28 November 2005

Glimmers of hope

As part of my campaign to avoid acquiring the reputation of a curmudgeon -- not that there's anything wrong with that -- I offer here a brief list of good news from the front lines of the culture wars.

First, a word from the 14th Dalai Llama Tenzin Gyatso, born Lhamo Dhondrub: "If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change." (New York Times, Nov. 12).

It's always refreshing to come across a vote of confidence in the scientific process, especially from someone who not only harbors a personal belief in reincarnation, but bases his political legitimacy on it.

Fortunately, Mr. Tibet is not the only spiritual leader to embrace the realm of reason of late. Rev. George Coyne, chief astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, weighed in on Nov. 18 with a stinging rebuke of the latest version of creationism. “Intelligent design isn't science even though it pretends to be,” he said. “If you want to teach it in schools, intelligent design should be taught when religion or cultural history is taught, not science.”

The good reverend goes much further down the path of materialism in a recent essay in the Catholic magazine, The Tablet. It's heartwarming to read such words from someone who takes his marching orders from the Pope:
Life began on the earth, which formed about 4.5 x 1 billion years ago, within about the first 400 million years, a relatively rapid transition to life. In fact, the search for life’s origins may be in vain. There may be no clear origin, no clear threshold as seen by science, between the non-living and the living.
Rationalism seems to be breaking out, or at least, speaking out, all over. Something called "The Clergy Project" has attracted, the last time I checked, 9,919 signatures from American clergy who believe in compatibility of religion and evolutionary biology. The letter states that
We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as "one theory among others" is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children.
Exactly.

Meanwhile, back in Kansas, the state with the Department of Education that just redefined science to include the supernatural, it appears a backlash is growing among those who understand the difference between fact and fancy.

Paul Mirecki, chairman of the religious studies departmentat Kansas University, announced the other day that he will be offering a course next semester on Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies. "The KU faculty has had enough," Mirecki told the Associated Press. "Creationism is mythology ... Intelligent design is mythology. It's not science. They try to make it sound like science. It clearly is not."

KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway, for his part, said he had no problem with the new course. "If it's a course that's being offered in a serious and intellectually honest way, those are the kind of courses a university frequently offers." Glad you cleared that up, Bob.

[BAD NEWS UPDATE, Dec. 1: Mirecki was forced to cancel the class after word got out of an email he wrote "in which he referred to religious conservatives as 'fundies' and said a course depicting intelligent design as mythology would be a 'nice slap in their big fat face.'" (Wash Post, Dec. 1)]

The news from the public at large isn't quite as uplifting, but still, there is cause for optimism. According to a recent Gallup poll, fewer Americans hold paranormal beliefs. Mind you, three in four is still a disturbingly high number when it comes to ghosts, faith-healing and reincarnation. But I did manage to find a few nuggets of progress, or at least, lack of backsliding. From the accompanying analysis of the poll:
Several items show modest declines since 2001 in the percentage of people who profess to believe in them, though the overall percentage of people with at least one paranormal belief has declined only slightly -- from 76% in 2001 to 73% now. The largest declines since 2001 are found in the number of people who believe in ESP (41% now compared with 50% in 2001), clairvoyance (26% now, 32% in 2001), ghosts (32% vs. 38%), mentally communicating with the dead (21% vs. 28%), and channeling (9% vs. 15%).
Thats funny. I thought this list would be longer. Oh, well. I suppose it will have to do until next Thanksgiving.

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