Does science need religion to be effective?

Sharknado church

The recent outbreak of measles in California and the ensuing debate over vaccines has got me thinking about how we as a society interact with science. As you’ve probably read by now, the fact that an outbreak of measles — a disease that was declared eradicated in the US in 2000 — is even possible is attributable to a low vaccination rate among some communities of parents, many of whom blame vaccines for a variety of diseases and other maladies. Those beliefs have always stood on shaky scientific ground, but were dealt a major blow in particular when a 1998 study purporting to find a link between the measles/mumps/rubella vaccine and autism was found to have been fabricated (after years in which other researchers were unable to reproduce the results). Nonetheless, as the current outbreak reveals, the consensus of the scientific community that vaccines are safe — and, importantly, do not cause or precipitate autism — has, for some parents, fallen on deaf ears.

Even as anti-vaccine parents are at the root of the recent measles outbreak, I still don’t believe they deserve the full measure of vitriol that’s been aimed at them by some in the media in recent weeks. People who elect not to vaccinate their kids are neither dumb nor crazy, even if some of their beliefs are based on flimsy-at-best science. For one, vaccines can in rare cases cause adverse reactions, even though it doesn’t appear that autism is one of them. And plenty of smart people are anti-vaxers. One of them is the birth instructor whose classes my wife and I attended when we were expecting our first child, a woman who was once a university professor and enjoyed a great deal of success in the corporate world before her second career. Those who hold views on vaccine that fall outside of mainstream science, in other words, are often otherwise educated and sensible people.

But never mind that. The main reason I think we need to take it easy on these people is that they are not alone in rejecting the findings of the scientific community. The reality is that the case of vaccines is just one example of our society’s collective lack of respect for science.

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Learning about honesty from your neighborhood car dealer

car_salesman

A couple of months ago my wife and I bought a car from our local Volkswagen dealership. We needed a new car after our second child was born, and we ultimately settled on a Jetta Sportwagen, which I highly recommend for any parents out there who need a car big enough to fit two car seats, but are desperately trying to disguise the fact that they’re no longer cool.

After we agreed to buy the car and all the paperwork was signed (mostly by me, as my wife was home with the new baby), the salesman gave me a head’s up that I’d be receiving a survey via email about my experience at the dealership. “We’d appreciate it if you could give us 9s and 10s”, he said, referring to my survey responses.

At the time I didn’t think much of this comment, and just assumed he and his colleagues would benefit from some positive feedback. But when the time came came to fill out the survey — a simple, straightforward electronic form that I can only assume most people go through in a minute or less — I grappled with my answers. Did I really think the presentation and cleanliness of the car showroom, for instance, was “truly exceptional”, which is what the survey instructions indicated that a 9 or 10 response was supposed to mean? The honest truth was that the experience at the dealership was good but nothing to call home about. I had bought a car from another VW dealership a few years earlier, and I found it hard to decide which buying experience left me more satisfied. How could I honestly say that this last one was something “exceptional”?

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The Joseph Kony craze may be over, but its deeper lesson should never be forgotten

Joseph-Kony-2012

An article in the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog chronicles the winding down of the Invisible Children (IC) organization. You’ll remember them for this video, which created a ubiquitous anti-Joseph Kony movement and sparked an international appeal to bring the brutal warlord to justice. As the article explains:

The organization, which took the world by storm with the viral Kony 2012 video, announced that most of the staff – including Jason Russell, the only remaining founder – will stop working for the organization and that a small team of four individuals will work through 2015 to continue their lobbying efforts and formally hand over their Africa-based programs by the year’s end. In other words, the organization, which has been raising awareness and action on the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and its leader Joseph Kony for the past 10 years, is slowly phasing out. For now, it appears Invisible Children won’t outlive the rebel group it was formed to stop.

At the time that the Kony phenomenon was in full force, observers were conflicted as to now much good it would ultimately do. On the one hand, it raised the level of sympathy and understanding on the part of Westerners for humanitarian catastrophes in oft-ignored parts of the world. The US even sent 100 troops to Uganda during this time to help with the effort against Kony and the LRA, a commitment that arguably wouldn’t have been made without the massive public response to the Kony 2012 video.

Even during that time, however, a number of individuals expressed skepticism. As The Atlantic put it back in March of 2012:

Treating awareness as a goal in and of itself risks compassion fatigue — most people only have so much time and energy to devote to far-away causes — and ultimately squanders political momentum that could be used to push for effective solutions. Actually stopping atrocities would require sustained effort, as well as significant dedication of time and resources that the U.S. is, at the moment, ill-prepared and unwilling to allocate. It would also require a decision on whether we are willing to risk American lives in places where we have no obvious political or economic interests, and just how much money it is appropriate to spend on humanitarian crises overseas when 3 out of 10 children in our nation’s capital live at or below the poverty line. The genuine difficulty of those questions can’t be eased by sharing a YouTube video or putting up posters.

I myself don’t know how I should feel about the rise and fall of IC and the whole Joseph Kony thing. To me, the episode reminds us that even as our human race moves towards a new sense of global consciousness, awareness, and sympathy, we are still quite immature in how we express these newfound feelings. In other words, we still need to make the leap from awareness to actual sacrifice and action. Too often, our idea of social action and responsibility takes the form of easy, costless gestures of support for a particular cause, allowing us to move on with our lives under the comforting but false notion that our work is done. In that sense, I’m not sure if these types or movements are helping or hurting.

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What is my problem with poor people?

Homeless man and dog

Recently, I decided to try out a Greek food truck for lunch that’s down the street from the office. The line was long, but I didn’t mind. It was nice outside so I was happy just to wait patiently and surf with my phone in the meantime.

While waiting, a lady approached those of us who were in line and asked for money for something to eat. Her speech was irregular and she smelled of booze. The other people in line ignored her. As I’ve tried to do in the past in similar situations I decided to at least acknowledge her; that’s the minimum degree of respect you can show a person asking for money out on the street, I’ve always figured. She asked if I would buy her some food, and I said yes. I had a ten-dollar bill in my pocket (as usual I’d left my wallet at my desk at work), so I had enough for two sandwiches. Plus, I’ve always tended to feel more comfortable giving food, rather than money, to those asking for help.

After that point it was chaos. I asked her what she wanted to eat, and she told me she wanted a chicken platter, which was $7. I told her I didn’t have enough money for that plus my own lunch, but I could buy her a sandwich instead. She agreed, but only after some awkward back and forth that drew curious glances from the other customers (it wasn’t that she was stubborn, but rather that she didn’t seem in the right frame of mind to understand the logic).

When I got the counter, I ordered one sausage sandwich for myself and one chicken sandwich for my friend. While the staff were putting these together (assuming they were both for me, I guess), they saw the lady, who it seemed was familiar to them. “What can I get you, honey?”, one of the cooks called to her, as she was standing off to the side. I opened my mouth to speak, about to explain the situation to him, when I heard her exclaim over my shoulder, “A cheeseburger!” I shut up. I paid for both sandwiches, gave one to the lady (who thanked me), and I was on my way.

It’s experiences like this one that complicate matters for me — and, I assume, many of those reading this — when it comes to giving money, food, or whatever to the poor, and especially to beggars. There is no way to write about these things risking sounding arrogant, paternalistic, or just plain dumb. But not discussing them is a worse alternative. This blog entry is more meditation than manifesto; I have no definitive answers, only personal experiences and scattered thoughts.

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Survey data confirms: It really stinks being poor

Pew Research recently came out with a fascinating study across a number of countries asking individuals about life satisfaction. The results are pretty interesting, and I’d recommend taking a look at the summary here.

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One of the most intriguing charts that Pew presents (see above) is a scatter plot of countries, with average rating of life satisfaction on one axis and per capita GDP on the other. Not surprisingly, there’s a positive correlation between income and satisfaction, meaning that people in wealthier countries tend to be more satisfied with their lives than people in poorer countries. But we also see that the very wealthy countries (like the United States) aren’t significantly more satisfied than the middle-of-the-pack countries, echoing previous research on this topic. In fact, the country that rates highest in terms of life satisfaction is Mexico, where per capita GDP is about $10,000 per year, roughly a fifth that of the US.

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On the futility of politics

chess_pieces

For a while I’ve wanted to write something about why Baha’is choose not to get involved in politics. I’ve kind of dragged my feet on this, mostly because it’s a difficult topic to write about, and is fraught with potential pitfalls. But given the number of international conflicts and other major news stories that have sprouted up  over the past couple of months, and the immense attention that some of these have received in the news and social media, I figured it was as good a time as any.

If you’re wondering why the Baha’is have not stood up and spoken publicly on these various conflicts — Israel vs Hamas, Ukraine vs Russia, the St. Louis protestors vs the police, etc. — then you are probably not alone. That’s because Baha’is actually make it a point not to make their voices heard on specific stories like these. I remember during the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, for instance, as faith-based groups around the world were holding protests against the possibility of an American invasion, hearing the voices of some well-meaning activists criticizing the relative silence of the Baha’is. How can a religion so committed to peace and justice be so content, as I heard one person put it at the time, to “sit on the sidelines”?

The simple answer is that part of being a Baha’i is to make a commitment to stay out of politics, and to avoid taking sides in terms of one party, group, or nation over another, even as we stand in favor of certain principles.

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Real faith is admitting that you don’t know

Fox's "Cosmos" has been refreshingly profound

Fox’s “Cosmos” and the deeper conversation about science and faith

My wife and I have been getting into the new Fox show “Cosmos”, a reboot of the old Carl Sagan show which (I’m told) raised the country’s awareness of science and inspired countless young people. I truly hope it’s a success and stays on the air, though I’m not so sure the appetite will be there in the end. We’ll see. So far, at least, the reviews appear to be good and the show is great in terms of combining scientific content and entertainment/style.

One thing I’ve been pleasantly surprised by is the show’s willingness to tackle the dichotomy of science and religion. This is especially refreshing to a Baha’i who was taught from childhood that the two branches of human knowledge are complements rather than adversaries. Abdu’l-Baha once said:

Religion 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! Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.

In the very first episode of “Cosmos”, we’re introduced to a historical figure named Giordano Bruno (whom I had never heard of previously) who was viciously persecuted and ultimately burned at the stake by the Catholic authorities in the 16th century. His crime, apparently, was to insist that the Earth was not in fact the center of God’s creation, and that a limitless Creator must necessarily imply a limitless creation.* Bruno was not a rigorous scientist (Galileo, the show tells us, later proved with a telescope some of Bruno’s hunches), yet he was an astounding spiritual visionary.

After watching this I was compelled to think: Every person of faith should be a Bruno. For Bruno’s epiphany, as I understand it, was not that he had stumbled upon a new truth. It was quite the opposite: it was that he understood that the human being is but a speck of dust in God’s infinitely mysterious creation, and that God’s universe must range well beyond the outer limits of the solar system. Other words, to encapsulate God within the confines of human experience is to violate all of our previously held assumptions about the His nature.

For a religious person to claim he understands God is about as senseless as a physicist to claim he understands the origins of the Big Bang. After all, how can we understand something that originates outside of our physical universe (that is, what caused the Big Bang, or whether or not anything “caused” it in the first place)? As we are constrained by the boundaries of our own physical reality, we can begin to understand something so profound only by observing its imprints on the universe around us. Coincidentally, astrophysicists recently took a big step forward in proving the Big Bang recently, by finally detecting long-theorized gravitational waves.**

The Baha’i Writings tell us repeatedly that God is an “Unknowable Essence”, too large and overwhelming to be comprehended by His creation. It is not the first nor the last religion to preach this message. The ancient Baghavad Gita, for instance, recounts the story of Arjuna’s conversation with Krishna, the Incarnation of God in human form. In it, Arjuna begs Lord Krishna to reveal his true form. At last Lord Krishna accedes to this request, but for just a moment. The result is for Arjuna to beg Krishna to once again cover up this overwhelming vision:

O all-pervading Visnu, seeing You with Your many radiant colors touching the sky, Your gaping mouths, and Your great glowing eyes, my mind is perturbed by fear. I can no longer maintain my steadiness or equilibrium of mind. / O Lord of lords, O refuge of the worlds, please be gracious to me. I cannot keep my balance seeing thus Your blazing deathlike faces and awful teeth. In all directions I am bewildered.

Like I’ve written before when discussing addiction, humility is part of being a faithful person. But humility is about more than just admitting to ourselves that our powers and capabilities are limited (a powerful tool in defeating alcoholism and other vices). It is also about admitting the same about our capacity for knowledge. It’s about admitting that our puny minds can not comprehend something as vast as the universe in its entirety, let alone the Creator who dwells beyond the cosmic curtain.

As we were watching that “Cosmos” episode tell the story of Bruno’s rejection and eventual execution, my wife aptly remarked, “No wonder so many scientists don’t believe in God.” It’s true. To any scientific thinker, the idea of God as a white-bearded grandfather or a man with an elephant head is about as believable as a giant Flying Spaghetti Monster (which is a real thing, by the way). I hope more and more scientists come to realize that there are other ways to have faith, and that some of us approach the concept of belief with the same humility and wonderment with which they themselves approach science.

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*I’m hardly an expert on this, but I realize the show may not have given the whole story on Bruno and why he was so heavily persecuted. For some discussion on this, see here.

**Science-y person reading this… please explain this in dummy’s terms for us.

What can youth athletics teach us about free markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to markets?

How about a little sportsmanship when it comes to economic competition?

Sometimes small gestures can prove profoundly spiritually powerful. Spirituality, after all, isn’t just meditating on the top of a mountain or praying by a candlelit bedside. It’s found in real, human gestures that happen around us everyday.

One remarkable illustration of this — and which recently gained national recognition here in the US — happened at a high school wrestling match in St. Paul, Minnesota last month between St. Michael Albertville High School sophomore Mitchell McKee and Blaine High School sophomore Malik Stewart. Other than the stakes, namely the state championship for the 120 lb weight class, this wasn’t an extraordinary match. Except that the following happened: After Stewart was beaten, he immediately walked over and embraced the father of the opposing wrestler, who is terminally ill with cancer. You can read the whole story here (and I strongly recommend you do.)

What was it about this story that made it so emotionally powerful, and vaulted it into the national spotlight a few days later? I think it’s because sports — and particularly youth sports — can occasionally remind us that even in an ultra-competitive atmosphere, the most beautiful human virtues can rise to the surface. Anyone who’s watched high school wrestling in particular recognizes that the sport uniquely balances strategy and discipline with primal aggression and raw effort. That a spontaneous act of humanity can emerge from such gritty violence is testament to the delicate balance between competition and cooperation. At one moment, two athletes struggle to physically dominate each other as if their lives depended on it. At the very next, those two athletes, as well as a tiny community of spectators, are somehow tearfully united by a simple but powerful gesture.

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Slightly random thoughts on the Baha’i Fast

Today marks exactly the middle of the Baha’i Fast, which runs from March 2nd through 20th each year. Without boring you with useless details about what I’ve been eating for breakfast, here are some slightly random thoughts on this special time of year, in no particular order:

– It took me a while to figure out that the fast was a largely symbolic, spiritual gesture, and not an exercise in not eating. When I was a teenager, I would either 1) eat obscene amounts of food in the morning and evening in hope of staving off hunger as long as I could, or 2) sleep through as much of the day as possible. As I got older, I kinda realized that there’s nothing virtuous about, for instance, rushing to eat an entire box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch in one’s pajamas as the sun comes up.

– One of the most beautiful and telling passages from the Baha’i Writings about the Fast is this one below, from ‘Abdu’l-Baha:

The material fasting is abstaining from food or drink, that is, from the appetites of the body. But spiritual, ideal fasting is this, that man abstain from selfish passions, from negligence and from satanic animal traits. Therefore, material fasting is a token of the spiritual fasting. That is: `O God! As I am fasting from the appetites of the body and not occupied with eating and drinking, even so purify and make holy my heart and my life from aught else save Thy Love, and protect and preserve my soul from self-passions… Thus may the spirit associate with the Fragrances of Holiness and fast from everything else save Thy mention.’ (Star of the West, v.3, p. 305)

– In my slightly-less-naive current state, I think I’m getting the hang of the spiritual part. Prayer helps, in the morning when the sun comes up and in the afternoon when it sets. This year my wife, even though she’s pregnant and thus not fasting, has helped me a lot simply by settling down the house, corralling our two year old, and sitting down everyone around the dinner table to say a short prayer before sunset. That’s made a big difference in the feel and mood of the whole period. And it’s not an easy task to get everything still even for that brief moment, mostly because our toddler has the energy and table manners of a rabid chimpanzee.

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What counts as a miracle?

handsFor the past year or so my wife and I have hosted prayer gatherings in our home, basically just a small gathering of friends getting together to share food, prayers, readings, reflections, etc. A couple of weekends ago, our theme was “miracles” in honor of Christmastime, which sparked a uniquely vibrant discussion.

Almost everyone present said they’d experienced a miracle at some point in their lives. But what was even more striking for me was the number of stories that were more spiritual in nature than physical. One friend recounted the appearance of a helpful stranger out of nowhere as he struggled to make it back home for a loved one’s funeral. Another talked about the sudden lifting of a burdensome feeling of hate she had harbored for her stepmother, one she’d carried for years after her mother’s passing.

We often hear about miracles, especially around this time of year, but they’re often earthly in nature. Sometime these miracles take the form of diseases that suddenly cure themselves, or serendipitously finding money in a time of financial need, or succeeding against all odds in some competition or in one’s career.

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