Friday, February 29, 2008

Maya blue - the color of some old fashioned human sacrifice

Here is a fascinating (yes, also grim) story about the motivation behind the making of Maya blue -
The vibrant sky color can be seen on pottery, murals and other artifacts produced by the Maya people of Central America centuries ago and the unusual, durable pigment remains vibrant today long after other colors have faded away.

It was also the color of Chaak, the rain god, and of human sacrifice.

When the skies looked too much like Maya blue — cloudless and dry — the Maya sometimes selected an unlucky victim to be painted this color and sacrificed to Chaak in hopes that the rains would follow.

And get ready - here is the description of the ritual:

An account by a 16th century Spanish priest described rituals where victims were stripped, painted and thrown onto a stone altar where their hearts, still beating, were cut out.
Hmm...so whats for dinner tonight? Another interesting aspect of this story is that scientists didn't know about its composition until the 1960s (may be I'm the only who finds this story completely fascinating...):

The composition of Maya blue, first used around 300 A.D. and which is almost impervious to age, acid, weather and even modern solvents, remained a mystery until 1960s when chemists deciphered its chemical components: the dye indigo and a clay mineral known as palygorskite, which can be melded together by heat to produce the pigment.

What remained unknown was where and when the Maya made Maya blue. Was there a paint factory churning it out by the gallon? Or was it a secret recipe held tightly by the priests? Was it made at the mines where the palygorskite was dug out or was the palygorskite transported to the cities?

It turns out that indeed, Maya blue was produced as part of the ritual. And the clue came from a bowl that was dug up, along with other artifacts and 127 skeletons, from a natural well called Sacred Cenote locate at Chichen Itza, Mexico (see picture on the right). The bowl was found in the early 20th century, but its analysis with electron tunneling microscope is more recent:

The three-legged bowl, dating from about 1400, contained a chunk of incense that was burned in Maya rituals. Within the incense, were bits of white and blue. Molecular-scale images taken by a scanning tunneling microscope showed these to be palygroskite and indigo.

Thus, the researchers concluded, Indigo blue was made as part of the ritual, the ingredients heated by the burning of incense. The pigment was then applied to pots and sacrifices before being thrown into the well.

Read the full story here.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Islamic Reformation from Turkey?

Turkey is attempting a (relatively) serious revision of Islam. It is being billed as a major reformation (but then these claims have been made before). May be its a start:

The country's powerful Department of Religious Affairs has commissioned a team of theologians at Ankara University to carry out a fundamental revision of the Hadith, the second most sacred text in Islam after the Koran.

The Hadith is a collection of thousands of sayings reputed to come from the Prophet Muhammad. As such, it is the principal guide for Muslims in interpreting the Koran and the source of the vast majority of Islamic law, or Sharia.

But the Turkish state has come to see the Hadith as having an often negative influence on a society it is in a hurry to modernise, and believes it responsible for obscuring the original values of Islam.

It says that a significant number of the sayings were never uttered by Muhammad, and even some that were need now to be reinterpreted.

Hadith do play a major role in the Sharia. They are considered the most important source of guidance after the Quran in the Islamic law. However, they were formally collected over 150-200 years after the death of Muhammad, and the authenticity of many Hadith was challenged at the time and a vast number still generate controversy. In addition, the hierarchy of Hadith, being second only to the Quran, was also challenged in favor of using reason in the first few centuries of Islam. The challenge primarily came early Muslim philosophers (also collectively known as Faylasufs - some also belonged to the theological school of Mutazilla) who were highly impressed with Greek logic and philosophical thought. However, they lost the inter-Islam battle of shaping Islamic law in the 10th and 11th century, and reason was relegated to a position below that of the Quran and the Hadith. It is in this context, that this Turkish effort needs to be looked at:

Turkish officials have been reticent about the revision of the Hadith until now, aware of the controversy it is likely to cause among traditionalist Muslims, but they have spoken to the BBC about the project, and their ambitious aims for it.

The forensic examination of the Hadiths has taken place in Ankara University's School of Theology.

An adviser to the project, Felix Koerner, says some of the sayings - also known individually as "hadiths" - can be shown to have been invented hundreds of years after the Prophet Muhammad died, to serve the purposes of contemporary society.

However, they are also planning on looking at the interpretation of established Hadith, and this is an important step:

But this is where the revolutionary nature of the work becomes apparent. Even some sayings accepted as being genuinely spoken by Muhammad have been altered and reinterpreted.

Well its a start and it has the potential of opening up dialogue about Sharia in the Islamic world. I still think it is interesting that from 8-11th century, these matters could be discussed more openly in the Islamic world. May be if we can remind people that Al-Kindi and Al-Farabi and Ibn-Sina were already arguing about these positions (and a lot more) in the 800s and 900s, then may be that will dampen some controversy.

In the mean time, read the full BBC story here.

High competition at US religious bazaar

We were just recently discussing that the US has created a free religious marketplace and it is now impacting religions worldwide. Just yesterday, Pew Forum released a report, US Religious Landscape Survey, that supports the view of this competitive religious market, at least in the US (also see a NYT article on it). The key result is that there is significant horizontal movement in people's religious affiliations:
More than one-quarter of American adults (28%) have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion - or no religion at all. If change in affiliation from one type of Protestantism to another is included, 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.
This is quite impressive. Furthermore, the numbers of unaffiliated have doubled:
The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
But the whole landscape is very dynamic:

The survey finds that constant movement characterizes the American religious marketplace, as every major religious group is simultaneously gaining and losing adherents. Those that are growing as a result of religious change are simply gaining new members at a faster rate than they are losing members. Conversely, those that are declining in number because of religious change simply are not attracting enough new members to offset the number of adherents who are leaving those particular faiths.

To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition - the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all "religious" groups.

Basically, we are looking at fierce competition at a high pace and those religions that adapt well will survive and others will become marginal within a few decades. Again, the interesting thing would be observe this battle play out internationally - especially in places where a single religion has traditionally been dominant. This is where globalization and internet inroads will play a significant role.

Read the Pew Forum summary report here and you can download the full report here (pdf).

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Taner Edis on Islam, modernity and science - part 2

Here is the second part of the Reasonable Doubts interview with Taner Edis. The first part dealt with Islamic pseudoscience and the differences between Islam & Christianity. This looks at the complexity of treating Muslims and Islam as a monolithic entity. Then there is an excellent discussion over Sam Harris and his severe criticism of Islam. Edis here is spot on in pointing out some sloppy scholarship in Harris' chapter on Islam in his book, The End of Faith, and other problems with his approach. Check out the full podcast here - the interview starts a few minutes into the podcast (also wait till the end for a hilarious news story dealing with a statue of Jesus).

Update: On the topic of Islamic Creationism, here is an article by Taner Edis in the January 2008 newsletter of The History of Science Society: Islamic Creationism: A Short History
(thanks to Don)

See, evil can sometimes be funny

Yes, like the character of Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men (I'm rooting for it to get the best picture Oscar tonight). Its also funny in this very creative history of evil (tip from openculture):


This also gives me an opportunity to post the first episode of Mr. Deity , which showed up over a year ago (I think its now in season 2). This is still one of their funniest episodes and it also nicely illustrates the Problem of evil. In case you missed it, here it is:

Friday, February 22, 2008

Secularism, wealth and religiosity

Is there a connection between religiosity and poverty? There is an excellent article in this month's Atlantic Monthly, pretty much focusing on the above graph. With a few notable exceptions, there definitely is a correlation between low religiosity and high GDP (based on the data from the Pew Global Attitudes Project). Does that translate into causation? Alan Wolfe certainly thinks so and he also believes that overall, secular values are going to be the dominant force. He is careful in not saying that religion itself is going to go away - but that certain secular values will become dominant:
Yet breathless warnings about rising religious fervor and conflicts to come ignore two basic facts. First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal once famously showed that it would be irrational to bet against the existence of God. It would be equally foolish, in the long run, to bet against the power of the Enlightenment. The answer to the question of which religion will dominate the future, at least politically, may well be: None of the above.
In this article he analyzes all of the different regions and finds that Africa is the only place where the predictions of religious conflict may turn out to be true:
We are left, finally, with Africa. Religiosity there is widely regarded as high, perhaps higher than in the Middle East, but it differs in character. It is in Africa where the predictions of an old-fashioned, broad-based religious revival, with all its attendant conflicts, may come closest to the mark. Much of the commentary on religion’s muscle in Africa, and the consequent potential for clashing civilizations, centers on Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country and one in which, Pew found, most of those who perceive a struggle between modernizers and fundamentalists put themselves in the latter camp. In recent years, 12 states in northern Nigeria have adopted sharia, or Islamic law, and created special morality police to enforce its tenets. Eliza Griswold explores Africa’s religious revival, and in particular the subtleties of the contest between Christianity and Islam in Nigeria, elsewhere in this issue. Here, suffice it to say that Africa is indeed in the throes of a great awakening.
But his most interesting comments are about the obvious outlier in the graph - the US (yes, fine, Kuwait is also an outlier...):
Americans are not only more religious than Europeans; they are more religious than the citizens of some Latin American countries. If proof is needed that religion will remain a dominant force in history for a long time to come, the fact that the world’s most affluent society is also well up among the faithful would seem to provide it. When the president says that his decision to invade another country was influenced by a call from God, or when school boards decide to include creationism in their curriculum, it appears safe to conclude that Americans are not living in the world envisioned by Marx or Freud.

But one shouldn’t go overboard in describing American religiosity. For one thing, it is as shallow as it is broad: Americans know relatively little about the histories, the theological controversies, or even the sacred texts of their chosen faiths. Recent decades have seen the rise of the Christian right in the United States, but they have also witnessed the seemingly inexorable advance of secular ideals, such as personal choice and pluralism, that blossomed in the 1960s. Some signs indicate that the Christian right may be losing steam, or at least moderating, as a political force. Nonbelief, meanwhile, is increasing: not only are atheist manifestos selling in large numbers, but the percentage of those who express no religious preference to pollsters doubled between 1990 and 2001, to 15 percent.

Yes, Dawkins is smiling somewhere. But Wolfe's interesting claim is that the US has created a free religious marketplace and that is impacting religions worldwide. Basically, when religions have to compete with others, they have to modify to make themselves modern and appealing. While this may still lead to an increased devotion, it may also have a moderating influence on religions. Thus, it is religious pluralism that is making religions adapt to modern times:

Religious monopolies or near-monopolies, such as state-sponsored churches, generally throttle religious practice over time, especially as a country becomes wealthier; the European experience amply demonstrates this. Lacking any incentive to innovate, churches atrophy, and their congregations dwindle. But places with a free religious marketplace witness something very different: entrepreneurs of the spirit compete to save souls, honing their messages and modulating many of their beliefs so as to appeal to the consumer. With more options to choose from, more consumers find something they like, and the ranks of the religious grow.

And that is where the First Amendment comes into place, but more for the protection of religion from the government:

But secularism is not the opposite of belief; nonbelief is. Indeed, secularism has religious, specifically Christian, roots; it renders unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, while leaving to God what properly belongs in his realm. John Locke argued as much in A Letter Concerning Toleration, first published in 1689: genuine salvation, he wrote, can never be achieved through governmental coercion. In contemporary societies influenced by Lockean ideals, then, religion’s priority of belief and secularism’s commitment to individual rights are not in opposition; rather, they complement each other. It was once thought that the First Amendment was written to protect public life from the depredations of religious orthodoxy. It is now commonly accepted that the Founders also separated church and state in order to protect religion from government.

Even in non-secular societies, globalization and broad internet access is providing exposure to other religions and cultures. While it produces a reactionary elements also, Wolfe believes that overall it will have a moderating influence, and I think he is right. Towards the end of the article he makes an important distinction between religious intensity and fanaticism:
The world will never be rid of fanaticism; globalization is just as capable of disseminating extreme ideas as it is of advancing moderation. But fanaticism should not be confused with religious intensity. One can pray passionately to God and lead an otherwise balanced life, just as one can be monomaniacal about things having nothing to do with the divine.
And hopefully he is right about the increasing influence of secularism:
We have seen how rapidly religion has spread in the past, claiming adherents from competing faiths before the competition knew what hit them. Both secularism and secularly inspired ways of being religious are spreading just as rapidly—maybe even more so. Historians may one day look back on the next few decades, not as yet another era when religious conflicts enveloped countries and blew apart established societies, but as the era when secularization took over the world.
While one can nitpick over details, overall though, this is an excellent article with some bold and interesting claims. Read the full article here.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Of lizards and whales

On a cold day in Massachusetts, it is good to hear Richard Dawkins on lava lizards of the Galapagos:


And here is a fantastic excerpt about whale evolution from the PBS show, Evolution:


(tip for both from richarddawkins.net)

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Belief in God: Nature or Nurture?

Why do we believe in God? (and how much are we willing to spend to find out the answer?) Well at least there is one group now with a big grant to address this question:
Researchers at the University of Oxford will spend £1.9 million investigating why people believe in God. Academics have been given a grant to try to find out whether belief in a deity is a matter of nature or nurture.
Yes, it is funded by the Templeton Foundation, but the project looks great. And fortunately, they are not trying to show if God really exists or not - just the belief in God (which definitely exists):

They will not attempt to solve the question of whether God exists but they will examine evidence to try to prove whether belief in God conferred an evolutionary advantage to mankind. They will also consider the possibility that faith developed as a byproduct of other human characteristics, such as sociability.

Researchers at the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion and the Centre for Anthropology and Mind in Oxford will use the cognitive science disciplines to develop “a scientific approach to why we believe in God and other issues around the nature and origin of religious belief”.

The project can be boiled down to this:

He compared believers to three-year-olds who “assume that other people know almost everything there is to be known”. Dr Barrett, who is a Christian, is the editor of the Journal of Cognition and Cultureand author of the book Why Would Anyone Believe in God? He said that the childish tendency to believe in the omniscience of others was pared down by experience as people grew up. But this tendency, necessary to allow human beings to socialise and cooperate with each other in a productive way, continued when it came to belief in God.

“It usually does continue into adult life,” he said. “It is easy, it is intuitive, it is natural. It fits our default assumptions about things.”

The research will feed into other areas, such as whether the conflicts associated with religion are a product of human nature. The project will also examine whether belief in the afterlife is something that needs to be taught or is a product of natural selection.

Dr Barrett said: “The next step therefore is to look at some of the detailed questions� which religious beliefs are most common and most natural for the human mind to grasp?” The most exciting questions were in areas such as the different responses to polytheism and monotheism, for example, and relationships between religion and evolutionary biology.

More than the God question, it is the latter specific questions that are really interesting. Read the full story here (tip from richarddawkins.net). Also for a review of the topic, read this excellent article from New York Times Magazine: Darwin's God.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Execution expected after a witch-trial in Saudi Arabia

This would be absurdly funny if a human life was not at stake. Saudi Arabia is planning to execute a woman for practicing witchcraft. She appears to have run out of legal options and now the only hope is an intervention by King Abdullah. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has directly appealed to the King for stopping this execution:
The court in Quraiyat, on April 2, 2006 (3/3/1427), sentenced her to death by beheading for the alleged crimes of ““witchcraft, recourse to jinn [supernatural beings], and slaughter” of animals.

Your Highness, the conviction of Fawza Falih for “witchcraft” is a travesty of justice and reveals severe shortcomings in Saudi Arabia’s justice system. The crime of “witchcraft” is not defined by law; judges breached safeguards for a fair trial in existing Saudi law; and there were significant procedural flaws throughout the trial which effectively eradicated her ability to defend herself against the ill-defined charges against her.
So how did the court decide that this is indeed a solid case of "witchcraft"? And you would assume, that since its practice results in capital punishment (!!!), the court would have an ironclad case for proving witchcraft (and in doing so, they may also win James Randi's million dollar award for proving paranormal activity beyond a reasonable doubt). According to the HRW letter:
First, it is not clear what the actual elements if any of the crime of “witchcraft” are, and the offence is not defined in Saudi law. As you know, Saudi Arabia does not have a written penal code that spells out the elements of a given crime. The accusation of witchcraft appears to have been based upon a broad, vague concept, which cannot be said to constitute “law”. Under international human rights law, persons suspected of crimes may only be charged with offenses as established by law, and which are sufficiently clear so that everyone has the possibility to understand clearly what behavior it is that will cause them to violate that law.

Furthermore, in addition to the lack of a clear definition of “witchcraft” in Saudi law and the absence of a written penal code in which to search for such a definition, the judges in the court of Quraiyat did not define the meaning of “witchcraft”, but instead cited a variety of alleged actions, stated intentions, and “tools” for “witchcraft” in a weak attempt to suggest that “witchcraft” had indeed taken place. The court cited one instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being “bewitched.” In another, a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by the witch said to have cast the spell. The court failed to probe alternative explanations for these developments which appear to be ordinary phenomena. Indeed drawing on the illustrations cited by the courts, it is evident that the practice of “witchcraft”, if it exists, is by its nature impossible to prove, since it involves the alleged use of supernatural powers.
Even medieval witch trials required more evidence than what is being used in 21st century Saudi Arabia (for more, here is a wikipedia entry on witch trials).

Fawza Falih is illiterate and the religious police first beat her and then forced to have her fingerprint on a false confession (without even reading it to her). An appeals court halted her execution, but later Saudi court decided that she should be put to death to “protect the creed, souls and property of this country”. (WTF ??!)

Read her full story here. I'm glad that Saudi Arabia's creed will be protected by this execution. But what creed are they exactly talking about? Lets seriously hope that some sanity prevails and King Abdullah halts this absurd execution. But it should be clear that this would not count as any favor or kindness on his part. Decency and any shred of humanity would demand at least this minimum action. in case you are wondering when was the last time the King intervened with the country's courts - just this past December (from Times online):
The last time he issued such a pardon was in December, for an 18-year-old girl from Qatif who was sentenced to lashes after she was gang-raped.

Her sentence was reversed in response to a chorus of international protest, which included rare criticism from Washington, Saudi Arabia’s long-time ally.

Dear King Abdullah:
As you can clearly see, several components of your judicial system are simply repulsive. After this pardon, please revamp the system so it is no longer a stain on human decency and a blatant assault on logic & human reasoning.

sincerely,
The rest of the world.

Update: And here is a CNN report on the case:

Knowledge-Schmowledge: Proud anti-intellectualism on television

Alright. Get your barf-bags ready again. There is a new inductee in the Sherri Shepherd hall of ignorance (in case you don't remember, Sherri Shepherd is unclear about the shape of the Earth, and believes that history started with Christianity and was surprised to hear about the Romans). This is a clip from Are you smarter than a 5th grader?:


Yikes!!! (and sexist jokes are just part of the gravy)

This clip was the starting point of New York Times article, Are Americans hostile to knowledge? It talks about a number of new books on the topic but focuses on The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby:

But now, Ms. Jacoby said, something different is happening: anti-intellectualism (the attitude that “too much learning can be a dangerous thing”) and anti-rationalism (“the idea that there is no such things as evidence or fact, just opinion”) have fused in a particularly insidious way.

Not only are citizens ignorant about essential scientific, civic and cultural knowledge, she said, but they also don’t think it matters.

She pointed to a 2006 National Geographic poll that found nearly half of 18- to 24-year-olds don’t think it is necessary or important to know where countries in the news are located. So more than three years into the Iraq war, only 23 percent of those with some college could locate Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Israel on a map.

Ok...then. We are all set for the future. Read the full article here.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Taner Edis on Islam, modernity and science

Here is a Reasonable Doubts podcast interview that deals with science and (Islamic) pseudoscience in the Islamic world. There is also a good discussion of the differences between Islam and Christianity when tackling issues of modern science. Taner Edis is the author of An Illusion of Harmony: Science and religion in Islam, which is an excellent introduction to the topic (he also has a blog, The Secular Outpost). Here is the link to the podcast and his interview starts a few minutes into the podcast. The second part of the interview is not available yet, but it will discuss some of the blistering criticisms of Islam (for example, by Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc) and the apologist end of the spectrum. I will provide a link when its available.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Grace: A faith and atheism dialogue on stage

There have been a series of good recent plays that have tackled the complex issues of faith and reason on stage. Darwin's struggle with religion were depicted in Trumpery and more recently, Spinoza's atheism was the center piece in New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656. Now here is another play, Grace, that depicts an atheist mother in dialogue with her son who wants to become an Episcopal priest:
Grace, commandingly played by Lynn Redgrave, is a professor of natural science who appears to spend most of her classroom hours ridiculing the notion of intelligent design and giving rousing speeches denouncing religious fanaticism. Her atheism — oops, sorry Grace — her “naturalism” is sorely tested when her son, Tom (Oscar Isaac), reveals that he has decided to give up the practice of law to become an Episcopal priest. Grace’s fire-breathing response suggests that she would rather hear that he had opted for the white slave trade.
While the review is a bit lukeworm, the play still seems interesting (and it has a superb cast of actors). It is written by a combination of a playwright (Mike Gordon) and a philosopher (AC Grayling) and appears to tackle some of the science & religion issues seriously:

The important moment in which Tom announces his decision to his parents is, frustratingly, elided in the play’s overly fussy structure. But soon he and Grace are squaring off in heated debates about the possibility (or lack thereof) of blending faith and reason, and the best way to combat the perilous rise of fanaticism.

Grace, who initially dismisses Tom’s calling as a form of “teenage revenge,” later accuses him of complicity in the rising tide of faith-fueled conflict. “Your language and your beliefs provide the context in which Scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed,” she lectures.

Tom retorts: “You’re never going to turn the world’s religious into atheists. If that’s what you’re trying to do, you’re going to lose. The best we can hope for is to turn bad, violent religion into better religion, and that’s what I’m trying to do.”

and as for the relationship between the mother and her son:
Ms. Redgrave, her captivating blue eyes glittering with righteousness, delivers Grace’s orations with a fine ferocity. She has a bravura scene in the play’s last moments, as Grace’s carapace cracks to reveal the wounded, desperate mother beneath the carefully maintained armature of the intellectual. But all the humanity in the performance seems to be cordoned off into this scene; earlier intimations that Grace is not just appalled but also anguished at her son’s decision would give the play more nuance.

There is also a mention of The Matrix in the play in reference to religion (huh??). But I guess, I'll have to see the play to make any comments on that. Its playing at the Lucille Lortel Theater (NYC) until March 8th.

Read the full review here.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

A Scientology round up: Cruise, spoof and hackers

Here is a round-up of Scientology related disaster news and views. Of course, the latest round of PR disaster started when the Church of Scientology tried to remove Tom Cruise's (creepy?) celebration of Scientology video from the internet website gawker.com. Now a group of cyber-hackers, called Anonymous, have decided to retaliate against the Church. (Its not all gloomy for the Church - Will Smith recently became a Scientologist - nooo!!). So here is a collection of different Scientology related items in one post.

First a summary from a Newsweek article about Anomymous:
These are unfriendly times to be a Scientologist. In December, Germany's Interior Ministry moved to ban the organization, which has tax-exempt religious status in the United States. In January, St. Martin's Press published Andrew Morton's salacious unauthorized biography of Tom Cruise, which describes the star as its de facto second in command. The church responded with a 15-page statement, calling the book "a bigoted, defamatory assault replete with lies" and saying Cruise "is a Scientology parishioner and holds no official or unofficial position in the Church hierarchy." Jenna Hill Miscavige, a niece of church leader David Miscavige who left the fold in 2005, this week came out in support of Morton and slammed the organization for, among other things, its practice of "disconnection--essentially severing contact with family members seen as hostile to the group.
Anonymous was planning its attack for today (Sunday) and here is a bit more about them:

Now, a loose-knit consortium of hackers and activists calling itself "Anonymous" has declared "war" on the organization. In a creepy YouTube clip addressed to the "leaders of Scientology," a robotic voice announces "with the leakage of your latest propaganda video into mainstream circulation, the extent of your malign influence over those who trust you as leaders has been made clear to us. Anonymous has therefore decided that your organization should be destroyed." (The clip has been viewed more than 2 million times since it was posted Jan. 21.)

The attack, says Anonymous, was spurred at least in part by what they consider to be the latest example of the church's secretive and litigious nature. Earlier this year, an internal 2004 church interview with Tom Cruise was leaked online. The actor, who called being a Scientologist a "blast," was seen railing against the practice of psychiatry and boasting, among other things, "we are the authorities of the mind ... we can bring peace and unite communities." The church attempted to have the videos taken down from the gossip site Gawker, claiming the material was copyrighted, selectively edited and that Cruise's performance was meant for private consumption. It's an argument that does have legal merit.
Read the full article here.

It has been tricky to deal with Scientology. I have been of the opinion that Scientology has perhaps been singled out unfairly (I have a soft spot for most UFO religions - c'mon...how can you not like Unarians and their Interplanetary Concave of Light celebration??). The German ban on Scientology, especially, seemed a bit extreme and raised the question of how do you really differentiate between cults and religions and who gets to decide that? Perhaps the focus should be on certain practices of a cult or a religion (why should mainstream religions escape that criticism?). I don't know if this was made pubic, but Germany should have provided a list of explicit complaints about Scientology. This can lead to explicit debate about specific practices - such as Disconnection or whether they prevent access to certain essential medicine, etc. Even then, one can ban certain practices and not necessarily the entire religion (for example, polygamy in the US for Mormons). If they don't comply, then impose a ban - but let them have freedom of practice of their religion.

That said, some of the concerns I had were answered in this excellent Point of Inquiry podcast interview with a former Scientology member, Tory Christman. I really liked the questions that the host of the show, D.J. Grothe, raised, especially about the reasons for singling out Scientology. I don't think all of the questions were answered, but still, the interview provided a good snapshot of the organization and reasons to be worried about it. Here is the interview: Anti-Science Scientology?

And now back to Tom Cruise video. Of course, within days it also generated spoofs. Here is one by Jerry O'Connell (but to appreciate it, please first see the original Tom Cruise video).

Friday, February 08, 2008

A new book on the Muslim conquest of Spain and Al-Andalus

Last week's New Yorker has a nice long review of David Levering Lewis's God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215 (if you have time, please read the full review). Apart from analyzing the book (she has some quibbles, but likes it overall), the review does a great job of summarizing some key aspects of Islamic Al-Andalus years in southern Spain:
In any case, however much Muhammad’s immediate successors may have struggled with their souls, they also, in the eighty-some years following his death, conquered Syria, Egypt, North Africa, Anatolia, Iraq, and Persia. By the beginning of the eighth century, Muslim forces stood at the northwest corner of Africa. There, only the Strait of Gibraltar, nine miles wide, separated them from the Iberian Peninsula. Iberia at that time was ruled by the Visigoths, a Christian people who did their best to wipe out other religions within their territory—Judaism, for example. There is some evidence that the Iberian Jews invited the Muslims to invade. In 711, they did so. The state that they established in Iberia, and maintained for almost four centuries, is the subject of David Levering Lewis’s “God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570 to 1215”
Lewis actually claims that Muslim armies did a favor to Europe by invading the continent:
The Muslims came to Europe, he writes, as “the forward wave of civilization that was, by comparison with that of its enemies, an organic marvel of coordinated kingdoms, cultures, and technologies in service of a politico-cultural agenda incomparably superior” to that of the primitive people they encountered there. They did Europe a favor by invading. This is not a new idea, but Lewis takes it further: he clearly regrets that the Arabs did not go on to conquer the rest of Europe. The halting of their advance was instrumental, he writes, in creating “an economically retarded, balkanized, and fratricidal Europe that . . . made virtues out of hereditary aristocracy, persecutory religious intolerance, cultural particularism, and perpetual war.” It was “one of the most significant losses in world history and certainly the most consequential since the fall of the Roman Empire.” This is a bold hypothesis.
She sets the book in the context of post colonial writing and a reaction to anti-Islam sentiment after 9/11. Thus, she says, Lewis focuses on the multi-culti component of Spain under Islamic rule, especially under the reign of Abd al Rehman I who took over in 756:
Rahman was the founder of Muslim Spain’s famous convivencia. Translated literally, the word means “living together,” in spite of differences, and this idea is the burning center of “God’s Crucible.” I think it is the reason that Lewis chose to write about Muslim Spain. He is not an Arabist. He is best known for a two-volume biography of W. E. B. Du Bois (1993 and 2000), which won two Pulitzer Prizes, one for each volume. But that book, if it is not about Arabs, is about racial justice, and it is for the furtherance of such justice that Lewis so admires Rahman. Nevertheless, as he points out, the convivencia had its limits. It was not just a humane policy—an act of obedience to the Koran (“There shall be no compulsion in religion”) and a way of being civilized—but also a matter of Realpolitik. Iberia was a ragbag of religious and ethnic groups. Tolerance, what we would now call multiculturalism, was more likely to hold them together than forced conversion. Furthermore, the convivencia never involved complete equality. In the early years, a number of restrictions were placed on Jews and Christians. They had to wear identification badges. They could not proselytize, and they were required to pray quietly. Their houses could not be taller than Muslims’ houses. Most important, they had to pay a heavy tax, called the jizya. In time, many of these rules (not including the tax) fell away. Jews, especially, were allowed to enter public service, as scribes, clerks, advisers. They taught the Muslims how to run a government, Lewis writes. The golden age of Al Andalus, he says, was also the golden age of Sefarad, the Sephardic Jews. But even those who did not have brilliant careers no doubt found badges and taxes preferable to forced conversion or death. Eventually, many Jews and Christians did convert—probably, in many cases, to avoid the tax. At the end of the eighth century, the vast majority of people in Iberia were Christians. Two hundred years later, the majority were Muslims.
After talking about Charlemagne and the later fall of the Franks, the review returns to the intellectual and artistic contributions of Al-Andalus. I like the connection of Averroes and Maimonides to Thomas Aquinas and to the development of Greek thought in western Europe:
Instead, he turns to Muslim Spain’s contributions to learning, which peaked as its political situation was declining. Architecture continued to flourish (the Alhambra, in Granada, was begun in the thirteenth century), as did music, poetry, science, and mathematics. It is thanks to Muslim Spain that we no longer have to cope with Roman numerals. Paper-making technology was imported from China. The central library of Córdoba housed four hundred thousand volumes. But Al Andalus’s most lasting cultural achievement was its translation and elaboration of ancient Greek texts. In the tenth century, the physician Hasdai ibn Shaprut supervised an Arabic translation of the Greek De Materia Medica, by Dioscorides, a surgeon to the Roman army in the first century. Retranslated into Latin, this treatise was a standard medical reference until the Enlightenment. In the twelfth century, Averroës (Ibn Rushd) wrote his commentaries on Aristotle, and Moses Maimonides (Musa ibn Mayum) produced his Aristotle-inflected “Guide to the Perplexed.” Both these Córdoban philosophers took on the task of reconciling reason with faith, of proving that there was a God. For the Christian world, that job would be done by the Scholastics, above all by St. Thomas Aquinas, whose writings were the basis of European philosophy from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. But Aquinas relied heavily on Averroës’s reading of Aristotle. Insofar as Western culture grew out of Greek culture, and became “classical,” it did so because the scholars of Al Andalus transmitted Greek thought to western Europe.

By the twelfth century, though, such thought was dangerous in Spain. (Averroës’s books were burned; some were lost permanently.) It was more dangerous on the part of Jews, like Maimonides. He died in exile, bitterly reproaching his homeland for its abandonment of liberal ideas. (Here one thinks of the European Jews of the nineteen-thirties.) With the deaths of those two men, the lights go out in “God’s Crucible.”
This is an excellent review. I have only extracted out aspects that are relevant to the blog. But if you have time, read the full article and you will get a nice historical perspective of the time period and (obviously) a fuller critique of the book.

Another damning report on poor Arab education standards

Well, this is not exactly a shocker, but there is a new World Bank report out bemoaning the declining standards of education in the Arab world.
In its report, the World Bank issued a stark warning about the need for better education in the Arab world.

It said that although education was becoming more accessible and the gender gap was being reduced, the region had not witnessed the positive changes seen in Asia and Latin America, particularly in literacy rates and enrolments in secondary schools and universities.

And this is where the unemployment timebomb kicks in:

Mr Muasher said educational reform went hand in hand with economic development, especially given the region's extremely high youth population.

"It's a very youthful region - 60% of the region's population is under 30 years of age, close to 100m new jobs will need to be created over the next 10 to 15 years in the Arab world," he explained.

And for an idea of the level of illiteracy rate in Middle East:

Another study carried out in January by the Tunis-based Arab League Educational Cultural and Scientific Organisation found that 30% of the approximately 300 million people in the Arab World were illiterate.

Actually, this is better than what I had expected. For example, Pakistan's literacy rate is around 50% in a population of 170 million. Yikes!!! And this is a very generous estimate - literacy is counted as the ability to write one's own name.

Read the full story here. You can also download pdf of the World Bank report (with a lively title): The road not traveled - Education reform in the Middle East and North Africa.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

Gods before Zeus

There is an interesting story in today's New York Times about archaeological evidence pointing to the worship of deities before Zeus took over for the Greeks.
Before Zeus hurled his first thunderbolt from Olympus, the pre-Greek people occupying the land presumably paid homage and offered sacrifices to their own gods and goddesses, whose nature and identities are unknown to scholars today.

But archaeologists say they have now found the ashes, bones and other evidence of animal sacrifices to some pre-Zeus deity on the summit of Mount Lykaion, in the region of Greece known as Arcadia. The remains were uncovered last summer at an altar later devoted to Zeus.

Fragments of a coarse, undecorated pottery in the debris indicated that the sacrifices might have been made as early as 3000 B.C., the archaeologists concluded. That was about 900 years before Greek-speaking people arrived, probably from the north in the Balkans, and brought their religion with them.

The excavators were astonished. They were digging in a sanctuary to Zeus, in Greek mythology the father of gods and goddesses. From texts in Linear B, an ancient form of Greek writing, Zeus is attested as a pre-eminent god as early as 1400 B.C. By some accounts, the birthplace of Zeus was on the heights of Lykaion.

After reviewing the findings of pottery experts, geologists and other archaeologists, David Gilman Romano of the University of Pennsylvania concluded that material at the Lykaion altar “suggests that the tradition of devotion to some divinity on that spot is very ancient” and “very likely predates the introduction of Zeus in the Greek world.”

Of course, it gets a bit more complicated as victorious groups would appropriate gods (and their places of worships) of the defeated group and rename them. This would be symbolic of dominance and, at the same time, allow for an easier transition to the new god.
“You have some god being worshiped on a mountaintop, and the arriving Greeks have translated the god as ‘Zeus,’ their god of the sky, lightning, weather and so on,” Dr. Dowden said. “It’s going to be pretty close to what they found there, and given the site, it makes very good sense.”The affinities of Roman gods and goddesses to earlier Greek ones are well known. Jupiter, for example, is a virtual stand-in for Zeus. In antiquity it was perhaps no heresy to have different names for the same deity.
And monotheistic religions later did the same. Hence the appropriation of many pagan traditions by Christians (for example, Christmas may have been appropriated from the Roman festival of Sol Invictus) and of Arab polytheistic traditions by Islam (for example, Allah was the name of the supreme deity worshiped by pagans in pre-Islamic Arabia). Back to the Mount Lykaion discovery:

Dr. Nordquist said that she preferred the explanation that the Lykaion site was indeed used as a cult sanctuary in the time before Zeus. Little is known of the pre-Greek inhabitants, but some scholars think they originated in what is now western Turkey.

“We do not yet know exactly how the altar was first used in this early period, 3000-2000 B.C., or whether it was used in connection with natural phenomena such as wind, rain, lightning or earthquakes, possibly to worship some kind of divinity, male or female, or a personification representing forces of nature,” Dr. Romano said. “But this is what we are thinking at this moment.”

Read the full story here.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Communicating evolution through animation - old and the new

I'm back from the conference and have barely survived a grueling teaching day. So things will soon get to normal here on the blog.

Here is a video showing evolution in 5 minutes and 48 seconds (tip from openculture)



I'm not sure how useful this video is. Perhaps with an audio track it becomes amazing, but it seems to show without much motivation (especially towards the latter part). The timing clock, though, is good. In contrast check out this simple animation from Sagan's Cosmos and see how effective this is:


and of course, somebody had a brilliant idea of combining Sagan's words and animation with the more recent one (top) for an interesting result:


Enjoy!

Friday, February 01, 2008

Pope on the offensive again - this time on stem cells research

The blog postings have been a bit slow as I'm at an astronomy conference (The evolution of galaxies through the neutral hydrogen window) in Puerto Rico and the internet access has not been very reliable (but oh...I'm indeed missing the frigid temperatures of Massachusetts at this time of the year). In the mean time it seems that Pope is really getting on the offensive against science. First, the text from his undelivered La Sapienza speech basically claimed that science (and philosophy) cannot really succeed without faith/religion. Now he is going after (embryonic) stem cells research and he wants the Church to stand up for human dignity. Ok...this will require some clarification:
Pope Benedict said on Thursday that embryonic stem cell research, artificial insemination and the prospect of human cloning had "shattered" human dignity.
and how exactly this delicate dignity got shattered?

He said this included total respect for the human being as a person "from conception until natural death," and respect for the natural transmission of life through sexual intercourse.

Practices like freezing embryos, suppression of embryos in multiple pregnancies, embryonic stem cell research, the prospect of human cloning and artificial insemination outside the body had "shattered the barriers meant to protect human dignity", he said.

Yes, only natural life and natural death. None of this intervention by some medicine crap that screws up the natural possibilities of early death and other nasty diseases. Actually he does support adult stem cells research, but I don't know if even that our dignity will be able to handle it.

Lets embrace for more Papal attacks on science. Read the full story here (tip from faithworld).