Neuroscience and religious education

Outline of an informal talk given July 10, 2011, at Ferry Beach Religious Education Week, held at the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine.

Welcome to this porch chat on neuroscience and religious education. What I’d like to do in this porch chat is this — First, find out what you know about neuroscience as it applies to religious education. Second, to tell you a little bit about what I have been learning about the exciting new developments in this area. And third, to talk about ways we can all continue our own education in this area.

(1) Let’s begin with what you know about neuroscience and religious education. And before you say “nothing,” I suspect at least some of you know something about Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences. How many of you have run into multiple intelligences work before?

What you may not realize (or may forget) is that Gardner drew upon new scientific insights in the way brain works to develop this theory. According to a paper by the Multiple Intelligences Institute, “to determine and articulate these separate faculties, or intelligences, Gardner turned to the various discrete disciplinary lenses in his initial investigations, including psychology, neurology, biology, sociology, anthropology, and the arts and humanities.” [p. 6] So Gardner represents one attempt to apply scientific insights into the brain to educational practice.

So now let me ask: what (if anything) do you know about neuroscience and religious education?

[summary of some of the responses]

  • the brain’s plasticity
  • answering the question: is there a genetic quality to empathy?
  • the god gene
  • how like things like mediation, music, etc., can change the brain
  • kids who have deficits with empathy
  • you can make new neural pathways
  • visualing brain pathways through brain imaging

(2) Now let me tell you a little bit about what I’ve been learning about how to apply scientific understandings of the brain to religious education.

I’d like to begin by reading you a paragraph from a 2000 report by the National Academy of Sciences titled “How People Learn: Brain, Mind, Experience, and School.” (You can download a free PDF of this book here.) I was introduced to this book by Joe Chee, a teacher educator and UU who is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in education and technology; Joe recommended this as a great introduction to the topic. And right at the beginning of this book, the authors tell us why we should care about the topic:

The revolution in the study of the mind that has occurred in the last three or four decades has important implications for education. As we illustrate [in this book], a new theory of learning is coming into focus that leads to very different approaches to the design of curriculum, teaching, and assessment than those often found in schools today. Equally important, the growth of interdisciplinary inquiries and new kinds of scientific collaborations have begun to make the path from basic research to educational practice somewhat more visible, if not yet easy to travel. Thirty years ago, educators paid little attention to the work of cognitive scientists, and researchers in the nascent field of cognitive science worked far removed from classrooms. Today, cognitive researchers are spending more time working with teachers, testing and refining their theories in real classrooms where they can see how different settings and classroom interactions influence applications of their theories.

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So I got an invite to Google+ (thanks, Scott). First impressions: it looks well-designed and fairly easy to use. But there also appears to be some real depth to Google+: Will posted a link to an online article titled “How Google+ ends social networking fatigue,” which outlines ways to use Google+ to replace Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and even email. One big lack: Google+ still doesn’t support RSS; I’m assuming that will be added.

So far, so good. The real test will come as I see if Google+ takes up more of my time, or whether it makes my life easier.

Travelers’ story

Waiting for the bus to Portland, Maine, I turned to the man and woman standing near by and said, This is the place you pick up the bus to Portland, right? They said it was; and that they were going to Portland, then getting on another bus to go to Bangor, and from there heading on down the coast. They both had eastern New England accents, so I asked them if they were heading back home.

Well, they said, not exactly. They were from Alaska, living in a small town near Juneau.They had been sailing a 34 foot sloop, a live-aboard, but it sank.

It sank? I said.

Well, it was sunk. They had been sailing in among a pod of humpback whales. The whales were all around them, and some of them were breaching, coming completely up out of the water and crashing back down. Usually when the whales started doing that, they moved their boat farther away. But a big bull humpback came up right where their boat was. Drove the keel up through the boat. The whale almost tipped them over, the whale rolled over, they were on its belly, they almost capsized, they could see the flukes up in the air next to the boat, the whale rolled back, so at least they didn’t tip over. The whale was feeling a little stunned, they said.

They had enough time to send off a mayday call. The Coast Guard picked up the call and relayed it to a fishing vessel that was nearer to them. The boat sank in about five minutes. She had just enough time to grab her credit cards and driver’s license, and then they were in the water. Fortunately, the fishing vessel came within ten minutes of the time the boat sank, because the water was cold, in the forties.

So you lost everything? I said. Yup, they said cheerfully, but we’re alive. And you know, he said, it’s hard to see everything go down like that, but then you feel — lighter. Well, I said, you’ll be dining out on that story for the next twenty years. They laughed. We already have, they said, we told some of the Tlinglit in our village, and even they were impressed. They’re water people, and they could relate to us.

I said goodbye to them in Portland. They’re going to sell a house they own beyond Bangor, and buy another boat, and head back to Alaska.

Back in the homeland

Carol’s flight into Boston was on time, but mine was delayed, and it was late when i got to the hotel. I went straight to the hotel bar to get a burger.

The Red Sox game was showing on the TV in the hotel bar. Bottom of the eighth, the Sox leading the Orioles 9 to 3, and big David Ortiz is at bat. Gregg, the Baltimore pitcher throws a pitch so far inside that Ortiz has to take a step back. “Didja see that look Ortiz gave him?” says the guy next to me in his Boston accent. Two more pitches exactly like that, and Ortiz yells something at Gregg. The guy sitting next to me says, “Jeez, Ortiz is not happy with that.” One more pitch, Ortiz pops up to center field, Gregg makes some kind of gesture at him, next thing you know both dugouts and both bullpens are out in the field mixing it up — desultory commentary provided by two guys with Boston accents sitting at a Boston bar.

OK, I live in the Bay Area now, and of course I like northern California weather better, and yes everyone is friendlier there, and people don’t drive like crazed maniacs the way they do in Boston. But for someone who grew up in eastern New England, there’s nothing like sitting in a bar watching the Sox with other people who speak God’s own English. It’s like being back in the homeland or something.


I’m watching the slow launch of Google+ with very cautious optimism. On the one hand, Google has a bad habit of introducing a new product, handling it badly, and then abruptly abandoning it; remember Google Wave? On the other hand, we desperately need a solid competitor to Facebook, a social networking product which is buggy, clunky, and not at all trustworthy.

Those of us in the religion world already know that we will be using social networking tools more and more as time goes on — it would be really nice if we had additional social networking options, and it would be even nicer if there were popular social networking options that were well-designed. Facebook is not particularly well designed; it’s better than MySpace, perhaps, but not by much. Will Google+ provide a better-designed social networking option?

Tidbit on William Jackson

I’m still finding out bits about the life of Rev. William Jackson, the African American minister, abolitionist, and military chaplain who declared himself a Unitarian in 1860, and was ignored by the American Unitarian Association.

I had Jackson’s birth date — 16 August 1818 — but not his date of death. Everett Hoagland, poet, retired professor, and UU, writes to me that Jackson died 19 May 1909, according to the reference librarian at the New Bedford Public Library.

Jackson is well worth a full book-length biography. He, with some others, helped to forcibly free an escaping slave imprisoned under the new Fugitive Slave Law in Philadelphia. He may have been a conductor on the Underground Railroad. He was converted to Unitarianism by Frances Harper, but was rebuffed by the A.U.A., and so remained a liberal Baptist. He was the first person of color to receive a commission as an officer in the U.S. Army, and served briefly as chaplain to the famous 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, before being transferred to the 55th when it was formed. And in the late nineteenth century, he was one of those middle class African Americans who began summering on Martha’s Vineyard. His life would make a great Ph.D. dissertation, or a great book.

More than a sermon

Scott Wells has started me thinking about what I’d like to do to introduce an online component to sermons. Here are some preliminary ideas:

  • On Thursday (the day I usually write a sermon), post a reading and a question for reflection on a sermon blog; the reading would be used during the service three days hence.
  • On Sunday morning, just before preaching, post the reading text of the sermon on the same sermon blog. The sermon would have embedded hyperlinks, and bibliographic references for further reading as relevant.
  • In addition to comments on the sermon blog, the order of service would give a hashtag for a Twitter conversation. The sermon would be streamed live online, so shut-ins and people who were traveling could hear the sermon, and participate through Twitter and online comments.
  • After the Sunday service, comments would remain open on the sermon blog, and I’d join in the online conversation when it made sense to do so.

This would fit into my normal weekly work flow: I have often posted a reading or reflection question a few days before I preach a sermon, and I already post a text of my sermons online before I preach them. At present, I don’t have comments enabled on my sermon blog (because I got too many comments by evangelical Christians and Hindus who wanted to argue without listening to anyone else), but it wouldn’t be a big deal to enable comments once again. The only thing listed above that I can’t do right now is stream the sermon live online (yes, I know I’m at a Silicon Valley church, but we don’t have the volunteers who could oversee the streaming, and our Internet connection is woefully slow). And for you diehard Facebook people, there could be a Facebook page with the sermon blog’s RSS feed.

The real question is: would anyone actually participate in a Twitter conversation, or read the sermon online and comment on it? Would you? Or is there some other online enrichment strategy that I’m missing?

Prime number days and consecutive odds days

Today’s date is made up entirely of prime numbers: 7, 5, and 2011. I’m sure you already noticed that, because you’re already aware that 2011 is a prime number, and so you’re watching for the fifty-two dates this year made up entirely of prime numbers. Which means that you have also noticed that there are three prime number Sundays this month, which is the greatest number of prime number Sundays you can have in any month.

However, you may not have thought about the fact that Saturday’s date is made up of consecutive odd numbers (if, that is, you define the number of the present year to be 11, as it is often written, rather than 2011). Ron Gordon of Redwood City has thought about it, and has received national press in his efforts to promote what he calls Odd Day. I’d have to say that a more precise name would be Consecutive Odds Days, but I recognize that “Odd Day” is a catchier name.

Using Gordon’s definition, there are six Odd Days per century. For purists who believe that a number is a number, dammit, and you can’t just arbitrarily chop off the digits to the left of the tens place, there were only six true Odd Days ever using our present system of numbering years, and those happened even before our present system was in place. While this notion might disturb you, it is probably more satisfying to the pure mathematician, for the pure mathematician prefers things that don’t actually exist.

Robert Gould Shaw, liberal religious patriot

For Independence Day, here’s the story of Robert Gould Shaw to inspire you. Excerpted and slightly modified from a sermon I delivered yesterday at the Palo Alto church.

Robert Gould Shaw was born in Boston in 1837 to a wealthy Unitarian family. His parents were Francis George Shaw and Sarah Sturgis; they had inherited money from Francis’s father, and Francis was involved in business and philanthropy. When Robert was five, the family moved to West Roxbury, near the famous Brook Farm community; and when Robert was in his teens, they moved to Staten Island, where the family helped found the Staten Island Unitarian church. The Shaws were abolitionists, and they may have been active in the Underground Railroad, helping escaping slaves to flee to the northern states.

Given the wealth and influence of the Shaw family, Robert surely could have avoided military service during the Civil War. But he chose to enlist. On April 19, 1861, Shaw joined the private Seventh New York Volunteer Militia. That short-lived unit disbanded after a month or so, and he joined the Second Massachusetts Volunteers (Infantry), and was commissioned as Second Lieutenant on May 28, 1861. He became First Lieutenant on July 8, 1861, and Captain on August 10, 1862. While with the Second Massachusetts, he took part in several battles, including the battle at Antietam. In late 1862, he was offered the chance to command a regiment made up entirely of free African Americans from the north. He became Colonel of Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry on April 17, 1863.

A small volume titled Memoirs of the War of ’61, published in 1920 by George H. Ellis (who was the printer for Unitarian tracts and books), tells the story of Shaw’s military service through excerpts from his lettersBelow are the excerpts relating to the 54th Regiment, which show his courage, and his growing realization that the men under his command were indeed his equals; for even though he was an abolitionist, like most white people of his day, he began by thinking African Americans his inferiors:

[Upon accepting command of the 54th Regiment, February 5th, 1862. Shaw wrote:] “There is great prejudice against it — at any rate I shan’t be frightened out of it by unpopularity.” March 25: “The intelligence of the men is a great surprise to me.” March 30: “The mustering officer who was here to-day is a Virginian, and he always thought it was a great joke to make soldiers of ‘n——s’ [African Americans], but he tells me now that he has never mustered in so fine a set of men, though about 20,000 have passed through his hands since September. The skeptics need only to come out here to be converted.” Morris Island, July 18: “We are in General Strong’s brigade. We came up here last night in a very heavy rain. Fort Wagner is being heavily bombarded. We are not far from it. We hear nothing but praise for the Fifty-fourth on all hands.”

Shaw was offered the post of greatest danger and greatest honor in the assault on Fort Wagner, and accepted immediately. Here is a contemporary account of what happened, written from South Carolina on July 22 by an unidentified person attached to General Strong:

The troops looked worn and weary; had been without tents during the pelting rains of the two previous nights. When they came within six hundred yards of Fort Wagner they formed in line of battle, the Colonel heading the first and the Major the second battalion. With the Sixth Connecticut and Ninth Maine and others they remained half an hour. Then the order for ‘charge’ was given. The regiment marched at quick, then at double-quick time. When about one hundred yards from the Fort the rebel musketry opened with such terrible fire that for an instant the first battalion hesitated; but only for an instant, for Colonel Shaw, springing to the front and waving his sword, shouted, ‘Forward, Fifty-fourth!’ and with another cheer and shout they rushed through the ditch and gained the parapet on the right. Colonel Shaw was one of the first to scale the walls. He stood erect to urge forward his men, and while shouting for them to press on was shot dead and fell into the fort.

Thinking to humiliate Shaw and his family, the Confederate Army, shocked that a white man would serve with African Americans, buried Shaw in a common grave with his soldiers. But his parents were pleased by this, and wrote:

We can imagine no holier place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company — what a body-guard he has!

The story of Robert Gould Shaw is a classic story of patriotism. He gave his life in service of his country; more to the point, he gave his life while serving the highest ideals of his country, the ideals of freedom and equality for all persons. And in this case, the ideals of his country, and the ideals of his Unitarian faith, were clearly aligned. It is a classic story of patriotism, yet even so, Shaw’s patriotism questioned a dominant notion of his day: that African Americans could not serve with distinction in the military. So you see, this is a story of how a religious liberal pushed the boundaries of patriotism.


Quote from Shaw’s parents from Seeking the One Great Remedy: Francis George Shaw and Nineteenth-century Reform, by Lorien Foote (2003: Ohio University Press). Other quotes by and information about Robert Gould Shaw from Memoirs of the War of ’61 (1920: George Ellis); the online biography of Shaw at the UU Historical Society Web site; and other online and printed sources.

Barstow to home

I awakened sometime in the middle of the night, and had a hard time getting back to sleep: too much caffeine too late in the day. So I listened to the freight cars in the railroad yard behind the hotel. As the cars were moved around the yard, their wheels gave off flute-like, almost musical, tones. First a tone held for three long beats, the basic tone of which was maybe as high as the C above middle C; then it would change in pitch, shifting suddenly to a higher note or notes. I began listening to the change in pitch, using standard solmization syllables to determine the rise in pitch. Do, re, mi, no not quite mi; a slightly flatted third, like the blue notes in jazz or blues. Do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, ti; that’s a major seventh. The notes began to blur into each other, there were chords, I was fast asleep.

The next morning, we took a long walk along the Historic Route 66 in Barstow. The sun was incredibly bright, the air clear and very dry, and because it was so dry we didn’t feel uncomfortable walking through the desert heat. We went down a short side street where there was a big sign that read “Barstow Classification Yard,” and another sign that read “BNSF Barstow CA.” Carol stood around waiting while I took some photographs of the rail yard beyond. We walked past that, taking photographs of the motel and restaurant and other signs next to or on buildings along the highway: “Palm Court American-Chinese Food”; “Yahweh Flooring”; “Entrance /Low Rates / Office,” with an arrow pointing, and a Hindu “Om” symbol; “Route 66 Motel / Vacancy / Free WiFi — Round Beds — HBO — Remodeled Rooms — Best Prices”; “Robertiroz Mexican Food / Open 24 Hours 7 Days a Week.”

On one side of the highway, side streets led to neat modest homes; on the other side of the highway, beyond the Barstow Classification Yard, we could sometimes see the desert. If this strip of highway, with its big bright signs and bright gaudy roadside architecture, was anywhere else, it would have looked gaudy. But the highway was competing with the intense desert sun, and the glare, and the hot dry air, and it was no competition at all for the sun and glare and dry air won handily.

Driving west, we climbed up towards the Tehachapi Pass, through the high desert with Joshua trees here and there on either side. Erle Stanley Gardner, in one of his detective books, writes about driving through the desert at night and seeing “the weird Joshua trees on either side”; they do look weird, they look vaguely humanoid, but to me they have a friendly and very satisfying look to them.

Once in Tehachapi, the humidity set in. Visibility dropped, distant hills looked blue, the most distant ones disappeared in the haze, and I kept wanting to polish my glasses so I could see again. We began feeling the heat more. All during the long drive through the Central Valley, the air was blue with humidity, and the heat felt uncomfortable, even in the air-conditioned car. Finally we wound through the Coastal Ranges, and arrived at home near the shores of San Francisco Bay, where at last the air felt cool and comfortable.

from July 2, posted July 3