Tag: Religion

Redefining science

July 12, 2010 | By | 4 Replies More
Redefining science

At Daylight Atheism, Ebonmuse takes on yet another attempt by “Intelligent Design” advocates to redefine science as . . . not science. The claims of ID have been devastated repeatedly by scientists and others who self-critically and rigorously explore the natural world. Yet ID advocates plod on, undeterred by the numerous sensationally successful predictions made by natural selection (Ebonmuse lists and links to six such predictions), the failure of ID to make any predictions, and the incapability of DI to make any predictions. ID advocates don’t get it that once you step out of the well-knit causal framework that allows us to navigate the real world there is no basis for making predictions. Once we make a foundational conclusion willy-nilly (e.g., defining the age of the earth by an ancient “holy book” rather than by reference to the numerous reliable methods for dating the planet), on what basis could one possibly make any further conclusions or predictions, other than by further reference to the same “holy book?”

As all skeptics know from frustrating experience, these debates quickly hit the same impasse. The next logical step at this point is to ask why we should believe that the holy book is holy. But the only answer given given by ID advocates is simply that it is holy and that we must have faith in it. Consider further that the Bible doesn’t even mention atoms or galaxies. Nor does it propose any method for investigating the world. Those who use the bible as a “science” book do bible science by repeating the verses within whenever they conflict with real-world observations. That is the faux “science” proposed by ID. Yet the debate somehow continues . . .

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Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On – Part I

July 11, 2010 | By | 18 Replies More
Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On – Part I

I do not believe in any sort of sentient “God.” I do not believe in any sort of personified “Creator” of the universe. I never had any such beliefs. Nor do I think that science has all of the “answers” (as though we know how to ask the right questions).

Looking back over my past few years of writings, however, I can see that I have come a long way regarding my approach to religion. Prior to 2001, I was mostly in the live-and-let-live camp. Then came 9/11 when the destructive power of many religions (including American religions) came front and center. Out of mouths allegedly professing the words of God Himself, we heard plenty of bigotry (often aimed at gays, non-believers, people of Middle Eastern ancestry and, of course, members of other religions), war-mongering, anti-science, pro-ignorance, and biblical literalism.

I pushed back forcefully–one of my prime motivations for starting Dangerous Intersection was my strong reaction to the rise of conservative religions in the United States. Eventually, though, I came to realize that my reaction was overbroad. My concern should not so much have been against religion, but against those specific religious communities that encourage their members to engage in destructive behavior. I think that I understand why I made this error; following 9/11, almost all American religions chose to be silent in the face of the destructive behavior by competitor religions. I viewed that widespread silence as general approval. I assumed, based somewhat on the increasingly conservative views of several close acquaintances who had been religious moderates, that even moderate religious beliefs too often served as slippery slopes to fundamentalism.

I eventually developed a more nuanced view. I have come to believe that religions serve as grouping techniques that help good-hearted people do group-oriented good-hearted things and, yes, that religions invoked by mean-spirited and violent people amplify their destructive ways.

Even though I have my intellectual differences with virtually all people who profess religious claims, it turns out that many such people have more in common with me, politically and religiously, than many non-believers. There are many issues that we need to grapple with as communities and individuals, many of them having very little to do with religions claims. Further, after the 9/11 smoke cleared, I could see better that many good-hearted religious believers were of the live-and-let-live persuasion. These were important realizations. I eventually came to appreciate that many religious folks are truly my allies in what should be a joint quest to make the world a better place.

Over the past year, I spent many hours writing a long article on my own “spiritual” journey. Writing this chapter was an intense exercise in self-discovery that drew from many of the posts I’ve made at this blog. I originally planned to publish my article as a book chapter that was to be called “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.” My chapter eventually grew to an unwieldy length that branched off into several distinct (but related) topics. What follows is list of each of the Parts of “Mending Fences with Believers and Moving On.”

I. The day I discussed atheism at a church service
II. My atheism
III. It’s time to call a truce.
IV. What about the science?
V. The many things we have in common
VI. Where do we go from here?
VII. Conclusion

I do believe that the full finished product works well on its own and I’ve decided to break it into several parts here at Dangerous Intersection. Parts I and II of my article are included as part of this post. I’ll post the other sections over the next few days. I hope this collection is as engaging for you to read as it was for me to write.

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Successive debunkings of our conceits

July 8, 2010 | By | Reply More
Successive debunkings of our conceits

There’s a straightforward reason we “expelled ourselves from Eden.” At heart, we are searchers and explorers, and we seek meaning, among many other things. “CallumCGLP” is the self-identified person who added these beautiful excerpts from Carl Sagan’s audio-book, Pale Blue Dot to some new visuals. The result is inspiring:

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The Onion: Teach the Controversy

June 18, 2010 | By | Reply More
The Onion: Teach the Controversy

The Onion reports that a new Kansas Court decision requires public schools to teach both sides of the controversy:


Christian Groups: Biblical Armageddon Must Be Taught Alongside Global Warming

If you want to display your opinion that we should teach the controversy, you can also buy one of these t-shirts from Teach the Controversy.

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Sports fans as religious believers

June 12, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Sports fans as religious believers

Writing for Psychology Today, Nigel Barber asks whether modern day spectator sports function as religions. The evidence suggests that the answer is yes:

“The similarities between sport fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.” . . . [S]pectators worship other human beings, their achievements, and the groups to which they belong.” And . . . sports stadia and arenas resemble “cathedrals where followers gather to worship their heroes and pray for their successes.”

Fans wear the team colors and carry its flags, icons, and mascots. Then there is repetitive chanting of team encouragement, hand-clapping, booing the other team, doing the wave, and so forth. The singing of an anthem at a sporting event likely has similar psychological effects as the singing of a hymn in church. . . . As a group, sports fans are fairly religious, according to research. It is also curious that as religious attendance rates have dropped off in recent decades, interest in sport spectatorship has soared. . .

[F]ans are highly committed to their favored stars and teams in a way that gives focus and meaning to their daily lives. In addition, sports spectatorship is a transformative experience through which fans escape their humdrum lives, just as religious experiences help the faithful to transcend their everyday existence.

The same issue of Psychology Today features the ex-gods and the ex-goddesses of the sports/religions. Their sports careers often end with a thud.

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Intergalactic proselytizing

April 18, 2010 | By | Reply More
Intergalactic proselytizing

Graham Sale’s imagination is active at Salon.com, where he explores the long game of proselytizing.

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Federal Court rules that the “National Day of Prayer” violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause

April 16, 2010 | By | 2 Replies More
Federal Court rules that the “National Day of Prayer” violates the First Amendment Establishment Clause

Yesterday, I received an email from the Center For Inquiry indicating that, in 2008, Freedom From Religion Foundation had filed a lawsuit (Freedom from Religion Foundation, Inc v. Obama) to prevent the federal government from declaring a “National Day of Prayer.” The U.S. District Court, Judge Barbara B. Crabb of the Western District of Wisconsin, struck down 36 U.S.C. §119, which establishes a yearly National Day of Prayer. Here’s the text of the statute:

The President shall issue each year a proclamation designating the first Thursday in May as National Day of Prayer on which the people of the United States may turn to God in prayer and meditation at churches, in groups, and as individuals.

As discussed in the Court’s Opinion, the National Day of Prayer was established in part, due to the efforts of Reverend Billy Graham in 1952. One of Graham’s speeches included the following:

We have dropped our pilot, the Lord Jesus Christ, and are sailing blindly on without divine chart or compass, hoping somehow to find our desired haven. We have certain leaders who are rank materialists; they do not recognize God nor care for Him; they spend their time in one round of parties after another. The Capital City of our Nation can have a great spiritual awakening, thousands coming to Jesus Christ, but certain leaders have not lifted an eyebrow, nor raised a finger, nor showed the slightest bit of concern. Ladies and gentlemen, I warn you, if this state of affairs continues, the end of the course is national shipwreck and ruin.

Congress then took the reins, lead by [appropriately named] Representative Percy Priest, who introduced a bill to establish a National Day of Prayer. Here is the Court’s description:

In addressing the House of Representatives, he noted that the country had been “challenged yesterday by the suggestion made on the east steps of the Capitol by Billy Graham that the Congress call on the President for the proclamation of a day of prayer.” In support of the bill, Representative Brooks stated that “the national interest would be much better served if we turn aside for a full day of prayer for spiritual help and guidance from the Almighty during these troublous times. I hope that all denominations, Catholics, Jewish and Protestants, will join us in this day of prayer.” Representative Peter W. Rodino, Jr., stated that “it is fitting and timely that the people of America, in approaching the Easter season, as God-fearing men and women, devote themselves to a day of prayer in the interest of peace.”

[The Court added a footnote: “This part of the report is not accurate. 1 Marsh v. Chambers, 463 U.S. 783, 787(1983) (“[P]rayers were not offered during the Constitutional Convention.”]

I downloaded the entire ruling from the federal district court in pdf format and I’m making it available here.

The Plaintiff argued that Plaintiff the statute is unconstitutional “because it endorses prayer and encourages citizens to engage in that particular religious exercise.”

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Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

April 13, 2010 | By | Reply More
Sam Harris on objectively measurable moral progress

Within a tradition that extends backwards at least to David Hume, many people insist that science is utterly incapable of telling us what we ought to value, and that science is thus unable to weigh in on moral issues. This position has often been referred to as the naturalistic fallacy–the claim that what is “moral” can be defined in terms of natural properties.

In this highly-engaging and wide-ranging TED talk, Sam Harris argues that this is a dangerous illusion, because whether humans are experiencing “well being,” and whether communities “flourish” clearly depend on facts. He argues that questions of values reduce to facts about the brain functions and specific social circumstances of human beings. Science is thus relevant to values, and as we move further into the future this will be ever more obvious.

Harris paused to make it clear that he is not claiming that science will necessarily provide answers to all values questions. He is not claiming that those trying to decide whether to have a second child, for example, will turn to science. On the other hand, meting out corporal punishment on children (which is still allowed by the laws of many southern states) raises a factual question: Whether inflicting pain, violence and embarrassment encourages positive emotional development. He also points to the wearing of burkas under threat of physical punishment as a practice that can can be factually analyzed as not likely to improve well being.

Harris doesn’t offer a single recipe for a “right” or a “correct” way to run a society. Rather, he suggests that the moral state space consists of many peaks and valleys; there might be many right answers, in addition to many wrong answers. This multiplicity of approaches doesn’t mean that there aren’t factual truths about the better and worse ways of achieving social well-being, however.

He repeatedly makes the point that science has a lot to say about morality, and there is no good reason to be non-judgmental when the facts scientifically show that a particular practice leads to social dysfunction. In many human disciplines, some of the people weighing in are so ill-informed that their opinions shouldn’t count at all — not every person has a right to a wide audience on the topic of string theory. The same thing goes for moral expertise. Those who insist that the best thing to do when their young daughter is raped is to kill her out of shame lack moral expertise. Those who would behead their son because he is gay in order to keep him from going to hell do not have moral opinions that should count.

There are right and wrong answers regarding questions of human flourishing (this can increasingly be fleshed out in terms of brain function) and “morality” relates to a specific domain of facts.

It is possible for individuals and even whole culture, to care about the wrong thing. It’s possible for them to have beliefs and desires that lead to needless human suffering. Just admitting this will transform our discussion about morality.

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Natural Selection does not pit science against religion

April 10, 2010 | By | 3 Replies More
Natural Selection does not pit science against religion

Michael Zimmerman is a biology professor at Butler University. In 2004, he decided that something needed to done about a big problem: Many well-funded politically-connected creationists were working hard to frame the evolution “controversy” in terms of “science versus religion,” in an attempt to pit all religions against all scientists. This is a false divide, however. It is an undeniable fact that many millions of religious people have concluded that evolution by natural selection is an enormously useful and elegant approach to understanding biology, including the study of human animals. This religious support of Darwin’s theory is clearly illustrated by stalwart scientists like Francis Collins and Kenneth Miller, who both happen to be religious.

Zimmerman founded the Clergy Letter Project to allow members of religious clergy to express their support for teaching evolution.

For too long, the misperception that science and religion are inevitably in conflict has created unnecessary division and confusion, especially concerning the teaching of evolution. I wanted to let the public know that numerous clergy from most denominations have tremendous respect for evolutionary theory and have embraced it as a core component of human knowledge, fully harmonious with religious faith.

How many members of the clergy have signed on as of today? More than 13,000.

There are actually three versions of the letter (Christian, Jewish and Unitarian Universalism). The Christian version declares that the “overwhelming majority” of Christians do not read the Bible “as they would a science textbook.” Therefore, for most Christians:

We believe that the theory of evolution is a foundational scientific truth, one that has stood up to rigorous scrutiny and upon which much of human knowledge and achievement rests. To reject this truth or to treat it as “one theory among others” is to deliberately embrace scientific ignorance and transmit such ignorance to our children. We believe that among God’s good gifts are human minds capable of critical thought and that the failure to fully employ this gift is a rejection of the will of our Creator. To argue that God’s loving plan of salvation for humanity precludes the full employment of the God-given faculty of reason is to attempt to limit God, an act of hubris. We urge school board members to preserve the integrity of the science curriculum by affirming the teaching of the theory of evolution as a core component of human knowledge. We ask that science remain science and that religion remain religion, two very different, but complementary, forms of truth.

At the Clergy Letter Project Website, you can even hear sermons in favor of Darwin.

At Huffpo, Michael Zimmerman uses this substantial religious support for the teaching of evolution by natural selection to combat claims by the Discovery Institute, and other creationists, that evolution supposedly pits science against religion:

I am completely opposed to them implying that all who are religious must agree with them. As I’ve said so often, the very existence of The Clergy Letter Project and the more than 13,000 clergy members who have affirmed that they are fully comfortable with both their faith and evolution makes a mockery of such ridiculous claims.

The next time you hear a creationist claiming that “God opposes evolution” or that “The Bible disproves evolution,” remind them that there are tens of thousands of sincere Christian clergy who treasure Darwin’s magnificent insights, and who serve as living proof that the fault-line of the controversy is not drawn between religion and science. Rather, the opposite sides of that fault-line are A) motivated ignorance and fear versus B) Well-informed, rigorous and skeptical scientific inquiry.

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