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« “The Bell Curve” Again, and Then I’ll Stop | Main | Is Religion the Inverse of Autism? »



Should Writers on Religion Disclose Their Beliefs?

When should journalists covering the science-religion debate disclose their personal beliefs? This issue arose when Discover was editing my article “The God Experiments.” As a compulsive blabbermouth, I favor disclosure--especially if I describe the beliefs of those I’m writing about, which I did in “Experiments.” So in the original draft, I described myself as a lapsed Catholic who has embraced science as our best method for knowing reality. I also mentioned that I’d accepted money from the pro-religion Templeton Foundation. Discover’s editors asked me to take out this personal material, and all first-person references, to make the article more “objective.” Of course, the article is not more objective; it only appears that way.

Non-disclosure is the norm at other publications as well. And many other journalists—for example, my colleagues at the 2005 Templeton-Cambridge Fellowship on Science and Religion--feel that personal disclosure is self-indulgent or otherwise inappropriate. Sometimes it is. But I feel queasy when I read “objective,” third-person reports on science vs. religion by journalists whose personal opinions I know. I suspect readers would also like to know that a reporter is an atheist who scorns all religion; a postmodernist who doubts that science can achieve truth; a Catholic who believes God intercedes to heal sick people; an evangelical who speaks in tongues; a secular Jew who is frightened by the Christian right's political power (these are all real examples).

Reporters and editors fear that disclosure of reporters' beliefs will lead to accusations of bias. But the reporters are biased! Shouldn’t the bias be disclosed so readers can judge for themselves whether the reporting and analysis is fair?

With this in mind, I offer the original introduction to “The God Experiments”:

As a child I was religious, like most people, because my parents were. When they told me an all-powerful God was watching my every step, I believed them. The fresco adorning the front of our Catholic church in suburban Connecticut depicted God as a brawny, Charleton Heston lookalike, seated on a cloud and surrounded by fawning, blond angels. Sometimes I’d lie on my back in our yard watching clouds float by, hoping to get a glimpse of the Lord and his peculiar posse.

By the time I was ten or so, Catholicism no longer seemed sensible or fair--hell seemed an awfully stiff penalty for missing Sunday service--and I left it behind. Now, I look to science as our best hope for understanding ourselves and our place in the universe. Of course, in a sense religion still has me--and everyone on the planet--in its grip. A glance at a typical newspaper--filled with stories on terrorism, conflicts in the middle east, stem cells, abortion, the teaching of evolution--shows religion’s pervasive impact. Church attendance is waning in western Europe, but the vast majority of people worldwide are still religious. Polls show that over 90 percent of Americans believe in God, and they would rather see a homosexual in the White House than an atheist.

Over the past decade or so, a growing number of scientists have sought to account for religion’s extraordinary hold over us. Some investigators clearly hope not just to explain religion but to explain it away; they see religion as a embarrassing relic of our primitive, pre-scientific past. Others say their goal is to gain insights that can inform and guide rather than eliminate human spirituality. This fusion of scientific and spiritual goals is sometimes called neurotheology, a term originally coined by Aldous Huxley in his utopian novel Island.

Media reports on neurotheology also give it a surprisingly pro-faith spin. Some scientists and journalists who treat neurotheology as a credible enterprise may fear the consequences of taking a stand against religion. They may also want to please the major funder of research on religion, the Templeton Foundation, which the Christian financier John Templeton founded in 1987 to promote reconciliation between science and religion. So far, the foundation has spent more than $250 million on research, courses, publications, conferences, awards, and other projects. Yet some of the scientists mentioned below seem sincere in hoping to find a common ground between science and religion. (Disclosure: I have benefitted from Templeton largesse, but that fact has no bearing on my immense admiration for the foundation’s potentially world-saving efforts.)

In its present form, neurotheology strikes me as both a grand and grandiose endeavor. Its hubris is perhaps best captured by the term Voltaire coined to describe the philosophy of Dr. Pangloss: metaphysicotheologicocosmonigology. Below, I’ve tried to convey the field’s range and ambition by describing five leading theories of religion--evolutionary, psychological, neurobiological, genetic, and pharmacological. These theories are speculative, flawed, dubious, contradictory--but then, that is even truer of religious beliefs. Moreover, as this research advances, it may indeed bolster our spiritual tendencies, but not in the way that most people expect.

Comments

Mike Cook

By far the most significant practical consequence likely to spring from neurobiology in the near future is the improved lie detector. This technology hinges on functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) which is a window on the brain in its CPU mode.

I contend that fMRI combined with good interrogation technique will catch the dishonest brain that has no real memory of a version of certain event because that version is untrue. They made it up to conceal the true memories of events.

It is by questioning the smokescreen story that we force the brain to reveal that it must call on its verbal creative areas to concoct and defend events not in long term memory. This mental process uses different brain areas and shows up under fMRI observation.

Better yet, if we have prisoners in a long-term custody situation, we can administer drugs (there are many of them) that completely block the formation of short-term memory. The cool thing about this technique is that you ask detailed questions about the smokescreen story, the subject makes up details to flesh out his lie, and then two weeks later you ask him the same questions again. Now he has to make up new details because he can't remember his short-term lies of a fortnight ago. The new short-term did not get converted to long-term memory.

True memories in the long-term memory are not affected.

The import of all this to religion should not be under-estimated. My bible proclaims that the truth will set us free. Imagine that every oath people take could be subject to verification by a device that is highly reliable. You could ask the president of a university whether he or she believes in the Bell Curve and whether men and women researchers are completely equal. You could ask him or her if she is an atheist.

Oh, the things you could ask nominees to the Supreme Court! Ordinary criminals frequently get enhancements to their punishments based on hate crime or intent statutes. Juries are always guessing whether a crime was intentional or not. This would really help with white collar crime as CEO's can spin pretty good stories to explain away their actions.

Andrei Kirilyuk

So even the super-star journalist John Horgan working in the most liberal country and open media sources is not free from their dirty system of truth suppression, and even when he writes about science whose announced main purpose is the search for truth! What can one expect elsewhere, then, and where can SO “developed” civilisation finally arrive? Indeed, all forms of their pretended “correctness” and desire to avoid “bias” are in reality but means to suppress the truth, the truth that will inevitably demonstrate, in one way or another, that theirs is a society based on lie and unfair domination of selfish, subjectively “chosen” elites, at all sides of political spectrum and within all belief systems. And the worst tyranny of that kind persists, of course, in professional science practice.

For example, in professional science publishing, John, your article would be estimated not even by an editor but by professional colleagues, usually competing journalists and often “ideological” opponents, their personalities remaining unrevealed to you under the same pretext, “to avoid bias”. In your case, “a Catholic who believes God intercedes to heal sick people” and “an evangelical who speaks in tongues” would rather decide that your article should not be published at all or at least needs very essential remake implying something opposite to the original ideas you want to express. After that the editor takes blindly the side of such “peers” because, he says, he is “only” an editor that cannot have a professionally correct judgment on the “special” issues of the article. After which you can, in principle, enter into endless and painful dispute with their well-organised mafia, ask for another reviewer, etc., but that pseudo-“democratic” farce takes so much time that your original article becomes completely outdated, while other, even more “sympathetic” referees wouldn't so easily take your side (that of the truth) because they also want to get favourable estimates of their articles by those “religious” peers, i.e. by their whole, inevitably emerging “system”. So if your article tries to reveal or state just anything new and not completely conventional in science, it practically has very little chances to be published in any major, “peer-reviewed” science source. This peer-review system dominates absolutely and completely in modern science being supported very strongly by public (tax) money, but without any public concern, advice, or participation in SO biased activity. You journalists, you should yet feel relatively extremely free... But then, it will rather be YOUR responsibility to change something for better in science you say you love so much, because we, scientists, we are in prison.

One could even argue that although both science and religion are decadent and corrupt today, science is still worse between the two because religion does need and actually asks for individual people support and usually does not unconditionally take huge money sums from obligatory state taxes (although there are exceptions to it). On the other hand, religion, whether “right” or “wrong” in its major content, has a strong aspect and function of a “cultural tradition”, the necessary ethical and aesthetical “envelope” of individual and social life (just recall that practically all creators of all classical art and science works of the past, including the founders of modern science, Descartes and Newton, were just “crazy”, extremely fervent believers in God...). Science, by contrast, insists much more upon its “practical”, tangible results and progress in applications and EVERYBODY'S understanding of the world, and takes its unconditional, uncountable billions just for that. But what is its real progress during these last decades? We can see enormous progress of purely empirical, intellectually “blind” technology, but fundamental, explanation-based science demonstrates only its total inability to cope with that empirical, trial-and-error technology results (e.g. high-temperature superconductivity, genetic machinery, full-scale nanosystems, and even... the single, isolated elementary particle, such as the electron, being the simplest possible object of the universe!). In fact, THAT particular kind of science does everything possible to return us back to the old, convenient bosom of religion, where all problems will CERTAINLY be solved by the omnipotent father-God.

Indeed, the story of Johnny-boy does not seem to be finished yet. He believed in God when he was very small, but then he had just grown over that level of consciousness and stopped to believe in their fairy tales. But as a clever boy, he needed to progress and thus “believe” in something as a purpose of his progress, which could only be a better, extended kind of knowledge provided, of course, by science. But when he became yet bigger and wiser, he could see rather stagnation and destruction also in that, previously so attractive form of knowledge. And he called it the end of science and put all his efforts to revelation of its multiple and growing contradictions within his fascinating profession of journalist (because a journalist, contrary to a priest of any knowledge, can profit from BOTH its raise and fall, as well as from anything, good or bad, happening in this otherwise senseless world). Indeed, as “in the beginning was the Word”, why should anything else be more important in our turbulent epoch of change? But the personal story of Johnny-boy, and of all such curious johns and marys, is not finished because they have now no real, big, fascinating purpose, only some remnants of old, dying purposes and knowledge systems, still “fighting” or “unifying” among them, but that's just in order not to disappear completely and immediately. It's sufficient to compare it with their truly inspiring, strong original versions in the works of e.g. St. Augustin or René Descartes, where one can clearly see, among other things, only unified, mutually amplified (and finally fruitful!) interests in both “religious/spiritual” and “scientific/rational” aspects of reality. No, they are not really popular any more, neither conventional religion, nor science, whatever their pretended “supporters” can invent as their “final game”. Their game is over now, they are off the competition. But what can remain then for curious Johnny-boy, for all of us, for “future generations” that will certainly see ever greater demise of conventional knowledge forms, their practices and ways of thinking? The only good hope returns us, as it often happens, to the beginning of the story: you should grow bigger, much bigger over your current level of consciousness and pass to a corresponding superior form of knowledge that will give you all that you're missing now in both usual religion and science in “one run”, at a qualitatively higher level of INTRINSICALLY unified knowledge. If a growth of that scale was so natural and easy for a small Johnny-boy, why can't it happen again, especially if there is no other positive choice before increasingly “biting” but absolutely “inexplicable” reality?

Let them be, of course, those tricky “God experiments”, desperate SETI games and other fruitless “channeling” efforts, let them refine their technical means and food quality. But we know beforehand that they won't discover anything essential, don't we? How could they really cope with the finest secrets of mind if they cannot cope with the secrets of a single electron?! It remains only to hope that they are also unable to produce big, irreversible harm to those truly complex systems they are trying to manipulate now by their blind, trial-and-error empiricism. The true “channeling” needs a real transition to a higher level of understanding, where even problem formulation will change dramatically, as it always happens after such changes...

And finally, I would strongly defend the original, “personalised” style of John Horgan's articles and books on science, already because it makes official science essentially closer (and more interesting) to the “lay public” that dutifully and generously pays for its esoteric practices, in return to usual “food debris” from the privileged “knowledge tables” of unconditionally “big”, self-designated and self-praising priests of science, even when there is no more quality science at all. For example, even the canonical Scientific American once permitted to its senior writer a very “frivolous” and personalised style in an article about the most ambitious scientific efforts around complexity (“From Complexity to Perplexity”, June 1995), and now, after more than 10 years since then, we can say with confidence that all of it was true and justified, the official “science of complexity” only continues to degrade, but we have instead a very appealing and professionally informative article on scientific activity as such, including that unhappy complexity science. [I always recall the starting phrase, giving rise to the whole style, “Champagne and big ideas are bubbling at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, N.M.”. All articles on science should go that way because this is how it really happens in real science practice!] My attitude may seem strange because in my own activity I do propose that “unified theory of complex systems” (and actually of everything at all – the true heresy!), which is the object of bitter John's mockery in that article (and the End of Science book). But I completely agree with glaring defects of THOSE its “official” versions, which are disproportionally and unfairly supported and promoted until now by the Santa Fe Institute and so many similar centres of “imitative progress”.

It shows that good, sustainable science should be based on permanent and strong (though constructive!) doubts, especially where “something new” and “very interesting” seems to emerge. This is definitely not the case of official science and its permanently lying priests. So it remains to hope for journalists and their “personalised”, nonconformist style, as they are the only remaining representatives (and actually interest defenders) of completely unaware and strongly cheated public, as far as science is concerned. Because as a matter of fact, many tens (if not hundreds) of billions of dollars are spent yearly in the world as investment in allegedly “indispensable” and heavy machinery of official science that serves actually only to stop further progress of knowledge, reduce to zero younger generation interest in science, and produce increasingly probable practical, catastrophic harm to empirically modified but unexplained natural systems. And this is not so funny, all of it. The catastrophe with younger generation interest is already here, and not only nothing changes in the underlying science practice, but it continues to use the same methods and grasp ever greater lumps of money for unfair support of its destructive activity... A vanishingly small fraction of such abuse in any other human activity (including religion!) would be severely and immediately punished as an “outrageous crime”, but science represents the real and unlimited “gangster paradise” on Earth. Yeah, each next belief system is ever more harmful, it should also be a “great law of nature”... It's enough to believe or disbelieve, it's time to know. And if you don't know what you could know, then I may know what we can know, or else what all these interactions should serve to?

Alex Mathy

I don't think journalists should be required to disclose their religious belief. Often it is reasonably obvious anyway. However I must say I enjoy your personal touch more than the contrived objectivity of others.

The comments to this entry are closed.



   
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