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.

October 22, 2010

What do people mean when they use the term ‘supernatural’ as it relates to religious belief?

Filed under: Argument,belief,Religion,Spirituality — tildeb @ 10:31 am

I have a busy week posting comments on various sites about accusations of scientism, that atheism is an ideology that will fail, that seeking and respecting what is true necessarily leads to god’s moral truths, and so. I found it quite refreshing, then, to come across a post over at Open Parachute that directly relates to everything I have been trying to express:

1: There is a special relationship between scientific knowledge and the real world. Scientific ideas are based on evidence from reality, they get tested and validated against reality. And they get tossed out if found wrong.

So it’s not surprising that scientific knowledge gets incorporated into things that are useful.

2: Just shows how silly all this talk of science being blinkered becuase it “excludes supernaturalism” is. If this term has any meaning in the real world it just means something that is counter-intuitive or hasn’t been explained.  Science is full of such ideas so it is dishonest to claim it is blinkered. What could be more weird or non-intuitive than “spooky action at a distance.”

No, when these proponents of “other ways of knowing” etc., attack science they are trying to remove the requirement of evidence and testing against reality. That’s what they mean by their code word “supernatural.”



June 6, 2010

Scientific integrity: Is Templeton money science’s 30 pieces of silver?

Filed under: Religion,Science,Spirituality,Templeton — tildeb @ 12:55 pm

Excerpts from The Nation‘s article God, Science, and Philanthropy:

The Templeton Foundation holds assets valued at around $1 billion, a sum that will likely swell to $2.5 billion in the years to come as John Templeton Sr.’s estate is settled. That would put it squarely among the richest twenty-five foundations in the country, somewhere between the Rockefeller Foundation and the Open Society Institute. The founder’s flagship program, though, is the Templeton Prize; this year’s laureate is biologist and former Catholic priest Francisco Ayala. The foundation dispenses about $70 million in grants annually, the bulk of which goes to programs in the religion-and-science orbit.

According to the foundation, they are among life’s “Big Questions,” the exploration of which constitutes its mission. Templeton money supports other causes, like promoting virtue, encouraging gifted youth and fostering free enterprise, but its core concerns are more cosmic: “Does the universe have a purpose?” “Does science make belief in God obsolete?” “Does evolution explain human nature?” As the advance of knowledge becomes ever more specialized and remote, these questions seem as refreshing as they are intractable; the foundation wants them to be our culture’s uniting, overriding focus. For those who work on matters of spirituality and science today, Templeton is around every turn, active in disciplines from biology and cosmology to philosophy and theology. Many leading scholars speak of it with a tone of caution; some who have not applied for grants expect to do so in the future, while a few have taken a principled stand against doing so.

Like debates about religion broadly, debates about Templeton often get mapped onto the culture wars in black and white, or red and blue. It doesn’t help that the foundation is a longstanding donor to conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute. And while its founder preferred eternal questions to worldly politics, the son who has succeeded him, John Templeton Jr.—Jack—is a conservative Evangelical who spends his personal time and money opposing gay marriage and defending the Iraq War. Since his father’s death, concerns have swirled among the foundation’s grantees and critics alike that Jack Templeton will steer the foundation even further rightward and, perhaps, even further from respectable science.

The stakes are high.

After the foundation’s initiative for research on forgiveness began in 1997, the number of psychology journal articles on the subject went from fewer than fifty per year to more than 100 in 2000 and nearly 250 in 2008. When Templeton first financed Larson’s NIHR in the early 1990s, the number of medical schools with courses on religion could be counted on one latex glove. Now, according to Dr. Christina Puchalski of the Templeton-funded George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, three-quarters of US medical schools have brought spirituality into their curriculums.

He has financed a right-wing organization of his own, Let Freedom Ring, which once promoted the “Templeton Curve,” a graph he designed to advocate privatizing Social Security. Now Let Freedom Ring lends support to the Tea Party movement. Jack Templeton’s money has also gone to the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth and to ads by the neoconservative group Freedom’s Watch. In 2008 he and his wife gave more than $1 million to support California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage.

Templeton has long maintained relationships with a network of right-wing organizations that share its interest in open markets, entrepreneurship and philanthropy. The Heritage Foundation, for instance, received more than $1 million between 2005 and 2008, and the Cato Institute, more than $200,000 in the same period. Templeton’s charter stipulates that the chief executives of the Atlas Economic Research Foundation and the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty are entitled to be members of the foundation, and both have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in Templeton grants in recent years. Those organizations also receive contributions from Big Oil and take part in the campaign to distort the scientific consensus on global warming. (Among the issues it specifically lists as of concern is “the sanctity of life,” which America-watchers will know is code for a position that is anti-abortion and against many types of experimentation including stem-cell research. Source.) “There is no getting around the fact,” declared a glowing 2007 National Review article, “that it [Templeton] has quickly become a major force in conservative philanthropy.”

Nonreligious scientists who accept Templeton grants—like biologist David Sloan Wilson and psychologist Jonathan Haidt—insist that the money comes without strings attached. “No coercion, no corruption,” Haidt says. But Nobel Prize–winning chemist Harry Kroto won’t accept that. “They are involved in an exercise that endangers the fundamental credibility of the scientific community,” he contends. Kroto has taken to organized resistance; in 2007, when the Royal Society of London considered accepting Templeton money for one of its programs, he was among eleven fellows, five of them Nobel laureates, who successfully lobbied against the plan.

Author Richard Dawkins quipped in his 2006 book The God Delusion that the Templeton Prize goes “usually to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion.” He and others among the so-called New Atheists have been the foundation’s most strident critics lately; they believe Templeton is corrupting science by trying to inject it with religious dogma and, in turn, misrepresent science to the public. The advance of science steamrolls over religion, they say, and Templeton is deluding people into thinking otherwise.

A good point raised by Dr. Sunny Bain: though supposedly set up “to pursue new insights at the boundary between theology and science”, it funds many activities that are entirely religious. These include the Epiphany prize for the, “most inspiring movie and the most inspiring television program of the year… presented by the Christian Film & Television Commission.” In the same way that we would want to know about Philip-Morris-backed smoking studies or MacDonald’s funded research that says fast food is good for you, we should all be aware of the agenda of this organization.

April 20, 2010

Why is attribution to link cause with effect so important to determining what’s true?

I would have thought this question was pretty easy to answer but I have come across many religious believers who have serious difficulty understanding why. For example, I am told repeatedly (and I presume honestly) with great assurance that testimonials and revelation lead to a transformative experience that itself is strong evidence that god (or some ‘outside’ agency) exists and intervenes in meaningful ways in our world. When we unpack the meaning of this claim, we find that the link is very tenuous between having an experience and attributing some outside supernatural agency to what caused it.

I have found that believers in supernatural agencies are quite willing to attribute to these supernatural agencies to whatever cause is currently unknown, misunderstood, or poorly informed – what many call the god of the gaps, referring to assigning god to whatever gaps we have in our knowledge. But it goes much further than that, I think.

From demonic possession to the building of the pyramids, from the ghostly squeak in the floorboards in the dead of night to the influence of the stars on our fate, far too many people attribute these things or events or imaginings to a single, easy, completely unjustified source: it was oogity boogity! (Fill in whatever name to some supernatural agency you may wish here)

So what’s the harm, right? If people want to believe oogity boogity links cause to effect, who cares? People have a right to believe in whatever they want, so the excuse goes. And I agree… as long as this belief stays within the private domain where it belongs. People are allowed to delude themselves and pretend that their attributions to supernatural agencies are as valid an explanation as any repeatable, testable, measurable, falsifiable and reliable explanation that clearly links cause to effect by means of a consistent mechanism, one that works here as well as there today and tomorrow. But when that supernatural explanation is inserted into the public domain and people support the insertion because they happen to agree with the attribution rather than causal truth value, then we are opening the door to lunacy.

Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media (brought to us by Yahoo News). Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader. “A divine authority told me to tell the people to make a general repentance. Why? Because calamities threaten us,” Sedighi said. Referring to the violence that followed last June’s disputed presidential election, he said, “The political earthquake that occurred was a reaction to some of the actions (that took place). And now, if a natural earthquake hits Tehran, no one will be able to confront such a calamity but God’s power, only God’s power. … So let’s not disappoint God.”

Minister of Welfare and Social Security Sadeq Mahsooli said prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best “formulas to repel earthquakes. We cannot invent a system that prevents earthquakes, but God has created this system and that is to avoid sins, to pray, to seek forgiveness, pay alms and self-sacrifice,” Mahsooli said.

When we allow attribution between a cause and effect to have no natural mechanism to measure its truth value but, instead, allow for whatever supernatural explanation people want to be inserted in its place, we are setting the stage for exactly this kind of lunacy. There is no known way to link dress to tectonic activities, so the attribution to god is as good as one that attributes the link to the nefarious deeds of intergalactic mushrooms.

So next time a politician tells you that he or she will support some oogity boogity to be inserted into public policy, take issue with it. Don’t allow your private preferences for assigning a favoured supernatural attribution to sway you; religious or not, your civic duty to all your neighbours is to keep all oogity boogity out of public policy altogether.

February 16, 2010

Spirituality: a learned cultural attribute or a manifestation of brain hardwiring?

Filed under: brain,Neurology,Spirituality — tildeb @ 1:42 pm

A recent study looks at the effect of brain surgery to remove tumors on feelings of self-transcendence. The authors found, after looking at 88 patients, that those who had tumors removed from the inferior parietal lobe or the right angular gyrus, but not the frontal lobes, reported increases in thoughts and feelings that might be interpreted as signs of self-transcendence.

This of course raises the thorny issue of the relationship between religious belief and brain function – although the authors are careful to distinguish religion from spirituality. The study used questions to assess the subjects’ feelings of oneness with nature, ability to lose themselves in the moment (feel disconnected from time and space), and belief in a higher power. Those subjects with tumors removed in the areas mentioned experienced immediate increases in these phenomena, while those with tumors removed from other regions of the brain did not.

The piece that seems the least well understand at this time is the profound sense of spirituality that often accompanies these feelings of being outside one’s body or being one with everything. It is easy to understand why these would be extraordinary experiences that might compel someone to reconsider their views of reality (especially if they do not have a neurological explanation at hand). And it seems obvious that feeling one with god or the universe would lead to spiritual feelings about our place in the world.

From Neurologica

February 12, 2010

Is spirituality wholly an expression of biology?

Filed under: Biology,Neurology,Science,Spirituality,Transcendence — tildeb @ 1:42 pm

One of the strongest proofs for the existence of realms of reality ‘beyond’ our own is the transcendental experience. People have long relied on this personal revelation of becoming aware of an expanded consciousness to be evidence for god. But what if it is strictly a biological event, a neurological process in our bicameral brain that reduces our sense of body boundary? Consider this evidence from  Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy, posted on Physorg under the title Selective Brain Damage Modulates Human Sprituality:

“Neuroimaging studies have linked activity within a large network in the brain that connects the frontal, parietal, and temporal cortexes with spiritual experiences, but information on the causative link between such a network and spirituality is lacking,” explains lead study author, Dr. Cosimo Urgesi from the University of Udine in Italy.

Dr. Urgesi and colleagues were interested in making a direct link between and spirituality. They focused specifically on the personality trait called self-transcendence (ST), which is thought to be a measure of spiritual feeling, thinking, and behaviors in humans. ST reflects a decreased sense of self and an ability to identify one’s self as an integral part of the universe as a whole.

The researchers combined analysis of ST scores obtained from brain tumor patients before and after they had surgery to remove their tumor, with advanced techniques for mapping the exact location of the after surgery. “This approach allowed us to explore the possible changes of ST induced by specific brain lesions and the causative role played by frontal, temporal, and parietal structures in supporting interindividual differences in ST,” says researcher Dr. Franco Fabbro from the University of Udine.

The group found that selective damage to the left and right posterior parietal regions induced a specific increase in ST. “Our symptom-lesion mapping study is the first demonstration of a causative link between brain functioning and ST,” offers Dr. Urgesi. “Damage to posterior parietal areas induced unusually fast changes of a stable personality dimension related to transcendental self-referential awareness. Thus, dysfunctional parietal neural activity may underpin altered spiritual and religious attitudes and behaviors.”

This experience of a loss of body boundary and a feeling of transcendentalism is also well documented by neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor who describes the effects of the stroke she suffered in her book My Stroke of Insight: A Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey.

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