Jan 29

Sam Harris, Reza Aslan and Hiding the Ball


Sam Harris

There’s an interesting volley in the ongoing feud between Sam Harris and people who question his crusade against Islam. During a discussion at the Harvard Science Center, Harris made the claim that Muslim violence is different than any other religious violence. He maintained that when any other religionists commit violent acts, they are individuals committing violent acts unrelated to their faith’s doctrines and “articles of faith”. Islam’s articles of faith were uniquely different.

He used as an example the brutality perpetrated against Muslims by Zen warrior-monks, and ended up making this argument that their violence wasn’t religious violence:

“Now, the truth is it was never pure Zen. It was Zen mixed with Shinto mixed with a kind of Japanese nationalism and war ethic. So it was a weird brew, but it was not at all a surprise that certain Zen teachings, which do not emphasize compassion to the degree that most Buddhist teachings do, could be spun into this sort of martial ethic.” (italics mine)

If this prompts a “Wait … what?” response, I would not be surprised. That was certainly my reaction.  Though he has just taken pains to acknowledge that Buddhist on Muslim violence is “a weird brew” caused by external influences and artful interpretation of certain teachings, Harris then faults others for making the same argument in the case of Islam. I’ve studied both Buddhist scriptures and the Qur’an and what stands out in both cases (as in examples of Hindu or Jewish or Christian violence) is that given the preponderance of teachings on compassion in all of those faiths, believers feel they have any wiggle room to “spin” certain teachings into a “martial ethic”. Read the rest of this entry »


Dec 15

To the World’s Religious Leaders

In 2005 The Universal House of Justice, the elected body charged with the administration of the Baha’i global community,  wrote in the introduction of the book “One Common Faith”:

“At Riḍván 2002, we addressed an open letter to the world’s religious leaders. Our action arose out of awareness that the disease of sectarian hatreds, if not decisively checked, threatens harrowing consequences that will leave few areas of the world unaffected. The letter acknowledged with appreciation the achievements of the interfaith movement, to which Bahá’ís have sought to contribute since an early point in the movement’s emergence. Nevertheless, we felt we must be forthright in saying that, if the religious crisis is to be addressed as seriously as is occurring with respect to other prejudices afflicting humankind, organized religion must find within itself a comparable courage to rise above fixed conceptions inherited from a distant past. Above all, we expressed our conviction that the time has come when religious leadership must face honestly and without further evasion the implications of the truth that God is one and that, beyond all diversity of cultural expression and human interpretation, religion is likewise one.

In light of recent developments that heavily impact the state religious tolerance in our country and in our world, we here at Common Ground Group offer this open letter to the world religious leaders from the Universal House of Justice

Herewith is their message:

UHJ01In April 2002, the Universal House of Justice invited the leaders of the world’s religious communities to reexamine the issues lying at the heart of interfaith activity.

To The World’s Religious Leaders

The enduring legacy of the twentieth century is that it compelled the peoples of the world to begin seeing themselves as the members of a single human race, and the earth as that race’s common homeland. Despite the continuing conflict and violence that darken the horizon, prejudices that once seemed inherent in the nature of the human species are everywhere giving way. Down with them come barriers that long divided the family of man into a Babel of incoherent identities of cultural, ethnic or national origin. That so fundamental a change could occur in so brief a period—virtually overnight in the perspective of historical time—suggests the magnitude of the possibilities for the future.

Tragically, organized religion, whose very reason for being entails service to the cause of brotherhood and peace, behaves all too frequently as one of the most formidable obstacles in the path; to cite a particular painful fact, it has long lent its credibility to fanaticism. We feel a responsibility, as the governing council of one of the world religions, to urge earnest consideration of the challenge this poses for religious leadership. Both the issue and the circumstances to which it gives rise require that we speak frankly. We trust that common service to the Divine will ensure that what we say will be received in the same spirit of goodwill as it is put forward.

The issue comes sharply into focus when one considers what has been achieved elsewhere. In the past, apart from isolated exceptions, women were regarded as an inferior breed, their nature hedged about by superstitions, denied the opportunity to express the potentialities of the human spirit and relegated to the role of serving the needs of men. Clearly, there are many societies where such conditions persist and are even fanatically defended. At the level of global discourse, however, the concept of the equality of the sexes has, for all practical purposes, now assumed the force of universally accepted principle. It enjoys similar authority in most of the academic community and information media. So basic has been the revisioning that exponents of male supremacy must look for support on the margins of responsible opinion.

The beleaguered battalions of nationalism face a similar fate. With each passing crisis in world affairs, it becomes easier for the citizen to distinguish between a love of country that enriches one’s life, and submission to inflammatory rhetoric designed to provoke hatred and fear of others. Even where it is expedient to participate in the familiar nationalistic rites, public response is as often marked by feelings of awkwardness as it is by the strong convictions and ready enthusiasm of earlier times. The effect has been reinforced by the restructuring steadily taking place in the international order. Whatever the shortcomings of the United Nations system in its present form, and however handicapped its ability to take collective military action against aggression, no one can mistake the fact that the fetish of absolute national sovereignty is on its way to extinction.

Racial and ethnic prejudices have been subjected to equally summary treatment by historical processes that have little patience left for such pretensions. Here, rejection of the past has been especially decisive. Racism is now tainted by its association with the horrors of the twentieth century to the degree that it has taken on something of the character of a spiritual disease. While surviving as a social attitude in many parts of the world—and as a blight on the lives of a significant segment of humankind—racial prejudice has become so universally condemned in principle that no body of people can any longer safely allow themselves to be identified with it.

It is not that a dark past has been erased and a new world of light has suddenly been born. Vast numbers of people continue to endure the effects of ingrained prejudices of ethnicity, gender, nation, caste and class. All the evidence indicates that such injustices will long persist as the institutions and standards that humanity is devising only slowly become empowered to construct a new order of relationships and to bring relief to the oppressed. The point, rather, is that a threshold has been crossed from which there is no credible possibility of return. Fundamental principles have been identified, articulated, accorded broad publicity and are becoming progressively incarnated in institutions capable of imposing them on public behaviour. There is no doubt that, however protracted and painful the struggle, the outcome will be to revolutionize relationships among all peoples, at the grassroots level. Read the rest of this entry »


Sep 12

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 4 of a Review

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

September 12, 2015

faith vs factThis is the 4th in a series of blogs about Jerry Coyne’s new book Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. The last blog – Fact vs. Fiction: Part 3 of a Review – looked at role of faith and facts in science and religion.

In this blog, I explore a disturbing side of Coyne’s work, one which he shares with the new Atheists.

The problem is that the new Atheists, because of their disdain for all things religious, show an extreme intolerance for religionists of all stripes and colors. And – as is the case for religious fanatics – this intolerance manifests itself as contempt for those who think or believe differently than they do. Now, you might think that someone who was a scientist and aware of the need for objectivity, openness, and a fact-oriented attitude would know better than to succumb to a highly destructive prejudice that is one of the major flaws of modern religion. But, surprisingly, no. The new Atheists enthusiastically embrace the same thoroughgoing intolerance they find so distasteful elsewhere.

scientific methodOne way that Coyne shows this intolerance is through his enthusiastic antagonism towards accommodationism. Accomodationism – i.e., believing that both science and religion can (or should) agree – is a great sin, according to Coyne. (The sin – of course – is even worse if it raises difficult points you can’t refute. Then the accommodationist should be cast into eternal hellfire.) Coyne’s antagonism towards accommodationism raises some very disturbing questions.

Let’s look his views. But first, let’s consider the nature of accommodationism.

The Evils of Accommodation

Accommodationism is a term that was introduced into modern debates about science and religion by Austin Dacey, an interesting thinker whose views are creative and provocative in areas where Coyne´s are proscriptive and ideological. Wikipedia tells us that Dacey invented the word to characterize people “who either recognize no conflicts between religion and science, or who recognize such conflicts but are disinclined to discuss them publicly.”

Austin DaceyIn the blogosphere, where vituperative attacks concerning science and religion are the norm, the term accommodationism has evolved to have very negative connotations. According to the more militant bloggers, an accommodationist is a bad, maybe even evil, person. Coyne has been one the more militant bloggers.

Coyne’s List of the Bad Guys

Some of the bad guys – according to Coyne- have been leading American biologists like Kenneth Miller and Francis Collins, people who are much more distinguished than Coyne. Ken Miller has an fascinating description of Coyne´s peculiar ramblings about scientists who support religion in Thoughts of an “Ardent Theist,” or Why Jerry Coyne is Wrong

In one piece he compared religious scientists who might defend evolution to “adulterers.” In another he argued that making a case for compatibility of science and faith was akin to peddling cancer by lying about the ill effects of tobacco.

220px-Dr_Kenneth_MillerTo Coyne, the pro-evolution arguments of religious scientists such as Francis Collins, George Coyne, or Karl Giberson are not only unwelcome, but downright dishonest. In his words, this is because “when one makes pronouncements about faith that involve assertions about science, the science always suffers.”

Incredible stuff! And there are institutional bad guys as well, Coyne argues. They include such noted institutions as the National Academy of Science (the most important scientific body in the country) and the National Center for Science Education (the leader in the fight to against creationism in America’s schools). Miller continues:

Coyne’s criticisms are significant because they apply to institutions, not just individuals, involved in the struggle to defend science. In particular, he attacks both the National Academy of Sciences and the National Center for Science Education for what he calls “accomodationism.”

In Coyne’s lexicon, this is the misguided attempt to “show that it [evolution] is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it.” Accomodationism is a “self-defeating tactic” because it “compromises the very science” these organizations seek to defend.

Apparently, NAS and the NCSE ought to change their ways, come out of the intellectual closet, and admit that only one position is consistent with evolution — a philosophical naturalism that requires doctrinaire atheism on all questions of faith.

Read more if you want – you can’t make this kind of stuff up!

My Concerns

ErnstHere are some of my concerns. Science has to take into accounts the facts of life, including the fact that religionists often do agree with evolution. Coyne may want to try to avoid the implications, he may want to argue it away, pretend it doesn´t exist, or say nasty things about it, but it is a fact that he ignores at his peril.

It also worries me that some of Coyne’s language – not quoted here – is very crude and quite rude. Intelligent and informed scientists with an objective mindset usually don’t use gutter language or disparaging attacks against those with whom they disagree. If they do, it invariably means they haven’t thought the issue through, or are defensive, or are afraid of being intellectually challenged.

My biggest concern, though, is that Coyne is making an “impurity” argument. This is a variation of the argument widely used in pre-war Germany against the Jews, of the Marxist arguments about the corrupting influence of “bourgeois thinking” that led to purges of class enemies by Mao, Pol Pot, and Stalin, and tellingly, of the eugenics arguments based on evolutionary models of society prevalent in the United States and northern Europe in the early half of the 20th century.

But, lets see what Coyne says in Fact vs. Fiction about the evils of accommodationism. We look first at what he says in his introduction and consider Chapter 3 – Why Accommodationism Fails – in a later blog.

Fact vs. Fiction on Accommodationism

First of all, and perhaps most importantly, Coyne wants to see science and religion as at war:

I maintain, then – and here I diverge from the many “accommodationists” who see religion and science, if not harmonious or complementary, at least as not in conflict – that religion and science are engaged in a kind of war: a war for understanding, a war about whether we should have good reasons for what we accept as true.

battleshipIt’s so interesting that so many people opposed to religion use war imagery – it is as if they believe, like 19th century Victorians, that manly behavior requires conquering someone or something. Coyne – cutely – wants to conquer religion.

Accommodationism, according to Coyne, weakens reason:

The true harm of accommodationism is the weakening of our organs of reason by promoting useless methods of finding truth, especially that of faith.

His proof? Sam Harris (a man not known for his reasoned approach to issues of science and religion.) Here is what Sam Harris says:

The point is not that we atheists can prove religion to be the cause of more harm than good … The point is that religion remains the only mode of discourse that encourages grown men and women to pretend to know things they manifestly do not (and cannot) know. If ever there were an attitude at odds with science, this is it.

And the faithful are encouraged to keep shouldering this unwieldy burden of falsehood and self-deception by everyone they meet by their coreligionists, of course, and by people of differing faith, and now, with startling frequency, by scientists who claim to have no faith.

Look carefully at what Coyne – and Harris – are saying. Its not pretty.

A Very Blunt Instrument – Coyne’s Impurity Arguments

What Coyne and Harris are saying is – to put it bluntly – that if you believe in God, your ability to reason is damaged.  In other words, religion is a cause of mental impurity.

You have heard a similar argument in eugenics – in the United States we heard that if we allow our pure Nordic stock to be diluted by that of inferior races, our country will lose its dominance and supremacy.

inquisitionlYou heard it in Spain 500 years ago – if we allow Jewish and Muslim blood to dilute the stock of our pure Christian blood, we will lose our grandeur and our glory as a nation.

And you heard in the Ukraine in the 1930s when Stalin castigated the successful farmers and peasants for their bourgeois thinking. He starved several million of them to death for their insufficiently scientific thoughts.

Please note carefully – we have heard about the danger of impurity – be it of blood, of belief, or of thought – many, many times before. And now we are hearing it from Coyne and the new Atheists.

In making these impurity arguments, they are mixing their own interpretations of a commonly held truth – the reasonable view that reason and science are good things – with their own brand of scientism. Their idea seems to be that only their interpretation of reason, one based on their interpretation of science, qualifies as the truth of science. Unfortunately, their interpretations are mainly slight updates of old atheistic ideologies from 18th and 19th century France, England, and Germany. These interpretations draws on materialistic philosophical assumptions, not the actual results of science. They are in imitation of science- i.e., they are pseudoscience. (The prefix pseudo means “something that superficially appears to be (or behaves like) one thing, but actually is another.”)

The reason that Coyne has a problem with accommodationism, perhaps, is that it challenges these materialistic philosophical assumptions and denies their authority.

Of course, if you look at the vast numbers of outstanding scientists who have been religious, ranging from all the figures in the scientific revolution to many of the Noble prize winners alive today, it suggests that religion has not corroded scientific thinking processes at all. If anything, it says just the opposite.

I find Coyne’s argument against accommodationism very disturbing and think everybody else should too.

The Next Blog

The next blog looks at fundamentalism and the new Atheism. Many argue that the new Atheism, despite appearances, isn’t theological or religious and therefore can’t be fundamentalist. Others argue that ideologies can grow rigid in the same way as is the case for theological interpretations and that new Atheism represents on such “hardening of the arteries” as appears to be the case for fundamentalism in religion.


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Aug 29

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 3 of a Review

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

August 30, 2015

This is the 3rd in a series of blogs about Jerry Coyne’s new book Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. The last blog – Fact vs. Fiction: Part 2 of a Review – worried about fundamentalism. Has Jerry Coyne, an evolutionary biologist, succumbed to its charms?

faith vs factHere, we look a bit more at Coyne’s ideas about facts and faith – we will consider what atheist fundamentalism means in the near future. In the next blog, we examine a disturbing aspect of Coyne’s thought – his opposition to what he calls accommodationism.

Faith vs. Fact

Fact vs. Fiction bases most of its arguments on the distinction between fact – which Coyne equates with science, and faith – which he equates with religion. Here is how he puts it in his introduction:

This book …  is about the different ways that science and religion regard faith, ways that make them incompatible for discovering what’s true about our universe. …  I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion – including faith, dogma, and revelation – is unreliable … [By] relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.

You would expect – given these claims – that Coyne would have a clear understanding of what facts and faith are and how they relate to science and religion. Surprisingly, Coyne seems to lacks such an understanding – at least on the evidence of his introduction. Hopefully, he does better in the main text.


moses-old-testament-prophet-1152289Let’s look at Coyne’s treatment of faith. He and many others think of it as an important part of religion.

Now, it’s true that religion involves faith. But religion also involves facts. Suppose, for example, I say prayers to God asking that I become a person who is actively of service to others. And suppose that I have faith that my prayer is answered. My actions in response to my faith, then, have to be ones dealing with facts. I have to deal with the real world of people, dates, checking accounts, funds, arrival times, etc., i.e., all the facts of life. And, I have to study deeply and scientifically to prepare myself for service. I can´t solve the problems of the world by wishing them solved. I can’t levitate a sick person into the hospital. Faith is not magic nor is it superstition. Rather, faith is trust leading to action, and action requires facts.

Does science require faith? Obviously. Only a handful of people interested in, say, cosmology (the origins of the universe, the big bang, black holes, etc.) are going to have the mastery of mathematics and theoretical physics that is necessary to judge the technical correctness of the physics, so everybody else – that includes almost the whole of the scientific community – has to rely on their assessment of the findings. Faith in the scientific enterprise is integral to the process. And as I mentioned earlier, active scientists have to work on the basis of faith in the correctness of solidly based science – no one individual can reproduce the centuries-long scientific process to master all of its details. And, similar to the case I describe above, action on something like global warming doesn’t mean you wake up every morning and repeat the global warming calculations and experiments. Rather you act on the basis that your assessment is correct. You act on the basis of faith.

Does Coyne grasp this? I´m sure he does at some level because he has tremendous faith in science and an overwhelmingly powerful faith in evolution. But he appears unable or unwilling to come intellectually to grips with the fact of his own faith and how it sustains him. Something – an ideology, a dogma, a fixed belief that faith is automatically bad – is blocking him from thinking clearly.

Clearly, Coyne wants to characterize faith as blind faith. And yes, blind faith is a central and serious problem, in religion as in science or any other endeavor. Does Coyne understands the difference between blind faith and understanding-based faith?  Is he trying to equate all faith with blind faith? Is it possible, as I’m starting to think, that he doesn’t understand the difference?

In any cases, we have to ask the fundamentalist question – is his an approach based on ideology and dogma?  The evidence, increasingly, suggests strong components of both.


Or maybe not.

At least one of the things that is going on in both the academic world and in the broader world is competition for power and authority. Currently, science seems to be getting an edge in the fight for money and prestige in academia. The humanities (and things like anthropology, the social sciences, etc.) are being crowded out unless they become empirically oriented. E.O. Wilson and Stephen Pinker (see, for, example, Pinker´s brute-force piece on the topic in the New Republic a while back) are leaders in a ‟branding” game that holds that the only valid knowledge is scientific knowledge. So, making arguments of the faith vs. fact variety is also politics for heavy stakes in control of funding. Basically, you call your competition ignorant in as many ways as you can get away with (and avoid appearing ignorant oneself). It works well. It is more familiar to most of us as politics.

So Coyne may in fact be very naive in his own personal understanding of faith – and completely reluctant to look at faith logically and scientifically – but as an academic he is no stranger to a cynical game where calling people faith-oriented is hardball politics.

Addressing the Problem

Of course, blind faith is a very serious problem, although we knew this before Coyne stumbled across the idea.

The question one should ask in response to blind faith in religion is whether or not you are going to be rational, systematic, and scientific about addressing it, or whether you are going to try to eliminate it by marginalizing or eliminating religion. Coyne and the new Atheists take the latter approach: faith in religion is bad and evil, religion is bad and evil, so adopt a blind faith in science, so teach the blind faith that science teaches that religion is bad, work to marginalize or eliminate religion, and work to marginalize or eliminate the voices of all those who are religious or even think that the voices of religious people should be heard. And by all means, keep the people looking to you for guidance in the dark!

Now, of course, blind faith is not only found in religion, but it is also found in new Atheism, politics (Marxism, for example), scientism (think of the millions sacrificed in the name of scientific racism), nationalism, and so on. Try to stamp it out using crude and ignorant methods in attacking religion and the problem will either grow worse or simply migrate elsewhere (it’s a whack-a-mole game!).

10 commandmentsFacts and Science

Facts, as every scientists knows, are not science, although they are one of its essential components. You can do science that is heavily theoretical – string theory in physics comes to mind, or speculation about billions and billions of universes – without ever having strong empirical support, i.e., without having the facts to back you up. But more generally, science is all about explanation of facts and establishing correspondences between facts and systems of thought, mathematical models and the like so that you can predict – and, of course, manipulate – future facts. Coyne is playing a game when he suggests that science is all about facts.

In a very real and definite sense, science is based on faith. It is based on faith in the scientific method and a faith in the course of science, and it is faith that allows you to suspend judgment until analysis gives you the understanding that holds the facts together. It is faith and belief that the laws that you discover and the relationships you come to understand are consistent with the facts as shown by experiment or measurement as reported by others.

In ignoring this, Coyne – at least in his introduction – ignores the actual practices of sciences.  Without an understanding of the way that science develops theories, mathematical models, and does empirical comparisons with real world data, Coyne is basically telling us to operate blind.

Does this wholly unreliable picture of how facts are on and their relationship to religion and science provide evidence that Coyne has succumbed to fundamentalist fervor? Maybe, or maybe it could be something else. For example, he could be purposely dumbing down his message for his target audience, people who are uncomfortable with nuance and unsophisticated intellectually. It does suggest that any conclusions he draws about the compatibility of science and religion can’t be trusted, given that his premises are so unreliable.

So let’s look further in the next blogs.

The Next Blog

,Blog 4 looks at deeply disturbing view of Coyne’s about something his calls accommodationism.


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Aug 19

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 2 of a Review

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

August 20, 2015

faith vs factThis is the second in a series of blogs about Jerry Coyne’s new book Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. The first of the blogs – Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Part 1 of a Review – introduced new-Atheism as an important but failed enterprise. My views about new-Atheism are not positive, although I believe that a critical look at religion that it attempts is important. Instead of a principled and informed analysis of the failures of religion, I see new-Atheism an exercise in blanket condemnation constructed from scientism, pseudoscience, anti-clericalism and anti-religion. I would prefer to see a scientific approach, one that isn’t about demolition.  And I see it as fundamentalism, thinking that ideology about theology is not exempted from the term.

By fundamentalism, I mean an approach that relies on slogans, ideology, and a dogmatic adherence to certain core – i.e, fundamental – principles. It avoids both the empiricism, the systematic investigation, and the objectivity of science and the open-mindedness and sympathetic approach of the humanities. Fundamentalism can occur when an arena of religious or ideological certainty is threatened or under assault. Leaders, often new leaders, develop ideological positions – fundamental principles – that they view as essential and unassailable as a bulwark in defense. Departing from the fundamentals brings on censure and opprobrium, both internally and externally.

In the modern age, fundamentalism in religion has proved a winning formula, leading to greatly enhanced authority for leaders who enforce it. Fundamentalism in atheism – i.e., new-Atheism – is the anti-religious version of fundamentalism and is a reaction to the improved fortunes of religious fundamentalism as well as the return to respectability of religion and theology in academic and scholarly circles, as well as a response to the polarization of all aspect of our social life. It also is an expression of the virulent anti-Islamism of Christian and European culture. If the book sales and sheer volume of words published or printed on new-Atheism are any indicator, atheistic fundamentalism has been a winning formula for its authors.

Questions for Coyne

coyneIs Coyne’s new book a new-Atheist fundamentalist tract – i.e., one that repeats and amplifies the claims of previous new-Atheist approaches – or is it one that addresses and tries to improve on their deficiencies and weaknesses?  Does it comes to grips with need to be scientific in the approach that it takes to its subject matter, especially given that it makes strong claims for the superiority of that approach? Does it offer realistic solutions to the problems it addresses, something which would elevate it above fundamentalism?  Or does it consider religion and those who hold to it – the overwhelming majority of people in the world – as a kind of class-enemy to be eliminated?

Some other questions I ask of his argument are the following::

1. Does he bring new arguments – arguments with intellectual and scientific rigor – to his approach?

2. Does he endorse the scientism, anti-clericalism, pseudoscience, popular psychology, and invective that typify new-Atheism books? Or does he try to put new-Atheism on firmer ground?  What about anti-Islamism?

3. Does he examine, consider, and critique new-Atheist dogmas?

4. Does he engage constructively with critiques of new-Atheism?

5. Does he endorse – or does he modify – the new-Atheist fundamental that religion is inherently evil, a forbidden fruit?  Does he offer an a reasoned explanation of that fundamental?

6. Does he address questions about the meaning and purpose of life with which religion is engaged?

FACT7. Does he engage with the problem of the mind – and its relationship to belief in God?

8. Does he try to recognize how his own evolutionary-driven impulses drive new-Atheists beliefs? His own beliefs?

I also have some historical questions to ask:

9. Does he consider the savageness and extraordinary injustice – not to mention the conflict with modern democratic impulses – of past secular attempts to eradicate religion – by Pol Pot, Stalin, Mao, Hitler, and the rest of the usual suspects?

10. Does he give any thought to the human price of aggressive secularism and materialism over the last two centuries?

One thing you won’t find me asking is about the importance of science or evolution. Science, in fact, is an essential part of any successful approach to reality – actual science, not pseudoscience – and evolution is an extraordinarily well-verified actual science. But I will not avoid asking about the use of science as fodder for scientism and pseudoscience – nor will I avoid the “social Darwinism” question, i.e., are you using evolution as a substitute for creationism? This is an area where atheism and new-Atheism confuse science with theology.

Coyne’s Introduction to Fact vs. Fiction:

leipzig-DW-Kultur-LeipzigCoyne, in his introduction, describes his book as contrasting fact and faith. Here is his claim:

This book … is about the different ways that science and religion regard faith, ways that make them incompatible for discovering what’s true about our universe. My thesis is that religion and science compete in many ways to describe reality – they both make ‟existence claims” about what is real – but use different tools to meet this goal. And I argue that the toolkit of science, based on reason and empirical study, is reliable, while that of religion – including faith, dogma, and revelation – is unreliable and leads to incorrect, untestable, or conflicting conclusions. Indeed, by relying on faith rather than evidence, religion renders itself incapable of finding truth.

In Coyne’s belief system, faith is not a good thing. He describes a debate he had with a young Lutheran theologian on the compatibility of science and religion:

After both of us gave our twenty-minute spiels (she argued “yes,” while I said “no”), we were asked to sum up our views in a single sentence. I can’t remember my own precis, but I clearly recall the theologian’s words: “We must always remember that faith is a gift.”  … [I] saw clearly that the theologian’s parting words undercut her very thesis that science and religion are compatible. Whatever I actually said, what I should have said was this: “Faith may be a gift in religion, but in science it’s poison, for faith is no way to find truth.”

vaucanson_enteRed Flags – Two Fundamentalisms

These first few paragraphs of Coyne’s introduction to his book raise several red flags.

According to Coyne, religion competes with science to explain reality. To most people, including me, this statement doesn’t make much sense. I don’t look to religion to explain the working of my iPhone, nor does anybody else. It follows by similar example that most people don’t look to religion to explain material things. So, his claim is not true for material reality.

Some people believe that all of reality is material and that everything is based on that material reality – a view known as materialism. But only the most stubborn and diehard materialists – those who are adverse to what modern emergence tells us – hold that science can explain absolutely all of this reality and that there is no room for the humanities, or for psychology, literature, art, or religion. Either Coyne hasn’t thought very much about what he is saying – and what he is saying is from the French positivist school of Comte from the early 19th century – or he is a diehard reductionist (in that case, why is he a biologist?), or he is making a statement based on a fundamentalism (or, of course, all three). New-Atheism does indeed makes statements, suggesting that we are already edging into fundamentalist territory.

Coyne also has an understanding of faith very similar to that of new-Atheism. And he seems not to recognize the nature of faith or the critical role it plays in science as in religion. Indeed, he simultaneously is asking us to accept his arguments on the basis of faith in his authority as a scientist while naysaying faith in religion.

Industrialisierung_1868-580Does science require faith? Of course it requires faith. It requires faith that there are laws of nature that are regular and can be discovered. It requires faith that thinking processes, empirical investigations, and the analytical method that science deploys – and the details in its textbooks – are correct and logical. No one individual pursuing scientific fact can repeat all the experiments – and do all the analysis – that leads to the detailed catalog of scientific facts, theories, and truths at our disposal that is our scientific heritage. So those truths are taken on faith by all except those repeating fundamental experiments.

A view of science that is blind to these imperatives of faith – that is blind to the nature of belief – portrays a profound lack of knowledge, be it scientific or otherwise, about an important aspect of human reality. Few people are scientists and the claim that scientific facts are the only trustworthy source of knowledge ignores the reality that trust is always a matter of faith. And it sets up science as something you learn from by blindly following science writers – a kind of modern replacement for priests – and not thinking about why you should have faith in what they say.

Already in the first few paragraphs of the introduction, we are in very risky waters steered by someone who appears not to recognize the risks. I don’t know which is scarier – Coyne’s questionable claims about science, religion and faith – or that he refuses to acknowledge that his claims are questionable.

Kilroy 062909

Next Blog

The next blog looks further at the introduction to Coyne’s Fact vs. Fiction: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. It discovers another fundamentalism – an even scarier one – something Coyne calls accommodationism.


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Aug 11

Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible. Part 1 of a Review

Stephen Friberg

To believe in God means to see that the facts of the world are not the end of the matter. To believe in God means to see that life has a meaning.

Ludwig Wittgenstein

August 11, 2015

New Atheism isn’t what it used to be.

savonarolaOnce upon a time – about ten years ago – the new-Atheists, i.e., Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens, were seen as bold, provocative, argumentative, gleefully entertaining, and at the intellectual cutting edge. They were atheists with the vim and vigor of evangelical preachers speaking hard truths. Yes, they were unconcerned with logic, fact, or scientific rigor (except Daniel Dennett, who manfully tried to invest the enterprise with a modicum of thought), but that didn’t seem to matter. They stormed unto the scene like John Wayne and the US  cavalry or Savonarola taking over Florence and denouncing church corruption.

wayne3They were bound to fail. At first entertaining and highly provocative, they came to be seen as repetitive and boring – your average dogmatic white European male ideologue denouncing Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and religionists of all stripes, carrying on like radical Protestants and renegade Trotskyites, and misogynistic to boot. Obviously, they had their eye on the bottom line, making a financial killing with brisk book sales. Their views, fresh in 18th century enlightenment France, reminiscent of the glory days of 19th century European social Darwinism, and evocative of the excesses of the first half of the 20th century, quickly became stale. Other writers tried to join their ranks – A.C.Grayling and Victor Stenger, for example – but they lacked the true grit of the fabulous four. Inevitably, establishment thinkers (and mainstream atheists!) declared new-Atheism a corpse, often describing it as fundamentalism in scientific guise.

Now, Jerry Coyne, a capable scientist from a Jewish background and a true blooded new-Atheist believer and activist, has weighed in. His new book, Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible, carries on the good fight.

faith vs factDoes he resurrect the corpse? Does he extend new-Atheism’s shelf life?

New-Atheism is crying for arguments with intellectual and scientific rigor. Can Coyne bring weight, logic, and oomph to the current hodgepodge of anti-clericalism, pseudoscience, popular psychology, and invective that is new-Atheism’s stock-in-trade?

Why New-Atheism is Important

Why is new-Atheism important?

New-Atheism is important because religion can lead people to do bad things.There are reasons why religion can be bad, and there are exploitative religious movements that can do evil. Religion can be hijacked by extremists or politicians and the power hungry and used for debased ends. It is like dysfunctional government or communism – you want to find out what goes wrong and correct the problem. And yes, science is one of the most powerful correctives.

And, clearly, there can be very serious flaws in religious institutions – arbitrary exercise of power, authoritarian tendencies, lack of transparency, misogyny, sometimes pure opportunism, political manipulation, etc. So discussions of the foibles and failures of religion that allow these outmoded power structures and their excesses are very important. And it may take folks with a strongly dogmatic and ideological mindset to make those discussions have an impact, and new-Atheism has played that role. (Its too bad that it uses a shotgun approach, trying to discredit everything even faintly connected with religion, but that’s extremism for you!!)

coyneBut, as in everything, there must be growth and development. New-Atheism needs to grow, new points of view need to be considered, old dogmas discarded. There should be constructive engagement with opposing and differing views. One of the problems is that the dogmas of new-Atheism – and there are a lot of them – are often of ancient vintage, artifacts of the past. They should be examined, considered, and updated where necessary. (And why not drop the shotgun approach and the extremism??)

Problems with New-Atheism

One serious problem is that many atheists and new-Atheists are good at creating outrage about the problems they see in religion, but are failures at remedying those problems. And because of their proselytizing – and the aggressive attacks carried out by organizations subscribing to their creeds – they often make the problems worse. (Sometimes, they make them much worse. One need only consider the campaigns against religion conducted by communist governments or the campaigns against Jews conducted by secular organizations to get the idea. Or consider reactionary movements like ISIS in the Middle East.These movements are, by informed accounts, due in large part to a reaction to the failures, persecutions, and corruptions of secular and socialist movements that misgoverned the region so long, often in service to western powers.)

640px-forbidden_fruitAccording to folks like Dawkins, Harris, or Coyne, religion is intrinsically the problem – religion is the forbidden fruit. The idea that there is a higher reality – something akin to what we recognize in people’s minds – is an anathema to them. But our belief in a higher reality continues to exist – it apparently is hard-wired into us – and not easily discarded because some angry white guy tells us to do so.

A similar situation holds with the issues that religion raises and answers – the purpose of life, what we should do with our lives, what happens when we die, what is the good, how can we best live meaningful lives, how do we build better families, better communities, better governments, and a better world. These are fundamental questions and they will never go away, despite angry demands from new-Atheists. When minds are educated they ask these questions. When minds are uneducated, they ask these questions. For somebody like Dawkins, these questions are either meaningless or best left to experts – scientists or science writers like himself.

Arguments that hold that the mind, intelligence, creativity, compassion and other virtues particular to humans are real, important, and a fundamental part of the cosmos – not just flotsam cast up by the waves of evolution – are many. They can’t be just waived away on ideological grounds or on the basis of some vague belief system that holds that God doesn’t exist. (These arguments are strengthened, not weakened, by the powerful capabilities of our sciences. The effectiveness of science shows that our mental powers – powers that we look to to understand divine agency – are very great and that they can transform the world and society.) New-Atheists don’t like to involve themselves in these arguments – except to jeer – probably because they don”t understand them or have not engaged with them seriously. But if they wish to be taken seriously, they should understand them and be able to explain their merits as well as their weaknesses.

So, an important question for Coyne is whether or not he has the sophistication to engage with these issues.

Evolutionary Religion

phrenologyThere is an aspect of the religious problem that the new-Atheists almost always ignore the effect of – at their peril and ours. And this is what can be called evolutionary religion, i.e., the hardwired impulses towards religion that are part of our evolutionary heritage. These religious urges seem to be innate – and they can be turned towards the good or towards the bad. When left untutored or mispurposed, they can lead to a wide array of problems, including fanaticism, blind belief, religious violence, and the like. They are likely built into everybody to one degree or another. They certainly seem to be built into the zealousness and the contempt directed towards religionists (and others who don’t belong to the new-Atheist “elect” group) that we see in Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens and which they encourage among their followers.

A big part of the problem, I think, is that if we don’t acknowledge and deal with the evolutionary religious impulse directly, openly, and honestly, it can become subversive and destructive. Evolutionary artifacts can run wild and create havoc. The new-Atheists, adverse to self-reflection and susceptible to the same evolutionary pulls that can subvert religion, seem almost completely unaware of the pull of these forces on their lives even as they denounce them in others.

Does Coyne recognize this inconvenient truth?

Scientism – or is it Pseudo-Science?

New-Atheists, admirably, are the ones who’ve put the discussion about the destructive aspects of religion back on the map.

But are they the ones that understand the problem of religious fundamentalism and its excesses? Certainly, the answer is no. They rather act as if infected by same destructive aspects of religion that they so eagerly spotlight.

Part of the problem is that they are, in effect, proclaiming an alternative type of religion. Their religion is a pseudo-science, or what some call scientism. They make pronouncements about religious question and issues, evoking the name of the higher authority of science, ignoring whether or not real science has any bearing on the issue, and inventing some made-up theological principle that sounds scientific and so is persuasive to those who don’t want to think.

And often, their supposed scientific answers are nonsensical and miss the point. Consider, for example, the question about why we were created. The new-Atheist answer? Because of the Big Bang. The creation narrative? Evolution. The purpose of life? None. Morals and ethics? TBD. Cosmology and the purpose of physical reality? Billions and billions of stars. I exaggerate, but only by a little.

Does Coyne understand the difference between science and pseudo-science as applied to the questions above?  What are the answers he gives to the central questions of life?  Or does he dismiss them as meaningless?

Rightist, Anarchists, and New-Atheists – The Solution is the Same

Consider the issues that are facing humanity – how do we best face the future, how do we build a better life, what do we do in face of the failures of modern western materialism, what about unbridled capitalism, still rampant racism and the still destructive ideologies of social Darwinisms? The solution that Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens put forth is, at its core, more of the same – i.e, continue the status quo and maintain the ways of thinking of the past (Hitchens added his own twist – attack Iraq!).

anarchyIts like the American far-right and the government or the old fashioned anarchists of the 19th century. Their answer to all problems is to just get rid of government – or authority. Then – they say – everything will be OK.

The new-Atheists say the same thing, except with respect to religion. Just get rid of religion and everything will be OK.

Well, no.

The experiment has been done. The deaths, which include those from governments turning savagely on their own populations, have been in the tens of millions.

And by demeaning, undercutting, and undermining traditional spiritual traditions, aggressive attempts to eradicate religion have created the conditions that make militant Islam and fundamentalism not only possible but likely.

Continuing the Discussion

But these problems don´t mean that the discussion shouldn´t continue. Or that smarter people shouldn´t continue to engage on both sides. For example, the vague thoughts that erstwhile luminaries like Steven Weinberg unleash about the meaningless of everything about life need to be examined, engaged with, and analyzed.  What does it mean for a leading intellectual to talk about the purposelessness of reality in a public context as a kind of spokesperson – a deeply unreliable spokesperson – for modern American science?

So, in the following, we start to analyze Coyne´s text. What are the good points he makes? Where is he just spouting ideological nonsense? These kinds of things. And we will see if he brings any fresh views to the table.

Next Blog

The next blog looks at the introduction to Coyne’s Fact vs. Fiction:Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible.


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jul 17

On Every Page: Bill Maher and the Qur’an



Bill Maher

I read an article on Thinkprogress.com recently that asked the question “Has Bill Maher Finally Gone Too Far?” with regard to his animosity toward Muslims and Islam. I personally think the answer must be “yes”, if for no other reason than that he is taking significant heat from other self-identifying liberals, progressives and atheists.

In the article, Maher is quoted as saying, “The Qur’an absolutely has on every page stuff that’s horrible about how the infidels should be treated.”

I’ll cut to the chase. This is quickly and easily debunked by simply opening a Qur’an. Most of the snippets of text pulled from the Qur’an to show that (1) Islam is an inherently violent faith and (2) Muslims are directed to slay all non-Muslims (including Jews and Christians) because (3) “infidel” equals “non-Muslim” are cited out of context—by extremists outside and inside Islam.

Mr. Maher is wrong about the contents of the Qur’an. Perhaps he was indulging in hyperbole when he insisted that violence against “infidels” is “absolutely” “on every page.” It hardly matters if people who have not read the Qur’an believe him simply because of his celebrity. Beyond this, there are a raft of assumptions wrapped up in Maher’s single sentence. I’d like to try to tease them out one at a time. Read the rest of this entry »


Jul 13

Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 6 – New Mexico Statehood

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![


1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoJuly 13, 2015

We’ve been looking at the history of New Mexico in light of Baha’i ideas about social and economic development and about science and religion.

In 1912, New Mexico became the 47th state of the union. Only 330,000 people lived in the state, mainly in rural areas. The boom years of the 1880’s were long past and agriculture (ranching, hay production, pinto beans, corn, pecan, grapes, and cotton) was the biggest economic contributor. Railroading and mining, though, continued to be important.

Over the next 30 years, New Mexico experienced population growth, the establishment of world-renowned art colonies, increased tourism, the emergence of a health care industry, oil and natural gas discoveries, and the building of a modern highway system. The Navajo nation, located in both New Mexico and Arizona, continued its movement towards becoming the largest indigenous people in the United States.

During World War II and the years afterwards, New Mexico become the center of atomic bomb development, the test ground for American missile and major high-tech weapon systems industrie, established an advanced educational system, and created a thriving California-style desert metropolis in Albuquerque, Belen, and its suburbs.  It also maintained and grew the cultural strength of its indigenous peoples and slowly came to terms with its old and unique Hispanic culture. Now, there 2 million people living in the state.

After Statehood: 1912 to 2014

 New Mexico, after achieving statehood, grew steadily, but not substantially, until World War II.

An early development was that of tourism, especially in the scenic and culturally rich northern parts of the state. It became a major factor in the state]s growth. Taos and Santa Fe became one of the most important art colonies in the United States. Tourism, associated with the same lure of the indigenous cultures and unique landscapes that brought the artists and cultural Bohemians, was encouraged by the Santa Fe Railroad and bus tour operators to great effect:

Georgia Okeefe

An iconic New Mexican canvas by Georgia O’Keeffe

The tourist industry actually had its roots in such institutions as the Taos Art Colony [founded] in the late nineteenth century in northern New Mexico and … helped advertise the culture of New Mexico by exhibiting art works throughout the United States. Writers such as Mabel Dodge Luhan and D. H. Lawrence helped attract other writers and artists to the state.

As art colonies developed in Taos and Santa Fe, interest in Native American culture increased. The number of museums began to grow, and there was a revival of interest in Indian pottery making, rug weaving, and jewelry making. The tourist industry also benefitted from New Mexico’s unique blend of cultures and a campaign aimed at attracting those interested in learning about its art, architecture, and Native American population. (DeMark, Essays in Twentieth-Century New Mexico History)


Desert coal plant in northwestern New Mexico

A new and sustained mining boom set in. In the southeastern part of the state, and then later in the northwestern part of the state, oil and natural gas was discovered and exploited. Currently, New Mexico is the third largest producer of oil and natural gas in the United States. Large coal and uranium deposits have been discovered, and a number of other minerals are mined, and the states modern mechanized mining industry dwarfs that of  the territorial days.

But the great depression of the 1930s hit New Mexico hard, with the New Mexico farmland value becoming “the lowest of any farmland in the United States, and ranchers faced drought, dust storms, and falling market prices. Many farmers and ranchers lost their land when they could not pay taxes.”  Accordingly, President Roosevelt’s New Deal was extraordinarily popular. At the beginning of World War II, New Mexico’s economy was starting to recover. Again, DeMark in Essays in Twentieth-Century New Mexico History.:

On the eve of U.S. entry into World War II, several factors set the stage for New Mexico to play a larger role in the U.S. economy. The population of the state had grown to 531,818, an increase of 270 percent from 1900. The urban population had grown to about one-third of the total state population, and city boosters were trying to attract businesses toNew Mexico. The cost of living was lower than the national average, and taxes were relatively low. Moreover, New Mexico lay in the Sunbelt, which received a major population influx in the three decades after World War II. The military was especially attracted to New Mexico for many reasons. For example, the sunny climate meant that the air force had more flying days.

Sandia-National-Labs-1945-600 750

Sandia Labs before the growth of Albuquerque

It was World War II and the establishment of major military facilities, including Los Alamos National Laboratories, Sandia Labs, various military bases, and the huge White Sand Missile Range that established modern New Mexico.  Albuquerque became a California-style desert metropolis nourished by atomics weapons development and production at Sandia Labs. Las Cruces and Alamogordo in southern New Mexico grew and prospered as bedroom communities for White Sands missile ranges.

And education boomed. The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque and New Mexico State University in Las Cruces boomed and grew. New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro where I grew up changed from a sleepy mining college to a leader in petroleum exploration technology, explosives research, geology, geophysics and thunderstorm research and other areas of research with its staff of PhDs – my childhood neighbors – collaborating together on fascinating adventures of exploration, many of which I joined.

375px-Socorro_aerialAnd towns like Socorro integrated its young people into an appreciation of other cultures – Hispanic, farming and ranching – that left an indelible imprint on a substantial percentage of us.  We have visions of spiritual search, purpose, meaning, science in the mesas, and technology in the desert.

My Baha’i Social and Economic Development Analysis

What is my social and economic development analysis?  As before, I’m trying to look at New Mexico from the standpoint of Baha’i principles of social unity, unification of science and religion, education, governance, and the presence of a spiritual component of society.

New Mexico started in 1912 as disunified.  Its native American and Hispanic populations were sidelined and ignored. 100 years later, that has changed.  And it has change to the extent that critics damn people for thinking the state to tri-cultural, not multi-cultural New Mexico, uniquely in the United States and probably even the Americas, is home of three indigenous peoples who have maintained their own cultures and it a Hispanic culture that maintains its own vibrancy and uniqueness..

Of course, little of that hard-won tri-culturalism is reflected in employment trends or income levels – there still are big discrepancies between the poor Hispanics in, say, Espanola, and the rich educated non-Hispanic and non-indigenous ricos in nearby Santa Fe and Los Alamos. And drugs are still epidemic, meaning that the cultural divide that I grew up in has worsened, despite the enthusiasm for all thing tri-cultural. So, for progress made on the cultural front, I give New Mexico high marks. On the income and social equality front, low marks.


Ready for Testing in Socorro

Science – including the agricultural sciences, mining and geological sciences, energy sciences, and a wide variety of leading high-tech sciences supported and nourished at Los Alamos and Sandia Labs – are strong and well supported. This is totally different than was the case 100 years ago. Yet, it is the fruit of the militarization of the United States in World War II and continued militarization thereafter – so its benefits are not for New Mexico or its residents despite the money it brings in. An those monies, as important as they are, mainly for the salaries of outsiders, not for those culturally New Mexican. So, again, mixed marks: high marks for education and high tech, low marks for sharing or addressing fundamental inequalities in New Mexican society.  The money mainly goes – California style – to outsiders.

Government is in local hands and increasingly shared among local communities, including Hispanic and long established Anglo-American families, many of whom strongly identify with New Mexico. High marks for this.

Religion is strong, it seems to me. Indigenous and Hispanic traditions are increasingly respected and honored as an integral part of New Mexican society, and important and promising development.  But, there is little cross-fertilization of the type that can provide a model for society elsewhere. It is still Los Alamos high on the hill versus Pueblos in the valley, and the two rarely talk to each other despite the urgings of an occasional visionary. Medium marks – indigenous religions arerespected and valued and occasionally given their due, but Anglo-American materialism still holds sway.

DSC03980Mining is strong and still too invasive. As elsewhere, coal, nuclear, and other energy extraction is polluting. Effectively, it is subsidized by health problems and environmental damage that are the legacy of exploitative capitalism and colonialism.

What is extraordinary about New Mexico, to my eyes, is its intense beauty, its extraordinary landscape made sacred by countless people over many millennia, including recent immigrants like my parents. Also extraordinary is its unique cultural heritage – especially the tri-cultural Hispanic, indigenous, and Anglo parts of it. That mix of peoples – one that is closely similar to the population mix throughout North and South Americas, offers, if people could recognize it, an outstanding laboratory for social development for the future of the New World.  But, it would require a mindset moved away from the legacies of 19th century materialism, militarization, and high-tech science for the few. And, of course, the true reality of the future New World is multicultural, not just tricultural.

330px-Spanish_Empire-AmericasCould New Mexico become such a leader for the future?  The people, the cultural strengths, the traditions, are there!!

Next Blog

The next blog will switch topics – we will address Jerry A. Coyne’s 2015 Faith vs. Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible. Is this a book that overcomes the failures of Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and others in their impassioned and unreasoned forays against religion?  Does Coyne avoid a superficial celebration of rationality and logic in the name of a science that substitutes its 19th century scientistic religious speculation beliefs for what should be divine guidance?  Does the man think?  Or is he just another media-savvy fundamentalist just selling us his version of old-fashioned, good-time materialism?


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jun 22

Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 5 – Mexican and Territorial New Mexico

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![


1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoJune 21, 2015

New Mexico is the name given to the American southwest by the Spanish adventurer Francisco de Ibarra in 1563. It derives from the Mexica people who dominated the Aztec empire. De Ibarra hoped that the land would be as productive of wealth as was the area around the city of Mexico.

In 1821, the vice-royalty of New Spain collapsed and the Mexican Federation (and briefly, the Mexican Empire) replaced it. New Mexico was a distant province and mainly ignored. However, trade to the the United States was opened up and the Santa Fe Trail, connecting to the 1,600 mile El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro to Mexico City, was established. French-Canadian and American trappers and mountain men, including the famous Kit Carson, settled in Taos and used it as a base for operations. New Mexico shifted its orientation towards the United States.


Kearny rides through Las Vegas

In 1846, a 1,700 man United States army under the command of Stephen W. Kearny marched from Kansas to Santa Fe and occupied New Mexico in the name of the United States, establishing the New Mexico Territory. This was a result of American war fever that started the Mexican-American war, Following the successful persecution of the war, the new American troops established forts along the Santa Fe and El Camino trials to try to protect against Ute, Navajo, and Apache raiding.

During the civil war, Texan armies traveled north from El Paso in 1862 along the Camino Real, fighting at Valverde, just south of my hometown of Socorro, and then east of Santa Fe at Glorieta Pass. Their defeat at Glorieta Pass ended westward Confederate expansionism.


The D&RGW in Espanola

The railroads came to New Mexico starting in 1878, transforming the territory. The state historian describes what happened:

During the next few years, industry expanded at an almost incomprehensible pace, especially when compared to the slow, lilting growth patterns of prior years. Hundreds of carloads of coal were shipped each week from New Mexico mines. The number of cattle in the territory increased from 347,000 in 1880 to 1,630,000 by 1890. The number of banks grew from only two before the railroad to over fifty after the railroad, signalling the end of the mercantile capitalism of Santa Fe Trail days.


Billy the Kid

The boom times were turbulent and far from peaceful. Ranchers fought ranchers, Anglos fought Hispanics, the army fought the native Americans, the Apache and Navajo raided mining towns, forts, ranches and wagon trains, cowboys shot each other in the streets, vigilante justice replace law and order, and vast fortunes were won and lost. This was when the Lincoln County War was fought and Billy the Kid was murdered. This was when Geronimo and Victorio were captured or killed and the “west was finally won.”

In 1912, territorial status ended and New Mexico became a state.

A Social and Economic Development Perspective on New Mexico History: The Territorial Period



In my four blogs on New Mexico, I reviewed New Mexico history in light of Baha’i social and economic development principles. The four blogs are here, here, here, and here. Social and economic development, according to Baha’i perspectives, requires unity, science and religion working together, capacity building, and learning in action. It is not something “that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.”

New Mexico, starting with the change of government in Mexico in 1921, had moments of unity but long periods of disunity as well.

If we define unity as people working together, then unity emerged with a policy of cooperation with Anglo-Americans and French-Canadian trappers and traders that began in 1821 with the ending of Spanish rule. New Mexicans also struck treaty deals with the Comanches, escaping the punishing raids that afflicted Texas, Mexico, and other places. The Santa Fe Trail opened from Kansas to Santa Fe, energizing trade. When the Americans invaded in 1846, there was very little violence.

New Mexico did become a Civil War battleground, but the confederates were defeating quickly and decisively. Where there was violence – and there was quite a bit of it – was in the long drawn-out and frequently unnecessary wars with the Apaches and Navajo’s. Here the Anglo-Americans carried out policies that several times took on forms similar to genocide. The most notorious of these wars were the wars against the Navajo resulting in the “Long Walk” and the confinement of the Navajo people in the Bosque Redondo reservation at Fort Sumner, New Mexico:


Kelly Mine

The battles between the American troops and the Navajo natives and factors such as disease and famine reduced the Navajo population of approximately 25,000 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 2,000 Navajo of reproductive age, creating a genetic bottleneck.

Similar conflict characterized the Apache Wars and the Ute Wars.  Often, these wars were a result of broken promises by the United States government. A tribe would be promised land – a reservation – but if the land happened to have valuable minerals, the promise would be broken. Or there would be harsh and unfair dealings. On the other hand, raiding was a normal facet of life for some nomadic native Americans and conflict with the settlers pouring into the New Mexico territory seems inevitable. The last of the great “Indian” wars ended with the surrender of Geronimo in 1886. A few skirmishes here and there continued until the 1920s.

Atchison,_Topeka_and_Santa_Fe_Railway_HeraldMining was the first modern industry to develop – with several significant mining developments in different parts of the state. In the 1860s and 1870s, this resulted in boom towns, augmenting the business created by forts established by the US Army to fight with native Americans. In 1878, railroads entered New Mexico – the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe (AT&SF) in the northeast and the Southern Pacific in the southwest. By 1882, the AT&SF traveled down along the Rio Grande river and the Camino Real to connect with the Southern Pacific and then later through Navajo country to Arizona.

With the railroads came access to markets across the United States, transportation for hauling ores to smelters, and increased local demand for foodstuffs. This, in turn, created a demand for cattle and created a large ranching industry throughout the state. Rapid growth characteristic of the many states in the western United States as the result, and it both laid the foundation for the next 150 years of growth and created tremendous inequalities due to the unequal distribution of the wealth created. Yes, it was a form of capacity building, but much of it was fueled by greed.

By the 1890s, much of the boom atmosphere of the 1880s had played out and floods and low ore prices had devastated towns like Socorro. The boom was over and although New Mexico became a state in 1912, the economy was no longer vibrant.

My Baha’i Social and Economic Development Analysis

What is my social and economic development analysis?

My rough analysis inspired by a Baha’i social and economic development framework again shows intermediate marks. Unity was not completely lacking – New Mexico became a state with three distinct cultures – Anglo-America, Hispanic, and Native American – but conflict and the sidelining of the both the Native American and Hispanic cultures was a constant factor.

Science – except for mining and geological science – was non-existent. Education remained poor. Governance was by appointment from Washington – New Mexico was a territory, not a state – or by US military rule, or later by corrupt land interests.  But the wealth from the boom period of the 1880s seeded an educational system and the beginning of what would become an growing economy in the next century.

It seems that New Mexico experienced much of the 19th century boom atmosphere – and conflict with indigenous peoples – that occurred throughout the whole world as a result of the explosion of growth and technology and the emigration of people from Europe everywhere. Downgraded, but not missing, was the spiritual element.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we apply the Baha’i principles of science and religion and Baha’i experience in social and economic development to an evaluation of New Mexico in the 20th century.


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Jun 07

Science and Religion in New Mexico Part 4 – Hispanic Social and Economic Development

Stephen FribergReligion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights, with which the human soul can progress. It is not possible to fly with one wing alone![


1024px-Flag_of_New_MexicoJune 7, 2015

In 1598, before English settlers arrived in Jamestown on the east coast of the United, Spanish settlers from Mexico and Spain colonized northern New Mexico.

The story of the settlers, led by Juan de Oñate, the soldier and silver-baron from Zacatecas in Mexico who financed the colonization, is a fascinating and complex one. Oñate was a hero to many of the descendants of the settlers, but a brutal conqueror to many others:

Native Americans had their own very personal memories concerning Oñate. They recalled massacres, slavery and terror. They remembered that Oñate’s foray into New Mexico in 1598 led to the deaths of two out of every three Indians there and nearly caused the extermination of Native culture across the region. (from The Last Conquistador, the film)

Juan de OnateBy 1680, the Pueblos of northern New Mexico were united against the colonists and successfully expelled them in what has become known as the Pueblo Revolt. The Spanish and their indigenous Mexican allies returned, but not until 1693. Even then, it took years of warfare before an accord was established under new auspices – defense of northern reaches of the Viceroyalty of New Spain against France, England, and Russia, tolerance towards Pueblo religion and culture, and cooperation against Comanche, Ute, Apache, and Navajo raiders. (The quotes below are from A Cuarto Centennial History of New Mexico by Robert Torrez.)

A Social and Economic Development Perspective on New Mexico History: The Spanish Period

In my three blogs on New Mexico, I have been reviewing New Mexico history in light of Baha’i social and economic development principles. The blogs are here, here, and here. Social and economic development, according to Baha’i perspectives, requires unity, science and religion working together, capacity building, and learning in action. It is not something “that one group of people carries out for the benefit of another.”

taos puebloObviously, a 16th century conquest by a profit-hungry European colonial power is not going to be an ideal fit to Baha’i ideals of social and economic development. Yet asking the question – and exploring the historical experience in northern New Mexico – is relevant for the modern era, not only in New Mexico but wherever 16th, 17th, and 18th century European colonialism leaves dominant traces. I.e., in Arizona, in California, in Mexico and all of central America, and in much of South America.

Wikipedia – in its history of New Mexico – paints a grim picture:

The current viewpoint by experts today is that the objective of Spanish rule of New Mexico (and all other northern lands) was the full exploitation of the native population and resources. “Governors were a greedy and rapacious lot whose single-minded interest was to wring as much personal wealth from the province as their terms allowed. They exploited Indian labor for transport, sold Indian slaves in New Spain, and sold Indian products…and other goods manufactured by Indian slave labor.”

Spanish colonialism also focused on converting the indigenous people to Spanish Christianity. Oñate was accompanied by missionaries. Many native Americans converted – or appeared to convert. And while the clergy were often humane and idealistic, they were also often intolerant and dogmatic. And they could be a very disruptive:

Franciscan missionaries came to New Mexico with Oñate and a struggle ensued between secular and religious authorities. Both colonists and the Franciscans depended upon Indian labor, mostly Pueblos, and competed with each other to control an Indian population decreasing because of European diseases and exploitation. …  Pueblo dissatisfaction with the rule of the clerics was the main cause of the Pueblo revolt.

But there was another aspect to the Spanish presence in New Mexico – people who were willing to reach out and befriend their native American neighbors, even intermarry with them.  And although Spanish culture was authoritarian, it was not racist, or at least not in the modern northern European sense. Oñate even had Jewish blood – he was a descendant of a great converso family through his mother – and married to a great granddaughter of the Aztec Emperor Moctezuma. Partly because of this, and partly because of the isolation of the colony in Northern New Mexico (and also due the need for a common defense against external threats):

… the Spanish in New Mexico were never able to achieve dominance over the Indian peoples who lived among and surrounded them. The isolated colony of New Mexico was characterized by “elaborate webs of ethnic tension, friendship, conflict,and kinship” between Indian groups and Spanish colonists. Because of the weakness of New Mexico “rank-and-file settlers in outlying areas had to learn to coexist with Indian neighbors without being able to keep them subordinate.”

Catlin_--_Comanche_warrior_and_tipiAfter being thrown out by the Pueblo Indians in the Pueblo revolt, the reconquista in 1692 and 1693 was followed by changes in the relationship of the Church to native religions as well as the settlements purpose:

Following the Pueblo Revolt and reconquest, the authority of the Catholic Church was reduced substantially, and because of the expanding influence of the French, English, and Russians in North America, the Spanish government held on to New Mexico principally as a defensive buffer against these enemies of the Spanish Crown.

While the revolt succeeded in only temporarily expelling the Spanish from New Mexico, it did force changes in Spanish attitudes which enabled the Pueblos to maintain their language end ancient religious practices. After the reconquest, it became apparent that the Spanish would have to demonstrate tolerance towards Pueblo religious and cultural ceremonies and cooperate with their neighbors in order to defend the colony against the various tribes which besieged New Mexico from all directions

And New Mexico grew, slowly expanding into new territory. But always, there was fighting – and oftentimes trading and joint raiding – with neighboring nomadic Comanches, Apaches, Utes, and Navajos. Partly as a result, the northern New Mexican Spanish communities incorporated increasing numbers of people of mixed blood and even pure indigenous blood:

Prominent among those who shouldered the burden of frontier settlement and defense were the growing mestízo, or mixed blood, population of the province. Among the least recognized of these groups are the genízaro. The genízaro were Indians from various tribes, who had, for a variety of reasons, lost their tribal identity. Many of them were captive children, who had been raised in Spanish households and been baptized, had assumed Spanish surnames, and had eventually become Hispanicized.

ristraGenízaro settlements such as those established at Abiquiu and Tomé, bore a significant portion of New Mexico’s frontier defense well into the 19th century. Despite many struggles, the growth of these communities made possible the subsequent development and expansion of New Mexico.

(Note: When I was growing up in New Mexico, friends told me of experiences of mutual raiding in their families. Apparently, stealing children and then raising them as family members was common on both sides.)

My Baha’i Social and Economic Development Analysis

What is my social and economic development analysis?

First, let me fill in some missing details. The Spanish brought with them new technologies, new agricultural tools, new animals, and new trade opportunities and needs. New animals – horses, cattle, and sheep – spread through the American west, leading to a much greater mobility for nomadic tribes (and the rise of the powerful and long-lived Comanche empire.)  Sheep were widely adapted by into the native American economy, becoming a means to both economic growth and settlement.  Agricultural methodologies – for example, the acequias of Spain adapted from the Islamic world for distribution of water to fields, or the use of plows (and horses and oxen to pull the plows) – increased the productivity of agriculture, as did the availability of iron and steel for axes, saws, and other materials.  And the Pueblos also shared their foods, and knowledge of the desert and mountain geographies of Northern New Mexico.

corndanceMy rough analysis inspired by a Baha’i social and economic development framework shows intermediate – not high, not low – marks. Unity, at first, was almost non-existent – the two sides were often in violent conflict. And internal struggles – Pueblo against Pueblo – soldiers vs. friars – were common.

It was only after the Pueblo revolt and the following Spanish reconquista that a live-and-let-live attitude came into play. Clearly, the Spanish were not going to dominate the Pueblos and they also no longer felt compelled to deny indigenous religion. And clearly, against a common enemy, both sides realized they needed each other. So in time, helped by tolerant Spanish attitudes toward racial mixing, a working relationship developed.  It led to an emergence of a new Hispanic northern New Mexico culture – a culture no longer Spanish or Mexican.

Science? It was almost non-existent. Education was poor. In these arena of endeavors, New Mexico fell behind. Governance traditions among the native Americans seemed to have remained relatively strong, but not among the Spanish where traditional autocratic traditions too often held sway. The Pueblos and the Spanish did often work together through personal ties, but there doesn’t seem to have been very much in terms of formal relationships.Wisdom acquired through experience was highly valued – and necessary for survival (the environment was tough and very demanding). Religion evolved toward accommodation and cross fertilization. And overall, New Mexico emerged from the time of Spanish domination with both a strong native American culture and a uniquely northern New Mexico culture. There were, although, severe problems (drugs, poverty, lack of education) that are the heritage of issues left unresolved.

Speculating about the Future

What do these lessons mean for the future?  First of all, New Mexico was unique in having relatively equal players in the Pueblo and Spanish populations. Accommodation and cooperation was often reached, providing an example of cooperation between indigenous American and European immigrant cultures that is sadly lacking throughout the Americas (it’s hard to think of other places where this has taken place). But, it requires a surrender of traditional and autocratic governance methods and domination by narrowly European religious orthodoxy.

Second, it highlights both the importance and possibilities of unity. Because of the unity that did develop – and the natural tendency of people to form relationships with each other – both sides were able to survive and even help each other.

Third, it shows the importance of tradition and religion for survival, provided it is not forced. Both sides maintained strong religious traditions – and were able to respect each others.

Next Blog

In the next blog, we apply the Baha’i principles of science and religion and Baha’i experience in social and economic development to an evaluation of the American territorial period of New Mexico history..


The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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