243: Conversation with Dr. David Myers on bridging the gap between believers and skeptics

r. David Myers easily could rest on his laurels as the author of the most widely studied psychology text on college campuses. In fact, much of his time is consumed, these days, researching the cutting edge of psychological research to prepare future editions of his textbooks.
    But, at 65, his lifetime as a scholar, teacher and man of deep faith has driven him toward another vocation: Building bridges that may help millions of us to cross over the social chasms of our age.
    This includes his work on improving conditions in public places for hearing-impaired people and encouraging a fresh discussion between gay and heterosexual people about faith. If you’re interested in those themes, take a look at his earlier books, “A Quiet World” and “What God Has Joined Together.” (Click on the book covers today to read our reviews and order copies, if you’d care to do that.)
    Dr. Myers is an equal-opportunity bridge builder. His eye, his mind and his heart all are focused on the timeless promise of compassionate community that lies at the heart of nearly all of our faith traditions. What fuels his work, year after year, is his vision of what he calls “human flourishing by making sense of the universe, giving meaning to life, connecting us in supportive communities, mandating altruism and offering hope in the face of adversity and death.”
    That’s a pretty good summary of the purpose of faith, right? He’s really preaching a message that’s universal. Who could disagree with these goals?
    And yet –- as so often happens in our contentious and anxious era -– we do find so many issues around which we want to hunker down and dig deep trenches between “us” and “them.”
    The shocker for people of faith in recent years is that an influential group of best-selling writers, commonly called “the new atheists,” completely outflanked the religious community and dug their own trenches to separate their new circle of elite voices from the religious community that many of them seem to despise.
    One thing you must understand about Dr. Myers –- and I know this from talking with him and occasionally interviewing him in depth over the years — is that he’s got a boundless, constructive optimism in the way he approaches all questions.
    In short, think of Mister Rogers’ approach to forming a neighborhood where all are welcome and you’ll have a feeling for Myers’ style.
    Earlier, we explored Michael Novak’s book in response to the new atheists. Novak’s book also is a “good read” on these issues, raising a range of fresh examples and arguments. Novak’s book differs from Myers’ book, I would say, by being more muscular in its tone, more strident, more the voice of a debater in a TV studio.
    Myers’ book is a reminder, as his subtitle says, of “Why God is Good and Faith Isn’t Evil.” It’s short. It really is “Friendly.”

    That’s what we talked about this week. Here are more highlights from our conversation:

    CRUMM: You say that you write this book as a “science-loving religious person.” What does that phrase mean?
    MYERS: I am first of all a person of faith in my bones. I have been from my childhood to the present. I am an actively religious person who reads the lectionary text each morning and prays and worships weekly. It’s part of the fiber of who I am and shapes my values. I am also passionately interested in science and its ability to discern certain truths. I am particularly interested in psychological science and the insights it has given us into human behavior -– so one of my vocational interests is to bridge my faith and my science. I want to connect these two realms that are of interest to me as a “science-loving” person of faith.
    CRUMM: Let’s talk for a moment about the position you take on religion. For example, I think some people reading your book might take issue with your description of prayer. You point out that you don’t think that God is waiting to hear our prayers that we may voice on behalf of other people and then God may, sort of, come down and change things in their life if God hears enough prayers. A lot of people do believe something like that. You’re saying that you don’t believe that prayer works that way.
    MYERS: I am speaking from a mainstream Christian position. I am not presuming to speak for Islam or Judaism or other faith traditions. And certainly all of the people who adopt the name of religion are a very mixed bag of people. Some people will be on a different page than I am about things like prayer. If you think that prayer almost magically can be depended upon to find you parking places or heal cancer, then we’re on a different page. But that doesn’t mean that there’s still not a lot we share in common concerning our faith. And, we’re all being attacked by the new atheist arguments right now. They’re taking on the very idea that God exists. They’re arguing against the idea that religion serves beneficial purposes. Yes, Pentecostals and mainstream Christians may disagree about a lot of things, but in this discussion, I think we have a lot in common.
    CRUMM: But you’re also making the point in your book that Christians aren’t monolithic. Christians disagree about a lot of things.
    MYERS: Right. In this new discussion, atheist writers tend to argue that fundamentalists and Pentecostals typify religion and that’s not the case. I want my skeptical and atheist friends to understand that there’s a lot more to religion than the fundamentalists and Pentecostals.

    CRUMM: One of the things I find refreshingly honest in your approach both in this book and your earlier book, “What God Has Joined Together,” is your honesty about doubt in a life of deep faith. Michael Novak talks about this, too, in his book. What you’re saying is that we can be faithful, religious people and still acknowledge that we know some of the things we assume to be true — may actually be mistaken over time. Just because we’re faithful, it doesn’t mean we claim to be right all the time.
    I want to share with readers this little passage from your new book:
    “As a Christian monotheist and a psychological scientist, I approach life and work with two unoriginal assumptions: that (1) there is a God and (2) it’s not me and it’s also not you. Together these axioms imply my surest conviction: Some of my beliefs –- like yours –- contain error. We are finite and fallible. We have dignity but not deity.”
    Talk a little bit about this idea, which is a very important point you make in your new book — that a life of faith is also a life that’s well aware of doubts we face. Is it difficult to live life like this?
    MYERS: No, it is very easy to live like this and it’s a very helpful idea to acknowledge –- to remember that there is a God, but it’s not me. And because of that, we know that some of what I believe — and some of what you believe –- contains error. And that’s the grounds for our humility and our openness to other people and our openness to scientific insight –- and also it’s why we don’t need to be intimidated by others who may strongly disagree with us and challenge us. I find myself comfortable in a religious tradition that calls itself Reformed and ever reforming. That acknowledges that each one of us is finite and none of us has a corner on God. It’s humbling and it’s also liberating.
    One can hold to this kind of openness and still live assuming that God exists, that God loves us, that there is hope that can sustain us beyond death — and that we can live in ways that have meaning and purpose because of this. One can live this way and still openly acknowledge that some details in our traditions are tentative.

    CRUMM: You also point out in your new book that there are questions that science simply isn’t designed to answer. You turn to Tolstoy and you list three questions that sound very similar to the way we talk about spirituality here at ReadTheSpirit. You say that life’s three fundamental spiritual questions are: “Why should I live? Why should I do anything? Is there in life any purpose which the inevitable death that awaits me does not undo and destroy?”
    MYERS: These are three questions to which science and even psychological science has few if any answers and that’s where the domain of faith enters our lives. Lacking answers to those questions, it seems to me we’re tempted to live only for ourselves. Having answers to these questions helps us understand why people of faith tend to be — as I document in the book — so much more generous of their time and their financial resources. That’s contrary to the idea that religion is toxic, evil, corrosive of human well being as the new atheists have argued.
    Science is very useful but it’s useful for a focus on a limited set of questions. And these spiritual questions are ones that it can’t answer for us.
    There is psychological science that is pertinent to issues of purpose in life. There are scales people have developed to examine this. What we find is that people who have a strong sense of meaning and purpose live with a greater sense of joy. But where do you find this sense of purpose? Psychological science is wonderfully informative about our human condition, but it doesn’t give us our values or the answer to life’s meaning and purpose.

CRUMM: Let’s look at several of the beneficial outcomes that are associated with religion. Part of your “Friendly Letter” explains the solid evidence that faith does serve many good purposes in our world. You list quite a number of these benefits — but let’s touch on just a couple of them here to give readers a feel for what’s in your book.
    Let’s start with forgiveness. You write, “In both laboratory and clinical intervention studies, forgiveness predicts improved emotional and physical well-being.”
    I’ve seen some of this new research in Martin Doblmeier’s fascinating film about “The Power of Forgiveness.”
    You’re saying that there’s evidence that the spiritual principle of forgiveness — letting go of our negative feelings toward someone else — is healthy and it tends to be related to one’s religious experience.
    MYERS: Absolutely. My Hope College colleague Charlotte Witvliet is one of the researchers who has done very important and widely cited studies of forgiveness. She brings people into the laboratory and measures the biological results of forgiveness. For example, when she is studying people and asks them to recall hurts from the past, mentally rehearsing these grudges, then she measures their blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and perspiration — and she finds that they’re aroused. These are indicators that can be toxic to our health and they rise in us when we hold onto these hurt feelings and grudges. But when we practice forgiveness, these toxic indicators subside. We know this is conducive to health. That’s one Christian virtue — forgiveness — that has been brought into the laboratory and we’re seeing some very interesting and reliable results that it is healthy for people to practice forgiveness.
    CRUMM: You also talk about compassion and volunteerism and point to various studies that link rises in these two values to a person’s level of religious involvement.
    MYERS: Certainly Christianity has been associated with bad things: the Crusades, genocides, bigotry. But one of the main contentions in my book is that this argument the new atheists are making — that religion itself is toxic and dangerous — is demonstrably wrong. One of the main reasons it’s wrong is that the evidence, on balance, clearly indicates that religion is correlated with generosity of spirit as reflected both in volunteerism and charitable giving. These levels are much higher among actively religious people, when compared with people who are religiously inactive.
    Should this surprise us? Think about the Christian roots in the founding of hospitals, schools and the civil rights movements across time and around the world. It’s a bum rap to stereotype all religion as toxic.

   CRUMM: Let’s mention one more beneficial outcome that you write about: happiness.
   MYERS: Christopher Hitchens argues that religious belief does not make its adherents happy, but the accumulated evidence is must closer to C.S. Lewis’ assumption: “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”
   There are so many studies that indicate this. Among them, people of an active religious faith even have been found to cope better with the loss of a spouse or a job. It’s a well-accepted fact now that an active religious faith correlates with psychological well being as measured in various studies of happiness and personal satisfaction.
    CRUMM: I highlighted one particular line near the very end of your book. In fact, I have to say: If I had been your editor on this new book, I’d have made it your final line in the text — it’s so powerful in summing up your deep faith and your welcoming and humble approach to other people.
    Here’s the line: “Existence is a mystery, a mystery embraced in the journey of faith.”
    MYERS: And now we really have come back to what we talked about at the very beginning of this conversation. I realize that I am such a small creature in the face of the cosmos and the enormity of reality that I grasp only a very small part of it. There is so much that I don’t understand, so much mystery — and that’s OK.
    I know that I am a creature. I know that I am mortal. I assume that there’s a deeper purpose to all of this, that I am loved, that my life has significance. I believe that God expressed that love in a human way on this planet -– but that’s my leap of faith to assume those things. Having said that, I must acknowledge that there is just so much that I don’t understand -– and therein lies the great mystery of life.

SO ENDS our Convesation With Dr. David Myers.

    COME BACK TOMORROW, when our series on “connections” and “community” continues with a piece from a Washington D.C.-based writer about the spiritual nature of Facebook.
    Today, we’ve got more on this theme, as well, over on the OurValues Web site. Dr. Wayne Baker continues his series with Christine Gloss on the values behind our connections with other people.
    PLEASE, tell us what you think. Click on the “Comment” link at the end of the online version of this story. Or, you always can Email ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm directly. We’ll end this week, as we usually do, with a Friday Roundup of reader comments — so it’s a great time to share your thoughts.

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