Thursday, February 28, 2008

A New C.S. Lewis blog

Now this is cool--a large group of scholars have organized a blog devoted to C.S. Lewis. You can find it here. Here is a smaple post about the Narnia series:

Ever since they were published in the 1950s, C.S. Lewis's seven Chronicles of Narnia have puzzled readers. The puzzle has to do with the fact that the seven stories have no obvious unifying theme.

Three of the books seem to be clear Biblical allegories. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is a retelling of the Gospel story. The Magician’s Nephew gives us a version of the creation account from the Book of Genesis. The Last Battle reimagines the end of the world and the final judgement, as told in the Book of Revelation.

But the other four Narnia Chronicles have no obvious scriptural foundation. Why does the Christ-like figure of Aslan enter the story among dancing trees in Prince Caspian? Why does he fly in a sunbeam in The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader'? Why is he mistaken for two lions in The Horse and His Boy? Why does he not appear in Narnia at all in The Silver Chair?

. . .

To find the real solution to the mystery of Narnia's apparently haphazard symbolism, we need to look more closely at the professional interests of C.S. Lewis.

Although Lewis is best known for his Chronicles of Narnia, he was not a professional writer of fiction. His career was in the academic world. He taught at Oxford from 1924-1954, and for the last nine years of his life he was Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at the University of Cambridge.

As a literary historian, Lewis had a particular interest in medieval cosmology. According to this old view of the cosmos, Earth was the centre of everything. It was circled by the seven planets in their spheres. Each of these seven planets was believed to possess particular characteristics and to exert special influences upon people on the Earth and even upon the metals in the Earth's crust. The place where Lewis writes most about this old cosmology is in his book, The Discarded Image.

. . .

C.S. Lewis secretly based the Chronicles of Narnia on the seven heavens. The imagery associated with each planet provided him with his symbolic raw materials. The planetary symbols govern the shape of each story, countless points of ornamental detail and, most importantly, the portrayal of the central character, Aslan.

Read it all here.

What We Used To Say About Torture

This is a poster from World War II, and apparantly reflects what used to be (until 2001) the official view of torture by this country.

Hat tip to Andrew Sullivan--who has done a masterdul job showing that torture is un-American.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Human Genetic Diversity and You

Two very recent studies of genetic diversity have some very interesting implications.

First, a University of Michigan team has announced to results of the largest and most detailed worldwide study of human genetic variation, which offers new insights into early migrations out of Africa and across the globe. Here are highlights from that study:

The latest study characterizes more than 500,000 DNA markers in the human genome and examines variations across 29 populations on five continents.

"Our study is one of the first in a new wave of extremely high-resolution genome scans of population genetic variation," said Rosenberg, an assistant research professor at U-M's Life Sciences Institute and co-senior author of the study, to be published in the Feb. 21 edition of Nature.

"Now that we have the technology to look at thousands, or even hundreds of thousands, of genetic markers, we can infer human population relationships and ancient migrations at a finer level of resolution than has previously been possible."

The new study, led by Rosenberg and National Institute on Aging colleague Andrew Singleton, produced genetic data nearly 100 times more detailed than previous worldwide assessments of human populations.

Among the findings are that genetic diversity is far greater in Africa than in Europe, which offers strong evidence of the "Out-of-Africa"theory--that humans originated in Africa and then migrated around the globe:

Human genetic diversity decreases as distance from Africa—the cradle of humanity—increases. People of African descent are more genetically diverse than Middle Easterners, who are more diverse than Asians and Europeans. Native Americans possess the least-diverse genomes. As a result, searching for disease-causing genes should require the fewest number of genetic markers among Native Americans and the greatest number of markers among Africans.

. . .

The patterns revealed by the new study support the idea that humans originated in Africa, then spread into the Middle East, followed by Europe and Asia, the Pacific Islands, and finally to the Americas.

The results also bolster the notion of "serial founder effects," meaning that as people began migrating eastward from East Africa about 100,000 years ago, each successive wave of migrants carried a subset of the genetic variation held by previous groups.

Read it all here.

The second study, done by Cornell scientists, focuses on Eurpoean gentic diversity and it confirms that there is less genetic diversity among those of European dissent:

Human migration from Africa to Europe more than 30,000 years ago appears to have left a mark on the genes of Europeans today.

A Cornell-led study, reported in the Feb. 21 issue of the journal Nature, compared more than 10,000 sequenced genes from 15 African-Americans and 20 European-Americans. The results suggest that European populations have proportionately more harmful variations, though it is unclear what effects these variations actually may have on the overall health of Europeans.

Computer simulations suggest that the first Europeans comprised small and less diverse populations. That would have allowed mildly harmful genetic variations within those populations to become more frequent over time, the researchers report.

"What we may be seeing is a 'population genetic echo' of the founding of Europe," said Carlos Bustamante, assistant professor of biological statistics and computational biology at Cornell and senior co-author with Andrew Clark, a professor of molecular biology and genetics.

"Since we tend to think of European populations as quite large, we did not expect to see a significant difference in the distribution of neutral and deleterious variation between the two populations," said Bustamante. "It was quite surprising, but when we cross-checked our results to data sets gathered by other groups, we found the same trend."

Read it all here.

In addition to supporting the out of Africa theory of human migration, both studies also offer obviuous evidence against an early Earth creationism.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

15 Misconceptions About Evolution

The List Universe includes a quite useful list of 15 misconceptions about evolution. If you read many books or websites that argue against evolution, you are bound to find at least a handfull of these errors:

Biological evolution is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life. While evolution is very widely accepted, many people hold to misconceptions about it. This list should help to dispel some of those myths.

15. Evolution is a theory about the origin of life

The theory of evolution primarily deals with the manner in which life has changed after its origin. While science is interested in the origins of life (for example the composition of the primeval sludge from which life might have come) but these are not issues covered in the area of evolution. What is known is that regardless of the start, at some point life began to branch off. Evolution is, therefore, dedicated to the study of those processes.

14. Organisms are always getting better

While it is a fact that natural selection weeds out unhealthy genes from the gene pool, there are many cases where an imperfect organism has survived. Some examples of this are fungi, sharks, crayfish, and mosses - these have all remained essentially the same over a great period of time. These organisms are all sufficiently adapted to their environment to survive without improvement.

Other taxa have changed a lot, but not necessarily for the better. Some creatures have had their environments changed and their adaptations may not be as well suited to their new situation. Fitness is linked to their environment, not to progress.

13. Evolution means that life changed ‘by chance’

In fact, natural selection is not random. Many aquatic animals need speed to survive and reproduce - the creatures with that ability are more suited to their environment and are more likely to survive natural selection. In turn, they will produce more offspring with the same traits and the cycle continues. The idea that evolution occurs by chance does not take the entire picture in to account.

12. Natural selection involves organisms ‘trying’ to adapt

Organisms do not “try” to adapt - it is natural selection that enables various members of a group to survive and reproduce. Genetic adaptation is entirely outside of the power of the developing organism.

11. Natural selection gives organisms what they ‘need.’

Natural selection has no “intelligence” - it can not tell what a species needs. If a population has genetic variants that are more suited to their environment, they will reproduce more in the next generation and the population will evolve. If a genetic variant is not present, the population will most likely do - or it will survive with little evolutionary change.

10. Evolution is ‘just’ a theory

Scientifically speaking, a theory is a well substantiated idea that explains aspects of the natural world. Unfortunately other definitions of theory (such as a “guess” or a “hunch”) cause a great deal of confusion in the non-scientific world when dealing with the sciences. They are, in fact, two very different concepts.

9. Evolution is a Theory in Crisis

There is no debate in science as to whether or not evolution occurred - there is, however, debate over how it happened. The minutiae of the process is vigorously debated which can cause anti-evolutionists to believe that the theory is in crisis. Evolution is sound science and is treated as such by scientists worldwide.

8. Gaps in the Fossil Record Disprove Evolution

Actually, many transitional fossils do exist - for example, there are fossils of transitional organisms between modern birds and their dinosaur ancestors, as well as whales and their land mammal ancestors. There are many transitional forms that have not been preserved, but that is simply because some organisms do not fossilize well or exist in conditions that do not allow for the process of fossilization. Science predicts that there will be gaps in the record for many evolutionary changes. This does not disprove the theory.

7. Evolutionary Theory is Incomplete

Evolutionary science is a work in progress. Science is constantly making new discoveries with regard to it and explanations are always adjusted if necessary. Evolutionary theory is like all of the other sciences in this respect. Science is always trying to improve our knowledge. At present, evolution is the only well-supported explanation for all of life’s diversity.

6. The Theory is Flawed

Science is an extremely competitive field - if any flaws were discovered in evolutionary theory they would be quickly corrected. All of the alleged flaws that creationists put forth have been investigated careful by scientists and they simply do not hold water. They are usually based on misunderstandings of the theory or misrepresentation of the evidence.

5. Evolution is not science because it is not observable

Evolution is observable and testable. The confusion here is that people think science is limited to experiments in laboratories by white-coated technicians. In fact, a large amount of scientific information is gathered from the real world. Astronomers can obviously not physically touch the objects they study (for example stars and galaxies), yet a great deal of knowledge can be gained through multiple lines of study. This is true also of evolution. It is also true that there are many mechanisms of evolution that can be, and are studied through direct experimentation as with other sciences.

4. Most Biologists have rejected Darwinism

Scientists do not reject Darwin’s theories, they have modified it over time as more knowledge has been discovered. Darwin considered that evolution proceeds at a deliberate, slow pace - but in fact it has now been discovered that it can proceed at a rapid pace under some circumstances. There has not been, so far, a credible challenge to the basic principles of Darwin’s theory. Scientists have improved and expanded on Darwin’s original theory of natural selection - it has not been rejected, it has been added to.

3. Evolution Leads to Immoral Behavior

All animal species have a set of behaviors that they share with other members of their species. Slugs act like slugs, dogs act like dogs, and humans act like humans. It is preposterous to presume that a child will begin to behave like another creature when they discover that they are related to them. It is nonsensical to link evolution to immoral or inappropriate behavior.

2. Evolution Supports “Might Makes Right”

In the 19th and early 20th century, a philosophy called “Social Darwinism” sprung up from misguided attempts to apply biological evolution to society. This philosophy said that society should allow the weak to fail and die, and that not only is this an ideal situation, but a morally right one. This enabled prejudices to be rationalized and ideas such as the poor deserved their situation due to being less fit were very popular. This was a misappropriation of science. Social Darwinism has, thankfully, been repudiated. Biological evolution has not.

1. Teachers Should Teach Both Sides

There are tens of thousands of different religious views concerning creation. It is simply impossible for all of these views to be presented. Furthermore, none of the theories are based in science and therefore have no place in a science classroom. In a science class, students can debate where a creature branched off in the tree of life, but it is not right to argue a religious belief in a science class. The “fairness” argument is often used by groups attempting to inject their religious dogmas in to the scientific curricula.

Read it here.

PZ Myers generally loves this list but he has a few quibbles that are worth noting:

But I have to nitpick a little bit. #6, "The theory is flawed," gives the wrong answer — it basically tries to argue that the theory of evolution is not flawed. Of course it is! If it were perfect and complete we'd be done with it, and it wouldn't be a particularly active field of research. The "flaws" that creationists typically bring up aren't flaws in the theory at all, but flaws in the creationists' understanding of the science, but let's be careful to avoid giving the impression of perfection.

#15 is also a pet peeve: "Evolution is a theory about the origin of life" is presented as false. It is not. I know many people like to recite the mantra that "abiogenesis is not evolution," but it's a cop-out. Evolution is about a plurality of natural mechanisms that generate diversity. It includes molecular biases towards certain solutions and chance events that set up potential change as well as selection that refines existing variation. Abiogenesis research proposes similar principles that led to early chemical evolution. Tossing that work into a special-case ghetto that exempts you from explaining it is cheating, and ignores the fact that life is chemistry. That creationists don't understand that either is not a reason for us to avoid it.

#13, "Evolution means that life changed 'by chance'," also ducks the issue more than it should. As it says, natural selection is not random — but there's more to evolution than natural selection. It's a bit like ducking the question by redefining the terms. Much of our makeup is entirely by accident, and evolution is a story of filtered accidents. Creationists don't like that — one of their central assumptions is that everything is purposeful — but don't pander to their beliefs. Go for the gusto and ask them what their god was thinking when he loaded up your genome with the molecular equivalent of styrofoam packing peanuts, or when he 'accidentally' scrambled the sequence of our enzyme for synthesizing vitamin C.

Read it all here.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Bible and Slavery

As I have often mentioned on this blog, one of the challenges of resting an argument against same sex relationships on scripture is that even the most literal-minded of of the faithful ignore the Bible's statements on other issues--such as usury and slavery. This fact should give us pause--if we are willing to let reason and experience ignore these aspects of scripture, what is different about same sex relationships.

To drive this point home, Tobias Haller has found this gem from the Presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church defending slavery in 1861:

Here, therefore, lies the true aspect of the controversy, and it is evident that it can openly be settled by the Bible. For every Christian is bound to assent to the rule of the inspired Apostle, that "sin is the transgression of the law," namely the law laid down in the Scriptures by the authority of God -- the supreme "lawgiver, who is able to save and to destroy." From his Word there can be no appeal. No rebellion can be so atrocious in his sight as that which dares to rise against his government. No blasphemy can be more unpardonable than that which imputes sin or moral evil to the decrees of the eternal Judge, who is alone perfect in wisdom, in knowledge, and in love....

With entire correctness, therefore, your letter refers the question to the only infallible criterion -- the Word of God. If it were a matter to be determined by my personal sympathies, tastes, or feelings, I would be as ready as any man to condemn the institution of slavery; for all my prejudices of education, habit and social position stand entirely opposed to it. But as a Christian, I am solemnly warned not to be "wise in my own conceit," and not to "lean unto my own understanding." As a Christian, I am compelled to submit my weak and erring intellect to the authority of the Almighty. For then only can I be safe in my conclusion, when I know that they are in accordance with the will of Him, before whose tribunal I must render a strict account to the last great day....

First, then we ask what the divine Redeemer said in reference to slavery. And the answer is perfectly undeniable: He did not allude to it at all. Not one word of censure upon the subject is recorded by the Evangelists who gave His life and doctrines to the world. Yet, slavery was in full existence at the time, throughout Judea; and the Roman Empire, according to the historian Gibbon, contained sixty millions of slaves on the lowest probable computation! How prosperous and united would our glorious republic be at this hour, if the eloquent and pertinacious declaimers against slavery had been willing to follow their Savior's example!

-- The Rt. Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont and Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, writing in 1861 in A Scriptural, Ecclesiastical, and Historical View of Slavery, from the Days of the Patriarch Abraham to the Nineteenth Century, pages 5-12 passim

You can find it here on Tobias Haller's blog.

(Once you get to Tobais' blog, be sure to read his series of posts on the theology of same sex relationships. Here they are:

The Sex Articles—a series of reflections on where we stand

01. Where the Division Lies
02. Pro-Creation
03. True Union (1)
04. True Union (2)
05. True Union (3)
06. Clash of Symbols
07. Remedial Reading
08. Scripture (1)
09. Scripture (2) )

Monday, February 18, 2008

Climate change After Bali

The Scientific American has a good assessment of where we are after the meetings on Climate change in Bali:

Last December’s agreement in Bali to launch a two-year negotiation on climate change was good news, a rare example of international cooperation in a world seemingly stuck in a spiral of conflict. Cynics might note that the only accomplishment was an agreement to talk some more, and their cynicism may yet be confirmed. Nevertheless, the growing understanding that serious climate-control measures are feasible at modest cost is welcome.

The arithmetic is becoming clearer. If the rich nations continue to grow in income and the poor ones systematically narrow the income gap with successful development, by 2050 the global economy might increase sixfold and global energy use roughly fourfold. Today’s anthropogenic carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions are around 36 billion tons annually, of which 29 billion are the result of fossil-fuel combustion and industrial processes, and another seven billion or so are the result of tropical deforestation.

Roughly speaking, every 30 billion tons of emissions raises CO2 levels by around two parts per million (ppm). The current atmospheric concentration of CO2 is around 380 ppm, up from 280 ppm at the start of the industrial era in 1800. Thus, to arrive at 440 ppm by midcentury—a plausibly achievable “safe” level in terms of its likely climate change consequences but only 60 ppm more than the current one—cumulative emissions should be kept to roughly 900 billion tons, or roughly 21 billion tons a year on average until 2050. This goal can be achieved by ending deforestation (on a net basis) and by cutting our current fossil-fuel-based emissions by one third.

So here is the challenge. Can the world economy use four times more primary energy while lowering emissions by one third?

The editors think this is doable:

A promising core strategy seems to be the following: Electricity needs to be made virtually emission-free, through the mass mobilization of solar and nuclear power and the capture and sequestration of carbon dioxide from coal-burning power plants. With a clean power grid, most of the other emissions can also be controlled. In less than a decade, plug-in hybrid automobiles recharged on the grid will probably get 100 miles per gallon. Clean electricity could produce hydrogen for fuel-cell-powered vehicles and replace on-site boilers and furnaces for residential heating. The major industrial emitters could be required (or induced through taxation for tradable permits) to capture their CO2 emissions or to convert part of their processes to run on power cells and clean electricity.

Carbon capture and sequestration at coal-fired power plants might raise costs for electricity as little as one to three cents per kilowatt-hour, according to a special report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The mass conversion of the U.S. to solar power might involve an incremental cost of roughly four cents per kilowatt-hour, with overall electricity costs on the order of eight to nine cents per kilowatt-hour. These incremental costs imply far less than 1 percent of the world’s annual income to convert to a clean power grid. The costs in the other sectors will also be small. The fuel savings of low-emissions cars could easily pay for batteries or fuel cells. Residential heating by electricity (or co-generated heat) rather than by home boilers will generally yield a net savings, especially when combined with improved insulation.

The Bali negotiations will succeed if the world keeps its eye on supporting the speedy adoption of low-emissions technologies. Issues of blame, allocation of costs, and choice of control mechanisms are less important than rapid technological development and deployment, backed by a control mechanism chosen by each country.

If the less polluting technologies pan out at low cost, as seems possible, the rich countries will be able to afford to clean up their own energy systems while also bearing part of the costs to enable the poor to make the needed conversions. Climate control is not a morality play. It is mainly a practical and solvable technological challenge, which, if met correctly, can be combined with the needs and aspirations for a growing global economy.

Read it here.

Another Reflection on Lent

My wife and I are giving up alcohol for Lent. In my wife's typical efficient manner, we are also using this an opportunity to lose some weight (we both gained weight as a result of becoming parents), so we are on diet.

I am confident that I can lose some weight as a result of this diet--my aim is to lose at least ten pounds--but I am also aware that to keep this weight off, i will need to keep atleast some of the discipline of this diet--I need to keep the increased excercise routine, reduce my alchol intake, and well, yes, continue to eat less.

It strikes me that the increased spiritual discipline of Lent is much like a diet--taking Lent seriously does a great deal of good, but if we don't make a consistent commitment to our sppiritual life after Lent, we lose much of what we gained.

I tend to be pretty zealous about taking Lent seriously--I attend our church's Lenten education programs, read the Bible and a devotion every day and do quite a bit of other reading on faith. But, I am also very lax in the other seasons of the Church calendar. My spiritual practices all too often get crowded out by the business of my work and family life.

So I have a Lenten resolution: that even after Lent, I will start every morning with a prayer of thanks and that every day I will spend some time with the Bible. I hope, of course, to do much more, but this seemed to me to be a good start toward making a year round commitment to my faith life.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Religious Map of United States

This map shows which of eight major Christian denominations has a plurality in the United States, county by county. the map obviously does not capture the full story given the rich diversity of Christian denominations in the United States, but it does show much of the regionalization of the major denominations.

The map and analysis can be found here.

Hat Tip to my friend Jim.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Robin Williams' Top Ten Reason to Be an Episcopalian

The comedian Robin Williams is an Episcopalian, and he has created a funny "Top Ten" List of reasons to be an Episcopalian. I realize that this is old to many of you, but I just saw this today (on a T-shirt in the Cathedral Shoppe), and had to share. Here is the list:

10. No snake handling.

9. You can believe in dinosaurs.

8. Male and female, God created them; male and female, we ordain them.

7. You don't have to check your brains at the door.

6. Pew aerobics.

5. Church year is color coded!

4. Free wine on Sunday.

3. All of the pageantry, none of the guilt.

2. You don't have to know how to swim to get baptized.

And the number one reason for being an Episcopalian:

1. No matter what you believe, there's bound to be at least one other Episcopalian who agrees with you.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Evolution Weekend

Happy Evolution Weekend. What's this all about? Well, about 800 congregations across the country, from many different denominations, are discussing evolution in church this weekend. The point, of course, is not to denouse Darwin and evolution, but rather to recognize that evolution and a Christian faith are compatible.

The official website of Evolution weekend is here.

Additional Resources:

A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Undertanding here.

Science, Evolution, and Creationism from the National Academy of Sciences.

My own 25 postings on evolution can be found here.

Friday, February 8, 2008

A Lenten Reflection on William Wilberforce

We have a tradition at Trinity of having members of the congregation prepare Lenten mediations on the readings for the 40 days of Lent. Today was my day, and here was my contribution:

Psalm 51: 1-10
Isaiah 58:1-9a
Matthew 9:10-17

Is not this the fast I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

Last year, the United Kingdom celebrated the 200th anniversary of the end to the slave trade. The story of the hard fought battle was also celebrated last year in the movie Amazing Grace, which focused on the long struggle of William Wilberforce, a committed Christian and member of Parliament who made ending the slave trade his life’s ambition.

Given that I too am a former elected official, I have long found Wilberforce to be my inspiration. Aside from the fact that Wilberforce is one of the few (perhaps the only?) politician recognized in the Book of Common prayer with a day on the church calendar, what is fascinating to me about Wilberforce is that as a young member of Parliament, he had a crisis—not a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of calling: After his conversion to an evangelical faith, Wilberforce struggled with how best to serve God—as a Priest or as a politician. The decision he made was that he could best serve God by remaining in Parliament—but only if he decided to take on the “lost cause” of ending the slave trade.

Regardless of our profession, we don’t need to become priests to serve God by our careers. And it seems to me that today’s lesson from Isaiah offers a pretty good list of things that God expects us to do in our own lives: work toward justice, feed the poor, house the homeless, and otherwise answer the “call for help.”

Now we can’t all have careers that allow us to have the same impact for justice that Wilberforce had in his life. It certainly appears that I won’t. But we need to remember that Wilberforce did not win the fight against the slave trade all by himself. In 1807, the year that Wilberforce was finally successful, he presented the House of Commons a petition with over 390,000 signatures that were collected by activists from all over Great Britain. He was but one leader among many in a campaign that energized Christians all over the country with the singular aim of ending this horrific trade. And the story of the civil rights movement in our own country is not only that of Martin Luther King, but also the story of tens of thousands throughout the South and the rest of our nation who spoke out for equality.

As is often the case, Robert F. Kennedy said it best in a speech to students in South Africa:

“Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. Thousands of Peace Corps volunteers are making a difference in isolated villages and city slums in dozens of countries. Thousands of unknown men and women in Europe resisted the occupation of the Nazis and many died, but all added to the ultimate strength and freedom of their countries. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

To look at the devotions by the Trinity Cathedral, go here (pdf file).

Monday, February 4, 2008

Nicholas Kristof on Evangelical Activism

Nicholas Kristof has a must-read op-ed on the nature of Evangelical activism around the world:

Liberals believe deeply in tolerance and over the last century have led the battles against prejudices of all kinds, but we have a blind spot about Christian evangelicals. They constitute one of the few minorities that, on the American coasts or university campuses, it remains fashionable to mock.

Scorning people for their faith is intrinsically repugnant, and in this case it also betrays a profound misunderstanding of how far evangelicals have moved over the last decade. Today, conservative Christian churches do superb work on poverty, AIDS, sex trafficking, climate change, prison abuses, malaria and genocide in Darfur.

Bleeding-heart liberals could accomplish far more if they reached out to build common cause with bleeding-heart conservatives. And the Democratic presidential candidate (particularly if it’s Mr. Obama, to whom evangelicals have been startlingly receptive) has a real chance this year of winning large numbers of evangelical voters.

. . .

A recent CBS News poll found that the single issue that white evangelicals most believed they should be involved in was fighting poverty. The traditional issue of abortion was a distant second, and genocide was third.

Look, I don’t agree with evangelicals on theology or on their typically conservative views on taxes, health care or Iraq. Self-righteous zealots like Pat Robertson have been a plague upon our country, and their initial smugness about AIDS (which Jerry Falwell described as “God’s judgment against promiscuity”) constituted far grosser immorality than anything that ever happened in a bathhouse. Moralizing blowhards showed more compassion for embryonic stem cells than for the poor or the sick, and as recently as the 1990s, evangelicals were mostly a constituency against foreign aid.

Yet that has turned almost 180 degrees. Today, many evangelicals are powerful internationalists and humanitarians — and liberals haven’t awakened to the transformation. The new face of evangelicals is somebody like the Rev. Rick Warren, the California pastor who wrote “The Purpose Driven Life.”

Mr. Warren acknowledges that for most of his life he wasn’t much concerned with issues of poverty or disease. But on a visit to South Africa in 2003, he came across a tiny church operating from a dilapidated tent — yet sheltering 25 children orphaned by AIDS.

“I realized they were doing more for the poor than my entire megachurch,” Mr. Warren said, with cheerful exaggeration. “It was like a knife in the heart.” So Mr. Warren mobilized his vast Saddleback Church to fight AIDS, malaria and poverty in 68 countries. Since then, more than 7,500 members of his church have paid their own way to volunteer in poor countries — and once they see the poverty, they immediately want to do more.

“Almost all of my work is in the third world,” Mr. Warren said. “I couldn’t care less about politics, the culture wars. My only interest is to get people to care about Darfurs and Rwandas.”

. . .

It’s certainly fair to criticize Catholic leaders and other conservative Christians for their hostility toward condoms, a policy that has gravely undermined the fight against AIDS in Africa. But while robust criticism is fair, scorn is not.

In parts of Africa where bandits and warlords shoot or rape anything that moves, you often find that the only groups still operating are Doctors Without Borders and religious aid workers: crazy doctors and crazy Christians. In the town of Rutshuru in war-ravaged Congo, I found starving children, raped widows and shellshocked survivors. And there was a determined Catholic nun from Poland, serenely running a church clinic.

Unlike the religious right windbags, she was passionately “pro-life” even for those already born — and brave souls like her are increasingly representative of religious conservatives. We can disagree sharply with their politics, but to mock them underscores our own ignorance and prejudice.

Read it all here.