The Culture Beat

April 5, 2010

Crises on multiple realities

Filed under: Comics,Movies,Science,Television,Uncategorized — Alex @ 1:37 pm


This is a big year for alternate universes in pop culture. Where to begin? Last summer’s movie hit Star Trek rebooted the franchise by positing that a Romulan villain’s trip to the past that caused the death of the future Captain Kirk’s father, radically changed history. But it wasn’t by obliterating the long history of the Enterprise and its crew but by creating an alternate time stream with the same characters having different first meetings but still winding up together for some yet unwritten adventures.

And the J. J. Abrams sci-fi series Fringe, offered a mind-blowing revelation of a parallel universe impinging on the one of the main characters. But viewers of Abrams much more infamous series, Lost, are now experiencing alternate reality whiplash as the new and final season has left behind the series famous flashbacks and flash forwards to “flash-sideways” where we see the series’ characters living in a world in which Oceanic flight 815 never crashed on the island. Viewers are now asking which is the real world? Both? Neither? This picture of Jack Shephard in the Side-ways world suggests the parallel nature off his predicament.

It’s important to note that all of the above are part of Abrams’ Bad Robot productions with many of the same writers and producers using these concepts to create mind-bending tales whatever their understanding of or commitment to specific scientific theories.

Last night I watched JLA: Crisis on Two Earths, the latest in Warner Bros. direct-to-video movies featuring superheroes of the DC universe. The concept of multiple realities, based on the theory that every human choice creates a new universe, thus leading to a “multiverse” of infinite earths, feeds the concept of such stories. Despite the current vogue, the concept of parallel universes that are to some degree different from our own has spawned tales long before the 20th century. But instances of the science fiction thread discussed here can be found in television at least as early as several episodes of The Twilight Zone of the early 1960s and in the famous Star Trek episode, “Mirror, Mirror,” wherein Kirk finds himself on a different, barbaric Enterprise with a goateed Mr. Spock.

Comics got into the act when in 1961, DC Comics offered “Flash of Two Worlds,” the “Silver Age” tale of the original speedster, Jay Garrick, from the comics “Golden Age” of the 1940s, meeting the new Flash, Barry Allen, who had been the instrument of DC’s rebooting of its superhero stories by re-inventing classic characters in an updated form. To account for characters of the same name who didn’t live in the same world, DC borrowed the alternate reality concept and posited that the Jay Garrick earth was slightly ahead, history wise, of Barry Allen’s earth and that many of the same characters had their versions in each world. Thus we would see more and more DC characters re-introduced into current continuity as inhabitants of “Earth One” often crossing over to or being visited by their counterparts on “Earth Two.”

Eventually there were two Green Lanterns, Atoms, Hawkmans (Hawkmen?) and others each with their distinctly different costume designed that sent young readers’ brains spinning with wonder and delight. Periodic expansion of the concept led to the discovery of other earths, one with an “Crime Syndicate” that had evil counterparts to Superman, Wonder Woman and others and resisted by its lone hero, Lex Luthor in a topsy turvy reversal.

Eventually, by the 1980s, DC had accumulated so many characters and parallel earths that it did a major housecleaning with its historic 12-issue series, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” which saw the elimination of the multi-verse into a single universe. That tradition of dimensional crossovers is the basis of JLA: Crisis on Two Earths. The Batman criminal counterpart, Owlman (voiced by actor James Woods) does a surprising dive into philosophy by surmising that an infinite number of worlds created by choices makes human free will pointless and humanity insignificant. Thus it would be no crime if he was to set off a superbomb that will destroy the multiverse–just because he can. This isn’t the first time DC animators have delved into modern philosophy. In this YouTube clip from the Justice League series, titled here “Sartre and Superman,” the original evil Lex Luthor advises an android seeking purpose for his life, to go all existential and create his own purpose. Owlman shows his fidelity to his nihilist beliefs in the movie’s climax. This and a well-executed story lifts the movie out of simple bash and crash beat ’em ups.

Ultimately, none of these stories is meant to prove the reality of quantum physics. Writers just love to explore the dramatic story potential of parallel lives intertwining. Indeed, many are meditations on the consequences of human moral choices, again reminding us of the significance of our actions and the power of imagination.

Note: Soon after posting this, my buddy Thom Parham, also known as the “DCU Continuity Cop,” let me know of several errors of names of the complex DC history, which I’ve since corrected and for which I am grateful.

September 6, 2008

Thank God for evolution. Huh?

Filed under: Books,Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 4:12 pm

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“Nothing matters more at this time in history than what people think about evolution.”

We might expect that kind of universal claim to come from a passionate evangelist, and in a way that’s correct. Except that this preacher, Michael Dowd, says evolution is the good news.

Dowd, ordained in the United Church of Christ, and his wife of seven years, science writer Connie Barlow, travel the country full-time, preaching and teaching a surprising message: Rather than threaten or undermine faith, evolution can sustain, inform and even motivate religious belief.

“Both of us have this passion of telling the story of evolution in an inspiring way,” Dowd explained in a phone conversation this week. “We share the same purpose of communicating a science-based vision of the universe in a religious way.” (Dowd is pictured below. That guy caricatured above is a cartoon version of Charles Darwin — just in case you were sleeping through high school and college biology and the last 155 years.)

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They bring their message to Northeast Tennessee on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday, speaking at Holston Valley Unitarian-Universalist Church and First Presbyterian Church in Elizabethton. (For details, contact the Rev. Jacqueline Luck at (423) 477-7661 or the Rev. John Shuck at (423) 543-7737.) Dowd published a 430-page book last fall with an eye-catching title: “Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World” (Viking). He also runs a Web site.

His missionary zeal for “evolutionary theology” comes from a conviction that evolution itself provides meaning to existence by creating – yes, creating – a “holy trajectory” from simplicity to ever-greater complexity.

“Humans are part of that process,” Dowd said. “The universe became complex enough so that it could be aware of itself. We’re not separate from nature. It’s nature becoming aware of itself.”

He believes that as religious traditions accept this understanding, “they’ll see their truths are more real, more visceral.” This view of the cosmos stands in contrast with evolutionary thinking that leaves little room for purpose or meaning.

“When I talk to conservative audiences,” Dowd said, “I tell them they’re right to reject evolution mostly as a chance, purposeless process. I present evolution in a God-glorifying, Christ-edifying, Scripture-honoring way.”

In his view, humans represent a high-water mark in evolutionary development: we are conscious of ourselves and seek relationships not only with other humans but with the “ultimate reality” itself. In Dowd’s vocabulary, the proper name we give that ultimate reality is God.

Language is another bridge linking science and religion, according to Dowd. When we understand how language developed, he said, “All concepts of God and religion make complete sense.”

All societies grow up with what he calls “night language … the language of dreams and metaphors that humans have used through their history to explain the world.

“These stories speak deep subjective truth,” he said. “The story of the fall in the Garden of Eden – that’s profoundly true in night language. Then science comes along … and puts down night language, speaks only in ‘day language,’ which is literal and fact-based. Myths are pushed aside. Of course the religionists react against that.”

But the two “languages” not only exist together. They help interpret each other.

“Science and religion cannot be only reconciled – that’s lame,” Dowd said. “There’s mutual enhancing. The scientific enterprise can’t avoid the question of meaning, or it goes off into destruction. The Nazis showed us that. Religion is enriched by being grounded in the world of day language and concepts.”

At first glance, this sounds like the old argument that science and religion operate in different spheres and answer different questions. But not really: Dowd wants to “marry” science and religion, not divorce them. To him, scientific study is a spiritual discipline and religious belief must be informed by science. (“Facts are God’s native tongue,” he likes to say.)

Thinking of evolution as the great purpose of existence, directing us to a God as “the ultimate reality,” doesn’t fit easily with long-held beliefs. Dowd’s most persistent criticism comes from “those who take their metaphors literally.” (His book includes about 120 endorsements from religious leaders, philosophers and scientists, including five Nobel laureates. Theologically conservative Christian, Jewish and Islamic scholars are notable by their absence.)

But look at the world through this lens, says Dowd, and we can see a 21st-century road to salvation.

“Evolution understood in a sacred, meaningful way is really good news,” Dowd said. “It bridges all those old divides between head and heart, between science and religion.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 6 Sept. 2008.

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July 14, 2008

When it comes to archeology, let the dust settle

Filed under: Faith Issues,Science,The Church — Culture Beat @ 4:23 pm

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The latest bombshell from the world of biblical archeology hit the headlines about two weeks ago: A stone – the size of a coffee table, with neat Hebrew writing from a few decades before Jesus’ birth – may refer to an anointed one, or messiah, who would rise from the dead after three days.

The find would rattle Christianity to the core, some scholars exclaimed, since it pre-dates Gospel accounts of Jesus’ resurrection.

But as quick as you can say “apocalyptic Jewish literature,” other scholars challenged that conclusion, including Christopher Rollston, professor of Old Testament and Semitics at Emmanuel School of Religion in Johnson City.

As Rollston points out, the writing (dubbed the “Gabriel vision text” because the message claims to be sent through the angel Gabriel) is very fragmentary: many letters, words and entire lines of text are missing. Also, the possible messianic references – and those are questionable – run parallel to other writings from the same era.

“There’s nothing significant” religiously in the finding, Rollston concludes. “It’s interesting and important, but doesn’t impact any modern faith, be it Judaism or Christianity. This interpretation will not stand the test of time.”

Rollston regards this sensational story as the latest example of how easy it is to misinterpret, exaggerate or, in some cases, even mislead about archeological findings and their importance.

Biblical archeology is a complex discipline, with scholars working on expeditions and painstaking analysis for years, even decades. Research can focus on minuscule details, such as subtle differences in tool marks or letter forms, and even microscopic traces of materials remaining after thousands of years.

But archeology is also shadowed by seedy antiquities markets, dubious artifacts and outright forgeries, not to mention occasional rogue scholars who publish breathtaking theories often based on slim evidence.

So while scholars can uncover and decipher astounding finds that can reshape our understanding of a culture, a historical era or a sacred text – the Dead Sea Scrolls come to mind – they also endure overblown claims, public feuds and even law suits. Rollston has seen it all.

In 2007 he was called to Israel to testify as an expert witness in the trial of five individuals accused by the Israeli Antiquities Authority of forgery of antiquities.

Now he is in the middle of another debate, this one over a small stone seal (pictured above) that a few scholars say belonged to Queen Jezebel, the notorious wife of King Ahab described in the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Kings. Rollston has challenged that conclusion on several grounds – that the theory is largely based on imaginatively “restoring” unknown missing letters, that the seal lacks any title or family reference, that it uses a style of writing that didn’t exist in Jezebel’s time, and more. This is a scholarly dispute, not a legal one, but it’s heated up the pages of academic journals for months.

Ironically, Rollston said he doesn’t care whether the seal belonged to the biblical Jezebel – a detachment he maintains when studying any artifact or ancient inscription.

“Whether there’s a possible relevance to a biblical text is a non-issue for me,” said Rollston, who earned his doctorate and taught at Johns Hopkins University before coming to Emmanuel in 2001. “I think that gives me an edge. Verifying a biblical text should never be the goal of a historian, because if it is, people can strain to find things they desperately want to be true, and that affects their judgment in a negative way.”

Forgers and publicity seekers are more than happy to exploit the desire to connect artifacts with the Bible. Most fakes contain references to famous biblical characters, according to Rollston.

He advises people to “let the dust settle” when some scholarly commotion makes headlines. Rather than accept sensational stories at face value, we should look at the credentials of people making the claims – as well as their critics – and find out what reputable, “methodical and cautious” scholars say before reaching any conclusions.

Rollston said his goal is “knowledge for the sake of knowledge,” which, he hopes, will increase understanding of a text or its setting. Good scholarship can inform faith, but it can’t substitute for it.

“Having good data is never a problem for people of faith. We’re created in the image of God, with intellectual capabilities, and he expects us to use that,” Rollston said. “People have nothing to fear from knowledge. It may transform their faith.”

First published in the Johnson City (Tenn.) Press, 12 July 2008.

June 2, 2006

Does this argument hold water?

Filed under: Books,Science,Uncategorized — Alex @ 2:24 pm

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A recent opinion piece from the Wall Street Journal‘s online site argues that there’s room for compromise in setting abortion policy. Hoover Institute Fellow Peter Berkowitz, in critiquing National Review writer Ramesh Ponnuru’s book, The Party of Death, says that Ponnuru is asking too much by insisting that, because abortion is murder, from the moment of conception to birth, there is a developing human child that must be protected, no exceptions.

But Berkowitz lost me when I came to this paragraph:

At the core of “The Party of Death” is the argument that an embryo has the same claim on us as a newborn child because, from the moment of conception, it contains the genetic structure of a unique human being. It doesn’t matter to Mr. Ponnuru that this argument flies in the face of a complex intuition that seems to underlie the American ambivalence: Invisible to the naked eye, lacking body or brain, feeling neither pleasure nor pain, radically dependent for life support, the early embryo, though surely part of the human family, is distant and different enough from a flesh-and-blood newborn that when the early embryo’s life comes into conflict with other precious human goods or claims, the embryo’s life may need to give way. Deciding just which goods and claims are compelling is, of course, agonizingly difficult but does not, in itself, place one beyond the pale.

Either one believes that life begins at conception and thus, destroying that life is simply wrong and not open to compromise, or I suppose you must believe that at a certain point, the status of a life worthy of protection emerges during the nine-month period (although, with the defence of partial-birth abortion, even a child viable outside of the womb can be killed, so the courts have even upheld that atrocity). Berkowitz doesn’t specify what “other precious human goods or claims” trump the life of the child and I fear that leaving this so vague puts us back in a de facto system of abortion upon deman. The nature of life and death are inherently absolute and thus I find it difficult to entertain or even understand Berkowitz’ notions of compromise on this issue.

February 21, 2006

More on the “God Genome”

Filed under: Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 6:09 pm

Over at The American Scene, Ross Douhat also read Leon Wieseltier’s “hatchet job” on Daniel C. Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell.” Douhat calls it

remarkable how arguments recur, decade after decade, and the attempt to debunk religion by “explaining” its origins is a chestnut that will doubtless be trotted out by the Daniel Dennetts of the twenty-fifth century, just as Dennett himself seems to be mainly offering a gloss, fortified by the dubious insights of evolutionary psychology, on the efforts of earlier debunkers like Sigmund Freud and H.G. Wells.

Douhat writes that he’s

perpetually puzzled by the notion that speculation about the evolutionary origins of a human impulse could possibly serve as a rebuttal to the belief systems that this impulse gave rise to. It’s rather like my trying to demolish someone’s belief in the correctness of Lockean liberalism by explaining that political theory originated because primitive man was a social creature who needed to devise a theoretical framework for the power relations on the African savannah. Or perhaps more aptly, it’s as if I were to rebut Darwin’s theory of evolution by insisting that man only became interested in the other animals in the first place because he was worried about being eaten by them.

Exactly, it’s analogous to the search for the “gay gene.” In both instances, there’s an assumption that a credible (or even not-so-credible) materialistic-slash-“natural” explanation for a phenomenon obviates any insight that religion and/or philosophy might provide — science has spoken and everyone else must shut up.

There’s more good stuff at Douhat’s site. It’s worth checking out.

February 20, 2006

The “God Genome”

Filed under: Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 7:56 pm

The “limits of science” hits just keep coming, this time in the form of a review of Daniel C. Dennett’s (Darwin’s Dangerous Idea) new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenom. Dennett’s latest opus receives a thorough pimp-slapping from the greatest slapper of pimps (at least those who have overstepped their competence) Leon Wieseltier, the long-time literary editor of the New Republic.

In his New York Times review, Wieseltier calls “Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical” a “superstition.” He takes Dennett to task for his “excited materialism,” by which he means “biological, economic and technological ways of describing the purposes of human existence . . .” He characterizes Dennett’s book as

a document of the intellectual havoc of our infamous polarization, with its widespread and deeply damaging assumption that the most extreme statement of an idea is its most genuine statement. Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism, in a purely naturalistic understanding of religion or in intelligent design, in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky.

This biological reductionism, for which Dennett fancies himself a “hero” and David Hume’s “heir,” leaves him “unable to imagine a fact about us that is not a biological fact” and translating “emotions and ideas into evo-psychobabble.” As I said, a thorough pimp-slap.

Read, mark, learn and inwardly digest.

Gods & Peanuts

Filed under: Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 3:04 pm

My previous post about DNA and the Mormons reminded me of something I wrote a while back about the relationship between faith, reason and science. It’s a bit long but, with a view minor edits, I still think that it’s still worthwhile. (Oh, the vanity!)

Gods and Peanuts

Thirty-eight years ago, Arno Panzias and Robert W. Wilson of Bell Labs were trying to figure out the source of background noise that interfered with radio communications. What they discovered was nothing less than the origin of the universe. The interference was caused by a background signal that was uniform throughout the sky. That signal was radiation left over from the Big Bang. Since then, “most astrophysicists have accepted the notion that the universe began [in] . . . an unimaginably powerful event in which all the matter and energy in the cosmos expanded outward from a tiny speck within a fraction of a second.” The passing resemblance to the idea of creation ex nihilo, combined with the assumption that this event was unique, has prompted some folks to see the Big Bang Theory as a quasi-vindication of Christian ideas about creation.

As Lee Corso of ESPN’s “College Football Gameday” likes to say, “not so fast, my friend.” In 2002, Paul J. Steinhardt of Princeton and Neil Turok of Cambridge published their own take on the Big Bang and the origins of the universe. While they agree with all but one second’s worth of the current understanding of the Big Bang, that one second makes all the difference. Using “string theory,” which posits a “multidimensional substructure of space and matter,” they postulate that ours is only the latest in series rationes of “bangs and expansions.” Matter and the visible universe are the product of the interplay between a membrane containing this visible universe and one containing a “dark matter” universe. (Approximately 90 percent of the matter in the universe, as determined by the rotation speed of the galaxies, is unaccounted for. This unaccounted-for matter is called “dark matter.”) Eventually the old universes expand themselves out of existence and a new expansion cycle begins.

This cyclical account of the origin of the universe bears more than a passing resemblance to what is depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat in Cambodia: two teams, the forces of light and darkness, playing tug-of-war with a serpent. The churning created by this interplay of forces is the source of life. In other words, if Steinhardt and Turok’s theory gains acceptance, you can expect a representative of the Nahasapeemapetilon Institute for The Defence of Hindu Worldview & Cricket Proliferation (Motto: Visualize Wicket Maidens) named Apu to cite their theories as a quasi-vindication of Hindu worldview, especially in fundraising letters.

This apparent reversal of fortune in the competition between worldviews is a reminder of how provisional scientific knowledge often is. Hypotheses that were regarded as good as proven, e.g., “classic” Big Bang, are often overturned, or least cast into doubt, within a few decades. For instance, the long-accepted explanation for hominid bi-pedalism ― in other words, why humans walk on two legs ― is known as the “out of the savannah” hypothesis. Changes in East Africa’s climate millions of years ago turned forests into grasslands. These environmental changes, to grossly oversimplify the matter, are what led our ancestors to walk upright. Then along came Orrorin Tugenensis, a six million-year-old hominid found in Kenya in December 2000. Not only did this hominid walk on two legs, he also lived at a time when East Africa was still forested.

In less than eighteen months, the “out of the savannah” theory went from most-favored-explanation status to being ― how shall I put it? ― a theory in crisis. Now, a credible rival theory states that proposes living in trees as the most likely explanation for bi-pedalism . (Observe the differences in the way that chimpanzees and orangutans walk on two legs and you’ll get the drift of that theory.) What’s even more interesting is the physical evidence that has prompted this potential, if you’ll forgive my language, paradigm shift: a collection of bones that could comfortably fit inside your cupped hands, or at least Shaq’s. The best evidence for bi-pedalism is the hip bone, but no such bone has ever been found for Orrorin. Bipedalism has been inferred from CAT scans of Orrorin’s femur. In other words, it doesn’t take much to rewrite conventional scientific wisdom.

That’s why citing any scientific fact more provisional than “water expands at four degrees Celsius” as evidence for the Christian faith is a dicey proposition. One day cosmology “proves” a Christian worldview, soon afterwards, it makes putting a shrine to an elephant god ― please don’t offer him a peanut! ― at the Kwik-E-Mart a reasonable act.

So what do we do? Retreating into the kind of obscurantism that imagines the deck of Noah’s Ark as resembling the set of “One Million Years B.C.,” minus Racquel Welch in the animal-skin bikini, isn’t the answer, just in case you were wondering. Nor should we regard the provisional quality of scientific knowledge I alluded to above as an excuse to disregard or dismiss this knowledge. We need to respect science, i.e., engaging science with an open mind, while recognizing the inherent limits of any appeal to science.

If you were to open tomorrow’s New York Times and find an op-ed, written by Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, entitled “We Give Up. There is a Supreme Intelligence Behind it All!” where would that leave us? At about 600 B.C., when Parmenides wrote that “the multiplicity of existing things, their changing forms and motion, are but an appearance of a single eternal reality” or “being.” This more closely resembles, superficially at least, the Buddhist idea of the Atman than it does the Christian idea of the God who is both pantokrator, creator of all things, and the loving abba.

The journey to that idea will last another 1,000 years ― until the fourth and fifth centuries when the synthesis of Hebrew and Greek thought was most profoundly expressed in the creeds of the Church ― and is paved by revelation. The kind of revelation that, now as then, offends contemporary sensibilities because of its impolitic and scandalous particularity. We know that “in the beginning. God created the Heavens and the earth” because, in raising Jesus from the dead, he fulfilled all that he had promised a particular people, and showed us that what he had spoken “to our forefathers in many and varied ways through the prophets,” including about the Who and why of creation, was true. We, or at least some of us, believe that the risen Lord gave us his Holy Church, which he guides and vouchsafes in the task of separating truth from falsehood, reality from idle speculation and error.

This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often you can hear the words “Christian worldview” and not hear the words “faith” or “revelation” in same day, never mind the same talk. I’m not advocating a distrust of reason, much less a flight from it. As St. Thomas wrote, there is no conflict between faith and reason. As his memorable formulation puts it, reason is the ancilla, the handmaiden, of faith. While the truth of the Christian faith “exceeds the capacity of human reason,” these truths don’t eliminate what reason teaches us; they perfect it. But as Thomas would tell us, reason can only tell us that there is a God. It’s grace and revelation that prompts us to worship him in the manner that Christians do. And we do well to remember that reason isn’t synonymous with the state of scientific knowledge at any given moment. On the contrary, much of what of what is often called “scientific fact” resembles what Thomas would’ve called “probable” or “sophistic” arguments (probabiles vel sophisticae).

Which brings me back to Steinhardt and Turok. Their announcement was the stuff of really neat NOVA episodes on PBS, but I wouldn’t make room for Ganesha on my mantle just yet. That’s because Christian faith is made from something more powerful and more mysterious than the dark matter at the heart of this latest explanation for what is seen and unseen: the indestructible life of the One through whom everything was made.

February 19, 2006

Double Helixes

Filed under: Faith Issues,Science — Culture Beat @ 6:51 pm

A recent story in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Bedrock of a Faith is Jolted”, tells an all-too-familiar story about the dislocation that results when science falsifies a faith’s core beliefs.

If you’re thinking “not another story about Genesis and evolution,” you really couldn’t be more wrong.

The faith in question is the Latter Day Saints, a.k.a., the Mormons. The particular belief being falsified is the teaching that “millions of . . . Native Americans [are] descended from a lost tribe of Israel that reached the New World more than 2,000 years ago.” The Book of Mormon, which Mormons believe “restored the church to God’s original vision and left the rest of Christianity in a state of apostasy,” teaches that “a tribe of Jews” sailed “from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 BC and split into two main warring factions.” This teaching has been used as a “prime conversion tool in Central and South America.”

As the LA Times headline suggests, science tells a very different story about the peopling of the Americas. Both archeology and genetics tell us that the Native Americans (or First Nations, as they’re called in Canada) are the descendants of people who came to the Americas from Northeast Asia during the last Ice Age. Both their mitochondrial (maternal) DNA and Y (paternal) DNA link them to people living today in the Altay region on the Siberian-Mongolian border. (The tantalizing outliers are the native peoples living around the Great Lakes. Their DNA suggest the possibility that their ancestors may have come from northwest Europe, not the Middle East, approximately 10,000, not 2600, years ago. However, people with similiar DNA mutations have recently been found living in the area around Lake Baikal in Siberia. Occam’s razor, baby.)

While plenty of questions about the “how” and “when” of human settlement in the New World remain, the “where from” is as settled as scientific questions outside of physics (there’s a reason Stephen Jay Gould coined the expression “physics envy”) get. Or to put it differently, science has effectively falsified the idea that Native Americans/First Nations are descended from Iron Age Semites. (I am but I’m neither a Native American nor a Mormon.)

The Mormon response to this science was summarized by William Saletan of Slate as

1) DNA evidence is being twisted by enemies of the church. 2) Maybe the folks who came from the lost tribe were few, and their DNA was “swamped” by immigrants from Asia. Try falsifying that! 3) “The Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science.” 4) We’re “willing to live in ambiguity.”

Mollie Ziegler at Get Religion doesn’t disagree with Saletan’s synopsis but, instead, asks why the Los Angeles Times is covering it now. The story isn’t new — the LDS “even put up a site for media specifically dealing with DNA and the Book of Mormon.”

At the risk of answering a rhetorical question and seeming even more obtuse than usual, I’d say the answer is obvious: to the LA Times and the rest of the prestige media, the Mormon-DNA story is a corollary to the Kitzmiller v. Dover Intelligent Design case and other stories about the “conflict” between religion and science, a corollary that, frankly, many small “o” orthodox Christians don’t discourage. It’s yet another “example” of the “bind” that religious believers find themselves in as science undermines the “cores” of their various belief systems.

Two things: first, that sound you hear is the sound of my back breaking in two as I bend over backwards to be fair and non-snarky. Second, as you may have guessed by my use of scare-quotes in the previous paragraph, I think that the corollary being described sucks for air and I do wish that both the media and orthodox Christians would stop making connections where there are none.

That’s right, none. There’s a world of difference between “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” or “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness,'” and saying that the aboriginal Americans were descended from Iron Age Semites. The last statement is scientifically fasifiable. The first two aren’t because, among other reasons, God’s activity cannot be scientifically proven or disproven and, almost as important, pace what you may have been told, there is no agreed-upon interpretation of the above-cited passages from Genesis, at least beyond a basic theological and metaphysical level. (As Alister McGrath argued in The Twilight of Atheism, much of the perceived conflict between Genesis and science is, in reality, a conflict between an — historically speaking — idiosyncratic reading of Genesis and some scientists.)

This difference between the respective truth claims is why it chaps my E3b ass when Mormon spokesmen say stuff like “the truth is, the Book of Mormon will never be proved or disproved by science.” Sure it will and, from where I’m sitting, it just was. (The back pain got to be too much.) Genetics and archeology leave Latter Day Saints in a position much closer to Native Americans and other aboriginal people who, when confronted with the evidence, say something like “the creation stories of Native Americans do not involve migrations across the Bering land bridge” and then stick their fingers in their ears and hum, than to orthodox Christianity.

Such a response doesn’t even warrant the description fideism, at least not as understood by the Church Fathers, Pascal or Kierkegaard. Instead of insisting that there are limits to what reason can tell us, it’s a wholesale flight from reason altogether. Instead of, like Tertulian, saying that “the Son of God died; it is by all means to be believed, because it is absurd,” it’s being indifferent to whether something is absurd or not because someone told you that you had no choice but to believe it. (If you’re tempted to draw comparisons to Catholicism, don’t bother — you’ll only be demonstrating your ignorance of Catholic thought.)

I’m hardly an expert on Mormonism but I do know a thing or six about the Christian tradition and, while Christianity holds faith and reason in a creative tension, it doesn’t advocate this kind of flight from reason. The “absurdity” that Christians believe may turn reason on its head — Chesterton’s definition of paradox — to get our attention but it doesn’t require us to ignore the evidence; it “merely” asks us to transcend our preconceptions about what is possible, especially when it comes to the God and what St. Paul called the “mystery of our redemption,” which, last time I checked, had nothing to say about Native Americans or how they got they got here.

January 9, 2006

Look Outside the Ship Now

Filed under: Science,The Church — Culture Beat @ 8:44 pm

As part of her job at NASA, David’s mom, Debbie, spent time at the first Soviet, then Russian, spaceport at Baikonur in central Asia. I can still remember the horrified look on her face as she told me about the primitive facilities: planks with holes that were called “toilets.”

In the past decade, a lot has changed and I don’t mean the toilets. (One can only hope.)
This article at MSNBC.com (H/T NRO’s “The Corner”) tells readers that

for almost half a century, Russian rockets and space travelers have assaulted the heavens from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, the Soviet spaceport in Central Asia that was portrayed as the shining symbol of a communist future. Now one of the last sights for departi ng space crews is the shiny domes of a new Russian Orthodox church — where they have their own way of reaching toward heaven.

Baikonur

was originally named “Leninsk” in honor of the founder of the Soviet state, a champion of the official atheism under which priests were imprisoned and churches were burned. Cosmonauts in the Soviet era were often quoted as joking, “We have been to heaven, and didn’t see God there.”

Then

in a radical cultural revolution, the collapse of the Soviet regime in 1991 unleashed a long-underground religious impulse even among the elite of Soviet society, “rocket scientists” and the military hierarchy.

Today,

“Almost every cosmonaut brings with him into space his personal icons,” said Gennady Padalka, who commanded the 9th expedition aboard the international space station in 2004. In addition, a copy of the famous icon of “St. Mary of Kazan” is displayed on a panel in the Russian segment of the station. It was placed there in 2000 by the very first long-term crew.

And, clearly, Russians don’t spend a lot of time in the American blogospher because — get this! — they think that faith and intelligence go together

[Father Sergey] attributes the church’s success to the highly educated populace, most of whom work at the Baikonur Cosmodrome. “Nearly ninety percent of the population of Baikonur is comprised of people with a higher education,” he told the Ekspress K newspaper in June. “I am convinced that educated people are able to progress much faster on a spiritual ladder, and the Baikonur parish is a shining example of this.”

Time to take another look out that window.

December 25, 2005

Turning Japanese?

Filed under: Politics,Science,Technology — Culture Beat @ 10:37 am

The lede from a story in the Christmas Eve — talk about irony! — New York Times (hat tip: Ross Douhat via Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish) said it all:

Japan’s population declined this year for the first time since the country began keeping demographic records in 1899, according to preliminary figures released by the government this week.

Given Japan’s notoriously low birthrate, 1.29 births per woman, its population is expected to both drop and grow older: from 128 million today to half of that in 2100 and people over 65 are expected to be 30 percent of the population within 20 years.

Make that “was expected.” “The decrease, which specialists say signals the start of an era of shrinking population, occurred two years earlier than had been expected.” That suggests that the problem, which threatens not only Japan’s economy but, at the least, its sense of identity and, at the most, its very existence, may be worst than predicted.

What we know for certain is that, in Times-speak “government policies [appear] to be ineffective in raising the birthrate . . .” You think? I’ve written about this many times and, at the risk of repeating myself, low fertility rates resist governmental incentives like the ones Japan has employed because the reason for low birth rates isn’t, as the Times believes, “a pervasive pessimism about the future,” at least not primarily.

When the Times notes that “in the past decade, Japanese companies have relied increasingly on contract workers instead of hiring costly staff employees,” it neglects to mention that Japan’s birthrate began to fall long before that: during the height of “Japan, Inc.” with its promise of lifetime employment.

While economics plays a role in falling birthrates, (it could hardly do otherwise) that role is hard to pin down: hard times seem to lead to falling birthrates, e.g., smaller American families during the Great Depression. Likewise, prosperity nearly always produces lower birthrates, e.g., everywhere.

If something — let’s call it “E” for economics — produces both a thing and its opposite, then it’s reasonable to suspect that the best explanation lies, if not elsewhere, then in that “something” plus something else: in this case, E plus “C,” as in culture. Falling birthrates are shaped by our attitudes, beliefs, and priorities. Are children ends or means? Are they why we work or an obstacle to be overcome as we build our careers? Do women feel that childbearing will be held against them at work? Do men contribute more than sperm and a portion of their income to the care and nuture of their children?

Given the sui generis quality of Japanese culture, it’s best not to draw any broader conclusions from their predicament save one: not only are cultural attitudes unresponsive to economic incentives, once they’ve taken hold, they are tough, if not impossible, to reverse. That’s why once birthrates begin to drop they tend to zoom past “replacement level,” 2.1 births per woman, straight to the national suicide levels we see in Japan, Korea and Western Europe. People don’t think “while having four kids is bad, having two is good.” They view having kids, regardless of the number, as problematic on both a personal and public level.

This is what we call anti-natalism, which is why I’m pessimistic about Japan’s future, albeit for very different reasons than the Times.

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