Science funding shouldn’t depend on ignorance

Physics World editor Hamish Johnston blogged about the difficulty of public perception, research funding, and scientists commenting on God and religion in the public square. Most recently, Stephen Hawking spoke out about M-theory making God unnecessary. From Johnston’s blog:

There is just one tiny problem with all this – there is currently little experimental evidence to back up M-theory. In other words, a leading scientist is making a sweeping public statement on the existence of God based on his faith in an unsubstantiated theory.

I could see why Johnston was concerned. A BBC video, linked in the Physics World post, had this in the descriptive text:

Theoretical physicist and cosmologist Stephen Hawking has said that he sees no necessity for God in the creation of the universe and that philosophy is dead.

Things like this just make me shake my head. Hawking is so, so brilliant, but perhaps not very wise.

Johnston’s concern was driven by the possible adverse effect such pronouncements could have on science:

Physicists need the backing of the British public to ensure that the funding cuts don’t hit them disproportionately. This could be very difficult if the public think that most physicists spend their time arguing about what unproven theories say about the existence of God.

I know he’s right. Personally, I find this situation both sad and frustrating. That science’s direction and funding can be at the whim of the public; that scientists and philosophers don’t speak of and to each other with respect; that willfully ignorant people end up pitting people of good will against each other (read the comments in any blog touching both science and religion)—this kind of particularly human screwball black comedy just seems, well, wrong. I know, I know—I’m not the only one.

I commented, of course. Here’s what I said, for what it’s worth (the comment was still in moderation as of this writing):

Personally, I wish science fell into the same category as infrastructure and education when it came to funding: a must-have, something without which a society cannot thrive.

I have no problem with Hawking or anyone else pronouncing on God or religion. They are scientists, so I take their opinions in this area to be that of lay people in the field, much as my opinion in it is. I’m not offended, but I do wish they would formulate such comments with more of a “it’s my opinion that [insert sweeping religious view here]” attitude.

The same goes for evangelicals and fundamentalists of any religion who proclaim their ignorance of science loudly and proudly. Please, take a moment to reflect. Surely a creative God would want his thinking creations to view his work accurately and clearly, and support an unflinching, honest appreciation and understanding of the universe? What artist doesn’t want their craft appreciated? Therefore, fund science! Promote it! Support it in the name of understanding the world God gave you clearly and without fear.


It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief

The New York Times’s Nicholas Kristof put the fear of Islam into a historical context in his latest column, Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? He pointed out the many times U.S. citizens have rallied against various religious or national groups, using much of the same language used today when speaking about followers of Islam.

Sadly, many of the comments seem oblivious to his point, and actually repeat the very mistake he’s pointing out. So I had to comment myself:

Religions go in cycles. There was a time not too many centuries ago when Islam was a more tolerant religion than Christianity – when Jews sought refuge in places like Turkey to escape the Inquisition.

I keep reading comments that argue Islam is different from Christianity and Judaism because it is “political” and seeks to harm us. Clearly these people have forgotten that Christianity and Judaism have extremely active political elements in the U.S., and that there are many countries who presently have some flavor of Christianity as a state religion. Clearly they’ve forgotten the Christian element in Ireland’s decades of terrorism, or abortion clinic attacks, or the mostly Protestant KKK (mind, most Protestants do not support the KKK – but most KKK members believe a Christian God is on their side).

While the United States may pride itself on constitutional separation of church and state, the reality is very different, as we can see from the constant efforts by a vocal minority of U.S. Christians to inject their version of Christian concepts and language into law, government buildings, and schools.

I’m also a little disheartened by those claiming that religion as a whole is dangerous. People can be broken and dangerous with or without religion (e.g., Stalin was an atheist, KKK members are primarily Christian), and outstandingly good with or without religion (Desmond Tutu and Clarence Darrow). Danger occurs when people use any institution, be it church or state, to rationalize and cloak sloppy thinking and fear-driven bigotry.

It’s not what you believe, it’s what you do with your belief.

Kristof, N. Is Islamophobia the new hysteria? The New York Times, 7 Sep. 2010.


Alex O’Neal, as heard on the BBC

After the longest break in the 10+ year history of the alexfiles, I’m back. Today’s post is atypically personal, but I think the event is unusual enough to warrant it. I was on the BBC! (for about 60 seconds or so).

The back story: The Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr Rowan Williams) recently stated that perhaps a small dose of Muslim arbitration, following Sharia law in a limited manner, might help Muslims integrate into British society.

There was a huge cry of outrage from many online, who immediately envisioned hands getting chopped off and the introduction of religious law into the UK. This was my comment:

Something that would offer both acknowledgment of different cultures and remove divisiveness might be offering all options for dispute resolution to all people. So you could have a limited Sharia law “court,” and a state court, and a Christian court, and whatever else seemed appropriate. All of these options could be made available to anyone, so long as they agreed to abide by it and not switch on the same dispute if they were unhappy (the exception being the state, which could be an ultimate appeal system).

Knowing that options were available would encourage people to better understand other denominations, and those occasions (probably a small minority) when people chose to be tried outside their denomination would help the courts maintain an open-minded perspective.

You could limit such options to religions taking up a minimum of 10% or more of the population, so there aren’t too many to deal with.

Wish we had that here.

I was unable to find my comment online later, and thought perhaps it got missed in the updates. Then, today, the BBC Have Your Say people called me and invited me onto the show! They said my comment reflected an unusual viewpoint, and they thought it would be useful in this “worldwide discussion.” (Flattery will get you everywhere, BBC :–) They interviewed me briefly, then called me two hours later when they were airing. I didn’t get to say much, but Bart says I repahsented appropriately (“clear, succint, and insightful”). It was brief, but fun.

At some point the podcast should appear on the BBC, but I don’t know when.


A respectful dissent

Comment left in response to Salon article “The Jesus Symbol, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

I’m not particularly invested in the Christianity of Narnia—I enjoyed them while an atheist as well as a Christian—but I know the books and Lewis deeply and the arguments used here to make them non-Christian are somewhat misleading. Comments come not just from myself, but my husband, Bart Odom, who holds a PhD in religious studies from the University of Virginia, so we’re writing to straighten out some theological/Narnia issues. The mistakes are basic ones, common to people who speak from their personal understanding, and not from rigorous theological study.

I will list my husband’s comments first, with my bracketed Lewis/Narnia notes where appropriate.

“Whenever a professed Christian feels he must create some wholly other world to explore the meaning of his religion, he is flirting with bad faith.”

A wholly other world is the perfect place to explore, with a tabula rasa, the meaning of one’s religion, a way to try to avoid entanglements with one’s own life and the actual events of the world we live in. In short, it is a good faith way to avoid invidious associations and roman a clefcharacters, to minimize one’s own prejudices about the world. Bad faith would only enter if the nature of the other world were contrived to facilitate proseletyzing or apologetics.

Including “the make-believes of other religions” is polytheism.

Not polytheism but inclusivism or pluralism. What it excludes is the odor of Christian exclusivism. [Personally, I find the phrase “make-believes” shows that same unpleasant exclusivity.]

Werewolves, the White Witch, etc., display Manichaean dualism.

It is not obvious that werewolves etc are evil per se. They are what they are. The assumption that they are evil is itself a Manichaean one, grounded in the belief that one is on “God’s side” and can make such a judgment. The White Witch is not necessarily Satan and Satan is not an independent entity. If Christians believe these things, they are in heresy, but most Christians have a proper understanding of the situation. [Those who believe in Satan believe in an ultimate fallen entity. Satan is not placed on a level with God or Jesus except by Satanists; to Christians, he is better equated with the Archangel Michael.

Re: Narnia in this context. The White Witch is a created being, perhaps the character Jadis from another book in the series, who has set herself in opposition to God’s will through pride. Lewis never portrays evil on a level with Aslan. Like Christ on the cross, Aslan is always ahead of the game, even when the most powerful fallen creature, the White Witch, seems to have won.]

Belief in Satan is heretical.

Satan tempts Christ, is rebuked by him; demons possess people. This is in the canonical Christian scriptures, and can therefore hardly be said to be heresy.

Exercising free will in opposition to God is the cause of evil.

This is by no means the only, or even an adequate account of why evil arises, and what God’s responsibility in the existence of evil is. The entire vexed field of theodicy deals with this issue. Moreover, the “free will” argument ignores the Luther’s insight of the bondage of the will, as well as the doctrine of original sin.

Creating a Secondary World…is in effect a declaration that God’s creation is deficient.

No, it is a technique of fantasy fiction, and a way of communicating a message indirectly that cannot be communicated directly, as Kierkegaard believed was true of the Christian kerygma….What do preachers do each Sunday but convey the gospels in a different way?

Relocating the Christian story in a different place is wrong and Lewis thought so.

The point is that the Christian story is universal and can be visualized in many ways without losing its identity. After all, it has escaped first century Judea and is still going after 2000 years, in a vastly different setting. The Christian story is sui generis, unlike Fenimore Cooper or any other literature.

Lewis challenges our level of responsibility, and this is the real problem Goldthwaite and others have, I think. Lewis felt Christianity to be a very demanding religion, and his work reflects that. These are not simplistic, good vs. evil stories unless you’re not paying attention. There is an us vs. them quality, but “them” is a concept that changes as people gain and lose faith for a variety of reasons. God asks more and more of Lewis’s characters, and one of the more difficult questions Lewis asks is how to answer that need.

A major theme is Lewis’s awareness of our responsibility for creatures other than our species. The children come into the world because to Lewis, humans are made to be stewards of the world, and as “sons of Adam and daughters of Eve,” these children must take stewardship of Narnia. The White Witch is a daughter of Lilith, and not the “true” steward. Whether God put us in charge or not, our own power over the environment makes us de facto responsible for our world. So soon after the introduction of the atomic bomb, in a world where industry’s rape of the planet was beginning to show, Lewis’s non-humans teach children that they have responsibilities beyond people. As a lion, Aslan was also making a point about Christ being over all of creation, not just humans. This is not the work of a man withdrawing from the world, but a man using his best skills to exhort people to act responsibly for a world worth saving.

And here I will write as a Christian: if to write Christianly is to write solely about the world we know, then we must ignore one of the greatest gifts we have: imagination. I do not think such a gift would be given lightly. I would think Goldthwaite, as a Christian, might consider that.


Why anti-gay, anti-ECUSA sentiment is misplaced

Note: This blog (and a few others along similar lines) resulted in my losing my position as network administrator for Christ Church Episcopal in Plano, Texas. So you have a picture of the place, Christ Church is the most-attended Episcopal parish in the US, with a commensurately large staff and campus, and from what I’ve seen is already run differently from traditional Episcopal practices; the sermons don’t follow liturgical readings, and it’s pretty evangelical. Also, the Cardinal Rector established the parish himself, rather than being hired by church members to serve at an existing parish. It’s therefore formed very close to his personal beliefs, and is almost a “cult of personality,” in the words of a local priest. In other words, this is not “Catholic Lite,” but closer to its Protestant brethren.But I’m better off. Any “Christian” group that promotes exclusion is nothing of the kind.

This is a response to the conservatives outraged by the election of the Rev. Canon Gene Robinson to Bishop Coadjutor in the Episcopal Church. The ratification of Bishop Robinson in New Hampshire has provided an opportunity for exclusivity and self-aggrandizement in many conservative parishes. Mind, I think most of those involved are sincere in their beliefs, however mistaken; it’s the people leading the movement whose motives I distrust. For a succinct explanation for this mistrust, see this quote from philosopher Richard Rorty:

The Protestant and Catholic churches of Western Europe did not exactly make war on the Jews during the nineteenth and early twentieth century. But they did keep up a steady barrage of contempt, combined with support for politicians running on anti-Semitic platforms, and with silence concerning the sadistic pogroms-cum-gang-rapes which provided weekend amusement for the devoutly religious peasants of Central and Eastern Europe. After the Holocaust, these churches fell all over themselves expounding the difference between their own religiously based anti-Semitism and the Nazis’ racially based anti-Semitism. But the Jews have had difficulty appreciating this distinction. They think, correctly in my opinion, that if the Christian clergy had, in the century or so before Hitler, simply ceased to mention the Jews in their sermons, the Holocaust could not have happened.

There is, after all, not much basis for anti-Semitism in the Christian Scriptures. Its prominent role in the history of Christianity is the contribution of Christian ecclesiastical organizations. Those organizations would not have been unfaithful to Scripture if they had abstained from incitement to contempt and to sadistic brutality against Jews, but they would have lacked a way of bolstering the bigoted exclusivism that was one of their chief sources of money and power….

…Many gays and lesbians who are themselves religious believers might well agree…that the homophobes have the right to bring religious reasons into the public square in order to urge the passage of laws to ensure that homosexuals cannot get married, can be discriminated against in employment and housing, and can be arrested for having sex. But they find it strange that such a large proportion of time, money and energy of the Christian churches in the U.S. is devoted to this purpose. They are struck by the fact that religious reasons are now pretty much the only reasons brought forward in favor of treating them with contempt. Except for the mindless gay-bashing thugs, their fellow-churchgoers are the only people who still think that sodomy is a big deal. So gays and lesbians might reasonably conclude that the reason Christian pulpits have becomne the principal source of homophobia is the same as the reason that they were the principal source of European anti-Semitism—namely, that encouraging exclusivist bigotry brings money and power to ecclesiastical organizations.

From Religion in the Public Square: A Reconsideration, by Richard Rorty. Spring 2003, Journal of Religious Ethics 31.1:141-149.

Click on a topic to see the response:

  1. It’s against the teachings of the Episcopal Church.
  2. It’s against the teachings of the Bible.
  3. A gay bishop will not be able to teach the value of a traditional (heterosexual) marriage. Also, some dioceses are already refusing to ordain priests who believe only a traditional union is a valid one.
  4. A gay priest taints the priesthood, and seriously undermines or outright invalidates any sacraments or other priestly work he performs.
  5. While the quiet ordination of homosexual priests is tolerable, the open confirmation of a bishop will hurt the Church spiritually and in the eyes of the public.
  6. The majority of church members are anti-homosexual and will leave. Also, if we accept the majority are anti-homosexual, shouldn’t the bishops obey the masses?
  7. Even without Biblical support, homosexuality is just unnatural and therefore wrong.
  8. It will make the work of the clergy more difficult.
  9. We do not want to appear aligned with other groups supporting homosexual rights.

  1. It’s against the teachings of the Episcopal Church.

    Slowly but surely, the Episcopal church has been reforming its views and treatment of homosexual church members. The process has been remarkably similar to the change of policy for the ordination of female priests, which also threatened a split in the church in the 1970’s.

    From the 1976 General Convention:

    Resolution A-69: It is the sense of this General Convention that homosexual persons are children of God who have a full and equal claim with all other persons upon the love, acceptance, and
    pastoral concern and care of the Church.

    Resolution A-71: This General Convention expresses its conviction that homosexual persons are entitled to equal protection of the laws with all other citizens, and calls upon our society to see that such protection is provided in actuality.

    In 1990 Bishop Righter ordained a priest in an openly gay committed relationship, and a hearing was called to determine if this was heresy. The charges were dismissed, and more openly homosexual priests were allowed to be ordained.

    In 1993 Bishop Otis Charles of Utah came out after his retirement, and spoke movingly of feeling “diminished” by the Church, particularly during the debates on the issue. In accordance with accepted theology dating back to St. Augustine, that Charles had hidden his homosexuality could not invalidate his work as a bishop; the personal lifestyle or sanctity of clergy cannot invalidate the sacraments they perform.

    In 1994 88 bishops signed a statement that gay men, living in committed relationships “marked by faithfulness and life-giving holiness” should be allowed ordination.

    So it seems that the Episcopal Church has been accepting gay men into the priesthood for some time; what’s changed now?

  2. It’s against the teachings of the Bible.

    This is the argument of “Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve.” Many scriptural references used in this argument do not even mention homosexuality. Instead, they exhort the reader against impurity, idolatry, obscenity, and so forth. The classification of homosexuality as part of the impure behavior is recent, and begs the question. There is a passage in Paul, 1 Corinthians 6:9, specifically mentioning “homosexual offenders”; but this is the same letter in which Paul says that women should cover their heads when praying, but men should not, because man “is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man.” Paul’s attitude on gender and homosexuality was an uncritical acceptance of the culture of his time and place. How can we uncritically accept such cultural relics? Why is it okay to leave behind some, and retain others?

    You will hear people offering the following quote from Jesus:

    Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill. For assuredly, I say to you, till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle will by no means pass from the law till all is fulfilled. (Matthew 5:17-18)

    However, the quotes from Paul are not part of the law of which Jesus speaks. As well, cultural change has been accepted in changing the law. What Episcopalian—or any Christian—do you know that walks 30 paces outside the community to bury their feces, or quarantines women during menstruation? Yet these are “jots” of the law. We choose what to retain and what to discard in the spirit of the law.

  3. A gay bishop will not be able to teach the value of a traditional (heterosexual) marriage. Also, some dioceses are already refusing to ordain priests who believe only a traditional union is a valid one.

    This is another instance of begging the question, so let’s take it from two possible answering views:

    • Only heterosexual marriage is acceptable and right. In this instance, a gay bishop is no less capable of teaching about traditional marriage than a celibate bishop.
    • The important aspect of marriage is faithful and loving commitment in the eyes of God, not the gender of those involved. Using this, we describe a nun as “marrying” Christ. And this is a telling description, because marriage is very similar to faith, and teaches a great deal about faith to the participants. It is an act of free will, dedicating yourself to something more than yourself, allowing you to demonstrate faith in almost every aspect of your life. (I do not speak solely of religious faith here. Faith is an act applied to ourselves, others, God, science, nations, ideologies, art, and much more.) To refuse the opportunity to partake and learn from marriage to people who could not choose their sexuality is not only exclusive and narrow, but cruel.
  4. A gay priest taints the priesthood, and seriously undermines or outright invalidates any sacraments or other priestly work he performs.

    Some time ago this question was addressed by the early Christians. Some believed that sacraments performed by sinful priests were not valid. The “founding fathers,” who realized that there were no perfect priests (or anyone else, for that matter), decided that the office was sacred even if the person was not. In other words, not the priest but God made the sacrament valid.

    A priest wrote a letter to the editor of BBC News addressing just this, and explained it very well indeed:

    To oppose Canon Robinson’s consecration is one thing; but to declare his ministry invalid is, quite technically, schismatic if not heretical. Ever since the Donatist movement in the 4th century, the main body of the church has held, that the moral character of a minister has no effect on the validity of his sacramental ministry. Some conservatives seem to be willing to jettison any article of the faith rather than their negative view of homosexuality.

    From Have Your Say: Can Anglicans resolve the gay clergy row?, letter from the Rev. Tobias Haller, U.S.A. BBC News UK edition,

  5. While the quiet ordination of homosexual priests is tolerable, the open confirmation of a bishop will hurt the Church spiritually and in the eyes of the public.

    The question is not what is perceived by the public, but what is right. If it is right to include homosexual men and women in the priesthood and to bless their unions, then it would be a deep spiritual wound to resist that. If it’s wrong, but done in the belief it is right, then the Church’s spirituality is still intact because they are doing the best they can. The community of leaders in the Church are not making this decision because it’s a popular one.

  6. The majority of church members are anti-homosexual and will leave. Also, if we accept the majority are anti-homosexual, shouldn’t the bishops obey the masses?

    The Church is not a democracy and never has been. At no point has the majority opinion been recommended as the best way to decide the ethics of an issue.

    Some people will leave. Some people will stay and learn. Some will join. None of these actions should determine the moral decision made by the bishops.

  7. Even without Biblical support, homosexuality is just unnatural and therefore wrong.

    Let’s examine the word “unnatural,” which has several meanings. The first, against natural law, would seem to imply this is a result of environment over genetic tendencies. Yet there are animal species displaying bisexual and homosexual behavior, measurable neurological differences between homosexual and heterosexual men, and twin studies which show identical twins are more likely to have the same sexual orientation than fraternal twins.

    The next, inconsistent or deviating from accepted customs or social norms, is applicable in some cultures but not others. Previous societies did not define “gay” and “straight” as we do, and in fact many societies took homosexuality and bisexuality as a matter of course. The behavior was used as a bond between military men, as a means for younger men/women to gain access to levels of society older men/women controlled, and promoted a society less likely to have internal conflict and more interested in supporting each other.

    Since sexual orientation is innate, it’s clearly not unnatural in the sense of contrived or artificial. Likewise, the last definition of unnatural, inhuman, or violating natural human emotion, has no application to a widespread, innate tendency with social value in those societies accepting it.

  8. It will make the work of the clergy more difficult.

    The Episcopal clergy should already have been dealing with these issues. In 1985 the 68th General Convention urged “each diocese of this Church to find an effective way to foster a better understanding of homosexual persons, to dispel myths and prejudices about homosexuality….” In 1988 the General Convention asked the clergy to speak out against violence against gays, and also to bear witness against the concept that AIDS is a punishment from God.

    In 1994 the Standing Commission on Human Affairs reported to the General Convention that “…In this Decade of Evangelism, we seem intent on alienating and keeping out one of the few identifiable groups of people who want to be welcomed in.” Going a step further, they asked that the church promote understanding of homosexuality, actively fight against local attempts to marginalize homosexuals, openly deplore “gay-bashing,” and call to task members promoting an anti-tolerant view.

    Apart from all of the above, when was it ever thought the work of the clergy was, or should be, made easier? Being Christ-like does not mean taking the comfortable way out on ethical issues….

  9. We do not want to appear aligned with other groups supporting homosexual rights.

    Appearances, like the opinions of the majority, should not be a deciding factor in determining the “rightness” of an issue.