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Archive for January, 2011

What are the classic albums of the seventies? I just stumbled across a box of CDs I’d packed away years ago and forgotten about, so I’ve begun listening to them in the car for the last few days. It’s a pure nostalgia trip, and it’s hard for me to tell the difference between what means a lot to me because of all the memories and associations, and what is true musical greatness. I don’t have the objectivity I need to assess these treasured albums. But surely, even without the element of nostalgia, Carole King’s Tapestry deserves classic status.

There are some lines that should have been left on the cutting floor (‘Snow is cold and rain is wet…’), and some tracks that reflect the inane optimism of hippie culture (‘You’ve got to get up every morning with a smile on your face, and show the world all the love in your heart’). But it has the perfect mix of longing and love, of everyday poetry and easy melody.

Here is James Taylor’s live version of ‘You’ve Got a Friend':

I’m not sure that this is my top album of that decade (I’ll have to think about that…) What’s your own ‘greatest album of the seventies’? You can leave any thoughts in the comment box below.

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Cyber-scepticism: not that we are actually unplugging and switching off, but that more and more people are questioning whether our frantic social networking is really helping us to connect, to deepen our relationships, to share our lives.

MIT professor Sherry Turkle is one of many people wondering where we are really going in the information age. Her new book is appropriately titled Alone Together. Paul Harris reports:

Turkle’s book, published in the UK next month, has caused a sensation in America, which is usually more obsessed with the merits of social networking. She appeared last week on Stephen Colbert’s late-night comedy show, The Colbert Report. When Turkle said she had been at funerals where people checked their iPhones, Colbert quipped: “We all say goodbye in our own way.”

Turkle’s thesis is simple: technology is threatening to dominate our lives and make us less human. Under the illusion of allowing us to communicate better, it is actually isolating us from real human interactions in a cyber-reality that is a poor imitation of the real world.

But Turkle’s book is far from the only work of its kind. An intellectual backlash in America is calling for a rejection of some of the values and methods of modern communications. “It is a huge backlash. The different kinds of communication that people are using have become something that scares people,” said Professor William Kist, an education expert at Kent State University, Ohio.

The list of attacks on social media is a long one and comes from all corners of academia and popular culture. A recent bestseller in the US, The Shallows by Nicholas Carr, suggested that use of the internet was altering the way we think to make us less capable of digesting large and complex amounts of information, such as books and magazine articles. The book was based on an essay that Carr wrote in the Atlantic magazine. It was just as emphatic and was headlined: Is Google Making Us Stupid?

Another strand of thought in the field of cyber-scepticism is found in The Net Delusion, by Evgeny Morozov. He argues that social media has bred a generation of “slacktivists”. It has made people lazy and enshrined the illusion that clicking a mouse is a form of activism equal to real world donations of money and time.

Other books include The Dumbest Generation by Emory University professor Mark Bauerlein – in which he claims “the intellectual future of the US looks dim”– and We Have Met the Enemy by Daniel Akst, which describes the problems of self-control in the modern world, of which the proliferation of communication tools is a key component.

Turkle’s book, however, has sparked the most debate so far. It is a cri de coeur for putting down the BlackBerry, ignoring Facebook and shunning Twitter. “We have invented inspiring and enhancing technologies, yet we have allowed them to diminish us,” she writes.

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I’ve just had an article published about the New Evangelisation in the Catholic Church. Here is the opening section about the importance of conviction for those involved in this work:

A quarter of a million people pass through Leicester Square in central London every day. By some kind of miracle, the four Catholic parishes in the area received permission from Westminster City Council to take over the square for a Saturday last summer under the banner ‘Spirit in the City’.

The event involved a stage with non-stop music and talks; a line of stalls promoting various Catholic charities, movements and religious orders; a series of workshops about every aspect of Christian faith; a team of street evangelists greeting people and handing out prayer cards; a makeshift confessional with a rota of priests; and a suitably dignified tent-cum-chapel with the Blessed Sacrament exposed for adoration and personal prayer.

It was the strangest experience to emerge from Burger King and then kneel before the Lord in the centre of Leicester Square – a sanctuary of silence in the madness of the city.

Archbishop Rino Fisichella, head of the recently established Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelisation, has a magnificent desk and a blank piece of paper. He has been charged by Pope Benedict with re-evangelising the West in an age of secularism and moral relativism and talks himself of the West living “in a cultural crisis” (see ‘Taking on the world’, The Tablet, 8 January).

He could do worse than pay a visit to Britain for some inspiration. It’s striking how many evangelisation initiatives have sprung up over the last few years, from small parish projects to national programmes, many of them focused on young people. And while they don’t all fit neatly into one model, there are some common ideas at the heart of them.

Those who are committed to evangelisation have a real love for Christ and for the Church, as many Catholics do. But they also have a conviction that the Christian faith is something too precious to be kept to oneself. The Sion Community is the largest ‘home mission’ organisation in the UK. It’s involved in parish missions, youth ministry, residential training, and in forming others for the task of evangelisation.

I recently led a study day about Christian motivation at their centre in Brentwood. At the end of the morning session someone asked, ‘And how can this help us share the Gospel more effectively with the people we meet?’ They simply wanted to connect my topic with their deepest concern – which was helping others to know Christ. And the way this question instinctively arose helped me to see how focussed the community is on the explicit work of proclaiming and communicating the Gospel.

This approach is in sharp contrast to a reticence still felt by many Catholics about the very idea of evangelisation. I think there are different reasons for this, not all of them negative: a desire to witness unobtrusively through one’s personal example; a respect for the presence of God in people of other faiths or of no faith; a fear of appearing triumphalistic, arrogant or judgemental.

But the reticence can also reflect a subtle relativism that sometimes casts its spell, persuading Catholics that all beliefs are equally true, or that all truths are equally important. Many people aren’t convinced that evangelisation is ‘the primary service which the Church can render to every individual and to all humanity’ (Redemptoris Missio, Pope John Paul). But at the Sion Community, they believe in the importance of moving from ‘witness’ to ‘proclamation’. [The Tablet, 22 Jan 2011, p10]

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A few months ago I wrote about the possibility of discovering alien intelligence, and the whole SETI project. New research suggests that the planets close enough for us to investigate have environments that would be extremely inhospitable to life – at least to life as we know it.

Sophie Borland writes about Howard Smith’s recent findings.

Still waiting for little green men to make contact? Don’t hold your breath. A leading astronomer has concluded there probably aren’t any aliens out there – meaning we are entirely alone in the universe.

Even though there may be tens of thousands of other distant planets similar in size to Earth, the conditions on them are likely to be too hostile to support life-forms such as ET.

Dr Howard Smith, a senior astrophysicist at Harvard University, believes there is very little hope of discovering aliens and, even if we did, it would be almost impossible to make contact.

So far astronomers have discovered a total of 500 planets in distant solar systems – known as extrasolar systems – although they believe billions of others exist. But Dr Smith points out that many of these planets are either too close to their sun or too far away, meaning their surface temperatures are so extreme they could not support life.

Others have unusual orbits which cause vast temperature variations making it impossible for water to exist as a liquid – an essential element for life. Dr Smith said: ‘We have found that most other planets and solar systems are wildly different from our own. They are very hostile to life as we know it.’

‘The new information we are getting suggests we could effectively be alone in the universe. There are very few solar systems or planets like ours. It means it is highly unlikely there are any planets with intelligent life close enough for us to make contact.’

Not everyone agrees.

Only last month Professor Stephen Hawking said the fact that there are billions of galaxies out there made it perfectly rational to assume there were other life-forms in the universe.

Researchers from the University of London have recently suggested that aliens could be living on as many as 40,000 other planets.

But Dr Smith suggests that such estimates are optimistic.

He said: ‘Any hope of contact has to be limited to a relatively tiny bubble of space around the Earth, reaching maybe 1,250 light years out from our planet, where aliens might be able to pick up our signals or send us their own. But communicating would still take decades or centuries.’

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Take a look at this great optical illusion. Stay with it for a few moments, and then there is a wonderful ‘aaaah…’ moment.

I don’t want to turn this into a philosophical treatise, but it shows – as all optical illusions do – how wrong our first impressions can be, and how there can be a completely different way of looking at things that hasn’t occurred to us. On the other hand, it shows how the ‘solution’, the truth of the situation, is usually something that makes complete sense to us in the terms of the knowledge that we previously had – otherwise it wouldn’t actually be a solution for us.

So an illusion like this momentarily undermines our hold on truth, and yet reinforces the hold that truth has on us. The experience of being deluded or mistaken isn’t actually an argument for scepticism, because you can only know you are mistaken if you have some new purchase on the truth.

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This is a late plug for Oliver Burkeman’s new year resolutions, which include (with copious references to the scientific research behind the advice): stop looking for your soulmate; reject positive thinking; make something and work with your hands; befriend your friends’ friends; and get a standing desk!

Here is his suggestion for all you internet and social networking addicts:

We’ve been worrying about information overload for millennia. “The abundance of books is distraction,” complained Seneca, who never had to worry about his Facebook privacy options (although he was ordered to commit ritual suicide by bleeding himself to death, so it’s swings and roundabouts). But it’s been a year of unprecedentedly panicky pronouncements on what round-the-clock digital connectedness might be doing to our brains – matched only by the ferocity with which the internet’s defenders fight back.

Yet as one team of neuroscientists pointed out, writing in the journal Neuron, we’ve been talking in misleading generalities. “Technology” isn’t good or bad for us, per se; neither is “the web”. Just as television can have positive or negative effects – Dora The Explorer seems to aid children’s literacy and numeracy, a study has suggested, while Teletubbies seems not to – what may well matter more is what we’re consuming online. The medium isn’t the only message.

The best way to impose some quality control on your digital life isn’t to quit Twitter, Facebook and the rest in a fit of renunciation, but to break the spell they cast. Email, social networking and blogs all resemble Pavlovian conditioning experiments on animals: we click compulsively because there might or might not be a reward – a new email, a new blog post – waiting for us. If you can schedule your email checking or web surfing to specific times of day, that uncertainty will vanish: new stuff will have accumulated, so there will almost always be a “reward” in store, and the compulsiveness should fade. Or use software such as the Firefox add-in Leechblock , which limit you to fixed-time visits to the sites you’re most addicted to.

Can you, as the blogger Paul Roetzer suggests, make it a habit to unplug for four hours a day? Three? Two? What matters most isn’t the amount of time, but who’s calling the shots: the ceaseless data stream, or you. Decide when to be connected, then decide to disconnect. Alternative metaphor: it’s a one-on-one fistfight between you and Mark Zuckerberg for control of your brain. Make sure you win.

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At the time of the Pope’s visit to Britain, you had the impression that any meaningful dialogue between Catholics and secular humanists about anything beyond the weather would have been unthinkable. Paul Sims writes at the New Humanist website about his experience of  trying to cross the great divide and actually enter into a conversation with Catholics.

I’ll be honest. Discussing gay adoption and condoms with Benedictine monks and spokesmen for Opus Dei is not something I normally find myself doing on a Tuesday evening. But there I was, at the invitation of Alan Palmer of the Central London Humanist Group, who had responded to a post I had written on the New Humanist blog, in which I’d recorded my concerns over the tone of the debate during the Pope’s UK visit. There are crucial disagreements between the Catholic Church and its opponents over issues such as AIDS, gay rights and child abuse, but, I asked, was the opportunity to debate these in danger of being buried beneath the headlines and protest slogans?

In my blog I’d mentioned by way of example the behaviour of sections of the audience at a pre-visit debate at London’s Conway Hall, when the Catholic speakers were frequently drowned out by rowdy heckling. Palmer, the organiser of that debate, read my post and invited me to a smaller discussion between Catholics and humanists, with the aim of discussing some of our key disagreements without the bellicose tone. I agreed.

Which is how a group of 25 of us, evenly balanced between faithful and faithless, came to meet in a room rented from the University of London near Euston. After brief introductions, the three main Catholic speakers – Austen Ivereigh, a journalist and former press secretary to the Archbishop of Westminster, Jack Valero, press officer for Opus Dei, and Fr Christopher Jamison, a Benedictine monk who featured in the BBC series The Monastery, together the founders of Catholic Voices, a group formed to speak up for the Catholic side in the media during the Papal visit – put forward their arguments on gay adoption, condoms and faith schools. The humanists then challenged them in an open discussion. In what felt like a particularly useful exercise, one of the humanists had to sum up the Catholic arguments, and one of the Catholics did the same for the humanist case.

As my first foray into the world of “inter-faith dialogue” (if we extend the definition to include the godless) I thought the meeting had been a good one. As you might expect, there was strong disagreement between the two sides, and I doubt anyone went home with their mind changed on any of the issues. But, while people had expressed strong opinions, the debate was conducted in a manner that meant it could continue over a drink afterwards. Given the way Catholics and humanists were portrayed in some of the press coverage of the Pope’s visit, that’s something you might have thought as likely as West Ham and Milwall fans enjoying a pre-match pint together on derby day. With the religious and non-religious often talking past each other in the public square, it felt constructive for a group to meet and discuss their differences in an amiable fashion. For me, it served as a reminder that you can still get on with someone even if you disagree. This may seem like an obvious point, but it is easily forgotten amid the belligerent tone of the religion debate. And if we can find a way to talk calmly about our disagreements, perhaps it would be possible to find some common ground where we could agree.

Read the rest of his article to see how unhappy some of his secularist friends were about this whole project.

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It was very moving to be in Westminster Cathedral yesterday morning at the very moment when the Anglican Ordinariate was formally established in England and Wales, and to discover its proper name: the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham, under the patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman. There are only so many historic moments you can claim to have witnessed in the space of a few months; but this, along with Pope Benedict’s visit to Westminster in September, was definitely one of them: the first time ever that Anglicans in this country have been able, as a group, to enter into the full communion of the Catholic Church without having to renounce anything of fundamental importance from their Anglican heritage.

Our Lady of Walsingham

 

Andrew Burnham, John Broadhurst and Keith Newton were ordained to the Catholic priesthood; and Keith Newton was nominated as the first Ordinary.

Their ordination to the diaconate took place two days before at our own chapel here in Allen Hall. If you’ve never seen the chapel you can see a clip of the ordination rite here – a shot from the balcony as the three candidates prostrate themselves in the centre aisle during the litany of the saints. The huge silver crucifix that sits above the altar on the sanctuary wall was originally placed on the outside wall of the chapel, facing the street, as a powerful witness to the thousands of people passing down Beaufort Street every day – especially those on the top deck of the buses who would have had a great view. It was moved into the chapel when the sanctuary was simplified and the hanging baldacchino removed a few years ago.

Here is the text from Cardinal Levada that was read out at the beginning of the Mass yesterday:

My Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,

The Ordination to the Priesthood of our three friends, Andrew Burnham, John Broadhurst and Keith Newton, is an occasion of great joy both for them and for the wider Church. I had very much wished to be present with you in Westminster Cathedral today in order to demonstrate my own personal support for them as they make this important step. Unfortunately, however, a long standing commitment of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to meet with the Bishops and theologians of India in Bangalore has meant that I am unable to be in London today. I am very happy, therefore, to have the opportunity of sending this message and am grateful to Archbishop Nichols for agreeing to represent me and for his willingness to deliver my best wishes.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has today published a Decree erecting the first Personal Ordinariate for groups of Anglican faithful and their pastors wishing to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church. This new Ordinariate, established within the territory of England and Wales, will be known as the Personal Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham and will be placed under the patronage of Blessed John Henry Newman. Its establishment, which marks a unique and historic moment in the life of the Catholic Community in this country, is the first fruit of the Apostolic Constitution Anglicanorum coetibus, issued by Pope Benedict XVI on 4 November 2009. It is my fervent hope that, by enabling what the Holy Father calls “a mutual exchange of gifts from our respective spiritual patrimonies”, the Ordinariate of Our Lady of Walsingham will bring great blessings not only on those directly involved in it, but upon the whole Church.

Also today the Holy Father has nominated Reverend Keith Newton as the first Ordinary of this Personal Ordinanate. Together with Reverend Burnham and Reverend Broadhurst, Keith Newton will oversee the catechetical preparation of the first groups of Anglicans in England and Wales who will be received into the Catholic Church together with their pastors at Easter, and will accompany the clergy preparing for ordination to the Catholic priesthood around Pentecost. I urge you all to assist the new Ordinary in the unique mission which has been entrusted to him not only with your prayers but also with every practical support.

In conclusion, I offer my personal and heartfelt best wishes to these three Catholic priests. I pray that God will abundantly bless them, and also those other clergy and faithful who are preparing to join them in full communion with the Catholic Church. In the midst of the uncertainty that every period of transition inevitably brings I wish to assure you all of our admiration for you, and of our prayerful solidarity.

At an audience granted to me by Pope Benedict XVI on 14 January 2011, His Holiness asked me to convey to you that he cordially imparts his Apostolic Blessing upon the ordinandi Andrew Burnham, John Broadhurst and Keith Newton, together with their wives and family members and upon all other participants in this solemn rite.

Entrusting you confidently to the intercession of Our Lady of Walsingham, and to the intercession of the great saints and martyrs of England and Wales, I am

Yours sincerely in Christ,

William Cardinal Levada

Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

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I’m delighted. I posted in August about the shortlist for the fourth plinth, and the winners are the rocking horse child and the blue cockerel – announced yesterday by Boris Johnson. The child comes first in 2012, and the cockerel in 2013.

Elmgreen & Dragset - Powerless Structures, Fig. 101

 

Katharina Fritsch - Hahn/Cock

Mark Brown reports on the announcement.

Elmgreen & Dragset’s Powerless Structures, Fig 101, which will be cast in bronze, portrays a boy astride his rocking horse.

Its creators say the child is elevated to the status of a historical hero in the context of the iconography of Trafalgar Square. Instead of acknowledging the heroism of the powerful, the work is said to celebrate the heroism of growing up and gently question the tradition for monuments predicated on military victory or defeat.

German artist Katharina Fritsch’s proposal, Hahn/Cock, is a giant cockerel in ultramarine blue. The cockerel is a popular motif in modernist art, symbolising regeneration, awakening and strength.

Johnson said the fourth plinth sparked the imagination and attracted a “tremendous response” from the public.

“As we head towards 2012 – a pivotal year for culture as well as sport – these witty and enigmatic creations underline London’s position as one of the most exciting cities for art and are sure to keep people talking,” he said.

The selection was made by a commissioning group chaired by Ekow Eshun. “Elmgreen and Dragset and Katharina Fritsch are distinguished artists with major international reputations,” Eshun said. “Their selection further underlines the importance and reputation of the fourth plinth as the most significant public art commission in Britain.

“Both have created imaginative and arresting artworks that fully respond to the uniqueness of their location and I can’t wait to see their sculptures in Trafalgar Square in 2012 and 2013.”

Moira Sinclair, the London executive director of Arts Council England, said: “The fourth plinth continues to provide a wonderful platform, creating a shared moment amid the hustle of city life for thousands of Londoners and visitors alike to be intrigued, to think about their environment afresh and to experience the very best of contemporary art.

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After posting about the horrific attack on Christian worshippers in Egypt, I was deeply moved to read this account by Yasmine El-Rashidi of thousands of Muslims coming in solidarity to the Coptic churches on Christmas night to offer their bodies as human ‘shields’ to protect the Christian communities.

Egypt’s majority Muslim population stuck to its word Thursday night. What had been a promise of solidarity to the weary Coptic community, was honoured, when thousands of Muslims showed up at Coptic Christmas eve mass services in churches around the country and at candle light vigils held outside.

From the well-known to the unknown, Muslims had offered their bodies as “human shields” for last night’s mass, making a pledge to collectively fight the threat of Islamic militants and towards an Egypt free from sectarian strife.

“We either live together, or we die together,” was the sloganeering genius of Mohamed El-Sawy, a Muslim arts tycoon whose cultural centre distributed flyers at churches in Cairo Thursday night, and who has been credited with first floating the “human shield” idea.

Among those shields were movie stars Adel Imam and Yousra, popular Muslim televangelist and preacher Amr Khaled, the two sons of President Hosni Mubarak, and thousands of citizens who have said they consider the attack one on Egypt as a whole.

“This is not about us and them,” said Dalia Mustafa, a student who attended mass at Virgin Mary Church on Maraashly Street. “We are one. This was an attack on Egypt as a whole, and I am standing with the Copts because the only way things will change in this country is if we come together.”

In the days following the brutal attack on Saints Church in Alexandria, which left 21 dead on New Year’s eve, solidarity between Muslims and Copts has seen an unprecedented peak. Millions of Egyptians changed their Facebook profile pictures to the image of a cross within a crescent – the symbol of an “Egypt for All”. Around the city, banners went up calling for unity, and depicting mosques and churches, crosses and crescents, together as one.

The attack has rocked a nation that is no stranger to acts of terror, against all of Muslims, Copts and Jews. In January of last year, on the eve of Coptic Christmas, a drive-by shooting in the southern town of Nag Hammadi killed eight Copts as they were leaving Church following mass. In 2004 and 2005, bombings in the Red Sea resorts of Taba and Sharm El-Sheikh claimed over 100 lives, and in the late 90’s, Islamic militants executed a series of bombings and massacres that left dozens dead.

[Thanks to Catherine for the link.]

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I’m in a crisis of self-doubt. After writing about Tate Modern’s ‘How to work better‘ poster yesterday, displayed in the staff entrance to the gallery, Fr Martin Boland wrote: “Are you sure it wasn’t a piece of verbal art?”

Have I been duped? Am I naive? I took this at face value, as a kindly encouragement to common courtesy, or as a not-too-subtle warning from management to put the customer first. Either way, I enjoyed its practical wisdom and aphoristic concision. But perhaps it is a piece of irony or satire? A work of art that seeks to deconstruct or simply mock the shallow, complacent yearnings of the self-help books I love so much? A source of mirth rather than enlightenment?

Help! I need someone from the staff at Tate Modern to post an answer in the comments below and put me out of my misery or condemn me to further introspection.

 

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What do you think of these ten tips? They are entitled ‘How to work better’, but I think they make a great set of rules for life. If I could follow just one or two of them for just a few minutes each day, I would be a lot further down the road to self-enlightenment and general well-being.

It’s interesting where I found them. I went to Tate Modern this week to see the Gauguin exhibition, and I entered by the staff entrance round the back, because I was visiting with someone who uses a wheelchair, and this is the temporary entrance for disabled visitors. And these ten rules were displayed for the staff as they went to work each day, not on a scruffy sheet of A4 pinned to the door, but on a huge 5 foot poster stuck on the wall next to the lift. Impressive! And the staff were unfailingly courteous.

In case you can’t read the image, or want to paste them elsewhere, here they are in plain text:

HOW TO WORK BETTER

  1. Do one thing at a time
  2. Know the problem
  3. Learn to listen
  4. Learn to ask questions
  5. Distinguish sense from nonsense
  6. Accept change as inevitable
  7. Admit mistakes
  8. Say it simple
  9. Be calm
  10. Smile

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What I mean really mean is: atheists are going out of existence because they are not breeding enough. Leaving aside the question of whether there is any truth in religious belief, this raises interesting questions about the apparent benefits of religion – at least for your genetic survival.

This is from a recent article by Jonathan Leake:

Atheists, watch out. Religious people have evolved to produce more children than non-believers, researchers claim, while societies dominated by non-believers are doomed to die out.

A study of 82 countries has found that those whose inhabitants worship at least once a week have 2.5 children each, while those who never do so have just 1.7 — below the number needed to replace themselves.

The academic who led the study argues that evolution, credited by atheist biologists such as Richard Dawkins as the process solely responsible for creating humanity, favours the faithful because they are encouraged to breed as a religious duty.

Michael Blume, a social science researcher at Jena University in Germany, said that over evolutionary timescales of hundreds or thousands of years, atheists have had fewer children and the societies they belong to are likely to disappear.

“It is a great irony, but evolution appears to discriminate against atheists and favour those with religious beliefs,” said Blume.

His arguments are in direct contradiction of evolutionary biologists such as Dawkins, who has argued that religions are like “viruses of the mind” which infect people and impose great costs in terms of money, time and health risks.

Blume’s work suggests the opposite: evolution favours believers so strongly that over time a tendency to be religious has become embedded in our genes. [Sunday Times, 02.01.11, p3]

Why is religion such a benefit? Because a religious tradition is better at allowing values, trust and cooperation to develop.

As well as the promotion of child-bearing by religious authorities, other important factors such as strong shared religious beliefs allow people to fit into a community, accept shared tasks and rules of behaviour. This ability to work together further raises the survival chances of children.

You can read Blume’s academic article “The Reproductive Benefits of Religious Affiliation” here. And in his blog, he quotes from the end of the article:

Evolutionary Theorists brought up far more scientific arguments – but committed believers in supernatural agents brought up far more children. There is a certain irony in here: creationist parents unconsciously defend the reproductive success of their children and communities against evolutionist teachings, whereas some naturalists are trying to get rid of our evolved abilities of religiosity by quoting biology. But from an evolutionary as well as philosophic perspective, it may seem rather odd to try to defeat nature with naturalistic arguments.

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If you thought that the whole point of science fiction was to transport you into a world of the improbable, the impossible, and the utterly fantastical – think again. NASA has stepped into the debate about what makes good science fiction, and the answer is: good science.

The best science fiction takes us to the very edge of what is currently known and currently possible, it draws out the unforseen implications of this present knowledge, it stretches the boundaries and speculates about where we might be in a year or a millennium, but it doesn’t throw aside reason and create a world of nonsense or sheer fantasy. To put it another way, good science fiction is prophetic, it helps us see where we might be going – scientifically, technologically, even morally and politically. And it helps us see where we might not want to go.

How has NASA got involved? By joining with the Science & Entertainment exchange to compile a list of the best and worst science fiction movies of all time. Wenn.com writes:

NASA scientists have named John Cusack’s blockbuster 2012 as the most “absurd” sci-fi film of all time.

Experts at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Science and Entertainment Exchange have put together a list of the least plausible science fiction movies ever made, and the big budget 2009 picture came top.

The film, which depicted Earth besieged by natural disasters, featured ahead of two more ‘end-of-the-world’ movies – 2003’s The Core and 1998’s Armageddon.

Donald Yeomans, head of NASA’s Near-Earth Asteroid Rendezvous mission, says of 2012, “It’s absurd. The film-makers took advantage of public worries about the so-called end of the world as apparently predicted by the Mayans of Central America, whose calendar ends on December 21, 2012.

“The agency is getting so many questions from people terrified that the world is going to end in 2012 that we have had to put up a special website to challenge the myths. We have never had to do this before.”

Staff at the organization also compiled a list of the top 10 most realistic sci-fi films, with 1997’s Gattaca, starring Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman as space agency workers, winning the highest praise from the scientists. NASA experts also named dinosaur movie Jurassic Park and Jodie Foster’s Contact among the most realistic sci-fi films.

I’d agree with this. Part of the fascination with these three films is the idea that this could really happen, this could really be round the corner. Gattaca: a genetic underclass is created in the near future and denied certain rights and privileges. Jurassic Park: fossilised DNA is used to recreate the dinosaurs. Contact: we listen for signs of intelligent life beyond our solar system, and one day we finally hear something [but ignore the crazy mystical ending].

Here are the two lists.

The worst sci-fi movies of all time:

1. 2012 (2009

2. The Core (2003)

3. Armageddon (1998)

4. Volcano (1997)

5. Chain Reaction (1996)

6. The 6th Day (2000)

7. What the #$*! Do We (K)now!? (2004)

The most realistic sci-fi movies of all time:

1. Gattaca (1997)

2. Contact (1997)

3. Metropolis (1927)

4. The Day The Earth Stood Still (1951)

5. Woman in the Moon (1929)

6. The Thing from Another World (1951)

7. Jurassic Park (1993)

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Another horrific terrorist attack on Christian worshippers yesterday morning, this time in Egypt [report from David Batty]:

At least 21 people have been killed and more than 70 injured in Egypt in a suspected suicide bombing outside a church in Alexandria as worshippers left a new year service.

It was initially thought a car bomb had caused the explosion just after midnight at the Coptic orthodox al-Qidiseen church. But the interior ministry suggested a foreign-backed suicide bomber may have been responsible.

Christians make up about 10% of Egypt’s population of 79 million.

Security around churches has been stepped up in recent months with the authorities banning cars from parking directly outside them, after an al-Qaida-linked group in Iraq threatened the Egyptian church in November.

I happened to read a piece by John Allen yesterday about the true extent of persecution of Christians around the world, as documented by Aid to the Church in Need.

Aid to the Church in Need, a German-based Catholic aid agency, produces a widely trusted annual report on global threats to religious freedom. It estimates that somewhere between 75 percent and 85 percent of all acts of religious persecution are directed against Christians. In a report to the European Parliament last month, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life said that while Muslims and Jews face significant persecution, “Christians faced some sort of harassment in two-thirds of all countries,” or 133 states. [My italics]

Those statistics are fleshed out by headlines almost every day.

This Christmas season alone, scores of Catholic Masses were cancelled in Iraq due to threats from extremist groups. Since the first Gulf War in 1991, Iraq has lost two-thirds of what was once among the largest Christian populations in the Middle East. In China, a new crackdown on the church is in full swing, as the government has orchestrated elections for a rump bishops’ conference and an assembly of Catholics calculated to preserve state control. Some clergy were herded into those elections virtually at gunpoint.

In Vietnam, a Catholic bishop was banned from celebrating Christmas Mass in the country’s mountain region, reportedly because of his success in converting the Montagnards, a cluster of ethnic groups often stigmatized and seen as potential threats by other Vietnamese. In the Philippines, Muslim extremists attacked a Catholic chapel on the island of Jolo on Christmas Day. It was merely the latest assault on Jolo, where a bomb exploded inside the local cathedral in July 2009, killing six and wounding forty. In Nigeria, fighting between Christians and Muslims in the northern city of Jos over the Christmas period has reportedly left at least 80 people dead.

Christianophobia is on the rise for a whole cocktail of reasons. Part of it is simple math: There are 2.3 billion Christians in the world, the largest following of any religion, so in terms of raw numbers there are simply more Christians to oppress. That’s especially true as Christianity’s center of gravity shifts to the developing world, where democracy and the rule of law are sometimes conspicuous by their absence.

Because of the historical association between Christianity and the West, Christians are often convenient targets for individuals and groups expressing anti-Western rage. In some cases, too, the logic is exquisitely local. In India, a disproportionate share of Christian converts come from the “untouchable” Dalit community, so it’s often difficult to disentangle specifically Christian persecution from older caste prejudice. (A similar point could be made about the Montagnards in Vietnam).

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