Monday, June 29, 2009

Some Papal Archaeology

I think I'm reacting to the title of the NYT news story Pope says tests 'seem to conclude' bones are the Apostle Paul's (tip from Laura Sizer). It is an odd way of announcing a scientific work. Yes, we are talking about Vatican archaeologists, but still the reporting should note if the results are being published in a peer-reviewed journal or not. Pope's confirmation does not hold any water in the scientific world nor does it add any value to results. Perhaps, this is already published - but then the NYT should have also cited that journal. Otherwise, its only an unreliable science story:
The first scientific tests on what are believed to be the remains of the Apostle Paul, the Roman Catholic saint, “seem to conclude” that they belong to him, Pope Benedict XVI said Sunday.

Archaeologists recently unearthed and opened the white marble sarcophagus located under the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls in Rome, which for some 2,000 years has been believed by the faithful to be the tomb of Paul.

Benedict said scientists had conducted carbon dating tests on bone fragments found inside the sarcophagus and confirmed that they date from the first or second century.

“This seems to confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition that they are the mortal remains of the Apostle Paul,” Benedict said, announcing the findings at a service in the basilica to mark the end of the Vatican’s Pauline year, in honor of Paul.

Paul and Peter are the two main figures known for spreading the Christian faith after the death of Christ.

According to tradition, Paul, also known as the apostle to the Gentiles, was beheaded in Rome in the first century during the persecution of early Christians by Roman emperors. Popular belief holds that bone fragments from his head are in another Rome basilica, St. John Lateran, with his other remains inside the sarcophagus.
...
Vatican archaeologists in 2002 began excavating the eight-foot coffin, which dates from at least 390 and was buried under the basilica’s main altar. The decision to unearth it was made after pilgrims who came to Rome during the Roman Catholic Church’s 2000 Jubilee year expressed disappointment at finding that Paul’s tomb — buried under layers of plaster and further hidden by an iron grate — could not be visited or touched.

Read the full story here.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Evolving God

Two more reviews of The Evolution of God. Yes, I have also bought it - but it is second on the reading list as I have just started reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road. I have to read it now as its big screen version is coming out this October and it is directed by the same guy who did the brilliant Australian western, The Proposition. If you like intelligent westerns (and can tolerate screen violence), do check it out - its screenplay is by Nick Cave! Oh - but I digress. Here is the first review: Paul Bloom in NYT:
In his brilliant new book, “The Evolution of God,” Robert Wright tells the story of how God grew up. He starts with the deities of hunter-­gatherer tribes, moves to those of chiefdoms and nations, then on to the polytheism of the early Israelites and the monotheism that followed, and then to the New Testament and the Koran, before finishing off with the modern multinational Gods of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Wright’s tone is reasoned and careful, even hesitant, throughout, and it is nice to read about issues like the morality of Christ and the meaning of jihad without getting the feeling that you are being shouted at. His views, though, are provocative and controversial. There is something here to annoy almost everyone.
But here is the key bit about the evolving concept of God tied to our own changes over time:
Wright makes it clear that he is tracking people’s conception of the divine, not the divine itself. He describes this as “a good news/bad news joke for traditionalist Christians, Muslims and Jews.” The bad news is that your God was born imperfect. The good news is that he doesn’t really exist.

Wright also denies the specialness of any faith. In his view, there is continuous positive change over time — religious history has a moral direction — but no movement of moral revelation associated with the emergence of Moses, Jesus or Mohammed. Similarly, he argues that it is a waste of time to search for the essence of any of these monotheistic religions — it’s silly, for instance, to ask whether Islam is a “religion of peace.” Like a judge who believes in a living constitution, Wright believes that what matters is the choices that the people make, how the texts are interpreted. Cultural sensibilities shift according to changes in human dynamics, and these shape the God that people worship. For Wright, it is not God who evolves. It is us — God just comes along for the ride.
Read the full NYT review here.

And here is a bit from the Boston Globe review that talks about the evolution of the three monotheistic religions:
Wright’s narrative shows a “Yahweh’’ alternatively compassionate or vengeful, mercurial or wise. The God of the Hebrews takes a while to differentiate from the El of the Canaanites and the Baal of the Phoenicians. In doing so, his story gradually sheds remnants of polytheism; the god Pestilence, for instance, becomes mere pestilence. Under Persian influence, Abrahamic monotheism eventually shifts “from a nationalistic and exclusive theology’’ to “a more international and inclusive one.’’

In short, the Hebrew God shakes off his adolescent belligerence and assumes a kinder, gentler persona. While regarding the Jews as his favorite, this God presides benevolently over all the world’s people.

Wright charts a similar evolution in the chapters grouped under the title “The Invention of Christianity.’’ Mark, the earliest Gospel, is surprisingly devoid of the New Testament’s supposed hallmark, love. There are no beatitudes, no turning of the other cheek, no “love your enemy.’’ The neighbor you are obliged to love is defined narrowly, most likely one of your fellow followers of Jesus. Not until Matthew and Luke is love enlarged; the Good Samaritan does not appear until the last of the Gospels, Luke.

It was under St. Paul’s charismatic leadership that the fledgling Jesus movement was transformed into a vehicle of interethnic brotherly love. Wright’s description of Paul as an entrepreneur brilliant at expanding his Jesus “brand’’ throughout the polyglot Roman Empire may put off some Christians, but it provides a convincing account of why early Christianity was able to succeed among a Babel of competing deities.

As for the Koran, Wright’s task is admittedly harder. The young preacher Muhammed, reaching out to Jews and Christians, comes off as far more likable than the mature politician-warlord who rids Medina of Jews - some of them by hacking off their heads. Wright has to balance all the Koran’s injunctions to “kill the infidels’’ with its counsel of “to you your religion; to me my religion.’’

Can we all live together in peace? Over history’s long haul, Wright believes we can. In the meantime, believers need to feel themselves not in a zero-sum game but a win-win situation. That’s when scriptural bases for tolerance trump those counseling belligerence. Westerners fearful of radical Islam should therefore do all they can to encourage Muslim moderates, and the reverse.

Drake on SETI and religious advertisements

Here is a Spiegel interview with Frank Drake about SETI: Alien Hunting. Here is an amusing part of the interview that brought in ads for tortilla chips and religious cults:
SPIEGEL ONLINE: And last year, we even sent a commercial for tortilla-chips.

Drake: Oh, we did? I didn't know that! I think that's a stupid waste of resources. It doesn't make sense in any way. How should extraterrestrials buy our tortilla-chips?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And what if the first extraterrestrial signal that we receive on earth is a cosmic commercial?

Drake: Actually, one of my worst nightmares is that we find a signal and it will be an advertisement for a religious cult.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Why would that be a nightmare?

Drake: I want to learn more about a civilization than just its belief in the supernatural. Religion is an important part of the culture but may not help to improve the quality of life in a civilization. Maybe their religion is a really good one, but I doubt it.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That makes it sound like you're not religious.

Drake: I am not a religious person.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Does mankind devote enough resources to the search for extraterrestrial life?

Drake: There is no limit to the resources that we can use. We have technology that basically cannot be improved. But we need more of it. We have to search millions of stars, millions of frequencies. And we may have to do it over and over because they may not be transmitting all the time. It all comes down to money. For instance, in Germany you have beautiful radio-telescopes but they have never been used for SETI. The radio-astronomers are afraid that they will be criticized by the government. Nobody wants to have their funding cut because they seem to invest public funds in a project that could sound as if it was of dubious value.

Read the full interview here.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Earthquake and the improbable American

Here is a short video from NYT about Todd Shea and his relief efforts after the 2005 earthquake in Pakistan. The video is quite amazing - balancing the gravity of the topic with some fine humor (which comes naturally with Todd). If you have 10 minutes, do check it out.


Also, here is a link to his Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS).

Friday, June 26, 2009

Conspiracy theories

Here is an interesting Fresh Air interview with Chip Berlet on Extremism, Conspiracy Theory and Murder. It talks about the strange world views of some white supremacist group on the right and the 9/11 conspiracy groups to the left. Of interest here, there is a brief discussion of looney ideas involving the freemasons, the illuminati, etc. Berlet's focus is only on the US. But some of these ideas (especially those with anti-Semitic strands) get a makeover in the Muslim world and are also quite popular there. By the way, our favorite basket-case, Harun Yahya, is also obsessed with freemasons etc. It fits nicely with his end-of-times craziness and the Mahdi obsession. If he was in the US, he would certainly have made it into Berlet's list.

In any case, here is the description of the Fresh Air show:
Chip Berlet has studied extremism, conspiracy theories and hate groups for more than 25 years. In a recent report for PublicEye.org, he says that the murders of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller and Holocaust Museum guard Stephen T. Johns exemplify the potential for violence that often lurks within extremist groups.

Berlet argues that right-wing pundits share some of the moral responsibility for the actions of their followers. He summarizes the analysis in his report in a June 10 Huffington Post article about Johns' murder: "Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation."

Berlet is a senior analyst at Political Research Associates, a Boston-area-based think tank, and the co-author of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort. He is also the editor of Eyes Right! Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Reza Aslan on Iran on the Daily Show

Here is a very reasonable analysis on the current Iranian situation and on Obama's response to the crisis.
The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Reza Aslan
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

By the way, here is the idiotic column by Charles Krauthammer on Obama's repsonse on Iran.

Freud and Religion

Last night Laura Sizer and I went to see Freud's Last Session in Pittsfield, MA (here is an earlier post with a review from the Boston Globe). The play has a good tempo and does not extend its welcome. In 75 minutes we get to enjoy a good intellectual exchange between Freud and CS Lewis set at the eve of the second world war and close to Freud's death. As expected (and perhaps appropriately for this play), it leaves the question of religion open for the audience to interpret. But the play is not dull. If you have the opportunity, check it out (it runs until July 3rd). If nothing else, you will get a quick tutorial on their basic positions on religion.

Oh--and also note that it is playing on Stage 2 of the Barrington Stage Company, which is 2 blocks from the main theater. So may be you should get there 10 minutes early to figure out the exact location of the play. Of course - this warning is not because of our experience or any thing... :)

By the way, here is a 2-year old article from the NYT that talks about Freud's views on religion. It focuses on his later years - and provides an excellent companion-piece to the play. Some of Freud's ideas may be wrong, but it is great to see his nuanced approach to religion:
Late in life — he was in his 80s, in fact — Sigmund Freud got religion. No, Freud didn’t begin showing up at temple every Saturday, wrapping himself in a prayer shawl and reading from the Torah. To the end of his life, he maintained his stance as an uncompromising atheist, the stance he is best known for down to the present. In “The Future of an Illusion,” he described belief in God as a collective neurosis: he called it “longing for a father.” But in his last completed book, “Moses and Monotheism,” something new emerges. There Freud, without abandoning his atheism, begins to see the Jewish faith that he was born into as a source of cultural progress in the past and of personal inspiration in the present. Close to his own death, Freud starts to recognize the poetry and promise in religion.
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But there’s more to Freud’s take on religion than that. In his last book, written when he was old and ill, suffering badly from cancer of the jaw, Freud offers another perspective on faith. He argues that Judaism helped free humanity from bondage to the immediate empirical world, opening up fresh possibilities for human thought and action. He also suggests that faith in God facilitated a turn toward the life within, helping to make a rich life of introspection possible.
He takes an interesting stance in "Moses and Monotheism" regarding the belief in an invisible God:

About two-thirds of the way into the volume, he makes a point that is simple and rather profound — the sort of point that Freud at his best excels in making. Judaism’s distinction as a faith, he says, comes from its commitment to belief in an invisible God, and from this commitment, many consequential things follow. Freud argues that taking God into the mind enriches the individual immeasurably. The ability to believe in an internal, invisible God vastly improves people’s capacity for abstraction. “The prohibition against making an image of God — the compulsion to worship a God whom one cannot see,” he says, meant that in Judaism “a sensory perception was given second place to what may be called an abstract idea — a triumph of intellectuality over sensuality.”

If people can worship what is not there, they can also reflect on what is not there, or on what is presented to them in symbolic and not immediate terms. So the mental labor of monotheism prepared the Jews — as it would eventually prepare others in the West — to achieve distinction in law, in mathematics, in science and in literary art. It gave them an advantage in all activities that involved making an abstract model of experience, in words or numbers or lines, and working with the abstraction to achieve control over nature or to bring humane order to life. Freud calls this internalizing process an “advance in intellectuality,” and he credits it directly to religion.

I don't know if Freud said much about Islam, but it would probably fall in the same category as Judaism on this one. But he contrasts this belief in the invisible God with the beliefs of early Greeks and then later Christianity:
Freud speculates that one of the strongest human desires is to encounter God — or the gods — directly. We want to see our deities and to know them. Part of the appeal of Greek religion lay in the fact that it offered adherents direct, and often gorgeous, renderings of the immortals — and also, perhaps, the possibility of meeting them on earth. With its panoply of saints, Christianity restored visual intensity to religion; it took a step back from Judaism in the direction of the pagan faiths. And that, Freud says, is one of the reasons it prospered.
I don't know about this sharp contrast. The Greeks led the way in early scientific thinking and there really has been no shortage of abstract thinking in Christianity. But I'm commenting on this article and have not read much Freud. In any case, here is a point that places his comments on religion in a more complex light:

Though Freud hoped that mankind would pass beyond religion, he surely took inspiration from the story of Moses, a figure with whom he had been fascinated for many years. (He published his first essay on the prophet in 1914.) Freud wanted to lead people, and he wanted to make conceptual innovations that had staying power and strength: for this there could be no higher exemplar than the prophet.

“Moses and Monotheism” indicates that Freud, irreligious as he was, could still find inspiration in a religious figure. Something similar was true about Freud’s predecessor, Nietzsche. Nietzsche is famous for detesting Christianity, and by and large he did. But he did not detest Jesus Christ — whose spontaneity, toughness and freedom of spirit he aspired to emulate. “There has been only one Christian,” he once said, one person who truly lived up to the standards of the Gospel, “and he died on the cross.”

Schopenhauer, to whom both Nietzsche and Freud were deeply indebted, was himself an unbeliever, as well as being an unrelenting pessimist. To Schopenhauer, life was pain, grief, sorrow and little else. Yet he, too, was able to take inspiration from Christianity, affirming as he did that a faith that had a man being tortured on a cross as its central emblem couldn’t be entirely misleading in its overall take on life.

Interesting stuff. Read the full article here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Science at the Vatican Observatory

May be they deserve it. The Vatican has indeed meddled in science many times in the past few centuries. Perhaps, it has been tough ceding authority to professional scientists in understanding the natural world. But the Vatican Observatory has been doing fine astronomy for some time - and this message has been tough to get across (see an earlier post, Yes, Vatican Observatory does completely normal science). Back in 2000, I had the opportunity to attend a conference in Rome on galaxy disks, organized by the Vatican observatory. It was a fantastic conference - and they followed up with another one in 2007 on the Formation and evolution of galaxy disks.

Now we have an article in today's NYT about the Vatican Observatory that again reminds us that it does normal science:
But in the effort to rehabilitate the church’s image, nothing speaks louder than a paper by a Vatican astronomer in, say, The Astrophysical Journal or The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

On a clear spring night in Arizona, the focus is not on theology but on the long list of mundane tasks that bring a telescope to life. As it tracks the sky, the massive instrument glides on a ring of pressurized oil. Pumps must be activated, gauges checked, computers rebooted. The telescope’s electronic sensor, similar to the one in a digital camera, must be cooled with liquid nitrogen to keep the megapixels from fuzzing with quantum noise.

As Dr. Corbally rushes from station to station flicking switches and turning dials, he seems less like a priest or even an astronomer than a maintenance engineer. Finally when everything is ready, starlight scooped up by the six-foot mirror is chopped into electronic bits, which are reconstituted as light on his video screen.

“Much of observing these days is watching monitors and playing with computers,” Dr. Corbally says. “People say, ‘Oh, that must be so beautiful being out there looking at the sky.’ I tell them it’s great if you like watching TV.”
There you have it. This is the experience of being at a modern astronomical facility. But there is one small difference. There is a dedication plaque that inevitably brings God into the equation:
“This new tower for studying the stars has been erected on this peaceful site,” it says in Latin. “May whoever searches here night and day the far reaches of space use it joyfully with the help of God.” At that point, religion leaves off and science begins.
The question is, does this plaque affect their science? There is an ongoing debate going on over science & religion conflict or accommodation (see Jerry Coyne, Chris Mooney, Ken Miller, and just today, a thoughtful post from Sean Carroll). I will have a separate post on this stuff later. But here I wanted to address this question in light of science at the Vatican observatory. Vatican astronomers are certainly accomodationists and their papers are being published in peer-reviewed astronomy journals. Should we (as scientists) have a problem with their plaque and with their beliefs? As long as their science (not necessarily their whole worldview) does not bring in any supernatural assumptions and it goes through the standard peer-reviewed system - like any other work, it should be fine. Is it really a problem if they call their scientific observations, secondary causes?
The target tonight is three spiral galaxies — Nos. 3165, 3166, 3169 in the New General Catalog — lying about 60 million light-years from Earth, a little south of the constellation Leo. Sitting at a desk near Dr. Corbally is Aileen O’Donoghue, an astronomer from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., who is interested in how these gravitational masses tug at one another, creating the stellar equivalent of tides.
...
Back inside the control room she explains how the gravitational tides she is studying might be stellar nurseries. As one galaxy brushes by another, clouds of gas are stirred so violently that they give birth to stars.

In the Vatican Observatory’s annual report, at the point where a corporation might describe its business strategy, is a section delineating the difference between creatio ex nihilo (creation from nothing) and creatio continua: “the fact that at every instant, the continued existence of the universe itself is deliberately willed by God, who in this way is continually causing the universe to remain created.”

Theologians call these “primary causes,” those that flow from the unmoved mover. Sitting atop this eternal platform is another layer, the “secondary causes,” which can be safely left to science.

Dr. Corbally and Dr. O’Donoghue continue working through the night, collecting data on secondary causes — galactic tides, stellar birth. Sleep will wait until morning, and thoughts about primary causes for another time.
Read the full article here. By the way, the article mentions that one of the objects they were observing that night was a spiral galaxy, NGC 3169. Hey - this galaxy is a friend from my thesis. I was also looking at star formation. I wonder if their results are different from mine - and if that is the case, is it because of the plaque? :)

Also, see this lecture by Vatican astronomer Father George Coyne. The Q&A at the end (the last half hour) wonderfully illustrates his position on science & religion.

Oh - and as a bonus, here is an image of NGC 3169 from the Hubble Space Telescope. This galaxy is located roughly 70 million light years away - and we are looking the light from a few hundred billion stars. You can also see very cool dust lanes in the galaxy. However, the blue clumps (mostly sitting on top of the dust lanes) identify places where young stars reside. The central part of the galaxy is all awash in yellowish light. This is the result of the combined light of about a hundred billion stars - so many that we can't see them individually. Enjoy!

Religious vandalism in an ancient quarry

Ok..so it is not exactly vandalism, and the etched symbols are really a fantastic find for archaeologists:
Israeli archaeologists said on Sunday they had discovered the largest underground quarry in the Holy Land, dating back to the time of Jesus and containing Christian symbols etched into the walls.

The 4,000-square-meter (yard) cavern, buried 10 meters beneath the desert near the ancient West Bank city of Jericho, was dug about 2,000 years ago and was in use for about half a millennium, archaeologist Adam Zertal said.

The cave's main hall, about three meters tall, is supported by some 20 stone pillars and has a variety of symbols etched into the walls, including crosses dating back to about AD 350 and Roman legionary emblems.

Here is a short video from Scientific American/Reuters that takes you to this ancient quarry.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Freud and C.S. Lewis on the question of God

If you live in the northeast, you have an opportunity to see Freud duke it out with C.S. Lewis on the question of God:

FREUD'S LAST SESSION Play by Mark St. Germain

Suggested by "The Question of God?" by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr.

Directed by: Tyler Marchant. Set, Brian Prather. Lights, Clifton Taylor. Costumes, Mark Mariani. Sound, Beth Lake.

Presented by: Barrington Stage Company.

At: BSC Stage 2, VFW Hall, Pittsfield, MA, through July 3rd. Tickets, $15-30, 413-236-8888, www.barringtonstageco.org

I haven't seen it yet - so can't say much about its quality. But Laura (Sizer) and I are planning on going to the show this coming Wednesday (6/24). If you are in the area and are interested in the topic, then join us at the play.

Here is a review of the play from the Boston Globe:
Mark St. Germain has constructed an entire one-act play out of one simple “what if’’: What if Sigmund Freud and C.S. Lewis had met?

St. Germain got the idea from a book by Dr. Armand M. Nicholi Jr., “The Question of God’’ - a question to which, in the simplest terms, Lewis answered Yes and Freud No. But that exchange wouldn’t take more than a minute, so in “Freud’s Last Session’’ St. Germain embellishes it with a host of arguments, witticisms, and further questions, many of them drawn from the written work of the two men themselves.
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The good news is that the talk is often lively, intelligent, and engaging - perhaps even more so for those audience members who have not read widely in either Freud or Lewis. (And it’s hard to imagine many people outside of academe who’ve read deeply in both.) Freud questions Lewis bluntly about his conversion from atheism to Christianity at 33 (about eight years before this encounter would have taken place); Lewis pushes back with equal vigor, refusing to concede that faith and reason cannot coexist.
Read the full review here.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Questions about humanity in Moon - the movie

A few of us drove all the way to Boston yesterday to watch the new sci-fi film, Moon (that's the closest place it is playing from us). The movie is fantastic! If you like old-fashioned thoughtful sci-fi films, then check out Moon (if you only like action-adventure sci-fi, give this one a pass). Here is the trailer:



The movie is set on a lunar base some time in the near future. The purpose of the base is to convert He3 into fuel - a nice clean energy source for the Earth. Most of the base is robotic, and you only have one human crew member, on a 3-year contract, for maintenance. This is all I want to give you about the plot. In many ways, the movie shares a lineage from 2001, Solyaris (also the new Solaris), Blade Runner, and Alien. But don't worry - not in ways that you expect.

By the way, the potential of using Helium 3 (an isotope of Helium - rare on Earth) is not completely crazy. There are proposals out there that believe that He3 can extracted from the regolith of the Moon and used as fuel. However, its not clear how much effort will be required for this extraction and if it will make any economic sense. Nevertheless, US, Russia, China, and India have all expressed in further exploring this option. Read more about He3 mining here. Of course, we will also have to address ethical and legal questions about mining on the surface of the Moon. At present, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits any ownership rights on any celestial bodies, including the Moon. This will indeed be tested in the next decade or so.

However, like any other good sci-fi, the fundamental question in the movie is about the nature of humanity: What makes us human? There is no better place to ask this question than on the barren landscape of the Moon. In addition, the movie is a meditation on loneliness, memory, and perhaps even biophilia (the idea of an instinctive bond between humans and living beings. Thanks to Kevin Anderson for bringing to attention this possibility). The movie is written and directed by Duncan Jones (also recognized as Zowie Bowie - yes, David Bowie's son). The movie towards the end could have gone in any number of directions - but the director made some very smart decisions. Sam Rockwell in the lead is also fantastic. The movie, in fact, was written with him in mind - and it shows. Music is hauntingly beautiful and quite appropriate. You can hear some of it in the trailer.

If you have an opportunity, check it out. It is playing in the following cities.

While we are on the subject, here is an interesting op-ed piece in LA Times, Space archaeology, that talks about the preservation of Apollo landing sites:
Today, however, some of the most important elements of that shared space heritage, including Tranquility Base, are threatened. The Lunar X Prize, a $20-million award funded by Google, is being offered by the X Prize Foundation, which previously held a competition to develop private space travel. The first private group to land and maneuver a robotic rover on the moon before Dec. 31, 2012, will be the winner.

A "Heritage Bonus Prize" of perhaps $1 million (the actual amount has not yet been made public) will be given to the team that also sends back images of man-made objects on the moon. In order to take photographs of these artifacts, groups would have to first target their craft to land close to a previous landing site, then move their rover as close as possible -- even into the area where human activity occurred 40 years ago.

The rules for the competition state only that participants seeking the Heritage bonus must have their plans approved by the foundation "in order to eliminate unnecessary risks to the historically significant sites of interest," but there is no explanation what criteria will be used to judge risks as "unnecessary" or what steps are recommended to avoid damage.

The sites of early lunar landings are of unparalleled significance in the history of humanity, and extraordinary caution should be taken to protect them. Armstrong's iconic footprint and the American flag placed by the astronauts may yet be intact -- there is no wind or rain on the moon to damage or destroy them.
Read the full article here.

Going green in Iran

Yes - things are now really heating up in Iran. Lets go green for Iran.

I had an earlier post about the Iranian elections - that picked up on a Washington Post article that cited some opinion polls. While there is still confusion about the mode of rigging, it is quite clear now that the elections were indeed fixed - and fixed in a clumsy manner. For a critique of the Washington Post article, read this piece by Mansoor Moaddel. [Update 6/21: Also see this level-headed analysis of Obama's response to the Iranian situation: The Consequences of Engaging Iran]
It now seems that the Iranian government is going the way of confrontation. This is unfortunate. At the same time, it is phenomenal to watch young men and women confronting security forces and defying ban on rallies. Of course, the protest by Iranian soccer team was creative and effective. Keep up with Andrew Sullivan for a constant update on Iran and Iranian streets. Here is the latest statement from Mousavi:
Be sure that I will always stand with you. What this brother of yours recommends, especially to the dear youth, in terms of finding new solutions is to not allow liars and cheater steal your flag of defense of Islamic state, and foreigners rip the treasures of the Islamic republic which are your inheritance of the blood of your decent fathers. By trust in God, and hope for the future, and leaning on the strength of social movements, claim your rights in the frameworks of the existing constitution, based on principle of non-violence.

In this, we are not confronting the Basij. Basiji is our brother. In this we are not confronting the revolutionary guard. The guard is the keeper of our revolution. We are not confronting the army, the army is the keeper of our borders. These organs are the keepers of our independence, freedom and our Islamic republic. We are confronting deception and lies, we want to reform them, a reform by return to the pure principles of revolution.

We advise the authorities, to calm down the streets. Based on article 27 of the constitution, not only provide space for peaceful protest, but also encourage such gatherings. The state TV should stop badmouthing and taking sides. Before voices turn into shouting, let them be heard in reasonable debates. Let the press criticize, and write the news as they happen. In one word, create a free space for people to express their agreements and disagreements. Let those who want, say “takbeer” and don’t consider it opposition. It is clear that in this case, there won’t be a need for security forces on the streets, and we won’t have to face pictures and hear news that break the heart of anyone who loves the country and the revolution.

Your brother and companion Mir Hossein Mousavi

Read the full statement here. And for informational purposes, here is the Iranian political power structure (from accessdemocracy):

Religion and Mathematics

Seeking the direction of Mecca, times of prayers, lunar dates for religious festivals - all of these helped fuel astronomy, spherical trigonometry, and mathematics among Muslims in medieval times (also see the first part of the lecture by George Saliba: Islam and the Transformation of Greek Science). Here is a review of a book, Mathematics in India by Kim Plofker, and it highlights a similar role of religion in the development of mathematics in India:
Still, surviving Sanskrit texts reveal a rich tradition of Indian mathematical discoveries lasting more than 2,500 years. In the Early Vedic period (1200–600 BC), a decimal system of numbers was already established in India, together with rules for arithmetical operations (ganita) and geometry (rekha-ganita). These were encoded in a complex system of chants, prayers, hymns, curses, charms and other religious rituals. Cryptic phrases called sutras contained arithmetical rules for activities such as laying out a temple or arranging a sequence of sacrificial fires.
Very cool. And what better way to express love than a number table:
Large numbers held immense fascination. Acclamations of praise to the air, sky, times of day or heavenly bodies were expressed in powers of ten that went to a trillion or more. Reputedly, the young Prince Buddha successfully competed for the hand of Princess Gopa by reciting a number table that included names for the powers of ten beyond the twentieth decimal place.
But there are underlying practical reasons that drive the use of inventive mathematics:

As in other early agricultural civilizations, Indian mathematics probably emerged in response to the need to measure land areas and keep track of financial transactions, incomes and taxation. A rigid caste and class hierarchy reserved the mystery of numbers for elite Brahmins. To maintain personal power, mathematical knowledge was jealously guarded. Its communication was deliberately made difficult, such as in the perplexing rhythmic chant of mathematician Aryabhatta in the fifth century AD: "makhi-bhakhi-phakhi- dhaki-nakhi-nakhi-nakhi-hasjha-skaki-kisga-sghaki-kighva-ghaki..." This recital of values of sine differences in arc minutes would be memorized by aspiring mathematicians in much the same way as verses of the sacred text Bhagavadgita.

The book details the impressive achievements of Indian mathematicians, from Aryabhatta through Brahmagupta, Mahavira, Bhaskara and Madhava, until the Sanskrit tradition became irrelevant with the invasion of modern mathematics from Europe in the nineteenth century.
And on the exchange between Islamic and Indian intellectual cultures involving mathematics:
The chapter entitled 'Exchanges with the Islamic World' is of particular significance. The Muslim conquest of India brought with it the Islamic mathematical tradition, which was founded on Greek mathematics. Muslims made important advances in maths between the ninth and thirteenth centuries. Greco-Islamic and Indian mathematics were structured quite differently, with the former emphasizing proof and the latter, result. Probably because of Islamic influence, Indian ideas on the nature of mathematical proof moved in the direction of greater rigour.
The book, however, looks dense and not easy to read:

The book carefully separates fact from hyperbole, copiously quoting formulae. This makes for heavy reading in places, and one wishes that it had been interspersed with vignettes and light anecdotes. It is more of a research monograph than a popular book. But that is the price that scholarship exacts.

Mathematics in India explains how the early development of Indian maths was influenced by religion, by the need to build temples of specific proportions and to meet astrological imperatives. Similarly, it could be argued that Islamic mathematics was religiously motivated — for example, by the need to know the precise times of daily prayers, and to determine the direction of the holy Kaaba (the Qibla). But a quadratic equation solved by whoever, by whatever means and for whatever purpose must give exactly the same solutions. Ultimately, mathematics is mathematics.

And the same can be said for science, in general. Read the full review here.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Let there be no light (sensor)

Twenty first century again clashes with an old religious tradition:

A couple have taken legal action after claiming motion sensors installed at their holiday flat in Dorset breached their rights as Orthodox Jews.

Gordon and Dena Coleman said they cannot leave or enter their Bournemouth flat on the Sabbath because the hallway sensors automatically switch on lights.

The couple's religious code bans lights and other electrical equipment being switched on during Jewish holidays.

They have now issued a county court writ claiming religious discrimination. They also claim breach of their rights under the Equality Act 2006 and Human Rights Act 1998 and the case is due to be heard at Bournemouth County Court next month.

And why was the sensor installed:

The light sensors were installed at Embassy Court in Gervis Road to save money and energy but the couple, who live in Hertfordshire, felt they breached their religious rules.

Dr Coleman and her husband offered to pay for an override switch as a compromise but Embassy Court Management Company rejected this and the couple took legal advice.

They have said they will drop the legal action if an override switch is installed and their legal costs and compensation are paid.

The firm said almost all residents supported the installation of the sensors and taking legal action was the Colemans' "prerogative".

Other residents in the block of 35 flats, who could end up having to pay legal costs, are upset.

Ah - this would have been an excellent set-up for a Seinfeld episode. Read the full story here. Also, see posts on Shabbat gadgets here and here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Iran and the stem cell fatwa

Now that Iran is in the news, lets look at another aspect of this country. Here is a good segment (only 12 minutes long) from Frontline about Iran's progress regarding stem cells research - a topic still controversial in the US. But the fatwa here is to encourage scientific enterprise in Iran (tip Science & Religion Today):


Couple of interesting points: I think the segment does a fine job of presenting Iran in a more sensible light. The Mullahs in Qum look and sound quite reasonable. You can disagree with their particular position or with their beliefs, but it gives the impression that one can at least have a conversation with them.

Of course science & religion debates take a different dimension when it comes to Muslim countries like Iran. For example, it was interesting to see a shot of prayers at the institute. Similarly, imams are in charge of the ethical directions of the research. Then we also have a positive fatwa about science. So things are not as simple to categorize as science versus religion - it's more complicated than that. By the way, I don't know how their biology is taught and if evolution is included in their curriculum. I do know that two senior Iranian clerics under Ayatollah Khomeini, Behishti and Bahomar, wrote a book on Islam and devoted a section to theistic evolution. Considering their ease with stem cells research (yes, it is practical science...but still) I wouldn't be surprised if evolution is taught as a scientific fact. But more information is needed on this.

In the Frontline segment, I also liked how they took us into the home of one of the researchers - and we see him watching an episode of Friends. With all the election mess, it is also good to see this side of Iran.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Yusuf Estes' ignorance and hilarity combo about evolution

For your amusement, here is Shaykh Yusuf Estes proudly displaying some classic misunderstandings about evolution (tip Zakir Thaver):


He is funny about things based on complete misconceptions. He sometimes even uses French to sound funny. And then he asks some "deep" questions in a gravel voice: "If man evolved from monkeys - why do we still have monkeys"? Or the claim that all of the creatures shown in the ascent of man caricatures are still around (yes - all six cartoon depictions :)). Oh no. I give up. Now that I think about these things - sure enough Estes' version of evolution seems unbelievable. The only problem is that both of these versions are a product of fundamental misconceptions about evolution: to think that evolution is a form of a ladder and that humans descended from monkeys.

But credit where credit is due. Yusuf Estes is completely right about Intelligent Design. Yes, it is indeed creationism by another name.

The issue I want to highlight here is the deadly combination of confidence he exudes and the ignorance he displays about the subject he is talking about. In many ways he is a somewhat funnier version of Harun Yahya (though Harun Yahya's writings are also unintentionally hilarious). But overall, if you need an example of a classic anti-science/anti-intellectual attitude - then this is it. Like Yahya, he is not willing to understand evolution (even at a base-minimum level) to launch an interesting and/or intellectually challenging critique. Instead, he is happy in his bizarre version of evolution - and thinks he is being clever when he make jokes about it.

For your comparative pleasure, please also see posts on the evolutionary misadventures of Harun Yahya, Zakir Naik, and Javed Ghamidi. And now you can see why I don't include Mustafa Akyol in the same category. We may disagree about Akyol's conclusions - but at least he understands evolution much much better than Estes and the three cited above and we can possibly have a reasonable discussion about science. But where do you really start a conversation with Estes, Naik, or Yahya? I'm still somewhat hopeful about Ghamidi.

Monday, June 15, 2009

The Iranian Election - Is the internet fooling us?

I'm somewhat disturbed by the coverage of Iranian elections. Don't get me wrong - I was (and still am) really hoping for a Mousavi victory. However, blogs and newspapers had started to shape the elections either as a Mousavi victory or a tainted election way before the elections. But there were no numbers to back it up. Most of the assessments were based on images and statements from people participating in the rallies and the internet. Yes, Mousavi rallies in Tehran and some other cities were indeed very impressive. Then the results came out and it was a shocker - at least with regards to our expectations. Not surprisingly, charges of rigging were everywhere along with wild speculations about how the election was fixed. Is it possible that we have been deceived by our self-reinforcing blogs and media reports - all based on scant information? This doesn't have to be a part of any conspiracy. Wasn't Howard Dean on a roll in the 2004 Democratic primaries? At least that's how it appeared on the internet and even in several of the polls - and then he ended up finishing a disappointing 3rd in Iowa. Yes, Dean's supporters were vocal and had a strong presence on the internet. He lost perhaps due to to bad organization on the ground. Nevertheless, it provides us with a cautionary tale.

We now have a tricky situation in Iran. Many are calling for Obama to publicly reject the elections (Biden already cast a doubt om the elections in yesterday's Meet the Press). The Washington Post and the NYT already have scathing editorials today. What I find strange is that not many people are talking about an opinion piece in today's Washington Post that presents an analysis of pre-election opinion polls. As far as I know, it is the only piece in a major newspaper today that presents an analysis backed by actual numbers. The authors find that the results are in fact a direct reflection of the opinion survey conducted a few weeks ago. These guys may be completely wrong (and I hope they are and the result gets overturned) - but we at least have to pay some attention to their data. So here are some of their highlights:
The election results in Iran may reflect the will of the Iranian people. Many experts are claiming that the margin of victory of incumbent President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was the result of fraud or manipulation, but our nationwide public opinion survey of Iranians three weeks before the vote showed Ahmadinejad leading by a more than 2 to 1 margin -- greater than his actual apparent margin of victory in Friday's election.

While Western news reports from Tehran in the days leading up to the voting portrayed an Iranian public enthusiastic about Ahmadinejad's principal opponent, Mir Hossein Mousavi, our scientific sampling from across all 30 of Iran's provinces showed Ahmadinejad well ahead.
So three weeks ago, Ahmadinejad was ahead in all 30 provinces! But how reliable is the poll:

Independent and uncensored nationwide surveys of Iran are rare. Typically, preelection polls there are either conducted or monitored by the government and are notoriously untrustworthy. By contrast, the poll undertaken by our nonprofit organizations from May 11 to May 20 was the third in a series over the past two years. Conducted by telephone from a neighboring country, field work was carried out in Farsi by a polling company whose work in the region for ABC News and the BBC has received an Emmy award. Our polling was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

Now, much is being made that Mousavi lost his own Azeri ethnic vote - and that would be impossible in a fair election. But the polling was already showing a different trend:
The breadth of Ahmadinejad's support was apparent in our preelection survey. During the campaign, for instance, Mousavi emphasized his identity as an Azeri, the second-largest ethnic group in Iran after Persians, to woo Azeri voters. Our survey indicated, though, that Azeris favored Ahmadinejad by 2 to 1 over Mousavi.
And now we come to the possible internet illusion:

Much commentary has portrayed Iranian youth and the Internet as harbingers of change in this election. But our poll found that only a third of Iranians even have access to the Internet, while 18-to-24-year-olds comprised the strongest voting bloc for Ahmadinejad of all age groups.

The only demographic groups in which our survey found Mousavi leading or competitive with Ahmadinejad were university students and graduates, and the highest-income Iranians. When our poll was taken, almost a third of Iranians were also still undecided. Yet the baseline distributions we found then mirror the results reported by the Iranian authorities, indicating the possibility that the vote is not the product of widespread fraud.

By the way, in this interconnected world it is quite possible that progressives in Iran may have overestimated their own numbers based on their internet presence and media coverage in the West - reflecting back to create the image of a rigged election. This was reminding me of Pakistan. Most Pakistanis that you'll meet in the US are from Karachi, Lahore or Islamabad. They hold a particular view of Pakistan and are (usually :) ) well adjusted to the modern world. But 70% of Pakistan's population lives in rural areas with not much introduction to modernity - let alone the internet. While twitter, blogs, and facebook may bring you one aspect of Pakistan, in a free and fair election, that may not represent the electoral reality.

But why would Iranians support Ahmedinejad? Well...I don't know... because I don't find much to support him. But it seems that many Iranians consider him a strong negotiator. But at the same time, a majority wants free press, free elections, and better relations with the US:

For instance, nearly four in five Iranians -- including most Ahmadinejad supporters -- said they wanted to change the political system to give them the right to elect Iran's supreme leader, who is not currently subject to popular vote. Similarly, Iranians chose free elections and a free press as their most important priorities for their government, virtually tied with improving the national economy. These were hardly "politically correct" responses to voice publicly in a largely authoritarian society.

Indeed, and consistently among all three of our surveys over the past two years, more than 70 percent of Iranians also expressed support for providing full access to weapons inspectors and a guarantee that Iran will not develop or possess nuclear weapons, in return for outside aid and investment. And 77 percent of Iranians favored normal relations and trade with the United States, another result consistent with our previous findings.

Iranians view their support for a more democratic system, with normal relations with the United States, as consonant with their support for Ahmadinejad. They do not want him to continue his hard-line policies. Rather, Iranians apparently see Ahmadinejad as their toughest negotiator, the person best positioned to bring home a favorable deal -- rather like a Persian Nixon going to China.

Elections may still have been rigged. But we need to pay attention to the data that we have. From what Ballen and Doherty are showing us, we need to at least take a second look at their claims. All that said, it is also possible that the protest rallies in Iran - even if they are for the wrong reasons - may force a change in regime. Ayotallah Ali Khamenei is quite pragmatic when it comes to the issues of power. If he sees that the protests are getting out of hand, he may go against Ahmadinejad. That will be good, but that may still not mean that the elections were rigged.

In any case, read the full article here and their Iranian opinion survey here (pdf).

UPDATE (6/16): Here is a better article that addresses the above opinion poll and looks at the issue in a more complex light: Many signs of fraud, but no hard evidence. And also see read this quite reasonable opinion piece by David Ignatius: Obama's massage to Iran.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Science & Religion: The toilet edition

Yes, nothing is sacred. Sometimes we even have to talk about crap (see earlier posts Ancient toilet may hold clues about the Dead Sea Scrolls and Waste of Crusaders). There is now a controversy over sanitation rules and the refusal of the ultraconservative Swartzentruber Amish sect to modernize their septic tanks (By the way, this group broke off from the larger Old Older Amish Church - because they thought the latter group was becoming too modern. wow!):

The septic fight began in late 2006 when the executive director of the Cambria County Sewage Enforcement Agency, Deborah Sedlmeyer, found that human waste at the schoolhouse, where 18 children were taught, was being collected in a 50-gallon metal drum under an outhouse

“It was overrunning the barrels,” Ms. Sedlmeyer said, and it was being dumped, untreated, onto nearby fields.

The Swartzentrubers agreed to improve the outhouses, adding a larger, 250-gallon holding tank and treating the waste with lime.

But they refused to follow state law, which called for installing a 5,000-gallon precast concrete tank and allowing someone certified by the state to use an electronic meter to test the waste’s chemical content.

The elders had determined that use of a precast tank was too modern — they want to make the vat themselves — as was the electronic meter and the requirement that they obtain certification to do the testing.
This leads to some interesting issues of religious freedom and state laws. If the health risks extend beyond this Amish community, then (perhaps) the decision for state intervention can be easily supported. However, what if this Amish community is the only one affected? Should the state force them to do something that is fundamentally against their religion? What about the kids? I don't know much about the particular legal arrangements with the Amish communities, but do community laws supersede state laws when it comes to kid's education, immunization, etc.?

In any case, read the full article here.

On a different note, here is a bizarre sermon that judges men (or males - you'll have to see the sermon to appreciate the distinction) solely from their peeing preferences. In fact, he also justifies the use of King James version of the Bible from this - and also figures out what's wrong with America today. This is a comprehensive theory, and if you are a guy, you will have a lot to think about when you next visit the loo. I know you are dying to hear this sermon (this clip is only 5 mins long), so without further ado, here it is (tip PsyRel):

Friday, June 12, 2009

Trailer for Darwin biopic, "Creation"

Here is the trailer of a highly anticipated biopic of Darwin, Creation (hat tip Laelaps). It is adapted from the book, Annie's Box: Charles Darwin, his daughter, and human evolution by Randal Keynes.


Looks fantastic and I think the choice of Paul Bettany as Darwin is excellent. He has already played a pseudo-Darwin character in Peter Weir's excellent, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World. In case, you don't remember, here are some stills of Bettany's character, Dr. Stephen Maturin:


And just to be complete, both Paul Bettany and Jennifer Connelly were in another science-related biopic: A Beautiful Mind.

The release date for Creation is September 25th (only the UK release date is listed - so I'm assuming that the US date would be the same). I see a field trip coming. Visit the movie's official site here.

From Mustafa Akyol - On evolution and ID

Earlier this month I had a post about Turkish journalist, Mustafa Akyol, and the transformation of his views from ID to evolution. That led to some spirited discussion and Bulent Murtezaoglu pointed out that Akyol is still promoting ID on his Turkish language website. To clarify matters, I inquired directly from Mustafa Akyol and this is what he had to say:
It is true that I have been rethinking on the issue of biological origins. The rethinking continues, at the background of the many other issues that I am more deeply involved these days, and that's why I have been avoiding making strong statements on this topic.

Yet I can still say the following: I feel certain is that neither the biological world nor the physical universe can be explained according to the presuppositions of philosophical naturalism, i.e., matter is all there is, and there is no purpose, intention and meaning to it. On the other hand, biological evolution seems to be a scientific fact. There are still "gaps" in this evolution, especially in the very beginning of it ("abiogenesis"), and if this means that methodological naturalism is wrong, too, then that's fine. Intelligent Design would be the best explanation, in that case, to explain these "gaps." But there might not be "gaps" at all, and methodological naturalism can be confirmed as we learn more about the nature of these "gaps." Would this vindicate philosophical naturalism? No. Because the very laws of nature, under which evolution and all other natural processes operate, seem to have been "fine-tuned" and "designed."

To date, I have found the most intellectually satisfying example of this latter argument in Michael Denton's remarkable book, "Nature's Destiny." If you ask me what I think about evolution these days, I can probably say that I think along the lines Denton articulates in that book. In the future, I am ready to go wherever the evidence leads.
I don't endorse this reliance of the "God of the gaps" arguments (though he is open to reinterpretation if the gaps are filled...) nor of the crutch of "fine-tuning". Nevertheless, this is consistent with Akyol's recent (English) writings and confirms his move away from ID. I haven't read Denton's book, but from what I know, he has also moved away from ID and into the fine-tuning realm (sigh!). I can see why Akyol would find his views appealing.

As per our prior discussion, I also inquired about the difference between his Turkish and English language websites, and this is what he had to say:
There is no difference between what I write in Turkish or English on this matter. My Turkish website only has the visible section of my ID-related articles, with which I have no problem keeping there. I am not renouncing my older writings, I am just trying to approach the issue in a different way.
I leave this to my Turkish speaking friends to interpret. But I'm still puzzled as to why highlight ID (the Disco. version) on his Turkish website when he doesn't really agree with its basic premise anymore. Removing it from the website would not mean a renunciation of older writings. It may simply reflect an evolution in thinking - nothing wrong with that.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Opposition to a Saudi school in Virginia

Here is a case where we have to see through biases from both ends of the spectrum. The issue is the expansion of a Islamic school in Fairfax county, VA, financed primarily by Saudi Arabia. On the one hand, opposition to the school may be motivated by straightforward anti-Muslim sentiment - prominent in certain quarters of the population (though Fairfax county would not necessarily fall in this category). On the other hand, there is a real possibility that the school curriculum is rooted in the Middle Ages and no student should be exposed to such regressive education.

But others object to the academy’s curriculum, saying it espouses a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam known as Wahhabism. A leaflet slipped into mailboxes in early spring called the school “a hate training academy.”

James Lafferty, chairman of a loose coalition of individuals and groups opposed to the school, said that its teachings sow intolerance, and that it should not be allowed to exist, let alone expand.

“We feel that it is in reality a madrassa, a training place for young impressionable Muslim students in some of the most extreme and most fanatical teachings of Islam,” Mr. Lafferty said. “That concerns us greatly.”

School officials and parents say they are bewildered and frustrated by such claims. The academy is no different from other religious schools, they say, and educates model students who go on to top schools, teaches Arabic to American soldiers, and no longer uses texts that drew criticism after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
While I'm skeptical of their changes, I would like to see some specific examples regarding the offensive curriculum. At the same time, this does not look encouraging:

Last year, the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom, an independent, bipartisan federal agency charged with promoting religious freedom in United States foreign policy, concluded that texts used at the school contained “exhortations to violence” and intolerance.

School officials rejected those findings, saying the commission misinterpreted and mistranslated outdated materials. The school now prints its own materials and no longer uses official Saudi curriculum, said Rahima Abdullah, the academy’s education director.

Read the full article here.

I went and looked at this report from 2008 and it provides specific examples of offensive material in the curriculum. In addition, it seems that there has been a reluctance on the part of Saudi government to release all the textbooks:

Nevertheless, although it was unable to obtain the entire collection, the Commission managed to acquire and review 17 ISA textbooks in use during this school year from other, independent sources, including a congressional office. While the texts represent just a small fraction of the books used in this Saudi government school, the Commission’s review confirmed that these texts do, in fact, include some extremely troubling passages that do not conform to international human rights norms. The Commission calls once again for the full public release of all the Arabic-language textbooks used at the ISA.

So is there offensive material in the textbooks? Hmm....yes - definitely.

The most problematic texts involve passages that are not directly from the Koran but rather contain the Saudi government’s particular interpretation of Koranic and other Islamic texts. Some passages clearly exhort the readers to commit acts of violence, as can be seen in the following two examples:

  • In a twelfth-grade Tafsir (Koranic interpretation) textbook, the authors state that it is permissible for a Muslim to kill an apostate (a convert from Islam), an adulterer, or someone who has murdered a believer intentionally: “He (praised is He) prohibits killing the soul that God has forbidden (to kill) unless for just cause…” Just cause is then defined in the text as “unbelief after belief, adultery, and killing an inviolable believer intentionally.” (Tafsir, Arabic/Sharia, 123)

  • A twelfth-grade Tawhid (monotheism) textbook states that “[m]ajor polytheism makes blood and wealth permissible,” which in Islamic legal terms means that a Muslim can take the life and property of someone believed to be guilty of this alleged transgression with impunity. (Tawhid, Arabic/Sharia, 15) Under the Saudi interpretation of Islam, “major polytheists” include Shi’a and Sufi Muslims, who visit the shrines of their saints to ask for intercession with God on their behalf, as well as Christians, Jews, Hindus, and Buddhists.
At least Saudis have a big-tent policy: Polytheists include many Muslims also. And here are just couple of more examples:
These other statements vilify adherents of the Ahmadi, Baha’i, and Jewish religions, as well as of Shi’a Islam. This is despite the fact that the Saudi government is obligated as a member of the United Nations and a state party to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and other relevant treaties to guarantee the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. The statements include the following:
  • “Today, Qadyanis [Ahmadis] are one of the greatest strongholds for spreading aberration, deviation, and heresy in the name of religion, even from within Islamic countries. Thus, the Qadyani [Ahmadi] movement has become a force of destruction and internal corruption today in the Islamic world…” (“Aspects of Muslim Political and Cultural History,” Eleventh Grade, Administrative/Social Track, Sharia/Arabic Track, 99)

  • “It [Baha’ism] is one of the destructive esoteric sects in the modern age... It has become clear that Babism [the precursor to Baha’ism], Baha’ism, and Qadyanism [Ahmadism] represent wayward forces inside the Islamic world that seek to strike it from within and weaken it. They are colonial pillars in our Islamic countries and among the true obstacles to a renaissance.” (“Aspects of Muslim Political and Cultural History,” Eleventh Grade, 99-100)

  • “The cause of the discord: The Jews conspired against Islam and its people. A sly, wicked person who sinfully and deceitfully professed Islam infiltrated (the Muslims). He was ‘Abd Allah b. Saba’ (from the Jews of Yemen). [___]* began spewing his malice and venom against the third of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, ‘Uthman (may God be pleased with him), and falsely accused him.” (Tawhid, Administrative/Social Sciences Track, 67)
    (*The word or words here were obscured by correction fluid.)
This is crazy stuff. I don't remember this kind of stuff in 11th/12th grades in Pakistan. We were of course more interested in the sciences - and we never took other subjects seriously. But in the 1990's the curriculum did take a more anti-India stance.

Back to the Saudi Academy in Virginia: Now...there are claims that the Academy has modified some of these passages. I'm not sure how serious are these revisions. Even so - there is no excuse whatsoever to have such material in textbooks prior to 2007.

Read the report from the US Commission on International Religious Freedom here. By the way, this is all in a Saudi school in the US - so one can only imagine what is being taught in Saudi Arabia itself (also see an earlier post: Saudi Arabia - Boldly marching back in time). In case, you are still not impressed, here is a BBC segment on a Saudi school in England (I had posted it earlier - but here is it again in this context). They also show specific examples and allow the Director of the Saudi school to defend the textbooks used there (about 4 minutes into the segment). It is quite painful to watch - but it provides an insight on the cluelessness of these school administrators.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

Fictional afterlives

Neuroscientist David Eagleman has written a collection of fantastic (in the literal sense) afterlife scenarios in Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives. It looks great! Here are bits from a review from Nature:
Sum gathers 40 playful sketches of what an afterlife might hold for us, from expanding into a nine-dimensional cloud to working as an extra in other people's dreams. As rigorous and imaginative as the writings of Italo Calvino and Alan Lightman, each vignette is a glimpse into an expansive topic such as time, faith or memory. Together they illuminate an astounding range of possibilities for the meaning of human life.
Here are some examples:
The book includes, as one might expect, a round of fables that deflate Christian stereotypes of the hereafter. In some, paradise is vulnerable to the petty vices of men — holy war, bickering, bureaucracy, even communism — which makes these versions of heaven more like comic varieties of hell. In another, God is revealed to be an opportunistic tinkerer who doesn't understand His own creation.

Eagleman is at his sharpest when he envisions efforts to evade death using science. In one tale, a doctor rids the world of mortality only to be killed by rioters nostalgic for natural death. In another, the elderly pay a company to upload their minds into computers that would stimulate them with their own private afterlives for eternity — if only the machines worked. Death is an essential part of life.
There is also a strange story involving the universe itself. But here is one about our grieving atoms:
Hope returns when Eagleman trades in his telescope for a microscope. There is some comfort in the idea that "when you die, you are grieved by all the atoms of which you were composed".
What about beliefs of Eagleman himself? Well...that's where his "possibilianism" comes in:
The best stories in Sum remind us that it is natural to want to know our place in the scheme of things. The book is a scripture of sorts, but because each myth contradicts the last, it is not a dogmatic collection. Eagleman has said that he is neither a believer nor a non-believer in the conventional religious sense. Rather, he considers himself a "possibilian", which he defines as a creed for "those that celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses". These may indeed be the qualities of a good scientist — and a good storyteller.
It sounds fascinating. On a related note, here is Iggy Pop's Nice to be Dead from his intriguing new album Preliminaires: