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Author: Stephen Friberg

Stephen Friberg is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he authored Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.
Cosmology … Part 5

Cosmology … Part 5

Some of the cosmologies of the past …

Stephen Friberg, Aug 21, 2016 …

Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams (detail), 1623. Zhang Huang (1527-1608) Woodblock
Diagram of the Supreme Ultimate, from the Compendium of Diagrams (detail), 1623. Zhang Huang (1527-1608) Woodblock

On the first day of my talk talk on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith at the San Jose Baha’i Center (Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It“), I will review some of the fascinating cosmologies of the past.

No era or culture, of course, can be characterized as having a fixed single cosmology and usually there are multiple competing worldviews. But a historical period or a cultural era can be characterized as having a cosmology with long-lived and commonly agreed-on features. Consider, for example, concepts like dao, qi, and yin and yang developed in China some 2300 years ago (Cheng “Dao (Tao): The Way”; Cheng “Qi (Ch´i): Vital Force”; Ames). All things, according to these concepts, are

interconnected and constantly changing. They arise spontaneously from an ultimate source (most often called dao 道, the way) that resists objectification but is immanent in the world and accessible to cultivated people. Vitality and growth is the very nature of existence, and nature exhibits consistent patterns that can be observed and followed, in particular patterns of cycles and interaction between polar forces (such as yin 陰 and yang 陽) (Perkins).

These concepts, and the closely associated “five phases” (wuxing) perspectives that emerged around the same time, evoked a continuity and overlap between the natural world, the social worlds, personal cultivation, and the heavenly worlds that has provided common themes for Chinese philosophy and religion – the three teachings of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism – to this day. They are decidedly pragmatic, providing guidelines for harmonizing relationships in family, social, economic, and government spheres as well as promoting individual self-cultivation.

Astronomical diagram used by 15th century Muslim astronomer.
Astronomical diagram used by a 15th century Muslim astronomer.

Or consider the Islamic world sprawled across three continents and the Malay Archipelago. Incorporating ancient civilizations, including the oldest in our history books, and drawing on a rich and varied set of religious and cultural heritages, it might be expected to have multiple worldviews. Nevertheless, ruling classes, elite intellectuals, merchants, government leaders, military officers, and religious authorities from Spain to China similarly read and studied the Koran in Arabic, sharing a unifying text and a unifying language that made possible the widespread dissemination of ideas about law, scholarship, theology, education, and government. Islam´s common faith and language provided both the means and the impetus for translation of and the sharing of religious, mystical, philosophical, and scientific texts from preceding and neighboring cultures.

Cosmological Mandala with_Mount Meru
Cosmological Mandala with Mount Meru.

The Islamic world inherited the Hellenistic, Sassanian, and Indian astronomies and their associated cosmologies. Motivated by religious requirements for accurate calendars and daily timekeeping, by curiosity, and by practical needs of navigation and trade, Islamic thinkers built the foundations of modern observational astronomy, mathematics, optics, and modern engineering sciences and technologies. These developments were integrated into a cosmology that saw the universe as created by God and shining forth with His guidance and sustaining power. The stars, the planets, the moon, the sun, the human intellect with its ability to see and understand, the outpouring of divine guidance from Moses, Christ, Muhammad: all were components of a worldview that saw the Hand of God in all things.

God the Geometer, Created circa 1220-1230. Anonymous.
God the Geometer, created circa 1220-1230. Anonymous.

Western Christendom, separated by language, politics, and religious differences from the Islamic world and the Greek-speaking peoples of orthodox Christianity, built its own cosmology from biblical sources, Latin culture and philosophy, and the tribal narratives of its diverse peoples. After coming under the spell of Islamic learning in the 11th century, it developed a cosmology that later evolved into modern science and then to secular modernity. Anjam Khursheed, in The Universe Within, describes some its salient points:

The medieval universe, so poetically described by Dante, was a universe where humanity’s moral salvation was objectively overlaid onto the physical cosmos. This pre-Copernican universe had the earth at its centre surrounded by the concentric orbits of the moon, the sun and the stars. Heaven was located beyond the ninth celestial orbit, and inner concentric rings within the earth converged on hell. Humanity’s spiritual salvation was mapped onto this cosmology: if a person chose to be a believer, he would rise heavenwards, ascending through the outer celestial rings to abide in blissful peace forever. If he chose to sin, he would take the route down into the earth’s core and be tormented eternally in hell. Medieval cosmology reflected man’s dual nature as half-angel, half-animal, in the intermediate position he occupied in the physical universe. Humanity stood at the boundary between two universes: The angelic universe above him and the animal universe below him.

It was this universe, one that was a ‟rich, multilayered, integrated reality open to divine interaction,” that would be replaced by a modern worldview which, until very recently, held the universe to be a ‟lifeless, autonomous clock-like mechanism closed to any `external´ influence.”

Next time, an overview of some cosmological themes in the Baha’i Faith.

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Cosmology … Part 4

Cosmology … Part 4

Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It

Stephen Friberg, Aug 14, 2016 …

Simulation of merging black holes radiating gravitational waves
Gravitational wave model.

The title of a series of talks on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith that I will be giving at the San Jose Baha’i Center is Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It.”

The goal is ambitious – to probe the roots of modern materialism and to find a work-around away from the problems caused by undue adherence to those roots. The view that the world – and our role as denizens of that world – is purely material is a big part of the problem, I believe. To the extent that modern cosmologies are how that view is promoted and maintained, they are also part of the problem. So, we need to understand these cosmologies and how they have deviated us so far from an acknowledgement of the spiritual, moral, and ethical aspects of our respective human realities.

A couple of things strike me. First of all, it looks as if cosmology – modern physical cosmology and ancient cosmology alike – function much as do myth and superstition. To the extent that religion was propagated to large numbers of people through shortcuts, tricks, and the encouragement of unquestioning acknowledgement of authority, cosmology was a major offender. Modern cosmology continues in that role, although its handlers and owners have changed.

The other thing that strikes me is that there is no going back – we can’t return to the comfortable cosmologies of the past. Instead we must, I suggest, abandon our adolescent embrace of cosmology and its mythical, inspirational character and turn to a wider, more embracing view of reality, one that takes into account our inner world and the role of human endeavor and activity as well, and one that honors, respects, and above all understands the multiplicity of perspectives of the peoples of the world.

This means that the modern physicist’s view of cosmology, so limited, so circumscribed, so tied to physical pictures of the universe, must be dethroned. Only when properly dethroned – and only when it takes its place as one among many ways of considering reality – will materialism give way to a more mature – and more ambitious – way of improving the world.

Cosmology as a Bedrock of Materialism

Aristotlian / Ptolemaic Universe
Aristotelian / Ptolemaic Universe

Cosmology – including modern physical cosmology – is in many ways the same thing as myth.  A myth, according to Wikipedia is “broadly, any worldview-based traditional story, or collection or study thereof.”  Myths come in many different flavors, including the “sacred narrative, which validates a religious system,” the “origin myth, which purports to describe the origin of some feature of the natural or social world,” and the “political myth, ideological explanation for a political phenomenon that is believed by a social group.” Of particular interest to us are origin myths, which include the “creation myth, symbolic narrative of how the world began and how people first came to inhabit it”, and the “etiological myth, intended to explain the origins of cult practices, natural phenomena, proper names and the like.”

Briefly, what seems to have happened in the scientific revolution is that the scholastic and academic parts of the European religious establishment – the “natural philosophers,” the great theologians, the university professors, the leading ecclesiastics, and the like – were very much invested in the Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology as an origins myth and saw it not only as integral to their own worldview, but as a central part of their teaching and pastoral mission as well. Aristotelian-Ptolemaic cosmology was not only the scientific, philosophical, and theological state of the art of the day, but it provided a powerful, readily pictured and easily understood picture of the universe that anybody, regardless of their educational level, could grasp and understand. Its political relevance – a lowly earth with its inhabitants at the center of a universe ruled over by God and the political establishment – was equally easily grasped.

Napoléon aux Tuileries - Horace Vernet
Napoléon aux Tuileries – Horace Vernet

Think about it! What an extraordinary prize! Take it – make it yours – and not only have you captured an important lever of power in religion, in philosophy, and in theology, but you have captured the levers of power in the universities and even in the rule of kings, popes, princes, and emperors. And take it they did. By the late 18th century, enlightenment thinkers were threatening the overthrow of the French monarchy – the leading political power in Europe – and the dominance of the French Catholicism. By the late 19th century, European colonialism, firmly anchored in evolutionary fitness narratives of white man’s superiority, controlled almost the whole of the earth.

Soviet Coat of Arms
Soviet Coat of Arms

Why is this the bedrock of materialism? The short answer is that religion in Europe underwent a period of collapse ending in its virtual disappearance, and science emerged as the owner of the high ground. Science, not religion, came to be seen as the arbiter of truth and power, and the new cosmologies that science proffered cut out the feet from under the old Aristotelian / Ptolemaic cosmology of the church and the ancien regime. And the science of the time was simple, material, and just in its beginnings. That, plus its extraordinary and continuing success and the lack of a robust, progressive, and world-embracing religion, has locked its material aspects in place (although that is starting to change as more complete thinking about evolution and things like ideas about information, creativity, social growth, and related ways of thinking slowly percolate up.)

Is it time to abandon these myths of origin, these cosmologies that seem to so hinder us?  Have we matured to a point where we don’t need them and confusion they sow? Good questions, and certainly we have to think about what is appropriate for our modern age and the future and not revel in cosmic perspectives – no matter how grand – that are rooted in the past. One need only glance at what is happening all around the world to see the dangers of that.

Next time, a brief review of some of the cosmologies of the past.

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Cosmology and all that … part 3

Cosmology and all that … part 3

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology – Part 3

Stephen Friberg, Aug 8, 2016 …

San Jose Baha’i Center

I’ll be giving a series of talks on cosmology and the Baha’i Faith at the San Jose Baha’i Center on Sunday, Sept. 11th, Sunday, Sept. 18th, and Sunday Sept. 25th. It is the adult class, and typically 12 or so people are there.  We have good discussions!

The title will be Beyond Materialism: How Cosmology Makes Us Confused and What To Do About It“.  Part 1 will cover past and present cosmologies around the world, Part 2 will be about how the Baha’i Writings address questions of cosmology, and Part 3 will discuss implications for a future world society.

Here is the abstract:

Central to discussions about the universe and our place in it are questions about cosmology: What is the nature of the universe? How did it start? What is its meaning? What is the source of its laws? Has it always been here? How did life arise? Where does consciousness and the mind come from? Does the universe have a purpose?

In the past, cosmologies included both the material and the spiritual aspects of life, but modern cosmologies focus on the material aspect only, creating considerable confusion. Here, we briefly survey how the Bahá´í Writings answer questions about cosmologies and consider some of the implications for the future.

Is Cosmology Important?

There is a fundamental question about cosmology – an “elephant in the room” type of question – that must be asked right off.  Is cosmology important?

Looking into the Heavens

I think that the answer is that cosmology is not directly very important, at least to most people on earth. It doesn’t matter to us in any practical way if the universe was created 13.8 billion years ago or the earth 4.5 billion years ago. That’s probably why so many Americans don’t really care whether life is 10,000 years old or 3.7 billion years old.

But cosmology does matter indirectly, both emotionally and intellectually. In effect, it is our mental picture of everything that is. And, as such, it influences us about what we think is meaningful and important in life. And I think it usually does this in a way that short-circuits reason and our thinking processes. Like the animal aspects of our life – our biological impulses and our sociological impulses – it underlies much of our conscious and unconscious comprehension of what is going on. This, I think, is the major reason it is important: it affects, both in negative and positive way, our ways of acting and thinking.

I am saying that in the same way that our animal biology supplies the “biological substrate” of our individual and social lives, so our worldview or cosmology provide us with a “consciousness substrate” of our lives. It is the picture of the world as created by our imaginations.

Some implications …

Ptolemaic Universe
Aristotle’s Universe

If this is correct, it means a lot. It helps explain, for example, how ideological perspectives of the Islamic State and militant atheism, although different with respect to the existence or non-existence of God, can have such similar polarizing consequences. The cosmologies that inform each of them are both worldview maps residing in identical parts of the brain, and therefore tend to generate a similar spectrum of responses.

[Note: A hard truth, one that seems incorrect to many secularists, is that secular and atheistic ideologies in the form of nationalism, scientific racism, and communism have been much more violent than their religious counterparts if we look at the record of violence, war, and class conflict over the last dozen or so decades. It is likely that religion in many cases tempers the innate aggressive tendencies in leaders and their followers and that the weakening and the withering away of religion, as in Germany at the time of the World Wars, may loosen moral restraints against the “might is right” arguments of the nationalists, communists, and their fellow travelers.]

It helps explain, as another example, why modern Westerners and their cultures are so materialistic. Our modern cosmologies – our worldviews – are predicated on a scientific worldview that rejected the Aristotelian cosmology embraced by Islam, Judaism, and Christianity and replaced it with a Newtonian world view that describes the universe as both a vast mechanism and as an empty space admixed with matter that interacts randomly to form us.

This worldview ignores us, our concerns, and things like how we interact with and comprehend the universe. It is, I think, a transitional worldview, one that naively views science as replacing religion, its cosmology still modeled on Aristotelian views that the heavens are where the divine resides. As we shall see, evolution shows a different, much more dynamical picture, one that includes the complexity and uniqueness of who we are as an important additional factor in the universe.

Of course, this raises additional questions.  We will explore those later.

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Cosmology – and all that … part 2

Cosmology – and all that … part 2

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology – Part 2

Stephen Friberg, July 22, 2016

For a paper I’m writing on Baha’i cosmology – an attempt to look at what a post-secular cosmology for the modern world might look like  – I’ve been reading a lot of books on the topic.

A book by Leonard Mlodinow – a Caltech physicist turned writer – illustrates something I’ve been seeing again and again. The book is The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos and I had been entertaining high hopes for it.  However, I just read his introduction, dashing those hopes. Let me tell you why they were dashed, and then say a few things in general about what I think is going on.

(Just so you know, I’m a physicist and an experienced experimentalist with a background in quantum optics, entanglement, optics, and I am currently working in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry. I grew up on a college campus immersed in the world view that Mlodinow inhabits and am looking for where we need to go as we move past science and technology’s adolescence. I think a lot of scientist – including Mlodinow – are doing this as well.)

The Upright Thinkers AmazonCosmology, Cliches, and Cluelessness

Mlodinow is not a bad writer, nor is he a slouch when it comes to understanding and conveying an understanding of physics. But, in the  introduction to this book he uses cliches, wrong “facts”, and seems either clueless about the non-scientific side of intellectual history or he ignores it. He sounds like a press agent for the non-thinking side of Silicon Valley. Here are two examples:

  • As an example of a wrong fact, he say that fastest way to travel between cities in 4000 BC was by camel. Camels, Wikipedia notes, weren’t domesticated until 1000 years later. This suggests poor editing and fact checking, not a good thing for a book on science.
  • His description of progress is (a) first prehistorical – evolution and all that – followed by Aristotle, then (b) a jump to science with Galileo, then (c) a jump to the modern world.  This is kid’s stuff!!

And, of course, very little to nothing about religion. Mlodinow seems to have not availed himself of any opportunity to learn what the experts say about these thing – not a good sign!  Or maybe he knows about these things and is keeping quiet about them – also not a good sign!

Now, interestingly, he does address some of these issues later in the text, and reviewers suggest he isn’t presenting the usual enlightenment story of the emergence of a science triumphing over all other forms of understanding as a kind of gleeful outpouring of northern European excellence (before its spasms of butchery known as the world wars). We will see.

Some Historical Background

Islamic Architecture in Spain

A bit of historical background is in order. Almost all of science until the last one hundred and fifty years was closely associated with religion, historians tell us. For example, Copernicus – inventor of the heliocentric cosmology that replaced geocentrism until it was in turn displaced by modern perspectives – was a distinguished and powerful Catholic clergyman with an education at elite Catholic Italian universities and an exposure to Islamic mathematical models of the universe. Galileo was a close confidant of cardinals and popes. Descartes – Jesuit educated – was intensely interested in theological truth and strove to put it on a sound physical and metaphysical basis. He was closely followed and supported by eminent French churchmen. Newton, the greatest scientist of all, was a completely engaged Christian who spent more time on religious issues than he did on science. He saw his science – as did Copernicus, Galileo, Descartes and many very distinguished scientists to this day – as celebrating and revealing God’s creation and the divine lessons therein.

And, the impetus to modern science, as we have known for some time, were the advances in mathematics, the sciences, engineering, and in empirical methods of the Islamic world, the main inheritor of the Greek and Hellenistic traditions. It was in Muslim, Christian and Jewish Spain and the four centuries of nurturings in the great religious universities of European Christianity that the religious and philosophical traditions that gave rise to the modern science were laid out and cobbled together.

Has Religion been Erased from Mlodinow’s Radar Screen?

The University of Paris
The University of Paris

So we have to ask. Has religion been erased from Mlodinow’s radar screen? Is he cursed by the carpenter’s hammer syndrome? (For a carpenter with a hammer, all problems are nails.)

“The greatest triumphs of human intellectual history [are] writings and mathematics, natural philosophy, and the various sciences,” he writes. This is a carpenter speaking. Although he mentions religion in passing, there is no acknowledgement of, among other things, the intellectual brilliance and profusion of the great Buddhist and Hindu dialogues of 1500 years ago in the universities of India, of the extraordinary impact of Buddhism in China and East Asian intellectual life, or the incredible intellectual output of European Christian philosophy. Imagine if you wrote a history of relativity and ignored Einstein. This would be a bit like what Mlodinow is doing with intellectual history. Nor is there a mention of the freeing of slaves – an accomplishment of evangelical Christianity – or the civil rights movement. Are we to imagine that the moral virtues, the espousal of the unity of humanity, and that the emergence of modern democratic system of government and related topics are not triumphs of the human intellect?

Of course, he is not the only one from an academic background to have gaping holes in his or her version of the world’s intellectual history. And holes they are, because academics in the humanities – historians, for example – are very knowledgeable about this history. The information is, in fact, readily available to those who have the will to spend a little time and effort to learn.

Purposeful Ignorance

A Scientific Elite

To me, the enemy here is purposeful ignorance – a willingness to ignore realities outside the realms of the physical sciences and a dogmatic and blind belief in the grand narratives of science as the sole source of true knowledge. This, in my view, is a mindset lifted wholesale from the religious systems of humanity’s infancy and adolescence,  a carpentering perspective that holds that all problems can be addressed by the physical sciences with a scientific elite deciding what is true or not in realms far outside their areas of competence.  It is new wine in the old barrels of ideological intolerance

Scientists and their acolytes – if they believe in this one-sided ideological perspective – aren’t yet fully educated. Scientists – and science writers too – need training about what religion is, about its history, and especially about its narratives and traditions that were borrowed by the promoters of modern science and incorporated into their sales pitches. Only then will we start to see, I hold, the true flowering and full benefits of science for humanity.

Another Example and an Analysis

I’m being hard on Mlodinow here, maybe unfairly, and I shouldn’t single him out. The problem is much bigger than him, and is multiple-faceted. And Mlodinow appears to be sincere in his attempt to recognize that there are indeed problems and that they should be addressed.

Let me give you an another example, this from another recent book. Once again, there is a typical feeble, cliched introduction. Once again, after you get past this, the book is excellent.

Its Caleb Scharf’s The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. His introductory chapter on physics describes the life and significance of Copernicus in glowing and celebratory terms – deserved in my opinion, although the saints might blush at its excessiveness – and manages to totally ignore Copernicus’s day job as an elite Catholic cleric.

Once he delivers this seemingly obligatory half-baked sermon on the European origins of modern astronomy, he moves on to start his own excellent survey of the modern studies of the origins of the planets – and why we need to ignore some of the claims to our insignificance in the universe associated with the rise of the Copernican model.

So, what’s going on here?

Two things, I think. First of all, many scientists or science writers who write these otherwise excellent books don’t know the history of science very well, or the story of science in civilizations other than that of western Europe at all. Nor are they interested in it. They are interested, mainly, in what they find compelling and interesting in the new science they are describing. Once they get passed this seemingly obligatory homage to Copernicus and Galileo, they then start their story.

The other thing is that they are believers. The stories they tell of western science, beginning with Copernicus, then moving through Galileo, Descartes, and Newton – the religious aspects carefully subtracted out – is what they truly believe to be the case. This is their creation narrative, their story of the origins of their beloved sciences and signifying its importance in conquering the dragons of ignorance, superstition, and the church.

And here is the thing. Their view of science is wrong historically and unstable as a meaningful narrative in the 21st century. It doesn’t hold up. What we really need is something more than science – we need to know how to use it for everyone’s betterment. We need a story that encompasses all of humanity, not just northern Europeans. And the scientists and science writers who write these books all kind of know this in their bones and in their guts. And many of them are looking for a way to move forward that doesn’t abandon science’s very real accomplishments.


Scharf, Caleb. The Copernicus Complex: Our Cosmic Significance in a Universe of Planets and Probabilities. New York: Scientific American / Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2014.

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Vintage, 2016.

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Cosmology – and all that

Cosmology – and all that

Towards a Baha’i Cosmology

Stephen Friberg, July 22, 2016

I’m writing a paper on Baha’i cosmology – the relationship between the structure of the physical universe and spiritual reality as described in the Baha’i writings – and reading a lot of different books on cosmological topics. Here, I will be sharing some of my thoughts on those books and topics.

The "Eye of Sauron" Nebulae
The “Eye of Sauron” Nebulae

Cosmology – or at least modern cosmology – is a funny kind of animal. It is based on physics and astronomy, draws on an incredible set of visual images of stellar objects captured by our modern telescopic technologies, and almost always assumes that the universe is purely physical (modern western cosmologies differ greatly from the past in this respect). The nearly universal assumption is that the universe and everything in it is based on things like atoms, quantum fields, strings, or some similar fundamental entity. Another common assumption is that there is no purpose or direction involved. (To not make these assumptions is to be thrown vigorously out of the church  – so to speak – so deviation is rarely risked.)

Now, this immediately raises several serious sets of problems, the most immediate being the problem of the mind. Its a fact that the cosmologies that we build – the technologies we use to get the images that illustrate those cosmologies, all the efforts involved in doing the science, and even the very assumptions – are all product of our minds. The mind is the lens through which everything is seen, it is the prism that separates all the colors, it is the true universal acid and the only universal solvent.  All else – all theories, all speculations, and all accumulations of evidence – depend on it.

If everything is material, but every reason we use to argue that it is material is a product of the mind, then we have a conundrum. And it is in facing this conundrum where some of the interesting new efforts are being focused. We are, it seems, moving beyond naive atheisms – those of Dawkins, Hitchins, Harris, Dennett, Grayling, and others come to mind – that tell simplistic creation narratives that replace God with evolution and the big bang but retain the fundamentalisms. Such narratives, while still the bread and butter of everyday atheism, don’t seem to really cut it for the more sophisticated any more.

Leonard Mlodinow – a Caltech physicist turned writer – is one of the people I want to talk about. I’ve been reading his 2016 book on thinking about the cosmos. He starts out by describing how his father, imprisoned by the Nazis at Buchenwald, was stripped of everything except his will to think, reason, and to know: “He was imprisoned, but his mind was free to roam, and it did.”

Human beings. he argues, are beings whose minds rise above those of all other animals:

The nobility of the human race lies in our drive to know, and our uniqueness as a species is reflected in the success we’ve achieved …

Does Mlodinow go the next step and start to talk about this mind that is so “free to roam” as being a primary part of the universe in the same way that he sees it as a universal human attribute? This is what religion does. Or does he see it as a derived and secondary part of the universe and purely an accident – a rare stumble – of an all powerful non-God. I don’t know – I’m only starting on the book. It may be that he is celebrating his own intellect and those of fellow-traveling physicists – we will see. But another 2016 book, also by a CalTech physicist, does go the extra distance and it has become the talk of those who love to think about these things. The book is The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself and we will be delving into it quite a bit.


Carroll, Sean. The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. New York, New York: Dutton, 2016.

Mlodinow, Leonard. The Upright Thinkers: The Human Journey from Living in Trees to Understanding the Cosmos. Vintage, 2016.

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

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.

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

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

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

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

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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