FaithWorld

Is a moral instinct the source of our noble thoughts?

judgmentUntil not too long ago, most people believed human morality was based on scripture, culture or reason. Some stressed only one of those sources, others mixed all three. None would have thought to include biology. With the progress of neuroscientific research in recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists, biologists and philosophers have begun to see the brain as the base of our moral views. Noble ideas such as compassion, altruism, empathy and trust, they say, are really evolutionary adaptations that are now fixed in our brains. Our moral rules are actually instinctive responses that we express in rational terms when we have to justify them. (Photo: Religious activist at a California protest, 10 June 2005/Gene Blevins)

Thanks to a flurry of popular articles, scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student who discussed this trend at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp. “In our current scientific society, where do people go to for the truth about human reality?” he asked. “It used to be you might read a philosophy paper or consult a theologian. But now there seems to be a common public sense that the authority over what morality is can be found by neuroscientists or scientists.”

This change has come over the past decade as brain scan images began to reveal which areas of the brain react when a person grapples with a moral problem. They showed activity not only in the prefrontal cortex, where much of our rational thought is processed, but also in areas known to handle emotion and conflicts between brain areas. Such insights cast doubt on long-standing assumptions about reason or religion driving our moral views. “A few theorists have even begun to claim that that the emotions are in fact in charge of the temple of morality and that moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as the high priest,” University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading theorists in this field, has written.

Haidt’s Moral Foundations Theory argues that morality is based on five concepts that evolved in all cultures: harm/care, fairness/reciprocity, ingroup/loyalty, authorty/respect and purity/sanctity. Those concepts have real-life consequences, he says — political liberals and conservatives disagree so much on so-called “culture war issues” because liberals base their moral views on the first two concepts while conservatives use all five. Other theorists such as Marc Hauser of Harvard and John Mikhail of Georgetown suggest humans have a universal moral grammar akin to the universal grammar that linguist Noam Chomsky claims underlies all the world’s languages.

robinsonFor more on these ideas, see review articles such as “The Moral Instinct” (Stephen Pinker, New York Times), “Do The Right Thing” (Rebecca Saxe, Boston Review), “The Emerging Moral Psychology” (Dan Jones, Prospect), “The Roots of Morality” (Greg Miller, Science) and “The End of Philosophy” (David Brooks, New York Times). Hat-tip to fellow boot camper Tamar Gendler for pointing them out.

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:

Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies

teehanThe academic study of religion has come a long way from the days when knowledge of scripture, history and a few ancient languages were the main qualifications a scholar needed. Psychology, sociology and other social sciences have been applied to the field for over a century. Over the past 20 years, cognitive science has been edging into the field, especially with the explosion of neuroscience research. Some of the hottest research into religion is now being done with brain scanners searching for data on what happens inside believers’ heads when they pray or feel a special connection to God. (Photo: John Teehan at the Neuroscience Boot Camp, 6 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Among the participants at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending this week and next is John Teehan, an associate professor in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He’s seen how cognitive science has brought new tools and insights to the study of religion and may eventually challenge the ways religions justify their beliefs. He is writing a book about how many moral teachings in the Bible fit with the moral psychology that cognitive science says evolved naturally. I asked Teehan for an overview of what’s happening in the religion studies field in the United States.

“At the end of the 19th century, there was a real interest in looking at religion from a psychological perspective,” he said. “Sigmund Freud and William James were the major figures. The Freudian paradigm was not a scientific one, even though Freud thought it was, and our understanding of the mind and the brain was primitive then compared to what we have now. What’s happening now is that the science of the mind has advanced to the point that we’re actually developing a scientific understanding of the mind. With the cognitive revolution involving cognitive science, neurological science and evolution studies, a more empirical approach to understanding the mind and morality is developing. Over the last 20 years, some of these scholars have started to look more particularly at religion. This field of the cognitive science of religion started in the early ’90s looking at religious behavior and rituals and how emotions mediate or reinforce religious experience.”

Religion, poverty and strife: what comes first?

An uprising by a radical Islamic sect in northern Nigeria may ostensibly have been about religion, but such bloodletting will recur unless underlying issues of poverty, unemployment and education are addressed.

West African Islam is overwhelmingly moderate and northern Nigeria is home to a powerful political elite, yet militant cleric Mohammed Yusuf was able to establish a cult-like following. Yusuf’s sect, Boko Haram, wanted sharia (Islamic law) more widely applied across Africa’s most populous nation. Its name means “Western education is sinful”.

But the support Yusuf drummed up — from illiterate youths to professionals who quit jobs and families to join him — came as much from frustration with what is seen as a corrupt and self-serving political establishment as from pure religious fervour.

from Global News Journal:

One dent at a time, Turkey’s nation-state edifice erodes

"Happy is he who calls himself a Turk."

One of the first things that catches your attention when you drive out of the airport of Diyarbakir, the largest city in Turkey's mainly Kurdish southeast, is Mustafa Kemal Ataturk's famous phrase engraved on mountain slopes in big white letters.

Bent on building a secular and modern Turkey after World War One, Ataturk carved a united Turkish nation out of the disparate ethnic and religious groups that inhabited the old Ottoman empire -- sometimes by forced "Turkification" as was the case with ethnic Kurds.

That once-monolithic nation state is slowly being dented as pluralism becomes an acceptable fact of life in Turkish society.

Philanthropy outlook upbeat, but not for religious charities

oxfamPhilanthropy does not seem to have been hit by the global economic downturn. Contrary to some initial fears after the stock market plunge last year, giving by the rich to charitable causes seems to be rising as younger donors get more active in the field. But the report by Barclays Wealth, the wealth management arm of the British bank, says faith-based charities face falling donations because they’re not in step with this new generation of philanthropists.
(Photo: donation box in London Oxfam shop, 2 Dec 2008/Simon Newman)

The report, entitled Tomorrow’s Philanthropist, is upbeat about charitable giving based on the bank’s survey of 500 “high net worth investors in the UK and US.” As it said in a summary of the report: “Despite the global downturn, three quarters (75 per cent) have not decreased their contributions, whilst more than one in four (26 per cent) have increased their giving in the last 18 months.”Buried in the report is a sobering angle for churches and religious charities: “The future is less certain for the traditional recipients of charitable donations, such as the arts and religious organisations. On balance, high net worth donors stated that these causes had become less important to them over the past ten years, and that this trend would accelerate over the next decade if the causes in question failed to engage in a meaningful way with the next generation of givers.”In a report graphic, religious charity seems set for the biggest reduction in donations, -16%, while health and medical charities should see a +58% rise in gifts. The other losers are the arts (-14%) and animal causes (-6%) while the number two and three growth leaders are children (+41%) and environment (+35%).These results could be skewed by the sample group that Barclays Wealth used. The report did not analyse the expected drop in faith-linked donations any further, so it’s not clear whether a wider survey of donors below the report’s rarified donor group might show better support for religious charities.Do any readers have recent information about how religious charities are doing in the downturn? (UPDATE: please read the first comment below for more information on this)Here is the PDF file of the report and Barclay Wealth’s summary of it. Below is a short video on it by Hayley Platt of Reuters Television. Since video clips are short and reports like this long, the report’s main points are copied below the video.The report’s main points are:• We are at the beginning of a new age of philanthropy – A new breed of wealthy philanthropists is emerging who are more socially aware and more motivated to give back to the communities they came from, as well as global causes.• The wealthy are still giving despite the downturn – The recession has failed to dampen philanthropic spirit; the commitment of those who already give will remain resolute, and some wealthy individuals are actually increasing the levels of their funding in order to ensure that their charitable goals are met.• The wealthy will play an increasingly important role, compared to governments, in funding welfare projects – The recession will potentially increase the role of the wealthy philanthropist on a broad basis, as governments around the world become more constrained in the causes they can fund. High net worth givers will become an invaluable source of innovation and investment for charities.• The wealthy prefer to fund projects directly – Respondents increasingly feel that they can make a bigger impact and drive change more effectively by giving directly to charities, rather than supporting causes indirectly through taxation.• High net worth donors are becoming increasingly active philanthropists and now seek to solve rather than simply to support – Historically, high net worth individuals have donated money and time to charities to support their endeavours. Now, however, the wealthy are far more ambitious in their philanthropic aims and are wanting to see visible or measurable change.• The worlds of charity and business are converging – Smaller, nimbler and more accountable charities are becoming increasingly attractive to donors compared to the large, traditional charities. This will have a knock-on effect and in the future, we will see the emergence of more commercial ventures which have a philanthropic aim at their core.

from Photographers' Blog:

Life with a “Quiverfull” Family – the story behind the story

Rick Wilking is a Reuters contract photojournalist based in Denver, Colorado who has been shooting for Reuters for almost 25 years based in Europe, Washington, D.C. and now in Colorado. Rick recently developed the idea of spending time documenting the lives of a Christian "Quiverfull" family who have 15 children due to their belief that all family planning is best left in the hands of God. Rick produced the following piece of multimedia video from his time spent with the Jeub family in Colorado and tells us about the experience below. -  Jim Bourg

I am convinced that the easiest part of my job is taking pictures. Coming up with story ideas, getting access and then producing the final results are MUCH tougher! That was very true with this story. I read about Christian Quiverfull-minded folks who closely follow and live by Christian scripture and biblical verses and decided to try to find one of these families to document. I begged my way into a Quiverfull forum on the web and was met there with much skepticism about letting me in. One family in Kansas said maybe and another back east said I could come by. But neither were enthused and I knew the travel budget was too tight for a trip that distant and long.

Then I found the Jeub family, only a 90 minute drive away from my home in Colorado. They too were tentative at first but let me in after seeing stories I had done recently in their area. My work documenting the headquarters of the “Focus on the Family” organization, portraying troops returning from Iraq at a nearby military base and covering “The Purity Ball”, a Christian father-daughter event all convinced them of my fairness and the integrity of my photojournalism. They said they prayed on it hard and were led to let me into their home to tell their story through pictures and sound.

from AxisMundi Jerusalem:

Collective Punishment in Religious Jerusalem Neighborhoods?

ISRAEL-RELIGION/RIOTMuch ink has been spilled about the riots of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Jews in Jerusalem over the past several weeks (See our article on that here). Among some sources, there's a note of disdain for this sector of Jewish population, seen as being contemptuous of the state of Israel while making up the largest portion of the country's welfare recipients.

So I was a bit surprised to see one group rise to defend the Haredim this week --left-leaning bloggers. A few critiques were posted about Israel's Jerusalem municipality's reaction to Haredi riots. Philip Weiss, in his blog Mondoweiss, calls the police treatment of Haredim "bigotry." And Jerry Haber, of the Magnes Zionist blog, began his latest entry saying, "I tend to distrust news reports about Haredim the same way I distrust news reports about Palestinians; both are hated sectors in Israeli society (though the haredim that participate in the state are much more privileged.)"

Not only bloggers took issue with police treatment of Haredi communities. Haaretz, Israel's left-leaning daily, had an editorial condemning Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's "collective punishment against Haredim".  They criticised his decision to halt municipal services to two ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, Mea She'arim and Geula in response to the street violence.  Barkat said this was done for safety reasons, to prevent attacks on municipal workers.

Tips on reconciling Muslim practises with German schools

The German government and representatives of the country’s large Muslim community said on Thursday they had agreed a number of practical proposals to resolve conflicts between German schools and Muslim practises.

The government cannot legally enforce the proposals because, in Germany’s federal system, each of the country’s 16 states regulates education law.

GERMANY/Yet the proposals — agreed upon at a high-profile summit in Berlin aimed at boosting the integration of Germany’s Muslim residents — testify to an increasingly open and rational debate in Germany about Islam.

Religion crowded out in “cloud” of Ayatollah Khamenei’s sermon

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei delivered a major address today on the election there. It was in the form of a khutbah, an Islamic Friday sermon that is often the platform for the most important public pronouncements in the Islamic Republic. So one might assume it would be couched in Islamic terminology and religious themes.

But a rough-and-ready indicator, a web “cloud” that indicates the frequency of certain words, tells us otherwise. Aziz Poonawalla over at the City of Brass blog generated a Khamenei khutbah cloud on Wordle on the basis of a quick translation of the ayatollah’s speech. I had some trouble reading all the terms, so I went to that site and generated one myself. Here is the result:

khamenei-1

To be absolutely clear — this cloud is only a rough computer analysis. I generated it in Paris hours after the speech, without consulting any other Reuters bureau, so it played no part in our Tehran reporting of Khamenei’s comments or other coverage on our wire from Beirut and from London. Nothing can replace on-the-spot reporting by Persian-speaking correspondents who understand all the nuances in a political sermon like this.