Questionable Motives

August 26, 2013

Why is accommodating respect for faith-based beliefs stupid and irresponsible?

medical treatmentOver at  Jerry Coyne’s site, Why Evolution is True, he posted about a measles outbreak in Texas traced back to a mega-church and non vaccinated children.  Coyne titled his post, “Measles back again, thanks to religion,” and gave us information about the outbreak, the response from church authorities and its ‘medical’ team, and data on the disease, all very useful stuff (as usual). But I disagreed in one sense that the measles outbreak was due to religion. It was just as much back because of those who accommodate faith-based beliefs of any kind and smugly attack New Atheists for daring to criticize any of it publicly. This is what I wrote in my ridiculously long comment:

I apologize for the length of my comment, but this post highlights that the ‘enemy’ of reason and knowledge isn’t just religion per se but those who support and tolerate a methodology that is clearly broken, namely, the empowerment and public acceptance of any faith-based belief (an acceptance demonstrated by offering unjustified respect rather than justified criticism of those who exercise any faith-based belief. I’m talking to you, accommodationists).

Into the category of faith-based beliefs can be everything from religion to anti-vaccination, conspiracies to astrology, alternative medicine to Winfrey/Chopra/Dr. Oz-ian woo. Belief in these is all of a kind, and the root is faith- rather than evidence-based belief… a method of thinking that elevates possibility to be equivalent to probability, meaning that it’s a way to elevate any belief in something to be the same weight in consideration as not having belief in it. In other words, it’s a way to make any faith-based belief seem as reasonable as not believing… one either believes in alien abductions, for example, (by entertaining the possibility) or one does not (by seeming to be closed-minded when there is no compelling evidence in its favour). See? Equivalent: six of one, a half dozen of the other. How very reasonable and open-minded we are and not followers of scientism like those intolerant, strident, and militant folk who are Doin’ it Rong!

What’s lost, of course, is any meaningful way, a methodology we can trust, to allow reality to arbitrate the faith-based belief because the weight of evidence (supporting or not supporting the belief) plays no important role; the equivalency is already clearly established by believers, which is why any possible evidence for the most ludicrous of beliefs is drafted into service and used as if equivalent to the array of evidence contrary to them combined with the absence of compelling evidence where it should be if the belief were true. In this sense, the use of evidence (aka, reality) by the faith-based believer is only used in service to the belief, whereas in every other area of life we know enough to allow our beliefs to be in the service of reality… if we wish to function successfully in it.

Any method of inquiry that refuses to allow reality to adjudicate claims made about it is a guaranteed way to fool one’s self. Believers in faith-based beliefs fool themselves (along with the tacit approval of accommodationists who decide the appearance of being tolerant of foolishness is a higher standard of intellectual integrity than respecting reality to inform our beliefs about it). But it doesn’t end here and this is the point accommodationsits fail to appreciate. A measles outbreak doesn’t just threaten those foolish enough not to vaccinate; it threatens both the non vaccinated AND the vaccinated with exposure to a preventable disease! This is unconscionable stupidity and social irresponsibility in the face of spreading a very real disease because of acting on a faith-based belief. As if believing in such faith-based foolishness weren’t bad enough, acting on this foolishness carries with it a demonstrable cost to all of us that causes real harm to real people in real life. Faced with this reality, I must ask: where did all these ‘reasonable’ accommodationists suddenly go? This is where the rubber meets the road of why respecting faith-based beliefs by anyone including accommodationists is a public threat to the health and welfare of us all.

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November 3, 2012

Why is it your civic duty to address faith-based beliefs in the public domain with public scorn and public ridicule?

Because reason doesn’t work.

How so?

Let me explain this way:

Question 13 (coincidence?) of the latest Public Policy Polling asks, Do you think it’s possible for people to become possessed by demons, or not?

What do you think the percentage of those Americans asked this question might be? Would you predict the percentage of Republicans would be higher or lower than average?

I’ll answer these in a moment, but first, I want you to consider the percentage of Americans who think global warming is a clear and present danger and then consider the percentage of Republicans who agree. Would that percentage be higher or lower than the average?

Well, the PEW Research Center provides us plenty of data about the increasing percentage of Americans who agree that global warming is on the rise, caused by human activity, and exacerbating climate change and altered weather patterns and more extreme weather. So let’s look at the numbers.

Regarding climate change, about two thirds of Americans accept that global warming is real, it’s here, and its human causes need to be addressed. That’s great. Better late than never. Among Republicans, about 43% agree that global warming is real but only about 16% think it’s due to human activity. And this is in the face of global scientific consensus.

Regarding demons, about 57% of Americans think they are real. The percentage of Republicans is about 68%. And this is in the face of no compelling scientific evidence.

Can you see where I’m going with this?

Let’s compare, shall we?

More Republicans believe in demons than they do anthropogenic global warming at a ration over 4:1, not because of any rational or compelling scientific reasons but because of the strength of confidence they place only in their faith-based beliefs.

So out of about 55 million registered Republican voters,  about 37.5 million of them believe in demons but only about 9 million believe in anthropogenic global warming. Public policy aimed at addressing climate change has very little support among this cohort and only slightly above a majority on average. Why? Because far too many people are willing to elevate their faith-based beliefs not equivalent (because the stats would show these as Undecided) but SUPERIOR to scientific consensus.

The cost of this lunacy, this elevation of ignorance to be considered superior to knowledge, is going to be high and all of us get to pay for it with unnecessary and imposed costs, pain, and suffering. So next time someone suggests that faith-based beliefs should be respected in the public domain because of some charity work motivated and organized by some well-intentioned but misguided religious activists, please remind these not-so- quaint fools that this respect is the very stupidity that sets the stage for the next Sandy, the next extended drought, the next flash flood, the next inundated slide. And that little bit of weather, as they say Down East, costs real lives and causes real damage in the tens of billions of dollars so that we can continue to pretend that faith-based beliefs in the public domain are not a net harm, are not a direct threat to our collective well-being, are not a danger to our lives (How much soup could you make and distribute, I wonder, for 50 billion dollars these days?).

We need to stop deluding ourselves that faith-based beliefs are in any way, shape, or fashion respectable when they are equivalent to malicious ignorance , and hold those who seem powerless to exercise reasonable critical thinking (when it comes to public policy contrary to their beliefs) to public scorn and public ridicule for their willingness to allow their superstitious nonsense to put all of us at real risk in the service of maintaining a faux-respect for their ridiculous faith-based beliefs.

June 13, 2012

Why are blasphemy laws an abortion of reason?

Because you have to abort any reason to be concerned about what is true in favour of showing greater concern for what is believed to be true.  Therein lies the definition of legal blasphemy: the offence of speaking sacrilegiously about god or sacred things; sacrilege meaning the violation or misuse of what is regarded as sacred; sacred meaning anything regarded with great respect and reverence; reverence meaning to regard or treat with deep respect. Blasphemy laws enforce (with the misuse of secular law) only what is regarded to be worthy of respect, namely, some belief claim. Whether or not the claim is true doesn’t matter, you see, so whatever reasons are brought forward also don’t matter. This is the rejection of reason, raising the question How do we know if some belief claim is worth respecting? Blasphemy laws circumvent the answer to this question as irrelevant.

But surely I jest! People are far too reasonable to go along with this absurdity, you must be thinking; the laws are intended to promote toleration and mutual respect for the belief of others, right?

Wrong.

The catholic church is a fairly large religious organization claiming over  a billion members globally. Surely it wouldn’t stoop to standing idly by while some bishop undertook this kind of legal abuse. But, right on cue, the mass producer and protector of pedophiles has shown that it too doesn’t care about what’s true (is anyone surprised… anyone?); it doesn’t mind that its agents use these laws to attack reason that stands contrary to whatever earns them cash and uses the secular branch of the judiciary to do this dirty work for it… to bludgeon what’s true into irrelevancy if it interferes with catholic aims and catholic beliefs and gaining money.

From the Friendly Atheist:

 

Indian TV channel (TV-9)asked the President of the Indian Rationalist Society to visit the Church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Vile Parle, Mumbai to offer his opinion on a supposed miracle. The President, Sanal Edamaruku, is like the Indian version of James Randi or Penn Jillette. He is well known in the country and has been debunking miracles for over 30 years.

The miracle in question involved the dripping of water from the feet of a statue of the crucifixion, a miracle that that seems to crop up all around the world… at least when pieces of toast with Jesus on them are in short supply.

Edamuruku was quickly able to pin the cause on a leaking drainage system, with water being drawn up through the nail holes in the statue’s feet by capillary action. Needless to say, the locals and the church were not happy.

Edamaruku accused the church of exploiting people for money, a tactic that did not go down well. Edamaruku later participated in a heated debate with the pastor of the church, Father Augustine Palett, on national TV. Father Palett had little time for actual debate and instead spent his time threatening action, by way of a blasphemy complaint, if Edamaruku refused to apologize. Edamaruku welcomed this, as it would be a chance to present his evidence in court with the priests and bishops on the witness stand. Of course, no apology was forthcoming and Palett has since made good on his threat.

Following the TV appearance, a group called The Association of Concerned Catholics (Think Bill Donohue, but Indian) lodged a complaint against him with the Mumbai police. They have now arrested him, charging him with “hurting the religious sentiments of a particular community.” This is a section in India’s penal code intended to prevent hate speech and should be used against deeply sectarian groups or individuals. The complaints against Edamaruku, however, are a grave misuse of these laws.

Edamaruku had applied for “anticipatory bail,” which would have meant he could have avoided jail during any trial. Bizarrely, this was rejected on the grounds that the judge thought jail would be the safest place for him.

Any democratic country with secular law cannot justify this poisonous intrusion of theocracy into its legal system. It’s an embarrassment to anyone who can think straight. Blasphemy laws must be removed if that country’s government doesn’t wish to advocate for the aborting of reason from its judicial system.

April 1, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

Why does this matter?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh dear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 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).

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.

November 13, 2010

Just how gullible does the Roman Catholic Church want Americans to be?

This is the US we’re talking about, land of the free, home of the brave, the shining city on the hill, the Nobel prize capital of the world. So, naturally, I thought the roman catholic church was so busy vilifying secularists and the great evil they represent – including such theistic affronts as human rights, political freedoms, dignity of personhood, respect for scientific understanding, and all that mundane, temporal jazz – that I assumed this conference was a bunch of modern day catholics poking fun at one of their absurdities from almost-ancient history.

Isn’t that the way most enlightened and educated Americans think about demonic possession?

But when it comes to treating demonic possession, the rc church is all business. It remains steadfast in bringing to bear all the modern weaponry at its disposal for the modern American citizen: exorcisms! That’s right, folks. There is growing need for them and the church needs to step up and do its theological duty. Cast that demon out. Use force if you have to. That very difficult and demanding expertise includes the brute force of using conjugated Latin, too. Very scary stuff to any demon to be sure… and even scarier to young people everywhere who need to learn it. Nevertheless, let us press on and read about what the rc church is doing behind closed doors at a hush-hush Baltimore conference:

There are only a handful of priests in the country trained as exorcists (it IS a university degree after all), but they say they are overwhelmed with requests from people who fear they are possessed by the Devil.

Now, American bishops are holding a conference on Friday and Saturday to prepare more priests and bishops to respond to the demand. The purpose is not necessarily to revive the practice, the organizers say, but to help Catholic clergy members learn how to distinguish who really needs an exorcism from who really needs a psychiatrist, or perhaps some pastoral care.

“Not everyone who thinks they need an exorcism actually does need one,” said Bishop Thomas J. Paprocki of Springfield, Ill., who organized the conference. “It’s only used in those cases where the Devil is involved in an extraordinary sort of way in terms of actually being in possession of the person.

Let’s ponder that last quote for a moment. Exorcism is needed when the devil is involved. Otherwise, one doesn’t really need that directed Latin. I see.

“But it’s rare, it’s extraordinary, so the use of exorcism is also rare and extraordinary,” he said. “But we have to be prepared.”

Yes, I strongly suspect that is rare. And extraordinary. And supernatural, it goes without saying. But the church is on the job. Take THAT, you evil secularist doubter who stands by while that misogynistic Satan has his way with small boys and helps protect the pedophiles in his employ. Oh, wait… I’m thinking of… umm… (diversion is needed)… Squirrel!

Where was I? Exorcism. Right.

So how does one diagnose demonic possession?

Some of the classic signs of possession by a demon, Bishop Paprocki said, include speaking in a language the person has never learned (excluding Latin, I presume); extraordinary shows of strength; a sudden aversion to spiritual things like holy water or the name of God; and severe sleeplessness, lack of appetite and cutting, scratching and biting the skin.

A person who claims to be possessed must be evaluated by doctors to rule out a mental or physical illness, according to Vatican guidelines issued in 1999, which superseded the previous guidelines, issued in 1614.

1999. Yup. New guidelines. 1999. The age of rare, extraordinary, supernatural demonic infestations are being re-defined by Vatican bureaucrats for their version of the disease in DSM IV (under Demonic Possession, no doubt) while atom colliders are being built deep underground, genomes are being catelogued, and missions to Mars are being carried out.

Now that leaves me wondering what kind of doctor rules out mental or physical illness for a bat shit crazy person babbling incoherently (sorry… speaking in ‘tongues’ is the correct lingo I think) and exhibiting violent behaviours including self harm? I would tend to think it must be a bat shit crazy doctor who is no longer able to maintain a living as a general practitioner… for somewhat obvious reasons of having lost his mind and turning to Oogity Boogity! for his professional opinion. I’m glad that such a person is not my family doctor and the church is welcome to him (I assume no women would fit the employment criteria… having the wrong gonads and all).

“People are talking about, are we taking two steps back?” Father Vega said. “My first reaction when I heard about the exorcism conference was, this is another of those trappings we’ve pulled out of the past.”

But he said that there could eventually be a rising demand for exorcism because of the influx of Hispanic and African Catholics to the United States. People from those cultures, he said, are more attuned to the experience of the supernatural.

That’s religious-speak for too damned ignorant to know any better, which is just the way the church likes ’em. Especially those with an MD after their names. Always room at the inn, dontcha know, if you have the right gonads, the right frequency tuned to bat shit crazy, and the right gullibility to think modern medicine and demonic possession are mutually accommodating.

And people think science and religion are incompatible. I know! Those militant, strident, and arrogant atheistic secularists say the most ridiculous things!

June 7, 2010

Is there a benefit from beliving in supernatural agencies?

Filed under: Science,Superstition — tildeb @ 11:57 am

Misunderstoodranter and I have been having a discussion about the evolutionary aspects of religious beliefs. It was with some interest, then, that I read about potential benefits of belief in supernatural agency from Steve Novella over at Neurologica Blog:

The word “superstition” has a pejorative connotation – superstitious beliefs are generally considered to be silly and irrational. People often engage in superstitious behavior with a slightly embarrassed smile, pretending like they don’t take it seriously even while they feel compelled to perform their lucky ritual.

This is all appropriate, in my opinion, as superstitions are magical beliefs. Research has also shown that they are psychologically motivated – a way of dealing with a sense of lack of control. The magical ritual gives us a false sense of control over events.

The motivation for superstitions seems to be dominantly about control. The process is hyperactive pattern recognition and agency detection. We see patterns that are not there and then attribute an invisible agent to explain them. At it’s simplest level, this can just be assuming cause and effect for two completely unrelated events, like wearing a certain shirt and the outcome of a sports competition. Some people are struck with the sense that there is some mystical power in the universe that connects these two events.

Recent studies by Damisch et. al. show another aspect of superstition, however – a potentially beneficial effect. Researchers looked at task performance and the carrying out ritual superstitions, like crossing one’s fingers. They found:

“Activating a superstition boosts participants’ confidence in mastering upcoming tasks, which in turn improves performance.”

They also found this improved performance effect was partly explained by improved “self efficacy assessment” and partly by increased task persistence. Subjects were more confident and they engaged in the task more. If true that could mean that belief in superstitions may provide a specific selective advantage, and not just be a side effect of our psychological makeup.

I think Steven comes close to falling into the mistake of associating benefit with assuming it translates in selective advantage without any genetic evidence to back that up other than associating common behaviours (or beliefs in this case) in a population with an assumed evolutionary and beneficial component, but wisely uses the word ‘may’. His conclusion, however, is much clearer and one I can fully endorse:

We may therefore be seeing a more general principle – self confidence, even if it is propped up by magical beliefs, translates to better “luck” and performance. But it is the self-confidence that really works, and certainly this can be derived from non-superstitious sources.

I instinctively recoil from vacuous self-affirmations (like Stewart Smalley), but the research does seem to indicate that believing in oneself really does translate into success. I prefer to bolster my self-confidence with knowledge and understanding. Call it the skeptic’s self-affirmation.

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.

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