Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | October 1, 2008

Just Keep Trying!: Cancer Studies and the Threshold Argument

There is an argument that goes something like this: Yes, we can continue to release toxins into the environment because at very low levels they do not produce cancer, and there are all kinds of chemicals in our environment anyway which at low levels do no harm at all.

This is what’s known as the threshold argument.  It argues that below a certain threshold no harm is done.  There is no proof that such a threshold exists, particularly for cancer.

A more popular theory, and the one which is used in actual science to determine risks (by the EPA and others) is the linear no-threshold theory.  It states that the incidence of cancers will go down in direct proportion to the amount of exposure (or dosage) until both the numbers of cancers and the threshold reach absolute zero.  It’s a straight slanted line on a graph.  Since the threshold in this theory is a straight line an is as close to zero as possible it is known as the linear no-threshold theory.  In this theory, any exposure, no matter how small could become a cancer, it’s just that at the low exposure levels the incidence of cancers will be small.

A third theory, which we might call the saturation theory, proposes that at low dosages (proportionately) more cancers occur, but at higher dosages, saturation occurs and not-as-many cancers (proportionately) will be the result.

Some evidence for this third theory comes from a study of radiation-caused cancers using an instrument called a charged-particle microbeam.(1)  This instrument can fire a single radioactive alpha particle with precision at a cell.  It can be pointed at either the cell’s nucleus where the DNA is, or outside the nucleus in the part of a cell that does not have the DNA (also called the cytoplasm).  Single alpha particles fired into the nucleus or into the cytoplasm both resulted in cancers.

It turns out that when 2, or 4, or 8 alpha particles were fired into a cell the number of cancers produced was not proportionate to the numbers of alpha particles.  The results seemed to suggest that the cell had reached saturation.  The greater effects (proportionately) in this experiment were experienced at the lower levels of radiation.

Now, it is a jump from radiation to toxins, but the possibility exists that cancer may react at low dosages even at a higher rate than the linear no-threshold argument would suggest.

So is there a threshold at which no cancers will be the result?  There may be – anything is possible – but there is no proof of it.  And there are reasons why we don’t have the proof.

Most of our experiments with exposure to toxins are done at high exposures with lab animals.  If a chemical is fed to lab animals at very high dosages and some of the animals develop cancers, we say there is a risk of cancer with this chemical.  All our data is high dosage data.

To test the cancer-causing ability of such a chemical at low dosages or over long periods of time would be much more difficult.  Since the exposures would produce less cancers statistically, we would have to use more animals, many more animals, to detect the difference.  A study of low dosage, long term exposures would involve the use of thousands of lab animals.  This makes such experiments costly and difficult to perform.

Molecular biology may one day make it possible to determine the exact chemical that caused a cancer.  But until that time comes, we have to make do with what is possible now.  That means making decisions about what is risky and what isn’t with very little data or proof.  Do we take a cautious approach or not?

There have been studies that have tried to make the connection between specific toxins in the environment and cancers such as breast cancer.  One notable study on breast cancer is the Silent Spring Institute’s Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study.

As it turns out, looking at cancer rates geographically reveals that some areas have higher rates of cancer than others.  No one is sure of all the factors involved.  When many cancers of a specific kind appear in a given area it may be called a cluster.  I won’t go into all the reasons why clusters are hard problems to solve.  Mainly, it is the problem of trying to account for the cancers statistically when there is so much chance variability to begin with.  It’s hard to know what’s chance and what’s the specific cause.

On Cape Cod in Massachusetts, breast cancer rates are higher than they are in the rest of the state.  At first it was thought that pesticides used in the cultivation of cranberries on the Cape was responsible, but, as often happens with these studies, the connection could not be proven.

It was thought that the pesticides used to protect the cranberry crop had leached into the ground water and that the people of Cape Cod were exposed to it mainly through the water supply.  Cancer can take 20 or more years to develop, and 20-year-old dosages of the pesticide in the water were impossible to determine retroactively, so the connection could not be made.  But the study is ongoing.

A more credible attempt to look at pesticides as a source of cancers and disease is the Agricultural Health Study (done by the National Cancer Institute, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, and the EPA).  It studies farm workers who have worked with pesticides and have been much more exposed to them.

Farm workers, however, seem to have fewer than normal cancers.  It is believed this is because they are more seldom smokers and also presumably because they work out of doors and get plenty of exercise.  One would think then that if certain cancers show up more often among them that this would be an indicator of other sources of cancer or disease.

Because of the long germination times of cancer only preliminary results are in as yet.  It turns out that exposures to pesticides in farmers are correlated to higher rates of prostate and ovarian cancers among others.(2) Exposures to organophosphates was connected to higher rates of hearing loss.(3)  It has been shown that chlorpyrifos – an insecticide – correlated with depression and suicide.(4)  So what has been found already, albeit preliminary, shows to some extent how these chemicals may be affecting us when we come into contact with them.  The low levels of the general public’s exposures to these chemicals may protect us more than if we used these chemicals several times a year and came into close contact with them, but we may not be immune from them, even at a distance.  This could especially be the case with cancer.

My question is, why, when we already have evidence that these chemicals produce cancer in lab animals, we would continue to release them into the air, land, food supply, and water around us?  Is it simply because we don’t yet have the smoking gun at the genetic and molecular level that our hands are tied?  Our government still relies on studies done by the chemical companies themselves to determine if a certain chemical is safe.  We must rely more on independent research.  We have to fund it appropriately, and we have to do the research we are funding.

What happens when a chemical is found to be unsafe?  There has to be a clammoring of the public before it can be removed.  In Europe, many of the chemicals we use here have already been declared unsafe.

To conclude, there is a chemical, tributyltin, a toxic metal, that has been used in paints covering ships’ hulls to keep them clean of barnacles and algae.  This post is about cancer-causing toxins, but tributyltin didn’t cause cancer.  I’m using it here as an example of what can happen when we keep trying.  What happened was that in the course of coming into port some of the paint with tributyltin chipped off the ships or leached out from the paints and poisoned the fish and other living things in the port and along coasts.  The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and some concerned shippers (Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics and the 2003 Group) got together and started to use other chemicals or hull-cleaning strategies.  Now due to a decade of efforts by the WWF there is a treaty to outlaw tributyltin.  Other strategies will be used now to keep ships’ hulls clean.  Business continues.  But it’s business with a conscience.  The fish and other living things of the ports and coasts are better off, and so are we.  Because we tried.  We did something.  We had the faith in ourselves and our ability to get the job done in a better way and we did it.  This is the essence of what I want to say about the toxics problem.

There is an old saying: If something is broke, fix it, and if it’s still broke, fix it again.  There are indeed many safe, or at least safer, chemicals out there.  If we find that a chemical causes cancer, let’s work on developing something else!  But let’s not just sit around waiting for the chemical companies to do it themselves.  Let’s get aware and press our government to keep studying these chemicals (with independent  studies).  And let’s keep pressing the chemical companies themselves to come up with something better.  Because we know it most likely will not happen unless they are pressured.  That’s just the system.

We’ll have made the world a better place to live in, and we’ll feel better about our footprint in it, too, if we — Just keep trying!

**********

(1)  For “targeted alpha radiation on cells” see The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (U.S.A.), Cell Biology Section, vol. 94, pp. 3765-3770 (1997); vol. 96, pp. 4959-4964 (1999); and vol. 97, pp. 2099-2104 (2000).

(2)  Alavanja MCR, Sandler DP, Lynch CF, Knott C, Lubin JH, Tarone R, Thomas K, Dosemeci M, Barker J, Hoppin JA, Blair A. (2005). Cancer Incidence in the Agricultural Health Study. Scand J Work Environ Health, 31 (S1): 39–45.

(3)  Crawford JM, Hoppin JA, Alavanja MC, Blair A, Sandler DP, Kamel F. (2008 ) Hearing Loss Among Licensed Pesticide Applicators in the Agricultural Health Study. Journal of Occup Environ Med. Jul;50(7):817-826.

(4)  Lee WJ, Alavanja MCR, Hoppin JA, Rusiecki JA, Kamel F, Blair A, Sandler DP. (2007) Mortality among Pesticide Applicators Exposed to Chlorpyrifos in the Agricultural Health Study. Environmental Health Perspectives, 115(4): 528-534.

This whole post has been derived from a book on environmental health hazards that I highly recommend.  Especially if you don’t care for my rambling writing style, the book is very well written, and a great boon to anyone trying to understand the epidemiology and statistics of environmental hazards.  I think it is a must read for anyone in the environmental movement.  It’s straight science and very balanced and helpful.

How Much Risk?: A Guide to Understanding Environmental Health Hazards, by Inge F. Goldstein and Martin Goldstein. — Oxford: Oxford University Press, c2002.

The Silent Spring Institute’s Cape Cod Breast Cancer and Environment Study  –  http://s20428.gridserver.com/our-research/communities-high-breast-cancer-rates/cape-cod-breast-cancer-and-environment-study

The Agricultural Health Study  –  http://aghealth.nci.nih.gov/results.html , reading just the abstracts to these studies reinforces the idea that these chemicals have many effects, largely unknown; www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/agricultural-health-study

For a recent article on the tributyltin solution, see www.sciencecentric.com/news/article.php?q=08091746 .

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Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | September 29, 2008

A Checkerboard Effect in Religion

I have been thinking about one of my statements in a former post – about Sayyid Qutb viewing the Shari’ah as the Divine Law.  I said that it went counter to his earlier statements, and counter to Islam, which does not accept any divinity but God’s.  Now I am wondering if Muslims consider the Shari’ah divine much like the Christians consider the Bible as God’s Word, capital “W.”  If so, I have some regret over it.

Actually, because I am reading the Qur’an, and because of my reading of Qutb, I have some unexpected notions of a God-centered utopia of sorts.  What a world it would be if all people just tried to know God and were led by him to do the right thing for each other?  And what can be wrong with thinking about it, even if it’s inspired by someone like Qutb?

Though such a utopia isn’t what we have.  Nor do I think it can be accomplished entirely through one religion or the other, as Qutb claims.  Nor do I think it makes sense to try to create a new religion that tries to harmonize all our present religions.

Each religion requires beliefs in certain tenets which are not shared by the other religions.  Islam, for instance, believes in Christ’s virgin birth and resurrection but not in the crucifixion!  Christianity believes in the deity of Christ, which Islam abhores.  Very likely, Judaism believes things not shared by Christianity or Islam.

These things divide us and become articles of contention.  They are like a checkerboard in which we can land on some spaces but not others.  And it makes it difficult for some to participate without denying some personal belief of their own.

All the same, our differences don’t have to lead to violence and hatred, if we learn to expect and accept those differences.  If we know about those differences beforehand, perhaps it will be easier for us to interact with one another with discretion.

I’m not trying to discourage anyone from joining a religion or a local religious community.  I think those who do will learn a lot, and the advantages of belonging to a community are great.  You will learn things you will never regret learning and meet people you will never regret meeting.  My advice is to go for as long as you can.  And if, for some reason, it does not work out, take what you’ve learned and put it into your own “personal practice.”

The point is, we still need people who live between the faiths.  People who can act as the glue.  People who will try to understand, and tolerate, and even correct.

And we need people within all the religions to learn about religions different from their own.  Not just to argue with, but to learn, to understand, to tolerate, and to find the really basic things that they have in common.  (Jesus said something like this when he talked about “the weightier provisions of the law.” – Matthew 23:23)

We also need to try to understand those who do not believe.  Atheists have more to say than most would like to admit.  The poet, Samuel Coleridge, once wrote, “Not one man in a thousand has the strength of mind or the goodness of heart to be an atheist.” (1)

And if “there is no compulsion in religion,” as it says in the Qur’an, then all these things should be obvious.

I watched a program tonight on C-SPAN.  It featured Karim Sadjadpour who gave some good insights into today’s Iran.  The last question of the segment involved a man who said he thought the Bush administration was trying to alienate the different ethnic groups in Iran from each other in an effort to defeat Iran’s Islamist government.

The different ethnic groups in Iran have coexisted for many hundreds of years.  Iran even has a sizeable Jewish population.  Mr. Sadjadpour said that if such efforts were being made to cause division in Iran that it was “unconscionable.”

My sentiments also.  Many such minority communities have existed in the Middle East since early times.(2)  There used to be a sizeable Jewish population in Iraq before the 1948 Arab-Israeli war.(3)  Now almost all the Jews have fled to Israel.  These minority populations are a testament to an earlier, more structured, and probably more tolerant time.  It was a time when if you were not of my particular group, you might be different, but you still had a right to exist.

What does that tell us about the times we are living in, when communities of such great age and richness cannot coexist?  And what does it tell us about where we’re headed in this new century of ours?  Certainly not towards a utopia!

**********

(1) Quoted in The Great Thoughts, edited by George Seldes, p. 87.

(2) McClatchy article on the Christians of Iraq.

(3) Wikipedia article on “The History of the Jews in Iraq.”

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | September 22, 2008

Maxims

If the unexamined life isn’t worth living, the over-examined life isn’t worth throwing away.

Waste not, want not.  Want not, buy not.

This planet will last us a long time, if we take care of it.  Otherwise, it will just be the site of our wars.

You don’t get to heaven just thinking about yourself.

Even the stone that falls to the bottom of the ocean … displaces the whole sea.

Every time you love someone who doesn’t seem to deserve it, you’re making progress.

Having it all means that there’s nothing left for anyone else.

Too much propensity, not enough resistance.

Talent was the driving force of the twentieth century.  High prices will be the driving force of the twenty-first.

The secret is not in how bad it has to get before it gets better.  Take your time.  Things will get better.  Little by little. (It just takes a while, that’s all.)

For a nation that claims to be a leader, one of the greatest sins has got to be, doing nothing.

It’s easy to teach manners to those who already have manners in their hearts.

If we don’t have the moral will to see the truth, how are we going to have the moral will to act upon it.

There’s only one thing worse than a crazy person on meds, and that’s a crazy person who should be on meds but isn’t.

If you don’t care about the truth, what can you care about?

Speed limit 55, minimum 60.

Nice guys finish last because they’re the only ones responsible for everyone else.

Who’s more of a thief than someone who sells through fear?

How well did we know George W.?

“The highway of the upright is to depart from evil,” but have you been on any of these highways, lately.  People driving 70 miles an hour.  What’s wrong with a small path – through the woods, across a stream, or up in the hills – just you (your family) and your God?

In order to change the world you have to renounce it.  Renounce it, but do something for it.

Five minutes in heaven is worth an eternity anywhere else.

Five minutes in heaven, and we’ll be looking for something to do.

Five minutes in heaven, and we’ll realize that it’s all about being with God, anyway.  And that’s what it’s always been about.

Life is, at its best, a game played by those who know they cannot win, and so, have tried something better.

If you have to know everything (before you can start), it’s going to take you a while.

Shouldn’t prophets have a vision?

If you really, really need Him, you won’t ask.  You’ll seek and knock.

Pray to your God.  Let that be your whole legacy in prayer.

It’s not like we have “moved on” from God, but more like God, if we had stayed in the same place, would’ve moved on from us.

If someone goes so far as to save your life, try not to disappoint them.

There’s only one thing that’s worse than being killed in an accident, and that’s killing someone else in an accident.

We don’t need more and more-convincing villians; we need more ordinary people who are willing to focus on our problems long enough to produce some positive results.

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | August 24, 2008

Excerpts from “Milestones” by Sayyid Qutb

I have recently started reading some of the writings of Sayyid Qutb, the Egyptian writer who was a forerunner of today’s Islamic extremists or Islamists. In his book, Milestones, he calls for the use of violence against people and institutions that stand in the way of the spread of Islam. With the following excerpts I hope to introduce Qutb’s book and start on the road to making a critique of it.  To really do a good job of critiquing, I know, would take more study, but the book is very obvious in its message.  It is not difficult to disagree with.  (The book was written in 1964 near the end of Qutb’s life. Qutb had already been arrested and tortured for his Islamist views by Egypt’s Nasser government.  In 1966 he was executed.)
To critique Qutb’s book you must start practically on the first page, practically with the first line, the first word.
“Mankind today is on the brink of a precipice, not because of the danger of complete annihilation which is hanging over its head – this being just a symptom and not the real disease – but because humanity is devoid of those vital values which are necessary not only for its healthy development but also for its real progress. Even the Western world realises that Western civilization is unable to present any healthy values for the guidance of mankind. It knows that it does not possess anything which will satisfy its own conscience and justify its existence.” (p. 7)
“It is essential for mankind to have new leadership.” (p. 7)

This argument seems to me to be overly simplistic. Although it is good to hold up moral and spiritual values in our downward sloping societies, to say there are no values at all that we can hold on to is premature.  Not everything about the West is dire or decadent. There are some nihilistic tendencies in the West, but there is still a greater tendency, I think, to common sense and decency among the people. It depends on where you look. In some cases, religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism prop up the moral or ethical outlook.  However, I think it is also true, that people not connected with organized religion have the innate ability to perceive truth and morality which are the “values” Qutb seems to be referring to here.

“It is necessary for the new leadership to preserve and develop the material fruits of the creative genius of Europe, and also to provide mankind with such high ideals and values as have so far remained undiscovered by mankind, and which will also acquaint humanity with a way of life which is harmonious with human nature, which is positive and constructive, and which is practicable.” (p. -8  )

“Islam is the only system which possesses these values and this way of life.” (p. -8  )

Actually, although I find this statement flawed, I do have some sympathy towards it.  In fact, at one time I was like that in my own religion.  So, for me, it is easy to imagine a person who puts all their faith in their religion viewing it as the only way for mankind. It seems natural to me that people who accept a religion by faith, and have invested that religion with all their faith, would come to this conclusion. But just because it is understandable, does not mean that it is in all aspects correct or true.  All people have the ability to connect with God and the values he might teach.  It’s part of our being human.

I believe the time has come for all our religions to admit that those outside the church, the synagogue, or mosque are people that God alone will judge. Believers are not right to judge. In fact, in Christianity at least, Christ’s injunction – “Do not judge, and you will not be judged” (Luke 6:37) – seems to refer to this situation. Also, one could make a case that early in the Book of Genesis, if one interprets that book typologically, that people like Seth and Abel and Noah were saved by God without any special membership in a community of believers.

It may be that, on occassion, it makes sense to oppose someone if their sins or their intention to continue in sin is endangering others. But even granting that we should oppose such a one, this does not give us the authority to judge their eternal status with God. God may know things that we do not.

And it could be added that the Apostle Paul said that some who do not have the law, “do instinctively the things of the Law,” (Romans 2:14)  meaning that those outside of the main faiths may also have some perception of God.

“If Islam is again to play the role of the leader of mankind, then it is necessary that the Muslim community be restored to its original form.” (p. 9)

Reformers of Islam have always taken this approach. But whether this is helping Muslims truly is still up for debate.

I’m not saying it’s wrong to go back to the Qur’an to try to renew and revive the religion. Going back to the original sources may actually be healthy.  I’m just saying that that’s not all that has to be done in this world.  People of faith should know that faith alone cannot solve all problems.  There must be works also.  And those works should probably include the political, economic, social and intellectual realms. Without paying attention to those areas, the well being of the people is still not provided for. And if there’s nothing to eat, you have strife and division. You have fighting over resources, civil wars, etc. – which are already happening in Rwanda and Sudan. And in Sudan, Muslims are fighting other Muslims over resources. To my mind, you have to start moving toward a sustainable economy.  Without these things, calling only on faith is just stoking the flames.

“Only in the Islamic way of life do all men become free from the servitude of some men to others and devote themselves to the worship of God alone, deriving guidance from Him alone, and bowing before Him alone. …” (p.11)
“This is that vital message of which mankind does not know.” (p. 11)
“This religion is really a universal declaration of the freedom of man from servitude to other men and from servitude to his own desires, which is also a form of human servitude; it is a declaration that sovereignty belongs to God alone and that He is the Lord of all the worlds. It means a challenge to all kinds and forms of systems which are based on the concept of the sovereignty of man; in other words, where man has usurped the Divine attribute. Any system in which the final decisions are referred to human beings, and in which the sources of all authority are human, deifies human beings by designating others than God as lords over men. This declaration means that the usurped authority of God be returned to Him and the usurpers be thrown out – those who by themselves devise laws for others to follow, thus elevating themselves to the status of lords and reducing others to the status of slaves. In short, to proclaim the authority and sovereignty of God means to eliminate all human kingship and to announce the rule of the Sustainer of the universe over the entire earth.” (pp. 57-58  )

To be sure, this position is extreme.  It basically abolishes all forms of authority.  If I understand it correctly, one of the reasons Islam was given was because of the lawless situation which engulfed the tribes of Arabia at the time of Muhammad’s teaching.  In addition, to abolish all authority would leave no visible presence of authority in the world, making relating to God’s authority that much more unimaginable.  Authority is commonplace. It’s in families, it’s in our places of work. Saying “sir” or “maam” is a form of acknowledging authority.  The idea is not to abolish authority but to practice it truly and for the benefit of those who live under it.  It means those in positions of power should serve benevolently and not lord it over those who are under them.

And it should be remembered that communism also made great claims in the prior century, but the reality was always tyranny.  Someone is always wielding the authority on behalf of the many but without becoming responsible themselves.

“It is necessary that there should be a vanguard which sets out with this determination and then keeps walking on the path, marching through the vast ocean of Jahiliyyah which has encompassed the entire world. …” (p. 12)
“It is necessary that this vanguard should know the landmarks and the milestones of the road toward this goal so that they may recognize the starting place, the responsibilities and the ultimate purpose of this long journey.” (p. 12)

Immediately after setting up this great goal of eradicating subservience, Qutb introduces “a vanguard” that is going to take us there. Is this vanguard later going to place into servitude those who end up following it?

“The people ought to know that Islam means to accept the creed ‘La ilaha illa Allah’ in its deepest sense, which is this: that every aspect of life should be under the sovereignty of God, and those who rebel against God’s sovereignty and usurp it for themselves should be opposed;…” (p. 35)
This legal formulation is based on the principle that Islam – that is, submission to God – is a universal Message which the whole of mankind should accept or make peace with. No political system or material power should put hindrances in the way of preaching Islam. It should leave every individual free to accept or reject it, and if someone wants to accept it, it should not prevent him or fight against him. If someone does this, then it is the duty of Islam to fight him until either he is killed or until he declares his submission.” (p. 57)

And here’s the crucial passage. To put it simply, if anyone opposes Islam or the spread of Islam he must be killed. This seems to set up something of a vicious circle. People are opposing Islam because they believe they are preventing violently disposed groups, and then the Muslim “vanguard” so-to-speak is killing those in authority because they believe they are standing in the way.  This is the cycle of violence that is killing the Middle East.

Also, the way I see it, there seems to be more worry here about being free to accept Islam than there is about being free not to accept it.  In some Muslim countries, isn’t it a crime to turn away from Islam after one has already accepted it?  If I’m not wrong, it’s a crime punishable by death.  Why is that?  If you defend conscience, shouldn’t you defend it even if someone chooses a position different from your own?

“No doubt the Shari’ah is best since it comes from God; the laws of His creatures can hardly be compared to the laws given by the Creator. But this point is not the basis of the Islamic call. The basis of the message is that one should accept the Shari’ah without any question and reject all other laws in any shape or form. This is Islam. There is no other meaning of Islam. One who is attracted to this basic Islam has already resolved this problem; he will not require any persuasion through showing its beauty and superiority. This is one of the realities of the faith.” (p. 36)
“The only principle on which the totality of human life is to be based is God’s religion and its system of life. If this principle is absent, the very first pillar of Islam – that is, bearing witness to – ‘La ilaha ila Allah, Muhammadar Rasul Allah’ – will not be established nor its real influence felt. Unless this principle is accepted without any question and followed faithfully, the complete submission to God as taught by the Messenger of God – peace be on him – cannot be fulfilled.” (p. 84)

“To establish God’s rule means that His laws be enforced and that the final decision in all affairs be according to these laws.” (p. 58  )

Qutb calls the Shari’ah “the Divine Law” of God. As such, he says it must be accepted in whole, entirely by faith, no questions asked. This is actually his definition of Islam. “There is no other meaning of Islam,” according to Qutb.  So instead of putting men in the position of God, according to his argument, he has put the Shari’ah there instead.  I hope this is not too controversial to say.  I’ve read that for many Muslims the Shari’ah is like the glue which holds Islam together.

“What kind of a man is it who, after listening to the commandment of God and the Traditions of the Prophet – peace be on him – and after reading about the vents which occurred during the Islamic Jihaad, still thinks that it is a temporary injunction related to transient conditions and that it is concerned only with the defense of the borders?
“In the verse giving permission to fight, God has informed the Believers that the life of this world is such that checking one group of people by another is the law of God, so that the earth may be cleansed of corruption. Permission to fight is given to those against whom war is made, because they are oppressed, and God is able to help them. These are the people who were expelled from their homes without cause, except that they said that our Lord is God. Had God not checked one people by another, then surely synagogues and churches and mosques would have been pulled down, where the name of God is remembered often.’ Thus, this struggle is not a temporary phase but an eternal state….” (pp. 64-65)

This passage is complex because, as I see it, it was also the view of the Old Testament when God told the Hebrews to make war against the Canaanites. God wanted Israel to eliminate the Canaanites because they were so sinful.  Specific crimes like child sacrifice and fertility cults were named.  Later, in the Minor Prophets, God sent judgments on the nations surrounding Israel because of these reasons, as well as unjust wars and brutal killings of innocent people!

In the settling of the United States, we might remember, Americans viewed the Native Americans as morally inferior, and almost eradicated them. Was this justified? When is it right to view another people as morally inferior and when is it not? Don’t peoples always view other peoples, other groups, as inferior to themselves? And doesn’t this throw into doubt their ability, by themselves, to determine when it is right to do this and when it is not?  I suppose it happens when it must – take the example of fascism – but how and why it should happen all the time is something much more difficult to determine.

“It means to be above all the powers of the earth which have deviated from the way of the Faith, above all the values of the earth not derived from the source of the Faith, above all the customs of the earth not colored with the coloring of the Faith, above all the laws of the laws (sic) of the earth not sanctioned by the Faith, and above all traditions not originating in the Faith.
“It means to feel superior to others when weak, few and poor, as well as when strong, many and rich.” (p. 141)
“This message relieves him from both dejection and grief, these two feelings being natural for a human being in this situation. It relieves him of both, not merely through patience and steadfastness, but also through a sense of superiority from whose heights the power of oppression, the dominant values, the current concepts, the standards, the rules, the customs and habits, and the people steeped in error, all seem low.” (p. 142)

Finally, there is no place for feeling “superior” in religion. There might be confidence or gratitude.  There might be excitement when worshipping with people from all over the globe.  There may even be pride, although in English that word has other connotations. What I don’t get is that they would somehow feel superior.  To me, religion is instituted for other reasons than to feel superior.

And I wonder if this passage on superiority may tell us something about the author, his comparative newness to his religious outlook, and his experience at the hands of his Egyptian torturers. It’s surely tragic, but I can easily see how his experiences of torture could have affected his opinions about “feeling superior.”  Here we must have some sympathy for Qutb, but we should not be made to think that being “superior” is the best there is.

I want to make clear here, too, that although I am criticizing Qutb, I am not trying to criticize in any way the Islamic religion. I’m not sure that all my statements will appear so peace-oriented (both to Christians and to Muslims), but I’m not sure how else I can say these things.  I am new to studying Islam, and I ask forgiveness if I have said anything that is destructive to anyone’s faith.  I hope my comments will not be interpreted as against a religion which has inspired billions of people for many centuries and, hopefully, will continue to do so for many more.

**********

See Milestones, by Seyyid Qutb. — Damascus, Syria: Dar al-Ilm, [1964]. I purchased this book new at a  bookstore in Hyde Park, Chicago, Illinois. It is probably also available through Amazon. It’s 160 pages.

Another book which I would like to read soon is – From Secularism to Jihad: Sayyid Qutb and the Foundations of Radical Islamism, by Adnan A. Musallam. — s.l.: Praeger Publishers, 2005.

NOTE: There seems to be an unspoken and more mature way to deal with persons outside of one’s own religion.  It is implied in the New Testament story of the Good Samaritan.  What’s of first importance is not one’s own religion, but the willingness to help and to include another person, whatever their condition, in one’s own immediate world. (Luke 10:25-37)

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | May 22, 2008

Credo

Before I became a Christian (now I am simply a believer in God), I heard a man teach at our college about South African apartheid, and how the Christians in South Africa, mainly Dutch Christians, used Genesis 9:20-9:27, to justify their ill treatment of the native blacks. According to them, the story of the curse on Ham was literally an explanation of why the people of Africa have dark skin. And that dark skin was a sign of their being cursed by God.

Of course, the Bible says no such thing. The curse was actually on the Canaanites, who, at the time of the writing of the Old Testament, were the enemies of the Hebrews. And the Bible mentions no curse at all on the other descendants of Ham who were the presumed forerunners of the African races.

Nevertheless, this is what Dutch believers were teaching each other during the darkest days of South Africa’s apartheid system. I made a vow to myself at that time (after hearing the speaker) – believing that if at some time I might have the opportunity to become a Christian, and I found that the Bible taught such “intolerable” things – that I would no longer accept the Bible as true.

It’s been many years since, and I have spent 15 years in the church, and now several years outside of the church again. I spent those years in the church reading the Bible, and I don’t at all regret the Bible exposure. Nor do I think that the Bible teaches intolerable things. It teaches some hard things – but not intolerable things. Some of the hardest things, such as the curse on the Canaanites which I have just mentioned, have to be seen in light of the times and purposes of the writing of the Bible itself.

This experience, this taking a vow to myself, gave me a belief. It was the belief that what was true had to “bear up under scrutiny.” Even the Bible itself had to submit itself to this test. If something didn’t bear up under scrutiny, or possibly, would not submit itself to be scrutinized at all – then it probably wasn’t true.

My experiences in the church would teach me other things. The idea of a “living God” came from the Bible and from the church, too. But if God was a living God, then why would he reside in only the Bible? Wouldn’t he be teaching us all the time – through our lives? And if that was the case, revelation was a continuous thing. God is always revealing himself. So I came closer to the idea that revelation is not complete but is going on all the time. God reveals himself anew to every generation. (The Bible was not given to replace life; it was given to support it and the learning process of each new generation, with the experiences and wisdom of the generations that came before.)

With each new generation come new revelations of God and his creation. Even new information on the creation such as we are learning from science today, affects our interpretation of the Bible. At one time I would have said these two realms, science and religion, are two separate spheres, but now I see overlap. Religion supposedly answers questions about our origins, but, learning that it has taken millions of years through long biological experimentation on a lonely planet, affects some of the “answers.”

I had always believed in evolution, except for a short time when I entertained the idea that God created the phyla. But if the phyla could evolve into so many different species, why not a tree of life that started from a single cell? What was the difference?

Sometimes Christians say things like, “Well, that was a million years ago, who cares about it now.”  And to tell the truth, I’ve never been sure exactly why evolution matters. To me, it’s just the idea that it explains the facts. In short, evolution matters because it is true. And if it is true, we can’t carry on as if it wasn’t. No one lies their way into heaven. If it’s true, it’s true. (1)

I’ve been on blogs recently where people write about believers and seem not to understand them. They are at a loss of how to understand belief in God at all. But it is experiences like the experiences I’m explaining here that give life to belief. There are also books. (Christian people just talking and reflecting.) I was fortunate as a believer to be introduced early to a publisher called Inter-Varsity (or IVP). They are a Christian press, no doubt, but they cater to an educated crowd, namely university students who are feeling the conflict of cultures in their classrooms. Their books helped me not to take all the teachings that are taught in church too narrowly. They opened up new horizons for me. In some cases, like the book, In the Beginning, by Henri Blocher, they helped me understand the Bible better.

One belief which I derived from these books was a belief in the basic purposefulness of life. I’m not sure which author it was who wrote about it; perhaps it was Carl F. H. Henry (whom I later tired of because of his constant “alarmism”). It’s the idea that history is progressing toward a goal, a purpose. We may not understand it or even know what it is most of the time, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there. How would you go about testing this idea? I don’t know. Could this notion be abused by the wrong people? For sure. All I know is that from time to time life doesn’t make much sense without it. We are tumbleweeds unless we believe that there is some goal or purpose to our lives. And, without it, the greatest events of our lives, the real history we see in the making (think, the civil rights movement, for instance), is only the arbitrary movement of a pendulum, back and forth, without cause or meaning.

I’ve been offended sometimes by Christian people. I don’t think Christian people are evil, or anything else extremely bad, but on occasion they do seem to be narrow or closed. Once on a Saturday morning men’s Bible study, someone came up with the idea that you don’t have to read books or commentaries, just read the Bible itself. And although I admit there is some truth to that idea (first read the Bible for yourself), I was in school at the time and also reading commentaries on the Bible. Was I to suppose that the writer of the commentary I was reading, who had spent most of his adult life studying the Bible, its history, its original languages, and teaching students about it, had nothing to say to me, and that I couldn’t derive any help from his writing at all? And what about reading other books? For whatever reason, the statement offended me. It still does today. I propose to myself on many occasions that Christians, and many other people as well, are just anti-intellectual in orientation, which hurts me a lot because of the books I read. Well, they’re probably not as anti-intellectual as I think they are, but I still think we have a long way to go. People should be allowed to read books and seek answers. It is the principle of open inquiry.

As I get older and I seem to struggle with God more and more, I’m beginning to see a little light here and there. Whereas, at one time, I thought I had most of the answers, now it comes down to a wrestling match between me and God. On the one hand, I can say that God is inscrutable – that God can not be held down to one point or one reason for anything that he does. On the other hand, I feel his power against me quite a bit. Like getting hit with javelins every time you try to talk with him. Is God just a bully that has to be stood up to? Maybe. And yet maybe too, he wishes for me to stand up to him. Does he want me to grovel at his feet all my life? Maybe he would not be offended if I questioned something he seems to have done. Maybe I should tell him on occasion exactly what I think. Maybe… so the journey never ends.

In any case, this post is supposed to be about my core beliefs. So, in short, here they are (for the moment):

1) Life is sacred and precious, and all life on this planet is related, a family;
2) Love is the greatest – family love, romantic love, neighborly love; love for living things is essential; love even rules over knowledge – for someone to be a true “expert,” they have to love their subject or be motivated by love somehow; Love is the one Christian doctrine that nobody seems to complain about;
3) If something is true, it must stand up to scrutiny – even religious truth claims should be able to do this;
4) God is a living God and is continuously revealing himself – each new generation learns God a little differently;
5) History is progressing to some kind of goal or purpose, even if we don’t always know exactly what it is;
6) People should be allowed the privilege of open inquiry – to read books and investigate for themselves what is true and what isn’t; and,
7) God is inscrutable, (but scrutinize him anyway, if you can – you just might learn something from it).

Though these may be my beliefs, they say precious little about “why” I believe. One reason I don’t seem to be able to live without God, are things like murder and injustice. Assuming there is no God, events like murder can just be seen as random and nothing out of the ordinary. I just do not want to tolerate a world where a murder victim is not consoled by God in the next life. For someone to be robbed of life has to have an answer somewhere – and that answer, as best I can tell, is God. Another reason for my believing in God relates to my #5 belief above. Given that history is leading somewhere, somewhere we might not even anticipate, we may need God to help us get there. As much as we know, we can never really know everything, so, like an agnostic principle, we need God to help us. Without that, we may never get there.

The truth is, there have been times when it has been hard for me to believe in God at all. With science seemingly pushing him back into a corner, it’s getting harder and harder to believe that he is present, here and now. Even harder is to believe that he is benevolent and that he is a person. At times like that, I try to see him as a principle – this agnostic principle, that we need him to guide us and lead us toward the goal, almost like Star Wars’ “the force.” Usually when I think of that, and our need for God to get us there, it brings me back to belief. And science has in some ways made God even bigger. At one time, the earth and sky must have felt pretty big to early peoples. But now, the universe is millions of times bigger, gazillions of times bigger. And the planet that people once thought was 6,000 years old, is now four and a half billion years old. I find it difficult to understand how that does not in some way glorify God.

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The book that has got me thinking about all this, all over again, is the following –
The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life, by Austin Dacey. — Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, c2008.
It’s a good book for non-believers, especially. But I liked it. It places conscience at the center of our public life. And it says we should discuss our beliefs, which is what I’ve tried to do here.

(1) NOTE (3/6/09): I’ve found some articles that explain why evolution matters to us now.  It matters because of how human behaviors influence the natural world in unexpected ways, like fish maturing earlier and at smaller sizes in adaptation to human fishing.  Also, evolution matters, as I’ve suggested, for the reason of intellectual honesty.  /  You may have some trouble getting into the NY Times site.  You may wish to log in first and then try searching the archives for, “Research Ties Human Acts to Harmful Rates of Species Evolution,” and, “Optimism in Evolution.”  (www.nytimes.com/2008/08/13/opinion/13judson.html  and  www.nytimes.com/2009/01/13/science/13fish.html ).

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | March 1, 2008

Selling Our Souls or The Threat to Social Organization

The story of Joseph in the Bible is probably one of the first “rags to riches” stories ever told. In it, Joseph is sold into slavery by his jealous brothers. A caravan takes him to Egypt and he is sold to Potiphar, an Egyptian official. False accusations follow him, and eventually he ends up in jail with apparently no hope or prospects of ever being released. But Pharoah has a dream he wants interpreted, and the search for an interpreter leads to Joseph who interprets it for Pharoah. It is Joseph’s spirituality in interpreting the dream that finally saves Joseph.

It may be remembered that Pharoah’s dream was of seven fat cows and seven lean cows, and the lean cows ate the fat cows. Pharoah also saw seven healthy ears of grain and seven scorched ears of grain, and the seven scorched ears of grain ate up the seven healthy ears of grain.

So Joseph interpreted the dream by saying that there would be seven good years followed by seven years of drought and famine. According to the Bible, this actually turned out to be the case. Joseph was allowed to store grain during the good years for the drought, and the people of Egypt were saved by Joseph’s skill in interpreting Pharoah’s dream.

And this is where the story turns ugly – at least for the Egyptians. During the famine, Egypt was selling the grain to all the Egyptians and all the people in the surrounding areas, until finally the people could no longer pay for the grain. It’s a long passage, but an interesting one:

When the money was all spent in the land of Egypt and in the land of Canaan, all the Egyptians came to Joseph and said, ‘Give us food, for why should we die in your presence? For our money is gone.’ Then Joseph said, ‘Give up your livestock, and I will give you food for your livestock, since your money is gone.’
So they brought their livestock to Joseph, and Joseph gave them food in exchange for the horses and the flocks and the herds and the donkeys; and he fed them with food in exchange for all their livestock that year.
When that year was ended, they came to him the next year and said to him, ‘We will not hide from my lord that our money is all spent, and the cattle are my lord’s. There is nothing left for my lord except our bodies and our lands. ‘Why should we die before your eyes, both we and our land? Buy us and our land for food, and we and our land will be slaves to Pharaoh. So give us seed, that we may live and not die, and that the land may not be desolate.’
So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt for Pharaoh, for every Egyptian sold his field, because the famine was severe upon them. Thus the land became Pharaoh’s.
As for the people, he removed them to the cities from one end of Egypt’s border to the other. Only the land of the priests he did not buy, for the priests had an llotment from Pharaoh, and they lived off the allotment which Pharaoh gave them. Therefore, they did not sell their land.

Then Joseph said to the people, ‘Behold, I have today bought you and your land for Pharaoh; now, here is seed for you, and you may sow the land. ‘At the harvest you shall give a fifth to Pharaoh, and four-fifths will be your own for seed of the field and for your food and for those of your households and as food for your little ones.’ So they said, ‘You have saved our lives! Let us find favor in the sight of my lord, and we will be Pharaoh’s slaves.’ (Genesis, chapter 47, verses 15-25) 

This passage, in light of the Joseph story, is really quite shocking. Throughout the story of Joseph, we see the rise of an honest, gentle, sensitive young man. But in this passage we see his ability to serve Pharaoh at the expense of the people. But the Bible seems to actually look down at this transaction. I don’t think it is holding up Joseph for any reason here. At least, I believe this is the way the Bible intends this passage to be read. The reason I say this, is because later, when the Israelites invade Canaan (or Palestine), they set up a system of land ownership that is the exact opposite of what we see here in the story of Joseph in Egypt. It is a system of land ownership, divided up into holdings for each tribe and family. It is a permanent system, because if anyone sells his own land, during the year of the Jubilee (which is held every 7 years), the land will revert back to the family owner. So permanent ownership of the land is a unique feature of the Hebrew system. A kind of guarantee of equitable economic relations.

There is no such system of land ownership today. At least not here in the United States. Land can be sold by anyone to anyone for whatever the going price is. With the gap between rich and poor becoming ever greater in our country, we have to be diligent to make sure equitability, justice and fairness win out. And we no longer have a land system to insure such justice. It is our political vigilance which, as an involved public, is our guarantee. (1)

 The shocking thing for me about this passage is that it is the type of thing which could happen at any time and in any place – where the people are caught “unawares.” All it takes is a real crisis.

I’m not saying I expect this of the American people, but it’s a question worth asking and thinking about. What would happen in America if some kind of depression took place, some kind of crisis? Would we give up our freedoms and our rights just to put food on our tables? Would we oppress other countries? Would extremist groups become more popular and more powerful? Would interracial tensions increase and erupt into violence? Sometimes just listening and watching what’s on the airwaves these days you almost wonder what Americans would do. What would we do under severe pressure?

In other countries, without the advantages that we have here in America, the challenges must be even greater.

But these things are really happening all the time. In India, for instance, parents send their own daughters into sexual slavery. It’s called “human trafficking,” but it’s really just slavery. (Is slavery making a comeback?) In advanced technological societies like those in America and Europe, we have a system based on consumerism, but, in our contentedness, we seem to have a culture of silent acquiescence, allowing destructive practices in our companies and even our government.

So, in the Bible – for all it’s obvious distance from us, both in time and space – there is this horror story, this unthinkable horror story. Even at the time the Bible was written, it was obvious that people could “en masse” sell their own souls. To me this Biblical passage says simply – beware!

In the end, we all have to be vigilant and work towards a just and equitable world.

And I would say — don’t be afraid of what can happen in a crisis. We will get through it. Our faiths and our understanding will teach us how.

************
(1) One of my favorite movies is “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Here’s a link to a blog that discusses such a “sellout” as I’m discussing here. But with a better outcome. “Potters” beware.
http://money-law.blogspot.com/2007/12/its-wonderful-life.html
Also, here’s a link to a McClatchy article on the possibility of a Great Depression (dated 3/17/08 ) – www.mcclatchydc.com/homepage/story/30708.html .

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | February 18, 2008

Two Land Ethics

The beginning of the Bible introduces us to the garden of Eden. But after reading briefly about the creation and God’s establishment of the garden, you come to a strange set of references to rivers that flowed out of the garden of Eden. (Genesis 2, verses 10-14)

“Now a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden; and from there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is Pishon; it flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold…. The name of the second river is Gihon; it flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third is Tigris; it flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”
Now we know the Tigris and Euphrates rivers today, because they retain their names, and the river in the land of Cush is probably the Nile. The last river, that “flows around the whole land of Havilah,” I’m assuming is the Jordan. So you get the feeling that the garden of Eden, while in our minds might be small and on a scale with human gardens, might have been much larger — it could even have encompassed the entire Middle East! This is the idea I have when I read the Genesis account.

Now the garden of Eden, in this way that I have introduced it, may be considered the Biblical baseline for the whole region. (1) (This biblical notion of “garden” being the original baseline, would not take into account our modern notions of “wilderness,” for example.  In the Biblical view, deserts occur when human immorality brings on drought, etc. – through God’s displeasure.  In our modern, scientific, view, there were always deserts due to climate and circulation patterns.) (2)

The theme of the land around the Jordan River, for instance, is taken up later. In the account of Abraham and his relative Lot, the two men are looking for a place to pasture their abundant flocks. They agree to separate, because “the land could not sustain them while dwelling together, for their possessions [cattle] were so great that they were not able to remain together.”(Genesis 13:6) And this is one element in what I call the Biblical land ethic that overlaps with our modern notions. The two views, Biblical and modern, are identical on this point.  The Hebrews were shepherds and cattle herdsmen. They knew specifically what the condition of the land was, since they were entirely dependent upon the land for sustenance. Even without science or proper agricultural practices, they knew instinctively whether the land could sustain them and their animals or not.

What follows is another strange scripture. It says, “Lot lifted up his eyes and saw all the valley of the Jordan, that it was well watered everywhere – this was before the Lord destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah – like the garden of the Lord, like the land of Egypt as you go to Zoar.” There are a few things that come about as a consequence of this verse. One is that, from the Biblical point of view, what is now the Dead Sea area where the lower Jordan is, was once a garden-like, or Eden-like area. When Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed the land also was destroyed. (See also Psalms 107, verses 33-34) The other thing is that there are still areas of the earth that appear as Eden at one time appeared. This place, “Zoar” (in Egypt) was one of those places. It was lush and “well-watered.”

But the Biblical “land ethic” does not just involve Sodom and Gomorrah, it involves the whole face of the land. As I’ve put forward in an earlier post, when the Hebrews did what was right, God rewarded them with rain – their flocks and herds prospered, etc. When they did what was not good, God withheld the rains and made life hard for them. Even more than that, the land would “spew” the Hebrews out of their land if they continued to do wrong. Leviticus 18, verses 24-28 says:

“Do not defile yourselves by any of these things; for by all these the nations which I am casting out before you have become defiled. For the land has become defiled, therefore I have brought its punishment upon it, so the land has spewed out its inhabitants. But as for you, you are to keep My statutes and My judgments and shall not do any of these abominations, neither the native, nor the alien who sojourns among you (for the men of the land who have been before you have done all these abominations, and the land has become defiled); so that the land will not spew you out, should you defile it, as it has spewed out the nation which has been before you.”
In short, the land itself is destroyed through a process of moral defilement. This is the Biblical version of the land ethic.

The other land ethic is the land ethic put forward by Aldo Leopold, the early conservationist, who (in 1949) in an essay entitled, “The Land Ethic,” called on all of us to include the biotic world as part of our own “community.” He wrote as follows:

“The first ethics dealt with the relation between individuals; the Mosaic Decalogue is an example.  Later accretions dealt with the relation between the individual and society.  The Golden Rule tries to integrate the individual to society; democracy to integrate social organization to the individual.  There is yet no ethic dealing with man’s relation to land and to the animals and plants which grow upon it.  Land, like Odysseus’ slave-girls, is still property.  The land relation is still strictly economic, entailing privileges but not obligations.” (3)

Although Leopold mentions Biblical teachings here, he is not always affirming to the Judeo-Christian religious mind-set. So even though I’m proposing that there are some resonances between the land ethic of the Bible and Leopold’s land ethic, I’m also seeing their differences.
The Biblical land ethic poses the problem of the land as a symptom of a human moral problem. God curses the land, and it spews mankind out, when man’s moral degeneracy and wrong relationship to God, to others, and to the creation, requires it.  (See Genesis 3:17 and 8:21; Deuteronomy 11:26; Jeremiah 23:10a; and Malachi 4:6 about God cursing the land.)  Leopold’s view is that the land problem is a problem in and of itself. If we paid more attention to the land, we could restore it.  Put this way, both views may have some validity. From the Biblical point of view, isn’t it partly because of our own human carelessness and selfish desires that nature is so often violated? And from Leopold’s view, isn’t it because we do not include nature in our own community and assign it a value along with ourselves that we end up destroying it?

When we try to protect wetlands, for instance, with a national wetlands law, the cry from the conservative camp is, What about property rights? Property rights are important, and they have helped society to evolve and become more complex, but they are not absolute. We would do well to take Leopold’s view that we should include the land and nature as part of our own valued community with a status and with rights such as we accord to ourselves. Why shouldn’t nature have the right to propagate and continue just as much as we do?

In another vein, there has been some movement, for instance, to put nature in the place of God as an entity that will retaliate against humans because of the way we have been treating her.  One recent idea is to call our planet “Earth”, instead of “the Earth,” because “the Earth” makes the planet sound like an object, and “Earth” more like a person with rights and the ability to fight back.  Many believe that this is a good way to see what is happening with global warming – the Earth is fighting back.  But what worries me is how silently and without much fanfare species are being lost to extinction.  I don’t think we can depend on the Earth to somehow stop us in our tracks and carefully teach us all the things we need to know to take care of her.  In some ways, I think what we can really expect is to lose a good portion of nature before we’ve even realized how it was done.

While it is obvious that Leopold’s view needs more attention now, it may be that we need not lose the Biblical idea completely, either.  Do we really think that God, if we believe in a God, will not retaliate against us for what we are doing to one another and to his creation?  This should be motivating for Christians and other believers.  For those who do not believe in a God, the retaliation of nature – the Earth – against our selfish ways may be a good motivator, too, in some respects.  Either way, there seems to be a place for some imaginative sympathizing (with the environment) here.  But in the end, maybe our best motivation would not be to fear what nature or God will do to us, but our greatest motivator should be what we could do to nature.  A fear of that and a more loving relationship with nature in general could lead us to a better path.

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(1) For the idea of baselines, or “shifting baselines,” especially as it relates to ocean environments, there is an interesting group online tied to that idea. See their website at –http://www.shiftingbaselines.org/index.php . See also the classic article – “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baselines Syndrome of Fisheries,” by Daniel Pauly in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, (1995) 10:430.  Find it at – http://fishlab.nres.uiuc.edu/NRES_409/Documents/Pauly_Shifting_Baseline.pdf .

(2) There is an interesting passage in the Dead Sea Scrolls in which it seems that this Biblical view towards desert areas finally seems to change.  It says, “(Thou art Creator of) the earth and of the laws dividing it into desert and grassland…”  This is in a poem in the War Scroll, X, 11 or 12 or 13. – The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English, ed. Geza Vermes (1997 edition), p. 173.  I need to look at this more closely, but the promises of a land flowing with water in Israel if the Jews simply repented, seem to have been modified by the time of this verse in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

(3) “The Land Ethic,” is usually collected together with other writings by Aldo Leopold. See, A Sand County Almanac, and Sketches Here and There, by Aldo Leopold. — London: Oxford University Press, c1949, pp. 202-203.

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | January 1, 2008

The Tikopia Syndrome

In Jared Diamond’s Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, he mentions what he calls a success story in his list of failed societies. It’s the small Pacific island of Tikopia. In contrast to Easter Island, for instance, where the people destroyed the forest of the island, the people of Tikopia planted fruit trees and grew crops on nearly every usable spot on the island. The places where crops or fruit trees weren’t grown, so-called “wild” trees with edible nuts were grown, which were only eaten if the regular crops failed. A small island on which it was not possible to be out of earshot of the sea at any moment, it supported over the long-term more than a thousand people at a time.

One’s first reaction to this report is to just say, Wow! And they were able to achieve these results over hundreds of years. But one’s second reaction might be different from the first. Would we really want a “planting” instead of a planet? Would we want all the plants and animals of this world to support us and keep nothing for its own value? No wild places? Only what benefits us? If we end up thinking about “planet management,” for instance, shouldn’t there be a place for nature to regenerate itself if something happens to us? What is our real responsibility here?

I read an article in Environment magazine a while back about what we are going to have to do to conserve water in the future. (Environment magazine has quite a few articles on water.) Special water-conserving technologies in agriculture and industry will need to be implemented, even beyond what ordinary people will have to do to conserve water at home. More bang for the buck, more with less, however you want to say it.

I recently read an article in BioScience magazine on “population target levels” for wildlife.(1) The question in the title of the article was, “How Many Animals Do We Want to Save?” Natural areas and wildlife do have a value. Whether it is the people-centered values of history, aesthetics, or the ecosystem services that we receive – or the nature-centered values, the values that nature has quite apart from us: it certainly has the right to exist and perpetuate itself.

But just try telling that to someone who needs a job.

The real question is not how many animals do we want (although there are some insights in the article on this), but how many people do we want? If politics is short on solutions now, wait until there’s nine billion people on the planet (instead of only six billion), all demanding jobs, resources, and services. It’s hard to believe that our people in government don’t get this. (Right now they can only bicker over immigration with an us-them attitude that speaks to me only of how wars begin.)

And the question remains, Do we want to keep only what serves us – nothing for its own value?  Or do we presume (for presumption it is) that nothing else even has a value apart from us?

Whatever the answer to that question is, or whatever it takes before we start looking for the real answer, you can bet we are going to have to start limiting ourselves if we are going to have livable lives. We can only hope that by the time we get around to it there is something left of our natural world to save.

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(1) “How Many Animals Do We Want to Save? The Many Ways of Setting Population Target Levels for Conservation,” Eric W. Sanderson. BioScience, (November 2006), vol. 56, no. 11, pp. 911-922.
How long has it been since the book, The Population Bomb, was written? To some extent you can say the picture it drew was too dire, but the same processes are still at work today. How can we learn to limit ourselves before we destroy the planet? Here’s the rather conservative Wikipedia article – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The%20Population_Bomb .

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | November 3, 2007

Is God in the weather?

In the Old Testament, droughts, famines, pestilences and invasions were usually attributed to the sins of the Hebrew people. A drought in Jeremiah’s time was interpreted this way, for instance:

 “Drag them off like sheep for the slaughter And set them apart for a day of carnage!  How long is the land to mourn And the vegetation of the countryside to wither?  For the wickedness of those who dwell in it, Animals and birds have been snatched away, Because men have said, ‘He will not see our latter ending.” (Jeremiah, chapter 12, verses 3 & 4)
In this verse the people are warned that an invader (a drought – one that might look like a war) is to come producing “a day of carnage.”  Also, humans are not the only ones to suffer because of their “wickedness,” nature also suffers equally.  A similar passage emphacizes this: 
Their nobles have sent their servants for water; They have come to the cisterns and found no water.  They have returned with their vessels empty; They have been put to shame and humiliated, And they cover their heads.  Because the ground is cracked, for there has been no rain on the land; The farmers have been put to shame, They have covered their heads.  For even the doe in the field has given birth only to abandon her young, Because there is no grass.  The wild donkeys stand on the bare heights; They pant for air like jackals, Their eyes fail For there is no vegetation. (Jeremiah 14, verses 3-6)
One might wonder why the Hebrew people were always found guilty of these disasters in the Old Testament. One of the main reasons is that for most of the Biblical times, the Jews maintained idols. Another reason they were blamed was because they did injustices like the taking of bribes, not looking out for the widow and the orphan, doing violence, not observing the Sabbath, disparities between rich and poor, etc. These things were all earlier condemned in the Mosaic law with the promise that if they commited such acts they would be punished by God with a drought, a famine, a pestilence or a war. This is all in the curious chapter of the Biblical Book of Deuteronomy, chapter 28, which lists blessings if the children of Israel obeyed, and curses if they did not. This chapter is really the foundation of all the prophets who came later predicting hardships for Israel.
Things weren’t all bad, however. Some scriptures predicted forgiveness and reconciliation (like Isaiah, chapter 41, verses 17-20):

The afflicted and needy are seeking water, but there is none, And their tongue is parched with thirst; I, the Lord, will answer them Myself, As the God of Israel I will not forsake them. I will open rivers on the bare heights And springs in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water And the dry land fountains of water. I will put the cedar in the wilderness, The acacia and the myrtle and the olive tree; I will place the juniper in the desert Together with the box tree and the cypress, That they may see and recognize, And consider and gain insight as well, That the hand of the Lord has done this, And the Holy One of Israel has created it.

In this passage, rain and water are in the power of God to give. It is also his doing when the land and the natural world are restored.

Today, we may take some exception to this whole line of thinking. We see it as only physical properties which produce changes in the weather. But in the Bible it was the culpability of the people who brought these disasters on themselves — because they had departed from the way outlined in the Old Testament, particularly the Mosaic law.

And who’s to say that to a certain extent, and on a certain level, they may not have been right? We are certainly discovering that the world is limited and that we may be changing the weather ourselves, for instance. Does it make any difference if we have caused those things to happen physically rather than morally? On the one hand, because of global warming, we have physically altered the climate which makes us morally culpable; this is Al Gore’s big message. On the other hand, we are culpable not because we have changed the world physically but because we have acted irresponsibly toward God, nature, and our fellow human beings. And I don’t know of anyone who has argued that we have acted responsibly. So there is a moral element here no matter which way you look at it.

There does seem to me to be a danger in attributing all the ills of the world to our own sins. At the point at which we start doing this our “ethic” may begin to cause paralysis rather than action. But in the long run a little sensitivity would be helpful. You get the impression sometimes that any mention of global warming in the context of conversation about the weather is seen as a little loony. I have a conservative friend who talks with me about global warming all the time, although the reason he does is that he believes the opposite of what I do. And still it is refreshing just to talk about it.

Does seeing God in the weather tell us anything about ourselves or our ultimate relationships to God, to others, and to the natural world? It may be that seeing God in the weather will turn out to be a kind of virtue in the near future. Seeing God in the weather will certainly add urgency to our efforts, not only to deal with global warming but also to the many other problems we have among ourselves. Still, many do not believe in God, and many Christians do not see the link from the weather to global warming – but we can still be on the same page, so to speak, if we take what’s happening with the weather just a little bit to heart.

Posted by: Geoffrey Meadows | October 3, 2007

Course Correction on Islam

I’d like to make a course correction in the posts that I’ve done lately on Islam.

For one thing, although I think it’s rather humorous how often they use the term on conservative talk radio (Islamo-fascists), I do believe that there are several similarities between Muslim extremism and the fascism of the last century. They, and when I say “they” I mean the extremist groups like Hamas in Gaza, or Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt, and of course groups like al-Qaeda, who rely heavily on the use of violence as a means to getting what they want in the world. They are militaristic. They use charitable avenues to win the support of the people but rely on violence and intimidation, also. They teach their children to hate. They use lies and propaganda without ceasing. They prey on the hopelessness of the people. That’s the sense I get from what I’ve seen.

Even so, this view does not require me to hate all so-called Arab peoples or all Muslims. Nor does it mean I think all Muslim people are like this. I’ve met some very fine families over the years that were Muslim, and I don’t intend to start hating them now.

In an earlier post, “Challenges for Islam,” I wrote that I wished the Muslim nations of the Middle East success. What I meant by that is that their societies might become successful — and that would include political, economic, environmental and intellectual success. It means that I hope Islam’s emphasis on social justice would somehow, finally, find a way to bring about just and equitable societies.

What I did not mean in that earlier post was that Islam would be able to expand and control a much greater part of the world through its religious outreach. I would not want the U.S., for instance, to become a Muslim nation. But the suggestion that there is any real chance of something like that happening is to me mere fantasy. Islam is a growing religion, but to know the strength of the Christian tradition in the U.S. is to realize such a thing is just not going to happen. In other countries, however, there is some good possibility of Islam expanding.

I saw the editor of a new book of translations, called The al-Qaeda Reader, on C-SPAN recently. He talked about some of the verses in the Qur’an that espouse violence.(1) He said that although Muslims are under no compunction to become violent in the propagation of their faith, the extremists always will or at least will always be able to point to those verses to support violence. It’s something we have to get used to. The vast majority of Muslims don’t want violence, many even condemn it as sin, but if only a few individuals do espouse violence, it is still a paramount problem. As I read the Qur’an, I learn more about their faith, but knowing these weaknesses of the religion is going to be, I’m afraid, just a part of being an educated person. I’m sure there may even be weaknesses in our own religion, Christianity. I think we can know some of those things and still have a positive outlook.

The other thing I wanted to correct was the suggestion in my post, “What’s Wrong with the Hijab?,” that we should not continually criticize other countries or faiths about matters we disagree with. The case in point was the hijab, sometimes just a scarf, other times a complete covering of a woman except the face or eyes. I do think we must be candid about women’s rights. I also think, if there are opportunities, for instance in diplomatic discussions, for us to influence Muslims in legitimately better ways, we should do it. But get this: we should also expect them to criticize us in the same way.

Finally, I admit to being divided about this personally, but I think there is room for some hard pressuring from us on these extremist groups, and that includes when they are democratically elected. Most of us think that if a party or administration is democratically elected we should leave it be. And I used to think this also. This is hard for me, because I am basically an idealist. Maybe if it were just one country in which a group like Hezbollah was popularly elected, it would not make much difference. But now we have several countries — again, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, etc. What if all those countries elected extremist governments? I don’t think there is anyone who would say that, if before the Nazis came to power they could have been stopped, then they wouldn’t have stopped them (saving us from World War II). Most people would say, Sure if they could have been stopped at that time we would certainly have done it. I think the situation is very similar to the Middle East today. Of course, I think there should be some cautions about this strategy (much more than we exercised in the Cold War, for instance). We should be very careful about how, why, and in what situations we become involved, and to what extent, but I think we should try. It may be that the people of the Middle East will likely never appreciate this decision of ours, but I think it has to be.

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(1) The editor of The al Qaeda Reader on C-SPAN was Raymond Ibrahim and the main verses he mentioned were Sura 9, verse 29 and Sura 9, verse 111. These are verses often mentioned by the terrorists. Also, he noted that the attacks of 9/11/2001 may have been timed to coincide with the latter of these two verses — 9/11/2001.

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