Saturday, March 22, 2008

Resources: Don't write a story about religion in the US without using this tool!

The Pew Forum has released a valuable new study offering detailed informatin on the various religious traditions in the United states.

This should be a very useful tool. I only regret that a similar one probably isn't available in Canada. (Please! Write to me and prove me wrong!)

For example, you can find out what percentage of Catholics vs. Jews, vs. Mormons vs. Muslims are 18-29 years of age. (18, 20, 24, 29, in case you are interested).

Note: Demographic statistics must be interpreted with caution. This statistic provides a useful example. More Muslims than members of the other groups are probably immigrants. Immigrants tend to be younger, as a group, than the native population. People don't usually immigrate when they are old. Indeed, often they cannot do so, for health reasons. If that assumption is correct, we should expect that more Muslims will be in the age group that is likely to produce children. And that is what we do see: 48% Muslim vs. 41% Catholic in the group 30 to 49 but 18% Muslim to 24% Catholic in the age group 50 to 64.

Canadian demographer David Foot likes to say that demography explains two-thirds of everything. I believe that he overstates the case, but I also think that we can spare ourselves a lot of grief and misunderstanding by examining the demographics of a population before we jump to conclusions. And I hope this Pew Forum document will help us do that.

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New round of materialist theories of spirituality in the works

The Economist reports recently on a large study to try to understand religion from a materialist perspective:
“Explaining Religion”, as the project is known, is the largest-ever scientific study of the subject. It began last September, will run for three years, and involves scholars from 14 universities and a range of disciplines from psychology to economics. And it is merely the latest manifestation of a growing tendency for science to poke its nose into the God business.

Religion cries out for a biological explanation. It is a ubiquitous phenomenon—arguably one of the species markers of Homo sapiens—but a puzzling one. It has none of the obvious benefits of that other marker of humanity, language. Nevertheless, it consumes huge amounts of resources. Moreover, unlike language, it is the subject of violent disagreements. Science has, however, made significant progress in understanding the biology of language, from where it is processed in the brain to exactly how it communicates meaning. Time, therefore, to put religion under the microscope as well.

To get some idea what you can expect,
For example, Jason Slone, a professor of religious studies at Webster University in St Louis, argues that people who are religious will be seen as more likely to be faithful and to help in parenting than those who are not. That makes them desirable as mates. He plans to conduct experiments designed to find out whether this is so. And, slightly tongue in cheek, Dr Wilson quips that “secularism is very maladaptive biologically. We're the ones who at best are having only two kids. Religious people are the ones who aren't smoking and drinking, and are living longer and having the health benefits.”

Okay, so, no worries Jason, we and our kids will bury you decent.

But that's not why we're religious.

See, materialist efforts to explain spirituality start from the assumption that there isn't really a spiritual world, that there isn't really any divine revelation. No one developed a spiritual life in response to anything that is actually out there.

Far from it, the materialist theory of religion, like the Big Bazooms theory of human evolution, will accept any fool theory as an alternative to that.

Which is why I don't have much time for it.

I used to be a warden at an Anglican church. There was nothing very unusual in people having genuine religious experiences that changed their lives that cannot be accounted for by some sociological or neurological theory. They encountered the Divine, and started to say things like "I forgive my enemies" because "No longer I, but Christ lives in me."

And if people don't want to study that, they don't want to study religion or spirituality.

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Spirituality: Forensic audit clears prayer palace

Last year, the Toronto Star did a big story on one of these big evangelical churches north of Toronto, in this case the Prayer Palace. As I recall, the story seemed to imply that lots of financials were fiddled there.

I was on a TV show, Behind the Story, with a crowd of other hacks about that time, and we were, frankly, queasy about the whole thing.

Like, if no accounting audit shows financial mismanagement and no significant number of church members are unhappy, how much responsibility should media take for alleging wrong-doing?

And now, I read:
In March of 2007, The Prayer Palace's legal counsel, Marek Z. Tufman of Tufman & Associates, retained the services of Bruce Armstrong of LECG, Chartered Accountant (CA) and Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) to examine the church's financial records.
Bruce Armstrong has over 35 years of accounting, audit and forensic accounting experience, including seven years as the senior investigator at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Ontario (ICAO). He has been involved in more than 350 investigations, including criminal, corporate and civil matters, and has qualified as an expert in court on many occasions.

LECG investigated the church's financial records as far back as 1994, and found nothing to substantiate The Toronto Star allegations.

I'm all for the fourth estate exposing wrongdoing, but I think we need to choose our targets with care. We can do a lot of harm as well as good.


Neuroscience: Neurosurgeon uses design inference in brain hypothesis

Neurosurgeon Mike Egnor, who was said some kind words about The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, has an interesting hypothesis about how the brain protects itself from the hammering it might take from the blood flow from the heart.

On this episode of ID the Future, Logan Gage interviews professor of neurosurgery at SUNY, Stony Brook Michael Egnor. Dr. Egnor discusses his current research into cerebral blood flow and the buffering of the brain from the force of blood pumped by the heart. Dr. Egnor's approach to this problem is that of an engineer, using the design inference to understand how the brain protects itself from the pulsatility of the arterial blood flow of the heart.

That's his specialty, apparently.

Also, this is Dr. Egnor on the abuse he endured when he started questioning materialist theories of human origins.

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Neuroscience: Beware the moron neuron defense!

Stephanie West Allen over at Idealawg has a great post on "Brain Overclaim Syndrome - expecting too much from neuroscience.
She quotes from a journal article, by University of Pennsylvania law prof Stephen Morse:

[I]nfected and inflamed by stunning advances in our understanding of the brain, advocates all too often make moral and legal claims that the new neuroscience does not entail and cannot sustain. Particular brain findings are thought to lead inevitably to moral or legal conclusions. Brains are blamed for offenses; agency and responsibility disappear from the legal landscape. For example, in Roper v. Simmons, advocates for abolition of the death penalty for adolescents who committed murder when they were sixteen or seventeen years old argued that the demonstrated lack of complete myelination of the cortical neurons of the adolescent brain was reason to believe that sixteen and seventeen year old murderers were insufficiently responsible to deserve capital punishment. ...

For the record, I oppose capital punishment and I am glad we do not use it in Canada.

But the worst reason for opposing capital punishment would be a belief that people are not responsible for their actions!

After all, dogs are not responsible for their actions, and we put down vicious dogs simply on the owner's consent.

Here in Toronto, if I recall correctly, the rule is that if a dog has injured someone, the city can get a court order to put down the dog. Then the owner will be convicted of keeping a vicious dog and fined. But if the owner just agrees to have the dog put down without forcing a trial, he can avoid charges and fines. (Of course, there may be civil liability for the damage, but that is a separate issue - often fought out between the lawyers for rival insurance companies, I suppose.)

For these reasons, I am worried about this "neurolaw" trend to find that people are not responsible for their actions.

First, it isn't true. Mario Beauregard's research and Jeff Schwartz's research, among others, as itemized in The Spiritual Brain: A neuroscientist's case for the existence of the soul, clearly shows that people can and do control their brain states when asked by an investigator to do so.

Second, it is a poisoned apple. People may be tempted by it because they see it as accomplishing some practical good - like getting someone into therapy instead of jail - but overall the price is too steep. The practical good can be, and should be, achieved by more normal means.

For example, there are perfectly good reasons for abolishing capital punishment, as many Western nations have done, that do NOT require us to believe that no one is really responsible for his or her actions.

Here in Canada, a number of people who served decades in prison were cleared by new techniques such as DNA evidence. Had they been hanged, they would not now enjoy a free middle age, with their name cleared.

To me, the problem of wrongful conviction is a far better argument against capital punishment than claiming that, if these people had indeed committed the murders, they weren't really responsible for their actions.

The point that the wrongfully convicted make is that they didn't do it at all, not that they did it but are not responsible for their actions.

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