Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Scientists Examine the Power of Prayer

Well this is interesting.  A new paper in a forthcoming issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology presents evidence that prayer can increase a person's ability to resists temptation--and offers a non-supernatural explanation for the phenomenon:

The authors made use of two experimental paradigms to test the efficacy of prayer in preventing cognitive depletion. The first, called an emotion-suppression task, simply asked participants to watch a funny video but stifle all emotional responses, verbal and non-verbal, to the content. This requires a good amount of cognitive energy to pull off successfully. The second, called a stroop task, asked participants to indicate the ink color of various words flashed to them on a computer screen. The trick is that the words spell the names of various colors that are either consistent or inconsistent with the ink they are to identify. Check it out here. You’ll find that the inconsistent word/ink items are harder to respond to than the consistent items. Researchers have found that after cognitive depletion, this task becomes even harder.  So, the authors had an elegant methodological question: will people who pray be able to avoid the depleting effects of emotion suppression and not show a deficit on the stroop task? In other words, will prayer give them the cognitive strength to perform well on both these challenging tasks?
Indeed it did. Participants who were asked to pray about a topic of their choosing for five minutes showed significantly better performance on the stroop task after emotion suppression, compared to participants who were simply asked to think about a topic of their choosing. And this effect held regardless of whether participants identified as religious (70 percent) or not.
Why? The authors tested several possible explanations, but found statistical support for only one: people interpret prayer as a social interaction with God, and social interactions are what give us the cognitive resources necessary to avoid temptation. Past research has found that even brief social interactions with others can promote cognitive functioning, and the same seems to hold true for brief social interactions with deities.
Read it all here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Nathan Schneider on the Value of "Proofs of God"

Nathan Schneider, who has recently written a book about the history of efforts to prove God's existence has an interesting blog post about the real value of discussions about these proofs:

Using the long tradition of so-called proofs about God as an academic performance, or as blunt instruments for culture-warring, means missing out on the most worthwhile stuff they have to offer. The proofs are arguments for a particular claim, it’s true. But they’re also meant to invite us into fresh modes of thinking. They need not be so black-and-white—or, in the boxing ring, win-or-lose. The real question a proof about God was created to address may be not be simply whether or not God exists. More often, it’s something more interesting: What do we mean by God? And what can be achieved with proof?
.  .  . 
 The history of religious proofs is a many-sided story. I hope you’ll agree that this is a worthwhile inheritance, though too often we’ve adopted its worst tendencies while ignoring the best. Until we realize that arguments about something like the existence of God speak to more than just the intellect, and to more than just a yes-or-no question, we can expect that the same old debates will keep coming back without satisfying us—in Sontag’s words, “again and again.”
Read it all here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Ross Douthat on Our Divided Religious Culture

Ross Douthat has an interesting column in the New York Times today that discusses our divided faith world views:

Many Americans still take everything: They accept the New Testament as factual, believe God came in the flesh, and endorse the creeds that explain how and why that happened. And then alongside traditional Christians, there are observant Jews and Muslims who believe the same God revealed himself directly in some other historical and binding form.
But this biblical world picture is increasingly losing market share to what you might call the spiritual world picture, which keeps the theological outlines suggested by the manger scene — the divine is active in human affairs, every person is precious in God’s sight — but doesn’t sweat the details.       
This is the world picture that red-staters get from Joel Osteen, blue-staters from Oprah, and everybody gets from our “God bless America” civic religion. It’s Christian-ish but syncretistic; adaptable, easygoing and egalitarian. It doesn’t care whether the angel really appeared to Mary: the important thing is that a spiritual version of that visitation could happen to anyone — including you.
Then, finally, there’s the secular world picture, relatively rare among the general public but dominant within the intelligentsia. This worldview keeps the horizontal message of the Christmas story but eliminates the vertical entirely. The stars and angels disappear: There is no God, no miracles, no incarnation. But the egalitarian message — the common person as the center of creation’s drama — remains intact, and with it the doctrines of liberty, fraternity and human rights.
Read it all here.   This typology is interesting--and roughly accurate--but it ignores some important nuances.  Some of the biggest debates today are not being fought between these different world views, but within them.  Perhaps the best example is the spirited debates that rocked my own Episcopal denomination about gays and lesbians.  This was largely a battle between those of us who have a biblical worldview as Douthat describes, and not a debate between biblical worlsview and competing world views.  And within the biblical worldview, there is a huge divide between the biblical literalist, and those of us who believe the creeds, but have a less literal view of the Bible.

What do you think?

Friday, December 20, 2013

A Decline in Evangelical Christianity in America--Why?

Jim Hinch has an article in the American Scholar that explores reasons for the fact that the percentage of Americans calling themselves "Evangelical" is declining.  Pew Research polling has shown a drop from 21 percent of Americans five years ago to 19 percent in 2012:

Secularization alone is not to blame for this change in American religiosity. Even half of those Americans who claim no religious affiliation profess belief in God or claim some sort of spiritual orientation. Other faiths, like Islam, perhaps the country’s fastest-growing religion, have had no problem attracting and maintaining worshippers. No, evangelicalism’s dilemma stems more from a change in American Christianity itself, a sense of creeping exhaustion with the popularizing, simplifying impulse evangelical luminaries such as Schuller once rode to success.

Prominent figures in the evangelical establishment have already begun sounding alarms. In particular, the Barna Group, an evangelical market research organization, has been issuing a steady stream of books and white papers documenting the erosion of support for evangelicalism, especially among young people. Contributions from worshippers 55 and older now account for almost two-thirds of evangelical churches’ income in the United States. A mere three percent of non-Christian Americans under 30 have a positive impression of evangelical Christianity, according to David Kinnaman, the Barna Group’s president. That’s down from 25 percent of baby boomers at a similar age. At present rates of attrition, two-thirds of evangelicals in their 20s will abandon church before they turn 30. “It’s the melting of the icebergs,” Kinnaman told me. Young people’s most common complaint, he said, is that churches are too focused on sexual issues and preoccupied with their own institutional development—in other words, he explained, “Christianity no longer looks like Jesus.”
Read it all here.   As the member of a church (the Episcopal Church) that has seem sharp drops in membership over the last decades, I need to be careful about drawing too many conclusions.  I do think, however, that the singular focus of many evangelical churches on issues like gays has hurt them a great deal.  Indeed, I think it has even hurt churches--like my own--that take a decidedly different take on these issues.  It hurts the entire Christian "brand." 

I have been fortunate, however, to belong to two congregations in the last decade--Trinity Cathedral in Phoenix and St. Alban's in Annandale, Virginia--that have shown huge increases in membership, participation, and vitality.  Why?  The focus is on the gospel of Jesus in an inclusive way--resulting in surprising interest by young adult members.

What do you think?

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Trust in Clergy At All Time Low

Gallup has just published its annual survey on how Americans view various professions, and the results are not pretty for clergy: Americans rating of the honesty and ethical standards of clergy is at an all time low.

Kate Tracy  at Christianity Today offers some thoughts:

In fact, recorded public trust in clergy has now reached an all-time low, with only 47 percent of Americans rating clergy highly on honesty and ethics (compared to 82 percent saying the same about nurses). The previous low since Gallup began asking the question in 1977: 50 percent in 2009.

However, clergy still ranked No. 7 out of the 22 professions studied. And confidence in the overall church as an institution improved over the past year.
.  .  .
Americans are divided along party lines, as well as age. Gallup found more trust in clergy among Republicans (63%) than Democrats (40%). Similarly, clergy members appear more trustworthy to older Americans than millennials: half of Americans older than age 55 trust clergy members, while only 32 percent of millennials (18 to 34 years) report the same.

But the Gallup survey wasn't all bad news for religion in America. When asked how much confidence Americans have in U.S. institutions, 48 percent responded saying they had a "great deal/quite a bit" in "the church or organized religion," a four percent increase since 2012. Only 34 percent said the same about the U.S. Supreme Court, which decreased by three percent since 2012. 
Read it all here. Gallup attributes the drop in recent years to the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal in the early 2000's.  I wonder there is more going on.  As more people become "unchurched", wouldn't we expect their view of the clergy to go down?  What do you think?

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Yes, I'm Back

I stopped blogging when I was asked by the incoming Obama Administration whether I would serve a General Counsel of the Air Force.  (I had served as General Counsel of the Army in the Clinton Administration).  After a wonderful four and half years in that position, I decided that it was time to return to private life.  One consequence of this decision is that I am now free to blog once again.  I have decided to revive this blog, which will continue to discuss issues of faith with a little politics and science thrown in.  I hope my old readers come back and I get a few more as well.

I have also decided to writhe about what I have learned about national security and international affairs.  Please check out A Guy in the World as well if you are at all interested in what is happening in the world.

Proofs of God and Their refutation

William Lane Craig has a short essay on the Fox News blog that it getting a lot of attention from the atheist blogosphere--which is not surprising since the essay is entitle "A Christmas gift for atheists -- five reasons why God exists.

 I personally find these proofs of God a fools errand.  We are kidding ourselves if we think we can "prove" that God exists.  At best, we can come up with reasons for why our faith is reasonable and consistent with existing scientific evidence.  If we are honest, however, we must admit that for each of our asserted reasons for belief there may well be a materialistic explanation that does not depend on a supernatural being.  For example, humans do seem "hard wired" with some moral sense that transcends cultural differences, but this may well be the result of natural selection for this trait.  As a social animal, humans with an altruistic sense were more likely to survive.

As a result, each time I see Christian apologists attempt to articulate "proofs" of good, they get eviscerated by atheists who rightly point out alternative explanations other than God (or in some instances point out that the author doesn't understand the science).  Here is a good example from Jason  Rosenhouse's blog:

1. God provides the best explanation of the origin of the universe. Given the scientific evidence we have about our universe and its origins, and bolstered by arguments presented by philosophers for centuries, it is highly probable that the universe had an absolute beginning. Since the universe, like everything else, could not have merely popped into being without a cause, there must exist a transcendent reality beyond time and space that brought the universe into existence. This entity must therefore be enormously powerful. Only a transcendent, unembodied mind suitably fits that description.

This is all very muddled. Here are some words and phrases in that argument that need some serious clarification before we can make sense of what Craig is even claiming: “our universe”, “absolute beginning”, “cause”, “transcendent reality” and “beyond time and space.”

Science tells us that our universe came into being with a massive explosion called the Big Bang. It tells us almost nothing about what might have caused the Big Bang to occur. For that matter, since our notions of time and space also came into existence with the Big Bang, it is not so clear what it even means to talk about a cause for the universe. In our normal understanding of the terms, causes must come before effects. For that to be meaningful, you must have a notion of time with which to work.

It is one thing to say that our little corner of the universe had a beginning with the Big Bang, but we have little basis at all even for speculating about what might have come before. In some of his public presentations, Craig abuses a theorem due to Borde, Guth and Vilenkin regarding the origins of the universe to add a scientific gloss to his assertions, but he is simply wrong to do so.There is no shortage of viable explanations for the origins of the cosmos that do not involve inventing an all-powerful deity to start it all off. There is no reason at all why there could not be an infinite regress of causes, nor is there any reason to think the universe could not have appeared uncaused. We have little basis even for speculating about what is plausible and what is not in pondering these scenarios. Whatever it was that brought our world into being is something that is not at all like anything with which we have actual experience. How can we judge the relative likelihoods of such naturalistic scenarios, as compared to the likelihood that there is a necessarily existent superbeing who can effortlessly bring universes into being with acts of his will?

In short, Craig is just making things up when he says that God is the most likely explanation for the existence of the universe. He has no solid basis at all for making such a claim.

Read it all here.  Jerry Coynes  (here) also have responses that are worth reading,. 

What do you think?

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

George Clifford on Christ's Second Coming

At the Daily Episcopalian, George Clifford has a wonderful essay about the various ways we think (or in the Episcopal Church, don't think) about the promise that Christ will come again:

Generally, thinking about eschatology (the study of end times) divides into four camps. First, there are the alleged literalists. These Christians claim to accept Biblical teachings about the end of history at face value. .  .  .

Second, some Christians argue for a realized eschatology, i.e., Christians experience the future return of Christ (aka his second coming) in the sacraments and sacramentals. This view's popularity perhaps peaked in the first half of the twentieth century. .  .  .

The third camp is the most common among Episcopalians. These Christians rarely think about Jesus' returning, mindlessly participate in the liturgy week after week without considering the words that they are saying, and view Advent as the inescapable annual prelude to the all-important, heavily secularized holy day of Christmas. This approach simply ignores the uncomfortable if perhaps incomprehensible Bible passages that may (or not, depending upon one's views) reference the culmination of time and Jesus' return.

The fourth camp consists of Christians who want to remain firmly grounded in science while taking the Biblical witness seriously and acknowledging the critical role of hope for energizing human endeavors. Creation – contrary to what many of us might wish – is dynamic, not static. Change is endemic, pervasive, and inescapable. If you share my belief that God created the cosmos, then we reasonably believe that creation's constant change is indeed evolution, not an unguided series of random events, of which there are certainly a great many, but also evolution, albeit slowly and unevenly, toward a new and better future. Unfortunately, we humans lack both the wisdom and knowledge to discern the specifics of that future, or the process by which it is coming into being. Believing that God is bringing (or luring, in the language of process theology) creation into the future of God's choosing honors the essence of the Biblical witness while recognizing that the Bible's human authors wrote from a very time and culturally bound point of view, using concepts, language, and symbolism appropriate to that context.

Read it all here.

Given that I accept the scientific explanations for the creation of the world--the big bang and evolution--Clifford's fourth way to view "the Second Coming" has great appeal?  What do you think?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Thinking About Charitable Giving

The Wall Street Journal this morning has a fascinating article about a group, Give Well, that attempts to evaluate which charities give the most good (e.g. saved lives) for the buck. As you might expect, they determine that particular interventions in the third world provide the best return on the charitable investment:

GiveWell sits at the center of a small but growing movement in philanthropy, what you might call "evidence-based giving," which is particularly in vogue among tech millionaires and billionaires. In addition to praise from economists and those in the traditional philanthropic world, GiveWell has earned accolades from tech types. Its largest funder is Good Ventures, the foundation created by Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz and his wife, Cari Tuna, a former Wall Street Journal reporter who now runs the foundation. In its philosophical outlook, GiveWell also has much in common with other tech-funded philanthropies, including Pierre Omidyar's , Jeff Skoll's and especially Bill Gates's. Indeed, GiveWell recently moved its headquarters from New York to San Francisco, in part because its philosophy has found more traction with donors in Silicon Valley than finance types on the East Coast. . . .

This year, GiveWell has picked three top charities: GiveDirectly, an organization that provides cash transfers, via cellphone, to people in Kenya and Uganda (and rigorously monitors its results), the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative and the Deworm the World Initiative, two programs that pay for inexpensive but highly effective parasitic treatments in developing nation.
Read it all here. Christianity Today's "Economic Matters" columnist Bruce Wydick further drills down on whether direct cash payments rather than in-kind donations make the largest impact in combatting poverty:

Researchers at MIT recently carried out a randomized controlled trial to test the impacts of Give Directly. Released in October, the MIT study found that just over a year after receiving their first cash transfer,
household assets were 58 percent higher (mainly in herd animals), enterprise revenues were 48 percent higher from new livestock and expanded small businesses, family food consumption had increased so much that there was a 42 percent reduction in the number of days children went without food.
Moreover, the researchers found no increases in the consumption of what even economists call "sin goods": alcohol, cigarettes, or gambling.
These kinds of impacts are much greater than has been reported from a series of recent randomized trials of microfinance, another potential source of Christmas giving. Organizations such as Kiva, for example, offer microfinance gift certificates online. A Kiva gift certificate has the potential to be "a gift that keeps on giving" as the capital is recycled to borrower after borrower. But a half-dozen recent randomized controlled trials of microfinance undertaken around the world indicate that is typically has only moderate impacts, mainly on business expansion; the impact on household income and children's welfare pales in comparison to the impact of the cash grants. Indeed, in a recent study on microfinance in Nepal, my co-authors and I found that about three-fourths of the apparent before-and-after impact of microfinance is an optical illusion. The illusion is created when borrowers take loans at the time other positive factors are impacting their microenterprises.
But while Wydick seems to conclude that direct cash payments may have the largest impacts on the poor, he notes that there is a significant "social capital" benefit to in-kind contributions such as that provided by Heifer International:

At this point it seems that the burden of proof has now fallen to gifts-in-kind organizations to prove that what they do is more effective than simply giving poor people short-run injections of cash that they can spend in the way they deem most appropriate to their situation. Because of this, it is tempting to want to steer the Christmas gift in the direction of a Give Directly donation. But Heifer's evaluation director Rienzzie Kern sees the issue differently. In a public response to NPR, he acknowledges that while cash may help individual families in the short term, Heifer's mission, he says, is not so much about cows as about building sustained social capital within villages, as offspring of the animals are passed from family to family. Farm animal donation is a means to community-building, he maintains, something that is hard for cash to do.

Read it all here. I was intrigued enough to make a donation to GiveDirectly, but I think that Heifer International has a point about the value of "social capital" in addition to direct cash payments.  I plan to give to both types of organizations.  What do you think?