Atheist Comedy Night
Saturday, March 11th, Canad Inns Polo Park, 5:30 – 8:30 PM
HAAM and Eggs Brunch
Sunday, March 19th, 10:00 AM at the Perkins restaurant in Madison Square (305 Madison at Ness, just west of Polo Park).
2017 Atheist Film Festival
Saturday, April 1st, Millennium Library (Carol Shields Auditorium, 2nd floor)
Doors open 2:45 pm. Films start at 3 pm.
For more information on these and future events, check out our Events page or click on the event name in the right sidebar.
You can find past events by using the ‘Search this Site’ tool, also in the right sidebar.
Meet our new family members!
Following the presentation by Maysoun Darweesh of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (MIIC) at our meeting in November, my wife Carmen and I have become hosts for a family of new Canadians. They are from the city of Idlib (in red on map), in the Idlib Governorate in Syria, located just 59 km southwest of Aleppo. They arrived in Canada on January 1, 2016.
We applied to and were accepted for the MIIC’s “Host Matching Program”. We will be their newest and, as it turns out, their first Canadian friends! Khaled and Asmahan are parents to three lovely young children ranging in age from 18 months to 8 years old. Khaled was most recently a truck driver at home, but considers himself a construction worker. Asmahan is mainly a stay-at-home mother, but she has some serious bead working, knitting, and crocheting skills that we will be able to tell you more about after we get to know them better.
Their area in Syria and their city saw some of the earliest fighting in the Syrian Civil War. Much of their town has been destroyed in the conflict, including ruins dating from thousands of years ago. My heart goes out to them, already, just for this. Their eldest, a daughter, is in grade 3 at her local school. She wants to be a doctor, a teacher or a paleontologist (she is in her dinosaur phase!). She is very bright and her English is already surprisingly good. The middle child, a boy, attends kindergarten, is shy, and we only saw him get animated after we had been together for about an hour and a half. Their youngest child, another girl, slept most of the time we were together, but we saw her playing with her siblings as well.
Both parents come from large families. Khaled is the youngest of ten, while Asmahan is third youngest of 12. While their surviving parents seem to be still residing in Idlib, their siblings are dispersed across the region, Europe, and now, North America. Their story is not unusual in this respect. They are able to maintain some contact by phone and over the Internet.
During the thirteen months they have been in Canada, they have had no sustained contact with anyone here. We will become their family, since it seems they have none left in Syria, either. I am expecting many people to be called upon to help as needs become apparent. Khaled has applied for a special program at RRC that will give him special instruction in both English and in construction. It will also place him afterward! If he can get into that program, it will be a big step to making this family self-sufficient. Asmahan could sell some of her crafts. I am hoping to help her make those connections. Both parents are studying English at the Seven Oaks Adult ESL school. They have a vehicle, which they do not use very much, and Asmahan is learning to drive.
Our discussions led to us to understand that they already appreciate the secular nature of life in Canada. They were subjected to various kinds of discrimination in their homeland and in Lebanon. They also saw its effects on others. While they are nominally Muslim, I expect the Humanist aspect of our world view will appeal to them as they come to understand how we come to be so accepting of our differences.
We expect to get the family out to do some normal family things, like tobogganing and skating. Other ideas will come as we get to know them better. As far as we can tell, they have never even been to the zoo! It takes a village to support a family, and I know HAAM members are already stepping up to help. I would like to hear from anyone reading this article who would like to be included in the work required to acclimate this young family to their new permanent home.
P.S., They all love cats! That means our Ringo will have more family to contend with now.
Please let us know if you are interested in helping this family. – Rick Dondo
Does Your Advance Care Plan Include Spiritual Care?
With the recent legalization of assisted dying (now commonly known as MAID – medical aid in dying), you may have seen in the news lately that some publicly-funded health care facilities are refusing to allow MAID on their premises because of their religious affiliation. This has led to questions from our members about the influence of religion in public hospitals. Most of us don’t get to choose which hospital we are taken to when we are ill – so how do you feel about being admitted to a faith-based facility?
Just as an ACP (Advance Care Plan) provides for your wishes to be respected in regards to medical care and treatment, perhaps it’s also worthwhile to make your wishes regarding ‘spiritual care’ clearly known if you feel strongly about that. It’s pretty simple to do this. Your Manitoba Health card must be presented whenever you require medical treatment. So if you have an ACP, or any other wishes or requests, just note that in writing and keep it with your Manitoba Health card.
A sample card is shown here (click images to enlarge).
Dying With Dignity used to mail out these cards out with ACP packages. They don’t mail cards anymore, but you can easily make a similar one yourself and include the same information – the names of people to call in an emergency to make medical decisions for you, the name and phone number of your family physician, your signature, and the location of your ACP if you have one. On the back of this one it says “I am an atheist. If I am hospitalized, I do not want any clergy or chaplain visits”, followed by initials.
Making sure your wishes are known and clearly stated can save a lot of grief and hassle later.
We have written about spiritual care in hospitals before – check the October 2016 newsletter if you missed the articles.
Charity of the Month
It’s been several years since the Rainbow Resource Centre was our Charity of the Month, so it’s overdue – and their current need couldn’t be greater. Recent and ongoing political upheaval in the USA is leading members of the LGBTTQ community there to seek asylum in Canada, and as a result, RRC is overwhelmed with calls for information and counselling.
RRC was busy enough even before this latest crisis. Since its inception as the ‘Campus Gay Club’ at the U of M in the early 1970’s, it has been a leader and important resource for the gay and lesbian community, providing community services, education, outreach and political awareness, and activism.
RRC offers support to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, Two-Spirit, Intersex, Queer, Questioning and Ally (LGBTTQ*) population of Manitoba and North Western Ontario through counselling and peer support groups; provides education and training for schools, school divisions, and GSA’s (gay-straight alliances); hosts events, workshops, and social activities for clients of all ages; and houses and coordinates a wealth of resources, including a library, a toll-free phone line, and links to LGBTTQ-friendly crisis centres, legal aid, peer support groups, health care, and more.
RRC depends on donations to help keep all these operations going for the long haul, and now to assist refugees as well. Please lend your support to this worthy cause!
Tax receipts are available for donations over $10. If you would like to donate but cannot attend the meeting, you can do so via the PayPal link on the right sidebar. Just include a note letting us know that the money is for the charity.
Partners for Life Update
Have you donated blood yet this year? Canadian Blood Services’ Partners for Life program is a friendly competition among organizations, schools, and businesses to encourage their members to donate blood. We just got our participation report for 2016, and HAAM did really well, especially since we didn’t even promote it until mid-summer. Fourteen HAAM members have enrolled in the program, and those members gave a total of 19 units of blood, or 76% of our goal of 25 units.
Can we reach that goal this year? There have been 3 donations already in 2017, so we should easily be able to get to 25, if
- Those 14 members each donate twice, and/or
- A few more HAAM members sign up.
By donating blood, you can not only save someone’s life (enough reward in itself, right?), but show the world that Humanists are good people (who donate blood).
Upcoming clinics: You can donate at the main clinic on William Ave (across from HSC) during their regular hours (Mon 10-2 and 3:30-7:30; Tues 1:30-7; and Wed-Sat 8-2). Or check the list of mobile clinics at the top of any page on the CBS website.
Video Links from our Darwin Day meeting
If you weren’t at our February meeting, you missed a great presentation by Pat Morrow about how the advancement of science contributes to a Humanistic worldview. At the end, several people in the audience asked for links to the short videos he showed about evolution. Here they are:
The first three are from a video series called Genetics and Evolution, by Stated Clearly.
The last video was a clip of a speech by Richard Dawkins comparing the worldview of someone whose religious belief prevents him from accepting reality to someone whose commitment to truth requires him to reject a long-held belief when new evidence against it is presented.
If you are interested in learning more, there are links to additional videos and other resources, including the complete Genetics and Evolution video series, on our Exploring Nonbelief web page. Check it out!
P.S. If you weren’t at the meeting to get a piece of Darwin’s birthday cake, you can at least see a photo of it in our Gallery.
Book of the Month
It’s comedy month, so here’s something fun. Not all of the books in our library are serious and educational; we also have a few about popular culture, including Me of Little Faith by comedian Lewis Black. Raised as a non-practicing Jew, Black noticed unsettling parallels between religious rapture and drug-induced visions while attending college in the 1960’s, and since then has turned an increasingly skeptical eye toward the politicians and televangelists who don the cloak of religious rectitude to mask their own moral hypocrisy. The more than two dozen short essays in this book include hilarious experiences with rabbis, Mormons, gurus, and psychics. Black pokes fun at every religious figure and issue he can – the Catholic Church, Mormons, people who commit suicide in the name of faith, Jews, and of course Jesus and God. Find it in our Library.
Outreach Report from Houston Atheists
I worked on this newsletter while on vacation in Roatan, Honduras. Here’s a little personal note about that trip.
We booked our flights, via Chicago and Houston, long before we had any inkling of Trump becoming president, so we experienced a lot of anxiety about traveling to the US when the time finally came. I spent an hour before we left deleting all the memes, news articles, and videos I had shared on Facebook mocking Trump and criticizing the US government – just in case my phone or laptop was searched. But we passed through airport security without a hitch, except for my husband being asked for his Social Insurance Number. He did remember most of it, after a couple of attempts; what might the customs officer have asked or done if he had not? I felt guilty, in solidarity with everyone who is not white, about not being stopped and searched.
We spent our layover day in Houston at the Museum of Natural Sciences, figuring that if we were going to spend any tourist dollars in Texas, they might as well be directed toward science and education. The museum’s paleontology exhibit is comprehensive and about the size of a football field. I saw Tiktaalik! (in photo) There were references to evolution in almost every display, and the museum was packed with school children on tours. I heard a guide state that they get 600,000 kids a year through there on school field trips. That just doesn’t jive with what we hear about scientific ignorance and rampant creationism.
In the evening we joined a group of people from the Houston Atheists at a pub. There were about a dozen attendees, so we spent an interesting couple of hours comparing notes about our groups’ activities and ideas. They are a loosely-knit organization that mainly uses Meet-Up to advertise small social gatherings at various venues around the city. Not surprisingly, their main focus right now is political activism and separation of church and state issues. One of their members is a high school teacher, so he was able to shed some light on the religion-in-schools issues we read so much about in the media. He said there’s a huge urban-rural split (sound familiar?) in worldviews, with most of the anti-science attitude and push for creationism coming from outside the major cities. He also explained that there is a huge discrepancy in the quality of the education among public schools, depending mainly on the socio-economic level and ethnicity of the communities they serve; but that generally, what we read about represents the egregious infractions of a small minority.
Overall, we experienced no trouble on our one day in Texas; but like several members of the Houston Atheists warned – venture outside the city limits and it’ll be a different story. Not one I’m particularly yearning to read.
One final note – I was asked to toss in a fish picture, so here’s a photo of a seahorse from Roatan. They’re a rare and special sight, and we saw several. Fun fact – when seahorses mate, the female deposits the eggs into a pouch on the male’s abdomen. His body swells and he incubates the eggs until they hatch. Now doesn’t that sound like ‘intelligent design’? – Dorothy Stephens
HAAM Takes On Apologetics – Part 2
Two of our members were recently interviewed by a pastor for a church conference designed to teach Christians how to defend their faith to non-believers.
Winter Solstice Party
Saturday, December 17th, Heritage-Victoria Community Club, 950 Sturgeon Rd, 5:30 pm – 9:30 PM
New! We now have a liquor permit for the party. Important details here.
And don’t forget to bring money or a food item for the Christmas Cheer Board.
Are You Recovering from Religion?
Saturday, January 14th, Canad Inns Polo Park, 1405 St Matthews Avenue, 5:30 PM
We will begin with our meet-and-greet time at 4:30 PM in order to accommodate our AGM at 5:00. Dinner will follow at 6:00, and then our regular meeting and speaker at 6:45. Please join us for the AGM – we need your support and input as we plan for the coming year!
For more information on these events, check out our Events page or click on the event name in the right sidebar.
You can find past events by using the ‘Search this Site’ tool, also in the right sidebar.
Celebrate Human Rights!
December 10th often goes by unnoticed in Canada. With the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, it seems to pass with no mention. But it’s a special day, a day that was 2500 years in the making*. December 10th is International Human Rights Day. On this day, we celebrate the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) – a document so important that its 30 articles are woven into our Canadian Constitution. You can read the full text of the UDHR here.
The UDHR was established by resolution in the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, and ever since that auspicious day it has stood as the first major stride forward in ensuring that the rights of every human across the globe are protected. The UDHR is far superior to, and more moral in every way than any religious text. Developed after the carnage of World War II by people from all backgrounds, it remains a document to which our species must aspire.
Many of us in Canada have enjoyed these rights for so long we couldn’t imagine our lives without them; others simply take them for granted. This year’s slogan for International Human Rights Day is “Stand up for someone’s rights today“, and with recent developments in our political climate, the message couldn’t be more timely. So this December 10th, take some time to appreciate what we have and the effect that this resolution has had on your world and your life. Look around your community and see its effects on a local scale. We all must understand that universal human rights are a gift for us, and to us, and they must be protected by us.
Here are two easy ways to promote human rights:
- Watch and share this 10-minute video.
2. Explain the UDHR to young people.
Let’s reaffirm our common humanity. Wherever we are, we can make a real difference by stepping up to defend the rights of those at risk of discrimination or violence.
“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home…” Eleanor Roosevelt
*About 2500 years ago, Cyrus the Great conquered most of the Middle East (and then some). Up until that time, defeated soldiers in battle were typically either killed or enslaved. Cyrus offered the losers a different deal – they would not be taken into slavery (personal freedom), and they would be allowed to keep their religion (freedom of religion), provided they remained peaceful. In many cases he repatriated the dispossessed back to their homelands (freedom of citizenship). Many of these new rules were recorded on the Cyrus Cylinder, which is considered to be the first declaration of human rights.
Can You Help Us Help a Refugee Family?
At our last meeting, we listened to a short presentation from Maysoun Darweesh, from the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council. A former refugee herself, Maysoun is now helping current refugees (mainly from Syria) adjust to life here in Manitoba.
Maysoun explained that refugees arrive in Canada in two ways –
Some families are directly sponsored by groups (usually churches) who commit to supporting and providing for the them until they get established. This requires a substantial commitment of both time and money from the sponsors, as refugees require food, clothing, and shelter, and most need to learn English and settle in before finding they can find a job and become independent of the sponsoring organization.
The second way that refugees arrive is through government sponsorship. In this case, basic necessities are provided by the government, but the family has no direct, personal connection to a Canadian family or group that can help them with all the other things they need to learn. Because of the large influx of refugees in the last year, quite a few families in Winnipeg arrived this way.
Government sponsored refugees have a harder time becoming comfortable in their new environment because they don’t have friends to practice their English with, or to ask questions of, in the hours between their scheduled English and other settlement classes. They go home to their apartments and speak their own language, and many hesitate to venture out alone into the world of shopping malls and entertainment complexes they don’t understand.
To help these people, the MIIC has developed the Host Matching Program – a modified form of sponsorship that doesn’t require a financial commitment. It’s practical for small groups like ours who would like to help but don’t have the financial resources required for private sponsorship.
The program involves matching a government-sponsored immigrant family with supportive Canadians who are willing to help them settle in. These people do not need money or food. They need Canadian friends. They need someone to speak English with, answer their questions, go with them to Tim Hortons or the bowling alley, or the beach or toboggan hill, and teach them about Canadian pastimes, customs, culture, and relationships.
What is required of the sponsors? In order to take this project on, HAAM would need a core group of 3 or 4 people, or a couple of families, who are willing to sign up for the program and go through the screening and orientation process (including child abuse and criminal record checks, which are free). Once that’s set up, other families and friends can become involved as additional supporters. Most of the families in need of sponsors live in or near the downtown area.
Maysoun’s presentation met with a positive response and a great deal of informal support, and our HAAM exec would like to pursue it, but we need people to come forward and commit to it before proceeding. If you are interested, please let us know.
Is the Holiday Season Stressful in Your Family?
If you struggle to deal with your religious extended family, and the prospect of getting together with them over the upcoming holiday season is a major source of stress, you might find some helpful advice in a post called “Coping With Religious Family Over the Holidays” on the website Journey Free – Recovering from Harmful Religion.
The author is Dr Marlene Winell, a psychologist dedicated to helping people transition out of harmful religions, recover from trauma, and rebuild their lives. She has been working in religious recovery for over 25 years and originated the term ‘Religious Trauma Syndrome‘. She is also the author of Leaving the Fold: A Guide for Former Fundamentalists and Others Leaving Their Religion. (Editor’s note: This was one of the first books I read after leaving my church in the early 90’s, and it was immensely helpful. We don’t have it in our HAAM library, but the Winnipeg Public Library has a copy; probably the same copy I borrowed over 20 years ago. D.S.).
You’ll find some more good advice from Libby Anne, an ex-evangelical Christian who blogs at Love, Joy, Feminism. She addressed a recent post to those facing Trump-supporting family members at holiday gatherings, but the advice applies to more than just political differences. Check it out.
And if all else fails, look for some humor. Here’s a Religious Family Bingo card you can play.
Books of the Month
Thanks to some generous members, we have two new books! Catherine Kreindler has donated a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow (a study of critical thinking skills and cognitive biases), and Joan (last name withheld) gave us her copy of A Brief Candle in the Dark.
Thinking, Fast and Slow is a best-selling book by Nobel Memorial Prize in Economics laureate Daniel Kahneman. The book’s central thesis is that there is a dichotomy between two modes of thought: fast, instinctive and emotional versus slower, more deliberative, and more logical. The book discusses the cognitive biases associated with each type of thinking. From framing choices to people’s tendency to substitute a difficult question for one which is easy-to-answer, the author highlights several decades of academic research which suggests that people place too much confidence in human judgement. Surprise, surprise.
Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science is the second volume of the autobiographical memoir by Richard Dawkins. It covers the second half of his life, after the publication of The Selfish Gene (also in our HAAM library) in 1976. In this book, Dawkins discusses his scientific work, travels and conferences, his Royal Institution Christmas Lecture (Growing Up in the Universe, in 1991), his work as Professor for the Public Understanding of Science in Oxford, and his documentaries (such as The Root of All Evil?), as well as his personal life and his books.
New Brochure Aimed at Creationists
If you’ve read any of the reports from our Outreach booths in Morden, you already know that we get a lot of visitors who subscribe to Creationism (aka Intelligent Design). But this year, there were more than usual – buoyed, no doubt, by the presence of a new trailer devoted to materials from Answers in Genesis (the group that built the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky). Their people swarmed our booth in unprecedented numbers, asking nonsensical questions and spouting scientific impossibilities and general misinformation.
One area of misinformation and confusion stood out among the rest – few (if any) of these Creationists understand the difference between Cosmology, Abiogenesis, and Evolution. In fairness, that’s probably not uncommon; even among those of us who don’t believe the claims of Creationists, a lot may have never considered the difference or given it much thought.
The answer is really quite simple: Cosmology is the study of the origin of the universe; the branch of astronomy that includes Big Bang Theory. Abiogenesis is the natural process of life arising from non-living matter, or more simply – how did life originate? Evolution is the change in characteristics of living organisms over time, or, in the vernacular, how did we arise from monkeys? Abiogenesis deals with how life began; Evolution deals with changes in life that already exists; and neither of these subjects is related to how the earth came to be in the first place.
But do you think we could explain that to Creationists? Not a chance! They persisted in asking who created the world, and who created life, and where do people come from if there is no Creator; followed by their conclusion of “Tada! If you don’t know, then evolution is false!” When we pointed out the errors in that logic, they simply moved on to another question or topic. We might as well have tried to nail Jell-O to a wall.
For visitors to our booth who are actually seeking information, or who are at least curious enough to want to know what we have to say, our executive has prepared a number of brochures covering the most frequently asked questions we receive. A quick look reveals that they fall into two categories – Humanism/atheism, and science/evolution. (In case you’re wondering why there is a whole pamphlet devoted to trees, it written specifically to address the most commonly cited claim we hear for evidence of a Creator – “look at the trees!”)
But until now we had no brochure about the origins of life (as opposed to evolution). Spending three days wrangling creationists in Morden inspired Rick Dondo to research the topic and write one. It’s available on our website, and will be on the table at our next Outreach – if any creationists care to actually read it.
Calling All Secular Parents!
Beginning in the New Year, our secular parents’ coordinator, Tammy Blanchette, will be considering different ways to connect families. Distance, busy schedules, and babysitting make it difficult to get together, so online chats, family excursions, or spur-of-the-moment outings (sometimes weather-dependent) may be options. Not all of these will be planned with enough notice to make the monthly newsletter, and some will not be advertised publicly. If you are a secular parent who would like to be included when events are planned, please let us know and we’ll make sure you are notified.
Event Review: God and the Galaxies – A Jesuit perspective from the Vatican Observatory
Rick Dondo recently attended this lecture given by Jesuit priest and astronomer Dr. Richard D’Souza at St Paul’s College. He hoped to be treated to images of the night sky and some scientific explanations of them. That turned out to be hardly the case, but the evening was interesting nonetheless.
If you’re curious about how religious scientists try to overcome cognitive dissonance and reconcile their supernatural beliefs with their scientific endeavors, you’ll find his observations fascinating.
It’s Time to Plan for 2017
We’re almost at the end of another year, and plans are underway for the next. HAAM exists to create a supportive and welcoming community for non-believers. Make sure you’re a part of it! Here’s what you can do to help.
1. Renew your membership. We’re no different than any other organization – we need an operating budget just to exist. Whether you’re able to make our meetings or not, if you participate in our online community, and support our advocacy for a just and secular society, our outreach programs, and our general Mission and Position statements, then please help us to continue to our work. Our membership fees are reasonable – and haven’t increased in several years. Note that there is a limited-income option for as low as $10 a year, and you can renew online.
2. Consider volunteering – either by joining our Executive as a member-at-large; or if that’s too much right now, just help out with a specific task, project, or event. Many hands make light work. The number and type of events and programs we offer depends directly on the number of people willing to participate in the planning. Let us know if you can help.
3. Come out and get to know your fellow Humanists! The strength of any community is its members. The one thing that religion does really well is create a social support network; there’s no reason we can’t do the same (but without the superstition and dogma). Don’t be shy! We’re looking forward to meeting you!
Jesuit priest and astronomer Dr. Richard D’Souza recently presented this lecture at St Paul’s College. Rick Dondo attended it, hoping to be treated to images of the night sky and some scientific explanations of them. That turned out to be hardly the case, but the evening was interesting nonetheless.
If you’re curious about how religious scientists try to overcome cognitive dissonance and reconcile their supernatural beliefs with their scientific endeavors, you’ll find his observations fascinating.
This event, on November 24, 2016, was planned to be in the school’s main lecture hall. Attendance was such that it was moved to the chapel, which barely held the crowd and where the sound system was notably awful.
St Paul’s College announced this presentation with the following description:
“The evening lecture by Jesuit priest Dr. Richard D’Souza, SJ will explore his work at the Vatican Observatory, the connection between faith and reason, and question about the origins of the universe. For anyone interested in the Catholic Church and scientific discovery, this lecture will incredibly amazing.”
Putting aside the spelling and grammar mistakes in that description, this review will demonstrate that the evening, for this attendee, was far from memorable and far from amazing.
As part of the introduction, the MC for the evening indicated the talk would illustrate the relationship between science, faith and reason. I suggest and hope to demonstrate that it failed to do so except to the most initiated / indoctrinated believer.
For this review, I have used a structure that largely reflects the talk:
- The first part is an elaboration of Dr. D’Souza’s work in science
- The second part is an attempt to convince people that science and belief can coexist comfortably, or in his opinion, should coexist
- The final part is reserved for my observations and personal conclusions.
This review is an abbreviated version of a longer document which is available on request.
Describing Dr. D’Souza’s Work
After a short preamble or introduction of the scope of the Universe (see my observations below), he provided some background into the various ways galaxies form. He mentioned two methods, the first was “Spontaneous”, involving the collapse of dust and gases. The second was “Accretion” or “Cannibalism” wherein galaxies collide and coalesce.
He indicated this latter was his area of expertise, specifically using models to determine the ways these collisions contribute to the various types of galaxies we observe (i.e., “shell accretion”) and how that can help us understand their histories. As is the case in cosmology, he then stated that we can now know more about the history of our own galaxy, the Milky Way, because of this work.
Why an Observatory at the Vatican?
This was, in fact, the longer part of his presentation. His launching point was the premise wherein the believer assumes God. Now what? How do we answer the very human questions that arise such as Why? How?…
After several earlier iterations in The Vatican and surrounding parts of Rome, the Vatican Advanced Technology Telescope (VATT, alternately, here) is established at Mt Graham, AZ and has been in operation for 25 years. It includes a 1.8m mirror and considerable software that allows it be continuously upgraded to keep it able to meet the challenges of the research being done.
The work is not about proving the existence of God. The foundation of the mission is that they want to embrace the commands in the Bible, i.e., doing science is an act of worship. Twelve or thirteen Jesuits are involved; six in Rome, six at the telescope near Tucson, and others in related roles.
D’Souza noted that The Vatican has a major collection of meteorites. When the question was asked, “What would be the maximum value to science?” for these rocks, they chose to measure the meteorites. This was providing fundamental data that could be developed with the unique circumstances of the team, i.e., no funding or time constraints.
On outreach efforts by The VO Foundation, they get the same amazed reactions around the world when they show people the planets and stars via a portable telescope. He explained this as a common human characteristic and as a shared act of worship. In other words, for the speaker, the “Wow” experience of surprise was evidence of God.
He noted that Pope Leo had stated in his letter “Motu Proprio” (a personal decree) establishing the Vatican Observatory in 1891: “the Church and her Pastors are not opposed to true and solid science, whether human or divine, but that they embrace it, encourage it, and promote it with the fullest possible dedication.” He contended that over time, the people at the observatory had lost sight of the “anybody” aspect. Now, they see it as important that they show the church is not opposed to science.
The common reaction is “But what? Is not the church opposed to science?” He then proceeded to provide a brief and selective history of the ways in which active Christians had made significant contributions to Science.
- Roger Bacon, friar, 13th century; study of nature via empirical methods
- Christopher Clavius, 16th century; Julian to Gregorian calendars; good friend to Galileo
- Francesco Maria Grimaldi, 17th century; free fall and diffraction
- Roger Joseph Boscovich, 18th century; developed a precursor of atomic theory
- Pietro Angelo Secchi, 19th century; astronomical spectroscopy
- Georges Lemaître, 20th century; expanding universe; big bang; cannot use physics and science to prove God
He specifically addressed the case of Galileo Galilei, concluding with the arguably dismissive statement that Galileo was a hothead and that may well have contributed to the animus against him.
He stated that, with the Observatory, the church wants to start a new narrative. The mandate is to do good science. Then, he launched into the real apologetics of the talk…
He put the focus on an Einstein quote in which Einstein stated “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” He provided no further discussion of that quote but carried on. (See my comments on this under Observations and Conclusions, below.)
Per Dr D’Souza, Science is about explanation (storytelling via the scientific method) while religion is about meaning. Science takes things apart, where Religion puts things together to see what they mean.
Per Dr D’Souza, Science describes natural phenomena to weave into a consistent story with other theories. Per the speaker, Faith is not certainty; rather, it is the courage to live with uncertainty. Further, Faith is not accepting a bunch of facts in the absence of evidence; instead, it is making choices in the absence of all the facts.
He discussed the roles of assumptions and axioms in the scientific method. He also touched on Gödel’s “Theorems of Incompleteness” to illustrate the fact we must know some things to advance.
He mentioned briefly what he referred to as “The Conditions of Science”:
- A Real universe
- The Universe has laws
- It is worth the effort to learn the laws
He noted that some cultures do not include that last element and suggested that, as a result, they have not made much scientific progress.
As an example of the way scientific theories change, he chose the various ways in which humans have described gravity: Ptolemaic, Newtonian, and Einsteinian models have shown the advances made through the introduction of new tools, new observations, and new data.
He noted that reality does not change, but the map does.
His last thought: Religious language is symbolic and mythic, while scientific language tries to be empirical and objective.
He then took questions
In one response (inaudible to the bulk of the attendees in the room), he again cautioned against taking the Bible literally. To understand its symbolism, one should study theology.
When asked about the Church and the possibility of Extraterrestrial Intelligence, he responded that the probability tells us that yes, there is other life in the Universe. Is it intelligent? To that, he had only a response of “No comment”.
The last question was about the incomprehensibility (to the questioner) of the 11 dimensions of string theory and the suggestion that it is valid to ask: “Has science hit a wall?” His response was that such models are meant to provide maps to understanding reality and to permit predictions about it. He noted that Quantum Theory arises from mathematical constructs and that to date its place in science is unsure. It explains nothing in the real world and has yet to allow any predictions and as such, it is not considered to be a fully accepted scientific theory even if much research is being done in the field and other results rely on it to make explanations.
Observations and Conclusions
My general observation about the evening’s events is that the speaker was presenting to what I can only characterize as a room full of “the converted”. If there were any other skeptics in the room, they, as did I, failed to make their presence known in the formal portion of the event. A show of hands indicated there were, just the same, several people in the room studying the sciences, in general, and astronomy, in particular.
If he was questioned at all in a skeptical manner about the content or the intent of his material during the unstructured reception afterward, I cannot say. I did not stay long enough to observe it.
Some background on our speaker is available here (his sparse profile as a researcher at the University of Michigan) and here (his profile as a member of the Vatican Observatory staff). The latter offers insight into his published work. His sparsely populated Facebook profile offers some insight into his employment history and his timeline indicates some of his interests.
The longer version of this document contains much more detail on these highlights (or lowlights, as you prefer):
- Dr D’Souza was sloppy with his numbers on several occasions
- He used an approach to relating Science and Religion that showed a tendency to want to subsume and control its output to ONLY align it with Church dogma and doctrine
- He showed an approach to life, unsurprisingly, given his vocation, to downplay the value of Science to people’s lives while glorifying the role of Religion, specifically: “Science and religion are equal but different tools for understanding life and the Universe”. This extended to muddled efforts to demonstrate the superiority of Religion by appealing to faith, hope and trust.
- I was frankly appalled at his disingenuous attempt to co-opt Einstein in defense of religion. That quote about religion vs. science was taken out of context and this article by Dr Jerry Coyne provides the reasoning behind the argument that this quote does NOT mean what he presented it for in defense of his position. And just as telling, is Einstein’s own demolition in 1954, a year before his death, of any understanding of ANY of his writings as a defense of religion.
- The limited selection of priest scientists seemed to me to be a self-congratulatory pat on the back… As has been the case for some time, it did not sway me from my conviction that these people were scientists by nature and Christians, even priests, by necessity. At the time, heresy was punished by death. That is a serious motivator by itself. Also, only a rare few had the personal earthly resources required to support such inquiry and joining an order was an established path to gaining access to them. The rest is arguably a matter of convenience and circumstance, not a willful choice to justify any ersatz belief in a deity of any kind.
- Making choices in the absence of facts is more aptly characterized as “risk taking”. I fail to see how the modern technology or discipline of risk analysis applies in any way to the dogmatic following of any religion. I see religion as a prescriptive way of controlling people’s lives in a way intended to eliminate any risk that the people will rise up and take control of their own lives and their outcomes.
- His characterization of faith also failed to move me. It is simply and demonstrably ONLY “belief without evidence”. None of his other attempts to expand on that definition swayed me in any way.
In the end, I was disappointed by the content of the talk, since it spent so little time on the galaxies and so much time on the “god” part of the title. I was hoping for some unique content, only achieved via the VATT. There was none. For that part of the result, I have only myself to blame.
My personal conclusion
This talk was another demonstration of the cognitive dissonance required to hold the two concepts in one mind, especially when one is a practitioner of the scientific method. The presupposition of the existence of a deity to justify the resulting dissonance and the failure to be intellectually honest about the fact that neither answers the main question: “Why?” defeats any attempts at the rigorous application of logic and reason. Since this was the main point of the talk, then I consider it to be a complete failure.
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In our April 2014 Newsletter, you’ll find:
- The next Book Club selection for May.
- What happened when two of our members spoke to a high school class in Grunthal, MB.
- Which well-known author we’re speaking to at our April meeting.
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At our May Meeting, we’re talking about some good news related to Climate Change! Come on out and hear Curt Hull from the Climate Change Connection.
Plus… why is Diana Goods spurning a declaration of love? Find out!
Image (r) Our panelists at our April Bill 18 Public Discussion. From l. to r., Chad Smith, Jeff Olsson, Sharon Wilson, Jim Rondeau and Donn Short.