Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The territory between the New Atheists and the New(?) Theologians

We have now heard aplenty of the New Atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, etal) and less so of some of the direct responses (such as by Alistair McGrath and John Haught). This is an excellent article that looks at the shortcomings of both positions and presents it through the perspective of William James' personalized religion (which also has its shortcomings...):
First there was Dawkins’ calling an education in religious faith — even moderate faith — “child abuse.” Sam Harris chided religious moderates for being “in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world.” They didn’t simply want an end to fundamentalism or the use of religious doctrine in governmental policy. They treated Christians as if they all believed the Earth was only 6,000 years old, and Muslims as if they were all strapped with explosives. If you pray to Jesus when your world is falling apart, or blame Mercury being in retrograde when your car won’t start, you are part of the problem.

As I read, I kept thinking there was no way all three writers were so na├»ve as to think faith is the real problem, that there wouldn’t always be people who are in a state of vulnerability and manipulators lying in wait to take advantage of them. They created a chasm between believers and nonbelievers that wasn’t really there, and used the same “with us or against us” language that dragged the country into war. They can fling books at each other for as long as they like, but they’re not going to change any minds. Imagine telling someone at the end of their rope, “Suffering has no eternal purpose, we’re just a chemical accident. All you need is math and the scientific method!” The believer is more likely to jump into the chasm than cross it.

And now on to theologian John Haught's new book:
But in God and the New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens theologian John F. Haught reminds us what exactly that means: “In my interpersonal knowledge… the evidence that someone loves me is hard to measure, but it can be very real nonetheless.” I wanted Haught’s entire book to be like this statement: a warm-blooded medium between the atheists’ cold logic and the fundamentalists’ fiery fury.

Instead, we’re back at the chasm. Just as Dawkins et al. refuse to understand that some people have a strong emotional need for faith, Haught cannot understand that for some people the idea of an omnipotent creator would send the logical order of the universe into a cause/effect tailspin. At least he understands that there are problems with how God is used in religion, and how that might send moderates running to the other end of the spectrum. “Sensitive souls in every period of religious history can grow weary of the unsatisfactory ways in which contemporary religions represent their ideal.” He continues, “Reading certain passages in the Bible, including the Christian Scriptures, can be a dangerous and bewildering experience if one has not first gained some sense of the Bible’s overarching themes.”

He is convinced, however, that Christianity is the way. His solution to doubt is “a good college-level course in biblical literature, or being part of a Bible study group informed by up-to-date scholarship.” Haught pities atheists, and it’s quite possible he’s never actually met one. “You would be required to summon up an unprecedented degree of courage if you plan to wipe away the whole horizon of transcendence. Are you willing to risk madness? If not, then you are not really an atheist.” I imagine he thinks all atheists look like Sartre, existing only on cigarettes and depraved sexual acts.

And this is where James comes in:

Both parties point to Darwin as the origin of the schism, and indeed the debate has been raging ever since “Where did we come from?” had an answer other than “God.” Haught chastises the others for not having read William James’s essay “The Will to Believe.” James wrote it in 1896 in response to “that delicious enfant terrible” W. K. Clifford’s assertion that faith was sinful. “It is sinful because it is stolen in defiance of our duty to mankind,” Clifford wrote. “That duty is to guard ourselves from such beliefs as from a pestilence which may shortly master our own body and then spread to the rest of the town… It is wrong always, everywhere, and for everyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence.”

Sound familiar? Harris, Hitchens, and Dawkins, all declare God a failed hypothesis because of “insufficient evidence,” and both Dawkins and Harris accuse the moderately faithful of opening the door to extremism. But while Haught responds with a tangent about the Christian God’s demand for blind faith and that “to worship anything finite is idolatrous,” James does not bother with all that because he is not tied to any religious viewpoint. He is an empiricist. It comes down to a choice: Do you wait for God to hold a press conference before you believe in him, or do you allow yourself to trust that there is a dimension to the world we cannot access? Dawkins would call you a fool for choosing the latter, and Haught might saddle you down with dogma and force order onto your belief. But James simply states:

Believe nothing, [Clifford] tells us, keep your mind in suspense forever, rather than by closing it on insufficient evidence incur the awful risk of believing lies… I myself find it impossible to go with Clifford. [H]e who says “Better go without belief forever than believe a lie!” merely shows his own preponderant private horror of becoming a dupe… For my own part, I also have a horror of being a dupe; but I can believe that there are worse things than being duped may happen to a man in this world… In a world where we are certain to incur [errors] in spite of all our caution, a certain lightness of heart seems healthier than this excessive nervousness on their behalf.

It’s a much more useful response because James does not picture the people on either side of the debate as fools or cowards or heathens.
Hmm...Why can't we have a discussion like this? After taking the straw men arguments out, some of the agreements and disagreements are mostly about one's faith and/or view of the world. I don't fully agree with James about taking the plunge, but at least there can be a good discussion about it. Read the full article here. (tip from 3quarksdaily)

The end of Madrassa Reform Project in Pakistan

Poor education standards at madrassas in Pakistan came into sharp focus after 2001. Usually these religious school teach only rot memorization of the Quran and obedience. Musharraf had pledged to reform the sprawling madrassa system in Pakistan. But now it seems that the program is being discontinued. I guess like his other projects - he is considering it "mission accomplished" (see, Mush and Bush can easily be cross-referenced).

In 2002 the Pakistani government launched a five-year program called the Madrassa Reforms Project, a post-9/11 directive aimed at modernizing religious seminaries by broadening their curricula, establishing educational standards and reining in the militant ones. With suicide attacks on the rise in Pakistan, many fear that more madrassas will become breeding grounds for extremist ideologies.

Yet, five years later, the program has been discontinued.

Officials estimate there are about 13,000 madrassas across the country with fewer than 2 million students enrolled. But many observers say there are likely more than 20,000 madrassas.

"None of these madrassas are registered or will bother to register," said Muhammad Ejaz Ahsan, who heads the Karachi office of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. "They are politically and financially independent and have no desire to be reined in by government authorities."

But the success of madrassas is a direct consequence of the failure of the government providing education and other necessities:

Historically, madrassas were institutions of learning in the Islamic world. Today, a large percentage of the country's madrassas are community responses to sub-par government education.

Why madrassa reform has failed isn't difficult to answer.

Instead of being curtailed, madrassas sprouted up, providing free education, boarding and lodging for poor children, combating poor government schooling, unemployment, inflation and a host of other problems.

And all of this is nicely put into words by a madrassa student (I saw the video of this and it was quite remarkable how he grilled Musharraf on this - though I don't know what happened to the student afterwards):

At an education conference one of Binoria's students, Adnan Kaka Khel, lectured Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf against his madrassa drive.

"Mr. President ... (this) is class games, an unjust system, disrespect of talent ... limitless corruption, and the misuse of power – it is these dangerous trends which have driven the youth in this direction. You need to fix these problems, and then you will see if these youth are terrorists or lovers of peace."

Pakistan's constitution obliges the state to provide free and compulsory secondary education. However, education (and health), key social-sector departments, have consistently been sacrificed in the name of "national interest" issues such as defence expenditure.

Read the full story here.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Unspoken words: Text of Pope's canceled La Sapienza speech

You may have already heard that a few weeks back Pope canceled his speech after protests from faculty and students, accusing the Pope of being anti-science as exemplified by his 1990 speech. Now you can find the full text of Pope's undelivered La Sapienza speech here. The undelivered speech talks about medieval university and sets it up in the context of faith, reason and secularism:
At La Sapienza, Rome's oldest university, however, I have been invited as Bishop of Rome, and so, I must speak as such. Of course, La Sapienza was once the Pope's university, but today it is a secular university with that autonomy which, based on its founding concept, has always been part of the nature of a university, which should be linked exclusively to the authority of truth.

The university finds its particular function in its freedom from political or ecclesiastical authorities, especially in modern society, which needs institutions of this kind. Going back to my question at the start: What can a Pope say and what should he say in meeting with the university of his city?
So lets get straight to the juicy bits. What does he say about science:
In modern times, new dimensions of knowledge have opened up, and in the university, they are appreciated most of all in two spheres: above all, in the natural sciences, which have developed on the basis of the link between experimentation and the presumed rationality of matter; and in the second place, in the historical and humanistic sciences, in whuich man - scrutinizing the mirror of history, and clarifying the dimensions of his nature, seeks to understand himself better. This development has opened to mankind not only an immense meassure of knowledge and power, but it has also developed the knowledge and acknowledgment of human rights and human dignity, for which we can only be grateful. But man's journey can never be said to be complete, and the danger of falling into inhumanity can never be simply abjured - as we see in the panorama of current affaris. The danger for the Western world - to speak of this alone - is that man today, especially considering the greatness of his knowledge and power, surrenders when faced with the question of truth.

This would mean that reason ultimately folds up from the pressure of interests and the attractiveness of utility, being forced to recognize it as the ultimate criterion. Stated from the point of view of the structure of the university, there is a danger that philosophy, no longer feeling capable of its true mission, degenerates into positivism; that theology, with its message addressed to reason, becomes confined to the private sphere of a group or groups. If however, reason, solicitous of its presumed purity, becomes deaf to the great message that comes from the Christian faith and its wisdom, it would wither up like a tree whose roots no longer reach the waters that give it life. It would lose its courage for the truth and will stop being great - it would diminish.
So yes, he feels that if reason/science (he separate them at other places in his talk) is divorced from faith, in particular the Christian faith, it will loose its connection to the truth. The charitable way to look at that is that - well...he is the Pope and he is selling his product. But this is indeed a departure from Pope John Paul, who was more sympathetic to science and often spoke of cooperation between the two rather an absolute dependence.

Now lets get to the conclusion:
Applied to our European culture, this means: if reason wishes to self-construct itself circumscribed by its own argumentation and that which convinces it for the moment, and - preoccupied with its secularity - cuts itself off from the roots through which it lives, then it does not become more reasonable and pure, but will decompose and break up. With this, I return to our starting point.
What does the Pope have to do or say in the university? Certainly, he should not seek to impose the faith in authoritarian fashion, because faith can only be given in freedom. Beyond his ministry as Pastor of the Church and on the basis of the intrinsic nature of this pastoral ministry, it is his task to keep alive the sensitivity for truth; to invite reason ever anew to set itself to a quest for the truth, for goodness, for God; and along this path, call on it to be aware of the useful lights that have emerged throughout the history of the Christian faith, and thereby to perceive Jesus Christ as the Light who illumines history and helps us find the way to the future.
On the one hand, we can again pass it through the Papal filter and say that he is simply selling his product and doing his job. On the other hand, we can also see an aggressive tone against secularism (and reason without faith) and that does not bode well for the future. On the plus side, at least he did not defend Galileo's trial in this speech. Lets be thankful of small things.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Call for increase in science collborations between US and Iran

The editorial of last week's issue (January 18) of Science openly called for increased cooperation with Iran on scientific matters. It also lists some interesting steps that have already been taken regarding this:
During the past 8 years, the U.S. National Academies have sponsored annual U.S.-Iran scientific workshops in both countries in areas such as limnology, water conservation, science and ethics, and distance education. These workshops and related individual exchanges have shown that cooperation on problems of mutual interest is possible even in very harsh political environments. In some ways, this bridge-building is reminiscent of early U.S. exchanges with the former Soviet Union and China. But more needs to be done to help repair the broken dialogue between the scientific and intellectual communities of the two countries.
But it appears that things have picked up in the last few months. It is hard to imagine that these measures are completely detached from the two governments - even so the scientific communities in both countries can thaw some ice:

The past 3 months have seen a remarkable series of science-related events involving Iran. An October visit by a U.S. scientific delegation concluded with a joint decision to increase the frequency of bilateral workshops and the number of exchange visitors. During that visit, Princeton physicist and Nobel laureate Joseph Taylor delivered a lecture at Sharif University in Tehran that was seen in person and via the Internet by thousands of Iranian faculty members and students. In November, the U.S. Department of State along with the Institute of Medicine and Academy for Educational Development organized a 3-week program for specialists in food-borne diseases from five institutions in Iran, including a joint scientific workshop and visits to U.S. institutions from coast to coast. In December, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Fairfax, Virginia, began planning audio-video teleconferences with an elite high school in Tehran as a first step toward a long-term relationship. A salient new development was the launch of annual U.S.-Iranian seminars on "Science, a Gateway to Understanding." The first was held in Tehran in November and involved scientists, political leaders, philosophers, and theologians to discuss scientific, political, economic, and social topics that affect understanding among nations.

And here is an interesting (but very positive) way to end the editorial:

Many political leaders in Iran associate themselves with science, and many technically trained Americans are active within the foreign policy community. Together, they are an influential group that recognizes that science is based on evidence and not on ideology. They are the ones who must become advocates of cooperative programs. Particularly now, at this time of great tension in the U.S.-Iran relationship, creative initiatives from the scientific communities of both countries deserve the broadest possible encouragement and support.

This is a step in the right direction and its great that AAAS is taking this initiative. I hope other scientific societies will join in too (especially the American Chemical Society after their last boneheaded action against their Iranian members).

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Science Blogging Conference 2008: Coffee, food & great conversations

This past weekend I attended the second Science Blogging Conference in North Carolina. I wasn't sure what to expect and I didn't really know anybody personally who was attending the conference. The conference had no registration fee, and that tipped my decision towards attending the conference (though it also increased my apprehension...hmm...free conference: How bad is it going to be or what are they trying to sell me by not asking for money??).

It turns out the conference was really fantastic and I had a phenomenal time there. It was very well organized, all of the sessions were interesting, and the organizers took care of the participants by providing them with good food and coffee (yes - no coffee shortage!). Plus it had an interesting mix of people - scientists, teachers, educators, journalists - that really enriched the experience. On top of it, we each got a bag full of goodies that included a t-shirt, two books (they were already on my Amazon wishlist), a coffee mug, about 15 magazines (Nature, Seed, Scientific American, American Scientist, Discover, National Geographic, etc) and other small things. It was not a conference, it was a heist!

Here is the full program of the conference and even if you were not there, you can join online discussion and also see videos of some sessions here. I really liked he unconference format of the first three sessions and it generated good interaction between the attendees. The unconferenced sessions I attended included a discussion over science blogging ethics led by Janet Stemwedel (some fascinating issues were raised, and one way or the other we will have to find some solutions to them soon), teaching science using electronic tools led by David Warlick, and how to build interactivity in a blog led by Dave Munger (you can also download his very useful presentation and other links here). By the way, Dave would look at this paragraph and say: too many links - it looks terrible. Sorry, Dave - won't do it again.

The last two sessions were in un-unconference format and the traditional approach perhaps sapped some of the energy. The Framing panel was directed more towards Sciencedebate 2008, but somehow both the talks and the Q&A lacked some oomph! However, Jennifer Oulette of Cocktail Party Physics revitalized the evening by talking about the outlook of science blogging - which looks terrific!

Thanks to Bora and Anton (and other organizers) for a fantastic conference.












The plight of the organizer: Bora - before the conference (left) and after seeing everything is going fine (right) [with Jennifer Oulette]

Monday, January 21, 2008

Divisions between Muslim countries and the West getting worse

The good news is that both Muslim and Western countries actually agree on something. The bad news is that they both agree that divisions between them are worsening:
Respondents were asked how they thought relations were now and how they thought they would develop. Describing the position now, majorities on both sides said they did not believe the two sides were getting along.

This belief was strongest in the US, Israel, Denmark - where the publication of cartoons about the Muslim Prophet Muhammad caused worldwide controversy - and among Palestinians. WEF experts examining the poll data put this down to the effect of the Iraq war and the Middle East conflict.

By contrast, there was a less gloomy response in Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Pakistan.

Now this last bit of information is interesting. Either there is lopsided optimism here or may be people in these three countries believe that the relations have already hit rock bottom, and there is simply no room to make things worse.


As for the differences, Europeans come out the worse (or best - depending on one's inclination):

Europeans apparently feared more interaction with Islam - according to the report, they saw it as a threat to their cultural identity. But people in the US, Canada, Israel and the Muslim world said more contact would be a good thing.

But there are some slight positive signs also (in fact they are so rare that BBC decided to present them in a bullet format):

But there are some rays of hope among the gloom:

  • Most respondents said they did not believe violent conflict was inevitable
  • Most respondents said the quality of the relationship between the West and the Muslim world was important to them personally

Read the full story here (you can also get the full pdf report here):

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Change of one word in The Book of Mormon and its impact

Yes, even one word can make quite an impact. In fact, in terms of effectiveness, this may have one of the highest ratios of impact/letters and presents an interesting example of science and religion interaction:
All this over five letters. But those letters, the word "among," could signal a bigger change than it seems.

The change is in the second paragraph of the introduction to the 2006 Book of Mormon, the most recent printing of the book published by Doubleday. The last sentence of that paragraph, which discusses the fate of ancient civilizations, stated in previous editions that the Lamanites, a nation of people that originated in Jerusalem, "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."

The newest edition states the Lamanites are "are among the ancestors of the American Indians."
The change may be motivated by increasing accuracy of ancestry testings and the tracing of immigration routes. Here is how this impacts the religious narrative:
The Book of Mormon is the reference book for the church, like the Bible. Mormons believe the founder of the church, Joseph Smith, translated the book from a set of engraved golden plates buried on Cumorah Hill in Manchester, N.Y.

The book teaches, in part, that Native Americans were descendents of the Lamanites, who migrated to America from Israel.
And there is no scientific evidence supporting this story. Indeed, Native American origin research is pointing elsewhere (here is a National Geographic story about the first Americans). The controversy over the Kennewick Man also centers around the same issue and pits scientific data against sacred oral traditions.

I think this may be a smart move on the part of the Mormon Church. The challenge to their version of history is only going to grow stronger with time. By keeping it vague ("among" can easily fit to any percentage greater than 0 and less than 100), they can perhaps avert a direct clash with science.

Read the full story here.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Pakistan's nuclear program or: how I learned to start worrying and hate the bomb

This is an issue that is phenomenally important, but not much information is available. Pakistan's nuclear program has always been shrouded in secrecy, so it is hard to verify any reports. Here is Pervez Hoodbhoy's take on this: A State of Denial. I have known him for years and I always take his views seriously. So here is a somber analysis:

A cacophony of protests in Pakistan greeted a recent statement by the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohammad ElBaradei. "I fear that chaos, or an extremist regime, could take root in that country, which has 30 to 40 warheads," he said. He also expressed fear that "nuclear weapons could fall into the hands of extremist groups in Pakistan or Afghanistan."

But in Pakistan, few worry. The Strategic Plans Division, which is the Pakistani agency responsible for handling nuclear weapons, exudes confidence that it can safely protect the country's "crown jewels." The SPD is a key beneficiary of the recently disclosed secret $100 million grant by the Bush administration, the purpose of which is to make Pakistan's nuclear weapons safer.

This money has been put to use. Indeed, ever since Sept. 11, 2001, there has been a regular traffic of Pakistani military officers to and from the United States for coaching in nuclear safety techniques. While multiple layers of secrecy make it hard to judge success, the improvement in the SPD's public relations is palpable. PowerPoint presentations, guided tours of military headquarters and calculated expressions of openness have impressed foreign visitors.

And of course, every military happening in Pakistan needs an American approval (yes, even if its by Joe Lieberman):
Senator Joseph Lieberman, chairman of a Homeland Security and governmental affairs committee, left reassured. After a briefing by the SPD's chief, Lieutenant General Khalid Kidwai, Lieberman declared in a press conference, "Yes, he did allay my fears," and promised to carry that message back to Congress.
But Pervez (Hoodbhoy, not Musharraf) thinks that El Baradei and Lieberman are looking at two different issues:

The two men are looking at different things. Lieberman was impressed by how well Pakistani nuclear handlers have been tutored in the United States. ElBaradei, on the other hand, expressed a broader concern. He presumably reasoned that safety procedures and their associated technologies are only as safe as the men who use them.

This is the crux of the problem. Pakistan has become steadily more radicalized as the influence of Islamists increases in its culture and society. The deliberate nurturing of jihadism by the state has, over 30 years, produced extremism inside parts of the military and intelligence. Today, some parts are at war with other parts.

And the suicide bombings, which were unheard of in Pakistan couple of years back, are now increasingly targeting intelligence agencies and elite military units:
A score of suicide attacks in the last few weeks, some bearing a clear insider signature, have rocked an increasingly demoralized military and intelligence establishment. For example, an unmarked bus of the Inter Services Intelligence agency was collecting employees for work early in the morning in Rawalpindi when it was boarded by a suicide bomber who killed 25 when he blew himself up. The ISI had not recovered from this shock when, just weeks later, another bus was blown up as it entered the service's closely guarded secret headquarters.

Elite commandos of the Special Services Group have fared no better. Here, the suicide bomber was an army man. Still more recently, a group of six Pakistani militants, reportedly brainwashed by clerics linked to Al Qaeda, was arrested in December for plotting suicide attacks against military targets. Their leader was revealed to be a former army major, Ahsan-ul-Haq, who had masterminded the Nov. 1 suicide attack on a Pakistan Air Force bus that killed 9 people and wounded 40 others in the city of Sargodha, where nuclear weapons are said to be stored.

This also underscores the general stability of Pakistan. If these bombers can hit some of the highest security targets, what hope do cities have from preventing such attacks. In fact, it almost seems that the organizations behind these attacks are, at present, simply showing-off their strength. They certainly seem capable of creating mass chaos in Iraq-style bombing campaign in cities, where the population is far greater than in Iraqi cities (by way of comparison, Iraq's population is ~25 millions, and Pakistan's is 165 million). But back to the nuclear issue:

As the rift within widens, many questions pose themselves. Can collusion between different field-level nuclear commanders - each responsible for different parts of the weapon - result in the hijacking of one complete weapon? Could jihadist outsiders develop links with sympathetic custodial insiders?

Many vexing questions concern the weapons laboratories and production units. Given the sloppy work culture, it is hard to imagine that accurate records have been maintained over a quarter century of fissile-material production. So, can one be certain that small, but significant, quantities of highly enriched uranium have not made their way out? More ominously, religious fervor in these places has grown enormously over the last 30 years.

I'm not yet convinced about the dangers of the collusion theory (of course things may change). However, it is far more plausible that enriched uranium can get smuggled out. But again, we don't have much information about Pakistan's nuclear program and its safeguards, so I cannot say when should we really start loosing sleep over it. However, early last year, Pakistan's nuclear authority did release an ad in Urdu seeking information about any lost or stolen radioactive material. Now that can never be good. So if you have seen any suspiciously glowing objects, please call the number in the ad to the right. Wait a minute...whats in those glow sticks??

Read the full Hoodbhoy article here.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Pope cancels speech after more quotation trouble

Pope is in trouble again for quoting somebody else (previously, he got into trouble for quoting anti-Islam sentiments of a 14th century Byzantine emperor, Paleologus) . This time he has been forced to cancel his speech at Sapienza University after students and faculty staged protests against his anti-science stance (also reported at Faithworld):

The pope’s speech at the university, which was founded by Pope Boniface VIII in 1303 and is now public, was to mark the start of the academic year. But professors and students objected, citing specifically a speech that Benedict gave in 1990, when he was Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, on Galileo, condemned by the Inquisition in the early 1600s for arguing that the Earth revolved around the Sun.

In that speech, Cardinal Ratzinger, who would become pope in 2005, quoted the Austrian philosopher Paul Feyerabend as saying: “The church at the time was much more faithful to reason than Galileo himself, and also took into consideration the ethical and social consequences of Galileo’s doctrine. Its verdict against Galileo was rational and just.”

Oh...but he wasn't infallible then!
Yes, the Galileo Affair was more complicated than it is often portrayed (as a straight forward science vs religion battle) and involved political and cultural reasons as well, but to say that "the Church at the time was much more faithful to reason than Galileo" is more than just a stretch. [For more details on the Galileo Affair, check out these two articles: Science, Religion, and the Galileo Affair and Truth is science: Proof, persuasion and the Galileo Affair (pdf file)].
In the speech, Cardinal Ratzinger did not argue against the validity of science generally or take the church’s position from Galileo’s time that heliocentrism was heretical. But he asserted, as he has often since elected pope, that science should not close off religion and that science has been used in destructive ways.
Ok..so he is anti-science. But would it have been better to actually let him speak and then criticize him on its current content rather than on the basis of a quote made 18 years ago? This is a tricky issue, but I would rather have disagreed with him than to not let him speak. But I don't know more details about the situation at Sapienza University. Any thoughts?

Monday, January 14, 2008

Arguments for God and Copernicus' mistress

There are two relevant book reviews in Sunday's New York Times. The first reviews Irreligion: A mathematician explains why the argument for God just don't add up by John Allen Paulos (you can read the first chapter here).
John Allen Paulos is a mathematician who teaches at Temple University and also a talented popularizer. In previous books he has trained his mathematical eye on humor, the stock market and what he reads in the newspaper. Now he has taken on God. Paulos is not a credulous man. He sees things, he tells us, in the cold light of logic and probability. (His stock market book told how he was suckered into losing a bundle on WorldCom stock, but never mind.) In “Irreligion,” Paulos intends to expose the “inherent illogic” of arguments for the existence of God. He finds these supposed proofs to be, by and large, a load of tripe.
The review gives examples of some of the arguments for the existence of God. But ultimately it boils down to this:
Paulos concedes that, just as arguments for God’s existence are logically inconclusive, so too are arguments against God’s existence. That means that you can either believe or disbelieve without being convicted of stark irrationality. Similarly, Paulos’s fellow mathematicians can either believe that they are communing with a Platonic realm of perfect mathematical entities, or they can believe that they are playing a meaningless game with symbols on paper. Most mathematicians appear to be in the former camp. Is it wrong of them to hold this unexamined and (arguably) groundless faith if it helps them flourish in their mathematical lives?
Read the full review here.

The other review is of a new biography of Copernicus, titled Copernicus' Secret: How the Scientific Revolution began by Jack Repcheck.

Jack Repcheck’s new biography, “Copernicus’ Secret,” at last brings the astronomer to life in a way that past efforts have not quite achieved. He paints the sites in a particularly vivid fashion, evoking, for example, provincial Frombork, where “the streets were narrow, the cottages small and nondescript, and the entire place smelled of fish.” And he gives a clear account of the political and administrative structures of the cathedral chapter where Copernicus was a senior figure. He describes how the Teutonic knights originally moved into this Prussian area after the Crusades and how at the time of Copernicus their territory almost completely surrounded the Warmian diocese, which owed its loyalty to the Jagiellonian kings in Krakow. Copernicus owed his position to his uncle Lucas Watzenrode, a member of a patrician merchant family and bishop from 1489 to 1512. Once a canon, Copernicus was rarely in want of money.

Repcheck concentrates on the last 12 years of the astronomer’s life, when a story fraught with personal tensions moves to its climax. Will Copernicus’s precious manuscript see the light of public scrutiny, or will it simply languish? Johannes Dantiscus, the erudite, scheming, social-climbing poet and diplomat who was elected bishop in 1537, is determined to stanch the inroads of the Protestant movement and to bring his errant canons fully into line. He is convinced that Copernicus is one of three canons living openly with a mistress. When the Protestant Rheticus arrives into the profoundly hostile Catholic territory, can he persuade Copernicus that he won’t be hooted off the stage if and when his treatise is finally printed?

Scientific revolution aside, you are wondering if Copernicus really had a mistress or not. Well...he had a "housekeeper". Yes, Copernicus should have come up with a better excuse. It seems that this one didn't fly even in the 16th century.

When in the 1850s the Polish scholar Jan Baranowski discovered Copernicus’s letter to the previous bishop apologizing for lodging a woman overnight, he suppressed it, not wishing to taint his hero with the slightest whiff of scandal. And subsequent scholars, examining letters in which Copernicus later promised to dismiss his female housekeeper (and then postponed his action), took the astronomer at his word, assuming she was only a housekeeper and that was all there was to the story. But Repcheck, relying on additional third-party correspondence, concludes that she was indeed a mistress. Perhaps he is right. In any event, it does make Copernicus appear more human, more real.
And what about the big unanswered questions concerning Copernicus and the scientific revolution. For those, we'll have to wait for another biography:
These are not, however, the central questions of the intellectual history of the astronomical revolution. Instead, we want to know where, when and why Copernicus’s insight into a heliocentric cosmology took place. Was he significantly influenced by Islamic astronomy? How important were direct observations in formulating the new picture? Was Copernicus simply building a model, or did he believe in the physical reality of the heliocentric arrangement? Did he hesitate at all over the possible theological reaction to his removing the Earth from the center of the cosmos? Repcheck has little to say about these questions or about more technical astronomical issues. He never makes it clear whether Copernicus’s “secret” is his mistress or his book. Still, no other biography of which I am aware treats the life of this scientific giant more vividly than this one.
Read the full review here.

New Jerusalem: Spinoza and his atheism on stage

A play about Darwin was on stage in New York last month. Now, there is a new play about the excommunication of the 17th century Jewish philosopher, Spinoza. The play is titled, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 - (great - now you know the full story just from the sub-title).

As that daunting subtitle suggests and students of philosophy will know, the play is based on actual events. Spinoza, a Portuguese Jew living in Amsterdam, was a brilliant scholar whose inquiries led him into territory that made trouble for his fellow Jews, who were graciously tolerated if not wholly welcomed into Dutch society.

The play opens with the brief for the prosecution from Abraham van Valkenburgh (David Garrison), a civic leader who is alarmed at rumors that the well-liked young man is spreading poisonous thought through the city. “He is a threat to the piety and morals of this entire city, and he and his ideas must be stopped,” he importantly intones. “The city’s regents send you this message: Abide by our laws, adhere to the regulations governing your community or face the consequences.”

Mr. Ives lays out the mechanics and the consequences of Spinoza’s interrogation in a debate among van Valkenburgh; the city’s chief rabbi, Saul Levi Mortera (Richard Easton), Spinoza’s teacher and mentor; and Gaspar Rodrigues Ben Israel (Fyvush Finkel), a “parnas” of the temple congregation, or member of the committee that will pass judgment on the case. At stake is possible excommunication from the religious fold, and indeed all social contact with the city’s Jewish establishment.

And of course, here is the reason for the interrogation:

What exactly is Spinoza accused of? Oh, just general atheism and heretical questioning of key tenets of Judaism and Christianity. But before presenting the interrogations as a battle of ideas between Spinoza and his accusers, Mr. Ives gives us a snapshot portrait of the philosopher as a young man.

Idling at a tavern with a friend, Simon de Vries (Michael Izquierdo), the young Spinoza, who is played as a gentle-hearted genius by the engaging Jeremy Strong, speaks of his interest in things eternal and things mathematical, and the connections between the two. Later, exchanging confidences with a music teacher, Clara Van den Enden (Natalia Payne), to whom he is romantically devoted, he dismisses as “entertaining stories” many of the biblical tales she holds dear. “Nature, which is to say God, cannot depart from its own laws,” he explains in a friendly tone, as if speaking of simple sums.

Check out the full review here, and here is more information about the play.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

More on Huckabee and evolution

Here is another article about Mike Huckabee's vagueness about evolution and the teaching of creationism: The Huckster's Artful Dodging on Evolution (tip from Jaime Davila)
During Huckabee’s tenure as Governor, evolution education in Arkansas languished in an environment of general hostility and insufficiency. Two anti-evolution bills were introduced in the state’s House of Representatives; textbooks in the Beebe, Arkansas public high school carried disclaimer stickers denigrating evolution; the state’s science curriculum earned a grade of “D” overall and an abysmal “zero” for its treatment of evolution; a creationist “museum” enjoyed state-funded advertising; and evolution was systematically and broadly squeezed out of schools and other educational institutions across the state. Huckabee did nothing to deter any of this – in fact, some of his public statements might indicate his tacit support.
And yes, it is important for a leader of a country (any country) to accept the cornerstone of modern biology and be aware of science and its methodology:
Contrasting starkly with the New York mayor’s recognition of the importance of evolution to public science education, Huckabee has adopted a deplorably dismissive line of response when asked about his adherence to creationism saying, “I’m not sure what in the world that has to do with being president of the United States.” However, a nonpartisan coalition, which includes 11 Nobel laureates and the editors-in-chief of Science and Nature among its impressive list of signatories, believes that such issues have a great deal to do with the office of the chief executive. In fact, they are calling for a debate between presidential candidates on science and technology. John Rennie, editor-in-chief of Scientific American and a member of the coalition’s steering committee, explained, “Matters of science and technology underpin every important issue affecting the future of the United States. It’s crucial for the nation’s welfare that our next president be someone with an understanding of vital science, a willingness to listen to scientific counsel, and a capacity for solid, critical thinking.”
Ok...and what does Huckabee really think about evolution/creationism debate? Here is a 2004 exchange between Huckabee and a student that shed more light on his views on evolution:

In 2004, a concerned student from Arkansas confronted then-Governor Huckabee about the teaching of evolution on a local PBS television station:

Student: Many schools in Arkansas are failing to teach students about evolution according to the educational standards of our state. Since it is against these standards to teach creationism, how would you go about helping our state educate students more sufficiently for this?
Huckabee: Are you saying some students are not getting exposure to the various theories of creation?
Student (stunned): No, of evol … well, of evolution specifically. It’s a biological study that should be educated [taught], but is generally not.
Moderator: Schools are dodging Darwinism? Is that what you … ?
Student: Yes.
Huckabee: I’m not familiar that they’re dodging it. Maybe they are. But I think schools also ought to be fair to all views. Because, frankly, Darwinism is not an established scientific fact. It is a theory of evolution, that’s why it’s called the theory of evolution.

Huckabee’s claimed ignorance that schools were failing to teach evolution properly is quite curious given a previous exchange with another young Arkansan on an earlier installment of the same PBS program only one year before:

Student: Goal 2.04 of the Biology Benchmark Goals published by the Arkansas Department of Education in May of 2002 indicates that students should examine the development of the theory of biological evolution. Yet many students in Arkansas that I have met … have not been exposed to this idea. What do you believe is the appropriate role of the state in mandating the curriculum of a given course?
Huckabee: I think that the state ought to give students exposure to all points of view. And I would hope that that would be all points of view and not only evolution. I think that they also should be given exposure to the theories not only of evolution but to the basis of those who believe in creationism....

Read the full article here and an earlier post on this topic.

Friday, January 11, 2008

An overview of the Enlightenment: Darrin McMahon

This was the first talk at the Beyond Belief 2 conference, held this past November. The theme of the conference was Enlightenment 2.0, and so this talk starts off the conference nicely by reviewing the original enlightenment - dubbed at the conference as Enlightenment 1.0 (though there were other talks that mentioned enlightenment 0.5 in China, and also a version with Epicurus and the Pre-Socratics). Darrin McMahon, Professor of history at Florida State University, does a fantastic overview of the Enlightenment, and his talk is titled, Does the enlightenment need an upgrade?

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Hamzanama: Homer meets Tolkien in medieval Islamic world

This past Sunday, New York Times had a book review of The Adventures of Amir Hamza. Unless you are from South Asia, there is a good chance that you may not have heard of this before. But this is Iliad/Odyssey meet Lord of the Rings in a medieval Persianized world of the Indian subcontinent! (really)

There is a fascinating history of how this tale has been told for the past few hundred years. But I was first introduced to to it via an Urdu version of these adventures written/translated for young adults by Maqbool Jahangir. It has 10 parts (~200 pages each) and it is written in a style that once you start reading it, its hard to put it down. Yes, it includes giants, jinns, fairies, sea voyages, romances, and battles - all linked to Amir Hamza and two of his trusted friends. In fact, I got into the habit of reading books through this series and my siblings (and now their kids) had the same experience. I absolutely loved this epic and I still have these books with me. However, I read the young-adults version, and now a new translation of the adult version of Hamzanama has just been published and it is this that has been reviewed in the Times.

But wait...there is more to it: the adult version of the epic was first told pictorially in the Mogul court of the 16th century! Some of these paintings were displayed for the first time at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. in 2001:
On display was a single work of art: a painted manuscript of the “Hamzanama,” a spectacular illustrated book commissioned by the sympathetic and notably tolerant Mughal emperor Akbar (1542-1605). To the delight of art historians, the Sackler brought together the long-dispersed pages of what is probably the most ambitious single artistic undertaking ever produced by the atelier of an Islamic court: no fewer than 1,400 huge illustrations were commissioned. More than anything else, it was the project that created the Mughal painting style, and in the illustrations one can see two artistic worlds — that of Hindu India and of Persianate Islamic Central Asia — fusing to create something new and distinctively Mughal.
This is incredible - the Moghul painting style came out as a result of this epic! More on the story below, but here are some of the paintings (and check out the exhibition website The Adventures of Hamza that has more paintings with excellent descriptions).
In this painting, Zambur, a spy, brings a maid named Mahiya to town on a donkey.

Battle scene with an 'ayyar', probably Khaja Umar the master spy and friend of Amir Hamza, being lifted into the sky, illustrated page from the Emperor Akbar's manuscript of the Hamza Nama, Mughal, c.1570

Arghan Dev Brings the Chest of Armour to Hamza, c.1557-1572

Here is more about the Hamzanama:
The “Hamzanama” was once the most popular oral epic of the Indo-Islamic world. “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is the “Iliad” and Odyssey” of medieval Persia, a rollicking, magic-filled heroic saga. Born as early as the ninth century, it grew through oral transmission to include material gathered from the wider culture-compost of the pre-Islamic Middle East. So popular was the story that it soon spread across the Muslim world, absorbing folk tales as it went; before long it was translated into Arabic, Turkish, Georgian, Malay and even Indonesian languages. It took particular hold in India, where it absorbed endless myths and legends and was regularly performed in public spaces in the great Mughal cities. At fairs and at festivals, on the steps of the Jama Masjid in Delhi or in the Qissa Khawani Bazaar, the “street of the storytellers” in Peshawar, the professional storyteller, or dastango, would perform nightlong recitations from memory; some of these could go on for seven or eight hours with only a short break.
Alas - I did not hear this story from a dastango. But it is still cool to imagine how it would be like listening to an epic from a master story teller from memory - probably while drinking tea (and smoking hukkah in the older times).

“The Adventures of Amir Hamza” collected a great miscellany of fireside yarns and shaggy-dog stories that over time had gathered around the travels of its protagonist, the historical uncle of the Prophet Muhammad. Any factual backbone the story might once have had was through the centuries overtaken by innumerable subplots and a cast of dragons, giants, jinns, simurgh, sorcerers, princesses and, if not flying carpets, then at least flying urns, the preferred mode of travel for the tale’s magicians.

Across the Persian-speaking world, from Tabriz to Hyderabad, people gathered around the dastango as he told story after story of the chivalrous Hamza and the beautiful Chinese-Persian princess he longs for, of the wise and prophetic vizier Buzurjmehr and of the just emperor Naushervan. Then there were Hamza’s enemies: the ungrateful villain Bakhtak, whose life Hamza spares, only for Bakhtak to work unceasingly for the hero’s demise; and the cruel necromancer, giant and archfiend Zumurrud Shah. In its fullest form, the tale grew to contain an astounding number of stories, which would take several weeks of all-night storytelling to complete; the fullest printed version, the last volume of which was finally published in 1917, filled no fewer than 46 volumes, averaging a thousand pages each.

This would be roughly 46,000 pages!! Yes, I read a seriously abridged version. This new translation is about 1000 pages, but looks wonderful:
Although a fraction of the size of the 46-volume edition, this unabridged translated version still weighs in at an impressively heavy 948 pages. Even in translation, “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is a wonder and a revelation — a classic of epic literature in an interpretation so fluent that it is a pleasure to sit down and lose oneself in it. The story line itself is endlessly diverting and inventive, and the prose of the translation is beautifully rendered.
Yay! And this is what makes it really fascinating:

Moreover, the book gives a unique insight into a lost Indo-Islamic courtly world. For although “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” was originally a Persian production set in the Middle East, the Urdu version shows how far the story was reimagined into an Indian context in the course of many years of subcontinental retelling. Though the original Mesopotamian place names survive, the world depicted is not that of early Islamic Iraq, but of 18th-century late Mughal India, with its love of gardens, its obsession with poetic wordplay and its extreme refinement in food, dress and manners. Many of the characters have Hindi names; they make oaths like “as Ram is my witness”; and they ride on elephants with jeweled howdahs. To read “The Adventures of Amir Hamza” is to come as close as is now possible to the world of the Mughal campfire — those night gatherings of soldiers, sufis, musicians and hangers-on that one sees illustrated in Mughal miniatures, a storyteller beginning his tale in a clearing of a forest as the embers of the blaze glow red and the eager faces crowd around.

Read the full review here, and here is the author's website. If you like epics, this would be perfect summer reading.

Monday, January 07, 2008

Religion and (gendered) anxiety

Do people get more anxious when they become less religious? A recent study has analyzed levels of anxiety among people who have changed their religious habits over their lifetime:

According to Temple University’s Joanna Maselko, Sc.D., women who had stopped being religiously active were more than three times more likely to have suffered generalized anxiety and alcohol abuse/dependence than women who reported always having been active.

“One’s lifetime pattern of religious service attendance can be related to psychiatric illness,” said Maselko, an assistant professor of public health and co-author of the study, which appears in the January issue of Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology.

Not to sound too anxious here, but what about men?
Conversely, men who stopped being religiously active were less likely to suffer major depression when compared to men who had always been religiously active.
Phew...that was a close call. Anxiety getting back to normal levels.

Maselko offers one possible explanation for the gender differences in the relationship between religious activity and mental health.

“Women are simply more integrated into the social networks of their religious communities. When they stop attending religious services, they lose access to that network and all its potential benefits. Men may not be as integrated into the religious community in the first place and so may not suffer the negative consequences of leaving,” Maselko said.

They probably should be able to check this hypothesis by looking at other social indicators. Of course this will also depend on what kind of religion and what kind of community etc. It would also be good to see if the anxiety level also goes down for people becoming more religious later in life.

The study expands on previous research in the field by analyzing the relationship between mental health — anxiety, depression and alcohol dependence or abuse — and spirituality using current and past levels, said Maselko, who conducted the research when she was at Harvard University.

In the study sample, comprising 718 adults, a majority of men and women changed their level of religious activity between childhood and adulthood, which was critical information for the researchers.

“A person’s current level of spirituality is only part of the story. We can only get a better understanding of the relationship between health and spirituality by knowing a person’s lifetime religious history,” Maselko said.

Read the full story here.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Vatican astronomers being upgraded or downgraded?

The Vatican astronomers are moving out of Papal palace at Castel Gondolfo. Are they being "kicked out" or are they being moved to better facilities? Well...you can choose your own story about that. Here is a version that supports the eviction theory:
The Pope has given the Vatican's Jesuit astronomers their marching orders, banishing them and their infernal instruments from his summer palace and billeting them in a disused convent instead.

The astronomers' eviction from the Castel Gandolfo has been put down to Benedict XVI's need for more space to receive visiting diplomats, according to The Independent.

According to the paper, the Jesuits who run the observatory are putting a brave face on their enforced removal, with the observatory's director Father Jose Funes, insisting: "It is not a downgrading of science in the Vatican."

However, observers will no doubt see this as a negative move in the Church's relationship with science, which dates back to that other troublesome astronomer, Galileo, and beyond. Benedict has been accused of looking to turn the clock back on his predecessor's embrace of science, to the extent of apparently endorsing intelligent design.
And here is a version that says that the move is meant to be an upgrade:
After more than half a century based at the papal palace in Castel Gandolfo, the Vatican’s astronomers will be moving to bigger, more modern facilities.

The astronomers’ new offices and residences still will be located on the grounds of the papal summer residence in the hill town of Castel Gandolfo, about 15 miles south of Rome, but they will be in a completely renovated convent nestled in the papal gardens.

“This is going to be a great improvement” for carrying out the astronomers’ work and studies and the new residences “will be a whole lot more comfortable,” said U.S. Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno.
From the information we have, I would side with the latter story. There is no reason yet to believe that the Pope has grown tired of astronomers and has kicked them out. The astronomical facilities at the Vatican are indeed old and so I can totally see them improving on those. Plus, significant astronomy for the Vatican happens in Arizona where they have research grade telescopes. If funding for those starts to shrink, then certainly we can start asking more questions (also see an earlier post about an astronomy conference sponsored by the Vatican Observatory).

Another issue is connected to the evolution/intelligent design debate. While Vatican astronomers have been quite vocal in support of evolution, there have been speculations that Pope Benedict has some sympathy for the theory of Intelligent Design. Well...so far he has not come out in its support. So until he does, I see no reason to give credence to rumors about another science versus religion clash in the Catholic Church.

If you have more information about the relocation of astronomers, let me know. This coming March, as part of Hampshire College lecture series on Science & Religion, we will be hosting the Director Emeritus of the Vatican Observatory, George V. Coyne, S.J., and I hope we will be able to learn more about these issues.

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Huckabee on teaching of Creationism in schools

This is from an interview after his Iowa victory. Huckabee is one of the three Republican presidential candidates who had expressed doubts about evolution. Well, here at least he is technically not saying anything wrong. Its just that our standards have gotten so low that we take any lack of hostility towards science, especially evolution, as a victory. The bit about evolution/creationism is roughly 2 and a half minutes into the interview.


And just for giggles, here is Ann Coulter on Huckabee's views on evolution (this is from couple of weeks back):

Thursday, January 03, 2008

If you are still not afraid of Rudy Giuliani...

then check out his new TV ad (tip from Cosmic Variance). Hmm...this must be a coincidence that the footage is only about one religion...
Yikes!! (and yes, this is a real ad...it is the front piece at Giuliani's official website)

Daniel Dennett interview for Beyond Belief 2

This is part of a conference Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0, which was held this past November. It is a fascinating conference (this is actually the second one in the series - the first was in 2006) and all of the lectures are available on line with high quality sound and good video (you can also buy a DVD of the event and support The Science Network). It is a good way to spend 20 hours of your life with some of the most prominent names in the field and to a second order, get an experience of actually being at the conference (minus the coffee and the food). I have gone through the lectures and in the coming weeks, I will be posting on the blog some of those directly related to science & religion.

Here is a TV interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett at the end of the conference. He is the author of, among other books, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. The most interesting part is about belief in belief (in God), but there is also a good discussion about consciousness, evolution of brain, and in the Q&A, about animal intelligence. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

A blogger jailed in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia is catching up to modern times: it is now extending its control on speech to the blogosphere. A popular blogger is currently being detained by the government for violating "non-security laws":
An outspoken Saudi blogger is being held for “purposes of interrogation,” the Saudi Interior Ministry confirmed on Tuesday.

Gen. Mansour al-Turki, an Interior Ministry spokesman reached by telephone, said that the blogger, Fouah al-Farhan, was “being questioned about specific violations of non-security laws.” Mr. Farhan’s blog, which discusses social issues, had become one of the most widely read in Saudi Arabia.

Fouad-al-Farhan suspected this action from the government and left this message for a friend two weeks prior to the arrest:

“I was told that there is an official order from a high-ranking official in the Ministry of the Interior to investigate me,” read the letter, which is now posted in English and Arabic on Mr. Farhan’s blog.

Since his arrest, friends of Mr. Farhan have continued to blog on his behalf under a banner that reads “Free Fouad” and features his picture. The blog’s Web address is www.alfarhan.org.

“The issue that caused all of this is because I wrote about the political prisoners here in Saudi Arabia, and they think I’m running an online campaign promoting their issue,” the letter continued, noting that Mr. Farhan had been asked to sign a statement of apology.

“I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that,” Mr. Farhan wrote. “An apology for what? Apologizing because I said the government is a liar when they accused those guys to be supporting terrorism?”

He is the first Saudi blogger to be arrested...arhh...I mean "detained for interrogation":

The Interior Ministry would not say specifically why Mr. Farhan had been arrested.

“The violation is not a security matter,” General Turki said. “He is not being jailed. He is being questioned, and I don’t believe he will remain in detention long. They will get the information that they need from him and then they will let him go.”

There you go. He is not in jail for the last two weeks - he is simply in detention, probably enjoying his time. Saudi government comes under so much criticism for human right abuses, muzzling free speech, lack of any decent rights for women, whereas in reality, it cares for its citizens and keeps them in comfy detention centers.

In some ways, Saudi government is justifiably scared of blogs and other such avenues. It has survived by ruthlessly silencing any kind of dissent. Now bloggers from Saudi Arabia are connecting to the world outside and they are not only providing information about life in the Kingdom, but also giving us a human face behind it. Lets hope international pressure keep Saudi censors at bay and they release Fouad-al-Farhan soon.

See the full story here. I'm not sure how effective are online petitions, but here is a link to Free Fouad-al-Farhan petition.