Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Book of the Year

Sunday, January 1st, 2012

It’s delightful to see a humanist-oriented book win something, especially something as prestigious as the National Book Foundation’s annual award for nonfiction. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is a deserving winner, for taking an event little noted when it happened and demonstrating in an entertaining way its impact on the world ever since.

The central story of The Swerve is the discovery by an ex-Papal bureaucrat of a long lost Roman manuscript called De Rerum Natura, or “The Nature of Things.” Greenblatt’s recounting of how and why the book resurfaced in the 15th century is fascinating, but for me what’s far more important is the text of The Nature of Things itself, and the light it sheds on pre-Christian humanism. (more…)

The Humanist Miracle

Sunday, October 9th, 2011

One of the leading arguments for the existence of supernatural power is sometimes called the “argument from miracles.” There are many reports of phenomena contrary to generally accepted scientific principles, that are taken as evidence for a power that can bend nature to its will – a deity.

There are deep philosophical debates about such events and their meanings, which you can read about here, and there are people who simply refuse to believe that miracles actually occur in the first place – who say, therefore, there is nothing to debate about.

I take a different approach. I do believe there is evidence for occurrences, for instance at Lourdes, that cannot be readily explained. But Christians have no monopoly on miracles – humanists have at least one as well, that we should never stop talking about. Besides, ours is more fun. (more…)

The Great Prayer Study

Sunday, October 2nd, 2011

Ten years ago today, while America was still reeling from the attacks of September 11 and troops were gathering to invade Afghanistan, America was given stunningly good news – perhaps the most important news story of all time. The New York Times breathlessly reported the results of the first scientific study proving the existence of God. Better yet, the study demonstrated the existence of not just any kind of God, but of a God who actually responded to people’s prayers. And not just to any prayers, but to prayers offered up by Christians. Take that, Muslim devils!

The Times was reporting on a study published in the prestigious Journal of Reproductive Medicine, not in some fly-by-night religious or paranormal rag. The authors were prestigious as well, led by Rogerio Lobo, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at Columbia University, the alma mater of President Barack Obama. Columbia proudly issued a press release trumpeting the results of the study, which involved a group of Korean women who had sought medical help in becoming pregnant. One of the most extreme procedures used in these cases (called in-vitro fertilization, or “IVF”) involves fertilizing eggs outside the womb, then implanting the fertilized egg in the hopes that it will stick and a full-fledged pregnancy will result. Most of the time, the procedure doesn’t work, but thousands of women longing for a child try it anyway in the hopes of being in the successful minority. (more…)

Creationism Returns to Tennessee – Part 2

Sunday, April 24th, 2011

Clarence Darrow cross-examines William Jennings Bryan in Inherit the Wind, the film version of the Scopes Trial

Last week, we saw how William Jenings Bryan’s campaign for an anti-evolution amendment to the federal Constitution led to the 1925 prosecution of high school teacher John Scopes.

Bryan immediately volunteered his services to the prosecution, even though he had little experience as a litigator. “The contest between evolution and Christianity is a duel to the death,” said Bryan. “If evolution wins in Dayton, Christianity goes – not suddenly of course, but gradually – for the two cannot stand together. … In an open fight the truth will triumph.”

The prospect of an “open fight” enticed Clarence Darrow, a confirmed agnostic, to volunteer for the defense. As Darrow put it, “Scopes isn’t on trial; civilization is on trial. The prosecution is opening the doors for a reign of bigotry equal to anything in the Middle Ages. No man’s belief will be safe if they win.” (more…)

Creationism Returns to Tennessee – Part 1

Sunday, April 17th, 2011

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan fought the first legal battle over creationism in Tennessee. Ready for Round Two?

By a vote of 70-28, the Tennessee House of Representatives has just approved a bill to protect teachers who choose to teach creationism, rather than evolution, in their public school classrooms. The State of Tennessee, which pays their salaries, would no longer be able to enforce standards for the teaching of evolution, as it currently does. Instead, science curriculum would become a free-for-all. Studies already show that 13% of high school biology teachers advocate creationism in their classrooms, and that a large majority avoid talking about evolution altogether, because it would get them in hot water with the local God experts. If this bill takes hold – it’s already been introduced in seven states – expect those numbers to skyrocket.

Proponents of the Tennessee bill disingenuously say they are simply trying to promote academic freedom. Evolution is just an unproven “theory,” they say, and other “theories” like that contained in the book of Genesis should be taught as well. In fact, evolution is a “theory” in the same sense that gravity is a “theory”: a coherent group of principles used to explain a class of phenomena. Like evolution, gravity hasn’t been conclusively proven in every case, and Isaac Newton was roundly condemned by the God experts of his day. I can only suggest that those who prefer divine revelation to observable fact should try stepping off a rooftop sometime. (more…)

The Collapse of Christendom

Sunday, February 20th, 2011

Did the convulsion of 'Essays and Reviews' really knock down Chichester Cathedral?

Tomorrow is the 150th anniversary of the collapse of Chichester Cathedral. Not an event especially notable in its own right (the building was 450 years old, and no one was hurt), but memorable for Benjamin Disraeli’s quip that “It is a privilege to live in such an age – to say nothing of Essays & Reviews, which convulses Christendom and seems to have shaken down the spire of Chichester Cathedral.”

How could anything with a title as unsexy as Essays and Reviews be so controversial as to flatten, at least metaphorically, a Gothic cathedral? What was it about Essays and Reviews, published three months after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, that made it sell more copies in its first two years than Darwin did in his first twenty? (more…)

A Tale of Two Hospitals

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Montgomery County, Maryland, lying just to the northwest of Washington, DC, is one of the richest counties in the nation. Its previously rural northern half has exploded with exurban sprawl in recent years, so much so that state authorities recently concluded it’s time for the region to have a new hospital – the first new county hospital in the past thirty years.

Hospital economics are such that one can’t simply up and build a new one; one has to get a “certificate of need” first, to assure adequate capital and quality. Two principal competitors for the precious certificate emerged. One, an Adventist institution which already has a longtime presence in the southern portion of the county, would provide a complete array of medical services. The other, which also has a longtime presence down-county, would provide a range of services limited by the theology of its sponsor, the Catholic Church.

Guess who won? Hint: there are way more Catholics than Adventists in Maryland.


Sunday, March 28th, 2010

Anti-census flyerCensus forms were sent out a week ago, and most Americans are now taking the ten min- utes necessary to give their govern- ment the basic data it needs to function intelligently. Others, such as New Jersey God expert Rev. Miguel Rivera, are grandstanding and winning notoriety for themselves by urging people to break the law and boycott the census. In this Reverend’s case, he draws the utterly logic-less connection that undocumented immigrants should boycott the census until an immigration law to his liking is passed – despite the fact that the census contains no questions about place of birth or immigration status.

Urging people to break the law is one thing, but lying to them about the consequences is another. Splashed across the top of Rev. Rivera’s website is a claim that participation in the census is voluntary, and that no one can be intimidated into filling out the form. In fact, the United States Code imposes fines for willful refusal to answer census questions, and jail time for certain activities that cause inaccurate counts to be made, as the Reverend appears to be engaged in. Moreover, the people Rev. Rivera claims to be trying to help tend to get deported when they deliberately flout our laws – exactly what this holy man out to make a name for himself is encouraging them to do.

Although most people don’t think of a census as being particularly spiritual, it keeps popping up in religious history in the most curious ways. The most familiar example is the (more…)


Sunday, January 17th, 2010

Haiti quake 2Within hours after the earthquake struck Port-au-Prince last Tuesday afternoon, NPR was reporting that “Church groups are singing throughout the city all through the night in prayer. It is a beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tra-gedy.” Another re-porter on the scene noted that “Several hundred people had gathered to sing, clap, and pray in an intersection here by 9 o’clock last night, a little more than four hours after an earthquake had devastated much of the Haitian capital … I couldn’t make out many of the words. ‘Alleluia’ was the refrain for some of the hymns the group at the crossroads sang. A minister was preaching to the other group about Bondye (‘God’) and kretyen (‘Christians’). The congregants replied with bursts of song.”

Hundreds of people still trapped in the rubble were probably of the view that singing and praying should not have been the number one priorities for Haitians right at that moment. The mentality that begging some outside force – God, America, the UN, whatever – is the best way for Haitians to improve their lot underlies most of what is wrong with that pitiable country.

Of course, it is possible that the preachers on the scene were echoing what Pat Robertson told Americans the following day: that the earthquake was a “blessing in disguise.” Robertson explained Haiti’s problem as follows:

Monkey Business

Sunday, May 10th, 2009

When I first read the news article about the new anti-evolution court decision in California, I assumed the reporter had simply gotten it wrong, and that no federal court in America could possibly have ruled the way the article described. As usual, my optimism was misplaced. The case of Farnan v. Corbett holds, flat out, that a public school teacher who criticizes the doctrine of creationism in class – as every teacher of evolution implicitly or explicitly does – violates the First Amendment to our Constitution.

James Corbett has taught at Capistrano High School in Mission Viejo, California for the past 20 years. One of his students, a fundamentalist Christian, sued him on the grounds of promoting a “religion of secularism” in his class. The federal district court threw out all but one of the student’s complaints, but Judge James V. Selna held as follows on the creationism count: