FaithWorld

Harun Yahya’s Muslim creationists tour France denouncing Darwin

(Harun Yahya at a news conference in Istanbul May 12, 2011/Murad Sezer)

France’s staunchly secularist educational establishment was shocked four years ago when schools around the country suddenly began receiving free copies of a richly illustrated Muslim creationist book entitled the “Atlas of Creation.” The book by Istanbul preacher and publisher Harun Yahya had come out in Turkey the year earlier. After the French Education Ministry warned teachers not to use it and held a seminar on how to deal with creationist pupils, the issue dropped out of the public discussion. But the Harun Yahya group has been spreading its view in France and is now holding a series of conferences on them. Here is my feature after visiting one of the first meetings in the current series: Muslim creationists tour France denouncing Darwin

AUBERVILLIERS, France (Reuters) – Four years after they first frightened France, Muslim creationists are back touring the country preaching against evolution and claiming the Koran predicted many modern scientific discoveries.

Followers of Harun Yahya, a well-financed Turkish publisher of popular Islamic books, held four conferences at Muslim centers in the Paris area at the weekend with more scheduled in six other cities.

(Avni Karahisar addresses pupils at La Réussite junior high school in Aubervilliers, France, 13 May 2011/Tom Heneghan)

At a Muslim junior high school in this north Paris suburb, about 100 pupils — boys seated on the right, girls on the left — listened as two Turks from Harun Yahya’s headquarters in Istanbul denounced evolution as a theory Muslims should shun.

Muslim religious demands on French state schools rising: report

lyceeThe sometimes difficult integration of Muslims is climbing the ladder of public concerns in Europe. It’s been hotly debated in Germany and figured in recent elections in the Netherlands and Austria. Now, a French government body called the High Council for Integration (HCI) has drawn up a critical report about the problems faced by — and posed by — school pupils with immigrant backgrounds. It’s not only about Muslim pupils, but they are mentioned so frequently that it’s clear who’s mostly involved here. (Photo: Lycée Condorcet in Paris,  27 June 2009/Juan Antonio Cordero)

Among its findings, the report says Muslim pupils and parents in France are increasingly making religious demands on the state school system and that teachers should rebuff these demands by explaining the country’s principle of laïcité, the official separation of church and state. Among the problems it listed were pupils who upset classes by objecting to courses about the Holocaust, the Crusades or evolution, who demand halal meals and generally “reject French culture and its values.”

For more of its findings, read our news report on the study here.

“It is becoming difficult for teachers to resist religious pressures,” said the report, posted in draft form (here in French) on the website of the newspaper Journal du Dimanche (JDD), which published an article in its paper edition entitled “School threatened by communalism.” “We should now reaffirm secularism and train teachers how to deal with specific problems linked to the respect for this principle,” it said. The final report will be presented to the government next month.

As Darwin Year ends, some seek to go “beyond Darwin”

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Pigeon bones display at Darwin's former home, 12 Feb 2009/Tal Cohen

As this Darwin Year 2009 draws to a close, I have to say a lot of the public debate it prompted came down to the sterile old clash between evolution and creationism.  The issue of religion always hung in the air, with the loudest arguments coming from the creationist side defending it or the neo-atheists like the Darwinian biologist Richard Dawkins denouncing it. In the end, the squabbling seemed to be more about ideology than science and told us little we didn’t already know. staune

Jean Staune, 25 Nov 2009/Tom Heneghan

So I was intrigued by a conference held at UNESCO here in Paris recently about scientists who believe in evolution but want to go “beyond Darwin.” Organised by French philosopher of science Jean Staune, its speakers argued that Darwin could not explain underlying order and patterns found in nature.  “We have to differentiate between evolution and Darwinism,” said Jean Staune, author of the new book “Au-dela de Darwin” (Beyond Darwin). “Of course there is adaptation. But like physics and chemistry, biology is also subject to its own laws.”

Michael Denton, a geneticist with New Zealand’s University of Otago, said Darwinian “functionalists” believed life forms simply adapted to the outside world while his “structuralist” view also saw an internal logic driving this evolution down certain paths.  His view, which he called “extraordinarily foreign to modern biology,” explained why many animals developed “camera eyes” like human ones and why proteins, one of the building blocks of life, fold into structures unchanged for three billion years.

from The Great Debate UK:

The debate over Darwin 150 years on

Debate continues to swirl around the theory of evolution Charles Darwin proposed 150 years ago in his groundbreaking book, "On the Origin of Species," despite its universal acceptance among scientists.

Before Darwin's discovery, the world was generally thought to have remained more or less the same since its creation. This belief, based on Biblical interpretations, was contested through fossil studies showing that species change over time.

Darwin's legendary round-the-world 1831-1836 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle generated his most significant observations and discoveries, inspiring his work on natural selection.

Muslim creationism is back in the news, this time in Egypt

darwinm-portraitMuslim creationism is back in the news. There’s been a spate of articles in the U.S. and British press recently about the spread of this scripture-based challenge to Darwinian evolution among Muslims, mostly in the Middle East but also in Europe. The fact that some Muslims have embraced creationism, a trademark belief of some conservative American Protestants, is not new. Reuters first wrote about it in 2006 — “Creation vs. Darwin takes Muslim twist in Turkey” – and this blog has run several posts on the issue, including an interview with Islam’s most prominent creationist, Harun Yahya. What’s new is that these ideas seem to be spreading and academics who defend evolution are holding conferences to discuss the phenomenon. (Photo: Portrait of Charles Darwin, 12 Feb 2009/Gordon Jack)

There are too many recent articles about Islamic creationism out there now to discuss each one separately, so I’ll have to just link to them in the … New York TimesWashington PostBoston GlobeSlateGuardianNational Beliefnet … … Many of these articles highlight the role of Harun Yahya, the once secretive Istanbul preacher and publisher who has gone on a PR offensive in recent years and turned very media-friendly (as Steve Paulson describes in that Slate article). But as Michael Reiss, a London education professor and Anglican priest told the Guardian, “what the Turks believe today is what the Germans and British believe tomorrow. It is because of the mass movement of people between countries. These things can no longer be thought of as occurring in other countries.”

Harun Yahya, 21 May 2008/Osman Orsal (Photo: Harun Yahya, 21 May 2008/Osman Orsal)

Over the weekend, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria, Egypt hosted a conference on “Darwin’s Living Legacy: An International Conference on Evolution and Society” with the British Council. The simple fact of holding a conference on Darwin in the heart of the Middle East, where his theory of evolution is widely rejected, is already noteworthy. According to the Guardian‘s Riazat Butt, Nidhal Guessoum, professor of physics and astronomy at the American University of Sharjah, told the conference that only three Muslim or Muslim-majority countries out of a possible 22 taught evolution. Another participant, astronomer Salman Hameed, who is professor of integrated science & humanities from Hampshire College in Massachusetts, wrote on his informative science-and-religion blog Irtiqa: “It is incredible that this conference is taking place in Egypt. I don’t know what will be the reaction here. Simply by its location, it may remove some of the stigma regarding evolution in the Muslim world, or it may end up generating a backlash. Frankly, I have no idea about the reaction.”

Facts and false equivalence – reporting on evolution disputes

greatestshow_jacketBritish biologist Richard Dawkins, one of the leading voices of the “neo-atheist” movement, has taken the latest book-sized shot at the “intelligent design” movement. You can read my interview with Dawkins’ here about his new book: “The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.”

For a scientist of Dawkins’ caliber, intelligent design is a barn-door sized target. In a nutshell, it maintains that life is so complex that it must be the work of a creator. Its boosters claim their view is based in science and not influenced by religion, but it is widely seen as a thinly-veiled attempt to give a scientific gloss to creationism. That claim to science is the key here — most religions believe that God created the world, of course, but they state this as an article of faith and not a scientific fact.

On this blog, we often report on issues related to science and religion. We have to remain agnostic on the biggest question of all — does God exist? — and take fundamental dogmas as the starting point for each faith. This sometimes strikes readers as strange or biased. Some think it already shows a prejudice against belief. But just imagine what would happen if we took sides on teachings such as the resurrection of Jesus or the divine origin of the Koran. We would not be practicing journalism anymore, but some kind of theological analysis or deconstruction, and our readers would not be getting the information they want about religion news around the world.

Saudi cleric to king’s university: don’t teach evolution, mix sexes

kaustA senior Saudi cleric said religious scholars should vet the curriculum at the kingdom’s only co-educational university, meant to be a beacon of science, to prevent “alien ideologies” such as evolution. (Photo: King Abdulla at KAUST opening, 23 Sept 2009/Susan Baaghil)

King Abdullah’s University of Science and Technology (KAUST), designed to produce Saudi scientists, is the only educational institution in the kingdom where men and women can mix. It is located near a Red Sea village away from the clutches of religious police and opened on September 23.

“The recommendation is to set up sharia committees at this university to oversee these studies and look into what violates the sharia (Islamic law),” Sheikh Saad al-Shithri, a member of a panel of top scholars, was quoted by al-Watan newspaper.

Is a moral instinct the source of our noble thoughts?

judgmentUntil not too long ago, most people believed human morality was based on scripture, culture or reason. Some stressed only one of those sources, others mixed all three. None would have thought to include biology. With the progress of neuroscientific research in recent years, though, a growing number of psychologists, biologists and philosophers have begun to see the brain as the base of our moral views. Noble ideas such as compassion, altruism, empathy and trust, they say, are really evolutionary adaptations that are now fixed in our brains. Our moral rules are actually instinctive responses that we express in rational terms when we have to justify them. (Photo: Religious activist at a California protest, 10 June 2005/Gene Blevins)

Thanks to a flurry of popular articles, scientists have joined the ranks of those seen to be qualified to speak about morality, according to anthropologist Mark Robinson, a Princeton Ph.D student who discussed this trend at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp. “In our current scientific society, where do people go to for the truth about human reality?” he asked. “It used to be you might read a philosophy paper or consult a theologian. But now there seems to be a common public sense that the authority over what morality is can be found by neuroscientists or scientists.”

This change has come over the past decade as brain scan images began to reveal which areas of the brain react when a person grapples with a moral problem. They showed activity not only in the prefrontal cortex, where much of our rational thought is processed, but also in areas known to handle emotion and conflicts between brain areas. Such insights cast doubt on long-standing assumptions about reason or religion driving our moral views. “A few theorists have even begun to claim that that the emotions are in fact in charge of the temple of morality and that moral reasoning is really just a servant masquerading as the high priest,” University of Virginia psychologist Jonathan Haidt, one of the leading theorists in this field, has written.

Cognitive science gaining ground in U.S. academic religion studies

teehanThe academic study of religion has come a long way from the days when knowledge of scripture, history and a few ancient languages were the main qualifications a scholar needed. Psychology, sociology and other social sciences have been applied to the field for over a century. Over the past 20 years, cognitive science has been edging into the field, especially with the explosion of neuroscience research. Some of the hottest research into religion is now being done with brain scanners searching for data on what happens inside believers’ heads when they pray or feel a special connection to God. (Photo: John Teehan at the Neuroscience Boot Camp, 6 Aug 2009/Tom Heneghan)

Among the participants at the University of Pennsylvania’s Neuroscience Boot Camp I’m attending this week and next is John Teehan, an associate professor in the religion department at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York. He’s seen how cognitive science has brought new tools and insights to the study of religion and may eventually challenge the ways religions justify their beliefs. He is writing a book about how many moral teachings in the Bible fit with the moral psychology that cognitive science says evolved naturally. I asked Teehan for an overview of what’s happening in the religion studies field in the United States.

“At the end of the 19th century, there was a real interest in looking at religion from a psychological perspective,” he said. “Sigmund Freud and William James were the major figures. The Freudian paradigm was not a scientific one, even though Freud thought it was, and our understanding of the mind and the brain was primitive then compared to what we have now. What’s happening now is that the science of the mind has advanced to the point that we’re actually developing a scientific understanding of the mind. With the cognitive revolution involving cognitive science, neurological science and evolution studies, a more empirical approach to understanding the mind and morality is developing. Over the last 20 years, some of these scholars have started to look more particularly at religion. This field of the cognitive science of religion started in the early ’90s looking at religious behavior and rituals and how emotions mediate or reinforce religious experience.”

God on the brain at Penn’s Neuroscience Boot Camp

bootcampheaderNeurotheology – the study of the link between belief and the brain – is a topic I’ve hesitated to write about for several years. There are all kinds of theories out there about how progress in neuroscience is changing our understanding of religion, spirituality and mystical experience. Some say the research proves religion is a natural product of the way the brain works, others that God made the brain that way to help us believe. I knew so little about the science behind these ideas that I felt I had to learn more about the brain first before I could comment.

If that was an excuse for procrastination, I don’t have it anymore. For all this week and half the next, I’m attending a “Neuroscience Boot Camp” at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This innovative program, run by Penn’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience Director Martha Farah (photo below), aims to explain the latest research in neuroscience to 34 non-experts from fields such as law, business, philosophy and religious studies (as well as to a few journalists). The focus is not only on religion, but faith and issues related to it are certainly part of the discussion.

martha-head-shot1After only two of 8-1/2 days of lectures, one takeaway message is already clear. You can forget about the “God spot” that headline writers love to highlight (as in “‘God spot’ is found in Brain” or “Scientists Locate ‘God Spot’ in Human Brain”). There is no one place in the brain responsible for religion, just as there is no single location in the brain for love or language or identity. Most popular articles these days actually say that, but the headline writers continue to speak of a single spot.