December 7, 2008 | David F. Coppedge

Are Religious People Weird?

Some scientists treat religious people as a class.  They put them in a test tube, so to speak, to see how they react to a stimulus, then write up the results in scientific papers.  The implication seems to be that these fellow humans of theirs are some kind of odd lot.

  1. Reactionary:  The BBC News reported on a finding by Nature Nanotechnology that “religious people tend to view nanotechnology in a negative light.”  One of the researchers stated a truism with a clinical touch: “Religion provides a perceptual filter, highly religious people look at information differently, it follows from the way religion provides guidance in people’s everyday lives.”  Buried in the article was an admission that religious people aren’t too dense to understand the science; it’s just that “talking openly about constructing life raises a whole host of moral issues” to them.
  2. Obscurantist:  Elena Cattaneo wrote a book review in Nature1 last month with the caption, “Misrepresentation of stem-cell science in Italy by political and religious groups is damaging that nation’s laws and the funding and perceived value of biomedical research.”  Throughout, the religious people were the ones portrayed as misrepresenting the science and standing in the way of progress: for instance, “In Italy and the United States, politicians are allowing religious ideas to influence the rules of a state and opposing science without clarifying the consequences to the citizens who have elected those politicians.”
  3. Gullible:  Adorned with a picture of a totem pole, an article in Science Daily explained a new approach by two anthropologists to “explain religious behavior.”  Their explanation centered on certain people’s “willingness to accept, without skepticism, the influence of the speaker in a way similar to a child’s acceptance of the influence of a parent.”  Belief in the supernatural was secondary to the power of kinship, they suggested.

Not all science reporting about religion is negative.  Science Daily reported last month that “a dose of God may help medicine.”  Another article on Science Daily summarized a study that claimed, “Attending religious services sharply cuts risk of death.”  That would seem to aid the population in the struggle for existence.  Other recent articles have claimed similar benefits: religion cuts marijuana use, prevents depression, or makes people more generous.  Typically, however, the researchers never take seriously their epistemic claims about reality.  The common assumption is that the domain of reality belongs to science.

1.  Elena Cattaneo, “Science, dogmas and the state,” Nature 456, 444-445 (27 November 2008) | doi:10.1038/456444a.

One group of human beings putting their fellow human beings into a pigeonhole and applying a label: does that sound scientific?  “Religious” is so broad a term, it is essentially meaningless.  Are atheists religious when they exercise faith in their disbelief in God?  Even if the scientists study the beaks of those in the religion pigeonhole with a magnifying glass, that does not mean they will necessarily arrive at rational conclusions.  The pigeons need to come out of their holes and reverse roles.  Let’s have some trained theologians put the scientists under the magnifying glass and analyze what makes them say strange things (e.g., 11/25/2008).  Dykstra’s Law, you remember, is commutative: Everybody is somebody else’s weirdo.
    Unquestionably there are religious people who do weird things.  So do some academics and sports fanatics.  The weird ones may be responding incorrectly to an inclination to believe in God that reflects something in their actual nature.  That would make denying that inclination irrational, even if certain distorted outworkings of that inclination among some appear “religulous.”
    The question is whether the domain of rational inquiry belongs only to those who abandon all references to absolutes in their epistemology and morality.  Deep, profound rational inquiry by the greatest minds into the nature of God and man has a long and fascinating history that cannot be pigeonholed into the category “religious.”  And arbitrarily restricting one’s domain to a sub-realm of causes incapable of providing coherence and consistency seems a little weird, does it not?  Some religious people are weird, as are some scientists.  Some, however, are wired.

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