Thursday, July 28, 2005

Sins of the Scripture

Religion in America: A Christian thorn speaks out
Posted 7/19/05
By Caroline Hsu US NEWS
As the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Newark, Jack Spong ordained the first openly gay Episcopal priest in 1989. He has claimed that over 50 percent of Roman Catholic priests are gay and that even the Apostle Paul was homosexual. For these and other opinions, his opponents have called Spong a heretic. His latest book, Sins of the Scripture: Exposing the Bible's Texts of Hate to Reveal the God of Love (HarperSanFrancisco), brings a new round of criticism.

From the article:

Q. Why did you write The Sins of Scripture?

A. Texts in the Bible are being used to hurt, oppress, and denigrate. The Bible was quoted to support slavery and segregation, to hurt Jews, and to not educate women. Today, I see the Bible being used politically for all sorts of evil things. We have a president who wants to quote the Bible to condemn homosexual people. Somebody from within the heart of the religious community needs to speak out against it.

Q. What does the Bible say about homosexuality?

A. There are nine passages in the Bible dealing with homosexuality. Leviticus 18 and 20 say a man who lies with a man as with a woman is an abomination and both shall be put to death. If you're going to cite that, you should read all of Leviticus. It also says if you talk back to your parents, you should be put to death. If you cuss, don't observe the Sabbath, or worship false gods, you should be put to death. Even people in the right wing like the Jerry Falwells and Jim Dobsons, they can be pretty vicious, but I don't know anybody who would call for an execution of homosexuals.

Q. But if not the Bible, where can people turn for guidance?

A. Would you go to a doctor who practiced medicine between 1000 B.C. and A.D. 135? The Bible believed that epilepsy is caused by demon possession and a deaf mute has a devil tying his tongue. The Bible assumed the whole life of a person existed in a sperm of a man and the woman contributed nothing but nutrients. The Bible assumed Earth was the center of the universe and the sun rotated around it. We almost put Galileo to death for that, and today we engage in space travel. The use of the Bible as something you can quote with final authority on something about which the Bible knows nothing is ridiculous.
This is an article worth reading. Good points.

Friday, July 15, 2005

On Wizards and Witches

Benny (a.k.a. Pope Benedict XVI) has identified the latest form of evil spreading across the world. That vile form is blasphemy is...(drum roll please)...Harry Potter!

Benny wants to get in on the culture wars. I can't blame him. There's some great publicity involved for sure. From Yahoo/AP:

Pope disapproves of Harry Potter, letters suggest

Pope Benedict believes the Harry Potter books subtly seduce young readers and "distort Christianity in the soul" before it can develop properly, according to comments attributed to him by a German writer. Gabriele Kuby, who has written a book called "Harry Potter - Good or Evil," which attacks J.K. Rowling's best selling series about the boy wizard, published extracts from two letters written to her by Benedict in 2003, when he was a cardinal.

Kuby, a devout Catholic, had sent him a copy of her Potter critique and he wrote to thank her, according to a passage from one of the letters published in German on her Web site.
"It is good that you enlighten people about Harry Potter, because these are subtle seductions which act unnoticed and by this deeply distort Christianity in the soul, before it can grow properly," Benedict wrote, according to the excerpt. A Vatican official was not immediately able to comment on the remarks attributed to Benedict, who is currently on holiday in the Alps. Reuters was unable to reach Kuby by telephone.

The sixth book in the series, "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince," is due to be published on July 16, with millions of copies already shipped to stores around the world. After Benedict was named Pope in April, his own writings shot to the top of the German book charts and dislodged the most recent book in the Potter series from number one. The Vatican had previously appeared to approve of the books, saying they helped children to understand the difference between good and evil.

Kuby maintains the opposite, listing among 10 arguments against Harry Potter: "The ability of the reader to distinguish between good and evil is overridden by emotional manipulation and intellectual obfuscation." In one of the letters, Benedict gives Kuby permission to publicize his opinion. "Somehow your letter got buried in the large pile of name-day, birthday and Easter mail," he writes. "Finally this pile is taken care of, so that I can gladly allow you to refer to my judgment about Harry Potter."

Vatican officials earlier this year condemned Dan Brown's Catholic conspiracy bestseller "The Da Vinci Code." Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone in March blasted the book as an absurd distortion of history, saying it was full of cheap lies and Catholic bookstores should take it off their shelves.

Tuesday, July 12, 2005

Evolution: Just A Theory, Parts One & Two


It's been eighty years since the Scopes Monkey Trial yet the war between Evolution and Creationism lives on. I admit I don't know that much about Darwin's theory of evolution. Maybe that's because I slept through biology class in high school and managed to fulfill my science requirements in college with environmental science, not biology. Anyways, getting to the point . . . it appears that the Evolution vs. Creationism debate is growing wider, with the troops of Creationism gaining strength. Here's what's going on in Dayton, TN, the home of the Scopes trial:

As the town prepares for its annual re-enactment of the trial here eight decades later, debate over teaching evolution lives on. Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, said it is increasingly difficult to teach American students the basics of evolution. "We have been facing more anti-evolution activity in the last six months than we have ever faced in a comparable period before," Scott said Friday. In Kansas, the state school board could change science standards to include criticism of evolution. In Cobb County, Ga., labels describing evolution as a "theory, not a fact" were required in some textbooks before a court overturned the order.

Is the orthodoxy of religious-minded people so threatened by evolution that they must censor Darwin's theory in the classroom? Conversely, why do science-minded people treat evolution as pure fact and adhere to it as if it were religious dogma?

Have no fear creationists, the Vatican is now officially on your side. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, the Archbishop of Vienna, staked out the Catholic Church's position on evolution in a NY Times editorial:

EVER since 1996, when Pope John Paul II said that evolution (a term he did not define) was "more than just a hypothesis," defenders of neo-Darwinian dogma have often invoked the supposed acceptance - or at least acquiescence - of the Roman Catholic Church when they defend their theory as somehow compatible with Christian faith. But this is not true. The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things. Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

The Catholic Church has always been a little more open minded towards evolution than have the Christian fundamentalists. However, with Pope Benedict XVI, we can probably expect to see more critical rhetoric towards evolution from the Holy See. After all, this is the man who believes modern philosophy is a poison to the minds of believers. The pope has argued that the ideologies spawned from the secular philosophical tradition of Marx, Darwin, and Freud have kicked the concept of "God" to the gutter and have "sown the wind, and reaped the whirlwind" (Moynihan, 44).

Evolution is a theory, not scientific fact. Creationism, a.k.a. intelligent design, is also a theory. How can you prove that God created the world except for the fact that it is written in the Bible?

Agitprop takes no real stand in this battle of The Culture War. In my mind, Creationism and Evolution are perfectly compatible: God created the world, and then slowly let it evolve on its own.


The Evolution vs. Creation debate is huge right now, so I thought I'd give a second offering of Evolution: Just A Theory. Evolution is just a theory, like, a krispy kreme is just a donut. Ok, bad analogy, I digress. But in the comments section of my first post, res publica raises some great points:

The problem with the "just a theory" rhetoric is not that it isn't true. Rather, it plays on the public's lack of understanding of scientific method and terminology. In the strict scientific sense, there is no "step up" from theory to something like "law" or "fact". . . These "ID" guys are just pimping the distinction that exists in COMMON useage between "theory" and "fact".

In part one, I failed to mention the difference between a theory of Evolution and a theory of Creation. The creationist crowd is playing semantics here and exploiting public ignorance about the scientific method. The Linkmeister argues that the Catholic Church is abusing the definition of the word theory since a theory is "a set of statements or principles devised to explain a group of facts or phenomena, especially one that has been repeatedly tested or is widely accepted and can be used to make predictions about natural phenomena."

Creationism (a.k.a. intelligent design) is also a theory--one that is rooted in religious and cultural explanations of the world rather than a product of the rigorous scientific method. The early humans made up stories about gods who created the universe in order to provide meaning and structure to their lives. After all, religion is a cultural explanation of the world, so, Creationism belongs in anthropology class. Moreover, humans have always explained the concept of God in human terms. One can't possibly describe something that is divine in human terms.

Some scientists do cling to evolution as if it were religious dogma. Could we reconcile the angst between Evolution and Creation? Now I have stated previously, that in my mind, both evolutionary and God-centered accounts of the universe are compatible. John F. Haught helps articulates my views pretty right on in his book God After Darwin. The following is from a review of Haught's book in America, The Catholic Magazine:

God After Darwin continues this argument, but focuses mainly on remedying a major theological deficiency. "To a great extent," writes Haught, "theologians still think and write as though Darwin had never lived. Their attention remains fixed on the human world and its unique concerns. The nuances of biology or, for that matter, of cosmology have not yet deeply affected current thinking about God and God’s relation to the world." In contrast, Haught takes Darwin and his "dangerous idea" seriously, contending that the whole notion of God as "source of order" or "designer" of the cosmos has to be rethought. Why? Because if we fail to rethink our notion of God-as-designer, we run flat-footed into the problem of evil. It will seem that God must oversee a process of incredible waste, death, pain and horror. In short, God runs the horror show of the "survival of the fittest," and if that is the case God must be careless, indifferent and close to diabolical (with a preferential option for the strong). For this very reason, for many scientists, atheism is the logical correlate of
evolutionary science.

Lance Mannion echoes this sentiment and how it applies to Catholic religious practice:

The Church's teaching that God guided evolution is not a competing theory to natural selection. It is a statement of faith to be held onto in the face of the fact of evolution. And as such it's a lesson to be learned from the priest in the pulpit not the teacher in your kids' biology class. It is fine for a Catholic to accept the fact and still keep the faith. Unless you don't have faith in your faith to survive an encounter with a fact.

So it's the fundies, not necessarily the Catholics, that are horrified about evolution being taught to their children. There is always more room for debate in Catholicism than fundamentalist Christianity. When you have a black and white view of the world and believe that literal truth is contained in only one book (The Bible) then of course you wouldn't like science or evolution or reality. But The Green Knight gets to the point of the matter, similar to what Haught was arguing:

This is the theological sticking point. The question, if you think that God exists and that species have evolved over time, is whether God directs every step of the process or whether random variation is an integral part of the process, or possibly is the process as created by God.Frankly, the Green Knight doesn't understand why the idea of random variation in evolution should be such a challenging notion, even to someone who believes in an omnipotent God. After all, look at all the random events that happen all the time, every day. Why should one aspect of reality be singled out as a place where random events are just unthinkable? Just because an omnipotent God could micromanage everything in the universe doesn't necessarily mean She does. While claiming to represent the church's usual teachings, the Cardinal is inventing big chunks of theology on the fly.

God must be a blind watchmaker who created the world and let it evolve on its own. He/she/it is not up in some cloud heaven tinkering with the universe all day long. That concept is foolish at best.

Ok. I forgot where I was going with all of this. Oh yeah! Keep evolution in schools! But if you want to teach Creationism in the schools then you better teach every creation story from every culture possible: Babylonian, Buddhist, Chinese, Christian, Mormon, Greek, Hindu, Hopi, Inca, Mayan, Navajo, Zoroastrian . . .

Monday, July 11, 2005

Creationism special: A battle for science's soul

10:00 09 July 2005 news service (Registration Required)
Debora MacKenzie

ON 10 July 1925, a drama was played out in a small courtroom in a Tennessee town that touched off a far-reaching ideological battle. John Scopes, a schoolteacher, was found guilty of teaching evolution (see "The monkey trial - below"). Despite the verdict, Scopes, and the wider scientific project he sought to promote, seemed at the time to have been vindicated by the backlash in the urban press against his creationist opponents.

Yet 80 years on, creationist ideas have a powerful hold in the US, and science is still under attack. US Supreme Court decisions have made it impossible to teach divine creation as science in state-funded schools. But in response, creationists have invented "intelligent design", which they say is a scientific alternative to Darwinism (see "A sceptic's guide to intelligent design"). ID has already affected the way science is taught and perceived in schools, museums, zoos and national parks across the US.

In the US, Kansas has long been a focus of creationist activity. In 1999 creationists on the Kansas school board had all mention of evolution deleted from its state school standards. Their decision was reversed after conservative Christian board members were defeated in elections in 2002. But more elections brought a conservative majority in November 2004, and the standards are under threat again.

This time the creationists' proposals are "far more radical and much more dangerous", says Keith Miller of Kansas State University, a leading pro-evolution campaigner. "They redefine science itself to include non-natural or supernatural explanations for natural phenomena." The Kansas standards now state that science finds "natural" explanations for things. But conservatives on the board want that changed to "adequate". They also want to define evolution as being based on an atheistic religious viewpoint. "Then they can argue that intelligent design must be included as 'balance'," Miller says.

In January in Dover, Pennsylvania, 9th-grade biology students were read a statement from the school board that said state standards "require students to learn about Darwin's theory of evolution. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence". Intelligent design, it went on, "is an explanation for the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view". Fifty donated copies of an ID textbook would be kept in each science classroom. Although ID was not formally taught, students were "encouraged to keep an open mind".

“Proposed school standards redefine science to include supernatural explanations for natural phenomena”
These moves are part of numerous recent efforts by fundamentalist Christians, emboldened by a permissive political climate, to discredit evolution. "As of January this year 18 pieces of legislation had been introduced in 13 states," says Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, California, which helps oppose creationist campaigns. That is twice the typical number in recent years, and it stretched from Texas and South Carolina to Ohio and New York (see Map). The legislation seeks mainly to force the teaching of ID, or at least "evidence against evolution", in science classes.

The fight is being waged on other fronts as well. Scott counts 39 creationist "incidents" other than legislative efforts in 20 states so far this year. In June, for example, the august Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC allowed the showing of an ID film on its premises and with its unwitting endorsement. After an outcry, the endorsement was withdrawn - officials insisted that it was all a mistake, although the screening did go ahead (New Scientist, 11 June, p 4).

Also in June, a publicly funded zoo in Tulsa, Oklahoma, voted to install a display showing the six-day creation described in Genesis. The science museum in Fort Worth, Texas, decided in March not to show an IMAX film entitled Volcanoes of the Deep Sea after negative reaction to its acceptance of evolution from a trial audience. The museum changed its mind after press coverage evoked an outcry, but IMAX theatres elsewhere in the US have not screened science films with evolutionary content to avoid controversy. Since 2003 the bookstores at the Grand Canyon, part of the US National Park Service, have sold a young-Earth creationist book about the canyon, repeating the creationist assertion that it was formed by Noah's flood.

“Creationists depict evolutionists as a cultural elite, out of touch with American society”
Anti-Darwin campaigners have not won everywhere. A Georgia court ruled that stickers describing evolution as "theory not fact" must be removed from textbooks. A bill in Florida that might have allowed students to sue teachers "biased" towards evolution died. And Alaska rewrote its school science standards to emphasise evolution. But religious fundamentalists have succeeded in insinuating a general mistrust of evolution. "Creationists depict evolutionists as a cultural elite, out of touch with American society," says Kenneth Miller of Brown University in Rhode Island.

Creationism has had less cultural impact in Europe, but in the UK some state schools are incorporating it into science classes. The English education system allows private donors to invest in the refurbishment of state-funded schools in deprived areas, in return for controls over what is taught there. Emmanuel College at Gateshead in north-east England opened in 1990, financed by millionaire car dealer and Christian fundamentalist Peter Vardy. It teaches both evolution and creationism in science classes and, school officials say, lets children make up their own minds. Little notice was taken until 2002, when Vardy proposed opening more schools. A second opened last year in Middlesbrough, and a third will open near Doncaster in September.

Last September, Serbia briefly banned the teaching of evolution in schools. It changed its mind days later after scientists and even Serbian Orthodox bishops spoke out. There was also uproar over creationism in the Netherlands. The Dutch have several sects that teach creationism in their own schools. But in May, Cees Dekker, a physicist at the Delft University of Technology published a book on ID, and persuaded education minister Maria van der Hoeven that discussion of ID might promote dialogue between religious groups. She proposed a conference in autumn, but dropped the plan after an outcry from Dutch scientists.

In Turkey there is a strong creationist movement, sparked initially by contact with US creationists. Since 1999, when Turkish professors who taught evolution were harassed and threatened, there is no longer public opposition to creationism, which is all that is presented in school texts. In another Muslim country, Pakistan, evolution is no longer taught in universities.

“What is happening is a political effort to force a change in the nature of science itself”
Fundamentalist Christianity is also sweeping Africa and Latin America. Last year Brazilian scientists protested when Rio de Janeiro's education department started teaching creationism in religious education classes.

The fear among creationism's critics is that a pattern is emerging that will culminate in a new wave of creationist teaching. They are worried that this will undermine science education and science's place in society. "The politicisation of science has increased at all levels," says Miller. "What is happening is a political effort to force a change in the content and nature of science itself."

THE MONKEY TRIAL (from above)

In 1925, John Thomas Scopes was a 24-year-old physical education teacher at the secondary school in Dayton, Tennessee. He was put on trial after confessing to teaching evolution while acting as a substitute biology teacher - something Tennessee had recently made illegal. The so-called "monkey" trial became a media circus and struck a powerful chord in American society.

The reasons are still with us. Natural selection provides an explanation for the origins of living things, including humans, that depends entirely on the workings of natural laws. It says nothing about the existence, or otherwise, of God.

But to many believers in such a God, if humans are just another product of nature with no special status, then there is no need for morality. Worse, evolution with its dictum of survival of the fittest seems to encourage the unprincipled pursuit of selfishness. At the time of the Scopes trial these were not merely academic concerns. The first world war had convinced many of the brutalising effects of modernity.

Scopes lost. The newborn American Civil Liberties Union paid his $100 fine and planned to appeal to the US Supreme Court, where they hoped laws like Tennessee's would be declared illegal. They were thwarted when the verdict was overturned on a technicality.

In Dayton, though, it appeared that Darwin had won. The anti-evolutionists and rural, religious society generally had been held up to nationwide ridicule by the urban press covering the trial. As a result there were few overt efforts to pursue such legal attacks on evolution for decades.

But for some historians Scopes was no victory for Darwinism. The prosecutor, populist politician William Jennings Bryan, was seen as speaking for the "common people". Those people, repelled by an alien, arrogant, scientific world that seemed opposed to them and their values, developed a separate society increasingly bound to strict religious laws. Before the trial, evolution had not been an important issue for these people. Now it was. For many Americans, being in favour of evolution is still equated with being against God.

Debora MacKenzie