Star of the East

It's practically the theme today, even though Epiphany is still a couple of weeks off, but the Associated Press' weekly faith feature, Religion Today, just happens to be on the latest astronomical explanation for the Star of Bethlehem:

As a theoretical astrophysicist, Grant Mathews had hoped the answer would be spectacular - something like a supernova. But two years of research have led him to a more ordinary conclusion. The heavenly sign around the time of the birth of Jesus Christ was likely an unusual alignment of planets, the sun and the moon.

The star, though, has long been immortalized in Christmas songs, plays and movies. Astronomers, theologians and historians for hundreds of years have been trying to determine exactly which star might have inspired the biblical writing. German astronomer Johannes Kepler proposed in 1604 that the star was a conjunction of Mars, Jupiter and Saturn in 7 B.C.

The advantage Mathews has over Kepler and others who have pondered the question is that he had access to NASA's databases.

"In principle, we can see any star that was ever made from the beginning of time if we knew where to look. So the question is, could we find a star that could be a good candidate for what showed up then?" he said.

...

Mathews found two possible supernovas in the right period, but said one was probably too low on the horizon to be seen. The other supernova is known as Kes 75. But it was 60,000 light years away and may not have been particularly spectacular.

"There's no real convincing evidence this happened right at 2000 years ago, but it could be in the range of being right because it's in the right location," he said.

He also found a number of nova that also could have been the Christmas star. The one he thinks is the most likely candidate is known as Nova Aquilae V603. The problem with novas and comets, though, is that they were believed in ancient times to be a sign of disaster, not a portent of good things to come.

For that reason, Mathews believes the Christmas star is most likely an alignment of planets. He said there are three likely times for this:

-Feb. 20, 6 B.C., when Mars, Jupiter and Saturn aligned in the constellation Pisces.

-April 17, 6 B.C., when the sun, Jupiter, the moon and Saturn aligned in the constellation Aries while Venus and Mars were in neighboring constellations.

-June 17, 2 B.C., when Jupiter and Venus were closely aligned in Leo.

Mathews believes the April 17, 6 B.C., alignment is the most likely candidate. It makes sense because he believes the wise men were Zoroastrian astrologers who would have recognized the planetary alignment in Aries as a sign a powerful leader was born.

Read it all here.

Stem cells: controversy averted?

The LA Times reports:

Scientists reported Thursday that for the first time they have made human embryonic stem cells without destroying embryos, a development that the government's top stem cell official said would make the controversial research eligible for federal funding.

Story Landis, who chairs the National Institute of Health's stem cell task force, said that with certain safeguards, the new method appeared to comply with federal restrictions that have largely cut scientists off from the $28 billion the government spends on medical research each year.

But:

Though the technique spares embryos, it still raises ethical concerns.

The Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, an ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, said that removing a single cell from an embryo turns it into "a starting source for harvestable raw materials, in a gesture that reduces young humans to commodities."

And because the single embryonic cell can be grown into stem cells, some scientists and ethicists wondered whether the cell itself has the potential to become a whole new embryo.

"It would be hard to rule out," said Martin Pera, director of the Center for Stem Cell and Regenerative Medicine at USC.

Read it all.

Third Annual Evolution Weekend

The third annual Evolution Weekend, February 8-10, will be marked by members of more than 100 Episcopal congregations calling upon scientists and science educators in their communities to employ their skills as preachers and teachers according to Phina Borgeson writing for Episcopal Life Online.

One important goal of the observance is "to elevate the quality of the discussion on [religion and science] -- to move beyond sound bytes" notes Michael Zimmerman, founder of the initiative.

Evolution Weekend is an outgrowth of the Clergy Letter Project, signed by more than 11,000 religious leaders of many denominations who recognize the compatibility of evolutionary theory and Christian belief. Formerly Evolution Sunday, the name has been changed to embrace all faith traditions.

"Preaching positively about science can strengthen the credibility of church leaders at a time when our voices are sorely needed in important debates about abortion, stem cell research, cloning, resource sustainability, and other issues," says Peter M. J. Hess, faith project director at the National Center for Science Education (NCSE).

"Creationism -- in both its 'Young Earth' and its 'Intelligent Design' variants -- continues to trouble congregations. This rises to the level of scandal when a pastor of an educated congregation preaches a world view that disregards the work of astronomers, geologists, biologists, geneticists, and practitioners of a host of other sciences, some of whom may be members of the congregation," he adds. "The pulpit is a powerful tool, and one way to use it in the service of truth is to participate in some way, small or great, in the observation of Evolution Weekend."

Read the whole article here.

Additional Resources:
A Catechism of Creation: An Episcopal Undertanding here

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

Ideas for participating in Evolution Weekend here

Neuroscience and the Christian community

Perhaps you were unaware the neurology plays an essential role in congregational development, especially during times to transition. In this presentation to the annual Convention of the Diocese of Washington, Peter Steinke explains to you why individuals and communities resist change, no matter how obvious the need for such change might be. And he will make you laugh as he does so.

Bridging science and theology

Polish theologian, cosmologist, and philosopher Michael Heller, who lived through both Nazi and communist rule and has long sought to reconcile science and religion, has won the 2008 Templeton Prize.

The £820,000 prize (more than $1.6 million) is awarded "for progress toward research or discoveries about spiritual realities."

"He's one of the key contributors in the international scholarly community dedicated to the creative dialogue on science, theology, and philosophy," says Robert John Russell, founder and director of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences in Berkeley, Calif. "He's a great example of someone who bridges these fields."

The Christian Science Monitor has it all.

Hardwired for status?

Two recent studies in Neutron have found that we process concepts of cash and status in the same part of our brains, and suggest that our brains may prefer status to cash. Scientific American has this summary:

New research shows for the first time that we process cash and social values in the same part of our brain (the striatum)—and likely weigh them against one another when making decisions. So what's more important—money or social standing? It might be the latter, according to two new studies published in the journal Neuron.

"Our study shows that both behaviorally and in the brain, people place an importance on social status," says Caroline Zink, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) in Bethesda, Md., and co-author of one of studies. "It's hugely influential even [when we're not] in direct competition with someone else."

Zink's NIMH team and their counterparts at Japan's National Institute for Physiological Sciences (NIPS) used different methods to determine that we process social values in the striatum, which had previously been tapped as our brain's monetary reward center. This is key, researchers say, because it provides evidence that our brains consider a good rep—as well as cash—to be rewarding and worth considering as we mull our options. In addition, they note that our brains likely weigh the benefits of each against one another (because they are processed in the same place) as we make up our minds.

"Although we intuitively know that a good reputation makes us feel good, the idea that a good reputation is a 'reward' had long been just an assumption without scientific proof," says Norihiro Sadato, a neuroscience professor at NIPS and a co-author of the Japanese study.

Sadato and colleagues conducted fMRI scans of the brains of 19 subjects while they engaged in two different exercises. The first task was a simple game in which participants had to choose one of three cards in the hope of winning a cash prize. In the second game, fictional evaluators appraised volunteers' characters based on the results of personality trait questionnaires. The researchers found that the striatum activated in response to high and low appraisals (but did not perk up to more neutral comments); it also responded to monetary wins and losses but was quiet if a player broke even.

"The implication of our study is that the different types of the reward are coded by the same currency system,'' says Sadato, "enabling the comparison between them."

In the NIMH study, researchers scanned the brains of 72 volunteers as they attempted to earn money in a computer game. During play, the researchers occasionally revealed how supposed competitors (who, unbeknownst to them, were fake) were faring. The scientists created an arbitrary ranking system of the real and faux players in which some of the bogus gamers appeared to perform better—and others worse—than the real ones. The participants were told that their status in the game had no effect on how much money they could win, but that earning more money could boost their rank.

"We found that the brain reacts very strongly to the other players and specifically the status of the other players," Zink says. "We weren't expecting that profound a response," she adds, noting that the subjects seemed to be concerned with the hierarchy within the game even when it was of no consequence to how much money they could make.

Read it all here. Read more about the Japanese study here and the NIMH study here.

Ring true?

Scientists gain respect for elevated spiritual states

David Brooks:

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day. I’m not qualified to take sides, believe me. I’m just trying to anticipate which way the debate is headed. We’re in the middle of a scientific revolution. It’s going to have big cultural effects.
...
If you survey the literature (and I’d recommend books by Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser if you want to get up to speed), you can see that certain beliefs will spread into the wider discussion.

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Teachers preaching creationism in public schools

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Fully one-fourth of science teachers are teaching creationism or intelligent design in U.S. classrooms, according to a recent survey:

US COURTS have repeatedly decreed that creationism and intelligent design are religion, not science, and have no place in school science classes. Try telling that to American high-school teachers - 1 in 8 teach the ideas as valid science, according to the first national survey on the subject.

Michael Berkman, a political scientist at Pennsylvania State University in University Park, and his colleagues found that 2 per cent of 939 science teachers who responded said they did not teach evolution. A quarter reported teaching about creationism or intelligent design, and of these, nearly half - about 1 in 8 of the total survey - said they taught it as a "valid, scientific alternative to Darwinian explanations for the origin of species" . . .

Sixteen per cent of the total said they believed human beings had been created by God within the past 10,000 years. The teachers who subscribed to these creationist views, perhaps not surprisingly, spent 35 per cent fewer hours teaching evolution than educators with more scientific views, the researchers found.

Read it all here. The full report can be read for free here.

Compatability of science and religion

The American Association for the Advancement of Science recently released this very interesting video, which features Dr. Francis Collins and AAAS CEO Alan Leshner discussing the compatibility of science and religion, including a focus on evolution.

The singularity: rapture of the geeks

Spectrum, a publication of the IEEE (formerly known as Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.) devotes its most recent issue to the "singularity", a theory that postulates that artifical intelligence is on the verge of matching human intelligence. Among the implications is immortal life, which at least one of the IEEE articles thinks is part of the problem:

Across cultures, classes, and aeons, people have yearned to transcend death.

Bear that history in mind as you consider the creed of the singularitarians. Many of them fervently believe that in the next several decades we’ll have computers into which you’ll be able to upload your consciousness—the mysterious thing that makes you you. Then, with your consciousness able to go from mechanical body to mechanical body, or virtual paradise to virtual paradise, you’ll never need to face death, illness, bad food, or poor cellphone reception.

Now you know why the singularity has also been called the rapture of the geeks.

The singularity is supposed to begin shortly after engineers build the first computer with greater-than-human intelligence. That achievement will trigger a series of cycles in which superintelligent machines beget even smarter machine progeny, going from generation to generation in weeks or days rather than decades or years. The availability of all that cheap, mass-­produced brilliance will spark explosive economic growth, an unending, hypersonic, tech­no­industrial rampage that by comparison will make the Industrial Revolution look like a bingo game.

At that point, we will have been sucked well beyond the event horizon of the singularity. It might be nice there, on the other side—by definition, you can’t know for sure. Sci-fi writers, though, have served up lots of scenarios in which humankind becomes the prey, rather than the privileged beneficiaries, of synthetic savants.

. . .

Why should a mere journalist question Kurzweil’s conclusion that some of us alive today will live indefinitely? Because we all know it’s wrong. We can sense it in the gaping, take-my-word-for-it extrapolations and the specious reasoning of those who subscribe to this form of the singularity argument. Then, too, there’s the flawed grasp of neuroscience, human physiology, and philosophy. Most of all, we note the willingness of these people to predict fabulous technological advances in a period so conveniently short it offers themselves hope of life everlasting.

This has all gone on too long. The emperor isn’t wearing anything, for heaven’s sake.

The singularity debate is too rarely a real argument. There’s too much fixation on death avoidance. That’s a shame, because in the coming years, as ­computers become stupendously powerful—really and truly ridiculously powerful—and as electronics and other technologies begin to enhance and fuse with biology, life really is going to get more interesting.

Read it all here.

It is a fascinating issue, and well worth a read. The entire issue can be found here.

Christian theology and alien life

Wired has an interesting exploration of the implications of alien life on Christian theology. In particular, what would the discovery of intelligent alien life mean for such concepts as the Incarnation and the Great Commission:

Little green men might shock the secular public. But the Catholic Church would welcome them as brothers.

That's what Vatican chief astronomer and papal science adviser Gabriel Funes explained in a recent article in L'Osservatore Romano, the newsletter of the Vatican Observatory (translated here). His conclusion might surprise nonbelievers. After all, isn't this the same church that imprisoned Galileo for saying that the Earth revolves around the sun? Doesn't the Bible say that God created man -- not little green men -- in his image?

Indeed, many observers assert that aliens would be bad for believers. Jill Tarter, director of the Center for SETI Research, once wrote that finding intelligent other-worldly life "will be inconsistent with the existence of God or at least organized religions." But such predictions tend to come from outside Christianity. From within, theologians have debated the implications of alien contact for centuries. And if one already believes in angels, no great leap of faith is required to accept the possibility of other extraterrestrial intelligences.

Since God created the universe, theologians say, he would have created aliens, too. And far from being weakened by contact, Christianity would adapt. Its doctrines would be interpreted anew, the aliens greeted with open -- and not necessarily Bible-bearing -- arms.

"The main question is, 'Would religion survive this contact?'" said NASA chief historian Steven J. Dick, author of The Biological Universe. "Religion hasn't gone away after Copernican theory, after Darwin. They've found ways to adapt, and they'll find a way if this happens, too," Dick says.

The central conundrum posed to Christianity by alien contact would involve the Incarnation -- the arrival of Jesus Christ as God's representative on Earth, his crucifixion and the absolution of humanity's sins through his forgiveness.

"It would still be true -- but if there are other races and intelligences, then what is the meaning of this visit to our race at that time?" asked Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno, who in 2005 penned the booklet Intelligent Life in the Universe?

Some propose that the Earthly incarnation of Jesus some 2,000 years ago redeemed all intelligent creatures, in all places and -- since a space-faring race is likely older than us -- in all times. Others have suggested that Jesus could take multiple forms.

"Just as Jesus is human like you and I, you would find an alien-specific Jesus," said Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary professor Ted Peters.

But Peters and others also say that aliens may not have fallen into sin, instead existing in a state of grace, neither having nor needing Jesus. In that case, missionaries would have no call to convert them.

. . .

"If there are aliens, the Bible specifically does not say that they were created in his image," said Mark Conn, pastor of the Noble Hill Baptist Church in Springfield, Missouri. "God created many other intelligent beings on this planet, and they were not created in His image."

Conn's church recently met to discuss the issues posed by extraterrestrial contact, ultimately deciding that "if they're there, they're there. It doesn't change a whole lot."

Unlike Peters, Conn suggested that missionary work may be required, something the aliens may not welcome -- especially if, as many postulate, they are technologically superior to humanity and do not have religions of their own.

"Maybe they'll say that they used to need religion but have outgrown it. Some people say that would be a great blow to religion, because if an advanced civilization doesn't need it, why do we?" said Douglas Vakoch, director of interstellar message composition at SETI.

"I don't buy it, though. I think religion meets very human needs, and unless extraterrestrials can provide a replacement for it, I don't think religion is going to go away," he continued. "And if there are incredibly advanced civilizations with a belief in God, I don't think Richard Dawkins will start believing."

Read it all here.

2000 year old seed from Masada sprouts

USAToday reports a seed recovered from Masada continues to grow and thrive.

The little tree was sprouted in 2005 from a seed recovered from Masada, where rebelling Jews committed suicide rather than surrender to Roman attackers.

Radiocarbon dating of seed fragments clinging to its root, as well as other seeds found with it that didn't sprout, indicate they were about 2,000 years old -- the oldest seed known to have been sprouted and grown.

Just over three years old and about four-feet tall, Methuselah is growing well. "It's lovely," Dr. Sarah Sallon said of the date palm, whose parents may have provided food for the besieged Jews at Masada some 2,000 years ago.

HT to Grandmere Mimi at Wounded Bird.

Gallup releases annual evolution survey

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The Gallup Poll released their annual survey on American views about evolution, and once again found strong support for creationism:

Read more »

Thanking God for Charles Darwin

The Rev. Michael Dowd writes:

July 1st marks the 150th anniversary of the theory of evolution. For years, I believed that Darwin was of the devil. Now, I deeply honor his contribution to religion and my walk with God. Indeed, other than Jesus, no one has had a more positive impact on my faith and my ministry than has Charles Darwin.

Hat tip: Dallas Morning News Religion blog.

The science of spirituality

WBUR's On Point host Jane Clayson:

Science and faith aren't at war with each other, says renowned Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant. They're just in different parts of the brain.

We're hardwired for faith, hope, love and joy, Vaillant says. There's more spirituality in our genes than perhaps even our Sunday School classes.

Does this sound like sacrilege? Or, solid science?

Either way, it's a big, bold controversial view. And Vaillant comes armed with data from the lab and his own pioneering research into adult development.

Go here to listen.

Vaillant's new book is "Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith"

Religion and health

A variety of studies have shown that personal religious practice (such as attending church every Sunday) is correlated with health. Now a new study by Troy Blanchard of Louisiana State University (no relation) shows that the type of congregation in a community is also correlated with health:

LSU associate professor of sociology Troy C. Blanchard recently found that a community's religious environment -- that is, the type of religious congregations within a locale -- affects mortality rates, often in a positive manner. These results were published in the June issue of Social Forces.

"Although there is a great deal of research on religion and health, previous studies have tended to focus on the individual aspects of religion, such as how often an individual prays or attends worship services," said Blanchard.

Along with co-author John Bartkowski from the University of Texas at San Antonio and other researchers from the University of West Georgia and the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Blanchard found that people live longer in areas with a large number of Catholic and Mainline Protestant churches. He offers two key reasons for these findings.

"First, these types of churches have what's known as a 'worldly perspective.' Instead of solely focusing on the afterlife, they place a significant emphasis on the current needs of their communities," he said. These religions commonly organize outreach efforts for the needy and homeless, invest in the health infrastructures of their town and participate in other forms of public charity.

"Secondly, these congregations tend to create bridging ties in communities that lead to greater social cohesion among citizens," said Blanchard. This enhanced sense of connection between people provides collective encouragement for healthy behavior.

In contrast to Catholics and Mainline Protestant congregations, Conservative Protestant churches have a mixed effect on community health. The "otherworldly" character of Conservative Protestantism leads congregations in this tradition to focus on the afterlife. Conservative Protestantism is also a more individualistic faith, one in which the believer's personal relationship with God is paramount. These types of churches are thought to downplay the importance of using collective action, including human institutions, to improve the world. Communities dominated by Conservative Protestant churches tend to have higher mortality rates.

However, this finding has an important caveat, because there are different types of Conservative Protestant churches, namely, Fundamentalist, Pentecostal and Evangelical.

"We find that a greater presence of Fundamentalist and Pentecostal congregations is associated with higher rates of mortality, but communities with a large number of Evangelical congregations have better health outcomes," said Blanchard. "Evangelical congregations do a better job of engaging the broader community and promoting social connectedness that is so essential for longer life expectancies. Fundamentalist congregations tend to be more reclusive, and this insularity is linked with higher mortality rates."

Read it all here.

Religion and disease

Do religions survive because they are useful in combatting infectious disease? One researcher thinks so and he has some data to support his thesis. Here is the report from the Economist:

Read more »

The Pope's scientists

Well, much has changed since Bruno has burned at the stake. The Vatican now operates a premier observatory. As Discover reports, the Vatican also operates a well regarded, but little known science academy that explores a wide variety of scientific issues:

The lessons learned from the trial and condemnation of Galileo in the 1600s have guided an era of scientific caution and hesi­tancy within the Vatican. Today the Vatican’s approach to science is a complex undertaking involving nearly every facet of Church life. The Roman Curia—the Church’s governing body—includes a network of 5 pontifical academies and 11 pontifical councils, each of them charged with tasks ranging from the promotion of Christian unity to the cataloging of martyrs. To varying degrees, each of the 16 offices—and, of course, the independent Vatican Observatory—intersects with scientific issues, and they tend to rely on the efforts of one academy to provide clarity and consultation: the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Housed in a building several centuries old deep inside Vatican City, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is a surprisingly nonreligious institution as well as one of the Vatican’s least understood.

Though it is virtually unknown among laypeople, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences is an independent and remarkably influential body within the Holy See. Over the years its membership roster has read like a who’s who of 20th-century scientists (including Max Planck, Niels Bohr, and Erwin Schrödinger, to name a few), and it currently boasts more than 80 international academicians, many of them Nobel laureates and not all of them Catholic—including the playfully irreligious physicist Stephen Hawking.

Academy members are elected by the current membership. There are no religious, racial, or gender criteria. Candidates are chosen on the basis of their scientific achievements and their high moral standards. When a nomination for membership is made, the Vatican Secretariat of State is consulted in order to prevent the appointment of someone with a questionable history.

“We’re a group of people from all over the world—many religions and attitudes,” says physicist Charles Hard Townes, a Nobel laureate and an inventor of the laser. “It is essential for scientists to participate in this and try to help the Catholic Church, advise them on their policies. Many civilizations in the world are not directly affected by science and technology decision making, but they are affected by mandates and decisions of the Catholic Church.”

. . .

Today the academy’s mandate involves promoting the progress of mathematical, physical, and natural sciences and participating in the study of related epistemological questions and issues. The academy convenes plenary sessions in which its members offer presentations addressing a certain theme. Held every two years, the meetings highlight the most recent advances in the sciences. The next session is slated for October.

Although the academy’s mission seems as benign as that of any other scientific body, its presence within the Vatican invites controversy. During the early 1990s, at a time of alarm about population problems, the academy issued a report saying that there was an “unavoidable need to contain births globally,” a position that supposedly infuriated Pope John Paul II.

A pope, more than anyone else, knows the exact reason for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. In 1992 John Paul II told the members that “the purpose of your academy is precisely to discern and to make known, in the present state of science and within its proper limits, what can be regarded as an acquired truth or at least as enjoying such a degree of probability that it would be imprudent and unreasonable to reject it.” In the pope’s eyes, the academy is an instrument that teases scientific fact from fiction.

The full article is well worth a read.

The real challenge of teaching evolution

The New York Times has an interesting article on the challenge that many science teachers have teaching evolution to a largely fundamentalist student body. Removing legal barriers is obviously only the first step:

David Campbell switched on the overhead projector and wrote “Evolution” in the rectangle of light on the screen.

He scanned the faces of the sophomores in his Biology I class. Many of them, he knew from years of teaching high school in this Jacksonville suburb, had been raised to take the biblical creation story as fact. His gaze rested for a moment on Bryce Haas, a football player who attended the 6 a.m. prayer meetings of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the school gymnasium.

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

. . .

But in a nation where evangelical Protestantism and other religious traditions stress a literal reading of the biblical description of God’s individually creating each species, students often arrive at school fearing that evolution, and perhaps science itself, is hostile to their faith.

Some come armed with “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution,” a document circulated on the Internet that highlights supposed weaknesses in evolutionary theory. Others scrawl their opposition on homework assignments. Many just tune out.

With a mandate to teach evolution but little guidance as to how, science teachers are contriving their own ways to turn a culture war into a lesson plan. How they fare may bear on whether a new generation of Americans embraces scientific evidence alongside religious belief.

“If you see something you don’t understand, you have to ask ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ ” Mr. Campbell often admonished his students at Ridgeview High School.

Yet their abiding mistrust in evolution, he feared, jeopardized their belief in the basic power of science to explain the natural world — and their ability to make sense of it themselves.

Passionate on the subject, Mr. Campbell had helped to devise the state’s new evolution standards, which will be phased in starting this fall. A former Navy flight instructor not used to pulling his punches, he fought hard for their passage. But with his students this spring, he found himself treading carefully, as he tried to bridge an ideological divide that stretches well beyond his classroom.

It is a wonderful profile of a very good science teacher. Read it all here.

A centuries old blending of religion and science

Christianity and Judaism are not alone in discovering how science and religion intersect. Islam depends on astronomers to determine exactly when Ramadan begins.

Here is an account from the Washington Post:

In synch with the sun and the moon, the traditions of 1,400 years and the acts of Muslims all over the world, members of one of Egypt's seven official moon-sighting committees pulled into a parking lot high on a ridge overlooking hazy Cairo at sunset Saturday.

There were government astronomers in open-neck shirts, snapping open tripods to support their telescopes. Taking a preliminary look through the scopes at Cairo's western horizon, the astronomers didn't bother to announce what they saw at first glance: nothing.

There was a 70-year-old Muslim cleric, wearing glasses of stratified thicknesses, a gauzy black robe with gold tassels and a beatific smile. Declining a look through the telescopes, the cleric, Abdul Monim al-Berri, only sat and looked on, his presence as one of Egypt's leading religious scholars giving the gathering the stamp of religious approval. "I'm the legitimacy," he said.

And there was an al-Jazeera satellite news crew, trying to go live to tell the world the news from the parking lot, but having trouble with audio.

Frustrated, the network's reporter folded her arms across her chest and rocked back on her heels in the gravel, staring blindly at the sky.

Together, the committee members were on a mission: to look for the crescent moon that signals the start of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month, and tell the world whether they had seen it....

At 6:17 p.m., the same time when the crescent is expected to appear Sunday, the astronomers bent in earnest over their telescopes.

Bystanders fell silent.

The men stood in the hush, minute after minute, squinting at the rim where earth met sky.

In the silence, the rusty voice of a single old man rose from a mosque in the valley below. Carrying out a ritual older than the moon-watch committees, he man called the faithful to evening prayers.

"Allah akbar," the mosque singer cried. "God is great."

From his chair in the parking lot, Berri raised his fingers to the sky as if to pinch the absent crescent moon.

He then brought his fingers to his mouth and kissed them.

"This is the best part, the mingling of science and religion," Berri said. "It's beautiful."

Washington Post: Religion and Science Blend in a Centuries-Old Ritual

Dead Sea Scrolls being digitized for the internet

The Israel Antiquities Authority is digitally photographing every one of the Dead Sea Scrolls so that they may be available on the internet. The Scrolls, which were discovered between 1947 and 1979, contain every one of the books of Hebrew scripture except the book of Esther and details about rich and diverse Jewish community in the second Temple period of Judaism.

The New York Times reports:

In a crowded laboratory painted in gray and cooled like a cave, half a dozen specialists embarked this week on a historic undertaking: digitally photographing every one of the thousands of fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls with the aim of making the entire file — among the most sought-after and examined documents on earth — available to all on the Internet.

Equipped with high-powered cameras with resolution and clarity many times greater than those of conventional models, and with lights that emit neither heat nor ultraviolet rays, the scientists and technicians are uncovering previously illegible sections and letters of the scrolls, discoveries that could have significant scholarly impact....

“The project began as a conservation necessity,” Ms. Shor explained. “We wanted to monitor the deterioration of the scrolls and realized we needed to take precise photographs to watch the process. That’s when we decided to do a comprehensive set of photos, both in color and infrared, to monitor selectively what is happening. We realized then that we could make the entire set of pictures available online to everyone, meaning that anyone will be able to see the scrolls in the kind of detail that no one has until now.”

The process will probably take one to two years — more before it is available online — and is being led by Greg Bearman, who retired from the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Data collection is directed by Simon Tanner of Kings College London.

Jonathan Ben-Dov, a professor of biblical studies at the University of Haifa, is taking part in the digitalization project. Watching the technicians gingerly move a fragment into place for a photograph, he said that it had long been very difficult for senior scholars to get access.

Once this project is completed, he said with wonder, “every undergraduate will be able to have a detailed look at them from numerous angles.”

NYTimes: Israel to Display the Dead Sea Scrolls on the Internet

Remembering Charles Darwin

As the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809 and the 150th year since the publication of On the Origin of Species approaches, the Church of England has added a section to its web site commemorating Charles Darwin, naturalist and deacon.

Meanwhile, the British press speculates about whether or not the Church of England will apologize for its initial mistreatment of Darwin after the publication of his theories.

From the CofE website:

As media interest grows in the bicentenary, the pages analyse Darwin’s faith and his relationship with the Church of England. A new essay by the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs, gives a personal view of Darwin’s contribution to science, whilst warning of social misapplications of his theories.

The Bishop of Swindon, Rt Revd Lee Rayfield, himself a former biological scientist, has contributed a welcome page to the section, and commented: “Theology and science each have much to contribute in the assertion of the Psalmist that we are ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’. I hope that this new section will not only provide a source of information and knowledge about Charles Darwin and his work, but that it will prove to be a resource for growing in wisdom and understanding.”

In the new section, Darwin and the Church reveals that Darwin was surrounded by the influence of the Church his entire life. Having attended a Church of England boarding school in Shrewsbury, he trained to be a clergyman in Cambridge; was inspired to follow his calling into science by another clergyman who lived and breathed botany; and married into a staunch Anglican family.

However, Darwin and Faith shows, quoting Darwin’s own words, how he slowly lost his personal Christian faith, the erosion made complete by a need for evidence, and the sad death of a beloved daughter.

It is this need for humans to think, and love, that forms the centrepiece of the essay by the Revd Dr Malcolm Brown, called Good Religion Needs Good Science.

After warning of the social misapplication of Darwin’s discoveries, where natural selection justifies racism and other forms of discrimination - perhaps predicted in the "misguided" over-reaction of the Church in the 1860s - Malcolm Brown writes: “Christians will want to stress, instead, the human capacity for love, for altruism, and for self-sacrifice.”

The Rev. Dr. Malcolm Brown writes: “There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world."

Check out the site here.

See Thinking Anglicans which has a round up of the advance press coverage here and here.

Creationism in British schools? Not!

For a moment it looked as if American science curriculum battles were about to commence in Great Britain just as the Church of England was about to honor Charles Darwin's 200th birthday. Not so fast, says Dr. Michael Reiss.

Thinking Anglicans reports that the Rev. Professor Michael Reiss, director of education at the Royal Society and a priest in the Church of England, is reported to have told the British Association for the Advancement of Science that creationism and intelligent design should be taught in school science lessons. This created a media storm.

Today, Dr. Reiss released a statement. Ekklesia reports:

A leading biological scientist, and the prestigious Royal Society he works for, has said that his comments on creationism and the classroom have been misrepresented - and that it is opposed to creationism being taught as science.

"Some media reports have misrepresented the views of Professor Michael Reiss, Director of Education at the Society expressed in a speech yesterday," the Royal Society declared in a statement on 12 September 2008.

The Rev Professor Reiss, also an Anglican clergyman, has issued a further statement which is being described by the Society as a clarification.

He said: "Some of my comments about the teaching of creationism have been misinterpreted as suggesting that creationism should be taught in science classes. Creationism has no scientific basis. However, when young people ask questions about creationism in science classes, teachers need to be able to explain to them why evolution and the Big Bang are scientific theories but they should also take the time to explain how science works and why creationism has no scientific basis. I have referred to science teachers discussing creationism as a worldview'; this is not the same as lending it any scientific credibility."

The Royal Society, the organisation declared, "remains committed to the teaching of evolution as the best explanation for the history of life on earth. This position was highlighted in the Interacademy Panel statement on the teaching of evolution issued in June 2006."

Government guidelines make it clear that neither creationism nor its cousin 'intelligent design' can be regarded as valid scientific theories.

A Church of England spokesperson, the Rev Dr Malcom Brown, who heads up the denomination's mission and public affairs unit, also made it clear that the Church has no truck for creationist propaganda - which is based on fundamentalist readings of Scriptural texts and denies 150 years of modern evolutionary biology.

The message that the media largely missed is that creationism ought not to be ignored but contextualized.

The British Humanist Association said that creationism was “simply wrong” but agreed that those who struggle to accept science should be engaged by science teachers rather than ignored.

Andrew Copson, director of education and public affairs for the BHA, said it was better to take the opportunity to talk rather than to belittle children. “Should a teacher say, ‘Shut up, that's for RE'? Obviously not,” he said. “If a child raises it in a classroom you don't say, ‘Shut up'. You say, ‘That's not a scientific perspective.' It can be an opportunity to demonstrate what a scientific perspective is.”

Read the rest here.

Thinking Anglican reports here.

Addendum: Professor Reiss has resigned his post. Thinking Anglicans has a roundup of links. It is worth checking the links before deciding if he was wrong or wronged.

Without God

Nobel prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg gave a lecture at Harvard earlier this year exploring how religion and science are in conflict--but not in the superficial ways we see in debates over creationism. His lecture is now available in the New York Review of Books:

Let's grant that science and religion are not incompatible—there are after all some (though not many) excellent scientists, like Charles Townes and Francis Collins, who have strong religious beliefs. Still, I think that between science and religion there is, if not an incompatibility, at least what the philosopher Susan Haack has called a tension, that has been gradually weakening serious religious belief, especially in the West, where science has been most advanced. Here I would like to trace out some of the sources of this tension, and then offer a few remarks about the very difficult question raised by the consequent decline of belief, the question of how it will be possible to live without God.

. . .

The problem for religious belief is not just that science has explained a lot of odds and ends about the world. There is a second source of tension: that these explanations have cast increasing doubt on the special role of man, as an actor created by God to play a starring part in a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation. We have had to accept that our home, the earth, is just another planet circling the sun; our sun is just one of a hundred billion stars in a galaxy that is just one of billions of visible galaxies; and it may be that the whole expanding cloud of galaxies is just a small part of a much larger multiverse, most of whose parts are utterly inhospitable to life. As Richard Feynman has said, "The theory that it's all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate."

Most important so far has been the discovery by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace that humans arose from earlier animals through natural selection acting on random heritable variations, with no need for a divine plan to explain the advent of humanity. This discovery led some, including Darwin, to lose their faith. It's not surprising that of all the discoveries of science, this is the one that continues most to disturb religious conservatives. I can imagine how disturbed they will feel in the future, when at last scientists learn how to understand human behavior in terms of the chemistry and physics of the brain, and nothing is left that needs to be explained by our having an immaterial soul.

. . .

There is a fourth source of tension between science and religion that may be the most important of all. Traditional religions generally rely on authority, whether the authority is an infallible leader, such as a prophet or a pope or an imam, or a body of sacred writings, a Bible or a Koran. Perhaps Galileo did not get into trouble solely because he was expressing views contrary to scripture, but because he was doing so independently, rather than as a theologian acting within the Church.

Of course, scientists rely on authorities, but of a very different sort. If I want to understand some fine point about the general theory of relativity, I might look up a recent paper by an expert in the field. But I would know that the expert might be wrong. One thing I probably would not do is to look up the original papers of Einstein, because today any good graduate student understands general relativity better than Einstein did. We progress. Indeed, in the form in which Einstein described his theory it is today generally regarded as only what is known in the trade as an effective field theory; that is, it is an approximation, valid for the large scales of distance for which it has been tested, but not under very cramped conditions, as in the early big bang.

We have our heroes in science, like Einstein, who was certainly the greatest physicist of the past century, but for us they are not infallible prophets. For those who in everyday life respect independence of mind and openness to contradiction, traits that Emerson admired—especially when it came to religion—the example of science casts an unfavorable light on the deference to authority of traditional religion. The world can always use heroes, but could do with fewer prophets.

Weinberg then argues that living life with religion is not without its problems.

Read it all here. What do you think?

Why we enjoy a good story

Scientific American has a fascinating essay that explores why human beings are captivated by stories:

Storytelling is one of the few human traits that are truly universal across culture and through all of known history. Anthropologists find evidence of folktales everywhere in ancient cultures, written in Sanskrit, Latin, Greek, Chinese, Egyptian and Sumerian. People in societies of all types weave narratives, from oral storytellers in hunter-gatherer tribes to the millions of writers churning out books, television shows and movies. And when a characteristic behavior shows up in so many different societies, researchers pay attention: its roots may tell us something about our evolutionary past.

To study storytelling, scientists must first define what constitutes a story, and that can prove tricky. Because there are so many diverse forms, scholars often define story structure, known as narrative, by explaining what it is not. Exposition contrasts with narrative by being a simple, straightforward explanation, such as a list of facts or an encyclopedia entry. Another standard approach defines narrative as a series of causally linked events that unfold over time. A third definition hinges on the typical narrative’s subject matter: the interactions of intentional agents—characters with minds—who possess various motivations.

. . .

But the best stories—those retold through generations and translated into other languages—do more than simply present a believable picture. These tales captivate their audience, whose emotions can be inextricably tied to those of the story’s characters. Such immersion is a state psychologists call “narrative transport.”

Researchers have only begun teasing out the relations among the variables that can initiate narrative transport. A 2004 study by psychologist Melanie C. Green, now at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, showed that prior knowledge and life experience affected the immersive experience. Volunteers read a short story about a gay man attending his college fraternity’s reunion. Those who had friends or family members who were homosexual reported higher transportation, and they also perceived the story events, settings and characters to be more realistic. Transportation was also deeper for participants with past experiences in fraternities or sororities. “Familiarity helps, and a character to identify with helps,” Green explains.

Read it all here.

AIDS virus in circulation for about 100 years

ABC News reports that a genetic analysis of two old strains have pushed back the estimated date of origin of HIV to 1908.

Previously, scientists had estimated the origin at around 1930. AIDS wasn't recognized formally until 1981 when it got the attention of public health officials in the United States.

The new result is "not a monumental shift, but it means the virus was circulating under our radar even longer than we knew," says Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona, an author of the new work.

The results appear in Thursday's issue of the journal Nature. Researchers note that the newly calculated dates fall during the rise of cities in Africa, and they suggest urban development may have promoted HIV's initial establishment and early spread.

Scientists say HIV descended from a chimpanzee virus that jumped to humans in Africa, probably when people butchered chimps. Many individuals were probably infected that way, but so few other people caught the virus that it failed to get a lasting foothold, researchers say.

But the growth of African cities may have changed that by putting lots of people close together and promoting prostitution, Worobey suggested. "Cities are kind of ideal for a virus like HIV," providing more chances for infected people to pass the virus to others, he said.

Perhaps a person infected with the AIDS virus in a rural area went to what is now Kinshasa, Congo, "and now you've got the spark arriving in the tinderbox," Worobey said.

Key to the new work was the discovery of an HIV sample that had been taken from a woman in Kinshasa in 1960. It was only the second such sample to be found from before 1976; the other was from 1959, also from Kinshasa.

Researchers took advantage of the fact that HIV mutates rapidly. So two strains from a common ancestor quickly become less and less alike in their genetic material over time. That allows scientists to "run the clock backward" by calculating how long it would take for various strains to become as different as they are observed to be. That would indicate when they both sprang from their most recent common ancestor.

The new work used genetic data from the two old HIV samples plus more than 100 modern samples to create a family tree going back to these samples' last common ancestor. Researchers got various answers under various approaches for when that ancestor virus appeared, but the 1884-to-1924 bracket is probably the most reliable, Worobey said.

Read the rest here.

Religion and generosity

According to a new study, religious faith does make people more generous--but only in certain circumstances. Here is the Science Daily report:

Belief in God encourages people to be helpful, honest and generous, but only under certain psychological conditions, according to University of British Columbia researchers who analyzed the past three decades of social science research.

Religious people are more likely than the non-religious to engage in prosocial behaviour – acts that benefit others at a personal cost – when it enhances the individual's reputation or when religious thoughts are freshly activated in the person's mind, say UBC social psychologists Ara Norenzayan and Azim Shariff

Their paper "The Origin and Evolution of Religious Prosociality" appears in the October 3, 2008 issue of the journal Science.

Read it all here.

Why we can't imagine death

Scientifc American has a fascinating article by Jesse Bering that explores why every culture has at least some notions of an after-life:

Why do we wonder where our mind goes when the body is dead? Shouldn’t it be obvious that the mind is dead, too?

And yet people in every culture believe in an afterlife of some kind or, at the very least, are unsure about what happens to the mind at death. My psychological research has led me to believe that these irrational beliefs, rather than resulting from religion or serving to protect us from the terror of inexistence, are an inevitable by-product of self-consciousness. Because we have never experienced a lack of consciousness, we cannot imagine what it will feel like to be dead. In fact, it won’t feel like anything—and therein lies the problem.

The common view of death as a great mystery usually is brushed aside as an emotionally fueled desire to believe that death isn’t the end of the road. And indeed, a prominent school of research in social psychology called terror management theory contends that afterlife beliefs, as well as less obvious beliefs, behaviors and attitudes, exist to assuage what would otherwise be crippling anxiety about the ego’s inexistence.

According to proponents, you possess a secret arsenal of psychological defenses designed to keep your death anxiety at bay (and to keep you from ending up in the fetal position listening to Nick Drake on your iPod). My writing this article, for example, would be interpreted as an exercise in “symbolic immortality”; terror management theorists would likely tell you that I wrote it for posterity, to enable a concrete set of my ephemeral ideas to outlive me, the biological organism. (I would tell you that I’d be happy enough if a year from now it still had a faint pulse.)

Yet a small number of researchers, including me, are increasingly arguing that the evolution of self-consciousness has posed a different kind of problem altogether. This position holds that our ancestors suffered the unshakable illusion that their minds were immortal, and it’s this hiccup of gross irrationality that we have unmistakably inherited from them. Individual human beings, by virtue of their evolved cognitive architecture, had trouble conceptualizing their own psychological inexistence from the start.

Read it all here.

Why children like to share

We are taught to believe that Darwinian "survival of the fittest" has rewarded selfish behavior. Recent scientific studies, however, paint a much different picture. Nature has rewarded cooperation--which is why older small children like to share:

In recent years the tide has swung dramatically against such a bleak view of human nature, however. Researchers are increasingly coming to understand that people are also “programmed” to care about others. A recent contribution to this theme comes from neuroscientist Ernst Fehr at the University of Zurich and colleagues. In a study, the researchers explored a particular type of unselfishness known as inequality aversion. Suppose individual A has $10, and individual B has a lesser amount, say $5. We say individual A is inequality averse if he shares some of his cash with individual B, thus reducing the inequality between them. We say individual B is inequality averse if he is willing to sacrifice some part of his money, provided individual A’s endowment is reduced to an even greater degree, so that, once again, the inequality between the two is reduced.

Fehr and colleagues show that, in a sample of 229 children between the ages of three and eight years, younger subjects overwhelmingly conform to selfish (self-regarding) preferences. They don’t like to share and aren’t interest in reducing inequality. In contrast, the vast majority of the older subjects are inequality averse when put in either the advantageous (individual A) or inadvantageous (individual B) position.

Moreover, the researchers find that the older children are “rational” in the sense that they are more willing to share when the cost of doing so is low than when the cost is high. Finally, the children tend to be more inequality averse in dealing with “ingroup” members, or children from their own school or day care. This preference for sharing with ingroup members occurred even the sharing game was purely anonymous, so no child could determine the identity of the other players.

. . .

Although it’s now generally recognized that children are inequality averse, one experimental difficulty has been separating out strategic behavior, such as reputation building, from true preferences for sharing. In other words, I may share with you because in the future, you may reciprocate, or I may punish you at personal cost because the next time, you will be more careful to give me my “fair share.” These are purely strategic behaviors that can be attributed to perfectly selfish individuals.

The Fehr study differs from prior studies of inequality aversion in children by scrupulously preventing such an interpretation. They made all behaviors anonymous so children could never identify their partners, and therefore could not sacrifice in hopes of gaining in the future. This strategy contrasts with previous studies, which either watched children at play or analyzed teacher-pupil interactions. Although these studies found consistent pro-social behavior—the children demonstrated a willingness to share—they could not ascertain whether it was calculated selfishness or true other-regarding behavior.

It is instructive to compare and contrast human behavior regarding others with that of our nearest biological relative, the chimpanzee. My assessment of the literature is that female chimps, at least, reveal a high level of kin altruism (fathers exhibit virtually none).” Chimps of both sexes also demonstrate a fair amount of reciprocal altruism, as in mutual grooming and coalition formation, and show considerable concern for the plight of other chimps. On the other hand, chimpanzees show virtually no real inequality aversion, in the sense that they do not share with non-kin except as a means of not being pestered by beggars, and do not sacrifice to reduce their personal disadvantage. In this sense, inequality aversion seems to be a rather human innovation.

Read it all here.

Darwin is not the enemy of Christianity

Charles Darwin is often identified both by atheists and some Christians alike as an enemy of the faith. Andrew Brown argues otherwise. He notes that scientific challenges to literalism were already overwhelming before Darwin wrote his texts, and that Darwin's evolution may offer an answer to the problem of evil in the world:

By the time that Darwin published the On the Origin of Species in 1859, it was already obvious that the God of the Bible was being squeezed right out of the educated world view. The physical world was increasingly revealed as law-bound; and Hume had argued that miracles (pdf)had to be understood as breaches of these natural laws, to be credited only when no other explanation was possible. The belief in the workings of providence in history could not among intellectuals easily survive the study of Gibbon and Voltaire. The literal truth of the Biblical narratives and even the credibility of their perspective on history had already been destroyed by the geologists' discovery of the unimaginable age of the earth.

All this was true – and fatal to traditional Christianity – before Darwin published a line. The only theist argument that his work destroyed was the argument from design. But the argument from design is of interest only to nerds, whether atheist or believers. Most people just don't have the kind of systematising imaginations which make the question of design in nature look compelling; other forms of imagination, while they marvel at the complexities of living things, don't see why this should not be the work of a God responsible for the laws of natural selection.

. . .

What made Darwin threatening to Christianity was not that he abolished the argument from design, but that he threatened – and threatens – human uniqueness. Against this, though, two points can be raised. The first is that Darwinian explanations of humanity end up with accounts of us which are much more compatible with the Christian view of human beings as inherently sinful and "fallen" than is the simple faith in human moral progress that was a powerful alternative to Christianity. The second is that Darwin lets God off the hook for much of the suffering of the natural world.

The more we understand about the workings of biology, the more horrible much of life appears. Most of it is parasitic; most of it is unremittingly ruthless; all of it is doomed. Tennyson called nature "red in tooth and claw" in 1843, 16 years before Darwin published the Origin of Species. If God had personally designed every last parasitic wasp and tapeworm: if some celestial watchmaker had carefully sculpted the HIV virus to make it so effective, and had shaped Eve to make her die so often in childbirth, then the case against him would be morally quite unanswerable, as Voltaire saw.

Darwin's theory allows Christians – whether they want to or not – to understand the hideous and constant cruelties of the world as part of the mechanisms necessary to produce any kind of intelligent life. Disease, decay and death need no longer be exhibitions of gratuitous cruelty on the part of a creator. This isn't by any means a knock-down argument for belief. But it is a conclusive argument against one kind of morally outrageous god.

Read it all here.

Multiverse: alternative to a creator?

In recent decades it has become increasingly clear that our universe seems "fine-tuned" for intelligent life. One explanation, of course, is that there is a creator who created a universe where such life could thrive. Discover magazine explores another alternative: that we live in only one of an infinite array of universes:

Consider just two possible changes. Atoms consist of protons, neutrons, and electrons. If those protons were just 0.2 percent more massive than they actually are, they would be unstable and would decay into simpler particles. Atoms wouldn’t exist; neither would we. If gravity were slightly more powerful, the consequences would be nearly as grave. A beefed-up gravitational force would compress stars more tightly, making them smaller, hotter, and denser. Rather than surviving for billions of years, stars would burn through their fuel in a few million years, sputtering out long before life had a chance to evolve. There are many such examples of the universe’s life-friendly properties—so many, in fact, that physicists can’t dismiss them all as mere accidents.

“We have a lot of really, really strange coincidences, and all of these coincidences are such that they make life possible,” Linde says.

Physicists don’t like coincidences. They like even less the notion that life is somehow central to the universe, and yet recent discoveries are forcing them to confront that very idea. Life, it seems, is not an incidental component of the universe, burped up out of a random chemical brew on a lonely planet to endure for a few fleeting ticks of the cosmic clock. In some strange sense, it appears that we are not adapted to the universe; the universe is adapted to us.

Call it a fluke, a mystery, a miracle. Or call it the biggest problem in physics. Short of invoking a benevolent creator, many physicists see only one possible explanation: Our universe may be but one of perhaps infinitely many universes in an inconceivably vast multi­verse. Most of those universes are barren, but some, like ours, have conditions suitable for life.

The idea is controversial. Critics say it doesn’t even qualify as a scientific theory because the existence of other universes cannot be proved or disproved. Advocates argue that, like it or not, the multiverse may well be the only viable non­religious explanation for what is often called the “fine-tuning problem”—the baffling observation that the laws of the universe seem custom-tailored to favor the emergence of life.

The entire article is fascinating. Read it all here.

Handwashing eases evil-doing

The Economist:

A study just published in Psychological Science by Simone Schnall of the University of Plymouth and her colleagues shows that washing with soap and water makes people view unethical activities as more acceptable and reasonable than they would if they had not washed themselves.
...
Perhaps it is no coincidence that Pontius Pilate is portrayed in the Bible as washing his hands of the decision to crucify Jesus.
...
Dr Schnall’s study was inspired by some previous work of her own. She had found that when feelings of disgust are instilled in them beforehand, people make decisions which are more ethical than would otherwise be expected. She speculates that the reason for this is that feeling morally unclean (ie, disgusted) leads to feelings of moral wrongness and thus triggers increased ethical behaviour by instilling a desire to right the wrong. However, as the cleanliness and purification rituals found in many religions suggest, physical cleanliness, too, is linked to moral behaviour, so she decided to investigate this as well.

Belief in God and children

The blog pages of the Guardian provide the forum for a debate on whether research shows that children have a propensity to believe in a supreme being. AC Grayling, in a rather angry post, argues that this is nonsense propounded by Christian believers funded by the Templeton Foundation:

Earlier this week I had occasion to debate – if the soundbite culture of radio news permits that description – with a member of Oxford University's Centre for Anthropology and Mind the "findings" of its cognition, religion and theology project, to the effect that children are hardwired to believe in a "supreme being". The research is funded by the Templeton Foundation, an organisation keen to find, or to insert, religion into science and to promote belief in their compatibility – which, note, comes down to spending money on "showing" in the end that the beliefs of ancient goatherds are as good as modern physics.

. . .

"Religious belief" and early childhood interpretations of how the world work are so far removed from one another that only a preconceived desire to interpret the latter in terms of "intelligent design" and "a supreme being" – the very terms are a giveaway – is obviously tendentious, and this is what is going on here. It would merely be poor stuff if that was all there is to it; but there is more. The Templeton Foundation is rich; it offers a very large money prize to any scientist or philosopher who will say things friendly to religion, and it supports "research" as described above into anything that will add credibility and respectability to religion. Its website portrays its aims as serious and objective, but in truth it is just another example of how well-funded and well-organised some religious lobbies are – a common phenomenon in the United States in particular, and now infecting the body politic here.

But the Templeton Foundation would do better to be frank about its propagandistic intentions, for while it tries to dress itself in the lineaments of objectivity it will always face the accusation of tainting the pool, as with the work of this Oxford University institute.

Read it all here.

The subject of this attack, Justin Barrett, had this response:

Last week at Cambridge University's Faraday Institute, I summarised some scientific research that leads me and many of my colleagues to argue that from childhood humans have a number of predispositions that incline them to believe in gods generally and perhaps a super-knowing, creator god in particular. Unlike Andrew Brown, AC Grayling has opted to ignore the science and focus on the alleged motivations of the scientist (me) and one of his sources of funding (the John Templeton Foundation). As a philosopher, Grayling should know that attacking an argument not on its merits but by discrediting the arguer commits the ad hominem fallacy which is generally the strategy of school kids and desperate, uninformed people.

. . .

Because Grayling assumes that the only people arguing for the strong natural disposition to believe in gods are religious (most are not as far as I can tell), he cavalierly disregards the mounting body of scientific evidence in favour of an alternative account that he backs with no evidence at all. Grayling favours what I call the "evolved gullibility hypothesis": for good evolutionary reasons they [children] are extremely credulous. I do not disagree that children have a tendency to trust their parents and other adults – surely this is how children learn about the particular god of their cultural environment – but children are not equally likely to believe anything that parents teach them.

Good luck teaching a five-year-old that people don't really have conscious minds or that it is okay to murder the neighbours in their sleep. The preponderance of scientific evidence (peer-reviewed and published) shows that some ideas find children's minds infertile ground, whereas others readily grow and flourish.

Grayling may disagree with me regarding just which ideas are most at home in children, but surely it is the scientific evidence that we should determine who is right instead of trying to psychoanalyse each other's motivations.

Read it all here. The irony of this attack by an atheist--as Barrett points out--is that many of the scientists doing this research have been attacked by Christians for trying to come up with a biological explanation for faith.

Evolution at Grace Cathedral

Grace Cathedral hosted this very interesting discussion about faith, creationism, and evolution featuring Kevin Padian, UC Berkeley professor and curator of the Museum of Paleontology. The video above provides some highlights, but you can get the full program here. Hat tip to Dr. James McGrath.

Religion for those who are truly sorry and humbly repent

John Tierney:

“We simply asked if there was good evidence that people who are more religious have more self-control,” [said] Dr. [Michael] McCullough. “For a long time it wasn’t cool for social scientists to study religion, but some researchers were quietly chugging along for decades. When you add it all up, it turns out there are remarkably consistent findings that religiosity correlates with higher self-control.”

Read more »

Jerry Coyne on faith and science

In the most recent New Republic, biologist Jerry Coyne has a lengthy review of two recent books by Christians who argue that science and Christianity are compatible, and finds them both unpersuasive:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers. ) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains. The real question is whether there is a philosophical incompatibility between religion and science. Does the empirical nature of science contradict the revelatory nature of faith? Are the gaps between them so great that the two institutions must be considered essentially antagonistic? The incessant stream of books dealing with this question suggests that the answer is not straightforward.

. . .

And so we have Karl Giberson and Kenneth Miller, theistic scientists and engaging writers, both demolishing what they see as a false reconciliation--the theory of intelligent design--and offering their own solutions. Giberson is a professor of physics at Eastern Nazarene College, a Christian school, and has written three books on the tension between science and religion. He is the former editor of Science and Spirit, a magazine published by the Templeton Foundation. (Saving Darwin was also financed by Templeton.) Kenneth Miller, a cell biologist at Brown University, is one of the most ardent and articulate defenders of evolution against creationism. He is also an observant Catholic. Miller's new book, Only a Theory, is an update of Finding Darwin's God. Both books offer not only a withering critique of intelligent design, but also a search for God in the evolutionary process.

Together, Saving Darwin and Only a Theory provide an edifying summary of the tenets and the flaws of modern creationism, the former dealing mainly with its history and the latter with its specious claims. If these books stopped there, they would raise a valuable alarm about the dangers facing American science and culture. But in the end their sincere but tortuous efforts to find the hand of God in evolution lead them to solutions that are barely distinguishable from the creationism that they deplore.

Read it all here. After you read the full review, let us know what you think.

Responding to Jerry Coyne on faith and science

Two weeks ago, we noted the New Republic book review by Dr. Jerry Coyne that argued that faith and science are incompatible. Since then, several writers have challenged Coyne's argument.

Jim Manzi, in particular, has some interesting thoughts:

Finally we come to a part of Coyne’s argument (quoted by Andrew Sullivan in his blog) that asserts that “real” religious belief, if not certain academic contortions, is contradicted by science:

Unfortunately, some theologians with a deistic bent seem to think that they speak for all the faithful. These were the critics who denounced Dawkins and his colleagues for not grappling with every subtle theological argument for the existence of God, for not steeping themselves in the complex history of theology. Dawkins in particular was attacked for writing The God Delusion as a “middlebrow” book. But that misses the point. He did indeed produce a middlebrow book, but precisely because he was discussing religion as it is lived and practiced by real people. The reason that many liberal theologians see religion and evolution as harmonious is that they espouse a theology not only alien but unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.

That is, if we strip away all of the falsifiable statements that are made in practice by religions, we are left with something vanishingly close to materialism anyway. But consider, to use Coyne’s own logic of falsification, an obvious counter-example. By about the year 400, Augustine described a view of Creation in which “seeds of potentiality” were established by God, which then unfolded through time in an incomprehensibly complicated set of processes. By the 13th century, Aquinas — working with the thought of Aristotle and Augustine — identified God with ultimate causes, while accepting naturalistic interpretations of secondary causes. Today, the formal position of the Catholic church, incorporating this long train of thought, is that there is no conflict between evolution through natural selection and Catholic theology. So, in this example, we’re describing an orientation supported by those esoteric theologians Augustine and Aquinas, and promulgated today by that so-liberal-he’s-practically-an-atheist Pope Benedict in that weirdo minority Roman Catholic sect. You know, “unrecognizable as religion to most Americans.”

Read it all here. See also posts by Alan Jacobs and Ross Douthat.

Do evolution and faith have to fight?

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin and 2009 is 150th anniversary of the publication of his Origin of the Species. The debate between evolution and religious faith appears to be as American as apple pie.

Religion Dispatches has three interesting articles reflecting on the religious consequences of evolution, focusing on the ongoing debate often framed as a fight between science and religion.

Lauri Lebo takes a look at American attitudes toward Darwin while attending a British conference on science and the public interest:

I am standing at a podium in England, invited to speak by of the British Council, because I am American. To be even more specific, because I resided at Ground Zero of my country’s cultural battle over science and religion, in an event that took place four years ago in Dover, Pa. when the local school board tried to force religion into science class.

I have been aware of this British fascination with us ever since the BBC came to my town in the fall of 2004, right after the Dover Area School Board inserted the phrase intelligent design for the first time in the US into a public school biology curriculum....I remember the BBC crew looked at me much the same way that these people are looking at me now. Trying to determine on which side of the cultural divide I stand. The British don’t understand, I’ve been told, why Americans are so divided.

They find this issue fascinating. And they watch me curiously. In a way, I suspect, they find our fundamentalism kind of cute. Just like the meerkats.

I know they’re thinking: What is it with you Americans? Why are you so hung up on this religion vs. science thing?

It can be said that Darwin and the theory of evolution begat American Christian fundamentalism. Lebo points out that through much of the 19th century, Biblical literalism was on the decline. Science was accepted, even in the churches, and the idea that the earth is very old was widely accepted. "A typical interpretation of the Genesis account," she says, "viewed the six days not as literal 24-hour periods, but as separate, lengthy spans of time."

This is an interpretation that probably feels familiar to many Episcopalians. The rector of St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church in northwest Atlanta, The Rev. Patricia Templeton, says in today's Atlanta Journal-Constitution that "the problem begins with those questions, the pairing of religion and science as polar opposites."

Although I believe that the Bible contains the words of the living God, I also think that looking to the Bible for modern scientific knowledge requires denying the use of one of God’s greatest gifts, our minds.

“I will pray with the spirit, but I will pray with the mind also,” the apostle Paul says. “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.”

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” Jesus says. “This is the greatest and first commandment.”

A faith that requires you to close your mind in order to believe is not much of a faith at all.

The Bible was never meant to be a science textbook.

Instead, it tells the story of the relationship between God and human beings, between the Creator and creation.

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The PB reflects on the relationship between religion and science

The world is marking the two hundredth anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. Anniversaries are often an opportunity to take stock of where one is and how one arrived there, and this anniversary is not an exception. There's been a number of pieces published online all week discussing how Darwin's work that laid the basis of the modern theory of Evolution has caused a rethinking of the role of God within the natural order.

The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, a research oceanographer by training, is particularly well suited to speaking to this taking stock. There's a long article on the Religious News Service's site that is based on an extensive conversation with her on this topic.

She speaks of how she struggled to make her faith fit with her scientific training and interesting how her scientific training has informed her theological reasoning:

"‘How to make sense of the wonders of creation and the scientific descriptions of how they came to be,’ Jefferts Schori recalled in an interview in her office here, ‘I hadn’t had any conscious assistance in how to deal with that as a child.’

[...]Her election was a seminal moment for the worldwide Anglican Communion, in which the vast majority of countries do not have women bishops. Yet Jefferts Schori said her scientific training, not her gender, is more unique and pertinent to her current job.

‘It’s been a long time since somebody trained in the way I have been has held an office in the church like this,’ she said. ‘My way of looking at the world is shaped by my training as a scientist—to look carefully, and collect data and make hypotheses.’"

Read the full article here.

Charles Darwin on faith

Charles Darwin was born on the same day as Abraham Lincoln, and thus we celebrate the 200th anniversary of both great men this week. Scientific American this week published a fictional interview of Darwin that first appeared in the German publication Spektrum. The questions in this fictitious interview were posed by Christoph Marty. The answers are original quotes from Charles Darwin from a variety of sources, and some of the answers deal with Darwin's faith:

Did you have doubts about the content of truth in the Holy Scriptures even while you were on the Beagle? On board the Beagle I was completely orthodox, and I recall how several officers laughed at heartily when I quoted the Bible as an irrefutable source on some point of morality. But during the period from 1836 to 1839, I had slowly come to understand that the Old Testament, with its evidently wrong history of the world, its Tower of Babel, its rainbow as a sign, and tendency of ascribing to God the sentiments of a revengeful tyrant, were no more worthy of credence than the holy scriptures of the Hindus or the beliefs of a savage. Despite all my powers of deluding myself, it became more and more difficult to find proof enough to satisfy me.

And that is how faithlessness stalked me and took hold over me slowly, till I became totally disbelieving.

So you are an atheist?
I think it would be more and more appropriate to call me an agnostic, in general and as age advances.

Do you see your lack of faith as a loss, then?
Disbelief crept in on me so slowly that I did not feel any discomfort, and since then, never have a doubted for even a single second the correctness of my conclusions. And I cannot really understand, either, how anyone might want to believe that Christianity were true, because if it were, then, in the plain terms of the text, it is said that people who do not believe would be punished for eternity, and that would include my father, my brother and almost all my best friends. And that is a terrible doctrine!

Read it all here.

A Catholic scientist reconciles faith and science

Dr Isis, a physiologist at a major research university, blogs under that assumed name at Science Blogs, where Christian believers are usually treat with ridicule. In a post this week, however, Dr Isis "came out" as a Catholic and tries to explain how she sees no conflict between her faith and her work as a scientist:

But, it was Ewan's comment that most intrigued me -- the question of whether it is possible to adhere to an organized religion and still value analytical science. In addition, how does one discuss the intersection of the two without being offensive. The answer is, I plain ole don't know because I have never seen science and faith as being exclusive. There is a big difference between Catholicism and evangelical Christianity, especially when it comes to things like evolution. As a scientist I conduct research the same way everyone else does (or, so I assume), guided by the scientific method. I attempt to interpret my data using my current knowledge of physiology, and I don't think I have ever turned to I Thessalonians for information on endothelial-mediated vasodilation. Besides, everyone knows that all of the hot cardiovascular stuff is in I Corinthians.

I simply don't see my science guided by my faith, except in as much as my life is guided by my faith. I believe it is terrible hubris to say that there must be a God because there are things that I cannot understand or that appear mystical. On the other hand, I think it is an equal display of hubris to contend that, because I can take a physiological phenomenon and apply a mathematical construct to it, there must be no God. And thusly, I am perfectly content to spend my days trying to uncover physiological mysteries while being simultaneously content spending Sundays pondering that I may never fully understand the miracle of transsubstantiation.

She does note, however, that her religious beliefs do affect how she does here work:

But, this doesn't mean that my science is not affected daily by my Catholicism. Most specifically, my faith influences how we conduct experiments with human research volunteers. I believe very strongly in the dignity of the human person (for an interesting read, see Paul VI's Dignitatis Humanae and the new instructions on Dignitas Personae. I think my fair atheist friends will be especially interested in Dignitatis Humanae.) and I try to conduct my work in a way that respects the personhood of those we collect data from. This is not to say that I believe that one must be Catholic in order to respect individual autonomy and conduct ethical research. I don't believe that being an atheist provides carte blanche to behave like an ass. However, it would be dishonest for me to claim that my personal motivations do not stem directly from religious principle.

Read it all here. Be sure to read the comments!

Only 4 in 10 believe in evolution

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This week the Gallup Poll released a survey showing that only one in four Americans believe in evolution, and that the percentage drops dramatically for those who attend church weekly:

On the eve of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, a new Gallup Poll shows that only 39% of Americans say they "believe in the theory of evolution," while a quarter say they do not believe in the theory, and another 36% don't have an opinion either way. These attitudes are strongly related to education and, to an even greater degree, religiosity.

. . .

Darwin's theory has been at the forefront of religious debate since he published On the Origin of Species 150 years ago. Even to this day, highly religious individuals claim that the theory of evolution contradicts the story of creation as outlined in the book of Genesis in the Bible.

Thus, it comes as no surprise to find that there is a strong relationship between church attendance and belief in evolution in the current data. Those who attend church most often are the least likely to say they believe in evolution.

Previous Gallup research shows that the rate of church attendance is fairly constant across educational groups, suggesting that this relationship is not owing to an underlying educational difference but instead reflects a direct influence of religious beliefs on belief in evolution.

Read it all here.

The limits of science

Scientific American has a fascinating article about a mathematical proof that no intellect within our universe could ever fully understand our universe. If true, of course, this would have interesting theological and philosophical implications:

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Kim Fabricius: Ten propositions on Dawwin and the diety

Kim Fabricius's "Ten Propositions" on issues of theology are always worth a read, and his most recent list of Darwin and religion is well worth a read in full. Here are some highlights:

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Born to believe

Michael Brooks writes in the New Scientest (click Skip in the lower right hand corner if you get an ad):

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God on the brain

The Scientific American reports that neuroscientists are claiming to have identified the "religious" parts of the brain:

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Intimations of "an ultimate reality?"

Bernard d'Espagnat, who last week won the Templeton Prize, was brought up a Roman Catholic, but told Reuters he does not practice any religion and considers himself a spiritualist.

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George Tyrrell's excommunication still confronts Christianity

George Tyrell was a Jesuit priest and a Modernist theologian. He died in 1909, denied burial in a Catholic cemetery. The ideas that led to Tyrrell's expulsion and excommunication still confront Christianity, says Oliver Rafferty:

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This is your brain on conflict

How deeply is the tone of conversation on Anglican blogs influenced by brain chemistry? Have a look at this essay by Jonah Lehrer and join me in bearing it in mind the next time you are tempted to write in anger:

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The physics of faith

From Religion News Service:

Christian thinkers have long employed insights from sociology, literature, and other fields to augment their ideas of how God works in the world. Yet despite the world-changing insights of science, very few theologians have drawn on physics, biology or geology in the same way. Renowned Anglican physicist-theologian John Polkinghorne wants to change all that.
Read Daniel Burke's conversation with physicist turned Anglican clergyman John Polkinghorne.

The Anglican right and the psychological fringe

Anglican Mainstream, one of the leading English organizations on the Anglican right, is bringing an American psychotherapist who is anything but mainstream to England this week. Joseph Nicolosi, is one of the founders of the National Association for Research & Therapy of Homosexuality, the flat earth society of the therapeutic world.

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Does evolution explain human nature?

That's the latest "Big Question" in celebration of the bicentenary of the birth Darwin on The Templeton Foundation website. Twelve scholars tackle the question.

Can Christians believe in an old universe?

Rather than have faith threatened by the idea that the Earth is older than the literal biblical account of creation leads one to expect, two scientists who are Christian say faith should celebrate the idea.

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Must science declare a holy war against religion?

Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum in the Los Angeles Times:

This fall, evolutionary biologist and bestselling author Richard Dawkins -- most recently famous for his public exhortation to atheism, "The God Delusion" -- returns to writing about science. Dawkins' new book, "The Greatest Show on Earth," will inform and regale us with the stunning "evidence for evolution," as the subtitle says.

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Man v. God

Karen Armstrong in the Wall Street Journal:

Richard Dawkins has been right all along, of course—at least in one important respect. Evolution has indeed dealt a blow to the idea of a benign creator, literally conceived. It tells us that there is no Intelligence controlling the cosmos, and that life itself is the result of a blind process of natural selection, in which innumerable species failed to survive.

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NIH Director will advise the Vatican

Pope Benedict XVI has appointed Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, to the Vatican's Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

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400 years after condemning him as a heretic, Vatican hosts an exhibit on Galileo

The BBC reported this week that the Vatican is set to host an exhibit on Galileo -- the I7th-century Italian astronomer once denounced by trial as a heretic.

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Does faith foster social intelligence?

Brandon Keim in Wired:

Brain scans of people who believe in God have found further evidence that religion involves neurological regions vital for social intelligence.

In other words, whether or not God or Gods exist, religious belief may have been quite useful in shaping the human mind’s evolution.

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PSA: Most of US gains an hour tonight

In most of the United States you'll want turn back your clock one hour before turning in tonight. You don't want to be one of those who shows up an hour early for church.

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The search for the God particle: does God deter it?

Twp prominent physicists have proposed a theory of time in which the future intervenes and stops the discovery of the God particle:

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Does religion influence evolution?

For a long time, evolutionary biologists have assumed that the control that human beings have exerted over their environment has canceled out natural selection, but some are saying that not only are human being evolving faster than ever but that religion, culture, art and the economy are influencing our genes.

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Falling under the spell of charisma

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), Schjødt and his colleagues scanned the brains of 20 Pentecostalists and 20 non-believers while playing them recorded prayers. The volunteers were told that six of the prayers were read by a non-Christian, six by an ordinary Christian and six by a healer. In fact, all were read by ordinary Christians.

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Scientists synthesize life. Theologians and ethicists ponder.

Scientists announce creation of first reproducing synthetic life form. A team of biologists based in Maryland and California have modified a number of natural biological structures to create a new form of life that, in what may be a first, is able to reproduce:

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Scientists and their faith

It seems to come as surprise to many people that there are many professional scientists who regularly attend religious services. Perhaps it's no surprising to Episcopalians given our Presiding Bishop's original career. Within Anglicanism there's even an international Society of Ordained Scientists. But even with all that, the average person in the US apparently is convinced that there are fundamental conflicts between scientific and religious thinking.

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Hawking's "Grand Design:" Designer not required

Physicist Stephen Hawking says in a new book that the "universe can and will create itself from nothing," so there is no need for God as Creator.

CNN reports:

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God may want a minute alone with Stephen Hawking

As mentioned here Friday, famed theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking has said in a new book that no God is necessary for the act of explaining creation.

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Stem cell breakthrough

Rob Stein of The Washington Post has the story:

Scientists reported Thursday they had developed a technique that can quickly create safe alternatives to human embryonic stem cells, a major advance toward developing a less controversial approach for treating for a host of medical problems.

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Wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods

Richard Thaler is writing a new book and sought the help of Edge contributors:

I am doing research for a new book and would hope to elicit informed responses to the following question: The flat earth and geocentric world are examples of wrong scientific beliefs that were held for long periods. Can you name your favorite example and for extra credit why it was believed to be true?

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Forum: See theological implications of new life form?

Updated

NASA has announced that it has discovered a completely alien life form, and it didn't have to leave earth to find it:

At its conference today, NASA scientist Felisa Wolfe-Simon will announce that NASA has found a bacteria whose DNA is completely alien to what we know today. Instead of using phosphorus, the bacteria uses arsenic.

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Only 16% of Americans believe in "pure" evolution

According to new poll data, just about 40% of Americans believe in the strictest form of Creationism, that God created the world about 10,000 years ago and that evolution had no part in the presently observed bio-diversity. A roughly equal percentage of Americans believe in a middle position which holds that the world we see today is a result of evolutionary development with God's involvement. Approximately 16% believe that human beings evolved through a process of natural selection without divine action.

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Altruism claimed to be hard wired into humans

Over there years there's been a great deal of speculation about the root cause of altruism. Is it caused by genetics? By religious teaching? By societal conditioning?

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Vatican moves towards rapprochement with Science?

There was news this week that the Vatican is planning a collaboration with the Italian Space Agency to do a web-based study to examine the origins of the Universe "through science, theology, philosophy and art".

This is happening at a time when Vatican observers are detecting an intentional movement toward a renewed conversation between faith and science.

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Non-believer wins religion prize

UPDATE: Non-believer attends church regularly

USAToday reports:

Martin Rees, a 68-year-old expert on the extreme physics of black holes and the Big Bang, is the recipient of the 2011 Templeton Prize, the John Templeton Foundation announced Wednesday. The 1 million pound ($1.6 million) award is among the world's most lucrative.

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Entropy: is there hope?

Lucas Mix, college chaplain and astrobiologist writes on Entropy: the second law of thermodynamics and Christian hope:

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Faith is integral to human nature

A new study coordinated in Oxford is showing strong evidence that to be human is to believe in there is more to this existence that we can directly perceive. Or, put another way, human's are hard-wired to believe in the divine.

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Hard-wired to believe?

Research out of Oxford suggests humans are predisposed to believe in God (or gods) as well as the afterlife.

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Evangelicals who excel in science get into trouble

Asking questions and searching for answers is something that most scholars value. When your job is reconcile a literal Christianity with science, it's work that can get you fired.

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One's faith can kill one as well as heal

The placebo effect is widely recognized and frequently utilized in modern medicine. People given a "sugar" pill but told it's a powerful antidote to their illness very frequently experience a cure rate similar to those given a real medical proven treatment. Our minds seem to have a degree of control over our health that we don't understand.

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Top ten peacemakers between science and religion

Paul Wallace at Religion Dispatches picks his top ten peacemakers between religion and science.

He writes:

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PA has a groundhog, TEC has a peacock

Cathedral of St. John the Divine, NYC
is wondering if Spring is in the air. A visitor today spotted Phil with tail feathers dazzling and gorgeously open, a sign which - if past years hold true - harkens warmer days ahead...

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Three cheers for the conversation between science and faith!

Our own Nick Knisely, Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Pheonix, Arizona, thinks alot about science and faith and talks about the breathless news reports that physicists were ready to announce that they’d discovered, at long last, the Higgs Boson – the so-called “God Particle.” It turns out that the actual announcement was not nearly as exciting.

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Anti-science threatens the world

The New Zealand Times reports on the current meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and fears that current anti-science campaigns will destroy the world:

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Exactly when does a person die?

Death, like love, is hard to describe. We know it when we see it, but when exactly is the moment of death?

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Does it make a difference whether your parents are lesbians?

Update: June 12th is Loving Day. On this day in 1967 the U.S. Supreme Court issued the decision in Loving v. Virginia that struck down all anti-miscegenation laws remaining in 16 states at the time. (H/T Episcopal Intercultural Network.)

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'The God Particle' - What does it mean for people of faith?

Big news in the world of physics this week. The long sought "God particle" has been discovered! Associated Press reports:

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Communion on the moon

The Atlantic explores the intersection of faith and science as we explore space, wondering, "Our secular endeavor of space exploration is flush with religious observance. Why is that?"

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Is bad science like bad religion?

Biologist and author Rupert Sheldrake suggests in Huffington Post that "bad science" is indeed like "bad religion":

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Science and the 'underdeveloped religious function'

At Huffington Post, Catherine Hochman probes the question, "Has science replaced religion?"

Hochman cites Emile Durkheim (1858-1917) as well as current figures Richard Dawkins (he of the polarization) and Matthew Alper. Of this last name,

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Supreme Court to hear gene patent cases

The Supreme Court is going to consider the questions around gene patenting. What ethical and moral issues are arising. Where should the church stand? The New York Times reports:

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Scientists slam religion in new documentary

Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss are stars of a new feature-length documentary that slams religion and touts science, as if never the twain shall meet. "Science is wonderful. Science is beautiful," Dawkins says. "Religion is not wonderful. Religion is not beautiful."

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Mixing science and religion

“Now I would love to tell you that there is no conflict between science and religion at all,” he told the gathering, “but I’m afraid there is.” said Nick Knisely, bishop of Rhode Island in the Providence Journal. He goes on to discuss his beliefs as a person of faith and a scientist:

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Neuroexistentialism

Are our deepest feelings just the product of brain chemistry? Graham Lawton of Slate kicks that idea around with Patricia Churchland, author of Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain who "says our hopes, loves and very existence are just elaborate functions of a complicated mass of grey tissue."

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What Bill Nye got wrong

Science Guy Bill Nye is awesome, and he knows his science, but agreeing to "debate" with Ken Ham was probably the wrong choice.

The Rev. Erik Parker (The Millennial Pastor) wrote a fantastic retort of the Young Earth Creationism: claiming that it's actually the Bible itself that convinced him they aren't scientific. He also talks about the Nye/Ham debate in advance:

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Science and the belief in miracles

The senior project scientist for the Hubble Space Telescope is a woman of faith. That doesn't make Dr. Jennifer Wiseman a creationist, of course, but she does believe in God, and in miracles. Will Saletan at Slate.com recalls these observations Wiseman made a few months back at a forum on religion and public life:

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The New Cosmos

Last night, the Fox conglomerate of networks aired a revamping of Cosmos—a science special that first aired in the 1970s hosted by Carl Sagan.

This time around, it is hosted by the astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson, a popular reoccurring scientific fixture on late night comedy shows, as well as a renowned science educator in his own right.

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News in physics and universe understanding

The newly announced detection of primordial gravity waves is big news. Here's why:

PBS Newshour ran a segment called "Evidence of cosmic inflation expands understanding of universe’s origins", interviewing physicist, cosmologist and author at the California Institute of Technology Sean Carroll. A small segment from the transcript (the site includes the video):

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Belief in Evolution on the Rise?

According to a recent Gallup poll, the number of Americans who believe God treated humanity as is, with no evolution involved, has remained fairly stable over the years. But this year, that number has decreased slightly, as did the proportion of people who state a belief in 'intelligent design.' (There was a corresponding spike in the number of respondents who said they believed in unguided evolution, but that number is still below 20% overall.)

The Atlantic views this shift as an indication that the great struggle between science and religion is reaching a truce, given that there's been no drop in the number of people who believe in God, or who disagree with evolution on a religious basis.

This is particularly interesting in the context of the poll's final question, which focused on the truthfulness of the Bible. Since 1976, Gallup has been asking people to say whether they think "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally; or the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man." In 2014, a new choice was added: "The Bible is the actual word of God, but multiple interpretations are possible."

When half the sample was asked to pick from among the three original answers, 28 percent said the Bible is the literal word of God, 47 percent said it was inspired by God, and 21 percent said it's just a bunch of stories. But when the new answer was introduced, the results changed significantly: 22 percent said it's the actual word of God, 28 said it was inspired by God, 18 percent said it's made up—and 28 percent said that while it may be literal, it can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Read the whole article here.
What do you think? Dare we hope that room for ambiguity is creeping back into this discussion?

45 Years Ago: Communion on the Moon

Yesterday marked the forty-fifth anniversary of the first time humanity set foot on the lunar surface. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin stepped off the spaceship and onto the moon, and thus stepped into history.

What is not as widely known, however, is that it is also the forty-fifth anniversary of the first communion service to occur on the moon.

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