Questionable Motives

May 7, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

There are a couple ways to come at answering this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

January 11, 2012

Why is being called an ignorant creationist redundant?

I like the Catholic Encyclopedia definition of ignorance in the sense I am using here, namely, a lack of knowledge about a thing in a being capable of knowing rather than the standard notion of it meaning merely a lack of knowledge, education, or awareness… for which one may not be responsible. Creationists here in the West have no such similar excuse; instead, they are perfectly capable of knowing why genetics and the geologic time scale and evolution are not just true in some theoretical sense but true in the fact that they inform our technologies and practices that work consistently and reliably well for everyone everywhere all the time. We are populated by large numbers of people who doubt specific scientific inquires in order to maintain a belief in some kind of religiously motivated ‘creative’ agency… something I call divine POOF!ism. This is intellectually bankrupt and teaching it is as if it were compatible and supportive of science is simply not true. It is religious selfishness in action.

What excuse beyond selfishness do we find for so many Protestant pastors from this Southern Baptist Convention survey? Consider the following:

America’s Protestant pastors overwhelmingly reject the theory of evolution and are evenly split on whether the earth is 6,000 years old, according to a survey released Monday by the Southern Baptist Convention.

When asked if “God used evolution to create people,” 73% of pastors disagreed – 64% said they strongly disagreed – compared to 12% who said they agree.

Asked whether the earth is approximately 6,000 years old, 46% agreed, compared to 43% who disagreed.

A movement called Young Earth creationism promotes the 6,000-year-old figure, arguing that it is rooted in the Bible. Scientists say the earth is about 4.5 billion years old.

The Southern Baptist Convention survey, which queried 1,000 American Protestant pastors, also found that 74% believe the biblical Adam and Eve were literal people.

“Recently discussions have pointed to doubts about a literal Adam and Eve, the age of the earth and other origin issues,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research, a division of the Southern Baptist Convention, in a report on LifeWay’s site. “But Protestant pastors are overwhelmingly Creationists and believe in a literal Adam and Eve.”

Not only do so many of these people not keep their bizarre beliefs private but actually promote them through congregational teachings. And what many are teaching, even though they are beings quite capable of knowing differently, is if not factually wrong then grossly misleading because it is incompatible with what we do know based on what works consistently and reliably for everyone everywhere all the time. In addition, these teaching are pernicious in that they cause intended harm through the promotion of willful ignorance contrary to the teaching of knowledge.

How can I say such things?

Well, consider the incompatibility of belief in an historical and literal Adam and Eve. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of genetics. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about how genetics work in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand heritable diseases and crop sciences, as but two examples. In fact, this belief is in direct and uncompromising conflict with our understanding of genetics that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong genetic evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that the smallest human population from whom we come was no smaller than about ~10,000.  To believe in a literal and historical Adam and Eve means that believers really do reject this part of science we call genetics.

Consider the incompatibility of belief that the world is fewer than ~10,000 years old. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understanding of geology. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about the age and formation of rock strata and the forces that have affected them over time that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand resource exploration and extraction and erosion and tectonics, as but four examples. In fact this belief in young earth creationism is in conflict with our understanding of geology (and radioactive decay) that works for everyone everywhere all the time. There is very strong geological evidence unaccounted for by such a belief that we live on planet that has undergone significant change over a great deal of time. To believe in a created earth means that believers really do reject this part of science we call geology (and, by extension, the age of other planets).

Consider the incompatibility of belief that our biological heritage is from divine creation by an interventionist agency. This doesn’t mean people are rejecting ‘science’ in the larger sense of the term but it does mean that people are rejecting our current understand of evolution. Such a belief ignores the evidence we have about biological development and change over time by what is known as natural selection (it would not be ‘natural’ if traits were selected by some interventionist agency) that works in highly predictable ways… ways we rely on to understand biology and medicine, to name but two. There is very strong evolutionary evidence unaccounted for by such a creationist belief that life on earth is related yet differentiated by natural selection over a great deal of time. To believe in creationism means that believers really do reject this part of science we call biology.

So what’s the harm maintaining such a dismissive belief? After all, we are assured repeatedly by many earnest religious believers and apologetic accommodationists that ‘science’ and ‘religion’ are actually compatible… and even mutually supportive! So my question is – as always – Is this claim true?

I need to divert for a moment and look at ‘science’ in the larger sense and understand why this argument about creationists respecting science – but not these specific scientific avenues – is just not true.  Science, let us recall, is a METHOD of inquiry and not the results of an inquiry. In other words, exactly the same METHOD is used to investigate, say, genetics as it is germs, aerodynamics as it is astronomy. It makes no sense to suggest that it is somehow compatible and supportive to reject that METHOD here but not there in order to privilege some prior religious belief. It’s actually dishonest. It is neither compatible nor supportive to suggest that the belief in geocentrism does not stand in contrast and competition with heliocentrism when the two notions are incompatible – they are necessarily in conflict – any more than it does to suggest biblical inerrancy should be granted to the story of Adam and Eve but not biblical inerrancy to the sixty some odd reference to the earth as the center of the universe. To reject the specific science that informs genetics and geology and evolution to privilege religious beliefs incompatible with them is contrary to being supportive of the METHOD of science used to inform all other scientific inquiries. It is that identical METHOD that shows us that the geocentric model fails where the heliocentric model succeeds for everyone everywhere all the time. It is that METHOD that informs all these practical applications and technologies that work for everyone everywhere all the time derived from the specific scientific inquiries so vilified by supporters of creationism. By rejecting genetics and geology and evolution to favour and prejudice some holy scripture, creationists are rejecting the METHOD of science used to inform not just these specific scientific inquiries but ALL OF THEM.

This has a pernicious effect… especially in medicine.

Evolutionary theories are critical for understanding human disease. They are used to understand the origins of cancer and to better design therapies, which directly help our understanding through evolutionary history to explain modern health problems (such as type-II diabetes and obesity). It is upon these evolutionary theories that we have learned to appreciate viral evolution, which is used to design safe and effective vaccination strategies that work. For example, an evolutionary viewpoint is the only way to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance in bacteria and to develop effective methods for stopping or slowing it. Defining the evolutionary process of cancers is leading to new, more targeted approaches in cancer treatment. How we incorporate these evolutionary ideas into medical education enhances the education of health professionals, which is in stark conflict with creationist belief (that usually blames sin for our earned deaths… such a cheerful and optimistic bunch). Our biomedical science gains from understanding human evolution and allows us to design and implement solutions to our vulnerability to disease. The evolutionary approach to medicine and public health is enormous, informing areas of research and providing predictions and guidance for novel interventions.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific quest to know.

It isn’t. At all.

Now consider the incompatibility creationism presents as an alternative to the benefits from informed medicine and how many future doctors and medical researchers are turned away from this pursuit in the name of honouring the religious beliefs of their parents and pastors about creationism. Think of how many students are affected when creationists in all their various lying for Jesus and Allah guises try to insert this theology into science classrooms or religious students who do everything they can to remove specific scientific inquiries like evolution from their educational curriculum.

All of this medical knowledge and its pursuit is at dire risk when we continue to pretend that teaching creationism is somehow compatible, somehow a legitimate and equivalent alternative, with the scientific METHOD. It’s simply not true.

Creationism – and its gaggle of handmaidens of other necessary beliefs contrary to specific scientific inquiries – is in direct conflict with the METHOD of science that produces what works for everyone everywhere all the time. This is why such belief that sidelines legitimate and honest inquiry into reality is not a ‘different way of knowing’ or some separate but equivalent Magesterium. Creationism is a turning away from honest scientific methodology (methodological naturalism) and insisting on a return to ignorance. Ignorance is the real alternative people are choosing when they reject and ignore knowledge we have that works for everyone everywhere all the time, knowledge upon which companies invest trillions of dollars, knowledge that has the effrontery to work consistently and reliably well in reality over time. By staying faithful to beliefs that are wholly inadequate to reveal what works in reality by comparison, people are choosing ignorance over knowledge to maintain their religious belief. The sacrifice costs. Yet still many are teaching  creationism to their kids and want it taught to the general public. They want respect for this ignorance established in law and want to base public policies on extensions of it in areas like research and human reproduction and foreign aid. It’s ignorance in action, what we atheists like to call ‘turtles all the way down’. It’s a ruse, a lie, an intentional deception, a willful disregard for what is true in reality to pretend creationism is an equivalent and respectable alternative to specific scientific inquiries rather than the ignorance in action it honestly is.

It’s high time more of us reminded creationists determined to insert their beliefs into the public domain of this brute fact, that being an ignorant creationist is in fact and deed redundant.

(h/t Pandasthumb)

December 23, 2011

Can religious belief be honest?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 20, 2011

Is the Higgs boson really a particle of faith?

Alister McGrath would have you believe it is.

In this article he writes about equating the Higgs bosun particle (a link here for people unfamiliar with what the Standard Theory is and what carrier particles are) – scientists hunting the Higgs boson at the Large Hadron Collider have revealed the first tantalising glimpses of the mysterious particle –  to a similar kind of belief in the causal agent for the order we find in the universe he calls god. I’ve added some bold type for emphasis:

Lederman (Nobel Laureate Leon) invented the name the “God particle” because it was “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.” Nobody had seen it back in 1994. And they’re still not sure whether they’ve really seen it today. Yet this isn’t seen as a massive problem. The idea seemed to make so much sense of things that the existence of the “God particle” has come to be taken for granted. It has become, I would say, a “particle of faith”. The observations themselves didn’t prove the existence of the Higgs boson. Rather, the idea of the Higgs boson explained observations so well that those in the know came to believe it really existed. One day, technology might be good enough to allow it to be actually observed. But we don’t need to wait until then before we start believing in it.

McGrath is saying we can start believing that the Higgs boson really does exist as a causal agent because it’s a really good explanation that fits the available evidence even if it’s invisible. And note that he equates an ‘explanation of observations’ with ‘making sense’. In fact, maybe it seems odd to McGrath that there is such an exciting kerfuffle over the same bumps in mass measured by two different research teams at the Collider – a mass between 124 and 126 gigaelectronvolts (GeV) – which shows strong evidence that the same thing is being measured, and that same thing may be a Higgs signal. Why be excited at all if simply believing something is true is adequate and equivalent?

Obviously, belief alone – meaning trust and confidence that something is true – in NOT adequate proof, which is why we call such a belief in scientific terminology an hypothesis… a potential explanation that may or may not be true and in need further empirical inquiry and stronger evidence. McGrath knows this but it it doesn’t suit his purpose here because he has no intention of suggesting god is merely an hypothesis in need of further empirical proof – like the same kind of dedicated search for empirical evidence of the Higgs boson. So we know he is being intentionally dishonest in the sense he wishes to misrepresent trust in the existence of the Higgs boson with the same kind of trust in an invisible, intervening, creative, sky daddy.

So what is his real purpose for this intentional misrepresentation between trust in the existence of the Higgs boson particle and trust in the existence of god?

There’s an obvious and important parallel with the way religious believers think about God. While some demand proof that God exists, most see this as unrealistic.

Is this “parallel” similarly reflected in the search for the Higgs boson? Do most of us think it is unrealistic to demand empirical evidence of the Higgs boson particle? Of course not. In fact, such evidence is exactly what is being sought, and rightly so, to INCREASE the confidence that the particle does in fact exist, for without it the Higgs boson remains only an hypothesis regardless of its explanatory power. That’s why these are not equivalent kinds of faith in action here and McGrath knows this. But it doesn’t even slow him down when he makes his final pitch:

Believers argue that the existence of God gives the best framework for making sense of the world. God is like a lens, which brings things into clearer focus. As the Harvard psychologist William James pointed out years ago, religious faith is about inferring “the existence of an unseen order” in which the “riddles of the natural order” can be explained.

Is McGrath being honest here? Does he hold his faith in god to be an equivalent hypothesis of inference in need of better evidence to INCREASE his confidence that it may be true? (I see no evidence for this.) Or is he, like religious apologists everywhere, merely cherry picking bits and pieces of scientific endeavors to misrepresent his faith – his certainty that his god is an active and causal agent in the universe and exists in reality – to be equivalent to honest scientific inquiry? (I see nothing but strong evidence for this cherry picking.)

When religious apologists stoop to misrepresenting the method of scientific inquiry to be equivalent to how they inform their religious faith, they show their intellectual dishonesty. They have no desire, no willingness, to search for explanations to the riddles of the natural order from the natural order itself but that if we order now, we can have this answer called god. But wait! There’s more! If we call right now, we can also get – absolutely free – an answer that can safely and without compromise be our final answer to whatever questions we have of this natural order! It’s so easy, anyone can do it, but don’t delay; call today! As a bonus, we’ll throw in the old canard that this one-answer-fits-all and call the ‘results’ equivalent to honest scientific inquiry… merely a different and compatible way of knowing.

It’s an absurd and obscene pitch McGrath is making, knowing full well that such snake oil trust he’s peddling in faith-based rather than reality based claims offers us nothing but turtles all the way down and answers nothing with reliable and consistent knowledge. All we have to do to gain access to this one answer for all questions about the natural order is to exchange our intellectual honesty and curiosity and demand for empirical evidence for the kind of empty confidence we can have in the final answer of godidit. That’s why it’s a toll free call. And McGrath would have us think that this is a legitimate and valuable exchange. I think it’s clear that his argument is, metaphorically speaking, no different than a crock of shit.

October 24, 2011

Why do atheists comment about religion?

A writer for the Religion section of the Huffington Post is surprised by the number of atheists reading and commenting on his posts. He asks: why are atheists visiting the Religion section?

This is good question.

My favourite answer is from JohnfromCensornati who writes:

You’re selling a defective product. Atheists are consumer advocates warning others about those hazardous defects.

I think this encapsulates why atheists bother: they are trying to fix something in need of fixing. I know that I comment elsewhere when I am trying to correct yet another intentional misrepresentation, introduce what I think is a better idea, or offer an argument not previously considered,  but mostly because there is a need to point out that faith-based beliefs are not equivalent to what’s true in reality on the merit that they are simply believed to be so.

I constantly ask myself, “Is this claim true, and how do we know?” When it comes to religious claims, the answer is very clear: the claim’s truth value  has no merit derived from reality but from faith alone… usually faith that some literal scripture or scriptural interpretation is an authority that can be trusted to be true. This is a problem when these claims from scriptural authority – that supposedly describe reality (and yet are filled with plenty of examples where they got it factually wrong) – is the basis on which we are told are worthy of our intellectual respect, that the liberal use of a blanket faith based on this authority is actually an intellectual virtue.

This is the path to elevating ignorance and superstition to be equivalent to knowledge, this trust in a dubious authority, and it is dangerous to leave this notion lacking proper public criticism. After all, when we respect another’s beliefs about reality to be equivalent to reality, we have gone along with the charade to forfeit reality’s role to be the final arbiter. This is identical to pretending it’s okay to let stand the assumption that faith-based beliefs – indistinguishable from delusion in every way – and reality are really the same thing… willing to pretend that there is no reliable way to tell them apart.

Well, there is a way and it starts with some honesty about what we know and how we can trust what we know. It’s called methodological naturalism and it demonstrably works for everyone everywhere all the time. No trust in faith-based claims is needed to find out what’s true in reality when we trust reality to be the authority for claims about it. And more people need to know this and have their beliefs held to account when there is a discrepancy.

It is this willingness of the faithful, the apologists, and the accommodationists to capitulate the value of honest knowledge on the altar of religious respect that needs to be confronted in public. Furthermore, the conclusions about reality reached by those who assume some faith-based authority need to be challenged when they stand in conflict with knowledge extracted from reality. Faith-based beliefs are not equivalent to knowledge but stand contrary to it, and this fawning faux-respect for the faith-based claims made by others should be criticized for the negative effects it has on more of us trusting the method of inquiry that does in fact yield practical, reliable, and consistent knowledge we can (and do) trust for very good reasons. Those who respect faith-based claims require more, not less, public criticism – not necessarily for the benefit of the person willing to reject reality’s role in arbitrating what’s true about it (and the knowledge we gain from inquiring honestly into its workings) but for those whose minds are still capable of being swayed by better reasons than what the faithful can offer. This has to played out in public view and all of us have a stake in it, which is why places like the widely read religious section of the HuffPo are an important venue to make the case for reality. Certainly the religious aren’t going to promote reality’s importance, nor those who are willing to apologize and accommodate faith as an equivalent kind of knowledge when that obviously is not true in fact. That leaves us atheists to do the job: consumer advocates for respecting what’s true.

And it’s working (see the evidence through the additional links in the body of the text here).

September 26, 2011

Why is it okay to say “I don’t know?”

Filed under: Argument,faith-based beliefs,Knowledge,reality — tildeb @ 8:43 pm

Faith-based beliefs are extraordinarily common but their popularity is not a vote in its favour. From religions to pseudosciences, superstitions to conspiracy theories, faith-based beliefs feed their roots. But it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control our gullibility, our ignorance, and hesitate long enough to stop ourselves from taking that final step into believing assumption and assertions to be equivalent to trustworthy knowledge. When we come across something interesting and/or intriguing and have no answer to explain the effects we find, we have an opportunity to be intellectually honest and admit that we don’t know. As Steve Novella points out, in a post about a coroner taking that dishonest step into gullibility and reporting that an unknown fire was actually spontaneous human combustion, all of us are vulnerable of doing the same unless we make the effort to exercise critical thinking:

It’s therefore a good opportunity to teach critical thinking skills. People’s brains are clogged with myths and false information, spread by rumor and the media, and accepted due to a lack of having the proper critical thinking filters in place. It’s disappointing, however, when people who should know better, or whose job it is to know better, fall for such myths.

But he has a warning, too, that:

Knowing a lot of information about a complex subject area does not necessarily also grant critical thinking skills – knowledge of logic, heuristics, and mechanisms of self-deception. This is why scientists fall prey to magicians or con-artists, and sometimes even deceive themselves and take their careers down the rabbit hole of pseudoscience.

He suggests that all of us keep firmly in mind that:

For any frequent phenomenon there will be a certain number (a residue) of cases that defy explanation, just by chance alone, because there are quirky, unique, or highly unlikely circumstances. Very unlikely things happen all the time, given enough opportunity. It is therefore not only the argument from ignorance, but utter folly to conclude that such cases have a paranormal or fantastical explanation, rather than they are just unusual but still mundane cases.

And that is something we need to take to heart: that when we use these unknown effects to support our trust in some faith-based belief of supernatural cause, we have left behind our critical thinking and stepped fully into out own willingness to be gullible. Once we decide to accept some supernatural agent of causation to explain some natural effect, we have cancelled the natural universe to be our arbiter and substituted out belief in its place. This is the common recipe – the identical thread of bad thinking, a broken epistemology – for protecting the faith-based beliefs too many of us cherish that fuel religions to pseudosciences, superstitions to conspiracy theories as well as defend those beliefs from legitimate and honest inquiry based on evidence found in reality, in the natural universe. In all cases of faith-based beliefs presented as true in reality, the believer has taken one step too many away from critical thinking and honest inquiry that should result in an “I don’t know” and makes an illegal substitution (to borrow a sports term) of some untrustworthy belief to masquerade as a ‘different kind’ of knowledge… indistinguishable in all ways from delusion and ignorance. It really is okay for each of us to admit that sometime “I don’t know” is the best answer we have. And that’s the starting position all of us have shared. That’s the statement that begins honest inquiry and that’s the only answer to the unknown that starves the root of ignorance that nourishes faith-based beliefs. Unlike faith-based beliefs that clouds our vision into what is true in reality with our own imagined beliefs, “I don’t know” prepares the intellect for learning trustworthy knowledge about the universe we inhabit.

July 6, 2011

Does creation ‘science’ disprove biblical creationism?

The short answer is Yes.

The long answer can be found in two papers, here and here.

Creation ‘science’ (an oxymoron if there ever was one) posits that animals fall into types, or baramins, which were created independently, but have diversified since. I’m sure you are aware of the creationist campaign to allow for microevolution but not macroevolution. Obtuse reasoning, but there you have it. Baramin is a word used to describe a kind of critter, say a cat to which all members of the cat ‘family’ (like lions and tigers) belong. The argument is that Noah’s ark brought on board not all animals we see today but only the essential kinds necessary to repopulate the world after the love of god was expressed by a murderously cleansing flood. Morphological gaps in the fossil record are used as ‘evidence’ for distinct baramins that could only have come about by a designing creator.

I know, but bear with me.

Dr Senter’s first paper – described in this BBC Nature Wonder Monkey article by editor Matt Walker – points the obvious, that if the fossil record for dinosaurs:

do show transitional forms, and are in fact genetically related to each other, then creationists are in a bit of a bind. Either they must accept that to be true, and therefore contradict their own position that these groups appeared without evolution. Or they must throw out the assertion, but also reject their own methodology, which they have used to validate their creationist claims. Dr Senter’s 2010 study, did of course, show that coelurosaurian dinosaurs are related, in particular that tyrannosaurs (to which T. rex belongs) form a continuous group with other dinosaurs belonging to a group called the Compsognathidae.

In the second and latest study, Senter looks at another creationist science method called taxon correlation, which is also a baraminological technique, and shows enough morphological continuity between dinosaurs to prove, by creationist standards, that dinosaurs are genetically related.

So what?

Well, it shows that dinosaurs can be grouped into eight kinds, or baramins, which would seem to make creationists happy. Eight kinds of dinosaurs are easier to load on to an ark than, say dozens of the huge monstrosities or thousands of smaller ones. So far, so good in the creationist camp. Ain’t life grand?

But hold on a second! This raises a rather sticky problem, namely, that:

in just a few thousand years, each “kind” of dinosaur begat the huge variation in fossils we see today.

In other words, incredibly rapid microevolution leading to macroevolution.


Heads, evolution wins. Tails, creation science loses.

Are we really surprised? Of course not… not if one honestly and with an open mind takes the time to understand why so many branches of science concludes that evolution is true. The evidence painstakingly gathered from every strand of inquiry except theology (again showing why theology is not an inquiry at all but a position of trust in certain assumptions) is mutually supportive and overwhelming. It takes a very firm belief to counter what is true in reality with what is simply believed to be true about it, and this is what theology does: it tries to convince people that reality and causal evidence should be no constraint to a good belief.

(h/t to MUR)

June 7, 2011

Why are atheists so arrogant?

Filed under: Argument,Atheism — tildeb @ 7:18 am


March 22, 2011

Why are Priests for Life theological thugs?

First, who is Baby Joesph Maracchli and second, what’s the big deal about his medical care?

Joseph Maracchli, the son of Lebanese immigrants, was born on January 22, 2010, and his parents say they noticed he couldn’t eat or breathe properly and wouldn’t open his eyes or cry. The family, who lives in Windsor, Ontario on the Canada – United States border near Michigan, took him to a Michigan hospital in June 2010, where he was diagnosed with a metabolic brain disease, which the doctor said would make him developmentally delayed. Maracchli was treated and returned to normal after a month. However, in October 2010 he developed a fever and was breathing rapidly and was rushed to the emergency room and later transferred to the London Health Sciences Centre in London (LHSC), Ontario. The hospital said he was in a persistent vegetative state from which he would never recover. Maracchli’s family wanted the staff there to do a tracheotomy so that they could take him home and he could die in the care of his family instead of a hospital. Sounds pretty reasonable, doesn’t it?

What is not reported very widely is that the couple’s first child who suffered from the same condition did receive a tracheotomy, at the parents insistence, and died a horrific death at home. That child suffered from infection, followed by pneumonia and eventually choked to death… it just took six months of additional suffering for this to happen. The physicians were rightly concerned on behalf of the quality of life of their patient to do as the family asked.

Eight physicians at LSHC were unanimously of the opinion that Joseph had no hope of recovery, and there was no possible treatment that could reverse his condition. They quite rightly pointed out what was obvious that he would never get out of bed nor interact meaningfully with his environment. As responsible and caring medical professionals, the doctors sought a second opinion from colleagues in Toronto. The director of the critical care unit for Sick Children’s Hospital in Toronto (a world class facility and recognized leader for pediatric medical care) there agreed that further treatment was futile. Joseph’s doctors therefore proposed removing the tube that was assisting his breathing. If he could breathe unaided, he would go home to be cared for by his parents. If not, he would be given medication to ensure that he did not suffer, and allowed to die. A Canadian Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Canadian hospital, ordering the life support removed.

Enter our heroes, the Priests for Life, those celibate men of the cloth who (incredibly and without shame) think their religious beliefs equip them with the kind of god-soaked moral knowledge necessary to determine proper medical treatment over and above a team of highly trained and specialized medical professionals who actually care for children as their daily job. Let us keep in mind that there has never been a suffering life these meddling priests have not tried to prolong. The Terri Schiavo debacle immediately comes to mind.

Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University picks up the story:

Little Joseph Maraachli is a new poster boy for the “pro-life” movement. But what has happened to him should instead teach us what to do – and what not to do – if we are really serious about saving human lives. The 13-month-old from Canada, who has been having medical treatment for most of his short life, suffers from a severe neurodegenerative disease. He has difficulty breathing on his own. His head is small for his age and has not grown for three months. He has seizures. His pupils do not respond to light or follow a moving object. His movements are not purposeful.

Then Priests for Life, a Catholic -abortion and anti-euthanasia organization stepped in, chartering an air ambulance to fly Joseph from Canada to Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center, a Catholic hospital, in St. Louis, which will perform the operation the parents requested.

“We Rescued Baby Joseph!” says a page on the Priests for Life website. The organization’s director, the Rev. Frank Pavone, says he has been told that it could cost as much as $150,000 for Joseph’s stay in the pediatric intensive care unit. That doesn’t include the cost of the aircraft, which would have added thousands more to the bill. Priests for Life is, of course, asking its supporters to donate to pay these costs.

Here’s the irony. According to the most rigorous charity evaluation agency in the country,, you can save a child’s life for about $1,000. All you have to do is give the money to their top-rated charity, Village Reach, which delivers vaccines and other urgently needed medical supplies to rural areas in developing countries.

If Priests for Life were really serious about saving lives, instead of “rescuing” Joseph so he can live another few months lying in bed, unable to experience the normal joys of childhood, let alone become an adult, they could have used the money they have raised to save 150 lives – most of them children who would have gone on to live healthy, happy lives for 50 years or more.

We’ve seen such things happen before. In 2005 the anti-abortion movement put a huge effort, and large sums of money, into “saving” Terri Schiavo. In the end, after Congress had been recalled specifically to enable a federal court to hear the case, she was allowed to die. An autopsy showed her brain had been severely and irreversibly damaged.

We can obsess over Joseph and Terri – or we can make an honest effort to save the lives of countless children whose names we may never know. It is our choice.

But the Priests for Life don’t want to save lives in the sense of protecting the dignity of those who are already alive yet suffering; they want to prolong the biological functioning of a body regardless of the suffering… the younger the better and a fetus especially, even if it kills women to do so. Since becoming involved in the medical treatment of Baby Joseph, the Priests for Life have mobilized support from the likes of the Hope Network and the legions of catholics and christians who think these groups do god’s work. Now the medical staff at LSHC have been the recipients of the kind of faith-based love the anti-abortion crowd – championed as they are by Priests for Life – sends out to those who disagree with their beliefs: hate mail and death threats.

Oh, I can hear the faithful claiming loudly that those extremists don’t represent the mainstream religious.

But they do.

You see, Priests for Life and the anti-choice crowd are no different than the mainstream believers in that they don’t give a rat’s ass respecting your life;  they care only for life, which according to their beliefs belongs not to you but their god. And they will continue to act accordingly not to respect your rights and freedoms as an autonomous individual where dignity of personhood must reside, if the term ‘personal dignity’ is to have any personal meaning, but as god’s Stormtroopers out to protect what belongs to him. That’s why they’re theological thugs and are empowered by those who respect their beliefs about what god owns over and above respecting your personal dignity.

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