Wednesday, May 28, 2008

A Nuclear Pakistan - ten years after the tests

On May 28, 1998, Pakistan tested five nuclear devices in Chagai, Baluchistan. I was in grad school in New Mexico at the time, and I remember well the tension over the tit for tat tests between India and Pakistan that May. On this depressing anniversary, we can ask what did Pakistan achieve from those tests? Here is an opinion piece by Pervez Hoodbhoy, looking at a nuclear Pakistan, ten years on:
IT’S May 1998 and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif congratulates wildly cheering citizens as the Chagai mountain trembles and goes white from multiple nuclear explosions. He declares that Pakistan is now safe and sound forever.

Bomb makers become national heroes. Schoolchildren are handed free badges with mushroom clouds. Bomb and missile replicas are planted in cities up and down the land. Welcome to nuclear Pakistan.

Fast-forward the video 10 years. Pakistan turns into a different country, deeply insecure and afraid for its future. Grim-faced citizens see machine-gun bunkers, soldiers crouched behind sandbags, barbed wire and barricaded streets. In Balochistan and Fata, helicopter gunships and fighter jets swarm the skies.

Today, we are at war on multiple fronts. But the bomb provides no defence. Rather, it has helped bring us to this grievously troubled situation and offers no way out. On this awful anniversary, it is important that we relate the present to the past.
And the threats that developed turned out to be so different from the ones envisioned at the time:
Terrorism and fanaticism, not India, shall be the real threats to Pakistan in the forseeable future. The writ of the Pakistani state has already ceased to hold in parts of the country. Terrorists have repeatedly targeted Pakistani officers and soldiers and their wives and children. Even their fortified residential compounds are not safe. Officers are now understandably afraid to drive in official vehicles, to wear uniforms in public, or even to stop at traffic lights.

It was a lie that the bomb could protect Pakistan, its people, or its armed forces. The bomb cannot help us recover the territory seized by the Baitullahs and Fazlullahs. Our nukes certainly give us the ability to destroy India — and to be destroyed in return. But that’s about it. The much-vaunted nuclear dividend turned out to be empty.

Read the full article here.

Incense and Religion

Postings have been a bit slow lately, but I totally blame Chincoteague for that.

Here is a story about the role of mind-altering incense in religion. Now, strong incense usually give me headaches (yes, absolutely no Yankee Candle trips from me). I also had trouble with frequently used incense sticks in Pakistan. But it appears that incense can also lure you to religion:
Incense might be symbolic in religious ceremonies, but it has also, perhaps not so coincidentally, played a role in gathering the faithful into the fold. A team of international neuroscientists has just announced that a component of the resin made from Boswellia trees, more commonly called Frankincense (yes, the same stuff brought to baby Jesus by the Three Kings), biochemically relieves anxiety in mice, and presumably people.

Although religion is usually considered a purely cultural construction, it might also have deep psychotropic roots. for some it helps reduce anxiety:

The recent research, published in the online FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology) on May 2, suggests that religion, or at least many religious rituals, might also have another evolutionary, or biological function. Along with the group support, the embracing identity and the place to pray when times are bad, some religions are also doling out a bit of a psychotropic drug that helps the mind find peace.

Under the influence of a good snoot full of incense, mice in scary situations, such as being put in a swimming pool, remain calm, anxiety-free. At the alter, too, people feel the same sense of peace that comes from either the comforting words of the clergy, or from the intoxicating, brain altering, smell of incense.

(I don't know if they checked mice for headaches...)

Read the story here, and here is a link to the FASEB paper.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Earthquakes and their impact on human history

Here is a review of an interesting book, Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, and I really like the set-up story, which is also the cover-image of the book:
In the middle of the fourth century AD, a series of earthquakes struck the port of Kourion on the southern coast of Cyprus. Originally built by the Greeks a millennium and a half earlier during the Late Bronze Age, the town had no doubt experienced its share of seismic events, but nothing prepared its inhabitants for the major earthquake and tsunami that struck just after dawn, most likely on July 21, AD 365.

Because of the early hour, farm animals were trapped in their stables, and most of the population was caught beneath the rubble of their collapsing homes. The few survivors, probably too overwhelmed to recover and bury the dead, abandoned Kourion forever. When archaeologists excavated the site in the 1980s, little had been disturbed.

Among the many discoveries was the heartbreaking tableau of a skeletal family. The man holds his wife protectively while she cradles their one-year-old child. The image, both poignant and instructive, graces the cover of Stanford University Earth Science and geophysics professor Amos Nur's new book, Apocalypse: Earthquakes, Archaeology, and the Wrath of God, written with the assistance of his graduate student Dawn Burgess.

And it also looks at some religious stories through a geological (or seismological) lens:

In one chapter, Nur examines the record of earthquakes in the seismically active "Holy Land" (to use his choice of geographical nomenclature). Most readers, regardless of religious persuasion, will appreciate the connections between geological and archaeological evidence and sections of the Bible.

Read the full review here.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Causes of hurricances, end of the world, and scary John Hagee

Pastor John Hagee is scary! And John McCain has gone out of his way to seek his support. Lets see what Hagee has to say about the causes of hurricanes and his views about the future of the world (or more accurately about the end of the world). Here is a Fresh Air clip that includes some of Hagee's explanations for natural events, followed by a reaction of an Israeli journalist to the Christian Zionism of Hagee et al. Hmm...suddenly, end-of-the-world via Large Hadron Collider doesn't seem like such a bad idea...

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Creationist science teachers in the US

So what percentage of US science teachers are creationists? Hmm...16%!! is the graph:
There you go...Now we can cry together. And these are not just proponents of Intelligent Design nonsense. These 16% actually believe in a 10,000 year old Earth!! Yikes! (Although, they still look good compared to the 48% of the general public who are young Earth creationists)

And it turns out that 12% also teach ID or creationism as valid scientific alternative to evolution:

The researchers polled a random sample of nearly 2000 high-school science teachers across the US in 2007. Of the 939 who responded, 2% said they did not cover evolution at all, with the majority spending between 3 and 10 classroom hours on the subject.

However, a quarter of the teachers also reported spending at least some time teaching about creationism or intelligent design. Of these, 48% – about 12.5% of the total survey – said they taught it as a "valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species".

The results are published in Plos Biology (go Plos!!) and the paper is titled: Evolution and Creationism in America's Classrooms: A National Portrait

The authors of the study conclude that requiring high school teachers to complete one evolutionary biology class can significantly improve the situation:
These findings strongly suggest that victory in the courts is not enough for the scientific community to ensure that evolution is included in high school science courses. Nor is success in persuading states to adopt rigorous content standards consistent with recommendations of the National Academy of Sciences and other scientific organizations. Scientists concerned about the quality of evolution instruction might have a bigger impact in the classroom by focusing on the certification standards for high school biology teachers. Our study suggests that requiring all teachers to complete a course in evolutionary biology would have a substantial impact on the emphasis on evolution and its centrality in high school biology courses. In the long run, the impact of such a change could have a more far reaching effect than the victories in courts and in state governments.
Read the full paper here, and the New Scientist story here.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Chartres cathedral and the conception of God in the Middle Ages

What were the builders of Chartres Cathedral thinking and what were they trying to convey? Here is a review of an interesting book, Universe of Stone: Chartres Cathedral and the Triumph of the Medieval Mind by Philip Ball (by the way, the US edition is titled: Universe of Stone: A Biography of Chartres Cathedral. if you want a more exciting title, get the imported version).
Chartres cathedral is a marvel but also a mystery. Nobody knows who designed it or what they were trying to express. Begun in 1200 and finished in 1226, it was the crowning example of the gothic style and marked, Philip Ball suggests in this lucid and resplendent book, a shift in the way the western world thought about God, the universe and man's place in it. Romanesque churches with their vast walls and narrow windows had been dark and inward-looking, and signified, he argues, monastic seclusion. Chartres changed all that. Its walls were diaphanous membranes of glass set in cobwebs of stone. On the outside, flying buttresses propped them up to prevent them collapsing under the soaring vaults of the roof. It was “transparent logic”, a celebration of the light of reason, banishing the old gloom, and progressing from an age when God was feared to one where his works could be understood.

That, at any rate, is the theory. Ball makes no pretence to have thought it up himself. It had been aired in the 19th century, and was elaborated in the 20th by the great German art historian Erwin Panofsky. What makes it plausible is that the school of Chartres, in the decades before work on the cathedral began, had become one of the great centres of European learning, a principal conduit for Arabic science and mathematics, and a pioneer in the rediscovery of Plato, Aristotle and Euclid. It was progressive and humanist, encouraging a rational understanding of the physical world, advancing geometry, and promoting the belief that the universe was a system of eternal order based on numerical proportions.

Ok, this does sound very cool. But the reviewer has some doubts regarding this theory:

Is this what Chartres cathedral was trying to say, and if so how were these ideas imparted to the people who actually built it? Ball finds Panofsky's vision inspiring, but sees difficulties fitting it to the facts. Nine successive teams of contractors seem to have worked on the building, so continuity of design must have been imposed by someone, but there is no evidence it was anyone connected with the school of Chartres. The idea of an architect in the modern sense had not yet developed, and decisions may have been taken piecemeal by clerics or patrons or by the master builders, whoever they were. No plans survive, and quite likely none were made, as there was no tradition of architectural drawing. The builders may have carried the design in their heads like mental arithmetic.

There is evidence that bishops were spurred on in their building projects by pride and envy, and it seems possible that the brilliantly ostentatious architecture of Chartres was conceived to satisfy these passions rather than to convey universal rationality. Ball's idea that the building of Chartres began “the age of reason” is the shakiest part of his case. As he points out, the cathedral's most precious relic was the tunic that the Virgin Mary wore when giving birth to Jesus. A later acquisition was the head of Mary's mother, Anne. These rarities attracted pilgrims and wealth, but it is hard to see them as congruent with rational thought in any other respect.
But there is a Muslim connection also:
His section on how to build your own medieval cathedral, backed up by stylish diagrams, is a model of explanatory writing. It makes clear, even to the least mathematical, how the vast tonnage of masonry in a barrel vault can actually strengthen the building under it, and why a pointed gothic arch is less likely to fall down than a round one. Pointed arches were common in Islamic architecture from the 8th century, and they may have been brought to the West by Muslim workers. The superior masonry skills of Muslims have been detected in the 12th-century stonework of Winchester Cathedral. This is typical of the fascinating data that Ball unearths.
And on faith and reason:

The impulse, after finishing Ball's book, to catch the next Eurostar, and head out to Chartres from Paris, is strong. He says that if you sit in the cathedral late in the day, when the tourists have gone, you can believe that the place embodies the last moment when a reconciliation of faith and reason seemed possible. It seems likelier that it embodies a time when no reconciliation of faith and reason seemed needed, because it was assumed that reason, like faith, would lead the mind to God.

While the reviewer is somewhat right in pointing out that no reconciliation was needed between faith and reason, the philosophies of Aristotle and Averroes still loomed large and had to be brought within the Christian thought (i.e. a reconciliation of reason and faith) - and this was done by people like Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham in the later decades of the 13th and early 14th centuries.

Read the full review here. (tip from 3quarksdaily)

Evaluating God

At a time when hundreds of thousands of people have died in the Burmese cyclone and the Chinese earthquake, Peter Singer questions the (supposed) goodness of God.
Do we live in a world that was created by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and all good? Christians think we do. Yet a powerful reason for doubting this confronts us every day: the world contains a vast amount of pain and suffering. If God is all-knowing, he knows how much suffering there is. If he is all-powerful, he could have created a world without so much of it - and he would have done so if he were all good.
He goes through and briefly analyzes the standard list of reasons cited to rescue God in this context. Singer also recently debated conservative commentator, Danish D'Souza, and cites D'Souza's last excuse on behalf of God, and then responds to it:
Finally, D'Souza fell back, as many Christians do when pressed, on the claim that we should not expect to understand God's reasons for creating the world as it is. It is as if an ant should try to understand our decisions, so puny is our intelligence in comparison with the infinite wisdom of God. (This is the answer given, in more poetic form, in The Book of Job.) But once we abdicate our powers of reason in this way, we may as well believe anything at all.

Moreover, the assertion that our intelligence is puny in comparison with God's presupposes just the point that is under debate - that there is a god who is all-knowing, all-powerful, and all good. The evidence of our own eyes makes it more plausible to believe that the world was not created by any god at all. If, however, we insist on believing in divine creation, we are forced to admit that the God who made the world cannot be all-powerful and all good. He must be either evil or a bungler.
Read the full article here. (tip from 3quarksdaily)
Here is a (slightly) lighter look at the problem of evil.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

Einstein's (lack of) religion letter goes for $404,000

E-mails will never really match up to this (sigh!). Einstein's letter in which he talks clearly about religion (no abstract metaphors...) has been auctioned off for $404,000. Richard Dawkins tried to buy it, but didn't get it at the end (also hear Dawkins discuss this letter and Einstein's concept of God on BBC). Thats too bad...
A letter the physicist wrote in 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind, in which he described the Bible as “pretty childish” and scoffed at the notion that the Jews could be a “chosen people,” sold for $404,000 at an auction in London. That was 25 times the presale estimate.

The Associated Press quoted Rupert Powell, the managing director of Bloomsbury Auctions, as describing the unidentified buyer as having “a passion for theoretical physics and all that that entails.” Among the unsuccessful bidders, according to The Guardian newspaper, was Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, an outspoken atheist.

The price makes the Gutkind letter one of the best sellers among Einstein manuscripts. That $404,000 is only a little less than the $442,500 paid for the entire collection of 53 love letters between Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maric, at an auction at Christie’s in New York in 1996. At that same auction a paper by Einstein and his best friend, Michele Besso, attempting a calculation that would later be a pivotal piece of his crowning achievement, the General Theory of Relativity, went for $398,500.
Read the full story here.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Kenneth Miller on "Expelled"

Please check out this excellent op-ed piece by Ken Miller on the ID-nonsense movie, Expelled.

"Intelligent Design," the relabeled, repackaged form of American creationism, has always had a problem. It just can't seem to produce any evidence. To scientists, the reasons for this are obvious. To conservative Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer, Intelligent Design is nothing more than a "phony theory." No data, no science, no experiments, just an attempt to sneak a narrow set of religious views into US classrooms.

Advocates of Intelligent Design needed a story to explain why the idea has been a nonstarter within the scientific community, and Ben Stein has given it to them. The story line is that Intelligent Design advocates are persecuted and suppressed. "Expelled" tells of this terrible campaign against free expression, and mocks the pretensions of the closed-minded scientific elite supposedly behind it.

After going through specific examples of false information and/or blatant lies in the movie (including the idiotic connection of Darwin with the Holocaust), Miller gets to the heart of the matter:

Why is all this nonsense a threat to science? The reason is Stein's libelous conclusion that science is simply evil. In an April 21 interview on the Trinity Broadcast Network, Stein called the Nazi murder of children "horrifying beyond words." Indeed. But what led to such horrors? Stein explained: "that's where science in my opinion, this is just an opinion, that's where science leads you. Love of God and compassion and empathy leads you to a very glorious place. Science leads you to killing people."

According to Stein, science leads you to "killing people." Not to cures and vaccines, not to a deeper understanding of nature, not to wonders like computers and cellphones, and certainly not to a better life. Nope. Science is murder.

"Expelled" is a shoddy piece of propaganda that props up the failures of Intelligent Design by playing the victim card. It deceives its audiences, slanders the scientific community, and contributes mightily to a climate of hostility to science itself. Stein is doing nothing less than helping turn a generation of American youth away from science. If we actually come to believe that science leads to murder, then we deserve to lose world leadership in science. In that sense, the word "expelled" may have a different and more tragic connotation for our country than Stein intended.

Read the full article here.

Einstein and Religion - A letter from 1954

Einstein's quotes are appropriated by both religious and non-religious in defense of their respective ideas. But it has often been hard to paint him in a black & white picture (oh...nuances...why do you have to make life so complicated?). Now, at least some of the confusion has been cleared and we clearly know his views, at least about conventional religion, towards the end of his life (he died in 1955):
Einstein penned the letter on January 3 1954 to the philosopher Eric Gutkind who had sent him a copy of his book Choose Life: The Biblical Call to Revolt. The letter went on public sale a year later and has remained in private hands ever since.

In the letter, he states: "The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honourable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this."

And to be more precise, he considered religion a "childish superstition":
"For me the Jewish religion like all others is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions. And the Jewish people to whom I gladly belong and with whose mentality I have a deep affinity have no different quality for me than all other people. As far as my experience goes, they are no better than other human groups, although they are protected from the worst cancers by a lack of power. Otherwise I cannot see anything 'chosen' about them."
That still leaves some room for some "cosmic religious feeling", however one views it (check out an earlier post on Einstein's God):

In his later years he referred to a "cosmic religious feeling" that permeated and sustained his scientific work. In 1954, a year before his death, he spoke of wishing to "experience the universe as a single cosmic whole". He was also fond of using religious flourishes, in 1926 declaring that "He [God] does not throw dice" when referring to randomness thrown up by quantum theory.

His position on God has been widely misrepresented by people on both sides of the atheism/religion divide but he always resisted easy stereotyping on the subject.

And here is John Hedley Brooke on Einstein's religion:

"Like other great scientists he does not fit the boxes in which popular polemicists like to pigeonhole him," said Brooke. "It is clear for example that he had respect for the religious values enshrined within Judaic and Christian traditions ... but what he understood by religion was something far more subtle than what is usually meant by the word in popular discussion."

Despite his categorical rejection of conventional religion, Brooke said that Einstein became angry when his views were appropriated by evangelists for atheism. He was offended by their lack of humility and once wrote. "The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility."

Read the full story here.

Science & Religion Lecture: Vatican Observatory astronomer, George V. Coyne (Video)

As part of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion, George V. Coyne from the Vatican Observatory gave a lecture on The Dance of the Fertile Universe in late March. There are many misconceptions regarding the Vatican observatory - many people have this idea that the Church is still upset with Galileo or that the purpose of the telescopes must be to search for God's hideout, or something like that. Well...check out this talk. George V. Coyne is the Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and you can get his views directly here. He is an excellent speaker and he is very funny. If you don't have time to watch the whole talk, please listen to the Q&A session (about 50 minutes into the video) and you will get a very good idea of Coyne's views about science and religion - and the value he places on scientific inquiry. Here is the abstract and the video:


The Dance of the Fertile Universe
Did we come about by chance or by necessity in the evolving universe? Did God make us? Can we conclude that there is Intelligent Design to the universe? To what extent can the natural sciences address these questions? As to chance or necessity the first thing to be said is that the problem is not formulated correctly. It is not just a question of chance or necessity because, first of all, it is both. Furthermore, there is a third element here that is very important. It is what we might call the 'fertility' of the universe. So the dance of the fertile universe is a ballet with three ballerinas: chance, necessity and fertility. What this means is that the universe is so fertile in offering the opportunity for the success of both chance and necessary processes that such a character of the universe must be included in the search for our origins in the universe. In this light I am going to try to present in broad strokes what I think is some of the best of our modern scientific understanding of the universe and then return to the questions above.

George V. Coyne, S.J. is a Jesuit Priest and an astronomer. He is Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory and Adjunct Professor of Astronomy at the University of Arizona. He is the author of Wayfarers in the Cosmos: The Human Quest for Meaning.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Dissent from Darwin. Really?

Intelligent Design/Creation proponents often whip out a list of scientists (numbering around a 100) who doubt evolution of species via natural selection (i.e. natural selection cannot account for the complexity we see on Earth). [Of course, this prompted Project Steve - and they just registered 884th scientist named Steve that accept biological evolution]. There is a newer list of dissenters, but the overall message is the same. But who are these scientists who reject evolution? And do they really? Here is an analysis of the list. (tip from Open Parachute)

Book recommendation: Foreskin's Lament

A few months back I had posted a link to an interview with Shalom Auslander. I recently finished reading Foreskin's Lament: A Memoir, and its fantastic. Its dark humor (and yes, its very dark - but always very funny) reminded me of Catch-22. If you have some time, give it a read. In the mean time, here is a short clip from the book:

Sunday, May 11, 2008

First God and now Karma killing people on Earth

Natural disasters happen - but at least lets not blame the victims. It appears that God was responsible for Hurricane Katrina, then punished people with the Tsunami in East Asia and expressed His displeasure by killing thousands with an earthquake in the northern areas of Pakistan. Not to be left behind, it seems that bad karma is now responsible for the cyclone that has killed 100,000 people in Myanmar (Burma):
About 80 percent of Myanmar's estimated 52 million people are Buddhist, and many there rely on the principle of karma to explain the storm, scholars say.

Specifically, many Myanmar people believe Cyclone Nargis is a karmic consequence of military rulers' brutal crackdown on Buddhist monks last fall, said Ingrid Jordt, an anthropology professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who was once a Buddhist nun in Myanmar and maintains ties there.

"The immediate explanation was: This is retribution for killing monks," Jordt said. "In any cataclysm, human beings seek to make sense of something that completely destroys the continuity of life. It's an attempt to bring the world back into harmony."

Dear Karma: There must be another way to punish these rulers without drowning, say... a 100,000 people.

American Zen Buddhist and author Brad Warner said blaming Myanmar's cyclone on bad karma hues uncomfortably close to those ideas.

"To me it sounds like we're just substituting karma for God," he said.

And with so many innocent victims, karma seems a harsh and indiscriminate explanation, Warner said.

Hmm...yes. Obvious on both points. Or may be just stick with natural explanations for natural phenomena - without any wrath or karma. Didn't Voltaire lay to rest some of these issues in the 18th century? Not the full Candide, but here is Voltaire's poem, The Lisbon Earthquake, written after seeing the destruction of Lisbon caused by an earthquake in 1755:

OH WRETCHED man, earth-fated to be cursed;
Abyss of plagues, and miseries the worst!
Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show,
That man's the victim of unceasing woe,
And lamentations which inspire my strain,
Prove that philosophy is false and vain.
Approach in crowds, and meditate awhile
Yon shattered walls, and view each ruined pile,
Women and children heaped up mountain high,
Limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie;
Wretches unnumbered in the pangs of death,
Who mangled, torn, and panting for their breath,
Buried beneath their sinking roofs expire,
And end their wretched lives in torments dire.
Say, when you hear their piteous, half-formed cries,
Or from their ashes see the smoke arise,
Say, will you then eternal laws maintain,
Which God to cruelties like these constrain?
Whilst you these facts replete with horror view,
Will you maintain death to their crimes was due?

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Muslim creationist Adnan Oktar sentenced to 3 years in prison

There have always been questions about the finances of the organization run by Adnan Oktar, known usually by his pen-name Harun Yahya. Last year he made headlines by sending his 800 page Atlas of Creation, free of cost, first to French public schools and then to biology and anthropology departments across the US. The science (if you call it science), of course, is lifted from the US creationists, but the printing quality is fantastic (I recently acquired a copy from an anthropologist at UMass). does his organization finance itself? Well, the news is that Adnan Oktar has now been sentenced to 3-years in prison "for creating an illegal organization for personal gain" (tip from Secular Outpost).

Oktar had been tried with 17 other defendants in an Istanbul court. The verdict and sentence came after a previous trial that began in 2000 after Oktar, along with 50 members of his foundation, was arrested in 1999.

In that court case, Oktar had been charged with using threats for personal benefit and creating an organization with the intent to commit a crime. The charges were dropped but another court picked them up resulting in the latest case.

It is not clear how it will impact his movement. He is certainly the most prominent creationist in the Muslim world. His books (probably written by a pool of authors) are widely available in different languages and his organization has made "science" documentaries defending his brand of creationism that run frequently in Muslim countries (in fact, daily on one of the channels in Pakistan). I hope his finances gets disclosed but there is also a potential of the Turkish government turning him into a martyr. Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Evangelical-Scientist collaboration on saving the planet

Here is a good example of science-religion cooperation: Saving "Gods's creation" unites scientist, evangelical leader:
A Nobel laureate scientist and a leader of the evangelical Christian movement walk into a restaurant.

It sounds like the setup for a joke, a scenario that is screaming for a punch line that plays off the seemingly endless disagreements between faith and science.

But this is a true story, and Dr. Eric Chivian and the Rev. Richard Cizik have come up with a zinger no one could expect. They went to lunch together to agree on something - the need to curb negative human impact on the Earth. And the partnership they formed that afternoon in 2005 has led this odd couple of the environmental movement to be named, today, to Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world.

"I must admit I approached that meeting with some anxiety," said Chivian (pronounced chih-vee-an), director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School, "I'm involved in evolutionary biology. I support stem cell research. I have gay friends who are married. I felt I had positions that would be at odds with his."

Cizik (pronounced sigh-zik), vice president for governmental affairs for the 45,000-church National Association of Evangelicals in Washington, D.C,, had similar reservations. But, as they point out, they were not there to discuss their differences. What brought them together is what Chivian calls "a deep, fundamental commitment to life on earth."

Together, they formed the Scientists and Evangelicals Initiative, which aims to unite the two communities to help bring an environmental message into the large and powerful evangelical movement.

But evolution can still be a problem for evangelicals. Here is an example where many reject science altogether:
The problem, according to Cizik, is that many in the evangelical community have built a barrier between themselves and the scientific community because of the way they have been treated for their belief in creation over evolution. As a consequence, many have made what Cizik calls the illogical decision to turn a deaf ear to what science has to say about climate change.
How did they make this thing work without a conflict:
On the whole, both Chivian and Cizik said their scientist-evangelical partnership has gone smoother than either anticipated. Before bringing both sides into the same room, Chivian consulted with conflict resolution specialists; they never needed them. The scientists have agreed to refer to the natural world as the creation, and evangelicals have painted the broader issue under the umbrella term "creation care." (Chivian, personally, thinks "Armageddon in slow motion" is a more apt description.)
So is there a problem for scientists to call the natural world as "the creation"? Hmm...its a close call (how about - "the creation" [of the Earth from natural processes]?). Environment is a serious issue right now - and if this is what it takes to bring a large segment of the population on board, then perhaps its ok. Of course, there should not be any compromise on evolution or on mentioning the age of the Earth in billions of years. Carl Sagan in the late 80s and in the 90s reached a similar conclusion and considered environmentalism to be an excellent place for science & religion cooperation. The Scientists and Evangelicals Initiative is one example of how this cooperation may look like.

Read the full article here.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Sunday, May 04, 2008

Krauss and Dawkins on the purpose of the universe

Couple of months back the Templeton Foundation had asked several scientists and scholars, Does the universe have a purpose? Dawkins was not included in the group. However, here he is answering a question about purpose of the universe (with Lawrence Krauss), and I think his answer gets to the heart of the matter and makes a lot of sense.

The above clip is from a dialogue between Lawrence Krauss and Richard Dawkins (an extension of an online conversation: Should science speak to faith?) and you can see the whole session here.

However, here is another clip where they are talking about this belief, usually promoted by creationists, that in order to accept evolution one has to be an atheist or that evolution necessitates a disbelief in God.

But here Dawkins not just makes the same claim but he also adds that "[his] goal is to kill religion". Hmm...where is the science PR firm when we really need it. Yes, he clarifies mildly later that you don't have to be an atheist to believe in evolution - but I'm not sure if he really believes that. I actually like Dawkins (and his consciousness awareness regarding atheism), but he routinely goes too far in linking science/evolution to atheism. This bit about directing messages different audiences is fine - Krauss to people who are religious or those who are taking a more nuanced view of religion, and Dawkins to atheists only - but Dawkins is the most prominent contemporary scientist and his audience does not include just atheists. So there is a mismatch here. He is considered as the spokesperson for science and his message is heard far beyond the core group he is referring to here. The consciousness raising is great, but how many people get turned off to science, and evolution, in particular, after he gives them an option between evolution and atheism? Part of the problem is that Dawkins is defining religion only in terms of belief in the supernatural (and since there is no evidence for it, he wants it to go). But for most people, religion serves lot more functions - provide social structure, suggests ways of living, address moral questions, etc. All of these can come from alternative systems - but, at present, for 85% of the US population they don't. So we have to realize that when Dawkins talk about the destruction of religion, it is not interpreted simply as letting go of the supernatural, but also the associated social structure. For most, despite the evidence, if it comes down to evolution or religion, the choice is quite straight forward - and this is the danger in Dawkins' approach.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

Chris Hedges and the New Atheists

Here is a contentious Point of Inquiry interview with Chris Hedges. While Hedges goes a bit too far in labeling the New Atheists as "fundamentalists", his overall criticism is quite interesting (and perhaps valid) - especially on the caricatured depictions of Muslims by the New Atheists (mostly Sam Harris). In response to the question about the promotion of secularism in the Muslim world, it was good to see him bring up "which Muslim country" - Bosnia, Turkey, Morocco? Or Saudi Arabia, Sudan? The interviewer, DJ Grothe, is usually very good - but here he sounds a bit defensive and he kept on making huge generalizations (such as the attitude of the "left" towards Islamic fundamentalism or "Muslim" reaction to the West). On the other hand, the skepticism of Hedges towards reason to potentially improve our lives is also discomforting. Do check out the interview as it raises good questions and, at the same time, I'm sure you'll find things in here to vehemently disagree (or angry) with.

Here is Chris Hedges bio:

Chris Hedges is a journalist and author who focuses on American and Middle Eastern politics and society. He is currently a senior fellow at The Nation Institute in New York City and a Lecturer in the Council of the Humanities and the Anschutz Distinguished Fellow at Princeton University. He spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than fifty countries, and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, where he spent fifteen years. He is the author of What Every Person Should Know About War and American Fascists. His newest book is I Don't Believe in Atheists.

Friday, May 02, 2008

Gravity, superstition, and dropping babies from a tower

This may be ok on the Moon, but definitely not here on Earth. Check out this absolutely insane custom of dropping babies from a 15-meter tower - for luck and health!! (tip from Nizam Arain)

Of course the organizers are going to claim that no accidents have taken place. But it is simply too hard to believe that there have been no accidents (even fractures? concussions?) over hundreds of years of this idiocy. This is certainly a case of bad memes taking over - and the result is this ritual gone wild.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

Francisco Ayala on evolution, science, and religion

While controversies regarding evolution/ID make a bigger splash, here is a refreshing story about Francisco Ayala - an evolutionary biologist/geneticist and a former Dominican priest (and while we are at it, he is also on the boards of Opera Pacific and the Pacific Symphony and owns vineyards in California! Hey forget about the idiotic evolution/ID controversies, he would be an interesting person to talk to about pretty much any thing). He makes it clear that evolution does not make belief in God impossible (also see his book, Darwin's Gift: to Science and Religion). Again this underscores the fact that evolutionary biologists have a spectrum of beliefs - and all these views should be respected. In fact Ayala, goes a step further and believes that the evolutionary theory can actually provide a solution to the pesky problem of evil:

Dr. Ayala, a former Dominican priest, said he told his audiences not just that evolution is a well-corroborated scientific theory, but also that belief in evolution does not rule out belief in God. In fact, he said, evolution “is more consistent with belief in a personal god than intelligent design. If God has designed organisms, he has a lot to account for.”

Consider, he said, that at least 20 percent of pregnancies are known to end in spontaneous abortion. If that results from divinely inspired anatomy, Dr. Ayala said, “God is the greatest abortionist of them all.”

Or consider, he said, the “sadism” in parasites that live by devouring their hosts, or the mating habits of insects like female midges, tiny flies that fertilize their eggs by consuming their mates’ genitals, along with all their other parts.

For the midges, Dr. Ayala said, “it makes evolutionary sense. If you are a male and you have mated, the best thing you can do for your genes is to be eaten.” But if God or some other intelligent agent made things this way on purpose, he said, “then he is a sadist, he certainly does odd things and he is a lousy engineer.”

That is also the message of his latest book, “Darwin’s Gift to Science and Religion” (Joseph Henry Press, 2007). In it, he writes that as a theology student in Spain he had been taught that evolution “provided the ‘missing link’ in the explanation of evil in the world” — a defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence, despite the existence of evil.

“As floods and drought were a necessary consequence of the fabric of the physical world, predators and parasites, dysfunctions and diseases were a consequence of the evolution of life,” he writes. “They were not a result of a deficient or malevolent design.”

Again, one doesn't have to subscribe to his theistic views, but it is interesting to see him applying evolutionary ideas to religious problems. But he does see a problem when evolution gets linked to atheism:

He said he was saddened when he saw the embrace of evolution identified with, as he put it, “explicit atheism,” as in the books of the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins or other writers on science and faith.

Neither the existence nor nonexistence of God is susceptible to scientific proof, Dr. Ayala said, and equating science with the abandonment of religion “fits the prejudices” of advocates of intelligent design and other creationist ideas.

Read the full article here.
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