Neurotheology, Shmeurotheology
Usually when a major newsmagazine runs a cover story about religion, it's by the magazine's religion editor or similarly titled specialist (Time's David Van Biema, U.S. News's Jeffery Sheler, Newsweek's Kenneth Woodward). But when a magazine decides to hand off the assignment to someone else, it's very rare for that religion editor to publish a rebuttal in the same issue. That's exactly what happened in this week's Newsweek, as Woodward gets a page to deflate the eight-page piece on "neurotheology."

In that cover story, senior editor Sharon Begley, who specializes in science stories for Newsweek, explores "the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experience." Neurotheology researchers, she says, are

uncovering the neurological underpinnings of spiritual and mystical experiences—for discovering, in short, what happens in our brains when we sense that we 'have encountered a reality different from—and, in some crucial sense, higher than—the reality of everyday experience' … Although the field is brand new and the answers only tentative, one thing is clear. Spiritual experiences are so consistent across cultures, across time and across faiths, … that it 'suggest[s] a common core that is likely a reflection of structures and processes in the human brain.'

Begley is quick to throw in plenty of disclaimers that researchers aren't clear whether the "spiritual" brain functions are the cause or effect of spiritual experiences. "It's no safer to say that spiritual urges and sensations are caused by brain activity," she quotes one researcher as saying, "than it is to say that the neurological changes through which we experience the pleasure of eating an apple cause the apple to exist." But the overall tone is that folks with religious experiences got something funky going on in the head. "Dostoevsky, Saint Paul, Saint Teresa of Avila, Proust and others are thought to have had temporal-lobe epilepsy, leaving them obsessed with matters of the spirit," she writes.

Kenneth Woodward's piece is a wonderful dismissal of the article it follows. "Whether this evolving 'neurotheology' is theology at all is doubtful," he begins. "It tells us new things about the circuits of the brain, perhaps, but nothing new about God."

Woodward's critique is multifaceted—and familiar. "The chief mistake these neurotheologians make is to identify religion with specific experiences and feelings. Very few believers have experienced what Christian theology calls mystical union with God." Furthermore, "Neurotheologians also confuse spirituality with religion. … Religion comprehends a whole range of acts and insights that acknowledge a transcendent order without requiring a transcendent experience." In other words—though Woodward only hints at the conclusion—neurotheology is an inevitable effect of today's muddleheaded, selfish "religionless spirituality."

Woodward also reiterates the need for distinguishing between causes and effects and between ends and means in spiritual experience, but notes that spiritual rapture must never be the ultimate effect—changed lives characterized by charity toward others is.

(Other articles on the neurotheology boom were recently published by The Boston Globe and Knight-Ridder. Sharon Begley also took part yesterday in an online chat, in which she lamented, "I've gotten so much hate mail on this story.")

Christian colleges nix "God is an abortionist" ads
Perhaps you've heard of the recent controversy about the attempts of conservative provocateur David Horowitz to run "10 Reasons Why Reparations for Blacks Is a Bad Idea for Blacks—and Racist Too" as a full-page ad in about 70 college newspapers. If you haven't been keeping up with the debate, there's really no reason to start now. It's gotten way out of hand and there are way too many articles to catch up with. Weblog wouldn't mention it except that now there's a religion aspect. In a kind of retaliatory strike, Salon.com's David Mazel decided to try to get conservative and Christian colleges to run ads saying "God is an abortionist." His finding? The Bob Jones University Collegian, Liberty University Champion, Abilene Christian University Optimist, and other such newspapers wouldn't run it. Shocking, eh? Mazel tells Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn, "My methodology was crude, as was my goal, which was basically just to be able to say, 'So's your old man!'" But he says his pranking has a purpose: on conservative campuses, free speech "is not only not being honored, it has never been a high priority at all. … All campuses that dishonor it deserve to be ridiculed."

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Horowitz, for one, is pleased with Mazel's article. It "proved my point," he says in a letter to Salon.com. "The Harvard Crimson and the Columbia Spectator are about as broad-minded, open and liberal (in the nonpartisan sense) as the school paper at Bob Jones U. What a commentary on the contemporary American university!"

The Wall Street Journal agrees—to a point:

We'll concede Mazel has a point in that some on the right are less than consistent in their devotion to free speech. But his comparison isn't really a fair one. After all, he selected a small group of colleges that are openly conservative in their views. Horowitz, in contrast, didn't send his ad to colleges with identifiably left-wing philosophies like New York's New School University. Rather, he targeted mainstream institutions of higher education, including many state universities. Intolerance of Mazel's liberal views is surely the exception rather than the rule in American higher education as a whole. We'd be happy if the same could be said of Horowitz's conservative ones.

Another letter to Salon.com suggests that there's still no comparison. "The conservative colleges' polite 'Sorry, we are not allowed to run that … ' letter is a far cry from 'liberal' mobs breaking into college press rooms and stealing papers, putting up fliers that smear Horowitz and so on," writes Vincent Basehart.

Dyan Cannon: actress, healer, Jewish, Christian
Last week, actress Dyan Cannon appeared on Larry King Live to talk about her faith and her healing ministry, God's Party with Dyan Cannon. The transcript is available from CNN's site, but Hollywood Jesus.com has several video clips. Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Times runs a brief profile. Not earth-shattering stuff, but for those of you who like to keep track of Christian celebrities, here you go.

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Pop culture:

Church and state:

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Church and state in Africa:

Religion and politics:

Faith-based initiative:

  • Clerics object to funds for charities | Handful of conservative Baptist congregations join Americans United, Planned Parenthood, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, People for the American Way, ACLU, and liberal-to-moderate churches in opposing faith-based initiative (The Washington Times)
  • White House continues to defend faith-based plan | Initiative director clarifies stance on allowing pervasively religious programs to compete for funds, also fields questions from members of Congress. (Associated Press/Freedom Forum)
  • Don't take Bush plan on faith | Most congregations have only a limited capacity to take on major social-service functions now provided by government agencies. But capacity building—providing long-term training and technical support to inexperienced organizations—isn't on the White House's priority list. (Susan Anderson, Los Angeles Times)
  • Bush's plan to aid religious groups is faulted | At Congressional hearing, DiIulio can't answer some questions (The New York Times)
  • Mormons reject Bush charity plan | "We're neutral. That's not saying we think it's wrong for every organization, but we just don't need it,'' says church spokesman (Associated Press)
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Social justice:

  • Holy pause in Vieques bombing | The Navy halted its military exercises at the base for the day in deference to the Vatican's beatification of Carlos Manuel Rodriguez Santiago in Rome. (New York Post)
  • Also: Hundreds protest as Navy resumes Vieques bombing | The growing controversy over the bombing forces Puerto Rico's governor to decline an invitation from the Vatican to attend a beatification ceremony for Carlos Manuel Rodriguez, the first Puerto Rican layperson to become a Catholic saint. (The Boston Globe)
  • Church rethink on beggars | Church of Scotland's Board of Social Responsibility says giving money may be correct on some occasions, but on other different forms of help are appropriate. (The Scotsman, Edinburgh)
  • Almighty Power | Church groups built demand for Green energy. But can God be a force in the free market? (Time)

Sexual ethics:

Catholicism:

  • Vatican Radio negotiates guidelines | Station will move or stop using one of its 31 short-wave antennas, has already cut back medium-wave (Associated Press)
  • Doubts surround pope kissing soil | John Paul has always kissed the ground upon arriving in a country for the first time, but Roman Catholics organizing the pope's trip to Greece says he will skip the tradition to avoid conflict. The Vatican disagrees. (Associated Press)

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