ISSUE: February 2002
Edited by Sharon Fratepietro and Sharon Strong
February Speaker to Probe Assumptions and Truth
College of Charleston Mathematics Professor Alex Kasman will serve up "A Skeptical Smorgasbord of Science, Math, and Religion" at the February 17 meeting of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. The meeting will begin at 4 p.m. at Gage Hall next door to the Unitarian Church at 4 Archdale St. in downtown Charleston. Afterward, we will gather at Vickery's Restaurant for our usual and optional post-meeting supper.
Alex provided a preview of his talk for The Separationist:
"If you pose the same arithmetic problem to two mathematicians and get two different answers, then one of them has to be wrong, right? Not really, and when we talk about why this is so we may end up with a better understanding of the different viewpoints that people can have on every topic, even religion and science.
"At the next SHL meeting, we will talk about truth in math, physics and religion, including some very surprising examples. However, our goal will not be to determine what is true, but rather to get a better understanding of what we mean by 'true' in the first place. As always, math provides a good model for our study since it can take you very quickly from trivial to deep, from easy to nearly impossible. So, without assuming that you know any math, I will remind you of some very simple math (starting with 'one plus one equals two') and teach you about some of the most shocking mathematical results that you have never heard. We will also learn about and consider some famous results in physics, such as the 'Big Bang' and 'quantum particles,' again seeking not to learn whether it is true but to understand what scientists mean when they say it is. At the end, you'll leave knowing some interesting facts that you never knew before, and also wondering whether one plus one might not be two after al
Alex Kasman grew up in New York City demonstrating no special attraction to mathematics, and finding occasional work as a magician and computer programmer. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, he learned that math was much more interesting than his school teachers had made it out to be, and so in 1989 he graduated with a degree in mathematics and in 1995 received a Ph.D. in mathematics from Boston University. Before moving to Charleston, Alex held research positions at the University of Georgia in Athens, the Centre de Recherches Mathematiques in Montreal and the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley, CA. Alex's research is concerned with topics on the boundaries of mathematics (especially algebraic-geometry) and physics (especially quantum mechanics) and has been published in many leading math and physics journals.
At the College of Charleston he met Herb Silverman, who, over Alex's objections, insisted that Alex was actually a Secular Humanist. Apparently, Herb won that argument because Alex is now the Webmaster for the SHL (see http://www.atheistalliance.org/lowcountry/index.html). As an assistant professor in the math department at the college, Alex continues his research and enjoys teaching students how interesting and useful mathematics can really be.
In the past couple of years, a growing movement across the country and the world has begun to celebrate Charles Darwin's birthday on February 12. Its purpose is to honor Darwin's tremendous finding of evolution by natural selection, and to educate others about this core scientific theory. Freethought groups, communities, schools, libraries, bookstores and museums sponsor events of serious and lighthearted nature. You can read about many of this year's events at the Web site www.darwinday.org/events.
Locally, under the direction of College of Charleston Biology Professor Rob Dillon, four stimulating talks open to the public will take place at the College of Charleston. Each will begin at 4:30 p.m. in Room 123 of the College of Charleston Science Center, located on the corner of Coming and George Streets. Here is the schedule:
Monday, Feb. 11 - Evolution and Creation: Conflicting or Compatible?" By Dr. Patricia Kelley, Chair of the Dept. of Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina, Wilmington, and President of the Paleontological Society.
Tuesday, Feb. 12 - Evolution and Extinction on the Great Red Island of Madagascar." By Dr. William L. Jungers, from the Department of Anatomy at the SUNY Stony Brook School of Medicine.
Wednesday, Feb. 13 - The New Cosmology: The Past and Future of the Universe as a Home for Life." By Dr. Robert J. Dukes, Associate Dean of Sciences and Mathematics, and Professor of Physics and Astronomy at the College of Charleston.
Thursday, Feb. 14 - Christianity and Science In Search of Common Ground." By Dr. Daniel W. Massie, Senior Minister of First Scots Presbyterian Church in Charleston.
Each talk will be followed by refreshments and socializing. For more details about the programs, check http://www.cofc.edu/~dillonr/DarwinWeek.htm on the Web.
Why God Won't Go Away
By Andrew Newberg, M.D., Eugene D'Aquili, M.D., and Vince Rause
Published in 2001 by The Ballentine Publishing Group
Review by Carole Antine Cohen, SHL Member
The compulsion to believe in a transcendent reality that originates outside our senses is a powerful force in our species. Even among people educated in and practising the scientific method, there are those who still seek "Absolute Unitary Being." That is the term invented by the authors of Why God Won't Go Away for the state in which a person leaves behind the self and experiences a oneness with God. The book is subtitled "Brain Science and the Biology of Belief," and its authors, Andrew Newberg, a radiologist, and the late Eugene D'Aquili, a psychiatrist, have researched mystical experiences and written several other books on the subject.
The research on which this book is based involved doing brain scans on two groupbseight people who practised Tibetan meditation and several Franciscan nuns. The scan was done by a SPECT (single photo emission computed tomography) camera that traces blood-flow patterns in the brain. At the high point of meditation, the SPECT scans for both groups showed decreased activity in a part of the brain that enables us to navigate in the physical world by differentiating between ourselves and our environment. The reduced activity during meditation or prayers, plus the subjects' own descriptions of their experiences, lead the authors to suggest that there is a biological basis for belief. Moreover, by titling this chapter "A Photograph of God?," they are implanting in the reader's mind the notion that this could be proof of the existence of God.
The authors use a number of dubious strategies to enlarge on their basic thesis that the human brain has the mechanics for transcendence. Typically, they will make a skeptical statement about Absolute Unitary Being and then add a firm but or however, which suggests there is indeed substance to the mystical claims. They also try to prove that transcendental experiences are real by asserting that everything that we know is through "secondhand neurological perceptions." Hence, if we mistrust Absolute Unitary Being, we must also mistrust our material perceptions. Other alleged proofs are that mystic experiences in different religions all tend to be described in the same ways and that the claims of mystics have been supported by a number of great scientists, including Einstein.
The authors try to show the importance of religion by claiming that people who have mystic experiences have better psychological health. They also suggest that belief may have saved the human race from extinction. In perilous times like the Ice Age, humans would have been overcome by "existential gloom" and the fear of death without the comfort of religion.
The core hypothesis of the book that belief is biologically based is highly speculative. Research on the functioning of the brain is in its early stages and may yet yield a better understanding of the "mystic" experience. However, in their eagerness to prove a shaky hypothesis, the authors resort to wishful thinking. In the concluding chapter, they play their trump card. Since all the evils in our society, they say, derive from our feelings of separateness, if only we realized that we are all part of the One, we could live in harmony with each other. The experience of Absolute Unitary Being, practised on a broad scale, would presumably heal the breaches that separate people and bring peace and order to the world.
The most salient characteristic of this book is its feeble attempt to hijack science into the service of mysticism. Actually, this is a very encouraging sign. It tells us that religious believers cannot easily dismiss the scientific developments of the last fifty years. Mysticism in all its forms is being marginalized.
New Features and a New Look for the SHL Web Site
Have you clicked on www.atheistalliance.org/lowcountry lately? This, of course, is our own Secular Humanist of the Lowcountry Web site, created and periodically tweaked by SHL member Alex Kasman. Recently Alex created some interesting new features on the site and gave it a high-tech makeover.
Former SHL speaker Harriet Johnson inspired the new Discussion page. You may recall Harriet's provocative interchange between philosopher Peter Singer at an April talk sponsored by the College of Charleston. Many of us attended that event and heard the impromptu debate about euthanasia. Harriet is both an attorney and physically disabled from birth, so she ably and strongly expressed her opposition to Singer's position.
Later, in the May issue of "The Separationist," SHL member Dave Peterson wrote a long essay arguing against Harriet's objections to Singer. Harriet only recently discovered that essay and asked for an opportunity to reply. The matter was taking on too much length to print in this newsletter, so Web master Alex Kasman designed the Discussion page on our SHL Web site.
The Discussion page has room for many opinions on the subject. Dave Peterson has written a reply to Harriet's rebuttal. Now it's your turn to get in on the argument, if you choose, or to participate in the other current Discussion issues, which include "How did you become non-religious?" Also, "Can there be atheists or just agnostics?" And "Science and skepticism."
In case you haven't seen the SHL Web page in a while, you will also find other useful information there. This includes our SHL Principles and Values, links to other freethought sites, and our newsletter archive.
No Dog Tags for Atheists
By Daniel O'Neal
During my traditional spring-cleaning of desk drawers recently, I happened upon a souvenir of my service in the U.S. military, which brought forth a flood of memories. It was a set of dog tags, but not ordinary dog tags. In fact, as far as I know, they are the only ones of their kind in existence.
At the height of hostilities in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the last decade, as I was approaching the end of my career as a medical pilot in the Air Force, I received a six-month assignment to wear the blue beret of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. I was to serve as the Air Operations Officer in Zagreb, Croatia. Having been given a list of required items to bring with me to Zagreb, I set about collecting them. One of the items was a set of dog tags. I could not recall what had happened to the first set, but I did recall the day I had received them shortly after entering the Air Force many years ago.
One of the questions I was asked by the young airman at the Base Personnel Office was, "What is your religion?" When I replied that I was an atheist, he informed me that "atheist" was not on the list of approved religions and that he would have to put me down as having "no preference." When I replied that that would not be an accurate description of my beliefs or non-beliefs, he called for his boss, a crusty old major. I explained to the major that it was not a case of me not having a preference for one of the approved religions, but that I rejected them all. Judging by the major's scowl, this argument was apparently less than persuasive and I was issued a set of dog tags with the phrase "no religious preference" stamped on them.
Many years later, seated in a Base Personnel Office once again, and needing a new set of dog tags to take with me to Zagreb, I made the same argument. I naively thought that as a crusty old major myself now, I might have a better chance at getting tags that more accurately reflected my lack of belief in the supernatural. Moreover, this time it was not just an abstract argument for me. There was a possibility that my duties would require me to travel to Sarajevo and therefore the chance that I could find myself under fire. It's sometimes said that there are no atheists in foxholes and I wasn't too keen on the idea of having to personally dispel that myth. But if the worst should happen, I thought, a funeral service would be held for me, presided over by some generic chaplain because my dog tags indicated "no religious preference". I didn't want a religious service, because I'm an atheist! But I was trumped again, this time by a seasoned lieutenant colonel in the Personnel Office. I refused the dog tags, knowing that this might cause me problems.
Back in my own office, I noticed a fellow pilot thumbing through a catalog, which caters to paramilitary types and military wannabes. As providence would have it, the catalog offered custom-made authentic, military-style dog tags. That evening I placed a call to the company and ordered a set of dog tags. There was a brief silence at the other end of the line when I specified "atheist" as my religious preference, but no objection that it was not on any approved list. I received the dog tags just in time to wear them as I boarded the flight to Zagreb.
Why do I believe that my dog tags are one-of-a-kind? Even assuming that there's another military atheist somewhere who took the trouble to go outside official channels and custom order dog tags, it's unlikely that there's another set of dog tags with the word "atheist" misspelled as "athiest," as it is on mine! I guess that was God's revenge or sense of humor for my not sticking to the approved list. Nevertheless, my misspelled "athiest" dog tags are one of the most cherished mementos of my military career.
Editor's note: This article was printed in the Winter 2000 issue of Free Inquiry magazine. Author Daniel O'Neal is an Adjunct Professor of German at The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina, and a member of the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry.
Humanist Book Discussion Group
By Sharon Strong
The next Humanist Book Discussion Group meeting will take place on the fourth Sunday of the month, February 24, at the Barnes and Noble bookstore on Sam Rittenberg Blvd., from 3:00 to 5:00 p.m. In honor of Charles Darwin's 193rd birthday this month, we will be discussing Richard Dawkins's classic account of evolutionary theory, The Blind Watchmaker. Sharon Fratepietro will be facilitating the conversation. You'll find the book in Barnes and Noble's "Science and Technology" section, under the sub-heading of "Evolution."
On March 24, we will be discussing Judge James Gray's "Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed and What We Can Do About It," a strong indictment of our nation's "war on drugs" and an interesting change of pace for our group. And remember: even if you haven't had a chance to read the selection, you are always welcome to join us.
February 11 - February 14: Darwin Week events at The College of Charleston.
Sunday, February 17: SHL member and mathematician Alex Kasman speaks at the SHL monthly meeting. At Gage Hall, 4 Archdale St., downtown Charleston, 4 p.m. Followed by optional dinner at Vickery's.
Sunday, February 24: Humanist Book Discussion Group, Barnes & Noble, 1812 Sam Rittenberg Blvd. (West Ashley), 3-5 p.m.