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.

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.

March 7, 2010

Does understanding and applying genetics dehumanize us?

Filed under: belief,Evolution,Genetics,Religion,Science,Templeton,Truth — tildeb @ 4:04 pm

Excerpt from When Science and Poetry were Friends by Freeman Dyson:

An important step toward an understanding of the genome is the recent work of David Haussler and his colleagues at the University of California at Santa Cruz, published in the online edition of Nature, August 16, 2006. Haussler is a professional computer expert who switched his interest to biology. He never dissected a cadaver of mouse or human. His experimental tool is an ordinary computer, which he and his students use to make precise comparisons of genomes of different species. They discovered a small patch of DNA in the genome of vertebrates that has been strictly conserved in the genomes of chickens, mice, rats, and chimpanzees, but strongly modified in humans. The patch is called HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. It evolved hardly at all in three hundred million years from the common ancestor of chickens and mice to the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans, and then evolved rapidly in six million years from the common ancestor of chimpanzees and humans to modern humans.

During the last six million years, eighteen changes became fixed in this patch of the human germ line. Some major reorganization must have occurred in the developmental program that this patch helps to regulate. Another crucial fact is known about HAR1. It is active in the developing cortex of the embryo brain during the second trimester of the mother’s pregnancy, the time when the detailed structure of the brain is organized. Haussman’s team found another similar patch of DNA in the vertebrate genome which they call HAR2. It is active in the developing wrist of the human embryo hand. The brain and the hand are the two organs that most sharply differentiate humans from our vertebrate cousins.

The discovery of HAR1 and HAR2 is probably an event of seminal importance, comparable with the discovery of the nucleus of the atom by Ernest Rutherford in 1909 or the discovery of the double helix in the nucleus of the cell by Francis Crick and James Watson in 1953. It opens the door to a new science, the study of human nature at the molecular level. This new science will profoundly change the possible applications of biological knowledge for good or evil. It may give us the key to control the evolution of our own species.

In response to this insightful commentary by Dyson that offers us a glimpse into why biology may soon become the dominant science, an execrable response come from Rod Dreher at BeliefNet, who argues that advances in biology and technology must be counterbalanced by religion, that belief in the supernatural is a necessary counterbalance to understanding the natural. To ‘inform’ this view, Dreher calls our attention to an experiment that involved the mixing of very specific parts of the genomes of pigs and humans, which Dreher takes as an example of how this pursuit of knowledge in the biological sciences ‘dehumanizes’ us and will inevitably lead us into holocausts and totalitarianism without the proper moral compass we can only get from religion.

Enter PZ Myers, who first explains what the experiment was actually about and how it was done and makes the following points:

Anyone who thinks tinkering with the sequence of a few genes “eliminate[s] what it means to be human” has no place talking about what it means to be human at all. It’s always the people who know the least about biology who make these naive and sweeping claims that humanity is defined by the arrangement of our chromosomes or the order of our nucleotides, failing to appreciate the variations in those attributes already present in our population — variations that do not diminish our humanity in the slightest. Dreher invokes the specter of the Holocaust to argue that we’re on the slippery slope to dehumanization, but I’d argue the reverse: that nightmares like the Holocaust arise when people fail to see that the nature that deserves respect and protection is in our minds, our culture, our interactions, not in our lineage or our genes.

There will be a New Age of Wonder brought in by a coming century of biology, but it won’t be because it changes a few physical properties of our bodies. It will be because, if it lives up to its potential, it will liberate us to some degree from the tyranny of our native biology. It does not make me a better person that I’ve probably inherited my father’s propensity for heart disease; it does not make a woman stronger to carry a familial pattern of breast cancer; no child is enlightened because they are born with a birth defect. We’ll have an Age of Wonder if we can get beyond Dreher’s way of thinking that our body is ourselves, to a better way of thinking of the body as a vehicle for our minds, and that that vehicle can be improved without making us subhuman.

Pz’s not done, of course. Dreher concludes:

What troubles me, and troubles me greatly, about the techno-utopians who hail a New Age of Wonder is their optimism uncut by any sense of reality, which is to say, of human history. In the end, what you think of the idea of a New Age of Wonder depends on what you think of human nature. I give better than even odds that this era of biology and computers identified by Dyson and celebrated by the Edge folks will in the end turn out to have been at least as much a Dark Age as an era of Enlightenment. I hope I’m wrong. I don’t think I will be wrong.

In response, PZ states with refreshing accuracy:

Excuse me, but after writing a long piece in which he wallows in his religiously-motivated darkness, in which he demonstrates that he knows nothing about the biology he is decrying, I don’t think he gets to accuse these “techno-utopians” of lacking “any sense of reality”. Religion is the darkness, and knowledge is the light — it’s no accident that the era when religion ruled Europe without question is called the Dark Ages, and that period when a new and secular way of looking at the world began to glimmer is called the Enlightenment. So no thank you, please crawl back into your dim cathedral of the superstitious spirit, and don’t even try to pontificate on the consequences of knowledge. You never had any, so your advice on the matter is about as relevant and informed as a celibate making recommendations about my love life.

Oh, wait…you’ve got that covered, too. I see — it’s a tradition.

One last fact that nobody reading this will find surprising. That arrogant ignoramus Dreher is employed as the director of publications for the Templeton Foundation. They really do aspire to quality at that institution, don’t they?

February 27, 2010

The Templeton Foundation: How to bring science and religion togther?

Filed under: belief,Science,Templeton — tildeb @ 7:51 pm

By bribing one writer at a time, silly, like the ‘science’ writer Chris Mooney!

Excerpts from WEIT (and don’t forget to check out the comments):

So you’re an organization whose mission is to blur the lines between faith and science, and you have huge wads of cash to do this.  What’s the best strategy?

The Temple Foundation is wily, but they’re not exactly honest.  Look at this:

After decades during which leading voices from science and religion viewed each other with suspicion and little sense of how the two areas might relate, recent years have brought an active pursuit of understanding how science may deepen theological awareness, for example, or how religious traditions might illuminate the scientific realm.  Fellowship organizers note that rigorous journalistic examination of the region where science and theology overlap – as well as understanding the reasoning of many who assert the two disciplines are without common ground – can effectively promote a deeper understanding of the emerging dialogue.

Now if you’re interested in seeing how science and religion “illuminate” one another, what’s the first thing you think of?  How about this:  is there any empirical truth in the claims of faith? After all, if you’re trying to “reconcile” two areas of thought, and look at their interactions, surely you’d be interested if there’s any empirical truth in them.  After all, why “reconcile” two areas if one of them might be only baseless superstition?  Is the evidence for God as strong as it is for evolution? Does the “fine-tuning” of physical constants prove Jesus?  Was the evolution of humans inevitable, thereby showing that we were part of God’s plan?

These journalism fellowships are nothing more than a bribe—a bribe to get journalists to favor a certain point of view.  The Foundation’s success at recruiting reputable candidates proves one thing: it doesn’t cost much to buy a journalist’s integrity.  Fifteen thousand bucks, a “book allowance,” and a fancy title will do it.

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