Questionable Motives

April 12, 2011

What is Big History and why is it important?

In spite of never-ending creationist pushes into public education (the latest in Tennessee) to replace what is true and knowable with what is believed to be true and unknowable, Big History allows us to better understand how the universe operates and our place in it. Enjoy this TED talk from David Christian who wants everyone to know this story (it picks up speed at about the 4 minute mark).

April 27, 2010

Why should we be ashamed of respecting religious belief in the public domain?

Canada is hosting a G8 summit and wants to promote a child and maternal health-care initiative for developing countries. But that will not include any money for funding abortion.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the health initiative should include access to safe and legal abortion. Why? Because safe abortions reduces women mortality – a fundamental concern when addressing issues about about child and maternal health-care. So access to therapeutic abortions is a health concern.

According to the 1995 Beijing World Conference on Women by 189 participating countries and more than 2100 non-governmental organizations, the resolution passed that access to family planning, safe and legal abortion and maternal health, are essential to achieving gender equality. The UN Treaty Monitoring Bodies (TMBs) have recognized that access to these essential reproductive health services is rooted in international human rights obligations. The Beijing PFA (Platform For Action) highlighted the impact of unsafe abortion on women’s lives and health and the need to reduce recourse to abortion through expanded family planning services. It urges governments to review punitive measures against women who have undergone illegal abortions and calls for women’s access to quality post-abortion care. In turn, over the last decade, human rights bodies and regional and national courts have increasingly recognized that restrictions
on access to safe and legal abortion interfere with women’s enjoyment of their human rights.

So access to abortions according to the UN is a human rights concern.

But rather than follow this previously agreed to PFA, Canadian officials say they will instead focus the G8 plan on other measures aimed at improving the health of women and children in poor countries — including safe drinking water and vaccination programs, an important issue about child and maternal health to be sure. But why not therapeutic abortion?

Access to therapeutic abortion (outside of Canada) according to Harper and his Canadian government is about “clarifying family planning,” which simply does not include any discussion about abortion. One must wonder why when it is widely considered both a health-care concern and a human rights concern. According to Harper, it is not a concern at all and certainly not one open to debate.

This omission is a cop out, a capitulation not to the best practices of modern medicine nor furthering the human rights of children and their mothers. It is a tacit nod of agreement to the religious belief that abortion under any circumstances is wrong. By refusing to fund abortion outside of the country, the Canadian government’s inaction supports the bizarre idea that a zygote is of greater value than is the life of a fully developed mother. This position simply ignores (or at least finds perfectly acceptable) maternal mortality when therapeutic abortions are unavailable. What lies behind the politics of abortion is neither any kind of informed debate about why it is a necessary part of health-care or a necessary plank in furthering maternal human rights; it is a position in favour of appeasing religious sensibilities at home about this controversial topic. And how informed is that sensibility by comparison? I think not at all. It’s simply an uninformed, unjustified belief that has no place at the table of discussion about child and maternal health-care.

And do religious sensibilities stop in areas of public health care?

Umm, no. Are we surprised?

In January (2010), the Ontario government introduced changes to the sex education component of the public school curriculum: Grade 1 children were to be taught to identify genitalia using the correct words, such as penis, vagina and testicle, Grade 5 children were to be taught to identify parts of the reproductive system and describe how the body changes during puberty, and in Grade 7, the plan was to teach kids how to prevent unintended pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections, including HIV. Children in grade 7 are usually 12 years old.

CBC News reported the following:

Religious groups objected to the revised curriculum and raised a voluble campaign against it earlier this week. They promised a huge demonstration on the front lawn of Queen’s Park (the Ontario provincial legislature) to protest the sex education changes.

“It is unconscionable to teach eight-year-old children same-sex marriage, sexual orientation and gender identity,” said Charles McVety, head of the Canada Christian College. “It is even more absurd to subject sixth graders to instruction on the pleasures of masturbation, vaginal lubrication, and 12-year-olds to lessons on oral sex and anal intercourse.”

So we know what McVety thinks is unconscionable and absurd in sex education at these grades and seems quite content to oppose any curriculum that promotes healthy sexuality, counteracts schoolyard misinformation, prevents teen pregnancy, gives information that shows how to avoid STDs, and so on. What does he offer in return as an alternative that still meets the goals of informing ht epublic about these issues? Nada. On what, then, does he base his opposition? His religious belief. And how is that uninformed religious belief comparable to the kind of consideration to what informs best practices in education? On what basis of knowledge is a religious belief about sex education equally worthy of consideration than curriculum development done by professionals and informed by evidence?

Only because the public tolerates unjustified religious interference and unwarranted intrusions in the public domain does ignorance and bigotry of uninformed religious belief become a potent political force, enough to adversely affect informed public policy in education to the likes of the sanctimonious self-righteous morons like McVety and his ignorant ilk, as well as adversely affect funding for promoting the health-care and human rights of women in developing nations. That’s the ongoing gift (and legacy) of religious belief in action in the public domain: promoting ignorance over knowledge, belief over health, misogyny over human rights.

These weak-kneed governments should be ashamed of themselves for appeasing the ignorant and foolish among us (including those within these parties) for political gain. That political behaviour – supposedly done in the name of good governance – is what is  truly unconscionable and absurd. For when we grant guanocephalic clerics and their supporters a place at the table of determining public policy like education and foreign policy aid because of some warped idea that the representatives of the public owe respect to religious beliefs of the few, we are damaging the welfare of all.

February 3, 2010

How science-savy are you and does it matter?

A majority of Americans profess respect for science, according to a recent Pew Forum report: 84 percent of people surveyed agree that “science’s effect on society” is “mostly positive.” That’s a finding likely to be met with skepticism by many secularists, who blame religion for what they believe is widespread hostility to science. Considering religion’s role in fomenting opposition to the theory of evolution (which some two-thirds of Americans reject), this skepticism is neither unreasonable nor surprising. In fact, according to Pew, people without religious affiliations are “the most likely to perceive a conflict between religion and science,” while “the most religiously observant” are “least likely to perceive this clash.”

Science and scientists are even “viewed positively by those who differ over evolution, global warming and other contentious issues,” Pew reports. When these “contentious issues” involve the disputed morality of scientific endeavors like stem-cell research, it’s not hard to reconcile contentiousness with respect (we should welcome moral debates about science, given its destructive power). But what’s the worth of the public’s positive view of science if it fails to persuade people to accept fundamental scientific facts—about evolution, say, or global warming—that conflict with their religious beliefs, worldly desires, or resistance to bad news?

It’s not surprising that the public’s reported love for science is unrequited. “While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations,” the Pew report observes. “Fully 85 percent see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem … and nearly half (49 percent) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.”

To measure (or approximate) public knowledge of science, Pew administered a twelve-question quiz. It consists of simple multiple-choice and true/false questions testing basic general knowledge. (How do you match up with the general public? Take the science quiz here.)

But a quiz like this, focusing on a few random facts, doesn’t test what may matter most—the public’s understanding of scientific inquiry; the importance of experimentation, observation, and logic; and the relationship of evidence to belief. It’s the failure to appreciate scientific methods and the role science should play in shaping public policy that enables politicians to ignore it.

The influence of personal experience on public opinion greatly complicates the challenge of changing opinions about evolution: people don’t directly experience or aren’t aware of the costs of believing in creationism or intelligent design and crusading against the teaching of evolution. A decline in science education has little if any discernible, more or less immediate impact on their lives.

And that’s a huge problem with significant and long-lasting costs.

From the article Science and Public Opinion.

January 7, 2010

What does it mean, “We are a multitude?”

Symphony of Science

January 5, 2010

Why bother attacking religious beliefs?

One small part from a wonderful essay by Russell Blackford over at The Philos0pher’s Magazine:

For a start, a revived Christian philosophy is well entrenched within Anglo-American philosophy of religion. More importantly, perhaps, religious organisations and leaders continue to exert social power. All too often, they seek to control how we plan and run our lives, including choices about how we die. At various times, religious lobbies have opposed a vast range of beneficial, or at least essentially harmless, activities and innovations. Even now, one religion or another opposes abortion rights; most contraceptive technologies; stem-cell and therapeutic cloning research; physician-assisted suicide; and a wide range of sexual conduct involving consenting adults. We still see intense activism from the religious lobbies of all Western democracies, and even in relatively secular countries, such as the UK and Australia, governments pander blatantly to Christian moral concerns.

The situation is far worse in the US, where religious conservatives regrouped with dramatic success during the 1970s and 1980s, establishing well-financed networks, think tanks, and even their own so-called universities. Slick attempts are made to undermine public trust in science where it contradicts the literal Genesis narrative; a rampant dominionist movement wants to establish an American theocracy; the recent Bush administration took the country some considerable way down that path; and the election of a relatively liberal president has produced hysteria on the religious right (polling shows that many American conservatives now believe that Barack Obama is the Antichrist). American religiosity is real, and there is nothing subtle or liberal-minded about its most popular forms.

Meanwhile, we are confronted every day by the horrors of political Islam, with its ambitions to extend sharia law universally and its ugly violations of human rights wherever it actually has power. Many critics of religion were radicalised by the traumatic events of 9/11 when thousands of people were murdered by terrorists. Islam doubtless has moderate and even liberal manifestations, but prominent, politicised forms of Islam take a hard line against secularism, modernity, and all forms of liberal thought.

In a different world, we might be content to argue that the church (and the mosque, and all the other religious architecture that sprouts across the landscape) should be separate from the state, and that discussions about public policy should rely on secular principles such as the Millian harm principle. More radical attacks on religion’s truth-claims and moral authority would be less urgent if the various sects agreed, without equivocation, to a wall of separation between themselves and the state. Unfortunately, however, they often have good reasons (by their own lights) to oppose such strict secularism. Many religious sects, including many mainstream Christian denominations, do not distinguish sharply between guidance on individual salvation and the exercise of political power. They may be sceptical about the independence of secular goals from religious ones, or about the distinction between personal goals and those of the state. Some groups do not accept the reality of continuing social pluralism. Instead, they look to a time when their (allegedly) righteous views will prevail.

When religion claims authority in the political sphere, it is unsurprising – and totally justifiable – that atheists and sceptics question the source of this authority. If religious organisations or their leaders claim to speak on behalf of a god, it is fair to ask whether the god concerned really makes the claims that are communicated on its behalf. Does this god even exist? Where is the evidence? And even if this being does exist, why, exactly, should its wishes be translated into socially-accepted moral norms, let alone into laws enforced by the state’s coercive power? When these questions are asked publicly, even with a degree of aggression, that’s an entirely healthy thing.

Atheists and sceptics should, no doubt, defend secularism. But if we are realistic, we will understand that the idea of secularism has little traction in societies where the authority of religion is considered legitimate and taken for granted. For many religious groups, moreover, secularism is not an attractive ideal. Advocating secularism and directly challenging the authority of religion should not be viewed as two alternative strategies for atheists and sceptics who wish to resist the political influence of religion. Rather, these strategies are mutually supportive and ought to be pursued in tandem. That is the lesson that we need to learn.

December 25, 2009

Why continue to post about unjustified beliefs and criticize them?

I have often been asked why I bother to post every day, why I take the time and effort to expose unjustified beliefs as stories and articles about them hit the media. Why cannot I leave them and their unjustified beliefs well enough alone?

The short answer is that I can’t because it is wrong to do nothing. Because I can do something, I feel that I must do my small part at the very least… hence my posting. Ignorance must be challenged and brought into the light of critical thinking to expose it for what is usually is: an expression of cancerous fear that is not worthy to be held respectable but owed our justified and published contempt.

The longer version of the answer I will borrow from a poster with whom I have the greatest respect: Calilasseia, who writes here

To those like myself who have followed a scientific academic career, such are the things of beauty that fill our intellectual realms; such are the fragrant blossoms of our requisite enchanted gardens. They speak of the way the world works, they allow us not only to marvel at that world, but to work within it and build upon it. From the world of biology, the butterfly that forms my avatar, Morpho rhetenor from Peru, is another scintillating marvel about which I can wax lyrical – did you know that its wing scales, when viewed under the electron microscope, possess structural features allowing them to act as light amplifiers for specific regions of the visible spectrum via constructive interference? Breathtaking as the butterfly is in life, and one day I hope to see it for myself in its natural habitat and experience the wonder of its flashes of blue iridescence as it flies upon those jewelled wings, the thought that its scintillating beauty has an explanation that can be deduced by the mind of Man should also be something we pause for a moment to gasp at.

But there are those whose eyes and whose minds are closed to such things. Not for them the joys of inquiry, of discovery, of learning: rather, they seek their sustenance not in the bright sunshine of free thought, but in the perennial darkness of doctrine. Worse still, these persons are not content with inhabiting those catacombs themselves – they seek to cage others within the darkness, shut them out from the light, deny them forever the fragrant blossoms of the enchanted gardens I have just described. To do so, they will resort to subterfuge and intrigue, eating away at the wonderful edifice of learning that, if they paused for a moment to consider, gives them too gifts in their lives for which they appear to show not one atom of gratitude.

They must be stopped.

It is indeed an imperative that they are, for if that magnificent, hard-won product of the Enlightenment is lost to us, the consequences will be disastrous. From an era in which we can sit at home, and at the touch of a button be connected with manned spaceflight in real time, or with thousands upon thousands of other people on different continents in media such as this forum, living lives free from the perils of famine and pestilence, we shall descend into a new Dark Age, in which those vanquished spectres will emerge wraith-like to claim more, and those who are left will be subject to arbitrary, Inquisitional terror.

If some, like myself, are inclined to be polemical about this, it because we know precisely what is at stake if the purveyors of ignorance and bigotry win – we know how much of a calamity it will be for our very species. We know intimately how precious those gifts of the Enlightenment are, and what will befall us if they are wrested from our hands. We know also that to perpetuate those gifts is something we cannot leave to chance, it must be worked for, the price that the rational man must pay for the wonders of free thought is eternal vigilance in the face of those forces that would destroy it. That is why I, for one, am not only prepared to launch polemically into the fray, but consider it my moral duty so to do, because the consequences of indolence, were they to result in the victory of the forces of ignorance and bigotry, would be worse than calamitous, they would be truly apocalyptic. And make no mistake, those who would replace the glories of free thought with the concentration camp of mysticism seek not only to destroy those glories, but from their own words have given a chilling insight into the pleasure they would derive from that destruction, and the pleasure they would derive from having people like us at their mercy.

What we have is far more beautiful, inspiring, and worthy of defending than any doctrine. Let the hordes come – my sword is at the ready.

December 12, 2009

Is religious belief beneficial to societies?

Filed under: Human Development,Morality,Psychology,Religion,Science,Society — tildeb @ 2:45 pm

Is religious belief beneficial to societies? Does religion make people behave better?

Many believers assume, without question, that it does – even that there can be no morality without religion. They cite George Washington who believed that national morality could not prevail without religions principles, or Dostoevsky’s famous claim (actually words of his fictional character Ivan Karamazov) that “without God all things are permitted”. Then there are Americans defending their country’s peculiarly high levels of popular religious belief and claiming that faith-based charity is better than universal government provision.

Atheists, naturalists and humanists fight back claiming that it’s perfectly possible to be moral without God. Evolutionary psychology reveals the common morality of our species, and the universal values of fairness, kindness, and reciprocity.

So who is right?

The 1st world nations with the highest levels of belief in God, and the greatest religious observance are also the ones with all the signs of societal dysfunction. These correlations are truly stunning.

Read Sue Blackmore’s commentary here about Gregory Paul’s research paper here.

December 9, 2009

Does morality come from religion?

From Marc Hauser’s Edge article IT SEEMS BIOLOGY (NOT RELIGION) EQUALS MORALITY:

Based on the responses of thousands of participants to more than 100 dilemmas, we find no difference between men and women, young and old, theistic believers and non-believers, liberals and conservatives. When it comes to judging unfamiliar moral scenarios, your cultural background is virtually irrelevant.

What guides your judgments is the universal and unconscious voice of our species, a biological code, a universal moral grammar. We tend to see actions as worse than omissions of actions: pushing a person into the factory vent is worse than allowing the person to fall in. Using someone as a means to some greater good is worse if you make this one person worse off than if you don’t. This is the difference between an evitable and inevitable harm. If the person in the hospital or in the factory is perfectly healthy, taking his life to save the lives of many is worse than if he is dying and there is no cure. Distinctions such as these are abstract, impartial and emotionally cold. They are like recognising the identity relationship of 1=1, a rule that is abstract and content-free.

If this code is universal and impartial, then why are there are so many moral atrocities in the world? The answer comes from thinking about our emotions, the feelings we recruit to fuel in-group favouritism, out-group hatred and, ultimately, dehumanisation.

December 7, 2009

Is religious belief part of our biology?

The nonuniversality of strong religious devotion, and the ease with 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.

From the evolutionary psychology paper here.

December 4, 2009

Islam and Science – an immovable object meets an irresistible force

In 2006, ISESCO published a Guide for the Incorporation of Reproductive Health and Gender Concepts into Islamic Education Curricula, obviously a critically important subject area where some scientific facts are in order. The Guide, which can be found on ISESCO’s Web site, is addressed to curriculum developers, textbook writers, and those responsible for training instructors in formal Islamic education for students aged six to nineteen. Its introduction stresses the need “to supply, at the proper time, adolescents with appropriate health information on the biological aspects within the framework of Islamic rulings and values” and emphasizes “the fact that Sharia, whether in its original or interpretative sources, is the only source for establishing, interpreting, clarifying, and incorporating reproductive health issues, including adolescent health, in the programs of formal education.”5

What follows contains not a shred of science but instead a series of checklists and tips for imparting Sharia rulings on matters of health, hygiene, and sexual ethics. The ISESCO authors mention the Islamic basis for upholding “equality in human dignity” and “good treatment of the girl and kindness towards her” and opposing female circumcision and “indiscrimination between the sexes” (sic?). They also instruct teachers that Islam forbids, among other things, fornication, homosexuality, intercourse during menstruation, and khulwa (an unrelated man and woman being alone together). At the same time, they assert that Islamic law justifies polygamous marriage and, above all, abstinence.

The student should adhere to the lofty Islamic morals and ideals that call for modesty, lowering one’s gaze, avoiding mixing and being alone with a person with whom one can be intimate, abstinence, resisting shameful deeds, avoiding any provocative act or item of dress that may encourage sexual harassment and lapsing into harlotry . . . [and] observe abstinence before marriage.

And this from a publication that was “compiled in cooperation with United Nations Population Fund”!6

In this Guide, as in numerous other documents, ISESCO is only doing its job. Rather than seeking Muslim integration with the global research and academic communities, its stated mission is to advance science “within the framework of the civilizational reference of the Islamic world and in the light of the human Islamic values and ideals.” In this case, ISESCO does not even do students the service of setting forth the relevant empirical evidence for the purpose of beating it senseless with religious precepts.

Read the very sorry state of science oozing from the Islamic world here.

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