Sunday, May 29, 2005

Stem Cell Theology

In today's Washington Post is a column by Jerome Groopman titled "Beware of Stem Cell Theology," noting the difficulty involved in gleaning a definitive Biblical position on human personhood and the ease with which selected passages can be manipulated for political gain.
But it is also foolish, and wrong, to use the founders of Judaism, Islam and Christianity as foils to support the current administration's views on pressing moral questions in medicine. It demonstrates a remarkable ignorance about the diversity of religious thought concerning when life begins, when it ends and what makes it sacred.
The Bible is nothing if not malleable, and has been used at one time or another to justify all sorts of absurd practices and proscriptions. While we understand and accept that documents like the U.S. Constitution are subject to evolving interpretation, it seems that the basis for an absolutist morality should provide clear, definitive and unalterable guidance. That it does not - especially with respect to the stem cell issue - should preclude its use as the basis for imposing restrictions on scientific progress.

Putting the "Science" in Pseudoscience

The New York Times reports that the venerable Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History has lent the patina of legitimacy to the creationists by hosting the premiere of the Discovery Institute's propaganda film "The Privileged Planet: The Search for Purpose in the Universe." This film makes the argument that the hand of a creator - an intelligent designer - is evident in the universe. Randall Kremer, spokesman for the Smithsonian, claims that the presentation is not meant to infer endorsement of the ideas expressed in the film.
He added that staff members viewed the film before approving the event to make sure that it complied with the museum's policy, which states that "events of a religious or partisan political nature" are not permitted...
Clearly some museum staffers are unaware that the basis of Intelligent Design is wholly (or holy) religious, and as "scientific theory" it lacks both science and theory (in the sense of a testable hypothesis). Perhaps thoughtful people should vociferously bring this to the museum's attention (an email to Heather Rostker, designated contact for the museum's exhibits and public programs, for example).

Combined with pressure by religious groups to prevent Imax theaters at museums from showing films that include the presumption of natural evolution (see "On the Ash Heap of Science"), this situation is really quite alarming.

Dismembers Only

The Dallas Morning News, in an article titled "How Language is Framing the Stem Cell Debate," has taken to task Tom DeLay's characterization of embryonic stem cell research as the "dismemberment of living, distinct human beings."
Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor, said that by using the word dismemberment, Mr. DeLay and others opposed to embryonic stem cell research are trying to associate it with the controversial late-term abortion, which critics also refer to as "partial-birth" abortion.
"That was such a successful campaign because it gave the impression that they were dismembering a child," Dr. Tannen said. "They are trying to create an association with babies, and they want to push it back earlier and earlier. I guess stem cells would be the extreme of that, but they're just cells. In order to dismember something, it has to have limbs, and cells don't have limbs."
The use of language and metaphor to frame these controversial debates is dissected (although not dismembered) by The Rockridge Institute, and in books such as George Lakoff's "Don't Think of an Elephant."

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Burning Books About Burning Books

Virtually every news story about Laura Bush's visit to Egypt mentiones that she visited the new library, erected at the site of the ancient Library of Alexandria, "which was destroyed in the first century".

I don't know where this fabrication came from, but Encyclopaedia Britannica and other reputable sources say that the Library was destroyed by order of the Christian emperor Theodosius in 391. It had suffered partial destruction earlier, most likely during the civil war in 3rd century, and perhaps also in the 1st century BCE (Plutarch, two centuries later, blamed Caesar for a fire, but the authenticity of that account is questionable). I have not found any references to a 1st century destruction, and it is certain that the Library existed after that time.

So is this an attempt to rewrite history and hide the embarrassing fact that Christians burned the library? If so, rewriting history is really equivalent to burning books, and what White House Christians may be doing is burning books that tell how Imperial Christians burned books...

Saturday, May 21, 2005


In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, former Secretary of the Interior James Watt rails against "The Religious Left's Lies." Watt seeks to counter accusations that biblical literalists are more apt to exploit the earth's natural resources because of their reliance on the coming Rapture.
Now political activists of the religious left are refreshing those two-decades-old lies and applying them with a broad brush to whole segments of the Christian community: "people who believe the Bible," members of Congress and "Rapture proponents." If these merging groups -- the extreme environmentalists and the religious left -- are successful in their campaign, the Christian community will be marginalized, its conservative values maligned and its electoral clout diminished.
Dare we dream that this will come to pass? While Watt makes some valid points about the possible misattribution of statements to him, it is clearly difficult to reconcile biblical literalism with any substantive concern for our planet or its inhabitants. Too many fundamentalists interpret "dominion... over all the earth" not as an admonition to conservation, but as validation for myopic and exploitative practices.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Attack of the Clones

Among the most cogent arguments against the evisceration of science in this country is the potential threat to our economic and national security. Diminished standards for science education ( such as the presentation of fanciful mythology as valid scientific hypothesis) and severe restrictions on research into the therapeutic potential of embryonic stem cells, for example, may result in abdication of our role as leader of the world's scientific enterprise.

This point is brought home today by a story in the Washington Post titled "Koreans Say They Cloned Embryos for Stem Cells." South Korean scientists have succeeded in somatic cell nuclear transfer - so-called "therapeutic cloning" - from patient tissue samples, potentially enabling regenerative therapies. This and other stellar advances in Asia might help to push our conservative, business-friendly government closer to permitting such research in this country, but, as the Post notes:
That legislation would not allow funding of cloning research like that done in South Korea -- a kind of research the House has twice voted to ban and which the Senate has deadlocked over for years. Rather, it would facilitate the less contentious use of frozen embryos about to be discarded by fertility clinics.
While Congress continues to wrestle with the silly issue of whether a pre-implantation human embryo is entitled to the same moral status as an autonomous adult, the scientific community is beginning to deal with some of the real ethical issues raised by such technological advances. An article published online by Science Magazine gives an overview of three issues that deserve particular attention: the reconciliation of varying international standards, the protection of oocyte donors, and the avoidance of unrealistic expectations. These, and other downstream questions, will require an informed public debate - and, thus, and informed public. The Humanist community must play a leadership role in this process.

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

1776, In A Parallel Universe Far, Far Away...

Jedderson to Yoditor:

Here is my great piece of writing. I am sure no yoditing will be necessary.

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the Galaxy, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Yoditor to Jedderson:

Too wordy, Tom. Change it to: "When colonies are about to fight for independence from the Empire, it is considered polite to explain to the Universe why they want to do it." Your mention of "Nature's God" is gratuitous. Two centuries from now, there will be manuals of style telling writers not to write like that.

Jedderson to Yoditor:

But my gratuitous mention of "Nature's God" is intentional. I want to piss off my Christian contemporaries, and I want to confuse the Nature's Hell out of Christians two centuries from now.

Yoditor to Jedderson:

OK (as they will say sixty years from now), keep it in, young master Tom. But you'll see it's dangerous to write above a 12-year-old's level. Those confused Christians may end up convincing everyone that you were one of them.

Final version:

When colonies are about to fight for independence from the Empire, it is considered polite to explain to the Universe why they want to do it, Nature's God damn it!

Friday, May 13, 2005

Zealots Hurt Their Cause, Even If It Is Separation

Unless AP has seriously misreported the events, preventing a mom from reading a Bible story in a Pennsylvania kindergarten class seems to have been a case of unthinking, mechanical interpretation of the Establishment Clause and education law.

Wesley's teacher had invited Busch to her classroom at Culbertson Elementary School on Oct. 18 as part of "Me Week," in which the class would learn more about a featured student, according to the complaint.

One of the activities involves the student's parent reading aloud from a favorite book in class. Busch said her son's favorite book is the Bible.

But before the teacher would let Busch continue, she said she would have to get permission from Principal Thomas Cook. After a meeting in the hall, Cook informed Busch she couldn't read the Bible in class, the lawsuit said.

If this was in fact the principal's application of separation of church and state, then it was utterly stupid. Obviously, "Me Week" is meant for the kids to share something personal with the class; therefore, religion presented in that context is not endorsed by the school, but acknowledged as a personal affair.

If Wesley's favorite story had been "Sleeping Beauty" instead, and his Mom read it to the class, would the school be seen as endorsing monarchy and the belief in fairies? How difficult is it to switch the brain on before telling somebody they may not do something - especially when it is guaranteed to piss them off?

Mrs. Busch's reaction was equally irrational, but individuals - unlike the school - have the right to be irrational:
"What Wesley has learned in all of this is that the Bible is bad in school, and they don't like it," Donna Busch said of her 6-year-old son.

Outcomes like this hurt the separation of religion form government, and hurt the image of secularism in general. If the facts, as reported, are true, the school principal did a great service to the Religious Right.

Of course, it is possible that the facts are different. Perhaps the particular story was deemed not suitable for the class. After all, no reasonable school official would allow showing "Scarface" or "9 1/2 Weeks" in a kindergarten class even if they were the boy's favorite movies, and there are plenty of stories in the Bible that are far more violent or sexually explicit.

If so, the school should have had the policy of advance review of all materials to be presented in the "Me Week" and should have explained the reason for rejection in terms independent of religion. (Perhaps they did, which would bring us back to the caveat from the opening sentence. We'll see...)

Monday, May 09, 2005

IDiot America

Yet again proponents of "Intelligent Design" (or, more correctly, a religiously-inspired pseudoscientific call for the introduction of supernaturalism into the natural sciences) have gained control of the Kansas State Board of Education. An editorial in the Washington Post this weekend takes them to task:
But there is no serious scientific controversy over whether Darwinian evolution takes place. Intelligent design is not science. Whatever its rhetoric, the public questioning of evolution is fundamentally religious, not scienific, in nature. That is not to say that wonder is illegitimate; it is a perfectly reasonable response to the beauty and enormity of the universe to believe that it could not have happened without a divine hand. But the proper place to discuss such belief is not the public schools. Biology classes need to be taught with sensitivity to the religious sensibilities of students but not by casting doubt on evolution.
As the Kansas State Board of Education science committee begins hearings on the subject, scientists - including the American Association for the Advancement of Science - have opted to boycott the proceedings.

The format and agenda of the hearing before the board's education subcommittee "suggests that the theory of evolution may be debated," wrote Leshner. "It implies that scientific conclusions are based on expert opinion rather than on data."

But, he added: "The concept of evolution is well-supported by extensive evidence and accepted by virtually every scientist. Moreover, we see no purpose in debating interpretations of Genesis and 'intelligent design' which are a matter of faith, not facts."

Anyone doubting the true motivations of Intelligent Design advocates should see the disturbing internal memo from the Center for Science and Culture commonly referred to as "The Wedge Document."
Discovery Institute's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture seeks nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and its cultural legacies. Bringing together leading scholars from the natural sciences and those from the humanities and social sciences, the Center explores how new developments in biology, physics and cognitive science raise serious doubts about scientific materialism and have re-opened the case for a broadly theistic understanding of nature.
And, in stating their goals:
The social consequences of materialism have been devastating. As symptoms, those consequences are certainly worth treating. However, we are convinced that in order to defeat materialism, we must cut it off at its source. That source is scientific materialism. This is precisely our strategy. If we view the predominant materialistic science as a giant tree, our strategy is intended to function as a "wedge" that, while relatively small, can split the trunk when applied at its weakest points. The very beginning of this strategy, the "thin edge of the wedge," was Phillip Johnson's critique of Darwinism begun in 1991 in Darwinism on Trial, and continued in Reason in the Balance and Defeatng Darwinism by Opening Minds. Michael Behe's highly successful Darwin's Black Box followed Johnson's work. We are building on this momentum, broadening the wedge with a positive scientific alternative to materialistic scientific theories, which has come to be called the theory of intelligent design (ID). Design theory promises to reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview, and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.

Sunday, May 08, 2005

What would Jesus eat?

What could possibly explain this news item from the Houston Chronicle?

"A 1998 Purdue University survey found that religious Americans were more likely to be overweight than their nonreligious peers, a finding that should surprise no one who has sampled the fare at a church coffee hour or fish fry, to say nothing of a Jewish wedding.

Baptists were the fattest, according to the study; Jews, Muslims and Buddhists were the least overweight, though the researchers attributed this to differences in income, ethnicity and marital status rather than denomination."

Friday, May 06, 2005

Religious Freedom Is for Everyone

Progressive blogs are full of outrage over a Baptist church in North Carolina that has excommunicated all its members who voted Democratic. A frequent comment is that the church is breaking the law and should at least lose its tax-exempt status. Those suggesting such drastic measures should perhaps think twice.

I am not a lawyer and don't know if the church broke the law, but comments written by lawyers tend to say it is unlikely. The church did not intervene in a political campaign; it has merely reacted, after the fact, to past political actions that cannot be undone. Unless it had threatened to do so before the last election, it probably did not violate the tax laws.

But a more important issue is, legal technicalities aside, should a religious institution be allowed to deny membership to those whose opinions it dislikes? I think it should; moreover, forbidding it to do so would be absurd. A religious congregation is based on a common set of beliefs. It cannot meaningfully exist if it has no right to set the criteria for membership, as long as the criteria are reasonably related to beliefs. If you accept this principle, you can still ban discrimination based on factors like race, which have nothing to do with beliefs; but one's political, moral, and other social views are often impossible to disentangle from one's religious beliefs; the church should then be free to consider them.

Clinton Really Did Appoint Activist Judges...

...but activist on the side of the Christian right. In Maryland, US District Judge Alexander Williams blocked a school curriculum that includes discussion of homosexuality, agreeing with the plaintiffs that such discussions gave preference to religions tolerant of homosexuality over those that reject it.

I suppose the next case will reveal that science curriculum gives preference to the religions that accept that the Earth is round over those that believe it is flat.

But other religious activists might want to jump on the bandwagon. Maybe the family of the late psychopathic serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer can sue the state of Wisconsin for violating his rights by imposing laws that favor those religions that reject murder and cannibalism over those that encourage them. After all, Judge Williams and the so-called "Citizens for a Responsible Curriculum" have just shown us that everything is an Establishment Clause issue.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Harry Potter and the Infallible Rottweiler

Uh-oh! Pope Benedict XVI has declared Harry Potter books "a subtle seduction" that is "undermining the soul of Christianity".

This could be just a Quaylesque attack on a fictional character. But it could be more serious business: as Deutsche Welle and BBC have reported, the Pope's books are competing with the (yet unpublished) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince for the top position on the German best-selling list.

I find myself reaching for my wand and, for some reason, the incantation "conflict of interest" comes to mind...

Banging Hush Puppies on the Table

Certainly, Mr. John McCandlish Phillips is free to hold and express any opinion. On the other hand, to be given a third of a page in today's Washington Post (Wednesday, May 4, 2005; Page A19), he ought to satisfy some standard of quality and provide arguments supporting his position. Otherwise, I don't see why the other 200+ million American adults are not given equally prominent public forum for their musings. As it happens, the only plausible explanation for his privilege seems to be that he is an evangelical Christian.

The main thesis of his column, titled "When Columnists Cry 'Jihad'", is that the major news media (specifically, The New York Times and The Washington Post) have been staging a coordinated and improper attack on traditional Catholics and his fellow evangelicals. While he does not use big words like "conspiracy", he conveys an unambiguous message that a secularist offensive is directly threatening the liberty - and perhaps more - of people like him. (If you read his column, pay attention to how he uses the pronoun "we/us" with varying degree of specificity, at least three times clearly encompassing only conservative Christians.)

What evidence does he show that such an offensive exists?

From March 24 through April 23 (...), I counted 13 opinion columns of similarly alarmist tone aimed at us on the Christian right

Aha - "It's the numbers, stupid!" But what does that say about whether the columns are justified and well argued or not? Nothing, of course. Not to mention that he conveniently forgot to count the pro-religion opinion columns in the same papers. The Washington Post is often unkind to secularists even in its editorials.

Unencumbered by inconvenient passages from his religion's sacred texts (Matthew 7:1 and Luke 6:37), Phillips judges the liberal columnists. Here is what he says about Krugman:

Krugman, conceding the wide majority of secular liberals over conservatives on the faculties of our major universities, had the supreme chutzpah to tell us why: The former, unfettered by presuppositions of faith, are free to commit genuine investigative work and to reach valid scholarly conclusions, while the latter are disabled in that critical respect by their unprovable prior assumptions.

I would say that Phillips has the "supreme chutzpah" to misrepresent Krugman's explanation and attack it without demonstrating a single flaw in it. And here is his message to Frank Rich:

Frank Rich (...) went on to tell Times readers that GOP zealots in Congress and the White House have edged our country over into "a full-scale jihad." If Rich were to have the misfortune to live for one week in a genuine jihad, and the unlikely fortune to survive it, he would temper his categorization of the perceived President Bush-driven jihad by a minimum of 77 percent.

I wonder what authority Phillips possesses to adjudicate which jihad is genuine and which is fake. His own seems quite genuine to me; I admire the overt and shameless nature of his statements, such as:

Evangelicals are concerned about the frequently advanced and historically untenable secularists' view of the intent of our non-establishment/free exercise of religion clause (...) That view (...) constitutes what seems dangerous to most evangelicals: the strict and entire separation of God from state.

Never mind that he exaggerated the secularist position in the parts I omitted from the quote. What counts is that he openly and unconditionally pronounces that the separation of religion and government is dangerous. He did not include James Madison among the objectionable columnists, but he must find him profoundly disagreeable.

Phillips' only attempts at actual counter-arguments refer to religious faith of the founders of the (now woefully secularist) elite universities, and to the Congressional resolution authorizing Washington to declare Thanksgiving a national holiday. Those arguments fail because they are based on a fallacy of applying modern standards to actions from another historical period. Harvard and Yale, of course, were not centers of scientific research when they were founded. (There hardly was any scientific research then.) Moreover, a purely declarative Congressional action is an exceedingly weal example to support the far-reaching interpretation of history Phillips is pushing.

Phillips spends considerable page space to show personal-level affinity for the columnists he criticizes. Maureen Dowd is an "ever-so-readable columnist" and "[r]eading everything [she] writes" is, for Phillips, "one of life's guilty pleasures". Frank Rich is "an often acute, broadly knowledgeable and witty cultural observer". Richard Cohen is "generally amiable and highly communicative", Eugene Robinson is "urbane", and so on. Thus the writer maintains a formal appearance of politeness and respect for the columnists as persons. But, in reality, he displays utmost disrespect as he objects to their columns, and even implies a sinister context for them, without providing any valid counterarguments.

The general style of Phillips' column - civilized on surface, but vacuous and malevolent below - is symptomatic of much that passes as acceptable discourse these days, especially by conservatives. Under scrutiny, there is no more content in his article than in a child's claim "My daddy is stronger than yours!" and hence it amounts to nothing more (or less) than a demonstration of the raw power of the legions of evangelicals in whose name he writes.

I view such expression as essentially equivalent to the shoe-banging by that quintessential populist authoritarian, Nikita Khrushchev. Yes, our religious conservatives are far less temperamental and behave more amiably, so they may be banging soft Hush Puppies instead of heavy Soviet-made leather shoes, and the sound of it may be more pleasant, but, by golly, shoe banging is still shoe banging.

While Nero Fiddles with the Education System...

A letter from former U.S. senators Gary Hart and Warren Rudman in today's New York Times highlights the national security risk inherent in sacrificing this nation's leadership in science and technology. This was in response to, and support of, a column on 29 April 2005 by Thomas Friedman titled "What, Me Worry?" In that piece, Friedman says:
India and China know they can't just depend on low wages, so they are racing us to the top, not the bottom. Producing a comprehensive U.S. response - encompassing immigration, intellectual property law and educational policy - to focus on developing our talent in a flat world is a big idea worthy of a presidency. But it would also require Mr. Bush to do something he has never done: ask Americans to do something hard.
Symptomatic of our inattention to the quality of our future scientists is the inordinate emphasis on the teaching of "intelligent design" concepts, wasting time that would more productively be spent teaching important critical thinking skills and the value of the scientific method. Although neither the letter nor the column referenced above specifically deals with theological intrusions into science curricula, they suggest a sound basis for countering such nonsense in terms that might even resonate with conservatives - if we diminish the quality of our science education we risk our national security, and our prosperity.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Pray, Aim, Fire!

In his New York Times column, Bob Herbert relays the experience of Army private Aidan Delgado in Iraq. Mr. Delgado witnessed so much gratuitous violence by American troops that it led him to seek conscientious objector status, with which he was honorably discharged.

A scene he witnessed in the Abu Ghraib prison, where four detainees throwing rocks at the guards were shot to death, illustrates how religion can have detrimental effect on ethical behavior:

Mr. Delgado confronted a sergeant who, he said, had fired on the detainees. "I asked him," said Mr. Delgado, "if he was proud that he had shot unarmed men behind barbed wire for throwing stones. He didn't get mad at all. He was, like, 'Well, I saw them bloody my buddy's nose, so I knelt down. I said a prayer. I stood up, and I shot them down.' "

The article does not explain what the prayer's purpose was, but it is hard to imagine it was anything other than clearing the sergeant's conscience, making him feel his sins were absolved. I wonder if he would have been able to shoot at those people had he lacked religious faith.

In all fairness to religion, Mr. Delgado is a college student majoring in Religion, so one can fairly infer that this brave young man, who stood up against such unethical acts, is also religious, and probably feels that faith guides his ethical behavior. It can also be argued that the sergeant, although he probably considers himself Christian, practices a grotesque travesty of Christianity. Nevertheless, I see no reason to believe that Mr. Delgado would be any less ethical without religion, while, sadly, the perverted Christianity of the sergeant is probably the most common version practiced in the real world.