FaithWorld

Guestview: “Trifecta” of bad news launched Catholics4Change blog

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(Protesters near the courthouse before a hearing on the Archdiocese of Philadelphia sexual abuse scandal in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 14, 2011/Tim Shaffer)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Elizabeth E. Evans is a freelance writer, columnist and priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Honey Brook, Pennsylvania.

By Elizabeth E. Evans

Three seemingly unrelated events – and Susan Matthews found herself at a crossroads.

Reading a letter to the editor assailing the “apathy” of local Catholics… Recollecting an essay she had written when the first grand jury report dealt her family a personal blow…  Overhearing a conversation between two older women critical of the victims of an accused priest.

It was, as Matthews wryly recalls now, this ‘trifecta” that impelled her to act. Outraged at the predator priest scandal that has overtaken the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Huntingdon Valley resident and mother of two started a blog, Catholics4Change.com.

U.S. churches could benefit from new community radio law

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A traditional BBC microphone in London, October 31, 2008/Toby Melville

A tiny nonprofit organization operating a national campaign from the basement of Calvary United Methodist Church in Philadelphia for 12 years to get more non-commercial radio stations approved may soon see its dream come true.

On January 4, the nonprofit Prometheus and other groups seeking to diversify media ownership, scored a victory when President Barack Obama signed into law the Local Community Radio Act. It directs the Federal Communications Commission, which regulates the national airwaves, to allow more low-power stations access to the FM radio dial.

Once implemented, the law is expected to result in as many 2,000 new stations, beginning in about 2013. That would more than double the approximately 800 low-power stations currently in operation, compared with around 13,000 commercial stations nationwide. “It makes a lot more room on a medium (FM radio) that a lot of people still use,” said Prometheus founder Pete Tridish.

U.S. Muslim group calls textbooks discriminatory

world of islamU.S. Muslim activists launched a campaign on Wednesday against a series of educational books that they say promote anti-Islamic sentiment among American school children.  “The World of Islam,” a 10-book series, encourages young readers to believe Muslims are terrorists and seek to undermine U.S. society, said the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the nation’s largest Muslim advocacy organization.

One book contains the passage: “For the first time, Muslims began immigrating to the U.S. in order to transform American society, sometimes through the use of terrorism.”

Moein Khawaja, civil rights director for CAIR in Pennsylvania, said the group has gotten dozens of complaints about the books, which are intended for middle- and high-school students, from Muslim parents around the country.

How God (or more precisely, meditation) changes your brain

how-god-changes-your-brainSome book titles are too good to pass up. “How God Changes Your Brain” is neuroscientist Andrew Newberg‘s fourth book on “neurotheology,” the study of the relationship between faith and the brain. All are pitched at a popular audience, with snappy titles like “Born to Believe” or “Why God Won’t Go Away.” Anyone reading the latest one, though, might wonder if the title shouldn’t be “How God Meditation Changes Your Brain.” As he explains in an interview with Reuters here, the benefits that Buddhist monks and contemplative Catholic nuns derive from meditation and intense prayer are also available to atheists and agnostics. The key lies in the method these high performing believers use, not in the belief itself. But that would have made for a more awkward title.

That’s not to say Newberg doesn’t have some interesting points to make in this book. His brain scans of meditating monks and praying nuns show that the frontal lobe — the area that directs the mind’s focus — is especially active while the amygdala — the area linked to fear reactions — is calmed when they go through their spiritual experiences. His studies show these brain regions can be exercised and strengthened, like building up a muscle through training. And his treatment of a mechanic with a faltering memory showed that a traditional Indian meditation method, even when stripped of its spiritual trappings, could bring about these changes in two months.

The book goes on to ascribe a list of positive results from meditation and offer advice on caring for the brain. Newberg’s “number one best way to exercise your brain” is faith. As he puts it, “faith is equivalent with hope, optimism and the belief that a positive future awaits us. Faith can also be defined as the ability to trust our beliefs, even when we have no proof that such beliefs are accurate or true.” Critics, especially clerics, would probably protest that this is not really theology, but psychology. If we’re talking about God, where’s the religion?

Beware brain scientists bearing gifts (gee-whiz journalists too…)

boot-camp-shirt1Knowing what not to report is just as important for journalists as knowing what to write. We’re inundated with handouts about some pioneering new scientific research or insightful new book. Should we write about it? It’s refreshing to hear experts who can dazzle you with their work but warn against falling for any hype about it. This “let’s not overdo it” approach has been a recurrent theme in the Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. (Photo: The “official” boot camp T-shirt, 8 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Andrew Newberg‘s “no God spot” message to boot campers has already been noted here on FaithWorld. Other lecturers added similar reality checks to their presentations. Cognitive science has already begun to influence religion studies (as John Teehan explained here) and we’re bound to hear more in the future about what neuroscientific research has to say about faith, morals, altruism and other issues of interest to readers of this blog. Much of this will be fascinating. But before the next “gee-whiz” report comes out, here’s the advice the neuroscientists are giving us about speculative claims based on brain research.

aguirre-11 (Photo: Geoff Aguirre, 5 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

After two days of explaining fMRI brain scanning, the sexiest procedure in current neurological research, Geoff Aguirre poured cold water on some of the exaggerated conclusions that researchers or journalists draw from it. When shown brain scan images, he said, “people immediately start thinking about trying to catch terrorists and being able to screen people as they pass through metal detectors.” This is “science fiction, science fantasy,” he said, but it comes up regularly. Why? Aguirre, who is an M.D and assistant professor of neurology at Penn, listed several reasons: