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"Scientists Should Unite Against The Threat From Religion"
It's always shocking to me when people seek to defend Islam as "The Religion Of Peace" -- even in light of all the barbarianism it's visiting on "infidels" all over the world, as commanded by its texts. To me, the psychology behind Islam is that of an angry, sociopathic fourth grader who's been left out one time too many on the playground.

Great letter from Sam Harris in Nature, addressing the temptation to nicey-nicey up Islam; in addition, addressing the idiocy that is Collins on the supposed existence of god (links within are subscriber only, unfortunately):

It was genuinely alarming to encounter Ziauddin Sardar's whitewash of Islam in the pages of your journal ('Beyond the troubled relationship' Nature 448, 131–133; 2007). Here, as elsewhere, Nature's coverage of religion has been unfailingly tactful — to the point of obscurantism.

In his Commentary, Sardar seems to accept, at face value, the claim that Islam constitutes an "intrinsically rational world view". Perhaps there are occasions where public intellectuals must proclaim the teachings of Islam to be perfectly in harmony with scientific naturalism. But let us not do so, just yet, in the world's foremost scientific journal.

Under the basic teachings of Islam, the Koran cannot be challenged or contradicted, being the perfect word of the creator of the Universe. To speak of the compatibility of science and Islam in 2007 is rather like speaking of the compatibility of science and Christianity in the year 1633, just as Galileo was being forced, under threat of death, to recant his understanding of the Earth's motion.

An Editorial announcing the publication of Francis Collins's book, The Language of God ('Building bridges' Nature 442, 110; doi:10.1038/442110a 2006) represents another instance of high-minded squeamishness in addressing the incompatibility of faith and reason. Nature praises Collins, a devout Christian, for engaging "with people of faith to explore how science — both in its mode of thought and its results — is consistent with their religious beliefs".

But here is Collins on how he, as a scientist, finally became convinced of the divinity of Jesus Christ: "On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains... the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

What does the "mode of thought" displayed by Collins have in common with science? The Language of God should have sparked gasping outrage from the editors at Nature. Instead, they deemed Collins's efforts "moving" and "laudable", commending him for building a "bridge across the social and intellectual divide that exists between most of US academia and the so-called heartlands."

At a time when Muslim doctors and engineers stand accused of attempting atrocities in the expectation of supernatural reward, when the Catholic Church still preaches the sinfulness of condom use in villages devastated by AIDS, when the president of the United States repeatedly vetoes the most promising medical research for religious reasons, much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.

There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.

Posted by aalkon at August 23, 2007 9:06 AM

Comments

It always amazes me when people talk about some emotional impact that causes them to change their opinion about a deity. They never seem to realize that it's them, not the real world, around which their belief rotates. They'll claim that they have a choice about their belief, and that validates the "purity" of their choice.

But "Free Will" is not a religious concept. It does not depend on the existence of any deity, because "choice" is exercised between options apparent to the decisor regardless of origin - theoretical, "theological" or otherwise.

There are a few misconceptions about the real world to clear out of the way.

First: the world is not truly random. If you were flipping a coin, the "universe" consists of only three possibilities: "heads", "tails", or the edge of the coin. In the real world, elements behave according to the laws of gravitation, magnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces at a minimum.


What this means is that the world is not truly random. A truly random universe cannot have a law of physics.

And it means that "order" does not require guidance of any kind.


Second: the universe offers a realm of possibilities which is very large. Extremely large. Mind-bogglingly, staggeringly large. Take a number you think is big (but don't make a noise about "infinity" - it doesn't mean what you think it means), and double it. In this world, it is still possible for there to be two fingerprint sets which are the same, two retinal patterns which are the same, and two Taj Mahals, one of which was spat out of an active volcano intact - because a) the Taj Mahal was assembled according to the laws of physics, b) the laws of physics do not depend on humans to exist, and c) all of space and all of time describes the venue in which that act can be played. That we cannot point to this having happened does not preclude it. That the consequences of discovering this event are nil does not invalidate the principle.

Third: the nature of the choices we make can differ by an inconsequential amount, "iota". Yes, you can make a choice which has no consequence. You can make one which does have a consequence. You can make choices up to the point at which your abilities interfere with your means of making a choice. For instance, you can't choose to fly to the moon buck naked. That's a limitation, a boundary, and choice does not exist beyond that point.

Fourth: the hardest thing to realize is that when you are looking at anything, you are viewing processes at their current level of completion. This confuses people fond of noting that if they had done something different, the result, they say, would be different, too. This is not really the case. The alternatives are: different path, different result; different path, same result. That second part is suppressed, because people want to think they've figured out what went wrong so they can avoid such a mistake as they perceive from happening again. Look at a game of solitaire for an example. More than one sequence of play produces a solution, and more than one sequence produces a stoppage.

Fifth: the interference of an outside force can change the consequences of your decision, raising the magnitude of uncertainty.


In short: free will has limits. Free will is independent of religious affiliation. Some of what you choose is insignificant. Other people's decisions can affect you. Order is a result of the combination and permutations of existing forces.


And, of course, you're not getting a "do over!" for anything. The stream will have moved on.

Posted by: Radwaste at August 23, 2007 2:33 AM

Those of us who prefer analysis to subjective experience might want to check out the following article from Physics Today http://ptonline.aip.org/journals/doc/PHTOAD-ft/vol_60/iss_8/49_1.shtml

It looks at the following factors to evaluate the status of science and islam:

The quantity of scientific output, weighted by some reasonable measure of relevance and importance;

The role played by science and technology in the national economies, funding for S&T, and the size of the national scientific enterprises;

The extent and quality of higher education; and
The degree to which science is present or absent in popular culture.

The author's conclusion is:

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes—a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

Seems like a big order, but I wish him luck.

Posted by: Machida at August 23, 2007 5:37 AM

Science can prosper among Muslims once again, but only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes—a Weltanschauung that shrugs off the dead hand of tradition, rejects fatalism and absolute belief in authority, accepts the legitimacy of temporal laws, values intellectual rigor and scientific honesty, and respects cultural and personal freedoms. The struggle to usher in science will have to go side-by-side with a much wider campaign to elbow out rigid orthodoxy and bring in modern thought, arts, philosophy, democracy, and pluralism.

Big order and then some. Isn't this in direct opposition to what Islam teaches? As near as I can tell, as long as the Islamic fanatics that are in charge of their "religion" hold sway, this order will not be fulfilled. From what has been determined, a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes just will not happen in this lifetime. The open-mindendness to even entertain these ideas is non-existent in the Islamic world.

Posted by: Flynne at August 23, 2007 5:50 AM

only with a willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes

In other words, when pigs fly and/or all the women in Iran are dressing like Britney Spears.

This is akin to saying "Amy Alkon can be power forward for the Knicks, but only when she grows two feet, becomes a man, and develops a rare talent for the game of basketball."

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 23, 2007 6:13 AM

> And, of course, you're
> not getting a "do over!"
> for anything. The stream
> will have moved on.

I think about this all the time because I edit video for a living, and my lifelong fascinations (musical and narrative) have been about trimming linear quantities....

But I think you're on to something really important, something that's worth more than the caboose of your comment. It's not just books and movies: The human brain loves to imagine rewinding things a bit to change contingencies, and it's a fantasy (nourished by electronic composition of all kinds) that can really fuck up our approach to the world.

> people talk about some
> emotional impact that
> causes them to change their
> opinion about a deity.

Most annoying is the instrusive intimacy of it... Someone tells you about this deeply individual thing they felt, and so the rest of the world is supposed to fall in line.

Posted by: Crid at August 23, 2007 6:32 AM

willingness to accept certain basic philosophical and attitudinal changes just will not happen in this lifetime. The open-mindendness to even entertain these ideas is non-existent in the Islamic world.

The fact that the article exists disproves this statement. Nor is one lifetime a relevant time unit. Its been a few centuries since the western enlightment and we're still cleaning up the residue of the Abrahamic religions. Might take a century or two to finish it.

Amy, I'm shocked at your comment. You have been quite forward about Muslims not speaking up about Islam. When one does, apparently new standards are set up about pigs flying etc. I'm going to coin a new phrase (as far as I know it's new) for this, The Christian Generalization Response to Unanticipated Information.

Posted by: Machida at August 23, 2007 7:39 AM

Rad that is very well said. And I will even go further and tell you that I agree with your sentiments and structure my life around a similar view of the laws of reality. We live at a pinpoint intersection of what has been and what is to come. However.

Let me throw you into a hypothetical situation for a second. The Utah mine collapse is no longer a rescue operation and even recovery of remains might not be possible. The families of the trapped workers have maintained an image in their minds of their loved ones still alive; trapped but otherwise not suffering. They must now change that picture and it will be beyond painful for them. They will need help from somebody who knows what they are doing. This is not meant to be a hostile question but: Do you think your essay would help them in the grieving process?

I will quickly acknowledge before someone beats me to it that some goofball who goes by “father” or “pastor” or whatever might muck up the healing process as badly as anyone. At any rate, it isn’t our problem though I’m sure we all wish them the best. The point is, the survivors are suffering a crisis of spirit which can’t be fixed by sitting down with an actuarial accountant. People have spiritual needs. Like any other need, some individuals barely notice them and others build their lives around meeting them. The fact that my spiritual needs or yours are easily met in the routine course of our lives shouldn’t lead us to begrudge others the right to pursue their needs in ways that don’t make sense to us.

But what if their way of pursing their needs involves making me wear stupid clothes and giving my money to somebody in a pointy hat? Organized religion is an outgrowth of the fact that humans are a political animal. Religion plays on the spiritual needs of people and that might lead some to conclude that religion is bad. But the excesses and misuses of organized religion can’t be laid at the feet of an innate component of the human psyche anymore than the use of famine as a means of genocide can be blamed on a person’s need to eat.

Science does a great job of describing “what, how, when” but shrugs along with the rest of us at “why.” Steven Hawking is smarter than any six of us but he can’t give a “rigorous explanation for the existence of human consciousness and the problem of why the Universe goes to the trouble of existing at all.” Sure, the universe is big enough to contain weird things like brains that wonder about themselves but isn’t the most likely state of events a state of nothingness? A scientist can spend her life working out something wonderful that makes all of our lives better but isn’t she allowed to sit back from her work once in awhile and gaze off into the distance and wonder why she’s working so hard if life is as deterministic as Rad illustrates?

Posted by: martin at August 23, 2007 7:59 AM

Man, you people are long-winded. I just love reading someone with Sam Harris' ability to cut through the crap and make a delicously simple point. Faith vs Reason. The real War on Terror.

Posted by: Rodger at August 23, 2007 8:54 AM

haiku time

the posts are too long
my mouse has a wheel for this
it spins much today

Posted by: martin at August 23, 2007 9:12 AM

The question is not about faith, never really was. You choose to believe what you choose to believe. Religion believes in higher power, which makes life far more deterministic then us heathens who refuse the teachings of organized religion. As per most faiths, you live as we tell you and then you go to paradise of one form or another. To become that fervently religious you surrender to radwaste's fifth point in toto. You allow an organization, that was established 100s of years ago and remains relatively unchanged; to dictate your life now.

Would you want a doctor to work on you using principles of medicine from the 1890, never mind 1500s. Unless your amish would you drive a car from the 1500s. Live in huts and hunt for food, knowing that that food has a good chance of eating you?

Religion (most of the big ones, give you a good basic frame work for life. Let it govern your every move and you are now living hundreds of years in the past.

Posted by: vlad at August 23, 2007 11:10 AM

FWIW, the Muslim world nurtured science, math and culture during Europe's Dark Ages: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Andalus

Posted by: DaveG at August 23, 2007 12:24 PM

"Amy Alkon can be power forward for the Knicks, but only when she grows two feet, becomes a man, and develops a rare talent for the game of basketball."

Not true! Isiah would give a contract to a potted plant.

Posted by: justin case at August 23, 2007 12:57 PM

Does Nature think that if they publish this crap they'll sell a few more institutional subscriptions to places like Bob Jones and Liberty U? Harris is right on here - there's a huge effort among the extremist/conservative wings of Islam and Christianity (not so much, Judaism, I think) to discredit science generally. The editors who approved the original "Nature hearts religion" article should become acquainted with the plank that Harris mentions.

Posted by: justin case at August 23, 2007 1:04 PM

FWIW, the Muslim world nurtured science, math and culture during Europe's Dark Age

Well, that's a very silly point to make. Just be glad the Christians, Jews, and atheists made a few medical and scientific discoveries since then.

I can't imagine why Nature would publish these pieces.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 23, 2007 2:32 PM

"Do you think your essay would help them in the grieving process?"

Let me answer that with another question: Is the establishment and maintenance of a fantasy world, in which we are looked after, so valuable as to compel everyone to observe it as real?

No, an essay isn't a panacea; neither is faith.

---

About the nurturing of science during the Dark Ages: so did the Catholic Church, those Inquisitive murderers of heretics, Jews in Spain and the natives of the Americas. We lost the entirety of American astronomy to Catholic who insisted that a book not the Bible was fit only for fire.

Posted by: Radwaste at August 23, 2007 4:24 PM

Certainly not compel Radwaste, not even encourage.
I only suggest that we meet people where they are and not write them off as simpletons because they don't see things just as we do. More things in heaven and earth Horatio or however that goes.

The quote from my case of keyboard diarrhea above comes from an article about a prehistoric nuclear phenomenon and some of the analysis of that event (see)http://www.virtualtravelog.net/entries/2004/05/unprecedented_phenomena_the_implications_of_the_oklo_fossil_reactors.html

A theist concedes that the event cannot be reconciled with his scriptures, that the matter requires more thought (the linked piece doesn't summarize it quite that way.)

A scientist latches onto a wild idea about ancient civilizations without a shred of supporting evidence and refuses to be persuaded otherwise.
Another scientist offers a more reasoned theory but because of the whims of academic politics he has lost his funding and become an un-professor.

I am as distressed as anyone to see people lining up to praise islam when islamists are scheming to murder my children in the name of muhamed (piss be upon him) but theists did not invent sloppy thinking and are not its sole adherents.

I think a good scientist and a good neighbor can be forgiven for popping in at church on Sunday morning and keeping in mind that, for all we know, we don't know much.

Damn, I did it again.

a nice wine is sipped
many keys are pressed in turn
the thread grows longer

Posted by: martin at August 23, 2007 6:42 PM

"...for all we know, we don't know much."

Please tell me this isn't an appeal to ignorance, or consequences!

It is simply fallacious to either state or assume that because we have not seen a particular occurrence, that it is either without precedent or requires a great leap of insight.

I suggest that the primary reason for the phrase I quoted above is the media's tendency to package discovery in neat, little, bites suitable for their uneducated audience. I've lost count of how many times I've had to show Christian fundamentalists conclusively that scientists do not "declare" things (look for Nuclides and Isotopes, by GE Nuclear Energy, for a list of mind-boggling scientific standards with their uncertainty factors).

The very act of thinking is abhorred by most people. Dozens of your friends, I suspect, say when asked that they are "done with school". A similar number embrace superstition and lies on a regular basis because nothing drives them to learn more than they know now.

But just as a professional knows that the reason she makes it look easy now is countless hours of hard work, so reasoning people know the reason for the irrational things they and others do - for the very way thoughts and beliefs and concepts are formed.

This is suitable armor against ego's presentation that the Emperor is fully clothed.

You know, there has always been a more-obvious rebuke than Oklo: the sky. Think, "Galileo". And Hipparchus found the Earth's precession (Polaris has a temp job) 200 years BC. I suggest that "we" are not so ignorant as the bulk of the population.

There are a lot more things "theists" could learn that positively prohibit some of the assertions in their favorite religious fantasies, but there is no reward for them there.

Posted by: Radwaste at August 23, 2007 8:24 PM

Amy,
In your introductory paragraph, I think you intended "the idiocy of Collins." Francis Crick was no idiot.

Robert

Posted by: robert miller at August 23, 2007 8:48 PM

Sigh...thanks...absolutely right. Changing it now.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 23, 2007 9:23 PM


First: the world is not truly random. If you were flipping a coin, the "universe" consists of only three possibilities: "heads", "tails", or the edge of the coin. In the real world, elements behave according to the laws of gravitation, magnetism and the strong and weak nuclear forces at a minimum.

What this means is that the world is not truly random. A truly random universe cannot have a law of physics.

Whuh? Are you sure? Do you really think that radioactivity is a deterministic process?

Posted by: jerry at August 23, 2007 10:29 PM

"I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ."

That is really fucking funny. What a drama queen!

Posted by: Lena at August 24, 2007 5:57 AM

Radwaste I think we are probably close to agreement on many things. If we were to wind up sitting next to each other on a flight from O’Hare to DFW we’d probably have a nice enough conversation. I guess I come across as hostile to science by having the opinion that faith and reason should be able to accommodate each other, alas. In the interest of sparing Amy’s readers, just a couple of points:

“The very act of thinking is abhorred by most people.”
Is that really true or is it a way of saying most people are aren’t smart enough to see things as we do? I will readily grant that the state of the world supports the notion either way. But if humanity is always to be burdened with this lumpenproletariat then what difference does it make what we use to keep them amused and out of our hair as long as you and I know the score? Television and religiosity can both be used as an anesthetic to avoid facing an unfulfilling life. And plenty of secularists are concerned about the effects of modern entertainments on society even as we dread the next planeload of religious crazies.
The ever increasing attention to entertainment and diversion seems to me to show a need to escape. But what are they escaping when we have such a high standard of living? I like to think we just haven’t found a way yet to allow most people to truly engage themselves. A vast quantity of human potential is going to waste; being on the right side of the situation doesn’t make you better, it makes you lucky.
“Dozens of your friends, I suspect, say when asked that they are "done with school". A similar number embrace superstition and lies on a regular basis because nothing drives them to learn more than they know now.”
Most of the people I know are voracious readers who collect degrees in a staggering array of fields and are endlessly curious about everything. Your suspicions (assumptions?) about the people in my life evidence a kind of prejudice I think you’d not be proud of under different circumstances but then I might be missing your meaning.
Amy’s running beef with religion in a nutshell is that it has stifled generations of creative, intelligent people. I contend that everybody has a “religious” component, some people just see their embodiment of that in other places, sometimes in the mirror, and that’s fine. But to place the spiritual reflex at odds with science is more of an insult to science than to faith.

the format is strict
brevity is now enforced
the reader is spared

Posted by: martin at August 24, 2007 6:26 AM

The world is fucked up
There is but one solution:
Give Lena some head

Posted by: Lena at August 24, 2007 7:13 AM

Christ, Lena, you are PRICELESS!

Posted by: Flynne at August 24, 2007 7:16 AM

Jerry - radioactivity, as with many other processes, occurs by a set of natural laws. We call these things "laws" because they have never been observed to be inapplicable to the process being studied. Investigators are alert for exceptions to natural laws more than any other facet of investigation, because they offer key insights to the studied process.

Yes, I am sure about a law of physics excluding randomness because of the definition of "random". Again, the coin example shows you can never have a result which is not "heads", "tails" or "edge". The results of the four (at least) natural forces can be "dense", "big", "crystalline", "orange", "radioactive" or "Jerry" among a number of combinations / permutations which is just huge, but these structures are all defined by a limited set of forces.

---

Martin, I suspected your circle of friends incorrectly. Sorry about that. It is a short drive, though, to where nobody knows anything and has no desire to learn more.

Posted by: Radwaste at August 24, 2007 8:40 AM

TO: Amy Alkon
RE: Wouldn't It Be Better....

"Scientists Should Unite Against The Threat From Religion" -- Amy Alkon

....if EVERYONE united against 'ignorance' and 'stupidity'?

Think about it.....I think we crossed swords on this a week ago.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Ignorance is when you don't know something. Stupidity is when you're 'ignorant' and proud of it.]

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at August 26, 2007 11:48 AM

TO: Lena
RE: So....

"That is really fucking funny. What a drama queen!" -- Lena

...what is Life without some moments of Drama?

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Drama is life, with the dull bis removed. -- Alfred Hitchcock]

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at August 26, 2007 11:53 AM

TO: All
RE: Lena's Problem

"Give Lena some head" -- Lena's Haiku

As some armorers and platoon sergeants might put it.....

She has 'headspace and timing' problems.

In other words, she won't 'fire'. [Note: It's a M2 .50 caliber machine gun 'problem'.]

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[When you go to a gunfight, don't bring anything that has a first digit less than .4.]

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at August 26, 2007 11:57 AM

TO: Anyone
RE: Lena

Is anyone, here, aware of Lena's 'cyclical rate of fire'?

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Fire for effect. -- the command from soldiers in the 'field' who want to have maximum 'impact' on their 'target'.]

P.S. Tongue firmly in [my own] cheek.

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at August 26, 2007 2:27 PM

"Tongue firmly in [my own] cheek."

A prelude to having your head up your ass, no doubt.

Posted by: Lena at August 27, 2007 11:03 AM

Lena always says just the right thing.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 27, 2007 11:30 AM

Obviously, you've never been on a date with me, Amy!

Posted by: Lena at August 27, 2007 11:53 AM

Clearly, those who have are in need of a major reeducation campaign.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at August 27, 2007 12:04 PM

TO: Lena
RE: It's....

"A prelude to having your head up your ass, no doubt." -- Lena

...the UPPER, not the nether, cheek, dearie.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
[Anus rodentum non gratis. (I don't give a rat's ass.)]

P.S. Why is it always about sex with you people?

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at August 30, 2007 3:21 PM

TO: All
RE: George & Gracie of the 21st Century???!?!

"Lena always says just the right thing." -- Amy Alkon

"Obviously, you've never been on a date with me, Amy!" -- Lena

"Clearly, those who have are in need of a major reeducation campaign." -- Amy Alkon

Or should it be Abbott & Costello? Or Lewis & Martin?

Lucy & Ethel?

I think the latter is most appropo. Their both of the feminine persuasion.

Whatever....

....this exchange is a hoot.

Regards,

Chuck(le)
P.S. Is it the water there?

Posted by: Chuck Pelto at August 30, 2007 6:48 PM

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