bookmark_borderReligion in odd places

I’ve been teaching a relatively non-mathematical liberal-artsy freshman physics course in the spring semester the last few years. It’s great fun, and one of the reasons is that I find out how differently someone like me — who has been thoroughly brainwashed by being a science-type for 20 years — thinks when compared someone who hasn’t. One difference is certainly in when and how religion pops up.

For example, in one exam, I asked students to give an example of a type of question that they would consult a physicist about, and explain why. (It had to be a question that hadn’t come up in class.) And then, I also had them give me a question that they would not ask a physicist, and explain why. Many students answered as straightforwardly as you might expect, saying, for example, that you might ask a physicist about a rainbow but not about the best policy to control the inflation rate. Interestingly, a fair number answered that “the existence of God” was something they wouldn’t ask a physicist about, not on the mundane ground that a physicist wasn’t the right sort of expert but because it was a matter of faith. Not an amazing event, certainly — people are well-drilled in strategies to protect their religion from criticism — but for some reason I wasn’t expecting it to surface in a physics exam. Oh, and one student actually listed “the existence of God” as something he would ask a physicist about, mainly because it seemed scientists knew a lot about how the world works and so forth. Maybe it’s not so much the answers that surprised me as that these were the first things that popped into so many students’ minds in an exam situation.

And then there’s the student who wrote, in an assignment discussing the possibility of other intelligent life in the universe (I do things with a science fiction theme), that she thought this was unlikely because it went against her convictions concerning human dignity and so forth. It’s interesting that she thought that was at all relevant to assessing the probabilities.

Presumably I should be learning something from my experience with students here, but I’m not sure what…

bookmark_borderRed Cross adopting support for “faith-based” approaches

Like the Department of Homeland Security, the American Red Cross has also decided to start supporting “faith-based” approaches to disaster relief. Included in their changes of policy in the face of problems that occurred in recent hurricane relief efforts, they will now be providing financial support to churches, as reported in the New York Times:

And in a shift in policy, it also plans to work more closely with other charities, like local churches, providing them with financial assistance.

Trent Stamp of Charity Navigator rightly notes at his blog that many donors do not wish their contributions to be used to support any kind of religious mandate, and that he hopes the American Red Cross will be transparent about this change in policy in their fundraising materials.

I’m a former donor to the American Red Cross who already shifted my giving to another relief organization in the light of its superior efficiency in using funds for relief efforts (AmeriCares). This change in policy by the American Red Cross gives me another supporting reason for my decision.

bookmark_borderPat Robertson: Stone Cold Fresh

Pat Robertson has a new book out and you know what that means: asking about the sex lives of women he just met. Rita Braver of CBS News interviewed Robertson on April 9 (the transcript is available here). First, Robertson tells a whopper about a woman who was “stone cold dead” and raised back to life because of the prayers of others. Then he tells Braver a story about a trip he took to Jerusalem:
[T]hey thought she was demon possessed. And these women are in the conference, and they said, “Go cast demons out of her.” And I ignored it and ate dinner…. And then the next night, they had moved this poor woman out of the hotel. She was crying out for mercy and saying, “Oh God, help me,” because she had such bad asthma.
So Robertson and his wife go visit the woman in her hotel room:
[She was] very attractive– striking brunette, 45 years old, you know thin, 5’8″ kind of thing. And — she had this look in her eyes. And — so I went in, and my wife was with me. And they took the two chairs and I sat on the bed…. And I said, “Tell me about your problem.” And she said, “I’ve got this asthma.” And I said, “Have you been to the doctor?” And — and she said, “Yes. The doctor said my asthma was caused by praying with nuns.”
After explaining to the woman that asthma is not caused by praying with nuns, Robertson tells us how he prayed to God for guidance:
And then I prayed. And I said, “Lord, what’s wrong with her?” I just prayed silently. And the Lord said, “Ask about her sex life.”
Robertson complies with God’s strange request and after getting the juicy details he prays with her and God instantly heals her asthma. There’s a lot more where that came from in the transcript.


Every so so often I like to visit the web site of The Raelian Movement, just so I can remind myself that rejecting God is perfectly compatible with all sorts of craziness.

It’s too bad they don’t advertise themselves as the “world’s largest Atheist, non-profit, UFO-related organisation” on their web site anymore, but at least its title is “The Raelian Movement: Intelligent Design for Atheists.” Yes, they do push ID. Except that the “designer” is a bunch of advanced space aliens.

They’ve still got some outright atheist stuff in their FAQ, and I must say they’ve got an interesting cosmology. See “Who Created the Elohim?” and “What makes a Raelian any different from people who believe in GOD?“. Great stuff, if you like weirdness.

bookmark_borderGospel of Judas Found

For those of us interested in ancient Christianity, the National Geographic Society has announced a new manuscript find. Those don’t happen everyday (or even every decade) so it’s pretty exciting news. The text is of the gospel genre, written in Coptic around 300 CE like those found at Nag Hammadi, and is entitled Gospel of Judas. The codex is said to be a copy of an older work written in Greek around 200 CE. At this time in Christianity’s development, there was already a thriving oral tradition in which communities swapped, told, and retold stories about Jesus. These pericopes took the particular shape with which we’re familiar during this period. Eventually Christians wrote these stories down. This effort, beginning with Mark at around 75 CE (or the theoretical Q gospel even earlier), sought to codify the stories swirling around among the various communities into a more solid form. The noncanonical Gospel of Judas contains a different spin on Judas’ role in the days leading up to the Passion. In this version of the tale, Jesus approaches Judas and asks that he turn him into the authorities. By doing so, Judas is fulfilling his role in the master plan. Check it out here.

bookmark_borderTransitional Fossil Announced

According to a story published in today’s New York Times, scientists have discovered a “missing link” between fish and land mammals. The transitional fossils are “so clearly an intermediate ‘link between fishes and land vertebrates,’ they said, that it
‘might in time become as much an evolutionary icon as the proto-bird Archaeopteryx,’ which bridged the gap between reptiles (probably dinosaurs) and today’s birds.” Since creationists have made it a central point to argue that no such transitional fossils exist, this is definitely a blow to their argument.

Of course, I’ve always thought that any young-earth creationist who drives a car ought to be ashamed of his own ignorance. How do they suppose that geologists figure out exactly where to look for oil? Do they just start drilling any old place and hope they get lucky? Of course not. Geologists have such high probabilities of finding oil because they exploit their knowledge of platetectonics, evolution, and the millions of years it took for the earth to turn megatons of plankton into petroleum.

bookmark_borderDennett-Ruse squabble

Due to a Guardian op-ed attacking Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, some disagreements between Dennett and Michael Ruse have become more public. Ruse thinks the more atheistic commentators on Darwinian evolution, such as Dennett and Dawkins, are (a) intellectually mistaken, and (b) unwittingly helping creationists politically. Dennett has briefly replied to the charge.

Now, generally I’m more impressed with Dennett than Ruse, whose work I very often dislike. And naturally, on (a) I think Ruse is dead wrong, as usual. The political claim, (b), is interesting, though. Its being associated with religious nonbelief is the main reason for the public reaction against evolution. In that case, to the extent that Dawkins, Dennett etc. become more publicly thought of as defenders of evolution, it’s quite plausible that they contribute to public distrust.

So my interest in defending science and science education leads me to think that Ruse’s (b) has a point, and that politically it may be wiser to shut up about the broadly naturalistic implications of Darwinian evolution. On the other hand, I’m also sick of the public horror generated by any hint that supernaturalists might be wrong. Sigh. Political matters are always so complicated…

bookmark_borderBiblical Miracle in NYT

The “Science Times” section of the New York Times today has a note on an oceanographer, Doron Nof, who proposes to explain Jesus’ walking on water with his standing on a bit of ice.

I wonder, when I occasionally see something like this, if the 19th century practice of finding rational explanations for Biblical miracles (and thereby curiously preserving the Bible’s historical accuracy) is still alive. I doubt it’s that, though. I expect that if Nof & co. had just had some dry academic observations about historical climate records, few outside their subsubdiscipline would take notice. The publicity gods are the ones really being worshipped here.

bookmark_borderGod’s Own Party

Interesting article by Kevin Phillips in the Washington Post today, “How the GOP Became God’s Own Party.” And he has a book out, naturally — yet another one I’ll have to add to my reading pile.

Actually, I don’t hugely care about religion per se. I’m interested mainly in supernatural fact claims, since they make the best contrast to what I really care about, working on a naturalistic big-picture view of the world. I’d really rather not get drawn into those aspects of religion that don’t, for example, mess with physics. (Though it’s surprising how often this happens, at least indirectly.) But the large numbers of people of all faiths who take their religion too seriously (all fundamentalists, but not just them) seem determined to make life difficult for me. So I can’t avoid the political nonsense. Beh!

And while I’m at it — whatever happened to conservatism as a political viewpoint I could respect, even when I disagreed? It seems to be alive in Europe, at least in Britain, but why did American conservatives decide at some point that they could sit down and devour their own brains? What is it with all this mindless worship of the market or Jesus or the military or the disgusting combination of all of the above?

I’m seriously worried about some of this. I spend a good deal of time listening to Christian radio and reading conservative Christian literature, partly because of my strange fascination with creationism. It’s become really ugly in the last five years — every now and then I have to exclaim that some of these Religious Right types are pushing a variety of fascism. I’m not using the f-word lightly. I lived through a right-wing military dictatorship in 1980’s Turkey, and I have some feel for a toxic combination of religion and nationalism, and an environment where you feel you have to watch what you say or else someone’s going to squish you for being disloyal. It seems that’s the direction many in the GOP want to take us.