FaithWorld

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:

    scientific awesomeness — “This is an incredible technology. Neuroimaging is not phrenology. It really is a scientific discipline that has reproducible results that makes valuable predictions that explain larges areas of cognition and cognitive neuroscience that previously had been inaccessible.” image properties — “There’s definitely an esthetic in the presentation of this data. People see this as a natural aspect of the brain, not the result of tests. Some groups made a very wise investment in the display technology for how neuroimaging results were reported. Those were the images that got displayed on the covers of the top scientific journals and made a splash.” thresholding — The brain images leave out data outside the main focus. “This contributes to the overly localised view of brain function. So we say, ‘ah this is the spot for love’ or whatever, because it’s all that we see.” overinference — “It’s very easy to believe a lot of things about these images that might not be true… It’s also implied that when you’ve found activisation in a region, you’ve found the region ‘for’ something. But what does that mean?” chicken versus egg problem — “Just because you find a difference between groups in some brain imaging measure does not mean that structural difference was genetically determined.” But the brain also develops according to its owner’s environment and experience, so this is too narrow a focus. gka-imagelurking Cartesian dualism“In the way we think about people’s actions and describe the effect of diseases or drugs, there is frequently a lurking dualism there. We say, ‘oh it wasn’t his fault, his brain did that.’ Well, who else could it have been? Where else could those thoughts and feeling or plans have come from, except in the brain? This idea that the brain and the mind are separate is part of what makes these images so remarkable. Wow look! Here’s a part of the brain that’s more active when you’re feeling romantic love or not! That’s just astounding to folks who would have thought romantic love was outside the brain, in the heart or the soul and far away.”
    (Photo: Near infrared spectroscopy imaging slide/GK Aguirre) illusion of inferential proximity — “It doesn’t automatically follow that a brain imaging technology is going to give you greater inferential leverage on a question than just talking to somebody. There’s an illusion that somehow you’re getting much closer to the behavior you want to measure, just because you’re measuring a brain image. That might not be the case.”
    ease of imaging — Many hospitals have brain scanners and researchers can use them and free imaging software to create impressive images. “If you have an internet connection and a scanner, you can be a cognitive neuroscientist and publish a paper. Lots of the variance in the lousy scientific papers over these years can be explained this way. What will come out will be a well-formed brain image that will give the impression you must be a very good scientist because you created something that looks very polished.”

reward-responseAguirre said that brain scans might be able to identify pedophiles by showing they are excited by pictures of children. “Does having that response to seeing kids in underwear lead to an increased risk of you actually going out and molesting kids?” he asked. “It could be the case that this population of people now divides into two subgroups, one that can control that impulse and one that cannot.” It would be hard to base a policy on who to put in jail on the basis of such brain images, he said. (Photo: Reward responses slide/Joe Kable)

Another example would be a study into people who lose their temper. “So I do a study of people who are enraged and can find that activity within the right insula is associated with a sense of rage. I have explained the sense of rage,” he said. “But since we all strongly suspected that the sense of rage was derived from events taking place in our nervous system, what have we learned?” The study could say what happens in the brain during rage but still not explain why the person flew off the handle.

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.”

Poll: Pakistanis against Taliban, disagree over sharia views

swat-talibanA new poll shows public opinion in Pakistan has turned sharply against the Taliban and other Islamist militants, even though they still do not trust the United States and President Barack Obama. Reporting on the poll, our Asia specialist in Washington, Paul Eckert, said the WorldPublicOpinion.org poll, conducted in May as Pakistan’s army fought the Taliban in the Swat Valley, found that 81 percent saw the Pakistani Taliban and al Qaeda as a critical threat to the country, a jump from 34 percent in a similar poll in late 2007. Read Eckert’s report here. (Photo: Pakistani Taliban in Swat, 2 Nov 2007/Sherin Zada Kanju)

The poll shows a wide divergence between Pakistani public opinion and the views of the Taliban on the implementation of sharia, a religious issue sometimes cited to help explain earlier tolerance of the militants. Some 80 percent of the respondents said sharia permits education for girls, one of the first services the Taliban close down when they gain control of an area. And 75 percent said sharia allows women to work, which the Taliban do not.

Reflecting their distrust, 71 percent said they believed the Taliban would not even submit to the sharia courts that they themselves have set up or promised to install as a pure and speedy alternative to Pakistan’s corrupt and inefficient civil courts. Only 14 percent supported the Taliban claim that it could provide more effective and timely justice than the state, a claim that partly helped the Islamist militants in the past (although it must be added that only 56 percent expressed trust in the civil courts). Only 9 percent said they thought the Taliban would do better at fighting corruption than the government, which got a lukewarm 47 percent. In any case, these results seem to indicate very little support for trademark Taliban promises that once seemed attractive.

GUESTVIEW: Fellay ordains SSPX priests, hints timid opening

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Nicolas Senèze is deputy editor of the religion service at the French Catholic daily La Croix and author of La crise intégriste, a history of the SSPX. He wrote this for FaithWorld (translation by Reuters) after covering the ordinations in Ecône for La Croix.

fellay-alps1 (Photo: Bishop Fellay greets children in Ecône, in Valais canton in southwestern Switzerland, 29 June 2009/Denis Balibouse)

By Nicolas Senèze

Bishop Bernard Fellay has gone and done it. On the morning of June 29, before crowds of the faithful gathered on the large meadow outside the Saint Pius X seminary in Ecône, Switzerland, the Superior General of the Priestly Fraternity of Saint Pius X (SSPX) ordained eight new priests. Just like Bishop Alfonso de Galaretta did on Friday in Zaitzkofen, Germany, and Bishop Bernard Tissier de Mallerais 10 days ago in Winona, Minnesota in the United States. They went ahead and ordained these men despite the Vatican’s declaration that the ordinations were “illegitimate”, i.e. illegal according to the law of the Roman Catholic Church.

Southern Baptists (and Republicans): old, white and in decline?

The evangelical Protestant revival has been one of the most dynamic religious and social movements in the United States in the last three decades. According to the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, one in four U.S. adults now count themselves as followers of this faith tradition.

BUSH

So it may come as a surprise to some non-American readers of this blog that the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) – with 16 million members, America’s largest evangelical denomination and the country’s second largest after the Catholic Church — is ringing the alarm bells of decline.

Its research arm LifeWay Research released the following projections this week at the convention’s annual meeting in Kentucky:  it said its numbers would fall nearly 50 percent by 2050 “unless the aging and predominantly white denomination reverses a 50-year trend and does more to strengthen evangelism, reach immigrants, and develop a broader ethnic base.”

Almost two million vanish from Obama’s estimate of U.S. Muslims

dawn-front-page002 (Dawn front page for Sunday, 21 June 2009)

Almost two million people have inexplicably disappeared from the estimates of the U.S. Muslim population that President Barack Obama has given recently. In his speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on June 4, he spoke about “nearly seven million American Muslims in our country today.” On Sunday, the Karachi daily Dawn published an interview with him where he said “we have five million Muslims.”

There was no explanation for the change, but his reason for citing the figure seemed to be the same. Shortly before his Cairo speech, Obama told the French television channel Canal Plus that “one of the points I want to make is, is that if you actually took the number of Muslim Americans, we’d be one of the largest Muslim countries in the world.” He cited no figure there but mentioned seven million in Cairo three days later.

Many blogs, FaithWorld included, questioned that figure and noted that estimates of the U.S. Muslim population range from 1.8 to 7-8 million. The U.S. Census Bureau cannot ask about religion on a mandatory basis but refers on its website to a Pew Forum study pegging Muslims at 0.6% of the population. The CIA World Factbook uses the same percentage figure. It translates into about 1.8 million.

Paris court to rule if Scientology should be shut down in France

scientologyHow far does the principle of religious freedom go? How much can be accepted in the name of respect for a faith? A Paris court is debating these questions in a fraud case against the Church of Scientology. If the public prosecutor wins the case, Scientology will be convicted of extorting hundreds of thousands of euros from followers on personality tests, vitamin cures, “auditing” sessions and counselling with an “e-metre.” It will be disbanded and could also face heavy fines. The French arm of the U.S.-based Scientology denies the charges and says the case violates its freedom of religion.

Scientology is registered as a religion with tax-exempt status in the United States, but enjoys no such position in France and has faced repeated accusations of being a money-making cult. It also does not have French celebrities defending its case, in contrast to the United States. where movie star members such as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta publicly defend it as a valid religion. “This is not the place to debate whether Scientology is truly a religion or not,”prosecutor Maud Coujard told the court when she summed up her case on Monday.  “The point is that … a religious motivation is no justification under criminal law.”

Scientology’s lawyer, Patrick Maisonneuve, will call for an acquittal when he makes his closing remarks to the court. “What the prosecutor has asked for is a death sentence for Scientology (in France),” he told reporters. The court is expected to issue its ruling later in the year.

French, U.S. imams talk about being Muslim military chaplains

imams-threeBoth are Muslims. Both are chaplains. Both are in the military. But one is French and one is American. That alone ensured there would be enough to talk about when Mohamed-Ali Bouharb and Abu- hena Saifulislam met in Paris to discuss their work with chaplains and academics from the United States.
(Photo: Bouharb (l) and Saifulislam with CIEE’s Hannah Taieb. Note the Islamic crescents on Bouharb’s cap and Saifulislam’s sleeves, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Muslim chaplaincies are relatively new additions to the armed forces in Europe and North America. Establishing their place alongside the traditional Catholic, Protestant and Jewish offices of religious services has not always been easy, even though both imams reported the top brass in their countries strongly supported the effort. While they tend to the spiritual needs of their co-religionists in the ranks, as other chaplains do, these imams also spend much time explaining their religion and its practices to their non-Muslim superiors.Both spoke of the obvious issues such as getting halal food or having time and space for Muslim prayers. Both had encountered questions from both within the forces and outside in the Muslim community asking why they had agreed to work as imams in the military. Their presentations were part of a seminar entitled “Religious Diversity in Everyday Life in France” organised by the U.S.-based Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE) and the Institute for the Study of Islam and the Societies of the Muslim World in Paris.Bouharb, 32, is a French-born Muslim with Tunisian roots who studied Islam at a private Muslim institute in Paris and graduated from a special training course for imams at the Catholic Institute here. He is chaplain to the National Gendarmerie, which comes under the Defence Ministry. France only launched its Muslim chaplain corps in 2005 and it is still finding its way. “I first got a two-year contract. It’s just been extended by four years. Nothing is certain. We’ll see the results in 20 years,” he told the meeting on Sunday. Bouhard stressed how tricky the issues he faces can be as he discussed the delicate bridge function he has to play with the example of five French Muslim soldiers who refused to go to Afghanistan:

“If a Muslim soldier doesn’t want to go to Afghanistan for religious reasons, that’s his right. My role is not to convince him. But if he doesn’t want to go, he shouldn’t be in the army. That’s not a religious opinion. Sometimes the Muslim chaplain has to put aside his religious role and deconstruct what is religious and what is not. What I do is go see the soldier and ask him about his vision of Islam. I can help him to understand things better, but not to make a decision… If a soldier’s not clear in his mind (about shooting at Taliban), he might hesitate for a moment. That could endanger the troops around him…“To the commanders, I say I’m not the representative of a Muslim soldiers’ trade union. When those five refused to go, people said the Muslim chaplains weren’t doing their jobs. It was all over the media. But the chaplain’s duty is not to ensure the cohesion of the troops. (The doubting soldier) could endanger others. My religious duty is not to put those others in danger… We Muslim chaplains asked for a right to reply to the media but the Defence Ministry press office said it was not worth the effort… They were right. A few weeks later, all was forgotten.”

Another issue was whether Muslim soldiers due for commando training had to fast if the session occurred during Ramadan. “They get up at 3 a.m. and march for 25 kms with backpacks weighing 25 kilos. It’s very difficult to fast,” he said. Muslim soldiers asked him what to do. “I told them that, if you signed up to do this training, you have to respect that contract. You can stop your fast and catch up on those days after Ramadan is over.” Ten Qatari soldiers in France for advanced training could not understand why the session was not rescheduled, as it would be in their majority Muslim society, but Bouharb said it could not be and the Muslim soldiers had to adjust. “There is only one Islam, but there are many ways of expressing it,” he said.imams-twoSaifulislam, who emigrated to the U.S. from Bangladesh in 1989 and became a U.S. Navy imam 10 years later, had a slightly different approach. “If there is special training during Ramadan, I ask the commander if it can be moved to another date,” he said, stressing he was giving his personal opinion and not speaking in an official capacity. “I tell the Muslims that they’re away from home while on training so they can not fast and make it up later. It’s his or her call. I provide the counsel.”
(Photo: Bouharb and Saifulislam, 7 June 2009/Tom Heneghan)

He said there were about a dozen imams in the U.S. armed forces, which appointed their first Muslim chaplain in 1993. That compares to over 800 Christian and Jewish chaplains in the Navy alone, he said. “They don’t necessarily need us for the number of Muslim soldiers but to advise them on religious inclusiveness, like about how Islamic practices can affect a mission, before they deploy to Iraq or Afghanistan. They get training in cultural sensitivity.”Possibly because imams have served in the U.S. military for longer than in the French, the American Muslim chaplains seemed more integrated into the overall chaplain corps. Saifulislam said:

Ninety-nine percent of the people who come to me for counselling are from another faith. They come to you with issues, it could be about family, stress or violence. People can get more religious in boot camp, also in prison. I’ve also been trained in suicide prevention, PTSD recognition and crisis management. We also do grief counselling, regardless of the religion. Of course, we don’t perform services for other religions. You’re not going to see me baptise a baby! But we facilitate things. If someone comes to me as a Wiccan and asks for a place to pray, I help them. The Department of Defense recognises over 290 different religions and denominations. If a Muslim asks one of the other chaplains to help him get a copy of the Koran, he has to help him.”

GUESTVIEW: Obama speech not historic, but could become so

obama-speaks1 (Photo: President Obama speaks at Cairo University, 4 June 2009/Larry Downing)

The following is a guest contribution. Reuters is not responsible for the content and the views expressed are the authors’ alone. Miroslav Volf is director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture and a theology professor at Yale Divinity School, where he co-teaches a course on faith and globalization with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. A native of Croatia and member of the Episcopal Church in the U.S.A., he has been involved in international ecumenical and interfaith dialogues, most recently in Christian-Muslim dialogue.

By Miroslav Volf

I am tempted to say that in Cairo President Obama delivered an historic speech on relations between “the United States and Muslims around the world.” Speeches aren’t historic when they are delivered, however; they become historic after they’ve shaped history. What is certain even now, mere few hours after the speech, is that it was brilliant — visionary and practical, deeply human and political, moral and pragmatic, all at the same time. These wise words, beautifully crafted and compellingly delivered, have the potential of becoming seeds from which a new future will sprout and flourish.

The perspective that pervades the whole speech was signaled when the President recognized his own Christian faith, while at the same time noting that his father came from a family that includes generations of Muslims. Thus, in his own biography, the President embodies what his speech was ultimately about: relations between the United States and Muslims around the world should not be defined simply by “our differences” but by “overlaps” and “common principles” as well. This point is crucial. In encounter with others, if we see only differences, the result is exclusion; if we see only commonalities, the result is distortion. Only when we see both-undeniable differences that give others a peculiar character and commonalities that bind us together-are we able to honor both others and ourselves.

Islamic tone, interfaith touch in Obama’s speech to Muslim world

obama-speech-baghdadIt started with “assalaamu alaykum” and ended with “may God’s peace be upon you.” Inbetween, President Barack Obama dotted his speech to the Muslim world with Islamic terms and references meant to resonate with his audience. The real substance in the speech were his policy statements and his call for a “new beginning” in U.S. relations with Muslims, as outlined in our trunk news story. But the new tone was also important and it struck a chord with many Muslims who heard the speech, as our Middle East Special Correspondent Alistair Lyon found. Not all, of course — you can find positive and negative reactions here. (Photo: Iraqi in Baghdad watches Obama’s speech, 4 June 2009/Mohammed Ameen)

Among Obama’s Islamic touches were four references to the Koran (which he always called the Holy Koran), his approving mention of the scientific, mathematical and philosophical achievements of the medieval Islamic world and his citing of multi-faith life in Andalusia. These are standard elements that many Islam experts — Muslims and non-Muslims — mention in speeches at learned conferences, but it’s not often that you hear an American president talking about them.

Two religious references particularly caught my attention because they weren’t the usual conference circuit clichés. One was his comment about being in “the region where (Islam) was first revealed” – a choice of past participle showing respect for the religion.