Why is this? It’s because it’s becoming more dangerous and chaotic. Governments aren’t providing the services that people need, and religions are. Again and again you hear about these so-called terrorist organizations providing services for their people. When I hear my respected colleagues, such as Dan Dennett and Richard Dawkins, talk about religion, I think they are smart people doing something which is not so smart. They ask, “How can people believe such dumb stuff?” But they are not looking at the ecological bases for these beliefs. If you think of these systems as successful in some environments, but not others, then you can isolate the environmental factors. If you want liberalism to thrive, religious or non-religious, then provide the proper environment, and it will grow spontaneously.

I think he’s right that danger and chaos do foster environments that religious belief can readily exploit, and that instability in the world can encourage a kind of nucleation around certainties, even false certainties, that give people something to which they can cling. We can reduce the opportunities for religion to infest a culture by encouraging economic prosperity.

However, he explicitly, consciously excludes America from this analysis, for obvious reasons — we are filthy rich compared to much of the rest of the world, and we’re also pathologically religious. He doesn’t address this fact at all, except to later call the US “an anomaly”. I think a scientist ought not to disregard the facts in the poll mentioned at the top of this article.

Wilson needs to shake off an assumption. There is this attitude that because something exists, it must have value; because people are religious, it must be good for them in some way, and all we have to do is look hard enough, and we will find something to rationalize its existence. This is not necessarily true. What we are is collections of accidents, and evolution has worked to remove the most debilitatingly destructive of them, but it has not honed us to a state of perfection. We are loaded with features and shortcuts and quirks that work “good enough” to let us get by, and that, under most conditions, don’t hamper the truly advantageous adaptations that allow us to thrive.

Religion is a bad thing. It encourages people to believe in things that are not true. It really is as simple as that; we’d be better off if people valued truth over comfortable delusions. You can find instances where religious organizations step in to provide support, but these are not optimal situations by any means — secular organizations can and do provide the same support, without the baggage of expecting people to accept utter nonsense. It may be an interesting scientific question to consider how people come to think that such nonsense is valuable, and I think Wilson’s work is useful in that way, but it’s a gross error to then conclude that understanding the how of it makes the phenomenon itself a desirable end. We’re fortunate that medical research doesn’t usually go in the direction of mistaking the etiology of disease for a justification for its perpetuation, but those who study religion often fall into that trap.

I depart strongly from David Sloan Wilson’s position. It is necessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. This is the scientist’s job, to strive for closer and closer approximations to factual reality, and when three quarters of the population are embracing counterfactual idiocy, we are failing.

I am not interested in resigning ourselves to accepting lies that a culture regards as virtues. I’d rather we aspired to understand the universe as it is.


  1. #1 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    December 1, 2007

    As so often these threads becomes an excellent crash course in social and biological models.

    Other parts of the world, such as Europe, are becoming more secular, because the environment is favoring that. But the world as a whole is becoming more religious, more fundamentalist. Why is this? It’s because it’s becoming more dangerous and chaotic.

    If religion is an old social behavior it still remains to explain why some can claim that it is successful today. I’m not sure that it is correct that the world is becoming more religious for one thing. For another, an uncertain environment may be part of explaining such a trend, but surely not all of it.

    I would speculate that among factors that enable its spread in the modern world would be the largely international character of some major religions. But the integration of modern society is also a problem for religions, as people become more aware.

    Btw, on the secularization of Europe I have some fresh numbers from this week.

    First, the objective numbers. The Church of Sweden released its member statistics. The former state church was separated 2001-01-01 and has been loosing its artificially high membership ever since, especially in the large cities.

    Today 6.8 millions remains, or ~ 75 % of Sweden’s population of ~ 9 million. The drop rate is about 60 – 80 000 members, i.e. ~ 1 %, each year. The number of actively recruited (over 12 years of age) is 5 000 – 6 000 each year, i.e. it will take a while before the church membership equilibrates at its true level. (Still 65 % of newborns are traditionally baptized, down from 78 % 1997, but those members are again artifacts of the state church concept, and many will later leave.)

    Second, the subjective numbers. Can we predict the future membership from displayed interest instead of modeling rather varying initial drop rates? The major newspaper web version where I took these numbers from had a poll. We can assume that the replies (9080 persons) are mainly from the part of the population that intend to leave the church:

    39 % are members that intend to stay, and 17 % are members that intend to leave. I.e. ~ 30 % of current membership intends to leave. If the numbers bear out they are self consistent, ~ 50 % of the population will remain members.

    That means we may have to look forward to a full generation (25 years) or more of continuing membership drop in the church from todays ~ 75 % of the population to ~ 50 %. As far as I’m concerned, they can have that depressing period, as the former membership numbers were bogus.

    Alas, how many of those members that are actually religious believers can’t be predicted here.

  2. #2 Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    December 1, 2007

    The church “was separated 2001-01-01″ – that was one “1″ too many: it was separated 2000-01-01, IIRC.

  3. #3 David Marjanovi?, OM
    December 1, 2007

    their theories about reality where based on the unproven philosophical positions of people like Lennon

    the fact that in “some” narrow conditions Lennon was right about the efficiency that can happen with communism

    WINNAR of TEH INTARTOOBZ: an unknown spellchecker in combination with American one-unstressed-vowel English.

    (LAY-neen is more like it.)

    The fact that Mao got at least one thing right, when he suggested that religion is an opiate for the masses

    Marx, no?

    Or, to put it more simply, substituting a dead rabbit for the dead parrot doesn’t fundamentally alter the condition of the animal, or its usefulness as a pet, any more than replacing one set of unfounded non-evidence based, presumptions about the world for religion will give you *better* success than the religion did.

    That is well said, however!


    Then I guess it’s a good thing most atheists don’t believe that life is meaningless, much less go around using that as a selling point.

    Huh? Of course it’s meaningless (or at least no evidence for a meaning has been published so far). I just don’t see why that’s supposed to be a problem or to somehow make life worthless. :-|


    Nietzsche had some interesting things to say related to all of this:

    “…whence might science…take its…conviction, on which it rests, that truth is more important than anything else, even than any other conviction? Just this conviction could not have come into being if both truth AND untruth showed themselves to be continually useful, as is the case. Thus, though there undeniably exists a faith in science, it cannot owe its origin to such a utilitarian calculus but it must rather have originated IN SPITE of the fact that the inutility and dangerousness of the “will to truth,” of “truth at any price,” are proved to it continually…. …it always remains a metaphysical faith upon which our [conviction about] science rests — that even we devotees of knowledge today, we godless ones and anti-metaphysicians, still take OUR fire too from the flame which a faith thousands of years old has kindled: that Christian faith, which was also Plato’s faith, that God is truth, that truth is divine.”

    Nonsense. That’s not why scientists are after reality. Instead, insert an argumentum ad lapidem here.


    Let’s see if we can apply scientific thinking (i.e., inductive reasoning) to religious premises to see where the logic takes us.

    Two misunderstandings. Firstly, you applied simple logic (…with questionable premises), neither the scientific method nor inductive reasoning. Secondly, induction is not scientific. In science, we come up with a hypothesis by any means — aesthetic considerations, induction, dreaming, whatever –, deduct testable predictions from it, and then test them. Hypothetico-deductive, not inductive.


    He was also tied to Christian Identity so his bombing might be motivated more by a christian heritical movement than more mainstream one.

    You can make that argument about every single Muslim suicide bomber, too. Suicide is widely considered blasphemy in Islam (like in Christianity): God, and God alone, is the Lord over Life and Death.