Atheists & Agnostics Also Frequently Believe in the Supernatural, a New Study Shows

To be a non-believer in some parts of the world, and in much of Europe for many centuries, means to commit a crime against the state. Even where unbelief goes unpunished by the law, “atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers,” writes Scotty Hendricks at Big Think, “are among the most disliked, untrusted, and misunderstood people.” Identified with Satanists (who are equally misunderstood), non-believers are presumed to be anti-theists, hell bent on destroying, or at least maiming, religion with their know-it-all dogmatism and hatred of different beliefs.

There may be some projection going on here, and maybe it goes both ways at times, though the balance of power, at least in the U.S., decidedly tips in favor of certain dogmatic religions. But as a new whitepaper from the UK group Understanding Unbelief found, in a wide-ranging survey of non-believers in six countries around the world, “popular assumptions about ‘convinced, dogmatic atheists’ do not stand up to scrutiny.” The outlier here is the religiously inflamed U.S. “Although American atheists are typically fairly confident in their views about God, importantly, so too are Americans in general.”

The paper’s authors are professors in theology, psychology, anthropology, and religious studies from four major U.K. Universities. They outline their eight key findings at the outset, then get into specifics about what the data says and how it was obtained, with large, full-color charts and graphs. The study shows more agreement than most of us might assume between the religious and non-religious on “the values most important for ‘finding meaning in the world and your own life.’”

“Family” and “Freedom” ranked highly. “Less unanimously so,” did “’Compassion,’ ‘Truth,’ ‘Nature,’ and ‘Science,’” which may come as little surprise. The social and political identifications of non-believers fluctuate widely between the six countries—Brazil, Denmark, Japan, China, the U.S., and the U.K.—but, “with only a few exceptions, atheists and agnostics endorse the realities of objective moral values, human dignity, and attendant rights, and the ‘deep value’ of nature.”

These conclusions should interest non-believers and believers alike in the six countries surveyed, but the most sensational research finding states that “despite rejecting or at least questioning the notion of gods, unbelievers aren’t wholly divorced from superstitious belief,” writes Hendricks. The study’s authors put things in a more measured way: “only minorities of atheists or agnostics in each of our countries appear to be thoroughgoing naturalists,” ruling out the supernatural entirely.

Hendricks lists some examples:

Up to third of self-declared atheists in China believe in astrology. A quarter of Brazilian atheists believe in reincarnation, and a similar number of their Danish counterparts think some people have magical powers.

These findings might be consistent with the study’s methodology, which surveyed people who agreed with either 1. I don’t believe in God [or other divinity or spirit] or 2. I don’t know whether there is a God, and I don’t believe there is any way to find out. Neither of these mutually excludes the à la carte spiritualism of astrology, reincarnation, or magic, a fact that many religious believers cannot wrap their heads around.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, for example, belief in seances, tarot, mesmerism, and other seemingly supernatural phenomena flourished, quite often independently of particular religious belief systems. One of the most rational minds of the time, or the creator of the most rational mind of the time, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, believed in fairies. Pierre Curie “was an atheist who had an enduring, somewhat scientific, interest in spiritualism.”

The study’s findings are “in line,” Hendricks points out, “with previous studies that show non-believers are just as prone to irrational thinking as their religious counterparts.” Significant percentages of atheists and agnostics express some belief in astrology, karma, "a universal spirit or life force," and other supernatural phenomena. Hendricks quotes Michio Kaku’s suggestion that there may be “a gene for superstition, a gene for hearsay, a gene for magic.” I don’t believe geneticists have found such a thing. But culture, at any rate, is not reducible to biology.

The fact that humans see, hear, feel, and believe things that may not actually exist seems to be an evolutionary trait. What may be equally, if not more, interesting is the way those supernatural things, whatever they are, both resemble and vastly differ from each other, their cultural specificities woven inextricably into the texture of language and custom. What and how we think cannot be fully separated either from our genes or from the conceptual apparatus we inherit, and that forms our picture of the world. Read the full Understanding Unbelief study here.

via BigThink

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Discover Kōlams, the Traditional Indian Patterns That Combine Art, Mathematics & Magic

Have accomplished abstract geometrical artists come out of any demographic in greater numbers than from the women of South Asia? Not when even the most demanding art-school curriculum can't hope to equal the rigor of the kōlam, a complex kind of line drawing practiced by women everywhere from India to Sri Lanka to Malaysia to Thailand. Using humble materials like chalk and rice flour on the ground in front of their homes, they interweave not just lines, shapes, and patterns but religious, philosophical, and magical motifs as well — and they create their kōlams anew each and every day.

"Feeding A Thousand Souls: Kōlam" by Thacher Gallery at the University of San Francisco is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

"Taking a clump of rice flour in a bowl (or a coconut shell), the kōlam artist steps onto her freshly washed canvas: the ground at the entrance of her house, or any patch of floor marking an entrypoint," writes Atlas Obscura's Rohini Chaki.

"Working swiftly, she takes pinches of rice flour and draws geometric patterns: curved lines, labyrinthine loops around red or white dots, hexagonal fractals, or floral patterns resembling the lotus, a symbol of the goddess of prosperity, Lakshmi, for whom the kōlam is drawn as a prayer in illustration."

Colorful Kolam - Sivasankaran - Own work

Kōlams are thought to bring prosperity, but they also have other uses, such as feeding ants, birds, and other passing creatures. Chaki quotes University of San Francisco Theology and Religious Studies professor Vijaya Nagarajan as describing their fulfilling the Hindu "karmic obligation" to "feed a thousand souls." Kōlams have also become an object of genuine interest for mathematicians and computer scientists due to their recursive nature: "They start out small, but can be built out by continuing to enlarge the same subpattern, creating a complex overall design," Chaki writes. "This has fascinated mathematicians, because the patterns elucidate fundamental mathematical principles."

"Kolam" by resakse is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Like any traditional art form, the kōlam doesn't have quite as many practitioners as it used to, much less practitioners who can meet the standard of mastery of completing an entire work without once standing up or even lifting their hand. But even so, the kōlam is hardly on the brink of dying out: you can see a few of their creators in action in the video at the top of the post, and the age of social media has offered kōlam creators of any age — and now even the occasional man — the kind of exposure that even the busiest front door could never match. Some who get into kōlams in the 21st century may want to create ones that show ever more complexity of geometry and depth of reference, but the best among them won't forget the meaning, according to Chaki, of the form's very name: beauty.

Read more about kōlams at Atlas Obscura.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

An Animated Introduction to the World’s Five Major Religions: Hinduism, Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity & Islam

No matter the strength of particular beliefs, or disbeliefs, religions of every kind are all equally fundamental to the human experience. This was so for thousands of years before the advent of the world’s big five religions, and for thousands of years after. “Religion has been an aspect of culture for as long as it has existed, and there are countless variations of its practice,” says Episcopal priest and anthropologist John Bellaimey in the TED-Ed video above. “Common to all religions is an appeal for meaning beyond the empty vanities and lowly realities of existence.”

Religions particularize a set of archetypal human responses to universal metaphysical questions like “Where do we come from?” and “How do I live a life of meaning?” and “What happens to us after we die?” Such questions find answers outside the boundaries of religious faith. For an increasing number of people, science and secular philosophy offer comforting, even beautiful naturalistic explanations. And millions more feel the pull of intuitions about a higher power or “a source from which we all come and to which we must return.”

Religion gives the big questions faces and names, of divinities, demons, and holy men (in the five big, it has been almost entirely men). Whether these figures existed or not, their legends shape culture and history and are shaped and changed in turn. Bellamy surveys the big five world religions with an overview of their central narratives, illustrated with montages of religious art. The information is at the level of a 101 course introduction, but the number of people in the world who know little to nothing about other religions is likely quite high, given the numbers of people who know so little about their own. We can probably all learn something here we didn’t know before.

Bellamy’s approach broadly suggests that what matters most in religion is story. But to dismiss religions as “just stories” misses the point. Purely at the level of narrative, we can think of religions as creative ways to tell the stories we find untellable. This says nothing about religion’s effects on the world. Is it a force for good or ill? Given its role in every stage of human cultural development, both positive and negative, maybe the question is unanswerable. There are too many varieties of religious experience over too great a span of time to reckon with.

Bellamy’s charitable explanations of the major five religions highlight their contingent nature—he locates each faith in its particular time and place of origin. But he also shows the universalizing tendencies of each tradition, qualities that made them so portable. He does not, however, mention that more inclusive interpretations usually came from revolts against more limited original designs. Religions and cultures evolved together, materially and culturally. As they spread and occupied more territory with wider populations, they grew and adapted.

In his book The Tree of World Religions, Bellamy develops such historical material into an exploration of twenty world religions from Hinduism to Rastafarianism, showing each one as a collective act of storytelling. Compiled from a 25-year high school world religions class Bellamy taught, the book covers the Mayans, the Norse, and Socrates, Laozi, the Hebrew Prophets, and the Buddha. In what Karl Jaspers called “the Axial Age,” writes Amazon, these later sages “moved religion from mostly-supernatural to mostly-humanistic, shifting the focus on God’s inscrutable otherness to God’s increasing insistence on ethical behavior as the highest form of worship.”

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Is a Zen Koan? An Animated Introduction to Eastern Philosophical Thought Experiments

If you know anything at all about Zen, you know the famous question about the sound of one hand clapping. While the brain teaser did indeed originate with a Zen master, it does not fully represent the nature of the koan. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, when Chan Buddhism, as Zen was known in China, flourished, koans became widely-used, explains the TED-Ed animated video above, as objects of meditation. “A collection of roughly one thousand, seven hundred bewildering philosophical thought experiments,” koans were ostensibly tools to practice living with the unexplainable mysteries of existence.

The name, notes the lesson, “originally gong-an in Chinese, translates to ‘public record or case.’ But unlike real-world court cases, koans were intentionally incomprehensible.” Koans are “Surprising, surreal, and frequently contradicted themselves.” The lessons in ambiguity and paradox have their analogue, perhaps, in certain trains of thought in Medieval Catholic philosophy or the idealism of thinkers like George Berkeley, who might have first come up with the one about the tree falling in the forest.

But is the purpose of the koan simply to break the brain’s reliance on reason? It was certainly used this way. Zen Master Eihei Dogen, founder of Japanese Soto Zen traveled to China to study under the Chan Masters, and later criticized this kind of koan practice and other aspects of Chan, though he also collected 300 koans himself and they became integral to Soto tradition. Koans are not just absurdist zingers, they are, as the name says, cases—little stories, often about two monks in some kind of teacher and student relationship. Many of the students and teachers in these stories were patriarchs of Chan.

Like the sayings and doings of other religious patriarchs in other world religions, these “cases” have been collected with copious commentary in books like The Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Serenity. They show in snapshots the transmission of the teaching directly from teacher to student, rather than through sacred texts or rituals (hundreds of koans, rules, and rituals notwithstanding). That they are puzzling and ambiguous does not mean they are incomprehensible. Many seem more or less like fables, such as the oft-told story of the monk who carries a beautiful woman across a mud patch, then chastises his younger companion for bringing it up miles down the road.

Other koans are like Greek philosophical dialogues in miniature, such as the story in which two monks argue about the nature of a flag waving in the wind. A third steps in, Socrates-like, with a seemingly “right” answer that transcends both of their positions. The longevity of these vignettes lies in their subtlety—surface meanings only hint at what the stories are up to. Koans force those who take up their study to struggle with uncertainty and irresolution. They also frequently undermine the most common expectation that the teacher knows best.

Often posed as a kind of oblique verbal combat between teacher and student, koans include extremely harsh, even violent teachers, or teachers who seem to admit defeat, tacitly or otherwise, when a student gets the upper hand, or when both confront the speechless awe of not knowing. Attitudes of respect, reverence, humility, candor, and good humor prevail. Perhaps under all koan practice lies the idea of skillful means—the appropriate action to take in the moment, which can only be known in the moment.

In his short, humorous discussion of Zen koans above, Alan Watts tells the story of a Zen student who tricks his master and hits him with his own stick. The master responds with approval of the student’s tactics, but the koan does not suggest that everyone should do the same. That, as Dogen would argue, would be to have an idea about reality, rather than a wholly-engaged response to it. Whatever else koans show their students, they point again and again to this central human dilemma of thinking about living—in the past, present, or future—versus actually experiencing our lives.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him

150 Renowned Secular Academics & 20 Christian Thinkers Talking About the Existence of God

Of the many books released over the past couple decades about the existence or nonexistence of God (and there were a lot) one of the best comes from philosopher and novelist Rebecca Goldstein. Her 2010 36 Arguments for the Existence of God is not, however, a work of popular theology or anti-theology; it is fiction, a satire of academia, the publishing world, the Judaism she left behind, and the bubble of hype that once inflated around so-called “new atheism."

In a book within the book, Goldstein’s hero, Cass Seltzer strikes it big with his own popular knockdown of religion, The Varieties of Religious Illusion, which ends with 36 refutations of arguments for God in the appendix, which itself provides the appendix for Goldstein’s book. If this sounds complicated, there’s no reason it shouldn’t be. Conversations about God, for hundreds of years the biggest topic in Western philosophy, should not be reduced to syllogisms and stereotypes.

Yet oversimplifying the big questions is what many pop atheist books do, Goldstein suggests. Seltzer’s book arrives when there is “a glut of godlessness” in bookstores. Such books “were selling well,” writes Goldstein, “sometimes edging out cookbooks and memoirs written by household pets to rise to the top of the best-seller list.” The two deep thinkers and religious critics Seltzer self-consciously draws on in his title make his project seem all the more ironically trivial:

First had come the book, which he had entitled The Varieties of Religious Illusion, a nod to both William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience and to Sigmund Freud's The Future of An Illusion. The book had brought Cass an indecent amount of attention. Time Magazine, in a cover story on the so-called new atheists, had ended by dubbing him "the atheist with a soul." 

By embedding arguments for the existence of God in each of the books 36 chapters, Goldstein implies “the joke—or sort of joke,” as Janet Maslin writes at The New York Times, “is that Cass’s conundrum-filled life illustrates and affirms thoughts of the divine even as his appendix repudiates them.” Dwelling persistently on an idea grants it the very validity one argues it should not have, perhaps.

This does seem to be an effect of certain hard-nosed atheist writing, as Nietzsche recognized very well. “I am afraid we are not rid of God,” he once lamented, “because we still have faith in grammar.” Religious ideas are embedded in the structure of the language; language itself seems to have metaphysical properties. It is like ectoplasm, slippery, opaque, made of metaphors both living and dead. It both enables and thwarts all attempts at certainty.

Goldstein’s creative approach to the God debate stands out for its ambivalence and humor. (See her discuss faith, fiction, and reason with her partner, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, in the video at the top of the post.) In the compilations here, Goldstein and 149 more renowned academics offer their agnostic or atheist thoughts on God. Some are less nuanced, some lean more heavily on statistics, physics, and math; many come from the theoretical sciences and from analytic and moral philosophy. Some are sympathetic to religion, some are contemptuous. A wide breadth of intellectual perspectives is represented here.

Yet other than Goldstein and a handful of other prominent women, the selections skew almost entirely male (rather like the characters in most religious scriptures), and skew almost entirely white European and North American. We can do what we like with this information. It should not prejudice us against the finest thinkers in the compilation, which includes several Nobel Prize winning scientists, famous philosophers, Richard Feynman, Oliver Sacks, and Noam Chomsky, as well as a few figures who have recently become infamous for alleged sexual harassment, racism, and far worse.

But we might wish the less engaging contributors to this discussion had given way to a greater diversity of perspectives, not only from other cultures, but from the arts and humanities. On the other side of the coin, we have a smaller list of 20 Christian academics addressing the question of God, below. These include respected scientists like Francis Collins and John Polkinghorne and many well-regarded (and some not so) Christian philosophers. The lineup is entirely male, and also includes an apologist accused of faking his academic credentials and an apologist turned right-wing propagandist who was convicted and jailed for fraud. At the very least, these details might call into question their intellectual honesty.

Here again, maybe some of these selections should have been better vetted in favor of the many women in philosophy, theology, science, etc. But there are voices worth hearing here, from professing intellectuals who can keep the questions open even while in a state of belief, a skill even rarer in the world than in this collection of Christian scientists, scholars, and apologists.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Tibetan Musical Notation Is Beautiful

Religions take the cast and hue of the cultures in which they find root. This was certainly true in Tibet when Buddhism arrived in the 7th century. It transformed and was transformed by the native religion of Bon. Of the many creative practices that arose from this synthesis, Tibetan Buddhist music ranks very highly in importance.

As in sacred music in the West, Tibetan music has complex systems of musical notation and a long history of written religious song. “A vital component of Tibetan Buddhist experience,” explains Google Arts & Cultures Buddhist Digital Resource Center, “musical notation allows for the transference of sacred sound and ceremony across generations. A means to memorize sacred text, express devotion, ward off feral spirts, and invoke deities.”

Some of these features may be alien to secular Western Buddhists focused on mindfulness and silent meditation, but to varying degrees, Tibetan schools place considerable value on the aesthetic experience of extra-human realms. As University of Tulsa musicologist John Powell writes, “the use of sacred sound” in Tibetan Buddhism, a “Mantrayana” tradition, acts “as a formula for the transformation of human consciousness.”

Tibetan musical notations, Google points out, “symbolically represent the melodies, rhythm patterns, and instrumental arrangements. In harmony with chanting, visualizations, and hand gestures, [Tibetan] music crucially guides ritual performance." It is characterized not only by its integration of ritual dance, but also by a large collection of ritual instruments—including the long, Swiss-like horns suited to a mountain environment—and unique forms of polyphonic overtone singing.

The examples of musical notation you see here came from the appropriately-named Twitter account Musical Notation is Beautiful and typeface designer and researcher Jo De Baerdemaeker. At the top is a 19th century manuscript belonging to the “Yang” tradition, “the most highly involved and regarded chant tradition in Tibetan music,” notes the Schoyen Collection, “and the only one to rely on a system of notation (Yang-Yig).”

The curved lines represent “smoothly effected rises and falls in intonation.” The notation also “frequently contains detailed instructions concerning in what spirit the music should be sung (e.g. flowing like a river, light like bird song) and the smallest modifications to be made to the voice in the utterance of a vowel.” The Yang-Yig goes all the way back to the 6th century, predating Tibetan Buddhism, and “does not record neither the rhythmic pattern nor duration of notes.” Other kinds of music have their own types of notation, such as that in the piece above for voice, drums, trumpets, horns, and cymbals.

Though they articulate and elaborate on religious ideas from India, Tibet's musical traditions are entirely its own. “It is essential to rethink the entire concept of melody and rhythm" to understand Tibetan Buddhist chant, writes Powell in a detailed overview of Tibetan music’s vocal and instrumental qualities. “Many outside Tibetan culture are accustomed to think of melody as a sequence of rising or falling pitches,” he says. “In Tibetan Tantric chanting, however, the melodic content occurs in terms of vowel modification and the careful contouring of tones.”  Hear an example of traditional Tibetan Buddhist chant just above, and learn more about Tibetan musical notation at Google Arts & Culture.

via @NotationIsGreat

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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