Thursday, January 7, 2010

Mystical/Religious Belief on the rise!

Last month a new poll was published by the Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion and Public Life. In their "about" this research goup claims "to promote a deeper understanding of issues at the intersection of religion and public affairs. It studies public opinion, demographics and other important aspects of religion and public life in the U.S. and around the world." The graph on the left was a product of this poll and it shows that the number of Americans (polled) that have had a "religious or mystical experience" now exceeds those that have not. Many people (including myself) will find this troubling. Here we are in the 21st Century, our lives here in North America completely shaped by advances in science and technology especially in the urban environment, yet irrational thinking seems to be on the rise. What's going on? Clearly there is a disconnect between scientific thinking and a significant portion of the population.
Of course at the same time there has been a rise in atheist groups like cfi or the Brights and many authors of late have extolled the virtues of atheism. So why are the atheists losing the fight? First let me say that there are atheists who still have mystical beliefs, they just have no religious affiliation and do not believe in a diety but they may believe in vampires, werewolves, horoscopes etc..
Years ago when I was teaching, I introduced some of my classes to an article written by a York University professor James Alcock. Professor Alcock wrote The Belief Engine, which tries to explain the roots of human mysticism. In it Alcock explains that we are hardwired to have “Magical thinking” as children and its not until we start to think critically that we can suppress our tendency to magical thinking and function in the real world. Even as adults we all succumb to magical thinking each time we enter a theater or go to a movie and suspend our disbelief for two hours. The simple truth is that people can have the most irrational belief system imaginable yet still be successful business people, doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers etc... Look around you, it’s a fact, some of the smartest and most successful people are deeply religious or have strong mystical beliefs.
Alcock's Belief Engine explains how this irrational magical thinking may be an advantage in certain situations and that its origin in humans is genetic not just from our immediate ancestors but further down the evolutionary tree and it has conferred on these creatures a survival advantage. I tend to agree that religious belief and irrational thinking confer on humanity a survival advantage. Otherwise why does this "belief engine" in our brain still persist? There are many who will support that idea. This brings me to the point, if the Pew Research can be believed than the arguments, the anti-God campaigns all of it may just be a waste of time.

I've often told my students that science is counterintuitive; the way you think something works may be the opposite of the truth. Maybe that’s what’s happening here; the anti-God/anti-mysticism groups are asking the wrong questions. Don’t get me wrong, those questions need to be asked but the Pew research shows that mystical thinking is on the rise; maybe because it fulfils another deeper function that is so ingrained in human nature that it is pointless to fight it. I’ve known for a long time that it is pointless to argue with anyone that has strong religious beliefs. But religion doesn’t just confer irrational beliefs; it bonds the believers by providing an instant community of like-minded individuals, and sets goals for their actions. Bringing together a group of independently thinking atheists toward a common goal is a bit like herding cats.

8 comments:

  1. I've had religious experiences. If asked, I'd have to say I have. Those came back when I was a Christian. Now I'm an atheist. So, what does this poll really prove?

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  2. You're right, the poll doesn't prove anything it's just a snapshot of the way people are thinking right now (plus or minus the fudge factor). My point is that these "experiences" are a natural part of human consciousness so to fight them is pointless. What needs to be understood is that the "experiences" are a product of the mind not objective reality. Critical thinking education will help us suppress the experiences and put them into perspective.

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  3. I'm with Mike on this. I'm an ex-christian who's had the sorts of religious experiences my upbringing and cultural background taught me to expect. I am, in fact, tempermentally prone toward what I would more neutrally describe as "peak experiences". And I see no evidence that would indicate to the rational person that such experiences are not best explained as merely unusual altered states of consciousness.

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  4. Maybe the bar is being lowered on what a mystical experience or religious experience is. They seem to be getting more and more watered down. What constitutes a religious experience is getting more and more mundane with each generation.

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  5. Well, I agree and that's pretty much what I said. Unusual "states of consciousness" or "peak experiences", whatever you want to call them are natural events within the mind and you need to be aware of them, especially if as you say you are prone to them. Your critical thinking ability should prevent you from acting on the experiences.

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  6. As for being watered down from the past, its more likely that today we would be a little more hesitant to accept some of the wilder claims of the past. I think people may be less forthcoming with their experiences for fear of being ridiculed.....which may be a good thing. But in the Pew Research poll which presumably is anonymous, you maybe are getting a truer picture of what people actually believe.

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  7. I doubt it's so much that the bar is being lowered as it's that these experiences get exaggerated with each retelling. Those of times past were probably just as mundane, but have been "improved upon" with time.

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  8. Absolutely, I couldn't agree more, never let the truth get in the way of a good story.

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