Browsed by
Author: Barney Leith

Science, religion & a dispassionate search for knowledge

Science, religion & a dispassionate search for knowledge

Martin Rees
Martin Rees

The tone of the recent attacks (see here and here) on Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal for having accepted the Templeton Prize might seem to indicate a certain lack of detachment on the part of those who are disparaging the eminent theoretical astrophysicist.

In comments made last year, Richard Dawkins referred to Lord Rees, an atheist, as “a compliant Quisling” because, according to Dawkins, he is “a fervent ‘believer in belief’”. This is, to say the least of it, intemperate language.

Lord Rees said in an interview in The Guardian newspaper that he was “not allergic to religion”. In fact, as Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, he attends chapel as part of what he refers to as “as traditional ritual”.

Rees demonstrates a refreshing modesty about  claims to understand reality. As he told The Guardian:

Doing science made me realise that even the simplest things are hard to understand and that makes me suspicious of people who believe they’ve got anything more than an incomplete and metaphorical understanding of any deep aspect of reality.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #10b: Science, Religion and Human Reality

Barney Leith Blog #10b: Science, Religion and Human Reality

Barney Leith

This is the second of a two part series on human reality.

Neuroscience – the latest fashion

What’s fashionable now? How about neuroscience? Brain-scanning technology is now advanced enough to allow scientists to observe changes in blood flow to different parts of the brain under varying conditions. So it would be rather easy to suppose that we can identify mind and consciousness with brain functioning. However, this can take us from science to “scientism”, as retired physician and clinical neuroscientist Raymond Tallis writes in a recent article in NewStatesman:

“The republic of letters is in thrall to an unprecedented scientism. The word is out that human consciousness – from the most elementary tingle of sensation to the most sophisticated sense of self – is identical with neural activity in the human brain and that this extraordinary metaphysical discovery is underpinned by the latest findings in neuroscience. Given that the brain is an evolved organ, and, as the evolutionary biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky said, nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution, the neural explanation of human consciousness demands a Darwinian interpretation of our behaviour. The differences between human life in the library or the operating theatre and animal life in the jungle or the savannah are more apparent than real: at the most, matters of degree rather than kind.

These beliefs are based on elementary errors. Just because neural activity is a necessary condition of consciousness, it does not follow that it is a sufficient condition of consciousness, still less that it is identical with it. And Darwinising human life confuses the organism Homo sapiens with the human person, biological roots with cultural leaves.” [Emphasis added.]

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #10a: Science, Religion and Human Reality

Barney Leith Blog #10a: Science, Religion and Human Reality

Barney Leith

This is the first of a two part series on human reality.

Exeter, October 1966, and my first lecture in the introduction to psychology course.

I’d just started my first undergraduate year at Exeter University and I’d managed to locate the premises of the psychology department, which were, for some reason, down in the town rather than up on the hill with the rest of the campus.

“What do you know about psychology?” The meshing of the lecturer’s black polo-necked sweater and beard made his head look as if it was sitting in an egg-cup.

The word “Freud” was hardly out of my mouth before the lecturer sneered and began to put us freshers straight about the realities of psychology.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #9b: Chaplaincy: A Meeting Point for Religion and Science?

Barney Leith Blog #9b: Chaplaincy: A Meeting Point for Religion and Science?

Barney Leith

This is the 2nd and final part of a two part series on chaplaincy.

Last week I began to look at chaplaincy in the UK’s publicly funded National Health Service (NHS) as a profession that brings religion and science together in particularly interesting and challenging ways. The NHS requires the treatments it offers to be based on evidence of efficacy, a requirement that presses in on chaplaincy.

It is clear that chaplaincy has moved far from the stereotype of a male priest administering blessings to church members in hospital. In our postmodern and relativistic times, chaplaincy can no longer be assumed to be a good in itself. Increasingly people focus on spirituality but do not necessarily have any particular or strong religious affiliation. Chaplains have to find ways of making space for different narratives and of offering something for those who have no particular belief or do not belong to a faith community.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #9a: Chaplaincy: A Meeting Point for Religion and Science?

Barney Leith Blog #9a: Chaplaincy: A Meeting Point for Religion and Science?

Barney Leith

Can the efficacy of a profession that focuses on spiritual care be measured in any way?

I have a particular interest in one such profession, that of healthcare chaplain. I should say at this point that I am not, and never have been, a chaplain. However, I have represented the UK Bahá’í community’s governing body, the National Spiritual Assembly, on one of the UK’s healthcare chaplaincy bodies, the Multi Faith Group for Healthcare Chaplaincy (MFGHC), since its establishment in 2002 – and before that, from 1998, on the Multi Faith Joint National Working Party, the MFGHC’s predecessor body.

I am also one of the two members of the  National Spiritual Assembly’s Chaplaincy Team, which is responsible for recruiting and training Bahá’ís who wish to serve as healthcare chaplains in the National Health Service – but not as chaplains in the Bahá’í community itself, since the responsibility for pastoral care resides with the community’s local and national elected Assemblies.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #8: Diversity or Unity or Both?

Barney Leith Blog #8: Diversity or Unity or Both?

Barney Leith

For some years I chaired a public policy group called the Religion and Belief Consultative Group on Equality, Diversity and Human Rights (RBCG). The group comprised representatives of the major churches and non-Christian faiths, the Inter Faith Network for the UK (IFN), a few faith-based social action organisations, and two atheist organisations – the British Humanist Association (BHA) and the National Secular Society (NSS).

Religion & Belief Consultative Group

The RBCG came into being at a time when the UK Government was preparing what became the Equality Act 2006 for its passage through Parliament. The legislation defined six equality “strands”, one of which was “religion or belief” (the others are race, gender, disability, sexual orientation, and age).

The RBCG continued its work after the Act came onto the statute book and as the government moved on to prepare what became the Equality Act 2010 for its passage through Parliament.

The RBCG provided both a forum for its members to keep in touch with developments in the equality legislation and a link between the religion or belief strand and the Government. Towards the end of its existence it worked closely with the UK’s Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC).

Canterbury Cathedral, Mother Church of the Church of England

The RBCG collapsed in the end because the representatives of the mainstream churches (Church of England, Roman Catholic Church, Methodist and other Free Churches, and the Salvation Army) decided that they no longer wished to sit around the table – which was mostly the EHRC table – to discuss equality issues with organisations whose intention, they considered, was to exclude religion from the table.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #7b: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

Barney Leith Blog #7b: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

Barney Leith

The modern tradition of equating death with an ensuing nothingness can be abandoned. For there is no reason to believe that human death severs the quality of the oneness in the universe.Larry Dossey, MD

… continued from last week …

Stirring up the angular gyrus

Out-of-body experiences (OBE) are distinct from NDEs, although people often report having OBEs as part of their near death experiences.

Back in 2002, University of Geneva Hospital neurologist Dr Olaf Blanke accidentally gave an epilepsy patient an OBE. Dr Blanke and his team had inserted up to 100 electrodes in the patient’s brain in an effort to find out where her epilepsy originated. The patient had no idea which electrode would be stimulated or when, but every time part of her brain known as the angular gyrus was stimulated she reported that she felt she was floating above her body and watching herself.

This experience came as a complete surprise to both patient and the neurological team. However, it was not possible to draw firm conclusions from the event, since it was not part of a controlled study of OBEs.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #7a: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

Barney Leith Blog #7a: “Explaining Near Death Experiences – Should Science & Religion Cooperate?”

Barney Leith

The modern tradition of equating death with an ensuing nothingness can be abandoned. For there is no reason to believe that human death severs the quality of the oneness in the universe.Larry Dossey, MD

“Dad, I had a dream last night.”

I was driving my thirteen-year-old son home from school sometime in the mid-1980s. “Tell me about it,” I said.

“I dreamt I was looking down at myself in bed,” he said. “And then I started to go through a dark tunnel towards a bright light.”

I almost drove off the road. “It sounds like you were dreaming about a near-death experience. I’ve been writing about near-death experiences for the university,” I said.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #6: “The Religion and Science of Compassion”

Barney Leith Blog #6: “The Religion and Science of Compassion”

Barney Leith

Are we ineluctably selfish, as the excesses of the consumer culture and the brouhaha over bankers’ bonuses suggest? Are the neo-Darwinists and positivists, such as Richard Dawkins, correct in claiming that competitiveness and conflict are fundamental and ineradicable drivers of human behaviour?

Does science “prove” that we humans are always selfish even when we are behaving apparently altruistically? Or is there any evidence for altruism transcending our “red in tooth and claw” nature?

Compassion & the Golden Rule

For millennia religions, spiritual traditions and humanistic philosophies have had, at their core, an ethic of reciprocity known as The Golden Rule:

The Golden Rule requires that we use empathy – moral imagination – to put ourselves in others’ shoes. We should act toward them as we would want them to act toward us. We should refuse, under any circumstance, to carry out actions which would cause them harm.

Read More Read More

Share
Barney Leith Blog #5: “The Role of Doubt & Questioning in Science & Religion”

Barney Leith Blog #5: “The Role of Doubt & Questioning in Science & Religion”

Barney Leith

I beseech in you, the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken

With these words mathematician Jacob Bronowski concluded the 11th part – on the theme of “Knowledge or Certainty” – of his momentous 1970s BBC TV series, The Ascent of Man, with this quote from a letter Oliver Cromwell wrote to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in August 1650

In the closing sequence Bronowski crouched by a pond at Auschwitz into which had been tipped the ashes of the victims of the Nazi programme to annihilate Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally and physically handicapped and others who did not match up to the distorted vision of human perfection that underpinned Naz racial ideology.

Jacob Bronowski

The central argument of Bronowski’s TV series was that science can be, should be, a force for good, that science has been and will continue to be crucial for the ascent of human understanding and well-being.

However, science, he emphasised, is a human undertaking and subject to human weaknesses. One of these weaknesses – to which we may all be prone, whether we are scientists, theologians, politicians or taxi drivers – is that of absolutism, of claiming a level of certainty about what we know – or think we know – that draws us along the path to moral arrogance.

Read More Read More

Share