Jun 06 2014

Read my new book!

I’ve written a book summarizing my thoughts on life, truth, morality, and religion. About half of the book contains material from this blog (revised, re-written, and greatly improved), while the other half is new material never released before. The book is called The Triple Path. You can download it here (available in PDF, EPUB, or Kindle format).

Sep 23 2013

Cosmology: Theism?

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This post is a follow-up to my previous series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here. Part six is here. Part seven is here.

Current scientific models give us tremendous insight into how the universe began, how it works, and into the origins of humankind. These models, however, also have significant gaps and cannot explain the root cause of many scientific observations. Why did the Big Bang happen? How and why do the fundamental forces work? How and why do the elementary particles exist? How did consciousness evolve? What is consciousness? We at best have only incomplete answers to these questions.

These gaps and unanswered questions leave room for belief in things that exist beyond the material world. Moreover, the inherent limitations of our senses, our scientific instruments, and our brains leaves open the possibility that there are realities that exist outside the material world with which we are familiar and that we are incapable of perceiving or understanding. But within the realm of our perception and experience, materialism and the scientific method are clearly the superior way of understanding the world. Where claims derived from religious belief and from materialism have clashed, the evidence has almost always overwhelmingly resolved the contradiction against the religious claim. In spite of all of the questions still unanswered by science, the scientific method has time and again conclusively refuted and contradicted many previous cosmological “truths” espoused by the world’s religions. Furthermore, our perceptions, actions, and thoughts all seem to take place in a material world, and no one has provided any credible, conclusive evidence to contradict this.1

Many of the unanswered questions of science are “known unknowns”—they are things that we know we do not know. These known unknowns leave room open for the possibility of belief. But it would be wise to have the epistemological humility to also recognize the possibility of “unknown unknowns”—things that we do not even know that we do not know. Both the strident new atheists and fundamentalist religious believers lack this necessary humility that recognizes the limitations of human knowledge and the possibility of unknown unknowns. The new atheists are more concerned with combating religion and trying to prove their own views right than with finding truth. They lack the wisdom or humility to take into account the known unknowns of science and the possibility of unknown unknowns. They seem incapable of recognizing the possibility that they may be wrong.

On the other side, the certainty espoused by the fervent, dogmatic believers in the major traditional religions does not stand up to a careful examination of their religious claims—from the contradictions in their holy books to the fallibility of the religious feelings that often form the foundation of their belief—their belief is built on a very shaky foundation. If there is a god, he does not seem to communicate in very clear terms. All of the world’s major religions have glaring internal inconsistencies and deviate from our modern superior understandings of how the world works. Believers in different, mutually contradictory belief systems claim the same sorts of spiritual feelings as confirmation of the truth of their beliefs.

So what does this mean? The first possibility is that I am wrong and that there is at least one religion that avoids these problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity. This would mean that there is a god who communicates clearly with humankind and there exists somewhere a religion or teacher who consistently and accurately understands what god is saying. I think this possibility is unlikely. At least, I have not yet found a religion or religious teacher who shows this to be a possibility. At the other end of the spectrum, the second possibility is that there is no god.

The third possibility is that there is a god, but that we can infer from the lack of any religion that avoids the problems of consistency, accuracy, and clarity that no religious belief system correctly represents the perfect truths of god or describes existence as it really is. This could be because we human beings are not very good at understanding communications from god (and indeed Paul acknowledges this in 1 Corinthians 13:12 (KJV): “For now we see through a glass, darkly”) or because god wants us to figure things our for ourselves and is not going to give us the truth.

Whichever of the three possibilities is right (of course there may be other possibilities I have not yet conceived of; I am always looking for better answers, this is the best I have so far come up with), the rational response is the same: seek wisdom, do good, and labor with hope to make the world better. What does it mean to seek wisdom, do good, and labor with hope? The next three sections of the book go into far more depth on each of these three, but in a nutshell, seeking wisdom means seeking the best, most accurate knowledge and information we have, relying on the scientific method to discover new things, having the epistemic humility to acknowledge the limitations of human knowledge, and having serenity and the depth of emotional maturity to live rightly.

Seeking wisdom means searching for the truth—not just to learn it, but also to figure out how to learn it. It means having the humility to acknowledge human limitations and to accept truth wherever you find it. If there is a true religion or teacher out there that has the truth, then you should seek to find it, and part of seeking wisdom is finding the good aspects from all religions and philosophies. If the reality is that no religion is right and that we humans are not very good at understanding god, you should do what you can to improve your ability to understand him. It is easier to understand those who are similar to you. Seeking wisdom, doing good, and laboring with hope to improve the world will make you more closely approximate the monotheistic god’s omniscience and omnibenevolence, and thus allow you to understand him better. If religions’ problems with consistency, accuracy, and clarity are because god wants us to discover the truth for ourselves or because there is no god, then wisdom is essential to understanding reality and how to live a good life.

Doing good means living morally (I have already talked about it earlier, and discuss it more later on). Laboring with hope is an extension of doing good and means actively working to make the world into a better place for the coming generations. All of the major religions teach that we should behave rightly. If there is a god, we should seek to do his will. If we cannot understand him, or if he wants us to figure things out for ourselves, then having rational, universally applicable moral rules allows us to live how he would like us to live. If there is no god, the premises and reasons for the moral rules we discussed before are still just as valid, and they require that we seek wisdom, do good, and labor with ope. Seeking wisdom, doing good, and laboring with hope to make the world better are the best approaches to finding truth, internalizing it, living morally, and leaving a better world behind after we are gone.


I have discussed three possibilities relative to god’s existence and his relationship to humankind, but I have wrestled for a long time to come to my own conclusion on the issue. I go with with third possibility: there is a god, but we are either not able to understand him very well or he is intentionally withholding communication from us because he wants us to figure things out for ourselves. In arriving at my belief in god, I have two key questions: 1) Does god exist? and 2) Does any religion’s teachings about god accurately describe god? My answer to the first question is yes, god exists. My answer to the second question is no, there is no religion that accurately describes him.

As an empirical question, it is impossible to prove or disprove the existence of god as he is described by the monotheistic faiths (how do you prove or disprove the existence of an invisible, all-powerful, all-knowing being who is present everywhere at once? No one has yet figured out a way to falsify these claims). Further compounding the problem is that every religion’s conception of god, as well as the agnostics’ and atheists’, make many contrasting, unproved, and unprovable assumptions about the nature and the very concept of god. How can we prove the existence of god if our very concept of god is suspect? We cannot meaningfully discuss the question of god’s existence if we do not even have a coherent definition of what god is. Since many different faiths and teachers have put forward contradictory and mutually exclusive purported revelations about god, and because personal feelings are not a trustworthy guide to discerning their truth, the only basis we have for evaluating the truth of any revelation is on the authority of the person making the claim and we therefore have no independent means of determining which claims about god are correct.

Because of these problems, I do not claim to have a good definition of god or to understand who he is. But my theism is still rooted in rationality. Much like William James, my theism is rooted entirely in pragmatic concerns. Just as there is a relationship between well-being and religiosity, there is also a relationship between belief in god and well-being. People who perceive having a close connection to god have lower rates of depression and loneliness and greater rates of self-esteem, self-rated health, and psychological adjustment in response to major life stressors.2 Attachment theorists hypothesize that believers on god can look to him “as a safe haven, a being who offers caring and protection in times of stress” and that this attachment leads believers to “experience greater comfort in stressful situations and greater strength and confidence in everyday life.”3 Indeed, people who “report a closer connection to god experience a number of health-related benefits: less depression and higher self-esteem, less loneliness, greater relational maturity, and greater psychosocial competence.”4 A secure relationship with god is tied to “better self-rated health and better psychological adjustment among people facing a variety of major life stressors.”5 These effects are greater than the effects associated with measures of religiosity or spirituality, and they have not been explained by nonreligious factors.6

People who believed in god who were being treated for depression had greater reductions in depression and self-harm and great improvements in psychological well-being than disbelievers.7 In a 2013 study of ninety-two countries, there was a positive relationship between a person’s happiness (and life satisfaction) and the self-reported level of importance of god in that person’s life, relative to the average level of faith in that person’s country (but the authors found that some of this relationship was explained by a culture’s level of preference for uncertainty avoidance).8 Among stroke victims, spiritual belief was positively correlated with better mental health (but not with better physical health).9

A meta-analysis of studies that examined the relationship between religious involvement and mortality found that greater religious involvement is associated with greater odds of survival.10 People who perceive having a close connection to god have lower rates of depression and loneliness and greater rates of self-esteem, self-rated health, and psychological adjustment in response to major life stressors.11

Based on what we can measure about belief in god, deciding on theism makes the most sense. Observable results show that theists are happier, healthier, and more moral. If the question of god’s existence is fundamentally unprovable, but belief in him brings such positive results, then the rational response (if your goal is to maximize your well-being and moral behavior) is to believe in god. Thus, I choose to believe. But when a religious teaching or claim is internally contradictory, irrational, immoral, or otherwise similarly absurd, then I choose to reject that teaching or claim, or even that teacher, rather than reject belief in god.

My belief in god is a kind of deism. I believe in a god who does not usually actively intervene in the world, he is a being who has set the universe in motion but does not interfere with its natural laws. I believe that he has given (or allowed us to develop) the ability to love and to observe, learn, and reason and to use these things to figure things out for ourselves. Is god personal? impersonal? a physical being? infinite and incomprehensible, existing outside of time and space? Is god the sum total of all that exists in the universe, thus making each of us a part of god? I do not know. I believe in a higher power with whom I can commune and communicate, but who puts me in total control of my actions, who does not act to change the course of my life. I pray to god to express my gratitude and my goals and desires, but I do not pray for miracles. I believe that the outcomes of my life are the result of my actions, natural laws, random chance, and the choices of others, and I believe that bad things happen for the same reasons.

And most importantly, I do not think any less, or any more highly of someone whether that person believes in god or not. The universal inconsistency, inaccuracy, and ambiguity of human institutions and teachers in religion and spiritual matters shows to me that if there is a god, he is not much concerned with whether we believe in him or not or correctly understand him. The most consistent thing we see across the teachings of religions is that we love others and follow the Golden Rule, and from this I believe that this is what god is most concerned with. I am universalist—I believe that most religions have some truth to them, but that none of them have all truth. I believe that god does not care which church you belong to, if you belong to one, or even if you believe in him. I think he cares about whether you are using your capacity for thought and reason to seek wisdom and your capacity to act to do good and work to make the world better. Whether or not you believe in god and whether or not you go to church, so long as you are doing those three things, then I think that god approves of you. On the other hand, based on the benefits of religion and theism, I think it would be rational to try out religion and theism to see what they can do for you, and to see if they help you on your path to wisdom, goodness, and hope.

I admit, my simple belief in god and religion leaves open many questions about life, existence, and the supernatural. Those questions are important, and I do think about them a lot. I have found no good answers, though, nor have I found anyone else who has good answers. The lack of those certain answers, though, is not a reason to reject the good that comes from theism and religion. I think the Buddha’s parable in the Cula-Malunkyovada Sutta is highly relevant:

It is just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends and companions, kinsmen and relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a priest, a merchant, or a worker.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name and clan name of the man who wounded me . . . until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short. . . until I know whether he was dark, ruddy-brown, or golden-colored. . . until I know his home village, town, or city. . . until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow. . . until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated. . . until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird. . . until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was bound with the sinew of an ox, a water buffalo, a langur, or a monkey.” He would say, “I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was that of a common arrow, a curved arrow, a barbed, a calf-toothed, or an oleander arrow.” The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.12

Our time on this earth is limited. I do not think it makes much sense to reject religion and theism—even if we do not understand what they mean or how they work—if they can help us to act more morally and be healthier and happier. Do not worry so much about first getting the answers to all of life’s questions, there are more important things to focus on first. Instead, worry about removing the arrows of hate, selfishness, hypocrisy, ignorance, foolishness, evil, and despair from your life. The evidence shows that religion and theism can help you do that. And that is good enough.


1Which is not to say that this might not change or that this area is not worthy of further investigation. For example, cases such as those detailed in Twenty Cases Suggestive of Reincarnation by psychiatrist Ian Stevenson certainly bear further investigation and research.

2Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote Error: Reference source not found), pp. 67-66.

3Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 129), p. 67.

4Same (citations omitted).

5Same at 68.


7David H. Rosmarin, Joseph S. Bigda-Peyton, Sarah J. Kertz, Nasya Smith, Scott L. Rauch, Thröstur Björgvinsson, “A test of faith in God and treatment: The relationship of belief in God to psychiatric treatment outcomes,” Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol. 146, No. 3, pp. 441–446, April 25, 2013, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016503271200599X, http://www.jad-journal.com/article/S0165-0327%2812%2900599-X/abstract; see also Timothy B. Smith, Michael E. McCullough , Justin Poll, “Religiousness and Depression: Evidence for a Main Effect and the Moderating Influence of Stressful Life Events ,” Psychological Bulletin , Vol. 129, No. 4, pp. 614 – 636 , 2003, http://www.psy.miami.edu/ehblab/Religion%20Papers/Relig_Depress_Psyc%20Bull.pdf.

8Aleksandr Kogan, Joni Sasaki, Christopher Zou, Heejung Kim, and Cecilia Cheng, “Uncertainty avoidance moderates the link between faith and subjective well-being around the world ,” The Journal of Positive Psychology, 2013, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439760.2013.781207, http://cpwlab.azurewebsites.net/Publications/WVS%20Faith%20and%20Wellbeing%202013.pdf.

9Brick Johnstone, Kelly Lora Franklin, Dong Pil Yoon, Joseph Burris, and Cheryl Shigaki, “Relationships Among Religiousness, Spirituality, and Health for Individuals with Stroke ,” Journal of Clinical Psychology in Medical Settings , Vol. 15, No. 4, pp 308-313 , December 2008, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19104988.

10Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement

of Religion and Spirituality : Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 64-74 at 66, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/58/1/64/, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Hill,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

11Same at 67-68.

12Cula Malunkyovada Sutta, The Shorter Instructions to Malunkya, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, http://buddhasutra.com/files/cula_malunkyovada_sutta.htm.

Sep 20 2013

Cosmology & Reasonable Religion: Worthwhile Religious Practices – Prayer and Meditation

Category: cosmology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 am

This post is a follow-up to my previous series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here. Part six is here.

In my previous posts on cosmology, I talked about practicing resaonable religion. So what does it look like in practice to apply reasonable religion? Let’s apply a reasonable approach to two very common religious behaviors: prayer and meditation. The first step would be to look at the evidence for the efficacy of the behaviors we are looking at. The scientific research shows that prayer has a beneficial effect on the person who prays: it increases gratitude1 and has a strong relationship with hope and adult attachment.2 Praying with and for one’s partner or for a friend increases couple trust and unity.3 Praying for one’s partner also decreases infidelity (both unfaithful acts and thoughts) by increasing the perception that the relationship is sacred.4 In several of these studies, prayer was measured using a questionnaire asking participants a series of three or four simple questions asking participants to rate things such as how frequently they pray or pray for their partner. In one of the studies, a controlled experiment was conducted in which the participants were instructed to pray together and were given a sample non-denominational example prayer as a starting point in which the person praying addressed god and petitioned for help for the friend.5 The benefit to these prayers, however, did not come from benefits to the person being prayed for, but to the strength of the relationship of the two people praying. Studies on intercessory prayers (prayers said with the intent to benefit someone a else) have given inconsistent results, but the evidence so far indicates that such prayers are “neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick.”6 Other reviews of the evidence have concluded that there is no effect, or perhaps only a very small effect, for intercessory prayers.7 Praying for another person seems to provide little or no benefit for that person—the collective evidence seems to show that the benefits of prayer come primarily to the person or persons doing the praying. I would like to see randomized controlled, studies that more precisely control the conditions for praying and the type of prayer being said so that we can better understand the effect of different types of prayers and better understand why there is an effect. But for now, the research does indicate that there is some kind of effect that brings personal benefit to the person praying.

Meditation is a prime example (at least to those of us from a western religious tradition) of the good we can find in other religious traditions. Meditation can mean a lot of different things, from following rigid techniques and reciting specific mantras all the way to quietly thinking. My discussion of meditation is limited to the form with which I am most familiar: stilling your thoughts and emptying your mind. The National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine provides an excellent description of what I am talking about:

Meditation refers to a group of techniques, most of which started in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions. In meditation, a person learns to focus his attention and suspend the stream of thoughts that normally occupy the mind. This practice is believed to result in a state of greater physical relaxation, mental calmness, and psychological balance. Practicing meditation can change how a person relates to the flow of emotions and thoughts in the mind.8

Scientific research indicates that this type of “stillness” meditation can have tremendous benefits. Randomized controlled trials into meditation techniques that focus on stilling one’s thoughts and achieving mental silence show significant effects (greater than other common stress management techniques) on work-related stress and depressive feelings.9 Beyond effects on stress and mental health, meditation actually causes physiological changes in practioners’ brains and bodies.10 Meditation improves physical and mental well-being for people suffering from a variety of physical and mental ailments, leading to improvements in measures of not just mental health, but also physical well-being.11 A review of research into the effect of meditation on biological pathways showed that meditation is associated with lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, lower stress hormone levels, and better health outcomes.12 Other related practices are also beneficial: saying rosaries and saying mantras both have a positive effect on cardiovascular health13 and transcendental meditation (involving saying mantras) modestly reduces blood pressure.14 Indeed, more generically, just cultivating sacred moments has positive effects on subjective well-being, psychological well-being, and on stress reduction.15

The research seems to indicate that prayer and meditation have real beneficial effects on mental, physical, and relationship. Why? How? We do not know exactly. The small or nonexistent effect of prayer on third parties seems to discount (but not entirely foreclose) a likely supernatural explanation. It is very possible that given enough time, we will be able to find entirely materialistic, physical explanations for how these behaviors cause the measured benefits (and once we understand the causal mechanism, hopefully we can learn how to improve our prayer and meditation techniques to maximize their benefit). But regardless of the exact mechanism of action for prayer and meditation, and regardless of whether the mechanism of action is natural or supernatural, the fact is that the research shows they work. Given how easy and simple it is to practice prayer and meditation, it makes sense to try them out—to learn how to effectively pray and meditate and regularly do so to see if they bring the same types of personal benefits that have been found in studies of large groups. I have not yet found good research that can provide guidance on the optimal method for prayer—the studies I have found generally allowed participants to define the meaning of prayer for themselves, or encouraged them to use a generic non-denominational prayer addressed to god. It thus appears that until we have better data, using generic commonly-used methods of prayer are best.

The basic form of prayer that I was taught was to first thank god for the good things in my life and then to ask him for the things I wanted or needed. I still follow that formula, but with a few changes. I lack confidence that prayer has any efficacy to change anything in the world outside my mind. I do not believe that prayer has the power to invoke divine intervention, but I still pray to god. I now use prayer as a way of focusing my mind on those things that I am grateful for and to express my hopes and desires, but without any belief that the mere act of praying will do anything to bring them about. Articulating those things in a formalized, sacralized way has helped me to be more grateful for the good things in my life and to focus my time and attention on achieving the things that are of highest priority. These prayers have helped me feel more spiritual feelings such as elevation, gratitude, awe, and a resolve to do better. They have helped me feel better, and be better. Whether there is any supernatural component to prayer, these things are enough justification for me to make prayer worthwhile.

I am no expert in meditation, but I have found a technique that works for me. I find a quiet place where I can sit comfortably. I close my eyes, take deep breaths, and clear my mind of thoughts. I also use some visualizations that I learned at a meditation class to help me clear my thoughts. As I have gained more practice in meditation, I find I need to use the visualizations less frequently—I can just sit and start to breath deeply and gradually switch my mind over into “meditation mode.” The most effective visualization I found (and that I still often use) is to imagine that my mind is a stormy sea and that my thoughts are violent stormy waves undulating across my mind. Then I imagine the sun rising over the sea of my mind, gradually burning off the storm clouds, slowing and stilling the winds. I think about the waves of thoughts in my mind slowly weakening and subsiding. I continue to breath deeply and imagine my mind as being the glassy smooth surface of a perfectly calm sea. Other times, instead of the sea visualization, or together with it, I recite in my mind a simple mantra as I breath in and out—usually I will think the word “stillness” as I breath in and then think the word “peace” as I breath out. Whatever method I use, once my thoughts have been stilled, I continue to breath deeply and enjoy the serenity of a still mind, I imagine a window in my heart opening and drawing in heat and love, and this induces a feeling of elevation to add to the serenity. Like I said, I am no expert in meditation, but this technique has worked well for me. I would recommend taking a class on meditation to get some ideas on practice and to find something that works for you.

Just because a religious practice is common does not by itself mean that this practice is optimal or worth following. Path dependency can mean that useless or harmful religious practices become widespread because they are part of a “religious package” that a large number of people have come to accept, perhaps because other aspects of the religion do bring real benefits, or because the religion has become widespread because macro socio-political forces or even because of random chance. But at least some, if not many, widespread religious practices are followed because they bring real benefit. It is worth learning about and examining the religious practices of others to evaluate whether those practices are worth following. In the case of prayer and meditation, the evidence shows that they are worth adopting.


1Nathaniel Lambert, Frank Fincham, Scott Braithwaite, Steven Graham, and Steven Beach, “Can Prayer Increase Gratitude?” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 1, No. 3, pp. 139–149, August 2009, www.fincham.info/papers/2009Can%20Prayer%20Increase%20Gratitude.pdf.

2Peter Jankowski and Steven Sandage, “Meditative Prayer, Hope, Adult Attachment, and Forgiveness: A Proposed Model,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 115–131, May 2011, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/rel/3/2/115/.

3Nathaniel Lambert, Frank Fincham, Dana LaVallee,and Cicely Brantley, “Praying Together and Staying Together: Couple Prayer and Trust,” Psychology of Religion and Spirituality, Vol. 4, No. 1, pp. 1-9, 2012, http://www.fincham.info/papers/2012-prs-pray-together.pdf.

4Frank Fincham, Nathaniel Lambert, and Steven Beach, “Faith and Unfaithfulness: Can Praying for Your Partner Reduce Infidelity?” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 99, No. 4, pp. 649–659, October 2011, http://www.fincham.info/papers/2010-jpsp-prayer.pdf.

5Nathaniel Lambert, et. al. “Praying Together and Staying Together: Couple Prayer and Trust,” at p. 5.

6L. Roberts, I. Ahmed, S. Hall, A. Davison, “Intercessory Prayer for the alleviation of ill health,” Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, November 9, 2011, http://summaries.cochrane.org/CD000368/intercessory-prayer-for-the-alleviation-of-ill-health (“[I]t is only possible to state that intercessory prayer is neither significantly beneficial nor harmful for those who are sick. Further studies which are better designed and reported would be necessary to draw firmer conclusions. . . . [A]lthough some of the results of individual studies suggest a positive effect of intercessory prayer, the majority do not and the evidence does not support a recommendation either in favour or against the use of intercessory prayer.”)

7David R. Hodge, “A Systematic Review of the Empirical Literature on Intercessory Prayer,” Research on Social Work Practice, Vol. 17, No. 2, pp. 174-187, March 2007, http://rsw.sagepub.com/content/17/2/174.abstract, http://www.sagepub.com/vaughnstudy/articles/intervention/Hodge.pdf; K. Masters, G. Spielmans, and J. Goodson “Are there demonstrable effects of distant intercessory prayer? A meta-analytic review,” Annals of Behavioral Medicine Vol. 32, No. 1, pp. 21-26, August 2006, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16827626; but see Randolph C. Byrd, “Positive therapeutic effects of intercessory prayer in a coronary care unit population,” Southern Medical Journal, Vol. 81, No. 7, pp. 826-9, July 1988, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/3393937, http://www.godandscience.org/apologetics/smj.pdf (Hodge discounts Byrd’s results because only 6 of the 26 measured problem conditions had positive results, raising the strong possibility that Byrd’s results were false positives) and William S. Harris, Manohar Gowda, Jerry W. Kolb, Christopher P. Strychacz, James L. Vacek, Philip G. Jones, Alan Forker, James H. O’Keefe, Ben D. McCallister, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of the Effects of Remote, Intercessory Prayer on Outcomes in Patients Admitted to the Coronary Care Unit,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 159, No. 19, pp. 2273-2279, October 25, 1999.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10547166, http://www.ntskeptics.org/issues/prayer/prayer-pap-ioi90043.pdf

8National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine, “Terms Related to Complementary and Alternative Medicine,” http://nccam.nih.gov/health/providers/camterms.htm (accessed May 12, 2013).

9Ramesh Manocha “Meditation, mindfulness and mind-emptiness,” Acta Neuropsychiatrica. Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 46-47, Feb. 2011, http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1601-5215.2010.00519.x/abstract; see also Ramesh Manocha, D. Black, and J. Sarris, “A Randomized, Controlled Trial of Meditation for Work Stress, Anxiety and Depressed Mood in Full-Time Workers ,” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol. 2011, June 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21716708, http://sahajayoga.com.au/foryogis/wp-content/uploads/medical_research/A%20Randomized,%20Controlled%20Trial%20ofMeditation%20forWork%20Stress,%20Anxiety%20and%20DepressedMood%20in%20Full-TimeWorkers.pdf

10B. Rael Cahn and John Polich, “Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies,” Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 132, No. 2 pp. 180-211, March 2006, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/bul/132/2/180/.

11Paul Grossman, Ludger Niemann, Stefan Schmidt, and Harald Walach, “Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits A meta-analysis,” Journal of Psychosomatic Research, Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 35 – 43 , July 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15256293, http://www.commonsenseatheism.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/03/Grossman-Mindfulness-based-stress-reduction-and-health-benefits.pdf.

12Teresa E. Seeman, Linda Fagan Dubin, and Melvin Seeman, “Religiosity/Spirituality and Health: A Critical Review of the Evidence for Biological Pathways ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 53-63, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/58/1/53/, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Seeman,%20Religiosity-health,%20bio%20pathways,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

13Luciano Bernardi, Peter Sleight, Gabriele Bandinelli, Simone Cencetti, Lamberto Fattorini, Johanna Wdowczyc-Szulc, and Alfonso Lagi, “Effect of rosary prayer and yoga mantras on autonomic cardiovascular rhythms: comparative study,” BMJ, Vol. 323, No. 7327, pp. 1446-1449, 22 December 2001, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC61046/ and http://www.bmj.com/content/323/7327/1446

14Robert D. Brook, Lawrence J. Appel, Melvyn Rubenfire, Gbenga Ogedegbe, John D. Bisognano, William J. Elliott, Flavio D. Fuchs, Joel W. Hughes, Daniel T. Lackland, Beth A. Staffileno, Raymond R. Townsend, and Sanjay Rajagopalan, “Beyond Medications and Diet: Alternative Approaches to Lowering Blood Pressure : A Scientific Statement From the American Heart Association,” Hypertension, vol. 61, No. 6, p. 1360-1383, June 2013, http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/61/6/1360, http://hyper.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/04/22/HYP.0b013e318293645f.full.pdf.

15Elisha David Goldstein, “Sacred Moments: Implications on Well-Being and Stress ,” Journal of Clinical Psychology, Vol. 63, No. 10, pp. 1001-1019, 2007, http://elishagoldstein.com/assets/goldstein-j-of-clinical-psychology-2007-6310-1001-1019.pdf.

Sep 17 2013

Cosmology: The Benefits of Religion

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 5:15 pm

This post is a follow-up to my previous five-part series on Cosmology, Religion, and Reason. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here.Part four is here. Part five is here.

In part five of my previous series on cosmology, I talked about some of the potential evolutionary explanations for the development of religion. Many of these evolutionary explanations are compelling, and it is likely that a combination of some or all of them may be right. But whatever the reasons for the evolution of religion, it is clear that religion offers practical, observable benefits to adherents, such as “improved health, survivorship, economic opportunities, sense of community, psychological well-being, assistance during crises, mating opportunities, and fertility.”1 There is a large body of research showing a strong relationship between religiosity and a variety of positive outcomes.

Religiosity has a positive relationship with good physical health. Regular church attendance is associated with a twenty-five percent decrease in risk of mortality, even after accounting for confounding variables; religiosity and spirituality is also associated with decreased risk of cardiovascular disease (but religiosity does not appear to help with cancer or to help recovery from acute illness).2 Religiosity and spirituality are associated with lower blood pressure and better immune function.3 Another study of elderly patients found a positive relationship between physical health (although the effects on mental health were greater) and religiosity and that non-religious and non-spiritual patients had worse health and higher morbidity.4 A meta-analysis of studies that examined the relationship between religious involvement and mortality found that greater religious involvement is associated with greater odds of survival.5 Another study concluded that a 20 year old who frequently attends church has a life expectancy of 83 years, whereas a 20 year old who does not attend church has a life expectancy of 75 years. This increased life expectancy appears to be caused by selection effects—unhealthy people are less likely to attend church—and also by increasing social ties and behavioral factors that decrease the risk of death.6 In studies examining the relationship between religion and health, “salutary effects of religious involvement persist despite an impressive array of statistical controls for social ties, health behaviors, and sociodemographic variables.”7

Religion also has a positive relationship with mental health. [S]ystematic reviews of the research literature over the years have consistently reported that aspects of religious involvement are associated with desirable mental health outcomes.”8 Church attendance is indirectly related to improved physical health (through associated decreased substance abuse and increased mood) and directly increases subjective well-being.9 Higher religiousity and spirituality among elderly patients was positively associated with fewer depressive symptoms and better cognitive function.10 When people were asked what they were striving for in their lives, people with a larger number of spiritual goals had greater purpose in life, life satisfaction, and levels of well-being.11 People with a more intrinsic religious orientation have better mental health, self-esteem, meaning in life, family relationships, and a feeling of well-being; they have lower levels of alcohol abuse, drug abuse, and sexual promiscuity.12 Weekly church attendance has about the same significant positive effect on happiness as being married.13

Most of the above studies were conducted in the United States. Critics might point out that American culture is more religious than other developed nations and that the negative comparative effects of irreligion may come from the stress of being part of a minority group. Studies involving international samples, however, contradict this assumption. One study found that religiosity in the United States, Denmark, and Netherlands were all weakly associated with happiness (although the correlations in Europe were not statistically significant).14 A study of a representative sample of elderly adults in the Netherlands showed that even after adjusting for physical health, social support, alcohol use, and demographic variables, there was a consistent relationship between lower depression and regular church attendance.15 Using data from seventy countries from the World Values Survey, a person’s self-definition of being “a religious person” (versus being not religious or atheist) was positively associated with subjective personal life satisfaction. Membership in a country’s dominant religion had no effect on the relationship with life satisfaction, nor did a person’s membership in a minority religion. In other words the relationship did not seem to depend on whether a person was a member of the majority or minority religion, but on whether a person was religious.16 This relationship has apparently held across countries for several decades—in 1990 a study of sixteen countries found that the relationship between church attendance and a person’s happiness and life satisfaction “is not a uniquely American finding, but a general pattern that holds true” across the industrialized world, including in Europe, Canada, and Japan. As a whole in the countries examined, eight percentage points more of the people who attended church once a week were satisfied with their lives and nine percentage points more of those people were happy.17

Like all social science research, this research on the effects of religiosity will never be as conclusive as research in hard sciences such as physics and chemistry. Human beings are complicated, and it can be difficult to set up the regressions equations correctly and create an adequate model to take into account all of the relevant variables. In studies where we look at population-level data, it can be difficult to infer causality. It is difficult, and often impossible, to set up double-blind studies, or even studies with control populations, to let us analyze the effects of the independent variable we would like to study. One clever study, though, uses a natural experiment from the 1960s and 1970s in the United States that led to decreased church attendance. Many U.S. states used to have “blue laws” that prohibited commercial activity, such as retail, entertainment, and sports activities on Sunday. Blue laws were repealed throughout the 1960s and 1970s, often in response to court challenges (and thus not, apparently, because of declining religiosity among the population). These conditions allowed for a natural experiment to compare the behavior and happiness of people before and after the repeal of such blue laws. The repeal of state blue laws led to a decrease in church attendnace among white women (but not men). This decrease in church attendance was associated with a very significant and substantial negative effect on happiness in white women (but not men—the authors conclude that decreased church attendance explains much of the decrease in happiness that women have experienced, relative to men, since 1973).18 This research provides a strong indication that religiosity causes well-being, and not that happy people also tend to be religious.

What is responsible for the relationship between religion and well-being? Religion does not appear to have much of an effect on the “Big Five” major personality traits that psychologists use to describe human personalities (the Big Five traits are agreeableness, conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, and openness). Religion does, however, seem to have “rather profound effects on midlevel personality functions such as values, goals, attitudes, and behaviors, as well as on the more self-defining personality functions of life meaning and personal identity.”19 Religion can provide hope and optimism, which in turn increases a person’s well-being.20 We invest more care and attention into parts of our lives that we view as sacred, and those sacred aspects of our lives give greater life satisfaction and meaning. Religion serves as an orienting, motivating force that provides coping mechanisms (such as meditation and religious rituals) to adherents.21 Some scholars have concluded that the many of religion’s benefits come because it helps “solve significant communication problems inherent in human life.”22 Religions provide social support, companionship, and a sense of community.23 Indeed, the social aspects of religion appear to have the greatest relationship with happiness (both in the more-religious United States and in secular Europe).24 Social support from religion often leads to greater self-esteem and a sense of intrinsic self-worth among adherents and to a continuous support network from birth to death.25 Religious support, however, seems to offer something greater than mundane social support—religious support has a strong relationship with psychological adjustment even after controlling for general social support.26 It is likely that part of the health benefits associated with religion come from religion’s encouragement of healthy behaviors–people who attend church more often also tend have other characteristics that are associated with lower risk of dying, such as more physical activity, more social interactions, and being married.27 These additional healthy behaviors do not explain all of the benefit, however, because a twenty-five percent reduction in risk of death still remains among churchgoers even after accounting for these other behaviors that are related to health.28 This additional effect of religion appears in samples outside the United State as well: increased Church attendance was found to be associated with lower depression even after accounting for other explanatory variables.29

Of course, religion is not all good. Religion can be a source of conflict and struggle. It can be hard to deal with a shattered worldview when you discover the religion you were raised in is not true. It is difficult to handle doubts about god’s existence after a tragedy or after discovering the logical fallacies and inconsistencies of the world’s theistic religions. Personal conflict with other members of your religious community can lead to social isolation and loneliness. Such religious struggles—whether they be internal struggles about your values, behaviors, and feelings; struggles with god and his existence; or even interpersonal struggles in a religious context—represent “a crucial fork in the road for many people, one that can lead in the direction of growth or to significant health problems.”30

Religious and spiritual struggles are associated with negative physical and psychological health, such as “anxiety, depression, negative mood, poorer quality of life, panic disorder, . . . suicidality. . . . declines in physical recovery in medical rehabilitation patients, longer hospital stays, and greater risk of mortality following a medical illness.”31 On the other hand, religious and spiritual struggles are also associated with “positive outcomes, such as stress-related growth, spiritual growth, open-mindedness, self-actualization, and lower levels of prejudice.. . . How well the individual is able to resolve these struggles may hold the key to which road is taken.”32 Reasonable religion means adopting a more mature, intelligent approach to religion to minimize the likelihood of having religious struggles and to develop the intellectual and emotional tools to work through struggles. After all, in spite of the potential pitfalls, in general religion is a very beneficial force in most people’s lives.


1Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta, “Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior,” Evolutionary Anthropology Vol. 12, No. 6, pp. 264, 2003, Nov. 2003, http://dx.doi.org10.1002%2Fevan.10120,

2Lynda H. Powell, Leila Shahabi, and Carl E. Thoresen, “Religion and spirituality: Linkages to physical health,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 36-52, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/?&fa=main.doiLanding&doi=10.1037/0003-066X.58.1.36, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Powell,%20Religion,%20spirituality,%20health,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

3Teresa E. Seeman, Linda Fagan Dubin, and Melvin Seeman, “Religiosity/Spirituality and Health : A Critical Review of the Evidence for Biological Pathways ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 53-63, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/58/1/53/, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Seeman,%20Religiosity-health,%20bio%20pathways,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

4Harold G. Koenig, Linda K. George, Patricia Titus, “Religion, spirituality, and health in medically ill hospitalized older patients.” Journal of the American Geriatric Society, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 554-62, April 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15066070,

5Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement of Religion and Spirituality: Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 64-74 at 66, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/58/1/64/, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Hill,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

6Robert A. Hummer, Richard G. Rogers, Charles B. Nam, and Christopher G. Ellison, “Religious involvement and U.S. adult mortality,” Demography, Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 273-285, 1999, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10332617.

7Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin, “The Religion-Health Connection: Evidence, Theory, and Future Directions ,” Health Education & Behavior, Vol. 25, No. 6, pp. 700-720 at 702, December 1998, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/9813743, https://sph.uth.edu/course/occupational_envHealth/bamick/RICE%20-%20Weis%20398/ellison_religion.pdf.


9Laura B. Koenig and George E. Vaillant, “A prospective study of church attendance and health over the lifespan,” Health Psychology, Vol. 28, No. 1, pp. 117-24, January 2009, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19210025.

10Harold G. Koenig, Linda K. George, and Patricia Titus, “Religion, spirituality, and health in medically ill hospitalized older patients.” Journal of the American Geriatric Society, Vol. 52, No. 4, pp. 554-62, April 2004, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15066070,

11Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement of Religion and Spirituality: Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 64-74 at 68, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/58/1/64/, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Hill,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

12Same at 68.

13Danny Cohen-Zada and William Sander, “Religious Participation versus Shopping: What Makes People Happier?” Journal of Law and Economics., Vol. 54, No. 4, pp. 889-906, 2011, http://ideas.repec.org/a/ucp/jlawec/doi10.1086-658862.html, http://ftp.iza.org/dp5198.pdf.

14Liesbeth Snoep, “Religiousness and happiness in three nations: a research note,” Journal of Happiness Studies, Vol. 9, pp. 207-211, 2008, http://cms.springerprofessional.de/journals/JOU=10902/VOL=2008.9/ISU=2/ART=9045/BodyRef/PDF/10902_2007_Article_9045.pdf.

15Arjan W. Braam, Erik Hein, Dorly J. H. Deeg, Jos W. R. Twisk, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, and Willem Van, “Religious involvement and 6-year course of depressive symptoms in older Dutch citizens: results from the Longitudinal Aging Study Amsterdam,” Journal of Aging and Health, Vol. 16, No. 4, pp. 467-89, 2004, http://www.mendeley.com/research/religious-involvement-6-year-course-depressive-symptoms-older-dutch-citizens-results-longitudinal-ag/,

16Marta Elliott and R. David Hayward, “Religion and Life Satisfaction Worldwide: The Role of Government Regulation,” Sociology of Religion, Vol. 70, No. 3, pp. 285-310, 2009, .

17Ronald Inglehart, Culture Shift in Advanced Industrial Society, 1990. pp. 227-29.

18Danny Cohen-Zada and William Sander (see footnote 13).

19Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 71.

20Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 708-9.

21Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 68; see also Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 707-8.

22Richard Sosis and Candace Alcorta (see , footnote 1 p. 264.

23Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 69; Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 705-7.

24Liesbeth Snoep (see footnote 14), p. 209-10,

25Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 69; Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 705-7.

26Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament (see footnote 11), p. 69;

27Lynda H. Powell , Leila Shahabi, and Carl E. Thoresen (see footnote 2), p. 41; see also Christopher G. Ellison and Jeffrey S. Levin (see footnote 7), p. 704 and Laura B. Koenig and George E. Vaillant (see footnote 11).

28Lynda H. Powell, Leila Shahabi, and Carl E. Thoresen (see footnote 11), p. 41.

29Arjan W. Braam, Erik Hein, Dorly J. H. Deeg, Jos W. R. Twisk, Aartjan T. F. Beekman, and Willem Van (see footnote 15).

30Peter C. Hill and Kenneth I. Pargament, “Advances in the Conceptualization and Measurement

of Religion and Spirituality : Implications for Physical and Mental Health Research ,” American Psychologist, Vol. 58, No. 1, 64-74 at 70, January 2003, http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/amp/58/1/64/, http://www.uic.edu/classes/psych/Health/Readings/Hill,%20Conceptualization%20of%20spirituality,%20AmPsy,%202003.pdf.

31Same (internal citations omitted); see also Kenneth I. Pargament, Harold G. Koenig, Nalini Tarakeshwar, June Hahn, “Religious Struggle as a Predictor of Mortality Among Medically Ill Elderly Patients,” Archives of Internal Medicine, Vol. 161, No. 15, pp. 1881-5, 2001, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11493130.

32Same (internal citations omitted).

Dec 27 2012

A Christmas Carol

Category: booksJames @ 9:41 pm

During the Christmas season, I’ve been reading the Illustrated Classics version of A Christmas Carol with my young preschool-aged son. We’ve both been enjoying it (he likes that it’s a bit spooky because it has ghosts in the story), I very much like the message of charity and love of the story. But something has hit me this time around that I dislike with the story that I’ve never noticed before.

On the surface, the book is supposed to be teaching about having charity and universal love for all, but the spirits of Christmas who visit Scrooge do not exemplify the values they are supposedly teaching. Morally, Jacob Marley and Ebeneezer Scrooge are equivalent–they were partners in the same business and were similarly stingy and uncaring about their fellow man.

After he’s been dead for seven years, Jacob Marley comes back to warn Scrooge and introduce the visits of the other three spirits. Scrooge gets a supernatural intervention that gives a him second chance. Scrooge gains redemption and avoids eternal punishment. 

But what about Jacob Marley’s eternal destiny? When he died, he was doomed to roam the earth in chains, suffering in constant misery for the mistakes of his life. Why did Scrooge get a second chance but not Marley? The only reason Scrooge changed his ways and Marley didn’t was because Scrooge got a supernatural visit from the spirits while he was alive and Marley didn’t. Weren’t the spirits supposed to be teaching Scrooge to turn to a life of charity, love, and compassion? They didn’t seem to be exemplifying those attributes with Marley. Just like Scrooge ignored those who needed help, the spirits ignored Marley.

In fact, it seems that, in some ways, Marley is the most charitable character in the book. Marley’s ghost says to Scrooge: “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.” Marley was thus the one who sought out Scrooge’s redemption. Apparently, the Christmas spirits would have ignored Scrooge if it weren’t for Marley. (The same passage also implies that this act is part of Marley’s pennance, so maybe in the moral universe of A Christmas Carol has some measure of fairness, since it is perhaps implied there will ultimately be redemption for Marley as well as Scrooge.)

So, this New Year’s Eve, raise a glass for good old Marley who, even though he was denied the same chance at redemption that Scrooge got, still came to learn charity on his own and sought out Scrooge’s redemption.

Nov 18 2012


Category: EntertainmentJames @ 11:15 pm

I can’t believe Steven Spielberg would have the audacity to think he can rip off others’ cinematic ideas and think that people won’t notice. Mr. Spielberg, we’re on to you. We know you’re a copycat – the definitive cinematic Lincoln biopic already came out last June. It was called “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

Nov 15 2012

Morality and Hypocrisy

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 8:00 am

Note: This is a continuation of my series on morality. Here are the first seven parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, and Morality and Free Will.


Hypocrisy is claiming to have beliefs, qualities, or motivations that you do not really possess. It is making criticisms of others or having expectations of others that you do not apply to yourself. It is living in moral self-contradiction. We all condemn hypocrisy, but the truth is that we are all hypocrites.

The problem of hypocrisy

Hypocrisy is one of the biggest obstacles to moral behavior. Among the main purposes of moral rules and ethical principles is to maximize the welfare of individuals, communities, and humankind and to improve personal relationships between individuals. The more we all act morally, the happier and more prosperous our communities become. It would seem obvious, then, that we should all act morally. This does not happen because there is frequently a divergence between the personal benefits we get when we act morally and the societal benefits that come to everyone else when we act morally. This is especially true when we can act immorally but still make it look like we are acting morally. When we practice such hypocrisy, we get the external social benefits of gaining others’ trust and earning a respected place in the community without paying any of the costs. Thus, hypocrisy makes a perverse sort of sense when we think we will get a greater personal benefit from acting immorally than from acting morally, even though the overall negative cost of that behavior outweighs the overall benefit. For example, a salesman can often make more money by being dishonest, bending the truth, or misleading his customers. Even though that salesman knows the right thing to do is be honest, he acts dishonestly to maximize his income. even though our community will be worse off overall.

Selflessness and morality

I have written before about the moral case for acting selflessly. The reason for acting morally when it exacts costs on ourselves is because selfless moral action brings greater overall benefits to society. We are a communal species, and the amazing benefits of modern life that we enjoy come because our ancestors sacrificed their own interests for future generations and because our fellow citizens today restrain their selfish impulses to maintain an orderly and fair society. When we experience disorder and injustice in society, it is because there is a breakdown in morality and persons act selfishly against the community’s interest to derive personal benefit to themselves. The short term individual benefits that come from such immoral behavior creates a worse living environment for all of us. Many selfish acts cause little harm, but the aggregate of many such small acts can have very negative results on a societal level. Acting selflessly creates a peaceful and fulfilling society to live in.

We thus have an obligation to act selflessly, even though if may come at a net cost to ourselves, because it is the only way for our community to prosper. We cannot live in a peaceful, prosperous society unless those around us act selflessly. Because we benefit from others sacrifices, we must be willing to pay the price when it comes our turn to sacrifice. This is why moral teachers so frequently condemn hypocrisy. Hypocrites are parasites who reap the benefits of others’ selfless moral acts, but who are unwilling to reciprocate in kind. Hypocrisy is so universally and harshly condemned because a society of hypocrites cannot function.

Harsh treatment for hypocrites helps tip the scales in favor of acting morally for people who might otherwise act selfishly – the potential punishment for acting hypocritically can make it in someone’s interest to act morally, even if they otherwise would have derived more personal benefit from acting immorally. But no enforcement system is perfect. When we rely only on external enforcement to force hypocrites to follow the rules, hypocrisy will increase because even with good enforcement there will still be too many opportunities to cheat. Wise people understand that even if you have no chance of being caught, acting immorally when you do not think anyone will notice still contributes to making a lonelier, more mistrustful, more inhospitable society. The wise understand that they need to pay it forward – the aggregate of all of our actions creates the human world in which we live. Thus, morality means taking a long view and transcending our immediate physical needs and feelings. It requires that we sometimes sacrifice our own interests for those of the community. And, to encourage the less-enlightened who need some incentives to behave, it requires that we punish those who refuse to choose to be selfless (thus giving them a selfish reason to comply).

Avoiding Hypocrisy

Avoiding and preventing hypocrisy is easier said than done. Understanding why we should avoid hypocrisy is a good first step. We should also understand what conditions make people more likely to act with hypocrisy so that we can take steps to avoid those conditions or take extra care when we find ourselves in those situations. Research shows that persons occupying positions of power are naturally prone to act with greater hypocrisy.1 Research also shows that persons occupying a position of power naturally become better liars.2 This means that in your personal life, the more power you get, the more you should be aware of the potential for you to act with hypocrisy. On a broader scale, it also means we should set up hierarchies at all levels of society – in private institutions, churches, governments, and everywhere else – that force extreme transparency on people in power, to make it more difficult for them to act with hypocrisy. We should also impose higher penalties for those in authority who violate laws and moral rules, to provide incentives to counteract the leaders’ natural tendency toward hypocrisy.



Nov 01 2012

Morality and Free Will

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 8:00 am

Note: This is a continuation of my series on morality. Here are the first six parts in the series: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.


I have not been posting as frequently on the blog because I have been working on other projects, some of which are related to my writings here. When those projects are closer to being finished, I will post about them here. In the meantime, I have been thinking a little bit more about morality. In part two of my morality series, I wrote that the principle of individual autonomy and accountability is an important basis of morality. This raises questions about free will that I want to explore further.

Autonomy and accountability

Because we are separate individuals, we are each free to determine the course of our own life and seek after our own happiness. Even when our freedom is infringed by others, we are still free to make choices within the constraints placed on us, and we are free to think whatever we want. We are each free to choose our actions, but every action has natural consequences which result from that action. When we choose something, we are also therefore choosing the consequences which come with that choice. This means that autonomy also comes with accountability: each of us is accountable for the consequences of our actions.

Free will vs. Determinism

This raise questions about whether free will exists or whether our actions are predetermined by preexisting circumstances. In the end, though, the most reasonable conclusion is that the purported distinction between determinism and free will is a false dichotomy. Arguments about free will often boil down to whether you believe that we have some sort of non-material spirit that is independent from the physical universe. Since a universal system of morality should be self-evident to everyone, though, it should deal only with the physical reality that we humans directly experience and can prove. If we have a spirit, no one has been able to credibly prove what it is or how it works. Whether we are a dual spirit-body entity or not, it is clear that physical laws and principles govern most of what we do, feel, and think, and that using physical models assuming that we are physical beings operating in a physical universe has created the most compelling scientific explanations of human function. Similarly, a purely physical model is enough to support this principle of individual autonomy and accountability.

Does using a model that assumes our actions are ultimately determined by the physical properties of our bodies, particularly our brains, foreclose the possibility of us having free will? Debates about free will are really just debates about semantics and definitions. Determinists, who do not believe in free will, argue that our actions are entirely governed by the conditions that pre-existed our actions. Thus, many of them will argue that there is no free will because if you had perfect information about a person’s physical state and all of the preceding events of their life, you could perfectly predict their future actions. The problem is that no has been able to experimentally prove whether this is possible, and perhaps uncertainty at the quantum level means that it will never be possible. The idea of determinism is set against a definition of free will that holds that free will means we are free to make choices free from constraints. Of course, even if it were true that we could choose to act independent of the physical realities of our bodies, there would still be other constraints on our decisions, such as social and psychological constraints. Thus, no one who talks about free will can really claim that we are free of all constraints on our actions. The debates between proponents of free will and determinism are fruitless – neither position is strong, and their arguments end up being more a pointless debate about semantics rather than something that will yield useful ideas about morality and how we should treat each other.

Beyond Free Will

The principle of autonomy and accountability does not require that there be free will in some metaphysical sense. We do not need to define free will or figure out if we truly have free will for autonomy and accountability to form a basis of our morality. Independent of all the constraints on our actions, each of us enjoys an existence separate from all others. Regardless of what outside constraints are placed on us, we determine how we act within those constraints. We are free in the sense that each of us is an autonomous individual organism capable of independent action. No one can directly control the neural impulses within our body.1 While our behavior might be physically determined, it is not directly compelled by any outside physical force other than our own unique personal characteristics and our experience. We are influenced by incentives and external influences, but our personal behavior is ultimately determined by internal physical processes.

Our brains – our physical neural framework – learn from experience. We apply our own personal neural models to modify our behavior in response to our circumstances. We learn from the consequences of our actions and change our future behavior in response. Thus, in the end, each of us is responsible for the consequences of our own actions. In the end, we are the masters of our own fate.

We are social animals, and we impose rules and limits on each other to constrain our actions within acceptable norms that promote the community’s welfare. The history of human experience, however, clearly shows that we flourish when freedom is maximized and constraints are limited. Research has shown that even just reducing a person’s belief in free will makes them less helpful and more aggressive.2 On the other hand, the constraint of being accountable for our actions is also important. Moral rules are a necessary part of living in a community of other people. Because our actions affect everyone around us, we are accountable not only for the natural consequences of our actions, but also for the effect our actions have on others. Indeed, we already seem to be attuned to this reality. Research indicates that we behave better when we are reminded that we are accountable to a higher power3 (whether to God or a civic institution) or when we feel like we are being watched4 (it is enough to increase the rate that people follow the honor system and pay for their purchases at an honesty box by simply posting a picture of an eye above the box). Whether or not we are free to act in some metaphysical sense, the physical reality is that both individuals and societies progress and flourish only when individuals are free to determine their actions and are then held accountable for the results of those actions.


1 Of course, this is not completely true anymore. It is possible to hook electrodes to someone’s nerves or brain and control certain aspects of that person’s bodily functions. In the future, such technologies may be come sophisticated neough to control a person’s behaviors. In that case, such a person being controlled externally would be absolved from moral responsibility, at least to the extent that they did not cede that control over them.

2 Baumeister RF, Masicampo EJ, Dewall CN. (2009). Prosocial benefits of feeling free: disbelief in free will increases aggression and reduces helpfulness. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 35(2):260-8. PMID 19141628 doi:10.1177/0146167208327217

4 Bateson M, Nettle D, Roberts G., Cues of being watched enhance cooperation in a real-world setting. Biology Letters 2006, 2(3), 412-414. DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2006.0509.

Jun 21 2012

Latino or Hispanic – What’s the Difference?

A recent story on our local NPR station about Latino and Hispanics included a short interview with me. You can find it here (the story is from the Fronteras Desk, which is a cooperative effort between several NPR stations in the Southwest to provide coverage of issues relevant to the Southwest and border states – their stories are heard on the NPR stations in San Diego, Phoenix, Las Vegas, Alburque, El Paso, and San Antonio).

As the story indicates, their impetus for doing the story was a letter that I wrote to my local NPR station, KJZZ. I wrote the letter in response to a story they did about whether people in the United States with origins in Latin America prefer the term “Hispanic” or “Latino.” You can read that story here. This is the letter I wrote to them:

First, I want to compliment you on the excellent and comprehensive reporting coming from your Fronteras stories. I take issue, however, with your recent story about preferences for the use of the terms “Hispanic” and “Latino” (“Study: ‘Latino’ and ‘Hispanic’ Not The Preferred Labels” by Nadine Arroyo Rodriguez, April 4, 2012).

It is unfortunate that in a story about the labels Latinos and Hispanics apply to themselves, you carelessly used as synonyms two labels that are not interchangeable. Ms. Rodriguez used the terms Hispanic and Latino as equivalent terms referring exclusively to persons of Spanish-speaking origin. While these terms have sometimes been erroneously conflated in US government census documents and by the Pew Hispanic Center, it is not proper general English usage to treat them as synonyms. Moreover, the lead to your story erroneously referred to “people of Latin American descent,” even though the survey at issue in the story ignored the one-third of Latin Americans who speak Portuguese.

Recognized authorities on the English language, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, point out that the terms Hispanic and Latino are not synonymous. The term “Hispanic” refers exclusively to those whose ethnic origins trace back to Spanish-speaking countries. The term “Latino,” however, is not limited only to Spanish speakers, but is also frequently used to refer to persons whose ethnic origins trace back to Latin America. Latin America includes Brazil, which as I’m sure you know, is a Portuguese-speaking country. Indeed, there are more Portuguese speakers in South America than Spanish speakers.

Brazilian-Americans commonly use the term “Latino” to identify themselves. The AP Stylebook makes a distinction between the terms Hispanic and Latino; it recognizes that Latino includes not just those of Spanish-speaking origin but also more generally includes those from Latin America (including Brazilians). There are nearly 400,000 Americans of Brazilian ancestry in the United States (including me) and 200 million people in Brazil. It appears careless to me to use terms that ignore Brazilians’ significant presence in our country and hemisphere.

I realize that your story was based on the results of the Pew survey and was perhaps mirroring Pew’s usage of the terms. But previous KJZZ stories have also made this same error. Additionally, even if Ms. Rodriguez was repeating the terminology used by the Pew Center, repeating such specialized non-standard usages without explanation is confusing to listeners. I suggest that in the future, your usually careful and insightful reporters more clearly delineate the difference between the terms Hispanic and Latino in their reporting. KJZZ would do well to follow the recommendations from the AP Stylebook and use more care and precision when choosing whether to use the term Hispanic or Latino.

James Rogers

I wrote the letter not expecting much of a response. To my surprise, I received a response indicating that my letter had ignited a debate in their newsroom and asking if they could interview me for a story about terminology and self-identity.

The interview was a new experience for me. We talked for about 15 minutes, but only 10 seconds of our interview ended up in the story. If you listen to the audio for the story, you’ll notice that it is slightly different than the written version. The main difference is that the written version says said I “fancy” myself a Latino – to me, that seemed to carry an mocking tone, as if I’m portraying myself as something I’m not. Well, I really am half-Brazilian. My mom grew up poor in a little town in the middle of nowhere in Brazil (she even lived in a house with dirt floors and no running water for a few years as a kid). Her parents were born and raised in Brazil. And so were her grandparents. And so were her great grandparents. As far as we can tell, all of my Brazilian ancestors go back into the mid- to early 1800s, and probably further back. I wonder if because my last name is Rogers and because I’m pale-faced and blue-eyed, they didn’t think I can really claim Latin American heritage.

I frequently encounter this kind of ignorance in Americans’ conceptions about Latin America. Latin America has significant populations of just about every racial background. Just in Brazil there are large populations of people tracing their ancestry to Europe (all parts – north and south, east and west), Africa, the Middle East (there is a large number – 7 to 10 million – of Brazilians descended from Lebanese Christians who came to Brazil in the first half of the 20th century; in fact, one of the biggest fast food chains in Brazil is a place that makes Middle Eastern fast food), and Asia (Brazil has the largest population of ethnic Japanese people outside of Japan). There is even a large community of descendants of Confederate Americans who went to Brazil following the south’s loss in the American Civil War. They are known as the “Confederados” and still have annual get-togethers where they dress up in Confederate uniforms and sing American folk songs (in badly-accented English).

Brazil especially is a real melting pot of racial and ethnic backgrounds. As I’ve mentioned before, my 23andMe results indicate that my direct maternal ancestor is of African origin, probably from Mozambique. The rudimentary analysis available on 23andme estimated that I have about 1 percent African ancestry and 3 percent indigenous ancestry. More detailed analysis indicates that I am about 1.7% African and about 4% Asian (which in my case would really be Amerindian, since Amerindians show up on genetic tests as Asian because their ancestors came to the New World across the Bering Strait from Asia). I show up as being about 10% Middle Eastern / North African (my guess is that this comes from the Moors who occupied the Iberian Peninsula), 29% Mediterranean, and 53% European (42% west and 11% East) (numbers don’t add up to 100% because of rounding).

The way they have it in the NPR story, they seem to imply that I am improperly putting myself out as being Latino. The reality is that I am uncomfortable with the whole concept of asking people to identify themselves by race or ethnicity. I am especially uncomfortable with the way that our society conflates the two distinct concepts of ethnicity (such as Jewish or Latino) with race (such as black or white). I do not really self-identity as Latino. I love Brazil, my Brazilian relatives, and my Brazilian heritage, but I identify as an American.

To prepare for the interview, I asked my Brazilian family and friends on Facebook about what they thought about the terms “Latino” and “Hispanic” and whether the terms apply to people of Brazilian ancestry. The pattern that I noticed in the responses (though admittedly from a small sample size) was that people born and raised in Brazil – whether they have immigrated to the United States or whether they still live in the United States – did not seem to identify with the term Latino at all. People of Brazilian ancestry who were born in the United States, or younger Brazilians who have spent time overseas seemed to be more comfortable with the term Latino but didn’t feel that it was a perfect descriptor.

What I told the reporter was that I almost always mark “other” on forms (my only exception is if it seems like an official government form that appears to require full disclosure, like a juror questionnaire). I really consciously started making a point of marking “other” on forms when I was filing out my law school applications. I wanted to know for myself that, at whatever law school I ended up, I got in there on merit and not because of affirmative action or any special advantage from my ancestral background. The reporter asked me directly, though, if I would qualify as a Latino. In response to that direct question I said that I believe I would qualify since my mother is Latin American. This is where the quote from the story came from.

My main point in writing the original letter to the radio station was because I get frustrated when people incorrectly assume that all Latin Americans are speak Spanish (I cannot count the number of times when I was growing up that people assumed that my mother speaks Spanish because she is from Brazil). If the journalists involved remember in their reporting that Latin America is not all Spanish-speaking and if the story educates a few more people, then I think my letter was worth it.

May 31 2012

Cosmology, Religion, and Reason: Part 5

Category: cosmology,Epistemology,Reasoning,religion,scienceJames @ 8:00 pm

This is part five of a series. Part one is here. Part two is here. Part three is here. Part four is here.

In the last post, I talked about the “Practical Approach” to religious claims. In this concluding post, I expand on this further and talk about adopting a reasonable approach to religion.

Toward Reasonable Religion

When you follow the practical approach, you accept that no matter what church you belong to, it is important to update your religious views to be fully compatible with our modern understandings of the world – to move toward more reasonable religion. Reasonable religion integrates the wisdom of the ages about morality, spirituality, and enlightenment with our modern scientific understanding of the universe and reality. It means adopting a reasonable approach to religion within whatever religion you practice. We should never be afraid to change our beliefs in the face of new evidence. We should never be afraid to reject religious teachings that are contradicted by new discoveries and better information.

At the same time, even in our modern age, we need not limit religion to an empirically based, scientific undertaking. Questions of feelings and finding beauty and meaning in life are important too. One of the main values of religion is cultivating a sense of wonder and peace, an understanding of our human frailties and imperfections, and a respect for the mysteries of the universe. Human reason and rationality are responsible for the amazing advances in our culture, knowledge, and standards of living. But our brains are finite and surprisingly predisposed to irrationality. What this means is that all of us – even the smartest and most rational among us – have hidden biases and predispositions that we cannot perceive. This human trait affects both the brains of the religious and the atheists. Reasonable religion means trying to clarify our thinking and act more rationally, but it also means having some humility about our conclusions and beliefs and not losing sight of the importance of feelings and human relationships.

Reasonable religion acknowledges at least the possibility of a higher power and the unseen world, but it even more enthusiastically encourages man’s attempts to further understand unseen forces and unknown domains by using our rational understanding. Reasonable religion lauds the benefits of rationality, but acknowledges that we as humans are incapable of perfect understanding. Our ability to perceive is limited, as is our capacity to understand. Reasonable religion is not concerned with the unprovable, such as the existence of God or with questions about life after death. Instead, it is a tool that we use to make things better here and now.

Whether or not the supernatural claims of religions are true (and based on their track record of being wrong about the things that we can prove, it is not unreasonable to treat them with some skepticism), religious teachings about morality and spiritual practice can lead us to concrete benefits apart from their supernatural teachings. Yoga is a good example of this. Yoga has become so popular in the United States that it is considered a completely mainstream activity. But yoga was originally a Hindu religious practice. Many western yoga practitioners derive significant benefits from their practice and many, if not most, of them consider yoga to be little more than a form of exercise. Few of them accept many (if any) of the supernatural teachings of Hinduism. Meditation is another example of a religious practice that has become accepted for its practical benefits by many people who reject the original supernatural reasons for the practice.

The archeological evidence shows that religion has co-evolved with us since even before behaviorally modern humans emerged 50,000 years ago. Most scientists agree that our tendency for religious behavior evolved early in our history. There are two explanations for how religion evolved. The first is that religion itself serves an adaptive purpose that confers a selective advantage and that it thus arose through natural selection. The second view is that religious behavior is merely a byproduct of other adaptive traits, such as agent detection, theory of mind, and understanding causation.1 Based on the ubiquity of religion in every human culture, and the many cross-cultural similarities in religious belief and practice, I think that the first explanation is probably correct: religion evolved through natural selection because it conferred selective advantages.

Religion probably evolved because it serves three important practical purposes:

  1. Serenity: to assist people attain enlightenment, which means achieving sustained periods of emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, and gratitude;
  2. Morality: to provide a moral code and framework for our interactions with each other and the world and provide outlets to exercise moral goodness towards others;
  3. Sociality: to encourage group cohesiveness and provide a social outlet for people to interact, become acquainted, learn from each other, and support one another in their lives and beliefs.

Just like almost every human trait, our religious tendencies can become unhinged, turn maladaptive, and lead to negative outcomes. And just like any human trait, each person’s natural religious tendencies vary in the same way that every human trait varies. Some people are more naturally angry or happy than others and some people are naturally more religious than others and some people are naturally areligious (although they seem to be a small percentage of the population). But because religion is an evolved part of human nature, for most of us it is nearly impossible to completely remove our natural religious inclinations. It is easy to see innate human religious tendencies even among the ostensibly non-religious. In our modern Western societies, many secular people who have eschewed religion unknowingly adopt quasi-religious attitudes about the norms and beliefs of their peers and surrounding social groups. Two obvious examples are 1) the strident self-righteous piety of the New Atheists2 and 2) the concern for ritual purity of environmentalists.3 I don’t mean this as an attack on atheism or environmentalism; both movements have strong arguments to support their positions. The point is that for psychologically healthy and normal human beings, it is difficult for us to escape religion, no matter what church we do or don’t go to. Whenever a social group coalesces around strongly held beliefs or ideas, their religious natures usually emerge, whether it be around Christianity, sports, or Star Trek.4.

Reasonable religion recognizes our innate religious nature and seeks use it to our benefit. The three purposes of religion can be fulfilled by taking the useful and reasonable parts of religion and jettisoning the unreasonable and cosmologically suspect parts. Everyone, even the religious fundamentalist, does this. It is impossible to believe in most major religions without picking and choosing which parts to believe in and practice (indeed, sacred works like the Bible are filled with contradictions5 which make it impossible to literally believe everything they contain). Rarely, though, do we do this consciously and systematically.

Determining our religious beliefs in a casual and ad hoc fashion frequently leads to suboptimal results. Without thinking deeply and carefully, too often we end up keeping the bad parts and jettisoning the good ones. We end up with suboptimal and inconsistent belief systems that do not maximize the potential benefits our religion can bring to ourselves and others. We should each consider our religion (whether it is an explicit denomination or merely the core practices and ideals we have adopted from our peers and social groups) and jettison the bad parts, keep the good parts, and study the religions of others so that we can co-opt their useful parts and practice them ourselves. This should be an ongoing process – it is easy to fall into a rut and develop bad habits and rely on our past conclusions; reasonable religion is a lifelong approach of continual reevaluation, a never-ending accretion of positive religious practices and outlooks. Religion evolved because it conferred real benefits. Reasonable religion means thinking carefully and acting wisely to maximize those benefits.

So what is the best way to practice reasonable religion? Study the wisdom of the ages; compare, think, and explore; integrate what you find with modern scientific knowledge. Make the effort to discover and synthesize truth. Different, valuable approaches and perspectives often develop outside of your “group” that often end up being better than what you find within your normal range of experience. If you only ever look within your own tradition and social groups, insularity and groupthink will often lead you astray into false beliefs and conclusions. Don’t get stuck in an echo chamber: read and experience teachings and traditions outside your occupation, your field of study, or your religious tradition – you will find new insights and knowledge unattainable without venturing outside. Keep the good you already have, and look for more wherever you can get it.



3 Environmentalists’ concerns for ritual impurity and achieving ritual cleanliness merely trades religious objects for a new set of secular objects. Their quasi-religious concern for avoiding “ungreen” products and using ritually pure objects often comes without rationally evaluating their behavior to figure out how they can actually make the most impact. The important thing to them becomes the ritual purity, and only secondarily achieving the most environmentally positive outcome. For example, animal loving environmentalists hold SUV drivers in contempt for their unclean gas-gizzling behavior even though many of those same environmentalists keep pet dogs and cats that have a greater adverse environmental impact than the SUV (http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/pet-dogs-damaging-environment-suvs/story?id=9402234). Their attitudes are more shaped by a reverential awe for “nature” than for actually minimizing their environmental impact. Another example is environmentally conscious drivers who gain ritual purity by driving their Prius, even though the energy used to build and operate a Prius may make it worse for the environment other simple gasoline-powered options like the Scion xB ( http://cnwmr.com/nss-folder/automotiveenergy/DUST%20PDF%20VERSION.pdf (PDF)). Many in the environmental movement also display ascetic tendencies that in previous years might have led them to a monastic life: the act itself of sacrificing is what they value most, rather than rationally evaluating the evidence and making the optimal choice. Their environmentalism becomes an excuse to display their innate religious tendencies.

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