Book Club Discussion: The Moral Landscape

>Nov 28 2011: Media Night

7 p.m….home of Eric Bravick (email for directions)

Can science give us answers when it comes to questions of morality?  Sam Harris argues that indeed it can. Join us in reading and discussing this very important book, one that changed the mind of Richard Dawkins!  Read Dawkins’ comments here, along with a fascinating Q and A with Sam Harris.

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

The Moral Landscape cover

November 2011

Sam Harris’ first book, The End of Faith, ignited a worldwide debate about the validity of religion. In the aftermath, Harris discovered that most people from religious fundamentalists to non-believing scientists agree on one point: Science has nothing to say on the subject of human values. Indeed, our failure to address questions of meaning and morality through science has now become the most common justification for religious faith. It is also the primary reason why so many secularists and religious moderates feel obligated to respect the hardened superstitions of their more devout neighbors.

In this explosive new book, Sam Harris tears down the wall between scientific facts and human values, arguing that most people are simply mistaken about the relationship between morality and the rest of human knowledge. Harris urges us to think about morality in terms of human and animal well-being, viewing the experiences of conscious creatures as peaks and valleys on a moral landscape.  Because there are definite facts to be known about where we fall on this landscape, Harris foresees a time when science will no longer limit itself to merely describing what people do in the name of morality; in principle, science should be able to tell us what we ought to do to live the best lives possible.

Bringing a fresh perspective to age-old questions of right and wrong, and good and evil, Harris demonstrates that we already know enough about the human brain and its relationship to events in the world to say that there are right and wrong answers to the most pressing questions of human life. Because such answers exist, moral relativism is simply false and comes at increasing cost to humanity. And the intrusions of religion into the sphere of human values can be finally repelled: for just as there is no such thing as Christian physics or Muslim algebra, there can be no Christian or Muslim morality.

Using his expertise in philosophy and neuroscience, along with his experience on the front lines of our culture wars, Harris delivers a game-changing book about the future of science and about the real basis of human cooperation.

Pre-Human Fossils Viewed as ‘Game-Changer’ for Evolution

WASHINGTON An analysis of 2-million-year-old bones found in South Africa offers the most powerful case so far in identifying the transitional figure that came before modern humans, findings some are calling a potential game-changer in understanding evolution.

The bones are from Australopithecus sediba. The research places that pre-human branch of the evolutionary tree as the best candidate to be the ancestor of the human line, said Lee R. Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa.

The bones, found in 2008 in the fossil-rich cave region of Malapa near Johannesburg, show a head-to-foot combination of features of Australopithecus and the human genus, Homo.

“It’s as if evolution is caught in one vital moment, a stop-action snapshot of evolution in action,” said Richard Potts, director of the human origins program at the Smithsonian Institution. He was not among the international research team, led by South African scientists. Their research was published online Thursday in the journal Science.

Scientists have long considered the Australopithecus family, which includes the famous fossil Lucy, to be a primitive candidate for a human ancestor. The new research establishes a creature that combines features of both groups.

The journal published five papers detailing the findings, including separate reports on the foot, hand, pelvis and brain of A. sediba.

Berger said the brain, hand and foot have characteristics of both modern and early pre-human forms that show a transition under way. It represents a bona fide model that could lead to the genus Homo, Berger said.

Kristian J. Carlson, also at Witwatersrand, said the brain of A. sediba is small, like that of a chimpanzee, but with a configuration more human, particularly with an expansion behind and above the eyes.

This seems to be evidence that the brain was reorganizing along more modern lines before it began its expansion to the current larger size, Carlson said in a teleconference.

“It will take a lot of scrutiny of the papers and of the fossils by more and more researchers over the coming months and years, but these analyses could well be ‘game-changers’ in understanding human evolution,” according to the Smithsonian’s Potts.

Missing link?
So, does all this mean A. sediba was the “missing link”?

Well, scientists don’t like that term, which Berger calls “biologically unsound.”

This is a good candidate to represent the evolution of humans, he said, but the earliest definitive example of Homo is 150,000 to 200,000 years younger.

Scientists prefer the terms “transition form” or “intermediary form,” said Darryl J. DeRuiter of Texas A&M University.

“This is what evolutionary theory would predict, this mixture of Australopithecene and Homo,” DeRuiter said. “It’s strong confirmation of evolutionary theory.”

But it’s not yet an example of the genus Homo, he said, though it could have led to several early human forms including Homo habilis, Homo rudolfensis or Homo erectus — all considered early distant cousins to man, Homo sapiens.

Rethinking required
These articles “force a rethinking of how traits are coupled together in human evolution,” the Smithsonian’s Potts said in an email from Kenya, where he is doing research.

“For example, in previous definitions of our genus, the leading edge in the emergence of Homo has been brain enlargement. The sediba bones show, however, that reorganization of the brain and pelvis typically connected with the evolution of Homo need not have involved brain enlargement,” he noted.

“The more we learn about human evolution, the more we see that traits” that must have happened together could occur separately, Potts said.

The study of the hand shows that major changes in the thumb usually associated with stone toolmaking “did not imply abandoning life in the trees. In the foot article, we’re introduced to a unique and previously unknown combination of archaic and advanced traits in sediba,” Potts explained.

A full fossil hand
The fossil provides the first chance for researchers to evaluate the function of a full hand this old, said Tracy Kivell of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany. Previously, hand bones older than Neanderthals have been isolated pieces rather that full sets.

The researchers reported that the fingers of A. sediba were curved, as might be seen in a creature that climbed in trees. But they were also slim and the thumb was long, more like a Homo thumb, so the hand was potentially capable of using tools. No tools were found at the site, however.

The heel bone seems primitive, the researchers said. Yet its front is angled, suggesting an arched foot for walking on the ground, and there is a large attachment for an Achilles tendon as in modern humans, they said.

Bigger pelvis predated bigger brain
The pelvis is short and broad like a human pelvis, creating more of a bowl shape than in earlier australopith fossils like the famous Lucy, explained Job Kibii of the University of the Witwatersrand.

That find may force a re-evaluation of the process of evolution because many researchers had previously associated development of a humanlike pelvis with enlargement of the brain, but in A. sediba the brain was still small.

The subjects of the research were the bones of an adult female and a child. After the discovery, the children of South Africa were invited to name the child, which they called “Karabo,” meaning “answer” in the local Tswana language. The older skeleton has not yet been given a nickname, Berger said.

The juvenile would have been aged 10 to 13 in terms of human development; the female was in her 20s and there are indications that she may have given birth once. The researchers are not sure if the two were related.

Dominionism and Democracy

October 2011 Featured

By Joseph L. Conn

Religious Right Radicals’ Growing Role In The Presidential Election Sparks A Debate Over What Kind Of America They Want

Texas Gov. and GOP presidential hopeful Rick Perry is a big fan of the Ten Commandments. In an interview with TV preacher Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network in September, he cited the religious code as a good basis for public policy.

“I tell people that sometimes get their nose out of joint about me being a believer,” said Perry. “I ask them, I say, well, which one of those Ten Commandments out there that’s on the lawn of the Texas capitol bothers you so much? Which one of those is bad public policy? Which one of those is so onerous to how we as a people function?

“Those instructions are good guidance,” he continued, “and, frankly, they’re good values, they’re good policy and at the end of the day, I happen to think, that’s probably good politics.”

Perry’s comment didn’t get much attention beyond the confines of the Robertson broadcasting empire, but it’s one more example of the kind of rhetoric that has ignited a national debate about the role of the Religious Right, including its farthest fringes, in the 2012 presidential campaign.

In August, pundits and political pugilists were suddenly debating “dominionism” and its reach in American religious and political life.

Dominionism is the idea that conservative Christians have the right “and the responsibility” to take dominion over all aspects of life, including the government. The term springs from Genesis 1:26-28, a biblical passage in which God instructs Adam and Eve to “have dominion”over every living thing on Earth.

This dominion mandate has been popular in certain fundamentalist circles for decades, but it leaped onto online debating forums in August in connection with Perry’s Christian-fundamentalists-only prayer-and-fasting rally at Houston’s Reliant Stadium. The Texas governor initiated The Response and then turned to the American Family Association and a host of Pentecostal religious leaders to organize it.

Many of these leaders are associated with something called the New Apostolic Reformation, a Pentecostal movement that features end-times prophecy, spiritual warfare and a religious-political agenda that seeks to gain dominion over government and other centers of influence.

Also fueling the dominionism debate is GOP candidate Michele Bachmann’s relationship with John Eidsmoe, who was a law professor at Oral Roberts University when Bachmann got her law degree there. Eidsmoe’s books emphasize that Christians œmust exercise dominion in the name of God and that the world must be brought under God’s law politically, economically, and in every other way possible.

A recent New Yorker article quoted Eidsmoe as saying that ORU law students were taught that where American law and biblical law diverge, the first thing you should try to do is work through legal means and political means to get it changed.

Reports such as these sparked a heated debate about whether dominionist thinking is an imminent threat to American democracy or a minor movement with little real influence.

Washington Post columnist Lisa Miller took the latter view, calling dominionism the paranoid mot du jour. So did columnist Michael Gerson, who opined that dominionism, though possessing cosmic ambitions, is a movement that could fit in a phone booth.

But other journalists took a much different tack. Adele M. Stan, writing for Alternet, called Miller’s essay insulting and ridiculous.

Observed Stan, The Religious Right was born of a turn toward dominionism among a certain segment of the evangelical population in the 1960s.

So who’s correct? Is the influence of dominionism something that Americans should take seriously? The answer is an emphatic yes. The concept in modern times was spawned by ultra-conservative theologians with relatively small followings, but the idea has spread far beyond those original boundaries.

Today two camps are the primary sources for overt dominionist thinking: the Christian Reconstructionists and the New Apostolic Reformation. Their theological grounding is dramatically different but their radically theocratic impulses are similar.

Christian Reconstructionism is the brainchild of the late Rousas J. Rushdoony. His Vallecito, Calif.-based Chalcedon Foundation is the wellspring of Reconstructionism. Rushdoony’s many books and articles argue for a harsh application of Old Testament law to modern-day America, including the death penalty for 17 different offenses ranging from blasphemy, witchcraft, worshipping false gods and propagating false doctrine to sodomy, juvenile delinquency and adultery.

Rushdoony’s approach is so extreme that he attracted few full-fledged devotees, but his biblical argument for church involvement in politics had a huge impact on the Religious Right when it got started in the late 1970s and early 80s.

Robert Billings, an early Religious Right strategist, said, If it weren’t for [Rushdoony’s] books, none of us would be here. Scholars say TV preachers such as Robertson, Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy were clearly influenced by Reconstructionist notions.

Several Rushdoony disciples have also reached points of influence on their own. Gary North, for example, served as an aide to U.S. Rep. and presidential candidate Ron Paul, even though North holds views quite far outside the mainstream. (He considers stoning the biblically preferred means of execution.)

Another Rushdoony acolyte, Gary DeMar, heads American Vision, a Georgia-based organization that produces books, videos and other materials touting the Christian Reconstructionist approach to religion and government. Although DeMar’s take on things is radical, his annual conferences often draw co-sponsors and speakers from the “mainstream Religious Right.

American Vision’s 2007 Worldview Super Conference was held at a Southern Baptist facility in North Carolina. It was promoted by the Traditional Values Coalition and cosponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, Michael Farris’s Home School Legal Defense Association; Falwell’s Liberty University School of Law; and World Magazine, Marvin Olasky’s influential evangelical Christian periodical.

Far from shunning the Christian Reconstructionists, these Religious Right outfits seem perfectly happy to work side by side with them.

The second major source of dominionist thought today is the New Apostolic Reformation. This movement draws its religious impulse from Pentecostalism, not the hyper-Calvinism that animates the Reconstructionists. But its heady brew of religion and politics is just as militant and it seems much more capable of drawing a sizeable crowd.

The NAR is a network of self-proclaimed prophets and apostles who purport to be receiving direct prophecies and instructions from God about actions they should take in advance of the second coming of Jesus. They speak in militaristic terms about waging spiritual warfare and identify gay people, Muslims and a host of other Americans outside the Pentecostal orbit as being literally demon-possessed.

Rachel Tabachnik, who has researched the movement for several years, says NAR leaders teach that believers “will defeat evil by taking dominion, or control, over all sectors of society and government, resulting in mass conversions to their brand of Charismatic evangelicalism and a Christian utopia or Kingdom on earth.

Writing at the progressive website Talk To Action, Tabachnik says, The apostles teach that the obstacles to their envisioned Kingdom on earth are literal demonic beings who hold control over geographic territory and specific people groups. They claim this demonic control is the reason why people of other religions refuse to become evangelized and that the demons are also the source of crime, corruption, illness, poverty, and homosexuality. The apostles teach that their followers are currently receiving an outpouring of supernatural powers to help them fight these demons through what they call Strategic Level Spiritual Warfare.

International House of Prayer Pastor Mike Bickle, one of the organizers and speakers at Perry’s Response, is a top NAR leader. Others include evangelist Lou Engle of The Call, C. Peter Wagner, Cindy Jacobs and Dutch Sheets.

NAR clergy are heavily invested in the Seven Mountains campaign an effort to bring government, education, media, arts and entertainment, the family, business and religion under the control of Christians like themselves.

Although the NAR’s theology is foreign to many fundamentalist Christians who shun Pentecostal practices like speaking in tongues and gifts of prophecy, the Seven Mountains agenda has percolated through wide regions of the Religious Right. So has the concept of dominionism.

Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned Religious Right elder statesman, has bluntly called for religion-based political action. According to a report in, he told the Southern Baptist Convention Pastors Conference in June 2007 that the purpose of Christians must be “to take command and dominion over every aspect of life, whether it’s music, science, law, politics, communities, families, to bring Christianity to bear in every single area of life.

The late Bill Bright, founder of the Campus Crusade for Christ (recently renamed Cru), was also a Seven Mountains enthusiast.

The goal of a government where theocracy-minded Christians have significant power is sufficiently attractive that mainstream Religious Right activists were willing to work in tandem publicly with NAR clergy at Perry’s Response.

Although the Houston rally was billed as a purely religious event, a political agenda quickly became apparent. As AU staffer Sandhya Bathija reported on AU’s Wall of Separation blog, the Rev. Donald Wildmon of the American Family Association took advantage of the rally to try to enlist voters.

Those who registered for the Response received an email two weeks after the gathering urging involvement in next year’s elections. Wildmon encouraged participation in Champion the Vote (CTV), a project whose goal is to register five million conservative Christians who will vote according to the Biblical worldview in 2012.

The email claimed that only half of the Christians in the United States are registered to vote.

Imagine the impact we could make on the future of America, Wildmon continued, if these Christians made their voices heard in the voting booth!

Wildmon and other Religious Right forces are waging an all-out campaign to forge evangelical, fundamentalist and Pentecostal Christians into a disciplined voting bloc to back sympathetic candidates. The Alliance Defense Fund, for example, is again urging conservative clergy to take to their pulpits this month and endorse or oppose candidates for public office in defiance of federal tax law.

Other voices are urging creation of a voting bloc as well. Evangelist and author Perry Stone in August told Charisma magazine, the leading Pentecostal publication, that God may allow America to face destruction if voters don’t select the right candidates.

The only thing I think Christians can do, Stone said, is to start paying attention to what our leaders are saying and those who are going to run for office, and line up what they say with what you know in Scripture. There are enough Christians in the African-American, Caucasian and Hispanic communities to literally put in office, top to bottom, people who take a stand for what’s right in line with God’s covenant. We could be in serious danger if the Christians don’t wake up.

The Religious Right’s energy and enthusiasm has some opponents looking on in dismay.

“The Christian activist right is the largest, best organized and, I believe, the most powerful force in American politics today, Rob Stein, a Democratic strategist, told the Chicago Tribune recently. No other political group comes even close.

The debate over dominionism notwithstanding, the Religious Right stands ready to have a major impact on American political life over the upcoming months.