Atheism, Agnosticism, and Psychologists


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A 2006 study in Sociology of Religion found that 50% of American psychology professors were atheists and 11% agnostic, making psychologists less religious than professors in any other field, including the other sciences. What is it about the field of psychology that lends itself to a non-theistic world view? The problem seems to be that psychology remains stuck in the nineteenth century, both in its overall world view and in its naive conception of science.

The nineteenth century non-religious intellectual usually rejected belief in God because there seemed to be no role for God in a Newtonian cosmos. Although Newton himself was a theist who believed that space is the “sensorium” of God, his followers generally saw no need for God in a mechanistic universe; as the French scientist Laplace famously said concerning God, “I have no need of that hypothesis.” A world of machines governed by deterministic laws could exist on its own without any God to sustain it in existence, a fact that the Irish philosopher George Berkeley recognized despite the problematic nature of his own idealistic metaphysics. The Newtonian world seemed to leave no room for “God, freedom, and immortality,” and Kant felt forced to accept at the level of phenomena a godless, deterministic universe, but affirmed God, freedom, and immortality to be postulates of practical reason. As Kant himself eventually realized (in his posthumously published writings), his view, at best, implies that human beings must act as if God, freedom, and immortality exist, but that these things belong to the unknowable realm of noumena about which we must remain agnostic.

After Darwin interpreted biology in terms of a Newtonian mechanical world view in his theory of evolution by natural selection, some intellectuals who hated the abrogation of any spirituality from the world turned back toward Descartes‘ dualistic philosophy in which mind is free, mind can exist after death, and with God being a great Mind, the fact that matter is determined by strict Newtonian laws does not oppose freedom and spirituality. Some of these intellectuals focused on alleged empirical evidence for mental powers above the physical and for survival of death by a mind, and thus the philosopher Henry Sidgwich and the classicist turned psychologist F. W. H. Meyers founded the Society for Psychical Research in London in 1882. Later, in 1885, the American Society for Psychical Research was founded, with the philosopher and psychologist William James serving as its second president. By studying phenomena such as telepathy, clairvoyance, psychokinesis, and mediumship, these intellectuals desired to discover an empirical basis for the mind having powers beyond the standard interpretation of Newtonian laws. Although influential for a time, the Society suffered from vicious attacks from defenders of the strict Newtonian paradigm.

In England and in the United States, idealistic (in England) and pragmatic (in the United States) systems of philosophy were overwhelmed by the early analytic movement in philosophy, including the logical positivists. The Vienna Circle in the 1920s and 30s supported the position that only empirically verifiable statements or tautologies such as those found in mathematics and logic were meaningful. In psychology, the earlier open-mindedness of William James was replaced by the dogmatic behaviorism of John Broadus Watson which was continued by B. F. Skinner. Watson, influenced by the Vienna Circle, excluded all considerations of consciousness and other “unobservable” behaviors from psychology, focusing only on observable behavior as shown in stimulus-response behavior in mice and other animals. These animal “machines” were thought to be appropriate models of the behavior of “human machines;” thus both non-human animals and human beings were considered to be “automata.” God, as an unobservable entity, could have no meaning in such a world view.

Later, the cognitivist revolution in psychology overwhelmed behaviorism, but even cognitive psychology uses mechanical models for human cognition and behavior. Computational models, connectionism, neural network theory, and even functionalism are all basically mechanical models of cognition. They have difficulties dealing with the first person perspective of consciousness and both qualia and intentionality. With such a mechanical model of nature, there is still no room for a deity. Even with the quantum revolution in physics, which seems to oppose both absolute determinism and a mechanical model of the universe, most psychologists have stubbornly held on to the Newtonian world view, leaving no room for belief in God.

Psychologists, with some important exceptions, accept a nineteenth century view of science that has its ultimate origins in the thought of Francis Bacon in the seventeenth century. The notion of one “scientific method” in which the scientist collects observations, formulates a hypothesis, and tests the hypothesis through observation has been discredited by both philosophers of science (Popper, Lakatos, Kuhn, Feyerabend, Laudan) and scientists (Kuhn was a physicist, as was Michael Polanyi, an important critic of the “received view” in the philosophy of science). Although physicists and chemists who actually do cutting edge research recognize that there are actually multiple methods in science, as well as some biologists (though some radical Darwinians are just as extreme as most psychologists), psychologists still retain an outmoded view of science and of the “scientific method.” They also tend to believe that science is the only reliable source of knowledge, ruling out knowledge via philosophy, religion, art, and literature. Scientists in other fields are not as closed-minded, and this leads to more openness to the possibility that a God might exist.

Psychologists need to move into the twenty-first century since most of them bypassed the twentieth century and stayed in the nineteenth century. They need to examine how changes in sciences such as physics have called to question the Newtonian world view and mechanistic model of the universe. They should read work in contemporary philosophy of science that challenges their naive hypothetical-deductivist system and take it seriously instead of merely dismissing it. They should be open to all empirical data, including actually reading articles on psi, instead of finding one or two “straw man” articles to attack in their introductory textbooks on research methods. Finally, they should be open to the possibility that there are other means of gaining reliable knowledge than a narrowly conceived “scientific method.” Only then will academic (mainly experimental) psychologists be open to other views than atheism and agnosticism concerning the existence of God.

Why the Hostility to Tim Tebow?


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Denver lost to New England yesterday, which is no surprise given that the Patriots are an excellent team. Yet when I read sports stories about the game, they focus on “a lack of Tim Tebow‘s heroics” as if a quarterback known for leading fourth quarter comebacks will be able to lead one every game. Even Joe Montana, who was one of the best quarterbacks ever, who (to my disappointment!) led the 49ers over the Bengals in the Super Bowl by a last minute drive, did not always succeed in a fourth quarter comeback. I do not remember the press complaining then. Why is there so much hostility, among members of the press and among some NFL players, to Tim Tebow?

Religion, specifically Tim Tebow’s open Evangelical Protestant faith, is the source of most of the hostility. Although many NFL players are public about their Christian faith, to American secular society Tebow seems, to the generally secularist media and to those NFL players who are either secularist or outside the Christian tradition, to take his faith too far. I have mentioned more than once on this blog the late Father Richard John Neuhaus‘s reference to the “naked public square” in which religion, specifically Christianity, is eliminated from American public discourse and relegated to a private realm. No scholar of religion in his right mind believes that religion is a private matter, since a religion scholar realizes the public implications of being religious. Only a fool can ignore thousands of years of history and his own common sense and say that “religion is just a private matter.” Even John Locke (1632-1704), the epitome of a Classical Liberal thinker, did not go that far.

Today those who relegate religion to the private sphere are usually hostile to religion in general. Ironically, they are not as hostile to Buddhism, Hinduism, or Islam as they are to traditional Christianity, perhaps because of the strong influence of Christianity after the Second Great Awakening at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, on American culture. This strong influence continued until around the mid-1960s and then slowly began to wane, especially among the intellectual classes and among other opinion leaders. Sportscasters in the past tended to be a bit more traditional than most other journalists, at least from my reading, but that is no longer the case.

Tim Tebow has violated the fundamental rule of secularists–he not only discusses his Christian faith openly, but he does it often. He may well connect his abilities to God–there is nothing wrong with that–if God created everything, all abilities are gifts, whether the gifts be carpentry skills, medical skills, teaching skills, or football skills. If Mr. Tebow said he has special favor from God for being religious, and therefore his team wins because of God, that would be going too far–but as far as I have heard he has not said those things. Too much has been read into his statements by the media and by some NFL players. Mr. Tebow has every right to express his Christian faith, just as other players have a right to express whatever their faith (or lack of faith) may be. To condemn Mr. Tebow for being so open about his Christianity is a form of unjust discrimination against expressions of Christian faith. It is wrong, and members of the media need to control their snide remarks concerning Mr. Tebow’s faith–or at least admit that they are editorial comments. I doubt that a Muslim, a Hindu, or an Orthodox Jew would get the same treatment from the media, even if a football player who adhered to these religions was open about his faith. I may be wrong on this point and am open to correction. From my impression, as American society continues to go the European route of secularization (as evidenced by a sharp drop in weekly church attendance in the last ten years), secularists are going all out to try to shame Christians to stop them, or at least slow them, from expressing their faith in public. It is sad that such hostility has now extended to sports journalism and to some of the players in the NFL.


Schools and Children Accused of “Sexual Harassment”


At and are two stories that illustrate the lack of common sense among many teachers and administrators in the government school system. For the retort I expect, I am not saying that all public school teachers and administrators lack common sense to the extent shown in these studies. But to accuse seven and nine-year-olds for sexual harassment (a few years ago, a five-year-old boy was accused of sexual harassment for kissing a girl he had “puppy love” for on the cheek) is stupid to the point of incomprehension. A boy tells another boy that his teacher is cute–and a nosy substitute teacher blabs about it–and the boy is suspended for “sexual harassment.” A seven-year old kicks a bully in the groin and is accused of “sexual harassment.” The specific teachers and school administrators responsible for such injustices are utterly ignorant–and if I could get away with it I would use stronger language. The most radical elements of feminism have invaded society to the point that even a male child cannot complement a woman’s appearance without being accused of sexual harassment. Such extremes are bad enough when applied to adults–this is a world in which a man cannot even say to a woman “You look nice today.” If he says the opposite, he would be in just as much trouble. Such views are so contrary to human nature that only academics (and I am an academic, so I know that way too much of the academy has been corrupted by the radical 1960s crowd) could actually be stupid enough to believe them. Unfortunately, the most radical theories of the academy, having poisoned the minds of way too many policy makers, producers of government regulations, and educators, have become more and more dominant in the nation’s school system. There are exceptions, of course, and thank God for those teachers and administrators who still retain common sense. If only there were more of them. More