Category: Science and Religion

New Point of Inquiry: Spirituality, Friend or Foe?

By Chris Mooney | March 15, 2011 6:16 am

I’m traveling today and may not be able to blog again. However, I’m happy to announce that my latest hosted episode of Point of Inquiry has just gone up–featuring not one but two guests, Adam Frank and Tom Flynn. Here’s the write up:

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. Read More

My Playboy Article on Spiritual Scientists Wins a 2011 Wilbur Award from the Religion Communicators Council

By Chris Mooney | March 11, 2011 11:07 am

The Wilbur Awards are given annually by the Religion Communicators Council to “individuals in secular media who communicate religious issues, values and themes with the utmost professionalism, fairness and honesty.”

This year, my recent article in Playboy, “Born Again Scientists,” has won the award in the “editorial” category.

The piece is about scientists who don’t believe in God but still refer to themselves as spiritual. Unfortunately, there does not seem to be any official version of the article on the web that I can share with you. I’ll see about whether I can post it here.

I’m honored to be recognized, though I can’t attend the awards ceremony in Little Rock next month. I’ve just recorded an acceptance video and will see about posting that online.

New Point of Inquiry with Neil deGrasse Tyson: Communicating Science

By Chris Mooney | March 1, 2011 8:18 am

The episode is now up and you can listen to it here. Here’s the write up:

Our guest this week needs little introduction—he may be our most famous public communicator of science.

He’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, renowned American astrophysicist, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and the host of PBS’s NOVA ScienceNow, which just completed a new six part season.

Tyson is also the author of 9 books, most recently Death By Black Hole and Other Cosmic Quandaries, which was a New York Times bestseller, and The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet.

In this double length episode, Tyson discusses a wide range of topics: the just finished 2011 season of ScienceNow; how to restore a science “Zeitgeist” in our culture; Bill O’Reilly’s recent foot-in-mouth comments about how the world works; this million-view YouTube clip of Tyson and Richard Dawkins; and much more.

Again, you can listen to the show here. I’m going to be blogging about it throughout the week.

Atheists Attack Atheist Article

By Chris Mooney | January 6, 2011 7:54 am

As noted earlier, I’ve recently done a Playboy article that advances the case for an atheistic, scientific spirituality devoid of supernatural belief but not devoid of feeling.

To my surprise, the piece is now being attacked for being pro-religion. But if you read it, it’s clearly about liberating us from religion, and says many of the same things that leading atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris say about non-religious spirituality!

On Al Jazeera, you may recall, Dawkins discussed the “frisson in the breast” that he feels when contemplating “the beauty of the universe, the complexity of life, the magnitude of space, the magnitude of geological time.” He says this feeling could be called “spirituality”–but “I would be very concerned that it shouldn’t be confused with supernaturalism.”

My article perpetrates no such confusion. It is clear throughout that we’re talking about spirituality without religion, e.g., “a growing number of nonreligious researchers,” “a prevalence of spirituality detached from traditional religion,” “Einstein saw no reason to believe in a personal God or the supernatural,” “[Darwin] ultimately concluded he would have to remain an agnostic with respect to God,” etc. And most of all, this passage:

Therefore, rather than vanquishing religion, modern science might have helped to unleash the human spirit and free it from traditional religious constraints. The result? At least for some, the need for spiritual fulfillment can now be satisfied outside the context of supernatural creeds. And the sacred, which is the object of the spiritual quest, can now be found in nature and in a search for an understanding of it.

Thankfully there are some atheists who do see what I was saying–and its resonance: See here. Reading my article correctly, Camels with Hammers notes that it “effectively shows that atheistic spirituality and religiosity are possible without any need for the baggage of ungrounded belief.”

But as one e-correspondent pointed out, the coolest thing of all is…I’ve apparently gotten some people to read Playboy for the articles!!!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Religion

I'm in Playboy

By Chris Mooney | January 4, 2011 5:33 pm

To be more specific: I have an article in the Pamela Anderson issue currently on newsstands.

The article does not appear to be online, but it’s on p. 168 of the magazine–the Playboy forum. (Kinda hard to find, but you’ll get there.)

The piece is about scientists who aren’t religious, but are spiritual, in an atheistic sort of way. An excerpt:

But can scientists who say they are awestruck by nature and moved by their research really relate to more traditional religious experiences, a la those reported by saints? Aren’t “awe” and “wonder” nondescript notions that add emotional embroidery to the brute facts of the universe? Perhaps not. Feelings of awe, wonder and mystery recur in the context of human quests for deeper understanding or revelation. In his 1917 work The Idea of the Holy, German theologian Rudolph Otto singled out a sense of awe as a key characteristic of our encounters with what he termed the “numinous”–an overwhelming power or presence beyond ourselves.

Science can unleash this feeling too. Just sit in a darkened room and look at nebulae pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, as University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank describes doing in his book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. “Scientists are not the only ones who catch their collective breath before these pictures,” he writes. “The momentary hush and the gasp that follow are involuntary.”

Please note…if looking at the Pamela Anderson cover image makes you feel awe, wonder, or spirituality…you may need a type of care beyond anything that this blog can offer.

The Barry Kosmin Show–A Rundown

By Chris Mooney | January 3, 2011 2:27 pm

I’m very happy with the latest POI episode, in which I interview sociologist Barry Kosmin about America’s decreasing religiosity. Some themes that emerged:

* The ranks of the so-called “nones” grew dramatically in the 1990s–the Bill Clinton era–a time of prosperity when U.S. religion lost something like 1 million adherents a year.

* Secular, consumerist culture has been a huge contributor to the trend as well, and lacking a religious identity is strongest among the young today.

* The Catholic church/pedophile priest scandals dramatically drove people away from Catholicism and into the ranks of the “nones.” We can actually see the impact on a population level.

* “Nones” want secularism, separation of church and state, freedom from religion in their lives and in society, pro-science polices on things like evolution and stem cells. They don’t necessarily feel the need to attack religion and still may be turned off by such attacks. They are not all atheists in the strict sense of the term.

* The “nones” have grown in number for large scale demographic, cultural, and sociological reasons, and these developments in turn have created a new market for atheism–rather than vice versa.

* The rise of the nones could portend a more polarized society, because there are still many very devout religious believers out there, including very politically active ones. In the coming decades, the real battle between secular and more pro-religious forces in American society and political life will be to win over those who remain in the middle.

Again, you can listen to the show here.

New Point of Inquiry: Barry Kosmin — One Nation, Losing God

By Chris Mooney | January 2, 2011 9:22 am

My latest Point of Inquiry just went up–it’s about the changing religious demographics of the United States:

By now you’ve probably heard the finding-the United States is growing less godly. More precisely, more and more Americans in surveys report that they lack a religious identity.

These are the so-called “nones,” and they already comprise 15 percent of the total population. But there are estimates that their numbers will continue to grow and could someday even surpass major denominations like Catholicism (currently 24% of the country). Being a “none” is particularly popular among those aged 18-29.

Barry Kosmin is the nation’s leading expert on the “nones,” a group that he studies through the ARIS, or American Religious Identification Survey. In this episode of Point of Inquiry, he discusses where America is heading with respect to its religious identity, why this change is occurring, and what the implications will be for secular advocacy in the future.

Barry Kosmin is a sociologist and research professor in the Public Policy & Law Program at Trinity College, and founding director of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture. Dr. Kosmin has been a principal investigator of the American Religious Identification Survey series since its inception in 1990 as well as national social surveys in Europe, Africa, and Asia. His publications include One Nation under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society (1993) and Religion in a Free Market (2006).

Once again, you can listen to the full episode here.

The Evolution Polling Numbers Have *Nudged* A Little

By Chris Mooney | December 21, 2010 11:12 am

For many years, Gallup has been asking the same survey question about belief in evolution. And it has been consistently finding that an alarming percentage of the public (more than 40 %) believes that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so.” Technically speaking, this is young-Earth creationism. (The other two choices in the poll are a type of God-guided evolution and an atheistic or non-guided evolution. I would argue that both are pro-evolution responses.)

Anyway, we now have new Gallup results, and while it shouldn’t be over-emphasized, it’s starting to look like there’s some slight movement. The young Earthers are now at just 40 %; they’d been as high as 47 % at various points in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the non-guided evolution camp has gone up to 16 % (from as low as 9 % in the 1990s). Here’s an image from Gallup, showing responses to the same polling question over time:

Gallup Data

Gallup headlined these results by emphasizing that 4 in 10 Americans reject evolution; but might it not also have said that more than half now accept it?

Anyways, in a discussion of these data, Gallup notes how they’ve drifted in recent years, but also puts that fact in its needed context–it’s not a very big change:

[Americans’] views have been generally stable over the last 28 years. Acceptance of the creationist viewpoint has decreased slightly over time, with a concomitant rise in acceptance of a secular evolution perspective. But these shifts have not been large, and the basic structure of beliefs about human beings’ origins is generally the same as it was in the early 1980s.

Fair enough. Still, I can’t help thinking about the arguments of Barry Kosmin, who will be my next guest on Point of Inquiry and is the chief expert on the growing number of non-religiously affiliated Americans (the “Nones”). I’m no pollster, but I wonder, could we be starting to see their growing prevalence in these data?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science and Religion

Never Knew I'd Been Sitting in Pews (A Strange Story From the Front Lines of Coffeeshop Science Journalism)

By Chris Mooney | December 21, 2010 8:57 am

So this is kind of funny.

At least since 2003, I’ve been working–including writing two of my three books–at Tryst coffeeshop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. And being a creature of routines, over time I’ve established my favorite place to sit–usually, on one of two wooden benches against the back wall of the place.

I’ve probably had ass planted in these seats for hundreds of hours in total over the years. Suffice it to say, it’s a multi-year routine; and the best coffeeshop I’ve ever worked in. When I chose to move back to D.C. this year after a multiyear jaunt across Los Angeles, Princeton, NJ, and Cambridge, MA, Tryst had something to do with it.

At the same time, as a second generation atheist,* I wasn’t brought up religious at all, and the number of hours I’ve spent in a church is…well, it depends on if you count architectural tours in European cities, but it’s surely a tiny fraction of the time spent at Tryst.

pew not a surveySo it came as a total surprise the other day when, to my minor horror, I heard a waitress refer to these beloved benches as “pews.” But as soon as she said it, I knew it was true. I then snapped the following picture. Proof.

All this time, it seems I have been seated in religious benches. Kinda ironic, given the kinds of things I’ve written while seated there. (Although maybe some atheists will say, “ah ha!”)

Now, I know what you’re wondering. Why are there pews in Tryst, of all places, in a city (D.C.) where the first thing most people think of when they hear the word is an organization that does surveys?

That’s something I may have to get to the bottom of.

* Apparently we “second generation atheists” aren’t “productive.” Here’s Conservapedia, where Einstein is wrong and ideological blinders are part of the business model:

…it is not easy to find many examples of productive second generation atheists. While atheists raised in religious environments have occasionally been productive, atheists raised in atheistic environments are not known to be. On the other hand, it has been shown that second generation atheists who converted to Christianity early in life have been moderately successful.

I think I’ve been very productive as a second generation atheist unwittingly sitting in pews, at a very secular coffeehouse, without undergoing a conversion. I hope Conservapedia will footnote me.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Personal, Science and Religion


By Sheril Kirshenbaum | November 11, 2010 11:21 am

Over at The Star:

U.S. Representative John Shimkus, possible future chairman of the Congressional committee that deals with energy and its attendant environmental concerns, believes that climate change should not concern us since God has already promised not to destroy the Earth.

Shimkus already serves on the committee. During a hearing in 2009, he dismissed the dangers of climate change and the warnings of the scientific community by quoting the Bible.

First, he noted God’s post-Flood promise to Noah in Genesis 8:21-22.

“The Earth will end only when God declares it’s time to be over. Man will not destroy this Earth. This Earth will not be destroyed by a Flood,” Shimkus asserted. “I do believe that God’s word is infallible, unchanging, perfect.”

On Tuesday, Shimkus sent a letter to his colleagues burnishing his credentials by saying he is “uniquely qualified among a group of talented contenders to lead the Energy and Commerce Committee.”

Representative Shimkus may be unique, but he’s certainly not uniquely qualified to lead the nation’s Energy and Commerce Committee. Climate change isn’t simply about balmier temperatures, but a changing environment. The nation–and world–need to prepare for the myriad of ways it will impact food production, water, health, national security, immigration, and so much more. Shimkus clearly fails to understand what’s at stake.


Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!


See More

Collapse bottom bar