and scientific 

truth have 

little to offer 

most people 

as remedies 

for existential 




Popular Limitations on Rationality
 By Dr. Bruce Stewart 

The author is retired as professor of natural science at Michigan State University and is now an adjunct professor of Biology at Southern Oregon College in Ashland, Oregon.

Oregonians for Rationality and its quarterly Pro Facto promise to help in disproving and reducing myths of all kinds, and hopefully offering more constructive and testable alternatives. Unfortunately, it is necessary to confront the limitations of what most people are able, and prepared, to do along these lines. I, therefore, provide some, possibly unwelcome, illustrations of the extent and depth of “true belief” in this country.

     It seems that our informed, rational people lack a knowledge of the magnitude of the problem. For space reasons, only a small sample is possible. In 1995, Gallup surveyed the extent of paranormal beliefs among our citizens. He found that 79% believed in miracles and 72% believed in angels. Sixty-five percent believed in the devil, up from 55% in 1990. While only 27% believed in reincarnation, that was up from 21% in 1990. It was 23% for astrology, down very slightly from 1990!

     Among college graduates, 80% believed in heaven, 65% in hell and 54% in the devil. For post-grads, it was 75%, 58% and 45%, respectively. However much the observer may wish to modify these results, from brevity and semantic problems the fact remains that the trend on such questions is primarily upward. What is the explanation for this rise? The main factor is probably that our culture appears to be increasingly threatening and people are reaching for the most obvious “life belt” and source of security.

     The Summer 1995 Pro Facto had a perceptive critique of creationist beliefs. It concluded that “creationism has been dead since the beginning of the century.” Well, practically dead among biologists and other scientists, as I reported in Bioscience with Sullivan on our national survey of Ph.D. biologists. Only a small number - about 5% - favored presenting creationism in the biology class, and some of those in order to criticize it.

     The result of Gallup’s most recently reported poll on evolution (1991) found that 47% believed God created humans literally as the Bible says (up from 44% in 1982); 40% believed humans evolved, guided by God; and 9% believed humans evolved without any intervention by God. In other words, a little less than half the population believed in human evolution, of whatever kind. So far as evolution is concerned, these facts are a reflection on the effectiveness of biological education after teaching evolution in the secondary and college classes for many decades.

     Associated beliefs revealed by Gallup may be mentioned: 75% do not object to using the Bible in schools, 32% believe the Bible is the exact and literal word from God, 49% believe it is the “inspired word of God,” but only 16% believe it is an ancient book written by humans. It is understandably tough to go against God.

     Back to other widespread paranormal beliefs. I reported in The American Biology Teacher the results of a poll on animistic beliefs among college students in introductory biology, comparing surveys done in 1954 and 1989 using the same questions. There is space here for only a few examples of the questions and answers.

“When a plant is cut off, it wilts. Does the plant feel depressed as a result?” In 1954, 57% said such feelings are not possible for plants, but in 1989 only 24% drew this conclusion.

     “Is the sun in any way living?” In 1954, 75% said the sun was not in any way alive, but in 1989 only 30% drew this conclusion.

     Results from introductory psychology classes were almost identical with those reported above. Evidently common paranormal beliefs overpower science more today than they did 50 years ago.

     Professor Alcock, writing in Skeptical Inquirer described our “belief engine” and the psychology which generates the wide appeal of paranormal myths. He concluded, “Rationality and scientific truth have little to offer most people as remedies for existential anxiety.” That is true, except that remedial effects are the work of behavioral technology, not behavioral science which is concerned with comprehension, not treatment. All of which reminds us of Eric Hoffer’s book The True Believer. It deserves a few selections.

     For the true believer, “To rely on the evidence of the senses and reason is heresy and treason.” Recognizing the almost irresistible appeal to most people “to be in possession of an absolute truth is to have a net of familiarity spread over the whole of eternity ... no surprises, no unknowns.” Hoffer was not formally educated, but a wide reader and shrewd observer, having great experience with the true believers.

     Of course the original student of this psychology was Sigmund Freud, contained in his book The Future of an Illusion. Freud probed the source and strength of paranormal religious beliefs. “They are not precipitates of experience or end results of thinking. They are illusions, fulfillments of the oldest, strongest and most urgent wishes of mankind.” The terrifying helplessness of childhood persists in life, and to find security calls out for a great protector and a great protective belief system. “For this reason,” says Freud, “even in present day man, purely reasonable motives can effect little against passionate impulses ... the believer will not let his belief be torn from him either by arguments or prohibitions.”

     Freud, therefore, reassured the religionist “civilization” that it “had little to fear from educated people and brainworkers.” Illusions will necessarily be very persistent. However, he did foresee that “in the long run, nothing can withstand reason and experience ... the voice of the intellect is a soft one but it does not rest until it has gained a hearing.”

     Unfortunately it must be a very long run, and may not cross what we set up as the goal line.

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