Tag Archives: Religion

Reflecting on religion and psychology

24 Nov

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I delivered my annual lecture on Darwin and Evolution this week, and almost inevitable it led me to think again about psychology and religion. I’ve written before about the strange absence of ‘religious belief’ from most UK undergraduate psychology degrees, and delivering my lecture of evolution main me think about what a fascinating it would be for psychologists.

As part of my evolution lecture I look at why ‘anti-science’ might be so focused on a theory that is over 150 years old, and so heavily supported by the weight of evidence. As part of the lecture I played a Youtube video of Ken Ham, a young-earth creationist who advocates a literal interpretation of the book of Genesis. I also looked at Ham’s web site ‘Answers in Genesis’, which provide scholarly explanations for the content of the first book of the Bible. I was particularly drawn to a very detailed exposition of how Noah’s Ark would have worked, including an apparently serious consideration of the necessity of rounding in young dinosaurs as adults would be so difficult to accommodate. If one discounts the terrifying sight, for a rationalist, of young children being told that dinosaurs and man lived at the same time I was drawn to the question of why a literal belief in Genesis might be necessary in order to be a ‘good’ Christian.

For me, as a fully paid up atheist, I can see that much of the New Testament provides a perfectly good guide to how to lead one’s lift, and the spirit of community engendered by organised religion surely ought to be positively viewed by a psychologist of any background. Yet, the insistence on rabid opposition to ‘Science’, and the extraordinary efforts to ‘prove’ the contents of genesis would seem to have no connection to all of the positives of Christianity (or indeed any other religion). All of this led me to wonder (aloud in the middle of my lecture), what drives apparently sincere religious people to focus on what appear to be details irrelevant to their core beliefs. The best I could come up with at the time was ‘cognitive dissonance’. In the same way that some American politicians have made seemingly bizarre statements about abortion I wondered if what might be driving ‘anti-evolution’ was a need to reconcile the dissonant beliefs in the literal truth of Genesis and the weight of evidence for evolution.

One might expect such a thought to provoke concern from religious students, but in fact it produced an entirely rational and very interesting discussion with a group of students after the lecture. All of which leads further down the line that teaching ‘controversial’ topics is a really useful way to get students involved in rational debate. I wouldn’t advocate it unless you have the environment to develop students’ skills in advance, but it you have that it does really seem to work. I’m definitely going to work-up a ‘Psychology of Religion’ lecture for next year

How important is rational thinking ? It’s a matter of life and death !

22 Aug

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In the UK the sceptic movement has become very ‘rock and roll’ in the last few years with it’s own resident stand up comedian (Dara O’Briaian), and one of it’s biggest stars (Prof Brian Cox) having been a pop start in a ‘previous life’. Against this background it’s often difficult to keep in mind that in some countries scepticism can literally be a matter of life and death.

This week a leading Indian rationalist Narendra Dabholkar has been shot dead whilst campaigning for a law to ban black magic. There seems to be a range of things here that would be worth discussing with western students. The idea alone that ‘black magic’ might be something that one of the world’s leading economies might consider it necessary to legislate against seems to me to be seems worthy of consideration (especially as so many of my students can trace their family origins back to the Indian subcontinent). In the West we are so used to there being legislation which limits the promotion of patently spurious medicines etc that I think we forget that even in highly developed countries like India superstition is hugely powerful. Equally, the next time a student questions why what I’m teaching is relevant to their psychology degree I’ll role out this story.

The real irony of the story of the murder of Narendra Dabholkar is that following his death the government of the State of Maharashtra have passed an emergency law banning ‘black magic’.

Why do we shy away from teaching the psycholgy of religion to undergraduates ???

30 Apr

I’ve been thinking this week about why we don’t teach the psychology of religion to undergraduate students. A few things conspired to send me in this direction, a colleague of mine is looking at ‘the teaching of controversial topics’, I’m heading for the end of the academic year and so I’m thinking about new material for next year and finally, I read an excellent article in ‘The New Yorker’ by Gary Marcus on Psychology and Religion. It’s difficult to think of a universal human behavior that we don’t address an undergraduate level, which makes religious belief even more conspicuous by its absence from our curriculum. I’d did think about whether my own institution was odd in some way, but a quick Google search threw up only one undergraduate module at a UK HEI, what sound like a really interesting course at Newcastle.

So, if undergraduate psychology courses are avoiding ‘religion’, why might that be the case. Well , I think you can discount the idea that it isn’t very interesting to psychologists, after all it’s difficult to think of a more universal and persistent human behavioural trait. This seems to leave ‘fear of causing offence’ as the most likely explanation for its absence. Given that over the last year I’ve discussed evolution, evil, conspiracy theories and terrorism in lectures without causing obvious offence it makes me wonder why religion should be such a taboo topic.

Having given it a lot of thought, in my own case I think the avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ is a product of an interesting piece of cognitive dissonance. I spend a lot of time encouraging students to think about everyday issues in a ‘scientific’ manner (i.e. weighing all of the evidence, reading original sources etc etc) and yet some of the very scientists I encourage them to emulate seem to bypass thinking ‘scientifically’ when it comes to religion. The most obvious culprit here is Richard Dawkins. Dawkins’ enormous contribution to science is obvious, and yet when it comes to religion he seems  increasingly to exhibit the same ‘fundamentalist’ tendencies that  he rails against in others. Most recently he has said that he has never read the Quran, but this is OK as he didn’t need to read Mein Kampf to understand that the Nazis were evil. Avoiding for a moment the lovely example of Godwin’s Law, this line of argument might work in a ‘pub’ discussion and indeed might have logical validity, but in a scientific discourse surely ‘I haven’t read the primary source material but I know your wrong anyway’ wouldn’t stand up.

SO I’m left with the ironic situation that the reason I don’t teach about ‘the psychology of religion’ is that the one of the prime examples of exactly the sort of thinking I want students to develop (Dawkins) doesn’t use that sort of thinking when it comes to religion. I’d love to know what other people think :

Is an avoidance of teaching ‘the psychology of religion’ widespread ?

Could you teach ‘the psychology of religion’ without causing offence ?

Am I right that it could be Dawkins’ ‘fundamentalism’ that is putting me off ?

Leave a comment below, I’d be really interested to hear what people think

City University wants to review Friday prayers ‘sermons’ for ‘appropriateness’ BEFORE they are delivered.

28 Feb

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I’ve just come across this odd little story that City University have locked their Muslim Prayer Room, as the students using the room have refused to submit their Friday prayer ‘sermons’ for vetting for ‘appropriateness’ before they are delivered. The BBC story suggests that three years ago there was some evidence of extremist views amongst City’s Islamic students but seems to be no indication of that being the trigger for the current ‘lock-out’ . Given what I teach I have fairly strong views on what university should be about, and it seems to me that this story goes straight to the heart of this question.

I’m slightly bewildered that a university’s administration could set themselves up as arbiters of what is ‘appropriate’ to be said on university premises. Surely, unless there is evidence that the law is being broken, university should be the very place where anything can be said. I can think of several groups who would find the things I say in lectures very inappropriate (homeopaths, creationists, conspiracy theorists) and ye tI don’ t see any of my institution’s management wanting to pre-screen what I teach.

I’m quite looking forward to asking students what they think might be  behind this story. For me, university’s ought to follow that famous Voltaire quotation ‘“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” with my addition “and my right to say what you say is rubbish”

The ethics of being a skeptic

28 Aug

One of the questions that often comes up in my classes is ‘are they doing any harm ?’. More specifically, students ask if we have any right to get involved if adults want to spend their money on consulting Sally Morgan ( the UK’s ‘best-loved’ psychic) or on buying very expensive bottles of sugar pills to ‘cure’ any number of ailments. I’ve always combated this argument with examples of homeopaths prescribing ‘remedies’ for life threatening diseases (i.e. Malaria) and thus incurring potential expense for the NHS, which we all pay for.

I was drawn to think about this when I read a recent story about a church in the north of England peddling a highly questionable cancer ‘cure’. The same church had previously been fined £25,000 by OFCOM, the UK’s broadcasting regulator, for broadcasting cancer ‘cure’ claims on their TV channel Believe TV. Religion is always a topic I’ve avoided directly addressing when teaching, using the defence that faith is inherently unfalsifiable , and thus not amenable to scientific enquiry. Of course, this defence itself has raised questions from students since Richard Dawkins published his book ‘The God Delusion’. However, I’m left with the conundrum that I’d happily talk about someone peddling olive oil and Ribena as a ‘cancer’ cure in lectures but I avoid discussion of prayer curing cancer. This particular case interested me, as Ben Goldacre tweeted about it suggesting that those involved in purchasing the Ribena and Olive Oil cure need to take responsibility for their own actions. I’m not sure I agree with that view completely, in that I think skeptics ought to warn against such things.

All of this makes me think about where the limits of skepticism lay. Should we comment on everything, or are there points where we should step back and say ‘if you fell for that it’s your own fault ?’. Equally, is my decision not to discuss religious faith in class a rational one, or just me avoiding a controversial topic. I don’t really have and answer to either of these questions, so I’d love to hear what others think. Please feel free to leave comments below.

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