871 Comments
Comment deleted
Expand full comment
deletedAug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022
Comment deleted
Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

Interesting. I wonder about grey-area stuff like acupuncture and Freudian psychoanalysis.

Expand full comment

It's worth noting that "religion", writ broadly, has an _awful_ lot of overlap with what many people would call woo and conspiracy theories. If you believe that Satan is orchestrating a grand design to corrupt the United States into secularism, is that a conspiracy theory or just evangelicalism? Is believing that visiting particular locations popularly associated with saints will bring you miraculous healing all that distinct from believing in crystal healing?

Expand full comment

One way to interpret this data is just to look at where people source their beliefs. Which of the following talks about Bigfoot most often: a pastor (religious Christians), your social circle (less-religious Christians/agnostics), or public atheist intellectuals (atheists)? I think this heuristic maps pretty well to all of the examples here. Non-believers will believe anything that their preferred source of truth prescribes. One thing that's perhaps nice about having a specific religious belief system is that it is seemingly less "hackable" than the other alternatives, e.g. social knowledge can seemingly easily be modified via a small but dedicated Twitter campaign, so if this is someone's primary source of truth, it's easy to manipulate them.

Expand full comment

This data simply supports the claim that ideological atheism is a religion.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

I thought about the same question when I read that the most atheist region in the whole wide world is...

...eastern Germany.

Pretty much Germany's premier location for anti-establishment ressentiments and conspiracy theory.

But I expect it to be co-evolution, one cause that makes two independent things develop in the same direction.

Expand full comment

Tangentially related:

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/233749943_Religion_spirituality_and_mental_health_Results_from_a_national_study_of_English_households

Saw this the other day but didn't really know what to make of it. Authors conclude that "spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder". I know the type, so to speak, but still seems like a wild conclusion.

Expand full comment

Recently I have seen a lot of conspiracy theories turn into just conspiracies.

Expand full comment

I think that CS Lewis had it right. He talked about critical thinking on advertisements and pointed out you could both be above and below an advertisement. So, for example, imagine you see an advertisement for a great vacation that's to what's actually a mediocre resort. You can, through dissecting the ad and outside knowledge, arrive at the idea the ad is probably lying to you. Or you can through British patriotism sneer at the ad's idea of going abroad and just ignore it. And in both cases you come to the correct conclusion.

It was only the middle that were too clever by half who'd be taken in. He then makes the point that the ad's deception works mainly through the sin of pride. The person who understands the ad is not being prideful in thinking they understand the ad. The person who doesn't understand the ad is not being prideful in ignoring what they don't understand. Only the person PRETENDING to understand gets taken in. And I wonder if that's what's going on: a lot of people leave religion not so much out of atheistic conviction but anti-religious sentiment and so get taken in by the next semi-religion that comes along.

Anyway, being CS Lewis, he sees the atheists as sneerers and the educated religious as the people capable of such dissection. But I think the point stands regardless of your preferences. (Ironically for the staunchly Protestant and somewhat anti-Catholic Lewis this was one of the points Catholics made against the Reformation.)

I'd be curious to hear a rationalist take on his concept of the sublime, actually.

Expand full comment

> People of “none” religion are less likely than any religion except Jews to believe in Bigfoot

Are you just looking at the "Absolutely not" category? If you include "Probably not", then "none" is the highest.

Expand full comment

I would be curious how religious millenarians overlap with AGI millenarians, since the basic views have so many similarities. Presumably if you already believe the Rapture is coming in a decade you’re not going to spend much time worrying about AGI takeoff.

Expand full comment

perhaps more interesting... is the quote "everyone worships"

https://mbird.com/literature/more-david-foster-wallace-quotes/

Expand full comment

It could be the case that zealots, of any stripe, tend to subscribe to a single belief system with a reasonably clear and well-defined message (be it "Jesus saves" or "there is no God"). Such a system leaves no room for competing beliefs, which the zealot automatically treats as hostile, and will likely seek to eradicate.

Meanwhile, people with weakly held beliefs are open to pretty much anything, which they will believe in -- weakly. To a zealot, Bigfoot is a terrible lie which must be resisted and eradicated at all cost; to an ordinary person, it's something to mull over while having a brew with your buddies.

Expand full comment

I was raised catholic. I remember being told many times that believing in astrology is wrong, magic is evil, less frequently that I shouldn't believe in UFOs. So maybe if you go to church more you're exposed to authority telling you to not believe those things more so you're more likely to not believe them / say you don't?

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

I don't know about CS Lewis but I think this piece doesn't address Amjad Massad's argument. My interpretation of that argument is that as people go less to Church and are less connected to their community they're more likely to adopt alternative "religions" like QAnon or wokeism. Maybe that just means that Massad's argument isn't the same one as the argument addressed in this post.

Expand full comment

Thank you for raising the source of that quote. I admit I'd always trusted that attribute to Chesterton, largely because it is *so very much like something he would have said* - and, as your Chesterton.org link points out, it is in fact very similar to a number of lines in his short stories. I think those extracts make it pretty clear that Chesteron would see the active mechanism as "people with coherent worldviews already have strong opinions on what’s true, making them closed-minded against conspiracy theories.".

The CS Lewis connection is harder to source at first glance. The first/best conceptual fit I could think of was the opening to the Screwtape Letters:

"I note what you say about guiding your patient’s reading and taking care that he sees a good deal of his materialist friend. But are you not being a trifle naif ? It sounds as if you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily “true” or “false”, but as “academic” or “practical”, “outworn” or “contemporary”, “conventional” or “ruthless”. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church. "

(for those who haven't read it, the entire book is advice from a senior to a junior devil on how to corrupt the junior's 'patient' and guide him to Hell).

This would appear to be a better fit for the "people with any coherent worldview are smarter or at least more intellectual than people who don’t care" as a mechanism.

From the examples you give, I suspect that there may be a number of different mechanisms at play for different conspiracy theories and groups - for example, a strict Catholic ought to disbelieve in astrology (as belief in superstitions - the unkind would say 'other' superstitions is prohibited; the only power is God), but would be open-minded towards Bigfoot. However, they may then be unlikely to believe in Bigfoot for completely unrelated and perhaps 'irrational' reasons such as it being heavily coded in pop-culture with nutters and rednecks, which our imaginary Catholic views as an outgroup. They could therefore reach the correct opinions via a mixture of dogma, native reason, and social snobbery.

Expand full comment

Conclusion reminds me of a joke you'll sometimes hear among Muslims: the atheist is closer to Islam than most, because she's got the "there is no God" part of the shahadah down, now she just needs the "but God" bit. The shahadah, of course, is the Muslim profession of faith.

I say joke, but people say it in a serious sense too.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

If you have a preferred truth mechanism, it's easy to reject weird ideas that fail the mechanism.

That's true whether your Truth Mechanism is "it's in the Bible" or "it's shown by science."

If this is the explanation, then atheists should be more vulnerable to scams that sound scientific, evangelicals should be more vulnerable to scams that invoke witchcraft or demons, and the wishy-washy middle is left to believe in astrology.

Expand full comment

I think this is missing an important source of supernatural belief: hyperactive pattern recognition is often what makes people believe in supernatural explanations. So if you have high hyperactive pattern recognition, then being religious may prevent you from believing in other supernatural explanations, and when such a person leaves their religion, they will replace their religious belief with different beliefs.

But if you're not a hyperactive pattern recognizer, and you were born into a religion, you'll most likely leave it at some point, and become an atheist, at which point you have no need to believe in other supernatural explanations.

So for one type of person, leaving religion opens them up for belief in other supernatural explanations. But for another type of person, it does not.

Expand full comment

I've always assumed this phenomena was about different people's varying drive for detail/clarity in their map of the territory (note: this is distinct from accuracy).

Most of the things you mention here take very little looking into to find they aren't coherent and don't make much sense, that the evidence generally discussed is terribly low quality, etc. People who are strongly, actively religious and people who are definite atheists are more likely to look at a statement (e.g. "astrology works") and want to a evaluate it's accuracy, spending the half hour or so to reach the conclusion "probably not". While certainly some agnostics and casually religious folks function similarly, they're washed out by people who don't have a strong compulsion to answer "does God exist, and if so, which one?". Those people are also less likely to feel any need to answer "does astrology work", and therefore remain at "well, lots of people believe in it, so maybe? Who knows?", having put no effort into finding or evaluating evidence.

Note that this doesn't cover passionate followers of various conspiracy theories who often build both their social life and worldview around weird views, but I tend to assume that's a small minority of nominal believers in most cases.

Expand full comment

One thing I try to remind people of re: Christians who never go to church is that they are basically just saying they are Republican/Anti-coastal-culture, or similar. This makes a lot of this weird partially because a lot of things that get labeled conspiracy theories are kind of anti-education-anti-government oriented, as well as just plain "low education" oriented.

If actual churchgoing is going to help as an isolated factor, it probably has to not only be positive but actually so positive as to overwhelm all of that.

Expand full comment

TBH this essay feels like it's missing the point somewhat. When people quote the "People who stop believing in religion start believing in anything" line, they usually do so with reference to beliefs like critical race theory, patriarchy theory, and other such belief systems. (The question of why these don't usually get described as conspiracy theories is left as an exercise to the reader.) So to really refute the argument, you'd have to show that religious believers are equally or more likely to believe in things like CRT.

Expand full comment

I think there a bunch of things unique to the contemporary west(and Americans in particular) which make looking at the data worse than useless(noting that churchgoing can be divorced from seriousness of belief is a start). To suggest a few:

- Irony. For bigfoot and aliens in particular, the existence of people who think these things is a recent cultural phenomenon which is understood to be dubious. The fact that the beliefs are understood as conspiracy theories distorts adoption. Beliefs which take the place of religion have to be more mundane, like the law of attraction or astrology, which have had serious take-off “recently”.

- Realignment. People haven’t finished resolving their identities in the wake of secularisation. There are multitudes who claim group identification over integral belief(I think reform jews do this explicitly, catholics implicitly). If you really sat down and questioned them, I think catholics in particular include a whole bunch of recent-ish immigrants who could probably be convinced to change their answer to agnostic.

- Interesting Times. The internet, and more particularly COVID lockdowns, have simply broken people’s ability to understand the world. All of us have been at least initially conned by outright fakery by now, and untangling how influence works online will take a while to settle. I think partisan fever probably falls

under this too, if you can go from concern about the NWO to being convinced satan is at work and attending church services, a no religion->crazy beliefs effect can’t be discerned after the fact, if that’s what it is. Some libertarian friends would probably want me to mention hysterical hygiene theatre and disproportionate fear of death “instilled by the media” here.

I think a better example of the phenomenon would be something like a political movement taking on religious overtones and holding revivals with outpouring professions of obviously absurd beliefs. Qanon is a good example of this with the resurrection of JFK Jr., but it’s hardly unique. In my experience these sorts of things are independent of “religious identity”, but are pretty obviously to do with filling that void.

Another example could be the emergence of sui-generis cults fleshing out previously uncommon philosophies. Churchmen thought marxism did this with urban workers uprooted from their homes, maybe post-industrial workers are adopting philosophers more recent than Hegel.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

You're strawmanning the people you're arguing with. The tweet doesn't say "conspiracy theories", it says "mind viruses".

When people use this phrase, they don't mean *literally* anything. It's a highly contextual and nuanced statement that boils down to, if you don't believe in one of the formal organized religions, then you will find something similar to those religions to believe in instead.

All your examples (and the Economist's, eyeroll) miss this nuance and just start picking random "obviously" wrong beliefs and then correlating them with Church attendance. But none of those beliefs you picked are in any way substitutes for religion. Belief in Bigfoot really can't be described as a mind virus by any reasonable definition, for example.

Another comment in this thread points out what this "mind viruses" or "believe anything" claim is actually about in the modern day context: pseudo-religions like wokeism/CRT, which is often understood to be a mutation of Marxism, itself a belief system with quasi-religious components. But there are others. We could pick obvious examples like Scientology, or less obvious examples like AI risk (which seems to involve obsession with a hypothetical all powerful, unknowable being).

I'd argue the key sub-claims underlying the wider claim are:

1. People need to believe in a religion-like thing. If they stop believing in classical religions then they start to re-invent it, probably without realizing that's what they're doing.

2. The most important example is Leftism, which is typified by fundamental beliefs that can be rephrased to sound almost quasi-Christian if you want to.

3. Implicitly, that these ad-hoc reinvented beliefs are worse than the classical religions they seek to displace, and thus that it's a good idea to be religious (n.b. I am not personally religious, but I'm open to this argument).

Leftist beliefs being a pseudo-religion, really? Sure. Marx insisted strongly on suppressing the Church ("no false idols"), that the population could be divided into two categories of pure evil and pure good ("sinners", "saints"), he had an axiomatic belief that human nature is fundamentally good but corrupted by external badness ("man was created pure in the Garden of Eden"), that virtually any challenge can be overcome through application of collective will ("we are made in God's image") and so on. Now over time what happened is that Christianity evolved and some of these rather destructive Marx-like elements got retconned out, such as when the core concept became "We are all sinners" i.e. stop dividing everyone into good and bad all the time please.

Regardless of where the aphorism originates exactly, it was made famous by Chesterton, a man who lived in time when people were starting to realize that God was dead, that lots of people no longer truly believed in him. It was also a time of violent, revolutionary ideas - the French revolution was still quite a recent event, and Marx was busy penning his ideas of how to create a godless utopia. So this idea that without God you'd end up worshipping Man, would have been a contemporary one regardless of who came up with each formulation.

Expand full comment

I wonder how many of the respondents to that poll were right-thinking Bayesians who thought "yes, indeed, UFO sightings are very weak evidence of extraterrestrial life".

Expand full comment
(Banned)
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

Even it were true...now what? If there were some effective way of converting millions of people, religious people would likely have discovered it long ago, or at least it's unlikely to be discovered by these particular twitter people.

But I think you're misrepresenting the argument here, it's not that people will believe in literally anything, what is meant is mostly left-wing ideologies. They are perhaps using sloppy and uncharitable language, but they're saying something very different than what you're arguing against.

To the extent that the non-religious are the ones believing in loony wokeness the most though, it seems overwhelmingly more likely that both of these things are caused by the same broad cultural trends (and a predisposition to be influenced by them) rather than the former causing the latter.

Also, note how other than atheists, old southern white men are basically the least likely to believe in astrology. If this became widely known, rather than being an obvious datum against the stereotype of this demographic being ignorant, I imagine this would lead to criticism of astrology being considered "racist".

Expand full comment

I'm skeptical of conclusions to be drawn from this. It looks a bit like "white americans most likely to subscribe to these specifc conspicracy theories that originated/took hold in white american populations". UFOs, moon landin, vaccine/autism & Qanon are a curiously specific slice of conspiracy theories

Expand full comment
founding

I'd predict "spiritual but not religious" blows everything else out of the water. If true, this suggests there is a dimension distinct from religious/atheist, probably related to openness to experience. Neither Big Foot nor UFOs are an "already established world view". However you get to yours (family, personality, context, pure accident), the more conservative you are with keeping that world view, the less likely you are to believe in weird stuff.

Expand full comment

A lighthearted palate-cleanser piece, pleasant as far as it goes...I don't think it's strenuous enough that it's worth particularly updating on, beyond Yep That Sure Looks Like Lizardman's Constant and Lots Of People Sure Say They Believe In Weird Things. All the standard confounders for extrapolating from poll results come to mind, not least of which the difference between socially mediated poll-beliefs and actual action-beliefs...though I guess it's a lot harder to get concrete revealed preferences for stuff like belief in Bigfoot.

I'm reminded of a post you wrote long ago about more than 50% of Americans apparently believing in Young Earth creationism (or was it flat-earth?), despite no evidence of this whatsoever in your personal life, and how that was statistically improbable. People can cop to believing all kinds of stuff but not really have that influence reality...QAnon is sort of a weird example in this mix, since it gets lots of media airtime (like here!) and has had some meaningful impact, but is actually pretty unpopular[1].

The more interesting question would be: __why__ do people seem to have a need for some sort of coherent beliefs pre-package, such that religion and its woo substitutes get reinvented over and over and over? (Granted that some types of woo are higher-quality than others. Rationalism is a pretty nice vintage of woo, I think.) I think diving more narrowly on that topic would be interesting...the consequences, positive and negative, of not picking up any particular beliefs pre-package to fill the God-shaped hole. If it exists in the first place.

[1] https://www.slowboring.com/p/qanon-is-not-a-conspiracy-theory

Expand full comment

A very interesting essay but, as others have pointed out, it misses the point of the tweet, which is really to disparage belief in things like radical gender theory and systemic racism - few would dispute that white US evangelicals are less susceptible to these ideas than the average American.

Expand full comment

I would rework the original quote as:

> Once people stop believing in God, the problem is not that they will believe in nothing; rather, the problem is that they *adopt dangerous secular beliefs in order to signal group membership*.

There is this idea - not mine - that people signal membership by believing unlikely things, specifically things other people would be unlikely to randomly believe. The point about these beliefs is that they are *supposed* to be unlikely otherwise they wouldn't signal membership.

Classic examples include: Roman Catholics who are monotheists who believe in the Holy Trinity; certain hard leftists who believe 3rd world dictators are automatically still morally better than western governments; and conservative radical free marketeers. I think it's probably why political slogans always seem unpersuasive - people use them to signal membership, and thus embrace the stupid-sounding ones.

Most modern core religious Membership Signalling Unlikely Beliefs are pretty harmless: illogical theological/metaphysical ideas and weird lifestyle rules. They don't generally prevent a religious tradition from evolving morally, or from embracing changing knowledge of the material world. For example, the RC church still believes in the Holy Trinity etc, but no longer supports slavery (as it once did), and actually has astronomers on its payroll. Many Protestant churches are OK with homosexuality, when, back in the 17th century, their response was... nasty.

The (tragic) problem is that Unlikely Beliefs held by Atheists have to be secular ones, at best causing reputational damage to their movement - whatever it is - and at worst impacting on bystanders.

Hence the different flavours of modern "wokism", and also the fiercely held Marxist views of yesteryear's left. Either way, they are locked into these views regardless of changing political landscape or technical knowledge.

Religious folk can *also* have Secular Unlikely Beliefs - usually rightist ones - but don't need them in order to belong somewhere.

Unfortunately, to test this hypothesis, you'd have to have a politically unbiased way of deciding what views are "unlikely"...

Expand full comment

This is a difficult thing to analyse as the number of beliefs that are wrong are essentially infinite, and limiting the data to a few culturally and temporally specific cases doesn't even scratch the surface.

FWIW The transgender craze seems to have elements of atheistic religious enthusiasm, with adherents demanding the recitation of catechism, an apparent urge to convert others to the belief, extreme anger against apostates and persecution of those who reject the faith. An analysis of the traditional religious beliefs of the cult members would be interesting.

Expand full comment

“I would have liked to look into JFK and 9/11 conspiracies, but I couldn’t find great data.”

This is particularly unfortunate, as it means that all of the (not overtly political) “conspiracy theories“ being examined are not beliefs in literal conspiracies per se, but beliefs in the supernatural. there is an obvious confound here: beliefs in the supernatural may be more highly correlated did with religion than non-supernatural conspiracy theories.

Expand full comment

I think the confounder is so big that the signal can barely be seen.

People who are naturally inclined to believe (because genes!) will believe both religion and other woo.

People of a more rational disposition will disbelieve both, but only given the opportunity.

The saying about losing religion is precisely about that: a given person who loses one's religion and then goes on to believe a lot of other things.

Anyhow, does someone have a twin study about religiosity ?

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

>If you’re making strong claims about how everybody except you is gullible, you should at least bother to double-check the source of your quote.

That, in its essence, *is* a GK Chesterton quote:

"The nineteenth century decided to have no religious authority. The twentieth century seems disposed to have any religious authority." [Illustrated London News, April 26, 1924]

More precisely, it is a bog standard transformation of that quote, a transformation which regularly happens in all kinds of retellings that aim to increase memetic spreading by trading off subtlety for catchiness.

Such as the "increased catchiness" that was already infused into Scott's sentence above, "claims about how everybody except you is gullible". That fragment is a strawman in itself -- strawmanned for catchiness -- as opposed to the very subtle analysis which had followed in the rest of the article.

Expand full comment

I feel like the obvious explanation here is that people who are wishy-washy on religion are also wishy-washy about belief in general. Does God exist? Maybe. Does bigfoot exist? Maybe. Does astrology have significance? Maybe. Is the moon landing fake? Maybe.

The kind of person who isn't strongly opinionated and decided about truth of things. They're not sure they know.

It's a personality thing, among other things.

Expand full comment

I would argue that scientific materialism militates against the Bigfoot. We know from evolutionary biology that very small populations are prone to inbreeding and accumulation of genetic damage which often dooms them to extinction after they fall below a certain number of breeding pairs. The absence of ape fossils in the Northwest is a strong paleontological argument against the existence of large sustained populations of apes in the region's prehistory. If there were no plausible common ancestral species for Bigfoot and any small populations that could have been missed by fossil hunters would have been long since extinct, then where does Bigfoot come from? The Himalayas, as an offshoot of the Yeti lineage? Or one of original apes that idolized the Black Monolith and was made immortal by the Aliens?

In short, scientific materialism as focused through the lens of biological science does make Bigfoot very, very implausible, although not completely ironclad impossible.

Expand full comment

Presumably, belief in crazy stuff correlates with belief in other crazy stuff?

Expand full comment
User was banned for this comment. Show
Expand full comment

I imagine that age & education level are significant confounders of what nutty notions a person might have, and would have thought that would have been mentioned.

Expand full comment

Some people believe that Monsanto/others create seeds that grow into plants that don't themselves give fertile seeds (the "terminator gene"). This belief is false, and has some hallmarks of a conspiracy theory:

-Spread by word of mouth - mainstream newspapers don't talk about it

-Involves powerful people wielding control over less powered, through misfortune that has been "engineered" ("conspired")

-Disproven within 30 seconds of looking it up on Wikipedia, but is nevertheless quite a widespread belief

-Integrates into some other ideologies

The ideologies that it is integrated into (anti capitalism, anti-science, anti-GM) are anti-correlated with being religious, so I would expect it to be anti-correlated with that too?

Expand full comment

First of all, the quotation attributed to Lewis/Chesterton has nothing particularly to do with conspiracy theories. They were reacting to the tradition of nineteenth-century materialist rationalism and its aspirations to sweep away all superstition, and to replace it with a purely rational, scientific, atheistic world-view, where there was no question of "belief", but only of firmly established scientific truth. The criticism was that science had failed to provide this expected certainty anyway, but that in addition other forms of belief (political, social, even economic) had replaced formal religion, and non-formal religious beliefs hadn't gone away. It was a fair (in my view) criticism of the wildly ambitious expectations of people like Huxley and Saint-Simon.

Second, a number of these stories are not "conspiracy theories." Conspiracy theories are theories about the existence of a conspiracy. The idea of the existence of aliens which has been debated (at least by the Catholic Church) since the time of Giordano Bruno, is not a conspiracy theory. It's only a conspiracy theory if you believe that someone is conspiring to cover it up. Russia!Russia!Russia! is a conspiracy theory because it posits the existence of a conspiracy.

Third, I'm not sure "belief" is the word here. How about "convinced by evidence" vs "unconvinced by evidence"? "Belief" is precisely what you have when you can't reach an opinion by weighing evidence. People who use acupuncture, for example, are not expressing a "belief", but generally either basing themselves on evidence that it has done them good in the past, or on assurances from others they trust. It's quite a different process from "belief" that a pill prescribed by a doctor, whose name they can't pronounce, will do them good. Likewise, astrologers (I have one in the family) are intensely pragmatic, and financial astrologers, for example, make very good livings in a climate that doesn't not easily reward failure. There's an argument that a certain sort of mindset is more open to new ideas, and less conformist with the dogmas of the day. This is an attitude more than anything else, and means people are prepared to critically examine ideas that others would just dismiss. Witness the famous scene in Brecht's Galileo, where the Cardinal refuses to look through Galileo's telescope on the basis that it is alleged to be showing things that he knows can't exist. I've always seen this as the classic take-down of nineteenth century materialist scientism.

Finally, religion is the original conspiracy theory. This applies even in the Iliad, where the gods decide everything, but is particularly strong with monotheistic religions. I knew a diplomat in an Arab country who had long arguments with his chauffeur who routinely drove through red lights. The chauffeur argued that, if he was meant by Allah, to have an accident, he'd have an accident. If not, not. I've had Muslim students who regard success or failure in examinations as outside their control. We live in a more secularised world, but we long to recapture the world-view of our ancestors (Lewis was an expert on this) when the whole world was magical and full of signs and everything was connected. Since then, we've had what Weber called the "disenchantment of the world" - see Charles Taylor's mighty tome for how this happened. As the quotation says, science once promised to provide an explanation for an otherwise meaningless world, but hasn't done so. People seek it elsewhere.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

How the heck can you, despite noticing the Economist/YouGov sneaky trick of mostly choosing right-coded conspiracy theories, fall for the other sneaky trick of calling the “millions of illegal votes” theory a “conspiracy theory” in a context which makes it clear that the term denotes a *false and disproven* theory?

Be honest, Scott, WOULD YOU HAVE made this mistake if they, in the poll, called “COVID-19 was created in a laboratory” a “conspiracy theory” of this type?

In both cases, we have a not-yet-proven theory with shocking political implications *investigation into and discussion of which has been very strongly resisted and censored without ACTUAL DISPROOF or anything approaching it having been provided*.

Be honest. Would you have made this mistake if the switch I proposed had been made?

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

A good many atheists seem largely motivated to become atheists in order to flaunt their intellectual superiority over the credulous. This leads them to pre-sort new beliefs that come their way into "will I look credulous if I believe this or will it make me look smart" while maintaining that this is part of their deep intellectual sophistication. "I cannot believe in Bigfoot because I would look like a fool" will protect against believing in Bigfoot. But it won't do you any good against things that your social group wouldn't mock you for believing. So, if you look at the past, you will find atheists whose deep faith in science caused them to embrace phenomenology, behaviouralism, and lobotomy as a mental health procedure, who fought Ignaz Semmelweis' hygenic efforts because to believe that invisible poisions were causing childbed fever was irrational, and who thought that dialectical materialism was proven, and we are destined to the promised Socialist Paradise on Earth. I think you need to look at bad science when you want to measure the credulousness of atheists.

Expand full comment

My suspicion is that anyone who still identifies as "Atheist" instead of "agnostic" or "no religion" these days is also the kind of person who self-identifies as a skeptic, and sort of gets off a little bit on disbelieving things like bigfoot and astrology.

Expand full comment

What could be more absurd and untrue too than believing that you are "saved" from having to intelligently dealing with the fact that your body is going to die (and indeed intends to) by believing in the brutal murder of the God-man Jesus, or that the pope is the vicar of christ and that his "authority" is based on "apostolic succession" - never mind that some many popes were essentially psychotic and/or not fit for human company. And that monstrous "catholic" magisterium is binding on all human being, and that the Bible is the "word of god". Or in the case of amerika that it has some kind of divine dispensation or unique role in the fulfillment of "god's plan" for humankind. Or that you go to "heaven" when you die, if you are/were a good-two-shoes true believer.

Which is to point out that anyone who believes in such garbage is in fact completely deluded, and will both individually and collectively perpetrate all kinds of monstrous crimes against both "heretical" individuals and collectives.

Expand full comment

Some people when you ask them if something weird is true, go “yeah, maybe. It’s a big world out there.”

Those people are likely to say yes/possible to conspiracy theories and astrology and think God is maybe real hard to say (so agnostic or religious but rarely go to church depending on where they fall on the likelihood).

Expand full comment

Intriguing Post! Perhaps one explanation for the data is that the average person has a set limit to the amount of socially challenging or weird beliefs they are comfortable holding at any one time, and thus people with strong coherent beliefs outside the norm (atheists and evangelicals) are less inclined to believe in assorted woo than those who have the social credit and thought space to spare?

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

I don't think they are talking about believing in UFOs. I'd guess what they are referring to is (or at least includes) social positions like "men can have periods".

Expand full comment

I don't think anyone is worried about atheists' belief in big foot. These are strawman examples. How about woke/environmentalist claims such as:

- there are no biological differences between the sexes

- climate change will end the world in my lifetime

Expand full comment

I would argue religion, or other belief system is not so much an "anti-virus", as a whole OS. It might be less vulnerable to mind-viruses developed for the older platform, unless they manage to adapt, but it's not inherently much more secure. Some flaws lie in our lower-level cognition processes (BIOS, if we continue with computer analogies), so they can be exploited no matter other mind-software, but really - every OS just needs to get more popular to have more viruses targeted specifically to it.

Already 10% of *atheists* believe in astrology, while there is maybe just 10% atheists in population. I wonder how many young atheists believe in it - it seems that youth is almost as good predictor of this belief as religiosity? And there are more atheists among Millennials (according to the same page). Unless these people grow out of this belief en masse, they will probably pass it on to their children, and we will see more astrology-believing atheists in future. Which means that this particular virus have adapted to the new circumstances - new software architecture, if you will.

I'd imagine as the percentage of atheists grows (if it does), we will find them as willing to believe in impossible stuff as the current, more religious population. Though probably in slightly different stuff, for entirely different reasons.

Expand full comment

I think it would be helpful to get some non-US data on this before drawing any conclusions. Religion in America, particularly evangelical Christianity, is a pretty unique beast in a global context.

Expand full comment

UFOs don't really fit with the other ones because "of all the hundreds of trillions of planets in the universe, Earth is the only one with life" is more of a woo article of faith than allowing for the possibility of extraterrestrials. A better "conspiracy theory" of this vein is the question of whether the government is keeping alien equipment in Area 51.

Expand full comment

I think it would be more informative to have all of this broken down by sex. Women are more likely to go to church and also more likely to believe astrology (per the one chart that includes sex). This might explain the difference between religion and church attendance.

Expand full comment

What about conspiracy theories like, “sexual dimorphism in humans is a delusion people only believe in because they’ve been brainwashed by a shadowy all-controlling organization/force called ‘The Patriarchy’,” or, “blacks commit crimes at a higher rate and score lower on tests, etc. only because whites still secretly and unconsciously harbor negative feelings about them”?

I am personally convinced those views are totally crackpot and fly in the face of the bulk of available evidence, and furthermore seem to fit the definition in that they invoke nefarious and shadowy forces pulling the strings in vaguely specified ways. They would be literally theories of conspiracies even if they were true.

You could say I’m being uncharitable/strawmanning... But that’s what proponents of every other “conspiracy theory” would also say about their views being summarily dismissed as a “conspiracy theory”.

Expand full comment

I speculate that if you could segment the data you'd see a clearer pattern: there's a subset of Americans who will believe in either 1) religion or 2) conspiracy theories and if you take away religion, then they will believe in conspiracy theories.

Expand full comment

“Will believe in anything” is obviously wrong.

Absent survey data on things like “communism” or “critical race theory”, we don’t get to see the more interesting stuff.

My guess would be that for most people, they aren’t particularly conscientious about their beliefs; it’s a bag of stuff that more or less feels good when you say it. A smaller subset probably cares about “does my tribe allow/mandate this belief”, and then a tiny tiny tiny subset probably tries to make their beliefs coherent and consistent.

Expand full comment

What is a post-rationalist and why are they more vulnerable to woo?

Expand full comment

On the side of religious people, there's a bunch of neat measures for degree of religiosity (church attendance, prayer, and what not), but I would like to point out that atheists are hardly a homogeneous group in their own right. On one hand you have atheistic leity, people who are atheists because their parents raised them as one or because evolution debunks the existence of God (while their understanding of evolution bears more resemblance to Pokemon than the modern theory), and on the other hand you have people who are committed.

I would suspect belief in conspiracy theories or astrology largely comes from people's surrounding cultural environment/memes and that the self-identified atheists are unlikely to believe in bigfoot or moon landing hoaxes even if they "believe in science" in just about the same way as most non-church-going religious people do in their religion. Perhaps this is somewhat different in the States where I could see atheists being more likely to be independent thinkers of one kind or another, but by my reckoning most atheists aren't anything like that, and these people either dominate or at least strongly influence the polls: one would expect committed atheists familiar with natural sciences, naturalistic philosophy, epistemology, etc, to be even less likely to believe in these specific conspiracies and falsehoods asked about in the polls. I would like to think this isn't the case, but I do however concede the possibility that committed naturalists might be more likely to believe in some other kinds of bunk (or things that will turn out to be bunk, while in principle being knowable as bunk right now), just like the final graph in the post would show for post-rationalists.

Expand full comment

I’m surprised none of you smart people questioned a sub-premise of this article: that UFOs are a conspiracy theory. There is now emerging evidence that UFO/UAP are indeed real, although not clear what they are or where they are from. But all you Bayesians should update your priors on this one, because the evidence is piling up that something real is definitely being seen by sensors and military pilots (and congressmen).

We should do a meta-poll within this group of religious conviction vs belief in anything Scott writes.

Expand full comment

Counterpoint: "The opiate of the middle classes" - https://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/taleb05/taleb05_index.html

[edit]

The problem with all of your examples is that they're academic. Whether or not you believe in bigfoot -- in itself -- has no influence over your life. I suspect that atheists are more likely to believe in scientific racism, eugenics, Marxism-Leninism, neo-reaction, "wokism" (stop saying "blacklist"!!), etc.

Expand full comment
founding

> Strongly religious people and outright atheists were usually less likely to believe in conspiracy theories.

This makes a ton of sense to me. Both atheists and church-goers belong to identity groups centered around belief. Believing anything that isn't explicitly condoned threatens to put you in the outgroup.

The unaffiliated are susceptible because they have no fear of believing the (morally/socially) wrong thing.

Edit: This also explains why church-going is such a strong predictor of resilience to conspiracy theories--churchgoers explicitly belong to a belief-oriented community. The religious-but-non-church-going people wouldn't lose many friends if they recanted (or said they believe in bigfoot).

Expand full comment

I think you're incorrect on why most people go to church, if we're talking about the regular attendance group. You state that they do it for family or cultural reasons, but those are the people who are infrequent and fill the middle role. Those who regularly attend generally have stronger beliefs in God and more strictly follow the beliefs of the religion.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

I always understood the quote (whether its Chesterson or Lewis) to be more of a reference to the idea that the human mind seems to be prewired for religiosity. What Christians in particular mean when they say this is something like "you are going to believe in something. If not a Christian worldview and man's purpose in the universe, what?"

So likelihood of belief in things like UFOs and Bigfoot strikes me as (at least) one off from the real question. It may serve as a proxy for a particular predisposition of susceptibility to odd beliefs, but I am not sure.

I am a believer, so it is really hard for me to step outside the paradigm. I do, however, relate well to cultural Christians like Theodore Dalrymple and Christopher Degroot. The coherence and the second order outcomes of Christendom, which evolved into what we now call "western civilization" are pretty hard to ignore. In short, you don't have modern society without it, even if you think the Christian idea of God coming down in the form of a man to save the world from itself is really cooky (or off-the-charts improbable).

The far-left looks likes a religion to me. They have dogmas, sacraments, clergy, prophets, etc. They just don't call them that. I think that's the point of the quote.

Expand full comment

I think there might be a misunderstanding here regarding the meaning of the original quote. In the context in which it is commonly used, the statement “will believe in anything” does not usually refer to a tendency to believe in conspiracy theories, but rather to a need to look for an alternative overarching worldview that will provide a similar sense of belonging to something bigger than oneself, as traditional religion had in the past for many people.

A number of commentators have made such a point with regards to “wokeism” - and also pointed out the parallels between it and traditional religion (a high priesthood who may not be argued with, a concept of original sin, dogma that may not be questioned etc). A recent New Yorker article on William MacAskill makes very similar claims regarding some passionate adherents to EA.

The point I think those who use this “quote” are trying to make is that people in general have a fundamental need for an overarching belief system, and the abandonment of traditional religion has seen a not-unrelated-rise in other “religions” that provide a similar sense of meaning and purpose for adherents

Expand full comment

I think the "will believe anything" statement isn't really about specific facts or theories that can be verified or falsified. It's about how one navigates the moral universe, how one discerns right and wrong and acts on that discernment. People who make the "will believe anything" claim seem to be arguing that non-believers just cobble together whatever bits of morality they can find and paste them together as it suits them in any given time or place.

Though that meaning of the statement rings true to me, I'm still not sure I really agree with that statement. I'm not sure how I'd go about proving or disproving it, or what sorts of epicycles I'd have to invent in order to do so.

Expand full comment

I am in agreement with your notion that its about coherence. My mental model for people is that we are all future predictors, and that it’s hard to predict another future predictor who could do literally anything, so we try to align on assumptions as a means of cooperation.

Expand full comment

All the responses here of the form “but what about communism, etc” are begging the question. The point is that if, as the claim goes, we’ve uninstalled an antivirus, then we should expect more viruses. The viruses like astrology are tests for that, and ones that can be agreed upon as viruses. Communism or CRT doesn’t fit that bill because they can’t be agreed open, and particularly won’t be agreed upon as viruses for the people that this matters most to: the non-religious. The only way to persuade me that religion is an antivirus is to demonstrate that it prevents things that I think of as viruses! Astrology is the test for that.

Expand full comment

My explanation would be that agnostics are more accepting of uncertainty, whereas evangelicals and atheists are not, and for most conspiracy theories it’s easier to be certain they’re false than certain that they’re true

Expand full comment

On a minor note, I object to the framing of UFOs as a false belief or conspiracy theory. At this point the United States military has formally admitted that its pilots have seen UFOs (unidentified flying objects), that it has no explanation for what its pilots saw, and that it's investigating. Believing that *people are being anally probed by little green men* is evidence of false belief. Believing that *UFOs* exist is evidence of a sound mind, and anybody who conducts a poll of false beliefs using the word "UFO" is just producing confusion.

Expand full comment

I like Julian Jaynes's definition of God as the demands of society anthropomorphized. With that in mind, there isn't a ton of leeway in how much people respond to the demands of society. We are social creatures that automatically process social desirability. If you reject one model of social demands, another will replace it. Wouldn't really be picked up with polls about conspiracy thinking.

Granted, this is a different definition of god than most use, but there are evolutionary reasons to believe it's how the gods came to be.

Expand full comment

Wondering what the correlation to big5 personality trait "openness" would show.

Hypothesis: What allows for people to be dogmatic (low openness) is also a positive close-mindedness shielding from WooWoo, while non-conformation (such as submarine christians, only surfacing once a year; or spiritual atheists) is caused by the same openness that lays the groundwork for considering Aliens, BigFoot, etc. as potentially valid.

Expand full comment

I think this is an interesting thing to look at, but the effect of "how are people's logical reasoning skills at figuring out if certain things like religion or bigfoot are true" is totally swamped in reality by "people decide to say they believe in certain things based on partisan/social factors rather than trying to figure out if they're true or not." People simply use different parts of their brain to determine "should I believe in thing X, where the actual believing will not change my life in any way - i.e. I won't go on a bigfoot hunt - but telling people I do will signal something positive, like that I am a free thinker, rejecting the social conventional wisdom" than they do for "what's my theory about whether or not the car in front of me will turn into my lane, killing me."

I think this is a situation where English lets us down - we shouldn't be using the same term for "belief" in these cases. Yes, obviously there are some people (you!) who do think about bigfoot, Catholicsm, covid vaccines and UFOs using the same framework of logic, but most people don't. Most people try to be more efficient: they take a shortcut, they make the far quicker, easier assessment of: how does this impact my life if I believe it, taking into account the social benefits of saying I believe it? If that's positive, then they say they believe it. But almost none of them actually do any costly behavior (pay tens of thousands of dollars to go into the deep backwoods on a Bigfoot hunt) based on that.

The covid vaccine thing actually provided a margin case, because pre-covid anti vaxxers had an extremely low chance of suffering harm from their beliefs, (even unvaccinated people usually don't get polio - sorry Connecticut) but during covid some (though still most anti-vaxxers probably did not) actual people did discover that their beliefs ended up causing them to take actions that harmed them, and in fact you see that effect in the data where being older (and therefore higher risk from covid) caused people to actually take the somewhat costly action to take the vaccine, whereas younger (and therefore lower risk) people didn't. I thought this was an interesting example of where the shore of "costless symbolic beliefs" was washed over by waves of "potentially costly real life actions driven by belief."

Expand full comment

The counterexamples you gave are politically neutral, but they are not religiously neutral. Those who seriously believe in the truth of the gospels as written will be less inclined than, say, atheists to believe that there is anything "out there" (aliens?) other than God.

I think you'd have been better off looking at left-wing conspiracy theories. Evangelicals might very well be less likely than, say, atheists to believe in those.

Expand full comment

"People who believe in nothing will believe in anything" is a dig against atheists in particular, but I think the mention of religion as anti-virus is slightly closer; more like a benign virus.

Lets say that your brain represents valuable living space for memes, but they compete with each other for space constantly, with the established ones choking out competitors. As unpleasant as your current meme flora is, if you were to clear it out, it'd probably be replaced by a bunch of strange weeds that can't typically compete with the big old monsters.

Also, if you want to find silly things that non-believers believe, aren't there plenty of nutty beliefs on the super-identitarian left? I've met people who believe in the gender wage gap or structural racism to such a degree that it qualifies as a conspiracy theory. One person insisted that her father personally wanted to take away her rights through some kind of coordinated effort with other men.

Expand full comment

Good research into the wrong question. I don't think that conspiracy theories are my main worry. I worry about all-consuming ideologies, like Marxism. Do non-believers need an all-consuming ideology, and is such an ideology more dangerous than a religion? My own view is that religion need not be an all-consuming ideology, and in fact it may help insulate people from adopting an all-consuming ideology.

Expand full comment

Would seem helpful to get conspiracy theories and common false beliefs that are easy to verify as false to test across a broader range of the political spectrum, rather than just testing right wing and neutral ones.

If atheists as a group underperform somewhere, it would probably be with respect to false beliefs that are more left wing than usual, while religious people would probably tend to fail in the opposite direction.

Expand full comment

Isn't the last chart inverted? Or you're saying that post-rationalists are most vulnerable to woo?

Expand full comment

> People of “none” religion are less likely than any religion except Jews to believe in Bigfoot.

Only if you only look at the "Absolutely Not" category, though. There are some arguments that's appropriate, but if you combine "Absolutely Not" and "Probably Not" into a general Doubt category, "none" is the least skeptical: 81.5%, compared to 85.2%, 84.5%, 96.5%, and 83.2%, in order. With the difference between Absolutely Not and general Doubt, it doesn't really seem to support any difference (except that Jewish people are very skeptical).

Expand full comment

I grew up an atheist, became an evangelical Christian at 19 and became an atheist against at ~32. I would say my beliefs during this time were:

0-19 Atheist: Yes to UFOs, no to Bigfoot, no to ghosts.

19-32 Christian: Yes to UFOs (but they were demons), no to Bigfoot, yes to ghosts (also demons).

32-present Atheist: No to UFOs (but with some small probability that they are real alien spacecraft), no to Bigfoot, no to ghosts.

I was always no to Astrology.

Expand full comment

> One out of four people with postgraduate degrees believes in astrology?!

Based on my encounters with humanities people in grad school this wouldn't surprise me.

Expand full comment

I get that this post is talking about people believing in nonsense/woo/conspiracy theories and that fits with the fake Chesterton quote of believing in "anything".

But if you ask me a far more interesting topic is being referred to by the Amjad Masad tweet.

He was talking about "mind viruses" specifically, not conspiracy theories.

I think Bigfoot and UFO sightings are pretty weak mind viruses in that there's a notable lack of evidence in our modern age of smartphone cameras, and more importantly, these beliefs are signals for low-class, low-status.

A mind virus to me is something like the crazier versions of wokeness and the crazier versions of anti-vaccination. These are highly transmittable memes that take full advantage of our tribal instincts.

This fits well with the Atheist movement getting gutted by social justice in my opinion.

I think there's something to the theory that our brains have a deeply ingrained need for a belief system that bland athiesm doesn't fill very well.

The tweet referring to religion as an anti-virus seems inspired by the OG of this conversation Neal Stephenson who dealt with this topic heavily in the classic Snow Crash.

I loved how he talks about one character having a level of immunity because she'd spent time arguing with Jesuits.

In my (arrogantly biased) opinion, a population with a great mental immune system are ex-religious people. We already know what it's like overcoming a mind-virus from the inside.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

Let’s try a steelman here. The steelman isn’t that the non-religious are somehow generically more gullible than the religious. It’s that there’s a phenomenon in which people leave relatively sober religions (say, Anglicanism or Conservative Judaism) and end up believing in New Age spirituality in ways that have more practical import than their previous religion. I maintain than this phenomenon is observable and, in the Bay Area, fairly common.

One can respond that this is a weaker claim than the one Scott is testing. That’s true, but I think it’s also closer to the observation that inspired the saying than the more generic things he gets into.

Expand full comment

One possible explanatory factor of the Bigfoot thing: both strongly religious people and strongly committed atheists are used to having to disagree with conventional wisdom. Maybe both groups are pre-selected for skepticism?

Expand full comment

Church attendance tends to be correlated with other good outcomes relative to other believers, in my experience. Maybe akin to how medication adherence is correlated to good outcomes, even for a placebo.

Expand full comment

I heard that argument constantly as a kid in the evangelical world, and had a very different understanding of what they were saying. Not that non-religious people were more likely to believe false things about the world, but that they were more likely to have incoherent/contradictory/nihilistic ethics.

On the question of conspiracies, I'd expect the hyper-religious to believe conspiracy theories endorsed by their leadership, like the charismatics movement treating Donald Trump as some kind of savior figure, and not to believe conspiracy theories denounced by their leadership, like astrology. This seems to bear that out. Except bigfoot. Not sure what to do with that information.

But on the question of ethics, I'm not sure I can dismiss the idea that most social groups seem to be missing a coherent theory of ethics? Again, working off anecdote it really seems like everyone in my peer group thinks they're brave for focusing on themselves over others and asserting their needs, and that everyone else is toxic for focusing on themselves over others and asserting their needs. Concepts like duty, self-sufficiency, and sacrifice are widely mocked. Concepts like forgiveness and positivity are outright considered attacks on people.

That's...I mean I left the church, and had a good reason - an arbitrary ethics often based on exclusion *can* be more destructive than no coherent ethics at all. But when I see that quote, that's my first thought.

Expand full comment

Another interesting analysis from Scott.

I think of it as, Christianity doesn't let one think that the original sin was actually black chattel slavery, that all Americans (or earthlings) face the sin of White Supremacy, and the only solution is constant wailing and apologies, which can never go too far. And the new blasphemy is the n-word.

Expand full comment

I feel like polls of this sort are always sort of incomplete in leaving out other religions, and also ignoring how internally diverse both religions and the non-religious really are. I mean, in theory you could be lumping in the super-woke Pentecostals down the street from me with people who handle snakes in Appalachia.

I’m not sure where I fit in myself. My two major social outlets are a) church and b) the ACX meetup.

There are also cases where someone’s religion or culture sort of obligated them to believe in things like astrology. I know astrology is super important to a lot of people in India, but I’m not 100% sure of Hinduism’s official position on it. Astrology isn’t a great correlate for conspiracy theories, either, IMO. I feel like belief in astrology uses a different part of the irrational brain. And the more normalized it is given where you are, the more it would differ from conspiracy theories as understood here.

Of course, it’s hard to poll enough South Asians in the US on Bigfoot. If we ran this poll in India asking if people believe in Yeti, what would those numbers be, and what would they mean?

Expand full comment

"I don’t think this is why most frequent churchgoers do it. Most churchgoers do it because they come from families and areas where going to church is expected."

Point of order, compardre, but most non-theists and exvangelicals and etc ALSO come from areas where that's expected. Heck, I'd bet 10 dollars that being a devout protestant who religiously goes to to a serious church every sunday all dressed up is a good deal weirder in San Francisco than being a new atheist is in rural Georgia.

Expand full comment

It seems like we're dealing with caricatures of what it means to be a believer or a non-believer.

The entire program of investigation seems so poorly operationalized that it is impossible to make any sense of it.

Expand full comment

I don't think religious belief necessarily protects against conspiracy theories, nor do I think nonbelievers will necessarily believe anything, but I do think people who leave their faith will be inclined to believe in _something_. People seem to become more amenable to alternative forms of spirituality after they leave a more mainstream religion.

However, I think the actual pitfall of becoming a nonbeliever is to eventually think that you can actually cleanse yourself of all religious belief. That is folly. Everyone inevitably adopts some system of religious belief, even if on the surface it is founded on some notion of rationality or other good. It is in our nature. If you deny it then you will only become blind to the ways in which you participate in the same sort of ingroup/outgroup behaviors for which religious people are often criticized.

That's what I think wokeness is -- a religion, effectively, around social justice issues. The problem is not necessarily that it is an unworthy cause, but that its adherents don't understand their movement as a quasi-religious movement. As a Christian myself it's kind of amusing to watch. It's like, they're building a new religion and they don't even realize it. I don't mean to pick on this movement in particular, but it just struck me as the most obvious example.

Expand full comment

As Freud puts it : "their acceptance of the universal neurosis spares them the task of constructing a personal one."

Expand full comment

I think you're overlooking selection effects. It might be that the hard-core atheists also lack other nonsense beliefs, not because the atheism *leads them* to lack other nonsense beliefs, but just because the class of people who end up hard-core atheists is a class of people not prone to believe any sort of nonsense in the first place.

By contrast, the class of devoutly religious people is a class of people who clearly *are* naturally inclined towards religiosity/spirituality/supernatural beliefs. So if being devoutly religious is correlated with *not* believing in UFOs and astrology, that's not because those people are just not inclined towards that sort of thing in the first place; it's because the one big religious belief is interfering by crowding out all the other nonsense. So it seems more plausible that religion is actually playing a *causal* role in preventing nonsense beliefs.

Some people are really hungry for some kind of supernatural belief, and won't end up being sensible materialist atheists if you take away their religion--they'll just fall into something worse instead. I'd much rather give them a nice sensible religion that encourages them to be honest and kind and donate to charity, rather than have them drift around looking for anything at all to believe in.

Expand full comment

I don't think "believe in" things is the right way to look at it. Have faith is the better way to describe it. It isn't that they believe "anything" it's that they can attach their faith to anything. Look at the way science was fetishized during the coronavirus pandemic. Scientists were regarded like priests by many people. Fauci referring to him as science, like the Pope of Coronavirus. Those who say things like "the science is settled" on climate, evolution, coronavirus are engaging in religious behavior. I see the "religious impulse" in things like environmentalism and political movements. With Christians it sometimes dovetails with abolitionism or anti-abortion, but most major movements you'd think of today like Woke, Green and even the trans to some extent, are effectively religious substitutes for "non-believers."

Expand full comment

I've always understood "the problem is that they will believe anything" to refer to moral claims. But without being able to track down the origin, I suppose that applying it to factual claims is a valid exercise.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

My comment will first (1) make a small quibble with a claim you make in the essay; secondly (2), will point out a couple concrete non-cryptid examples of what theists might have in mind when they make statements about atheists believing in anything; thirdly (3), will talk about another sense of the claim--the religious structure of many non-religious beliefs.

1. You say: "although following the logical implications of Christian belief would make you go to church a lot, I don’t think this is why most frequent churchgoers do it. Most churchgoers do it because they come from families and areas where going to church is expected."

I disagree! I think regular church attendance is actually a pretty good indicator of religious belief. It's incredibly easy not to go to church nowadays! You can even credibly claim to be a religious believer and not really go to church! Just sleep in on Sunday!

2. So, I'm one of the theistic regular readers of ACX (and LessWrong). Here are a couple things off the top of my head I think fellow theists tend to think are traps for atheists who don't have an anchoring belief in God.

--It's weird for Christians to see atheists taking simulation arguments re: our universe really seriously compared with the wide variety of arguments in the philosophy of religion for the existence of God. I'm not going to get into the particulars of the arguments (people can tell me why I'm wrong in the replies), but on occasion it feels like that, by describing God as a little more computer-programmery, suddenly a certain sort of atheist will suddenly be more amenable to the idea. (And in any case, I think various arguments for God are at least *more interesting* than the simulation argument, but simply are rejected out of hand!)

--This is perhaps even more contentious, and of course I'm biased, but I genuinely think intelligent atheists are worse at talking about morality than intelligent theists. Obviously, there are all kinds of ways you can press theists about metaethics (this has been the case since Plato), but even very intelligent atheists I know will fall into pretty outré theories, or just acknowledged incoherence when talking about the subject.

3. Another interpretation of the claim, or at least another claim very close to it, basically is that: human belief generally ends up having a religious structure, whether you try to avoid it or not! You see this sort claim advanced sometimes nowadays by political theorists: 'liberalism is like a religion, with its own sacraments and rituals, priests and proscriptions, etc.'. Or you get it by people really uncomfortable with the rationalist community who call it a cult.

Part of the idea here is, well, these things are worse as religions than just Good Old Fashioned Religion! It makes sense why you would worship a God, why that could involve going beyond reason to some degree, pursuing transcendence and the Infinite Ground of All Being....it seems way stupider to worship John Rawls' veil of ignorance (or whatever), and make a leap of faith into something that *by its own lights* is kind of human-based and mundane.

Anyway, neat piece. Always a question about how useful statistics are as input into a sort of 'fundamental narratives' topic, but you usually strike the balance pretty well.

Expand full comment

"Another possible explanation is that people with coherent worldviews already have strong opinions on what’s true, making them closed-minded against conspiracy theories. For example, if God created humans in the Garden of Eden, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for aliens and UFOs. Or, since atheists believe everything works through purely physical scientifically-measurable forces, that doesn’t leave a lot of room for astrology.

But this one doesn’t quite work either: neither scientific materialism nor Biblical literalism precludes Bigfoot. God and/or Evolution created all sorts of weird ape species; why shouldn’t there be one more?"

Two points:

1. People who identify as atheists and people who identify as Evangelicals have something in common: a willingness to associate with belief systems that necessarily preclude others from being true. Saying you're an atheist means that you believe religions that claim the existence of God are wrong. Likewise, saying you're an Evangelical means that you believe all people who reject the existence of God and Christ as Messiah are wrong. Most agnostics I know pride themselves on being open-minded, likewise with wishy-washy, loosely-identified Christians. These groups like to leave open the possibility for truth outside their narrow set of beliefs, which means a willingness to acknowledge the possible veracity of otherwise unsubstantiated claims. They don't wish to pass judgement. The confounder here is open-mindedness, which dictates how people identify and their tolerance for beliefs outside their own.

2. I get in trouble for saying this, but there is not as wide as a gap between scientific materialist atheists and Christian Fundamentalists as there seems to be. Outside of faith-based beliefs, most Fundamentalists I know don't believe in a ton of woo. They still hold to the existence of objective reality, and, in fact, when pressed, will try to give scientific evidence and proof for the veracity of their beliefs. Press them hard enough and they'll try to argue that Noah's flood was an event in literal recorded history. In a strange way, most of them hold to the scientific method; they try to use science to prove the truth of their beliefs. The way atheists describe Fundamentalists as delusional and avoiding evidence is precisely the way Fundamentalists describe atheists. The difference between the groups is that they operate from two radically different sets of facts. (I know someone with a Ph.D in mechanical engineering who is a young-earth creationist. Likewise, I have a med student friend who will frequently criticize his peers for believing in astrology, but he himself is a biblical literalist.)

Expand full comment

One think I think is partially going on, is the people who are atheists are actively sorting for people who don't cave to peer pressure and social norms, and "woo" acceptance mostly relies on people succumbing to social pressure. Its not just skepticism, but that particular brand of skepticism.

The skeptical non-conformist. The person who is willing to say "no that is dumb I don't believe in god" out loud in fifth grade, is also the person to question radical gender theory at the DEI presentation.

Expand full comment

I'm shocked at the number of you guys trying to claim that the (apparently pseudo-)Chesterton quote is actually about wokism. Chesterton would have said this, if at all, close to a century ago, and the quote has been regularly used by religious people to make fun of secular superstitions for decades. I seem to remember seeing it used to poke at certain kinds of spiritualism more than anything else, e.g. non-religious theories of the soul that allow for communicating with the dead. It's certainly not about systemic racism and gender theory, and you should examine the impulse that makes you want your favorite blogger to be as obsessed with such things as you are.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

Interesting results. I am sympathetic to the idea that people with strongly held beliefs, theistic or otherwise, are the type of people who had the conscientiousness to actually form a semi-coherent worldview in the first place, and thus are least susceptible to woo.

I would posit that there's maybe a weaker version of the faux-Chesterton quote that, inflected with some evolutionary biology and a touch of anthropology, might hold up if it would go something like this:

"If we consider organized religions as evolved cultural adaptations that serve social or psychological functions we may not totally comprehend or recognize (especially as unbelievers like me), then if we discard our native religion, new memeplexes (in the Richard Dawkins sense of the term) will almost have to arise to take their place. Those new memeplexes, not having hundreds of years of cultural evolutionary history to prune and shape them like classical religions, are likely to have serious flaws that prove detrimental to at least some class of their adherents."

Or here's another alternative version inflected with some Joe Henrich:

"Humans have a very long evolutionary history of constructing animistic belief systems, but we largely discarded those in the past few thousand years in favor of monotheistic religions, for reasons I won't bore you with but which Henrich has explored at length (Henrich's distinction between the little gods of hunter gatherer societies and the Big Gods of settled agricultural societies). If society chooses to discard modern monotheistic belief systems en masse, what results is not the adoption of cold hard scientific materialism, but a return to those old animistic beliefs of our hunter-gatherer forebears. Those animistic beliefs are more likely to maladaptive for the modern world, given that there was probably a reason we discarded them in the first place."

Just throwing these out there.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

People will believe lots of crazy things. How many of these do you believe?

- Politics is controlled by a cabal of: ancient aliens, lizard people, Jews, the patriarchy, 'elites', military-industrial complex, woke activists, the deep state, career politicians, intelligence agencies

- The news media is controlled by a cabal of: (chose from the above list)

- People are being controlled en mass by: religion, partisanship, economics, superstition, news, TV, video games, schools, radicalization on the internet (your pick from: woke, alt-right, reddit, 4chan), the Algorithm, the 'trans agenda'

- We're in imminent danger of civil war erupting from radicals on the Right/Left

- It's clear there was criminal activity that Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton got away with

- The election was stolen by - wait for it -

* Biden '20 (rigged)

* Trump '16 (Russia)

* Obama '08 (birther)

* Bush '00 (Florida)

* Clinton '92 (media + Perot)

* Reagan '84 (concealed Alzheimer's)

* Reagan '80 (Iran hostage shenanigans)

I try not to take these surveys too seriously, because ... well, I've found myself taken in by all sorts of stupid ideas that seemed right at the time, but then later I found out everything I'd been told was wrong. The hard work doesn't come in making sure you don't ever believe wrong things, because if there's one thing you can be certain of it's that you do. Did Epstein kill himself? Did the Clintons rig the 2016 primaries? What are the origins of COVID-19? Are there multiple universes? Do you - personally - really have the evidence to accept or reject any of these propositions? Yet you likely have a strong opinion about a few of them. The hard work comes from being able to let go of something you once believed as a matter of course: "God exists", or even "God doesn't exist".

Honestly, these numbers aren't all that impressive. You want to tell me that Jews are 8% less likely to believe in astrology than agnostics, but at the same time Hispanics are 7% more likely than whites. Okay, but a majority of ZERO groups you sampled said they believe in astrology. The only group that even came close were the teeny-boppers, and 2/3 of them weren't willing to say it's true. This idea that I can insulate myself from unrelated wrong ideas by how often I go to church or by holding to scientific materialism feels like the same kind of social science research that failed to survive the replication crisis.

Hard-pass on updating based on these surveys.

Expand full comment

The citation I am seeing for this quote is, "Malcolm Muggeridge and Christopher Ralling, Muggeridge Through the Microphone, British Broadcasting Corporation, 1967, p. 44", but it isn't online in a format that will open sufficiently for me to check it.

Expand full comment

When you get out of rationalist or internet atheism circles and into the real world, you find out that many people that call themselves nonreligious or atheists actually believe in a lot of shit and are just unhappy with traditional religious institutions.

Expand full comment

One point worth making: the term "white Evangelical" has never been super well-defined in polls. Although "Evangelical" Christianity has theological definitions, almost nobody applies the term in that way. In practice it means "culturally Christian, rarely attends Church," which is right in the danger zone for conspiratorial thinking - aka "being willing to accept large claims without thinking about them very much."

If regular religious practice to maintain a stable belief system or a conscious skepticism of belief systems making big claims of any kind are the two most protective mindsets against random BS, then "white evangelicals" in the American context - in aggregate - have neither.

Expand full comment
founding

Fundamentally the problem here is people typical minding and thinking that their own beliefs are Normal and their own Religion is sensible and it's other people who are crazy. If you actually read historical accounts of all the things various believers have asserted down the centuries, the whole time claiming they were entirely compatible with their religion, you'll see that god offers no protection from superstition.

Expand full comment

My main feeling here is that this question is too confounded by culture to be easily resolved. (Well, my actual main feeling is that the thesis of the post -- religious people are absolutely not inoculated against weird beliefs -- is both true and tricky to prove.)

Scott notes that belief in voter fraud is politically coded,* but belief in Bigfoot is almost certainly culturally coded, just in less obvious ways. My friends would find it extremely odd if I -- a city-living, professional, advanced degree-having atheist -- professed a belief in Bigfoot. Like a lot of kids, I was a big fan of cryptozoology when I was young. But eventually you put it away. It's silly, and people who believe that stuff as adults are rubes. Etc.

I have no idea what the churchgoing white evangelical take on Bigfoot is. Maybe the idea sinful. Maybe it just reads as weird. But I'm guessing there is a take.

So, yeah, I think the thesis of this post is spot on, but also would require some serious research that maybe hasn't been conducted yet to really prove.

* Fwiw, conservatives used to claim that vaccine skepticism and autism conspiracy theories were left-wing beliefs, in a sort of own-the-libs kind of way. I don't think this was ever actually true, or at least less true than supposed, but it is very much the case that vaccine skepticism was held up as an example of liberal stupidity.

Expand full comment

Would naysayers would ever say 'Yay!' to anything?

Expand full comment

Hmm, amazing stuff here. I am not to sure about strict scientific materialism these days. There is a somewhat older hypothesis that our brains have evolved to favor religious / spiritual beliefs. Would anyone care to comment? Incidentally, I have a post on the same topic today.

Expand full comment
founding

should we discount a study that shows group X believes Y, just because the group also believes Z?

Expand full comment

This post doesn't address the most widely believed conspiracies - the woke suite of beliefs. Surely there's data relating woke beliefs and religiousness. I suspect the negative relationship is quite strong.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

I largely see the original quote or at least that type of argument directed against extremist political movements/alternative sources of meaning more often than "woo" (see Chesterton's "Heretics" and Dostoevsky's "Demons"). Basically, once you've rejected the traditional foundations for claims like "don't kill people", you do not have any intellectual innoculation against radically inhumane philosophical views, like eugenics for Chesterton, or nihilistic radicalism for Dostoevsky. Probably a lot of the people who use it would look at some of the more exotic speculations common in the rationalist community and say "Yup, checks out to me. These guys explicitly reject the traditional foundations of meaning, and here they are talking about imaginary semi-divine computers and suggesting human extinction would be a good thing all day".

Perhaps a sufficiently trained theologian is totally insulated from all unreasonable beliefs, and the further away from that you go, the more insane you get. Chesterton makes something like this argument in his book on Thomas Aquinas, but then again, describing his views as "common sense" in very roundabout ways was kind of his thing. He also didn't really seem to mind woo all that much.

Anyway, I have no idea if the theory is true either.

Expand full comment

I think "agnostics and people with no particular religion" are who people generally have in mind when they cite the quote, not committed atheists, but who knows. What really stands out to me about these numbers is how similar they are across different groups, at least once you exclude anything with a specifically religious/political valence.

Expand full comment

I am thinking Umberto Eco's essay on The Force of Falsity (from collection "Serendipities") might be useful theoretic backdrop.

Expand full comment

I think frequency of attendance will be correlated with go-getter personality, class, and IQ. So I'm not super bullish about attendance frequency or the associated beliefs actually being causal here.

My mother attended church absolutely every sunday for decades, but in a very liberal sect. Meanwhile I know many people with more extreme religious beliefs who attended church quite irregularly.

Maybe intellectual laziness correlates with regular laziness and that's part of the cause of the attendancefrequency-woo anticorrelation.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

...I'll admit, I find the whole idea kind of weird to start with. I mean, I haven't done any kind of thorough analysis, but in my personal experience, the more religious someone is, the *more* likely they are to believe in every goddamn crazy thing under the sun, regardless of whether these things make sense together. You can read 'The ArchAngels of Dreamland' by Steven L. Fawcette if you want a taste of the really heavy end of this kind of thing. :/

For the more tame end, you have my republican friend, who will tell you all about the evils of vaccines, GMOs, and microchips. Though I think he sobered up a little bit in recent years. XD

Expand full comment

"When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing — they believe in anything."

This quotation actually comes from page 211 of Émile Cammaerts' book "The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton" (1937) in which he quotes Chesterton as having Father Brown say, in "The Oracle of the Dog" (1923): "It's the first effect of not believing in God that you lose your common sense." Cammaerts then interposes his own analysis between further quotes from Father Brown: "'It's drowning all your old rationalism and scepticism, it's coming in like a sea; and the name of it is superstition.' The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything: 'And a dog is an omen and a cat is a mystery.'" Note that the remark about believing in anything is outside the quotation marks — it is Cammaerts. Nigel Rees is credited with identifying this as the source of the misattribution, in a 1997 issue of First Things.

Expand full comment

If you categorized "religion is the primary root causes for most wars and violence in human history" as a conspiracy theory, atheists would be by far the most superstitious people.

Expand full comment

Imma probably comment way too much on this article because of my background but...

Although I basically think this quote's intent is: "People who don't believe in Christianity are likely to believe in not Christianity," and that therefore it's not very interesting, I have been super interested in the concept of belief generally lately.

And my conclusion, very weakly held, is that "truth" is not a major component of belief for anyone except the hyper-literalist religious and the dogmatic atheist. For most it seems like belief is just a mental mapping of symbols and ideas that have proved useful in the past. I.e. the average stereotypical white girl who "believes" in astrology will not argue about *how* the relative alignment of the stars affects their personality, they'll just roll their eyes and make a meme about how white men are boring. This usually gets read as a lack of intellectual curiosity or atrophied critical thinking skills, but I've come to disagree. I think they're just saying "This mental framework helps me navigate the world, so as far as I'm concerned it's true. What's the actual mechanism got to do with me?"

Looking at the bigfoot data up there, I note "probably not" shakes out a lot differently than "absolutely not." And I think these are probably the same positions expressed differently - atheists and American Protestants care deeply about either the *process* of truthseeking or being seen to care deeply about the process of truthseeking. A person who doesn't have truth-seeking or morality-seeking as a major part of their personality doesn't care about whether bigfoot exists or not, and they say "probably not" because they have no reason to think he does, but *shrug* who knows?

Non-evangelists who don't explicitly identify as atheists have a "broader" allowance for beliefs: Not just "is this true?" but also "is this helpful? Is it interesting? Does it make me interesting? Does it gain me status? Is it a neat idea I enjoy thinking about? Does it piss off my parents? Is it really funny? If I tell someone I believe it on a date will I get to have sex? Do I enjoy songs about it? Will someone give me a chocolate bar for believing it? Do I like the color scheme of its merchandise? Was I bored when I read it..."

Expand full comment

A similar pattern exists for crime: Increasing religiosity is associated with less crime, but so is atheism.

See, for example: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/01639625.2017.1286183

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

"But this one doesn’t quite work either: neither scientific materialism nor Biblical literalism precludes Bigfoot. God and/or Evolution created all sorts of weird ape species; why shouldn’t there be one more?"

This doesn't ring true. I'm not sure how generalizable this is, but having grown up fairly strictly Lutheran, certainly anything mystical which wasn't orthodoxy was considered heresy. For example, I don't credit skepticism for Christians being less likely to believe in astrology. Rather, astrology, as kind of a competing metaphysics, was taught to be a kind of heresy. A whole slew of things was deemed "false idols." Heck, even the Pope was considered the anti-Christ. Now, of course, you could argue that Big Foot isn't mystical. But I think the driving force was that anything that the Church didn't have epistemological control over, as it were, was then considered false. I've always chalked this up to the fact that religion recognizes its epistemological fragility and susceptibility to be co-opted by a rival metaphysics and thus puts a lot of energy into disparaging all rivals, but that's just loosely held speculation.

Expand full comment

IMO holding a strong belief is synonymous with being embedded within a tribe. Someone who is "strongly religious" is just someone who really enjoys/is-dependent/has-power-and-responsibility-over/etc... a local group of people. To be "strongly scientific" is similarly an attachment to a more global distributed abstracted group of people.

Susceptibility to wrong models is a combination of the size of the group ("with enough eyes all bugs are shallow") and the average acuity of each member. The more strongly embedded in the group, the more information is filtered/contorted/dressed-up before it reaches you.

Being part of a group offers a buffer against dealing w/ raw reality and this mostly works. However certain kinds of information are "resonant" w/ the filters and can't be distinguished from "Sacred" information similar to cancer cells. authoritarian-high-modernist-imposed-legibility easily sneak into sciency-rationalist types while "those ppl are THE source of ALL evil" sneaks easily into religiousy types.

Over time as the social group fragments (or in the case of old people, as friends die) this socially-powered marauder's map starts to fail. It still has the wisdom of the ages collected over time but no longer updates b/c there are less willing contributors. Some models are also "anti-immigration" & actively rejects willing contributors.

A conspiracy theory is similar to a Chamber of Secrets. The map doesn't literally plot out "Basilisk here!" but discrepancies can be observed. No matter how the map evolves however it is never a replacement for the raw territory. There is always a "conspiracy" (aka reality) going on beneath the paper.

Non-mappers and Dumbledore's are more likely to encounter raw reality. Muggles crash into it while Dumbledores actively seek out the more dangerous corners. This process repeats itself infinitely over time as each generation's dumbledore is the next generation's muggle.

Expand full comment

Those aren’t the kind of mind viruses they saying is directed at.

Think moral relativism, everything is a social construction, the labor theory of value, etc.

Those kinda of things. The kinds of things many educated non religious people believe.

Expand full comment

Intuitively, although likely impossible to quantify, I think there is truth to a more narrow version of this, and you can see it in the struggles of the existentialists (or the much earlier Epicureans for that matter). The work of Darwin and his contemporaries underscored the fact that nihilistic atheism is the most rational view of the universe and our place in it. We are simply here, and we are (largely blindly) following the drives and impulses that have helped keep our particular genetics floating around the planet to date--the same as any other species.

And yet, the immediate reaction of philosophers since Darwin is to try to discover or invent some sort of meaning and purpose within the abyss. I suspect this reaction is representative of a universal impulse--a purely rational nihilistic outlook is simply maladaptive generally, undermines group cooperation and discourages investment in offspring. People want (need?) to effectively delude themselves into believing that their lives have meaning and purpose.

Religions are a codification and institutionalization of this impulse toward meaning and purpose. They lend the trappings of authority and power, the weight of history and scholarship and the sheer number of adherents to foster belief in meaning and purpose among a population, which could be seen as an important public service.

Christianity, like the Paganism it replaced 2,000 years ago, has broadly lost its ability to imbue meaning or purpose to the lives of people in important segments of society. But that doesn't mean that even newly minted atheists won't go looking for some other group that can supply them with this lost sense of purpose, albeit perhaps groups that don't appeal to a divine being. I can think of momevents that have laid the groundwork that one would expect from a nascent religion--some combination of priests, acolytes, evangelists, martyrs, mysteries, and faith-based affirmations. One or more movements like these may fill a vacuum and play an important role in Western Civilization going forward.

Expand full comment

Cool. Now do "Marxism works."

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

No. I am not talking about climates of opinion here, or how contentious something is. I am talking about whether something has been disproven or shown to be impossible, or, at the very least, whether there is much less evidence than one would expect to see if it were true.

Those are what make a "conspiracy theory" dismissable, or usable as an example of the stupidity of people who believe in it.

In the case of both the "lab leak" theory and the "stolen votes" theory, we are still in the early phase where the EXTREME suppression and discouragement of investigation and discussion is being used to persuade people too time-constrained or lazy or ignotant to make a serious effort both that evidence which does exist does not exist, and (for the less intelligent and logical of that subclass who have trouble with the classic distinction between absence of evidence and evidence of absence) that the theories have actually been debunked and disproven.

As I said, this is not the place to argue about the merits of these two theories; I only insist that they DO have sufficient merits that they are "live" in a way that other examples cited such as Nessie and Flat Earth are not. (Bigfoot is probably also dead as a theory but the existence of Yeti legends, gigantopithecus fossils, and the Siberian land bridge means that that could be only because the legendary Bigfoots are actually extinct rather than never-existing).

Expand full comment

Strawmanning a belief is a great way to cast those who believe the "bailey" of the belief, as ardent believers of the "motte" position.

"Trump has a favorable view of Russia" is an entirely different statement than "Trump directly reported to Putin while president" but similar demographics and get similar responses.

This is a huge problem with any reporting on 'conspiracy theories' everyone wants to dunk on the most obviously false nonsense but wouldn't dare touch any of the serious conflicts of interest and blatant corruption staring everyone in the face.

From a partisan angle, there are a great deal of beliefs that blue tribers sincerely believe that are seen as insane and unhinged as qanon. (See 'What is a woman' for examples)

Also great chart.

Expand full comment

"One in four people with postgraduate degrees believes in astrology?!" - I'm not sure this is that surprising? Postgraduate degrees aren't all in physics and computer science and their holders aren't all science nerds. I assume you can get an advanced degree in English, Art, etc. without any more scientific education than the general education requirements in undergrad, which in some places are weak or nonexistent. Some of these fields seem to oppose modern scientific reasoning or even actively elevate non-scientific beliefs (as long as those belief systems come from the right groups), including astrology.

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

This topic has been studied academically and - consistent with this post - there seems to be an inverted-U shaped relationship between religiosity and belief in the paranormal. Further reading:

"Round Trip to Hell in a Flying Saucer: The Relationship between Conventional Christian and Paranormal Beliefs in the United States" (https://academic.oup.com/socrel/article/70/1/65/1646595)

"A Bounded Affinity Theory of Religion and the Paranormal" (https://academic.oup.com/socrel/article/77/4/334/2726536)

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

This was really interesting. I do believe there is a religion shaped hole in our society that is filling up with quasi religious ideas / systems of belief. The problem is that people who believe them don’t perceive them as such. We are always given examples like 911 conspiracy theorists- but the biggest and by far most influential examples are Social Justice / CRT and Climate Change Catastrophism.

Expand full comment

I know someone who is very well educated and atheistic who believes that the only reason men are better at sports is that the patriarchy chose to promote sports that men had advantages in. She argues that attention to particular diseases is driven by their relative risk to able bodied men, as opposed to even those men's own daughters. This smacks me in the face because she applies this rule to explain insufficient measures against covid despite a certain gender being at notably higher risk

But let's move quickly into the total opposite of an anecdote as we should! Since "God died" in elite circles what have been the most harmful beliefs worldwide? Communism and Nazism. These were both essentially based on a darwinistic zero sum group conflict explanation of reality and of how heaven like conditions could be manifested in the real world on a satisfying timeline since real heaven didn't exist. Life is so complex that any comprehensive explanatory replacement for belief systems which were developed and tested over time that is derived from top down first principles has a very high likelihood of producing less socially desirable results. I would argue that the number of anythings for which a believer or believer-adjacent person will fall is proven by you to be apparently equal but that the social consequences of those anythings will tend to be much less severe due to the overall time tested beneficial social consequences of those belief systems

Expand full comment

The quote is a claim of causation, not correlation, but the post looks only at correlation. The real question is, does someone losing their faith cause them to believe in some other kind of quackery, false conspiracies, or superstition? Not every atheist or “none” started off as a religious believer. Perhaps if you believe religious faith is caused by gullibility, and religious faith shoves other unsubstantiated beliefs out of the way, then it might be true that losing faith makes one more susceptible to other things, but it wouldn’t mean lifelong atheists are more gullible. Some kind of time dimension to this analysis would add value. Since surveys over the last couple of decades have shown, I think, that self-reported “nones” and “atheists” have increased over time at the expense of strong religious believers, we should see an increase in these other unsubstantiated beliefs in tandem (barring other confounding effects). But an admittedly biased sample of anecdotal information suggests to me that conspiratorial beliefs and superstition have been rife throughout time and not growing, and the recent spate of political conspiratorial thinking over the last 4 years seems too rapid to be attributable to rapid religious de-conversion. Anyway, most of these survey questions have been asked over time. What are the concurrent trends between belief in UFOs, faked moon landings, etc. and theism/religiosity?

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

As others have mentioned: Wokeness. I'd bet money that irreligious people are far more likely to believe woke nonsense. Wokeness has all the hallmarks of a substitute religion.

Expand full comment

That is NOT the point of the quote, you rationalist dinks.

You could've spent 10 seconds looking at Christians using the reference, and you'd quickly understand that it refers to man being freed up to believe in destructive and murderous ideologies (fascism, Bolshevism, etc.) without moral constraints. The fact that you thought they were concerned with conspiracy theories and woo is... well it shows a certain lack of awareness.

Expand full comment

The problem with your framing is that you categorize atheists as non-believers. No. *Agnostics* are non-believers. Atheists believe there is no god.

Put another way, to agnostics the question is "can the existence of god be known?" and their answer is "no, not with our current knowledge". For atheists, the question is "does god exist" and their answer is "no".

Agnostics think atheists are religious, atheists think agnostics are atheists.

Agnostics say "I don't believe in god", which is a fact. Atheists say "There is no god", which is likely a fact but given the constructs of religion, just as unprovable as "there is a god".

So do nonbelievers really believe anything? For agnostics, this is a real problem (in my view) in that we all struggle (or embrace) moral relativism. It's not a problem with atheists. They believe plenty .

One last thing: many people who "believe in god" but none of those pesky rules are functionally agnostic. That is, an agnostic's personal belief in what is likely to be the case ranges from likely no god to likely god.

Expand full comment

I think the steelman version of this concept is "religion is more socially adaptive than whatever would replace it." And I don't think "astrology" or "the moon landing was faked" really count as replacements for religion there because I don't think they serve the same abstract social purposes religion does.

I think the right abstract lens for viewing religion isn't "supernatural magic" but rather "source of meaning and social cohesion." So I think you have to construe the "anything" in "believing anything" as "anything that could be a rallying principle for society." I *guess* you could build a coherent social movement around the moon-landing hoax, but it feels like kind of a stretch. I think you have to look to something like Woke for a viable religion alternative.

Expand full comment

I’m open to all possibilities. “Heck if I know.” Is my mantra

Expand full comment

I wonder if living in a rural area makes one more likely to believe in Bigfoot. It's easy to disbelieve the absurd if you live in a big city. The closer one lives to the wild, the more reasonable it might be to believe that there are big undiscovered creatures still out there. Would believing in giant squid have made one a conspiracy theorist before the mid-1800s?

Expand full comment
Aug 11, 2022·edited Aug 11, 2022

I notice that "white evangelicals" was a category in a few places, missing any corresponding breakdowns along racial and religious lines.

A number of months ago, I wound up listening to NPR briefly. They were talking about vaccine "hesitancy" among white evangelicals, and had brought on a black evangelical minister to discuss the topic, and asked him what was wrong with white evangelicals. He refused to bite, and pointed out that black evangelicals had been at least as bad about vaccines, up until recently when a concerted effort was made to reach out and understand them, and that no similar effort had been made for white evangelicals. As a litmus test, he suggested that unless you can thoughtfully explain the importance of the Number of the Beast, you're not going to be able to connect with any evangelicals on this subject. This all went right over the interviewer's head, who ignored what he was saying and continued on the conversational track of assuming that there was something uniquely bad about white evangelicals. Soon after, I turned off the radio in disgust.

Which is mostly to say that those polls seem clearly biased in their design, implementation, and/or reporting.

Expand full comment

It's quite odd to talk about rationalists and aliens and not mention Robin Hanson's copious speculation that the UFOs that pilots etc. keep seeing are, indeed, aliens. In online discussions Ive seen quite a few people in rat-adjacent spaces attracted by this hypothesis. (I'm not, FWIW). https://www.overcomingbias.com/tag/aliens

Expand full comment

The quote is in the context of belief systems, I think a fair reading for "anything" interprets it to mean belief systems or worldviews as opposed to conspiracy theories or facts. In this case the statement becomes almost obviously true given their exclusionary nature. It would be interesting to see statistics of the same kind as you've found when it comes to:

- Transcedental meditation

- Buddhism

- Wokeness (in the CRT/'anti-racist' sense)

- Communism

- Incel-ness

- Scientology

- belief in 'consciousness uploading/the singularity/Roko's basilisk'

- QAnon (this seems sufficiently close to a 'belief system' in a way that 'the CIA orchestrated the JFK asassination' is not)

- belief in 'higher forms of consciousness' through psychedelics

While it may be possible to steelman some of these, without being too disrespectful I'd call most of these pretty crazy, and none of them involve a belief in God.

Then again, the way I'd expect a "religious apologetic" to 'really' mean the statement is to refer to things so ingrained in our psyche that we don't realize how crazy they are. It's hard to give examples, but the kind of things that seemed too true to question when being younger, before the realization of their folly then set in. Maye e.g. "I am strong and independent and don't need any help from other people" or unspoken beliefs like "I'm better than xyz because I am z".

Expand full comment

But the economist article wasn’t trying to answer the question about left or right political preferences, they were answering a question about religiosity, how is it a trick to answer a different question and then fail to conclude anything about the question they didn’t ask?

Expand full comment

The relevant categories are

1) People who can determine what is true,

2) Those who can't.

Category 1 is a subset of atheists. From this perspective, agnostics are nothing like atheists: agnostics are in category 2.

Regarding what religion people say they are, there is a difference between people who identify culturally with a religion and those who think that various religious myths are true.

Expand full comment

I go to buy a used car. The used car salesman tells me it's a great car. Is there anything wrong with it? Absolutely not. What about that rust spot? Only cosmetic. Tires look a little bald. They're brand new. How's the engine? Purrs like a kitten. I can tell he's lying, but not what about. As I'm leaving some guy says, hey buddy, that salesman is full of it. That car's got a faulty transmission. I have no way of knowing that's true, but because I know the salesman was lying so I'm inclined to believe him.

I think that's what's going on with a lot of conspiracy thinking. Public health people reflexively downplay any adverse vaccine effects, anyone who tries to object gets denounced, or fired, or booted off twitter and I start to think I'm being lied to, but I don't know why. Then someone comes and says of course you're being lied to, because Bill Gates wants population control, or whatever. I can't tell if that's true either, but he confirmed my suspicions and seems sincere, so I'm more inclined to believe him than the people I know are trying to spin me.

Expand full comment

Father Brown said that about unbelievers in one of the short stories by Chesterton.

Expand full comment

I think those data suffer a lot from being USA-centric. The US are a very singular country, and social patterns there don't necessarily applies elsewhere. This is especially true about religion where the US are really exceptional among developed countries.

Expand full comment

This “PseudoChesterton” quote seems to be talking about three types of people (Traditional Believers, Believers in Random Bullshit, and People Who Can Judge Between Them). But it’s really just about two types: those who wear their beliefs lightly and those who don’t.

I’d rephrase “PseudoChesterton”’s remark as “Those who seek curiosity-stoppers will find them, in one place or another.”

Which is a psychological observation about one type of person. The type who doesn’t want to muck about with Bayesian probabilistic belief updates, but perceives uncertainty as an insatiable drain - a hole in the psyche which wants plugging.

It implies that you might as well leave the tried-and-true drain stopper / curiosity stopper in place if it seems to be working - better the devil you know, etc.

But people with more openess to experience, and less ego-attachment to their current opinions don’t care for such devils, known or otherwise.

As Hoffer in The True Believer said:

“It is the fanatic and the moderate who are poles apart and never meet. The fanatics of various hues eye each other with suspicion and are ready to fly at each other’s throat. But they are neighbors and almost of one family. They hate each other with the hatred of brothers. They are as far apart and close together as Saul and Paul. And it is easier for a fanatic Communist to be converted to fascism, chauvinism or Catholicism than to become a sober liberal.

The opposite of the religious fanatic is not the fanatical atheist but the gentle cynic who cares not whether there is a God or not.”

Expand full comment
Aug 12, 2022·edited Aug 12, 2022

I have read some, but not all of, the comments (there are 623 as I speak), but I have never understood the quote in question to be about conspiracy theories.

I have always understood it to be about things such as mass murder (or abortion or eugenics or ...) with the idea that a person who believes in God would not be persuaded that mass murder would be correct but an atheist might be willing to follow some argument to a logical conclusion and then crank up the gas ovens. The person who believed in God would not turn on the gas that because doing so was "wrong" even if the person couldn't find a flaw in the logic.

One can haul out the "No True Scotsman" tool to show that Nazi and Communist mass murder wasn't committed by people who believed in God. Even the Nazi and Communists folks who *said* they did really didn't. Because if they had believed in God then they wouldn't have committed the mass murder :-)

Basically, I've read this quote as a variation on "Some ideas are so stupid that only intellectuals believe them."

Am I the only one (here) who interprets the quote that way and not about conspiracy theories?

Edit: Ah, Eyebrows comment makes it clear that I am not the only one who reads the quote this way!

Expand full comment
Aug 12, 2022·edited Aug 12, 2022

I'm not sure the fake C.S. Lewis quote is really getting at a notion that non-believers are vulnerable to conspiracy theories as much as to philosophical positions like nihilism and Nietzschean "will to power" ideas, which allow for essentially whatever moral system someone "wills". One could argue atheism allows and has allowed different non-believing people to select e.g. secular humanism (more socially accepted (currently)) as well as Nazi "might makes right" imperialism.

The question isn't really about object-level beliefs based on object-level evidence but about the personal formation of a sense of ultimate purpose, which is hard to formulate on sure footing for someone who doesn't necessarily believe it exists. Granted, this may not be what many atheists would claim but I think at the same time many would claim this is the case, that there isn't some absolute moral purpose "out there" that we need to fulfill, but just what individuals happen to choose is "good for them". The fact that atheism allows this ambiguity as to the existence of absolute moral purpose is also indicative of what I think the quote is getting at. Christians (the religious group I'm most familiar with) are much less ambiguous about their final purpose. This isn't to say religious views haven't been used to support positions that are currently considered immoral, but (I'd argue) religious views provide more constraint than atheism.

Expand full comment

I think this is overlooking that atheism is properly modeled as a religion. It has Things To Say about all the religious topics, treats them seriously, and should have the same govt-granted protections as theistic religions.

Expand full comment

This is mostly a combination of two effects that go in opposite directions: Intelligence and conformity. It’s well-known that nonconformity and intelligence are correlated with irreligion in general. However, atheism is correlated much more strongly with IQ. Being spiritual but not religious, a “None,” or a non-churchgoer who still identifies as religious is more strongly correlated with nonconformity and social alienation than with intelligence (if it’s correlated at all; nonobservance is anticorrelated with intelligence IIRC).

Both conformity and intelligence are strongly anticorrelated with belief in conspiracies. So which effect dominates depends on whether you’re looking at the slightly-smarter than average but very nonconformist “Nones,” or the significantly smarter than average but only slightly nonconformist atheists.

Expand full comment