Can Religion Be Reproduced?

I saw this quote from famed magician/atheist/television personality Penn Jillette‘s new book on kottke.org:

There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

Now, this might be true or it might not be true – it’s a thought experiment with no way of verification. It’s an assertion, not an argument. Thus, from the very beginning, the appeal to empiricism is weakened.

But this claim – “it would never be created exactly that way again” – is true of anything rooted in the passage of time: history, art, literature, even the progress of science itself. Continue reading

Why Is Collins Controversial?

The NY Times this week ran an article about Francis Collins headlined “For NIH Chief, Issues of Identity and Culture” focusing on possible areas of conflict for Collins. The top one, of course, is Collins’ Christian faith. Collins, the former head of the Humane Genome Project, is also author of The Language of God, founder of The Biologos Foundation, and well-known speaker on the connections between science and religion.

Here’s how the Times begins its discussion of Collins’ faith:

First, there is the God issue. Dr. Collins believes in him. Passionately. And he preaches about his belief in churches and a best-selling book. For some presidential appointees, that might not be a problem, but many scientists view such outspoken religious commitment as a sign of mild dementia.

The irony, in my view, is that Collins believes in evolution, supports embryonic stem-cell research, and even supports therapeutic cloning, a process by which human embryos are created for the sole purpose of using them of medical treatments. He has pledged not to let this religious beliefs influence his scientific work. What, exactly, is the concern of his opponents?

As far as I can tell, their sole concern is that Collins is an evangelical Christian. No one disputes his ability as a scientist or administrator. No one disputes that he is eminently qualified for the position. His critics cannot point to a single instance in which Collins’ private religious beliefs negatively affected his research or other work, yet they oppose his appointment. Collins’ views are clearly controversial from a theological or philosophical standpoint; I can’t even begin to imagine why they matter with regard to science or medicine.

If Francis Collins – one of our country’s premiere scientists, the man who decoded human DNA, someone who has proven his qualifications again and again – faces this kind of criticism, just imagine the pressure Emerging Scholars Network members face. Simply by admitting that they believe in Christ or think that the Bible is true, they open themselves up to all kinds of threats to their career. Many university departments have the good sense to realize that people from a variety of religious backgrounds can do excellent academic work. But the threat is always there, and that threat is usually enough to keep Christian academics “in the closet” regarding their faith. Several of the faculty I met at Vanderbilt admitted that they kept very quiet about their Christianity until they received tenure.

Few things are more damaging to one’s faith than sealing it off so that it doesn’t affect the rest of your life. Please join with me in praying for the careers and spiritual growth of ESN members. Pray especially that they will have the courage and wisdom to be open about their faith in the appropriate manner. And, if you would like to make a financial contribution to support my work with the Emerging Scholars Network, click here.

Does your college major affect your faith?

3827522871_bfbef9a5d9_o.jpgMaybe. A recent study by four University of Michigan researchers tracked college student for several years to see how their college experience affected their “religiosity” (basically, how often they attended religious services, and how important they view religion in their lives). We often think of science and religion as being at odds, but the study found that majoring in science had little effect on students’ religiosity. (More on that in a moment.) A different set of majors proved to be the greatest threat to students’ faith:

Being a humanities or a social science major has a statistically significant negative effect on religiosity — measured by either religious attendance and how important students consider the importance of religion in their lives. The impact appears to be strongest in the social sciences.

Continue reading

Religion Solved, Scientist Says

One of my favorite blogs, GetReligion.org, posted about a very strange story from ABC News , headlined “Religion is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.”  James Dow, an anthropologist at Oakland University, claims to have written a software program that explains how religion evolved.  But, as always, the devil is in the details – or, more accurately, the devil is in the presuppositions.  Here’s how ABC News described the set-up of Dow’s software:

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people  those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

 As one of the commenters on the GetReligion post noted, it’s interesting the subtle jump that Dow makes from “unverifiable” to “unreal” information.  Note, too, his clear distinction between “believers” and “non-believers,” when the reality of personal belief is a bit cloudier.  Further, when you consider the communications of actual religious teachers, such as Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Francis of Assissi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., and not hypothetical prehistoric figures like Dow does, it becomes clear that they are not merely “communicating the unreal.”

It’s an interesting experiment, but methinks that Dow could benefit from some philosophy to clarify his terms and examine his presuppositions a bit more closely.  At least he’s upfront about what he is assuming.

Here’s the link to Dow’s actual published study, Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?, published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 11, no. 2 2.