Archive for the ‘science and religion’ category

Mountains, Stars, Conflict

May 31, 2015

You’ll forgive, I hope, the self promotion here, but I want to draw attention to an essay I have in The Boston Globe today.

It’s about the controversy over the Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) that is beginning to be constructed at the summit of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii.  Mauna Kea is one of the world’s most significant sites for optical and near infrared astronomy — it’s already home to thirteen telescopes, including the two largest now in operation in the twin Keck instruments.

Jan_Vermeer_-_The_Astronomer

The TMT is designed to have a primary mirror three times the diameter of the Keck ten meter light buckets, with nine times the light gathering area.  Over the last century — which covers the era of large, mountaintop optical observatorys, each similar leap in telescope size has produced startling, powerful discoveries, and there’s every reason to expect the same of the TMT and its planned southern hemisphere counterparts.

But there’s a catch — or something more fundamental than a mere glitch.  Mauna Kea is a sacred site within the Hawaiian tradition, and an environmentally sensitive one, and opposition to TMT has grown from a point of tension to one of direct confrontation.  Construction of the TMT has been suspended, and the governor of Hawaii has called for the removal of a quarter of the existing observatories before the TMT itself begins operating.

In the midst of this confrontation, plenty of people have framed the two sides as another battle in the old war between science and religious belief.  I say in the Globe today that’s a mistake.  A taste:

….the TMT dispute shows where the science versus religion trope goes wrong. The Hawaiian protesters haven’t said that Mauna Kea’s telescopes are inherently impious, or that the data they collect is somehow wrong, or that Hawaiian mythology is a better account of the cosmos. Rather, the value, the joy, the need the observatories satisfy may indeed satisfy many, but not those continuing a Hawaiian tradition that allows its heirs to find connection with memory, with history, with nature — to achieve the same transcendence sought by those who find beauty in the measure of the universe.

That is: The TMT defenders and their opponents seek analogous rewards from their presence on Mauna Kea. Their conflict isn’t between the competing worldviews of science and religion, but between desires that are kin to each other — and that require the same physical space.

Check it out, if your Sunday afternoon tends that way.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Johannes Vermeer,  The Astronomerc. 1668.

 

Atheists, Believers and Religious Illiteracy: Albert Einstein got there before Pew.

September 28, 2010

Much amusement is being had over the story about how little believers know about their own religions (and less about anyone else’s) compared with atheists and agnostics.*

Here’s my  favorite line in the New York Times piece on the Pew study various blocs’ knowledge:

“I have heard many times that atheists know more about religion than religious people,” [American Atheists president] Mr. Silverman said. “Atheism is an effect of that knowledge, not a lack of knowledge. I gave a Bible to my daughter. That’s how you make atheists.”

Zing.

I’d just like to point out to you that Albert Einstein, who did not quite call himself an atheist, made a similar point more than sixty years ago.  In his “Autobiographical Notes” (he described as  “something like an obituary,” Einstein remembered his approach to and then rejection of revealed religion — a journey accomplished by the time he was twelve years old.

In telling how he banished himself from what he called “the religious paradise of youth,” Einstein recalled his brief exposure to traditional Judaism, mandated by the Bavarian educational system that in the late nineteenth century required that all students undergo formal religious training.  Here’s how that experience played out, at least in the remembrance of that child-Einstein’s 68 year-old heir:

Even when I was a fairly precocious young man, the nothingness of the hopes and strivings which chases most men restlessly through life came to my consciousness with considerable vitality.  Moreover, I soon discovered the cruelty of that chase….As a first way out there was religion, which is implanted into every child by way of the traditional education-machine.  Thus I came — despite the fact that I was the son of entirely irreligious (Jewish) parents — to a deep religiosity…

And it was an appreciation of traditional religion, not the rather loose God-in-nature talk of his later life.   His sister, among others, reported that Einstein absorbed both the formal outward signs of Jewish observance — cajoling his parents into forgoing pork, for example — and an inner emotional commitment that manifested itself, briefly, in spontaneous expression like composing religious songs on his way to school. And then it all…

…found an abrupt ending at the age of twelve.  Through the reading of popular scientific books I soon reached the conviction that much in the stories of the Bible could not be true.  The consequence was a positively frantic [orgy of ]** of freethinking coupled with the impression that youth is intentionally being deceived by the state through lies…

That reaction, which Einstein reports initially seemed tragic (“a crushing blow” is the phrase he used — in German, niederschmetternder Eindruck) grew less as he discovered the consolation, the reward of scientific inquiry.  He wrote, in one of the most beautiful scientific credos I know,

“Out yonder there was this huge world, which exists independently of us human beings and which stands before us like a great, eternal riddle, at least partially accessible to our inspection and thinking.  The contemplation of this world beckoned like a liberation [italics added].

Note, contra Silverman’s natty soundbite, it wasn’t just handing Einstein a Bible that made an impact, it was Einstein’s capacity to compare that text with experience.  Which is what I think Silverman was trying to say.

Just two more things:

First, three cheers for science writing!  It got Big Al off the schneid,so it must be worth doing, right?  Or so we here at MIT Science Writing do avow.

Second:  science, the investigation of “this huge world,…which stands before us like a great eternal riddle,” is liberating. Or, to use the word that describes what I feel when I encounter an intricate elegance or a grand idea, it exalts.

Which, for all the social value that I believe writing about science does indeed have, is really why I do this job.

*And Jews and Mormons, though I have to pause before touting the quality of Jewish religious education if the numbers on those who can correctly identify the faith professed by Maimonides are to be believed.

**the translator’s interjection, not mine.

Images: August Allebé “The Butterflies,” 1871

Gerard Dou, “Astronomer by Candlelight,” c. 1665

Cosmology does note equal Cosmogony — or why Andrew Sullivan has got to stop invoking his cartoon of science when he seeks to defend his faith.

June 1, 2010

Another post resurrected from the month (or so) of my discontent:

From Sullivan, an essaylet on the nature of God and the foundations of faith, which contains this argument:

For me, the core argument for some force behind the universe, revealed metaphorically in Scripture, is affirmed by science as we currently have it. Our universe came from nothing and is still expanding. What conceivable force made this possible?

I know Sundays are slow days in the blogging trade, but this is just awful.  Not as private faith, mind you — Sullivan has repeatedly affirmed his particular form of belief; it clearly is meaningful to him, rich in both emotional weight and in sufficient intellectual plausibility (to him) not to offend his personal experience.  But as an attempt to assert a less particularist claim, awful just begins to describe the rhetorical catastrophe above.

Unsurprisingly, what gets this blog’s goat is the invocation of science in defense of a cosmological Godhead.  Which means I’ll pass over in sort-of silence the bit of sleight of  hand in the first clause of the quoted passage, the notion that a metaphor of God (“some force behind the universe”) is the essence of what the text of scripture reveals of the deity.*

That said, the real sin of thought and word in the passage I quote comes when Sullivan writes the argument for a force behind the universe (whatever that actually means) “is affirmed by science as we currently have it.”

This is a nonsense. What does he mean by a force?  Is it anything like the meaning of the concept as it emerged in the specific science — physics — whose subdiscipline, cosmology, he is about to invoke?

Well, no, obviously.  And to give a little flesh to that blanket dismissal, consider Nobel laureate and my MIT colleague Frank Wilczek’s meditation on the notion of force as Isaac Newton first cobbled it together.

Some years ago, he wrote a three part essay, “Whence the Force of F=MA” in which he described force as a culture, or perhaps better, as a language. [Links here to all three sections] Sullivan would, I think, find some of what Wilczek writes quite comforting:

…the law of physics F=ma comes to appear a little softer than is commonly considered. It really does bear a family resemblance to other kinds of laws, like the laws of jurisprudence or of morality, wherein the meaning of the terms takes shape through their use. In those domains, claims of ultimate truth are wisely viewed with great suspicion; yet nonetheless we should actively aspire to the highest achievable level of coherence and explicitness. Our physics culture of force, properly understood, has this profoundly modest but practically ambitious character. (Essay III in the series)

If laws of morality and laws of physics are kissing cousins, as Wilczek seems to imply, perhaps there could be something to Sullivan’s claim (hope? — ed.) that the force of which physicists speak might have something to do with the Sullivan’s metaphor of God.

I’m putting thoughts in Sullivan’s mind here, of course, but the point I’m making is that analogies are tricky, and the use of implied ones even more so.

But the problem for Sullivan’s case is that Wilczek did not say that the content of  moral or civil laws mirror, even imperfectly, that of physical ones.  Rather, he simply stated that physics, more than usually understood, makes use of one of the most valuable habits of thought in the humanities:  some of what physicists “know” they learn through using an idea, rather than explicitly grappling with its inner tensions.

That’s fine, and true, and it is surely a trick used across lots of different intellectual approaches.  But for all of Wilczek’s kind bob in the direction of another division of the academy, when he gets down to the actual issue of  why such a “soft” concept of force has persisted in the famously “hard” discipline of physics, his answer embraces the nitty gritty of life as physicists actually lead it:

By comparison to modern foundational physics, the culture of force is vaguely defined, limited in scope, and approximate.  Nevertheless it survives the competition, and continues to flourish, for one overwhelmingly good reason: It is much easier to work with. We really do not want to be picking our way through a vast Hilbert space, regularizing and renormalizing ultraviolet divergences as we go, then analytically continuing Euclidean Green’s functions defined by a limiting procedure, . . . working to discover nuclei that clothe themselves with electrons to make atoms that bind together to make solids, . . . all to describe the collision of two billiard balls. That would be lunacy similar in spirit to, but worse than, trying to do computer graphics from scratch, in machine code, without the benefit of an operating system. The analogy seems apt: Force is a flexible construct in a high−level language, which, by shielding us from irrelevant details, allows us to do elaborate applications relatively painlessly. (Essay I)

I don’t want to put Wilczek in the position, even seemingly, of arguing with an essay written years after his.  But the point he makes here makes a mockery of all sorts of woo that follow from the fact that physicists are willing to accept a certain level of imprecision in order to do real work.  (Think Deepak Chopra, et al.)

For Sullivan, there are all the usual sins of woo-mongers here.  There is sloppiness of language.  He writes of a “force behind the universe” — which means … what?  Is it the quality that has powered the expansion of our observable patch of the universe since the Big Bang?  If so, it ain’t “behind” anything.

There is the mixing of categories.  Is he talking about a question of origins, of what triggered the current expansion?  More likely, I think, though Sullivan is, as is usual for writing that attempts to draw this kind of false connection between a specific problem in science and much broader question in some other domain.  If so, then Sullivan is mistaking a partial lack of knowledge for affirmative evidence of an immanent purposefulness to weight the scales our way, towards a universe in which we could emerge.

But this form of the old God of the Gaps argument misses the real action in modern cosmology.  For the point is that however much some questions may be incompletely understood  — the nature of the inflaton field, perhaps, or the implications of the certain concepts in Brane Theory and related studies for the question of the uniqueness of the Big Bang —  Big Bang cosmology is driven by a combination of theory and observation that works to describe the phenomenon(up to a point…which is why there are still jobs for cosmologists).

All of which is to say that just  because Sullivan cannot actually grasp the structure of contemporary physics, that does not mean he is free to ascribe any interpretation that makes him feel happy to what he thinks physics is talking about these days.  (By “free” I mean plausible, even remotely correct.  Obviously he, like me and any of us, is free to spout whatever nonsense we choose).

Even so, Sullivan is at least on familiar, if very shaky ground, when he asserts that a metaphoric interpretation of modern physics offers comfort, at least, if not outright confirmation, to a metaphoric vision of some concept of wholeness which we may conveniently call God.  That could fall, I guess, within my “whatever gets you through the day” category, as long as I am not asked to assent to any specific claim about the human condition based on the latest work on extra dimensions or the arrow of time.  (Hi, Lisa!Hi, Sean!)

But then there is this :

The second question is the nature of that force. The core revelation of Jesus – and the Buddha, for that matter, in some respects – is that the force is good, not evil. There is hope. Death is not what it seems. Love prevails. In this tragic, fallen, cruel world, this is not an easy doctrine. It cannot be inferred from the evidence. Which is why it is the gift of faith, from some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description. Even metaphor fails.

[lease note that I have not cut anything from this passage — the two quotes above follow immediately one to the other.]

Most of this is just embarrassingly bad writing. (See, e.g. the phrase “some source so deep, so great and so benign it defies any human description.”  To me, at least, this reads like the religious version of Regency Romance prose — lots of heaving and heavy breathing around but not on the point at hand. But maybe I’m just in a bad mood…)

Still, whatever you think of the prose here, the claim that because Sullivan cannot imagine a purely physical account of the origins and evolution of the universe, therefore his prior assumption must be the correct interpretation is an appalling lapse of logic, an argument so bad it makes me wonder if all the stuff we hear about the Oxford Union as Parris Island for debaters is pure nonsense.

Here’s Sullivan’s syllogism:  Science tells us that there is a mysterious force within the universe.  (Assumption not in evidence — at least in the spiritual sense.) That force is good (ditto) — which I know, because Jesus told me so.  (But that’s what you wanted to confirm, I thought, independent of scriptural assertion).  Therefore, I’m not going to really die, and the world, despite all the evidence we have, is one in which love triumphs.  (Errr, no.  Not on the evidence as presented here.)

I mean, I get it.  I do.  Andrew Sullivan believes in the traditional promise of Christianity.  In that promise, Jesus was more than a man; his death was transformative of the reality of death for all humanity.  That transformation establishes the fundamental predominance of love over evil in the universe, for no matter what grotesqueries may overtake us on this earth, redemption will be found in the next.

But that has nothing to do with science, with physics, with that branch of physics and allied disciplines that studies the history of the cosmos.  It has nothing to do with the concept of force as it is used within that inquiry.  There is nothing to support this fervid hope within the anisotropy map produced by the WMAP satellite.  No measurement, no mathematics can tell you that Jesus left his tomb before three days passed and walked among his disciples, bearing his good news about the ephemeral nature of mortality.  (I’m not even going to go into the bizarre reading of Buddhism that Sullivan compresses in so few words; it ain’t worth it.)

Sullivan might respond that this is what he means when he talks of the “gift of faith.”  But if that were truly what he meant, then why the claim that science “affirms” this view of the spiritual nature of the forces that have shaped the physical universe?

Because, I think, he knows that what he’s really saying is that this is something he feels very deeply, and that it therefore must be true — and he wishes he had something more to convince his readers (and perhaps himself) that it is so.

But it doesn’t, which is or ought to be fine:  if faith has any meaning it is that it is an individual commitment.

I’ve belabored this enough, I think.  Sorry to natter on so long.  I just hate these attempts to claim the authority of science in support of what I think of as the Dorothy mode of thought:  click your heels hard enough and any magic can come true.

*All I’ll say is that Sullivan is correct when he asserts that metaphoric interpretations are the only contemporary readings of scripture that are compatible both with modern scien and what is often termed the “problem of evil.” But despite what seems to me that obvious truth, the countervailing fact is that a very large number of religious people, including the hierarchy of Sullivan’s own church, not to mention many in the rabbinate that leads the tradition in which I grew up, do not see the Bible as exclusively, or even centrally metaphorical.  In those settings, God did tell Abraham to kill Isaac;* Jesus really did rise from the dead.

Certainly, there is no shortage of metaphor even within a plain reading of much of the Bible, and plenty of sophisticated and subtle religious thinkers have recognized the central importance of using metaphor to interpret scripture.  (Read the French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas’s reeadings of Talmud if you want to see this kind of exegesis performed at the highest level.)

But I still think it is not so much disengenous as it is internal evidence of Sullivan’s own religious difficulties that he leaps to the metaphor whilst ignoring more direct readings of the scriptures and the teachings of his faith as he seeks to avoid the implications of purely materialistic accounts of the fate of mortal humans in this universe.

All that’s a fancy way to say what I and others have said before: ascribing to particular religious beliefs the qualities you wish they had doesn’t actually change the nature of such religious claims as they actually make their way into the world.  And if you haven’t noticed that for an awful lot of people these days the term “God” is a simple literal descriptor, then you aren’t (or are choosing not to) pay attention.

Images:  Michaelangelo, “The Last Judgment” 1537-1541.

John McLure Hamilton, “The Billiards Match,” before 1936.

WMAP data mapped onto an ecliptic projection, five years of data, 2008.

The Stupid, It Burns…Crunchy Con takes on Cosmology Edition

October 16, 2009

I usually lie back and enjoy Roy Edoroso’s  Rod Dreher takedowns.  There are too many massive fails out there to write everytime something stupid this way comes.  Besides, Roy practically owns Mr. Crunchy at this point;  it is as if the Crunchster’s only reason for being is not, as he imagines, to serve as an incarnate vessel for divine sparkles, but to offer an inexhaustible spring of risible material for Edoroso decant  as needed.

But, led by the Hon. Mr. Edoroso himself to the latest of Mr. Dreher’s bizarre complaints — that Bill Maher is not scientific enough to receive atheist of the year honors (sic!) — I came across this howler, left for lesser jaws to masticate.  Dreher quotes one Mark Shea approvingly, passing on this nugget of insight:

Nobody will ever die from thinking God created the universe or having some doubts about the proposition that hydrogen is a substance which, if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years, will turn into Angelina Jolie.

Shea, I find, is a verbose (sure you want to pick up that stone, sinner? — ed.) and — how to put this? — surpassingly simple thinker, at least when it comes to anything that might actually threaten that part of his faith that depends on traditional readings of Genesis 1 and 2.

If you click through the link you’ll find an almost completely unembellished argument from design, presented (with the necessary leaven of scripture) without any apparent awareness of the fate of all such arguments to date. (Please note that that link takes you to a representative gutting by a committed believer of one of the recent design arguments.)

But never mind that.  Just stop for a moment and look at the above.  How many errors packed into a single sentence, just 20 words?

While I suppose I must give Shea props for confining his proposition to the relatively safe ground of disputes about cosmogenesis, it is certainly true that believers who question the precise form in which  God created the universe have died at the hands of those who differed from such views.  (And just to make my point clear:  I’m not trying to restart the tedious argument over who killed more, religious zealots or anyone else.  Rather, I’m simply pointing out that the claim that belief does not have consequences, include the deaths of those who differ in belief, is nonsense.

“hydrogen…if you leave it alone for 13.5 billion years…” (actually 13.7 billion in the most recent results — but that’s not the kind of error I’ mean).  This is the real howler.

The last forty five years of cosmological research have shown that whatever else is going on, you take the primordial mix of about 80 percent hydrogen, almost all the rest helium, with  a scattering of lithium…and the universe does everything but leave it alone.  It does so in most of the interesting ways under the influence of gravity, or local variations in the shape of spacetime, if you want to go all Albert on me.  See this handy Wikipedia article for the timeline and links to deeper inquiry as your interests dictate.

Once you get to star formation within those handy collections of matter called galaxies,* you can see how the universe, by not leaving hydrogen alone, makes all kinds of outcomes possible, including but not limited to the conditions that permit the formation of earth-like planets.

That process starts once the temperature at the center of a nascent star reaches ten million degrees kelvin, at which point hydrogen in the star begins to fuse — the nuclear burning that produces the heat and light of a star.   Next comes several really big steps I’m leaving out here to produce the heavy elements… but for a fun tour with a bit more detail, may I immodestly suggest you check out chapters five and six in this NOVA film, wherein you will see how stellar fusion leads to bouillabaisse.

“…into Angelina Jolie.”  This, of course, is another hit of the argument from design masquerading as a pitiful simulation of pop-culture hiptitude.  Yes it may be difficult to imagine that the glory of a Hollywood beauty could simply happen by chance, (and perhaps it might be fair to say that in many cases it clearly does not, but one must sadly note that the designers involved are all too human).

But the notion that you can’t get to something as complicated and aesthetically appealing as Ms. Jolie, or a beautiful mountain landscape, a kitten…or whatever, is simply the old teleological mistake:  the assumption that because we see a particular outcome to a process then that the process must have been directed to that one end.

That’s a mistake in formal logic; and it is belied by any number of empirical observations.  My favorite, given the significance of eyes to the history of the those who would reject Darwin for design, lies with discovery of (a) the evolutionary pathways leading to the mammallian eye and (b) the finding that eyes evolved several times in different lineages, processes that exploited different biochemical and structural resources.  See this link for an overview and further links to lots of resources.

Finally, back again to the beginning, but with a twist:  “Nobody will ever die..about the proposition…” that the universe has evolved and that human reason can penetrate the events that drove that process.  Well, actually, people die all the time because of doubt and distrust of science produced by exactly this kind of smug and willed — really intended — ignorance.

Here’s one example:  anti vaccine nonsense is a contributor, still relatively minor but tragic, to the worldwide death total from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Here’s another:  significant excess deaths due to extreme weather events are a well documented phenomenon.  Consider Europe in 2003, or Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Among the more robust predictions of global warming science is that any “average” temperature increase will actually manifest itself in part through an increase in the amount of severe weather we will experience.

It follows, therefore, that unchecked global warming will lead to excess deaths in the future…a prospect made more likely by sustained denialism by those whose iron rice bowl stays whole only so long as they know not that which it is impolitic, or simply ideologically unacceptable, to have known.

And so on.  The larger point is simple:  science is not simply a bucket of facts, out of which it is possible to choose the bits you like  — antibiotics! genetically engineered crops! my iPhone!   Rather, it is a body of knowledge, a (many) theoretical frameworks, a method for knowing.  Its results are always in some degree provisional,** but its approach is not.

To say that you can’t both deny cosomological evolution and accept biochemistry is not a claim of dogma; rather it reflects the hard fact of experience that when you choose to pursue only those scientific ideas that give you comfort, you lose.  Your ability to find out crucial knowledge of the material world suffers in significant ways.

One last aside:  I do not line up with those in the “new atheist” camp who find any engagement with religion essentially simple minded.  But this stuff is — and it’s dangerous.  Seriously:  pace Mr. Shea, people do die from ignorance and it’s Twainian companion, certain knowledge of things that ain’t so.

In that context, I believe that the duty to rip apart this kind of nonsense lies very much in the thinking-religious camp.  As a general rule, if you don’t want to be characterized by the worst arguments made in your name, be the first and best debunkers.

*Galaxies are really the object of interest here.  As the film linked above portrays, they act as kind of cook pots — vessels in which the heavy elements produced by one generation of stars are available to get swept up in the next generation, until they accumulate to the point that interesting chemistry and ultimately, at least once, biochemistry, can take place.

**though mostly much less so than anti-science skeptics would have it.

Images:  Mihály Zichy, “Falling Stars,” 1879

Leonardo Da Vinci, “Mona Lisadetail, 1503-1519.

Isaac Newton, God and the eternal war between faith and science: Killing the Buddha/Newton and the Counterfeiter edition

August 3, 2009

Just a quick heads’ up:

I have a new essay up at Killing the Buddha on Isaac Newton, God, and the unintended damage done to faith by Newton’s personal commitment to a divinity immanent throughout nature.

The piece, adapted that opus readers of this blog may have heard of — Newton and the Counterfeiter (AmazonPowells,Barnes and NobleIndiebound) — argues that the proper way to understand the full (and astonishing) range of Newton’s interests and creative output is to recognize that all of it was directed to the same end:  to know (in Hawking’s anachronistic phrase) the mind of God.

It was a grand ambition, a passion, really, in all the resonance of that term.  It was also, I argue, one that was bound to end in tears.  Newton told the clergyman Richard Bentley in anticipation of the first Boyle Lectures that  “When I wrote my treatise upon our System, I had an eye on such Principles as might work with considering men fore the beleife of a Deity”

But, of course, it was easily grasped at that time and ever after, that the principles of natural philosophy do not, in themselves require the active presence of a god concerned with space and time….and from thence all our quarrels flow.

Go check it out.  Let me know what you think.

Image:  Michaelangelo, Sistine Ceiling “The First Day of Creation,” 1509

Program Notes: MIT Symposium Jan 22-24

January 14, 2009

A broad look at Darwin and the implications of the ideas he set in motion will be taking place at MIT next week.

The program looks great; it begins at the beginning, with a session on the origins of the physical substrate on which biological origins would take place, working through Darwin’s contribution, specific milestones in the development of  the modern reconstruction of evolutionary history, and moving through current and past science-and-society issues thrown up over the last 150 years.

All this conveyed through a strong slate of speakers.  In other words, its worth what time you can spare, should you happen to be somewhere near the 02139 zip code next week.

You can register here (scroll down to the bottom of the program).  The conference is free and open to the public, but registration is requested.

Image:  Michaelangelo, The Sistene Chapel Ceiling “Dividing Water From Heaven,” 1509

Annals of Dumb: Playboy Edition/misplaced facticity edition

December 17, 2008

Via Huffington Post I discover that Playboy‘s Mexican edition has committed the predictable folly of placing on its cover a strategically partially dressed young woman to whom has been attached the caption “Te Adoramus Marìa.”

To no sentient being’s surprise this has aroused ire amongst the faithful, the more so because the edition came out the day before the celebration of the Day of the Virgin of Guadeloupe.  The predictable round of apology and disclaimers has begun and this will pass as another minor skirmish in the eternal war between desire and faith…or whatever pompousity commentators will come up with to mark the occasion.

But what got me was not the cover, nor the very nice young lady depicted, nor  her garment, meant, I think to evoke a kind of demure prayer shawl but looking like nothing so much as the tablecloth you pull out when the children are going to be sitting elsewhere.   No, it was this line:

Playboy magazine apologized for a controversial cover featuring a scantily-clad woman resembling the Virgin Mary, Reuters reported. (Italics added)

Resembling?  Really?

I could go all serious here, and storm at the feckless fact-averse who cannot seem to face the notion that we don’t know who Mary was (not to mention the uncheckable sourcing  backing up the claim of a particular sexual status), and hence have no clue about the appearance of one amongst all the  young mothers – to -be in the Roman province of Galilee about two thousand years ago.

It may be conventional to depict Mary as a young, often dark-haired beauty, and the woman on the Playboy cover matches that broad description — but then so do lots of people who do not greatly resemble each other. (Think, e.g. of Halle Berry and Sarah Silverman, just to take two folks off the top of my head.  And thanks for The Great Schlepp, Sarah, as long as we’re here.)

But rather than go into some long discourse on this as an illustration one of the ways in which claims of established fact by the faithful take forms unintelligible to scientific rationalists–and vice versa,  I figured out how I could boil the whole argument down to  the old Catskills punch line.  Looking at the Playboy cover, all I could think was,

“Funny.  She doesn’t look Jewish.”

Image:  El Greco, “The Assumption of the Virgin,” 1577