Friday, January 11 2013

Atheism: what's the point?

I took part in a discussion about the value of atheism in The Battle of Ideas last year, the video of the session now being available online. 

I basically argued that the three biggest hitters - Freud, Marx and Nietzsche - were almost certainly wrong in their analysis of God and religion, but are very useful for believers to engage with. (I'm about 15 minutes in...)


Wednesday, January 9 2013

Spiritual, but not religious? A dangerous mix

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif. I took part in a discussion about the same research last night on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves too...

People who are "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]." The work supports evidence from other studies too.

All the usual weaknesses associated with asking individuals about religion are at play here, as the authors acknowledge. Nonetheless, the study prompts a number of speculations.

The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.

This raises another question, though. Do religious organisations in the UK today take enough notice of the insights of psychology and, conversely, do schools of therapy treat spirituality seriously? As the Cambridge psychologist and priest Fraser Watts explored in a recent talk, American therapists, for example, seem to be far happier talking about their clients' spiritual concerns than their British counterparts.

This must highlight broader cultural differences. In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche.

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.

Other results from the research are striking too, though similarly not determinative. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were significantly younger and more often white British, but were less likely to have qualifications beyond secondary school, perhaps challenging research purporting to show that atheists are more intelligent.

Another finding of this work was that those who were neither religious nor spiritual had just as good mental health as those the religious. This contradicts a notion widely held in positive psychology that religion is good for happiness (though that positive correlation typically derives from North American evidence.)

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can "do God" on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it.


Saturday, January 5 2013

Love: All That Matters - another reason to watch out for it...

'A real Tardis of book, with so much wisdom and information packed into so small a space, and elucidated with a brilliant clarity. Sourcing mythology, modern psychology and philosophy, it shines a light on this most commonplace yet complex of emotions.' Tim Lott


Friday, January 4 2013

Ancient philosophy at The Idler Academy - book now!

There are still a couple of places left on the six week, ancient philosophy course, at The Idler Academy, starting Monday...


The Most Despised Science Book of 2012 is … worth reading

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Comment is free...

Every year, I "give" an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

My runner-up this time is Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion, though in fact it had a strikingly decent reception for a book also critiquing scientistic dogmatism.

So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker". Jerry Coyne blogged: "Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga", which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel's gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.

Disparagement is particularly unfair, though, because the book is a model of carefulness, sobriety and reason. If reading Sheldrake feels daring, Tallis thrilling and Fodor worthwhile but hard work, reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn't know existed. It is as if his heart said to his head, I can't help but feel that materialist reductionism isn't right. And his head said to his heart, OK: let's take a fresh look. So what caused the offence?

Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.

There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: "There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done." But has it? This is the moot point.

The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson's measured piece on the reaction Nagel's book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will "appear absurd" or "strange", he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn't quite continue, and consider the arguments.

I'm considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you'll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies's bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a "life principle".

So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned. Biology, though, has had a very good run since 1859. Questioning their science feels like a form of self-sabotage and dangerous. Hence, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, reviewing Nagel for the Nation, evoked the spectre of supernaturalism; and Simon Blackburn, reviewing for the New Statesman, jested that "if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index".

That was written tongue-in-cheek, but it is a purity argument no less. As Mary Douglas pointed out, secular societies still draw symbolic boundaries to keep the permissible in and threatening stuff out. Those who cross them risk expulsion. The media ritual of the public review offers a mechanism.

As Freeman Dyson recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, contemporary philosophers bow too low to science, mostly because they haven't done any, and have simultaneously lost touch with the elements that made their predecessors so great: the truths held by history, literature, religion. The 2012 award is well earned. We need those prepared to face the flak.


Monday, December 31 2012

Love: All That Matters - coming Jan 2013

'A profoundly benign and practical little book. Compact scholarship and wisdom with an original thesis.' Oliver James


Wednesday, December 19 2012

Rupert Sheldrake on materialism

I've done a series of conversations with Rupert Sheldrake, following on from his book The Science Delusion, exploring materialism. The first has just gone up...


Saturday, December 15 2012

With Good Reason: a debate on the foundations of ethics

I took part in a discussion about moral realism with Angus Ritchie and Julian Baggini at the LSE a week or so back, now online as a podcast.

I tried to talk about the moral imagination and moral emotions that draw us on a process of moral discovery, rather than whether there are moral facts. I feel that to ask that question up front is to put the cart before the horse, and leads to a rather dry debate, oddly disconnected from life.

Iris Murdoch's notion of the 'wider horizon' also appeals, her sense that the moral life stands beyond and before us, and is therefore transcendent. In this sense, morality is objective; that the good, beautiful and true is not made by us, but sought by us, and even seeks us.


Wednesday, December 5 2012

Giles Fraser on spirituality and social action

I hugely enjoyed debating with Giles Fraser on whether you can be spiritual without being religious. The discussion is online here.

Roughly, I was advocating that spirituality comes before social action - it's a fruit, not a root - lest the Christian concern for justice become anxious, guilt-driven and deadening. Giles can't stand the word spirituality, though it seems plain to me that much of his appeal stems precisely from his spiritual vitality...


Tuesday, December 4 2012

A bit more about Stoicism

This piece just went up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

The earliest extended stoic text to survive the passage of time is a hymn to Zeus. It was written by Cleanthes, the second head of the school, in the third century BCE. The mighty god is summoned as "most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful".

But it is not just a hymn of high praise. Within it threads the fundamental element of stoic thought that underpins the exercises and practices, psychology and cosmology celebrated this week by the organisers of Stoic Week. Without this thread, Cleanthes felt that stoicism makes no sense and, worse, might lead you astray.

It was called the logos – using one of those extraordinarily rich Greek terms that can be translated as word, discourse, reason, activity and principle. The logos, Cleanthes remembers, "moves through all creation". It is the wellspring of unity, direction, purpose. The wretched flee the logos, he continues, and their alienation from it is the cause of their suffering. Because they do not know the logos in their lives they instead seek fame, money, pleasure for pleasure's sake, all manner of passing things that sweep them along and actually destroy what human beings truly wish for. The result is a troubled life of ignorance. "If they obey the logos intelligently, they would have the good life," the hymn continues.

It is striking, then, that Stoic Week makes no reference to the logos (unless a moment of revelation has yet to come on the blog). Presumably that is because the philosophers and therapists behind the experiment feel either that the theological aspect is irrelevant today or that it would distract from the usefulness of the stoic practices that aim to build resilience, gratefulness and aspiration. But I think it is a vital issue to raise.

The ancient stoic training was an attempt to orient the whole of life to the logos. Chrysippus, the third head of the school and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world, used the metaphor of a cylinder rolling down a hill. Life is like that. There is nothing you can do to change it. What you can do is learn "to go with the flow", as opposed to resisting the bumps and shocks.

But why should you go with the flow, one of his young disciples might have asked? Because the flow can be trusted, Chrysippus would have replied. It is the action of the logos. It is mysterious, yes; often painful, yes. But ultimately benign. And if life were not providential, you are right: it would be more noble to resist it all the way.

In other words, the stoic notion of flow was a kind of devotion, an offering of yourself. Cultivating the right inner attitude was absolutely crucial to the good life stoicism promised. Practise stoicism for self-serving reasons, as instrumentally driven therapies and self-help might encourage, and you risk alienating yourself further.

Think about it this way. It is often remarked that ancient stoicism is close to modern CBT. That undoubtedly offers people timely help. But only some, it seems. Longitudinal testing of CBT appears to be suggesting the benefits are short-lived. I wonder whether Chrysippus might help explain why: does CBT unwittingly encourage the delusion of living out of your own strength, he might ask?

Stoicism was the most successful of the ancient Athenian schools. What is perhaps not much appreciated now is that it is, in a way, alive and kicking to this day. When the first Christians searched for resources to try to understand what they had encountered in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, stoic insights made tremendous sense.

St Paul felt that his experience of the divine was like that of the stoics. "For in him we live and move and have our being," he taught, explaining he was quoting from stoic philosophers. St John was so impressed that he argued Jesus was the incarnation of the logos, celebrated in the opening line of his gospel: "In the beginning was the word." Practices such as saying grace before meals, or giving thanks for the day at night-time, are stoic.

Is it too cheeky to suggest that if you want to practise stoicism today, you might start in a church?


Wednesday, November 28 2012

Stoic week, and a challenge to Christianity

Stoic Week looks like a genuinely interesting and valuable experiment. But two things struck me that I think are worth pondering.

First, there's no mention in the online literature of the logos - the divine principle that ancient stoics believed ran through all things and which meant you could trust life, even when it seemed to be going wrong. The basic aim of stoic practices was to align yourself to the logos, hence the meaning of going with the flow. It was not just any old flow.

Then, I see no mention of the stoic preoccupation with divination, the attempt to discern the logos by looking at the outer world of the heavens, which was thought to mirror the inner world of the self. Of course, astrology is suspect these days, but to lose touch with divination risks also losing touch with contemplating how the outer mirrors the inner, and vice versa, and that might render modern stoicism a solipsistic, lonely enterprise.

I guess the reason why the organisers felt they had to drop these theological elements is that they feel they won't run today. This is something that Christians might think about, because there is, in fact, a version of ancient stoicism that is alive and kicking in much of the world today, namely Christianity.

St Paul cites stoic thinkers and hymnody when, say, he talks about God as being that principle in which we live and move and have our being. St John too implies that Christ is the logos incarnate. Stoic practices such as reflecting on the day were incorporated into Christian liturgies and habits.

The question I am left with is whether Christianity has become so front-loaded with doctrinal ideology that we've lost touch with the fact that it too is fundamentally a way of life that is meaningless without the practices?


Tuesday, November 27 2012

Ancient and Modern Philosophy Courses at The Idler Academy, London

What was so unsettling about meeting Socrates? Why would you want to be a Stoic? How did Descartes radicalise the philosophical agenda? What is philosophy anyway?

These questions and more are explored in a series of evening classes on ancient and modern philosophy at The Idler Academy, the west London home of philosophy, husbandry and merriment.

The aim is to learn not just what different philosophers have argued, but how these rich traditions can resources us, body, mind and soul. On the ancient philosophy course we examine the pre-Socratics, Socrates and Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Sceptics and the Cynics. On the modern philosophy course we consider the work of late medievals, Descartes, Hume and Kant, Nietzsche and Foucault, Popper and Kuhn, and others. Full details can be found online.

The evenings are taught by Dr Mark Vernon. Previous participants have said: 'I never spent Sunday afternoons looking forward to Monday until I joined this course!' 'It is much better to talk philosophy than to read it.' The price is £150 for six evenings, beginning in January.

A striking Christmas present? A wise gift for yourself? Book now: places are limited!


Wednesday, November 21 2012

Synod and the spirit of the age

It worries me when the Prime Minister says the church should just 'get on with it', and when the Archbishop of Canterbury observes that the synod may seem 'wilfully blind to some of the trends and priorities in... wider society.'

My perception is that conservative evangelicals and anglo-catholics alike regard such a stance as somewhat heroic, as if the right course is typically against the spirit of the age. They may read such remarks as endorsing their position.

Someone should be quoting Luke 16:8. 'For the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light.' That is surely the point.


Sunday, November 18 2012

Are we living in a new axial age?

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that is up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

Are our centuries of technological innovation remolding us culturally? Are we becoming a new species, spiritually speaking, so that the inner lives of future generations will seem as strange and elusive as Paleolithic man's is to us? Are we living in a new axial age?

The question is posed in a collection of essays, edited by the American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah. With his colleague, Hans Joas, The Axial Age and Its Consequences probes the implications of this thesis in the history of ideas, first named by the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers.

The first Axial Age, it is said, ran across the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. It marked a transformative time in human experience, broadly accepted now by sociologists of religion, which can be summarized as an inward turn and a discovery of transcendence. So, in this period the Hebrew prophets declared that God was more concerned with attitudes of heart than with bloody rituals in the Temple. Not long after, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - that extraordinary procession of master and pupil - "brought philosophy down from the heavens": they were gripped by the nature of the human condition. The Buddha probably lived at the same time as Socrates, attempting reform of the religions of India by his attention to human suffering and desire. Confucianism and Daoism were born too, creating between them a rich dialectic of humanist rationalism and spiritual non-rationalism in China.

"To generalize is to be an idiot," observed William Blake in a presumably self-conscious generalization. So duly warned, are ours axial times too?

Jaspers noted that in the period around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth blossomed "superstition in manifold guises, doctrines of salvation of the most extraordinary kinds, circles gathered round peripatetic preachers, therapists, poets and prophets, in an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion..." Sound familiar? Further, continued Jaspers, this riotous marketplace of ideas eroded the moral substructure of society: enjoyment was pursued for its own sake, and slaves, the poor and the vanquished were left to rot. It took Christianity to replace the chaos with vision and purpose - Christianity being one way of consolidating and operationalizing the Hebrew and Greek insights of the first Axial Age.

But if "an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion" marks our times too, then there seems to be no new Christianity to guide our way, observes Richard Madsen in his essay in the new book. Is there a contemporary faith that might refresh "the deep matrix from which we sprang", as Jaspers put it?

We need to be careful with the word "faith" here. It is not what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls "expressive spirituality", of which there is plenty today, based on the conviction that each one of us must create an authentic and individual source of consolation, dreams and self-realization. Expressive spirituality actually breeds dislocation and feeds the chaos. Even less is faith about being cognitively persuaded to adopt a creed: the head cannot reach "the deep matrix" and so its convictions, when they lack heart, feel empty.

Rather, the faith that can energize and organize people is what Jaspers defines as "the fulfilling and moving element in the depths of man, in which man is linked, above and beyond himself." It is for such a connection that Barack Obama reaches in his most soaring rhetoric, though he can't also help raise the question of whether it's enough to save the Union? Hence the suspicion that we need a new axial age. Madsen notes that the original axial movements emerged on the margins of powerful empires. Only at the edges of societies and institutions might you find the kind of balance between playfulness with inherited traditions, and respect for them too, that can re-tap the axial energy and transmit it in ways that are once again meaningful.

Examples do, in fact, abound Madsen avers. He highlights the emergence of forms of socially engaged Buddhism in Taiwan. The founder of one, Buddha's Light Mountain, has written: "I do not unconditionally follow tradition. I do not toy with the idea of emptiness and talk in vain about abstruse things. I do not consciously accept the opinion of the majority. Instead, I constantly review our tradition, observe, and think about the future of Buddhism. I keep on reappraising values as I grow."

In the Christian tradition, Madsen finds inspiration in South Korea and its "vigorous minjung (people's) Christian theology, which mixes some of the expansionist passion of evangelical Christianity with the concern for social justice of ecumenical Christianity." In the West, Madsen points to Taizé, the Sant'Egidio community and the Sojourners.

Practical wisdom and spiritual vitality is sought in these movements. They are flexible, unlike fundamentalist religious movements, because their way of life is orientated not around protecting doctrines but around the struggle to be faithful to the deepest principles of their tradition. They also strive imaginatively to communicate their "findings". And they engage in critical dialogue with other traditions, a dialogue energized more by the exchange of ideas than the claim to power.

Crucially too for plural times, axial movements recognise that truth ultimately lies beyond any one group. That is the insight of the transcendent turn from the first Axial Age. An axial faith holds things sacred and makes a genuine commitment to one tradition because of, not in spite of, the recognition that human beings are linked to that which is "above and beyond " all.


Friday, November 16 2012

Filling the hole in modern life

There is a long review of God: All That Matters and The Big Questions: God in today's Tablet. It's online here. A taster:

Sometimes Vernon’s arguments can feel a bit brisk, and it is natural that in such concise but also wide-ranging treatments the author cannot do everything. These two books are, however, very accessible and readable (the tone is conversational), and Vernon has an admirable flair for illustrating his points through references to contemporary popular culture: he can see a popular British TV series as evidence of the God-shaped hole, trace an implicit spirituality in Philip Pullman’s New Statesman articles, and make astute philosophical points about, for instance, the use of the word “spiritual” in the Body Shop’s Body Care Manual. Vernon’s books do as they say – they take religious traditions and practice seriously, confront the central issues that ­matter most to humans, and nurture searchers, enquirers and the curious in their questioning and contemplation.


Tuesday, November 13 2012

How to follow your heart?

I preached a sermon for the first time in a long time last week, and it felt like a sermon not a talk. It was at St Edward's, Cambridge, the broad question being how to follow your heart?

I see a podcast is online now. (Also, it is well worth listening to Fraser Watts' words on the departed...)

In part of my sermon I make something of this Sufi story:

Unjustly imprisoned, a tinsmith was allowed to receive a rug woven by his wife. He prostrated himself upon the rug day after day to say his prayers, and after some time he said to his jailers:

“I am poor and without hope, and you are wretchedly paid. But I am a tinsmith. Bring me tin and tools and I shall make small artifacts which you can sell in the market, and we shall both benefit.”

The guards agreed to this, and presently the tinsmith and they were both making a profit, from which they bough food and comforts for themselves.

Then, one day, when the guards went to the cell, the door was open, and he was gone.

Many years later, when this man’s innocence had been established, the man who had imprisoned him asked him how he had escaped, what magic he had used. He said:

“It’s a matter of design, and design within design. My wife is a weaver. She found the man who had made the locks of the cell door, and got the design from him. This she wove into the carpet, at the spot where my head touched in prayer five times a day. I am a metal-worker, and this design looked to me like the inside of a lock. I designed the plan of the artifacts to obtain the materials to make the key - and I escaped.”

‘That,’ said the Sufi, ‘is one of the ways in which man may make his escape from the tyranny of his captivity.’


Tuesday, November 6 2012

The master and his emissary: what difference does it make?

There was a tremendous seminar on Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary, yesterday at the RSA. (There are plans to publish a summary of the discussion pretty soon.) The two key aims were to test the thesis and to ask what difference it makes.

The thesis might be broken down into two parts. First, that work on the two hemispheres of the brain suggests we have broadly two ways of attending to the world, and so rooting our values too, and that things go best when we have access to the two ways, which is to say that there is a synthesis of both, rather than the denigration of one by the other.

Second, McGilchrist contends that we live in a world enamoured with a way of looking at the world that over-values the attention associated with the left hemisphere - roughly, attention that is focused and manipulating; and under-valuing open and connecting attention.

I'd say that most people in the seminar could go along with the first part, particularly when it is remembered that McGilchrist stresses that (a) his thesis is not that the brain causes anything but that it constrains attention - much as land does not cause water to flow but constraints its flow; and (b) that all the ramifications of his thesis can be arrived at by other ways, it is just that neuroscience provides a particularly powerful discourse for discussing them.

When it comes to the difference it makes, for myself the book brings three thoughts sharply to my mind. The first is about how we do ethics.

Two approaches have dominated in the modern world - utilitarian ethics, which focuses on the attempt to measure and maximise things like happiness; and deontological ethics, which focuses on the attempt to reason out what we should and shouldn't do. These might be the preferred approaches one would expect in world that trusts the human capacities McGilchrist associates with the left hemisphere. But there are all sorts of reasons for believing that they are now not serving us well - and they also sideline and misunderstand a third tradition that it seems possible to associate more with the capacities associated with right hemisphere functioning. This is virtue ethics. Virtue ethics takes the ups and downs of life as the basic stuff of ethics and cultivates the ability to reflect upon experience so as to learn from mistakes, tolerate the uncertainties of living, nurture the habits that enable one to flourish, and over time gain a feel for how to live well - that lived sense of understanding we might call practical wisdom.

The second thought is not unrelated and has to do with McGilchrist's central thesis that the way the hemispheres function constrains how we perceive the world. If it is right that we have broadly two ways of attending to life, one focused and directive, the other open and connecting - and this seems right to me as it is something that has been repeatedly observed by adepts in spiritual traditions - then it will presumably also be the case that we can nurture our attention so as to develop different perceptions of and approaches to life. It will no doubt be a difficult even painful task to cultivate a way of attending that does not come naturally in the modern world, that is to cultivate the open and connecting in a milieu that prefers the focused and directive. But it seems pretty clear that having access to both kinds of attention is crucial.

The third thought is related again, and concerns having a capacity for uncertainty - an ability to stay with the anxieties of doubt and not reach out after faux-certainities; as well as an ability to resist the temptation to need to be doing something, anything, and/or unconsciously seeking escape in distractions. The psychotherapist Donald Winnicott called it 'going on being', arguing that trusting life itself rather than the nervy isolated self, is fundamental if creative and unexpected insights are to unfold. Again, this would seem to be a far more difficult state to sustain when the capacities associated with the right hemisphere are lost or denigrated.


Friday, October 26 2012

God and Muhammad event

I'm speaking at the Bishopsgate Institute next Thursday 1st November on God, with Ziauddin Sardar speaking on Muhammad. Here's the blurb:

Despite being in an era of multi-faiths and spirituality, it is argued that we have lost touch with the innate knowledge and sense of religion that previous generations could draw on. Whether or not you choose to engage with spirituality or religion, today's world at a personal, cultural, social and geopolitical level is profoundly shaped by religious differences as well as commonalities. Mark Vernon and Ziauddin Sardar examine how people and traditions are engaging with the divine today, in particular with God and Muhammed.


Spirituality is not just another health tonic

This piece is now on the Guardian's Comment is free belief site...

Spirituality has always been associated with the quest for health. Camberwell in south London, I recently learned, derives its name from a healing well frequented by those who were "cambered", or physically disabled. But it is only a scientific age that would seek to distil causal links between a spiritual practice and its physical effects, and perhaps also be concerned to exorcise any metaphysical excess.

The discussion of the benefits of practices traditionally associated with religions is firmly on the secular agenda. The new edition of the Handbook of Religion and Health lists more than 3,000 published studies. Research on forgiveness and gratitude alone has increased by an order of magnitude since the turn of the millennium.

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, has gathered evidence to show that gratitude has psychological benefits, sustains physical wellbeing and feeds human relationships. He also believes there is an important spiritual side to the virtue, as gratitude cultivates a sense of fulfilment in life by nurturing the sense of dependency on others and God.

Or consider forgiveness. A significant cultural reassessment of this virtue seems under way: it is now taken less as a sign of weakness and more of inner strength. "Genuine forgiveness is important in transforming relations, just as confession, apology and repentance are. Forgiveness is connected to other virtues, like empathy and justice," adds Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan. She is also keen to stress that forgiveness is not about forgetting the damage of the offence, but is interested in the wellbeing of the offender.

Researchers emphasise that the links between spirituality and wellbeing need much further study. "Do we really know what it is about what sort of religion, spirituality or belief that enhances health?" asks Stephen Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping and moderator of a recent conference that addressed these issues, Spiritual Progress and Human Flourishing. His answer is no, but "progress is being made".

Teaching spirituality and health is also being promoted. In August, Oxford University Press published a textbook for public health professionals, The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. Christina Puchalski of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, and one of the book's editors, argues that healthcare improvements have been driven by technology. "What is unfortunately missing is a relationship-centred compassionate approach," she argues, "and that's the foundation of spirituality in healthcare."

And the burgeoning interest raises theological questions too. Another book, published in September by the Templeton Press, asks whether healthcare risks turning faith into a medical commodity. Healing To All Their Flesh: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Spirituality, Theology, and Health, worries that, while research on religion and health is now acceptable, it may be distorting. As Jeff Levin, one of the book's editors, writes in the prologue: "Religion is just more grist for the mill of structural-equation models, survival analyses, logistic regressions and the like."

In other words, there is a lack of theoretical and theological reflection in the field and that matters for two reasons. One is scientific. Levin continues: "A medical researcher would never conduct a study of the health impact of, say, environmental toxins or nutritional status or social support without first consulting an environmental toxicologist or a nutritionist or a sociologist who could expertly identify what questions to ask, what hypotheses to frame, and, once data were collected, how to analyse the data and then how to interpret findings. Yet, in studies of religion and health, this is done all the time; it is probably the norm. This is foolish, irresponsible and self-defeating."

Second, it matters at a human level. Could there be something cruel in "prescribing" a spiritual practice as if it were a pill because of the implications for the patient when the supposed "remedy" fails to work? What is not being asked is what religious traditions actually teach about the link between faith and health – a question that might then lead to others, like how the status of the spirit matters for the functioning of the body?

After all, it seems likely that the wellbeing gained from religious practices would be indirect. The believer who says grace at the start of a meal does not do so to be happy but to thank God. Alternatively, and reflecting on Julian Baggini's interesting article on atheists fasting, celebrating a newfound control of the appetites could confuse the means with the end: spiritually speaking, fasting is about expanding an individual's range of interests so that they can move beyond material concerns.

Spirituality and health are both great goods. But confusing the two brings risks. It might load individuals already anxious about their lifestyles with yet more burdens. And it could stymie the spiritual transformation of the person.


Tuesday, October 16 2012

Life off earth - religion and aliens

The Battle of Ideas is coming up again. I'm taking part in an event asking what is the point of atheism.

I've just seen this film of a conversation I took part in last year, using the possibility of intelligent aliens to reflect on what it might be to be human.


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