When a science-minded crusader in India was murdered in August, it made international headlines. As the New York Times reported:
Narendra Dabholkar traveled from village to village in India, waging a personal war against the spirit world.
If a holy man had electrified the public with his miracles, Dr. Dabholkar, a former physician, would duplicate the miracles and explain, step by step, how they were performed. If a sorcerer had amassed a fortune treating infertility, he would arrange a sting operation to unmask the man as a fraud. His goal was to drive a scientist’s skepticism into the heart of India, a country still teeming with gurus, babas, astrologers, godmen and other mystical entrepreneurs.
He had done this for decades, incurring the wrath of Hindu hardliners and other religious groups in India. Dabholkar’s killing, the Times wrote, “is the latest episode in a millenniums-old wrestling match between traditionalists and reformers in India.”
The episode also highlights an ongoing larger clash in the developing world between age-old customs and modern-day attitudes about everything from mental disorders to gender rights. No issue has exemplified this divide more than that of vaginal circumcision of young girls in Africa, a brutal, agonizingly painful rite of passage enforced through socio-cultural norms. In the West, the practice has come to be known as genital mutilation.
Personally, I view this practice as barbaric and am horrified it is still so deeply embedded in some societies. Many share this view. But I’m also aware that such blanket condemnations are perhaps not the best way to effect change. As Erin Crossett has observed of families that still adhere to this custom:
Mothers love their daughters and fear they will be ostracized unless they are cut. Many are unaware of the immediate and long-term health risks and simply want to allow their child maximum options for marriage. By recognizing this fact, that these women love their daughters and are acting out of convention, Western aid and development practitioners can abandon their patronizing post-colonial attitude and instead foster a dialogue with education as a focal point.
The treatment of the mentally ill in developing countries is another issue that also requires a culturally sensitive approach. Read More
In my previous post, I took issue with how Jerry Coyne crudely indicted an entire religion (Islam) based on the murderous actions of a few adherents. (And that was a perversion of the faith’s tenets, Islamic leaders say.) The way Coyne made his blanket generalization was lame. He referred to this passage in a CNN article (specifically the part I bolded):
Boston bombings suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev conveyed to investigators that no international terrorist groups were behind the attacks, a U.S. government source told CNN’s Jake Tapper.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev indicated his older brother, Tamerlan, was the driving force behind the attacks and wanted to defend Islam from attack, the source said.
Even though this is paraphrased, let’s take the surviving brother at his word. Coyne does so and opportunistically pounces:
Well, Islam now seems to really be behind what happened in Boston.
Really? Or is this just a wee bit simplistic?
Here’s a more accurate characterization from the New York Times (my emphasis):
The portrait investigators have begun to piece together of the two brothers suspected of the Boston Marathon bombings suggests that they were motivated by extremist Islamic beliefs but were not acting with known terrorist groups — and that they may have learned to build bombs simply by logging onto the online English-language magazine of the affiliate of Al Qaeda in Yemen, law enforcement officials said Tuesday.
Islam Apparently behind Boston bombing
Every movement has a discourse that is shaped by people who are passionate, committed, and forceful. Some feel so certain in their rightness that they try to control the discourse and purge those deemed insufficiently true to the movement’s cause.
A political example of this would be today’s U.S. Republican Party, which, as David Frum recently observed, has become “increasingly isolated and estranged from modern America.” It is now so far-right that some leading Republicans say that even conservative icons like Ronald Reagan would have a hard time winning the GOP nomination today. After President Obama’s reelection in Novemeber, Frum, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, wrote:
At a time when the need to broaden the party’s appeal seemed overwhelmingly compelling, Republicans narrowed their appeal to the most ideological fragment of the conservative base.
The same hardball tactics and ideological purity tests that have made the Republican party inhospitable for moderate conservatives are on display in the burgeoning atheist movement. Read More
This tweet from the NYT green blog caught my eye:
At a Protest, Science and Religion Team Up nyti.ms/13AWQo3
— NYT Green Blog (@nytimesgreen) January 16, 2013
Science and religion went hand-in-hand on Tuesday as leaders from both worlds gathered in front of the White House to protest what they cast as government inaction on climate change.
Hand in hand! OMG. That’s like an accommodationist love-in. Well, all kidding aside, what this appears to have been is not a gathering of secular scientists and religious folk, but an “inter-faith”-led march to the White House (called a “pray-in for the climate”). So the Times piece seems a tad misleading.
Interestingly, one of the religious leaders it quoted doesn’t sound keen on getting too close to science (my emphasis):
“This gathering today is to affirm that God has gifted us in many ways, one of which is a good mind to figure out how things are going,” said Bob Coleman, the chief programming minister of the Riverside Church in New York City. “It’s not so much an embrace of science, but an acknowledgement that science is a part of us, it’s a part of our own living every day.”
Kinda sounds like he’s trying to reconcile science with his own beliefs. Is that acceptable?’
[Source: The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.]
This exquisitely designed house would be perfect for PZ Myers and Jerry Coyne. I’ll expand on that (and more) in the New Year (later this week). Meanwhile, here’s something from Margaret Atwood that reminds us why religion is not so easy to stamp out in the 21st-century:
I think that the religious strand is probably part of human hard-wiring…by religious strand, I don’t mean any particular religion, I mean the part of human beings that feels that the seen world is not the only world, that the world you see is not the only world that there is and that it can become awestruck. If that is the case, religion was selected for in the Pleistocene by many, many millennia of human evolution.
What do you think happens at death?
This I don’t know, but I don’t think everything is resolved with the destruction of the body. What science has to say seems to me insufficient and unsatisfying.
Since I was a child, I have been bothered by, let’s call it the irrational, and have been trying to find an order behind what is given to us as a disorder.
Others, such as Clifford Geertz and Mircea Eliade, have sought to decipher the meaning and role of religion in human history. To wave away the persistent questions and yearnings that still drive the religious impulse as merely the last bastion of ignorant superstition is, as I wrote here, “inconsistent with the spirit of science.”
The assertion that religion and science are incompatible has become an article of faith for some–a kind of dogma that I recently discussed in this post. Aside from this being a form of fundamentalism, I also said that I saw no constructive use “in making an enemy of virtually the whole world” by broadly denigrating all religious believers.
Two long-running debates involving the supposed purity of science have flared anew.
A recent editorial in the UK’s New Statesmen that cautioned against the politicizing of science (using climate change as a prime example) kicked up a Twitter storm and has provoked numerous responses, including this one from a science policy expert in the Guardian headlined (probably to the author’s consternation): “Science and politics need counseling, not a separation.”
For an overview of the New Statesmen editorial and the heated, conflicting interpretations over it, see this post in the Guardian by Jon Butterworth. His takeaway from the New Statesmen piece is that it argues not for
the supremacy of science, nor complete separation between science and politics, but is an attempt to direct political debate to the areas where it can be fruitful.
At this juncture, I would be remiss in not bringing to your attention a must-read 2004 paper by ASU’s Daniel Sarewitz, which science journalist John Fleck helpfully reminded me of several months ago. The bottom line, according to Sarewitz:
In areas as diverse as climate change, nuclear waste disposal, endangered species and biodiversity, forest management, air and water pollution, and agricultural biotechnology, the growth of considerable bodies of scientific knowledge, created especially to resolve political dispute and enable effective decision making, has often been accompanied instead by growing political controversy and gridlock. Science typically lies at the center of the debate, where those who advocate some line of action are likely to claim a scientific justification for their position, while those opposing the action will either invoke scientific uncertainty or competing scientific results to support their opposition.
Science and politics are entwined, whether we like it or not. Case in point: The genetically engineered salmon now in the news has been stuck in a “regulatory purgatory” for 17 years. You think unsettled scientific questions are all that has held it back? Incidentally, 17 years is as long as the United Nations-sponsored climate change talks have been occurring, with little to show for them. How could that be when the physics of global warming has not been in question? Read More
My mother-in-law is is one of the kindest, most open-minded persons I know. A retired elementary school teacher who taught for four decades in a gritty urban district, she radiates intelligence and goodness. She stands with science on all the hot-button issues of our day, such as evolution. Now in her early 80s, she is also politically progressive and culturally and ethnically tolerant. I admire her deeply.
The fact that my mother-in-law is a devout Christian does not diminish any of the above. As an atheist, I obviously don’t share her faith in God, but I don’t hold it against her, or think less of her. Why should I, especially since she doesn’t hold my lack of belief against me?
I know my mother-in-law is disappointed that her daughter (my wife) did not have a church wedding and that her two grandsons are not baptized. But she has never made an issue out of this with her daughter or me. Because she is so respectful of the views of others, that’s another reason why I respect her deeply.
Over the years, I have come to appreciate how important my mother-in-law’s religious faith is to her. I’ve never once tried to disabuse her of this faith, much less belittle it.
Yes, I know that religion has been a force for intolerance, superstition, and unspeakable violence throughout the history of humanity. I get that part.
But there is also no denying that religion, for all its terrible downsides, plays an essential, meaningful role in people’s lives. I am someone who believes that science and religion can co-exist, because individuals like my mother-in-law demonstrate that it can. Read More
It seems that if you have a doctrine, a version of rationalism or a version of atheism that makes it so that you have to be worried about using the word mystery, you’ve got yourself too constraining a doctrine…But mystery, then, doesn’t mean I’ve got to fill in the blanks with, you know, ideas of my own imagination…if we sort of can respect these ideas and say, “Yeah, life is mysterious. It is very strange.” Just the fact that, you know, we are these animals who have these kind of thoughts, it’s all pretty wondrous, and doubters have celebrated it. And that’s the kind of doubt I want to bring into the conversation, because I think we’ve really backed ourselves into a couple of corners, and it’s time to get out.
I take my crack at this ongoing debate in Discover, in a post titled, “Why Science Can’t Replace Religion.” Check it out.