Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pray that Marianne Williamson never gets published again

Dear God,
Please protect newspapers and magazines from publishing any of Marianne Williamson's idiotic articles, ever.

Ahmm. Here is an idiotic article by Marianne Williamson in the Huffington Post (!!) - Pray Away the Swine Flu:

Dear God,
Please take away the swine flu.

According to Martin Luther King, Jr. there is a power in us more powerful than the power of bullets.

King knew that that power was the power of the Spirit. Call it a religious power, a spiritual power, the power of consciousness or whatever - it has to do with the power of the mind, joined with the power of a Divine Creator.

So don't be fooled when it comes to this conversation about the swine flu. This flu wasn't created on the level of the body, because no disease is. It was created on the level of the mind, and it is there that we will root it out at the causal level.
And what is the cause?
For weeks, millions of people have been convinced by the media -- based on endless reports about the drug cartels -- that "Mexico is a dangerous place." It is a basic truism of spiritual philosophy that, as it is written in A Course in Miracles, "all thought creates form on some level." You get enough people agreeing in consciousness that Mexico is a dangerous place, and that dangerous thought will make it so.

So does that mean the media shouldn't have reported about the drug cartels? Absolutely not. But it does bear noting that today's media seems to have abdicated any sense of perspective, grabbing always for the most sensationalized, fear-producing angle of any story. And we should try to filter the fear thoughts than can get into our minds as assiduously as we try to filter the germs that can get into our bodies.
By the way, if media reporting was the case, the disease produced out of Pakistan would have already resulted in a mass-extinction. Oh - wait. The dinos didn't really die because of a comet impact. Instead, they were just not thinking enough positive thoughts. Publish!

If you have a high tolerance of BS, read this piece of crap here.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Skeletal remains and the issue of cultural affiliation

What to do when modern science contradicts cultural claims based on oral traditions? This was the case over the Kennewick Man. Now, here is another case (from Science - Apr 17, 2009):
Officials at the University of California, San Diego, have withdrawn a request to the federal government to rebury 10,000-year-old skeletal remains unearthed on UCSD property.

The bones were found in 1976 near the chancellor's house in San Diego, and they're even "older and better preserved" than Kennewick Man, says UCSD anthropologist Margaret Schoeninger. In 2006, the local American Indian group, the Kumeyaay nation, requested the bones for reburial. Two university committees ruled against the request, saying there is no evidence of cultural affiliation with living groups, as the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) requires. Nonetheless, UCSD officials decided to hand over the bones.

Now they've withdrawn that request--not because of loud protests that came from anthropologists but because the Kumeyaay don't like the wording, according to a UCSD statement. Kumeyaay leaders objected last week to UCSD's calling the remains culturally unidentifiable--an acknowledgment that could hurt their cause in this and future cases before the NAGPRA review committee, which meets in Seattle, Washington, in May.
But it all boils down to how to define cultural affiliation. The UC system, actually, has an extensive procedure in place to determine cultural affiliation (this bit from a story from Nature):

Currently, decisions about cultural affiliation are made by a panel of scientists - typically including a Native American - at each campus. Campus actions are then reviewed by a nine-person University of California panel, which includes two Native Americans, before a final decision is reached. But in September, the office of Mark Yudof, the president of the University of California, initiated discussions about possibly eliminating the system-wide committee.

Four prominent University of California anthropologists wrote a letter to Yudof on 30 September, strenuously objecting to the proposed change. They include Phillip Walker and Michael Glassow of the University of California, Santa Barbara; Robert Bettinger of the University of Californa, Davis; and Philip Wilke of the University of California, Riverside. “It is counterproductive to devolve final decision-making authority to the often inexperienced and legally ill-informed level of the local campus,” says the letter. In an interview, Bettinger said that the system-wide panel serves as a vital form of peer review.

It seems that from a scientific perspective, its not looking good for the tribes:
Schoeninger, co-director of the UCSD Working Group that reviewed the original request, reported at the annual meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists in Chicago, Illinois, last week that her lab's analysis of the bones indicated a marine diet, suggesting the bones were from coastal inhabitants rather than from the desert-dwelling Kumeyaay. Besides, she says, other evidence suggests the Kumeyaay moved into the region just 2000 years ago.
So we come back to the issue of evaluating these claims. If we talk purely about evidence, then sure enough, science presents a clear cut case: the bones could not possibly be of any ancestor of Kumeyaay tribe. However, values associated with cultural stories often move beyond the simple accuracy of claims, and are usually tied to the very identity of the tribe itself. I have my sympathies with the scientists - there is a lot to learn from the skeletal remains - but we must also understand and acknowledge the loss for the tribe.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A friendlier atheism

Today's NYT has a good article about the growing number of atheists in the US:

More than ever, America’s atheists are linking up and speaking out — even here in South Carolina, home to Bob Jones University, blue laws and a legislature that last year unanimously approved a Christian license plate embossed with a cross, a stained glass window and the words “I Believe” (a move blocked by a judge and now headed for trial).

They are connecting on the Internet, holding meet-ups in bars, advertising on billboards and buses, volunteering at food pantries and picking up roadside trash, earning atheist groups recognition on adopt-a-highway signs.

They liken their strategy to that of the gay-rights movement, which lifted off when closeted members of a scorned minority decided to go public.
Now this last point is interesting. Indeed, this is an apt comparison and it has been made before. But that got me thinking about the aggressive New Atheists (Hitchens, Harris, and Dawkins). I think the comparison with them breaks down - because they not only talk about bringing atheism to the mainstream but they also go in an all-out against all religions (I guess, equating religious upbringing with child abuse may qualify as an attack). This is as if gay-rights activists not only demanded equal rights for gay couples, but also called all heterosexual marriages immoral. I don't know if such a strategy would have garnered the kind of broad support for equal rights that we see today. That said, I do think that Dawkins and Dennett were essential in bringing atheism to mainstream debates - but I'm not sure about any continuing positive influence of Hitchens or Harris or Dawkins' child-abuse statements. Wisely, the NYT points to a more gentle form of atheism:
At the University of South Carolina, in Columbia, 19 students showed up for a recent evening meeting of the “Pastafarians,” named for the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster — a popular spoof on religion dreamed up by an opponent of intelligent design, the idea that living organisms are so complex that the best explanation is that a higher intelligence designed them.
In keeping with the new generation of atheist evangelists, the Pastafarian leaders say that their goal is not confrontation, or even winning converts, but changing the public’s stereotype of atheists. A favorite Pastafarian activity is to gather at a busy crossroads on campus with a sign offering “Free Hugs” from “Your Friendly Neighborhood Atheist.”
Read the full article here. On a similar note, here is a review of Losing my Religion by William Lobdell:
There are many great books about finding God. But there are far fewer books, great or otherwise, about finding and then losing God. So “Losing My Religion,” by William Lobdell, a former religion writer for The Los Angeles Times, feels powerfully fresh. It is the tale of being born again in his adulthood, then almost 20 years later deciding that Christianity is untrue. Today Lobdell prefers the God of Jefferson or Einstein, “a deity that can be seen in the miracles of nature.” While Lobdell never entirely rejects belief in the supernatural, his humane, even-tempered book does more to advance the cause of irreligion than the bilious atheist tracts by Christopher Hitchens and others that have become so common. And Lobdell’s self-deprecating memoir is far more fun to read.
To Lobdell, it began to seem not just that religious institutions were no better than secular ones, but that sometimes they were much worse. After all, school systems and Little Leagues don’t defend molesters as tenaciously as the Catholic Church did, and parents aren’t as reluctant to believe the worst about teachers and coaches. It was precisely the cultivation of religious awe — with its traditions, rituals and ceremonies — that made priests seem holy, and thus allowed so much evil to go unreported or disbelieved. At times, Lobdell’s homely, down-to-earth prose and intellectual modesty obscure the import of what he’s saying. His explication of religion’s capacity for evil is far subtler than the simplistic atheist line that “religions cause wars,” but he doesn’t seem to know it.
And I like the way the review ends:
“I do miss my faith,” he writes, “as I’d miss any longtime love.” But “I like my life on this unexplored shore. It’s new, exciting and full of possibilities.” Lobdell is quite a rarity: an unembittered divorcé, grateful for the marriage and just as grateful for what lies ahead.
Read the full review here.

Swine flu: Is it Halal?

Ha! Our friend Tom Heneghan at FaithWorld points out that Swine flu, it seems, is not kosher in Israel. But then he wonders, is it halal in the Muslim world? Good question.

This is the story that prompted him to ask this question:

Our Jerusalem bureau had this interesting little story today about the swine flu outbreak:

Swine flu not kosher in Israel
JERUSALEM, April 27 (Reuters) - Swine flu? Not in the Jewish state.

“We will call it Mexico flu. We won’t call it swine flu,” Deputy Health Minister Yakov Litzman, a black-garbed Orthodox Jew, told a news conference on Monday, assuring the Israeli public that authorities were prepared to handle any cases.

Under Jewish dietary laws, pigs are considered unclean and pork is forbidden food — although non-kosher meat is available in some stores in Israel.

If swine flu isn’t kosher, then it probably wouldn’t be halal either. So is swine flu being renamed anywhere in the Muslim world?

NB: The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website advises: “You can not get swine influenza from eating pork or pork products.”

Well...I just checked both English (Dawn) and Urdu (Jang) newspapers in Pakistan - and they still seem to be swine. I haven't checked local newspapers in Swat - but then the Taliban probably don't believe in the germ-theory of disease to begin with :)

Any news, how it is being reported in other Muslim countries?

P.S. This is no joking matter. The WHO has raised its alert level and the death toll from the flu in Mexico is now 149.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Turkish Gulen schools under scrutiny in Central Asia

Recently we had some indirect discussion about the impact of Gulen schools in Turkey. These schools are also getting quite popular in Pakistan (but, unlike Turkey, they are considered moderate in Pakistan). But the question is, do these schools have an underlying political agenda? Well...I know that opinion is quite divided about it - and I'm not sure if there is any clear-cut answer. In any case, here is an article about these schools in Central Asia:
The first so-called Turkish schools in Central Asia were founded in the mid-1990s. Turkish educational institutions there -- as well as in countries from Russia to North America -- were set up by the Gulen movement led by Turkish Islamic scholar and author Fethullah Gulen. Gulen is a Sunni Muslim who advocates tolerance and dialogue among different religions.

More than 65 Turkish educational institutions were once operating in Uzbekistan alone. There are some 25 Turkish schools, including boarding schools and two universities, in neighboring Kyrgyzstan. Tajikistan has six such institutions.

Throughout Central Asia, Turkish schools are known for their strict educational methods and discipline and are highly regarded by students and parents.

The majority of national and regional education contests are won by Turkish lyceum students. Easily passing English-language tests, many graduates win scholarships to Western universities.

Parents go to great lengths to enroll their children in Turkish schools, hoping such education will guarantee bright futures for them.
So far so good. And there is a consensus that the quality of education is quite good and it prepares students for the modern world. But what about its ideology?
Yet, Turkish educational institutions have come under increasing scrutiny in Central Asia. Governments as well as many scholars and journalists suspect that the schools have more than just education on their agendas.

In Turkmenistan, education authorities have ordered Turkish lyceums to scrap the history of religion from curriculums.

In the only Persian-speaking country in the region, Tajikstan, the government, as well as academics, are wary of the possible spread of pan-Turkic ideas. They fear that these schools promote Turkish influence and the Turkish language in their country.

However, it is Uzbekistan that has taken the toughest stance toward Turkish schools. In 1999, Tashkent closed all Turkish lyceums after its relationship with Ankara turned sour.
Uzbek officials have expressed suspicions that Turkish-school graduates in government offices and other key institutions use their positions to weaken the secular government. They charge that graduates of Turkish schools promote an aggressive form of Islam and even a role for Islam in political life.
Aah...but I think it will still be difficult to clearly sort through all sorts of political motivations from both sides:
Many Uzbek experts believe that Turkish schools and so-called Nurchilar followers have simply fallen victim to the Uzbek government's paranoia about dissent and opposition.

Tashpulat Yuldashev, an Uzbek political analyst, told RFE/RL that Nurchilar is "just a new enemy created by the government to justify its repressive policies."

"Because of his own fear, [Islam] Karimov has fought against Wahhabists, Hizb ut-Tahrir, and Akramiya groups. They all are suppressed and now Karimov has to find a new enemy," Yuldashev says. "It shows that there are problems inside the country and that Karimov feels insecure. In order to keep people in constant fear and turn their thoughts away from social and economic hardships, he always needs a new enemy within."
Indeed, the situation is messy. So the question is: What to do if Gulen schools are the only ones providing quality education - but lets say that they are also transmitting some of their religious ideas? It is quite clear that these are not the madrassas of South Asia - where they are still using a medieval curriculum. Should we consider the Gulen schools at par with private religious schools (such as Jesuit schools) in the US? Or should we be worried about them more in line with some scary Evangelical schools? However, unlike some of the Evangelical schools, the Gulen schools seem to be quite friendly to science. What do you think?

Read the full article here.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Off-Topic: No point in talking to the Taliban in Swat

Pakistan ceded Swat after a military failure. But the subsequent deal that lets them (who?) impose Sharia will turn out to be a malignant cancer. Already, there is much confusion in Pakistan in how to respond to Taliban. But the desire to have a "successful" Islamic system (aah - the dream of Islamic utopia - courtesy of General Zia) pollutes a forceful response from the civil society, so desperately needed at this time. Thankfully, some clarity was provided last week by Sufi Muhammad - the "peace broker" between the government and the Taliban in Swat. Now - he is supposed to be one of the relatively good guys. He explicitly told a large rally last week that they don't recognize the judicial system of Pakistan ("product of infidels") and find democratic principles against the spirit of Islam. Needless to say that they aim to spread their system to the rest of the country. Thank you Sufi Muhammad for being clear on your goals. Finally, there may be some respite from the conspiracy theories that Pakistan is always engulfed in - or is it being too optimistic?

To illustrate, here is a report from Channel 4 (by the way, what's up with this Taliban dude's focus on "white women"?? A bit of a non sequitur, don't you think?)

It should be very clear: these guys are nasty and their sights are set on Pakistan. I don't think their voluntary withdrawal from Buner means anything. It just shows that they can take a town in northern Pakistan pretty much without resistance. They are methodically moving in - and we will soon start seeing the destabilization of the rural areas of Punjab (see a related earlier post: The situation in northern Pakistan).

Also see this:
Disarray on Pakistan Taliban threat (from BBC)

and also at a Congressional hearing, Hillary Clinton brought up the fact that the US earlier abandoned Pakistan, and that's what created many of the current problems.

Update: 4/26: Here is an excellent oped by Mohammed Hanif - that more or less explains the attitudes of moderate Pakistanis: Pakistan bows to the Taliban's rise. Here is how he ends his article:

In Swat, I heard the same story again and again: Before the peace deal, soldiers would stop people at checkpoints and say, "Don't go that way, the Taliban are slitting someone's throat." But they wouldn't intercede to stop the throat-slitting.

The problem, as many see it, is that there's no alternative. Yes, the Taliban routinely place near the bottom of opinion polls, and in elections they garner less than 10 percent of the vote. But we seem to be an exhausted society, incapable of rising to this challenge.

When we look overseas for support, we are confronted by the Americans demanding that we oppose the Taliban even as U.S. drones continue to kill impoverished civilians in the remote-controlled hunt for Taliban officials and the latest al-Qaeda No. 3. There is not a single Pakistani who supports these attacks or the way they are being conducted. They have made being pro-American radioactive. And they have also made opposing the Taliban that much more difficult.

What are people to do?

I got a glimpse of what they are already doing in Lahore. At a hotel that is so safe, I was told, that Americans often use it, I saw security guards posted at multiple entrances. You see private security guards everywhere in Pakistan, but one I spoke with had his pistol drawn. When I asked him why, he shrugged and said that those were his orders. But how he will guard against a truckload of explosives, a band of men armed with rocket launchers or an ideology that wants us to dress and behave like people in Mecca circa A.D. 570 remains unclear.

Good luck!

Poetic take down of superstition from 2000 years ago

Can't we have all present debates in the form of poetry? Below is an example of poetic skepticism from 2000 years ago (also check out Doubt - where you'd least expect it by Jennifer Michael Hecht). Here is a review of a new translation of Lucretius's De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) from first century BC, by David Slavitt:

Unlike the many prose versions of De rerum natura, David Slavitt’s new translation (University of California Press, $15) gives us six-beat English versions of the Latin original. Here’s how he renders the passage in which Lucretius acknowledges his debt to Epicurus:

It was long the case that men would grovel
upon the earth,
crushed beneath the weight of Superstition
whose head
loomed in the heavens, glaring down with her
dreadful visage
until Epicurus of Greece dared to look up and
confront her,
taking a stand against the fables and myths of
the gods . . .

Referring more directly to the implications of the Epicurian philosophy:
It is important to remember that Lucretius is striving to convince an interlocutor, Memmius, of the truth of Epicurian philosophy. Poetry is thus closely wedded to argument in De rerum natura, since the harsh wisdom of Epicurianism—that the soul dies with the body—needs to be mixed with something sweet if it’s going to go down. In a well-known analogy, Lucretius compares his rhetorical strategy to spreading honey (“mellis dulci flavoque liquore”) around the rim of a glass of bitter medicine (“taetra absinthi”). The idea is to free the mind from superstition without coercion, as if the music of poetry alone were enough to dissolve the bonds of mental servitude.
Read the full review of Slavitt's translation here (tip 3quarksdaily). It also has an interesting bit at the end about various translations/commentaries of Lucretius's poem in the post Renaissance era.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Pushing the limits of our knowledge about origins

I had recently commented on an article about religious views regarding the idea of multiverse (also there was spirited discussion about first-cause here). This was very timely, as the Origins Symposium at ASU now provides an excellent opportunity to show how some of the leading researchers are tackling some of these issues. Here is the video of the first panel from the symposium: How Far Back Can we Go?. I think this was an excellent session - but you can also watch Is our universe unique and how can we find out?, and New windows on the universe: what is knowable? (tip from Open Parachute)

These are obviously questions at the frontier of our knowledge. But note that instead of relying on the crutch of "fine-tuning" or "God did it" arguments, here there is an acknowledgement of how much we don't know, along with ideas on how we can potentially find some of these answers. Obviously, these are not easy questions - otherwise they would have already been solved. At the same time, what is truly amazing is the amount of information we already know about our universe. After all, we have been grappling with (modern) cosmology for only less than a century - and already we are on relatively firm grounds about conditions a few seconds after the Big Bang!! This is an incredible achievement for tiny tiny creatures that individually live for an infinitesimally small time compared to the age of the universe (roughly 13.7 billion years). No - no...this is not an existential statement. I'm just admiring...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

On Madrasas in Singapore

Here is an article on efforts to modernize madrasas in Singapore:
After starting the day with prayers and songs in honor of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the students at the Madrasa Al Irsyad Al Islamiah here in Singapore turned to the secular. An all-girls chemistry class grappled with compounds and acids while other students focused on English, math and other subjects from the national curriculum.

Teachers exhorted their students to ask questions. Some, true to the school’s embrace of new technology, gauged their students’ comprehension with individual polling devices.

The school’s 900 primary- and secondary-level students follow the national curriculum of the country’s public schools while also taking religious instruction. To accommodate both, the school day is three hours longer than at the mainstream schools.

Mohamed Muneer, 32, a chemistry teacher, said most of his former students had gone on to junior colleges or polytechnic schools, while some top students attended the National University of Singapore. “Many became administrators, some are teaching and some joined the civil service,” he said.

But what I found interesting was the fact that these successful reforms were in response to pressure from the government regarding primary education:

That balance resulted, like many things in this country, from pressure by the government. Singapore’s madrasas — historically the schools for ethnic Malays who make up about 14 percent of the country’s population — experienced a surge in popularity in the 1990s along with a renewed interest in Islam.

But that surge, coupled with the madrasas’ poor record in nonreligious subjects, high dropout rates and graduation of young people with few marketable job skills, worried the government. It responded by making primary education at public schools compulsory in 2003, allowing exceptions like the madrasas, provided they met basic standards by 2010. If they fail, they will have to stop educating primary school children.

“That forced the madrasas to shift their curriculum away from being purely religious schools,” said Mukhlis Abu Bakar, an expert on madrasas at the National Institute of Education, a teachers college.

Last year, the first time all six madrasas were required to sit for national exams at the primary level, two failed to meet the minimal standards, though they still had two more years to pass.

All of this is a good reminder that when we talk about science in the Muslim world, often we are only talking about interactions with a small well-educated fraction. A large population is either not educated at all or is going through curricula just beginning to incorporate the modern world.

Read the full article here. On a related note, there is a new book about to be released on madrassahs (yes - different spelling) in Pakistan (tip from Robin Lloyd): Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Madrassahs in Pakistan by Saleem Ali. More about the book here.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Should we drop the term "Muslim World"?

Here is an interesting article in the Washington Post that argues against using the term "Muslim World" (tip RNS blog). Giving advice to Obama, Parag Khanna writes,
Just as there has not been any meaningful "Christian world" since the Holy Roman Empire, there has been no unified "Islamic world" since the Middle Ages. For centuries thereafter, Turks, Persians and Arabs squabbled over ideological hegemony. Sunni versus Shiite is just one of Islam's divides today, reminding the world that the faith has no supreme authority to which all believers adhere. By using the term "Muslim world," we only elevate the likes of Mullah Omar or Osama bin Laden, whose rhetoric turns archaic Islamist fantasies into self-fulfilling prophecies. Speaking to all Muslims is speaking to none of them.
This is an interesting approach. It got me thinking about our own work on the reception of evolution in the Muslim world - or for that matter, Islamic creationism. Is this a valid approach? I think it works - as long as we highlight (which we always try to do) the cultural diversity inhabiting the Muslim world. In fact, sorting out the commonalities and differences tell us a lot about individual countries and of their influence to and from Islam. Second, the importance of religion features quite highly in almost all Muslim majority countries (and also in Muslim diaspora). Thus, I think, it is reasonable to assume certain key cultural factors shaped by religion - and sometimes treating these countries as a collective. The existence of Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) - a collection of 57 countries - further underscores this point and shows how these countries see themselves.

What about the term Latin America? We know that they are quite different individually. However, it is also often useful to talk about them as a collective. While many (all?) of them are strongly Christian, the dominant identity is shaped by their Latin heritage (though, that in itself is shaped by Christianity). In the same way, I think, many Muslim countries may be geographically separated - but their dominant identity is shaped by Islam. This is not the case for all Muslim majority countries and there are indeed some strong exceptions: Former Soviet republics, like Kazakhstan, or some non-Arab African Muslim countries. However, I don't think we loose individual identity of countries when we use the term Muslim world any more than when we use the term Latin America.

Yes, as mentioned in the article, there are some political disadvantages in using the term Muslim world by the US. But there are some advantages too. After all, Obama can claim (and he does) to have a connection to the whole Muslim world through his Kenyan father and from his stay in the largest Muslim country by population, Indonesia. So, I'm not convinced by the argument presented in the article even from a purely political perspective. Overall, I think this is an excellent example of the tension between identity, culture, and the idea of nation states. The term Muslim world has its pros and cons. The key point is to realize the diversity that underlie the umbrella term of Muslim world.

In any case, read the full WP article here. My disagreement aside, it is an interesting idea.

This blog going "Irtiqa"

Yes, the times they are a-changin'. The original purpose of this blog was simply to post some science & religion news stories for some friends who were interested in the topic. But the blog has now been going for a little over two years and more people have joined in for conversations. Thus, this is a good time to make some changes - starting with the name. It is my sad duty to tell you that this blog (Science & Religion News) will now be out of the competition for the most mundane blog-name ever. Instead, the blog name is changing to Irtiqa : A Science & Religion Blog. The web address though is still going to be the old one - so no need to make any changes to your readers/feeders etc.

Why Irtiqa?
Irtiqa literally means evolution in Urdu. But it does not only imply biological evolution. Instead, it is an all encompassing word for evolution of the universe, biological evolution, and it is also used for biological/human development (example, from an embryo). On the one hand, it has caused confusion in debates over biological evolution in South Asia, on the other hand, it provides a nice integrative name for a blog that addresses issues of science & religion interaction. Of course, it also meshes well with my work in astronomy (star formation and evolution of spiral galaxies) and on understanding how Muslims are dealing with biological evolution and on the rise of Islamic creationism.

I don't know what lesson to draw from it, but I find it interesting that while the Wikipedia entry on Irtiqa acknowledges its literal meaning of evolution in Urdu, its main focus is on the title of an album by a Pakistani rock band, Entity Paradigm (EP). That is ok - I have that album too. But I think Irtiqa has a meaning broader than simply being the name of an album (not that there is any thing wrong with that). For example, here is an earlier post about Javed Ahmad Ghamidi's views on Islam & evolution - and his use of the word Irtiqa. (so wiki-lords: Please, add more to your entry on Irtiqa)

Are there going to be more changes to the blog? Yes, the template will probably change - but I will still avoid too much clutter and keep it reader-friendly.

But at the end, thanks for to you all for visiting and reading the blog.


Monday, April 20, 2009

Modernity and Religion

Since I had posted recently about the export and import of Christianity in the US, here is a brief Newsweek interview that caught my attention. It is with the authors of a new book, God is Back: How the global revival of faith is changing the world, and their surprising assertion that religion is getting stronger in the US - even in politics:

This magazine's cover story last week detailed how the number of self-identified Christians is falling and how the religious right has failed as a political movement. Yet you say those who bet against the strength of American Christianity have invariably been proved wrong.
One of the things the article argued in NEWSWEEK was that religion would retreat a bit in American politics. We're not so sure about that, for two reasons. [First] you have perhaps an even bigger split than before—between a bigger number of people who are not keen on religion, and then a larger core of people who are. The other issue is that religion has stopped being just a Republican issue. The religious right has run into real problems. But the sort of religiosity that Obama typified—there's a way in which those religious elements could spread rather than go down.

Huh!? But - the kind of religiosity that Obama typifies is more private - and certainly away from politics. And here is their take on modernity and religion:

You write that the developments many thought would destroy religion—such as democracy and markets—have made religion stronger. Might our economic crisis change that?
It could. But globalization has two kinds of effects in terms of encouraging people to be religious. In the Islamic world and in the poorer bits of India, or Arkansas, religion is a shield against the modern world. [Also,] there are a lot of people for whom religion is a way to get ahead. If you go around the megachurches you can discover self-help books on how to run your business better. The people who the old-style secularists expected not to be religious are actually religious in very large numbers.

Are these things good?? So while I was puzzling over their bizarre assertions, I found a review of their book and discovered that these are the same guys who were spectacularly wrong in their 2004 book, The Right Nation. And guess what? As a reward, they got to impose another useless book on the world:

The authors made similarly sweeping generalizations in their previous book, “The Right Nation” (2004), generalizations that were proven almost comically wrong by the midterm elections of 2006 and the 2008 election of Barack Obama. In that earlier book Mr. Micklethwait and Mr. Wooldridge contended that “the center of gravity in American politics has moved to the right,” that the 2004 election might have represented “something of a last chance for the Democrats,” and that “conservatives have succeeded in part because, in a country where only half the electorate bothers to vote, they are better organized than other sorts of Americans.”

One of the problems with “The Right Nation” was that the authors selected information and examples that supported their thesis, while ignoring or diminishing data that contradicted it, and they employ a similarly flawed methodology in “God Is Back.”
On the other hand, they seem to be consistent and are not letting facts come in their way:
In arguing that “religion’s power” has “continued to increase,” they contradict considerable evidence to the contrary. (The 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, released this month, found that “the U.S. population continues to show signs of becoming less religious, with one out of every five Americans failing to indicate a religious identity in 2008.”) In arguing that modernity and religion are compatible, Mr. Wooldridge and Mr. Micklethwait play down that Osama bin Laden and other radical jihadis embrace highly puritanical, backward-looking forms of Islam that stand in direct opposition to much of modernity. (The authors also fail to grapple with the anti-progressive impulses of Christian and Jewish fundamentalism.) And in arguing that religion is increasingly a matter of choice, they ignore the plight of people (like women under Taliban rule) who are forced to live by strict religious codes they themselves may not believe in.
and, it seems, that much of Pakistan will be finding about it soon - first hand. The only interesting thing about the book, it seems, is their description of some of the churches in the US:
In America, Mr. Wooldridge and Mr. Micklethwait assert, the free market in religion “forces clergymen to compete for market share,” and as a result it’s produced “relentless innovation” in the form of “new religious ‘products.’ ” There are “biker churches for bikers, cowboy churches for cowboys, sports-minded churches for the sporty.” Keith Moore, the founder and head of Moore Life Ministries and Faith Life Church in Missouri, they report, has given lectures on the subject of whether Jesus would wear a Rolex. (The answer, the authors write, “is yes: Jesus happily accepted expensive personal gifts, and it was actually Judas who suggested giving them to the poor.”)
and my favorite bit:
And the Golgotha Fun Park (talk about oxymorons!) in Kentucky features a Bible-theme miniature golf course starting with the Creation at the first hole and ending with the Resurrection at the 18th.
Yeaay! So is one supposed to celebrate or mourn if you go under-par on the hole with Crucifixion? On a sad note, it seems that Golgotha Fun Park is now closed (nooooo!).

In any case, read the full review here.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Queen Esther had two tails...

Poor King Ahasuerus (Xerxes?). He didn't notice but his beautiful queen Esther, it appears, had two tails - coming all the way up to her crown (she also appears to be the missing link between land and water animals). We now know all of this because of this Egyptian cleric (Safwat Higazi) below (tip from Olga Gershenson). By the way, he does have a point: "Esther" means star in Persian - and the buck part...well...well...she liked adventures, just like Buck Rogers. OMG! He is right. The Starbucks logo does have Queen Esther on it.

By the way, anyone from Egypt here? What kind of program is this? And do people take him seriously at all? Hey - I also occasionally switch to see the 700 Club - and find craziness oozing out from everywhere.

By the way, here is a full body shot of queen Esther on the old Starbucks logo (its rated R for the tails)...

Friday, April 17, 2009

Video: Philip Kitcher - Religion after Darwin?

Philip Kitcher was our Science & Religion speaker earlier this month. He is an excellent speaker - and this is a timely topic. I'm sure some will totally agree and some will completely disagree with him. In any case, he presents a very thoughtful analysis. Here is the video of his talk: Religion after Darwin? (video of Q&A and the abstract is below). Enjoy!

Hampshire College | Dr. Philip Kitcher's Science & Religion Lecture from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Here is the video of the Q&A:

Hampshire College | Q&A from Dr. Philip Kitcher's Science & Religion Lecture from Hampshire TV on Vimeo.

Many people believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection poses a threat to religion (specifically to Christianity). I shall suggest that, taken on its own, Darwin’s work can be assimilated by many world religions and many versions of Christianity. There is, however, a deeper problem. The scientific approach that underlies Darwin’s achievements is inimical to all but the most liberal forms of religion. Once this point is appreciated, it is tempting to believe, as the militant Darwinian atheists of our time triumphantly proclaim, that religious practices should simply be eradicated. I shall argue that this is incorrect, and that a genuinely humane secularism – a real Secular Humanism – should absorb some characteristically religious attitudes. We need to discard the myths offered by supernaturalist doctrines, but we also need what Dewey called “A Common Faith.”

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Export and Import of Christianity

Last Sunday's NYT Magazine section had an interesting cover story on the import of Christianity to the US from Nigeria. In particular it was talking about Nigerian Pentecostal movement. This is interesting - as American Christianity has been very vibrant and effective in gaining converts the world over, in particular in Africa and South America. One of the reasons cited for their success is the religious "free-market" in the US that keeps the competition high and religions have to keep on adapting to keep up with the times. Those that survive become quite successful internationally (also read Secularism, Wealth and Religiosity. Apart from religious competition in the US, it also talks about Nigeria).

But the Sunday article talks about the possibility of a strong import from Africa - in particular Nigeria (why Nigeria??). First here are some amazing stats:
Take, for example, the Anglican Communion. Spread along with the British Empire, its membership now tilts heavily southward: Nigeria alone, with some 20 million adherents, makes up around a quarter of the entire Anglican Communion.
During the 20th century, the population of Christians in Africa grew from 10 million to around 360 million, and that could double by 2025, by which time demographers project the continent will be home to a quarter of all believers. These Africans are making Christianity their own, in ways both subtle and profound.
Ok - I can see reasons for the growth of religion in Africa. There has been strong missionary efforts at least for the past 100 years and there has also been a push for Muslim conversions. Plus, the continent is poor, and has been ravaged by wars and disease. I can see this combination leading to strong religious beliefs. But what's interesting is that it is beginning to transform Christianity back in the US. Here is a bit more about the Redeemed Church - the focus of the article - and its appeal:
It is a tenet of Pentecostalism that the divine is an active force, which is revealed through signs and wonders. The broad movement, however, encompasses a wide variety of practices. All the Americans I met who had gravitated to the Redeemed Church described their motivations similarly: they were searching for something that they felt was missing from this society, a feverish engagement with the worship of God.
The Redeemed see God as a magical presence in their lives. Like most Pentecostals, they believe that when the Holy Spirit inhabits them, they can perform miracles and see the future. Enoch Adeboye is said to have publicly prophesied the untimely death of General Abacha in 1998, three days before it actually happened. In “Let Somebody Shout Hallelujah!” a hagiographic biography of Adeboye written by his former secretary, the general overseer is credited with using his God-given powers to raise the dead, avoid traffic jams, foresee coups, restore hair to the balding and cure kidney disease, depression and H.I.V. Bart Pierce, the Pentecostal minister from Baltimore, says he witnessed such miracles while attending Adeboye’s services in Nigeria. “We watched people get right out of their wheelchairs and walk,” he told me.
But Christianity in Africa adds other elements with it - and you may remember the Kenyan preacher of Sarah Palin who was casting away witches. Well, here is the larger context:
For all its transformations, however, the Redeemed Church’s primary appeal is still what it was in Akindayomi’s day: it offers its followers the chance to harness otherworldly forces. The Redeemed don’t deny that the gods of indigenous religions exist and possess real powers. But they say such spirits are satanic. A major theme of Redeemed teachings, to its Nigerian audience especially, is that becoming saved protects you from the curses, spells and sorcery that Africans, even Christian ones, commonly blame for all manner of misfortunes, from car accidents to impotence. Church officials in the United States are somewhat averse to talking about this aspect of doctrine. They are well aware of the ridicule that was heaped upon a Kenyan preacher after a video clip of his prayer to protect Sarah Palin from “the spirit of witchcraft,” offered during a guest sermon at her Alaska church, fell into the hands of bloggers. In fact, like many elements of Africa’s indigenous cosmology, the belief in evil spirits is entirely consistent with mainstream Pentecostal teaching, which holds that God and the Devil — an actual being — are engaged in continual “spiritual warfare.”
Redeemed pastors often attribute afflictions like poverty and addiction to demonic possession and preach against “generational curses,” which can explain everything from inherited illness to family dysfunction. Cheryl Broadus, the South Carolina follower, told me that Kwesi Ansah had proved his effectiveness in combating evil by performing an exorcism on a woman at her church. “She was slithering on the floor like a snake,” Broadus said. “My pastor was sound, firm, using the word of God as a weapon.”
Hmmm...let me remind you that this is in the US in the 21st century! Now before you start thinking that this is so different (actually its not - there are many homegrown churches in the US with similar practices), here are two examples that will sound more familiar. Please note that Adeboye - is the leader of the Redeemed Church. So first, a standard rant against reason:
But Adeboye’s distinctive weakness, one he also glimpses in this society, was what he describes as an idolatrous reliance on reason. “It begins to give man the impression that man is the almighty, that man can do anything,” the pastor said. “He can go to the moon, go to Mars, perform operations with a laser beam without spilling blood. The problem, the way I see it, is that because of the advance of technology, science and investing, the Western world began to feel that they didn’t need God as much as before. Whereas in Africa, we need him. We know we need him to survive.”
and second, the penchant to buy a private jet - the product of reason just dissed above:
Redeemed pastors routinely petition God to transform their followers into millionaires, members are encouraged to tithe and the Sunday collection is accompanied by joyous fanfare. At various events I attended, I heard Fadele ask members to raise money to help Adeboye buy a private jet (which duly arrived in March) and to sign up to accompany the general overseer, at a cost of up to $8,500 a person, on a coming pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which is to feature luxury hotel accommodation and a re-enactment of the Last Supper.
On that note...

Read the full article here (its a long article).

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

NYU: Darwin and the boundaries of science conference

There is a two day conference at NYU, Darwin and the boundaries of science, this Friday & Saturday - and it looks fantastic. I can't be there on Friday (hmm...going to miss some excellent talks), but I'm planning to drive down Saturday for a day. Any one else going to this conference?

Here is the information about the conference:
April 17 - 18, 2009
New York University
Gallatin School of Individualized Study
715 Broadway (Entrance at 1 Washington Place)
The Jerry H. Labowitz Theatre for the Performing Arts

Darwin and the Boundaries of Science commemorates the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin. The two-day conference will examine how Darwin's ideas have changed the boundaries of knowledge: between science and religion, between speculation and theory, between the past and the present, and between humans and the world around us. Interdisciplinary in scope, the event draws upon the expertise of scholars from a wide range of fields, including biology, astronomy and astrophysics, mechanical engineering, philosophy, sociology and history. Speakers will discuss not just the content of Darwin's discoveries, but also the way these discoveries forever altered what counted as knowledge and what could be ultimately understood. We will draw on both scientific and historical expertise to form a robust perspective on how science does—or does not—relate to the wider culture of which it is a part. Scientists will have an opportunity to explain how and why they draw the boundaries of their disciplines, and humanities scholars will demonstrate the complex processes that formed and continue to reshape these boundaries.

And here is the schedule:

Friday, April 17, 2009

Session I: Darwin Before the Origin

10:00am – 12:30pm

  • George Levine: "Learning to See: Darwin's Prophetic Apprenticeship on the Beagle Voyage"
  • Paul Brinkman: "Charles Darwins's Beagle Voyage, Fossil Vertebrate Succession, and 'The gradual Birth and Death of Species'"
  • Richard Bellon: "Why Naturalists Were Right to Reject Darwin's Theory (in 1858)"

12:30pm – 2:00pm

Session II: Boundaries of Science

2:00pm – 5:00pm

  • Carl Zimmer: "Microbes and Mind: How Darwin Broke the Boundaries Between Human Nature and Non-Human Behavior"
  • David Kohn: "Inner Boundaries: Darwin's Trees from Metaphor to Principle"
  • Mark Borrello: "The Evolution of Group Selection: From Darwin to E. O. Wilson"

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Session I: Science and Non-Science

10:00am – 12:30pm

  • Ronald L. Numbers: "Creation, Evolution, and the Boundaries of Science and Religion"
  • Richard England: "Darwin, Design, and the Boundaries of Metaphor: Variations on the Stone House Argument"
  • Ed Larson: "Applied Evolution: The Boundary Between the Science of Evolutionary Genetics and Eugenic Social Politics, 1880-1930"

12:30pm – 2:00pm

Session II: Darwin Between Private and Public

2:00pm – 5:00pm

  • Jim Endersby: "Sympathetic Science: Charles Darwin, Joseph Hooker, and the Passions of Victorian Naturalists"
  • Janet Browne: "The Natural Economy of Households: Darwin's Finances and Natural Selection"

God, global warming, and a congressman from Illinois

Vow! No - no, this is not from the Sharia council in Swat. This is from a US House Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing from Mar 25th and the enlightened gentleman is John Shimkus (R) from Illinois (tip

I like his reasoning for denying the dangers of global warming: "man" will not destroy the Earth - because it seems that God will...

And on the benefits of more CO2:

Yes - and also look at Venus. It is so carbon-happy that it doesn't have any idiot Congressmen on its cozy surface.


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

New Scientist on the Turkish censorship of Darwin

Here is an opinion piece by Debora MacKenzie in this week's New Scientist: The Battle for Turkey's Soul. She has dissected the Bilik ve Tiknik affair:

First, the basics. In early February the editorial staff of Bilim ve Teknik decided to mark the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth with a 15-page cover story on evolution. The issue went to the printer on Saturday 28 February. The following Monday, editor Çiğdem Atakuman received a phone call from TÜBITAK vice-president Ömer Cebeci. The presses were stopped. The issue finally came out a week late with the Darwin article gone and the cover featuring a story on global warming. So what happened?

It depends on who you ask. Cebeci maintains that he did not order Atakuman to remove the piece. He insists there was no censorship, only that the dropped article had been "prepared hastily without regard to institutional procedures". TÜBITAK says the magazine will carry a Darwin special later this year.

Atakuman sees it differently. She issued a public statement saying that the pages were planned as normal and that Cebeci had ordered her to cancel the piece as it was deemed inappropriate for the "sensitive environment" of Turkey.

Whether the cancellation was an administrative glitch, censorship, or just an attempt to sidestep controversy, the row is highly revealing. Evolution is a lightning-rod issue in Turkey. Every leading newspaper reported the story. The Turkish Academy of Sciences called for an investigation and for Cebeci to resign (neither seems likely, although another senior TÜBITAK official resigned in protest).

But she also takes some of this as a positive sign for a country adjusting to a scientific world view. I think she is correct for the case of Turkey - but scientists still should be careful in not using evolution in the battles over secularism.

Seen in context, the incident could be a good sign, as the inevitable growing pains of a country adapting to a scientific world view. The key question is which way the process goes now. What happens in Turkey is important because its battles could be the first of many.
And sure enough, things may be heating up:

Pressure on scientists is increasing and Bilgin fears more incidents like the one at Bilim ve Teknik. He is not alone. "I believe the situation is getting worse for science and science education than many people in Turkey are aware of," says Aykut Kence, another biologist at METU and a veteran campaigner for evolution.

Turkish scientists are fighting back. They are pursuing a lawsuit to have creationism removed from textbooks. A group of activist students called Hard Workers of Evolution has translated the University of California's Understanding Evolution website. In February, Turkish scientists launched the Darwin 2009 Assembly and will hold conferences on evolution across Turkey this year.

If nothing else, the Bilim ve Teknik incident has focused minds. "Censoring Darwin caused outrage among students and academics," says Kence. "It may actually make our job easier," adds Bilgin. Even Cebeci agrees: "The positive side was that it revealed the sensitivity of our scientific community to the autonomy of science." Let's hope they will be able to continue using that autonomy to stand up for what matters.

Well...the last bit definitely leaves one a bit more hopeful. Read the full article here. (see an earlier post here)

Monday, April 13, 2009

Off-Topic: The situation in northern Pakistan

It is maddeningly difficult to sort out all the competing factors playing a role in northern Pakistan. A quick look at geography would lay to rest any naive geo-political theories. Pakistan shares a border with India, Iran, Afghanistan, China - along with a heavy presence of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan. I have written couple of posts on drone attacks in Pakistan (for example, see Push-button executions from the skies). From what I have been reading, the drone attacks seems to have been extremely successful in killing Taliban and al-Qaida operatives (please note - these are two distinct entities, and further that the Taliban come in many different flavors). At the same time, the collateral damage (i.e. civilian casualties) from the drone attacks and its psychological impact is resulting in a mass anti-American sentiment. In fact, "drone attack" is now a vernacular phrase in Urdu. Plus, the success of the killings in the tribal regions is driving the militants into mainland Pakistan - and also into the major cities. So what is the long strategic objective of the drone attacks and what is the end-objective on this front? It seems to me that the drones are winning battles but loosing the war.

What about the situation on the ground? If you are at all interested in sorting through the geo-political mess (as well as one can...) in northern Pakistan, please read this interesting and depressing article, Taliban v. Taliban. Caution: Yes, it may give you a headache while following all the twists and turns. But I should mention that even all of this complexity is not complete, as it is without any discussion of the strategic game between China and the US in region (China has recently built a high-tech sea-port at Gwadar in southern Pakistan and the US has access to an airbase in Baluchistan), not to mention that Iran also shares a border with Baluchistan. Phew! Ok. So here are couple of points to highlight (but read the full article to get the full picture):

Pakistan has been worried by India’s increasing interest in Afghanistan since the Bonn conference in November 2001 at which Afghan factional leaders and UN officials met to discuss the formation of a post-Taliban government. At that conference it became clear that the pro-Pakistani Afghan Taliban would be purged from the new Afghanistan under Karzai and replaced by forces dominated by commanders from the Northern Alliance (NA), which had opposed the Taliban regime before 9/11 and fought with US troops to overthrow it. India, Iran and Russia were the NA’s main supporters while Islamabad was backing the Taliban. Neither Pakistan nor the Taliban was invited to Bonn – this was ‘the original sin’, according to Lakhdar Brahimi, the UN representative.

India is one of Karzai’s few remaining champions. Delhi sees the new Afghanistan as a part of its sphere of influence. It has four consulates in Afghanistan and has given its government $1.2 billion in aid: a remarkable sum for it to donate to a country that is 99 per cent Muslim and with which it has no common border. Delhi has also put up the new parliament building and chancery, and has helped to train the army. India’s most ambitious – and, for Pakistan, most alarming – Afghan project is a new highway that will provide a route to the Iranian port of Chabahar. Not only will Afghanistan no longer need to use Pakistani ports, the road’s destination is a clear indication of India’s intention to consolidate an alliance with Iran in western Afghanistan in order to counter Pakistan’s influence in eastern Afghanistan. The road network, as they see it, is a new way to fight an old war. It’s precisely in order to resist the India-Iran bloc – as well as the emerging axis between Delhi and Washington – that the ISI has aligned itself with the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani.

I think Pakistan's exclusion from the Bonn conference was a critical mistake. But that wasn't the only policy blunder:

Since 9/11 Washington has tended to use Islamabad as a gun for hire: the army was given around $1 billion a year on condition that it secured supplies to US and Nato forces in Afghanistan and fought against the Taliban and al-Qaida in the tribal areas. In agreeing this condition Pakistan had expected that its interests would be taken into account following the Anglo-American invasion. But unlike India or Iran, and despite its services to Washington, Islamabad was given no say in the formation of the Afghan government. This confirmed Pakistanis in their view that Musharraf and his army were no better than mercenaries fighting ‘America’s war’, and as a result of this humiliation, the Pakistani army has interpreted its commitments selectively, opposing ‘safe havens’ that might be used to launch attacks against other countries, but supporting the Afghan Taliban insurgency. Washington is exasperated by Pakistan’s refusal to fight the Taliban, but it’s been given little incentive to do so.

Fear of India’s influence was heightened by Bush’s decree last July allowing US Special Forces in Afghanistan to pursue al-Qaida and Taliban fugitives into Pakistan’s territory without the approval of its government. There has been one US ground assault and more than 30 drone attacks since then, overwhelmingly in North and South Waziristan. Washington claims to have a tacit agreement about the drone strikes with the Pakistan government. The government denies this. Army officers admit that the strikes may have killed scores of al-Qaida fighters, and that the ISI may have supplied intelligence for the operations, but the missiles have also killed civilians, including pro-government tribal elders.

Now there are signs that the Obama administration is correcting some of the policy mistakes (actually it has to do that in almost all areas). For example, it is planning on providing aid primarily for civilian programs. However, it is continuing some of the old strategy:

America has just unveiled a strategic review of its policy towards Afghanistan, Pakistan and the tribal areas. While civilian aid to the Pakistan government will increase, Obama will continue with certain policies from the Bush era. One is the use of military force. There will be more drone attacks in the tribal areas (at least 80 people have been killed by US missiles since January) and perhaps in Balochistan, and a ‘surge’ of 21,000 US troops in Afghanistan, mostly along the border with Pakistan. Obama has also promised that US policy towards India – and Kashmir in particular – will be ‘dehyphenated’ from policy towards Pakistan and Afghanistan.

One consequence is that three feuding Taliban factions have now joined forces against ‘Obama, Zardari and Karzai’ in an agreement brokered by Mullah Omar. One of the factions is led by Baitullah Mehsud. The other two are pro-Afghan Taliban factions based in South and North Waziristan, which had largely refrained from attacking the Pakistan state and army but may not do so any longer. The army is also worried that the surge could cause a further flight of Afghan Taliban and other militants into the tribal areas. If the army acts against them, retaliatory strikes may follow across Pakistan. If it doesn’t, US and Afghan soldiers might chase them inside Pakistan – as they did last September, killing 20 tribesmen ‘by mistake’. Any such incursion would unite the Pashtun tribes behind the Taliban, deepen anti-American sentiment in the army and stretch US-Afghan-Pakistani co-operation to breaking point.

The article ultimately argues (more or less correctly) that the mess in northern Pakistan will only be sorted out when there is peace between Pakistan and India - and that will only happen when the two countries are not trying to out-maneuver each other over Kashmir. Talking about a recent attempt at a solution:

The process collapsed partly because of the political crisis that engulfed Musharraf after he sacked Pakistan’s chief justice in 2007. But it also fell apart because India did not reciprocate: military rule in Indian-occupied Kashmir remained as entrenched as ever. ‘The army’s recent experience with India is very bitter,’ a Pakistani analyst told me. ‘After 2004 the army scaled down militant intrusions into Kashmir by 95 per cent. And India’s response was to refuse to talk about Kashmir. The army thinks it would be the same in Afghanistan if it abandoned the Afghan Taliban.’ In the last year Indian Kashmir has seen increased penetration by Pakistani militants and skirmishes between the Pakistani and Indian armies. The spike seems to have less to do with Kashmir, where violence is at its lowest ebb in 20 years, than with the proxy war in Afghanistan. And it would suggest that – far more than on strategic reviews – peace in Afghanistan rests on peace between India and Pakistan. The road out of Kabul goes through Kashmir.

All sorted out! Read the full article here. While I agree with most of his analysis, there are other factors that are taking life of their own. Hard-line Islam is rapidly gaining ground in Pakistan, of which sharia in Swat is only one manifestation. Some Pakistani groups are merging with al-Qaida. True, most of them are directed against India - but some are also embracing a more global approach. If these issues are not dealt with soon, even a peace with India will not produce calm in the region .

Update (4/14): And if you are still not concerned enough, here is an article from today's NYT: Allied Militants Threaten Pakistan's Populous Heart. I'm not too surprised by the article as Lahore has started seeing major bombings - and Lahore used to be a very safe city. What's truly frightening is the furious pace of the spreading militancy. (by the way, this article also notes the repercussions of drone attacks in Pakistan's tribal areas).

Update (4/17): Another article about how the Taliban have been able to exploit class tensions and channel rage for their gains. See Taliban exploit class rifts to gain ground in Pakistan. This goes well with the above article from 4/14 - as it provides the blueprint for how the Taliban are going to destabilize Pakistan's populous areas. Yup - things are every bit as frightening as advertized.

Oped on Iran's nuclear program

Roger Cohen has been writing excellent articles on Iran (for example, here). This time he addresses the thorny issue of the nuclear program of Iran. Setting aside the inherent idiocy of having nuclear weapons, I really find it problematic when nuclear states talk about enforcing the Nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT). Plus, in the case of Iran, the enrichment that it has done so far is actually legal (but it is also clear that it also has intentions toward building a bomb). But I'm glad that Obama at least brought up the possibility of a nuclear weapon free world and it was brought up in Cohen's article:

I think it’s almost certainly too late to stop Iran achieving virtual nuclear power status — something like Brazil’s or Japan’s mastery of the know-how without a weapon. Iran’s advances of the past eight years cannot be undone. What can be transformed is the context Iran operates in; that in turn will determine how “virtual” Iran remains.

One context changer was Obama’s call for a nuclear-free world: it’s hard to argue for nonproliferation without tackling disarmament. “You can’t have nine countries telling the likes of Iran nuclear weapons are dangerous for you, but we need to go on refining our arsenals,” said ElBaradei, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2005 and ends his term later this year. “It’s a different world.”
And then he provides a normalization scenario - that is quite reasonable:

Iran ceases military support for Hamas and Hezbollah; adopts a “Malaysian” approach to Israel (nonrecognition and noninterference); agrees to work for stability in Iraq and Afghanistan; accepts intrusive International Atomic Energy Agency verification of a limited nuclear program for peaceful ends only; promises to fight Qaeda terrorism; commits to improving its human rights record.

The United States commits itself to the Islamic Republic’s security and endorses its pivotal regional role; accepts Iran’s right to operate a limited enrichment facility with several hundred centrifuges for research purposes; agrees to Iran’s acquiring a new nuclear power reactor from the French; promises to back Iran’s entry into the World Trade Organization; returns seized Iranian assets; lifts all sanctions; and notes past Iranian statements that it will endorse a two-state solution acceptable to the Palestinians.
Will it work? Don't know. But I'm glad that Roger Cohen is consistently providing a nuanced view of Iran and its politics.

Read the full article here.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Commandments and Communication

Yes, The Ten Commandments was on television last night. So here is a slightly modified trailer for modern times - I guess set in a high school (tip Janine Solberg): 10 Things I Hate About Commandments

There is also quite a funny article in today's Week in Review about the impact of cell-phone communications on literature. After all, many of the great stories have been built upon communication mishaps - and texting, I guess takes much of it away. It uses examples from Shakespeare to The Sarah Connor Chronicles. For the purposes of this blog, here is a bit about the Old Testament (Casablanca comes as a bonus):

“We want a world where there’s distance between people; that’s where great storytelling comes from,” said Kamran Pasha, a writer and producer on “Kings,” the NBC drama based on the story of David. He says even the unfolding of the Bible would have been a casualty of connectedness. In the Old Testament, for instance, Joseph’s brothers toss him into a pit. He is picked up by slave traders and taken to Egypt, a pivotal development in the Exodus narrative that is central to Judaism. Imagine if, instead, he dialed for help from the pit. “It’s humorous to think that if Joseph has an iPhone, there’s no Judaism,” Mr. Pasha says.

Must we now hit “delete” on tension that simmers for hundreds of pages as characters wonder, for instance, what’s happened to a lover? Certainly Rick Blaine would have been spared the aching uncertainty of why Ilsa stood him up at the train station in “Casablanca.” (Why didn’t she show up? We were supposed to run away together! Hmm, let me check my messages ... O.K., well, that makes sense. Now let’s see if I can find her on Google Earth. ...)
Read the full article here. And just in case, if you want to take my iPhone away, you will have to take it "from my cold, dead hands".

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Multiverse theory: Leave it to science

There is a persistent tendency to derive evidence for God from modern science. There appears to be a need to fill a validation gap. The services of cosmology are often employed to fill this gap. Nathan Schneider has a recent article that addresses how many Christians view the Multiverse theory, including some ID-friendly folks such as Cardinal Schonborn and the Canadian nutjob Denyse O'Leary (c'mon - an ad hominem attack?). For some, the Multiverse theory was concocted by scientists to avoid the fine-tuning problem:
In a 2005 New York Times op-ed, Christoph Cardinal Schönborn, the archbishop of Vienna, accused scientists of concocting the idea of a multiverse specifically “to avoid the overwhelming evidence for purpose and design found in modern science.” Since then, a handful of other prominent Christian thinkers have also argued that multiverse theory is motivated by a refusal to accept evidence of god’s handiwork in the cosmos. Evangelical philosopher and Discovery Institute fellow William Lane Craig has called the idea an act of “desperation” on the part of atheist scientists. And Canadian journalist Denyse O’Leary, an ally of the intelligent design movement who is writing a book about cosmology, also asserts that “religious or anti-religious motives dominate the discussion” among scientists developing multiverse models.
Yes. Now I remember why we had to pledge allegiance to the devil in every cosmology course in grad school. Fortunately, the article includes some reasonable views on the matter:
Don Page, an evangelical and theoretical physicist at the University of Alberta, gave a presentation entitled “Does God Love the Multiverse?” (mp3 | PDF), explaining to a mostly religious audience how multiverse models arose out of key questions in particle physics, string theory, and cosmic inflation — not in order to avoid evidence of design in the cosmos. Page insists that undercutting one argument for god does not defeat the whole case for divine creation. “The multiverse is not an alternative to design by god,” he says. “God could have designed the whole thing.”
Don Page's presentation and his last point seems quite reasonable - even though the title of his talk is quite unfortunate. I know Page was not making this point, but I certainly started thinking, what about God's love for thermodynamics? Plate tectonics? Formation of the Moon by an impact from a Mars-sized body? Electronic Degeneracy in white dwarfs? The spin-flip transition in hydrogen (oh God gotta love that)? Aether (oh - wait. God loved it only for a limited period of time)? The point is that these are scientific questions decided by science. And it is not just a matter of scale and importance. After all, the debate over Big Bang model and Steady State cosmology was more or less settled by observational evidence (cosmic microwave background radiation) - not from any religious input.

In fact, if we look back to mid-twentieth century, perhaps, the best perspective on this issues is provided by the Belgian Catholic priest and cosmologist Georges Lemaitre (1894-1966) - also one of the founders of the idea of the Big Bang cosmology. Here is a bit from American Museum of Natural History:

A year later, Lemaître explored the logical consequences of an expanding universe and boldly proposed that it must have originated at a finite point in time. If the universe is expanding, he reasoned, it was smaller in the past, and extrapolation back in time should lead to an epoch when all the matter in the universe was packed together in an extremely dense state. Appealing to the new quantum theory of matter, Lemaître argued that the physical universe was initially a single particle—the “primeval atom” as he called it—which disintegrated in an explosion, giving rise to space and time and the expansion of the universe that continues to this day. This idea marked the birth of what we now know as Big Bang cosmology.

It is tempting to think that Lemaître’s deeply-held religious beliefs might have led him to the notion of a beginning of time. After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition had propagated a similar idea for millennia. Yet Lemaître clearly insisted that there was neither a connection nor a conflict between his religion and his science. Rather he kept them entirely separate, treating them as different, parallel interpretations of the world, both of which he believed with personal conviction. Indeed, when Pope Pius XII referred to the new theory of the origin of the universe as a scientific validation of the Catholic faith, Lemaître was rather alarmed. Delicately, for that was his way, he tried to separate the two:

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

The same is now true for the Multiverse theory. Some (justifiably) point to its highly speculative nature. But this is precisely why it is not yet considered an accepted idea of science, unlike the Big Bang cosmology, formation of the solar system, etc. By the way, there is no shortage of highly speculative ideas. For example, Variable Speed of Light (VSL) theory, the Brane cosmology, Modified Newtonian Dynamics (MOND) - just to name a few in cosmology. But acceptance or rejection of these ideas will only come from science. What about Multiverse theory being untestable? Well...that is one of the major reasons it is not completely accepted and cosmologists are trying to come up with testable predictions.

As far as the fine-tuning argument goes, at present we don't as yet have an accepted theory that explains the constants, etc. But that does not leave God as the default answer. In fact, "God did it" only stifles inquiry. We must not underestimate the power of the phrase "We don't know" in the progress of science. (For your amusement, please also see The thing that made the things for which there is no known maker)

Read the full article by Nathan Schneider here.