Questionable Motives

April 1, 2012

What’s the Tennessee ‘Monkey Bill’ and why does it matter?

“I ain’t kin to no damn monkey,” is a stereotypical religious response to the very notion of evolution by natural selection. But this isn’t the main reason for the stalwart position taken against the scientific consensus that we share common ancestry with other primates. The reason is religious.

As Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Society, explains,

The theory of evolution is incompatible with the Gospel of Jesus Christ even as it is in direct conflict with any faithful reading of the Scriptures. (E)volution and Christianity are incompatible.

The explanation of common ancestry is incompatible with any religious belief that tries to suggest that humanity is somehow a special creation of a god… a god that can be ‘known’ because it/he/she has bestowed special gifts and favours and privileges to the human branch of the primate family and is therefore clearly deserving of our obedience to him/her/it… as it has been opaquely revealed in various scriptures (Creationism 1.0). In effect this assumption means that, to the faithful who presume special creation and/or divine intervention for humanity without evidence, we are to assume these different and mutually incompatible scriptures are actually divinely inspired science textbooks… textbooks that fail to adequately explain the overwhelming evidence for natural selection we find throughout reality – a reality that has revealed no compelling evidence to indicate any such divine interference anywhere in the chain of evidence for natural selection.  In spite of soothing words from the science organizations like the NCSE and religious organizations that support the  Clergy Letter Project that if one squints just right there is no compatibility issue between creationism and evolution, the fact is that there is no scientific basis on which hang a creationist hat, meaning that to maintain a belief in some kind of creationism relies not on evidence from reality but a faith-based belief alone. Those who wish to insist that humans have been POOF!ed into existence or that at some point somewhere some divine agency intervened in natural selection fail to appreciate that key word: natural. To be clear, one can sometimes find religion without creationism but you will never find creationism without religion.

Why does this matter?

As Mohler quite rightly points out, accepting the scientific explanation for evolution – a foundation upon which all modern biological sciences are built – causes an exodus of evangelical young people. Although Mohler references these effects on his own preferred religion, the point he raises is also true for any religious tenet built on a divine role in human development for which there is no evidence in support and much against (the latest being genetic evidence that clearly indicates no original human couple like the fictional Adam and Eve – which is explained in simpler language here). As the PEW forum on religion and public life notes,

All but a small number of scientists regard Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection as an established fact. And yet, a substantial majority of Americans, many of whom are deeply religious, reject the notion that life evolved through natural forces alone.

In other words, evolution is a very real threat to this creationist tenet regardless of which religion attempts to maintain it.

What’s a creationist to do but find some way to counter this scientific knowledge… but without any science to back it up?

Enter the Wedge Strategy, designed (pun intended) to “defeat scientific materialism and its destructive moral, cultural, and political legacies and to replace materialistic explanations with the theistic understanding that nature and human beings are created by God“.

Theists have been repeatedly thwarted by the courts in the US from including the creationist tenet in science class. The latest (Kitzmiller et al. v. Dover) directly addressed creationism in its most modern evolution, namely Intelligent Design (Creationism 2.0). The conclusion was clear: ID has no scientific merit so it doesn’t belong in the science classroom.

Oh dear.

Those who thought that perhaps this ongoing battle had finally reached a conclusion were premature; let us now be properly introduced to Creationism 3.0: Academic Freedom! Strengths and Weaknesses! Promote Critical Thinking! This – not scientific evidence – is the next evolution in the Wedge Strategy, brought to us from the Discovery Institute along with a standard petition on how to best promote it without being accused of promoting religion in the public domain.

In 2011, eight states considered bills to include ‘academic freedom’ into the science curriculum, as if this freedom rather than religiously inspired creationism was in some immanent danger of extinction. As Lauri Lebo so eloquently describes – revealing the common language source for all these state bills -

educators may not be prohibited from “helping students understand, analyze, critique and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught.

Isn’t that grand? What’s so wrong with more critical thinking? What’s wrong is that the problems inherent in evolution – like any science – are trivial in comparison to the robustness of the general explanation. Trivial problems in fully understanding and describing human reproduction is not an invitation to bring Stork Theory into the science class. Somehow this point is missed when it comes to promoting the equally unqualified notion of creationism.

This language of academic freedom helped bring in the Louisiana it’s-okay-to-teach-creationism-in-science-class law (SB 733, LA Science Education Act) and is the template for the Tennessee Monkey Bill – coined accurately to be more  ‘stealth creationism’ by the indomitable Barbara Forrest who works tirelessly to show how this creationist influence remains dedicated to inserting faith-based belief into the science curriculum. This continues now in Tennessee in spite of student complaints and a dedicated campaign supported by 75 Nobel laureates by a Louisiana student Zack Kopplin showing how creationist dogma harms his educational standing for advancement and employment.

Note that as in the Louisiana law, those theories protected under ‘academic freedom’ can include “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming and human cloning,” tying in very nicely with the stated aims of the Wedge document. This is stealth creationism in action in spite of the ridiculous instructions to future judges contained in the bills that these religious-only, non scientific ‘strengths and weaknesses’ talking points are not “to be construed to promote any religious or nonreligious doctrine.” As the Sensuous Curmudgeon points out, this is comparable to saying

“Hey, Judge: Here’s how to construe this law” to a suicide-bomber’s explosive-laden vest being sewn with a tag saying: “Attention Bomb Squad Coroner: The deceased wearer of this garment should not be construed to be a suicide bomber.”

All of this legal and legislative and advocating aside for the moment, the real effect described by Dr. Paul Gross from this agenda driven religious attack against the cornerstone of the biological sciences is this:

(It) discourages teachers from teaching evolution, or from giving it proper emphasis—if only by signaling that it’s a highly controversial subject. Teachers, understandably, fear controversy and potential attack by parents. Meanwhile, for this and many other reasons, science performance of our children against their overseas peers remains average to poor.

Really? Science education can be affected when so many attack it as ‘just another way of knowing’? And that affect produces poor student achievement results? Who could have possibly predicted this?

So just how poor is scientific literacy? Read it and weep.

This is the real cost all of us pay to keep creationists in business. Belief in creationism – no matter what form it may take – creates no new knowledge, opens up no new avenues of inquiry, produces no practical applications, and advances our understanding of the world we inhabit not one bit. It is a dead end resulting in thwarting, stymieing, and impeding real science, real progress, real technologies, real knowledge advancements. Seeing this pernicious religious effect in real people, who are convinced creationism deserves a passing nod of approval and wider public acceptance as a quaint alternative to contrary hard science, perhaps we can begin to better understand why biologists like Dawkins, Coyne, and PZ Myers spend so much time and effort counter-attacking this particular ignorance called religiously inspired creationism… for there simply is no other root cause for it.

Religious belief empowers creationism and it is religious belief that motivates its promulgation to infect and distort science. Some people will think themselves justified to doubt evolutionary science while accepting other branches like physics and chemistry conveniently forgetting that all are a single methodology. (But what can we expect with such poor scientific literacy?) Choosing to believe the physics of gravity here but not there to suit a religious belief about the aerodynamics of a flying horse for certain self-proclaimed prophets of god is as incoherent as accepting evolutionary biology within the framework of genetics here but not common ancestry there.

These kinds of Monkey Bills in public legislation matter a very great deal to all of us because they represent superstitious nonsense promoted and legalized and inserted under false pretenses in the public domain under the excuse of words that mean nothing more and nothing less that unsupported religious belief in divine POOF!ism. Rather than gain political capital from promoting poisonous religious beliefs imposed on the public domain, these politicians should be penalized by all of us even if some of us choose to remain privately dedicated to belief in creationism. Our future scientific literacy depends on it and all voters share in this current dismal failing grade we have achieved when we allow religious belief to have such a deleterious effect in our educational system. All of us need to smarten up and start complaining much more loudly and boldly whenever faith-based beliefs dare to enter the public square and demand effect.

January 5, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 9, 2010

Religion in the public domain: Confrontation or accommodation?

Filed under: New Atheists,PZ Myers,Secularism,theology — tildeb @ 12:44 pm

Which side of the fence are you on? For those who know about P.Z. Myers’s reputation as a fiercely strident Gnu Atheist, the answer is pretty evident. But why does he take such a position? Are his reasons good ones? And why that take-no-prisoners approach for which he is famous?

He was on a panel this week and addressed these questions under the heading of Confrontation or Accommodation. I think his words from his presentation are well worth our consideration, so I have re-posted them here in their entirety:

I’m going to begin with where I entered this conflict — and make no mistake, it’s a real battle — with my experience in science education, and specifically with the teaching of evolution. Biology has been a lifelong passion for me, and when I first began teaching way back in the 1980s, it was a shock to discover students who had nothing but contempt for the great unifying principle of my discipline, who were happily wallowing in self-inflicted ignorance and who outright denied plain and simple facts about science. And when I discovered that there were ministers who came onto our campus and lied to our students, presented half-truths and weird fantasies to substitute for evidence, i was outraged. We Gnu Atheists have a reputation for being militant, but make no mistake: we didn’t start this war. If you want to place blame, put it on the backs of religious zealots who have been poisoning the minds of the young for a long, long time.

This is another theme in this conflict: Gnu Atheists are so dang angry. Damned right we are. The real question is why everyone else isn’t. If you aren’t angry about what’s being done to undermine education in this country, you haven’t been following along.

But we also respond rationally. My early incredulity about the nonsense being promoted by creationists was followed by a lot of fact-finding. You can do it too — look up the history of creationism, and you find that we’ve been fighting this same battle for at least half a century, and dealing with the same inane arguments over and over again. Where once Duane Gish was the creationist dinosaur roaming the earth, he was replaced by Kent Hovind, and he is now superseded by Ken Ham and Ray Comfort and Eric Hovind. Nothing has changed but the names. We have had a succession of court cases: Epperson v Arkansas in 68, McLean v Arkansas in 82, Edwards v. Aguillard in 87, Kitzmiller v Dover in 2005 — are they coming to an end? Did any of these trials diminish the influence of creationists? One flareup will be squelched, and next year there will be another. Similarly, we see a succession of politicians come and go, and nothing changes. Ronald Reagan becomes Santorum becomes Bush becomes another dreary chain of Republican know-nothings at every election cycle. It’s 2010, and guess what: Christine O’Donnell is running for the senate, and I’ve still got a local fundamentalist pastor coming on to my campus every week to instruct my students in the video fables of Brother Kent Hovind.

We have been treading water for 50 years. In one sense, that’s a very good thing: better to stay afloat in one place than to sink, and I am deeply appreciative of organizations like the NCSE that have kept us bobbing at the surface all this time, and please don’t ever stop. But isn’t it also about time we learned a new stroke and actually made some progress towards the shore? Shouldn’t we move beyond just reacting to every assault by Idiot America on science education, and honestly look at the root causes of this chronic malignancy and do something about it?

The sea our country is drowning in is a raging religiosity, wave after wave of ignorant arguments and ideological absurdities pushed by tired dogma and fervent and frustrated fanatics. We keep hearing that the answer is to find the still waters of a more moderate faith, but I’m sorry, I don’t feel like drowning there either.

There is an answer, and it’s on display right here in this room. The solution, the only longterm solution, is the sanity of secularism. The lesser struggles to keep silly stickers off our textbooks or to keep pseudoscientific BS like intelligent design out of our classrooms are important, but they are endless chores — at some point we just have to stop pandering to the ideological noise that spawns these unending tasks and cut right to the source: religion.

That’s where the Gnu Atheists get their confrontational reputation. We’re fed up with fighting off the symptoms. We need to address the disease. And if you’re one of those people trying to defend superstition and quivering in fear at the idea of taking on a majority that believes in foolishness, urging us to continue slapping bandages on the blight of faith, well then, you’re part of the problem and we’ll probably do something utterly dreadful, like be rude to you or write some cutting sarcastic essay to mock your position. That is our métier, after all.

There is another motive for our confrontational ways, and it has to do with values. We talk a lot about values in this country, so I kind of hate to use the word — it’s been tainted by the religious right, which howls about “Christian values” every time the subject of civil rights for gays or equal rights for women or universal health care or improving the plight of the poor come up — True Christian values are agin’ those things, after all. But the Gnu Atheists have values, too, and premiere among them is truth. And that makes us uncivil and rude, because we challenge the truth of religion.

Religion provides solace to millions, we are told, it makes them happy, and it’s mostly harmless.

“But is it true?”, we ask, as if it matters.

The religious are the majority, we hear over and over again, and we need to be pragmatic and diplomatic in dealing with them.

“But is what they believe true?”, we ask, and “What do we gain by compromising on reality?”

Religion isn’t the problem, they claim, it’s only the extremists and zealots and weirdos. The majority of believers are moderates and even share some values with us.

“But is a moderate superstition true?”, we repeat, and “How can a myth be made more true if its proponents are simply calmer in stating it?”

I mean, it’s nice and all that most Christians aren’t out chanting “God Hates Fags” and are a little embarrassed when some yokel whines that he didn’t come from no monkey, but they still go out and quietly vote against gay and lesbian rights, and they still sit at home while their school boards set fire to good science.

It’s all about the truth, people. And all the evidence is crystal clear right now: the earth is far older than 6,000 years. Evolution is a real, and it is a process built on raw chance driven by the brutal engines of selection, and there is no sign of a loving, personal god, but only billions of years of pitiless winnowing without any direction other than short-term survival and reproduction. It’s not pretty, it’s not consoling, it doesn’t sanctify virginity, or tell you that god really loves your foreskin, but it’s got one soaring virtue that trumps all the others: it’s true.

You won’t understand what the Gnu Atheists are up to until you understand that core value. I have been told that my position won’t win the creationist court cases; do you think I care? I did not become a scientist because I want to impress lawyers. I have been told that I must think promoting atheism is more important than promoting good science education; tell me how closing my eyes to claims of an imaginary deity using quantum indeterminacy to shape human evolution helps students better understand reality. I’ve been told to hush, there are good Christians who support science, and a vocal atheism will scare them away…and I have to ask, you question my support for science education, when you pander to people who you admit will put their superstitions above science if someone says a harsh word about Jesus?

I have to follow the advice of Tom Paine:

A thing moderately good is not so good as it ought to be. Moderation in temper is always a virtue; but moderation in principle is always a vice.

And I will insist that a principle worth holding is worth fighting for. We must confront untruths; letting them lie unquestioned is simply a way to allow them to fester and grow.

I have to quote something I recently read by Ed Yong, the science journalist who blogs at Not Exactly Rocket Science. He has an excellent post up asking, “Should Science Journalists Take Sides?“, and while it’s specifically addressed to journalists, it applies equally well to scientists, or humanists, or just plain citizens. To summarize it all, the answer is yes: journalists should take sides, and I’m going to generalize it and suggest that we should all take sides. Here’s what Ed wrote:

A veteran science journalist recently wrote: “Reporters are messengers – their job is to tell, as accurately as they can, what has been said, with the benefit of such insight as their experience allows them to bring, not to second guess whether what is said is right”. That’s rubbish. If you are not actually providing any analysis, if you’re not effectively “taking a side”, then you are just a messenger, a middleman, a megaphone with ears. If that’s your idea of journalism, then my RSS reader is a journalist.

Too many of the godless believe in something even more: to avoid rocking the boat, to refrain from challenging dogma, to deftly avoid the issue when someone raises some religious folly. If you think you’re helping the cause with your cautious silence, then a brick wall is a public intellectual.Then Ed has this bit, which could have been written by a Gnu Atheist:

As I said earlier, this is about taking sides with truth. It’s about being knowledgeable enough to make a decent stab at uncovering the truth and presenting the outcomes of that quest to one’s readers, even if that outcome lies firmly on one side of a “debate”.

It’s about doing the actual job of a journalist, by analysing, critiquing, placing into context and so on, as opposed to merely reporting. It’s about acknowledging one’s own biases and making them plain to see for a reader.

In the end, this is about transparency and truth, concepts that are far more important than neutrality or objectivity. After all, the word for people who are neutral about truth is ‘liars’. It shouldn’t be ‘journalists’.

I have to repeat that. The word for people who are neutral about truth is “liars”. It shouldn’t be “scientists”. It shouldn’t be “humanists”.

Earlier today we heard Paul Kurtz speak, and while I have great respect for his contributions to this secular movement, he did mischaracterize atheists, and I have to call him on it. One of the most common canards applied to us, and especially to the Gnu Atheists, is that we’re negative, that we lack a positive center that we stand for. This is completely false. When you look at the body of work that the prominent leaders of this movement have put together, when you look at the books of people like Dawkins and Harris and Dennett and Coyne and Stenger, you do not find them nattering on for hundreds of pages about how much they hate religion. Quite the contrary. What you find are authors who write about reason and evidence and science, where front and center you find an appreciation for a universe rich with natural phenomena that, with a little honest effort, we can reach out and comprehend. We atheists live a purpose-driven life, to steal a phrase, and that life is dedicated to deepening our understanding and learning about this world. Call us merely negative, or merely angry, or merely anti-religious, and you haven’t been paying attention. You haven’t been reading our books or articles for comprehension.

What may have confused some people, though, is that we also believe you can’t love the truth without detesting lies. That an honest way of dealing with those lies is to confront them openly, head on, and unapologetically, and while some might rationalize accommodating unjustifiable distortions of the truth as a strategic option, there are a number of us who consider that principle to be one on which we will not compromise.

January 11, 2010

What should religious belief NOT sound like?

Rachel Maddow’s show is often very well done with good research, pointed questions, and biting commentary. This story reveals lunacy in the religious Right, which seems to be successfully hijacking the Republican party.

PZ Myers has a very valid point when he comments on the subject of Rachel’s show and  says:

Here’s what we get in American government: a room full of morons, eyes squeezed shut, bobbing their heads back and forth as they beg an invisible man in the sky to smite health care reform. Witness this and realize that religion is a pathology, an evil mind-rot that makes the stupid even more stupid..

To view the video, please go to PZs site here (I can’t embed it, but I’m working on it).

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