New Scientist and God

New Scientist is my favorite magazine, where science is concerned. They cover lots of cool science, and even have a science fictional streak I admire. But when they venture into questions of God, faith, and religion, they invariably leave me frustrated and disillusioned. The editors approach such questions with such programmatic atheism that any hope for fruitful and open discussion quickly dies. So it was with a certain reluctance that I opened the latest issue: The God Issue: The Surprising New Science of Religion.

Was I greeted by surprising new science? Not really. Did it live up to the promises on the cover? (The idea that launched a thousand civilizations / God’s existence put to the test) Not even close.

The bias was pretty upfront, starting with the headline on the opening editorial:

Know your enemy
The new science of religion tells us where secularists are going wrong

They don’t mean where secularists are going wrong in their evaluation of religious belief, but where they’re going wrong in their efforts to eradicate it. “Religious claims still wither under rational scrutiny and deserve no special place in public life. But it is a call for those who aspire to a secular society to approach it rationally — which means making more effort to understand what they are dealing with.” In other words, know your enemy. And in the opening page to the features section: “Only by understanding what religion is and is not can we ever hope to move on.” By move on, they seem to mean, discard religion for a more enlightened way of thinking.

So we know where they stand.

But what about the articles? They’re a mixed bag. The first, by Justin L. Barrett, is a pretty interesting discussion of how babies and young children learn and develop mental models of “agents” that influence things in the world. There seems to be a built-in predilection for attributing events they see to an “agency,” or a higher power. The thesis here is well summarized by the closing lines: “[Children] have strong natural tendencies toward religion, but these tendencies do not inevitably propel them towards any one religious belief. Instead, the way our minds solve problems generates a god-shaped conceptual space waiting to be filled by the details of the culture into which they are born.” Not a bad article.

It’s followed by several others, including one that discusses how religions may have helped create social structures that brought us out of the Stone Age. I’m not sure I learned much from it, but it wasn’t a bad article, either. The collection hits its low point, however, with “The God Hypothesis,” by Victor J. Stenger, which proposes to discuss the existence or nonexistence of God by reference to empirical evidence. No empirical evidence is offered, however.  What we get instead is a warmed-over collection of statements that this or that aspect of theology has been tested and found wanting. A feel-good piece for atheists: no actual information, no details about what studies have been done or how they were designed. Finally, there’s a discussion of the position of Alain de Botton that atheists ought to seek out and adopt the “useful bits” of religion, such as ritual gatherings for the purpose of community building. Fine by me, but not exactly news. Haven’t the Unitarians been doing this for quite a while now?

Personally, I’m agnostic on the question of whether God’s existence can be proven or disproven by science, or by logic. Most people I know who believe in God do so because of personal experience, personal encounters that have little to do with abstract logical constructions. (Or in my own case, the logical questioning had to bring me to the point of saying, “Okay, this is possible.” And then the experiential part began.) When you’ve had that kind of experience, the question of “proof” starts to seem tedious and irrelevant. But that doesn’t mean I think science should stop looking. 

I think the real problem with this particular publication is that the editors, who so excel in other areas of science journalism, are blind to their own biases about the relationship between science and religion. They keep writing as though they’ve got the whole thing covered, yet seem clueless about what the actual religious experience is. If they could let go—just for once—of the notion that religion is their enemy, perhaps they could genuinely explore questions such as the role faith plays (or does not play) in mental health, or healing, or personal development, or community building, or intellectual inquiry. I’d even be happy if they could, without demonizing, examine why some religious movements (such as certain conservative Christian streams in the U.S.) so resolutely obstruct the input of science in public policy. I agree this is happening, and it’s bad; I disagree with the assumption that religious belief per se is the problem. They might even spend some time talking to scientists who are also people of faith, and see what we can learn about how some pretty rational people integrate those two modes of thought.

Maybe these questions don’t belong primarily in a science magazine, though I don’t see why not. But I do wish the editors of New Scientist would recognize that what they’re putting in the mag now isn’t so much science as dogma pretending at science.

Maybe the true enemy isn’t religion, but intellectual prejudice.

 
 

The Gay Community and the Church

I haven’t stirred anyone up about questions of religion and faith lately. Maybe it’s time. The occasion is a sermon I just listened to online, called “Homosexuality and Churchgoing,” (direct mp3 link here, found on this page) by Dave Schmelzer of the Boston Vineyard. Normally I would have heard it in person, but I was away that Sunday. Dave says that as a pastor at a large, urban church, the most common question he is asked is, What’s your church’s position on gay and lesbian issues?  His standard answer is, “We don’t take a position, but we’d love to have a conversation.” And he means it.

In this talk, he takes the unusual approach (for a pastor who I think would characterize himself as evangelical) of saying, Maybe the most important question here isn’t what we think the Bible says specifically about homosexuality (interpretations vary widely), but rather how can we talk to each other about these things, and listen to each others’ stories in a helpful and respectful way. He talks a lot about a “centered set” perspective on faith generally: not the you’re in or you’re out view of what we could call “bounded set” thinking, but rather, What is the common center toward which we are all striving to move? If you’re looking for a church position on GLBT issues, you won’t find him taking one here. But if you’d like to hear a pastor thinking outside the customary evangelical box, you might find it interesting. He also writes on the subject, and here’s one of his posts on centered set thinking.

Dave has an earlier talk online in which, addressing a large group of church leaders, he more specifically looks at what the Bible’s take is on the question of homosexuality. Again, he’s not there to try to lay down prescriptions or doctrines, even among leadership types. Instead, I think he does a creditable job of putting the various views on the subject into perspective, with a bottom line of: Talk to each other. And listen. (Here’s a direct link to the talk, but it’s found on this page under “Are You [meaning, your church] Gay Friendly?”)

Provocative stuff, in a good way.

Cosmic Accidents

New Scientist magazine recently ran a long article called Cosmic Accidents: 10 Lucky Breaks for Humanity. It’s a timeline, starting with the Big Bang, of all the things that had to happen just so, for the universe to develop in a fashion that would allow us to be here.

 (Image: NASA/ESA/ESO/Wolfram Freudling et al. (STECF))

It starts with getting the density of the universe just right, and the balance of matter and antimatter just right, and goes all the way up through the dinosaur-killing asteroid making room for us little mammals, and the conditions that may have led to the evolution of language. The whole thing is online here.

But wait—aren’t there supposed to be “no accidents”? Hmm. If questions like that, in the context of issues like this, cause you to twitch one way or another, maybe you should read Beyond God and Atheism: Why I am a ‘Possibilian’ in the same issue of New Scientist. Alas, you must be a subscriber to read the whole article, but the title and opening paragraphs give you a pretty good idea of the content.

Sunborn Video

A while back I wrote that I’d been working on a video piece for a theatrical arts festival called Lydia Fair, sponsored by the Greater Boston Vineyard of Cambridge. Now you can see my video on YouTube!

It is what I would call a video narration, or maybe an audio visualization—or maybe one of you can suggest a more elegant name—of the prologue to Sunborn. I recorded the narration and blocked out the basic image storyboard. Then a talented fellow named Adam Guzewicz worked video and sound wizardry on it, animating parts of it from still images (which I gleaned from various NASA websites), and adapting other animation (ditto on the source). I’m lucky, I guess—that I wrote a prologue that actually could be set to astronomical images.

If you’d like to view it in a wide-screen version, go directly to the YouTube page or to my website. (Wide images on this page seem to cause problems for some viewers, so I try to keep them small.)

For best effect, set the viewer to full-screen and high-quality mode, and turn up the sound a bit. Enjoy!

Video for Lydia Fair

Another little project I picked up along the way is a small video contribution to what I believe will be a very cool and probably intense and moving arts festival, coming up on April 25 at the Vineyard Church in Cambridge. It’s called Lydia Fair, and it’s bringing together artists of all stripes (painters, theater people, singers, one fiction writer that I know of—me, and heaven knows who all). The theme is Rescue, and it’s a benefit fundraiser for two organizations called Love146 and Rebuild Africa. I’m really looking forward to it; there’s tremendous artistic talent in the Vineyard community.

As for my part…I’m working on a video adaptation of the prologue to Sunborn. I’ve shortened and reworked the audio so that it sounds much better than the mp3 currently up on my website, and am using a sequence of great cosmic imagery from a variety of NASA observatories including Hubble, Chandra, SOHO, and others. A fellow named Adam, who does a lot of video work for the church, is helping me shape it into a “visualization” that we hope will evoke the story of Deeaab, as he wanders the galaxy encountering sentient suns, and wondering how he might rescue them from whatever is killing them. It’ll only be about three minutes long, but I’ve gone from thinking “Hopeless!” a week ago to thinking, “This is going to be cool.”

Afterward, my goal is to put it up online so you can all see it. In the meantime, if you live anywhere near Cambridge, Mass., you might want to check out Lydia Fair.

“We are stardust, we are golden
We are billion-year-old carbon
And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden.”
—Joni Mitchell, “Woodstock”

Boskone 2009

Last weekend, I was busy at Boskone, the annual February convention sponsored by the New England Science Fiction Association (NESFA). It was a smaller convention than Boskone of years past, but was friendly and good fun, and a chance to catch up with friends and acquaintances I hadn’t seen in a while. I spoke on a panel on “Faith in the Future” with a number of other writers, including James Morrow, with whom I have locked horns on questions related to faith and religion on many previous occasions. Jim’s a good guy. We disagree on just about every aspect of faith, God, spirituality, and application to life, politics, and fiction. But it’s a good-natured disagreement, and we’ve always stayed friendly. This year I enjoyed attending his book publication party for his new book, Shambling Toward Hiroshima, a Godzilla story (at least on some level; I haven’t read it yet). I’m a Godzilla fan from way back, and I happily left his party with a wind-up, spark-breathing Godzilla toy.

As moderator of a panel called “Angels and AIs,” I got to be the herder of cats trying to keep things moving in some direction resembling the discussion topic of whether sufficiently advanced artificial intelligences would come to seem like angels to us—or maybe like Cylons. With voices as disparate as Karl Schroeder and Charles Stross, among others, I’m not sure how well I succeeded in keeping the conversation on track. But one audience member told me afterward he thought it was an awesome discussion, so I guess it went okay.

I had long, enjoyable conversations with fellow writers Ann Tonsor Zeddies and Rosemary Kirstein, both of whom share my struggle with getting new books written in something less than geologic time frames. (They’re both good, too; check out their books.) My literary beer brought together many past members of the Ultimate SF Workshop that I teach with Craig Gardner, as well as local fan and writer Dan Kimmel, and in a surprise appearance, math professor Bruce Burdick of Roger Williams University, who—although neither of us knew the other at the time—graduated just a few years after I did from Huron High School, in Huron, Ohio.

A small world. Lots of passing conversations with others: Jane Yolen, Greg Bear, Tom Easton, Jo Walton, Mark and Shirley Pitman, people from Tor…ah, I’m sure I’m leaving out a bunch—sorry. I finally got to meet the artist who produced the lovely cover for Sunborn: Stephan Martiniere. He does good work!

As do they all.

Incredible Sun

Reader Charlza mentioned this in a comment further down, but it’s too awesome to leave buried in the comments. Take a few minutes to browse a most astounding set of high-res photographs of the sun, taken by various research telescopes and sats and collected on boston.com. Many of them are familiar, but it’s a truly breathtaking gallery. Here’s one, in thumbnail:

NASA/TRACE image of the sun

Also breathtaking, but in a less wonderful way, is the long list of comments following, where battle rages between those who would thank God for the magnificence and those who bridle at the very notion of “God” being involved when it’s all physics. Me, I thank God for the incredible thing that is the sun, and scientists for the incredible pictures that let us see it and begin to understand the physics of how it works and how it got there.

Also on Boston.com is Way Too Tired?, an article on why, when you’re tired (or even just getting over being sick), what you may need to do is not nap, but get up and move around: jog, skate, bike, walk, whatever. Here’s why, in abbreviated form:

Scientists are now convinced that fatigue has a real, molecular basis, and that at least two major biological processes are involved: An excess of natural chemicals called pro-inflammatory cytokines, which the body pumps out in response to infection. And sluggish mitochondria, the tiny organelles inside cells that make energy…

[B]ecause both cytokine and mitochondrial problems get worse with excessive rest and improve with moderate exercise, it means exercise is an obvious, and readily available, remedy. A large body of research has already shown that exercise dampens down the “bad” cytokines and boosts the number and efficiency of mitochondria.

This doesn’t mean you should go run a marathon if you’ve got the flu. Quite the contrary. In the acute phase of any illness, your body needs all its available energy to heal. But it does mean that, as soon as possible, you should get out and walk, even if it’s just around the block for starters.

I read that just as I was getting up and around again from a nasty cold, and I did indeed get out rollerblading a few times last week, even though exercising was the last thing I felt like doing. It helped.

“Man must rise above the Earth—to the top of the atmosphere and beyond—for only thus will he fully understand the world in which he lives.” — Socrates

Auction Time — Be a Character in My Next Novel!

This comes under the “better late (I hope) than never” heading. Tonight—yes, tonight, Saturday Sept. 13—there will be a fund-raising auction for our church, Park Avenue Congregational (UCC) in Arlington, Mass. If you’re in the area, come by and bid on good stuff. One of the good stuff is a chance to be a character in the novel I’m writing right now! That would be The Reefs of Time, which I just spent the week hammering on while on retreat on Cape Cod. I’m back now, and I’ll be there. (All the details are under that link.)

Last time there was such an auction, a few years ago, the bidding for character-rights was energetic. We finally awarded rights to two bidders, and those characters will be appearing at long last in Sunborn.

*Our other church is the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Cambridge. Yeah, we’re part of two congregations. Weird, huh? But we have great friends and community in both. If any of our Vineyard friends are reading this, I hope you stop by!

Religion and Politics

A friend emailed me a speech by Barack Obama, Senator from Illinois. It was his keynote speech to the Call to Renewal Conference sponsored recently by the Sojourners, a Christian organization. I found what he had to say rather important. He talked, in part, about the need for Democrats to speak meaningfully about the connection between progressive politics and religious faith, and also about the need for all sides to engage less in pigeon-holing and more in listening and genuine communication. He began:

During the 2004 U.S. Senate General Election I ran against a gentleman named Alan Keyes. Mr. Keyes is well-versed in the Jerry Falwell-Pat Robertson style of rhetoric that often labels progressives as both immoral and godless.

Indeed, Mr. Keyes announced towards the end of the campaign that, “Jesus Christ would not vote for Barack Obama. Christ would not vote for Barack Obama because Barack Obama has behaved in a way that it is inconceivable for Christ to have behaved…”

I was urged by some of my liberal supporters not to take this statement seriously, to essentially ignore it. To them, Mr. Keyes was an extremist, and his arguments not worth entertaining…

But perhaps Keyes’ arguments did need to be entertained, and discussed. And that, in part, is what the rest of Obama’s speech was about. He continued:

I think it’s time that we join a serious debate about how to reconcile faith with our modern, pluralistic democracy.

And if we’re going to do that then we first need to understand that Americans are a religious people. 90 percent of us believe in God, 70 percent affiliate themselves with an organized religion, 38 percent call themselves committed Christians, and substantially more people in America believe in angels than they do in evolution…

[Conservative leaders] need to understand the critical role that the separation of church and state has played in preserving not only our democracy, but the robustness of our religious practice. Folks tend to forget that during our founding, it wasn’t the atheists or the civil libertarians who were the most effective champions of the First Amendment. It was the persecuted minorities, it was Baptists like John Leland who didn’t want the established churches to impose their views on folks who were getting happy out in the fields and teaching the scripture to slaves. It was the forbearers of the evangelicals who were the most adamant about not mingling government with religious, because they did not want state-sponsored religion hindering their ability to practice their faith as they understood it.

Read or listen to the whole speech at obama.senate.gov.

Intelligent Design in the New Yorker

Fortunately, someone around here is awake at the switch. Rich emailed me to point out that the latest issue of the New Yorker has an article about Intelligent Design. No, not whether the New Yorker (or New York itself, for that matter) is intelligently designed, but about the ID movement and evolution. I had actually read the article and intended to talk about it here, but then I didn’t because of those deadlines I mentioned.

Anyway, it’s a good article, and you can read it at
http://www.newyorker.com/printables/fact/050530fa_fact. You might not like it if you think ID is good science, but it does respectfully lay out some of the main arguments for ID, and then give a science-based critique of them.

The author, H. Allen Orr, also talks a bit about the sometimes rocky relationship between evolution and faith:

The idea that Darwinism is yoked to atheism, though popular, is also wrong. Of the five founding fathers of twentieth-century evolutionary biology—Ronald Fisher, Sewall Wright, J. B. S. Haldane, Ernst Mayr, and Theodosius Dobzhansky—one was a devout Anglican who preached sermons and published articles in church magazines, one a practicing Unitarian, one a dabbler in Eastern mysticism, one an apparent atheist, and one a member of the Russian Orthodox Church and the author of a book on religion and science. Pope John Paul II himself acknowledged, in a 1996 address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, that new research “leads to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis.” Whatever larger conclusions one thinks should follow from Darwinism, the historical fact is that evolution and religion have often coexisted.

And then, in conclusion:

Biologists aren’t alarmed by intelligent design’s arrival in Dover and elsewhere because they have all sworn allegiance to atheistic materialism; they’re alarmed because intelligent design is junk science.

I’ve just started reading Kenneth R. Miller’s Finding Darwin’s God, written by an evolutionary biologist who’s also a person of faith. I hope to say more about that later. (But at the rate of 10 minutes a day when I’m on the exercise bike—minus the times when I’m reading my daughter’s Zits cartoon collections instead—it’ll take me a while to finish.)

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