Let Me (Spiritually) Entertain You

From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

The media has been reporting on a procedure that removes tumors from the parietal region of the brain and leaves the patient with a different view of their own spirituality—in this case, perceived self-transcendence (Field Notes, February 11, 2010). Typically a person’s viewpoint of their own spirituality remains constant over time, but Cosimo Urgesi, one of the study’s lead researchers, explains that “changes of neural activity in specific areas may modify even inherently stable dispositional traits.” So the quick takeaway is that the brain can be modified to produce spiritual experiences by means of surgical intervention on a particular area.
Fine. Of course, producing the phenomena of spiritual experiences by modifying localized brain states has seemingly been done before by Michael Persinger, who used a modified helmet that contained solenoids strategically placed over the brain’s temporal lobes. Although controversial, his apparatus apparently induces a kind of epilepsy (via magnetic fields). People who are psychologically disposed to process experiences in a particular way come away form the procedure having felt the presence of another entity. (It’s no big surprise that Richard Dawkins wasn’t one of them and Susan Blackmore was.)
People have rightly noticed that the physical modification of the brain, whether through an intervention like surgery or the passive electromagnetic force of waveforms, is not a sufficient condition for encountering the spiritual world. Even without techno-intervention, about 50 percent of people claim to have had at least one experience that they would describe as spiritual; but there are many reasons why a genuine spiritual experience causally originating from a transcendental plane or source of reality should be carefully differentiated from mere phenomena of such. (By analogy, the genuine experience of being chased by a polar bear should be carefully differentiated from when you merely dream it.)
Temporal lobe epilepsy, chemical imbalances in the brain, and other quite this-worldly chains of causation can certainly give someone the phenomena of a spiritual experience without it being the real thing. Suppose, for instance, someone were to surgically modify the V1 through V4 areas of the brain, or perhaps even passively influence them with a magnetic wave, vision-inducing helmet. If that person were to then have an experience like seeing a dancing pink elephant, this would say nothing about the existence (or not) of such an entity. It would merely show (in yet one more way) that manipulation of localized brain states have causal influences on changes in particular mind states. That some very specific brain states correlate with, and even cause, some specific and often peculiar mind states is hardly a radical claim. This kind of analysis has been well noted before now, so I want to push the issue in another direction.
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Religious Independents Not So Easily Fooled

stand-out-from-the-crowd

From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

The Wall Street Journal recently reported on religious independents. From the article:

According to the most recent American Religious Identification Survey, only 76 percent of Americans identify as Christians, down from 86 percent in 1990. But interestingly, while non-Christians are not choosing Islam or Judaism, neither are they choosing atheism. A poll done by Gallup in 2008 found that 15 percent of Americans—up from 8 percent in 1999—say they don’t believe in God, but they do believe in a “Higher Power” or “Universal Spirit.” More and more, Americans believe that the world was created by a spiritual being, but they reject the Torah, the Quran, and the New Testament as the explanation for it.

That article notes a well-known observation that, “Demographically speaking, the Religious Independents, like their political counterparts, are more affluent and well-educated than traditional God-believers.” More than one study has shown that people become less religious when they perceive themselves both as reasonably affluent and as much so as their neighbors. Moreover, a lack of income inequality and insecurity is a nice way to liberalize the religious outlook. Add a strong educational element and a pluralistic social environment, and that becomes a sure-fire formula against traditional religious affiliation.
Not surprisingly, such religious independents are also more likely to care about ethics and social justice than metaphysics and dogma:

Perhaps most importantly, 83 percent of Religious Independents say it is more important to be ethical than to be devout, compared to only 64 percent of traditionalists. Seventy-two percent of Religious Independents say that living a good spiritual life depends on how you act, not what you believe—compared with only 59 percent of traditional followers. In other words, Religious Independents have just as strong a desire for repairing the world, even as they reject the habits and practices of religion.
All this has substantial implications for American culture. Religious Independents don’t want to get involved in cultural wars or fights over Christmas crèches. They are focused on self-improvement, not evangelism. Without high priests of any sort, they’re more apt to resolve political and ethical questions on issues like abortion on a case-by-case basis, rather than with dicta handed down from on high.

That might be frustrating to advocates of institutional religion, since such an autonomous, case-by-case thinking style makes it difficult for such organizations to tell people what and how to think. Independent thinking on religious matters might merely be a corollary to the growing attitudes about privatization of religion. Indeed, for some time now, Americans have been sliding into a mode of privatized religion, one that see-saws opposite from their institutional religious loyalty. On the hit list of most likely to be privatized are men, whites, young Americans, liberal Protestants, and people of an indeterminate religious affiliation. Pacific and New England states also appear to be the most privatized. There is, of course, the subtle matter of teasing out the difference between independent thinkers generally and religious independents, for neither the latter nor the former entail one another. Still, both camps could present new kinds of difficulties for traditional religious institutions.
First, independent thinkers might come to decide that even if science never presents a complete and final explanation of the world, its method of encountering the world can, in fact, function as a fully satisfying, overall philosophy of life—something akin to the popular proverb that it’s the journey, not the destination that gives life meaning. In fact, there are even new kinds of collaborations in contemporary music that outright support this link between a scientific worldview and its unique, underlying aesthetic for human existence.
Second, religious independents might come to decide that large institutions are ultimately a corrupting force for true spirituality, and that such social structures are merely the dying relics from an age when kings and corporate titans were required to manage people. But human coordination now trends toward flat, highly networked models of teamwork rather than vertical models of authority. So, with the ever-growing connectivity of both technological and social networking, religious advocates can finally decouple themselves from the necessity (or perhaps even necessary evil) of large, managing bureaucracies and any  concomitant subordination to their autocracies of piety.


Some Atheists Dissent and Modify Their Claws

A_From Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

In my mind, it all started with those signs on the sides of city buses. You know, the ones that say things like, “You can be good without God” or “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” There are quite a few other pithy sayings as well, if you care to look. Soon enough, it hit me—the quaint social roles of the sly village atheist or disenfranchised ex-believer just ain’t what they used to be.
What’s put the “new” in the New Atheist movement is their assertiveness, or even outright aggressiveness, in the public space. For instance, at a recent speech at the University of Toronto, Christopher Hitchens exhorted that “religion should be treated with ridicule, hatred, and contempt,” and he is well known for practicing what he preaches when on the speaking and debate circuit.
This is in contrast with the more laid-back style of traditional atheists, such as that practiced by Paul Kurtz, the original founder of the Center for Inquiry (among other secular and skeptical organizations). Kurtz sought to offer a positive alternative to religion, known as eupraxsophy—roughly, a collection of philosophical commitments and practices that provide a cosmic outlook and ethical guide to living. He often joined in alliances with religious groups on matters of social justice, and hence had a much more cooperative disposition with religious institutions (though not with religion itself). Fortunately for everyone, some atheists, like Kurtz, dissent and modify their claws.
Then there’s Sam Harris, a subspecies of atheist with yet a different rhetorical manner than either of these two kinds. He takes a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach between the aggressive and cooperative style. “It’s really just a matter of conversation, and releasing these taboos that prevent us from applying pressure to people’s religious beliefs,” he says. As an example of where pressure is needed, he points to evolution-denying politicians: “there’s no penalty paid by these guys endorsing the starkest ignorance about the state of our knowledge about biology.” In Harris’ view, “there has to be a price paid.” Social pressure is being successfully applied to racism, which has fallen into disrepute in the last 50 years, and “real progress” has been made in talking about this social problem; likewise, he argues, “we can make the same kind of progress in talking about religion.”
Harris might want to recalibrate his manometer, though, since the pressure against racism and the pressure against religion are not of the same variety.
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Evolution and Religion May Not Be BFFs

best friendFrom Brint Montgomery, who teaches philosophy at Southern Nazarene University:

This week in The New York Times, Nicholas Wade reports on an archaeological dig that gives us “remarkable insight into the origin of religion.” Every society has sported its own religious history, and this can be interpreted as a favorable adjustment by evolution, he says: “Religion has the hallmarks of an evolved behavior, meaning that it exists because it was favored by natural selection. It is universal because it was wired into our neural circuitry before the ancestral human population dispersed from its African homeland.”
Wade draws a parallel with human language—just as we have the genetic predisposition to learn both our native language and native religion, so too is it culture that supplies the content of what is learned in both.
What is perhaps more controversial in the religion-as-favorable-variation assertion is how natural selection apparently operated on groups of humans, thus socially binding people together, favoring the community’s interest by introducing rules of self-restraint. Such variation motivated favorable attitudes toward rituals and to sacrifice in battles against outsiders. Over time, this group selection on religious behaviors would give some communities certain competitive advantages over others; hence, the genes controlling for those behaviors would become universal.
As a metaphysical matter, Wade delimits just what can be claimed: “That religious behavior was favored by natural selection neither proves nor disproves the existence of gods”—or of “God,” I’d add, depending on whether one decries grammar or polytheism; but his point is well taken. Still, I want to take a different angle and reflect not on what’s real (metaphysics), but on what we can know about such explanations (epistemology).
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