Friday, October 17, 2008

Tua Culpa?

Mea culpa. My bad. Our Christian bad, said David Myers in the opening lines of A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists. Without exactly saying tua culpa, without trying to extract a comparable confession from his addressees, Myers asks them to do what he has done: consider evidence regarding their claims.

Currently, claim number one is the neo-atheist contention that religion is toxic, that it "poisons everything," in the words Christopher Hitchens. A single contrary instance would dispose of that "everything," but Myers argues for more. He says the weight of the evidence is contrary.

If religion is toxic, he asks, why does the data say consistently that it gives people a sense of well-being? According to National Opinion Research Center surveys from 1972 to the present, 43 percent of Americans who attend religious services weekly report being "very happy"--versus 26 percent of those who seldom or never attend. These findings are representative of others.

And if it's toxic, why does religion add to length of life? Even after controlling for age, gender, ethnicity, and education, religiously active people experience greater life expectancy than others. The reasons include healthier lifestyles, less smoking, the support of fellow believers, and (see above) that sense of well-being.

Religious devotion benefits society as well. It is negatively correlated with crime and delinquency, and positively correlated with forgiveness, gratitude, compassion, and the giving of both time and money. In one Gallup survey, 46 percent of "highly spiritually committed" Americans were volunteering with the infirm, poor, or elderly, compared with 22 percent of the "highly uncommitted."

Has religion had destructive episodes? asks Myers. Absolutely. But on balance the above is hardly the work of a poison.

Myers goes on to ask a surprising question: why is skepticism a guy thing? His evidence: (1) The ten winners and fourteen runners up on the Skeptical Inquirer list of outstanding 20th century rationalist skeptics are all white males. (2) In the “science and the paranormal” section of the 2007 Prometheus Books catalog (it's the leading publisher of skeptical thought), there are 94 male authors and only 4 female. (3) Many studies report that men pray less than women and attend fewer church services. The same is true of whites in comparison with blacks. Conclusion? "Aggressive antireligious skepticism is predominantly a product of Euro-American White males, who often are expressing contempt for the beliefs of people quite different from themselves."

This, from one who "cherishes" skepticism and "cold" rationalism. The catch is that Myers also recognizes multiple forms of intelligence. Non-rational ways of knowing matter too, he says, and they are more prevalent among women. Research is showing that if you lose the emotional connection to thought, you lose judgment.

"Just the facts," says Myers in the manner of yesteryear's Joe Friday, and facts are the bridge he offers to skeptics and atheists. Behind his offer is the welcome recognition that they are not of a single type, any more than Christians are.

So who will respond to his "friendly letter"? If friendly types do (see Jonathon Haidt, for example), the results could be fascinating. No longer fundamentalist versus fundamentalist, enemies locking horns, unable to unlock, but data as Revelation meeting data as Reason. Some will complain, "This isn't Christianity" and some, "This isn't atheism." But a logjam will be broken.

The current issue of The Global Spiral, a publication of the Metanexus Institute, contains the complete review from which this post is adapted. Take a look.




Billabong said...

I haven't read either book you refer to, but it does seem that there are toxic forms of religion. In other words, there may be both beneficial and poisonous effects of religious practice and teaching. I have attended churches in which the orientation was toward condemnation and castigation and others in which the orientation was toward forgiveness and generosity. These are different spirits. And these spirits lead us in quite different directions, toward quite different behavior and quite different internal states.

Sue W said...

I agree with the author that non-happy people don't attend church regularly and pray less. The description fits some of my colleagues. One man responds to the question “How are you?” with “Could be better.” As a Christian, why should I bother asking him. He has no religious affiliation and I'm not sure he knows how to pray. He didn't want any sympathy after the death of his mother and bragged his diabetes was under control. Two other colleagues grouse about the high cost of gasoline, preferring to travel long distances for Saturday evening entertainment rather than spiritual enlightenment Sunday morning. This is probably what a pastor meant when people wanted their religion relevant to their lives. Then there's me, who is attending church regularly, missing only while on vacation or ill. I offer prayers for family and friends as they face challenges.

Mark A. Thomas said...

Nowdays with our global reach I wonder if the term 'atheist' has the same meaning that it once had. Certainly, within Western culture it was in relation to the concept of not believing in a deity. Looking at the Websters definition its current use dates back to 1551 as "one who believes that there is no deity" Its root probably from the Greek 'atheos'(godless). I think today there is the conception (and maybe rightly so) that the 'atheist' is someone who has it in for Christianity. It seems to be so in the liberal circles, that being the same group of thinkers who believe in cultural diversity. I am always astounded when I hear atheists talking about the diverse world and then denigrating religion, particularly Christianity. You don't hear too much about the other world religions from these folk but then again they are talking about their percieved (rightly or wrongly) negative experience with some wacky pundits here in the West. Because of this they still do not meet the definition of a 'citizen of the world' as they drink their fine wine. If they want to extend their education and become a little wiser they should spill over boundaries. I should mention that I was brought up in the Christian faith but now only see religion as cultural stories which may have a spark of divinity along with the corruption of inexact language. Cultures have a template which they overlay origins. I believe the origins may be divine but I do not believe in the action of a particular deity. I do not think myself as 'atheist'. I think we owe a lot to the ancient Greeks who tried to find the divine order of things through the dialectic. Science emerged from the mix of the theological; Judeo-Christian, Arabic-Islam probably some Hindu, Buddhist aspects, and the strict Greek dialectic. Science emerged and clashed with religion as it sought the theories of the order of things. If you deem yourself an atheist (and you may be highly educated) you may have high moral principle that is more consistent and stable than a person who practices a faith (I'll give it that). Where do you obtain your morality? Is it genetic and democratic so that those communities that exhibit high morale servitude obtain the greater good for all? Is it then just an evolutionary progress? Is it an emergence value only? Do you not think of the beginning before these things? Where are you heading in your ultimate science? As Stephen Hawking has said, "What breathes life into the equations..", that enables the laws of physics to roll down to us.