Physics of Religion

As an observer on life’s sidelines, I rarely participate in the action. The subject matter is more important than the critic, so I tend to respond in this blog rather than create. Once in a great while, however, someone I know shows up in the media. A number of years back Neal Stephenson introduced me to George Dyson. I instantly felt an affinity for him, and found his book Darwin Among the Machines a great triumph of intelligible science writing. It was no great surprise, then, when George was mentioned in an article in December’s Atlantic magazine, comparing his outlook to that of his father, physicist Freeman Dyson. I was intrigued by physics in high school, but my overwhelming supposition that religion explained life overruled this predilection and so I’ve ended up an unemployed religion professor than a scientist. In the article, however, author Kenneth Brower brings these things together.

Brower asks a pointed question: how can a physicist as brilliant as Freeman Dyson hold factually inaccurate and apparently misguided ideas about global warming? The story contrasts Freeman with his son George as exemplars of two different religions. George represents the environmentalist religion while Freeman represents the belief in humanity’s ability to solve any problem. The use of religion as a means of distinguishing these views again raises a question of definition. I don’t dispute the use of the word – it is entirely apt in this context – but the functional definition here is that religion equates to something deeply believed. I am a little troubled by this. Not because no gods or deities or supernatural forces enter into it, but because for years many evangelicals have boldly declared that science itself is a religion. That idea has been used as leverage to get Creationist ideas equal time with those of science because it comes down to purely a matter of one religion against another.

Belief is a phenomenon that is not well understood. Most people have no difficulty accepting the truthfulness of factual data. Seldom do even religious zealots doubt two plus two equals four. At a more theoretical level, however, facts become formulas incomprehensible to most of us and critics are quick to call this “religion.” Faith in human ability to solve the riddles of the universe. Where is the line with religion crossed? In the year 2000 Freeman Dyson received the Templeton Prize, an honor reserved for those who make significant contribution to the spiritual dimension of life, often with a scientific component. It is the dream of every religionist to be considered for this great honor. Once again, however, the further out we peer into our universe, the more the lines become blurred. That does not worry me. What concerns me is how such ambiguity will no doubt be used by Creationists and their Neo-Con supporters who are only too glad to have a scientist of Freeman Dyson on their side. When religion trumps science not even 2 + 2 = 4 is secure.

Hubble's ultra deep field has yet to detect any deities

What Would Noah Do?

Unfortunately, religion and politics do mix. A story on announced on Wednesday that the House Energy and Commerce Committee chair hopeful, Rep. John Shimkus has declared Genesis on the side of conservatives. Stating that the Noah myth (not his exact words) promises God won’t flood the earth again, Shimkus claims we have nothing to fear from global warming. In a twist that makes some of his fellow conservatives squirm, Shimkus admits global warming is a reality but suggests that we really don’t need to worry about it because “the Bible tells me so.” Time for Shimkus to go back to Sunday School.

Part of the problem lies in the concept of Bible itself. The Hebrew Bible isn’t too much of a self-referential work, claiming to be pure words of divine gold. Paul, on the other hand, found the Hebrew Bible useful to cite against enemies, and his admirer who wrote letters to Timothy in his name took the idea even further. For all that, the Bible wasn’t finally settled on for a couple more centuries. Once the concept took hold, however, the world could never be the same. A book written by humans had become direct revelation from the word of God himself. The Bible makes few such lofty boasts about itself, but its less conscientious followers are not nearly so shy. As I demonstrate repeatedly in my classes, the Bible has become a magic book.

Politicians now feel comfortable claiming God as their ally because “he said so.” Without having ever critically engaged Scripture, or even having read it in its original languages, those in positions of public trust know enough to flaunt it. And it always scores points with Americans. Liberals fear the ramifications of using the Bible while Neo-Cons charge bravely ahead to places Noah himself would fear to go. Maybe it’s time to put the Bible back in the schools. Only this time it should be taught by people who realize that the Enlightenment has taken place and that we can’t rely on magic to save us from dangerous situations we ourselves have created.

The lesson from the Cretaceous Period

I’ll Take Coffee, Thank You

Yesterday’s victory of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware’s senate primaries seems to have shocked a lot of people. Have these people not been paying attention? Did they sleep through Beckpalooza? Have they failed to see that Sarah Palin’s lackluster life story has become a best-seller? Are Americans in denial that we are facing a major Religious Right comeback? The problem, yes, problem, is that Americans are not taught to think about religion for themselves. Raised with the idea that their political and religious leaders have some special channel open to the divine, they are sheep led to the, well, you know…

Society pays for its sins. One of the most fatal of the deadly sins is the refusal to take ownership of religious education. Unreflective religion in the hands of politicians is a fully armed atomic warhead. Many Americans like to think this is only a problem in nations with Islamic infrastructures, nations unduly influenced by shahs, ayatollahs and imams. Nations influenced by Tea Parties, Neo-Cons and biblical amateurs are much safer, much more friendly.

Problem is, the Bible’s a mixed bag. Some of the loftiest spiritual sentiments nestle down uncritically next to calls for genocide and harsh repression. As long as it is the magic finger from above that’s written it, that’s good enough for tea-tipplers. There are few opportunities to call Americans together for a religious town meeting. We’re all too busy off doing it our own individual way. In such a climate, isn’t it best to let those without any formal religious training tell us what the Bible says we should do? Do you want one lump with that, or two?

O'Donnell takes Castle to school


This week’s Time magazine has a rhetorical question on the cover: Is America Islamophobic? Not a word need be said. The real issue at stake, the one many Muslims feel the brunt of, is religious freedom. This founding concept of America has been eroding for decades. How many Americans have tried to imagine what it would be like if they were Muslims living in “the land of the free”? For that matter, how many have tried to imagine what it would be like to be Catholic, Protestant, or Unitarian? Certainly, it would seem, Jews know the value of religious freedom. Do we ever really try to feel their experience? It is much more cozy to be part of the religious majority and tell others to step in line.

With great roaring newts and Alaskan beauty queens telling them what to think, Americans are easily stoked to injustice. No, they have no right to worship here, they tell us. The truly frightening part is how easily manipulated the masses are. America a Christian nation? Who can adequately define “Christian”? Those who make such claims tend to be Neo-Cons who assume some fundamental form of Christianity is the default version. The only version. Their goals are not religious, but rather intensely selfish – the antithesis of Christianity. By their fruits you shall know them, a wise man once said. It is easy to forget who.

We live in a nation that since the Reagan years has attempted to privatize industries that had ensured fairer treatment because of government standards, no matter how faulty. Now private companies could run with the basic necessities of civilized existence and grow wealthy on them while those who were poor could be forced to pay more. This was done with the public image of a “Christian nation.” RR, the poster-child of the Religious Right. Laissez faire has come to mean “leggo my Eggo” – let me claim the one true religion and capitalize upon it. One size does fit all as long as the wealthy are left free to grow wealthier. Let’s call it religious freedom, but let’s prevent others from pursuing their religion freely. To me it feels like 1984. And that was decades earlier than 9/11.

The Return of Christendom

Well, the Internet is shaking because Anne Rice has left Christianity. Not exactly, however. In her own words, according to her Facebook page, “I remain committed to Christ as always but not to being ‘Christian’ or to being part of Christianity. It’s simply impossible for me to ‘belong’ to this quarrelsome, hostile, disputatious, and deservedly infamous group.” For years I have observed decent people “quitting” Christianity because the name has been co-opted by intolerant, bigoted Neo-Cons who more often than not have political agendas in mind. I think the battle has been lost, the trademark name of Christianity must be surrendered to those who claim it most loudly. The meek have disinherited the earth. How many Catholic students have introduced their comments to me with “Christians say…” as if Catholics aren’t part of the club?

There was a perfectly good word for what Neo-Cons are calling themselves. It used to be “Christendom.” Harkening back to the imperial days when Orthodox Christianity ruled the East and Roman Christianity ruled the West, Christendom implied the power and the glory in its very name. Beyond a religion, it was a system of rule. The world was fine as long as everyone stepped in line to a magisterial faith that held the only set of keys to Heaven. Then Islam. Then Reformation. Then Enlightenment. The keys began to jangle amid many others on that divine keyring. Christendom seemed pretentious when there was no military might to back the strappado or red-hot iron. Christianity was but one belief system, deeply fragmented, among others.

Under the vision of James Dobson, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and their minions, Christianity in its Neo-Con armor has once again become a forum for abuse and intolerance. Bearing little resemblance to the ethics and outlook of the carpenter of Nazareth, this religion would find an easy home in imperial Rome or medieval Aragon. As Ms. Rice notes, she is committed to Christ, but not a Christian. Although my impotent voice bears little weight in this overly loud and hyper-productive world-wide web, I would humbly suggest that Christendom be reinstated, instead of Christianity, to describe the Neo-Con religion. Christendom, after all, retains the imperial bearing and absolute authority the movement craves. Those, like Ms. Rice, who prefer to follow the teachings of Jesus might then have use of the traditional term of “Christian” once again.

E.T. Go Home!

Now that my family is back from vacation, daily life is starting to regain a focus. One of the goodies my wife brought me from out west was an article from the Spokesman-Review, a Spokane, Washington, newspaper. The article is actually a letter to the editor, so it should not be taken as representative of the views of the paper, or of reality, for that matter. Obviously written in response to an article I missed, the letter is concerned that “Conservative Christian” viewpoints towards illegal aliens are being ignored. With a bravado that might be termed Christian jihad, the letter writer claims that “our nation’s laws are based on the laws God has laid down.” The authorities she cites? “Beck and Palin.”

Beck and Palin would make a great comedy team were it not for their crazed intolerance. Although devoted to this dynamic duo, our writer goes one better and cites the highest possible authority, “the Lord God.” Specifically, Numbers 15:15-16: “As for the assembly, there shall be for both you and the resident alien a single statute, a perpetual statute throughout your generations; you and the alien shall be alike before the Lord. You and the alien who resides with you shall have the same law and the same ordinance.” Problem is, this passage doesn’t refer to the state assembly of Arizona, but of an ancient Israel that is largely the creation of the writers. The Torah, explicitly, applies to Israel, not to other nations.

Quite often in my classes I have students claiming that our laws are based on the Bible. To extent there may be a modicum of truth in the claim, but in fact, American law is based on English Common Law, influenced by, yet not taken from, the Bible. I’m no legal expert (I wouldn’t be jobless if I were), but I do take the Bible at its face value. The laws apply to Israel alone. It is a mark of how little our religious leaders have been able to educate the public that we see this ingrained prejudice masquerading as divine truth. Fair treatment is a secular as well as a religious value. In addition to doling out abuse, the Bible itself continues to be a constant victim of abuse at the hands of Neo-Con nonsense.

Isn't God an alien?

Green Bible

One of the most heinous theologies to emerge from Christendom is the idea that exploitation of our planet is good for the soul. The idea, apart from having been foundational to Bush II’s administration, is based on the idea that if we mess up our world badly enough we will force the divine hand into sending Jesus back to clear up our detritus. The Second Coming apparently will be in a garbage heap rather than a garden. Christian businessmen rest secure knowing that their exploitation of our natural resources is all part of God’s master-plan. This “theology” is alive and well among many Neo-Cons and it insists that the fact of global warming is a myth and the myth of creationism is a fact.

One of the unexpected perpetrators in the war on our planet has been the Bible. Accurate records of the number of Bibles actually printed were not kept in the early days of Gutenberg’s dream machine, but current estimates place the number of Bibles printed at over 8 billion. That’s more than enough for one per person. Some of us would have to confess to owning multiple copies, making us perhaps guiltier than the rest. It was in an effort to stem the dendrite slaughter of this industry that I shifted to the Green Bible for my classes last year.

Some people treat the Bible as an object of veneration, never laying it on the floor or putting other objects atop it. Some people object to making Bibles out of “inferior” products – the Green Bible is printed on recycled paper and is biodegradable – but to me this seems to be the most responsible way to produce a book with the enormous environmental impact that the Bible has. I could live without the “green letter” sections intended to prooftext the Bible’s environmental concerns, but care for our planet trumps good taste at times. If anyone from Oxford University Press is reading this, the eco-friendly aspects of this Bible are what reluctantly switched me from 15 years of requiring students to purchase the New Oxford Annotated Bible! It is time that the Bible owned up to its part in our planetary plight.

Oil’s Well that Ends

Greed has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I like to think it isn’t petty personal greed, but the insatiable corporate variety of greed. Friends send me links to sad commentaries on the Gulf Oil Spill, an event that severely amplifies the cruelty already inherent in nature, but an event that would have been preventable were it not for greed. My friend James from Idle Musings sent me a compelling story from the UK Guardian that poignantly demonstrates how a shift of worldviews has bestowed divine approval on the rape of our planet. The very religion that began as animism, the belief in the ubiquitous divine in nature, has evolved into a Neo-con Christianity that supports free markets as surely as it believes in resurrection. If a few million animals have to die, well, their invisible, loving God sees far more than our limited sight.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the video link my wife pointed out to me last night. Here an advocate for biblical “prophecy” points out that it can not be coincidence that the day after the United States withdrew unilateral support for Israel in the United Nations Security Council was the very day that Deepwater Horizon exploded. No, the pundit declares, do not be fooled. God is punishing the United States for withdrawing support from Israel. This idea, unfortunately, draws on a morass of sloppy theology that can be historically traced to an evangelical death-wish for the planet. Barbara Tuchman, one of the most respected historians of the last century, objectively traces the story in her classic Bible and Sword. Political support for Israel was perceived as a means of forcing God’s hand into releasing the second coming. So much for human sympathy.

Coincidences continually occur. April 19 is the day that Cardinal Ratzinger was elected Pope just five years ago. It is the day Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco. It is the Feast of Saint Aelfheah of Canterbury. It is Patriot’s Day in New England. It is the day The Simpsons premiered. Whether to see God’s hand in any or all of this is a matter of perspective. As is the motivation behind supporting Israel, big oil, or the second coming. If there is any name other than greed for offering political support for a nation of sacrificial lambs and spilling oil in order to hasten the apocalypse, I simply do not know what it might be.

And this was only April

Religious Democracy

An op-ed piece in yesterday’s paper raised some important issues concerning religion and the unfortunate fall of Mark Souder. The article, by E. J. Dionne, pointed out that Souder once said, “To ask me to check my Christian beliefs at the public door is to ask me to expel the Holy Spirit from my life when I serve as a congressman, and that I will not do.” This pointed affirmation of faith is precisely the dilemma of a democratic system that allows for freedom of religion. All religions (those that are serious attempts to deal with the supernatural, in any case) are defined by the conviction that their practices, their beliefs, their ethics, are correct. When a religious individual is elected, or even converted after election, in a democratic system their religion is given power. With their faith they vote on issues that cut across religious boundaries, binding those who do not agree to their personal faith stance by law.

Europe in the Middle Ages is perhaps the most obvious example of what might happen when one religious body (in that case, the Roman Catholic Church) gains excessive political power. Problem is, these days folks don’t agree on which is the right religion. America was not founded as a Christian nation, let alone an evangelical Neo-Con one. It has become, perhaps because of this fact, one of the most actively religious nations in the developed world. As befits a consumer mentality, religions are offered in a marketplace. Within Christianity alone there are aisles and aisles of churches from which to choose. When a public servant is elected and her or his religion dictates their votes, have we not just lost freedom of religion?

Teaching for many years in a seminary is a sure way of becoming aware of the limited training that religious leaders generally receive (if any). The short time they spend being educated does not equip them to think through all the implications of their convictions. They attain the pulpit and the congressional leaders who happen to be in their congregations receive an inchoate theology confused by their three years earning a “Master of Divinity” degree. Not all are equal to the task. Those religious leaders with promise, often because of internal church politics, end up in smaller venues, their voices effectively silenced. Those with the most strident voices reach larger congregations, often without the humility of admitting that the more you learn about theology they less you know. Their congregants, armed with faulty perceptions of their own religion, burst into their congressional chambers full of conviction based on problematic conceptions. It is a very serious dilemma.

Perhaps what is needed is an oath of office for politicians rather like the Hippocratic Oath for physicians. Perhaps they should swear to put their own religious outlooks in check while considering social issues on which their constituents vary widely. Perhaps their integrity in truly representing the population they govern would lessen the impact of their inevitable personal foibles. And naturally, this oath would not be superstitiously sworn with a hand on the Bible.

Indiana Wants Me

The conservative evangelical Christian camp sometimes makes blogging on religion just too easy. The paper this morning reveals yet another evangelical, abstinence-only soap-boxer being caught with his boxers down. Indiana Representative Mark Souder is stepping down because of an extra-marital affair. To fill in the gaps on other such evangelical infidelities, I recommend Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah.

No, I do not rejoice in such revelations. The suffering of families brought on by such blatant hypocrisy cuts me deeply. The lesson we should all be learning from this is that self-righteousness is a sham. For all their faults, the more liberal factions of society are ready to admit that people are people and not cookie-cutter angels. They are inclined to admit that temptations exist, yet statistics demonstrate their marriages tend to be more secure and less plagued with infidelity. I tend to think it is because evangelical teaching has lost sight of what is truly important: people have always been, and still are, people. The belief that God has made one class of people better than others, and that saying sex doesn’t exist gives you the right to live in a pre-Edenic fantasy world, the Neo-Con is in very deep denial. No wonder many evangelicals distrust psychology!

I often ponder why this disconnect should exist at all. It seems that evangelicalism has been singularly poor at providing the tools to cope with reality. If temptation doesn’t exist for the blessed, then why bother developing strategies to deal with it? When the newspapers come out, it is easier to cast the first stone at the liberal media for airing dirty laundry than it is to examine your own hamper. Yet even the Bible itself has one important character criticizing the religious establishment as whitewashed tombs. No, I do not respond with glee to the sad outing of Mark Souder. I simply wish evangelicalism would truly advocate the honesty upon which it claims to be based.

Emasculating Science Education

American lags behind. Tough words to read, n’est-ce pas? America lags behind in science education. Even nations as “conservative” as Tajikistan teach evolution in their classrooms without question while the United States just can’t seem to accept the facts. The fault, with no question whatsoever, lies with a very narrow Christian interpretation of the irreconcilably contradictory creation stories that open the book of Genesis. This fact has once again come to an ugly head in New Jersey, among the bluest of states. Our, gulp, Republican governor has recently nominated Bret Schundler, a supporter of school’s rights to teach intelligent design, as state commissioner of education. I shudder.

As I teach classroom after classroom of Rutgers students, there is neither biblical nor scientific basis for Creationism. Creationism is a neo-Christian chimera forged together by political pundits who believe that if evolution is stopped in its factual tracks, America will revert automatically to the pre-hippie days of the 1950s where authoritarian dads with conservative haircuts barked out the family marching orders and saw everyone to gospel-hymn-singing churches each and every Sunday. It is a myth, they assert, that is worth believing.

The problem is that facts don’t evaporate simply because nabobs don’t like them. At the FIRST Robotics competition I attended this weekend, facts were presented. The facts are that America has fallen far behind in science education. Decades of fighting the pointless battle of Creationism at the highest political level in this country have weakened us. Those who study the Bible seriously do not question evolution. Those who study science at all cannot seriously question it. Those who do dig trenches of doubt in the minds of generations of Americans with an already inadequate understanding of science and suggest that maybe there is reason to find an atheistic plot behind evolution. There is no plot, only facts. And if New Jersey is about to join the Kansases, Arkansases, and Texases that see big cars, big oil, and big daddies as the solution to our social ills, it may be time to move to New Hampshire.

When Your World Rocks

The prophet Amos famously dates his oracles as “two years before the earthquake.” In ancient times (and some modern, dimly lit regions of some religious minds) earthquakes were thought to be signs of divine displeasure. We lost that naïve, magical view with the discovery of tectonic plates and fault zones, but it is hard not to take earthquakes personally. A third major earthquake of the year hit Turkey on Sunday, leaving further human distress in its wake. While scientists assure us that earthquakes are not increasing in frequency, we nevertheless hear more and more about them.

Although we have the technology to build earthquake-proof buildings, the nations suffering from the recent quakes do not have the luxury of ensuring that those who live around fault zones all have housing to withstand that unsuspected temblor. Those who cannot afford high cost housing are fated to be victims. We don’t cause the earthquakes, but we can ensure that affluent cities will withstand them. Haiti, Chile, and Turkey seem a long way distant.

Whose fault is it anyway?

Scanning the unfair distribution of wealth across the world, it is far easier to see an angry god behind an earthquake than it is to relinquish our personal gain. Perhaps it is a result of our biological urge to survive that we constantly seek to increase our own advantage while shaking our heads sadly as people we don’t know become the victims. Meanwhile neo-cons and prosperity gospelers bray loudly that wealth is their god’s reward for lives of righteousness in this wicked world. It is a scenario worthy of Amos himself.

Neo-Cons and Mockingbirds

Among my high school catch-up reading is one of my favorite novels, required in my own youth, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. While a certain distress accompanies the fact that I read this book over thirty years ago, as I reintroduce myself to the welcoming characters of Scout, Jem, and Dill, I lament that there is so much to read that we can’t simply linger on the great works of literature we’ve loved before. Reading the novel as an adult there is much, I am certain, that I missed the first time around, not knowing what to expect as I approached the story with no preconceived notions.

One of the constant stresses I lay on my students is how the Bible utterly suffuses American society. We are bombarded by Bible, whether we know it or not. It was with appreciation, therefore, that I saw the exchange between Scout Finch and Miss Maudie in chapter five. Miss Maudie, complaining that “foot-washing Baptists” take the Bible a little too literally, declares, “but sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of – oh, of your father.” (The incongruous image of Atticus Finch drinking whiskey is not lost on his young daughter.) This statement summarizes much that is true in today’s society as is evident in Max Blumenthal’s Republican Gomorrah. Many Americans create an idolized image of the Bible that is used to gain control over others. When such individuals gain political power everyone else is at risk.

In the backlash to having a moderate man elected to the presidency, the news is full of biblically constricted complainers who fear the impotence of the Bible. Their fears are unfounded. Our society has been constructed on foundation blocks of biblical literalism and although the superstructure is unaware of it, the Bible continues to root many Americans firmly to their planet. The “founding fathers” were not Christians, but many of their country-folk, Puritans and others fleeing the formalized religions of Europe, were. The aggregate of their descendants has been tapped successfully by neo-con politicians to win elections and referenda around the nation. There is no end in sight. If only the wisdom of Miss Maudie were taken a little more seriously, we might have a chance to move beyond the illusion of a pristine yesteryear that never was.

Killing me biblically

Rushing in Where Angels Fear to Tread

As my daughter’s public school undertakes its humble efforts to raise funds for the devastated nation of Haiti, contributing the little that unemployed children can raise, Rush Limbaugh unapologetically proclaims that Americans shouldn’t contribute to the earthquake relief. The New Jersey Star-Ledger notes that on Wednesday Limbaugh declared that Americans already support Haiti through their tax dollars and shouldn’t feel the need to contribute anything beyond that to the poorest nation in our hemisphere. This is true Christianity, according to the Neo-Con gospel.

Rush Limbaugh basks in the limelight as the outspoken representative of the “Gott und Ich” school of religious politics. With an estimated annual salary around the $400 million mark, Limbaugh comfortably sits back and watches the world burn around him. Together with James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and others who support the new, compassionless version of Christianity (Christianity 2.0), they inveigh directly into the ears of high-ranking politicians with coarse voices declaring that God wills for them to be the sole arbiters of what is right. I only hope that Americans are really listening. Really listening.

Religion has always been a form of social control. From earliest times, those who claim to know the will of the gods tell others what they need to do to placate the angry deities that hover all around. Earthquakes are the work of such angry gods. What do they demand? Listen to your local priest. America has been beset with a plague of Religious Right voices that are well-funded and so parsimonious that seldom can the gentle voice of reason be heard. While Limbaugh enjoys his enormous wealth kids who have never known anything like basic comfort are dying in the thousands in a nation right next door. And the people say, “Amen.”

We Don’t Need Another Bible

This podcast addresses the issue of agenda-driven Bible translation. Although all translators, being human, have agendas, typically they are for the advancement of knowledge. The news about Conservapedia’s Conservative Bible Project suggests that progress should be turned back to the first century and fast-forwarded to the Neo-Con agenda. The trend is disturbing because not many Americans have the essential background to assess critically whether Bibles are translated with serious scholarly intent or not. The ten principles of conservative Bible translation from Andrew Schlafly’s Conservapedia are examined.