Questionable Motives

March 9, 2013

Why were we wrong then and why are we wrong now?

How refreshing to hear working scientists freely admit that practices based on poor understanding can result in being wrong when the evidence from reality shows us this to be the case! (If only theists were as honest about the practices undertaken on behalf of their faith!)

May 24, 2012

Is the prevalence of religious belief a sign of an unhealthy society?

Filed under: Education,Evolution,Religion,Society — tildeb @ 8:18 pm

Yes.

Oh, come on, you say. Religious belief helps us to deal with problems in a dysfunctional society… or so this favourite little religious meme assures us. But is it true?

Besides, how can anyone scientifically correlate religious belief to an unhealthy society? Surely the data must be cherry picked!

Well, Jerry Coyne (WEIT), the author of this paper published at Evolution, has collected a rather convincing stable of studies that does most of the arguing on his behalf. Granted, he is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and a member of both the Committee on Genetics and the Committee on Evolutionary Biology, so he does have an agenda to promote a better understanding of evolution. But the numbers are quite clear: great swaths of Americans will not accept evolution. Jerry wants to know in particular why American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This paper answers the question with an inescapable conclusion: religious belief.

What can be done to change this deplorable condition – what Jerry calls a “national embarrassment” – of believing in anti-scientific religious belief over a robust scientific explanation that works for everyone everywhere all the time?

The prevalence of religious belief in the United States suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America.

Okay, if contrary religious belief is the problem, how can this grip be loosened?

Through difficult social change.

The reasons to correlate religious belief with a dysfunctional society are laid out clearly and succinctly drawing on dozens of recent studies. The data is compelling. I urge all readers to download the pdf and read this short paper for themselves, to see just how overwhelming are the various avenues of correlation, to think seriously about how and why this “disgrace” has come to be, what sustains it, what personal responsibility we share in pretending it’s not an ongoing problem accompanied by real life ramifications for our collective society. Don’t reject it out of hand because it disagrees with your religious beliefs. Think about it first.

We have to stop pretending religious belief is an accumulative good or something valuable enough in itself that its public face must be accommodated.  It’s not and we shouldn’t. It is a problem that breeds and excuses social inequity.

Concerned as he is with the problematic low level of understanding why evolution is true, Coyne concludes,

Ultimately, the best strategy to make Americans more receptive to evolution might require loosening the grip of religion on our country. This may sound not only invidious but untenable, yet data from other countries suggest that such secularism is possible and, indeed, is increasing in the United States at this moment. But weakening religion may itself require other, more profound changes: creating a society that is more just, more caring, more egalitarian. Regardless of how you feel about religion, that is surely a goal most of us can endorse.

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.

December 31, 2011

Why is the call for democracy the wrong call?

We hear it all the time, calls for democracy to somehow fix political problems, calls to support pro-democracy groups, to aid pro-democracy movements, to accept democratic decisions, as if democracy alone is the essential foundation for legitimate policies.

I beg to differ, summed up by the typically accurate phrase: Meet the new boss… same as the old one.

This is what we see happening again and again: some democratic change followed by a continuation of the same problems that led to calls for democracy in the first place:

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta conveyed his “deep concern” to Egypt’s military ruler over police raids on pro-democracy groups, the Pentagon said, after a major clampdown this week drew a torrent of criticism. Some of the organisations targeted in Thursday’s swoops on 17 offices of local and international NGOs charged that the security force action ordered by Egypt’s military rulers was worse than that under the veteran strongman Hosni Mubarak whom they replaced in February. (source)

And in Russia,

Medvedev said in his state of the nation address that Russia “needs democracy, not chaos” and that the government would strongly resist foreign pressure. (source)

In Pakistan, president  Asif Ali Zardari,

told tens of thousands of people gathered at the Bhutto family shrine at Garhi Khuda Baksh in the southern Sindh province that the best way to pay tribute to his late wife, killed while campaigning in elections in 2007, was “to defend and protect democracy and democratic institutions in the country and foil all conspiracies against it. (source)

The call is ubiquitous when it comes to trying to end conflicts and to fix political problems, from Serbia to China-Taiwan relations, to Syria’s ongoing revolt, as if holding presidential elections in Haiti, Afghanistan, and Iraq will help magically establish functioning and stable democratic countries. This is a pipe dream, doomed to failure.

Democracy is not the cure and neither is the lack of it the problem. Democracy – full, participatory, one person one vote democracy – is but a symptom of a healthy political structure built upon something else, something necessary, something that works, something that is practical and consistent, something enlightened, namely, the principle of reciprocity writ large: equal human rights recognized as the basis of law.

Without this cornerstone, democracy is nothing but mob rule susceptible to control by a strongman, ineffective and inefficient to create and sustain political and economic peace and prosperity. But with this cornerstone, democracy is the inevitable result, the final if temporary arbiter in political differences and directions for a set amount of time.

Without equal human rights recognized as the basis for authority of law, democracy and the rule that comes from it becomes nothing more than a tool to justify the tyranny of the majority, allowing abuses to be inflicted on minorities without care, redress,  or recourse. And this is exactly what we see happening where democracy is inserted on a population undeveloped in law respecting equal human rights. This is what we see in Tunisia and Libya as the leadership begins to  undermine equal human rights  with the imposition on all of Sharia. This is why the Arab Spring – to bring freedom and democracy to all – will fail to take root, fail to flourish, fail to address the real problems of inequality: their largely illiterate populations will democratically try to remain tyrannically democratic until a leader comes along who can reduce the accompanying violence from oppressed minorities and impose order, pockets of peace, and some small measure of prosperity for the favoured.

As long as the basis OF law is represented by something other than the willingness of those who are ruled to be treated fairly, honestly, and reciprocally IN law, democracy alone is an inadequate substitute FOR law.  Calling for it under this inadequacy is not a political solution or even an improvement but the wrong call altogether. It is a temporary diversion at best, a way to galvanize people to come together under a popular banner until old power is replaced. It is a false clarion, an empty promise, a tyrant in waiting. Pretending that democracy not built on the legal foundation of equal human rights is somehow a solution is like believing  a weather vane directs the wind; it is just another backwards belief.

October 12, 2011

Are the religious more socially responsive through charity and volunteering than the non religious?

It is not unusual for me to be presented with this notion by supporters of various religions in full agreement with each other on this issue… as if it were unquestionably true. After all, there really are many religious charities and organizations doing socially responsive work. I even see some advertised on the local public transit. Fortunately, we have some census data out of Great Britain that may surprise these supporters (I have added some bold):

In terms of civic engagement and formal volunteering, the figures show no significant difference between those with a religion and those with no religion (57% and 56% respectively). There is scarcely any difference in participation between those with no religion and self-described Christians (56% and 58%). At 44%, the proportion of Hindus and Muslims participating in civic engagement and formal volunteering is actually lower than the proportion of non-religious people doing so, and the lowest of all groups. This is no flash in the pan – it is a continuing feature of the figures over a number of years.

The figures supplement other data that makes the same point, not only from previous years’ citizenship surveys. In 2007, Faith and Voluntary Action, from the National Council of Voluntary Organisations found that “religious affiliation makes little difference in terms of volunteering”, and as a matter of simple numbers, the overwhelming majority of the voluntary, community and charity sector in the UK are secular.

I think the Guardian article helps explain further:

Non-religious people are volunteering all the time, but don’t feel the need to do it in the name of being non-religious. They may even do it for charities that have a nominally religious origin. Being therefore less visible than specifically religious contributions to society, this can support the myth that non-religious people do less community work. This anecdotal misconception can only be corrected by data, which is not something to which most people have access.

So I’m just doing my bit to spread the data to a wider audience (and even I have donated through religious organizations for specific charity work and I wouldn’t consider myself much of a religious supporter). Yes, Virginia, you really can be good without god  Now… where’s a bus to carry that message? Oh right… this atheist campaign to adorn buses with reassuring messages that morality is not dependent on religious affiliations was refused access to advertise on public transit in my hometown. Too… militant and strident and divisive for the public transit commission officers making the decision to reject it. That the message happens to be true in fact doesn’t seem to carry much weight in such decisions made on the public’s behalf. No surprise there.

September 10, 2011

What are the boundaries of religion?

Religions recognize no boundaries. There exists no issue in human affairs about which the religious think their faith should have no determining say.

This is the problem the evangelical faith-is-a-gift always brings to us all: a willingness to insert some tyrannical element of their faith into any and all human affairs regardless of the topic. This is why faith – built on the foundation of its own colossal arrogance that what is true in reality is arbitrated by faith rather than reality  – attempts to determine pious science, determine pious justice, determine pious rights and pious freedoms, determine pious morality, determine the very nature of the universe and everything within it. Not even satisfied by this boundary of the natural universe, the religious think themselves justified to define what lies beyond the natural – from ghosts and goblins and spirits to angels and devils and demons… right up to the Big Oogity Boogity Himself (BOBH): god. Suspending physical laws and inserting miracles galore as if they were true into the natural world is child’s play to the mind that has suspended all boundaries under which all of us do live – in the name of promoting this faith over that one –  for even reality itself is no boundary worthy of recognition by the faithful.

The gift that is faith is taken to be an open invitation to impose these beliefs by hook or by crook wherever and whenever possible – and any inconvenience to the rest of us busy dealing with reality by these enthusiastic and earnest and nice faith-heads is excused (by the faithful, of course) as simply a necessary burden (and the root cause of persecution should the response be anything less than nice… meaning having their offered tyranny denied). It’s hard work being the messenger, you see, self-aggrandized as having been selected – called into service! – by no less than the Big Oogity Boogity Himself (BOBH) to deliver the important Good News.

And this mission (and here) would be so much more effective if only the state would help impose this tyranny.

That’s why this warped thinking – that religion has a place in the public domain supported by the state – is a problem that will never, ever, fade away as long as there is a public domain that needs to be conquered, no matter how accommodating and forgiving and tolerant the average citizen may be of this arrogant and militant faith-inspired attack against our secular public domain. Always, and forever, the religious – armed by pious faith that their gift is necessary to the welfare of all, owned as we all are by BOBH who ‘gave’ us our lives – will push and push and push and push… never to take ‘NO!’ as an answer without disappointing the boss man himself, BOBH. It is for this reason, this recognition that faith drives this everlasting, never-ending, eternal conflict between the secular and the religious – sought out and initiated by jack-booted faitheists bent on dominion over the public domain through the abuse of state power – that the only rational response from those willing to support the separation of church and state in defense of freedom from this particular religion as well as that one requires a dedicated and determined push-back by those citizens – religious or not – who understand the need for a boundary between the two in law.

Whether we like it or not, all of us are involved – and are participants even if we do nothing and care even less  – in this battle. The choice is clear: we must either protect ourselves by supporting secular law to set the boundary that religions will never set for themselves or we fail to do our duty to the nation.  We lose, we capitulate, to religious faith gaining control of the public domain. There is no middle ground. The sooner the majority of us appreciate this fundamental truth and protect and support the role of secular law to separate our rights and freedoms and dignities from the authoritarian and dictatorial rule of the religious overlords, the sooner religious belief can be defeated from conquering this, our public domain, our public institutions, our public offices and public policies. Government of the public domain by those who insist we all bow down to their particular god’s authority is not governance of the people, by the people, for the people. It is tyranny in a clerical collar, dressed in an imam’s robes, topped by a turban, surrounded by the submission of the burka, and the defeat of its authority is a defeat that is worthy of our efforts, worthy of defending against all enemies, foreign and domestic who try to undermine our secular liberal democracies.

Our secular law is all that stands between us as free citizens and as subjects to what god’s secret-ballot representatives believe is what god wants… these arrogant pious self-appointed agents who just so happen to have privileged access – revealed to them because they were called to witness – to the wishes and desires and intentions of the Big Oogity Boogity Himself. Furthermore, we are told in so many ways that we really should obey the BOBH’s agent and alter our secular law to further his/her/its wishes in some human affair. It’s so palpably ludicrous a basis for political action that such charlatans and rogues and hucksters should be laughed out of the business of influencing governance. But we the public don’t do that because too often those villains are us, our neighbours and our friends, our families, and it would be disrespectful to the BOGH and those who believe in him/her/it… so let’s add insult to injury to the Enlightenment’s values that have led to the greatest emancipation from tyranny in world history and the primacy of reason in the public domain on which is has been founded and sacrifice these value and principles altogether to prove the depth of our gullibility faith to our various imaginary sky-fathers. In the meantime, we grant this faitheist insanity legitimacy by allowing the vatican statehood  and its child raping apologist agents as if they were diplomats, donate time and money to the campaigns of religious kow-towing anti-science Republican leadership hopefuls, re-direct public funds away from public educational boards to favour the parents’ religious biases to be indoctrinated into their children’s lives without their informed consent, assign parliamentary seats and parliamentary committee chairs to church officials who never have to face any electorate over which they exercise power, grant to ‘community’ spokesmen places on advisory councils, give platforms to religious representatives on international to local committees to examine and make recommendations on public policies. Ludicrous exemptions and special privileges for the self-deluded to feel special through faith rather than merit.

The latest effrontery, and the main reason for this post,  is to allow a faith-based directive to be give a place as  a proposition vote on the upcoming Mississippi ballot to change the law and constitute personhood  to begin at the point of conception. This vote – if the anti-choice religious fanatics are successful in fooling the majority of the voting population to go along with their lexicographical fraud (for by no stretch of the imagination is a zygote a person) – will have a profound and dramatic impact on the legal status of any woman as a fully franchised citizen under the law; she will become co-owners of her body with the introduction of a zygote – an incubator by law – and many will support this notion, believing as they do that the BOBH wants the law to be this way for everybody to align with their standard christian misogyny rather than support access to abortion as the medical service it is in reality that puts a boundary directly between that imposed faith-based  misogyny and the rights and freedoms and dignity of each fully adult, fully developed, fully human woman. Don’t believe me? Look to countries that have failed to maintain that boundary and see what such tyranny looks like in action.

All of us need to step up to the secular plate and get loud, get strident, get insistent that the boundary no religion will respect will be imposed out of necessity by secular law and enforced by the secular state, and that our active political support to  maintain that boundary will translate into making those who wish to insert religion into the public domain a burden and fatal liability for politicians to get elected. It is high time that citizens – believers, agnostics, and non believers alike –  grew up. It time they grew a pair and insisted that religion in the public domain – regardless how favourable to one’s own beliefs it may be – is out of bounds now, tomorrow, and forever. There is no longer any excuse under the sun except a willingness to support religious tyranny for anyone except an enemy of the secular state, an enemy of personal rights, personal freedoms, and personal dignity, to fight the establishment of that firm secular boundary.

This far, but no farther.

Now get loud about it.

July 22, 2011

Does economic inequality foster religious faith?

It appears so. There is a growing body of evidence (here and here and here) that the degree of religosity is directly and positively correlated to adverse social conditions. What this means is that the influence of religion can best be reduced by eliminating those adverse social conditions that promotes it.

So how do we know if economic inequality is an important and significant factor?

In a new paper Economic Inequality, Relative Power, and Religiosity, the authors have collected data from 76 countries using 12 different measures for strength of faith where we see this very strong correlation:

Across the bottom is the income inequality per country compared to the left column as a frequency of occurrence of whatever the stated question asks. As we can see, the lower the inequality, the lower the frequency, the higher the inequality, the higher the frequency. This is statistically significant and helps to explain that even in developed countries, the impetus for religiosity is based on social conditions that promote economic inequality and not on the truth value of the religious claims themselves.

So is religiosity growing or declining in the United States?

Interesting, eh? This is good evidence that the assumption made by accommodationists – that we need to be less, and not more, critical of religious interference in order to promote science – seems to be misguided. Equitable economic factors seems to be primary.

For a more in-depth look at this study and some of the important questions it raises, check out Jerry Coyne’s assessment and many excellent comments at Why Evolution is True.

December 5, 2010

How do the religious undermine the Golden Rule?

I read many comments and articles by ‘moderate’ theists who suggest that, at their core, religious beliefs are really all the same, that what people are responding to with various kinds of religious faiths is recognizing the transcendent, honouring the spiritual, paying homage to a felt but never seen creative and loving force. It all sounds so… well, kumba ya-ish. And heart-warmingly lovely, mitigating the trivial differences that so easily separate us and acts like a special kind of blessed force (unseen by athiets, of course) that promotes the common good.

And then I read something like this and have to remind myself that the metaphorical holding of religious hands argued by different theists about life-enhancing nature of religious compatibility is nothing more than soothing lies we find in the daily practice of religious beliefs that inform how we behave towards others.

A 17 year old girl lived a hellish life and died a horrible death because of people acting on their religious convictions. More religion will never solve this ongoing and familiar tragedy played out in the lives of us little people who grant their religious convictions and the convictions of others a legitimate role in determining how to behave in ways that supposedly honour a god.

This is insane. And it’s insane because doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – some divine enhancement in the lives of humans – is not a rational nor reasonable expectation. Such a belief that a different result will occur is maintained in spite of contrary yet consistent evidence of harm caused by acting on religious convictions. When we choose to empower such beliefs with an assumption that they are legitimate because they involve some homage to a deity, then we have left the arena of what is rational, what is reasonable, what is probable, what is likely true, and entered the arena of what is is merely hoped for, what is wished, what is improbable, what is likely false. And this legitimizing of what is hoped for in spite of evidence to the contrary is not compatible with empowering respect and audience for what is true. Expecting more religious belief to magically find some way to stop the kind of human abuse people commit in the name of some god is crazy talk. It’s delusional. It’s dangerous and, in the case of Nurta Mohamed Farah, deadly.

Anyone who thinks that religious belief has a legitimate and compatible role to play in helping anyone determine how to treat other human beings with dignity and respect is guilty of helping to legitimize the actions of people to do terrible things to other people for exactly the same reasons. By legitimizing the intentions of those who act to honour some god, we legitimize the basis of such assumptions that they are true, that they are accurate, that they are correct. Such assumptions help to legitimize delusion and insanity rather than what’s rational and reasonable and backed by consistent evidence. Those who assume that religious belief is equivalent to rational thinking have no evidence to insist the two are compatible methods of inquiry, compatible voices that need to be heard, compatible means to inform morality and ethical behaviour, compatible avenues to establishing respect not only for the rights and freedoms and dignity of other people but how to act in ways that achieve these results. The evidence does not support this assumption. What evidence there is shows that by legitimizing delusional thinking, we legitimize its failure to respect other people’s claim to equal rights, legitimize its failure to establish equal freedoms, legitimize its failure to support equal respect between people, and we see this failure played out in religious inspired tragedy after religious inspired tragedy.

Isn’t it high time in the 21st century to stop tolerating and legitimizing this failed voice offered up as a compatible way of achieving noble goals and Enlightenment values by the religiously deluded? The religious perspective has nothing to offer any of us but more failure to be reasonable and rational and consistent with the evidence in every area of human endeavor in which it is granted a fair hearing. Isn’t it time we recognized its failure? Isn’t it time that we gave full credence to the rational and reasonable voice  of a basic equality and dignity for all in shared rights and freedoms and reject the anti-rational voice of delusion? Is that not the least we can do on an individual basis if for no other reason than in memory of this one girl whose sad life was warped and twisted and ended by the deluded in the name of their religious beliefs? Isn’t a human life more important in and of itself to be treated as we ourselves wish to be treated – with the same level of dignity and respect – than simply as a piece of property of some god to be used and abused by the faithful who claim to be fulfilling god’s wishes?

We really do have to choose eventually because these different perspectives and antithetical methods of achieving our goals are not compatible. Agreeing at the very least to empower the Golden Rule seems to be a good starting point for everybody… unless you are deluded, in which case your opinions should not be invited to the grown-up’s table.

August 16, 2010

Catholic evidence of an alternative universe?

Yup. Michael Voris of The Vortex shows us clear evidence how his faith allows him to live in alternative universe while using the rights and freedoms found in this universe within his country’s secular society to advocate that all of us should join him there.

(Tip to Pharyngula)

April 9, 2010

Are religious beliefs and scientific knowledge compatible?

Absolutely not. And this incompatibility has direct and dire and very real negative consequences on scientific literacy – a fundamental component necessary for a country to remain competitive in a technological and knowledge based world economy.

We are often told by well-meaning people that science and religion are compatible, that each ‘magisteria’ offers us a different way to know, and that each deals with different but equally important questions while providing us with different kinds of answers about human life. It is no wonder, then, that public education must tread a careful path keeping science and religion relegated to their separate spheres of influence.

As we are well aware, science and religion often are in conflict when their truth claims are in direct competition, and nowhere is this conflict more prevalent and rancorous than when religious belief in special creationism comes up against the theory of evolution that informs the biological sciences. The notion that we are dealing with different kinds of knowledge is simply not true. We are dealing with one kind of knowledge only, the kind that is informed by evidence or uninformed, either true or not true, right or wrong, accurate or inaccurate, probable or improbable. It is no wonder, then, that one of the main battlegrounds between knowledge informed by evidence and religious belief informed only by faith begins in the biology classroom (See the latest biology text book banning story here.)

How do American students compare in academic achievement with students from other countries? You know these studies; advisory panels and boards distribute and then gather the completed surveys and tabulate results which are then used to provide the evidence for educators and their political overlords to measure and compare and contrast how effectively we are passing on knowledge about the world to our children through the curriculum of our education system.

This year (2010) has seen a rather remarkable and intentional omission in the United States: the survey questions about evolution and the Big Bang have been pulled. The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF), says it chose to leave the section out of the 2010 edition of the biennial Science and Engineering Indicators because the survey questions used to measure knowledge of the two topics (evolution and the Big Bang) force respondents to choose between factual knowledge and religious beliefs. (Source)

What are we to make of this problem? To start with, if science and religion were truly compatible, no “choice” would have have to be made because each kind of knowledge would be separate. But they are not separate at all. They are in direct conflict. Why does this matter?

Well, if knowledge is based on what is true and truth matters, then only one approach – either science OR religion – yields ‘true’ knowledge. It is this ‘true’ knowledge that informs not only the technologies and medicines that work in the world but the moral and ethical framework in which they take place, and science has a solid track record of yielding exactly this. Religious belief, in stark contrast, yields no new knowledge and informs neither workable technologies nor medical practices in all the various fields of human endeavors, although the religious make claims to hold the higher ground in ethical and moral questions.  But rather than face this blunt problem of allowing competing factual truth claims to both have recognized merit in spite of a revealed averaged knowledge deficit by all, the NSF has decided in its wisdom to avoid presenting the data that informs this evidence altogether by intentional omission.

Previous data clearly shows that Americans are far less likely than the rest of the world to accept that humans evolved from earlier species and that the universe began with a big bang and the reason for this lies squarely at the feet of religious belief. We know, for example, that  science knowledge scores vary considerably across the EU-25 countries, with northern European countries, led by Sweden, recording the highest total scores on a set of 13 questions. For a smaller set of four items that were administered in both 1992 and 2005 in 12 European countries, each country performed better in 2005. In contrast, the U.S. data on science knowledge do not show upward trends over the same period. That lack of progress is alarming, which raises the question why not?

We know that in international comparisons, U.S. scores on two true or false science knowledge questions – “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” and “The universe began with a huge explosion” – are considerably lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked. In the United States, 45% of respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents . (The deleted text is here.)

In other words, basic scientific knowledge in biology and cosmology informed by overwhelming and mutually supportive evidence shows by this data that the US has been drastically influenced by religious truth claims that compete directly with scientific truth claims informed by enough valid evidence to establish scientific consensus. And that competition has a negative effect on passing on this foundational scientific knowledge to our children.  Clearly, religious belief is not a separate but equal ‘magisteria’ from the findings of science nor a different kind of knowledge; religious belief is a direct competitor that is neither informed by evidence nor a consensus of knowledgeable opinion.

From a recent national survey of high school biology teachers in public schools we find it shows that there is a large variation in how teachers approach the topic of evolution. How they teach evolution, in turn, affects public knowledge. High school teachers who completed the most number of college-level credits in biology and life science classes and whose coursework included at least one class in evolutionary biology devoted 60% more time to evolution than teachers with the fewest credits in these areas. More specifically, teachers who expressed the religious view that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so” devoted 35% fewer class hours to evolution than all the other teachers.

This data reveals quite clearly cause and effect: those teachers who hold religious beliefs that compete with scientific knowledge have a direct and negative effect on the quality of teaching that scientific knowledge within the public education system. That is a very important finding. For whatever excuse and rationalization the National Science Board cares to drape over their decision to omit that data from its advisory report to the White House, it is highly unprofessional and, in the words of Joshua Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that has fought to keep creationism out of the science classroom, “Discussing American science literacy without mentioning evolution is intellectual malpractice” that “downplays the controversy” over teaching evolution in schools.” I will add that it also downplays how that controversy between scientific knowledge and religious belief regarding truth claims affects in a negative way the scientific literacy of the general population.

So next time you hear that well-intentioned person argue that religious belief and science are compatible but different ways of knowing, remember that such a claim is wrong, and the data to prove it is wrong is available to all.  Such an unfounded assumption of compatibility is doing real harm to the next generation by disarming them of the foundational knowledge necessary to compete in a technological and knowledge based world economy. Unequivocally, religious belief and science are in direct competition, and when all is said and done, I think the words of Matthew Cobb and Jerry Coyne shall prove to be prophetic:

“In reality, the only contribution that science can make to the ideas of religion is atheism.”

And, I will add, the only contribution religion can make to the ideas of science is to actively impede the acquisition of knowledge in all areas of human concern.

Update: there is another terrific post with a slightly different take about this over at Why Evolution Is True by Greg Mayer.

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