Category Archives: Religion

Noah

Watching Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah makes me wonder: What gives this story such enduring appeal? It is scientifically implausible in all sorts of fascinating ways. The religious implications, if taken seriously, are deeply disturbing. And yet the story retains the mythic power to raise millions of dollars for its retelling, not just in Hollywood, but also in Kentucky.

In July, just a few months after the Noah film premiered, the state of Kentucky approved $18 million in tax breaks to support the building the Ark Encounter, a replica of Noah’s ark as interpreted by the Young Earth Creationist group, Answers in Genesis. Like its sister institution, the Creation Museum, the Ark Encounter will be a perverse sort of anti-museum, dedicated to ignorance and misinformation.  What is it about Noah’s story that inspires such dedication? Why would people of faith be willing to put such stake in a story for which there is no evidence whatsoever in history, archaeology, genetics, or biogeography, and which is so deeply implausible on the grounds of basic physics and planetary science?

As a kid, the Noah story was one of my favorite Bible stories – along with the Garden of Eden and Jonah and the Whale. These were among the few Bible stories that featured wild animals, rather than boring barnyard animals like sheep and goats. Sunday school handouts and children’s Bibles showed the parade of animals peacefully lining up to enter the ark. Curiously, people always seem to illustrate this story mainly with animals from Africa, rather than Mesopotamia, where Noah is usually thought to have lived.

Noah's Ark plate
Happy animals on the Ark.

For example, when my son was born, Mom gave us a set of Noah’s ark bowls and plates, which have been favorites of all our kids. This Ark has mostly African animals: a pair of giraffes looking out of the upper windows, a pair of African elephants, a pair of zebras, and a green bird that could plausibly be interpreted as an African green pigeon. Animals that could have lived in Mesopotamia include a bear, a pair of cats that seem meant to be leopards (or lynxes), two rabbits, a squirrel, and a pair of white geese. A pair of raccoons have also wandered in from North America.

Of course, if the Flood was global, than animals from all over the world should be there, but the African focus is interesting to me. Maybe Noah really lived at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro, rather than Mount Ararat?

Growing up, Mom took us to church almost every Sunday. Dad came along to church twice each year, on Christmas and Easter, but otherwise spent Sunday mornings working on electronics in the basement or fixing things around the house. At our church near the corn and soybean fields at the edge of town, we sat in long wooden pews. Mom sang alto on the old Lutheran hymns, which the congregation sang in four-part harmony, accompanied by an electronic organ, which filled the sanctuary with magnificent sound. Pastor stood at the front of the church in his white robe, leading  the Psalms and liturgy in a clear high tenor, solemn melodies in strange minor modes. From Pastor’s sermons, I gained the impression that Martin Luther (or was it Martin Luther King?) had nailed his 95 theses to the door of our very church, which puzzled me greatly, as the door of our church was glass.

I grew up reading both the Bible and dinosaur books, with no inkling that there was any conflict between these two sets of information. The Bible stories were presented as factual, not just in Sunday school, but everywhere. Network television presented Biblical epics like The Greatest Story Ever Told and Jesus of Nazareth in much the same way that they presented mini-series like Roots and Holocaust: fictionalized presentations of real events. Movies depicted efforts to find Noah’s Ark on Mt. Ararat as a reasonable quest, which (based on tantalizing clues!) may have already succeeded.

I remember standing on the screen porch as a kid, five or six years old, singing a Bible school song about it raining 40 days and nights for the Flood. When I noticed Mom was in the room I stopped singing, embarrassed at having been heard, but puzzling over the lyrics. I asked Mom how many days it rained for the Flood, and she said, “Well, like the song says, I suppose.” That’s what it said in the Bible, so it must be true.

I read the Old Testament and was fascinated by the lists of the begats. You could connect these ages up and come up with an age of the Earth! I was pleased when I came across a giant family Bible with the dates right in there, based on Bishop Ussher’s calculations. The date of Creation, 4004 B.C., was a bit troubling, since I knew from my dinosaur books that the world was much older than that.

As I got older, I started noticing more and more the contrasts between different ways of looking at the world. Pastor one day mentioned in a sermon, “I will never understand how you can put green grass in a brown cow and get white milk.” He meant this as an illustration of the miraculous ways of the Creator. But this seemed to me an easy problem. Grass is green because it has chlorophyll. There’s no chlorophyll on the surface of cows, or in milk, so of course they’re not green. And cows are brown (or whatever other color) because of the pigments in their hairs. Why is milk white? I wasn’t sure at the time (maybe because of suspended fats?) but this seemed an answerable question to me, not a mystery.

I must have been in about sixth grade when I began to lose faith in the Ark. I was drawing a picture of it, and wanted to draw it to scale. I checked Genesis for the dimensions, and started thinking about how much room all the world’s animals would really need. That was the first time I remember doubting that the Ark really could have held all those animals. Tugging at that thread threatened to unravel the entire tapestry.

In Junior High, I attended confirmation class, and participated more actively in church, for varied reasons, including a growing obsession with the fantasy world of Dungeons and Dragons. My friend Tim and I were in the same confirmation class, and we often volunteered to serve as acolytes, which meant we got to wear medieval red robes and play with fire, lighting and extinguishing candles with the long-handled candle-lighter, which was satisfyingly like a medieval weapon.

Tim and I also attended Prayer Share meetings, where I had my first encounter with Young Earth Creationism. Our friend Amy, who went to a different church, insisted that before Noah’s flood, it didn’t rain. This was based on a passage in Genesis stating that Eden was watered with a mist. I argued with her that this couldn’t be. If a mist came and watered the land,  then the water would evaporate, form clouds, and it would rain. There’s nothing miraculous about rain; it just happens.  And yet Amy insisted that, based on this text, there was no rain before the Flood.

I was mystified by this sort of argument, yet as I learned on moving to Indiana, where Young Earth Creationists are thicker on the ground, this is a typical line of Creationist argument. And while I find the slipshod use of science in these arguments maddening, I have a certain amount of sympathy for Biblical literalists. They take the Bible seriously, and make an effort to follow through with the implications of that. If  the Bible is the Word of God, and every line is true, then Noah must have really lived and done all the things that the Bible says he did.

The Ark Encounter is the logical next step from the Creation Museum. If Darwin is a problem for your religion, then so are his predecessors, the geologists whose findings inspired him. In 1830, nearly thirty years before Darwin published the Origin of Species, Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology, which persuasively argued that geological features are the result of natural processes acting locally over many years, rather than the outcome of a single global flood. Darwin carried the first volume of Lyell’s with him when he sailed around the world on the Beagle. When Lyell published the second volume of his book, Darwin eagerly picked it up in South America, where he collected fossils, examined geological formations, and shot lots of birds. These volumes profoundly affected Darwin’s views, describing a world where natural processes acting gradually over many millions of years create the features of the earth’s surface: mountains, hills, layered beds of sedimentary rock, uplifted and faulted and infiltrated by magma.

Lyell was a devout Christian, but he argued vigorously against using the Bible as a science book. Instead, he argued we should look to the Earth itself for evidence of the Earth’s history. Lyell’s arguments proved persuasive, leading the the founding of geology as a proper science, one which is central to an industrial civilization that is deeply dependent on good guidance for where to look for things in the ground that we need, such as iron, coal and oil.

Even though the last serious scientific debates about Flood Geology ended nearly two centuries ago, I can’t help myself from dwelling on other scientific implications of the Noah story. What would it take to make a world wide flood possible, for example? And what biological evidence would we see if such a flood had happened?

Maybe this comes from having a father who is an engineer. Growing up, conversations with Dad often ended up with him sketching diagrams on scraps of paper, working out calculations in scientific notation. So I find myself doing similar things, such trying to calculate just how much water would be needed for the Flood.

According to Genesis, the Flood covered the highest mountains. The highest mountain on the earth, Mount Everest, is 8.84 km high. The radius of the Earth is about 6,378 km. To calculate how much water you would need to cover the whole planet to the top of Everest, you just need to calculate two spheres: the volume of the Earth ((4/3)πr3 = (4/3)π(6,378)3=1.087 x 1012 km3), and the volume of a sphere of Earth plus Everest ((4/3)π(6,387) 3=1.091 x 1012 km3). Subtract the volume of the Earth from the volume of Earth plus Everest and you get about 4.5 x 109 km3.

Each cubic km has a million cubic meters, each of which weighs about 1,000 kg, so multiply the volume by a thousand million (109) and you get the total mass = 4.5 x 1021 kg. That’s a lot of water. Scientists estimate that the total mass of all water on the Earth’s surface today is 1.4 x 1021 kg. So Noah’s flood would require over 3 times as much water to be added to the Earth’s surface as is currently contained in all the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. Where did all that water come from? And when the flood was over, where did it go?

The deeper you dig with this story, the more problems you find. For example, one of the clear predictions from the Noah story is that every population of large animals on the planet should show evidence of having passed through a very tight genetic bottleneck some 4,000 years ago. Human beings were reduced to a population of eight (Noah, his wife, their three sons, and their sons’ wives). Most other animals (except for the edible ones) had a surviving population of just two.

Every man on the planet therefore should be a direct descendant of Noah. Every man should therefore have a Y-chromosome that is nearly identical to Noah’s. Given Bishop Ussher’s timeline, the Great Flood occurred in 2,348 B.C., or some 4,362 years ago. If we assume human generation times of 25 years on average between the births of surviving females, then some 174.5 generations have passed since Noah.

(25 years is a bit conservative; the average time between mothers and daughters in a population of Polar Eskimos was 27 years, and 32 years between fathers and sons (Matsumura & Forster 2008)).

A recent study of mutation rate on the Y-chromosome examined men in China who descended from a common ancestor 13 generations ago (Xue et al., 2009). They found 4 differences between the Y-chromosomes of these men, and estimated the overall mutation rate to be 3 x 10-8 mutations per nucleotide per generation. There are about 1.02 x 107 nucleotides in the part of the Y-chromosome that they examined. The average man’s Y-chromosome should therefore differ from Noah’s by about (3 x 10-8 mutations per nucleotide per generation) (174.5 generations)(1.02 x 107 nucleotides) = 53 mutations. Which, out of 10 million nucleotides, isn’t very many. So most men on the planet should have a  Y-chromosome that is nearly identical to Noah’s. But geneticists find far more differences than this. One recent estimate of when the last common ancestor of all human Y-chromosomes (“genetic Adam”) lived yielded a date of 120,000 to 156,000 years ago. This is a lot older than 4,000 years.

And that’s just humans. For the Noah story to be true, every single animal lineage on the planet would have to show evidence of a catastrophically severe population bottleneck in recent history. And of course we see no such evidence.

Another testable prediction of the Noah story relates to biogeography. If the entire planet were populated by animals that Noah saved on the Ark, then we would expect to see some very striking patterns, based on the dispersal ability of animals. Suppose, as the tradition holds, that Noah’s Ark landed on or near Mt. Ararat in Armenia. Armenia should therefore be the center of global biodiversity. The rest of the world would be populated by animals gradually making their way from Armenia to the rest of the world over the past 4,000 years or so. Some animals, like many bats and birds, would be able to fly long distances and cross rivers and seas. We might therefore expect to see bats and birds worldwide. Other animals, such as many large land mammals, can walk long distances, but cannot cross major barriers such as rivers, seas, deserts, and large mountain chains. Consider elephants, for example. They can travel long distances, and we would expect them to travel far across Eurasia and across the Sinai Peninsula to Africa. Even elephants, though, might having trouble crossing the  Sahara, in which case the current abundance of elephants in sub-Saharan Africa poses a puzzle.

But that’s a small puzzle compared to the presence of large land mammals on any land mass not directly connected to Eurasia and Africa. That includes Indonesia, New Guinea, Australia, and the Americas. Bison, wolves, pumas, deer, llamas, and jaguars should be common in the area around Armenia, but they would never reach the Americas.

Many animals, especially smaller animals, and many plants, cannot disperse very far at all. Consider the sloth. Sloths, as their name implies, move slowly. They spend most of their time hanging from trees, eating and digesting leaves. Try to imagine Mr. and Mrs. three-toed sloth leaving the Ark, exploring the post-flood world of mud and dead trees. What would they eat? How would they travel? How would they ever get from Armenia to Central and South America?

As Darwin discovered on his worldwide voyage on the Beagle, the distribution of animal and plant species around the world only makes sense in light of evolution. Sloths live in South America because their ancestors evolved there many millions of years ago. In the glory days of the Giant Ground Sloths, sloths dispersed out of South America well into North America, but sloths have never spread beyond the Americas.

One could go on and on. It’s shooting fish in a barrel, really, or beating a dead horse, or whatever metaphor of futility you prefer. There are many pages of the Internet devoted to detailing these problems in mind-numbing detail, such as here, and here. This is all really overkill, since the Noah story is clearly just that: a story. And it’s a story that would make sense for a people whose history is entwined with the great river civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers. The discovery of a flood story in the Epic of Gilgamesh suggests that the Noah story is a close retelling of that older story (or a retelling of a common ancestor of the two tales).

And yet, the Noah story still has enormous broad appeal. Why is this so?

Leaving aside the scientific problems, the Noah story raises all sorts of questions about God. Why would an all-powerful deity do such a bad job of making people that he has to wipe them all out and start again? Was everyone on the planet entirely wicked except for Noah’s family? Surely there would have been some innocent people among the masses of the wicked: young children, if nobody else. If God was unhappy with some men, why didn’t he just zap them? Later in the Bible God repeatedly demonstrates His selective zapping ability: striking Onan dead, for example, or the first-born sons of the Egyptians but not Hebrews. Killing everyone on the planet seems deeply unfair, unworthy of a just God.

So given all this, why does this story still hold such appeal?

As a kid, I suppose I liked the story because it had animals. Noah is a kindly old zoo keeper. What a cool job he has! Looking after all those interesting animals! I’d like to have a boat full of tigers and gorillas. And it’s an adventure story: Noah and his family taking care of all those animals on a boat during a flood.

One thing I liked about Aronofsky’s Noah was that it brought out something hidden in the Sunday school version of the story: this is a horror story. It’s about death and destruction on a massive scale.

The Sunday school Noah is a righteous man, a skilled carpenter who does what God tells him to, looks after his family, and saves the animals. He is a hero of conservation biology. But Aronofsky brings out much that is deeply disturbing in Noah’s story. What kind of man would shut out the world from the Ark, saving his immediate family and some animals, but nobody else?

Peter Chatterway argues that here Aronofsky is following a long tradition in Jewish commentary. For example, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach argues that Noah is a deeply flawed figure:

Noah is not a hero in Jewish lore. The Bible says that Noah was a righteous man “in his generation.” He was only a righteous man compared to the others who were far worse than he.

Now, why wasn’t he righteous? Because righteousness is all about what you do for your fellow man. And Noah does NOTHING for his fellow man. He doesn’t care, he has no compassion. He executes God’s commandment to the letter. So when God says “I’m going to kill everybody,” Noah says, “will you save my skin? Oh, I get an Ark? Okay, fine.”

[Noah] failed in the greatest mission of all. He failed to protect human life. And failed to fight with God when he wanted to take human life. He refuses to wrestle with God. Noah is a fundamentalist. He’s a religious extremist. God says “everyone will die” and Noah says nothing. But this is not what God wants. God wants people with moxie! God wants people with spiritual audacity! He does not want the obedient man of belief. He wants the defiant man of faith.

It isn’t until Abraham, when God says “we have the rainbow and I promise not to destroy everyone, but I will destroy these two cities Sodom and Gomorah,” Abraham does something audacious. He says “will the judge of the entire Earth not practice justice?” He lifts his fists to heaven! He raises a cudgel to Heaven! This made him the first Jew. A Jew does not just accept a divine decree, he does not just bow his head in silent obedience.

The word “Islam” means “obedience before God” or “submission before God.” Soren Kierkegaard the great Danish theologian sums up Christianity as being a “leap of faith.”

Judaism has no leap of faith. “Israel” means “he who wrestles with God.” You see none of that in Noah. Neither in the Torah or in this film, so in that regard, this movie portrays this very well. No other religion does this, they would see this as heresy. It’s amazing, it’s breathtaking!

The scientific debate about Noah’s Flood ended nearly two centuries ago, with the birth of modern geology.  What we have learned since then about the deep history of the Earth is much more interesting and satisfying than the old myths. And yet, the myths still have a hold on our imagination. This may not be a bad thing. The Noah story can help promote an appreciation for our responsibility to life on earth: we must be good stewards of our planet. At the same time, understanding Noah to be a flawed man, a failure in his unquestioning obedience, might help make us better human beings.

 

References:

Matsumura, S. and P. Forster (2008). “Generation time and effective population size in Polar Eskimos.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B-Biological Sciences 275(1642): 1501-1508.

Xue, Y. L., Q. J. Wang, Q. Long, B. L. Ng, H. Swerdlow, J. Burton, C. Skuce, R. Taylor, Z. Abdellah, Y. L. Zhao, Asan, D. G. MacArthur, M. A. Quail, N. P. Carter, H. M. Yang and C. Tyler-Smith (2009). “Human Y Chromosome Base-Substitution Mutation Rate Measured by Direct Sequencing in a Deep-Rooting Pedigree.” Current Biology 19(17): 1453-1457.

Does it matter whether people believe in evolution?

Yesterday, I was talking with a friend about politics and evolution. He asked, “Creationism is pretty harmless, though, right? It doesn’t really hurt anyone.”

I suppose for most people, the question “Do you believe in evolution?” seems to matter about as much as the question, “Do you believe in Bigfoot?” Bigfoot might be there, or he might not be, but whether he is or isn’t doesn’t make much difference in their lives. But even though most people may not think about this issue much, I think Creationism does hurt people, and in two main ways. First, evolutionary theory has many practical applications for all sorts of different topics: geology, medicine, agriculture, economics, advertising, mate choice, and pretty much anything else that has anything to do with biology. A proper understanding of evolution can help people make better decisions regarding all sorts of practical matters. Creationism hurts people by closing their minds to this useful information. Second, evolutionary theory opens the doors to a profound and beautiful view of the world. Creationism hurts people by robbing them of a deeper understanding of what the world is, and how it came to be.

By Creationism, I mean the belief that God created the world suddenly, pretty much as it is now, some time in the recent past. This is different from, say, theistic evolution, advocated by people like the great dinosaur scientist Robert Bakker (who apparently is also a Pentecostal preacher). Advocates of theistic evolution accept scientific evidence that the world is very old and has come into its present form through billions of years of gradual changes. (I’m not a religious person myself, but can see how theistic evolution would be an attractive and reasonable view for many people who are religious.)

As an example of where the practical and poetic sides of evolution meet, think of the southern shore of Lake Michigan, where the Indiana Toll Road passes through the huge industrial wastelands of Gary:US Steel plant in Garythe grim, depopulating city to the south, the smokestacks, blast furnaces, and slag heaps to the north, mile after mile of rustbelt ruins littering the shores of an inland sea. The steel industry made Gary a boomtown, and the industry’s decline has left it a husk. But some of the factories are still working, and they depend for their work on key three main ingredients: iron, coal, and limestone. Factories make steel by smelting iron in blast furnaces with coke (a purified form of coal) and limestone. The burning coke melts the iron and provides carbon, which combines with the iron to make steel. Limestone removes impurities from the iron, resulting in slag. Gary provides a convenient place for steel factories because it lies close to sources of coal (Illinois) and limestone (Indiana), and is connected by the Great Lakes to a major source of iron (Minnesota).

We owe coal, limestone and iron to three key evolutionary events: the invention of trees, shells, and plants.

Coal Forest Swamp. Used with permission of the artist, Richard Bizley (www.bizleyart.com)

The most recent of these is the invention of trees, which resulted in the formation of coal. The coal in Illinois formed during the Pennsylvanian period, just over 300 million years ago, when what is now Illinois was covered by vast, low-lying tropical rainforests. We know from fossils preserved in coalmines that these forests looked unlike any living forests. They had giant club mosses and tree ferns and all sorts of huge versions of plants that survive today only as small forms living in the shadows of more modern trees. These plants were able to grow so tall thanks to a newly evolved fiber, lignin, which they used to make strong, woody stems. In addition to helping the trees grow tall, lignin toughened their bark and protected them from insects, which could not digest the tough fiber. Neither could any of the bacteria or fungi that existed then. As a result, when these trees died, instead of rotting, they piled up and gradually turned into coal. As a result of all this accumulating carbon, the atmosphere developed a growing surplus of oxygen – which may explain the evolution of giant insects and other arthropods, including dragonflies with wingspans two feet wide and millipedes six feet long. Our very distant ancestors, early amphibians, crept and swam about in these swampy forests.

Living foram

The invention of shells occurred much earlier, shortly before the Cambrian period, which started around 543 million years ago. We don’t know much about life before the invention of shells, because animals without hard parts don’t fossilize very well. But once shells were invented, we get lots and lots of fossils – including huge beds of limestone, made almost entirely from the shells of tiny animals, especially foraminifera: single-celled amoebas that live in tiny shells called tests. Indiana limestone was laid down in the Mississippian period, around 335 million years ago. At the time, a vast shallow sea covered much of Indiana. As tiny marine organisms died, they rained down to the bottom of the sea, their shells contributing bit by bit to what would eventually become limestone.

The invention of plants – or more precisely, photosynthesis – occurred even earlier, and had a profound effect on life on earth. The first creatures to capture sunlight to make food were bacteria. Eventually some of these, such as blue-green algae, developed a method of photosynthesis that produced oxygen as a waste product. At the time, oxygen was poisonous to most living things. As the oxygen waste built up in the atmosphere, some species evolved ways to deal with the poison, but most went extinct, or survived as refugees in crannies hidden from the deadly air. As oxygen dissolved in the sea, it combined with iron compounds already dissolved in the water to make iron oxide (rust), which sank to the bottom and accumulated in layers on the sea floor. The resulting banded iron formations of the Minnesota Iron Ranges are thus the result of biological activity some 2,000 million years ago.

Abandoned iron mine outside Virginia, Minnesota

Evolution is not just some story. It’s the explanation for how we get iron, limestone and coal. Without an understanding of evolution, we wouldn’t know where to look for these minerals – or other fossil formations, like oil. Knowing about evolution helps us understand that our supply of these fossil resources, however large, is ultimately limited. And without the glacial lakes formed at the end of the last Ice Age some 10,000 years ago, we would have a much harder time getting the iron from Duluth to Gary.

Why are Americans so religious?

At a conference in Germany a couple of years ago, a European colleague asked me, “Why are Americans so religious?”

This is a big puzzle for many Europeans. Only a few percent of people in France, Germany, and England attend church weekly. Most people in countries like France, Norway, Sweden and Denmark tell pollsters they don’t believe in God. A recent study of religion and wealth found that religious feeling was strongest in poor countries, like much of Africa, South America, South Asia and the Middle East, but weaker in rich countries, like most of Europe and Japan. Only a few outliers, like the United States and Kuwait, were both rich and religious. I told my colleague I thought it had something to do with state support for the church in Europe. In America there’s a free market for religion, so religions compete to attract members, but in Europe, many countries have state churches, which stifles competition. My colleague said this was an interesting idea, but that there wasn’t a state church in Germany, for example.

Since then, I’ve done a little more research on this. My colleague was technically right that Germany doesn’t have an official state church. But as a friend of mine who lives in Germany tells me, you do have to register with the state as a member of a church. You can register as a Catholic, or a Protestant, or a Jew (but not yet a Muslim, or a Jehovah’s Witness, or any other religion that doesn’t have official status). Your registration determines which religion classes your children attend at state schools. And when you pay your taxes, part of your taxes go towards the religious denomination for which you registered.

Other countries in Europe have similar systems, like the Church of Norway, the Church of Sweden, and so on. There’s lots of variation among countries – like the Church of England, which is an official state church, headed by the monarch, but which doesn’t receive direct financial support from the government. But insofar as churches are supported through taxes, rather than through the collection plate, the producer of the product – religious services, aid and comfort to members, and the like – depends on consumers only in an indirect, government mediated way. There’s no pressure to make services more interesting, satisfying, or enjoyable for people – and so people turn away from them in droves.

Looking again at the map of wealth and religious belief: most of the countries that are low on religious belief either have a history in which the state ruthlessly suppressed all the competitors for an official atheistic state religion (e.g., former Communist countries in Eastern Europe, revolutionary France), or are countries with some version of a state church.

And this is not a new idea. Back in 2003, the New York Times ran a story with this quote:

“”Monopolies damage religion,” said Massimo Introvigne, the director of the Center for Studies on New Religions in Turin and a proponent of the relatively new theory of religious economy. ”In a free market, people get more interested in the product. It is true for religion just as it is true for cars.””

Because there’s a vibrant free market for religion in America, religions have evolved rapidly to accommodate people’s varied and changing tastes. Numerous new denominations have either originated in America, or flourished as transplants from a hostile Old Country: Quakers, Amish, Mennonites, Southern Baptists, Pentecostals, Seventh-Day Adventists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, Scientologists, Jedis, Pastafarians, and many more. There are denominations for everyone – conservatives, moderates, liberals, young-earth creationists, evolutionists, Calvinists, Unitarians, and pagans. As Garrison Keillor says, “My people were Puritans who came to American in the late Seventeenth Century. They came to America in hopes of discovering greater restrictions than were permissible under English law.”

Ironically, it’s this vigorous state of cultural evolution that promotes the development of churches that preach against the idea of biological evolution. But it also promotes churches that respond well to what people want – and which therefore flourish and grow. We’ve got churches where they play Bach on pipe organs and sing old hymns in four-part harmony, and churches with electric guitar bands and praise choirs, and everything in between and beyond.

Tom Lehrer addressed this back in 1965. Discussing the reforms of the Second Vatican Council, he says, “I feel that if they really want to sell the product, in this secular age, what they ought to do is to redo some of the liturgical music in popular song forms.” He then proceeds to sing his “modest example,” the Vatican Rag.

(As with so many things, what was parody in 1965 has now simply come to pass.)

With this in mind, some advice for those lobbying for more government support for religion in America (which usually means support for their own favorite brand): Be careful what you wish for. Such support is not only bad for religious freedom; it will ultimately stifle and distort whichever denominations get the support.

Will the New Atheism Save us from Jihad?

In March 2009, Richard Dawkins gave a talk at the University of Minnesota on “The Purpose of Purpose.” I was eager to see him talk, as I greatly admire Dawkins’ writings on biology, and assign his work as readings for my classes. Most of his talk, though, turned out to be an attack on religion, with many references to 9/11. The main message seemed to be: religion is a menace to humanity, it motivates people to do horrible things to one another, and we would all be better off without it.

It was only when I saw this talk that I really understood how much the flurry of so-called New Atheist books – The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris (2005), Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel Dennett (2007); god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens (2007), and Dawkins’s own book, The God Delusion (2008) – owed their inspiration to 9/11. Okay, so maybe I’m a little slow to catch on – but not being a religious person myself, reading these books seemed a bit like, er, preaching to the choir, so I haven’t done so yet. But the main point that Dawkins made, and what I suppose motivates these other books, is this: we were attacked by crazy religious fanatics, and the best way to fight back is to attack the root of the problem: belief in God. As Victor Stegnor (author of The New Atheism: Taking a Stand for Science and Reason (2009)) quips: “Science flies you to the moon. Religion flies you into buildings.”

So, with the 10th anniversary of 9/11 approaching, maybe this is a good time to ask the question: will the New Atheism save us from jihad? My guess is: it probably won’t. And why not?

Well, for one, the audience for these books – educated people in rich countries, especially the United States and Europe – doesn’t really include the people who want to fly planes into our buildings. The chances seem pretty slim that someone like Osama bin Laden would pick up The God Delusion, give it an open-minded read through, and end up saying, “Oh, well, I guess he’s right. There is no God and no eternal paradise waiting for martyrs, so I should really just give up the jihad.” Even if all the educated people in rich countries stopped believing in God tomorrow, there would still be a world full of people who believed fervently in their own Gods, and in the righteousness of their own struggles.

Second, it seems at best an incomplete explanation to say that religion is what inspired the 9/11 attackers, and the rest of Al Qaeda, and their hosts in Afghanistan, the Taliban. Yes, they are all Muslims – but so are about 1.5 billion other people in the world. Why does this particular small group of people interpret Islam in such a way that it motivates them to attack us? What does Al Qaeda want?

According to Rohan Gunaratna, the author of Inside Al Qaeda (2002): “the ultimate aim is to reestablish the Caliphate—the empire of Islam’s early golden age—and thereby empower a formidable array of truly Islamic states to wage war on the United States and its allies.” 1

But what are they really fighting over? What was so great about the Caliphate? What did bin Laden and his allies think they would gain from its restoration?

There were a number of Caliphates. An especially impressive one, the Umayyad Caliphate, was  huge. By 750 AD, it stretched from Spain to Pakistan, and included much or all of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisa, Libya, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, the Gulf States, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and others. Surely there’s a huge amount of historical pride and longing for this vast empire, and dreams of what could be done if all these lands united and used their oil wealth to achieve some grand unified aim.

And what would that aim be? I don’t pretend to know for sure. But I think we can get some clues from how the Taliban ruled when they were in power, and the laws they enforce where they have regained power. Many of the laws most harshly imposed by the Taliban had to do with restricting the freedom of women. For example, a decree from 1996 states:

“Women you should not step outside your residence. If you go outside the house you should not be like women who used to go with fashionable clothes wearing much cosmetics and appearing in front of every men before the coming of Islam.”

And it goes on and on like that. There are also decrees against kite flying, pigeon keeping, beard cutting, music, gambling and narcotics, but the main thing at stake seems to be the rights of women. Al Qaeda and the Taliban hate the West, not so much because the West is Christian, but because in the West women have rights and independence. Bin Laden had five or six wives, and fathered twenty to twenty-six children with them. The West represents a threat to traditional patriarchy and male power and control of women and their reproduction. Whether or not people in the West believe in God or not, Western values like equal rights for men and women represent a threat to the polygynous tribal patriarchy that greatly benefits high-ranking men like bin Laden.

It seems like a better bet for beating the jihad is to support the momentum of the Arab Spring. I don’t think the average person in the former lands of the Caliphate really wants the Caliphate back. That would just give all the power to the despots with their harems. Instead – if what the newspapers have reported about the protesters on the streets of Egypt and Libya and Syria is any indication – what the average person wants is the chance to get a job, to earn a decent living, to be able to afford to marry, have children, and live a quiet, peaceful life with freedom, dignity, and little risk of getting blown up by crazy people. According to The Atlantic, the rebels fighting in Libya love Western bands, including Pink Floyd. Maybe they share the postwar dream that Roger Waters sings about in the Pink Floyd song, The Gunner’s Dream:

A place to stay
Enough to eat
Somewhere old heroes shuffle safely down the street
Where you can speak out loud
About your doubts and fears
And what’s more no-one ever disappears
You never hear their standard issue kicking in your door.
You can relax on both sides of the tracks
And maniacs don’t blow holes in bandsmen by remote control
And everyone has recourse to the law
And no-one kills the children anymore.

If basic political and economic reforms succeed in giving people a reasonable chance at such a life, I don’t think it will matter much what their particular religious views are. Nobody will bother with jihad.