Monday, October 29, 2007

Sunday, October 28, 2007

"Two Saudi Arabias": More on the new Saudi University

The $12.5 billion King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) is moving ahead (see an earlier post about the university endowment here). From the New York Times:

The king has broken taboos, declaring that the Arabs have fallen critically behind much of the modern world in intellectual achievement and that his country depends too much on oil and not enough on creating wealth through innovation.

“There is a deep knowledge gap separating the Arab and Islamic nations from the process and progress of contemporary global civilization,” said Abdallah S. Jumah, the chief executive of Saudi Aramco. “We are no longer keeping pace with the advances of our era.”

Ok...this is a good starting point. So how is this university going to function in the ultra-conservative environment of Saudi Arabia:

Its planners say men and women will study side by side in an enclave walled off from the rest of Saudi society, the country’s notorious religious police will be barred and all religious and ethnic groups will be welcome in a push for academic freedom and international collaboration sure to test the kingdom’s cultural and religious limits.

This undertaking is directly at odds with the kingdom’s religious establishment, which severely limits women’s rights and rejects coeducation and robust liberal inquiry as unthinkable.

For the new institution, the king has cut his own education ministry out the loop, hiring the state-owned oil giant Saudi Aramco to build the campus, create its curriculum and attract foreigners.

This is good for the university, but isn't it frustrating for the society? The King clearly knows (at least from this example) the value of academic freedom and a less oppressed environment for the development of a healthy intellectual environment. Why can't he apply at least some of these ideals to the society as a whole? Heck, he can start by at least allowing women to drive. And what lesson can we draw from the fact that the King had to cut his own education ministry out of the loop for the development of KAUST? The King must think there must be something wrong with the way the ministry uses its authority. And sure enough:

Traditional Saudi practice is on display at the biggest public universities, where the Islamic authorities vet the curriculum, medical researchers tread carefully around controversial subjects like evolution, and female and male students enter classrooms through separate doors and follow lectures while separated by partitions.

Furthermore, ideas simply don't come out of isolation. The society itself must also have some reasonable degree of freedom:

Even in Jidda, the kingdom’s most liberal city, a status rooted in its history as a trading outpost, change comes slowly. This month the governor allowed families to celebrate the post-Ramadan Id al-Fitr holiday in public, effectively allowing men and women to socialize publicly on the same streets for the first time.

The religious police were accused of beating a man to death because he was suspected of selling alcohol. Conservatives have fended off efforts by women to secure the right to drive or to run for office, although women have made considerable gains in access to segregated education and workplaces.

Hopefully, KAUST will have an impact on the larger society as a whole:

Supporters of what is to be called the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or Kaust, wonder whether the king is simply building another gated island to be dominated by foreigners, like the compounds for oil industry workers that have existed here for decades, or creating an institution that will have a real impact on Saudi society and the rest of the Arab world.

“There are two Saudi Arabias,” said Jamal Khashoggi, the editor of Al Watan, a newspaper. “The question is which Saudi Arabia will take over.”

Read the full story here. (thanks, Marina for providing the link to the story)

Read an article from the Chronicle of Higher Education about KAUST here.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Out of context: An 'origin of life' paper is retracted after 52 years

A paper discussing the origin of life has been retracted after 52 years. Why? Its becoming a favorite for Creationists, who are taking some quotes out of context.
In January 1955, Homer Jacobson, a chemistry professor at Brooklyn College, published a paper called “Information, Reproduction and the Origin of Life” in American Scientist, the journal of Sigma Xi, the scientific honor society.

In it, Dr. Jacobson speculated on the chemical qualities of earth in Hadean time, billions of years ago when the planet was beginning to cool down to the point where, as Dr. Jacobson put it, “one could imagine a few hardy compounds could survive.”

Nobody paid much attention to the paper at the time, he said in a telephone interview from his home in Tarrytown, N.Y. But today it is winning Dr. Jacobson acclaim that he does not want — from creationists who cite it as proof that life could not have emerged on earth without divine intervention.

So after 52 years, he has retracted it.

The retraction came about when, on a whim, Dr. Jacobson ran a search for his name on Google. At age 84 and after 20 years of retirement, “I wanted to see, what have I done in all these many years?” he said. “It was vanity. What can I tell you?”
Actually its cool that Homer Jacobson was googling his name to see his impact. And if you can't be found on Google, did you ever really exist? Ok, that is a different issue. But which Creationists are really quoting him? Its our Muslim Creationist, Harun Yahya!, for example, says Dr. Jacobson’s paper “undermines the scenario that life could have come about by accident.” Another creationist site,, says his findings mean that “within a few minutes, all the various parts of the living organism had to make themselves out of sloshing water,” an impossible feat without a supernatural hand.

“Ouch,” Dr. Jacobson said. “It was hideous.”
Actually, we shouldn't be too harsh on Harun Yahya. He has only now gotten to the scientific literature of the 1950s. Soon, he will learn about the importance of the RNA, the extremophiles living near volcanic vents, etc. May be then he will also gain some understanding of the science behind evolution.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Another gem from Bill O'Reilley

This is quite funny (but you should also keep a barf bag nearby while watching this video). Yes, yes...when we run into a difficult problem, why can't we simply say "God did it" and go home? While Ben Stein can invoke Newton, Einstein, and Darwin for their beliefs, but had they really followed this "God did it" methodology, nobody would know their names today.


Teaching of Creationism banned in Sweden

For the most part, Creationism (and its offspring, Intelligent Design) has been a headache for US schools. But now Europe is also experiencing the problem. Earlier this month Council of Europe passed a statement against the teaching of Creationism in science classrooms. Taking practical actions, Sweden has now banned the teaching of Creationism or Intelligent Design alongside evolution. However, religious education will remain in the curriculum:
Religious Education will remain on the curriculum and it will still be allowed to start the school day with prayers. But in classes teachers will be expected to stick to the curriculum.

"End-of-term services in school are great," he said, and added that religious education would remain a school subject. But all elements of religious worship would have to be completely separate from class teaching.
I'm assuming that these religious worship elements are optional and the default is not to have any worship.

Will these steps stem the spread of Creationism? It hasn't completely worked out in the US and we may have to devise a different strategy to address the problem. But banning Creationism from schools is a necessary first step.

Read the full story here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Lecture on October 25th: "Doubt - Where you'd least expect it" by Jennifer Michael Hecht

As part of Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion, we will have Jennifer Michael Hecht on October 25th for a talk titled, Doubt - Where you'd least expect it. She is a historian of science and is the author Doubt: A History, The End of Soul and The Happiness Myth. She is also a poet and her poetry books include The Next Ancient World and Funny. I read Doubt last year, and its a very well-written book. Her chapter on Muslim and Jewish skeptics of the Middle ages is fascinating and I think she will be touching a bit on that in her talk at Hampshire College (Added: you can also listen to a podcast of her interview on Speaking of Faith - thanks to Nizam for the link). If you live in/near western Massachusetts, please join us at the lecture. As usual, we will also be recording the lecture and I will post the video when its available.

Here is the full announcement:
Hampshire College Lecture Series on Science & Religion Presents

Doubt - Where You'd Least Expect It
Jennifer Michael Hecht

Thursday, October 25, 2007
5:30p.m., Franklin Patterson Hall, Main Lecture Hall
Hampshire College

The recent "God wars" hide how long these issues have been around. On both the religious and the atheist side, no one seems to know the history of religious and philosophical doubt. Indeed, they think it doesn't exist. But in fact, there has been doubt throughout history. There are instances of complete and lasting rejection of the idea of God or an afterlife in the Hebrew Bible, in the medieval Moslem world, among Western scholars during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. The idea of a past wherein people could not imagine a world without God is essentially wrong, a 20th century misunderstanding of the contribution of the Enlightenment. Doubt is older than most faiths and full of paragons of bravery, intellect, and character. Also, in history, doubters have a much better sense of humor than do today's famous atheists. Hecht will get us thinking, talking, and especially, laughing.

Jennifer Michael Hecht is a fellow of the New York Institute for the Humanities and teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at The New School, New York. She is the author of Doubt: A History, The End of Soul, and The Happiness Myth along with her poetry books, The Next Ancient World and Funny

Upcoming lectures:
  • George Saliba, Thursday, March 6, 2008
  • George V. Coyne, S.J., Friday, March 28, 2008
About the Hampshire College Science & Religion Lecture Series:
This is the second year of a three-year lecture series that aims to bring together philosophers, theologians, historians and scientists to discuss topics in science & religion. The themes for the lecture series are as follows:

2006-2007: Nature, Belief & the Supernatural
2007-2008: A History of Conflict & Cooperation
2008-2009: A Matter of Origins & the Meaning of Life

For more information on the Lecture Series, please visit

The Hampshire College Integrated Science & Humanities Initiative
Hampshire College Office of the President
Hampshire College Office of the Dean of Faculty
The Schools of Cognitive Science, Natural Science, and Humanities, Arts & Cultural Studies

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Friday, October 19, 2007

Symposium on Science & the Muslim Civilization in Lahore

Khwrazimic Science Society (KSS), in collaboration with Iqbal Academy Pakistan, is holding a symposium on Science and the Muslim Civilization on November 4th. This event is free and open to public. If you are in Lahore or in its vicinity, you should make an effort to attend it. Here is the introduction to the symposium:

The KSS feels that there is a growing need in the country to foment debate on fundamental discourses that sufficiently overlap with our national conscience and are also of far-reaching social and intellectual verve. The tradition prevailing in our science curricula is one of insulation with social and historical traditions. As a result, there is a pressing need to broaden a wider historical perspective in most of our intellectual exercises. Recently, there has been an upsurge of literature and international debate on any relation between Islamic civilization and modern sciences, ranging from extreme positions such as “Islamization of Science” to the “Marginalization of Islam”. Religion and culture are the two values deeply engrained in our society and as these values come face to face with modern science, deep questions need to be asked. One such question is the question of history and sociology. However, these discussions are mostly limited to academic circles and are awaiting a wider appreciation inside our country. In the same spirit, the KSS feels that it is important to organize a public symposium touching upon the historical crossroads between Islam, Muslim socities and science.

George Saliba has been invited from Columbia to speak at the conference. Interestingly, he will also be coming to Hampshire in March 2008, as part of our Science & Religion lecture series at Hampshire College.

You can find full details of the Lahore symposium here.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Finding Mecca from space - praying at the Space Station

The first Malaysian astronaut, Sheikh Muszaphar Shukor, is now on International Space Station (ISS), and he will stay at ISS for 9 days. The (relatively) big news, however, was that he wanted to pray in space, and so the issue of finding Mecca's direction from 220 miles above the ground was brought up.

He's a devout Muslim and when he says his daily prayers he wants to face Mecca, specifically the Ka'aba, the holiest place in Islam ("Turn then thy face towards the Sacred Mosque: wherever ye are, turn your faces towards it .... " The Quran, Al-Baqarah, 2:149).

That's where the trouble comes in. From ISS, orbiting 220 miles above the surface of the Earth, the qibla (an Arabic word meaning the direction a Muslim should pray toward Mecca) changes from second to second. During some parts of the space station's orbit, the qibla can move nearly 180 degrees during the course of a single prayer. What's a devout Muslim to do?

Well...I guess a devout Muslim would not worry about the technicalities too much and more focus on the prayer. No, no, wait. Malaysian Space Agency actually worried about this problem, and convened a conference of 150 Islamic scientists and scholars last year to resort some of these issue (no..really). The resulting document was called "A Guideline of Performing Ibadah (worship) at the International Space Station (ISS)" and it got approval from Malaysia's Fatwa Council. I am curious what would have happened if the council had said "no". Would they have delayed the flight? (ok...must resist cynicism here..)

You can find the full document here (.doc file from Wired)
Here are some of the highlights. Regarding Praying:
The performance of the physical postures (such as standing, bowing and prostrating) is to suit the conditions in ISS, prioritizing as follows:

a. If upright standing is not possible, then any standing posture,
b. Sitting. Bowing is by bringing down the chin closer to the knee or the prostrating place,
c. Lying down on the right side with body facing the direction of Qibla,
d. Lying flat
e. Using the eye lid as an indicator of the changing of postures in prayer,
f. Imagining the sequence of prayer.
Regarding directions to Mecca (where Ka'aba is located):
Determining the Direction of Qibla
Qibla direction is based on what is possible, prioritizing as below:
i. The Ka’aba
ii. The projection of Ka’aba
iii. The Earth
iv. Wherever
Regarding prayer times:
Determining the Prayer Time
The daily five prayer times is defined in a 24 hour duration (equals to 1 Earth day) following the time zone at which port the astronaut is launched (in this case, Baikonur, Kazakhstan).
Actually a lot of this is quite reasonable (within religious context). I'm not sure if a conference of 150 scientists and scholars was needed for this...but it could have been worse. But, of no less importance, the document also has directions for dress code (please no space-suit burqa jokes):
Dress code
A Muslim astronaut need to cover his aurat where:
a. Aurat for male is from the navel to the knee.
b. Aurat for female is the entire body except for her face and hands below the wrist.
It almost seems as if space-suits were made for Muslims.

You can read about praying problems here.

This is all a distraction. The main story is that Malaysia has its first astronaut in space. And thats great.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

The far-future of our world may provide some perspective

Here is a short video that traces the far-future of the Earth: The future of our world

This is pretty neat and provides a nice perspective. The picture below is an artist's conception of the Earth a few billion years from now (yes, billion with a B), when not only the oceans have boiled away but our Galaxy, the Milky Way, has merged with our neighbor, the Andromeda galaxy. (image credit: David A Aguilar)

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Nova episode on Intelligent Design!

"Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial" will be aired on November 13th on PBS. This should be good. Here is the description from the Nova website:

One of the latest battles in the war over evolution took place in a tiny town in eastern Pennsylvania called Dover. In 2004, the local school board ordered science teachers to read a statement to their high school biology students. The statement suggested that there is an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution called intelligent design, the idea that life is too complex to have evolved naturally and therefore had to have been designed by an intelligent agent. The science teachers refused to comply with the order, and parents opposed to intelligent design filed a lawsuit in federal court accusing the school board of violating the separation of church and state. Suddenly, the small town of Dover was torn apart by controversy, pitting neighbor against neighbor. NOVA captures the emotional conflict in interviews with the townspeople, scientists, and lawyers who participated in the historic six-week trial, Kitzmiller, et. al. v. Dover School District, et. al., which was closely watched by the world's media. With recreations based on court transcripts, NOVA presents the arguments by lawyers and expert witnesses in riveting detail and provides an eye-opening crash course on questions such as "What is evolution?" and "Does intelligent design qualify as science?" For years to come, the lessons from Dover will continue to have a profound impact on how science is viewed in our society and how to teach it in the classroom.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Learning about metaphysics from baboons

Do baboons think and what can we learn from understanding their thought process? There is an excellent article by Nicholas Wade in today's New York Times: How Baboons think (Yes, Think).
Reading a baboon’s mind affords an excellent grasp of the dynamics of baboon society. But more than that, it bears on the evolution of the human mind and the nature of human existence. As Darwin jotted down in a notebook of 1838, “He who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.”
The article mainly talks about research conducted by Dorothy Cheney & Robert Seyfarth. Here is an example of their experiment and what we can learn from it:
In some of their playback experiments, Dr. Cheney and Dr. Seyfarth have tested baboons’ knowledge of where everyone stands in the hierarchy. In a typical interaction, a dominant baboon gives a threat grunt, and its inferior screams. From their library of recorded baboon sounds, the researchers can fabricate a sequence in which an inferior baboon’s threat grunt is followed by a superior’s scream.

Baboons pay little attention when a normal interaction is played to them but show surprise when they hear the fabricated sequence implying their social world has been turned upside down.

This simple reaction says a lot about what is going in the baboon’s mind. That the animal can construe “A dominates B,” and distinguish it from “B dominates A,” means it must be able to break a stream of sounds down into separate elements, recognize the meaning of each, and combine the meanings into a sentence-like thought.

“That’s what we do when we parse a sentence,” Dr. Seyfarth said. Human language seems unique because no other species is capable of anything like speech. But when it comes to perceiving and deconstructing sounds, as opposed to making them, baboons’ ability seems much more language-like.

Assuming that early humans inherited the same ability from their joint ancestor with baboons, then when humans first started to combine sounds in the beginning of spoken language, “their listeners were all ready to perceive them,” Dr. Seyfarth said.

Baboons may be good at perceiving and thinking in a combinative way, but their vocal output consists of single sounds that are never combined, like greeting grunts, the females’ sexual whoop and the males’ competitive “wahoo!” cry. Why did language, expressed in combinations of sounds, evolve in humans but not in baboons?

And a possible answer to this may also have consequences for theories of origin of religion (more on it below):

A possible key to the puzzle lies in what animal psychologists call theory of mind, the ability to infer what another animal does or does not know. Baboons seem to have a very feeble theory of mind. When they cross from one island to another, ever fearful of crocodiles, the adults will often go first, leaving the juveniles fretting at the water’s edge. However much the young baboons call, their mothers never come back to help, as if unable to divine their children’s predicament.

But people have a very strong ability to recognize the mental states of others, and this could have prompted a desire to communicate that drove the evolution of language. “If I know you don’t know something, I am highly motivated to communicate it,” Dr. Seyfarth said.

It is far from clear why humans acquired a strong theory of mind faculty and baboons did not. Another difference between the two species is brain size. Some biologists have suggested that the demands of social living were the evolutionary pressure that enhanced the size of the brain. But the largest brains occur in chimpanzees and humans, who live in smaller groups than baboons.

This theory of mind may also be responsible for our thoughts regarding the supernatural and beginning of religion. A few months back New York Times Magazine had a fantastic article on the science of religion, tiled Darwin's God. Here is a brief discussion on theory of mind in relation to religion from that article:

It’s an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word “theory” suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people’s heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of “Descartes’ Baby,” published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

More on this on another post. In the mean time, read the Baboon article here (also check out the video on the article website of baboons crossing a ford), and read Darwin's God here.

Monday, October 08, 2007

Halo 3 around some churches

New York Times has a story (Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church) that some churches are using Halo 3 video game as a recruitment tool. One tiny problem is that Halo 3 is violent and is rated M for Mature audiences - oh well...but its all for a good cause:
Those buying it must be 17 years old, given it is rated M for mature audiences. But that has not prevented leaders at churches and youth centers across Protestant denominations, including evangelical churches that have cautioned against violent entertainment, from holding heavily attended Halo nights and stocking their centers with multiple game consoles so dozens of teenagers can flock around big-screen televisions and shoot it out.
As expected, this activity is coming under criticism. But here is a line of defense:

Far from being defensive, church leaders who support Halo — despite its “thou shalt kill” credo — celebrate it as a modern and sometimes singularly effective tool. It is crucial, they say, to reach the elusive audience of boys and young men.

Witness the basement on a recent Sunday at the Colorado Community Church in the Englewood area of Denver, where Tim Foster, 12, and Chris Graham, 14, sat in front of three TVs, locked in violent virtual combat as they navigated on-screen characters through lethal gun bursts. Tim explained the game’s allure: “It’s just fun blowing people up.”

Once they come for the games, Gregg Barbour, the youth minister of the church said, they will stay for his Christian message. “We want to make it hard for teenagers to go to hell,” Mr. Barbour wrote in a letter to parents at the church.

"Its just fun blowing people up"... and I guess it becomes even more fun when it is interpreted in a religious tone:

At Sweetwater Baptist Church in Lawrenceville, Ga., Austin Brown, 16, said, “We play Halo, take a break and have something to eat, and have a lesson,” explaining that the pastor tried to draw parallels “between God and the devil.”

Players of Halo 3 control the fate of Master Chief, a tough marine armed to the teeth who battles opponents with missiles, lasers, guns that fire spikes, energy blasters and other fantastical weapons. They can also play in teams, something the churches say allows communication and fellowship opportunities.

Complicating the debate over the appropriateness of the game as a church recruiting tool are the plot’s apocalyptic and religious overtones. The hero’s chief antagonists belong to the Covenant, a fervent religious group that welcomes the destruction of Earth as the path to their ascension.

hmm...what happened to Pac-Man? We can talk about ghosts and afterlife in a lot less violent way - though we don't really know what happens after the ghosts inevitably capture Pac-Man.

Read the full New York Times article about Church-Halo connection here.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Increasing Creationism in England: Are Muslims to blame?

While its quite clear that Creationism in the US grew out of the (Christian) Fundamentalist movement of the early 20th century, its adoption in other countries is taking other forms. Here is a news story about rising Creationism in UK:
The teaching of evolution is becoming increasingly difficult in UK schools because of the rise of creationism, a leading scientist is warning.

Head of science at London's Institute of Education Professor Michael Reiss says some teachers, fearful of entering the debate, avoid the subject totally.

But is it due to the rising population of Muslims in UK?
Prof Reiss says the rise of creationism is partly down to the large increase in Muslim pupils in UK schools.

He said: "The number of Muslim students has grown considerably in the last 10 to 20 years and a higher proportion of Muslim families do not accept evolutionary theory compared with Christian families.

"That's one reason why it's more of an issue in schools."

This is an interesting assertion and possibly true. However, are there any statistics available to support these claims? The number of Muslims has also increased in the US. But this increase is not usually implicated as a reason for the rising popularity of Creationism or ID in the US. Why make such a claim for UK? Perhaps population increase with respect to population is higher in UK - but then again, just that by in itself does not demonstrate a causal connection. I'm sure there are studies out there that are analyzing attitudes of Muslims in Europe and I hope a question about evolution is included in these surveys. If anyone is familiar with such a study, let me know.

Read the full BBC story here.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Israeli farmers and religious rules

Here is an interesting issue involving farming and religious law:
Yet this year Mr Amar, himself a kippa-wearing religious Jew, faces the loss of 40 per cent of his business – worth some £1m – because for all his painstaking efforts his produce is not regarded as kosher enough to satisfy the hardest-line sectors of Israel's burgeoning ultra-Orthodox market. For the Jewish year which started at Rosh Hashana last week is the shmita, the biblical seventh year in which farmers are required in strict religious law not to work their land.
It is totally fascinating how this law is circumvented:
Many of his wholesale plants are mounted on trays 120cm (4ft) above the ground and so far from growing in the earth of Israel are bedded in artificial compounds imported from the US and Finland as Biolan and Verniculite to ensure that when vegetables start to sprout, no one can say they were grown on Israeli land.
This is totally amazing (and I think very cool!). But he wisely took some more precaution:

More importantly, Mr Amar thought he had acted in accordance with the letter of religious law, by arranging – through the Chief Rabbinate of Israel – for the nominal "sale" of his land for the year for something like 50p an acre to an Arab, i.e., a non-Jew, and employing 200 non-Jews (Thai and Bedouin Arabs) to work it to ensure there is no Jewish hand in the growing and picking. This may sound like literal-minded sophistry. But in fact it has a long and honourable tradition behind it – so much so that Mr Amar, like most Israeli farmers, has his own certificate to prove it from the Chief Rabbinate itself.

This confirms unambiguously that "the lands of Moshe Amar from Sharsheret were sold to a goy [gentile] from the day of Rosh Hashana. Because of that the products the above person grows will be without fears of breaking the shmita." And that certificate is in line with a policy adopted by the Jewish religious authorities here since well before the foundation of the state of Israel.
Unfortunately for farmers, there is another ruling now that local chief Rabbis of individual cities can ignore the certificates and issue their own rulings. The case is now being decided in Israeli courts.

Read the full story here.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Yes, Vatican Observatory does completely normal science!

The Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome is currently hosting a conference on Formation & Evolution of Galaxy Disks. This is a normal astronomy conference on a really cool topic (yes, I work in this area). In fact, I attended their previous conference in 2000 and it was fantastic. There was no discussion of religion or any thing close to that during the conference. It was just focused on disk galaxies. We did learn some funny Papal anecdotes from Father Coyne, who is an astronomer, and at the time, he was the head of the Vatican Observatory. So it was interesting to see the BBC coverage of the conference: Papal stargazers reach for heaven. Despite the title, the article does mention that conference has speakers for all over the world:

More than 200 scientists from 26 countries including the United States, Britain, Italy, Germany, Russia, and Japan have gathered in Rome for a five-day meeting on disc galaxies.

At the Papal University in Rome, normally frequented by Catholic theologians studying the Bible, the scientists, including Jesuit priests who work at the Vatican's own astronomical observatory, will be grappling with abstruse formulae and mathematical simulations about the physical origins of the universe, involving concepts such as cold dark matter and black holes.

And here is a loaded question:

Why does the Vatican fund astronomical research after centuries of public dispute over the relative roles of science and religion?

Hmm...well may be from the fact that many scientists in the past have also been very religious, and that many (not all) didn't see a necessary conflict.

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a member of Father Funes's team and curator of one of the world's most important collections of meteorites, kept at Castelgandolfo (the Pope's summer residence), explains.

"They want the world to know that the Church isn't afraid of science," he said.

"This is our way of seeing how God created the universe and they want to make as strong a statement as possible that truth doesn't contradict truth; that if you have faith, then you're never going to be afraid of what science is going to come up with.

And then the article goes into the issue of Galileo. And no Galileo case is not a clear-cut science v religion issue. Galileo himself was very religious, and there were many within the Church that supported him. Here is an article that clears up some of the misconceptions: Truth in Science: Proof, Persuasion, and the Galileo Affair (pdf file) by Owen Gingerich.

If the BBC coverage of the conference was a bit odd, check out this blog heading: Science and religion collide for galactic conference

Really?? Has this person even looked at the conference program? Yes, there is dispute about the rates of star formation, or conditions required to sustain star formation in outer-parts of galaxy disks, or the formation of bulges and their relation to disks. But a collision between science & religion?? I have no problem in highlighting the clash between science & religion - and there are many places where that is the case. But this is just plain ridiculous.

Monday, October 01, 2007

A Jewish perspective on the New Atheists

Here is a thoughtful article from a (moderate) Jewish perspective: The New Atheism: What's a Liberal Spiritual Jew to do?

It’s hard to be a liberal religious Jew these days. Some of us first felt this way back in September 2001, when we felt forced to make statements like, “Al Qaeda is not really Islam” or, “Religion still is good for humankind — just not that kind of religion.” Others started getting uncomfortable when the “clash of civilizations” entered the political mainstream, trying, with difficulty, to chart a “third way” between the religious right’s war of Christianity against Islam and the secular left’s struggle of secularism against religion, fundamentalism and intolerance — all three of which seemed to be synonyms for one another.

But now, with the rise of the “new atheism,” given voice by such writers as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and, most recently, Christopher Hitchens, the battle lines have grown even starker. These days, religion — all of it, not just the bomb-wearing, stone-throwing kind — has been blamed for everything from war to ignorance, racism and sexism, even just plain stupidity. Oy.

But here he makes a valid argument, that religion is more than just bad science:

To begin with, all the leading atheist tracts assume that religion is, first and foremost, a matter of belief. Religion is bad science, basically, which insists that untenable propositions be taken on faith — especially since they can’t be proved, and can often be disproved relatively easily. This may be the religion of most Christians and some Jews, but most of Judaism is, in the familiar formulation, more about deed than creed — more what you do than what you believe. Keep the Sabbath, act justly, pray, obey the dietary laws? You’ve got most of Jewish law covered right there, regardless of what you believe about God and history. Now, of course, it makes sense that neo-atheism targets Christianity and Islam rather than Judaism, since the former are more populous and more important. But a lot of what their leading advocates say has nothing to do with me, or my less “moderate” co-religionists.

Second, and relatedly, the religion conjured by the atheists is altogether too rational. It’s as if people woke up in the morning and selected a belief system as they would a box of cereal off the shelf. For most spiritual liberals, however, religion is what gets you in your guts: It’s the primal archetypes that speak to the heart, the embodied rituals, the symbols pregnant with thousands of years of history. Harris wants us all to meditate and become Buddhists (the last chapter of “The End of Faith” is a straight dharma talk, like those I’ve heard on many a Buddhist retreat), but this prescription ignores the role that myth plays in individual and communal life. As a Buddhist practitioner myself, I do think that the world would be better off if more people would meditate. But most people don’t have the time, aptitude or enthusiasm for such pursuits. They need a system that provides meaning, community, ethics and story; they thirst for symbol and myth. Religion, not meditation, does that — including in the Buddhist world, which, as Harris fails to mention, is just as full of ritual, deities, dogma and myth as the Jewish and Christian ones.

Finally, there is the element of community. Yes, as Hitchens relentlessly points out, most people’s images of God are primitive. But this is the genius, not the failure, of religion. As Maimonides wrote more than 800 years ago, religion works because it speaks on multiple levels. Philosophers can find their truth in biblical text (albeit with some linguistic stretching), and people too busy feeding their families to study philosophy can find ethical guidance and communal myth. Of course, there is always the danger in such a system that some less-philosophical types will over-literalize and fetishize their religious beliefs. In the mystical metaphor, they mistake the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. But the alternative is a medieval world in which one must be a theologian in order to be religious.

However, he does point to some valid arguments of the New Atheists:

None of this is to deny the trenchancy of many atheist arguments. Certain beliefs are indeed risible. Jews, like just about every other religious group, have long believed that our tribe is better than others, a notion that once ensured our survival but has long outlived its usefulness. Primitive ideas about God — again, that He likes us more than other people, or that He is a He — should evolve, just as our primitive ideas about cosmology, disease and technology have evolved. And we should never confuse religion (why the world is, and what we should do) with science (how the world is, and what we can do). Neither does a good job of impersonating the other.

Harris is also right that we moderates are kidding ourselves if we think we’re not complicit in the far right’s “distortions” of our religious and spiritual ideas. Those of us who style ourselves religious moderates must take responsibility for acts of intolerance and violence committed in our religion’s name — which, to be fair, Jews of all political stripes almost always condemn, even as we argue over the details.

In short, the new atheism is an important, useful auditing of our religious ideas. We should read its arguments and, rather than defensively parry them, consider them with a critical mind. And where appropriate, we should check our religious zealotries with careful reflection, ethical consideration and, yes, quiet meditation before they lead to dangerous consequences.

Read the full article here.
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