Saturday, November 10, 2007

Should evangelicals be worried about The Spiritual Brain book?

Now that a number of people whose opinion I justly respect have read The Spiritual Brain, I have experienced two equal and opposite reactions - a good sign!

On the ONE hand, a conservative evangelical friend told me last Saturday, "I don't agree with your book. You say all religions are the same All roads lead to God."

I challenged him to tell me where we had said anything of the kind. Well, he said, that idea was "implied".

Actually, it wasn't implied. In fact, it was denied!

On the relative truth of religions, we explicitly said:
"If indeed religion is more adaptive than irreligion, the most likely explanation is this: the mystics are right. Materialism is false, but most nonmaterialist systems contain at least some elements that are true. As we might expect, some contain many more true elements than others. (P. 212)

That is a point often overlooked in the struggle between materialism and theism.

The falsity of materialism does not make all non-materialist belief systems equally true - or equally emotionally healthy.

It means that we face a cosmos in which meaning and purpose are real, consciousness and free will are real - and all the other facts are just as real as they were before!

And we must make sense of them using our minds, because science has NOT shown that we are just robots, or whatever.

On the OTHER hand, complaints come in twos, it seems. I also learned recently that some people are very worried about The Spiritual Brain because it is allegedly "too religious."

These complainers mean that we start out with the assumption - in our online Introduction - that spiritual experiences could be real:
Most scientists today are materialists who believe that the physical world is the only reality. Absolutely everything else, including thought, feeling, mind, and will, can be explained in terms of matter and physical phenomena--leaving no room for the possibility that religious experiences are anything but an illusion. Materialists are like Charles Dicken's character Ebenezer Scrooge who dismisses his experience of Marley's ghost as merely "an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato."

Vincent and I, on the other hand, did not approach our research with any such materialist presumption. As we are not materialists, we did not doubt in principle that a contemplative might contact a reality outside herself during a mystical experience. In fact, I went into neuroscience in part because I knew experientially that such things can indeed happen. Vincent and I simply wanted to know what the neural correlates—the activity of the neurons—during such an experience might be. Given the overwhelming dominance of materialism in neuroscience today, we count ourselves lucky that the nuns believed in our sincerity and agreed to help us, and that the Templeton Foundation saw fit to fund our studies.

In other words, Mario and his colleagues - and I, coming on board as a writer - did not start out to show that spiritual experiences must, by definition, be false. If that makes us "religious", some young neuroscience researchers are going to be very, very surprised by their public profile ....

I certainly do not ask my conservative evangelical friend to abandon his concern for purity of religion. But I hope he will see that the main conflict today is not between Jesus and Buddha but between people who think that the material world is all there is and people who don't.

I ask only this: Let's make sure that we have the story right on the main conflict before we sort out the conflict between claims for Jesus and claims for Buddha.

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College no longer best place to lose your faith?

According to an article in Touchstone November 2007 (and not archived here on line yet), "The 'spiritual marketplace'" on college campuses is particularly lively, Missouri State University's John Schmalzbauer, co-investigator of the national Study of Campus Ministries, told a meeting of the Association for the Sociology of Religion." Declines on campus have been reversed, and in fact, other recent studies have found that "fewer students who go to college lose their faith compared with those who don't go to college."

Could that be why atheists and theocrats are now buzzing like angry bees? Neither has any interest in a "spiritual marketplace".

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Religious freedom: No mere luxury for rich

Year ago, I had the pleasure of working with political scientist Paul Marshall in Toronto, author of Their Blood Cries Out (a no-nonsense guide to persecution of Christians in various troubled states). He now works with the Hudson Institute on a broad range of religious freedom issues, and has just released a 2007 report. I

I always appreciated Marshall's incisive style, and he has justifiably little use for craven explanations that poor people do not need religious or other freedoms:
Some Westerners and Third World tyrants have elevated “economic rights” or purported “Asian” and “Islamic” values as the most important features of rights, and have denigrated or downgraded civil rights, such as religious freedom, as quasi-luxuries that would need to be advanced, if at all, only after more basic needs such as food and shelter have been achieved. Proponents of these views should be asked why several Asian countries, such as Mongolia and Thailand, which have a background of poverty and underdevelopment, and “Asian” traditions at least as strong as China and Vietnam, both value and successfully defend religious freedom, and why desperately poor African countries, including poor Muslim-majority African countries such as Mali and Senegal, can do the same. Religious freedom is desired throughout the world and has been achieved in places on all continents. It is a moral travesty of the highest order to maintain that because people are hungry or cold it is legitimate to repress their beliefs as well.

In my experience, Marshall has always been careful to defend the rights of non-Christians as well, and his account of the troubles of the Bahai Muslims of theocratic Iran makes grim reading:
The current campaign has its specific roots in a confidential Iranian government document sent in 1991 to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei by Muhammad Golpaygani, secretary of the Supreme Revolutionary Cultural Council. Following Khamenei's "recent directives," and approved by then-President Rafsanjani, it outlined a plan gradually to choke the Baha'i community. They were not usually to be subject to further arrests or deportations from the country: Henceforth the government was to ensure that "their progress and development are blocked." They could be enrolled in schools but only if they "have not identified themselves as Baha'is." They were to be expelled from universities altogether. They could have jobs only on condition that they not "identify themselves as Baha'is," and, if employed, must have only "a modest livelihood" and be denied "any position of influence." Khamenei added a handwritten note to the directive expressing his approval, thus conferring on it the status of an official decree. (These and other documents have been made available by the Baha'i community--see

But in our world today, it is not only theocracies that threaten religious and intellectual freedom - secular states can too. One of my professional associations, Canadian Association of Journalists, recently expressed concern over apparent censorship in Canada of a documentary detailing the abuse by the Chinese government of members of the Falun Gong:
CAJ concerned over report's withdrawal

OTTAWA – (November 9, 2007)--The Canadian Association of Journalists is disappointed that CBC News chose not to air a documentary Nov. 6, in the wake of last-minute complaints from Chinese officials.

"The CAJ is concerned the CBC has sent a message of self-censorship by pulling a previously aired and carefully vetted documentary just as it was about to be broadcast," said CAJ president Mary Agnes Welch.

The CBC had already aired Beyond the Red Wall this spring and Radio-Canada aired a French-dubbed version last month, nearly a year after getting a green light from CBC lawyers and senior editors.

The report documents the experience of a Canadian member of the spiritual movement Falun Gong, which is outlawed in China.

CBC spokesman Jeff Keay confirmed that after receiving calls from China's embassy in Ottawa and its consulate in Toronto, the independent public broadcaster decided to pull the documentary from its lineup. He explained the CBC is to review the content "to make sure it's a good, solid project."

(More here)

Yeah, really. From past experience, I would say it's probably a solid documentary that China doesn't like because it says things that are true and upset people. Given that I pay taxes to help support the government broadcaster CBC, I would prefer they just air the documentary, and tell China to take a back flip. I don't want cheap goods at THAT price!

And guess what - that is what CBC is doing. It will air after all.

Canada scores lower - why?

One thing that intrigues me is that Canada got a score of 2 for religious freedom, rather than the higher 1 enjoyed by the United States and Estonia. I can think of some good reasons, but I'd rather Paul tell me, so I am writing to him to ask.

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