Case Studies in Ignorance

April 7, 2008

#2 article on the Chicago Tribune’s website:

Did you hear about the state legislator who last week blasted a Lutheran minister during a committee hearing for spewing dangerous religious superstitions, and then attempted to order the minister out of the witness chair on the grounds that his Christian beliefs are “destroying what this state was built upon”?

Of course you didn’t, because it didn’t happen and would never happen. Not to a Christian, not to a Jew, not to a Muslim or to anyone who subscribes to any faith.

OK, so that’s a bit of an overstatement. Something like that would happen, but it would definitely cause outrage from many, many areas.

Rep. Monique Davis (D-Chicago) interrupted atheist activist Rob Sherman during his testimony. . .and told him, “What you have to spew and spread is extremely dangerous . . . it’s dangerous for our children to even know that your philosophy exists! . . This is the Land of Lincoln where people believe in God. Get out of that seat . . . You have no right to be here! We believe in something. You believe in destroying! You believe in destroying what this state was built upon.”

For the record, Rep. Davis attends Trinity United Church of Christ, the same place Obama attends. Someone please remind me why Obama (an otherwise an excellent candidate) should go to this church, or how he ever saw political benefit from being a member there?


A Tale of Two Cities

September 26, 2007

Cambridge and Malibu, that is. It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…

I just read two very different articles over at Beliefnet that compliment each other well. One is by Michael Shermer, a Christian who attended Pepperdine University, got interested in science, and later became an atheist. His article is titled Atheists are Spiritual, Too. An excerpt:

Spirituality is a way of being in the world, a sense of one’s place in the cosmos, a relationship to that which extends beyond ourselves. There are many sources of spirituality; religion may be the most common, but it is by no means the only. Anything that generates a sense of awe may be a source of spirituality-art, for example.

Shermer describes taking scientists including Gould and Dawkins to visit the Mt. Wilson observatory in California.

As we were standing beneath the magnificent dome housing the 100-inch telescope, and reflecting on how marvelous-even miraculous-this scientistic visage of the cosmos and our place in it all seemed, Dawkins turned to me and said, “All of this makes me proud of our species.”

Alister McGrath, on the other hand, has a piece entitled Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond, in which he describes his own pilgrimage from atheism to Christianity.

The faith McGrath found sounds more reasonable than the faith Shermer left (Shermer’s is remarkably similar to some strains of the tradition in which I grew up). Also, the atheism Shermer developed seems to be better defined then what McGrath held; from McGrath’s article, it sounds like he confuses atheism with positive belief that there is no God, which is of course a view only held by a small minority of atheists. I’d like to hear them dialogue sometime.


Quoting King

July 8, 2007

I’m currently reading Shane Claiborne’s Irresistible Revolution. I’m sure I’ll blog on it more fully once I’ve completed my leisurely perusal, but for now I’d like to highlight some quotes Shane brought to my attention. These are from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “A Time to Break Silence,” a speech given on the Vietnam war in 1967 at a meeting of “Clergy and Laity Concerned” at Riverside Church in New York City. MLK’s concerns went beyond his (incredible) devotion to civil rights in our country, to an even broader view of social justice. And it’s always good to reflect on values that should bring rich and poor, Christian and humanist, theist and athiest together.

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[It became clear that the war in Vietnam] was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. And so we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools.

Funny how these words still ring true today:

As I have walked among the desperate, rejected, and angry young men, I have told them that Molotov cocktails and rifles would not solve their problems. I have tried to offer them my deepest compassion while maintaining my conviction that social change comes most meaningfully through nonviolent action. But they ask — and rightly so — what about Vietnam? They ask if our own nation wasn’t using massive doses of violence to solve its problems, to bring about the changes it wanted. Their questions hit home, and I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.

And here a call for a brotherhood of man, rooted in King’s own Christianity, though it could as easily be read as a call for a global humanism (in fact, King might have been closer to that than most of the Christians we know):

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation and for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

King also has this quote from a Buddhist leader on the war in Vietnam:

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

If you will, rephrase that quote for me with Iraq in mind instead of Vietnam (not the analogy is a perfect one, but analogies never are… this particular quote however makes a useful point):

Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Iraqis and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

And here he waxes prophetic. One could make the same claim today about US militarism:

The war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit, and if we ignore this sobering reality…and if we ignore this sobering reality, we will find ourselves organizing “clergy and laymen concerned” committees for the next generation.

And another gem:

On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho Road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

And here’s another quote, though this time I’ve replaced “Communism” with “terrorism”:

This kind of positive revolution of values is our best defense against terrorism. War is not the answer. Terrorism will never be defeated by the use of atomic bombs or nuclear weapons. Let us not join those who shout war and, through their misguided passions, urge the United States to relinquish its participation in the United Nations. These are days which demand wise restraint and calm reasonableness. We must not engage in a negative antiterrorism, but rather in a positive thrust for democracy, realizing that our greatest defense against terrorism is to take offensive action in behalf of justice. We must with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity, and injustice, which are the fertile soil in which the seed of terrorism grows and develops.


Heteroflexuality

June 28, 2007

Over at Friendly Atheist, Hemant posted this billboard from a Christian group:

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Of course, it’s an “ex-gay ministry”‘s you-can-change-being-gay billboard that’s been Photoshopped to make a rather hilarious point. And the church wasn’t happy with the comparison. That sparked some discussion on Hemant’s blog. Here’s an example of one of the comments:

That’s just not right. What’s worse is, they try to perpetuate that idea that homosexuals can change.

Well, I agree that it’s not right. But I think the discussion of whether people who identify as homosexuals at one point of their lives do so out of pure genetic determinism or pure personal choice is tainted by social norms; the politically-correct views of the accepting left and the it’s-really-hard-to-find-a-hermeneutic-to-get-out-of-this-one views on the Christian right. So, I wrote a rather long comment, and I didn’t want it to just get buried, so I gave it a nice new home here on my friendly blog:

I think it’s important to consider the issue of choosing sexual orientation. It’s very politically incorrect to say these days that (any) people choose their sexual orientation, but let’s talk this through. Hear me out please (no pun intended). First, no one has found a single gene that causes homosexuality in a simple Mendelian way (although many, like Dean Hamer, have tried). Much research needs to be done, but the most you can say is that there is a genetic predisposition. Having a predisposition for something–let’s say liking cheetos–is not synonymous with being “born that way.” However, there can also be a tremendous influence on a developing fetus from its chemical environment during pregnancy, and this is one very likely way in which a predisposition for one sexual orientation develops.

That said, there are most certainly a number of people whose predominant sexual orientation from birth is homosexual, with no desire for the opposite gender. A much larger proportion of a population is predominantly heterosexual, with no desire for the same gender. There does exist a group in the middle though–many of whom choose to identify as bisexuals–whose orientation is more fluid. What exactly influences these people to identify as homosexual, bisexual, or heterosexual? You can bet that their personal developmental psychology plays a role, as well as social norms. Many of these ‘flexible’ people may choose to identify with a group that is not discriminated against (heterosexuals) due to outside pressure. I would bet this is where many of the “conversion” stories come from. A biologically informed opinion would include the factoid that many traits are determined by a complex interaction of genes, developmental environment (pre- and post-natal), social norms, and personal choices.

So, it’s important to recognize that sexuality, for a significant portion of the population, is much more fluid than many people would care to admit. So a Christian ministry can certainly hope to ‘convert’ some people (which is all the more reason to resist such “ministries” that cause people emotional harm). Quoting another comment:

I’m pretty sure he missed the real meaning, it’s not really that Asians don’t choose to be Asian, it’s that there’s nothing wrong with being Asian in the first place.

And that’s exactly what the response should be. It is much easier to respond “I was born this way,” but it’s simply not true for everyone. It’s harder to argue that “because the Bible says so doesn’t make it wrong,” but that seems to really be at the root of all this. Thoughts?


Defending Witchcraft

June 27, 2007

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Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith and Letter to a Christian Nation, which I generally enjoyed (though I have some rather strong reservations about many specific arguments), has finally arisen to defend witchcraft against its skeptics. Sort of.

In an article in the Huffington Post, Harris paints a hilarious picture.. First, imagine that you live in a country, around 500 years ago, where ~95% of the people believe in witchcraft.

Imagine being among the tiny percentage of people — the 5 percent, or 10 percent at most — who think that a belief in witchcraft is nothing more than a malignant fantasy…You argue further that a belief in magic offers false hope of benefits that are best sought elsewhere… If your name is Sam Harris, you may produce two fatuous volumes entitled The End of Magic and Letter to a Wiccan Nation. Daniel Dennett would then grapple helplessly with the origins of sorcery in his aptly named, Breaking the Spell. Richard Dawkins — whose bias against witches, warlocks, and even alchemists has long been known — will follow these books with an arrogant screed entitled, The Witch Delusion.

So, what would the reviews from the witches and sorcerers look like? Harris takes a few reviews of his and other prominent atheists’ books and replaces key words: “God” with “the Devil,” “religion” with “witchcraft,” etc. One of the results:

“The danger is that the aggression and hostility to [magic] in all its forms… deters engagement with the really interesting questions that have emerged recently in the science/[necromancy] debate. The durability and near universality of [witchcraft] is one of the most enduring conundrums of evolutionary thinking… Does [spell-casting] still have an important role in human wellbeing? … If [sorcery] declines, what gaps does it leave in the functioning of individuals and social groups?… I suspect the New [Skeptics] are in danger of a spectacular failure. With little understanding and even less sympathy of why people increasingly use [the evil eye] in political contexts, they’ve missed the proverbial elephant in the room. These increasingly hysterical books may boost the pension… but one suspects that they are going to do very little to challenge the appeal of a phenomenon they loathe too much to understand.” –Madeleine Bunting, The Guardian

(Via Friendly Atheist)


More Creation Museum Fun…

June 22, 2007

Tara Smith over at Aetiology has a nice fresh take on the Creation Museum. If you haven’t read about it already, please observe the biggest waste of $27 million ever spent by fundamentalists. Hint: I know some kids with AIDS who could use the money (remember Matthew 25 anyone?) so send it here instead…

And BlueGrassRoots has an excellent photo tour of the museum. It includes these great comparios of God’s Word vs. Human Reason (guess which one is BAD!):

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Overwhelming Evidence

June 18, 2007

I came across a fascinating post at an Intelligent Design Creationism blog, called “micro vs. macro evolution – where to draw the line?”

Given the source, and the title, I immediately chuckled. Of course, this is a very difficult question for those whose religious beliefs lead them to reject the overwhelming evidence in support universal common descent. I’m going to offer some excerpts from this post in order to point out a few common themes among conservative Christians and their relationship with Intelligent Design proponents (most of the latter fall into the former category, but many Young Earth Creationist Christians have problems with the ID guys). First sentence:

Like many Christians (and unlike many Intelligent Design purists), I believe that Darwinian evolution cannot possibly account for the diversity of KINDS of animals.

Notice immediately the language of “belief.” There is no appeal here to evidence for a point of view, as this poster isn’t even trying to pose as interested in the science of it all. Also, the concept of “kinds” is highly ambiguous. What makes mammals a different kind from birds? Where’s the line between birds and reptiles (of which they are actually a subset)? Where do you stick a platypus, or an archaeopteryx?

I believe that our designer designed each KIND independently. But, as I mentioned in a previous blog post, it’s clear the designer recycled designs in a pattern roughly parallel to the evolutionists’ discredited “tree of life.” And at this point I have to make an unpleasant conceit to godless evolutionists: the designs of many parts of our body appear to be modified versions of those used in the design of apes. Yes, these smelly, dirty, brutish animals served as a launching point for our design and, though we certainly didn’t descend from them, we have a certain designerly connection to them, much as Windows Vista does to Windows Millennium Edition.

The adjectives are quite fun. Godless evolutionists may certainly describe Dawkins and PZ Myers, but it would be a hard term to fit to Francis Collins. There are probably more religious people who think the theory of evolution is well-proven then there are non-religious people, simply because there are more of the religious, at least in this country.

And of course, animals are “smelly, dirty, brutish” but we could never, ever have descended from them. What evidence is offered as refutation? None. And of course, there is no indication that the writer has considered the overwhelming evidence for universal common descent, be it fossil or genetic. It’s all about what one chooses to believe. In this sense, many believers are much more postmodern than the evolutionists who they think lack a belief in truth. Fascinating.

Then, the poster goes on to say that there is diversity within a population, and that certain traits will be selected for, thereby ceding that evolution occurs on certain scales. So why can’t it account for new “kinds” (whatever those are)?

But it is micro-evolution, and never strays outside the boundary of a KIND. A dog cannot evolve into a cat. In ten million years, I contend, a dog’s descendants will still be recognizable dogs. Indeed, even after a billion years of microevolution, a dog’s descendants will still be something other than cats.

This is silly. If change occurs, then over more time, you have more change. Now of course evolutionary biologists would never claim that a dog would turn into a cat. What they do note is that if at some point in those ten million years you have two populations of dogs that are separated for a period of time, by geography or habits or any other factor that prevents interbreeding, those populations will diverge over time. That’s speciation. And that is considered by many to be the dividing point between micro- and macroevolution. Natural selection does not pretend to predict a dog will become a cat, but to explain that dogs and cats at some point diverged from some common ancestor that had biological similarities to both. The prediction made is that any two other groups separated for a period of time will eventually diverge as well.

But where do we draw the line between kinds, between microevolution and macroevolution? Can a donkey be bred from a horse? Can an alpaca be bred from a camel? Can a tiger be bred from a lion? These all may sound in some way ridiculous, but all of these animal pairs can interbreed, which suggests that they may be of the same kind. Where things can get tricky is when the hybrid born of the mating is itself sterile. Does this mean we’ve crossed a line between kinds, and found the limits of what evolution can change?

These cases of species that are close enough to interbreed but not produce fertile offspring are excellent examples of the fluid nature of biological change. Tigers and lions can produce offspring because they diverged recently enough that they have yet to accumulate the level of genetic difference necessary to prevent all reproduction. However, they have diverged enough to be both noticeably different (unlike species that we humans can’t tell apart with our naked eyes) and noticeably incapable of producing fertile offspring (unlike some species of songbird that while they do not reproduce together in the wild for behavioral reasons, are still physically capable of doing so). Again, an excellent example of speciation and evolution at work, breaking down the idea that each “kind” was created in a perfect, separate form.

I myself have no particular problem with a theory suggesting that all cats are descendant from a common ancestor. I’d even concede that all birds share a common ancestor – from hummingbirds to ostriches. Given enough time, I could see that change happening – it’s just a few orders of magnitude beyond the flexibility humans have brought to the domestic dog. Some quasi-evolutionists even allow for all of Primates (soulless monkeys and apes lumped together with humans) to have descended from a single designed ancestor. I myself could never believe such a thing, since I find it revolting to think my ancestors might have been animals.

Instead of the argument from personal incredulity, you get the argument from personal revulsion. Methinks this blogger has too high a view of humans and too low a view of animals. Biologically speaking, that is.

Some Intelligent Design proponents such as Michael Behe go so far as to say that yes, all species evolved from a common ancestor. They’ve been exposed to the evidence enough to know that arguing against this well-proven fact is simply impossible. However, to maintain some “proof” of an involved God from the physical world (pure faith is the enemy) they take their criticism to the level of evolutionary mechanisms. This critique still fails, but is substantially more subtle than run-of-the-mill Creationism, and has enough pseudoscientific sounding jargon backing it up to fool the scientifically uneducated market they’re aiming at: America’s conservative Christians.

And then you get tension between Christians who believe what they believe because it feels right (and/or it jives with their relatively unscrupulous reading of Scripture) and those Christians who are trying to make a (in their view) scientific argument for believing something. But this blogger talks about the revulsion that rely underlies all of Creationism, including the Intelligent Design movement: many simply reject the proposition that God is not necessary to account for the origin of the human species because it is religiously unpalatable. These rejectionists laud people like Behe (look, he says random mutation doesn’t work!) or Collins (look, a scientist who still believes in God) or Einstein (look, a guy who misleadingly uses the word “God” when talking about nature, thereby confirming our hopes that he’s on our side) to support what they believe by faith, and reject the parts they dislike.


Just Crazy

June 15, 2007

(Via Friendly Atheist)


There’s Always an Alternative

June 11, 2007

If your standards are low enough.

I just spent a good hour looking at the website of Scholars for 9/11 Truth and Justice, largely because I came across a website talking about how great the ‘evidence’ is for a controlled demolition. After reading some of their ‘evidence’–which largely consists of a drip of pseudoscience here and a heavy coat of logically-indefensible theorizing there–and find myself slightly more educated about their arguments, and overwhelmingly unconvinced.

The most interesting thing for me is the similarity between the 9/11 Truth movement and Creationism/ Intelligent Design. Both of these are based on the idea that the status quo simply cannot be correct, largely because of personal incredulity. There’s no way I could have evolved from monkeys… There’s no way there’s a natural mechanism that would create X… There’s no way that those planes and/or fires could have brought down those buildings… And what they end up with an alternative theory that is less plausible than the mainstream one which is supported by evidence. This also seems to be similar to other forms of pseudoscience, like that of HIV-denialists.

Here’s an interesting example from the 9/11 site:

The word theory when used in the derisive sense of ‘conspiracy theory’ connotes detailed speculation unfounded in fact. However, a theory can stand apart from a detailed scenario explaning the means and methods behind observed events. For example, a theory of the controlled demolition of the Twin Towers can be proved simply by disproving its converse — that the Towers’ collapses were spontaneous. (emphasis added)

That last sentence is the interesting part. Of course, it’s bad logic, and bad theorizing. One should look for the more parsimonious theory–that which fits better with the available evidence. Even if one were able to disprove specific evidence for the official theories (which, judging by the evidence presented on the website, certainly hasn’t been done, but is assumed to have been done), that wouldn’t mean the alternative theory is more plausible. It’s reminiscent of the Wedge Strategy of the Intelligent Design movement:

The objective (of the wedge strategy) is to convince people that Darwinism is inherently atheistic, thus shifting the debate from creationism vs. evolution to the existence of God vs. the non-existence of God. From there people are introduced to ‘the truth’ of the Bible and then ‘the question of sin’ and finally ‘introduced to Jesus.’

Simply convince people that the main theory is either untrue or unpalatable, and then they’ll no other choice but to embrace the alternative conveniently offered at the moment of doubt. Moral for the day: If you see this strategy elsewhere, be wary.