Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Evolution of the Eye

One of the arguments used by suppoprters of creationism is that there are some structures--such as an eye that are so complex that it is impossible for them to have evolved. The difficulty with this argument is that each example cited in the past--such as the evolution of the eye--is ultiately pretty well explained by evolution.

Nonetheless, I thought that this explanation from Scientific American was an especially good one. It also does a good job explaining the randomness of mutations.

The question being answered is "If mutations occur at random over the entire sequence of a species' genome, how can a complex organ such as an eye evolve? How can all the mutations that direct the development of that organ be concentrated in the right places?"

Here is the answer (in full) by University of Utah biologist Jon Seger :

Looking back through the history of a species' genome, mutations do indeed appear to be attracted to certain genomic locations (and likewise repelled by others). But appearances can be deceiving, and selection is a great illusionist. Initially, random mutations may end up seeming to be "directed" in highly nonrandom patterns, because most mutations that occur are quickly lost from the population, often in just one generation. The relatively few mutations that are not lost are the ones that contribute to evolutionary change.

Within a population, each individual mutation is extremely rare when it first occurs; often there is just one copy of it in the gene pool of an entire species. But huge numbers of mutations may occur every generation in the species as a whole. At more than six billion individuals, the human species is now so large that every single base pair of the three billion in the genome is mutated several times, somewhere in the population, every generation. Some of these mutations are so harmful that they're eliminated before their carriers are even born. But the great majority of mutations are harmless (or at least tolerable), and a very few are actually helpful. These enter the population as exceedingly rare alternative versions of the genes in which they occur.
Most new mutations are going to be lost just because they are rare (regardless of whether they are harmless or beneficial); however, very small effects on survival and reproduction may greatly affect the long-term rates at which different mutations accumulate in particular genes and at particular sites within genes. The result is a pattern of evolutionary change that looks nonrandom and in fact really is nonrandom: some sites almost never change, some change occasionally and others change relatively often.

But this does not mean that the mutations themselves occurred nonrandomly. In retrospect, it's as if they occurred where needed. But in fact they just accumulated where needed—first one, then another, and another, over very many generations. Getting two or more helpful mutations together in the same genome may take a while, but if they are not lost from the population, then this will eventually happen in a sexual species.

Sometimes, looking back, biologists can infer that an eye or some other complex adaptation was assembled in a particular way (through a particular sequence of evolutionary changes). This leads naturally to the thought that this adaptation had to be assembled in that particular way, following exactly that sequence of mutations. But a great deal of evidence and theory shows that this is almost never true.
A crude and relatively ineffective light-sensing organ may be much better than none at all, and there may be thousands of different mutations that would slightly improve its functioning in different ways. When one of them occurs and is lucky enough not to be immediately lost and then rises in frequency within the population, it sets the stage for others. But there's no way to predict which mutation will be the next to succeed.

Some recent human adaptations with known genetic histories nicely illustrate this principle. For example, the widespread but not universal ability to digest the milk sugar lactose in adulthood (lactose tolerance) has recently been shown to arise from any of several different mutations in and near the lactase gene. These occur in geographically isolated populations descended from early pastoralists who lived in different parts of Africa and Eurasia. In this case as in others, there appears to have been much randomness in the process that determined which of many possible mutations would be the one that ended up answering the call at a given time and place.

Perhaps it was predictable that adaptation to a novel food resource (the milk of domesticated cows and goats) would occur, but apparently it was not predictable, even in principle, exactly how it would occur.

Read it all here.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Today's Hidden Slavery

Bob Herbert of the New York Times has a must-read column this week on the often forgotten issue of modern slavery--in the United States. As I have said before, this is a moral issue that should be at the forefront of any values agenda. Sadly, it is not:

The woman testifying in federal court in Lower Manhattan could hardly have seemed more insignificant.

She was an immigrant from South Korea and a prostitute, who spoke little or no English. She worked, she said, in brothels in New York, Philadelphia, Georgia, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Washington, D.C.

She did not offer a portrait of the good life. Speaking through an interpreter, she told about the time in D.C. when a guy came in who looked “like a mental patient, a psycho.” Weirded out, she wanted nothing to do with him. But she said the woman who ran the brothel assured her everything would be fine.

It was fine if you consider wrestling with Hannibal Lecter fine. The john clawed at this woman, gouging her flesh, peeling the skin from her back and other parts of her body. She was badly injured.

According to the government, the woman was caught up in a prostitution and trafficking network that ruthlessly exploited young Korean women, some of whom “were smuggled into the country illegally.”

In prior eras, the slave trade was conducted openly, with ads prominently posted and the slaves paraded and inspected like animals, often at public auctions. Today’s sex traffickers, the heirs to that tradition, try to keep their activities hidden, although the rest of the sex trade, the sale of the women’s services, is advertised on a scale that can only be characterized as colossal.

As a society, we’re repelled by the slavery of old. But the wholesale transport of women and girls across international borders and around the U.S. — to serve as prostitutes under conditions that in most cases are coercive at best — stirs very little outrage.

. . .

This human merchandise — whether imported or domestic — is still paraded, inspected and treated like animals.

What’s important to keep in mind is the great extent to which the sex trade involves real slavery (kidnapping and rape), widespread physical abuse, indentured servitude, exploitation of minors and many other forms of coercion. This modern-day variation on the ancient theme of bondage flourishes largely because of the indifference of the rest of us, and the misogyny that holds fast to the view of women — all women — as sexual commodities.

The case in Manhattan federal court involves a ring that, according to prosecutors, used massage parlors and spas as fronts for prostitution. Some of the women were in the U.S. legally. Others, according to the government, were brought in by brokers (more accurately, traffickers or dealers in flesh), who provided false passports, visas and other documents.

Elie Honig, an assistant United States attorney, said women brought in illegally were pushed into prostitution to earn money “to pay back the tens of thousands of dollars that the brokers charged the women as quote, unquote, fees for bringing them into the United States.”

He told the jury: “We are talking about a regional network of businesses throughout the Northeast United States and beyond involved in transporting and selling women.”

. . .

There is nothing benign about these activities. Upwards of 18,000 foreign nationals are believed to be trafficked into the U.S. each year. According to the State Department, 80 percent of trafficked people are women and children, an overwhelming majority of whom are trafficked for sexual purposes.

Those who think that most of the women in prostitution want to be there are deluded. Surveys consistently show that a majority wants very much to leave. Apologists love to spread the fantasy of the happy hooker. But the world of the prostitute is typically filled with pimps, sadists, psychopaths, drug addicts, violent criminals and disease.

Read it all here.

Do Political Parties Matter

As usual, Freakonomics has an interesting post--this time on the issue of whether political party affiliation matters? The answer appears to be that at the local level, party affiliation does not. Seems to me that this reflects that the issues faced by most Mayors--streets, garbage collection, police and fire protection, etc. have little to do with the ideology that drive our two major political parties:

Do parties matter. That’s the question asked by the Wharton economists Fernando Ferreira and Joseph Gyourko. But they are not talking about national political parties. In that realm, party affiliation has indeed been shown to have a strong effect on legislation and policy. No, Ferreira and Gyourko are interested in whether party affiliation matters on the local level — and their answer, essentially, is no. Using data from more than 4,500 U.S. mayoral elections between 1950 and 2005 in more than 400 cities with populations of at least 25,000, here is what they learned:

[W]e find that party labels do not affect the size of government, the allocation of spending or crime rates, even though there is a large political advantage to incumbency in terms of the probability of winning the next election … In particular, there is a relatively high degree of household homogeneity at the local level that appears to provide the proper incentives for local politicians to be able to credibly commit to moderation and discourages strategic extremism.

Read it all here. Read the study here.

The Future of Anglican Communion Looking Brighter?

I finally have had some time to reflect today on recent events in the Anglican Communion, and I must say that I am becoming more encouraged. Why? I think that the following recent developments are all positive: the favorable response of the ACC to the House of Bishops response to the Primates Communique, the fairly rapid consent to Mark Lawrence as Bishop of South Carolina, the decision of Quincey not to leave the Episcopal Church--at least for now, and the acceptance of 500 Bishops of their invitation to Lambeth.

My sense, from reading the conservative blogs is that the efforts toward schism may be losing steam--and it appears more and more likely that is schism occurs, the Episcopal Church will remain in communion with Canterbury, and those who leave us will not.

I am hopeful that the consent of Mark Lawrence will send a message that there is a home in the Episcopal Church for those who opposed the actions of General Convention 2003.

Am I a bit too optimistic? Perhaps. But I think it undeniable that the future of the Anglican Communion looks brighter now than it did this summer.

What do you think?

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Father Matthew on Desert Spirituality

Father Matthew has released another video--this one is on desert spirituality. Here is his description:

Here is a short piece from my recent journey to the diocese of Los Angeles’ clergy conference a few weeks ago. The desert drive had me thinking of the Christian hermits of the 4th and 5th centuries, whose contemplative and mystical tradition is a veritable gold mine of spiritual treasures.

. . .

You can get an excellent introduction to the desert fathers and mothers in ABC Williams’ book, here:

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Religion and Wealth

Well this is a very interesting graph from Pew Global Research that shows an inverse reltionship between a nation's per capita GDP and its level of religiousity. Religiosity is measured using a three-item index ranging from 0-3, with "3" representing the most religious position. Respondents were given a "1" if they believe faith in God is necessary for morality; a "1" if they say religion is very important in their lives; and a "1" if they pray at least once a day.

Note that the United States is an outlier--our level of relgiousity is far higher than would be predicted by our per capita GDP. And several wealthy Muslim countries (most notably Kuwait) are also outliers.

Pew offers this analyis:

Global publics are sharply divided over the relationship between religion and morality. In much of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, there is a strong consensus that belief in God is necessary for morality and good values. Throughout much of Europe, however, majorities think morality is achievable without faith. Meanwhile, opinions are more mixed in the Americas, including in the United States, where 57% say that one must believe in God to have good values and be moral, while 41% disagree.

The survey finds a strong relationship between a country's religiosity and its economic status. In poorer nations, religion remains central to the lives of individuals, while secular perspectives are more common in richer nations. This relationship generally is consistent across regions and countries, although there are some exceptions, including most notably the United States, which is a much more religious country than its level of prosperity would indicate. Other nations deviate from the pattern as well, including the oil-rich, predominantly Muslim -- and very religious -- kingdom of Kuwait.

The survey also measured global opinion about contemporary social issues, finding a mix of traditional and progressive views. Throughout Western Europe and much of the Americas, there is widespread tolerance towards homosexuality. However, the United States, Japan, South Korea, and Israel stand apart from other wealthy nations on this issue; in each of these countries, fewer than half of those surveyed say homosexuality should be accepted by society. Meanwhile, in most of Africa, Asia and the Middle East, there is less tolerance toward homosexuality.

Regarding gender issues, there is a broad consensus that both boys and girls should receive an education. In all 47 countries surveyed, at least seven-in-ten respondents believe that education is equally important for boys and girls. Most publics also believe that men and women are equally qualified for political leadership, although there is less agreement on this issue. Notably, in several predominantly Muslim publics -- including Mali, the Palestinian territories, Kuwait, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- majorities say that men make better political leaders. The survey also asked about another often contentious gender issue: Muslim women wearing the veil. In 15 of 16 Muslim publics surveyed, majorities say women should have the right to decide whether they wear a veil. Women generally are more likely than men to express this opinion.

Read it all here.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Religion and Ameliorating Poverty

Freakonomics has an interesting post about how disadvantaged children who grow up in religious households do better on many measures than children who don't:

According to Rajeev Dehejia, an economics professor at Tufts University, one answer may be to join a church. Dehejia, along with Thomas DeLeire, an economics professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Erzo Luttmer and Josh Mitchell, from the Harvard economics department, have written a new working paper called “The Role of Religious and Social Organizations in the Lives of Disadvantaged Youth.” In it, they test the impact of religion on more than 20,000 children raised by “disadvantaged” families, as defined by factors like family income, the parents’ levels of education, and “child characteristics including parental assessments of the child.” Using the National Survey of Families and Households, they questioned each child on the amount of involvement his or her parent had with a religious organization, then observed the child’s outcome 13 to 15 years later, as measured by education, income, and levels of health and psychological well-being.

Their findings are summarized as follows:

Overall, we find strong evidence that youth with religiously active parents are less affected later in life by childhood disadvantage than youth whose parents did not frequently attend religious services. These buffering effects of religious organizations are most pronounced when outcomes are measured by high school graduation or non-smoking and when disadvantage is measured by family resources or maternal education, but we also find buffering effects for a number of other outcome-disadvantage pairs. We generally find much weaker buffering effects for other social organizations.

Of course, a parent’s decision to practice a religion may coincide with other traits like self-discipline, community involvement, and mentoring skills, all of which will likely affect a child’s upbringing. Not to mention the fact that the authors offer no analysis of whether a parent’s including the child in the religion has any effect:

Our data do not allow us to determine to what extent the buffering effects are driven by religious organizations actively intervening in the lives of disadvantaged youth (through tutoring, mentoring, or financial assistance) as opposed to providing the youth with motivation, values, or attitudes that lead to better outcomes.

Still, it appears that, particularly where education and smoking habits are concerned, a parent’s heading to a church, synagogue, or mosque might be useful in counteracting the negative effects of child poverty.

Read it all here.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Party Here, Sacrifice There

When I was General Counsel of the Army, I was quite disturbed by the disconnect between our nation's military and the larger nation. The problem has never been that the military is out of touch with the rest of the nation--the problem is that those of outside of the military have grown to believe that military service is something that "others do." As a recent op-ed in the New York Times well argues the problem has gotten worse. Indeed, I would argue that one reason what Bush finds it so easy to stay in Iraq despite wide opposition is that very few are sacrificing anything by staying in Iraq:

IN January 2006 I stepped off a C-130 in Tal Afar, Iraq. As I began my 13-month deployment, I imagined an American public following our progress with the same concern as my family and friends. But since returning home, I have seen that America has changed the channel.

Young investment bankers spend their impressive bonuses on clubs in Manhattan and many seem uninterested in the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. As a Princeton graduate and a former financial analyst, I was once a part of this world, and I like returning to it, putting the Spartan life of Tal Afar and Anbar Province behind me. But even as I enjoy time with the friends who have welcomed me home, my thoughts wander back to other friends who continue to fight as the city parties on.

Serious problems with the war in Iraq are well chronicled, but I am struck by one that does not seem to trouble the country’s leadership, even though it is profoundly corrosive to our common good: the disparity between the lives of the few who are fighting and being killed, and the many who have been asked for nothing more than to continue shopping.

Those who rationalize this disconnect have argued that our soldiers are volunteers, happy doing what they signed up to do. While it is true that most soldiers are devoted to country and comrades, and are focused on their mission, the assertion that soldiers are cheerfully returning for multiple combat tours is grounded in statistics and arguments that are misleading.

Few of today’s soldiers expected 15-month deployments separated by home stays of less than 12 months. The stress on Army families is enormous, especially since at least four of those months at “home” are generally spent training in the field. Sacrifices like these were the norm in World War II, and families left behind could draw strength from the knowledge that everyone was in the same situation. Today’s military families shoulder this burden pretty much alone.

The Army is badly damaged. The relentless deployment schedule drives many highly trained junior officers and noncommissioned officers out of the Army, while the Pentagon resorts to stop-loss and call-ups from the Individual Ready Reserve to stop the bleeding. These measures are abusing the very Americans who have already made the greatest sacrifices in the war effort.

Never in my life have I seen such commitment, with soldiers and officers working in hazardous conditions upward of 16 hours a day, seven days a week, for over a year, barely able to pause long enough to commemorate their fallen friends. Meanwhile, in the banking houses of New York, the shaky credit markets and the Dow are the things that matter; the problems facing our soldiers 8,000 miles away seem to capture little attention.

Can we continue an interventionist foreign policy with a country divided in this way? The president says that America is engaged in a struggle between good and evil, but is he addressing all citizens when his policies touch so few of us? To ask this question is inevitably to raise the issue of whether we should reinstate the draft. As a recent infantry officer who has younger siblings, I recognize what a profound question this is.

A draft would have one of two consequences. The first is that it might actually relieve the strain on today’s soldiers and end the “backdoor draft” of volunteers who have already served while their civilian peers remain comfortably undisturbed. I am aware that Army leaders fear that a draft would hurt the professionalism of today’s force. However, the lowering of recruiting requirements, as well as the offering of big signing bonuses to impressionable high school students, is already diminishing standards.

The other possible consequence is that serious consideration of a draft could set off such a violent reaction from the American public that the pressure on politicians to abandon their cliché-ridden rhetoric and begin a well-considered withdrawal would be overpowering.

Read it all here.

Another Army Officer Speaks Out Against Torture

In my experience, some of the folks most horrified by the Bush Administration's "nuanced" definition of torture are Army officers--especially Army officers who have any experience with interrogation. Here is a recent example:

I served 30 years in the U.S. Army as an intelligence officer, which included extensive experience as an interrogator in Vietnam, in Panama and during the 1991 Gulf War. In the course of these sensitive missions, my teams and I collected mountains of excellent, verified information, despite the fact that we never laid a hostile hand on a prisoner. Had one of my interrogators done so, he would have been disciplined and most likely relieved of his duties.

. . .

In a recent interview with NPR's Terry Gross, I told her that 10 years ago the notion we would even be having such a dialogue was unthinkable. Somehow, perhaps blinded by the horrors of 9-11 and its aftermath, or by that barrage of chilling video footage of hooded executioners snuffing out the lives of journalists, civilians and soldiers, we have lost sight of other equally relevant questions: Is torture right or wrong? Is the brutalizing of helpless prisoners a practice that will advance or harm our nation's position as it wages a just war against Islamist extremists?

One can almost hear the late Dr. Schrynemakers expound on this question. Wagging his finger, he would note that government sanctioning of mistreatment of prisoners by its intelligence officers is an essentially evil act committed in the name of self-defense, which has propelled our great country down a slippery moral slope and imperiled us further.

Treat captives as guests

I and other authentic practitioners of the interrogation art respect our adversaries, however wrong we may deem their cause. We know that obtaining information from a captive who is motivated by his beliefs, his country, his honor or perhaps by the very human desire to live a full life with his family, is an elusive task that requires a patient, systematic approach.

One has to "go to school" on each captive. Who is he? Can I communicate with him in his language? What are his core beliefs? His loves? Hates? Fears? Where do his loyalties lie? Does he have a family, an inflated ego, perhaps some other core vulnerability? Does he have a hobby or some passion that might get him talking? What do we know about his activities before he fell into our hands? What about his religion? Sect? Tribe? Culture? Or the history of his movement? What have other captives in our hands said about him? Did he have documents or a computer that were seized with him? What drives this unique individual?

Professional interrogation is thus a developmental process, requiring extensive preparation. It requires in-depth assessment of the prisoner, all complemented by a healthy measure of guile, wits and patience.

Seasoned interrogators know that an important first step is to disarm one's adversary by resorting to the unexpected. Treat a captured general or colonel with dignity and respect. Better yet, treat a sergeant like he is a colonel or general.

In interrogation centers I ran, we called prisoners "guests" and extended military courtesies, such as saluting captured officers. We strove to undermine a prisoner's belief system, which we knew instructed him that Americans are unschooled infidels who would bully him and resort to intimidation, threats and brutality. Patience was essential. We rejected the view that interrogators could merely "take off the gloves" and that information would somehow magically flow if we brutalized our "guests." This notion was uninformed and counterproductive, not to mention illegal, and we made sure our chain of command understood that bowing to such tempting theories would result in bad information.

Persuasive? I'd always thought so, and it certainly worked for us in contingency after contingency in Asia, Latin America and the Middle East. But when I explained these immutable principles to an auditorium of young Army interrogators last year, one reaction puzzled me. "Sir," a young soldier queried, "that 'tender-loving-care approach' sounds all well and good, but it takes time. What do we do when the chain of command sends out a requirement and says they need the information by the end of the day, and that thousands of lives may depend upon it?"

The very question tells us that intelligence professionals have failed to educate their commanders that detainee interrogation is not like a water spigot. "Give the inquisitors the freedom to push the envelope of brutality and good information will follow" seems to have become the watchword since 9-11.

It also tells us that our young soldiers take away lessons from today's pop culture. Self-styled "experts" on interrogation frequently cite the "ticking bomb scenario" (featured on shows like "24") to justify the Jack Bauer-like tormenting of a prisoner. According to this construct, it is necessary and acceptable to torture in the name of saving an American city from "the next 9-11." This has a magnetic appeal to legions of Americans, among them future soldiers.

But the so-called ticking time bomb scenario is a Hollywood construct that I never encountered in my 30-year career. Even so, it has become the rallying cry of many well-intentioned but ethically challenged military and civilian personnel. And it has been hawked by a large constituency of senior government officials, from the White House to the Department of Justice to Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, and is most recently evidenced in the surfacing of a January 2005 memo, written almost a year after Abu Ghraib, that characterizes face slapping and waterboarding as acceptable conduct.

. . .

For 30 years, I was fortunate to work with talented professionals. We benefited from good training, including the need to adhere to the law. We never felt pressured "to take the gloves off" and mistreat our captives. On the contrary, our chain of command encouraged good treatment, and there was never a thought of traveling down the wrong road.

Read it all here.

More Climate Change Bad News

Science Daily is reported some very disturbing news about climate change--the Earth's atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) is growing much faster than expected:

A team of scientists has found that atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) growth has increased 35 percent faster than expected since 2000.

The study found that inefficiency in the use of fossil fuels increased levels of CO2 by 17 percent, while the other 18 percent came from the decline in the efficiency of natural land and ocean sinks which soak up CO2 from the atmosphere.

The research by the Global Carbon Project, the University of East Anglia (UEA) and the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) shows that improvements in the carbon intensity of the global economy have stalled since 2000 after improving for 30 years, leading to the unexpected growth of atmospheric CO2.

The study also states that global CO2 emissions were up to 9.9 billion tons of carbon in 2006, 35 percent above emissions in 1990 (used as a reference year in the Kyoto Protocol).

Author Dr Corinne Le Quéré of the University of East Anglia and British Antarctic Survey says, "The decline in global sink efficiency suggests that stabilisation of atmospheric CO2 is even more difficult to achieve than previously thought. We found that nearly half of the decline in the efficiency of the ocean CO2 sink is due to the intensification of the winds in the Southern Ocean."

Read it all here.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

From The Lead: Race, Genetics, and the Environment

I usually save my best stuff for The Lead--I am the Sunday editor. I do so because the readership of that blog (even on Sunday's) is quite large, and the readership here is, well, more modest.

Today, I wrote on a matter very important to me as the fatehr of an African American child, and I will rpeat that post here:

James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work in determining the structure of DNA, caused quite a furor when he said he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.". He said he hoped that everyone was equal, but countered that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

Watson has since backtracked from these comments, but the furor continues. (And, as the father of an African-American child, this is an issue that I take quite personally). Steven Levitt, one of the authors of Freakonomics offers some interesting data that suggests that Watson is simply wrong in his conclusions:

Roland Fryer and I have done some research on this topic which we think is potentially quite interesting and important — although we seem to be the only ones with this opinion at present. (The paper was rejected yesterday by the American Economic Review on the second round of review, and a search of Google Scholar reveals only two citations to the working paper version released in early 2006.)

In my work with Fryer, we analyzed a newly available nationally representative survey of children ages two and under, done by the Department of Education. Included in this study are tests of mental ability around a child’s first birthday. While you might think it would be impossible to capture anything meaningful at such a young age, it turns out that these measures of one-year-olds’ intelligence are somewhat highly correlated with IQ scores at later ages, as well as with parental IQ scores.

The striking result we find is 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.

So what does this mean for the genetics vs. environment debate? Quoting from our abstract, “the observed patterns are broadly consistent with large racial differences in environmental factors that grow in importance as children age. Our findings are not consistent with the simplest models of large genetic differences across races in intelligence, although we cannot rule out the possibility that intelligence has multiple dimensions and racial differences are present only in those dimensions that emerge later in life.”

Like all research, our study has its flaws and limitations. I have to say, however, that I imagined a lot of reactions to this paper, none of which were utter indifference on the part of academics and the popular press. But that was the reaction we got.

Read it all here. Read the entire paper here. My colleague John Chilton, a professor of economics has some very interesting comments on this post here.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Souls, Life and Abortion

Professor James McGrath has a very interesting post today on the abortion issue--and in particular how the moral issues are more complicated than either side wants to admit:

There is a wonderful articulation of a serious and balanced pro-life position in Jonah Goldberg's most recent piece in the National Review Online, "Life Matters". He says up front that there is much he does not know about the soul, its relationship to life, and what we mean by it in the case of a recently-fertilized egg. He also acknowledges that, if one is talking about consciousness, then life does not begin at conception. He thus has no passionate feelings about "Plan B" and other methods of terminating a pregnancy within a few hours or days of conception, but does feel strongly about other issues like partial-birth abortion.

I think there is on this topic, like so many others, room for an alliance in the middle between those who reject both extremes. There are many people who are pro-choice only in the sense that they object to abortion personally on religious grounds, but do not feel it is appropriate to legislate for others on the basis of those religious views. There are some who are pro-choice because, although they regard abortion as an evil, they also acknowledge that there may be instances in which it is the lesser of two or more evils. And there are those who are pro-life in the sense that they object strongly to procedures that would end the life of a healthy baby in the advanced stages of development because this is convenient, without having similarly strong opposition to ending a pregnancy in a period in which most pregnancies spontaneously cease anyway.

Anyone who has suffered a miscarriage even in early stages of pregnancy knows that there is a sense of loss. Very few who make arguments about life beginning at conception would be opposed to a D&C being performed in the case of a molar pregnancy, in which clearly an egg has been fertilized, but no baby will every develop from it.

Perhaps the reason there is such passionate debate about this issue is our desire to bring clarity to a foggy domain. The problem, as Goldberg points out, is that it seems easy to give answers about a newly-fertilized ovum and a baby about to be born, but the development that takes place continuously in between makes it hard to figure out where to draw the line. But the result is that both sides may end up pushing the line so far one way or the other in a desire to counter the apparent unreasonableness of their opponents that more harm is done to the living - and by this I do not mean just the baby - than either side would approve of in another situation.

This is a tough issue, with a lot of uncertainty, but most people agree that there are distinctions to be made, even if they aren't sure where to make them. Turning to the Bible for answers not only doesn't resolve the issue (since it has little to say on the subject that is clear, apart from in Numbers 5:11-31, where abortion seems to be mandated) , it shouldn't resolve the issue. We know far more about human development in the womb than any Biblical author could have.The terrain is continuous. Many wish to stake out a position in the middle. If we are to do so, we must draw our own lines. How do we decide where to draw them?

Read it all here.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Abortion Rates and Legality

A new study finds that abortion rates are similar in nations that outlaw it and nations that do not. This supports the view of many (including me) that criminal sanctions on abortion are not the answer to reducing the number of abortions. The New York Times has the details:

A comprehensive global study of abortion has concluded that abortion rates are similar in countries where it is legal and those where it is not, suggesting that outlawing the procedure does little to deter women seeking it.

Moreover, the researchers found that abortion was safe in countries where it was legal, but dangerous in countries where it was outlawed and performed clandestinely. Globally, abortion accounts for 13 percent of women’s deaths during pregnancy and childbirth, and there are 31 abortions for every 100 live births, the study said.

The results of the study, a collaboration between scientists from the World Health Organization in Geneva and the Guttmacher Institute in New York, a reproductive rights group, are being published Friday in the journal Lancet.

“We now have a global picture of induced abortion in the world, covering both countries where it is legal and countries where laws are very restrictive,” Dr. Paul Van Look, director of the W.H.O. Department of Reproductive Health and Research, said in a telephone interview. “What we see is that the law does not influence a woman’s decision to have an abortion. If there’s an unplanned pregnancy, it does not matter if the law is restrictive or liberal.”

But the legal status of abortion did greatly affect the dangers involved, the researchers said. “Generally, where abortion is legal it will be provided in a safe manner,” Dr. Van Look said. “And the opposite is also true: where it is illegal, it is likely to be unsafe, performed under unsafe conditions by poorly trained providers.”

The data also suggested that the best way to reduce abortion rates was not to make abortion illegal but to make contraception more widely available, said Sharon Camp, chief executive of the Guttmacher Institute.

In Eastern Europe, where contraceptive choices have broadened since the fall of Communism, the study found that abortion rates have decreased by 50 percent, although they are still relatively high compared with those in Western Europe. “In the past we didn’t have this kind of data to draw on,” Ms. Camp said. “Contraception is often the missing element” where abortion rates are high, she said.

Read it all here.

Welcome Bishop Smith

I am a big fan of our bishop in Arizona. I was therefore pleased to see that Father Nicholas Knisley had convinced Bishop Kirk Smith of Arizona to join the blogosphere. His new blog can be found here.

As one of his first posts, he discusses the issues with Christ Church
of the Ascension in Paradise Valley:

Ever since I began my time as bishop, I have tried to make it clear to the unhappy members of that parish that I valued their presence in the Diocese, and that they were welcome to their own theological understandings. You have heard me say many times that our church is a big tent, and that anyone who wants to be an Episcopalian should be!
One of the ways I did that was to arrange for them Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight (DEPO) in which I invited the Bishop of the Diocese of the Rio Grande to become their Episcopal visitor. This system worked for a while.

However, with the announcement by the rector, Fr. Ken Semon, that he was leaving to take an interim position in that Diocese, things quickly changed. Many vestry members resigned, a new “moderate” vestry was elected, and a small group of about 75 people (out of a 1000 member parish) announced that they were leaving their home on Lincoln Drive to start a new church. This group, calling themselves “Christ Church Anglican,” has affiliated with an Anglican archbishop in Africa, in violation of not only the Windsor Report, but also the ancient canons of the church. I am sorry that they felt they had to take such a drastic step, but I wish them well in creating a place where they no longer have to feel angry and oppositional to the mission of the church.

Back at Christ Church of the Ascension, parish life continues. I have appointed the Rev. Philip Jackson, formerly leader of one of the largest and fasted growing parishes in Detroit, as Priest in Charge Under Special Circumstances, which means that after one year the vestry may, if its wishes, call him as their permanent rector. Fr. Jackson is traditionalist in his thinking, but he is also loyal to the Episcopal Church. He began his duties on this past Monday, October 1st. My assumption is that his parish will continue to be a home for those who describe themselves as conservative, but who value their historic connection with the Diocese, as I value their connection with us.

It is always sad when members of the family leave home—and I want to say to them again “the door is always open.” But I am also heartened to know that Christ Church of the Ascension has begun a healing process that will allow it to remain an important part of our Diocese as we work together to do the Lord’s work.

Father Phil Jackson was an interim associate at Trinity. He is a wonderful priest, and seems to be a good fit for this new assignment. He is indeed orthodox in his thinking, and has the pastoral skills to make this difficult assignment work.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Africans and Homosexuality

The New Republic has an interesting analysis of why much of the energy agaionst homosexuality within the Anglican Communion seems to be coming from Africa:

Many African societies have well-established traditions of same-sex interactions and gay subcultures. In different parts of the continent, we can find everything from warrior cultures in which mature men sexually initiate youths, to examples of gender crossing. A decade ago, the varieties of African homosexuality were documented in the book Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands, edited by Will Roscoe and Stephen O. Murray.

Why, then, did opposition to gay rights become so critical for many African Christians? The answer has a lot to do with the rapid spread of Christianity on the continent in a relatively short time. In 1900, Africa had 10 million Christians, representing around 10 percent of the population. By 2000, that figure had grown to 360 million, or 46 percent. As a result, most African Christians today are first- or second- generation members of the faith, and many are adult converts. Sociologists generally agree that newer religious groups tend to have more literal approaches to scripture. In practice, of course, literalism still leaves plenty of room for debate and interpretation; but, when the Bible specifically condemns a particular sin--and same-sex interaction is repeatedly denounced in both the Old and New Testaments--that makes it difficult for literalists to find wiggle room.

In other ways, too, the rapid expansion of Christianity has conditioned African views on homosexuality. African churches exist in a ferociously competitive environment, one where traditional groups--like Anglicans and Catholics--must fight to maintain their market share against newer Pentecostal denominations, with their enticing promises of miracles and healings. The last thing the older churches need is a suggestion that their commitment to scriptural truth is anything less than absolute or that they are any less rigorous than their rivals in condemning sin.

The other key rival--and another factor shaping moral attitudes--is Islam. Over the past century, African Christianity has grown much more rapidly than Islam, a fact that puzzles and infuriates Muslims who regard the continent as naturally theirs. In 1900, for instance, Christians accounted for just 1 percent of the people of what would become the state of Nigeria; Muslims made up 26 percent. By 1970, however, the religions had achieved parity, each having around 45 percent of the population. And some recent polls suggest that, today, the nation has a Christian plurality. Against this background of rivalry and potential violence, Christians cannot be seen to concede anything to Muslims in terms of their commitment to strict morality. Even the harsh anti-gay measures that Akinola backs in Nigeria are still milder than the provisions enforced under the sha- ria code that prevails in one-third of the country's states, which includes the death penalty for homosexuality. Moreover, by condemning sexual liberalism, African churches are making clear to their own members and their Muslim neighbors that they are not puppets of the West. Moral conservatism thus serves to assert cultural independence--a link that requires sexual immorality to be portrayed as a Euro-American import.

The Muslim context helps explain the sensitivity of gay issues in one other key respect. In the region later known as Uganda, Christianity first arrived in the 1870s, when the area was already under Muslim influence and a hunting ground for Arab slave-raiders. The king of Buganda had adopted Arab customs of pederasty, and he expected the young men of his court to submit to his demands. But a growing number of Christian courtiers and pages refused to participate, despite his threats, and an enraged king launched a persecution that resulted in hundreds of martyrdoms: On a single day, some 30 Bugandans were burned alive. Yet the area's churches flourished, and, eventually, the British expelled the Arab slavers. That foundation story remains well-known in the region, and it intertwines Christianity with resistance to tyranny and Muslim imperialism--both symbolized by sexual deviance. Reinforcing such memories are more recent experiences with Muslim tyrants, such as Idi Amin, whose victims included the head of his country's Anglican Church. For many Africans, then, sexual unorthodoxy has implications that are at once un-Christian, anti-national, and oppressive.

The author notes that South Africa seems to be the only exception to this pattern:

To be sure, Africa is a diverse continent, and some voices are more liberal on gay issues than others. Many of the most progressive can be found in South Africa, arguably one of the most gay-friendly countries in the world. Its constitution outlaws discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation, and, in 2006, the country legalized same-sex marriage. Many churches certainly opposed this latter measure, but the depth of feeling is nothing like what we find in a country like Nigeria. Anglican leader Desmond Tutu has spoken out for gay rights, declaring, "To penalize somebody for their sexual orientation is the same as what used to happen to black South Africans for something about which we could do nothing." Generally, bishops who do criticize homosexual behavior rank it low on their hierarchy of sins. The country's current Anglican primate, Njongonkulu Ndungane, calls homosexuality a "pastoral, secondary problem," and has rebuked Akinola for failing to address more pressing issues in his backyard.

One explanation for this phenomenon is that South Africa's unique history has given its leaders more room to promote tolerance on gay rights. After all, given the African National Congress's recent credentials in resisting white domination, the government can hardly be accused of passively succumbing to Western influence.

Read it all here (subscription may be required).

Bad News on climate Change: We Need Zero Emissions

Well, this study offers some very, very bad news:

Only the total elimination of industrial emissions will succeed in limiting climate change to a 2°C rise in temperatures, according to computer analysis of climate change. Anything above this target has been identified as "dangerous" by some scientists, and the limit has been adopted by many policymakers.

The researchers say their study highlights the shortcomings of governmental plans to limit climate change.

A warming of 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures is frequently cited as the limit beyond which the world will face "dangerous" climate change. Beyond this level, analysis suggests the continents will cease to absorb more carbon dioxide than they produce. As the tundra and other regions of permafrost thaw, they will spew more gas into the atmosphere, adding to the warming effect of human emissions.

. . .

In January 2007, the European Commission issued a communication stating that "the European Union's objective is to limit global average temperature increase to less than 2°C compared to pre-industrial levels".

Andrew Weaver and colleagues at the University of Victoria in Canada say this means going well beyond the reduction of industrial emissions discussed in international negotiations.

Weaver's team used a computer model to determine how much emissions must be limited in order to avoid exceeding a 2°C increase. The model is an established tool for analysing future climate change and was used in studies cited in the IPCC's reports on climate change.

They modelled the reduction of industrial emissions below 2006 levels by between 20% and 100% by 2050. Only when emissions were entirely eliminated did the temperature increase remain below 2°C.

A 100% reduction of emissions saw temperature change stabilise at 1.5°C above the pre-industrial figure. With a 90% reduction by 2050, Weaver's model predicted that temperature change will eventually exceed 2°C compared to pre-industrial temperatures but then plateau.

Read it all here.

this is bad news because zero emissions is simply not feasible. It may be time to rethink our approach to climate change beyond the carbon tax and cap and trade.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

The True Benefits of Marriage

Theo Hobson has a very interesting comment on the benefits of marraige--and how and why our culture display a very different (and inaccurate view) of marriage:

In a brilliant article in today's Telegraph, Rowan Pelling considers the poor image of marriage. The problem is that defenders of this institution make it sound dull, dutiful and socially responsible. To the average singleton, she writes, it sounds like "a domestic penitentiary".

She adds: "What nobody evangelises is the incredible liberation many people find within marriage. Most unwed people under 40 are a seething mass of insecurities. They may be free to go backpacking in Goa at a second's notice, but they're imprisoned by self-doubt and vulnerability."

The stability of marriage, she goes on, "provides a platform from which risky and exhilarating enterprises can be launched". She concedes that the psychological security of a strong relationship is also possible outside of marriage, but "few of us have the self-discipline to create such a complex and enduring world without structure and strictures."

Well, I agree. I am reminded of one of my favourite Dostoevsky quotes: "Marriage is responsible for three-quarters of human happiness." The effective celebration of marriage seems a pretty major cultural task. Not because it's good for the feckless masses, but because it makes one happy. Grown-up human beings generally seem to flourish when their love lives are settled by means of this ancient public contract.

The problem is that our culture is addicted to a teenage pretence otherwise. People who should know better collude in propping up the old cliche: singleness is dynamic and cool; marriage is early death. Another difficulty is that it sounds sort of smug to celebrate marriage in this way. People are scared of seeming to boast about being happily married. But this fear must be overcome: what is good must be celebrated.

Read it all here.

I think this nails it--at least from my perspective.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Out of Africa: Why?

It is becoming the consensus of scientists that study human evolution that human beings arose out of a small group of humans living in Africa 150,000 to 75,000 years ago. This "Out of Africa" theory is supported both by genetic evidence (human gene variation is greater in Africa than in other regions of the world) and by some recent evidence based on skeletons.

One of the unanaswered questions has been: why did humans leave Africa in the first place? A group of University of Arizona scholars may have an answer--we left Africa after a population boom caused by an end to a long drought in Africa:

From 135,000 to 90,000 years ago tropical Africa had megadroughts more extreme and widespread than any previously known for that region, according to new research.

Learning that now-lush tropical Africa was an arid scrubland during the early Late Pleistocene provides new insights into humans' migration out of Africa and the evolution of fishes in Africa's Great Lakes.

"Lake Malawi, one of the deepest lakes in the world, acts as a rain gauge," said lead scientist Andrew S. Cohen of The University of Arizona in Tucson. "The lake level dropped at least 600 meters (1,968 feet) -- an extraordinary amount of water lost from the lake. This tells us that it was much drier at that time."

He added, "Archaeological evidence shows relatively few signs of human occupation in tropical Africa during the megadrought period."

The new finding provides an ecological explanation for the Out-of-Africa theory that suggests all humans descended from just a few people living in Africa sometime between 150,000 and 70,000 years ago.

"We've got an explanation for why that might have occurred -- tropical Africa was extraordinarily dry about 100,000 years ago," said Cohen, a UA professor of geosciences. "Maybe human populations just crashed."

Other researchers have documented droughts in individual regions of Africa at that time, such as the Kalahari desert expanding north and the Sahel expanding south, he said. "But no one had put it together that those droughts were part of a bigger picture."

Tropical Africa's climate became wetter by 70,000 years ago, a time for which there is evidence of more people in the region and of people moving north. As the population rebounded, people left Africa, Cohen said.

Read it all here.

Same-Sex Marriage Campaign

Proponents of sam sex marriage equality are about to engage in a campaign in a very serious way--at least in California:

Frustrated in efforts to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation or litigation, proponents will launch a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign this week to "open hearts and minds" in Sacramento and other major cities.

The 60-second ads will run in the capital, San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Palm Springs as part of a monthslong campaign to prod families to openly discuss same-sex marriage.

"The long-term goal is to have the majority of Californians support the freedom to marry -- to change the climate here," said Geoff Kors, executive director of Equality California, which is coordinating the campaign.

same TV spot will run in all five cities, beginning Thursday.

The ad depicts a traditional wedding, with an excited crowd, a flower girl tossing petals and a tuxedoed groom. As the bride walks down the aisle, she is tripped by a spectator and sprawls onto the floor. These words fill the screen:

"What if you couldn't marry the person you loved?"

Supplementing the TV campaign, thousands of volunteers are expected to participate in the multifaceted promotional push -- called "Let California Ring" -- by conducting house parties, knocking on voters' doors, giving speeches or assisting in e-mail or Web activities.

Legislation to permit same-sex marriage sits on the desk of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has vowed to veto it as he did a similar measure two years ago.

Schwarzenegger, in his previous veto message, cited a ballot initiative passed by voters in 2000 to limit marriage to a man and a woman.

"I do not believe the Legislature can reverse an initiative approved by the people," wrote Schwarzenegger, who added that he supports equal protection and equal rights for gays and lesbians.

The constitutionality of California's ban on same-sex marriage is being challenged in the state Supreme Court.

Same-sex couples who register as domestic partners are entitled to virtually every right and responsibility granted by the state to spouses.

But California's domestic partnerships are not necessarily recognized in other states, nor do they qualify for Social Security, veterans and other federal spousal benefits.

Even if marriage and domestic partnerships were separate but equal, such a dual system would be unfair, according to Assemblyman Mark Leno, who proposed this year's same-sex marriage legislation, Assembly Bill 43.

"To deny any citizen the fundamental right to marry the person that he or she loves is wrong, and in my opinion, un-American," said Leno, D-San Francisco.

Kors said it is crucial for society to recognize same-sex couples as married.

. . .

Kors said millions of dollars already have been raised for the multifaceted campaign, but he declined to comment on details of the TV spots, including how long or how often they will run.

The campaign's goal is to spark more than a million conversations about same-sex marriage and to prod an additional 500,000 Californians to support legalization.

The logo for "Let California Ring" features a wedding band as the "O" in the state's name. Supporters will be urged to purchase a ring through the campaign and wear it to show support and spark conversation.

Financial backers include the David Bohnett Foundation, Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, Proteus Fund, Columbia Foundation, Gill Foundation and the Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program, according to the campaign's Web site.

Support for same-sex marriage has been growing statewide. Forty-three percent of Californians supported it in 2006, compared with 30 percent in 1985, according to Field Polls.

Garry South, a Democratic political strategist, said he wishes the new campaign well but doubts that opponents of same-sex marriage will change their minds through advertising or door-knocking.

"It's like trying to change people's minds about abortion by putting ads on the air -- I don't think it works," South said.

Sheila Kuehl, a Santa Monica Democrat who is openly gay, countered that many people have read about same-sex marriage without forming intractable opinions. Frank discussions could alter their view, she said.

"It's just like when you come out to your parents," she said. "They suddenly have to figure out how the heck they feel about gay people."

Read it all here.

What is often unnoticed is that the issue of same sex marriage equality is actually gaining political traction in many areas of the country. And change is coming not meely from courts, but from state legislatures as well. And many public opinion polls are showing that the pulic in many areas of the country are receptive to arguments about equality. What is particualry interesting about California is that the debate is between proponents of civil unions only (the law in California) and proponents of full marriage eqaulity.

Ending the Culture Wars

E.J. Dionne has an interesting column this morning about an effort of moderate Democrats to end the Culture Wars:

You know the religious right is in trouble when some of its leaders threaten to bolt the Republican Party if it nominates a candidate who supports abortion rights.

But the well-publicized warning directed against Rudy Giuliani this month is decidedly not the most important sign that religious conservatives are facing the disintegration of their movement.

What matters more is that a new generation of evangelical leaders, tired of the rancid partisanship, is breaking away from the culture wars. The reach of this new evangelical politics will be tested with the release tomorrow of a statement under the very biblical title "Come Let Us Reason Together." The question for the future is how many in the evangelical ranks will embrace this call.

Organized by Third Way, a group that is close to many leading moderate Democrats, the statement calls for "first steps toward bridging the cultural divide between progressives and evangelicals."

Third Way's effort is not happy boilerplate about how religious Americans and liberals share a concern for helping the poor, protecting the environment and reaching out to the victims of HIV-AIDS -- although these areas of agreement are important and too often overlooked.

Rather, the statement, co-authored by Robert P. Jones, a progressive religious scholar, and Rachel Laser, director of the Third Way Culture Project, takes a step toward religious conservatives by acknowledging the legitimacy of many of their moral concerns. For example, while not backing away from Third Way's support for stem cell research, the statement urges a series of restrictions to prevent the sale or manipulation of human embryos and reproductive cloning.

"Americans have a deep faith in science but also worry that scientific advances are outrunning our best moral thinking," Jones and Laser declare. Worrying about ethical issues raised by science is not the same as being anti-science.
The statement identifies other areas, including abortion, gay rights and strengthening families, where progressives and religious conservatives might continue to disagree but still make progress.

One passage nicely summarizes the possibilities of a less polarized, post-Bush future: "The differences in how evangelicals and progressives see government's role in affecting social change -- one of changing hearts, the other building institutions -- need not be in conflict." Social improvement requires both.

Now, declarations and manifestoes come and go in our nation's capital with the speed of the news cycle. What matters is whether they can catalyze action.

Laser, who sets herself only a modest goal -- "We want to end the culture wars," she says firmly, but with a smile -- knows this, which is why she worked to win support for the statement from evangelicals who can fairly be regarded as conservative.

Read it all here.

I will eagerly review this document. While I do agree that there is common ground between even secular progressives and conservative Evangelicals on many issues, I think that the Culture Wars will continue unabated. Why? Bwecause there are real differences on issues such as gay rights and abortion that can't or won't be glossed over even when we find common ground on other issues.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Revolution in Jesusland

Now this is fascinating--there is a new blog, Revolution in Jesusland, that aims to educate secular progressives about what is happening in the Evangelical community. It is the thesis of the blog that there is room for alliance on many issues between Evangelicals and progressives, and at the very least secular progressives need to pay attention to what is occuring in the Evangelical community.

Here is the blogs's explanation:

This blog is a plea to the progressive movement, to take another look and get to know the diverse and complex world of evangelical Christianity in its own terms. Here you’ll find interviews, commentary, analysis and other dispatches from all over “Jesusland.” This tour will explore everything from the workings of the local church, to the evangelicals’ vibrant, decentralized national leadership training infrastructure to theological questions such as, “How in the world DO they read the Bible literally?” and “Do they really think I’m going to hell?”

There are two really big reasons to come along on this tour:

First, progressives will never achieve their goals as long as they are hostile toward and ignorant about the faith of 100 million of their own people who are born again Christians.

Second (and we know how difficult this is to believe) there is an incredibly large and beautiful social movement exploding among evangelicals right now that stands for nearly all of the same causes and goals that secular progressives do. Those goals include: eliminating poverty, saving the environment, promoting justice and equality along racial, gender and class lines and for immigrants—and even separation of church and state.

By learning to work together with “progressive” evangelicals, secular progressives will stand a better chance of achieving their goals and also learn an enormous amount from these remarkable people and their organizations that will help secular progressives strengthen their own movement.

This evangelical “revolution,” as one Christian pollster has labeled it, is unquestionably the fastest growing and most surprising of American social movements today. Whichever way you measure, it probably dwarfs the secular left. From mega churches to tiny country churches, evangelical Christians are rediscovering the “gospel of the God of the oppressed.” Perhaps the most surprising among these are the suburban, white evangelicals who are stepping outside of their comfort zones to “get into relationship” with the poor, the oppressed, the homeless, prisoners—the people of whom Jesus said,

Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me….Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me. —Matthew 25

They are building houses for and teaching job skills to homeless people, they are creating tutoring programs for kids in failing schools, they’re paying health care bills and sending off rent checks for people living on poverty wages—and there’s even a movement afoot among these people to move their young families out of wealthy suburbs and into forsaken inner city neighborhoods, putting their kids into broken and often violent public schools. And in their Sunday services and Bible studies they are questioning the very foundations of modern American capitalist ideology.

On this blog we will attempt over time to provide evidence, and to explain the inner logic of this culture’s narratives, theologies and passions, and to flesh out the larger context of this movement that is shaking up nearly every American community and producing so many exceptional leaders.

So—welcome to Jesusland. We hope you enjoy the tour.

Read it all here.

Many readers of this blog are quite surpised that A Guy in the Pew, a progessive/liberal Episcopalian who supports GLBT rights (and did so as an elected offical over a decade ago) would write so positively about Evangelicals--it sounds like this blog is making my case.

The Fractured Evangelical Vote

The New York Times has an interesting analysis of the fractured nature of the Evangelical vote this election cycle. I found one point especially worth noting: this is a "voting bloc" that is more diverse than most analysts understand:

The spectacle has laid bare the enduring myth that evangelicals are a monolith that is “easy to command,” to use the phrase made famous by a Washington Post article in 1993.

Evangelical Protestants make up about 26 percent of the population. But according to surveys in the new book “The Faith Factor” by John C. Green, a senior fellow at the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, that pie can be sliced even further. Only 12 percent of the population are the evangelical Protestants Mr. Green calls “traditionalists,” the political and theological conservatives who make up the bedrock of the religious right. Almost an equal share (11 percent of the population) are evangelical “centrists” and about 3 percent are “modernists,” groups that are politically less predictable.

. . .

Like other Americans, evangelicals tell pollsters they care a great deal about the war in Iraq, health care, immigration and security. If evangelicals more and more vote like average Americans, it becomes increasingly complex for the candidates to calculate how to win them over.

Mr. Giuliani’s campaign is betting that he can do without the hard-core “religious right” for whom abortion and homosexuality are litmus tests. A New York Times/CBS News poll of white born-again or evangelical Republican primary voters taken last month found that 30 percent said it would be possible for them to vote for a candidate they didn’t agree with on issues like abortion or same-sex marriage. But 59 percent said they could not.

Read it all here.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

Another Theologian on Same Sex Relationships

Okay, this is interesting. I know of dozens of liberal theologians (who have persuaded me) who have written on why the Bible should not be read as condemning homosexuality, but now an evangelical theologican who was formerly a professor at the conservative Fuller Theological Seminary is making this argument:

An evangelical theologian is visiting several churches this fall refuting the common Christian interpretation of the Bible that Jesus and Scripture opposes homosexuality.

Jack Rogers, professor of Theology Emeritus at San Francisco Theological Seminary, is trying to get a positive word out in the Christian churches about the gay and lesbian community and thinks churches should be leading the charge for their equal rights.

“I’m trying to help people understand that the Bible rightly interpreted, which I would think is through the lens of Jesus’ redemptive life and ministry ... does not condemn Christian people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered," said Rogers, according to The Lawrence Journal-World.

He makes that argument in the book Jesus, the Bible and Homosexuality: Explode the Myths, Heal the Church. The former Fuller Theological Seminary professor and former moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) launched his fall book tour last week and is currently making stops at churches and ministries to speak on the controversial topic.

Rogers says those who argue that the Bible condemns gays and lesbians are taking biblical literalism too far and feels there is excessively negative words in the religious community, according to the Journal-World.

His fall tour comes as Daniel Karslake's documentary "For the Bible Tells Me So" was set to release in Manhattan on Friday. The film supports homosexuals and presents the religious right as misusing the Bible to condemn gay people.

Amid increasing efforts by some to equate the condemnation of sin with the condemnation of sinners, conservative critics have expressed regret over what they say is a misapplication of Scripture.

. . .

Rogers, who acknowledges in his book that he has not specialized in the issue as a biblical scholar, says he did not always support homosexuality. It wasn’t until his pastor charged him in 1993 to be a part of a study at the church on the issue and after months of studying the Bible on matter of homosexuality that Rogers had a change of heart. And now he's sharing that change of his understanding with other Christians.

Read it all here.

Friday, October 5, 2007

Bibical Literalism and the Road to Atheism

Professor James McGrath makes an excellent point about the dangers of bibical literalism to faith:

Personally, I am fundamentally (if you'll excuse the pun) convinced that there are no genuine Biblical literalists in the world today - not even Ned Flanders on the Simpsons, who on the brillian episode "Hurricane Neddy" famously claimed "I've done everything the Bible says - even the stuff that contradicts the other stuff". No one believes in the dome. No one believes that 14=13, that pi equals precisely 3, and so on. But to acknowledge that interpretation is always a factor does not seem black and white enough to some, and certainly isn't a good advertising strategy, and so claims of being a Biblical literalist continue to be made, in spite of their inaccuracy and (in at least some cases) dishonesty (since I assume some of those using such rhetoric know enough about the Bible that they ought to know better).

My strongest reason for opposing these misleading claims about Biblical literalism and inerrancy is that they are a fast track to atheism. Many preachers say one must choose: "Either the Bible is the perfect, inerrant word of God, or it is a load of garbage and should be thrown out". This sets up anyone who decides to study the Bible seriously and has been told this to either pretend the problems aren't there, and thus compromise on honesty, or to do what they were told and throw out the Bible. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

What happens if one tries to take various Biblical stories literally has been demonstrated more than once. Noah's ark and the Exodus are but a couple of examples.So, if you really want to encourage rather than discourage people from believing in God, then I'd drop the rhetoric of inerrancy and literalism. It is not only dishonest, it is spiritually toxic.

Read it all here (including some interesting comments).