Yes, religion is anti-science...and it all comes down to Darwin.

It has been my observation that, more than any other precept, it is Darwin that is the most intractable issue for a sizable portion of the God-believing public. Of course, I understand (as should everyone) that the broader concept of Evolution by Natural Selection (ENS) goes far beyond the seminal thesis of Charles Darwin. ENS is really a superset of scientific fields that all point to precisely the same conclusion…that humans, hawks and hydrangeas are all evolved from a common ancestor. What Darwin observed and documented is merely one portion of the evidences for ENS. Moreover; Darwin's work has been corroborated and refined in ways that he could not have even dreamed of.

I couldn't begin to relate all the evidence for ENS here…and that is not my intent. The 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species has seen a number of new books (i.e. Coyne and Dawkins) that attempt to lay out all the evidence for ENS…and that evidence is suffocating. In my opinion; anybody that had the aptitude to understand the evidence (it is not really that complex) and is not so impaired by ideology would have to conclude that there is no reason to dispute ENS as, hands down, the single best explanation for the diversity of life on this planet (and probably any other planet).

There are many believers who do recognize ENS as the best explanation for the diversity of life. In fact; the Catholic church's official position is that ENS is, indeed, the better explanation over the creation story of Genesis [ref] (albeit that God started the process with the express intent that ENS would result in us humans…after several billion years…and several hundred thousand years of untold suffering…when he would finally reveal himself to an illiterate desert tribe…but I digress.)

My trouble (and, I believe, your trouble also) is that 40% of the US population deny ENS its due as the most successful theory on biological diversity (with only fundamentalist Islamic Turkey being worse) [ref]. I have to assume that there is a portion of that 40% that, were they exposed to the broad body of evidence, would move from their divine creation beliefs to the well recognized process of ENS. The most troubling aspect is how those theists disbelieve in ENS. Instead of saying they don't understand ENS or they have trouble with some aspect of the science, ENS is portrayed variously as crazy, bulls**t, a fraud, fantasy, a failed hypothesis, and (the ever-popular chestnut) "only a theory" (the latter being another blatant display of ignorance).

It seems obvious that our educational system does a poor job of informing our youth on the importance and breadth of what we know in this area. I believe in evolution because I am familiar with the breadth of evidence. Yet I recognize that my academic exposure to the subject (that I can remember anyway) was a grade-school or junior-high science text that showed the ubiquitous example of the giraffe exploiting the food source high in the trees. It seemed reasonable, but hardly a comprehensive overview of ENS. This trifling exposure would be at a notable disadvantage when competing with the theistic creation story hammered home each Sunday morning. It is important that our youth be exposed to ENS in a broad and comprehensive way.

The most troubling aspect of the ENS deniers well demonstrates just how much damage religion and ignorance can do to the human mind. Those that angrily dismiss ENS as bulls**t are effectively making the argument that every biologist and physical scientist in the world is wrong or in on some anti-God conspiracy. I do not have words to describe the pitiable nature of such a position. It is tin foil hat territory to think so many thousands of unaffiliated scientists could maintain such a front and speak with such a consistent voice. Never mind that, for those scientists that want notoriety in their field, they would benefit immensely from discovering and documenting the thing that is not common knowledge. Were a scientist to offer something compelling to supplant ENS, they would be showered with awards and medals and notoriety and research grants. They would achieve a place in the pantheon of the great minds of history alongside the likes of Copernicus, Gallieo, da Vinci, Pascal, Newton, Bohr, Einstein et. al..

Another troubling argument from the believing side is that ENS says that the universe or life sprang from nothing. Of course, anyone with even the most rudimentary understanding of what ENS actually is, knows that ENS says nothing about the origin of the universe or how life began. ENS only describes how the diversity of life arose once the first self-replicating entity came to be. This, again, points back to our failure to educate our youth. (If any anti-evolutionists are reading, please note this fact.)

Yet another troubling aspect is the fabricated controversies underwritten by conservative religious organizations. "Teach The Controversy" is a catch-phrase started by The Discovery Institute (and parroted by our past, ideological president Bush. Ronald Reagan also stated "I have no chimpanzees in my family," ). It is all wrapped up in trappings of the open-society ideals of freedom of speech and information, but is (as determined by a U.S. court) a blatant effort to insert religious creationism into our public school science classes. The effort is to convince the scientifically illiterate and credulous public that there are major rifts amongst scientists that threaten to destroy ENS like a house of cards in the wind. Don't get me wrong…there is a controversy, but it is not within the ranks of evolutionary biologists. There are debates about very narrow aspects of ENS such as where Ardi fits on the evolutionary tree, but nothing that even remotely disputes the core concepts of ENS. The controversy is that religious organizations are making a concerted effort to feed creationism to our vulnerable youth and to undermine science to neutralize a challenge their theistic beliefs. 'Teach The Controversy' is tantamount to demanding that we teach the stork theory of conception in science class…or that we teach that the devil buried dinosaur bones to make it look like they were old. These efforts, at best, are ignorant but well intentioned or, at worst, insidious and dangerous.

Most believers have zero problems with anything else that science says or provides. They are perfectly fine with the concept that matter is made up of atoms…which are in turn made up of protons and neutrons surrounded by a cloud of electrons. Never mind that Niels Bohr's model of the atom is quite theoretical and we have never seen an atom to see if it looks like the model. What is important is that the model accurately describes what we observe in real life and makes reliable predictions of phenomena that we have yet to observe. If we ever got a real look at the structure of an atom; science would eagerly and giddily abandon our current understanding of atomic structure. Believers are also perfectly fine with the idea that microorganisms and genetics are the prime sources of disease (as opposed to demons espoused in the bible).

Is religion anti-science? It all comes down to Darwin. I would have to say, yes… religion is, in one important measure, anti-science. Are all believers anti-science? …of course not. Virtually all believers are able to assimilate and accept most real knowledge that science provides...but it is not a trivial observation that it is only the religious that mount an offense against ENS with rhetoric such as 'Evil-lution'. As far as I know, there is no other body besides the offended religious that has any problem with what the scientific community effectively regards as fact. Were there just one other identifiable group that challenged ENS, we might be able to point the finger of evidence denial elsewhere...but there is no other group. Evidence denial, in this case, is owned wholly by religion. The correlation is clear and cannot be dismissed.

Let us recognize this…Let us ridicule this…and let us educate our children.

The world’s best defense of religion (reprise)

[This is a reprint of an earlier post. With recently increased traffic to Fox Valley Thinker, I wanted to give new readers a better chance to see some of the older stuff]

OK . . . the title is a little over-reaching, I will admit, but I had a bit of an epiphany the other day. I have always felt a little guilty that I found no theistic arguments for belief at all compelling. Many, in fact, I find laughable and deluded. By never seeing the other side’s argument as having validity, I worried that I might be too closed off intellectually on this matter. I finally heard the best argument yet for dogmatic faith . . . and it came from me!

Several days ago, after yet more contemplation of the positive and negative aspects of religion, I provided myself with a new (to me anyway) defense of religion. In the way of background; I am the father of a high school freshman. I have always considered the imparting a moral and ethical framework to a child to be one of the highest purposes of parenting. In my relatively recent self-identification as a non-theist, I have analyzed child-rearing from a new perspective. There are groups of theists that will, quite assuredly, say that non-belief is synonymous with amorality . . . that a moral framework cannot exist in the absence of belief. I know this to be wrong. I know this from personal experience and I know this through empirical evidence; but trying to convince some believers of this is tantamount to convincing them that up is down. There is much evidence showing non-theists to be at least as moral as theists. This should allow us to dismiss the amorality claim as naïve; still it pours forth from the pulpit that atheists have no moral center.

I hope it is obvious to all readers that the single most effective way to communicate morals and ethics to a child is through personal example, irrespective of faith. If the people that the child knows, loves, and respects practice charity, show empathy toward others and generally puts other’s need before their own, that is what the child will emulate. Hands down; a parent’s example is what defines the child.

Still . . . If parents had some sort software they could install into their child’s brain, a “Morality v1.0” if you will, that would be convenient, wouldn’t it? It is not going out on a limb to say children do not posses the intellectual acuity to interpret the nuance of a proper philosophical discussion of right and wrong. Heck, many adults appear to lack that ability! But let us leverage the innate credulity of a child and posit a story that is accessible and comprehensible to a child. To that end; tell them that there is a god that watches everything. If you do bad things (he has provided a list), you will go to hell and spend eternity in a lake of burning sulfur. Your child believes you because the immature human animal is wired to do so. Just like they believe you when you tell them about the Easter Bunny or Santa Claus or the tooth fairy, they believe that God is prepared to strike them down and condemn them to hell. There it is . . . simple, concise and oh-so-time-saving for the on-the-go Bronze Age parent.

And, right there, that’s the first major rub. The list was created in the Bronze Age. At the time, it was probably a nice dovetail into contemporary Bronze Age morals. Granted, most of what was laid down as commandments generally fits much of today’s generally accepted framework of ethical conduct . . . but it does show some age. For instance; rule number 10 states:

“Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's house; thou shalt not covet thy neighbour's wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any thing that is thy neighbour's.”

I don’t know about you, but it makes me uncomfortable that God decided to list the wife as a piece of property . . . and not even the first in the list! The ‘progressive’ Catholics at least broke this inventory list into two statements, ostensibly giving the wife some special status over a man’s ox and slaves . . . regular Susan B. Anthonys they are!! At least the Catholics had the good sense to apply some editing to the word of God. Wh . . Wh . . What was that?!? One of the very few times God himself hand delivers a communiqué to humanity and some feel the need to tweak it a bit?!?!? Wow!! Talk about brass ones!! Still; for the time, this was probably a no-brainer list of do’s and don’ts with no controversy to be found.

Of course the first half of the list of rules had nothing to do with “do unto others” kind of thinking. It was all about the self-protection of the story; the more that God was deserving of respect and the scarier he was, the less likely that kids would wander. To my mind, the whole thing it is the perfect parental shortcut. After all, the busy parents of the day had their day full . . . er . . . herding and . . . er . . . other stuff. I have little doubt that the biblical story, used this way, was quite effective.

The whole thing might be perfectly useful if 1) there was some universally agreed upon list of moral codes that would evolve as we gained new, real understanding of the human species and condition and 2) we let the kids in on the story once it was no longer useful (like we do with Santa Claus and other fables). Now some of you already have your pants in a bunch because of item ‘1’. “That is wishy-washy moral relativism” you might say. Relative to what? . . . our growing understanding of the human species and our growing body of empirical knowledge and philosophical understanding? Maybe you would prefer that we stick with moral absolutes that value the female spouse somewhere between your condo and your cat. Hmmmmm. Relativism doesn’t sound all that bad to me. In fact, the enlightened believers have always practiced moral relativism . . . that is why they are enlightened.

In honesty, though, I would give less than even odds that some universal list of do’s and don’ts could be created, but it would be an interesting experiment. I know the United Nations has a “universal” document but it is a) probably not universal for primitive theocracies and dictatorships and b) limited to human rights. Still . . . the effort would be interesting and actually give us important new insights into fundamental human ethics and morals.

The failure of the whole premise was that point ‘2’ (letting the kids in on the story) was not incorporated into the program. As an individual (hopefully) matures intellectually, they are able to better understand and reflect on the nuances of what is right and wrong. This nuanced understanding is far better than some terse list written down by moral leaders of ancient times.

So there you have it . . . the best defense of religious fables that I have yet to hear (or concoct). To my mind, this could even put an aspect of religion into the ‘defensible’ category . . . wrong and false, but defensible. Sometimes I impress myself . . but I am easily impressed.

Hate Crimes Legislation Update

As a follow-up to my previous post, I see (via The Associated Press)  that H.R. 1913 passed through the House decisively today with a vote of 249-175.  For those of you don't know what H.R. 1913 is; it is an extension to our existing hate crimes laws that allows federal funds to be provided to local agencies to prosecute crimes of prejudice.  The Religious Right has their pants in a bunch because it includes 'gender identity' and 'sexual orientation' to the list of classes protected by hate crime laws.  Probably the most telling synopsis of the conservative opposition to this bill came from bill supporter Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla.,:
"I wonder if our friends on the other side of the aisle would be singing the same offensive tune if we were talking about hate crimes based on race or religion," she said, referring to Republican opponents. "It seems to me it is the category of individuals that they are offended by, rather than the fact that we have hate crimes laws at all."
How very true Rep. Wasserman.  I have come to think that hate crime laws can't really affect the rates of crime for things that are already illegal anyway.  I feel the greatest benefit of this bill is the the religious right must talk openly and loudly about their position on homosexuality and why they didn't have a problem with the same laws that didn't include homosexuals.  They have to lay it on the table for all the world to see (not that it has been a secret), that they feel there there are some groups that it is OK to persecute.  So; if it makes the Religious Right spastic and desperate (i.e. claiming it offers protection to pedophiles!!!....WTF?!?), then at least THAT is some good that comes out of it.

Is Religious Anti-Gay Speech a Hate Crime?

At this writing; House Resolution 1913 had just passed Judiciary Committee review and will, ostensibly, appear on the House floor for debate at some point. The nature of the resolution leads me to believe that it would then be voted on as a bill that would somewhat expand our existing Hate Crimes laws. The terse description of this reads as follow:

To provide Federal assistance to States, local jurisdictions, and Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes, and for other purposes.

This comes to my attention because of the flurry of e-mails from conservative Christian organizations that are up in arms saying that it will stifle their free speech and keep them from promoting the biblical view on homosexuality. My initial reaction is that anything that makes the butt's of the religious right pucker must be a good thing, but I wanted to investigate further.

 In reading this bill, it expands our existing laws that recognize violence based on prejudice against gender, race, color, religion, national origin, or disability to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The operative word here is 'violence' and there is no mention of speech. The bill would (in my reading) merely apply different sentencing guidelines to violent acts that are already illegal.

 Contemplating the bill, several questions come to mind:

  1. Can hate crime laws actually reduce violent crimes on the part of xenophobes? My opinion is that the fear of those that are not like ourselves is a most primitive and instinctual reaction and probably served ancient man well (in a survival context). It is our higher intellect that allows us to recognize our innate xenophobia and overcome it. Will someone resist killing an immigrant because they will get 25 years in prison as opposed to 20 years? Will someone be uniquely shamed for killing another because they were motivated by bigotry instead of more pedestrian reasons? …I think not.
  2. Can organized inculcation/indoctrination of large groups in the persecution of some minority (i.e. left-handed individuals, Hispanics, homosexuals) rise to the level of a 'violent' crime even in the absence of physical violence?

The latter of these two points seems to be what is getting the religious right's pants in a bunch. It is being portrayed as making it illegal to speak against homosexuality in church. Despite my sooooo wishing we could make organized persecution of a minority a shameful practice (well…actually it already is), I don't believe that, constitutionally, there would be solid grounds to make it against the law. I believe it could easily be argued that the practice is immoral; we would be hard pressed to make it illegal. 

I would guess the best we could hope for is that organized persecution would be looked down on in that same way that adultery is looked down upon. That said; while I now think that even our existing hate-crimes laws are feel-good legislation, I will support H.R. 1913 just to scare the religious right despite thinking that it poses no threat to them.

UPDATE (28 Apr 09): This morning I got an e-mail from the American Family Association that said (among other things) 

"Congress is set to give legally protected status to 30 sexual orientations, including incest."

I also see that Liberty Counsel (whoever they are) is extoling how this bill will protect pedophiles.

(I purposely did not link to their sites to avoid inadvertently promoting them)

Are these people serious?!?!  They are either intellectually stunted or stunningly desperate. 

The Godless Threat - The Godly Threat - Oh The Irony!

For all of the bluster of the religious right; I have heard nothing of the stunning irony that the our most feared cold-war enemy...the enemy that most wanted to destroy our way of life...the 'godless communists'...has been replaced with the most supremely godly people around.

Another Biblical 'Miss'

So the bible says that God gave us dominion over everything.  Furthermore, the bible never mentions...not even hints at...the existence of  microorganisms!  

Check out this interesting video:

In it, Martin Blaser (chairman of the department of medicine at NYU School of Medicine) relates a stunning statistic: 60% of the biosphere, by weight, is bacteria!!  For a book that is purported to have all the answers, this seem like something that might have been mentioned.  Moreover; most any way you look at it, it is microorganisms that have dominion over US!

UPDATE: I just came across this amusing video that touches on this very topic...

I am looking forward to viewing other videos from NonStampCollector