bookmark_borderJefferson Center Summer Institute

Matt Young has a report on Panda’s Thumb about the Jefferson Center’s Summer Institute this year — an event where I appeared as the “skeptical scientist” representative. It was fun, and I was impressed with the Jefferson Center. I’d urge anyone interested in a humanistic viewpoint that’s about more than religion-bashing to get involved, especially if you live in Oregon or northern California.

One observation. Usually the creation/evolution issue stands out as the main area of friction between science and religion today, often leading to the notion that it’s only fundamentalist religion that has any gripe with science. Since many of the other presenters at the Summer Institute hailed from liberal religious backgrounds, it was an interesting occasion to highlight a clash between current scientific trends and non-fundamentalist religion. And that’s the issue of physicalism in general and cognitive neuroscience in particular. There’s some serious fear and loathing among non-fundamentalists as well, though it’s more likely to surface as an internal squabble within intellectual and academic circles, with lots of words like “reductionism” and “scientism” being thrown around.

bookmark_borderEvolutionary Biology Major Dropped From DOE Approved List

The New York Times is reporting that the evolutionary biology major has been dropped from the U.S. Department of Education’s list of eligible majors for educational grants. So if you’re a low-income student applying for a Pell or other federal grant and you want to study evolutionary biology, the feds won’t pay for it. When contacted, a Department of Education spokesperson claimed that it was a “clerical error” and would be fixed right away. That was last Tuesday. I just checked out the official list (online PDF here) and there’s just a blank line at sub section 26.1303 where the major is supposed to be. The Times quoted Lawrence M. Krauss, a physicist at Case Western Reserve University, who said: “Removing that one major is not going to make the nation stupid, but if this really was removed, specifically removed, then I see it as part of a pattern to put ideology over knowledge.” A new dark ages?

Update 9/1/2006: Kudos to the Department of Education for adding it back in…

bookmark_borderReligious fraud increasing

Continuing on the theme of Christianity and giving away wealth, the Associated Press notes that religious fraud is on the increase:

Billions of dollars has been stolen in religion-related fraud in recent years, according to the North American Securities Administrators Association, a group of state officials who work to protect investors.

Between 1984 and 1989, about $450 million was stolen in religion-related scams, the association says. In its latest count — from 1998 to 2001 — the toll had risen to $2 billion. Rip-offs have only become more common since.

“The size and the scope of the fraud is getting larger,” said Patricia Struck, president of the securities association and administrator of the Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions, Division of Securities. “The scammers are getting smarter and the investors don’t ask enough questions because of the feeling that they can be safe in church.”

The last point is elaborated on with some specific examples in the article, and with this summary:

Typically, a con artist will target the pastor first, by making a generous donation and appealing to the minister’s desire to expand the church or its programs, according to Joseph Borg, director of the Alabama Securities Commission, who played a key role in breaking up the Greater Ministries scam.

If the pastor invests, churchgoers view it as a tacit endorsement. The con man, often promising double digit returns, will chip away at resistance among church members by suggesting they can donate part of their earnings to the congregation, Borg says.

“Most folks think `I’m going to invest in some overseas deal or real estate deal and part of that money is going to the church and I get part. I don’t feel like I’m guilty of greed,'” Borg says.

If a skeptical church member openly questions a deal, that person is often castigated for speaking against a fellow Christian.

Ole Anthony of the Trinity Foundation Inc. in Dallas, which investigates fraud and televangelism, partly blames the churches themselves for the problem. Anthony contends that the “prosperity gospel” — which teaches that the truly faithful are rewarded with wealth in this life — is creeping into mainstream churches.

Ole Anthony has worked hard to expose fraud by televangelists, occasionally teaming up with skeptics to do so. I heard him speak at an “unofficial session” at the Dallas CSICOP conference in 1992.

Hat tip: Ed Brayton at Dispatches from the Culture Wars.

UPDATE (September 2, 2009): Another major fraud against churchgoers.

bookmark_borderThe Needle’s Eye

Jesus famously said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 19:24) In the previous post with the video about selling everything a reader interpreted this to mean that the “rich man can enter heaven (with his riches which is what Jesus implies), but it is difficult.” Variants on this apology include the mistaken notion that there was a gate in Jerusalem called the “Needle’s Eye” that was narrow but still passable. Or that Jesus was referring to a carpet needle with excessively thick thread.

All of these explanations have one thing in common: they attempt to mitigate and water down what Jesus said in order to keep hold of riches and eternal life. Such is the allure of greed. Call it the American desire to fuse the excesses of capitalism with biblical teaching if you will. But in the end these explanations are flat wrong. Consider the original story in Mark, from which Matthew probably copied:

As [Jesus] was going out into the way, one ran to him, knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what shall I do that I may inherit eternal life?” You know the commandments:’Do not murder,”Do not commit adultery,”Do not steal,”Do not give false testimony,”Do not defraud,”Honor your father and mother.'” He said to him, “Teacher, I have observed all these things from my youth.” (Mark 10:17,19-20)

Here the rabbi is telling the man that he must obey standard religious laws if he is to be considered righteous. This would not have surprised Mark’s readers. But what Jesus says next is the real shocker:

Jesus looking at him loved him, and said to him, “One thing you lack. Go, sell whatever you have, and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me, taking up the cross.” But his [the man’s] face fell at that saying, and he went away sorrowful, for he was one who had great possessions. Jesus looked around, and said to his disciples, “How difficult it is for those who have riches to enter into the Kingdom of God!” The disciples were amazed at his words. But Jesus answered again, “Children, how hard is it for those who trust in riches to enter into the Kingdom of God! It is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter into the Kingdom of God.” (Mark 10:21-25)

The man is told to sell everything if he wants to enter the Kingdom of God, something that would have shocked Mark’s readers just as it shocks us today. Both the apocryphal Acts of Andrew and the Babylonian Talmud (Berakoth 55b) understood this to refer to a literal camel and needle. You might hang your hat on the word “trust” and assume that what Jesus means is that trusting in wealth more than in God is the real problem. And that’s certainly true to a point. But what Jesus says a little later clues us in as to his deeper meaning:

“But many who are first will be last; and the last first.” (Mark 10:31)

This is really at the heart of the historical Jesus’ teachings. The powerful have everything and the poor nothing. There is no justice save what the rich purchase or bribe for themselves. Jesus teaches that all of the injustices of this world will be corrected in the next. The rich may be able to buy their way to the front of the line but God can’t be bribed; he will see to it that the least among us are lifted up while the undeserving are left behind. You get the idea.

I like Proverbs 23:4: “Do not weary yourself to gain wealth; cease from your consideration of it.” You can’t take it with you when you’re gone and the pursuit of money for its own ends will lead to suffering. If wealth happens to come your way, fine. But be satisfied with what you have. Because true happiness comes from contentment right now rather than agitation and anxiety over what might or might not come to you in the future.

bookmark_borderKansas Course Correction

In December 2005, Judge Jones struck a blow against the Intelligent Design (ID) movement in Dover, PA (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover Area School District). Perhaps just as important as the decision itself was the public reaction to it at the polling booth. Locals in Dover overwhelming “threw out the bums” and voted in moderate school board members who had promised to restore science to the classroom. And that they did.

Not all districts have reported in yet, but it looks like the same thing is happening in Kansas. Kansas state board members serve 2-year terms. The two conservative board members up for reelection — Connie Morris and Brad Patzer, both of whom were deeply sympathetic to the ID cause — have been kicked off the board by the sensible voters. Each will be replaced with moderate board members who have promised to restore science to Kansas classrooms. (For the very latest news, check out NCSE’s web site.)

These election results will surely lead to a reversal of the medieval decision by the board in November 2005 to adopt creationism over science. NCSE calls it a “pendulum swing” but that suggests some sort of regularity to this whole mess. I’d say it’s more accurate to call it a course correction. There’s no swinging pendulum here, just some crazy folks who once in a while grab the ship’s wheel when the captain isn’t looking. Are you paying attention Discovery Institute? As soon as regular folks find out what your stealth candidates are doing they rise up against it.