Author Archives: Jonathan Morgan

5 Ultimate Questions

Jonathan Morgan

RipHow and why is there something rather than nothing?  If that’s not an ultimate question, I don’t know what is.  It’s also the driving question of the philosopher and theologian Robert Cummings Neville’s latest, and most ambitious, opus.  This work, Ultimates, is not just ambitious in its question; it’s also incredibly ambitious in scope, as Neville looks at nearly every major religious tradition in depth.

The most surprising and refreshing part of this book is that it’s actually relevant to life.  This is incredibly rare within modern philosophy, which is all too often just weird, dense, abstract reflections on itself.  Instead, Neville dares to talk about goodness, beauty, and truth.  He dares to recognize value.  It’s crazy to have to call such a thing “daring,” but regrettably most of modern philosophy won’t touch these topics.  Best of all, Neville doesn’t just talk about how we actually live – he brings as much data to bear on the question as possible.  Like I said, it’s an ambitious book.

So of course I can’t cover the whole thing.  But here’s a snippet.  Given the way the cosmos is, Neville argues that there are “ultimate” questions that we can’t help but run up against.  They’re the problems that are inescapable – to opt out of answering them is itself an answer.  They’re also the sorts of problems that nearly all religions have built solutions to address. That’s not to say the solutions are all the same – they tend to range across the imaginable spectrum.  It’s simply to say that even radically different solutions are aimed at answering the same questions – the ultimate questions.

Continue reading

Animals and Religion

Jonathan Morgan

Monkey yogaHow much evidence does it take to change our beliefs about the world?  Sometimes, when we don’t really care about the belief, it doesn’t take much evidence at all.  For example, say you like ducks and believe mallards are the most devoted of partners.  That’s a good belief- mallard marriages stay together about 91% of the time.  They’re more steadfast than American marriages, which along with the Nazca Boobie, split up 40% of the time.  And they’re way better than flamingoes, who break up 99% of the time.  BUT, your belief about mallards would be wrong because Albatrosses are 100% faithful.  They never break up.  In this case, unless you really, deeply believe in mallard fidelity, it probably didn’t take much to change your belief.

In other instances our beliefs are much more entrenched and therefore much harder to change.  Take, for example, our beliefs about intelligence.  You may not even think you have beliefs about intelligence, but just because they aren’t well articulated doesn’t mean they aren’t there.  Think of someone you know is smart.  How do you know she’s smart?  Whatever criteria you thought of form part of your beliefs about intelligence.  How about when ants form bridges, is that a sign of intelligence or just a fluke of adaptation?  What about this wily honey badger?  The author Michael Pollan wrote a great article about the intense debates surrounding plant intelligence.

My point is that our beliefs about intelligence are like a complex net of largely unexpressed assumptions.  Evidence may change certain strands of that net, but in order to really change the belief one must look at the overall structure of that net.  You do that by asking- What do we really mean by intelligence?  That’s why it would take a large amount of evidence AND a philosophical shift to make scientists feel comfortable with a term like “plant intelligence.”

Continue reading

Religion and Your Future Self

Jonathan Morgan

Woman looking to the futureConsider yourself in ten years.  What’ll you be like?  Will you be as funny, kind, or wise as you are now?  Now, as you’re thinking about yourself in 2024, consider one more thing- how connected do you feel to this version of yourself?  How real does she or he feel?

I know, it’s hard enough to imagine 2024, especially considering that in 2004 Lance Armstrong was winning his 6th Tour de France, a gallon of gas cost around $2, Colin Powell was resigning from his position as Secretary of State, and thefacebook.com was just being launched.  Who knows what 2024 will look like, but regardless of how sci-fi it might be- how strong does your connection to your future self feel?

It’s a weird question.  The obvious answer is very connected- “it’s me after all, how could I be anything but connected to myself?”  But think about how hard it is to keep new year’s resolutions or how easy it is to procrastinate.  These issues, which we all face, have lead psychologists and neuroscientists to explore the relationship between our present and future selves.  The converging opinion is that this connection is more tenuous than we initially assume.  But, it’s also widely agreed that we can do things to strengthen the connection.  And perhaps religion is one of those things.  But before speculating about how to fix the connection, it’s worth reviewing the research that says it’s in need of fixing in the first place.

Continue reading

Statistics on Religion pt. V- Religion & Same-Sex Marriage

Hand holding a rising arrow, representing business growth.The religious landscape in America is changing dramatically.  I’ve written on this before, but the results remain surprising: over the past decade, the number of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated has doubled- rising from 8% in 2003 to 21% today.  Something is happening in the tides of public opinion on religion… but what is happening remains open for debate.  Why are these numbers rising so quickly?

A recent survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, a non-profit doing research on religion in American public life, has been tracking how opinions on same-sex marriage have impacted people’s religious affiliation.  From this survey it’d seem that same-sex marriage was a deciding factor for many people’s choice to leave their childhood religion.  But, as always, the relationship isn’t so cut and dry.

Continue reading

Four ways to mess up a conversation between science and religion

Jonathan Morgan

Zen stones balance conceptSometimes I feel like the religion and science police – always patrolling for people messing up.  I don’t want to do that because, frankly, I’m all for making mistakes.  Any conversation that moves between science and religion is covering treacherous terrain.  The only way to do it is to occasionally misunderstand… and then hopefully, and respectfully, keep trying to correct those misconceptions.  So I’m really not trying to call people out just for messing up, but sometimes the mistakes are too obvious and disrespectful to not say anything – like David Barash’s recent articles on Buddhism and Biology.

Barash’s articles are an exploration of why Buddhism might be more hospitable to science than other religions.  Barash is trained as a biologist, but in these essays he reflects on (and distorts) the history of religion and science, discusses similarities between Buddhist philosophy and ideas from Biology, and then suggests a new way to understand the relationship between religion and science.  It’s a bit over-ambitious.

I’m assuming these essays are an effort to promote his recent book: Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.  They don’t make me want to buy his book (and the patronizing title doesn’t help either), but they do give us some great examples of what NOT to do if you’re going to work with religion and science.

Continue reading

Luhrmann, Prayer, & Health

Jonathan Morgan

Global freedomLast week Tanya Luhrmann, the psychological anthropologist from Stanford, gave back-to-back lectures at Harvard and Boston University.  Luhrmann’s latest book, When God Talks Back, is getting a ton of publicity, so this was a bit of a rockstar tour.  Except academics are always a bit more tame than rockstars.  But it may be unfair to call Luhrmann tame when her past work has tackled modern witches and her current work tries to figure out how evangelical Christians come to perceive God as imminently real and close.  In American culture, where taking God seriously is either a taboo or private matter, this sort of research is pretty edgy- maybe not St. Vincent edgy, but edgy nevertheless.

The entry point for Luhrmann’s research is prayer.  Like any good academic, she starts by breaking her subject into different types.  For Luhrmann there are four different types of prayer: adoration, supplication, thanksgiving, and confession.  The writer Anne Lamott captured these categories a little more succinctly: Help, Thanks, Wow.  This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it captures some of the most typical ways in which people pray.

Continue reading

Evolution versus Creationism- Ships passing in the night

(and firing shots at each other)

Jonathan Morgan

TEvolution and origins concepthe Super Bowl was painful to watch, but at least everybody was playing by the same set of rules. And at the end, fans from both teams could sit down together and lament what a boring game it was. Debates between evolution and creation, on the other hand, are like watching one team play soccer while the other’s trying to play rugby. And they never seem to end in camaraderie. While Bill Nye and Ken Ham were civil enough on stage, social media was full of condescension.  For example, one guy at Buzzfeed said- “I require my textbooks to be newer than 4000 years old.” The culture wars rage on and frankly they’re getting boring. That’s understated, more frankly they’re dangerous. But that’s not to say there’s nothing to learn.

Before talking about culture wars, let’s talk about why these debates never go anywhere. In the debate last night there were all sorts of arguments made and evidence cited, but nobody was swayed. In order to understand why, we have to talk about epistemology, a very fancy (and stodgy) word for how we know what we know. To understand someone’s epistemology you don’t listen for what they believe, you listen to how they justify the things they believe. Why do you believe what you believe? That’s epistemology. Ken Ham, representing the creationists, was completely blunt about his epistemology: “The Bible is the word of God. I admit that’s where I start from.” His appeal is to authority. More specifically he accepts the authority of the fundamentalist tradition, which has only been around since the end of the 19th century. For Ham, and many others in the fundamentalist camp, authority is the ultimate decider of truth.

Authority isn’t in vogue these days, but don’t dismiss it immediately. Instead, think about it as the trust we give to people and institutions we respect. By that definition most of our beliefs are based on authority. We’re cognitive misers and trusting authorities saves us a ton of effort- think about how hard it would be to fact check everything! The question isn’t whether authority is good or bad, but which authorities to accept.

Bill Nye’s epistemology comes out the most clearly at the very end of the debate. When asked what evidence would change his mind, Nye replied- “any single piece of evidence.” Of course this is a rhetorical jab, but he’s also echoing the tradition of science which rests on empiricism. Nye’s referring to the epistemology of science, which (at least in ideal form) is grounded in experimental tests of evidence. The enterprise of science is built around a persistent communal refinement of questions, criteria, and evidence. It’s a complex and multifaceted enterprise, but when it comes down to epistemology it’s based primarily on empiricism.

If authority is “because we say so,” empiricism is “show me.”

These different epistemologies are the fundamental difference within this debate. Ham takes a particular interpretation of the Bible as the final arbiter of truth and Nye takes the scientific enterprise and empiricism as the means of knowing. This is the level of the difference, but of course this isn’t the level of the debate.

That’s why no amount of evidence either way is going to sway anybody. They’re two ships passing in the night. It’s a dog and pony show.

But that’s a little too benign of a description, because the whole debate simply fuels the culture wars. Far from coming to any sort of resolution, debates like the one last night promote the myth that there are only two ideological camps: science or religion.

I think Kurt Vonnegut’s advice is relevant:

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.

If we pretend that the choice between either science or religion is a real choice, then it slowly becomes a real choice. The middle ground, that nearly all of us stand on, will begin to vanish.

There are all sorts of reasons that would be bad news, but I’ll give you three.

1) It’s a demeaning and patronizing view of religious believers- the vast majority of whom have no problems believing in the Big Bang and evolution. Remember, the fundamentalist stance is a recent minority position in the long history of Christianity.

2) That’s reason enough to be wary of such polarizing debates. But an even more serious danger is that such debates weaken science. Plenty of people would agree because they see last night’s debate as a way for Ken Ham to raise money for his ark. Those people are probably right, but that’s not the case I want to make. I see the danger as more significant than that.

Science needs sharp and serious philosophical critics. Above I described science as progressing toward pure knowledge through empirical investigations, but that’s a fantasy. Science is a cultural project interwoven with politics and money and philosophical assumptions. This isn’t to say I don’t love science- I think it’s amazing. My point is that science needs strong and critical conversation partners to keep it in check. Without such partners, I believe, science will actually be weakened.

Ham and creationists simply aren’t strong conversation partners. These debates present weak criticisms of science. That may seem harmless, but the impact is to water down more serious critiques. If you’ve heard a dozen trite accounts about the uncertainty of scientific evidence, you’re going to begin thinking all such critiques are trite. Furthermore, the polarized atmosphere of the culture wars promotes the idea that- you’re either for us or against us. In such a hostile space it becomes taboo to question, much less critique, science.

3) It’s only on the middle ground that we’re going to solve many of the challenges we face. We need both religious leaders and scientists working together to address the serious dangers of climate change. Global health initiatives advance by scientific and religious leaders working together. This middle ground is the hospitable terrain where most of us live and is the space where we face problems together.

I’d welcome a real debate that addressed the different ways we come to believe things. That’s the sort of conversation that defuses the culture wars, recognizes the other side without disparaging it, and can then begin moving towards some real solutions to very real problems. That sort of debate might never be televised, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have such conversations with each other. Because in the end, the culture wars are only as real as we let them be.

A Guide to Thinking about Spirit Possession

Jonathan Morgan

ApsarasBus stations in downtown Accra, Ghana, are almost always packed with people.  A two-hour wait is pretty common, and on Fridays the crowd triples in size – and so does the wait.  The only thing that makes this bearable is the good company in line and the constant stream of snack and drink hawkers passing by.  “Yes, I will have another fried plantain!”  I knew all this, but nevertheless found myself waiting for a bus late on a Friday afternoon back in 2004.  By 8 p.m. the orderly line disintegrated whenever the bus pulled in – people climbed through windows and smashed through the front door. Because of the chaos, I missed the last bus.

And as I stood there contemplating how many plantain snacks would make the 7-mile walk home bearable, a car pulled up and one of the guys I met in line asked if I wanted a ride home.  (Minor miracles – aka the kindness of strangers – are one of the best parts of traveling.)  As we pulled out into traffic I commented on how many people were out in the streets.  Both the driver and my new friend nodded in consent and nonchalantly said “Yeah, of course, all the spirits come out on Fridays.”

Continue reading

Meditation- it is not what you think

Mary Kate Long

Buddha statueIn the last post, Jonathan Morgan took on a recent NY Times Magazine article from popular science journalist, Dan Hurley. Hurley aimed to bring up a few studies that offer a different perspective on the benefits of mindfulness meditation practices – namely, that mindfulness might actually have some negative effects because too much focus reduces the time your brain needs to relax in order to be creative. Jonathan’s critique is right on – meditation isn’t only about focus, there’s a lot of other stuff going on too. When Hurley takes mindfulness out of the religious context it emerged from, something important gets lost. Jonathan challenges us to pause over what happens when we remove “an idea or religious practice from its native ecosystem” and asks, “At what point does it become something entirely different?”

While Jonathan identifies the concept of compassion as lacking in Hurley’s article, that’s not the whole story either, nor is compassion necessarily a primary aspect of mindfulness meditation as a religious practice. So, how is mindfulness, as a religious practice in a religious context, different from what Hurley says it is? And why is what Hurley is doing problematic?

Continue reading

Misunderstanding Mindfulness

Jonathan MorganTibetan Buddhism

As a scholar of religion and science, it’s so disappointing, if not infuriating, to read an article like Dan Hurley’s piece in the New York Times, “Breathing In and Spacing Out.”  Hurley’s argument is that despite all the studies lauding the benefits of mindfulness, meditation isn’t always a good thing.  That’s an interesting case to make, but in the examples he treats meditation as if it’s an SAT prep course.  Is maintaining attention all that meditation is about?

If you substitute tomatoes for mindfulness the piece would read like one of the endless debates on the health effects of food: “Tomatoes are good for you… no, no, no they’re actually bad for you.”  But I’m not convinced that Hurley and the research he references are even talking about tomatoes – ahem, mindfulness – at all.  That may seem like a minor problem, but in an increasingly plural society this feigning of cultural appreciation is not only irresponsible, it’s harmful.

My point is that when Hurley, and the research he cites, strips mindfulness of its traditional religious ecosystem, he’s no longer talking about mindfulness meditation, he’s talking about maintaining attention.  This confusion of terms is particularly dangerous because it speaks with the authority of science.  It’s easy to do this with something like meditation, because it’s still unfamiliar to a lot of Western people.  But imagine if this was done with prayer or a religious practice that’s  close to you.  If I tried to strip, say, Christian prayer down to its essential elements and came away with something totally secular, would I still be talking about prayer?  Would you believe me if I went on to tell you about how “prayer” is related to this or that benefit?

Continue reading