Replanting the clear-cut

America’s spiritual vocabulary–with its huge defining terms such as “God,” “soul,” “sacrifice,” “mysticism,” “faith,” “salvation,” “grace,” “redemption”–has been enduring a series of abuses so constricting that the damage may last for centuries. Too many of us have tried to sidestep this damage by simply rejecting the terminology. The defamation of a religious vocabulary cannot be undone by turning away: the harm is undone when we work to reopen each word’s true history, nuance, and depth. Holy words need stewardship as surely as do gardens, orchards, or ecosystems. When lovingly tended, such words surround us with spaciousness and mystery the way a sacred grove surrounds us with cathedral light, peace, and oxygenated air. When we merely abandon our holy words, and fail to replace them, we end up living in a spiritual clear-cut.

David James Duncan, “What fundamentalists need for their salvation.” (God Laughs and Plays, Triad Books: 2006)

Photo by jby.
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Big tent atheism?

In a guest post on BoingBoing, Paul Spinrad proposes big tent atheism as an alternative to the absolutism of “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, who, he argues, may not be more interested in asserting their own superiority than making a convincing case:

Any successful new belief system must appreciate the beauty of what it’s replacing and strive for backwards-compatibility. If Matthew 1:1-16 hadn’t explained how Jesus’ lineage fulfills the prophecy in Isaiah 1:1-5, it wouldn’t have gotten where it is today.

So I put it to declared atheists– the ones who fly the flag about it, not the ones who are quiet or closeted: Do you think that most of humanity is A) hopeless and doomed to kill each other because of their stupid religious beliefs, or B) capable of coming to and benefiting from your views?

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Edge essayists on religion vs. science

Bouncing off Jerry Coyne’s essay on the (in)compatibility between science and religion (which occasioned a rant from me), Edge asked a long list of big names – including the authors of the two books to which Coyne was responding – to comment on the question. It spans the full range from conciliatory to cutting, and all of it is well worth reading.

Via Open Culture

Darwin’s 200th: What evolution can teach Christianity
Today is the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and 150 years since he published his groundbreaking book, The Origin of Species. The Origin provided the first widely-accepted explanation for the evolution of life on Earth, and, although Darwin was wrong on some points (if only he had known about genes!), a century and a half of scientific work has shown that he was right about more.

That century and a half has not diffused the perception, especially in the United States and other highly religious countries, that acceptance of a scientific account for the history of life is antithetical to religion. As a Darwinian and a Christian, this is a topic with which I struggle, and about which I’ve written a great deal here. Although I’m not sure that science can coexist with a real belief in the supernatural, I do hold that science is both compatible with the moral questions at the heart of religion and essential to answering them.

Photo by rmcnicholas.

For Darwin’s 200th, then, I’d like to briefly present three examples of evolutionary insights that complement the Christian moral perspective. I focus on Christianity here (and elsewhere in this blog) not because I think it has an exclusive hold on the truth, but because it is the tradition in which I was raised, and the one that shapes my own moral perspective. I think the following points are easily applicable to just about any other moral system, religious or non.

Our evolutionary past shapes us today.

Christianity (and, indeed, most other religions) starts from the fundamental problem of human behavior: We do things that we know are hurtful to those around us, often because we enjoy doing them. As the apostle wrote, “For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:19)

The Christian tradition calls this original sin; the evolutionary perspective points to its origin in the remnants of past adaptations. We have two bones in each forearm because we evolved from ancestors with those two bones in their pectoral fins [$-a]; we may be hostile to outsiders because that parochialism helped early humans to form closer-knit societies [$-a]. Far from giving us an excuse to do whatever we feel like, these results can help us figure out how to overcome evolved behaviors that hurt others.

Christ calls us to transcend our past.

Just as it shapes our hurtful impulses, our evolutionary past has a hand in the better angels of our nature. We may care for our children and close relatives, for instance, in part because they carry many of our genes – so helping them helps our own evolutionary fitness [$-a]. Similarly, the need to live peacefully with our immediate neighbors may have shaped deep emotional aversions to murder [PDF].

In the Sermon on the Mount, though, Jesus lays out a moral model that calls us beyond what comes naturally:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder,’ … But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.” (Matt. 5:21-2)


“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you … If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? (Matt. 5:43-6)

Evolutionary thinking can help us realize Christ’s call.

When we understand the deep causes of hurtful behavior, we can figure out better how to overcome them. To pick just one example: Jesus proposes a moral solution to the problem of hostility to strangers mentioned above in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) when he redefines the concept of “neighbor” to mean something bigger than “people of the same race/religion.” But how do we overcome deep-seated biases against people who don’t look like us? One new study suggests hacking the mental habits that create those biases in the first place, by making the effort to become familiar with people of other races – Caucasian volunteers trained to better differentiate between African American faces showed reduced evidence of bias against African Americans.

Like the Christian moral model, the evolutionary perspective understands that humans are imperfect – but suggests ways we can do better. This is why it pains me to hear other Christians dismiss evolutionary science out of hand (apart from my nerdy compulsions to correct factual error): Understanding evolution can help us in our ongoing struggle to live together, if only we’re open to the data science provides. The current advances in our understanding of human behavior are only possible because today’s researchers stand on the shoulders of a giant: Charles Darwin.


J.-K. Choi, S. Bowles (2007). The coevolution of parochial altruism and war Science, 318 (5850), 636-40 DOI: 10.1126/science.1144237

K. Foster, T. Wenseleers, F. Ratnieks (2006). Kin selection is the key to altruism Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 21 (2), 57-60 DOI: 10.1016/j.tree.2005.11.020

J.D. Greene (2001). An fMRI investigation of emotional engagement in moral judgment Science, 293 (5537), 2105-8 DOI: 10.1126/science.1062872

S. Lebrecht, L.J. Pierce, M.J. Tarr, J.W. Tanaka (2009). Perceptual other-race training reduces implicit racial bias PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004215

T. Lewens. (2007). Darwin. New York: Routledge.

M. Ruse. (2000). Can a Darwinian be a Christian? Cambridge University Press.

N.H. Shubin, E.B. Daeschler, F.A. Jenkins (2006). The pectoral fin of Tiktaalik roseae and the origin of the tetrapod limb Nature, 440 (7085), 764-71 DOI: 10.1038/nature04637

Reflective Christianity

Slacktivist Fred Clark(!), “a Baptist in the evangelical tradition” reacts to his inclusion on a list of the top Atheist/Agnostic/Skeptic blogs with a meditation on faith, certainty, and the value of listening to – and interacting with – opposing viewpoints:

Like most humans, I’m bound to be wrong about many things, and the things I’m likeliest to be wrong about are those things I’m least aware I might be wrong about. So it seems not just prudent, but necessary, to engage as many disparate views as possible.

(!) In the original version of this post, I inexplicably confused Fred Clark, a thoughtful, humane, and progressive Christian – whose blog I follow regularly – with Fred Phelps, a fundamentalist troglodyte. This mistake would, no doubt, have massively offended both of them, should either have seen it. My deepest, sincerest apologies to Clark.

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Morality and empiricism

Jerry Coyne reviews two new books, Kenneth Miller’s Only a Theory and Karl Giberson’s Saving Darwin that vivisect the Intelligent Design movement, and seek to explain how Christianity (or indeed, any faith) is not only compatible with but complimentary to the scientific worldview. Coyne is effusive in praise of Miller and Giberson’s science, but he doesn’t buy their theology:

True, there are religious scientists and Darwinian churchgoers. But this does not mean that faith and science are compatible, except in the trivial sense that both attitudes can be simultaneously embraced by a single human mind. (It is like saying that marriage and adultery are compatible because some married people are adulterers.) It is also true that some of the tensions disappear when the literal reading of the Bible is renounced, as it is by all but the most primitive of JudeoChristian sensibilities. But tension remains.

Miller and Giberson make the same fundamental mistake that creationists do, says Coyne, when they look for God in the empirical world.

[To Miller], God is a Mover of Electrons, deliberately keeping his incursions into nature so subtle that they’re invisible. It is baffling that Miller, who comes up with the most technically astute arguments against irreducible complexity, can in the end wind up touting God’s micro-editing of DNA. This argument is in fact identical to that of Michael Behe, the ID advocate against whom Miller testified in the Harrisburg trial. It is another God-of-the-gaps argument, except that this time the gaps are tiny.

I haven’t read either of the books in question (I’m putting them in my queue after Dreams from My Father), but this does sound like a complaint I’ve previously had with prominent scientists who try to reconcile faith and science by direct, causal connections. It seems plain enough to me that a Christian who accepts science must also accept that God is the ultimate in untestable hypotheses, and no amount of speculation about the Anthropic Principle can change this. Furthermore, I think we need to reconcile ourselves to the idea that Homo sapiens might not be the only thing on God’s mind, as it were.

This line of thought draws mockery from fundamentalists on both sides of the religion-science schism. A six-day creationist I met with a few months ago condescended to tell me that, if I wouldn’t join him in rejecting the very laws of physics (which is what you have to do if you want to believe that Earth is six thousand years old), my faith was nothing but “warm fuzzies.” And in his own response to Coyne’s essay, the atheist PZ Myers jeers that Christianity without biblical literalism is “weak tea.” (Got the Christians coming and going on that one, don’t you, PZ?) But what all of these people are missing is that Christianity, and all religions, are not (or should not be) primarily interested in empirical claims about the physical universe. They’re about how humans can best live with each other.

The essence of Christianity, the absolute core of what it means to follow Christ, is a few revolutionary teachings, and one extraordinary act. “Love your enemies,” Jesus taught his disciples, calling them to a moral standard above and beyond the bonds of family, tribe, or nation. And when the Roman government and its local collaborators got nervous about his popularity and executed him as a common criminal, Jesus embodied that moral standard at the cost of his life. You can quibble with every factual claim in the Bible, you can cut out everything in the Gospels that smells of the supernatural as Thomas Jefferson famously did, and that’s what’s left: an innocent teacher accepting death at the hands of civil and religious authorities, and thereby revealing them for the fallible, human things that they are. Vicit agnus noster.

Science can (conceivably, at least) account for the entire history of the universe, from the Big Bang to the invention of digital watches by the ape-descended inhabitants of one small, blue-green planet. But in the end, this is just data. Data can’t tell me whether I should tip the barista at my local coffee shop, or stay late to answer a student’s questions on a lab, or give to NPR, or donate blood. But Christ crucified (Mohamed at prayer, Buddha under the Bo tree, Hume at his books) has something to say about it. The human struggle with the moral universe, the core of all religious thought, is the challenge of a lifetime – every lifetime – and the example of Christ is powerful no matter how many days it took to make the Earth.

Prayer for the children of Gaza

Jeffrey Goldberg points to Bradley Burston’s prayer for the children of Gaza, published in today’s Haaretz. It’s in the Jewish spiritual idiom, poetic and clearly heartfelt, a direct response to the war prayers famously decried by Mark Twain. But it’s also just a little odd:

Almighty who makes exceptions, which we call miracles, make an exception of the children of Gaza. Shield them from us and from their own. Spare them. Heal them. Let them stand in safety. Deliver them from hunger and horror and fury and grief. Deliver them from us, and from their own.

I can guess the Almighty’s response: “Let Me get this straight – you want Me to shield them from you? Could there be a more direct way to go about this, do you think?” And yet this is the conundrum of any citizen opposed to a war prosecuted by his or her democratically-elected government (as, for example, the last eight years of U.S. foreign policy). “We,” the nation, are responsible for horrors, even as we, the conscience-stricken individuals, look on in horror.


Allowing others to be other is what we call modernity. In my view, it is worth defending. And that’s why I think of myself as a conservative rather than as a reactionary. I like the pluralism of modernity; it doesn’t threaten me or my faith. And if one’s faith is dependent on being reinforced in every aspect of other people’s lives, then it is a rather insecure faith, don’t you think?

Andrew Sullivan on religion and politics.

Surprising? Not really.

The weird yet perennial “war on Christmas” rhetoric – in which, regular as Santa Claus, the conservative commentariat gets up in arms about some perceived slight to the Christian origins of the holiday – has always mystified me. It’s transparently mean-spirited to transform the words “Merry Christmas” into a proclamation of cultural dominance, to the point that the neutral “Happy Holidays” has become more Christian in spirit. Over in Washington State, the addition of an atheist belief statement to a holiday display has set off an arms-race of symbolic appropriation culminating in demands to include a Festivus pole and a sign saying that “Santa Claus will take you to Hell,” finally forcing the state government to place a moratorium on additions.

Max Blumenthal writes that this absurdity has its roots in Anti-Semitism. Because you know who really hates Christmas? The Jews:

Unlike their more respectable counterparts, Brimelow’s writers dared to name the true anti-Christian Grinch: Jews. The winner of Brimelow’s 2001 War on Christmas competition, a “paleoconservative” writer named Tom Piatak, insisted that those behind the assault on Christmas “evidently prefer” Hanukkah, which he called the “Jewish Kwanzaa,” a “faux-Christmas.”

Which makes perfect sense; nothing offends a racist like showing basic courtesy to someone different from them. Saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” implies that you can’t assume some random person on the street is Christian. That doesn’t strike me as particularly scary or bad; but for the Christmas Warriors, it’s the end of the world as they know it.