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At odds with science & religion

Last month, we discussed the dysfunctional relationship between religion and science: why are they at odds with one another, prevalent beliefs, and how each perspective can learn from the other. This month, we are digging a little deeper into this discussion, again with the help of Hamline University’s Professor Mark Berkson.

KW: Some scholars have argued that the practice of religion is good for our physical and mental health, and that individuals who identify themselves as religious also rate themselves as happier than those who are not religious. If the evidence backs this up, how might an atheist respond?

MB: There may be certain things that religion provides—such as community, a sense of meaning and purpose, something bigger than oneself to commit oneself to, etc.—that can also be found in areas outside of religion. The data doesn’t establish that religion alone can have these positive effects. Perhaps being a part of other kinds of communities, or engaging in meaningful non-religious practices, can provide the same kinds of benefits. Furthermore, an atheist can concede that religion has benefits, but could then point out that none of this means that religion is necessarily true. One could say, “Maybe there are ways in which I’d be happier with a certain religious perspective, but I’d prefer to live in accordance with truth rather than a comforting illusion.”

Can anyone then, learn valuable things, or even be positively transformed by, religious traditions they don’t belong to? 

There are definitely people who integrate certain insights and practices of religious traditions into their lives. For instance, although mindfulness meditation has Buddhist origins, it is now used in many non-religious contexts, such as psychotherapy. If I were an atheistic scientist who learned that people in a particular religious tradition—say Buddhist meditators—showed significant improvements in a number of measures of mental and physical well-being, I would certainly want to learn more about it. The world’s major religious traditions have been around for millennia, and are repositories of a tremendous amount of wisdom, transformative spiritual practices, and illuminating perspectives on life’s greatest questions (not to mention magnificent art, music, and literature). Everyone should explore religions in an open-minded way. And religious people should respect atheists’ points of view and welcome their critical, questioning voices.  

Is it true that religious faith is helpful and comforting to many individuals as they experience loss, illness, grief, and their own eventual death? 

Death is the ultimate teacher when it comes to fundamental realities of existence, such as impermanence and loss. Many traditions, including Buddhism, provide examples of regular death meditations so that we are regularly reminded of the transience of life, a reminder that can infuse our experience with a deep appreciation, awareness, and perspective.  

One way that religion provides comfort in the face of death is by providing connections with larger realities beyond oneself. These connections can be a source of meaning and solace when one contemplates the end of one’s own existence. Religion can give us a way to see one’s life as being connected, in some way, with realities that continue beyond our death. The most obvious way is by promising the possibility of personal immortality of some sort. Death is not really the end, these forms of religion tell us. 

There are many other ways to think of continuity beyond death other than personal immortality. For example, we are connected with many things that will survive our death—our children, the people whose lives we have touched, the places and projects we have transformed with our work, the traditions that we inherited and transmitted, and the larger natural world of which we are part.

Some scholars posit that religious belief stems from the stimulation—and/or quieting—of various parts of our nervous system. 

I don’t think we should take a reductionistic approach. Just because all experiences have a physiological component doesn’t mean that the physiological dimension is the only level at which one can understand or explain the experience. It’s one level among many. To put it simply, as I once heard someone say, “To understand love, we need both the biologist and the poet.”  

To put it another way, all perspectives are partial. Each one is valuable, and shines a particular light on an experience. I read an illustration of this point that was very helpful. Imagine looking at a beautiful, moving work of art, say a painting. We certainly can talk about the type of paint used, the frame, the canvas, and so on. But if this is all we talked about, if we reduced our experience of the painting to the material level alone, we would miss the most important things about it. So it is with religion.

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