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Steve Volk

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New Allies In The Culture Wars

Posted: 09/06/11 11:06 AM ET

In a previous post, I lauded the new atheist author Sam Harris for reaching out to David Eagleman, a neuroscientist who advocates "possibilianism" as a kind of intellectual antidote to the culture wars.

Whatever this pair does, I hope it's televised. Eagleman and Harris are that rare pair who disagree, yet might shed more light than heat in a collaboration.

To briefly summarize my previous post, Eagleman defines a "possibilian" as someone who enjoys holding different possibilities in mind. This stance is opposed to an atheist or a believer, who commits to a particular story, like "There is no God," or, conversely, "There is a God, and let me tell you exactly what he thinks." A possibilian is also not, simply, an agnostic who considers some questions unanswerable. A possibilian believes in science and encourages people to think and explore realms even beyond science's current boundaries to actively seek out new possibilities to consider.

Harris is more commited to a worldview. And in books like The End of Faith and The Moral Landscape he has made his case that the world's religions are demonstrably false, dangerous to society, and, well, silly. He "reached out" to Eagleman in a kind of corrective mood, taking umbrage at Eagleman's posing himself as a kind of "third way" between atheism and religious belief. Despite his sometimes strident-seeming demeanor, Harris undoubtedly carries the scent of the possibilian, standing almost entirely alone among the New Atheist tribe in advocating for a kind of broadly defined spirituality that would include practices like meditation, contemplative "prayer" and perhaps even a little mystical drug use.

I write, in a mostly admiring fashion, about both Eagleman and Harris in my book, Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away The Unexplainable - And Couldn't. The book is largely an attempt to encourage greater collaboration and so, in keeping with that theme, I would suggest Eagleman and Harris incorporate a third man into their meeting: Dr. Andrew Newberg, a physician and researcher who has now published five books on neurotheology, the study of the relationship between religious experience and the brain.

Like Harris and Eagleman, Newberg is an important point of focus in Fringe-ology; and I characterize him as a curative figure. In a media landscape where each new scientific finding, no matter how tangential or tenuous, is portrayed as groundbreaking and definitive, Newberg always seems to play the responsible adult, reminding us of the limited conclusions we can draw from the data at hand. He even downplays his own findings, stating that the neuroimaging studies he has produced of the brain during religious and spiritual experience don't and cannot provide evidence for or against the existence of God. "Here's what I can tell you," he says.  "I can tell you, when people are having a particular spiritual experience, which parts of the brain light up. That's it. That's all I can tell you."

Everyone can take a lesson from this kind of humility. But it is not only Newberg's refusal to extrapolate from his science to some definitive vision of the world that encourages me to recommend him as a partner to Harris and Eagleman. It is what he has found about the benefits of religious and spiritual practice and about believers themselves.

Newberg can scientifically back up Harris's claims for the benefits of meditation and contemplative prayer. And he can also challenge Harris in a way that might prove both provocative and productive.

In perhaps his most disarmingly simple study, in fact, Newberg asked people to draw an image of God. The result could have been embarrassing for believers: If the cartoonish version of the religious advanced by new atheists were true, Newberg would have been left with numerous images of an old man with a beard. But it turned out the most likely test subjects to draw such a God were first, children, and second, atheists. Believers in fact most often drew the sun, light, mirrors and even nothing -- abstract images that reflected a conception of God as vast and unknowable.

In short, the God the new atheists so vehemently reject is perhaps not the one held closest to believers' hearts. The God Newberg found in his test subjects is instead an array of possibilities in a wider field of possibilities. And I'm left thinking that these three men may not be able to sort out the exact nature of reality, but they might collectively be able to get us past the usual debate about belief and non-belief and instead get us really thinking, really moving forward again, toward whatever reality awaits us.