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July 12 2012


The evolutionary mysteries of religion and orgasms

Kate Douglas, contributor

Homo-Mysterious.jpgThere are some thorny mysteries in the evolution of female sexuality. Is there a purpose to the female orgasm? What about menopause, menstruation and prominent breasts? Evolutionary psychologist David Barash jumps bravely into exploring these and other conundrums of human evolution in his new book, Homo Mysterious.

In searching for the "why" behind these unexplained oddities, Barash provides a wide-ranging survey of the territory, and he is at his most entertaining when describing his own ideas.

His handicap theory of female breasts is rather clever. He suggests that, like the peacock's tail, a permanently voluptuous bosom might be a woman's way of signalling her fitness by showing that she can thrive despite depositing so much valuable fat into cumbersome and mostly decorative appendages of a sort found nowhere else in nature.

Equally appealing is his favoured explanation for concealed ovulation - the fact that women's increased fertility is not broadcast. Barash suggests that once females became intelligent enough to link sex with babies - and babies with hard work - they could have tried to limit their birth rates. Those whose cycle was least discernible to themselves would have been least successful at avoiding pregnancy, so women with concealed ovulation gradually became more common.

But why are evolutionary mysteries of female sexuality far more numerous and prominent than their male counterparts? Barash remains disappointingly silent on this, although he does scrutinise some manly mysteries, such as why men are the more dowdy sex when sexual selection usually produces showy males, and why they tend not to live as long as women. There is also a very cogent chapter on homosexuality - although while Barash notes recent evidence pointing to its having different genetic underpinnings in men and women, he fails to consider that homosexuality might therefore have separate adaptive rationales in the two sexes.

Barash also takes on the weighty topics of religion, art and human intelligence. There is plenty here to inform and entertain, but he doesn't always marshal his eclectic material effectively. The chapters on religion make particularly frustrating reading, often just noodling around the subject instead of asking why this particular primate and no other evolved strong tendencies to spiritual thinking. No distinction is drawn between traditional, small-scale religions and today's predominant world religions. And Barash leaves a rather grudging explanation of evolutionary group selection until last, so that readers are not provided with a sufficient theoretical framework in which to assess some frankly iffy ideas from Freud and the like.

No mysteries were solved in the writing of this book. Instead, Barash argues that wisdom comes from learning about what we don't know. I agree, but I am not convinced, as he is, that these evolutionary puzzles are ultimately solvable.

We can use new insights from genetics, psychology, palaeoanthropology and archaeology to hone our ideas, but when it comes to human evolution there will always be an element of mystery.

Book Information
Homo Mysterious
by David P. Barash
Published by: Oxford University Press

February 28 2012


Adam Nicolson: The King James Bible

Adam Nicolson: The King James Bible
British author Adam Nicolson offers a sweeping look at the work that went into translating the King James Bible, first published 400 years ago and still the most influential Bible translation of all time.
Date: Thu, 08 Dec 2011 16:30:00 -0800
Location: Washington, D.C., National Geographic, National Geographic Live
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/12/08/Adam_Nicolson_The_King_James_Bible
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February 23 2012


Christian Faith and Modern Art: Post-WWII Optimism

Christian Faith and Modern Art: Post-WWII Optimism
After World War II, without forgetting the terrible suffering earlier in the century, there was a new confidence expressed in the artistic commissions of the time. Older artists who had been active before World War I such as Epstein and Matisse received commissions as well as younger artists such as Graham Sutherland, known especially for his work in Coventry Cathedral, Ceri Richards and Henry Moore.

For download and transcript versions of this lecture, please visit the event's page on the Gresham College website:Christian Faith and Modern Art: Post WWII Optimism.
Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2012 10:00:00 -0800
Location: London, England, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2012/01/18/Christian_Faith_and_Modern_Art_Post-WWII_Optimism

February 16 2012


Christian Faith and Modern Art: Catholic Elegance and Joy

Christian Faith and Modern Art: Catholic Elegance and Joy

In the period under consideration a fair number of the artists considered have been Roman Catholics, but at one time there was a particular symbiosis between two of them, Eric Gill and David Jones, who will be discussed along with others who shared their faith.

For all download and transcript versions of this lecture, please visit the event's page on the Gresham College website: Catholic Elegance and Joy

Date: Wed, 14 Dec 2011 05:00:00 -0800
Location: London, England, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/12/14/Christian_Faith_and_Modern_Art_Catholic_Elegance_and_Joy

January 17 2012


Jeffrey Alexander & Gordon Lynch: The Power of the Sacred

Jeffrey Alexander & Gordon Lynch: The Power of the Sacred
It may be true that we live in more secular times, but the sacred still retains its power in social life. Public debate and policy is still infused with sacred discourse of the norms that must be upheld to preserve society, as well as visions of various kind of evil that threaten to profane and pollute it, whether paedophiles, tyrants or terrorists. Attempts to find the sacred centre of British-ness continue to pre-occupy policy-makers.

Sociologists Jeffrey C. Alexander and Gordon Lynch visit the RSA to explore the idea that modern society remains deeply influenced by visions of the sacred and the profane, using this to explore political power and the symbolic role of contemporary media.

Date: Tue, 18 Oct 2011 07:23:00 -0700
Location: London, England, The RSA, RSA
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/10/18/Jeffrey_Alexander__Gordon_Lynch_The_Power_of_the_Sacred

December 06 2011


Sexuality and the Bible: What the Texts Really Say

Sexuality and the Bible: What the Texts Really Say
Three biblical scholars discuss the role of sexuality in the Bible and answer questions about men and women and their places in ancient society according to the texts.

What does the Bible tell us of the roles of men and women in ancient society and about the importance of gender? From a literary standpoint, do the texts necessarily condemn or condone certain behaviors and lifestyles? In conjunction with the Annual Conference of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature, swissnex San Francisco invites top scholars to discuss the role of sexuality in the Bible and answer some of these questions.

The evening features Thomas Rmer, Professor of Hebrew Bible at the Faculty of Theology and History of Religions at the University of Lausanne. His book Lhomosexualit dans le Proche Orient ancien et la Bible (Homosexuality in the Ancient Orient), focuses on the Bible as a historical source for analyzing how ancient societies viewed relations between men.

Konrad Schmid, Professor of Old Testament and Early Judaism at the University of Zurich and author of Genesis and the Moses Story: Israels Dual Origins in the Hebrew Bible (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010), presents the Paradise Story in Genesis 2-3 and its view of sexuality and immortality. And Sarah Shectman, author of Women in the Pentateuch: A Feminist and Source-Critical Analysis (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009), looks at the varied attitudes toward womens sexuality in different parts of the Bible, such as the laws in the Pentateuch that treat womens sexuality as a possession, belonging either to a father or husband, versus the freer view in the Song of Songs where the protagonist appears more in control of her own body. Steven McKenzie moderates the discussion.
Date: Thu, 17 Nov 2011 18:30:00 -0800
Location: San Francisco, CA, swissnex, swissnex San Francisco
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/11/17/Sexuality_and_the_Bible_What_the_Texts_Really_Say

November 16 2011


November 10 2011


September 09 2011


August 03 2011


June 01 2011


The prison of our beliefs and how to escape it

Amanda Gefter, consultant


(Image: Walter Sanders/Getty)

In The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer argues that "belief-dependent realism" makes it hard for any of us to have an objective view of the world

YOU are rushing to the airport when a tree falls and blocks the road, causing you to miss your flight. Hours later you learn the plane has crashed and all its passengers are presumed dead.

If you are religious, you may interpret the falling tree as a miracle, evidence that a loving God is watching over you. If you aren't, you will likely see it as an incredibly fortunate fluke. These two interpretations of the same event exemplify Michael Shermer's view that our beliefs come first and our explanations - or rationalisations - follow.

He dubs this concept "belief-dependent realism", though it is far from a new idea: philosophers of science have long argued that our theories, or beliefs, are the lenses through which we see the world, making it difficult for us to access an objective reality.

So where do our beliefs come from? In The Believing Brain Shermer argues that they are derived from "patternicity", our propensity to see patterns in noise, real or imagined; and "agenticity", our tendency to attribute a mind and intentions to that pattern. These evolved skills - which saved our ancestors who assumed, say, a rustling in the bushes was a predator intending to eat them - are the same attributes that lead us to believe in ghosts, conspiracies and gods.

In fact, neuroimaging studies have shown that, at the level of the brain, belief in a virgin birth or a UFO is no different than belief that two plus two equals four or that Barack Obama is president of the US. "We can no more eliminate superstitious learning than we can eliminate all learning," writes Shermer. "People believe weird things because of our evolved need to believe non-weird things."

Yet belief-dependent reality is not fixed, and the views that frame our individual versions of the world can change. Shermer offers a very personal account of his transition from door-to-door evangelical Christian to publisher of Skeptic magazine. He also acknowledges that the pendulum can swing the other way - as in the case of Francis Collins, former head of the Human Genome Project and current director of the US National Institutes of Health. Collins began as a sceptic, then changed his mind and became "born again".

The book is oddly organised and a chapter on politics strays from the point, but The Believing Brain should nonetheless be required reading. Shermer's exploration of cognitive biases alone will make even the most rational readers recognise the flaws in their thinking and more closely evaluate their beliefs. His awareness that he too is subject to such flawed thinking makes him a perpetually trustworthy guide.

As for our quest for objective reality, Shermer argues that science is our greatest hope. By requiring replicable data and peer review, science, he says, is the only process of knowledge-gathering that can go beyond our individual lenses of belief.

Book information
The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer
Times Books

May 20 2011


The Rt Revd Lord Harries: The Nativity in Art

The Rt Revd Lord Harries: The Nativity in Art
The nativity is one of the richest themes in art. This review of the theme shows an amazing development of associated ideas and images from the earliest Christian art right up to the 21st century.

For transcript and download versions of this lecture, please visit the event's page on the Gresham College website: Christian Themes in Art: The Nativity in Art
Date: Wed, 08 Dec 2010 13:00:00 -0800
Location: London, Museum of London, Gresham College
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2010/12/08/The_Rt_Revd_Lord_Harries_The_Nativity_in_Art

March 17 2011


Interfaith Families: Cokie & Steve Roberts

Interfaith Families: Cokie & Steve Roberts
Uniting Traditions for Interfaith Families: An Evening with Cokie and Steve Roberts

Following up on their New York Times bestseller From This Day Forward, an exploration of interfaith marriage, veteran news journalists Cokie and Steve Roberts offer Our Haggadah, a contemporary guide to conducting a Passover Seder open to all faiths. Married for 45 years, Steven is Jewish. Cokie is Catholic.

Together they now host an annual Passover seder that is attended by upwards of forty guests of all faiths and that has become a Washington tradition. Hear how the Roberts have integrated family traditions with new rituals and have brought new meaning to Passover.
Date: Mon, 14 Mar 2011 00:00:00 -0700
Location: San Francisco, CA, Jewish Community Center, Jewish Community Center of San Francisco
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/03/14/Interfaith_Families_Cokie_and_Steve_Roberts

March 15 2011


March 09 2011


Social Entrepreneur Series: Louise Burnham Packard

Social Entrepreneur Series: Louise Burnham Packard
Louise Burnham Packard is Executive Director of the Trinity Boston Foundation. The Trinity Boston Foundation is a part of the Trinity Episcopal Church and is the first foundation of its kind within the Episcopal community. Initially formed as outreach ministries of Trinity Church, it has become the Trinity Boston Foundation which works with other faith-based organizations in the Boston areas to reach out to at risk youth and struggling populations in low income areas.

Louise's work showcases how innovation can take place within faith-based organizations with extraordinary results. More Americans participate in church-related philanthropy than any other kind of giving.

For more information, visit: http://www.trinityinspires.org/
Date: Tue, 08 Mar 2011 00:00:00 -0800
Location: San Francisco, CA, The Commonwealth Club of California, Commonwealth Club
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/03/08/Social_Entrepreneur_Series_Louise_Burnham_Packard

March 08 2011


February 19 2011


Mark Salzman: An Atheist in Free Fall

Mark Salzman: An Atheist in Free Fall
Author Mark Salzman, Iron and Silk, The Soloist, Lying Awake, became a stay-at-home parent in 2001.

Eight years and three failed book manuscripts later, he had a nervous breakdown. He joins LIVE to tell a sad story with a happy ending and to explore:

What kind of person gets panic attacks when he meditates?

Can an atheist have a mystical experience?

Is free will a necessary illusion?

Do dogs bark on purpose?

Where does faith fit in?
Date: Fri, 18 Feb 2011 00:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, New York Public Library, New York Public Library
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/02/18/Mark_Salzman_An_Atheist_in_Free_Fall

January 29 2011


Three Faiths in the Form of a Fugue

Three Faiths in the Form of a Fugue
Performing artists and writers will come together on stage: a testament to a hoped-for future of peaceful collaboration between the three great faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

The evening will gather Shirin Neshat on the written word in Islam, Alicia Jo Rabins who will perform poems set to music about women in the Torah, Salman Ahmad who will play traditional ghazals mixed with rock and roll, and Fabrice Hadjadj who will read on the book of Job, in a duet with Gregorian chant singer Damien Poisblaud.
Date: Fri, 28 Jan 2011 00:00:00 -0800
Location: New York, NY, Celeste Bartos Forum, New York Public Library
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/01/28/Three_Faiths_in_the_Form_of_a_Fugue

January 25 2011


Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life

Karen Armstrong's Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life
In Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, the best-selling author and authority on comparative religion offers concrete ways of enhancing our compassion and putting it into action in our everyday lives.

One of the most original thinkers on the role of religion in the modern world -- author of such acclaimed books as A History of God, Islam, and Buddha -- Karen Armstrong believes that while compassion is intrinsic in all human beings, each of us needs to work diligently to cultivate and expand our capacity for compassion. In this book, she sets out a 12-step program that can lead us toward a more compassionate life.
Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2011 19:00:00 -0800
Location: Washington, D.C., Sixth & I Historic Synagogue, Sixth and I Historic Synagogue
Program and discussion: http://fora.tv/2011/01/10/Karen_Armstrongs_Twelve_Steps_to_a_Compassionate_Life
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