A case against God

Okay, so I wrote my FaithBeat column Saturday about Dr. Francis Collins, the decorated scientist who is President Obama’s choice to head the National Institutes of Health and is an outspoken believer in God as designer of the universe.

I noted on Monday an op-ed in the NYTimes by non-believer Sam Harris that questioned Collins’ fitness for the role based on his religious beliefs.

Just so happens, I got a private email from a scientist on the faculty of an Ivy League university who thinks that Collins’ case for God is a poor one and that there is no room for a personal God in the universe, based on what we know through science.

I asked this writer if LoHud could use his email as a letter to the editor, but he declined. Put it this way: He fears that believers may not respond graciously.

So I asked if I could post his thoughts right here without identifying him. He said sure.

So, in the interest of providing an alternative view (to Collins’ beliefs, as expressed in my column), here’s what the scientist wrote:

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I understand the basis for perspectives on religion offered in your column: your own beliefs. However, there are two aspects of Francis Collins’s beliefs (“Geneticist strikes balance and embraces science,” July 25, 2009) worth noting. The first, as you mention, is that Collins is an anomaly. Most scientists are atheists – for reasons that are a lot more interesting than the fact of their majority status – and an even greater proportion of the best scientists (e.g., Nobel laureates). The second is that there is a huge difference between acknowledging the possibility of phenomena beyond our present comprehension (e.g., Richard Dawkins’s stance) and accepting the God of contemporary religion. By the latter, I mean the God that not only willed the Universe into existence in the manner suggested by Collins, but the one who cares about you and me as individuals, and about our every action and challenge. That latter God is surely a human invention. Why do I think so?

In the greater scheme of things, the God of modern religion makes no sense. Please consider our context. We inhabit one small rocky planet in a galaxy composed of 100 billion stars, and in a Universe of 100 billion galaxies. Our molecular biology links us with confidence to all other life on Earth, going back at least 3.9 billion years. We’re not unique, therefore, just temporarily successful. Our very existence as a species for only 150,000 years or so depends on a huge array of contingent events over 13.7 billion years to the beginning of the Universe. Had any detail been different, there would be no you or me. (One example: The most recent mass extinction, the one that killed the dinosaurs and permitted the radiation of mammals, depended on an asteroid intersecting the Earth’s orbit within a single seven minute span. Had the asteroid been a few minutes late or early, the Earth as we know it today would be utterly different.) Conclusion: We are entirely the product of chance, not design. We’re alone, as individuals and as a species. And like all species that have gone before, our ultimate fate is extinction. The good news is that we have a life, and we can choose to do something useful with it.

That some scientists (e.g., Collins) can be aware of the above and still struggle to incorporate some concept of God into their lives is a measure not of the correctness of the God of religion, but of our innate human need for religion and of the efficiency with which religion is transmitted from one generation to another in early childhood. Scientists are after all human. So it comes as no surprise that some find it hard to escape a normal human impulse.

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He added in a final note to me:

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All of the facts are readily verifiable, though there is a plus or minus on all of the numbers …. with no bearing whatsoever on the conclusions that flow from them: 1) It is absurd (OK, not plausible) to imagine that the Universe was in some sense created for us. We are simply irrelevant at that scale, and at best, temporary residents of the Earth. 2) The beauty of nature – and it’s fabulous – relates not to design, but to the incredible array of evolutionary, chemical and physical steps needed to arrive at the present, and to the complex interactions and feedbacks that are inherent in all natural systems. I am glad that Francis Collins enjoys waterfalls. So do I.

Inside stuff from Obama/Jewish meeting

The Jewish Week talked to several Jewish leaders who took part in last week’s meeting with Obama.

It sounds like nobody knew quite what to say to him about his statements concerning Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories.

One unnamed participant said: “I think many will still have concerns, but they’re not going to go to war because the president still has most of the Jewish electorate behind him. So far, he appears very adroit in handling the concerns of our community, and I think that’s a real dilemma for those who are most strongly opposed to what he is doing in the Middle East.”

Jason Isaacson, Washington director for the American Jewish Committee, told the JW: “He’s very confident. He brackets almost everything he says with concerns about Israel’s security. He talks about Israel having the tools to defend itself. And he seems to know where the limits are.”

“He knows how to push while he’s hugging,” Jeremy Ben-Ami, executive director of J Street, the new pro-peace effort lobbying group, said of the president.

Obama meets with Jewish leaders, talks Mid East and health care

President Obama met yesterday with Jewish leaders at the White House.

According to the White House:

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The President met with more than a dozen leaders from the Jewish community today for approximately 45 minutes. They had a substantive discussion, ranging from Middle East peace efforts and Iran, to reforming our health care system and policies to address global hunger. The President reiterated his unshakeable commitment to Israel’s security, and reiterated his commitment to working to achieve Middle East peace.

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Participants at the meeting were:

Alan Solow, Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Lee Rosenberg, President-elect, AIPAC

David Victor, President, AIPAC

Malcolm Honlein, Executive Vice Chairman, Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Abraham Foxman, National Director, Anti-Defamation League

Jason Isaacson, Director of Government and International Affairs, American Jewish Committee

Nancy Ratzan, President, National Council of Jewish Women

Kathy Manning, Chair, Executive Committee, United Jewish Communities

Andrea Weinstein, Chair, Jewish Council for Public Affairs

Marla Gilson, Washington Director, Hadassah

Stephen Savitsky, President, Orthodox Union

Rabbi Steven Wernick, Executive Vice President and CEO, United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President, Union for Reform Judaism

Ira Forman, Chief Executive Officer, National Jewish Democratic Council

Debra DeLee, President and CEO, Americans for Peace Now

Jeremy Ben Ami, Executive Director, J STREET


‘Much more than your typical state visit’

President Obama and Pope Benedict XVI meet this morning. What will it look like?

Early this morning, Inside the Vatican‘s Robert Moynihan shared this image:

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In about three hours, US President Barack Obama will arrive in the Vatican to meet Pope Benedict XVI.

The leader of the world’s greatest temporal power will carry a gift for the leader of the world’s greatest spiritual power.

He will drive in his limousine into Vatican City, and into the Cortile San Damaso (photo, left, taken in 1930), the little square at the very heart of the Vatican.

He will get out of his car (parked more or less where the single car in this photo is parked), go into the door at the far end of the square, and, accompanied by American Archbishop James Harvey, the head of the papal household, take the elevator up to the fourth floor.

He will walk down a marble corridor to the Pope’s private library, overlooking St. Peter’s Square (the third window from the right on the top floor in this photo).

The Pope will greet him, and Obama will greet the Pope, and hand him a gift.

What gift will that be?

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What are Obama and the pope discussing in one, relatively brief meeting?

According to the AP, they were likely to cover world poverty, the Middle East and “other topics.”

But the visit was expected to be “largely personal and spiritual.”

“There are issues on which they’ll agree, issues on which they’ll disagree and issues on which they’ll agree to continue to work on going forward,” deputy national security adviser Denis McDonough told reporters.

“Given the influence of the Catholic Church globally,” he said, and “the influence of the Catholic Church and church social teaching on the president himself, he recognizes that this is much more than your typical state visit.”

Here’s a shot of the pope meeting with “first ladies” associated with the G8 economic summit (AP Photo/L’Osservatore Romano):

A Nation of Prayer (and politics)

Today is the 58th annual National Day of Prayer, which, like so many things, has become quite politicized in recent years.

The National Day of Prayer became federal law in 1952, after heavy lobbying by Billy Graham and others. President Truman signed the bill.

The idea, at first, was pretty general: to inspire Americans to spend one day — the same day — in prayer and reflection, whether at church or at home.

In recent years, the day has become closely associated with the National Day of Prayer Task Force, a conservative evangelical group run by Shirley Dobson, the wife of Focus on the Family founder Jim Dobson. Many liberal and moderate Christians, among others, have complained that the day was hijacked by those with a very specific point of view.

President Bush invited religious leaders to the White House every year for a special prayer service.

President Obama chose not to, a move that is seen by some as anti-Day of Prayer. Obama did sign a proclamation this morning declaring a National Day of Prayer, but did not make a big deal of it.

Shortly after noon today, many Americans will gather in small groups outside their city and town halls to pray together.

So there you go.

Rick Warren, with plenty to say

“Purpose Driven” pastor Rick Warren has been quiet lately.

He’s declined interviews since President Obama chose him to give the benediction at the inauguration.

But he talked yesterday with Christianity Today’s Sarah Pulliam and covered a lot of ground: California’s Prop. 8; political involvement; Obama’s views; his new magazine; interfaith relations; and — get this — his recent baptism of 800 people in one day.

About the mega-baptism, he said: “I was in the water for over five hours. I had webbed feet. It had to be a record. You know, it says in Acts that at the day of Pentecost, 3,000 were baptized and added to the church that day. We had 2,400 added to the church that day. The world belongs to Saddleback. When we started Saddleback, it was a white suburban church. We speak 65 different languages. It’s the United Nations. I baptized an Egyptian General; I baptized probably 50 or 60 nationalities.”

Imagine, 2,400 people added to the church in one day. Around here, a lot of mainline churches would throw a party if they could add 24 new members in one year.

About the president, he said: “Barack Obama knows we disagree on a number of issues. I talked to him about it before he decided to run for President, and I told him that I think his views on abortion are wrong. You can like somebody without agreeing with all of their policies. Most people know that I was a friend of President Bush. I didn’t agree with everything President Bush did.”

About those who opposed his role in the inaugeration because he opposes same-sex marriage, Warren said: “The truth is, Proposition 8 was a two-year campaign in the state, and during those two years, I never said a word about it until the eight days before the election, and then I did make a video for my own people when they asked, “How should we vote on this?” It was a pastor talking to his own people. I’ve never said anything about it since. I don’t know how you take one video newsletter to your own church and turn that into, all of a sudden I’m the poster boy for anti-gay marriage.”

Photo: Associated Press

Dolan: Notre Dame loses with Obama

So, Archbishop Dolan is making news before he gets to the Big City.

He told a Milwaukee TV station in a farewell interview that Notre Dame made a “big mistake” by inviting President Obama to give its commencement address: “They did, and I say that as one who loves and respects Notre Dame. They made a big mistake.”

You can watch the video here.

Dolan also said:

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There’s a lot of things that President Obama does that we can find ourselves allied with and working with him on, and we have profound respect for him and pray with him and for him. But in an issue that is very close to the heart of Catholic world view, namely, the protection of innocent life in the womb, he has unfortunately taken a position very much at odds with the Church.

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A taste of what’s to come from the Archbishop of New York?

Only two weeks from tomorrow, many eyes will be on St. Patrick’s Cathedral for the welcoming prayer service for the new boss. The next day, the Mass of Installation.

The Archdiocese is holding a press briefing tomorrow morning on what’s to come.

Also, EWTN — the Catholic TV network — will air everything: Solemn Vespers at 6:30 p.m. on April 14 and the Mass at 1:30 p.m. on April 15. I think that every TV system around carries EWTN, so this is big news for those who can’t make to the cathedral but want to see it all.

Fighting Irish: War of words over Obama’s invite to Notre Dame

Notre Dame’s invitation to President Obama to speak at its upcoming commencement has unleashed a torrent of reactions.

This will only heat up as the May 17 graduation comes closer.

The Catholic bishop whose diocese includes Notre Dame, Bishop John M. D’Arcy, says he will not attend. He writes, in part:

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President Obama has recently reaffirmed, and has now placed in public policy, his long-stated unwillingness to hold human life as sacred. While claiming to separate politics from science, he has in fact separated science from ethics and has brought the American government, for the first time in history, into supporting direct destruction of innocent human life.

This will be the 25th Notre Dame graduation during my time as bishop. After much prayer, I have decided not to attend the graduation. I wish no disrespect to our president, I pray for him and wish him well. I have always revered the Office of the Presidency. But a bishop must teach the Catholic faith “in season and out of season,” and he teaches not only by his words — but by his actions.

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Others, including David Gibson and Father Tom Reese, have raised what has to be a very important point: Cardinal Egan hosted Obama at the Al Smith Dinner and was quite willing to be photographed chatting and laughing with the then-presidential candidate, who had the same views on abortion that he does today.

What gives?

Reese writes:

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How do I know that Notre Dame is not violating Catholics in Political Life? Because Notre Dame is doing nothing more than what has already been done by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who taught canon law and worked as a judge in the Tribunal of the Sacred Roman Rota, a church court based in the Vatican.

If Cardinal Egan can invite Obama to speak at the Al Smith dinner in October of 2008 when he was only a presidential candidate, then there is certainly nothing wrong with Notre Dame having the President speak at a commencement. Other pro-choice speakers at Al Smith dinners included Al Gore and Tony Blair (a Catholic). What is OK for a cardinal archbishop is certainly OK for a university. Or are bishops exempt from “Catholics in Political Life”?

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The gloves have also come off on the question of who gets to decide which public figures can be invited to Catholic colleges.

The Cardinal Newman Society, which insists on orthodoxy at Catholic colleges and regularly slams certain colleges’ choice of speakers, has an online petition going to oppose Obama’s appearance at ND.

Their letter to ND’s president includes this:

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This nation has many thousands of accomplished leaders in the Catholic Church, in business, in law, in education, in politics, in medicine, in social services, and in many other fields who would be far more appropriate choices to receive such an honor from the University of Notre Dame.

Instead Notre Dame has chosen prestige over principles, popularity over morality. Whatever may be President Obama’s admirable qualities, this honor comes on the heels of some of the most anti-life actions of any American president, including expanding federal funding for abortions and inviting taxpayer-funded research on stem cells from human embryos.

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Joe Feuerherd, publisher of the left-leaning National Catholic Reporter, chastises Patrick Reilly, head of the Cardinal Newman Society, as an “academic ayatollah.” He writes:

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Here’s what is really going on. Ayatollah Reilly searches for hot button issues on Catholic campuses — anything that has to do with gays gets them excited, as do performances of “The Vagina Monologues” and, of course, pro-choice speakers (few of whom actually even discuss abortion in their presentations) – that will energize their base of donors and activists. Then they highlight these offenses on the Web and through direct mail to generate revenue.

The new guy…in Yonkers

Observations from evening prayers at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers:

1. Archbishop Timothy Dolan and Cardinal Egan, upon pulling up in front of the seminary, were greeted by Bishop Gerald Walsh — the rector (center) — and Yonkers Mayor Phil Amicone.

Also on hand was the Rev. Luke Sweeney (left), an Irvington native and vocations director for the Archdiocese of New York. Sweeney was a seminarian at the North American College in Rome when Dolan was rector there.

3. When Dolan entered the main lobby and received a long ovation from seminarians, faculty and guests, he looked like he had just walked into a surprise party — grinning ear to ear. I mean, this was after a full day of meetings and congratulatory phone calls.

4. Speaking of which, Dolan said that he got a phone call from President Obama just before leaving NYC for Yonkers. “I said ‘Thank you, Mr. President. I need those prayers.’ He said, ‘I need your prayers, too.’ ” He also got calls from Mike Bloomberg, Gov. Paterson and others.

5. This was Dolan’s first visit to Dunwoodie. During the vespers service, he talked about the seminary’s worldwide reputation.

6. Dolan said he’s never spent more than a couple of days in New York.

7. During vespers, Egan expanded on his role in Dolan’s rise. Egan explained that when he was chairman of the North American College, he sought out the best possible rector. He heard about Dolan and went to St. Louis to recruit him.

8. In the lobby, Egan and Dolan talked about the pressing need for more seminarians. Egan suggested that each current seminarian recruit four more. Dolan responded: “If you get more than four, I’ll ordain you early.” More applause…

9. Dolan said he will be spending most of the next month in Milwaukee, where he is still in charge. Ash Wednesday is, after all, Wednesday, and there is much for an archbishop to do.

10. The choir loft at the seminary was filled with more than two dozen reporters and cameramen. Several reporters were doing live reports for their 5 p.m. broadcasts while the service was going on. Not too much interruption, though.

11. Addressing the seminarians, Dolan said that after a long, packed day of excitement, the one thing that stood out from the rest was…Mass. “That is the most important thing that I ever do,” he said.

12. Tomorrow, Dolan may take part in a Milwaukee tradition for “Fat Tuesday:” eating jelly rolls made of fat and grease. He hopes his doctor won’t object.

13. Although it’s been announced that he will be installed on April 15, Dolan will actually take “canonical possession” of the archdiocese at a special service at St. Patrick’s on April 14. On the 15th, he will be installed and celebrate Mass.

14. One more: Dolan was off to the cafeteria for dinner with the seminarians. Penne vodka and chicken marsala.

And there you go.