REA Conference, part six

“Diversity and Neuroscience” was the title of the fifth plenary session of the annual conference of the Religious Education Association (REA). Moderator Harold Horell introduced the panel discussion with two questions:

— What are the implications of neuroscience for the field of religious education? — and
— How did the presentations and conversations address the racially and ethnically diverse constituencies of the Religious Education Association?

Claire Smith of Saint Paul School of Theology was the first panelist to speak. “I found in this conference an awareness of the issues of diversity,” she said, “and a concern to include all.” She gave several specific examples, e.g., the recognition of native peoples in the opening ritual.

While there was a general awareness of diversity issues within the REA, Smith offered two cautions.

First, much of the brain research we have is provisional, and “we should not treat it as gospel.” In spite of this caution, Smith said that there is much that comes out of this research that are important for our work as religious educators.

In particular, we know there are two critical times when the brain undergoes a great deal of growth and change: infancy and adolescence. Thus, we should be paying attention to the “use it or lose it” principle during the neural pruning and change that goes on in the teen years. And given that neuroscience is showing how important empathy is, Smith asked how we can do more so that congregations can educate and support parents so that they practice empathy with their children, especially infants? She also asked how religious educators can better support faith formation in the home more generally, in ways that are also culturally supportive. She said that religious educators do not do enough to support parents.

Secondly, Smith cautioned us to ask ourselves what is normative and what is normal. In particular, how does the research take into account racial, ethnic, and class differences? She asked what is “normal” and what is “luxury”; e.g., while some cultural groups think of breastfeeding as “normal,” for other cultural groups it may instead be a “luxury” if women are not able to spend all day with their infants.

Rodger Niskioka of Columbia Theological Seminary, the next panelist, began by telling an anecdote about how he moved from Hawai’i to Seattle when he was about eleven years old. This meant he went from living in a place where the majority of people were of Polynesian and Asian ancestry — so he felt very much at home as a Japanese American — to a place where whites were the majority. Not long after his family moved, there were in a fast food restaurant, and his baby brother asked him mother, in a very loud voice, where all these white people came from. The way he told the anecdote, it was hilarious, and we were all laughing with him, and with his baby brother.

“Race, ethnicity, and culture shape not only how we view the world,” Nishioka said, “but how our brains are wired.” He pointed to brain research that indicates that the collectivist nature of East Asian cultures can affect the brains of Asian Americans. Asians, and Asian Americans, are more likely than Westerners to process information globally.

Nishioka cited a book titled The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently and Why by social psychologist Richard E. Nisbett. According to Nisbett, Westerners place the highest value on individual agency, whereas Asian thinkers place the highest value on social harmony, in which individuals are a part of a greater whole. Nesbitt also shows how Asian Americans have to shift back and forth between these two viewpoints, in a way that is not unlike what W.E.B. DuBois meant when he talked about the “twoness” of African Americans in The Souls of Black Folk. Nishioka said the field he is talking about is called cultural neuroscience.

In closing, Nishioka said, “It’s worth remembering that most brain research is being done in the Western world, using Western population [as research subjects].” This may be skewing some research results. And cultural neuroscience may call into question supposedly universal principles such as the primacy of individual agency.

Kathy Winings of Unification Theological Seminary spoke next. “The more we know,” she said, “the more we realize we don’t know” about the field of neuroscience. She said we all need to continue learning about this important topic.

Winings said that religious educators are, in a sense, being invited to join in a dialogue with science about religious, theological, and moral issues. “If we shy away from engaging with this field, this may be interpreted as acquiescence at best,” she said.

She said she was reminded of the time when various human development theories were in vogue among religious educators. Then, religious educators allowed those theories to prescribe or determine what was presented to students. Since then, religious educators have learned to be far more skeptical about developmental theories. Winings said that similarly today, religious educators have to be critical of neuroscience. “We have to allow ourselves to be informed by it, but not be determined or prescribed by it,” she said.

She raised the question of how neuroscience can help us solve social justice problems; she would like to hear more conversations about this.

“God gave us a very powerful organ: the brain,” she said in closing her remarks. “And we’re just beginning to look at it.”

Keynote speaker David Hogue was the fourth and final panelist. He noted that he is not a member of REA, and so is more of a participant/observer. Yet he did not feel like much of an outsider at the REA conference.

He said that he has been at work on neuroscience and religion for a long time, and he has felt very much alone at times. Being at the REA conference has made him feel a part of a community that is also very much interested in neuroscience.

He said another thing he appreciated about the REA was that the “unfortunate divide between theory and parxis” seem to be very much reduced at this conference, since most members of the REA are both theoreticians and practitioners.

As a practical theologian, Hogue said he detected a slightly different ethos among religious education scholars. He was struck by “the interfaith and international commitments that REA embodies.”

Hogue said there were several things he wished the conference had addressed. For example, developmental issues are very important to neuroscience: not just infant and adolescent brains, but also the aging brain. He wished that we had had time to look at how neuroscience’s finding about brain development line up with, say, Piaget’s developmental stage theory. “The more we talk [about neuroscience], the more we realize how much there is to talk about,” he said.

Like other panelists, Hogue emphasized that cultural and ethnic issues need to be addressed more fully by neuroscience researchers. those wokring in neuroscience have been wary of these issues, given the history of the way the sciences have been used to support racism, sexism, and classism.

Hogue also emphasized the importance of empathy. He pointed out that empathy can be used in malicious ways. Thus, it may be that torturers are highly empathic, which allows them to understand what will be most painful for someone they are torturing. Thus, we must better understand what we mean by empathy, and by what it means to nurture empathy.

In closing, Hogue mentioned “cross-cultural empathy,” the ability to understand persons from different cultures. He asked what cross-cultural empathy requires from the brain. Research shows that the brain uses different structures when talking with persons from another culture than with talking with a person from one’s own culture.

During the question and answer period, I asked about the tendency I had heard to use the word “God” as a kind of shorthand to refer to religious experiences, which seemed to dismiss e.g. non-theistic Buddhists, and others who wouldn’t use the term “God.” All four panelists said that this is problematic, and Nishioka and Winings both pointed out that it is inaccurate to use “God” to refer to e.g. mystical experiences.

Thomas Groome of Boston College asked the panelists about the developmental psychology paradigm: Do neurosciences and developmental psychologists talk to one another? David Hogue answered, saying “That’s a questions I want to dig into.” Hogue said that some time ago, he ran across findings that showed pretty clear correlations between Piagetian development and the brain development discovered by the neurosciences. Hogue said that there is a whole area of study called “developmental neurobiology.” For those who want to pursue the topic further, Hogue suggested reading the work of Allan Schore, a clinical psychologist at UCLA who works in this field. Hogue said this is a “burgeoning field right now.”

One thought on “REA Conference, part six”

  1. Apropos of developmental neurobiology, I can also recommend the book “iBrain” by Gary Small and Gigi Vorgan. Small is the Director of the Memory and Aging Center at UCLA, and the book reveals a lot about how digital technology might be changing our brains. I am not sure how this relates to religious education, but it certainly might.

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