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Social Science says that, on balance, religion is good for us

November 8, 2018

A recent article in Huffington Post contained this innocuous-sounding phrase—“I was lucky enough to be raised unreligiously.” Clearly for the author of these words, “religion” is a purely negative concept, as it is for many others, including such well-known figures as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. Certainly, negative stereotypes about religion abound in society today—stereotypes about religion in general, as well as about particular religions, including Christianity. Here, however, I will provide an alternative, more positive view of religion, from the perspective of the social sciences.

As Western society moves away from traditional religious practices, perceptions of religion become decreasingly based on a person’s own experience and increasingly based on second- or third-hand interpretations. Moreover, the narrative has become dominated by violence, institutional abuse, and intellectual myopia. Examples, both ancient and modern, are readily at hand—patriarchy, the Crusades, ISIS and jihadism, Canada’s residential schools, and various oppositions (such as to gun-control, evolution, immigration). Not to mention the contribution of certain strains of Christianity to the emergence of Trumpism.

So the trend in Western society has been away from traditional religious practices and affiliations towards two principle alternatives—“spiritual-but-not-religious” and “secularism” (in either agnostic or atheist flavors). Both these streams are quick to point to the harms done in the name of religion.

Without question, the harms done under the aegis of religion must be brought to the light of public awareness, those responsible held accountable (including by legal prosecution), and restorative justice implemented as far as possible. But the stereotype today is that all religion is inherently harmful—which misrepresents religion as much as it misrepresents American politics to say all Americans are Republicans. For just as American politics includes a very wide spectrum, from Donald Trump to Bernie Sanders, so too “religion” includes a very wide spectrum of values and practices—which turn out, on balance, to be positive for our well-being.

Before getting into the social science behind this, we should note that many scholars consider the term “religion” to be misleading, a false category. For the diversity of views and practices that get incorporated under this single label are so wide that using a single term (“religion”) gives a misleading sense of commonality among them. I am very sympathetic to this concern; nonetheless, I will continue to use the terms “religion” and “religious” because social science research seeks to control for these diverse features and variables.

So, as we will see in a moment, social science finds that religion correlates significantly with psycho-social well-being—although you would never know this from much of the public discussion today. For the sake, then, of a fuller understanding of religion in general, and for the sake of humanity’s well-being in particular, there is need to bring back into public awareness the many positive elements of religion that are suppressed, ignored, or simply no longer recognized due to unfamiliarity. I see these positives through three particular prisms: social science; cultural and political history; and autobiography. The first of these I’ll consider here, the others in subsequent posts. This post will concern religion in general; my subsequent posts will consider Christianity in particular.

Social science research into the well-being effects of religion is a well-established field, with hundreds of studies published over the past several decades. So let’s look at some representative studies.

I’ll begin with some studies related to children and youth. A 2016 study from the University of Michigan examined the role of religious involvement in protecting youth against depression and suicidal ideation. The study screened 161 youth with interpersonal problems (ages 12-15) for “peer victimization, bullying perpetration, and low social connectedness, and assessed for depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, school connectedness, parent-family connectedness, and religious involvement.” Results indicated that private religious practices [PRP], religious support [RS], and participation in organized religion [OR] were all associated with lower levels of suicidal ideation. A notable exception is in the case of sexual-minority youth, for whom some religious contexts actually increase suicidal ideation. A 2015 meta-study, analyzing the results of 89 previous studies, indicates though that, overall, religion protects against suicide attempts. As the Michigan researchers conclude, “Results suggest the importance of considering religious involvement as a target of youth depression and suicide prevention interventions.”

In 2018 the T.H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard University released a longitudinal study of 5000 children and youth which found that “people who attended weekly religious services or practiced daily prayer or meditation in their youth reported greater life satisfaction and positivity in their 20s than people raised with less regular spiritual habits.” Those who “attended religious services at least weekly in childhood and adolescence were approximately 18% more likely to report higher happiness as young adults (ages 23-30) than those who never attended services. They were also 29% more likely to volunteer in their communities and 33% less likely to use illicit drugs.” In short, the report correlated “religious upbringing…to better health and well-being during early adulthood.”

In 2016 a study concerning student radicalization (desire to join ISIS or Al-Qaida) was released, based on a survey of 1900 students from eight colleges (CEGEPs) across Quebec. Behind the study was news in Quebec that a number of college students had gone overseas to join Al-Qaeda; consequently, there was much public concern that participation in religion (especially Islam) encourages extremism. The study found, however, that in contrast to such popular concern, “Having a religion and being religious is a strong protection factor [against] radicalization, and also moderates and decreases the impact of adverse life events.” Then who were the radicalized? Predominantly non-religious students, second-generation immigrants, and Quebecers who feel socially disconnected, thus seeking meaning for their lives through radicalization. Notice the two findings here that run contrary to populist intuition: it was predominantly non-religious persons who were radicalized; and participating in religious life was found to guard against radicalization.

Another interesting study from the Chan School at Harvard concerns longevity. The researchers studied 74,534 women over a 16 year period. When the researchers matched deaths with reported religious attendance, they found “that women who attended religious services more than once per week had a 33% lower risk of dying during the 16 years of follow-up compared with women who never attended religious services. Women who attended services weekly had a 26% lower risk, and those who attended services less than weekly had a 13% lower risk.” In addition to this correlation with longer life-spans, they also found that “women who went to services regularly had lower rates of smoking and depression and were more likely to have strong social support than those who didn’t.”

These are just a tiny sample of the many studies that exist. Numerous other findings in the field of  “religion and well-being” show correlations ranging from improved mental health to reduced male sexual aggression.

In 2014 Carol Graham (University of Maryland) and Sarah Crown (University of Nevada at Las Vegas) produced a study, “Religion and Well-Being Around the World,” based on the annual Gallup World Poll. The GWP asks more than a thousand questions on a wide range of topics ranging from well-being to civic engagement to religiosity to economic perceptions, among others. Their study, covering the years 2005-2011, used data from more than 11 million respondents. This is a massive data set, which enabled their study to include multiple demographic variables, multiple dimensions of well-being, and multiple dimensions of religiosity and religious participation. All this requires complex social science methodology, and their findings are appropriately complex. But their conclusion is quite straight-forward: “In sum, like many other [studies], we find a positive relation between religion and well-being.”

In 2016, the Theos think-tank in the UK conducted a meta-study of 139 academic studies over the last three decades. This meta-study found that “study after study demonstrates how participation in group religious worship services (and in some cases other forms of religious social participation…) is powerfully correlated with well-being.” The conclusion: “There are a few outlier studies, some inconclusive, some negative, but the weight of the evidence [regarding the correlation of religion to individual well-being] is overwhelmingly positive.”

All this will be news to many who are aware only of negative stereotypes about religion. But the social science is well-established, so both public discourse and public policy would do well to be much more aware and inclusive of such findings. Even more importantly, people who have rejected “religion” for themselves simply on account of negative stereotypes have strong reason to reconsider their understanding of religion, and so begin to explore religious life for themselves. Those who were religious but “gave it up,” for whatever reason, can find cause here to re-examine those earlier reasons for leaving in a new light, to seek healing and recovery, and so begin to re-engage with the positive elements of what they left behind, even if in new forms or locations.



Agapic Dianoia as a Model of Christian Intellectual Life

December 22, 2017

If every aspect of our lives are to be submitted to the redemptive transformation of Christ, then what are the implications for our intellectual life, particularly for our academic and professional disciplines? In this article, I propose a new model of Christian intellectual life by bringing together two elements of Christian discipleship described in the New Testament — agape (self-giving love) and dianoia (God-loving rationality). To download this article (PDF), click here.

Revisions to ‘Freedom All The Way Up’

August 4, 2017

Freedom All The Way Up: God and the Meaning of Life in a Scientific Age has been available (through Amazon, your local book store, etc) for the past couple months; however, I finished writing it over a year ago (it takes a year to get through the publication process), which means I have had a year to continue thinking about these matters. For those who have read, or will read, the book here are three revisions I would make:

  • My discussion of agape-love was deficient in a particularly significant way. I continue to agree with my definition of agape-love as ‘self-sacrificial self-giving for the blessing of God and of others, particularly those who are vulnerable, as well as strangers and enemies’. In Chapter 5, I said that there are two fundamental forms of blessing that constitute agape-love towards others—seeking justice and giving gifts. Now, however, I believe I failed to properly include the work of Jesus on the cross; that is, there is a primary sort of blessing that constitutes agape-love which I failed to identify, but which I now believe is essential to agape-love—reconciliation. Estrangement is humanity’s fundamental problem (estrangement from God and from each other through our self-focused inclinations); that is, I would identify estrangement as the fundamental form of hamartia (the Greek word in the New Testament usually translated as ‘sin’, but more literally meaning ‘missing the mark’). So Jesus’ life and death, his mission, was to overcome estrangement—to reconcile humanity with God and with each other, which in effect makes ‘offering reconciliation’ the fundamental form of Jesus’ agapic mission. Other forms of blessing are biblical too, such as seeking justice, physical healing, bestowing dignity, provision of needs, advocacy, and so forth, but I would now say that agape-love prioritizes reconciliation above all other forms of blessing, since, if we achieve reconciliation with God and with others, then the other sorts of blessings will more-fully follow. This addition of reconciliation as the principle objective of agape-love is a critical refinement to my original discussion (and I am very annoyed with myself for missing this in the book). Moreover, it adds another layer to the radicalness of Jesus’ agape-love, for if we truly understood the implications of deep reconciliation, then not just our individual relationships would be dramatically altered but our whole social, economic, and political structures as well. Consequently, I would now redefine agape-love along these lines: agape-love is ‘self-sacrificial self-giving for the blessing of God and of others, particularly those who are vulnerable, as well as strangers and enemies, principally through reconciliation, then also through justice and gifts’. (This could still do with some refining, but for now this makes my point.)
  • For the sake of comprehensiveness, in the book I should have discussed more of the social science research on the meaning of life. In particular I am thinking of the sort of work done by the Positive Psychology movement and by the Greater Good Science Centre at UC Berkeley. The Centre (which does great research) identifies ten elements of well-being for a meaningful life: altruism, diversity, compassion, awe, gratitude, mindfulness, forgiveness, happiness, and social connection. These are perfect examples of forms of ‘internal transcendence’ (IT). Of course, others could still be added—off the top of my head I can think of ‘solidarity’, ‘creativity’, ‘communicativeness’, ‘hope’, and ‘perseverance’.  It would also have been beneficial to have referenced the three methodological approaches to ‘well-being’ famously identified by Derrek Parfit in his book Reasons and Persons (namely ‘mental state’ approaches, ‘desire-fulfillment’ approaches, and ‘objective list’ approaches). None of these discussions would have changed any of my argument in the book; rather, they simply would have better illustrated my points in Chapters 7 and 8, particularly with regard to my argument that ‘uber-values’, such as ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’, are incoherent if not based in an uber-Mind (ie., God).
  • I would like to have given more attention to humanism and ‘the human spirit’. These two terms are essentially different labels given to the sorts of IT qualities described above—though my sense of how people use the phrase ‘the human spirit’ particularly emphasizes the qualities of perseverance and hope that enable people to rise inspiringly to the challenges of life. Nonetheless, because there is no—and can be no—single canonical definition of ‘humanism’ or ‘the human spirit’, these terms can be applied to any subset of IT qualities, including subsets that exclude altruism, self-sacrifice, and reconciliation, which are essential to agape-love. That is, ‘humanism’ and ‘the human spirit’ can overlap some IT qualities that are part of our imago Dei qualities, and can overlap some agape-love practices, but they are not the same as agape-love, and, because of their linguistic flexibility, can easily omit essential elements of agape-love. In effect, IT humanism and ‘the human spirit’ are attractive concepts, evoking life-encouraging feelings, even plugging into some of our God-created imago Dei qualities, but they are no replacement for God’s agape-love as the fundamental meaning of existence. (In effect, these observations do not change any of my arguments, other than to lead me to slightly refine what I said on p.218 of the book, so that now I would put it this way—that the qualities associated with IT humanism and ‘the human spirit’ can strengthen parts of the existential superstructure of life, yet they simultaneously undermine our existential foundations by removing God’s agape-love as the purpose of the universe and as the foundational meaning of our lives.)

Why God does not provide ‘knock-down’ evidence for God’s existence

February 17, 2017

Malcolm Jeeves has made the following observation: ‘In neuroscience, a leading theist was Sir John Eccles and a leading atheist Francis Crick, both Nobel laureates. When we see such distinguished scientists in psychology and neuroscience taking such radically different views, the lesson becomes clear: there are no easy answers to these questions. There are no knock-down arguments to settle the debates.’ There are those, however, who count it a strike against Theism not only that there are no knock-down, or irrefutably overwhelming, arguments for God, but that God does not give knock-down evidence of God’s existence. One thinks here of Bertrand Russell’s famous comment that, should he have to face God someday, he would say ‘But God, you did not give me sufficient evidence for your existence’. It turns out, however, that God has good reasons for not providing evidence that is so overwhelmingly-convincing that every rational person could only conclude from such evidence that God exists… [click here for the remainder of the article as a two-page pdf.]

Randomness in Creation and God’s Plan for Agape-love

January 13, 2017

“The physical-chemical processes of this Creation, which employ a continuous interplay between randomness, order, and emergent complexity, do not permit total predictability, such as predicting every specific neural pathway for every type of agape-capable being that will ever emerge on every possible eco-niche in the universe. Only a system without randomness could provide such deterministic predictability, but such predictability and control is not God’s objective. Rather, God has created the physical-chemical system we experience in our universe, with its particular balance of randomness, order, emergent complexity, laws, regularities, and probabilities, because it provides just what God desires, namely, a process by which beings with neurophysiological agape-capabilities and meaning-making capabilities would emerge through convergence and multiple realizability. This process provided God with a degree of predictive resolution such that God foreknew, from God’s design of the initial conditions of the universe(s), that many possible routes could come about to provide agapic neurophysiological capabilities, and that one or more of these would actually come about (through asymptotic probability over sufficient time), without needing to predict which actual routes would come about. This is the heart of the probability component of the agape/probability account.”

-From Freedom All The Way Up (forthcoming, April 2017)

Epistemology and Philosophy of Language in John’s Gospel

June 19, 2015

John says he wrote his Gospel ‘so that you may believe’. The basis of this hoped-for belief is Jesus’ teaching and miracles—or ‘signs’, as John calls miracles. In philosophical terms we could say that John’s Gospel is about ‘evidential spiritual epistemology’—coming to knowledge of God through the evidences of Jesus’ power as a teacher and as a worker of miracles.

Of course, John has nothing to say about scientific method, which may lead us to infer that he had nothing to say about our ability to understand the universe or anything therein. Yet two verses in his gospel may have significant implications for those of us interested in matters of contemporary science and epistemology (how we gain knowledge).

John 1:1 opens with these well-known words: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’. The Greek word translated as ‘Word’ is, of course, logos. Using ‘Word’ as the translation for logos has become an ingrained convention among translators, and not without good reason—it is simple yet evocative, and is probably as good a single-word translation as any of the other possibility. However, we tend to forget that logos is polysemic, that its meaning in classical and koine Greek can be rendered into English by various other words as well, such as reason, opinion, account, and, as Grahame Hunter (Professor of Philosophy, University of Ottawa) has pointed out, intelligibility. Despite our proclivity to translate logos as Word, this polysemy was no doubt part of John’s semantic awareness. Hunter suggests that we read John 1:1 replacing ‘Word’ with each of the various other candidate words in English, to give us a fuller understanding of the scope and power of this verse. Here is how John 1:1 reads with logos as intelligibility: ‘In the beginning was the Intelligibility, and the Intelligibility was with God, and the Intelligibility was God’.

This is highly suggestive. If God is Intelligibility, then God is the source of intelligibility. Assuming that intelligibility involves two sides (‘able to be understood’ and ‘capable of understanding’), then on this reading of John 1:1, humanity, as the image of God, reflects both aspects—humanity is capable of understanding and of being understood.

This helps us address a couple questions. One is the old question, Why is the universe intelligible? That is, Why are we able to understand the universe? Alvin Plantinga has offered his well-known argument that evolution denies naturalism (materialism, atheism) because evolution is not built to give us the remarkable capacities we have, such as the levels of math and knowledge we have to understand physics and the universe; rather, evolution just gives us levels of knowledge we need for survival and reproduction. Thus the probability of evolution giving humans such reliable cognitive faculties is low, thus the fact that we have reliable cognitive faculties requires another explanation, namely God’s involvement in our cognitional formation. However, I believe this argument has been successfully refuted by those who say that the evolution of human intelligence for survival and reproduction has produced brains capacities that are capable of extrapolating their intelligence capacities beyond just survival and reproduction.

Nonetheless, I would contend that this evolved capacity for intelligence (intelligibility-capacity) was one of the qualities (along with love) intended by God to emerge from the initial conditions and physical-chemical processes of the universe. Thus the universe and our world are intelligible because intelligibility—both ‘able to be known’ and ‘able to know’—is part of God’s creative, evolutionary plan. Consequently, scientific method as naturalistic is not a repudiation of Theism, as Materialists often claim, but simply the application of our God-intended and God-reflecting evolutionarily-evolved intelligibility capacities. In effect, John 1:1 provides a theological explanation and justification for scientific enquiry: we are just using the brains God gave us…through evolution.

Second, in John 14:6 Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth (alethea), and the life’. In contemporary philosophy (well, Anglo-American) truth is a property of propositions. In terms of ‘truth’, does this verse mean then that Jesus is somehow a single fundamental proposition, perhaps a super-propositional truth which gathers into itself all other real and potential propositional truths? Such a proposal is nonsense—a person cannot be a proposition any more than a person can be a hamburger or a calculus equation. However, if both Jesus and propositions can be labelled as ‘true’ then there must be some common property that Jesus and propositions share—but what would that be? I suggest it is the quality of ‘faithfulness’ or ‘trustworthiness’. This makes an ontological connection between the nature of God and the nature of propositions—indeed, more broadly, with the nature of communication: propositions and communications which are true reflect the reliability and trustworthiness of God. Put another way, as God is a communicator (communicates with humans), the ability to communicate is part of being made in the image of God (an often-overlooked quality of the imago dei). That is, verbal communication, including both literal propositions and figurative language, is creationally founded in this property of God, namely being trustworthy or reliable. The truth-conditions of propositions (whatever one may say about their physical or metaphysical status) reflect the character of God.

Now we can combine these two portions of John’s Gospel into a powerful ‘theology of epistemology’ (doctrine of knowledge), namely that the natural world (including the universe, quantum mechanics, chemistry, biology, and human personhood) is intelligible to us because creation, including we humans, reflects the Intelligibility of God; and further, that when language is truthful, it is truthful by virtue of being reliable or trustworthy, reflecting these same characteristics of God. The world has been made by God to be intelligible, and our language about that world is true when it is reliable and trustworthy. Furthermore, the same applies to God, for God too is intelligible (to an extent adequate for relational purposes), and so our language about God—or anything else, for that matter—is true when it is reliable and trustworthy.

Vegetarianism and the New Covenant

June 19, 2015

In the summer of 2014 I gave up my life as a carnivore. Vegetarianism has never had much traction for most Christians, including for me. In fact, I always thought vegetarians were a bit odd. But, hey, to each their own—after all, each of us has our own quirks. Nonetheless, in recent times I have come to see the issue more seriously than this—as a matter of holiness and discipleship.

I suspect Christian indifference to vegetarianism has arisen from three biblical texts in particular. First is Genesis 9:3, in which God says to Noah, after the flood, ‘Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as [at creation] I gave you the green plants [for food], I now give you [for food] every being that moves’. In effect, God only permitted eating of the green plants (vegetarianism) before the flood, but permitted carnivorism after the flood. Why God would make this change after the flood? The answer is unclear, but there it is.

Second, in Acts 10 we read the following story: ‘About noon the following day…Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat”’ (NIV).

Third, we have these words from Paul: ‘One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’ (Romans 14:5-6). This verse certainly gives space for vegetarianism, but it equally gives space for carnivorism.

I’m no longer convinced, however, that the permissibility of unrestricted carnivorism is an appropriate implication of a canonical reading of scripture—that is, scripture in its totality. In fact, I now think there are good scriptural reasons to take vegetarianism seriously.

First, back to Genesis 9. This is conventionally called God’s covenant with Noah, but it is actually God’s covenant with Noah and the animals—‘every living creature’, to be precise. The covenant is this: God promises to never again wipe out virtually all life on Earth. In fact, five times in the chapter God reiterates that this divine covenant is with Noah and the animals. And yet Christians are for the most part completely unaware that God ever made a covenant with the animals. (I only noticed this recently myself.) It seems to me that if God considers the animals worthy of a covenant, then, as God’s stewards and guardians of creation, we should have a covenant with them too. Furthermore, new covenants are part of God’s ways. There are a number of new covenants recorded in the Old Testament, well prior to the New Covenant that comes with Jesus. It seems to me that if new covenants are possible with humans then a new covenant is also possible with the animals. If so, then what would this look like? Perhaps like this: that we refrain from eating them as much as possible, and, where we do eat them, or even cultivate them, that we cause them no suffering, either in how they are raised or killed.

This fits with several parts of scripture. For instance, it fits well with the shape of how Jesus lived the new covenant with people, for this extended not just to ‘spiritual egalitarianism’ (neither Jew nor Greek, etc.) but to pacifism as well. For instance, in the Galilee synagogue, where Jesus reads from the Isaiah scroll, he leaves out the role Isaiah gives to God’s vengeance. When tested with money, he said ‘Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s’, thereby negating the Maccabean/Zealot tradition of violent resistance to Roman taxation. Various other examples exist in the Gospels of Jesus’ pacifism—at least towards violence that causes injury or death (overturning the moneychanger tables at the temple was certainly violent but it caused no one physical harm). Surely a natural extension of Jesus’ vision for pacifism extends to our stewardship of nature, including how we treat the animals.

Likewise, the vision of Paul and John for a new creation includes by implication—even if they didn’t mention it in their writings—ceasing where possible to kill animals, and certainly to avoid causing them suffering. We see part of this new creation vision as far back as Isaiah 11, the messianic-prophetic text about God’s eschaton-kingdom of peace: ‘The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’ (often misquoted as ‘the lion will lie down with the lamb’). This passage is held up by Christians as a vision of the future peace and reconciliation at the end of the ages ‘when God wins’. We hold up these three now-vegetarian predators—the wolf, the leopard, and the lion—as symbols of God’s new kingdom precisely because they have given up their animal-killing ways. So why do we hold up these beasts as symbols of God’s new kingdom, yet think that their example doesn’t apply to us? We know this is God’s vision of the new kingdom, so we are in no position to say ‘But it doesn’t apply to me, at least not yet’. It reminds me of Augustine’s comment, ‘Lord make me chaste—but not yet!’ The clear implication of Isaiah 11 is that non-violence towards animals is part of God’s vision for the new kingdom, so there appears no valid reason to hold off living in accordance with this as much as we can.

Is vegetarianism an absolute implication? Certainly not where there are mitigating circumstances—which there certainly can be. For instance, in some environments people do not have access to sufficient vegetation for survival, such as arctic peoples (Inuit, Yupik, Aleuts, and Sami, among others) or desert peoples (Bedouin, Tuareg, and Teda, among others). For such peoples, meat is a necessity. Then there is Peter’s experience in Acts 10, which can be seen as another example of mitigating circumstances, namely God’s desire to eliminate the purity laws. The purity laws were partly for health, and so in this regard were good. Yet they were also partly to demarcate the Jews from Gentiles, a principle which God gets rid of in the New Covenant. When God tells Peter to get up and eat, this is not a command to carnivorism but a command to break down some of the strongest walls in Jewish minds between Jews and Gentiles—their dietary laws. Furthermore, it was a vision, not a reality, so Peter did not actually eat the meat!

Further ethical reasons in favor of vegetarianism arise simply from our own age. Given our massive human population, our carnivore lifestyle is creating huge amounts of pollution—the extent of natural methane production from cows and pigs is now well known, as is the huge amount of energy that goes into their feed and transport, as is the hugely negative-return on calorie investment in raising them. This simply does not count as good stewardship of creation. Furthermore, many of our food production processes are inhumane. Periodically, secret cameras in factory farms show the inhumane treatment of animals such as cows, pigs, and chickens. Each time the industry says they will clean themselves up, another such situation comes to public attention some time later. (Even as I write this, yet another Canadian case of factory farm animal-abuse is in the media.) Abusive practices will always happen simply because people are sinful. From another angle, it is well documented that much of the fish we get from South East Asia is produced by slaves kept captive on the fishing boats.

To reduce pollution, to reduce suffering of animals, and to reduce the suffering of exploited people—in short, to reflect God’s kingdom here on earth, God’s healing of the world, and God’s new covenant with creation—Christians should give very serious consideration to vegetarianism. We still follow Paul’s tone of mutual respect in those words quoted earlier:  ‘He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God’. Nonetheless, we can also suggest that scripture seems to have implications in a certain direction—which I would suggest it does when it comes to the stewardship which God has given us of the animal kingdom.

Tolkien and Lewis as Pre-evangelists

March 20, 2015

I have been reading Not God’s Type: An Atheist Academic Lays Down Her Arms, by Holly Ordway (Ignatius, 2010), the autobiography of her conversion from atheism to Christ. Ordway is a professor of English literature, and her biography provides an interesting insight into the old Tolkien-versus-Lewis debate. As is well known, Tolkien and CS Lewis were friends, although, as is also well known, Tolkien had a strong disliking for Lewis’s style of allegorical writing. Indeed, readers themselves tend to polarize around one or other of the two. Ordway, however, describes how both of them prepared her for her eventual conversion.

Here is some of what she says about Tolkien: “Long before I gave any thought to whether Christianity was true, and long before I considered questions of faith and practice, my imagination was being fed Christianly….At some point in my childhood, I found JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and that changed everything. Not suddenly. Not even immediately. But slowly, surely. Like light from an invisible lamp, God’s grace was beginning to shine out from Tolkien’s works, illuminating my godless imagination with  Christian vision….The Lord of the Rings was where I first encountered the Christian evangelium, the good news….[S]omething took root in my reading of Tolkien that would flower many years later” (24-25).

Here is some of what she says about Lewis: “The idea of a personal God was almost impossible for me to grasp to begin with, let alone the Christian claim that the Creator became a human person…I could understand the definition of the word ‘Incarnation’ but not grasp its meaning….But what if the idea of the Incarnation did not have to be solved like a math problem.. .what if I could get hold of its meaning in a different way? I picked up The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe: this time not to analyze it for my dissertation but to enter Narnia like a little girl again. And I encountered Aslan….In Narnia I found that the Incarnation was not a bizarre idea, out of place in the world. It infused the very atmosphere. I breathed it in and was strengthened by it. That God would join his creatures by becomng part of creation himself seemed, here in Narnia, as fitting as the fact that winter’s end brought crocuses peeking brightly through half-melted snow…” (86-87).

Ordway also describes how other Christian writers, from Donne to Hopkins, prepared her imagination and worldview for her eventual turn to God and conversion to Christ. But what strikes me in Ordway’s account of Tolkien and Lewis is her ‘both/and’, rather than ‘either/or’, appreciation of them both, for each contributed to her eventual conversion in their own way.

Materialism’s ‘Cheap-shot Galileo Fallacy’

November 15, 2014

Recently I was reading Complexity: A Guided Tour, by Melanie Mitchell (OUP, 2009). While discussing Galileo as a pioneer of experimental science, she makes the following comment as an aside: ‘(Galileo got in big trouble with the Catholic Church for promoting [heliocentrism] and was eventually forced to publicly renounce it; only in 1992 did the Church officially admit that Galileo had been unfairly persecuted)’ (p.17).

I cannot remember how many times I have read this sort of needless cheap-shot in otherwise-scientific texts. Whenever Materialists (atheists) want to take a shot at Theists, out comes the old ‘the Church persecuted Galileo’ canard—as if this somehow discredits Christianity or theism at large, or the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Much of the time these comments are actually embarrassingly irrelevant to the author’s discussion, as in Mitchell’s case. And, as in Mitchell’s case, much of the time the pejorative implication is left hanging, for the reader simply to guess at. I call this ‘the cheap-shot Galileo fallacy’. Of course the Roman Church’s treatment of Galileo was atrocious. The fallacy, however, is that citing the Roman Church’s treatment of Galileo somehow impugns theism or Christianity in general.

Are such people really so ignorant of scientific history? Are they truly unaware of how often Materialist scientists have mocked, excoriated, harassed, and marginalized peers for theories that would eventually become scientific orthodoxy? I doubt it. Scientists don’t get this far in their careers without knowing significant swaths of the history of science. I cannot help but conclude that those who invoke the Galileo fallacy are operating with an intentionally-selective memory. So here I will point out four well-known cases of Materialist malice, to help inoculate Materialists against selective-memory syndrome. Of course, numerous other examples could be cited.

Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906) is hailed today as the inventor of the modern atomic theory of matter and the founder of statistical mechanics. Nonetheless, during his lifetime his professional peers, including Ernst Mach, harshly denounced his ideas. Boltzmann eventually committed suicide—in part because he had a history of depression, though many have felt that the malicious treatment he received from his colleagues was a significant contributing factor. Ironically, and sadly, it was soon after his death that his theories were proven valid.

Georg Cantor (1845-1918) was the founder of set theory, now considered the fundamental basis of mathematics. ‘Although Cantor’s work seems obvious to us now, in his lifetime it was considered radical and unacceptable by many of his fellow mathematicians. Cantor suffered tremendously for holding fast to his ideas’ (Noson Yanofsky, The Outer Limits of Reason, The MIT Press, 2013, p.94). Such Materialists as Poincaré, Kronecker, and Wittgenstein heaped scorn on Cantor’s work. He received so much abuse from his peers that he suffered significant bouts of depression for much of his professional life.

J. Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) was a geologist ridiculed and marginalized for decades by his professional peers for his theory of catastrophic flooding, which he first proposed in the 1920s. Yet in 1979, at age 97, the Geological Society of America awarded Betz its highest honor, the Penrose Medal, for his ground-breaking work. (Sorry—I couldn’t resist the lame pun!)

Then there is the notorious case of Dan Schechtman. In the 1980s Schechtman was working with a particular metal alloy, from which he created a pattern of crystals which scientific orthodoxy of the day considered impossible to exist in nature. As it turned out, he had found an entirely new class of solid material, which is now called quasi-crystals. For years, however, colleagues mocked him because, within their set of [false] assumptions, they considered it impossible for such a pattern of crystals to exist. Schechtman was even asked to resign from his research team at The Johns Hopkins University ‘for bringing disgrace on the team’ with his absurd claims. Schechtman has described how Linus Pauling, a giant in late 20th Century science who won two Nobel Prizes, spent a decade ridiculing Schechtman, trying to discredit his work and end his career. Yet in the end Schechtman was proven right: in 2011 he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry—for his discovery of something that supposedly couldn’t exist! The Nobel Committee stated that Schechtman’s work ‘forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter’. Here is a scientist whose peers ridiculed his ideas and tried to destroy his career—yet went on to receive a Nobel Prize for his work.

In light of such examples (and many more could be cited), criticisms of ‘the Church’ for its treatment of Galileo seem willfully ignorant of history. Indeed, one could make a case that far fewer scientists have suffered rebuke and marginalization by ‘the Christian Church’ than by ‘the Materialist Church’. It is time that Materialists stopped using the strawman figure of Galileo to try to hammer ‘the Church’ and/or theism. Invoking Galileo in this way simply combines a selectively-biased reading of history with fallacious reasoning, producing nothing more than hackneyed and misleading cant. The Roman Church abused Galileo in his day; in our day the Materialist Church has found a new way to abuse him, namely by co-opting him for the Materialist cause — which, as a Theist himself, Galileo would have opposed.

God’s Love and the Meaning-Making Brain

April 11, 2014

What is the meaning of life? In The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Princeton Univ. Press, 2012), Paul Thagard, a philosophy professor who directs the cognitive science program at the University of Waterloo, Canada, explores how the human quest for existential meaning is related to the functioning of the brain. Thagard contends that existential meaning is a goal-directed function of the brain: life is meaningful ‘to the extent that [a person possesses] coherent and valuable goals that they can strive for and at least partially accomplish, yielding [the reward of] satisfaction and happiness’. To be meaningful, goals must be coherent, valuable, and at least partially accomplishable. Thagard identifies love, work, and play as three realms of life which are particularly significant for providing coherent, valuable, and at least partially-accomplishable goals for a meaningful life. He describes how all this happens at a neurological level.

I find Thagard’s proposal helpful; however, I wish to add a number of points from a theistic perspective. First, it needs to be said that meaningful and satisfying goals are not necessarily moral goals. A criminal might highly value, and successfully accomplish, the effort to pull off a string of untraceable bank frauds. The criteria for what counts as a moral goal are separate from the criteria for what counts as a meaningful goal.

Second, in addition to work, love, and play as particularly significant for meaningful lives, I would add three equally-significant meaning-giving goals: engaging in personal interests (creating and engaging in meaningful activities for one’s life); discovering one’s origins (creating meaning from the past, at four possible levels – biological, familial, ethnocultural, and as a species); and, the converse of one’s origins, leaving a personal legacy (making meaning from the future). In each of these ways we construct meaning for ourselves.

Third, Thagard’s account is missing a fundamental element (in addition to goals) for life to feel meaningful, namely self-value or self-worth—a sense that my life, my existence, is valued by me and by others. In other words, life is most meaningful when we possess not just goals that are coherent, valued, and at least partially achievable, but when we possess such goals within a sense of positive self-value—when I feel valued, cared for, affirmed, included, and befriended by others, including God, family, friends, colleagues, and the wider community. The less these are present, the less life feels meaningful.

From a neurological perspective, making existential meaning for one’s life is a constant neural activity. I propose that we have two ‘existential meaning’-making (EMM) circuits in our brain—the goal-directed circuits and the self-worth circuits, both of which run through the pre-frontal cortex. Like so many of our neural operations, meaning-making operations are grinding away all the time, sometimes consciously but mostly sub-consciously, continually shaping the objectives, choices, and activities we find meaningful. In effect, Homo sapiens have evolved to be inveterate meaning-makers. I suggest this constitutes a fundamental part of what it is to be human. I would also suggest that this is not sufficiently appreciated in our anthropologies, whether theistic or materialist.

I propose that God intentionally launched the creative processes of the universe(s) such that meaning-seeking and meaning-making beings would come about. In part this means that God intends us to construct meaning for our lives. Yet, contrary to what constructivists (such as Thagard) claim, the fact that we are able to construct meaning for our lives does not remove God from the picture. For God has also provided an ultimate meaning for our lives, a source of existential meaning that fulfills our EMM and neural-reward circuits more profoundly than any other form of meaning—namely agapao-love (that is, self-giving for the benefit of others). Galatians 5:13 is my favorite statement of this in scripture.

The greatest challenge to human meaning is nihilism, typically represented by Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy. The problem with constructivism is that it merely keeps nihilism at bay; in contrast, it is only God’s agapao-love, historically manifested in Jesus, that destroys nihilism. Here I will invoke these words from Hugo, the mechanically-gifted boy in Martin Scorsese’s film Hugo, set in 1930s Paris: “Maybe that’s why a broken machine always makes me a little sad, because it isn’t able to do what it was meant to do…Maybe it’s the same with people. If you lose your purpose…it’s like you’re broken.” When we lose God’s agapao-love purpose for us, then we are broken, despite the many other worthwhile meanings we may construct for our lives. Which always makes me more than just a little sad.

Vinoth Ramachandra

IFES Secretary for Dialogue and Social Engagement