1 of 3
1
Spirituality: Friend or Foe? - Adam Frank and Tom Flynn
Posted: 14 March 2011 06:48 PM   [ Ignore ]
Administrator
RankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  170
Joined  2009-06-02

Host: Chris Mooney

Recently, it has come to light that many scientists—scientists who don’t believe in God—nevertheless claim to be “spiritual but not religious.” Some in the secular movement have responded favorably to this new trend-one unfolding against the backdrop of an increasingly secular America, and a millennial generation that is also discarding traditional religion while extolling spiritual meaning.

Yet others are sharply opposed, calling secular “spirituality” little more than a semantic gambit, a misappropriation of misleading, faith-infused language.

In this week’s show, we present two different takes on whether we should embrace, or discard, the concept of godless spirituality.

Our first guest, Adam Frank, is a nonbeliever with a deep respect for the domains of human spiritual endeavor who represents the pro-spirituality view. Frank is an assistant professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, where he studies the formation and evolution of stars. He’s also a freelance writer for Discover and Astronomy magazines, a blogger at NPR’s 13.7, and author of the book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate.

Our second guest, Tom Flynn, is a non-believer who represents the anti-spirituality view. He’s the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of Inquiry Media Productions, and director of the Robert G. Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, among many other accomplishments. He has written numerous books, both fictional and non fictional, including 1993’s famed (and in-famed) The Trouble with Christmas.

http://www.pointofinquiry.org/spirituality_friend_or_foe_adam_frank_and_tom_flynn/

[ Edited: 15 March 2011 06:12 AM by Adam Isaak ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 15 March 2011 03:56 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2010-05-21

I’m more sympathetic with Tom Flynn’s point. I find there is a huge language barrier between rationalists and the religious. Not only can spiritual mean something out of body or ectoplasmic to them, but to the extremely religious or creationists, it can mean something akin to “Wiccan”. Even a seemingly straight forward term like “naturalist” is interpreted by creationists as having occult or pagan overtones.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 March 2011 02:02 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  2
Joined  2011-03-16

I found Flynn’s description of the problem with spirituality and the importance of articulation and clarity excellent.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 March 2011 04:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Jr. Member
Avatar
Rank
Total Posts:  5
Joined  2011-03-16

I have to agree with the previous comments.  I think Tom Flynn said it, but if you know your audience uses a word like ‘spirituality’ to mean something different than you do, why use it?

In fact, I’m not entirely clear what is being argued here in the first place.  Is it just way of marketing us non-believers so that believers realize we also value such things as beauty, love, music and great art?  I suppose now that I think about it, that’s probably exactly what they do believe, that we don’t value such things.

[ Edited: 16 March 2011 04:18 PM by Ron Obvious ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 16 March 2011 07:22 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2011-03-16

I posted this at the Intersection as well, but anyway…

I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

I found the first half of that podcast to be most vexing.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 17 March 2011 07:43 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  20
Joined  2010-08-10

It was a pleasure to hear the point and counterpoint of two articulate spokesmen for their respective views.  I can see both sides, and while I’m closer to Flynn’s position, he strikes me as almost advocating the flip side of fundamentalist hyperliteralism, a view that rejects ambiguity and metaphorical description of the phenomenology of human experience.  I know that Flynn doesn’t really take that extreme of a position, as I know he has an appreciation for (and has written some) good fiction.

What I think will be a fascinating future empirical inquiry will be taking work like that of Deb Roy on language acquisition (see his wonderful TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.html) applied to spiritual language, and combined with neural imaging (or future methods of observing brain activity) to see how such language is causally generated and, perhaps, some clarification of reference and meaning.

There is certainly value to the use of metaphorical terms to refer to (and to generate) internal human experiences.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 17 March 2011 07:48 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  20
Joined  2010-08-10
Jeff Keogh - 16 March 2011 07:22 PM

I posted this at the Intersection as well, but anyway…

I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

I found the first half of that podcast to be most vexing.

I don’t think Frank is trying to redefine language, he’s trying to capture it in its broadest sense as the disjunction of its uses across cultures.  He specifically referred to Rudolf Otto, whose book _The Idea of the Holy_ tries to identify the phenomenological experience associated with the word (“non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self”).  Frank, being a scientist, likely thinks that the word refers to the experiential phenomenon rather than causally referring to anything real outside of the self.

John Horgan’s book _Rational Mysticism_, examines some of these same themes through interviews with a variety of advocates of forms of scientifically-based mysticism (though Horgan ultimately finds them all unsatisfying).

Profile
 
 
Posted: 17 March 2011 06:36 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  3
Joined  2011-03-16
Jim Lippard - 17 March 2011 07:48 AM
Jeff Keogh - 16 March 2011 07:22 PM

I posted this at the Intersection as well, but anyway…

I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

I found the first half of that podcast to be most vexing.

I don’t think Frank is trying to redefine language, he’s trying to capture it in its broadest sense as the disjunction of its uses across cultures.  He specifically referred to Rudolf Otto, whose book _The Idea of the Holy_ tries to identify the phenomenological experience associated with the word (“non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self”).  Frank, being a scientist, likely thinks that the word refers to the experiential phenomenon rather than causally referring to anything real outside of the self.

John Horgan’s book _Rational Mysticism_, examines some of these same themes through interviews with a variety of advocates of forms of scientifically-based mysticism (though Horgan ultimately finds them all unsatisfying).

Jim,

As I understand the discussion, it’s not about trying to define (or redefine) language.  He may well be 100% correct in how he describes the various uses of a word, and how it is understood contextually in certain circles of discourse.

What he seem to be roundly ignoring is that it’s irrelevant when your audience is comprised largely of the general public.  Unless he wishes to make clear his definition of an ambiguous term on every occasion he chooses to use it, he will be misunderstood.  I’ve seen no counter to the argument that, for the average member of the public, the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’ have supernatural connotations.  To use such terms (when there are plenty of other synonyms that lack such connotations) is counterproductive since they smack of supernaturalism.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 17 March 2011 08:46 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  20
Joined  2010-08-10
Jeff Keogh - 17 March 2011 06:36 PM
Jim Lippard - 17 March 2011 07:48 AM

I don’t think Frank is trying to redefine language, he’s trying to capture it in its broadest sense as the disjunction of its uses across cultures.  He specifically referred to Rudolf Otto, whose book _The Idea of the Holy_ tries to identify the phenomenological experience associated with the word (“non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self”).  Frank, being a scientist, likely thinks that the word refers to the experiential phenomenon rather than causally referring to anything real outside of the self.

John Horgan’s book _Rational Mysticism_, examines some of these same themes through interviews with a variety of advocates of forms of scientifically-based mysticism (though Horgan ultimately finds them all unsatisfying).

Jim,

As I understand the discussion, it’s not about trying to define (or redefine) language.  He may well be 100% correct in how he describes the various uses of a word, and how it is understood contextually in certain circles of discourse.

What he seem to be roundly ignoring is that it’s irrelevant when your audience is comprised largely of the general public.  Unless he wishes to make clear his definition of an ambiguous term on every occasion he chooses to use it, he will be misunderstood.  I’ve seen no counter to the argument that, for the average member of the public, the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’ have supernatural connotations.  To use such terms (when there are plenty of other synonyms that lack such connotations) is counterproductive since they smack of supernaturalism.

I think you’re quite right that the potential for confusion exists, and I’ve not read Frank’s book—but it seemed to me his point was to try to shift the usage of terms.  I don’t know that that is necessarily counterproductive.  By comparison, it seems to me that we’re better off in a world with secularized, liberal Christians than one with fundamentalist Christians, and I believe there was much more fluidity in how Christianity was understood in its early history than fundamentalists (who didn’t show up until the late 19th/early 20th century, apparently in reaction to modernity) seem to think.  Those who argue against biblical literalism can quote Augustine, for example.  See this discussion on biblical literalism which in some ways parallels the present discussion: http://notevenmodern.blogspot.com/2007/08/david-heddle-on-biblical-literalism.html

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 March 2011 04:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  1
Joined  2011-03-19

This episode was quite interesting to me, and like another person commented, I found myself sympathetic to both points of view.  I find the debate personally relevant because of the time I’ve spent in a traditional 12-step recovery program.  The majority of folks there use the kind of vague “spiritual” language discussed in the episode, and despite their lack of fundamentalism, it’s clear that they are talking about transcendent forces of some sort or another.  As a naturalist/humanist, I find it necessary, as Flynn suggests, to speak in ways that cannot be misunderstood.  I want folks to understand that I don’t believe in a god, or any kind of guiding force or consciousness behind it all. 

On the other hand, I do find some religious language to be seductive, in that it speaks to a kind of emotional, aesthetic, and inner experience that I cherish.  Any one even slightly familiar with the religious naturalist movement knows of what I’m speaking, and it’s important, I feel, to give voice to this side of life as well.  Should theists be the only people to have access to this language? 

A good, neutral word to consider is “meditation.”  It has a religious and secular history, and it points to a kind of inner experience that is important to buddhists, christians, stoics and humanists.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 March 2011 12:26 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Jr. Member
RankRank
Total Posts:  30
Joined  2008-03-18

IMO most people I know would interpret spiritual(ity) in a supernatural sense.  Alas our physicist seems to be playing an Alice in Wonderland word game here.  So I’m mostly with Flynn.  There is of course much awesomeness and wonder and beauty and mystery in all around us.  I mean, what is gravity?  Frank may or may not have as much success in redefining the s-word, but he ought bear in mind that homosexuals have had mixed results with “gay”; I hear that adjective in the context of describing things gross, odious, tacky.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 19 March 2011 08:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  4
Joined  2008-07-13

As any good skeptic knows, there are many dangers in “presenting both sides” of a supposed argument. In this episode of Point of Inquiry we see the two greatest dangers: 1) That an argument with little basis in fact will appear legitimate and 2) That the false dichotomy will leave out other points of view that are at least as valid - views that may even present a much better picture of the truth.

In my opinion, the first is a serious problem but, unfortunately, since the melodramatic demonization of supernatural beliefs (represented here by Flynn, who added a bit of “the public isn’t smart enough to understand these nuances” BS for good measure) is so strong in the skeptical community (despite little or no evidence from actual cognitive science) I want to leave that one alone for a minute and move to the second and more serious issue. By presenting one side “for the sacred” and another side “against any spirituality” several other extremely important views were left out. Although Frank did sort of touch on the issue, it was never stated outright, as usual in these conversations among skeptics: The fact of the matter is that “spirituality” or the “sacred” plays almost no role at all in science! It is neither the inspiration necessary for advance nor is it a great hindrance to progress. Over the centuries and still, many great scientists have been “spiritual” or whatever mumbo jumbo and many have had no such feelings. It simply makes little or no demonstrable difference.

As I said, Frank did touch on that issue but simply having this discussion at all gives legitimacy to this unsupported view that spirituality makes any difference one way or another or that scientists and rationalists should waste their time discussing such unrelated issues. Yet again we have this false dichotomy presented as if we have to “choose sides” in a fight that 95% of scientists couldn’t care less about. We work with colleagues who are religious and atheist and every other stripe and we’re tired of these bogus “two sides” taking time away from our science while each “side” blames the other.

On the last show, Neil DeGrasse Tyson also hinted strongly at this view not represented in your false dichotomy. He said that he had spoken about these issues from time to time but that they represent a tiny portion of his total output. Nor do they seem to have had any great influence on his actual work. Newton was rather religious. Yet this fact is neither what he is remembered for nor does it seem to have harmed his science. Einstein had great reverence. But it is neither what made him a great scientist nor was it something that held him back. Hawking is, as far as I can tell, as strong an Atheist as anyone but it has nothing to do with what makes him a great scientist.

Please don’t give us anecdotes from their lives! Anecdotes are never good evidence. And if someone brings up this idiotic “so-an-so percentage of scientists are Atheists” nonsense again, I’m going to have to send you back to Statistics 101. No more bogus science, please. There simply isn’t a shred of evidence that spirituality (or whatever you want to call it) has any notable influence on what scientists do.

You “two sides” can go on whinging to each other. The rest of us, the real silent majority are busy finding things out, neither hindered nor helped nor in any other way distracted by irrelevant ideas about deities or spirits or the sacred and profane or other personal views. We work just as well with the most religious of our colleagues as the least and we’re tired of the “two sides” acting as if we give a crap about this debate.

[ Edited: 19 March 2011 09:37 PM by ganzfeld ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 20 March 2011 10:21 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  25
Joined  2006-05-04

Given Flynn’s sensitivity to the historical and etymological meanings of words, what does he think about the use of the Greek-derived word eudaimonia (“having a good daimon”) in secular moral philosophy?

 Signature 

Mark Plus, Advanced Atheist
"There was a time before reason and science when my ancestors believed in all manner of nonsense." Narim on Stargate SG-1.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 20 March 2011 12:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Jr. Member
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  85
Joined  2009-05-28

“I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” is the ultimate example of baby boomer, have-it-both-ways, holier than thou (meaning to them better than parental generation), dishonestly and shiftingly ambiguous, hypocrisy. Just as I observed leftists of that generation talk about equality but actually mean shifting the roles of races and classes and switching the targets of discrimination, so I saw them reject their parents’ religions and embrace New Age nonsense with a gusto. To that and following generations, “spiritual” is Newspeak for animism, superstition, and pop culture play-religion taken seriously to validate a superiority complex. Their emotions – THEIR emotions, are too big and wonderful to be anything less than supernatural.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 22 March 2011 02:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
Jr. Member
Rank
Total Posts:  1
Joined  2006-12-04

It’s all vacuous blather. I’ve never met anyone that says, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” that could explain what they meant by that statement. To me it means, “blah blah blah, but I don’t really know much about what I’m talking about.”

 Signature 

Bobaloo!

Profile
 
 
Posted: 22 March 2011 03:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
Sr. Member
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1332
Joined  2010-06-07

I think it means they believe they can find happiness and self satisfaction through spiritual concepts, which maybe true.
However they see no need/reason to have those concepts validated by traditional religious doctrine. Or, apparently science for that matter.

I suppose it is like, “If it makes me feel good, it doesn’t matter whether the concept is based in reality.”

Profile
 
 
   
1 of 3
1