Listing entries tagged with Times

Competing "Stories"

posted on 11.29.2006 at 11:52 PM

The popularity of the current counterattack on religion cloaks a renewed and intense anxiety within secular society that it is not the story of religion but rather the story of the Enlightenment that may be more illusory than real.

This is Richard A. Shweder in a New York Times opinion piece a couple of days ago. Now I'm too much of a postmodernist to be a die-hard Enlightenment guy, but isn't there something really screwy about such comparisons. What, perchance, is the story of religion? That the universe was created in six days? That we go to heaven or hell when we die? That there are seventy virgins waiting for suicide bombers? That premarital sex or homosexuality are sins? That some omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent Being rules the cosmos? Or is it just that we all should be moral (however that might be defined) because some never-seen, never-heard creature in the heavens, who had a son but then had that son crucified for our benefit, insists that we be?

If the story of the Enlightenment was that the whole world was going to be democratic, pluralistic and secular by now (and in exactly what "holy text" of ours was that written?), yeah it hasn't happened. Just a whole lot of the world is more or less that -- a dramatic change (even a postmodernist wants to say "improvement") from the days before the Enlightenment or even from twenty-five years ago. And while progress in this direction is far from smooth, it seems reasonable to assume that more of the world will be democratic, pluralistic and secular at the end of this century than it is at the beginning.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:52 PM | Comments (3)

High Tide of Atheism?

posted on 11.14.2006 at 8:17 AM

Two bestsellers (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris). Cover story in Wired. Main book review in the Sunday New York Times. Big review essay in Newsweek. Can't start a conversation in intellectual circles on five continents without someone mentioning this blog (or at least using the word "without").

What goes on?

1. A reaction to a religious revival which obstructs biology classes, causes a fuss over cartoons, fuels a mad American foreign policy and kills and maims?

2. Enlightenment reason has never ceased spreading, though it may have been obscured or lying low for a couple of decades there?

3. New burst of development for idea-dispensing technologies increases the questions and answers available to curious minds, from Kansas to Kabul?

4. ????????

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 8:17 AM | Comments (2)

Atheists and Foxholes

posted on 11.08.2006 at 9:28 AM

The argument that periods of mortal peril end our silly questioning of the existence of God has been so persistent that Charles Bradlaugh's daughter had to arrange for witnesses to confirm that the great atheist had not found religion on his deathbed. War, it is often argued, straightens out disbelievers. The New York Times invokes that discredited argument once again, albeit with a question mark, in the headline atop an opinion piece:

No Atheists in a Foxhole? No Idiots, Either

The piece is about the intelligence of military recruits and says nothing about atheism, so this is a gratuitous and unsupported fallacy (and, the journalism professor in me adds, a lousy headlines).

For the record, the best known of the soldiers killed in America's current wars, former football player Pat Tillman, seems to have been an example of a consistent nonbeliever.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 9:28 AM | Comments (2)

"Proof of Life After Death"

posted on 08.14.2006 at 3:14 PM

ghost.jpgIn this odd period when beliefs seem to be growing simultaneously stronger and weaker, depending where you turn, it is hard to know what you will encounter when you take a look at your favorite newspaper. Indeed, the New York Times today features a sympathetic review of a sympathetic book, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, by science writer Deborah Blum, on psychics and communication with the dead.

In "Ghost Hunters"... these "psychical researchers" are not simply a bunch of smart men (and a couple of women) obsessed with a dumb idea, but rather courageous freethinkers willing to endure the establishment's scorn. This quirky band, [Blum] argues, was more scientific than the scientists....

Sure. However, it might be noted that, while the hypotheses of traditional science are often enough confirmed by experimentation, the confirmation rate by repeatable experiment of all claims to "telepathy, telekinesis or contacts with the dead" hovers, I believe, around zero. William James stated, after his long efforts to find proof of what he wanted to be true had failed, "that at times I have been tempted to believe that the Creator has eternally intended this department of nature to remain baffling." One could come up with another explanation for James' failure.

But then here is our book-review writer, Patricia Cohen:

Ultimately what distinguished James and his colleagues from many of their scientific peers was their humbleness. To think one can divine everything in an infinite universe is an act of extreme hubris.

Once again what we don't know, which is of course an awful lot, is used to justify what we ache to believe. One might think that, from the perspective of the rationalism normally expected of news organizations like the Times, what distinguished James and others who shared his desperation to communicate with dead relatives was a simple, unscientific case of wishful thinking.

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 3:14 PM | Comments (3)

Adam and Eve in the New York Times

posted on 06.05.2006 at 11:59 AM

The New York Times ran a characteristically lucid article on the Science report that fig trees may have been the first cultivated plant. But, in the second paragraph the Times decides to have some fun:Adam_and_Eve.jpg

Presumably that was well after Adam and Eve tried on the new look in fig leaves...

Fine. We're all for fun. But then the Times seems compelled to treat the Adam and Eve line as if it were more than just fun, as if it needs to be taken seriously, explained: which case the fig must have grown wild in Eden.

A few centuries ago considerable scholarly effort was expended calculating the dimensions of Noah's Ark and the date of Adam's creation (accepted answer: 4004 BC). Is the Times now to look for scientific and historical explanations of Eden? Or was the "grown wild" line added because it was feared the "new look in fig leaves" quip might, in the current climate, offend?

posted by Mitchell Stephens at 11:59 AM | Comments (4)