Category Archives: Religion

Preaching to the choir

I got this video from Orac’s blog where an interesting comment thread is developing. This also goes against those who lament the “echo chambers” but those tend to be the same people who write HeSaidSheSaid articles every day – they live in a binary world where only “who wins the two-horse horserace” matters and anything more sophisticated than that is ‘elitist’ and to be ignored as ‘outside of mainstream’ which – the mainstream – they, the savvy Villagers with nice hairdos on TV, get to define.

All Science vs. Religion Conflicts are Essentially and Primarily Political Conflicts

In a recent post, my SciBling Jason Rosenhouse with whom I usually agree on these matters, voices a strong disagreement with this quote (from Thomas Dixon’s book Science and Religion: A Very Short Introduction, published by Oxford University Press in 2008):

Historians have shown that the Galileo affair, remembered by some as a clash between science and religion, was primarily about the enduring political question of who was authorized to produce and disseminate knowledge.

Jason counters that Galileo affair, as well as the more modern Creationist wars, are primarily and perhaps entirely science vs. religion wars, not political. He writes:

Afficionados of science/religion disputes will recognize in this a standard gambit of the genre. Specifically, the attempt to recast situations that are obviously conflicts between science and religion into conflicts about something else.

Another SciBling, Mike Dunford, disagrees with Jason on the Creationism wars:

The conflict arises when creationists attempt to force their religious views onto the children of other people, who do not necessarily share those views. That’s not a dispute over what the most authoritative source of knowledge is; that’s a dispute over the exercise of secular authority. In other words, it’s a political conflict.

The commenters on both posts then lose the sight of forest for the trees and get bogged down in the historical minutiae about the Gallileo affair. Not very constructive. Let me cut through all that and come out strongly on the Thomas Dixon side. Step by step. This way:
1) Every conflict is about power. Ergo, every conflict is essentially a political conflict. Who gets to be the boss. Who gets the money. Who gets first dibs at the pretty peasant girls from the village that feeds the nobles in the castle. Who gets to kill whom. Who gets to invade whom. Who gets the territory.
2) Conflicts require troops. Better the troops are motivated, more likely the positive outcome will be for the power-hungry leader. In many conflicts, the leaders motivate the troops by recasting the conflict in terms of “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die”. Those are conflicts over facts: who has the better facts. If those facts relate to the way the world works, then those facts are amenable to empirical testing.
3) Throughout history, including today, the conflicts over facts have been conflicts over religious facts. While the core reason for the conflict is power for the ruling class, religion serves wonderfully to unite the troops around a common idea, common symbols, a shared destiny. Religion probably evolved to aid group cohesion in early human societies and can be wonderfully used to aid group cohesion when a battle needs to be waged, even today.
4) Most of these fact-based conflicts pit one set of religious “facts” with another set of religious “facts”. We call these conflicts “religious wars” despite religion being just an excuse for a power-grab or invasion or civil war. Both sides’ facts fail the empirical tests, but the “You are wrong, we are right, thus you die” is still the battle cry for both sides.
5) In some, more recent conflicts, facts of one side actually pass the empirical test. These are wars between reason and superstition. We like to call them wars between Science and Religion. Often they are not waged with real weapons, but with other political means: battles over control of the classrooms, the goverment, the military, etc. Clearly, religion is a troup-motivator for one side, but the goal is obviously political power. In the USA, the two sides have over the past three decades or so clearly aligned with the two major political parties. Democrats are generally realistic and ignore the pseudoscientific extremists from the far left who have zero influence on policy. Republicans are anti-scientific and anti-reality at the core – that is what defines their party, their platform and their conservative ideology – the most extreme anti-science forces from the far right ARE the party leaders, their members in Congress, and their most visible representatives in the public eye. It is them who write the policy, while the realistic conservatives are marginalized or kicked out of the party.
6) Creationism is just one of many weapons in a unified anti-reality political platform of the Right. Some Creationists are just indoctrinated, scared folks who provide ground troops in this conflict. Other Creationists are part of the power-hungry elite of the party who use Creationism as a motivator for a particular segments of their ground-troops (other populations are motivated in other ways, with other tools, e.g., greed, or fear of terrorists, etc.). The Science vs. Religion aspect of the conflict is just window-dressing – the essence of the conflict is political: it is all about Power.
To summarize:
Every conflict is a political conflict.
Some conflicts are also superficially about facts about the world.
Some of these conflicts happen to pit correct facts against incorrect facts.
Creationist wars, just like all Science vs. Religious wars, are thus a subset of a subset of a subset of all conflicts. And they are all essentially and profoundly political conflicts. Which is why I wrote this dissertation-long post the other day – read it.

What does it mean that a nation is ‘Unscientific’?

If a publisher offered me a contract to write a book under a title that would be something like “Unscientific America”, how would I go about it?
I would definitely be SUCH a scientist! But, being such a scientist does not mean indulging in Sesquipedalian Obscurantism. Being such a scientist means being dilligent, thorough and systematic in one’s reasearch. And then being excited about presenting the findings, while being honest about the degree of confidence one can have in each piece of information.
I was not offered a book contract, and I do not have the resources and nine or twelve months to write such a book. But in the next couple of hours days I will write a blog post (this one, I am just starting) thinking through the methodology I would use for such a project, musing about difficulties, jotting down notes and – this being a blog – asking readers for links to information that can either reinforce or challenge my hypotheses. So please follow me under the fold…..

Continue reading

Cholesterol will kill you earlier than you think

Notice the Darwin drum in the background….

Essentialism beyond just animals

How religion generates social conservatism:

You could make a reasonable case that pencils have a purpose, but pencil shavings just exist. But what about elephants? Religious people and children are, of course, more likely than non-religious adults to say that animals exist for a purpose. But what about men and women? Black people and whites? Rich and poor? Arab and Jew? Do these exist for a purpose? And is it possible for one to become another? Gil Diesdendruck and Lital Haber of Bar-Ilan University in Israel decided to find out what children think.

Attenborough makes sense (video)

What is science’s rightful place?

In our heads, of course. All of our heads.
But Seed is asking, so let me elaborate briefly.
As I said before, science is not just active participation in research. Science is a mindset.
We are all born scientists, exploring the world around us and experimenting with it. When we grow up, we continue being scientists in our day-to-day lives.
If you walk into a room and flip a switch and the light does not come on, what do you do? I doubt that you throw yourself on the floor in fear, speaking in tongues, praying, blaming the Aliens or asking the Government to help you. You calmly go about dissecting the problem into pieces: is there electricity in the house? If not, did you pay the bill? If yes, should the fuse be flipped or replaced? If not, perhaps the light bulb burned out: replace and see what happens. If that does not work, perhaps replacing the socket will work. If not, checking the wiring may help. You go through the problem systematically, testing each element, until you find the problem and fix it. You do the same if water is dripping in your kitchen sink, or your car is running funny.
But when it comes to bigger problems that affect the broader society, some adults forget their inherent scientific mindset and let indoctrination and ideology take over. As the problems become more complex, and the science behind it more difficult to understand, other social influences tend to take precedence. See: global warming denialists, HIV/AIDS denialists, anti-vaccination crowd, Creationists of all stripes, New Age proponents, medical quackery believers, animal rightists, and so on. Faced with complexity that goes against the dogma received by parents, teachers, priests and media, people shut off their natural scientific mindset and go with what “feels” right to them, instead of with reality.

“I’m not a fan of facts. You see, the facts can change, but my opinion will never change, no matter what the facts are.” – Stephen Colbert

[Thanks to Tamara Lackey for the quote]
This, of course, translates into politics and policy. I may disagree with Obama on some things. I may not like some of the people he hired to work for him. But what I like, and what he said many times including in his inaugural address, is that he will use the scientific method in all policy decisions.
Identify the problem.
Gather all available empricial information about the way the world really works in respect to that problem.
Fund the additional research to come up with missing data if needed.
Come up with a rational plan to solve the problem.
Implement it, test it and monitor if it works as planned.
Modify if needed, until the problem is solved.
I hope that this approach spreads into the broader national psyche – making decisions from the head, not the gut. Basing policy on data, not emotions. I feel that Obama won primarily because of his pragmatism and rationality as he is so non-ideological (heck, I wish he was more ideological!). People are tired of policy based on wishful thinking and fairy tales.
If this happens, it will be much easier to defeat the anti-rationality movements and to teach the kids how to apply their natural scientific mindset to all aspects of their lives as they grow into adults.
It’s not just research. It’s not just specific science education. It is about making rational thinking the respectable norm, and emotion/ideology-based thinking a laughing-stock.
That’s the science’s rightful place.

War on Christmas? Ho-ho-ho!

There is no clearer and better example of Artificial controversy than the War on Christmas, as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity re-invent it every year in order to boost their tanking ratings. What War on Christmas? Just drive along a street and see all the lights on houses, go into a store and look at the merchandise while listening to the Christmas music, peer into people’s windows to see decorated Christmas trees and presents, or turn on any radio station – Christmas is everywhere.
But, believe it or not, there are people who are even stupider than O’Reilly and Hannity – people who really want to ban Christmas! Who? The Bosnian education authorities:

“Is Santa Clause a religious figure? He doesn’t wear anything religious (maybe only a funny hat like the Pope). He is dressed in red – probably a communist, in which case it’s safe to say he’s not that religious. He is fat and round just like Buddah, but I guess that’s probably the consequence of a reindeer meat diet and too much coke.
By banning the Santa, people from the Bosnian education authorities who did this proved that ultra-nationalists from all three sides in Bosnia – Croatian, Serbian and Bosniak, have two things in common – 1. they all really, really hate Santa, and 2. they are all really, really stupid. This ban would probably not last thanks to the outrage it caused among normal people in Bosnia and the decision will probably be reversed, just like after that Darwin ban situation in Serbia some time ago.”

Desk? No: Head-desk! McCain is….Jesus Christ!

Little Light explains the strange tale about the school desk from Huckabee’s speech. As we should have known by now – it is a dogwhistle:

Sound familiar yet? Please tell me it does. This is the doctrine of “Grace, Not Works” or “Grace Alone,” a theological position expounded during the Reformation, cuddled by Calvin, and popular among evangelical Christians. It’s not a desk, it’s a place in Heaven. And it’s not soldiers we’re talking about, it’s Jesus Christ. Don’t buy the connection of this story as an allegory for the doctrine of Grace Alone? Here’s a few ways to put it. And the guy talking is clergy in a denomination that holds this doctrine dear, so he knows what he’s doing and who his audience is.

James Fallows agrees:

Of course that’s the explanation, as anyone who has listened to religious radio shows should know. I feel silly to have missed it. (Why else would Huckabee, an ordained minister and very smart person, keep using the story in his stump speeches, despite its surface-level pointlessness?)

So, this is all about the ‘Left Behind’ crowd, I see, the Soldiers of Christ.

So, how are evangelicals and fundamentalists responding to Palin?


Stated or not, the extreme right, the real audience intended to be won over by the Palin choice, will be eagerly anticipating her becoming president at the earliest possible date. They will be looking for her to have influence even while McCain is in office. The cynicism of choosing someone at odds with his one-time positions on major issues for the purpose of getting in the Oval Office could be among the most irresponsible actions ever taken by the presidential candidate of a major party.
McCain’s choice was to give a person from the quite far-right the greatest boost someone from that extreme has ever been given.
You can well imagine that if he is elected John McCain will immediately join the less rabidly right wing members of the Supreme Court on the list of those whose deaths are fervently prayed for by the far right. We know the list exists, they’ve openly talked about it on TV.

Hanna Rosin

Conservative women became a powerful tool for the party, and everyone was willing to overlook the cost to their personal lives. If a conservative Christian mother chose to pursue a full-time career in, say, landscape gardening or the law, she was abandoning her family. But if she chose public service, she was furthering the godly cause. No one discussed the sticky domestic details: Did she have a (gasp!) nanny? Did her husband really rule the roost anymore? Who said prayers with the kids every night? As long as she was seen now and again with her children, she could get away with any amount of power.

Not all evangelical conservatives are thrilled with Palin:

I am not arguing that large numbers of conservative Christians will refuse to vote for the Republican ticket because they disapprove of Palin. But we should be aware that this pick was controversial within the evangelical Christian community as well as among other segments of the Republican base.
Even with Palin at his side, I do not think McCain will inspire as large an army of volunteer Christian soldiers as Bush did four years ago.

Praying for McCain’s death:

Based on the little bit that they know about Palin and her religious beliefs, these guys are ready to pray for the death of a president and all the risky disruption that would go with that. Their desire for a theocracy where they can dictate the moral lives of others completely trumps any rational or practical considerations. They live in dream-like bubble entirely defined by their hatred of other Americans.
So far, this is just the isolated rantings of two bloggers who do not officially speak for any major church or group. But how many others out there share their feelings? Last year Rev. Wiley Drake, then Second Vice President of the Southern Baptist Convention, called on his followers to pray to God to smite the staff of Americans United for Separation of Church and State because they filed a complaint against him with the IRS for violating his church’s tax exempt status.
The most extreme elements of the religious right are not happy with McCain as their standard bearer. Many were disappointed by Huckabee’s rise and fall. Now they see another chance to put one of their own in office with Palin. We can probably expect to see more of this kind of imprecatory prayer (literally calling on God to damn someone). The Secret Service should keep an eye on this and make sure they limit there actions to prayer. After all, many of these same people come from the wing of the anti-abortion movement that cheers on doctor killers.

The first polls after the announcement showed a small move (around 5%) of Republican women (but not men) from the mildly-support to the strongly-support column. So, some strengthening of support in the base. But the same polls showed a small move away from McCain by the independents and undecideds of both sexes. I did not see any new polls after the Palin speech at the convention.
So, some are excited, some are not, some are a little bit too excited. In any case, these are not good news – for McCain.

Why teaching evolution is dangerous

It is so nice teaching biology to adults when there are no (obvious) Creationists in the classroom. It does not always happen that way – I have had a couple of cases in the past – but this time it was really nice as I could freely cover all topics deeply within an evolutionary framework (not always seen in my public notes, though, as I try to gauge the class first and then decide how overtly to talk ebout everything in evolutionary terms). It is always a conundrum. If there is a potential resentment of my lectures, I have to thread carefully. I have to remember that I am not trying to turn them into biologists, but that I am trying to make them think for themselves and to understand evolution even if they do not want to ‘believe’ it for religious reasons. Thus, I first teach about cell, heredity and development, which gives them (and me) tools for coverage of evolution. Then I explain evolution using insects as an example before ending with a “humans, of course” as well. Then I cover Origin of Life, evolution of diversity and current diversity. But I do not leave evolution behind when I move on to ecology, behavior and physiology either. More easily this time, but sometimes a little more ‘sneakily’ if I know I have Creationists in class.
So, I know exactly how difficult it is to teach even younger students – they are more likely to act rebelliously (adults will go along in order to get the grade and move on) and they are still more under the influence of parents and do not have enough world experiences. I admire high school teachers who teach Biology in areas of the country in which Creationism is rampant and most of the kids are likely to be a priori biased against it.
A week after the nice column by Olivia Judson about the necessity of teaching evolution in school, NYTimes once again visits this question, with a very nice article about Mr.Campbell, a biology teacher in Florida, one of the people who was involved in the latest science curriculum battles in that state this year.
Like a game of whack-a-mole, Creationist get defeated in court in one state, just to resurface in another state and start the process all over again. As they keep losing in courts, they are forced to dilute their message, and adopt the language that may, on the surface, seem OK, unless you know exactly what THEY mean by that language and how that language is supposed to be a wedge that lets religious instruction into public school science classes.
The NYTimes article was brought to my attention by Jonathan Eisen, Tom Levenson, Kent and Mike Dunford and then I saw that many other bloggers have picked up on it since.
Ed Darrell points out the competitive advantage this gives the rest of the world and how local the problem of Creationism is.
David Rea sees that the NCSE responses to Well’s “Ten questions to ask your biology teacher about evolution” (also accessible at the NYT site next to the article) are far too nuanced and likely to go over the heads of most Americans, and suggests to use them to teach the meaning of words, and the meaning of evolutionary concepts – they cannot stand for themselves but can be useful as a starting point for a classroom discussion.
Peter Dawson Buckland responds to one of the frequent misrepresentations of evolution that shows up in the article (voiced by a Creationist teacher in the same school as Campbell) and gives a vote to pragmatism over philosophical accuracy. PZ Myers disagrees and insists on absolute accuracy. John Hawks points out that the Mickey Mouse is not an example of evolution – with which I agree: like Pokemon (and perhaps Spore), it is an example of gradual metamorphosis, in this case exacerbated by the fact that change is not induced by the natural environment but by human marketers.
As of this writing, the article has 342 comments on the NYTimes site, mainly by people who liked it and who – some clumsily, others with more expertise – try to explain the difference between scientific and colloquial usages of “theory” and other answers to those age-old questions that Creationists have been asking for a century or more already (and bored everyone to death, including myself, as the answers are readily available online, in books, etc.).
One comment that I particularly liked was this one:

I second comment #3. Bless Mr. Campbell. He was my high school biology teacher, and this article only begins to illustrate all the ways in which he is an amazing teacher. He constantly challenges his students to think for themselves, to analyze, and to test hypotheses rather than simply accept things at face value. He was the first teacher who ever taught me how, not what, to think, and Mr. Campbell is the reason I am now a biologist, studying evolutionary biology. Thank you, Mr. Campbell, and all biology teachers like you, who, in teaching evolution well, nurture the natural curiosity in young minds.
— Natalie Wright, Gainesville, FL

But some of the best commentary is right there in the article – words of Campbell himself. See this:

“If I do this wrong,” Mr. Campbell remembers thinking on that humid spring morning, “I’ll lose him.”

Mr. Campbell knows how tricky this process is. You cannot bludgeon kids with truth (or insult their religion, i.e., their parents and friends) and hope they will smile and believe you. Yes, NOMA is wrong, but is a good first tool for gaining trust. You have to bring them over to your side, gain their trust, and then hold their hands and help them step by step. And on that slow journey, which will be painful for many of them, it is OK to use some inaccuracies temporarily if they help you reach the students. If a student, like Natalie Wright who I quoted above, goes on to study biology, then he or she will unlearn the inaccuracies in time. If most of the students do not, but those cutesy examples help them accept evolution, then it is OK if they keep some of those little inaccuracies for the rest of their lives. It is perfectly fine if they keep thinking that Mickey Mouse evolved as long as they think evolution is fine and dandy overall. Without Mickey, they may have become Creationist activists instead. Without belief in NOMA they would have never accepted anything, and well, so be it. Better NOMA-believers than Creationists, don’t you think?
But for me, the key quote of the article is this one:

“If you see something you don’t understand, you have to ask ‘why?’ or ‘how?’ ” Mr. Campbell often admonished his students at Ridgeview High School.

Education is a subversive activity that is implicitly in place in order to counter the prevailing culture. And the prevailing culture in the case of Campbell’s school, and many other schools in the country, is a deeply conservative religious culture.
There are many ideals or “values” that conservatives and liberals share. Freedom, strength, honesty, generosity, courage, responsibility, etc. are equally valued by people of all ideologies. The conservatives and liberals may define or understand them a little differently, they may order them differently according to importance, and they may deduce some very different policy proposals out of them, but in general they all agree that these are good human values.
But there is one human trait where the two ideologies differ. That is Obedience. For conservatives, this is a positive human trait. For liberals, it is viewed quite negatively. Why?
Because the two ideologies view time and history differently.
Conservatives see history as a story of decline from some mythical Golden Age which, depends who you ask, may be the Garden of Eden, or middle ages when Church and State were one and the same, or late 19th century USA with robber barons in charge, or 1930s Italy and Germany when Business and State were one and the same (and kept all the “Others” down), or 1950s when women were sent to the kitchen. They feel like the future is bleak and that their duty is to slow down and stop the decline, or reverse it if they can.
Their belief that world is dangerous is a part of this mindset – they always think that the world is more to be feared now than it was in the mystical past. Corporate media help them in this – switch off the TV and tell me: how many violent crimes, tragic accidents, horrific natural disasters, and war terrors, have you personally witnessed today in real life? Yesterday, the day before, throughout your life? How come you are still alive? Oh, but the media wants to deliver you to the advertising so you will buy whatever will alleviate your fears today and make life worth living yet another day.
For us (liberals), the history is seen as an arrow of progress: every generation has a better life than the previous one, every generation puts some work and effort, and if needed fight, to make the world a better place for the next generation. We want to foster and continue this trend. For this to happen, each generation needs to break with the parents’ worldview to some extent. What is considered “normal” part of life for one’s elders, may not be so for the youngsters who take a serious look at it. Most importantly, each generation brings in another level of equality, bringing up a group that was institutionally pushed down during history, be it women, gays, blacks, etc.
Now, the word “equality” is understood differently by the two ideologies. It does not mean handicapping everyone to have the same no matter what their talents and hard work should earn them. It does not mean preventing people from attaining success. It means allowing people to go to the top regardless of who their parents were. If you made it, your kids should not get a leg-up because of that – they need to start from zero and try to make it as well. Or fail. But more importantly, it does not matter if your parents are rich or poor, white or black, US-born or foreign-born, religious or not, if you are male or female, straight or gay – you should have the exact same social and instititutional support in your strivings toward success.
Also, the measure of success in dollars is a pretty conservative notion – you can be dirt-poor yet be successful, consider yourself successful and be regarded by others as successful along other criteria, e.g., generosity, skill, talent. And the accidents of your birth should not be a factor.
In a worldview which sees everything as a zero-sum game, equality is anathema. If one goes up, this means someone else is going down. If women are gaining, this means men are losing. If Blacks are gaining equality, this means Whites are losing. If you see the world as hierarchical this is the inevitable outcome of your worldview.
Thus, the most essential thing that conservatives want to conserve is the social organization, including all of its power relationships, with the white, American, Christian, (officially) straight, rich, adult, male humans on top of everyone else. If that is your worldview, of course what normal people consider progress will look like doom to you. After all, we measure progress by how big strides we have made in eliminating the old power structures that used to subdue groups of people under others.
Another way to call this is authoritarianism, in which one group asserts authority over others and does whatever it takes to keep it that way.
An important aspect of the conservative hierarchy is the authority of old over the young. The stereotype of an Old Wise Man Who Remembers The Golden Age of Yore. He who can bring that Golden Age back. The top of the hierarchy. Thus, obedience to His authority is essential for preservation of the hierarchical power structure. Thus, conservatives do not like education, they prefer “training”. They start early by training little kids, by methods bordering on abuse, to unquestioningly obey their elders.
The school should be a place to instill obedience (measure of success in rolling back progress) as well as to train for jobs that bring in the money (monetary measure of success). Thus, conservatives tend to fight against the liberal academia and hate to be told that Reality has a Liberal Bias. And most importantly, they fight against science education as it directly undermines the obedience.
See what Mr.Campbell is doing? Kids who were taught obedience know they are supposed to unquestioningly obey their elders, which includes their parents, priests and teachers. But Campbell puts them in a mental bind – they want to obey him but he is telling them things opposite from what their parents and priests are saying. Who to listen to? As a result of this exercise, they unlearn obedience. A red-flag danger for the conservatives. Their kids have been corrupted – they were, gasp, taught to think for themselves. And we all know what independent thinking brings about – progress! We can’t have that, can we?!
This is why Creationism is such an important plank in the conservative political strategy – it undermines the teaching of independent thinking. The asking of How and Why questions. All the stuff that each generation needs in order to analyze and reject their parent’s generation’s regressive worldview. Doom!

I thought they were spineless to begin with…

But new research shows they lose spine gradually over the years. [via]

Door To Door Atheists Bother Mormons

Silly, but funny to see how people react when treated to a dose of their own medicine:

“Australian filmmaker John Safran is so fed up with mormons ringing his doorbell early in the morning that he flies to Salt Lake City Utah and tries to convert Mormons to atheism. Needless to say, the locals were not pleased.”

[Hat-tip: Tanja]

When religion goes berserk!

I guess it is unlikely you have not already heard about the big brouhaha that erupted when Bill Donohue targeted PZ Myers for showing disrespect towards a belief that made some religious nuts go crazy and violent against a child (yes, Eucharist is just a cracker, sorry, but that is just a factual statement about the world). If not, the entire story, and it is still evolving, can be found on PZ’s blog so check out the numerous comments here, here,
here, here, here, here and here.
Also see what Greg Laden and Tristero say. [Update: see also John Wilkins and Mike Dunford for some good clear thinking on the issue.]
Of course, since it is Bill Donohue, everyone’s favorite douche-bag, I went to see what is said on the blogs of my other two friends who, quite recently, had to survive the army of ogres that Donohue can send to make good people’s lives miserable – Melissa and Amanda.
On Shakesville, Jeff Fecke wrote about it.
On Pandagon, it is Jesse Taylor (yes, he is back there on his old blog) who wrote about this today (as Amanda is in a middle of a move and offline).
Both posts also triggered an interesting round of comments.
So, go and check out all those links, spend several hours immersed in this topic, and you’ll both learn a lot and get really, really angry (at whom? That’s your choice).
But while I was at Pandagon I also saw that Amanda started reading (and blogging about) Dawkins’ “The God Delusion” (I never wrote a real book review of it, but most of what I intended to say found its way into some posts of mine, e.g., here, here, here and here). The initial post triggered an interesting discussion in the comments, so Amanda added some clarifications which triggered another round of interesting comments.
The main question in both of those Pandagon thread is how to define religion. The focus is on what people believe, thus there is a lot of parsing the words going on, trying to define “God”. “personal god”, “supernatural”, etc. This is important as the second recurring question in those threads is if Stalinism/Maoism is a religion or not.
If you have been reading my blog for a very looooong time, back at the time when I used to write about religion (and politics) much more often, you may recall that I think of religion in somewhat different terms. I think that the main reason religions evolved is to ensure group cohesion. In other words, I think that the social aspect of religion is the most important one and that other aspects – beliefs, canonical works, behavioral rules, priestly hierarchy, ceremonies, etc. – are additions that in some way help ensure the group cohesion. This is why I was really mad at both Dawkins and Dennet for their outright dismissal and refusal to even consider the group-selectionist ideas of David Sloan Wilson whose book, Darwin’s Cathedral, although thin on data, is in my mind the best-laid-out hypothesis and the most promising avenue for future research on the evolution of religion. For the same reason, I think that Dawkins’ and Dennett’s infatuation with memes is misplaced and that the memetics will be pretty useless in this endeavor (or in any endeavor for that matter – it is an immature photocopy of sociology and linguistics with new terminology).
What does it really mean “group cohesion”? In the olden days, this was a feeling of belonging and loyalty to one’s own tribe – obviously maladapted to the modern world of multicultural societies, global economy, fast travel, instant communication and overpopulation. The inevitable result of group cohesion is the division of the world into an in-group and out-group. Members of the in-group are friends to be defended, while the members of the out-group, barely human, are to be detested and, when possible, killed.
For the group cohesion to work, one HAS to, by definition, feel that one’s group is superior to all other groups. This sense of superiority is enhanced by the additional “attachments” that may differ between different religious traditions, e.g., the belief in an inerrancy of the leader who gets orders directly from the group’s omnipotent god(s), various trance-inducing chants and dances, behavioral rules, sacred books, etc. All of these also promote internal policing by the group – those of “weak faith” are detected and punished mainly by other members, not necessarily by any kind of official armed forces, though some groups may use the latter as well.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is further enhanced by the sense of insecurity as “the other” is portrayed as much more dangerous than reality warrants – this persecution complex is a great way to ensure that all group-members “stick together” and severely punish the members who question the wisdom of the leaders, beliefs and behaviors.
In many religious traditions, the group cohesion is also enhanced by adding another layer of personal sense of insecurity – the strict sexual norms render both men and women insecure: the men do the macho man-bonding stuff in order to keep each other courageous (those who survive wars will get to breed in the end, after all), while women try to find security by exchanging sex for protection with powerful men.
To go back to the question of Stalinism/Maoism as a religion, if one looks at the religion as group coherence mechanism detached from what people believe, then the answer is Yes – those were religions (and so is being a Republican, for what that matters). But I will try to support this statement with the example I know best – that of Yugoslavia:

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EuroTrip ’08 – Belgrade, The St.Sava Cathedral

It took a century to build the St.Sava Cathedral. I remember playing on its foundations as a kid – a great fortress to play in. But the enterior has just begun to be worked on – I am not sure if the pictures can show the immensity of the space in there:

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Isaac Newton….

Savior or Satan?

To my Eastern Orthodox readers… ;-)

Hristos Vaskrese

The Parenting Beyond Belief seminar in Raleigh

Seminar on Secular Parenting Coming to Raleigh, March 15
Presented by Dale McGowan
Editor/co-author, Parenting Beyond Belief: On Raising Ethical, Caring Kids Without Religion
* How does moral development really work?
* My mother-in-law wants our kids baptized. How can I respond without causing a rift?
* How can I ease my son’s fears about death without pretending there’s an afterlife?
* How can kids learn about religion without being indoctrinated into religion?
Over nine million parents in the U.S. are raising children without religion. The Parenting Beyond Belief seminar, a unique, interactive half-day workshop with author and educator Dale McGowan, offers encouragement and practical solutions for secular parenting in a religious world. Based on the freethinking philosophy of the book Newsweek called “a compelling read,” the Parenting Beyond Belief seminar is empowering secular parents across the country to raise ethical, caring, confident kids without religion.
Participants will learn effective ways to:
* Encourage religious literacy without indoctrination;
* Help kids interact productively with a religious world;
* Help kids develop active moral reasoning;
* Weigh church-state issues in the public sphere;
* Address sensitive issues constructively with religious relatives using the principles of nonviolent communication;
* Help children develop a healthy understanding of death and a joyful love of life;
* Build a family atmosphere of fearless questioning and boundless wonder;
* …and much more.
Location: Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh
Date/Time: Sat. March 15, 9:00am-12:30pm
Registration is $40 per person or $60 per couple
Registration and additional information at:

Obligatory Readings of the Day

A guide to hiring women.
Obsolete technical skills (I have them all except #11!)
The social source of religion.
Charles Barkley for President!


I’ve never before seen a picture that better fits the description used in the title of this post:
You may have to read the story here to see how well the title fits.
Hat-tip: Mark

Golden Compass – it’s about sex, really

This weekend, with 70 degrees F in Chapel Hill, it would have bin a sin to remain indoors. So I didn’t. But in the end, at twilight today, my daughter and I went to see Golden Compass, the movie whose first-weekend box-office earnings I wanted to boost.
I made sure not to read any reviews of the movie beforehand. I am, unlike most people who already wrote about it, one of those people who has never read the Pullman books on which the movie is based. Thus, like the majority of the target audience, I was a Pullman “virgin” and I wanted to watch it just like anyone else going out to see a movie on a weekend, with no big expectations.
Of course, there was no escaping knowing at least something about it. Before seeing the movie, I knew that:
– the books are supposed to have a strongly anti-religious sentiment, growing stronger as the story moves to the third book. But, I have no idea if the anti-religious sentiment is against the religion in the sense of belief in the supernatural, or the mythology, or the ceremony, or the community-building aspects (“us versus them”), or the top-down hierarchical structure of the religious organization.
– Pullman is a first-generation (“born-again”) atheist. This gives him a different view of religion than someone like me who was born and raised an atheist, in an atheist family, in an atheist country. His childhood religion colors him as a person, and his adult rebellion against religion also colors him as a person. He knows how it feels to be religious. I don’t. For me, religious people are curiousities, perhaps interesting as potential subjects to study: how is it possible for a human being to believe obvious untruths and how does such belief result in particular anti-social behaviors? It is like starting one’s research career by studying cockroach behavior because you want to eradicate the pest, but after decades of study you realize that you quickly forgot the fact they are pests and got fascinated by their brains, how they work and how they lead to particular cockroach behaviors. Having Gregor Samsa join your research group would be fascinating as he would bring new angles, yet also would bring biases that a merely human researcher cannot have.
– there was a controversy before the movie came out. Atheist groups protested the watering-down of the anti-religious sentiment compared to the books. The most extremely anal political organizations that like to voice their opinions publicly as if they speak for religion, voiced their disapproval of the movie and called for boycotts.
So, that’s all I knew. We got popcorn and sodas and went in.
And then, I loved the movie. It was fast-moving, it was fun, it has great acting, great characters, great scenery, great special effects and a fun story. My daughter loved it as well. We both now want to read the books (we have all three, sitting on the shelf right next to the Harry Potter series, still unread by anyone in the household, but that is soon to change).
Of course, the story is a typical fantasy story – it has all the elements such a story has to have. There is the main protagonist who is an unlikely hero, too young and inexperienced for the job, yet nobody else can do. Events thrust the protagonist into the role of the hero. This involves a journey. An older, wiser character serves as a teacher. There is a funny, yet also wise sidekick. The enemy is a jealous authoritarian (surrounded by a slimy posse of thugs) who wants to rule the world. An object is lost and needs to be retrieved. The hero finds help and shelter from a group at the edge of society that cherishes freedom. The journey is perilous, and each dangerous event on the road teaches the hero something new and adds crust and courage to the character (i.e., the character is built). Unexpected family ties are discovered (“I Am Your Father, Luke!”). The crescendo of events leads to the final battle between Good and Evil in which Good triumphs and the hero, irreversibly changed, rides off into the sunset.
So yes, all the archetypes are in the movie. And so they are in every adventure, fantasy, coming-of-age story in history. From Illiad to Winnie-the-Pooh and Alice in Wonderland to James Bond. From 1984 and Fahrenheit 451 to Brave New World. From Hobbit and The Lord Of The Rings to Star Wars and Harry Potter. And so they are in the Golden Compass as well. Does it make the movie bad? Of course not – there is a reason why those elements are always in the story – they work! They appeal to something in all of us, make us identify with the hero and makes the adventure exciting!
So, what is special about Golden Compass? It’s sex. Everything in the movie has an interesting sexual or gender connotation. The hero is a heroine – a smart and brave girl. And, although there are many, many characters in the movie, very few are female. The society is entirely patriarchal. Thus, it is not just the age and the spunk, but also the gender of the heroine that rubs many other characters wrong (on both sides of the Good/Evil divide).
The place-time looks Victorian – I actually recognized the scenes filmed at Queens College and the Radcliffe Square in Oxford. And the society is Victorian as well. The school where Lyra goes to employs only men. The students, apart from her, are all men. White men. The only other female character at the college is the maid.
The Gyptians, while Billie’s mother appears to be a prominent member of the group, are still led by a group of old bearded men – she does not sit at their table when they make decisions.
With the polar bears it is hard to tell who is male or female, but there is no question that the King has to be male.
And of course, the Magisterium is led by a bunch of ugly, old, nasty, white guys who are the prime target audience for the Viagra commercials, if they only had anyone to use the blue pill with. Their sexual frustration, combined with the fear of death, turns them into power-hungry control freaks. If they can’t get it, nobody will! Thus, nobody, especially children, shall even know about sex, …er, Dust. Familiar?
In this world, every person has a daemon. Daemon is an animal and it is the place where the person’s soul resides. It is also a representation of the person’s sexuality. In kids, deamons are innocent and cute and change shape and form (aka species) all the time. At puberty, the species gets fixed. The soldiers have wolves. The farmers’ souls are horses. The servants’ daemons are dogs – higher in hierarchy, bigger the dogs, with the top servants walking around with Great Danes. And what are the daemons of the top leaders of the Magisterium? All are Great Cats. Now, why do you think these middle-aged guys are walking around with black panthers and snow leopards? Of course, for the same reason that their modern counterparts drive Jaguars to the grocery store.
And the very top dog, the leader of the cult? His daemon is a snake. Yes, really – a snake. The guy is constantly holding and playing with his python!
The king of the bears, the guy who likes to play with the dolls, is stupid enough to fall for the trick because the sweet-talking was delivered by a pretty girl who knows how to stroke his masculine insecurity.
The other bear, the good guy, also has some issues – he is a loner, a drunk, and a warrior. And as macho as can be. “Are you sure you want to ride me?” he asks, not being able to believe his good luck!
The other major female character, the ice-cold Mrs. Coulter – the brilliant stroke of lucky coincidence in naming, useful at pointing out to the dense what her role in the society is – is between the rock and a hard place. While the leaders of the Magisterium, all men, can sit around with stern faces, fluffing each others’ self-importance, Mrs. Coulter, being a woman, is supposed to actually do the work. She is doing the cleaning of the house. Being a woman, she is judged by her performance. Being a woman, she is dispensable if she screws up or becomes too uppity for their taste. They lust after her, and they hate her because they cannot have her. So, they own her and play with her destiny. And she, an independent spirit when younger, decided to play within the system, by their rules, choosing to have some power and temporary safety within their hierarchy in return for obedience. And she does it with a vengeance. If they are nasty, she has to be ten times as nasty just to be tolerated in their society.
Her project, an experimental splitting between kids and daemons, is a form of castration. Which she does with gusto. Except in one instance when her own offspring is to be rendered infertile. Her genetic immortality is more important to her than anything else in that moment of weakness.
So, is this movie anti-religious? Yes and no. It is primarily anti-authoritarian, so, as much as all organized religion is authoritarian, it is anti-religion. I do not know how the books are, but the movie does not mention God or even mention even a little bit of their beliefs and theology. We do not see anything from their sacred texts, do not hear the liturgy or see the ceremony. All we see is the social organization of the Magisterium which is decidedly authoritarian and bigoted, and on the other side, the Good side, the people are free-thinking and all-inclusive. The wiches, the bears, the Gyptians (who look like sea-faring Gypsies, the most despised and oppressed and simultaneously most romanticized nation in the world – for their love of freedom), the funny guy with a Texas accent – they never eye each other with suspicion for a split-second. Tolerance is in their blood.
But an authoritarian, hierarchical organization need not be limited to religious organizations. Political organizations, and others, can also be organized in the same way, motivated by greed, fear and sexual repression. Just because the leaders of the Magisterium wear funny robes, does not mean that the movie attacks priesthood in just religious organizations. Other, secular organizations also have their priests and uniforms. And of course the leaders of such organizations will want to headquarter their operations in as big and phallic buildings as possible, thus the cathedrals shapes in the movie. Again, the brilliant coincidence of the name of the second major female character….
And just because the audience is expected to want a “big one” as well, this little questionnaire produces, in about 90% of the trials, a Big Cat:

Creationism is Paganism, says Vatican

Archy reports that the papal official astronomer said so:

Believing that God created the universe in six days is a form of superstitious paganism, the Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno claimed yesterday.
Brother Consolmagno, who works in a Vatican observatory in Arizona and as curator of the Vatican meteorite collection in Italy, said a “destructive myth” had developed in modern society that religion and science were competing ideologies.
He described creationism, whose supporters want it taught in schools alongside evolution, as a “kind of paganism” because it harked back to the days of “nature gods” who were responsible for natural events.

And, as Archy reminds us, Intelligent Design Creationism is just one form, the slickest and most dishonest, of Creationism. Now, who will tell the Protestants….

The New Primitives

This year I have no time to follow even the Democratic primary race (in which I am interested) and am certainly not going to waste my time on the GOP race. I took a brief look once they all announced and picked up some news here and there on the blogs or NPR, and realized they are just a circus car full of clowns.
But I could not resist reading (thanks, Ed) this WSJ commentary on the reception of the Romney religion speech by his target audience, the hopelessly brainwashed:
Romney Address Wins Mixed Evangelical Reviews:

Some Christians didn’t want to hear such preaching about plurality. The speech didn’t win the vote of Republican Steve Carlson, a Pentecostal Christian and a consultant for the nonprofit voter-education organization Iowa Christian Alliance. “If my choice is between Mike Huckabee, who I know is saved, and Gov. Romney, who as a Mormon…I’m going to pick Mike Huckabee,” Mr. Carlson said.

Sure they don’t want to hear about plurality – it’s their way or highway. They were never interested in tolerance and why should they change now?

A sizeable group of voters remain mystified by Mormonism. Bernie Hayes, a 52-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he finds the religion’s tenets illogical and too different from mainstream Christianity. “I don’t want a president who believes something so off-base,” he said. The fact that Mr. Romney doesn’t want to discuss his faith “makes it worse,” said Mr. Hayes, who supports Mr. Huckabee.

Oh, Mr.Hayes, and when was the last time your religion met logic? And you support a Creationist without your head exploding?

“I don’t think it answered any questions about the Mormon religion and how it plays into his candidacy,” said Joe Mack, director of the office of public policy for the South Carolina office of the Southern Baptist Convention. “I’m not sure it changed the minds of South Carolina Baptists.” Mr. Mack said he will choose a candidate based on where he stands on abortion issues.

We now know the subject of Mr.Mack’s recurring nightmares – vagina dentata. He is eager to put those scary women back into shackles so he can make sure that her sacred blastocyst officially becomes his.

Janis Groves, a Baptist from Bryan, Texas, who attended the address, was pleased that Mr. Romney didn’t delve into specifics. “No,” Ms. Groves, 59 years old, said curtly when asked if she wanted to learn more about the religion. “We are leery.”

Leery? Word.

Jesus Loves You!

No comment:

Thanks, Rick, for this enlightening piece….

Exclusive: Interview with Senator John Edwards on Science-Related Topics

I had a great pleasure recently to be able to interview Senator – and now Democratic Presidential candidate – John Edwards for my blog. The interview was conducted by e-mail last week.
As I am at work and unable to moderate comments, the comment section is closed on this post, but will be open on the previous post (here) where I hope you will remain civil and stay on topic. You are also welcome to comment on this interview at several other places (e.g,. DailyKos, MyDD, TPMCafe, Science And Politics, Liberal Coalition, the Edwards campaign blog as well as, hopefully, your own blogs).
I cannot answer any additional questions for Senator Edwards, of course, but there are likely to be other opportunities in the future where your questions can be answered so feel free to post them in the comments thread on the other post and I’ll make sure he gets them. The interview is under the fold:

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Blogswarm against Theocracy

July 1st through July 4th. Here are the detailed instructions how to participate.

Blog Against Theocracy

The second blogswarm will be held July 1-4th.


Why didn’t I hear about this before? Why is it not in the media? On blogs?
Lindsay reports on the new book “Steeplejacking” that documents how the Religious Right, hand-in-hand with the hawkish conservative Democrats, systematically, over the past couple of decades, performed hostile take-overs of liberal churches. Whenever a pastor/priest/whatever preached peace (and tolerance, equality, need to fight the environmental problems and problems of poverty, etc), the “Institute on Religion and Democracy” would move in and, using various heavy-handed tactics, including lawsuits, remove such clergy and replace them with conservative warmongers. Read the entire post for details and links and spread the word! Lindsay concludes in the end:

Secular Democrats are often blamed for marginalizing the religious left. As I’m constantly trying to tell people, that blame is misplaced. It’s not secular Democrats who are driving liberal pastors out of their churches and replacing them with hardline Republican-friendly conservatives!
If the central claims of Steeplejacking are correct, it seems as if the main reason we don’t have a more powerful religious left in this country is because of sabotage by the religious right, not hostility from the secular left.

OK, this is something I am quite conflicted about: the whole Democratic Party “outreach” to the people of “faith”.
One part of me, the atheist part, wants to see religion completely left out of politics (and governing). If Religious Right takes over all of organized religion in the country – let them have it: that will just make religion more unpalatable to more people and marginalize religion even more.
The other part of me, the liberal part, is more pragmatic. Yes, the non-religious (under various names) are the fastest growing category according to many censuses and polls. But it is still not big enough number for the US to join the civilized world in its complacent ignoring of religion in politics altogether. I understand that running as openly atheist is a political suicide at any level, and particularly at the Presidential level. I am hopeful that this will change in the near future, but it will not just yet. And it is quite imperative that GOP gets booted out of governance ASAP, hopefully in 2008. Let them reform or disappear – I don’t care which, it’s up to them.
This means that I want to see a Dem elected to the White House as well as to see the Dems win a greater majority in both houses of Congress, more governorships, more state legislatures, more mayors of major cities. Once that happens, on the day after the election, the God-talk will miraculously stop as there is a lot of work to do, rolling back the immense damage that Repubs have inflicted on the country and the world over the last 27 (and especially the last 6) years. There will be just no time for faith-based platitudes.
I am also aware that many religious folks are liberal, keep their beliefs out of their pragmatic lives, and want to fight for equality, tolerance and peace and to fight the environmental problems and problems of poverty and such. I may not agree with their personal beliefs, but those beliefs are completely irrelevant to the bigger effort of changing the country and the world for the better. They are natural allies. In a political fight I don’t care or need to know what the religious views of my co-fighters are.
Thus, I understand why the Sojourners wanted to make a little TV spectacle of interviewing leading Democratic contenders. This was a way for them to start regaining the foothold in the popular view of religion, to try to snatch it back from the Religious Right, to try to sway some mid-grade religious voters to support Democrats by showcasing that the Dems are not anti-religion as the Right Wing noise machine keeps telling them.
So, why did they pick Soledad O’Brian to referee? She thinks only abortion and homosexuality are religious issues, although the Sojourners explicitely care about poverty and environment? Did she drink the Rightwing frames or what?
Anyway, as an atheist, I am perfectly OK with the idea of voting for a religious person (as well as anyone pretending to be so for political reasons). Otherwise, there would be nobody to vote for. But I want to be sure that the candidate’s personal faith has no play in his or her decision-making processes once in office. I want to see pragmatic decisions based on best available information.
Thus, watching the 10 GOP candidates crawl over each other trying to show off who is more pious (including the silly non-belief in evolution!) is such a disgusting experience. I don’t want their religious ideology guiding their decisions when in office. Just look at the Dominionist in the White House now to see how tragic such a mix can be.
But watching the Sojourners’ interview of the top three Dem candidates did not make me as sick as I expected (and hell I was surprised with that). Here is one of the detailed descriptions of the event.
First, as expected, all three had to speak about the way they were raised in church and how that affected them and how important that is for them, etc., etc., OK, I get it. But all three were equally quick to point out that their personal faith will have no negative effect on the pragmatism of their decisions in office. They were not afraid to say that evolution is good science and that alternatives have no place in public schools. And they addressed the issues that Sojourners (and not Soledad) thought were important: poverty and environment.
Mike links to an interesting discussion of the event and, as conflicted I am on this issue, I tended to agree with every commenter, one at a time. One of the participants, a rabbi, wrote:

One, it’s a good thing that, in response to the ascendancy of the Religious Right in American politics, the Progressive religious community is being heard now as well. Many of us religious leaders have been frustrated by the dominance of one religious voice in the public discourse and it’s refreshing to hear a greater diversity of expression in that regard.
However, as I listened to Edwards, Obama and Clinton articulate themselves quite clearly, I grew increasingly depressed. Because the truth of the matter is that I don’t care whether or not my president goes to church or synagogue on any given Saturday or Sunday. I want my president to execute their job with the best talent they can find, in the most efficient, caring, and ethical way in service to all citizens of the country–believers and non-believers alike.
It matters not to me what the President “believes.” I want a government that works, that cares for the disadvantaged, that defends us when we are under attack as a nation.

But, that is exactly what Edwards, Obama and Clinton were saying: their faith is personal and they are running for office because they think they can institute a government that works. Fine with me.
Of the three main candidates, Obama is the one who most uses God-talk in his speaches. But, what he says is so ambiguous that people of all religious persuasions equally agree with him:

Although Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is a Christian, he “embodies the basic ideals and values of most Hindus,” said Prianka S., a Hindu from Chicago.
Obama’s “love for Israel” is “evident not just in his work, but also in his heart,” said Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), an Orthodox Jew.
Obama “represents true faith,” said the Rev. Bertha Perkins, a Baptist minister in New Hampshire.

Well, that is how Obama talks about everything, not just religion, so everyone who likes Obama reads into his speeches whatever he/she wishes for it to mean anyway. He has not said anything specific that could possibly alienate anyone yet. But if he becomes the President, I am not afraid that his religion will take a precedence over smart governing. Actually, of the eight current Dem candidates, the only one who actually mixes religion (some kind of New Age crap) and politics in a way I dislike is Dennis Kucinich. As Markos noted:

Here’s the difference — Kucinich is using his “faith” as the basis of his “Department of Peace”. In other words, he’s trying to inject his faith into the public sphere.
And that’s not something I’m willing to tolerate, whether it comes from the Religious Right or from our side.
People are free to talk about the source of their values. But I believe strongly in the wall between church and state.

More than just Resistance to Science

In the May 18th issue of Science there is a revew paper by Paul Bloom and Deena Skolnick Weisberg. An expanded version of it also appeared recently in Edge and many science bloggers are discussing it these days.
Enrique has the best one-sentence summary of the article:

The main source of resistance to scientific ideas concerns what children know prior to their exposure to science.

The article divides that “what children know prior to their exposure to science” into two categories: the intuitive grasp of the world (i.e., conclusions they come up with on their own) and the learned understanding of the world (i.e., conclusions they absorb from the adults around them):

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Godless Blogging of the Fortnight

Carnival of the Godless #67 is up on Letters from a broad…

Amanda behind the scene

Amanda Marcotte, that is. And there are two way to look at her from the ‘other side’ or ‘not-as-well-known-side’ or ‘what-really-happened-side’: the first is BlogPac Hero: The Amanda Marcotte Story You Haven’t Heard by John Javna and the second is Brimstone and cat spit by Amanda Marcotte.

If the (description of the) Beginning was wrong, so is the End

A must-read by Sara Robinson. You can use it to understand the persistence of Creationism. Or the lack of Internal Locus of Moral Authority in people belonging to Moral Majority.

Origin, Evolution and Adaptive Function of Religiosity

I never thought that I would link to Razib approvingly, but his recent series of posts about evolution of religion are right on the mark. You can start with today’s post and follow the links back to his older posts. A good start for a discussion on the topic.

Three things that get kids to break from religious shackles

Great discusssion on Pandagon.

Godless Blogging of the Fortnight

Carnival of the Godless #64, brilliantly hosted and edited by TNG is up on Neural Gourmet. Enjoy.

Framers are NOT appeasers!

In the latest dust-up over framing science, an unfortunate frame is emerging that I want to nip in the bud, that ‘appeasers’ in the big culture war against religion are the same as ‘framers’ in the current debate, and likewise that ‘anti-framers’ and ‘vocal atheists’ are the same people. It is a result of confusion, and I want to clear it up right now.
You know that I am strongly in the Dawkins/Myers camp in the fight against religion:

Dawkins, Harris and Dennett are changing the landscape of the discourse, forming an environment in which it is possible to talk about atheism and religion on a level field. Without them, we’d be forced to hide our atheism even more than before and allow the fundies to define us as amoral.

And I have explained before (and I totally agree with Sean Carrol on this) that the Dawkinses of the world are performing a necessary function of moving the Overton Window.
But, I am also strongly in the Mooney/Nisbet camp on framing because it is an entirely different battle:

Thus, the term ‘framing’ has two meanings and one is discussed by one group and the other meaning by the other group. As the two meanings suggest two different strategies, the two groups think that they disagree with each other.

But, if you have a hammer, you only see nails. Matt and Chris are not talking about the same battle, about the same fora, about the same audience, or about the same messengers, but if all you care about is how to defeat religion, you will not notice that there are other battles as well. You will erroneously assume that Chris and Matt are suggesting methods for fighting your favorite battle.
And of course you will disagree, as the two battles can sometimes negatively affect each other. Fortunately, people selectively choose sources of information, so the target audiences of the short-term and long-term battles are unlikely to see much of the unintended-for-them messengers.
I doubt there are many bookstores in the Deep South that carry ‘The God Delusion’. He has not sold millions – more like tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thosands at best – that is more than enough to top all the best-seller lists in the world. Many of those copies were sold abroad. Others were bought by people concentrated in big cities and the coasts (I bet the map of his customers fits well with the map of precincts that voted for Kerry in 04).
Bible sells in hundreds of millions.
So, if you live in Europe or New England, your perception of the world is skewed – all those rational people around you! If you only read science and atheist blogs, you get the erroneous feel that there are many more atheists in America than there really are. Take a slow car trip through the North American continent – the middle of it. Gazillions of very nice, smart people who, due to the upbringing and the surrounding culture think that Atheist=Satan. But you want those people to push Congress to do something about global warming, don’t you?
Then think strategically how to talk to them about it. This is political battle, not a science battle or a religion battle. So stick to politics. Back it up by science only as much as needed to be understood and trusted. Starting out by telling them they are stupid makes the conversation stop before it ever started.
Related (and containing links to all the other blogospheric responses):
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’ (not that ‘quick’ after all!)
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
More blogospheric reactions: Mark Hoofnagle, Zeno, John Fleck, Rebecca Hartong, Matt Nisbet
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed

Did I frame that wrong?

As you know, the last several days saw quite a flurry of blog posts about framing science. I posted my thoughts here and I keep updating my post with links to all the new posts as they show up (except the expected drivel by William Dembski, some minor creaitonists and Lubos Motl). Some of the other bloggers ignored my post, many linked to it without comment, and many linked to it with positive commentary – with two exceptions.
One was Larry Moran (who probably skimmed it quickly, found what he did not like in it with his own frame of mind at the time, and used it as a starting point to make his own point) who does not grok framing, but, as I stated in the initial post as well as in comments elswehere, plays an important role in the ecosystem and is and will remain my daily read because he is a great blogger. His “niche” in the blogosphere is a curmudgeon and that is why we like him, even as each one of us occasionally gets to see his double-barrel shotgun aimed at our own faces. Fine. We are definitely on the same side of the famous M&M debate and we can agree to disagree on framing.
The other one was Michael Tobis who I have not heard of before (have you?). He appears to be a new blogger (so he has an excuse for being a novice) and he is a climate scientist on the right side of the political debate on global warming – his blogroll reveals it. He also gets framing quite well: his next two posts on the topic are good – all linked in my post at the bottom, although he liked learning about the concept of Overton Window from Eli Rabbet and not from me.
I was really taken aback by it and I thought that perhaps the guy is conservative and did not like my treatment of conservatism (although I did warn in a parenthesis somewhere in the post that it was not framed to be liked by them). I still don’t know his political position, but it appears that it was my damning of religion that irked him, although I was careful to damn the Righwing version of religion specifically, with a mild slap on the wrist at the liberal religionists for not stepping up more vocally against the Rightwing version.
Perhaps he was disinclined to listen to someone who proclaims to be an atheist in the “About Me” section. He also did not like the graphic I took from the NCSE article by Eugenie C. Scott (which I first saw in Skeptic magazine) for some reason. Some of the stuff he wrote suggested that he may see the world in a hirerachical manner, as I described in several older posts linked from my framing post.
I blog because I like to make friends and have fun. Some people blog because they like to vent and get in flame-wars. He thought I was the latter kind for some reason unfathomable to me. Anyway, he and I agreed that we should be on the same side (at least on science)and there must have been some deep misunderstanding and we agreed to let my commenters be the judge. So, here is the complete exchange and let us know in the comments what you think:
First, he wrote this in his post:

Also Jim points to Blog around the Clock/Coturnix. I’m not sure whether Jim endorses this article, but I surely don’t. Consider this:

The result of training is that scientists are uniquely trained to be poor communicators of science. Scientists – a tiny percentage of any population – are the only people in the society who even try to think and talk in a value-free way, get insulted when someone suggest they shouldn’t do so, and view other people who can’t do so as intellectually inferior.

I think that captures something interesting. I’m not sure I entirely agree with the substance but it’s an interesting idea.
Unfortunately, it’s stated in such an extreme, overstated and confrontational way as to thoroughly offend both scientists and nonscientists in equal measure. One could hardly come up with a way to frame the opinion that does more damage to discourse.
I thoroughly dislike the rest of the “Clock” article. It gets even worse.
Apparently anyone who doesn’t agree with the author about absolutely everything is an inferior being, who has yet to progress to the level of perfection that the author has attained. Charming.
Humorous sarcasm about bloggers you disagree with is one thing. It’s fair game.
Arrogant, humorless contempt for huge swaths of humanity is another. There is hardly a worse example of framing the dialog possible than the toxic sludge of this article.
The amazing thing is that this article claims to offer advice on how scientists should approach public communication. Ironically it violates every bit of good advice it can muster and then some. If you want to know how to communicate in your area of expertise, study this article for form rather than content, and then don’t do that.

How can chastising people for looking down at others be perceived as looking down at others? In the comments, I wrote politely and diplomatically, as I usually do:

In case you missed it, that was self-sarcasm. I am a scientist and I am aware that I have been trained to be a uniquely bad communicator to non-scientists. Four years of blogging are slowly changing that, but I am far from being as good as I could have been have I never got scientific training. Obviously I have a lot to learn, as I was not clear enough for you to understand that the humor/sarcasm was targeted at “me” or at worst “we”, not at “you” or “them”. English is also a foreign language to me, which increases the likelihood of such misunderstandings.

His response:

Fascinating. You absolutely had me fooled. I guess I don’t know to what end you managed it.
I saw another of your postings that seemed to have some of the same characteristics as your self-satire. I am not sure what to think now.
I don’t want to discuss my religious beliefs publicly, but I must say that I am no atheist.
I will therefore explictly state that I don’t accept that atheism is a necessary qualification for scientific work, any more than is any other preconceived notion.
I didn’t find your suggestion to the contrary amusing or ironic, and I don’t see the rest of the “framing” discussion treating it that way. I saw another posting that reinforced my impression that you are not only unalterably hostile to religious thought (which is your right) but that you believe that the scientific culture is necessarily of the same mind (which is arguably not your right at all, and is certainly tactically disastrous in a country where most people take religion seriously).
Perhaps you should clarify on your own site.

Hey, you are free to believe in Unicorns, and you have a right to talk about it in public places, and yes, unfortunately, you have a right to teach your belief to your kids (and thus make them go through the painful process of freeing themselves from shackles of religion when they grow up), but you do not have the right to have your beliefs aired by entities – public or private – that do not want to or constituationally are not allowed to (which was the point of the Blog Against Theocracy week, after all, part of which my post was about), and you have no right not to hear people laugh back at you when you talk publicly about Unicorns.
But my response was much more diplomatic, trying to meet him halfway:

I’ve been clarifying it for years.
I am not hostile to religious people, or to personal beliefs. I am hostile to organized religion and what it does to people’s thought-processes and to the politics of the country (and other countries as well). I am hostile to what organized religion does to science.
A blog post, not being 1000 pages long, cannot contain all the caveats every time – it necessarily has to deal with overgeneralizations and stereotypes which have been clarified, defined and explained in old posts. One tends to write for the regulars, and occasionally a newcomer is baffled, as in joining in a TV series in the middle of its fourth year and not being able to figure out who is who immediatelly.
Write yor perceptions of me in a comment on my blog and see what the regulars say.

He added this to his initial post:

Here is an approximation of the evolutionary ladder as displayed in an image on this article (sorry, I don’t have time to do this up as a fancy graphic)
Coturnix (highest possible form according to Coturnix)
People who agree with Coturnix
Atheists who have some quibbles with Coturnix
Christians (lowest form attained by humans according to Coturnix)
Anerobic Bacteria
Notice there is nothing whatsoever about science on this chart. The purpose of public communication of science, it is revealed, is to slyly and secretly move people UP the ladder of development so they are more Coturnix-like.
Maybe all of us in some corner of our minds believe there is some ladder of correctness with our own opinions at the top, and people who thoroughly disagree at the bottom. Grownups tend to know enough to temper this with a tad of humility. On the other hand, publishing your secret arrogance is guaranteed not to win you any friends. Publishing it in an article intended to advise people on public communication is, hmmm, perhaps a tiny bit like shooting yourself in the foot to emphasize your message on firearm safety.

Tell that to Eugenie Scott!
Then, in the comments of my first framing post, he wrote:

I thoroughly disliked this article, taken at face value, and said so here.
Coturnix got wind of this and made what I consider to be an astonishing response, that this article is satire.
Quoth he:

In case you missed it, that was self-sarcasm. … Obviously I have a lot to learn, as I was not clear enough for you to understand that the humor/sarcasm was targeted at “me” or at worst “we”, not at “you” or “them”.

Well it fooled me entirely. Did others read this present article as satirical?
It seems to me consistent with at least one other article on this site.
To be specific I also disliked the cavalier dismissal of the research on the heritability of religiosity. The idea seems to me an entirely sound (in the Popper sense) falsifiable hypothesis, and in studying twins raised apart, investigated using a sound methodology. Coturnix’s response to that also, to me, betrayed both arrogance and a nonrational hostility to religion even as an observable behavioral phenomenon.
Coturnix’s further reply was to advise me to consult with his regular readers on this blog, so I am doing so now.
Did you read this present article as satire? What do you think of the exchange on between me and Coturnix on my linked blog article?

All the twin studies in history are suspect, as they were all done by genetic determinists. And the heritability of religion is much better explained by the effects of the environment: parenting, the social norms of the community, etc.- something that interests me (to see if it can be reversed) so I have studied it for quite aliong time. A couple of papers so far suggesting that adherence to particular religion is written in the DNA are laughable. And tendency towards religosity is an interesting area of research, especially as religiosity means several different things: belief in supernatural, enjoying rituals, fitting into the hierarchy, defining in-group vs. out-group, to name just a few. And there were other red flags in that press release as well. Correlation between church-going and altruism? A positive correlation? Altruism based on fear of punishment is not altruism, and neither is altruism towards one’s in-group members. I touched on the distinction between Internal and External Locus of Moral Authority in my framing post as well. And I wrote about my own personal ‘religious’ history before. But why go on that tangent at all?
My response:

It is interesting that, out of such a long post, you picked that one paragraph to highlight and ignored the rest of the article. This paragraph is a tangential insert, which would be excised out if an editor asked me to shorten the article, for instance, as it is not necessary for the main line of argument.
Also, to be clear, not the entire article is self-sarcasm – this paragraph is. The rest is a serious analysis of framing science (and yes, how it relates to framing politics and religion – as the RightWing political and RightWing religious forces have used framing quite well over the decades). This is one of a few places in the article where I intentionally used different/provocative ‘framing’ to see who will react and how [the use of the term “convert” elsewhere in the text was another example of such a trial balloon, which rasied hackles out of Kate, for instance].
I was very careful in my wording in the article as a whole (as I usually am) to highlight my disagreement with Rightwing religion and Rightwing politics, not with religion per se. I just don’t care for that hypothesis, but I have no problem with liberal variants of religions. It’s a free country – people can believe whatever they want as long as they don’t try to preach/teach others and leave others alone to believe whatever they want.
It is interesting that people – atheists and theists alike – assume that because I am an atheist, I just HAVE to be a rabid proselytizing atheist. Not so. Having the “atheist” descriptor in my “About Me” section is sufficient to raise hackles from the religious and to make atheists certain I am the ally, but the nicest thing is that I do not have to write anti-religious screeds ever! And I don’t. There are more fun things to write about (and blogging to me is about having fun and making friends, not about being a curmudgeon and making enemies).
But I do want to know why people believe what they believe – as a scientific hypothesis – because religious belief when organized into big Religions and coupled with big Politics, affects me and other humans in various ways, often negative ways.
So, you can believe what you want, but I’d like to understand why you do, and if you (not you personally, but “one” – got lost in English language again, sorry) do, how it affects the society.
Since you placed your comment in the thread of that ancient post that nobody reads any more, I’d like to ask your permission to promote it to the top of the page (i.e., to copy and paste it into a brand new post) so my readers can see it and comment on it there. Just say Yes or No either here or on my blog somewhere. Thanks.

Growing up in a non-religious place, the word “convert” first brings to my mind currency conversion, then converting a car so it looses its roof, then changing one’s mind on anything in light of new evidence, and only at the end a religious conversion. But I understand that people who grow up inbued with religion will think of that last meaning first – that was an intended lesson in framing right there.
I want my children to be luckier than that (see this, this, this, this, this and this) and grow up as Natural Atheists, not having to go through the pains of either deciding for themselves after drifting around aimlessly, or going through the “deconversion” process.
He said “Yes”, so now you decide….
Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf
Framing ‘framing’
Did I frame that wrong?
Framing and Truth
Just a quick update on ‘framing science’
Joshua Bell and Framing Science
Framers are NOT appeasers!
Framing Politics (based on science, of course)
Everybody Must Get Framed

For my Orthodox Readers

Yes, the Orthodox and Catholic Easter fall on the same day this year.

How many things are wrong with this study?

Here, have a go at it. Even better, if you can get the actual paper and dissect it on your blog, let me know so I can link to that. Have fun!
Good Behavior, Religiousness May Be Genetic:

A new study in Journal of Personality shows that selfless and social behavior is not purely a product of environment, specifically religious environment. After studying the behavior of adult twins, researchers found that, while altruistic behavior and religiousness tended to appear together, the correlation was due to both environmental and genetic factors.
According to study author Laura Koenig, the popular idea that religious individuals are more social and giving because of the behavioral mandates set for them is incorrect. “This study shows that religiousness occurs with these behaviors also because there are genes that predispose them to it.”
“There is, of course, no specific gene for religiousness, but individuals do have biological predispositions to behave in certain ways,” says Koenig. “The use of twins in the current study allowed for an investigation of the genetic and environmental influences on this type of behavior.”
This research is another example of the way that genes have an impact on behavior. “Society as a whole assumes that home environments have large impacts on behavior, but studies in behavior genetics are repeatedly showing that our behavior is also influenced by our genes,” says Koenig.

Framing Science – the Dialogue of the Deaf

Blog%20Against%20Theocracy.jpgMy SciBlings Chris Mooney and Matt Nisbet just published an article in ‘Science’ (which, considering its topic is, ironically, behind the subscription wall, but you can check the short press release) about “Framing Science”
Carl Zimmer, PZ Myers, Mike Dunford (also check the comments here), John Fleck, Larry Moran, Dietram Scheufele, Kristina Chew, Randy Olson, James Hrynyshyn, Paul Sunstone and Alan Boyle have, so far, responded and their responses (and the comment threads) are worth your time to read. Chris and Matt respond to some of them. Matt has more in-depth explanations here, here and here (pdf) that are worth reading before firing off a response to the whole debate.
This is not a simple topic, but I will try to organize my thoughts in some way….

Continue reading

Blog Against Theocracy

Neural Gourmet and Blue Gal are organizing a massive blogospheric Blog Against Theocracy weekend:

I’d like invite you all to Blog Against Theocracy. This is a little blog swarm being put together by everybody’s favorite panties blogger Blue Gal for Easter weekend, April 6th through the 8th. The idea is simple. Just post something related to, and in support of, the separation of church and state each of those three days. Something big, something small, artistic, musical, textual or otherwise. The topic is your choosing. Whether your thing is stem cell research, intelligent design/Creationism, abortion rights, etc., it’s all good. Separation of church and state impacts so many issues and is essential.

No matter how carefully you teach ABOUT religion…

…someone (guess who?) will feel persecuted:

…. One student objected that I was singling out Christianity. Another objected to what I was implying about the religion. I’m not sure I even used the word “Christian” in my description of the above examples, but I certainly wouldn’t argue it. But I found it fascinating that connecting Islam with 9/11 was acceptable, but for certain students (both born-agains), the idea of connecting Christianity with bad behavior was unacceptable. I also found it interesting that despite accusations of insulting Christianity, I never made a value judgment. I stated what certain people had done and presented evidence pertaining to the factualness of their claims. If a listener comes to the conclusion that these people were behaving badly, that would be their judgment, not mine.

…and it is hard to teach a person who does not live in a world of facts and reality:

He’s a continuing source of frustration because he cannot objectify anything. He turns every writing assignment into a propaganda and/or evangelizing piece (including random Bible quotes) at the expense of the actual assignment. I’m always super-defensive about being able to justify every single point I take away from him so that he can’t cry religious persecution.

Why is this night different from all the other nights?

Or, to tell the traditional Passover joke:

A Jewish physicist in the UK was about to get knighted by the Queen. There was a long line of recepients waiting for the ceremony and they were all instructed what to say/chant once they come to face the Queen. The physicist kept silently practicing the obligatory words, but when his time finally arrived he got so nervous he forgot what he was supposed to say. So he started singing the only song he could remember “Ma nishtanah halailah hazeh mikol haleilot…”
The Queen looked at him, then looked at her advisor and asked:
“Why is this knight different from all the other knights?”

If you are Jewish, you have heard it a million times. If you are not, you don’t think it’s funny…
Anyway, after several days of cleaning the house (well, it has to be done once a year anyway, so why not make sure that it actually gets done by setting the Passover date as the deadline each year?), we had a Seder at our home. We’ve been hosting for ten or so years now and this was the first time we actully had more Jews in attendance than non-Jews. We usually try to mix it up as much as possible – races, ages, sexual preferences, ethnicities, religious backgrounds, etc. and this year was no exception. Which means it was great fun as always and as heretical as can be.
Usually we use a Haggadah I made by putting together bits and pieces of several modern versions, including secular humanist, feminist and environmentalist haggadah. But this year we used a Liberation Haggadah (similar but not identical to this one) which was pretty godless on top of being Marxist – to the point of being a spoof of itself. After all, does anyone really believe that Jewish slaves in Egypt a couple of millenia ago met for committee meetings on Tuesdays and Thursdays to plot the socialist revolution!? Fun was had by all.
Of course, the central focus is the food which was delicious! Mrs.Coturnix fixes the best matzo-ball soup ever, and she can make it vegetarian as well (this and last year she did as we actually had vegetarians at the table). So, instead of the shank bone on the Seder plate, we used a bone-shaped milkbone doggy-treat….Oh, and the salmon was amazing!!!
EvolutionWine.jpggenesis%20cabernet.jpgI am not a regular drinker, but when I do drink, I want the best. So, no sweet Manischewitz in our house! We always have a bottle of the Evolution wine in the fridge, but this year we never got to it as there were so many good reds to drink before it. I resisted the temptation to buy Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon, as Passover is really about Exodus, and I could not find an “Exodus” wine (does it exist?).
And, arrrggggh, how did we forget to put an orange on the Seder plate – it would have been so meaningful this year.

On the shifting public discourse about religion

Ed Cone’s today’s column addresses the changes in the way we talk about religion, particularly in the sphere of politics: from James Dobson to Pete Stark, from Mitt Romney to Amanda Marcotte – The last taboos in politics:

But there seems to be something bigger afoot, a willingness to challenge the traditional eggshell-walking practiced around the beliefs of others, and a self-confidence about frank claims of disbelief in the broader culture…

Yes, we talk more about it, due to the vocal atheists and their books, and the debate that started with the focus on the authors has now shifted to religion itself. This can only be good in the long term.


When a newspaper publishes a column about religion (in their Religion section) that takes into account only the Christian point of view, someone is bound to object.
When the newspaper rectifies the error by publishing an article by an atheist, then, of course, some Christianists are going to object as well.
Discussion follows – kinda basic, embryonic and naive compared to informed and sophisticated discussions we often have on atheists blogs – but a discussion nonetheless, involving local (Greensboro NC) readers of the paper.
Hat-tip: Ed Cone

A case for teaching about religion in school

The case is made by an atheist, of course – Amanda – but the important part of the post is the explanation of why is it impossible in the current educational system in the USA and why is the current system inherently conservative.


I am always late for The Buzz. I just can’t blog on command.
Jason, Jason again, Mike, Mark, PZ and their numerous commenters have chimed in on time.
But the “sprituality” buzz is long gone and I am only now getting to the topic. Ah, well.
Anyway, it’s late at night so I will be short and only semi-serious….

Continue reading

Quote of the Day

And you don’t even have to believe in dinosaurs to share their fate.

From here. And the preceeding paragraph? Another great quote:

“You know how taking so long to end slavery is a shameful part of our history, and how long it took us to give the vote to women is a shameful part of our history? Well, I think in 20 years, we’re going to think that denying marriage to gays for so long is one of the great shames of our nation, too.” That’s from a teenager in Redneckville. She’s our future–and Donohue, LaBarbera, and company are just desperate dinosaurs.

Yes, they really think that the whole world revolves around them

ptolemaic.gifGeocentrism: the True Believers

Style over Substance

Remember this, and use it next time you are debating religion, politics or pseudoscience:

“….someone wearing nothing but a Peter Gibbons-esque cheerful smile and having nothing but kind words for anyone will always be wrong if he says 2 + 2 = 5, and that if I call him a douchebag on wheels and use terms like “donkey punch” in the course of correcting him, it doesn’t change who is right; it just changes the input into the popularity contest…