Tuesday, February 26, 2008

North America undergoing religious revolution? No way!

Touted changes in the American religious landscape seem more
apparent than real, at least to me. According to an Associated Press story, reported by Eric Gorski in the Kansas City Star, a Pew Foundation study of 35, 000 American adults found that

- mainline churches are declining. (Well, of course they are. They have entirely forgotten what they are supposed to be doing.)

- many people change religious denominations. (Especially people fleeing mainline denominations, I expect. You only need to listen to one sermon about why you shouldn't care whether or not you have a soul ... And if you are not gone already, you are a fool. Go now, go now. )

Only four percent of Americans are agnostics or atheists, according to Pew. That sounds abut right.

Here's a demographic fact worth noting: You always get a much higher proportion of people saying "I have no use for organized religion" than people saying "I am an atheist."

That's easy to explain. People who have no use for organized religion include a large number who just want to be left alone. Period. They don't want to join an atheist league, wear buttons, prosecute court cases, wave picket signs ....

They really do just want to be left alone. And I can but hope they will be.

The worst aspect of some forms of atheism is to replicate all the problems of a church without any of the benefits.

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Antidepressants: Definitely not the "death of the soul"

In a seminal essay in 1996, Tom Wolfe announced, "Sorry but your soul just died." In those days, people - including Wolfe - assumed that a person's mind could be completely manipulated by chemical concoctions.

Well, they - and he - were wrong.

Look at the results from a recent study:
Prescribing anti-depressants to the vast majority of patients is futile, as the drugs have little or no impact at all, according to researchers.

Almost 50 clinical trials were reviewed by psychologists from the University of Hull who found that new-generation anti-depressants worked no better than a placebo – a dummy pill – for mildly depressed patients.

Even the trials that suggested some clinical benefit for the most severely depressed patients did not produce convincing evidence. Professor Irving Kirsch from the university’s psychology department said: “The difference in improvement between patients taking placebos and patients taking anti-depressants is not very great.

“This means that depressed people can improve without chemical treatments. Given these results, there seems little reason to prescribe anti-depressant medication to any but the most severely depressed patients.”

Does anyone remember when anti-depressant pills were little round gods? Never for me, as it happens, but certainly for people I knew.

Obviously, if people are suicidal, they need help, and maybe antidepressants will help. But the idea that a pill is a big "answer" is obviously wrong.


Science and wasted money: Material source sought for spirituality

A British-led study, on which the Templeton Foundation was willing to waste L2 million pounds seeks to discover why people believe in God:
Justin Barrett, a psychologist who has been quoted in support of arguments by both the atheist Richard Dawkins and his critic, Alister McGrath, a Christian theologian, said: "We are interested in exploring exactly in what sense belief in God is natural. We think there is more on the nature side than a lot of people suppose."

He compared believers to three-year-olds who "assume that other people know almost everything there is to be known". Dr Barrett, who is a Christian, is the editor of the Journal of Cognition and Culture and author of the book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? He said that the childish tendency to believe in the omniscience of others was pared down by experience as people grew up. But this tendency, necessary to allow human beings to socialise and cooperate with each other in a productive way, continued when it came to belief in God.

[ ... ]

The research will feed into other areas, such as whether the conflicts associated with religion are a product of human nature. The project will also examine whether belief in the afterlife is something that needs to be taught or is a product of natural selection.

This stuff is a worthy companion to Evolution Sunday, which, this year, replaced the first Sunday in Lent with Darwinism, in any church that celebrated it. And here is what I think of the type of people who would sponsor it.

Fundamentally, there are only two options: Either

(1) people believe in God because of a glitch in their brains that is irrelevant to the way the universe actually works - and can be explained by the fact that they have children who inherit the glitch -


(2) they believe in God because there is a Mind behind the universe and their minds eventually contact that Mind.

The second proposition offers vastly more evidence than the first. But the first proposition is much more fashionable among elite atheists and their fellow travellers.

Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard and I offer evidence for the second proposition in The Spiritual Brain.

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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.