Posted tagged ‘Bible’

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

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One Last Sunday Post…Lest We Forget Thursday Night Edition

August 31, 2008

This is truly off theme for this blog — but reading Ta-Nehisi Coates yesterday I came across this post on his (and my) most remembered Martin Luther King speech.  The post resonated later in the evening as, I listened to Tavis Smiley’s show on NPR and heard one his guests argue that Obama’s nomination acceptance on the anniversary of the “I have a dream” speech did not sufficiently emphasize the Blackness of the Civil Rights struggle and of King’s message.

Smiley and several of his other guests disagreed, but the comment made me go back and listen again — second time in a day — to the clip Ta-Nehisi posted, the key passage in the “I’ve been to the mountaintop” speech delivered the day before he was assassinated.

Listening and watching again — especially with the foreknowledge that MLK seemed to have of what was coming so unbelievably soon — crystallized why I thought Obama got his note just right in his acceptance speech.  He spoke of King not by name, remember, but as the Preacher from Georgia.

The Preacher — someone who teaches, persuades, one whose success is judged by what his or her words inspire their listeners to do.  The rhetorical idea was obvious, and I think right:  Obama was saying that King’s words belong not just to one man, time, and struggle, but form a teaching that transcends those particulars.

And in that context, the Mountaintop speech is as important, maybe more so, than the visionary and uplifting Dream.

Remember, King really was a preacher, steeped in Bible.  He knew exactly what he wanted to do with the image of the mountaintop.  His predecessor there was Moses — not like Jesus a messiah, divine and already at least in one attribute an inhabitant of the world to come, but a prophet, a teacher, a mortal man with great flaws to accompany his strengths, who had done his best by his stubborn and stiffnecked people.

Moses had led that people for a long time; at the threshold of success, of labor’s end, he learns he will not complete the journey.  Most of the book of Deuteronomy is devoted to Moses giving the last lessons he can to his people, uplift and threats, and a final admonition:  “Therefore choose life.”  Then he climbs to the mountain peak, looks over the land promised the Jews, and dies.

The full range of meaning and feeling in the old tale of work transcending death is what makes King’s reworking so powerful.  This is what great speakers and teachers do:  they endow their words not just with overt meaning, but with a layered wealth of story, more meaning, more stuff for their listeners to chew on.

Obama in a literally mundane context turned his speech on the same idea.  He’s a great speaker in the same vein as King, not because he can deliver a line well, but because the speeches he writes and delivers as well as he does have both sound and meaning — a very carefully constructed web of references and connections to other stories we have told each other.  The Preacher from Georgia was a great way to frame the memory of Dr. King, that is, IMHO, not because in anonymized him, making him safe for white America — King is too strong a figure to be overtaken by his epithet, and Obama knows it.  Rather the trope works because it demands we pay attention to the full meaning of both King’s words and Obama’s.

In other words, what a great speech, for what it said, for what it demands of its listeners, (all 40 million of us) and what it requires we remember.

So:  for your viewing pleasure:  “I’ve been to the mountaintop” excerpt (the full text and video can be found at the link above); “I have a Dream” and the last section of Barack  Obama’s DNC acceptance speech in which the young preacher from Georgia makes his appearance.  (Full forty-five minute version here):

Pi Day and its discontents

March 14, 2008

Today — March 14 or 3/14 — is as everyone should know a not very public holiday celebrating all things circular: Pi Day!

Traditional rituals involve re-enacting the picnic scene in Harold and the Purple Crayon.

I made that up, of course, but parents of small children will understand (or if you don’t, go out and get that wonderful book right now.)

But what would be Pi Day on a science blog without a tip of the pixel to some of our less reasoned friends.

It’s an urban legend that Alabama’s legislature once tried to assert the rule of law to set pi to 3. It is true that there is are two verses in the Hebrew Bible that seem to say pi is in fact that nice round number — I Kings, Ch. 7 v. 3 and II Chron. Ch. 4 v. 2. In Kings, it reads: And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it about.

Before anyone gets too excited, remember that Biblical literalism is a mug’s game. A cubit is in fact a biologically based measure — the distance from a man’s elbow to his extended fingers. That ain’t too precise, nor is the notion of a brass casting four or five meters across. The short form — as this nicely compacted history of pi points out — no one should take the Bible for a geometry text. (In other words — I think skeptics who point to this as an example of religious delusion are overthinking the passage, just as the labored attempts by some apologists to come up with an interpretation to ascribe to Solomon’s temple builders more than practical mensuration don’t convince.)

But still, it is true that no one ever lost money betting the over on stupid. So, for your Pi Day pleasure, consider Indiana House Bill 246, submitted in 1897. The bill, submitted by someone described as an eccentric mathematician (sic) required that pi be set equal to 3.2.

The measure actually past the state House of Representatives by a vote of 67-0.

The state Senate fortunately knew stupid when they saw it, and the bill was referred to the Committee on Temperance. (I would have needed a stiff drink before I read the thing), and then killed the measure with a device called an “indefinite postponement” — in which state that overstuffed Indiana pi remains.

Friday Newton blogging to come on an alternate day; for now…have a good weekend.

Image: From Nicholas Copernicus, De Revolutionibus, Book I, Chapter 10. Source: Wikimedia Commons. You have got to admit — these are some of the coolest circles in print.