Pharyngula

If it’s quiet on Pharyngula today, it’s because I’m off at NDSU giving a talk to the Science, Religion and Lunch seminar, in the Meadow Lark Room in the NDSU Memorial Union (any Fargo residents out there?). The title of the talk is “Accommodation isn’t enough: why scientists need to speak out against religion”, and yes, I’m expecting to stimulate people to argue with me.

My central argument is that religion and science are incompatible ways of knowing: that important decisions should be made on the basis of reason and evidence, and religion fosters the abandonment of those principles. You might wonder what I propose to do about it, because religion seems to be a fixed element of our culture, one that will be impossible to eradicate, and in a progressive society that encourages independent thought, it would not even be desirable to stamp it out.

My answer is to compare it to another unstoppable universal that is tightly keyed in to human nature.

Top Ten Reasons Religion is Like Pornography

  1. It has been practiced for all of human history, in all cultures
  2. It exploits perfectly natural, even commendable, impulses
  3. Its virtues are debatable, its proponents fanatical
  4. People love it, but can’t give a rational reason for it
  5. Objectifies and degrades women even when it worships them
  6. You want to wash up after shaking hands with any of its leaders
  7. The costumes are outrageous, the performances silly, the plots unbelievable
  8. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying it, but it’s nothing to be proud of, either
  9. It is not a sound basis for public policy, government, or international relations
  10. Its stars are totally fake

Basically, I’m saying we ought to regard religion like we do other human foibles: regulate it, curb it’s excesses, shame those who overindulge, and for jebus’ sake, stop treating it like some exalted, privileged, glorious endeavor. Any idiot can be religious, after all, and many are.

Comments

  1. #1 Scott Hatfield
    October 3, 2006

    PZ:

    I’m afraid this sounds like the Dave Letterman ‘Top Ten’ list of your dreams. It will make good theatre, but unless you really specify *how* you would regulate it you’re going to end up generating more heat than light—not unlike pornography.

    BTW, some religious literature *is* pornography, after a fashion. The Kama Sutra comes to mind, as does The Song of Solomon, etc.

    Cordially…SH

  2. #2 coturnix
    October 3, 2006

    I always say that priesthood is the oldest profession…

  3. #3 raindogzilla
    October 3, 2006

    It’s great to see that Meadowlark Lemon is revered enough in North Dakota to have a meeting room named after him. I tend to view religion as more akin to recreational drug usage. It makes one feel good in moderation but too much will fry the mind. Perhaps we could get fundamentalism listed in the DSM-IV?

  4. #4 QrazyQat
    October 3, 2006

    I’d vote for Nina Hartley over any televangelist any November.

  5. #5 David Serhienko
    October 3, 2006

    Just my luck.

    I *finally* finish up school and *then* someone interesting comes to speak at NDSU.

    I suppose its too much to hope there will be an evening session?

  6. #6 George
    October 3, 2006

    I’m talking off the top of my head, but aren’t there parts of the Hindu religion that are full of porn?

    Then there’s all the Greek mythology that is full of humping, raping, sexual jealousy, etc.

  7. #7 Prufrock
    October 3, 2006

    Actually, it’s the *opponents* of pornography who are fanatical.

    The top three reasons pornography is a lot less insidious than religion:

    3. Pornography doesn’t discourage the use of contraception

    2. Pornography has never caused a war

    1. Pornographers are a lot more likely to practice what they preach.

  8. #8 Chili Pepper
    October 3, 2006

    >Top Ten Reasons Religion is Like Pornography

    It’s funny because it’s true.

  9. #9 Mark
    October 3, 2006

    Brilliant. Absolutely brilliant.

  10. #10 valhar2000
    October 3, 2006

    Funilly enough, both PZ and Prufrock are right…

  11. #11 BMurray
    October 3, 2006

    Both are most heinous when inflicted on children.

  12. #12 Bruce
    October 3, 2006

    regulate it

    Are you referring to enforcing the separation of church and state? Or something like an age limit on going to church (which would fit nicely with your pornography analogy)? Much of Christian mythology is pornographic, so maybe the bible should be sold in a plastic wrapper behind the counter?

  13. #13 Russell
    October 3, 2006

    Another similarity:

    11. Both are protected by the first amendment.

  14. #14 bpower
    October 3, 2006

    I don’t think attacking religion as a whole is the most productive strategy. Why not take it issue by issue and fight for the rational side when the irrational raises it’s head in the public sphere? By attacking religion itself you’re alienating moderate believers who should be allies in the very real battles you face now and will in the future.

  15. #15 Alexandra
    October 3, 2006

    Or something like an age limit on going to church

    …you are charged with contributing to the fundamentalism of a minor, how do you plead?

    Yeah, that works for me.

  16. #16 Warren
    October 3, 2006

    Don’t forget that in both religion and porn, the major players are often naked.

  17. #17 jfs
    October 3, 2006

    I’m afraid you’re going to have to be a lot more clear on what you mean by “regulate”, PZ. The wingnuts are going to read loads of bullshit into that — you know, the usual “liberals want to ban the Bible” crap.

    I think I know what you mean by it, but you really can’t just hand red meat like that to the rabid religious crazies.

  18. #18 Greg
    October 3, 2006

    PZ, it was great to meet you today at NDSU. Sorry I could not join you for lunch. Hope Juano’s was good and the discussion more vigorous.

    I didn’t get a chance to ask you this in the Meadow Lark room, so I’ll ask here. What, specifically, would you like scientists to do to oppose religion? In particular, what can academic scientists do? I certainly cannot bring the issue into my classroom as it would be deemed inappropriate, rightly so. In what forums and what ways should we be speaking out against religion, as scientists?

  19. #19 Greg
    October 3, 2006

    Oh, by the way, it would seem in every religious context, the Golden Rule only applies to those who believe the same. Those with alternative beliefs are somehow less than human, thus they are no longer ‘others’ to which one must do unto.

  20. #20 Hugh
    October 3, 2006

    Any chance that the talk will be posted online?

  21. #21 Dianne
    October 3, 2006

    I don’t know if this counts as “regulation”, but how about starting by getting rid of some of the privileges religions currently have? For example, get rid of the tax exempt status, regulate them in the same way as any other business, don’t allow them to receive government funds if they discriminate, etc.

  22. #22 Peter McGrath
    October 3, 2006

    …and in both cases, the money shot’s a fake.

    See ya in hell!

  23. #23 Steve_C
    October 3, 2006

    12. The stars also have incredibly bad hairstylists.

  24. #24 Andy Groves
    October 3, 2006

    2 questions:

    1. Why do you think people choose to hold religious beliefs?

    2. When you say

    that important decisions should be made on the basis of reason and evidence

    What sorts of decisions do you have in mind? Do you think there’s a class of decisions that all religious people make without recourse to reason and evidence, or does it vary from person to person (or denomination to denomination)?

  25. #25 Righteous Bubba
    October 3, 2006

    7. People love it, but can’t give a rational reason for it

    “It gives me a boner” is irrational?

  26. #26 hoody
    October 3, 2006

    I don’t think attacking religion as a whole is the most productive strategy. Why not take it issue by issue and fight for the rational side when the irrational raises it’s head in the public sphere? By attacking religion itself you’re alienating moderate believers who should be allies in the very real battles you face now and will in the future.

    Because for PZ, this isn’t about rational discourse. It’s about destroying something he does not believe in so he can focus untrammelled effort into things he DOES believe in.

  27. #27 Steve_C
    October 3, 2006

    You know what. The moderates need to get a grip then.

    If you can’t defend something because it’s REALITY, because it’s TRUE, then take your offended moderation somewhere else.

    Get over it. You are the enablers of the fundies. Not us.

  28. #28 fyreflye
    October 3, 2006

    Richard Dawkins must be green with envy. PZ’s finally out-snarked him.

  29. #29 raindogzilla
    October 3, 2006

    13. Because the soundtracks to both are crap.

    “…you are charged with contributing to the fundamentalism of a minor, how do you plead?”

    Now, can we please go round up Becky Fischer?

  30. #30 raindogzilla
    October 3, 2006

    13. Because the soundtracks to both are crap.

    “…you are charged with contributing to the fundamentalism of a minor, how do you plead?”

    Now, can we please go round up Becky Fischer?

  31. #31 Millimeter Wave
    October 3, 2006

    I don’t think attacking religion as a whole is the most productive strategy. Why not take it issue by issue and fight for the rational side when the irrational raises it’s head in the public sphere?

    But “religion as a whole” is irrational. That’s the whole point. Religion is fundamentally based on belief without evidence aka faith, and therefore definitionally not rational.

  32. #32 Stan
    October 3, 2006

    Well, I know some pornographers who would not like having their work compared to religion. In any event, I think pornography is a much more nobel endeavor.

  33. #33 Andy Groves
    October 3, 2006

    But “religion as a whole” is irrational.

    So does that make it intrinsically bad? People do irrational things all the time, some of them bad and others not. I would hate to see us turn into a world of Mr. Spocks. Where’s the fun in that?

  34. #34 Millimeter Wave
    October 3, 2006

    So does that make it intrinsically bad?

    No, but it makes it at odds with science.

    Sure, we do indeed do things for reasons that we can’t easily rationalize (let’s say, white-water rafting or scuba diving). Religion is in a different category from these things, though, because it claims to be a way of knowing. It claims to be able to impart truth.

    That’s not to say that it should be banned or regulated; but it should be called out.

  35. #35 George
    October 3, 2006

    I don’t think attacking religion as a whole is the most productive strategy.

    Should we just attack the really nutty religions and leave the moderately nutty religions alone?

    I have a hard time telling the diference between fundie evangelicals and the catholic/protestant types anymore. They all hide behind a wall of ignorance that no amount of reason can penetrate. They all pray to a non-existent deity, which is complete silliness. They all support vast infrastructures, including educational institutions, that are designed to prop up their stupid hierarchies and belief systems.

    All religion is a crock and it all should be attacked, denomination by denomination, or en masse. The religious mentality shold be criticized too.

  36. #36 MartinM
    October 3, 2006

    “It gives me a boner” is irrational?

    …asked the Catholic priest.

  37. #37 TFox
    October 3, 2006

    This is really pretty funny. And I say that as one who likes both religion and pornography…

    What is the likelihood that sexual and religious impulses actually involve the same pathways? I know there’s a fair bit understood about sex, but is there anything known about the biochemical basis of religion?

  38. #38 Interrobang
    October 3, 2006

    So is amateur porn like unorganised religion? I see an angle here — First Church of the Home-Video Nooky…

  39. #39 suirauqa
    October 3, 2006

    Scott Hatfield, shame on you! 🙂 Don’t debase the Kama Sutra by calling it a ‘religious text’! It preaches exactly what it says it does, and there is no ambiguity involved or need for any special interpretation, which is more than what I can say about most religious texts.

    I read an intriguing piece on NY Times Sunday Magazine this just-past Sunday. The article talks about a book, The Blessing of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children, by a Los Angeles clinical psychologist named Wendy Mogel. She was born in a non-practising Jewish family and raised an atheist. She says in the book that she found her training as a psychologist useful but insufficient to deal with various clinical situations she encountered in children, and that she found excellent help from the laws and teachings of old Jewish texts. I did not agree with all of what she says, but I urge my fellow Pharyngulaphiles to read it, because it contains a perspective of religious teachings that is largely ignored by most overtly-religious zealots today.

    George said, “I’m talking off the top of my head, but aren’t there parts of the Hindu religion that are full of porn?” George, if you would care to define what these ‘parts’ are, I would be happy to tell you exactly what they mean, in a larger context.

  40. #40 George
    October 3, 2006

    Googling yielded this little summary (I won’t provide the link, because there are ads at the top with boobs in them):

    “Tantra is a type of Hinduism that treats sexuality as a path to spiritual enlightenment and utilizes pornographic aids.

    Hindu deities exist in male-female pairs. Shiva-Parvati are among the most highly respected Hindu god-goddess pairs. Paintings of Shiva and Parvati in explicit sexual poses adorn temples and houses throughout the Hindu world. Hindus primarily worship Shiva-Parvati as “Shiva-Lingam” – a phallic symbol penetrating a symbol of the goddess’ vagina. It is worshipped, erotically enough, by pouring milk over the phallus.

    Far from fearing, denigrating or despising “hardcore” sexuality, Hinduism embraces it. Many Hindu temples throughout India are literally covered with pornography. Sculptures of sex acts that would intrigue and arouse even today’s most experienced porn lover abundantly adorn the walls of these holy, spiritual places.

    Hinduism also produced humanity’s first (and probably best) guidebook to sexuality: the Kama Sutra. Hindu scripture depicts entire planets in heaven that are essentially cosmic strip clubs and brothels populated by indescribably beautiful prostitutes called “Apsaras” and led by the famous demi-goddess Urvashi.

    Krishna is generally counted as the penultimate Hindu deity (the “Supreme God”). Scripture’s copious depiction of Krishna’s love life (sometimes quite erotic and intimate) would inspire any modern porn star or producer and quite probably revolutionize their spiritual lives as well.”

    Hmmmm. I guess religion IS like pornography.

  41. #41 Andy Groves
    October 3, 2006

    No, but it makes it at odds with science.[….]. Religion is in a different category from these things, though, because it claims to be a way of knowing. It claims to be able to impart truth.

    I don’t regard religion at odds with science – or at least the scientific method. I think it is irrelevant to the scientific method, which is a different thing. I also question the unspoken implication of your idea that religion is a way of knowing about everything or imparts truth about everything (if this was not your intention, apologies). While I accept that some religious people believe their religion tells them something about science or the natural world, I don’t think that’s a universal feature of religion. I think many religious people would say that their religion gives them “knowledge” or “truth” (to use your words) about things that science cannot answer for them – such as why they are here, or whether their life has a purpose or meaning. I don’t see a problem with that.

    That’s where I, as an atheist, part company with PZ. Although there are clearly many cases of where religious belief is harmful, I don’t view it as intrinsically harmful. Part of the reason I think this is that I grew up in Britain, where the political excesses of religious leaders are dwarfed by what goes on over here. I regard the sort of faith typified by the Church of England as essentially harmless, and if it makes people feel better to have that faith, fine.

  42. #42 Nicholas Lawrence
    October 3, 2006

    Andy Groves asked PZ:

    1. Why do you think people choose to hold religious beliefs?

    2. (a) When you say that important decisions should be made on the basis of reason and evidence, what sorts of decisions do you have in mind? (b) Do you think there’s a class of decisions that all religious people make without recourse to reason and evidence, or does it vary from person to person (or denomination to denomination)?

    Apologies, PZ, if you’ve decided these questions are best ignored. OTOH, possible answers would be

    1. Usually, they don’t. They accept what their parents told them. Sometimes, they have the delusion that a god speaks to them. Sometimes, they choose to label as religious the feelings of awe we all get when we see a sunrise or [fill in your own fave porn scene, Schubert quartet, whatever].

    2.(a) All important decisions, including what wine to drink tonight, who to marry, how to help oppressed people remove evil dictators, who wrote the gospels and whether they are reliable, and whether homosexuality just is, or is wicked. (b) Yes, all decisions based solely on a supposedly sacred book or a supposedly divinely inspired ‘authority’. These vary hugely from person to person and sect to sect.

  43. #43 NBarnes
    October 3, 2006

    13. Because the soundtracks to both are crap.

    Oh, now it’s on. If there’s one good thing that the Catholics have given the world, it’s some kickass liturgical music and hymns, along with some nice architecture and frescoes. You have have my Requiem Mass when you pry it from my cold, stiff MP3 folder.

  44. #44 PZ Myers
    October 3, 2006

    But, Andy, where do you get the idea from this post that I’m proposing anything other than tolerance for religion? Do you think I’m some bluenosed anti-porn crusader, so I’m out to throw copies of Hustler and the Bible on a bonfire?

    The end of my talk was a request for perspective: religion is something people should be free to indulge in, but it ought not to be a standard requirement for public service, and there’s one thing scientists need to do more often about religion: laugh at it.

  45. #45 PZ Myers
    October 3, 2006

    NBarnes: gone to a megachurch lately? Listened to any Christian Rock? They’ve thrown away their musical heritage for howling crap.

  46. #46 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 3, 2006

    “Scott Hatfield, shame on you! 🙂 Don’t debase the Kama Sutra by calling it a ‘religious text’!”

    Not only isn’t it religious, it is science. 🙂 Kama Sutra seems to be a scholarly “technical” text in the tradition Kama Shastra, the science of love.

    “Kamasutram, generally known to the Western world as Kama Sutra, is an ancient Indian text on human sexual behavior, widely considered to be the standard work on love in Sanskrit literature. The text was composed by Vatsyayana, as a brief summary of various earlier works belonging to a tradition known generically as Kama Shastra, the science of love. Kama is literally desire. Sutra signifies a thread, or discourse threaded on a series of aphorisms. Sutra was a standard term for a technical text, thus also the Yogasutram of Patanjali.” (Wikipedia.)

    14. There is distance access 24/7.

  47. #47 Cruella
    October 3, 2006

    This made me laugh a lot. So much I linked to it from my blog. Nice one. Cru

  48. #48 Scott Hatfield
    October 3, 2006

    TL, suiraqua: I meant no offense. Perhaps I should have used the term ‘erotica’ rather the (ahem) arousing choice of ‘pornography.’

    George’s post above, however, essentially support my position. The Kama Sutra is more than just a ‘sex manual’. It is guide for right living that emphasized the importance to men and women of the mastery of various arts, including the erotic ones, in order to complete themselves as persons, as marriage partners, and as members of a community that strove for certain values–among them religious ones. It is said that practice of the Kama Sutra at its highest level was intended to promote states of intense joy akin to meditation and to provoke a sense of the unity with the divine. Which (ahem) may well be why so many people cry out the name of the deity when they experience ‘le petit mort.’

    In any case, I definitely meant no offense. After all, I cited my own religion’s contribution to erotica, the ‘Song of Songs’…..SH

  49. #49 Mena
    October 3, 2006

    #14(?):
    “Oh God, oh God, oh God, oh God!”

  50. #50 Caledonian
    October 3, 2006

    It would have been nice if you had spoken the truth that religious thought isn’t a way of knowing at all. It’s a way of asserting – that is all.

  51. #51 Millimeter Wave
    October 3, 2006

    I also question the unspoken implication of your idea that religion is a way of knowing about everything or imparts truth about everything (if this was not your intention, apologies).

    No, that’s not what I was implying. My problem with religion, as stated above, is that it teaches that one can acquire truth by divine revelation, and that “truth” must be accepted on faith.

    Part of the reason I think this is that I grew up in Britain, where the political excesses of religious leaders are dwarfed by what goes on over here. I regard the sort of faith typified by the Church of England as essentially harmless, and if it makes people feel better to have that faith, fine.

    I grew up in Britain too… and was brought up C of E. For sure, religious excesses of politicians in the UK are more or less nonexistent, and their political survival pretty much depends on that.

    Nonetheless, I don’t regard the C of E type of faith as being harmless merely because adherents have a tendency to temporarily abandon faith based answers when dealing with most “real life” rational questions; it still teaches that there is revealed truth from divine sources that may not be questioned. Even in the C of E case, I’ve never encountered anybody in the church who took kindly to any sort of searching questions. It’s just not polite to say such things.

    I think this is what PZ is getting at, too: it isn’t about banning or regulating religion, as I stated in the last line of my earlier post. It’s about calling it out and recognizing it for what it is. There is no reason for religion to be afforded the privileged status it frequently claims for itself.

  52. #52 Tyler DiPietro
    October 3, 2006

    Now I know what has replaced religion for me. It was porn.

  53. #53 John Pexton
    October 3, 2006

    PZ – it was a great seminar – once again thanks for taking the time to come up and visit with us at NDSU.

  54. #54 Arun
    October 3, 2006

    Actually, science and religion are very compatible modes of thinking. Both provide explanations. Both attempt to make the world intelligible. Science could start only in a religious culture. Of course, science started by providing superior explanations, and has outgrown its religious roots, where we understand that some things cannot be explained (e.g., what is the meaning of life is a religious, not scientific question).

    It is not true that religion is a cultural universal. If Christianity is a religion, then the ancient Greeks did not have religion. Nor do the Hindus. Unless you want to use religion as a meaningless, grabbag word that means whatever you want it to mean.
    It is a theological idea, not an empirical truth, that all cultures have religion.

    Even something like the notion of a “self” that is distinct from that “self’s” actions, which probably an atheist like PZ Myers subscribes to, is a theological idea, and is not a universal. E.g., the self is defined in part by beliefs. But there have been cultures where the self is nothing more and nothing less than the sum total of the person’s actions.

  55. #55 fontor
    October 3, 2006

    Porn is better than religion.

    At least there are laws against involving children in porn.

  56. #56 Russell
    October 4, 2006

    Arun writes, “Science could start only in a religious culture.”

    That’s a curious thesis. I’m not sure how one would test this, since virtually all cultures prior the modern era have been religious.

    “It is not true that religion is a cultural universal. If Christianity is a religion, then the ancient Greeks did not have religion.”

    I don’t understand this at all. First, it contradicts your previous thesis. Science started in ancient Greece. Second, the Greeks took the gods quite seriously. The Parthenon was built as a temple to the patron goddess of Athens. Socrates was executed for his impiety. It’s a pretty narrow view of religion that doesn’t count this as religion.

  57. #57 Andy Groves
    October 4, 2006

    But, Andy, where do you get the idea from this post that I’m proposing anything other than tolerance for religion

    From the bit where you write “Basically, I’m saying we ought to regard religion like we do other human foibles: regulate it, curb it’s excesses, shame those who overindulge….”

  58. #58 Jolf_Moosenhoeger
    October 4, 2006

    Your post is an insult to pornography!

    My guess is that pornography has given more people more pleasure than religion ever did.

  59. #59 Torbjörn Larsson
    October 4, 2006

    Scott:
    “Which (ahem) may well be why so many people cry out the name of the deity when they experience ‘le petit mort.'”

    Heh! AFAIK they have seen that during orgasm the higher centras of the brain stop working and you are not thinking rationally. So if you feel connected to a divinity then, who am I to deny you? 😉

    I may have practised Kama Sutra (at least I have tried 🙂 but I haven’t read the book. Wikipedia refuses to describe it as a religious work with ties to hinduism or tantra, but suggests it is secular with ties to poetry. Tantra is claimed to be connected to many religions, contrary to the description George found.

    “Vatsyayana claims the various major works of Kama Shastra had become difficult to access, which is why he undertook to collect and summarize them in Kama Sutra. … However, only about 20 percent of the book is devoted to sexual positions. The remainder gives guidance on how to be a good citizen and insights into men and women in relationships.”

    “In Indian literature, Kamashastra refers to the tradition of works on erotics. It therefore has a practical orientation, similar to that of Arthashastra, the tradition of texts on politics, government etc. Just as the former instructs kings and ministers about government, Kamashastra aims at instructing the townsman (nāgarika) the way to attain sexual pleasure and fulfillment….

    One of the reasons for interest in these ancient sex manuals is their intimate connection with Sanskrit ornate poetry (Kāvya). The poets were supposed to be proficient in the Kamashastra. The entire approach to love and sex in Kāvya poetry is governed by the Kamashastra.”

    “Tantra (Sanskrit: “weave” denoting continuity[1]), tantric yoga, or tantrism is one of any several esoteric traditions rooted in the religions of India. It exists in Hindu, Bönpo, Buddhist, and Jain forms.”

  60. #60 Peter McGrath
    October 4, 2006

    In both religion and porn someone else is needed to resurrect the – ahem – dead.

  61. #61 Ginger Yellow
    October 4, 2006

    “Nonetheless, I don’t regard the C of E type of faith as being harmless merely because adherents have a tendency to temporarily abandon faith based answers when dealing with most “real life” rational questions; it still teaches that there is revealed truth from divine sources that may not be questioned. Even in the C of E case, I’ve never encountered anybody in the church who took kindly to any sort of searching questions. It’s just not polite.”

    While CofE Anglicanism is in itself pretty harmless, I’ve noticed that its wishy washiness tends to encourage people to go along with all sorts of New Age rubbish. When you’ve got a fundamentalist or doctrinaire (eg Catholicism, Calvinism) theology, you tend to frown on that sort of thing. People in middle Britain are remarkably (given Brits’ vaunted level headedness) susceptible to anti-scientific scares, fads and beliefs like MMR-phobia, homeopathy, Bible Codes, and of course astrology. Belief in these things is far from harmless.

  62. #62 Duane Tiemann
    October 4, 2006

    >Arun 11:16 10/3: Of course, science started by providing superior explanations, and has outgrown its religious roots, where we understand that some things cannot be explained (e.g., what is the meaning of life is a religious, not scientific question).

    Actually, I think science or at least a science approach may have an answer there, in a sense. It’s just that most people don’t like the answer. The religious answers are clearly bogus.

    Meaning ends up being a personal choice. An expression of preference rather than a proven fact. From what we know of science, there is no basis for meaning other than we are what has evolved. We are left to construct our own meaning. We can’t logically use religion as an authority in the matter.

    Folks may not find that satisfying. That can’t be helped. It’s no excuse for latching onto baseless ideas and claiming some “knowledge” beyond the scope of science.

  63. #63 PZ Myers
    October 4, 2006

    Science is not the collection of explanations it generates. Science is a method.

    When we say evolution is the way life got here, the science is in the observations and experiments and analysis that led to that answer, not the answer itself.

    This is why I say religion and science are in conflict. Religion tries to provide answers while bypassing the rigor of science. It provides no method for assessing the validity of the answers it gives — you are just expected to take them on faith.

  64. #64 Blarg
    October 4, 2006

    Will a video or transcript ever be posted?

    Note that you (PZ that is) shoudl contact Richard Carrier sometime as I understand he has a nice readymade agreement for all of his speaking engagements that allows him to record and reproduce them as he likes. Very handy for making a video or writing an article later (Hint…hint…)

    Blarg!

  65. #65 PZ Myers
    October 4, 2006

    No video or transcript was made. I could put up the Keynote file, but it’s not going to be entirely comprehensible without my narration.

  66. #66 Caledonian
    October 4, 2006

    Science is not the collection of explanations it generates. Science is a method.

    This is wrong. Science has three parts: methodological theory, methodological practice, and findings. This is why we call teaching exercises that concern themselves almost entirely with the findings “science classes”.

  67. #67 Scott Hatfield
    October 4, 2006

    PZ, Caledonian, a few quick comments:

    Isn’t it true that in principle one could come to the same finding as a scientist by employing different (and probably not all that rational) methods? It seems to me that while it is certainly true that scientific claims/observations are a product of (and thus related to) science, that these outcomes are not in and of themselves distinctively ‘scientific’. What do you think about that?

    Second, do either of you two gentlemen feel that students are well-served by curriculums which ‘concern themselves almost entirely with findings’? Because I don’t!

    Looking forward to your replies…Scott

  68. #68 Chris
    October 4, 2006

    But don’t we all agree that they would be much better science classes if they *didn’t* concern themselves almost entirely with the findings? Isn’t that the majority of the criticism of science education by scientists? (Not to be confused with the criticism of science education by anti-scientists, who are quite happy to keep methodology out of it.)

    Perhaps it would be more precise to say that science is not *just* the collection of explanations it generates.

  69. #69 Russell
    October 4, 2006

    Chris writes, “But don’t we all agree that they would be much better science classes if they *didn’t* concern themselves almost entirely with the findings?”

    Every science course I took in high school, and in my first year of college, had a significant lab component. Some of the labs were better than others. But they all had labs, until I started taking upper level chemistry and physics. Maybe that’s the exception today. I don’t know.

  70. #70 ajay
    October 4, 2006

    It is not a sound basis for public policy, government, or international relations

    I’m not sure that it’s ever been tried…

    Cut to the United Nations!

    “My fellow delegates. I had an amazing experience yesterday which I just had to tell you about…”

  71. #71 Duane Tiemann
    October 4, 2006

    The topics of meaning, ethics, etc. are not exempt from rigor. They do not escape the bounds of reason, and hence the scope of science.

    The idea that science must pass on them so it’s fair for religion to be the authority is wrong.

    Rigor can be applied. What follows from what can be examined. The “ultimate” basis (or more likely, the lack thereof) is fair game as well.

    Russell’s teapot argument is relevant here.

  72. #72 Andy Groves
    October 4, 2006

    While CofE Anglicanism is in itself pretty harmless, I’ve noticed that its wishy washiness tends to encourage people to go along with all sorts of New Age rubbish. When you’ve got a fundamentalist or doctrinaire (eg Catholicism, Calvinism) theology, you tend to frown on that sort of thing. People in middle Britain are remarkably (given Brits’ vaunted level headedness) susceptible to anti-scientific scares, fads and beliefs like MMR-phobia, homeopathy, Bible Codes, and of course astrology. Belief in these things is far from harmless.

    I agree that many people in Britain accept the sort of faddish silliness that you describe, but you forget that the number of practising Anglicans is tiny compared to the number of people in Britain who believe this stuff. This is one of the points I’m trying to make – you can believe things that are irrational without having religious belief, and believing in such things may or may not be harmful, but is not intrinsically bad.

  73. #73 Andy Groves
    October 4, 2006

    PZ:

    Religion tries to provide answers while bypassing the rigor of science. It provides no method for assessing the validity of the answers it gives — you are just expected to take them on faith.

    I’ll ask you again – what sort of answers are religious people looking for? Are they the same answers as those that scientists are looking for? Can science tell you how to live your life, or tell you whether your life has meaning? Can science comfort you when you’re feeling lonely, depressed or bereaved?

  74. #74 PZ Myers
    October 4, 2006

    I find science very comforting, but I recognize that that is just me. So?

    What I am saying is that it is fine for people to comfort themselves with religion (or pornography). I’m not going to stop them…how would I? So go ahead, Andy, take solace in a bible, a dirty book, a bottle of whiskey, whatever.

    However, the real world is what is going to determine how to live your life. Sure, Miss September is gorgeous, even with the staples in her bellybutton, but you’ve also got to deal with real human beings, and they obey natural laws. You don’t get to declare to the woman of your dreams that “the bible tells me to do X, and you will do Y, and we’ll live happily ever after”…you have to hammer out the way you’ll live empirically.

    I’ll also add that the lies of religion would not comfort me or give my life meaning. Thing is, most religious people would say exactly the same thing…if the religion were something other than their own. It’s funny how that always works out. Swap someone’s Bible for a Koran, and they’ll get as upset and disgusted as if you’d taken away their copy of Juggs and made them look at gay porn.

  75. #75 Ginger Yellow
    October 4, 2006

    “I agree that many people in Britain accept the sort of faddish silliness that you describe, but you forget that the number of practising Anglicans is tiny compared to the number of people in Britain who believe this stuff.”

    If by practising you mean regularly attending church, maybe. But as I say, it is precisely in the areas where CofE aherence (whether church-going or not) is strongest that the (other) silly beliefs are most prevalent. The Daily Mail and the Telegraph are the house papers of Anglicanism and they are precisely the papers which propagate this nonsense the most (excluding the Express, which is just deranged).

    “This is one of the points I’m trying to make – you can believe things that are irrational without having religious belief, and believing in such things may or may not be harmful, but is not intrinsically bad.”

    This is of course true – few if any things are “intrinsically” bad on a secular basis, and of course not all beliefs that I or other “rationalists” hold are strictly rational. I’m just saying that Anglicanism isn’t harmless as was suggested, because it can create openings for other more harmful things that other, stricter, religious beliefs don’t. I’d far rather have Anglicanism predominant in a country than Southern Baptism, of course. But I’d much rather people approached empirical questions rationally.

  76. #76 Caledonian
    October 4, 2006

    Isn’t it true that in principle one could come to the same finding as a scientist by employing different (and probably not all that rational) methods?

    In principle, any finding could be attained by throwing enough dice with letters on the sides and trying to find meaningful combinations in the random noise. Your posts, however, provide a powerful demonstration that if a person is stupid enough, they will never produce an intelligent thought no matter how much nonsense they spout – in defiance of even the basic laws of probability.

  77. #77 Duane TIemann
    October 4, 2006

    Andy Groves 10/4 12:27> I’ll ask you again – what sort of answers are religious people looking for? Are they the same answers as those that scientists are looking for? Can science tell you how to live your life, or tell you whether your life has meaning? Can science comfort you when you’re feeling lonely, depressed or bereaved?

    Such things can be dealt with without resorting to fantasy. I don’t know that we can tell what religious people are looking for but one good source of clues might be what they’ve “found”. The truth claims of religion generally are contradicted or can be determined to be baseless via rigor.

    Scientific rigor can be applied to likely outcomes of various life strategies. That, blended with preferences, is a pretty good start. Better than religious hokum at any rate. Comfort, lonely, depressed, bereaved. Social clubs, psychology, friends. No requirement for mythology there.

    But a lot of folks won’t be satisfied with rigorous answers and friends. They may prefer the god solution. That doesn’t mean that they’ve just made a different choice; as good as any other. It means that they’re willing to sacrifice their integrity to get to their preferred answer. That’s a big no-no in science. And to my mind, anywhere.

  78. #78 suirauqa
    October 4, 2006

    Just to mention: Scott H, George and Torbjörn Larsson, thank you for your comments on the Kamasutra. I am quite speechless! Well, perhaps I would just add a little bynote here. Pornography is entertaining, but has a limited purpose. The eroticism and sexuality in the Hindu philosophy/religion – I think George mentioned this – are a means to an end, the endeavor to reach a higher state of mind, using the most basic instincts of the human physiology as a path. The sexuality becomes very important because Hinduism recognizes the transmissive-receptive or aggressive-passive duality of human psyche, from which the Chinese Yin Yang theory also originated, and therefore, the Godhood is also seen to manifest in male and female forms, both of which are held in equal esteem. In fact, this is why the Hindu pantheon has so many gods and goddesses!!

    Even if one does not believe in this religion, the Hindu theology can make a very compelling read, delving into these characters, their powers and foibles…

  79. #79 Keith Douglas
    October 5, 2006

    I don’t know much about the origin or motives behind the Kama Sutra but one thing to remember is that India did have secular philosophers and a wide variety of topics of literature, so …

    Scott Hatfield: It depends crucially on what you mean by “finding”. For example, the atomic hypothesis in some form or other was postulated in both Greece and India ~2500 years ago. Is this the same as the Boyle atomic hypothesis? The Dalton? The Bohr? Etc. How do we tell? Moreover, the advantage of many scientific findings is what I have mentioned before – consilience. It was difficult to integrate Democritus’ atoms with what Aristotle and others knew very well about living creatures. Mind you, in this case since so little was known generaly, I think one might have been correct to be agnostic on this issue. As physics, chemistry and biology improved, eventually Aristotle’s views (and even stronger, out-right immaterialist views, of course) became impossible to sustain. But note that this was a “growing together” not an out-an-out “oh, yeah, someone was exactly right all along.”

  80. #80 Violet Socks
    October 8, 2006

    Geez, people, you’re a few decades behind on your gender studies. The Kama Sutra is grotesquely sexist. It’s aimed at men. It teaches men how to live, how to have great sex, and so forth, and the only parts directed at women are instructions on how to be enjoyable and obedient partners to men. In the Kama Sutra world, women aren’t even considered to have souls.

    Rather scary that so-called educated men in the 21st century are still citing the Kama Sutra as the best guide to relationships ever written.

  81. #81 ChuckD
    October 16, 2006

    If you believe in evolution (and of course everyone should), in both genetics and culture, then the mere fact the religion has persisted for thousands of years should inspire a bit of humility. Perhaps your science cannot explain (yet) the persistence of relgious behavior, yet it persists. Its utility may lie in its ability to inspire self-sacrificial behavior for the benefit of the extended family, leading to selection of those families or groups in which the trait is stronger. Self-sacrifice may not appeal to us, as individuals, but then evolution is not concerned with the fate of individuals.
    Or it may be that a man and a woman who (freely) agree to the terms of the “traditional” marriage (whatever that means in a particular culture) are free to compete in society as a more effective economic actor when they don’t waste time and energy continually renegotiating their internal relationship.
    Regardless of the existence of deities, we may be better off acting as if we believe!
    (Now, personally, I examine the face in the mirror and detect a Christian believer. Whether or not that observation pleases me, it is an observation I cannot deny. It is entirely separate from standing under a starry sky and detecting God, which is not an objective truth.)

  82. #82 Caledonian
    October 16, 2006

    Perhaps your science cannot explain (yet) the persistence of relgious behavior, yet it persists.

    Beg pardon? Psychology really doesn’t struggle with that very much at all.

    Or it may be that a man and a woman who (freely) agree to the terms of the “traditional” marriage (whatever that means in a particular culture) are free to compete in society as a more effective economic actor when they don’t waste time and energy continually renegotiating their internal relationship.

    I haven’t known any successful relationships that didn’t involve continually renegotiating one’s position in them.

  83. #83 R. O'Brien
    October 16, 2006

    But a lot of folks won’t be satisfied with rigorous answers and friends. They may prefer the god solution. That doesn’t mean that they’ve just made a different choice; as good as any other. It means that they’re willing to sacrifice their integrity to get to their preferred answer. That’s a big no-no in science. And to my mind, anywhere.

    Dn:

    Th nly thng tht nnys m mr thn lw-wtt blb s <>prtnts lw-wtt blb.

  84. #84 Zing!
    October 16, 2006

    The only thing that annoys me more than a low-watt bulb is a pretentious low-watt bulb.

    R. O’Brien:

    Then you must be continually annoyed at yourself.

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