Sunday, July 3, 2016: Science, Religion, and the Keys to Happiness

Prelude: Closer to Fine – Indigo Girls

I went to the doctor, I went to the mountains
I looked to the children, I drank from the fountains
There’s more than one answer to these questions
Pointing me in a crooked line
And the less I seek my source for some definitive
The closer I am to fine

Welcome to a place where we look to many sources, realizing there is no definitive, but that searching brings glimpses of truth

Chalice Lighting: Peter Teets

May the light we now kindle
Inspire us to use our powers
To heal and not to harm,
To help and not to hinder,
To bless and not to curse,
To uphold the Spirit of Freedom!

Song: Gathered Here (3 times)
Gathered here in the mystery of this hour.
Gathered here in one strong body.
Gathered here in the struggle and the power.
Spirit draw near.

Principles of Unitarian Universalism:
Unitarian Universalist congregations affirm and promote seven Principles:
The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
Acceptance of one another and encouragement to spiritual growth in our congregations;
A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;
The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large;
The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.

Besides our Principles, there are also six sources our congregations affirm and promote:

  • Direct experience of that transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces which create and uphold life;

  • Words and deeds of prophetic women and men which challenge us to confront powers and structures of evil with justice, compassion, and the transforming power of love;

  • Wisdom from the world’s religions which inspires us in our ethical and spiritual life;

  • Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves;

  • Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit;

  • Spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature.

Story: The Baba Yaga

Offering and Response (Unison)

For the gifts which we have received—and the gifts which we, ourselves, are—may we be truly grateful. Yet more than that, may we be committed to using these gifts to make a difference in the world: to increase love and justice; to decrease hatred and oppression; to expand beloved community; to share, and to keep sharing, as long as ever we can. Amen.

Reading: Case Western Reserve University. “Conflict between science, religion lies in our brains.” ScienceDaily, 23 March 2016.

Clashes between the use of faith versus scientific evidence to explain the world around us dates back centuries and is perhaps most visible today in the arguments between evolution and creationism.

To believe in a supernatural god or universal spirit, people appear to suppress the brain network used for analytical thinking and engage the empathetic network, the scientists say. When thinking analytically about the physical world, people appear to do the opposite.

“When there’s a question of faith, from the analytic point of view, it may seem absurd,” said Tony Jack, who led the research. “But, from what we understand about the brain, the leap of faith to belief in the supernatural amounts to pushing aside the critical/analytical way of thinking to help us achieve greater social and emotional insight.”

Jack is an associate professor of philosophy at Case Western Reserve and research director of the university’s Inamori International Center of Ethics and Excellence, which helped sponsor the research.

“A stream of research in cognitive psychology has shown and claims that people who have faith (i.e., are religious or spiritual) are not as smart as others. They actually might claim they are less intelligent.,” said Richard Boyatzis, distinguished university professor and professor of organizational behavior at Case Western Reserve, and a member of Jack’s team.

“Our studies confirmed that statistical relationship, but at the same time showed that people with faith are more prosocial and empathic,” he said.

In a series of eight experiments, the researchers found the more empathetic the person, the more likely he or she is religious.

That finding offers a new explanation for past research showing women tend to hold more religious or spiritual worldviews than men. The gap may be because women have a stronger tendency toward empathetic concern than men.

Atheists, the researchers found, are most closely aligned with psychopaths–not killers, but the vast majority of psychopaths classified as such due to their lack of empathy for others.

The research is based on the hypothesis that the human brain has two opposing domains in constant tension. In earlier research, Jack ‘s Brain, Mind & Consciousness lab used functional magnetic resonance imaging to show the brain has an analytical network of neurons that enables us to think critically and a social network that enables us to empathize. When presented with a physics problem or ethical dilemma, a healthy brain fires up the appropriate network while suppressing the other.

“Because of the tension between networks, pushing aside a naturalistic world view enables you to delve deeper into the social/emotional side,” Jack explained. “And that may be the key to why beliefs in the supernatural exist throughout the history of cultures. It appeals to an essentially nonmaterial way of understanding the world and our place in it.”

Friedman said, “Having empathy doesn’t mean you necessarily have anti-scientific beliefs. Instead, our results suggest that if we only emphasize analytic reasoning and scientific beliefs, as the New Atheist movement suggests, then we are compromising our ability to cultivate a different type of thinking, namely social/moral insight.”

“These findings,” Friedman continued, “are consistent with the philosophical view, espoused by (Immanuel) Kant, according to which there are two distinct types of truth: empirical and moral.”

Experiments and results

The researchers examined the relationship between belief in God or a universal spirit with measures of analytic thinking and moral concern in eight different experiments, each involving 159 to 527 adults. Consistently through all eight, the more religious the person, the more moral concern they showed. But no cause and effect was established.

They found that both spiritual belief and empathic concern were positively associated with frequency of prayer, meditations and other spiritual or religious practices, but neither were predicted by church dinners or other social contact associated with religious affiliation.

While others theorize that mentalizing–interpreting human behavior in terms of intentional mental states such as needs, desires or purposes–has a positive association with belief, the researchers found none.

Like other studies, these experiments showed that analytic thinking discourages acceptance of spiritual or religious beliefs. But the statistical analysis of data pooled from all eight experiments indicates empathy is more important to religious belief than analytic thinking is for disbelief.

So why can the conflict between science and religion become so strong?

“Because the networks suppress each other, they may create two extremes,” Boyatzis said. “Recognizing that this is how the brain operates, maybe we can create more reason and balance in the national conversations involving science and religion.”

Using both networks

The researchers say humans are built to engage and explore using both networks.

“Far from always conflicting with science, under the right circumstances religious belief may positively promote scientific creativity and insight,” Jack said. “Many of history’s most famous scientists were spiritual or religious. Those noted individuals were intellectually sophisticated enough to see that there is no need for religion and science to come into conflict.”

They refer to Baruch Aba Shalev’s book 100 years of Nobel Prizes, which found that, from 1901 to 2000, 654 Nobel laureates, or nearly 90 percent, belonged to one of 28 religions. The remaining 10.5 percent were atheists, agnostics or freethinkers.

“You can be religious and be a very good scientist,” Jack said.

The researchers agree with the New Atheists that suspension of analytical thinking–at the wrong time–can be dangerous, and point to the historical use of religious differences to persecute or fight wars.

“Although it is simply a distortion of history to pin all conflict on religion,” Jack said. “Non-religious political movements, such as fascism and communism, and quasi-scientific movements, such as eugenics, have also done great harm.”

The researchers suggest, however, that taking a carefully considered leap of religious faith appears be an effective route to promoting emotional insight. Theirs and other studies find that, overall, religious belief is associated with greater compassion, greater social inclusiveness and greater motivation to engage in pro-social actions.

Jack said the conflict can be avoided by remembering simple rules: “Religion has no place telling us about the physical structure of the world; that’s the business of science. Science should inform our ethical reasoning, but it cannot determine what is ethical or tell us how we should construct meaning and purpose in our lives.”

To dig deeper into belief, the researchers are planning studies to learn if individuals who increase their empathy then increase their religious or spiritual belief, or vice versa.

Anthony Ian Jack, Jared Parker Friedman, Richard Eleftherios Boyatzis, Scott Nolan Taylor. Why Do You Believe in God? Relationships between Religious Belief, Analytic Thinking, Mentalizing and Moral Concern. PLOS ONE, 2016; 11 (3): e0149989 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0149989

Music: God is A River – Peter Mayer

Lesson: Science and Religion – Lisa deGruyter

This part of the service is called “Lesson”, something Robert started doing. Every time I do a service, one of my biggest worries is whether what I am teaching is “True” with a capital T – and that worry includes whether what I say is factual, and whether it is based on the accumulated wisdom of our sources. Then, of course, there is the deciding about what in those sources is real wisdom, and how to interpret that.

Last week in the service from our General Assembly, there was a poem that said in part “in the place where Truth is, no flowers grow” which echoes a poem by Kenneth Boulding “On high rocks of truth, where no flowers grow” and Vincent van Gogh “Normality is a paved road: It’s comfortable to walk, but no flowers grow on it.” My mother used to say “If you wonder of you are crazy, you probably not”, and I think as long as we are questioning truth, we have some chance of glimpsing it.

In the course of a Facebook discussion this week, on a piece I reposted from another UU, called “The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb, I found myself saying

“I don’t think there is “Truth.” There are facts, and there is cause and effect, and there are methods. How we put all that together depends on our goals, and our goals depend on our values. Our values seem to me to depend on some hard-wired emotional reactions, which vary across individuals, and learning accumulated across millennia, much of which is differently interpreted.”

This week Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence”

and David Roberts, an energy and environment write for Vox, had three questions about it, using climate change as an example:

1) How much does Rationalia care about future generations?

2) How much does Rationalia care about equity?

3) How does Rationalia prioritize risks?

Science can tell us that there is climate change, identify many of the causes, and tell us what the results will be from methods to change it or continuing with our current methods of life. It can tell us what the results will mean for future generations, but it can’t tell us how much we should value our well-being today over the well-being of our children and grandchildren. There is no rational personal reason that we should give up our well-being for unborn children. But we have feelings built in to us that we should, for the same reason we think babies, puppies, and kittens are so darn cute. If we didn’t think babies were cute, we wouldn’t love them and take care of them, and we wouldn’t have grandchildren. So everyone living is the product of people with enough hard-wired empathy to take care of the helpless. And religion is how we maintain and develop that empathy, just as exercise is how we maintain our hard-wired ability to walk.

That hard-wired empathy is also how we judge equity, whether we use methods that will put the burden on developing nations, which means increasing the risk for future generations, or on the nations that have created the problem.

Of the six sources that our congregations recognize, only one is science – “Humanist teachings which counsel us to heed the guidance of reason and the results of science, and warn us against idolatries of the mind and spirit.” The others are our own direct experience of awe and mystery, and the teachings of wise individuals and the accumulated wisdom of religions. I think that is fitting. We are a religious institution. Many other institutions exist for science, to conduct it, to teach it, to teach people how to do it. And the mission of those scientific institutions is not to teach values, and develop empathy, although they should be incorporating that as we incorporate reason.

Over the last century or two, religion has become less honored than science, to the point that, in much of Unitarian Universalism, anything that smacked of ritual, empathy, feelings, was heavily discounted and sometimes scorned, although not to the point of the current vehement atheists movement. This week someone referred to religion as “childish fairy tales.” Some fairy tales, like some religious, are childish. Both are the framework in which we make sense of big questions, like “Why are we here?” and “How much could we care about others, or future generations?” Religious practices, like prayer, meditation, group worship, studying religious sources, are how we gain insight into ourselves and develop our values. Some religions, like, ours, are quite plain and serious, compared to those with “smells and bells”, cathedrals or temples, elaborate rituals, and extravagant metaphors – the Church as the Bride of Christ, a God who sits in Heaven on a throne, amazing Gods with the heads of beasts, or who are beasts.

But fairy tales, with magical people, beasts, and objects, like the one we heard this morning, almost always explain vice and virtue, punish the wicked and reward patience, virtue, and empathy. And religion, no matter how wrapped up in magic, does the same. People who have grown up in a particular culture learn the stories, the characters, the lessons. Is the lesson of the Baba Yaga that magic combs and towels will save us, or that if we are prepared, kind, and think on our feet, we can overcome evil? Is the lesson of Christianity that God will magically save us, or that considering the needs of others in our prayers will help us want to help them and understand how to do that?

Finally, someone this week posted a picture of a T-shirt, which said “I’m a Unitarian Universalist. The bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief that your guess is as good as mine”

He said he wouldn’t word it exactly that way, and neither would I. There are lots of guesses in the world, and some of them are better than others. They are not that way because of their source, from one religion or person or another, or even whether they are founded on reason or feeling, science or religion. I think the bedrock of my faith is an unshakeable belief in the value of doubt, questioning, and testing. Facts, like whether there is climate change, and the causes, are tested with reason applied to data. Methods for achieving a goal are tested by the data on outcomes. Goals are tested by whether they further our values. And our values are tested partly by that wired-in capacity for empathy in our brains, and partly by all the lessons we have learned from our families, our culture, our religions – because, as the Science Daily article pointed out, some of us have less of that wired in. But we have to constantly keep in mind that we don’t know whether our guess is as good as anyone else’s, better, or worse, until we have tested it, and theirs. And we may find that saying a Rosary, Zen meditation, repeating the name of Amidha Buddha, and Sufi dancing, when done with the same intention, lead to the same results. But intention is key. And I think that intention has to be love, and the desire to build strength to act on it.

So let us try to remember, going forward, that science doesn’t have all the answers, nor does religion. And let us honor the inherent worth and dignity of others by looking at the intentions of their hearts, and not so much the methods that we might find meaningless for ourselves but have meaning for them.

Responsive Reading: For You – Walt Whitman (HCL 426)
(adapted from Leaves of Grass)

If you woke this morning with a sorrow so heavy that you need the help of this community to carry it; or if you woke with a joy so great that it simply must be shared, now is the time for you to speak.
For the joys and sorrows that haven’t been spoken, but which remain in the silent sanctuaries of our hearts.

These joys and griefs, spoken and unspoken, weave us together in the fabric of community.

Silent Meditation

Song: Go Now In Peace (3 times)

Go now in peace, go now in peace
May our love and care surround you
Everywhere, everywhere, you may go

Closing: The Work Continues by Martha Kirby Capo

Our time together is finished, but our work is not yet done:
May our spirits be renewed and our purpose resolved
As we meet the challenges of the week to come.
The chalice flame is extinguished
Until once again ignited by the strength of our communion.

The chalice has been extinguished. Go now in peace.