Time flies. Since receiving news from the Newberry Library that my seminar is on, I've put in hours collecting and organizing images for each weekly session, obtaining permissions from copyright holders (so far so good), and building PowerPoint slides outlining topics. The slides are an aid and won't be a focus in the classroom (I don't do ppt bells and whistles), but through them people will see some interesting things: for example, what forensic anthropologists believe Copernicus (1473-1543) actually looked like (think American actor James Cromwell), the wholly believable creatures living on Earth's moon as reported by the New York Sun in 1835 and, of course, the Martian canals of astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli (1835-1910). In addition to Copernicus and Schiaparelli, images of most key figures in the extraterrestrial life debate will make an appearance, as will some great cartoons I found on cartoonstock.com (permissions pending), plus a few other surprises. I like having fun when teaching.
Lithograph of the "Ruby Ampitheatre" on Earth's moon published in the New York Sun on August 28, 1835.
Preparing for the seminar will keep me busy between now and June, but other projects will, too. One of them is writing about material I've collected over several years on the subject of science and religion, not so much from the academic side, but more from the perspectives of world religions, trade books written by scientists criticizing or supporting religion, survey research, film (did you see Religulous?), news media, and even a handful of blogs I've stumbled across. Taken together, these sources reveal frames of reference (frameworks) of attitudes and insights about the subject that help me better understand what's going on out there, or perhaps more accurately, provide some handles I can hang from while being dragged along for the ride.
That's definitely what it feels like on some days. The sheer volume of information available is overwhelming. The pace of discovery varies and the flow of information never stops. Fortunately or not, we're all pretty much in the same boat as far as this goes, which reminds me of something I read in John Lilly's The Mind of the Dolphin when I was in high school about a million years ago. To paraphrase:
Specialists know more and more about less and less until they know everything about nothing.
Generalists knows less and less about more and more until they know nothing about everything.
I've always liked that description and it's case for finding the middle-ground.
One of my recent discoveries is the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), an annual study from the Institute for the Study of Secularlism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. The ARIS 2008 results made news when they were released earlier this month. Among the findings: Americans are slowly becoming less Christian; historic mainstream churches and denominations continue to show steep membership declines; "non-denominational Christian identity" continues to tick upward; the largest "challenge" to Christianity in the U.S. is not from other religions, but from the public's increasing rejection of organized religions as a group. According to the 2008 survey, one out of every five Americans no longer claims a religious identity.
These trendlines have been developing since the 1990s.
Another recent find is Black Sun Journal, a take-no-prisoners website covering atheism and social responsibility by Sean Prophet, a media company owner, writer, and New Age critic who was raised in a religious commune and now journeys "away from religion, spirituality, dualism, and personal repression." BSJ is well-written, includes guest contributors, and, according to the site, averages about 15,000 unique visitors a month. Prophet's article, "Atheist Metaphysics and Religious Equivocation," was my entry point. More recent posts on Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love present alternate views of two New York Times bestsellers (fans, be forewarned). I'm going to check-in from time-to-time because taking into account atheist perspectives is important in my journey, too, though for very different reasons. I'm not likely to become a "deconverting theist" anytime soon.
Nearly 100 years ago, 'Abdu'l-Baha (1844-1921), the eldest son of Baha'u'llah (1817-1892), the founder of the Baha'i Faith, traveled to Europe from Palestine to share with an incipient Baha'i community and others what the Revelation of Baha'u'llah had to say on a wide range of subjects, including the inextricable relationship between science and religion. In Paris Talks, one of the published records of these presentations, he said:
"There is no contradiction between true religion and science. When a religion is opposed to science it becomes mere superstition: that which is contrary to knowledge is ignorance.
How can a man believe to be a fact that which science has proved to be impossible? If he believes in spite of his reason, it is rather ignorant superstition than faith. The true principles of all religions are in conformity with the teachings of science."
Then he added:
". . . forms and rituals differ in the various churches and amongst the different sects, and even contradict one another; giving rise to discord, hatred, and disunion. The outcome of all this dissension is the belief of many cultured men that religion and science are contradictory terms, that religion needs no powers of reflection, and should in no wise be regulated by science, but must of necessity be opposed, the one to the other. The unfortunate effect of this is that science has drifted apart from religion, and religion has become a mere blind and more or less apathetic following of the precepts of certain religious teachers, who insist on their own favorite dogmas being accepted even when they are contrary to science. This is foolishness, for it is quite evident that science is the light, and, being so, religion truly so-called does not oppose knowledge.
We are familiar with the phrases 'Light and Darkness', 'Religion and Science'. But the religion which does not walk hand in hand with science is itself in the darkness of superstition and ignorance.
Much of the discord and disunion of the world is created by these man-made oppositions and contradictions."
Science is light. Religion opposed to science is superstition. Superstition and ignorance are darkness. I like that. The frameworks of science and religion, as varied as they are today, still contain their share of "man-made oppositions" and, like any other important human construct -- Baha'u'llah called science and religion "the two most potent forces in human life" -- they usually come into a clearer focus when we step back a bit and seriously apply our sometimes forgotten "powers of reflection."
Once again, the importance of seeking that middle-ground.
Next stop: tbd Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter.
Next stop: tbd
Banner bus photo credit: Dorothy Delina Porter.