Friday, November 30, 2007

A Christian Sense of Humor

Have you checked out the Ship of Fools "12 Days of Kitschmas?" It offers some real gems of Christian kitsch such as the Virgin Mary Memory Stick, and has been making the rounds in the faith blogosphere. Perhaps the most interesting commentary about all this, however, has been by Andrew Brown, an who argues in the Guardian blog that the willigness of Christians to make fun of their faith is one reason why it has so much staying power:

Which is the more disgusting, a bear called Muhammad, or a bear with a zip up the back, which opens to reveal a cavity for storing your loved one's ashes? The huggable urn bear won third prize in the Ship of Fools Christmas kitsch contest this year, which means that there were two contestants judged even more disgusting. For the record, they were a St Sebastian pincushion, and a transparent plastic Virgin Mary with a red LED that blinks like a throbbing sacred heart when the memory stick inside is working. I would buy one of these, except that at €70 for 512MB the price is hard to justify.

The point about the Ship of Fools Kitschmas collection, with all its multifarious blasphemies, is that it is put together by Christians laughing at the excesses of their own religion. It was Christians who marketed the action figure of Jesus on a Harley Davidson and other Christians who captioned it "Christ on a bike" and gave it sixth prize. The only completely pagan artefacts on the list are the huggable teddy urn and the Italian undertakers' catalogue, which shows glamour models apparently paralysed with lust by the touch of a coffin.

There are of course Christians who would see little or nothing funny in the chance to purchase a kitchen timer with a nativity scene on top - so that you can tell the minute and the hour - or a set of fridge magnets illustrating the elevation of the host at communion. But they have no power to stop their fellows from laughing at them.

That might make Christianity decadent. One could argue that nothing will stay sacred unless it is hedged about by law; I suspect that some liberals and more conservatives believe that the Sudanese authorities are onto something. Fear breeds respect, and all that.

But I think the Ship of Fools Kitschmas has a much more important message, one that is less comforting to secularists and fundamentalists alike: a lot of religion survives in secular societies because it's fun. It's play for adults. All the puritans who sternly exhort us against make-believe are fighting the grain of human nature. One of the things that religious faith provides is a kind of constant narrative about the personal, significant life of the believer. I have no doubt that this can be acquired in lots of other ways, and that the dedicated atheist crusaders have a little narrative inside their heads in which they roam the world hacking away at superstition. Blasphemy is also a sort of play for adults.

There are a lot of atheists who think that if only we laugh at religion enough it will go away. But what may just as well happen is that it will learn to laugh at itself, and, when it does, it will be impossible to eradicate.

Read it all here.

Father Peter Carey Introduces Himself

Father Matthew Moritz lead the way to the use of YouTube as a tool of effective evangelism. Rev. Peter Carey, a transitional deacon serving as Chaplain of St. Catherine's School in Richmond, Virginia (and who will be ordained as a priest just a few weeks from now) has started producing his own videos. this is Peter's latest video--which you should definitely watch if you wonder what a "transitional deacon" or a "deacon" means.

You should also check out Peter's own website.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Faith and Money II: The Advent Conspiracy

In the past week, I have blogged about faith and money, and I have blogged about the inane obsession by some on the so-called "War on Christmas". Well, today I read an article that puts the two together. It seems that a group of clergy have formed a so-called Advent Conspiracy that aims to wage it own Christian war on Christmas--not the religious holiday of Christmas, but the secular comemrcialization of Christmas:

Americans will spend about $475 billion this year on gifts, decorations and parties that many won't even remember next year. They will run themselves ragged--shopping, wrapping and celebrating. And some won't pay off their Christmas debt until March, if they're lucky.

"We celebrate Jesus' birthday by giving ourselves presents," McKinley says. "We don't give him anything."

McKinley is pastor of the Imago Dei Community, a Christian church of about 1,500 members that meets in a high school auditorium here. It dawned on McKinley as he prepared an Advent sermon last year that the call today is to resist consumerism and give gifts like God does.

"These are relational gifts," he says: God gives himself to people, so people will give of themselves to the poor.

So McKinley and a few pastor friends from around the country hatched what they called the Advent Conspiracy. They challenged their congregations: Spend less on Christmas, give relational gifts and donate the money saved to the poor.

Three congregations collected $430,000--Imago Dei collected $110,000 on a single Sunday--and gave most of that to Living Water International, a nonprofit project that digs wells in the Third World.

. . .

This year, about 491 churches from 10 nations have joined the conspiracy, says Jeanne McKinley, who directs the program from Imago Dei Community with her husband Rick. World Relief, an evangelical mission group, has recruited 500 more churches to participate. About 1,700 individuals have joined on the Internet, she says.

Rick McKinley asks one thing of his co-conspirators--that they donate at least 25 percent of their Christmas savings to clean water projects. The United Nations Development Program estimates that $10 billion a year would help solve the shortage of clean water.

"The church needs to be on the leading edge of solving this problem," he says.

. . .

"We're not asking that you don't spend money on Christmas," McKinley says, "just that you do it with the poor in mind."

Now this is a war on Christmas that I can support!

Read it all here. Hat tip to the Lead for bringing this to my attention.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Father Matthew on the Sacraments: Part One--Baptism

Father Matthew has started an eight-part series on the Sacramants. His first installement is now online--and it focuses on Baptism. Father Matthew explains in an email to his fan base:

Greetings All,

Bring out the ticker tape! Bring out the fatted calf! Blow the trumpet in the new moon! A new “Father Matthew Presents” mini-series has begun.

The eight-part series, entitled “Father Matthew Presents the Sacraments,” will be a full-fledged educational series including one video featuring each the seven sacraments, with a closing piece.

. . .

The hope is for this series to engage the regular and wonderful “Father Matthew Presents” audience, but also to serve teachers in the Church, whether it be Sunday School, Youth Group, or EFM.

So please be sure to share the fact of this series’ existence with anyone you think may be interested: teachers, preachers, inquirers, etc. Your help to spread the word is greatly valued!

Another hope is for the entire series to be compiled on a single DVD for distribution. In the meantime, you can use the YouTube site for access, of course!


Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The "Christmas Wars"

Well it has officially started. Its that festive time of year when some Christians decide that they must demand that businesses say "Merry Christmas" and not (the horror!) "Happy Holidays". As the Christian Post is reporting, Liberty Counsel, a Christian legal group, has released a “Naughty or Nice” list that advises Christians where to shop for Christmas. Businesses and retailers are placed on the “Nice” list if they recognize Christmas and on the “Naughty” list if they censor such references. The list is part of the fifth annual Friend or Foe Christmas Campaign, in which the legal group is pledging to be a "Friend" to those entities which do not censor Christmas and a "Foe" to those that do.

This is crazy, and downright un-Christian. Here is my take:

First, we live in a country that is dominated by Christians. We are, by far, the majority faith. Can you name one other religious holiday that is recognized as both a state and federal holiday in every state? It seems to me that the least we can do is to show some respect for the non-Christian minority, and this respect means not assuming that every one who shops is celebrating Christmas. To put it another way, "What would Jesus do." Well, I doubt that he would be boycotting stores that don't wish him a happy birthday. I think that he would remind us that the Jews, Muslims, Agnostics and Atheists among us our our neighbors, and demanding that Walmart scream Merry Christmas to everyone is, well, not being a good neighbor.

Second, as Christians we should do everything in our power to separate the religious holiday of Christmas from the secular and materialistic holiday that pervades our culture. Don't get me wrong--I love this secular holiday: the tree, lights, food, parties, Santa Claus and gifts. But it is not what we celebrate in our religious holiday. It is hard enough as a parent to get my child to understand the difference. Why would I want the two holidays to be confused further by demanding that the secular marketplace say "Merry Christmas"? (For an interesting take on how difficult it is to reconcile "Two Christmases — the one where Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus, and the other one about iPhones and Xboxes and Hannah Montana singing dolls", read this article).

Third, look at the liturgical calendar, people. It is not Christmas yet. If we are going to demand that Walmart recognize our religious holiday, should we be demanding that Walmart greet us with "Happy Advent" (or perhaps we should demand "Glorious Pentecost" until next Sunday.

The bottom line--it seems to me that being a Christian demands that we do the opposite of the Liberty Counsel--keep our faith away from the crass (but fun!) commercialism of the "Holidays", and show respect for our non-Christian brothers and sisters.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Money and Faith

There have been some interesting stories in the press over the last few days about issues of faith and money, including this Wall Street Journal story about the backlash against tithing. Since my wife is the Stewardship Chair at Trinity, and we have been tithing since we were married (Allison insisted), I thought that it was about time to post something about money. After all, this blog has written quite a lot about sex and faith and even science and faith--its time to talk about money.

I think that the best starting starting point is this wonderful column by Terry Mattingly:

It was the kind of cryptic theological statement that is often found stuck on automobile bumpers.

This sticker said: "Don't let my car fool you. My treasure is in heaven." This echoed the Bible passage in which Jesus urged believers to, "lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven. ... For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

This sticker's creator probably intended it to be displayed on the battered bumper of a maintenance-challenged car, noted sociologist Christian Smith, director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at the University of Notre Dame. Thus, the sticker suggests that the driver knows his car is a wreck, but that he has "other commitments and priorities" that matter more.

But Smith was puzzled when he saw this sticker on a $42,000 SUV parked at a bank.

"Let's be clear. I have no problem with abundance. I have no problem with capitalism," he said, speaking at Gordon College, his alma mater near Boston. "The person driving this car may give away 40 percent of their income. I have no idea. I'm not trying to nail people who drive SUVs or whatever.

"But it seems to me that the meaning of this bumper sticker has changed from what I thought was the original meaning to, 'Well, Jesus didn't quite get it right, because I have a lot here and I also have it in heaven, too. So I have all the bases covered.' "

After years of digging in the data, Smith has reached some sobering conclusions about believers and their checkbooks.

It's true that Americans give away lots of money, in comparison with people in other modern societies. It's also true that religious Americans are much more generous than non-religious Americans. But here's the bottom line: The top 10 percent of America's givers are very generous, while 80 percent or more rarely, if ever, make charitable donations of any kind.

"This is the glass half-full perspective," said Smith. "We're not doing too bad. We're doing pretty good. However, most American Christians turn out to be stingy financial givers -- most, but not all."

Stingy? Smith believes that the vast majority of affluent American Christians will see they are guilty as charged, if they candidly contrast the amount of money they give away with the doctrines that are proclaimed in the pulpits of all traditional churches.

The result is a laugh-to-keep-from-crying paradox. In fact, Smith considered using another title for his chapel address: "Why does $30 seem like so much to give in church and so little to spend in the restaurant after church?"

Read it all here.

With all due respect to the Wall Street Journal , the whole focus on the Biblical basis (or lack thereof) for tithing misses the point. Mattingly gets it--the real point is that even Americans living below the median income live in abundance, but we act in our charitable giving all too often as if we live in scarcity. To me, the real value in tithing is that it is a reminder of this fact.

This has certainly been my experience. To be clear, not all of our tithe goes to our church (sorry Nicholas)--it includes all of our charitable giving. Still, we focus our tithe bibically--we give largely to organizations that serve the poor.

My wife has been tithing since she was a very junior staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia--where she was making far less than the average American income. This was not an easy decision for Allison because she made the decision at a time when she was hardly living in abundance. Despite the fact that I was leaving the public sector to take a much higher paying law firm position, I must admit that I was somewhat resistant--but seven years later I have no regrets. Tithing is a reminder every pay check that I live in great abundance, and that others do not. And it is a reminder every paycheck that I need to really think hard about where my treasure is.

Paul Davies on Faith and Science

Paul Davies, the director of Beyond, a research center at Arizona State University, and the author of Cosmic Jackpot: Why Our Universe Is Just Right for Life, has a very provocative op-ed in today's New York Times that makes a very interesting claim--that science itself is the result of faith. He does so in a way very similar to my own thinking:

SCIENCE, we are repeatedly told, is the most reliable form of knowledge about the world because it is based on testable hypotheses. Religion, by contrast, is based on faith. The term “doubting Thomas” well illustrates the difference. In science, a healthy skepticism is a professional necessity, whereas in religion, having belief without evidence is regarded as a virtue.

The problem with this neat separation into “non-overlapping magisteria,” as Stephen Jay Gould described science and religion, is that science has its own faith-based belief system. All science proceeds on the assumption that nature is ordered in a rational and intelligible way. You couldn’t be a scientist if you thought the universe was a meaningless jumble of odds and ends haphazardly juxtaposed. When physicists probe to a deeper level of subatomic structure, or astronomers extend the reach of their instruments, they expect to encounter additional elegant mathematical order. And so far this faith has been justified.

The most refined expression of the rational intelligibility of the cosmos is found in the laws of physics, the fundamental rules on which nature runs. The laws of gravitation and electromagnetism, the laws that regulate the world within the atom, the laws of motion — all are expressed as tidy mathematical relationships. But where do these laws come from? And why do they have the form that they do?

When I was a student, the laws of physics were regarded as completely off limits. The job of the scientist, we were told, is to discover the laws and apply them, not inquire into their provenance. The laws were treated as “given” — imprinted on the universe like a maker’s mark at the moment of cosmic birth — and fixed forevermore. Therefore, to be a scientist, you had to have faith that the universe is governed by dependable, immutable, absolute, universal, mathematical laws of an unspecified origin. You’ve got to believe that these laws won’t fail, that we won’t wake up tomorrow to find heat flowing from cold to hot, or the speed of light changing by the hour.

Over the years I have often asked my physicist colleagues why the laws of physics are what they are. The answers vary from “that’s not a scientific question” to “nobody knows.” The favorite reply is, “There is no reason they are what they are — they just are.” The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. After all, the very essence of a scientific explanation of some phenomenon is that the world is ordered logically and that there are reasons things are as they are. If one traces these reasons all the way down to the bedrock of reality — the laws of physics — only to find that reason then deserts us, it makes a mockery of science.

Davies then notes that scientists are now beginning to finally confront these questions because of the so-called "Golidlocks" problem--the need to explain why we live in a universe in which the physical constants seem fine-tuned for life such as ours:

Although scientists have long had an inclination to shrug aside such questions concerning the source of the laws of physics, the mood has now shifted considerably. Part of the reason is the growing acceptance that the emergence of life in the universe, and hence the existence of observers like ourselves, depends rather sensitively on the form of the laws. If the laws of physics were just any old ragbag of rules, life would almost certainly not exist.

A second reason that the laws of physics have now been brought within the scope of scientific inquiry is the realization that what we long regarded as absolute and universal laws might not be truly fundamental at all, but more like local bylaws. They could vary from place to place on a mega-cosmic scale. A God’s-eye view might reveal a vast patchwork quilt of universes, each with its own distinctive set of bylaws. In this “multiverse,” life will arise only in those patches with bio-friendly bylaws, so it is no surprise that we find ourselves in a Goldilocks universe — one that is just right for life. We have selected it by our very existence.

The multiverse theory is increasingly popular, but it doesn’t so much explain the laws of physics as dodge the whole issue. There has to be a physical mechanism to make all those universes and bestow bylaws on them. This process will require its own laws, or meta-laws. Where do they come from? The problem has simply been shifted up a level from the laws of the universe to the meta-laws of the multiverse.

In the end, Davies argues, science is as much a discipline based on faith as religion:

Clearly, then, both religion and science are founded on faith — namely, on belief in the existence of something outside the universe, like an unexplained God or an unexplained set of physical laws, maybe even a huge ensemble of unseen universes, too. For that reason, both monotheistic religion and orthodox science fail to provide a complete account of physical existence.

This shared failing is no surprise, because the very notion of physical law is a theological one in the first place, a fact that makes many scientists squirm. Isaac Newton first got the idea of absolute, universal, perfect, immutable laws from the Christian doctrine that God created the world and ordered it in a rational way. Christians envisage God as upholding the natural order from beyond the universe, while physicists think of their laws as inhabiting an abstract transcendent realm of perfect mathematical relationships.

And just as Christians claim that the world depends utterly on God for its existence, while the converse is not the case, so physicists declare a similar asymmetry: the universe is governed by eternal laws (or meta-laws), but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe.

It seems to me there is no hope of ever explaining why the physical universe is as it is so long as we are fixated on immutable laws or meta-laws that exist reasonlessly or are imposed by divine providence. The alternative is to regard the laws of physics and the universe they govern as part and parcel of a unitary system, and to be incorporated together within a common explanatory scheme.

In other words, the laws should have an explanation from within the universe and not involve appealing to an external agency. The specifics of that explanation are a matter for future research. But until science comes up with a testable theory of the laws of the universe, its claim to be free of faith is manifestly bogus.

Read it all here. I had previously posted about Paul Davies work on the Golilock universe here.

Janet D. Stemwedel, an assistant professor of philosophy at San Jose State University, has well reasoned response to the Paul Davies op-ed that is well worth a read. Her main point is that science is a discipline defined by its methodological approach rather than any metaphysical assumptions about the universe:

Davies makes it sound like being a scientist requires a metaphysical commitment to a certain sort of order and intelligibility within the universe. While many scientists may in fact have such a commitment, I think making it a requirement is too strong. Rather, science seems to depend on a bundle of methodological commitments (about the utility of trying to find stable patterns of behavior, tidy mathematical relations, and so forth).

. . .

The title of his op-ed notwithstanding ("Taking Science on Faith"), I don't think Davies' main concern here is that scientists are blind to the fact that they make certain foundational assumptions in order to get to the business of examining and explaining their phenomena. In part, I don't think this is what Davies is on about because scientists know that they are making these foundational assumptions. How tightly they hold them, whether they are methodological or metaphysical commitments, seems a side issue to the issue Davies is pressing.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

More on Stem Cell Developments

As I reported yesterday, there is a significant new development in stem cell research--the fact that skin cells can be used to creat stem cells. Much of the interest in this story is that it suggests that we need no longer research embryonic stems cells, and thus the bioethical problems are over. It is also offered as vindication of President Bush's policies on stem cell research.

Well, the science bloggers have had time to reflect on the developments. While they agree that this is a significant scientific development worthy of front page coverage, they also caution that it does not solve the bioethical issues. Why? As PZ Myers explains, one reason is that while this new tehcnique is great for stem cell research, it has severe limitations in therapeutic uses:

Another essential point is that scientists are excited about this work because it opens up avenues for basic research into development and differentiation. These cells are NOT useable for therapies…the immediate, practical applications that the electorate wants from stem cell research. They also cannot be used for reproductive cloning, although that won't trouble most people. These are cells with retroviral infections, potential unknown mutations, and that have genetic modifications that make them prone to collapse into cancers. We are not going to be able to grow new organs and tissues for human beings from a few skin cells using this particular technique. It's going to take more work on embryonic stem cells to figure out how to take any cell from your body, and cleanly and elegantly switch it to a stem cell state that can be molded into any organ you need. What this work says is that yes, we'll be able to do that, it isn't going to be that difficult, and that we ought to be supporting more stem cell research right now so we can work out the details.

Read it all here.

Mark Hoofnagle is a MD/PhD Candidate in the Department of Molecular Physiology and Biological Physics at the University of Virginia, elaborates on this issue:

So what are the remaining problems? The most critical is, of course, the use of retroviruses to transduce the cells. The problem is that previous attempts to use these vectors in humans, to treat severe-combined immunodeficiency (bubble boys), resulted in an unacceptable rate of oncogenic transformation of the treated cells causing the FDA to stop the trials. The kids got leukemias. This is terrible. The reason is that the retroviruses incorporate their genomes into ours. The advantage of this is that the genes are permanently expressed - long enough to transform the cells and maintain them until they are differentiated. The draw back is that the retroviruses prefer to insert themselves randomly in the genome in areas that are transcriptionally active. The result is that the transgenic promoters - powerful viral sequences that drive gene expression - may get stuck next to an oncogene, that can then cause cancer. Or cause epigenetic changes in the region of an oncogene that should be silenced. Or even interrupt a tumor-suppressor gene. All very bad outcomes that have been shown to cause cancer in humans using these vectors.

Mark also disputes the argument that this shows that embryonic stem cell research was unnecessary or that it can now be stoped:

Finally, as far as the anti-ESC types are concerned, they should not consider this a victory for their anti-science agenda or the policies of George Bush. First, these discoveries would not have been possible without ESC research. I also believe these cells would have been discovered in the same amount of time, with or without the political interference in science. Not only because somatic cell reprogramming was hotly studied long before this became a political issue but also because they represent an ideal stem cell - one that can be genetically matched to the donor, yet is still pluripotent. SCNT has been an incredibly difficult technology to make practical, as human eggs are difficult to obtain, and the process is very inefficient. We've also lost valuable years of study of pluripotent human stem cells in this idiotic debate, that would directly translate to our understanding of how to apply these cells in studies of disease and for clinical practice.

Read it all here.

PZ Myers agrees:

This discovery is probably going to become a political football in short order, with the far right politicians who have restricted American research into embryonic stem cells claiming vindication. However, let's point out some realities here. Americans did not make this discovery; Japanese researchers did. It required understanding of gene expression in embryonic stem cells, an understanding that was hampered in our country. It's going to require much more confirmation and comparison between the induced pluripotent stem cells and embryonic stem cells as part of the process of making this technique useful — science doesn't take just one result from a few labs and accept it as gospel truth. And we definitely need to figure out better ways of switching the four genes on. Figuring that out will require more research into how organisms switch cells into the ES state in situ &mdash we can't figure that out from these cells with inserted, artificial gene constructs.

And for those of you looking for some theology, at least one science blogger attempts to argue that this development argues against conception as the critical point for the development of the soul. Alex Palazzo,a postdoctoral fellow working in the Department of Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School argues:

One of the biggest implications of this research is this: the whole idea that a "soul" is created upon conception is not a tenable view anymore. Lets look at the facts - you can take any skin cell, turn on four genes and *presto* you get a cell that can potentially make a new organism, with its own brain, its own mind and its own "soul". Conception is not required to make a soul. This new person will be one of us and even if he or she has teratomas, he/she will feel, love, hate, cry and laugh just like any other member of our species. It is probable that one day the cells that we created by the activation of four genes will be indistinguishable from the cells from a blastocyst. So how can religious conservatives champion one line of research and not another? How can religious conservatives think that one clump of cells have a soul and the other doesn't? It just doesn't add up.

Let me rephrase this ... If we can create IPS cells then it means that a "soul" can be created without conception

Read it all here.

The bottomline? this is a very significant development, and it may indeed result in the development of stem cell technologies that do not require the use of human embryos. But, that development is still many years away. Perhaps more fundamentally, we need to think through the theological and ethical implications of all of this research and ask, like Alex does, whether one set of techniques really is ethically different than the other.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

An End to the Stem Cell Impasse

For years th eissue of stem cell research has divided even the pro life community, and the bioethical concerns about the destruction of embryonic stem cells--and the attendant human cloning (even for therapeutic purposes) have slowed the pace of research on stem cells.

The New York Times is reporting this morning that a new technique using skin cells may be a breakthrough that avoids the bioethical concerns altogether:

Two teams of scientists are reporting today that they turned human skin cells into what appear to be embryonic stem cells without having to make or destroy an embryo — a feat that could quell the ethical debate troubling the field.

All they had to do, the scientists said, was add four genes. The genes reprogrammed the chromosomes of the skin cells, making the cells into blank slates that should be able to turn into any of the 220 cell types of the human body, be it heart, brain, blood or bone. Until now, the only way to get such human universal cells was to pluck them from a human embryo several days after fertilization, destroying the embryo in the process.

The reprogrammed skin cells may yet prove to have subtle differences from embryonic stem cells that come directly from human embryos, and the new method includes potentially risky steps, like introducing a cancer gene. But stem cell researchers say they are confident that it will not take long to perfect the method and that today’s drawbacks will prove to be temporary.

Researchers and ethicists not involved in the findings say the work should reshape the stem cell field. At some time in the near future, they said, today’s debate over whether it is morally acceptable to create and destroy human embryos to obtain stem cells should be moot.

“Everyone was waiting for this day to come,” said the Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. “You should have a solution here that will address the moral objections that have been percolating for years,” he added.

The two independent teams, from Japan and Wisconsin, note that their method also creates stem cells that genetically match the donor without having to resort to the controversial step of cloning. If stem cells are used to make replacement cells and tissues for patients, it would be invaluable to have genetically matched cells because they would not be rejected by the immune system. Even more important, scientists say, is that genetically matched cells from patients will enable them to study complex diseases, like Alzheimer’s, in the lab.

Read the full report here.

Monday, November 19, 2007

I am On Facebook

I have taken the advice of Helen Thompson and Nicholas Knisely and set up a Facebook page. It should be an interesting experiment. My sense is that I am an old geezer on this site, but that this is changing rapidly. If you are on Facebook, look me up and become a friend. Then join the Epeicopal Cafe group.

Galileo, Fact, Reason, and the Role of Scripture

My priest, Nicholas Knisley was a physicist and astronomer before becoming a priest. He is teaching a college level "Physics for Poets" at the Cathedral that aims to examine the philisophical and theological implications for what we are learning.

Yesterday's lesson was on Galileo (which I missed due to a family commitment--sorry Nicholas), and in preparin for the class Nicholas clearly did some deep thinking. He posted the result of his thinking on his blog:

One of the things that leads some to argue that Galileo was the founder of the modern scientific method was his insistence that reason must be always compared to observation. Reason, by itself was not the final arbiter of a dispute.

It was his insistence on this point that was the core of his break from the teleological thinking of Aristotle.

It was also the core of the objection that the Catholic Church had to his writing. (Or so some have argued...)

I wonder if we might gain by making a similar requirement for theological thought. Theological reasoning must always be compared to observation...

In a real sense Holy Scripture contains the observation of God's action in the world. So using scripture as a theological norm would fit.

But what about things not covered in scripture? Should we be reasoning from principles found in scripture without comparing our deductions to observation?

Full blown calvinism would seem to me to argue that such an idea would necessarily lead to error. But what about folks who don't believe in the total depravity of creation?

This, of course, goes to the very heart of a major theological debate now occuring in the Anglican Communion, in addition to the larger church, over the role of scripture as an authoritative source. And on whether experience is itself a source of authority.

Be sure to read not only Nicholas' post, but also the comments (and add some of your own). Here is a sample of what interesting comments are being made in response to Nicholas' original post. D.C. Toedt offers this wonderful analogy:

Mark, for some reason what you said reminded me of standing watch as a newly-qualified officer of the deck (OOD) aboard the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise in the 1970s. I was a young lieutenant j.g. and was one of five or six qualified OODs aboard.

(By way of background, for four hours at a time, the on-watch OOD is in charge of, and responsible for, the entire ship as the captain's direct personal representative. On an aircraft carrier, the OOD is often de facto in charge of the task force of accompanying ships as well.)

I distinctly remember noting, soon after qualifying as OOD, that previously I had tended to spend too much time with my face glued to the radar scope. It was easier to do that than to try to mentally process all the amazing hurly-burly of a busy warship. It was almost as though the radar scope were an object of worship; if only I would pay it sufficient attention, I could ignore all the other distracting things that were going on, and all would be well. (Later, in training other would-be OODs, I saw that this was a very common failing.)

As the actual OOD, however, I found that the radar scope contained only part of the information I needed to function. If things were to go awry, the captain wouldn't give a [expletive] that I had been carefully monitoring the scope; what he wanted was for me to stay on top of things and make things happen the way he wanted. With that in mind, like other good OODs, I quickly learned merely to glance at the radar scope, and only every once in a while. I spent the rest of the time scanning the deck itself, the other gauges, the written watch orders, and most importantly, the horizon. I tried to suck in all the information I could, from every possible source, so that when circumstances changed - and they did, constantly - I could respond appropriately.

If we were to replace the term 'radar scope' with 'Bible,' I think our scripturalist friends have somewhat the same mindset as I did as a trainee OOD: If everyone will just pay sufficient attention to the Bible, we can ignore the distractions from the real world, and be confident that things will go the way we want them to do. These folks could benefit from a similar adjustment in perspective; unfortunately, I can't think of what might induce one.

Read the post and comments here.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

IPCC Issues Final Report

The final report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was issued yesterday, and the UN Secretary General had pointed things to say to countries like China and the United States that seem unwilling to take necessary steps:

Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, describing climate change as “the defining challenge of our age,” released the final report of a United Nations panel on climate change here on Saturday and called on the United States and China to play “a more constructive role.”

His challenge to the world’s two greatest greenhouse gas emitters came just two weeks before the world’s energy ministers meet in Bali, Indonesia, to begin talks on creating a global climate treaty to replace the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

The United States and China are signatories to Kyoto, but Washington has not ratified the treaty, and China, along with other developing countries, is not bound by its mandatory emissions caps.

“Today the world’s scientists have spoken, clearly and in one voice,” Mr. Ban said of the report, the Synthesis Report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. “In Bali, I expect the world’s policymakers to do the same.”

He added, “The breakthrough needed in Bali is for a comprehensive climate change deal that all nations can embrace.”

. . .

Members of the panel said their review of the data led them to conclude as a group and individually that reductions in greenhouse gases had to start immediately to avert a global climate disaster, which could leave island nations submerged and abandoned, reduce African crop yields by 50 percent, and cause a 5 percent decrease in global gross domestic product.

The panel’s fourth and final report summarized and integrated the most significant findings of three sections of a climate-science review that were released between January and April. Because the data had not previously been reviewed as a whole, scientists said the synthesized report was more explicit, creating new emphasis and alarm.

Read it all here. The summary of the Report can be found here (pdf). The IPCC website can be found here.

I would like you to focus on the preduction in the last paragraph--that crops in Africa could be reduced by half. I then invite you to read again what Jesus says in Matthew about concern for the least of these, and then imagine how you intend to defend inaction to Jesus when he asks you what you did to the least of these.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Theo Hobson on Prayer and Atheism

I don't agree with everything that Theo Hobson writes today in the Guardian's Comment is Free group blog--in particular, I think that we need to stop talking about "militant atheists", and listen with respect to what they have to say. Nonetheless, he captures well, my view of prayer--one that many atheist may not appreciate:

Prayer is a bit like masturbation. It is more widely practised than public discourse acknowledges. Apparently, 42% of us sometimes pray, according to a survey published last week. To the atheist, it's evidence that there's no room for complacency in the war on dangerous superstition. But is prayer either dangerous or superstitious?

To the atheist it's like this. A person acquires the delusion that God exists, and so starts talking to this imagined being, in the hope of influencing its will. He persists in this, despite having no firm evidence that prayer works. Probably the believer is so pathetically lonely that he can't bear to face the irrationality of his habit. He needs the comforting illusion that someone up there's listening.

The atheist account of prayer has very little connection to the reality. The believer does not pray in order to try to influence God's will. Instead, he's trying to influence his own will, to make it conform to his worldview. Prayer is essentially a matter of saying "Help me, God, to be what I should be". The believer acknowledges a conflict between what he is naturally inclined to be, and what he feels he should strive to be. I suppose such a conflict is totally unknown to the atheists, who feel that they effortlessly realise moral perfection in their daily lives.

Also, the believer reminds himself of the worldview he subscribes to. In the case of Christianity, he re-states his belief in the coming of God's kingdom, which is a sort of utopian hope that all will be well. And he acknowledges his own fallibility, the fact that he is part of the problem, in need of radical reform, dangerously prone to evil. And he acknowledges that everything is dependent on God, that he is the absolute authority.

Hobson then makes engages in an argument that I find very interesting. What is the harm of liberal and moderate beleivers like ourselves? Hobson summarizes one argument in response (that our moderate faith empowers the extremists) and gives this response:

I would like to ask the atheists a simple question. What harm does it do that I, and very many other people, pray? Is it the desire for a better world, free of suffering, which is so harmful? Is it the acceptance of personal guilt, and the endless resolve to do morally better?

Judging from what I have read of their attempts at reasoning, the atheists seem to think that prayer reinforces an irrational worldview that has harmful consequences. The more that seemingly harmless religious belief is respected as valid, the more likely it is that society will be plagued by dangerous fundamentalist forms of religion. This line was restated by Sue Blackmore in a recent post on Cif.

. . .

To believe in God, and to pray to him, does not mean that one subscribes to any form of organised religion. I am a Christian with no institutional allegiance.

Read it all here.

I don't know that Hobson really confronts the argument made here by Sue Blackmore and others. The point is not that our own individual religious beleifs are harmful per se, but that our belief itself somehow validates fundamentalism. I think that a better response is to challenge this factual premise. After all, the Enlightenment and secular society arose in a very Christian Europe, and as Mark Lilla and others have argued, secularism has its roots in Christian thought.

What do you think.

Watch Comet Holmes

A comet visable to the naked eye comes only onece every decade or so, and the view is even more impressive using binoculars. Be sure to check out Comet Holmes in the coming weeks. It can be found in the Northeastern sky in Perseus constellation. Here is more information from Astronomy:

For reasons astronomers don't entirely understand, the cosmic iceball flared in brightness by a million times in just 2.5 days. This outburst propelled the comet from a faint-fuzzy best viewed in a large amateur telescope to a star-like object observers throughout the Northern Hemisphere could easily see in a moonlit sky.

The comet subsequently expanded into a fuzzy patch and now rivals the Moon in size. Holmes has faded relatively little in terms of astronomers' brightness scale, where it now hovers near magnitude 3, but its light is spread out over a larger area.

Some observers dubbed 17P/Holmes the ultimate "urban comet." While it lacks a spectacular tail, the comet initially was easy to spot from urban locations, and it can still be seen visually in suburban areas. Take the time to observe it carefully. Visual observers may notice that it appears distinctly un-starlike. Low-power binoculars reveal a ghostly disk surrounding a bright center.

Amateurs who image Comet Holmes are finding detailed structures related to its recent blast of dust and gas. And, although Holmes is an old, relatively inactive comet, many observers now report just a hint of a bluish gas tail.

Comet Holmes currently lies 151 million miles (244 million km) from Earth and 234 million miles (377 million km) from the Sun. In early May, the comet reached its closest point to the Sun in its 6.88-year orbit. At that time, Holmes was about twice as far from the Sun as Earth. Since then, the comet has been increasing its solar distance. Earth, traveling on an inside lane of the solar system, passed Holmes November 5.

The comet lies about 50° high — halfway from the horizon to straight overhead — at 8 p.m. local time. It then appears about twice as high as the bright star Capella. For observers at mid-northern latitudes, the comet climbs directly overhead around local midnight.

Read it all here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

NOVA on Intelligent Design

Well, I hoped you all took my advice and watched (or at least TIVOed) NOVA's program last night on intelligent design. There are some very good posts up about the program. Atheist P.Z. Myers has some an interesting post about the reaction of the pro-ID Discovery Institute here. My fellow pro-evolution Christian blogger James McGrath has several posts. Start with this one.

I grew up in a Lutheran Church that, despite fairly orthodox teachings on most theological issues, never taught me to take the Bible literally. As such, I never faced or perceived a conflict between my faith and what I learned in school about evolution. This is certainly true of the Episcopal Church as well, but it equally true of the Roman Catholic Chuch, most mainline Protestant congregations, and most Orthodox Churches as well. In some sense, the bibical literalism that drives these crazy battles over evolution is an American creation--albeit one of large and growing influence.

But as noted earlier this summer, comments about evolution on several Episcopal blogs suggest to me that the hostility to evolution is apparant even within these non-literal traditions. Why? I think there are several reasons.

First, the proponents of creationsim and ID have done an excellent job of misleading the public about the state of the scientific evidence for the support of evolution, and this distortion of the truth is having an effect. What distortions? Here are some examples. They claim that there is no fossil evidence of transitions between species, when such evidence is abundant. They claim that bacterial flagelli is an example of irreducible complexity, when in fact there is very strong evidence that the flagelli arose from a structure with a different function. And they completely ignore the quite persuasive genetic evidence of evolution--most notably the evidence that comes from the so-called (and apparantly mis-named "junk DNA").

Second, I think that at a more basic level, acceptance of evolution does not sit well with many of our notions of a creating God. Evolution suggests that God did not "design" every specis, but rather let a process based on random mutations and natural selection to create the specis of the world. This can be discomforting. As I have explained previously, however, I think that this view of our creating God is liberating--it suggests a God who gives free will to all creation, and explains why there can be evil and misfortune caused not merely by fallible man, but also by the rest of God's creation.

(I must add as an aside that I never understood why Christians work so hard to make the claim that every feature of every species is there by design when it clear that many of these features are, well, not very well designed. One reason I accept evolution is that I think that if God had actually designed every species, he would have done a much, much better job).

Pray for Bangladesh

If we needed any reminder of how America-centric our news has become, the following report from Pharyngula (an outstanding science/atheism blog by Professor P.Z. Myers) is sobering:

Try checking the major American news sites: CNN, Fox, MSNBC, the New York Times, you can even try the BBC. There's a major news story missing.
You'll have to read Chris Mooney's blog to find it. There's a potential Category 5 cyclone, Cyclone Sidr, on its way to smash Bangladesh.

It's going to hit sometime tomorrow. While Sonny Perdue prays for a little rain, maybe we should be urging our news networks to pay attention to the important news, our government should be getting ready for emergency assistance, and we should all be preparing to loosen those checkbooks and possibly offer what aid we can.

Read it here.

Here is more coverage:

Tropical Cyclone Sidr's winds strengthened to 241 kilometers (150 miles) per hour as it moved across the Bay of Bengal toward Kolkata in India and the west coast of Bangladesh, the U.S. Navy's typhoon center said.

The eye of Sidr, a Category 4 storm, was 667 kilometers south of Kolkata at 11:30 p.m. local time yesterday, according to the latest advisory on the navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center Web site. The storm is moving north at 17 kilometers an hour.

Bangladesh authorities ordered thousands of people to evacuate coastal areas around Chittagong, Mongla and Cox's Bazaar and raised the highest alert, Associated Press reported. In India, authorities issued warnings to residents in Kolkata and nearby coastal areas, the Hindu Times said.

Northeastern India and Bangladesh are regularly hit by cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal, bringing flooding and devastation to local communities. A cyclone that hit near Cox's Bazaar in Bangladesh left 138,000 people dead in 1991, according to the New York Times.

Read it all here, and then pray for the people of Bangladesh and Eastern India.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Martin Marty on the Economist Religion Report

Martin Marty has a very interesting commentary on the Economist cover story on religion:

The Economist, our favorite weekly (still-)news magazine, published a keeper on November 3rd in the form of a sixteen-page "special report on religion and public life." As many of you know, our Center's early "public religion" efforts presumed that we would have to squint when searching for tiny, fine-print media references to religion. This week again, however, we are nearly blinded by the coverage. The editors drew on substantial figures, from old-pro sociologist Peter Berger, who provided the liveliest lines, to younger-pro Philip Jenkins, currently the most notable interpreter of what global Christianity means for the U.S.

A key Berger line: "We made a category mistake. We thought that the relationship was between modernisation and secularisation. In fact it was between modernisation and pluralism." Because pluralism implies "choice," it becomes a major theme. The editors and the people they quote depict religious offerings almost on the model of a cafeteria line. It's a buyer's market, and both growth and vitality patterns pretty much follow the lines of those who package the most attractive offerings. Scriptures of the faiths discuss such approaches as threatening to spiritual integrity, but those who resist tend to be left behind.

A reader seeking balance might fault The Economist for featuring "religious wars" on the cover, when it set out to cover "religion." Inevitable distortion results when the accent is on "wars of religion," "religious politics at its worst," how "the world's most religious country is still battling with its demons," et cetera. One does not learn from topics like these why so many people remain religiously involved in a time when religious forces are so lethal. There's not much here on the spiritual side of raising children, or on what faith means when one is in doubt, on a deathbed, or seeking comfort. But, admit it: the religions that come out of hiding and present themselves in the public fray are often violent and unfair.

One can note that most coverage of religion occurs when "in God's name" people take advantage of religion for malign purposes. The editors here are engrossed in surveying the awesome varieties of religion that are in the public eye, and do some justice to them. Unsurprisingly, given the UK base of their magazine, the editors spend time on Europe and offer "a heretical thought about it," namely that there is a potential for recovery on a continent with largely empty churches.

An alert from the editors: "If you gather together a group of self-professed foreign-policy experts—whether they be neoconservatives, realpolitickers or urban European diplomats—you can count on a sneer if you mention 'inter-faith dialogue.' At best, they say, it is liberal waffle; at worst it is naive appeasement. But who is being naive?" And then The Economist comes out swinging against the sneerers, pointing to the fruits of tough inter-faith interactions around the world. The sneers will continue, and so will mis-portrayals of the enemy.

What this weekly magazine does is go against the grain of sophisticated opinion, as it discerns how much anti-waffle strength characterizes those who take the risk of not contributing to the climate in which religious groups have to be absolutist, sure of themselves, ready to shoot—and shooting.

Read it on the DallasNews Religion blog here.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Another Episcopal Priest (Actually Soon-To-Be Priest) on YouTube

Peter Carey, a recent graduate of VTS now serving as the chaplain at St. Catherine's Episcopal school in Virginia, will soon be ordained as a priest. He has joined Father Matthew on You Tube with a first viedeo that gives us a tour of the school chapel.

I was especially impressed with the school motto.

More on the Ethics of Climate Change

I have repeatedly said that the most serious moral issue involved in climate change is that the real burdens of the effects of climate change fall on the poorest of the poor--who did not benefit from the wealth created by the emissions of greenhouse gases in the past. There is a new study that reinforces my point:

The public health costs of global climate change are likely to be the greatest in those parts of the world that have contributed least to the problem, posing a significant ethical dilemma for the developed world, according to a new study.

In a paper to be published the week of Nov. 12, 2007, in the journal EcoHealth, a team of researchers led by environmental public health authority Jonathan Patz of the University of Wisconsin-Madison reports that the health burden of climate change will rest disproportionately on the world's poor.

"Our high consumption of energy is putting a huge disease burden on places that are quite remote from us," explains Patz, a professor in the UW-Madison School of Medicine and Public Health and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "There are many serious diseases that are sensitive to climate, and as earth's climate changes, so too can the range and transmission of such diseases."

. . .

The authors quantify the ethical dimension of global climate change by measuring per capita carbon emissions and comparing that data with climate-related disease burden for the most affected regions of the world. The results show a stark contrast between those populations causing global warming from those suffering the brunt of the impacts.

Americans, for example, have carbon outputs six times the global average, but a significantly lower relative risk for the health effects of climate change.

Changes in patterns of diseases and other negative outcomes of a warming world, argues Patz, suggests the developed world must begin "to pursue equitable solutions that first protect the most vulnerable population groups..."

"Many of these climate-sensitive diseases, such as malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea, affect children," he explains.

"We in the developed world need to recognize how our way of life imposes negative impacts upon poorer nations of the world -- especially their children."

Read it all here. Read the University of Wisconsin press release here.

A Note About the Maps: The two world maps schematically represent the contribution of different nations to global warming, as measured in atmospheric carbon output (top) and the health effects of global warming as measured in mortality for diseases and other effects of a warming world climate (bottom).

Sunday, November 11, 2007

NOVA on Intelligent Design

On PBS's NOVA program on Tuesday, November 13, the focus will be on the federal court challenge to the decision of the Dover Scool Board to require the teaching of intelligent design in science classes. Here is the executive producer's explanation of why they decided to take this issue onL

Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial is in many ways a hornet's nest. And we had to think long and hard before we decided to take it on. I think the real reason that we made that decision is because evolution is the foundation of the biological sciences. As Theodosius Dobzhansky, one of the great biologists of the 20th century, once said, "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution."

In 2004, the Dover, Pennsylvania school board established a policy that science teachers would have to read a statement to biology students suggesting that there is an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution called intelligent design. Intelligent design, or ID, claims that certain features of life are too complex to have evolved naturally, and therefore must have been designed by an intelligent agent. The Dover high school science teachers refused to comply with the policy, refused to read the statement. And parents opposed to the school board's actions filed a lawsuit in federal court.

The trial that followed was fascinating. It was like a primer, like a biology textbook. Some of the nation's best biologists testified. When I began delving into the case, it was clear that both the trial and the issue were perfect subjects for NOVA.

PBS has a welath of materials on the show here.

Faith and Torture

The Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" blog was devoted to the issue of whether torture is justified. The responses are a mixed bag.

On the sad side, Chuck Colson apparantly asks "What would Jesus do" and comes to the theologically bizarre conclusion that Jesus would waterboard--or worse. I am kidding of course. Actaully, his analysis makes even less sense--apparantly there is a prudence exception to the teachings of the Gospel:

Centuries of Christian ethical reflection would lead to the answer "no." Inflicting bodily or psychological harm on a helpless captive would be inconsistent with the Christian understanding of human dignity. But as with all moral obligations, there may be circumstances for exception.

It is well understood in Christian tradition that while we are supposed to obey the law, there may be times when there is a higher obligation (see Aquinas, Augustine, and Martin Luther King). To rescue a drowning person, a Christian would be justified in disobeying a "no trespassing" sign.

So it is with torture; if a competent authority honestly believed that this was the only way to get information that might save the lives of thousands, I believe he would be justified. That is not moral relativism. It is making a difficult decision when human life and dignity will be affected either way. The Greeks called it prudence.

Read it here.

All of the others, such as Martin Marty, of course, get it right:

Can the use of torture ever by justified?

Yes, by anti-human beasts.

No, by those with humane, humanitarian, humanist impules.

Never, by Jew and Christians and other religious people who believe that the "human is made in the image of God."

You don't torture someone "made in the image of God," no matter how despicable he or she has become.

Read it here.

Read all of the comments here.

What do you think?

DNA and New Fears of Prejudice

The New York Times has a very interesting article about how new DNA tools may be reinforcing prejudice--particulalry since many geneology DNA programs seem to reinforce cultural concepts of race into DNA family groups:

When scientists first decoded the human genome in 2000, they were quick to portray it as proof of humankind’s remarkable similarity. The DNA of any two people, they emphasized, is at least 99 percent identical.

But new research is exploring the remaining fraction to explain differences between people of different continental origins.

Scientists, for instance, have recently identified small changes in DNA that account for the pale skin of Europeans, the tendency of Asians to sweat less and West Africans’ resistance to certain diseases.

At the same time, genetic information is slipping out of the laboratory and into everyday life, carrying with it the inescapable message that people of different races have different DNA. Ancestry tests tell customers what percentage of their genes are from Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas. The heart-disease drug BiDil is marketed exclusively to African-Americans, who seem genetically predisposed to respond to it. Jews are offered prenatal tests for genetic disorders rarely found in other ethnic groups.

Such developments are providing some of the first tangible benefits of the genetic revolution. Yet some social critics fear they may also be giving long-discredited racial prejudices a new potency. The notion that race is more than skin deep, they fear, could undermine principles of equal treatment and opportunity that have relied on the presumption that we are all fundamentally equal.

“We are living through an era of the ascendance of biology, and we have to be very careful,” said Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. “We will all be walking a fine line between using biology and allowing it to be abused.”

Certain superficial traits like skin pigmentation have long been presumed to be genetic. But the ability to pinpoint their DNA source makes the link between genes and race more palpable. And on mainstream blogs, in college classrooms and among the growing community of ancestry test-takers, it is prompting the question of whether more profound differences may also be attributed to DNA.

. . .

Though few of the bits of human genetic code that vary between individuals have yet to be tied to physical or behavioral traits, scientists have found that roughly 10 percent of them are more common in certain continental groups and can be used to distinguish people of different races. They say that studying the differences, which arose during the tens of thousands of years that human populations evolved on separate continents after their ancestors dispersed from humanity’s birthplace in East Africa, is crucial to mapping the genetic basis for disease.

But many geneticists, wary of fueling discrimination and worried that speaking openly about race could endanger support for their research, are loath to discuss the social implications of their findings. Still, some acknowledge that as their data and methods are extended to nonmedical traits, the field is at what one leading researcher recently called “a very delicate time, and a dangerous time.”

“There are clear differences between people of different continental ancestries,” said Marcus W. Feldman, a professor of biological sciences at Stanford University. “It’s not there yet for things like I.Q., but I can see it coming. And it has the potential to spark a new era of racism if we do not start explaining it better.”

Dr. Feldman said any finding on intelligence was likely to be exceedingly hard to pin down. But given that some may emerge, he said he wanted to create “ready response teams” of geneticists to put such socially fraught discoveries in perspective.

. . .

“I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching how much genetic variability there is between populations,” said Dr. David Altshuler, director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “But living in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.”

The problem is that nonscientists, through bloggs and the like, are misunderstanding--or at the very least misstating the genetic evidence for racial differences:

Nonscientists are already beginning to stitch together highly speculative conclusions about the historically charged subject of race and intelligence from the new biological data. Last month, a blogger in Manhattan described a recently published study that linked several snippets of DNA to high I.Q. An online genetic database used by medical researchers, he told readers, showed that two of the snippets were found more often in Europeans and Asians than in Africans.

No matter that the link between I.Q. and those particular bits of DNA was unconfirmed, or that other high I.Q. snippets are more common in Africans, or that hundreds or thousands of others may also affect intelligence, or that their combined influence might be dwarfed by environmental factors. Just the existence of such genetic differences between races, proclaimed the author of the Half Sigma blog, a 40-year-old software developer, means “the egalitarian theory,” that all races are equal, “is proven false.”

. . .

The authority that DNA has earned through its use in freeing falsely convicted inmates, preventing disease and reconstructing family ties leads people to wrongly elevate genetics over other explanations for differences between groups.

“I’ve spent the last 10 years of my life researching how much genetic variability there is between populations,” said Dr. David Altshuler, director of the Program in Medical and Population Genetics at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Mass. “But living in America, it is so clear that the economic and social and educational differences have so much more influence than genes. People just somehow fixate on genetics, even if the influence is very small.”

But on the Half Sigma blog and elsewhere, the conversation is already flashing forward to what might happen if genetically encoded racial differences in socially desirable — or undesirable — traits are identified.

Read it all here.

By the way, there is very interesting work on the so-called "intelligence gap" dexcribed on the Freakonomics blog, which shows that there are no racial differences in mental functioning at age one, although a racial gap begins to emerge over the next few years of life. This seems to support a theory that cultural and environmental influences, rather than genetics, most strongly influsnce outcomes like intelligence.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007


With all of the attention on the so-called "New Atheism", some very interesting books abiout secularism, religion and politics, are getting much less attention than they deserve. Mark Lilla's work, The Stillborn God, appears to be a fascinating study of the surprising strength od religious belief in our post-enlightment world. A new book by Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, is also getting rave reviews.

Perhaps even more exciting, there is a great new group blog The Immanent Frame that is focused on the same issues, and includes reviews of these books. It has a great list of quite well known contributors, including Robert Bellah, and is established in conjunction with projects on Religion and the Public Sphere at the Social Science Research Council.

Hat Tip to the Faith and Theology blog for leading me here.

This May Explain A Lot about Anti-Americanism

The Episcopal Cafe has a very disturbing essay by Joel Merchant about his experience with how foreigners are sometimes treated in the US under the guise of national security. The essay is causing a great of dicussion on the web (and it caused the Episcopal Cafe traffic to increase eightfold). I thought you would benefit from reading highlights from the post:

Countries, like people, make friends with others one at a time. This is a story of one failure. In fairness to an unknown visitor to our country, imagine yourself in his place. The scene is on a recent Amtrak trip between New York City and Boston. The conductor collects tickets, requests identification, folds destination stubs into seatbacks, moves on to other cars. An older man across the aisle, traveling alone, shows his passport. It is clear from their conversation he doesn’t know English.

After decades as a frequent traveler, I have thousands of pictures -- scenery, buildings, people, architecture, from around the world. Today the train passes a lovely stretch of Connecticut shore, tidal marshes, nesting ospreys, the Long Island Sound. What little attention I pay as the visitor takes pictures, is that I’m impressed with his equipment. He and I, unknown to each other, are members of a picture-taking culture, fellow citizens of a show-and-tell world. I wonder if his will join the thousands on YouTube. I imagine, after his return home, how many friends he will impress with stories and pictures of this mild, early autumn, Saturday morning journey along the New England shoreline.

The train is a half hour west of New Haven when the conductor, having finished her original rounds, reappears. She moves down the aisle, looks, stops between our seats, faces the person taking pictures. “Sir, in the interest of national security, we do not allow pictures to be taken of or from this train.” He starts, “I…….” but, without English, his response trails off into silence. The conductor, speaking louder, forcefully: “Sir, I will confiscate that camera if you don’t put it away.” Again, little response. “Sir, this is a security matter! We cannot allow pictures.” She turns away abruptly and, as she moves down the aisle, calls over her shoulder, in a very loud voice, “Put. It. Away!” He packs his camera.

Within a minute after our arrival in New Haven, two armed police officers entered the car, approached my neighbor’s seat. “Sir, we're removing you from this train.” “I….;” “I……” “Sir, you have breached security regulations. We must remove you from this train.” “I…,” “I…..” “Sir, we are not going to delay this train because of you. You will get off, or we will remove you physically.” “I…..”

Nearby passengers stir. One says, “It’s obvious he doesn’t speak English. There are people here who speak more than one language. Perhaps we can help.” Different ones ask about the traveler’s language; learn he speaks Japanese. For me, a sudden flash of memory -- a student at International Christian University in Japan, I took countless pictures without arousing suspicion.

The police speak through the interpreter, with the impatience of authority. “The conductor asked this man three times to discontinue. We must remove him from the train.” The traveler hears the translation, is befuddled. Hidden beneath the commotion is a cross-cultural drama. With the appearance of police officers, this quiet visitor is embarrassed to find he is the center of attention. The officers explain, “After we remove him from the train, when we are through our investigation, we will put him on the next train.” The woman translates. The passenger replies, “I’m meeting relatives in Boston. They cannot be reached by phone. They expect me and will be worried when I do not arrive on schedule.” “Our task,” the police repeat, "is to remove you from this train. If necessary, we will do so by force. After we have finished the investigation, we’ll put you on another train.” The woman translates. The traveler gathers his belongings and departs.

My earlier suggestion that you imagine being in his place leaves you free to respond and draw your conclusions. Remember: you’ve been removed from the train, are being interrogated, perhaps having your equipment confiscated; while I continue to do what I take for granted – traveling unimpeded, on to Providence.

The more I replay the scene, the more troublesome it is. It is the stuff of nightmares. Relations between people and countries lie at the heart of the issue. The abstract terms that inform political and social debate appear, as if in person, unexpectedly, near enough to hear, touch, feel. Taking no position is not an option. As an educator, I would prepare and deliver a lecture on how others perceive America in the world community, then seek an audience. I'll spare you. But -- I just watched armed police officers remove a visitor from the train for taking pictures. I don't understand this. I’m disturbed – no, shaken – to bear witness to these events. Other passengers react with surprise and anger. “Since when is it illegal to take pictures?” “Nobody’s ever bothered me about it.” “Is the only photography allowed from the space station and Google Earth? These people take pictures of everything, including my house, without my permission, and they’re instantly available on the internet.” An older traveler reflected, “I witnessed this personally in police states during the war in Europe.”

Read it all (including lots of great comments) here. Amtrack has since written Merchant to admit that there is no policy against taking pictures from the train.

Decline in World Poverty Not Reaching the Extreme Poor

The good news is that world poverty is declining. the bad news is that the decline is concentrated in a few countries and is not benefiting the poorest of the poor:

The world’s poorest people are not seeing the benefits of a global decline in the poverty rate driven by Asia’s economic growth in the past 20 years, a report said today.

The report by the International Food Policy Research Institute, based in Washington, said that the world is on track to reach a U.N. target of halving poverty and hunger by 2015. Yet, those living on less than 50 cents a day have benefited the least from poverty-reduction efforts, it said.

It estimated that 162 million people fall into the poorest category in 2004 while some 838 million lived on between 50 cents and $1. Three-quarters of the world’s poorest live in sub-Saharan Africa, the report said

Read it here. A great deal of information about the report itself, including fact sheets, the full report, and even a podcast can be found here.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Taking Things on Faith

Dr. James McGrath has an excellent post today about the dangers of "taking things on faith:"

In student papers, I regularly read that things are supposed to be 'taken on faith'. In terms of what they mean by this, there is simply no such teaching in the Bible. Neither is what they are proposing a good idea.

The closest one might get to it is the story of Thomas in the Gospel of John. There, however, he gets to see, and his skepticism is not particularly surprising given what he was being asked to believe.

Those who believe without seeing are said to be blessed, but they are not expected to simply believe a story someone tells them. They are expected to experience Christ's life-changing power and perhaps also miraculous healings and exorcisms. There is no expectation that people will simply believe things in the absence of evidence.

The failure of Jesus' contemporaries to believe he was the Messiah is not about belief in the absence of evidence. It is about what they believe based on the evidence they had available.

There is no reason to think that the author of Genesis expected his readers to believe his creation story 'on faith'. He does not dispute the basic facts of the natural world as understood in his time: that the world is mostly land with a large gathering of connected basins filled with water called seas; that there is a dome over the earth; that above the dome are waters; that there are lamps placed in the dome (the moon, like the sun, being viewed as a source of light). He says all of this because it is what people thought in his time. None of it is anticipated to require faith to believe it. What the author offered was an alternative story of creation, not alternative facts about that which was created.

The author of Genesis doesn't even seem to have intended to "prove" that monotheism is better than polytheism. There are no logical arguments. There is simply a story, one that he seems to be confident will be found more appealing than others available in that time.

When people today read the Bible in a non-literal fashion, this is not a retreat from the advances of scientific knowledge. It is rather a return to the classic way of approaching these texts. The only people who are allowing the concerns of modern science to determine the way they read the text are, ironically, the fundamentalists, who seek absolute certain scientific explanations in a text that does not offer them.

If you are looking for inerrancy in Scriptures and won't take no for an answer, I suspect that most Christians would be grateful if you would try Islam or some tradition that at least claims to offer such a text. But please, please stop trying to make Christianity live up to your strange modernistic expectations. Not only will it never do so, leaving you feeling the need to 'take things on faith', but the fabric of Christianity gets warped and distorted even through the futile attempt.

Taking things on faith is extremely dangerous. But what the Bible calls for isn't that. The word 'faith', like the word 'truth', had primarily to do with trust and trustworthiness. The object of this trust was not, in most instances, a text or words, but a person.

The question that we then have to ask next is this: when, if ever, is it appropriate to make leaps of trust? My own answer is that this leap is one that we might make in relation to that all-encompassing reality that we refer to as God. This is not an expectation that supernatural interventions will sort out all our problems, but a confidence that the reality of which we are a part is neither simply hostile nor ultimately meaningless. Even in this respect, however, we make a leap not in darkness and ignorance, but based on intuition and the evidence we have available. As I have said before, to feel that we can go beyond the evidence and the explicable is not necessarily inappropriate, whereas to ignore or deny the available evidence clearly is. To paraphrase Hebrews once again, "Faith is the evidence of things unseen - not evidence that the things that are seen don't exist.

Hebrews lists heroes of the faith, but nowhere on the list are people who by faith 'believed X, Y and Z happened in the past even though they couldn't prove it'. These are heroes of trust, not heroes of belief. Christians today have much to learn about the difference.

Read it here.

I think that this is an important reminder that we need to have faith (trust) in God and not in the work of human beings--even if that work is the Bible.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Faith and Reason: Can the Resurrection Be Proved?

One of my favorite theological bloggers, Ben Myers, has a very provocative post that is generating a great deal of comments. The gist of Myers' argument is this: it is a mistake to try to "prove" that the Resurrection occurred. Why? Because the Resurrection is a theological event, not an historical one.

I am not at all sure that I agree, but it may be that I am missing Ben's point. I certainly agree that it is highly unlikely that we can ever "prove" that the resurrection occurred, I do think that the resurrection is an historical event--the act of God in the world. I don't think it meaningful to claim a distinction between history and theology. In any event, read what Ben has to say, and let him (and me) know what you think:

Can we ever “prove” the resurrection of Jesus, either historically (e.g. Pannenberg, N. T. Wright) or probabilistically (e.g. Richard Swinburne) or scientifically (e.g. various nutty apologists)? In my view, such “proof” is neither possible nor desirable. For resurrection is not a natural or historical possibility, but it is precisely a contradiction of the whole order of the possible. It is not one event alongside other events within world-history, but it is the end and boundary of history as such.

I’m not talking here, of course, about a Newtonian notion that the world is a closed causal system (so that “divine intervention” is impossible by definition). Instead, my point is simply that the resurrection must be understood theologically, as the eschatological act of God in which the existing structures of the world are torn open and something wholly new is brought into being.

Since the resurrection contradicts the very structures of reality, it could be called an impossible event – impossible in the strictest sense of the word! It is not a “historical” event, since it punctures the linearity of history and confronts history with its own shattering “end.” In short, the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is both the dissolution of the world and the startling creation (ex nihilo?) of a new cosmos. It is the end and the beginning, the last and the first.

All this means that the concept of “resurrection” can never be introduced as the most likely explanation for any historical data. To introduce the resurrection in this way is simply to forget the very meaning of “resurrection”. All such apologetic strategies aim to reduce the resurrection to one particular possibility within the structures of being and history – so that the resurrection is “proved” only by first being rendered innocuous.

We might seek to prove historically that the tomb of Jesus was found empty, and that the disciples had certain experiences after Jesus’ death. Such historical proofs have their own significance – but they are in no sense proofs of the resurrection. Similarly, it’s worth remembering that the early Christians narrated stories of the empty tomb and of the appearances without once attempting to narrate the event of resurrection itself. (Contrast this to the final scene of Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, where the camera gives us direct “objective” access to the event – and in this very “objectivity,” the event is rendered meaningless, absurd, and godless. At precisely this point of the film, it becomes clear that Gibson’s Christ is in fact a pagan figure, and that this figure is encountered in the objectivity of voyeurism rather than in the subjectivity of faith.)

When the early Christians wanted to speak of the resurrection, they realised that the event can be named only by speaking (or stammering) of God – after all, as Karl Barth has put it, the word “resurrection” is really just a paraphrase of the word “God.”

Read it here (with all the comments).