Thursday, May 15, 2008

More on Science, Religion, and Spirituality

Last night, One Ring and I attended a wonderful discussion on Joseph
Campbell's The Power of Myth. Great book, by the way. Buy it. Now.
Anyway, the topic was entitled "Masks of Eternity," and covered
Campbell's idea that the religions of the world are created metaphors
for the ultimate reality (here even God is a metaphor) that words and
ideas cannot describe. It was a really eye-opening and mind-expanding
discussion, one that unfortunately I cannot transcribe here (my memory
is bad on specifics). Suffice to say that it left us feeling open to
the fact that "The Truth" is contained in just about every religion -
and I say just about because there's always somewhackadoodle (that's a
technical term) cult out there that claims to have "The Truth" - and
conflict begins when we make our metaphors concrete facts. As in "My
God is real and yours isn't. My text is sacred and yours isn't. I'm
right and you're wrong." We see that going on now in the fight between
some Christians andMuslims, Muslims and Jews, and within Christianity and Islam.

With that in mind, One Ring sent me an article that one of her professors
passed on to her and her classmates. It's an op-ed piece from the New
York Times. Enjoy.

May 13, 2008Op-Ed Columnist The Neural Buddhists By DAVID BROOKS In
1996, Tom Wolfe wrote a brilliant essay called "Sorry, but Your Soul
Just Died," in which he captured the militant materialism of some
modern scientists.

To these self-confident researchers, the
idea that the spirit might exist apart from the body is just
ridiculous. Instead, everything arises from
atoms. Genes shape temperament. Brain chemicals shape
behavior.Assemblies of neurons create consciousness. Free will is an
illusion.Human beings are "hard-wired" to do this or that. Religion isan accident.

In this materialist view, people perceive God's existence because their
brains have evolved to confabulate belief systems. You put a magnetic
helmet around their heads and they will begin to think they are having
spiritual epiphany. If they suffer from temporal lobe epilepsy, they
will show signs of hyper religiosity, an over excitement of the brain
tissue that leads sufferers to believe they are conversing with God.

Wolfe understood the central assertion contained in this kind of thinking:
Everything is material and "the soul is dead." He anticipated the way
the genetic and neuroscience revolutions would affect public debate.
They would kick off another fundamental argument over whether God

Lo and behold, over the past decade, a new group of
assertive atheists has done battle with defenders of faith. The two
sides have argued about whether it is reasonable to conceive of a soul
that survives the death of the body and about whether understanding the
brain explains away or merely adds to our appreciation of the entity
that created it.

The atheism debate is a textbook example of
how a scientific revolution can change public culture. Just as "The
Origin of Species" reshaped social
thinking, just as Einstein's theory of relativity affected art,so the
revolution in neuroscience is having an effect on how people seethe

And yet my guess is that the atheism debate is going to
be a sideshow.The cognitive revolution is not going to end up
undermining faithin God, it's going end up challenging faith in the Bible.

Over the past several years, the momentum has shifted away from hard-core
materialism. The brain seems less like a cold machine. It doe snot
operate like a computer. Instead, meaning, belief and consciousness
seem to emerge mysteriously from idiosyncratic networks of neural
firings. Those squishy things called emotions play a gigantic role in
all forms of thinking. Love is vital to brain development.

Researchers now spend a lot of time trying to understand universal moral
intuitions. Genes are not merely selfish, it appears. Instead, people
seem to have deep instincts for fairness, empathy and attachment.

Scientists have more respect for elevated spiritual states. Andrew Newberg
of the University of Pennsylvania has shown that transcendent
experiences can actually be identified and measured in the brain
(people experience a decrease in activity in the parietal lobe, which
orients us in space). The mind seems to have the ability to transcend
itself and merge with a larger presence that feels more real.

This new wave of research will not seep into the public realm in the form
of militant atheism. Instead it will lead to what you might call neural
Buddhism. If you survey the literature (and I'd recommend books byNewberg, DanielJ. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships.
Second, underneath the patina of different religions,people around the
world have common moral intuitions. Third, peopleare equipped to
experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they
transcend boundaries and overflow with love.Fourth, God can best be
conceived as the nature one experiences atthose moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins,
the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the
easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel
the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions
are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits.
It's going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That's bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to
defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They're
going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why
specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I'm not
qualified to take sides, believe me. I'm just trying to anticipate
which way the debate is headed. We're in the middle of a
scientific revolution. It's going to have big cultural effects.

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