We've moved!

Check out our new site at
and be sure to update your bookmarks.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Can't Turn Science Into Religion, Says Physicist

It is possible to build a religion based on science and nature rather than on God and sacred texts? And if so, would this new scientific religion be better than our current religions? These are the questions Karl Giberson, a physics professor at Eastern Nazarene College (and a regular contributor to this blog), asks in a piece posted today on Salon.com. We need to recognize that science is also a belief system, says Giberson, and its loudest, brashest advocates— namely, biologist PZ Myers, chemist Peter Atkins, and other leaders of the "new atheism" movement—are our "new preachers," trying to turn science into a replacement for religion.
Giberson doesn't really think science can or will be turned into a religion, but he worries that attempts to turn it into the one true belief system will drive a bigger wedge between science and religion. He worries, he says, "about dogmatism and the kind of zealotry that motivates the faithful to blow themselves up, shoot abortion doctors and persecute homosexuals. But I also worry about narrow exclusiveness that champions the scientific way of knowing to the exclusion of all else. I don't like to see science turned into a club to bash religious believers."
Myers has already responded, and the piece continues to elicit comments, many of them hostile and many of them saying that Giberson lacks a fundamental understanding of science—which, by its very nature, could never and will never be made into a religion. We asked the author for his own comment, and here's what he had to say:

"This has been an eye-opener for me. The public atheists—Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Weinberg, etc.—are very civilized. In debates they are polite and restrained, and their writings, while critical, have a certain sophistication to them. They have always seemed like good citizens of the worldwide intellectual community. When I was on some NPR show with Dennett, he was most diplomatic, listened carefully, referred to me in flattering terms. I might disagree with him, but he doesn't seem dangerous or hostile. And, for all his bluster, Dawkins is really fine. In his debates with McGrath, he is most polite and restrained.
In contrast to these guys, the public religious leaders don't come off so well. Think of John Hagee, the horrible Fred Phelps, Ken Ham, James Dobson, etc.
But, I knew the comparison was not fair. Dawkins is a world class intellectual, as is Dennett and Weinberg. We can't compare them to people like Dembski and certainly not to John Hagee or Ken Ham.
The people assaulting me on Salon.com seem uninformed, mean-spirited, and closed-minded. I would worry if they were in charge of the country, just as I would worry if the Christian fundamentalists were in charge."

Thanks, Karl, as always, for your candor. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Did Religion Evolve to Protect Us From Disease?

A new study claims that religion may have helped prevent the spread of disease among ancient humans by dividing people and reducing the likelihood that they'd pass infections to one another. When religious beliefs kept one group apart from its neighbors, the theory goes, members of the group were less likely to pick up new diseases and, generation after generation, the group's genetic makeup would change.
The scientists, Corey Fincher and Randy Thornhill of the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, believe their study explains the genesis of religious diversity—namely, why countries with hotter climates, where disease is more common, have a greater number of different religions than do countries with cooler climates. "Why does Cote d'Ivoire have 76 religions while Norway has 13, and why does Brazil have 159 religions while Canada has 15 even though in both comparisons the countries are similar in size?" the scientists ask.
What they found is that "religion diversity is the highest where disease diversity is also the highest and the lowest where disease diversity is also the lowest," they say in their report.
"Our analysis suggests that the nature of religion needs to be reconsidered," the researchers conclude. Although religion apparently is for establishing a social marker of group alliance and allegiance, at the most fundamental level, it may be for the avoidance and management of infectious disease."
The study appears in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Can a Robot Know If You're Sad?

A group of 25 European roboticists, developmental psychologists, and neuroscientists have been working together on the Feelix Growing project, trying to develop robots that are more in tune with human emotions and more intelligent and sensitive than ever before. The idea is to build perceptive and caring robots that will be able to learn when a person is happy, sad, or angry, so that they'll be better able to live alongside us. The learning is done through artificial neural networks, with cameras and sensors helping the robots to read facial expressions, tone of voice, and other things associated with different emotional states, and the scientists hope the technology will allow the robots to differentiate cries of pain, for instance, from those of happiness. The ultimate goal is that the robots will learn from experience how best to respond to these emotional cues and adapt their behavior accordingly. —Heather Wax

Monday, July 28, 2008

"The X-Files: I Want to Believe" Movie Review

During its nine-season run on television, The X-Files was one of the best places to watch matters of science and religion tangle on camera. Skeptical scientist Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) constantly challenged FBI partner Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) on his belief in what the show lovingly referred to as “extreme possibilities”—aliens, the paranormal, and such. At its best, the Fox drama dabbled in areas as diverse as multiverse theory and faith healing with a isn’t-this-cool? sense of wonder.
Unfortunately, that joyful exploration of the inexplicable is absent from The X-Files: I Want To Believe, director Chris Carter’s second celluloid outing based on the show. The first film, The X-Files: Fight The Future, hit theaters during the series’ run and dealt with a government conspiracy to cover up alien presence on Earth. As such, Mulder and Scully were up to their security badges in the us-against-them fight that continued until the series finale in 2002. Her Catholic faith, paired with her training as a medical doctor, made her the perfect foil for his cocky, outlandish genius. They may have been the “FBI’s most unwanted,” as Mulder liked to joke, but their joint search for truth provided the momentum that kept their professional (and ultimately romantic) story moving forward. Even when we last left the paranoid pair, they were on the lam from an FBI gunning to shut down Mulder’s quest for good.
I Want To Believe picks up six years after the finale, during a bleak West Virginia winter that serves as a gruesome serial killer’s canvas. When a defrocked priest (Billy Connolly) suddenly begins having visions of the murderer’s victims, the FBI contacts Scully—now a doctor at a Catholic hospital straight out of the 1960s—in the hopes of luring Mulder and his atypical insight back to the fold. Though our heroes have sworn off fighting crime, they’re sucked in with relatively little resistance. Too bad the fight’s gone right out of both of them, leaving behind weary protagonists who love each other but would rather be done with the larger mysteries of the universe and human nature.
Amanda Peet and rapper Alvin “Xzibit” Joiner play secondary roles as FBI agents searching for one of their own but serve little purpose; each part’s lines could have been divvied up among no-name actors with audiences none the wiser. On the other hand, series regular Mitch Pileggi both forwards the plot and plays right into an homage to the first movie during his brief scenes as Deputy Director Walter Skinner. Ultimately, though, whether or not the good guys will figure out the killer’s plan—and how it may or may not overlap with Scully’s recent interest in stem cell research—becomes secondary to whether Mulder and Scully can ever truly be happy. For those who always wanted to see those kooky kids settle down, I Want To Believe is a sweet resting point. But fans who enjoyed watching the pair spar over everything from little green (or is it gray?) men to past-life regression may want to hold out hope: The truth, and another sequel, may still be out there.

Coming to a Bookshelf Near You

Publisher's Weekly has released its fall religion book listing and says it's seeing a continuation of many of the trends spotted earlier—namely, books on the relationship between faith and politics and books promoting or criticizing atheism (like A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists by David Myers).
Books that look at the relationship between science and belief also remain popular, with a number of titles looking at how we might find common ground between the two camps.

Examining Death, Identity, and Resurrection

"How Do We Survive Our Death," a conference exploring personal identity and resurrection, begins today at the University of Innsbruck in Austria. The aim of the conference, according to its Web site, is "to clarify the presuppositions of the belief in life after death: What of our earthly existence continues to live? Which features of the human person are indispensable for surviving death? How can we talk about personal identity on the evidence of death? What does resurrection of the person mean?"
The international conference will host many speakers from the United States, and those familiar with the field of science and religion will recognize a number of the names, including Ted Peters, Robert Russell, and Dean Zimmerman. The conference runs through Friday.

Friday, July 25, 2008

ISSR Makes Statement on Cybrids and Chimeras

If you haven't already, check out the statement on cybrids and chimeras published by the International Society for Science and Religion. The statement, which examines the background and ethical issues surrounding scientific research based on the artificial creation of human-animal hybrids, is written by Sir Brian Heap, the president of ISSR, and the Rev. Dr. Ronald Cole-Turner, ISSR's vice-president. Heap says that they "urge that a prudent and respectful regard for the sensitivities of the public be maintained by researchers and policy-makers alike, in recognition of the long-term benefits to science that come from maintaining public support," and Cole -Turner encourages researchers to communicate openly and fully about the technical feasibility and scientific potential of their proposed experiments.

TV Series Tries to Get Closer to Truth

Watch your PBS listings this summer for the next installment in the Close to Truth TV series, created and executive produced by Robert Lawrence Kuhn. Kuhn, who also hosts the series, assembled more than 12o of the world's leading scientists, philosophers, and theologians for 39 episodes, divided equally among three core subject areas: consciousness (brain, mind, free will, personal identity, alien intelligence, parapsychology), the cosmos (cosmology, fundamental physics, philosophy of cosmology and physics, emergence, science and religion), and God (philosophy of religion, philosophical theology, atheism, critical thinking). Those familiar with the field of science and religion will recognize many of the people Kuhn interviews. But the conversations here are especially candid and intimate, with these experts revealing their personal thoughts and opinions—and how they are getting "closer to the truth."
Kuhn takes viewers along on his “journey to find new understandings of ourselves and our world,” he says in a press release. “Our experts are some of the most creative and astute thinkers. The novelty and vigor of their ideas, their open-mindedness and sense of wonder, help frame what science and new knowledge will bring us in the future. Such innovative thinking expands what it means to be human and can help each of us prepare more knowledgeably for the complex choices in life that we have to make.”
In the meantime, be sure to check out the really cool, interactive companion Web site, with never-before-seen video clips, participant bios, and more about the series. “I do not promise that you will find Ultimate Truth," says Kuhn. "I do promise that you will be exhilarated … getting Closer To Truth.” (Thanks to the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences for the tip) —Heather Wax

Thursday, July 24, 2008

For Some, Extra Embryos Lead to Hard Decision

Most couples that undergo in-vitro fertilization would rather destroy their extra embryos than donate them to another couple, according to Dallas-Fort Worth channel WFAA. Surplus embryos can be donated to another couple, discarded, or given over for research—which essentially means they're destroyed. "Given the three options," Dr. Kevin Doody of the Center for Assisted Reproduction tells the TV station, "the majority of couples actually desire to discard their embryos or donate them to research, rather than for reproductive purposes.”
At Doody's clinic, about 10 percent of these surplus embryos are donated to other couples, but the national average is about 1 percent.
“I think it’s been slow to catch on,” he says, “and frankly, I’m a bit mystified myself as to the reason behind that.” —Heather Wax

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

More on the Science of Oxytocin

Researchers have known for some time that when people spend a few minutes writing about a value that's important to them, they become more receptive and less defensive when someone later criticizes an aspect of their behavior as irrational, irresponsible, or unhealthy. The guess was that writing about these values boosted self-esteem, making people feel good about themselves and less defensive, but studies failed to find the link.
Now, Jennifer Crocker and Yu Niiya from the University of Michigan and Dominik Mischkowski from the University of Konstanz in Germany think they've uncovered the mechanism behind the process with new experiments that looked at how people feel after they write about their values: Instead of making people focus on themselves, writing about important values makes people feel loving and connected, reminding them of people and things they care about beyond themselves. These feelings of love and connectedness could affect levels of the hormone oxytocin, increasing the sense of trust (which we wrote about yesterday) and possibly accounting for the reduced defensiveness when it comes to criticizing their behavior.
The new studies, the researchers conclude in the current issue of Psychological Science, "raise the prospect that reminding people what they love or care about may enable them to transcend the self and may foster learning under difficult circumstances." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Should We Be Ordering Oxytocin Online?

There's news today that Swedish and British scientists have used fMRI to show that inhaling a spray of the hormone oxytocin can reduce anxiety in certain people. Oxytocin is famous for the role it plays in lovemaking and childbirth (when levels surge) and is also thought to be important for our desire to connect with others and our sense of trust. Most of the receptors for the hormone are located in the brain's amygdala, a region that's key for social interaction and processing emotions.
Commercial versions of oxytocin are easily available online. Liquid Trust Spray, for example, which touts itself as the "first oxytocin product," promises to "enhance people's trust in you." According to the company, with Liquid Trust people "can find you more attractive. People can feel more relaxed and at ease with you. People can be more likely to trust your opinions. You can gain more respect." Should we all be buying oxytocin over the Internet, then?
Not so fast, says Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University in California, who tells Time magazine: "We should look at other ways to juice the system without having to put two spoons of liquid up your nose every four hours." Zak, who has long studied the relationship between oxytocin and trust, says there are more natural ways to boost the hormone, like yoga, exercise, massage, petting an animal, or even sharing a meal with a friend.
Sue Carter, a professor of psychiatry and co-director of the Brain Body Center at the University of Illinois at Chicago
, agrees. "If you feel safe and allow yourself to feel safe, you can learn, you can cooperate with others, you can build societies," she tells the magazine. "Now does that mean we should run around and spray everyone with oxytocin? I don't think so." —Heather Wax

Monday, July 21, 2008

Plutoid Named After Polynesian God

In 2005, Mike Brown, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology, discovered a new dwarf planet orbiting beyond Neptune. Once officially named and classified by the International Astronomical Union, it would be the third "plutoid," a special type of dwarf planet, joining the ranks of Pluto (which was demoted from planet status in 2006) and Eris. But for three years, Brown and his colleagues referred to the plutoid as 2005 FY9 or "Easterbunny"—because it was discovered just a few days after Easter—as they tried to choose just the right name. Then, they waited six months for the IAU to approve their proposal—until this weekend, when the new plutoid's new name was announced: Welcome "Makemake" (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay) to the solar system.
Brown has put up a neat post over on his blog that explains how he chose the name. Makemake is the chief god of the Pacific island of Rapa Nui, believed to be the creator of humanity and god of fertility. Brown shares the deep thought that goes into naming objects in the solar system, the alternative names he came up with, and how he almost gave up.
"This Christmas, though, it was suggested to me that there were rumblings within the IAU that perhaps they would just chose a name themselves and not worry about what the discoverers thought. One could say that this should not matter and I should not care; there is no science there, after all, but, I enjoy, take seriously, and spend way too much time on this giving of names. I was not interested in a committee telling me the name of something I had discovered," Brown writes. "So I went back to work."
First, came the idea of a name associated with Rapa Nui, known as "Easter Island" and first visited by Europeans exactly 283 years before his discovery of the new plutoid. Then, he studied the island's mythology, settling on the fertility god because "Eris, Makemake, and 2003 EL61 were all discovered as my wife was 3-6 months pregnant with our daughter," he says. "Makemake was the last of these discoveries. I have the distinct memory of feeling this fertile abundance pouring out of the entire universe. Makemake was part of that." —Heather Wax

LeRon Shults Has a New Book

We just got a note from LeRon Shults, a professor of theology and philosophy at the University of Agder in Norway, telling us about his new book, Christology and Science. For those who are unfamiliar, "Christology" is a stream of Christian theology that involves studying the relationship between the divinity and humanity of Jesus.
"Christology and Science brings together two topics that for many have nothing to do with each other," says Alan Padgett, a theologian at Luther Seminary. "Shults innovatively shows how philosophy and contemporary science can help Christians rethink the core of their belief, that is, the 'science' of Christ. Theologians and those involved in the dialogue between religion and science have much to learn from Shults' creative proposal." —Heather Wax

S&R Essay Wins Student Nearly 2,000 Dollars

Kathryn Tabb, a graduate of the University of Chicago now working toward a master's of philosophy at the University of Cambridge, has won the Darwin Correspondence Project essay contest and a prize of 1,000 pounds (about 2,000 dollars). The award was established to reward the best student essay on a specific topic in the field of science and religion.
Tabb's essay, "Darwin at Orchis Bank," looked at Darwin's 19th-century work on orchid morphology and pollination and how it connects and contrasts with the contemporary idea of "intelligent design." Darwin wrote a lot about this work in his letters to Asa Gray, a Harvard University botanist and Presbyterian.
The essay will be posted on the project's Web site, which has already made the complete text of nearly 6,000 of Darwin's 14,500 letters available online. —Heather Wax

Friday, July 18, 2008

Antiwrinkle Science & Religion

Evolence, a new injection to treat wrinkles, is made in Israel using collagen taken from the tendons of pigs. It's now approved for use in the United States. But is it OK for Jews—who aren't allowed to eat any pig products— to use it? In other words, is Evolence kosher?
That question was put to Rabbi Dr. Edward Reichman in yesterday's New York Times. According to Reichman, an associate professor of emergency medicine who teaches Jewish medical ethics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of Yeshiva University, the shots wouldn't violate Jewish dietary law (in much the same way that tossing around a football, made from pig skin, is allowed).
Muslims, on the other hand, are not allowed to use any pig products unless they're medically necessary, says Abdulaziz Sachedina, a professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia, which means Evolence is off limits. "Anything that is used to enhance your appearance," he tells the newspaper, "does not qualify as a necessity." —Heather Wax

Out of Court

Last September, Steve Bitterman was fired from Southwestern Community College in Iowa for telling his Western civilization class that the biblical story of Adam and Eve shouldn't be taken literally—but rather as a meaningful story that should be read metaphorically and symbolically—and that they should question their religious beliefs. Some students complained. Now, he's settled his wrongful termination claim against the college for 20,000 dollars, according to The Des Moines Register.
Bitterman says he's satisfied with the settlement, but thinks "there’s still a political atmosphere that tends to suppress any unorthodox ways of thinking about history and philosophy. There’s been a battle between science and religion for a long time … I don’t see it changing a whole lot in the next century or two.” —Heather Wax

David Myers Responds to New Atheists, Nicely

David Myers, a psychologist at Hope College and self-described "science-loving religious person," will add his voice to the theist-atheist debate in August with his new book A Friendly Letter to Skeptics and Atheists: Musings on Why God is Good and Faith Isn't Evil. Rave reviews are coming in for this little book (160 pages) from some familiar big names in the field, including Alister McGrath, Francis Collins, Jonathan Haidt, and Owen Gingerich.
"For those whose thinking has moved from the religious thesis to the skeptical antithesis (or vice versa), I offer some pointers to a science-respecting Christian synthesis," Myers writes in the preface, which, along with the first two chapters and a chapter called "God and Gays," is available online. "I aim to suggest to skeptical friends how someone might share their commitment to reason, evidence, and, yes, even skepticism while also embracing a faith that makes sense of the universe, gives meaning to life, connects us in supportive communities, mandates altruism, and offers hope in the face of adversity and death." —Heather Wax

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Liberal Protestantism & Science

FROM LESLIE MURAY: My new book, Liberal Protestantism and Science, is part of a textbook series on religion and science published by Greenwood Press. The basic premise of the book is that, contrary to the conventional stereotype, there is a trajectory within the Christian tradition—namely, Liberal Protestantism—that has radically, enthusiastically, and unequivocally embraced science, including the theory of evolution (and the secularity that comes with it).
The book tells the story of Liberal Protestantism, tracing it back to the Enlightenment (with its belief that reason is the defining characteristic of being human and a willingness to question all authority), as well as to Romanticism (which saw feelings and emotions as defining human characteristics). From there, the book explores Liberal Protestantism’s embrace of modern science, including Darwinism (and Social Darwinism) in the 19th century, and later, the emergence of theologies of secularization, including the “death of God” movement. Also included: the beginnings of the movement to integrate science and religion, as seen in the journal Zygon and groups such as the Institute of Religion in an Age of Science, the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, and other organizations affiliated with the Templeton Foundation like the Metanexus Institute. The final sections consider process theology and ecotheology as the frontier of the dialogue between religion and science. And throughout the book, epistemological issues, which provide perhaps the greatest source of division between religion and science, are addressed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Stephen Post Is Leaving Case Western Reserve

Stephen Post and The Institute for Research on Unlimited Love will soon have a new home at Stony Brook University in New York. We just got a note from Post about his move from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland to begin an exciting new challenge, which reads in part:

"I am moving on with the spiritual intuition that some would describe as a calling. I will be Director of the new Center for Medical Humanities, Compassionate Care, and Bioethics at Stony Brook University in New York. Here I will be able to build a program within an equally vibrant university, and provide a new model for medical education. I will continue to pursue the study of altruism and compassionate love in relation to health and health care in this university platform, as well as attend to the world of the illness experience and of bioethics. The charge for the new center is university wide (very similar to the Harvard University model), so we will be working very intensely with the College of Arts & Sciences in addition to the school of medicine and the health center. We will have the chance to hire absolutely wonderful new faculty. Stony Brook, to its great credit, is also starting a Center for the Study of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim Relations, and this I will truly embrace, for what could be a greater threat to human health and well being than religious conflict.
I suppose that the best test for whether anyone has made a good decision is the degree of excitement in their voice when they tell their friends about it. I am excited. I feel that this is a huge opportunity to build something wonderful for the country and the world."

Congratulations, Stephen. We look forward to hearing about all you'll be up to.

The Evolution of Religious (and Other) Jokes

Science writer Jim Holt was on NPR's "On Point" last night talking about the origins of laughter. Holt is the author of a new book called Stop Me If You've Heard This, and he had some fascinating things to say about why we laugh and tell jokes.
Laughter, Holt thinks, can be traced back to prehistoric hunters who, wandering through the jungle, would perceive a threat in the air, something that looked disturbing, but then, "through a surprising reinterpretation," the perceived threat would "dissolve into nothing." The ripple of relief came out as laughter, he says, and it's similar to what we experience today at the end of a joke.
Holt also touched on the different theories of jokes, which are seen as ways of laughing out our aggressive instincts and forbidden impulses, displaying our feelings of superiority, and engaging in intellectual delight. Some of the best jokes, he says, are religion jokes, and there are "jokes for every religious sect." According to Holt, Unitarians—known for being tolerant and broad-minded—are the most enlightened when it comes to humor, while Jews, he says, have a "special penchant for joking" as a result of their tradition of Talmudic reasoning. The Talmud is a body of commentary on the Torah, and it's all about logical and linguistic nuances without regard for practical importance— a key element of some jokes. Jewish jokes also emerge from their history of persecution, he says, in part because of the release and transcendence that comes with "laughing in the face of suffering," but also because Jews often had to leave one country and enter another, experiencing a new language from the outside, making it ripe for puns. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Does Group Selection Explain Religion?

In a profile in today's New York Times, Harvard University biologist E.O. Wilson has a message for science and religion: “Stop quibbling—I’m willing to say ‘Under God’ and to hold my hand to my heart. That’s recognition of how this country evolved, and that we are using strong language to strong purpose, even if we may not agree on how the Earth was created.”
The larger piece introduces readers to the theory of group-level natural selection (as distinguished from gene-level selection) and why Wilson thinks multilevel selection theory should become the foundation of sociobiology. Group selection favors one population over another and "in Dr. Wilson’s view brought into being the many essential genes that benefit the group at the individual’s expense. In humans, these may include genes that underlie generosity, moral constraints, even religious behavior. Such traits are difficult to account for, though not impossible, on the view that natural selection favors only behaviors that help the individual to survive and leave more children," according to the newspaper.
Wilson believes morality and religion are traits based on group selection. "Groups with men of quality — brave, strong, innovative, smart and altruistic — would tend to prevail, as Darwin said, over those groups that do not have those qualities so well developed,” he says. —Heather Wax

Monday, July 14, 2008

Listen to This

Over on his blog, Brain Thompson has posted a podcast of his interview with Karl Giberson, author of the new book Saving Darwin. The two of them discuss "why Darwin has become the Christian right's new Satan, how science can harmonize with religious belief, and whether Darwin's or Lincoln's beard would be the bigger handicap in a fistfight." Enjoy.

Friday, July 11, 2008

S&R Debates at FreedomFest This Weekend

FreedomFest, described as an "intellectual feast in a fun town" and the "world's largest gathering of free minds," began yesterday in Las Vegas, but the big event is this evening, when Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D'Souza debate "War, Terrorism & Geo-Political Crisis: Is Religion the Solution or the Problem?" Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer will also be there, and on Saturday, to wrap up the event, he'll team up with Reason magazine science correspondent Ronald Bailey to take on the Discovery Institute's Stephen Meyer in a debate over the question, "Is There Scientific Evidence for Intelligent Design in Nature?" Shermer will be sharing with us his thoughts on how it went, so stay tuned. —Heather Wax

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Have a Question for Aubrey de Grey?

Got a question for longevity researcher Aubrey de Grey, who advocates radical life extension? Then head over to Slashdot, which is giving readers the chance to ask him any question they'd like.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

John Templeton Testimonial

Charles Townes, winner of the 1964 Nobel Prize in Physics and the 2005 winner of the Templeton Prize, sent us the following note in response to the death of Sir John Templeton yesterday at the age of 95:

"Sir John Templeton was a truly remarkable person. He was very open-minded, but deeply committed and devoted to some of the most important aspects of life. We have all benefitted from his insight and remarkable work, and humans will continue to benefit. We can all be thankful."

Thanks, Professor Townes, for sharing your thoughts.

Michael Shermer Says God & Science Don't Mix

"The problem with all of these attempts at blending science and religion may be found in a single principle: A is A. Or: Reality is real," writes Skeptic magazine's Michael Shermer in a piece on the failures of "intelligent design" in today's Ottawa Citizen. "To attempt to use nature to prove the supernatural is a violation of A is A. It is an attempt to make reality unreal. A cannot also be non-A. Nature cannot also be non-Nature. Naturalism cannot also be supernaturalism. Believers can have both religion and science as long as there is no attempt to make A non-A, to make reality unreal, to turn naturalism into supernaturalism. The Separate-Worlds Model in which science and religion deal with completely different subjects is the only way to do this. Thus, the most logically coherent argument for theists is that God is outside of time and space; that is, God is beyond nature - super nature, or supernatural - and therefore cannot be explained by natural causes. This places the God question outside the realm of science."

Congratulations, Ted Peters

Ted Peters, a professor of systematic theology at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary known for his work in the areas of science, technology, and ethics, has been named the next Martin E. Marty Professor of Religion and the Academy at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The position, named in honor of Martin E. Marty, a professor of religious history at the University of Chicago for 35 years, was previously held by John Barbour, a religion professor.
Peters will serve in this role during the 2009 calendar year.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Sir John Templeton Dies

Sir John Templeton, a mutual fund manager turned philanthropist who established the Templeton Foundation to explore the "big questions" of science and religion (and who many believe is, in large part, responsible for the modern movement to study the relationship between the two), died today of pneumonia in the Bahamas. He was 95.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Science and Religion Matters in America

Education publisher Pearson is at work on its next edition of What Matters in America, a reader for freshman composition classes to be published in the fall, and we hear this year's version will include a science and religion section. The textbook, edited by Gary Goshgarian, an English professor at Northeastern University, uses short readings from journals and magazines to highlight issues that matter to students, and insiders tell us the science and religion section will include pieces by Francis Collins, Ken Miller, Ed Larson, and Karl Giberson.

UPDATE: We just got a note from Gary Goshgarian, who confirms that there'll be a science and religion chapter in this year's textbook. "The issue of science and religion—and foremost, its connection to the evolution debate, and more recently, data on brain imaging, matters to students," he says. "We have found that this book is often adopted by a more conservative teaching base, so we make a special effort to balance the readings. In selecting the authors for this chapter, we look to the resources available—that is, who has written compelling essays, understandable to first-year college students within the last five years on the topics we have chosen? The essays must represent a good cross-section of opinion. While we included essays by Karl Giberson and Francis Collins, we are also running an interview posted on Salon.com between Steve Paulson and Richard Dawkins. The goal is to present different viewpoints of an issue, in this case, evolution and the controversy surrounding intelligent design. We will probably include an essay that defends the teaching of ID."

What do you think of the decision to include an essay that supports the teaching of "intelligent design" in this volume, or others like it? When it comes to issues of science, is it always best to include a "cross-section" of opinion?

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Evangelical Dialogue on Evolution

Our friend Steve Martin has just finished a neat guest-post series on "Evangelicals, Evolution, and Academics" over on his blog, and he's posted an index to the series for easy searching. Check out what some of the biggest names in the field have to say about the topic.

Headed to Court

Back in December, we told you about Christine Comer, who was forced to resign as the director of science curriculum for the Texas Education Agency after she forwarded an email message from the National Center for Science Education (a pro-evolution group) announcing that Barbara Forrest would be speaking in Austin about the "intelligent design" movement in a talk called "Inside Creationism's Trojan Horse." Comer said she was just passing on information; the agency saw it a bias endorsement and terminated her employment. Now, Comer has filed a lawsuit against the agency and Education Commissioner Robert Scott, saying that she was illegally fired and giving us a better and clearer look at the chain of events and the emails that were sent around.
In brief: Comer says she was fired because she wasn't neutral on the topic of creationism, as the agency requires—a policy that is unconstitutional because it endorses religion, she says. She's asking the court to overturn the policy, declare her firing unconstitutional, and require the agency to give her back her job. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Dispatch From the Saving Darwin Tour

FROM KARL GIBERSON: Since I teach at a Christian college, I don't spend a lot of time hanging out with atheists and agnostics. Most of the ones I know personally—Ron Numbers, E.O. Wilson, Michael Ruse, Dan Dennett—are delightful, interesting people that I would be happy to have dinner with; in fact I have had dinner with Numbers and Ruse. But these guys, of course, are the elite of the nonbelievers and, for whatever reason, seem cool-headed, civil, and committed to respectful discourse.
I have always wondered what the more rank-and-file atheists are like. Well, after reading the responses to my interview on Salon.com, I know. They are rude, and seem every bit as narrow and intolerant as fundamentalist Christians. Just as I worry that fundamentalists want to take over the country and impose their way of thinking on the rest of us, I would worry if this crew took over. They seem completely opposed to pluralism and resentful that I have written a book suggesting that Darwinians and Christians might be able to get along. (Incidentally, Ruse has written a similar book, Can a Darwinian be a Christian?, that I prefer to my own on this topic.)

Dispatch From the Saving Darwin Tour

FROM KARL GIBERSON: Well, I thought Bill Dembski hated my guts. But he is a bosom buddy compared to PZ Myers.

Looking at Faith Through the Brain

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. George Vaillant was on WBUR's "On Point" with guest host Jane Clayson yesterday, making the case that we're hard-wired for spirituality, which he defines in terms of positive emotions like trust, hope, love, and joy. These positive emotions—which are present in our hymns and songs, but not in psychiatric textbooks—are remarkably adaptive and housed in a different part of the brain (the limbic system) than the creeds and dogmas of our religious beliefs (which are housed in the neocortex), he says. Vaillant fleshes out this argument, looking at faith through neuroscience, in his new book Spiritual Evolution, which draws a strong distinction between spirituality and religion. "Like breathing, our spirituality is common to us all," he writes. "On the one hand, religion asks us to learn from the experience of our tribe; spirituality urges us to savor our own experience. On the other hand, religious helps us to mistrust the experience of other tribes; spirituality helps us to regard the experience of our foreigner as valuable too." The book, Vaillant says, is written for readers "seeking to have both their spiritual hearts and their scientific intellects taken seriously," and its goal is to "restore our faith in spirituality as an essential human striving." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Dispatch From the Saving Darwin Tour

FROM KARL GIBERSON: Salon.com made its interview with me the top story this morning, which has done wonders for the Amazon ranking of my book, Saving Darwin. There are already more than a hundred letters in response, some of them pretty vicious. I guess some people don't want Darwin saved, at least not by a Christian.

Voice Your Opinions on Moral Values

Get involved: A new project at the University of Michigan is trying something different in its attempt to get at the values that influence our political decisions. Rather than use random polling, the OurValues project asks participants to voluntarily respond to questions about a number of hot-button issues through a Web site—and the answers to these "flash-polls" will then inform a national study on "Americans' Evolving Values" from the university's Institute for Social Research. This larger study will look at the interaction between values, principles, and political and religious behaviors.
Wayne Baker, the sociologist who's leading the site's discussions, says he's excited by the "open source" nature of the project and the idea that it will be based on "the wisdom of crowds" rather than a closed circle of scholars. —Stephen Mapes