Monday, November 17, 2008

Schopenhauer on human solidarity in a world without God

A facile charge frequently leveled against atheism by religious apologists is that without God, human beings have no reason to care about one another.

This obviously says a lot about the person making the claim, for they are inadvertently admitting that without their belief in God, they would no longer feel the need to behave in a respectful and considerate way towards others, but would instead embrace radical selfishness, hatred, contempt, and destructiveness.

The claim itself is false for a number of important reasons that I won't be covering in any detail in the post. However, I would like to point to one interesting example of an atheist philosopher making a case for human solidarity based on the shared experience of the 'human condition'.

Arthur Schopenhauer is perhaps best known as a philosopher of 'pessimism', but in many respects a cold, rational evaluation of the nature of the world by necessity will result in a somewhat 'pessimistic' conclusion. Judaic monotheism in particular contains within it an awareness of the fundamentally flawed nature of existence, hence the tale of a 'fall', the endless attempts at creating theodicies to 'explain' (essentially justify) suffering, and some modern Christian theologians' focus on the Incarnation as God 'suffering alongside us'.

From the perspective of atheism, the attempts at reconciling a flawed world of suffering with a perfect God of love fall down as incoherent, fanciful, and a flight from reality.

In his essay '
On the Sufferings of the World', Schopenhauer looked honestly and without supernatural self-deception at the world and concluded:

[T]hat a God like Jehovah should have created this world of misery and woe, out of pure caprice, and because he enjoyed doing it, and should then have clapped his hands in praise of his own work, and declared everything to be very good — that will not do at all!

He continued:

Even though Leibnitz' contention, that this is the best of all possible worlds, were correct, that would not justify God in having created it. For he is the Creator not of the world only, but of possibility itself; and, therefore, he ought to have so ordered possibility as that it would admit of something better.

There are two things which make it impossible to believe that this world is the successful work of an all-wise, all-good, and, at the same time, all-powerful Being; firstly, the misery which abounds in it everywhere; and secondly, the obvious imperfection of its highest product, man, who is a burlesque of what he should be. These things cannot be reconciled with any such belief.

To view the world as, fundamentally, a world of 'misery and woe', and to accept this inevitability as the 'price' of existence is to be liberated from illusion and from the intellectual dishonesty involved in maintaining fantasies of a divine creator. Indeed, 'you will regulate your expectations accordingly, and cease to look upon all its disagreeable incidents, great and small, its sufferings, its worries, its misery, as anything unusual or irregular'. Obviously, Schopenhauer did not advocate a passive acceptance of suffering, for joy is the aspiration of all humans and

every state of welfare, every feeling of satisfaction, is negative in its character; that is to say, it consists in freedom from pain, which is the positive element of existence. It follows, therefore, that the happiness of any given life is to be measured, not by its joys and pleasures, but by the extent to which it has been free from suffering — from positive evil.

Now we come to Schopenhauer's basis for human solidarity:

In fact, the conviction that the world and man is something that had better not have been, is of a kind to fill us with indulgence towards one another. Nay, from this point of view, we might well consider the proper form of address to be, not Monsieur, Sir, mein Herr, but my fellow-sufferer, Socî malorum, compagnon de miseres! This may perhaps sound strange, but it is in keeping with the facts; it puts others in a right light; and it reminds us of that which is after all the most necessary thing in life—the tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbour, of which everyone stands in need, and which, therefore, every man owes to his fellow.

When we see our fellow humans' suffering, we should, according to Schopenhauer, be able to see ourselves mirrored in them. There is no need to invoke invented notions such as humans all being 'children of God' or 'equal in God's eyes' to feel solidarity. If anything, a stronger bond is felt precisely through the fact that we are not 'children of God', but rather the products of nature, which does not favour us, does not concern itself with our suffering or our happiness, and which has no 'plan' or 'purpose'. We stand alone in a world that is not made 'for us' and we have evolved through pain, struggle, and hardship. The fact that most of us in developed nations feel little pain when compared with past generations is precisely because we have evolved societies which ever-increasingly protect and sustain human survival.

In the past, tolerance, patience, regard, and love of neighbour were presented variously as signs of virtue and also as compulsory actions, enforced by a God who will judge those who fail to help others. These supernatural injunctions were used to 'explain', justify, and enforce the need for human solidarity. However, there is absolutely no reason to suggest that these qualities are any less valid or any less necessary when the superstitious aspects surrounding them are removed.

As Schopenhauer argues, in order to survive, everyone stands in need of certain acts of human solidarity, and just as we need these acts of kindness from others, so also, in turn, we owe them to others. Human solidarity is in fact a rational response to the 'human condition', and mutual co-operation and ethical reciprocity require no 'God' at all. If anything, following Schopenhauer's line of reasoning, those who refuse the supernatural illusion and face the fact that we are all fellow-sufferers and that there is no heavenly escape outside 'this life' and no 'divine plan', are actually more likely to feel a fundamental need to show kindness to one another than those who think 'this world' is only the momentary antechamber to another world of eternal joy.

Republished from I Kid You Not

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Portrayal of Religion in the Media: Religion is Political

I was doing some research on the topic of this article on the Internet. There were many complaints about the Western media's presentation of Islam, lamenting thewrong image of Islam being portrayed in the media. I agree that the media is not true to the real issue and portrays a designed image of not only Islam but religion in general. However, I look at the problem from a different angle. After spending some time on web searches but I did not find any protests or complaints about how the media glorifies religion and religious institutions and hierarchy. As an atheist, secularist and one who sees many wrongs with religion, I was disappointed. I would like to state here my view of how the media help cover up the evils of religion and helps maintain this outdated value system as part and parcel of the dominant ideology.

Proponents of Islam complain that the Western media portray Islam as a source of aggression, that it stereotypes Muslims as terrorists. They maintain that this is a political agenda by the Western powers who feel threatened by Islam presenting itself as an alternative civilisation. There are some assumptions here, with some of which I agree and some with which I disagree.

Political Agenda

Religion is political. We are made to believe that religion is merely about faith, spirituality and morality, without which humanity will lack any sense of ethics, goodness and humanity. This is the dominant and official view of religion, espoused by the state and education system. A lot of work and money is used to make this image of religion the accepted dominant view. Religion is one of the main ingredients of the dominant ideology. Religion belongs to the political realm as the British monarchy, the Labour or Conservative parties do. Moreover there is a great deal of money involved. Religious institutions have a great deal of wealth at their disposal and constantly struggle to get their hands on more. Perhaps to some extent the Church has lost its power over public opinion in the West. But it is still an inseparable part of the political system, except in France. In Britain the Church and the monarchy are two important pillars of the political system. Religion plays a major part in the education system. Therefore, any presentation of religion in the media, including Islam, is a political act with a political agenda.

In my opinion there is a macro agenda behind religious portrayal. That is, whatever the agenda of every single programme, overall, the role and influence of religion and religious institutions must be maintained and upheld. Religion is not generally questioned nor criticised. A critical programme of religion will in general criticise a certain interpretation of a particular faith. This is true about all religions, including Islam. Therefore, all the complaints and laments about "injustices" done to Islam by the media, is nothing but political pressure to consume even more time and receive a less critical approach.

Wrong Image

Let's move to the complaint that the media portray a wrong image of Islam. I agree. But, I do not see it quite the same way as the proponents of Islam. In my opinion, the media does not come even close to exposing the vile teachings of the real Islam. The view we receive is that an extremist interpretation of Islam is to blame; otherwise, Islam is a nice and peaceful religion. This is total nonsense. There are definitely different interpretations of Islam, some softer and more peaceful than others. In the past three decades we have witnessed the rise of a very violent political force into power in the Middle East and North Africa, which is ideologically based on Islam and uses any measure of terror to gain power, i.e. political Islam, the so-called extremists. If we are only concerned about bombs in our trains, buses and neighbourhoods in the West, then we can blame political Islam and forget about what Islam and Islamists are capable of doing to the society upon which they rule.

Islam, like any other religion, is deeply misogynistic. Women are not considered whole human beings, they are the property of their male relations, and have no rights to move about, to work and to take part in society without their male owner's permission. Even with the man's permission, they are not allowed to occupy some professions; they cannot become judges or political leaders, for example. Gender apartheid is an important pillar of society under Islam.

The penal code in Islam is extremely harsh, violent and inhuman. Muslims are by their faith deprived of music, happiness and fun. To sum it up Islam is a very morbid, dull and violent religion. There are Muslims who live as per the tenets of modern society, but they cannot claim that this is another interpretation of Islam. Islam, as a religion, does not allow for these things, period.

Fairness and Balance

The complaints against the media address the issue of fairness and balance, as well. They claim that the media is neither fair nor balanced vis-à-vis Islam. I agree with the statement, but again from the opposite angle. We talked about presenting different interpretations of Islam. However, the question is whose interpretation? How do we decide whose interpretations must be voiced? At present, the media voices two groups: one, the self-appointed Muslim leaders; two, those who express a moderate and nice interpretation of Islam. This, to my opinion, is neither fair nor balanced. Hardly any harsh, critical views of Islam or any other religion for that matter are presented by the media. By carrying out this practice, the media plays an important role in the dynamics of power struggle in favour of the so-called religious leaders.

Abuse and hypocrisy are two basic ingredients of religion and religious establishments. Historically many people have been killed under the name of god and religion. The most violent abuses have been carried out by men of god. And
still in this day religion continues to kill, maim, abuse and terrorise. But the media is mainly concerned with presenting a game of holy and spiritual make-believe.

What is it about religion that makes it untouchable? Even when gruesome scandals are revealed, such as child abuse by the Catholic Church both in Ireland and the USA, the state and the mainstream media tend not to concern themselves as they should. We heard much more about the child abuse case against Michael Jackson, a case which was disproved in the court of law, than the Catholic Church with a few hundred cases of child abuse against the whole establishment which cost the church millions of dollars. Why is the media so reluctant to expose the religious hierarchy? Why do men of God get a free ride?

The public is becoming increasingly disenchanted with religion and religious establishments in the West. The media does not reflect this important fact. Atheists are becoming more outspoken but this, too, is ignored by the mainstream media.

Instead the media continues to aid the mystification of religion as an untouchable institution. The most banal and backward teachings are treated as the absolute truth, a given fact, hardly questioned and rarely criticised. The media is an important instrument in upholding the myth of God.

Azar Majedi is the chair of Organisation for Women's Liberation-Iran and a veteran campaigner for women's rights and against political Islam.

Republished from:

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Pujiono Cahyo & Underage Lust

A Muslim cleric has caused public outrage in Indonesia after marrying a 12-year-old girl.

Pujianto Cahyo Widianto married the girl in the central Java city of Semarang, during an unofficial religious ceremony.

He reportedly chose her from a pool of 20 girls, before flying to Singapore with his new bride, as well as his first wife.

Police have launched an investigation into the incident.

Possible charges

Investigators from Indonesia's child protection agency said Mr Widianto had chosen the girl based on her intelligence, maturity and physical development.

They said Mr Widianto, who runs an Islamic boarding school, had planned to put the child in charge of his second business - a calligraphy workshop.

It is unclear if the marriage has been consummated. If it has, Mr Widianto could face charges under child protection, marriage and labour laws.

He is reported to have justified his actions by saying he was emulating Islam's Prophet Muhammad, and that he would wait until his wife reached puberty before having sex with her. But there has been fierce reaction to the marriage within Indonesia.

A senior member of the prominent Islamic party, PKS, said he thought Mr Widianto was wrong in what he was doing, and wrong in his thinking about Islam.

Police say they have not asked Singapore to extradite the cleric, but are continuing investigations.

43 year old Pujiono Cahyo Widayanto/Widianto, aka Syech/Syekh Puji, the head of an Islamic boarding school (Ponpes Miftahul Jannah) in Bedono, Jambu, Semarang, Central Java, in August 2008 informally married (nikah siri) Lutfiana Ulfa, 11 years and 10 months old, who had just begun studies at a local junior high school, but has now taken up wifely duties at home.

Ulfa & Pujiono Cahyo Widianto

Sheikh Puji is a very wealthy man, being the owner of PT Sinar Lendoh Terang (Silenter), a handicrafts exporter, and appeared in the news in August for distributing 1.3 billion rupiah (about $130,000) in zakat or charity to the poor. His first wife is 26 years old. In 2005 he was a candidate for the Partai Amanat Nasional (PAN) in a regency election but withdrew from the race at the last moment, and has long been involved in local politics.

He also intends to marry two other girls, aged 9 and 7. Of these latter two, Syech Puji says that neither has begun menstruating, so he will refrain from interfering with them, while Ulfa has already entered puberty.

Syech Puji believes his actions have a legitimate basis in Islam, considering that the prophet Muhammad married the 7 year old Aisha.

I'm not just doing what I like, it's based in religion. It's in accordance with the prophet's teaching. You can marry a 7 year old if you like but you can't have relations with her until she starts menstruating.

Clerics' Council/Majelis Ulama Indonesia (MUI) leader Umar Shihab condemned the marriage to Ulfa:

Men should marry adults, there are a lot of other prospective brides around. Why has he married a 12 year old? The poor girl.

His actions have been mostly condemned in other quarters, with some saying that he has broken the Marriage Law, and is liable to criminal prosecution.

One supporting voice is that of politician Hilman Rosyad Syihab from the Islamist Partai Keadilan Sejahtera (PKS), who says that marrying young girls is allowed within Islam provided the marriages are not consummated until the girl has begun menstruating.


Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An invitation to meet Mr Adnan Oktar (aka Harun Yahya, aka Adnan Hoca) - "future ruler of the entire world"?

I was recently invited to fly to Istabul to interview Mr Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, a Muslim who has published very many books challenging evolution, including, of course, his lavishly illustrated and produced Atlas of Creation, provided free to thousands of schools around the world.

I received a phone call from Mr Oktar's representative, Seda Aral, correcting "minsinformation" about Oktar, and explaining why his successful attempt to shut down Richard Dawkins website in Turkey was entirely justified. Oktar styles himself a defender of freedom of speech, and insists he was defamed.

Actually Oktar also attempted to get e.g. The God Delusion banned in Turkey, despite the fact that it says nothing about Oktar.

Dawkins explains why Oktar is a world-class nincompoop
here. It's hilarious.

Despite the offer of an all-expenses-paid trip to Turkey as the guest of Mr Oktar, I'm not going.

It seems many others have received such offers,
such as this writer for New Humanist (scroll down and you'll see one of the comments is from "Nathan" who also received an invitation). Oktar's budget for self-promotion seems to have no limits - as Dawkins points out, OUP estimated the cost of producing his Atlas at half a million quid. Where's the money coming from (there's a clue below)?

Why aren't I going? I am not nearly as well-known as Dawkins, of course, so I don't much mind appearing at low-key events such as
this one in London, because I don't think I am providing much "oxygen of publicity", and may succeed in casting a few doubts into the minds of the audience.

However, Oktar is different - he's powerful and, I suspect, dangerous, and I wouldn't feel comfortable taking his money. The Dawkins episode is nothing compared to some of the other stuff it seems Oktar has got up to. He stands convicted by a Turkish court and faces a three year prison term. Oktar is appealing against the conviction. While this conviction has been reported in the West (see
Reuters), the sheer scale of the various allegations being made against Oktar (in court and out) has not yet received much attention over here. To date, it's only the Dawkins website ban that's attracted interest.

For example, there have been some
very serious allegations about cult activity:

Adnan Oktar (Harun Yahya) is a cult leader who have enslaved many children of rich and elite. His sexual and mental abuse of his subjects is a well known fact to Turkish people. His confession in police alone, which is corroborated by his former followers to details, is sufficient to put him behind bars. But so far, money, connections, blackmail and all the tricks available to his well-connected and super rich followers have kept him out of trouble. But his days are numbered and now there is a major case against him in Turkish courts for black mail and illegal activities.

Also this:

Though Adnan is a lay person by academic standards, he is a gifted manipulator, a patient and highly skilled team manager: he uses various highly efficient psychological devises and marketing gimmicks to depict his image as a divinely ordained leader with a great mission. It would be in the best interest of the naïve and young pupils to join his cause, since soon he will be ruling the entire world and they would be his lucky and powerful aids. Besides, the cult provides a holy club for the children of the rich and well connected; they also get second-hand girls as a fringe benefit. In turn they lose their freedom and part of their identity; but we know that millions of people are ready to trade those precious rights and values to join a cult or a religious organization. Though the dates for victory he has given have been extended several times, who would not be the secretary or the spoke person of the long-awaited great ruler of the entire world?

Oktar insists he is simply the victim of conspiracy.

Oktar, also known as Adnan Hoca, was arrested after "Operation Adnan Hoca" which involved 2,000 Turkish police officers, according to
this quite amazing story from the Turkish Daily News. It's long, but it's worth it - gun battles, sex, blackmail, conspiracies: it's got it all.

The Force Behind the Adnan Hoca Operation: Agar's Revenge

The Adnan Hoca operation, which involved 2,000 police officers and resulted in the apprehension of Adnan Hoca, has the support of two well-known politicians: Mehmet Agar and Celal Adan



Adnan Oktar, otherwise known as Adnan Hoca, and his disciples, who were taken into custody during a midnight operation last weekend, were the victims of a political struggle. Adnan Hoca's followers are members of the Science Research Foundation (BAV) and have been trying to take sides in the leadership contest going on in the True Path Party (DYP). About two months ago they engaged in a gun battle that featured three of Adnan Hoca's disciples on one side and DYP Deputy Celal Adan and his men on the other. The fight took place at the Ceylan Inter-Continental Hotel Istanbul and eventually ended in the police station. Celal Adan left the hotel in the car of independent Deputy Mehmet Agar, formerly of the DYP.

Adnan Hoca's followers were kept in custody for some time at the Beyoglu police station. Their statements that followed signalled a call to war.

In his statement, BAV General Secretary Bahadir Guven accused Celal Adan and Mehmet Agar in uncompromising terms, insisting that these two politicians were behind all the dark relationships in Turkey. Guven said that when they realized there was a partnership between Adan and Agar and that the two intended to overthrow DYP leader Tansu Ciller they tried to stop this conspiracy, at which point they were confronted with a gunfight. Guven also suggested, that Agar, as many people suspect, is the "patron of Susurluk," the 1996 automobile crash that led to the revelation of relations between the government, the police and criminal elements.

After the press reported on the "Gunfight at a Luxury Hotel" the two sides kept silent. This silence was broken last weekend when the Istanbul police carried out their unusual operation.

Nearly 2,000 policemen conducted simultaneous raids in 40 districts across Istanbul. Their goal was to take Adnan Oktar and his disciples into custody. The centers of the raids were Aktar's villa at Kandilli and his estate at Silivri. In all, police searched 38 houses belonging to Adnan Hoca and took everyone they found there into custody -- including Adnan Hoca himself, who had not been seen in public for six years. Oktar's appearance had changed during this time; he had put on weight to resemble opera singer Lucian Pavarotti, who might not be pleased with the comparison.

The actual residences where Adnan Hoca and his disciples had been living were another point of interest. Surprisingly, the woodland villas in Kandilli and Silivri were decorated in the opulent style of the Dolmabahce Palace. The Kandilli villa was actually a complex, consisting of two separate buildings and a total 13 rooms. Inside three iron gates is a small grove, secured by hidden cameras and Dobermans. The police participating in the Silivri operation were treated to an even more unusual sight. The estate, which served as a summer residence for Hoca and his followers, resembled a zoo, complete with camels, horses and two artificial lakes.

The stated reason behind the roundup of Hoca and his followers was blackmail. The group is claimed to have used hidden cameras to capture politicians and performing artists. The resulting tapes are said to have trickled down to some in the right-wing parties.

Is it true that the raids on Hoca's villas, referred to in the press as "the snake's headquarters," were ordered by Interior Minister Sadettin Tantan? Even the police who took part in the operation do not know the answer to this question because they weren't informed about where they were going until the last minute. Istanbul Police Chief Hasan Ozdemir directed the operation himself, delivering envelopes to his immediate subordinates on which were written the instructions, "Open during the operation." Special efforts were made to prevent news from leaking out to Oktar and his followers because the police department didn't trust some of its own members. Those who were responsible for the operation and who knew about the close links between Adnan Hoca and his disciples and high-level police chiefs and politicians chose to behave this way.

The timing of the operation, which included top models and famous performing artists, also received attention. Why did they take Hoca's disciples into custody now, when they had known for a long time about the allegations of blackmail?

The answer to this question lies in the gunfight that took place at the Ceylan Inter-Continental Hotel Istanbul two months ago. The struggle between the two groups within the DYP lit the fuse for the operation. Adnan Hoca and his disciples were supporting Tansu Ciller and collecting confidential information on her rivals. The Adnan Hoca group, working as an organization, had a wealth of surveillance equipment ranging from hidden cameras disguised as buttons to high-tech eavesdropping equipment. The partnership between Tansu Ciller and her group and Adnan Hoca and his group began when Ciller began benefiting from Oktar's "professionalism." Among the many claims about this partnership is that Ciller had made promises to Adnan Hoca's group regarding the next elections in exchange for the work they were doing for her.

Unsettled as a result of this specialized work undertaken by Hoca and his followers, Adan and Agar, as opponents of Ciller, took on the roles of leaders in the anti-Hoca operation. The two men secretly prepared a report on Adnan Hoca's activities and turned it over to Interior Minister Tantan. The report detailed the illegal activities of the group, making reference to a rich archive of material to be used in blackmail. This included videotapes of many of the politicians and businessmen in Turkey having illicit sex. Filmed by hidden cameras over the course of several years and transferred to CDs, the documents are supposed to have been invaluable to Hoca's disciples, who are claimed to have used them to put pressure on important politicians.

Interior Minister Tantan, who took office asserting that his main goal would be to totally wipe out crime, instructed the Istanbul police chief to destroy Adnan Hoca's group. While these developments were taking place in Ankara very secretly, another development was taking place at the Istanbul State Security Court (DGM). DYP Istanbul parliamentarian Celal Adan applied to the DGM public prosecutor to begin criminal proceedings. The incidents progressed as Adan and Agar wished. All of Adnan Hoca and his group's secrets came out in public. The group, which had become a sex and blackmail team, were questioned for days, with two extensions of the legal custody period.

As the questioning continued in Istanbul, repercussions were heard in Ankara. A group supposedly complained to President Suleyman Demirel, asking why this operation had not taken place earlier. Demirel himself did not approve of the timing of the operation, which was attracting so much attention on the eve of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) summit in Istanbul.

It is also being claimed that National Movement Party (MHP) Deputy Mehmet Gul, who is well-known for his close relationship with the Adnan Hoca group, complained to MHP party leader Devlet Bahceli that the operation could destroy the coalition government. In addition to reaching the heights of the Presidential Palace and causing tension between the MHP and the Motherland Party (ANAP), the operation also touched on Necmettin Erbakan, the former leader of the Welfare Party (RP) and spiritual leader of the Islamists.

It is known that Erbakan's son Fatih has close links with the Adnan Hoca group and that the former RP leader himself had often met with Adnan Hoca. The press provided additional evidence of this close relationship. The Erbakan-Adnan Hoca was particularly obvious when the daily Milli Gazette, Erbakan's mouthpiece, published articles criticizing the operation against Adnan Hoca under such headlines as "Slander and Mudslinging Campaign."

Application for criminal procedures from Mazlum-Der

Aside from the criticism in Milli Gazete there was a response from Mazlum-Der. Yilmaz Ensaroglu, the head of the Islamist human rights association, criticized the police operation against Adnan Hoca at a press conference, questioning its legality:

"The operation against BAV does not have any legal basis because there is no concrete accusation against BAV. The police conducted detailed searches in the houses of people related to BAV, but all they found were lots of computers, documentary video cassettes, a couple of licensed guns and some cultural publications. On the other hand, certain newspapers are asking their readers to file complaints against BAV on behalf of the Istanbul Chief of Police. The crime that did not exist is being created through advertisements, invitations and threats."

Ensaroglu: 'It could be a masonic conspiracy'

Ensaroglu pointed out that Oktar, who was the honorary chairman of the BAV, had been associated with other conspiracies in the past. "It is a very well-known fact that Adnan Oktar's works on Freemasonry and Zionism have disturbed certain people for a long time," Ensaroglu said. "And it is also known that these people have constantly carried out propaganda and conspiracies against BAV and Adnan Oktar. One of the most concrete examples of this is the cocaine conspiracy of 1991. At the time, an unexpected and sudden raid led to Oktar being kept under custody for 62 hours, and, after being taken to Forensic Medicine, it was confirmed that cocaine was detected in his blood. However, in the following months, it was confirmed by 24 different international medical institutions that the cocaine was given to Oktar in the food and drink he consumed while he was in custody. Later, Forensic Medicine admitted this, and Oktar was acquitted."

Ensaroglu also called on the public to be sensitive towards these embarrassing and illegal operations that were taking place just as the major OSCE summit was about to take place.

Babuna: 'I have no connection'

Among those whose houses were raided as part of the operation against Adnan Hoca and his followers was Dr. Oktar Babuna, who reached public notoriety through the nationwide blood donor campaign he initiated after it was discovered he had leukemia. It was claimed that Babuna, who had returned to Turkey from the United States after being cured of cancer, had for a time been one of Adnan Hoca's disciples. Based on these claims, Babuna's house was included in the police raid. However, Babuna stated during a press conference that while he had seen Adnan Oktar once or twice he was not one of his disciples. On the other hand, there were claims that not only Dr. Babuna but his brother and father, Professor Cevat Babuna, were also among Adnan Hoca's disciples. Furthermore, it was being claimed that Adnan Hoca and his disciples had actually organized the Babuna blood donation campaign, which earned them trillions of lira.

Statement from the Science Research Foundation

A statement released by the BAV included the following claims:

The houses [that were raided] do not belong to Adnan Hoca. The house and the estate raided by the police do not belong to Adnan Oktar, they belong to wealthy members of the foundation. Adnan Hoca was giving a speech at the house in Beylerbeyi on the night of the operation.

The items in the houses in Beylerbeyi and Silivri display a sense of aesthetics that aims to raise national values. The existence of the statues, the imperial signatures belonging to the Ottoman Empire, the imperial edicts and the gilded objects are not a reflection of tastelessness but a reminder of the flamboyance of Ottoman-Turkish culture.

It is slander to say that there were cassettes to be used for blackmail. After inspection, it will be shown that the video cassettes and computer disks do not contain any compromising material.

The claims about sex parties are also slanderous. The female members of the foundation are such virtuous and honorable women that such immoral actions could have no connection with reality.

The statement denies the claims related to cocaine as well, indicating that Adnan Hoca instilled patriotism and moral values in many young people. The cocaine reportedly found in Adnan Hoca's blood in 1991 was given to him through food and drink while in custody.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Why I am an Ex-Muslim, Part #1

By Tauriq Moosa

Whilst I find biographical writing egotistical in most cases, I hope to indulge here in a trajectory of thought rather than a life. I hope to show my own severing of the Islamic veil, which shrouded everything within its bleak dichotomous imagery, and how it is that ex-Muslims are a rarity. Though we are growing in number, there are not many who are willing to openly criticise Islam - I consider this to be part laziness, part apathy and part incredulity by "moderate" Muslims.The major reasons and criticisms will be dealt with in the second part.

Is it racist to loathe some one's nonevidential-based and metaphysical beliefs? I do not think so. If this were true, I'd be considered alongside the person who decided "Whites Only" was a good sign to make on park-benches. We do not find black people declaring themselves ex-black, or white people declaring themselves ex-white. To say then that I am a racist is incorrect. I was Muslim, now I am no longer.

The question then is why declare oneself by what one is not. Why focus on being an ex-Muslim?

Power in Words

Defining oneself by a negative is something we as sceptics and atheists often have to puzzle over. Indeed, such a sentence might itself preclude this notion. I have said and I will continue to say that atheism is not a thing, a group, a set of goals. It is not a group of people clamouring for their world view to be adopted, since it is not a world-view. It comes close to be meaninglessness as air comes to being an ocean breeze. Indeed, the harshest critiques of labelling arises from amongst the "upper" echelons of the pursuit of reason.

Sam Harris in his address at Atheist Alliance in 2007, picks up on this theme of racism and atheism too, when he states:

Attaching a label to something carries real liabilities, especially if the thing you are naming isn't really a thing at all. And atheism, I would argue, is not a thing. It is not a philosophy, just as "non-racism" is not one. Atheism is not a worldview—and yet most people imagine it to be one and attack it as such. We who do not believe in God are collaborating in this misunderstanding by consenting to be named and by even naming ourselves. So, let me make my somewhat seditious proposal explicit: We should not call ourselves "atheists." We should not call ourselves "secularists." …  "humanists," or "secular humanists," or "naturalists," or "skeptics," or "anti-theists," or "rationalists," or "freethinkers," or "brights."

We should not call ourselves anything. We should go under the radar—for the rest of our lives. And while there, we should be decent, responsible people who destroy bad ideas wherever we find them.

No doubt, my dear readers, some of you will already have objections to this. Whilst I am not dealing with atheism in general, the application to ex-Muslim can be seen as a two-pronged defence: To labeling ourselves atheists and maintaining the use of ex-Muslim.

The main reason: No, there is no such thing as non-racism. But there was a very prominent, destructive, irrational and un-evidential claim known as racism. But we can not deny the activism of "black consciousness"; No reasonable person today would support my country's history of apartheid. Yet during that time, people proudly - but sometimes in secrete for fear of reprisal - called themselves "anti-apartheid activists". Yet would any of us today call ourselves "anti-apartheid", well yes, if there was an apartheid to oppose.

Similarly, the tide must turn with faith. I believe it must be eradicated, for good if we are to even grasp at the near-infinite beauty of a good life. No: We do not call ourselves non-astrologers, as Harris states. Nonetheless, just as it needed activism to render most people's accepted world-view of "race" into something aversive, I think it will take such "activism" to render faith into the vice it is. But this is for another article.

I believe, then, that the use of reason effectively dealt with racism, such that only stragglers and madmen could present themselves proudly as racists today. Similarly, with faith: It too is a great retardation of intelligence. But one so great that even those who do not have "faith" sometimes think it must be sacred, left to its own devices, "it's not harming anyone" (those I call IDGAFS1).

And a form of faith that has coiled into a great fist, smashing the ground beneath our feet, is Islam. All religions have their horrors and their extremists, no one denies this. Essentially, it is our main point in critiquing it: Religion is man-made. That must be religion's most salient and nocuous property.

And no more so demonstrated than through the repugnant, almost childish knee-jerk reactions from fundamentalist Muslims. Having unwoven the threads of caustic intellectual abuse, by the hands of the vice of faith, I can finally step back to see this for what it is. But there are no woods to step out of to see trees of respect, love, or reason. Faith would have us cover our eyes and just nod to shadows. Islam, being what it is, as dangerous as it is, would send those shadows out to fight. It is time to fight back.

We know what a terrible darkness such shadows of truth hold.

The Triumph of Reason

I can admit something I was never very proud of before: I do not think I ever truly believed in a god or afterlife. Along with probably most of you, I am the addressee of Pascal's Pensées: He who is so made that he can not believe. I learnt the Quran - and still know it - from beginning to end. I can read and write in Arabic. It is a very beautiful language and the incredible aesthetic beauty of its script no less appealing.

But what does the Quran say? If you had asked me that after I had read it the first time, then proceeded to memorise it, I would have stared at you blankly.

As we speak, there are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world, comprising 22% of world. The results may vary but we can assume this: There's a lot. Of those, I'm an uncertain how many of those are children of Muslim parents (did you flinch when you thought of "Muslim children"?). We can safely say though that millions of children around the world are taught to read, learn and recite in Arabic without understanding a word they're saying.

I did not know I was reading this, when I recited:

98:6 Lo! those who disbelieve, among the People of the Scripture and the idolaters, will abide in fire of hell. They are the worst of created beings.

88:23-24 But whoso is averse and disbelieveth /Allah will punish him with direst punishment.

These are mere tips of growing icebergs, as fundamentalists freeze ancient ideas into growing pandemics of destruction.

Perhaps your own thoughts can formulate on why it is dangerous to learn in a language you essentially do not speak, to learn sentences you would not condone. I do not condone murder or destruction or harm to any person, yet here I was, learning verses spoken by "Allah Himself" (via Jibreel, to Muhammad, to the scribes, to etc.). Who was I to question my duty as a Muslim?

I attended seven madrassas. At each one, I was physically abused by the jaded jackals of god's word. If we did not pronounce certain Arabic letters correctly, our fingers were bleeding after a good dose of punishment by a cane. We yelled at, screamed at, hair was torn out in anger as were not feeling Allah's power and grace and beauty. It is neither hard nor uncommon to consider such occurences and perhaps that's what makes it so wrong. A lot of my ex-Muslim friends also went through similar conditions. All this amidst a growing society, fresh from the battle against oppression - a society still licking its war-wounds and scrambling for some semblance of stability.

I neither consider myself scarred, harmed or abused to any great degree. I am neither angry at those men nor wish them harm. In a sense, I thank them for instilling the most powerful seed that resides in the human mind: Doubt.

We all know the foundation for stable thought in analysis begins with Cogito ergo sum. Yet, we must also remeber Dubito ergo Cogito (I doubt, therefore I think), THEN Cogito ergo sum. I found myself wondering, if god's love is so great, if his power so immense, why do I constantly feel nothing but the biting cain against my knuckles?; Why do I feel nothing but paper when I touch the Quran?; and where is that rapturous experience that exudes from all the imams and mullahs I had interacted with?

It was then that stumbled across the most important book in my life: The Satanic Verses. It was to render that doubt into reason, to turn my apathy into action and so stabilise why I think being an outspoken ex-Muslim is important…



1. Idgafs are not necessarily "not giving a frack", as the term suggests, but they are primarily nonbelievers who treat faith as something that should not be attacked, mocked, criticised, or at least attempted to be understood using emotion. Most nonbelievers I know are like this, even though they would be supporting me in any other area to promote reason.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Was Darwin Wrong?

By David Quammen

Evolution by natural selection, the central concept of the life's work of Charles Darwin, is a theory. It's a theory about the origin of adaptation, complexity, and diversity among Earth's living creatures. If you are skeptical by nature, unfamiliar with the terminology of science, and unaware of the overwhelming evidence, you might even be tempted to say that it's "just" a theory. In the same sense, relativity as described by Albert Einstein is "just" a theory. The notion that Earth orbits around the sun rather than vice versa, offered by Copernicus in 1543, is a theory. Continental drift is a theory. The existence, structure, and dynamics of atoms? Atomic theory. Even electricity is a theoretical construct, involving electrons, which are tiny units of charged mass that no one has ever seen. Each of these theories is an explanation that has been confirmed to such a degree, by observation and experiment, that knowledgeable experts accept it as fact. That's what scientists mean when they talk about a theory: not a dreamy and unreliable speculation, but an explanatory statement that fits the evidence. They embrace such an explanation confidently but provisionally—taking it as their best available view of reality, at least until some severely conflicting data or some better explanation might come along.
The rest of us generally agree. We plug our televisions into little wall sockets, measure a year by the length of Earth's orbit, and in many other ways live our lives based on the trusted reality of those theories.
Evolutionary theory, though, is a bit different. It's such a dangerously wonderful and far-reaching view of life that some people find it unacceptable, despite the vast body of supporting evidence. As applied to our own species, Homo sapiens, it can seem more threatening still. Many fundamentalist Christians and ultraorthodox Jews take alarm at the thought that human descent from earlier primates contradicts a strict reading of the Book of Genesis. Their discomfort is paralleled by Islamic creationists such as Harun Yahya, author of a recent volume titled The Evolution Deceit, who points to the six-day creation story in the Koran as literal truth and calls the theory of evolution "nothing but a deception imposed on us by the dominators of the world system." The late Srila Prabhupada, of the Hare Krishna movement, explained that God created "the 8,400,000 species of life from the very beginning," in order to establish multiple tiers of reincarnation for rising souls. Although souls ascend, the species themselves don't change, he insisted, dismissing "Darwin's nonsensical theory."
Other people too, not just scriptural literalists, remain unpersuaded about evolution. According to a Gallup poll drawn from more than a thousand telephone interviews conducted in February 2001, no less than 45 percent of responding U.S. adults agreed that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." Evolution, by their lights, played no role in shaping us.
Only 37 percent of the polled Americans were satisfied with allowing room for both God and Darwin—that is, divine initiative to get things started, evolution as the creative means. (This view, according to more than one papal pronouncement, is compatible with Roman Catholic dogma.) Still fewer Americans, only 12 percent, believed that humans evolved from other life-forms without any involvement of a god.
The most startling thing about these poll numbers is not that so many Americans reject evolution, but that the statistical breakdown hasn't changed much in two decades. Gallup interviewers posed exactly the same choices in 1982, 1993, 1997, and 1999. The creationist conviction—that God alone, and not evolution, produced humans—has never drawn less than 44 percent. In other words, nearly half the American populace prefers to believe that Charles Darwin was wrong where it mattered most.
Why are there so many antievolutionists? Scriptural literalism can only be part of the answer. The American public certainly includes a large segment of scriptural literalists—but not that large, not 44 percent. Creationist proselytizers and political activists, working hard to interfere with the teaching of evolutionary biology in public schools, are another part. Honest confusion and ignorance, among millions of adult Americans, must be still another. Many people have never taken a biology course that dealt with evolution nor read a book in which the theory was lucidly explained. Sure, we've all heard of Charles Darwin, and of a vague, somber notion about struggle and survival that sometimes goes by the catchall label "Darwinism." But the main sources of information from which most Americans have drawn their awareness of this subject, it seems, are haphazard ones at best: cultural osmosis, newspaper and magazine references, half-baked nature documentaries on the tube, and hearsay.
Evolution is both a beautiful concept and an important one, more crucial nowadays to human welfare, to medical science, and to our understanding of the world than ever before. It's also deeply persuasive—a theory you can take to the bank. The essential points are slightly more complicated than most people assume, but not so complicated that they can't be comprehended by any attentive person. Furthermore, the supporting evidence is abundant, various, ever increasing, solidly interconnected, and easily available in museums, popular books, textbooks, and a mountainous accumulation of peer-reviewed scientific studies. No one needs to, and no one should, accept evolution merely as a matter of faith.
Two big ideas, not just one, are at issue: the evolution of all species, as a historical phenomenon, and natural selection, as the main mechanism causing that phenomenon. The first is a question of what happened. The second is a question of how. The idea that all species are descended from common ancestors had been suggested by other thinkers, including Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, long before Darwin published The Origin of Species in 1859. What made Darwin's book so remarkable when it appeared, and so influential in the long run, was that it offered a rational explanation of how evolution must occur. The same insight came independently to Alfred Russel Wallace, a young naturalist doing fieldwork in the Malay Archipelago during the late 1850s. In historical annals, if not in the popular awareness, Wallace and Darwin share the kudos for having discovered natural selection.

The gist of the concept is that small, random, heritable differences among individuals result in different chances of survival and reproduction—success for some, death without offspring for others—and that this natural culling leads to significant changes in shape, size, strength, armament, color, biochemistry, and behavior among the descendants. Excess population growth drives the competitive struggle. Because less successful competitors produce fewer surviving offspring, the useless or negative variations tend to disappear, whereas the useful variations tend to be perpetuated and gradually magnified throughout a population.
So much for one part of the evolutionary process, known as anagenesis, during which a single species is transformed. But there's also a second part, known as speciation. Genetic changes sometimes accumulate within an isolated segment of a species, but not throughout the whole, as that isolated population adapts to its local conditions. Gradually it goes its own way, seizing a new ecological niche. At a certain point it becomes irreversibly distinct—that is, so different that its members can't interbreed with the rest. Two species now exist where formerly there was one. Darwin called that splitting-and-specializing phenomenon the "principle of divergence." It was an important part of his theory, explaining the overall diversity of life as well as the adaptation of individual species.
This thrilling and radical assemblage of concepts came from an unlikely source. Charles Darwin was shy and meticulous, a wealthy landowner with close friends among the Anglican clergy. He had a gentle, unassuming manner, a strong need for privacy, and an extraordinary commitment to intellectual honesty. As an undergraduate at Cambridge, he had studied halfheartedly toward becoming a clergyman himself, before he discovered his real vocation as a scientist. Later, having established a good but conventional reputation in natural history, he spent 22 years secretly gathering evidence and pondering arguments—both for and against his theory—because he didn't want to flame out in a burst of unpersuasive notoriety. He may have delayed, too, because of his anxiety about announcing a theory that seemed to challenge conventional religious beliefs—in particular, the Christian beliefs of his wife, Emma. Darwin himself quietly renounced Christianity during his middle age, and later described himself as an agnostic. He continued to believe in a distant, impersonal deity of some sort, a greater entity that had set the universe and its laws into motion, but not in a personal God who had chosen humanity as a specially favored species. Darwin avoided flaunting his lack of religious faith, at least partly in deference to Emma. And she prayed for his soul.

In 1859 he finally delivered his revolutionary book. Although it was hefty and substantive at 490 pages, he considered The Origin of Species just a quick-and-dirty "abstract" of the huge volume he had been working on until interrupted by an alarming event. (In fact, he'd wanted to title it An Abstract of an Essay on the Origin of Species
and Varieties Through Natural Selection, but his publisher found that insufficiently catchy.) The alarming event was his receiving a letter and an enclosed manuscript from Alfred Wallace, whom he knew only as a distant pen pal. Wallace's manuscript sketched out the same great idea—evolution by natural selection—that Darwin considered his own. Wallace had scribbled this paper and (unaware of Darwin's own evolutionary thinking, which so far had been kept private) mailed it to him from the Malay Archipelago, along with a request for reaction and help. Darwin was horrified. After two decades of painstaking effort, now he'd be scooped. Or maybe not quite. He forwarded Wallace's paper toward publication, though managing also to assert his own prior claim by releasing two excerpts from his unpublished work. Then he dashed off The Origin, his "abstract" on the subject. Unlike Wallace, who was younger and less meticulous, Darwin recognized the importance of providing an edifice of supporting evidence and logic.

The evidence, as he presented it, mostly fell within four categories: biogeography, paleontology, embryology, and morphology. Biogeography is the study of the geographical distribution of living creatures—that is, which species inhabit which parts of the planet and why. Paleontology investigates extinct life-forms, as revealed in the fossil record. Embryology examines the revealing stages of development (echoing earlier stages of evolutionary history) that embryos pass through before birth or hatching; at a stretch, embryology also concerns the immature forms of animals that metamorphose, such as the larvae of insects. Morphology is the science of anatomical shape and design. Darwin devoted sizable sections of The Origin of Species to these categories.
Biogeography, for instance, offered a great pageant of peculiar facts and patterns. Anyone who considers the biogeographical data, Darwin wrote, must be struck by the mysterious clustering pattern among what he called "closely allied" species—that is, similar creatures sharing roughly the same body plan. Such closely allied species tend to be found on the same continent (several species of zebras in Africa) or within the same group of oceanic islands (dozens of species of honeycreepers in Hawaii, 13 species of Galápagos finch), despite their species-by-species preferences for different habitats, food sources, or conditions of climate. Adjacent areas of South America, Darwin noted, are occupied by two similar species of large, flightless birds (the rheas, Rhea americana and Pterocnemia pennata), not by ostriches as in Africa or emus as in Australia. South America also has agoutis and viscachas (small rodents) in terrestrial habitats, plus coypus and capybaras in the wetlands, not—as Darwin wrote—hares and rabbits in terrestrial habitats or beavers and muskrats in the wetlands. During his own youthful visit to the Galápagos, aboard the survey ship Beagle, Darwin himself had discovered three very similar forms of mockingbird, each on a different island.
Why should "closely allied" species inhabit neighboring patches of habitat? And why should similar habitat on different continents be occupied by species that aren't so closely allied? "We see in these facts some deep organic bond, prevailing throughout space and time," Darwin wrote. "This bond, on my theory, is simply inheritance." Similar species occur nearby in space because they have descended from common ancestors.
Paleontology reveals a similar clustering pattern in the dimension of time. The vertical column of geologic strata, laid down by sedimentary processes over the eons, lightly peppered with fossils, represents a tangible record showing which species lived when. Less ancient layers of rock lie atop more ancient ones (except where geologic forces have tipped or shuffled them), and likewise with the animal and plant fossils that the strata contain. What Darwin noticed about this record is that closely allied species tend to be found adjacent to one another in successive strata. One species endures for millions of years and then makes its last appearance in, say, the middle Eocene epoch; just above, a similar but not identical species replaces it. In North America, for example, a vaguely horselike creature known as Hyracotherium was succeeded by Orohippus, then Epihippus, then Mesohippus, which in turn were succeeded by a variety of horsey American critters. Some of them even galloped across the Bering land bridge into Asia, then onward to Europe and Africa. By five million years ago they had nearly all disappeared, leaving behind Dinohippus, which was succeeded by Equus, the modern genus of horse. Not all these fossil links had been unearthed in Darwin's day, but he captured the essence of the matter anyway. Again, were such sequences just coincidental? No, Darwin argued. Closely allied species succeed one another in time, as well as living nearby in space, because they're related through evolutionary descent.
Embryology too involved patterns that couldn't be explained by coincidence. Why does the embryo of a mammal pass through stages resembling stages of the embryo of a reptile? Why is one of the larval forms of a barnacle, before metamorphosis, so similar to the larval form of a shrimp? Why do the larvae of moths, flies, and beetles resemble one another more than any of them resemble their respective adults? Because, Darwin wrote, "the embryo is the animal in its less modified state" and that state "reveals the structure of its progenitor."
Morphology, his fourth category of evidence, was the "very soul" of natural history, according to Darwin. Even today it's on display in the layout and organization of any zoo. Here are the monkeys, there are the big cats, and in that building are the alligators and crocodiles. Birds in the aviary, fish in the aquarium. Living creatures can be easily sorted into a hierarchy of categories—not just species but genera, families, orders, whole kingdoms—based on which anatomical characters they share and which they don't.
All vertebrate animals have backbones. Among vertebrates, birds have feathers, whereas reptiles have scales. Mammals have fur and mammary glands, not feathers or scales. Among mammals, some have pouches in which they nurse their tiny young. Among these species, the marsupials, some have huge rear legs and strong tails by which they go hopping across miles of arid outback; we call them kangaroos. Bring in modern microscopic and molecular evidence, and you can trace the similarities still further back. All plants and fungi, as well as animals, have nuclei within their cells. All living organisms contain DNA and RNA (except some viruses with RNA only), two related forms of information-coding molecules.

Such a pattern of tiered resemblances—groups of similar species nested within broader groupings, and all descending from a single source—isn't naturally present among other collections of items. You won't find anything equivalent if you try to categorize rocks, or musical instruments, or jewelry. Why not? Because rock types and styles of jewelry don't reflect unbroken descent from common ancestors. Biological diversity does. The number of shared characteristics between any one species and another indicates how recently those two species have diverged from a shared lineage.

That insight gave new meaning to the task of taxonomic classification, which had been founded in its modern form back in 1735 by the Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus. Linnaeus showed how species could be systematically classified, according to their shared similarities, but he worked from creationist assumptions that offered no material explanation for the nested pattern he found. In the early and middle 19th century, morphologists such as Georges Cuvier and Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire in France and Richard Owen in England improved classification with their meticulous studies of internal as well as external anatomies, and tried to make sense of what the ultimate source of these patterned similarities could be. Not even Owen, a contemporary and onetime friend of Darwin's (later in life they had a bitter falling out), took the full step to an evolutionary vision before The Origin of Species was published. Owen made a major contribution, though, by advancing the concept of homologues—that is, superficially different but fundamentally similar versions of a single organ or trait, shared by dissimilar species.
For instance, the five-digit skeletal structure of the vertebrate hand appears not just in humans and apes and raccoons and bears but also, variously modified, in cats and bats and porpoises and lizards and turtles. The paired bones of our lower leg, the tibia and the fibula, are also represented by homologous bones in other mammals and in reptiles, and even in the long-extinct bird-reptile Archaeopteryx. What's the reason behind such varied recurrence of a few basic designs? Darwin, with a nod to Owen's "most interesting work," supplied the answer: common descent, as shaped by natural selection, modifying the inherited basics for different circumstances.

Vestigial characteristics are still another form of morphological evidence, illuminating to contemplate because they show that the living world is full of small, tolerable imperfections. Why do male mammals (including human males) have nipples? Why do some snakes (notably boa constrictors) carry the rudiments of a pelvis and tiny legs buried inside their sleek profiles? Why do certain species of flightless beetle have wings, sealed beneath wing covers that never open? Darwin raised all these questions, and answered them, in The Origin of Species. Vestigial structures stand as remnants of the evolutionary history of a lineage.
Today the same four branches of biological science from which Darwin drew—biogeography, paleontology, embryology, morphology—embrace an ever growing body of supporting data. In addition to those categories we now have others: population genetics, biochemistry, molecular biology, and, most recently, the whiz-bang field of machine-driven genetic sequencing known as genomics. These new forms of knowledge overlap one another seamlessly and intersect with the older forms, strengthening the whole edifice, contributing further to the certainty that Darwin was right.
He was right about evolution, that is. He wasn't right about everything. Being a restless explainer, Darwin floated a number of theoretical notions during his long working life, some of which were mistaken and illusory. He was wrong about what causes variation within a species. He was wrong about a famous geologic mystery, the parallel shelves along a Scottish valley called Glen Roy. Most notably, his theory of inheritance—which he labeled pangenesis and cherished despite its poor reception among his biologist colleagues—turned out to be dead wrong. Fortunately for Darwin, the correctness of his most famous good idea stood independent of that particular bad idea. Evolution by natural selection represented Darwin at his best—which is to say, scientific observation and careful thinking at its best.
Douglas Futuyma is a highly respected evolutionary biologist, author of textbooks as well as influential research papers. His office, at the University of Michigan, is a long narrow room in the natural sciences building, well stocked with journals and books, including volumes about the conflict between creationism and evolution. I arrived carrying a well-thumbed copy of his own book on that subject, Science on Trial: The Case for Evolution. Killing time in the corridor before our appointment, I noticed a blue flyer on a departmental bulletin board, seeming oddly placed there amid the announcements of career opportunities for graduate students. "Creation vs. evolution," it said. "A series of messages challenging popular thought with Biblical truth and scientific evidences." A traveling lecturer from something called the Origins Research Association would deliver these messages at a local Baptist church. Beside the lecturer's photo was a drawing of a dinosaur. "Free pizza following the evening service," said a small line at the bottom. Dinosaurs, biblical truth, and pizza: something for everybody.
In response to my questions about evidence, Dr. Futuyma moved quickly through the traditional categories—paleontology, biogeography—and talked mostly about modern genetics. He pulled out his heavily marked copy of the journal Nature for February 15, 2001, a historic issue, fat with articles reporting and analyzing the results of the Human Genome Project. Beside it he slapped down a more recent issue of Nature, this one devoted to the sequenced genome of the house mouse, Mus musculus. The headline of the lead editorial announced: "HUMAN BIOLOGY BY PROXY." The mouse genome effort, according to Nature's editors, had revealed "about 30,000 genes, with 99% having direct counterparts in humans."

The resemblance between our 30,000 human genes and those 30,000 mousy counterparts, Futuyma explained, represents another form of homology, like the resemblance between a five-fingered hand and a five-toed paw. Such genetic homology is what gives meaning to biomedical research using mice and other animals, including chimpanzees, which (to their sad misfortune) are our closest living relatives.
No aspect of biomedical research seems more urgent today than the study of microbial diseases. And the dynamics of those microbes within human bodies, within human populations, can only be understood in terms of evolution.

Nightmarish illnesses caused by microbes include both the infectious sort (AIDS, Ebola, SARS) that spread directly from person to person and the sort (malaria, West Nile fever) delivered to us by biting insects or other intermediaries. The capacity for quick change among disease-causing microbes is what makes them so dangerous to large numbers of people and so difficult and expensive to treat. They leap from wildlife or domestic animals into humans, adapting to new circumstances as they go. Their inherent variability allows them to find new ways of evading and defeating human immune systems. By natural selection they acquire resistance to drugs that should kill them. They evolve. There's no better or more immediate evidence supporting the Darwinian theory than this process of forced transformation among our inimical germs.
Take the common bacterium Staphylococcus aureus, which lurks in hospitals and causes serious infections, especially among surgery patients. Penicillin, becoming available in 1943, proved almost miraculously effective in fighting staphylococcus infections. Its deployment marked a new phase in the old war between humans and disease microbes, a phase in which humans invent new killer drugs and microbes find new ways to be unkillable. The supreme potency of penicillin didn't last long. The first resistant strains of Staphylococcus aureus were reported in 1947. A newer staph-killing drug, methicillin, came into use during the 1960s, but methicillin-resistant strains appeared soon, and by the 1980s those strains were widespread. Vancomycin became the next great weapon against staph, and the first vancomycin-resistant strain emerged in 2002. These antibiotic-resistant strains represent an evolutionary series, not much different in principle from the fossil series tracing horse evolution from Hyracotherium to Equus. They make evolution a very practical problem by adding expense, as well as misery and danger, to the challenge of coping with staph.

The biologist Stephen Palumbi has calculated the cost of treating penicillin-resistant and methicillin-resistant staph infections, just in the United States, at 30 billion dollars a year. "Antibiotics exert a powerful evolutionary force," he wrote last year, "driving infectious bacteria to evolve powerful defenses against all but the most recently invented drugs." As reflected in their DNA, which uses the same genetic code found in humans and horses and hagfish and honeysuckle, bacteria are part of the continuum of life, all shaped and diversified by evolutionary forces.
Even viruses belong to that continuum. Some viruses evolve quickly, some slowly. Among the fastest is HIV, because its method of replicating itself involves a high rate of mutation, and those mutations allow the virus to assume new forms. After just a few years of infection and drug treatment, each HIV patient carries a unique version of the virus. Isolation within one infected person, plus differing conditions and the struggle to survive, forces each version of HIV to evolve independently. It's nothing but a speeded up and microscopic case of what Darwin saw in the Galápagos—except that each human body is an island, and the newly evolved forms aren't so charming as finches or mockingbirds.

Understanding how quickly HIV acquires resistance to antiviral drugs, such as AZT, has been crucial to improving treatment by way of multiple drug cocktails. "This approach has reduced deaths due to HIV by severalfold since 1996," according to Palumbi, "and it has greatly slowed the evolution of this disease within patients."
Insects and weeds acquire resistance to our insecticides and herbicides through the same process. As we humans try to poison them, evolution by natural selection transforms the population of a mosquito or thistle into a new sort of creature, less vulnerable to that particular poison. So we invent another poison, then another. It's a futile effort. Even DDT, with its ferocious and long-lasting effects throughout ecosystems, produced resistant house flies within a decade of its discovery in 1939. By 1990 more than 500 species (including 114 kinds of mosquitoes) had acquired resistance to at least one pesticide. Based on these undesired results, Stephen Palumbi has commented glumly, "humans may be the world's dominant evolutionary force."

Among most forms of living creatures, evolution proceeds slowly—too slowly to be observed by a single scientist within a research lifetime. But science functions by inference, not just by direct observation, and the inferential sorts of evidence such as paleontology and biogeography are no less cogent simply because they're indirect. Still, skeptics of evolutionary theory ask: Can we see evolution in action? Can it be observed in the wild? Can it be measured in the laboratory?
The answer is yes. Peter and Rosemary Grant, two British-born researchers who have spent decades where Charles Darwin spent weeks, have captured a glimpse of evolution with their long-term studies of beak size among Galápagos finches. William R. Rice and George W. Salt achieved something similar in their lab, through an experiment involving 35 generations of the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster. Richard E. Lenski and his colleagues at Michigan State University have done it too, tracking 20,000 generations of evolution in the bacterium Escherichia coli. Such field studies and lab experiments document anagenesis—that is, slow evolutionary change within a single, unsplit lineage. With patience it can be seen, like the movement of a minute hand on a clock.

Speciation, when a lineage splits into two species, is the other major phase of evolutionary change, making possible the divergence between lineages about which Darwin wrote. It's rarer and more elusive even than anagenesis. Many individual mutations must accumulate (in most cases, anyway, with certain exceptions among plants) before two populations become irrevocably separated. The process is spread across thousands of generations, yet it may finish abruptly—like a door going slam!—when the last critical changes occur. Therefore it's much harder to witness. Despite the difficulties, Rice and Salt seem to have recorded a speciation event, or very nearly so, in their extended experiment on fruit flies. From a small stock of mated females they eventually produced two distinct fly populations adapted to different habitat conditions, which the researchers judged "incipient species."
After my visit with Douglas Futuyma in Ann Arbor, I spent two hours at the university museum there with Philip D. Gingerich, a paleontologist well-known for his work on the ancestry of whales. As we talked, Gingerich guided me through an exhibit of ancient cetaceans on the museum's second floor. Amid weird skeletal shapes that seemed almost chimerical (some hanging overhead, some in glass cases) he pointed out significant features and described the progress of thinking about whale evolution. A burly man with a broad open face and the gentle manner of a scoutmaster, Gingerich combines intellectual passion and solid expertise with one other trait that's valuable in a scientist: a willingness to admit when he's wrong.
Since the late 1970s Gingerich has collected fossil specimens of early whales from remote digs in Egypt and Pakistan. Working with Pakistani colleagues, he discovered Pakicetus, a terrestrial mammal dating from 50 million years ago, whose ear bones reflect its membership in the whale lineage but whose skull looks almost doglike. A former student of Gingerich's, Hans Thewissen, found a slightly more recent form with webbed feet, legs suitable for either walking or swimming, and a long toothy snout. Thewissen called it Ambulocetus natans, or the "walking-and-swimming whale." Gingerich and his team turned up several more, including Rodhocetus balochistanensis, which was fully a sea creature, its legs more like flippers, its nostrils shifted backward on the snout, halfway to the blowhole position on a modern whale. The sequence of known forms was becoming more and more complete. And all along, Gingerich told me, he leaned toward believing that whales had descended from a group of carnivorous Eocene mammals known as mesonychids, with cheek teeth useful for chewing meat and bone. Just a bit more evidence, he thought, would confirm that relationship. By the end of the 1990s most paleontologists agreed.

Meanwhile, molecular biologists had explored the same question and arrived at a different answer. No, the match to those Eocene carnivores might be close, but not close enough. DNA hybridization and other tests suggested that whales had descended from artiodactyls (that is, even-toed herbivores, such as antelopes and hippos), not from meat-eating mesonychids.

In the year 2000 Gingerich chose a new field site in Pakistan, where one of his students found a single piece of fossil that changed the prevailing view in paleontology. It was half of a pulley-shaped anklebone, known as an astragalus, belonging to another new species of whale.
A Pakistani colleague found the fragment's other half. When Gingerich fitted the two pieces together, he had a moment of humbling recognition: The molecular biologists were right. Here was an anklebone, from a four-legged whale dating back 47 million years, that closely resembled the homologus anklebone in an artiodactyls. Suddenly he realized how closely whales are related to antelopes.

This is how science is supposed to work. Ideas come and go, but the fittest survive. Downstairs in his office Phil Gingerich opened a specimen drawer, showing me some of the actual fossils from which the display skeletons upstairs were modeled. He put a small lump of petrified bone, no longer than a lug nut, into my hand. It was the famous astragalus, from the species he had eventually named Artiocetus clavis. It felt solid and heavy as truth.

Seeing me to the door, Gingerich volunteered something personal: "I grew up in a conservative church in the Midwest and was not taught anything about evolution. The subject was clearly skirted. That helps me understand the people who are skeptical about it. Because I come from that tradition myself." He shares the same skeptical instinct. Tell him that there's an ancestral connection between land animals and whales, and his reaction is: Fine, maybe. But show me the intermediate stages. Like Charles Darwin, the onetime divinity student, who joined that round-the –world voyage aboard the Beagle instead of becoming a country parson, and whose grand view of life on Earth was shaped by attention to small facts, Phil Gingerich is a reverant empiricist. He's not satisfied until he sees solid data. That's what excites his so much about pulling shale fossils out of the ground. In 30 years he has seen enough to be satisfied. For him, Gingerich said, it's "a spiritual experience."

"The evidence is there," he added. "It's buried in the rocks of ages." 

Republished from National Geographic Magazine

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fish With First Neck Evolved Into Land Animal -- Slowly

James Owen
for National Geographic News
October 15, 2008

The skull of a 375-million-year-old walking fish reveals new clues to how our fish ancestors evolved into land dwellers.

The fossil fish—called Tiktaalik roseae—was discovered in the Canadian Arctic in 2004 and provides the 'missing link' between fish and land vertebrates, according to scientists. It's also the proud owner of the world's first known neck.

read more at National Geographic News

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Amnesty condemns Saudi executions

By Christian Fraser

BBC Middle East correspondent

Executions in Saudi Arabia are being carried at an average rate of more than two a week, according to a new report by Amnesty International.

The human rights group says the rate of executions in the Kingdom has increased markedly in recent years.

In their report, they say foreign nationals bear the brunt of executions.

Saudi Arabia is also one of the few remaining countries to execute people for crimes they committed while under the age of 18.

On Friday in downtown Riyadh the crowds gather at Justice Square, outside the grand mosque. It is a place Westerners have dubbed "Chop Chop Square".

On the stage, awaiting the blade of the scimitar, stands the condemned. The death penalty in Saudi Arabia is beheading under the law of the sharia.

'Secret trials'

Although the Kingdom refuses to provide official statistics on how many people it kills each year, Amnesty International has recorded at least 1,695 executions between 1985 and May 2008.

Of these, 830 were foreign nationals - a highly disproportionate figure since foreigners only make up about a quarter of the country's population.

The rate of execution has increased, says the charity in its report "Affront to justice: Death penalty in Saudi Arabia", following an extension of the death penalty to crimes for drugs offences and corruption.

According to the report, the trials are often held secretly, foreigners would be unable to understand the proceedings because routinely they are denied access to a lawyer and, in some cases, they have no idea they have even been convicted.

Six Somalis beheaded this year were only told they were to be killed on the morning of their execution.

Confessions are usually extracted through torture, ranging from cigarette burns, to electric shocks, nail-pulling, beatings and threats to family members, Amnesty says.

It adds that, while pardons are sometimes granted, Saudi nationals are eight times more likely to escape execution through the payment of a diya or "blood money".

Republished from BBC News

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Does science make belief in God obsolete? – Conversation 3

A series of conversations among leading scientists and scholars.

Conversation 3 - Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy


Not necessarily.

But you must find a science-friendly, science-compatible God. First, try the pantheon of available Creators. Inspect thoroughly. If none fits the bill, invent one.

The God of your choice must be a stickler for divine principles. Science does not take kindly to a deity who, if piqued or euphoric, sets aside seismological or cosmological principles and causes the moon to shiver, the earth to split asunder, or the universe to suddenly reverse its expansion. This God must, among other things, be stoically indifferent to supplications for changing local meteorological conditions, the task having already been assigned to the discipline of fluid dynamics. Therefore, indigenous peoples, even if they dance with great energy around totem poles, shall not cause even a drop of rain to fall on parched soil. Your rule-abiding and science-respecting God equally well dispenses with tearful Christians singing the Book of Job, pious Hindus feverishly reciting the havan yajna, or earnest Muslims performing the salat-i-istisqa as they face the Holy Ka'aba. The equations of fluid flow, not the number of earnest supplicants or quality of their prayers, determine weather outcomes. This is slightly unfortunate because one could imagine joining the faithful of all religions in a huge simultaneous global prayer that wipes away the pernicious effects of anthropogenic global climate change.

Your chosen God cannot entertain private petitions for good health and longevity, prevent an air crash, or send woe upon demand to the enemy. Mindful of microbiology and physiology, She cannot cure leprosy by dipping the afflicted in rivers or have humans remain in unscathed condition after being devoured by a huge fish. Faster-than-light travel is also out of the question, even for prophets and special messengers. Instead, She must run the world lawfully and unto the letter, closely following the Book of Nature.

A scientific Creator should certainly know an awful lot of science. To differentiate between the countless universes offered by superstring theory is a headache. Fine-tuning chemistry to generate complex proteins, and then initiating a cascade of mutations that turn microbe to man, is also no trivial matter. But bear in mind that there are definite limits to divine knowledge: God can know only the knowable. Omniscience and science do not go well with each other.

The difficulty with omniscience—even with regard to a particle as humble as the electron—has been recognized as an issue since the 1920s. Subatomic particles show a vexing, subtle elusiveness that defeats even the most sophisticated effort to measure certain of their properties. Unpredictability is intrinsic to quantum mechanics, the branch of physics which all particles are empirically seen to obey. This discovery so disturbed Albert Einstein that he rejected quantum mechanics, pronouncing that God could not "play dice with the universe." But it turned out that Einstein's objections were flawed—uncertainty is deeply fundamental. Thus, any science-abiding deity we choose may be incompletely informed on at least some aspects of nature.

Is one being excessively audacious, perhaps impertinent, in setting down terms of reference for a Divine entity? Not really. Humans have always chosen their objects of worship. Smarter humans go for smarter Gods. Anthropomorphic representations—such as a God with octopus arms—are a bit out of fashion today but were enormously popular just a few centuries ago. As well, some people might object to binding God and human to the same rules of logic, or perhaps even sharing the same space-time manifold. But if we drop this essential demand then little shall remain. Reason and evidence would lose meaning and be replaced by tradition, authority, and revelation. It would then be wrong for us to have 2 + 2 = 5, but okay for God. Centuries of human progress would come to naught.

Let's face it: the day of the Sky God is long gone. In the Age of Science, religion has been downsized, and the medieval God of classical religions has lost repute and territory. Today people pay lip service to trusting that God but they still swallow antibiotics when sick. Muslim-run airlines start a plane journey with prayers but ask passengers to buckle-up anyway, and most suspect that people who appear to rise miraculously from the dead were probably not quite dead to begin with. These days if you hear a voice telling you to sacrifice your only son, you would probably report it to the authorities instead of taking the poor lad up a mountain. The old trust is disappearing.

Nevertheless, there remains the tantalizing prospect of a divine power somewhere "out there" who runs a mysterious, but scrupulously miracle-free, universe. In this universe, God may choose to act in ingenious ways that seem miraculous. Yet these "miracles" need not violate physical laws. Extraordinary, but legitimate, interventions in the physical world permit quantum tunneling through cosmic worm holes or certain symmetries to snap spontaneously. It would be perfectly fair for a science-savvy God to use nonlinear dynamics so that tiny fluctuations quickly build up to earthshaking results—the famous "butterfly effect" of deterministic chaos theory.

Nietzsche and the theothanatologists were plain wrong—God is neither dead nor about to die. Even as the divine habitat shrinks before the aggressive encroachment of science, the quantum foam of space-time creates spare universes aplenty, offering space both for a science-friendly God as well as for self-described "deeply religious non-believers" like Einstein. Many eminent practitioners of science have successfully persuaded themselves that there is no logical contradiction between faith and belief by finding a suitable God, or by clothing a traditional God appropriately. Unsure of why they happen to exist, humans are likely to scour the heavens forever in search of meaning.

Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy is chairman of the department of physics at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad, Pakistan, and is the author of Islam and Science: Religious Orthodoxy and the Battle for Rationality.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

In death's shadow

Jul 24th 2008
From The Economist print edition

“CAN a person who is Muslim choose a religion other than Islam?” When Egypt’s grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, pondered that dilemma in an article published last year, many of his co-religionists were shocked that the question could even be asked.

And they were even more scandalised by his conclusion. The answer, he wrote, was yes, they can, in the light of three verses in the Koran: first, “Unto you your religion, and unto me my religion”; second, “Whosoever will, let him believe, and whosoever will, let him disbelieve”; and, most famously, “There is no compulsion in religion.”

The sheikh’s pronouncement was certainly not that of a wet liberal; he agrees that anyone who deserts Islam is committing a sin and will pay a price in the hereafter, and also that in some historical circumstances (presumably war between Muslims and non-Muslims) an individual’s sin may also amount to “sedition against one’s society”. But his opinion caused a sensation because it went against the political and judicial trends in many parts of the Muslim world, and also against the mood in places where Muslims feel defensive.

In the West, many prominent Muslims would agree with the mufti’s scripturally-based view that leaving Islam is a matter between the believer and God, not for the state. But awkwardly, the main traditions of scholarship and jurisprudence in Islam—both the Shia school and the four main Sunni ones—draw on Hadiths (words and deeds ascribed with varying credibility to Muhammad) to argue in support of death for apostates. And in recent years sentiment in the Muslim world has been hardening. In every big “apostasy” case, the authorities have faced pressure from sections of public opinion, and from Islamist factions, to take the toughest possible stance.

In Malaysia, people who try to desert Islam can face compulsory “re-education”. Under the far harsher regime of Afghanistan, death for apostasy is still on the statute book, despite the country’s American-backed “liberation” from the tyranny of the Taliban. The Western world realised this when Abdul Rahman, an Afghan who had lived in Germany, was sentenced to die after police found him with a Bible. After pressure from Western governments, he was allowed to go to Italy. What especially startled Westerners was the fact that Afghanistan’s parliament, a product of the democracy for which NATO soldiers are dying, tried to bar Mr Rahman’s exit, and that street protests called for his execution.

The fact that he fled to Italy is one of the factors that have made the issue of Muslim-Christian conversion a hot topic in that country. There are several others. During this year’s Easter celebrations, Magdi Allam, an Egyptian-born journalist who is now a columnist in Italy, was publicly baptised as a Catholic by Pope Benedict; the convert hailed his “liberation” from Islam, and has used his column to celebrate other cases of Muslims becoming Christian. To the delight of some Catholics and the dismay of others, he has defended the right of Christians to proselytise among Muslims, and denounced liberal churchmen who are “soft” on Islam.

Muslims in Italy and elsewhere have called Mr Allam a provocateur and chided Pope Benedict for abetting him. But given that many of Italy’s Muslims are converts (and beneficiaries of Europe’s tolerance), Mr Allam says his critics are hypocrites, denying him a liberty which they themselves have enjoyed.

If there is any issue on which Islam’s diaspora—experiencing the relative calmness of inter-faith relations in the West—might be able to give a clearer moral lead, it is surely this one. But even in the West, speaking out for the legal and civil right to “apostasise” can carry a cost. Usama Hasan, an influential young British imam, recently made the case for the right to change religions—only to find himself furiously denounced and threatened on Islamist websites, many of them produced in the West.