We've got a new Web address: scienceandreligiontoday.com
Monday, July 20, 2009
Friday, July 17, 2009
That's the name of a new campaign launched by an interfaith coalition of religious groups that wants to bring high-speed Internet access to poor and rural communities that still don't have it. They see broadband communication as a "fundamental right," and they're now collecting signatures for a letter that will go to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke.
The main message:
For too long, the process of reaching out and educating traditionally disenfranchised communities has been left to volunteer efforts and the philanthropic community alone. Increasing access doesn't just assist the people who are helped, we all benefit. Just as the value of a telephone increases when we can reach more people by using it, the value of the Internet for all of us increases when we are all connected. ...
As members of a wide range of faith communities in this country, we are prepared to do our part to help our friends and neighbors to get online and to get broadband access. We hope the federal government will also step up to the plate.
Why We No Longer Need Religion
Daniel Dennett: I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it. (guardian.co.uk)
God of the Philosophers
H.E. Baber: Claims about the existence and nature of God are, rather, controversial to philosophers, including Christian philosophers. That is to say, we recognize them as propositions about which reasonable, informed people may disagree. (guardian.co.uk)
Will Aliens Look Like Humans?
Is there reason to think that actual aliens, from a star system a thousand light-years away, would be similar in appearance to the evolved apes that we now call Homo sapiens? Some scientists, such as Cambridge University paleontologist Simon Conway Morris, think there is. After all, there's a phenomenon in nature known as convergent evolution. It's the tendency of evolutionary processes to find similar solutions to any given environmental challenge. (Seth Shostak, Space.com)
What Does it Take to Sustain a Happy and Successful Relationship or Marriage?”
Gwyneth Paltrow: A long-term relationship between two people is an ever evolving organism. Some stay the course, some fall, all stumble. Here I’ve asked a few very wise women, most of whom are in varying forms of longtime partnerships, for their insights. (GOOP)
“‘If man evolved from monkeys, then why are there still monkeys?’... That’s probably the second most common question I get on talk radio.” Watch your language! It's a common message from Eugenie Scott, a physical anthropologist and director of the National Center for Science Education. (Susan Milius, Science News)
Thursday, July 16, 2009
"If the Darwin Festival told us anything about science and religion, it was the same old message underlined once again: that science and religion are first cousins that occasionally squabble, but far more as friends than as foes," Denis Alexander, director of The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, writes in a piece on the festival in today's Telegraph.
It's been a week since President Obama announced his intent to nominate Dr. Francis Collins as head of the National Institutes of Health. In that time, there's been lots of reaction to the pick.
Steven Waldman, co-founder and editor in chief of Beliefnet, thinks the nomination is a "culture war statement":
To me, Mr. Collins is not just a scientific leader, he's a Christian role model. He shows that being a believer doesn't mean checking your brain at the church door, that people of faith have just as much intellectual heft as seculars and, most important, how faith and science can happily co-exist.Michael Gerson, a former speech writer for George W. Bush, also likes the choice of Collins, a theistic scientist who favors evolution (and embryonic stem cell research) and sees "modern science and Christianity are not competing answers to the same question; they are ways of thinking about two very different sets of questions, both of which should be taken seriously." According to Gerson:
Collins' appointment says something good about the maturity of modern evangelicalism, which is starting to abandon some of its least productive debates with modernity. Criticisms of evolution, rooted in 19th-century controversies, have done little more than set up religious young people for entirely unnecessary crises of faith as they encounter scientific knowledge. In the running conflict of modern biology and evangelicalism, Collins is a peacemaker.Everyone seems to agree he'd make a good administrator (Collins led the public effort to sequence the human genome "ahead of schedule and under budget.") Yet there are those who have misgivings about the pick—not as a result of Collins' scientific qualifications per se or his personal religious beliefs but because of his very public faith commitments. As cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explains:
It’s not that I think that there should be a religious litmus test for public science administrators, or that being a devout Christian is a disqualification. But in Collins’s case, it is not a matter of private belief, but public advocacy. The director of NIH is not just a bureaucrat who tends the money pipeline between the treasury and molecular biologists (which is how many scientists see the position). He or she is also a public face of science, someone who commands one of the major bully pulpits for science in the country. The director testifies before Congress, sets priorities, selects speakers and panelists, and is in many regards a symbol for biomedical research in the U.S. and the world. In that regard, many of Collins’s advocacy statements are deeply disturbing.Others, however, see a more positive spin on Collins' public defense of religion and discussion of faith. Chris Wilson of Slate suggests:
If Collins' faith mollifies even a few political conservatives who would otherwise continue to waste time and money fighting research efforts that violate their specific religious tenets, then the benefits of his faith should outweigh whatever qualms scientists might have.
Dispatch From the Sonia Sotomayor Hearings
Richard Just: We've heard a lot of debate about whether constitutional law can possibly survive close contact with the concept of empathy. But after spending the afternoon at the Sotomayor hearings, listening to senators left and right prattle about empathy and its relationship to justice, I have another question: Can the concept of empathy survive close contact with constitutional law? I ask because empathy has become the watchword of these hearings—and in the process it is getting battered, vilified, and badly distorted. (NPR)
What Questions Can Science Answer?
We can more or less agree on what “science” means, and still disagree on what questions it has the power to answer. So that’s an issue worth examining more carefully: what does science actually have the power to do? (Sean Carroll, Cosmic Variance, Discover)
Bishop Calls for Removal of Holy Water to Prevent Spread of Swine Flu
Holy water can pass on more than just a priest’s blessing—it can also transmit the swine flu virus, a British bishop says. That’s because churchgoers dip their fingers into one container of liquid, then touch their nose or eyes, thereby giving the virus a free ticket into their body. For this reason, the bishop is urging priests in Essex, UK, to remove holy water from their churches to prevent cases of the flu. (Allison Bond, Discoblog, Discover)
People More Likely to Return a Lost Wallet if There's a Baby Photo Inside
According to Richard Wiseman, a psychologist, the result reflects a compassionate instinct towards vulnerable infants that people have evolved to ensure the survival of future generations. “The baby kicked off a caring feeling in people, which is not surprising from an evolutionary perspective,” he said. Scientists argue that it would be difficult to genetically code for feeling empathy exclusively towards your own child and much easier to code for feeling empathy towards all children. (Hannah Devlin, The Times)
"Brüno" Banned in Ukraine
When Sacha Baron Cohen's Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan hit cinema screens in 2006, few were surprised that the real-world home of Borat, the idiot-innocent Kazak main character, decided to ban the film as a matter of pride. But now censors in Ukraine are giving his latest film, Brüno, the same no-show treatment, claiming morality—not hurt feelings—as the reason. (James Marson, TIME)
Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Check out Live Happy, a positive psychology iPhone application developed by Signal Patterns Labs (the same company that developed the Gratitude Stream iPhone app). The application is based on the research of Sonja Lyubomirsky, a psychologist at the University of California, Riverside, and the author of The How of Happiness. Grab the free version of the app or the paid version, which allows you to send Lyubomirsky questions.
Live Happy prompts users to perform activities (right on the iPhone) that research has shown help to boost happiness. These include things like taking a photo (to savor a moment), texting a thank-you message to a friend, or performing a random act of kindness.
Could these kinds of one-offs actually make people happier? "As a whole," says Lyubomirsky, "performing these activities adds up to a new mindset and a more positive way of engaging and viewing one's daily life."
Governor Rick Perry has chosen another creationist, Republican Gail Lowe, to chair the State Board of Education. (Perry had first reappointed current chair Don McLeroy, a well-known young earth creationist, but the state Senate voted him out.) Lowe will serve as chairman until February 2011, just after the Texas Legislature reconvenes.
As with McLeroy, many are concerned about Lowe's divisiveness and her past attempts to undermine the treatment of evolution in the state's science standards. She repeatedly voted for changes to the curriculum that would water down evolution instruction, including having kids discuss the "strengths and weaknesses" of the theory. (Keep in mind that evolution is not a point of controversy or debate in the scientific community.)
As Kathy Miller, president of the Texas Freedom Network, notes:
It's disappointing that instead of choosing a mainstream conservative who could heal the divisions on the board, the governor once again appointed someone who repeatedly has put political agenda ahead of the education of Texas schoolchildren. Ms. Lowe has marched in lockstop with a faction of board members who believe that their personal beliefs are more imporatant than the experience and expertise of teachers and academics who have dedicated their careers to educating our children and helping them succeed. We can only hope that she will rise above her history on the board and as chair keep fellow members from continuing to hold the education of our children hostage to divisive "culture war" battles.—Heather Wax
Creation, the Charles Darwin biopic starring Paul Bettany, will open the 34th annual Toronto International Film Festival on September 10. (Jennifer Connelly, Bettany's real-life wife, plays his on-screen wife Emma). The movie, directed by Jon Amiel, is based on the book Annie's Box by Randal Keynes, Darwin's great-great grandson.
As TIFF CEO and director Piers Handling explained the decision:
The tension between faith and reason is prominent in contemporary culture and this intimate look at Darwin puts a human face on a man whose theory remains controversial to this day. We are pleased to open the festival with such an impassioned look at Charles Darwin, especially on the year marking the 200th anniversary of his birth.But the choice has caused controversy—interestingly, not as a result of the subject matter, but because the film doesn't have a Canadian connection. "We have traditionally opened with a Canadian film, but this year we chose to go a different route," TIFF co-director Cameron Bailey said at a press conference yesterday. "We fell in love with this movie and this is the one, we felt, really sets the tone for the kinds of conversations we hope will happen around the films at the festival." —Heather Wax
Vatican Newspaper Gives New Harry Potter Film a Positive Review
The review said the new film "reaches the right balance," thanks to a "a clear line of demarcation between those who work for good and those who carry out evil." The L'Osservatore Romano called it "the best film of the series" even though the books lacked what it called "a reference to the transcendent." (Philip Pullella and Robin Pomeroy, Reuters)
Why Scientists Who Blast Religious Believers Should Stop (and Work With Them Instead)
The stunning irony in the longstanding tension between science and religion in America is that many scientists who merely claim to be defending rationality from religious fundamentalism may actually be turning Americans off to science, doing more harm to their cause than good. (Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum, Newsweek)
Study Finds Couples That Live Together Before Marriage Are More Likely to Get Divorced
It's not because you start to get on one another's nerves. Rather, the researchers figure the shared abode could lead to marriage for all the wrong reasons. "We think that some couples who move in together without a clear commitment to marriage may wind up sliding into marriage partly because they are already cohabiting," said lead researcher Galena Rhoades of the University of Denver. (Jeanna Bryner, LiveScience)
Lawsuit to Block Engraving "In God We Trust" and Pledge of Allegiance at Capitol Visitor Center
The lawsuit says both the motto and the words "under God" in the pledge were adopted during the Cold War as anti-communism measures. Engraving them at the entrance to the U.S. Capitol would discriminate against those who do not practice religion and unfairly promote a Judeo-Christian perspective, it says. (Ryan Foley, Associated Press)
The death of a leading British conductor and his wife at a Swiss suicide clinic has raised fears that couples will be encouraged to die together even when one of them is not terminally ill. Sir Edward Downes travelled to the Dignitas clinic with his wife Joan, 74, last week, after she was told that she had terminal cancer. They were accompanied by their son and daughter, Caractacus and Boudicca. Sir Edward, 85, was frail but not dying. (David Brown and Helen Nugent, The Times)
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
"People sometimes say that science is about facts and religion is simply about opinion, but that's to make a double mistake actually," the Rev. Dr. John Polkinghorne, a physicist, theologian, and Anglican priest, recently told ABC Radio National in Australia. "There are no interesting scientific facts that are not already interpreted facts, and to interpret what's being measured, you have to use theoretical opinions. So there's a very subtle exchange between theory and experiment in science, which means its conclusions are never absolutely certain but well-justified. Similarly, religion isn't just a question of shutting your eyes, gritting your teeth, and believing impossible things on some unquestionable authority. It's also concerned with the search for truth through motivated belief, but it's a different level and kind of truth, and so it's motivations are a different kind of motivation. But I think, under the skin, science and religion are cousins in the search for truth."
Unscientific America, the new book from science writer Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum (which in part deals with the gap between science and the public in the religious arena), has hit bookshelves. You've seen the early reviews. You've heard the authors and PZ Myers are going at it. Perhaps you've seen Mooney and science writer Carl Zimmer discuss the the book on Bloggingheads.tv. Now, judge for yourself.
Confusing Belief and Reason Has Led to "Bad Science and Inept Religion"
Karen Armstrong: The extraordinary and eccentric emphasis on "belief" in Christianity today is an accident of history that has distorted our understanding of religious truth. We call religious people "believers," as though acceptance of a set of doctrines was their principal activity, and before undertaking the religious life many feel obliged to satisfy themselves about the metaphysical claims of the church, which cannot be proven rationally since they lie beyond the reach of empirical sense data. (guardian.co.uk)
Why We Should Divorce Morality From Religion
Jeff Schweitzer: What we now call morality is really a suite of behaviors favored by natural selection in an animal weak alone but strong in numbers. We need to re-discover and appeal to this inner good derived from our biology and evolutionary history rather than to the myth of an invisible man in the sky with magical powers as a sound basis for our moral guidance. (The Huffington Post)
Another (But Pretty Much the Same) Culture Battle Heats Up in Texas
The fight over school curriculum in Texas, recently focused on biology, has entered a new arena, with a brewing debate over how much faith belongs in American history classrooms. The Texas Board of Education, which recently approved new science standards that made room for creationist critiques of evolution, is revising the state's social studies curriculum. In early recommendations from outside experts appointed by the board, a divide has opened over how central religious theology should be to the teaching of history. (Stephanie Simon, The Wall Street Journal)
Paying Attention to the Pope's "Charity in Truth"
Daniel Indiviglio: Although I am not crazy about some of the assertions made in this document, by-in-large, I think it's pretty good. It really urges individuals and businesses to think more deeply about how the decisions they make affect the world. The Church would like them to think about more than just themselves and more than just the short term. (The Atlantic)
The Age of Wonder
William Herschel, the German-born, star-gazing musician who effectively doubled the size of the solar system with a single discovery in 1781, was not regarded as a scientist. That word had not been coined during most of the era that will now be known, thanks to Richard Holmes’s amazingly ambitious, buoyant new fusion of history, art, science, philosophy and biography, as “The Age of Wonder.” And Mr. Holmes’s excitement at fusing long-familiar events and personages into something startlingly new is not unlike the exuberance of the age that animates his groundbreaking book. (Janet Maslin, The New York Times)
Monday, July 13, 2009
Robert Short, the Presbyterian minister and theologian who is said to have initiated the study of religion through popular culture (with his 1965 best-selling book The Gospel According to Peanuts), died on July 6 in Little Rock, Arkansas. He was 76.
Richard Dawkins has posted the follow-up to Daniel Dennett's first report from the Darwin Festival, in which he heavily criticizes a session on evolution and theology. (Philip Clayton, Wentzel van Huyssteen, and John Brooke have since responded.) In the second installment, Dennett shares his impressions of another session he attended, this one on the evolution of religion.
Here's what Dennett wrote:
The second Templeton-sponsored session (at the Cambridge Darwin Festival) was more presentable. On the evolution of religion, it featured clear, fact-filled presentations by Pascal Boyer and Harvey Whitehouse, a typical David Sloan Wilson advertisement for his multi-level selection approach, and an even more typical meandering and personal harangue from Michael Ruse. The session was chaired, urbanely and without any contentful intervention, by Fraser Watt, our evolutionary christologist. (I wonder: should “christology” be capitalized? Ian McEwan asked me if there was, perhaps, a field of X-ray christology. I’ve been having fun fantasizing about how that might revolutionize science and open up a path for the Crick and Watson of theology!)
I learned something at the session. Boyer presented a persuasive case that the “packaging” of the stew of separable and largely independent items as “religion” is itself ideology generated by the institutions, a sort of advertising that has the effect of turning religions into “brands” in competition. Whitehouse gave a fascinating short account of the Kivung cargo cult in a remote part of Papua New Guinea that he studied as an anthropologist, living with them for several years. A problem: the Kivung cult has the curious belief that their gods (departed ancestors) will return, transformed into white men, and bearing high technology and plenty for all. This does present a challenge for a lone white anthropologist coming to live with them for awhile, camera gear in hand, and wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible. Wilson offered very interesting data from a new study by his group on a large cohort of American teenagers, half Pentecostals and half Episcopalians (in other words, maximally conservative and maximally liberal), finding that on many different scales of self-assessment, these young people are so different that they would look to a biologist like “different species.” Ruse declared that while he is an atheist, he wishes that those wanting to explain religion wouldn’t start with the assumption that religious beliefs are false. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the role of the null hypothesis or the presumption of innocence in trials. We also learned tidbits about his life and his preference—as an atheist—for the Calvinist God.”
Last week, we posted (via Jerry Coyne) Daniel Dennett's report on a session about evolution and religion at the Darwin Festival at Cambridge University. (Dennett thought the session was "wonderfully awful.") Philip Clayton and Wentzel van Huyssteen, who participated in the session, then responded.
Now, John Brooke, a historian of science at the University of Oxford, has weighed in. Here's what he had to say:
Having had the privilege of speaking alongside Dan Dennett in one of the plenary sessions at the Cambridge Darwin Festival, it may be helpful if I comment on his negative reaction to the theology focus session at which Wentzel van Huyssteen was one of the speakers. It is clear that Dennett shares the view of Richard Dawkins and others that theology has nothing whatsoever to contribute to serious intellectual discourse. He prefaced his remarks at the theology session by saying that he had attended it because he and Richard are often accused of not taking theology seriously enough and he was willing to listen. Two issues appeared to confirm his antipathetic predisposition: the apparent bending of theology to scientific results coupled with an inability of theology to give anything back; and, secondly, the references to a kenotic understanding of God's relationship to the world, the word "kenotic" apparently being new to him. He evidently latched onto it as a symbol of theology's suicide—an emptying of meaning.
I had the opportunity to press him a little on what, if anything, he believed theology could or should contribute to the discussion of science and its cultural implications. He appeared to agree with me that one could not reasonably expect a contribution that would be constitutive of the cognitive content of science. (I should add that as a historian I am well aware that such a constitutive role was played by theology in the past and I made that point in the discussion associated with the plenary session. A striking example would be the contribution of a radical Unitarian theology in the shape of Joseph Priestley to the very foundations of neuroscience as a discipline).
From what Dan said to me informally, I inferred that if theology was to command his respect it would have to be able to offer a clarification of terms used in serious philosophical discourse. This was of course the response of a philosopher! He did not give an example because our conversation was interrupted by the need to address our audience. But it has occurred to me that in a week when the word "creationism" was frequently used as a term of abuse, theology does have a responsibility to distinguish clearly between the many different meanings of "creation." Minimally there must be the distinction between creation understood as a series of separate acts in the independent production of distinct species (the view that Darwin so ably and, in my view, so persuasively contested) and creation in the more profound sense of the dependence of all that is (including evolutionary processes) on a transcendent power. There would, of course, be much more to be said, in the light of existentialist theologies in which creation means the creation of an authentic attitude in the believer toward a world described by science. But this is not the place to elaborate on the multiple meanings of the term.
Pride Can Pay Off
New research suggests that pride, as long as it stems from a real success and doesn’t slide into know-it-all obnoxiousness or narcissism, not only pushes us to keep trying hard but actually makes others like us more. (Siri Carpenter, Scientific American Mind)
New Study Shows Swearing May Alleviate Pain
Timothy Jay, a psychologist at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, says the study gets past the question of whether swearing should be frowned upon in polite society and instead addresses a scientific question. “When you try to describe swearing in moral terms—is it good or bad—it keeps you from getting at the deeper evolutionary links,” he says. “Where did this come from? Why do we do it?” (Laura Sanders, Science News)
Investigating Mysteries and "Miracles" in the Realm of Medicine
Over the last several decades, there has been a paradoxical confluence of two phenomena: at the same time that medical science has become increasingly adept at explaining how the human body heals, the Roman Catholic Church is in need of—and finding—an increasing number of inexplicable healings. The result is an unusual process, in which the Vatican has had to develop a medical expertise to help separate remarkable but understandable recoveries from those healings for which medicine has no explanation. (Michael Paulson, The Boston Globe)
The Story Behind "charity: water"
Five years ago, Scott Harrison was a nightclub promoter in Manhattan who spent his nights surrounded by friends in a blur of alcohol, cocaine and marijuana. He lived in a luxurious apartment and drove a BMW—but then on a vacation in South America he underwent a spiritual crisis. “I realized I was the most selfish, sycophantic and miserable human being,” he recalled. “I was the worst person I knew.” (Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times)
Showtime is developing Revelation, a religion-themed drama from David Janollari and Dirty Sexy Money creator Craig Wright. Hourlong project revolves around an unconventional minister who moves to a Texas church with his two teens after his wife suddenly dies. Wright was once a minister himself and plans to rely on his base of knowledge to tackle issues of religion, faith, and spirituality. (Michael Schneider, Variety)
Friday, July 10, 2009
This is lovely:
"Our next generation of great science communicators should be flesh-and-blood people with personalities, every one different and every one with different priorities, all singing out enthusiastically for everything from astronomy to zoology, and they should sometimes be angry and sometimes sorrowful and sometimes deliriously excited. They shouldn't hesitate to say what they think, even if it might make Joe the Plumber surly," PZ Myers writes on Pharyngula. "If you want to improve American science and the perception of science by the public, teach science first and foremost, because what you'll find is that your discipline is then populated with people who are there because they love the ideas. And, by the way, let them know every step of the way that science is also a performing art, and that they have an obligation as a public intellectual to take their hard-earned learning and share it with the world."
Wentzel van Huyssteen, a professor of theology and science at Princeton Theological Seminary, has also read Daniel Dennett's report from the evolution and religion session at the Darwin Festival (in which van Huyssteen took part) and has sent us what he describes as a "brief, gut-level response." (Philip Clayton responded too.)
Here's what van Huyssteen writes:
Too bad that Dan Dennett felt compelled to give such an impossibly one-sided response to what was really said on our session on Monday afternoon. The session was all about showing that there is a vast amount of serious Christians/theologians out there who do not succumb to right-wing biblical fundamentalism or its polar opposite, scientism, but are really working hard to find constructive ways to engage not only with science, but quite specifically also with the thought of Charles Darwin. I do not want to speak for my colleagues, but the four papers in our session tried to show, each in their own way, that there are different ways to do that. I think paleoanthropologists and archaeologists with whom I have worked over the years would be surprised at Dennett's over-reaction against my attempt at interdisciplinary theology. After all, Darwin's theory of natural selection in itself does not compel a choice for a position of faith or for atheism—that to me looks like a profoundly personal choice. And Michael Ruse was right all along: Darwinians can be Christians! What divides Christian Darwinians and atheist Darwinians is not Mr. Darwin, but deep philosophical presuppositions and differences. ...
The ensuing relationship between science and theology is admittedly a-symmetrical: there are big differences between the explanatory/interpretative methods of science and the more philosophically non-empirical explanations/interpretations in philosophical theology. What this means for the interaction between science and theology is that theology should boldly let scientific facts inform its theories and perspectives (and I have tried in my paper to show that paleoanthropological/archaeological data should radically transform the way theological anthropology is done). Theology's contribution to science, however, can never just be a list of new facts for science to consider: On the contrary, theology should identify an overlapping problem with science (in my own case: what does it mean to be human?) and bring to this conversation dimensions of "humanness" like, for instance, vulnerability, moral ambivalence, suffering, the search for meaning, symbolic behavior, forgiveness, etc., which is often beyond the reach of a strictly empirical science and for which the theologian should be able to provide a holistic paradigm of meaning. Of course, for someone uninterested in religious/spiritual meaning this may not make sense!
As we told you yesterday, philosopher Daniel Dennett attended a session on evolution and religion at the big Darwin Festival at Cambridge University and had some things to say about it. Now, philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton, who presented a paper at that session, has posted a response.
Here's what Clayton writes:
A few days ago I presented a paper during the Darwin Festival at the University of Cambridge. Although the session was entitled “Theology in Darwinian Context,” the paper was actually a plea for an open and inquiring form of philosophical discourse—for using the best of human reason to address the big questions of the Western philosophical tradition. The paper gave examples of seven major philosophical questions raised by contemporary biology, arguing not for dogmatic answers to them but for the importance of the debate itself. At the end I gave an example of a form of Christian theology that could be a part of such a debate as well.
Toward the end of the session I had a chance to engage Daniel Dennett in a public debate about my paper. Instead of haranguing him from the podium about his dismissive one-liner just before break, I presented brief arguments and gave him the opportunity to respond each time, so that we could hold a fair, two-sided discussion before the audience. ...
For my part, I can only express my amazement that Dan chose not to mention any of the philosophical questions, nor the call to dialogue itself, but only to answer with a series of dismissive comments and rhetorical moves. Not only does he decline the invitation to reasonable debate; he fails even to mention it. In fact, isn’t his choice of rhetoric instead of argument an instance of exactly what he is accusing theologians of doing?
I can only express my deep disappointment at a philosopher who has so lost interest in philosophical debate. I remember the pride in our discipline that I felt as an undergraduate philosophy major. We were willing to take the best of human reason into absolutely any area, and while many would be unwilling to follow “the force of the better argument”—or even to defend their views at all—at least philosophers would never shy away from the task. I remember looking up to famous philosophers, including the young Daniel Dennett, as ideas worthy of emulation.
To find someone who bears the proud name of a philosopher ignoring the content of a paper he’s just heard, and then choosing to blog about it with rhetoric and misrepresentation instead of summary and criticism, is a far cry from those ideals. Indeed, is it not ironic that it would be the theologian who summarizes philosophical questions, gives arguments, and makes the call to dialogue, and the philosopher who declines the invitation with insults and dismissive rhetoric?
Pew Report Shows Many Americans Still Don't Know There's Scientific Consensus on Evolution
Asked which comes closer to their view, "Humans and other living things have evolved over time" or "Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time," 97 percent of scientists responding chose the former option, as opposed to only 2 percent choosing the latter option; 61 percent of the public responding chose the former option, as opposed to 31 percent choosing the latter option.
Those who chose the former option were also asked whether they preferred "Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection" or "A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today." Among scientists, 87 percent preferred the former option and 8 percent preferred the latter option; among the public, 32 percent preferred the former option and 22 percent preferred the latter option. Members of the public were also asked whether scientists generally agree that humans evolved over time; 60 percent said yes, 28 percent said no. "Views on evolution vary substantially within the general public," the report observed, "particularly by religion and attendance at religious services." (National Center for Science Education)
•TEXT: "Public Praises Science, Scientists Fault Public, Media (Pew Research Center)
Hey, Governor Perry, Choose Wisely for Chair of Texas State Board of Education
With a protracted fight over evolution and the science curriculum barely behind it, the State Board of Education looks poised for yet another tug-of-war that uses the Texas public schools as a stage for battles between competing views of the world. (Fort Worth Star-Telegram)
Oklahoma Representative Sally Kern Heckled as She Launches Proclamation of Morality
A state lawmaker who made national headlines by claiming homosexuality is a greater threat to the United States than terrorism was heckled by protesters as she launched a campaign for a morality proclamation that opponents said promotes an atmosphere of hate. Rep. Sally Kern said the U.S. is drifting from traditional Christian values as she sought signatures for her petition at a state Capitol rally attended by about 250 people including ministers and their followers, four other state lawmakers, and protesters who shouted "shame on you" and "hypocrite." (Associated Press)
Revisiting Sigmund Freud's Views on Religion
Freud is despised among rationalists and self-consciously scientific people today. I was reminded of this when one of the speakers at the big Darwin Festival in Cambridge quoted Richard Dawkins as looking forward to the time when Freud was "utterly discredited" intellectually. I have a lot of sympathy for this desire myself. But if Freud was wrong about everything else, why assume he was right about religion? (Andrew Brown's Blog, guardian.co.uk)
Thursday, July 9, 2009
If confirmed as director of the National Institutes of Health, Dr. Francis Collins will have to step down as president of The BioLogos Foundation—which he just launched in April. The foundation was started as a way for him to address the country's culture war between science and faith. (Collins most famously wrote about the relationship between science and religion in his 2006 book The Language of God.)
According to a statement from BioLogos, the foundation will continue, and Collins' duties will be taken over by physicist Karl Giberson, currently executive vice president (and editor-at-large of this site), and biologist Darrel Falk, the current executive director. —Heather Wax
Posted by Heather Wax at 3:51 PM
Unscientific America, the new book from writer Chris Mooney and marine biologist Sheril Kirshenbaum (who blog together at Discover magazine's The Intersection) doesn't officially come out until July 13, but some people have already got the book and reviews are starting to come out.
Here's the buzz.
As part of his review, Chad Orzel of Uncertain Principles has a quick summary:
Unscientific America is divided into three main parts, as is traditional for this sort of book. The first section summarizes the historical context, presenting a short history of the rise and fall of the American science establishment. The second section breaks down the main sources of the current problems facing science-- disconnects between the "culture" of science and four other "cultures" in American society: "political culture, media culture, entertainment culture, and religious culture." The final part lays out some suggestions for how to move forward in a productive way.Seed magazine lists the book as one to "read now," saying:
Science journalist Chris Mooney joins Sheril Kirshenbaum in explaining the disconnect between scientists and the public. This time the onus is on not just on obfuscating and interfering conservatives, but largely on scientists themselves. By talking down to the misinformed—and outright insulting the religious—scientists, they argue, do more harm than good in their quest to enshrine reason in American politics and culture. While the authors’ call for more friendly and magnanimous champions of science is far from a radical conclusion, it duly highlights the Sagan-and Gould-shaped holes we have in our current scientific discourse.Michael Mann of RealClimate gives the book a very positive review:
What I found most refreshing about the book is that it not only isolates the history behind, and source of, the problem in question—the pervasiveness and dangerousness of scientific illiteracy in modern society–but it offers viable solutions. This book is a must read for anybody who cares about science, and the growing disconnect between the scientific and popular cultures (the problem of the so-called “Two Cultures” first discussed by C.P. Snow).
Chris and Sheril point too many fingers for my taste. Religion and the media are obvious and richly deserving targets. But Richard Dawkins and his fellow New Atheists are singled out more than once, for failing to understand that if you want to change minds and win friends, you can't be rude to your audience. True, but I've long believed that there's a place for pointed barbs, especially if those barbs are as well crafted as they are in Dawkins' prose.
PZ Myers of Pharyngula (and the "new atheists") has done his own review and doesn't love the book (in which there are "personal attacks on me and on Pharyngula, atheists in general, and anyone who fails to offer religion its proper modicum of respect," he says):
The book entirely neglects the anti-scientific forces. Our salvation apparently lies entirely in the hands of scientists who quietly promote the positive values of the scientific outlook, while turning their eyes away from deep-rooted values and institutions that directly threaten science. To challenge those would be to offend people! And if we offend anyone, we lose! It's an exceptionally defeatist attitude in which they plainly recognize a serious problem in American society — it's the premise of the whole book! — but at the same time, demands that we avoid addressing the structural roots of those problems. ...•TWITTER BUZZ: @DiscoverMag As you might expect, @PZMyers didn't like @UnscientAmerica, which calls him out. Now, the comment fight: http://bit.ly/y8Gga
The bottom line is that Mooney and Kirshenbaum's book recites the obvious at us, that there is a fundamental disconnect between science and the popular imagination in our country, but offers no new solutions, and in fact would like to narrow our options to a blithe and accommodating compromise of science with rampant ignorance. Their own bigotry blinds them to a range of approaches offered by the "New Atheists"…a group that is not so closed to the wide range of necessarily differing tactics that such a deep problem requires as Mooney and Kirshenbaum are. It's not a badly written book, but it's something worse: it's utterly useless.
•TWITTER BUZZ: jrminkel @UnscientAmerica you are never going to win your accommodationism argument against @jerrycoyne
I am attending and participating in the big Cambridge University Darwin Week bash, and I noticed that one of the two concurrent sessions the first day was on evolution and theology, and was ‘supported by the Templeton Foundation’ (though the list of Festival Donors and Sponsors does not include any mention of Templeton). I dragged myself away from a promising session on speciation, and attended. Good thing I did. It was wonderfully awful. We heard about the Big Questions, a phrase used often, and it was opined that the new atheists naively endorse the proposition that “There are no meaningful questions that science cannot answer.” Richard Dawkins’ wonderful sentence about how nasty the God of the Old Testament is was read with relish by Philip Clayton, Professor at Claremont School of Theology in California, and the point apparently was to illustrate just how philistine these atheists were—though I noticed that he didn’t say he disagreed with Richard’s evaluation of Yahweh. We were left to surmise, I guess, that it was tacky of Richard to draw attention to these embarrassing blemishes in an otherwise august tradition worthy of tremendous respect. The larger point was the complaint that the atheists have a “dismissive attitude toward the Big Questions” and Dawkins, in particular, didn’t consult theologians. (H. Allen Orr, they were singing your song.) Clayton astonished me by listing God’s attributes: according to his handsomely naturalistic theology, God is not omnipotent, not even supernatural, and . . . . in short Clayton is an atheist who won’t admit it. Read the rest of the report.
Praise—and Some Concern—Over Nomination of Francis Collins to Lead Health Agency
There are two basic objections to Dr. Collins. The first is his very public embrace of religion. He wrote a book called The Language of God, and he has given many talks and interviews in which he described his conversion to Christianity as a 27-year-old medical student. Religion and genetic research have long had a fraught relationship, and some in the field complain about what they see as Dr. Collins’s evangelism. The other objection stems from his leadership of the Human Genome Project, which is part of the N.I.H. Although Dr. Collins was widely praised in 2003 when the effort succeeded, the hopes that this discovery would yield an array of promising medical interventions have greatly dimmed, discouraging many. (Gardiner Harris, The New York Times)
•TWITTER BUZZ: @jdudley I think that Obama's choice of Francis Collins to head the NIH is extremely pragmatic. Well done Prez.
•TWITTER BUZZ: @gingerpin AAAS CEO on Francis Collins, NIH director: "I like it." Collins has "tremendous skill" in communicating science. http://tinyurl.com/la4u9n RW
•TWITTER BUZZ: @geneticalliance commends the nomination of Dr. Francis Collins as New NIH Director http://bit.ly/wf1dK
•TWITTER BUZZ: @pzmyers Collins to head NIH: Oh, great. He's been appointed by Obama. He'll do a fine job…he's a competent adm.. http://tinyurl.com/nyfb96
Sperm-Like Cells Created Using Embryonic Stem Cells
Roger Highfield: Although this sounds like scientists "playing god", there are solid reasons to create artificial gametes – the technical term used by researchers to describe eggs and sperm. The feat will help us understand how the real things are made, shedding light on the causes of infertility. In turn, that could help doctors understand why chemotherapy can make men sterile. In the longer term, these advances raise hopes that there is another way for sterile men and women to have biological children. (Telegraph)
Appeals Court Says Pharmacies Have to Stock and Dispense Plan B Pill
Pharmacists are obliged to dispense the Plan B pill, even if they are personally opposed to the "morning after" contraceptive on religious grounds, a federal appeals court ruled Wednesday. (Carol Williams, Los Angeles Times)
Convent Sisters Approach Death With Dignity and Discernment
The Sisters of St. Joseph, a congregation in this Rochester suburb, animate many factors that studies say contribute to successful aging and a gentle death—none of which require this special setting. These include a large social network, intellectual stimulation, continued engagement in life and spiritual beliefs, as well as health care guided by the less-is-more principles of palliative and hospice care—trends that are moving from the fringes to the mainstream. (Jane Gross, The New York Times)
A Christian Argument for Assisted Dying
John Cartwright: There is no justification for a claim that Christianity must oppose the assisted death of a person who has made their own decision to die, provided that such a person can convince others that their desire to die is fully considered. I will make this argument given two conditions: first that the person is capable of making an educated decision, and second that their end-of-life experience includes full access to both pastoral and medical care. (guardian.co.uk)
Why Are G-8 Leaders So Behind in Meeting Humanitarian Aid Pledges?
A few countries, including Canada and the United States, will meet the aid targets for 2010 that they set in 2005. But France is falling short, and Italy—the host of the G-8 summit this year—is disastrously far behind. In a thoughtful book published this year, The Life You Can Save, Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University explores why we’re so willing to try to assist a stranger before us, while so unwilling to donate to try to save strangers from malaria half a world. (Nicholas Kristof, The New York Times)
Spencer School Board in Iowa Proposes New Religious Policy
The proposal, if adopted, will have schools offer elective classes that permit arguments against evolution and discussions on the Bible in history and literature. School officials say they want to set clear rules for religious expression. (Associated Press)
Wednesday, July 8, 2009
The National Institutes of Health stands as a model when it comes to science and research. My administration is committed to promoting scientific integrity and pioneering scientific research and I am confident that Dr. Francis Collins will lead the NIH to achieve these goals. Dr. Collins is one of the top scientists in the world, and his groundbreaking work has changed the very ways we consider our health and examine disease. I look forward to working with him in the months and years ahead.
Posted by Heather Wax at 3:49 PM
We've just heard that President Obama is about to announce Dr. Francis Collins as his pick to lead the National Institutes of Health. As we told you back in May, Collins was the leading candidate and screening was said to be in the final stages.
Now, according to the Associated Press:
An administration official says Collins, arguably the nation's most influential geneticist, is the president's soon-to-be-announced pick. The official spoke on condition of anonymity pending the formal announcement. The folksy Collins helped lead the breakthrough unraveling of the human genetic code, famously calling it "the book of human life."Collins—a familiar name to regular readers of this blog—is the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and most recently the founder of The BioLogos Foundation, which he launched in April to address the country's culture war between science and faith.
Stay tuned for the official announcement.
Posted by Heather Wax at 3:07 PM
Why Twitter Should Be Considered for the Nobel Peace Prize
Mark Pfeifle: I first mentioned this idea while being interviewed on a cable news program. Many scoffed. That's understandable. But think about what Twitter has accomplished: It has empowered people to attempt to resolve a domestic showdown with international implications—and has enabled the world to stand with them. It laid the foundation to pressure the world to denounce oppression in Iran. (The Christian Science Monitor)
TWITTER BUZZ: @pfeifle Facebook pg to build mo for Twitter to get Nobel Peace Prize-join: http://tinyurl.com/kkym6s
When neuroscientist and author David Eagleman described himself as a “Possibilian” during a National Public Radio interview earlier this year, he said he thought he was the only one. But now, fans of his new book Sum: Forty Tales From the Afterlives are flocking to his so-called movement, forming online communities that forge a new middle ground between belief and unbelief. (Nicole Neroulias, Religion News Service)
Does Science Lead to Atheism?
Matt Young: I studied this question a few years ago, when John Lynch and I prepared an article for the New Encyclopedia of Unbelief. One of the conclusions we drew was that biologists, anthropologists, and psychologists were more likely to disbelieve in God than physical scientists and engineers. That conclusion has recently been called into question, and I will discuss the new data. (Panda's Thumb)
God Is, published in May, is a nondenominational picture book that explores the spiritual aspect of everyday things and which Australian children's author Mark Macleod says is aimed at everybody from school-aged children through to grown-ups. "God is in the light of the moon and the stars that chart a shining course above the dark that never seems to end," reads one page, which, like the rest of the book, is illustrated by artist Kirrily Schell. (Miral Fahmy, Reuters)
Tuesday, July 7, 2009
The surviving pages of what’s believed to be the world’s oldest Bible have been published on the Web. And it's online for free.
Codex Sinaiticus, written in Greek by hand on parchment leaves, dates back to the middle of the fourth century. Pieces of the manuscript were found more than 150 years ago in a monastery on Mount Sinai, and have since been kept in Egypt, as well as at institutions in Britain, Russia, and Germany, where scholars worked to restore them.
Now, thanks to the British Library, the pages have been brought back together online (with translations in modern Greek and English) for all to see. There is a complete copy of the New Testament, a good portion of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, and early versions of other texts not found in the Bible today. The first half of the Old Testament—from Genesis to 1 Chronicles—was part of the original manuscript, experts say, but most of it is now missing and assumed to be lost for good. —Heather Wax
New Rules—and New Era—for Federally Funded Embryonic Stem Cell Research
This morning marks a rebirth of a U.S. stem cell research program, now that government-funded researchers can take advantage of many of the 700 stem cell lines that exist around the world. On Monday, following President Barack Obama's election promise, the National Institutes of Health issued the final rules on government-funded research on embryonic stem cells, loosening Bush-era restrictions that limited them to just 21 lines already in existence on August 2001. (Brendan Borrell, 60-Second Science Blog, Scientific American)
Obama Receives Daily Prayer Via BlackBerry
Obama told reporters from religious news organizations that White House faith director Joshua DuBois sends him a morning devotional every day to his e-mail device. He says it's a "wonderful practice" that started during the campaign. (Associated Press)
Pope Releases Encyclical on Markets and Morality
Pope Benedict XVI today called for reforming the United Nations and establishing a "true world political authority" with "real teeth" to manage the global economy with God-centered ethics. In his third encyclical, a major teaching, released as the G-8 summit begins in Italy, the pope says such an authority is urgently needed to end the current worldwide financial crisis. It should "revive" damaged economies, reach toward "disarmament, food security and peace," protect the environment and "regulate migration." (Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA Today)
• TEXT: Introduction and Conclusion of "Charity in Truth"
Why Biologists Are So Certain About Evolution (Hint: the Mistakes!)
A large chunk of this post comes from Kenneth Miller, a biology professor at Brown University who has been at the forefront of the evolution wars, explaining why biologists are convinced of evolution. He gave this talk at the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati last month, and I think it’s worth reading his words unfiltered, in context. (Kenneth Chang, TierneyLab Blog, The New York Times)
Mourning Michael Jackson
For decades, psychologists have been studying the one-way relationships we create with celebrities. Some researchers say such connections are merely a fact of life in a media-saturated age. Others suggest that celebrating dead celebrities offers a way to come to terms with our own mortality—and reach for a kind of immortality as well. (Alan Boyle, Cosmic Log, MSNBC)
Monday, July 6, 2009
Check out the most recent installment of "Percontations," a weekly video exchange on life's "big questions" that airs on Bloggingheads.tv. This week, some sparks fly between philosopher Robert Wright (author of the new book The Evolution of God) and science writer John Horgan as they talk about purpose, progress, and whether the idea of "moral truth" does more harm than good. It's an extremely entertaining conversation.
FROM RABBI RICHARD ADDRESS, DIRECTOR OF THE DEPARTMENT OF JEWISH FAMILY CONCERNS AT THE UNION FOR REFORM JUDAISM: It is hard to go a day without reading of some new study that looks at longevity. It is equally as hard to watch TV or surf the Web without finding some new “miracle” supplement or cream that guarantees longer life. We are so afraid of aging that we will voluntarily inject poison into our heads to see if we can fight off what is inevitable. Oh well!
We get a more promising view in a recent MSNBC article. The article reports on a new study out of the University of Michigan that may give comfort and relief to millions. Social psychologist Stephanie Brown studied spousal caregiving among elderly couples over a seven-year period and found some surprising results. According to Brown, caring for someone who is ill or elderly may actually be beneficial to the caregiver.
As the article notes:
Brown and her colleagues found that if you accounted for the negative impact of stressing over a loved one’s illness, that caregiving actually led to longer life. During the course of the study, people who spent at least 14 hours a week caring for a sick spouse were almost 30 percent less likely to die during the study period than those who spent no time helping, according to the research recently published in Psychological Science.The article also highlights similar findings from a study in the journal Stroke:
A full 90 percent of those interviewed reported that their caregiving enabled them to appreciate life more. Many also reported that it helped them develop a more positive attitude toward life.But why?
Well, it seems that the act of caring for a loved one activates the release of higher levels of a hormone called oxytocin. This hormone has long been linked with reduced stress levels and our desire to connect with others.
While there is NO secret to living longer, there seems to be certain paths that can enhance our lives and provide a sense of meaning and purpose—and, in that sense, lengthen our days. It is the old cliche that our parents spoke about: We need a reason to get up in the morning. Without that reason, we wither and die.
Faith Leaders Consider Pros and Cons of Social Networking Sites
Religious groups from Episcopalians to Orthodox Jews have signed up for Twitter, Facebook, and other social media networks with the same gusto that celebrities and politicians have, and for some of the same reasons—to gain a global platform and to appeal to young people. Still, many clerics admit to an uneasiness about the merger of worship and electronic chatter. (Paul Vitello, The New York Times)
Are Ethical Decisions Intuitive?
Although it's widely believed that ethics engage reason, free from passion, a forthcoming study in the journal Administrative Science Quarterly finds gut instincts are more principled than logical thinking. Whether weighing a charitable gift or selling a car, it seems people who trust their feelings are prone to donate more and cheat others less. (Misty Harris, Canwest News Service)
People With Low Self-Esteem Feel Worse After Repeating Positive Affirmations
So-called self-help books may only help the people who need them least, such as those with high self-esteem, and can be destructive for those who really need help, according to a new study by Canadian experts published in Psychological Science. (Tiffany Crawford, Canwest News Service)
Dispatch From the First World Congress on Positive Psychology
We offer a few snapshots from talks presented at the congress, featuring positive psychologists quantifying some of the most personal aspects of the human experience—things such as passion, love, and our perception of time. (Karen Knee, The Philadelphia Inquirer)
Remembering John Calvin
After 500 years, John Calvin is still not an easy man to understand. Calvin is often imagined, if he is imagined at all, as the implacable snoop who enforced a prudish morality on the citizens of Geneva, a steely spinner of harsh theological doctrines about a depraved humanity and a fierce God predestining people to heaven or hell. (Peter Steinfels, The New York Times)
The Case for God
Simon Blackburn: Karen Armstrong takes the reader through a history of religious practice in many different cultures, arguing that in the good old days and purest forms they all come to much the same thing. They use devices of ritual, mystery, drama, dance, and meditation in order to enable us better to cope with the vale of tears in which we find ourselves. Religion is therefore properly a matter of a practice, and may be compared with art or music. (The Guardian)
Friday, July 3, 2009
"When you study robotics, it forces you to rethink, in a very quantitative way, the attributes we hold close and consider unique in our definition of what it means to be human," Hod Lipson, director of Cornell University's Computational Synthesis Laboratory and a leader in bio-inspired robotics, tells Forbes.
"For example, what is creativity? If machines can create new things and ideas that infringe on patents, which humans have traditionally defined as being creative, what does that mean about creativity? When we have computers that can generate experiments and ask questions, what does that mean about curiosity? Traditionally, we use terms like creativity and self-reflection in a very loose way to cloak something we don't understand very well, but when you actually work with robots trying to emulate these very characteristics, it forces you to think about them in a very precise and quantitative way. Ultimately, I think it leads to deeper questions and better understanding of these concepts."
Check out this drawing, on the back of a page from the original manuscript of Darwin's On the Origin of Species. The sheet will go on public display Monday as part of "A Voyage Round the World," a new exhibit at Cambridge University Library that will explore Darwin's experiences on the Beagle. (The library is reported to have another 23 sheets from the manuscript, and it's believed there are about 10 more out there.)
But there seems to be a bit of confusion over who drew the picture and whether the drawing, which library staff is said to be calling the "Battle of Vegetables," has been on display before. According to the Telegraph:
It is not known which of Darwin's 10 children drew the picture but it is thought the child would have been between eight and 10 years old.And:
A spokesman at Cambridge University said it was believed that this is the very first time the drawing had been put on display to the public.But in an American Scientist article from 2006, Robert Dorit, a biologist at Smith College, describes seeing the same drawing at the American Museum of Natural History's Darwin exhibit curated by Niles Eldredge. He also includes an image (weirdly, with permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library) and notes:
Contrary to the stereotype of the dispassionate scientist, however, Darwin was a man to whom family and friends mattered profoundly, and many poignant objects in the exhibition remind us of his humanity. On the back of a rare manuscript page of the Origin, we find a drawing, "The Battle of the Fruit and Vegetable Soldiers," by Darwin's young son Francis.(Discover, too, had a review of the exhibit with an image of the drawing, courtesy of Denis Finnin/AMNH and pictured here.)
In any case, it's remarkable to think we might not have the manuscript pages today had Darwin not given them to his kids to draw on and then kept their artwork, as the library's John Wells tells the Telegraph:
There are just thirty or so of these original sheets in existence and the vast majority have a child's drawing on the back. It's quite amazing to think these priceless historical exhibits have only survived because of a child's drawings on the back. It demonstrates the importance of his family and brings it home that he surrounded himself with family, and friends, as he worked.—Heather Wax