May 13 - 19, 2007

This column will provide links to, plus quotes and summaries of, on-line articles that might be of interest to the Infidel community. Because is concerned with educational issues, the articles selected will help to inform and enlighten readers as well as entertain them. In order to conform to "fair use practices," only small segments of the articles will be quoted. One caveat: to read the entire linked article, readers may have to subscribe to on-line versions of newspapers or magazines.

The big event of the week, for many reasons, proved to be the debate between Christopher Hitchens (the author of the recently-published God is Not Great) and Al Sharpton, who later got into trouble for his remarks made about Mormons, while vying with Hitchens. The debate was blogged for the NY Times web site:

You could tell from the background music that played beforehand – alternating recordings of James Brown and Gregorian chant – that this was going to be an unusual debate.

The question under debate (“Is God great?”) and the speakers — two men who are often depicted in harsh caricatures by their critics — might have caused some to expect something like a circus. Perhaps surprisingly, it turned out to be the public intellectual event of the evening, a bit like Bertrand Russell vs. C. S. Lewis.

Taking the atheist position was Christopher Hitchens, the journalist and author of a new book arguing that “religion poisons everything.” In defense of God was none other than the Rev. Al Sharpton, a man of the cloth who is perhaps even better known for his political and civil rights activism than for his training as a preacher.

Mr. Hitchens and Mr. Sharpton engaged in a sold-out debate tonight before a crowd that packed the Celeste Bartos Forum at the New York Public Library’s Beaux-Arts headquarters on Fifth Avenue. The polite but vigorous discussion was moderated by Jacob Weisberg of Slate Magazine, who began by asking Mr. Hitchens, “What have you got against God?”

Read more on the debate here...

While debates like that between Hitchens and Sharpton are popular sells and draw the most public notice, The Christian Science Monitor points out that other, quieter debates are ongoing between Christians and Atheists:

Salem, Mass. - Wednesday night on ABC-TV, two televangelists took on nonbelievers from the Rational Response Squad in a bid to prove the existence of God (see "Nightline Face Off" on

[By the way, I found the "debate" here, and it's nothing fresh]

The TV polemics come in the wake of a rash of bestselling books by atheists challenging religion. Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, among others, go beyond questioning God to charge that religion is a plague that needs to be eliminated. Their vehemence, some suggest, is in response to Chris­tian attacks on evolution and stem-cell research.

"It's Christian militancy that has evoked a backlash of atheist militancy," says Michael Bleiweiss, a physicist and atheist from Methuen, Mass.

Amid the rising heat of this latest culture clash, though, a few people on both sides are finding calmer ways to engage, seeking to build bridges and even learn from one another. Some Christians, concerned that millions of Americans never cross the threshold of a church, want to understand why, as well as learn what it is in evangelistic efforts that turns people off. Some atheists, worried that polls show they are the least accepted social group in the country, want to break down stereotypes and change people's attitudes.

So both are willing to sit down together in different venues, discuss their divergent perspectives, and, in some cases, jointly visit church services across the United States. As a result, they are sparking a growing Christian-atheist dialogue on the Web.

Find the rest of the Monitor article here...

From Thursday's NY Times: "Religion Guided 3 in Fort Dix Plot":

“It’s fine to be a religion man,” said Murat Duka, 55, a distant relative of the defendants who was the first of the Dukas — now numbering about 200 — to move to the Northeast and work as a roofer. “But if you get too much to the religion, you get out of your mind and you do stupid things.”

More than 4,600 miles away is Debar, a village near the Albanian border, where the influence of American émigrés is seen in restaurants named Manhattan, Dallas and Miami. In Debar, Elez Duka, a first cousin of the three suspects, expressed disbelief Wednesday that they could be involved in a scheme inspired by Islamic radicals. [...]

Stacy Sullivan, the author of a book on Albanian-Americans, said that a handful of Islamic hardliners arrived in Kosovo after the American intervention and attempted to spread radical Islam. She said they found little, if any, interest and that Albanians derisively dubbed them the “pajama people,” a reference to their traditional clothes.

Two Albanian-born businessmen in New York with ties to the Duka family said that an uncle of the defendants became a radicalized Muslim in the early 1990s after serving a prison sentence in New York State.

Find the balance of the Times article here...

The current pope is raising hackles in Brazil, by suggesting that Catholic politicians who are pro-choice excommunicate themselves. The Dallas Morning news has been covering the pope's tour and published this story:

SAO PAULO, Brazil – Launching his first papal pilgrimage to the Americas, Pope Benedict XVI on Wednesday condemned abortion and immediately touched off a firestorm by suggesting that Catholic politicians who legalize the procedure excommunicate themselves from the church.
Benedict arrived in Brazil, the largest Catholic country in the world, and confronted a continent whose once-universal Catholicism has been eroded, with the church itself profoundly divided. [...]

In his opening remarks, the pope urged a more determined fight against abortion. He said he is confident that Brazilians will protect "values that are radically Christian," including respect for "life from the moment of conception until natural death as an integral requirement of human nature."

Earlier, an Italian reporter aboard his flight from Rome pressed him on whether he agrees that Catholic legislators who voted to legalize abortion in Mexico City should rightfully be considered excommunicated.

"Yes," Benedict replied. "The excommunication was not something arbitrary. It is part of the Code [of Canon Law].

Get the rest of the story here...

Attempts to censor a playwright's work, because it portrays a battle of gods, are reported in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Nawal al Saadawi, one of Egypt's most renowned feminists, is shocked at the latest controversy surrounding her work. [...]

Her play "God Resigns in the Summit Meeting" revolves around the question of whether a just God exists. The script portrays two deities -- a god of justice and a god of injustice -- each trying to win over prophets such as Muhammad, Abraham and Moses. In the end, the god of justice wins out.

Many Muslims are against any portrayal of God.

"I have always believed that God is just; my grandmother kept telling me that," al-Saadawi said from West Virginia, where she is staying with a friend. "If I am really wrong, these people should challenge my ideas with opposite ideas."

These people are members of the Islamic Research Academy, which was established in the early 1930s at Cairo's al-Ahzar University to decide what the public should not be allowed to read. It has called al-Saadawi an apostate and has filed a lawsuit asking a state prosecutor to investigate on the grounds that her play insults Islam. The Islamic university is the Arab world's oldest and Egypt's most important religious institution.

Read the rest of the article here...

Religion is proving to be a mixed blessing for Pres. Bush, as he prepares to deliver the commencement address for St. Vincent, a small, Catholic college just outside of Pittsburgh, PA. The Pittsburgh Post Gazette featured this story in its Friday, May 11th edition:

Most of the people at this small Catholic college -- students, faculty and members of the administration -- are happy and excited that the president will be on their campus today. There has been some vocal opposition, but college President James Towey said it is a minority that, he hoped, had expressed its views and today would welcome the president "with Benedictine hospitality."

Those opposed to the college's invitation to the president have had weeks to vent their frustration. Thirty students debated the issue in a forum that was televised on C-SPAN. Twenty-nine current and retired faculty members sent an open letter to Mr. Bush decrying his policies.

Last night, about three dozen protesters held signs and candles and sang hymns at a vigil on the road leading into the campus, drawing both cheers and derision from passing motorists.

"The president of the college has the right to invite anybody he wants to be commencement speaker, and to snag a sitting president of the United States is certainly prestigious," said Barbara Roseborough, of Erie, a member of Benedictines for Peace, whose daughter graduated from St. Vincent in 1993. "However, for this man at this time to be presented as a model for young men and women at this institution is just wrong."

Read the rest of the article here...

Getting away from politics (and about time!): K.C. Cole wrote a review praising a new science book by Natalie Angier, which appeared in the L.A. Times:

Now Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer for the New York Times, has produced another, much-needed book on the basics of science — a book she calls, without blinking, "The Canon."

Too much science writing focuses narrowly on the new, as if any discovery made sense out of context, as if there were anything more wondrous than the "old stuff": the life cycles of stars, the mating rituals of DNA, the Alice in Wonderland world of the atom. I still find the simplest things most astonishing. Tell me you aren't amazed (just think about it) that people on the other side of the Earth are walking around "upside down" as you read this sentence; that you can suspend 500,000 pounds of water in thin air with no visible support (build a cloud) or that our sun, by the alchemy of E=mc2, turns two dozen ocean liners' worth of matter into energy every single second. Each 4-year-old is a natural scientist, but, somehow, growing up often takes the wonder out of knowledge. (To paraphrase Mark Twain, one should never let schooling interfere with learning.)

So I hope a lot of people read Angier's book. I think they will. Though largely untutored in science, Americans crowd into science museums, read about science, tune in to science programs on TV. The weekly New York Times science section, Angier notes, is the most popular pull-out in that paper.

Find the rest of the Times review here...

I'll close with a nicely written column explaining the need for comprehensive sex education, which appeared in the Boston Globe, and was authored by Michael Craig Miller, the editor-in-chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter:

Understanding the basic biology of brain development and learning can only help us help them become healthy adults.
Adolescents are already pretty smart by the time their hormones wake them up to sex. By 15 or 16, their intellectual development on many measures is equal to adults. But their emotional development lags. Their judgment is overwhelmed by their impulses and by peer pressure. Adolescents are much more likely than adults to take risks when they are with friends. [...]

How do we help them with this?

By providing them with sex education that their brains can grow on. Give them all the information they will need to establish healthy intimate relationships as adults. Don't narrow down options and shut out adolescents for whom abstinence is not a realistic choice.

Above all, comprehensive sex education should be versatile enough to take into account the jagged course of adolescent brain development. And it should be inviting enough to allow those teens who are in the greatest developmental turmoil to stay engaged.

Read the rest of the Globe story here...

The Talk of Lawrence