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Chinese boyTable of Contents

A Nation of Lost Boys

4-2-1 Problem Rethinking China's One-Child Policy

A History of Belief

The Changing House of Worship

Islam vs. Science

Why Relax When You Can Work?









A Nation of Lost Boys

Thomas Omestad

(from US News and World Report, August 9, 2004)

In China, they’re called “bare branches” – young men who are unlikely to find a mate, have children, or settle into a stable, prosperous lifestyle. It’s a population that’s growing rapidly in countries like China and India, where traditional preferences for boys (who are expected to care for parents) have led to dramatically skewed male-to-female ratios. The fallout, says a new book, Bare Branches: The Security Implications of Asia’s Surplus Male Population: an increased chance of internal turmoil and even war in such places, because men without family ties tend to be more aggressive, Coauthors Valerie Hudson and Andrea den Boer point to studies linking “bare branches” to greater criminal violence and also argue their presence can make war more likely, as governments look for ways to channel the energies of angry, nationalistic young men -- often into the military.

In China, 117 boys are now born for every 100 girls. In India, the official rate is 113 to 100, though spot checks in some locales have turned up ratios as high as 156 to 100. The gender gap is fueled by several factors, including infanticide and withholding of healthcare from girls. The introduction of ultrasound machines, often wheeled into rural villages, accelerated the imbalance in the mid- 1980s as some parents opted to abort female fetuses. Abortion for sex selection is illegal in both China and India, but the practice remains common in some areas; ultrasound practitioners, says coauthor Hudson, may say nothing but may light a cigarette to signal that the mother is carrying a boy -- or stamp one out if it’s a girl.

China perceives some risk in the trend: Last month, it announced that it will offer financial incentives to try to normalize gender ratios by 2010. But with the first wave of bare branches turning 18 and 19, Hudson says, the world is already facing a new source of volatility.




Four-Two-One Problem

(CBC 10-28-09)

As the first generation of law-enforced only-children came of age for becoming parents themselves, one adult child was left with having to provide support for his or her two parents and four grandparents. Called the "4-2-1 Problem," this leaves the older generations with increased chances of dependency on retirement funds or charity in order to receive support. If personal savings, pensions, or state welfare fail, most senior citizens would be left entirely dependent upon their very small family or neighbors for assistance. If, for any reason, the single child is unable to care for their older adult relatives, the oldest generations would face a lack of resources and necessities. In response to such an issue, all provinces have decided that couples are allowed to have two children if both parents were only children themselves: By 2007, all provinces in the nation except Henan had adopted this new policy. Henan followed in 2011.




Rethinking China's One-Child Policy

Anthony Germain

(CBC 10-28-09)

Believe it or not, despite having more than 1.3 billion people, China needs babies. Thirty years after the one-child policy was introduced to control the population growth of what was then a backward and poor country, China — particularly urban China — is starting to see the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good idea at the time.

The problem is most acute in the big centers such as Shanghai where 20% of the population is over the age of 60. That's almost double the national average. The financial capital of the mainland also has the country's lowest birthrate and it is leading to a situation where the population is getting too old, too fast.

Policy debates in China aren't usually a very public matter, but behind the scenes at universities and institutes that advise the Communist Party there is a simmering debate about what to do. "I believe it is time to relax the one-child policy because in the future we will have a serious challenge because of too-low fertility," says Zuo Xuejin, a population expert with the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences. "In the next five to 10 years there must be more substantial policy changes."

Pushing the Loophole

Is the top cadre listening? It is hard to say. But in Shanghai, at least, local officials are promoting a little known rule to convince some newlyweds to have two children. "If both the husband and the wife are only-children, under the regulations they are allowed to have two children," explains Zhang Wei Xin, the spokesman for the Shanghai Family Planning commission. That may be a start. It is certainly a change from much of the history of the one-child policy, where officials charged with enforcement spent most of their time handing down heavy fines to people who dared to have more than one offspring.

In the countryside, where couples are allowed two children (as opposed to one per couple in the cities), rural parents often tried to get away with having several. This resulted in fines and, in some cases, forced sterilizations and mandatory abortions. I've spoken with cash-strapped peasants who couldn't pay the fines. They claimed corrupt officials imposed alternative forms of punishment by stealing furniture, motorcycles or any other property they were able to take away.

Today, though, Zhang's department is actively encouraging only-child couples in Shanghai to have larger families. "We are promoting it because the current generation of only children is really the first to qualify to have two children," he says. At the same time, he allows, "it will take some time for this two-child policy to have an impact."

Couples Today

Meanwhile, in cost-conscious Shanghai, young couples are mostly wondering if they can afford one child today, let alone two. "I'm not even sure if we are going to have one child," says Gong Jue Rui, a 26-year-old woman who tied the knot this month. Her husband, 27-year-old Shen Ci Chen, points out that they both have two sets of parents who are getting older and will need to be taken care of in the future. All of their friends are also only children. "We don't think we can have two children," Shen says. "Only if I can make a lot of money, otherwise I won't even think about having two children."

Not Enough Moms

An aging population is just one of the imbalances attributable to the one-child policy. Another ticking demographic time bomb is a potentially massive gender imbalance that has many experts predicting that as many as 45 million Chinese bachelors won't be able to find wives. There are just not enough Chinese women to go around. Although it is illegal to terminate pregnancies on the basis of gender, many Chinese, when confronted with the one-child policy, have chosen to have female fetuses aborted. The long-standing cultural preference for boys, compounded by the legal limit on the number of children, has shattered the natural gender equilibrium.

Today, almost 120 boys are born for every 100 girls. At the same time, China has effectively exported tens of thousands of infant girls through legal adoptions to Canada and other Western countries. Professor Zuo says there's no easy fix to finding more females. "Maybe we can eventually import brides from neighboring countries such as Burma or Vietnam. But that isn't a solution because that will create problems in other countries."

The Burden of Aging

Though it seems unfathomable today, Zuo also says China will eventually lose its labor advantage to more fertile countries such as India and Bangladesh. (India is projected to surpass China as the world's most populous country in 2030, with an anticipated 1.53 billion people to China's 1.45 billion.) China is not about to lose its comparative labor advantage in intensive manufacturing any day soon. But the mid-term prospect is for a shrinking working-age population that will have to shoulder the health-care and other bills for a massively aging population.

While China calls itself socialist, it is still the adult children of the family — or the parents themselves — who are left with the financial burden of growing old. When the one-child policy was enacted, most Chinese people died in their 60s. Today, many Chinese live well into their late 70s and beyond. So far, Communist leaders have resisted calls to modify their population-control policies. They may well fear that any rapid increase in the population would inevitably translate into lower average per capita income — at a time when the party likes to boast everybody's take home pay is on the rise.

Still, the fact that cities such as Shanghai are promoting a less restrictive two-child policy is evidence that some authorities are willing to test the limits even if the central government is not. The government faces both a geriatric and gender crisis within the next two decades that could challenge the stated goal of building a "harmonious society." The one-child policy was introduced as a "temporary" measure and now, almost three decades later, its days appear to be numbered.




A History of Belief

Jay Tolson

(US News and World Report 11-16-07)

It is a blindingly bright Southwest autumn morning in Frijoles Canyon, site of a good-sized Ancient Puebloan settlement whose spare but suggestive ruins make up the core of New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument. I am alone, my labored breathing the only sound disturbing the cottony silence in this part of the canyon. Having just climbed 140 feet up three sets of ladders and worn rock steps into a large cleft in the canyon wall called Alcove House, I now descend a ladder to the dirt floor of a covered circular chamber called a kiva. In the dark cool of the room, I find myself in what is unmistakably a sacred place. Even though it is a recently rebuilt structure, unlike the roofless Big Kiva on the canyon floor only a half mile away, this room inspires the same sense of reverence you feel in or around other ceremonial chambers built by the Ancient Puebloan People (sometimes called the Anastazi) and their modern-day Pueblo descendants.

Places are sacred according to how the sacred is understood. And over the long arc of history, human societies have understood the sacred in ways that are both distinctive to their age and enduringly constant. Each understanding has in turn shaped the way humans have seen the world, or places within the world, often as reflections, representations, or embodiments of that order. I have come to northern New Mexico, a place rich in sacred sites, to look at examples of three quite distinctive approaches to the sacred, each representing a different age in the history of belief.

Here in Frijoles Canyon is a place associated with the archaic approach to the sacred, an approach so all encompassing that it is closer to what anthropologists call a worldview than what we think of as a religion. This "original religious mode," as philosopher Charles Taylor calls it, placed humans in a "world in which the order was already irrevocably fixed in an earlier time of foundation." Individuals could in no significant way alter this order. Instead of changing the world or adding to what is thought of as the linear track of history, archaic believers saw themselves as re-enacting, in daily life and through ritual, the cycle of what the great scholar of religion Mircea Eliade called "the eternal return."

This was also a radically egalitarian age. With priests emerging only toward the end with the rise of states, people during most of the ancient period believed that they had equal access to a spirit-infused world—though shaman-healers were thought to have more intimate contact. Similarly, though the entire world was an enchanted place, some places served as ritual sites representing the larger spirit-charged world.

The kiva was one such site for the Ancient Puebloan People. Despite variations in design, most of these sacred chambers have certain common features. Entered from a hole in the ceiling, they typically have a fire pit, a ventilation shaft, and a small indentation or hole in the floor called a sipapu. That hole is crucial because it symbolizes the spot from which the original human inhabitants of this world—the Fourth World, as it is called in many Pueblo creation stories—emerged before embarking on their journey to find the ideal home, the much-sought-after Middle Place. The kiva was a special place where a people returned to their origins, a site for passing on ancient knowledge, a place for rites of passage that led to full membership in the community.

Not too far from Bandelier, at the end of a long dirt road that follows the winding course of the Chama River, you come to a different kind of sacred place. It is a Christian monastery—Benedictine, to be precise—where today some 30 brothers and their abbot live their daily lives largely in accordance with the Rule set down by the sixth-century abbot and saint after whom the order is named. Benedict's Rule was in fact a set of rules governing almost every aspect of the monks' inner and outer lives. One part of it established the order and content of the seven canonical offices, or services, as well as a time for mass.

Sublime Structure.

The place for worship—the sacred center of the monastery—is the church, the hallowed oratory that Benedict stipulated should be reserved for prayer alone. The church at the Monastery of Christ in the Desert is a quietly sublime structure. Adobe for the most part, it has large expanses of glass that seem to bring the walls of the facing canyon right into the ceremonial heart of the church.

Deserts were the sites of the earliest Christian monasteries, places of austerity and isolation where the seeker could, through assiduous devotion to work and prayer, draw closer to God. To monks steeped in the Gospels, these rigorous landscapes specifically recalled Jesus' self-imposed 40-day trial in the wilderness. They were the sites of spiritual testing.

Christianity is only one of the religions, and a late one at that, with seeds in what the German philosopher Karl Jaspers first dubbed the Axial Age. During this age—roughly 900 to 200 B.C.—four traditions arose in four different parts of the world, each representing a new approach to the sacred: Confucianism and Taoism in China; Hinduism and Buddhism in India; monotheism in Israel; and philosophical rationalism in Greece. While all of these traditions had their own particular historical precursors, and most would have offspring (including Christianity and Islam in the case of Judaism), each one acquired its distinctive and classical formulation during this age.

But what was the common thread running through these traditions? According to Taylor, it was the fact that all of them "took the diffuse and variegated order of earlier religion and tried to unify it under a transcendent supreme principle." That principle, Taylor elaborates, could be a supreme creator God or some unified principles of order, like the Tao; or the endless cycle of samsara, the Hindu and Sikh concept of reincarnation or rebirth; or escape into the Buddha's nirvana.

While the implications of this change have been interpreted in many different ways, a few of its consequences seem beyond dispute. One is that the order of the world was no longer an immutable given, established once and for all in an unrecoverable past. Individuals, either by worshiping and obeying the Supreme Creator or through other beliefs, could bring about change. Particularly in the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, that meant people could make history even while remaking themselves. The birth of history, the rise of the individual, and even, ironically, the rise of secularism were all made possible by the religious and ethical traditions born in the Axial Age.

These traditions also led to the disenchantment of the world by concentrating the sacred in certain specific sites. Churches, shrines, temples, monasteries, and locations associated with saints or central figures in those traditions were places, often overseen or inhabited by priests or spiritual adepts, where the faithful could connect with the transcendent creator or principle. Like kivas, they were ceremonial places. But while kivas were symbolic representations of the spirit-infused world, sacred places in the Axial Age religions tended to be places apart from the world—a world not only emptied of its sacred dimension but also often viewed as a snare or illusion.

Still, the ancient view of the world did not entirely die. In their various ways, the great religions accommodated it. Visit the Sanctuary of Chimayo some 25 miles north of Santa Fe, and you can see how Christianity made its own partial truce with the Puebloan worldview. Even the founding of the shrine has a mythic quality evocative of American Indian legend.

Blessed Soil.

In 1810, the story goes, a member of the Catholic Penitents Brotherhood saw a light shining up from one of the hills. Digging into the ground, he found a crucifix, which he took to a church in nearby Santa Cruz. But the crucifix inexplicably returned to its place in the Chimayo hills, and did so after being carried to the Santa Cruz church two more times. Accepting this as a sign, the local Catholic hierarchy allowed a small church to be built in Chimayo, and the crucifix was mounted on its altar. Further blending the ancient American Indian religion and Catholicism, the church contains a small room with a little dirt-filled pit (pocito, in Spanish) in its center. The dirt is blessed by the clergy, and people seeking cures scoop up small portions to take with them. The church is quick to say that the soil has no magical property. But the kivalike aspect of the pocito and the reverence with which the soil is regarded suggest a view of the world that predates Christianity.

In more recent times, spiritual seekers of all kinds have intentionally sought to blend elements of the great Axial sacred traditions with the ancient approaches to the sacred. Whether searching for intense mystical experience or universal principles or insights into the human psyche, they have launched movements, founded communities, and written thousands of books. Sometimes dismissing it as New Age faddism, critics ignore the serious ambitions of such eclectic spirituality, including its attempts to recover the lost sense of an enchanted world.

Among the many alternative communities founded in New Mexico over the years, none more enduringly embodies this open approach to the sacred than the Lama Foundation. Located some 25 miles north of Taos on the side of Mount Lama, the community occupies a compact cluster of central buildings—including a large dome used for classes and other gatherings—and a few small outlying residences for the core group of some 15 year-round members.

Founded in 1967, Lama has been home to a number of prominent spiritual luminaries, including the American Sufi teacher Samuel Lewis and Hindu convert and former Harvard psychologist Ram Dass (born Richard Alpert), who wrote the bestselling Be Here Now. A serious commitment to spiritual pursuits is perhaps the greatest reason this community has endured. Its collective life adheres to a set of guidelines, from a rigorous spiritual curriculum (prayers, dances, song, and meditation techniques drawn from various sacred traditions) to work duties, including the running of large summer retreats that bring in much of the community's income.

Among local people who have helped the community—notably after it nearly burned down during a large forest fire in 1996—have been various members from the Taos Pueblo. They have taught practical building and gardening skills as well as local lore. Austin Babcock, who has been doing a lot of the recent construction of energy-efficient permaculture buildings, takes me up to the spring that provides the community's water, a site that the Pueblo consider particularly sacred. "When the Pueblo come to visit," Babcock says, "they always ask, 'How is the mountain? How is the spring?' " Babcock and his wife, Kathy Lyons, tell me how the Pueblo sense of place has influenced the way they came to feel about the land. "The place," she says, "becomes the meaning."

Is it merely the romantic conceit of a few postmodern religious seekers that they can recover an older religious sense of an enchanted world? Perhaps. But their quest may resonate for others. After all, how people understand place—including its sacred dimension—influences what they seek in places, whether in natural settings or the human-built environment. The search for the Middle Place might be understood as something more than a lost ideal of the Ancient Puebloan People. Unless some sense of sacred purpose and presence inspires people's relationship with place, the places they inhabit may end up being just as lifeless as they think they are.




The Changing House of Worship

Alex Kingsbury

(US News and World Report 11-16-07)

Churches have always been at the center of American life. Rigid New England pews played host to town meetings before the Revolution and afterward, and today modern megachurches have become virtual towns unto themselves, complete with swimming pools, cafeterias, and counseling centers.

The form of a sanctuary has traditionally followed the functional needs of the congregation, a fact that has made America's 330,000 churches as diverse and evolving as the religions they serve. "Build the building, but know, for God's sake, what kind of creatures are going to inhabit it," Pastor Robert Schuller told a symposium of religious architects at Yale University School of Architecture last month. "You are creating a sacred space for believers who have their traditions and their liturgy." Schuller should know: He preached from the roof of a snack bar at a drive-in movie theater for some six years before building his own megachurch, the Crystal Cathedral, in Garden Grove, CA.

The size and shape of a church reveal much about the congregation inside. The Puritans preferred their churches simple, typically basic white with a steeple and a pitched roof to keep off the snow. The church itself was also a reflection of the early settlers' faith and lifestyle—pious, thrifty, and averse to comforts (like pew cushions) that would ill suit "sinners in the hands of an angry God." That simple design has become one of the most enduring representations of houses of worship.

Loosening Up.

By the mid-19th century, however, evangelical Protestants had abandoned the Puritans' bleak outlook on life. They put cushions on their pews, carpets on the floors, and stadium seating in their sanctuaries. They drew large crowds in the style of tent revivals and built churches to look and feel more like theaters. The arrangement meant the parishioners often looked down on the minister, a remarkable shift from the implicit power structure of the more traditional congregations.

These new congregations also designed buildings and stages to feature musical performances that were central to their lively services. At the same time, churches expanded their activities into more secular community events, building kitchens to help host them. Cooking facilities were considered irreverent and thus "very controversial at the time," says Jeanne Kilde, author of the book When Church Became Theatre. But by the turn of the century, in a precursor of what was to come, some churches even featured bowling alleys.

By the early 1900s, as evangelicals embraced modernity, Roman Catholic and Episcopal parishes were building more traditional churches. In the increasingly affluent suburbs, they were often heavy stone structures reflecting their European predecessors. Art was central, as were the sculptures adorning the walls. These buildings weren't designed for musical acts, although pipe organs became popular. And stained glass filtered the sunlight.

Eventually, the suburbs would also give birth to a uniquely American conception: the megachurch. Pastor Bill Hybels first held nondenominational services in an old movie theater outside Chicago serving fewer than 150 parishioners. In 1981, after an intense marketing effort, he oversaw construction of one of the nation's first megachurches, Willow Creek, in South Barrington, IL.

Changing Nature.

Churches like Willow Creek are not only a departure in an architectural sense; they have radically changed the nature of worship. Rather than insulating worshipers from their daily lives by offering a place for solemn reflection, megachurches face those lives head-on, with lights, TV screens, and auditorium seating. De-emphasizing traditional doctrine, they aim to make worship more engaging and entertaining. "They are designed like shopping malls—immediately welcoming," says Michael Crosbie, the editor of Faith and Form, a religious architecture magazine. And like a shopping mall, they can accommodate a day's worth of activity.

The original megachurch, though, is the Catholic cathedral, and in recent years it has experienced a renaissance of its own. There are more than 190 cathedrals in the United States, and more have been built in the past decade—three—than in the past 30 years. Each of these new structures takes a different approach, reflecting the decision of the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s to liberalize church design and create a more inclusive atmosphere. Since then, Catholic churches have varied greatly in design, from churches in the round to new floor plans with hemispheric layouts.

Before construction on the new Catholic cathedral in Houston, architect Kurt Hull spent hours with engineers and diocesan leaders, who called for an Italian Renaissance design. "They are traditional, and their focus is definitely all about the spoken word—it's not about entertainment," says Hull. "There was no thought of musical performances or Jumbo Trons." Indeed, the building, to be dedicated in April, has walls more than a foot thick to mute outside noises and accentuate the interior acoustics.

A second new cathedral, Our Lady of the Angels, completed in 2002 in Los Angeles, takes a decidedly modern approach to the Catholic worship space. Built to replace the St. Vibiana Cathedral, damaged in an earthquake, the new cathedral, designed by Spanish architect Josť Rafael Moneo, eschews right angles and resembles a structure by Frank Gehry or Frank Lloyd Wright. While European cathedrals were often built near rivers, Moneo had to build next to a freeway. Worshipers enter on the side of the building through massive cast-bronze doors, rather than through the center of the front. Likewise, Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light, slated for completion next year, has an almond-shaped floor plan, along with futuristic wall panels of aluminum and laminated glass.

Urban Sanctuaries.

Before the 1950s, the public's conception of a sacred space was far more unified than it is today, when the presence of the divine can be found not just in a cathedral but in a storefront in Harlem. Storefronts have been a staple of black and Hispanic ministries, which have seized on abandoned urban commercial space to provide local residents with a place to pray and share music and meals. They are sacred spaces found, rather than sacred spaces constructed to a purpose. And they are a uniquely American invention.

The Puritans surely would have cringed at these storefronts, just as they would have been scandalized by the bust of Darth Vader that adorns a tower of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Yet coming from these new designs is a renewed interest in the architecture of religious spaces, and an increase in professionals who specialize in creating them.

In the coming years, some architects predict that multidenominational churches—churches within churches—will come into vogue. Already, booming congregations around Detroit have been forced to share church space; a Korean Presbyterian and a First United Methodist church have done so near Chicago; and the Vietnamese Crossover Baptist Mission and the North Dallas Baptist Church have held simultaneous services in different rooms of the same church.

Still other architects see a return to sanctuaries inside the home. The Emerging Church movement, for example, harks back to the roots of the Christian faith with prayer meetings that focus on just a dozen or so worshipers. "The Shakers worshiped from inside the home, as did early Christians," says Crosbie. With some parishioners overwhelmed by the impersonal nature of large churches, he says, new structures might just return to the simplicity of the past.




Islam vs. Science

Jay Tolson

(US News and World Report 11-16-07)

Almost every standard world history textbook celebrates Islam's golden age of science. Between the ninth and 13th centuries, Muslim scholars not only translated the great works of Greek medicine, mathematics, and science but also pushed the frontiers of discovery in all of those areas. They improved and named algebra, refined techniques of surgery, advanced the study of optics, and charted the heavens. Then, toward the end of the 13th century, something mysterious happened: The scientific spirit seemed to die almost completely.

Today, most predominantly Muslim countries benefit daily from the fruits of science and technology, and most of the leaders of these nations at least pay lip service to the importance of scientific education. Arab analysts, in recent U.N.-backed reports on the deplorable state of human development in 22 Arab countries, have consistently called for more robust support for "knowledge acquisition" as a crucial step toward catching up with other regions of the world.

Lagging Behind.

Yet according to the distinguished Pakistani scientist Pervez Amirali Hoodbhoy, chair of the physics department at Quaid-i-Azam University in Islamabad, the news from the Islamic world is not very encouraging. And if his report in the August issue of Physics Today is accurate, it seems that not only science but the critical reasoning that undergirds it is in a precarious state.

Hoodbhoy marshals an array of data to demonstrate that the commitment to real scientific study and research in Muslim nations still lags far behind international averages.

For example, the 57 nations of the Organization of the Islamic Conference can boast only 8.5 scientists per 1,000 population, while the world average is 40.7. Of the lowest national producers of scientific articles in 2003, half are members of the OIC. The OIC countries spend about 0.3 percent of their gross national product on research and development, in contrast to the global average of 2.4 percent.

Some Muslim nations have recently boosted such spending, but throwing money at the problem is no good unless it is used by well-educated professionals who are capable of quality work. And so far, evidence of such quality is lacking. Of the approximately 1,800 universities in OIC nations, only 312 publish journal articles, and no OIC university was included in the top 500 of the "Academic Ranking of World Universities" that was produced by Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Beyond the data, Hoodbhoy's more unsettling observations bear on the culture and attitudes that prevail in much of the Islamic world, even in those citadels of study that are receiving more funding. To say that intellectual freedom is restricted is, as Hoodbhoy tells it, an understatement. His own university, ranked second among OIC academic institutions, has three mosques on its campus but not one bookstore. Like all other Pakistani universities, it barred a Nobel-winning Pakistani physicist from campus because he belonged to a Muslim sect that the government had deemed heretical.

And that's not all. Films, theater, and music are viewed as impious pursuits by religious zealots, some of whom physically attack students who participate or show an interest in those forms of cultural expression. The atmosphere of intimidation has become so menacing, in Hoodbhoy's view, that students in general have become more timid and passive in the classroom.


Throughout the Muslim world, there is a widespread suspicion that science is heresy—or at least those parts of science that cannot be used, or twisted, to support literalist interpretations of Islamic scriptures. Needless to say, this suspicion has received support from other varieties of religious fundamentalism, including the Christian and Hindu ones.

Some modern scholars make a more serious intellectual argument for the compatibility of science and traditional Islamic thought. And those thinkers believe that ignorance of an Islamically based understanding of science is what really impedes its pursuit in the contemporary Muslim world.

One of the more articulate proponents of that position is the Iranian-born philosopher of science Seyyed Hossein Nasr, a professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University and the author of, among other books, Science and Civilization in Islam. Educated at MIT and Harvard, Nasr has long argued that Islamic science must be understood "not as a chapter in the history of western science, but as an independent way of looking at the work of nature." Nasr insists that traditional Muslim scientists never went the way of Descartes and Newton in reducing the physical world to its material and mechanistic aspects. Nor did Muslims accept that humans can know this world with certainty only through its quantifiable properties. Instead, traditional Muslim scientists held that a full understanding of nature also required seeing its parts as signs of divine purpose. Furthermore, Nasr holds, this approach to science did not die at the end of the 13th century but inspired work in fields such as medicine through the 16th and 17th centuries.

But change did come during the colonial period. Not only did Europeans impose their approach to science on Muslim elites, but many Muslim reformers themselves advocated the adoption of modern science as the best means of catching up with the West. Yet in their zeal, Nasr says, these reformers carelessly tossed aside the rich perspectives of traditional Islamic thought for more streamlined—and often more literalist—approaches to sacred teaching. "This effort didn't go very far," Nasr says, "because instead of being integrated into Islamic culture, the science was merely tacked on."

Nasr's call for an Islamic approach to modern science has no shortage of critics who see it as spurious (and as politically correct) as appeals for Indian science, Chinese science, or even feminist science. But even scholars who acknowledge that culture may have some effect on how people conceive the practice of science say that, finally, certain standards of scientific practice must be upheld, whether the work is being done in Bombay or Beirut.

And the real problem in most of the Islamic world, Hoodbhoy insists, is an "unresolved tension between traditional and modern modes of thought and social behavior." Muslims who embrace uncritical literalism cannot embrace the scientific method, which requires that facts and hypotheses be tested heedless of any established authority. Hoodbhoy sums up the problem eloquently:

"If the scientific method is trashed, no amount of resources or loud declarations of intent to develop science can compensate. In those circumstances, scientific research becomes, at best, a kind of cataloging or 'butterfly-collecting' activity. It cannot be a creative process of genuine inquiry in which bold hypotheses are made and checked."




Why Relax When You Can Work?

Matthew Bandyk

(US News and World Report 4-9-08)

People tend to assume that education opens doors. That may be true in a lot of cases, but for some American men in the past 20 years, more education has meant less leisure time. The Increase in Leisure Inequality, a study by Mark Aguiar of the University of Rochester and Erik Hurst of the University of Chicago Graduate School of Business, found that since 1965, both men and women have had more time to play. But since 1985, a leisure-time gap has developed among men: Less educated men have devoted more time to leisure, while more educated guys have kept their shoulders to the wheel. The authors found that higher unemployment rates among less educated men accounted for only about one third of the inequality. What's the main explanation? It could be that as men get more education—and thus more earning power—it becomes more rewarding for them to spend time working. After all, they're making more money.




Copyright © 1996 Amy S Glenn
Last updated:   07/10/2024 1230

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