Hotel Rwanda and post-colonial ethnic conflicts

Over the weekend, I watched the DVD of the film Hotel Rwanda. This was a film that I knew from the beginning that I should see and would see, but at the same time dreaded seeing and postponed it for as long as I could. I knew that the film would make me both angry and depressed. Angry at the inhumanity that can be generated when people are stupid enough to take the superficial differences amongst as things that are important enough to kill and be killed for. Depressed because the events in Rwanda remind us once again how the world classifies people, nations, events, and regions into ‘important’ and ‘unimportant’ and that these classifications are not based on any measures that are real and tangible, but on how they directly affect the developed world.

But I am glad that I watched the film. It was immensely powerful and well done, with outstanding performances by Don Cheadle and the other (mostly unknown) actors. It is a film that I can strongly recommend. It does not descend into being a political tract but manages to weave a very human story into a political nightmare, without being more graphic than the minimum necessary to convey the horror. As I hate graphic violence, I was particularly relieved about the last point.

For those not familiar with what happened in Rwanda, this was a civil war between two ethnic groups that resulted in an estimated one million deaths. The film chronicles the events in 1994 following the alleged killing of the President of Rwanda (a Hutu) allegedly by members of the minority insurgent Tutsis and the violent rampage that was unleashed by the government, which let Hutu mobs take the law into their own hands and slaughter the Tutsis,

The scenes in which Hutu mobs armed with machetes took to the streets and murdered Tutsis and set fire to their homes while the security forces either took part or stood by and did nothing, brought back disturbing memories of my own experience in Sri Lanka in 1983, though what happened in Rwanda was on a very much larger scale. Still, I could empathize with the feelings of the people in the film when it dawned on them that they had absolutely no protection from the state, that they were completely on their own, and that they had no chance against armed mobs acting with impunity. It would only be sheer luck, and the kindness of friends and strangers, that determined who died and who lived.

What impressed me most about the film was how true it was. Not true in the sense of the literal recounting of facts. I am in no position to judge that because of my lack of familiarity with the details of events in Rwanda. But true in the way that such conflicts arise and the way they are portrayed and dealt with in the developed world. There is one small scene that you should observe closely. In this scene, a foreign TV cameraman (played by Joaquin Phoenix) is at the hotel bar and asks a local journalist what the difference is between a Hutu and a Tutsi and how the conflict arose. The journalist replies that Tutsis are supposed to be taller and have narrower noses. He also says that the Belgian colonial powers favored the Tutsi minority and groomed them into an elite. This caused resentment among the Hutu majority, which retaliated when they obtained power after independence. Two women are also seated at the bar and Phoenix asks them and which ethnicity they are. One replies that she is Hutu and the other that she is Tutsi. Phoenix wonderingly muses “they could be twins.”

And there you have it in a nutshell. Each group of people likes to think of themselves as somehow special and invent qualities that they think distinguish themselves from others groups, however absurd or irrational the grounds for such beliefs. Then colonial powers, wherever possible, use these perceived differences to implement the tried and true “divide and conquer” policies. They build on any traditional mistrust and animosity between the two groups by giving favors to the minority and winning their allegiance, thus fending off any joint action by the two groups to overthrow the colonial occupiers, but breeding lingering resentment in the majority community. This almost inevitably leads to post-independence settling of resentments.

Look at the post-independence ethnic conflicts in many countries and you will see this pattern repeated over and over, too often to think of it as a weird coincidence. It definitely happened in Sri Lanka with the British, for example. That same conversation in the bar would have been perfectly appropriate for describing the history of Sri Lanka too. For me, the worst thing about colonialism was not the looting of the resources of the colonized countries, bad as that was. It was the deliberate and cynical fanning of mistrust and conflict so that the countries were almost guaranteed to reap a harvest of violence and bloodshed once the colonists left or were thrown out. Then the colonial powers could wring their hands in regret at the inevitable conflict that followed their departure and smugly feel that it was their ‘civilizing’ presence that kept the lid on the ‘savage natives.’

This is not to say that the local population did not share in the blame. There were enough so-called ‘leaders’ who were willing to build on these inflamed feelings to gain power, and they in turn had enough followers who could be persuaded that meaningless differences generated largely on accident birth (ethnicity, skin color, religion, language, etc.) were important enough to fight one another over.

To be continued tomorrow…

Post Script 1: Take that!

James Wolcott demonstrates the spirit of the current holiday season.

Post Script 2: The future is already here

In a comment to a previous post, Eldan points out that the very thing I had feared (the sponsorship of novels by companies and industries) has already happened. One day, perhaps I will predict a trend before it actually occurs…

Ads, ads, everywhere…

One reason I rarely watch any programs on commercial TV, and even find commercial radio irritating, is because of the constant interruptions with commercials that disrupt the flow of the narrative. There are very few occasions when I do watch commercial TV, and it is for the occasional sporting event or The Simpsons and then the commercials fit more naturally into the breaks in the action. Actually, since I rarely watch TV, many of the commercials are novel and quite clever and enjoyable when I see them for the first time. But even during a single game, one tends to see the same commercial repeated many times and however amusing they are at first, by the time the third viewing comes around, they are tiresome.

Advertisers are aware of this viewer irritation and with the arrival of technology that enables viewers to skip commercials altogether have sought to find other ways to draw attention to their products. By now, even the most naïve viewer is aware of product placement. When characters place their sodas on the table with the logo facing the camera, when characters get into a car with its badge visible, most viewers know that money has changed hands to achieve this result.

But apparently even this is not enough. Advertisers are now requesting that the scriptwriters for TV shows actually insert dialogue into their scripts to reinforce the placement. In other words, in addition to showing the box of cereal, you can expect characters to start commenting on how good the cereal tastes or how nutritious it is. Or when the heroes take off in their car after the villains, they might comment on how lucky they are that the car can go from zero to sixty in 4.7 seconds or whatever. The program On The Media reports that scriptwriters are so concerned about being co-opted into being adwriters as well that they are asking for protection in their contracts. Bob Harris reports on seeing one of these script placements already in a program.

One does not find this kind of product placement in books, perhaps because authors of fiction are not usually writing under contract for others. Also actually naming a product, as opposed to simply making it visible, is much harder to do discreetly.

But have you considered the possibility that an entire novel’s plot might be an advertising pitch? My mind is not diabolical enough to have conceived of such a scheme but that idea had occurred to devious minds at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, or PhRMA. On The Media reports that this group was concerned that the increasing efforts by consumers to buy cheaper prescription drugs in Canada would eat into the profits of drug companies in the US. Their previous strategy of placing full page advertisements in newspapers warning of some vague danger to consumers was seen as being of limited value.

So Mark Barondess, a consultant to PhRMA, commissioned a novel to be written by first time novelists Julie Chrystyn and Kenin Spivak. Spivak says he was told that the plot was to consist of a group of Bosnian Muslims who, unhappy with the fact that the United States was not supporting Bosnian Muslims against Serbs, launch an attack using tainted drugs on Americans through the Canadian website pharmacies. And many, many thousands of Americans would have to die in the story.

Clever, huh? If the book becomes a bestseller of the kind written by Michael Crichton, then you could see what an effect it might have on public attitudes towards Canadian drugs.

But the plan fell apart. According to Brooke Gladstone, the host of On The Media “Spivak said he chafed under the demand that they dumb down the book to appeal to women, who buy more drugs than men, and that all the terrorists be religious fanatics.”

But writers Spivak and Chrystyn still complied with these requirements only to find their novel being rejected by Barondess and the PhRMA employee on the ground that it was transparent drivel with the potential to backfire.

In fact, PhRMA tried to wash its hands completely of this fiasco, saying that the consultant was acting on his own and that the money paid to the writers, both for writing the book and for killing the commission, was out of the consultant’s own pockets. Meanwhile, the writers have rewritten their work to make it, at least in their own eyes, a better novel. No word yet on when, or if, it will be released.

I see this is an alarming trend. Although PhRMA saw this as an embarrassment and withdrew its participation (or so they say), other industries might not. We should also not assume that only unknown writers will be tempted to write a novel to meet the needs of an industry. The fact that extremely rich actors and celebrities are willing to act in commercials should alert us to the fact that it may only be a matter of time before even best-selling authors start writing made-to-order novels.

It seems unlikely that such novel will promote a particular product. That would be too obvious. It is more likely that it will promote the agenda of a particular industry and be funded by its trade group, like PhRMA. So one can imagine made-to-order novels that denigrate Canadian-style universal health care plans or promote genetically engineered foods.

So the next time some blockbuster novel seems to have a plot that advances the agenda of some industry, it might be a good thing to ask whether it was only the artistic muse that influenced its author. The big industries have the budgets and clout to advertise books heavily and get good reviews placed in influential sources, and turn even the most mediocre novel into a talked-about book.

Best selling author Michael Crichton, who published a book called State of Fear that pooh-poohs global warming does not need to be paid by a specific industry to make money off his books but if some new blockbuster by an unknown author appears that seems to promote some agenda favored by a trade group, it might be good to start asking some questions.

POST SCRIPT 1: Somber milestone

The US today recorded the 1,000th person to be executed since the death penalty was reintroduced in 1977. That the death penalty still exists anywhere in the world boggles my mind. It seems like such a barbaric relic of medieval times.

POST SCRIPT 2: Holiday CircleFest

So as not to end the week on a down note, I thought I would remind everyone that this Sunday, December 4 features Holiday CircleFest, which has a lot of free events including a program of music by the Case University Singers at 7:00pm in the Church of the Covenant, sponsored by the University Protestant Campus Ministries (UPCaM). UPCaM is a terrific organization that I am a member of and support.

Thanks to Paul who brought this to my attention in a comment to a previous post.

Intelligent Design Creationism loses a prominent supporter

Perhaps one of the most significant indicators that Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) is becoming an embarrassment is the defection by US Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.

Senator Santorum was once one of the most prominent supporters of IDC ideas, even going so far as to propose an amendment to a bill that said “where biological evolution is taught, the curriculum should help students to understand why this subject generates so much continuing controversy, and should prepare the students to be informed participants in public discussions regarding the subject.” This kind of language, drafted by people from the IDC-promoting Discovery Institute, has always been the strategy of IDC advocates, to isolate evolution as somehow different from other scientific theories and as an especially poor theory, and to promote IDC by specifically focusing on evolution’s alleged weaknesses. Although the Santorum Amendment never made it into law, the language remained in the conference report that surrounds legislation and supporters of IDC used it to argue that there was federal sanction for teaching intelligent design.

In a 2002 editorial page article in the Washington Times, Santorum went even further and said that “intelligent design is a legitimate scientific theory that should be taught in science classes.”

But times change. Senator Santorum is up for re-election in 2006. He is facing a tough race and is currently trailing in the polls. The Dover school board election results may have jolted him into realizing that being seen as an IDC supporter has become an albatross. Whatever the reason, Santorum has made a complete reversal and now says “that he doesn’t believe that intelligent design belongs in the science classroom.” He went on to say “Science leads you where it leads you.” Really.

Whether this reversal helps him win reelection is another matter. What is relevant here is that IDC has become increasingly seen as a political liability.

Of course, the IDC camp can still claim the support of President Bush who said that “he believes schools should discuss “intelligent design” alongside evolution when teaching students about the creation of life.”

But Bush said this in August before his poll approval numbers started going into free-fall. It is not clear how he would reply if asked the same question now. Perhaps, like Santorum, he will suddenly see the light about how science really works and have a conversion. But given all the other issues that are buffeting the White House involving Iraq and torture and the Plame leak and corruption and secret prisons, it is unlikely that he will be asked about intelligent design again any time soon, sparing him the same kind of embarrassment that Santorum has had to undergo because of his abrupt change of heart.

If Bush asks those close to him who are assigned to have an opinion on these matters, his views may not receive much support from even them. When his scientific advisor John Marburger was asked to cite scientific evidence for supernatural design, he replied: “There isn’t any. … Intelligent design is not a scientific concept.”

Of course, that still leaves Senate majority leader Frist who remains a supporter (in a wishy-washy and confused kind of way) of IDC ideas. It will be interesting to see what happens to his views when he is up for re-election or if he decides to run for President in 2008.

POST SCRIPT 1: From denials to “old news”

Once again, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow accurately captures how this administration deals with bad news.

POST SCRIPT 2: “God’s interns in DC”

Check out this strange news story from ABC’s Nightline about young “interns” who go to Washington to pray 24/7. I am not sure what to make of it. But what is it with all the rocking back and forth? Is this common?

“Merry Christmas” or “Season’s Greetings”?

In a comment to a previous post on Thanksgiving and Christmas, John made an interesting observation. He said that, given his reading of my political and religious leanings from my blog, he was surprised that I had used the term “Christmas shopping season” instead of the more generic “holiday shopping season,” since I am obviously not a religious person.

I must admit that I was taken by surprise by his comment. I had written “Christmas” season almost without thinking because I see it as such. But perhaps I should not have been surprised because I am also aware of how touchy the issue of Christmas has become.

For example, a silly person named John Gibson has actually written a book called The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought. And Bill O’Reilly, who can always be depended on to waste his outrage on the trivial, has declared that he is going to “save” Christmas by bringing back the greeting “Merry Christmas” and fighting those stores that have promotions saying “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” A guest on his show suggested that these more generic greetings do not offend Christians, to which O’Reilly replied “Yes, it does. It absolutely does. And I know that for a fact. But the smart way to do it is “Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Kwanzaa.”

Meanwhile, Jerry Falwell, in a fierce competition with Pat Robertson for the Religious Doofus of the Year award, says that he too is fighting to save that holy holiday and that he’ll sue and boycott groups that he sees as muzzling Christmas. Finishing a strong third for that same award:

American Family Association President Tim Wildmon,…wants to see “Merry Christmas” signs displayed prominently “if they expect Christians to come in and buy products during this so-called season.”

And he isn’t worried if they offend people who aren’t Christian.

“They can walk right by the sign,” Wildmon said. “It’s a federal holiday. If someone is upset by that, well, they should know that they are living in a predominantly Christian nation.”

So John was quite justified in being puzzled as to why, in this climate, I was so casually tossing the word Christmas around when everyone seems to be so touchy about it.

To be quite honest, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry when I see people like Gibson and O’Reilly and Falwell and Wildmon getting into a lather about what is the proper thing to say at Christmas. How can adults waste their time on the trivial when there is so much other stuff to think about?

As for me personally, I just can’t take this matter seriously. I have never been offended by other people’s religious beliefs. Perhaps it was because I grew up in a multi-religious society, had friends of other faiths, and celebrated their religious holidays as well as my own. It does not offend me in the least when people wish me greetings that are specific to their own religious traditions or in some neutral terms. What is the sense in being offended by someone who is wishing you well? The words do not matter in the least. It is the sentiment behind it that is important.

I have always liked Christmas as a holiday, especially its focus on children, and its message of promoting peace and goodwill among people. I am glad that even people who do not share its religious orientation still share in the peace and goodwill message. I do not appreciate the fact that it has become largely a merchandizing tool.

I simply do not care how other people view Christmas or how they express their views and it amazes me that some people are using it as yet another means of waging a cultural war. Why are some people so touchy? When someone wishes me “Season’s Greetings,” I take that as a thoughtful gesture of friendship and caring and I am touched by the sentiment. The same goes if they wish me “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hanukkah” or “Happy Kwanzaa” or “Happy Solstice” or any other greeting from any other religion. I return the greeting in kind, even if I am not a believer in that faith, because all that such an exchange signifies is that two people wish each other well. If someone says to me “Merry Christmas” and I reply “Same to you,” this is not an affirmation of faith any more than “Season’s Greetings” is an act of hostility to religion. To take such greetings as a challenge to one’s beliefs and start a fight over it is to demonstrate churlishness to a ridiculous degree. O’Reilly and his partners in this stupid battle need to grow up.

I am talking here about how the holiday is interpreted in the private sphere of person-to-person interactions. If some company puts advertisements in the paper and tells its employees to greet customers by saying “Season’s Greetings,” why should it offend me? The same thing if they order their employees to say “Merry Christmas” instead. That is not something that bothers me, because such mandated greetings are not borne out of personal care and concern but are just marketing tools and are meaningless in terms of content and intent, whatever the words used. It is in the same category as the mandated “Have a nice day.” You can always tell, by the eyes, the tone of voice, and the smile (or lack of it) if the person is genuinely being friendly or simply saying it because it is required. The actual words are immaterial.

If Bill O’Reilly gets all warm and tingly when a store employee is forced to say “Merry Christmas” to him and gets angry when that same employee is forced to say “Season’s Greetings,” then he is a man in need of serious therapy because he clearly cannot distinguish the real from the counterfeit. I hate to be the one who breaks the news but he should realize that the employee probably does not care for him personally, whatever the greeting.

The question becomes different when we talk of the public sphere because then we are talking about the government taking an official stand on religion and this raises tricky political and constitutional issues. There it seems to me to be appropriate to be scrupulously religiously neutral because I am a believer that a secular public sphere is the one most likely to lead to peace and harmony between diverse groups. Governments are supposed to be representatives of everyone and to single out one particular religion or ethnicity for preferential treatment is to create discord.

But when it comes to private exchanges between people, we should all relax and let people express their good feelings for one another in whatever way they choose and are most comfortable with and not try to make it into a battle for religious supremacy. You can always tell when people genuinely mean well and when they are pushing an agenda, whatever the actual words used. We should learn to accept the former gracefully and ignore the latter.

POST SCRIPT: A Parable of Iraq

Tom Tomorrow has another good cartoon.

Hollywood remakes

I don’t think that I will ever understand the logic by which some films get made in Hollywood, especially the decision on which older films to remake.

Over the holiday weekend, we watched two films that happened to be remakes of films that I had seen in their original versions. One was The Manchurian Candidate starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep (the 1962 version of the film with same name starred Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury). The other was The Truth About Charlie starring Mark Wahlberg, Thandie Newton, and Tim Robbins, which was a remake of Charade (1963) starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Coincidentally, both remakes were produced and directed by acclaimed director Jonathan Demme, who made Silence of the Lambs.

Another common feature they shared is that both new versions were simply terrible, which prompted me to wonder why these remakes were ever even contemplated. It seems to me that the main reason to remake a film is because the story is interesting and had promise but the original version was somehow botched and the new director feels that he or she could do a much better job with it. But that did not apply in these two cases, so my question is what were Demme and the other people who backed these productions thinking?

The original Manchurian Candidate was a taut cold-war thriller in which a soldier is captured and brainwashed by Communists during the Korean war in order to make him into someone who would unthinkingly follow instructions so that he could serve a political purpose back in the US. The basic brainwashing plot of the original, as in the sequel, was somewhat far-fetched, but the original film worked as a political satire as well..

As for the original Charade, that was perhaps the best romantic comedy-thriller ever made, with a superb musical score by Henry Mancini as a bonus. I have seen it more than once and have never failed to be captivated by it, even though I know all the plot twists.

In remaking films like this that were so good in their original forms, it was clear that the new films could only fare badly by comparison. What surprised me was how awful they were, especially The Truth About Charlie.

Both remakes kept the basic story lines intact, but updated them and added new wrinkles to make them more topical. In The Manchurian Candidate, for example, the soldier son was now brainwashed during the first Gulf war by a huge business conglomerate. The plot often made no sense at all, with huge gaps in logic and character motivation. The filmmakers seemed to try and overwhelm the viewer by making the story very complicated and high-tech, but all that these devices achieved was to irritate me. The only redeeming feature of the new version was an excellent performance by Meryl Streep, matching in her steely ambition the original performance by Angela Lansbury.

Remaking Charade is even harder to understand. Cary Grant set the standard in playing the suave leading man and no one does the wide-eyed innocent better than Audrey Hepburn. “Classy” is the word that always comes to mind when thinking of either of these two actors. The dialogue was clever and the on-screen chemistry between them was almost magical, despite their age difference of twenty five years. The supporting cast of Walter Matthau, James Coburn, George Kennedy, and Jacques Marin (who played the French detective), was also first-rate.

In the remake, Mark Wahlberg and Thandie Newton are nowhere in the same league as Grant and Hepburn, either as actors or on-screen personalities. It actually felt kind of cruel to put them in a situation where they would inevitably be compared unfavorably to those two greats who were at the top of their game. In addition, although sticking to the same basic story line, Demme introduced plot twists and characters and scenes that simply made no sense, with obscure minor characters reappearing for no apparent reason. What the original had in witty dialogue, the remake tried to make up for in gimmicks. It was as if the director was trying for an absurdist effect and failed miserably.

An example of a good remake is Ocean’s Eleven. The 1960 original in that case was just so-so, an excuse for the Rat Pack to hang out together on screen, while the 2001 Steven Soderbergh remake was what a remake should be, taking a poorly executed first attempt and showing how it could be done well.

Doing a remake of a good first effort makes no sense to me. Updating the plot to make it topical does not seem like a good enough reason to do the film over. After all, we can still enjoy classic films the Dr. Strangelove even though the political context that gave it its edge is no more.

But The Truth About Charlie was an absolute travesty, making me want to watch the original Charade again just to rid my mind of the pollution created by the remake.

I am curious as to what readers of this blog who have seen both the original and remake of any film think about this question.

And if you have never seen Charade, try and get hold of a copy. It is a film everyone should see. I am going to see it yet again.

POST SCRIPT: What on earth is going on?

This link takes you to a video that seems to show people in a moving vehicle in Iraq firing machine guns randomly at cars behind them, causing them to swerve and crash and possibly killing the occupants. The bizarre and unbelievably callous nature of these acts is accentuated by the fact that the whole video is accompanied by Elvis Presley singing.

It is alleged by the British newspaper The Telegraph that the shots were fired by members of private foreign security forces working in Iraq. These companies are a law unto themselves, immune from prosecution from either Iraqi or British or American authorities and are said to have caused numerous civilian deaths. This video has sparked calls for an inquiry into the shootings and a British security company Aegis Defence Services says it is also carrying out an internal inquiry, since the video was first posted on its own website, creating suggestions that it was put on the server as a “trophy.”

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy it. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me cold.
[Read more…]

Catholic Church turns away from Intelligent Design Creationism?

Perhaps the high point for the IDC (intelligent design creationism) movement in recent times was the New York Times op-ed essay on July 7, 2005 by the supposedly influential Roman Catholic Cardinal Schonborn, where he seemed to advocate the IDC position about the alleged weaknesses of Darwinian natural selection. He said “The Catholic Church will again defend human reason by proclaiming that the immanent design evident in nature is real. Scientific theories that try to explain away the appearance of design as the result of “chance and necessity” are not scientific at all, but, as John Paul put it, an abdication of human intelligence.” He even went so far to say that Pope John Paul II’s statement saying that evolution “was more than just a hypothesis” could be ignored.

At that time, this op-ed caused a stir as it seemed like the Roman Catholic Church was setting itself up for another epic confrontation reminiscent of the one that it had with Galileo about Copernican theory. I suggested then that the cardinal’s stance was probably a trial balloon, perhaps initiated by the new Pope Benedict XVI, to see what the reaction might be. The reaction was swift and not good, even from within the Catholic Church.

The Catholic World News reports that:

The director of the Vatican Observatory has lashed out at proponents of the theory of Intelligent Design, the Italian news service ANSA reports.

“Intelligent design isn’t science, even if it pretends to be,” said Father George Coyne. He said that if the theory is introduced in schools, it should be taught in religion classes, not science classes.

In another story news story:

The Vatican has issued a stout defence of Charles Darwin, voicing strong criticism of Christian fundamentalists who reject his theory of evolution and interpret the biblical account of creation literally.

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the Genesis description of how God created the universe and Darwin’s theory of evolution were “perfectly compatible” if the Bible were read correctly.

His statement was a clear attack on creationist campaigners in the US, who see evolution and the Genesis account as mutually exclusive.

“The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim,” he said at a Vatican press conference. He said the real message in Genesis was that “the universe didn’t make itself and had a creator”.

This idea was part of theology, Cardinal Poupard emphasised, while the precise details of how creation and the development of the species came about belonged to a different realm – science. Cardinal Poupard said that it was important for Catholic believers to know how science saw things so as to “understand things better”.

His statements were interpreted in Italy as a rejection of the “intelligent design” view, which says the universe is so complex that some higher being must have designed every detail.

Further support for evolution came from Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest who reaffirmed John Paul’s 1996 statement that evolution was “more than just a hypothesis.”

“A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false,” he said. “(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof.”

He was asked about comments made in July by Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn, who dismissed in a New York Times article the 1996 statement by John Paul as “rather vague and unimportant” and seemed to back intelligent design.

Basti concurred that John Paul’s 1996 letter “is not a very clear expression from a definition point of view,” but he said evolution was assuming ever more authority as scientific proof develops.

Cardinal Schonborn himself (in a sermon in October) now seems to be backpedaling from his earlier assertions in the face of all this opposition from within the church itself:

[I]n a lecture given at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna on Sunday, Schoenborn said that it was possible he had not expressed himself clearly.

“Such misunderstandings can be cleared up,” he said, according to a Reuters report.

The 60-year-old cardinal now says that there need not be an inherent conflict between divine creation and evolution. He says that one is a matter for religion, the other for science, and that the two disciplines are complementary.

Schoenborn said: “Without a doubt, Darwin pulled off quite a feat with his main work and it remains one of the very great works of intellectual history. I see no problem combining belief in the Creator with the theory of evolution, under one condition – that the limits of a scientific theory are respected.”

He explained that in his view, those limits would be overstepped if scientists claimed that evolution proves that there could be no creator. Since science has never made any such claim on evolution’s behalf, it looks like it’s still OK by the Vatican.

But Pope Benedict XVI is still not giving up this fight. On November 11, 2005 it is reported: “Pope Benedict XVI has waded into the evolution debate in the United States, saying the universe was made by an “intelligent project” and criticizing those who in the name of science say its creation was without direction or order.”

But the Pope seems to be missing the point. People are free to believe in any kind of designer they wish. However the practice of science is based on methodological naturalism, which rules out using any supernatural mechanisms in any scientific study of any natural phenomenon.

POST SCRIPT: Too considerate?

A woman tried to open a door to step outside to smoke a cigarette. The catch is that the door was on a plane which was flying from Hong Kong to Brisbane, Australia. She was arrested.

“This I believe: I believe there is no God”

Those of you who regularly listen to NPR’s Morning Edition know that they are running a series called “This I Believe” where various people talk about the important beliefs in their lives. I have been listening on occasion and most contributors have expressed beliefs in motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of things. But Monday’s contribution by Penn Jillette (who describes himself as “the taller, louder half of the magic and comedy act Penn and Teller”) was striking in the way that he so closely echoed my own beliefs. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here, but here are the passages that particularly resonated with me:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond Atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy – you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.

So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power.

Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-o and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

I thought it was rather nicely put.

POST SCRIPT: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I saw the latest Harry Potter film and it deserved all the praise that it is getting. It has been awhile since I saw a film so soon after reading the book on which it is based and I must say that I was impressed with the judicious selection of material from the book to go into the film. I also liked the way the screenwriter and director transferred Rowling’s vision onto the screen. Sometimes such transitions don’t work well but this was almost perfect. There was nothing at all jarring. The film was at once both faithful to the book and self-contained as a film, quite an achievement.

Intelligent design creationism losing ground?

Some time ago, I speculated that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement might have jumped the shark and was on a downward slide. Some recent developments might suggest that I was premature is seeing the demise of IDC. After all, just last week, the state of Kansas formally adopted language in their science standards that sought to undermine natural selection. But that particular act was foregone conclusion once the elections in Kansas had produced a pro-IDC majority.

Up to that point, IDC had managed to gain some ground purely because it was based on a stealth strategy. IDC strategists realized that the courts would not allow any overtly religious doctrine to be taught in science classes. And it is not clear that most people would have liked that idea either, whatever their religious persuasion. People tend to see the function of science classes as being to teach science and instinctively sense the potential danger in mixing science with religion.

As a result of this, the IDC people had to go to great lengths to deny any religious underpinnings for their theory. Yet, since IDC advocates needed the support of their religious base in order to make any headway in their attempts to garner political support at the local and state levels to have IDC ideas included in science curricula, they had to perform this delicate balancing act of publicly disavowing any religious intent while privately letting their supporters know their true motivation.

But that balancing act has collapsed. It is pretty clear to everyone by now that the intelligent designer is a pseudonym for god, and alarm bells are going off all over as people start to become aware of the consequences of this stealth attack on science education. Interestingly, some of the most vocal critics of IDC have been people like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, people from the same ideological camp as many of the IDC proponents.

Krauthammer says:

Let’s be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge – in this case, evolution – they are to be filled by God.

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase “natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” thus unmistakably implying – by fiat of definition, no less – that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an “unguided process” with no “discernible direction or goal.” This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an “unguided process” by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an “unguided process” of molecular interactions without “purpose”? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

Strong words, especially from someone who earlier had downplayed the importance of the Kansas developments implying that, in the grand scheme of things, it did not really matter what the yokels in Kansas did. He seems to have belatedly realized that IDC is a profoundly retrograde development.

George Will on Nightline contrasts the openness of science to the approach of IDC:

It’s openness to discussion of testable hypotheses, falsifiable hypotheses, hypotheses for which you can conceive of contradicting evidence. And I do not believe that the adherents to the doctrine of Intelligent Design are open to that kind of evidence. I think what they say is that random, unguided evolution, without the purposefulness of God, is inconceivable. Now that is – may be true, but it’s not falsifiable, and therefore has no place in a science curriculum.

In another article, Will says:

Dover’s insurrection occurred as Kansas’s Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: “a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena.”
“It does me no injury,” said Thomas Jefferson, “for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

The IDC people needed people like Will and Krauthammer as allies and supporters if they were to make any headway on the national stage. They are influential opinion makers, appealing to that part of the political spectrum from which IDC draws much of its support. Losing them is not a good sign.

What is worse for IDC, people like Will and Krauthammer, whatever their private religious beliefs, generally view the public sphere as secular and write about politics from a secular perspective. Their disavowal of the IDC argument leaves the IDC camp being supported exclusively by people like Cal Thomas and Pat Robertson, people who openly want to see their particular version of Christianity dominate public life, who clearly see IDC as part of Christianity, and who are generally seen (Robertson in particular) as just plain nuts. Having such people on the IDC side does not really help their cause.

At some point, the official IDC stance that their designer is not god and that IDC has no religious intent is going to be so obviously at odds with the public perception of it that they will have to either confess to its true nature or be increasingly seen as treating the people as gullible fools.

Already there are signs that some of the tentative support the IDC camp has had in the past has started to peel away. Tomorrow we will look at some former supporters who are having second thoughts.