Posted tagged ‘religion’

Kung Fu Pope v. Big Carbon

June 13, 2015

Via Slate, I came across this little bit of video:

Per Eric Holtas in Slate, this is the brainchild of some delightfully twisted Brazilian climate change activists.
My favorite shot?  Dawn-backlit papal Tai-Chi exercise.  IOW:  just watch this.
PS — the soundtrack could/should have been Inhofe and Santorum skull detonations.

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.

 

In Which I Talk Bible To Glenn Beck

March 9, 2010

You know, you’d think a simple (and quite minor) member of the blogosphere could take a few days out, hit the hot spots of digital payment think tank prognostication in London (had a nice chat with the innovation/new tech group at Visa Europe at lunch today, talking seventeenth century digital money and the what-was-old-is-new-again reality of globalization whilst looking down at the Paddington Station train yard (no bears, alas)) and just chill.

It’s not really that much to expect, is it?

But then, courtesy of Steve Benen (h/t Mr. GOS himself), I learn that noted theologian Glenn Beck is advising his viewers that the idea of social justice is antithetical to true religion.  As Mr. Beck avers:

…your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them … are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.

I’ve tended to avoid the religion-science kerfluffle, though I have Views, as one may say.  But whatever you may make of the crumbs I’ve dropped about my various allegiances and intellectual commitments, I have enough memory of a pretty serious Hebrew School education to crush this softball.

For example: consider this passage in Isiah, , a Jewish text beloved of many Christians (and Muslims too, of course, Abrahamic as that community of belief is as well) that Jews read each year at the center of the most significant observation of the liturgical calendar, the morning service of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement:

(Chapter 58)

…3 “Why, when we fasted, did You not see?
When we starved our bodies, did You pay no heed?”
Because on your fast day
You see to your business
And oppress all your laborers!
4 Because you fast in strife and contention,
And you strike with a wicked fist!
your fasting today is not such
As to make your voice heard on high.
5 Is such the fast I desire,
A day for men to starve their bodies?
Is it bowing the head like a bulrush
And lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Do you call that a fast,
A day when the Lord is favorable?
6 No, this is the fast I desire:
To unlock the fetters of wickedness,
And untie the cords of the yoke
To let the oppressed go free;
To break off every yoke.
7 It is to share your bread with the hungry,
And to take the wretched poor into your home;
When you see the naked, to clothe him,
And not to ignore your own kin.

8 Then shall your light burst through like the dawn
And your healing spring up quickly;
Your Vindicator shall march before you,
The Presence of the Lord shall be your rear guard.
9 Then, when you call, the Lord will answer;
When you cry, He will say: Here I am.
If you banish the yoke from your midst,
The menacing hand and evil speech,
10 And you offer your compassion to the hungry
And satisfy the famished creature —
The shall your light shine in darkness,
And your gloom shall be like noonday.
11 The Lord will guide you always;
He will slake your thirst in parched places
And give strength to your bones.
You shall be like a watered garden,
Like a spring whose waters do not fail.
12 Men from your midst shall rebuild ancient ruins,
you shall restore foundations laid long ago.
And you shall be called
“Repairer of fallen walls,
Restorer of lanes for habitation.”

Let me not confine this commentary to my own heritage.  To look for another example living in the Boston area I call home, how about that construct of belief that animates our local prince of the Catholic Church, Cardinal and Boston Archbishop Sèan O’Malley.  He is a Capuchin* Friar, a member of that order which, from its founding in the early sixteenth century, sought to take its place within a long series of efforts to restore the identification with poverty, the poor, and unquestionably, justice for the lesser, confronted by the greater that derive in Catholic and early Christian history from identification with Francis and ultimately with Jesus.  The Capuchins declare this commitment today:

Let us show respect for all people and [manifest] a spirit ready for dialogue with them.
Although we prefer the evangelization of the poor according to the example of Christ and SaintFrancis, we should not hesitate to proclaim the message of the conversion to justice and the responsibility of preserving peace to those in positions of power and those ruling others.

There is an encylopedia of disagreements I could find with the constellation of beliefs and requirements Cardinal O’Malley upholds; most are irrelevant, given that I, not a Catholic, do not defer to claims of dogma put forward within the Catholic confession.  Those that are relevant are the ones that the American Catholic Church has advanced as precepts to be enshrined as law of the nation we share…but all that’s an argument for a different venue.

The point here is that outside the Beck alternate reality, there is no way to construct the Jewish tradition and its Christian heirs as indifferent to social and economic justice…unless you are willing to sacrifice the essential core of the revelations to which both Jews and Christians lay claim.  There is no way to imitate God (or the God-Man embodied in the person of the Christian conception of Jesus) unless you do justice to the beings created in the image of divinity.  Do injustice to the least of us, and as is expressed again and again in the Elijah tradition of Jewish story telling, you do damage to the whole of any God-made world.  Alternatively, save a life, and save that world.

That is:  if you take the words of the Bible seriously from any starting point, there is only one conclusion possible here.  Beck is no believer.  He is a deceiver — and if you come from a background that capitalizes such words, then within that tradition, you’ll get no argument from me.**

*Maybe it’s just me, but I find it delightful that the name “Capuchin,” derived from the distinctive hood that Capuchin friars wear, has through a kind of visual rhyming, been  adopted to provide the name for that saving drink of many mornings, my daily cappuchino, and, for Capuchin monkeys as well.

**Please note — I’ve confined this to the specifically religious context of Beck’s demand.  A different post would point out how thoroughly unAmerican Beck’s statement is, if you take the ideas of the founders seriously.  For just one example, here’s John Adams, in his argument in the Amistad case:

In the Declaration of Independence the Laws of Nature are announced and appealed to as identical with the laws of nature’s God, and as the foundation of all obligatory human laws…

…I said, when I began this plea, that my final reliance for success in this case was on this Court as a court of JUSTICE; and in the confidence this fact inspired that, in the administration of justice, in a case of no less importance than the liberty and the life of a large number of persons, this Court would not decide but on a due consideration of all the rights, both natural and social, of every one of these individuals. I have endeavored to show that they are entitled to their liberty from this Court….

….In taking, then, my final leave of this Bar, and of this Honorable Court, I can only ejaculate a fervent petition to Heaven, that every member of it may go to his final account with as little of earthly frailty to answer for as those illustrious dead, and that you may, every one, after the close of a long and virtuous career in this world, be received at the portals of the next with the approving sentence—” Well done, good and faithful servant; enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”

Image:  Giotto, “Legend of St. Francis — The Renunciation of Wordly Goods.”  before 1332.

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

Travel Notes: Religious Stereotypes edition.

August 22, 2008

(Warning:  almost but not quite no science below).

There are certain requirements for being a tourist in the new South Africa. You have got to check out the history of Apartheid. Nothing you see makes sense without that knowledge, and some of the venues tied to that history are the places tourists more or less have to go.

So yesterday it was off to Jo’burg’s Old Fort for coffee in one of the most oddly peaceful cafe’s in this expectation-confounding city, and then a tour of the Number Four complex, South Africa’s contribution to the world’s miserable catalogue of iconic symbols of human cruelty.

The museum inside Number Four is extremely impressive. Number Four housed at one time or another pretty much every major figure in the Struggle, including, of course, Nelson Mandela. Mandela is understandably everywhere in South Africa these days, especially in the context of his recent ninetieth birthday (e.g.: Hertz is running a promotion right now bragging that it and Mandela are ninety years old (or something…the poster wasn’t quite clear) and that rental car goodies will flow from this coincidence). And certainly, the Robben Island museum centers on that hell-hole’s most famous inmate.

But what was striking about the Number Four exhibition is that it celebrated perhaps the only prisoner it held who could be said to rank Mandela as a veteran of South Africa’s gulag: Mohatma Gandhi. Gandhi’s experience as an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, leading his first major civil rights campaign there, was a foundational period, establishing the basic outline of the ideas that he would later develop so powerfully in India. The exhibition in Number Four gives a great rapid gloss on this period, and it reveals (a) Gandhi’s enormous strength of mind and character, and among much else, (b) that living the life of a saint is hard, but perhaps more so for the sainted one’s family than for the man (in this instance) himself.

But while the whole display was effective — down to the pair of sandals Gandhi made for his antagonist in this conflict, General Jan Smuts, sitting in a box on the floor of prison — there was one photograph whose caption caught my eye. It showed Gandhi with a group of fellow non-violent activists and it noted that most of those who helped form the Satyagraha movement in South Africa were Indian Muslims.

Now this, I’m sure, is a penetrating glimpse of the obvious to anyone who has actually paid attention to the histories of either Apartheid or the Indian independence movement.

But I didn’t happen to know that fact and as a more or less well informed tourist and survivor of too much wingnut rhetoric over the last few years, it strikes me as notable that I did not.

That is, while the plural of anecdote is not data, the top line meaning I took out of yesterday’s rapid tour of Number Four is that for all the talk that has spewed for some time now about Islam being at its core a religion of violence, there is at least one major modern-historical confounding example. Such stubborn facts, in the context of science are, of course supposed to confound the most seemingly comfortable of theories.

(Pre-flame self defense: this is not to say that Islam is inherently non-violent either. Just that members of a tradition that, among much else was able both to provide a quasi-religious gloss on Apartheid and, for many in the struggle against the Apartheid regime, consolation and strength for that effort, might want to be wary about broad stroke statements about other religious cultures. Just a thought.)

Words Matter: Bishops and Biology Edition

July 26, 2008

It’s about time this blog actually turned to an subject square in the middle of its stated theme, to look at science in public life.

In today’s episode: What John Habgood, retired Anglican Archbishop of York had to say in this review of Ronald Numbers’ history of creationism and the “intelligent design” movement. (h/t Patrick Appel)

I’m sure that there are plenty of folks around the science blogosphere who would take issue of the former second-ranking cleric in the Church of England’s claim that “all assertions about the objectivity and truth of science must themselves depend on belief in some form of reality which is simply “given”.

But that point in Habgood’s lede is something of a throwaway; he’s concerned with creationism, which he contrasts to a more general belief in creation, and which he says “is much more specific and much less plausible.” Again, I’m sure this will also piss some people off — including many of his own flock, for whom his quite abstract vision of God will be just as unsatisfying as his assertion of the necessity of the concept of God will be to the non-believing reader.

Most of the review is in fact quite good — a clear and useful review of the competing strands of creationism at the birth of the movement. He calls out ID for the nonsense it is — as theology as well as science — and if he annoys me (as he does) for urging a fairly typical “both sides need reform” argument –asking “some scientists to be more conscious and critical of their own materialistic assumptions” — it is important to remember who is writing here. Habgood is/was a bishop, after all, and writes from certain assumptions into a particular structure of thought.

Rather — I want to take issue with just two words as Habgood misuses them. The first is “Darwinism” and the second is “orthodoxy” used in combination with the modifier “scientific.”

On Darwinism: Last week, Olivia Judson dissected the mixture of foolishness and bad-faith polemic contained in the use of the word as a synonym for evolutionary biology. Habgood uses the term once more or less appropriately, as the thing opposed in the early days of creationist attacks on Darwin’s idea. It’s still misleading to assert that all that was known and being done in the second half of the nineteenth century could be contained under the umbrella of the devil’s chaplain’s name — but there is a clear historical context to opposition to Darwin and his ideas by name, and in discussing that history, “Darwinism” is not the worst shorthand to use.

But now? It’s a nonsense. Just to reduce this to the absurdity it is: does anyone out there think “Newtonianism” is a good term to describe the branch of knowledge that enables us, inter alia to calculate the trajectory of a comet? How about Daltonism to describe that discipline that studies the different combinations into which different species of matter can form? That’s actually a historically appropriate analogy — for Daltonism could be used to describe nineteenth chemists’ commitment to the reality of atoms and molecules, despite some physicists resistance to the atomic idea for many decades more. But in 2008? Come on.

The problem for Habgood specifically in using the word “Darwinism” in such a fundamentally wrong-headed way is that it betrays a perhaps unconscious affinity for the ideas he overtly criticizes here.

The word as employed in this piece is purely polemical, and, as Judson pointed out, its use represents an attempt to redefine the playing field. If Darwin could be shown wrong, then Darwinism falls — except of course, Darwin was wrong about lots of individual bits and pieces, and yet created a body of ideas and an approach that has fostered a branch of science that is very well indeed, thank you very much. Habgood plays on the wrong side of the pitch when he uses this word.

The same kind of bad faith appears in his odd choice to use the word “orthodoxy.” Habgood twice refers to “scientific orthodoxy” — once in the context of a discussion of clever people “riven to reject current scientific orthodoxy” and again in warning of creationism/ID’s “a serious threat to scientific orthodoxy, particularly in the field of biology.”

I suspect that the reason the use of the word orthodoxy is malicious (in result even if not intent) is pretty obvious to those reading this.

But just to show blogger due-diligence: orthodoxy is a term of art with specific meanings in the religious discussion. Those meanings do not describe the practice of science, which turns on various methods to guage the reliability of its claims.

The use of the word in conjunction with science is at best a sociological claim — that as a human activity, scientists can form shared assumptions that seem analogous to a credo. Even here, it makes a highly imperfect comparison to the use of the same terms — both orthodoxy and affirmations of belief — in the religious context.

At worst, the word is clearly designed to play a very nasty set of mental chimes. Orthodoxy is readily turned into a term of abuse, to mean unthinking commitment to unsupportable ideas: women, derived from Adam’s rib, are intended by God to serve men; human beings are descended from ancestors common to their primate kin.

There — that should make the sleight of hand obvious. Habgood’s rhetoric is designed to create a false equivalence between science and religion, and a false sharing of blame for the spread of nonsensical notions to the fundamentalists who cannot read their bible as Habgood reads his, and to those blinkered orthodox scientists, who cannot appreciate Habgood’s vision of the mysterious.

Habgood surely knows the weight of language; his life has been spent parsing the Word in great detail, and with great distinction within his community. He is responsible for this abuse of meaning.

Update: minor edits to produce something resembling grammar in a few sentences.

Image: Yorkminster spire. This file is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License.