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Friday, August 29, 2008

Sarah Palin, Evolution, and Creationism

Check out this note from biologist Michael Zimmerman, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Butler University and the founder of The Clergy Letter Project, regarding John McCain's vice presidential running mate (thanks to Tom Oord for passing it along):

I thought all of you might want to take a look at this newspaper article (http://dwb.adn.com/news/politics/elections/story/8347904p-8243554c.html) discussing Governor Sarah Palin's stance on the evolution/creation issue. The piece is from the Anchorage Daily News and ran during the last gubernatorial race.

The Newest (and Oldest) Take on Galileo's Trial

The first biography of Galileo, written only 20 years after his death and long thought lost, has re-emerged after almost 200 years, proposing a unique explanation for the astronomer's famous trial. Thomas Salusbury's Life of Galileo (also known as Galilaeus Galilaeus His Life: In Five Books), written in 1664 and nearly destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, suggests that the trial was spurred not by a clash between science and religion, but by the Pope's desire to punish the Duke of Medici, a personal friend of Galileo's, because the duke refused to support Rome during the Thirty Years' War.
"There's been a very long discussion about the trial—what happened, who won—and to some extent that's still going on today," Nick Wilding, an historian of science at Georgia State University who recently rediscovered the manuscript at a library auction in England, tells Smithsonian Magazine. "The usual interpretation is that this was the great rift between science and religion. You've got this arrogant scientist up against a dogmatic church, and in that head-ramming, the pope's going to win." Salusbury's theory, says Wilding, "feels right" and "might provide some closure to a still-festering wound."
Even if the theory is wrong or mere extrapolation, it's "interesting to see how people at that time, from outside Italy, are starting to reconstruct Galileo's life," Stanford University historian Paula Findlen says in the magazine. And even if you disagree with the interpretation, she says, it does go to show that, from the beginning, people assumed something political—rather than religious—lay at the root of the trial, an assumption that matches the belief of many modern Galileo scholars. —Stephen Mapes

Thursday, August 28, 2008

What Can Science Bring to Religion?

The discussion surrounding the proper relationship between science and religion continues in the pages of Nature today with a letter by Matthew Cobb, a life scientist at the University of Manchester, and Jerry Coyne, a professor in the department of ecology and evolution at the University of Chicago. The letter, titled "Atheism could be science's contribution to religion," is their response to an editorial the journal published following the death of Sir John Templeton last month.

In part, that editorial reads:

This publication would turn away from religion in seeking explanations for how the world works, and believes that science is likely to go further in explaining human moral impulses than some religious people will welcome. Thus it shares a degree of suspicion with many in the scientific community at any attempt by religiously driven organizations to fund science. A chief concern is that the influential Templeton Foundation might be seeking to inject religion into the scientific world. And it is easy to understand that concern given the political activism of many American fundamentalists and their efforts to promote ideas such as intelligent design, which posits a divine hand in evolution. The foundation's most vigorous critics accuse it of attempting to lace science with spiritualism.
That claim is somewhat ironic, as Templeton himself seemed to have just the opposite in mind. He believed institutional religion to be antiquated, and hoped a dialogue with researchers might bring about advances in theological thinking. The foundation's substantial funding of science and religion departments around the world is directed towards those ends. Theologians have also used foundation money to develop and promote arguments that reconcile some of the apparent contradictions between science and religion. For those many scientists with a faith, promoting the compatibility of science with faith is a prudent and even necessary goal. Strict atheists may deplore such activities, but they can happily ignore them too.
The foundation's scientific agenda addresses 'big questions', which has sometimes resulted in work that many researchers regard as scientifically marginal. One field popular with the foundation is positive psychology, which seeks to gauge the effects of positive thinking on patients, and which critics argue has yielded little. Also heavily supported are cosmological studies into the existence of multiple universes -- a notion frequently criticized for lying at the edge of falsifiability. The concern is that such research has been unduly elevated by the foundation's backing. But whatever one thinks of positive psychology and the like, the foundation's support has not taken anything away from conventional funding. And in the field of cosmology at least, it has arguably yielded some new and interesting ideas.

And here's the letter from Cobb and Coyne:

We were perplexed by your Editorial on the work of the Templeton Foundation ('Templeton's legacy Nature 454, 253-254; 2008). Surely science is about finding material explanations of the world—explanations that can inspire those spooky feelings of awe, wonder and reverence in the hyper-evolved human brain.
Religion, on the other hand, is about humans thinking that awe, wonder and reverence are the clue to understanding a God-built Universe. (The same is true of religion's poor cousin, 'spirituality,' which you slip into your Editorial rather as a creationist uses 'intelligent design.') There is a fundamental conflict here, one that can never be reconciled until all religions cease making claims about the nature of reality.
The scientific study of religion is indeed full of big questions that need to be addressed, such as why belief in religion is negatively correlated with an acceptance of evolution. One could consider psychological studies of why humans are superstitious and believe impossible things, and comparative sociological studies of religion using materialist explanations of the rise and fall of the world's belief systems.
Perhaps the Templeton Foundation is thinking of funding such research. The outcome of such work, we predict, will not bring science and religion (or 'spirituality') any closer to one another. You suggest that science may bring about "advances in theological thinking." In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Anti-Faith Signs Call for Freedom of Science

Billboards championing a fact-based rather than faith-based society have been popping up around the nation—most recently in Denver, site of the Democratic National Convention. The billboards, with messages like "Keep Religion OUT of Politics" and "Imagine No Religion," have now gone up in about seven cities, including Atlanta and Seattle, with more to come. They're designed to publicize the message of the Wisconsin-based Freedom From Religion Foundation, an association of about 12,000 atheists and agnostics that works to keep church and state separate. "Religious agendas have influenced our public policy at an alarming rate in the past few years, from taxpayer-funded faith-based initiatives, to attempts to teach creationism in our children's science classrooms, to ballot initiatives that would force other peoples' religious dogma on all of us," said Denver foundation member Mike Smith in a press release about the newest billboard and its timely message. The Foundation hopes to put up a similar billboard in Minneapolis-Saint Paul in time for the Republican convention next week.
The more general "Imagine No Religion" billboard campaign, says Mike Christensen, another foundation member, "does not question any specific religion, religious doctrine, or faith. Rather it promotes the idea that society can only reach its full potential when we cease focusing on the answer and start focusing on the acquisition of knowledge based on an open minded scientific process." The message, he adds, "asks us to imagine a world where people can look at the universe with an open mind, and not make an assumption based on blind faith. A world where scientific discovery can go unimpeded without fear of contradicting someone else’s unfounded belief structure. A world where we lose the irrational fear of our own mortality and take comfort in the unknown, for it roots our desire to explore." —Heather Wax

Is Rick Warren Launching His Own Magazine?

There's news today that that Pastor Rick Warren of the mega Saddleback Church in California, who a couple of weeks ago interviewed both Barack Obama and John McCain at a faith-based forum, will be launching a magazine this fall. The magazine, whose working is title is said to be Purpose, will reportedly be inspired by his best-selling book The Purpose Driven Life and will be edited by Joe Treen, a former editor at People and Discover magazine—though a spokeswoman for Warren said she couldn't confirm the rumor at this time.

Rabbi Explains "Why Faith Matters"

"I believe that the book makes a very compelling case that religion is not responsible for war, and that science is compatible with religion," Rabbi David Wolpe, a rising leader in Conservative Judaism, says in an interview in the Forward about his upcoming new book, Why Faith Matters. "The other way it enters the dialogue is by refocusing people on the real content of religion. Eighty-five to 90 percent of religion is not about abstract ideas; it’s about the way people live their lives, and when people are in trouble, or rejoicing or need community, or are sick, or have died, suddenly religion steps in as that which supports and cares for them."
Wolpe says he wrote the book—a defense of faith—to counter the anti-religion arguments of the "new atheists" and to argue for religion's value in the modern world. He wants to promote the idea, he says, that you can "be intellectually sophisticated and morally sensitive and still be religious." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Orthodox Jews Can Embrace Science & Torah

"We listen to all scientific theories, whether good or bad. When we take the atom and use it for nuclear medicine, that's good. When the Nazis used it for their pseudo-sciences, that was bad. The Jewish religion recognizes that science is good, and we use it for this. There is nothing in science that is anti-God. We have no problem with science. We listen to science," Dr. Allen Bennett, president of the Association of Orthodox Jewish Scientists, says in a piece on the organization in today's Jewish Advocate. The association, which believes science and religion work together and that Jews should welcome both, aims to strengthen the bond between science and the Torah and to help solve "ideological problems relating to the apparent points of conflict between scientific theory and Orthodox Judaism."

Francisco Ayala Sees No Real S&R Conflict

The August issue of the HHMI Bulletin, from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, has a short interview with Francisco Ayala, a professor of biology and philosophy at the University of California, Irvine and a staunch supporter of evolution who has long studied how the topic is taught in public schools. Ayala speaks about evolution and creationism, and addresses the relationship between science and religion:

HHMI: Almost half of Americans, according to recent Gallup polls, say that evolution and religion cannot coexist. Why is evolution so contested in the United States, at least in certain areas?

Francisco Ayala: The United States was largely founded by people who were being persecuted for religious reasons. I think love for religion predisposes citizens in this country toward the perception of a conflict with science. On top of that, the idea is pervasive that science tends to be materialistic.

HHMI: Meaning?

FA: Materialism is a philosophical position, affirming that nothing exists beyond “matter,” that which we can experience with our senses. I would say that science is methodologically materialist: it can deal only with the world of matter. But it is not philosophically materialist; it does not imply that nothing can exist beyond what we experience with our senses, as religion requires. One can accept scientific principles and also hold religious beliefs.
But, many people are ignorant of science and just assume it is contrary to their religion. Of course, the proponents of intelligent design and creationism are also spreading a lot of propaganda. The only way to deal with the problem is education and specifically science education, which is unfortunately lacking, by and large, and not only in this country.

HHMI: Don't most mainstream theologians actually endorse evolution?

FA: Yes. In Christianity, Islam, and Judaism, the compatibility of science and religion has long been accepted by most scholars, by most theologians. Pope Pius XII said in 1950 that Catholics should accept what science demonstrates about evolution, while holding that God creates the human soul. In 1996, Pope John Paul II spoke very strongly in support of evolution and the idea that evolution and religion are quite compatible. The current pope, Benedict XVI, says there is plenty of scientific proof for evolution and that it is absurd to assume there is a conflict between evolution and religious faith.

Monday, August 25, 2008

"Militant Atheists" Attack New Computer Game

Spore, an upcoming computer game from famed SimCity creator Will Wright, has come under fire for its focus on the origin of species, but the loudest complaints have come from an unexpected source—what Wright calls "militant atheists." The game tasks players with guiding the evolution of their own designed creature, from a single-celled organism to a sentient civilization, complete with buildings, armies, and its own religion, that then sets out to conquer the galaxy (think "panspermia," the idea that the "seeds" of life are everywhere and that microbes—or, some think, spores— from space are responsible for originating life on Earth and maybe other planets). While the game clearly accepts evolution as its underlying concept—which you'd think would draw harsh criticisms from religious groups—it's militant atheists, claims Wright, who have really been protesting. They feel, he says, that the game presents a case for intelligent design and are insulted that the game includes religion as an integral part of civilizations. Ironically, Wright himself claims to be an atheist, though he says he has attempted to leave his personal religious views out of the game. Spore is schedules to hit stores early next month. —Stephen Mapes

One Florida Teacher's Fight to Uphold Evolution

"Faith is not based on science. And science is not based on faith," Florida teacher David Campbell tells the high schoolers in his sophomore biology class. "I don’t expect you to 'believe' the scientific explanation of evolution that we’re going to talk about over the next few weeks. But I do expect you to understand it." In a Saturday profile, The New York Times chronicles the efforts of Campbell, an Anglican who helped write Florida's new science standards, to teach evolution to students who are raised, by parents and pastors, to believe the biblical story of creation is literal and that evolution is incompatible with their faith. The new standards, which explicitly call for the teaching of "evolution, "using the word itself for the first time, will begin to be phased in this fall—and Florida can thank teachers like Campbell for responsibly and respectfully promoting sound science education. Stay tuned for more science education news from Florida when the legislative session resumes and debate continues on the "academic freedom" bill that died in May when the last session ended and no compromise between the House version and Senate version could be reached. —Heather Wax

Friday, August 22, 2008

Rule to Boost Doctors' "Right of Conscience"

In a new memo, the Department of Health and Human Services has announced proposed regulations that seek to strengthen and protect health-care providers' “right of conscience”—in other words, their right to refuse to provide certain treatments or procedures, like abortions, for religious or moral reasons. There are already a number of laws that prohibit doctors and hospitals from discriminating against health-care workers who opt of such treatments, but HHS wants federally funded institutions to certify in writing their compliance with the laws, making it easier, in essence, for doctors to opt out of abortions. “Doctors and other health-care providers should not be forced to choose between good professional standing and violating their conscience,” says Mike Leavitt, HHS secretary. “Freedom of expression and action should not be surrendered upon the issuance of a health-care degree.”
Many, however, worry the regulation is so sweeping, as well as vague in its use of the term "abortion," that it could also affect access to contraception.
The stronger protections stand in stark contrast to new draft guidelines from the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario, a regulating body in Canada, which would no longer allow doctors in the province to refuse to perform treatments and procedures that go against their religious or moral conscience. If passed, doctors who opt out of such treatments will face disciplinary action. —Heather Wax

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Still No Consensus on Shroud of Turin's Age

It has been three months since University of Colorado physicist John Jackson and his wife Rebecca began their effort to discredit the radiocarbon dating of the Shroud of Turin, believed by some to be Christ's burial cloth, and so far they have met with little success. The two hope to show that the previously accepted dating of the shroud, which placed its origins in the 13th or 14th centuries (making it a fogery), was skewed by carbon monoxide contamination.
As it turns out, the Jacksons are not the only ones questioning the dating of the shroud. At a conference held by the Shroud Science Group last weekend at Ohio State University, scientists from the Los Alamos National Laboratory presented evidence that the dating may have been done on a piece used to repair the cloth and not the original fabric itself. Their assertion may not be completely off base; some historical evidence seems to indicate the shroud is older than the dating has determined. Meanwhile, the Jacksons remain hopeful that further tests will verify their contamination theory. Others, however, like geologist Steven Schafersman, hope to convince people to accept the empirical evidence. To him, "past efforts by some individuals, with scientific or technical training and access to scientific equipment, to promote the Shroud's authenticity by presenting irrelevant, misinterpreted, fudged, and even fraudulent data and interpretations—while at the same time ignoring, misunderstanding, misrepresenting, and clumsily explaining-away reliable evidence against authenticity—are nothing short of astonishing." —Stephen Mapes

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Dispatch From Chautauqua

FROM BARBARA KING: My second day at Chautauqua was both exhausting and exhilarating. Edward Larson kicked things off with a talk about the history of teaching evolution in the United States, "from Dayton to Dover."
Larson identified three more-or-less chronologically-ordered phases, in terms of which was the dominant strategy: attempts to remove evolution from the classroom altogether; programs designed to balance instruction so that both evolution and creationism are represented; and the "evolution is just a theory" movement, where intelligent-design advocates and others insist that evolutionary theory is debatable and needs evaluation against alternatives.
Particularly intriguing to me was Larson's explanation of a seismic shift that came in 1961 (the second phase). Until then, even the most prominent figures who challenged the teaching of human evolution in public schools—like William Jennings Bryan of the famed 1925 Scopes Trail in Dayton, Tennessee—did not embrace biblical literalism. Only when Virgina Tech engineering professor Henry Morris published The Genesis Flood in 1961 did "a scientific-sounding" reply to evolution become available. Here was a turning point, with Morris a "Moses leading the faithful into a promised land where science proves religion," said Larson—except, as Larson was quick to explain, the science was so drastically flawed as not to be science at all. The Earth is not 6,000 years old, and dinosaurs and early humans had not co-existed, as Morris claimed.
Yet, I learned, the Morris text is now in its 42nd printing! It's a powerhouse influence on some significant number of Americans still today. This fact reminds us that though a lot of high-profile court cases turn on questions of teaching intelligent design, an army of young-earth creationists is out there too, fighting from a biblical-literalist position against the chance for public high school students to learn genuine science.
Larson concluded his talk with these words: "If history is any guide, dark clouds remain on the horizon" for the teaching of evolution in American public high schools.
In the wake of that chilling prediction, I sought relaxation and immersion in beauty, and found it in a midday organ concert. It, together with last night's Brahms symphony by the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra, brought special pleasure to my visit. The science and religion of Chautauqua is infused with music.
In the afternoon, I gave a talk myself, based on my book Evolving God. As a biological anthropologist, I look for deep roots in apes and in human ancestors of what (later in human evolution) became religion. During the lecture and in the vigorous half-hour question-and-answer session that followed, I enjoyed talking with Chautauquans about empathy, compassion, and violence in great apes and humans, and about the earliest prehistoric rituals (e.g., burial ceremonies) of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that may give us clues to humans' seeking of the sacred.
An honor followed the talk: I was interviewed for a podcast by the Rev. Dr. Joan Brown Campbell. (The interview should be up on Chautauqua's Web site next week.) For decades, Campbell has been a formidable global presence in the fight against poverty and injustice. She's also, I have now discovered, a warm and purely fun person to spend time with.
Tonight's agenda is simple: ice cream! And I fly home tomorrow.

Believers Say Aliens Won't Cause Crisis of Faith

According to a new study released by the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, most religious believers would welcome meeting and interacting with extraterrestrials. The "Peters ETI Religious Crisis Survey of 2008," led by systematic theologian Ted Peters, was designed to test the idea that the discovery of an extraterrestrial civilization of intelligent beings would lead to a crisis of faith for religious believers and possibly a collapse of religious traditions altogether.
Yet more than 80 percent of Catholics, mainline Protestants, evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Jews, and Buddhists said they didn't think the discovery of aliens on another planet would cause a crisis of personal belief. (Click on image for larger view.)
Notably, nonreligious respondents were more likely to predict a crisis for religious belief systems as a whole than were religious respondents themselves.
Also interesting is that only about 25 percent of those who identify as nonreligious said they expect aliens to have no religion and to rely exclusively on scientific knowledge.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Dispatch From Chautauqua

FROM BARBARA KING: Greetings from the shores of Lake Chautauqua in southwestern New York, where I'm at Chautauqua Institution for part of "Darwin and Linnaeus" week. Today was my first day in residence, and as I see it, the theme was the importance of, and wonder in, all creatures of our Earth, from the perspectives of religion and science both.
In the 9 a.m. chill, people gathered in Chautauqua's amphitheatre for a morning religious service. Right near the start came these words: "We need today, more than ever, a common language, a common intention to communicate and listen across differences in worldviews, cultures, classes, religions, and species."
To communicate and listen across species! I felt at home with this net cast wide into the natural world. This week's visiting pastor, Bruce Sanguin from the Canadian Memorial United Church and Center for Peace in Vancouver, British Columbia, took this idea further in a sermon that focused on the Pentecost story in ecological and evolutionary perspective. In a reversal of what happens with the Tower of Babel, the Pentecost story tells of visitors from farflung cultures who had come to Jerusalem and were able miraculously to understand each other's native language.
The allegory is powerful, for if seen in an evolutionary light it can urge us to think about how we relate with other species who communicate differently than we do. Sanguin says all of us must "fall back in love" with our planet, and work for its healing, because the current ecological crisis is "the fundamental challenge facing human beings today." Of course, he speaks from within the Christian tradition, but I heard his call as one that goes out to all people, at a time when our species seems to speak "only the dialect of domination." This needs to change, as Sanguin put it, "for our children, and for the children of all species."
The urgency facing us, the need to get into gear and take concrete steps to save the habitat, is often framed in terms of the need to save mammals (great apes, elephants, dolphins, whales, pandas) and birds. As a biological anthropologist who has studied primates, I sometimes promote this focus myself. But the morning's embrace was in no way so limited, and by the time the afternoon rolled around, it had broadened further in a startlingly specific way.
The department of religion's guest speaker today was science writer Carl Zimmer. Zimmer brought the clarity of his journalism to the task of discussing Darwin, Linnaeus, and microbes to a good-sized audience. His compare-and-contrast discussion of Linnaeus and Darwin was useful. For instance, with his new system for classifying the world's plants and animals, Linnaeus felt he was revealing the order of God; by contrast, Darwin, with his grasping of the concept of common ancestry, offered a specific way to understand why species are grouped as they are.
Zimmer's skills in communicating science were most evident when he told tales of microbes, those single-celled organisms that have accounted for seven-eighths of the timeline of life on Earth. Following the thesis of his new book Microcosm, Zimmer discussed a creature most of us give no second thought to, unless we eat a bad cheeseburger: E. coli. These micro-organisms are wildly successful and key to our ecosystems' health: They recycle nutrients, pull pollutants out of the wetlands, produce oxygen, anchor the food chain, and for that matter anchor our "internal jungle," our digestive system. Scientists, through lab experiments, observe them evolve generation by generation and in so doing, come to better understand the workings of evolution and genomic change.
To start the day with Sanguin's sacred species and end it with Zimmer's evolved species made for a resonant mix. In each case, the emphasis is off humans, but with an underlying urge to understand our own species better.

Many Believe God Can Heal When Doctors Can't

More than 57 percent of people—and nearly 20 percent of medical trauma professionals—believe that divine intervention could save a person when physicians believe treatment is futile, according to a study in the August issue of the journal Archives of Surgery. The study, led by Dr. Lenworth Jacobs, director of emergency medicine and trauma at Hartford Hospital and a surgery professor at the University of Connecticut, also found that about 61 of the public and 20 percent of professionals believe that a person in a persistent vegetative state could be saved by a miracle. When asked to imagine that they themselves were critically injured, 41 percent of the general public and about 30 percent of professionals said religious beliefs would be very important in making decisions about their own medical care.
Jacobs says that being sensitive to these kinds of beliefs can help doctors establish a trusting relationship with patients and their loved ones—the type of relationships that's needed if doctors hope to convey complex scientific evidence and paint a realistic medical picture.
The study's results are based on two surveys, one of 1,000 random adults and the other of 774 medical workers, conducted in 2005. —Heather Wax

Doctors Told Medicine Trumps Personal Morals

An interesting situation is developing in Ontario, Canada. A new draft proposal of guidelines from the College of Physicians & Surgeons of Ontario, a regulating body, would prevent doctors from being able to opt out of treatments and procedures that go against their religious or moral conscience. As of now, Ontario physicians are able to refuse things like prescribing birth control or the morning-after pill, performing abortions, or helping same-sex couples conceive if it goes against their personal beliefs. Under the new guidelines, that would stop, and doctors who refused such treatments because of their moral convictions would face disciplinary action.
According to Canada's National Post, the college's draft says that a "physician's responsibility is to place the needs of the patient first, [so] there will be times when it may be necessary for physicians to set aside their personal beliefs in order to ensure that patients or potential patients are provided with the medical services they require." It also states that physicians "should be aware that decisions to restrict medical services offered ... or to end physician-patient relationships that are based on moral or religious belief may contravene the Code and/or constitute professional misconduct."
Many, like Lorne Gunter, who wrote the newspaper's editorial on the subject, think the proposal is biased against religious believers and violates physicians rights while trying to protect the rights of others. The CPSO, he writes, is "placing the rights of women and gays ahead of those of doctors and people of faith, whether they are Jews, Muslims, Christians or others." —Heather Wax

Monday, August 18, 2008

"Henry Poole Is Here" Movie Review

FROM ENTERTAINMENT REPORTER KIMBERLY ROOTS:
Leading man Luke Wilson’s good looks are so Hollywood-friendly, his face so amicably open, that he’s made a career as the aw-shucks straight man in films like Legally Blonde, Charlie’s Angels, and Old School. But Wilson chucks his usual shtick in Henry Poole Is Here, creating a character that saves a sweet movie from delving into the saccharine.
Wilson’s Henry is a sallow, puffy, wrinkled bedsheet of a man who moves back to his childhood suburb in the wake of some terrible news. He fills his fridge with hard liquor and junk food and tries to disconnect from life—a task made difficult by a water stain that appears in the stucco on the rear wall of his home. His very Catholic new neighbor, Esperanza, becomes obsessed with the stain, which begins to look like the face of Christ. Soon, the standoffish Henry has people on his property day and night, beseeching the apparition for healing and guidance.
Henry’s insistence that the stain is just a stain doesn’t do much to deter the faithful. And when the spot seems to help the young daughter of his single, attractive next-door neighbor, Henry begins to doubt his own doubt. Call it a crisis of lack-of-faith; he can’t wholeheartedly believe what everyone else does, but he can’t help but hope that maybe he’s wrong.
Director Mark Pellington’s movie has a blessedly light touch with regard to Catholic phenomena, which helps keep its religious characters—including a perfectly understated George Lopez as Father Salazar—from turning into caricatures. Instead, the faith discussed in Henry Poole Is Here is more about allowing oneself to hope for the best in life, in others, and in what lies ahead without needing an explanation for the way things shake out.
Without Wilson’s steadfast footing in Henry’s gruff shoes, Henry Poole Is Here could’ve easily ended up as the Lifetime channel movie of the week. But his character’s grappling with the desire to believe makes him easy to relate to, a modern man unable to cede one inch of skepticism even if it means true happiness. Eventually, Henry gets what’s coming to him in an ending worth both seeing and believing.

A Week of S&R at Chautauqua

A week devoted to science and religion at the Chautauqua Institution in New York begins today. "Darwin and Linnaeus: Their Impact on Our View of the Natural World," part of the institution's summer program, will focus on the "scientific, social, religious, and legal ramifications of Darwin's work"—namely, his theory of evolution by natural selection. Lectures will also look at the legacy of Carl Linnaeus, considered the father of taxonomy, whose system of naming and classifying organisms helped us to catalog the natural world.
Those familiar with the field of science and religion will recognize a number of the week's speakers, including Ken Miller, Ed Larson, Michael Ruse, Carl Zimmer, Eugenie Scott, and Barbara King. King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William & Mary and the author of Evolving God, will be blogging for us from the event tomorrow and Wednesday, so stay tuned. —Heather Wax

Friday, August 15, 2008

Clergy Letter Project Urges Rabbis to Sign On

The Clergy Letter Project is asking American rabbis to sign its "Open Letter Concerning Religion and Science" and to vocalize their support for evolution education (thanks to the National Center for Science Education for the tip). The project has long had a letter for Christian clergy, which has been signed by more than 11,000 members. So far, more than 100 rabbis have signed the Jewish clergy letter, which reads:

"As rabbis from various branches of Judaism, we the undersigned, urge public school boards to affirm their commitment to the teaching of the science of evolution. Fundamentalists of various traditions, who perceive the science of evolution to be in conflict with their personal religious beliefs, are seeking to influence public school boards to authorize the teaching of creationism. We see this as a breach in the separation of church and state. Those who believe in a literal interpretation of the Biblical account of creation are free to teach their perspective in their homes, religious institutions and private schools. To teach it in the public schools would be to assert a particular religious perspective in an environment which is supposed to be free of such indoctrination.

"The Bible is the primary source of spiritual inspiration and of values for us and for many others, though not everyone, in our society. It is, however, open to interpretation, with some taking the creation account and other content literally and some preferring a figurative understanding. It is possible to be inspired by the religious teachings of the Bible while not taking a literalist approach and while accepting the validity of science including the foundational concept of evolution. It is not the role of public schools to indoctrinate students with specific religious beliefs but rather to educate them in the established principles of science and in other subjects of general knowledge."

Rick Warren To Interview the Candidates—Live!

Pastor Rick Warren, leader of his own megachurch and best-selling author of the The Purpose Driven Life, will talk with both Barack Obama and John McCain about leadership, decision making, and faith in back-to-back hourlong interviews on Saturday. Obama will go first, determined by a coin toss.
During the Saddleback Civil Forum, held at Warren's Saddleback Church in California, the pastor will focus the discussion on four topics—leadership, stewardship, worldview, and vision for America—and he promises to ask the tough questions. "The primaries proved that Americans care deeply about the faith, values, character, and leadership convictions of candidates as much as they do about the issues," Warren said in a press release. "While I know both men as friends and they recognize I will be frank, but fair, they also know I will be raising questions in these four areas beyond what political reporters typically ask. This includes pressing issues that are bridging divides in our nation, such as poverty, HIV/AIDS, climate, and human rights."
The interviews will air live on Fox News, CNN, and online at 5 p.m. —Heather Wax

Henry Poole Is On the Big Screen

Henry Poole is Here, a film which garnered attention earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival for its focus on science and the power of prayer, is hitting theaters this weekend in limited release. The movie is directed by Mark Pellington and stars Luke Wilson as Henry, a man disillusioned with society whose attempts to isolate himself from the world and faith are thwarted when a stain on the side of his home—some see in it the image of Jesus—draws crowds of religious believers to his backyard. In this story of miracles and redemption, Henry begins to discover the true nature of faith and hope.
Critical response has been mixed, with many chastising the picture for an overly sappy and preachy script. Robert Kohler of Variety particularly lamented the film's "tendency to lecture on the power of faith and religion and on the demerits of science." Other critics, however, see the movie as redeeming despite its shortcomings, taking on a subject that many moviemakers tend to avoid and offering a very personal glimpse of the director's own beliefs. Stay tuned for our own review of the film from entertainment reporter Kimberly Roots (who recently reviewed The X-Files movie) on Monday. —Stephen Mapes

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Americans Struggle With Evaluating Science

Only 26 percent of Americans believe they have a good understanding of science, according to a national survey of more than 1,300 adults conducted by Harris Interactive for the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. As Americans look to improve their knowledge, determining which sources to trust is key, say education experts, which means checking credentials and developing a basic understanding of research methodology.
The concern of Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the National Science Teachers Association, is likely to really resonate with many who work at the intersection of science and religion—especially those working hard to promote things like the integrity of evolution education and action to address global climate change. "We have in this country," Wheeler tells the paper, "a major crisis of people listening to people they feel comfortable with [rather than] listening to a variety of groups and critically thinking through their messages." —Heather Wax

Doctor Says Physicians Must Treat Body & Soul

Dr. Yoel Abells writes about the evolving relationship between the medical profession and religion in his most recent column for Canada's National Post—glad to see that medicine is moving away from the technology-centric approach of the 20th century, which left many patients emotionally unsatisfied, and back to an earlier approach that integrated religious and spiritual elements. The "period of religious and spiritual 'rejectionism' was eating at the heart of medicine," he writes. "To those who viewed medicine as more than just a vocation, this reality was profoundly unpleasant." In his view, doctors "must learn to attend to both the body and the soul."
To that end, Abells—along with the rest of his medical school classmates—chose to commit themselves to the Prayer of Maimonides rather than the Hippocratic Oath during their graduation ceremony. "Almighty God," goes the prayer, "Thou has created the human body with infinite wisdom. Ten thousand times ten thousand organs hast Thou combined in it that act unceasingly and harmoniously to preserve the whole in all its beauty the body which is the envelope of the immortal soul. They are ever acting in perfect order, agreement and accord. ... Almighty God! Thou hast chosen me in Thy mercy to watch over the life and death of Thy creatures. I now apply myself to my profession. Support me in this great task so that it may benefit mankind, for without Thy help not even the least thing will succeed."
The religious and spiritual words, says Abells, were inspiring. "They gave context (why we should practice medicine) and texture (how medicine should be practiced). They defined the art of medicine for us, guiding us in our approach to patients," he says. "We realized that if the science of medicine is not transcended by spirituality, it is like a body without a soul, fixed and lacking in substance. It is compassionless rather than compassionate, robotic rather than human." —Heather Wax

Is Faith Science's Enemy—Or Is It Ignorance?

It looks like Lawrence Krauss and Richard MacKenzie are continuing the science and religion debate they started at a 2007 physics meeting in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. Back then, Krauss, a theoretical physicist now at Arizona State University, gave a lecture called "Selling Science to Unwilling Buyers," about ways of teaching science to the public at large. His conclusion: Faith is not the enemy. Ignorance is the enemy.
Now, MacKenzie, a particle physicist at the University of Montreal, has written a paper explaining why he strongly disagrees, "to the point where I would be inclined to go so far as to interchange the words 'faith' and 'ignorance,'" he says. According to MacKenzie, it is "much easier to write on the clean slate of an ignorant but open-minded person than to have to first erase preconceived notions that run counter to the criticality needed to develop a scientific understanding of the world around us." While he admits that "direct observation shows that faith does not obstruct scientists from doing science," he argues that faith—which is based on "blind acceptance"—does obstruct nonscientists from learning science, "both indirectly (in terms of the choice of school curricula) and directly (since faith by its very nature runs counter to a scientific way of thinking)."
To this paper, Krauss has written his own response, in which he disagrees very little with MacKenzie's overall view. He does assert, however, that, for him, teaching science—and thus "vanquishing ignorance"—is a higher priority than destroying faith. Humans, he says, "are not completely logical beings," and religious scientists are "merely a clear example of the fact that humans can hold fast to two inconsistent ideas at the same time." According to Krauss, "as long as someone's religious faith does not get in the way of them learning about nature, their ability to access empirical data, or to predict the results of future experiments, then I view it as no more obstructionist than the faith they may have that money can't buy happiness, or that marriage produces happiness ever after, or that the Canadiens will win the Stanley Cup. Naive, perhaps. Maybe even based on ignorance. But not necessarily counterproductive."
Both papers are scheduled to appear in the journal Physics in Canada. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

UC Can Deny Credit to Christian School Classes

When students apply to attend a University of California school, the courses they've taken in high school are evaluated to make sure they'll prepare the students for the college curriculum. Now—in a win for the scientific community—a federal judge has ruled that UC doesn't have to give college-prep credit to Christian high school classes that favor biblical creationism and divine providence over scientific explanations and historical data.
The problem started when UC decided to reject certain English, history, government, and science classes at two Southern California Christian high schools, saying these courses did not fulfill entrance requirements or prepare students for classes at UC. The Christian schools accused the university system of religious discrimination, claiming that it disqualifies courses that include "any instance of God's guidance of history, or any alternative ... to evolution." According to Judge James Otero, however, the university proved that it rejected the courses not because of their religious perspective but because they weren't academically up to snuff, failing to teach critical thinking and leaving out key concepts and ideas.
Among the courses the university rejected was a biology class that uses the textbook Biology: God's Living Creation. According to the National Center for Science Education, Barbara Sawrey, associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education at the University of California, San Diego and a lecturer in the chemistry and biochemistry department, evaluated the book and found it takes an "overall unscientific approach to the subject matter." Biologists Donald Kennedy (the former editor-in-chief of Science) and Francisco Ayala (a former Dominican priest), both expert witnesses for the defense, agreed. On the other side, biochemist and "intelligent design" promoter Michael Behe served as a witness for the plaintiff, but failed to prove that evolution and critical thinking are taught adequately in the science class.
For his part, UC Provost Rory Hume reaffirmed in a press release that the university "welcomes students of all religious faiths and recognizes that a diversity of educational backgrounds among our students, including religious education, enriches the UC community and the academic experience. As we have said all along, the question the University addresses in reviewing courses is not whether they have religious content, but whether they provide adequate instruction in the subject matter."
The decision has already been appealed. —Heather Wax

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Astronaut Says He Practiced Faith in Orbit

"People somehow create an artificial barrier between science and religion. I see God and his inspiration in our scientific curiosity. I haven't seen anything in my work as a scientist that disrupts or causes me to lose faith in God or his work in my life," former NASA astronaut Tom Jones, a Catholic, tells the Post-Bulletin of Rochester, Minnesota. Jones, who flew on four space shuttle missions, says his faith was "especially a great comfort to me when I was actually preparing for these space flights. It was good to step aside from all the technical stuff and actually focus on the spiritual and ask for some extra help there."
Keep an eye out for Jones' next book project, Planetology, which will hit the bookshelves in November. Co-authored by planetary geologist Ellen Stofan, the book will include amazing images along with explanations of the physical processes that shape Earth and the other planets. —Heather Wax

Monday, August 11, 2008

Obama and McCain to Answer S&R Questions


Cleveland's Plain Dealer is reporting that spokesmen for both Barack Obama and John McCain said the candidates will answer the 14 science questions that Science Debate 2008 chose as key issues with the help of public input. There is national support—from a growing group of Nobel laureates and key science organizations—for a televised science and technology debate that would have the presumptive presidential nominees publicly addressing these same key topics, which include a number of science-and-religion issues, such as genetic engineering, stem cell research, and how they'll balance scientific information with their personal beliefs. According to the newspaper, McCain hasn't ruled out participating in an actual debate, while Obama (according to his spokesman) believes it is "vital that we restore the role of objective science in policymaking."
Here are the 14 questions "about science and America's future" the candidates have reportedly said they'll answer:

1. Innovation. Science and technology have been responsible for half of the growth of the American economy since WWII. But several recent reports question America’s continued leadership in these vital areas. What policies will you support to ensure that America remains the world leader in innovation?

2. Climate Change. The Earth’s climate is changing and there is concern about the potentially adverse effects of these changes on life on the planet. What is your position on the following measures that have been proposed to address global climate change—a cap-and-trade system, a carbon tax, increased fuel-economy standards, or research? Are there other policies you would support?

3. Energy. Many policymakers and scientists say energy security and sustainability are major problems facing the United States this century. What policies would you support to meet demand for energy while ensuring an economically and environmentally sustainable future?

4. Education. A comparison of 15-year-olds in 30 wealthy nations found that average science scores among U.S. students ranked 17th, while average U.S. math scores ranked 24th. What role do you think the federal government should play in preparing K-12 students for the science and technology driven 21st Century?

5. National Security. Science and technology are at the core of national security like never before. What is your view of how science and technology can best be used to ensure national security and where should we put our focus?

6. Pandemics and Biosecurity. Some estimates suggest that if H5N1 Avian Flu becomes a pandemic it could kill more than 300 million people. In an era of constant and rapid international travel, what steps should the United States take to protect our population from global pandemics or deliberate biological attacks?

7. Genetics research. The field of genetics has the potential to improve human health and nutrition, but many people are concerned about the effects of genetic modification both in humans and in agriculture. What is the right policy balance between the benefits of genetic advances and their potential risks?

8. Stem cells. Stem cell research advocates say it may successfully lead to treatments for many chronic diseases and injuries, saving lives, but opponents argue that using embryos as a source for stem cells destroys human life. What is your position on government regulation and funding of stem cell research?

9. Ocean Health. Scientists estimate that some 75 percent of the world’s fisheries are in serious decline and habitats around the world like coral reefs are seriously threatened. What steps, if any, should the United States take during your presidency to protect ocean health?

10. Water. Thirty-nine states expect some level of water shortage over the next decade, and scientific studies suggest that a majority of our water resources are at risk. What policies would you support to meet demand for water resources?

11. Space. The study of Earth from space can yield important information about climate change; focus on the cosmos can advance our understanding of the universe; and manned space travel can help us inspire new generations of youth to go into science. Can we afford all of them? How would you prioritize space in your administration?

12. Scientific Integrity. Many government scientists report political interference in their job. Is it acceptable for elected officials to hold back or alter scientific reports if they conflict with their own views, and how will you balance scientific information with politics and personal beliefs in your decision-making?

13. Research. For many years, Congress has recognized the importance of science and engineering research to realizing our national goals. Given that the next Congress will likely face spending constraints, what priority would you give to investment in basic research in upcoming budgets?

14. Health. Americans are increasingly concerned with the cost, quality and availability of health care. How do you see science, research and technology contributing to improved health and quality of life?

Friday, August 8, 2008

Facing the Truth About Fear and Trust

Alexander Todorov, an assistant professor of psychology and public affairs at Princeton University, and Nikolaas Oosterhof, a research specialist, have built a computer program that will help scientists better analyze why certain human faces evoke trust while others elicit fear. In past studies, the researchers learned that people make instant judgments about a person's face and that these judgments then affect how they feel about the person. "Humans seem to be wired to look to faces to understand the person's intentions," Todorov said in a press release. "People are always asking themselves, 'Does this person have good or bad intentions?'"
Recently, the researchers discovered that these split-second decisions are based on two things: whether a person should be approached or avoided and whether a person seems weak or strong. So they decided to try to define just which facial characteristics—namely, what eye, nose, and mouth placements—make a face seem trustworthy or dominant. The most trustworthy face, the researchers found, has a U-shaped mouth and eyes that look almost surprised, with upturned eyebrows. The most untrustworthy face has a mouth curled down at the edges and eyebrows that also point downward—basically, an angry face. The least dominant faces, they say, have a larger distance between the eyes and eyebrows than other faces do. While you can't control your facial features, the study shows that expressions do matter, which could be an extra important lesson for people whose jobs require a high-level of public interaction (think teachers, politicians, and religious leaders).
The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences online. —Heather Wax

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Temple to Science" Is a Prize Winner

"The Atheon: A Temple to Science," an upcoming art installation at the Judah L. Magnes Museum, has won a neighborhood improvement project grant from the University of California, Berkeley Chancellor's Community Partnership Fund. The installation, by conceptual artist Jonathon Keats, will be the first Windows exhibit on the second floor of the Jewish museum's new downtown Berkeley location and "calls forth the fusion of science and religion by building a temple for scientific worship," according to the museum's Web site. From street level, anyone walking by the building will be able to see NASA images of the universe's early years on the building's large vaulted windows, while listening to accompanying sounds on their cell phones. The Atheon exhibit begins September 27 with the start of the museum's new season. —Heather Wax

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Could Religious Leaders Help Save the Planet?

"The truth is that blind faith in the ability of technology to sustain a growing global population—hard-wired to materialism—that has already breached environmental limits is bonkers," writes Nick Reeves, executive director of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, in a piece on religious environmentalism in today's Guardian. "Faith group leaders must be more vociferous in challenging this—they have unique access to governments and institutions. They must exercise that influence by holding them to account." According to Reeves, who's responding to an earlier profile of Archbishop Bartholomew of Constantinople, a spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians and an environmental campaigner, "faith groups have been silent for too long on this crisis, and should do far more to remind us of our moral duty to restore and protect the fragile ecological balance of the planet." —Heather Wax

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Richard Dawkins on Darwin's Genius

The first episode of the three-part TV series The Genius of Charles Darwin, featuring biologist and hard-core atheist Richard Dawkins, aired on BBC last night and the reviews are starting to come in. They're not completely favorable.
"On the one hand, we got a brilliant and heartfelt guide to how Darwin’s ideas developed. On the other, virtually every point was accompanied by a vigorous yet entirely predictable sideswipe at religious believers and their benighted ways," writes James Walton in the Telegraph. "This only had the effect of constantly interrupting the interesting stuff. It was also like watching someone with a sort of anti-religious version of Tourette’s syndrome—and certainly confirmed that the downside of having an obsession is that you become a bit of a bore."
In The Independent, Deborah Orr is even harsher. Though "Dawkins did well in his role as writer and presenter to remain as placid as he did, given his well-known impatience with humans who still believe in such superstitious nonsense as God," she writes, the episode illuminated the fact that, for him, it is not enough that a person accept evolution—a person must also abandon belief in God; believing in both is unacceptable. "What became clear during this first programme," writes Orr, "was that Dawkins is not only a rationalist but is also a literalist. Even deeply religious Christians are happy to consider the Bible to be metaphorical rather than narrative. But he cannot do so. He sticks rigidly to the idea that since the Bible describes the world beginning 6,000 years ago, when really life began four million years ago, God can't exist."
What's perhaps most interesting is that both writers seem to pick up a theme that physicist Karl Giberson wrote about on Salon.com last week—the idea that "new atheists" like Dawkins are becoming, in a sense, our new preachers. It's strange, says Orr, how Dawkins has "come to resemble that which he most despises"—namely, fundementalists and absolutists. "There is something almost biblical in the desire of this high-profile hard-rationalist to smite the unbelievers, and remove them from the face of the earth, using the implacable power of science and reason," she writes.
Walton, too, chooses religious language in describing what he calls Dawkins' "evangelical atheism." According to Walton, the "sight of him looking awestruck as he gazed at a first edition of On the Origin of Species was especially stirring. When he showed us some of Darwin’s own pigeon specimens from the 1850s, he duly handled them like holy relics."
The second episode of the series airs next Monday. —Heather Wax

New Perspective on Scopes Trial (With Photos!)

Historian Marcel Chotkowski LaFollete takes a new look at the Scopes trial—and the role the Science Service played in it— with her book Reframing Scopes. Today, the Science Service is known and revered as the Society for Science & the Public, but back in 1925, it was a young nonprofit, which played a significant role in shaping the trial. According to Science News (published by the group), the Science Service Executive Committee gave reporters 1,000 dollars to cover the trial and supported the defense of John Scopes. Two pioneering science journalists in particular, Watson Davis and Frank Thone, the senior biology editor of the service's newsletters, became liaisons between the defense lawyers and the scientific community, helping to find scientists to comment and testify during the trial and even living among the defense team.
The book takes readers inside the trial from the perspective of these journalists, based on records, the reporters notes and letters, and never-before-seen photographs that LaFollette uncovered at the Smithsonian Institution Archive. "All day and far into the night," Thone reportedly wrote, "the rumble of scientific discussion and laughter issues forth from the Defense mansion, that pleasant old house ... that has become the headquarters for the discussion of science, religion, and freedom."Heather Wax

Monday, August 4, 2008

Open Theology Defined

New videos are now available on Open Theology's YouTube channel. Take a look at what was discussed during the "Answering the Critics" panel at the spring "Open and Relational Theology Engaging Science" seminar at Azusa Pacific University. The scientists and theologians who participated in the seminar hope to create a new field of science-and-religion research centered around "open theology."
But just what is open theology? We asked Tom Oord, one of the directors of the Open Theology & Science conference and a professor of theology and philosophy at Northwest Nazarene University, for a definition:

"The theological tradition known as Open Theology (a.k.a., Open Theism, Openness Theology) has gained wide attention in Christian theological circles since the 1990s. Reduced to its bare bones, Open Theology affirms that 1) God uniquely exemplifies love, 2) love is the human ethical imperative, 3) God and creatures enjoy free and mutually-influencing relations, 4) and the future is open and not settled. With regard to the fourth point, Open Theology affirms that God knows everything that may possibly happen in the future. But God does not know with absolute certainty what free creatures will actually choose to do."

Given that the movement is still relatively new, it seems some of the finer points, core ideas, and difference of opinions are still being worked out. To the other open theologians out there: What do you think? Does Tom Oord's definition match your own?

Friday, August 1, 2008

Kansas School Board Voters Focus on Evolution

What most voters really want to know about the Repulicans campaigning for the Kansas State Board of Education is whether or not they believe in evolution, according to The Topeka Capital Journal. "Everybody wants to talk about evolution and creationism," Bill Pannbacker, a candidate hoping to represent the north-central to northeast of the state, tells the newspaper.
In each board election, half of the ten seats are up for grabs, meaning the makeup of the board can change significantly—and the makeup, history shows, greatly affects the course the board's decision take. In 2005, conservative school board members, who held a majority, pushed through science standards that heavily criticized evolution and refused to define science as a field that deals only with "natural" explanations, basically backing "intelligent design." The standards were changed only after an election altered the makeup of the board, giving power to more moderate and liberal members.
Republican candidates for the general school board election will be decided in a primary on August 5. —Heather Wax