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January 14, 2005

Toward Religious Armor in a Pill

Believers have long wanted science to return to an internal culture with proper respect for religion, but this isn't quite what they've had in mind:

Top neurologists, pharmacologists, anatomists, ethicists and theologians are to examine the scientific basis of religious belief and whether it is anything more than a placebo.

Headed by Baroness Greenfield, the leading neurologist, the new Centre for the Science of the Mind is to use imaging systems to find out how religious, spiritual and other belief systems, such as an illogical belief in the innate superiority of men, influence consciousness.

A central aspect of the two-year study, which has $2 million (Ł1.06 million) funding from the John Templeton Foundation, the US philanthropic body, will involve dozens of people being subjected to painful experiments in laboratory conditions.

Jeff Miller and his commenters have highlighted two disturbing aspects of the experiment. The first is the impression, the subjects' consent aside, that "scientists" are torturing Christians presumably with impunity. The second is to be found in this paragraph from the news story:

The study is considered of vital importance in the present world climate, given the role of religious fundamentalism in international terrorism. A better understanding of the physiology of belief, the conditions that entrench it in the mind and its usefulness in mitigating pain could be crucial to developing counter-terrorist strategies for the future.

The obvious implication is that those who think this study is "of vital importance" wish to discover "the physiology of belief" in order to reduce it to what might be seen as acceptable levels through scientifically developed techniques. But see if the impression doesn't deepen — and darken — while you ponder a question that Paul Cella posed to his readers:

What is preferable — that Europe continues on its path of secular nihilism, with the crushing weight of multiculturalism descending in an ever-drearier enervation; or that Europe becomes Islamic?

Perhaps we American theists, watching from the sidelines, have been too quick to assume that secular nihilism would passively prostrate itself to Islamic fundamentalism. We all understand secular nihilism (or whatever you prefer to call it) to be a faith in its own right — its greatest lack being the fortitude that positive* faith provides. It seems to me that the envisioned "counter-terrorist strategies" (whatever they are) could evolve to remedy this weakness in two ways: The mettle can be sapped from theistic faiths. Or it can be artificially generated in an atheistic faith, whether for political or military combat.

This is the stuff of science fiction, to be sure, but cultural clashes of continental proportions seemed, until recently, to be the stuff of historical fiction. Either way, maybe our culture's dabbling in surrealism was part of a divine plan to prepare us for the future.

* I use "positive," here, in the descriptive sense, opposite "negative," not in the sense of attributing value.

A graph of E.U. demographics that Dan Drezner posts on his blog gives some perspective about what the future holds for Europe — and not mitigating perspective.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 14, 2005 11:09 PM

C.S. Lewis foresaw this kind of thing in "The Abolition of Man" (and perhaps in "That Hideous Strength"). If man is a machine, then those who know how to control him hold all the power. Obviously, great harm can come through this view, but ultimately I think those who think they can reduce religious belief, or the human mind, to a particular sequence of neuronal firings will be thwarted by reality. Man is not a machine, and no amount of neuroscience research can change that brute fact.

Posted by: Mike S. at January 17, 2005 2:48 PM