posted August 26, 2008

Book Reflects on the Good in Religion

A short new book by Dr. David Myers of the Hope College psychology faculty responds to the "new atheist" argument that all religion is dangerous and false, by suggesting how faith can be - and often is - reasonable, science-affirming, healthy, hopeful, and humane.

His book "A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists:  Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil" was published earlier this month by Jossey-Bass/Wiley.

Myers writes as both a social scientist and a person of faith.  While acknowledging ways religion has fueled the worst in human behavior, he notes that religion more often leads adherents to engage with the world as forces for good.

"Although religion in some forms has indeed fed prejudice and atrocity, the available evidence is pretty compelling:  In the Western world, at least, religiosity is more often associated with good - with happiness, health, generosity, and volunteering - than with evil," he writes.

Myers developed the book to bridge two worlds that he feels need not be separate.  As a scientist, he understands - and within his own discipline applies - the skepticism that he recognizes can lead others to reject faith.  His own experience as both a believer and a psychologist, however, has convinced him that the two need not be at odds.  In "A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists" he writes conversationally, offering thoughts and examples that he hopes will prompt his audience to regard faith anew.  Michael Shermer, publisher of "Skeptic" magazine and head of the Skeptics Society, notes that Myers "is the perfect person to write this book because he is both a skeptic and a theist, a world class debunker of all things nonsense, and yet a man of faith."

"I develop and offer these and other reflections not as a sophisticated defense of theism," Myers notes.  "I hope, more simply, to help skeptical readers, many of whom are among my esteemed friends, to appreciate the common ground they share with many people of faith."

"I aim to suggest to these skeptical friends how someone might share their commitment to reason, evidence, and, yes, even skepticism while also embracing a faith that makes sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, connects us in supportive communities, mandates altruism, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death."

For example, where skeptics might see ways that religious fervor has been behind attacks, wars and prejudice, Myers documents selflessness inspired by faith commitments.  Similarly, he describes studies showing that frequent worship attendance predicts greater volunteerism and charitable giving.

He acknowledges, quoting Gordon Allport, that "there are pathogenic strains in some religions, such as excessive terror, superstition, a built-in hostility to science, or a palliative defensiveness.  But these pathogenic strains are not found in the great creeds of the world's religions."   Moreover, Myers adds, "To judge faith by what Terry Eagleton called 'vulgar caricatures of religious faith that would make a first-year theology student wince' is like judging science by eugenics, nuclear warheads and chemical pollutants."

He also shows how faith and scientific inquiry can work together.  While recognizing that there are Christians who see a conflict between the Bible and the conclusions of science, many other people of faith, including many of the founders of science, he says, find that faith inspires and complements good science.

Myers quotes neuroscientist Donald MacKay's reminder that the scientist's religious task, "is to tell it like it is, knowing that the Author is at our elbow, a silent judge of the accuracy with which we claim to describe the world He has created."  Indeed, adds Myers, "Disciplined, rigorous inquiry - checking our theories against reality - helps fulfill Jesus' 'great commandment' to love God not just with our hearts but also with our minds."

Dr. Francis Collins, author of "The Language of God" and director of the Human Genome Project as well as an evangelical Christian, has praised Myers' book by noting, "With winsome humor and refreshing humility, David Myers offers a compelling case for skeptics and secularists that mature believers are a lot more like them than they realize - committed to reason and evidence, and offended by misuses of religion by dogmatists with personal or political agendas.  Yet he also shows how life can be enriched by embracing a spiritual worldview that adds to rather than subtracts from the search for truth."

Myers, who has taught at Hope since 1967, is a communicator of psychological science to college students and the general public.  His writings, supported by National Science Foundation Fellowships and grants and recognized by the Gordon Allport Prize, have appeared in three dozen scientific periodicals, from "Science" to "Psychological Science," and in dozens of magazines and newspapers.  His 17 books include best-selling psychology texts and general-audience books on happiness, intuition, and hearing loss.