Altruism conference explores connections of reason, religion

Science & faith
Dallas Morning News, via the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, June 28, 2003
Jeffrey Weiss – Dallas Morning News

Philadelphia — A conference dedicated to religion and science can produce odd juxtapositions. That was surely true earlier this month, when more than 400 scholars, researchers and others from 23 nations came together here at ”Works of Love: Scientific and Religious Perspectives on Altruism.”

If that sounds like a cross between a Barry White album and a scholarly confab, at times the mix was just about that strange.

Robert Pollack teaches biology and psychiatry at Columbia University. In his talk he tried to demonstrate how the ancient Jewish concept of soul might fit with modern teachings of biology and psychology. Clearly, he had his facts straight about both science and faith.

Then a woman stood with a question. For 14 years, she said, she’s felt a vibration that puts her in touch with a higher intelligence. That intelligence told her that DNA had 12 strands instead of two, and what did Pollack think of that?

The next question was from a man who identified himself as a medical professional in the field of spiritual healing. He and his colleagues see the soul as located either in the heart or above the head. He wanted to know how he could be sure he was seeing something real and not an illusion.

Gently, Pollack told the woman that, with all there was to wonder about in life, her concern about the number of strands in her DNA seemed to miss the point. He told the spiritual healer that the tools of science really wouldn’t be much use in helping him figure out the location of the soul unless he had a technique that could be independently reproduced on demand.

The exchanges offered a sense of the range of the conference — mainstream scientists, people outside the mainstream who wanted to work within the framework of science and folks simply out on the fringe. They all shared an interest in faith and human behavior and a civility that cut across boundaries of credentials and beliefs.

Even the jargon was friendly. One researcher is creating a database on college students he called S.M.I.L.E. — Spiritual Modeling Inventory of Life Environments.

”This is a conference about love,” said Solomon Katz, president of the mostly mainstream Metanexus Institute on Religion and Science. ”This is a conference about spiritual transformation.”

Participants were religiously diverse. Christians of various denominations mingled with Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, atheists and those, like the woman receiving cosmic messages about her DNA, whose spirituality was harder to pin down.

The six-day event was run by Metanexus, which is based in Philadelphia, and the Institute for Research on Unlimited Love, based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Both are largely funded by the Templeton Foundation, the creation of financier-turned-philanthropist John Templeton (the Templeton of the Templeton Funds.)

Templeton believes that faith and science can learn from each other. Now 92, he’s spent millions to encourage the kinds of conversations that happened last week. His goal is nothing less than the creation of a new, respected academic discipline that combines religion and science.

The largest group was there to discuss altruism — what it is, how to measure it, how to encourage it, who has it and who doesn’t. Speakers included Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, the world-famous Talmudic scholar; Arthur Caplan, the noted bioethicist from the University of Pennsylvania; and James Towney and John DiIulio, the current and former czars, respectively, of the Bush administration’s faith-based initiative.

A second group represented leaders of the Local Societies Initiative, an international, Templeton-funded group dedicated to getting people talking about science and religion.

A third group included researchers whose projects are funded by Metanexus. Their experiments all touch on the question of spiritual transformation. What is it? How can we identify it biologically or psychologically? How can we measure its effects on people and society?

Some examples of the 24 new experiments whose funding was announced at the conference:

Nina Azari, a university researcher from the Netherlands, has done brain scans of Christians who report that they commune with God. They say they experience God, or Jesus, as a personality. And their brains light up, according to Azari, just like someone who is in a relationship with another human. She next plans to scan the brains of Buddhist monks, whose faith doesn’t involve a relationship with a personal God, to see if different parts of their brains are active.

Gail Ironson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Miami, is investigating how AIDS patients’ spiritual outlook affects their ability to cope with their illness.

In his speech, Steinsaltz challenged one of the main purposes of the meeting — the importance of altruism. If the goal is to get people to act in defined, better ways, pure motives aren’t all that important, he said. Let God settle the question of motives in the World To Come, he suggested.

”All love is at least partly non-altruistic,” he said. ”It is better to do a good deed, followed by all kinds of bad intentions, than do a bad deed with good intentions.”

He wasn’t the only contrarian invited. Dr. David Sloan Wilson is an evolutionary biologist from Binghamton University in New York whose new book, ”Darwin’s Cathedral,” suggests an evolution-based scientific explanation for why people are religious. But he acknowledged that his explanation only makes sense if there’s no such thing as God.

For Philip Hefner, the meeting was a noble attempt to get scientists and religious folks talking across their boundaries. The Lutheran pastor and retired seminary professor has been working on this dialogue for more than 30 years.

”This conference reminded me that the engagement of religion and science is not easy,” he said. ”Scientists who aren’t religious themselves have a hard time perceiving religion the way a religious person does. And religious people don’t engage science in the way a scientist does.”

Yet, that hundreds of people are trying to bridge the gap, some risking their careers — or ridicule from journalists — to do so is a good sign, Hefner said. ”There must be something intensely interesting about this theme.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday July 1, 2003.
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