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Posts Tagged ‘sociology of religion’

The Multiverse is a Dead Parrot? Is Atheism In Trouble?

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 26, 2011

Is the Multiverse theory dead? If so, what implications might this have for belief in g0d?

I’ve written on cosmology from time to time. Recently I picked up Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos, which does a far better job of explaining M-theory than Hawking and Mlodinow’s recent book. At this point I need to send a public shout-out to Lunagrrrl, who sent me her copy of The Grand Design, which I previewed here. I had good intentions of reviewing it again, but I can’t add much to what I wrote. Get Greene’s book and skip to chapter thirteen instead, it’s much better.

The words below were originally posted last month by Santi Tafarella in his blog, Prometheus Unbound. I think this is worth sharing. Go check out the comments on his blog too.

Santi writes:

parallel multiverse

In 2008, cosmologist Bernard Carr of Queen Mary University of London, told a science journalist for Discover the following:

If there is only one universe, you might have to have a fine-tuner. If you don’t want God, you’d better have a multiverse.

Carr said this because our universe appears to have numerous wildly improbable properties hard to explain by chance (especially if our known Big Bang universe is the only roll of the cosmic dice, setting its cosmological constants). Put bluntly, the cosmos appears to have been designed, and with very particular purposes in mind.

In whose mind?

Well, God’s of course!

Like an apple tree following its genetic imperatives, the universe appears to be following the imperatives of its cosmological constants. It apples galaxies, carbon-based life forms (like apple trees), and minds (like our own).

On planet Earth alone, there are 7 billion minds right now and counting.

Whooda thunk it?

Maybe Someone did.

The Discover article gave examples that illustrate our universe’s mind-boggling good luck (or creation by God, if the multiverse doesn’t come to the rescue of atheism). Here’s one:

The early universe was delicately poised between runaway expansion and terminal collapse. Had the universe contained much more matter, additional gravity would have made it implode. If it contained less, the universe would have expanded too quickly for galaxies to form.

The 2008 article that Bernard Carr was quoted in also noted this:

The credibility of string theory and the multiverse may get a boost within the next year or two, once physicists start analyzing results from the Large Hadron Collider, the new, $8 billion particle accelerator built on the Swiss-French border.

Now, fast forward to 2011. What’s the status of string theory and the multiverse in light of the data that has come in from the LHC (Large Hadron Collider)?

Answer: Not good.

Atheists, are you listening?

Theoretical physicist and mathematician Peter Woit of Columbia University, discussing this summer’s String 2011 Conference at his blog, writes that at past conferences they:

. . . often featured a call for progress towards making predictions that could be tested at the LHC [Large Hadron Collider]. With LHC data now coming in, [opening speaker David] Gross acknowledged that this had been a failure: there are no string theory LHC predictions.


As for what the String 2011 Conference’s opening speaker, David Gross, said of the multiverse, here’s Peter Woit again:

Surprisingly, not a word from Gross about anthropics or the multiverse. I assume he’s still an opponent, but perhaps feels that there’s no point in beating a dying horse. Susskind isn’t there and oddly, the only multiverse-related talks are from the two speakers brought in to do public lectures (Brian Greene and Andrei Linde, Hawking’s health has kept him from a planned appearance). So the multiverse is a huge part of the public profile of the conference, but pretty well suppressed at the scientific sections. Also pretty well suppressed is “string phenomenology”, or any attempt to use string theory to do unification. Out of 35 or so talks I see only a couple related to this, which is still the main advertised goal of string theory.

A dying horse. Isn’t that sad? And remember: as goes string theory, so goes the multiverse.

And perhaps even atheism. As uber-atheist Jerry Coyne noted recently at his blog, how the multiverse debate pans out among physicists has unmistakable consequences for the God question:

[M]ultiverse theories . . . represent physicists’ attempts to give a naturalistic explanation for what others see as evidence of design.

But here’s how Peter Woit describes the String 2011 Conference summary by Jeff Harvey:

In Jeff Harvey’s summary of the conference, he notes that many people have remarked that there hasn’t been much string theory at the conference. About the landscape, his comment is that “personally I think it’s unlikely to be possible to do science this way.” He describes the situation of string theory unification as like the Monty Python parrot “No, he’s not dead, he’s resting.” while expressing some hope that a miracle will occur at the LHC or in the study of string vacua, reviving the parrot.

That the summary speaker at the main conference for a field would compare the state of the main public motivation for the field as similar to that of the parrot in the Monty Python sketch is pretty remarkable. In the sketch, the whole joke is the parrot’s seller’s unwillingness, no matter what, to admit that what he was selling was a dead parrot.

And, as for Scientific American’s recent coverage of the multiverse hypothesis, Woit is critical:

One might be tempted to criticize Scientific American for keeping this alive, but they just reflect the fact that this pseudo-science continues to have significant influence at the highest levels of the physics establishment.

The multiverse is pseudo-science. Really?

Based on what Bernard Carr said in 2008, and what Woit reports of the goings-on at the String 2011 Conference and in Scientific American, should this alert us to the possibility that atheism itself might be quietly trending in the direction of Monty Python’s dead parrot?

Monty Python | Dead Parrot Sketch


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Posted in atheism, cosmology, Philosophy, Physics, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 26 Comments »

Religion and War. Or, “What Makes Me Happy”

Posted by spritzophrenia on August 23, 2011

Which is the most violent religion in the world?”, I asked my class recently. No doubt you have your opinions, but these people say that the religion now responsible for most wars is in fact Nationalism. That’s right, they argue that government-sponsored promotion of our “nation” is actually a religion that commits blood sacrifice by sending our young men and women to war. Sound crazy? Gaddaffi’s Libya is currently being taken over— by nationalist causes?— with the support of NATO powers. We’re near the 10th anniversary of 9/11, closely followed by the anniversary of ten years of US-sponsored war. Maybe we should consider what they say?

Here are some excerpts:

Americans live in a culture that is as religious as any that exists. In this article we contend that nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States, and perhaps in many other countries. Structurally speaking, nationalism mirrors sectarian belief systems such as Christianity, Judaism, Islam and others that are more conventionally labeled as religious. It happens that nationalism also satisfies many traditional definitions of religion, but citizens of nation-states have religious reasons for denying it. We argue that both sectarian and national religions organize killing energy by committing devotees to sacrifice themselves to the group… Although our examples come mostly from the United States and its majority sectarian faith, and although generalization is risky, the principles we describe are broadly applicable to other enduring groups, defined as groups for which members are willing to give their lives.

… The familiar claim that a religious view of the world is characterized by a moral opposition to violence ignores a more complex reality in which faiths that most deeply bind the commitment of devotees are structures for organizing killing energy. This is true both for religions that aggressively kill the Other in the name of a deity or deities and those that pledge their devotees to self-sacrifice when confronted with violence. We shall argue that violent and so-called non-violent religions are structurally indistinguishable from a certain perspective.

click to enlarge

Click to see bigger pic.

what is really true in any community is what its members can agree is worth killing for, or what they can be compelled to sacrifice their lives for. The sacred is thus easily recognized. It is that set of beliefs and persons for which we ought to shed our own blood, if necessary, when there is a serious threat. Rituals that celebrate this blood sacrifice give expression and witness to faith. Sacrificial death thus defines both sectarian and national identity. This is the first sense in which both are species of religion…

On the whole, we misunderstand the genuinely religious character of American patriotism and the violent character of genuine religion. What distinguishes nationalism from sectarianism is not group logic, for both are religions of blood sacrifice. What distinguishes them is historical location. In the West Christianity once could kill and ask others to die in the name of its particular god. In some places it does this still. But in general in the West the power to compel believers to die passed from Christianity to the nation-state, where it largely remains…

Americans traditionally regard the nation-state as the domain of unassailable force and religion as the domain of unassailable truth. This separation of faith and force is markedly unstable and collapses completely in wartime…

If nationalism is religious, why do we deny it? … [The nationalist] god is inexpressible, unsayable, unknowable, beyond language. But that god may not be refused when it calls for sacrifice. …

Some citizens openly speak of the American flag as sacred. Can we disregard the impassioned testimony of others that it is not, and neither is the nation it represents? …

To understand how war is ritual sacrifice, recall that the raw material of society is bodies. Organizing and disposing of them is the fundamental task of all societies. The social is quite literally constructed from the body and from specific bodies that are dedicated and used up for the purpose. The enduringness of any group depends at least partly on the willingness of its members to sacrifice themselves for the continuing life of the group. The creation of national or sectarian religious sentiment depends on a common secret, which is that the underlying cost of all society is the violent death of some portion of its members. …

Does that push any buttons for ya? Respond below.

These ideas don’t make me happy, but the picture above right does. It’s the bookshelf in the study after one of my biweekly trips to the library. As Happygirl will testify, I pretty much jump up and down with glee when I have a pile with such titles as Stupa: Art, Architechtonics and Symbolism, Critical Discourse Analysis and Language Cognition or Foucault, Psychology and the Analytics of Power. I can see your eyes glazing over already 😉

There are 87 books in that photo, my current reading for two papers I’m writing. One is a Foucauldian reading of Western Buddhist meditation. A second is a paper on “civil religion”, the New Zealand state and nationalist wars. My interest in investigating civil religion and war was stimulated by Marvin and Ingle’s highly provocative article Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion, excerpted above.

Civil religion is an established, though contested, concept in sociology of religion. Very simply, it can be several related ideas, either a) a religion becomes a supporter of the state/political system or b) the state uses religion & religious symbolism to promote its agenda -think state prayers on Memorial Day/ANZAC day or the anniversary of 9/11. Or c) the state itself becomes a religion. The theory is debated, of course. I’m not sure I agree with it, but it provokes some interesting thoughts.

The concept of civil religion was not original to Robert Bellah, as one text asserts, nor even Rousseau although he’s generally credited with it. Nope, it looks like “Augustine’s discussion in book 6 of The City of God of Varro’s category of ‘civil theology’ ” started it all off circa 410 CE (Grosby, 2001: 114). Sociological concepts are sometimes much older than commonly thought.

So apparently if we support our nation, we’re religious, regardless of our personal beliefs.


Does the idea of nationalism as a religion make sense? And, what makes YOU happy?
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One of my all-time favourite tunes, from a band I would see live ANY time.
Slayer | War Ensemble

Those of you who are curious to see the actual book titles can Click to see a bigger pic in yfrog.


Grosby, Steven. (2001). “Nationality and Religion.” In Guibernau, Monserrat and Hutchinson, John. (eds.) (2001). Understanding Nationalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Marvin, C. & Ingle, D. (1996). “Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion. (1996). 64(4), 767-780. http://www.asc.upenn.edu/usr/fcm/jaar.htm Web March 2011.

Posted in Sociology | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Why Stay If You’re Gay?

Posted by spritzophrenia on May 25, 2011

A number of you said you’d be interested in reading the proposal for my Masters’ pilot study, “Why Stay if You’re Gay?” (Homosexual Participation and Identity in the Church) . Well, here’s the introduction:

Western society has undergone significant social changes around homosexuality in the last thirty years. In New Zealand the Homosexual Law Reform Bill (1986) decriminalised homosexual acts, more recently the Civil Union Act (2004) gave marriage-like rights to New Zealand gay (and other) couples wishing to commit in this way. In the same period there has been change around homosexuality and the church. While change in ‘liberal’ and ‘mainstream’ Christian churches has been ongoing for some time, there is evidence of greater acceptance of gay congregants in US evangelical (Falsani, 2011) and post-evangelical ’emergent’ circles. “It sounds so churchy, but I felt like God spoke to my heart and said ‘[homosexuality] is not a sin.” (Pastor Jay Bakker, cited in Lee, 2006). In New Zealand, similar changes are occurring; “Gay Christian Alliance is a group of gay Christians living in New Zealand who wish to spread the message that it’s OK to be gay and Christian” (2011).

I’ve come across a number of gay and lesbian people in the Christian Church. My particular question is why they stay– it seems fairly clear why one would leave. What do they get out of religious faith? What are their motivations? How do they see their identity as gay and Christian?

A couple of comments: It’s only the proposal for a short thesis (10,000 words). The full Masters’ thesis is around 40,000 words. Due to academic-speak some of it would need a bit more unpacking for those who aren’t familiar with the ideas. Also note that “sociology of deviance” doesn’t imply a moral judgement, it’s merely a way of talking about people perceived as different, and can be questioned in it’s own right.

Initially, I didn’t particularly want to study sexuality, or gays in particular. I want to study sociology of religion, this is merely a way in. Having said that, and having now read a number of studies by gay academics, it’s a fascinating area in itself.

To add to the ethical notes in the proposal, I can imagine lesbigays[1] saying somewhat tiredly, “Oh, here come the sociologists with their surveys again.” To be part of a minority means you get questioned by all parts of society, including academia. I have a number of lesbigay and trans friends, and sometimes I feel a bit weird “studying them”.

Lastly, here’s a humorous video I came across the other day:
Gay scientists discover the Christian gene

[1] “In this essay I am trying out the term ‘les-bi-gay’. I am aware that it risks the problems we had before: some people are not explicitly included, and some of those who are may feel at risk of incorporation by hegemonic male gayness.” (From a paper by Sinfield, a gay academic, 1997: 201)


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Posted in Christianity, Emergent, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , | 5 Comments »

A Decade Out

Posted by spritzophrenia on March 10, 2011

As I expected, my blogging has been a little less regular now the semester has started. So far I’m really enjoying it. I’m doing four sociology courses– a theory paper, one on “Settler Societies”, one on analysing documents and a research paper.

Thanks for all your suggestions a couple weeks back. I’ve decided my research topic will be

“Gay and Lesbian experiences of remaining in the Christian Church”.

I’ll be surveying as many as I can contact, and interviewing four to six people. My particular interest will be in why they stay– it seems fairly clear why one would leave. I suspect my topic may end up being further refined, eg perhaps lumping men and women together isn’t going to work. Theoretical angles will include things like identity, deviance*, family, power, religion, sexuality, gender… I’d like to use Foucault a lot, and perhaps Durkheim. I’m discovering lots of writing in this area already, so my literature review will be easy. Happily, it now looks like I can take a sociology of religion angle.

* Note, “deviance” in sociology is not a derogatory term, it’s intended for any study of groups who go against a perceived societal norm. Though I have my own opinions on this, and prefer “difference” as a term.

For the text analysis course, we had to write a short piece on “What we hope to see in our lives in ten years time”, which we’ll be analysing as a class next week. I thought I’d share mine with you:


Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future.
~ Niels Bohr

Jonathan A Decade Out

I’m surprised to discover I have clear ideas on what I’d like to see happen in the next decade of my life, as I haven’t been the sort of person who’s had definite plans or goals in the past.

Foremost is the baby we’re having in June, hoping that will go well and my relationship with HappyGirl will continue to grow. In ten years my new son or daughter will be that many years older, and I hope it will be as satisfying and joy-filled as the first ten years with MasterT, my now twelve-year-old son. In ten years he’ll have left home; I hope we’ll have a close relationship through his teens.

This year I’ve embarked on an academic journey. In nine more years I hope to have earned my PhD and found a teaching position at a university. Along with that I hope an income beyond the student struggle will arrive, although remuneration isn’t foremost in my mind.

I’ve just had my first music released by a real record label, and in ten years I’d love to have the chance to play music around the world, or at least in New Zealand. To be able to regularly play festivals would be fun.

I guess I’ll always be a writer. Perhaps I will have published a book by then, and I hope my blog has a solid following concurrent with that.

Who knows if we’ll be living permanently overseas, but perhaps we’ll have spent two or three years living somewhere sunny and dry; Arizona, New Mexico or certain places on Australia’s East coast spring to mind.


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Here’s the music video for my recent release:

Posted in agnostic, personal, Sociology | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Help – I Need Your Study Ideas

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 16, 2011

So I’ve enrolled for my post-Grad course in Sociology. Lectures start in ten days, and I have to come up with a thesis topic pronto. I want to study something interesting, and perhaps controversial (because that is more motivating and publishable). I was hoping to study something relating to religion, and the topics I had were things like:

* Gay and Lesbian Perceptions of God
(do gays perceive of God differently?)
* Green Spirituality
(what kinds of spiritual beliefs do environmentalists have?)
* The Spiritual Beliefs of Academics
(is it true that academics are less spiritual?)
* Catholics and contraception
(how many actually practice the “official method”?)

Unfortunately I’ve been told that they can’t supervise me for sociology of religion. So now I have to find something else I can get passionate about. Maybe you can suggest some ideas?


Other areas I’ve come up with that I might be able to get interested in:

* Music? (Usually studied under “popular culture”)
eg “The ethnicity of heavy metal fans”
* Zombies (“popular culture”)
* Sociology of Food?
* Power – Foucault. The power of … academics?
* Drug use among working professionals
* Social Media – Facebook, Twitter etc

Think of a group in society and something you’d like to know about them.

Things Sociologists are interested in: Age, Gender, Sexuality, Ethnicity, Class, Status, Deviance, Family, Ideology, Postmodernism, Power, Globalism.

Institutions Sociologists have studied include: Law, Science, Health, Internet, The Military, Education, Media. For more ideas of topics see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sociology

Ideally it would be something I can study by surveying and interviewing people.

Are you able to suggest any controversial/interesting topics?


Posted in agnostic, Sociology | Tagged: , | 27 Comments »

The New Atheists’ Narrow Worldview

Posted by spritzophrenia on February 1, 2011

Stephen Asma has written a critique of the new atheists which I want to share. It’s a sociological look at religion, in other words one that places religion it in it’s social context. In particular he argues that animism (the world’s most common religion) makes more sense than a mechanistic world view if one is poor, and that the new atheists completely miss this due to their rich Western lifestyle. He argues they miss the psychological benefits of religion, which are still worthwhile. (He also argues against ‘dangerous’ religion.)

What follows is my distillation of the points that interested me. I recommend reading the whole thing.

“The new atheists, like Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins, and Dennett have failed to notice that their mechanistic view of nature is in part a product (as well as a cause) of prosperity and stability. Most friends and even enemies of the new atheism have not yet noticed the provincialism of the current debate. If the horsemen left their world of books, conferences, classrooms, and computers to travel more in the developing world for a year, they would find some unfamiliar religious arenas.

Having lived in Cambodia and China, and travelled in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Africa, I have come to appreciate how religion functions quite differently in the developing world—where the majority of believers actually live. The Four Horsemen, their fans, and their enemies all fail to factor in their own prosperity when they think about the uses and abuses of religion.

Harris and his colleagues think that religion is mostly concerned with two jobs—explaining nature and guiding morality.

spirit house

Boontham Khuenkaew places a food offering at the ‘spirit house’ in his yard in Thailand.

They’re wrong in imagining that the primary job of religion is morality. Like cosmology, ethics is barely relevant in non-Western religions. It is certainly not the main function or lure of devotional life. Science could take over the “morality job” tomorrow in the developing world, and very few religious practitioners would even notice.

The zealous attempt, on the part of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Red Guard in China, to root out this “opiate” also rooted out all the good stuff about Buddhism that I’ve labelled “psychological.” The attempt to do away with all gods or religions always throws the baby out with the bath water. There is much good “medicine” in Buddhism (just as there is much good in other religions), but if the Asian Communists found you practicing it in the 1970s, you were as good as dead. And that form of militant atheism should ring a cautionary note: Religion is not the only ideology with blood on its hands.

I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation, but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously. I’m not naïve—I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But when people have their backs against the wall, when they are truly helpless and hopeless, then grovelling and negotiating with anything more powerful than themselves is a very human response. It is a response that will not go away, and that should not go away if it provides some genuine relief for anxiety and agony. As Roger Scruton says, “The consolation of imaginary things is not imaginary consolation.”

The Four Horsemen and other new atheists are members of liberal democracies, and they have not appeared to be interested in the social-engineering agendas of the earlier, Communist atheists. With impressive arts of persuasion, the new atheistic proponents just want to talk, debate, and exchange ideas, and of course they should do so. No harm, no foul.

But Sam Harris’s new book may be a subtle turning point toward a more normative social agenda. If public policy is eventually expected to flow from atheism, then its proponents need to have a more nuanced and global understanding of religion.”


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Bad Religion | Atheist Peace


Here are a couple of quotes from Asma which support my contention that Buddhism as practiced is much more “religious” than many Westerners think:

Many of the new atheists have recognized that Buddhism doesn’t quite belong with the other religious targets, and they reserve a vague respect for its philosophical core. I’m glad. They’re right to do so. But two days in any Buddhist country will painfully demonstrate to its Western fans that Buddhism is an elaborate, supernatural, devotional religion as well.

The mix of animism with Buddhism is so complete in Asia that monks frequently make offerings to these spirits, and Buddhist pagodas actually have spirit shrines built into one corner. The Buddhist religion is built on top of this much older animistic system. Animism was never supplanted by modern beliefs.

Thanks to Tracy for passing this article on to me 🙂

Posted in atheism, Buddhism | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments »