The monthly newsletter of the Internet Infidels
Newsletters ● 1999 ● May
In this issue:
Eric Roode has put together an excellent voter's guide for the 2000 U.S. Presidential Election. If you are a U.S. citizen, 18 years or older on or before election day, then now is the time to register to vote. Go to the League of Women Voters directory, click on your state, and find out how to register to vote. Register first, then check out our voter's guide.
Published new paper "At the Intersection of 'Metaphysical Naturalism' and 'Intelligent Design'" by Bill Schultz.
By G.A. Wells
Internet Infidels' Review:
Each month mathew dredges the bottom of the net to bring to you strange religious claims, flim-flam schemes, pop-culture memes gone awry, and the downright superstitious. Can your browser handle the upgrade to web.scan? This month, find out how time warriors from the 28th Century ordered Bill Clinton to bomb Iraq, and ask yourself why Richard Hoagland continues to ignore overwhelming evidence of another sinister face on Mars. See crystal castles in the lunar sky, hear how a flat earth at the center of the universe helps with superstring theory, and learn how the Copernican sun-centered solar system was promoted by the Freemasons.
Gleason, Daniel. (1998): The Gematria Mysteries of Jesus Christ. Available online at: http://www.jesus8880.com/homepage.htm. 400 pages (180 diagrams). $20.00.
The Greek text of three of the four gospels and the book of Revelation, Gleason argues, are filled with hidden meaning based on the lost literary art called gematria. Gematria is "mathematical divination" or the process of encoding values within words that have double meanings, an ordinary one for public consumption and a sacred one known only to cult members. In religious writings of the ancient world, only those who were initiated into the sect knew the numerological significance of the encoded words. One example Gleason provides in the book is of the Greek sun god Mithras and his Egyptian equivalent Abraxas. Each letter of Mithras (MeiqraV = 40+5+10+9+100+1+200) adds up to 365; similarly, Abraxas (AbracaV = 1+2+100+1+60+1+200) also adds up to 365, the number of days in one solar year. One famous example from the New Testament book of Revelation involves the so-called number of the beast: "Wisdom is needed here; one who understands can calculate the number of the beast, for it is the number of a man, and the number of it is 666" (Rev. 13:18). Gleason reveals the identity of the "beast" in his work. Gleason also discusses at length the gematria value of Jesus (Greek = Iesous), the secret wisdom-sayings of the Gospel of Thomas, encoded values in the Synoptic gospels, and the full history behind the gematria mathematical superstition. Interested readers can find out more and download the first chapter online at http://www.jesus8880.com/homepage.htm.
"Bless this food, dear Lord," George Fox University Professor Phil Smith prayed softly into the microphone, "and may we receive it in the spirit in which you gave it to us." The Christians seated around the banquet tables in the large student union had their heads bowed reverently while the nonbelievers, lost in their own thoughts, waited patiently for the thanksgiving prayer to finish. Smith's eyes were shut tight, his squint magnified by his thick glasses. When he had finished the prayer, a chorus of deep "amens" echoed through the large hall. Now that the food had been blessed, the attendees at the Society of Christian Philosophers (SCP) were ready to march up to the buffet table and eagerly partake of their fair share. Here, among theist and atheist thinkers from all parts of the globe, future philosophical arguments and debates would begin to take shape.
The SCP was founded in 1978. The purpose of the society is to promote fellowship among Christian philosophers and to stimulate study and discussion of the issues that arise within Christianity and academic philosophy. The current president is Nicholas Wolterstorff at Yale University. The society is broadly ecumenical in composition with respect to Christian denomination, theological perspective, and philosophical orientation. Membership is open to any person who classifies himself or herself as both a philosopher and a Christian. However, anyone who is interested in philosophy may attend the conference. Jeffery Jay Lowder and I decided, therefore, that the SCP's Pacific Regional Meeting held on April 8-10, 1999 at George Fox University in Newberg, Oregon, would be incomplete without the presence of two Internet Infidels.
Amidst the clank of utensil on plate after everyone had been served their food, conversation quickly turned back to philosophical talk of space and time, the veridicality of belief in God, Darwinian arguments from evil, and whether or not so and so will finally retire from teaching this year. Somewhere off in a corner a student played a sleepy melody on a grand piano. At our table, Peter Forrest of the University of New England in Australia resumed a topic near and dear to his heart: the disambiguation of time. "The transcendentalist doesn't really levitate," he asserted while holding his hand out flat and slowly raising it up to mimic the yogi's feat. "Instead," Forrest continued, "he loses the distinction between the normal passage of time and the passive temporal order in which the flow of time seems to slow to a crawl." A graduate student next to him who had been carefully listening frowned. Forrest seemed energized by this skepticism and his grin spread wider on his face while his brown tangled hair bounced wildly. Clearly, Forrest was happiest when the subject gravitated toward A- and B-theories of time and whether or not time passes in discrete units or was rather like Plato's "moving image of eternity."
After everyone had eagerly devoured the baked salmon and cheesecake, Paul K. Moser, Professor of Philosophy at Loyola University, delivered the keynote address. However, to my embarrassment I found that one thing kept distracting me from his interesting presentation. No matter how hard I tried to ignore it, I couldn't help but notice that Moser bore a striking resemblance to the popular portrayals of Jesus Christ. From his shoulder-length brown hair, to his sparkling eyes, long thin nose, and carefully trimmed beard, I would have believed the chef were he to tell me that Moser himself divided just two salmon into two hundred for our banquet that night. Moser's talk was passionate and he was obviously in command of his material. He argued that to seek propositional belief that God exists was tantamount to idolatry because it seeks the knowledge of God rather than a relationship with God. "For our own good," Moser said, "we are not in charge of God or of available evidence for God. We must know God as Reconciling Lord of our lives, given God's redemptive program."
Thus, a proper epistemology, Moser insisted, is one that seeks a relationship with the redeeming God of Israel rather than one that seeks justified true belief that God exists. To seek mere existence of God, Moser said, is to trivialize God and to put God into human terms. Only when one is properly oriented toward God can one see that life is a gift. Then one can behave accordingly with "self-giving trust, gratitude, and humility" toward God. The atheist, Moser pronounced, sees the universe as an accidental fluke; therefore, he responds to the universe with "self-protecting control, self-crediting, fear, striving, and pride." While the atheist experiences "despair, pessimism, anxiety, and worry," Moser argued, the Christian experiences "hope, optimism, mercy, and forgiveness." Moser called the proper view of God an "epistemology of Gesthemene" which is to say, "not my will but Thy Will."
Opening the conference's First Plenary Session on Thursday morning, Professor Paul Draper, Florida International University delivered a paper entitled "Seeking but not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic." "I've got to warn you guys," Draper had told us shortly beforehand, "the paper I'm about to give will appeal greatly to the theists." Draper did not disappoint. Before his talk began, he asked everyone to pray for Brian Leftow, who had been scheduled to deliver a paper but was too ill to attend the conference. In his presentation, Draper argued that he was a fence sitter because the evidence both for and against naturalism and theism was evenly divided. Draper used the analogy of red and blue jelly beans to illustrate the evidence that came to bear on the problem of naturalism versus theism. A red bean represented a piece of evidence in favor of naturalism while a blue bean represented an argument that seemed to weigh in favor of theism. With a total of five red beans and five blue beans, Draper was undecided about the issue and remarked that he needed more time to weigh all of the arguments. "I'm waiting, indeed hoping, to be pulled over to one side," he confessed. Draper's honesty seemed to set the right tone for the conference. While both theists and atheists alike would fervently disagree, everyone had the utmost respect for opposing points of view.
During the break, Phil Fernandes, an evangelical Christian minister who described himself as coming from the Van Tillian school of thought, recognized Jeff and walked up to say hello. "Still in the Infidel business?" he asked with a grin. "What else?" Jeff replied. Fernandes was an affable fellow, stocky and athletic, quick with a smile and possessing an engaging personality. After introducing him to Theodore Drange, Jeff introduced Fernandes to me. "Oh yeah, you're the guy who wrote a bad review of my book," Fernandes said slowly while tightly gripping my hand. I quickly tried to recall what his book was about and what I had said but my mind went blank. "I hope it wasn't too awful," I offered in reply. "Well," he said, "some of my colleagues were pretty upset by what you wrote but I wasn't bothered by it too much." We were late for the second plenary session so we quickly wrapped up our introductions. William Lane Craig, from the Talbot School of Theology, was going to speak on naturalism, cosmology, and present his trademark kalam cosmological argument for the existence of God. Quentin Smith of Western Michigan University would provide comments after Craig's delivery.
Craig was the epitome of style and elegance. He wore a clean tailored suit, brash red tie, and carried himself with all of the poise expected of a front-running Presidential candidate. His delivery was smooth, even dramatic, as he wove a complex philosophical argument out of theological wholecloth. When he had finished, the auditorium broke out in enthusiastic applause. Quentin Smith then stood to present the rebuttal. Now there is a certain legend that Albert Einstein once walked out of his house and up the street without trousers because he was so deep in thought that he had forgotten to put them on. And Smith, for all his boyish charm, had a touch of what ailed Einstein. His wrinkled suit jacket looked as if he had just pulled it out of a gym bag. The end of his tie jutted out at a strange angle and his statically-charged hair seemed to defy gravity. Where Craig was rhetorically polished, yet predictable, Smith was brilliant to the point of obscurity. Smith's rebuttal contained a peculiar depth of intellect that snuck up slowly on those in the room. His comments did not come full force like Craig's did, but rather they built up slowly, brick by brick, combining to fashion a powerful cumulative case. When he had finished speaking, everyone seemed to realize that it was not so simple a matter as to think that a divine being lay just behind the Big Bang singularity. Where Craig was overconfident of God's causal role in the universe, Smith was cautious and voiced reason. Essentially, Smith succeeded in wiping out Craig's carefully crafted gains so that neither man ended with the upper hand. The question of whether or not God was the efficient cause of the universe would have to be settled definitively another time.
After the last session on Thursday afternoon, Daniel Howard-Snyder of Seattle Pacific University invited everyone to his hotel room for wine and conversation. We had made plans to attend dinner later with Professors Theodore Drange of West Virginia University, and Evan Fales of the University of Iowa. But we wanted to stop by Howard-Snyder's room first to mingle. The room was crowded with philosophers, most just standing and talking while others sat on the bed or in one of the few chairs available. Howard-Snyder was busy opening bottles of Oregon Pinot Noir and he made sure that everyone had a glass. In the corner, Doug Geivett and Paul Moser were having a serious discussion about epistemic culpability of the knowledge of God. Drange quickly pulled up a chair and engaged in conversation with the two men. "What I don't understand," Drange asked them, "is how you can say that the atheist is culpable for not choosing God when the atheist has no evidence for such a being. How can one be epistemically culpable for knowledge of something of which one is wholly unaware?" Drange's point echoed the conference theme: divine hiddenness. If God plays hide and seek with his creation, how can we be blamed for not knowing of his existence? This problem was first raised by conference-attendee John Schellenberg in his 1993 book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason. Many theist philosophers at the conference, notably Moser, hoped to present possible solutions to the problem of divine hiddenness.
Moser had a ready answer for Drange. "The atheist doesn't understand," Moser answered, "because he is looking in all the wrong places for God." Geivett offered me some leftover Easter candy that someone had put out on the table. He figured that Moser could handle the discussion on his own. Drange, dissatisfied with Moser's answer, offered an analogy to clarify his point. "Suppose," he began, "that before you stand two doors. You are told that behind one door is a beautiful woman that you will marry but behind the other door is a ravenous tiger who will eat you. Try as you might, you cannot hear a thing behind either door. Lacking any knowledge whatever, how can you be epistemically culpable for choosing wrongly?" Moser smiled and leaned back in his chair. His eyes grew large as he suddenly leaned forward and slapped his hand down on the table. "Let me give you a better analogy," he replied. "Suppose instead that one door leads to God and behind the other door is an enormous pile of money. In the course of your investigation you discover the pile of money and so reason that the other door leads to God. But you want the pile of money so badly that you put the thought of God out of your mind. We serve idols like money instead of God and for that we are morally and epistemically culpable when we turn away from God."
Drange and Moser sparred a bit more but my attention turned to the conversation between Jeff Lowder and Paul Draper. I caught Jeff in mid-sentence as he asked Draper whether he ever thought he would abandon agnosticism for atheism or theism. Draper looked tired. Clearly, the jet lag from Florida had him thinking it was closer to bed time rather than dinner time. "I don't know," he finally replied after a long pause. It seemed appropriate to interrupt with a question that had been on my mind lately in my own writing. "Suppose that God fully revealed himself to us tomorrow," I said. "Would anything really change?" Both men gave me a curious look. "Do you mean revealing himself like the aliens revealed themselves in Sagan's novel Contact so that there was no doubt from whom the message was coming?" Jeff asked. "I suppose so," I answered. "I think plenty would change," Draper said, "you'd have a lot more believers for one thing." I admitted that church attendance would skyrocket but I questioned whether or not there would be more believers. "If God became a known quantity," I insisted, "then I grant that it would be exciting and startling at first. However, over time and over successive generations, his existence would be just another fact in the world and people would lose interest over time."
Our conversation was interrupted by Howard-Snyder who had been trying to get everyone's attention in the room for more than a minute. He was waving a photocopied menu over his head and pleading for everyone to quiet down. "Do we have an interest in all going out to dinner together?" he asked. "I have a marvelous place here where we could all have dinner." Howard-Snyder began reading the menu entrees enthusiastically. His taste was impeccable: "Rack of lamb $20, baked salmon $16, filet mignon $24," he announced, pausing briefly after each item. Several eyebrows went up. However, no one wished to be the first to quash a plan that was offered with such passion. Finally someone murmured that the prices were a little high. "We're philosophers, not businessmen," someone else from the back of the room said. Howard-Snyder tried to ignore the ensuing chuckles as he sought to generate additional support from some of the others. The plan quickly fell through and several began picking up their philosophical conversations of time, causality, God, and divine hiddenness exactly where they had left off. Eventually, we left with Drange and Fales to end up at a modest Chinese restaurant that doubled as the watering hole for many locals. Over dinner we discussed several ideas, especially Theodore Drange's paper that he would deliver the next morning on the argument from confusion. As our enthusiasm for the issues grew, so too did the volume of our voices. Our waitress, along in years but wearing a leather mini skirt and a tight blouse, glanced at us quizzically over our discussion of the problem of God. "These men are philosophers," I finally told her. "You don't say?" she replied without missing a beat while setting down the tea and rice. She then walked away to another table without another word.
Friday morning, the second day of the conference, began in typical Oregonian fashion: overcast skies, thick clouds, and the promise of rain. Jeff waited patiently in the double-parked car while I dove into Starbucks for some morning coffee. I had to get some strong coffee to get things going--I had learned the previous night that while we were at the conference, my wife had committed us to a sales contract on a condominium across town. "I hope you don't mind," she put forward tentatively as we walked in the door. "Does it have a place where I can write?" I asked. "Of course," she replied. "Then it's okay with me," I said while scribbling my signature on the sales offer. While Jeff and I are at the conference all day, our real estate agent will have presented the offer to the seller. The seller will then get one hour to decide whether to accept it. Without my ever having seen the place, the die will have been cast. "Maybe I'll get to look at it over the weekend," I thought as we pulled away.
We arrived just in time to hear Drange deliver his concurrent session entitled "Divine Hiddenness and Christian Confusion." Drange began by writing his presuppositions on the chalkboard behind him. He repeated them as he wrote: "If the God of Christianity exists, then this being wants a relationship with us," Drange argued. To form this relationship, the God of Christianity (or "GC" for short) wants our love, respect, obedience, worship, and our salvation. Yet, "Christians are confused about important doctrinal issues," Drange pointed out. His argument, entitled the "Argument from Confusion" consisted of these steps:
(1) Christians are confused in that (a) they disagree with each other about fundamental doctrinal issues, (b) they cannot appeal to the Bible for relief from that confusion because it contains contradictions, (c) the manuscripts of the Hebrew and NT Scriptures contain numerous interpolations, errors, and variants, and (d) there is no objective manner in which problems (a) through (c) can be settled.
(2) If the God of Christianity were to exist, then it would be true that (a) important beliefs pertaining to God that are crucial for Christians to know would be known; such true beliefs can be called "G-beliefs", (b) people would necessarily need to have G-beliefs in order to enter into a relationship with God, and (c) God's love is such that God desires everyone to possess G-beliefs.
(3) God would prevent people from becoming confused about the facts that lead to the successful formation of G-beliefs.
(4) Yet, people (to include Christians) have become confused about the facts that lead to the successful formation of G-beliefs in that many beliefs directly conflict with G-beliefs.
(5) If the God of Christianity were to exist, then the Bible would be his written revelation to humanity.
(6) But there are important doctrinal issues mentioned in premise (1) about which the Bible is not clear and authoritative, some of which involve G-beliefs.
Therefore, (7) probably the God of Christianity does not exist.
During Drange's presentation of this argument, Howard-Snyder smiled to himself while reading along on the manuscript of the presentation. Occasionally he looked up and around, made eye-contact with some other theists who had similar misgivings about the argument. Fernandes took detailed notes on a smallish hotel phone pad as Drange talked. Others frowned but listened patiently while they quietly probed the argument for weaknesses. Draper was the first to ask a question after the presentation was finished. "You conclude that 'probably' the God of Christianity does not exist," he pointed out, "yet, there is nothing here that I can see contrasting with the negative evidence to show that a probability judgment is warranted." For his part, Schellenberg was disturbed by a too-narrow concept of God that demanded obedience and worship. He also wondered if Drange had considered that major portions of the New Testament was mere metaphor rather than something to be taken literally. These concerns were shared by most of the other theists in the room. Many admitted that very little of the New Testament should be read literally as a matter of history. "God doesn't necessarily require our obedience or love," Professor Laura Garcia of Rutgers University also remarked. A Methodist priest objected to premise (5), suggesting that the Bible was only one source of authority, which is supplemented by Church teaching and oral tradition. Even though his interlocutors did not agree with him, Drange met all of their objections handily and succeeded in defending the soundness of the argument. Only by appealing to the "mystery" of God were they able to deny the conclusion.
A few hours after his presentation, we met Drange for lunch and began to discuss how the session went and how some of the others received it. "What surprised me most," Jeff said, "was how the Christians in the session were willing to give up the idea that the Bible was God's sole source of revelation to humanity." Drange thought that those who had given up God's requirement for obedience, love, and worship paid too heavy of a price. Without those things, he reasoned, you no longer have the God of Christianity. Not all Christians in the session were as liberal about the New Testament or as willing to give up God's requirement of obedience, love, and worship. Fernandes told us that he too had misgivings about the concept of God advocated by some of Drange's dissenters. He joined us for lunch because, as he put it, "although I disagree with you guys, you seem to at least understand what it is that the Bible and God command. Frankly, some of my brethren seem theologically distant to me." He and Jeff talked at length about the one subject they could easily agree upon: the question of papal authority and the various dogmas promulgated by the Roman Catholic Church.
That evening was the banquet. When Moser had finished his presentation it was very late and so we decided not to attend the post-presentation discussion. Arriving back in Portland an hour later, I discovered that our real estate agent had presented our offer to the seller, the seller had agreed, and that my wife had committed us to the purchase of a home that I still had not yet seen. I had discovered that things move fast in the world of real estate. Quickly putting it out of my mind, I was already thinking of the next morning and the last day of the conference.
Professor John Schellenberg, Mount Saint Vincent University, read a dialogue that explored the problem of divine hiddenness, first elucidated in his book Divine Hiddenness and Human Reason (Cornell, 1993). After distinguishing various difficulties that arise with the use of the term, Schellenberg argued that a careful look at issues lumped under "divine hiddenness" must reveal, among other things, a powerful argument for atheism. Schellenberg stated that he had "developed the most forceful version of the argument," and claimed that there are circumstances, quite commonly realized, in which the argument is sufficient to justify atheistic belief. Simply put, Schellenberg argued that the nature of God is such that God wants to enter into a loving relationship with humanity. Yet, God is hidden, out of touch with the world and strangely silent when people seem to need God the most. The best explanation for this fact, Schellenberg thinks, is that there is no such being as God for if there were, then we could not expect such a loving being to stay hidden for so long.
Saturday brought with it the end of the conference. Everyone said their goodbyes and promised to stay in touch, to read this or that paper, and to get ahold of the book someone had recommended to them. While the emphasis still lay with the present conference, many were already looking forward to the next one.
Theism posits a personal being who is intelligent, omniscient, omnipotent and loving. A very modest concept, to be sure. For us, persons are biological beings produced by evolution and many of their features make sense only in the context of evolution. Intelligence, for instance, is an ability that helped us to survive and to solve problems. When chasing elephants, our slow brains, memory, and time limitations made the "try-and-test" method an inefficient way to hunt. Intelligence seems to be a feature very appropriate for beings with limited resources.
But why should God be intelligent? God doesn't inhabit an environment where she has to fight dangers or predict outcomes. If you have an infinitely fast (or "timeless") brain, you don't need to have a very clever algorithm running in your head, any stupid and inefficient one will do. If you have no memory limitations, you don't need to find patterns in the data to minimize space storage. If you have no time limitations, you can use the dumbest algorithm of all: try-and-test, until you get the right answer, or even better, get all the answers. You will be certain that one of them is right (at least). If you give a programmer an infinitely fast and memory-limitless computer, you won't get very clever algorithms. (Actually, this is the sort of computer Microsoft had in mind. Some of my students come to mind too). Why? Because computers can always employ brute force approaches (just like Deep Blue, the computer program that beat Kasparov). But then, why would a god need to be intelligent at all? She can always employ several monkeys, working for eternity, generating different universes until you get one good enough. God herself could play the monkey part. And let's not forget the omniscience bit! Can you imagine such a being playing chess against Kasparov? It's not fair, is it? And God wouldn't need to use even a milligram of intelligence, always knowing Kasparov's movement in advance. As for omnipotence, well, God doesn't need to know judo or karate either. No need for such clever martial arts, brute force will do.
Why would a god have goals? It makes perfect sense in evolutionary and cultural terms that our goals include having sex, having friends, having enough to eat, having sex, being inquisitive, having sex, etc. But, why would a god have any goal at all? Why would a god want anything? In particular, why would a god want to create a universe with Bill Gates and cockroaches in it? As for love, the only kind of love I know is of evolutionary origin. Why would a god be loving? Looking for a partner? No. Caring for her offspring? No. (So that she can love us? You bet!) As for morality, can you imagine a solitary person being moral? What does morality mean in the absence of a society? Hugging trees? "Love thy neighbor", but there are no noisy neighbors to love!
Intelligence, love, goals, and morality seem quite ungrounded characteristics for a super-person who just sits there on the void timelessly. I believe a reason is required to explain God's features and the concept of evolution provides by far the best explanation for how this could have happened.
[Ricardo Aler Mur teaches artificial intelligence and computer engineering at Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, Madrid, Spain.]
A new study published in the premiere British medical journal The Lancet confirms what skeptics have been saying all along: that studies purporting to show the health benefits of religious belief and church attendance are flawed methodologically or statistically; and more importantly, that doctors who incorporate these studies into their practice might be stepping across the line into unethical medical practice. "Even in the best studies, the evidence of an association between religion, spirituality, and health is weak and inconsistent," said the study. Lead author Dr. Richard P Sloan of Columbia University noted that many of the studies finding health benefits for religion failed to take into account such obvious variables as "age, sex, education, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and health status." Sloan's team noted that when these variables were controlled for in several widely publicized studies, the health benefits for religious belief vanished.
More importantly, the study criticized doctors who might use these studies to influence their patients as unethical . "Health professionals, even in these days of consumer advocacy, influence patients by virtue of their medical expertise. When doctors depart from areas of established expertise to promote a non-medical agenda, they abuse their status as professionals" noted Sloan's team. They point out that even if religious activity was shown to have positive health benefits, it would simply join such categories as socioeconomic status and marital status, already known to have positive health consequences. "We would consider it unacceptable for a physician to advise an unmarried patient to marry because the data show that marriage is associated with lower mortality," and they contend that counselling religious involvement would be similarly unethical, and could lead to grossly inappropriate actions. "If evidence showed health advantages of some religious denominations over others, should physicians be guided by this evidence to counsel conversion." Attempts to link religious and spiritual activities to health are reminiscent of the now discredited research suggesting that different ethnic groups show differing levels of moral probity, intelligence, or other measures of social worth. Since all human beings, devout or profane, ultimately will succumb to illness, we wish to avoid the additional burden of guilt for moral failure to those whose physical health fails before our own," stated the research team.
Sloan's study called into question the conclusions of an Israeli Kibbutz study showing decreased mortality in orthodox kibbutzes vs. secular kibbutzes; the Alameda County and Tecumseh Community Health Studies which claimed decreased mortality in those who attended religious services; the Pressman study which claimed that elderly women who had surgical hip repairs had better ambulation at discharge if they were religious; the Comstock and Partridge study showing a positive association between church attendance and health (Comstock himself later admitted this finding was probably due to a failure to control for his subjects' prior functional ability); the Colantonio study that showed lower rates of stroke in persons who attended weekly religious services; Koenig's study showing decreased inflammatory proteins in those who attend church weekly; and the Byrd cardiac study that claimed that cardiac patients who were prayed for had better outcomes.
Kevin Courcey, a registered nurse who is also an atheist, has been tracking this genre of studies for years, and has published critiques of similar studies in American Atheist Magazine and an upcoming article in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine. "I'm glad that the scientific community has finally decided to stop giving this research a free ride," said Courcey. "When I began investigating the health claims for religious practice, I was afraid I might not have the statistics background needed to properly evaluate the studies." What he found, he says, was that the studies' flaws were immediately apparent, even to him. "Fortunately, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to question a study which says that people who go to church every week have lower levels of inflammation. Obviously, people with debilitating arthritis aren't going to be trotting off to church as readily, and this devolves into a 'chicken or the egg' question pretty quickly." Courcey said he started wondering why researchers would publish such flawed studies. "What I found was that in many cases, they are being paid by groups with a religious agenda." Courcey found that a primary religious source of research funding was The Templeton Foundation.
The Templeton Foundation's stated goal is to reintegrate religious faith into modern life by promoting "clinical research into the relationship between spirituality and health and documenting the positive medical aspects of spiritual practice." Courcey has concerns about such research being biased. "Notice that they are only willing to fund research which shows a positive link between religion and health," says Courcey. "This puts extraordinary pressure on the researcher to find such a link." In fact, several of the studies criticized in the Lancet article were published by researchers who have received funds from the Templeton Foundation. "The research projects of Koenig, Benson, Larson, Cohen, George, and McCullough have all been beneficiaries of Templeton Foundation grant monies. Koenig and Benson are also on the faculty of Templeton's Spirituality and Healing in Medicine course, and on Templeton's Board of Advisors. David Larson is not only on Templeton's faculty, but is the president of the National Institute for Healthcare Research (NIHR), which is funded by Templeton at approximately $3 to 4 million per year. And Michael McCullough is the research director at NIHR," notes Courcey.
George Lundberg MD, former editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is also skeptical of the research relating religious faith and health. "Evidence of religious faith producing healing is anecdotal only," says Lundberg. In an article in the Washington Post, Lundberg stated, "In the past 15 years, not one of the articles submitted to the journal describing the direct effects of spirituality, prayer or church attendance on staying well or getting well has survived the journal's peer review process."
Sloan's study in The Lancet also urges caution. "There is a temptation to conclude that this matter can be resolved as soon as methodologically sound empirical research becomes available. Even the existence of convincing evidence...may not eliminate the ethical concerns that we raise here," he states. "[U]ntil these ethical issues are resolved, suggestions that religious activity will promote health, that illness is the result of insufficient faith, are unwarranted."
[Hill's report concerns "Creation Week", a roundtable discussion on evolution and creation that took place last November 1998 at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington. Although the discussion is long over, this report sheds some light on the recent developments within the Center for Renewal of Science and Culture (CRSC), which has highly-organized plans to drive evolution out of schools. (See last month's feature article "Discovery Institute's 'Wedge Project' Circulates Online".)]
If all of Creation Week presented at Whitworth College in Spokane, Washington was like the public forum Wednesday (11/18/98), it should be renamed "The Steve Meyer and Phil Johnson Show". What was suppose to be a roundtable discussion with evolution scientist Kenneth Miller became a one-sided affair with the creationists doing all the talking.
Miller, it was explained, had travel difficulties and was unable to attend until Friday, so instead of finding another pro-evolution scientist to take his place Meyer simply invited other Whitworth staff members to fill the seats, some of whom seemed uncomfortable and not quite sure of why they were there. It seems odd, considering three major universities were at his immediate disposal, that Meyer could not find one scientist to sit on this panel to provide an objective point of view and a dissenting opinion to the Meyer and Johnson rhetoric. It was certainly not because he could not find an evolutionary scientist, but rather because Meyer didn't want to find one. Most of Creation Week went the same way.
Meyer maintains that Creation Week was "to expose the broader community to this movement within the scientific community". Unfortunately for Meyer there is no creationist "movement" within the mainstream scientific community, only among some conservative Christian scientists that are more apt in selling books than doing hard research. Yet this is typical of the propaganda Meyer uses to arouse the public. Advertised as featuring lectures and debates, there was certainly enough of the former and very little of the latter unless they meant creationist debating among themselves. The creationist side was well represented by Meyer, Johnson, (presenting almost every day) John Wiester, Paul Chein, Jonathan Wells, and Scott Minnich. On the evolution side was Miller, period, who we were told would lecture that Friday.
It is interesting to note that all of the aforementioned creationists, save Wiester, are members of the Discovery Institute's Center for Renewal of Science and Culture in which Meyer is a Senior Fellow and Johnson is an advisor. The institute is a conservative Christian thinktank of sorts located in Seattle. Its primary function is to support conservative causes, whether political, social, or religious, in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. The Wednesday audience, made up mostly of disinterested students, numbered between 60 and 70. The worst part of it was sitting through an hour and a half of lecturing when ... oops! Out of time for discussion. The moderator only allowed five questions. The last gentleman to speak, a geology graduate student from Washington State University, challenged the panels position and Johnson's adversarial approach to evolution and was quickly cut off by both Meyer and Johnson saying he was talking about "them" (perhaps meaning young earth creationist) and not "us" the intelligent designers. As they interrupted and then dismissed, out of hand, the man's questions, Johnson clearly said, "There is no evidence for evolution anyway", drawing some raise eyebrows from the audience. The moderator quickly ended the public forum.
The entire purpose of the exercise was to create a stage to enlighten and engage the public in modern creationism polemics. A young earth, great flood, and spontaneous creation by God are out and an Intelligent Designer is in. Theirs was a soft shoe, seductive, high academic approach to sway the public perception that there is nothing to fear from the argument of placing God as a creator. Or is there? This is a grand deception of major proportions that uses evolutionary biology as the engine to effect social change and conscience in order to promote Christian theology as part a parcel of our existence. In other words, we have had enough of naturalism, we want to return to supernaturalism. Our morally corrupted society has gone awry from 150 years of materialism and the only way to correct this is accept the supernatural underpinnings of science and that science has breached theological territory; specifically, the Christian supernatural underpinnings and intelligent design is needed to now explain what science cannot seem to explain.
The problem here is obvious: the creationists are providing the definition of what constitutes science, religion, and philosophy. In order to accomplish this goal, the new creationist, like any good demagogue needs a scapegoat. In this case, as with the young earth creationist, the easiest and most visible target is Charles Darwin and evolution. Johnson, being both true to his book Darwin on Trial and the lawyer he is, was very succinct in his presentation that naturalism and materialism are to blame for where we are socially and that we must return to the adherence to Biblical principals. But Johnson's view of comparing social naturalism in criminal law to biological sciences is too simplistic to consider as an solution or explanation of complex social problems. According to Johnson, everything will be all right if we simply acknowledge (his) God's role in everything. Johnson's presentation is very deceptive. Even though he notes that he is an lawyer and professor of law at Berkeley, he has been associated with conservative creationists' causes for so long that most people take him for a scientist. This audience certainly did.
Steven Meyer is the typical neocreationist: well educated, articulate, respected, and personable. This buttondown approach serves him well and appeals to audiences. However, Meyer is a Christian on a mission. His presentation consisted of a simplistic explanation of how evolutionists use terms describing that things "have to" fit evolution and that scientists use circular reasoning to reach conclusions because they will not acknowledge the supernatural. Meyer then proceeded to speak of the intelligent designer as a proven fact because it "has to" be!; there simply cannot be any other reasonable explanation for these complex natural systems because a designer has the ability to design. In a demonstration of the First Cause argument, Meyer first dropped his car keys saying that it was gravity at work; he then throws his car keys across the room and proclaims this is a first cause action with him acting as the cause. This type of nonsense might pass muster in his classes of non-science majors or to a very gullible public (again) in search of simplistic answers to complex questions but this approach is academically dishonest. Meyer should be dismissed for what he is: a creationist pitchman and book peddler selling intelligent design to an scientifically illiterate public.
Creation week had one purpose and one purpose only: to bring the case for intelligent design before the public and by association making it compatible with science. Meyer and his ilk know the futility and uselessness of these arguments in mainstream science and these questions have been asked and answered many times over. But that does not stop them from reiterating them time and time again. Using propaganda devices and fallacious argument, mainly the if people hear something enough, right or wrong, they will begin to believe it. Take, for example the three main points of contention Meyer cites* as the areas in which evolution fails:
First, "the primordial soup where evolutionists argue amino acids randomly arrange themselves to form the first cells. Intelligent design proponents argue that the arrangement of those amino acids couldn't possibly occur randomly; that there had to be some force--a mind--behind it." Just because creationist are personally incredulous and cannot accept this, does not mean it is not scientifically valid. Randomness is only one part of mechanical working of evolution. Creationist often, as in this case conveniently ignore the other parts. Meyer contradicts himself by insisting evolutionary scientists use the "had to be" explanation wrongly yet seems perfectly content with his assertion "there had to be some force" because he feels evolution cannot provide him with a reasonable explanation. However, the only explanation Meyer and his fellow creationist will accept is a intelligent force.
Second, "Another weak spot for Darwin is a period in geologic history called the Cambrian Explosion, where all the invertebrate animals groups appear suddenly without identifiable ancestors. Darwin himself acknowledged that fossil records of this period did not support his theory of evolution." This is a misrepresentation. Geology in Darwin's time was in its infancy and Darwin argued that while it appeared to his critics the fossil record did not support his theory, he continues to write, as geology grows the difficulties in this area will "greatly diminish, or even disappear" which they have. (C. Darwin, Origin of Species, 3rd Ed., Chapter 9). Using Darwin this way is clearly a strawman argument. It detracts from the fact that the geologic column and the Cambrian Explosion is what modern evolutionary science would expect. There is nothing mysterious or divine about this. Moreover, if we were to allow intelligent design as a basis of explanation of primordial soup, we would have to view the Cambrian Explosion which happened millions of years after "the soup" for what it is: a natural phenomena in earth history and evolution at work. God of the gaps comes to mind here. Also, consider that the Cambrian Explosion and an incomplete fossil record is, perhaps, an excellent argument against intelligent design. Meyer's contention here is nonsense and there is volumes of material concerning this subject that supports evolutionary theory. If Meyer wants to ignore it that's his business but to misrepresent the truth to the public is, academically dishonest. Additionally, Charles Darwin has been quite dead for 116 years. It is his theory of natural selection that has held up for 150 years, not all of his and his contemporaries observations. Darwin was a Naturalist not a geologist, microbiologist or paleontologist. If Charles Darwin had not published his theory, someone else certainly would have. It seems the creationist mind set wants to hold Darwin personally accountable for the modern interpretation of his theory and ignore the rest of the evidence. Yet we don't see creationists attacking Einstein's and Hawkings' theoretical physics which undermines the intelligent design argument to a greater magnitude that evolution ever could.
Third, "[a] small number of molecular biologist studying the motors embedded within cells have concluded that those structures are 'irreducibly complex.' That complexity is best explained by concluding those motors were designed, rather that attributing their existence to evolution or chance." This is not a true statement. A very small number of biologist have indeed claimed this. Yet the vast majority of mainstream molecular biologist have not reached this conclusion and are attributing so-called irreducible complexity to the same criticism as the watchmaker argument: just because the motors embedded in cells have the appearance of design, this, in itself does not make it a fact. In addition, irreducible complexity is a concept, not a scientifically accepted principle and has been, for all intents and purposes, already discarded by the scientific community as a whole.
If the authors of irreducible complexity are so sure of their claims, why don't they simply submit their finding or hypothesis to be critically reviewed rather than writing books about it? Because it would fail to meet even the minimum of criteria for review. Indeed, the concept of irreducible complexity is nothing new. The idea has been around for many years. It has, like all arguments against evolution, just dusted off, repackaged, resold to a new generation of creationists? and a gullible public. Just because something is small and complex (a cell) or large and complex (the universe) is no reason to posit a intelligent designer when the direct and indirect evidence tells us differently.
Meyer and his colleagues are anxious to throw in the towel and give up when the scientific going get tough and just attribute these things, known and unknown to a intelligent designer. While these might seem like good places to place a god, creator, or intelligent designer, we should not give up so easily. History will bear this out also. Every time religion dogma has met scientific principles, religion has lost. The earth is no longer flat, nor does the sun go around the earth any longer. Imagine the consequences for example if Jonas Salk, while looking at Polio Virus cells decided it was "irreducibly complex" therefore intelligently designed and decided he could go no further. Polio stays an act of god, not nature and thus, incurable.
Meyer and his cohorts have a religious conflict in accepting mainstream scientific conclusions base upon empirical methodology. These new-age creationist have an intense desire to insert non materialistic, supernatural possibilities into science but do not want to go through the usual channels to accomplish their goal of religious superiority over the natural, material discipline of science. They want the case tried in the court of public opinion as if a public vote would change earth history.
He and his colleagues want, passionately, to have people to believe that science, especially evolution is a religion and faith is necessary to accept scientific conclusions. This is nonsense. Using faith in conjunction with science is a beggarly approach to sell the public a erroneous bill of goods. Meyer wants to present his case to directly to the public in the form of books, lectures, and appealing to the conservative Christian and avoiding the scientific community. He want to influence public thinking and policy by hammering home intellectually bankrupt ideas and popular dogmas to an unsuspecting, gullible and scientifically illiterate populus.
As stated in the mission statement for Meyer's Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture: "The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built." (read: fundamentalism) "[We seek] nothing less than the overthrow of materialism and it's damning cultural legacies." (read: defeat science or anything else they disagree with) "[We will] reopen the case for the supernatural." (read: creationism). And, "...[The Institute's work] includes a belief in God-given reason and the permanency of human nature..." Their motivation is clear: to change science to support a narrow philosophic view of the world of science. It is unfortunate that the neocreationist resorts to name calling by referring to "atheistic Darwinism" and "anti-theistic materialism", without realizing that creationism is certainly no less materialistic, seeking not only explanations for earthly phenomena, but a materialistic demonstration of gods existence. Equating evolution with atheism and Darwinism with god is irresponsible and dishonest. It never seems to occur to the modern creationist that, using their own definitions, all other academic disciplines are just as materialistic and atheistic. Yet these subjects do no harm to people's beliefs nor do they challenge their religiousness or faith. Neither does evolution. Preaching to the general public that supernatural sources are the answers to complex questions robs them of exploring the rational explanations and that cripples critical thinking. We should never accept doctrinal material masquerading as science nor have science taught as religion.
Creation week was a forum to tell people it is just easier to believe than think. If they want to attack evolution, they should address the evidence not the self-serving, peripheral social issues generated by the religious right. If they want to have their intelligent design ideas considered, they should submit a theory to the scientific community for peer review. But this will never happen as long as intelligent design proponents think their agenda should be accepted by the public a priori and without question. Intelligent design is religious dogma not science. The scientific community and the public should strive to keep it that way.
*From the Spokane daily newspaper Spokesman Review, 11/14/98 pg. E3 article by Kelly McBride December 18, 1998.
New Secularism in the Arab World
A major movement of secular writing in Arabic has been gaining strength and depth over the last fifteen years, little reported by outsiders.1 It is going into new directions, well beyond a mere reaction to Islamic fundamentalism which grew mostly after Khomeini took over in Iran in 1979. This article is a quick overview of some of these recent writings that have come out in Arabic.
Islamists in many Arab countries seem to have the upper hand, and the coverage. News of fundamentalist violence predominate in many Islamic countries. In Algeria, the open conflict with the army-backed regime has reached new levels of atrocities, and the authorities keep trying to prove their piousness with more stringent conservative measures, not least in the cultural field. In Egypt, the main guardian of Islamic norms in the country and beyond, the al-Azhar Islamic Institution, is increasing its offensive on any signs of cultural liberalism, and is blamed by some of indirectly condoning the extremist armed militants. In Lebanon, Hezbollah occupies a special position as it is the main force confronting the occupying Israelis in south Lebanon. In Jordan, the Moslem Brotherhood movement has always been towing the line with the regime, but more radical elements have been probed by the security services, including Islamic 'mojahidin' who went to Afghanistan to fight the Soviet backed 'atheist' rule in the eighties. Everywhere in the Arab world, the Islamic discourse is being taken seriously by all governments.
And yet, against this apparently one sided picture, there is a growing reaction to the Islamist tide, notably what is dubbed 'political Islam', both intellectually and on the ground. This is manifested by a spate of new books that are being seen more and more abundantly on book stands in many Arab cities. Some books by Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid, the lecturer in Cairo university who was facing a court case to have him separated from his wife on the grounds that he is an apostate, and who had to flee from Egypt following increased threats on his life, were even bought in book exhibitions in Riyadh, capital of the Saudi strict Islamic regime.
Secular ideas are, of course, not new in Islamic countries. Ever since the call of the prophet Mohammad in the seventh century, there have been doubters and secular writing. Some of its authors are documented in Abdurrahman Badawi's book From the History of Atheism in Islam,2 which first appeared in the 1950s and has been reprinted many times since. It brings to light some of the debates and writings that marked certain periods of Islamic history, including the derisive poetry of Abul Ala' al-Maari, the blind Arab philosopher who lived in northern Syria in the 10th century.
In more recent history, a movement of Islamic revival took place in the second half of the nineteenth century, mostly as self defense against the culture of the European colonialists. Sheik Afghani and sheik Mohammed Abdo were among the best known figures of this movement which adopted Ottoman and sometimes new pan Arab positions against the West. A counter movement of liberal writers emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century on the pages of al-Muqtataf, the one time leading scientific journal in Arabic, which was published in Egypt many years before Scientific American, and lasted until the fifties of the twentieth century. Farah Antoun and Shibli Shmayyel were among the best known representatives of the scientific and secular ideas. For their audacity in dealing with religious subjects, texts of their articles and debates could not be reprinted today in most Arab countries. They were joined by other science and liberal writers, among them Yacoob Sarrouf and Ismail Mazher who translated Darwin's Origin of Species. Ismail Adham could find a publisher, in the 1930s, for his Why am I an Atheist?3 Salameh Mousa, one of the first proponents of socialism in Egypt early in the 20th century, could discuss the Emergence of the Idea of God,4 and Mansour Fahmy could publish a thesis on the Women's Place in Islam, in which he questioned why the prophet Mohammed excludes himself from the rules he sets for everyone else, such as being seen kissing his favorite wife during the fast of the holy month of Ramadan.
Between the two world wars, two notable tracts appeared. Taha Hussein, the blind doyen of Arabic literature and one time minister of education in Egypt, published his controversial reappraisal of Jahilieh (pre-Islamic) literature and poetry, questioning the Islamic story of that period.5 Ali Abdel Razek, himself Azhar educated, published in 1925 his Islam and the Origins of Government,6 in which he argues against the Islamic state and for the separation of religion and civil society, drawing the wrath of Al-Azhar upon himself.
After the second world war, national questions were predominant in the area with many countries becoming independent from western colonialism. Islamic movements, such as the Moslem Brotherhood, joined in the liberation struggle, only to turn against the new local rulers. In Nasser's Egypt and other Arab countries, conflict between the regimes and the Brotherhood and other more fundamentalist movements, such as Tahrir (liberation) party, took more or less bloody forms and some of their leaders were executed.
Following the deroute of Arab armies in the June 1967 war with Israel, with its aftermath of shaking many long held beliefs in the Arab world, there appeared many 'religious' explanations of what happened. Stories of 'sightings' abounded and there were calls for going back to God who had Moslems defeated for straying from his path. Sadik al-Azm published in Beirut his Self Criticism after the Defeat7 and followed it with his controversial Critique of Religious Thought,8 in which he ridiculed some of these religious escapist explanations, such as the sightings of the Virgin Mary. He made history by fleeing for a while from Lebanon to Syria for writing such a book. The norm was that Arab writers ran away usually from their countries to Lebanon to avoid intellectual persecution. A scathing and irreverent attack on religious thought and official Islamic history came in the long introduction by Lafif Lakhder to a translation of a collection of Lenin's texts on religion.9 He criticized 'Stalinist' communist parties for their conciliatory attitude towards religion and evoked Marx's dictum on starting criticism on earth by criticism of the Heavens first.
The latest and probably the most radical movement of secular writing to date took off mostly since the mid eighties. It was sparked by the successful rise to power of Imam Khomeini in Iran with his Islamic State rallying cry and the return to Islamic fundamentalism. The wave of Islamic revival that swept the region has not subsided yet. No regime or political movement escaped its influence and fallout. Even conservative Saudi Arabia had to tighten even further its adherence, or pretense, to more fundamental tenets of Islam. In Syria, emboldened by the trend and other internal factors, Islamists declared open rebellion in the town of Hama in 1982. It was crushed with brute force by the regime. Shiite Islam, backed by Iran, became more organized and militant in Lebanon. The droves of Moslem 'volunteers' who fought against the communist regime in Afghanistan, trained and hardened, have been a menace to many an Arab regime since, and beyond. In Sudan, more Islamic integrism seems the only course for the regime out of a war beleaguered and impoverished economy. In Iran itself, the economic situation including the debt problem is getting more serious and the oil income is tied to servicing state debts for years to come. Against this background, some social disappointment with what an Islamic state can deliver in today's world is beginning to set in. Intellectuals, especially liberal ones, are noting the trend and are coming out with their points of view, relating the Islamic discourse to the social and political problems besetting the countries of the region.
In 1984, the then lecturer at al-Najah university in the Palestinian West Bank town of Nablus, the late Suleiman Basheer, published An Introduction to the Other History: Towards a New Reading of Islamic Tradition.10 The book was based on a wealth of material unearthed for the first time from the old Zhaheria Library in Damascus. It consisted largely of references which belonged to the first century and a half after Mohammed, and which were hidden or ignored by the official orthodox history of Islam. The book had a limited distribution outside scholarly circles, and especially outside the occupied Palestinian territories. It caused its author to be kicked out of the university. Illegal copies of the book are, however, still circulating in Jordan and elswhere in the Arab world. In Syria, Hadi Alawi has been reviving some little known old texts that bring out a rich impious and daring heritage in Islamic history.11 He is even directing some of his criticism at the classical Arabic language, which he claims was ossified by the Koran and its self appointed guardians, the 'language clerics' of the Arabic language academies, and calling for reform of its structures. 12
Farag Foda in Egypt started publishing his controversial books around the same time. He espoused secularism openly and directed some of his outspoken criticism at political Islam and its theoretical and historical foundations, notably in his widely read book, The Missing Truth.13 His Islamic opponents accused him, as they often do their critics, of covering his atheism with secularism, the two concepts being synonyms according to them. He paid his life for his stand, at the hands of a fanatic Islamist, shortly after the famous debate with Sheik Mohammad Ghazali and others which took place during the 1992 Cairo book fair.14 Instigation for the murder goes back to some Azhar patrons, according to other secular writers.
Hamed Nasr Abu Zeid, a Moslem scholar well versed in the history and theology of Islam, is a formidable opponent of Islamists in the interpretation of dogma scriptures and their explanations. His books are being sold widely all over the Arab world.15 He declined police protection because, as he said on a visit to Amman, he will have to feed the badly paid government guardians round the clock. Further, they could not protect him against a determined fanatic anyway, and he had to flee to Europe.
The book series Qadaya Fikriya in Egypt has devoted its 8th book16 which appeared in October 1989 to the question of Political Islam, and the combined 13-14th book,17 which appeared in 1993, to Islamic Fundamentalisms. The editor Mahmoud Amin el-Alem, a prominent scientist and political thinker, collected articles from well known free thinkers to discuss the notions of state and religion in Islam, and fundamentalism in Islam and other religions.
Sayyed Mahmoud al-Qomni is another serious challenger who is questioning the very foundations of the Islamic historical and theological discourse as detrimental to progress and development. He started with a book on the rise of monotheism and the belief in eternity, Osiris,18 and studied the origin of Islam as the religion of the Hashemite ancestors of the prophet Mohammed and tracing it back to the Abraham of Arabia.19 Other writers and scholars in Egypt are providing more evidence and analysis of the religious phenomenon all the time in the cultural monthlies 'Cairo' and 'Adab wa Nakd' and the Progressive party's weekly 'al-Ahali'. The confrontation is taking new dimensions as the long running weekly magazine, Rose el-Yousef, has dared the Azhar and the government recently by publishing forbidden texts ranging from a previously censored story from the Thousand and One Nights to extracts of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.20
Other trends in digging up the Islamic story are appearing all the time in many parts of the Arab world. In Syria, an engineering professor and an observing moslem, Dr. Mohammed Shahrour approached his study of the Koran from a linguistic point of view, tracing the meanings of Arabic words as they prevailed at the time, leading to new interpretations of much received wisdom. His 500-page book, which took him 20 years to complete, The Koran and the Book21 is making publishing history. It has gone into its fifth printing of 5000 runs each in two years in Syria alone, not to mention separate Lebanese and Egyptian editions. Another professor, Aziz al-Azmeh, at Exeter university in Britain, who wrote about Arabic and Islamic thought and Ibn Khaldoun previously, has produced a well researched volume entitled Secularism from a Different Perspective,22 reviewing the development of secular ideas in modern Arab thought.
The History of God,23 written by Georgy Kanaan in Syria, traces the very idea of God in Syrian ancient religions and mythology. Firas Sawwah, also from Syria, has published a series of books dealing with the origins of religious beliefs in the region. Mohammed Arkoun, based in Paris, is analysing basic questions of Islam in a series of books that are selling well in spite of their high cost.
Others are looking at the foundations of Judaism and Christianity, especially the claims to Palestine based on Jewish mythology, and the relations between Judeo-Christian Protestantism and modern Zionism. Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi's controversial ideas about the origins of the Jews and the prophets, have also wide circulation. More 'materialist' scholars, analyse religion from a social point a view. This tradition goes back to the Russian educated Palestinian, Bandaly Jousy, who published his "From the History of the Intellectual Movements in Islam"24 in 1927, to the Lebanese communist Hussein Mroueh and the Egyptian school of Marxists.
The secular scene is not limited to writing. Countless discussion groups concerned about the state of the Arab countries have religion on their agenda as one of the main elements of the underdevelopment formula. Heeding the call of Farag Fouda before his assasination, rationalist societies are coming into being in Egypt and other places under different names, unannounced officially. Some Arab intellectuals have also issued a statement in support of Salman Rushdie's right to publish and against Khomeini's Fatwa.
No opinion polls concerning religious beliefs are usually allowed in Arab countries, to judge the real spread of secular ideas. An exception is the survey of living conditions of the Palestinian society under Israeli occupation in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem, 25 which challenges some widely held notions about religious attitudes. It shows that the percentage of 'secular' men is 20%, going up to an unexpected 30% among women, and that it is on average higher than the percentage of Islamic 'activists' on the other end of the spectrum even in the Gaza refugee camps. Secular is defined in the study as someone who's life is not dictated by religion. The larger middle ground is being held by simply 'observant' moslems. Partial surveys by some university students elsewhere seem to confirm this distribution of the degree of belief.
This growing flurry of secular writing should not, however, give the impression that the Islamist tide in the Arab world is being checked. The fundamental activists present an 'alternative' to the impoverished masses with their slogan, 'Islam Is the Solution', coupled with social welfare programs in many places, not provided by the state, in addition to other various activities for the masses. Islamic teaching as preached in thousands of mosques every week all over the Arab world, as well as the weight of history, still carries the day. The secularists cannot hope to compete for the minds and souls of the masses, without a change in social conditions, but their message is being written and distributed and they are reaching countless readers. Rewriting and re-evaluation of Islamic history, including its secular aspects, is taking place as never before in the contemporary history of Arab and Islamic countries. Islamists are having to contend with this growing trend, in addition to facing an array of other challenges: the growing disappointment with 'Islamic states' such as Saudi Arabia, Iran and Sudan, inter-Islamic strife as in Afghanistan, women's movements, the economic failures and scandals of 'Islamic investment banking', the excesses of 'Islamic' violence in Algeria and elsewhere, the onslaught of new scientific findings in astronomy and molecular biology, and to top it all, satellite TV broadcasting and the Internet. So, as far as the belated conflict between religion and secularism in Islam, it is not the end of the story.
[Ghassan F. Abdullah attends Birzeit University in Palestine.]
1 Middle East Report (MERIP) no. 183, Washington.
2 Abdurrahman Badawi, Min tarich el ilhad fi al-Islam, Al-Mou'assassa al-Arabiya li al-Dirassat wa al-Nasher, Beirut, 1980, second edition.
3 Ismail Adham, Limaza ana molhid?, Al-Imam, Alexandria, 1937.
4 Salameh Mousa, Noushou' fikrat Allah, Cairo, 1924.
5 Taha Hussein, Fi el-adab al-Jahili, Dar al Maaref, Cairo, 1926.
6 Ali Abdul Razik, Al-Islam wa Usul el-Hukum, Matbaat Misr, Cairo, 1925.
7 Sadik Jalal al-Azm, Annakd azzati baada al-hazima, Dar al-Taliaa, Beirut, 196.
8 Sadik Jalal al-Azm, Nakd alfikr al-dini, Dar al-Taliaa, Beirut, 1982.
9 Lenin, Nousous hawla al-mawkif mina el-din, Translation by Mohammad Qubba, Revised and introduced by Lafif Lakhdar, Dar al-Taliaa, Beirut, 1972.
10 Suleiman Bashir, Mukaddima fi al-tarikh al-akhar, published by the author, Jerusalem, 1984.
11 Hadi al-Alawi, Al mu'jam al-Arabi al-jadid: al-mukaddima, Dar al-Hiwar, Lattakia, 1983.
12 Hadi al-Alawi, Min tarikh al-ta'zib fi el-Islam(1987) and Al-muntakhab mina al-luzoumiyat: nakd al-dawla wa al-din wa al-nass(1990), Markaz al-abhath wa al-dirassat al-ishtirakia fi al-alam al-Arabi, Damascus.
13 Farag Fouda, Al-hakika al-gha'iba, Cairo, 1986.
14 Al-munazara baina al-Islam wa al-almaniya, the debate between Farag Fouda and Sheik Mohammad al-Ghazali and others, Al-Hai'a al-Misriya al-Amma lil Kitab, Cairo, 1992.15 Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, Mafhoum al-nass: dirassa fi Ulum al-Koran, Al-Markaz al-Thakafi al-Arabi, second edition, Beirut, 1984 and Al-ittijah al-akli fi al-tafsir, Dar al-Tanweer, Cairo, 1986, and Nakd al-khitab al-dini, Sina li al-Nasher, Cairo, 1992.
16 Qadaya Fikriya, Al-Islam al-siyassi, Cairo, 1989.
17 Qadaya Fikriya, Al-Usuliyat al-Islamiyah, Cairo, 1993.
18 Sayyed Mahmoud al-Qomni, Osiris wa akidat al-khouloud fi Misr al-qadima, Dar al-Fikr, Cairo, 1988.
19 Sayyed Mahmoud al-Qomni, Al-hizb al-Hashimi wa ta'sis al-dawla al-Islamiya, Sina li al-Nasher, Cairo, 1990.
20 Rose El-Yousef, no. 3423, Jan. 17, 1994.
21 Mohammad Shahrour, Al-Kitab wa al-Koran, Al-Ahali, fifth edition, Damascus, 1992.
22 Aziz al-Azmeh, Al-ilmaniyah min manzour mukhtalef, Markaz Dirasat al-Wehda al-Arabiya, Beirut, 1992.
23 Georgy Kanaan, Tarikh Allah, Al-Nadwa al-Kan'aniya, Beirut-Aleppo, 1990.
24 Bandaly Jouzy, Min tarikh al-harakat al-fikriyah fi al-Islam, Palestine Writers Union, Beirut, second edition, 1981.
25 Marianne Heiberg, et al., Palestinian society in Gaza, West Bank and Arab Jerusalem: A Survey of Living Conditions, Oslo, FAFO-report 151, 1993.
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