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Top Posts for 2008


I started this blog about a year ago, thought it took a few months to find my focus on science and faith. These are the top posts for the year, according to Google Analytics, comments I received, and my own highly biased opinion. Thank you to all my readers for making this blog a pleasure to write for!

Catholic faith and philosophy

Why we practice penance (February 6)
Arguments to avoid (June 16)
Top three questions about the Eucharist you never asked (July 24)

Science and health

Depression and anxiety myths (May 7)
The science behind renewable petroleum (June 26)
Bad formula: Problems with infant food (September 25)
Gardasil, poison, and vaccine reactions (November 12)

Ethics and the intersection of science and faith

Feminism pro life (February 15)
ADD/ADHD religion: Prayer for the distractible (May 25)
Scientific American interviews Diana Degette (August 6)
Science and the question of when life begins (August 28)

A lighter note

Online psychics! Fabulous or fraud? (May 16)
Awards for World Youth Day protesters (August 1)
Top five conspiracies... of SCIENCE! (August 4)
A parade of bad nativities (December 23)


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 4

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The 2008 Parade of Bad Nativities concludes with culture wars and political statements. Yes, didn't you know Jesus took on human flesh in order to become a political pawn?

This nativity scene from Kenya almost made it to the Scary Nativities category, especially since Baby Jesus appears to be dead.

Bethlehem was in New Mexico, didn't you know? And Jesus was placed in a kiva, not a manger!

The wall in this nativity scene is supposed to represent the division in the Holy Land.

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals may nix a publicly sponsored nativity scene, but I don't think it can do anything about "the Nativity", you know, the birth of Our Lord.

This nativity scene from Italy was supposed to make a statement about gay marriage. Note that there are two Josephs and no Marys. I think the magi might be wearing the heads of local politicians.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 3

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The Parade of Bad Nativities 2008 continues with nativity scenes that are just plain wrong. They range from the incomprehensible to the borderline sacrilegious.

I'm not sure what Playmobile Toys, but there's a manger scene at the center of this collection of them.

Why yes, it is made of recycled cans!

Yeah. That's right. Someone painted light bulbs to make a nativity scene. The cotton balls are a nice touch, but I'm not sure what the olive green one is supposed to be. An alligator? A dinosaur?

I suppose placing a nativity scene in an urban setting is a valid cultural interpretation, but what's with all the dead people? Surely there were no drive-by shootings in Bethlehem!

The Holy Family were humans, not woodpeckers, so I'm not sure what they're doing in a tree trunk. It's also a candle. Of course it is.

"Away in a one horse open sleigh, no crib for a bed...."

No additional words are necessary.

No words are possible.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 2

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The 2008 Parade of Bad Nativities continues with scary nativities!

When I saw this in thumbnail, I thought it looked creepy. Full size, it's downright terrifying. Jesus and Mary are sitting on the Christ Child's shoulders like an angel and a devil whispering in his ear, and he has a baby-shaped brooch in the middle of his chest! Yikes!

This Santa looks like he's going to eat me! And look, he already ate the Holy Family!

Even the ancients were not immune to producing scary nativity scenes. A star is boring into the head of Baby Jesus, and both he and Mary are turning into caterpillars! Understandably, Joseph looks alarmed.

Next up are nativities with unintended effects. One wishes the artists had stepped back and looked at their creations before unleashing them on the world.

This nativity scene gives new meaning to the phrase "Lamb of God." A green Lamb of God, in this case.

"And behold, a giant cleaver didst split the barn in two."

"It's not 'Door to Heaven,' it's... 'STARGATE.'"

The Bible records that Baby Jesus was born in rude surroundings, but it specified a manger, not a urinal.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


A Parade of Bad Nativities, Page 1

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The blog Going Jesus started the Cavalcade of Bad Nativities in 2004, and published the Cavalcade II last year. The Cavalcades consist of pictures of ugly, kitschy, and just plain wrong nativity scenes. Leave the lights on is paying tribute to Going Jesus with the 2008 Parade of Bad Nativities.

It was shockingly easy to find bad nativities. For many of these, I just searched eBay for "unique nativity." Hint to the sellers: There's a reason many of these nativity scenes are unique!

The parade begins with the merely ugly.

We used to have a nativity scene like this when I was growing up. We picked at that ferny stuff every year until eventually the barn was totally denuded. It was an improvement.

The Psychedelic Nativity, a throwback to the 1960s.

These poor people have no mouths! How can they sing praises to the Christ Child?

Don't touch baby Jesus! He's sharp!

If you have to blow up a picture of a nativity scene, try to (a) trim the white space and (b) choose a nativity in which Mary does not have leprosy.

A Parade of Bad Nativities

Page 1: The Ugly
Page 2: The Scary and the Unintended Effects
Page 3: The Just Plain Wrong
Page 4: Culture Wars and Politics


The ethics of surrogate mothers

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The new Vatican document on reproductive technologies, Dignitas Personae, makes only a brief, passing reference to one particular practice of assisted reproduction: surrogate motherhood. In this practice, a woman is commissioned or hired to gestate a baby whom she agrees to surrender to another family at birth. The genetic parents of the baby may include the gestating mother or one or both members of the couple who commissioned her, or one or both of the genetic parents may be third party egg or sperm donors.

Surrogate motherhood is always ethically and morally wrong. To put it more bluntly, surrogate motherhood is evil. In surrogacy, a child is commissioned (often purchased outright) as if he is a sculpture or a book rather than a human being.

According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, all reproductive technologies that involve outside donors, including practices from artificial insemination to surrogacy, "infringe the child's right to be born of a father and mother known to him and bound to each other by marriage" (CCC 2376). That paragraph bears a closer look, as it asserts a human right that many in the secular world have never even thought of:

All children have a right to be born to parents who are known to him.

This is a right written in the hearts of all babies. An infant knows his mother's voice before he is born. Newborns may not seem very aware of their surroundings — indeed, I have heard some atheists odiously describe them as not even being "sentient" — but they are, in fact, very aware of their surroundings, at least in the aspects that matter to them, and the item of foremost importance to a newborn is who his mother is.

Later in life, all human children are interested in their roots. They want to know who their biological mother and father are. If they are raised by others, this curiosity stays with them, sometimes turning into a burning search for their first parents.

According to another document from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Donum Vitae,

Surrogate motherhood represents an objective failure to meet the obligations of maternal love, of conjugal fidelity and of responsible motherhood; it offends the dignity and the right of the child to be conceived, carried in the womb, brought into the world and brought up by his own parents; it sets up, to the detriment of families, a division between the physical, psychological and moral elements which constitute those families.
Though this statement comes from a Catholic document, it makes no appeal to strictly theological principles. It asserts that the wrongness of surrogacy can be understood according to the principles of natural law.

Surrogate motherhood and adoption share some similarities. In both situations, a child is raised by people other than the mother who bore him. As an adoptive mother myself, I am keenly aware of the inalienable fact that all adoptions begin with a tragedy: the separation of a child from his first mother. In her book of the same title, Nancy Verrier calls this event "the primal wound," a permanent blow to the heart of every child relinquished for adoption, even those adopted as newborns.

In adoption, the primal wound is unavoidable, a cross to bear, a part of what makes this world (to quote the prayer) a "valley of tears." Adoption by loving parents is a step in healing this wound in a child who otherwise would have no parents at all.

In surrogacy, however, the primal wound is not a tragic circumstance, but a premeditated act. The adult parties plan in advance to tear the newborn from the mother he knows, the one who carried him. Even for non-Christians, surrogate motherhood should be viewed as universally wrong and a violation of human rights.


Five little-known Christmas facts

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Christmas is Western culture's most important holiday, and it is surrounded by lore passed down traditionally. Here are five facts about Christmas that are not widely known:

The number of magi is unknown.

The Gospel of Matthew records that magi (a word referring to Zoroastrian priests) gave the child Jesus gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11). Because three different gifts are mentioned, tradition (small-t tradition, not Apostolic Tradition) is that there were three givers. Matthew, however, does not specify the number of eastern visitors.

The Star of Bethlehem may not have been a bright object.

It is compatible with the Christian faith to believe that a miracle such as the Star of Bethlehem might have a natural explanation, with the "miracle" being in the nature and timing of the phenomenon. Many possible natural explanations for the Star have been proposed, but not all of them describe an astronomical object. One interpretation is that the "star" was actually the retrograde motion of the planet Jupiter, interpreted by the magi as an astrological sign. (Of course, nothing rules out the possibility that the Star was a purely supernatural phenomenon.)

The Twelve Days of Christmas do not even start until Christmas Day.

Our culture today inexplicably tends to stop celebrating holidays the day after that holiday. Thus the radio stations that play Christmas music throughout December return to regular programming on December 26, and most Christmas trees are taken down before the new year. Traditionally, though, the period before Christmas has long been called Advent, with a distinct season starting Christmas Day. The Twelve Days of Christmas last through January 6, the feast of the Epiphany.

Good King Wenceslaus was not a king.

The subject of the Christmas carol is Wenceslaus I, the Duke of Bohemia and patron saint of the Czech people. He lived in the 10th century and died a martyr's death when he was assassinated. The page mentioned in the song was named Podevin, and while he may have helped St. Wenceslaus with his charitable endeavors, tradition says he was killed after he avenged the murder of his master by killing the chief assassin.

Poinsettias are not poisonous.

These plants, originally from Mexico, are members of the spurge family Euphorbiaceae, many of whose members are toxic. Poinsettias themselves, however, do not contain any particularly dangerous substances, though it is inadvisable to get the sap in your eyes.


Scientific American on Dignitas Personae

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I enjoy Scientific American. I really do. So when it published an article on the newly issued document Dignitas Personae from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, I hesitated to comment here. It seems I so often criticize SciAm in this blog.

But then the secular pro-life blog Secondhand Smoke (hat tip to Der Wolfanwalt) made scathing remarks about the article, doing much of the job for me (and doing it better than I would have). So I really have no excuse not to make a few additions.

I am thunderstruck that when SciAm decided to interview an expert about a Vatican theological document, it chose a secular commentator, Josephine Johnston. This would be like interviewing an economist rather than a physician about a new recommendation by the FDA or the Surgeon General. And predictably, she makes both herself and SciAm look ridiculous by stating explicitly that she does not understand what she is talking about:

[The document] opposes IVF even if it doesn't involve embryo loss, because the Vatican is committed to conception that involves the conjugal act. This I don't really understand.
She does not understand it because she has no background in Catholic theology. But it stems from theological principles that underlie everything the magisterium has promulgated about sex and reproduction in the past 50 years. Dignitas Personae is completely consistent with Humanae Vitae, the landmark document that reaffirmed the church's opposition to artificial contraception, and John Paul the Great's theology of the body.

Johnston also sounds a little ridiculous at the end of the interview, when she says "I don't know enough about how Catholicism works in practice" and then implies that perhaps the Church should operate as a democracy when it comes to teaching. In theory and practice, Catholicism is not a democracy, but a Kingdom. Truth is objective regardless of fickle public opinion, and even if some members of the Body of Christ dissent, the whole of that Body will always be subject to his truth.


Commentary on The Golden Age

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Earlier this week I wrote about science fiction author John C. Wright's conversion story. I was moved to read this story again because I am finishing up his excellent trilogy The Golden Age (The Golden Age, The Phoenix Exultant, and The Golden Transcendence). (Yes, though I am not the Sci Fi Catholic, I have always been a sci fi Catholic.)

The protagonist of The Golden Age is an engineer who calls himself Phaethon, after the mythical Greek character Phaëton. The future Phaethon's father is a solar engineer who has named himself Helion (the mythical Phaëton's father is Helios, the sun god). The novels take place in the Golden Oecumene, a far-future, solar-system spanning civilization. The Golden Oecumene is a near-utopia thanks to abundant energy and other resources, the advice of super-intelligent and benevolent artificial intelligences called Sophotechs ("wise machines"), and immortality of identity resulting from the technology to mechanically read and copy minds.

The Golden Age is a philosophical series. It was written while its author was still an atheist, and the world is entirely secular. Reason and logic are core themes. This series rests on the power of the mind, but unlike some science fiction in which "the power of the mind" means the discovery and development of paranormal abilities, the only power of the mind in the Golden Oecumene is the ability to think.

Using their reason, Helion and his son Phaethon (as well as the super-intelligent Sophotechs) have determined that there is an objective truth, and that it includes not only the laws of nature, but also the laws of morality. The ultimate conflict is between good and evil, with "good" characterized by existence, life, endeavor, and reality, and "evil" by nihilism, emptiness, and self-deception. Phaethon and his father live a philosophy called the Silver-Gray School by which they strive to discipline themselves to remain connected to reality and to comport themselves with honor and integrity.

I have never read a godless story so philosophically compatible with Christianity. While Wright reports that it required a series of miraculous experiences for him to acknowledge God's existence, after reading The Golden Age, I don't believe much of a miracle was required; he was a rational atheist ready to meet a rational God. (Perhaps this is why he calls his mystical experiences "overkill.")

For example, an ancient Judeo-Christian philosophy dating back to the book of Genesis is the idea that one's name is a relection or part of one's essence. Thus Abram had to be renamed "Abraham," meaning "father of nations," and his grandson Jacob was also called Israel, meaning "struggles with God" (which explains much about the Old Testament history of his descendants). God himself is named YHWH, variously translated as "I am," "I am who am," and "I am that I am": God's very name is the declaration of his perfect and infinite existence.

In the Golden Oecumene, individuals choose their own names, but nobody seems to choose a name just because they like how it sounds; one's name reflects one's identity. Thus Helion is the one person in the entire Oecumene who controls the sun for the good of everyone in the solar system. The meaning of Phaethon's name is left to the reader to discover.

The Golden Age is sort of a secular humanist's dream, a paradise based only on reason; but the rational conclusions that triumph in the end are so compatible with the Catholic faith that it makes my heart hum. In light of its author's conversion, I take it as an inspiration to explicitly reject the notion that religion is irrational, as well as the use of the irrational in religion.


Is religion rational? What John C. Wright says

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I had the pleasure recently of re-reading science fiction author John C. Wright's conversion story, "Why I am not a Deist." Wright was an atheist who converted to Catholicism after a series of theophanies he describes as "totally humiliating" and "an embarrassment of evidence" of the truth of Christianity.

Christianity as rational

Certain atheists today have devolved into a kind of fundamentalist and evangelical atheism, notably the likes of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and the king clown of noxious atheist behavior, P.Z. Myers. Wright does not seem to have been that sort of atheist. His writing, both fiction and non-fiction, makes it clear he has always sought Truth over Ideology, objective reality over subjective belief.

The fundamentalist atheism movement prefers to charge religion with being irrational. (They confuse religionists, who frequently are irrational, with the religious ideals they strive toward but often fail to follow.) So it is refreshing to read Wright's story, in which he insists that Christianity is an utterly rational religion:
The Christian religion places an emphasis on Reason that other religions, with the exception of the Jewish, do not share, or not to the same degree. None of them mention LOGOS, the rational account, the word, issuing directly from the Father.
Catholicism has a long tradition of rational thought. The Church honors no fewer than 33 thinkers with the title "Doctor of the Church." (Three of them, about 9%, are women, which is quite remarkable considering that in Western history, probably many fewer than 9% of educated persons were women.)

Christianity is not only a proponent of rational philosophy; it is a promoter of rational science. Indeed, Wright points out,
...Christendom invented science.... The Christian world-view is not only NOT incompatible with the scientific and logical one, they reinforce each other. You must imagine my befuddlement when I see science presented as somehow being the enemy of religion. Science is the enemy of Taoism or Buddhism, perhaps, but not the enemy of a religion that combines the rationalism of Athens with the mysticism of Jerusalem. We invented the University, for God's sake.

Taoism and Buddhism as irrational

My previous (and largely disastrous) attempts to study kung fu exposed me to Taoism and Buddhism, particularly Chan Buddhism, the Chinese ancestor of Zen Buddhism. Taoism is the philosophy behind the art of tai chi and emphasizes the use of chi (ki in Japanese), an utterly unscientific force. The belief in chi is a form of vitalism. It is inherently unscientific in the same sense that the theory of intelligent design is unscientific: it attempts to explain natural observations by appealing to a force that is supernatural.*

Both Taoism and Buddhism include elements that are at once impersonal and supernatural. The idea of a force both supernatural (that is, outside or above the laws of nature) and impersonal (that is, not a person or being nor arising from one) is irrational itself. Any force that exists independent of a person begs an explanation. If it acts on nature, it must be a law of nature — or (if one accepts the existence of supernatural beings) it must arise from a supernatural being.

*Of course, rational Christianity recognizes personal supernatural forces and the possibility of their acting on the natural. An appeal to the supernatural is not necessarily irrational, but it is unscientific, because by definition science can only be concerned with the natural world. Thus elements of intelligent design may be true, but it will always be an unscientific theory.


Ranking your Google searches, plus search tools for science sites

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Way back in the day — say, a year or two ago — using search engines to research science topics was rather a crapshoot. I was an active Wikipedia writer back then, and the majority of my work was on science-related articles. And finding reliable web-based information was always challenging.

Take the article on the beautiful, endangered freshwater fish known as Asian arowanas, which is mostly my work (and I can't say I'm not proud of it). Google searches for Asian arowanas turn up mostly commercial sites and fan sites. Neither of these is a reliable source of science information: the commercial sites mix bona fide science with marketing information, while fan sites are prone to misinformation. This problem was a major hindrance to my work on the article.

Google search ranking

Now Google Search has a new feature for users signed in to their Google accounts: search ranking. (Try it.) Google says the ranking will help teach the search engine how to customize searches for you. Perhaps after some training, Google search will be less likely to turn up commercial sites and more likely to turn up useful research information.

But that will take time. In the meanwhile, two other search engines are available for people interested in finding real information on the web: hakia (still in beta) and Scirus.

Hakia, er, hakia

Hakia (whose name officially is not capitalized, but my inner English teacher just won't let me start a sentence that way) uses a new technology called semantic searching to help higher-quality, more credible sites show up higher in the search results, regardless of popularity. Other search engines, including Google, use popularity as a major criterion for search rankings; this is why SEO (search engine optimization) strategies include techniques like obtaining incoming links.

A script on the homepage allows a user to compare hakia and Google searches. I ran it for "Asian arowana." Hakia's top two sites were a fan site and a blog, while Google performed a bit better with the Wikipedia article and a commercial breeder's site. But a very significant difference between the two was visible on each page's right side: Google displayed an Adwords advertisement, while hakia showed a "hakia credible site": a journal article from the National Institutes of Health on the fish's mitochondrial genome. Hakia credible sites are those recommended by librarians, who know a thing or two about finding reliable information. Getting results like that "above the fold" is a huge advantage for the Web researcher.


Scirus is billed as being "for scientific information only." It indexes journals, scientists' web sites, and other relatively reliable sources. In this regard, it is fundamentally different from both Google and hakia, which both cover the whole Web. So I compared it to Google Scholar, which searches academic journals.

My search for "Asian arowana" on Google Scholar turned up an unadorned list of various articles. The Scirus results, on the other hand, used logos to show each result's source at a glance. It also included a tool for refining the search. Scirus makes it easier to evaluate and filter search results. Its developers obviously understand the needs of a person looking for credible science information better than Google Scholar's designers do.


The First Images of Exoplanets

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Visible-Light Composite Photo/Image: Planet (Exoplanet) orbiting Fomalhaut from Hubble Space TelescopeThe first photographic images of exoplanets (planets orbiting stars other than our Sun) have recently been reported in sources including Scientific American, Space.com, and NASA. Exoplanets are typically discovered through indirect observation. Direct observation and photography of these worlds is notoriously difficult for a host of reasons: their tiny size (by definition, a planet must be smaller than even a dwarf star), their dimness, and their relatively close proximity to their parent stars, whose bright light drowns them out.

The image pictured comes from the University of California at Berkeley and depicts a planet orbiting a star called Fomalhaut. This composite image from the Hubble Space Telescope shows the planet's position in 2004 (bottom) and 2006 (top); from these data astronomers have calculated and graphed the planet's orbital path. Fomalhaut and its planet are relatively nearby, about 25 light years away.

Infrared Image of Family (System) of 3 planets (exoplanets) orbiting HR 8799: Keck ObservatoryAnother amazing image consists of a system of three exoplanets, pictured at left, which have been detected orbiting a star with the unassuming name HR 8799. The Keck Observatory, which sits at the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii, claims the honor of creating these images.

There is a catch in calling these "the first" images, though. The devil is in the details, which not even many of the science writers reporting these images seem to have caught. As a matter of fact, at least two direct images of exoplanets already exist! I should know, because I wrote an article about them last month. One was taken as far back as 2004, and the other was reported (again, incorrectly as "the first") earlier this year. Oh, how quickly these science writers forget!

Neither the Fomalhaut nor the HR 8799 images are the first direct images of exoplanets.

As nearly as I can tell, the "firsts" for these images are this: the Fomalhaut images seem to be the first planet discovered through direct observation of visible light. The HR 8799 system images seem to be the first family of exoplanets discovered through direct observation of infrared light. The previously existing images I mentioned above, on the other hand, were discovered through the indirect methods that so far have been the main way of detecting exoplanets; the images were created only later.

All of these images are exciting. Planets outside our solar system intrigue the imagination! But please, I wish the science reporters would do a little fact checking and get their stories straight.


Caption Contest #1 Winner

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The winner of the first Leave the lights on caption contest is:

"So you see, because I'm more important to the ecosystem, that's why the government had to bail ME out."

Congratulations to Rev. Eric Brown! Since he does not use Entrecard, he wins the dubious distinction of displaying this banner wherever he chooses (his blog, his desktop, his toilet seat, etc.*)

*I do apologize to any readers offended, as some are in Britain, by my use of a Latin abbreviation. This is a Catholic blog, and we like Latin here.


Gardasil, poison, and vaccine reactions

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I had the misfortune finding an article by one Cynthia A. Janak on Gardasil, the vaccine against human papillomavirus. Though I would like to merely dismiss this article (oh, I so, so wish I could merely dismiss it), I am just too horrified by the heinous abuse of science. I cannot resist picking up poor Science, brushing her off, and patching her wounds a little.

I won't even address Janak's heavy use of anecdotal evidence. Instead, I'll focus on her attempt, starting about a third of the way down the page, to condemn Gardasil based on its "toxic" ingredients. She goes through the list one by one, quoting the horrible toxic effects of each ingredient:

  • Gardasil contains 225 mcg of aluminum. Do you know how little that is? That's about 1/4000 gram, or less than 1/100,000 ounce. You get more aluminum eating out of aluminum cooking pots.
  • Histadine is a substance found widely throughout the body. It can safely be taken daily in supplement form in amounts 2000 times greater than what is found in Gardasil.
  • Polysorbate 80 is a type of compound commonly called a "wetting agent" and is found in ice cream and milk.
  • Sodium borate is used to keep the pH balanced. Wikipedia flat out states that it "is not acutely toxic." You have to deal with very large quantities before you need to worry about safety precautions.
  • Sodium chloride is table salt.
Did you notice that Gardasil also contains dihydrogen monoxide? You might like to read more about it here. I should warn you, though, that dihydrogen monoxide is just another name for water.

Janak's blog, Truthspace, is a manifestation of a mind deeply troubled by paranoia. The truth is that the first rule of toxicology is that the dose makes the poison. Cyanide, arsenic, and lead are all harmless in tiny enough quantities, while necessary substances like vitamin A, iron, and even water can be toxic in high doses.

Time may show that Gardasil is not a completely safe vaccine. I see no reason to make that assumption at this time. Gardasil may be a controversial vaccine, but not because it contains substances like table salt.

Poor Science. I hope she feels a little better now.


Caption Contest

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We like the occasional Friday contest around here. Today is a caption contest. This cartoon is from the New Yorke, and the caption is cute, but I'm sure my readers can do better than that!

There is a real prize available this time, too! The winner will get 100 Entrecard credits. Or you can have the lovely Leave the lights on contest-winner banner, if you don't use Entrecard. But if you have a blog, you really should look into Entrecard — especially now that you have the opportunity to get started with 100 free credits. (See the widget on the sidebar to find out how it works.) Deadline is next Friday, November 14.


The science of evil

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"Good" and "evil" are moral values that are defined in a metaphysical context of faith. In Christianity, "good" means that which is of God, and "evil" is that which is opposed to him; in fact, the words "good" and "god" have the same etymological root.

"Good" and "evil" are things we know not just with our minds or even our hearts, but with our spirits. A Christian would say that since they are spiritual concepts, they can never be defined scientifically.

What makes something evil?

What if you are a secular scientist who is nevertheless aware of the idea and existence of evil? You might do what artificial intelligence researcher Selmer Bringsjord, of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, did: try to define this non-scientific concept in scientific terms. Here are the criteria he came up with to define an evil person:
  • The person must have planned or attempted (with or without success) to do something with the explicit intention of causing harm or pain to others.
  • He or she must have done it without prompting, that is, independent of peer pressure.
  • The person's reason for doing the morally bad thing must be either "incoherent," or the person must regard the harm caused as something good.
Compare these criteria to the three criteria that, according to Catholic moral reasoning, are necessary to make a mortal sin, that is, a grave evil that kills the life of Christ in one's soul:
  • The act must be a grave matter — i.e., a serious wrong — or considered by the person to be a grave matter.
  • The person must be aware that it is a grave matter — ignorance is an affirmative defense with mortal sins.
  • The person must give full consent to the act without being coerced against his or her will.
These three criteria match Bringsjord's first two criteria rather well. Bringsjord's third criterion, though, seems superfluous or possibly even exonerating: if your reason for doing something bad is "incoherent," then you may not be sane and therefore not fully culpable for your actions; if you regard your evil act as good, you may fall into the category of people who are not aware they are committing a serious wrong.

Evil deeds v. evil people

One major discrepancy between Bringsjord's criteria and Christian views of evil stands out: Bringsjord is defining an evil person, while Christians talk only about evil acts. Traditional Christianity holds that all of us suffer from a fallen nature, so we are all inclined toward evil deeds; but because we were created in God's image to be with him, and because any sin can be forgiven, no human can be essentially evil. Thus the Church speaks of sins, not of evil people.

Why define evil with a secular world view?

What is Bringsjord's purpose behind defining evil people? He even created a computer model of a perfectly evil person — but to what end?

His model is part of a larger program of developing simulations for human behavior. If you have a wholly secular, materialistic worldview, and regard human behavior as the result of scientifically definable brain activities, perfect simulations are theoretically possible.

I would argue that Bringsjord is barking up the wrong tree. Moral decision making is dependent on the spirit, not just the organic brain. Computerized copies can never be more than approximations based on outward appearance; they will never capture the free will of the soul, which is involved in all choices having to do with good and evil.


Look out, Australia: Down syndrome cooties!

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In the United States, about 1 in 800 live births is that of a child who has an extra copy of chromosome 21, a condition which results in a cluster of symptoms known as Down syndrome. The rate is much lower than it could be because the medical community is very good at preventing Down syndrome births. They cannot prevent this defect from occurring, but they can detect it before birth and kill affected children in utero. In the U.S., at least 80% to 90% of children with Down syndrome are killed in this way. In the United Kingdom, over 90% of babies with Down syndrome are killed before birth.2

The practice of aborting affected babies is euphemistically called "the result of a termination decision" rather than "eugenic abortion."

Down syndrome is not contagious. You can't get any Down syndrome on you by touching someone with the condition, nor by letting them into your community.

Nevertheless, the Australian immigration department seems frightened of letting Down syndrome in.3 A doctor from Germany, whose services are desperately needed to serve the health care needs of a rural part of Australia, has been denied permanent residency because his 13-year-old son has Down syndrome.

Fear of chromosome 21 cooties is not the official reason for the decision. The official reason is that the boy would be a burden to the Australian community. But this excuse is laughable because letting the family stay would plainly be a net gain for Australia; they need this doctor's services, as he is the only internist in the region.

To his nation's credit, the premier of Victoria, John Brumby, supports the family's cause for permanent residency status, as does the health minister. They can see what is clear and obvious: the doctor's son requires far less in terms of services than his father provides to the community.

People with Down syndrome have a higher incidence of health problems and generally have mental retardation to varying degrees. Yet they are cheerful, happy folks, some of whom are able to earn university degrees despite their disabilities. Like other children, Down syndrome kids are gifts, and Australia should welcome this family, not slam the door in their face.


  1. Comarow, Avery, 1995. "An earlier test for Down syndrome." U.S. News & World Report.
  2. Mansfield, Hopfer, and Marteau, 1999. "Termination rates after prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, spina bifida, anencephaly, and Turner and Klinefelter syndromes: a systematic literature review." Prenatal Diagnosis 19(9): pp. 808-812.
  3. Associated Press, November 1, 2008. "Australia denies residency for dad of boy with Down syndrome."


All Souls Day prayer for the forgotten

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Today is the Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed, also known as All Souls Day. The church consists of all baptized people who have ever existed except for those now in hell; the rest of us are here on earth (the Church Militant), in heaven (the Church Triumphant), or in Purgatory (the Church Penitent).

"All baptized people" includes most Protestants, of course, but Protestants generally do not believe in Purgatory. And as a result, they don't pray for their dead. I find it poignant to consider people in the Church Penitent whose loved ones on earth do not pray for their purification to be complete. Here is a prayer for the forgotten souls in Purgatory:

Lord, hear the forgotten souls in Purgatory. Purify them and bring them to your side to sing your praises forever. Amen.


Wordle word cloud: Top terms used here


I created a Wordle "word cloud" for Leave the lights on (click to enlarge):

This tells me I write a lot more about science than about the Catholic faith or the intersection of the two. Is that what you like, dear readers? Or would you rather more religiously oriented content? Leave a comment with your thoughts!


Why I am open in my support of evolution

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Scientific American, whose articles often are noticeably skewed toward an antireligious (rather than merely secular) perspective, begins to make up for past transgressions with this fascinating profile on an accomplished geneticist and evolutionary biologist who speaks up for the compatibility of evolution and religion. Among the excellent points Francisco Ayala (who was once ordained a Dominican priest, though it's not clear whether he still practices any faith) makes:

  • Evolution not only does not undermine a divine explanation for nature, it actually helps. It shows that the suffering in nature, caused by predators and parasites and plain bad luck, is amoral rather than immoral — that it is not evil in the sense of an act of the will. Since God by definition can do no evil, describing nature as neither good nor evil explains how a good God can create a world with natural suffering. It helps, in other words, with theodicy.
  • Outside the United States, the strong feeling that "Darwinism" is the enemy of Christianity and vice versa is not prominent.
  • The biggest reason I feel strongly about explaining how evolution is compatible with faith is reiterated by Ayala: Many intelligent Christian students of biology lose their faith when they discover the strength of the theory of evolution because they believe evolution and Christianity are incompatible. It is tragic to think of people turning from God as a result of learning more about his sublime creation.
Ayala's interest in the philosophy of science, unfortunately, does not seem to show as much evidence of his theological training as SciAm implies. For example, according to Wikipedia (admittedly not a terrifically reliable source), he has spoken out against the United States ban on federal funds for vivisecting human embryos.

Nevertheless, though I have far less education in both science and theology than Ayala, I would like to think that in at least some ways we are kindred spirits. We both oppose the sneering attitude of the "Brights" who think they have the corner on truth, when they are actually just closing their eyes to the brightest part of it.


Does biology affect political beliefs?

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I've gotten less political here as the U.S. presidential election draws near. But I just have to comment on this bone-headed study, described in a Houston Chronicle story with the asinine title "Liberal versus conservative: DNA may tell."

What are the problems with the study? First, the research methods are flawed, because the concepts of "liberal" and "conservative" are very subjective and specific to modern United States culture. And second, the conclusion reached by the researcher being interviewed is far more than what is supported by the data.

The researchers started by having their sample fill out questionnaires on social policies such as "support for the war in Iraq, support for or opposition to immigration, opposition to gun control, [and] support for the death penalty." Each of these is a complex issue with nuanced arguments, about which many people have complex opinions, but since they were part of a questionnaire, it is likely that ratings were obtained simply on a polarized scale. My own opinion on the death penalty, for instance, cannot be classified into simple support or oppose; it would take me at least a couple of paragraphs to explain it.

The issues were categorized into "socially protective" and non-"socially protective" policies, about which the interviewee says "certainly there's a left-right orientation." Being themselves mired in American political culture (the study took place at Houston's Rice University), the researchers apparently cannot even see their own bias in labeling the various policies as "left" or "right." To them, "socially protective" policies are right-wing, not left-wing — even though in some cases, policies considered liberal could be seen as more "socially protective" than the corresponding conservative policies.

For example, the researchers considered opposition to gun control, classically a conservative position, as a "socially protective" policy, which fits their data (which I will get to below). Yet arguments in favor of gun control, classically liberal, always have a socially protective pitch; if not to protect innocent people from being killed by guns, why restrict them?

The biases of the researchers make the data worthless for the purpose the researchers are seeking — determining whether one's place on the political spectrum has at least a partial biological basis. Yet even if the data were good, the conclusion announced by the interviewee is on another planet from what those data actually show.

What the data show is that people who favor "socially protective" policies (the ones pre-defined as "conservative") have stronger physiological responses to anxiety-provoking situations (disturbing images and startling sounds) than those who do not favor those policies. Physiological response to stress is strongly tied to psychological factors whose biological basis is unclear at best. But the interviewee cites some concrete numbers, apparently pulled out of thin air: "Probably two-thirds of the explanation is outside of biology," with the rest based on specifically on DNA. Keep in mind that this study did not look at genetic factors at all. There is absolutely no support for saying that correlation between biology and politics, if it exists at all, is based on DNA rather than on environmental effects on one's biology. In other words, there is no investigation into whether the results come from nature or from nurture. (In fairness, this conclusion is not presented in the abstract of the study itself.)

This study was published in the prestigious journal Science, yet almost all of the researchers hail from the field of political science. Only two of the eight authors have any background in psychology, and only one of those is clearly identified with biological psychology. As with some other journal articles, how this nonscientific rubbish passed peer review is a mystery.


Embryos in the news

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From the blogosphere:

The Deeps of Time tells the chilling tale of a profoundly anti-life decision of the Oregon Court of Appeals, in which human embryos were apparently declared to be ordinary property. Read the post: "Oregon Continues March Into Inhumanity."

Mary Meets Dolly observes that children's books about where babies come from do not equivocate about the issue the way many in the pro-choice and pro-ESCR movements do. Read the post: "When Did I Begin?"

From the media:

Scientific American has the story on a new microscope that can observe an embryo from the single-cell stage to the point at which the heartbeat begins. The observations were performed on zebrafish embryos. (Hey, I used to have those in my aquarium!) As amazing as videos of a developing human embryo would be, I profoundly hope they do not perform the necessary indignity (and inevitable subsequent killing) on a human embryo.


Contest winner

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Thanks for playing, Michael! You guessed that the fossil in the Friday Fossil Guessing Game was of a mastodon tooth. It is indeed the tooth of a Columbian mammoth (story). You win this lovely interesting cobbled-together banner! You can just enjoy its niceness, or you can post it on your website. Or tile it as your desktop background. No, I'm not holding my breath for you to do that. Oh, and if you're not Michael, check out his blog "The Deeps of Time," to which I subscribe.

Should I impose more contests, trivia games, and such on the blogosphere? Because I can't be serious all the time, and I am inclined to keep occasionally doing these things.


Friday fossil guessing game

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For some weekend fun, try to guess what this is a fossil of. (Yes, fossil guessing games are considered "fun" at Leave the lights on.) This object was unearthed in a paleontologist's yard by Hurricane Ike. Makes me wonder how many unrecognized fossils were unearthed in non-paleontologists' yards!

The first person to guess correctly, or the person whose guess is closest, will get, well, some sort of prize. I'm thinking a lovely graphic. It may not be good sportsmanship to use Google to help you, but if you're comfortable with it, then nothing is stopping you.


Michael Dowd, part 3: Seven false reasons for the gospel of evolution

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Michael Dowd, the self-proclaimed "evangelist of evolution," wants religious people to discard their beliefs while keeping their religious language, which he would like to redefine to refer to concepts from the scientific theory of evolution and speculations of evolutionary psychology.

This is a pretty big horse pill to swallow. Dowd knows this, so he markets his ideas with his Seven Reasons for the Gospel of Evolution. And here they are, seven reasons Dowd thinks people of faith should come around to his way of thinking:

  1. The gospel of evolution would give us a common creation myth. Since Christians and Jews already share a common creation myth, I assume Dowd must mean to use the gospel of evolution for a sort of universal ecumenism, in which all religions — Hinduism, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and Christianity among them — acknowledge one and only one story of origins: naturalistic evolution.
  2. It validates both scientific and religious ways of speaking. Of course, religious ways of speaking are already "validated" in the religious community. Dowd must mean therefore that religious ways of speaking will be validated among the atheistic community. Indeed, throughout his interviews, Dowd comes across as desperate for the approval of atheists.
  3. It is a key to understanding and alleviating suffering, which comes from not living "integrously" with the flow of evolution. History, with its lessons on the eugenics movement and on Nazi genocide, teaches a far different lesson on what happens when humans try to base their ethics on the theory of evolution.
  4. Religious language can be interpreted in a way that's universally true. By this, Dowd means it can be interpreted naturalistically. He says, "I don't have to wait to die to go to a place called heaven. When I'm in a place, integrity, love, compassion, generosity, care, consideration, I'm in heaven now, and so are you. It's true for everybody." But obviously, it's not true for those whose earthly lives are full of suffering, whether from loneliness, physical or mental illness, drug addiction, or other causes of grief. It seems cruel of Dowd to be so eager to steal the hope of a happy afterlife from people who are far from experiencing "heaven" on earth.
  5. Only by knowing how we really got here and the trajectory we're on can we respond to problems like terrorism without making things worse. "It is impossible to know how to move into a healthy sustainable future" without understanding evolution, says Dowd. I agree that understanding evolution is important, but there is no reason religious beliefs should be discarded at the same time.
  6. It unmasks the powers of manipulations. "We are so easily led around like a nose-ring (sic)." Here I assume Dowd is giving in to the frequent atheistic criticism of religion, that organized religion exists to manipulate the masses. Yet people of faith like myself believe we are more free in many ways than are people without faith.
  7. "It gives us the tools for understanding how to have a great life and thriving relationships no matter what hand life deals us." That's funny; my Catholic faith also gives me those tools, and much more explicitly. I imagine that the Gospel of Religion has no sacraments, for example.

Michael Dowd Series:


LaBruzzo's bone-headed eugenics plan: Coerced sterilization

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Eugenics Society LogoIssues related to human life and dignity usually attract attention from only one end of the political spectrum. If it relates to the unborn, the attention usually comes from the right; if it relates to undesirable adults, the attention usually comes from the left.

Republican Louisiana state representative John LaBruzzo has succeeded in the rare accomplishment of uniting the pro-life right and the progressive left — against him. This united front is a response to his proposal to pay poor women $1000 to undergo a tubal ligation. (Make no mistake — though he does not advocate physically forcing sterilization, this plan definitely constitutes a form of coercion.)

Coerced sterilization is a gravely disturbed idea, though not a new one. Commenters from all over the political spectrum have described it as eugenics. New Orleans Archbishop Alfred Hughes called it "blatantly anti-life" while decrying the "bigotry of low expectations" experienced by the poor. The liberal blog Think Progress took a measured approach, letting LaBruzzo's ideas speak for themselves. An editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune noted that "[t]he state has no business assigning a sliding scale to the value of human lives, but that's exactly what Rep. LaBruzzo is suggesting. "

In a hostile interview with CNN, LaBruzzo whined that the media are focusing only on this aspect of his plan because of "ratings." It does not seem to occur to him that the focus actually results from the wrong-headedness and evil of these ideas; in fact, he dismisses that idea out of hand, grumping, "If dealing with generational welfare is a bone-headed idea, then I guess I'm bone-headed."

LaBruzzo is not just manifestly bone-headed, but also unoriginal. Eugenics became popular in the United States a century ago, with compulsory sterilizations for undesirables such as the poor and especially the mentally ill. American eugenics also advocated encouraging the well-to-do to "breed," another idea floated by LaBruzzo. The eugenics movement came to a halt when Nazi Germany provided a demonstration of where the slippery slope leads. LaBruzzo should devote his time and attention to studying history instead of brainstorming elitist, inhumane ideas.


Bad formula: Problems with infant food

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Infant formula is critically valuable for babies who cannot nurse. It contains expensive ingredients and its quality cannot be evaluated easily by consumers. All these factors lead to baby formula being a frequent target for contamination, adulteration, and confusion. With formula, the result isn't just consumers not getting their money's worth; it can be malnutrition, illness, and even death for young children.


I have heard of powdered formula bound for third-world countries being cut with plaster and other white powders, although I can't confirm those rumors. But one form of contamination, originating in China, is prominent in the news today: melamine. And just as with pet food a year and a half ago, melamine contamination has reportedly led to infant deaths in China.

Melamine is an industrial chemical that contains nitrogen. The only significant food ingredient that contains nitrogen is protein, so the measure of protein in food is often based on the measure of nitrogen. By adding melamine, unscrupulous food manufacturers can give their product the artificial appearance of a high protein content and sell it at a higher price.

Ingested in large quantities, melamine causes kidney stones that lead to kidney failure. Nearly 13,000 Chinese children have been hospitalized with melamine poisoning from consuming tainted formula, and at least four have died, according to the British Medical Journal.

Inappropriate marketing

But contamination is not the only problem with infant food in the world; another is inappropriate marketing. There is an international code for infant formula marketing, which focuses mainly insisting that formula companies acknowledge that breast milk is best. Occasionally, a more outrageous situation comes up, such as a food not meant for babies being marketed as infant formula.

That's the situation with Bear Brand Coffee Creamer from Nestlé, sold in the southeast Asian country of Laos. In addition to coffee creamer, products with the Bear Brand label include infant formula and canned cows' milk. The label shows a bear cradling a baby bear as if nursing it. In a country where perhaps half of the rural population is illiterate, it is no small wonder that the coffee creamer is widely used (yes, widely) as a "breast milk substitute." There are case reports of severe malnutrition-related illnesses and deaths in young Laotian children who were fed Bear Brand Coffee Creamer instead of breast milk or infant formula. Again, the British Medical Journal has the story (hat tip to Chanpheng Lew (saosalavan) on Plurk).

If you couldn't read, would you think this product is good for children? Click image to enlarge:
Bear Brand coffee creamer: Looks like it's for infants


Renewable Petroleum, Algae, and Sapphire Energy

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Elsewhere, this blog has noted efforts to generate petroleum using genetically engineered bacteria (Bell BioEnergy, Amyris and LS9). These methods use naturally-occurring abilities of certain bacteria to convert cellulose, a carbohydrate, to hydrocarbons, the chemicals that fuel our vehicles, heat our homes, and otherwise serve most of our energy needs.

Bacteria convert one type of chemical energy to another type, as explained here. Photosynthesizers such as green plants are needed to perform the first step of converting light energy into chemical energy for the bacteria to work on.

What if this middle step were eliminated? A new Bill Gates start-up, Sapphire Energy, begins and ends with the photosynthesizer — in their case, algae, single-celled plant-like organisms. The goal is to create "renewable gasoline," not ethanol, taking advantage of "non-arable land."

Another company, Solazyme, takes a more conservative approach, if anything about this field can be called conservative. It grows its oil-generating algae in the dark and feeds it sugar water, which must be derived from food sources. The fundamental principles are the same as with methods that use bacteria to produce renewable hydrocarbons.

Algae are aquatic organisms that require water to be circulated, a significant energy cost that currently keeps the price of algae-derived fuels high. This factor may limit algae's usefulness on an industrial scale. Algae also need a source of carbon dioxide. These fundamental differences may mean algae will turn out to be inferior to bacteria in the field of renewable fuels.

Or not. There are few certainties yet in this exciting, promising field. There is a lot of potential and a lot of hope, and I will be interested to see whether these new energy companies can bring down the costs enough to produce their products on a meaningful scale and compete with fossil fuels.

Read more at Scientific American.


Wondermark comic strip parody

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I don't think any of them are right about why trailer park devastation is so prevalent in the media after tornadoes. I think it's because trailer homes are not sturdy structures. But that's not the point.

Wondermark web comic - click for alternate mouseover!

The irony of posting about storm damage while I am a refugee from a major storm is not lost on me.


Hurricane Ike reporting

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My house is in the direct track predicted for at least one computer model of Hurricane Ike. Yikes. We are not evacuating. I will be reporting on the storm on my other blog, Road to Black. You can subscribe to that blog here.


The Large Hadron Collider

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The science world is all abuzz about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) in Europe. Located under the Switzerland-France border, it is the largest and, more importantly, the highest-energy particle accelerator in the world, with an energy of 7 tera-electron volts (TeV).

Take my word for it that that is a very high energy. Here is an easier number to understand: At full energy, the LHC will use $100,000 worth of electricity per day.

Americans could have outdone the LHC, with the planned Superconducting Super Collider, once planned to be built south of Dallas, Texas. It was to have an energy of 20 TeV. But Congress cancelled the SSC's funding in 1993.

Today the LHC lit up with its first beam. No particle collisions have been conducted, although once they start, particle physicists hope they will be able to fill in the gaps in the Standard Model of particle physics. The media hyperbolically calls this "the search for the God particle," i.e. a particle called the Higgs boson.

Some bosons, er, bozos have cried loudly that the LHC will create a microscopic black hole that will not immediately disappear, but that will consume the entire earth. To keep apprised of this developing crisis, I recommend this blog, Has the Large Hadron Collider Destroyed The Earth Yet?


Michael Dowd, part 2: Original sin

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Evangelist of evolution Michael Dowd is not content to promote a worldview devoid of the supernatural using the language of atheism. His mission is to appropriate religious language and redefine it.

He calls the words related to faith — words like reverence and holiness, and theological terms like living in Christ — "night language," apparently because they obscure what sees as the truth. (His truth is that there is no supernatural order; he even prefers the term "unnatural" to "supernatural.") The goal, which he states explicitly, is to redefine "night language" in purely secular terms.

Original sin

In one of the two Point of Inquiry interviews, Dowd explains how and why he redefines one particular theological term, original sin. (The orthodox Christian definition of original sin is that first human sin committed by Adam and Eve. This sin is inherited by all humans, and its effects include separation from God, which is healed at baptism, and a "fallen nature" or tendency toward sin, also known as concupiscence.) Dowd does not believe in a spiritual world and thus not in a universal spiritual wound; he would like to redefine original sin to be merely an artifact of human evolution.

In the interview, Dowd seems at times desperate to gain the atheist host's approval. He brags about his secular "street cred," obtained when he and his wife had a polyamorous relationship with another woman. Being disfellowshipped from the United Church of Christ (one of the most liberal Protestant denominations) was not enough for him to change his ways, but he is now in a strictly monogamous relationship because (I'm not making this up) he is afraid of papparazzi.

So "living integrously" for Dowd does not require monogamy, but it does seem to require honesty; in his worldview, adultery is only wrong if your spouse disapproves.

This is the evolution evangelist's explanation of original sin:

When a person's social status changes dramatically for the better, such as upon being promoted or elected into office, Dowd says one experiences a boost in testosterone. (I'll take his word for it.) A high level of testosterone leads to a preoccupation with sex. He says that an orthodox Christian's response to this experience is to assume that "sex on the brain" means that it is God's will for him to commit adultery. It would be a sorry understatement to call this statement disingenuous.

Recognizing that a preoccupation with sex in this situation is just a natural response related to human evolution, rather than a result of a spiritual fall, gives a person the "tools" to live "integrously" by not acting on those urges, while a spiritual view of original sin does not do so, says Dowd.

It is true that a purely spiritual view of original sin does not by itself give one all the "tools" they need to avoid actual sin. Catholics and most Protestants agree that people cannot avoid sin entirely by relying on themselves. God's grace always a necessary weapon in the war against concupiscence.

Still, there is no denying that insight into one's psyche helps one make good choices. But it is not necessary at all to believe in human evolution in order to understand how hormones affect thinking. Psychobiology is not the same as evolution; this example would be better suited to a "gospel of psychiatry" rather than a "gospel of evolution."

Michael Dowd Series:


Interview with Michael Dowd, part 1: Demoting the sacred

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The recent post about this blog's position on evolution has attracted a lot of attention. Perhaps I should have added that I believe evolution is "only a theory" in the sense that it is nothing more than an idea of secular science and is not at all a sacred thing. I say this to make a contrast with the position of Michael Dowd, a self-described "evangelist of the gospel of evolution."

Dowd, previously a Catholic and then a fundamentalist Protestant, is now the inventor of "evolutionary theology" and the author of Thank God for Evolution: How the Marriage of Science and Religion Will Transform Your Life and Our World. He was recently interviewed in two parts on the secular humanist radio program "Point of Inquiry," where he explained his naturalized religion.

There is a lot to Dowd's message, parts of which will be addressed in future posts. But his ideas all boil down to one central thesis: God is not a supernatural, personal being, but a personification of reality. In other words, God is the "proper name" we give to all of nature. His term "Religion 2.0" seems to refer to a hybridization between pantheism and the philosophy of Spinoza, both descendants of Eastern philosophy.

Though he calls it a "personification," Dowd's thesis about religious thought actually makes God into a non-person. In other words, God's personhood is merely symbolic.

Dowd explicitly rejects all private revelation (what Catholics would call "the deposit of faith") in favor of the revelation uncovered by science. He says that scientific facts are "God's native language." This idea echoes the beliefs of the Deists, who accepted "natural theology" but rejected the revealed theology that is central to the claims of Christianity. Interestingly, in the radio interviews at least, he makes no attempt to refute the idea that revelation contains truth, but merely denounces it.

The Catholic Church holds that while doctrine can develop in the same way a flower unfolds, its core content never changes. The original deposit of faith was completed with the writing of the books now included in the Bible. The Church is so careful on this point that she uses a dead language as the official tongue of faith, lest the natural evolution of living languages distort the unchanging contents of revelation.

Nature likewise never changes (except, the Christian would maintain, through the rare interventions of God known as miracles), but our understanding and description of nature — in other words, science — changes frequently and often dramatically. For example, consider how the uncertainties of quantum mechanics (a model which even has a postulate called the Uncertainty Principle) compare with the clockwork universe of Newton. Even the theory of evolution, the scientific nucleus of Dowd's philosophy, may in principle be one day replaced or drastically modified as the central unifying theory of biology.

And much of Dowd's message draws not on the overall theory of evolution, which is a very strong model with overwhelming scientific consensus, but on the much more speculative field known as evolutionary psychology. To derive our behavioral "integrity," as Dowd recommends, from such a controversial discipline is to build our morals on a foundation of sand.

I subscribe instead to the Cartesian (and fully Catholic-compatible) view that science, as the study of nature, is subordinate to supernatural truth. By removing the supernatural from reality and calling the remnants "God," Dowd has made himself into an evangelist of nonsense. A commenter on the Point of Inquiry website put it well with these insightful remarks: "If the universe is god is the metaphor, then doesn’t god lose all meaning? ... An impersonal and unknowable god seems like no god at all, at least from a teleological point of view."

Michael Dowd Series:


This blog's position statement on evolution

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Posts on Leave the lights on take for granted certain things, such as the truth of the Catholic faith and the value of science for investigating nature. As I read other blogs on science, on faith, and on both, I see clearly that my positions are not universal. Indeed, if they were, there would be little use in many of the posts of this blog.

This is the first of a series of position statements for Leave the lights on. This statement is on the theory of evolution.


This blog takes the position, controversial among people of faith, that evolution is both a historical fact and the best theoretical model to explain the observations of biology.

When I earned my B.S. in Zoology, I unofficially specialized in paleontology and evolution. Ironically, this interest was born of my faith and a desire to know how to refute evolution. Instead, I learned not only of the overwhelming evidence behind the theory, including predictions that have been shown to be true, but the subtle intricacies that derive from a few simple statements. As a theory, it is truly a thing of beauty.

In particular, I was enthralled with the discovery that evolution is compatible with the Catholic faith. While this is a theme I would like to explore further some day, for now let it suffice to say that I believe that God imbued two individuals, who we call Adam and Eve, with immortal souls, and that they were the ancestors of all human beings. I believe in the Fall, in original sin, and in the special place of humans among (and above) the animals.

Also, I try to eschew the term "Darwinism." "Evolution" or "theory of evolution" suffice just fine. Calling it "Darwinism" suggests there may be an alternate theory of evolution, which I reject. Besides, the modern theory of evolution may have begun with Darwin, but it has been developed quite heavily since then.

Intelligent Design

My position is that Intelligent Design is not science because it does not explain the natural world — rather, it posits that the natural world cannot be fully explained; and because it makes no specific predictions, though compatible "theories" such as genomic front-loading may do so. I think ID gives people of faith a bad name in the science community.

Young-Earth Creationism

In consideration of what has been observed in geology, biology, and other disciplines, young-earth creationism is a noxious theory that makes God out to be a liar, since it requires God to have placed abundant evidence for evolution and an old earth in creation.