Francis Collins

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Surprise -- The crucial religion story of 2018 is the specter of 'designer babies'

Newsroom story conferences are impossibly clogged with items in the Donald Trump Era.

This month everybody is sifting through everything in order to figure out the Top Ten events of 2018. The Religion Guy proposes that, without question, first place belongs not to political or economic eruptions but scientists’ onrushing effort to “play God” and re-engineer the human species through genetics.

With all the fear-mongering about animal or vegetable GMOs and “Frankenfood,” how shall we now cope with the similar and serious specter of creating human “designer babies” with desired traits?

Alas, the Guy has seen precious little media input from organized religion and urges reporters to bring those viewpoints to the center of this developing public debate.

The news: He Jiankui, a U.S.-trained biological researcher in China, says he has successfully altered the genes of newly born twins, with a third such birth expected soon. The claim has not been verified through the normal academic reporting process, much to the distress of fellow researchers, Chinese officialdom and the university and hospital where He works.

However, his background makes the claim plausible. There were important advances in such work during 2017. If He’s claim falls through, scientific success elsewhere, with the moral quandaries that result, appears inevitable. If it can be done, some scientists somewhere will do it, and self-regulation by science or government restrictions will be difficult to achieve.

The headline on a New York Times dispatch out of Beijing put matters bluntly: “In China, Sacrificing Ethics for Scientific Glory.” There were immediate hostile reactions from scientists. For one, Francis Collins, head of America’s National Institutes of Health (and a devout evangelical), spoke of “epic scientific misadventures” that will sully valid work on genetic diseases by provoking “outrage, fear, and disgust.”

CRISPR sounds like some newfangled kitchen gadget hawked as a Christmas gift on late-night TV. (“But wait!!”). However, it’s the acronym for a new tool for editing genes, Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, using the “CRISPR-associated protein 9” enzyme abbreviated as “Cas9.” Importantly, scientists say this method suddenly makes gene manipulation easy and quite precise.

It’s hard enough for mere journalists to fully comprehend this process, much less explain it to our audiences, but the biological basics and moral implications are crystal clear.

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Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

Lots of news stories linked to this one: Does modern science rule out religious faith?

THE QUESTION above, in the headline, and current developments depicted below, involve skeptics’ long-running assertion that modern science makes religion outmoded and it should be discarded as irrational.

Is faith still credible in our scientific age? How do devout scientists view this supposed “war” between science and religion?

THE RELIGION GUY’S ANSWER:

Gary Saul Morson, a Russia expert at Northwestern University, offers an important analysis of why the purportedly “scientific” — and horridly bloodthirsty — Soviet regime worked zealously to exterminate all religion (see the October issue of Commentary Magazine). But here The Guy will bypass political atheism’s track record.

Nor will this item survey the continual scientific and anecdotal evidence that religious involvement fosters physical and emotional well-being and positive life outcomes. Philosophy professor Stephen Asma, for one, hails these benefits even though he’s an agnostic bordering on atheism (see “Religion Q & A” for August 11).

Instead, The Guy focuses first on new research by British scholars Michael Buhrmester at the University of Oxford, Jonathan Lanman at Queen’s University, Lois Lee at the University of Kent, Valerie van Mulukom at Coventry University, and Anna Strhan and Rachael Shillitoe at the University of York.

Lee, who studies why youths become atheists, says non-believers usually think this results strictly from rational inquiry. But “science increasingly shows that atheists are no more rational than theists,” and thinking otherwise is unscientific — indeed “irrational”! She finds that people on both sides of the God divide are shaped similarly by environmental influences like group-think, charismatic individuals, and how their parents raised them.

Atheistic parents pass on their outlook like religious believers do, more through shared culture than rational arguments, she reports. Non-religious parents often say children should choose for themselves but inevitably convey attitudes about religion. Not surprisingly, 95 percent of children from atheistic homes “choose” atheism.

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Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

Veritas Forum invites college students to think through 'life’s hardest questions”

It’s back to school time, and how’s this for a bracing lineup of campus lectures in just the past four weeks?

At Yale University, distinguished philosophy professor Shelly Kagan, who is an atheist, hosted a top theologian, Anglican Bishop N.T. Wright, from Scotland’s University of St. Andrews to jointly ponder “Living Well in Light of Death.”

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat visited Ann Arbor to advise University of Michigan students that “Faith Is Not a Sideshow.”

At arch-rival Ohio State, a panel on “Living and Dying Well” consisted of a physician, a biological ethicist, and a specialist who helps patients with end-of-life planning.

Bob Cutillo, a physician working with Colorado’s homeless, spoke at the Mayo Clinic and its medical college on “The Doctor’s Gaze: Some Ancient Opinions on How We See Our Patients.”

Then it was celebrated attorney Rachael Denhollander, leader of the sexual abuse victims in the Michigan State and USA Gymnastics scandals and among Time magazine’s “100 most influential people.” Her double-header this week at New York University, then Columbia University Law School, addressed how justice can be reconciled with religious faith and forgiveness.

So began the season for the Veritas Forum of Cambridge, Mass., which organizes campus lectures to address “life’s hardest questions” from traditional Christian viewpoints that it believes academe neglects. To date there’ve been Veritas events at 185 colleges and universities, including at all but one of America’s top 25 schools in the new Wall Street Journal rankings.

Lecture topics run the gamut, for example “What Does It Mean to be Human?? “Is There Truth Beyond Science?” “Does Science Point to Atheism?” “Is Tolerance Intolerant?” “Contradictions in the Bible?” and “What Makes Us Racist?”

The concept is particularly intriguing due to heavy involvement of conservative or “evangelical” Protestants, often depicted in the media as anti-intellectual or at best mediocre thinkers.

The journalism hook?

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What’s ahead for 'young earth creationism,' so lamented by many evangelicals?

What’s ahead for 'young earth creationism,' so lamented by many evangelicals?

Weeks ago, The Religion Guy observed that “creationism” is alive and well within sectors of Islam and Mormonism. Meanwhile, there are the continuing, familiar debates among evangelical and fundamentalist Protestants (on which the late Billy Graham was carefully noncommittal).

Journalists will want to note several upcoming events that reporters could employ for updates. 

Ken Ham, the CEO of Answers in Genesis (AiG), is the star platform personality among “young earth creationists” who reject evolution and believe planet Earth has only existed for 6,000 years or so, with God directly creating all the species in six literal days. Most conservative evangelical educators today adhere to the vast eons in standard geological science and reject that chronology as an embarrassment to those who question other aspects of the evolutionary cause.  

Ham is the entrepreneur famed for Kentucky’s Creation Museum and nearby Ark Encounter, a 510-foot model designed from a literal reading of the Bible’s flood account. (Their aggressive promotion of that viewpoint is quite in contrast with D.C.’s new and high-toned Museum of the Bible, which shuns controversy.)

Reporters can catch Ham in action during six conventions held by a like-minded organization for homeschoolers, Teach Them Diligently. One may occur in your area. The first occurs March 8-10 in Nashville, followed by Rogers, Ark. (March 22-24), Atlanta (April 5-7), Mobile (May 3-5), Myrtle Beach (May 17-19) and Columbus, Ohio (June 7-9). The events are promoted by five conservative universities (Bob Jones, Cedarville, Liberty, Ohio Christian and Truett-McConnell).

Ham’s very popularity presents a big problem inside his movement, according to Joel Duff, a biology professor at the University of Akron, with a doctorate in evolution (University of Tennessee) who is also a Presbyterian Church in America layman. The Guy confesses he missed Duff’s important analysis of this when posted a year ago.

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Fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute can help guide newswriters

Fresh look at evangelicals and the evolution dispute can help guide newswriters

A recent Gallup Poll showed 38 percent of Americans agree with what’s known as “young earth creationism,” which believes God created humanity in its present form some 10,000 years ago.  

That percentage, the lowest since Gallup began asking about this in 1982, was a tie with those saying humanity developed over millions of years “but God guided the process,” so-called “theistic evolution.” Meanwhile, 19 percent said God played no part, double the number in 2000.

The long-running dispute over evolution continues to present journalists with a big challenge in providing fair treatment, particularly if they lack expertise in Bible interpretation. Thus the importance for all media professionals of “Old-Earth or Evolutionary Creation?,” a July book from InterVarsity Press, known for quality presentations of conservative Protestant thinking.

This dialogue book presents respectful but vigorous disagreements from two evangelical camps that share belief in God as the Creator and the full authority of the Bible. BioLogos of Grand Rapids, Mich., champions of “evolutionary creation” (it prefers that label to “theistic evolution”), which harmonizes the Bible with Darwinian evolution. Debate partner Reasons to Believe (RTB) of Covina, Calif., advocates “old earth creation” and criticizes standard evolutionary theory on scientific and biblical grounds.  

RTB began in 1986 under leadership of the Rev. Hugh Ross, a pastor with a Ph.D. in astronomy.  BioLogos was founded in 2007 by Francis Collins (.pdf here), director of the Human Genome Project and currently director of the National Institutes of Health. The two groups held 15 meetings that provide the substance of the new book. 

Both BioLogos and RTB support the vastly long timeline that has long been standard among scientists.

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Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

Regarding Trump, Ike, Billy and that handy journalistic planning device called the 'tickler'

From the invaluable Merriam-Webster dictionary:  

Tickler  noun

1: a person or device that tickles. 

2: a device for jogging the memory; specifically: a file that serves as a reminder and is arranged to bring matters to timely attention.

Most scribes employ No. 2 to some extent, whether with old-style manila folders or in electronic form. Attention to the calendar paid off with a Feb. 19 feature by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s well-respected Peter Smith on the 50th anniversary of the local “Duquesne Weekend,” which inaugurated the Catholic Charismatic movement.

Further examples: 

Political reporters’ datebooks will mark the 100th day of President Donald Trump’s presidency, or perhaps the July 20 half-year point, as useful points to assess the new administration. Another peg comes June 14 when history’s oldest president turns 71 (while refusing to provide full medical data, as with his tax returns).

Religion beat specialists could use those same calendar pegs to examine  pro and con reactions to how the new president is handling questions of keen religious interest, overtures to this or that religious faction, or whether he ever attends church services, if so where, and if not why. Or this: Is the liberal Christian Century correct that Trump has obliterated the “civil religion” preached by prior presidents?

Speaking of presidents, ticklers will list the National Prayer Breakfast the first Thursday of each February. The 2017 version roused great expectations after a religiously and morally bizarre campaign, and President Trump’s first outing did not disappoint. He recalled childhood “in a churched home,” suggested prayer might help Arnold Schwarzenegger achieve his own “tremendous success” on TV, and remarked “the hell with it” during a fond mention of the Senate chaplain.  

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