“The Bible says…”

One of the things I benefited most from once being an ordained lay preacher was having to study the Bible in a fairly formal way. The Bible is a fascinating book, and studying it in some depth reveals treasures that might be missed by those who just pick outs bits here and there.

For example, I discovered that some of the books of the so-called “minor” prophets of the Old Testament (Jonah and Amos were my particular favorites), when taught by scholars, make for great reading and are full of insights into the human condition. The Bible also has passages that astound you with their poetic beauty and precision of thought. Take, for example, this verse from Ecclesiastes (9:11) that addresses the seeming disconnect between ability and reward, and the general randomness of life:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

And we are constantly reminded of how indebted we are to two sources (the Bible and Shakespeare) for so many of the phrases that we use in everyday language.

But another benefit of studying the Bible is that I am immediately on the alert when someone says “The Bible says X” in order to support some position. My first response is “Where exactly does it say it?” Quite often, they cannot quote a supporting verse and you realize that they simply think the Bible should say that, because they strongly believe it. It has become part of folklore.

So when someone says “The Bible says X”, always ask for supporting evidence.

The second point is that even when such people actually have a quote to back up their assertion, you can often point to other quotes that contradict their position or puts it in a different light or context. This is because the Bible says a lot of things. It is an immense book with many authors, written over a long span of time, in more than one language, and from the perspective of many different cultures. There is also the fact that (as some of commenters to this blog have pointed out previously) the translations of ancient Hebrew and Greek and other texts into English involves the introduction of some unavoidable ambiguities. The Bible is by no means a clear statement of beliefs and values that can be easily inserted into modern day political and ideological battles, and it can be claimed to be so only by deliberately cherry-picking bits and pieces to serve an agenda. When, in the Merchant of Venice (act 1, sc. 3), Shakespeare has Antonio saying “The devil can cite Scripture for his purpose,” he is right. The Bible can be quoted to support a vast range of positions, some of them truly bizarre, so arguing on the basis of Biblical texts, taken literally, is rarely conclusive.

I remember one time some years ago when Jehovah’s Witnesses came to my house to sell their magazine and to try and convert me. I am usually friendly to them, since I admire their devotion to their cause and they are invariably polite (a quality that I like), but I try to tell them as gently as possible I am not interested. But one of them tried to pique my interest by pointing to the feature article in that month’s magazine, which argued that AIDS was God’s punishment on homosexuals. This definitely got my attention as I happen to think that that is one of the sickest ideas ever conceived, and thus got drawn into an argument. They produced the usual Biblical quotes against homosexuality. I argued that one had to interpret the Bible in the context of when it was written and the mores that existed at that time, and that the Bible’s message could change with time.

The Witness flatly rejected my contention, saying that no re-interpretation was possible. The Bible’s message was universal in scope and unchanging with time. I then mentioned Paul’s letter to Philemon, in which he seems to have urged Philemon’s runaway slave to accept his position and return to his master. Did that mean, I asked, that slavery was acceptable? The Witness (who was black, which was why I had chosen this particular story) was taken aback and said that we had to interpret that story in a sophisticated way in order to understand its real message. I then asked why we should do that for slavery and not for homosexuality, and of course, there is really no answer to that. In fact, the Bible asserts that God does and condones the most appalling things, actions that are truly monstrous. There is no way to resurrect a belief in a loving God without some serious textual criticism, re-interpretation, and re-evaluation of these passages.

The third thing you often find about people who glibly assert “The Bible says…” is that they rarely quote from Jesus’ actual words, which is odd if you call yourself a Christian. For Christians, Christ’s teachings are supposed to be the final word, and yet many Biblical fundamentalists seem to prefer to quote the Old Testament, the letters of Paul, or Revelations. Could this be because Jesus preached a far more tolerant message than many who now confidently claim to speak in his name? Jesus was constantly hanging out with those whom we would consider low-lifes, prostitutes and the like, and was not judgmental about them. He was more likely to be critical of those who sat in judgment on others.

For example, the Plain Dealer in its issue of Saturday, July 2, 2005 (page E3) had one of those inane features where the responses of anonymous people to some question. (What is the point of such features? To let random people vent their spleen?) The question this time was: “Would you want your religious leader to bless same-sex unions?” One respondent said no because “the Bible says to speak out against sin, and homosexual relations are a sin (1 Corinthians 6:9…I could never understand how one could be considered a Christian and be an unrepenting homosexual.” To this person’s credit, he/she gave a citation to one of Paul’s letters. (Paul is the go-to guy in the New Testament if one is looking for support for intolerant views.) But if you look up the passage, this is what is says in full (in the authoritative [UPDATE: After the comment by Mark, I realize that I have been guilty of sloppy language and should have used the word ‘familiar’ instead of ‘authoritative’ since I am not really a competent judge of the latter] King James version): “Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind, Nor thieves, nor covetous, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor extortioners, shall inherit the kingdom of God..” So rather than being a particularly outrageous sin, homosexuality is not even mentioned but being effeminate is said to be evil. In some translations, ‘effeminate’ is replaced with ‘homosexual’, but the two words are clearly not equivalent. (The Living Bible, which is a modern (1971), much looser, translation with an evangelical tilt, gives the list as: idol worshipers, adulterers, male prostitutes, homosexuals, thieves, greedy people, drunkards, abusers, and swindlers.” Note how “fornicators” have been dropped and how “effeminate” and “abusers of themselves with mankind” have been changed, showing significant distortions in meaning. For this reason, serious Biblical scholars do not recommend its use.)

Whatever one’s religious beliefs, one can learn a lot from the Bible. But what you learn may not quite be what you expect.

POST SCRIPT

Steve Perry, the Editor of the Minneapolis/St. Paul weekly newspaper City Pages, is to my mind, one of the shrewdest observers of the domestic national political scene. Last week’s Free Times had a cover story by him (Gagging Dr. Dean) that explains why the Democratic Party seems so reluctant to fight for the kinds of policies that its rank and file might want. For those of you who missed the article, you can read it here.

In an earlier essay written in 2002 titled Spank the Donkey, Perry is more cynical and argues that the Democratic Party may be beyond salvaging, so beholden has it become to its big-money contributors.

Politics and religion-3

There is no doubt that people’s religious beliefs often have political implications. For example, if your religious beliefs require you to live according to certain principles, and the actions resulting from those principles bring you into conflict with the law, then one has an obligation to work to change the laws. Typically this is done by advocating and lobbying for specific legislation or, in the case of civil disobedience campaigns, by defying the law and taking the consequences in order to show the unjustness of the laws and thus sway public opinion. The latter strategy was used with great effect by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. While Gandhi was secular, King was overtly religious and made no secret of the fact that he was driven at least partly by his religious convictions.
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Politics and religion-2

As I said before, the significant beginnings of Buddhist religious involvement in Sri Lankan politics began with the 1956 stunning landslide parliamentary victory by an underdog candidate who ran on a platform that shrewdly mixed nationalist politics with an appeal to the ethnic-religious Sinhala-Buddhist population that they would receive favorable treatment under his government.

While this resulted in a short-term benefit for the new Prime Minister and his government, they found it hard to meet the raised expectations of their aroused base and pretty soon things started falling apart. The most serious was the failure of the government to implement a deal to meet the needs of the minority Tamil population, because of the opposition from their more extreme Sinhala-Buddhist supporters, who argued then (and have done so ever since) that almost any concession to Tamil interests was a sell-out of the nation’s Sinhala-Buddhist heritage. This was followed in 1958 by a pogrom aimed at Tamils that resulted in many deaths, injuries, and displacements, and in 1959 the Prime Minister himself was assassinated by a Buddhist monk in a plot led by some Buddhist clergy, people who had once been his supporters.

But despite this seriously negative outcome, the die had been cast as far as political appeals to ethnic-religious chauvinist elements were concerned. Other politicians noted how successful such appeals had been in garnering votes and immediately almost all members of political parties started falling over themselves in trying to pander to the majority religion. Politicians who had not been known for their religious devotion ‘got religion’ in a big way.

This pandering took the form of public piety, making sure that everyone was aware of how religiously observant they were. They would make public shows of going to Buddhist temples, paying courtesy calls on the major Buddhist clerics, incorporating religious themes into speeches, etc. (Does this seem familiar in the US context?) Even some of the members of Marxist parties started doing these things, such was the pressure to conform to this new standard.

Governments started public funding of temples and the clergy, going so far as to provide temples with Mercedes-Benz limousines to transport the clerics. The irony is that Buddhism itself is a religion in the ascetic tradition, with the Buddha himself (the former prince Gautama) rejecting all worldly goods and attachments, seeing such things as barriers to attaining enlightenment and nirvana.

Perhaps the best example of the extent to which this kind of religious pandering led to absurd policies came in the way the calendar was changed. (You are going to find the following story hard to believe but it is true. I lived though this.) The Buddhist calendar is based on the lunar cycle. The full moon has always had religious significance for Buddhists because it is believed that the Buddha was born, attained enlightenment, and died on a full moon day. So one government, in its desire to pander to religious sentiment, decided that the weekly calendar that had the weekend on Saturday and Sunday was too Christian-centered and that what was needed was a Buddhist-centered calendar that was built around the lunar cycle. So the full moon, quarter moon, new moon and three-quarter moon days were made holidays (called ‘poya’ days) as were the days just preceding them (called the ‘pre-poya’ days). Thus the pre-poya and poya days were the new weekends, replacing Saturday and Sunday.

Since these days need not coincide with Saturday and Sunday, a new system had to be devised to keep track of weekdays. So the weekdays were called P1, P2, P3, P4, and P5, standing for the ‘first day after poya’, ‘second day after poya’, etc. The catch is that since the lunar cycle is around 29 days, every fourth week or so (there was no definite pattern), you would have an extra workday in the week, which was called P6. Keeping track of these things and scheduling future events became a nightmare. Every time the week with the extra day kicked in, authorities would have to decide which of the five weekday schedules would have to be followed on the extra day.

It also made interactions with the rest of the world problematic, because the periodic occurrence of the extra-long week meant that the poya days did not have a fixed relationship to the standard days of the week. Since the rest of the world worked on the standard week, people outside Sri Lanka never knew when we were off on our weekends, disrupting international trade.

This was the system that existed when I was in middle and high school, and it was confusing for everyone, to put it mildly. It is surprising that it lasted as long as it did (many years), but it finally collapsed because everyone just got sick of it, and Sri Lanka reverted to the standard system, without any seeming religious objections.. As a sop to the religious wing, the full moon day every month was retained as a religious holiday so that Sri Lankans now have probably the most public holidays of any nation.

The point of this story is that once political parties start competing for religious support, there seems to be no end to the kinds of ridiculous things that can ensue. The messing around with the weekly calendar was confusing and ridiculous but relatively benign. More serious is when these actions result in one group feeling that it is only their religious sentiment that matters when it comes to forming public policy.

In the US, there are already signs of the increased public piety among elected officials. They talk about their religion and their visits to churches are publicized. Religious spokespersons are invited to the White House. “Prayer breakfasts” are held routinely by elected officials. We have official “days of prayer.”

It also seems to have become routine for Presidents and other politicians to end their major speeches with the phrase “God Bless America.” This is relatively new. When President Kennedy spoke to the nation on the eve of the Cuban Missile Crisis, perhaps the closest the world has come to all-out nuclear war, he ended his speech with a simple “Thank you and good night.” This was the same ending used by President Nixon when in 1972 he spoke to nation about his plans for the war in Vietnam. Although Presidents up to and including the overtly religious Carter occasionally inserted references to God in their speeches, it was reserved for special rhetorical flourishes and it did not become a standard ending tagline for speeches until with President Reagan. It was his successor George H. W. Bush (the current president’s father) who really went over the top, ending his speeches with almost pep-rally like appeals for God’s blessings. (See the article by Jonathan Rauch in the National Journal for a review of God’s appearance in presidential speeches. Rauch also makes the astounding claim that seven states even prohibit atheists from holding public office! His article was written in 1999.)

When politicians feel the need for public statements of piety, then I think we are going down a dangerous road. There is a gripping ten-minute video clip from the TV program The West Wing that captures this issue very well. The clip is must see TV. In it the senator portrayed by Alan Alda, under pressure to make a show of his religion, makes this comment to the press “If you demand expressions of religious faith from politicians, you are just begging to be lied to…And it will be one of the easiest lies to ever have to tell to get your votes.” (To see the video, just click on the still of Alan Alda. You need Quicktime video to play it, and that is a free download if you don’t already have it.)

I have always believed that the secular state is the most just state. It also would fit (I think) with John Rawl’s ‘justice as fairness’ model for society. Many people think that ‘secular’ means atheist but that is wrong. A secular state means that laws must be neutral with respect to any or all religions or the lack of it. The government cannot promote any religion or deny people their right to practice the religion of their choice. The establishment clause of the First Amendment to the US constitution pretty much says it best: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

It would be a pity to undermine such a good idea.

Politics and religion

One of the interesting things that I noticed on my recent trip to Sri Lanka is how three current political developments in the US (which I view as negative) were anticipated in Sri Lanka politics over the last half century. These are: (1) pandering to religious sentiment in making public policy; (2) attacking and undermining trust in the judicial system; and (3) using raw political power to override minority interests. I will look at these three parallel developments in sequence, starting with the religion question.
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Politics and the Fear Factor-3

In the two previous posts (see here and here), I spoke about the seeming paradox that in countries with endemic political violence, the people seem to be less frightened by it and the governments downplayed the fear. Whereas in the US, where political violence occurs very rarely, people are much more frightened and the government seems to fan the flames of it as much as possible, constantly referring to the war on terror, using color-coded alerts, scary language, etc.

I previously speculated as to the reasons why people responded differently, suggesting that endemic violence can result in a partial immunity to fear, purely as a survival mechanism. In this post, I will look at why governments respond differently.

One reason might be that in those countries where violence is endemic, governments tend to be unstable, under risk of collapsing at any time. The groups fighting the governments are usually trying to bring it down and the government has to use valuable resources (which might otherwise be used for development and public services) to supply the military and police in its anti-rebel efforts. All these things tend to be de-stabilizing. It is not uncommon for massive street protests in those countries to bring down a government. Hence it is in the interests of these governments to try and maintain a facade of stability, to assert that everything is just fine despite a little trouble here and there, so that people will retain some confidence in the government. Thus the reaction of governments to political violence is to downplay it, to say that it is not a threat. To do otherwise would be to display a dangerous sign of weakness.

But the US is different. The government structure here is designed for maximum stability. (Some might argue that there is too much stability, that it enables the two political parties to ignore the will of the people altogether, but that is the subject for another posting.) It is hard to imagine what kind of events can result in the collapse of the government in the US. The mass demonstrations that do occur here (such as those opposing the Iraq war) have very limited goals, such as showing the depth of feeling on a particular issue, rather than seeking to topple the government itself. They do not pose any threat to political stability.

In such a situation, there is no incentive for the government to downplay fear and in fact there is every reason to increase it. Because when people are very frightened they can be convinced to support government policies that would be unthinkable at other times. What has been appalling to me is that the very features of US law and government that were so admired worldwide have been systematically dismantled in the so-called war on terror. Habeus corpus has been undermined, we now have indefinite detention without trial or even access to lawyers and families, we have abuse and torture of prisoners, no-fly lists based on secretive criteria, and other measures that undermine the Bill of Rights, that jewel in the crown of constitutional principles. And worst of all, fear about terror has been used to take the country into a war against a weak nation that did not attack us and did not even threaten us, either by word or deed.

None of these things would have been possible without people being cowed by fear. Governments have always known this and use this whenever possible. In an interview with Gustave Gilbert, author of “Nuremberg Diary” (Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279), Hermann Goering (Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief under Hitler) said:

“Why, of course the people don’t want war. Why would some poor slob on a farm risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don’t want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship.”

His interviewer replied: “There is one difference. In a democracy, the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and, in the United States, only Congress can declare war.”

Goering: “Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.”

Goering was right. In order to counteract this form of governmental manipulation, we have to overcome our fear. It is quite possible that the US might be subject to another terrorist attack. While I worry about that on a political and humanitarian level, on a personal level, I have no fear of being killed or injured in an attack by Al-Qaeda or any other group. The chances of that happening are so remote as to be not worth bothering about. It would be like worrying about getting hit by lightning. I find it difficult to understand, for example, those who are afraid to fly in commercial airplanes in the wake of 9/11.

But the fear that I do have (which is very real) is that the constitutional principles that ensure life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness are being systematically undermined in irreversible ways, using these acts of political violence as a pretext. (See the article by Nat Hentoff for some indication of what is going on.)

We need to overcome personal fear of death and injury (which can paralyze people and make them weak) and instead develop a greater fear about the loss of political and personal rights. The latter fear can actually energize people and get them to organize themselves to protect those precious rights.

Politics and the Fear Factor-2

In the previous post, I said that I perceived a difference in the way that people in Sri Lanka and in the US reacted to political violence. There the reaction was to try and get back to normal patterns of behavior as soon as possible while here the reaction seemed to be to dwell on the violence unceasingly (how many times per week do we hear references to 9/11?) and to keep people in a state of fear.

I think that it is the behavior in the US that is exceptional and not that in Sri Lanka. I recall that when Lebanon was going through its extended period of civil war, the people there too would try to get back to normal too.

As I said in the last post, the average level of political deaths per year over the past thirty years in Sri Lanka equals that which occurred on 9/11. And since the country is small in size (about two thirds the size of Ohio, with a population of around 20 million), this means that violent acts are likely to have been directly experienced by many people. For example, an important government official was ambushed and gunned down in broad daylight right in front of my mother’s house in Colombo. And almost any person can tell you stories of personal losses or near misses from the violence. So the calmness with which they go about their daily business is quite remarkable.

I remember my previous trip to Sri Lanka in 2001. A week before our departure from the US, the LTTE carried out a daring attack on Colombo airport, bombing four planes on the tarmac and attacking the main terminal building, resulting in a prolonged gun battle with government troops. We went ahead with our trip anyway, and upon arrival in Colombo, as our plane taxied up to the terminal, we saw the charred remains of the bombed aircraft by the side of the tarmac. There were bullet holes in the glass windows and walls of the terminal too. But except for the presence of armed security personnel, the other people in the terminal seemed as relaxed as if nothing had happened just a week earlier.

Even during the two weeks I was there this month, the government was on the verge of collapse, A Buddhist priest was on a hunger strike, demonstrations were being held in the heart of the capital city with riots squads called out to quell the mobs, and yet life in the areas not immediately affected by the events proceeded normally.

Why is this?

This has nothing to do with personal courage. I find it absurd to think that people in different countries differ significantly in the amount of personal qualities (like courage) that they possess.

My theory is that it is the very ubiquitousness of violence in some countries that makes the people there deal with it so seemingly calmly. People cannot live for extended periods of time in fear and uncertainty. Doing so would drive you crazy, so people recalibrate their expectations, treating as normal what other people might see as exceptional. People quickly come to realize that unless you happen to be very unlucky and are in the wrong place at exactly the wrong time, you will be ok. So why worry about it? You might as well worry about being killed or injured in a car accident. In fact, if you are an ordinary citizen, the odds of the latter are probably higher than being killed by political violence.

Is this sort of insouciance a good thing? I don’t know. It seems sad that the way to become immune to political violence is to be inoculated by steady doses of it.

I feel that my own experiences of endemic violence living in Sri Lanka have given me a higher threshold for worry and so I am bemused when people in the US get hot and bothered by ‘threats’ that are really quite small. (Remember the ‘dirty bomb’ scare?). After all, the chance that an act of political violence will directly affect any given person in the US is vanishingly small. While people and government leaders should think about how to deal with political violence as a political issue, it seems to me a little bizarre for the average citizen to worry about it in terms of personal safety.

This should be especially true here since people in the US lived through the cold war with the Soviet Union, where the threat of danger to each person was real, significant, and palpable because of the vast array of nuclear weapons on both sides. I am surprised that the much smaller threats posed by the actions of small political groups like Al-Qaeda can now strike so much fear in people.

When we take away the risk of the use of many nuclear weapons over a wide area (something that only a technologically advanced state can do), what we are left with is the threat of localized attacks. Despite all the scares over biological or chemical weapons, they are ultimately effective only as tactical or battlefield weapons, and are difficult to use over large areas of land or for big populations. Nuclear weapons (and many of them) are the only real weapons of mass destruction.

But fear of being the victim of a political act of violence can be a useful political weapon and it is this issue that I will examine in the next posting.

Politics and the Fear Factor

Well, I’m back!

My silence for the past three weeks was because I was in Sri Lanka (the land of my birth and where some of my family still resides,) during the first two weeks of June, and then spent a few days in England on my return trip. During my time in Sri Lanka, there were some contrasts with life in the US that struck me that I will post about this week. These are not the obvious contrasts about wealth and lifestyles but more subtle ones.
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What, me worry?

As we are all aware, efforts by intelligent design advocates to have their theory labeled as science have been getting a lot of media attention, since they have been somewhat successful at persuading some school boards around the country to either include some versions of it in their curricula or to insert language disparaging evolution. The most recent events occurred in Kansas as the elected school board seems to be on its way to changing their science curricula to accommodate the ID agenda.

At some level I am concerned about these developments because it seems to me to be a blatant effort to redefine science to serve a political and religious agenda and I think thata such attempts ought to be resisted.

In the long run, however, I am not too concerned because I am certain that this effort will fail. One of the advantages of looking at things with a historical perspective is that one sees how similar efforts have fared in the past. And on this score, things do not look at all good for ID supporters. There are many precedents to draw upon. The attempts in 1925 (highlighted by the Scopes trial) to forbid the teaching of evolution and the attempts in Louisiana and Arkansas in the 1980s to mandate the teaching of creation science were debacles for their proponents and similar to earlier attempts such as the Catholic Church’s attempt in 1616 to ban Copernican theory or the Soviet Central Committee’s attempt in 1948 to dismiss Mendelian genetics as a “bourgeois pseudo-science.” All of these political attempts to influence the way science worked not only failed but are now widely viewed as embarrassments for the people who tried to thwart the progress of science.

One reason that political attempts to promote ID will fail is that science does not belong to one country and one cultural or religious tradition. It is true that modern science draws much of its heritage from the knowledge generated in the early Greek-Arab communities, but it now belongs to the world. Science is one of the truly transnational enterprises and it is amazing (and to me exhilarating) that scientists all over the world can agree on what is good science without paying much attention to where it originates.

Even at the time of Copernicus, science was not limited to one region, but with the rapid communications that we now have, science clearly cannot be controlled within one nation. So even if ID supporters were successful beyond their wildest dreams, and the entire US congress and the White House agreed that ID was the only theory that should be taught in US schools and universities and passed a constitutional amendment to that effect, the negative effect of such actions on science worldwide would be minimal. The rest of the world would just go ahead.

At the time of Galileo, the Catholic Church had arguably more global influence on the world of ideas and yet, despite the far reach of the Inquisition and its ability to torture scientists (recall that even Galileo was made to recant his Copernican beliefs under threat of torture from the church) and have books banned, the geocentric model of the universe was soundly rejected and the Catholic Church still has not lived down the ignominious role it played then.

I predict that the same thing will happen again with ID. In the age of the internet, it is hard to imagine that what constitutes science can be defined according to the religious persuasion of one country. I expect that in the future, people will marvel at the idea that ID ideas and their young-Earth creationist fellow-travelers were ever taken seriously. Could it really be, they will ask themselves, that people in the 21st century actually thought that the Earth was 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs co-existed with humans, or that God intervened to create something so mundane as the bacterial flagellum?

So on a world-wide scale and in the long term, the caravan of science will move on. But that does not mean that in the short term science in the US will not be hindered by the adoption of ID ideas in science curricula. One result of widespread actions along those lines might be a shift the center of gravity of science away from the US.

Such shifts have occurred in the past. In the early 20th century, Germany was the foremost country for physics, and the US was a backwater. When one looks at the names of those associated with the revolutions we now call modern physics, Germany’s pre-eminence becomes apparent. Students went there to learn from the masters, and in turn contributed to the building of the scientific strength in that country. But Germany’s attempts to stamp out ‘Jewish science’ resulted in the migration of many of their most creative scientists to other countries, including the US. Students followed them and in fairly short order Germany lost its position as the physics superpower. It has never recovered from that.

It is not hard to imagine that if science in the US comes under political control, scientists and future students will migrate to those countries where they can investigate freely. Scientific ideas are not bound by geographic boundaries. For example, it should come as no surprise that restrictions on embryonic stem cell work in the US was followed by the recent announcement that South Korean scientists have created new lines of embryonic stem cells for research. South Korea is emerging as the leader in this area of scientific investigations. I would not be surprised if researchers in that field start migrating out of the US if the restrictions here continue. The pattern of scientific migration that physics initiated prior to World War II might be repeated now with biotechnology.

So the efforts of ID, young-Earth, and creationist advocates will not do much harm to science itself, but could well, over time, result in the US losing its present position as the leader in scientific research.

POST SCRIPT

There will be no posts for the next three weeks. Posting will resume on Monday, June 27, 2005.

For those who are interested in the topics that are discussed here but came to the blog late, you can check out the archives. All the posts that I have made (since I began posting every weekday in January 26, 2005) can be found there. Unfortunately they have not been sorted into categories but the search feature of this blog is a good way of finding topics that interest you.

The changing problems of science and religion

In the previous posting, I discussed some of the problems that arise is reconciling science and religion. These problems change with time as our understanding of science changes and the explanatory powers of science encompass more and more phenomena.

For example, in the pre-Copernican era, one could have had a model of God that is much harder to sustain in the light of post-Copernican scientific developments. This was because the universe then was seen as consisting of a spherical Earth located at the center of a finite universe and surrounded by a concentric rotating sphere in which the stars were embedded. (See Thomas Kuhn’s The Copernican Revolution for a detailed history.) People thought that the stars were very small objects, and thus the outer sphere containing them could be quite nearby.
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Science, religion, and Ockham’s razor-2

Following up on the previous posting, I want to look at how Ockham’s razor comes in to play in the science and religion discussion.

As I have stressed repeatedly in previous postings, developing a personal philosophy of life can be very rewarding and may be one of the most valuable things we start learning to do in college. But I do not mean to imply by this that people do not have a philosophy already. I think all of us do, at least implicitly. What I am recommending is that we use the many resources of the university to bring to the surface our existing and implicit philosophies and learn how to refine that philosophy.

In that process, the integration of science and religion into one coherent philosophical framework becomes one of the most difficult challenges and there is no simple solution to it. And all of us use Ockham’s razor to resolve it, even though the results are not the same for everyone.

A belief in the existence of God implies that there must be at least some phenomena caused by the intervention of God that lie outside the purview of science. (I am not considering the point of view that God created the world and its laws in one instant of time long ago and then has had a completely hands-off policy since then.)

For example, Biblical literalists will start with the assumption that the Bible is a historical document and that the events described in it (the world was created in six days and is only 6,000 years old, Joshua caused the Sun to stand still, Noah’s flood did occur, etc.) Then they will painstakingly try and reinterpret all evidence to the contrary in the light of these axioms. The website Answers in Genesis goes to extraordinary lengths to try and answer questions such as “Where did Cain find his wife?” and “Did dinosaurs live alongside humans?” These are questions that do not trouble anyone who does not treat the Bible as an authoritative source for science and history.

But even those who take the Bible less literally have to confront difficult questions because at some point, the question is going to arise about where you draw the line and ascribe something to the actions of God. This is something that believers in any theistic religion have to confront.

At some point, if you are a religious believer, you have to postulate that God’s actions are inscrutable and that we cannot know the answers to at least some of the events that occur in the world. Each person will draw the line between God’s actions and the actions of natural laws differently, depending on their personal level of comfort with the explanation.

Some will believe that any event that does not have a ready explanation to hand (a death in the family, an escape from injury, an unexpected recovery from a seemingly fatal illness) are directly due to God’s intervention to change the course of events.

At the other end, others might believe that God does not actually cause a change in the natural sequence of events but instead exerts his/her influence by working through people. In other words, people are the agents of God’s actions and the sole mechanism by which he/she influences events. So people are cured of illnesses because God inspires researchers and physicians, and so on.

There are also an infinite number of intermediate states between those two extremes. For example, people like the biochemist Michael Behe, who is an intelligent design advocate and author of the book Darwin’s Black Box, accept natural explanations for everything except for a few selected phenomena at the biochemical level (such as the blood clotting mechanism or the creation of the bacterial flagellum) that he feels are unlikely to have been created by natural processes.

(See the New Yorker article by H. Allen Orr for a clear description of what Behe’s argument is. Cory also sent me a link to a nice article (written by John Rennie, editor of Scientific American) that addresses some of the key points raised by ID advocates.)

Or one can use decide that there is no God (or supernatural entity of any kind), and all that exists is the material world. This is the position of philosophical naturalism or atheism. (I am treating the two terms as effectively synonymous, although professional philosophers might disagree).

Which position one ends up taken is largely determined by deciding which is ‘simpler’ to believe in, which usually means deciding which belief structure you find personally enriching and meaningful, since there is no unambiguous measure of simplicity for incommensurable theories. So Ockham’s razor is used differently by each person.

In a comment to an earlier posting, Kurtiss made a suggestion: “Imagine that in the normal course of your day, science accurately predicted 95% of the events that took place, but the other 5% had an outcome decided by the god.” Now we can compare Kurtiss’ model with other models in which (say) 100% of the events are attributed to God, or 0% is due to God. There is no way that I know of to convincingly say which of these models is true.

So we are left with only Ockham’s razor with which to make a decision but in this case, it is a very personal razor whose use will satisfy only us. And there is nothing wrong with that. That is what developing a personal philosophy of life is all about, finding something that gives meaning and direction to your own life.

POST SCRIPT

In the first two weeks of May, I referred in several postings to the Harper’s article by Chris Hedges dealing with the influence of the Dominionist movement and the rapture. (You can search this blog under “Hedges” to find those postings.) The Hedges article is now available online here.