Book Review: The Language of God by Francis S. Collins

 

The year 2006 saw the publication of two very different books about the God hypothesis: the evolutionary zoologist and prominent atheist, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and the physician-geneticist Francis Collins’ The Language of God.

Collins is best known for his leadership of the Human Genome Project which published a first draft of the entire human genome back in 2000. In The Language of God he recounts how he was not brought up in any particular faith by his parents and went on to regard himself as an atheist as he became an adult. In his late twenties, however, he came across the book Mere Christianity by the Oxford academic C.S. Lewis which made a deep impression on Collins and he thereafter became a committed Christian.

Collins was clearly impressed by the Moral Law argument advanced by C.S. Lewis and quotes a passage from Mere Christianity as follows:

“If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe – no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?” (p29)

How does Collins seek to reconcile science with religion? In recent years a number of scientists and philosophers – perhaps influenced by evolution denial amongst some evangelical Christian groups along the violent fanaticism of some Muslim groups – have argued for the need to “outgrow” religious beliefs and they ascribe it to an earlier phase of humanity’s development which we need to move on from. This line of argument views religious beliefs as being our first attempt at understanding the world around us but that it has now been superceded by the outstanding success over the past four centuries of science and the scientific method.

As a scientist who has helped map the genetic blueprint of humanity, Collins accepts and welcomes the knowledge and understanding that science has given us, but argues that religion can help provide answers to key questions that all of us have and that science cannot possibly answer.

“Science is the only reliable way to understand the natural world, and its tools when properly utilised can generate profound insights into material existence. But science is powerless to answer questions such as “Why did the universe come into being?” “What is the meaning of human existence?” “What happens after we die?” One of the strongest motivations of humankind is to seek answers to profound questions, and we need to bring all the power of both the scientific and spiritual perspectives to bear on understanding what is both seen and unseen.” (p6)

But what about the passages in the Bible in the Book of Genesis about the creation of the world? A literal interpretation of those passages has led many – predominantly American Christians to believe that the earth was created just over six thousand years ago, as opposed to around 4.5 billion years ago as discovered by science. Collins urges Christians not to take a literal approach to those passages and strongly argues for an allegorical/poetic interpretation which lays greater stress on the larger picture i.e. that the universe had a beginning and was willed into being by a Creator. The consequences of the Big Bang theory – which also postulates that the universe came into being at the very start of time – are “electrifying” for believers according to Collins.

“I cannot see how nature could have created itself. Only a supernatural force that is outside of space and time could have done that.” (p67)

Dawkins would call this the Argument from Personal Incredulity or also a God of the Gaps approach – just because science cannot currently answer a specific question – in this case what brought about the Big Bang – it is tantamount to giving up to just say “Well, God did it.”

In the end it all seems to boil down to whether you think science can in principle discover what caused the Big Bang or whether you think it is – as it currently seems – beyond the limit of what science can discover about the universe?

Collins comes down firmly on the side of believing that there are limits to what science can discover about the universe and argues that faith in science and faith in God can be combined harmoniously to answer our deepest questions.

“The God hypothesis solves some deeply troubling questions about what came before the Big Bang, and why the universe seems to be so exquisitely tuned for us to be here.” (p81)

Interestingly, at the end of 2006, the year of the publication of Collins’ The Language of God and Dawkins’ The God Delusion, Time magazine set up a debate between the two writers and published a special edition entitled “God vs Science”. The debate between the two – which is well worth studying – can be read at this link.

I have not found much useful material in English by contemporary Muslims about science and the God hypothesis and I do wonder what that says about the current state of the Muslim world. Thankfully, there are some thoughtful Christian scientists who have shared their ideas with us and I think the world is a better place because of them.

 

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Book Review: Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff

It still shocks. Bringing to mind Donald Trump’s victory over all the other Republican candidates and his triumph over Hillary Clinton in the Nov 2016 United States presidential election still causes otherwise normal happy beings to sink their heads into their hands and begin to weep.

This egotistical, know-nothing, debauched, loud-mouthed braggart had become the Commander-in-Chief of the most powerful army in the world. We all quite understandably wondered about what a Trump presidency would mean for the rest of the world.

We had so many questions. What sort of team would Trump create around him? What would be his policy priorities? Was he really going to try to ban overseas Muslims from visiting the United States as he had declared during his campaign rallies?

As if to answer these and many other questions, the journalist Michael Wolff sought to become a fly-on-the-wall and by his own account “took up a semi-permanent seat on a couch” in the West Wing of the White House. He conducted more than two hundred interviews and the result has been a juicy page-turner of a book that has shot straight to No 1 in the Amazon bestseller charts and has infuriated Trump who tried desperately to prevent the book’s publication. Trump, of course, failed.

Wolff does not waste any time and his book hurtles along at a blistering pace. Right away Wolff sneaks us in to an exclusive dinner in a Manhattan restaurant just two weeks before Trump’s inauguration in Jan 2017. At the table is Roger Ailes, the influential former head of the right-wing news channel, Fox News, and Steve Bannon – Trump’s campaign chief and soon to be appointed as Chief Strategist in the Trump administration. Ailes wants to know about Trump – “Does he get it?”  Bannon assures him that Trump indeed understands what is required of him.

“Day one we’re moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. Netanyahu’s all in. Sheldon”—Sheldon Adelson, the casino billionaire, far-right Israel defender, and Trump supporter—“is all in. We know where we’re heading on this…Let Jordan take the West Bank, let Egypt take Gaza. Let them deal with it. Or sink trying. The Saudis are on the brink, Egyptians are on the brink, all scared to death of Persia…”

Once in office though, Trump’s ineptitude comes to the fore right away, and he curses his staff for failing to get him more positive news coverage. Trump wants to be liked and can’t understand why the liberal sections of the media are so critical of him. His staff are terrified of Trump’s tantrums and spend large parts of their time furthering their ambitions by trying to undermine other staff members. Wolff helpfully shares with us a private email he got hold of about the Trump administration sent in April 2017 purportedly by Gary Cohn – who had been drafted in from Goldman Sachs to become Trump’s Chief Economic Adviser – to some of his colleagues:

It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns. Trump won’t read anything—not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up halfway through meetings with world leaders because he is bored. And his staff is no better. Kushner is an entitled baby who knows nothing. Bannon is an arrogant prick who thinks he’s smarter than he is. Trump is less a person than a collection of terrible traits. No one will survive the first year but his family. I hate the work, but feel I need to stay because I’m the only person there with a clue what he’s doing. The reason so few jobs have been filled is that they only accept people who pass ridiculous purity tests, even for midlevel policy-making jobs where the people will never see the light of day. I am in a constant state of shock and horror.

Bannon finds it difficult to hide his contempt for the rival “Jarvanka” Trump faction led by Donald Trump’s daughter, Ivanka, and her husband Jared Kushner, and warns about the FBI investigation led by Special Counsel Robert Mueller which he is convinced will ensnare Jared Kushner and his family’s alleged dealings with Russia and has a good chance of bringing down the Trump presidency.

“You realize where this is going,” Bannon continued. “This is all about money laundering. Mueller chose Weissmann first and he is a money laundering guy. Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner … It’s as plain as a hair on your face… . It goes through all the Kushner shit. They’re going to roll those two guys up and say play me or trade me. But … ‘executive privilege!’ ” Bannon mimicked. “ ‘We’ve got executive privilege!’ There’s no executive privilege! We proved that in Watergate.”

You will have seen numerous extracts from Wolff’s book on TV headlines over the past few days. But to my (admittedly naughty) mind, the funniest anecdote has not been shared on television and with probably good reason. Back in July 2017 on the advice of the Jarvanka faction (and against the advice of Bannon and Trump’s Chief of Staff, Reince Priebus and Trump’s Press Secretary, Sean Spicer) Trump announced that he was appointing Anthony “The Mooch” Scaramucci as his Communications Director. Spicer immediately resigned. Priebus also followed him out the door within the week. Just days after his appointment, the Mooch – having drunk a bit more alcohol than usual – gave an interview to a reporter from the New Yorker magazine and proceeded to slag off some senior Trump staff including Steve Bannon. “I’m not Steve Bannon. I’m not trying to suck my own cock,” said the Mooch. Wolff informs us that:

…Bannon learned about the piece when fact-checkers from the magazine called him for comment about Scaramucci’s accusation that he sucked his own cock.

Just priceless.

The book ends with the firing of Steve Bannon who returns to Breitbart News and – convinced that Trump will not be able to stand for a second term – begins plotting his comeback – this time as a presidential candidate in the 2020 US elections.

As we now know, things to date have not gone as planned for Steve Bannon. And for Trump? Well, Mueller’s investigation continues to move forward inexorably to the evident discomfort and mounting panic in the Jarvanka camp.

Let’s all hope that justice prevails.

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Movie Review: Taxi Tehran

Taxi Tehran (2015) is Jafar Panahi’s third movie which he has somehow managed to get made and smuggled out of Iran despite being banned in 2010 by the Iranian authorities from film-making for twenty years for what it viewed as his propaganda activities against the Islamic Republic.

Taxi Tehran features Panahi donning a beret and driving around Iran’s capital picking up various passengers along the way. Panahi has fitted some dash-cams to the front of the taxi which record these encounters. These (almost certainly scripted) conversations allow Panahi to make a number of observations about life in modern Iran under the restrictions imposed by the government.

The first two passengers Panahi picks up are soon engaged in an acrimonious argument about the effectiveness of capital punishment when it comes to thievery. The first passenger (who ironically later claims to be a mugger by profession) calls for the stringent application of Shari’ah and its accompanying hadd penalties. The second passenger, a teacher, counters this by pointing out that Iran is second only to China in the number of people it executes each year and yet this seems to have little impact on criminality.

A third passenger – Iranian cabs apparently host multiple passengers to help lower the cab fare – is listening to the above conversation and when they leave gives a knowing smile and says “You are Jafar Panahi. Those two were actors, weren’t they?” This third passenger turns out to be an underground seller of illegal DVDs. Indeed, he says he used to supply Panahi with copies of movies that are not allowed to be shown in Iran including Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.

The most interesting passenger turns out to be Panahi’s pre-adolescent niece, Hana. He is an hour late in picking her up and Hana makes sure he knows how she feels about it. She informs Panahi that her teacher has given the class an assignment to make a movie in one month. The rules are those that are laid down by the Government’s Ministry and include avoiding “sordid realism”, avoiding discussion of political or economic problems, and ensuring that any heroes do not wear ties (they are only for villains).

Hana is bright and feisty and is a delight to watch and listen to. One can’t help wondering if she is meant by Panahi to be viewed as a proxy for the demographically young Iranian nation and its future potential if only it was freed of the restrictions imposed by an authoritarian regime.

Taxi Tehran is currently available to be viewed on the BBC iPlayer for the next 23 days.

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Book Review: The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark

Published in 1996 – the year of his all-too-early death due to cancer – The Demon-Haunted World: Science As A Candle In The Dark, will inevitably be seen as Carl Sagan’s departing words urging the world to challenge superstition and irrational modes of thinking. A celebrated populariser of science, Sagan outlines his motivation right at the beginning of the book.

“When you’re in love, you want to tell the world. This book is a personal statement, reflecting my lifelong love affair with science.” (p25)

Sagan rightly laments the harm that has been caused through unquestioning attitudes towards ‘Holy Books’. The Bible’s injunction “Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live” led to the loss of countless lives in Europe where witch-burning continued to be a popular pastime right up until the rise of the scientific revolution.

And what about today? Do we still see short-sighted religious superstition at work? Of course we do and sadly it is not limited to extremist groups like ISIS. Just over a decade back, I recall being shocked when even the revered Muslim scholar, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has spent a lifetime challenging extremism and has a huge following in the Middle East and beyond, responded thus to the awful 2004 Indian ocean earthquake that resulted in over 280,000 fatalities, including in the overwhelmingly Muslim state of Aceh, Indonesia:

“People must ask themselves why this earthquake occurred in this area and not in others….These areas were notorious because of this type of modern tourism, which has become known as “sex tourism”….Don’t they deserve punishment from Allah?!”

Instead, science and scientists like Carl Sagan, would rather that we examine the reason why earthquakes occur more frequently in particular regions of the world and study plate tectonics and their relationship to earthquakes with a view to putting some thought into what can be done to limit the damage they can cause. It is a rational and sensible way to deal with a tragic natural phenomenon.

There does not need to be a conflict between science and religion, according to Sagan, but it requires vigilance and action to ensure that the bigots do not triumph.

“On one level, they share similar and consonant roles, and each needs the other. Open and vigorous debate, even the consecration of doubt, is a Christian tradition going back to John Milton’s Areopagitica (1644). Some of mainstream Christianity and Judaism embraces and even anticipated at least a portion of the humility, self-criticism, reasoned debate, and questioning of received wisdom that the best of science offers. But other sects, sometimes called conservative or fundamentalist – and today they seem to be in the ascendant, with the mainstream religions almost inaudible and invisible – have chosen to make a stand on matters subject to disproof, and thus have something to fear from science.” (p277)

One particularly compelling chapter of the book is devoted to what Sagan calls his Baloney Detection Kit, to help equip us with the tools to facilitate critical thinking and help prevent us falling prey to those would try and restrict our freedom to subject all ideas to criticism by declaring some topics off-limits as sacred or taboo.

The Demon-Haunted World is a passionate appeal to question and challenge all forms of irrational thought. Over twenty years after its original publication, its message remains as relevant as it was in 1996 and perhaps even more so.

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Did The Evening Standard Libel MEND Today?

There are a number of articles in today’s papers condemning the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn for refusing to attend a dinner tonight with the right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The dinner is to celebrate (!) the 100th anniversary of the tragic Balfour Declaration (which led directly to the displacement and disenfranchisement of millions of native Palestinians, but let’s whitewash that). Corbyn is weirdly being condemned for having the guts  to stand up and refuse to endorse such a colonial disaster, and is also condemned for agreeing to speak at an event marking the launch of Islamophobia Awareness Month, hosted by the organisation MEND.

Such mendacity on the part of the anti-left media should come as no surprise. They, of course, do not criticise the Prime Minister Theresa May for attending a dinner with Netanyahu to celebrate the racist Balfour Declaration and the calamity it has caused ever since for the Palestinians.

What caught my eyes earlier today was one particular allegation made against MEND by the Evening Standard claiming that it had been allegedly condemned by the large umbrella body the Muslim Council of Britain for “organising boycotts of Holocaust Memorial Day.”

I was a spokesperson at the MCB for a number of years and am well aware of the controversy surrounding HMD, but I don’t ever recall the MCB making such a nonsensical and almost certainly libellous claim. So, why would the Evening Standard print such a thing?

Well, as it happens, later editions of the same Evening Standard story appeared without the offending paragraph. Could it be that the Evening Standard had belatedly realised that this was perhaps one lie too many?

In any case, I had already captured the original article which bore a time stamp of 07:43 AM.

I very much hope that MEND will seek immediate legal advice regarding the publication of what appears to be a very serious libel indeed.

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Review: The Voyage of Charles Darwin

When it comes to furthering our understanding of the world around us, the scientific revolution has given us a stellar list of heroes: Galileo, Newton, Einstein amongst many, many others. The subject of the BBC’s 1978 seven-part drama was another great hero of science: Charles Darwin, and specifically, his five-year voyage around South America on board the HMS Beagle from 1831 – 1836.

Darwin was an amateur naturalist with a keenly inquiring mind. During his voyage around South America he noticed how the fauna on islands off the coast of South America would often resemble but not be exactly the same as the fauna on the mainland. Why would this be and what could account for the differences? The Captain of the Beagle was Robert Fitzroy – a devout Christian – and he was sure of the answer: it was because God had willed it that way. This, unsurprisingly, did not satisfy Darwin who looked for more specific reasons.

Darwin gathered specimens from South America and sent them back to England for more detailed examination. He gathered data from his own observations and that from his correspondents all over the world: Darwin was a prodigious letter-writer and eagerly kept abreast of the latest findings. By 1844, Darwin had enough data to compile an initial draft of his theory of evolution by natural selection. He instructed his wife, Emma, that if anything were to happen to him that she was to use £400 of his money to publish this work.

Still, Darwin did not publish his work for another fifteen years in 1859. Why was this so? Historians say it is because Darwin was well aware of the great unease his theory would cause amongst religious believers. Anyway, Darwin’s hand was forced when, in 1858, another amateur naturalist and a correspondent of Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace, sent to Darwin his own theory of how species had come into being – a theory that was identical to that of Darwin’s own.

In the years since 1859, despite the abuse and misinformation directed towards him and his theory, Darwin has been thoroughly vindicated by science. And religious scholars (well, all except the most blinkered) have had to adapt their worldview to incorporate Darwin’s theory.

To this day, however, there is a great deal of confusion about evolution and its status. “It’s only a theory” is a common refrain amongst the opponents of Darwin. In my experience, this is usually amongst those who have not read books about evolution by mainstream scientists and they miss the point about Darwin’s great contribution. Evolution is a fact – there is simply no question that life has continuously evolved on earth over a fantastically long period of time. Go back far enough in the fossil record and the most advanced life-forms on earth will not be mammals or reptiles: they will be fish. Darwin’s singular and lasting contribution was to identify a mechanism by which this change had occurred: natural selection.

There are many reasons why Darwin is regarded as a hero amongst scientists, but let me take one of my own favourite examples. Back in 1862 a British orchid grower sent Darwin some orchids from Madagascar including:

the beautiful and star-shaped flower of Angraecum sesquipedale. This has an exceptionally long nectary (getting on for 30 cm) and in a book on orchid pollination, Darwin suggested that this extreme feature may have evolved alongside a moth with an exceptionally long tongue to pollinate it.

Darwin had used his understanding of evolution and how species co-evolve to predict that there must be a creature with a proboscis long enough to pollinate that flower – even if such a creature was not known at the time.

In 1907, more than 20 years after Darwin’s death, a subspecies of the gigantic Congo moth from Madagascar was identified and named as X. morganii praedicta apparently fulfilling Darwin’s prediction (the name indicating that it was predicted, though actually in the paper naming the moth Darwin wasn’t mentioned). The moth is large at around 16cm in wingspan, but the proboscis is truly colossal and can be more than 20cm in length forming a huge coil in front of the head when not in use. However, while there was now an orchid with a long nectary and a moth with a huge tongue, the question remained: did X. morganii praedicta really feed on A. sesquipedale?

It wasn’t until 1992, nearly a century later, that observations were made of the moth feeding on the flower and transferring pollen from plant to plant with both videos and stills being taken. This was observed in the wild and confirmed further with studies in captivity. Thus more than 130 years after Darwin first suggested that a large moth pollinated an African orchid, his hypothesis was confirmed. It took quite some time, but quite clearly Darwin’s prediction, based on extremely limited evidence but bolstered by his understanding of his own new theory of natural selection, was correct.

Was Darwin a believer in God? Historians are divided on this issue. While Darwin himself makes clear that when he first climbed aboard the Beagle, he held orthodox Christian views, there is no question that over time Darwin became less and less convinced by some of the main tenets of Christianity and indeed was appalled by some of them.

…disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.

Darwin could not bring himself to believe that a merciful God would condemn to everlasting torment those who did not believe in Him. When pressed, he would say that he preferred to regard himself as an agnostic on the question of whether there is a Creator.

The BBC’s The Voyage of Charles Darwin is utterly compelling viewing. It is gripping to watch Darwin as he begins to question long-held assumptions and begins to feel his way towards a more convincing theory about the origin of species or the “mystery of mysteries” as he also termed it. The series was filmed on location in South America and this adds immeasurably to the power of the drama as we witness the genesis of Darwin’s insights at the very same locations that he visited almost two centuries ago.  This is must-see television at its very best.

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Halal/Schechita Slaughter Needs to Adapt To End Cruelty To Animals

The decision today by Lancashire County Council to only supply halal meat to schools if it has been pre-stunned is a difficult but necessary step if we are to see progress made in the area of Halal/Schechita slaughter.

It is surely an anachronism that the official UK government guidelines continue to state that you must stun all animals prior to slaughter “unless an animal is being religiously slaughtered for halal or kosher meat.” Why should the religious sensibilities of some Jews and Muslims be allowed to triumph when it comes to subjecting animals to unnecessary cruelty. We should call on our government to stand up for moral and ethical progress in the area of animal rights and end this cowardly exemption.

The Telegraph today quotes Abdul Hameed Qureshi – the Chair of the Lancashire Council of Mosques as saying: “[The RSPCA’s guidance] is most of the time based on feelings, it’s not scientifically conclusive.”

A spokesperson for the RSPCA told the Telegraph that they rejected this categorisation of their position, saying: “I utterly, completely refuse to cede that’s where our views come from. Ourselves, the British Veterinary Association and the Humane Slaughter Association signed a joint statement saying the only humane way to kill an animal is to stun it. There is countless scientific evidence showing that when an animal has its neck cut it feels quite considerable pain. The farm animal welfare council is of the opinion that the only humane way to kill an animal to stun it. You take New Zealand – everything is pre-stunned there, and it’s all Halal, it’s exported to countries in the Middle East and they all accept that it is Halal. We, for animal welfare reasons, would be quite happy if unstunned meat was banned across the UK.”

You can read more about the RSPCA’s position on stunning before slaughter on their website here.

It is understood that the National Secular Society has written to the Environment Secretary Michael Gove urging him to remove the religious exemption for Muslims and Jews from animal welfare legislation. It is highly doubtful that the idiot Gove – who is a hero to many in the Jewish community for his openly Zionist sympathies – will take any action.

Islam teaches that animals should not be mistreated when they are alive. Why do some blinkered Muslim and Jewish religious leaders continue therefore to insist on slaughtering animals while they are conscious without pre-stunning?

Several European governments including Denmark, Switzerland, Sweden, Norway and Iceland, no longer allow religious exemptions on the grounds that “animal rights come before religion.”

We quite rightly no longer allow dogmatic religious views to prevail over human rights when it comes to gay marriages or freedom of speech. Why should they be allowed to ride roughshod over animal rights? Jewish and Islamic law needs to adapt to incorporate our advance in scientific knowledge about animal pain and the use of stunning to alleviate unnecessary cruelty to animals.

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