The World Wide (Religious) Web for Tuesday, October 4, 2011


What troubles me about Dawkins’ pronouncements is his wholesale dismissal of religion and religious sensibility. In a speech at the Edinburgh International Science Festival, in 1992, Dawkins said: “Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.” And a month after Sept. 11, 2001, Dawkins told the British newspaper the Guardian: “Many of us saw religion as harmless nonsense. Beliefs might lack all supporting evidence but, we thought, if people needed a crutch for consolation, where’s the harm? September 11th changed all that.”

In my opinion, Dawkins has a narrow view of faith. I would be the first to challenge any belief that contradicts the findings of science. But, as I have said earlier, there are things we believe in that do not submit to the methods and reductions of science. Furthermore, faith, and the passion for the transcendent that often goes with it, have been the impulse for so many exquisite creations of humankind. Consider the verses of the Gitanjali, the Messiah, the mosque of the Alhambra, the paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Should we take to task Tagore and Handel and Sultan Yusuf and Michelangelo for not thinking? Faith, in its broadest sense, is about far more than belief in the existence of God or the disregard of scientific evidence. Faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand. Faith is the belief in things larger than ourselves. Faith is the ability to honor stillness at some moments and at others to ride the passion and exuberance that is the artistic impulse, the flight of the imagination, the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world.

Scattered throughout Dawkins’ writings are comments that religion has been a destructive force in human civilization. Certainly, human beings, in the name of religion, have sometimes caused great suffering and death to other human beings. But so has science, in the many weapons of destruction created by physicists, biologists and chemists, especially in the 20th century. Both science and religion can be employed for good and for ill. It is how they are used by human beings, by us, that matters. Human beings have sometimes been driven by religious passion to build schools and hospitals, to create poetry and music and sweeping temples, just as human beings have employed science to cure disease, to improve agriculture, to increase material comfort and the speed of communication.


DOES SAM HARRIS KNOW THIS? “Antisocial personality traits predict utilitarian responses to moral dilemmas.”

A study conducted by Daniel Bartels, Columbia Business School, Marketing, and David Pizarro, Cornell University, Psychology found that people who endorse actions consistent with an ethic of utilitarianism—the view that what is the morally right thing to do is whatever produces the best overall consequences—tend to possess psychopathic and Machiavellian personality traits.

In the study, Bartels and Pizarro gave participants a set of moral dilemmas widely used by behavioral scientists who study morality, like the following: “A runaway trolley is about to run over and kill five people, and you are standing on a footbridge next to a large stranger; your body is too light to stop the train, but if you push the stranger onto the tracks, killing him, you will save the five people. Would you push the man?” Participants also completed a set of three personality scales: one for assessing psychopathic traits in a non-clinical sample, one that assessed Machiavellian traits, and one that assessed whether participants believed that life was meaningful. Bartels and Pizarro found a strong link between utilitarian responses to these dilemmas (e.g., approving the killing of an innocent person to save the others) and personality styles that were psychopathic, Machiavellian or tended to view life as meaningless.

These results (which recently appeared in the journal Cognition) raise questions for psychological theories of moral judgment that equate utilitarian responses with optimal morality, and treat non-utilitarian responses as moral “mistakes”. The issue, for these theories, is that these results would lead to the counterintuitive conclusion that those who are “optimal” moral decision makers (i.e., who are likely to favor utilitarian solutions) are also those who possess a set of traits that many would consider prototypically immoral (e.g., the emotional callousness and manipulative nature of psychopathy and Machiavellianism).

In short, if scientists’ methods cannot identify a difference between the morality of a utilitarian philosopher who sacrifices her own interest for the sake of others, and a manipulative con artist who cares little about the feelings and welfare of anyone but himself, then perhaps better methods are needed.



Is evil over? Has science finally driven a stake through its dark heart? Or at least emptied the word of useful meaning, reduced the notion of a numinous nonmaterial malevolent force to a glitch in a tangled cluster of neurons, the brain?

Yes, according to many neuroscientists, who are emerging as the new high priests of the secrets of the psyche, explainers of human behavior in general. A phenomenon attested to by a recent torrent of pop-sci brain books with titles like Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. Not secret in most of these works is the disdain for metaphysical evil, which is regarded as an antiquated concept that’s done more harm than good. They argue that the time has come to replace such metaphysical terms with physical explanations—malfunctions or malformations in the brain.

Of course, people still commit innumerable bad actions, but the idea that people make conscious decisions to hurt or harm is no longer sustainable, say the new brain scientists. For one thing, there is no such thing as “free will” with which to decide to commit evil. (Like evil, free will is an antiquated concept for most.) Autonomous, conscious decision-making itself may well be an illusion. And thus intentional evil is impossible.

Have the new neuroscientists brandishing their fMRIs, the ghostly illuminated etchings of the interior structures of the skull, succeeded where their forebears from disciplines ranging from phrenology to psychoanalysis have failed? Have they pinpointed the hidden anomalies in the amygdala, the dysfunctions in the prefrontal lobes, the electrochemical source of impulses that lead a Jared Loughner, or an Anders Breivik, to commit their murderous acts?

And in reducing evil to a purely neurological glitch or malformation in the wiring of the physical brain, in eliminating the element of freely willed conscious choice, have neuroscientists eliminated as well “moral agency,” personal responsibility? Does this “neuromitigation” excuse—”my brain made me do it,” as critics of the tendency have called it—mean that no human being really wants to do ill to another? That we are all innocent, Rousseauian beings, some afflicted with defects—”brain bugs” as one new pop-neuroscience book calls them—that cause the behavior formerly known as evil?

Are those who commit acts of cruelty, murder, and torture just victims themselves—of a faulty part in the head that might fall under factory warranty if the brain were a car?

I have yet to read a single neuroscientist claiming that his own ideas are the predetermined result of brain chemistry over which he exercised no control, but for the life of me, I can’t see why this isn’t the logical conclusion of his neuro-determinism.



Eagleman’s proposed rehabilitation of the criminal justice system is bad public policy for at least three reasons. First, it is based on conclusions not supported by the examples he cites as evidence. Second, it fails to recognize science’s limitations in explaining human behavior. Third, it ultimately dehumanizes in seeking to be humane. In short, scientism makes for bad philosophy, and even worse public policy.


POLITICIANS AND GOD: “Q&A: Mitch Daniels on the Economy, His Quiet Faith, and a Social Issues Truce.”

Even as you are personally religious, we don’t hear you talk about it very often; is that a choice? Was there a time or a year you decided to be a Christian or had a particular Christian conversion?

On the second question, no, I can’t point to that because it was part of my life from the first moment of consciousness. We were always in church. My folks both sang in the choir. I spent all Sunday morning at church, at Sunday school and first service, and then I’d wait in the choir loft while the folks sang. They would sing right up through the anthem, and then they could leave. But the answer is no, it was and always has been a part of my everyday life. We moved to Indianapolis when I was 10 and joined the church that I’m still a member of. I’m a 50-year member of the same church—now you would call it an inner-city church, as the town has grown.

On the first question, I’ve tried to find the right balance point, and it’s a difficult thing in this job. As a private citizen, it wasn’t difficult at all. I helped, for instance, start the Oaks Academy. But in this job, there is a responsibility to remember that one represents everyone of every faith or even no faith, and not to misuse even by accident the position to advance, or as the Constitution says establish, any religion. But before I was sworn in, one of the big events of our inaugural was a massive gospel concert that I asked people to put together. We filled the coliseum out at the fairgrounds for an afternoon of gospel music. It was something I wanted to do, it was voluntary, nobody had to come, and I wasn’t governor yet. I remember it rubbed a couple people the wrong way, and I’m sorry it did. On many, many occasions I’ve quoted Scripture, I’ve spoken to it. I don’t know if I’ve gotten the balance exactly right, but I accept the Great Commission, as we call it, and the responsibility of witness. But during these years in public life, I’ve had a second responsibility that I at least need to be mindful of.


AS IF SIGNING BILLS INTO LAWS WEREN’T ITSELF A FORM OF ESCALATION“Catholic bishops up the ante in fight with Obama.”

U.S. Catholic bishops, concerned about Obama administration policies on birth control and gay rights that they say see as an unprecedented “assault” on the rights of faith groups, have established a watchdog panel to combat threats to “religious freedom.”

The new Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty was launched by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and unveiled by the USCCB’s president, Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, on Friday (Sept. 30).

The establishment of a committee—which signals a top priority for the hierarchy—represents another escalation in the Catholic bishops’ increasingly tense and public battle with President Obama as the 2012 presidential campaign season gets underway.



Like those prophets, we should lament that young adults today are marked not by catechized commitment, but by Moralistic (and Snycretistic) Therapeutic Deism. But there’s no reason to be surprised.  MTD is an ancient religion, not a newfangled faith.


HELL WATCH: “Comparing Bell and Chan on Hell.”


DUDE, MATTHEW 18:9 IS HYPERBOLE: “Aldo Bianchini, Viareggio Man, Rips His Own Eyeballs Out During Church Service (VIDEO).” The accompanying video does now show Bianchini doing the deed. It’s some HuffPost reader narr


GOOD NEWS FOR WHOMEVER HE MIGHT ENDORSE: “Rev. Pat Robertson drops endorsements, says politics ‘can’t change our world.’”


FROM MY MAGAZINE: “Open the Gates, Open the Book, Open the Altars: The Incredible Importance of Public Worship” by Steve Phifer.


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