Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Large Hadron Collider: A Big Broom in the Sweep-up of Religion

It has been about a week since the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) was switched on at CERN, and managed to circulate its first beam of protons in a complete circle. When the very powerful LHC is in full operation, accelerating opposite beams of protons to shattering collisions, it should yield tremendously exciting findings. These are expected to include answers to a number of outstanding questions in physics, including: 1. why matter has mass (if the LHC proves sufficiently powerful to detect the Higgs boson, believed to be responsible for providing sub-atomic particles like protons, neutrons, and electrons with their observed masses); 2. the nature of dark matter (the majority of the matter in the universe, which mysteriously interacts only via gravity with the universe we detect via both light and gravity); 3. why our universe contains so much more matter than anti-matter. It also seems quite likely that investigations with the LHC will yield completely unexpected results, which will further increase our understanding of the nature of the universe.

During most of human history, much about the world and its workings were virtually incomprehensible, and religion provided answers and thus held sway. Even long after the development of the modern scientific method, hypotheses perforce incorporated the concept of God, and asked how and why God created the universe in its specific form. But recently, science has managed to operate independently of religion. In this atmosphere of free inquiry, scientific findings have forced religion to change its beliefs to accord with what science has discovered. One can easily think of numerous examples, including Christianity’s abandonment of the belief that the universe revolved around the Earth, and more recently the acceptance by John Paul II in 1996 that all life on earth, including humans, are a product of evolution.

I envisage supernatural belief as akin to a thick layer of dust in a room, composed of the dictates of organized religion, covering the truth about the nature of the universe. And in that metaphor, science consists of brooms, that over many years have swept the dust of these supernatural beliefs into an ever-constricted corner of the room, thence to be discarded in the dustbin of history. Removal of the dust through scientific inquiry is gradually yielding the bright, hard, polished floor of knowledge about the world and its creatures. It is to be hoped that the confounding dust of organized religion will eventually all be swept up and discarded. The LHC may prove a powerful broom indeed in this eventual conquest of scientific knowledge over out-moded supernatural beliefs.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Possible Church Split That Matters in the Real World

For us atheists, there is not much to choose among superstitions, whether they involve a belief in the power of salt thrown over a shoulder, or of sending “up” prayers to a mystical being who died for our sins. These subtle and irrelevant distinctions are dwarfed by the enormous gap between their magical beliefs and the real world.

But, as recently reported in the New York Times (June 30, International Report, page A6), the Anglican Communion (which includes the American Episocopal church) has 77 million members, and is the third largest grouping of churches in the world. This organization, headed by the archbishop of Canterbury, can thus exert a significant influence here on Earth. In 2003, the Episcopal Church consecrated a gay man, Rev. Gene Robinson, as bishop of the New Hampshire Diocese. This bold action has led to extensive discord among the Episcopalian churches in the U.S. And now, as reported in the above NY Times article, a large splinter group, led by Archbishop Peter Akinola of Nigeria, has threatened to form a new Anglican province that will reject the “false gospel” of the present Anglican church. It seems quite clear that the central issue here is homophobia, with the reactionary splinter group rejecting the concept that gays should be permitted to lead Anglican churches.

God knows (just kidding!) that organized religion has held back acceptance in this country both of scientific concepts like evolution, and of constitutional issues such as separation of church and state. But when it comes to acceptance of gays by the Anglican Communion, one religious group (the present Anglican church and liberal Episcopal churches in the U.S.) is on the right side, while the splinter group led by Peter Akinola and colleagues are attempting to roll back hard-won progress on tolerance of diversity in sexual orientation. This issue has significant real-world implications, and the religious liberals should be applauded for their efforts to further the full acceptance of gays in our world society.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Marx (and now Obama): "Religion is the Opiate of the Masses"

Marx penned this elegant aphorism in l843. And Barack Obama essentially rephrased Marx when he stated on April 6 that [working class people] “get bitter, they cling to guns or religion…as a way to explain their frustrations.” The similarity of the statements by Marx and Obama provided an opportunity for the neo-con William Kristol (who I read only with distaste) to mount a strong attack on Obama in his Op-Ed column in yesterday’s New York Times.

What Kristol doesn’t mention in his column is that Marx got it right (at least on this score). Organized religions do spin fairy tales that help the oppressed, including working-class Americans, deal with the vicissitudes of life. This seems especially true at times like the present when the cracks in capitalism become visible, and cause economic pain to all but the super-rich.

However, I have to agree with Kristol that in Obama’s April 6 speech, this usually eloquent and considerate speaker stumbled badly when he paraphrased Marx’s succinct summary of religion. I am, and continue to be, a strong supporter of Obama. And Obama was of course correct in his Marxist analysis of the economic pain that leads people to “cling” to religion (together with guns and antipathy). But Obama exhibited highly questionable judgment in making such a statement. It is both insensitive and impolitic to throw this kind of sentiment in the faces of true believers. Their natural responses will be at best indifference, and far more likely anger at the disparagement of the source of their deeply held religious beliefs. This kind of statement stands in violation of our American principle of tolerance of the beliefs of others. And events subsequent to Obama’s April 6 statement demonstrate its ability to precipitate ongoing attacks from many quarters, including his rival for the Democratic nomination.

I hope that Obama manages to proceed with his impressive campaign for the presidency without any further errors in judgment as serious and potentially far-reaching as the one he has just committed.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Darwin, Cosmology, Creationism, and Extinction

We have just celebrated the 199th anniversary of Darwin’s birth on February 12, 1809. But both the grandeur of Darwin’s theory of evolution, and its ability to provoke controversy, are undimmed by the passage of time.

Darwin’s evolutionary theory shares a property with some other great paradigm-shifting concepts: in retrospect it seems almost obvious. The theory consists of two exceedingly simple ideas: 1. organisms possess mechanisms (now known to act on DNA) that permit gradual changes in a population; and 2. in a given environment, only the fittest organisms will survive and thus propagate. But the originality and enormous significance of Darwin’s theory imply that he was the greatest and most important theoretical biologist the world has ever seen. Evolution is the key concept underlying everything we presently understand about the biology of organisms, including us humans. This theory is also the guiding principle undergirding all of modern-day biological and biomedical research.

And of course the “theory” of evolution has now been extensively proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, to be correct. Yes, there are aspects of evolution that are still in contention, partly because they don’t appear to strictly follow one or the other principles of Darwin’s theory. Stephen Jay Gould, an evolutionary biologist, wrote extensively about some of these outstanding issues. For example, he described what he termed “spandrels”, features in an organism that do not arise directly from evolutionary selection. One example is the human chin, which results from different rates of growth of bones in our jaws during development. Another concept, also championed by Gould, is “punctuated equilibrium”, in which evolution proceeds abruptly rather than smoothly. But these outstanding questions about aspects of evolution clearly don’t invalidate the theory, but instead provide interesting ongoing challenges for evolutionary biologists.

Yet polls show that at least half of Americans do not “believe” in the theory of evolution, but instead believe in alternative pseudo-scientific theories: first “creationism”, followed more recently by its shabbily disguised offspring, “intelligent design”. Why such widespread disbelief in evolution? Well, it’s partly explained by the 18th century scientist Georg Lichtenberg: “When a book and a head collide and there is a hollow sound, does the hollow sound always emanate from the book?”

But here’s a different way of looking at this question: why don’t the opponents of evolution also oppose progress in physics and cosmology? The answer seems simple: recent advances by physicists and cosmologists in our understanding of the universe generally make no direct statements about the origin of human life. However, there are some very recent, interesting, and pretty far-out cosmological theories, involving multiple universes in infinitely expanding space, that do make statements about all life, including of course human beings. These theories imply that the existence of life in our particular universe could be simply the outcome of a completely random process of universe production. I think it is probably fortunate for the cosmologists that these more recent theories are completely unknown to the general public.

By contrast, it is widely known that the theory of evolution states that we humans were not created in our “perfect” form by a Grand Creator, but that we instead evolved from lower, “baser” organisms. Even worse for the chances of this theory being accepted, it is quite clear that the process of evolution proceeds with no intervention whatsoever from a supernatural force.

This refusal by much of the public to accept evolution could be at least partially corrected by enlightened educational policies. However, schools in many parts of the country- one thinks especially of Kansas, of course, where history has recently tried to repeat itself- have done a poor job both in dispelling mystical beliefs in creationism, and in emphasizing the importance of science to our society. As recently as this past week, Florida rang in on this subject: state officials there decided that evolution can be taught, but only as a theory that has not been conclusively demonstrated. These officials, in their infinite wisdom, decided that Einstein’s relativity theory is also only a theory, but that Newton’s gravitational law can be taught as fact!

The federal government has also failed us, by permitting individual states like Kansas and Florida to develop their own policies on science education. This has left an intellectual gap in our society, with little to counter-act the teaching by members of some organized religions of a non-scientific, supernatural approach to our understanding of the origin and development of life on earth.

The rejection of evolution by at least half of all Americans is extremely frustrating to biologists and other scientifically literate individuals. Societal disbelief in the established theory of evolution is, to biologists, as ridiculous and insulting as rejection by the public of basic, proven concepts in physics, such as the laws of gravity and relativity, would be to physicists.

I very much hope that societal evolution will ultimately render the pseudo-theories of creationism and intelligent design, like the dinosaurs, extinct.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Infinite God or Infinite Universe?

Many people believe that God created the Universe. But who created God? The standard religious response seems to be: “Oh, no, that question is neither valid nor necessary. God is both eternal and has supernatural powers [i.e., powers that transcend natural law]. And anyway, our universe (containing us humans) is so wonderful that God must have have created it”.

In the field of cosmology, models are being considered in which the whole world (i.e., everything) has existed forever. In one such model, our little Universe is but one of many (maybe an infinite number) of similar entities. These universes are created all the time as little bubbles, produced by a “Big Bang” and then expanding rapidly, just like our universe. Like all scientific theories, these models are governed by natural laws [although in many cases these laws are still poorly understood.]

So, which should I choose: a God of infinite duration and supernatural powers; or a whole world (including our universe as maybe just a tiny part) that has existed forever? Well, each model is pretty dramatic, since one of them may ultimately account for everything we know about our universe, plus a whole lot that we will probably never know about other possible universes. The existence of multiple (perhaps an infinite number of) universes explains why our universe contains living beings- we live in one of the very small fraction of universes with physical laws consistent with life. So we wonderful human beings could well be the outcome of a completely random process of universe production!

Is it any more “amazing” to think that the clock of the entire world may have been been ticking for all eternity, than to believe in a God who has been around for the same duration, and employed his supernatural powers to created our universe? To my mind, neither model wins the “amazing” contest. But what greatly decreases the “amazing” quotient of either model is that, to our present knowledge, our universe(s) is a singular event. So I would ask: “amazing compared to what?”

Being a scientific rationalist (and also by Occam’s Razor), I would choose the universe of infinite existence over a creator of infinite duration and power. Of course, the whole shebang may be not be infinite, and may be composed only of our universe, starting with the Big Bang, and preceded by “nothing”. Then how did the Big Bang happen? Again, I believe that physical laws govern that singular occurrence, although sadly, we may never know these laws.

So, as I discussed in a previous post (“The God Assumption…”), there seems to be no need whatsoever to hypothesize the existence of a god(s).

Monday, January 28, 2008

An Irrational Love of Hymns

I have been an atheist for a long time. And for just about as long, I have had an irrational love of Christian hymns (my favorite is “Amazing Grace”). This started when I first learned the hymns at a summer camp, as we sang them on Sunday mornings in a clearing in the woods, surrounded by beautiful trees, sky, and mountains. I was inspired by the intensity of the words, but even more so by the beauty of the melodies as we all joined our voices in song. And to this day, I still enjoy singing hymns, and amaze the small fraction of my friends who are Christians by singing from memory multiple verses of many favorites. I of course believe virtually none of the concepts in these religious songs, but I still enjoy not only the melodies, but also the spiritual intensity of their sentiments. The same can of course be said for the beautiful, religiously inspired works of Bach, Haydn, etc.

But this points up the danger of hymns: their very intensity, pleasing and catchy melodies, and rhythmic qualities can sway people’s minds and direct their beliefs and their actions. This is true of course of any kind of polemical songs. One example of this power, far removed from hymns, are the “uplifting” Hitler Youth songs and Nazi anthems that were sung endlessly during Nazi propaganda marches.

A song by the country-singing Carter Family, “Diamonds in the Rough”, points up the power of hymns to convince, and even convert. The song begins:

While walking out one evening
Not knowing where to go
Just to pass the time away
Before we gave the show

I met a little salvation band
Singing with all its might
I gave my heart to Jesus
And left the show that night.

These two brief verses present a perfect parable of conversion by hymn: the wastrel, frittering away his time either in some kind of a secular show, or just walking around, hears a salvation group singing songs of devotion to Jesus. He immediately leaves the show, and presumably dedicates his life to the Saviour.

So I can't help retaining a sentimental love for hymns. But clearly, in the wrong hands- or minds- they can be insidious.