We all know how the battle lines shake out: evangelical vs. scientist, believer vs. atheist. The culture war defined as science vs. religion is so overheated that it seems to be more of a caricature than a coherent, useful discussion. Unless, that is, someone is trying to stretch beyond the usual polarities.
Ronald Dworkin, an acclaimed American legal scholar who died in February at the age of 82, has done just that in Religion Without God. After reading an excerpt in The New York Review of Books, I couldn't help but think that Dworkin offers a way into discussions of science and human spiritual endeavor that is actually engaging and interesting, not combative and dogmatic.
Here's how he frames it:
The familiar stark divide between people of religion and without religion is too crude. Many millions of people who count themselves atheists have convictions and experiences very like and just as profound as those that believers count as religious.
How does a culture saturated with the fruits (and poisons) of science understand the ancient human longing that is sometimes called religious, sometimes spiritual or sometimes sacred? The route of absolute rejection (taken famously by Richard Dawkins) makes for a clean ideology. But it comes at a cost: ignoring the reality of human experience. This is why Dworkin is keen to show that — even for people who call themselves atheist — there remains a sense or a value to the world which bears so much in common with attitudes we call religious or spiritual. In his mind, to not see them as such is a kind of willful blindness:
[These atheists] find the Grand Canyon not just arresting but breathtakingly and eerily wonderful. They are not simply interested in the latest discoveries about the vast universe but enthralled by them. These are not, for them, just a matter of immediate sensuous and otherwise inexplicable response. They express a conviction that the force and wonder they sense are real, just as real as planets or pain, that moral truth and natural wonder do not simply evoke awe but call for it.
Given the force of these responses to experience, Dworkin wants to know if there can be an understanding of religiousness that does not involve God. Dworkin understands, of course, that there are religions such as Buddhism that do not involve a creator deity. But he goes far beyond that fact. What Dworkin pursues is insight into the core of what makes us human and how it might be grounded in something other than an idea of God:
Religion, we should say, does not necessarily mean a belief in God. But then, granted that someone can be religious without believing in a god, what does being religious mean? What is the difference between a religious attitude toward the world and a nonreligious attitude?
I have never been a big fan of the word religion in these debates, given its implications of institutional power and politics. But if we understand it as a response to experience, in the way that William James did, then Dworkin is, I believe, on to something. His question is an important one which people of good will on both sides of the science and religion discussion (as opposed to the science vs. religion debate) need to address.
While Dworkin's specific answer hinges on ideas about value and its attribution, there will be other ways, I am sure, to respond to the question.
And it's the question which matters most. We live in an era when attitudes about religion are changing in the very same moment that the institutions of science are being challenged by forces of religious extremism. For people not given to extremes, this is the moment to get creative.
Even as President Obama was declaring that tornado-devastated Oklahoma would get "everything it needs right away," the state's most vociferous critic of federal emergency aid vowed that he, too, would push for assistance "without delay."
Republican Sen. Tom Coburn took a pummeling in the hours after the deadly tornado struck for initially suggesting he'd demand spending cuts before agreeing to federal help.
He did not refer to those offsets in a statement Tuesday morning, saying only that he had spoken to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano about a response from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"We still don't know the scope of devastation and won't for some time," Coburn wrote. "But, as the ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees FEMA, I can assure Oklahomans that any and all available aid will be delivered without delay."
His office did not immediately return a request for comment and further clarification on his position, reported by CQ Roll Call, on requiring budget cuts to finance aid to his state's tornado victims.
The issue of federal aid is a complicated one for Coburn and his fellow GOP senator, James Inhofe. Both have been consistent critics of FEMA spending and recently voted against aid to victims of Superstorm Sandy, which ravaged swaths of New Jersey and New York last year.
Three of the state's five members of the U.S. House also voted against Sandy aid; Republican Reps. Tom Cole and Frank Lucas supported the $60.2 billion aid package.
In an interview Tuesday with NPR, Cole said he was proud of the vote.
But Coburn and, to a lesser extent, Inhofe have become the faces of pushback on federal emergency spending even though their state is one of the biggest recipients of U.S. disaster aid.
A 2011 analysis by the Center for Public Integrity found that Texas and Oklahoma "combined for more than a quarter of FEMA's declared disasters since Jan. 1, 2009."
Eleven GOP senators who represent the states with the most FEMA-declared disasters since the start of 2009, according to the study, voted against a bill "designed to keep the agency's disaster relief fund from running out of cash."
Republicans had referred to the FEMA funding issue as a manufactured crisis, and later, in debate over Sandy spending, Inhofe called the proposed aid bill a "slush fund" for special interests.
But in an MSNBC appearance Tuesday morning, Inhofe characterized the Sandy aid bill as "totally different" from legislation that would provide assistance to Oklahoma.
"They were getting things, for instance, that was supposed to be in New Jersey," Inhofe said. "They had things in the Virgin Islands, they were fixing roads there. They were putting roofs on houses in Washington, D.C. Everybody was getting in and exploiting the tragedy that took place. That won't happen in Oklahoma."
Early Tuesday, Coburn's Senate website contained no mention of the tornado that hit the city of Moore. Rather, it led with the headline "Sequester This" on a list that, among other things, proposed cutting "fat" to avoid furloughs and flight delays. One cut he proposed: $5.25 billion from FEMA's Superstorn Sandy-aided surplus.
The site was later updated with a "how to help" link to nonprofit organizations providing aid to tornado victims in Oklahoma.
Although the politics of federal aid is being enthusiastically hashed over in Washington as yet another example of partisanship that swamps even emergency help, Oklahomans remained focused on their tragic reality.
"Everyone's focused on recovery," says political analyst Sheryl Lovelady of Norman, Okla. "I don't think anyone is thinking about politics, even though politicians have been in front of the cameras."
"I can't imagine our congressional delegation turning away help for people who have lost everything," she said. "People here are suspicious of the federal government and how slow-moving it can be. To have the president support getting us all the resources we need, and if the congressional delegation delays? That would not go over well."
And though Coburn was taking a battering on social media Tuesday morning — accused of everything from holding his constituents hostage because of his call for a budget offset, to being un-Christian — his spokesman John Hart portrayed his boss's hardline position on offsets for disaster aid as consistent.
As Coburn and Inhofe position themselves in the coming hours and days, House Speaker John Boehner made clear where he stood during a news conference Tuesday morning. In response to a question about whether Congress would require that cuts be found in the budget to pay for Oklahoma aid, he said: "Let me just speak on behalf of all our members, including those from Oklahoma: We will work with the administration to make sure they have the resources they need."
The speaker added that "our hearts and our prayers go out to those in Oklahoma who are victimized by this storm, especially our colleague, Tom Cole. Moore, Okla., is his hometown, so obviously he's there, and so I've ordered the flags this morning to be lowered to half-staff in honor of those who have suffered through this terrible storm."
Boehner also ordered flags at the U.S. Capitol flown at half-staff to honor the victims, numbering at least two-dozen, seven of them children, at last count.
A rare piece of America's military history was located this spring, when dolphins from the Navy's Marine Mammal Program located an unusual artifact: a torpedo from the 19th century. Discovered during a training exercise in the ocean near San Diego, the torpedo will eventually make its way to a museum.
The bottlenose dolphins were honing their ability to find underwater mines when the discovery was made. The torpedo did not have a warhead, Navy officials say.
"The Howell torpedo, one of the first self-propelled torpedoes developed and used by the U.S. Navy, was discovered off the San Diego coast," reads an announcement from the Space and Navy Warfare Systems Command's Facebook page.
The torpedo was developed in an era when naval power defined a nation's might; its design was seen as "a leap forward in military armament," The Los Angeles Times reports. The Times describes the torpedo as "made of brass, 11 feet long, driven by a 132-pound flywheel spun to 10,000 rpm before launch. It had a range of 400 yards and a speed of 25 knots."
The weapons have remained rare. The U.S. Navy only had 50 of them built, according to the Naval Undersea Museum.
The Howell was named for its creator, Lieutenant Commander John A. Howell. The Naval Undersea Museum in Washington state has one of the torpedoes on display; the recently found artifact is likely to join it. The museum's website describes the Howell as part of a new crop of "automobile" — or self-propelling — torpedoes of the late 19th century. The torpedoes were built by the Hotchkiss Ordnance Co. in Providence, R.I.
It seems to have taken a while for the Navy to identify the torpedo the dolphins located near San Diego — after all, it was decommissioned generations ago. In the end, a search on Google helped, a Navy official tells San Diego's CBS 8 TV.
A federal appeals court ruled Tuesday in favor of the government's decision to keep photos and video of the May 2011 raid that killed Osama bin Laden a secret, rebuffing a conservative watchdog group that had sought their release.
A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington accepted a White House assertion that releasing the images, including death photos of bin Laden, could spark violence and risk the lives of Americans abroad.
The government says the classified images show the dead al-Qaida leader at his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, the transportation of his body to a U.S. ship, and his burial at sea, according to Reuters. Court papers say the photographs were taken so the CIA could conduct facial recognition analysis to confirm the body's identity, the news agency reports.
"It is undisputed that the government is withholding the images not to shield wrongdoing or embarrassment, but rather to prevent the killing of Americans and violence against American interests," read Tuesday's decision by U.S. Circuit Judges Merrick Garland, Judith Rogers and Harry Edwards.
In its decision, the court rejected an argument by conservative group Judicial Watch "that the Central Intelligence Agency failed to show that releasing images of bin Laden's body — specifically those showing it cleaned and prepared for burial — would harm national security or reveal classified intelligence strategies," Bloomberg reports.
Judicial Watch's Freedom of Information Act request elicited 52 records from the CIA, but the agency withheld all of them, citing exemptions for classified materials and information specifically exempted by other laws, according to The Associated Press.
Shortly after the May 2, 2011, raid, President Obama said in a CBS 60 Minutes interview that the release of "very graphic" photos of bin Laden's corpse could be used as propaganda by extremists to whip up anti-American violence.
"We don't trot out this stuff as trophies," Obama said.
Shanghai did something last fall that few other cities on the planet could have even considered. It opened two massive art museums right across the river from one another on the same day.
The grand openings put an exclamation point on China's staggering museum building boom. In recent years, about 100 museums have opened annually here, peaking at nearly 400 in 2011, according to the Chinese Society of Museums.
The frenzied construction of cultural infrastructure follows earlier building binges involving roads and bridges. But it's harder to manage a museum than a highway. For one thing, you need to fill museums with worthwhile exhibits and visitors.
At more than 600,000 square feet of exhibition space, the China Art Palace is about the size of New York's Museum of Modern Art. It's housed in the 2010 Shanghai World Expo's former China pavilion, which resembles an ancient Chinese roof support — or an upside-down red pyramid, depending on your perspective.
The top attraction is an animated version of an ancient Chinese scroll, "Along the River During Qingming Festival," which depicts ordinary life in a Chinese city during the Song dynasty (960-1279) more than eight centuries ago.
The scroll, which debuted during the World Expo, is about two stories high and more than a football field long. It literally comes to life, with figures strolling across an arched bridge or talking to each other as they push a barge out into the current.
"I think it's really beautiful," says Xu Qinhua, a 62-year-old retired teacher. "When I was young, my teacher told me I should see the original, but I never had the opportunity."
Building A Cultural Hub
The China Art Palace, which is free to the public, also provides access to foreign art most people here would otherwise never get to see. Earlier this year, the museum presented an exhibition of 19th century French naturalist masterpieces from the Musee d'Orsay in Paris.
"I am here mainly to see the techniques," says Lin Weipeng, who is a painter in coastal Fujian province and has tried to copy some of the French masterworks on his own.
Lin, who wears a knockoff down jacket emblazoned with "Santa Barbara Polo and Racquet Club," is holding his 9-year-old daughter, Mowei, in his arms.
"She can't really understand these paintings," he says. "But I just want to give her some feeling for it. If she doesn't get to go to France, this is probably her only chance to see the original work."
All of this is part of the Shanghai government's master plan to turn this mega-city into a cultural capital and magnet for global talent. A relatively sleepy metropolis as recently as the 1990s, Shanghai has made a lot of progress, developing a vibrant restaurant scene and dynamic nightlife. But the city is still primarily known in China for business and conspicuous consumption.
Teng Junjie, artistic director of the city's Administration of Culture, Radio, Film and TV, likens Shanghai's ambitions to other cosmopolitan cities in the West.
"New York City and Paris are financial centers. They are also indisputably cultural centers of the world," says Teng. "Shanghai is now in that process but hasn't yet reached that level."
Obscurity, Literal And Figurative
A short ferry ride across the Huangpu River is the city's other new museum, the Power Station of Art. It features contemporary work and is housed in a converted power plant with a smokestack that is nearly as tall as the Washington Monument and doubles as a giant thermometer that lights up at night. Lying along the river, the Power Station most closely resembles London's Tate Modern.
A major Andy Warhol exhibition opened here late last month. In the first week or so, the museum sold about 6,000 tickets at a little more than $3 a head. That's not many in a city of 23 million.
One reason is the obscure location. The Power Station sits in a mostly abandoned section of the Shanghai Expo site that is a long walk from the nearest subway station and a mystery to most city cab drivers.
A second reason there aren't many visitors is a lack of publicity.
Jack Wang, a first-year medical student, came to the Warhol exhibit earlier this month, but only because a friend told him about it.
"Andy Warhol, literally, I don't know his name, but I've seen a lot of his art pieces before," says Wang, who wears a gray hoodie and blue slacks. "The display of this art is really exquisite."
Li Xu, deputy director of planning at the museum, thinks there is a third reason for the small crowds. When it comes to contemporary art, he says, most Chinese don't know where to begin because cultural education has lagged far behind China's economic boom.
"My estimation is one-third to one-half of artworks are hard for average visitors to understand if they didn't receive sufficient art education," says Li. "Chinese graduate students' understanding of art only reaches the level of middle school students in the U.S."
To try to change that, museums are starting young. The China Art Palace runs workshops for elementary school students on subjects like naturalist painting, but getting them in the door is tough. China's hypercompetitive educational system still emphasizes rote learning and tests. Li says most schools see no practical value in field trips to art museums.
"The sole purpose for parents to send kids to school is that they can get into college," says Li. "Anything that's not related to the college entrance exam will not get parents' and teachers' attention."
Museum Construction Outpacing Demand?
Jeffrey Johnson, an architect who runs the China Megacities Lab at Columbia University, is among a number of scholars who study China's rapid urbanization. He says local governments are building museums to create a cultural life and competitive identity for their cities.
But China lost a lot of art because of its civil war in the 1940s, as well as the Cultural Revolution, looting and overseas sales. Johnson says many museums are going up faster than curators can fill them with works and audiences. Many of China's new museums, he says, are closed or only open sporadically.
"They might have a grand opening or a press conference with great photographs and government officials," says Johnson, "but if you return to this museum, which officially has been open for three months, it ... might be closed and locked."
Johnson likens the museum boom to China's real estate glut in which new housing has outpaced real demand. In a crowded nation like China, though, emptiness can occasionally have its benefits. Back at the Power Station of Art, Jack Wang is enjoying a rarity here: the uncrowded public attraction.
"It's great for me," says Wang, sitting on a couch not far from rows and rows of Warhol's iconic Campbell's tomato soup cans. "The environment here is very comfy and peaceful. But I think more people should have chances to come here to see this art."