Problems for my Stance

One of my favourite things about Darwin’s On the Origin of Species is that he devotes a chapter on difficulties on the theory, another favourite thing is that their have been few objections since that aren’t found already predicted by him.

Following him I won’t just publish things that support Spiritual Materialism on this blog, but also things that don’t. Whether to argue against them or simply admit I have problems. Here are a couple I’ve come across in the past week.

Jules Evans in assessing Alain De Botton’s religion for atheists (a book I’ve not read despite its relevance because I can’t stand his writing style) points out that strength of a community needs commitment to certain ideals. This means individual congregations can’t be pluralistic or there will be divisions that prevent the effect of increasing it’s members well-being. Research indicates that congregations increase well-being through the formation of close friendships. Shared beliefs may be more likely to produce those types of meaningful friendships, but there’s some evidence that this may not be so straightforward. One study demonstrating social closeness is more important than shared beliefs.

Although there’s nothing to suggest the movement on the whole can’t be pluralistic between congregations. I don’t know, but I suspect he’s right. Does this make it too much like a religion with potential for in-group out-group behaviour? Perhaps, but tolerance would be the universal ideal of the movement. Of course group loyalty certainly suits some, and if that’s what research shows, then that is what research shows. We then have a utilitarian problem; does that problem outweigh the benefits of the community? We don’t have the data yet. Does that problem outweigh the problems with supernatural religion? Surely it does, we get rid of its other problems and retain one in hopefully a weaker form.

I was surprised at the backlash against Sigfried Gold’s reveal that he prays for the placebo effect. I also ‘pray’ in the same hope of a placebo effect, sometimes going as far as to invoke the name of a god I don’t believe. I find it useful in getting my mind off a point of anxiety. Whether this should be called prayer is semantics, and I’m surprised how much of the conversation it sparked has centered on semantics, I think it’s clear what is meant by placebo prayer. If you’re going to criticise Gold use some evidence; brain scans show that prayer doesn’t produce the same effect in atheists as it does believers.

Does this dismiss my theory outright? It would seem to; if religious-born behaviours don’t produce their positive effects without their accompanying beliefs then the cleavage I argue for simply can’t be done.

I’ve unfortunately not been able to find the original paper, so my discussion is rather limited (and there’s only this one study to my knowledge). I don’t know how the atheists in the experiment were asked to imagine god as they prayed. Perhaps the conceptions of the gods Gold and I pray to, that neither of us believe exist, differ from those of the test atheists? It would be interesting to compare atheist who came from a religious background, like Gold and myself, to those who were raised atheist. Presumably, like I find, those who were brought up to believe in god can find a more vivid image in their minds, through years of being en-cultured to picture it, and engage more strongly with it emotionally.

Perhaps, however, we do need belief, if that’s what the evidence shows, but that does mean we have to have the beliefs akin to anything in current religion theologies? In theory we could pray to something material or a god that is material in concept, pantheistic rather than supernatural. This is close to what Justin Barrett argues.

As always I think materialists shouldn’t dismiss the benefits of behaviours like this, as long as we apply the same level of criticism as we do anything else.


– The Spiritual Materialist


One thought on “Problems for my Stance

  1. Pingback: Separating the Wheat from the Chaff: Faith-Free Spirituality | The Spiritual Materialist

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