Wednesday, February 24, 2010


Monday, Jun. 24, 1996

Draped in embroidered cloth, laden with candles, redolent with roses and incense, the altar at the Santa Fe, New Mexico, home of Eetla Soracco seems an unlikely site for cutting-edge medical research. Yet every day for 10 weeks, ending last October, Soracco spent an hour or more there as part of a controlled study in the treatment of AIDS. Her assignment: to pray for five seriously ill patients in San Francisco.

Soracco, an Estonian-born "healer" who draws on Christian, Buddhist and Native American traditions, did not know the people for whom she was praying. All she had were their photographs, first names and, in some cases, T-cell counts. Picturing a patient in her mind, she would ask for "permission to heal" and then start to explore his body in her mind: "I looked at all the organs as though it is an anatomy book. I could see where things were distressed. These areas are usually dark and murky. I go in there like a white shower and wash it all out." Soracco was instructed to spend one hour a day in prayer, but the sessions often lasted twice as long. "For that time," she says, "it's as if I know the person."

Soracco is one of 20 faith healers recruited for the study by Dr. Elisabeth Targ, clinical director of psychosocial oncology research at California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco. In the experiment, 20 severely ill AIDS patients were randomly selected; half were prayed for, half were not. None were told to which group they had been assigned. Though Targ has not yet published her results, she describes them as sufficiently "encouraging" to warrant a larger, follow-up study with 100 AIDS patients.

Twenty years ago, no self-respecting M.D. would have dared to propose a double-blind, controlled study of something as intangible as prayer. Western medicine has spent the past 100 years trying to rid itself of remnants of mysticism. Targ's own field, psychiatry, couldn't be more hostile to spirituality: Sigmund Freud dismissed religious mysticism as "infantile helplessness" and "regression to primary narcissism." Today, while Targ's experiment is not exactly mainstream, it does exemplify a shift among doctors toward the view that there may be more to health than blood-cell counts and ekgs and more to healing than pills and scalpels.

"People, a growing number of them, want to examine the connection between healing and spirituality," says Jeffrey Levin, a gerontologist and epidemiologist at Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk. To do such research, he adds, "is no longer professional death." Indeed, more and more medical schools are adding courses on holistic and alternative medicine with titles like Caring for the Soul. "The majority, 10 to 1, present the material uncritically," reports Dr. Wallace Sampson of Stanford University, who recently surveyed the offerings of every U.S. medical school.

This change in doctors' attitudes reflects a broader yearning among their patients for a more personal, more spiritual approach to health and healing. As the 20th century draws to an end, there is growing disenchantment with one of its greatest achievements: modern, high-tech medicine. Western medicine is at its best in a crisis--battling acute infection, repairing the wounds of war, replacing a broken-down kidney or heart. But increasingly, what ails America and other prosperous societies are chronic illnesses, such as high blood pressure, backaches, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression and acute illnesses that become chronic, such as cancer and AIDS. In most of these, stress and life-style play a part.

"Anywhere from 60% to 90% of visits to doctors are in the mind-body, stress-related realm," asserts Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Boston's Deaconess Hospital and Harvard Medical School. It is a triumph of medicine that so many of us live long enough to develop these chronic woes, but, notes Benson, "traditional modes of therapy--pharmaceutical and surgical--don't work well against them."

Not only do patients with chronic health problems fail to find relief in a doctor's office, but the endless high-tech scans and tests of modern medicine also often leave them feeling alienated and uncared for. Many seek solace in the offices of alternative therapists and faith healers--to the tune of $30 billion a year, by some estimates. Millions more is spent on best-selling books and tapes by New Age doctors such as Deepak Chopra, Andrew Weil and Larry Dossey, who offer an appealing blend of medicine and Eastern-flavored spirituality (see following story).

Some scientists are beginning to look seriously at just what benefits patients may derive from spirituality. To their surprise, they are finding plenty of relevant data buried in the medical literature. More than 200 studies that touch directly or indirectly on the role of religion have been ferreted out by Levin of Eastern Virginia and Dr. David Larson, a research psychiatrist formerly at the National Institutes of Health and now at the privately funded National Institute for Healthcare Research. Most of these studies offer evidence that religion is good for one's health. Some highlights:

--A 1995 study at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center found that one of the best predictors of survival among 232 heart-surgery patients was the degree to which the patients said they drew comfort and strength from religious faith. Those who did not had more than three times the death rate of those who did.

--A survey of 30 years of research on blood pressure showed that churchgoers have lower blood pressure than nonchurchgoers--5 mm lower, according to Larson, even when adjusted to account for smoking and other risk factors.

--Other studies have shown that men and women who attend church regularly have half the risk of dying from coronary-artery disease as those who rarely go to church. Again, smoking and socioeconomic factors were taken into account.

--A 1996 National Institute on Aging study of 4,000 elderly living at home in North Carolina found that those who attend religious services are less depressed and physically healthier than those who don't attend or who worship at home.

--In a study of 30 female patients recovering from hip fractures, those who regarded God as a source of strength and comfort and who attended religious services were able to walk farther upon discharge and had lower rates of depression than those who had little faith.

--Numerous studies have found lower rates of depression and anxiety-related illness among the religiously committed. Nonchurchgoers have been found to have a suicide rate four times higher than church regulars.

There are many possible explanations for such findings. Since churchgoers are more apt than nonattendees to respect religious injunctions against drinking, drug abuse, smoking and other excesses, it's possible that their better health merely reflects these healthier habits.

Some of the studies, however, took pains to correct for this possibility by making statistical adjustments for life-style differences. Larson likes to point out that in his own study the benefits of religion hold up strongly, even for those who indulge in cigarette smoking. Smokers who rated religion as being very important to them were one-seventh as likely to have an abnormal blood-pressure reading as smokers who did not value religion.

Churchgoing also offers social support--which numerous studies have shown to have a salutary effect on well-being. (Even owning a pet has been shown to improve the health of the lonesome.) The Dartmouth heart-surgery study is one of the few that attempts to tease apart the effects of social support and religious conviction. Patients were asked separate sets of questions about their participation in social groups and the comfort they drew from faith. The two factors appeared to have distinct benefits that made for a powerful combination. Those who were both religious and socially involved had a 14-fold advantage over those who were isolated or lacked faith.

Could it be that religious faith has some direct influence on physiology and health? Harvard's Herbert Benson is probably the most persuasive proponent of this view. Benson won international fame in 1975 with his best-selling book, The Relaxation Response. In it he showed that patients can successfully battle a number of stress-related ills by practicing a simple form of meditation. The act of focusing the mind on a single sound or image brings about a set of physiological changes that are the opposite of the "fight-or-flight response." With meditation, heart rate, respiration and brain waves slow down, muscles relax and the effects of epinephrine and other stress-related hormones diminish. Studies have shown that by routinely eliciting this "relaxation response," 75% of insomniacs begin to sleep normally, 35% of infertile women become pregnant and 34% of chronic-pain sufferers reduce their use of painkilling drugs.

In his latest book, Timeless Healing (Scribner; $24), Benson moves beyond the purely pragmatic use of meditation into the realm of spirituality. He ventures to say humans are actually engineered for religious faith. Benson bases this contention on his work with a subgroup of patients who report that they sense a closeness to God while meditating. In a five-year study of patients using meditation to battle chronic illnesses, Benson found that those who claim to feel the intimate presence of a higher power had better health and more rapid recoveries.

"Our genetic blueprint has made believing in an Infinite Absolute part of our nature," writes Benson. Evolution has so equipped us, he believes, in order to offset our uniquely human ability to ponder our own mortality: "To counter this fundamental angst, humans are also wired for God."

In Benson's view, prayer operates along the same biochemical pathways as the relaxation response. In other words, praying affects epinephrine and other corticosteroid messengers or "stress hormones," leading to lower blood pressure, more relaxed heart rate and respiration and other benefits.

Recent research demonstrates that these stress hormones also have a direct impact on the body's immunological defenses against disease. "Anything involved with meditation and controlling the state of mind that alters hormone activity has the potential to have an impact on the immune system," says David Felten, chairman of the Department of Neurobiology at the University of Rochester.

It is probably no coincidence that the relaxation response and religious experience share headquarters in the brain. Studies show that the relaxation response is controlled by the amygdala, a small, almond-shaped structure in the brain that together with the hippocampus and hypothalamus makes up the limbic system. The limbic system, which is found in all primates, plays a key role in emotions, sexual pleasure, deep-felt memories and, it seems, spirituality. When either the amygdala or the hippocampus is electrically stimulated during surgery, some patients have visions of angels and devils. Patients whose limbic systems are chronically stimulated by drug abuse or a tumor often become religious fanatics. "The ability to have religious experiences has a neuro-anatomical basis," concludes Rhawn Joseph, a neuroscientist at the Palo Alto VA Medical Center in California.

Many researchers believe these same neuronal and hormonal pathways are the basis for the renowned and powerful "placebo effect." Decades of research show that if a patient truly believes a therapy is useful--even if it is a sugar pill or snake oil--that belief has the power to heal. In one classic 1950 study, for instance, pregnant women suffering from severe morning sickness were given syrup of ipecac, which induces vomiting, and told it was a powerful new cure for nausea. Amazingly, the women ceased vomiting. "Most of the history of medicine is the history of the placebo effect," observes Benson in Timeless Healing.

Though Benson devotes much of his book to documenting the power of the placebo effect--which he prefers to call "remembered wellness"--he has come to believe the benefits of religious faith are even greater. "Faith in the medical treatment," he writes, "[is] wonderfully therapeutic, successful in treating 60% to 90% of the most common medical problems. But if you so believe, faith in an invincible and infallible force carries even more healing power...It is a supremely potent belief."

Do the faithful actually have God on their side? Are their prayers answered? Benson doesn't say. But a true scientist, insists Jeffrey Levin, cannot dismiss this possibility: "I can't directly study that, but as an honest scholar, I can't rule it out."

A handful of scientists have attempted to study the possibility that praying works through some supernatural factor. One of the most cited examples is a 1988 study by cardiologist Randolph Byrd at San Francisco General Hospital. Byrd took 393 patients in the coronary-care unit and randomly assigned half to be prayed for by born-again Christians. To eliminate the placebo effect, the patients were not told of the experiment. Remarkably, Byrd found that the control group was five times as likely to need antibiotics and three times as likely to develop complications as those who were prayed for.

Byrd's experiment has never been replicated and has come under some criticism for design flaws. A more recent study of intercessory prayer with alcoholics found no benefit, while Elisabeth Targ's study of AIDS patients is still too small to produce significant results.

Science may never be able to pin down the benefits of spirituality. Attempts by Benson and others to do so are like "trying to nail Jell-O to the wall," complains William Jarvis, a public-health professor at California's Loma Linda University and the president of the National Council Against Health Fraud. But it may not be necessary to understand how prayer works to put it to use for patients. "We often know something works before we know why," observes Santa Fe internist Larry Dossey, the author of the 1993 best seller Healing Words.

A TIME/CNN poll of 1,004 Americans conducted last week by Yankelovich Partners found that 82% believed in the healing power of prayer and 64% thought doctors should pray with those patients who request it. Yet even today few doctors are comfortable with that role. "We physicians are culturally insensitive about the role of religion," says David Larson, noting that fewer than two-thirds of doctors say they believe in God. "It is very important to many of our patients and not important to lots of doctors."

Larson would like physicians to be trained to ask a few simple questions of their seriously or chronically ill patients: Is religion important to you? Is it important in how you cope with your illness? If the answers are yes, doctors might ask whether the patient would like to discuss his or her faith with the hospital chaplain or another member of the clergy. "You can be an atheist and say this," Larson insists. Not doing so, he argues, is a disservice to the patient.

Even skeptics such as Jarvis believe meditation and prayer are part of "good patient management." But he worries, as do many doctors, that patients may become "so convinced of the power of mind over body that they may decide to rely on that, instead of doing the hard things, like chemotherapy."

In the long run, it may be that most secular of forces--economics--that pushes doctors to become more sensitive to the spiritual needs of their patients. Increasingly, American medicine is a business, run by large hmos and managed-care groups with a keen eye on the bottom line. Medical businessmen are more likely than are scientifically trained doctors to view prayer and spirituality as low-cost treatments that clients say they want. "The combination of these forces--consumer demand and the economic collapse of medicine--are very powerful influences that are making medicine suddenly open to this direction," observes Andrew Weil, a Harvard-trained doctor and author of Spontaneous Healing.

Cynics point out that there is an even more practical reason for doctors to embrace spirituality even if they don't believe. The high cost of malpractice insurance gives physicians an incentive to attend to their patients' spiritual needs--and, if necessary, get on their knees and pray with them. Not only might it help restore their image as infallible caregivers, but if something does go wrong, patients who associate their doctors with a higher power might be less likely to sue.

--Reported by Jeanne McDowell/Los Angeles, Alice Park/ New York and Lisa H. Towle/Raleigh,9171,984737,00.html

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Behind the Sunni-Shi'ite Divide

Thursday, Feb. 22, 2007

Behind the Sunni-Shi'ite Divide

It has come to this: the hatred between Iraq's warring sects is now so toxic, it contaminates even the memory of a shining moment of goodwill. On Aug. 31, 2005, a stampede among Shi'ite pilgrims on a bridge over the Tigris River in Baghdad led to hundreds jumping into the water in panic. Several young men in Adhamiya, the Sunni neighborhood on the eastern bank, dived in to help. One of them, Othman al-Obeidi, 25, rescued six people before his limbs gave out from exhaustion and he himself drowned. Nearly 1,000 pilgrims died that afternoon, but community leaders in the Shi'ite district of Khadamiya, on the western bank, lauded the "martyrdom" of al-Obeidi and the bravery of his friends. Adhamiya residents, for their part, held up al-Obeidi's sacrifice as proof that Sunnis bore no ill will toward their Shi'ite neighbors across the river.

Eighteen months on, one of the men who jumped into the river to help the Shi'ites says al-Obeidi "wasted his life for those animals." Hamza Muslawi refuses to talk about how many he himself saved, saying it fills him with shame. "If I see a Shi'ite child about to drown in the Tigris now," says the carpenter, "I will not reach my hand out to save him." In Khadamiya, too, the narrative about Aug. 31 has changed. Karrar Hussein, 28, was crossing the bridge when the stampede began. Ask him about al-Obeidi, and his cheerful demeanor quickly turns sour. "That is a myth," hisses the cell-phone salesman. "That person never existed at all. He was invented by the Sunnis to make them look good." Rather than jumping in to help, he claims, the people of Adhamiya laughed and cheered as Shi'ites drowned.

The bridge connecting the two neighborhoods is now closed for security reasons--just as well, since the chasm between them is too wide for any man-made span. Mortars fired from the cemetery behind Abu Hanifa, a Sunni shrine in Adhamiya, have caused carnage in the bustling markets of the western bank. There are more mortars going in the opposite direction; on a recent afternoon, the sound of an explosion on the Sunni side of the river is greeted with cheers by worshippers at a Shi'ite shrine in Khadamiya.

Those cheers are just one sign of how much venom has seeped into Sunni-Shi'ite relations in the year since their simmering conflict was brought to a boil by the bombing of Samarra's golden-domed shrine. The bloodlust is no longer limited to extremists on both sides. Hatred has gone mainstream, spreading first to victims of the violence and their families--the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who have lost loved ones, jobs, homes, occasionally entire neighborhoods--and then into the wider society. Now it permeates not only the rancorous political discourse of Baghdad's Green Zone but also ordinary conversations in homes and marketplaces, arousing a fury even in those who have no obvious, pressing grievance. Neither Muslawi nor Hussein has suffered personal loss, but they are relatively able to tap into the same loathing that motivates the Shi'ite militias and Sunni jihadis. "The air has become poisoned [by sectarianism], and we have all been breathing it," says Abbas Fadhil, a Baghdad physician. "And so now everybody is talking the same language, whether they are educated or illiterate, secular or religious, violent or not."

Worse, there are clear signs that Iraq's malice has an echo in other parts of the Middle East, exacerbating existing tensions between Sunnis and Shi'ites and reanimating long-dormant ones. In Lebanon, some Hizballah supporters seeking to topple the government in Beirut chant the name of radical Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose militia is blamed for thousands of Sunni deaths. In Sunni Arab countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Egypt, sympathy for Sunnis in Iraq is spiked with the fear, notably in official circles, of a Shi'ite tide rising across the Middle East, instigated and underwritten by an ancient enemy of the Arabs: Iran.

For those who follow Iraq from afar, the daily stories of sectarian slaughter are perplexing. Why are the Shi'ites and Sunnis fighting? Why now? There are several explanations for the timing of the outbreak of hostilities, each tied to a particular interpretation of how events unfolded after the fall of Saddam Hussein: flawed American postwar policies, provocation by foreign jihadis, retaliation by militias like al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, the ineptitude of Iraqi politicians and, lately, Iranian interference. But the rage burning in people like Muslawi and Hussein has much deeper and older roots. It is the product of centuries of social, political and economic inequality, imposed by repression and prejudice and frequently reinforced by bloodshed. The hatred is not principally about religion. Sunnis and Shi'ites may disagree on some matters of dogma and some details of Islam's early history, but these differences are small--they agree on most of the important tenets of the faith, like the infallibility of the Koran, and they venerate the Prophet Muhammad. Despite the claims by some Arab commentators, there is no evidence that Iraq's Shi'ite extremists are trying to convert Sunnis, or vice versa. For Iraqi fighters on both sides, "their sect is nothing more than a uniform, a convenient way to tell friend from enemy," says Ghanim Hashem Kudhir, who teaches modern Islamic history at Baghdad's Mustansiriya University. "What binds them is not religion but common historical experience: Shi'ites see themselves as the oppressed, and they see Sunnis as the oppressors."

Sunnis and Shi'ites are fighting for a secular prize: political domination. The warring sects, says a U.S. official in Baghdad, "are simply communities ... striving to gain or regain power." Without an understanding of the roots of the rage that drives people like Muslawi and Hussein, any plan--American or Iraqi, military or political--to stabilize Iraq is doomed to failure. And that power struggle in Iraq, whether it draws neighboring countries into a wider sectarian conflict or forces a realignment of alliances, has the potential to radically alter the Middle East.


ISLAM'S SCHISM BEGAN IN A.D. 632, immediately after the Prophet Muhammad died without naming a successor as leader of the new Muslim flock. Some of his followers believed the role of Caliph, or viceroy of God, should be passed down Muhammad's bloodline, starting with his cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. But the majority backed the Prophet's friend Abu Bakr, who duly became Caliph. Ali would eventually become the fourth Caliph before being murdered in A.D. 661 by a heretic near Kufa, now in Iraq. The succession was once again disputed, and this time it led to a formal split. The majority backed the claim of Mu'awiyah, Governor of Syria, and his son Yazid. Ali's supporters, who would eventually be known collectively as Shi'at Ali, or partisans of Ali, agitated for his son Hussein. When the two sides met on a battlefield near modern Karbala on Oct. 10, 680, Hussein was killed and decapitated. But rather than nipping the Shi'ite movement in the bud, his death gave it a martyr. In Shi'ite eyes, Hussein is a just and humane figure who stood up to a mighty oppressor. The annual mourning of Hussein's death, known as Ashura, is the most poignant and spectacular of Shi'ite ceremonies: the faithful march in the streets, beating their chests and crying in sorrow. The extremely devout flagellate themselves with swords and whips.

Those loyal to Mu'awiyah and his successors as Caliph would eventually be known as Sunnis, meaning followers of the Sunnah, or Way, of the Prophet. Since the Caliph was often the political head of the Islamic empire as well as its religious leader, imperial patronage helped make Sunni Islam the dominant sect. Today about 90% of Muslims worldwide are Sunnis. But Shi'ism would always attract some of those who felt oppressed by the empire. Shi'ites continued to venerate the Imams, or the descendants of the Prophet, until the 12th Imam, Mohammed al-Mahdi (the Guided One), who disappeared in the 9th century at the location of the Samarra shrine in Iraq. Mainstream Shi'ites believe that al-Mahdi is mystically hidden and will emerge on an unspecified date to usher in a reign of justice.

Shi'ites soon formed the majority in the areas that would become the modern states of Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan. There are also significant Shi'ite minorities in other Muslim states, including Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Pakistan. Crucially, Shi'ites outnumber Sunnis in the Middle East's major oil-producing regions--not only Iran and Iraq but also eastern Saudi Arabia. But outside Iran, Sunnis have historically had a lock on political power, even where Shi'ites have the numerical advantage. (The one place where the opposite holds true is modern Syria, which is mostly Sunni but since 1970 has been ruled by a small Shi'ite subsect known as the Alawites.) Sunni rulers maintained their monopoly on power by excluding Shi'ites from the military and bureaucracy; for much of Islamic history, a ruling Sunni élite treated Shi'ites as an underclass, limited to manual labor and denied a fair share of state resources.

The rulers used religious arguments to justify oppression. Shi'ites, they said, were not genuine Muslims but heretics. Devised for political convenience, this view of Shi'ites solidified into institutionalized prejudice. Sunnis likened reverence for the Prophet's bloodline and the Shi'ites' fondness for portraits of some of the Imams to the sin of idolatry. Shi'ite rituals, especially the self-flagellation during Ashura, were derided as pagan. Many rulers forbade such ceremonies, fearing that large gatherings would quickly turn into political uprisings. (Ashura was banned during most of Saddam Hussein's rule and resumed only after his downfall in 2003.) "For Shi'ites, Sunni rule has been like living under apartheid," says Vali Nasr, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The Shia Revival: How Conflicts Within Islam Will Shape the Future.

But religious repression was uneven. Sunni Caliphs in Baghdad tolerated and sometimes contributed to the development of Najaf and Karbala as the most important centers of Shi'ite learning. Shi'ite ayatullahs, as long as they refrained from open defiance of the ruling élite, could run seminaries and collect tithes from their followers. The shrines of Shi'ite Imams in Najaf, Karbala, Samarra and Khadamiya were allowed to become magnets for pilgrimage.

Sectarian relations worsened in the 16th century. By then the seat of Sunni power had moved to Istanbul. When the Turkish Sunni Ottomans fought a series of wars with the Shi'ite Safavids of Persia, the Arabs caught in between were sometimes obliged to take sides. Sectarian suspicions planted then have never fully subsided, and Sunni Arabs still pejoratively label Shi'ites as "Persians" or "Safavis." The Ottomans eventually won control of the Arab territories and cemented Sunni dominance. The British, the next power in the Middle East, did nothing to change the equation. In the settlement after World War I, they handed the newly created states of Iraq and Bahrain, both with Shi'ite majorities, to Sunni monarchs.


WHEN SADDAM HUSSEIN ASSUMED POWER in Baghdad in 1979, Iraq's Shi'ites had enjoyed a couple of decades of respite under leaders who allowed them some measure of equality with the Sunnis. Then came Ayatullah Ruhollah Khomeini's 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. Fearing a similar uprising in Iraq, Saddam revived some old repressions and ordered the murder of Iraq's most popular ayatullah, Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, uncle of Muqtada. Shi'ites made up a majority of those killed in Iraq's war with Iran, which lasted from 1980 to 1988, but after it ended they were once again shut out of most senior government and military positions. With the defeat of Saddam's army in the 1991 Gulf War, Shi'ites saw a chance to rise against the dictator. But they received no protection from the allied forces, and Saddam was able to smash the revolt. By some estimates, more than 300,000 Shi'ites were killed; many were buried in mass graves. For the rest of his reign, Saddam kept the Shi'ites firmly under his thumb. Several popular clerics were killed, including Muqtada's father. Saddam ordered the murder of Sunnis too, but there was a crucial difference. "When Saddam killed a Sunni, it was personal--because of something that person had done," says author Nasr. "But when it came to killing Shi'ites, he was indiscriminate. He didn't need a specific reason. Their being Shi'ite was enough."

Remarkably, despite the profound imbalance in political power and the legacy of repression, many individual Iraqis forged business, social and personal relationships between the sects. In Baghdad and other cities, most neighborhoods built in the modern era were mixed. Residents of Adhamiya and Khadamiya were able to reach across the Tigris and socialize. Mohammed al-Shammari, an Arabic-literature professor, fondly remembers evenings with friends in Khadamiya, followed by dinner and late-night revelry in Adhamiya, where shops and restaurants stayed open later. "Nobody asked us if we were Shi'ite or Sunni," says al-Shammari. "And we never thought to ask each other. I have friends I didn't know were Shi'ite until quite recently." Among the urban educated classes, it was considered unsophisticated and politically incorrect to ask people their sect, though there are other ways to find out (see box). Some of the people mentioned in this article agreed to be interviewed only if their names were changed. Many of Iraq's tribes have always included clans from both sects. Sunni-Shi'ite marriages were commonplace, especially among the educated urban population. In the winter of 2002, when Fattah, a Shi'ite computer technician, asked the father of his Sunni girlfriend Zahra for permission to marry her, there was no hesitation. The couple was married a few days before the start of the war, and Zahra says, "Many of the guests were themselves mixed couples."


FOR TWO YEARS AFTER SADDAM'S FALL, such ties were strong enough to keep widespread sectarian violence at bay. There were provocations: Sunni jihadi groups, such as Abu Mousab al-Zarqawi's al-Qaeda, began a bombing campaign against Shi'ite targets. But many Shi'ite extremists, rather than lashing out at Sunnis, sometimes joined them in the insurgency against the Americans and their allies. When Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army rose against the U.S. in the summer of 2004, it was supported by the Sunni insurgency. That fall some of al-Sadr's fighters joined Sunnis in the battle of Fallujah. Al-Sadr portrayed himself as a defender of Arabs, not Shi'ites alone. Even the hard-line Sunni clerics' group, the Association of Muslim Scholars, hailed him as an Iraqi hero; Sunni politicians spoke of a political alliance with the Mahdi Army.

Inter-sect relations, political and personal, began to fray with the approach of Iraq's first post-Saddam election in January 2005. Sunni parties boycotted the poll, allowing a Shi'ite coalition to sweep to power. With an assertiveness that at times bordered on arrogance, the Shi'ite-led government inflamed Sunni resentment. An especially sore point was the mass recruitment into the police and the military of Shi'ite militiamen, some of whom used the immunity of their uniforms to avenge old grudges against Sunnis. Sunni terrorism groups stepped up their bombing campaign, which convinced Shi'ites that the former ruling class was never going to accept its reduced status. By the time U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad persuaded Sunni parties to take part in a second general election in December 2005, the two sects were some distance apart.

Then came Samarra. The operation carried the Jordanian-born al-Zarqawi's fingerprints, but Iraqi Sunnis were the ones who would endure the bloody fallout. For many Shi'ites, this was an atrocity too far. They turned to militias such as the Mahdi Army to avenge the desecration of the site, and those militias ran amuck, slaughtering Sunnis and attacking many of their mosques. After the first, furious convulsion of violence, the militias began a more systematic campaign of kidnap and execution. The bodies of their victims, bearing signs of bestial torture, were often tossed into sewers or garbage dumps. Jihadi groups responded in kind. The U.S. military had passed on most security responsibilities to Iraqi forces, but they proved unable to halt the killings. Worse, they were frequently accused of joining in the fighting, usually on the side of the militias. Last fall two U.S.-Iraqi joint security operations failed to stanch the bloodletting.

Saddam's execution became another flash point. Even Sunnis who had little sympathy for Saddam were incensed that the government chose to hang him at the hour of morning prayers on one of the most sacred Muslim holidays (Iraqi Sunnis celebrated the holiday one day before the Shi'ites). The choice seemed to confirm suspicions that Shi'ite political dominance would be a constant humiliation. "It was their way of telling us, 'We're in charge now, and you are so weak that even your holy days have no meaning anymore,'" says media analyst Kadhim al-Mukhdadi. "That morning I gave up hoping that things would get better."

He is not alone in that hopelessness. Sectarian lines have been drawn through mixed neighborhoods. Where Shi'ites are in the majority, Sunni families have been forced to leave for fear of death. Sunnis have responded with their own sectarian cleansing. A large portion of the mostly Sunni middle and upper classes has fled the country; Jordan and Syria together now have nearly 2 million Iraqi expatriates. Inter-sect marriages have become less and less common. Zahra's father has refused to give his younger daughter permission to follow in her sister's footsteps and marry a Shi'ite. "He is the same man," Zahra says in her father's defense. "But the situation around him has changed. Now if he allows a daughter to marry a Shi'ite, people will ask questions."


IN IRAQ, THE SUNNI-SHI'ITE WAR CAN sometimes seem no more than a series of concurrent battles between neighborhoods such as Adhamiya and Khadamiya. The people fighting may have no conception of any greater plan. The wider Muslim world, however, tends to focus on the big picture. Shi'ites are now politically dominant in Iraq, and Iran is the leading Shi'ite power. So in most Arab capitals, the sectarian war in Iraq is increasingly blamed on Iran. Taken along with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear ambitions, Iran's sponsorship of the Shi'ite Hizballah militia in Lebanon and its backing of Hamas, Iran's supposed meddling in Iraq is proof to Arab leaders that their old Persian rivals are determined to reshape the Middle East to suit their own interest.

As early as 2004, Jordan's King Abdullah warned of a rising Shi'ite "crescent" running from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon. Although the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad had the backing of the U.S., in many Arab eyes it represented the expansion of Iran's influence. Sunni Arab leaders have begun to ratchet up their rhetoric against Shi'ites in general and Iran in particular. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in 2006 said, "Most of the Shi'ites are loyal to Iran and not to the countries they are living in." After a storm of protest from Iraq and elsewhere, Mubarak claimed he had been referring only to matters of religion. In the predominantly Sunni Palestinian territories, supporters of Fatah have taken to branding their Hamas rivals as a Shi'ite organization. In January, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah informed a Kuwaiti newspaper that he had told an Iranian envoy that Iran was interfering in Iraq and endangering the region. King Abdullah also accused Iran of wanting to spread Shi'ism in Sunni countries.

But both sides are responsible for stoking tensions. Religious leaders of the Wahhabi sect, often backed and bankrolled by members of the Saudi royal family, contribute to the spread of sectarian violence by preaching a hard-line form of Sunni Islam that condemns all other strains as heresy. In Pakistan, moderate Muslims blame Wahhabi madrasahs as well as Iranian-funded Shi'ite seminaries for the escalation of Sunni-Shi'ite violence that has claimed more than 4,000 lives in the past two decades. In the latest attacks, three separate suicide bombings killed 21 during the Ashura rituals in January. In Lebanon, sectarian tensions have risen after years of relative calm. Hizballah, the Shi'ite militia, won praise from Sunnis when Israeli forces left Lebanon in 2000. But after the assassination in February 2005 of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a Sunni, intra-Muslim antagonism began to harden. Sunnis blamed Hizballah's patron, the Syrian government, for the killing. While faulting Hizballah for provoking last summer's war, many Lebanese Sunnis stood with Hizballah in the face of Israel's onslaught against the country. But any residual Sunni admiration for Hizballah vanished by the end of the year, when Hizballah led a campaign to bring down the government of Hariri's longtime friend Fouad Siniora.

Iraq's Sunnis, for their part, have grown adept at playing to wider Middle Eastern concerns about Iran's influence in the region. Sunni politicians stoke these anxieties in the hope that Arab pressure on the Iraqi government will force it to give Sunnis a greater share of power. "If the Arab states don't come to our help, they will find [Iran] at their gate," says Mohammed Bashar al-Faidi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars. "For the sake of the entire Muslim community worldwide, the beast has to be destroyed in Iraq." For leaders of terrorist groups, the fear of a regionwide Shi'ite ascendancy serves as a useful fund-raising tool as well as recruiting propaganda. Radical Sunni preachers and TV talk-show hosts across the Arab world are inflaming sentiments by accusing Iraq's "Persians" of ethnic cleansing. In January, an editorial in al-Ahram, a newspaper widely seen as the voice of the Egyptian state, declared, "Iran is working actively toward spreading the Shi'ite doctrine even in countries that do not have a Shi'ite minority." Iran, in turn, has accused Sunnis of issuing fatwas authorizing the killing of Shi'ites.


MOST IRAQIS, CAUGHT UP IN THEIR OWN terrors, have little time for the angst of the wider Islamic world. Those who can look past the daily horrors see an even more frightening future, in which their children carry today's hatreds into the next generation. With thousands being killed on either side, the nationalist, secular slogans that were long taught in Iraq's schools have lost much of their meaning. And children do not get too many lessons in secularism at home. "When we were kids, my parents taught us that Shi'ites had the wrong idea about Islam but were just misguided, not bad people," says Ayesha Ubaid, 26, a Sunni doctor's assistant whose late husband was a Shi'ite. "But now I hear my brothers and sisters-in-law telling their children, 'Those people killed our uncle and two cousins and stole our ancestral home.'" Her son Mohammed, 8, returned from school one afternoon and angrily asked, "Why did you marry an infidel?"

Ubaid lives with three brothers and their families. In November, they all moved to Adhamiya from Shulla, a mostly Shi'ite neighborhood where she was born. "I knew every brick of every house on my street," she says. "When we left, some of our neighbors cried and promised they would protect our house with their lives. But the next day, a Shi'ite family took the place, and nobody stopped them." Ubaid says she had considered raising Mohammed as a Shi'ite, out of respect for her husband. But now, she says, "that would be inviting disaster." Still, Ubaid says that in her new neighborhood, she feels as safe as it is possible to be in Baghdad.

Will she stay that way? With a large supply of luck, Operation Imposing Law, the new security operation enabled by President George W. Bush's "surge" of U.S. troops, may halt the sectarian fighting in Baghdad long enough for Shi'ites and Sunnis to start mending fences. If all goes according to plan, the Iraqi government will use the respite from violence to launch a massive economic program that will create jobs and improve civic services like electricity and water supply. If the government can do that, says veteran Shi'ite politician Abu Firas al-Saedi, "people won't immediately start hugging each other and become best friends again--but at least if they are busy working and making money, they will have time to forget the past." In this optimistic view, the militias won't take their fight from Baghdad to other Iraqi cities, where the U.S. presence is minimal, and any security gains in Baghdad will quickly spread elsewhere.

Conceivably, all that might happen. As Operation Imposing Law got under way on Feb. 14, there were some signs that Shi'ite militias might be reducing their attacks on Sunnis. Al-Sadr has ordered his Mahdi Army to lie low and avoid direct confrontation with American troops. Al-Sadr himself and several of his top commanders are believed to have left for Iran. But few in Baghdad doubt that he will be back. "He is just bending to the wind because he knows his fighters can't face the Americans," says Hussain al-Moed, a rival Shi'ite cleric. "But he also knows that the Americans will leave. The Mahdi Army can afford to wait." Sunni jihadis have kept up their bombing campaign despite the security operation--and if they continue to strike against Shi'ite neighborhoods, the Mahdi Army may return to the fight.

It's too early to tell if the new operation will damp down sectarian tensions. "There are more ways in which this could go wrong than go right," says political analyst Tahseen al-Shekhli. "We have seen too many plans fail to have any faith in this one." Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a lifelong Shi'ite partisan, has shown little patience for Sunni grievances and has failed to start an oft-promised national reconciliation process. So despite his professed conviction that the security operation is working, chances remain high that it will eventually falter, brought down by the inability of Sunnis and Shi'ites to find a political settlement or the reduction of U.S. forces that is bound to happen one day.

And then all hell would be let loose. Iraq is a country where almost every household has at least one AK-47. If there is no Sunni-Shi'ite rapprochement, a full-blown civil war would raise the daily death toll from the scores to the hundreds--to say nothing of the escalation that would come if neighboring countries became involved, Iran backing the Shi'ite militias, Arab states sponsoring the Sunnis. Such a war could continue for years, with each sectarian community splitting into smaller factions led by rival warlords. In Baghdad, the ethnic cleansing would continue to its logical conclusion, with the city split into a Shi'ite east and a Sunni west.

If it came to that, no bridge, no crossing, would convince the residents of Adhamiya and Khadamiya that they had dreams in common. Just as Muslawi and Hussein look back at the stampede over the bridge in 2005 and see different pasts, so Iraq's Sunnis and Shi'ites may now be contemplating a future that they cannot share. There could be no more bitter legacy of the Bush Administration's fateful decision to go to war in Iraq.,8816,1592849,00.html

The Evolution Wars

Sunday, Aug. 07, 2005

The Evolution Wars

Sometime in the late fall, unless a federal court intervenes, ninth-graders at the public high school in rural Dover, Pa., will witness an unusual scene in biology class. The superintendent of schools, Richard Nilsen, will enter the classroom to read a three-paragraph statement mandated by the local school board as a cautionary preamble to the study of evolution. It reads, in part:

Because Darwin's theory is a theory, it is still being tested as new evidence is discovered. The theory is not a fact. Gaps in the theory exist for which there is no evidence ... Intelligent design is an explanation of the origin of life that differs from Darwin's view. The reference book Of Pandas and People is available for students to see if they would like to explore this view ... As is true with any theory, students are encouraged to keep an open mind.

After that one-minute reading, the superintendent will probably depart without any discussion, and a lesson in evolutionary biology will begin.

That kind of scene, brief and benign though it might seem, strikes horror into the hearts of scientists and science teachers across the U.S., not to mention plenty of civil libertarians. Darwin's venerable theory is widely regarded as one of the best-supported ideas in science, the only explanation for the diversity of life on Earth, grounded in decades of study and objective evidence. But Dover's disclaimer on Darwin would appear to get a passing grade from the man who considers himself America's education President. In a question-and-answer session with Texas newspaper reporters at the White House last week, George W. Bush weighed in on the issue. He expressed support for the idea of combining lessons in evolution with a discussion of "intelligent design"--the proposition that some aspects of living things are best explained by an intelligent cause or agent, as opposed to natural selection. It is a subtler way of finding God's fingerprints in nature than traditional creationism. "Both sides ought to be properly taught," said the President, who appeared to choose his words with care, "so people can understand what the debate is about ... I think that part of education is to expose people to different schools of thought."

On its surface, the President's position seems supremely fair-minded: What could possibly be wrong with presenting more than one point of view on a topic that divides so many Americans? But to biologists, it smacks of faith-based science. And that is provocative not only because it rekindles a turf battle that goes all the way back to the Middle Ages but also because it comes at a time when U.S. science is perceived as being under fresh assault politically and competitively. Just last week, developments ranging from flaws in the space program to South Korea's rapid advances in the field of cloning were cited as examples that the U.S. is losing its edge. Bush's comments on intelligent design were the No. 1 topic for bloggers for days afterward. "It sends a signal to other countries because they're rushing to gain scientific and technological leadership while we're getting distracted with a pseudoscience issue," warned Gerry Wheeler, executive director of the 55,000-member National Science Teachers Association in Arlington, Va. "If I were China, I'd be happy."

As far as many Americans are concerned, however, the President was probably preaching to the choir. In a Harris poll conducted in June, 55% of 1,000 adults surveyed said children should be taught creationism and intelligent design along with evolution in public schools. The same poll found that 54% did not believe humans had developed from an earlier species--up from 45% with that view in 1994--although other polls have not detected this rise.

Around the U.S., the prevalence of such beliefs and the growing organization and clout of the intelligent-design movement are beginning to alter the way that most fundamental tenets of biology are presented in public schools. New laws that in some sense challenge the teaching of evolution are pending or have been considered in 20 states, including such traditionally liberal bastions as Michigan and New York. This week in Kansas, a conservative-leaning state board of education is expected to accept a draft of new science standards that emphasize the theoretical nature of evolution and require students to learn about "significant debates" about the theory. The proposed rules, which won't be put to a final vote until fall, would also alter the state's basic definition of science. While current Kansas standards describe science as "the human activity of seeking natural explanations for what we observe in the world," the rewritten definition leaves the door open, critics say, for the supernatural as well.


Darwin's theory has been a hard sell to Americans ever since it was unveiled nearly 150 years ago in The Origin of Species. The intelligent-design movement is just the latest and most sophisticated attempt to discredit the famous theory, which many Americans believe leaves insufficient room for the influence of God. Early efforts to thwart Darwin were pretty crude. Tennessee famously banned the teaching of evolution and convicted schoolteacher John Scopes of violating that ban in the "monkey trial" of 1925. At the time, two other states--Florida and Oklahoma--had laws that interfered with teaching evolution. When such laws were struck down by a Supreme Court decision in 1968, some states shifted gears and instead required that "creation science" be taught alongside evolution. Supreme Court rulings in 1982 and 1987 put an end to that. Offering creationism in public schools, even as a side dish to evolution, the high court held, violated the First Amendment's separation of church and state.

But some anti-Darwinists seized upon Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in the 1987 case. Christian fundamentalists, he wrote, "are quite entitled, as a secular matter, to have whatever scientific evidence there may be against evolution presented in their schools." That line of argument--an emphasis on weaknesses and gaps in evolution--is at the heart of the intelligent-design movement, which has as its motto "Teach the controversy." "You have to hand it to the creationists. They have evolved," jokes Eugenie Scott, executive director of the National Center for Science Education in Oakland, Calif., which monitors attacks on the teaching of evolution.


Since the 1987 decision, a devoted band of mostly religious Christians, including hundreds of scientists, engineers, theologians and philosophers, has written papers and books, contributed to symposiums on the perceived problems with Darwin's theory. The headquarters for such thinking is the Center for Science and Culture at a nonpartisan but generally conservative think tank called the Discovery Institute, founded in Seattle in 1990.

What exactly is their critique of Darwin? Much of it revolves around the appealing idea that living things are simply too exquisitely complex to have evolved by a combination of chance mutations and natural selection. The dean of that school of thought is Lehigh University biologist and Discovery Institute senior fellow Michael Behe, author of the 1996 book Darwin's Black Box, a seminal work on intelligent design. Behe's main argument points to the fact that living organisms contain such ingenious structures as the eye and systems like the mechanism for clotting blood, which involves at least 20 interacting proteins. He calls such phenomena "irreducibly complex" because removing or altering any part invalidates the whole. Behe claims they could not have arisen through the gradual fits and starts of evolution, which, he says, "has been oversold to the public." Although his writing is couched in the language of science, Behe, a practicing Catholic who home schools his nine children, believes the hand of the designer is self-evident. "That's why most people disbelieve Darwinian evolution," he says. "People go out and look at the trees and say, 'Nah.'"

Other arguments in this new brand of anti-Darwinism focus on missing pieces in the fossil record, particularly the Cambrian period, when there was an explosion of novel species. Still other advocates, including mathematician, philosopher and theologian William Dembski, who is heading up a new center for intelligent design at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, use the mathematics of probability to try to show that chance mutations and natural selection cannot account for nature's complexity. In contrast to earlier opponents to Darwin, many proponents of intelligent design accept some role for evolution--heresy to some creationists. They are also careful not to bring God into the discussion (another sore point for hard-line creationists), preferring to keep primarily to the language of science. This may also help them avoid the legal and political pitfalls of teaching creationism.

The Discovery Institute and its scientists have been actively involved in many of the recent skirmishes over evolution at local school-board meetings and in state legislatures. In Ohio, for instance, the institute sent representatives to the state board of education meetings last year to push for science standards that would support teaching critiques of evolution. "All we're advocating for is that if a teacher wants to bring up the scientific debate over design, they should be allowed to do that," says institute spokesman John West. In fact, Ohio modified its standards to say that evolution should be critically analyzed, which West regards as a victory.

Statewide curriculum standards for science are a relatively new target for Darwin doubters, one that has a broader impact than local school-board decisions. In addition, by working at the state level, intelligent-design advocates can largely avoid dealing with unpolished local activists who make rash religious statements that don't hold up in court. (Supporters of the Darwin disclaimer in Dover, Pa., have publicly proclaimed the country a Christian nation, a point cited in an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit.) It has been only since the late 1980s and early '90s that most states have created science-curriculum standards as part of a national movement to bring more accountability to education. "Savvy creationists are focusing their efforts on this relatively new arena," says Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education. "The decision-making bodies involved in approving state science standards tend to be small, not particularly knowledgeable and, above all, elected, so it's a good opportunity for political pressure to be applied."

In Kansas, conservative members of the state school board, like Connie Morris, who represents the sparsely populated western half of Kansas, have repeatedly injected scientifically abstruse, jargon-heavy documents from the Discovery Institute into the debate about teaching evolution, making the discussion tough for the average citizen to follow. "Personally, I believe in the Genesis account of God's creation," says Morris. "But as a policymaker looking at science standards, I rely mostly on research and expert documentation."

Oddly enough, the President's remarks last week promoting intelligent design made Morris and many other Darwin doubters uncomfortable because they have a different timetable in mind. "His support is appreciated, but I plan to move forward on attempting to get criticism of Darwinian evolution in the science standards, not intelligent design," says Morris. Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, a leading voice on the religious right, seemed to be reading from the same script. "What we should be teaching are the problems and holes in the theory of evolution," he said in an interview with National Public Radio a few days after Bush made his comments. Santorum also said, "As far as intelligent design is concerned, I really don't believe it has risen to the level of a scientific theory at this point that we would want to teach it alongside of evolution." The Senator tried to get a teach-the-controversy addendum into the 2001 No Child Left Behind bill.

Even scientists who believe in intelligent design do not feel it is ready for prime time. Many would prefer to move forward gradually, building their case, in order to avoid a backlash. "It's premature for all kinds of reasons," says oceanographer Edward Peltzer, a senior researcher at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. "The science is there, but the science textbooks are not. The teachers have to be trained. Its time will come. But its time is not now." The emphasis for now is on dissing Darwinism, which opens the door to other explanations without specifically invoking an intelligent creator. Many advocates of intelligent design complain that Darwinism has become a kind of faith in itself. "There's religion on both sides," insists David Keller, a chemistry professor at the University of New Mexico, who taught a seminar on problems with evolution at an anti-Darwin forum in Greenville, S.C., last week.


Many scientists have been reluctant to engage in a debate with advocates of intelligent design because to do so would legitimize the claim that there's a meaningful debate about evolution. "I'm concerned about implying that there is some sort of scientific argument going on. There's not," says noted British biologist Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford University, whose most recent book about evolution is The Ancestor's Tale. He and other scientists say advocates of intelligent design do not play by the rules of science. They do not publish papers in peer-reviewed journals, and their hypothesis cannot be tested by research and the study of evidence. Indeed, Behe concedes, "You can't prove intelligent design by an experiment." Dawkins compares the idea of teaching intelligent-design theory with teaching flat earthism-- perfectly fine in a history class but not in science. He says, "If you give the idea that there are two schools of thought within science--one that says the earth is round and one that says the earth is flat--you are misleading children."

But the strategy of disengagement may be backfiring on those who care about teaching evolution. When scientists and science teachers boycotted the discussion of biology standards at a Kansas school-board meeting last May, they left the floor wide open to critics of evolution, who won the day. "Are they wilting young maids that can't stand the heat of a hearing?" asks Washington attorney Edward Sisson, who was a co-counsel for the 23 academics who testified on the anti-Darwin side.

Scientists say it is, in fact, easy to gainsay the intelligent-design folks. Take Behe's argument about complexity, for example. "Evolution by natural selection is a brilliant answer to the riddle of complexity because it is not a theory of chance," explains Dawkins. "It is a theory of gradual, incremental change over millions of years, which starts with something very simple and works up along slow, gradual gradients to greater complexity. Not only is it a brilliant solution to the riddle of complexity; it is the only solution that has ever been proposed." To attribute nature's complexity to an intelligent designer merely removes the origin of complexity to the unseen designer. "Who designs the designer?" asks Dawkins.

As for gaps in the fossil record, Dawkins says, that is like detectives complaining that they can't account for every minute of a crime--a very ancient one--based on what they found at the scene. "You have to make inferences from footprints and other types of evidence." As it happens, he notes, there is a huge amount of evidence of evolution not only in the fossil record but also in the letters of the genetic code shared in varying degrees by all species. "The pattern," says Dawkins, "is precisely what you would expect if evolution would happen." Dawkins insists that critics of Darwin are wrong to say that evolution has become an article of faith among scientists. He cites biologist J.B.S. Haldane who, when asked what would disprove evolution, replied, fossil rabbits in the Precambrian era, a period more than 540 million years ago, when life on Earth seems to have consisted largely of bacteria, algae and plankton. "Creationists are fond of saying that there are very few fossils in the Precambrian, but why would there be?" asks Dawkins. "However, if there was a single hippo or rabbit in the Precambrian, that would completely blow evolution out of the water. None have ever been found."

Mathematical arguments against evolution are equally misguided, says Martin Nowak, a Harvard professor of mathematics and evolutionary biology. "You cannot calculate the probability that an eye came about," he says. "We don't have the information to make this calculation." Nowak, who describes himself as a person of faith, sees no contradiction between Darwin's theory and belief in God. "Science does not produce any evidence against God," he observes. "Science and religion ask different questions."


But for those who read Genesis literally and believe that God created the world along with all creatures big and small in just six days, there's no reconciling faith with Darwinism. And polls indicate that approximately 45% of Americans believe that. It's no wonder that almost one-third of the 1,050 teachers who responded to a National Science Teachers Association online survey in March said they had felt pressured by parents and students to include lessons on intelligent design, creationism or other nonscientific alternatives to evolution in their science classes; 30% noted that they felt pressured to omit evolution or evolution-related topics from their curriculum.

But some science teachers voluntarily take alternative theories to class. Eric Schweain has been teaching high school biology in St. Louis, Mo., for a decade. Although he follows the district's policy of teaching Darwin's theory, he also talks about intelligent design, an idea he personally favors. "I teach according to fossil evidence, though I make sure to tell students that it's important to talk to family and friends and, if you go to a church, talk to your clergy."

The standards movement in education has, overall, strengthened the teaching of evolution, even as it has presented a new target for anti-Darwinists. In 2000, 10 states had no mention of evolution in their curriculum standards. Now only Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi and Oklahoma--states with long creationist traditions--make this omission. In June, Alaska's state board of education was pressured by scientists, teachers and concerned citizens to add evolution to science standards that had avoided the topic. Other states, most notably Kansas and New Mexico, have wobbled on whether to teach evolution, deleting and then restoring it to state standards depending on who was elected to the school board. The Kansas reinstatement occurred after the state was given an F- in a 2000 report by the Fordham Foundation, titled "Good Science, Bad Science: Teaching Evolution in the States." Only 24 states earned an A or B for teaching the topic well. Kansas' flunking grade was based on the fact that, at the time, it had not only cut Darwin from the curriculum but had also deleted all references to the age of the earth and universe. Now evolution is back in the Kansas curriculum, but a new, more conservative board is seeking a teach-the-controversy requirement.

The new, presumably Constitution-proof way of providing coverage for communities that wish to teach ideas like intelligent design is to employ such earnest language as "critical inquiry" (in New Mexico), "strengths and weaknesses" of theories (Texas), and "critical analysis" (Ohio). It's difficult to argue against such benign language, but hard-core defenders of Darwin are wary. "The intelligent-design people are trying to mislead people into thinking that the reference to science as an ongoing critical inquiry permits them to teach I.D. crap in the schools," says David Thomas, president of New Mexicans for Science and Reason. On the other hand, tinkering in that way with the standards won't necessarily weaken instruction on evolution. "Where you have strong science programs now, they'll ignore the [state] standards," says Bill Wagnon, a professor of history at Washburn University who represents Topeka on the Kansas school board.

The new school year is certain to bring more battles over teaching evolution, not only in Kansas and Pennsylvania but also in the many states that are preparing new standards-based tests in science. By raising the profile of intelligent design, the President has doubtless emboldened those who differ with Darwin and furthered one goal of that movement: he has taught all of us the controversy. --With reporting by Melissa August/ Washington, Jeremy Caplan/ New York, Jeff Chu and Constance E. Richards/ Greenville, Rita Healy/ Denver, Christopher Maag/ Cleveland, Bud Norman/ Wichita, Adam Pitluk/ Dallas, Jeffrey Ressner/ Los Angeles and Sean Scully/ Philadelphia

Education: Now, A Few Words from the Wise

Monday, Jun. 22, 1987

Education: Now, A Few Words from the Wise

Commencements are largely family affairs; this year's graduation ceremonies produced signal variations on the homey theme. At Boston University, Chief Justice William Rehnquist presented a law degree to his son James, who had been presented with a daughter by his wife the day before. Democratic Senator Bob Graham confessed having had trouble coming up with a theme for his address at the University of Florida until Daughter Cissy, who would receive a master's degree that day, offered a suggestion: how to get a job. At Loyola College in Baltimore, a well-known husband-and-wife team, Bob and Dolores Hope, was awarded honorary doctoral degrees -- his 53rd, in acknowledgment of which he dropped a chestnut: "Now that I am a doctor, at least I can get on the golf course on Wednesdays." At Vassar, Playwright John Guare and his spouse Designer Adele Chatfield-Taylor both spoke, after flipping a coin to see who would go first. (She did.) In a boisterous, though notably erudite, bit of counterpoint to the family theme, graduates of Harvard's School of Public Health tossed into the air hundreds of condoms encased in envelopes that bore the Latin message ad venerem securiorem. Translation: "for safe sex." Herewith a sampling of other, more formal messages to the Class of '87 from commencement speakers around the nation:

ABC Nightline Moderator Ted Koppel at Duke University, Durham, N.C.: We have actually convinced ourselves that slogans will save us. Shoot up if you must, but use a clean needle. Enjoy sex whenever and with whomever you wish, but wear a condom. No! The answer is no. Not because it isn't cool or smart or because you might end up in jail or dying in an AIDS ward, but no because it's wrong, because we have spent 5,000 years as a race of rational human beings, trying to drag ourselves out of the primeval slime by searching for truth and moral absolutes. In its purest form, truth is not a polite tap on the shoulder. It is a howling reproach. What Moses brought down from Mount Sinai were not the Ten Suggestions.

/ The Rev. Lawrence Jenco, released last year after being held 19 months as hostage by Lebanese terrorists, at Marist College, Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Three months prior to my release, Said, one of my captors, sat on the edge of my mat and said, "Do you forgive me?" to which I responded, "Yes, Said, I do forgive you and ask your forgiveness too." For there were times when I was filled with anger and hate. And on the evening of my release, Haj ((another captor)), quoting from my letter home to my loved ones, said, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." I could not help but think these were the words of Jesus, who died in peace and returns to his disciples not with anger or retaliation against them, but with the simple greeting of "Peace be with you."

Humorist Calvin Trillin at Beloit College, Beloit, Wis.: I have divided up the United States into two sections. One section is the part of the U.S. that had major league baseball before the Second World War. That's the ancien U.S., and the rest of the U.S. is the rest of the U.S. That's the second part that's called the expansion-team U.S. -- where we stand today. The way you can tell the difference is that the old U.S. still has regular European ethnic neighborhoods, and in an Italian restaurant in the ancien U.S., the waiters have names like Sal and Vinnie. But if you go to a restaurant that's an Italian restaurant and the waiter's name is Dwayne, you're in the expansion- team U.S.

Actress Joanne Woodward at the College of the Atlantic, Bar Harbor, Me.: Age has given me the arrogance and experience has given me the urgency to tell you what time looks like from this side of the river. My generation was the first to know we might not have any time at all, and yours was the first to be born knowing it. With each second you have after this one, you have to find a way to guarantee that time itself can live. We must choose to be custodians of this lovely planet that suckled us and led us peaceably forward with all the rest of nature for millions of years and could go on for its allotted billions more if we tell our time what to do. Otherwise, time and the earth could go out like a candle.

Conservative Columnist William F. Buckley Jr. at St. Thomas College, St. Paul, Minn.: I think we need a democratic Anti-Defamation League, and I urge you to found such an institute. ((It)) would monitor and hand down grades to men and women responsible for political utterances -- whether delivered over radio, television, orally before a live audience, or written in books or billboards. I would like to see your democratic Anti-Defamation League defend the honor of democracy by attacking those who abuse that venerable convention of self- government by public travesties of even semi-orderly thought. How fine if we succeeded in convincing American voters that an index to the political health of the nation depended not on the density of the vote but on the thoughtfulness of it.

Feminist Barbara Ehrenreich at Reed College, Portland, Ore.: One question that I can answer is the question, Is there a man shortage? And the answer is no! There is not a man shortage. There is actually a man excess. Look at the House of Representatives. Look at the Senate. Look at the tenured faculty in any American college. And you will see an appalling man excess, which means a woman shortage. So for all the young women graduating today, I want to say you have your work cut out for you.

Former Senator J. William Fulbright at the University of Miami, Coral Gables, Fla.: There's no way of eradicating the knowledge of nuclear weapons from the human race. Some way, therefore, must be found to change the attitudes of the people who wish to use them. The educational exchange program is not a panacea, but it's the right way to approach the problem. Instead of expecting to restrain forever the capacity to wage war, you've got to change the attitude of the people who control these warmaking machines and who make the decisions to use them. We have to understand the Russians, among others, and ourselves better than we have in the past.

Democratic Representative Michael Espy, the first black elected to Congress from Mississippi since Reconstruction, at Jackson State University, Jackson, Miss.: In the area of civil and human rights, it is said that your class and your generation are tired, that you have no appreciation for what your parents and grandparents went through to get you here. I don't believe this is true. I've talked with you. I visited your classes. You know that racism and discrimination have not vanished into history, that they are as much in the present as in the past, and that your goal is to not let it pass into the future. You know that as long as our children are denied equal access to the American Dream, your work must go on.

Science-Fiction Writer Ray Bradbury at Harvey Mudd College, Claremont, Calif.: * Sometimes we need to fuse our lives again with those people who seem at times to be antagonists -- you young men especially, because it is hard for us men to profess our love. It is quite often very difficult for your fathers and for you. So for you young men, when the ceremony is over, I want you to run over to the old man. Grab him, hug him and kiss him and say, "Dad, I love you and I thank you for all the years." That's part of the ceremony. I demand that of you when this is all over. It will save you a lot of trouble getting to know your father ten years from now.

Pulitzer-Prizewinning Historian Michael Kammen (Children of Paradox) at the University of Louisville: You must keep in mind that the meaning of personal liberty has altered repeatedly over time, in part because the concept is not explicitly mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. Insofar as it has variously meant liberty of conscience, opposition to chattel slavery, freedom from physical restraint, freedom of political association, freedom from surveillance where no threat to the state is involved, and a right to privacy that includes control over one's body, it has drawn upon both of the great traditions of liberty in the history of Western thought: negative freedom as well as positive freedom, freedom from as well as freedom to.

Lake Wobegone Chronicler Garrison Keillor at Gettysburg College, Gettysburg, Pa.: Being a parent is not something that people ever feel confident or secure about. When you were tiny children, we started to read about tremendous advances in prenatal education. And when you got a little bit older, we started reading great books about early childhood and fantastic things that parents can do. We've always been a step behind in bringing you up . . . We wanted to bring you up with information about sex that we never had. Our parents only told us that if we listened to rock 'n' roll, we would have babies -- and they were right. You are them."

Author Joan Didion (Play It as It Lays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem) at Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.: What I want to tell you today is not to move into that world where you're alone with your self and your mantra and your fitness program or whatever it is that you might use to try to control the world by closing it out. I want to tell you to just live in the mess. Throw yourself out into the convulsions of the world. I'm not telling you to make the world better, because I don't believe progress is necessarily part of the package. I'm just telling you to live in it, to look at it, to witness it. Try and get it. Take chances, make your own work, take pride in it. Seize the moment.

Retired Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, developer of COBOL, the most widely used computer business language, at Trinity College, Washington: There's always been change, there always will be change . . . It's to our young people that I look for the new ideas. No computer is ever going to ask a new, reasonable question. It takes trained people to do that. And if we're going to move toward those things we'd like to have, we must have the young people to ask the new, reasonable questions. A ship in port is safe; but that is not what ships are built for. And I want every one of you to be good ships and sail out and do the new things and move us toward the future.

Harvard Professor Robert Coles, child psychiatrist and author (Children of Crisis), at St. Joseph College, West Hartford, Conn.: Now our children are witnesses to scandal in politics, scandal in business, scandal in religion, cheap sleaze all over our newspapers. What is wrong with a decent and honorable country that has to go through this kind of great depression? One can only hope and pray for all of us that we will yet again find our way and be worthy of what this country is all about: a decent respect for people, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And an end, perhaps, to the phoniness and corruption that we have been witness to in recent times.

Television Talk Show Host Oprah Winfrey at Tennessee State University, Nashville: It is always difficult to be meaningful and relevant, because there's just not enough time. Time to think seriously is hard to come by. I have been working all this past week in Los Angeles on a new television pilot for a prime-time series. I left the taping at 4 o'clock this morning your time, chartered a plane and flew all morning to get here by 10. So I just want to tell you, if I fall asleep, don't worry, don't panic and don't disturb me.,9171,964745,00.html

Are the Bible's Stories True? Archaeology's Evidence

Monday, Dec. 18, 1995

Are the Bible's Stories True? Archaeology's Evidence

In another part of the world, it would have been a straightforward public-works project. A highway was too narrow to handle the increasing flow of traffic, so the authorities brought in heavy equipment to widen it. Partway through the job, however, a road-leveling tractor uncovered the opening to a cave no one knew was there. Work came to an immediate halt, and within hours a scientific swat team descended on the site to study it.

That's the law in Israel, where civilization goes back at least 5,000 years and where a major archaeological find could be lurking under any given square foot of real estate. Just about every empire since the beginning of Western history has occupied these lands, or fought over them, or at least passed through — Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, Romans, Turks, Crusaders — leaving behind buildings or burial places or artifacts. Which is why there were about 300 active digs this year in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza — an area no bigger than New Jersey. (See 10 surprising facts about the world's oldest Bible.)

It's also a major reason why Israel has seized the opportunity to stage "Jerusalem 3000," a 17-month festival of art, music and archaeological exhibitions commemorating the 3,000th anniversary of the city's original conquest by the ancient Israelites. The festival, which opened in September, admittedly has more to do with luring tourists than with unraveling ancient history. And it has heightened resentment among Palestinian Arabs, who insist that Jerusalem belongs to them and fear that the Israelis' passion for excavating everything in sight threatens Islamic holy sites in the city, around the country and in surrounding areas.

But the celebration serves as a reminder that the region has witnessed a very special sort of history. For nearly 3 billion Jews, Christians and Muslims, this is the Holy Land, the place where the Bible and Koran say Jesus and Abraham and King David and King Solomon all walked the earth. Each spadeful of dirt an archaeologist turns up could yield evidence about how, and even whether, these and other biblical figures actually lived. As Hannukah and Christmas approach, believers around the world are attuned more than ever to the significance of archaeological finds of the past century, and especially the past few years, in establishing the reality of the events underlying their faith.

Some of the Bible's most familiar names, places and events, in fact — the Patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; King David, the slayer of Goliath; Moses and the Israelites' flight from bondage in Egypt; Joshua's conquest of the Promised Land and the gloomy prophecies of Jeremiah — are being seen in a new light thanks to a flood of recent discoveries. And archaeologists are always seeking new evidence that might help resolve some still-unanswered questions: Did Moses really exist? Did the Exodus happen? Did Joshua fight the Battle of Jericho? Did Jesus drive out the money changers? When — and why — were the earliest books of the Bible written?

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At first, the Israelis who excavated the newly uncovered cave by the highway thought they'd found just that sort of evidence. Inside the rocky opening, located about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem, were 23 burial containers filled with bones. A hasty analysis seemed to show that letters on one stone box spelled out part of the name Hasmonean, a family of Jewish patriots, also known as the Maccabees, whose encounter with a miraculous oil lamp is now celebrated in the lighting of Hannukah candles.

For the first time, it appeared, there was physical proof that this legendary family, known only from the words of the Apocrypha, actually existed. The discovery, announced last month, set off an international wave of excitement (and protests from ultra-Orthodox Jews, who believe that any tampering with human remains violates Jewish law). Then, two weeks ago, came disappointing word from the Israeli Antiquities Authority: the letters on the crypt had been misinterpreted. There is no reason to believe these were the bones of the Maccabees after all.

Such are the frustrations of life in the scientific minefields of biblical archaeology. Digging up the past is always a tricky business, as researchers attempt to reconstruct ancient societies from often fragmentary bits of pottery or statuary or masonry. But trying to identify artifacts from Old Testament times in the Holy Land is especially problematic. For one thing, virtually no written records survive from the times of King Solomon or earlier. The ancient Israelites, unlike many of their neighbors, evidently wrote mostly on perishable papyrus rather than durable clay.

Moreover, the whole subject is touchy because almost everyone has a stake in Scripture. Jewish and Christian ultraconservatives don't like hearing that parts of the Bible could be fictional. Atheists can't wait to prove that the whole thing is a fairy tale. And even for the moderate majority, the Bible underlies so much of Western culture that it matters a great deal whether its narratives are grounded in truth.

For every discovery like the Maccabees' burial cave that doesn't pan out, there seems to be another that does. Few scholars believe that miracles like Moses' burning bush or Jesus' resurrection will ever be proved scientifically; they are, after all, supernatural events. Conversely, few doubt that the characters in the latter part of the Old Testament and most of the New — Nebuchadnezzar, Jeremiah, Jesus, Peter — really existed, though some will always doubt parts of their stories.

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But a series of crucial discoveries suggests that some of the Bible's more ancient tales are also based firmly on real people and events. In 1990, Harvard researchers working in the ancient city of Ashkelon, north of the Gaza Strip, unearthed a small silver-plated bronze calf figurine reminiscent of the huge golden calf mentioned in the Book of Exodus. In 1986, archaeologists found the earliest known text of the Bible, dated to about 600 B.C. It suggests that at least part of the Old Testament was written soon after some of the events it describes. Also in 1986, scholars identified an ancient seal that had belonged to Baruch, son of Neriah, a scribe who recorded the prophecies of Jeremiah in 587 B.C. (Because Jews and Muslims don't consider the birth of Christ to be a defining moment in history, many scholars prefer the term B.C.E. to B.C. It stands for either "Before the Christian Era" or "Before the Common Era.") Says Hershel Shanks, founding editor of the influential magazine Biblical Archaeology Review: "Seldom does archaeology come face to face with people actually mentioned in the Bible."

In what may be the most important of these discoveries, a team of archaeologists uncovered a 9th century B.C. inscription at an ancient mound called Tel Dan, in the north of Israel, in 1993. Words carved into a chunk of basalt refer to the "House of David" and the "King of Israel." It is the first time the Jewish monarch's name has been found outside the Bible, and appears to prove he was more than mere legend.

On the other hand, say many scholars, much of what is recorded in the Bible is at best distorted, and some characters and events are probably totally fictional. Most scholars suspect that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Judaism's traditional founders, never existed; many doubt the tales of slavery in Egypt and the Exodus; and relatively few modern historians believe in Joshua's conquest of Jericho and the rest of the Promised Land. In the most extreme view, all of the above are complete fabrications, invented centuries after the supposed fact.

These discoveries and theories, and many more, are vigorously contested on all sides by archaeologists, religious scholars and historians. On some things just about everyone agrees. The Bible version of Israelite history after the reign of King Solomon, for example, is generally believed to be based on historical fact because it is corroborated by independent accounts of Kings and battles in Egyptian and Assyrian inscriptions of the time.

Prior to that, though — before about 930 B.C. — the experts disagree on just about everything. At one pole in this scholarly version of Crossfire is the group known as the maximalists, who consider the Bible a legitimate guidebook for archaeological research. At the other are the minimalists, or biblical nihilists, who believe the Bible is a religious document and thus can't be read as any sort of objective account. "They say of Bible material, 'If it cannot be proved to be historical it's not historical,' " explains Frank Moore Cross, professor emeritus of Oriental languages at Harvard, who puts himself somewhere in the middle.

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First maximalists, then minimalists, have dominated biblical archaeology at one time or another. For early explorers, who began visiting the Holy Land in earnest in the middle of the last century, the Bible was — well, their Bible. The first serious researcher was Edward Robinson, an orientalist at New York City's Union Theological Seminary. In 1837 and 1852 he journeyed to Palestine and identified hundreds of ancient sites by questioning Arabs, who had preserved the traditional names for centuries. Robinson pinpointed Masada. He found a monumental arch supporting the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. "He did more than anybody before or after for biblical topography," says Magen Broshi, curator emeritus of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Robinson's excursions set off a wave of exploration that has never let up. Many of the early visitors weren't close to being objective; they were out to vindicate the Bible as history, not to test it. Toward the end of the century, that led to a backlash, especially among liberal German Bible critics. Their equally preconceived position was that the Bible is essentially a myth.

The pendulum swung the other way again in the 1920s, when William Foxwell Albright appeared on the scene. A professor of Semitic languages at Johns Hopkins and the son of a Methodist missionary, he took a much more scientific approach than most of his predecessors. Rather than assume that the Bible was either entirely accurate or completely fictional, he attempted to confirm Old Testament stories with independent archaeological evidence. And under his considerable influence, biblical archaeology finally became a disciplined and scientific enterprise.

Although he was prepared to see the Bible proved wrong in its particulars, Albright assumed it was accurate until proved otherwise. He assumed the existence of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, for example, and then used circumstantial physical evidence to deduce that they probably lived around 1800 B.C. He accepted the idea of the Exodus from Egypt and military conquest of Canaan (Palestine), and went on to date those events at about 1200 B.C.

Albright's intellectual heirs, including Israeli archaeologists Avraham Biran and the late Yigael Yadin, made similar assumptions. Said Yadin a few years before his death in 1984: "The Old Testament for me is a guide. It is the authentic history of my people." The Bible says, for example, that King Solomon fortified the cities of Hazor, Gezer and Megiddo during his reign. Sure enough, Yadin went out in the late 1950s and found a city gate at the ruins of Hazor, and dated it to Solomon's time, in the 10th century B.C. When he found that early explorers had discovered a similar-looking gate at Gezer, he assigned that to Solomon's era too. And because the Bible mentions Megiddo in the same breath with the other cities, he looked for — and conveniently found — a third gate at Megiddo, and concluded that Solomon had built them all.

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Modern critics point out that this approach can be scientifically perilous. Says John Woodhead, assistant director of the British School of Archaeology in Jerusalem: "It's a circular argument. Yadin used the data to prove the verse, and the verse to prove the dating of the cities." In fact, says David Ussishkin, director of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology, the gates at the the three cities don't come from a single period at all. "Hazor is probably Solomonic," he says. "Megiddo is definitely later. Gezer is either/or."

In the case of the Patriarchs, the problems are even worse. There is no direct evidence, other than the Bible, to suggest that Abraham's exploits — his rejection of idolatry, his travels to Canaan, his rescue of his nephew Lot from kidnappers in the Canaanite city of Laish (later renamed Dan) — ever happened. And critics contend that several of the kings and peoples Abraham supposedly encountered existed at widely separated times in history.

In reaction to these and other inconsistencies arising from overreliance on the Bible, a second wave of superskeptics emerged over the past five years. At last month's annual meeting in Philadelphia of the Society of Biblical Literature and the American Academy of Religion, the pre-eminent conference on Bible scholarship in the world, they were out in force. And while there were differences among what individual scholars believed, radical minimalist John Van Seters of the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, summed up many of their commonly held positions. The oldest books of the Old Testament, he declared with Pope-like confidence, weren't written until the Israelites were in exile in Babylon, after 587 B.C. There was no Moses, no crossing of the sea, no revelation on Mount Sinai.

Just as the believers had to yield in the face of evidence that contradicts their assumptions, though, so have the naysayers. It's a truism in archaeology that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. Digging up the past is a hit-or-miss proposition. And one hit can demolish a mountain of skepticism. Among the discoveries that strengthen the Bible's claim to historical accuracy:

In 1979 Israeli archaeologist Gabriel Barkay found two tiny silver scrolls inside a Jerusalem tomb. They were dated to around 600 B.C., shortly before the destruction of Solomon's Temple and the Israelites' exile in Babylon. When scientists carefully unrolled the scrolls at the Israel Museum, they found a benediction from the Book of Numbers etched into their surface. The discovery made it clear that parts of the Old Testament were being copied long before some skeptics had believed they were even written.

In 1986 archaeologists revealed that several lumps of figured clay called bullae, bought from Arab dealers in 1975, had once been used to mark documents. Nahman Avigad of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem identified the impressions stamped into one piece of clay as coming from the seal of Baruch, son of Neriah, a scribe who recorded the doomsday proclamations of the prophet Jeremiah. Another bore the seal of Yerahme'el, son of King Jehoiakim's son, who the Book of Jeremiah says was sent on an unsuccessful mission to arrest both prophet and scribe — again confirming the existence of biblical characters.

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In 1990 Frank Yurco, an Egyptologist at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, used hieroglyphic clues from a monolith known as the Merneptah Stele to identify figures in a Luxor wall relief as ancient Israelites. The stele itself, dated to 1207 B.C., celebrates a military victory by the Pharaoh Merneptah. "Israel is laid waste," it reads, suggesting that the Israelites were a distinct population more than 3,000 years ago, and not just because the Bible tells us so.

In 1993 Avraham Biran of Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion and Joseph Naveh of the Hebrew University announced they had found an inscription bearing the phrases "House of David" and "King of Israel." The writing — dated to the 9th century B.C., only a century after David's reign — described a victory by a neighboring King over the Israelites. Some minimalists tried to argue that the inscription might have been misread, but most experts believe Biran and Naveh got it right. The skeptics' claim that King David never existed is now hard to defend.

Last year the French scholar Andre Lemaire reported a related "House of David" discovery in Biblical Archaeology Review. His subject was the Mesha Stele (also known as the Moabite Stone), the most extensive inscription ever recovered from ancient Palestine. Found in 1868 at the ruins of biblical Dibon and later fractured, the basalt stone wound up in the Louvre, where Lemaire spent seven years studying it. His conclusion: the phrase "House of David" appears there as well. As with the Tel Dan fragment, this inscription comes from an enemy of Israel boasting of a victory — King Mesha of Moab, who figured in the Bible. Lemaire had to reconstruct a missing letter to decode the wording, but if he's right, there are now two 9th century references to David's dynasty.

Having seen science confirm the Bible in some instances and tear it down in others, most scholars have edged toward a middle-of-the-road position. As the Biblical Archaeology Review's Shanks puts it, "You can't look at the text literally. It wasn't written as modern history is written. But on the other hand, it's certainly not made up."

While most archaeologists agree with Shanks' sentiments in principle, that still leaves plenty of room for disagreement over parts of the Old Testament where the evidence is contradictory or still absent, including slavery in Egypt, the existence of Moses, the Exodus and Joshua's military conquest of the Holy Land. The Bible's accounts of these people and events are among the most familiar stories in the Old Testament. But even scholars who believe they really happened admit that there's no proof whatsoever that the Exodus took place. No record of this monumental event appears in Egyptian chronicles of the time, and Israeli archaeologists combing the Sinai during intense searches from 1967 to 1982 — years when Israel occupied the peninsula — didn't find a single piece of evidence backing the Israelites' supposed 40-year sojourn in the desert.

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The story involves so many miracles — plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, manna from heaven, the giving of the Ten Commandments — that some critics feel the whole story has the flavor of pure myth. A massive exodus that led to the drowning of Pharaoh's army, says Father Anthony Axe, Bible lecturer at Jerusalem's Ecole Biblique, would have reverberated politically and economically through the entire region. And considering that artifacts from as far back as the late Stone Age have turned up in the Sinai , it is perplexing that no evidence of the Israelites' passage has been found. William Dever, a University of Arizona archaeologist, flatly calls Moses a mythical figure. Some scholars even insist the story was a political fabrication, invented to unite the disparate tribes living in Canaan through a falsified heroic past.

Unlike the Exodus, the story of Joshua and the conquest of Canaan can be tested against a rich archaeological record. The scientific consensus: bad news for the biblical account. According to the Book of Joshua, the Israelite leader and his armies swept into Canaan, destroying cities including Jericho, Hazor and Ai, after which the Israelites settled the land.

Archaeology tells a more complicated tale. Historians generally agree that Joshua's conquest would have taken place in the 13th century B.C. But British researcher Kathleen Kenyon, who excavated at Jericho for six years, found no evidence of destruction at that time. Indeed, says Dead Sea Scrolls curator emeritus Broshi, "the city was deserted from the beginning of the 15th century until the 11th century B.C." So was Ai, say Broshi and others. And so, according to archaeological surveys, was most of the land surrounding the cities. Says Broshi: "The central hill regions of Judea and Samaria were practically uninhabited. The Israelites didn't have to kill and burn to settle."

Instead, argues Tel Aviv University archaeologist Israel Finkelstein, the settlement of the Promised Land was a gradual process over a long period, and involved people both from within Canaan and from outside. "Some came from the Hittite country, some from the desert to the east and some from the south," he says. "I would also accept the idea that a core emanated from Egypt, and these people brought with them the idea of monotheism." Only after they had united in a sort of tribal league did they become the Israelites, and while they undoubtedly fought their neighbors for territory, it was only after they were firmly established in Canaan. An alternate theory: the Israelites were simply a breakaway group of Canaanites fed up with the existing society.

Just because most scholars no longer accept Joshua's war of conquest, though, doesn't mean the question is settled by any means. Conservatives have plenty of ideas about how the tide could swing back to a more biblical interpretation. Experts like Abraham Malamat, a biblical historian at the Hebrew University, suggest that no evidence exists of destruction at Ai, for example, because the city was in a different location 3,000 years ago. Bryant Wood, director of the pro-Bible Associates for Biblical Research, insists that his own research supports Joshua's assault on Jericho. Perhaps, he suggests, Kathleen Kenyon was biased, or just got it wrong.

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Defenders of the Exodus story have theories too, though their case remains circumstantial. There's no Egyptian record of the Israelites' departure, they suggest, because the losers would never have recorded such a major defeat. People may have been looking in the wrong part of the Sinai for remains of the Israelites' wandering, or perhaps the Israelis were in northwest Arabia all along. Anyway, say many scholars, what nation would falsely claim to have been enslaved?

Even the widely accepted notion that the Patriarchs were mythical figures has been challenged. Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen of the University of Liverpool offered what has been called an "extraordinary demonstration" in Biblical Archaeology Review earlier this year that the stories about Abraham are plausible. Drawing on nonbiblical records, Kitchen argued that everything from the quoted price of slaves to the style of warfare to the laws of inheritance in Abraham's day is amazingly consistent with the Bible accounts.

Is he right? Most scholars don't think so, but one crucial discovery — an independent, ancient chronicle of Abraham's wanderings, perhaps — could change their minds in an instant. Similarly, a single discovery could erase all doubts about the Exodus or the sacking of Jericho or just about anything else in the Bible. And new Bible-related discoveries and theories crop up all the time. Early next year, Biblical Archaeology Review will be reporting on two of them. The first is another impression of the scribe Baruch's seal, this one with a fingerprint on the edge that was presumably made by Baruch himself. The second is an analysis that claims to fix the precise location where the Ark of the Covenant (the "Lost Ark" of Raiders fame) was stored. That's sure to be controversial; the author contends that it must have been placed in a rectangular indentation on the outcropping beneath the Dome of the Rock, the sacred Muslim shrine on the Temple Mount.

All of these finds are useful and interesting. But what scholars truly yearn for — what might even be called the Holy Grail of biblical archaeology — is a royal archive from before the time of King David or King Solomon. No such archive has ever been located inside Israel, although surrounding countries have yielded many from the same era. Sighs Amnon Ben-Tor, a Hebrew University archaeologist: "It's like striking oil. Everywhere but here."

Many scholars believe the archive must exist, though, and Yigael Yadin even thought he knew where it was: in the ancient city of Hazor, in northern Galilee. At his death, Yadin was planning a major dig there to find the clay tablets he was sure lay hidden beneath the surface. His protege, Ben-Tor, has inherited the project. To date, Ben-Tor has found only a few uninformative tablets. But Hazor is the largest biblical site in the country, and it will take years of digging to explore it fully.

If and when Ben-Tor or his successors locate the archive, the effect on biblical scholarship would be be profound. Instead of relying on half-legible inscriptions and fragments of clay and stone, historians would suddenly have access to huge amounts of information, set down not to advance religious ideas but to record secular events. The historical accuracy of much of the Bible could be settled, one way or the other, almost at a stroke.

Many professional archaeologists maintain that such questions are irrelevant. Says the British School of Archaeology's Woodhead: "I'm not interested in whether there was a David or a Solomon. I'm interested in reconstructing society: what was traded in clay pots, whether the pots or the contents were traded, where the clay was from ... I don't deal with the Bible at all." And even those who do deal with the Bible insist that their emphasis is science, not Scripture. Says Broshi: "Archaeology throws light on the Bible. It has no business trying to prove it."

Yet for ordinary Jews and Christians, it's impossible to maintain scientific detachment about ancient clay pots and fallen stones and inscriptions being dug up in the Holy Land. Hundreds of millions of people grew up listening to Bible stories, and even those who haven't set foot in a church or synagogue for years still carry with them the lessons of these stirring tales of great deeds, great evil, great miracles and great belief. Many may be able to accept the proposition that some of the Bible is fictional. But they are still deeply gratified to learn that much of it appears to be based on fact. Says Harvard's Cross: "To suggest that many things in the Bible are not historical is not too serious. But to lose biblical history altogether is to lose our tradition."

Reported by Marlin Levin and Felice Maranz / Jerusalem and Richard N. Ostling / Philadelphia