Questionable Motives

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.

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)

June 1, 2011

Religious intolerance again: In with the Old, Out with New, or Why not stick to an anti-harassment policy for all students rather than include a new homophobia/heterosexism policy?

The short answer is that anti-harassment policies in schools don’t work, and this is being addressed in a Burnaby school district here in Canada. The public response surprisingly seems to be quite polarizing and the school trustees are trying to tread the political waters very carefully. But is it really a public response?

Burnaby, for those readers who may not know, is one of several multicultural and diverse cities making up the greater urban built-up area in the lower Fraser Valley commonly called ‘Vancouver’ (locally called ‘The Lower Mainland’ versus the somewhat confusing Vancouver Island urban population locally called ‘The Island,’ which happens to include the capital city of Victoria!). Greater Vancouver is a major city of about 4 million in Canada’s most western province, British Columbia, and is consistently rated as one of the best cities in the world to live… unless you’re a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered or questioning student, that is. And we know this because under anti-harassment school policies:

  • Three-quarters of LGBTQ students and 95% of transgender students felt unsafe at school, compared to one-fifth of straight students. Six-of-ten LGBTQ students reported being verbally harassed about their sexual orientation.
  • Three-quarters of all participating students reported hearing expressions such as “that’s so gay” every day in school. Half heard remarks like “faggot,” “queer,” “lezbo” and “dyke” daily.
  • Over a quarter of LGBTQ students and almost half of transgender students had skipped school because they felt unsafe, compared to less than a tenth of non-LGBTQ students. (Source)

Compared to heterosexual youths, LGBTQ youth going to school under current anti-harassment policies were more likely:

  • To have experienced physical and sexual abuse, harassment in school, and discrimination in the community
  • To have reported emotional stress, suicidal thoughts, and suicide attempts In addition:
    • LGB youth felt less cared about by parents and less connected to their families than heterosexual teens, and for lesbian and bisexual females less connected to school.
    • When bisexual youth reported high family and school connectedness, their probability of suicide attempts was much lower than for bisexual youth with lower connectedness, even when they had strong risk factors for suicide. (Source)

So why do school districts need to do anything about this at if it stirs up so much heated anti-policy local response which costs trustees their jobs?

The Auditor General of BC has ordered that:

“School districts should: Provide teachers with suitable guidance for encouraging tolerance and respect for students of same sex orientation.” (#9, page 62)

The BC School Trustees Association has stated that:

“the BCSTA encourages and supports school district policies that specifically address the safety concerns of, and prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans-identified students, as well as students who are harassed due to perceptions of their gender identity or sexual orientation; and has the Education committee draft a sample policy to aid school districts in this process.” (Source)

Perhaps most telling are the findings from the BC government’s Safe School Task Force:

“From our conversations with British Columbians all across the province, we have learned that bullying behaviour is often founded in discrimination based on perceived “differences” such as race, disability, gender or sexual orientation; that discrimination can have a negative impact upon student psychological and emotional health; and that bullying can contribute to decreased student participation in school and failure to graduate.”

“The Task Force members heard that even the perception of being homosexual or of being tolerant of homosexuality is enough to result in harassment and intimidation, including both emotional and physical abuse from those who choose to bully.”

“Presenters expressed concerned about the frequent use of homophobic language in schools. For example, the use of pejoratives such as “that’s so gay” have become common in the lexicon of students for describing negative events or as an insult to make students who are, or are perceived to be gay, uncomfortable.”

Against this background, Burnaby has completed a draft policy that states:

a) Teachers shall be encouraged to embed and integrate LGBTQ issues into existing curriculum in age-appropriate ways to help students acquire the skills and knowledge to understand the impacts of homophobia and transphobia upon society, and
b) School staffs shall be encouraged to support LGBTQ people by teaching about their positive contributions to society and modeling acceptance of diversity.

So what’s the big deal here? The school district has to do this and there’s lots of good evidence that something needs to change. But the interesting question is: Why is it that Burnaby – the 12th school district to formulate such a policy in BC – is suddenly faced with such stiff ‘public’ opposition where none existed for the other 11 school districts? Don’t you find that a bit… shall we say… suspicious?

A group known as Parents’ Voice has organized against this policy in Burnaby. They claim to be merely an ad hoc community group of concerned individuals, but when one digs a little deeper one finds that it is in everything but name a religious group. Why are we not surprised that a religious group would be behind some push to keep the old that doesn’t work and protest the new that does? Faith-based belief is immune (read ‘superior’) to contrary evidence, of course.

In their organization’s news release, we find the following comments… with a bit of bold added by me for emphasis, but of course no specific mention of their ad hoc community group’s major religious tie:

Growing numbers of students, parents and other tax-payers are concerned that the Board’s failure to provide full disclosure may be a deliberate attempt to hide the fact that there is a hidden political agenda—an agenda that doesn’t respect parental rights, student’s rights or the Charter-mandated equality rights of Canadians, but instead serves the political interests of activist teachers and their union. Parents’ Voice asks; “If the faith-based community is not considered an ally, does this Board of School Trustees consider them to be the enemy?

But the game of deceit – what we in the atheist community like to call Lying For Jesus – was exposed when about 100 protesters showed up at the trustee’s meeting and we found out that of the  nearly all were members of Burnaby’s Willingdon Church (and almost entirely of Asian descent), who crowded into the packed board room holding handmade signs that read “No to 5.45.” Is this group truly  representational of the public?  I don;t think so.

One of their spokespeople said “This policy places far too much importance and emphasis on an issue that impacts a few,” said Heather Leung, a local parent with three kids in the school system. “What is being recommended in this draft is a deliberate and systemic strategy to indoctrinate our children with a controversial moral teaching that should be left for families to decide on and wrestle through.” Leung also said the policy labels children and suggests they question their sexual orientation and sexual identity.

Another said ““The draft policy imposes on children the idea that their family is perpetrating negative stereotypes when parents educate their children with the values that are consistent with their moral beliefs,” says George Kovacic. Kovacic believes the anti-homophobia policy uses children as “pawns to promote a particular social agenda.”

So there’s another fine example of religiously inspired intolerance adduced from scripture brought into the public domain (by a tolerated – even celebrated – immigrant minority no less!) – into one of the most successful multicultural cities in the world – attempting to negatively affect needed policy change so that others currently subject to discrimination can perhaps one day be tolerated – even celebrated – by the public at large.

The irony is jaw-dropping.

December 9, 2010

How does the long arm of American evangelical beliefs threaten people’s lives in Uganda?

Ignorance in action so often aided and abetted by religious conviction continues to cause unnecessary suffering. This is especially true regarding the treatment in law of homosexuals and the active advocacy of religious organizations to promote bigotry and misogyny in the name of god.

From HuffPo:

Rachel Maddow devoted almost half of her Wednesday show to a lengthy interview with David Bahati, author of the infamous bill in the Ugandan Parliament that calls for gay people to face life imprisonment or, in some cases, execution if they are convicted of having practiced homosexuality.

Bahati is also a member of The Family, the religious organization that carries substantial power on Capitol Hill (ever heard of the yearly National Prayer Breakfast?) .

Maddow asked him how gays living openly in Uganda harmed children. “It hurts my family when my child goes to school and is converted into gay…when the purpose of procreation is undermined,” Bahati said.

He also said that he was concerned about following “God’s law.” Maddow pressed him on this point, finally getting him to acknowledge that, in his view, the “appropriate punishment” for violating God’s law is death. “We need to turn to God,” he said.

Watch the entire interview (in two parts) here.

August 21, 2010

Spiritual fitness?

You are a soldier in training. Your unit is marched to a christian concert where you are told you may or may not attend. About half choose not to attend, who are then marched back to barracks, locked down, and all are ordered to maintenance duty for the duration of the concert.

From Talk to Action:

For the past several years, two U.S. Army posts in Virginia, Fort Eustis and Fort Lee, have been putting on a series of what are called Commanding General’s Spiritual Fitness Concerts. “Spiritual fitness” is just the military’s new term for promoting religion, particularly evangelical Christianity.

Is this treatment unusual? Is it the case that the US military allows freedom of and from religion, or is the policy to routinely tip the table when it comes to ‘spiritual fitness’ and claim that the rolling ball is making a choice about its direction? What are they saying over at Dispatches from the culture wars?

From commentator Laen (27)

This is common in Basic, AIT, and army schools…airborne, wlc, air assault, and etc. All the concerts/shows/whatevers are commonly cover ups for christian activities. All christian bands pop, country, or the holiday shows…bleh the holiday shows. Oh and by the way while at the events you could get real food and drinks as opposed to just the chow hall garbage, that’s how they bolster the numbers to make it look like people want to go. Offer the concerts on one side and the food and drink on the other…see which gets more traffic then. Same with Sundays, go to church, some church, or clean the barracks.

From sdej (48) comes this comment:

I recently completed a year in Iraq. The first day I was in the unit I had to meet with the Chaplain as part of in-processing. I figured that would go pretty quickly. He asked me my religious preference and I answered none. Somehow that got translated as non-denominational christian and I got handed a stack of literature including a New Testament. While we were downrange, he sent out mass e-mails to the entire unit almost every day. There was no way to opt out. They didn’t always cross the line into proselytizing but often did. I managed to archive every one of those messages just in case I decide to do something about it.

The Army seems to think that spiritual fitness is an important and real thing, separate from mental or emotional fitness. It’s the default assumption and is codified in our FMs and ARs. I cannot thank the MRFF enough for the work they do.

Yet is it not the sworn duty of every officer in the US military to defend the Constitution – the entire Constitution including the First Amendment’s Establishment clause? Or are parts of that Constitution exempted from that oath if certain actions promote a specific kind of christian spiritual fitness? Should we hold officers to that oath or shouldn’t we?

I think some commanding officers need to have their dishonourable asses fired.

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