Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Studying the Atheistic Animal

"The invisible and the non-existent look very much alike."

Delos B. McKown

I recently joined a Facebook group called MAFA, which is an acronym for Malaysian Atheists, Freethinkers and Agnostics which, at present time, boasts a measly 400-weak membership. The obsessive in me wishes that it spells MAAF (Malay for "sorry") instead even if there's really nothing we should feel apologetic about - it's at least a real word. But we can't always get what we want, right? How about FAHAM (Malay for "understand"), standing in for Freethinkers, Atheists, Humanists and Agnostics of Malaysia? I must remember to bring this up some day.

The week's not even out and I've already fallen into an argument with two other atheists with me
defending the agnostic position when I'm not even an agnostic myselfaddendum, see below. I guess we godless types are just a bicker-some, argumentative lot. I often thought that our strength lies in our diversity of ideas and our courage in voicing them rather than in the solidarity of thought anyway.

Seeing how outnumbered we are in a country so stuck up the butthole of religiousity as deeply religious as Malaysia, learning about where we stand in the demography of the world is of especial interest to me. I'll briefly discuss two studies in particular which in many ways, confirm what I already suspect. Please remember that I neither conducted nor participated in these studies - the numbers were not pulled out of my ass. I am merely conveying the data to you.

Atheists and Agnostics Know More About Religion Than Religious People.

Take this recent study published a couple of weeks ago by the researchers from the independent Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, for example. What they did was dial 3400 Americans and quizzed them using 32 questions pertaining to the Bible, Christianity and other world religions, famous religious figures and the constitutional principles governing religion in public life. As it turns out, the most knowledgeable people on the subject are - would you believe - atheists and agnostics!

Pew Forum Chart
One way to look at it is that we just enjoy being right.

The fact that atheists and agnostics would be more conversant than religious people on things they either have no interest in or outright disdain might be counter-intuitive to a lot of people, but if you think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. I cannot speak for other godless people but my attainment of an atheistic worldview was purely accidental; a byproduct of trying to learn more and wanting to convert into one of the Abrahamic monotheisms, either Christianity or Islam. You see, the more one learns about religion, history and comparative theology, the easier it is to see that the whole "God" thing isn't a very intellectually tenable position to hold. After awhile, all religious people starts to appear alike: each one jealously hugging his or her collection of ridiculous superstitions close to heart while shrilly declaring that everyone else's collection of ridiculous superstitions to be fake or stupid.

To quote Dave Silverman, el presidente of the American Atheists: "I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people. Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists"

True enough - that's how I was made. Besides, it's also easier to win arguments against the faithful when you know as much as (or even more than) them about their religion, and I do so enjoy beating people at their own game. Just for a bit of anecdotal fun: I was arguing with a Catholic colleague awhile back over something within the Christian scriptures. At one point, I confronted him directly with the question: "Do you even know what's in the Bible?" He promptly admitted that he had never read the book.

Most Scientists Disbelieve or Doubt the Existence of God.

I wanted to write the subhead as "Atheists and Agnostics are Smarter than Religious People" and describe Helmuth Nyborg and Richard Lynn's 2008 paper which found a "highly statistically significant" correlation between atheism rates and level of intelligence in the 137 countries surveyed and that atheists score 6 g-IQ points higher on average than those adhering to a religion from a study of 6825 American adolescents - but that's just oh-so masturbatory even if its oh-so flatteringly true.

Instead, I'd like to talk about a landmark survey performed in 1914 and 1933 by eminent US psychologist James H. Leuba on the prevalence of religious belief amongst men of science. Nature, one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, repeated Leuba's study in 1998. Can you guess what numbers they came up with?

Leuba and Nature
Newsflash: Very smart people thinks belief in personal God is rubbish.

So yeah.

Just so we can all be clear here, the Leuba's pool of
"greater scientists" was based off the designations in the standard reference work, American Men of Science (AMS). Nature's collection of "greater scientists" were members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), which supposedly is an even more elite sample compared to Leuba's. What they discovered was that 93% of these "greater scientists" either disbelieve or doubts the existence of a personal God. When you consider that in the American general public at large (as surveyed by ARIS in 2009), only 15% considers themselves to have no religion, that discrepancy can be quite the shocker. We have known for a long time now that learned men of science tend fall more on the godless end on the spectrum of belief in comparison to the average person on the street - after all, our two most recognisable icons of human intelligence, Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking, both reject the notion of a personal god. What I did not expect to see is that only 7% of America's foremost scientists hold some kind of religious belief.

There's two main ways we can interpret the data. The first is that atheists and agnostics tend to gravitate towards finding naturalistic explanations for everything, and are more likely to have a career in science. The second (and I think likelier) interpretation is: the more a person understands how our world really works, the higher the chance there is that that person will reject the agency of supernatural beings in natural phenomenons. Remember people, scientists are the folks we rely on to describe reality and the universe to us. I'd sooner trust them than trust some old books written by ancient desert nomads who (gasp!) heard voices in their heads and thought that the sun revolves around the earth, wouldn't you?


The data and statistics are sound but I must caution both my godless and godly readers alike to be very careful in making any conjectures. Correlation does not automatically prove a causal relationship. We can't assert conclusively that smart people are drawn towards godlessness while dumb people are drawn to religion - neither can we say that holding an atheistic or agnostic position can make someone more intelligent while faith turns brains into mush. The only thing we can say for sure is that the godless, on average, knows more about religion than religious people. We can also say that the more intelligent a person is, the higher the likelihood it is that he or she will dismiss - or at least doubt - the existence of God.

Also, if you're looking to kill a lot of godless people at once, it's safe to say that blowing up a university, a research institute or a scientific symposium will probably guarantee a good haul. Statistically speaking, of course.

P.S. Alright, before any one can quote Stephen Hawking, let me just do it first. Someone asked the guy what his IQ is and Hawking bluntly replied: "I have no idea. People who boast about their IQ are losers." That being said, I personally don't know what my IQ is either.

Addendum: I'm an agnostic now. It turns out that I'm really an agnostic atheist all this time. Agnosticism is not the middle ground between atheism and theism, apparently. The latter two deals with the question of beliefs while the former deals with the nature (and limits) of knowledge. So now I'm really defending the agnostic position as an agnostic.

Statistically likely to be smarter than average,
k0k s3n w4i


Jen said...

Because no one seems to want to comment.

sin said...

There is nothing much i can comment. Well written post. One must remain ignorant to believe in One.

Anonymous said...

I'm curious about those who marked their religion as 'nothing in particular'.

k0k s3n w4i said...

Jen: ha, take that! :P

sin: well, that's one way to say it. nowadays, i prefer to say that there is currently no plausible claims of god's existence pending.

lovealynna: "nothing in particular" as opposed to a plain "nothing"? i suppose you'll find the pantheists and deists in that category. they believe in some sort of god, but do not take part in organised religion.

Anonymous said...

Love this entry! Can relate to it from personal experience as well..often stump 'religious' pple with questions and facts that they are oblivious about, to me, they just seem to wayang alot and tt's it..when it gets down to the real stuff, they know nothing. The fact is tt many don't bother, and rather be spoon fed this information from religious leaders or friends. And the rest are just not highly intellect enough to devour the complex information brought across to them. I came upon this tyra video on youtube regarding about this guy and his religion and his sexuality...u just gotta watch it n laugh n yet sympathetise these pple.

where did their brains go?


k0k s3n w4i said...

kel: you'll be surprised to know that there are highly intelligent individuals who still managed to compartmentalise their faith in nonsensical things apart from the rest of their minds which deals with reality. as for the tyra video, i found it too depressing to laugh at really. continuing from our previous conversation, I would really like to know more about your encounter with that alleged "ghost".

Anonymous said...

hey sen wai,

i do agree tt there are some individuals out there like wat u say.intelligent they may seem, i find them products of people who might be insecure, and who are victims of brain washing. In fact, to start with religious leaders themselves, are actually highly intelligent which have allowed them to manipulate thousands of people in their organsation. Then when u come to dealing with intelligent yet insecure pple who needs to rely on a 'big brother' from above to takecare of them, whom wld it better to have someone of good intellect to convince them into taking up tt religion n upholding tt beliefs abt abortion or gays etc.. I see where u r coming from the tyra video, i tort it was funny tt someone can be so naive n believing..but yes, indeed, it is depressing to see someone suffer like tt UNNECESSARILY..but the fact tt tyra is doing a good job, in telling these pple they are doing the wrong thing, n tt gay is normal n ok is definitely heartening..oh ahh.ok..well, i served my term in the national service in sg..sgrean by the way..but half family in KL, pj :) u see, the metal cupboard where one of the bunk mates started banging one happened several nites..we tort it was rats,expansion n contraction of metal, something in his cupboard..but it was freaking locked..n it came to a point whereby we crowded in the dark, with flashlights n eyes on it, n it banged from inside...we opened n it was all normal..this was only ONE of the many..wld love to share me another time..feeling darn sleepy to add.. on, i nvr kinda experience ghosts, or believed in them..i tried everyway to explain it..but then..there was no other explanation, will contthe story again! :)

sin said...

Rant Rap

watch this sick video.
awesome lyrics.

My favourite quote:

"all-loving faggot hater..."

k0k s3n w4i said...

kel: your ghost story is terribly fascinating to me - mostly because how you interpreted it. you have thought up and presumably ruled out every possible earthly explanation - and having no explanation, you automatically ascribed the phenomenon to a haunting even though you have not actually gathered any positive evidence of the spook's existence. very interesting indeed. now, some honest questions you can ask yourself: would you consider yourself knowledgeable or intelligent enough to think of every possible natural explanation? how exhaustive were your personal investigation into the matter? did you move cupboard to a different location and see if it reoccurs, at the very least? have you ruled out human mischief? think, what have you missed?

sin: saw it earlier today over at hemant mehta's blog. the rhymes are pretty slick (the benedict segment especially), and the tune he sampled sounded terribly familiar. the final bit was pure genius :D