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, Kindle, or mobi format).
Sep 23 2013
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
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.
Comments Off on Cosmology & Reasonable Religion: Worthwhile Religious Practices – Prayer and Meditation
Sep 17 2013
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).
May 31 2012
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:
- Serenity: to assist people attain enlightenment, which means achieving sustained periods of emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, and gratitude;
- 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;
- 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.
May 22 2012
Last post, started talking about the first three of four possible reasonable approaches to religious claims: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. In this post, I talk about my favored approach, the practical approach (presentist eclecticism).
The Practical Approach (Presentist Eclecticism)
The practical approach is to take the beneficial parts of religion to maximize its present practical benefit. You do not approach religion trying to find a reason to believe or disbelieve all of the unprovable stuff. Things are neither “true until proven false” nor “false until proven true.” You do not try to pigeonhole problematic religious teachings into a palatable symbolic reinterpretation.
Applying the practical approach, you readily jettison the parts of religion that are demonstrably untrue. You look to science and other fields of intellectual inquiry to learn about the universe and our place in it. But you also do not reject religion either. For the parts of religion that have not been proven false, you search religion and religious teachings for tools to lead you to feelings of elevation, enlightenment, gratitude, peace, and transcendence, and to virtuous acts. Religion has, after all, proved itself quite effective at helping us achieve these states. You take an eclectic approach to religion. You sift out the valuable parts of the world’s religions and leave the rest.
The practical approach also means not worrying about unanswerable (at least at the present) metaphysical questions like the existence of the soul or our fate after death. It means not concerning yourself with questions of future eternal rewards or punishments. In Matthew, Jesus says “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”1 Practitioners of the practical approach take Jesus at his word. They care about the here and now, not abstract, indistinct, and indiscernible futures.
Virtually every religion has a moral core required of followers. Religions generally guarantee future rewards in the afterlife for moral behavior. When you adopt a presentist approach to morality, you approach moral questions concerned with an action’s effects within our current sphere of existence, rather than concerning yourself with how that act will effect some future reward after death.
Conveniently, an approach to morality that is only concerned with our current mortal existence results in a moral code that closely approximates the core moral precepts that we find in all the major religions. Presentism leads to the same moral behavior that the world’s great religions teach as being required to achieve a beneficial outcome after death. Living morally will definitely make your life better now, and if there is an afterlife, it will probably lead to a good outcome after death too. Concerning yourself with religions’ cosmological claims becomes less important, since you get the benefits of the moral behavior either way.
The teachings of the great religions have great value in helping people transform their lives for the better. The parts of religions that do this are the parts that are based on real universal moral principles. They are the parts that help people live more virtuous lives, discern truth, and achieve emotional states of serenity, peace, transcendence, elevation, and gratitude. To derive these benefits of religion, however, we do not need false cosmologies or superstitions based on inaccurate world views.
Some people may argue that the value from religion comes from their cosmologies and superstitions. There are some interesting counter examples that contradict this view. Buddhism is often described as an atheistic religion because it makes no claims about god or divinities. There are hundreds of millions of Buddhists who find tremendous value in their practice of Buddhism. Even more lacking in metaphysics is Confucianism, which makes few if any supernatural claims and makes no theistic claims at all (although there is still debate about whether it should be classified as a religion). Confucianism has been a dominant and positive force in the lives of people in East Asia for mny centuries.
Now, some might claim that good behavior is not enough, that you have to perform the sacred rites of a particular religion, or accept Jesus into your heart, or follow the Five Pillars of Islam, etc. Maybe you do and maybe you don’t – and even if you do, which religion’s practices are right? So long as your religious practice does not prevent you from engaging in objectively moral behavior, it does not hurt to entertain Pascal’s Wager, choose a religion, and follow its rites and requirements. But the practical approach never accepts demonstrably untrue religious claims.
In the next post, I’ll conclude this series with some thoughts on adopting a reasonable approach to religion.
1 Matthew 6:34 (NRSV)
May 21 2012
Last post, I talked about the problems with adopting a literal approach to religions’ claims. As alternatives to the literal approach to religious teachings, I listed four reasonable approaches to religious claims beyond just relying on statements from purported authorities: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. In this post, I talk about the first three approaches.
The Gaps Approach
With the gaps approach, you re-interpret as being symbolic the teachings about cosmology that have been contradicted by modern science, but continue believing in the teachings that have not been challenged by science. You create space for belief out of the gaps that science has not, or cannot, address. For example, you might discount the idea of a creation in six days, but continue believing that God created the Earth using natural processes over millions of years.
The problem with this approach is that as scientific knowledge continues to grow, the space for religious belief continues to shrink. Moreover, it is epistemologically dubious and self-serving to accept as true the parts of your religion that science has not been able to disprove. It requires that you to ignore the glaring problem that in the areas where scientific inquiry has yielded applicable results, it has disconfirmed and rarely (if ever) confirmed any of the religion’s cosmological teachings. But inasmuch as some of religions’ claims will almost always be unprovable, this is a completely legitimate approach. Most educated religious believers in the West, whether knowingly or not, adopt this approach.
The Symbolic Approach
The symbolic approach is to look at all of the cosmological teachings in the religion or sacred text as being symbolic. This is fine as far as it goes, but it raises the issue of the value of devoting time to study teachings that you acknowledge as being untrue. In most cases, the cosmologically suspect teachings were originally put forth as being literally true. Why shoehorn meanings into the teachings that were not even intended by the original authors? There are cultural and social reasons to adopt this approach (if you live in a society dominated by a certain religion, you may have no choice but to remain affiliated and try to make the best of what you have), but it is not ideal. Even so, it is a perfectly respectable way to approach religion and has been applied by many people.
The Rejection Approach
The rejection approach is to conclude that if verifiable religious claims are usually contradicted by scientific discoveries, then perhaps there is not much reason to continue reinterpreting religious beliefs and teachings to retain a faith in the gaps – if the verifiable claims are untrue, then the unverifiable religious claims probably are not true either. Someone applying the gaps approach might conclude “well, since we have proved that there is no heaven directly above us in the sky, it must mean that heaven is somewhere else,” whereas a rejectionist might instead conclude “if the ancients were wrong about heaven being a literal place above the sky, then maybe there is no heaven at all.” While those who apply the gaps approach tend to be theists, rejectionists tend to be atheists. Many intelligent atheists have adopted this approach and it is an entirely defensible approach.
In my next post, I’ll discuss my favored approach, the Practical Approach (or Presentist Eclecticism).
May 18 2012
Last post, I talked about the great benefits that have come from religion, but also about how many of the great religions’ cosmological claims have been proven false. In this post, I’ll talk about the problem with adopting a literal approach to religions’ claims.
Much of what our ancestors believed about cosmology is plainly contradicted by what we have discovered about the universe. When the teachings of the great religions are based on the premises of a false cosmology, then the teachings themselves should be suspect – there is no reason to believe a conclusion based on a false premise.
Religious believers who take a literal approach to their religion’s sacred books or to the teachings of their religious leaders may appeal to authority and argue that the words of god, as contained in their scriptures (or as transmitted by their holy leaders) are the ultimate authority and therefore modern cosmological claims must be wrong. There are two problems with this approach.
First, believers base their claims about a text or leader’s divine authority on circular and subjective arguments. Believing in a leader or a text’s divine authority merely because the leader or the text says so is circular: we have no reason to believe in the leader or the text’s claims unless we already believe in their claims – there is no external reason to believe in their authority. Believing in a leader or a text’s divine authority because of our subjective emotional responses to them is almost equally problematic. As I have discussed before, spiritual feelings are very subjective.1 People from wildly different religions – religions with contradictory and mutually exclusive teachings – describe the same sorts of spiritual feelings confirming their belief in the religion. Some followers may isntead place their trust in stories about a teacher’s or a leader’s miraculous or supernatural abilities. Such stories invariably lack objective verification and are nearly always told second or third hand; I have never seen such stories stand up to rigorous scrutiny. Things like a religious text’s or leader’s own claim to authority, pleasant feelings, or stories of dubious veracity are not be enough to validate the claims to authority of religious texts or teachers, especially when some of their claims are directly contradicted by our modern observations of the world.
Second, it is a logical fallacy to believe in a statement’s truth merely because it was uttered by an “authority.” None of us can know everything. There is nothing wrong with relying on experts. And there is nothing wrong with arguing that a statement made by an authority is true. The problem arises when we argue that something is true because it was uttered by an authority. If something is true, then it is true whether or not it was uttered by an authority. Any statement made by an authority, therefore, should be able to stand up to criticism and independent verification. If an authority’s statements are true, it should be consistent with our knowledge of reality.
As alternatives to the literal approach to religious teachings, I present four reasonable approaches to religious claims beyond just relying on statements from purported authorities: 1) the gaps approach; 2) the symbolic approach; 3) the rejection approach; and 4) the practical approach. Next post, I’ll talk about the first three.
May 17 2012
Over the tens of thousands of years of human existence, human cultures have developed much knowledge about creating and maintaining good relationships and building communities. In the development of human society over the last 100,000 years, humans moved from simple hunter-gatherer tribes to societies of increasing complexity and size. The large and complex societies of the last few thousand years do not function well without moral principles such as charity, empathy, honesty, and respect for life and personal property.
The great religions of all the major cultures have accumulated insights into human living and interactions over the generations and developed the moral rules that are essential to modern society and as more people more fully live these moral principles, people’s lives have significantly improved. The moral teachings of the great religions have tremendous value in teaching us how to live together, and how to attain enlightenment, contentment, and happiness. Religion even provides much value and meaning to even non-adherents – secular notions of morality originally started from religious ideas about morality.
But in spite of the great value we can derive from religion, the great teachings of the world religions are also intertwined with ancient pre-modern cosmologies (cosmology is the study of the universe and humanity’s place in it) of decreasing relevance to us in light of modern scientific discoveries. The world’s major religions were founded in pre-modern times by people with radically different cosmologies than our modern conceptions. Many of the doctrines, practices, and teachings of modern religions are thus based on pre-modern cosmologies founded on superstitious beliefs and practices; they are based on false premises and assumptions about the world which we now know to be wrong.
For example, at the time of the founding of the great religions of the world, many of those religions’ adherents believed that the world was flat or that it was at the center of the universe. Biblical cosmology presupposes that the Earth is a flat disc floating in water.1 For biblical writers, heaven was a literal place just above the sky and hell was a literal place just below the ground. In Acts in the New Testament when Jesus ascends to heaven, Jesus is going to a literal place just above the sky. When John writes in Revelation about Jesus returning to Earth, he is talking about Jesus descending from a literal place located just above the sky. When the Bible talks about hell, it is referring to a literal place just below the ground that is the abode of departed spirits.2 The Bible presupposes a geocentric model of the universe, in which the Earth sits at the center and everything else, including the Sun, revolves around the Earth.3 Many of these types of passages are now interpreted metaphorically, but their writers’ literally believed them.
Our ancestors based their cosmologies on rudimentary observations of the world around them and then combined their observations with doctrines from religious teachers and culturally-inherited superstitious notions about unseen actors and forces. Modern scientific cosmology is based on fields such as astronomy and physics. The breakthroughs in modern cosmology frequently require advanced math; sophisticated tools, such as telescopes and particle accelerators; and a knowledge of past discoveries (because one lifetime is not enough for one person alone to figure out all the wonders of the universe).
Much of what our ancestors believed about cosmology is plainly contradicted by what we have discovered about the universe. When the teachings of the great religions are based on the premises of a false cosmology, then the teachings themselves should be suspect – there is no reason to believe a conclusion based on a false premise.
In Part 2, I’ll talk about the problems with taking a literal approach to religious teachings
Oct 20 2011
I’ve finished my very first children’s book, and it is now available for sale. I wanted to write a book about astronomy that had good rhymes my 2 year old son would enjoy. The result is my first book, “Let’s go visit the planets.”