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.

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 7, 2011

What is evolution and why is it true?

Filed under: Dawkins,Evolution,Jerry Coyne — tildeb @ 3:39 pm

For those who may not appreciate what evolution is nor why it is a fact, please enjoy this award-winning presentation by Doctor Jerry Coyne, Professor of Genetics at the University of Chicago, website host and author of the best-selling book Why Evolution is True:

April 29, 2011

Why is the NCSE wrong to accommodate creationism?

Russell Blackford quite reasonably points out that When it comes to science education, public school systems in the United States and other liberal democracies generally have the secular goal of teaching students well-established findings, those that are generally accepted by working scientists.

But this isn’t reasonable enough for the NCSE (National Center for Science Education) when it comes to evolutionary biology. Unlike its treatment of all other scientific topics, when it comes to evolution in public education, they feel we must deal more delicately with the religiously inclined. They feel we should be more respectful dealing with christians even though many hold different views about how creation has actually taken place. They feel it wise to avoid dealing with the fact that most of them are wrong, can be proven wrong, and should, at least implicitly, be demonstrated to be wrong. Holding to some form of creationism – it is merely a matter of degree and not kind between Young Earth Creationsim and theistic evolution – avoids the fact that nothing in biology makes sense in light of creationism.

If the Pooh Bahs over at the NCSE wish to respect the notion in policy that parts of the bible remain divinely written or inspired, then is a matter of honesty to admit that the organization, as Coyne argues, is taking itself out of the ambit of empiricism and reason. You’re making a purely subjective decision based on revelation.

This is why the issue is important for the integrity of science education as a whole and the National Center for Science Education in particular to realize that’s why science organizations that endorse some brands of theology, while decrying others, are making a serious mistake. As Jerry Coyne points out in his open letter to the NCSE (motivated by repeated negative articles posted at The Chronicle of Higher Education , let the science of evolution speak for itself.

When this policy is altered to accommodate the kind of theology that presumably (there is little evidence of efficacy) allows for some kind of wider public acceptance for some kind of evolution, then the NCSE is choosing to support a theology that is favourable and good to its aim. Note this is not done for geology and plate tectonics, vulcanism and geography in spite of providing strong evidence against the christian doctrine of a great Flood. No special allowance is made for those who believe the tenets of astrology in the curriculum for astronomy. Alchemists don’t get special consideration and accommodation in chemistry. The subject of physics is not enhanced by pretending that it doesn’t interfere with belief in immaterial things. Yet when it comes to creationism and evolutionary biology, suddenly the wise people at the NCSE think special consideration for christian religious beliefs is necessary and thus warranted. That’s bizarre and, I think, highly counter productive for an organization concerned about educating our youth about science. As Coyne quite rightly points out, who are they (the NCSE) to decide what is “good” theology? What they mean by “good”, of course, is not “theology that gives us a more accurate sense of the divine,” (as stated in their policy) but “theology that best comports with our desire to sell evolution to the public.”

And I think Coyne’s conclusion – supported directly as it is by such people as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers and many other highly reputable scientists in evolutionary biology – is worth serious consideration because it raises an issue that I think many at the NCSE fail to understand:


First, your repeated and strong accusations that, by criticizing religion, atheists are alienating our pro-evolution allies (liberal Christians), has precisely the same alienating effect on your allies: scientists who are atheists. Second, your assertion that only you have the requisite communication skills to promote evolution is belied by the observation that you have, by your own ham-handed communications, alienated many people who are on the side of good science and evolution. You have lost your natural allies. And this is not just speculation, for those allies were us, and we’re telling you so.

January 5, 2011

Chris Mooney is at it again: isn’t ‘spirituality’ really another word for ‘religion’?

The piece (Chris Mooney’s article in Playboy) is about scientists who aren’t religious, but are spiritual, in an atheistic sort of way. An excerpt:

But can scientists who say they are awestruck by nature and moved by their research really relate to more traditional religious experiences, a la those reported by saints? Aren’t “awe” and “wonder” nondescript notions that add emotional embroidery to the brute facts of the universe? Perhaps not. Feelings of awe, wonder and mystery recur in the context of human quests for deeper understanding or revelation. In his 1917 work The Idea of the Holy, German theologian Rudolph Otto singled out a sense of awe as a key characteristic of our encounters with what he termed the “numinous”–an overwhelming power or presence beyond ourselves.

Science can unleash this feeling too. Just sit in a darkened room and look at nebulae pictures from the Hubble Space Telescope, as University of Rochester astrophysicist Adam Frank describes doing in his book The Constant Fire: Beyond the Science vs. Religion Debate. “Scientists are not the only ones who catch their collective breath before these pictures,” he writes. “The momentary hush and the gasp that follow are involuntary.”

Mooney is one of those authors (who is funded in part by being a Fellow the Templeton Foundation) to vainly search for ways to force science and religion to be compatible ways of knowing. He claims to be all about communication by bashing gnu atheists, making up stories about them, posting these lies on his blog at Discover, banning people who dare criticize him, and pretending that it is the atheists who inhibit this ‘natural’ fit. For years he complained about framing, that a failure to frame religion and its active interference in gaining and applying knowledge while promoting superstition and ignorance in their place was detrimental to promoting science. I hold Mooney and his ego in contempt.

Now he’s switched gears a bit and is on what I call the Spirituality Bandwagon: that religion is really a substitute word for what it should be… spirituality. Because what we call spirituality can be shared by both atheist and believer, Mooney wants to re-FRAME the natural incompatibility between faith-based beliefs and knowledge as one of a common spirituality expressed in these different but compatible ways. But are they?

From Jerry Coyne about what science and religion really offer each other:

1. Religion gains but one thing from science: an increasing knowledge about the universe that makes mockery of religious doctrine, forcing the faithful to revise their dogma while claiming that it was consistent with science all along.

2. Science has nothing to gain from religion, which is simply an annoyance that distracts us from our job.

This is an excellent post by Ken on the state of NOMA today with a bang-on cartoon by jesusandmo over at Open Parachute.

Meanwhile, back at Whyevolutionistrue, Coyne comments about Mooney’s article and gets to the heart of the matter:

What a smarmy and intellectually dishonest piece of accommodationist tripe, relying as it does on conflating two completely disparate notions of “spirituality”!  Can we agree, then, that when we get all emotional about a piece of music or a novel or a nebula, or experience wonder at the products of natural selection—that we give these emotions a name different from “sprituality”?  That just confuses the diverse meanings of the term (which was Mooney’s intent) and gives ammunition to acoommodationists.

PZ Myers joins in and is also bang on with his criticism of Mooney and his ilk:

Well, spirituality is all about the believers. It’s a slimy game relying on the fact that apologists love to dodge criticisms of religion, the body of concrete, specific, institutionalized beliefs about the supernatural, by retreating to the tactical vagueness of “faith” or “spirituality”, whatever the hell they are.

You can’t expect us to simply respect foolish ideas. We tolerate them, but people like Mooney go further and demand that we respect nonsense, and that’s not going to happen, and shouldn’t happen.

And trying to coopt an honest scientific appreciation of the wonders of the universe as support for religion is a dishonest attempt to prop up bogus superstitions with an appeal to emotions — any emotions. If a scientist isn’t a passionless robot, Mooney wants to be able to pretend they’re on the side of religious dogma. That rankles. Love of science is not equatable to clinging to ignorance, although Chris Mooney is straining to make it so.

October 12, 2010

Why aren’t science and religion friends?

Filed under: bioLogos,Jerry Coyne,Religion,Science — tildeb @ 8:53 am

From USA Today comes Jerry Coyne’s article that is a summation of his reasons why Karl Gibberson over at BioLogos is wrong about his series of critical articles against Coyne over the compatibility of science and religion. I have posted the entire piece because I think it succinctly addresses the core differences between the two ‘ways of knowing’:

Religion in America is on the defensive.

Atheist books such as The God Delusion and The End of Faith have, by exposing the dangers of faith and the lack of evidence for the God of Abraham, become best-sellers. Science nibbles at religion from the other end, relentlessly consuming divine explanations and replacing them with material ones. Evolution took a huge bite a while back, and recent work on the brain has shown no evidence for souls, spirits, or any part of our personality or behavior distinct from the lump of jelly in our head. We now know that the universe did not require a creator. Science is even studying the origin of morality. So religious claims retreat into the ever-shrinking gaps not yet filled by science. And, although to be an atheist in America is still to be an outcast, America’s fastest-growing brand of belief is non-belief.

But faith will not go gentle. For each book by a “New Atheist,” there are many others attacking the “movement” and demonizing atheists as arrogant, theologically ignorant, and strident. The biggest area of religious push-back involves science. Rather than being enemies, or even competitors, the argument goes, science and religion are completely compatible friends, each devoted to finding its own species of truth while yearning for a mutually improving dialogue.

As a scientist and a former believer, I see this as bunk. Science and faith are fundamentally incompatible, and for precisely the same reason that irrationality and rationality are incompatible. They are different forms of inquiry, with only one, science, equipped to find real truth. And while they may have a dialogue, it’s not a constructive one. Science helps religion only by disproving its claims, while religion has nothing to add to science.

Irreconcilable

“But surely,” you might argue, “science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious.” One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn’t prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.

Science operates by using evidence and reason. Doubt is prized, authority rejected. No finding is deemed “true” — a notion that’s always provisional — unless it’s repeated and verified by others. We scientists are always asking ourselves, “How can I find out whether I’m wrong?” I can think of dozens of potential observations, for instance — one is a billion-year-old ape fossil — that would convince me that evolution didn’t happen.

Physicist Richard Feynman observed that the methods of science help us distinguish real truth from what we only want to be true: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Science can, of course, be wrong. Continental drift, for example, was laughed off for years. But in the end the method is justified by its success. Without science, we’d all live short, miserable and disease-ridden lives, without the amenities of medicine or technology. As Stephen Hawking proclaimed, science wins because it works.

Does religion work? It brings some of us solace, impels some to do good (and others to fly planes into buildings), and buttresses the same moral truths embraced by atheists, but does it help us better understand our world or our universe? Hardly. Note that almost all religions make specific claims about the world involving matters such as the existence of miracles, answered prayers wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections. These factual claims, whose truth is a bedrock of belief, bring religion within the realm of scientific study. But rather than relying on reason and evidence to support them, faith relies on revelation, dogma and authority. Hebrews 11:1 states, with complete accuracy, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Indeed, a doubting-Thomas demand for evidence is often considered rude.

And this leads to the biggest problem with religious “truth”: There’s no way of knowing whether it’s true. I’ve never met a Christian, for instance, who has been able to tell me what observations about the universe would make him abandon his beliefs in God and Jesus. (I would have thought that the Holocaust could do it, but apparently not.) There is no horror, no amount of evil in the world, that a true believer can’t rationalize as consistent with a loving God. It’s the ultimate way of fooling yourself. But how can you be sure you’re right if you can’t tell whether you’re wrong?

The religious approach to understanding inevitably results in different faiths holding incompatible “truths” about the world. Many Christians believe that if you don’t accept Jesus as savior, you’ll burn in hell for eternity. Muslims hold the exact opposite: Those who see Jesus as God’s son are the ones who will roast. Jews see Jesus as a prophet, but not the messiah. Which belief, if any, is right? Because there’s no way to decide, religions have duked it out for centuries, spawning humanity’s miserable history of religious warfare and persecution.

In contrast, scientists don’t kill each other over matters such as continental drift. We have better ways to settle our differences. There is no Catholic science, no Hindu science, no Muslim science — just science, a multicultural search for truth. The difference between science and faith, then, can be summed up simply: In religion faith is a virtue; in science it’s a vice.

But don’t just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it’s amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%, according to Rice professor Elaine Howard Ecklund’s book, Science vs. Religion. Further proof: Among countries of the world, there is a strong negative relationship between their religiosity and their acceptance of evolution. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, with low belief in God, have high acceptance of evolution, while religious countries are evolution-intolerant. Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We’re No. 33, with only Turkey below us. Finally, in a 2006 Time poll a staggering 64% of Americans declared that if science disproved one of their religious beliefs, they’d reject that science in favor of their faith.

‘Venerable superstition’

In the end, science is no more compatible with religion than with other superstitions, such as leprechauns. Yet we don’t talk about reconciling science with leprechauns. We worry about religion simply because it’s the most venerable superstition — and the most politically and financially powerful.

Why does this matter? Because pretending that faith and science are equally valid ways of finding truth not only weakens our concept of truth, it also gives religion an undeserved authority that does the world no good. For it is faith’s certainty that it has a grasp on truth, combined with its inability to actually find it, that produces things such as the oppression of women and gays, opposition to stem cell research and euthanasia, attacks on science, denial of contraception for birth control and AIDS prevention, sexual repression, and of course all those wars, suicide bombings and religious persecutions.

And any progress — not just scientific progress — is easier when we’re not yoked to religious dogma. Of course, using reason and evidence won’t magically make us all agree, but how much clearer our spectacles would be without the fog of superstition!

Jerry A. Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at The University of Chicago. His latest book is Why Evolution is True, and his website is www.whyevolutionistrue.com.

August 11, 2010

Why do we think some kinds of babies are cute while others we think are not?

Filed under: Biology,Evolution,Jerry Coyne — tildeb @ 11:10 am

“Biology precedes our desires.”

I’ve been thinking about how informative that route is to explore for explanations yet seemingly is overlooked with ease by those who find it more convincing to believe that a mystical transfer occurs between some supernatural agent and humans.

There is a wonderful post for any who might be interested in this topic by (award winning author) Jerry Coyne about this subject with some terrific pictures like this one over at Why Evolution Is True.

May 25, 2010

The moral high ground: Is this how you teach atheists to play Nice?

Dr. Karl Giberson, a professor at Eastern Nazarene College and co-president of the BioLogos Foundation, tells us in his article published in USA Today that New Atheists need to learn how to play well with others.  His main argument here is that because some well-respected scientists are christian, christianity is compatible with science. Supposedly he’s just as fine with the same logic that because some catholic priests are pedophiles, pedophilia is compatible with catholicism. Setting aside the main thrust of this very stupid argument, he admonishes the New Atheists for countering such very stupid arguments and pretends to take the moral high ground to do so, and reminds us that Nothing is gained by loud, self-promoting and mean-spirited assaults on the beliefs of fellow citizens. In addition, he tells us that it appears that the New Atheists are behaving like a boorish bunch of intellectual bullies.

Mean-spirited assaults. Boorish bullies. Yes, those New Atheists are a mean and boorish bunch and they are loud because they wish to promote themselves. Terrible people, really. How do we know this? We know this because people like Giberson keep telling us it is so. It’s the standard ‘tone’ argument; religious apologists keep telling atheists that they need to change the tone of their arguments to be more effective countering very stupid arguments offered up by religious believers that in turn counter the claim that science and religion are compatible ways to know what’s true. ‘Tone’ is often code for ‘Just shut the fuck up and keep your filthy mouth closed because what you are saying is disrespectful of my very stupid arguments and therefore disrespectful of my god.’ As evidence for this mean-spirited assault, Giberson tells us that New Atheist Jerry Coyne raked Brown University cell biologist Ken Miller and him  over the coals in The New Republic for their claims that Christians can unapologetically embrace science. Now isn’t that mean-spirited? Downright boorish and bullying, too.

What did Coyne actually write in The New Republic?

Giberson and Miller are thoughtful men of good will. Reading them, you get a sense of conviction and sincerity absent from the writings of many creationists, who blatantly deny the most obvious facts about nature in the cause of their faith. Both of their books are worth reading: Giberson for the history of the creation/ evolution debate, and Miller for his lucid arguments against intelligent design. Yet in the end they fail to achieve their longed-for union between faith and evolution. And they fail for the same reason that people always fail: a true harmony between science and religion requires either doing away with most people’s religion and replacing it with a watered-down deism, or polluting science with unnecessary, untestable, and unreasonable spiritual claims.

See how mean-spirited that is? Why the boorishness and intellectual bullying almost leaps off the page, doesn’t it?

The truth of the matter is that it is liars like Giberson, who paint New Atheists inaccurately and then have the gall and temerity and lack of moral integrity and intellectual honesty to deal with legitimate criticism against their religious ideas like grown-ups, resort instead to name calling and spreading false rumors. In religious terminology, I think it is relevant to call what Giberson does bearing false witness.  And it is offensive because it undermines exactly the supposed point of why the article was published in the first place: that playing nicely results in more respect for compatibility.

As Ophelia Benson writes about the mean-spirited and boorish bullying accusation,

That’s a really offensive claim. Not offensive in the frivolous sense the word is so often used to convey, but genuinely offensive, because it is untrue. Coyne doesn’t rake Miller and Giberson over any coals; he says good things about both of them in that long review in The New Republic; he also disagrees with much of what they claim in their respective books. He does it honestly, and carefully, and with detailed argument. That is not the same thing as raking people over the coals! It is offensive for Karl Giberson to make that accusation in a large-circulation national newspaper. Yet here he is telling other people how to play nicely. It’s so typical – say things about atheists that are not true, in the very act of telling atheists to be Nicer.

Giberson is not alone. Typical criticisms by religious apologists against the New Atheists – for daring to criticize religious beliefs by pointing out the incompatibility between science and religion – can’t win on intellectual merit. Nor can Giberson and his religiously apologetic ilk win the argument on honest moral grounds; what we do see is that the New Atheists have to be demonized first by mean-spirited and boorishly bullying methods even if it requires blatant unapologetic lying to do so. You see, by hook or by crook, any method to inaccurately portray New Atheists poorly and get the false message out there that they are terrible people to the broadest audience possible is really all that matters to people like Giberson. Playing nice, as you can plainly see, has nothing to do with the point of his article and is just another example of duplicity by the faithful to support the maligning of atheists themselves rather than deal honestly, openly, and fairly with their legitimate criticisms. Such people as Giberson who prefer to believe the worst about atheists in spite of contrary evidence and those who prefer to agree with their boorish and bullying tactics are really nothing more and nothing less than intellectual cowards.

March 17, 2010

What is the key to accepting unjustified beliefs as true?

Several posts ago we looked at the issue of homeschooling biology textbooks out of Bob Jones University that endorsed creationism as a legitimate alternative to evolution. Jerry Coyne, evolutionary biologist and author of the excellent book Why Evolution Is True was asked to respond to a homeschooling parent who was concerned about this issue. He was then quoted in the New York times saying that these science textbooks lied to children by misrepresenting the science of biology and how irresponsible it was for parents to support this kind of lie for the maintenance of religious sensibilities over and above what is true.

I think to better understand how people can wholeheartedly believe unjustified notions (like creationism, for example) as if they were just as likely to be true as some notion informed by evidence and supported by a very high probability of the notion being true  (like evolution, for example) lies not in the facts as we find them but in the way we approach those facts.

Michael McHugh is head of a young-earth creationist organization, CLASS, that sells home-school materials on biology to parents. He states (on audio clip 100316 here) that the biology textbooks in question can select whatever ‘facts’ best supports the creationist worldview, that there are “no neutral facts.”  That is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview.  His suggestion for how to educate your kids involves choosing which worldview the parent believes suits them best, and then selecting the “facts” that fit this worldview.

That assertion is jaw-dropping stupid. It is so stupid, it burns. It is unconscionable in an educator, but it does explain an extraordinary phenomena we come across time and again of how people can remain fixated on some belief being true regardless of overwhelming contrary evidence. How can this be possible?

The mindset described by Michael McHugh explains exactly how so many otherwise rational people can become so selective in the ‘facts’ they already believe are representative of and meaningful to their worldview, while able to so callously disregard other ‘facts’ that are in direct conflict with the worldview. What this essentially means is that anyone who says “…there are ‘no neutral facts’…that is, every fact militates either for or against a certain worldview…” holds a worldview which cannot be changed by facts and will ignore or refute any evidence counter to their absolute premise. (Tip to #7 Oldfuzz commenting on WEIT about this subject.)

The facts don’t matter to someone who subscribes to this approach that no facts are neutral, that all facts militate for or against a worldview. But this approach means that all evidence does not count but only selected evidence, and this is exactly what we find with people who hold unjustified beliefs. They are only unjustified when all the evidence is considered, but appear highly justified when only carefully selected evidence is considered. In other words, to such people truth dos not matter. Inquiry is not needed. Intellectual integrity is disregarded. Knowledge is subordinate to and dependent on belief in that worldview.

And that’s exactly how ignorance becomes champion and can be promoted by so many well-intentioned homeschooling parents.

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