Daily Archives: September 8, 2009

I never said…..Update

Well, what did I expect? A fair representation in the press and a balanced view from commentators? Come off it. Whenever, religion comes up, people lose all sense of reason and impartiality.  This is why I wanted to construct a theory that addresses secular supernatural beliefs to avoid the problems of focusing just on religion. However, bloggers and commentators have completely misunderstood my position and the ideas I am proposing about the origins and prevalence of supernatural beliefs because of the recent press articles.

A couple of things. First, most of the articles in the press are based on the original article in The Sunday Times by Jonathan Leake and Andrew Sniderman. Jonathan did have the courtesy to phone me on Friday afternoon to talk about the piece. He had not read the book but had a copy of SuperSense sent to him. I thought I made my position relatively clear as we discussed the evidence and studies that indicate that we are born with brains to seek out patterns and infer hidden mechanisms, forces and entities. That does not make me either religious or a religious apologist. For example, if there is a gene for psychopathic killers that does not make it morally acceptable.

I talked about the early emergence of mind body dualism and how it relates to the notion of an after-life and my particular research interest, psychological essentialism. I said that I thought many supernatural beliefs had a natural origin in the way children reason about the world and that while story-telling was one way of transmitting beliefs, in many instances cultural stories reflected notions that were intuitively plausible to children. In fact, I categorically said that religions were cultural constructs as Richard Dawkins had proposed. Where I differ from Dawkins (and again this is very clear in the book) is the likelihood of removing supernatural beliefs through education but this is an empirical question that is not yet resolved. I also think that we need to understand individuals differences. Belief formation is not simply hard-wired or indoctrination.  To use Ben Goldacre’s dictum, “I think you’ll find it more complicated than that”

Jonathan thanked me and said that he would run the piece past me on Saturday for my approval. He didn’t.

As Saturday night passed, I thought that they had probably decided to drop the piece as it did not fit with the simple “Born to Believe in God” angle that he wanted to push when we initially spoke.  So imagine my horror to read the title of the piece in the Sunday Times. In fact, when you read the actual piece it does have me saying that beliefs are much more complex than either nature of nurture (to use that completely unsatisfactory dichotomy that is the mark of naive reasoning so favoured by journalists). And there were factual errors. I have not done a study on atheism and moral contamination beliefs about hypothetical organ transplantation though I daresay that all people irrespective of their religious persuasion would show the same effects that we found in groups of students. Still it was printed as a study on atheism.

The problem was compounded the following day with pieces in “The Daily Mail” and “The Daily Telegraph” regurgitating new versions of the story with added insertions. And so on…. like Chinese whispers the story has become distorted with individuals adding their own interpretations and agendas.

So before you start putting words in my mouth, judging me or the ideas I am putting forward, then please read the book. I think that it is relatively clear what I am saying.

UPDATE: Tim Lambert just posted a criticism of Jonathan Leake but I have to say that Jonathan was very quick to respond to my initial complaint back when this was first posted and an updated article was posted online. So I have no complaint (esp as I understand that it was probably the sub-editor who came up with the headline!)

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