Pope Francis’

Pope Francis’ recent remarks about atheists recalls a long history of conversations between atheists and Catholics, and other Christians.  In recent years it has most prominently included the dialogue of German philosopher Jurgen Habermas and Pope Benedict, and the Courtyard of the Gentiles with Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi and his friend, French culture critic Julia Kristeva and others.  Michael Harrington, the Socialist social critic was perhaps the most prominent among Americans in late 20th Century.   Coming up, we will consider this more civilized foil to the rantings of soapbox atheists (aka new atheists)..



Dorothy Day (l), co-founder of the Catholic Worker movement, with Mother Teresa (r) at Mary House, the Catholic Worker’s women’s shelter in the Bowery where Dorothy spend the last years of her life. Photo 1979 by Bill Barrett.

To clarify an unanswerable question (“Does Religion Work?): My particular concern has been whether the practices or views of Buddhists and Christians (particularly Catholics and Tibetan Buddhists, the traditions to which I belong) are correlated with increases in altruistic behavior. My hunch is that Christians tend to believe that religions are the best game in town for inspiring us to “make the world a better place,” and that Buddhists, particularly in the Tibetan tradition believe that meditation practice has a similar effect, albeit (usually) indirectly.  I shall return to the meditation question in my next entry.  But first let’s take a look at the evidence for altruism and other possible effects of religious belonging, views and behaviors, mainly among American Christians.

Last August on this blog I expressed my disappointment that,  all things considered, after 2,000 years the Kingdom of God, i.e. a world of justice, kindness and equity, was realized more in the hope that in the state of the world.  I was particularly unnerved by the American class warfare over health care, and by my inference (open to challenge) that Right Wing American Christians who resent government were among those who opposed the redistribution of some of their income to provide health care for the poor, disabled, et al. Despite the notorious bias toward the poor and African-Americans in death penalty sentencing, American Christians have long been divided over opposition vs. support for the death penalty.  Christians, like Western Buddhists (perhaps like many of their Asian counterparts) both blithely accept the killing of nonhuman animals soley for their own gustatory pleasure.  (Hal Herzog’s studies of human relations with animals have shown that the majority of Americans who think nonhumans are like us in all significant ways still eat them.)  One’s dismay at this is heightened by the data from the UN White Paper showing that animal agriculture is by far the largest source of greenhouse gases. These situations are made worse by the American ethos that considers many moralities as a matter of aesthetic choice.  (Think of the last barbecue you attended where your host provided a vegetarian option.)  In such cases, morality has been subsumed under the rubric of “taste.”  Occasionally a voice speaks from the wilderness, declaring like Tom Friedman (not a “usual suspect” for moral wisdom) that private virtue is a hobby.  Private virtue and personal example will not overcome the massive human killing of nonhumans for pleasure, global warming, extreme overpopulation, the coming global conflict over water rights, the millions of annual deaths of Africans due to unclean water and other effects of Extreme Poverty.

For some anti-religious extremists the aforementioned would be an invitation to argue that religion has failed humankind.  This type of deductive argument from a priori bias seemed much too simplistic to me, not to mention, false, and I suspected that the “flaws” expressed here were not from religion per se, but in human nature.  This impelled me to set aside my longtime interests in biblical scholarship (Historical Jesus studies) and Buddhism (and religious pluralism), and turn to the study of the cognitive sciences.  I attended courses at Yale University in Cognitive Science (broadly), Moral Psychology, Social Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience. I was exposed to such participating disciplines as Developmental Psychology, Comparative (Animal) Cognition, Linguistics – especially the evolution of language, Evolutionary  Psychology, Vision Science, etc.  Meanwhile I continued my participation in Yale Working Groups in Bioethics, and Religion and Science, and joined another on cognitive science and culture.

In the course of these studies I attended Paul Bloom’s Devane Lectures on “The Moralities of Everyday Life,”   Paul is an acknowledged atheist, a naturalist and secularist, who concedes that on first take religion might seem helpful and that humans are “born believers,” but his own (admittedly subjective) bias is that on balance it does more harm than good.  Despite his own biases, he keeps up with much of the literature on religion and psychology and this makes him a helpful source providing one is careful to parse the science from the opinion. (For an excellent recent example of Paul’s writing in this area see “Religion, Morality, Evolution,” in The Annual Review Psychology 2012, doi 10.1146/annurev-psych-120710-100334.)  Paul has repeatedly cited the historic “meta-study” of religion in America published as American Grace: How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us.   I see no evidence that it supports Paul’s bias, and happy to say, I was pleasantly surprised to find that it does not support my own skepticism.


American Grace:

How Religion Divides Us and Unites Us (?)


 American Grace, by Robert D. Putnam of Harvard and David E. Campbell of Notre Dame,  is probably the most ambitious study of religion in America in decades, reaching into areas unexamined by the series of very useful and admirable surveys by the Pew Charitable Trust, the Gallup organization’s polling, and specialized studies like Elain Howard Ecklund’s on views about religion and science. American Grace examines how the changes in sexual mores and attitudes toward authority in the 1960s provoked reactions among conservative Christians that became linked to politics on the 1970s and 1980s; this phenomenon in turn led to an abandonment of organized religion by many young Americans.  Both conservative and secular extremism continued to grow, shrinking the middle.  But at the same time Americans became increasingly at ease with religious pluralism. (Among the study’s findings: “Between one-third and one-half of all American marriages are interfaith,”  and ‘Even fervently religious Americans believe that people in other faiths can get to heaven.”)  It should also be noted that the title is a misnomer. But in today’s blog I want to focus specifically on Chapter 13, “Religion and Good Neighborliness.”


Does religion affect generosity?


In general the studies in American Grace found that religious Americans (controlling for demographics like race, etc.) are more likely than secular Americans to:

  • Give money to a charity.
  • Do volunteer work for a charity
  • Give money to a homeless person
  • Donate their own blood
  • Help someone outside the own household with housework
  • Spend time with someone who is “a bit down”.
  • Allow a stranger to cut in front of them
  • Offer a seat to a stranger
  • Help someone find a job

And these differences v. secular Americans are not marginal.

  • Americans who volunteer for religious groups are two or three times more likely to also volunteer for secular groups than those who don’t volunteer for religious groups.  Weekly churchgoers volunteer significantly more than annual churchgoers, to religious and secular causes.  Regular churchgoers are more than twice as likely to to volunteer to help the needy, compared to those who rarely, if ever, attend church.
  • In terms of the percentage of their annual income, the average person among the most religious fifth of Americans studied is four times as generous as the average in the least religious fifth. Those who donate to religious causes are far more likely to donate to secular causes, and they give a larger portion of their income. They have a particular edge in giving to educational, youth and international organizations; but even with a specialized group like the American Cancer Society, the weekly churchgoer is more than 33% more likely to donate than his secular counterpart.

The intensity of engagement with a religion, e.g. church attendance, is more predictive of these behaviors than which religion a person belongs to.


Are religious Americans good citizens (in a secular state) ?


Education is the strongest correlate to civic participation, partly by encouraging it, partly by offering the social and cognitive skills, and partly because of the economic status associated with higher education.  Except for a partial correlate for economic status, religion is the strongest predictor for civic engagement:

  • The most religious Americans belong to 34% more civic organizations that the the most secular (fifth).
  • They are more than twice as likely to be leaders within these organizations
  • They attend three times as public meetings on local affairs
  • They are more likely to vote in local elections (56% v. 46%).
  • Controlling for various background characteristics and ideology, they are almost twice as likely to report belonging to a organization engaged in local political or social reform.  They are more likely to engage in protests and demonstrations. (However, activism is higher among religious liberals than conservatives.)
  • Although conservatives tend to more religious than liberals, it is their religiosity, not their political ideology that produces their generosity.

There is much for reflection and further investigation here.  I have seen no evidence that these effects are produced solely by the desire to maintain and enhance one’s “in-group status,” as secularist skeptics might suggest.  The effects correlate most highly with frequent church attendance, rather than denominational affiliation, per se, or the strength of  “beliefs.”  But one would hope to find correlates more specific than frequency of church attendance.  And one would like to pressure further with questions about genuine engagement with the poor and needy, and about the kind of altruism Pope John Paul II called for: compassion at a cost to oneself.  But the meantime we can find hope  in Putnam and Campbell’s magisterial work,  that indeed some element(s) of institutional religious participation do inspire American Christians on a large scale to actions that “make the world a better place.”

Coming Soon: “Does Meditation Work?”

For my initial blog essay on this subject, see “Does Religion Work: The Quest for a Human Future.”

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The Recording Angel

Last summer  in this blog I raised the question whether religion worked.   On first take, this is not an answerable question.  Anthropologists like Tylor and Geertz strongly disagreed about the definition.  Most Religious Studies scholars, like Talal Asad, dismiss the notion that the plurality of religious traditions can be conceptualized together as “religion.”  Christian scholars of pluralism around the turn of this century abandoned the quest to find some universal experience that was the basis of all religions, and concluded that no one knew enough about many religions to identify any common foundation. This turning away from “perennial philosophies” gave birth to the new discipline of Comparative Theology, standing in one tradition, studying the details within one other.  See, e.g. Francis X. Clooney, Catherine Cornille and James Fredericks.)

I had no illusion that one could answer such a question, but I hoped to arouse my Buddhist and Christian friends to scrutinize their thinking and practices, rather in the spirit of aggiornamento, or renewal, that transformed the Catholic Church during and after Vatican II.  Did singing hymns on Sunday morning, or practicing Mindfulness and Tonglen really bring about altruistic behavior?  When you added up the beliefs and behaviors of religious persons today, did they scale up to make the world a better place?  Frankly, I had deep doubts.

I might have made clearer at the time that I did not blame religions, per se, for the shortfalls from their hopes.  I continued to reflect on the fact that the Kingdom of God seemed more hope that reality.   I did not see Mahayana Buddhists increasing the happiness of sentient beings on any observable scale.  But the problem seemed to me to arise from refractory human nature rather than flaws in religion.  And so  I turned to a more vigorous study of human nature, attending courses in the cognitive sciences, e.g. social psychology and cognitive neuroscience.   I found my way into the specialty of Moral Psychology, an interdisciplinary domain of philosophical ethicists, psychologists and neuroscientists like Joshua Greene and Jonathan Haidt. I appreciated Positive Psychologists such as Dacher Keltner, and I revisited my old inspiration,   Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, best known for “Flow.” I reflected on striking new research on the effectiveness of meditation, and reviewed sociological studies of religion in the US.  In my next two blog entries, I shall first report on the effects of religion on altruistic behavior among Americans, and in the second posting review some recent studies of meditation practice.  Although I am both a Tibetan Buddhist and a Roman Catholic, I am an inveterate skeptic.  But I was happily surprised, and would like to share with you just what I was surprised about.

Coming next: The Behavior of American Churchgoers (are they nicer?)

The following is a revision of my posted response to Pinker’s description of his personal philosophy in a 2009 video on Big Think (web link below).   For a broad challenge to religionists, see my “Does Religion Work?” on this blog.

Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker is a bright guy and as prolific as can be, while also maintaining an active teaching schedule at Harvard.  And his trade books on  language and mind have gone a long way to familiarizing the educated layperson with the domains of his profession and its wider implications. Unfortunately, when he follows his (acknowledged) desire to address the “big questions” as a public intellectual, he sometimes “shoots from the hip,” stridently arguing for his unexamined opinions on subjects outside his domain of expertise.  This is especially true for his thinking about religion, where  in the words of Hamlet’s mom, “The lady doth protest too much.”    He discloses an a-historical  and essentialist view of religion that Religious Studies scholars would dismiss out of hand.  For his recent Better Angels of Our Nature, he  snatched up a verse from the book of Deuteronomy on homosexuality as evidence of the irrationality of this a-historical abstraction, “religion.”   In the ancient world, there was no such entity as religion, it simply comprised strands of the fabric of household, social and national life.  This was especially true of  the theocracy of ancient Judaism.  The Deuteronomic call to Covenant ethics was about maintaining a NATION, and it’s a fatuous category mistake to blithely batch it up with say, 21st Century Whitehead- or Derrida-inspired Lutheran theology, or Catholic Liberation Theology,  Comparative Theology or… take your pick from modern Christian movements.   (In a rough parallel, moderns often single out Paul the Apostle to attack for positions that were simply part of the broader Greek culture he was negotiating a place within.  They are utterly naive about the historical context.)  Pinker himself throws off the remark that religions have nothing in common but the rejection of secularity. (This assertion of the rejection of secularity itself is a bizarre and unsupportable claim.)  But mostly Pinker cannot resist the temptation to declare that some abstraction called religion does “this, that, and the other thing.”  More broadly, Pinker (as well as New Atheists like the late Hitchens) have no sense (or duplicitously hide it) of historical context or any awareness of cultural evolution in religious traditions. (Robert Wright has done better on this count.)  They would place in one a-historical “phylum” a 3,000 year-old tribal cult,  small groups of contemporary Indian ritual devotees, the workings of a 16th Century (Spanish) government-initiated  Inquisition, the radically evolution of Vedanta, the pluralism of the Bhagavad Gita, Jain atheism,  Ghanan Akhan spiritualism, the  full frontal attack of Madhyamaka Buddhist philosophy on the tenets of foundational Buddhism, 21st Century Catholicis social thinking, and so on.  To draw a loose parallel with biological evolution, this is rather like treating shrews, Neandrathals and humans as the same animal.

Pinker presses further with this essentialism, by employing it as a convenient rhetorical device: he defines events in history he abhors as the genuine instantiations of a religious tradition, and those trends he might favor as inauthentic aberrations.

Anthropological definitions of religion have ranged all over the map, from Tylor’s supernaturalism to Geertz’s more abstract humanism, to Asad’s rejection of Geertz.  It’s fair to say that the consensus among academic scholars of religion is that there is no such thing as religion, generically understood. I hope to return this in a later post.  Writers on “theologies of religion” in the early 2000s abandoned the attempt, influenced by comparative religion, to construct metatheories about “religion,” and turned to the inductive comparison of details between two religious traditions at a time, thus giving birth to the contemporary discipline, Comparative Theology.  But the academic study of religion, secular and otherwise, never seems to appear on the radar of writers like Pinker.  They have too little interest in religions to study them. Presumably they are also not religious practitioners (perhaps occasionally, an atheist but mildly observant Jew?), so the experience of being religious (particularly as an adult believer) is outside their range of understanding. (By “religion,” here I simply mean contemporary traditions that are identified by their practitioners and others as religion.)

In his “personal philosophy” video, Pinker abruptly raises the perennial question, “Why is There Anything?” (theists’ favorite trick on atheists) and suggests that it might just be a bad question.  What would that mean?  By comparison, cosmologists and other physicists like Sir Martin Rees, Leonard Carr (a student of Hawking), Joel Primack, Julian Barbour, George Ellis, Priyamvada Natarajan, and philosophers like Michael Della Rocca thought it was serious enough to participate in a three-day conference on it at Yale in October 2011 with over 60 other physicists and other scholars.  Yale President Richard Levin opened the conference, and advisors included the physicist Steven Girvin, Yale’s Deputy Provost for Science and Technology. (Blog summaries and videos of the presentations are available at http://whyisthereanything.org, and a YouTube channel with videos of the talks is under construction.)  The organizers of the conference, Natarajan, Della Rocca and philosopher Denys Turner chose the topic precisely because cosmologists, philosophers and theologians (Turner teaches historical theology) were equally puzzled by the question.  Perhaps Pinker is uneasy examining a hypotheses for which he doesn’t have an answer a priori.

In Better Angels he conveniently places Christian figures in false contexts to support his arguments.  Rather than acknowledge the humanism of the Early Modern Catholic priest Erasmus, he calls him a “skeptical philosopher.”   He asserts that Martin Luther King drew on renegade theologians (Reinhold Neihbur a renegade?) learned his nonviolent methods from the non-Christian Gandhi — utterly ignoring the fact that Gandhi himself would attribute the inspiration for his tactics to Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount!  He sets up religion and science as binary values,  with apparent ignorance of all the Christian religious or clerics from the history of science, from Roger Bacon and Robert Grosseteste to Rev. Georges Lemaitre (who first proposed the theory of the expanding universe) and paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin.  And no surprise, he betrays no awareness of  recent work of the philosopher of science Michael Heller,  or theologies of science that like that of John Haught and Hans Kung, not to mention the religion-and-science writings of scientists like Barbour, Gingerich, Peacocke, Polkinghorne and others.

Pinker has his own object of fundamentalist belief: Reason.  Reason as the ultimate and exclusively worthy guide to the good life and a better world.  Unfortunately, the reason he recommends, like the reasoning he sometimes uses in Better Angels, strikes this writer as a loose sort of “folk logic.”  Pinker glides past the findings of Kahneman and Tversky on heuristics, how people use convenient rules of thumb rather than thinking through issues in detail. and he makes no mention of the value, downside, or existence of automaticity in decision making.  (One certainly suspects because of his training that Pinker knows better, and that his arguments are in some measure, duplicitous.)  Pinker weirdly acts as if he is utterly unaware of the split brain research of  Michael Gazzaniga, e.g., that indicates how the left brain cooks up causal explanations.  He betrays no knowledge of work among social psychologists like Jon Haidt and others on how reason is employed after the fact of our decisions, to create a good story of how the decision occurred, or John Bargh on the influence of automaticity.   And he shows no awareness of the work of Yale Psychologist Frank Keil and others on the epistemological vagaries of common sense and common misunderstanding of science.  One might say of Pinker’s faith in reason, what C. F. Monte wrote, apparently, of  a naive sort of empiricism: “Direct,  intuitive observation, accompanied by questioning, imagining or creative intervention is a limited and misleading prescientific technique” (in David W. Martin, Doing Psychology Experiments).  One doesn’t need to read many arguments in academic philosophy, follow an examination of scientific models with analytic logic  (Woods and Rosales, e.g.), attend a seminar on logic, or read incompatible results of studies in the natural, social and applied sciences, or review the Crisis in the Foundations of Mathematics before one realizes that logic and empiricism are — without doubt very useful, but — often flawed, incomplete or misleading.  Anyone familiar with the deconstructive method of 2nd-3rd Century Buddhist (read “religious”) philosopher Nagarjuna would already would have been thoroughly cleansed of such naivete.  For a thinker who finds his epistemological bearings in the 18th Century, one might have expected Pinker to have acquired some skepticism from David Hume.  Certainly a rigorous logic based whenever possible on measured observation is our most useful epistemic method.  But for Pinker, reason seems to be an object of “blind faith.”  Acknowledging all the good that has been served by “reason,” Pinker’s declaration of his loyalty to it is rather like folks who loudly proclaim their love for children, as if this were their unique virtue, on the basis of which they command our attention and deference.

The theological ethicist Charles Carmosy once remarked, “I think everyone has a First Cause.”  Ramon Panikkar would call these First Causes our personal myths, i.e. those assumptions about life that for each of us seem self-evidently true.  Apparently for Pinker, “Reason” is self-evidently true.

Pinker’s most recent major writing in his preferred role as public intellectual is The Better Angels of Our Nature, which argues that humankind has become less violent, over the centuries.  The book is chock-a-block with loose thinking, including his use of amateur history buff (and self-proclaimed “atrocitologist”) Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things,  for which he wrote the foreword.   Historians at Harvard, Yale and Ohio State have raised a skeptical eyebrow at White’s work, but Pinker confidently bases his argument on it.  And no surprise, Pinker’s short section on religion is vacuous.  It reminds one of Byronizing writers like the late Norman Mailer or medical doctors, who brashly use the platform of their talents in one area (e.g.. gynecology — or linguistics) to set up a soapbox for their “intuitions” and prejudices about subjects they have no expertise in whatsoever (movie actors and rock stars seem to be a bit more discreet recently, but that a subjective take).  In The Better Angels Pinker, drawing on White, includes Jews killed in the Shoa and by Bolsheviks among those whose deaths were “caused” by religious wars — as if the religion of the Jews caused WWII, the Shoah and  the near-extermination of European Jewry!  All this mean- spirited rhetorical distortion notwithstanding, Pinker’s book has an worthy hypothesis and deserves scanning, if only to provoke further study.

The beliefs and behaviors of religious practitioners and the methods of religious thinkers and scholars deserve philosophical scrutiny and reexamination  in light of the historically oriented sciences and through empirical investigation.   But Pinker clouds up the domain with his obsessive bias and counterfactual misinformation.  (One recalls a recent symposium on whether science could teach morality, with e.g. philosophers Simon Blackburn and Peter Singer.   Before addressing the issue at hand, Pinker used some of his time to attack theism and religions, declaring that by science he means “not-religion.”)  His status and popularity, and habit of playing to a priori biases, may intimidate many researchers, especially graduate students who may wish to doing experimental work in the psychology of religion, who are hyper-aware of favoritisms and the cruel politics of academia.   Pinker is thus more threatening to scientific inquiry that someone like Hitchens, and in the realm of the cognitive sciences, and much more immediately influential in the psychological sciences than a biologiest like his fellow (former?) anti-theist, Dawkins.   All of this makes it difficult to treat Pinker as simply ignorant and worthy of some measure of pity.  It requires a good deal of effort to write about all this politely, when Pinker is as unrelenting as a front-yard dog, barking and snapping at passersby.  Reading or listening to Steven Pinker on religion is like watching the hyperbloated Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, lost and bewildered within the circle of funhouse mirrors,  careening about under the weight of his own obsession and hubris.

One hopes that Pinker will continue his imitation of Richard Dawkins and follow the new personal benchmark for courtesy Dawkins set in his February 2012 Oxford dialogue with Archbishop Rowan William and philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny (see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HfQk4NfW7g0 ).   Dawkins’ presentation of the story the natural sciences have given us of life on earth is inspiring, once it is no longer obscured  by obnoxiousness.  Unfortunately any moving stories Pinker might have, including the story of The Better Angels of Our Nature, is still obscured.

Ironically, it would be hard for any religionist to disagree with much of Pinker’s summation of his personal philosophy (below) in the Big Think video.  In the face of such agreement, it is exasperating that anti-theists like Pinker continue their sleep-inducing harangues.

“Given that I am here, I do think that I have an ethical imperative to be good to other people, to put my life to some purpose that I can define like understanding the world better, helping other people, taking the best advantage of the gifts that I find myself with ….”

This sounds like an act of faith, and that’s okay for me.


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See Jonathan Haidt’s classic 2001 article in Psychological Review on Moral Intutionism, “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail.”  Moral Intuitionism is a widely discussed phenomenon in Moral Psychology, an interdisciplinary domain drawing on Social Psychology, Moral Philosophy and Social Neuroscience. (For a philosopher’s take on Moral Intutionism, see the work of Joshua Greene.)

Pinker’s video clip about his personal philosophy is at http://bigthink.com/ideas/12936 .

A New York Times review of The Great Big Book of Horrible Things is at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/09/books/the-great-big-book-of-horrible-things-by-matthew-white.html?pagewanted=all

For much more substantial video lectures on some of the topics in Big Think, albeit sometimes with same anti-religious flavor, see The Edge, http://edge.org/

For discussion of the definition of faith, see my posts on

“Definitions of Faith and the Ragged Edges of Medical Certainties,” under the category, Religion & Science/Bioethics –  http://stevendeedon.wordpress.com/2011/06/08/cancer-and-the-definitions-of-faith/and

“Faith: What Might This Mean?” (very short) under Ruminations on the (a) Human Condition - http://stevendeedon.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/faith-what-might-this-mean/

For a review of lectures on novel writing as philosophy, by Pinker’s current wife, Rebecca Goldstein, and discussion with philosopher Harry Frankfurt and novelist Michael Cunningham, see my posting on “Fiction versus Philosophy” under the category, Literature and Film: http://stevendeedon.wordpress.com/2011/03/27/philosophy-versus-fiction/

Coming up later this week, a review of Michael Gazzaniga’s Gifford Lectures on the modularity of the brain, and the consensus of neuroscientists, contra everyone’s personal intuition, that there’s Nobody at Home, in the brain-mind, no decision-making agent, who consciously chooses our actions and directs us to carry them out.  But unlike David Eagleman, Gazzaniga strongly asserts that individual persons must be accountable.

Brother David Steindl-Rast, OSB


I don’t often simply embed videos here, but at Christmastime I wanted to share some video clips of my old friend, the Viennese Benedictine monk and psychologist, David Steindl-Rast.  I know of no one who is such a master at talking about the spiritual life in humanist terms, and the most profound experience in language a high school student could understand.  So I’m just putting this up without much comment on it.  Please don’t feel the large photo and video images are meant to overwhelm, I had difficulty re-sizing.

The first of the videos is one I somehow missed in the past.  It’s called “Faith, Mysticism and Prayer,” and it’s an extended version, about 12 minutes (though obviously edited) of an interview used for a 2010 segment on Brother David on the PBS program, Religion & Ethics Newsweekly.  Below it are the links to three clips of a talk on a “Spirituality of the Future,” at a 1995 conference in Aspen, CO sponsored by John Denver’s Windstar Foundation. (Most of the first of these three clips is a singalong, but I think it’s good to get the set up at the beginning. I will say that although his language is very simple, he seems to be drawing on some of the most important thinkers in Christian history, like Saint Augustine and Karl Rahner in the “Spirituality of the Future Talk.”  His discussion of faith is very close to that of the late Ramon Panikkar, who is not always so easy to understand. (I say much the same thing in my blog piece on “Faith and the Ragged Edges of Medical Certainties,” written before I saw this.) If you are one of my fellow Buddhists or Christians who already has great affection for David, or if this is new to you and you find you like this sort of thing, you can find many videos, audio files and articles by him at his web page on the gratefulness.org web site (which he founded): http://www.gratefulness.org/brotherdavid/ .

The first of these is more quiet and somber;  David is 84 years-old here, I think, and the camera close-up in not flattering.   In the second group, he is ca. 60, and as lively as a 35 year year-old.  It’s quite a lesson in aging — either that, or a lesson in the effects of different camera setups.  (Take your pick of the mood you prefer to start or finish with.)

I. Faith as Trust in Life: “Mysticism, Faith and Prayer” 2010




II. “A Spirituality of the Future” 1995

Here are links to the three clips from “A Spirituality of the Future.”  The talks sections are built around the themes of 1) spirituality as “super-aliveness, 2) God as “Surprise, and hope as “openness to the unimaginable,” and 3) meaning as belonging, or that in which we find dynamic rest.


Talk 1 Spirituality as “super-aliveness” and the singalong, “Come Alive.”


Talk 2 On God as Surprise, and H0pe as “Openness to the Unimaginable.”



Talk 3 Meaning as “Belonging,” in which we find “Dynamic Rest”


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I first spoke with Brother David after a small group talk at Swami Satchidananda’s Integral Yoga Institute, in Greenwich Village, but I think of our first meeting  as the evening of 1978 I introduced myself at the Paraclete Book Center on East 67th Street, NYC.  – a sort of hovering ground for New York Catholic intellectuals.  I was on my way to zazen practice at the New York Zendo; he was a friend of my Zen teacher and invited me to get together.   We had tea and, I think it was datebread, at his mother’s apartment in Murray Hill (Manhattan) a few days later, and thus began the history of his moral and intellectual support of my “pilgrimage” (see first video above) as a Buddhist-Christian.  David also graciously made the private library in his tiny Connecticut hermitage available to me, and thus introduced me to the work of the late Ramon Panikkar, in my view the greatest religious intellectual of the latter 20th Century. (While David is unquestionably a great thinker,  he has a marvelous aptitude for “plain talk” that one does not so often find in Panikkar’s work.)

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Remember the early and mid 1990s?  You discovered the internet.  All of a sudden it seemed like you could find information on everything you could possibly imagine.   The knowledge base of the internet quickly became so important that the New York Times fashioned a web page, CyberTimes Navigator, to help its  reporters use web resources, and journalism schools followed suit. Librarians came to promote Information Literacy, based on principles of Evidence Based Medicine, to help web readers discern fact from fanciful opinion in cyberspace.  National Public Radio and the New York Times with extraordinarily large world news staffs both developed into major web presences, information resources that went far, far beyond the “hard news” jimmied between eight column rules in the old Times.  Information was the new exchange token of power, and if you wanted to play a role that counted in this new world, the means to do so were right at your fingertips, clicking away on keyboard.  As the years moved by, hopeful purveyors of IT planned to put cheap notebook PCs with internet access into the hands of poor rural children across the world, and they preached their plan like they were heralding the Kingdom of God among us (the $50 Aakash computer is the current candidate for cyber-saviour).  The astonishment at all this has given way to a assuredness that knowledge is universally available to poor and rich alike, and that Dale Carnegie’s dream is truer today than he could ever have imagined: Access to Knowledge will enable to poor to overcome their situation and join the ranks of the influential and enjoy the good life.

What’s wrong with this picture?  “The Secret of Zenon Pylyshyn,” as I call it.

ZENON PYLYSHYN is a foundational figure in the indisciplinary field of Cognitive Science.  His early training was as an engineer, but he took his doctorate in experimental psychology and for thirty years has been a professor of both Psychology and Computer Science.  He wrote a key textbook on the Computational Theory of Cognitive Science — i.e. the basis for using computer computations to model mental processing.  One of Zenon’s specialties is the relationship between our mental visual imaging and our visual sensory experience. (Cognitive Science provides access to e.g.  the processes of perception and cognition that are obscured by our everyday subjective experiences.)  Zenon’s expertise in visual representation, could conceivably contribute to resolving The Hard Problem, i.e. the relationship between the physical brain and consciousness.  Zenon recently lectured at Yale and revisited his seminal 1973 paper on visual representation, “What the Mind’s Eye Tells the Mind’s Brain.”  It has been cited in more than 200 publications.  Shortly afterward I went to a computer in Yale’s Bass Library to look up the article.  It was no easy trick to access, and this is the key issue at hand here.*

Wikipedia mentioned the article, but did not give a full citation and provided no link.  The paper was published in 1973 so I anticipated I might not be able to track down a digital file of it.  Google Scholar gave one link, to the American Psychological Association’s PsyNet, where you could buy a copy for $11.95. For any person who reads a lot of journal literature in any field, this is absurdly expensive and untenable.  (Since my first draft of this essay, I have come across an even more egregious example of this type of practice: an 8-9 page article from New Testament Studies for sale at $30, or a 24-hour rental for $5.99.)  However, I was on the Yale University campus on a library computer with access to many data bases.   I took the opportunity to widen my net in searching for Pylyshyn’s work, to include books and even non-scholarly sources. A quick scan of the global library data base WorldCat showed that Pylyshyn’s books were not available in ANY public library systems of the entire Northeasterm US except Nassau County,NY.  Much of his work has been published by MIT Press so it is unlikely to be found in your local B&N superstore.   One might try interlibrary loan at your local library, but anyone who has suffered the months of waiting for ILL will take a long pause before pursuing this course.   This means effectively that for almost anyone without library access at a college or university, the seminal work of one of the major figures of Cognitive Science is unavailable.  Further, a search of LexisNexis (a global news data base only available to the privlleged few who can afford it) showed that in the past 30 years, i.e. since 1980 Pylyshyn had never even been mentioned in a news publication).   An additional search of InfoTrac, a newspaper and periodicals data base (includes consumer mazazines) offered to public library patrons, showed nothing for Zenon Pylyshyn going all the way back through 1980. National Public Radio archives: Zilch, except a comment apparently by him, among other reader responses, to a political campaign. The work of Zenon Pylyshyn, one of the foundational researchers in Cognitive Science,  one of the most important, cutting-edge, fields of science today is unlikely to even come onto the radar of all but a few specialists or university students.   If it does, it will be at best discouragingly difficult in the extreme for most folks who may be interested to obtain any of his published work without buying expensive books (pieces of some can be viewed on Google Books).   And that this situation exists probably would never even occur to most web cruisers today.

On the other hand, I was able to quickly get a PDF of the article — ONLY because the Yale Libraries subscribe to a data base that includes digital files of the journal, Psychological Bulletin, that goes back to 1973.  And through the Yale Library system I was also able to read an electronic copy of a book of his lectures, Things and Places without every getting up  from my computer. (this and five other books edited or authored by Zenon were in the Yale Libraries online course catalogue, Orbis).

Truth be told, the proliferation of information on the internet obscures the fact that most accurate and up-to-date knowledge is in large part only available to the privileged.  You are not going to get to it from your home or business internet connection,  or  Starbucks WiFi, or your public library.   It is accessible through specialized books and journals from scholarly, scientific, medical or business publishers that are outside the reach of most people, even specialists, and sometime only reliably available within the libraries and data base networks of the most elitist univernsities, like the Ivy League and UCBerkeley.  (If you are a student, staff or faculty at Yale, e.g. you can retrieve books within four days from say, Harvard, MIT, Columbia and other Ivy League schools through a process called BorrowDirect; it is only available through Ivy League member institutions.  This gives you near-immediate access to more than 50 million volumes at your fingertips within  four days.  In an institution like Yale, you are also provided with a searchable data base of US doctoral dissertations and  Masters’ theses, PubMed (NIH and Library of Congress data bases) for the latest medical research, LexisNexis for legal reseach and world news sources going back decades.

I had a talk recently with a new friend who is doctoral student in literature from Brazil, doing research at Yale for the 2011-12 term.  He expressed astonishment at the database resources that are available through the Yale Libraries, and has let his friends back home know that they are significantly handicapped as scholars without access to such information.  He was so overwhelmed by the sea of literature available at Yale on his subject – a Brazilian novelist writing in Portugese, that he had to reconceive his dissertation. (I’m sure that Yale grad students are hardly surprised to hear this.)   I remember another exchange with a Midwestern biblical scholar who manages the principal academic email list in “Historical Jesus studies.”  He was distressed that he could not access a new dissertation on the Temptation stories in Mark, because,  he said, his university did not not subscribe to the necessary component of ProQuest, the US data base of dissertations and masters’ theses.   I had access, but the PDF format did not allow copying of selections.  Trying to observe fair use, I arranged with a friend to make OCR snapshots of the dissertation’s conclusion, about 20 or so pages, then mailed the immense-sized image files in several emails.  The process was absurd.  Clearly it is not only Everyman, but doctoral students and established scholars, and presumably scientists (?), who are are handicapped by a lack of access to specialized knowledge in their fields.

Some may argue that after all, who needs such resources other than academics who earn their living by trafficking in the arcane?  Religion offers an easy example of the effects of the divide between academic scholarship and non-academic knowledge.  I have many, many friends who are either practing Catholics or practicing Buddhists.  They are generally very well educated.  But there is a vast gap between the religious knowledge of many of them and that of scholars of Buddhism. or say, biblical studies.     Sadly, the gap is worse for Buddhists, who are subjected to unsupportable hype about Buddhism as the rational, scientific religion, or other historically ignorant nonsense like: Buddhism is the peaceful religion, Buddhism is more pluralistic and accepting of other religions, Buddhism is not a missionary religion, and the like.   This is exactly the sort of situation that breeds religious exclusivism (“I’ve got the real truth”), intolerance, and triumphalism.  Access to professional, non-sectarian biblical scholarship, e.g., is promoted within the Catholic Church, and its theologians are largely in practice rather pluralistic and willing to confront episcopal and curial authority.  In contrast, Zen teachers can be rather anti-intellectual, and traditional Tibetan Buddhist scholarship, historically developed in monastic colleges, allows for debate among monastic students, but is self-perpetuating and scarely promotes the independent minded scholarship of university scholars in Buddhist Studies.  There is probably a perceived “risk” that these scholars may “undermine” the Dharma, and the authority of the lineages and thus, individual teachers.  Without ready access to independent scholarly research on Buddhism, it was no surprise that enthusiastic American Buddhists naively subjected themselves to moral charlatans.  In fact even today Western Buddhist true believers are  not quite ready to face the scholarly scrutiny of their beliefs and practices, let alone rigorous interdisciplinary exchanges and challenges.   Catholics are certainly more willing to challenge the party line on say, birth control or recently, gay marriage.  Many have a historical understanding of both scripture and dogma.  But they are usually reliant on the local clergy who have minimal training in scripture and theology.   Only a fortunate few have the time to find their way alone through the sea of relevant literature.  University courses are the best way to get roadmaps to learning, and given the foundations, access to specialized journals and academic books is necessary to keep up.  (A great example of the the preacher/scholar divide: contemporary scripture scholarship indicates that in the background of Saint Paul’s very heated rhetoric about homosexuality is the Greek view that if a male youth is penetrated by an older man, he will be deformed and unable attain his “full manhood,” and will thus be unable to be a complete male Greek citizen — the issue here is virility, not morality.  (Plato of course contends that Alsibiedes’ homosexuality led him to become a traitor, but that’s a subject for another day.)  One can’t expect that local Catholic clergy are going to keep up with this sort of thing.  Cordoning off scholarly journals and books through library access restrictions make it difficult for the “average” religious practitioner to bring an informed challenge to the party line.

The learning advantage of the privileged extends further.  I cannot speak for other Ivy League Universities.  But at Yale, faculty, staff, students and affiliated spouses have long-term borrowing privileges with the Yale Libraries; customarily books can be checked out for six months, sometimes a year at a stretch.  For “outside researchers,” borrowing priviliges are $840 per years (less for alums).  And this does not allow the usual access to subscribed journals and data bases, where the largest part of library budgets for content are spent today (or except for alums, to ILL). Additionally, faculty and staff — and their spouses — at Yale can audit any course they wish absolutely for free, with the instructor’s personal permission. (Alums are expected to pay $500/course, except at the Divinity School, where they may attend for free). Individual professors do invite auditors according to their own discretion, and they are usually very welcoming.  But the official university policy: is if you’re not on the list of the priveleged, sorry, life is tough, ain’t it?

When poor Lazarus lay at the Rich Man’s gate, he had apparently lost all hope of receiving food from the glutton inside (Luke 16:19-31).  He did not even raise a hand to beg.  In the theodicies of the time, it was thought that those who suffered were doing so because of their sins — getting their just deserts.  (I think of this as the Jewish version of karma.)  It is not unlike the American  myth of meritocracy, which justifies the deprivation of the unfortunate and maintains the privileges of the lucky and their offspring. Those who win the cosmogenetic lottery enter the world with higher IQs, good looks, and smart, attentive and often wealthier, parents; they probably receive better health care and nutrition, and often receive a superior primary and secondary school education (often financed by local housing taxes in wealthy towns) that prepares them to attend the elite universities of the US and UK.  They go on to the best grad schools and get the best jobs in academia and industry, and in turn (many of them) breed the next generation of their kind. No surprise that income of one’s parents is the best indicator of a person’s own later income (exceptions notwithstanding).

Restrictions on access to knowledge may be further exacerbated by the quality of available education outside first tier universities. It has been  many years since I attended state universities (North Texas and the University of Iowa).  But my feeling then was that university professors in large state schools were not terribly interested in whether you succeeded academically or not.  At Yale you are coddled.  Prescheduled make-up exams are common practice.  Exam preview classes are standard.  Professors are solicitous, and if you didn’t finish a term paper or thesis, okay, we’ll work something out for you to turn it in during summer or next semester.  Perhaps all this has become common in non-Ivy universities, and I am just unaware of it.  But among the cosmic lottery winners, it guarantees that the privileged are looking out for the privileged, to help ensure that they will succeed.

I acknowledge that audio files of many university course lectures from UCBerkeley have become available on the internet.  Yale has put 35 introductory courses online, excellently produced with video, audio formats and transcripts.  MIT OpenCourseware puts out a lot of hype about its free course materials, but the quality is terribly inconsisent, and often consists of near-useless, incomplete lecture notes.  Courses like those at UCBerkeley are a good way to introduce yourself to a field, though the audio quality is  often poor, and staying with it alone takes a good deal of self-motivation.  These are neat resources, and I’ve used them.  But to really become very familiar with any field one needs access to university library holdings, specialized journals and data bases.  (All of this will still not give most folks the understanding that comes from writing papers for grad school courses and having them critiqued.  But it will get take a very long way.)  The losers of the cosmic lottery do not such access, except at prices that only the Gates and Buffets and high earners at Goldman Sachs can afford.

A couple final points.  First,  online access even to trade and consumer publications has become increasingly restricted by paywalls.  Secondly, the cost of academic press books has become utterly irrational and  often, thievery.   I was recently writing a review of a book on Multiple Religious Belonging, from Routledge.  It was under 400 pages, as I recall, and the price was $140.*  Recently I was in a course on reading German for doctoral students, in which the main text was a few hundred pages, in paperback, and in its 6th edition, it had been out for decades and  is THE main university text for  German reading courses (the price cannot be justified on the basis of lower print runs.)  The price : $97.

The romantic notion of Dale Carnegie — and notebook computer manufacturers — that making knowledge available to all  will even the playing field for the poor has become a deceit (perhaps it always was), at the very time that most of the public believes that access to knowledge has grown exponentially.  Yes, the internet has made it possible to disseminate knowledge further than our grandparents probably never dreamed of.  But along with more traditional practices of educational elitism (and its accompanying ideology of meritocracy), it has through various tools that restrict access to specialized knowledge, increased the advantage of the privileged few.

*It should be acknowledged that in some ways Yale is a very open campus.  The public is welcomed to lectures like Pylyshyn’s,  and symposia, colloquia and conferences on everthing from Modern Hellenic or Iberian and Hispanic studies to cognitive science, cosmology and has daytime access to the (very basic) undergraduate library stacks, and the Divinity School Library stacks.   Borrowing privileges are offered to outside researchers, though at very pricey rates. I am very much aware that I would never have been able to write this without Yale Library computer access.   (I have learned to negotiate a maze of obstacles to computer access that have proliferated in just the past few years. perhaps made easier by the fact that I am former Yale Library employee.  It has not been easy, and I imagine these obstacles have been sufficient to deter most interested parties.)    But access to more specialized books, data base tools and specialized journals, and electronic materials for advanced courses are essential to bridging the aforementioned divide. I  hope that everyone able to exert effective influence  on this situation will do so.  Here are several recommended approaches.  1) Strongly “encourage” gatekeepers such as publishers and library IT personnel to find ways to make specialized online information easily available to all who may be interested.  Encourage university senior faculties to follow the example of Harvard  in making faculty work available to aall, and to provide — as many already do –  electronic access to their work through their personal web sites.  Open Access journals are a also a very promising trend that deserves institutional financial support.  2) Make university library stacks universally available to the public (albeit giving priority for borrowing to institutional scholars who most need access. 3)  Following and improving on the example of UCBerkeley, make university courses generally available to the public online — along with best study materials, including electronic course packets.   4) Increase the availability of course access on-site to non-institutional auditors.  (I am aware that some — though emphatically not all — Yale professors and their teaching fellows have been very generous-hearted in accommodating auditors, official university policy notwithstanding.  This modus has even been formalized, e.g. with Paul Bloom’s Devane Lectures, offered to the public at no charge – including course materials, but to Yale students for course credit and with weekly sections facilitated by teaching fellows.  It’s a great model for future course development.)

My respects to those who feel that it takes all the energy they can muster to keep their chin above water and their feet out of the jaws of sharks below.  These are very hard times, and sometimes academic learning does amount to scrutinizing minutia. I take no offense if for the moment you choose the latest episode of Homeland over the concerns here.  I think of this essay as just my very modest contribution to the growing global ethos of fairness, where inequity and privilege (with its accompanying ideology of meritocracy) are no longer considered acceptable norms.

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*1/14/12 update: Textbooks for courses I’m attending  this semester in Social Psychology, Introduction to Human Neuroscience, and Introductory Statistics are priced are $150, $113 and  $142, albeit discounted “on the street.”

*9/30/13  update. The aforementiy.”  To access it go to http://bit.ly/19c9HCd  .  This reflects a trend among academic scholars, to make their work free, either via their web page,  through a forum at their university, or by paying the publishing journal a fee to make it “open access.”  There has also been a growth in scientific publications that are free to the reader, though in the case of some, e.g.  the Frontiers journals, the authors themselves cover the cost, which can run about  $2,000.  (This is not vanity publishing; the work is peer-reviewed and the publisher is quite respected, apparently even among senior investigators.)    The Public Library of Science articles are free, and Nature Publishing has put increasing emphasis on providing open access.   Perhaps 90% of American psychologists now make their work available free on their web page, sometimes with a delay (presumably at publisher’s insistence. Philosophers and biblical scholars — or perhaps the journals in their fields — e.g. are not nearly  so generous.  If memory serves me here, the Chronicle of Higher Education not long ago reported that ca. 50% of scholarly literature was now available for free, one way or another.  Unfortunately this will hardly suffice.

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Just some brief comments from a Buddhist angle on the “Why Is There Anything? conference on the Origins of the Universe at Yale October 7-9.  I’ll try to write up some more shortly, including a review of Sir Martin Rees’ lecture.  The conference brought together over 60 participants from cosmology, theoretical physics, applied physics, mathematics, philosophy of science, cognitive science,  philosophy of religion and theology, plus observers from astronomy, philosophy and religious studies.
I was disappointed that there were no Buddhist presenters at the conference.  (I was just an observer and staff member.) Arvind Sharma brought in the perspective of several Hindu tratitions.  Andy Quintman and Koichi Shinohara, the Tibetan and East Asian Buddhist specialists at Yale apparently were invited, as was Phyllis Grannof, the Jain/South Asian expert, but they didn’t make it.
Although I’d have appreciated a Buddhist take, I think it’s easy to overestimate (and overstate) how closely our philosophical traditions track all this.  Emptiness, after all, is Emptiness of phenomena (including the self).   Before the Big Bang, there are no phenomena to be analyzed and found to be “empty of inherent existence!”  The Abhidharma tradition of Vasubhandu, the “Valid Cognition” of Dignaga and Dharmakirti. as well as  the deconstructive program of Nagarjuna, et al., are largely reflecting on everyday experience and logic.  Quantum physics is not — a point that some Buddhists seem to miss, in their eagerness to align quantum physics with Buddhism.  (I acknowlege that the Vaibashakas, so to speak, believed in atoms and moments of consciousness, and this is not an observation of gross phenomena; but it is not subatomic physics). With all due respect to the Mind Only schools and their intriguing insights that seems to grossly parallel some experimentation in physics, I don’t think it would have brought anything particularly helpful to this conference. A representative from Cognitive Science, which often demonstrates with experiments how the mind constructs reality, was a respondent, and she seemed very much out of place, rather like a tango dancer in a Russian ballet.
In his WITA presentation theoretical physicist Julian Barbour set out his case that time does not exist at all, and to my surprise, there was little challenge from the scores of participants.  (See his book, The End of Time.)  Of course if he’s right, then on the “absolute level” of analysis, the foundational Buddhist category of impermance does not exist, thus neither does karma. This of course would destroy the core dynamic principle of Buddhism, but Nagarjuna (if memory serves me here), the progenitor of Mahayanist philosophy  also ruthlessly attacks the fundamentals of Buddhism, including impermanence (“… and the arhats had heart attacks”).
The conference did an extraordinary job of showing the glories of astrophysics, which has indeed made huge progress during the past 11 years, but also demonstrated its admitted dumbfoundedness before the Origin of the Universe, at least so far. (I am bracketing the ever-self-assured and ebullient Joel Primack.)  It would be childish hubris for Buddhists to claim have done better.  As astrophysicist Sir Martin Rees put it, “Of what I cannot speak, I must be silent.”
I can imagine that the Buddha silently smiled.
Watch for WITA podcasts by ” liking” WITA on Facebook or checking back at the conference web site; for recaps of the sessions by grad students, see http://whyisthereanything.wordpress.org/blog.
For a continuing conversation about this entry, see “comments” link above (the type is very small).

Is philosophy dead, as Stephen Hawking declared?  As a subscriber to the philosophy data base, PhilPapers, I can say that the evidence is that it is practiced by many with gusto.   But some philosophical atheists writing in the New York Times are afflicted with a form of  “Severe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder with Overvalued Ideation.”     The seem, like the sufferer of OCD, to be tyrannized by doubt, in their case, doubt whether they have adequately made their point (trying to refute the existence of God), so they come back to it over, and over and over again.  Worse,  like sufferers of some untreated psychosis, they continue to shadow box with their own fantasies of what religionists are up to.  One hopes these preoccupations don’t succeed in making philosophy irrelevant.  (More to come in my next blog essay.)


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