Sam Harris ‘troubled’ by God-fearing fellow scientist

I happened to write Saturday’s FaithBeat column about Dr. Francis Collins, President Obama’s nominee to become head of the National Institutes of Health. Collins is quite outspoken about his belief in God, particularly how his knowledge of science informs such belief.

I mentioned that Collins had a debate a few years back with Richard Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who thinks that belief in the God of the Bible is nutty — and contradicts all that we know from science.

Today, Sam Harris, another fervent atheist, has an Op-Ed in the NYTimes, in which he questions Obama’s choice of Collins. (NOTE: I originally said it was Dawkins who wrote the piece. My mistake. I mixed up my high-profile atheists).

Harris writes:

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Most scientists who study the human mind are convinced that minds are the products of brains, and brains are the products of evolution. Dr. Collins takes a different approach: he insists that at some moment in the development of our species God inserted crucial components — including an immortal soul, free will, the moral law, spiritual hunger, genuine altruism, etc.

As someone who believes that our understanding of human nature can be derived from neuroscience, psychology, cognitive science and behavioral economics, among others, I am troubled by Dr. Collins’s line of thinking. I also believe it would seriously undercut fields like neuroscience and our growing understanding of the human mind. If we must look to religion to explain our moral sense, what should we make of the deficits of moral reasoning associated with conditions like frontal lobe syndrome and psychopathy? Are these disorders best addressed by theology?

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In sum: Harris seems to feel that Collins’ crazy beliefs in supernatural powers must limit his ability to see the world in scientific terms and will affect his judgment as a scientist.

Church of England suspends chalice use due to swine flu

Because of concerns about swine flu, the Church of England is suspending the sharing of the chalice at Communion.

The archbishops of Canterbury and York, in a letter to their fellow bishops yesterday, recommended the suspension.

“We wish to express our gratitude to you and those who share your ministry for the pastoral care and service offered at this time of national concern,” they wrote.

New Yorkers took similar precautions this past spring. The Archdiocese of NY advised people who were ill not to receive the chalice and said that the sign of peace could be offered without shaking hands.

How about reordering church life, while you’re at it?

Here’s a big job: Reordering the life of the United Methodist Church.

This is the task facing an 18-member steering committee that got going this month in Chicago. They plan to make “a fresh assessment of the church’s life.”

We’re talking about an 8-million-member denomination, the second largest Protestant group after the Southern Baptist Convention. Fortunately, according to a release, “a consulting firm experienced in organizational change management is assisting the committee in its work.”

That should help.

Bishop Larry Goodpaster, project director and president-elect of the UMC’s Council of Bishops, explains: “We have a vision of a church that is vital, growing, diverse, relevant, appealing to youth and young adults, and engaged in effective, life-changing ministry–but we’re limited by an outdated organizational structure.”

If they can come up with a new organizational structure that will help the denomination accomplish all those goals, they’ll have to trademark it fast.

Everywhere you look: pictures of rabbis in handcuffs

All the media coverage of the New Jersey corruption sweep — featuring black-hatted, bearded rabbis — is bound to be making a lot of people uncomfortable today.

It’s a pretty ugly affair, for the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn and New Jersey and the fabled institution of crooked Jersey pols (all that’s missing is Tony Soprano in cuffs).

Five rabbis — including the national Syrian-Jewish community’s top rebbe — are accused of laundering money, in part through Jewish charities. Yuck.

I’m sure that many are on the lookout today for anti-Semitic reactions and stereotypes — and there are plenty of nasty comments on several websites I’ve perused.

Media coverage will also be dissected for Jewish cliches.

Right off the bat, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a respected commentator on many religious and cultural issues, released a statement taking the New Jersey Star-Ledger’s website to task for bordering on “Jew-baiting.” He thought that yesterday’s initial coverage of the arrests was eager to play up the involvement of Jews and rabbis, but offered few specifics about who is accused of doing what.

Hirschfield writes:

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When a headline reads, “NJ officials, NY rabbis caught in federal money laundering, corruption sweep”, one expects a story which describes that event. In this case however, no mention is made of any rabbis actually getting arrested. Despite plenty of details about various politicos being taken into custody, there is nothing about rabbis.
This may be a big deal, but the headline and the story don’t match – where is the info on the rabbis? This kind of coverage actually borders on Jew-baiting, and it potentially says something at least as ugly about the author/editors as it does about those who committed any crime. Consider the following quote found on the paper’s website and carried on CNN:
The arrests…”began with an investigation of money transfers by members of the Syrian enclaves in New York and New Jersey,” the newspaper said on its Web site, NJ.com. Those arrested Thursday “include key religious leaders in the tight-knit, wealthy communities,” the report said.
“Enclaves”? “Tight-knit, wealthy communities”? Could it be that the paper harbors deep resentment against Jews who they see as over-privileged, stand-offish people who operate as a law unto themselves? Is this the moment to celebrate how “those people” will now get their comeuppance? If not, why describe the community in classically anti-Semitic ways instead of calling out the specific leaders who broke the law, violated the religious rules of their own community and should be punished to the full extent of the law for any wrongdoing they committed?

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Hirschfield doesn’t seem to take into account that the early news reports were based on what was likely the only information available. The Star-Ledger’s Web reports — and everyone else’s — have been regularly updated as more info was released.

This morning, there seems to be plenty of specifics about who is accused of doing what.

As far as the Syrian Jewish community goes, from what I’ve read, it may well qualify as an “enclave.” It is certainly a “tight-knit” community. Is it a “wealthy” community? I don’t know, but it may be.

I don’t see those three terms as necessarily pointing to a “deep resentment” against Syrian Jews by the editors and reporters of the Star-Ledger. How were they supposed to be describe the Syrian Jewish community?

Hirschfield concluded his statement with this:

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This story needs to be told, but it needs to be told better than this. It needs to be about justice, not just desserts. By the way, when all this calms down, the Syrian-Jewish community should also take a good look at itself to see what they do which contributes to their being perceived of this way by their neighbors.
While victims of bias should never be blamed for the bias against them, in most cases for a stereotype to take hold it must be rooted in some partial truth. Ironically, coverage like that in the Star Ledger will make that ever less likely to happen, confirming the kind of hostility which is used by any community looking for a reason to turn inward.

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The corruption sweep is a huge story. If the allegations turn out to be true — certainly not a given — it would be a deep, long-term black eye for the Syrian-Jewish community. I wonder how many members of the community are worried about media coverage today.

College football’s biggest star already a professional at preaching

The most passionate evangelist in the land just might be the quarterback of college football’s national champions.

That’s what I was left thinking after reading Sports Illustrated’s cover story about Tim Tebow, the Heisman Trophy winner who is heading into his highly anticipated senior senior for the Florida Gators.

The article deals almost entirely with Tebow’s aggressive, unambiguous Christian faith, which he takes into prisons in an effort to save souls.

“It’s one of my favorite things to do,” Tebow says. “You’re talking to guys who have no hope, no support, who have been totally written off by the world.”

Keep in mind that this guy is 21 years old.

He is the son of Bob Tebow, who has been doing missionary work in the Philippines since 1985. Pastor Bob tells SI that he was preaching about abortion back in 1986, when he prayed, “God, if you give me a son, if you give me Timmy, I’ll raise him to be a preacher.”

His wife’s pregnancy was very difficult and he says that doctors advised an abortion, which they refused.

Tim was born, a “miracle baby,” Bob says.

And: “I asked God for a preacher, and he gave me a quarterback.”

Well, Bob got both.

Tim is so devout that in the hours before his team won the National Championship last January, he called about 15 teammates to his room to read the Bible with him. No one knew where they all were.

The QB says he told his teammates: “We’re going to win because we’re going to handle it the right way, we’re going to be humble with it, with God leading us.”

The SI story even adds some real religious stuff about Bob Tebow’s beliefs and ministry:

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Under the heading What We Believe, the BTEA’s website details the conservative brand of Christianity it is spreading. The ministry espouses a literal interpretation of the Bible (“This is to say the written Word of God is totally without error of any kind”), supports the teaching of Creationism (“We believe God created the heavens and the earth … out of nothing in six 24-hour days”) and is convinced of the inevitability of the Rapture followed by a seven-year tribulation period. “During this time the antichrist will appear,” says the BTEA. Some will be saved, but “many will be martyred.”

Asked if there is any wiggle room for people nagged by doubts about, say, the creation of the world in six days or the imminence of the Rapture, Bob strikes a warm, inclusive note. “You don’t have to believe everything I believe to be saved,” he says. “You just need to believe in the Lord Jesus and trust him to give you the free gift of eternal life, and you can figure out Genesis and all that other stuff later.”

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The article by Austin Murphy describes how at a Florida prison, Tebow is greeted like a hero.

“If you were to die right now, where would you be?” the football star asks the inmates. “For me, I have an answer to that question. I am one hundred percent certain I’m going to go to heaven because I have Jesus Christ in my life.”

Being that Tim Tebow may this season become the biggest college football star ever — a guy who lowers his shoulder and runs over linebackers — we may be hearing much more about his faith in the months to come.

(AP Photo/ Butch Dill)

Teaching the art of pastoral care

Many people need clergy most during times of suffering.

That’s why the Jewish Theological Seminary in NYC has opened the Center for Pastoral Education — to “teach the art of pastoral care.”

The center will train clergy and seminarians affiliated with several Jewish and Christian institutions, including Auburn Theological Seminary, Union Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Rabbinical Assembly, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, and UJA-Federation of New York.

A four-year, $500,000 grant from the Charles H. Revson Foundation was key to starting the center, which opened its doors July 1. The center is a satellite of the New York-Presbyterian Hospital Clinical Pastoral Education Program.

Rabbi Mychal B. Springer, the center’s director (that’s her), explains: “The center will bring clergy and clergy-in-formation into regular contact with people who are asking tough questions about their lives’ meaning. Students will receive in-depth supervision to help them to care for people, drawing on Judaism and other faith traditions as powerful resources for cultivating hope in moments of crisis.”

Springer has served as director of Pastoral Care and Education at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York and associate director of the Jewish Institute for Pastoral Care at the HealthCare Chaplaincy in Manhattan.

JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen says: “Rabbis and laypeople around the country have identified expert pastoral care as an essential need in their communities. This is true in non-Jewish communities as well. The center will have a transformative effect on the Jewish community and well beyond.”

I’ll aim to write more about the center down the line, after I can pay a visit…

Science and religion — in one man!

Are you familiar with Francis Collins, God-fearing geneticist?

He is the former head of the Human Genome Project who was recently nominated by President Obama to serve as director of the National Institutes of Health.

He is also well-known in the science community as a committed Christian who sees God’s work in the human genetic map. He’s started the BioLogos Foundation to promote “a perspective of the origins of life that is both theologically and scientifically sound.”

A couple of years ago, I read that the head of the Human Genome Project had written a book about his faith, “The Language of God.” So I read it. Collins is no Updike, but the book was pretty engaging at points.

I’ll write about Collins and his beliefs for Saturday’s FaithBeat column.

100 days for Dolan? Cut the cake!

If I’m counting correctly, tomorrow is Archbishop Dolan’s 100th day as the Big Cheese.

But it seems as if he’s been here longer, doesn’t it?

For the first 50 days or so, Dolan was EVERYWHERE. I heard him speak so many times that I could almost anticipate his next joke about food (but I still laughed every time).

So, can we draw any conclusions after the Magic Mark of 100 days? Not much that we couldn’t draw after the first 48 hours or so.

Tim Dolan is what he is. First and foremost, it seems to me, he is an evangelist. He is a walking, talking, joking, blushing, unapologetic defender of the faith.

He wants to bring all those lapsed Catholics out there back into the fold. In his latest column for Catholic New York, he writes:

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Yep, it hardly takes courage to brag that you “used to be a Catholic, but have now ‘grown up’ and are enlightened.” Big deal. Join the crowd. The audience will applaud. The critics will rave about your book. The talk shows will invite you on as a star. You can snicker about the Church and get laughs and cheers.

I wonder, though, if the really enlightened, mature, liberated, brave, prophetic folks are those who are humbly, joyfully and gratefully confident in their Catholic faith, who are well aware of the Church’s struggles and imperfections, but still eager to live it sincerely, and pass it on to their kids and those they love.

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Dolan has said that he would spend his first year or so traveling around the archdiocese and talking to people, listening, getting a feel for things. It’s a common approach for new leaders from out of town, and it makes sense.

New York isn’t the Midwest, after all.

In the meantime, he’s gotten a ton of press and media, virtually all positive. A lot of New Yorkers, Catholic and otherwise, already have a better feel for him than they ever did for Cardinal Egan (even though Dolan has largely stayed clear of contentious public policy debates like gay marriage).

Priests I’ve spoken to love the guy. So do others who work for the archdiocese.

After one recent Dolan appearance, an insider wrote to me: “As usual, he hit a home run. What a batting average…”

The guy is also tireless. It seems that everyone I talk to has gotten a call from the Archbishop of New York or at least knows someone who has.

Does these mean that Dolan has already joined the pantheon of the Giant Archbishops of New York — alongside Hughes, Spellman, O’Connor, etc.?

Not yet. We don’t have any real idea how he intends to make his mark. Sure, he will continue to evangelize, but what will he do about the priest shortage? About the increasingly tense immigration debate? About the financial challenges still facing Catholic schools? About all the bioethical debates already underway and yet to come? About the growing threat of secularism?

Time will tell. And we’re talking about more than 100 days.

Talk about a mixed marriage

There is fascinating piece in the current Christian Century written by a minister whose wife does not attend church and is, at most, a skeptic when it comes to faith.

Martin Copenhaver, pastor of a United Church of Christ congregation in Massachusetts, writes with honesty and tenderness about his marriage to Karen, a lawyer and lapsed Catholic. He takes you through several stages of their relationship and explains how the couple have faced their very different beliefs about God and Christ and the rest.

More than anything, it feels very real. Copenhaver’s love for his wife comes through, as does his faith and his commitment to a minister’s life.

He writes beautifully about what they are able to share, how they respect one another despite their differences, and about the strains that he and his wife have faced along the way.

He includes many telling anecdotes, including one about bringing Karen to an interview at a church where he was hoping to serve:

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About a year after that first New Year’s Day, I had an interview for a position at a church in Burlington, Vermont. Karen accompanied me as we met the members of the search committee. As the interview was winding down, the president of the congregation turned to Karen and said, “Karen, we probably should ask you one question: What do you see as the role of the minister’s wife?” Uh-oh. Not only did this question tread on a delicate matter in our still-young marriage, we were also aware that the wife of the previous senior minister had been extremely active in the life of the congregation, and we thought that there was a good chance that they would expect the same of Karen.

So for the first time in the interview, I was more than a little bit nervous. Karen seemed perfectly calm. I have since learned that when Karen is particularly nervous, she comes across as even more poised than usual. With a smile, she said, “Well, thank you for asking.” And then she went on to describe some of the demands of the ministry, which she had seen first hand, and how important it is to have a supportive presence at home. Then she concluded, “So I would say that the role of the minister’s wife is to be a good wife to the minister.” As she was talking, I was trying unsuccessfully to read the still countenances of the Vermonters around the table. When she finished, the president said, “Well that’s good, because we don’t have any special expectations, either.” Whew. The next day they called and asked if I would become their new minister.

New Square Hasidim have own 911

We all know that Hasidic Jews are insular.

But vigilante firefighters?

Volunteer firefighters from New Square, equipped with their own firetruck and a 200-gallon water tank, are going it alone.

As my colleague Jenna Carlesso reports, real firefighters from Hillcrest responded to a blaze the other day in New Square — at the Grand Rabbi’s home, no less — and found unsanctioned Hasidim already fighting the fire.

Hillcrest Fire Chief Kim Weppler said: “This could have been a deadly situation. One of their members or someone from the community could’ve gotten hurt, and it delayed us getting in there.”

What the volunteers are doing is “absolutely illegal,” Weppler said.

And get this. Gordon Wren, Rockland’s fire coordinator, said that New Square has set up its own emergency response system. Instead of calling 911, they call their own number.

Wren said: “Today is one of the first times they’ve had something potentially serious, but we don’t know for sure because they don’t tell us.”

(Photos courtesy Hillcrest fire Chief Kim Weppler)