Posts

AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

embodimentIn this interview, Brock Bahler, visiting assistant professor in Religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, talks about his research on cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and embodied religious practices. Through the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and Levinas on the relationship between the mind and the body, Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty: Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories. As such, Bahler examines, with a “phenomenological twist”, what rituals do in terms of education, psychology, and subjectivity.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Grateful Dead t-shirts, bars of soap, and more.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

Jürgen Habermas is a preeminent philosopher and social theorist whose work explores the formation of the public sphere as well as how to invigorate participatory democracy. He is well known for his theory of communicative action, which claims that reason, or rationality, is the mechanism for emancipation from the social problems posed by modernity. In his earlier work, Habermas mostly ignored religion, contending that it was not rational enough to be included in public debate. But over the past decade, he has begun to reexamine religion in light of its persistence in the modern world, calling this a turn toward post-secular society. He argues that religion deserves a place in public debate, but that religious people need to translate their views into rational, secular language if they want to participate in the public sphere. This week’s podcast features Dusty Hoesly of the University of California at Santa Barbara speaking with Michelle Dillon, Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, at the 2013 SSSR Conference in Boston.

While Dillon embraces Habermas’ turn toward religion and his recognition of its emancipatory potential, she critiques his post-secular theorizing, arguing that Habermas ignores the rational contestation of ideas within religions; marginalizes the centrality of emotion, tradition, and spirituality to religion; and fails to recognize religion’s intertwining with the secular.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.

 

Podcasts

AI and Religion: An Initial Conversation

This roundtable, in association with the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, considers the impact of recent technological advances in Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics on religion, religious conceptions of the world, and the human. It draws attention to how such advances push religion beyond how it has been commonly defined and considered.

1389397212614In March 2016 ‘AlphaGo’, a Google/Deepmind programme, defeated an international champion at the Chinese game ‘Go’ in a five game match. This victory was, by current understandings of AI, a vast leap forward towards a future that could contain human-like technological entities, technology-like humans, and embodied machines. As corporations like Google invest heavily in technological and theoretical developments leading towards further, effective advances – a new ‘AI Summer’ – we can also see that hopes, and fears, about what AI and robotics will bring humanity are gaining pace, leading to new speculations and expectations, even amidst those who would position themselves as non-religious.

Speculations include Transhumanist and Singularitarian teleological and eschatological schemes, assumptions about the theistic inclinations of thinking machines, the impact of the non-human on our conception of the uniqueness of human life and consciousness, and the moral boundary work of secular technologists in relation to their construct, ‘religion’. New religious impulses in the face of advancing technology have been largely ignored by the institutions founded to consider the philosophical, ethical and societal meanings of AI and robotics. This roundtable is an initial conversation on this topic, with the intention for further discussion and publications.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, tin foil hats, Jeff Goldblum custom water proof shower curtains, and more.

Embodied religious practices, child psychology and cognitive neuroscience

embodimentIn this interview, Brock Bahler, visiting assistant professor in Religious studies at the University of Pittsburgh, talks about his research on cognitive neuroscience, child psychology and embodied religious practices. Through the philosophy of Merleau-Ponty, Descartes, and Levinas on the relationship between the mind and the body, Bahler discusses the notion of ritual as a locus of power in terms of structure and agency. His recent book, Childlike Peace in Levinas and Merleau-Ponty: Intersubjectivity as a Dialectical Spiral (Lexington Books, forthcoming) focuses on neuroscience to grasp the topic power relations at the confluence of religion and other social influences on one’s trajectories. As such, Bahler examines, with a “phenomenological twist”, what rituals do in terms of education, psychology, and subjectivity.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, Grateful Dead t-shirts, bars of soap, and more.

Method and Theory in the Cognitive Sciences of Religion

podcast with the Religious Studies Project in 2014, Dr. Robert McCauley gave an overview of some of these processes cognitive scientists appeal to in accounting for religion (e.g., agent detection, theory of mind), as well as a 2015 North American Association for the Study of Religion (NAASR) conference (and thanks to their support), McCauley discusses methodological and theoretical issues within CSR. He begins by tackling the topic of “naturalism” vs. “supernaturalism” in explaining religion, moving on to how these explanations function at different levels of analysis and integration. In closing, McCauley discusses the relationship between the humanities and the sciences, some successful and not so successful CSR theories, and the interplay between explanations emphasizing cognition and culture.

You can download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us . And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com, or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying academic texts, video games, indulgences, and more.

Workshop: ‘What is religious belief?’ report

PhD candidate Hans Van Eyghen reporting for The Religious Studies Project:

The question ‘What is religious belief?’ has a long history and with no definitive answer to date. The aim of this one day workshop was to shed new light on the question by combining three perspectives on the matter: cognitive science of religion, philosophy, and theology. The day consisted of four talks by Neil Van Leeuwen (philosopher), Michiel van Elk (cognitive scientist), Helen de Cruz (philosopher) and Gijsbert van den Brink (theologian).

Philosopher Neil Van Leeuwen. Photo by Rik Peels

1. Neil Van Leeuwen ‘Props in the Clouds: On the Role of Agent Like Stimuli in Religious Practice’

 

Neil Van Leeuwen (Georgia State University & University of Antwerp) proposed an alternative account of Stewart Guthrie and Justin Barrett’s ideas on hyperactive agency detection. Rather than seeing ‘faces in the clouds’, religious believers see ‘props in the clouds’. He began by discussing the ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. On the one hand, religious belief seems mindful of evidence. Believers often refer to intelligent design arguments or arguments for the historicity of the gospels to defend their beliefs. The fact that some lose their faith after acquiring scientific evidence and the fact that believers sometimes avoid encounters with potentially disconfirming evidence also signals that evidence is important for religious belief. On the other hand, there are also reasons to believe that religious belief persists despite of evidence to the counter. Doomsday cults often continue to exist after their predictions about an alleged apocalypse turn out to be false. Young earth creationism and evolution denialism disregard massive evidence from geology and biology. According to Van Leeuwen the classic account of hyperactive agency detection (which he calls Agency Indicator-Based Belief or AIBB) by Guthrie and Barrett cannot account for this ambiguous relation between religious belief and evidence. The classic account portrays the process of belief acquisition as:

agent-like stimulus → evolved HADD → belief in supernatural agents

Van Leeuwen argues the AIBB-account suffers from three main problems. First, the reactions to agent like stimuli are not uniform but very diverse. Second, beliefs resulting from AIBB are very sensitive to evidence whereas religious beliefs often are not. Third, AIBB does not allow a role for voluntariness though believers often choose to interpret evidence as coming from God. Nonetheless, there is something in AIBB worth saving because the idea of agency detection has much empirical support. Van Leeuwen proposes to look at agent like stimuli in a different way, namely as props that provide support for previously held cultural beliefs. In his view, cultural beliefs generate supernatural representations. In light of these cultural beliefs, agent like stimuli are used as props in a game of make belief. For example, a face in the clouds can be interpreted by someone with the cultural belief that “God sends signs by using nature, as a message from God”. The prop thereby reinforces the cultural beliefs.

2. Michiel van Elk ‘A Porous Theory of Mind underlies Religious Belief’

Psychologist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

Cognitive scientist Michiel van Elk. Photo by Rik Peels

The second speaker Michiel van Elk (University of Amsterdam) discussed the results of empirical testing of Justin Barrett’s account of hyperactive agency detection (Van Leeuwen’s AIBB), the theory of mind (ToM) account, and another account inspired by Tanya Luhrmann’s work called the Porous Theory of Mind (PToM). Van Elk claimed that Barrett’s HADD account and the ToM account have only little empirical evidence whereas PToM has strong explanatory potential when it comes to explaining supernatural beliefs and experiences. From Barrett’s account, which states that people become religious because of hyperactivity in agency detection leading to beliefs about invisible agents, van Elk deduces four testable predictions: (1) in threatening situations people should show a bias towards detecting agency, (2) supernatural agent concepts should be related to agency detection biases, (3) believers may be more prone to detecting agents than non-believers. Van Elk and his team tested all three hypotheses; the first and third were confirmed but the second was disconfirmed. Van Elk also presented experiments on the ToM account, which states that belief in God could rely on an over attribution of ToM reasoning to non-natural objects. This account predicts that a higher score on the autism-spectrum-scale will result in lower religiosity. Van Elk and his team indeed found that scoring high on the autism spectrum scale is negatively related to belief in God and to symbolic thinking, but the explained variance is close to zero. ToM might thus be a necessary condition for religious belief, but not a sufficient condition. The last account van Elk discussed was the PToM account, which posits that believers consider their minds to be open to intrusion by the supernatural. The account was introduced by Tanya Luhrmann who reported how evangelical Christians believe that God implants thoughts into their minds. Empirical testing showed that PToM is a very good predictor of religious belief in many cases. PToM does, however, not predict religiosity for religions where direct interaction between God and believers is frowned upon, like Calvinism.

3. Helen de Cruz ‘What Philosophers of Religion believe’

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Philosopher Helen de Cruz. photo by Rik Peels

Helen de Cruz (Free University Amsterdam) began by noting that each workshop/conference always has one ‘strange’ talk that doesn’t really fit well with the rest. Her talk indeed did not address what religious beliefs are but instead what philosophers of religion believe and more precisely what role irrelevant causal factors play. She discussed a qualitative survey she conducted among philosophers of religion and discussed its implications for the rationality of defending views in philosophy of religion. Sometimes philosophy of religion is suspected of a disproportionate bias due to emotional and psychosocial aspects of religion. The (much) higher prevalence of theists in philosophy of religion compared to other philosophical disciplines also raises some suspicion. De Cruz’s survey found that of the 139 interviewed philosophers of religion, 59% self-identified as ‘Christian’ and 24% as ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’. The main motivations for practicing philosophy of religion were religious identity, philosophy and education; a minority was motivated by proselytism. Only 21% reported a change in religious belief during their time as philosopher; 16% reported a sophistication of their beliefs; and 15% a tempering. Further, the study showed a significant difference between the number of former religious believers (33%) and former atheists (12%) engaging in philosophy of religion. overall, the study found a lot of support for the claim that irrelevant causal factors are widespread in philosophy of religion. De Cruz distinguished three potential problems for philosophy of religion: (1) the fact that irrelevant influences have motivated a majority of philosophers of religion to engage in philosophy of religion, (2) that philosophers of religion might be prejudiced in such a way that it becomes hard to assess evidence in a dispassionate way, and (3) that the cultural background leads philosophers of religion to regard Christian theism and scientific naturalism as the only two viable options. Against (1), de Cruz argued that having a certain background is no reason to assume that one is being unreliable. (2) was not clearly confirmed by the survey because a considerable number of interviewed philosophers had changed their minds. She did acknowledge (3) was a real problem.

4. Gijsbert van den Brink ‘I Know that my Redeemer Lives. The indispensability of Factual Claims for Religious Belief’

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

Theologian Gijsbert van den Brink. Photo by Rik Peels

The final speaker of the day, Gijsbert van den Brink (Free University Amsterdam) offered a theological answer to the question ‘What is religious belief?’. His talk was a defense of religious cognitivism, the view stating that religious belief has propositional content. He began by discussing the alternative position, non-cognitivism. Non-cognitivists hold that religious belief is not about factual states of affairs but about the affective, expressive, self-involving, prescriptive, interrogative, etc. role they fulfill in believer’s lives. Van den Brink acknowledges that there is some truth in non-cognitivism insofar that religious belief is structurally different from the mere believing in the existence of some object, like the planet Venus. A religious believer does not simply believe that there is a supernatural being out there, but believing in God involves attitudes of awe, love or hope. Nonetheless, factual claims are indispensable for religious beliefs according to van den Brink, because the attitudes associated with religious belief are only possible if its factual presuppositions are true.

Understanding the Secular

Fitzgerald 2007, 54).

In many cases, conceptualizations of the secular are imagined only after the category of religion has been populated with ‘the good stuff’, with the secular receiving decidedly less good stuff (perhaps an understatement in certain contexts). In this view, the secular was an afterthought, a ‘second-class citizen’ so to speak. However, what happens if the scholarly lens is shifted towards the ‘secular’, with ‘religion’ being placed on the back burner? In Thomas Coleman’s interview for The Religious Studies Project, he sits down with sociologist Phil Zuckerman and philosopher John R. Shook to discuss all things ’secular‘. Making their own contributions to the discourse, Shook and Zuckerman briefly discuss the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of Secularism they are co-editing, the growing field of secular studies, what it might mean to ’be secular‘, different secularisms, and offer up two different views of the relationship between categories such as ’religion‘ and ’secular‘.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com or Amazon.ca links to support us at no additional cost when buying books, cooking utensils, waistcoats, stuffed animals, and more.

References

  • Fitzgerald, Timothy. 2007. Discourse on Civility and Barbarity: A Critical History of Religion and Related Categories. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press.

The Postsecular

In his 2011 Presidential Address to the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion in Milwaukee, James Beckford focused upon a contested term that has grown in prominence in recent years in the social scientific study of religion – the notion of the ‘postsecular’. In this address – published in the JSSR in 2012, Beckford noted a number of problems associated with the concept.

First, there is enormous variety in the meanings attributed to the ‘postsecular’, and there are many tensions between these meanings. Second, ‘the variety of meanings attributed to “postsecularity” is partly a function of the unusually wide range of intellectual disciplines and fields with an interest in it’. However, Beckford is keen to emphasise that this breadth of disciplinary interest does not imply that there actually is such a phenomenon as ‘postsecularity’. Third, ‘the orientation of many writings about the postsecular is normative and speculative’. (2012, 12-13)

With these issues in mind, Chris took some time to speak solely on this contested topic with Kevin W. Gray while in Belfast for the ESA Sociology of Religion Research Network Conference in September. Discussion focuses upon the history of the term, potential definitions, disciplinary and geographical differences, and ultimately suggests that ‘postsecularity’ is effectively dressing up ‘secularity’ in obfuscating clothing.

You can also download this podcast, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.ukAmazon.ca, or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when you have a purchase to make – particularly in the run up to Christmas!

 

References

  • Beckford, James A. 2012. “SSSR Presidential Address Public Religions and the Postsecular: Critical Reflections.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 51 (1): 1–19. doi:10.1111/j.1468-5906.2011.01625.x.

Habermas, Religion and the Post-Secular

Jürgen Habermas is a preeminent philosopher and social theorist whose work explores the formation of the public sphere as well as how to invigorate participatory democracy. He is well known for his theory of communicative action, which claims that reason, or rationality, is the mechanism for emancipation from the social problems posed by modernity. In his earlier work, Habermas mostly ignored religion, contending that it was not rational enough to be included in public debate. But over the past decade, he has begun to reexamine religion in light of its persistence in the modern world, calling this a turn toward post-secular society. He argues that religion deserves a place in public debate, but that religious people need to translate their views into rational, secular language if they want to participate in the public sphere. This week’s podcast features Dusty Hoesly of the University of California at Santa Barbara speaking with Michelle Dillon, Professor of Sociology at the University of New Hampshire, at the 2013 SSSR Conference in Boston.

While Dillon embraces Habermas’ turn toward religion and his recognition of its emancipatory potential, she critiques his post-secular theorizing, arguing that Habermas ignores the rational contestation of ideas within religions; marginalizes the centrality of emotion, tradition, and spirituality to religion; and fails to recognize religion’s intertwining with the secular.

You can also download this interview, and subscribe to receive our weekly podcast, on iTunes. If you enjoyed it, please take a moment to rate us. And remember, you can use our Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com links to support us at no additional cost when buying your philosophical tomes etc.