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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Science and Religion in a Time of Plague


This is an excerpt from a recent article at The Conversation. The writer is Phillip I. Lieberman, Associate Professor at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. He has received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. He is a social historian of the medieval Islamic world.


Plagues were a fact of life in ancient and medieval worlds. Personal letters from the Cairo Geniza – a treasure trove of documents from the Jews of medieval Egypt – attest that bouts of widespread disease were so common that writers had different words for them. They varied from a simple outbreak – wabāʾ, or “infectious disease” in Arabic – to an epidemic – dever gadol, Hebrew for “massive pestilence,” which hearkens back to language from the 10 plagues of the Bible.


Fragment from Cairo Geniza held at Cambridge shows handwritten letter from Moses Maimonides. It was discovered in late 19th century. Culture Club/Getty Images
During the time of the jurist and philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), who led the Jewish community of Egypt, Fusṭāṭ (Old Cairo) faced a plague so daunting in 1201 that the city’s Jewish population never returned to its former glory.


Divine punishment?

Religious people throughout history often saw plagues as the manifestation of divine will, as a punishment for sin and a warning against moral laxity. The same chorus is heard by a minority today. As a Jewish person, I am embarrassed to read that a rabbi was recently quoted as saying that COVID-19 was divine punishment for gay pride parades.

In “A Mediterranean Society,” Geniza researcher S.D. Goitein describes Maimonides’ reaction to the plague: “Whatever the philosophers and theologians of that time might have said about man’s ability to influence God’s decisions by his deeds, the heart believed that they could be efficacious, that intense and sincere prayer, almsgiving, and fasts could keep catastrophe away.”

But the Jewish community also dealt with disease in other ways, and its holistic response to epidemics reveals a partnership – not a conflict – between science and religion.


Science and religion

In the medieval period, thinkers like Maimonides combined the study of science and religion. As Maimonides explains in his philosophical masterwork “The Guide to the Perplexed,” he believed that studying physics was a necessary precursor to metaphysics. Rather than seeing religion and science as inimical to one another, he saw them as mutually supportive.

Indeed, scholars of religious texts complemented their studies with science-centered writings. Maimonides’ Islamic contemporary, Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), is a perfect example. Though an important philosopher and religious thinker, Ibn Rushd also made meaningful contributions to medicine, including suggesting the existence of what would later come to be called Parkinson’s disease.

But it was not only elite scholars who saw religion and science as complementary. In “A Mediterranean Society,” Goitein says that “even the simplest Geniza person was a member of that hellenized Middle Eastern-Mediterranean society which believed in the power of science.” He adds: “Illness was conceived as a natural phenomenon and, therefore, had to be treated with the means provided by nature.”Tending to one’s inner life

Science and religion, therefore, were both integral to the soul of the Geniza person. There was no sense that these two pillars of thought challenged one another. By tending to their inner lives through rituals that helped them deal with the sadness and trepidation, and their bodies through the tools of medicine available to them, the Geniza people took a holistic approach to epidemics.

For them, following the medical advice of Maimonides or Ibn Rushd was an essential part of their response to plague. But while hunkered down in their homes, they also looked to the spiritual advice of these thinkers, and others, to care for their souls. Those of us experiencing stress, solitude and uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic could learn from the medieval world that our inner lives demand attention too.


Read the entire article here.


Friday, May 22, 2020

Lost Lives and Lost Livelihoods




Governments across the globe are facing difficult decisions. Economist John Robertson has written about the challenges facing governments. Here are excerpts from his article


The coronavirus pandemic is reshaping the nature of political decision making as government leaders are compelled to link changes in their policies to the number of lives lost or gained.

The toughest public policy challenges since the Second World War will confront governments in the next few months as they strive to save lives while simultaneously restarting businesses shuttered by their coronavirus fighting policies.

Despite the seriousness of the consequences, governments take great care to camouflage the trade-off between life and livelihood in day-to-day policymaking, counting on policy impacts being sufficiently diffused so as to make direct attribution unclear.

In the face of natural disasters or calamitous accidents, every effort is thrown at finding survivors, or even saving properties, no matter how improbable the task. Only when the risk of survival is deemed to be zero does the effort subside.

The Covid-19 crisis is on a different scale. The chance of eliminating fatalities is zero. The upper limit of deaths could be in the millions. Bad, bleak and catastrophic are the three daunting scenarios confronting those in charge.

The lowest possible death toll, government leaders of every political hue and temperament agree, involves knowingly imposing unprecedentedly severe and widespread economic hardship.

However reluctantly, the most well meaning governments now have to decide how many lost lives and how much financial pain can be tolerated. There is no ducking the responsibility. Even procrastination is a choice.


Read the entire article here.


Wednesday, May 20, 2020

COVID-19 and Social Status


In this video, Audiey Kao, MD, PhD, talks with Kathryn Olivarius, PhD, about how yellow fever epidemics during the antebellum South provide a historical lens to examine power asymmetries and health inequities in the COVID-19 era. Dr Olivarius is assistant professor of history at Stanford University.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

The Return of Stolen Antiquities


Ethiopia's Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed receives the 18th-century crown from the Dutch.


Antiquities are being returned to their place of origin more regularly than recognized. Many Western governments have pledged to return stolen artifacts that were taken during colonization.

In February 2020, The Dutch government returned a stolen 18th-century ceremonial crown to Ethiopia. The crown has great religious significance, and was kept safe for 21 years by Sirak Asfaw, a Dutch national of Ethiopian heritage.

Asfaw, who emigrated to the Netherlands in the late 1970s, said in a video recording that the crown "came into his hands" in 1998.

In November 2019, France returned a sword to Senegal as part of its commitment to return artifacts stolen during colonial times. The sword belonged to Omar Saidou Tall, a west African ruler and Islamic scholar who led an anti-colonial struggle against the French in the 1850s.

He eventually signed a peace treaty with France in 1860. According to French historian, Jean Suret-Canele, Omar Saidou Tall died from a gunpowder explosion in 1864. After his death, his sword and books from his library were seized by the French.

In October 2019, US authorities returned a stolen coffin to Egypt, two years after it was acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $4m (£3.2m) from a Parisian art dealer.

The 2,100-year-old coffin was that of a priest called Nedjemankh who served Horus as a Ram (Heryshef). The decorated surface includes scenes and prayers in gesso relief meant to protect and guide Nedjemankh on his journey to immortality.

The coffin was looted and smuggled out of Egypt in 2011 and was sold to the Met by a global art trafficking network, which used fraudulent documents.





Thursday, February 13, 2020

Five Million March in Nigerian Protests




On 10 February, militant Islamists killed at least 30 people and abducted women and children in Auno town on a major highway in Borno State, north-eastern Nigeria.

M. Buhari’s government has repeatedly said that the militants have been defeated, but the attempted genocide against Nigerian Christians have continued for over a decade.

Meanwhile, on February 2, five million people took part in marches across Nigeria to protest the murder of Pastor Lawan Andimi by Boko Haram, and the failure of the Buhari government to halt the violent attacks against Christians by Islamist extremists.

Pastor Andimi was a local chairman of CAN in Adamawa State. He was kidnapped on 2 January and murdered by Boko Haram on 20 January.

On the same day as Pastor Andimi’s murder, the terrorist group released video footage of its murder of kidnapped student Ropvil Dalep. In Plateau State, at least 32 Christians were killed in January during attacks by Fulani extremists on two villages.

In 2019 the Islamic extremists expanded their terrorist attacks to Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Burkina Faso.

In Burkina Faso a series of attacks began on 28 April in Silgadji, when gunman rounded up a pastor, his son and four of his congregation and demanded they deny their Christian faith and convert to Islam. After refusing they were executed one-by-one. Six were then killed at a church on 12 May and four at a Christian parade on 13 May. Four were then murdered at another church on 26 May. The fifth and sixth reported attacks took place on 9 and 10 June in which 29 were butchered by Islamist extremists.

Burkina Faso is part of a five-nation regional force against extremism, known as the G5 Sahel. Islamic extremist violence has increased in Burkina Faso's north and east near its Mali border. Hundreds have been killed in the attacks thousands have fled.

Islamic terrorists attacked the Christian village of Kalau in the North Kivu province in the Democratic Republic of Congo on 6 March 2019. They attempted to infiltrate the village under the guise of being security agents, but some village youth warned the villagers. The militants shot the village leader’s guard dogs and then opened fire, killing six Christians, including three women and a child.

The attack was launched by members of the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), a group that attempted the overthrow the Ugandan government in the 90’s, seeking to replace it with an Islamic regime. The group has ties to other terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda. They are responsible for thousands of deaths throughout Uganda and eastern DRC.

For a partial list of attacks by Boko Haram from 2011 to the present, see this post.


Monday, February 3, 2020

Organ Harvesting and Trafficking




Organ harvesting is a surgical procedure that removes organs or tissues for reuse, typically for organ transplantation. Organ procurement is heavily regulated in most countries to prevent unethical allocation of organs. However, it is a big business in China.

Human rights groups have known about forced organ harvesting in China for over a decade. Minorities and prisoners are especially vulnerable. They are killed and theirs organ removed. The victims are people who follow Falun Gong, Uyghur Muslims detained in the Xinjiang region, Tibetan Buddhists, and Christians.

The organ recipients are wealthy Chinese or transplant tourists who travel to China and pay a substantial sum to receive the transplant. The waiting times are short and at times vital organs are booked in advance.


Monday, January 20, 2020

Peter Singer on Harvesting Organs from the Living Dead




The controversial bioethicist Peter Singer has suggested that we abandon brain death altogether. He said:
“I think that the view most conducive to clear thinking about these issues is to stick with the traditional definition of death, in terms of the irreversible cessation of heartbeat and of the circulation of blood, and leave all the other issues – when one may turn off respirators, or remove the heart and other organs – as ethical questions, with the best answer not determined solely by whether the patient is alive or dead.”

In this paper Singer discusses where brain death should be thought of as an ethical matter or a matter of fact. Singer concludes that it is permissible to harvest organs from an individual who is living with brain death. That is to say, that "the irreversible loss of consciousness is a necessary and sufficient condition" for organs to be harvested.

His position is consistent with his atheist utilitarianism. As Singer has said: "Belonging to the human species is not what makes it morally wrong to kill a living being. Why should all members of the species homo sapiens have a right to life, whereas other species do not? This idea is merely a remnant of our religious legacy. For centuries, we have been told that man was created in the image of God, that God granted us dominion over the animals and that we have an immortal soul."

Peter Singer sees moral obligation in terms of the reciprocity of the Golden Rule. Before taking an action that affects another living being, one should ask if this action is something they would want done to themselves. He argues that it is ethical to euthanize the terminally ill, the handicapped and seriously sick babies as long as this can be done painlessly. This is to be a family decision and one decided on the basis of compassion. Singer stands squarely in the Positivist tradition. He rejects what he regards as metaphysical understandings of human beings. He finds “sanctity-of-life,” “human dignity,” and “created in the image of God” to be spurious notions without basis in fact.


Related reading: Peter Singer Disinvited Again; Ethics of the Post Modern Era; Is Peter Singer Joining the Transhumanism Movement?