To look forward, or to retreat into the past?

Quote for the day: PZ discussing Bronowski’s wonderful TV series “The Ascent of Man”:

A dead civilization is one that has stopped progressing, that ends that dynamism in the stasis of preservation and numbing reverence for the past — when a 2000 year old myth becomes the greatest knowledge worth knowing, we have abandoned the process and begun the contraction into the shells we built while still vital.

This is one of my deepest objections to the religious stance. When one encounters a source of wisdom – an idea, a book, a teacher – the responsible attitude is not to worship it, but to ask, “How can we learn from this and do even better, so that others may learn from us?” This is the human experience, going back over tens of thousands of years. It is also our future: it’s what human beings do. The religious impulse to ascribe supernatural perfection to people and ideas of the past is defeatist. It is, ultimately, inhuman.

All woo, all the time

Another delightful fisking of Eagleton and his admirer, Stanley Fish, this time from Crooked Timber. In the comments, Salient and Steve LaBonne sum up thus:

So, the purpose of religion is aesthetic?

A lot of that going around; seems to be pretty much the last-ditch line of defense nowadays for muddleheads trying to hold out against the assault of the Evil Dawkhitch Stormtroopers. Often involves the truly brain-dead confusion of religion with religiously-inspired art.
And no, it’s not possible to engage productively with such manifestations of severe cognitive impairment.

Woo on a plane

Last month I blogged about Terry Eagleton’s bullshit and Russell Blackford’s robust refutation of it. At least I didn’t have to read of the Eagleton blather… but PZ was not so lucky:

So I was in New York the other day, and was offered a copy of Eagleton’s book, and took the first step in my imminent doom by accepting it. Then I tried to fly home on Saturday, one of those flights that was plagued with mechanical errors […] Thus was my fate sealed.
I was trapped in a plane for 8 hours with nothing to read but Eagleton and the Sky Mall catalog.
This is an account of my day of misery.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade. This essay is a long glass of cool refreshing reason. Recommended.

In the tradition of the Inquistion…

Andrew Sullivan identifies one of the architects of the Bush/Cheney torture policy: Edward Whelan, who – incredibly – heads up the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

The presence of devout Catholics authorizing the waterboarding of a human being 183 times in a row really does help put theoconservatism into a new perspective, doesn’t it? Speaking of which, where are the Catholic bishops? They can manage to get into the news opposing a commencement speech by the president, but when incontrovertible evidence that the Bush administration tortured prisoners emerges, the silence from the top is deafening.

But the Catholic Church today has become fixated on two beliefs – the evils of modernity, and the primacy of obedience – and two issues – abortion, and homosexuality. Nothing else matters to the hierarchy. Nothing.
UPDATE: Whelan claims that the reports are erroneous, and Andrew has withdrawn his accusation. But the broad conclusion – that the christianists are deeply hypocritical and only care about issues that have cultural leverage – is still true.

The brains of religious believers

Sciencedaily reports on a study of how the brains of believers and non-believers behave under stress:

We found that religious people or even people who simply believe in the existence of God show significantly less brain activity in relation to their own errors. They’re much less anxious and feel less stressed when they have made an error.

These correlations remained strong even after controlling for personality and cognitive ability, says Inzlicht, who also found that religious participants made fewer errors on the Stroop task than their non-believing counterparts. […]

Obviously, anxiety can be negative because if you have too much, you’re paralyzed with fear,” he says. “However, it also serves a very useful function in that it alerts us when we’re making mistakes. If you don’t experience anxiety when you make an error, what impetus do you have to change or improve your behaviour so you don’t make the same mistakes again and again?

[Via Sully; my emphasis.]

Religion and science: it's about epistemology

Every so often an article comes along which triggers a firestorm of debate, and the latest is by Jerry Coyne in The New Republic. He reviews two new books by Giberson and Miller, each of which tries to defend the thesis that science and religion are wholly compatible. Coyne disagrees, fundamentally.

In the end, then, there is a fundamental distinction between scientific truths and religious truths, however you construe them. The difference rests on how you answer one question: how would I know if I were wrong? Darwin’s colleague Thomas Huxley remarked that “science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.” As with any scientific theory, there are potentially many ugly facts that could kill Darwinism. Two of these would be the presence of human fossils and dinosaur fossils side by side, and the existence of adaptations in one species that benefit only a different species. Since no such facts have ever appeared, we continue to accept evolution as true. Religious beliefs, on the other hand, are immune to ugly facts. Indeed, they are maintained in the face of ugly facts, such as the impotence of prayer. There is no way to adjudicate between conflicting religious truths as we can between competing scientific explanations. Most scientists can tell you what observations would convince them of God’s existence, but I have never met a religious person who could tell me what would disprove it.

Coyne’s essay provoked a series of responses over at the Edge. These included Lisa Randall’s cognitively dissonant experience:

By sheer coincidence the day I read this Edge question, a charming young actor sat next to me on my plane to LA and without any prompting answered it for me.[…] Prior to his acting career he had studied molecular biology and after graduating coordinated science teaching for three middle schools in an urban school system. He described how along with his acting career he would ultimately like to build on his training to start schools worldwide where students can get good science training.
But he himself believes in Man descending from Adam as opposed to ascending from apes. I didn’t get how someone trained as a biologist could not believe in evolution. He explained how he could learn the science and understand the logic but that it is simply how Man puts things together. In his mind that’s just not the way it is.

I was going to respond in my own words, but then I read Timothy Sandefur’s excellent piece which said everything that I would want to say, and more. Here is his excellent refutation of Ken Miller’s response in Edge:

Then there is Miller himself, who insists once more on his right to have his reason and eat it too. “What science does require is methodological naturalism,” he writes. But why does it require that? That commitment is not an arbitrary postulate—it is an epistemological position, imposed on us by the nature of knowledge and of reality. Miller recognizes this when he acknowledges that “[w]e live in a material world, and we use the materials of nature to study the way nature works.” But of course he then flies to a higher strain—by assuming, without any evidence, that there is some other kind of world in which we also live (a world which, if it is immaterial, by definition has no interaction with our own and would therefore be inaccessible to our knowledge). He, arbitrarily and without foundation, asserts that there is some other world, which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts can be known by some other method—a method which he arbitrarily and without foundation asserts is religious knowledge. These are three separate assertions about reality which he is willing to endorse not only without reasons, but without even acknowledging the need for reasons. And this he amazingly calls “honest and open empiricism”!

Reality bites

While religious delusion seems to be on the increase back in Blighty, here in the US things are trending – modestly – in the opposite direction:

the percentage of Americans who believe that religion can answer society’s problems is at an all-time low, with only 53 percent saying religion “can answer all or most of today’s problems.”


Meanwhile, over the last several decades, the percentage of those who perceive religion as “largely old-fashioned and out of date” has been on a continuous rise. The latest poll found that 28 percent believe it’s old-fashioned.

But even so… 53 percent? That’s a dangerous level of delusion…

(Via Freethinker.

More stupidity from back home in the UK

Not only is religion being co-opted by politicians in the UK (or is it the other way round?); it appears that creationism is making inroads. As The Bad Astronomer reports

A survey in the UK shows that about 1/3 of the teachers in England and Wales think creationism should be taught in science. About half think it shouldn’t be (one assumes the rest have no opinion), while 2/3 of the teachers think it should at least be discussed.

70% of science teachers think creationism should not be taught, which sounds good until you realize that means 30% of science teachers think it should be.

This story also provides a great example of how the same facts can be presented in diametrically opposite ways. The headline in The Daily Express read “THIRD OF TEACHERS WANT CREATIONISM”, while the Ipsos MORI report of the actual study was titled “Teachers Dismiss Calls For Creationism To Be Taught In School Science Lessons”.

Vatican would rather gay people were executed than married

The National Secular Society reports on the increasingly anachronistic and regressive regime in the Vatican:

When France proposed a resolution seeking all nations to decriminalise homosexuality, the Vatican immediately said it would oppose the resolution. This is despite the fact that up to 70 nations still have legal punishments for gay people including, in some instances, the death penalty. In a number of Islamic countries such as Afghanistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Yemen, homosexual acts are still a capital offence.

The UN resolution is due to be proposed by France later this month on behalf of the 27-nation European Union. But Archbishop Celestino Migliore said the Vatican opposed the resolution because it would “add new categories of those protected from discrimination” and could lead to reverse discrimination against traditional heterosexual marriage.

And so, rather than speak out against Islamic states which execute gay people, the Catholic Church insists that its right to discriminate remains “protected”.
But it ‘s not just gays.

Meanwhile the Times has revealed that the “Holy See” also refused to sign a UN document last May on the rights of the disabled because it did not condemn abortion or assert the rights of foetuses with birth defects.

I wonder if the newly-converted ex-PM of Britain has any comments…

Gimme that old time dysfunctionality…

Ruth Gledhill reviews belatedly catches up with Gregory Paul’s study in the latest a 2005 issue of the Journal of Religion and Society. She begins thus:

Religious belief can cause damage to a society, contributing towards high murder rates, abortion, sexual promiscuity and suicide, according to research published today.

According to the study, belief in and worship of God are not only unnecessary for a healthy society but may actually contribute to social problems.

The study counters the view of believers that religion is necessary to provide the moral and ethical foundations of a healthy society.

It compares the social peformance of relatively secular countries, such as Britain, with the US, where the majority believes in a creator rather than the theory of evolution. Many conservative evangelicals in the US consider Darwinism to be a social evil, believing that it inspires atheism and amorality.

Many liberal Christians and believers of other faiths hold that religious belief is socially beneficial, believing that it helps to lower rates of violent crime, murder, suicide, sexual promiscuity and abortion. The benefits of religious belief to a society have been described as its “spiritual capital”. But the study claims that the devotion of many in the US may actually contribute to its ills.

The correlations between religious belief and social dysfunction won’t come as a surprise to my (mostly) secular liberal readers. However one should always be cautious about leaping from correlation to causation. Case in point: there is a strong regional correlation in the USA between religiosity and violent crime. However both are also negatively correlated with education and economic status, and these are rather more plausible causal agents.
Gledhill writes:

He said that the evidence accumulated by a number of different studies suggested that religion might actually contribute to social ills.

Really? This could be interesting, and certainly worth reading. At the very least, it looks pretty conclusive that religion does nothing to mitigate or reduce social dysfunction.
UPDATE: Thanks to benjdm for the correction.