The “Nones” in 2013: A collection of links

Elizabeth Drescher has a thoughtful piece on resisting the impulse to pigeonhole the “nones.” Some may be spiritual but not religious, some may be unbelievers, but it’s important to keep in mind the results of the Pew survey:

  • 68% of the Unaffiliated in general believe in God or a Universal Spirit
  • Among those who self-identify as Atheist/Agnostic, 38% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit
  • Among those who self-identified as “Nothing in Particular”—the majority of Nones (71%) in general—some 81% say they believe in God or a Universal Spirit

Survey says: Nones are by and large not unbelievers. Not atheists. Not secular humanists. Not anti-religious.

Apparently the growth in the religiously-unaffiliated slowed in 2012, increasing by only .3 percentage points.

Faith beyond Belief: Stories of good people who have left their church behind by Margaret Placentra Johnson shares the stories of people of faith who have abandoned institutional religion. Her book puts faces on some of those included among the “nones.” Some may be “spiritual but not religious” but there are also atheists, mystics, and people who continue religious practice (prayer, for example) outside the confines of institutional religion.

But the SBNR’s may have more mental problems than the religiously affiliated, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Mark Vernon has a thoughtful take on the study’s significance:

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

And this:

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

Tripp Hudgins says he’s a Christian because he is “spiritual-but-not-religious:”

Religions are simply scaffolding for revelation…which is the principal goal of any spiritual practice. Religions are collections of spiritual practices. That’s all they are. Mine is Christianity. I’m Christian because I am spiritual-but-not-religious. I am Christian because Jesus said, “The sabbath is for humanity and not humanity for the sabbath.”

Jesus honored the so-called spiritual-but-not-religious. He lauded the seeker.

The others had him killed.

Then he came back and said, “Come. Follow me.”

How could I not?

Embodied faith

One of the fascinating questions for theologians and scientists is the relationship between our brains and religious experience or religious faith. The underlying question goes back at least to Descartes (you know, cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am”). But, in fact, the question lies at the heart of Christian anthropology, the relationship of body and soul. Whatever the traditional understanding of that relationship, it is profoundly challenged by contemporary neuroscience and philosophy.

Mark Vernon points to the problem:

A diverse group of philosophers and scientists are now arguing that the dominant 20th-century view of cognition, as a capacity of brains or minds, is inadequate. The alternative is often called embodied cognition. It examines the evidence that our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world. According to this view, bodies are not just life-support systems for the brain or sources of sensory inputs. Rather, bodies are integral to human thought.

The implication is clear. If bodies are integral to human thought, they are also integral to our religious lives.

He concludes:

if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.

Vernon is writing in response to a  series of posts by Julian Baggini, “Heathen’s Progress.” Baggini responds directly to Vernon’s views in another post, “The modern believer is not suspicious enough:”

A persistent pain is a pretty good indicator of the presence of bodily damage; the feeling that you have been touched by the Holy Spirit is only a good indicator that you have had a generic religious experience, shared by many the world over, and you have interpreted it according to the narratives and belief systems familiar to you.

Wherever one stands on this issue, and to the extent that every thought, including a religious idea or experience, is in some sense embodied (at the very least it is the product, in some sense, of neural activity), religious faith, or experience, is embodied.

But this raises another question: “Why might our minds be better suited to religion than science?”

Religion involves cognitive representations and cognitive processing that come naturally to human minds, while science traffics in radically counterintuitive representations and in forms of cognitive processing whose acquisition and mastery require disciplined reflective activity across many years of formal education.

For me, among the intriguing questions, apart from the theological and scientific questions, is the significance of all this for contemporary Christianity. We are seeing radical change in the nature of Christian community, with the decline in attendance and membership in mainline denominations and the rise of social media. What does embodied faith look like for young adults who connect via texting or facebook but may not attend services? Even more important, given the importance of embodiment in Christianity, the incarnation, the notion of the community as the body of Christ, embodied practices from the Eucharist to shared outreach, how do we make the connections with the bodies that shape and are shaped by belief?

The effects of meditation–on the mind and on the self

A new study on the effects of meditation may explain why it helps improve focus and minimize pain.

Mark Vernon explores meditation in a different way, writing about his experience of Buddhist meditation on retreat:

But I became increasingly struck by how myself and my fellow retreatants placed one concern above all others: ourselves. We were there to attend to our own wellbeing. The practice was presented as a kind of self-administered therapy for the soul. There was an occasional ‘metta’ meditation, to develop an attitude of loving-kindness towards others. But the task was basically to observe yourself, and that set up a dynamic with which I grew increasingly uncomfortable – one of self-absorption and self-obsession.

He concludes:

Western Buddhism offers a model of the self that is, in fact, complicit with modern individualism. Christianity, though, can claim to be radically different. Its discovery is that we are who we are in relationship, with others and with God. To be human is to be the creature for whom our own existence is too small for us. That, it seems to me, is both true and avoids the narcissism and the nihilism with which western Buddhism flirts.



Believing Bullsh**

Philosopher Stephen Law wrote the above-titled book. Its subtitle is: “How not to get sucked into an intellectual blackhole.” In an interview, he explains some of his ideas.

Here’s part of it:

What else should we watch out for?
You should be suspicious when people pile up anecdotes in favour of their pet theory, or when they practise the art of pseudo-profundity – uttering seemingly profound statements which are in fact trite or nonsensical. They often mix in references to scientific theory to sound authoritative.

Why does it matter if we believe absurd things?
It can cause no great harm. But the dangers are obvious when people join extreme cults or use alternative medicines to treat serious diseases. I am particularly concerned by psychological manipulation. For charlatans, the difficulty with using reason to persuade is that it’s a double-edged sword: your opponent may show you are the one who is mistaken. That’s a risk many so-called “educators” aren’t prepared to take. If you try using reason to persuade adults the Earth’s core is made of cheese, you will struggle. But take a group of kids, apply isolation, control, repetition, emotional manipulation – the tools of brainwashing – and there’s a good chance many will eventually accept what you say.

He has this to say about the appeal to “mystery.” It’s often used as an out when science can’t (yet) answer a question. Often the response is something like such a question is beyond the ability of science to decide. But the problem is “the more we rely on mystery to get us out of intellectual trouble, or the more we use it as a carpet under which to sweep inconvenient facts, the more vulnerable we are to deceit, by others and by ourselves.”

Mark Vernon uses Law’s ideas to reflect on the importance of discernment in spiritual matters and to reflect on the limits of reason. He appeals to the importance of apophatic theology (the idea that the only true statements one can make about God are negations–i.e., statements about what God is not.

But he goes further and talks about another way in which reason is limited. For Vernon, there is something pre-rational that is necessary before reason comes into play, experience for example, that it is from experience, intution, hunches, perhaps the way we approach the world, that we use reason to put that experience into context, and make it palatable both to ourselves, and perhaps to others.


Doubt and Certainty

Mark Vernon writes in The Guardian today:

Doubt in relation to religion is almost mandatory in public life, whereas doubt in relation to politics is almost forbidden.

He is talking about the situation in the UK, of course, but what he says is of interest to me, especially given two issues I’ve been following in my blog–the debate over Rob Bell and universalism and the protests in Madison.

Vernon asks:

If God is not to be a tyrant, but is to allow us a degree of autonomy, must God not introduce a corresponding degree of doubt and uncertainty into human experience?

It’s an excellent question. Certainty, whether in politics or religion, tends to heighten conflict and cause suffering.

“Can spirituality exist without religion?”

The Guardian asks the question. Mark Vernon gets the first shot. The question is in response to a new book by Nicholas Humphrey: Soul Dust: The Magic of Consciousness. According to Vernon, Humphrey

discusses life in a “soul niche”. Fish live in a water niche, bedbugs in a blanket niche, humans live in a soul niche; the “territory of the spirit”. This is the magic of human consciousness. To have soul is to enjoy the beauties of the cosmos, the responsibilities of free will, the comforts of prayer, the illusion of life after death. Evolution must have concocted such a grandiose dream-world for us for a purpose – probably, according to the author, to make us feel special. That encourages us to give of our best and so is good for our survival and the survival of others.

Vernon finds Humphrey’s view reductionistic and offers a primer on a deeper notion of the soul in which mind and body are linked. It’s a notion that goes back to Aristotle. He concludes:

To put it another way, perhaps it’s time to consider the possibility that the hard problem of consciousness is not primarily to do with consciousness, but is to do with materialism. Perhaps consciousness is thought hard from this point of view because, in fact, energy, information or something quite like consciousness is the basic stuff of the cosmos? Matter might be the epiphenomenon, not mind. As Keith Ward entertainingly puts it in his new book, More Than Matter: “Minds are not illusory ghosts in real machines. On the contrary, machines are spectral, transitory phenomena appearing to an intelligible world of minds.”

You don’t have to be spiritual or religious to entertain such thoughts. Physicists do so quite routinely these days. It’s hardly avoidable when you deal with subatomic particles – the stuff of “matter” – as waves of probability rippling across fields of energy.

I’ll be interested to read the other responses, and the Ward book that Vernon mentions above.

I find this question or the related one having to do with those people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious” interesting on theological grounds. But it is also an interesting question pastorally. I was intrigued by the recent essay from the Alban Institute on how religious organizations might reach out to the “spiritual but not religious” market, although I think many of the questions at the end of the article are focused on trying to fit the spiritual seeker back into an institution that may not be the focus of their spiritual search. The spiritual seeker, I think, tends to be very individualistic, at least in the quest aspect of their lives; and it may be more important to help them find ways to encounter the holy, and at the same time to do active outreach, than to offer bible studies and the like.

I’m looking forward to the other responses to this question.