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Author Karen Armstrong talks about religion and violence

I was impressed with the lead-in to this video (follow link in above tweet). The anchor seemed a bit more on the ball than some media anchors, who stumble on their words as if they’ve just heard of some distant country, leader or idea.

Karen Armstrong is well-known within Religious Studies. Anyone who’s taken a graduate course in that area, maybe even undergrads, would know her name. It seems she’s a slightly better author than speaker. But still, what matters is her words, not so much the delivery. And she rightly points out that conflict is caused by a variety of factors—religion only being one of those.



Islam and Christianity share ‘idea of conquest’, says Pope Francis


Perspectives on The Bhagavad Gita

As it Is by Jeremy

As it Is by Jeremy via Flickr

By Michael Clark

To kill or not to kill

Many say The Bhagavad Gita is the Hindu Bible. Among diverse Hindu scriptures, the Gita stands out as a unique gem, synthesizing several core aspects of Hinduism. At least, this is how enthusiasts talk about the Gita. Critics tend to see it as a misguided justification for violence.

The Gita belongs within the Mahabharata, an epic about two warring families. Because of its literary and philosophical sophistication, most scholars believe the Gita was added to the already existing Mahabharata around 450 BCE, approximately 500 years after the original epic was written (circa 1000 BCE).

When it comes to ancient texts, insertions like this are not unusual. Almost all contemporary biblical scholars say that diverse oral traditions and authors run though many Old Testament books formerly believed to be written by just one person.

The story of the Gita is pretty straighforward. The hero, Arjuna, of the virtuous Pandava family, is cheated out of his palace by the wicked Karauva family. As a result, the deity Krishna, seated at the back of Arjuna’s chariot, urges him to fight in a massive battle against the evil Karauvas. Because the Pandavas and Karauvas are kith and kin, the noble Arjuna hesitates when Krishna exhorts him to kill members of the Karauva side of the family.

In response to Arjuna’s hesitation, Krishna launches forth on a metaphysical discourse about sacred duty (dharma) and the immortality of the soul (atman). Krishna says Arjuna is justified in killing because it’s his sacred obligation as a member of the warrior caste (Kshatriya). As a Kshatriya he’s duty-bound to restore a moral balance perilously skewed by the Karauva’s evil ways.

On a metaphysical level, Krishna says that Arjuna would not really be killing because, at the deepest level, the soul is immortal. Arjuna’s spiritual ignorance makes him believe he’d be doing wrong by slaying the Karauvas. In fact, Krishna says physicality is an illusion spun by the web of maya (deception arising from ignorance). Krishna adds that Arjuna’s ignorance must be dispelled before he can attain the clear vision required to do the right thing–that is, to kill the Karauvas.

A psychological interpretation

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada

Lord Krishna Speaks to Arjuna by His Holiness Bhaktiratna Sadhu Swami Gaurangapada via Flickr

Don’t let this brief summary fool you. The Gita is not a mere outburst nor artistic representation of anger. Krishna forwards a detailed philosophical and religious argument advocating the physical killing of human beings. Taken literally, the Gita says killing human beings who disrupt the moral order is not just okay, it’s holy.

Some may agree with this stance, citing rough parallels like the Jewish Holy War, the Christian Just War and the Muslim jihad. Others find it deplorable.

Like any text, literary or not, the Gita must be interpreted. So forgetting the bellicose readings of the Gita, it seems more constructive to interpret the Gita on a psycho-spiritual level. This isn’t a novel approach. Several Indian thinkers have written about the psychological aspects of the Gita. In fact, the great champion of non-violence, Mohandas Gandhi, said the Gita was his favorite book, one that could untie any spiritual knot.

Gandhi’s notion of spiritual knots reminds us that the psyche can be complicated. Some psychologists say that the complexities of the psyche are genetically determined. Behaviorists, on the other hand, say the mind is conditioned by the environment. Most, however, take the middle way by highlighting nature and nurture.

But the analysis shouldn’t stop there. Many theologians from different religions believe that spiritual powers act on our personalities, a perspective often ignored within psychology.

Sri Ramakrishna and C. G. Jung

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa - Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M

Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa – Sri Ramakrishna Ashrama, Mysore by Chetan Hegde M via Flickr

The Indian holy man Sri Ramakrishna says that spiritual enlightenment entails a process of purification. This process is not always easy to endure. For Ramakrishna, the inferior aspects of the personality are purged through the mechanism of suffering.

Ramakrishna gives an analogy of rotten tomatoes. Old tomatoes rot faster, he says, when bashed up and thrown out the window. This might sound enigmatic but Ramakrishna’s analogy might be better understood if we compare it to Carl Jung’s work on psychological suffering within the context of alchemy.

Jung studied ancient and medieval alchemical practices and came to see alchemy as a process of inner transformation. He believed the alchemist’s desire to transform base metals into gold mirrored their psychological transformation. As metals are heated and transformed, the alchemist evolves psychologically.

Some alchemists, no doubt, were hucksters trying to scam zealous aristocrats searching for gold, but others were sincere. The true alchemist sought to create a mystical tonic to cure illness and ensure immortality. But this elixir came through prolonged boilings, just as psycho-spiritual purification entails suffering.

Jung’s view of alchemy parallels Ramakrishna’s take on the Gita because both point to a stormy and painful stage of personal growth.

As we journey through life, people and events tempt or irritate us. During moments of temptation or agitation our lesser qualities can arise. Some accept these personality aspects, leaving them unchanged. For these people it’s not degrading to express their animal – or perhaps evil – nature. It’s just natural, healthy and whole. By way of contrast, potential saints are consumed with the idea of eradicating lower personality traits. Some may even self-flagellate in an attempt to conquer sinful tendencies.

Most of us fall somewhere between those two extremes. Confronted with bad habits or irritating people, we can view that as an opportunity for reflection, knowledge and self-control.

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the...

Apostle Paul. Byzantine mosaic at the cathedral of Monreale. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A psychological interpretation of the Gita views much of life as a battlefield. We are often confronted with antagonistic influences, personalities and opinions. But life isn’t quite that simple. And a psychological interpretation of the Gita, while superior to a literal one, dwells on the abrasive side of human relationships.

However, disharmony is only half the story. Perhaps not even half. Conflicts will always arise. But other people can give us a lift and not just bring us down. And instead of hitting back when people hurt us, shouldn’t we try to overcome our pain and anger through understanding and compassion?

As Saint Paul says:

If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.

If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

1 Corinthians 13:1-2


Krishna, Buddha and Christ: The same or different? (Part 5)

The Holy Spirit as a dove in the Annunciation ...

The Holy Spirit as a dove in the Annunciation by Rubens, 1628 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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A Final Word on Violence

In Christian mysticism, peaceful living and spiritual growth go hand in hand. As the believer increases in perfection and becomes closer to God the soul usually experiences an overall increase in heavenly graces.

The ideal Christian washes not just the outside but the inside of the proverbial cup to receive the pure waters of the Holy Spirit (Matthew 23:26). In this metaphor the cup represents the self, the soul, and the person who ultimately is bound for heaven.

So Christian mysticism never justifies violence but rather, gentleness and humility.

One might object to this claim by citing Joan of Arc, her inner voices apparently coming from God and urging her to lead the French army into battle. But it was the Catholic Church which eventually canonized St. Joan. The New Testament Gospels, themselves, never condone violence.

God or no God?

As noted earlier, religion can get complicated. Whenever one forwards a given assertion, an exception usually arises. On the issue of violence, we might point out the notion of the Just War and, for the matter, the bellicose Old Testament which Catholics embrace as originating in God. Having said that, the New Testament and Buddhist ideals about non-violence clearly differ in the sense that Buddhists do not believe in an ultimate, omnipotent, omniscient and eternal God, while Christians obviously do.

To repeat, Buddhists do not believe in God. Instead, Buddhists normally contextualize the idea of God saying “God” is just another cultural idea to surpass on the road to Nirvana, a journey involving the belief in reincarnation.

In Christianity, however, an unselfish love of one’s enemies arises from inviting the living presence of God to dwell in one’s heart. Happiness isn’t just inside, as so many non-Christians (and even some Christian pop singers) say. Rather, happiness is having a good relationship with God, who ultimately exists beyond the self but also immanent.

Unlike Buddhism, Christian salvation cannot entirely rely on one’s own contemplative efforts because God, and not oneself, is seen as the source of all goodness and being. Some see this ultimate dependence on God as a weakness but from a Christian perspective it’s just the way things are. One can only go so far through one’s own initiative. And that, for many Christians, is a significant limitation for Buddhists and for any New Age thinker who thinks they can reach the highest high through their own efforts.

To complicate things, Buddhism does speak of compassionate and intervening bodhisattvas who dispense graces to seekers along the way. But these exalted beings are not regarded as God. A monotheistic God is never present in Buddhism and at some point even bodhisattvas must be surpassed to enter into the nothingness/fullness of Nirvana, a place where the apparently illusory idea of individuality also vanishes.

Granted, some Christian mystics do talk about losing the self in a boundless ocean of God’s love, but God never disappears from the picture. And it’s doubtful that Christian mystics are advocating a complete loss of individuality. Instead, their metaphors seem more like happy fish in a boundless, beautiful ocean instead of the more Asian notion of drops of water dissolving in the sea.

Heaven and Hell

The Buddhist perception of heaven and hell is related to a discussion about violence and non-violence. Hell isn’t eternal for Buddhists. It’s more like a stopover in a lousy hotel room where one eventually checks out. Likewise with heaven. Heaven is described as a sort of ‘spiritual health spa’ enjoyed between lifetimes. So the reincarnating soul eventually departs from heaven to become fully enlightened. In fact, in Buddhism one encounters numerous heavens and hells before attaining full enlightenment.

Upon attaining enlightenment, Buddhists say the soul realizes it, itself, doesn’t exist. And at this point, even the idea of past lives becomes illusory. After all, how can you have a past life if you never existed?

These are interesting philosophical ideas but a Christian hoping to reach everlasting heaven might wonder if the Buddhist heavens could be astral realms and not heaven as understood within Christianity.

Since Buddhist hells are not eternal, they perhaps would be closer to the Catholic notion of purgatory because for Christians hell is eternal. Nor is the Christian hell a mere way-station or, for that matter, trendy or humorous Hollywood fantasy as portrayed in movies and video games. “See you in hell!“¹

For the vast majority of Christians, hell is just hell, forever and ever. And when it comes to the opposite, namely paradise, the Christian understanding of grace as a living presence that guides believers to everlasting heaven is relativized and absent in Buddhism. True, different Buddhist schools speak of emptiness, fullness and enlightenment. And they mention transitional grace and temporary heavens and hells. But Buddhist do not believe in everlasting heaven and hell as articulated within Christianity. So it stands to reason that the graces that Buddhists speak of are not the same thing that Christians talk about.


This brief comparison indicates that the scriptures and beliefs emerging from Krishna, Buddha and Christ have points of similarity but are not equivalent. As we’ve seen, the Mahabharata speaks of peace but in the Gita Krishna emphasizes holy warfare. By way of contrast, Christ, as part of the Holy Trinity is said to be co-equal with God and the Holy Spirit and, rather than engage in violence, is willing to sacrifice himself on a cross. While non-Christians may see this as misguided and some Buddhists (like D. T. Suzuki) say it’s “distasteful,” for Christians it is the ultimate point. This world is not it, and fighting and killing for material gain is not the way to get to eternal happiness.

We’ve also seen in the above that the Buddha doesn’t believe in God, and Buddhists say that the Buddhist nirvana surpasses the Christian understanding of heaven and hell.

The Hindu Krishna and the Buddha each speak of many lifetimes and associated opportunities for salvation through reincarnation, whereas the Christ of the Gospels entreats disciples to get it right the first time because (presumably) there is no such thing as reincarnation.

To overlook these and other differences may be well-intentioned but it’s also imprecise. And it’s doubtful that a fuzzy, misinformed belief in religious homogeneity will contribute to meaningful dialogue and genuine interfaith harmony. Promising commonalities can be discerned among today’s faith groups, but it will take clear and honest thinking for humanity to walk peacefully into the 21st century and beyond.


© Michael Clark

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Krishna, Buddha and Christ: The same or different? (Part 4)

Corcovado jesus

Corcovado jesus (Photo credit: @Doug88888)

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War and Peace

When interpreted literally, the Gita says Arjuna shouldn’t be upset because his killing is in accord with God’s will. If Arjuna detaches himself from his feelings bad karma will not arise from his violence.

Most Hindus would probably say Arjuna’s not angry on the battlefield. If anything, he’s initially reluctant, almost like a Hamlet who just can’t muster up the gumption to act.

Ultimately, Arjuna does his duty for God, fulfilling his dharma as a kshatriya, a member of the warrior caste. That is, he kills, making the Gita and the New Testament present two remarkably different pictures.

God (as Krishna) in the Gita exhorts Arjuna to engage in violence while God (as Jesus) in the New Testament says that merely thinking murderous thoughts is tantamount to being a murderer worthy of hellfire. In other words, Jesus says don’t even consider violence (1 John 3:15).

But the New Testament goes even further. It calls upon believers to love their enemies, turn the other cheek and pray for those who persecute them.

Because the New Testament doesn’t subscribe to the belief in reincarnation, Christians ideally should try their best to lead good lives, here and now—and not in ten, twenty or a hundred lifetimes down the road.

There’s a difference in both emphasis and direction between these two texts that’s hard to overlook. The Gita affords violence a sort of mythic grandeur, obscuring the harsh realities of blood, guts, pain and death with lofty prose and untenable metaphysical rationalizations, while the New Testament clearly directs believers away from violence.

For Jesus Christ — at least, the Jesus of the New Testament — violence among human beings is unacceptable.

Copyright © Michael Clark.

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Review – World War 1 in Color (DVD)

We will Remember them......

We will Remember them...... by Keven Law

World War 1 in Color is an engaging, upsetting film that opens the door to the Great War of 1914-18 unlike any other documentary on this topic.

What makes this DVD different is its abundance of historical footage. And instead of the usual black and white that we’ve come to expect for this era, the entire film has been expertly colorized.

For those who think that the nightmare of World War II defines all that can go wrong with human beings, this film compels us to think again.

Gripping footage of air, sea and land battles makes this DVD a virtual time machine for those with the stomach to witness the horrific events it portrays.

Leading historians and surviving veterans punctuate the documentary with learned commentary and authentic personal accounts, these augmenting but never overshadowing the fast-paced production.

Much emphasis is given to the history of technological innovation. And a special features section uses CGI to discuss strategy.

Once or twice I felt that the film’s tone was just a bit too gung-ho, almost glorifying the technological aspects of war. After all, these technological changes were all about murdering vast numbers of people as efficiently as possible.

But, for the most part, this is a sensitive treatment of war. And, admittedly, it is fascinating to see how technology advances in the face of adversity.

However, I couldn’t help but think it’s too bad humanity couldn’t marshal its resources in a more constructive way–for instance, to solve current problems like global starvation.

It seems we collectively rise to a challenge when some great threat is about to affect us personally. But if the problem doesn’t immediately endanger us, we often just look the other way.

Perhaps that’s a sad, unspoken statement made by this excellent film, in addition to the obvious one that war is not fun, not glorious, but rather hellish and something to be avoided at all costs.




Can troops find hidden bombs with sixth sense?

"I think it is important. I have an intuition about it." - Wizard Gynoid

"I think it is important. I have an intuition about it." - Wizard Gynoid | Image: Bettina Tizzy

By Steve Hammons

Recent research has determined that some U.S. military personnel are better than others in the ability to detect hidden improvised explosive devices (IEDs). But why?

According to a U.S. Army research project, troops raised in rural and forested areas seemed to be better at it. Troops who grew up in tough urban areas also seem to excel in this kind of perception.

The common denominator is “situational awareness (SA)” that is key to hunting and being aware in the natural environment as well as in dangerous neighborhoods where people can become a victim of violence or other crime.

But what other important factors might be in play? And how might the understanding of human perception and consciousness benefit all of us?

In the first issue of the fascinating new magazine EdgeScience (October 2009 edition), editor Patrick Huyghe’s article “Straight from the Gut” explored the two-year Army study on perception led by researcher and psychologist Steven Burnett. Huyghe also took a look at some of the media coverage on the study.

In addition, he notes the work of other well-known researchers on human consciousness who propose that other interesting elements may affect troops’ abilities to perceive IEDs.

These theories, backed up by significant research, note that hunches, intuition and gut feelings might be linked to the acquisition of information through human consciousness in ways we do not fully understand.

The conscious perception that something is going on that we need to be aware of might be related to factors other than clues in the physical environment that troops and all of us process consciously and unconsciously.

In some cases, another kind of perception may kick in. These may be split-second premonitions or what has been called “presentiment.” Troops and all humans (and maybe many animals) can use perceptual abilities and resources that have sometimes been called “anomalous cognition” of various types.

The recognition of danger, linked directly to personal and group survival, is a fundamental priority of human consciousness. As part of this perceptual priority, do we have a “sixth sense” that supplements and assists our other five senses of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste?


In Huyghe’s EdgeScience magazine piece, he examined the New York Times article on the Army study by Benedict Carey who Huyghe described as “an experienced science writer hired by the Times in 2004 to cover human behavior and psychology.” The headline of Carey’s July 27, 2009, was “In Battle, Hunches Prove to be Valuable.”

In Carey’s article, he notes, “The United States military has spent billions on hardware, like signal jamming technology, to detect and destroy” IEDs. He also explains that IEDs “have proved to be the greatest threat in Iraq and now in Afghanistan.”

“Still, high-tech gear, while helping to reduce casualties, remains a mere supplement to the most sensitive detection system of all – the human brain. Troops on the ground, using only their senses and experience, are responsible for foiling many IED attacks,” Carey wrote.

Carey also pointed out, “Everyone has hunches – about friends’ motives, about the stock market, about when to fold a hand of poker and when to hold it. But United States troops are now at the center of a large effort to understand how it is that in a life-or-death situation, some people’s brains can sense danger and act on it well before others do.”

Another article, this one in the Los Angeles Times, also examined the Army study. “Some troops have a sixth sense for bombs” was written by Tony Perry and published Oct. 28, 2009.

Reporting from the U.S. Marine Corps base at Twentynine Palms, Calif., Perry wrote, “Military researchers have found that two groups of personnel are particularly good at spotting anomalies: those with hunting backgrounds, who traipsed through the woods as youths looking to bag a deer or turkey; and those who grew up in tough urban neighborhoods, where it is often important to know what gang controls which block.”

Perry added, “Of the bombs spotted before they could kill or maim, an estimated 90% were detected by someone, for instance, sensing something amiss along a dusty roadside in the southern Afghan province of Helmand or a crowded street in the western Iraqi city of Fallouja.”

Both articles by Carey and Perry examined the Army research project in some depth, interviewed researchers and troops, and explored theories of training to perceive threats and possible psychological aspects of this perception.

But, did either article (or the Army researchers) “take the next step” as EdgeScience magazine editor Huyghe called it?

Huyghe pointed out in his article that extensive studies “show that the brain actually anticipates emotionally charged situations, not only before the person is aware of them, but before any hint of them is available in any way, shape, or form.”

In other words, there are significant experimental and experiential indications that we have the capability to perceive things before they happen in linear time.

This view is consistent with research from the U.S. joint military and intelligence project of the 1970s, ‘80s and early ‘90s generally referred to as Project STAR GATE. This project documented and used aspects of human perception and human consciousness that did “take the next step.”

A subsequent 2001 research paper by a Navy SEAL officer, prepared as part of his studies at the Marine Corps War College, proposed that implications from Project STAR GATE seem to demonstrate the advantages of learning more about human perceptual abilities.

In addition, he suggested that incorporating this kind of emerging understanding can be a key part of what he called “transcendent warfare.”

Project STAR GATE research and operational activities involved what some might call extrasensory perception (ESP). The project involved strict protocols trying to make use of this kind of perception. These formal procedures and methods were key parts of what was eventually called “remote viewing.”

Science journalists could focus more on these developments. In fact, journalists covering many kinds of beats may find important elements related to their work.


Interestingly, in the second edition of EdgeScience magazine (January-March 2010), a letter to the editor was published that provided more useful information on these subjects.

EdgeScience reader John MacLean explained that as a college instructor in Utah, he teaches a class in “Technology Management Program” called “Reliability Engineering and Safety.” MacLean noted, “One of the chapters in this course is situational awareness.”

MacLean provided a short definition of situation awareness (SA): knowing what is going on around you.

In addition to MacLean’s succinct definition, SA has also been described as the perception of environmental factors within time and space, understanding the meaning of the factors and anticipating possible outcomes in the near future.

SA has become an important area in military activities, aviation safety, emergency services, critical engineering operations and similar fields.

“In this class we discuss how to have situational awareness and how to recognize when you have lost it. There are 11 clues that can be observed in one’s operating vocations that tell you that you are losing your situational awareness,” Maclean explained.

He points out in his letter to the editor that the 11 clues to the loss of situational awareness are primarily involved with conventional awareness of instrumentation, communication, adherence to standard procedures and similar aspects.

However, he notes that one of the clues involves “confusion, apprehensive feeling or gut feeling that something is wrong.

MacLean wrote, “Many dismiss various explanations as the subconscious observing a bad developing situation or seeing several of the clues by the subconscious. Personally, although some of these other explanations may be valid, I am wondering if precognition may be operable in these situations that are generally life threatening.”

MacLean goes on to explain how this “gut feeling” clue appears to have been demonstrated. He wrote, “An incident several years ago occurred with a Flying Tigers Airlines 747 on approach to Kuala Lumpur in Indonesia in the middle of a very dark night. From the direction they were on approach, the Instrument Landing System was out of service and they would have had to go another hundred miles to come in from the other direction where it was in service.”

“While several of the clues to losing awareness were eventually present, the first officer tried to get the captain to do the fly around, saying on three occasions, ‘Captain, I really don’t feel good about this, let’s go around and use the instrument system.’ These protestations occurred before any of the other clues were observable,” MacLean said.

“Because of the ultimate presence of several of the clues, unrecognized, they flew into a mountain. The other four clues were observable only just prior to the crash. From the data I observed in this incident, it appears the first officer’s comments were begun at least 15-20 minutes prior to the other four clues being observable.”

MacLean concludes his letter with a thank you to EdgeScience editor Huyghe. “The info you supplied in your article (‘Straight From the Gut,’ EdgeScience No.1) will be valuable in my class when we discuss situational awareness. I can’t put my finger on it precisely, but I have a feeling the ideas on precognition may be interacting somehow in the other 10 clues. Something to continue to ponder. Great article.”


From SA training to premonitions, ESP and remote viewing, we see a growing body of research and knowledge about human perception and human consciousness.

New studies in neurobiology are looking more closely at how the human mind and body might be processing information from our environment that we have no consciousness knowledge of. And when we say “our environment,” we can no longer limit the meaning of this term to the immediate environment that we can see, hear, touch, smell or taste.

Our perception can apparently reach out beyond these five senses. The hypothesized sixth sense may work both independently of, and in cooperation with our other five senses. And, we may have other sensory abilities we do not understand. These might have neurological, chemical and biological aspects.

We may even have some kind of perceptual abilities like the radar and sonar that some other mammals seem to use.

Emerging understanding from quantum physics implies that consciousness itself can be in more than one place at a time. Beyond the physical level of reality there may be more exotic energies and forces that work in mysterious ways.

Consciousness may not be bound by limitations of only the five senses and other possible neurobiological perceptions, nor bound by time and space.

The recent Army study into troops’ ability to perceive IEDs seems to be another valuable step in the analysis of human perception, especially in the maintenance of safety and survival. However, as EdgeScience editor Huyghe noted, maybe we must be willing to go beyond some of the more conventional and limited perspectives.

The safety and survival of our troops, and all of us, is of the utmost importance. In addition, the larger field of human development may be an issue. Should current training and education in diverse and widespread settings include more robust examination of the emerging understanding about human perception?

Let’s catch up to the leading edge of the research and knowledge in these areas and provide training for our troops, students, professionals and people in all walks of life. Let’s cover these developments in science journalism and in the broader media.

Our safety, survival and success may depend on it.

(The first two editions of the EdgeScience magazine are available free in PDF on the Web site of Society for Scientific Exploration.)

Steve Hammons writes on many topics. For more information, visit these websites: Joint Recon Study Group, Transcendent TV & Media and American Chronicle.