Chris O’Brien at Antiquity!

My online access to Antiquity has a 6 month lag and my library doesn’t have the summer edition yet, but I have it on good authority that our friend and fellow blogger, Chris O’Brien of Northstate Science has been quoted by Martin Carver, editor of this premier journal of archaeology.

Martin Rundkvist at Aardvarchaeology, who reads Antiquity at the beach (*my* wife would sooner permit Maxim or Playboy, so kudos to Mrs. R.!) has posted a quote or two from Carver that mentions Chris’ blog, Northstate Science, and his posts on creationism:

Here is Christopher O’Brien, a Forest Archaeologist in northern California, bravely setting out our stall : Just like other disciplines, he says, “archaeology is being used and abused by creationists of all stripes. It’s time to start pointing out the falsehoods.

I’ll leave the remainder to Martins Carver and Rundkvist -I just wanted to give a taste so that you would follow the links to these to great blogs, the kind I aspire to have HoJ rise to. And pick up a copy of Antiquity at your local library when it becomes available.

Here’s my post at Aardvarchaeology:

It’s always good for the blogosphere to have a journal cite a blog post, but it’s GREAT that it was Chris’ post at Northstate cited by Antiquity! I don’t know about other bloggers, but I always have that nagging fear that what I’m doing amounts to just so much graffiti. So when I get an occasional word of praise or link from another blog, its motivational.

I couldn’t begin to know what the feeling is like to have Antiquity quote me!

Well, done Chris!

Playing God? Life Created in the Laboratory


Newsweek’s Cover story is about abiogenesis and synthesis of self-replicating organisms. I just finished reading this article online [NewsWeek at MSNBC.Com] and noticed that PZ Myers has a post on it already. Before I read his, I thought I’d post a quick review of the article with a few quotes and encourage others to check it out.

The Newsweek article’s author refers to biological researchers concerned with creating life synthetically as “SynBio practitioners,” giving the field a near religious moniker. The article was informative but the slant seemed decidedly against science in this regard, going out of its way to point out the “dangers” and “immorality” of research in this field:

Despite the opposition, the researchers who work in the field, which is known as Synthetic Biology, have a disarming casualness about their work—almost as though they were building machines, rather than living things.

And,

Like most biologists, SynBio practitioners have a more materialist view of life. “Life is not magic,” says Princeton’s Ron Weiss, an electrical engineer who now concentrates on genetic programming of cells. He thinks older biologists like Kass have not kept up with advances in science. Of course, SynBio scientists haven’t quite proven that a cell is a kind of biochemical machine, and religious biologists like Kass and Collins hang on tightly to this uncertainty. Proof will come when the first discrete, self-maintaining, self-replicating, stable organic creature—Life 2.0—is created from scratch in the lab.

And, of course, the very lead in for the magazine is the cover, which has “Playing God” in big, bold type. Then the subtitle of the article reads, “[a] new generation of scientific mavericks is not content to merely tinker with life’s genetic code. They want to rewrite it from scratch.”

It benefits a magazine like Newsweek, of course, to use lead-ins and call-outs that hook the reader by highlighting the controversial aspects. They’ll already have the attention of those interested in the science behind the story, but such editorial strategies will ensure that those that question the research will read as well. So I really can’t fault Newsweek much for playing both sides of the fence. Particularly when they include many positive aspects of the research as well:

A few projects are already giving us a glimpse of the power of this new field. The most extraordinary effort is to create a microbial organism that would produce a powerful antimalarial drug.

And,

Christopher Voigt, of UC San Francisco, and Christina Smolke, of Caltech, are in the early stages of designing microbes that would circulate through the human bloodstream, seeking out cancerous tumors anywhere in the body. The microbes might be equipped with a biodevice that detects the low oxygen levels characteristic of a tumor, another that invades the cancer cells, a third that generates a toxin to kill the cells and a fourth that hangs around afterward in case the cancer comes back.

And,

Venter and Church are eyeing an even bigger prize: a self-sustaining, highly efficient biological organism that converts sunlight directly into clean biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases.

So maybe those skeptical because of religious reasons will see what they came for: like minded scientists that dissent from the research (albeit a small minority). But, at the same time, maybe some will be swayed by the benefits and begin to question their dogmatic opposition.

Related Links:
Silver, Lee (2007) Life 2.0:
A new generation of scientific mavericks is not content to merely tinker with life’s genetic code. They want to rewrite it from scratch. Newsweek, found on the web at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18882828/site/newsweek/

The Archaeology of Exodus

According to the Biblical account, Passover commemorates the Exodus of the Israelites who gained their freedom by escaping their enslavement by the Pharaoh of Egypt. For most Christians, this weekend is significant for Easter, which marks the death and resurrection of Jesus. I suppose I could write a whole blog post on just the pagan origins of Easter and the non-Christian aspects of celebrating spring festivals involving the goddess Eostre or Ishtar, but I’ll abstain from anthropological discussion and stick to archaeology.

Passover and Easter coincide and are different holidays, but its the source of Passover that I’m interested in today. Passover and Seder, which follows, are fascinating and, as religious holidays go, among my favorite even though I’m neither Jewish nor a believer. Regardless of whether or not these holidays and their rituals are based in factual events, to me, is irrelevant to the fact that they provide a very valid and purposeful reason to bring family and close friends together. To me, this is rarely a bad thing.

Having said that, however, I’ve long been fascinated by the story that inspired Passover. A story that has been integral to Judeo-Christian mythology and often taken literally by fundamentalists. Moreover, its a story, alleged to have occurred nearly 4,000 years ago, that has probably contributed greatly to the current crises in the Middle East, specifically the Palestine/Israel conflict.

Below the fold is my discussion on Exodus and what can be said archaeologically about it, based mostly on the work of Finklestein and Silberman, cited below.

The Biblical Claim
The claim is, in a nutshell, this: 600,000 “children of Israel” escaped from Egypt where they were the slaves of the pharaoh. These Israelites were chased by the pharaoh’s armies who were unable to catch them. The entire band of 600,000 former slaves “wandered” the desert, camping at various locations, encountering various peoples and kingdoms, and finally settled to form a new nation. All of this occurred, ostensibly, in the 15th century BCE. We “know” this because I Kings 6:1 tells us Solomon’s temple was constructed in the 4th year of his rule, 480 years after Exodus. 966 BCE + 480 years = 1446 BCE.

Exodus 1:11 mentions two cities of Egypt: Pi-Ramesses and Pithom as forced labor projects of the Israelites. The first pharaoh named Ramesses is the son of Seti I and reigns in the year 1320 BCE, so even the 480 years of I Kings doesn’t work. Pi-Ramesses was built in the Nile Delta during the reign of Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE) and Egyptian records indicate Semites were used in its construction.

Who Were the Hyksos?
Often in discussions of Exodus and Israelites in Egypt, the Hyksos come into the picture. This is because the Hyksos were Semite in origin, specifically Canaanite. The same progenitor peoples of the modern day Israelites and Palestinians. The Nile Delta, a.k.a. Lower Egypt, was frequently inhabited by migrating peoples and nomads who sought to find refuge in the relatively stable delta ecology, particularly in times of drought and famine. From about 1668 – 1565 BCE, Canaanites occupied the Delta and ruled Lower Egypt. Manethos referred to the them as heku-shoswet, and, Hellenized, it became “Hyksos,” which means rulers of a foreign land. This later became a general Egyptian term for Asiatic foreigners.

The Hyksos had a distinctive Canaanite pottery and architecture, which is present in the archaeological record and, according to the Turin Papyrus, they ruled Lower Egypt for 108 years. One of the most prominent of their rulers was Apophis and their capital was Avaris, known today as the archaeological site Tell Daba’a.

Pharaoh Ahmose I (18th Dynasty) sacked Avaris and chased the Hyksos to southern Canaan to their fortress, Sharuhen near modern day Gaza. Ahmose laid siege to the fortress for three years before he stormed it.

From that point, the Egyptians maintained tight control of the border between Eastern Egypt and Canaan.

For those that are quick to pick up on the similarities of the Hyksos and the Exodus tale, it’s important to note that the dates also don’t line up with the I Kings account and the difference is more than 130 years. Moreover, there is no “Ramesses” for whom a city can be named at this point. Though, the correlation is one to not be quickly dismissed.

What if the Exodus Story Were Concocted?
What if, indeed? Why concoct such a tale and how would we know it was either concocted or true. Believers in Christianity and Judaism assign varying degrees of trust in Old Testament mythology: some willing to accept it as myth at one extreme; others taking great umbrage to the use of the term “myth” at the other.

But if we hypothesize for a moment that the Exodus narrative (I’ll stick to this term) is one that was invented by the authors of Genesis, then what might we expect to find to corroborate the hypothesis?

First, we might expect that narrative be limited to only what the authors knew. Assuming that they didn’t have Iron Age archaeologists excavating sites, we can assume that their knowledge was limited to the geography and politics of their time.

Second, if the narrative is an invented one, we would fail to see corroboration in Egyptian texts of it.

Third, if, indeed, this is a narrative invented by a much later author or set of authors, we would not expect to find archaeological evidence that supports it.

Guess What?
The sites mentioned in Exodus are real.

The problem is this: the sites mentioned were sparsely populated by a few pastoralists or otherwise completely unoccupied during the alleged period that Exodus occurred in the Late Bronze Age (13th century BCE). A few were well-known and occupied much earlier and certainly much later than the Late Bronze Age, but during the Exodus period, nada. They were unoccupied at precisely the time they were reported to be by Exodus.

Not only that, but Egyptian texts don’t mention “Israelites” at all. If 600,000 slaves escaped the pharaoh, they were so stealthy they slipped past all the border stations that were put into place following the Hyksos expulsion, snuck past each of the fortifications used to supply soldiers along the “Ways of Horus,” the 250 km route between Egypt and Gaza. And they successfully eluded Egyptian soldiers that were already present in Canaan, which was controlled by Egypt from the 13th through the 7th centuries BCE. The only mention of “Israel” is on the Merneptah Stele where Merneptah (1213-1203 BCE) boasts that “Isrir lies in waste its seed no more.” The lack of a country determinative in the hieroglyphs clearly indicates Merneptah was referring to a people not a country and the depiction of the Israelites on the stele was consistent with Canaanite hair style.

Addressing the third point above, regarding archaeological evidence, it must be recognized that there has been extensive work done in archaeology in the Levant, particularly in the Sinai desert where the “children of Israel” (all 600,000 of them) were said to “wander.” Biblical stories are very much responsible for this archaeology as “biblical archaeologists,” searched -and still search- for evidence that supports their beliefs.

600,000 Wandering Jews?
Let’s put the number into perspective. Fresno and Mission Viejo, both in California have populations of 500,000. Bakersfield is only 250,000. Vancouver, Canada has a population of 600,000.

Not a single archaeological expedition, and there have been a great many, has discovered evidence of any substantial group of people subsisting off of the land in the Sinai desert or in or near any of the sites mentioned in Exodus. According to the biblical narrative, the equivalent of the population of Vancouver was moving around and camping in the desert for 40 years. Not only were they stealthy (not encountering the Egyptian armies who recorded even encounters with a few nomadic pastoralists tending their flocks); but they were frugal! Not a single pot sherd has been found!

Not a single campsite or site of occupation has been found with the exception of the well-documented coastal forts and stations of the Egyptian army for the period of Ramesses II or for any of his immediate predecessors or successors. There have been repeated archaeological excavations at the site of St. Catherine’s Monastary in the Sinai, where Moses is supposed to have spoken to a burning bush, but the results have always been negative evidence. Not a single sherd or indication that the site was occupied in the Late Bronze Age. Modern archaeological techniques can trace the remains of hunter-gather and pastoral nomads all over the world, but cannot find a population the size of that of Vancouver in a barren desert! Indeed, the activity of a small population of pastoralists is present in the 3rd millennium (2000-3000) BCE, as well as in the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods. But the evidence is NON-EXISTENT for the Late Bronze Age.

Tell Arad
East of Beersheba there is the remains of a great Early Bronze Age city that spans about 25 acres. A “tell” is a mound of past human habitation that has since eroded from mud bricks to a pile of dirt, often built upon again and again over many generations. This tell also became an Iron Age fort, but there are no remains for the Late Bronze Age when Exodus is alleged to have happened.

This directly contradicts the biblical narrative since the king of Arad “who dwelt in the Negeb” attacked the Israelites who appealed for divine intervention to destroy the Canaanite cities (Num. 21:1-3). There’s no evidence of Arad anywhere in the Beersheba valley (Negeb).

Tell Heshban
The wandering Jews supposedly did battle here with the Ammorite king, Sihon, who tried to block there passage (Num. 21:21-25). Excavations here reveal NO Bronze Age city. Not even a village.

Eddom and Ammon were alleged to be full-fledge states ruled by kings on the Transjordan plateau, yet the evidence shows that the plateau was sparsely inhabited by pastoralist populations in the Bronze Age. Not a single sedentary population is evident in the archaeological record.

Conclusion
Exodus was probably a story written by authors in the 7th century, or possibly as late as the 6th century, BCE. The place names mentioned above existed by the 7th century but not in the Bronze Age. Iron Age authors would have known of the many public works created by the Saite Dynasty in Egypt’s 26th Dynasty, who employed the largest numbers of foreign settlers. A large community of immigrants from Judah was present from the 7th through the 6th centuries. Pithom, mentioned in Exodus 1:11, was built in the 7th century. Migdol, mentioned in Exodus 14:2, was built in the 7th century.

Exodus apparently did not happen in the period or in the manner in which it is portrayed in biblical mythology.

Useful References:

Beitak, M. (1996). Avaris the capital of the Hyksos: recent excavations of Tell el-Daba. London

Finkelstein, I. & Silberman, N.A. (2001). The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and The Origin of its Sacred Texts. New York

Oren, E.D. (1987). The “Ways of Horus” in North Sinai. In Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1992). Egypt, Canaan and Israel in Ancient Times. Princeton

Redford, D.B. (1987) An Egyptological perspective on the Exodus narrative. In: Rainey, A.F. (editor), Egypt, Israel, Sinai: Archaeological and Historical Relationships in the Biblical Period. Tel-Aviv

Redford, D.B. (1973). Studies in Relations between Palestine and Egypt during the First Millennium B. C.: II. The Twenty-Second Dynasty. Journal of the American Oriental Society, 93(1), pp. 3-17.

Biblical Archeaology: Tomb of Jesus?

James Cameron is to release a documentary that claims to reveal the discovery of the tomb of Jesus Christ. He claims the evidence is statistical analysis and DNA… showing the Messiah was buried next to his wife, Mary Magdalene and their son, Judah (the “Grandson of God?”).

Before I read further in the article, my first thought was what were the comparators and controls?

Apparently, construction workers were erecting an apartment complex when they found the 2,000 year old ossuaries in a burial cave on the West Bank in East Talpiot back in 1980. 1980!? The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) has been pressuring archaeologists to publish or be punished lately, and there are excavations from the 1980′s that are just now finding their reports in publication, but, surely, such a discovery would have found academic publication far sooner than now!

The article linked above cites the IAA as noting that, of the 10 ossuaries found, 6 had the names Mary, Matthew, Jesua son of Joseph, Mary, Jofa, and Judah son of Jesua. All very common Jewish names unless I’m mistaken. The article goes on to paraphrase the filmmakers as saying that their find in no way implies that Jesus wasn’t actually resurrected 3 days after being killed. They really didn’t need to, since modern medical science informs us in this regard.

What the article doesn’t tell us is what the comparators were in the statistical and DNA analyses James Cameron and his film crew used (or, ostensibly, outsourced to actual researchers). Presumably, one will need to pay $7.50 (not including popcorn and a drink) to find out.

Robert Park‘s list of the Warning Signs of Pseudoscience lists as #1 “the discoverer pitches his claim directly to the media.” I think this fits. As time goes on, perhaps other warning signs will emerge: a powerful establishment (religion? “mainstream” archaeology?) will seek to suppress the claim; the scientific effect at the limits of detection (we’ll have to wait for the statistical/DNA data sets to see); evidence is anecdotal (so far anyway); the discoverer worked in isolation (since 1980!?).

Or… maybe the data is genuine. I’m not holding my breath.

What if almost every day you heard talk radio hosts talking about killing your friends?

Blogger Spocko, the nom de blog for the author of Spocko’s Brain, writes of a radio station, KSFO AM 560, which does just that. And he’s linked audio clips of the show in this post.

More below the fold

Apparently the hosts of this radio show have called for the deaths of various American politicians and business men and women in their hate-filled and inciting broadcasts (Spocko’s letter to the Wall Street Journal). Spocko is writing advertisers and posting their comments on his blog with audio clips to support his accusations. If Spocko is telling the truth, and it looks like he is, this radio station is off the deep end! The the hosts of one or more shows on the station demanded that callers mock Islam, called for public hangings of New York Times editor Bill Keller and suggested that a Sears’ Diehard battery be attached to an African-American’s testicles.

And here’s the rub: KSFO 560 AM is owned by ABC Radio Disney.

On the Daily Kos, Spocko is quoted as saying:

In mid-December I got confirmation that a major national advertiser, VISA, pulled their ads from the Melanie Morgan and Lee Rogers show, based on listening to audio clips I provided them. I also think that FedEx, AT&T and Kaiser are considering pulling their ads. Visa isn’t the first advertiser who has left KSFO, multiple advertisers have left the station, especially from the Brian Sussman show. In July of this year when KSFO lost MasterCard as an advertiser someone from KSFO “outed” me on a counter-blog (which I won’t link to). This same person has also threatened me with local and federal criminal action for using the audio (which I clearly used under the fair use portion of copyright law). And because they have suggested violence toward me (in addition to talking about suing me “for everything I have”) I have chosen to remain anonymous.

I think this is a good case of how blogging can effect change and do good journalism. Had Spocko not spent so much time and personal effort on reporting on KSFO (and personal risk?), these nutters could have gone ahead full-steam and unchecked. Now, with advertisers pulling out, you can bet their management is clamping down on them at least somewhat. There is such a thing as free press and freedom of speech in the United States, but that goes both directions. Spocko is also free to report on their antics, exposing them to advertisers who are free to support them -or not.

Oh, and watch this YouTube video that includes some of the shows audioclips.

More info:
OH, IT’S ON!! BLOGSWARM NOW! SPOCKO’S ABOUT TO HIT BIG!
Spocko Rocks ABC! Micky Mouse blinks! Updated: Spocko jumps in
The Ogre’s Trumpet Blaring
I am Spocko

Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism?

Note: this is a repost of one of the very first posts I made on this blog. Since Theo over a Humbug Online has mentioned that the next Skeptic’s Circle (#50) is going to be a tribute to Carl Sagan, whom I’ve always held in high regard, I thought I’d dig this one out again. While he may not have agreed with them, Dr. Sagan was always very fair to religion and sensitive to the beliefs of others. His idea was that it would be far easier to appeal to believers (in religion, UFOs, ESP, etc) and educate them if they were respected and treated fairly than if not. This is why it came to a surprise to me to see that there were those “believers” that attacked Sagan in spite of his sensitivity and found him to be such a threat. Perhaps it was the very nature of his appeal and popularity that some found threatening.

The topic of “scientism” keeps coming up in conversations with both those who criticize the rigorous demands of the scientific method as well as through a short monograph on the internet (Menton 1991) with the title, Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism.

Interestingly enough, the term scientism exists among scholarly references and refers to the notion that science and the scientific method can be used to explain all that can be observed or experienced in the universe. This is consistent with logical positivism, which holds that there is an objectively knowable universe.

However, a different use of scientism has been co-opted, which implies that there are those within science that are to be derided as extremists or, at the very least, alarmists who reject critical thought and reason by denying “both the special revelation of truth and the existence of a sovereign, supernatural and external being (Menton 1991).” The assumption here is that science generally accepts the supernatural and spiritual “revelations” as valid methods of obtaining truths.

More often than not, the sources of these implications and assumptions originate with theistic proponents of creation mythology. Some, however, tactically avoid the direct association with creation and supernaturalism as if to provide plausible deniability if directly called on either to produce evidence or supporting references. It is, after all, difficult to logically prove that which cannot be tested, and the intellectual and educated theist wisely avoids this. The tactic, instead, appears to be to assert that there is a subculture called scientism, which is a moral and extremist faction of real science.

The overall thesis of this assertion seems to suggest that scientism as an extremist faction of science is somehow a danger to society, perhaps with its rampant atheism and certainly with its naturalistic and materialistic views of the universe.

Menton’s paper on the subject made Carl Sagan the focus of the anti-scientism movement (as it were). Menton accused Sagan of being a “prophet” of scientism, which impliesd very clearly that the author believed this to be a new form of religion or was at least willing to argue the notion. Menton’s opening paragraph made the unsupported claim that Sagan’s work consisted of “only a tissue of empirical science covering a great bulk of improvable speculation liberally laced with Sagan’s own philosophical and religious views of life.” Menton then stated, very plainly, “Sagan’s religion […] is ‘scientism.’”

Menton’s article is short and falls even more short in delivering any support for either his claim that Sagan was a representative of a religion or that this religion of “scientism” actually exists. Menton’s derision of Sagan’s work goes little beyond merely stating that it is speculative and supported only be a “tissue of empiricism.” He does, however, criticize Sagan’s position (Cosmos 1996) that evolution is a fact and that it really happened. Menton is unconcerned with the enormous body of evidence that exists to support Sagan’s assertion and seems only interested in attempting to negatively affect Sagan’s credibility in the matters of science. In doing so, Menton invokes the words of Harlow Shapely, an apparent one-time professor of Sagan, who is alleged to have said, “some piously record, ‘In the beginning, God,’ but I say in the beginning hydrogen.” Menton then vastly oversimplifies Shapely’s contention by concluding that Shapely is suggesting hydrogen + time = H. sapiens as if the complex processes and mechanisms between hydrogen and civilization came about in a few days. I’m not sure what specific creationist beliefs Menton has, but it is interesting to note that he rejects the hypothesis that hydrogen, many billions of years, and untold energy can result in the universe as we know it. The irony is that he probably has little difficulty accepting that a mysterious, supernatural entity can speak the world into existence –complete with people in just a few days!

Menton mines several quotes from Sagan’s Cosmos (1996), which he takes from their original contexts and juxtaposes with new a new context –the one of an atheistic scientist attempting to convert the masses to become godless heathens. Menton’s deception isn’t very subtle. He quotes Sagan from a 1980 newspaper article as saying, “I feel in order to survive we someday must be able to give up our allegiance to our nation, our religion, our race and economic group and think of ourselves more as just a temporary form of life under the creation of a power beyond our comprehension.” Menton cites the St. Louis Globe-Democrat as the source but immediately follows the quote with “Sagan concludes that if man is to worship anything greater than man himself, it should be something which amounts to the pagan worship of nature,” to which Menton follows with another Sagan quote mined from Cosmos (p 243): “Our ancestors worshiped the Sun, and they were far from foolish. And yet the Sun is an ordinary, even mediocre star. If we must worship a power greater than ourselves, does it not make sense to revere the Sun and stars?”

Perhaps Menton truly believes that Sagan’s position was that the sun should be worshipped and that a pagan religion was necessary. But a look at page 242 of Cosmos and reading on through 243 reveals the context of Sagan’s words. The chapter these pages reside in is titled The Lives of Stars and Sagan is describing the power of a star on the community of planets from which one is lucky enough to be able to support life. He was noting that the power of the sun did not go unnoticed to man and the footnote that was attached to the quote was this:

“The early Sumerian pictograph for god was an asterisk, the symbol of the stars. The Aztec word for god was Teotl, and its glyph was a representation of the Sun. The heavens were called the Teoatl, the godsea, the cosmic ocean.”

The very next paragraph that follows the quote abbegins with, “The Galaxy is an unexplored continent filled with exotic beings of stellar dimensions.”

Even Menton couldn’t have missed the literary devices of metaphor and hyperbole which Sagan effectively utilized to convey the enormity and power that a star has, even a “mediocre” one such as our Sun.

Menton was again disingenuous with Sagan’s words when he quoted UFO’s: A Scientific Debate (Sagan & Page 1972, p.xiv): “[s]cience has itself become a kind of religion.” Menton inserts the period that follows “religion” as if that is the end of the thought, leaving the reader with the impression that the “prophet of scientism” has spoke and the movement begun. But to add context and truth to the eight words quote-mined by Menton, it is important to note that “religion” is punctuated with a trailing comma and the sentence completes with, “and many pronouncements cloaked in scientific attire are blandly accepted by much of the public.” Clearly Sagan and Paige (the co-editor Menton so conveniently omits to credit) are providing an introduction to the thesis of the collection of articles to which they are the editors of in UFO’s, which is that science must contain skepticism and critical thought in order to balance the pop-culture appeal that it has attained.

What then is the purpose of criticizing notable figures of science with charges of “scientism” and of starting a “religion?”

For the theistic apologetics of creationism and it’s guise under the form of “intelligent” design, this question’s answer lies in an agenda to justify beliefs and promote doubt among believers, obfuscating the truth with appeals to their religious sensibilities. Indeed, the much talked about “wedge strategy” dictates, among it’s goals, to seed doubt among lay persons regarding the validity of the science behind evolutionary processes in order to further the creationist agenda. Interestingly enough, the scientism accusation finds its way into arguments with proponents of other forms of psuedoscience that range from ESP to “alternative medicine.”

References

Menton, D. N. (1991). Carl Sagan: Prophet of Scientism (Get the Facts). Retrieved 13106, from Missouri Association for Creation, Inc.: http://www.gennet.org/facts/sagan.html.
Sagan, C. (1986). Broca’s Brain. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C. (1996). Cosmos. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Druyan, A. (1997). The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. New York: Ballantine Books.
Sagan, C., & Page, T. (1972). Introduction. In C. Sagan & T. Page (Eds.), Ufo’s: A Scientific Debate (p. xiv). New York: W W Norton & Co Inc.

Atheism vs. Theism in Recent News

Afarensis recently posted a short review of the Newsweek article, The New Naysayers . A bit later, PZ Myers posted a more in depth discussion at Pharyngula.

The discussions at these two blogs are well-done and the comments are interesting, so I won’t attempt to duplicate what they’ve already accomplished here. Anything I could say would pale in comparison to either of these gentlemen and I highly recommend both of the links above.

I’d first like to list some videos that can be found on YouTube that have a fair amount of Richard Dawkins’ The Root of All Evil? There may be more, but these are the ones I’ve found and I’ve tried to list them in order:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AB2vmj8eyMk (Pt 1)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nVQoxrrMftA (Teapot Atheists)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=76UDVB-ofpI
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gmNjfpoRZpE
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGeL1yFeK6I
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_kcKInudkq4 (Pt 2.1)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T27Ef_xvYMs (Pt 2.2)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qPBdz-TXlaI (Pt 2.3)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dTKLM09FeNM (Pt 2.4)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RwD9HOrjLRw (Pt 2.5)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mGLPViVW5ms (Pt 2.6)

Dawkins was one of several figures that was discussed in the Newsweek article as issuing “bone-rattling attacks on what they regard as a pernicious and outdated superstition.” Other atheistic luminaries mentioned were Daniel C. Dennett and Samuel Harris, authors of Breaking the Spell and The End of Faith, respectively. Dawkins’ The God Delusion is due out in October.

The question (sometimes the accusation) arises in many discussions with atheists, particularly on the Internet, is religion evil? Certainly the very title of Dawkins’ recent BBC series is suggestive of the question, though it should also be noted that Dawkins was against the title, The Root of All Evil? and protested. BBC won, but the inclusion of the question mark was their consolation to Dawkins. As an anthropologist, I find religion a fascinating topic. Clearly, humanity is hardwired to “believe” and to engage in magical thinking. The evidence is abundant to support this hypothesis and found in neurology, biology, and anthropology. That there are so many religions in human culture, both geographically and temporally, is suggestive that there are none which are genuine in their claims of supernatural agency.

But to answer the question of whether or not religion is evil would require two definitions: one of religion and another of evil. To define religion, I agree with Daniel Dennett’s assessment: “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” I won’t attempt to define evil, I think we can all come to some mutual agreement that evil means bad for you and others. But I’m afraid I cannot agree that religion, in the broad term of the word is “evil.” Certainly, there are those within specific religions that are evil and, certainly, there are those religious sects and cults that are evil in their deeds (most cults of Christianity and Islam come to mind). But religion on the whole is a social system and is not capable of being either good or evil.

Weinberg suggested that for man to be truly evil, religion is required, but I think this also gives too much credit to a social system. I do, however, think that religion enables the worst in humanity to come out and religion has traditionally been one of the main points of contention in wars and the justification for the persecution of “others.” Religion inspired civilizations of prehistory to build monumental architecture and develop agriculture. For that, ancient religion should be praised. But, in modern times, that same ancient religion is obsolete and getting in the way of the progress it once inspired. In the United States, the most religious nation in the so-called Developed World, those that consider themselves religious have all the problems they say are immoral: abortion, addiction, crime, adultery, etc. Moreover, religious superstition threatens the advancement of science and world peace. Crime in the United States exceeds that of the rest of the industrialized West -the secular states of Scandinavia, France, Japan and the like.

Sure. This correlation is casual. I admit it. But wouldn’t the religious have more ground to stand on if they were actually able to show that religion works? Instead, the religious act as though science and atheists are actually out to eliminate them and that atheists are organizing into some “movement” that will actively seek to destroy God and his believers. A recent study in the American Sociological Review (vol 71, April 2006) reveals that atheists are America’s least trusted group:

[t]hose surveyed tended to view people who don’t believe in a god as the “ultimate self-interested actor who doesn’t care about anyone but themselves.”

Yes, atheists are self-interested. Einstein gave nothing to the world; Susan B. Anthony’s efforts were only for herself; Carl Sagan made no attempt to share his knowledge; and Abraham Lincoln was obviously only thinking of himself with the Emancipation Proclamation and Gettysburg Address. The religious of the nation don’t care that atheists aren’t out to get them and refuse to accept that atheism is only about not accepting a god based on critical thought and reason. They want a dichotomy. I’m with PZ, who closed his post linked above with:

Yes, let us choose sides. I’m on the side of enlightenment and knowledge and critical thinking and the rejection of dogma. Which side are you going to be on?

Religious Nutter Alert: Hal Lindsey

Flipping channels on a Sunday evening, one is bound to encounter some religious nutter asking his (rarely is it "her") flock for money. This evening, I couldn’t help but notice the irony as Hal Lindsey, religious nutter extraordinaire, stated:

I couldn’t help but notice this week the speed with which events unfolded in the Middle East that concur with [insert favorite End Times prophet]‘s prophecy of the End Times.

Okay, I paraphrased a bit. But Hal, the author of The Late, Great Planet Earth and The 1980s: Countdown to Armageddon remarked heavily that the violence in the Middle East is evidence of the "end times" and that the apocalypse is due any day now.

And then he asked for donations for his "ministry." What a freakin’ con.

Afarensis posted a short bit on Tim Lahaye, author of the Left Behind series, recently, noting that LaHaye was interviewed by Newsweek about his doom and gloom predictions regarding the current situation in the Middle East. Apparently, Newsweek also interviewed Lindsey for a future cover story < clicky>. From Lindsey’s site:

NEWSWEEK Q: Is the success and survival of the United States based on its support of Israel

Answer #4 I believe one of the reasons God has protected the U.S., despite the fact we have driven God from the public forum in our country, is because we have sought to protect Israel’s right to exist in secure borders.


"God" has been "driven from public forum?" If only it were true, I wouldn’t have to delete 5 or 6 channels from my television every time the power goes out and I have to re-program the television and VCR (I’m a rabbit ear kind of guy… spending more time in books than television). If it were true, we’d not have to worry about forced prayer in schools being shoved down the throats of non-christians in Delaware; or ‘end-times’ warnings from religious nutters on CNN, MSNBC, Newsweek, etc.; nor would we have the superstitious trying push pseudoscience as legitimate curricula in science classes.


NEWSWEEK Q: Will the West need to defeat Islamists for Israel or must radical Islam continue in order for the prophecy to be fulfilled?

Answer #5: I believe the hostility of Fundamental Islam over Israel’s return and re-possession their ancient homeland and Jerusalem is predicted to be the driving force that ignites Armageddon.


But be sure to send your tax-deductible donation to Lindsey’s "ministry" before the armageddon. Nutjobs like Lindsey and LaHaye have been predicting armageddon for centuries based on the limited perspectives of a few Bronze Age and Early Iron Age religious and political elites who were interested in creating and maintaining a system of propaganda to manipulate their followers and citizens. As long as there are credulous people, there will always be those willing to take their money in exchange for the secrets to surviving the apocalypse.

Dr. Bill Lucas: A "Cracked Up" Pseudoscientist

Silkworm at Defending Science is in the trenches with CORR (Christians for Origins and Religious Research), and he hammers their lead speaker, Dr. Bill Lucas. According to Dr. Lucas’ resume, he holds a Ph.D. in Theoretical Physics from William and Mary and is a “professor” of physics at Catholic University in Washington D.C.

This is one of the more interesting points that Silkworm decimates CORR, a student organization on the Wichita State campus in Kansas. Silkworm writes of his confrontation with Lucas at a CORR meeting at Wichita State in which he and another attendee demand the good doctor come clean with his credentials. Apparently, Catholic University doesn’t acknowledge his “professorship” and that’s not all. The good doctor claims to have presented one or more papers at an AAAS function, which is flatly denied by AAAS Executive Director David Nash.

Also challenged are Lucas’ claims to have 40-60 peer-reviewed papers (apparently it’s about 4-6) and the overall bunk that was presented at the June 15th meeting. I’ll quote Silkworm:

Lucas claims that the Earth radiates energy and so loses mass and gravity, while at the same time expanding. So, Lucas claims that the Earth loses energy and so loses mass. This is a prediction his “Divine Force” makes and he made several statements to back it up. One of them that was people in Biblical times lived so long because the intense gravity of the Earth kept more oxygen close to the surface, and said that the gravity now when a maximum life expectancy is 100 years is 1/9th that of in Biblical times when ages of 900 years are reported in the Bible. He also used this very bad geology: [image of mid-oceanic ridges].

Good work, Silkworm! Keep it up!

Review- Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life

Quite by accident, I discovered Alister McGrath’s book, Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes, and the Meaning of Life, as I was browsing the stacks of my university library for another title. Having read much of the work of Richard Dawkins, my curiosity overcame my general disdain for theological writings and I promptly added the text to the pile under my arm & checked them out with the librarian.

McGrath begins his critique of Dawkins with very favorable words, citing how he “devoured with interest and admiration” Dawkins’ earlier series of books, which McGrath characterizes as “brilliant and provocative.”


Dawkins’ brilliance, it would seem, is limited in McGrath’s view to matters concerning zoology and biology but somehow less luminous for matters that concern McGrath’s beliefs with regard to religion and God. Indeed, the work seems to become more of an apologetic attempt to defend Christianity’s honor from the big, bad atheist.

McGrath criticizes Dawkins as well as Robert Ingersoll for asserting that “Darwinism is necessarily atheistic.” In his criticism of Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker, McGrath goes so far as to deride Dawkins for failing to include the word “God” in the index! This, he posits, is due to the Darwinian world that “Dawkins inhabits and commands” and that Dawkins “eliminates God altogether” in his work that is subtitled, Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design. Many who have read the work have commented that Dawkins doesn’t so much “eliminate” God as he simply demonstrates that “design” is not necessary to explain the universe. McGrath is critical of Dawkins’ position that one must either accept Lamarckism, God, or Darwinism, but, since the first two fail as explanations, only Darwinism is left. But Dawkins, in the very quote that McGrath includes on the same page, states: “life in the universe is either Darwinian or something else not thought of.” Clearly, Dawkins isn’t saying that Darwinism is the only choice, but rather stating that Lamarckism and God do not offer viable explanations. To date, the Darwinian explanation along with its modern improvements provides us with the only viable explanation, though there may be “something else that is not yet thought of.”


McGrath further criticizes what he sees as Dawkins’ “absolute dichotomy between either Darwinism or God.” This assumption is reached by McGrath in spite of the statement “either Darwinian or something else not yet thought of.” Perhaps Dawkins does assert elsewhere that God doesn’t exist because Darwinism discredits him, though it isn’t apparent in the material cited by McGrath, who is critical, too, of Dawkins’ decision to choose an analogy that McGrath claims not to be “typical of the Christian tradition,” which is Rev. William Paley’s watchmaker analogy, popularized in his book Natural Theology. McGrath spends several pages exploring the history of this analogy, which are quite informative as we learn that Paley probably lifted his theory from naturalist John Ray of a slightly earlier time. However, Dawkins is right to criticize Paley’s work, regardless of McGrath’s opinion of its outdated nature, since it has been popularized by the pseudoscience of intelligent design (Dembski 2003). Admittedly, the Dembski article comes some years after The Blind Watchmaker, and others in Christianity may have “already rejected as inadequate” the watchmaker analogy, but it was and is still popular with certain influential fundamentalists of Christianity.


McGrath concludes at this point that “Dawkins’ atheism is inadequately grounded in the biological evidence,” yet he fails miserably in demonstrating this conclusion. Not one shred of actual biological evidence is discussed though it is thouroghly examined in The Blind Watchmaker as well as the earlier The Selfish Gene and, certainly, in The Ancestor’s Tale of Dawkins’ more recent work. McGrath seems content to say that the biological evidence Dawkins discusses cannot support his atheism, but he utterly fails to support the statement. Instead, McGrath is focused on the philosophical points that Dawkins involves himself with and refuses to digress on anything physical or tangible.


One of McGrath’s main criticisms of The Blind Watchmaker comes in his assertion that Dawkins’ Biomorph Programme is a “flawed” analogy that succeeds only in demonstrating the need for a creator to design the universe. Dawkins describes a computer program that was designed to take a target phrase and evaluate successive generations of 28 randomly ordered letters. It took the program only a few generations to get to the target phrase, “me thinks it is like a weasel.” The intervening generations were compared by the program to the target phrase and letters that were correct were correct and those that weren’t were allowed to mutate.


McGrath correctly points out that evolution hardly begins with a “target” of progression, but that wasn’t the point of the demonstration. McGrath also points out that the demonstration itself, including the computer and the program, were designed. True enough, but, again, this is irrelevant to the demonstration since the goal of the program was to demonstrate the process of cumulative selection as opposed to random selection.


Obviously it is that we need not “posit a God explanation” as implied by Dawkins’ work that really offends McGrath as it does many other Christian apologists. On page 58 of his book, McGrath poses the question, “[s]uppose we concede this point; what are its implications?” But McGrath doesn’t appear willing to answer the question. No exploration of existence without a god or creator is discussed. And, yet, he freely criticizes Dawkins for his alleged failure to take the “logical steps to conclude” the lack of necessity for a god. Other readers of Dawkins “brilliant and provocative” work would disagree and find that he very logically reaches the no-god conclusion. McGrath, however, simply goes on to enjoy a very informative discussion about Thomas Aquinas’ secondary causality argument.


Invoking the 13th century CE view of theology by Aquinas seems only to have the point of illustrating the “God did it” argument, which McGrath asserts is logical since whatever science might say about the world, God could have made it that way, either directly of through “secondary causality.” I find this a bit of a cop-out from McGrath; particularly since the argument is concluded with the statement “there is no way that Aquinas’ approach can be described as a post hoc attempt to defend Christianity in response to a perceived threat from the new science of evolutionary biology.” This is the same Aquinas that advocated heretics be “separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be severed from the world by death ( Summa Theologiae 1265-1272 II:II 11:3). Mentioning Aquinas’ opinion of heretics isn’t simply a device of character assassination. Aquinas was obviously moved to defend his religious beliefs from new paradigms that were emerging. Contemporaries like Roger Bacon was advocating empiricism and opposed the immorality of the church, so Aquinas didn’t need evolutionary biology to prompt him to basically assert that no matter what the Bacons of the 13th century discover, it is all evidence of the glory of God.


McGrath’s inclusion of the “God did it” argument is almost juvenile, particularly with his conclusion that, since Aquinas pre-dates Darwin, it obviously must be a valid argument because he couldn’t have been attempting to refute Darwinism. Indeed, the inclusion of a self-validating argument that appeals to the wisdom of ancients like Aquinas presents precisely the failure he accuses Dawkins of: no logical progression. Where is the support for the claim that Dawkins fails to show a creator isn’t necessary? Is it in the words of a 13 th century CE theologian? Is it in the notion that no matter what science discovers about the universe, that’s the way God planned it?


Undeniably, a god or supreme deity cannot be excluded, but the sheer number of gods and deities that mankind has now and in the past makes pinning one or more down as the actual god of creation an impossible task, particularly since no god has ever been observed, nor is there any good evidence for one. A god can be assumed and speculated, but to suggest any specific deity is needed to explain the existence of the universe is intellectually dishonest. Particularly in the manner McGrath does, such as with capitalization of the “G,” which personalizes his deity with the very European notion of the anthropomorphic old, white guy formally known as Yahweh.


Citing Aquinas provides McGrath with no more credibility than if he cited the Flying Spaghetti Monster (and I challenge him to demonstrate that one has more evidentiary support than the other). Aquinas’ discussion of secondary causality is thought-provoking, but for the critical-thinker –the reasoned-thinker- the thoughts that are provoked in such discussions often include who caused the causer? Indeed, an infinite chain of “causers” becomes apparent, suggesting not one god, but an infinite number of gods that must be present in the universe. And, in a universe populated with an infinite number of gods, should we not expect to see more of them than stars, which are finite in number? What use would such a universe have with mere humans and other life forms? Particularly if each of the infinite number of gods were equally omniscient and omnipotent.


The logical conclusion that there is a god must also include that there are many gods, and that logic fails even for theologians. Dawkins’ assertion, therefore, is the true, logical choice: there simply is no necessity for a god in the universe. For a universe that is capable of creating a god, is certainly capable of creating itself without one.


Dawkins’ Engagement with Theology

McGrath refers to Dawkins “engagement with theology” as “superficial and inaccurate,” deriding Dawkins as often resorting to “cheap point scoring” on the subject of religious belief. McGrath quotes Keith Ward (1996) who characterizes Dawkins criticisms of religion as “systematic mockery and demonizing of competing views, which are always presented in the most naïve light” and McGrath criticizes Dawkins “tendency to misrepresent the views of his opponents” calling this “the least attractive aspect of his writings.” It would seem that McGrath finds that Dawkins’ characterization of faith to be the misrepresentation in question, though he fails at demonstrating how Dawkins is wrong. He says he’s wrong, but he doesn’t show why.


Faith as Blind Trust

“Faith means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence (Dawkins 1976: 198). McGrath asks, “why should anyone accept this ludicrous definition?” The first question the reader should ask in response is, “why is the definition ludicrous?” Perhaps it can be found in McGrath’s next query: “what is the evidence that anyone – let alone religious people – defines ‘faith’ in this absurd way?” For McGrath, this is, perhaps, one of the more offensive positions Dawkins has taken, and he criticizes in rapid-fire:

  • Dawkins offers no defense of this definition
  • The definition bears little relation to the religious sense of the word
  • No evidence is presented that this is of a religious opinion
  • No authority is cited
  • McGrath doesn’t accept the definition
  • McGrath has yet to meet a theologian that takes it seriously
  • The definition cannot be defended from any official declaration of faith from any Christian denomination
  • It is Dawkins own definition
  • It is a definition constructed with Dawkins own agenda in mind
  • The definition is represented as characteristic of those Dawkins wishes to criticize
  • Finally, McGrath is worried that Dawkins really believes faith equates to blind trust ( McGrath 2005: 85)

It is at this point that McGrath’s readers may be following with bated breath in anticipation of a definition of faith that defies Dawkins’ own. Instead, we get one, single definition from a 19 th century theologian that focuses on “the heart and emotions,” but fails to contradict Dawkins.


[Faith] affects the whole of man’s nature. It commences with the conviction of the mind base on adequate evidence; it continues in the confidence of the heart of emotions based on conviction, and it is crowned in the consent of the will, by means of which the conviction and confidence are expressed in conduct (McGrath 2005: 86).


Of course, evidence adequate for the mind is often not the same as evidence that can actually be quantified or qualified. An assertion easily supported by noting the number of tarot readers, psychics, homeopathic healers, faith healers, UFO buffs, believers in alien abduction, and so on, that exist in modern society. It would seem that these people all have “faith” in the claims that are presented to them. I wonder if McGrath would suggest that there is evidence for tarot or alien-abduction. Perhaps.


The Oxford English Dictionary (2nd edition 1989) provides the following definitions for faith:

Belief, trust, confidence.

1. a. Confidence, reliance, trust (in the ability, goodness, etc., of a person; in the efficacy or worth of a thing; or in the truth of a statement or doctrine).

b. Belief proceeding from reliance on testimony or authority.


What is revealing is McGrath’s failure to show the evidence that exists in even the most simple matters of faith that exist for Christians: there is trust that Jesus was God incarnate; there is reliance in the doctrine of original sin; there is belief that an afterlife awaits those in good-favor; belief in immaculate conception; belief in resurrection; belief that Jesus walked on water and drove demons out of people and into swine. But not one shred of evidence exists to support a single matter of faith with regard to any of these.


Which brings us back to the question that all rational readers of Dawkins’ God should have asked: why is the definition of faith as blind trust ludicrous ?


McGrath, through Dawkins’ God, succeeds only in revealing his extensive knowledge of the philosophies and theologies of antiquity as well as expressing his disdain for atheism and the audacity of atheists, particularly Dawkins, that dare formulate opinions about the universe that exclude his particular god. There is no surprise that McGrath and other Christians (or believers of any religion or superstition where “faith” is required) would refuse to accept Dawkins’ definition of faith, since it points out the elephant in the room: there simply isn’t a shred of evidence to support the core beliefs of Christianity outside of a doctrine largely written by Bronze Age authors. This alone supports and provides the authority for Dawkins’ characterization of faith.


References:

Dawkins, Richard (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dawkins, Richard (1986). The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton.

Dembski, William (2003). Intelligent Design, Entry to Lindsay Jones’s Encyclopedia of Religion,http://www.designinference.com/documents/2003.08.Encyc_of_Relig.htm 2nd edition, found on the web at:

McGrath, Alister (2005). Dawkins’ God: Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Ward, Keith (1996). God, Chance and Necessity. Oxford: One-World.

NEW: Richard Dawkins Interviews Alister McGrath

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