Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Reconciling Science and Religion

I think that in this year when Charles Darwin will get a hunk of press for the dual celebrations of the bicentennial of his birth and the sesquicentennial of the first edition of his book, the question of the conflicts between science and religion will be discussed by a great many thinkers and writers, including me.

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennet explained that while Darwin’s  theory of natural selection was not completely original his approach to the question of the role of science in explaining origins was the beginning of referring to our origins without pulling in the need for a Creator.  He was not original even to that, but he layed out a process that completely explains the diversity of all life with no appeal to the supernatural.

Dennet is correct in stating that there had now been a gauntlet laid at the feet of religion in 1859, which had heretofore rained supreme in explaining the existence of the human race.  The prior assumption, untestable yet undefeatable had been that we were in fact a “special creation.”

lion and lamb

lion and lamb

And here is where the real conflict lies, I think.  In early catechism I had been taught that God the Father had existed in eternity (with or without  Logos, I am still unclear on this,) and created the universe because he was lonely for companionship and need us for our love and worship.  Adam and Eve, having been given free will and a warning, sinned at their first opportunity naively thinking that they could have the same knowledge as God.  In His anger, God declared that they would forever bear the burden of their sin unto all generations.  He also cursed the animals, who had until this time never known death nor suffering.  The lions had been laying peaceably with the lambs, the foxes with the rabbits and the parasites with the hosts.  It was always win-win for the animals, if not for the plants.

Theistic evolution, at least as practiced and preached by Ken Miller, needs to have an interventionist God or else it sinks into the quandary of deism and pantheism.  With deism and pantheism, there is no original sin and then from that there is no need for the grace of Jesus’ salvation.  So, the way Miller understands God is as a tinkerer with evolution, a non-“Designer” who nevertheless placed careful modifications to evolution at the level of quantum mechanics so that evolution would still work and lead to the ascent of Man.  We would, God knew, eventually arise to fill our ecological “niche.”

So this is good for Miller, but where does it leave the possibility for reconciliation between religion and science?  It creates a new level of Creationism, in effect.  While Miller, as a crack biologist would bristle at being lumped with Creationism, it is a shoe that fits even it is not a color of his choosing.

Miller carefully avoids all of the fallacies and faults of Intelligent Design, but at the end his finely-tuned universe and his interventionist evolution both point back to his God, the Inventor.

So, I honestly think that there is a quandary for practicing scientists in evolutionary biology who are also religious (whether Christian or some other religion.)

The inspiration for Darwin’s theory of natural selection is largely based on Darwin’s reading of Malthus’ discussion of economics and scarcity.  There is only room for so much life.  Those forms of life which successfully proceed to the next generations succeed long enough to face extinction, in the meantime branching out into populations with common ancestors who may or may not survive.

Natural selection depends on extinction, starvation and suffering.  It is an unpleasant fact.  New species can’t move in if the old ones don’t “move out.” And so nature has ways of dealing with overpopulation; hunger, the need to replicate and the need to survive better than your competitors for the limited resources.

All of this was taking place long before man, and long before Man could have committed the First Sin for which we all need redemption.  The 19th-century scientists who realized this argued that the fossils they were finding represented a separate epoch of Creation, and that it wasn’t until 6000 years ago that God embarked on his final creation; the one that included Us.

With the concept of Theistic Evolution, one would need to accept that the tender, minute touches of intervention are placed by the same being who saw the need to create a cruel world.   It is a world of beauty, yes, but perhaps beauty is all the more precious to us because we know that in large part we will all die and so will all of our fellow life.

This solves one of Epicurus’ riddles, doesn’t it?

“Either God wants to abolish evil, and cannot; or he can, but does not want to. If he wants to, but cannot, he is impotent. If he can, but does not want to, he is wicked. If God can abolish evil, and God really wants to do it, why is there evil in the world?”

There is, for the theistic evolutionist, evil in the world because life demands it. Augustine answered to Epicurus by saying that Epicurus had ignored the benefits of suffering in the world.  Indeed, Augustine’s answer is crucial to Catholic theology; it is the idea that one must die in some symbolic way (perhaps to materialism,) in order to be “reborn in Christ.”  That’s not the precise wording of Augustine, but it was the thrust of several of the youth “Teens Encounter Christ” retreats I joined when I was in my teens.  It’s also illustrative of the myth of Jesus’ death and reincarnation.  He died to give us the chance for new life in him.  Rather than dying cruelly to be reborn, we only need to accept his sacrifice; like the grain of wheat that must “die” and be buried in order to give life to a new wheat stalk. (John 12:24.)

I have been reading a new article by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic, which is a dual book review.  In the best tradition of literary criticism Coyne does far more than give a thumbs up or thumbs down of the books he has read.  He is also approaching his understanding of the concepts of the books.  In this case he reviews these books (c -and p because I am getting exhausted and don’t want to create footnotes:)

Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution
By Karl W. Giberson
(HarperOne, 248 pp., $24.95)

Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America’s Soul
By Kenneth R. Miller
(Viking, 244 pp., $25.95)

Coyne says that both books miss the mark on Science-Religion and  looks to Gould for help, but even the Non-Overlapping Magisteria are not helpful becaue the NOMA only says that each science and religion should ignore each other.

As Alden said in response to Anastasia’s post , “..because, for Theists, there are no purely secular events.”  Perhaps for theists, there can be no secular science.

The observable world makes so much more sense without using God as any explanation.  Coyne relates the story of Napoleon and LaPlace:

Scientists do indeed rely on materialistic explanations of nature, but it is important to understand that this is not an a priori philosophical commitment. It is, rather, the best research strategy that has evolved from our long-standing experience with nature. There was a time when God was a part of science. Newton thought that his research on physics helped clarify God’s celestial plan. So did Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist who devised our current scheme for organizing species. But over centuries of research we have learned that the idea “God did it” has never advanced our understanding of nature an iota, and that is why we abandoned it. In the early 1800s, the French mathematician Laplace presented Napoleon with a copy of his great five-volume work on the solar system, the Mechanique Celeste. Aware that the books contained no mention of God, Napoleon taunted him, “Monsieur Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.” Laplace answered, famously and brusquely: “Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothese-la,” “I have had no need of that hypothesis.” And scientists have not needed it since.

Certain dispensers of modernism would do well to remember that science does not exist to displace the need for an active creator.  It just happens to work out that way.

This is, after all, a finely-tuned universe.

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Religion and Politics

Is It a New Poison?

Feel free to disagree with me, but in my opinion the North Carolina Senatorial campaign between Kay Hagan and Elizabeth Dole has brought out the worst in both politics and religious discourse in the United States.  Religion has been used as a sword against The Other by one of the major parties.  Since this is a nominally non-partisan blog I won’t say who is the guilty party.

In his discussing the presidential race, fmr Secretary of State Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama and one of his major concerns was the way that the Republican party was using religion to divide the country between “Pro-America” and “Anti-America.”  Michele Bachmann’s comments on Hardball about both Barack Obama and a plea for the media to expose the “Anti-America” elements in the House of Representatives were especially upsetting to him.

More importantly, he mentioned the ongoing rumor which insinuates that Barack Obama is a Muslim and not a Christian.  He not only pointed out that Obama is a Christian, but then he made an even more important point.   While the denials that Obama is a Muslim and is instead a Christian are important as far as getting the facts straight, the more important point is that it should not matter.

If Obama were a Muslim, his qualificatons for leadership would not change.  Anti-Islamic bigotry should not be used against politicians.  From the transcripts:

Headstone At Arlington

Headstone At Arlington

I feel strongly about this particular point because of a picture I saw in a magazine.  It was a photo essay about troops who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  And one picture at the tail end of this photo essay was of a mother in Arlington Cemetery, and she had her head on the headstone of her son’s grave.  And as the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone.  And it gave his awards–Purple Heart, Bronze Star–showed that he died in Iraq, gave his date of birth, date of death.  He was 20 years old. And then, at the very top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.  And his name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan, and he was an American. He was born in New Jersey.  He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he can go serve his country, and he gave his life.  Now, we have got to stop polarizing ourself in this way.  And John McCain is as nondiscriminatory as anyone I know.  But I’m troubled about the fact that, within the party, we have these kinds of expressions.

I am troubled at how religion has been used to divide Americans.  I don’t know if there were ever periods in our history when we weren’t facing some sort of religious dvide, but it seems to have been accentuated in this race because of a candidate whose middle name is “Hussein.”

This is not the first time that a candidate has been smeared because of his religion.  Alfred Smith was the 1928 Democratic Party nomnee, but was often cast as being more beholden to the Pope than to the US Constitution.  John Kennedy ran as a candidate in 1960, and the anti-Catholic bigotry once again reared its ugly head.  Kennedy addressed the situation with a speech that really should be used as a template when discussing a candidate’s religious beliefs:

Kenned Speaking

Kenned Speaking

Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end–where all men and all churches are treated as equal–where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice–where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind–and where Catholics, Protestants and Jews, at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood.

I really want to be clear as an atheist that while I have serious disagreements with the role that religion should play in society, I have no qualms against voting for somebody whose religious views differ from mine if I find that the person in question has a poltical view that I share.  I vote for Christians in elections, even knowing their beliefs.  In the 2006 mayoral election, I even voted for a Conservative Christian Republican.  I practice what I am preaching here.

One more point before I get to my conclusion and open the topic for comments.  This is not a new phenomena, nor was it new in the 20th century.  Ed Darrell at Millard Fillmore’s Bathtub (an excellent blog whose writer is interested in correcting misunderstood versions of American History) refers us back to the 1800 presidential campaign.  John Adams, a defender of religious liberty, engaged with the assistance of Alexander Hamilton in trying to smear Thomas Jefferson as an atheist.  Hamilton convinced editors of newspapers to publish articles and editorials claiming that if elected, Jefferson would send the Army to confiscate Bibles:

One might recall Dumas Malone’s description of the election of 1800, between John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.  Jefferson thought it beneath his dignity, and not part of American politics, to discuss a candidate’s religious faith.  Alexander Hamilton, on behalf of Adams, led a campaign of calumny in newspapers throughout the U.S. saying that because Jefferson was atheist, as president he’d send the army to confiscate Bibles.  Jefferson refused to respond.  Malone notes that on election day, fully half of all American voters were convinced Jefferson was atheist.

They voted for Jefferson anyway, rather than stick with the failed policies of Adams.  There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

It’s not new, you see.  It’s just much more effective thanks to the internet and to 24-hour cable.  Karl Rove has mastered the technique of getting the news media outlets to “raise the question” without stating a position.  The question-raising is often enough to shift opinion against a candidate.  The Washington Post featured an article on how it is possible to convince the populace that a candidate’s religion makes his/her patriotism suspect, even if the candidate is not a member of that religion.

Kay Hagan’s response to Elizabeth Dole’s slimy campaign ads involved the disclaimer that she is a Christian.  Many atheists who had donated money to support her were disappointed that she had not used Colin Powell’s example to say that “While I am not an atheist, so what if I were?”

If I ever run for office, atheism will not be my central plank.  But since I am way out of the closet, there will be no way to hide that fact.  And I would not run from it, either.  If it were to become an issue, I would remind voters of what Kennedy and Powell said.  I would also remind them of the way that the voters responded to the charges of Jefferson’s atheism in 1800.

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Religion and Science

I don’t personally agree with all of the viewpoints, but I think that this video, thanks to The Panda’s Thumb, helps to illustrate Stephen’s position.  Intelligent Design is a misdirection to try to show that science is an attempted refutation of a Creator, when in reality science is a method for exploring nature and testing causal links to phenomena.

Intelligent Design really is a muddled attempt to achieve contradictory philosophical goals:

1. Science shouldn’t be talking about God, because science isn’t theology.
2. Science proves theology.

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(cross-posted from Tangled Up in Blue Guy)

More Book Hysteria

Stephanie has an alert on a book being pulled from the presses based on a review by a scholar in Texas.  The book hasn’t even hit galleys yet, only reached advanced preview copy stage and already calls have been placed by people who haven’t read the manuscript to demand that it not be published by Random House.  Some have demanded that the book be pulled from the bookstores (?) and an apology issued to all Muslims worldwide.

Aisha and Muhammad Wedding Night

Aisha and Muhammad Wedding Night

The book is a(n) historical fiction based on the life of Muhammad’s child bride, Aisha. Aisha was nine years old when she was married off to the Prophet Who Shall Not Be Depicted.  Many of us are familiar with the edict against depictions of the prophet who started Islam.  It is considered blasphemy, which is odd because Muhammad is not considered to be the son, brother or cousin of Allah.  He was a man who claimed to have been visited by an angel and given the Koran.

The professor who put a stop to the book is Denise Spellberg, an assistant professor of Islamic Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.  She’s not a Muslim, but the novel apparently so disturbed her that she started spreading the word to Muslims who she thought should know about this upcoming affront to Islam.  From an article in the Wall Street Journal by Asran Q. Nomani:

This time, the instigator of the trouble wasn’t a radical Muslim cleric, but an American academic. In April, looking for endorsements, Random House sent galleys to writers and scholars, including Denise Spellberg, an associate professor of Islamic history at the University of Texas in Austin. Ms. Jones put her on the list because she read Ms. Spellberg’s book, “Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.”

But Ms. Spellberg wasn’t a fan of Ms. Jones’s book. On April 30, Shahed Amanullah, a guest lecturer in Ms. Spellberg’s classes and the editor of a popular Muslim Web site, got a frantic call from her. “She was upset,” Mr. Amanullah recalls. He says Ms. Spellberg told him the novel “made fun of Muslims and their history,” and asked him to warn Muslims.

In an interview, Ms. Spellberg told me the novel is a “very ugly, stupid piece of work.” The novel, for example, includes a scene on the night when Muhammad consummated his marriage with Aisha: “the pain of consummation soon melted away. Muhammad was so gentle. I hardly felt the scorpion’s sting. To be in his arms, skin to skin, was the bliss I had longed for all my life.” Says Ms. Spellberg: “I walked through a metal detector to see ‘Last Temptation of Christ,'” the controversial 1980s film adaptation of a novel that depicted a relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. “I don’t have a problem with historical fiction. I do have a problem with the deliberate misinterpretation of history. You can’t play with a sacred history and turn it into soft core pornography.”

Rather than deal too much with the subject of the story here, as Stephanie has done a great job of discussing the issue, I am going to ask you to watch with me the reaction that people have to this story.  I think that the publisher should be ashamed of pulling it.  I think that the author, Sherry Jones, should be free to shop her book to other publishers without having to return her advance money.  I think that the book should be given a chance at the bookstores.  What I want to watch in the reaction to this is to see if the same people who took affront at PZ Myers will join in on the call to publish this novel.

The issue I am concerned about is where people are willing to draw the line at respecting others’ religious beliefs.  Do you see where I am leading?  The feeling that certain people have about the sacred ban on graphic depictions of the prophet is the same one that Catholics have about the Eucharist.  It is a killing offense, a blasphemy against Allah, the Prophet and all Muslims.

Will the same people who called for PZ to be reprimanded, fired or even killed for his actions now turn around and demand that the book be published; illustrating the hypocrisy that religion engenders?  Or will they now join with the Muslims and Dr. Spellberg to call for respect of others’ beliefs and demanded that Sherry Jones apologize and humble herself before the worldwide anger of Muslims?

Spellberg defends herself in a letter published Saturday in the Wall Street Journal:

As a historian invited to “comment” on the book by its Random House editor at the author’s express request, I objected strenuously to the claim that “The Jewel of Medina” was “extensively researched,” as stated on the book jacket. As an expert on Aisha’s life, I felt it was my professional responsibility to counter this novel’s fallacious representation of a very real woman’s life. The author and the press brought me into a process, and I used my scholarly expertise to assess the novel. It was in that same professional capacity that I felt it my duty to warn the press of the novel’s potential to provoke anger among some Muslims. (emphasis mine, tuibguy.)

I am not sure why she felt it was her responsibility to frantically call Sahed Amanullah and warn him that the book was coming out, and I am not sure if she knew that he would run the Twilight Bark of an Islamic listserv.  It seems so, but it isn’t fair to take his word that she was frantic.

I’ll never be in the position of judging the historical accuracy of the novel, but even though Spellberg thought it was poorly researched, I think that her judgment in telling him that it was offensive without offering to let him read it and make up his own mind was irresponsible and yes, it did lead to the book being pulled.  This happened even though she opposes censorship.  She advocated its censorship in a passive aggressive manner so that she could claim a plausible deniability.  Her hands are clean, she says.

When we recoil in fear from offending the beliefs of another group, we give religion a power it doesn’t deserve.  We let it control even those of us who don’t share the religion.  The people who bugged me the most in the crackergate fiasco were not so much the rabid catholics who wanted to see him destroyed and humiliated, the people who made me most angry were the equivocating atheists who said we should excoriate him because he wasn’t showing the proper respect to a religion he didn’t believe.

Sherry Jones is not showing disrepect, she is writing a novel based on a historical person.  It may or may not be accurate. Stephanie says it is not, in fact, pornographic.  It is a novel, and if it were to be published perhaps it would stimulate interest in Aisha and people would look to Spellberg’s work on Aisha to research further if they were drawn into the story.  She has blocked off this avenue because of her own equivocation, the warning of great danger, and she gave in to the false power of religion to declare offense.

So, let’s see if the Catholics who hate PZ respond to Random House’s decision to call of the book by demanding that they not give into terrorists and go ahead with publication.  If they do, it would be both amusing and infuriating. Muhammad should not be “hands off,” nor should Aisha, but then neither should be a wafer.

All this saddens me. Literature moves civilizations forward, and Islam is no exception. There is in fact a tradition of historical fiction in Islam, including such works as “The Adventures of Amir Hamza,” an epic on the life of Muhammad’s uncle. Last year a 948-page English translation was published, ironically, by Random House. And, for all those who believe the life of the prophet Muhammad can’t include stories of lust, anger and doubt, we need only read the Quran (18:110) where, it’s said, God instructed Muhammad to tell others: “I am only a mortal like you.”

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What do you think of a president who says this?

If the clip does not play, you will have to go to the YouTube home page to watch it.

By posting this, you can probably tell that I like it. About the only thing that put me off in Obama’s response was when he said that he believes in evolution. The verb believe just doesn’t make sense here. “I believe in gravity” sounds pretty funny, yes?

Some may think this to be calculated pandering. I’d like to think it genuine, if only because I’d give an eerily similar response. Without the “believe in evolution” part but complete with the interruption toward the end and the “amazed at the mystery of this universe.”

As a side note, I’m sure he didn’t intend it, but Senator Obama keeps open the possibility of there being other universes, and perhaps other civilizations by citing “this” universe, not “the” universe. It is a common perspective among scientists who are Christians that science is a way to better understand creation – both its current state and how it came to be. Personally I think science is the BEST way to learn about “this” universe.

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