Spirituality: Friend or Foe? - Adam Frank and Tom Flynn

March 14, 2011

Host: Chris Mooney

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.

In this week's show, we present two different takes on whether we should embrace, or discard, the concept of godless spirituality.

Our first guest, Adam Frank, is a nonbeliever with a deep respect for the domains of human spiritual endeavor who represents the pro-spirituality view. Frank is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Rochester, where he studies the formation and evolution of stars. He's also a freelance writer for Discover and Astronomy magazines, a blogger at NPR's 13.7, and author of the book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate.

Our second guest, Tom Flynn, is a non-believer who represents the anti-spirituality view. He's the executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, editor of Free Inquiry magazine, director of Inquiry Media Productions, and director of the Robert G. Ingersoll Birthplace Museum, among many other accomplishments. He has written numerous books, both fictional and non fictional, including 1993's famed (and in-famed) The Trouble with Christmas.

Books Mentioned in This Episode:


Comments from the CFI Forums

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I’m more sympathetic with Tom Flynn’s point. I find there is a huge language barrier between rationalists and the religious. Not only can spiritual mean something out of body or ectoplasmic to them, but to the extremely religious or creationists, it can mean something akin to “Wiccan”. Even a seemingly straight forward term like “naturalist” is interpreted by creationists as having occult or pagan overtones.

Posted on Mar 15, 2011 at 3:56pm by DevilChef Comment #1

I found Flynn’s description of the problem with spirituality and the importance of articulation and clarity excellent.

Posted on Mar 16, 2011 at 2:02pm by klox Comment #2

I have to agree with the previous comments.  I think Tom Flynn said it, but if you know your audience uses a word like ‘spirituality’ to mean something different than you do, why use it?

In fact, I’m not entirely clear what is being argued here in the first place.  Is it just way of marketing us non-believers so that believers realize we also value such things as beauty, love, music and great art?  I suppose now that I think about it, that’s probably exactly what they do believe, that we don’t value such things.

Posted on Mar 16, 2011 at 4:14pm by Ron Obvious Comment #3

I posted this at the Intersection as well, but anyway…

I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

I found the first half of that podcast to be most vexing.

Posted on Mar 16, 2011 at 7:22pm by Jeff Keogh Comment #4

It was a pleasure to hear the point and counterpoint of two articulate spokesmen for their respective views.  I can see both sides, and while I’m closer to Flynn’s position, he strikes me as almost advocating the flip side of fundamentalist hyperliteralism, a view that rejects ambiguity and metaphorical description of the phenomenology of human experience.  I know that Flynn doesn’t really take that extreme of a position, as I know he has an appreciation for (and has written some) good fiction.

What I think will be a fascinating future empirical inquiry will be taking work like that of Deb Roy on language acquisition (see his wonderful TED talk: http://www.ted.com/talks/deb_roy_the_birth_of_a_word.html) applied to spiritual language, and combined with neural imaging (or future methods of observing brain activity) to see how such language is causally generated and, perhaps, some clarification of reference and meaning.

There is certainly value to the use of metaphorical terms to refer to (and to generate) internal human experiences.

Posted on Mar 17, 2011 at 7:43am by Jim Lippard Comment #5

I posted this at the Intersection as well, but anyway…

I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

I found the first half of that podcast to be most vexing.

I don’t think Frank is trying to redefine language, he’s trying to capture it in its broadest sense as the disjunction of its uses across cultures.  He specifically referred to Rudolf Otto, whose book _The Idea of the Holy_ tries to identify the phenomenological experience associated with the word (“non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self”).  Frank, being a scientist, likely thinks that the word refers to the experiential phenomenon rather than causally referring to anything real outside of the self.

John Horgan’s book _Rational Mysticism_, examines some of these same themes through interviews with a variety of advocates of forms of scientifically-based mysticism (though Horgan ultimately finds them all unsatisfying).

Posted on Mar 17, 2011 at 7:48am by Jim Lippard Comment #6

I posted this at the Intersection as well, but anyway…

I’m afraid that Tom Flynn’s point is simply unanswerable. It is a fact that to the average person, ‘spiritual’ implies supernatural belief. The Clapham Omnibus is packed with those who make that link.

To operate as if the general population does not automatically make that connection is to be divorced from reality.

You can redefine words all you like, but if you use a word outside its commonly accepted usage, you *will* be misunderstood, and you *will* give the wrong impression.

And seriously: sacred has no supernatural meaning because it didn’t initially mean supernatural in Latin? Really? What is this: argumentum ad etymology?

For pete’s sake, in common usage, sacred is interchangeable with holy. On what planet is that not supernaturally loaded language?

I found the first half of that podcast to be most vexing.

I don’t think Frank is trying to redefine language, he’s trying to capture it in its broadest sense as the disjunction of its uses across cultures.  He specifically referred to Rudolf Otto, whose book _The Idea of the Holy_ tries to identify the phenomenological experience associated with the word (“non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self”).  Frank, being a scientist, likely thinks that the word refers to the experiential phenomenon rather than causally referring to anything real outside of the self.

John Horgan’s book _Rational Mysticism_, examines some of these same themes through interviews with a variety of advocates of forms of scientifically-based mysticism (though Horgan ultimately finds them all unsatisfying).

Jim,

As I understand the discussion, it’s not about trying to define (or redefine) language.  He may well be 100% correct in how he describes the various uses of a word, and how it is understood contextually in certain circles of discourse.

What he seem to be roundly ignoring is that it’s irrelevant when your audience is comprised largely of the general public.  Unless he wishes to make clear his definition of an ambiguous term on every occasion he chooses to use it, he will be misunderstood.  I’ve seen no counter to the argument that, for the average member of the public, the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’ have supernatural connotations.  To use such terms (when there are plenty of other synonyms that lack such connotations) is counterproductive since they smack of supernaturalism.

Posted on Mar 17, 2011 at 6:36pm by Jeff Keogh Comment #7

I don’t think Frank is trying to redefine language, he’s trying to capture it in its broadest sense as the disjunction of its uses across cultures.  He specifically referred to Rudolf Otto, whose book _The Idea of the Holy_ tries to identify the phenomenological experience associated with the word (“non-rational, non-sensory experience or feeling whose primary and immediate object is outside the self”).  Frank, being a scientist, likely thinks that the word refers to the experiential phenomenon rather than causally referring to anything real outside of the self.

John Horgan’s book _Rational Mysticism_, examines some of these same themes through interviews with a variety of advocates of forms of scientifically-based mysticism (though Horgan ultimately finds them all unsatisfying).

Jim,

As I understand the discussion, it’s not about trying to define (or redefine) language.  He may well be 100% correct in how he describes the various uses of a word, and how it is understood contextually in certain circles of discourse.

What he seem to be roundly ignoring is that it’s irrelevant when your audience is comprised largely of the general public.  Unless he wishes to make clear his definition of an ambiguous term on every occasion he chooses to use it, he will be misunderstood.  I’ve seen no counter to the argument that, for the average member of the public, the terms ‘spiritual’ and ‘sacred’ have supernatural connotations.  To use such terms (when there are plenty of other synonyms that lack such connotations) is counterproductive since they smack of supernaturalism.

I think you’re quite right that the potential for confusion exists, and I’ve not read Frank’s book—but it seemed to me his point was to try to shift the usage of terms.  I don’t know that that is necessarily counterproductive.  By comparison, it seems to me that we’re better off in a world with secularized, liberal Christians than one with fundamentalist Christians, and I believe there was much more fluidity in how Christianity was understood in its early history than fundamentalists (who didn’t show up until the late 19th/early 20th century, apparently in reaction to modernity) seem to think.  Those who argue against biblical literalism can quote Augustine, for example.  See this discussion on biblical literalism which in some ways parallels the present discussion: http://notevenmodern.blogspot.com/2007/08/david-heddle-on-biblical-literalism.html

Posted on Mar 17, 2011 at 8:46pm by Jim Lippard Comment #8

This episode was quite interesting to me, and like another person commented, I found myself sympathetic to both points of view.  I find the debate personally relevant because of the time I’ve spent in a traditional 12-step recovery program.  The majority of folks there use the kind of vague “spiritual” language discussed in the episode, and despite their lack of fundamentalism, it’s clear that they are talking about transcendent forces of some sort or another.  As a naturalist/humanist, I find it necessary, as Flynn suggests, to speak in ways that cannot be misunderstood.  I want folks to understand that I don’t believe in a god, or any kind of guiding force or consciousness behind it all. 

On the other hand, I do find some religious language to be seductive, in that it speaks to a kind of emotional, aesthetic, and inner experience that I cherish.  Any one even slightly familiar with the religious naturalist movement knows of what I’m speaking, and it’s important, I feel, to give voice to this side of life as well.  Should theists be the only people to have access to this language? 

A good, neutral word to consider is “meditation.”  It has a religious and secular history, and it points to a kind of inner experience that is important to buddhists, christians, stoics and humanists.

Posted on Mar 19, 2011 at 4:02am by PetePfarrer Comment #9

IMO most people I know would interpret spiritual(ity) in a supernatural sense.  Alas our physicist seems to be playing an Alice in Wonderland word game here.  So I’m mostly with Flynn.  There is of course much awesomeness and wonder and beauty and mystery in all around us.  I mean, what is gravity?  Frank may or may not have as much success in redefining the s-word, but he ought bear in mind that homosexuals have had mixed results with “gay”; I hear that adjective in the context of describing things gross, odious, tacky.

Posted on Mar 19, 2011 at 12:26pm by B9K9 Comment #10

As any good skeptic knows, there are many dangers in “presenting both sides” of a supposed argument. In this episode of Point of Inquiry we see the two greatest dangers: 1) That an argument with little basis in fact will appear legitimate and 2) That the false dichotomy will leave out other points of view that are at least as valid - views that may even present a much better picture of the truth.

In my opinion, the first is a serious problem but, unfortunately, since the melodramatic demonization of supernatural beliefs (represented here by Flynn, who added a bit of “the public isn’t smart enough to understand these nuances” BS for good measure) is so strong in the skeptical community (despite little or no evidence from actual cognitive science) I want to leave that one alone for a minute and move to the second and more serious issue. By presenting one side “for the sacred” and another side “against any spirituality” several other extremely important views were left out. Although Frank did sort of touch on the issue, it was never stated outright, as usual in these conversations among skeptics: The fact of the matter is that “spirituality” or the “sacred” plays almost no role at all in science! It is neither the inspiration necessary for advance nor is it a great hindrance to progress. Over the centuries and still, many great scientists have been “spiritual” or whatever mumbo jumbo and many have had no such feelings. It simply makes little or no demonstrable difference.

As I said, Frank did touch on that issue but simply having this discussion at all gives legitimacy to this unsupported view that spirituality makes any difference one way or another or that scientists and rationalists should waste their time discussing such unrelated issues. Yet again we have this false dichotomy presented as if we have to “choose sides” in a fight that 95% of scientists couldn’t care less about. We work with colleagues who are religious and atheist and every other stripe and we’re tired of these bogus “two sides” taking time away from our science while each “side” blames the other.

On the last show, Neil DeGrasse Tyson also hinted strongly at this view not represented in your false dichotomy. He said that he had spoken about these issues from time to time but that they represent a tiny portion of his total output. Nor do they seem to have had any great influence on his actual work. Newton was rather religious. Yet this fact is neither what he is remembered for nor does it seem to have harmed his science. Einstein had great reverence. But it is neither what made him a great scientist nor was it something that held him back. Hawking is, as far as I can tell, as strong an Atheist as anyone but it has nothing to do with what makes him a great scientist.

Please don’t give us anecdotes from their lives! Anecdotes are never good evidence. And if someone brings up this idiotic “so-an-so percentage of scientists are Atheists” nonsense again, I’m going to have to send you back to Statistics 101. No more bogus science, please. There simply isn’t a shred of evidence that spirituality (or whatever you want to call it) has any notable influence on what scientists do.

You “two sides” can go on whinging to each other. The rest of us, the real silent majority are busy finding things out, neither hindered nor helped nor in any other way distracted by irrelevant ideas about deities or spirits or the sacred and profane or other personal views. We work just as well with the most religious of our colleagues as the least and we’re tired of the “two sides” acting as if we give a crap about this debate.

Posted on Mar 19, 2011 at 8:35pm by ganzfeld Comment #11

Given Flynn’s sensitivity to the historical and etymological meanings of words, what does he think about the use of the Greek-derived word eudaimonia (“having a good daimon”) in secular moral philosophy?

Posted on Mar 20, 2011 at 10:21am by AdvancedAtheist Comment #12

“I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” is the ultimate example of baby boomer, have-it-both-ways, holier than thou (meaning to them better than parental generation), dishonestly and shiftingly ambiguous, hypocrisy. Just as I observed leftists of that generation talk about equality but actually mean shifting the roles of races and classes and switching the targets of discrimination, so I saw them reject their parents’ religions and embrace New Age nonsense with a gusto. To that and following generations, “spiritual” is Newspeak for animism, superstition, and pop culture play-religion taken seriously to validate a superiority complex. Their emotions – THEIR emotions, are too big and wonderful to be anything less than supernatural.

Posted on Mar 20, 2011 at 12:29pm by rg21 Comment #13

It’s all vacuous blather. I’ve never met anyone that says, “I’m spiritual, but not religious” that could explain what they meant by that statement. To me it means, “blah blah blah, but I don’t really know much about what I’m talking about.”

Posted on Mar 22, 2011 at 2:33pm by SteveAldrich Comment #14

I think it means they believe they can find happiness and self satisfaction through spiritual concepts, which maybe true.
However they see no need/reason to have those concepts validated by traditional religious doctrine. Or, apparently science for that matter.

I suppose it is like, “If it makes me feel good, it doesn’t matter whether the concept is based in reality.”

Posted on Mar 22, 2011 at 3:29pm by Gnostikosis Comment #15

I’ve said “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” a couple of times.  Both times I was trying to impress a girl.  No one in the real world uses “spiritual” other than in a supernatural sense.  Those who don’t mean something explicitly related to the “three great monotheisms” are making a lame self-righteous reference to their personal conception of stylish eastern religion.  Something like “Buddhism for barely-non-Christians.”  Spiritual in public discourse today inevitably means either theism or woo (something to do with Chi or The Law of Attraction).

Of course, when I say “no one,” I guess I’m being over-inclusive.  For some reason, Adam Frank and, apparently, Chris Mooney, are absolutely frantic to have “spiritual” mean what they want it to mean.  How many times did Mooney talk in this episode about how spiritual is evolving to a more naturalistic meaning?  To the point that Frank’s answer to Mooney’s 1st question, whether it’s not just semantics, was a completely impossible to understand mish-mash.  Someday “spiritual” may lose its supernatural connotation (also “sacred,” which in an impenetrable non-distinction is apparently Frank’s preferred word), but not until everyone who listened to this episode is long dead and buried.

By contrast, Tom Flynn very calmly and reasonably says something like, “Let’s just not say “spiritual”.”  Nothing aggressive or in-your-face.  Nothing judgmental.  Just a recognition that we have an entire language of perfectly good words out there and there’s no reason to call yourself spiritual if you’re an atheist, because if you do, 100% of the time it is understood as supernatural.  I guaran-damn-tee you that Adam Frank is no more moved by the beauty of a Hubble photograph than I am, or than millions of others are.  Why he insists on calling that feeling “spiritual” is beyond me.  And if he couldn’t explain it in a 20 minute interview with a very friendly Chris Mooney, I’d say he can’t understand it either.  My best bet is he’s trying to impress a girl.

Posted on Mar 22, 2011 at 3:50pm by patrickdallas Comment #16

I’ve said “I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual” a couple of times.  Both times I was trying to impress a girl.  No one in the real world uses “spiritual” other than in a supernatural sense.  Those who don’t mean something explicitly related to the “three great monotheisms” are making a lame self-righteous reference to their personal conception of stylish eastern religion.  Something like “Buddhism for barely-non-Christians.”  Spiritual in public discourse today inevitably means either theism or woo (something to do with Chi or The Law of Attraction).

Of course, when I say “no one,” I guess I’m being over-inclusive.  For some reason, Adam Frank and, apparently, Chris Mooney, are absolutely frantic to have “spiritual” mean what they want it to mean.  How many times did Mooney talk in this episode about how spiritual is evolving to a more naturalistic meaning?  To the point that Frank’s answer to Mooney’s 1st question, whether it’s not just semantics, was a completely impossible to understand mish-mash.  Someday “spiritual” may lose its supernatural connotation (also “sacred,” which in an impenetrable non-distinction is apparently Frank’s preferred word), but not until everyone who listened to this episode is long dead and buried.

By contrast, Tom Flynn very calmly and reasonably says something like, “Let’s just not say “spiritual”.”  Nothing aggressive or in-your-face.  Nothing judgmental.  Just a recognition that we have an entire language of perfectly good words out there and there’s no reason to call yourself spiritual if you’re an atheist, because if you do, 100% of the time it is understood as supernatural.  I guaran-damn-tee you that Adam Frank is no more moved by the beauty of a Hubble photograph than I am, or than millions of others are.  Why he insists on calling that feeling “spiritual” is beyond me.  And if he couldn’t explain it in a 20 minute interview with a very friendly Chris Mooney, I’d say he can’t understand it either.  My best bet is he’s trying to impress a girl.

QFT.

Very well put.

Posted on Mar 22, 2011 at 4:17pm by Jeff Keogh Comment #17

I suppose it is like, “If it makes me feel good, it doesn’t matter whether the concept is based in reality.”

Sure, like art or sport or… reality television. We know all our emotions are illusions intended to replicate our DNA. That doesn’t make them worthless or subject to ridicule. It’s a human thing. Get over it already.

Posted on Mar 23, 2011 at 5:59pm by ganzfeld Comment #18

Spiritual means one seriously reflects what it means for one to be in a universe in which one is only a tiny entity, and tries to find out what that means for ones thoughts, feelings and actions.

That is an activity that one can do when one is a christian, a moslem, a buddhist, or a naturalist. It’s all about fully opening to what one believes is given, be it god, karma or matter.

Posted on Mar 24, 2011 at 3:20am by GdB Comment #19

I suppose it is like, “If it makes me feel good, it doesn’t matter whether the concept is based in reality.”

Sure, like art or sport or… reality television. We know all our emotions are illusions intended to replicate our DNA. That doesn’t make them worthless or subject to ridicule. It’s a human thing. Get over it already.

There was no ridicule in my comments. I’m not for or against it. It was only an observation.

Posted on Mar 24, 2011 at 9:26am by Gnostikosis Comment #20

Spiritual means one seriously reflects what it means for one to be in a universe in which one is only a tiny entity, and tries to find out what that means for ones thoughts, feelings and actions.

That’s what it means to you and maybe some others…  :-)

That is an activity that one can do when one is a christian, a moslem, a buddhist, or a naturalist. It’s all about fully opening to what one believes is given, be it god, karma or matter.

Do people have a choice in what to believe?  :lol:

Posted on Mar 24, 2011 at 9:29am by Gnostikosis Comment #21

Sorry, Gnostikosis. I didn’t mean to aim that at you.

I think your last question is also an excellent question. In the skeptical community we often hear people talking about what people “choose to believe”. But Free Will is as much of a fairy tale as gods and demons, in my opinion. In any case, there’s no evidence for it.

Posted on Mar 24, 2011 at 7:03pm by ganzfeld Comment #22

Sorry, Gnostikosis. I didn’t mean to aim that at you.

I think your last question is also an excellent question. In the skeptical community we often hear people talking about what people “choose to believe”. But Free Will is as much of a fairy tale as gods and demons, in my opinion. In any case, there’s no evidence for it.

Gnos was just making fun of me… Here Gnos, a present: http://www.animatedgif.net/fireexplosions/bombblow_e0.gif

Ganzfeld, then please show me the evidence in favor of it. But before you do, please read a bit of free will discussion in the philosophy group here… ;-)

Further I am waiting for those that think spiritual must have to do with belief in the supernatural. As nobody contradicts me, I assume… Ah well, let it be.

Posted on Mar 25, 2011 at 3:58am by GdB Comment #23

Sorry for extreme concision here and vagueness.

But the political side of me agreed a lot with Mooney’s discussion with Frank.  Being in a state now where I cannot fathom being a believer, I still have that “born again” atheist tendency to want to convert, or wake up the minds of true believers.  This said, I can see wanting to change what people think when they here spiritual talk.  It is political…it is a decoy.  To me, it is like what Michael Dowd is doing with his “Thank God For Evolution”.

Are these secular political tactics maybe evolving on their own to help the conversion to this new way of thinking for those who need some similarity to their old way of thinking in order to swallow the pill?  Kinda like what is described in books like Suns of God (Acharya S) when one mythology story borrows from another so that the transition is easier?

On the other hand, I made my transition on my own.  It was like a light turned on one day and I just realized the pervasive bull shit.  It wasn’t too traumatic, but it was a very noticeable, huge change in my way of thinking.  The Four Horsemen and other author’s book’s helped the transition happen faster, but there seemed to be a “click” that sparked the urge to read them.

This said, I also agreed with the viewpoint expressed in the discussion between Mooney and Flynn.  Why should we have to use decoys?  Why do we have to be politicians?  We need to lead by example and work on changing our own language to be as consistent as possible.  We should not mislead.  It just makes the pill harder to swallow, but then self realizing that there is no pill to begin with is way more convincing than some revelation from someone else.

Posted on Mar 25, 2011 at 4:30pm by clarencew4 Comment #24

I’d like to congratulate and thank Chris Mooney for a really excellent podcast. And the same to Tom Flynn, whose responses were among the most articulate and well-reasoned I’ve heard in a long time!

I’d like to add a point that was never really, certainly never sufficiently, addressed.  While I think everything Tom said was absolutely correct, the inevitable association of the word “spiritual” (and to only a somewhat lesser extent, “sacred”), with invisible friends and the like is only one subset of the overall problem with that term. The big problem with “spiritual” is that it serves as a shield and sugar coating for all kinds of wacky credulity.  And credulity is the root problem.  “Spirituality” is used to justify all manner of “comforting” nonsense that is at best placebo-like and at worst really dangerous.  See, for example, most of Brian Dunning’s work on Skeptoid.  Other illustrations that come to mind are found on Roger Nygard’s dvd, “The Meaning of Existence,” such as when Roger visits a new-age restaurant in California. 

Claims of “spirituality” are used to bolster the childish notion that anything that brings emotional ease need not be based in fact and evidence.  To question one’s “spirituality” in many quarters is considered the epitome of rudeness and insult, much to the benefit of snake-oil and snake-thinking peddlers around the globe.

And as an individual’s mode of thinking is something of a zero sum game - one cannot be both credulous and critically inclined about the same thing at the same time - supporting credulity, in this case by using credulity-supporting language, diminishes the use of, and the spread of, wise critical thinking.  This isn’t something in which Chris and Mr. Frank want to participate, is it?

Yes, a few scientists, who probably spend their lives in environments where there are few pathologically credulous people, use “spiritual” and other such freighted words in ways that actually do mean something and which actually do make sense.  Maybe they, and Chris and Adam Frank, should get away from the computer keyboard and out of the lab and take a car trip through middle America, or South America, or Africa, all places where “spirituality” is rampant, and spend some time talking to people who haven’t had social and educational opportunities and other good fortune equivalent to their own.

And yes, Einstein and Hawking even used the “r” word and the “g” word.  Hawking has come to rue his unfortunate metaphor, has he not? And does anyone really think Einstein would be using the same religion language were he alive today in this far less innocent age?

As Tom Flynn so eloquently stated, there are plenty of excellent and even more descriptive words available for use other than religiously freighted terms that act as subtext bullets in our feet.

To accommodate nonsense is to bolster nonsense by acquiescence.  That doesn’t mean, as Tom also mentioned, we should publicly howl “you morons!” at those whose minds and experience have led them to credulous ideas, as PZ Myers sometimes does to all our detriment.
Accommodation vs. confrontation is, IMHO, a misleading and unnecessary dichotomy.

...  We need to lead by example and work on changing our own language to be as consistent as possible.  We should not mislead.  ...

Those - leading by example and being careful not to mislead - are the keys!  We can do those with ACCURATE language.

A couple of last thoughts:

Mr. Frank made much of “tradition” in which, presumably, terms such as spirituality and sacred were used in useful and healthy ways.  Is “tradition,” without reference to current reality, ever an effective argument for anything?  Why do we sometimes stop following traditions, anyway?  There must be a reason…

Second, Mr. Frank (or was it Chris?) cited approvingly Karen Armstrong’s notion that myths which are no longer useful are discarded by society.  The truth or falsity of that statement has a great deal to do with how “useful” is defined.  For my part, I think Ms. Armstrong ought to accompany Chris and Mr. Frank on that car trip across the continents where regular people live.  Maybe she could share the driving.  Maybe Roger Nygard could make a “buddy trip” documentary out of the whole thing.  It would be great! :coolsmile:

Posted on Mar 27, 2011 at 5:55am by Trail Rider Comment #25

Frank and Flynn… what a pair!  :-) 

I’m torn between the two.  Language is important, the only point of talking is to be understood correctly.  I just don’t obsess over connotations, since they’re so ephemeral and change with the winds of politics, I don’t take them very seriously, instead I rely on the denotations primarily.  So I see “inspire”, and “spirit” quite secular denotations now-a-days, plenty of secular senses.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to face the bench with Scalia, Thomas, and Alito behind it, defending Secular Humanism as a philosophy not a religion, with a history full of spiritual language.  Flynn’s strategic points were very important. 

In the end I tailor my language for the audience, and lean away from religious/supernatural words. 

That Frank had some good ideas.  I wouldn’t call them needs, he didn’t say enough about the awe inspiring ideas, what ideas specifically?  Does he have some events in mind?

Excellent show Mooney.  :)

Posted on Mar 27, 2011 at 6:22pm by jump_in_the_pit Comment #26

I feel a bit stupid, but I honestly had no idea what the first guy was talking about (this is Adam Frank).

Admittedly, I was listening while walking and catching the train, but I just didn’t know what his point was, whether he had an actual argument or whether he was talking about lovely, fluffy things. Though I could certainly tell that he was evading some argument without having a very strong one in return.
“Spiritual… no sacred…”

It wasn’t until after Tom Flynn came on, I could understand anything being said.

Maybe this is my personality-type but the first guy really just sounded like he was running around trying to say the right thing, while being waffly and unreasonably flexible.

It felt like reading something in 800 words that could be said in 10 - frustrating and a waste of time.

And then Tom Flynn came on and spoke complete sense. I had to seriously think to myself whether this is my natural bias kicking in or whether the other guy really was speaking poorly.

I’ve decided it’s the latter ;-)

Posted on Apr 02, 2011 at 5:29am by FurryMoses Comment #27

I feel a bit stupid, but I honestly had no idea what the first guy was talking about (this is Adam Frank).

I had the same reaction.  It happens to me rather a lot lately, especially when ‘debating’ theists and (some) philosophers or other mystics.  Either I just can’t relate to the very axioms of their viewpoints, or there is a subset of humanity that is not interested in making itself understood and enjoys being obscure.

I’ll stick with science.

Posted on Apr 02, 2011 at 9:26am by Ron Obvious Comment #28

Spirituality is a word that can not be separated from the stuff you hear on Oprah.

I have no idea why it’s a subject of this podcast with endorsement from the host. It once again solidifys my belief that Chris Mooney has no business being the host of this show.

Posted on Apr 11, 2011 at 9:59pm by kennykjc Comment #29

  The fact of the matter is that “spirituality” or the “sacred” plays almost no role at all in science! It is neither the inspiration necessary for advance nor is it a great hindrance to progress. Over the centuries and still, many great scientists have been “spiritual” or whatever mumbo jumbo and many have had no such feelings. It simply makes little or no demonstrable difference.

If a scientific study had been done comparing one group of scientists who were motivated by a sense of awe and wonder and another group of scientists that had not experienced awe and wonder then we could have empirical evidence for whether “spirituality” or the “sacred” (as Frank defines them) played an important role among great scientists.  Since we don’t have studies such as this you are suggesting that we can’t make claims about the importance of “spirituality” in scientists.  Yet, without studies such as this you claim “it simply makes little or no demonstrable difference.”  I can come up with a long list of people who claim they were impressed by nature and the universe and that’s why they went into science.  I agree this is anecdotal, but the list is pretty long.  Maybe we just haven’t heard from the great astronomers who looked up at the stars when they were a kid and said with a sigh, “whatever.”  Many great scientists were religious, many were atheist. Belief in the supernatural did not make a difference.  They did share a sense of wonder.  I have a hard time believing that if someone was not impressed by nature and the universe that they would dedicate their lives to studying it.

Posted on May 01, 2011 at 1:51pm by brightfut Comment #30

I think it means they believe they can find happiness and self satisfaction through spiritual concepts, which maybe true.
However they see no need/reason to have those concepts validated by traditional religious doctrine. Or, apparently science for that matter.

I suppose it is like, “If it makes me feel good, it doesn’t matter whether the concept is based in reality.”

Any more “spiritual” expressions than “The World Is Just Awesome” (the awesome Discovery Channel slogan), from someone who says “I’m not religious but…” means they’re still a slave to magical thinking and are therefore not thinking clearly.

Posted on May 21, 2011 at 9:48am by ullrich Comment #31

Spirituality is a word that can not be separated from the stuff you hear on Oprah.

I have no idea why it’s a subject of this podcast with endorsement from the host. It once again solidifys my belief that Chris Mooney has no business being the host of this show.

While I disagree with a lot of Mooney’s fuzzy thinking on the nature of spirituality and its connotations, I strongly disagree with the above statement.  Mooney has done an excellent job of hosting the show.  He is polite, calm, and promotes an honest discussion of the issues involved in the debate.  The fact that some of his positions are just plain wrong does not change the fact that he is doing a great job in the role of host.  Tom Flynn’s points won the debate hands down, IMHO.  But in all the podcasts which Mooney hosted, he did a great job in keeping the discussion calm, reasoned, and rolling along smoothly.

Posted on May 21, 2011 at 9:59am by ullrich Comment #32

What a pleasure to hear Tom Flynn’s careful language after Frank’s verbal barrage.  He was slower, but each word carried its weight in the sentence.

Posted on Sep 27, 2011 at 7:19am by Larry Gay Comment #33