Questionable Motives

January 5, 2011

Chris Mooney is at it again: isn’t ‘spirituality’ really another word for ‘religion’?

The piece (Chris Mooney’s article in Playboy) is about scientists who aren’t religious, but are spiritual, in an atheistic sort of way. An excerpt:

But can scientists who say they are awestruck by nature and moved by their research really relate to more traditional religious experiences, a la those reported by saints? Aren’t “awe” and “wonder” nondescript notions that add emotional embroidery to the brute facts of the universe? Perhaps not. Feelings of awe, wonder and mystery recur in the context of human quests for deeper understanding or revelation. In his 1917 work The Idea of the Holy, German theologian Rudolph Otto singled out a sense of awe as a key characteristic of our encounters with what he termed the “numinous”–an overwhelming power or presence beyond ourselves.

Science can unleash this feeling too. Just sit in a darkened room and look at nebulae pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, as University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank describes doing in his book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. “Scientists are not the only ones who catch their collective breath before these pictures,” he writes. “The momentary hush and the gasp that follow are involuntary.”

Mooney is one of those authors (who is funded in part by being a Fellow the Templeton Foundation) to vainly search for ways to force science and religion to be compatible ways of knowing. He claims to be all about communication by bashing gnu atheists, making up stories about them, posting these lies on his blog at Discover, banning people who dare criticize him, and pretending that it is the atheists who inhibit this ‘natural’ fit. For years he complained about framing, that a failure to frame religion and its active interference in gaining and applying knowledge while promoting superstition and ignorance in their place was detrimental to promoting science. I hold Mooney and his ego in contempt.

Now he’s switched gears a bit and is on what I call the Spirituality Bandwagon: that religion is really a substitute word for what it should be… spirituality. Because what we call spirituality can be shared by both atheist and believer, Mooney wants to re-FRAME the natural incompatibility between faith-based beliefs and knowledge as one of a common spirituality expressed in these different but compatible ways. But are they?

From Jerry Coyne about what science and religion really offer each other:

1. Religion gains but one thing from science: an increasing knowledge about the universe that makes mockery of religious doctrine, forcing the faithful to revise their dogma while claiming that it was consistent with science all along.

2. Science has nothing to gain from religion, which is simply an annoyance that distracts us from our job.

This is an excellent post by Ken on the state of NOMA today with a bang-on cartoon by jesusandmo over at Open Parachute.

Meanwhile, back at Whyevolutionistrue, Coyne comments about Mooney’s article and gets to the heart of the matter:

What a smarmy and intellectually dishonest piece of accommodationist tripe, relying as it does on conflating two completely disparate notions of “spirituality”!  Can we agree, then, that when we get all emotional about a piece of music or a novel or a nebula, or experience wonder at the products of natural selection—that we give these emotions a name different from “sprituality”?  That just confuses the diverse meanings of the term (which was Mooney’s intent) and gives ammunition to acoommodationists.

PZ Myers joins in and is also bang on with his criticism of Mooney and his ilk:

Well, spirituality is all about the believers. It’s a slimy game relying on the fact that apologists love to dodge criticisms of religion, the body of concrete, specific, institutionalized beliefs about the supernatural, by retreating to the tactical vagueness of “faith” or “spirituality”, whatever the hell they are.

You can’t expect us to simply respect foolish ideas. We tolerate them, but people like Mooney go further and demand that we respect nonsense, and that’s not going to happen, and shouldn’t happen.

And trying to coopt an honest scientific appreciation of the wonders of the universe as support for religion is a dishonest attempt to prop up bogus superstitions with an appeal to emotions — any emotions. If a scientist isn’t a passionless robot, Mooney wants to be able to pretend they’re on the side of religious dogma. That rankles. Love of science is not equatable to clinging to ignorance, although Chris Mooney is straining to make it so.


  1. In my mind the difference between spirituality and religion is that one is seeking the other knows. Big difference, dont ya think?

    Comment by Titfortat — January 6, 2011 @ 3:54 pm | Reply

    • Religion starts with assumed conclusions about agency without corroborating evidence. Spirituality from its Latin root – breath – I take to mean engaging with life. If by seeking you mean to suggest that spirituality seeks understanding of how to live then I won’t disagree too strenuously with this compressed notion that seems to be the same as curiosity. But note that it has nothing whatsoever to do with attributing agency in place of seeking honest knowledge through honest inquiry and starting one’s answers with the assumptions of certain right conclusions about the meaning and purpose and expectations of agency. In other words, I don’t think spirituality has anything to do with religion but is a handy word co-opted by believers to help misrepresent their faith to appear to be compatible with honest inquiry when it stands in opposition to that inquiry.

      Comment by tildeb — January 6, 2011 @ 5:36 pm | Reply

  2. Tell me what is wrong with a belief that there could be a creative force at the origin of life? And what is wrong with naming that belief a “spiritual” belief? If I dont quantify it exactly, can I still have that belief and still use science to try and prove it?

    Comment by Titfortat — January 6, 2011 @ 9:01 pm | Reply

    • The problem of assuming a creative force is one of undertaking honest inquiry. By all means research abiogenesis. Don’t call it ‘spirituality’, though; call it what it is. But that means following the evidence to wherever it leads rather than assuming it lies parallel to a certain belief. As soon as you do that, start manipulating the evidence you wish to follow because it falls somewhere favourable to your starting assumption along a certain line of belief, you must then battle the confirmation bias you have introduced to the inquiry. This adds nothing to honest inquiry. Such a belief merely impedes it. Why bother complicating your inquiry if finding out what’s true is important to you?

      As for wondering if there is creative force at all, why excuse the lack of heavy lifting science requires to inform the hypothesis with anything other than idle musings and wishful thinking under the banner of this term ‘spirituality’? Is it merely for the purpose of branding? Is it useful to reduce ‘spirituality’ to mean “idle musings” or “faith-based beliefs that make me feel good”? If I believe pixies were around when life was developing in the pre-Cambrian, does that make me ‘spiritual’? I don’t think so. It makes me something else a little less flattering to my intellectual honesty.

      We use the term ‘spirit’ to mean ‘with vital life’. Surely the meaning of the term ‘spirituality’ should include and/or encapsulate this vitality of living rather than be allowed without complaint to become another nebulous term for religious hide-and-seek meaning about some aspect of faith-based belief in supernatural agency. I guess if your life is infused with vitality for believing that there could be a creative force during abiogenesis, then hey… go to town. But evidence to support increasing the probability of some creative interventionist agency seems to me to be rather lacking when all the evidence we have so far suggests no such ‘intervention’ since. Or does that lack of evidence even matter to you to hold the belief that such an agency could have been present then and gone into the witness protection program right afterwards?

      Comment by tildeb — January 6, 2011 @ 10:01 pm | Reply

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