The Times speaks: “No miracles allowed”

“The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.”

This is, of course, the famous credo used time and time again by the late Dr. Carl Sagan. What has always fascinated me about this statement is its open use of religious — even creedal — form and its willingness to launch beyond the rules of science and into a kind of anti-theology.

How, in a lab, can one prove under the rules of science that the material world is all there is? How does one run scientific experiments in the past? And how in the world does one claim to be able to test the future?

Sagan knew what he was doing, of course. I had a chance to ask him about it. He knew his famous Cosmos series was making an argument that the scientific evidence backed up these sweeping truth claims that carried him far outside the rules of research. He believed he had the facts on his side and, thus, he was willing to make a leap of faith from facts to a larger philosophy. Then he became an evangelist for this philosophical point of view.

I was reminded of Sagan while reading the massive New York Times series on how the priesthood of modern science is responding to the rebels gathered under the banner of Intelligent Design. Click here to go to a clearinghouse page for all of the Gray Lady’s efforts on this issue in the recent past.

Clearly we are in the midst of a blitz. Cages have been rattled.

As I have stated before, I try to stay on the fringes of this issue because I have so many close friends who are at the heart of it. So take what I say here with a grain of salt. It should also be noted that the scope of this Times series is so large that it would take days to respond to it point by point.

On the whole, I think it is a rather mixed bag. There is some give and take by the most intelligent voices on each side of the debate and that is a good thing. I am sure the powers that be in the newsroom believe it is a totally balanced package. For example, the reports do stress that the ID leaders are, if anything, trying to increase the amount of attention evolution is given in the classroom, not ban the theory. They simply want students exposed to the debates that are already taking place within the scientific community. They also do not think the religious implications of these debates — on either side of the table — should be included in public classrooms. The ID leaders want this to be a scientific discussion. However, this would apply to Darwinian philosophy as well as to deism or theism.

I digress. There are times in the Times, however, when it is clear that the scientific arguments at the heart of the story simply cannot be covered in depth in a newspaper series. When this happens, the Times uses this formula: The controversial religious people make this claim. The real scientists make this response, based on facts. That’s that. There is no need to let the critics respond to their critics.

At one key moment, reporter Jodi Wilgoren even slips into the old “fundamentalist” trap, violating logic, the facts and The Associated Press Stylebook all at the same time. Here is the context, speaking of the ID leaders:

Their credentials — advanced degrees from Stanford, Columbia, Yale, the University of Texas, the University of California — are impressive, but their ideas are often ridiculed in the academic world.

“They’re interested in the same things I’m interested in — no one else is,” Guillermo Gonzalez, 41, an astronomer at the University of Iowa, said of his colleagues at Discovery. “What I’m doing, frankly, is frowned upon by most of my colleagues. It’s not something a ‘scientist’ is supposed to do.” Other than Dr. Berlinski, most fellows, like their financiers, are fundamentalist Christians, though they insist their work is serious science, not closet creationism.

What does the word “fundamentalist” mean in this context, when speaking of a group that includes Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox and a dozen other faith traditions? Why use this word? Is the goal to underline a basic assumption that one side uses faith and the other intellect?

Let me conclude by returning to Sagan. The various Times writers seem to glimpse, every now and then, the larger fact that Darwinian orthodoxy makes truth claims that are based on claims of logic as well as laboratory results. What they seem to miss is that the Intelligent Design people want to use the same sequence as Sagan. They believe that laboratory evidence and logic point to an unknown designer — something that cannot be tested in a lab by science. But what they also want people to note is that the ultimate claim made by many in the Darwinian priesthood also cannot be tested.

In academic circles, evolution has been defined as an “unsupervised, impersonal, unpredictable, and natural process . . . that is affected by natural selection, chance, historical contingencies and changing environments.”

The controversy centers on the words “unsupervised” and “impersonal.” That is the heart of this story. These are the words that Sagan and others cannot test in a laboratory, yet many still believe they are at the heart of all legitimate science. For, you see, any involvement whatsoever by a Divine Person — any meaningful role for a Creator — is called a miracle. That is bad. Millions and millions of taxpayers, representing (cue: Sagan voice) billions and billions of tax dollars, must be shown the light.

Thus, the Times notes:

. . . (M)ainstream scientists say that the claims of intelligent design run counter to a century of research supporting the explanatory and predictive power of Darwinian evolution, and that the design approach suffers from fundamental problems that place it outside the realm of science. For one thing, these scientists say, invoking a higher being as an explanation is unscientific.

“One of the rules of science is, no miracles allowed,” said Douglas H. Erwin, a paleobiologist at the Smithsonian Institution. “That’s a fundamental presumption of what we do.”

That does not mean that scientists do not believe in God. Many do. But they see science as an effort to find out how the material world works, with nothing to say about why we are here or how we should live. And in that quest, they say, there is no need to resort to otherworldly explanations.

Thus, one side gets to use the equation — science, logic, philosophy — but the other side does not. One side gets to make leaps of faith in the public square, but the other side does not. Rules are rules.

Dr. Sagan would be proud.

P.S. For a lively discussion of the terms that journalists are tossing about in this coverage, click here for a visit with William Safire.

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Preaching in Billy Graham’s shadow

TwoGrahamsPeter J. Boyer of The New Yorker has become an indispensable reporter on the Godbeat, and his recent story on Billy and Franklin Graham is another solid achievement. (The article, from the Aug. 22 issue, is not available online, but the magazine atones for that by offering an engaging slideshow of black-and-white photos by Mary Ellen Mark, along with an audio track by Boyer.)

Boyer focuses strongly on the differences between father and son, and those differences defy stereotypes. So often the script for a World War II-era father and his Baby Boomer son would be that the elderly father is a crusty ideologue and the son is more experimental and laissez-faire. Not so here:

Although Franklin’s preaching style is cooler and more conversational than his father’s he is much less willing to smooth the edges of the faith. If Billy’s theme, especially in his later years, was the saving grace of God’s love, Franklin’s is more elemental. “My message is very focussed,” he says. “My message is to call on people to repent their sins.” Franklin believes in a sulfurous Hell, and has no doubt about who is going to be there. “The Bible says every knee under the earth, every knee that’s in Hell, one day is going to bow,” he says. “And every tongue is going to confess Him as Lord one day. Now, either you’re going to do it voluntarily and submit your heart to the Lord Jesus Christ, or you’re going to be forced. And when you’re forced it’s going to be too late then.”

Boyer’s 13-page article is a thorough survey of the highlights in Billy Graham’s long vocation as an itinerant evangelist, and of his role in giving evangelicalism a public face. Boyer is especially strong in explaining Graham’s decisive break from fundamentalism. (This article is a rare case of using that word accurately and without a sneer.)

The article glosses over some of Billy Graham’s harder edges as a younger preacher. Some of Graham’s critics in the 1950s were just as troubled by his remarks on communism as today’s critics would be by Franklin Graham’s remarks on Islam.

Still, the article also mentions that Franklin already has attracted the respect of Richard Holbrooke’s, President Clinton’s former Ambassador to the United Nations:

Holbrooke says that Graham has been “enormously important” in the fight against AIDS abroad. “Samaritan’s Purse created one of the most important new developments in American foreign policy in the last generation — the entry of Christian conservatives into American foreign policy as pro-foreign-aid people.”

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Indulgences in the land of Luther

indul2An August 13 Reuters article on the Houston Chronicle‘s website attempts to be incendiary. I can’t decide whether this is major news that should have received more attention (it did not) or a minor footnote. I’ll let you people decide for me.

Philip Pullella lays out Pope Benedict’s decision to grant “special indulgences” to Catholics during the World Youth Day activities in Germany.

VATICAN CITY — Martin Luther may well be turning in his grave after his modern-day compatriot, Pope Benedict, decided to grant indulgences to Catholics during his trip to his native Germany this month.

The Vatican said the pope had agreed to allow “special indulgences” in connection with his trip to Cologne from Aug. 18-21 for the Roman Catholic Church’s World Day of Youth festivities.

I initially questioned the validity of the article, partially because the author’s first name is misspelled (but a Nexis search revealed that this is not the first time it was spelled with two L’s), and because the article just did not feel right for a wire story. But some research turned up an AP article along similar lines and short mentions in both The New York Times and the Orlando Sentinel.

Pullella runs through century’s worth of history and reams of theology in the 400-word story, and uses the Martin Luther connection for Germany to underpin what seems to be his attempt to drum up controversy and outrage Protestants (the Protestant who sent me this article via e-mail was, shall we say, sharing some “Gospel-driven anger” along with Luther):

A decree issued by Cardinal James Francis Stafford last week said plenary indulgences would be granted to people who are not in a state of sin and participate “attentively and with devotion” to World Day of Youth events in Germany.

Those who do not go to Cologne for the pope’s first foreign trip could receive “partial indulgences” if they prayed fervently while the pope is in Germany to ask God to help young people strengthen their faith, the Vatican statement said.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, a plenary indulgence can remove “all of the temporal punishment due to sin” while a partial indulgence removes only part of it.

Even some Catholic friends of mine have expressed displeasure with indulgences, despite their consistency with Catholic theology.

Lucas Sayre, a Catholic observer, among other things, and friend is uncomfortable with the theology behind indulgences (by the way, his post that I linked to on the Pope is excellent). He tells me: “Unlike confession, which is one person confessing his sins and sorrow, a mass indulgence of this sort goes out to people merely for doing a deed. It does not look into their heart or their state of sorrow.”

The impact indulgences had on history is somewhat significant. The abuse of indulgences in the Catholic Church’s past had some fairly devastating consequences, leading to the Protestant Reformation, and some would say their issuance during a trip to Germany was controversial.

How many Catholics and Protestants are displeased with the issuance of indulgences for World Youth Day attendees? Is this a bigger story that more news outlets should have picked up on?

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Take a breather, Brother Robertson

RobertsonOnAirTalk about being in the right place at the right time: At 4:40 p.m. Monday, Media Matters for America posted this item about Pat Robertson’s latest shoot-from-the-hip remarks on The 700 Club.

Not quite 24 hours later, several hundred media outlets have picked up the story — many of them relying on a report by Sue Lindsey of The Associated Press.

Off-kilter remarks from Pat Robertson have an almost lunar cycle about them, so that life would seem out of balance if he didn’t weigh in with some bewildering thoughts on politics, culture wars or other explosive topics. Perhaps this is Robertson’s counterintuitive way of staying in the media spotlight a few times a year. Perhaps it’s just the temptation that comes with starting your own cable network and having the freedom to say pretty much whatever you please.

I have no media criticism to offer here. Reporters recognize a good coffee-spewing remark when they see one, and I will not fault them for jumping on this one.

Media Matters has tried to exploit the moment by calling on ABC Family to drop The 700 Club from its daily broadcast schedule.

A statement from ABC Family confirms what seemed clear enough when The 700 Club survived the satellite channel’s transformations from the Christian Broadcasting Network to Fox Family and then to ABC Family:

ABC Family is contractually obligated to air “The 700 Club” and has no editorial control over views expressed by the hosts or guests. ABC Family strongly rejects the views expressed by Pat Robertson in the August 22 telecast of the program. All comments about “The 700 Club” should be directed to the Christian Broadcast Network through [its] toll-free number or via [its] website at

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Attention Dobson, Colson, et al.

OK, I am confused and I predict that my confusion is shared by many other Christians, Jews, moderate Muslims, freedom-loving secularists and who knows who else.

Here is the crunch section of a Washington Post story today on Islam-and-oil battles in Iraq right now as the new constitution comes down to the wire and then over the wire into double overtime.

The draft constitution submitted Monday stipulates that Iraq is an Islamic state and that no law can contradict the principles of Islam, negotiators confirmed. Opponents have charged that the latter provision would subject Iraqis to rule by religious edicts of individual clerics or sects.

The opponents also said women would lose gains they made during Hussein’s rule, when they were guaranteed equal rights under civil law in matters including marriage, divorce and inheritance. The draft constitution says individuals can choose to have family matters decided by either religious or civil law.

Supporters say a separate bill of rights would protect women, and provisions of the constitution say no law can contradict democracy or that bill of rights.

So laws cannot contradict Islam, or democracy (I assume this means strict majority rule) or the new bill of rights (another product of democracy and majority rule). So in this majority-rule equation, what happens to the legal rights of women and religious minorities? I have not seen, in the MSM coverage, any mention of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Check out Article 18 if you want to see some really controversial, old-fashioned liberal language.

So I have questions:

What are the conservative Christian supporters of this White House thinking right now? What are they thinking about the war and this possible outcome? Are they getting angry? Have I missed an update on that? Check out this thread over at Open Book. Also, shouldn’t we be hearing more about this issue from human-rights activists on the left?

This could be one of those times when the sanctuaries in the red and the blue zip codes have just cause to be mad about the same thing at the same time. Meanwhile, keep one eye on the old-fashioned liberals — that often makes them conservatives today — at Freedom House.

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Flying the flag at World Youth Day

050821 WYD2005 09 sOne of our favorite topics to whine about here at GetReligion is the shameful job that some American newspapers do of displaying the work of their religion-beat specialists.

All over the place — think Denver, Chicago and Orlando for starters — there are talented and committed Godbeat scribes whose editors do next to nothing to help WWW-era readers find their work. Want to find fashion, autos, health or weather? That’s easy. Religion coverage? That is often next to impossible. The Los Angeles Times recently seemed to go out of its way to make it harder to find this beat. You think I am joking? Check this out.

One of the best of the hidden talents is Ann Rodgers in Pittsburgh. In the midst of the waves of “Catholic Woodstock” and “Is Benedict XVI as charismatic as that John Paul II man that we admire now that he is gone?” coverage, she files this highly symbolic lead — local angle, even — with a World Youth Day dateline:

After nearly a week of being very low-key about their nationality, a group of young Catholics from the South Hills began flying the stars and stripes yesterday. . . .

All pilgrims from the United States had been warned not to display their flag because it might make them targets of political hatred. Many carried state flags — the bear of California was everywhere. The South Hills group had carried a Steelers pennant to help them find each other in crowds where they could easily become separated.

But all week they had seen thousands of people from lands as diverse as Tahiti and Sweden proudly displaying their national colors. They had spotted a few American groups also flying large flags, with no apparent ill effects.

We could wish this story wasn’t timely, but it is.

Any other overlooked World Youth Day stories out there that GetReligion readers want to nominate for special attention?

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tmatt, the Kurds and secularism

kurdflag2I guess anything can happen in the age of the WWW. Take a look at this Kurdish essay and tell me: Am I on the side of a more secular approach to Islam or not? Or am I being quoted to back the Islamists?

The decline of secularism can be seen as a global phenomenon, more than an Arab one, because the Arab world has refused all secular aspects, whether in religion or customs. When Samuel Huntington talked about the “clash of civilizations”, he gave priority to factors of culture and religion over secularist ones in reshaping relations among different nations. Today, secularism doesn’t sell in the marketplace. As American religious affairs columnist Terry Mattingly noted, “people hunger for spirituality, miracles and a sense of mystery . . . but the core question remains: should believers defend eternal truths or follow their hearts?”

At least the Kurdistan Regional Government quoted one of my more symbolic columns. Click here to see the context for the quote in my 10th anniversary column.

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MSM stumbles around World Youth Day

BenedictAtWYDThe biggest news out of World Youth Day’s grand finale was the Pope’s announcement that Sydney will be the next World Youth Day host.

Analysis on World Youth Day contained the expected comparisons between Pope Benedict and John Paul II. Here is Matt Moore of Canadian Press:

During Benedict’s visit to the church’s World Youth Day festival, the German-born Pope showed a public style more subdued than that of his charismatic predecessor, John Paul II, who died April 2.

Benedict, who was elected April 19, avoided some of John Paul’s exuberant habits, such as kissing the ground on arrival and swaying to the music during public appearances. He read his speeches in a soft voice that was sometimes inaudible to the crowd, smiled shyly and waved as if in amazement at all the attention.

The faithful, however, seemed to love him all the more for his reticent ways and cheered him wildly every time he appeared in public.

Focusing on the Pope’s interfaith efforts, many reporters stuck to the facts of what he said, which is key because his remarks will be examined over and over again for months as people look for insights into the new Pope’s leadership style and beliefs. Moore continues:

The Pope also found warm applause during his visit to Cologne’s synagogue, where he warned of rising anti-Semitism and stressed the shared inheritance of Jews and Christians. It was only the second papal visit to a Jewish house of worship, after John Paul’s groundbreaking visit to a Rome synagogue in 1986.

His remarks to Muslims, while friendly, were blunter, as he condemned the “cruel fanaticism” of terrorism and stressed Muslim elders’ responsibility to educate the younger generation in the ways of peace.

He differed from his predecessor by not stressing the church’s teaching against premarital sex and condom use, two themes frequently mentioned by John Paul to young people but missing from Benedict’s speeches and sermons at the festival — even though he agrees with John Paul’s conservative views on the topic. He also did not commit to attending the next World Youth Day in Sydney, Australia, in 2008.

Those paying attention might be surprised to read that Benedict did not promise to attend the Sydney event. Could this mean he is concerned for his age/health in two years? According to most MSM accounts, it’s more likely an attempt by Benedict to distance himself from John Paul II’s traditional promise to attend the next event after announcing its location. But is this really more intentional distancing from JP2, or Benedict just being himself?

The focus of the trip for Benedict was his effort to encourage a continent that has largely turned its back on religion.

The New York Times did not disappoint by finding a way to lead negatively and continuing to do so throughout most of the story. Apparently he’s less “extroverted” and “more cerebral” than John Paul II:

COLOGNE, Germany, Aug. 21 — Gerrit Meents, 25, from Germany, loved the sea of winking candles, the music from around the world, the communion with hundreds of thousands of young Roman Catholics like himself at a vigil on Saturday night in a mushy field here. Even the cold overnight outside, he said, “wasn’t too bad.”

What did not touch him deeply was the speech of his new pope, Benedict XVI. “Actually it didn’t really have an impact on me,” he said, still in his sleeping bag on Sunday morning, waiting for the huge culminating Mass of World Youth Day. “I think he’s still learning how to address young people. As we were saying yesterday, half a year ago he was just running around Rome, and now he’s pope.

The Washington Times’ website led Sunday with the Pope’s urging Muslim leaders to combat terrorism. The Washington Post delegated an AP story to page A10 on Monday.

It’s notable that the Sunday Post put its WYD story on page A20, while finding space on page A3 for a blowout article on Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Until this guy killed himself, I was relatively unaware of the man other than references in my journalism history classes (tmatt probably won’t be pleased with my ignorance). What did he do to deserve a half-page feature on A3 with two photos and two maps detailing where the event took place?

I digress. The news of World Youth Day is far more important than Thompson’s exclusive, massive fireworks display.

The National Catholic Reporter‘s John Allen had a relatively brief chat on the Post‘s website, and very thorough WYD coverage by Allen others is on NCR’s website. Having access to multiple media over the Internet is a lifesaver. Even in a two-newspaper town (is it three now?) like Washington, D.C., one is limited in what is available on the newsstand (and it’s cheaper).

Alert reader John Kane mentioned via email that’s in inaccurate to say the Pope’s synagogue visit was the second in history:

The Pope’s conciliatory message, delivered to an unprecedented audience of cardinals and rabbis, suggested that he was keen to build on recently improved relations between the Vatican and the Jewish community. Pope Benedict is only the second Pope to step inside a synagogue. His predecessor, John Paul II, was the first.

As Kane observed astutely, “Not counting Peter, obviously.”

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