Saturday, April 26, 2008

Jesus in the Jailhouse - Texas prisons

Jesus in the Jailhouse
Old-time religion confronts 21st-century Texas prisons: Does it work, and is it constitutional?
By Jesse Hyde Published: April 26, 2007
The prisoner, dressed in white cotton that's beginning to fray, ducks into the office and glances around nervously. The man behind the desk asks him to take a seat.
AP/Wide World Photo
The Carol S. Vance Unit near Houston, Texas, uses the InnerChange Freedom Initiative program in an attempt to reduce recidivism rates.

Chuck Colson, the Watergate felon turned born-again Christian, founded Prison Fellowship Ministries in 1976.

Afternoon worship services such as this one are a regular part of life at the Vance Unit. Attendance is encouraged but not mandatory.

Michael Jarmon, left, is an IFI re-entry specialist responsible for inmates in the Dallas area. His job is to make sure each one has a job, a mentor, a place to live and a church upon release.

Tommie Dorsett is the director of the IFI program at the Vance Unit. A former parole officer, he says there's no telling which program graduates will succeed once they re-enter the world.

Jerry Richards, 48, learned to read at Vance.

Anthony Johnson, who has the words "Brown Power" tattooed on his arms, is serving time on an aggravated assault charge.

Paul Johnson, 51, says he initially saw the program as a game.

A group of inmates pray before beginning a class.

At Vance, biblical principles are applied in all classes, including GED courses such as the one pictured.
Subject(s): recidivism, evangelical Christianity, Carol S. Vance Unit, InnerChange Freedom Initiative, Prison Fellowship Ministries
The prisoner sits on a metal chair, his knees together, his scuffed work boots placed squarely on the floor. He is a quiet, slender man, with a gap where his two front teeth should be. His hands, scarred here and there, rest in his lap, and below them, in a plastic sack, is the rest of his life—a thin sheaf of papers, full of hand-written instructions and Post-It notes, that details how much time he has left and where he will go when he gets out. His name is Jerry Richards, he is 48, and so far, his life has been a disappointment.
This is his third time in the pen. A three-time loser, in jailhouse parlance. In two months, he will leave this prison, just outside of Houston, and return to his sister's home in Oak Cliff. This is a sort of exit interview. It is taking place in one of the prison offices—a brightly lit room of white cinder block.
"What kind of work do you do?" the man across the table asks. He wears slacks and black cowboy boots.
"Well," Richards says, letting out a soft sigh, "I do plumbing work; I do roofing."
The man writes this down on a yellow legal pad.
"Do you have substance abuse in your background?"
"Yes, sir. Crack cocaine."
Well, they're probably going to have you take some classes for that, the man says. And you're probably going to have to wear an ankle monitor. Richards looks up from the floor and nods.
"What about church?" the man asks.
"I'll probably be going with my sister."
"And you'll be needing a mentor?" But this is more a declaration than a question. When Richards gets out, he will have a mentor; the man across the desk will make sure of that.
This time will be different, Richards says. Since the age of 21, he's been addicted to drugs. At 24, craving a fix, he mugged a woman at gunpoint. He did about four years on that charge, and he has been in and out of prison ever since.
But he is a changed man now, thanks to the things he has learned in this prison. He has taken public-speaking classes and learned how to format a résumé on a computer, and when he gets out there will be a job waiting for him.
But the biggest change, Richards says, has been internal. Thanks to the staff and the programs available here, he has come to know Jesus like never before.
"I want to live for the Lord," he says. "I want to do the right thing."
The man on the other side of the table nods his head emphatically. This is exactly what he wants to hear.
From the outside, the Carol S. Vance Unit looks like any other minimum-security prison in Texas—a cluster of brick buildings, a fence topped with razor wire, a group of inmates loitering in the yard.
But this prison is different. It is unlike any other in Texas. In fact, there are few like it in the world. Journalists from England and France have come to visit it. Corrections officials from as far away as Singapore have traveled here to study its unusual and controversial methods, which recently have been challenged in court.
Inside the prison, the cinder block walls are decorated with murals depicting biblical events such as the crucifixion of Christ and an apocalyptic vision from the book of Revelation. In one of the offices down the hall, a pencil drawing of Mother Teresa hangs above a desk.
The inmates are different too. They carry Bibles as if they were prison-issue. They talk incessantly of Jesus. Some even wake as early as 4:30 a.m. to study Scripture and pray. And it is not uncommon to see men of various races, marked with tattoos of rival prison gangs, circled together to pray.
On Sundays, there are revivals, led by either the prison staff or by evangelical churches from nearby Houston. These meetings sometimes end with inmates streaming to the front of the chapel to be baptized in a dunk tank. Visitors have remarked that the Vance Unit feels more like a Bible college than a prison.
The unit operates under an unusual agreement, the first of its kind in the United States. The state is responsible for the physical care and safety of the 281 inmates, but the programming—which defines the day-to-day life of the prison—is the responsibility of an evangelical Christian organization called Prison Fellowship Ministries.
Founded in 1976 by famed Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson, the Virginia-based ministry runs weekly Bible studies and seminars in more than 1,300 state and federal prisons. These programs focus on things such as "surviving life in prison" and "building a relationship with God." But the program Prison Fellowship runs at the Vance Unit is far more ambitious.
It is called the InnerChange Freedom Initiative, or IFI, and in the last 10 years it has had a dramatic influence on prisons across the country. Its basic premise is that criminal behavior is the result of a sinful heart. "Acceptance of God and biblical principles results in cure through the power of the Holy Spirit," IFI material states. "Transformation happens through an instantaneous miracle."
Modeled after an all-Christian prison in Brazil, the program first took root in Texas in 1997, with the blessing of then-Governor George W. Bush, who at the time was promoting faith-based programs as an alternative to government social efforts. Based on his own religious experience overcoming alcoholism, Bush believed that programs like InnerChange could do a better job than secular ones at solving social problems such as homelessness or drug addiction. He pledged that, if elected, he would increase funding for these sorts of programs.
In the decade since, the InnerChange program has become a model for faith-based initiatives. It has also had a far-reaching influence within the corrections community. Both the Corrections Corporation of America, the nation's largest prison contractor, and the federal Bureau of Prisons now have facilities that run nondenominational programs similar to InnerChange. Prisons in Kansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Arkansas and Missouri use the InnerChange program.
The program has caught on, supporters say, because when it comes to recidivism, nothing works better. Only 8 percent of the program's graduates are back in prison within three years, according to a 2003 study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania. On average, 50 percent of prisoners in the United States will be re-incarcerated.
"I think what you're seeing is a willingness to attack the problem in a different way," says Prison Fellowship president Mark Earley. "We've done a good job in getting criminals off the street and putting them behind bars, but we've done a miserable job in preparing them to re-enter society."
Yet in spite of the program's purported success, a court has already ordered it to shut down in one state, and critics hope that ruling will be the first step in abolishing "God pods" in American prisons. To these critics, InnerChange represents everything that's wrong with the faith-based programs that have flourished under Bush.
InnerChange, they say, is a clear violation of the separation of church and state. Last year, a federal judge in Iowa agreed, ruling that the IFI program in Iowa is "pervasively sectarian." If the ruling is upheld—a decision might come as early as May—it could open the door to lawsuits against other states that use the InnerChange program.
Barry W. Lynn, executive director of Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, has said one more courthouse defeat "could well be the death knell" for InnerChange and programs like it. But it could also have broader implications. It could mean the beginning of the end for Bush's faith-based initiatives movement.
Outside the office, the lunch hour is drawing to a close. A faint aroma of boiling cabbage hangs in the air.
The interview now over, the prisoner gathers his personal documents and stuffs them back in the plastic sack on his lap. The man behind the desk rises to shake his hand. "We'll talk soon," he says.
His name is Michael Jarmon. He is tall, bald and walks with a bit of a limp—the result of bad knees, he says. Once a month, maybe more, Jarmon, a full-time IFI employee, comes to the prison to meet with men from the Dallas area who are a few months shy of release. He finds an empty office at the prison, sets up his laptop and goes to work.
One by one, the prisoners Jarmon has selected for the day's interviews come to see him. One has a tattoo of his daughter's name inscribed on his neck. Another shows Jarmon pictures of his grandchildren. One he will meet today has 10 children from eight women. The men talk to Jarmon as if he is an old friend. He teases, he scolds and he encourages.
At one point, he tells a prisoner to drop and give him 25 push-ups. The prisoner stares back at him, unsure what to say or do. And then Jarmon cracks a smile, and the room erupts in laughter.
For Jarmon this is a job, but it's also personal. At 18, he was arrested on a felony robbery conviction. Thanks to help from friends, he never served jail time on that conviction, and he stayed away from trouble from that point on. "I had someone to step in and help me out, show me a better way," he says. Now he's trying to do the same.
Jarmon is a re-entry specialist, and his job is to make sure "his guys," as he calls them, have a job, a place to go, a mentor and a church upon release. No other prison in Texas has an equivalent program.
"I got a guy," Jarmon says, turning the page on his yellow legal pad. "He used to work as a butcher, so I'm trying to get him on at this sausage plant. If we can get that set up, he's on his way."
Jarmon has built a network in the Dallas area of employers, churches and community organizations willing to help IFI parolees. They range from Bishop T.D. Jakes' Potter's House to a small restaurant near the Dallas Police Department headquarters that has hired IFI participants.
"Say a guy gets out and he's going to Fort Worth. He needs a place to stay and some clothes. I take care of it. I know churches where he can go to get clothes, places he can get groceries.
"I go around to businesses, I say, 'This is my guy, he's a felon, but he's a good guy. He has a mentor, he has a parole officer, he has to be at work on time, he has to be drug-tested. Give him a chance.'"
Jarmon calls in the next inmate. His name is Paul Johnson, he is 51, and he is from South Dallas. He is a heavy-set man with thick arms and a double chin. His fingernails could use clipping. Like Richards, he is missing a few teeth.
His bio goes like this: Father was a truck driver, mother worked two jobs. Pretty much raised himself, he says. At the age of 18, he robbed a bank. He did six years on a 25-year sentence, went through "a good dry season" and then got caught up on parole violations. In total, he has been in prison five times.
"I chose a crooked path to follow: the life of drugs, the life of crime," he says in his deep baritone. "If I could do it all over again, there are things I would change."
The Vance Unit is a highly selective unit, and the truth is, Johnson is lucky to be here. It doesn't take sex offenders, and because it is a low-security unit, it won't accept prisoners who pose a safety risk.
To be in Vance, inmates must have a "minimum-out" status, meaning they can work outside the fence line with little supervision. Only inmates from the Houston or Dallas areas who are within two years of release are considered for the program, because it's easier to find mentors and volunteers from these areas who will regularly come into the prison.
Upon completing a 30-day trial period, IFI staff decide whether the inmate will be allowed in the program. Critics say this amounts to cherry-picking; IFI staff say their program works only in an environment where inmates feel safe.
"We get you over here and we isolate you from general population and we work on your core issues," Jarmon says. "You're not going to get guys to make transformational-type decisions in a hostile environment. If you've got to constantly be watching your back, you can't learn."
At first, Johnson says, he saw the program as a game. He believed in God, but he wasn't overly religious. If he could fake his way through the religious aspects of the program, he could take advantage of the prison's amenities. This is common, IFI staff say. Some come for the air-conditioned classrooms; others come for better access to treatment programs, which are necessary for parole; and others apply because they're allowed more visits. They don't come for the religion.
But the program isn't as easy as it's made out to be. Johnson is required to get up every morning at 5:30. Then throughout the day there are classes. Some deal with Bible instruction, others with job skills—like what to wear to an interview. Johnson spends time every day working toward his high school diploma. Richards, the last man Jarmon met with, has learned to read in the prison.
At night, until 10:30, the prisoners are involved in evening programming. This could mean meeting with mentors (each inmate is assigned a mentor after six months; they will stay in contact at least a year after release) or listening to crime victims tell their stories. On weekends, there is special programming, like the occasional "Date With Dad" event in which the children of prisoners are brought in for a day with their fathers.
In the beginning, says IFI Texas director Tommie Dorsett, the program was "pretty much Bible study 24/7." But it has evolved. "We recognized that there was an imbalance. Now we strive for a more holistic approach—education, getting your GED and the minimal vocational stuff we can offer in 18 months."
Over time, Johnson's perception of the program changed. He began to look at the world differently. Simply put, he felt hope for the first time in a long while.
"If you come here and you apply yourself to this curriculum and take on everything these people offer you, man, it can open up a lot of things," he says. "You give up your issues as well, your anger, your lust, all your issues that you had that always kept you in bondage to Satan. These people can help you break these bonds through this curriculum."
Jarmon says the true test for Johnson will begin when he gets out of prison. Will he keep in touch with his mentor? Will he keep going to church? And when he faces the first setback, where will he turn?
"I tell my guys, 'Give me a year, stop making decisions on your own. Your decisions lead to you going to jail. Don't make those decisions for yourself anymore, allow me to help you.'"
After 10 years of running the program, Dorsett says there's no telling who will make it and who won't.
"I've seen guys who can quote the Bible backward and forward, understand theology, and I think, 'This guy is going to do well.' And he crashes and burns. Then there's guys that just go through the motions, and they do very well. You just never know."
In 1974, a New York criminologist named Robert Martinson published a study on prisons in America titled "What Works, Questions and Answers About Prison Reform." For most of the 20th century, rehabilitation was viewed as a legitimate goal for prisons. But with rising crime rates and a burgeoning prison population, there was a growing disillusionment, both among the general public and within the corrections community, about the effectiveness of prisoner rehabilitation efforts.
Martinson studied 231 of these programs. He concluded that none of them worked. Not education, not psychotherapy, not anything else, could reverse "the powerful tendency for offenders to continue in criminal behavior." This became known as the "nothing works doctrine," and it became widely accepted. (Apparently, nothing worked for Martinson either: In 1980, he jumped from the ninth-floor window of his Manhattan apartment, killing himself as his son watched from across the room.)
By 1989, the United States had all but given up on rehabilitation in prisons. In January of that year, in a case called Mistretta v. United States, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld federal sentencing guidelines, which essentially ended the discussion on rehabilitation as a legitimate goal for the prison system. "Rehabilitation as a sound penological theory came to be questioned and, in any event, was regarded by some as an unattainable goal for most cases," the court wrote. It went on to cite a Senate report which "referred to the 'outmoded rehabilitation model' for federal criminal sentencing, and recognized that the efforts of the criminal justice system to achieve rehabilitation of offenders had failed." This came at a time when politicians everywhere were promising to get tough on crime.
(This mentality, according to a recent report in the Texas Law Journal by Marie Gottschalk, has had alarming results: "The U.S. incarceration rate has accelerated dramatically, increasing five-fold between 1971 and 2000," she writes. "Today a higher proportion of the adult population is behind bars in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world.")
Research over the past two decades has found that certain programs, in certain settings, do reduce recidivism. Viewed most optimistically, the typical prison rehabilitation program reduces recidivism by less than 10 percent, according to Byron Johnson, a researcher now at Baylor University.
In the mid-'90s, Johnson began studying two different prisons in Brazil that claimed exceptionally low recidivism rates. Both were in the state of Sao Paulo, Brazil's most populous region. Then, as now, the Brazilian prison system was known as one of the most dangerous in the world. The national recidivism rate was somewhere between 50 to 70 percent, which is standard for most industrialized nations. Yet these two prisons claimed recidivism rates of less than 20 percent.
One of the prisons, called Braganca, was run by a nonprofit corporation. The prison essentially operated as a factory. Local companies contracted with the prison for labor, and the inmates were paid a small wage—the rest went back into the coffers of the nonprofit. The other prison, called Humaita, had completely turned over its operations to a group of religious volunteers, who worked as the prison's guards, cooks and even its warden. The prison was saturated with religious programming and instruction. The program had three main components: family visits, spiritual mentoring and work release.
Johnson and a team of researchers tracked 148 prisoners from Humaita and 247 from Braganca who were released between 1996 and 1999 to see how many would wind up back in prison. In general, the prisoners from Humaita were imprisoned for more violent crimes and had spent more time in prison than inmates at Braganca.
Johnson concluded that both prisons had successfully reduced recidivism, but that Humaita, which had a recidivism rate of just 16 percent, was far more successful: Prisoners at Braganca were three times more likely to wind up back in prison.
When the Texas Legislature approved the InnerChange program in 1997, it did so under one condition—the program had to work. It charged the state's Criminal Justice Policy Council with monitoring the program and determining if it effectively reduced recidivism.
With the support of CJPC and Prison Fellowship, Johnson began a study of the IFI program in 1997. At the time, Johnson was director of the Center for Research and Urban Civil Society at the University of Pennsylvania. The study would last for six years and include more than 125 interviews with inmates. The research team would make hundreds of visits to the Vance Unit over the years, at all hours of the day and night.
"Over the first year of its existence," researchers wrote, the prison "began to take on the identity of a 'church community.'" They described the environment as "extremely open, supportive, upbeat, friendly and nurturing."
Most prisons are infected with what is known as the "prison code," Johnson wrote. It teaches that prisoners can't trust anyone, especially authority figures. Showing any sort of emotion, or talking about feelings, is a sign of weakness. Violence, sexual aggression and allegiances based on racism and hatred are promoted. These antisocial attitudes probably contribute more than anything else to recidivism, Johnson noted. Some corrections officials think the code is so pervasive that most prisoners are beyond reclaiming.
Johnson found that the IFI program counteracted this mentality in a number of ways. First, it taught inmates that they were not on their own, that they were part of a community, and as such they were not only accountable for their own actions but were also responsible for those around them. They were encouraged to file "drop slips," or misconduct reports, when they saw inmates breaking rules. Some inmates refused to participate at first, insisting that they were above snitching. But over time, successful participants in the program began to understand the purpose of this exercise.
The program also helped inmates, according to the study, "realize that people on the outside do care about them, rather than believing that society as a whole has rejected them."
One inmate told researchers that he couldn't believe his mentor would regularly come to see him when he had a job, a family and kids already occupying his time.
"My mentor stopped by here last night on his way home from Virginia," another was quoted as saying. "His wife picked him up at the airport and brought him straight here on Tuesday night before going home. Can you believe that? And then his wife waited in the prison parking lot for two hours while he was in here mentoring me. I can't understand how someone could care that much."
Another said his mentor had helped him set goals, something he had never done before.
The focus of the study became a group of 177 inmates who were released before September 1, 2000. Johnson wanted to know where the inmates would be two years after release. The IFI program contained many of the characteristics criminologists considered essential to a successful prison rehabilitation effort, but did it work?
The group was compared with 1,754 inmates who met the IFI selection criteria but did not participate in the program. In 2003, Johnson and his team released their findings. Of the 177 selected for study, only 75 had completed all phases of the program, meaning more than half had dropped out.
Graduates of the program, however, had done quite well: During the two-year tracking period, only 8 percent were re-incarcerated, compared with 20 percent from the matched group, and only 17 percent of the program's graduates were re-arrested, compared with 35 percent of the comparison group.
But it wasn't all good news. When considering all participants, including those who dropped out or didn't complete the program, 36 percent of IFI participants were re-arrested, compared with 35 percent of the matched group. And 24 percent were re-incarcerated, compared with 20 percent from the control group. Had the IFI program made them worse? "Is it possible," the study asked, "that after a certain time period in such an intensive program there is a point of diminishing or even negative returns?"
While the study was widely trumpeted as proof that the IFI program was effective (The Wall Street Journal used it to bash those who opposed faith-based initiatives), others saw it as evidence that the program didn't work. In a 2003 story by the Houston Press, a UCLA professor of public policy named Mark Kleiman said the study didn't really prove anything. It "gives you this happy horseshit about the graduates, but [the program] is a loser," he said. He accused InnerChange of selecting inmates who already had the drive and discipline to succeed.
But Johnson has not backed off from his conclusions. Last year, an updated version of the study was republished by Baylor's Center for Religious Inquiry Across the Disciplines, of which Johnson is now the director. If inmates complete all phases of the program, his research suggests, they will in all likelihood never come back to prison.
Two weeks into his first term, surrounded by a group of black pastors and evangelical leaders, President Bush announced the formation of the first-ever White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. "The days of discrimination against religious institutions, just because they are religious, must come to an end," he declared.
In the run-up to the presidency, Bush had labeled himself a "compassionate conservative" and had promised that if elected he would increase funding to faith-based groups. "Whenever my administration sees a responsibility to help people, we will look first to faith-based organizations that have shown their ability to save and change lives," he said.
He often brought up two examples that he had supported as Texas governor: Teen Challenge, a Christian drug rehab program that claimed an astonishing 86 percent success rate, and the InnerChange program. InnerChange was especially close to his heart. He had often brought up InnerChange during his presidential campaign. At one press conference, held at the prison, he walked over to a row of inmates, put his arms around two convicted murderers, and joined them in the singing of "Amazing Grace." "There is a presence in this place," Bush said. A Washington Post reporter later asked him why he supported religious programs such as InnerChange, even though there was scant empirical evidence they worked.
"My answer to that is, 'Let's try,'" Bush said. "The old way in most cases, in a lot of cases, has not done a good job of meeting societal goals."
Several years later, in 2005, Bush stood before another group of religious leaders, this time in a ballroom at a Washington, D.C. hotel. "It is said that faith can move mountains," he said. "Here in Washington, D.C., those helping the poor and needy often run up against a big mountain called bureaucracy. And I'm here to talk about how to move that mountain so that we can partner with programs to reach out to people who hurt."
In the past year, Bush announced, his administration had awarded $2 billion in grants to faith-based programs, the most the federal government had given in one year to religious charities.
Not everyone was pleased. When Bush made the announcement, a number of lawsuits were in the works that challenged the constitutionality of his faith-based initiative. One of those lawsuits took direct aim at InnerChange.
The suit, filed by a group called Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, specifically targeted InnerChange in Iowa, the only state that had agreed to pay Prison Fellowship to run the program. In other states the program is funded by private donations. The suit had two main arguments: that the IFI program was discriminatory, and that in sponsoring it, the state of Iowa was promoting one form of religion over another, a violation of the First Amendment.
It argued that participants in the program were given special benefits not available to other inmates and that the real goal of the program was not to lower recidivism rates but to convert people to Christianity.
As evidence, it introduced a fund-raising letter from Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson that read: "We don't run IFI to reduce recidivism rates...We run this program so that through the Gospel, people's lives might be that the world around us will see the transforming power of Jesus Christ and be drawn to accept him as Lord."
According to the lawsuit, participants in the program were taught what is widely considered a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible—wives should be subservient to their husbands, homosexuality is a sin and non-Christian religions are "of Satan."
As evidence, Americans United entered the diary of a program participant. "Today we had some serious Catholic bashing in class," the diary read. "It hurt me very deeply. Never before had I heard serious criticism toward my faith."
The participant, Michael A. Bauer, would quit the program after a year because he felt IFI staff were hostile to his Roman Catholic beliefs. On one occasion, he said, they compared the Pope to Hitler and told him if he didn't leave the Catholic church he would burn in hell. Members of other minority faiths—including Jews, Mormons and Wiccans—had similar complaints. One Muslim inmate said if he were to participate in the program he would be committing blasphemy, according to the suit.
IFI classes, regardless of the subject matter, were buttressed by biblical principles, and religious references were constant, sometimes every few minutes, even in computer classes. "The application of biblical principles is not an agenda item," the IFI Web site stated. "It is the agenda."
Homework assignments dealt with Christian doctrine, and inmates were required to memorize Bible verses, attend morning devotionals, afternoon worship services and Friday night revivals. In a class called "Praise and Worship," inmates were taught the proper way to pray, the suit alleged.
Participants in the program also received special benefits not offered to other Iowa prisoners, the suit said. Their cells, for example, had wooden doors that could be locked. They had access to private bathrooms, while inmates in general population squatted in toilets side by side. They were also allowed more visitors, given prison jobs and had easier access to treatment programs that would put them on the fast track to parole.
In October 2005, the suit went to trial. During opening arguments, Americans United lawyer Alex Luchenitser told the court that the true nature of the InnerChange program was undeniable. "InnerChange has taken over an entire unit of a state prison and turned it into an evangelical church," he said.
Robert W. Pratt, chief judge of the federal courts in the Southern District of Iowa, agreed with the claims brought by Americans United. He noted that inmates of other religions were asked "to compromise, if not completely abandon, their faiths in order to participate." In giving participants of the program benefits not available to other Iowa inmates, the state had violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. He ordered Prison Fellowship to repay the state of Iowa the $1.5 million it had spent on the program.
Prison Fellowship appealed the ruling, and the case is now before the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis, a three-member panel that includes former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
"The whole lawsuit is full of allegations that we disagree with," Earley says. "Our big contention with the case in general was that the decision was not based upon what actually occurred in the program in Iowa, but what was really based on allegations of what occurred in Iowa, and really more based on the fact that the program had a Christian emphasis.
"There's a lot more flexibility in these programs than one reading the lawsuit might think."
In Texas, for example, inmates are not required to attend the prison's religious services. The Vance Unit also brings in a Catholic priest or deacon to hold Catholic services and keeps prayer blankets on hand for Muslim inmates. A Muslim recently graduated from the program in Texas, Earley says.
"If you came here with different beliefs you'd go through the classes like anyone else. You'd be exposed to biblical doctrines, biblical truths, but at the end of the day, the choice is yours," says Dorsett, director of the IFI program at the Vance Unit. "There's no pressure to convert. You practice what you came here with, and who you are is who you are."
Luchenitser says this is just rhetoric. "There's no way someone who's Jewish or Muslim or Roman Catholic can stay true to their faith and take part in this program," he says. "This program...teaches that its specific version of Christianity is the one true religion and in doing so it tells inmates that all other religions are wrong."
While only Iowa paid Prison Fellowship to run the program, all states that use the program provide indirect financial support in the form of facilities, guards, food and clothing for IFI participants, Luchenitser says. If the ruling in Iowa is upheld, his organization may file lawsuits against other states.
Critics of Bush's faith-based initiative say there has been little oversight of programs such as IFI. What's more, critics say, when it comes to doling out federal grant money, the Bush administration seems to favor religious applicants over secular ones. According to a recent lawsuit, the number of federal grants to religious groups increased 38 percent between 2003 and 2005.
"Before, what you had is money going to religious organizations, like Catholic Charities, who kept their secular services completely separate from their religious services," Luchenitser says. "Now you have these groups like InnerChange, which are essentially proselytizing groups. It's a clear example of government funding one religion over another."
InnerChange is just one of Bush's faith-based initiatives under attack. Since 2000, lawsuits have been filed in Arizona against a Christian mentoring program for the children of prisoners, in Alaska against a Christian college that provided a religious education program to teenage Native Americans living in isolated villages and in California against a Christian-based drug rehab program.
Participants in the program say they don't understand the controversy. Many of them are fervent—one could say evangelical—in the support of InnerChange and believe it's the best thing going in the entire American prison system, a truly revolutionary approach to rehabilitating prisoners.
"Why would anyone be bothered with it?" Dorsett says. "If we're successful, then people don't commit crimes, so we've got less victims and ultimately that's good for everyone.
"What people don't understand is, we have 155,000 people incarcerated in Texas, and of that number only 485 are on death row. Everyone else is eventually going to get out. So what do we want to accomplish while a person is incarcerated who is eventually going to be a citizen coming back to our communities? We can do absolutely nothing, or we can do some things to help."
It's nearly 3 p.m. at the Vance Unit. The afternoon worship service is about to begin. Jarmon rises from his desk and clicks off his computer. He is done with the day's interviews.
He crosses the commons room, where a group of inmates are watching The Andy Griffith Show. They sit on wooden benches, their legs stretched out, their feet resting on the concrete floor. At the end of one bench, an old man is fighting off sleep. The room erupts in laughter, and he jolts awake. He repositions the Bible on the bench beside him. Before long, he is nodding off again, snoring quietly.
Jarmon stops to admire the efforts of an inmate working on an oil painting of Jesus Christ. It will be entered in a contest with IFI participants in other prisons across the country. "Looks good," Jarmon says with a nod. Then he crosses the room, pausing again at the door to tease a pair of inmates playing chess.
He crosses the grass of the prison yard and enters the chapel, a brightly lit, warehouse-sized building. At the front, there is a wooden lectern.
The prison choir takes its place behind it. They are all dressed in white. They are thieves and drug addicts and dope dealers. One of them closes his eyes and begins to hum, finding the right note. The keyboardist joins in. The man on the drums, who has the words "Brown Power" tattooed on his forearms, finds the beat. A trumpet wails. And they begin to sing.
Holiness is what I need
Holiness, holiness is what I long for.
On the front row, a slender, quiet man sits alone. He wears white cotton that is beginning to fray. His hands, scarred here and there, rest on his lap. He taps his toe and nods with the beat.
His name is Jerry Richards, and so far, his life has been a disappointment.
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Write Your Comment hide comments (9)
Three time loser? I'm pretty sure Texas politicians tout us as a "three-strikes-and-your-out" state. You opening character along with that guy that shot the DPD officer a few weeks ago make me wonder what has happened to Texas' three-strike law.Maybe that would be a good topic for a future Observer feature.
Comment by Paul — April 25, 2007 @ 03:37PM
I believe all of these people who are incarcerated need to be made aware of the love of God that awaits them if they just accept it into their lives. It will change them for the better.Our Lady of America messages can be a specific guide for these programs. They are available at for free.
Comment by Olivia — April 26, 2007 @ 10:15AM
I watch this story with much interest in how the faiths of catholics are treated. I think this system work well if realized through one of the men of the church. How can tattoos be a good sign? I do not believe Jesus would feel comfortable watching Andy Griffith, maybe less convicts return if no persons watch Andy? Hay que hacer lo que prediqua.
Comment by Ignacio — April 26, 2007 @ 12:58PM
This is an awesome prison ministry program. Every life is worth saving in the eyes of God. Hopefully the government will not put an end to such programs because not only do these men benefit but also all of society. Good luck to all of you who leave these prisons and start a new life. May God be your strength. And to the US government, keep your nose out of it. The program is working.
Comment by Pam Pelletier — April 26, 2007 @ 07:06PM
After quickly reading this article, I failed to notice any mention of the leading expert on Antisocial Personality Disorder, Stanton E. Samenow, Ph.D. This esteemed psychologist was involved in a longitudinal study which focused on traditional psychotherapeutic intervention the population in question. Bottom line: none of these traditional approaches worked. Hence, the proposed treatment of choice was focusing on "criminal thinking errors." One of these thinking errors was that of religion. You can compare this to the Mafia going to communion after making a hit. I have been working in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice System for 20 years as a mental health professional. I strongly suggest that you go and purchase a copy of the following book: Inside the Criminal Mind, Revised Edition, by Dr. Stanton E. Samenow.
Comment by David — April 27, 2007 @ 07:59AM
I think this program is successful for three reasons:1. They have chosen inmates who are less likely to come back.2. They have a strong follow-up program that ensures the inmates are guided and employed. The involvement in a church helps feep the inmates from falling in with the same crowd they used to be involved with.3. They have changed the very nature of the prison. Most US prisons have an atmosphere that discourages behaviors that lead to rehabilitation. They have seen to it that these behaviors are encouraged.I would like to hear more on the similar non-denominational programs. It would be truly interesting to see how they work. In my opinion, it is not what your faith is that is important. It is the fact that you do have a spiritual path that you truly try to follow.
Comment by Tim Covington — April 27, 2007 @ 12:56PM
I agree with David on the work of Stanton Samenow. As we saw with the fellow who cried before the judge to be let out to donate a kidney to his son, criminals are consummate actors. A religious program like this provides a perfect script and, what is more important, a perfect audience of deluded Christian fandagelicals who are only too eager to persuade themselves that "Jesus" can do what nothing else has. When are the Muslims and the Catholics and the Jews and Scientologists and the Buddhists going to get a crack at this and a cut of the taxpayers' largesse?
Comment by TG — April 27, 2007 @ 05:09PM
It is pretty obvious that people in prison are not among the most intelligent examples of mankind. I believing in an invisible creature that will take care of them after they die brings them comfort and helps them live an honest life, where is the harm? Oh, I know. It's a government sponsored lie.
Comment by Johnny Ellis — April 30, 2007 @ 09:12PM
If the purpose of our prisons is to house horrible people, fine, a good job is being done in all the prisons throughout the world, but if the purpose of our prisons is to punish people for their offenses and then guide them through a life changing program that will cause 92 percent of them to never do anything that will get them into prison again, I think that is a better deal.
Comment by Mindy — May 29, 2007 @ 09:12PM

God in the Details

God in the Details
For a quarter-century Roy Abraham Varghese has been assembling God proofs. Along the way he won over the world's most influential atheist.
By Mark Stuertz Published: May 3, 2007
Roy Abraham Varghese has a God equation. It is self-evident. He sees it in a grain of sand. He sees it in bees, especially bees. By rights, bees shouldn't fly. The haphazard way in which they beat their wings simply shouldn't haul their pot-bellied bodies aloft. But they fly, hovering and reversing over bluebonnets and bachelor buttons. Bees flout the laws of physics and aerodynamics, a puzzle that perplexed scientists for 70 years. "How is it that they can do that?" he asked in a 2005 interview at Perry's Restaurant while smacking on bites of filet mignon. "The fact that these insects can do this..." Varghese trailed off.

Roy Abraham Varghese, founder of The Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland, Texas

SMU biology chair Larry Ruben: God as an explanation? "You could replace God with aliens. You could replace God with anything."

God? Yes. Afterlife? Former world-renowned atheist Anthony Flew hopes not. The facts of the universe suggest it is run by an evil being.

Scientists have no idea how life began, says professor of philosophy Keith Parsons of the University of Houston. Still, history shows the steady retreat of supernatural explanations in the face of scientific evidence.

One prominent psychologist suggests atheism is a neurotic delusion. Atheist Victor Stenger loves psychologists: "They're so full of shit."
Subject(s): Antony Flew, The Big Bang, Darwin, God, creationism, atheism, Roy Abraham Varghese
To Varghese bees are a wonder, and wonder is what fascinates him. In his 2003 book The Wonder of the World: A Journey From Modern Science to the Mind of God, Varghese laments the loss of wonder. "[T]he modern world knows little of wonder," he writes. "Some Grinch has stolen the magic that makes us wonder and turned the paradise we call the world into a desolate wilderness."
Varghese blames modern science but not in the way you might think. Varghese isn't in the grip of science phobia, sounding a call to have it stripped from schools and cut off from federal funding. Varghese revels in science, from the weirdness of astrophysics, to the radiating blooms of life embedded in the fossil record, to the mind-blowing implications of quantum mechanics. He is entranced by the effectiveness of mathematics in the natural world. Eerily, everything before our eyes—and far more beyond—follows exacting laws and has attributes that can be expressed through numbers and exotic equations. This effectiveness presupposes profound thought, he believes. Profound thought presupposes infinite mind. Infinite mind presupposes...
Varghese blames "a band of intellectuals trapped in vacuous abstractions and irrational ideologies" for stripping away wonder. They can't see the lush forest of the universe for the trees of scientific theory, experimentation and discovery. We must be saved from these bandits who have blinded us to the glory and mystery of the world.
The universe teems with intelligence at all levels, he says. This intelligence, expressed in the laws of nature, was implanted in the universe by an infinite mind. "I mean the humblest bacterium is an absolutely unbelievable miracle. How can that come to be in a universe of undifferentiated matter?"
To explore such questions, Varghese founded The Institute for Metascientific Research in Garland in 2003. He calls the institute a forum to deliberate the debates raging in science, philosophy and religion. Its mission is to refute the arguments of atheists and those who perceive the world strictly in material terms. He spreads this gospel via books, documentaries and symposiums.
But well before the birth of the institute, Varghese was organizing and funding conferences featuring some of the world's greatest thinkers, beginning in 1983 at the Plaza of the Americas in Dallas. His collaborators have ranged from noted atheists Sir Alfred Ayer of Oxford University and Marvin Minsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to prominent theists Richard Swinburne of Oxford and Alvin Plantinga of the University of Notre Dame. "Science cannot proceed without the basic assumptions that imply the existence of God," Varghese insists. Not surprisingly, many prominent scientists and atheists vehemently disagree.
A computer systems and high-tech business consultant by trade, Varghese, 49, calls the institute and these conferences his hobby. He funds them largely out of his own pocket, the way other men might indulge a golf habit or a poker fetish.
"When he puts his mind to something, he does it," says former MIT physicist Gerald Schroeder from his home in Jerusalem. "What he says, he accomplishes." Schroeder's first brush with Varghese was via e-mail some four years ago. Varghese sent comments on Schroeder's controversial books The Science of God and The Hidden Face of God, in which, among other things, Schroeder attempts to square the six-day account of creation in Genesis with a 12- to 15-billion-year-old universe by using Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Schroeder told Varghese he was preparing a trip to the States for a series of lectures. He was startled when Varghese invited him to lunch. "On a very windy, rainy day, he flew from Dallas to Los Angeles," Schroeder says. "We had lunch...spent a half-hour talking at the airport. He got on another plane and flew back to Dallas. That was my introduction to Roy."
His meeting with Schroeder would lay the groundwork for a pivotal New York University summit in May 2004 featuring a handful of some the world's most renowned philosophical thinkers. There, British philosopher Antony Flew, who set the agenda for modern atheism with his 1950 treatise "Theology and Falsification," made a stunning announcement: He had renounced atheism and had come to accept the existence of God, thanks largely to the arguments of Varghese and Schroeder.
An academic storm erupted. Atheists felt betrayed. "They claimed he had gone senile...that this guy Schroeder had duped him," Schroeder says. Flew has been largely silent ever since.
God exists. Varghese insists that's provable. A focused man with thinning dark hair framing a warm, round face and gentle yet stealthily fierce eyes—a puppy-dog gaze with a viper glint—Varghese unfurls his arguments elegantly, but he hammers them just the same. He bases his arguments on the rationality of the physical universe, consciousness, conceptual thought, self-awareness and the existence of matter and life. These things in principle are irrefutable evidence of God's existence, Varghese says. They cannot logically arise from a universe of undifferentiated, mindless matter. They can't emerge exclusively from the passive mechanisms of evolutionary natural selection and random genetic mutation. How did consciousness arise? How can you even speak of something that has no property of consciousness producing consciousness? Over and over he asks these questions. The world is filled with autonomous agents, beings that sense their environment and act on it over time in pursuit of their own agendas. "All of these guys talking about the origins of life have no idea what life means," Varghese says. "There's no abstract thing called life. They're living beings. Living beings are agents, autonomous agents that operate on an infrastructure of intelligence."
Varghese stresses he is not talking about intelligent design, the controversial theory that triggered a tempest on the campus of Southern Methodist University in mid-April when several of the university's science professors tried to shut down a conference dubbed Darwin vs. Design. The conference was staged by scientists and theorists from the Discovery Institute, a Seattle-based think tank that actively promotes the theory that an unspecified intelligent mechanism drives evolution. ID theory is not science, the SMU profs scoffed. "Intelligent design does not contain the criteria for science, because a deity comes in and makes things happen," says SMU biology department chair Larry Ruben. "And once that happens science can't prove or disprove that."
Varghese mostly steers clear of the ID debate. He says the arguments sustaining it, such as the idea that certain biological systems are too complex to have evolved from less complete predecessors, are easily refuted. His arguments, he says, transcend such disputes.
A devout Syrian Rite Catholic, Varghese was born and raised in the mountains and jungles of Kerala, India, a small state on the southwestern side of the peninsula that's known for its lush natural beauty. Kerala is home to Anai Peak, which at 8,842 feet is the highest in peninsular India, and a linked chain of lagoons and backwaters along the coast, interspersed with vast coconut palm groves—the "Venice of India." Kerala is known as "God's own country."
Jewish immigrants arrived in Kerala in the first century A.D., and Syrian Rite Christians believe the Apostle Thomas arrived around the same time to proselytize amongst Kerala's Jewish settlements. Varghese belongs to one of the many Kerala families who believe they are the descendants of those converted by St. Thomas.
In college, Varghese studied literature and liberal arts, earning a master of arts from Madras University. While studying science and philosophy Varghese came to embrace atheism because, he says, atheism was the canon of many of the world's most famous thinkers. Why not emulate them? "I went through my own period of insanity," he admits. He has other names for atheism: confused, schizophrenic, arrant nonsense, a form of irrationality. After deeper study he became convinced of God's existence and gradually found confirmation in the works of leading philosophers and scientists.
In 1982, Varghese moved to Dallas to attend Baylor University, where he earned a master's degree in international journalism. But he is best-known for his passion for exploring the interface between science and religion. His writings have been praised by Nobel laureates such as Charles H. Townes (inventor of the laser) and Arno Penzias (co-discoverer with Robert Woodrow Wilson of the microwave background radiation in the universe that lent credence to Big Bang cosmology). In 1992 he edited (along with the late Yale physics professor Henry Margenau) Cosmos, Bios, Theos, a series of replies from 60 scientists (including 24 Nobel laureates) to questions exploring the relationship between religion and science as well as the origins of life and the universe. In 1995 he captured a Templeton Book Prize for his book Cosmic Beginnings and Human Ends, the reflections of leading scientists and thinkers on the limits of science in making sense of the cosmos. He landed on the science and religion panel of the Parliament of World Religions held in Chicago in 1993. Varghese is a man of huge philosophical appetites.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wonder of the World, a book that demands stringent focus to maneuver through its many arguments and assertions. It's structured as a chat-room dialogue between two fictional characters: Joseph Levin, an MIT artificial intelligence researcher, and Madhva Mitra, founder of the fictional Sakshi Hermitage in the Himalayas and a professor from the fictional Wykeham College in Oregon. Levin says religious belief is superstition. Mitra argues modern science supports a religious view of reality. Levin adopts the screen name "Geek." Mitra takes "Guru." The chat is often clumsy, with Guru expelling torrents of philosophical argument running for pages to Geek's antagonistic spurts that barely form a paragraph. Geek seems a token, perhaps owing to his embrace of what Varghese deems arrant nonsense. Nevertheless, Varghese claims he has received requests seeking the e-mail addresses of Guru and Geek, so it seems an effective device.
The foundation of Wonder is what Varghese dubs "the matrix," a sort of theory of everything distilled by four great religious thinkers: Moses Maimonides (Judaism), Thomas Aquinas (Christianity), Avicenna (Islam) and Shri Madhvacharya (Hindu). The matrix is the engine of logic underlying the scientific method, Varghese says. Its basic tenets are simple: The world exists; the universe is intelligible and rational because it was brought into being by sheer intelligence; human beings can discover and know truths about the world because human beings have minds distinct from matter that function rationally and discern meaning.
Varghese argues passionately that science cannot proceed without faith in scientifically unprovable assumptions that the universe is logical, rational and governed by a consistent set of physical laws, that these assumptions are valid and that we can explore and then understand what is observed. If the universe is at bottom irrational, the product of chance without purpose or intelligibility and merely a random assemblage of atoms and fields, we should have no confidence in our judgments concerning it. Atheism is contradictory at its core in that it denies underlying rationality while clinging to the rationality and logical consistency on the surface of things.
Varghese says the foundation of the matrix is the God equation: God must exist and cannot not exist. In other words, for anything to exist at all, something must have always existed. This primal essence cannot possess any limitation because then it would necessarily require a source that transcends such limitation. And so on, without end, back to God.
"It was a triumph of human thought to come up with these things," says Varghese. "Why look for laws when you say laws are not possible?"
Varghese calls the matrix the womb of science, the beginning of basic assumptions at the heart of scientific logic and inquiry. Matter can't generate concepts, patterns or mathematical constants. Fields don't plan, think or calculate. But something does.
These are strange times for Varghese and his God proofs. Since the publication of Wonder and his pivotal summit with Anthony Flew, evangelical godlessness has become a craze. For the past several months, a number of books assaulting religious belief and castigating the faithful have been crusading through The New York Times best-seller lists. University of Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins' acerbic but eminently readable The God Delusion has nested on the list for more than 31 weeks as of this writing. Neuroscientist Sam Harris' Letter to a Christian Nation catapulted to the top of the list almost immediately after it was published last September. Though not necessarily a raging best-seller, Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon has had pounding impact as well.
The in-your-face atheism of Dennett, Dawkins and Harris and the New Atheism movement it has spawned was recently splattered over the pages of Wired magazine. In "The Church of the Non-Believers," journalist Gary Wolf chronicles how these writers condemn not only belief in God, but respect for belief in God. The probability that God exists is near zero, Dawkins says. Violence inspired by religious faith will soon bring civilization to an end, Harris says. Faith that requires adults to blindfold their children to scientifically sound education ought to go extinct, Dennett says.
As secular investigations take the lead, sacred doctrines collapse, Wolf writes. "There's barely a field of modern research—cosmology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology—in which competing religious explanations have survived unscathed," he adds. Example: creation. Evolutionary theory has stubbornly survived 150 years of rigorous scientific testing.
The power of evolutionary theory to repeatedly predict the unexpected is nothing short of astonishing. In September 2005, following the mapping of the exact sequence of chimpanzee genetic code, The Washington Post reported that scientists from the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard University deployed a mathematical formula that emerges from evolutionary theory to see if they could predict the number of harmful mutations in chimp DNA using the number of known harmful mutations in another species and the population sizes of each. Bingo! Researchers predicted the number almost exactly, reinforcing evolution as a formidable, predictive system based on ever-mounting scientific fact. Charles Darwin didn't even know what DNA was when On the Origin of Species was published in 1859.
This is not to deny evolutionary theory is fraught with unexplained puzzles. Oddly, Varghese doesn't dwell much on evolution. He says the discussion has gotten so muddled with its sticky web of catchphrases and buzzwords and the shifting meanings of "evolution" and "creationism" that he prefers to step back. He doesn't quibble with Big Bang cosmology, the theory that the universe emerged some 13.7 billion years ago from the rapid expansion of a tremendously dense hot speck. He doesn't contest that the solution to the origins of biological structures is embedded in molecular biology and the fossil record. Nor does he argue that the genetic interrelatedness of species and the phenomenon of evolution in certain populations via natural selection is anything other than established fact. But he insists the theory in sum relies heavily on inference—as all historical scientific theories must—as it courses from the Big Bang, through the formation of the chemical precursors of life on to the first life forms, and through the bloom of species culminating in self-conscious human beings. Varghese points out scientists have no explanation for the origins of life itself.
"We don't have a theory of the origin of life. We don't know how it happened," says professor of philosophy Keith Parsons of the University of Houston, Clear Lake. "But with the rise of modern science, we find that increasingly science can explain things that previously had been thought to be explicable only in terms of the direct action of deities...That's just been the story of the history of science; it's the steady retreat of the supernatural in the face of naturalistic explanations."
Yet biblical faiths endure. Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson, once a born-again Christian before undergoing what he describes as an epiphany inspired by his discovery of the richness of evolutionary theory, says humans innately hunger for something larger than themselves. Our conscious minds desperately crave permanent existence—everlasting life—and belief in eternal life helps ensure the survival of civilizations. Faith has an evolutionary function. "There is a hereditary selective advantage to membership in a powerful group united by devout belief and purpose," he writes in his book Consilience. "Even when individuals subordinate themselves and risk death in common cause, their genes are more likely to be transmitted to the next generation than those of competing groups who lack equivalent resolve."
The widespread preference for God-based explanations over the empirical can be blamed on the emotional shortcomings of science, Wilson says. Science is bloodless. It lacks the poetry of affirmation woven into religion and fails to satiate the deep cravings for immortality and the transcendent.
Certainly there are theistic evolutionists. The Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation, among other religious organizations, have issued statements acknowledging the evidence for evolution and its compatibility with faith.
Yet most of the religiously faithful, if polls are to be believed, seem to care not a whit for the mounting evidence supporting scientific explanations for the universe and the existence of varied life forms. According to a March 2007 Newsweek poll, 91 percent of Americans profess belief in God while a tiny 3 percent self-identify as atheist. Fully 48 percent of those polled reject evolutionary theory out of hand while 73 percent of evangelical Protestants, 39 percent of non-evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics do so, holding that God created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago.
Newsweek's poll data potentially promise a wide audience for the Museum of Earth History, a repository of exhibits taking shape in Oak Cliff on the campus of Christ for the Nations Institute, a Christian missionary organization and Bible school. The 20,000-square-foot museum with 8,500 square feet of exhibit space will present "research-quality dinosaur fossils and authentic scientific artifacts" bolstering the biblical account of creation, its founders claim. John Heffner, a mathematician who is on the museum's board, says the museum will present evidence that the earth is less than 10,000 years old and probably closer to 5,000 years in age. He says most of the dating methods employed by scientists contain huge fudge factors and are unreliable. He suggests a conspiracy is afoot to suppress this evidence from the public as well as edit out of textbooks anything that disproves evolutionary theory or calls it into question.
"We're not hiding the fact that we think the biblical account is accurate," Heffner says. "But we hope to show the scientific evidence from secular sources [disproving evolution] that is buried...In fact [evolution] is so deeply entrenched that some suggest it's not going to die out until this generation of older scientists, that are swallowing it and pushing it, are gone."
Such widely held beliefs infuriate evangelical atheists. Sam Harris points out that the idea of such a young earth means it was created right around the time the Sumerians invented glue. "Our country now appears, as at no other time in her history, like a lumbering, bellicose, dim-witted giant," he writes in Letter to a Christian Nation.
Entering this thicket of agitated atheism is University of Colorado philosopher and physicist Victor Stenger, whose recent book God: The Failed Hypothesis has climbed the lower rungs of The New York Times' best-seller list. Stenger stresses that the central conflict is not between creationism and evolution. "It's between reason and superstition," he said in an interview just after the publication of his book.
Arguments such as Varghese's are eminently refutable, Stenger says. The physical laws governing the universe are not a framework sprung from a supernatural source. They are human inventions, mathematical models used to describe observations. "[T]he most fundamental laws of physics are not restrictions on the behavior of matter," he writes in God. "Rather they are restrictions on the way physicists may describe that behavior." Stenger believes scientific investigation will ultimately explain consciousness, free will, thought, self-awareness and the other phenomena Varghese attributes to infinite mind. "There is no reason that we can see now, from the study of the brain, that would require you to introduce any immaterial element," he says.
Stenger speculates free will may be nothing more than the brain interacting with radiation both from external cosmic rays and potassium in the blood. Self-consciousness may be an evolutionary coping mechanism whereby little stories are formulated in memory to help the human brain make sense of and digest the stream of step-by-step calculations it rapidly performs continuously.
Yet as much as these books construct logical arguments against the existence of God, they are also screeds against the texts that inform religious faith and the apparent ignorance among the faithful of what is actually written in these texts. Writes Dawkins: "The oldest of the three Abrahamic religions, and the clear ancestor of the other two, is Judaism: originally a tribal cult of a fiercely unpleasant God, morbidly obsessed with sexual restrictions, with the smell of charred flesh, with his own superiority over rival gods and with the exclusiveness of his own chosen desert tribe."
As a text for establishing moral rectitude, the Bible is an abysmal failure. The Old Testament God is a violent tyrant who repeatedly condones—even commands—pillaging, slavery and genocide. God demands a man be stoned to death for gathering sticks on the Sabbath. He seemingly turns a blind eye to aberrant behaviors among his faithful including incest, the seeding of offspring among family servants and the offering up of wives and daughters as sexual favors.
As a source of prophecy, the Bible is equally derelict, these books argue. The famous prophecy in Isaiah 7:14 foretelling the virgin birth of the messiah is widely accepted among Hebrew scholars as a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for young woman (almah) into the Greek word for virgin (parthenos). In essence, the Gospels were jury-rigged to fulfill a prophecy based on an error. Equally confounding, points out Dawkins at least, is the establishment in the New Testament of Joseph, Jesus' father, as a descendant of King David to fulfill Old Testament prophecy that the messiah would emerge from the line of David. If Mary was indeed a virgin, Joseph's ancestry is irrelevant to Jesus' genealogy. Dawkins' conclusion: The Bible contains no compelling truths to substantiate its legitimacy as a source of timeless moral principles or of special revelation.
Varghese calls Dawkins' critique of theism among the most superficial he has ever seen. "It [the Bible] is neither a textbook of science nor a textbook of theology," he says. "It is an account of God's interaction with humanity. And humanity's interaction with humanity."
Still, why the sudden rash of caustic tracts espousing godlessness? "The increase in atheism is a backlash to the religious right," Stenger argues. "They're trying to convert the country into a theocracy so that they can have power over the rest of us. It's hard to believe it is happening in this country."
Stenger's claim seems a bit overwrought. Adoption of the social and political desires of many on the religious right—abortion prohibition, blocking widespread condom distribution, barring government sanctioning of homosexual relationships, tightened public decency standards, the rollback of sex education in schools and the tolerance of religious symbols and texts in the public square—would merely turn the clock back to the late 1950s. Was America a theocracy up through the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower administrations?
Other scientists believe the current surge of rambunctious atheism may be the gasp of strict godless evolutionists struggling to cope with the baffling scientific discoveries of the last few decades. For example, the fossil record now suggests bacteria and algae appeared almost immediately after the earth cooled and liquid water formed some 3.5 billion years ago. Scientists previously believed billions of years of evolutionary dynamism were necessary for amino acids to form and combine randomly into early life forms in a primordial soup. "The soup's gone," Varghese says. "They are as far away from finding the origin of life as they ever were."
SMU's Ruben suggests organic molecules may not have even evolved on Earth. He speculates they came from outer space. "The tail of comets passing around the Earth may have seeded Earth with organic molecules," he says.
Then there is the bizarre spectacle of the Cambrian Explosion, the geological era beginning some 505 to 550 million years ago. In this evolutionary leap, virtually every major life form and all the basic body plans in existence today—intestinal structures, jointed limbs, gills, eyes with fully formed lenses—seemingly emerged fully formed from single-celled and other simple life forms without any apparent evolutionary antecedents. This explosion from single-celled simplicity to multicellular complexity occurred within a geological moment of 5 to 10 million years. Before the Cambrian discoveries, scientists believed well more than 100 million years of evolutionary incrementalism were necessary for the basic body plans of advanced life to develop from simple life forms, which loitered for 3 billion years before this biological boom.
Tulane University professor of mathematical physics Frank Tipler, author of the just released The Physics of Christianity, believes recent discoveries in the field of physics have profoundly unsettled scientists once wedded to the idea of an eternal, material universe. In 1929, astronomer Edwin Hubble postulated that the universe was expanding. His discoveries lent the first observational support for Big Bang cosmology. "[T]he laws of physics tell us the universe began a finite time ago in an initial singularity...the uncaused first cause," Tipler says. "They [secular scientists] do not like the idea of a universe beginning in an uncaused first cause."
Big Bang cosmology was one of the discoveries that rattled Antony Flew's strident atheism. If there were no reason to think the universe had a beginning, "there would be no need to postulate something else which produced the whole thing," he says in Varghese's documentary Has Science Discovered God?
"I think what's happening is that the world is becoming polarized," muses Schroeder of the recent godless surge. "The more we understand about the complexity of life and how unlikely it is to have happened by randomness, the stronger the arguments that have to be made for a non-teleological world, a world without a metaphysical presence."
It's this denial of a metaphysical presence in the universe that Varghese passionately seeks to dismember. The metaphysical and its profound intelligence can be detected everywhere, he stresses. It's locked in physical laws governing particles, fields and energy. Einstein famously remarked that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible. Varghese insists this comprehensibility has a distinct source.
"There's an infinite source of rationality," he says. "There's an infinite mind, a mind behind everything. That's something you can't deny without running into incoherence."
Canadian social theorist Marshall McLuhan famously stated "the medium is the message." Techno-utopian writer and Discovery Institute senior fellow George Gilder, in the article "Evolution and Me" published in National Review (July 17, 2006), took McLuhan's premise and flipped it on its ear: The medium is not the message. Gilder teases out a clash between information theory, a thing invented by Claude Shannon of MIT, and evolutionary theory. Stripped down to its bolts and nuts, information theory states that the transport channel of information—wires, fiber optic strands, satellite signals or the DNA molecule—is distinct from the source of the information. Content (girly jabber) is utterly divorced from its conduit (cell phone signals).
Gilder illustrates his thesis using a computer. Silicon microprocessors, carefully assembled in all their multibillion dollar precision, could never give rise to an operating system, such as Microsoft Windows. "In a computer, as information theory shows, the content is manifestly independent of its material substrate," writes Gilder. "No possible knowledge of the computer's materials can yield any information whatsoever about the actual content of its computations."
Scientists, Gilder says, reflexively blur information and the physical structure of DNA molecules, implying life is biochemistry rather than information processing. "[T]he DNA program is discrete and digital, and its information is transferred through chemical carriers—but is not specified by chemical forces," he writes.
Varghese concurs. "Information precedes its manifestation in matter," he writes. Matter and energy are merely vehicles of all information in the known universe. "The next breakthrough is realizing that the foundation of it all is intelligence," writes Varghese. "Implicit in all its phases of discovery is the greatest insight of modern science: Everything is intelligence."
This intelligence is clearly visible, Varghese says, in the phenomenon of protein folding, the process by which proteins self-assemble from different sequences of 20 standard amino acid molecules. These proteins, which assume precise structural or functional roles in the flesh, are assembled at a rate of roughly 2,000 per second in every cell in the body (save for sex and blood cells) from thousands of these acids. The process is so complex, Varghese says, citing Scientific American, that a supercomputer programmed with the precise rules for protein folding would take billions of years to generate one final folded protein from 100 amino acids. Schroeder says chemical laws may explain the sugars, bases and phosphate components of DNA but not its rich information content.
Varghese hinges his case on other phenomena. He sites the anthropic principle, or the idea that the universe was precisely fine-tuned from the beginning for life. This "fine-tuning" is expressed in a set of physical laws and mathematical constants. If any single one of these parameters varied by the tiniest fraction, the universe as it exists would never have come into being and life would not be possible.
"Some of the 'remarkable precision' of physical parameters that people talk about is highly misleading because it depends on the choice of units," counters Victor Stenger in God. The flaw in the principle, he says, is that a single parameter is varied while the others remain fixed. But what if you varied each parameter in concert? Stenger says it's plausible to construct a cosmology in which stars, planets and intelligent life arise with different sets of parameters varying from those currently observed.
But perhaps the most confounding puzzle undermining the theory that life and intelligence is fully explainable in material terms is the origin of reproduction. "How did reproduction start?" asks Varghese. "Nobody dares discuss that."
This is where evolutionary materialism backs itself into a wall. Reproduction is the engine driving the whole evolutionary process. "How is it that the first living beings had the power of replication?" he writes. "How is it that life came with this fundamentally purposive capability preinstalled?" Darwin himself admitted in Origin of Species his whole theory rests on the existence of an unexplained being already in possession of reproductive powers "into which life was first breathed."
Scientists admit reproduction is baffling, and they offer a variety of speculative explanations. "It was originally just an accident," says Keith Parsons. Precursors to reproduction are inherent throughout the natural world, he says, citing complex molecules forming other compounds that multiply in chain reactions.
Stenger points out that computer and mathematical models have been composed employing very simple rules from which complex patterns emerge and then reproduce themselves, though he admits such models are just an analogy and still require intelligence to create the programs. Ruben says the puzzle of reproduction may be unraveled through study of self-replicating forms of RNA, the compound that functions in protein synthesis and carries protein codes from the cell's nucleus to sites where proteins are formed. "You can replicate RNA in a test tube," he says. "Making it [self-]replicate, that's the holy grail right now." He has no doubt that the riddle will be solved. "Science can't suddenly say, 'God did this and it happened,'" he says. "You could replace God with aliens. You could replace God with anything else."
Other than the Antony Flew conversion, the most stunning revelation in Varghese's Has Science Discovered God?, the film documenting the pivotal 2004 New York University summit, is the suggestion by New York University psychologist Paul Vitz that atheism is a neurosis stemming from subconscious urges to kill one's father and replace the father with oneself. Such urges are triggered by paternal abandonment. Examples: Friedrich Nietzsche, who famously claimed "God is dead," lost his father when he was 4 years old; Sigmund Freud, an avowed atheist, did not respect his weak father; the Episcopal clergyman father of English philosopher Thomas Hobbs (Leviathan) abandoned his three children when Hobbs was a teen. Vitz suggests atheism is a neurotic illusion spawned from such circumstances. "That's why I love psychologists," says Stenger, who says he had a fine relationship with his father. "They're so full of shit."
Yet it's Flew's rejection of atheism that triggered the ruckus. Varghese's film is interspersed with clips from a debate at the University of North Texas in 1976 between Flew and theologian Thomas B. Warren. Flew's arguments erupt like bullets propelled by bursts of condescension.
"Certainly I am inclined to believe the universe is without beginning, and will be without end," he says. Belief in God is a self-contradiction, Flew insists. Belief in God as all-powerful and all-good is inconsistent with the undenied evils in the world and with the system of salvation and damnation He created. "If after all the things that are said about his proposed being are contradictory, then to say that there is such a being, thus and thus described, is like saying there is a round square or an unmarried husband," he scoffs.
Flew, now 84, says his atheism was shaken loose by recent scientific discoveries, namely the evidence of the Big Bang, which assumes a beginning of the universe; DNA and the unlikelihood of a naturalistic explanation for its enormous complexity; and the lack of plausible theories explaining the first self-replicating forms of life. "I don't know that anyone has offered any sort of theory," he says of reproduction. "[It's] a virtually insoluble problem."
Yet Flew most certainly hasn't revealed himself a theist in the Christian, Judaic or Islamic sense. In a BBC Radio interview in March 2005, Flew tossed aside the notion of a deity actively engaged in the universe. He also rejects the existence of an afterlife, strangely citing the same reasoning that riles evangelical atheists: the unpleasantness of the biblical God. "If I believed...I would get very worried indeed," he says, "because...the facts of the universe suggest that it's run by this, you know, this [evil] sort of being."
Flew refused to comment for this article. According to Varghese, he is irritated with many of the subsequent interviews—which he claims misrepresented his views—in the wake of his change of heart. But his refusal to be interviewed seems due as much to commerce as annoyance. Flew and Varghese are currently collaborating on a book titled There Is a God that will articulate Flew's position and the evidence and thinking that brought him there. Varghese says the publisher has asked that Flew abstain from interviews until the book is released in November.
Varghese is working on other books exploring life after death, evolution with an "elaborate critique of Richard Dawkins' many errors" and what he loosely describes as "the 10 truths that keep you from going crazy." But he suggests his work with Flew has been his most fulfilling.
Varghese resolutely insists the origins of life and reproduction will never be explained in purely material terms. Science will never unravel the mysteries of thought, consciousness and self-awareness. These are not scientific phenomena, he says. They're irreducible to scientific methodology. "To give an analogy, you can never study/observe the concept of justice in a test-tube," he writes in an e-mail. He's probably right.
Still, it seems wise to remain open to the unexpected strangeness of science. Just two months after that 2005 lunch meeting at Perry's where Varghese rhapsodized on the wonders and mysteries of hovering bees, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and University of Nevada Las Vegas announced a startling discovery based on evidence from high-speed digital photography and sophisticated robotics. After 70 years of confounding confusion, scientists had finally unraveled the secrets of bee flight.
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Varghese's arguments are standard creationist talking points, oft-refuted, as can easily be verified at sites like Typically erroneous is the claim that evolutionary algorithms are merely analogies and therefore invalid because an intelligent person wrote the programs, as if intelligence is some sort of contagion that spreads by mere contact. The point demonstrated by EA's is that simple descent with modification, Darwin's preferred term for what he was describing, can indeed create unimaginably complex structures. That a programmer created the artificial selection mechanism is completely irrelevant. This argument from personal incredulity employed by people like Varghese simply won't fly any more.Neither will vague arguments which toss about the terms "intelligence" and "information" without a clear definition of what exactly these terms mean. The devil is in the details, and such handwaving simply will not do. Despite Varghese's claims of not promoting intelligent design, his arguments are exactly the same, and just as flawed and scientifically vacuous. Like the "scientists" at the Discovery Institute, he talks a lot about science, but doesn't seem to do any, and for good reason: God did it is a science stopper, and always will be.
Comment by Mark Piske — May 4, 2007 @ 02:17AM
Varghese's arguments are standard creationist talking points, oft-refuted, as can easily be verified at sites like Typically erroneous is the claim that evolutionary algorithms are merely analogies and therefore invalid because an intelligent person wrote the programs, as if intelligence is some sort of contagion that spreads by mere contact. The point demonstrated by EA's is that simple descent with modification, Darwin's preferred term for what he was describing, can indeed create unimaginably complex structures. That a programmer created the artificial selection mechanism is completely irrelevant. This argument from personal incredulity employed by people like Varghese simply won't fly any more.Neither will vague arguments which toss about the terms "intelligence" and "information" without a clear definition of what exactly these terms mean. The devil is in the details, and such handwaving simply will not do. Despite Varghese's claims of not promoting intelligent design, his arguments are exactly the same, and just as flawed and scientifically vacuous. Like the "scientists" at the Discovery Institute, he talks a lot about science, but doesn't seem to do any, and for good reason: God did it is a science stopper, and always will be.
Comment by Mark Piske — May 4, 2007 @ 02:18AM
Everyone will believe what they wish to believe. I thought this article was oustanding. Great job.
Comment by Brad — May 4, 2007 @ 02:15PM
The profound complexity of reality demands a creator and that creator is God. Then again God is so complex that he created everything. So who created God? Is it "turtles all the way up"?
Comment by MonkeyBoy — May 5, 2007 @ 12:05PM
The article begins with the myth that bees should be unable to fly; a myth that has long been refuted. (Even were it true, which would be more likely-- that our understanding of aerodynamics is flawed or that there must be a supernatural being involved?) The article goes downhill from there.
Comment by S Foote — May 5, 2007 @ 09:20PM
I thought this article was interesting and informative. Theists such as Varghese pretend to respect science, but where there's a gap in our knowledge, they'll say that there's no scientific account for such and such mysterious thing, and therefore god did it, which certainly doesn't follow logically, and which runs the risk of being falsified when science fills in the gap, as in the example of bee flight. Varghese is making much of the "mysteries" of reproduction and consciousness, but perhaps he should read University of Califirnia evolutionary biologist Marlene Zuk's Riddled With Life, which argues that sexual reproduction evolved at least in part to shuffle genes in a never-ending war with parasites, and she also gives a plausible account of how this evolution may have taken place. As for consciousness, nearly all reputable scientists who study this subject agree that it evolved from animal minds.
Comment by steve beck — May 6, 2007 @ 12:00PM
Congratulations to Mark Stuertz for his balanced feature on Varghese and the new atheist movement. I've read all the works mentioned by Stuertz from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Daniel Dennett. Together they comprise a masterful refutation of the frontier gibberish that comes from second-rate minds like Roy Varghese. It is their burden to prove the existence of God, not ours to disprove it. And in this task they have utterly failed. Varghese starts with grand unsupported assumptions about intelligence being everywhere, whatever that means, and moves on to more nonsense and unsupported claims. It's laughable to call these musings "God Proofs." Belief in God is prevalent for one reason only, because it is forced upon the impressionable minds of children who are brainwashed. The day will come when this is recognized for what it actually is, a form of child abuse. I go further than Harris, for the foreseeable future America will continue to be a dimwitted nation of uncivilized ignorant war-mongering pricks, precisely because they lack the critical thinking skills that make them vulnerable to manipulation by such stellar minds as George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.
Comment by William W. Newbill — May 6, 2007 @ 01:42PM
On the contrary, it is yours to prove the God does NOT exist. Why the Cambrian Explosion? Why the Big Bang? There is far more evidence that things don't just happen. Atheists need to show proof that the laws of physics don't apply to their theories. Science is consistently changing and reinventing itself. It's funny how much work they put into setting up tests and conducting experiments designed to show how easily things can just "happen." Their would be no tests results were it not for the intelligently design scenarios created by the scientists.
Comment by random — May 7, 2007 @ 09:31AM
Ridiculous, preposterous nonsense that a thinking person would even affirm any strain of evolutionary thinking, an oxymoronic phrase if ever one existed. Origins, fools, it's about origins. Did you not read Varghese's comment "For anything to exist, someone had to exist before it?" Blind guides, these atheists. A rejection of Creation based on anger and blindness rather than scientific evidence. The Creation myth of our time, Evolution, and its corrupt priests. Proceed, Dr. Varghese.
Comment by Nigel Van Derwil — May 9, 2007 @ 04:20PM
Mark:Thank you for your fine, well-written article.===============================================As a Christian it pains me when clear scientific evidence is overlooked or simply assumed away. It is worse when denying such evidence is used as some kind of loyalty test by churches.For example, the Earth is billions of years old by virtue of solid scientific study. Still, there are those Christians who maintain that the age of the earth is something like 6,000 years. So they assume an Earth governed by observable physical laws and artifacts that are carbon dated well over 6,000 years. This would make God one of the biggest practical jokers around."Let's see", says the creator, "I'll create a universe with discoverable, logical physical laws and then create a whole bunch of stuff which doesn't obey the physical laws that I set up. That'll get 'em plenty confused and get them to love me." As a result, many would be Christians are turned off. They just don't think that God would create millions of year old dinosaurs and stuff them under dirt less than 6,000 years old just for fun or for some judgment day pop quiz.And as a final comment: Yes the Old and for that matter New Testament God (same God folks) can express a range of emotions including great anger, as well as being longsuffering. This is not at all inconsistent with the New Testament Revelations.
Comment by David Unti — May 9, 2007 @ 06:08PM
As a Christian whose faith has only increased with age, I disagree with those that say we brainwash our children. Unfortunately more and more of our children leave the church. Churches grow when adults accept Christ. When God created the universe he created a mature earth, and mature animals and a mature man. If you will read the book of Job it talks of an animal with legs big enough to stop the flow of the Jordan river, sounds like a dinosaur to me. Remember the word dinosaur was invented in the 1800's, so it couldn't be used to describe something written about in the Bible.
Comment by Art Davila — May 10, 2007 @ 10:50AM
Scientists are becoming increasingly confident that everything in nature can be explained without God. They also seem to be mostly satisfied with refuting statements in the Bible. However the invocation verse to Isopanishad states that the world is made to be complete in itself. ( ) The verse goes, "oḿ pūrṇam adaḥ pūrṇam idaḿ pūrṇāt pūrṇam udacyate pūrṇasya pūrṇam ādāya pūrṇam evāvaśiṣyate." Translated, "The Personality of Godhead is perfect and complete, and because He is completely perfect, all emanations from Him, such as this phenomenal world, are perfectly equipped as complete wholes. Whatever is produced of the Complete Whole is also complete in itself. Because He is the Complete Whole, even though so many complete units emanate from Him, He remains the complete balance."Thus although modern discoveries seem to indicate that belief in God is obsolete, the same kind of results are also expected based on the Vedic scriptures that describe the relationship between the material universe and the Personality of Godhead.
Comment by Pandu das — May 10, 2007 @ 11:19AM
Others have already pointed out the obvious: that the bee business of balderdash, there is nothing new under the Creationist, sun, etc. What I wish to point out is equally obvious: that not to believe in god(s) is not to hold that science can answer every question or is all we need. So Varghese is in one sense simply demolishing a straw man.If a believer can find awe and wonder in theological beliefs (which come in a dizzying variety of mutually-exclsuive forms!) an unbeliever can find as much awe and wonder - having once been a believer I can say that it is MORE - in what science tells us of the universe.More importantly, I think that real meaning has to come from within. If cows were sentient, for example, they could not get their meaning in life from the farmer who cares for them for their milk and meat. Believer or unbeliever, it is ultimately *from within* that we find what is important and worthwhile for us. The best of us manage to do this over and over and over again, each time with rapturous results.But none of what is truly important about religion - understood broadly as simply that which deals with the "ultimate questions" of the human condition, morality, love, purpose, and so on, all the things that science cannot and was never meant to address - depends on the Big Bang, quantum mechanics, or whatever will replace what may one day be seen as quaint notions of the 21st Century. That is why, to the degree that the Bible - and other "holy" books, as well as Shakespeare and the works of many others - speaks to us today it is because it speaks to the heart and not because it informs us about objective reality in the way that science does.God is a figment of the imagination. But figments of the imagination can teach us about ourselves too. It is sad that Varghese cannot appreciate this.
Comment by TGorski — May 10, 2007 @ 04:40PM
I have recently finished Carl Sagan's "The Varieties of Scientific Experience," and these gaps and mysteries addressed by the theists in this article as proof of the existence of God are just that, according to Sagan--gaps and mysteries. That is the point of scientific experimentation, to discover the unknown. Just because, in the year 2007, we don't have a solution to the many gaps and mysteries of life--and ultimately of science--doesn't mean that the answer does not lie in scientific experience. It may take centuries to find solutions to all of the gaps in scientific theories, but those answers will eventually--through the experiments and the minds of great scientists--be found. Why are so many of us quick to fill in these gaps and mysteries with the solution that God must therefore exist? That solution lacks creativity and possibility and, ultimately, "does not follow" to reference logic.
Comment by Maria — May 10, 2007 @ 04:51PM
Many good ideas here and lots of speculation…so here are a few rules of common sense I try to use:1. Remember, speculation unconfirmed by evidence remains speculation. Speculation confirmed by evidence becomes fact. 2. Facts can be counted on. Facts are objective and discernable by all. Facts exist whether you’re a Muslim, Christian, Hindu, or a Labrador Retriever.3. What you don’t know is not a fact.4. When you see a contradiction, check your premise. An assumption is false. 5. Knowledge expands one block at a time. We know more today then we did yesterday, and we’ll know more tomorrow.6. What is a fact today will not be overturned tomorrow by a yet “undiscovered” fact. Speculation on the other hand is constantly turned upside down.7. Learning is difficult, but letting someone else think for you could cost you your life (or your property).Life is good.Wes
Comment by Wes Savon — May 15, 2007 @ 11:24AM
Great article presenting views on both sides of a debate. I had to laugh when I read the line “Evolutionary theory has stubbornly survived 150 years of rigorous scientific testing.” How can we test, according to scientific method, events that purportedly took place billions of years ago over periods of millions of years? All we can test is the here and now, which is not even a blink in the evolutionary timeframe. Anything beyond that is educated speculation. How do we know that the laws we use to describe our observations now were relevant back then? If God is truly the creator of all as the Bible says he is, does he owe us anything? Why should we (part of his creation, according to that account) expect to fully understand him? We barely understand a fraction of the world he made. He owes us nothing, yet he gave us everything, including the minds and intelligence to unravel some of the mysteries of this world. Are we proud that it took us 70 years to explain the flight of bees? It gives me all the more reason to be in awe of God’s creation, that something so simple took us so long to figure out.
Comment by KK — May 18, 2007 @ 07:11AM
Q: How can we test, according to scientific method, events that purportedly took place billions of years ago over periods of millions of years? A: Evidence shows those events are happening right now all around you. Seek the evidence.Q: All we can test is the here and now, which is not even a blink in the evolutionary timeframe. How do we know that the laws we use to describe our observations now were relevant back then?A: The Law of Gravity works the same whether you’re an ant or an elephant. The Law of Natural Selection works whether you’re a flu virus or black squirrel. Laws are observable, measurable, and repeatable. Anybody who tells you can’t rely on the evidence is trying to trick you.Q: If God is truly the creator of all as the Bible says he is, does he owe us anything? A: Correct. The Bible says God is the creator. The Bible says he doesn’t owe you anything.Q: Why should we (part of his creation, according to that account) expect to fully understand him?A: Repeat. Anybody who tells you can’t rely on the evidence is trying to trick you, by undermining your ability to reason. You have a free will and the ability to understand the facts. Letting someone else think for you is dangerous. Evading the evidence does not change reality.KK. I too am an awe of the natural world. Life IS Good.
Comment by Wes Savon — May 18, 2007 @ 09:56PM
Mark Piske writes: "God did it is a science stopper and always will be."As a scientist myself I have no problem believing in the existence of God and practising science simultaneously. In fact, belief in a Creator makes it even easier for me to admire the wonders of science as Varghese so eloquently portrays. I know the same is true for several colleagues of mine, who like me, study Biology at various levels. However I might as well cite some famous scientists as well. What about, Francis S. Collins, who oversaw the Human Genome Project and discovered the genes for cystic fibrosis and Huntington's disease among others. He also invented a molecular approach to cloning called 'positional cloning'. In his recent book, "The Language of God", he eloquently presents evidence for his faith, and conversion from an atheist to a theist. Or Sir Isaac Newton, who along with being perhaps the greatest scientist known to us today, was also an avid student and expositor of the Bible? I would suggest that atheists show a little more humility before they contend that no scientists or 'true ones' do not believe in a Creator. The problem is too many seem to see no reason to defend both their faith and profession. And we would not even have got here (in terms of scientific advances) if dedicated theists and Christians of the 18th and 19th centuries had not rigorously pursued science as a result of their various faiths. After all, was not even Darwin himself confused about this?Finally, please do not claim to refute all of Varghese' arguments as some of you have done above without even attempting to understand his work. Answering a challenging question before even understanding it (or reading it) does not show intelligence, but a certain lack of cogency or maturity, something I learnt long ago when I went to grade school.
Comment by C. Mathias — June 6, 2007 @ 11:00PM
C. Mathias, you misunderstand me. When I say "God did it" is a science stopper, I most certainly do not mean one cannot be a good scientist and believe in gods. I am a great fan of Ken Miller, Catholic, and author of "Finding Darwin's God". What Miller will tell you is that "god did it" doesn't move our knowledge forward. There is no reason, no rhyme, nothing more to study or test. So science cannot posit God as an explanation, whether the scientist believes or not, because it literally stops the science. As to not dismissing Varghese' arguments without even attempting to understand his work, that would be wiser advice were his ideas new, instead of the rehashes of long-refuted arguments that they are. They are not challenging questions when measured against the science.
Comment by Mark Piske — July 4, 2007 @ 11:13PM
The known laws of physics (i.e., general relativity, quantum mechanics, and the Extended Standard Model of particle physics) force us to the conclusion that computational resources in the universe must diverge to infinity (i.e., in order for the known laws of physics to be mutually consistent at all times). The final state of infinite informational capacity (which is never reached in experiential time) is identified as being God.For much more on the technical details of the above, see the below resources:F. J. Tipler, "The structure of the world from pure numbers," Reports on Progress in Physics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (April 2005), pp. 897-964. Also released as "Feynman-Weinberg Quantum Gravity and the Extended Standard Model as a Theory of Everything," arXiv:0704.3276, April 24, 2007."Omega Point (Tipler)," Wikipedia, January 6, 2008"Frank J. Tipler," Wikipedia, January 5, 2008
Comment by James Redford — January 16, 2008 @ 04:36PM