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Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy New Year

The National Post of Canada has named the scientific study of happiness as one of the year's most interesting ideas, which "helped define 2007 and will shape the way we live in 2008." The honor comes with a look at some of the most revolutionary findings of this new field. —Heather Wax

Florida Follow-Up

After much media attention and mockery—in the form of a deluge of emails from the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster—members of the Polk County School Board are changing their tune about Florida's proposed new science education standards. A month ago, a local newspaper story (picked up by national blogs) revealed that four of the seven board members wanted to see "intelligent design" included alongside evolution in the science curriculum, but a new story claims they've now reversed their position, insisting that they can separate their personal beliefs in ID from their votes. This fight may be over, but it seems the battle over Florida's science standards—which would finally include the term "evolution" and which state officials say will be more relevant and accurate—rages on. —Stephen Mapes

Spiritual Cinema

The Golden Compass, in theaters now, is the latest in a string of movies about spiritual life, what it means to be human, and the moral choices we all make—and these films are creating a new niche in Hollywood. —Heather Wax

Great Debate

Los Angeles Times religion editor Steve Padilla recounts a debate he moderated between best-selling author Sam Harris and Rabbi David Wolpe, a rising leader in Conservative Judaism, at American Jewish University. The atheist and the rabbi shared their perspectives on science-and-religion, the existence of God, and the role of faith in society.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Best Books 2007

New York Times critics Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin, and William Grimes have listed their favorite books of the past year, and among Maslin's choices are two books about Einstein, Einstein: His Life and Universe by Walter Isaacson and Uncertainty: Einstein, Heisenberg, Bohr, and the Struggle for the Soul of Science by David Lindley.

Atheists & Airwaves

"Atheists Talk," a one-hour, live radio program from the group Minnesota Atheists, will debut on Air America Minnesota on January 13. (The organization currently airs a show with the same name on cable access television). Celebrity atheist Richard Dawkins will be the first guest.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hail to the Chief

Bruce Alberts, a biochemist at the University of California, San Francisco, will be the new editor-in-chief of the journal Science. He will take the helm from Donald Kennedy in March.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Under Review

Antony Flew's new book, There Is a God—about "how the world's most notorious atheist changed his mind," according to the subtitle—was recently reviewed in The New York Times. Flew wrote the book with Roy Abraham Varghese, who's known for writing and editing books on science-and-religion. —Heather Wax

'Tis the S&R Season

Yet this year, says Alan Boyle, award-winning science editor of MSNBC.com, there is a disheartening lack of science-and-religion discussion (especially from the scientific perspective) in both the general news and the presidential debates. Boyle picks up a theme that physicist Lawrence Krauss highlighted earlier this month with essays in the The Wall Street Journal and Los Angeles Times. —Stephen Mapes

Friday, December 21, 2007

To a Degree?

A Texas advisory council of university educators has recommended that the state grant accreditation to the Institute for Creation Research, which offers an online master's degree program for science education that trains science teachers using a "biblical framework." The ICR, which specializes in "the study and promotion of scientific creationism, biblical creationism, and related fields," had been offering graduate courses in California since 1981, but the institute's recent move to Texas required it to reapply for accreditation. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board will likely consider the controversial application in January. —Dan Messier

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Spirituality on Campus

In the latest phase of their national, multi-year study, Spirituality in Higher Education, Alexander and Helen Astin, retired UCLA professors, found that after three years of college, students are more concerned with spiritual issues and more engaged in a "spiritual quest" than when they begin college. The researchers surveyed more than 14,000 college students on 136 campuses both when they were freshman and juniors, and found that as juniors, more students considered issues such as integrating spirituality into their lives and becoming a more loving person as "very important." Regular attendance at religious services, however, declined over the three years. —Stephen Mapes

The New Atheism

With his essay in the current issue of the The New Republic, Damon Linker looks at the history of atheism and takes on today's crop of high-profile, anti-religious writers, among them Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, December 19, 2007


The American Civil Liberties Union of Florida has sent a letter to the State Board of Education praising the proposed new science standards for public schools and urging the board to make sure religious beliefs stay out of the science classroom.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Rating Religiosity

Beliefnet and Time magazine have teamed up to create the God-o-Meter (pronounced Gah-DOM-meter), "a scientific measure of God-talk in the elections." The continuously recalibrating God-o-Meter rates the candidates according to what they are saying about religion on the campaign trail and how effective those statements are.


John Haught, a senior fellow in science and religion at the Woodstock Theological Center at Georgetown University and author of Deeper Than Darwin and God After Darwin, recently spoke with Salon.com about his theology, the new atheists, and why there should be no conflict between science and religion, evolution and God. —Heather Wax

Monday, December 17, 2007

In Court

Medical science is going head-to-head with religion in a Winnipeg, Manitoba, courtroom. The family of Samuel Golubchuk is fighting to force a local hospital to keep the 84-year-old on life support, saying that the hospital's decision to disconnect his ventilator and remove his feeding tube violates the family's Orthodox Jewish religious beliefs. Doctors say that continuing to offer care to Golubchuk, who won't recover and is in pain, violates their ethical guidelines. The decision in this case could set legal precedent and affect many Canadian families facing end-of-life health-care decisions. —Heather Wax

Shining STARS

The origins of life, subjectivity in foundational physics, and top-down causation are among the proposed study topics of the winning STARS interdisciplinary research teams for 2007. (STARS stands for "Science and Transcendence Advanced Research Series.") The five teams, comprised of both scientists and humanities scholars, will each receive grants of 100,000 dollars to pursue research in their chosen fields. In 2008, two of the teams will receive another 200,000 dollars to explore their topics in further detail. STARS, a program of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, California, is concerned with discovering how science, "in light of philosophical and theological reflection, points toward the nature, character and meaning of ultimate reality." —Stephen Mapes

Friday, December 14, 2007

Pastafarian Resigns

For months, the Flying Spaghetti Monster had tremendous control over the virtual world Second Life. That changed on December 11, when Cory Ondrejka, whose Second Life avatar is the FSM, resigned as the chief technology officer for the online world. The FSM, a pasta-based deity invented in 2005 by Oregon State University physics graduate Bobby Henderson, was created as a humorous challenge to the validity of "intelligent design." —Dan Messier

Read All About It

The very first science-and-religion library will be built at Cambridge University over the next three years thanks to The International Society for Science and Religion. The society will assemble a collection of 250 books for the new library—a collection that will then be replicated for about 150 higher education institutions in countries around the world. —Sara Kern

Thursday, December 13, 2007

S&R Lecture Series

The University of St. Andrews has announced the James Gregory public lectures on science and religion, a four-year, twelve-lecture series focusing on the many places where the two fields interact. The series was developed through the joint efforts of Eric Priest, a professor of theoretical solar physics, and Alan Torrance, a professor of systematic theology, and it's the first collaboration between the schools of divinity and mathematics & statistics. The series begins with "Can a scientist believe in the resurrection," a lecture by N.T. Wright, bishop of Durham and a New Testament scholar, on December 20. —Stephen Mapes

Donations Requested

Rabbi Reuven Bulka, the chairman of the board of the Trillium Gift of Life Network in Ontario, Canada, wants to promote organ donation as a religious imperative.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


Todd Drogy teaches English composition at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. Science & Religion Today's Dan Messier recently spoke with him about his decision to shape his course syllabus around readings in religion and science.

SRT: Why did you decide to organize your course around science and religion?
TD: The debate on the proper place of religion in society is so intense, so fraught with opinion and bias and feeling, and, at the same time, so important. And the range of ideas about where and how and if religion should influence American society at large spans across and intersects so many pointed, worthwhile discussions. So, it seemed like the theme of religion and its place in present-day American society would be fertile ground for sustained textual inquiry. Also, I was attracted to this theme because I felt it was not heavy-handed; students could come from any background and have any number of convictions, and stand on equal ground in this wrestling match of ideas. And students could write with feeling, with conviction, with interest, while simultaneously being forced—by the very complexity of the subject—to question their assumptions and look deeper and more critically into the issue at hand.

SRT: What did you have your students read?
TD: The major readings of the course were Teaching a Stone to Talk by Annie Dillard, The Language of God by Francis Collins, The End of Faith by Sam Harris, and "A Fist in the Eye of God" by Barbara Kingsolver.

SRT: What's been the student reaction?
TD: The reaction has been varied. Many students were already well-positioned in one camp or another, either against the idea of organized religion or for it, either disturbed by the influence of religion in American society or wishing there was greater influence. But overall, there seemed to be interest and engagement with the fullness of the issue. I saw students leaving their ground, their place of safety, and venturing out to encounter complex, perhaps disturbing, ideas, even when those ideas challenged their preconceptions. And I saw students really willing to use writing as a tool of investigation and clarification of issues—religious, political, scientific issues—confronting American society. So I would say the reaction was encouraging. There was little boredom, and a lot of strong feelings, and interest. Which is a good place to begin writing from.

Want to help shape the future of this course?
Leave a comment or send Todd Drogy feedback, ideas, or answers to his questions:

TD: I used Francis Collins' book The Language of God to represent a compelling, well argued, thoughtful, and generous Christian point of view. Are there any other suggestions for texts I could use in the future that would fairly, meaningfully, present a serious perspective on the role of religion—its currency, its usefulness—in present day American culture?

Also, I'm interested in whether, from a Christian perspective, the idea of basing an English composition course around the idea of religion and its role in society seems meaningful, worthy, valid, and interesting?

Lastly, from a Christian perspective, what texts would you use, if you were designing a course such as mine, in order to represent a point of view in contrast to what is seen as the stereotypical Christian point of view on the proper role of religion in today's society?

Evolution Speeds Up

Human evolution is happening faster than we thought, according to a new study led by John Hawks, an anthropologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The recent genetic changes were driven by the huge population growth of the last several thousand years, the researchers say, which created greater opportunity for beneficial mutations and required people to spread to new environments where they had to adapt. Africans, for example, have new genes that provide resistance to malaria, while Europeans have a gene that helps them digest milk as adults. According to the study, there hasn't been much gene flow between Africa, Europe, and Asia, where genes are evolving quickly and local environmental and cultural factors are affecting them differently, and as a result, people worldwide are becoming less genetically similar to each other. The research team includes two of the University of Utah scientists who proposed in 2005 that natural selection may be responsible for enhanced intelligence, but also genetic diseases, among Jews of central or northern European origin. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Survey Says

According to new data published in this month's American Journal of Psychiatry, psychiatrists, who are less religious on average than other physicians, appear to be more interested than other doctors in the faith and spirituality of their patients and more comfortable discussing their patients' religious concerns.

More Follow-Up

Public opinion remains firmly divided over the Florida Department of Education's plan to add "evolution" as a "big idea" in the state's science curriculum. Some of the more than 3,000 citizens who have weighed in on the DOE's Web site have voiced concerns regarding the new policy, with complaints that include outright rejections of evolution and indignation over presenting only a single theory to students. Many citizens support the change, however, which they feel will bring respectability to an ailing public education system. The National Center for Science Education, which gave the state an F in last year's curriculum reviews, says the state's new policy makes it a candidate for an A rating this year. Public comments will continue to be accepted on the DOE's Web site until Friday, when the writing committee will begin to review the policy in light of public opinion. —Stephen Mapes

ISU Follow-Up

The Iowa State Daily, the newspaper of Iowa State University, has released the full emails surrounding the tenure case of astronomer Guillermo Gonzalez, who claims he was denied tenure because of his belief in "intelligent design." The complete emails tell a fuller, richer, and quite different story than do the excerpts released last week by the Discovery Institute, an ID think tank where Gonzalez is a fellow. —Heather Wax

Monday, December 10, 2007

Headed to Court

Nathaniel Abraham, a former postdoc researcher at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and a Christian biologist, is suing the institute in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, claiming that the research center unfairly fired him because he believes in creationism rather than evolution. Abraham filed an earlier complaint with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, which ruled against him. —Dan Messier

Father of Forgiveness

University of Wisconsin-Madison psychologist Robert Enright, author of Forgiveness Is a Choice, talks about pioneering the field of forgiveness research in Saturday's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Tenure Fight Continues at ISU

"Intelligent design" proponent Guillermo Gonzalez continues his tenure appeals at Iowa State University, where he currently serves as an assistant professor of physics and astronomy. This past spring, Gonzalez was denied tenure, a decision ISU President Gregory Geoffroy says was based on a review of scientific accomplishments but Gonzales claims was motivated by the school's discrimination and disapproval of his work on ID theory. According to the Discovery Institute (an ID think tank in Seattle where Gonzalez is a fellow), recently uncovered private emails between ISU faculty members indicate that they "secretly plotted" to oust Gonzalez from the school's faculty. The institute, which held a press conference on the emails in Des Moines at the beginning of the week, bases its case on isolated quotes and has yet to make the full texts of the emails available, leading some to question their validity as incriminating evidence. Gonzalez' position at ISU expires in May. —Stephen Mapes

New Additions

AC Grayling, a philosopher at Birkbeck College, University of London, and Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Case Western Reserve University, have joined New Scientist as regular columnists. Appearing on alternate weeks, Grayling's column, "Mindfields" will explore "the implications, assumptions, hidden difficulties, and philosophical twists behind the science that's in the news," while Krauss' column, "World lines," will share this thoughts on "everything from the latest big results in physics and cosmology, to those volatile areas where science, religion, and politics do battle." —Heather Wax

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Barbara Forrest Writes

Barbara Forrest, co-author with Paul Gross of the book Creationism's Trojan Horse and an expert witness in the Dover case of 2005, has posted a statement on the forced resignation of Christine Comer, the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency. Comer was forced to resign after she forwarded an email message from the National Center for Science Education (a pro-evolution group) announcing that Forrest, a professor of philosophy at Southeastern Louisiana University, would be speaking in Austin about her expert testimony and the "wedge" strategy of the "intelligent design" movement. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Theologian Thomas Torrance Dies

Thomas Torrance, a Scottish theologian and Templeton Prize laureate, died on Sunday at the age of 94.

Let the Nominations Begin

Nominations opened today for the 2008 Purpose Prize, a Civic Ventures initiative that awards five 100,000 dollar prizes and ten 10,000 dollar prizes to Americans over 60 who are working to solve significant social problems by combining innovation, creativity, and their experience. Nominations close March 1.

Calling All High Schoolers

This winter, the Alliance for Science—whose mission is to "heighten public understanding and support for science and to preserve the distinctions between science and religion in the public sphere" and to "bring together scientists, teachers, and science-related companies with the many religious bodies that have found no conflict between religion and science"—is holding its second annual National High School Essay Contest. The contest encourages students to personally engage the scientific culture by writing on the effects of climate and agricultural developments on evolution. The deadline for submission is February 29. —Sara Kern

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

No Alternative

Three of the five members of the Rio Rancho Public Schools Board of Education in New Mexico voted yesterday to rescind a policy allowing "intelligent design" to be taught in public school science classrooms. —Heather Wax

On the Shelf

Amir Aczel, the critically acclaimed author of Fermat's Last Theorem, has written a new book, The Jesuit and the Skull, about science, faith, French cleric and scientist Teilhard de Chardin, and the search for Peking Man.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Stem Cell Follow-Up

Alan Leshner, CEO of AAAS and the executive publisher of the journal Science, and James Thomson, a professor of anatomy at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and the first scientist to isolate and culture human embryonic stem cells, put the latest stem cell breakthrough into scientific perspective in today's Washington Post. —Heather Wax

Fired Over Evolution?

Was the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency forced to resign for criticizing "intelligent design"?

Warming Up to Environmental Change

As the global warming debate continues to heat up, "green sermons"—in which religious leaders call for environmental activism—are beginning to sweep the Southeast, thanks to movements like the Interfaith Power and Light campaign. These messages from the pulpit are raising awareness of key environmental issues, such as energy conservation and the reduction of carbon footprints, among a large demographic of American society. Advocates hope to see the trend spread to congregations throughout the country. —Stephen Mapes