Month: July 2013

Evangelical Christians Launch Smear Campaign Against Reza Aslan’s “Zealot”

There’s a new book out causing quite a stir in the Christian community – Reza Aslan’s Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it, but from what I’ve gathered listening to interviews (the book has gotten lots of media attention) it covers pretty familiar stuff if you follow biblical scholarship or textual criticism at all (which is not that many people, hence the media stir).

The main argument of the book is to redefine Jesus not as God or someone who thought he was God, but as (one of several) apocalyptic Jews. That is, Jesus was an influential Jewish teacher who taught that the Kingdom of God was coming within his lifetime (aka the apocalypse) and was executed by the Romans for sedition. Later followers of Jesus then created the mythology that became our modern understanding of Christianity.

Again, I want to emphasize that none of this is really new – the idea of Jesus as an apocalyptic preacher has been discussed and debated among mainline scholars  for many decades. See contemporary works by Bart Ehrman, E.P. Sanders, John Meier, Paula Fredriksen, or Dale Allison if you are interested in learning more.

Since I haven’t read the book, I can’t comment on its arguments directly, but what I can comment on is the smear campaign by a small group of conservative Christians to discredit Aslan’s credibility as a scholar. The most sickening part of this is that the reasons they are giving focus on Aslan’s identification as a Muslim – as in, because he’s a Muslim, he can’t be trusted to write responsibly about Jesus. The effort to discredit seems to have come from this Fox News blog by John Dickerson. Members of the smear campaign have completely commandeered the Amazon review section of Zealot – giving the book 1-star reviews and posting such insightful comments as:

The author of this fiction is a confirmed Muslim and not an Historian and is clearly presenting biased opinions. This author clearly has an agenda to present. An agenda that if changed to an analysis of Mohammad would earn a Fatwa.

If you go to the review page, it’s quite sad. The 1-star reviews are almost exclusively by people who obviously haven’t read the book, and many are just copying and pasting pieces of Dickerson’s Fox News blog. The highly rated reviews are also often by Christians, but more reasonable ones who attest to the books merit as a work of history and make a point to say that it did not damage their faith and in fact helped them better understand Jesus and the times he lived in.

The problems with the smear campaign are pretty obvious. First of all, Aslan is rather well qualified to write about the historical Jesus (though he’s not as seasoned as either Ehrman or Borg). He earned a masters of theology from Harvard Divinity School and a doctorate in the sociology of religions from UC – Santa Barbara. He’s also written several popular books about the history of religion. Second of all, ideas should be judged on merit alone, not on the religious persuasions of their author. Saying Aslan can’t be trusted to write about Christianity because he’s Muslim is like saying an American who studies Middle Eastern history shouldn’t be allowed to write a book about the Middle East. Is a Jewish scholar allowed to write about Jesus? Or an agnostic? Or a catholic (if you happen to be protestant)? Should we only read books that already agree with our points of view? If Aslan’s scholarship is sloppy, that should be easy enough to point out with a few clear examples. But instead of doing that, this group of Christians has stormed Amazon before even reading the book, and begun spouting off that he’s a “devout Muslim” and his book is full of lies. Finally, Aslan, from what I can tell via interviews and debates like this, is a rather liberal practitioner of Islam, in that he seems to suggest the different views (Islam, Christianity, etc) are just unique ways of getting to the same thing – the same water from different wells that is. He’s far from a fundamentalist (which I think they are using “devout” as a euphemism for) and doesn’t seem at all interested in converting anyone to his particular beliefs.

I have not been a major fan of Aslan’s writings or the views he’s expressed in public forums or debates – and we couldn’t have more different views of the divine – but he needs to be defended. The only thing to judge is the idea, not the person. A faith that can be destroyed by reading different perspectives is not a faith worth having, and trying to dissuade people from information by misinformation is ignoble at best.

So if you want to write a review about Zealot, by all means, do so – but please consider reading it first.

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Sagan’s Cosmos = Classical | Tyson’s Cosmos = Rock and Roll

Over the weekend, Fox released a teaser trailer for its upcoming Cosmos revamp featuring Neil DeGrasse Tyson. I’m an enormous fan of Carl Sagan’s original version (you can watch it on Netflix), and have been salivating over the prospect of an updated version since I heard the news about a year ago.

I’ve now watched the trailer probably 15 times (I know) and could not be more excited for its release in February 2014. The original inspired an entire generation, opening up the wonders of the Universe and of science in a distinctly human, poetic way. Tyson’s style is obviously very different than Sagan, more rock and roll than classical, but if anyone can carry on Sagan’s legacy it’s him.

Have a look at the new trailer below, and the original series trailer below that. Then get excited.

Texas, abortion, and the greatly missed level-head of Carl Sagan

Texas’ senate just passed a bill to ban all abortions prior to the 20th week of pregnancy, approximately four weeks earlier than the guideline set by Roe v. Wade. The bill gained momentum largely by way of a disputed claim that a fetus can feel pain as early as 20 weeks (see article on controversy here). Among other consequences, the new law, which requires a facility upgrade for clinics not meeting outlined surgical standards, will effectively shut down all but a few abortion clinics in the state (a state, by the way, with one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country).

The bill has created quite an outburst across Texas and the U.S., with Senator Wendy Davis emerging as the outspoken hero of the “pro-choice” movement (she successfully thwarted the the bill’s first attempt at passage during a 13 hour filibuster).

All the hullabaloo prompted me to revisit Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan’s 1990 article in Parade Magazine, “Abortion: Is it possible to be both ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-choice’?”, which is still the most thoughtful, level-headed discussion of the issue I have encountered. After reading, you may begin to see why defining the ability to feel pain as the metric for fetus viability stands on quite shaky moral ground.

I’ve reproduced the first paragraph here:

“The issue had been decided years ago. The court had chosen the middle ground. You’d think the fight was over. Instead, there are mass rallies, bombings and intimidation, murders of workers at abortion clinics, arrests, intense lobbying, legislative drama, Congressional hearings, Supreme Court decisions, major political parties almost defining themselves on the issue, and clerics threatening politicians with perdition. Partisans fling accusations of hypocrisy and murder. The intent of the Constitution and the will of God are equally invoked. Doubtful arguments are trotted out as certitudes. The contending factions call on science to bolster their positions. Families are divided, husbands and wives agree not to discuss it, old friends are no longer speaking. Politicians check the latest polls to discover the dictates of their consciences. Amid all the shouting, it is hard for the adversaries to hear one another. Opinions are polarized. Minds are closed . . . ”

FULL ARTICLE HERE: http://2think.org/abortion.shtml

A family photo from space – Cassini to snap Earth’s picture on July 19th

You might be familiar with Carolyn Porco’s 2007 TED talk, in which she introduced the world to some truly breathtaking photos taken from the Cassini robot spacecraft (launched in 2007). Well, Cassini is still up there, and on July 19th (from 4:27pm-4:42pm CST), it will be snapping another high-res photo of Saturn that is once again expected to feature earth in the backdrop, though this time in natural color. This will be the first time in history the people of Earth have known in advance their picture is being taken by a spacecraft millions and millions of miles away.

To celebrate, Porco and the Cassini team are encouraging people to spend a few moments outside during the actual photo time (you can look that up for your local area here) to reflect on and celebrate our existence, and to maybe even smile or wave for the camera. The event is officially titled, The Day the Earth Smiled.

For a very brief history of seeing our “pale blue dot” from space, and the impact that can have on our perspectives, see Robert Krulwich’s recent blog post highlighting several famous pictures here. And please don’t miss this –

Can an atheist’s favorite song be about Jesus?

Those familiar with my personal views of the divine (agnostic) are usually a little surprised when I tell them my favorite song is “Denomination Blues Pt.1” by gospel singer Washington Phillips. How, with lyrics like these –

. . . It’s right to stand together, wrong to stand apart
When none will enter heaven but the pure at heart
And that’s all, I’ll tell you that’s all
‘Cause you better have Jesus 
I’ll tell you that’s all . . .

– can you find that song appealing, they ask. Well, the short answer is that it’s beautiful. Phillips’ voice, the instrumentation, the melody, even the scratchiness of the recording all add up to a truly moving aesthetic experience – an experience unhindered by any disagreements over the lyrical content. Beauty, whether expressed through a painting, a song, or a play, is available to everyone, not just to those of a particular faith. You’ve probably seen Richard Dawkins hold back his frustration when asked how he can appreciate Christian-themed literature or music – “it’s like saying I can’t appreciate a work of fiction because I know the characters are made up,” he’ll usually respond.

Good art is good art, good music is good music – it matters little what inspired the creator, so long as she was inspired.

Take it away, Mr. Phillips:

The Triumph of Steven Pinker and Disillusionment with Malcolm Gladwell

Once, not too long ago, I was enthralled by the fascinating subject matter and charming prose of journalist and essayist Malcolm Gladwell. Few interested in psychology or social science have not read at least one of his bestselling books, which include The Tipping Point, Blink, and Outliers, or followed his essays in The New Yorker. Having devoured Blink in high school, I can still vividly recall many of its lessons, and even today occasionally catch myself applying Blink-ist thinking to real-world situations (a Gladwell book was an easy gift for a string of holidays). But I can also vividly recall reading what I then perceived as an overly critical review of Gladwell’s work by some guy named Steven Pinker, who said something like, “[reading Gladwell] had me gnawing on my Kindle.”

Fast forward to 2013, and Steven Pinker is no longer just some guy to me, but one of the world’s most interesting thinkers. He is currently a professor of psychology at Harvard, and has raised his profile over the years with public advocacy of science (you may recognize him by his locks – his hair has its own facebook fan page) and a string of best-selling books on language and cognitive psychology. His most recent work, The Better Nature of Our Angels, was hailed by Bill Gates as one of the most important books he’s ever read.

Now knowing a bit more (though not much) about statistics, logical fallacies, and the dangers of inept data interpretation, I have reread Pinker’s 2009 review of Gladwell’s work in the NY Times, and couldn’t agree more with its conclusions. Pinker points out that Gladwell is far from an expert on statistics or social science, and summarizes his concerns in the following way:

” . . . When a writer’s education on a topic consists in interviewing an expert, he is apt to offer generalizations that are banal, obtuse or flat wrong . . . The reasoning in ‘Outliers,’ which consists of cherry-picked anecdotes, post-hoc sophistry and false dichotomies, had me gnawing on my Kindle . . . Readers have much to learn from Gladwell the journalist and essayist. But when it comes to Gladwell the social scientist, they should watch out for those igon values.”

The reference to “igon values” is a stab at Gladwell’s sophomoric misuse and misspelling of linear algebra’s “eigenvalue”. Gladwell fired back in a response, and the two ended up in a bit of a written exchange over, of all things, football statistics. But the lesson here is even more important than those I’ve remembered from Blink. Social science is a tricky business, with vast amounts of room for error in interpretation. We have to be careful accepting conclusions based on anecdotal evidence, and especially of trusting individuals writing or speaking far outside their area of expertise.

The other lesson is to read often and read widely. My first bit of disillusionment with Gladwell actually came a few years ago, while simultaneously reading The Tipping Point and Dubner and Levitt’s Freakonomics. Both books, in what I assume was a coincidence, tried to answer the question of why crime rates had dropped so suddenly in New York City in the mid-90’s. I won’t spoil the conclusions for those who haven’t read the books, but let’s just say they were radically different, and it seemed clear to me that the take in Freakonomics was much more likely (and was backed up by much more data).

That’s not to say Gladwell doesn’t have much to offer (it’s also not to say that Pinker is infallible or should be read without some degree of skepticism either). I would agree with Pinker’s back-handed assessment of Gladwell as at least a “minor genius” with a unique voice and take on the world (though I’m not sure I agree with his take on the future of religion, here). In summary, I very much look forward to the next release of a Gladwell book; though this time I’ll know to spend more time savoring the prose than conclusions.

(Yet another reason) why anyone wanting to be a scientist should avoid Ball State University

I’m really not sure what Ball State is thinking. In the middle of a controversy over professor Eric Hedin’s alleged Christian proselytizing in a science course (see earlier post here to catch up), they have now gone and announced the hiring of Professor Guillermo Gonzalez, a vocal Intelligent Design advocate, in their department of physics and astronomy.

See Full Article Here: BSU hires leader in intelligent design – July 6, 2013 – The Star Press

All I can say is that if I were 17 or 18 years old and considering a career in science , this would send a clear message to me that BSU is not the place to apply. I think they are in real danger of developing a reputation as a fringe science institution, and that is going to hurt the university and the state of Indiana (my home state, by the way) in the long run.

Pull it together, Muncie.

(For more on the controversy surrounding BSU, visit Jerry Coyne’s blog, Why Evolution is True.)