Monday, September 10, 2007

Religion profs who don't know much religion?

Dinesh d'Souza defends himself against unreasonable accusationsthat he supports terrorism, but also points up a problem I have bellyached about myself: Religion profs who don't know much about religion. Responding to a baseless claim from one prominent religion scholar that he was a bin Laden supporter, d'Souza took the opportunity to ask him what he knew about the Muslim world,
During the cross-examination, I asked Wolfe a series of simple questions about the Muslim world. What percentage of Muslims around the globe live in a democracy? He had no idea. Which is the largest Muslim country in the world? He answered, "India," which is not a Muslim country at all. (The correct answer is Indonesia, which also happens to be a democracy.) I then asked him to name the world's second largest Muslim democracy? Once again Wolfe ventured, "India?" (The correct answer is Bangladesh.) And on it went. I looked into the audience and saw many students, including Wolfe's fans, with their mouths open. They couldn't believe that one of their college's most distinguished professors had been exposed as a complete ignoramus. Remember that this is a fellow who heads the religion center at Boston College.

Sadly, it's nothing new or unusual. In fact, it used to be a big problem in media too. I remember the bad old days of the Religion Page, dominated by vitriolic cranks, militant atheists, and clerical dullards, while the real news about religion spilled across the front pages - often covered by people who had not been given any background or context. I almost hesitate to point to any one person or group who is beginning (admittedly quit slowly) to change that, because many people played critical roles. But Terry Mattingly, (as in, "the press doesn't 'get' religion - but maybe a few pointers will help") and BeliefNet come immediately to mind. There's also Adherents, which stockpiles massses of information on faith groups. Heck, you can even find out what Bruce Springsteen believes and how prominent a religion Wicca is in the United States (you might be surprised).

Anyway, a journalist should find it much easier today than decades ago to actually know what's going on in religious communities, so these goofs will, one hopes, become rare.

I don't know what to do about the religion profs though.

More d'Souza here and here.

By the way, The Spiritual Brain is being translated into Bahasa Indonesia, the language of Indonesia and, I understand, of Malaysia, which is probably the reason I have received an invitation to a Malaysian reception this week.

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Winnipeg Free Press review of The Spiritual Brain, and my posted comment

Here's an informative review of Mario Beauregard's and my just-released book,The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, by a Winnipeg neuroscientist, Bruce Bolster, who coordinates the biopsychology program at the University of Winnipeg.

He writes,
Is the experience of God a state of mind or a state of brain? Or is there really Something Out There? Will neuroscientists find what novelist Douglas Adams called "the answer to life, the universe, and everything"?

This provocative book is an exploration of these questions, written by a University of Montreal experimental neuroscientist and co-authored by a journalist with an interest in both religious and scientific issues.

Great shot of Mario too. One handy thing about the Internet is that you can post comments, and here's one that I posted, addressing some issues that the review raises:
Hi from Denyse O'Leary, co-author of the book - two quick comments

Thank you very much. Dr. Bolster, for such an informative review. I am sure Free Press readers appreciate your careful outline of our book's contents.

Our actual subtitle is "A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul" not "How neuroscience is revealing the existence of God." (There was a goofup at the publishing house, in which a staff person who did not know the contents of the book put that subtitle on the handbound review copies and sent them far and wide. The correct subtitle hit the system later.)

We had no intention of stirring up any controversy abut God; we are quite clear, as you rightly say, that neuroscience cannot demonstrate the existence of God, But we think it can demonstrate the existence of the mind (soul). That at least implies the possibility of a divine Mind - plausible, not proven.

However, you also write - and this puzzles me: "One would need to look very hard indeed to find a psychologist or neuroscientist in the 21st century willing to dispute the influence of mind in organizing brain function."

In fact, we provide many examples in the book of key people who do not think that the mind has an organizing function because they argue that it is an illusion created by the workings of the brain. Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, and Francis Crick (who worked with Christoph Koch in his last years on a theory of consciousness) hold and disseminate views along this spectrum, and they are often widely quoted in the media.

I am glad to learn that - despite what one might gather from popular science media - their views are doubted among neuroscientists. May I assume that you are one of them? I hope that more neuroscientists who doubt them will speak up.

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Religion and politics: What does new, more religious government in Turkey portend?

Not necessarily what you might think, says Mustafa Akyol, deputy editor of the Turkish daily News. Here's Akyol, advising against jumping to conclusions about Turkey's new leader:
Mr. Gul is a practicing Muslim, and his similarly devout wife, Hayrunnisa Gul, wears the Islamic headscarf. Hence some people wonder whether this God-fearing First Couple symbolizes a setback in Turkey's two-century-old quest for modernization.

Akyol explains,
Mr. Gul soon found a chance to discover the virtues of the modern West during the two years he spent in London and Exeter for postgraduate studies. As he recalled in a recent interview, he was deeply impressed by the openness, tolerance and pluralism of British society. A most notable experience was the pastor who kindly invited him to perform his daily prayers in the university chapel. He realized the problem in Turkey, the authoritarian secularism that disallowed his wife's education because of her headscarf, did not stem from Western-style democracy, but the lack thereof.

In 1991 Mr. Gul joined the Islamist Welfare Party, but never shared the anti-Western and anti-Semitic demagoguery of its leader, Necmeddin Erbakan.

In the late '90s, Mr. Gul and the likeminded, including the charismatic Istanbul mayor Tayyip Erdogan, formed the "reformist" movement in Welfare, and soon broke with it to found the AKP (Justice and Development Party) in 2001. The party emerged as, and still is, the champion of free markets, liberal reforms and Turkey's effort to join the European Union.

Well, if the ejection device for Islamic extremists is in good working order, this sounds like a plan.

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From the Iszatso? dept: Thoughts from Sharon Begley on "liberal" vs. "conservative" brains

In "Red Brain, Blue Brain: Politics and Gray Matter", Sharon Begley, co-author of The Mind and the Brain, a pioneering work in non-materialist neuroscience, comments on recent research on the "political brain", so to speak, done in ultra-liberal Greenwich Village, New York:
Psychologists repeatedly find that conservatives are "more structured and persistent in their judgments and approaches to decision making," and have greater "personal needs for order, structure and closure," as the new paper puts it. Liberals, on the other hand, are more tolerant of "ambiguity and complexity," and more open to new experiences.
and the neuroscience findings confirmed brain activity patterns consistent with that.

But she cautions that the liberals and conservatives in the study were self-rated. "Liberal" in Greenwich Village could be off the chart in Utah. She also notes
Does this mean some people are hard-wired for liberalism and others are hard-wired for conservatism? No. Not only is the very idea of hard wiring passe, but there is a growing recognition among neuroscientists that experiences and thoughts act back on the physical stuff of the brain that produces them. In other words, resist the easy interpretation that some innate pattern of activity in the anterior cingulate makes you fall in a particular spot on the political spectrum. More likely, thinking and believing a certain way affects the conflict-detecting circuitry in the anterior cingulate. What and how you think alter the structure and function of the brain.

Two questions I'd be interested in some information on are:

1. What IS a conservative doing in Greenwich Village anyway besides clinging precariously to his sanity?

2. Was the test also done among devout Mormons in Utah who had started and run successful businesses? If so, were the results the same or different?

That is, I am wondering whether the test actually captures not political opinion as such but the speed of assimilation and adaptation to one's environment. People who are at odds with their environment may need more structured thinking patterns in order to survive. In that case, we should expect to see the results reversed in Utah (where the liberal must keep repeating over and over, "small families are a blessing, small families are a blessing, gay is okay, gay is okay"). Perhaps someone will try it, if they haven't already.

Hat tip to Stephanie Westallen at Brains on Purpose.

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Hmmmmm: Thoughts from Mark Steyn on secularism

My compatriot Mark Steyn writes in America Alone,
Reviewing the film The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, Polly Toynbee, the queen of progressivist pieties in Britain, wrote that Aslan "is an emblem for everything an atheist objects to in religion. His divine presence is a way to avoid humans taking responsibility for everything here and now on earth, where no one is watching, no one is guiding, no one is judging, and there is no other place yet to come. Without an Aslan, there is no one here but ourselves to suffer for our sins, no one to redeem us but ourselves: we are obliged to settle our own disputes and do what we can."

Sounds very nice. But in practice the lack of belief in divine presence is just as likely to lead to humans avoiding responsibility: if there's nothing other than the here and now, who needs to settle disputes at all? All you have to do is manage to defer them till after you're dead -

[ ... ]

Almost by definition, secularism cannot be a future: it's a present-tense culture that over time disconnects a society from cross-generational purpose. Which is why there are no examples of sustained atheist civilizations. (Pp. 97-98)

Some people ruffle feathers; Mark likes to bust a pillow and scatter the contents over the balcony in a high wind.

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Service note

Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary ( is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), anoverview of the intelligent design controversy, and of Faith@Science. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul (Harper 2007).

My other blog is the Post-Darwinist, detailing events of interest in the intelligent design controversy.