Questionable Motives

February 22, 2010

Religion vs Secularism: are religious beliefs correlated to higher levels of social dysfunction?

Filed under: belief,Psychology,Religion,Science,Secularism,Society — tildeb @ 3:38 pm

Apparently so. And this evidence stands in stark contrast to the oft repeated assertion that religious belief has a net social benefit. It does not. It correlates strongly with social dysfunction.

Abstract from Gregory Paul:

Better understanding the nature, origin and popularity of varying levels of popular religion versus secularism, and their impact upon socioeconomic conditions and vice versa, requires a cross national comparison of the competing factors in populations where opinions are freely chosen. Utilizing 25 indicators, the uniquely extensive Successful Societies Scale reveals that population diversity and immigration correlate weakly with 1st world  socioeconomic conditions, and high levels of income disparity, popular religiosity as measured by differing levels of belief and activity, and rejection of evolutionary science correlate strongly negatively with improving conditions. The historically unprecedented socioeconomic security that results from low levels of progressive government policies appear to suppress popular religiosity and creationist opinion, conservative religious ideology apparently contributes to societal dysfunction, and religious prosociality and charity are less effective at improving societal conditions than are secular government programs. The antagonistic relationship between better socioeconomic conditions and intense popular faith may prevent the existence of nations that combine the two factors. The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with which large populations abandon serious theism when conditions are sufficiently benign, refute hypotheses that religious belief and practice are the normal, deeply set human mental state, whether they are superficial or natural in nature. Instead popular religion is usually a superficial and flexible psychological mechanism for coping with the high levels of stress and anxiety produced by sufficiently dysfunctional social and especially economic environments. Popular nontheism is a similarly casual response to superior conditions.

Video report from MSNBC

When evidence of similar strength correlates smoking with cancer, anti-smoking educational campaigns are launched along with new and prohibitive laws to curtail access by the most vulnerable, namely, our children. Very reasonable, in my opinion.

When evidence of similar strength correlates the emissions of greenhouse gases with rising global temperatures, summits are called, reduction targets set, and there is a groundswell of public support to ‘green’ our industries and reduce emissions. Very reasonable, in my opinion.

Can we expect to see a similarly reasonable and widespread response against religious indoctrination of our children?

Yeah, that’s what I thought, which raises a very important question:

If not, why not?


February 21, 2010

Does suffering improve us?

Filed under: belief,Christianity,God,Religion,Suffering — tildeb @ 3:01 pm

One of the old canards about explaining suffering in a world with a omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, and benevolent god is that suffering is somehow good for us, a necessary condition if we are to come to god with free will. It’s a very silly explanation about a very serious and all too real condition. Ophelia Benson takes a crack at answering the question here. I’ve included a few excerpts for your consideration:

Whether or not suffering improves us depends first of all on how we define “suffering”. Real suffering – pain, disease, thirst, starvation – don’t improve us; they don’t leave us room to improve. “Improvement” is an activity for healthy people in tolerable circumstances; when things are desperate improvement becomes a luxury.

The idea that hardship improves us looks like a rationalisation of an old superstitious fear that too much prosperity will trigger the opposite. The gods are jealous, and if we don’t have any suffering, they’ll see that we get some – and they always overdo it, the bastards, so it’s much better if we do it to ourselves first so that they don’t come along and wallop us. It’s a good bargain if it works: I give up chocolate for a month and the gods don’t drop an asteroid on my head.

There are some sick views on all this in Christianity, doubtless thanks to its preoccupation with torture as atonement. (Before you swell with outrage, remember that it’s Christianity that has an implement for execution by torture as its central symbol, worn as a necklace and decorating the covers of hymnals.) There is “Mother Teresa” for example. Dr Robin Fox, editor of The Lancet, visited her hospice in Calcutta in 1994 and reported, “I could not judge the power of their spiritual approach, but I was disturbed to learn that the formulary includes no strong analgesics.” This was not for want of money, it was policy. It is notorious that she once said in a filmed interview that she told a patient suffering the agonies of the final stages of cancer, “You are suffering like Christ on the cross.”

Ultimately this has to do with the obvious fact that the world is full of suffering, so people who want to believe in a benevolent God have to reconcile the two in some way. Claiming that suffering improves us is one such attempt.

But it’s still silly.

February 20, 2010

The bible as literature?

Well, it is considered as such in Tennessee and Texas and now in Kentucky:

A Kentucky state Senate committee has approved legislation allowing the Bible to be studied as a literary subject in public schools, a move that means the state will likely follow Tennessee, Texas and a handful of others in bringing the Christian text into the curriculum.

The bill, put forward by three Democratic state senators, orders the Kentucky Board of Education to draw up guidelines for teaching the Bible as a literary work in the context of “literature, art, music, mores, oratory and public policy,” reports the Louisville Courier-Journal. The Bible courses would be elective.

We will hear the usual well grounded complaints about another self-interested group sneaking religion into public education and the usual counter-charges that the US is – with a bit of re-writing of history – a christian nation and that no amount of complaining will change that fact, but both parties at the extreme end of this debate miss what I think is the important point: students need to have a good working knowledge of the bible to better appreciate not only all the references made to it in our spoken and written language but understand its central role as an very important influence through the history of western civilization.

Like it or not, the bible and all its various liturgical interpretations have deeply affected our history and to forgo this influence is to forgo a proper and informed education whether public or private. My problem with the legislation is far more subtle: the bible as a whole is hardly an outstanding example of excellent literature.

Sure, there are a few parts of the bible that are beautiful and moving, like withing Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, some Proverbs and Psalms, but I think these pale in comparison to other riches offered elsewhere and of which our children learn next to nothing. As literature, the bible is a poor example but absolutely vital in understanding world history. It is the context in which the bible is to be studied that forms its historical importance and gives us reason to place it properly within public education curriculum and not its religious content. That belongs in theology class. My preference, then, is for its inclusion in comparative religions.

Some unthinking christian parents may assume that instruction in the religious teachings of the bible has a place in public education, in which case I expect these same parents will offer no resistance and actively support public funding for the teaching of content from other competing religions. I suspect I will be disappointed. To those who do think, I urge you to support courses in comparative religions and have faith that your son or daughter will come to make up his or her mind about whatever religious belief reveals itself to be the most sound theology. The risk, of course, is that young people may reject the whole kit and caboodle as nonsense and superstition, but if we want our kids to exercise critical thinking and come to own their beliefs honestly, then we are going to have to trust them to do so at some point. Why not arm them with the best information we can and let them apply their ability to compare and contrast in school; after all, isn’t that what learning is all about?

February 19, 2010

When is a child sexual abuse scandal considered a humiliation for the perps?

Filed under: Catholic Church,child abuse,Criticism,Faith,Law — tildeb @ 2:13 pm

Irish politicians seem surprised that the Vatican response to the investigation into the Irish child abuse scandal is to avoid any involvement as much as possible:

Irish politicians have denounced the refusal of the Pope’s diplomat in Ireland to testify to a parliamentary panel probing the level of Catholic Church co-operation with investigations into the church’s cover-up of child abuse.

News of the refusal came as the Vatican described the child sex abuse scandal in Ireland as ”humiliating” for the church and 24 Irish bishops began unprecedented talks with the Pope.

An Irish MP, Alan Shatter, said it was ”not only deeply regrettable but incomprehensible” that Cardinal Leanza would not explain the Vatican’s lack of co-operation with Irish investigations, given ”it is acknowledged in Rome that members of the clergy in Ireland are guilty of abominable sexual abuse of children”.

Incomprehensible? Hardly. Once we realize that it is ‘official’ Vatican policy with specific directives to its employees that:

Nothing can be allowed to besmirch this authority: not the sexual abuse of children and adolescents, committed by thousands of Catholic priests worldwide; not the secret relationships between pastor and their housekeepers; not the covering-up of priests’ children; and not the love affairs between gay clerics. They are all cases of a double standard that arose because it is difficult for people — even priests — to subordinate their human desires to a papal encyclical. This code of silence has been upheld for decades, in some cases informally and in some cases by virtue of Vatican directives like the 1962 guideline.

See my previous post here.

It is far easier to comprehend the Church’s position if one assumes that the Vatican does not care about children and has no inclination to be held accountable for their policies and directives and actions that have allowed priestly child abusers to avoid prosecution and scandals to re-occur. Under this assumption, the Vatican’s position makes perfect sense and its non-actions and avoidance of responsibility very consistent . For a very brief tip-of-the-iceberg recap:

Austria:  In March 1995, a former student accused the then chairman of the Austrian Bishops’ Conference, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, of abuse. The cardinal resigned from his position, but refused to comment on the allegations. Rome avoided taking tough measures against the cardinal. The Vatican accepted his offer of resignation, which he had submitted before the scandal emerged. But the cardinal remained in office through the autumn. Groer first gave a half-hearted apology after four bishops, in a joint statement, said they believed the allegations to be true.

Canada: At the end of the 1980s, hundreds of cases of sexual abuse came to light in a Christian Brothers orphanage in Newfoundland, Canada. An investigative commission examined the case and eventually launched prosecutions and forced compensation payments totalling the millions. In 1999, Catholic priest James Jickey of the St. John’s Diocese was prosecuted and sentenced to prison for molesting boys. But the Church fought demands that compensation be paid to the victims for a decade. In 2009, a ruling was finally issued. The judges said the Church was indirectly responsible for the crimes.

United States: In Boston in 2002, a priest was brought to trial in a case involving the sexual abuse of 130 children. The trial led to the disclosure of a number of other cases. Allegations were lodged against thousands of priests. The cover-up, which lasted for years, was symptomatic of the way the American bishops dealt with pedophile priests.  At the end of April 2002, the pope ordered American cardinals to Rome and decreed rules for dealing with sexual crimes. The Catholic Church has paid over $2 billion in damages to the victims.

Australia: During his trip to Australia in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI condemned the numberous cases of abuse in the country’s dioceses and expressed his compassion for the victims. Over the years, new cases continued to come to light, and numerous priests were also convicted.

Philippines: In 2002, the Catholic Church apologized for the crimes of hundreds of priests, who were found guilty of sexual abuse. One year later, news of additional cases surfaced, leading to the suspension of 34 priests.

Ireland: A government-ordered expert commission found that the Catholic Church had covered up allegations of sexual abuse for decades. In hundreds of cases, former archbishops in Dublin protected priests instead of turning the cases over to the police. After the report’s publication, Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin apologized to the victims. “I offer to each and every survivor, my apology, my sorrow and my shame for what happened to them.” A previous report had already shaken the country in May 2009. It found that sexual abuse, rape, chronic beatings and humiliation had been persistent from the 1930s until the 1990s in Catholic industrial schools and orphanages.

So the Catholic Church says one thing but does another. It says what it needs to say to reassure the faithful that abuse is unfortunate and rare when the facts tell us that it is so wide-spread that the Vatican has written position papers on how best to respond to this common occurrence. But one thing we can count on with the Vatican is that it will do whatever it needs to do avoid responsibility for its stated policies and implemented practices under its directives while doing everything in its power to shift blame to any other parties it can – from the victims themselves to secularists, humanists, and especially atheists. Another thing we can count on is that most of the faithful will yet again swallow the Vatican’s justifications wholesale so that the end result is:

Business as usual.

Human genome: is there evidence for Intelligent Design?

Filed under: Genetics,God,human genome,Intelligent Design,Science — tildeb @ 12:25 pm

Um, no.


From the Culture Lab over at New Scientist:

Lesch-Nyhan syndrome causes compulsive self-mutilation. Children eat their lips or fingers, and stab their faces with sharp objects. They feel the pain, but they cannot stop themselves. Why would a loving, all-powerful creator allow anyone to be born with such an awful disease?

Lesch-Nyhan is just one of the tens of thousands of genetic disorders discovered so far. At least a tenth of people have some kind of debilitating genetic disease, and most of us will become sick at some point during our lifetime as a result of mutations that cause diseases such as cancer.

The reason? Our genome is an unmitigated mess. The replication and repair mechanisms are inadequate, making mutations commonplace. The genome is infested with parasitic DNA that often wreaks havoc. The convoluted control mechanisms are prone to error. The huge amount of junk, not just between genes but within them, wastes resources. And some crucial bits of DNA are kept in the power factories – mitochondria – where they are exposed to mutagenic byproducts. “It is downright ludicrous!” declares John Avise, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of California, Irvine.

The human genome, Avise concludes, offers no shred of comfort for those seeking evidence of a loving, all-powerful creator who had a direct hand in designing us, as not just creationists but many believers who accept evolution think was the case. If some entity did meddle with life on Earth, it either did not know what it was doing or did not care, or both.

So what effect might this assumption have on religious belief in an intervening creator? Does it emasculate religious belief? Not according to Avise:

“Evolution by natural selection emancipates religion,” Avise writes. “No longer need we agonize about why a Creator God is the world’s leading abortionist and mass murderer. No longer need we query a Creator God’s motives for debilitating countless innocents with horrific genetic conditions. From this refreshing perspective, evolution can and should be viewed as a form of philosophical salvation of theology and religion.”

Our ethics, writes editor Mike LePage, have been so hideously distorted by superstitious nonsense that we cannot see the clear moral imperative: we need to start sorting out the mess of a genome evolution has left us as soon as we can.

WordPress downtime

Filed under: Administration — tildeb @ 3:36 am

Today was down for approximately 110 minutes, our worst downtime in four years. The outage affected 10.2 million blogs, including our VIPs, and appears to have deprived those blogs of about 5.5 million pageviews.

What Happened: We are still gathering details, but it appears an unscheduled change to a core router by one of our datacenter providers messed up our network in a way we haven’t experienced before, and broke the site. It also broke all the mechanisms for failover between our locations in San Antonio and Chicago. All of your data was safe and secure, we just couldn’t serve it.

What we’re doing: We need to dig deeper and find out exactly what happened, why, and how to recover more gracefully next time and isolate problems like this so they don’t affect our other locations.

I will update this post as we find out more, and have a more concrete plan for the future.

I know this sucked for you guys as much as it did for us — the entire team was on pins and needles trying to get your blogs back as soon as possible. I hope it will be much longer than four years before we face a problem like this again.

February 18, 2010

Question for advocates of alternative health: is living to an average age of 35 really the Good Old Days?

Filed under: Argument,belief,CAM,Health care,Medicine,Science,vaccination — tildeb @ 1:49 pm

From ScienceBased Medicine by Dr Amy Tuteur:

There once was a time when all food was organic and no pesticides were used. Health problems were treated with folk wisdom and natural remedies. There was no obesity, and people got lots of exercise. And in that time gone by, the average lifespan was … 35!

That’s right. For most of human existence, according to fossil and anthropological data, the average human lifespan was 35 years. As recently as 1900, American average lifespan was only 48. Today, advocates of alternative health bemoan the current state of American health, the increasing numbers of obese people, the lack of exercise, the use of medications, the medicalization of childbirth. Yet lifespan has never been longer, currently 77.7 years in the US.

Advocates of alternative health have a romanticized and completely unrealistic notion of purported benefits of a “natural” lifestyle. Far from being a paradise, it was hell. The difference between an average lifespan of 48 and one of 77.7 can be accounted for by modern medicine and increased agricultural production brought about by industrial farming methods (including pesticides). Nothing fundamental has changed about human beings. They are still prey to the same illnesses and accidents, but now they can be effectively treated. Indeed, some diseases can be completely prevented by vaccination.

Alternative health as a form of fundamentalism also makes sense in that it has an almost religious fervor. It is not about scientific evidence. Indeed, it usually ignores scientific evidence entirely. All the existing scientific evidence shows that all of the myriad claims of alternative health are flat out false. None of it works, absolutely none of it. That’s not surprising when you consider that it never worked in times past; advocates of alternative health merely pretend that it did, without any regard for historical reality.

Alternative health is a belief system, a form of fundamentalism, and like most fundamentalisms, it longs for a past that never existed. It is not science; it has nothing to do with science; and it merely reflects wishful thinking about the past while ignoring reality.

Do religious people practice what is preached?

Filed under: belief,racism,Religion,tolerance — tildeb @ 1:26 pm

Religious people can be racist, and that’s not news.  But are they more likely to be racist than non-religious people?  A new study now confirms this hypothesis.

The February issue of Personality and Social Psychology Review has published a meta-analysis of 55 independent studies conducted in the United States which considers surveys of over 20,000 mostly Christian participants. Religious congregations generally express more prejudiced views towards other races. Furthermore, the more devout the community, the greater the racism.

A meta-analytic review of past research evaluated the link between religiosity and racism in the United States since the Civil Rights Act. Religious racism partly reflects intergroup dynamics. That is, a strong religious in-group identity was associated with derogation of racial out-groups. Other races might be treated as out-groups because religion is practiced largely within race, because training in a religious in-group identity promotes general ethnocentrism, and because different others appear to be in competition for resources. In addition, religious racism is tied to basic life values of social conformity and respect for tradition. In support, individuals who were religious for reasons of conformity and tradition expressed racism that declined in recent years with the decreased societal acceptance of overt racial discrimination.

Tip to CFI

February 17, 2010

No joke: Demonology classes for everyone?

They gather in Poland…

Congress participants argued that demonology lessons should be treated more seriously in seminaries and that ordinary people, too, would benefit from knowing more about exorcisms. During the congress, the priests discussed the main causes of possession by demons such as occult, esoteric beliefs like magic, eastern meditation and homeopathy.

I’ve just got to hear more about which branch of homeopathy causes demonic possession.

When someone asserts that one thing causes another, this is a scientific claim open to scientific scrutiny about causation. So please go ahead, graduates from the Vatican’s ‘university’ program that produces officially sanctioned exorcists, and prove the existence of demons, prove that demon possession is possible, and prove that exorcism contains the necessary efficacy to thwart and remove such possessions.

How can this nonsense still be believed in this day and age? These people should be ashamed of themselves for sacrificing their rational minds on the alter of some religious belief in oogity boogity. What’s that you say about scriptural evidence? Oh right. I nearly forgot: because the NT tells us that Jesus cast out demons, demons must be real. Sorry about that oversight: with such astounding evidence to back up the existence of demons, it’s no wonder these malignant magical critters hide in similar oogity boogity places like homeopathy.

It is beginning to make sense why demons hang out where they do… there’s no place like home, there’s no place like home…

Another controversy to teach…

Filed under: Education,Evolution — tildeb @ 2:04 pm

From Bizarro

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