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Karen Armstrong
What is God? We went to the Parliament of the World's Religions in Barcelona and asked people from all major religions. Here's what they said. (Broadband only.)

Karen Armstrong's mega-bestselling book A History of God revealed just about everything you'd want to know about God--with one possible exception: Does Armstrong, a former nun, believe in Him? Armstrong's answer is... well, not as direct as you might hope. She says she doesn't like to talk about belief. Yet the more she talks, the clearer it becomes that she actually does believe in... something. And if it isn't the anthropomorphic God found in much ancient scripture, Armstrong says this more modern-sounding conception of the divine does nonetheless go back to ancient times. In her latest book, The Great Transformation, she traces it to a burst of enlightenment during the "axial age," in the first millennium BCE.

mini_question (1K)According to the New Testament, Jesus was born as a sign of God's love for humanity--sent to Earth so that "whoever believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life," as the gospel of John puts it. Over the years, this prerequisite for admission to heaven--believing that Christ died for your sins--has been a strong incentive to become or remain a Christian. But if God really loves humankind, shouldn't He let, say, a good Buddhist or Jew through the pearly gates? God goes further than that, says Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete in this clip from his interview: even atheists are eligible for salvation. This radical reinterpretation of scripture, Albacete notes later in the interview, has now become official Catholic doctrine (unbeknownst even to many Catholics). And it raises a question: Can the world's major religions coexist harmoniously without amending core beliefs--such as the belief that they've been blessed with a uniquely enlightening revelation

mini_question (1K)Can Daniel Dennett, author of Consciousness Explained, really explain consciousness? You make the call ... And speaking of potential ironies: Did the famously atheist Dennett concede that the directionality he sees in evolution is evidence of higher purpose? He now swears he didn't commit this heresy, but he could have fooled me (and did!). Anyway, here's some background on the controversy over what he said in this segment of his interview--along with a dissection of the subtle but momentous question he was answering. And, finally, here's what he said--the full-length videotape version as well as time-saving transcript excerpts.

mini_question (1K)John Maynard Smith, one of the great figures in modern evolutionary biology, died in April of 2004. He was a scientist who tackled very big questions and yet maintained his intellectual humility--appreciating, for example, how mysterious is the very existence of human consciousness. He was also a scientist who anticipated his own death with impressive equanimity.

mini_question (1K)Is mysticism an enemy of rationalism? Omid Safi, speaking from a Muslim point of view, says no. (If you're wondering how a Muslim got to be an authority on mysticism: Don't forget about the Muslims known as Sufis).

mini_question (1K)Is consciousness a mystery--so mysterious as to suggest some higher purpose in the universe? Yes and no, says psychologist Steven Pinker (who more definitively solves the mystery of his hair).

mini_question (1K)Why are the world's religions sometimes at each other's throats? Huston Smith, who wrote the book on them, has an answer, and it's inspiring yet depressing.

mini_question (1K)Can science lead to religion? Well, says Templeton Prize winner Arthur Peacocke, consider the similarity between defining an electron and defining God.

mini_question (1K)Mathematical cosmologist Brian Swimme, who doesn't (quite) believe in God, nonetheless has a way of taking the sting out of death.

mini_question (1K)Does mind pervade the universe? Do individual atoms make choices? Don't laugh, says Freeman Dyson; modern physics is full of such weird possibilities.

mini_question (1K)Not sure if you're living in the moment? Try observing yourself while listening to music, suggests Joseph Goldstein.

mini_question (1K)Some philosophers say they've explained consciousness. Dream on, says Francis Fukuyama.

mini_question (1K)Ever have a religious experience? Andrew Newberg takes pictures of brains that are having them.

mini_question (1K)Do you have trouble meditating? Meditation expert Sharon Salzberg says that's a feature, not a bug.

mini_question (1K)The universe seems exquisitely compatible with life. Why? John Polkinghorne has a theory (hint: unlike most physicists, he's a priest).

mini_question (1K)Why is biological evolution full of death and suffering? Well, says biologist Ursula Goodenough, if you're so smart, let's see you invent a better means of creating intelligent life.

mini_question (1K)Biologist Robert Pollack has a different take on evil--it's just the toxic waste of free will.

mini_question (1K)The world's major religions seem pretty different--irreconcilably so, at times. Look closer, says Keith Ward. (Ward also has a few words for those who think science can answer all questions.)

mini_question (1K)John Haught sees the differences among the world's religions as a bit more stubborn than some would think.

mini_question (1K)Is faith bad for science? Au contraire, says Owen Gingerich.

mini_question (1K)Edward. O. Wilson long ago abandoned the fundamentalist Christianity of his upbringing, but you wouldn't know it to observe his lifestyle. He assiduously avoids vice, stays faithful to his wife, and pursues his calling as if John Calvin were supervising. Here the world-famous biologist explains how to live right without the carrot-and-stick of heaven-and-hell. And it isn't just that he doesn't need the prospect of a blessed afterlife--he doesn't want it. After all, he asks, do you have any idea how monotous eternal bliss would be? Still, he's grateful for what his southern Baptist heritage gave him, notably including zeal.

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