A flawed quiz about belief? I have no doubt.

By Phil Plait | June 26, 2006 11:06 pm

I am asked all the time if I believe in the Big Bang, or if I believe in evolution.

Generally, the asker is shocked when I reply "no".

But I don’t believe in either. Belief implies faith without evidence, and that does not accurately describe my attitude. I have seen plenty of evidence — copious amounts, overwhelming amounts — of evidence of both. So it’s not a matter of belief. It’s a matter of understanding the evidence and knowing that both theories are almost certainly correct. So I have trust in them, you might say, but not faith. There is room for doubt– there’s always room for doubt — but it’s scant room indeed.

So I had to grimace a bit when I saw this quiz about doubt. In reality I’d call it a quiz about belief. Either way, it’s flawed.

Why? Well, look at question 3:

Is there an identifiable force coursing through the universe, holding it together, or uniting all life-forms?

If I answer "yes", then the quiz proceeds normally. But if, instead, I say "no", then how do I answer this next question?

Could prayer be in any way effective, that is, do you believe that such a being or force (as posited above) could ever be responsive to your thoughts or words?

So if I don’t believe in "this force", then there is no correct answer to that question. You might say the correct answer is "no", but what if I do believe in that force, but I don’t think it listens to prayer? I’d answer "no", but that would be indistinguishable from the non-believer answer.

The next three questions are similar. So I posit that the quiz is flawed.

But my favorite flaw is the very last question:

If someone were to say “The universe is nothing but an accidental pile of stuff, jostling around with no rhyme nor reason, and all life on earth is but a tiny, utterly inconsequential speck of nothing, in a corner of space, existing in the blink of an eye never to be judged, noticed, or remembered,” would you say, “Now that’s going a bit far, that’s a bit wrongheaded?”

If I do think the Universe is accidental, that does not mean there is no rhyme or reason– all of science depends on the Universe obeying a set of rules (even if the rules are hidden, or hard to understand, or involve seemingly random events as quantum mechanics does). So right away, even if I do think the Universe is accidental, I would say that quotation is going too far and is wrongheaded, but not in the way the quiz means.

I also may not think life on Earth is inconsequential. I have heard this many times from religious people talking to atheists: how can you cherish life if you don’t believe in God? I find that question pretty funny, actually! The mindset is, if atheists don’t cherish life, what is to keep them from simply murdering anyone who ticks them off?

The answer is that atheists, as well as believers, have evolved a sense of morality over millions of years. Mammals tend to be family-oriented, and primates very much so. Tribal customs evolved to aid survival, which means helping others when needed. It’s not hard to get an idea of how morality evolved from that, although of course I am grossly oversimplifying things here.

If you think this is wrong, then consider this: if no God means no morality, then you’d expect atheists to commit more crimes. Yet, if you look at prison statistics, atheists are grossly underrepresented in jail. Only 0.21% of prisoners are atheists, though in the US some 3-9% of the population call themselves atheists. If religious people were more moral than atheists, then you’d expect the number of atheists in prison to be much higher than their percentage in the population. Yet the opposite is true. This means that atheists commit proportionately fewer crimes than religious people (well, it really means that atheists are caught and successfully prosecuted less, but one can assume those numbers scale with the numbers of crimes committed).

Are atheists more moral than believers? That’s a hard jump to make. But those numbers are very interesting.

As for the quiz, I see it comes from the book "Doubt: A History", written by Jennifer Michael Hecht. She has purple hair (her picture is on a page linked from the belief quiz), so I immediately have to like her, despite the flawed quiz. She was also interviewed on Skepticality, so I’ll have to give that a listen. I’d like to see where she was going with that quiz. The book itself sounds pretty interesting.

And how did I rate on the quiz? Well, I don’t think I’ll say. That way, you can believe about me what you want.


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