Posts Tagged ‘Religion’

As Is

October 10, 2009

I started this post months ago, and never quite got it right.  So it’s being posted as is. Enjoy!

As The Alder Fork continues to grow and evolve my focus adapts to incorporate new elements.  I hope my writing continues to explore many exciting avenues, and although I don’t know which aspects of this blog will remain in the future, I do hope that I can stay fresh.  Lately, in the podcast, blog and my private writing, I have been reintroducing myself to the philosophy of religion.  In particular, I have been interested in large, cross-religion ideas like dialogue, definitions, and conceptualizations of the afterlife and other religious imagery.  Has this move helped the popularity of my work? Actually no, in fact it might even be driving people away.  I am not concerned about that because The Alder Fork is primarily an outlet for my creativity and ideas, rather than a promotional device (though it can do both).

I recently read someone’s opinion that atheism should not be called a religion because it is exactly the opposite of that.  This argument swept my mind back to the endless discussion of how to define religion that I encountered as an undergrad. Indeed, one of the core questions of religious studies is how do we define the thing we study? What are the parameters for saying something is a religion, religious or spiritual?  Is it really a “I know it when I see it” kind of thing, or can we put limits on what falls inside our focus?  If we cast our net to narrowly we may leave out some obvious religious groups. For example, if we say a religion is a group of people who believe in God, we leave out those who do not believe in God, like buddhists. If we cast too wide a net we risk including organizations that are clearly not religious in any manner.  This brings me back to the question about whether atheism is itself a religious movement.  If you require that a belief in supernatural existence is a requirement of a religion then perhaps atheism is on the outside, although I don’t know that all atheists completely reject the possibility of supernatural activity, say ghosts for example.  But if we take atheism in a strict definition as those who do not believe there is a god or gods, or that there is a supernatural order to the universe, can we then say they are not a religion?

Atheists define their beliefs in relation to religion.  Without theists there would be no need for a category called atheists.  This is important because it shows the roots of the atheist’s objection to being called a religion.  For them the very notion of religion is almost an insult, though that language may be a bit harsh.  With that in mind it is tempting to say that atheism is more philosophy than religion, and that it only relates to the latter as a contradiction.  For a moment I would like to flip this idea on its head and say that because atheism exists as a contradiction it is more religion than philosophy.  Returning to the question of how we define religion (and I will likely write a whole entry on this) I have always been in favour of being more inclusive.  I don’t think religious activity is limited to those who understand themselves in supernatural terms exclusively.  We all have to accept that there are elements of the universe beyond our current understanding and then decide what we believe is the truth behind that unknown layer.  Some people believe there is nothing there, outside of physics problems and mysterious matter.  Others choose to see god in the cracks of human knowledge.  I am not here to make a value judgment about who is correct, but rather to say that by drawing these conclusions people have entered the realm of faith.

I realize this is a troubling statement to make but it grows out of my definition of religion.  In my view, religion begins in the individual and then expands into group behaviour and convention where it changes and flows back into the individual.  All people are religious people, even if they choose to disregard traditional human religions in favour of a rational or humanistic approach.  In the moments that we contemplate the mysteries of life, draw or adopt conclusions, and then act on those beliefs we are acting religiously.  For me religion at its core is not about ritual, creed, ethical action, social conventions or adherence to authority, it is the fundamental act of believing in a blueprint for the universe, whether ordered or not.  By having faith in ourselves, in our god, in science or math, we are being religious beings.  Religion as it is commonly understood by people refers to the big -isms in the world. Maybe we can add a few more isms to the list.

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Who Can It Be Now?

February 19, 2009

(3) There is a tree outside my window,

Alvin Plantinga

Religious Belief As ‘Properly Basic’

As a student of religion I often encountered arguments both for and against a myriad of spiritual issues: the existence of a god, gods, or some spiritual essence, the value of organized religion, the reality of faith, among others.   Virtually every university hosts regular debates on the question of “god.” I have never attended one but I usually take the time to read any material about them, including the basic premise of the debate and the general positions of the participants.  Philosophers have managed to devise a limited number of arguments for both sides, and these are generally repeated in each and every debate.  The main problem with all arguments for and against the existence of god is very simple, no matter how we rationalize the unknowable, it remains unknowable.  We place faith in people, objects, our bodies and senses, nature, the universe, and, for some, god (or a supernaturally ordered universe). As we make progress towards better understanding our universe we still struggle to comprehend some of the most basic premises of existence.  Why do we die?  Why is suffering part of life?  Why are intelligent beings, such as ourselves, such a small part of an enormous universe? We have figured out parts of these questions, but we have yet to put it all together in a meaningful way outside the context of religious explanation, and even those often struggle to adequately address these questions.  We are regularly reminded that what we don’t know vastly outweighs what we do, and the answers aren’t coming quickly.  Outside of attempted conversion to one ideology or another what is the point of debating the supernatural?

Occasionally (though not very often) someone will ask me about my religious beliefs.  I think many just assume I have some deep conviction to a specific belief system because I studied religion.  People in my field range from the very religious to the very not.  Our common thread is an interest in the beliefs of people around the world, and a desire to probe the limits of what is known and what is thought. Much like the behavioural psychologist who studies people to see why they act the way we do, religious studies scholars concern themselves with the more than the how and what of belief, to break open the why.  For me it has always been part of a quest to be understand ultimate truth, the elusive answers to the questions I posed above.

Once, when I was an undergrad, I attempted to systematically document my own beliefs. I have long since lost that document, and it would be irrelevant now anyway.  A person who deeply considers their faith will normally fluctuate in what they believe over the course of their lives.  After all, when dealing with grand ideas, there are many possible points of contact, and a plethora of directions to explore.  Although I am not quite as adventurous as some, I have been exposed to a large number of different ideas about spirituality.

The common debate of religion versus spirituality, one that seems to have found its way around Western society on its own, has so many permutations it challenges even the best religious thinkers.  But that is not a question for this post.  The real question that concerns me today is, can we resolve the issue of the existence of god if we accept that neither sie will concede (short of god appearing on the mountain and moving it)?  Let me first state that I do not have the magic answer that proves or disproves the reality of the supernatural.  I have read the arguments that exist and none satisfy me in any real way. They sometimes work rationally, but most fail the “so what?” test.  It is fantastic to say that an ordered universe implies an intelligent designer, but we can then ask about the obvious flaws in that design, sickness, suffering, and the dark side of human nature.  Surely we could demand a better blueprint.  This is, again, beside the point.  I don’t want to convince you to believe in a supernatural idea.  In fact, I am mostly interested in people accepting moral responsibility for their actions and adhering to a code of behaviour that promotes the value of the person as an interdependent member of society.  Thus for me there is no need to argue about the existence of god, although I do think it is a healthy exercise as part of spiritual development (or lack of). I also see the value of philosophical discussion, even if its just a repeated thought experiment, every term, on every campus.

If we are going to get serious about the question of god’s existence, and I have no doubt that many people are serious about it, we need to ask ourselves about our endgame.  What do we hope to accomplish from this? Why are we arguing? Why is it so important to you to prove or disprove somethign that by its definition can’t be known for sure?  I can see three main motivations for engaging in this conversation, though I am sure there are more.  The first is the desire to discuss the topic at hand in a scholarly way, and thus be part of the academic community.  in other words, the participant wants to be involved in the debate because it is one of the classic debates of the last few hundred years, in particular the last century or so.  This group might also be motivated by the need to definitively convince the other side of the truth of their position.  There are certainly those who think they can change the beliefs of others by presenting them with the “facts,” and to some degree I’m sure they can persuade the undecided in one direction or the other.  But the thought that someone who is entrenched will suddenly change, even as the result of vigorous debate is mostly a dream.  Debates tend to increase people’s belief in their own cause rather than softening them to the other position.  The final main motivation I can see for such a debate is insecurity. Certainly there are those who need to convince themselves that what they believe is the truth, and by dismissing the ideas of others with rational arguments they give themselves the security blanket they desire.  Now there is nothing wrong with any of these reasons for entering a debate, and if you enjoy the process then you should get involved. I only mention them as a contrast to my own ideas about discussing the supernatural meaning of life.  I have never felt the urge to participate in such a debate, mostly because I don’t agree with the purpose of it.  If I want to discuss the nature of the universe, and learn other people’s beliefs I’d rather do it a a dialogue, not a debate. Certainly their ideas will challenge my long held assumptions, but as I mentioned on an episode of the podcast that is exactly what I want.  I don’t want to be able to hide behind the walls of my own beliefs (as ill-defined as they may be at any given time).  Can I speak with conviction about how I see the world? Of course I can, and from time to time I do so on the blog or podcast.  I think that the focus of a discussion about the existence of god should be on meaning of such a universe rather than the veracity of the claim.  We should present the arguments for and against every kind of belief for people who wish to explore them, but when we meet to discuss beliefs it is more useful to look at the impact of belief.  By all means engage in debate if you like, but I will be off sorting out what existence means for those who are experiencing it.

I recently heard a prominent fictional character say that they don’t believe in an afterlife because they don’t want life to be a test.    In a future post I will be exploring the notion that the afterlife exists independently of life on earth. In other words, heaven is not a reward for a life well lived, but the next step in the process.  Thus it is more like experiencing puberty than graduating high school.  The implications of that line of thought are enormous, and I should say that I don’t believe in acting justly because there is a supernatural reward.  I think any reward cheapens the activity, though it does not diminish its inherent value independent of the actor.

The Struggle Continues

February 1, 2009

Today I bring you the fourth and final part of my chapter on the relationship between religious belief and anorexia nervosa. For the earlier parts just click on the links, Part I, Part II, and Part III.

Many women who do recover from anorexia nervosa consider their faith and spirituality as major factors.  Several articles and books have been written containing firsthand accounts of spiritual influences on recovery.   For individuals who present with pre-existing religious beliefs, spiritual interventions are often recommended in the treatment of many mental disorders, including anorexia.   In some cases, it is necessary to address the content of an individual’s beliefs, particularly if they affect or reinforce the disorder.  For example, in a case series presented by Morgan, Marsden, and Lacey, three patients with anorexia nervosa discussed questions about their belief systems as part of their treatment.   Although the outcome in each case was different, the process of spiritual examination proved useful in continuing recovery.   It is difficult to draw broad conclusions from this study because of the small sample size.  It is useful, however, to augment the other studies discussed in this chapter.
A religious worldview can play a part in the treatment of eating disorders.  In their volume, Spiritual Approaches in the Treatment of Women with Eating Disorders,  Richards, Harrison, and Barret present a theistic model for treatment similar to Richards and Bergin’s  approach to psychotherapy.  The purpose of their approach is to foster a spiritual identity in the patient, and “affirm their…worth as creations of God.”  They particularly focus on the heart as a metaphor for spiritual healing and as a means of trusting themselves.   They recognize spiritual growth as a gradual process and not an immediate or quick fix treatment. Richards, Harrison, and Barret argue that a theistic model allows for change and healing of the whole person.   The theistic approach is intended to be flexible in order to address the specific needs of the patient. Much like other clinicians, Richards, Harrison, and Barret advocate a multi-dimensional approach that recognizes the importance of spirituality.  Their argument is supported by the evidence cited in this paper, and reinforces the necessity of a well-formed theology of the body.
In addition to the clinical approaches listed above, there have also been a number of books and articles written on the nature of anorexia and the role of spirituality in recovery.   Michelle Mary Lelwica argues that anorexia is particularly the result of spiritual emptiness.  This position is similar to Richards, Harrison, and Barret in that it recognizes a role for spirituality in anorexia. However, whereas Richards, Harrison, and Barret advocate using a theistic mode of treatment to heal the whole person, Lelwica focuses on the lack of an internal spiritual life as the primary cause of anorexia.  Her theory is related to feminist and sociological explanations for eating disorders.
There are three criticisms of this research. To start there is some difficulty in quantifying religious belief. There does not appear to be one definitive method for measuring religious belief, and as such, the various studies have used different tests to measure religiosity. The studies cited acknowledge the complexity of the task and all use more than one measure.
In 1999, Lelwica wrote that there was a lack of research into the relationship of religion and eating disorders.   This chapter has referenced some of the many studies that exist.  Bell’s book, which addressed the connection, was published in 1985. Although more research needs to be conducted, there is a large body of existing studies.
The final criticism concerns the size and composition of the sample groups used in the studies. For example, Macias et al. included a sample of only 44 nuns, while the larger studies did not exceed 500 participants. Since females are more likely to develop anorexia nervosa the majority of the cited studies focus on female populations. These sample sizes are quite acceptable for psychology studies. Despite these last two criticisms, the four broad conclusions asserted in this chapter are supported by the available research: 1) religious belief influences body image both positively and negatively 2) the “thin ideal” is not the only cultural cause of anorexia nervosa 3) being religious does not guarantee protection from anorexia nervosa 4) a deep spiritual life has the potential to assist in preventing the development of anorexia nervosa.
The final two conclusions above seem to contradict one another. This is not the case because while members of religious communities do develop eating disorders, there is evidence that suggests that explicit religious teachings about the body can influence body image both positively and negatively. This influences the incidence rates of anorexia nervosa.  The general findings, presented by the various studies, supported each other.
There are currently many clinicians incorporating spirituality into treatments for anorexia.  More research is needed to conclusively say what role spirituality plays at each stage of the illness, but there is little doubt that a relationship exists.  By understanding the role of religion in the prevention and development of anorexia, religious leaders can develop strategies for combating poor body image and disordered eating within their communities.

Awake and Cold At Night

January 29, 2009

I am on a roll with these thesis related posts so I’m going to continue today. Tomorrow is  a link day because of the podcast.  The following selection contains a number of summarized studies with accompanying discussion. If you’d like more details about any of the studies please contact me at the alderfork@gmail.com. Click if you missed Part I and/or Part II.

There are similarities between fasting and anorexia nervosa, such as restricted food intake and attempts to control the body. It appears that strict ascetic codes and other religious restrictions on food, paired with an emphasis on the human body as inherently sinful or evil, could lead to more cases of anorexia among the devoutly religious.  This does not mean that ascetics share the other psychological symptoms of anorexics, such as anxiety disorders, perfectionism, or obsessive compulsive disorder, but rather that their attitude towards eating and the body may be similar. Harold Koenig points out in his brief survey of the literature, that there is no empirical support that belonging to an ascetic community increases the likelihood of anorexia.  In fact, research into ascetic and other religious communities has shown virtually no difference between eating attitudes and body image within the group or the controls. For example, in 2003 Macias, Leal and Vaz conducted a study of 44 women living in open communities in Spain.  The results of the study indicate that the distribution of body satisfaction and dissatisfaction was similar to a control group of university-aged women.  The study showed that 50% of the nuns either perceived that they had a high weight or were fat.    In addition these women exhibited disordered eating behaviour that was also comparable to the control.  Although religious women may not be at an increased risk of developing eating disorders, such as anorexia, as outlined above, a growing body of research indicates that religious and spiritual beliefs do not guarantee protection against the development of this illness. A significant level of dissatisfaction with body shape and size, while often assumed by the public at large to be a problem of middle-class teenage girls, has been documented in communities of nuns in Spain,  an Old Order Amish community,  and among extrinsically religious university students.   It has also been noted in case studies that some anorectics who have a strong Christian affiliation will justify their condition as a type of “spiritual starvation.”
Macias, Leal and Vaz speculate that the source of the nuns’ discomfort could come from the pressure to maintain regimented eating practices or a specified state of holiness.   The daily pressures of ascetic life might create an environment conducive to anorexia.  The challenge of controlling ordinary human desires and urges could lead some to control body weight and food intake.  Despite the author’s initial hypothesis that a cloistered community would insulate the nuns from negative body image and disordered eating, the research showed that the conditions necessary for anorexia to develop exist in an ascetic community.  Other studies of cloistered religious communities have had similar results.   In their study of an Amish community, Platte, Zelten and Stunkard, found that while the young people exhibited a healthy view of their own bodies, the elders often did not.  The authors proposed that this resulted from the focus on physical labour in the farming community.   When members of the community became unable to contribute to the work of the farm, satisfaction with their bodies decreased. It is important to note that the community was mostly shielded from secular media, and as such, these cases of negative body image are unlikely to be connected to the “thin ideal”.
In neither the Spanish study of cloistered nuns, nor the Amish study, did the authors identify a single case of anorexia in those communities.  They did, however, measure the incidence of disordered eating, which in both cases was the same as the general public.  While the sample sizes of these studies are too small to draw general conclusions, they do present the possibility that even strongly religious communities need to address body image because their current theology is not creating a significant difference from the general public. In addition, because both groups were isolated from the influence of the “thin ideal”, these studies demonstrate that this is not the only factor influencing women towards poor body image and disordered eating.
Correlation between high religiosity and positive body image has been found in several studies that have attempted to quantify this relationship.  Based on their own prior research, Mahoney et al. hypothesized that “greater sanctification of the body” would lead to a “great investment in maintaining one’s physical well-being.”   Body sanctification refers to an individual’s view of her body that recognizes its value in religious terms.  It should also be noted that studies by Levin  and Strawbridge et al.  have shown that general religiousness leads to health-protective behaviour.   The Mahoney study was comprehensive, examining a wide range of experimental factors including manifestation of God in the body, sacred qualities of the body, general health-protective practices, as well as physical fitness and asceticism.  The sample included 289 university students 77.5% of which were female.   The study participants were predominately Christian (74%), which makes the results particularly useful for this thesis.   The results of the study supported the authors’ initial hypothesis.  Of particular note they found that higher levels of body sanctification were associated with greater satisfaction with the body.   Thus those participants who attributed religious meaning to their bodies were more likely to have a positive body image.
A study by Boyatzis, Kline and Backof specifically investigated written religious affirmations and their effect on body image.   The authors attempted to establish causality through pre and posttests dealing with body image and the viewing of “thin ideal” photos.    The women were divided into three groups: a control group that read random statements not related to body image, a “spiritual group” that read positive secular body image statements, and a “religious group” that read similar theistic statements.   The religious group showed the greatest improvement in body image on the post test, while the control group saw a decline in their body image.  This study supports Mahoney’s findings about religious beliefs and body satisfaction.
The results of the studies cited above demonstrate a connection between the content of religious belief and body satisfaction. The authors’ conclusions focused on the positive effects of religious belief on body image.  Research into small religious sects has shown that religious beliefs can also have a negative influence on body image.   Although new religious groups are typically small, their experience represents the extreme of devout religious belief, much as anorexia represents an extreme of either the “thin ideal” or fasting.  The Church Universal and Triumphant provides an example of use of restrictive diet in a new religious movement and the consequences of this practice.  The leader of the group, Elizabeth Clare Prophet, dictated all aspects of eating among her followers and framed her directives in a religious context.    She dictated the content and quantity of her follower’s food intake and to avoid “the appetites of the physical body and the appetites of death.”   Members of the community ate primarily rice and vegetables while Prophet had a fridge stocked with “exotic food.”   This last point implies that the food restrictions were related to control rather than a theology of eating practice.  The Church Universal and Triumphant is an unusual example because it does not represent the normal practice of the majority of religious believers. Anorexia, too, is an extreme behaviour. This particular case, along with others cited by Paolini and Paolini,   shows the negative effects of religious teachings on body image. As noted, some care must be taken in considering followers of new religious movements that are, by their nature, part of smaller tight-knit communities. These results, however, support the findings of other studies cited in this thesis, that religious beliefs can influence body image.
In addition to the studies of people or groups who have developed positive or negative relationships with food or their bodies due to religious affiliation and belief, research has been conducted to discover if certain types of people are more susceptible to poor body image or eating disorders due to their religious beliefs.  A notable study by Smith, Richards, and Maglio examined religious orientation and eating attitude in both clinical and sub-clinical anorexic populations.   They defined four types of religiousness based on the commonly used religious orientation scale (ROS).  Intrinsic religiousness is associated with orthodox practice and personal belief, while an extrinsically religious person often belongs to a community for social purposes.  On the two extremes are the pro-religious and nontraditional groups.  The former scored high on both intrinsic and extrinsic scales, and the latter scored low on both and could be considered non-religious.  In simplest terms the difference lies in the extent to which religiousness is an internal or external commitment on the part of the person.  Although the study sample was small, no correlation was found between the intrinsically religious group and anorexia.  As predicted eating disorder symptoms were most prevalent in the pro-religious and nontraditional groups.  Therefore, those for whom religion was an internal commitment were least likely to develop eating disorders.  From this study it can be concluded that there is no connection between religiousness and eating disorder pathology since the most traditionally religious group and the intrinsically religious group did not demonstrate a connection with anorexia nervosa. Based on the research cited above, the promotion of a healthy body image, in religious terms, has positive effects on people. This conclusion will return in Chapter 3.

You’re Gonna Come Down

December 18, 2008

It’s a lifetime’s decision, recovering the satellites

Counting Crows

Recovering the Satellites

I wasn’t sure when I’d have time to write this post. Turns out it’s at 4:41am Wednesday.  It’s very close to 24 hours before I will actually post it.  I couldn’t sleep tonight, so mother nature provided me with something to do. I have spent the last hour and a half shovelling several houses worth of snow, while enjoying a great many songs on my iPod. For some reason I had never thought to bring it out with me on a snow adventure before. The world is so quiet at this time of the morning. I used to work nights and I loved the period between 2-7am when most of the world shuts down for a bit to sleep.

Tonight has provided me with a chance to think. My mind wandered a lot has I was thoughtlessly shovelling snow. In a previous (and perhaps future?) life I was a bit of a philosopher. I was especially mindful of the topic of religion.  Many people will say to you, oh I don’t talk about religion, but I think they are just denying themselves an opportunity for an enriching dialogue. Unless of course they are close minded on the subject and reject any prspective beyond their own. Tonight the falling snow, the solitude, and to some degree the Bright Eyes song I Must Belong Somewhere encouraged me to think about religion once again.  It doesn’t hurt that I’ve applied for a job in a religious community. Anyway a singular idea occured to me, namely that religion is the simplest proof that life is what you make of it. People are capable of believing just about anything. Don’t believe me? Think all religions are basically the same? I guess it depends on your definition of what “religion” is. If you think there is only one definition then you have not taken Religious Studies 101. We all define religion in our own way.  I’ve read stories of the cargo cults who built wooden airports in the hopes of appeasing the “gods,” American supply planes. Or how about the Breatharians whose leaders convinced several people that they could live off air alone. Those people consequently starved to death, tragically.  My point is we are all faced with choices.  Some are of course easy, like what to have after dinner (hint: ice cream is always the correct answer).  Many are a lot harder. What should I do with my life? Who should I date? Or who will date me? Should I stay or should I move? Do I want orange juice or coffee with my eggs and bacon?  What do I believe?  This last question speaks to the fundamental human dilemma. Unlike other animals we are blessed and burdened with the awareness of and the ability to contemplate everything.  Once again we have a choice. Some people try to explain it all. Some try to ignore the issue. Som listen to the wisdom or lunacy of others.  Some believe we can never know it all, and knowing that is enough.  I don’t think any of these people are wrong.  Everything must belong somwhere.