World-famous theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking says flat-out that he doesn’t believe in God, but he does believe that space travel offers the best hope for our species’ immortality.
Those pronouncements came during the buildup to this week’s Starmus Festival at Tenerife in the Canary Islands, where Hawking and other scientific luminaries have gathered for rounds of talks, tours and elbow-rubbing.
The Spanish newspaper El Mundo engineered an exclusive interview with Hawking, and headlined its report with his views on the origins of the universe.
In the past, there’s been a tiny bit of ambiguity: In “A Brief History of Time,” Hawking writes that the discovery of a unifying set of scientific principles known as the theory of everything would enable scientists to “know the mind of God.” But in a follow-up book about the quest for the theory of everything, titled “The Grand Design,” Hawking said the mechanism behind the origin of the universe was becoming so well known that God was no longer necessary.
El Mundo’s Pablo Jauregui asked about those two references to God in one of the questions he prepared for Hawking to answer, and here’s the scientist’s response:
“Before we understand science, it is natural to believe that God created the universe. But now science offers a more convincing explanation. What I meant by ‘we would know the mind of God’ is, we would know everything that God would know, if there were a God, which there isn’t. I’m an atheist.”
Hawking addressed the issue more delicately several years ago when he told Reuters that he was “not religious in the normal sense,” and said “God does not intervene to break the laws” that He decreed. Since then, however, there’s been a lot more theorizing devoted to the origin of the universe. Hawking now believes that an approach known as M-theory will eventually reveal the grand design of the cosmos.
“In my opinion, there is no aspect of reality beyond the reach of the human mind,” Hawking told El Mundo.
After an airman was unable to complete his reenlistment because he omitted the part of a required oath that states “so help me God,” the Air Force changed its instructions for the oath.
Following a review of the policy by the Department of Defense General Counsel, the Air Force will now permit airmen to omit the phrase, should they so choose. That change is effective immediately, according to an Air Force statement.
“We take any instance in which Airmen report concerns regarding religious freedom seriously,” Secretary of the Air Force Deborah Lee James said in the statement. “We are making the appropriate adjustments to ensure our Airmen’s rights are protected.
“The Air Force will be updating the instructions for both enlisted and commissioned Airmen to reflect these changes in the coming weeks, but the policy change is effective now. Airmen who choose to omit the words ‘So help me God’ from enlistment and officer appointment oaths may do so.”
The issue gained national attention in early September after a letter from the American Humanist Association outlined the case of an airman stationed at Creech Air Force Base in Nevada who was unable to complete his reenlistment after striking out the phrase in question on a form. The AHA said it was prepared to sue on religious freedom grounds unless the airman was allowed to reenlist without saying the phrase. The requirement, the AHA argued, violated the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
The issue drew attention to a previously unnoticed rule change: The rules governing the Air Force’s enlistment oaths used to include a note stating that “Airmen may omit the words ‘so help me God,’ if desired for personal reasons.” That exception quietly disappeared in October 2013, after which the Air Force required the inclusion of the full oath for any enlistment or reenlistment.
Now, the airman’s paperwork “will be processed to completion,” the Air Force statement said.
“We are pleased that the U.S. Department of Defense has confirmed our client has a First Amendment right to omit the reference to a supreme being in his reenlistment oath,” Monica Miller, an attorney with the American Humanist Association’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center, said in an emailed statement.
In swaths of Syria now controlled by ISIS, children can no longer study math or social studies. Sports are out of the question. And students will be banned from learning about elections and democracy.
Instead, they’ll be subjected to the teachings of the radical Islamist group. And any teacher who dares to break the rules “will be punished.”
ISIS revealed its new educational demands in fliers posted on billboards and on street poles.
The Sunni militant group has captured a slew of Syrian and Iraqi cities in recent months as it tries to establish a caliphate, or Islamic state, spanning Sunni parts of both countries.
In the letter, ISIS said alternative courses will be added.
It also said teachers must erase the phrase Syrian Arab Republic — the official name of Syria — and replace it with Islamic State, which is what ISIS calls itself.
Educators cannot teach nationalistic and ethnic ideology and must instead teach “the belonging to Islam … and to denounce infidelity and infidels.”
Books cannot include any reference to evolution. And teachers must say that the laws of physics and chemistry “are due to Allah’s rules and laws.”
The letter ends with a firm warning:
“This is an obligatory announcement, and all violators will be punished.”
200 Syrians killed in one day
The brutal advances of ISIS in Syria come as the country grapples with a three-year civil war with no clear victor in sight.
At least 200 people were killed on Tuesday alone, the opposition group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. It said about 60 were killed by regime airstrikes.
The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency, meanwhile, said terrorist attacks in Damascus, Hama and Homs left at least three civilians dead.
In all, the United Nations estimates more than 190,000 people have died in the violence between President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and rebels seeking an end to four decades of al-Assad family rule.
An unusual religious headwear battle has hit a boiling point in Surrey, B.C., where a “Pastafarian” is fighting for his right to wear a colander in his driver’s licence photo.
Obi Canuel, who is an ordained minister in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, says the Insurance Corporation of B.C. is denying him the right to be able to wear the spaghetti strainer on his head.
The 36-year-old says he believed he would be able to wear the kitchen accessory when he renewed his licence last fall because ICBC affirms the right to religious expression.
But, the insurer disagreed. In a letter, they told him “there is no religious requirement that prohibits you from removing the colander for the purpose of taking the photo to appear on your driver’s license.”
ICBC said its religious head covering policy strive to strike a balance between respect for the driver’s religious beliefs and a need to preserve the integrity of the licensing system.
The company said it would not issue a new driver’s licence with the colander photo, but encouraged him to go into any office and have a free colander-free photo taken – and a new licence would be issued.
“The truth is sometimes I have the spiritual inkling to wear the colander and I don’t think ICBC should be making decisions about what kind of religious headgear is appropriate or not,” Canuel told CTV Vancouver.
Strangely, a photo of Canuel wearing the exact same strainer on his head was approved for his new B.C. Services card.
The Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was created nine years ago by a U.S. man to satirize certain aspects of creationism. It follows a belief that an undetectable flying pasta creature created the universe after “drinking heavily.”
As it gained popularity in the media, the Flying Spaghetti Monster became a symbol against intelligent design used in the public education system.
At least four countries, including the U.S., allow Pastafarians to wear colanders in their driver’s licence photos.
Canuel documented his struggles with ICBC in a YouTube video titled “Dear ICBC: Where is my license?”
It was bad enough that the alleged rape took place in the sanctity of a mosque and that the accused man was a mullah who invoked the familiar defence that it had been consensual sex.
But the victim was only 10 years old. And there was more: The authorities said her family members openly planned to carry out an honour killing in the case – against the young girl. The mullah offered to marry his victim instead.
This past week, the awful matter became even worse. On Tuesday, local policemen removed the girl from the shelter that had given her refuge and returned her to her family, despite complaints from women’s activists that she was likely to be killed.
The case has broader repercussions. The head of the Women for Afghan Women shelter here where the girl took refuge, Dr. Hassina Sarwari, was at one point driven into hiding by death threats from the girl’s family and other mullahs, who sought to play down the crime by arguing the girl was much older than 10. One militia commander sent Sarwari threatening texts and an ultimatum to return the girl to her family. The doctor said she now wanted to flee Afghanistan.
The head of the women’s affairs office in Kunduz, Nederah Geyah, who actively campaigned to have the young girl protected from her family and the mullah prosecuted, resigned May 21 and moved to another part of the country.
The case itself would just be an aberrant atrocity, except that the resulting support for the mullah, and for the girl’s family and its honour killing plans, have become emblematic of a broader failure to help Afghan women who have been victims of violence.
The result challenges hopes that Western aid and encouragement can make lasting headway on behalf of Afghan women, particularly in remote parts of the country where traditional customs are still stronger than modern law. Here, Taliban insurgents and pro-government elements often make common cause in their hatred of progress in women’s rights, most of which has come about with international funding and pressure.
Most of the anger in Kunduz has been focused not on the mullah but on the women’s activists and the shelter, which is one of seven operated across Afghanistan by Women for Afghan Women, an Afghan-run charity that is heavily dependent on American aid, from both government and private donors.
“People know this office as the Americans’ office,” Sarwari said. “They all think the shelter is an American shelter. There isn’t a single American here.”
“WAW is not American-run,” said Manizha Naderi, its executive director. “Every single staff member is an Afghan. They are from the communities we work in. Our only concern is to make sure women and girls are protected and that they get justice.”
As the Western withdrawal from Afghanistan has accelerated, rights advocates are seeing a sharp difference in their funding.
“We already see the signs of losing the support of the international community,” Geyah said in an interview before she resigned. “No one’s funding new civil society programs anymore. None of the foreigners show up anymore; they’re all in hiding. And I think what gains we have achieved the last 13 years, we’re slowly losing all of them.”
The accused mullah, Mohammad Amin, was arrested and confessed to having sex with the girl after Koran recitation classes at the mosque on May 1, but he claimed that he thought the girl was older and that she responded to his advances.
The girl’s own testimony, and medical evidence, supported a rape so violent that it caused a fistula, or a break in the wall between the vagina and rectum, according to the police and the official bill of indictment. She bled so profusely after the attack that she was at one point in danger of losing her life because of a delay in getting medical care.
After the two women’s officials began speaking out about the case, they started receiving threatening calls from mullahs – some of them Taliban, others on the government side – and from arbakai, or pro-government militiamen. One of their claims was that the girl was actually 17, and thus of marriageable age, not 10.
Photographs of the girl that Sarwari took in the hospital clearly show a pre-pubescent child, and the doctor said the girl weighed only 40 pounds. Few Afghans have birth records, and many do not know their precise ages. But the girl’s mother said she was 10, and a forensic examination in the hospital agreed, saying she had not yet started menstruating or developing secondary sexual characteristics.
In the photographs, which Sarwari displayed on her laptop computer recently, the girl has alabaster features and inky black hair cut in a pageboy style. She lay in her hospital bed under a quilted blanket with cartoon characters on it.
Geyah said she showed photos of the girl to government officials and prosecutors to prove that she was much too young to have consented. Sarwari said, “We wanted to give her a face, to make her real to them.” Geyah said: “I went to the hospital when they brought her there. I was sitting next to her bed when I overheard her mother and aunt saying that her father was under tremendous pressure by the villagers to kill the girl because she had brought shame to them.”
Honour killings in rape cases are common in Afghanistan, and are often more important to the victim’s family than vengeance against the attacker. Human rights groups say about 150 honour killings a year come to light, and many more probably go unreported.
When Sarwari, who is a pediatrician, arrived to pick up the girl at the hospital, a crowd of village elders from Alti Gumbad, the girl’s home village on the outskirts of the city of Kunduz, were gathered outside the hospital; the girl’s brothers, father and uncle were among them. Inside, Sarwari encountered the girl’s aunt, who told her she had been ordered by her husband to sneak the girl out of the hospital and deliver her to the male relatives outside.
“She said they wanted to take her and kill her, and dump her in the river,” Sarwari said.
Efforts to reach the girl’s relatives by telephone were unsuccessful, and insurgent activity around Alti Gumbad made the village too dangerous for journalists to visit.
“The girl’s family gave us a guarantee that they would not harm her,” said Sayed Sarwar Hussaini, head of the Kunduz police criminal investigation division. “We would not hand her back unless we were sure.”
In the hospital room, the doctor found the girl’s mother holding her child’s hand, and both were weeping. “My daughter, may dust and soil protect you now,” Sarwari quoted the mother as saying. “We will make you a bed of dust and soil. We will send you to the cemetery where you will be safe.”
Even mothers here often believe that there is no choice but to kill rape victims, who are seen as unmarriageable and therefore a lifelong burden to their families, as well as a constant reminder of dishonor.
“Their men feel they have to wash their shame with blood,” Sarwari said.
The doctor took the girl away to the shelter. Afterward, Sarwari and several women’s affairs officials were threatened by the girl’s family and by other mullahs.
“They call me and curse me, and threaten to kill me and my family, and say they know where I live,” Sarwari said. “They say, once your American husbands leave Afghanistan, we will do what we want to you.” (Her husband is an Afghan doctor and war veteran.)
Sarwari has accused prosecutors and religious officials of siding with the accused rapist and ignoring the child’s plight.
“There are a lot of powerful people behind the mullah,” Sarwari said. The girl’s family knows they cannot do anything to Amin, she said, but “the girl is easy. They can get to her; she’s their daughter.” She said she feared the girl would either be killed, or forced to recant her accusations against the mullah.
Women for Afghan Women arranged for the girl to get medical treatment, and after she healed, she was returned to the shelter in Kunduz, about two weeks ago, until the police returned her to her family last Tuesday. Those caring for the girl said she had been terribly homesick and wanted to return to her family, but no one had the heart to tell her they had been conspiring to kill her.
It’s no secret fewer Canadians attend church today than 20 years ago, but what may be surprising is almost half of Canadians believe religion does more harm than good, according to the results of a survey conducted by Ipsos Reid.
Explanations from experts vary – from fear of extremists and anger toward individuals who abuse positions of power, to a national ‘forgetting’ of Canadian history.
“In the past few years, there have been several highprofile international situations involving perceived religious conflicts, as well as the anniversary of 9/11, and I think when people see those, it causes them to fear religion and to see it as a source of conflict,” said Janet Epp Buckingham, associate professor at Trinity Western University.
Canadians who don’t participate in religion themselves experience it in the news, which can sensationalize the negatives aspects of religion, said Dr. Pamela Dickey Young, the principal of the School of Religion at Queen’s University.
The survey, which was conducted ahead of the launch of a new Global TV show – Context – about religion in Canada, also found that 89 per cent of Canadians are comfortable being around people of different faiths.
But, on the question of whether religion does more harm than good, Rev. Canon Dr. Bill Prentice, director of Community Ministry for the Anglican diocese of Ottawa, said: “We forget our history.”
He pointed out that the first hospitals, schools, and universities in Canada were founded by religious institutions.
Religious leaders are calling on Mayor Michael Bloomberg to reverse course and offer clergy a role in the ceremony commemorating the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center.
Rudy Washington, a deputy mayor in former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani‘s administration, said he’s outraged. Mr. Washington organized an interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
“This is America, and to have a memorial service where there’s no prayer, this appears to be insanity to me,” said Mr. Washington, who has suffered severe medical problems connected to the time he spent at Ground Zero. “I feel like America has lost its way.”
City Hall officials, who are coordinating the ceremony, confirmed that spiritual leaders will not participate this year—just as has been the case during past events marking the anniversary. The mayor has said he wants the upcoming event to strike a similar tone as previous ceremonies.
“There are hundreds of important people that have offered to participate over the last nine years, but the focus remains on the families of the thousands who died on Sept. 11,” said Evelyn Erskine, a mayoral spokeswoman.
But the mayor’s plans this year have drawn increased scrutiny and some disapproval, as the event will attract an international audience and President Barack Obama will attend.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has publicly criticized the mayor about the list of speakers, and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has quietly sought to play a larger role.
But the exclusion of religious leaders has struck some as particularly glaring.
City Council Member Fernando Cabrera, a pastor at New Life Outreach International, a Bronx church, said he is “utterly disappointed” and “shocked” by the event’s absence of clergy. When the terrorist attacks occurred, people in the city and nationwide turned to spiritual leaders for guidance, he said.
“This is one of the pillars that carried us through,” he said, referring to religious leaders. “They were the spiritual and emotional backbone, and when you have a situation where people are trying to find meaning, where something is bigger than them, when you have a crisis of this level, they often look to the clergy.”
Mr. Cabrera described the religious leaders’ exclusion as “wiping out the recognition of the importance that spirituality plays on that day.”
Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis and one of the participants in the September 2001 interfaith ceremony at Yankee Stadium, said it would be difficult to include all faiths in the ceremony.
“I understand the feelings,” he said. “[But] I don’t know how we make it possible for everyone to have a place at the table.”
“Who’s going to agree as to who the representatives of the faith…will be? We have all the different groupings. If we have four denominations, what about the fifth denomination?” he said. “There are practical considerations when planning something, where you want to be as inclusive as possible but sometimes you find it impossible to have everyone present who should be present. It’s very difficult.”
A spokesman for Archbishop Timothy Dolan, the city’s most prominent religious leader, said he had no knowledge that Mr. Dolan had been invited. On Sept. 11, the archbishop plans to celebrate Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in the morning, and later in the day he’ll be at St. Peter’s Church in Lower Manhattan.
Many religious institutions will be holding events to commemorate the anniversary. There will be an interfaith event recognizing first responders on Sept. 6.
During the 2001 “Prayer for America” service at Yankee Stadium, leaders from the major religions—Roman Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Protestants, Sikhs, Greek Orthodox—addressed the crowd of thousands and an even larger TV audience from a podium atop second base.
“I brought every major religion to this event in Yankee Stadium,” said Mr. Washington, who is considering holding a news conference on Sept. 11 to object to the exclusion of clergy.
“I’m very upset about it,” he said. “This is crazy.”
This sort of thing is so commonplace it’s hardly considered news at this point…
A child protection official for the Catholic Church has been caught with 4,000 pictures of child porn.
Father-of-four Christopher Jarvis was arrested after uploading pictures of children being abused to a website.
Married Jarvis, 49, a former social worker, was employed by the church following sex scandals about pervert priests.
His job was to monitor church groups to ensure paedophiles did not gain access to children in the church’s congregations.
But he was caught by police in March with more than 4,000 child porn images on his home computer and his work laptop.
He admitted 12 counts of making, possessing and distributing indecent images when he appeared before magistrates in Plymouth and is likely to face jail when he returns to court for sentencing next month.
Jarvis, who has been sacked from his job as child safeguarding officer, worked the Diocese of Plymouth for nine years.
Church spokesman David Pond said: “Mr Jarvis was suspended from his position as soon as the diocese became aware in March of the police investigation.
“The Bishop took that action and since then the Church has worked closely with the police.”
An Austrian atheist has won the right to be shown on his driving-licence photo wearing a pasta strainer as “religious headgear”.
Niko Alm first applied for the licence three years ago after reading that headgear was allowed in official pictures only for confessional reasons.
Mr Alm said the sieve was a requirement of his religion, pastafarianism.
The Austrian authorities required him to obtain a doctor’s certificate that he was “psychologically fit” to drive.
The idea came into Mr Alm’s noodle three years ago as a way of making a serious, if ironic, point.
A self-confessed atheist, Mr Alm says he belongs to the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, a light-hearted faith whose members call themselves pastafarians.
The group’s website states that “the only dogma allowed in the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster is the rejection of dogma”.
In response to pressure for American schools to teach the Christian theory known as intelligent design, as an alternative to natural selection, the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster wrote to the Kansas School Board asking for the pastafarian version of intelligent design to be taught to schoolchildren, as an alternative to the Christian theory.
In the same spirit, Mr Alm’s pastafarian-style application for a driving licence was a response to the Austrian recognition of confessional headgear in official photographs.
The licence took three years to come through and, according to Mr Alm, he was asked to submit to a medical interview to check on his mental fitness to drive but – straining credulity – his efforts have finally paid off.
It is the police who issue driving licences in Austria, and they have duly issued a laminated card showing Mr Alm in his unorthodox item of religious headgear.
The next step, Mr Alm told the Austrian news agency APA, is to apply to the Austrian authorities for pastafarianism to become an officially recognised faith.