Secular Right | Reality & Reason

Archive for July 2017

Jul/17

23

UFOs and The ‘Religious Mind’

Writing in the New York Times, Clay Routledge notes the interesting, if unsurprising, fact, that someone’s religious instinct doesn’t disappear simply because he or she has rejected ‘established’ religion:

Just a couple of decades ago, about 95 percent of Americans reported belonging to a religious group. This number is now around 75 percent. And far fewer are actively religious: The percentage of regular churchgoers may be as low as 15 to 20 percent. As for religious belief, the Pew Research Center found that from 2007 to 2014 the percentage of Americans who reported being absolutely confident God exists dropped from 71 percent to 63 percent.

Nonetheless, there is reason to doubt the death of religion, or at least the death of what you might call the “religious mind” — our concern with existential questions and our search for meaning. A growing body of research suggests that the evidence for a decline in traditional religious belief, identity and practice does not reflect a decline in this underlying spiritual inclination.

Ask yourself: Why are people religious to begin with?

Well, there was that Minnesota study of twins reared apart described in this Wall Street Journal article a few years back (I posted about it here):

The Minnesota study’s IQ results hit a nerve years before their publication in 1990, overshadowing other controversies that might have been. Many of its findings are bipartisan shockers. Take religion, which almost everyone attributes to “socialization.” Separated-twin data show that religiosity has a strong genetic component, especially in the long run: “Parents had less influence than they thought over their children’s religious activities and interests as they approached adolescence and adulthood.” The key caveat: While genes have a big effect on how religious you are, upbringing has a big effect on the brand of religion you accept. Identical separated sisters Debbie and Sharon “both liked the rituals and formality of religious services and holidays,” even though Debbie was a Jew and Sharon was a Christian.

I eagerly looking forward to what Routledge had to say about the “religious mind” as something that is inherited, an aspect of the ‘God Gene’, yet another by-product of the evolutionary process.

But no, to Mr. Routledge, the “fundamental nature” of the religious mind is:

[O]ur awareness of, and need to reckon with, the transience and fragility of our existence, and how small and unimportant we seem to be in the grand scheme of things. In short: our quest for significance.

Count me out of that “quest”, but each to his own…

But then Routledge moves into more interesting territory:

Evidence suggests that the religious mind persists even when we lose faith in traditional religious beliefs and institutions. Consider that roughly 30 percent of Americans report they have felt in contact with someone who has died. Nearly 20 percent believe they have been in the presence of a ghost. About one-third of Americans believe that ghosts exist and can interact with and harm humans; around two-thirds hold supernatural or paranormal beliefs of some kind, including beliefs in reincarnation, spiritual energy and psychic powers.

These numbers are much higher than they were in previous decades, when more people reported being highly religious. People who do not frequently attend church are twice as likely to believe in ghosts as those who are regular churchgoers. The less religious people are, the more likely they are to endorse empirically unsupported ideas about U.F.O.s, intelligent aliens monitoring the lives of humans and related conspiracies about a government cover-up of these phenomena.

An emerging body of research supports the thesis that these interests in nontraditional supernatural and paranormal phenomena are driven by the same cognitive processes and motives that inspire religion. For instance, my colleagues and I recently published a series of studies in the journal Motivation and Emotion demonstrating that the link between low religiosity and belief in advanced alien visitors is at least partly explained by the pursuit of meaning. The less religious participants were, we found, the less they perceived their lives as meaningful. This lack of meaning was associated with a desire to find meaning, which in turn was associated with belief in U.F.O.s and alien visitors.

When people are searching for meaning, their minds seem to gravitate toward thoughts of things like aliens that do not fall within our current scientific inventory of the world. Why? I suspect part of the answer is that such ideas imply that humans are not alone in the universe, that we might be part of a larger cosmic drama. As with traditional religious beliefs, many of these paranormal beliefs involve powerful beings watching over humans and the hope that they will rescue us from death and extinction.

A great many atheists and agnostics, of course, do not think U.F.O.s exist. I’m not suggesting that if you reject traditional religious belief, you will necessarily find yourself believing in alien visitors. But because beliefs about U.F.O.s and aliens do not explicitly invoke the supernatural and are couched in scientific and technological jargon, they may be more palatable to those who reject the metaphysics of more traditional religious systems.

It is important to note that thus far, research indicates only that the need for meaning inspires these types of paranormal beliefs, not that such beliefs actually do a good job of providing meaning. There are reasons to suspect they are poor substitutes for religion: They are not part of a well-established social and institutional support system and they lack a deeper and historically rich philosophy of meaning. Seeking meaning does not always equal finding meaning.

Or at least an acceptable facsimile of meaning for the individual in question. ‘Meaning’ in this sense can only ever be subjective.

Routledge:

The Western world is, in theory, becoming increasingly secular — but the religious mind remains active. The question now is, how can society satisfactorily meet people’s religious and spiritual needs?

Well, it’s not up to ‘society’ to decide on this one way or another, but, if Routledge is correct (which, I think he is, if not quite for the right reasons) , the religious impulse is not going anywhere soon. That suggests that much of atheist rage—itself an expression, I suspect, of religious feeling—against organized religion is misdirected.

Organized religion can be a device for channeling the innate religious impulse in a positive manner. It can be, but very often is not. Those who either lack or have little in the way of a religious mind should oppose the more destructive forms of organized religion (there are plenty of examples to choose from) while welcoming the existence of those that are relatively benign.

As I’ve noted here before, the more or less agnostic Winston Churchill said that he was not a pillar of the Church of England, but a buttress, ”supporting it from the outside”. I feel much the same way.

To repeat myself from that earlier post:

At its best, the C of E…is in some ways as close to perfection as religion—a man-made thing—can come to perfection, benign, kindly, gently patriotic, theologically broad-minded, a quiet conservator of tradition and order with room (for those who want it) for a spot of the supernatural, but little time for superstition, the navel-gazing nonsense of mysticism or an over-insistence on dogma.

Beats a UFO cult any day.

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Jul/17

22

Machine Trumps Ghost

It is—time flies—now thirty years since the appearance of The Closing of the American Mind, an anniversary noted by Alexander Riley in The American Conservative.

The whole thing is well worth reading, but this passage caught my attention:

Some elements of Allan Bloom’s analytical framework are frankly inadequate.  He is too perfunctory in dismissing the contribution made to knowledge about human nature by the sciences, and his Great Books/Thinkers list is missing a figure the right makes a grave mistake in ignoring:  Darwin.  Rigorous evolutionary thinking connected to empirical research into the foundations of human behavior and social order offers some of the sturdiest support for conservative politics, and the right would do well to embrace these findings.

The book’s second section (“Nihilism, American Style”) lays out the complex intellectual history undergirding Bloom’s description of the state of the university, and its obscurity for readers not already thoroughly grounded in the ideas it presents is only its most obvious weakness.  Too much is made to depend on the lasting importance of the insights of Locke and Rousseau on human nature, and too much in contemporary behavioral science shows that their systems will not bear that weight.  Locke thought human beings were essentially unmarked at birth by our animal nature, and Rousseau believed it was only social institutions that make us selfish and competitive.  The Darwinian evolutionary perspective tells us considerably more of lasting importance about what we are and what the social world likely can and cannot do to alter that.

Indeed.

Machine trumps ghost.

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Well, here’s something for everyone: Pipelines, eminent domain, nuns, ‘religious liberty’ or (take your pick) religious privilege.

As the Washington Post explains the story, an energy company (Williams Cos) wants to run a natural gas pipeline through agricultural land owned by an order of nuns, one of whom, explains the Post’s writer, “has always known this land as sacred”.

I’ll let that comment stand there.

What Williams does is pay for an easement to dig up the land and put a pipe in. It then hands back the land to its owners. According to the company’s spokesman, it will compensate farmers for lost crops and will return to inspect whether agricultural output over the pipeline returns to normal.

The nuns are opposed to the project. According to one of their number they “believe in sustenance of all creation.”

No matter that, compared with most fossil fuels, natural gas is associated with relatively low CO2 emissions. And no matter (I’m making a guess, but not, I suspect, an unreasonable one) that the nuns make use, directly or indirectly, of fossil fuels themselves.

The Washington Post:

The pipeline company first sought without success to negotiate with the nuns. Now as Williams Cos. tries to seize the land by eminent domain, the order is gearing up for a fight in the courtroom — and a possible fight in the field, as well.

There, smack in the path of the planned pipeline, the nuns have dedicated a new outdoor chapel.

“We just wanted to symbolize, really, what is already there: This is holy ground,” said Sister Janet McCann, a member of the national leadership team of the Adorers of the Blood of Christ, whose 2,000 nuns around the world have made environmental protection and activism a key part of their mission.

The sisters’ chapel is a rudimentary symbol, but a powerful one: eight long benches, a wooden arbor and a pulpit, all on a straw-coated patch of land carved out of the cornfield.

I am no great fan of eminent domain (even if it is sometimes necessary), but the key question here is whether a makeshift chapel (built primarily as a legal device) and claims that this piece of Pennsylvania is ‘holy land’ should give these nuns a privilege denied almost everyone else – an exemption from the law.

The Washington Post

The Adorers and their supporters’ nascent faith-based resistance, which has been compared to the anti-pipeline activism led by Native Americans at Standing Rock, N.D., could eventually set a precedent in a murky area of religious freedom law.

U.S. appeals court judges have ruled inconsistently on whether federal law protects religious groups from eminent domain in such cases. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 3rd Circuit, which covers Delaware, New Jersey and the part of Pennsylvania where the nuns reside, has yet to issue a ruling on the matter. Legal observers say a case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

“There is something to this ‘holy land’ thing,” said Dan Dalton, a Michigan land-use and zoning attorney and the author of a book on the litigation of religious land-use cases. “There haven’t been a lot of appellate cases. . . . It really is a relatively new issue.”

… In a complaint they filed in federal court Friday, the nuns argued that FERC’s authorization of the pipeline on their property violated their religious freedom, protected under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

“FERC’s decision to force the Adorers to use land they own to accommodate a fossil fuel pipeline is antithetical to the deeply held religious beliefs and convictions of the Adorers. It places a substantial burden on the Adorers’ exercise of religion,” the nuns’ attorneys wrote.

Another federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, could more specifically protect the nuns, depending on a judge’s interpretation. That law seeks to shield religious institutions from land-use laws that would otherwise impose a substantial burden on their religious exercise. But the nation’s appellate courts have offered differing opinions on whether the law applies to eminent domain. The 3rd Circuit, where the Adorers are located, has never ruled on that question, several lawyers familiar with this area of law said, so the nuns may be the ones to set the precedent.

This will be a  story to watch.

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Jul/17

9

The Pope’s “Distorted Vision”

Cross-posted on the Corner.

I don’t know whether his views on this matter are driven by authoritarianism (Peronism dies hard), a theocratic contempt for national borders or simple bone-headedness, but, in an interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica Pope Francis has now come out in favor of a federal Europe, well, soonish.

l’Europa deve assumere al più presto una struttura federale.

In the same interview, the Pope had this to say (translation via AFP):

I worry about very dangerous alliances between powers which have a distorted vision of the world: America and Russia, China and North Korea, Putin and Assad over the war in Syria…”

So Pope Francis thinks that America has a “distorted vision of the world”? Say what you will, the man has chutzpah.

Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa may be turning into something of a disappointment to the Pope. Lampedusa, which is just off the North African coast, has become a landing point for many of the migrants headed Europe’s way and, for others, tragically, a last resting place, something that prompted Francis to choose the island as the site of his first official visit outside Rome after becoming pope in 2013.

While he was there he gave a talk on the topic of immigration that displayed both the demagogic skills and profound intellectual dishonesty that have become a recurring theme of his papacy. I’ve blogged about that talk a few times. Theodore Dalrymple filleted it here. This extract gives a flavor:

By elevating feeling over thought, by making compassion the measure of all things, the Pope was able to evade the complexities of the situation, in effect indulging in one of the characteristic vices of our time, moral exhibitionism, which is the espousal of generous sentiment without the pain of having to think of the costs to other people of the implied (but unstated) morally-appropriate policy…..

The Pope’s use of a term such as ‘those who take the socio-economic decisions in anonymity’ was strong on connotation but weak on denotation, itself a sign of intellectual evasion. Who, exactly, were ‘those’ people? Wall Street hedge fund managers, the International Monetary Fund, opponents of free trade, African dictators? Was he saying that the whole world economic system was to blame for the migration across the Mediterranean, that the existence of borders was illegitimate, that Denmark (for example) was rich because Swaziland was poor, that if only Lesotho were brought up to the level of Liechtenstein (or, of course, if Liechtenstein were brought down to the level of Lesotho) no one would drown in the Mediterranean? There was something for everyone’s conspiracy theory in his words….

Note also a few of the facts and figures that Dalrymple cites:

Lampedusa is an Italian island of 8 square miles with a permanent population of 6000, which so far this year has received 7800 migrants trying to reach Europe across the Mediterranean from sub-Saharan and North Africa, that is to say more than 1000 a month. When the Pope officiated at mass on the island’s sports field, there were 10,000 in the congregation, two thirds more than the permanent population…

Now fast forward to 2017, and this report in the Guardian:

Anyone looking for an insight into the growing disillusionment of ordinary Italians as their country is left to deal alone with a summer surge of migrants on its southern shores should contemplate the fate of Giusi Nicolini, the former mayor of Lampedusa.

Earlier this year Nicolini won Unesco’s Félix Houphouët-Boigny peace prize for the “great humanity and constant commitment” with which she has managed a migration crisis that began in earnest during the summer of 2011, as the Arab spring turned north African societies upside down.

A politician from the centre-left Democratic party, Nicolini also won the Olof Palme prize in 2016 and was among the Italians celebrated at a dinner with former US president Barack Obama at the White House in October.

But as she travelled the world and courted the media, regularly appearing on Italian TV and portraying the tiny island of around 6,000 people as a safe haven for migrants, discontent simmered back on Lampedusa, closer to Tunisia than mainland Italy, where she held office. Islanders made their feelings known last month when Nicolini was resoundingly ousted from her post, coming third in municipal elections with just 908 votes.

It wasn’t a surprise to us that she lost,” said Salvatore Martello, a hotel owner and fisherman who won the election running independently from Italy’s main parties. “In the years she was mayor, she curated an image abroad of the island and the migrant situation, forgetting its people.”

…“People didn’t like Nicolini because she put herself first,” said Vincenzo Esposito, a fisherman for 50 years. “Yes, it was right to help migrants, but millions have been spent on that and not on our basic needs….”

Moral exhibitionism”, that was the term that Dalrymple used. Works well, I think.

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Jul/17

1

Bret Weinstein talks about being hunted on campus

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