Monday, October 5, 2015

Explore This Map of 13 Centuries' Worth of English Metaphors

English is a language rich in metaphor — take for example the many ways that human behavior can be linked with birds. Someone who is fearful is a chicken, a show-off can be called a peacock and a prideful person can be said to preen. But some metaphors are so ingrained in the language that speakers forget they are metaphors at all: To comprehend literally meant "to grasp" in Latin, reports Libby Brooks for The Guardian. Now, to fully appreciate the history of English metaphors, dive into the online Metaphor Map from researchers at the University of Glasgow. 

Brooks explains that the three-year-long project is based on data from the university’s Historical Thesaurus of English and includes words and phrases that have cropped over 13 centuries. The visualization shows connections between different concepts. Brooks writes:

For example, when we describe a “healthy economy” or a “clear argument”, we are mapping from one domain of experience that is quite concrete, such as medicine or sight, onto another domain that is rather more abstract, in this case finance or perception, and thus benefits from metaphorical explanation.

Likewise, the phrase "cropped up" links the more concrete domain of plants to a more abstract ones of creation or occurrence. 

For Hyperallergic, Allison Meier offers tips on how to explore the visualization and explains how far the project has yet to go. She writes:

A quarter of the project’s connections are online with plans for expansion, including an Old English map in August. It takes a bit of experimenting with the map to explore its tiered navigation, and the university posted a how-to video as an introduction. It’s also recommended that you check out this page showing all the categories completed online with dates and information, and utilize the timeline view which makes it easier to pinpoint different eras.

The latest blog post, for example, explores the bird metaphors mentioned above in greater detail. The timeline view shows that linking light with knowledge (enlighten, for example) dates back to the late 1100s, and linking texture with a foolish person (a clod, a lump) started in the late 1500s. 

The project is good for more than just curiosity, the principal investigator, Wendy Anderson, told The Guardian. 

"This helps us to see how our language shapes our understanding — the connections we make between different areas of meaning in English show, to some extent, how we mentally structure our world," she says.

Fessenden, Marissa. 2015. “Explore This Map of 13 Centuries' Worth of English Metaphors”. Smithsonian Magazine. Posted: July 15, 2015. Available online:

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Army's Anthropology Experiment Ends in Defeat

It was probably doomed from the start: the battlefield marriage of a left-wing academic discipline and the hidebound U.S. Army. The military has now confirmed that the Human Terrain System program, which sent anthropologists into the Afghan combat zone, has been terminated. Yet with no shortage of asymmetric conflicts and foreign insurgencies in America's future, it's worth examining why the Pentagon's foray into the social sciences failed in order to see how it can do better.

HTS, which cost taxpayers more than $700 million over seven years, had an intriguing premise: The sociocultural insights of academics embedded into special operations and other units in Afghanistan could give commanders on the ground an edge in fighting the Taliban and encouraging cooperation from local citizens. Most importantly, a better understanding of local culture and mores could lead to less pointless bloodshed.

And to some extent, it worked. Officers surveyed for a study by the National Defense University said the program was effective in training soldiers on the "dos and don'ts" of Afghan culture and that census work by the academic experts was helpful in compiling detailed profiles of villages in the combat zone. A 2013 Army survey found that that 89 percent of commanders and their staffs considered the program's Human Terrain Teams helpful in making decisions and that 92 percent of the information they supplied was "actionable."

For example, one team member persuaded U.S. forces to stop hampering a group of irrigation workers he studied whose work was vital to local residents. During the effort to clear insurgents from the Shabak Valley in eastern Afghanistan in 2007, a social scientistpointed out that the area had a high preponderance of widows whose sons, duty bound to care for them, were easy recruiting targets for the Taliban, which paid them to fight. This led team members to look for ways to get the women involved in the local textile trade, freeing the sons to travel to areas with better employment opportunities.

But for the most part, poor planning and execution fatally hindered the project. The military made two major public-relations blunders: first by framing it as an anthropological effort, and then by insisting it wasn't an intelligence operation when it was exactly that. (The Orwellian-sounding name didn't help, either.) After the Pentagon announced the program in 2007 -- noting that one founder, Montgomery McFate, was a Yale- and Berkeley-trained Ph.D. anthropologist -- the American Anthropological Association called it "an unacceptable application of anthropological expertise." Given that the Venn diagram of anthropologists and Bernie Sanders supporters is probably a perfect circle, this should have been expected. The botched rollout put the military on the defensive, and the program never shed the implication that it was up to something nefarious.

The biggest mistakes, however, occurred in training and recruitment. Ryan Evans, a civilian who spent nine months deployed with the program and now edits the Web magazine War on the Rocks, writesthat his job interview consisted of just two 10-minute phone conversations and that he received little or no language training or guidance on firearms and surviving in combat. (Evans says he spent his own money on private weapons training from an ex-Marine.) Many of the social scientists had no real knowledge of Afghanistan, and because they were often given little notice about where they would be posted, they had no chance to do adequate research before deploying.

In the end, the death blow came because of corruption and severe mismanagement. Army documents obtained by USA Today in 2013 confirmed "substantiated instances of sexual harassment and racism, potential fraud in filing time sheets and indifference to the reports team members had produced." An Army "climate survey" discovered grounds for at least 14 Equal Employment Opportunity complaints. The Army's internal investigation found that supervisors abetted contractors in claiming maximum overtime and comp time, resulting in some being paid more than $280,000 a year and given months of paid leave after returning stateside. This led to the program being pared down, from 41 teams in 2011 to 20 in 2013, and eventually deep-sixed last September. 

Giving up on the idea of battlefield social scientists would be a mistake. (The military does have some similar, smaller programs, but HTS was the highest-profile and most significant.) The key to success is reducing the Army's total reliance on contractors -- which was also a problem with the CIA's enlisting of psychologists for its severe interrogations of suspected terrorists. The good news, according to Evans, is that the military already has a uniformed cadre of professionals ready to step into the breach: the Army's civil affairs officers. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, these"warrior diplomats" -- often working in four-person teams made up of a captain and three noncommissioned officers -- have most often been involved in soothing relations with local officials and in projects such as digging wells and building schools, but they have rarely been used to their full potential. Given adequate training in the basics of social science, or even sent back to college for master's degrees, they would bring a military rigor to the task of winning hearts and minds.

For the military, which understandably likes to pick only the fights it knows it can win, dabbling in anthropology will always be awkward. The social sciences are relatively immature compared to the hard sciences. Moreover, when applied to effect change, they are in the end dependent on the uncertainties of the human mind. Yet the idea that they have a beneficial role in warfare is hardly new: General William Yarborough, known as the father of the modern Green Berets, often brought in top anthropologists, psychologists, historians and other academics to lecture at the Army's Special Warfare School in the 1960s. He knew that that in counterinsurgency, you have to get into the heads of both the enemy and the people you are trying to help.

Harshaw, Tobin. 2015. “Army's Anthropology Experiment Ends in Defeat”. Bllomberg View. Posted: July 15, 2015. Available online:

Saturday, October 3, 2015

The last Viking and his 'magical' sword?

A deadly weapon and symbol of power -- jewellery for a man, with magical properties. The sword gave power to the warrior, but the warrior's strength could also be transferred to the sword. That is how they were bound together: man and weapon, warrior and sword.

This sword was found in Langeid in Bygland in Setesdal in 2011. It is a truly unique sword from the late Viking Age, embellished with gold, inscriptions and other ornamentation. The discovery of the sword has not been published until now, when it is being displayed for the first time in the exhibition 'Take It Personally' at the Historical Museum in Oslo.

The sword must have belonged to a wealthy man in the late Viking Age. But who was he and what magic inscriptions are set into the decoration -- in gold? Was the owner of the sword in the Danish King Canute's army when it attacked England in 1014-15?

"We just gaped"

In the summer of 2011, archaeologists from the Museum of Cultural History in Oslo discovered a Viking burial ground in Langeid in Setesdal in southern Norway. In one of the graves they made a startling discovery.

"Even before we began the excavation of this grave, I realised it was something quite special. The grave was so big and looked different from the other 20 graves in the burial ground. In each of the four corners of the grave there were post holes," said excavation leader Camilla Cecilie Wenn of the Museum of Cultural History.

The post holes reveal that there was a roof over the grave, which is a sign that the grave had a prominent place in the burial ground. But when they dug down in the coffin in the bottom of the grave, there were few traces of gifts for the afterlife, only two small fragments of silver coins. The coins were from northern Europe; one was probably from the German Viking Age, judging by how it was embossed, while the other was a penny minted under Ethelred II in England dating from the period 978-1016.

"But when we went on digging outside the coffin, our eyes really popped. Along both sides, something metal appeared, but it was hard to see what it was. Suddenly a lump of earth fell to one side so that the object became clearer. Our pulses raced when we realised it was the hilt of a sword! And on the other side of the coffin, the metal turned out to be a big battle-axe. Although the weapons were covered in rust when we found them, we realised straight away that they were special and unusual. Were they put there to protect the dead person from enemies, or to display power?"

Dating of charcoal from one of the post holes shows that the grave is from around the year 1030, at the very end of the Viking Age. "And that fits in well with the discovery of the English coin."

The sword

The sword must have belonged to a wealthy man who lived in the late Viking Age. The sword is 94 cm long; although the iron blade has rusted, the handle is well preserved. It is wrapped with silver thread and the hilt and pommel at the top are covered in silver with details in gold, edged with a copper alloy thread," said project leader Zanette Glørstad.

"When we examined the sword more closely, we also found remnants of wood and leather on the blade. They must be remains from a sheath to put the sword in," explained curator Vegard Vike. He has had the challenging task of cleaning up the handle and preserving the sword.

The sword is decorated with large spirals, various combinations of letters and cross-like ornaments. The letters are probably Latin, but what the letter combinations meant is still a mystery.

"At the top of the pommel, we can also clearly see a picture of a hand holding a cross. That's unique and we don't know of any similar findings on other swords from the Viking Age. Both the hand and the letters indicate that the sword was deliberately decorated with Christian symbolism. But how did such a sword end up in a pagan burial ground in Norway? The design of the sword, the symbols and the precious metal used all make it perfectly clear that this was a magnificent treasure, probably produced abroad and brought back to Norway by a very prominent man," added Camilla Cecilie Weenn.

"The way swords are referred to in the sagas suggests that the sword is an important bearer of the identity of the warrior. A sword reveals the warrior's social status, his position of power and his strength. The sagas also tell us that gold had a special symbolic value in Norse society. In Norse literature gold represented power and potency.

Gold is rarely found in archaeological material from Viking Period and then too, it stood for power and potency. This indicates that gold had considerable economic and symbolic value. Based on the descriptions in the literature, we can say that the sword was the male jewellery par excellence of the Viking Age," said Hanne Lovise Aannestad, the author of a recent article on ornate swords from the days of the Vikings.


The sagas emphasise the importance of the ornate sword. Swords could have hilts of gold with ornamentation and magical runes. The mythical sagas tell of magical swords forged by dwarfs. The creation of myths around the art of the blacksmith and the making of high-quality swords may be related to the fact that few people mastered the art. The production of metal objects of high quality may have been a form of hidden knowledge unavailable to most people. This gave the objects a magical aura.

"In Mediaeval literature, swords are referred to as aesthetic, powerful and magical objects. The many similarities between the descriptions of swords in Norse and Mediaeval literature suggest that the splendour of the sword in the latter had roots in the Viking notions of the symbolic power, magic and ritual aspects of the ornate sword. The Viking Age was a period of great social upheaval. At times like that, certain symbolic objects may play an important role in negotiating social positions. There is much to suggest that these magnificent swords were such objects, reflecting the status and power of the warrior and his clan," said Hanne Lovise.

The battle-axe

The axe found in the same grave has no gold decoration. But the shaft is coated with brass and it may well have flashed like gold when the sun shone. Such shaft coatings are very rare in Norway. But a number of similar battle-axes have been found in the River Thames in London. That makes the axe particularly interesting. Dating of the axe from Langeid shows that it belongs to the same period as the axes found in the Thames. There was a long series of battles along the Thames in the late 10th and early 11th centuries. The Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Canute led their armies against the English king in the battle for the English throne. Even the Norwegian king Olav (Haraldsson) the Holy was involved in the attack on London in 1009. The men under the Danish King were from all over Scandinavia. Did the axes get lost in the Thames during the numerous skirmishes, or did the victors throw them in the river?

Did the sword belong to a Viking from King Canute's army?

Further down the Setesdal Valley we find a runic stone, which says: "Arnstein raised this stone in memory of Bjor his son. He found death when Canute "went after" England. God is one." (Translated from the Old Norse). The text probably refers to King Canute's attacks on England in 1013-14. It is likely that the stone was erected just after the incursions, by a father whose son never came back home. A written source from the 12th century states that King Canute's closest army had to meet certain requirements. Soldiers had to honour the king, had to belong to the leading families in society and also had to provide their own gilded axes and sword hilts.

The Langeid sword would no doubt have been approved by King Canute, probably also the axe. The sword was made outside Norway and an Anglo-Saxon origin is quite possible. The axe is very similar to those found in the Thames, especially in its brass coating. The grave with the sword also contained the only coin found in Langeid from the Anglo-Saxon region, which increases the possibility that the dead man had a particular connection to the events in England.

"It's quite possible that the dead man was one of King Canute's hand-picked men for the battles with King Ethelred of England. Seen in connection with the runic stone further down the valley, it is tempting to suggest that it is Bjor himself who was brought home and buried here. Another possibility is that his father Arnstein only got his son's magnificent weapons back and that, precisely for that reason, he decided to erect a runic stone for his son as a substitute for a grave. When Arnstein himself died, his son's glorious weapons were laid in his grave. The death of his son must have been very tough on an old man. Perhaps their relatives honoured both Arnstein and Bjor by letting Arnstein be buried with the weapons with such a heroic history," said Zanette Glørstad.

The runic stone dates from the same period as the final phase of the burial ground and testifies that Christianity is about to take root in Norwegian society. It is the oldest runic stone in Norway that refers to Christianity. Could this also explain why the weapons were placed outside the coffin? In a transitional period, people may have chosen to use both pagan and Christian elements in a funeral. The Langeid grave is from one of the last pagan funerals we know of from Norway and marks both the greatness and the end of the Viking Age.

"Take it personally"

Ever since the summer of 2011, the sword found in Langeid has been unpublished. Its display today has been made possible by the meticulous work and research of conservators and archaeologists at the Museum of Cultural History. Finally, it can be seen by the public and is displayed in the exhibition called "Take it personally" -- an exhibition of personal jewellery and adornment over time and space in the Historical Museum in Oslo.

Science Daily. 2015. “The last Viking and his 'magical' sword?”. Science Daily. Posted: July 14, 2015. Available online:

Friday, October 2, 2015

Indian Village researchers find pot completely intact

A successful season at the Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village reached a new high over the weekend.

For the first time since 1928—when regular research started at the Mitchell site—archeology experts have found a ceramic vessel, or a small pot, that remains intact. Previously, every other piece of pottery found at the site has been crushed or broken at the time of discovery. The discovery was made Saturday at the Thomsen Archeodome during the village's annual Archeology Awareness Days held at the site along Lake Mitchell.

Mitchell Prehistoric Indian Village Executive Director Cindy Gregg said the findings created a clear sense of excitement.

"This is a really big finding," she said. "Especially when we consider that everything else has been broken." The pot is tiny, measuring only a few inches wide and it will require further testing. The village will send it to Bristol, England, for residue testing, which might give a clue as to what the pot was used for. That process could take several months. She said the small size of the item could have been one of the reasons it has stayed as one piece after an estimated 1,000 years.

"It was less than a meter below the surface of the ground but it still had weight on it," Gregg said. "We're fortunate."

Gregg said she thinks it could have been a children's toy or could have been used as a painting pot. The pot is the second big finding of the season at the dig site, which is being worked this summer by students from Augustana College and from the University of Exeter, England. A total of 18 students are working at the site through Thursday.

Last month, researchers for the first time found 1,000-year-old charred corn and sunflower seeds at the site, and also found small corn cobs that affirmed that the people living along Firesteel Creek had a diverse diet and were seasoned farmers. After the seeds were found, it was already considered to be the most successful season digging in the last 12 years since students began digging there each summer.

Gregg said they've always known the site was rich with archeological artifacts but considered it "luck of the dig" to find what they have this year.

"For those of us who are into this, this is pretty exciting," she said.

Traxler, Marcus. 2015. “Indian Village researchers find pot completely intact”. Mitchell Republic. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Thursday, October 1, 2015

5th-Century Mosaic Adorned with Elephants and Cupids

Stunning mosaics have turned up during an archaeological dig of a fifth-century synagogue in northern Israel.

Tiny earth-hued stones in the mosaics swirl to form images of women surrounded by cupids holding discs, mythological creatures, a rooster, expressive theater masks and symbols of Dionysus (Bacchus), the Greco-Roman god of wine. And painted ivy crawls up columns covered with plaster. These recent discoveries add context and scenes to previously uncovered mosaics and inscriptions on the same and adjacent panels.

"The images in these mosaics — as well as their high level of artistic quality — and the columns painted with vegetal motifs have never been found in any other synagogue," Jodi Magness, the director of the excavation project and professor of early Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said in a statement. "They are unique discoveries."

Magness led the team that discovered the first mosaic at the excavation site, which featured the Bible's Samson, in 2012, and continued unearthing pieces each summer. The site is located in Huqoq, in the Galilee region of Israel. Magness said she expects to return to the site for another four to five years, until excavation is complete.

This summer's findings are "quite extraordinary panels," Magness told Live Science. "The mosaics were the paving of [the synagogue's] floor." The building measured about 66 feet long and 32 to 50 feet wide (20 by 10-15 meters). "The floors are in a relatively good state of preservation, but the building is buried and ruined," she said.

Secular mosaics

Elephant mosaics found in an earlier excavation of different sections of the same and adjacent panels hinted at the synagogue's less religious take on décor. The armored pachyderms "indicate that the scene depicted in the elephant mosaic is not a biblical story," Magness said, because there are no stories in the Hebrew Bible that involve elephants. The elephant panel measures about 11.5 feet (3.5 m) from top to bottom and fits on a panel set in an aisle about just as wide.

The elephants were featured on a panel discovered last summer that may have depicted a Jewish legend about a meeting between Alexander the Great and the Jewish high priest. "The Greek armies after the time ofAlexander the Great and then later the Romans did use elephants from their campaign," she said, so though elephants likely never roamed Israel, they "were certainly known from their use in the Greek and Roman armies."

However, Magness said she didn't think the artists who assembled the mosaic ever saw an elephant, "because they look like cartoons." 

The synagogue does feature some biblical scenes, including the first image found at the site, of the biblical hero Samson, who is likely most remembered for his extraordinary strength and susceptibility to female persuasion. The synagogue's mosaic features a scene of Samson from the biblical Book of Judges in which he sets foxes on fire and sends them on a revenge-seeking quest to burn the land of the Philistines, Magness said.

"There is only one other ancient synagogue in Israel that has a scene depicting Samson," Magness said. That synagogue, known as Wadi Hamam, is located 5 miles south of the synagogue with the newfound mosaics. The mosaics at Wadi Hamam are poorly preserved, unlike the ones Magness uncovered, which she said are "truly works of art."

The mosaics at the Huqoq synagogue date to the synagogue's construction in the early fifth century, or possibly slightly later. To try to figure out why the artists chose to depict nonbiblical scenes, scholars can look at contemporary ancient sources, like writings left by rabbis. "What did they have to say about Samson?" Magness mused.

Magness said that it's possible each panel was commissioned by a different donor, since a single underlying theme among the images isn't yet evident. "We may never know — we can speculate, but we may never know," she said.

Goldbaum, Elizabeth. 2015. “5th-Century Mosaic Adorned with Elephants and Cupids”. Live Science. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence Day 4


One of the most interesting areas of study (and perhaps least researched) is the attitude of the converging middle group towards science. Middle grounders with an intellectual bent evidently love science as much as they love spirituality. In 2014 in the US, representatives of 551 church congregations met for an “evolution weekend” to celebrate hard science32.  In India, scientists successfully launch rockets to Mars and give puja (blessings) for their success.33

Judging by the literature, the science establishment is increasingly non-hostile to views of reality that are not narrowly materialistic. These days, many scientists and science writers, whether atheist or otherwise, appear to have taken to heart Einstein’s dictum that: “All physics is metaphysics.”34 The ultimate non-reality of the physical world around us, the existence of unseen dimensions, the questions that generate discussion of the cosmological anthropic principle—these are all areas of lively, open discussion. While the science community remains as allergic as ever to anything that smacks of “pseudoscience”, we are honest enough to admit that there are numerous aspects of quantum theory that appear to move beyond that which can be explained by purely physical factors (such as the measurement problem, action at a distance, entanglement and so on). Since the confirmation of Bell’s Inequality, there is no doubt there exists a mysterious extra dimension outside our concept of time and space.

Consciousness is another area of open-mindedness, where many scientists say the you-are-your-brain hypothesis required by strict materialism feels inadequate. And there is very little gap between popular scientific hypotheses such as simulationism (the “we live in the matrix” concept)35, or the “alien intelligence designed this universe” discussion36 and ideas of the possible existence of some sort of higher consciousness.

In other words, today we all agree that the story of the development of the universe and organic life reads like an astonishing piece of science fiction. There’s simply no good reason to say that Sir Isaac Newton’s understanding of reality (he believed that the indications showed that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it God) is “wrong”, while the version offered by a respected modern science writer like John Gribbin36 (he says that the indications are that a higher consciousness created us and we can call it alien intelligence) is allowable. 

They do not substantially contradict each other. Indeed, they are not even different.

Some of the world’s most respected scientists, including top astrophysicist Martin Rees, president emeritus of the Royal Society, have led the way to more openness in cosmological discussions. Like Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein, he promotes non-hostility to spiritual practices. The concept that “matter is made of ideas” comes from discussions in quantum physics rooted in the work of Werner Heisenberg, but could easily come from the spiritual world-view of progressive Christians in New York or Hindu programmers in Chennai. Other scientists who have championed a non-hostile view towards organized spiritual groups include cosmologists John D. Barrow, Paul Davies and Freeman Dyson.


After reviewing a large amount of data on this subject, what can we say about humanity’s main world-views, now and in the future? It’s almost inevitable that the media will continue to take a Western-centric stance and report that atheism is growing and people are falling away from churches. Pollsters will continue to ask people if they are religious or atheist, as if the two terms were opposites, and will continue to get answers that do not bear close examination.

But while the rise of atheism has certainly been a key theme in the development of human culture in the West over the past half-century, the view that atheism will sweep the globe to produce a non-believing utopia is extremely unlikely. The shrinking of the skeptical share of humanity is inevitable, as Welsh geneticist Steve Jones has stated37. The data gives us no reason to believe otherwise than that atheism will continue to be profoundly less popular than a more solidly middle view, characterized by an open spiritual stance combined with a growing respect for the beliefs of others. (This generosity of attitude appears to chime in with other analyses of sociological trends, such as the fall in societal violence described in Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.)

As described above, the data suggests that the global proportion of atheists will fall, while the number of pro-spiritual, pro-science middle group will grow, its numbers boosted by a center-ward drift from both sides. They will come from extremely large religious groups which are moving at high speed away from hardline attitudes to liberal ones, and from ostensibly atheist groups such as the fifth of the world’s population which is China, re-opening up to a wider range of spiritual practices. This can be seen as a global convergence.


How should we refer to the central group? Above, we have used terms such as “middle-grounders” and “convergence”.

However, it could be argued that this group already has a name, as mentioned earlier. Christians use the word “universalism”, a name and concept with a long history, to refer to the liberal belief that God ultimately draws all people to himself, not just those who subscribe to a specific set of doctrines. (They quote many Bible verses to back this view, including the words of Jesus as quoted in The Gospel of John 12:32: “And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all men to myself.”) Some historians suggest that the early church took a universalist view for several centuries, from Christ’s death to the fifth or sixth centuries. The modern growth of the current brand of universalism indicates that it is already widespread as a generally accepted mode of belief. Since the chief characteristic of universalism is respect for other world-views, it is already being used to refer to open-minded beliefs in a wider context.

Furthermore, by coincidence or subconscious design, many of the groups we have been calling the “nons”, people who don’t belong to either a religious or atheist world-view cluster, frequently use the term “The Universe” to describe their view of God. While we may associate this use of the word with new age trends, the idea of identifying God and the Universe is very ancient. Pantheism underlies much of the thinking in Hinduism, and Einstein declared himself a follower of Baruch Spinoza, a 17thcentury philosopher identified with the spread of pantheism in the West. (In Spinozan thought, The Universe or nature is God, but God is more than nature.)

In science, too, we talk about universalistic concepts with similar terms. Most famously, we have Charles Darwin’s views on religion as a receptacle of ideas that enabled man to live on a higher moral plane. Darwin noted that while tribes of “savages” did exist with no notion of a specific God or gods, a spiritual view of life was “universal”. He wrote that the God of Western religion was not found in remote climes; “If, however, we include under the term ‘religion’ the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different: for this belief seems to be universal with the less civilized races.”38

This may ultimately imply that humanity itself has a deep need to believe that reality has an extra dimension to it. As in so many things, Darwin appears to have got to this idea before the rest of us. Influenced by his friend, social evolutionist Herbert Spencer, Darwin wrote in 1870 that man was “led through dreams, shadows, and other causes, to look at himself as a double essence, corporeal and spiritual”.38

Although Darwin lost the simple, literal faith that he had in his youth, he later chose to raise his children as universalists (his wife was a Unitarian), sending them to church on Sundays. In his final years, he offered the use of his reading room for Christian gatherings.


Atheism as a proportion of humanity’s belief systems appears to have peaked, while spiritual groups are undergoing convergence, as shown by a review of world-view data which includes a more nuanced examination of belief statistics from Asia, the world’s most populous region. Humanity is entering a post-atheist era featuring a global convergence of people with an open-minded, pro-science, pro-spiritual outlook.

Media suggestions that humanity is turning into an atheist utopia are unfounded. Such beliefs appear to come from an unhelpful understanding of spiritual beliefs as religious at one end and atheistic at the other. A form of universalism, defined as an inclusive spirituality in which all world-views, including skepticism, are respected, may already be the largest cluster.

Poet W. H. Auden would be pleased with the spread of openness and tolerance. Talking of humanity as a whole, he said: “We must love one another or die.”  But in terms of acknowledging the move to converge on what we share rather than what divides us, perhaps a quote variously attributed to Ferenc David, a Unitarian minister, and John Wesley, a Christian preacher, is more appropriate: “We need not think alike to love alike.”

Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online:

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence Day 3


The story so far: interestingly similar data is appearing in surveys to describe world-views in very different regions of the world, and these appear to tell a tale about a large and expanding group with “middle” views, views which are not religious or atheist as defined in surveys organized by Western market research organizations. Let’s go for more numbers.

There is widespread agreement that significant numbers of people are peeling themselves away from traditional belief groups, which explain the reports about drops in church attendance, particularly in North America and Europe. Recent data suggests that while most Americans still consider themselves religious, only about 37% to 40% of US citizens are regular churchgoers. In the UK, numbers of churchgoers are estimated to have fallen to 6% to 10% of the population.17

But the fact that the number of self-described atheists is still small suggests that these “church backsliders”, in general, are not becoming atheistic. The majority of them are forming a third group: they are joining a middle-ground cluster which is arguably humanity’s fastest growing world view group.

For reasons of inoffensiveness, let’s call this cluster of people “the middle grounders”. This group is clearly in expansion mode, and looking at the figures, may be growing faster than any other high profile world-view cluster, including Islam, Christianity and atheism. Pro-secularists often claim ownership of the “nons” group to bolster their arguments about the collapse of theistic beliefs—but, as mentioned above, this is an unsafe assumption. (Nor should they be added to the “regular churchgoers” category.)

Who exactly are these people? It appears safe to assume that members of this group will range from people we might define as “new agers”, to people who have drifted away from traditional religion, but have not drifted particularly far. People who travel frequently or have a wide range of contacts probably meet members of this group on a daily basis. This researcher has a Facebook post in front of him in which a friend writes: “Don't believe in God, but I am praying to the universe today.”


How big is the middle grounders group? Is it just the “nons”, the 16% to 36% who define themselves as “non-religious” or “none of the above” in global surveys of world views? Now here’s where it gets interesting. When we look at detailed findings of world-views, it appears that we may have to add to this group a number of people we list on the religious side—and perhaps a very large number.

For example, going back to the details of the survey of world-views in the “atheistic” 27 European Community countries, we see that 77% are believers in a higher consciousness. Of these, we find that 51% of people “believe in God”, while 26% believe in some sort of force or great spirit.18 Clearly, a large proportion of spiritual people are not conventional believers, but are modern “in-betweenies”.

So another element of our emerging hypothesis could be to say that an unknown proportion of people who are listed as believers may actually also be middle grounders. To see whether this might be true, we need more numbers.

LIGHT DAWNS IN EASTERN EUROPE Let’s start our search in the most unlikely place. Outside East Asia, the three countries often listed as the least religious in the world, the places where (the media tells us) atheists dominate, are Estonia, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

In support of this assertion, we usually find the Eurobarometer Poll 2010 quoted, which shows that only 18% of people in Sweden and Estonia believe in God, and only 16% of people in the Czech Republic have that particular belief. That seems clear enough. These are atheist countries, right?

But no. That same poll also asked respondents whether they believe in some sort of ultimate force or great spirit. “Yes” answers came from 44% in the Czech Republic, 45% in Sweden and 50% in Estonia.

So then we do the math: the number of citizens who believe in the existence of some sort of deity-like presence, called God or The Force or something else, is actually 60% in Estonia, 63% in Sweden, and 68% in Estonia, according to the exact same survey. They are certainly not all churchgoers. But contrary to conventional wisdom, in all three countries, atheists were a minority, and the dominant groups were the middle grounders – people whose beliefs are hard to define except for one thing: they don’t think of themselves as atheists.


Broad-ranging reviews of data indicate that even the most solid-seeming traditional religions may be quietly full of middle-grounders, who may even be a majority.

For example, our default assumption may be that Jews are Jewish people belonging to the Jewish faith. We would be wrong. One study of their world-views found that 50% of Jewish people in America admitted to doubts about the existence of God, suggesting one in two are middle grounders or atheists19. The 2012 WIN/Gallup poll found even starker contrasts. Researchers concluded that only 38% of the Jewish population worldwide considered itself religious, while 54% saw itself as non-religious. (And just 2% categorized itself as atheist.)

In other words, it appears that the MAJORITY of Jewish people worldwide should be classified not in the “religious” section of our demographic charts, but in the middle grounders section, people with flexible, shifting, or hard-to-define beliefs.


A similar change appears to have taken place in Christianity, with progressive, liberal Christians drifting away from the hardline values of older generations. In recent decades, it is generally accepted that the faith has been swept by a quiet wave of universalism, in which belief in a literal version of “hell” for non-Christians, has been replaced by a respectful, non-judgmental view of people of other faiths. It is difficult to estimate how many Christians have moved to this position, since the broad, flexible nature of Christianity means that in any individual congregation there may be members from the full spectrum of belief, from conservative to liberal to atheistic.

But what we can say is that Christian movements with very modern views are much in evidence and in growth mode. For example, members of a US movement called Progressive Christianity emphasize their passion for ecology and science (and particularly Big Bang cosmological evolution, a theory which of course came from a church minister, George LeMaitre). Many members of this group are supportive of gay rights.  In Europe, Australia, China and other places, we find fast-growing non-standard groups meeting outside traditional church services: consider the creation of huge networks of house churches, the “Messy Church” movement, the “Fresh Expressions” group of the UK (which meets in offbeat areas such as skateboard parks) and so on. At several locations these groups are growing faster than traditional churches are shrinking.

This appears to be a move by mainstream Christians into the middle ground, or at least positions characterized by generosity and openness of view. Again, we cannot rely on anecdotal evidence but need to look for empirical data.

A 2013 survey on religion and politics in the United States from the Public Religion Research Institute gives us some figures to work with, at least for that country.20 With each generation, the popularity of religious conservatism has clearly declined as people move towards a liberal or progressive attitude, it says. The study indicates that 47% of the generation aged 66 to 88 are religious conservatives. Only 34% of Baby Boomers feel the same. The number for Gen Xers is 23%. And Millennials? Only 17% are conservatives.20 In other words, the majority of US Christians appears to be already moving into the middle ground. They are people who are likely to love orthodox science and spend time fighting for the rights of their gay friends.

In the UK, a movement called Christian Atheists, centred around Oxford, quickly grew into from nothing into a solid movement with several books explaining the details of their faith.21 A similar but separate movement, called Sea of Faith, is reported to have hundreds of members, including up to 50 church ministers.22

A poll released in Canada in 2011 indicated that 53% of respondents said they believe in God. “Interestingly, 28% of those identified as Protestants, 33% of Catholics, and 23% of those who attend weekly religious services do not,” the National Post reported. So the list of people who are churchgoers includes many with religious views which are non-standard to say the least. Walled-off Christianity has been replaced by an open-door version of the faith.

There was also a significant difference between the number of Canadian people who believed in heaven and those who believed in hell, a clear marker that universalism has quietly spread. The survey said that 89% of Canadians were “completely comfortable” with being in the company of individuals with beliefs different to theirs, the defining characteristic of universalists.23

While it is natural to assume that a Christian universalist outlook can be found mainly in the intellectual, non-fundamentalist branches of that faith, there is growing evidence that it also is growing rapidly in mainstream evangelical Christianity. Arguably the best known evangelical leader in the world is Rob Bell, named by Time magazine in 2011 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. In a 2011 bestseller, he held up Christian universalism as something all Christians should “long for”.24


What about Islam? News reports so often focus on the fact that Muslims are not allowed to convert to other beliefs that one could be forgiven for assuming that all of them must be religious in the most hardline sense. And there have been stories about Muslims in some countries who expressed support for atheism and were jailed.25 But on reviewing reports of actual practices, it appears that in most places, the non-conversion rule is so rarely applied that when action is taken on it, the story makes headlines.  One in four human beings is Muslim, and they do not appear to be the “separate” people that conventional Western wisdom paints them to be.

In this paper, our aim has been to use empirical data at every point. But here we fail. It’s hard to find solid figures for what people in Muslim countries actually believe, compared to what their governments want us to think they believe. In the world’s most populous Muslim country, Indonesia, citizens are only allowed to have one of six official faiths. The country may have as many “nons” as other countries, but we would never know. Our suspicion is that when governments (or clerics) try to force their citizens into hardline positions, what they actually do is push them towards the middle ground. There are certainly discussions taking place within Islam about the taking of a tolerant, universalist attitude, as is evidence by the existence of academic papers and on-line discussions of the subject. Furthermore, we’ve all met Muslims with extremely modern, sophisticated views.

But what figures we do have for followers of Islam indicate that that groups falls in line with other groups. The 2012 WIN/Gallop poll found that 74% of Muslims consider themselves religious, 20% do not consider themselves religious and 3% said they were atheists. Even if we just go with these figures, the indication is that the middle ground exists there in numbers almost identical to those in the rest of the world.

Furthermore, there is evidence that a liberal universalist attitude is present within groups of Islamic religious practitioners. It can be seen, as mentioned above, in academic discourse.26 Long before “ISIS” was associated with a murderous group in the Middle East, it was the acronym for the Institute for the Secularisation of Islamic Society. Another example: a Muslim-originated faith group called Subud (originally from Java, Indonesia) has branches all over the world—and is entirely universalistic, with Muslims and people of other faiths engaging in joint acts of spiritual transcendence twice a week.26


As mentioned at the start of this paper, most of the world’s population lives in Asia. What’s the situation with middle-grounders there?

We have already noted that several of the major cultural groups in India, from Buddhism to Jainism to schools of Hinduism, do not have the concept of a monotheistic God that we find in most other world views considered spiritual. Many have no gods. Does this make them non-religious or atheistic in the Western sense of the words? Clearly not. The festivals of these groups feel very religious indeed, with rituals, ceremonies, high priests, and the acknowledgement of the existence of other dimensions. They have complex world views. For example, Jainists are atheists who believe that 63 “illustrious persons” have appeared on earth, and include chakravatins, who are “lords of the material realm” and have golden skin.

A further illustration can be found in a reference to North Korea. Amusingly, during the writing of this paper, an atheist zealot group sent us a meme showing how ridiculous people’s religious beliefs were, using an image showing outrageous supernatural claims made by the country’s leaders, and apparently accepted by the highly gullible population. The distributors of the meme seemed to think they were doing what they normally do, poking fun at religious people, while being unaware that they were discussing an atheist leader in an atheist society.

Which leads us to an observation. It could be argued that members of most Asian world-views havealways been in the middle ground. They have never fitted into the “religious or atheist?” dichotomy pushed by Western pollsters. Both Hinduism (1 billion people) and Buddhism (490 million people) in practice leave copious amounts of space for people to hover flexibly between a more austere, religious style and a more liberal, secular style of practice, to have a belief in an ultimate deity or a belief that no ultimate deity exists. The same flexibility can be seen in Taoism, Zen practices and the world views which are dominant in ostensibly atheist East Asia.


There is yet another area in which we see very large numbers of people moving towards the middle ground, the part that is neither traditional religion nor atheism—although they are approaching from a different direction. China has officially been atheist for more than six decades. But changes are afoot.

As recently as 1997, the number of Christians in China was calculated at being less than 20 million. The Chinese government estimates the number of Christians today at about 90 million (which upsets them, since membership of the Chinese community party is only 87 million).27 (Other surveys indicate it is already well above 100 million.) This rate of growth is astonishing by any measure. One forecast for 2030 is 250 million28. Given their starting point, in a strictly atheist society, it is hard to picture these new Christians adopting the full panoply of elements which go with the most conservative branches of US Christianity. They are more likely to reach the middle ground and stop somewhere along the path, with plenty of unique elements of their own.

One final example: the growth of Christianity in Africa, with a full range of beliefs, from conservative to liberal, is well documented.


“The great convergence has begun,” says Scott Lawson, a former church pastor who now works with a trade-aid organization in Asia. “People everywhere are focusing on what we share, not what divides us.”29

It’s not just individuals who are moving to the middle ground, but organizations too. Major charities, such as Save the Children and Oxfam, started as Christian organizations, but have quietly excised references to religion in their articles of association. The International Red Cross adopted its name and symbol from a famous group of Roman Catholic volunteer healthcare workers, but don’t feel the need to mention this in their paperwork. Groups such as these are still motivated by the same strong humanist convictions they started with, but see the advantages of removing any elements that could be interpreted as walls.

Yet we should ask ourselves, is it right to think of people involved in this convergence as anything like a united group? To answer that, we’d have to know exactly what they are thinking. The simplistic nature of the surveys which have taken place make that difficult.

The present researchers, having pored over documents around this area of study for some months, can offer some general conclusions.

Middle-grounders are a group made up of various elements. Some are not members of a specific church or temple, but are also not atheist. Others have a background that may be thought to be religious, such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam or Hinduism, but which they consider largely cultural. Still others have a religious background, but choose to interpret their faith in a modern, liberal way.

The over-riding characteristic of the middle grounders is that they have genuine respect for those with other world-views. Whereas both religious fundamentalists and people in “pro-skeptic” groups take a harsh, inflexible view that other people’s beliefs are simply wrong, evil or poisonous to society, middle-grounders are by definition open-minded and tolerant. For example, the US movement called Progressive Christians has “respect for other religions” built into its charter30, and attendance is encouraged from seekers, skeptics and agnostics—who are not preached at, but encouraged to share their views.

“The middle ground rocks,” a Muslim who does a lot of charity work tells a researcher. She tells the story of a group of Muslims who took over a church soup kitchen on Christmas Day, so that the Christian volunteers could take a break. In turn, the Christian volunteers signed up to work at a Muslim charity when the Islamic Eid holiday came around.31

Vittachi, Nury. 2015. “Atheism Peaks, While Spiritual Groups Move Toward Convergence”. Science 2.0. Posted: July 13, 2015. Available online: