Questionable Motives

May 7, 2014

Are ‘honestly held beliefs’ reason enough to justify legal discrimination?

can of wormsWell, let’s look at the principle upon which all of us expect to be treated fairly and impartially before and by the law, namely, that

“All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status.” (Article 26, UN covenant on political and civil rights)

To support legal discrimination in a particular case means you must provide a reasonable justification to the benefit of all for that particular exemption against the general principle. This can be (and is) done when that justification can be shown to enhance the public good. For example, we can legally discriminate against all of us who have not achieved the age of majority or all of us who have been shown to be incapable of being responsible for our actions. Legal discrimination is permissible without breaking the principle of the covenant… but the justification must be the same FOR ALL.

Now let’s consider the idea of ‘honestly held beliefs’ to be the metric for varying what equality rights mean. The question can be formulated this way: does an ‘honestly held belief’ by another person constitute a reasonable justification to the benefit of all in your mind for the loss of your own equality before the law and the loss of its protection to guarantee them? Are you willing to have your legal rights be subject and hostage to the variability of another person’s honestly held beliefs?

There are a couple ways to come at answering this.

The straightforward answer here is either Yes or No. There is no middle ground. You are either willing to allow others (based on their ‘honestly held beliefs’) to determine the quality of your legal rights or you are not. The metric at work here is belief, and rests in the willingness to have your legal equality rights rights rest not with you, not empowered in and by the law, but in the belief-based opinion of others.  This breaks the principle that currently supports legal equality for all of us… not just against those whose legal rights and protection you wish to limit for whatever beliefs you may deem important enough but your own. Supporting the notion that ‘honestly held beliefs’ is sufficient to devalue equality rights to personal preference of beliefs means that you do not support the principle that upholds your own.

The extent of privilege our societies grant to religious belief and the institutions and speakers who represent them is truly astounding. For example, returning to the UN covenant on political and civil rights, we find the following:

“Discrimination is allowed if it is based on genuine religious beliefs or principles. This includes the actions of religious bodies or schools.”

Take a moment and think about that. What does it really mean?

Well, it means that the previous principle for all has been replaced in practice by the beliefs of some. It means all people are not equal before the law; our shared equality rights are in fact subject to the religious beliefs (and principles contained within them) of others, others who would deny them first for ‘honestly held beliefs… before any other grounds of justification are introduced! Where is the universal justification for this discrimination that demonstrates its fairness and impartiality to the good of all? It’s absent; what we have are lot of assumptions and attributions and arguments and conclusions unsupported by compelling evidence. This is faith-based belief in action… simply presumed to be justified because it is religious.  And that’s religious privilege in action and it undermines the very principle of YOUR legal rights, YOUR legal equality, YOUR legal protections. This religious privilege buolt on faith-based beliefs is incompatible with the very principle of equality law.

Another way to understand and appreciate the scope of craziness needed to sustain the argument of privileging ‘honestly held beliefs’ over and above and preceding equality rights for all is to apply the same reasoning, the same privilege, the same lack of independent justification to some other area of public interest. We have a host to choose from but let’s take a public water supply for our analogy and see how well the justification works.

The management of that public water supply is based on the principle of providing clean water for all… and we are all in agreement that this water should be safe for all to drink because all of us drink from it! But let’s say some people in the management team decide that certain privileged exemptions to that principle are justified by the ‘honestly held beliefs’ of those involved with providing this service, making the water supply safe for some but not for others. When people complain that their water supply is, in fact, contaminated – because some people honestly believe that the addition of industrial waste products containing toxins and carcinogenics to this part of the water supply but not that part at the request of certain industries to eliminate their waste is a net benefit to all, while reassuring the rest of us that we will continue to receive only a clean water supply – how is it a justification that doesn’t directly undermine the principle of clean water for all? Would the same exemption be allowed, for example, if the quality of everyone’s water supply – including the captains of these polluting industries and the management team themselves – were to be subject to the same vagaries of who received what quality of water when? Or would we as a municipality stand united and insist that the water supply be kept clean for all? Sure, the industrialists might complain that they have a real problem with their toxic wastes, but why should the quality of our water supply be their solution… any more than threatening our shared legal rights of equality be the solution to the demands of these religious for privilege to exercise their bias and discrimination in the name of the public good?

August 26, 2013

Why is accommodating respect for faith-based beliefs stupid and irresponsible?

medical treatmentOver at  Jerry Coyne’s site, Why Evolution is True, he posted about a measles outbreak in Texas traced back to a mega-church and non vaccinated children.  Coyne titled his post, “Measles back again, thanks to religion,” and gave us information about the outbreak, the response from church authorities and its ‘medical’ team, and data on the disease, all very useful stuff (as usual). But I disagreed in one sense that the measles outbreak was due to religion. It was just as much back because of those who accommodate faith-based beliefs of any kind and smugly attack New Atheists for daring to criticize any of it publicly. This is what I wrote in my ridiculously long comment:

I apologize for the length of my comment, but this post highlights that the ‘enemy’ of reason and knowledge isn’t just religion per se but those who support and tolerate a methodology that is clearly broken, namely, the empowerment and public acceptance of any faith-based belief (an acceptance demonstrated by offering unjustified respect rather than justified criticism of those who exercise any faith-based belief. I’m talking to you, accommodationists).

Into the category of faith-based beliefs can be everything from religion to anti-vaccination, conspiracies to astrology, alternative medicine to Winfrey/Chopra/Dr. Oz-ian woo. Belief in these is all of a kind, and the root is faith- rather than evidence-based belief… a method of thinking that elevates possibility to be equivalent to probability, meaning that it’s a way to elevate any belief in something to be the same weight in consideration as not having belief in it. In other words, it’s a way to make any faith-based belief seem as reasonable as not believing… one either believes in alien abductions, for example, (by entertaining the possibility) or one does not (by seeming to be closed-minded when there is no compelling evidence in its favour). See? Equivalent: six of one, a half dozen of the other. How very reasonable and open-minded we are and not followers of scientism like those intolerant, strident, and militant folk who are Doin’ it Rong!

What’s lost, of course, is any meaningful way, a methodology we can trust, to allow reality to arbitrate the faith-based belief because the weight of evidence (supporting or not supporting the belief) plays no important role; the equivalency is already clearly established by believers, which is why any possible evidence for the most ludicrous of beliefs is drafted into service and used as if equivalent to the array of evidence contrary to them combined with the absence of compelling evidence where it should be if the belief were true. In this sense, the use of evidence (aka, reality) by the faith-based believer is only used in service to the belief, whereas in every other area of life we know enough to allow our beliefs to be in the service of reality… if we wish to function successfully in it.

Any method of inquiry that refuses to allow reality to adjudicate claims made about it is a guaranteed way to fool one’s self. Believers in faith-based beliefs fool themselves (along with the tacit approval of accommodationists who decide the appearance of being tolerant of foolishness is a higher standard of intellectual integrity than respecting reality to inform our beliefs about it). But it doesn’t end here and this is the point accommodationsits fail to appreciate. A measles outbreak doesn’t just threaten those foolish enough not to vaccinate; it threatens both the non vaccinated AND the vaccinated with exposure to a preventable disease! This is unconscionable stupidity and social irresponsibility in the face of spreading a very real disease because of acting on a faith-based belief. As if believing in such faith-based foolishness weren’t bad enough, acting on this foolishness carries with it a demonstrable cost to all of us that causes real harm to real people in real life. Faced with this reality, I must ask: where did all these ‘reasonable’ accommodationists suddenly go? This is where the rubber meets the road of why respecting faith-based beliefs by anyone including accommodationists is a public threat to the health and welfare of us all.

April 1, 2012

What’s the Tennessee ‘Monkey Bill’ and why does it matter?

“I ain’t kin to no damn monkey,” is a stereotypical religious response to the very notion of evolution by natural selection. But this isn’t the main reason for the stalwart position taken against the scientific consensus that we share common ancestry with other primates. The reason is religious.

As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Society, explains,

The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures. (E)volution and Christianity are incompatible.

The explanation of common ancestry is incompatible with any religious belief that tries to suggest that humanity is somehow a special creation of a god… a god that can be ‘known’ because it/he/she has bestowed special gifts and favours and privileges to the human branch of the primate family and is therefore clearly deserving of our obedience to him/her/it… as it has been opaquely revealed in various scriptures (Creationism 1.0). In effect this assumption means that, to the faithful who presume special creation and/or divine intervention for humanity without evidence, we are to assume these different and mutually incompatible scriptures are actually divinely inspired science textbooks… textbooks that fail to adequately explain the overwhelming evidence for natural selection we find throughout reality – a reality that has revealed no compelling evidence to indicate any such divine interference anywhere in the chain of evidence for natural selection.  In spite of soothing words from the science organizations like the NCSE and religious organizations that support the  Clergy Letter Project that if one squints just right there is no compatibility issue between creationism and evolution, the fact is that there is no scientific basis on which hang a creationist hat, meaning that to maintain a belief in some kind of creationism relies not on evidence from reality but a faith-based belief alone. Those who wish to insist that humans have been POOF!ed into existence or that at some point somewhere some divine agency intervened in natural selection fail to appreciate that key word: natural. To be clear, one can sometimes find religion without creationism but you will never find creationism without religion.

Why does this matter?

As Mohler quite rightly points out, accepting the scientific explanation for evolution – a foundation upon which all modern biological sciences are built – causes an exodus of evangelical young people. Although Mohler references these effects on his own preferred religion, the point he raises is also true for any religious tenet built on a divine role in human development for which there is no evidence in support and much against (the latest being genetic evidence that clearly indicates no original human couple like the fictional Adam and Eve – which is explained in simpler language here). As the PEW forum on religion and public life notes,

All but a small number of scientists regard Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection as an established fact. And yet, a substantial majority of Americans, many of whom are deeply religious, reject the notion that life evolved through natural forces alone.

In other words, evolution is a very real threat to this creationist tenet regardless of which religion attempts to maintain it.

What’s a creationist to do but find some way to counter this scientific knowledge… but without any science to back it up?

Enter the Wedge Strategy, designed (pun intended) to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies and to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God“.

Theists have been repeatedly thwarted by the courts in the US from including the creationist tenet in science class. The latest (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover) directly addressed creationism in its most modern evolution, namely Intelligent Design (Creationism 2.0). The conclusion was clear: ID has no scientific merit so it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

Oh dear.

Those who thought that perhaps this ongoing battle had finally reached a conclusion were premature; let us now be properly introduced to Creationism 3.0: Academic Freedom! Strengths and Weaknesses! Promote Critical Thinking! This – not scientific evidence – is the next evolution in the Wedge Strategy, brought to us from the Discovery Institute along with a standard petition on how to best promote it without being accused of promoting religion in the public domain.

In 2011, eight states considered bills to include ‘academic freedom’ into the science curriculum, as if this freedom rather than religiously inspired creationism was in some immanent danger of extinction. As Lauri Lebo so eloquently describes – revealing the common language source for all these state bills -

educators may not be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Isn’t that grand? What’s so wrong with more critical thinking? What’s wrong is that the problems inherent in evolution – like any science – are trivial in comparison to the robustness of the general explanation. Trivial problems in fully understanding and describing human reproduction is not an invitation to bring Stork Theory into the science class. Somehow this point is missed when it comes to promoting the equally unqualified notion of creationism.

This language of academic freedom helped bring in the Louisiana it’s-okay-to-teach-creationism-in-science-class law (SB 733, LA Science Education Act) and is the template for the Tennessee Monkey Bill – coined accurately to be more  ‘stealth creationism’ by the indomitable Barbara Forrest who works tirelessly to show how this creationist influence remains dedicated to inserting faith-based belief into the science curriculum. This continues now in Tennessee in spite of student complaints and a dedicated campaign supported by 75 Nobel laureates by a Louisiana student Zack Kopplin showing how creationist dogma harms his educational standing for advancement and employment.

Note that as in the Louisiana law, those theories protected under ‘academic freedom’ can include “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning,” tying in very nicely with the stated aims of the Wedge document. This is stealth creationism in action in spite of the ridiculous instructions to future judges contained in the bills that these religious-only, non scientific ‘strengths and weaknesses’ talking points are not “to be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.” As the Sensuous Curmudgeon points out, this is comparable to saying

“Hey, Judge: Here’s how to construe this law” to a suicide-bomber’s explosive-laden vest being sewn with a tag saying: “Attention Bomb Squad Coroner: The deceased wearer of this garment should not be construed to be a suicide bomber.”

All of this legal and legislative and advocating aside for the moment, the real effect described by Dr. Paul Gross from this agenda driven religious attack against the cornerstone of the biological sciences is this:

(It) discourages teachers from teaching evolution, or from giving it proper emphasis—if only by signaling that it’s a highly controversial subject. Teachers, understandably, fear controversy and potential attack by parents. Meanwhile, for this and many other reasons, science performance of our children against their overseas peers remains average to poor.

Really? Science education can be affected when so many attack it as ‘just another way of knowing’? And that affect produces poor student achievement results? Who could have possibly predicted this?

So just how poor is scientific literacy? Read it and weep.

This is the real cost all of us pay to keep creationists in business. Belief in creationism – no matter what form it may take – creates no new knowledge, opens up no new avenues of inquiry, produces no practical applications, and advances our understanding of the world we inhabit not one bit. It is a dead end resulting in thwarting, stymieing, and impeding real science, real progress, real technologies, real knowledge advancements. Seeing this pernicious religious effect in real people, who are convinced creationism deserves a passing nod of approval and wider public acceptance as a quaint alternative to contrary hard science, perhaps we can begin to better understand why biologists like Dawkins, Coyne, and PZ Myers spend so much time and effort counter-attacking this particular ignorance called religiously inspired creationism… for there simply is no other root cause for it.

Religious belief empowers creationism and it is religious belief that motivates its promulgation to infect and distort science. Some people will think themselves justified to doubt evolutionary science while accepting other branches like physics and chemistry conveniently forgetting that all are a single methodology. (But what can we expect with such poor scientific literacy?) Choosing to believe the physics of gravity here but not there to suit a religious belief about the aerodynamics of a flying horse for certain self-proclaimed prophets of god is as incoherent as accepting evolutionary biology within the framework of genetics here but not common ancestry there.

These kinds of Monkey Bills in public legislation matter a very great deal to all of us because they represent superstitious nonsense promoted and legalized and inserted under false pretenses in the public domain under the excuse of words that mean nothing more and nothing less that unsupported religious belief in divine POOF!ism. Rather than gain political capital from promoting poisonous religious beliefs imposed on the public domain, these politicians should be penalized by all of us even if some of us choose to remain privately dedicated to belief in creationism. Our future scientific literacy depends on it and all voters share in this current dismal failing grade we have achieved when we allow religious belief to have such a deleterious effect in our educational system. All of us need to smarten up and start complaining much more loudly and boldly whenever faith-based beliefs dare to enter the public square and demand effect.

February 3, 2012

What does accommodating religion and science mean?

Filed under: accommodation,Critical Reasoning,Religion,revelation,Science — tildeb @ 10:45 am

It means we must suspend our confidence in the scientific method. Temporarily, at least.

It means we must put aside how we know anything about the reality we inhabit, put side our technologies that work based on this knowledge, put aside our trust and confidence in explanations about how reality operates, and politely make room for these conglomerations of fear and ignorance called religion to be welcomed guests on the stage of knowledge about reality.

It means we must conveniently forget that religious belief produces no equivalent knowledge itself but mounts whatever favourable notion is handy, rides piggyback, and claims this notion  – love, beauty, justice, fairness, altruism, compassion… you get the idea – as a causal effect of some divine source. In many religions, whatever notion is unfavourable – hate, ugliness, unfairness, selfishness, yada, yada, yada – is attributed to be a causal effect of man’s undertaking to live without divine guidance. Yet left to its own metaphysical devices, religious belief alone produces no insightful knowledge about reality and by no stretch of the imagination any equivalent knowledge about it.

Religious belief is saddled with a problem too many ignore: it produces no library of knowledge about reality’s workings… which is a clue that may explain why religious belief produces no practical applications that work. Its parasitic function is to assert, attribute, assume, and make truth claims about reality… claims that we are asked to politely accept, based on some other standard than on applicable and testable knowledge, by allowing these inspired and revealed claims to be immune from any reasonable equivalent requirement to produce equivalent evidence to link this believed-in cause with a believed-in effect. To do this, we are asked to put aside the method of science for these specific religious claims, receive a metaphorical pat on our head for being good little boys and girls for doing so, and expected to silence our critical faculties and keep our collective mouths shut in order to be considered polite. Anything more makes us angry, shrill, and militant.

That’s what accommodationism means in action: an intellectual capitulation that making shit up in the name of religious belief is to be privileged, held to a different standard, than the made up shit from other sources. We are to assume, assert, and attribute that doing so shows tolerance and respect for others (under different names, of course, like cultural traditions, ethnic sensitivities, worldview perspectives, etc). We are told by accommodationists that it is tolerance in action to allow others to believe these unfounded and untrustworthy truth claims without criticism because the metric for determining what is true through religious belief is necessarily different… but an equivalent way of knowing, to be sure.

This is simply a lie.

Accommodationsists fail to acknowledge that we gain no equivalent knowledge from inquiries that include supernatural and paranormal speculations equivalent to made up stuff… speculations which have a very long and ‘rich’ theological history of claims about reality being startlingly inaccurate, unnecessary in complexity, untrustworthy in results, and claims assumed to be true but without any means for independent verification. In fact, we gain zero knowledge once we accept causal effect from the supernatural. But this sad fact doesn’t seem to matter to accommodationists. We are to respect and tolerate without sustained criticism these non-knowledge producing faith-based beliefs to be imposed on the reality we share and, furthermore, to consider this imposition an equivalent method of inquiry to the scientific method that extracts evidence from reality to inform truth claims made about it, that produces knowledge, that informs practical applications that work for everyone everywhere all the time.

And when the inquiries from science and religion yield incompatible conclusions, what then? When among different religions comes opposing conclusions, how do we arbitrate? Easy! To the accommodationist, this is the icing on their cake: we throw away the notion that what’s true actually matters, that the foundation for knowledge requires one and only one coherent and consistent and reliable base! Everything’s equivalently true under the accommodationist’s tent, you see… relatively speaking. Incompatible conclusions are all equally true. Contrary conclusions are equally true. Knowledge plays no role here because belief alone is sufficient for respect.

If we have already rejected reality’s role in determining what is true about it in favour of respecting whatever made up shit people wish to believe about it, then what do we have left?  We have relativism. The price we pay for attaining this enlightened relativism comes directly from respecting both what is demonstrably true in reality and what can be demonstrably known about it. This is the sacrifice mewling accommodationists wish all of us to make in the name of religious tolerance and acceptance, and they want us to accept that the exchange for this ‘other way of knowing’ is peace in our time. But it’s not. It is the opposite. It is a way to guarantee the continued promotion of superstitious fear and ignorance under the religious label.

This is what accommodating religion and science means in practice: undermining what’s true and what’s knowable in exchange for protecting the sensitivities of those who like to believe in made up shit. I’m not willing to pay that price and I think those who are willing should be reminded of the final cost their Chamberlain-esque appeasement policy can bring about. That’s why accommodationsits need to be soundly and roundly criticized for their short-sightedness because at the end of the day what is true does in fact and practice matter more than offending people’s religious sensitivities.

December 23, 2011

Can religious belief be honest?

The short answer is no.
Let’s revisit some basic information about the kind of religious belief practiced in the United States:
from a 2007 Gallup Poll:
  • 81% of Americans believe in Heaven
  • 75% of Americans believe in angels
  •  70% of Americans believe in Satan
  •  69% of American believe in Hell (presumably 1% think that Hell has no overseer)
Some other stats:

(h/t to WEIT in response to a terrible TIME article)

All of these majority beliefs rest on an acceptance of some supernatural element causing effect here in the natural world. In order to accept a belief that depends on a supernatural element means that by necessity the believer must willingly suspend the laws (we know operate consistently and reliably well) of the natural world we inhabit in order to maintain the belief. This willingness to sacrifice what the person knows is true – the laws of physics and chemistry and biology on which we trust our lives and those we love on a daily basis – can only be described as intentional dishonesty, no matter how temporary or ancient the suspension might be. The motivations for people to allow and excuse and apologize and respect this dishonesty – this willingness to suspend natural laws on behalf of a religious claim to allow for non-natural causation – are many and varied but such beliefs in the reality of the supernatural with no extraordinary evidence to justify it remains dishonest all the same.

Gnu atheists are naturalists. We respect reality to be the arbiter of what is true about it, meaning we remain consistent in our thinking that the natural order is not suspended simply because some people wish it to be so. Reality itself has to provide that evidence (and trust in how we can know about it through methodological naturalism). To date, there is no such evidence when and where there should be. There is no genetic proof for an original couple; no geological proof for a global flood; no astronomical proof for a geocentric solar system; no medical proof in the efficacy of prayer.  There are many claims that the natural order has in fact, in reality, in history been suspended,  that some supernatural causation has revealed itself by effect in the natural world, that this order has been affected by the supernatural according to hearsay, but none of these is informed by the same kind of evidence that informs how and what we know about the natural order.

And this raises an important point: this absence of equivalent evidence reveals the dishonesty by those who pretend there really IS an equivalency, IS another way to know, IS a similar method of inquiry that yields similar results of reliable and consistent knowledge. All of these claims of equivalency are false. They are not true. Perhaps this abject failure of belief to create any practical and reliable knowledge about the natural world is why so many believers go out of their way to try to cast aspersions on the trust cum ‘belief’ we place on knowledge about the natural order through this reliable and consistent method of respecting reality rather than belief to arbitrate what is true about, excusing how theology is presented without any similar evidence on the grounds that it’s of a different but compatible kind when there is no evidence from reality to support this, and the insistence by so many religious apologists that trust cum ‘belief’ we place on assumptions/assertions/attributions about the supernatural order is an equivalent method of inquiry that produces a similar kind of knowledge. This is demonstrably not true. (Gnus call this kind of fibbery Lyin’ fer Jebus)

And gnu atheists dare to point this out… thus earning the disparaging labels commonly found in media and used so often in the personal opinions of believers and accommodationists and apologists about New Atheists, words like militant, arrogant, strident, fundamentalist, angry, immoral, untrustworthy, and nihilistic. Defenders of supernatural beliefs tend to hold gnus to a different and much higher standard of behaviour than those religious folk who warn us of hell and eternal damnation for our refusing to fear and submit to their tyrannical god… and who even feel highly moral when they call for our banishment and even death. Those who support religion promoted in the public domain (as if belief in supernatural causation automatically grants one a voice in matters of public law, governance, and policy) cause a similar problem to those who do not support public vaccination: supporting that which may seem to offer comfort to the few only by forcibly putting everyone else at risk.

And this raises the point about what it is that gnu atheists actually do support: secular Enlightenment values that uphold equality in human rights, human freedoms, and human dignity first and foremost in human affairs. Belief in the supernatural is not a rational argument against these values and cannot be allowed to undermine them in the name of tolerance and reasonable accommodation; the inherent dishonesty necessary to maintain supernatural belief must be met with very public and sustained criticism whenever and wherever this superstitious nonsense attempts to join the grownups in adult conversation about human affairs in the reality we share.

So next time some silly and naive apologist for supernatural belief attempts to tell you that sophisticated liberal theology that doesn’t involve believing anything about the supernatural but distils wisdom from story and metaphor and myth from scriptural references and interpretations, remember what the majority of believers actually do believe: in the suspension of the natural order without compelling evidence in order to maintain without merit their dishonest belief in some element of supernaturalism.

December 19, 2011

“Can we trust the science?”

I come across this little gem of a question all the time when discussing why religion and science are incompatible methods of inquiry. Accommodationists and apologists for religion raise the specter all the time that many scientific results are later altered or overturned, which indicates to them that we can no more trust ‘science’ than we can trust claims in Oogity Boogity (they use different words, of course). This reveals a fundamental and widespread misunderstanding of what science is: a process of disciplined inquiry (using methodological naturalism) into mechanistic causal effects. The evidence is ubiquitous for establishing just how effective a process this is; we are surrounded by effective technologies based entirely on our understanding of causal effects that work for everyone everywhere all the time.

So how is it that many results arrived at through the use of the scientific method change?

Well, from the theistic perspective, such change in results is bad. It indicates a degradation in trustworthiness. In comparison, the certainty of unchanging faith produces a superior result in trustworthiness. In what, however, is not open to any equivalent inquiry, but holding hard and fast to such an a priori conclusion is assumed in religious terminology to be a virtue: faith.

From a scientific perspective, such change in results shows that the process is is working marvelously well! And it is working because all results are tentative, meaning that results are open to revision from having to account for new evidence from reality. If the results were not open to revision upon encountering new and contrary evidence from reality, the integrity of the inquiry process itself would be undermined, replaced as it would be with a dogmatic and inflexible a priori conclusion based only on first results assumed to be final results. This same assumption that supports theistic belief, namely faith,  in scientific terminology is considered a vice.

So the confusion between understanding ‘science’ representing a method or process of inquiry and representing fixed results reveals the confusion about the compatibility of science and religion. In both cases when compared honestly – scientific method with religious method, scientific result with religious result – we find them incompatible. Only by ignoring the glaring incompatibility in both cases can we keep a straight face and pretend they are like supportive siblings who get along famously. They don’t.  And this is obvious when we look at the contrary claims made about the universe not just between religions and science but by various religions in conflict with claims made other religions! If we are concerned about our inquiries into the universe and everything it contains being the same for everyone everywhere all the time, then we need to be honest in our comparisons between them. As Jerry Coyne clearly observes,

Science and religion have different methods of “knowing” (science depends on reason, observation, doubt and replication, religion on dogma, authority, and revelation); science and religion arrive at different conclusions about the world (e.g., the existence of Adam and Eve or of a sudden creation); and while there is only one form of science that transcends ethnicity or faith, different faiths arrive at different conclusions, so that the idea of religious “truth” must differ from that of scientific “truth.”

The appreciation we hold for the scientific method producing applicable and reliable knowledge needs to be moderated by a better public understanding of why the method is not equivalent to its results. Media – just like each of us – could do a much better job expressing the necessary tentativeness-as-a-virtue of scientific results rather than contribute in such liberal doses to promoting this confusion that the surety of results are equivalent to conclusions of faith… but not as trustworthy.

A perfect example of how poorly served we in the public are by media intent on sales by hype can be shown with gross mishandling of the CCSVI treatment for multiple sclerosis and the political pressures brought to bear on the medical community in response to a badly misinformed public. In contrast, we have an excellent example of good science working its way through an interesting link between the disease and vitamin D. Steven Novella explains the effects of the difference:

The story of vitamin D and MS is a good illustration of how science is supposed to work. A new hypothesis was introduced, which made some sense, and so investigators did preliminary research (observational studies) showing that there was a potential correlation. As the evidence grew, scientific interest grew, and researchers started to look at the question from multiple angles.

So far the hypothesis is holding up under scrutiny, but is far from proven. So researchers are working their way toward large definitive experimental trials. Each step of the way we see that scientists are cautious, thoughtful, skeptical and yet curious and willing to investigate a completely new idea.

Contrast this story to the one of CCSVI – the notion that MS is partially caused by blockages in the veins that drain the brain. Here the plausibility is low, but not zero, warranting some follow up research of the original observation. The follow up research so far is largely negative – the closer  we look at this possible phenomenon the more it seems that it probably does not exist.

So scientific interest in CCSVI is rapidly dwindling, but researchers will likely put a few more nails in that coffin before they are done with it, just to be sure. Meanwhile, there is a huge public controversy over CCSVI – not because of the science, but because of unwarranted hype.

When religious believers hold their faith conclusions to be tentative and subject to revision based on mind-independent evidence from reality, then and only then will science and religion finally arrive on mutually compatible grounds. Until that day arrives, religious belief is not an intellectual stand compatible in any way with scientific inquiry… either in method or results. And we know we can trust the science…


 

November 1, 2011

Why is John Haught an intellectual coward?

Filed under: accommodation,Debate,Jerry Coyne,John Haught,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 11:51 am

Back on October 12, 2011, Dr. Jerry Coyne debated theologian John Haught at the Gaines Center. Coyne describes it here. Prior to the event, both agreed to have it videotaped by the University of Kentucky where the debate was held and many of us have been waiting to see and hear it for ourselves. That’s not going to happen. No, Haught is refusing to release this tape and the Gaines Center is being particularly helpful in going along with Haught’s change in mind to have it suppressed from the public domain. This raises the question of why. Coyne has responded to this, as has PZ Myers, MacDonald, and Benson. By the few accounts I have read of the debate, Coyne who was well prepared was particularly effective in dismantling Haught’s accommodationist position that science and religion are compatible methods of inquiry by using Haught’s own words against him. Haught in contrast seemed to give a standard talk and was very ineffective addressing Coyne’s pointed criticisms.

It is perfectly understandable for someone not to want to advertise a debate in which they have done so poorly. But to change one’s mind after the fact and censor the publication of the videotape is intellectual cowardice and for the Gaines Center to go along with this cowardice is ethically shameful.

UPDATE (Nov 2): after much activity and a cascade of emails, Haught has allowed the video to be released here.

October 29, 2011

Can you solve for the value of religion in this equation?

Biologist Jerry Coyne (author of Why Evolution is True and the associated website of the same name) asked his new friend and former evangelical preacher Dan Barker (author of Godless and  co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation) what he thought of the acccommodationist argument about comporting science and religion to be of any value in moving the faithful toward science. Barker’s response was pretty clear: that in his opinion the opposite was true… that “there is no fruitful overlap between religion and science.”

Furthermore, Barker’s response explains why the advertised ‘good’ teachings to which religions lay claim are really human values that infuse the commonalities found in religions:

During my debates on morality I point out that all of the good teachings in the world religions (which show up in all of them) are really HUMAN values: peace, love, cooperation, and so on. Those values transcend religion, and are in fact the values we use when we are judging from the outside whether we think a particular religion is good or not. (So they must not originate from within religion.) When you factor out the common teachings shared by all religions (the good stuff, the humanistic stuff), what you are left with are NOT good teachings. The so-called “religious values” that Christians, Jew, Muslims and other groups hold are divisive, idiosyncratic, and unproductive to moral discourse: what day of the week you should worship, how women should dress, what foods are permitted, whose beards can be shaved, who is allowed to be married, and so on. Thinking of it like that, there is actually no overlap between “human values” (informed by science) and “religious values” (derived from holy scripture).

He then drives the point home by presenting us with clear algebraic equation:

Religion + Good Works = Good Works

Solve for Religion.

September 29, 2011

What is the fundamental error we make of religious scripture?

Presuming it’s true.

Once this fundamental error is made, there is a cascade effect that greatly impairs one’s cognitive ability to make later corrections for it; instead of simply correcting the original error in the face of mounting contrary evidence to its veracity, we see otherwise rational people perform amazing feats of mental gymnastics to accommodate its fundamental irrationality.

One of the most common ways for the believers to maintain the presumption of scriptural truth in the face of a contrary reality is to alter the language we use to describe that reality, and then shift blame for the obvious scriptural failure unto reality itself as some kind of dirty and obnoxious pollutant. This is where denial of reality finds sustenance in the religious community and offers aid and comfort to anti-intellectual, anti-science, anti-rational proponents.

Surely such deluded and intellectually dishonest people as reality deniers must be at the fringes of society, wouldn’t you think?

Apparently not.

Consider the legal wisdom delivered by Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia during his recent lecture at Duquesne University Law School, a catholic university in Pittsburgh:

“The Rule of Law is second only to the Rule of Love. The here and now is less important than the hereafter.”

Now think about that for moment.

His priority as a Supreme Court Justice is not about the rule of law in the here and now but about love leading to something he calls the “hereafter”. This is religio-speak for obeying the authority of scripture first and foremost. This blind obedience to the vagaries of biblical scripture to outline appropriate religious behaviour is what Scalia calls love, and its purpose is to exchange the legal respect owed to the individual here and now to some earned eternal bliss… the fulfillment of a nebulous contract to be fulfilled by god after that individual’s death.

That’s an insane contract in any other connotation: for example, how big a fool must you be to seriously accept the contract to pay me all your money throughout your life on the promise that I will pay you back a thousandfold after you’re dead.  It’s an insane presumption based as it is on no evidence outside of its religious connotations that it might be true. Yet for anyone inside its religious connotations such a presumption is fine for a catholic Supreme Court Justice, no matter how nutty, how batty, how foolish, how flipping crazy exactly the same thinking is without the religious connotation. For many, it’s peachy that we waive the requirement for rationality in and respect for the here and now in the name of respecting religious gullibility and delusion about the hereafter.

It seems to come as a shock to some people that making allowance for the religiously deluded might actually carry some small cost when it comes to following and implementing scripture. But is it really such a small price to pay?

Surely that insanity, that irrationality, stops when it comes to practicing and implementing actual individual legal equality, doesn’t it? Well…

Scalia again:

“Our educational establishment these days, while so tolerant of and even insistent upon diversity in all other aspects of life, seems bent on eliminating diversity of moral judgment – particularly moral judgment based on religious views. I hope this place will not yield – as some Catholic institutions have – to this politically correct insistence upon suppression of moral judgment, to this distorted view of what diversity in America means.”

What is he talking about? He’s bitching about the requirement that student clubs that receive university support and backing must be open to all students, even gays. Exercising this legal equality on behalf of all students who pay the same tuition and fees, who attend the same classes as everyone else, who meet the same academic expectations as all, suddenly becomes – in the confused mind of Supreme Court Justice Scalia – the distorted suppression of a religiously acceptable yet bigoted moral judgement.

This catholic moral judgement is not understood to be just another example of religiously inspired bigotry; after all, it comes from scripture, which is presumed to be true. That means that correct moral behaviour is considered by the religiously minded like Scalia to be bigotry in action. And that causes him not the slightest intellectual discomfort. In his mind befuddled and addled by catholicism all other considerations – like legal equality – must first fit this faith-based model on what is moral under scriptural authority, and if that means abusing the language to do so – by presuming that a bigoted moral judgement is sanctioned by god through the authority of scripture – then legal equality must be an imposition indeed.

The blame for this imposition – this insistence on legal equality by the secular state – is flung back at reality, claiming that legal equality of diverse people is actually a distorted view under catholicism, clashing as it does with the presumption of scriptural authority that allows a special exemption for religious bigotry under the intentional misnomer of moral judgement. It’s as if to say it isn’t up to me as a Supreme Court Justice to judge legal inequality when it is upheld by the religiously deluded; my hands are tied by the religious view that god has judged this inequality to be right and proper on moral grounds. Bigotry becomes moral and is then brought forth from the wastelands of scripture into the confusing world of real people in real time where what should be a cut and dry legal issue of equality  becomes a confused religious issue about permissive legal bigotry sanctioned on theological moral grounds.

And Scalia is okay with this contorted pretzel of rationalizations in the service of maintaining the supremacy his religious presumptions even in his high public office. The fact that such a dimwit and badly confused idiot as Scalia could be selected and then promoted to the highest secular court in the land is damning evidence of just how in need of repair and support is the wall of separation between church and state… if you care about legal equality, of course.

And on that issue I shouldn’t presume…

September 24, 2011

How can this kind of dedicated faith-based attack on Enlightenment values be accommodated?

It can’t.

This attack on the secular foundation of liberal democracies has to be fought in the public domain by anyone and everyone who thinks all of us have the same rights and freedoms to believe or not believe as each of us sees fit. No one is more at risk by this kind of fundamentalist evangelical advance into the political domain than those believers who value their religious freedom.Don’t be swayed by the notion that the state will favour the same one you do; what is lost is your freedom to choose otherwise and that’s not an insignificant right to sacrifice in the name of christian piety.

There is no middle ground in this battle.

(h/t sensuouscurmudgeon)

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