bookmark_borderPractising, but non-believing Christian?

Yesterday’s Guardian (UK) had a short piece on a talk by Martin Rees, head of the Royal Society, and part of it was:

In an apparent swipe at colleagues such as Richard Dawkins and Lewis Wolpert who have launched blistering attacks on religion, Lord Rees said he felt it was “not helpful” to cast religion as anti-science. “Among scientists there are adherents to a variety of religions. Creationism is not compatible with science, but many people hold to religious views and religious attitudes which are fully compatible … There should be, at the very least, peaceful coexistence between science and most organised religion.” Lord Rees describes himself as a “practising, but non-believing Christian”. Church-going “was a custom of my tribe and I stick with it”.

Never mind the content — it’s the “practising, but non-believing Christian” part that I find interesting. I don’t object to it. In a way, I’m rather sympathetic. It’s one thing to discard the various supernatural beliefs that come with our religions, and another to try and get rid of religion altogether, possibly wiping out the socially and culturally valuable aspects of the local religion in the process. (Not that I think getting rid of religion is a real possibility.)

But I also wonder if the “practising but non-believing” option is that realistic. Few put it as explicitly as Rees, but there must be many people in church who care little about the theological commitments of their sect, even down to not really being interested in God and all that. But how can you reproduce such lukewarm commitment to traditional observance, with the supernatural rationale behind the behavior being gutted out? Doctrinally liberal churches keep losing ground, while fire-breathing fundamentalist movements can count on steady growth. The kind of ultraliberal position Rees adopts must be even more difficult to pass on to the next generation. “Believe or you burn in hell” seems to be a much more effective motivator than “don’t believe but observe the traditions anyway.”

bookmark_borderDa Vinci Code

My curiosity got the better of me and I went to see the Da Vinci Code last night. I hadn’t planned to go because the critics have been near universal in saying how horrible they thought it was. I’m glad I didn’t listen to them. It was a fantastic movie. Sure it was standard Hollywood fare — go see Brick if you’re looking for an outstanding indie — but the screenplay improved on the book’s tortured prose, the acting was excellent, very good editing and use of flashbacks, good pacing, overall just a fun movie.

I think I can say that objectively and not because of some hidden atheist agenda. And as an amateur biblical student I was intrigued by the story’s gnostic and conspiratorial themes. I know that there is more truth to some of the so-called wild claims in the film than the Catholic Church would have you believe. If you believe that Jesus’ offspring became kings of France then I’ve got a bridge to sell you. However, the pagan feminine element that the Church co-opted and subsequently supressed is a direct challenge to the men who rule. That’s not a conspiracy, that’s good old-fashioned politics.

If there’s any conspiracy going on it’s a cabal among those urging everyone else not to see the film. The impressions I had of the film before seeing it were so different from the film itself than in hindsight they look overblown and hysterical. I’m sure quite a few of those folks don’t really think it was a bad movie, they just don’t want people to see it because it challenged their faith and they want to protect others from the same fate. Even if you’re like me and you know the subject pretty well it still has a way of luring you in and putting you under its spell. I heard more than a few comments on the way out to the lobby that told me the average movie-goer is starting to ask some tough questions about ancient Christianity, uncomfortable questions that religious leaders would just as soon lay people not ask.

Don’t listen to the religious warriors who find it necessary to defend their precious metanarratives. It’s just a movie. Go see it and have a great time.

bookmark_borderRussell County High School students demonstrate their faith

It has been tradition at Russell County High School in Kentucky for graduating seniors to elect a “graduation chaplain” who delivers a Christian prayer at the graduation ceremony. This year, a Muslim student filed a lawsuit and a judge issued an injunction to prevent it. As the principal began his opening remarks, 200 students stood and recited the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the rest of the audience gave a standing ovation.

When the Muslim student went up to receive his diploma, he was booed.

Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars quotes David Guinn of Baylor Law School with what he calls “the perfect response,” and I concur:

First, the students (as approved by Prof. Duncan) are using prayer not as a religious devotion but as a political act — to express their disapproval of the one student and the “unelected judiciary” and as a weapon against others that don’t share in that faith. That strikes me as sacrilege as well as a perversion.
Second, why is it necessary to make these prayers public in a public forum? This sounds a little too much like the hypocrites of Mt. 6:5 If it is a matter of needing community, why not a community made up of fellow believers rather than demanding the audience of those who might not believe (or believe as they do)?
While it may be “their” commencement, it is also the commencement of all of the other students and their families present. Should everyone be allowed to interrupt the service and impose their religious exhortation on everyone else?
Graduations frequently involve not just commencement, but a series of celebrations over the course of the weekend. Why not reserve religious celebrations for a separate ceremony shared among their community of faith? The only justification I can come up with is the belief that their faith is so weak that it must be endorsed by the school in the public ceremony.
I find the whole thing offensive and sad…..

More at Ed’s blog.

On a related note, I was recently in Washington, D.C. for a visit that happened to coincide with the National Day of Prayer, about which I made similar reference to Matthew 6:5-7. Although I didn’t view the proceedings on the Capitol lawn, I did take a few pictures of the setup and of the Justice House of Prayer cult members with tape over their mouths in front of the Supreme Court building.

bookmark_borderPat “Superman” Robertson

The freakometer reached category 6 with the announcement on Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) that Pat Robertson can leg-press 2,000 pounds. The site claims that Robertson’s superhuman strength in “keeping his energy high and his vitality soaring is his age-defying protein shake.” The recipe for this magical potion is available for download on the site. Has the man no shame?

bookmark_borderFFRF sues over integration of spirituality into VA health care

According to a Freedom from Religion Foundation news release (awareness of which came my way via Daylight Atheism), the FFRF “filed a lawsuit yesterday in federal court, challenging the pervasive integration of ‘spirituality’ into health care by the Department of Veteran Affairs.” The complaint cites a number of practices at certain VA Health Centers, practices so bizarre they make me wonder if this is all a practical joke or some sort of misunderstanding:

A “spiritual/faith assessment” is made of each patient admitted into the VA medical system, and VA chaplains determine whether there is “spiritual injury or sickness.” These assessments routinely record in painstaking detail patient belief in God or a higher power, prayer, churchgoing, etc.

For instance, the Sheridan WY VA Medical Center initial “spiritual assessment” asks how often they attend religious services, pray, read scriptural or spiritual literature and listen to such programs on radio or TV, how often they study the bible, and “experience the presence of the Divine.” The assessment scores patients on “spiritual injury.” The Big Spring VA Medical Center’s assessment includes this leading question: “How often do you worry about your doubts or disbelief in God?”

The complaint observes that the VA now “provides pastoral services not as an accommodation to veteran’s free exercise rights” but because it “deems pastoral services for all patients, including veterans receiving outpatient medical services, to be a necessary part of medical treatment.” The VA encourages all patients “to tap into their alleged spiritual resources of faith,” with VA chaplains involved as “part of the treatment team for all patients.”

The FFRF has posted two of the Big Spring VA Medical Center “spiritual inventories” here. If every patient is indeed required to answer such things, and evaluated for an “injury” on that basis, then that is something to be concerned about, indeed. On the other hand, this kind of thing makes me wonder if I will be able to apply for disability for deepening atheism during my military tenure.

bookmark_borderJihad as a misunderstanding

I’m finishing up writing a book on Islam and science. While working on it, I collected an awful lot of stuff that I can’t use. This quotation, for example, discussing the early conquests of the Islamic Empire:

Now they had, by the order of God, to make Islam known to the outside world, but there was no telecommunication system or press or any other mass medium of communication. There was only one course to take, namely, personal and direct contacts, which meant that they had to cross the borders. But they could not do that in small or unarmed groups. So they had to move in large protected groups which must have appeared like an army, but was not an army in the real sense. [Hammudah Abdalati, Islam in Focus (Riyadh: World Assembly of Muslim Youth, n.d.)]

All that business that looked like holy war and conquest in the early centuries — just a misunderstanding, see?

I guess that’s one way to maintain the myth that the conquered peoples uniformly “chose Islam.” On the other hand, at least Abdalati is embarrassed by the notion of jihad and conquest, which isn’t a bad thing…

bookmark_borderInside Scientology

Janet Reitman has written an excellent article for Rolling Stone magazine called “Inside Scientology.” She began with no cooperation from the Church of Scientology (not an unusual state of affairs), but then was given access to Scientology leadership, tours of facilities, and was able to interview current Scientologists. My first reaction on hearing about this was to suspect it would be something of a superficial puff piece like some of the entertainment news TV shows have done, but she did an excellent job of describing Scientology’s history, beliefs, practices, and human impact in a relatively short article.

For those wanting more detail, see and the Scientology links section of my Skeptical Information site.

bookmark_borderAntony Flew receives award from Biola

Antony Flew was supposed to have received the “Phillip E. Johnson Award for Liberty and Truth” from Biola University yesterday. Presumably it went as planned, though I can only find the “Former Atheist to Receive Award at Biola” announcement on Biola’s web site. Flew was a well-known philosophical atheist (and complete political Neanderthal) of the older generation, and his conversion to a variety of Deism was newsworthy for a while. Biola’s web site has an interesting interview with Flew describing how he changed his mind.

I don’t greatly care about a philosopher changing his mind about God — in a way, it’s even a good sign. Even in “serious” academic debate about such questions it can be difficult to avoid the impression that all the arguments are really not to the point, and that nobody is really entering the discussion in a way that puts their basic commitments at risk. So, hey, when someone does change their long-held position, and particularly when they say they “had to go where the evidence leads,” that’s not a bad thing. Mind you, I don’t agree with the conclusion, but at least such a change of mind could make me seriously look at the claimed evidence and arguments once more. There could even be a chance that there’s a significantly new argument out there rather than the tired old stuff.

But then, it turns out that what Flew is referring to is an “intelligent design” sort of argument. He has even been impressed by some truly piss-poor ID-style arguments (though later he sort of backed off some of his endorsements), inspiring me to write one of the nastier book reviews I’ve ever published.

So, in the end, I can only think of the Flew affair as a disappointment. It ends up being good for nothing but an illustration of how an armchair-style philosopher can get suckered in by fancily packaged pseudoscience. Biola, the Discovery Institute and similar outfits will get plenty of propaganda out of it, but its intellectual significance is practically nil.

bookmark_borderPatricia Princehouse receives Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award

Reported by the NCSE: the Playboy Foundation has just awarded Case Western Reserve University’s Patricia Princehouse one of eight 2006 Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Awards for her role in some of the recent defeats of the intelligent design movement, especially in Ohio. I am glad for Princehouse, but I am also guessing this will not ease creationist paranoia about the “cultural consequences” of modern science education.

bookmark_borderBelief among applied scientists

It’s finals week, and I’m trying to postpone grading exams and papers until I can’t avoid it. So, trying to waste half an hour on something not involving physics, I stumbled on the web site for Physicians and Surgeons for Scientific Integrity. This, evidently, is a new organization of MD-types who think there’s something wrong with Darwinian evolution — an ID-sympathizer group, in other words.

Now, it’s hardly news that many doctors are creationists of some kind or other. A 2005 poll of American medical doctors found that 34% agreed more with intelligent design than with evolution. I run across plenty of MD’s among ID advocates and creationists. It starts even at a student level. From my informal discussions with colleagues in our biology department, they have an impression that an appalling percentage (25%-30%) of their undergraduates are creationists. Truman is highly selective, and we get some very smart students, but they typically come from devout suburban Midwestern backgrounds. Christian groups are the largest student organizations on campus, and they do a good job insulating some students from the evil liberal/godless/evolutionist environment they fear faculty might provide. In any case, it also seems that the creationist biology majors do not typically go on to graduate studies in biology. Instead, they are largely pre-meds and pre-education students. In other words, they end up as medical doctors or biology teachers.

There’s a bit of the same in physics. From my experience (I admit this is anecdotal, I’m just speculating here), engineers and applied physics people are a lot more religious than straight physicists. That’s certainly evident in the large representation of engineers among science and technology professionals who are creationists or ID supporters. And again, I see it in my students as well. Many of my students who go on in straight physics absorb the predominant secular mindset in physics, but the engineering students I get just seem more religious.

The survey data I have seen from my reading in the sociology of religion seem to support this conclusion as well: people in more applied (as opposed to basic) science tend to be more religious in general and also more conservatively religious.

I’m not entirely sure about why this might be so. One reason has to be the different intellectual habits cultivated by basic and applied scientists. Applied scientists are more focused on obtaining concrete results, while basic scientists are more interested in big-picture explanations — we definitely take the overarching theoretical frameworks of modern science more seriously than our applied colleagues. So perhaps we find it easier to extend our lack of supernaturalism in our fields to a broader naturalistic perspective. Another reason has to be in how the careers of doctors, engineers, industrial chemists and so forth work. They are typically more closely connected to the broader communities they work in and therefore also to community religious beliefs. Basic scientists do tend to gravitate to the ivory tower stereotype. And then, there are probably some self-selection effects — I wouldn’t be surprised if the more religious students tend to be inclined toward a more applied direction even as freshmen.

But whatever the detailed reasons, the basic and applied sciences have very different internal cultures, and differing levels of religiosity is one way this shows. And I think this is a wrinkle that must be kept in mind whenever people talk about either institutional or intellectual conflict or harmony between science and religion. I have no doubt that strong, even fundamentalist religiosity can fit very well with highly technology-intensive careers. Basic science, however, is not as comfortable an environment for strong religion.