Category Archives: apologetics

A challenge for evangelical apologists: brain scans and Bible reading

Let me start with a real-world example from regular church-going folks: two adult men, both toward the conservative-evangelical or perhaps fundamentalist end of Protestant, both of whom I’ve known personally for decades, one a full-time pastor, the other a lifelong participant in lay leadership. (Then we’ll get to the scientific study.)

When on separate occasions I pointed out to these men the discrepancies between the two accounts of creation in the Old Testament book of Genesis, they both said, essentially, “Wow, I never noticed that.”

They didn’t say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I’ve read a scholar who can make sense of it.” Nor did they say, “Yes, I noticed that, and I really wrestle with it.”

They had never noticed the discrepancies despite having read the book of Genesis many times over the years. (I’m referring to the two distinct creation stories, with different orders of events, in Genesis 1:1-2:4 and Genesis 2:5-2:25.) In fairness, I never had noticed, either, until around 20 years ago when I tried to start reading more about the Bible.

My surprise was context-dependent: I grew up in churches and schools that believed the Earth was made in six 24-hour periods, and that insisted there were no contradictions in the Bible. Now I had discovered there were two different accounts, back to back, that contradicted each other, without any explanatory connective tissue between the two.

Yes, some people within the Christian and Judaic traditions have speculated about possible purposes behind the two different accounts of creation, but that’s a different matter from not noticing the different accounts.

I think I know why we never noticed, if I may generalize a bit just at the start here: When some people read the Bible, they read with a kind of altered mentality.

Here, I’m referring to my own experience and the experience of the two men I’ve just mentioned. I’m not referring to all Christian experiences of reading the Bible.

At best, we might have been reading with our hearts, which I will leave mostly undefined here because most of my audience will know more or less what I mean (although I will briefly point to the enduring influence of pietism in evangelical churches). Or, at best, consider how humans approach any number of not-strictly-informational experiences of the written word or artistic expressions. Or, again at best, an individual’s encounter with a text co-creates the meaning.

At worst, some people could be reading in a kind of situation-induced trance state. At worst, they could, for reasons we’ll consider with the scientific study below, approach the Bible with a state of mind that is less than analytical or properly critical.

Either way, these Bible readers, like the men I mentioned earlier and my younger self, don’t scrutinize what they read; rather, they sort of listen to it in a completely different way than if they were reading something technical or dryly informational (more about this shortly).

And, if I can make an association between religious reading and religious listening, there might be a scientific measurement for reading-in-an-altered-state, according to a Feb. 16, 2017, article in Nautilus, which read in part:

In 2011, a team of Danish researchers led by Uffe Schjødt, a neuroscientist at Aarhus University, examined the brains of individuals experiencing one of the most extreme demonstrations of charismatic influence—charismatic healing. To do so, the team recruited 18 devoted, young Christians from faiths with a tradition of intercessory prayer (mainly from the Pentecostal Movement), all of whom reported a strong belief in people with special healing powers. They also recruited 18 secular participants, who did not believe in God and were skeptical that prayer could cause healing.

Both groups of participants were instructed to listen to 18 different prayers performed by three different speakers—and told the speakers were either non-Christian, Christian, or Christians known for having healing powers. The speakers were all unremarkable churchgoers randomly assigned six prayers apiece.

The researchers found profound differences in brain activity based on assumptions made about the speaker. In the Christian subjects, activity spiked in analytical areas of the brain in response to the non-Christian speakers, but plummeted when they listened to the speaker they believed was known for healing powers. These changes were not present in the secular group. The researchers drew parallels to similar experiments done on subjects on hypnosis, noting that hypnotism, when it works, was usually preceded by the massive frontal deactivation—in effect, a “handing over” of executive function to the hypnotist. Further, they found that “the more the Christian participants deactivate their executive and social cognitive networks, the higher they rate the speaker’s charisma post-scan.”

We’ll connect that to Bible-reading in a moment. First, the only problem, in my view, with this study is its focus only on Pentecostal Christians and a vaguely defined (at least in Nautilus‘s telling) “secular group.”

Sure, I find the results of the study very easy to believe, having grown up in so-called neo-Pentecostal or charismatic churches—some types of worship shut down analytical faculties, or at least get the analytical part of the to temporarily step aside. Once that state of less-mind is achieved, the congregants can accept an awful lot from a sermon, and become more open to suggestion.

However, many times over the years, in a mainstream newsroom and later in a state university, I’ve noticed how critical thinking skills soften to accept claims from left-leaning politicians. We’re all human here, and we probably experience “massive frontal deactivation” around anything we love, and when we are thinking about anything or anyone we love. Maybe “love is blind” really means “love massively deactivates your frontal lobe.”

For example, I couldn’t believe my ears during the last election: I could easily agree with critiques of Trump, but when it came time to discuss Clinton, well, sometimes, around some people, it was like I was watching a group of Sunday School children imagine Hillary walking on water and multiplying bread and fish for the masses. Why couldn’t critical faculties be applied in all directions? Just because one party was already hated? Yes. Just because one party was already hated. And because one party was already loved, perhaps leading to the massive frontal deactivation discussed in the study above. (At the end, I’ll link to another study that makes a similar suggestion.)

Yes, of course, I’ve noticed the same thing among advocates for right-leaning politicians, too. Cultists come in all political persuasions, as Michael Shermer has noted regarding followers of Ayn Rand.

People hand over “executive function” to many different kinds of influencers, not just those among faith and politics, but those among market brands and trendy ideas, too.

What’s interesting about Bible-reading in this respect is people might alter their mentality when they prepare and settle down to open the Scriptures. They may transition into a different mode. Their expectations of the text have nothing to do with mind as commonly conceived and everything to do with the heart as commonly understood. The “heart versus mind” concept isn’t well-defined in our culture, but it is everywhere, like cultural furniture. I mean, “heart versus mind” or “head versus heart” is not well-defined among everyday people, but a lot of people use it . (Like Wittgenstein said, “Don’t think, but look!”—at how language is being used.)

Of course, we can’t blame the Biblical texts themselves for this. And the way contemporary middle-class people approach church and Scripture is not a verdict on any of the numerous historical, ethical, moral, and metaphysical claims in institutions and books. (If not a verdict, though, sometimes I wonder if it is a reflection of church and Scripture.)

After all, if you are a nonbeliever and you were to go to hear some non-religious person speak, someone you think very highly of, in a place where you were surrounded by people with similar enthusiasm, would your brain scan be pretty much the same as those of the Pentecostal youths who thought they were listening to a minister with healing powers? My money is on yes.

On a related note, see Tali Sharot in this Big Think video (here linked to the 2:26 mark) on research into how people respond to others with whom they agree and with whom they disagree. The research used brain scans to notice what is happening during agreement and disagreement—and it seems similar to the outcome of the Danish research mentioned above.

The big question of our time, of course, is whether neuroscience says or can reveal all that there is to say about being human, or about the essence of humanness.

Philosopher Roger Scruton takes a kind of both-and view that acknowledges both an historically older sense of the self and the contemporary insights offered by neuroscience. If you’re a believer over-troubled by the studies referenced above, it’s worth listening to this interview with Scruton just for a sense of what might be ultimately relevant to tradition religious worldviews.

But maybe the biggest takeaway from all this is an exhortation to sharpen how we read and listen — to anything, to anyone, for any reason.

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Read along as Doug Wilson strains out the gnat and swallows the camel

Have you heard of Doug Wilson? He was sparring partner of the late Christopher Hitchens in the documentary Collision, and he is author of Recovering The Lost Tools of Learning.

Homeschoolers Anonymous has published documents that reveal Wilson blamed a girl and her father* a girl’s father for the crime committed against her. Oh, he certainly blames the criminal, too. But apparently there’s something noble about salting wounds. Maybe he picked that up from Hitch.

When you read the post, I think you’ll agree with me that Wilson’s behavior could become a new analogy for straining out the gnat and swallowing the camel, but in Wilson’s community, all authority belongs to those with sweeping powers of blame.

One can only hope for a genuinely sola scriptura environment around that guy. And you know I’m someone who thinks of Tradition and traditions as ways to prevent people from turning the Bible into a hammer. As a friend of mine once said, “When your only tool is a hammer, everything is a nail.” Maybe Wilson has that figured out, just not in the ironic sense my friend intended.

Another thought (updated): Wilson in the hierarchy of authority:

What kind of Lord of the Flies scenario allows a special council to mull how to best punish the father of a victim? To best punish someone for not being a “helicopter parent“?

For that matter, why shouldn’t Wilson be punished for allowing someone under his spiritual authority to misbehave? Maybe Wilson should no longer be allowed to receive the Lord’s Supper—that’s the exact punishment he considered for the father of the victim, and yet Wilson apparently thinks he has spiritual authority in a community in which one of his own students sexually assaulted someone.

By Wilson’s own reasoning, Wilson should be punished for allowing one of his students to sexually assault the girl. The father has authority over the girl; Wilson has spiritual authority over the community. Spiritual authority is greater than earthly authority, right? (I mean, if you doubt that, read Wilson’s own letter!) By Wilson’s own reasoning, Wilson should be in more trouble with his Lord of the Flies council than the father.

*Another Update:

The girl, now an adult, reveals in a blog post that Wilson and his church are even colder than the Homeschoolers Anonymous post revealed, specializing in precise, technical legalism while tossing any pretense of the Bible’s “Fruits of the Spirit” in their dealings with the victim:

“While I’m pretty certain I know exactly what was in the heart of the criminal who took my innocence and broke my spirit, I can’t pretend to know what was in the heart of Doug and the elders when they stood behind him, and I certainly can’t pretend to know the reasoning behind leaving me out in the cold with no support, no love, compassion, or empathy, not even so much as a consoling pat on the back for all I’d been through. But I have my own theory. There’s a couple of ideas about this lack of support I received floating around and I’ve heard them over the years – one of them is that the church leaders didn’t feel they were in a position to reach out to me because my father had expressly told them to stay away from his family and reaching out to me would be disrespecting his position as head of our household, which may be true, except there’s a problem with that theory, one that thickens the plot. In the letter pictured below from Doug Wilson to my father, Doug, writing on behalf of the elders of Christ Church, clearly places a great deal of blame on my father for the abuse I suffered and treats him with a coldness and severity that I find heartbreaking. I truly cannot image being a father who’d just found out his daughter was horrifically abused for years under his roof and then being told his “sin and folly” of not protecting her is equally as distressing as the sins of the criminal who molested his little girl for years. My father was a destroyed man when I came out about my abuse, and what father wouldn’t be? His tears of sadness and broken-ness went on for years, and still to this day he breaks down on occasion and begs my forgiveness for the hurt I suffered, and I always tell him the same thing: It’s not your fault. Because it wasn’t.”

Evangelism and apologetics fail in our time — here’s the social science explaining why

What I see of evangelism and apologetics are essentially debate tactics and marketing strategies. In other words, they tend to speak to less than the full scope of human experience, so by themselves they cannot convert humans.

Granted, I’m looking at evangelism and apologetics through a skeptical lens right now, and I’m looking at persuasion as an ongoing subject for learning and research.

I want to learn good persuasion strategies to attract my university students to topics I think they need to know, and I want to learn bad persuasion strategies to filter the political, advertising, and religious messages. (I’m spending more time on that general project at TwistedSpeech.com.)

What’s missing from evangelism and apologetics? Probably a long-game perspective (instead of a quick-sell agenda), but most certainly attunement. And my guess is, attunement is missing from attempts at evangelism and apologetics because attunement probably takes time.

We Americans, we Westerners, myself absolutely included, love technologies of any sort — mechanical technologies, political technologies, psychological technologies. We like to set up assembly lines, literally and metaphorically, and then to sit back and watch the work get done. Technology is not unlike magic.

Thinking of persuasion, how can I forget: The Apostle Paul once wrote to the early Christians in ancient Galatia, referring to them as, “…my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”

I doubt anyone can “form” anything inside another person without cultivating real empathy and attunement.

Daniel Pink explains attunement in part of the below short video from The RSA.

Are Pink’s “attunement, buoyancy, and clarity,” as described in the below video, their own technologies? Maybe so. But I think attunement requires some genuine humanity, corresponding to the best of reality, whereas some psychological technologies are attempts to “subdue reality to the wishes of men.”

(Also see this Jacques Ellul passage on Christianity as propaganda.)

‘An illusion can never be destroyed directly’

Sketch of Søren Kierkegaard. Based on a sketch...

Image via Wikipedia

“No, an illusion can never be destroyed directly, and only by indirect means can it be radically removed…. That is, one must approach from behind the person who is under an illusion.” — Soren Kierkegaard, The Point of View for My Work as an Author, found in Kierkegaard’s Philosophy: Self-Deception and Cowardice in the Present Age by John Douglas Mullen

For an explication of this point of view, see Thomas C. Oden’s introductory essay to Parables of Kierkegaard.

Consider a similar perspective in the following poem, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant–“, by Emily Dickinson:

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant—
Success in Cirrcuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightening to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind—

 

‘Intelligent Design’ proponents accept aspects of evolution that creationists do not

Even though Intelligent Design’s moment in the public spotlight seems to have passed, what follows is a clarification of the I.D. position from the Winter 2008 edition of Salvo, a magazine that mostly retreads old-school Christian apologetics.

It’s not that I buy into so-called I.D. I have been persuaded of an evolutionary view through the work of Dr. Francis C. Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and oddly enough, a convinced Christian who came to faith through reading C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. Everyone, of any point of view, should read Collins’ book The Language of God.

But for basic clarity and fairness, the I.D. position needs to be understood on its own terms, not as thinly veiled creationism.

Here are three points that Salvo made, worth understanding if you care about understanding the debate:

What I.D. is Not

“I.D. Is Creationism:” You’ve no doubt heard this one numerous times. In reality, this is flat-out false. The average creationist believes in a young earth, biblical literalism, and the complete absence of evidence for evolutionary processes. The I.D. proponent, on the other hand, rejects — or at the very least suspends speculation on — all three of these convictions, maintaining only that there are reasons to conclude that life was designed; how it was designed or by whom both lie beyond the I.D. theorist’s field of inquiry.

“The Opponents of I.D. Are Evolutionists:” Wrong again. It is primarily the scientific naturalist — or Darwinist — with whom I.D. advocates take issue. The difference? Scientific naturalism is a philosophical position that assumes an entirely materialistic origin to the universe — a faith claim for which Darwinists have no proof whatsoever — while evolutionary theory is a multifaceted set of assertions that attempts to account for the present diversity of life here on Earth, some specific aspects of which most I.D. scientists accept as fact.

“I.D. Is a ‘God of the Gaps’ Theory:” The contention here is that I.D. merely offers holes in evolutionary theory as evidence for God. Once again, this is a gross mischaracterization. The science of I.D. is not simply to study gaps in evolution but to study products of design — to examine biological phenomena to see whether they exhibit the characteristics of design beyond a shadow of a doubt. I.D. scientists only appeal to an intelligent designer because that is where their research points. It is absolutely not a default position.

That second-to-last sentence sounds disengenuous. I imagine there are not many in the I.D. movement who had no inkling of a designer prior to their research. That being said, researchers and scientists frequently begin with assumptions.

The bigger point, I think, is that there is a big difference between young-earth creationists and Intelligent-Design proponents.

I bet if the I.D. proponents had made their approach through philosophy and the history of ideas, rather than science, and allowed their work to gain credibility on the university level and then trickle down, in its own way, to secondary education, they might have gotten further.

After all, as the folks at Salvo said, “Scientific naturalism is a philosophical position….”

And even Collins believes God kicked it all off; the award-winning physicist Paul Davies describes something like God behind the beginning of the universe; John Polkinghorne is an acclaimed physicist who happens to be an Anglican priest, too.

Read The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.

-Colin Foote Burch

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