Mangling science and history to the benefit of religion

Chris Clarke brought this strangely twisted article to my attention. It starts out just fine, pointing out that the Intelligent Design assault on science is based on nothing but incredulity, and has the sweeping goal of destroying naturalism—not just one theory in biology, but the whole scientific shebang. The author is against all that, which is good…thanks, Cynthia, we appreciate your support. Now if only she'd just ended it there at the two-thirds mark.

The last third is peculiar. She seems to be less interested in strong science than in strengthening religion, and the reason she's arguing against ID is purely on the Augustinian principle that backing foolish statements about the natural world makes the religious look foolish.

A more effective way to bolster religious belief than attacking Darwin is to remember that religion addresses questions that are completely beyond the range of science. The meaning of life, the nature of good conduct, the nature of the human soul: Science is not set up to deal with any of these.

Is religion?

Science isn't set up to deal with the Great Ju-Ju, the lares and penates, or Atlantean spirit-guides, either—because they don't exist. The religious are free to invent non-existent phenomena all they want, but saying that science doesn't deal in imaginary nonsense isn't exactly a flaw.

As for the nature of good conduct, we don't need religion to support that idea, and I see no reason why non-supernatural processes require metaphysical rationalizations.

This is why religion remains so potent -- and, I think, so positive -- a force in modern America. It alone provides answers to the hardest questions we all face. In a health crisis, we want help from a doctor who practices medicine in a completely rational and scientific manner. But our prayers that this medicine helps go to a supernatural being, not to the doctor.

Urk. That casual equation of medicine with prayer is simply creepy. In a health crisis, we need help from a doctor; prayer is superfluous and useless. Religion remains potent because so many refuse to acknowledge its impotence.

The essay is about to hit bottom. The author decides to compare Darwin to that other fellow who shares a birthday with him, and starts praising Lincoln's spirituality.

Lincoln could never have accomplished the great tasks before him, nor inspired others to stay the course through so many defeats, disappointment and death, without recourse to ideas imbued with the deepest spirituality. Whether he declared that "this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom" or called on his fellow Northerners to press on to victory "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right," he clearly saw the unique wisdom and power embodied in the great truths of religion -- wisdom certainly different from scientific wisdom, but equally certainly, just as valuable.

This, most of us would agree, is religion at its best: providing spiritual comfort, psychological strength, moral direction and righteous inspiration.

In this realm, evolution -- wonderful job that it does in explaining the natural world -- cannot compete with religion. In its own "ballpark," religion, as Lincoln knew, wins every time. It's only when it strays into the other guy's stadium that it sets itself up for inevitable loss and disappointment.

Uh-oh. Somebody needs to look up the actual beliefs of Lincoln, rather than just making them up as she goes along.

Lincoln was a deist and freethinker. He paid token deference to religion because he was well aware that he could not win office as a man who rejected Christianity. That puts that last paragraph in a different light: he knew that religion's "ballpark" was bigotry and intolerance, and that he had to avoid challenging it.

It's the 21st century. I think it's about time we started challenging.

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I suspect that Ronald Reagan suffered from a similar disconnect when he referred to himself as "the Gipper" and seemed genuinely unable to separate the fact that he once pretended to be a famous football coach on celluloid from the reality that he never, actually, did any of the things this great man did in real life.

By melior in France (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Exactly. It continues to baffle me that all these religious zealots are claiming there's all this extreme religion in our past as a nation.

Actually, it doesn't baffle me, because it's just a subversive tactic to make people rethink everything they've ever known under the aegis that it "might" have been false, and has all come about under false pretenses. This tactic is the worst kind of evil that the hard-right is perpetrating, because it confuses people and sets society's forward progress into serious derailment.

Nonetheless, Lincoln always seems to be the guy they fall back on when they're losing real arguments. But maybe this shouldn't surprise us. They take everything in the Bible at face value (ahem, Mr. Ham), so it should only be logical for us to assume they take dead leaders' words at face value as well. For example, if a Taoist utters the word 'God', he simply must be speaking of the Christian God, right?

By BlueIndependent (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

From the article:
According to intelligent design -- both its nonscientific supporters and the few fully credentialed scientists who also support it -- there are times when diversity is just too diverse, complexity just too complex, for the explanation solely to be natural selection. The examples most often cited include unexpected biological novelty in the fossil record and the existence of so-called "junk" DNA. If life were really informed by natural selection alone, says intelligent design, these examples should never exist. And yet they do. Therefore, there must have been something (or someone) that (or who) stepped in and, for whatever reason, "designed" them.

Haha. That's funny, because Junk DNA is an argument against intelligent design, and here it is being treated as an arguement for it!

"But nobody's rushing to insist on "disclaimers" prior to teaching say, the Big Bang."

Can we say, Deutsch?

"And if the day comes when a future scientist explains "junk" DNA..." What's to explain?

"The meaning of life, the nature of good conduct, the nature of the human soul." Since it has a nature, it is therefore in the realm of science, is it not?

I was watching the Corral Ridge Hour last night, and the name of Christian dominionist Dr. D. James Kennedy's sermon was "Was Lincoln A Christian?" In it, he answered the question in the affirmative, stating although Lincoln was not a Christian for most of his life, he became one after his son William died, because a preacher from New York named Dr. Vincent told him that his son was still alive in heaven.

Further more, Kennedy also claimed that Lincoln in response to a letter written by an Illinois clergyman, who had asked Lincoln if he loved Jesus, Lincoln had written that he had become a Christian after giving the Gettysburg Address and looking out over the many white crosses that dotted the land before him.

Now, I normally don't consider Kennedy a reliable purveyor of information, but does anyone know if either of these claims have any veracity?

Just curious, but what is philosophy's "ballpark" supposed to be? I thought it was morals and meaning. Seems to me that religion just has a smaller field inside the big stadium, one where people can stand and assert facts about reality which can't be checked against anything in the world. The entire claim that religion has moral authority rests on whether they're right about how the world is set up. It's not just about morals and meaning.

Religion has "truthiness." It comforts people and gives them a quick, easy, thought-free basis to justify all those reasonable morals and meanings which they actually arrived at through living as human beings in relationship with others, same as everyone else.

But it also gives them an easy way to justify those morals and meanings that make no sense to anyone but them. Then they get to back it all up by invoking the authority of God.

Please Note: The Gipper was a Notre Dame PLAYER, not a coach. Knute Rockne was the coach. Coach Rockne was the one that reportedly inspired his team at halftime to "Win one for the Gipper" In the speech Rockne references his former player George Gipp that had died recently. ( I have heard stories that it was from excessive drinking and whoring by Gipp, but that's those damn USC babies talking IMO).

HTH

Lincoln's personal beliefs and use of religion comprise a minor theme of Gore Vidal's "Lincoln". Great book for those who enjoy historical fiction.

It alone provides answers to the hardest questions we all face.

What religion provides is not an answer to any such questions, but the promise that there is an answer to them. That many are satisfied by such religious assurances is undeniable, but that still does not make them actual answers.

By David Wilford (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

"It's the 21st century. I think it's about time we started challenging."

I agree completely. More than anything, I worry that we've left it too late.

The destructive influence of religion has had enormous costs throughout history. I once half-jokingly said that if it wasn't for religion, we would today be near-immortals living on a paradise planet, reading books written by gene-engineered elephants and watching Oprah interview intelligent chimpanzees on Mars. As it is, we're only HERE, where somebody's kid actually starved to death last night, and where the proudest life-accomplishment of the leader of the most powerful nation on the planet was the starting up of a killing machine â a war.

I think we live in an enormously dark moment in history. Sure we all drive around in cars, and we have modern medicine and fast food and iPods, but ... when I think about where things could be, should be (considering how it took a mere 200 years for science to revolutionize civilization, but also considering how many tens of thousands of years it took to come up with it), it looks to me more like we're all walking around on broken legs ... but because we donât know any different, we think it's NORMAL. If everybody else has broken legs, nobody has any idea what it might feel like to be healthy, or to run.

Reading that thing here a few days ago on Christian leg-breaker Ken Ham was nightmarish (and I mean that, in the sense that itâs one of those bad dreams where things happen that you know could be stopped, but you have to stand there helpless while they happen), but not as ugly as reading another article a few weeks back that talked about a strategy meeting of eager Christian chiliasts who are actually working hard to make their "end times" prophecies come true.

Atheists I've known over the course of my lifetime have always pooh-poohed the idea of evangelism to spread disbelief and rationality, but ... I really don't see that we have any choice.

Religion/irrationality is eating us alive, it seems to me. Weâve already lost so much.

Religion has played a major role in this country's history, and to state otherwise is a matter of historical ignorance. The argument made by many modern fundamentalists that the nations founders were as enthusiastic religionists as themselves is utterly false. Jefferson and Madison, both deists had enough sense to understand the dangers of sectarian conflict. Christian imagery was infused into the American culture by the time Lincoln became president, so it is not surprise to hear him use symbols that would resonate with his audience. As PZ says (I paraphrase), he would have been an idiot not to.

I understand many readers of this site are not fans of religion, and neither am I to be honest. I have a bit of a masochistic streek that brings me to study the subject. I guess the take away message from all of this is that religious (christian) zealots seem to be incapable of honest critical inquiry, even in the subject of religious history, due to their narrow self-referential world view.

Atheists I've known over the course of my lifetime have always pooh-poohed the idea of evangelism to spread disbelief and rationality, but ... I really don't see that we have any choice.

I don't see it as 'science vs. religion' as much as scientific discoveries making certain classes of religious claims untenable, in particular those claims that rest on natural theology. Most rational human beings when given the opportunity to evaluate the evidence will do so fairly, and it is that sensibility which can be appealed to. I think the key is to not discount anyone's desire for answers to life's persistent questions, but to gently if firmly disabuse them of unfounded assumptions.

By David Wilford (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

It alone provides answers to the hardest questions we all face.

I have come to see this as the most stupid of statement. Even if one grants Christianity has the answer instead of a myriad of other religions pick any single topic and try to find a coherent 100% agreed upon tenet in the religon.

It seems to me anything that proclaims the answer to such issues shouldbe clear to all or it is not really an answer so much as simply more discussion of the idea. And if its that then why bring any supernatural underpinning in at all.

The religiosity during the civil war was indeed up. God, of course, was working for both sides if the propoganda of each is to be believed. It is also the first time that I recall that 'In God We Trust' appeared on our coinage.

By John M. Price (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

I've never met a philosopher who wasn't eminently capable of whittling down an argument to its base reasoning.

If philosophers are so empowered, and philosophy is such a stake to the heart for religion, then why hasn't it been successfully used yet? Why is it scientists who must battle ID and the only ones going beyond this to attack religion? Why haven't the philosophers stepped up to the plate to let us know how destructive irrational (and even thoughtless) belief has been?

I sympathize with PZ and the philosophers' comments, but I'm not sure I can answer my own question. The removal of a supportive religion is tough enough on a well-educated, thinking man. Do we really have what is necessary to replace God for the working man? For children? I tend to think there are at least a couple reasons why philosophers aren't so eager to enter the public sphere (neglecting a couple Christianity vs. Philosophy "debates" every once in a while)

1) Philosophers know something we don't about what happens when you remove God
2) They don't want to lose precarious funding
3) They're too old to care (or old enough to know better about trying)

When I was a Christian, no one ever asked the questions that made me eventually give it up (maybe we all thought it would be an affront to those of weaker faith?). It was sort of assumed that we'd all "moved on" from those clearly trivial problems. Even now, I've never discussed my new positions with others. Has the elephant in the room just changed color?

What do you think?

By Hugechavz (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hugechavz, check out Daniel C. Dennett for a philosopher who has stepped up to the plate to counter religion's pitches.

By David Wilford (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Lincoln could never have accomplished the great tasks before him, nor inspired others to stay the course through so many defeats, disappointment and death, without recourse to ideas imbued with the deepest spirituality.

I dunno. My favorite Lincoln quote (possibly apocryphal), "I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky," seems to speak to a certain pragmatism that favors actual facts over hopeful speculation.

By Sean Foley (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

We don't have anything to "replace God for the working man." That's the point. When you stop believing in Santa Claus, you don't replace him with anyone. When you take the pacifier out of your mouth, you don't put another object back in. Unless you're dumb enough to get sucked in by Bill O'Reilly et al.

I know a few of "working men" (i.e., blue collar men and women) who aren't religious, so it's not a question of who the poor little peasants will follow when it's hard enough for the elite to think for themselves (and does it ever occur to people that we poor little peasants probably think for ourselves more than the elites believe that we do?).

PZ

It's the 21st century. I think it's about time we started challenging.

With snark on weblogs?

Presented with a golden opportunity to challenge religion and religiously-inspired bullcrap infiltrating classrooms, PZ, you recently put your tail between your legs and ran away.

So, uh, what's the deal?

I'm talking about the Wisconsin "Honesty in Science Education" bill.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Fleshing out my idea of proselytizing, the concept is more along the lines of "Get them disbelieving in silly religious ideas first -- as a matter of faith, if necessary -- and then come back and fill in the rational foundation later."

If some people are going to "believe" in some stuff as a matter of faith anyway, why not proselytize them to believe in the REAL stuff? It has the advantage that the day they want the evidence to back up their initial perhaps-naive acceptance, it will be there.

Anybody who thinks rationality and science can't be sold the same way we sell Cokes and Nikes, and the way that godders sell irrationality, every damned second of the day, with some of the most powerful communication/propaganda tools known to man, is missing out on an immense lever for making a positive difference.

How many pro-religion tracts, advertisements, and passing references have you seen in the past week alone? How many have you gotten in your very own mailbox in the past year?

Yet how many anti-religion advertisements have you seen IN YOUR LIFETIME? The answer is probably zero. Sure, there are books out there, but not one of them has any traction in PUSHING the message, in the same way religion is pushed. (Who does reason and science have with a media voice as loud as that of Pat Robertson? And Robertson is an absolute freakin? NUT.)

Being a-religious is, even today, almost as closeted as being gay was in the 1950s. There might be a few flamboyant figures out there, but the average atheist keeps it to himself and talks about it only in strict privacy. With the result being that the large majority of people think atheism is not only insupportable, but something polite people don't talk about.

For instance, there are a number of blatantly-gay actors out there today, but not one blatantly-atheistic actor. Likewise, there are a certain number of mainstream media pipelines that will allow gay voices to be broadcast at the public, but there are NO mainstream media pipelines (in the U.S., anyway) that will carry an anti-gods message.

Yes, yes, and yes, science and reason WORK only because people who do them labor hard and carefully at them. And there is no substitute for the learning, the thinking and experimentation, the ceaseless effort, that makes science and reason what it is.

BUT ... for those people who don't do science, who don't do reason, and who right now have the choice of more-or-less blindly accepting evolution or creation, why not put forth the effort to simply SELL them on the merits of science and reason?

Why not show them that the one creates understanding and wonders (and is FUN, besides), and the other is just a mess of hopeful-but-dangerous myths and sectarian poison?

Speaking from my own experience, when I've talked to teenagers and 20-somethings about religion and atheism, well over half the time they've been receptive to the idea that there are no such things as gods, heaven and hell, Adam and Eve. Several of them have seemed hugely relieved just to have someone to talk to, and have said something like "I've been thinking stuff like that myself for a long time."

I'd like to see a nationwide program of outreach to young people FOR reason and AGAINST religion. Sell the hell out of the fact that religion -- all of it -- is just silly superstition, and that true facts, an understanding of the real world, and even love, compassion and morality, come from elsewhere.

And that they should be PROUD to not have a religion.

On the day I can see ONE billboard in my hometown that says "There are no such things as gods. Get over it" just as I now see a handful of "We need to talk -- Jesus" billboards, that's the day I'll begin to feel that the forces of good are starting to have a fighting chance against the godders.

I'm with Hank Fox. Evangelism. I mean that in the loosest possible sense, however, since I don't think going door to door is the best approach. One of the problems with atheists is that we commonly fail to assent to our own beliefs. Our ideas about religion are too frequently borrowed from religious believers; we think the phenomenon just as precious and inexplicable as they do. We say things like "it won't go away" and that "people are unwilling to part with their beliefs."

Perhaps this is all true of, say, superstitions, but religions rest on institutions and those institutions are economic, legal and political entities. That's three roads of attack right there. They're nice, materialist things we can go after. All of these institutions receive special treatment in all three categories. The growth of megachurches in the south, for example, may be the product of changes in laws regarding religious institutions that made such churches possible and profitable. (The less you dwell of why people attend them, the better; people really aren't the kind of thing where we can give those sorts of arguments, at least not yet. )

We need to ask ourselves, as scientists would, how does religion work? And while psychological or sociobiolgical or memetic accounts are interesting, more practical would be to focus on the day to day operations we can observe now without waiting for a mature version of which ever competing theory will eventually explaining society (if any). The legal, political, and economic dimensions are readily available for study and, more importantly, intervention. (There are also good ethnographic studies of churches that might be useful.)

Here's what we do: keep an eye out for every minor and major abuse of such laws and hold it up as an example, scream about it until we can get those laws changed. Do it on every level: local, national, international. Attack every abuse of the separation of church and state. Highlight every hypocrisy, every scandal, and every infidelity in the hope of making whatever changes we can. Expose the means by which their leaders make money, list their expensive cars and big houses, and show how their actions contradict their words. Use the same grass roots methods that the religious right use so well. (We might also want to highlight areas where religious institutions abuse the nonprofit status best reserved for charities that actually do something. Does a religious charity squander more money than a secular charity? If a religious group sells itself as helping a specific demographic, every penny spent on something ineffective like a prayer meeting is money taken from that demographic.)

Those who find this all a bit too negative (although I fail to see why highlighting abuse is negative, I can see how only doing so might cause PR problems), there are other approaches that can be taken in parallel. A site of testimonials of people who have lost their religion might be a start. It would be especially helpful in dispelling some of the mistaken ideas people have about nonbelief. (Points for getting famous and semi-famous nonbelievers to add testimonials, especially non-academics.) Creating short, pithy pamphlets about freethinkers throughout history to be distributed anywhere there's a (mixed) religious presence might be another. I'm sure people can think of more.

It might not work, of course, but it sounds like more fun than sitting around arguing arcane points of metaphysics and epistemology (strange how atheism is sometimes so similar to scholasticism). For those who find themselves overcome with the need to state that these methods are too similar to their methods or some such: I'm not an atheist because I disagree with every last method religion has employed to achieve its goals, I'm an atheist because religion is nonsense.

Hank

Anybody who thinks rationality and science can't be sold the same way we sell Cokes and Nikes, and the way that godders sell irrationality, every damned second of the day, with some of the most powerful communication/propaganda tools known to man, is missing out on an immense lever for making a positive difference.

Part of the problem, Hank, is the sub-group of self-identifying "liberals" who idealistically believe that the sort of promotional activities you refer to "poison" the scientific enterprise.

As hard as it is to believe, there are folks out there who insist that the best way to attack creationists and their propaganda is to "simply" teach evolutionary biology to everybody!

Such folks are sadly deluded but try waking them up and you'll invariably find them begging to "agree to disagree" with you.

Ask yourself this question: where do I go to donate money to support the PROMOTION of the BENEFITS of SCIENCE to average Americans? Why isn't there a link to that site prominently displayed on PZ Myers blog? And on Panda's Thumb?

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

I've never quite understood why it's so hard to live without god.

I mean, I get why people want to believe in an afterlife; The idea that your loved ones are just gone forever when they die is pretty depressing, especially if they die violently or early.

But god? Who cares if somebody created us? What does it matter where we came from, in terms of psychological comfort?

And who cares if somebody is running everything? Hell, I find that idea pretty depressing, because it means that the person running things is behind every rape, murder and genocide in history. An entity that could just sit by and watch one rape happen is too horrible for me to ever really love, let alone one who could watch everything from the holocaust to the inquisition.

If we're all immortal anyway, what would it matter if somebody ran everything?

As for myself, I don't really want the abandonment of irrational beliefs so much as I want the explicit recognition that they're irrational.

If you go to church because you like being with your community and rituals make you feel good, that's no skin off my teeth.

What is skin of my teeth is when people think that the stories their religions tell are empirical facts rather then stories. If you think you have empirical facts, this gives you the authority to form public policy around them, and to exclude public policy based on contrary ideas.

This is a perfectly good thing; We want airline safety standards to be based on actual aerodynamics rather then guesses after all. The problem is when we treat religious pronouncements as empirical facts.

If we were to recognize that religion is essentially a set of stories, with their contents assembled under aesthetic rather then scientific constraints, there would be a lot less strife in the world. After all, very few people ask that laws be made based on Star Wars.

Just to be clear, I'm not talking about the wishy-washy liberal Christian philosophy that says that the bible is a metaphor, but of a fullblown admission that Christianity and other religions are just games you play because you enjoy them, and they fit with good ethics.

By Christopher (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Those who find this all a bit too negative (although I fail to see why highlighting abuse is negative, I can see how only doing so might cause PR problems), there are other approaches that can be taken in parallel.

How about proposing legislation to keep crap science out of public schools? I think some people in Wisconsin are trying this.

But PZ took a knee-jerking dump on the idea last week and hasn't spoken a word about it since.

I find that odd.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

I must say I find your ultra-rationalist approach to religion quite refreshing. I'm baptized myself, but I've not thought much about god for the last, say, six or seven years since I was baptized.

When it all comes down to it, when I need comfort I look to my loved ones, not to religion. I guess that 2000-year old dogma is quite pointless, then.

Anyway: Enjoying your blog! Keep it up.

My above post is in response to an earlier Hank Fox post, but I also agree with the new one. It's also worth pointing out that the old idea of rationality as being a certain (logical) way of coming to a belief has been under attack for many years as psychologically implausible, not to mention just plain ineffective, and many of us prefer to think of rationality as normal cognitive function with the addition of avoiding well-known biases found in psychological research (this is different from the sorts of "logical fallacies" found in the philosophical tradition which are taken from the intuitions of "expert thinkers.") On this account it's perfectly reasonable to, as Hank suggests, "get them disbelieving in silly religious ideas first." (Personally, I think it's wise to shed the emphasis on rationality as self-governance. I think this modern, psychological conception of rationality is best seen as supplying reasons for social reform. But that's just me...)

a fullblown admission that Christianity and other religions are just games you play because you enjoy them, and they fit with good ethics.

Christopher, I suspect half the reason for the upset about role-playing games some years ago was the unwelcome competition it was seen as. How dare those gamer geeks poach on our make-believe turf! Why, before you know it, they'll be fingering 20-sided dice like so many rosary beads and chanting some nonsense about their saving throws... :-)

By David Wilford (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Here is an interesting dilemna. One of the secretaries at work today showed up wearing a silver crucifix that is about three inches tall from top to bottom. Of course: I say nothing.

If I were to display a similar crucifix in my office or (ha!) around me neck except hanging upside down, how long do you suppose it would be before one of the higher-ups came to me and said, "What the fuck"?

I'm guessing 10-14 days.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Where's the part in the Bible that says that slavery is wrong?
Oh, right. There isn't one.

Well, Great White Wonder, one obvious reason to oppose that bill is that one of the core beliefs of science, the very underpinning of the endeavor, is that all scientific knowledge is open to revision in the face of new evidence.

After all, there's always the slight chance we'll find a 3 Billion year old genetics lab. Or that earth was seeded by organisms that were designed on another planet, and somehow got to earth.

More then that, it will tend to be used as ammo by creationists, who will say that evolutionists can't answer simple questions about their philosophy, and so need the law to protect them from the normal give and take of the scientific process.

So, it violates a principle tenant of science, and makes scientists look like cowardly hypocrites. Those seem like good reasons to oppose it to me.

By Christopher (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Christopher

Well, Great White Wonder, one obvious reason to oppose that bill is that one of the core beliefs of science, the very underpinning of the endeavor, is that all scientific knowledge is open to revision in the face of new evidence.

The bill says nothing to contradict your alleged "core belief," Christopher.

More then that, it will tend to be used as ammo by creationists,

You and Dave Wilford should get together to suck each others thumbs and clutch your blankies.

Creationists use everything that scientists say as ammo against scientists. The argument is bogus and simply shows that you are afraid of creationists and lack the ability to formulate a creative and coherent response to creationists and their "ammo."

THere's lots of room on the sidelines for you, though. Perhaps David will let you sit on his mommy's lap with him.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

it violates a principle tenant of science, and makes scientists look like cowardly hypocrites

Really? I'm a scientist and I don't feel that the bill makes me a cowardly hypocrite. I think you're the cowardly hypocrite. After all, you're the one who is afraid of making "ammo" for creationists. Right? As for hypocricy, the idea that you might need to re-define science at some point would seem to feed right into the creationist meme that science is just an arbitrary construct ... like religion.

By the way, Christopher, it's "tenet" not "tenant."

By Anonymous (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

GWW, as I explained then, I do not consider that bill to be a good way to advance science, and that actually it is antithetical to principled science teaching.

When a state puts up a bill proposing to increase funding for science teaching, when it earmarks part of the budget for scholarships for science educators, when it sets high standards for science teaching (and simply excluding bits of dogma is not setting a high standard), then I'll be on board.

PZ

When a state puts up a bill proposing to increase funding for science teaching, when it earmarks part of the budget for scholarships for science educators, when it sets high standards for science teaching (and simply excluding bits of dogma is not setting a high standard), then I'll be on board.

You forgot creating mandatory seats for 50 science educators in the state senate, PZ.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

PZ

GWW, as I explained then, I do not consider that bill to be a good way to advance science, and that actually it is antithetical to principled science teaching.

You claimed it was antithetical to principaled science teaching but I and at least one other commenter pointed out that your claim did not make a whole lot of sense in light of the bill's language.

It really is frustrating.

Successful defenses against creationists and anti-religious (or pro-rationalist) rhetoric gets high praise but it seems that any positive action taken towards thwarting the further encroachment of religion into public education (or any other public sphere) is greeted with hand-wringing and pseudo-moralistic genuflection to "core principles" and "tenets" of science that are articulated ... where? By whom?

The Wisconsin bill seems like the most interesting and high-profile event on the science-supporters horizon but if one reads the most prominent blogs on the topic, it's treated as if it's radioactive.

Weird.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

"Radioactive"? My response was that I didn't like a bill that encouraged political meddling in science teaching. I do not consider it a positive action. I sympathize with the legislators and understand why they are trying this, but it misses the mark.

Now excuse me while I run off to eviscerate their dogs and pee in their babies' formula. That'll teach 'em.

Who says science isn't capable of dealing with ethics? And what grounds to they have to make such a claim?

It seems to me that the only way ethics can be outside the bounds of science is if ethical principles have no actual meaning but are just arbitrary rules that humans learn to govern their behavior - in other words, only if what we call 'ethics' is actually morality, and morality itself is a game.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Great White Wonder: I liked the idea. This might come down to what I was just describing about different approaches to rationality. Personally, I find the idea of social reform, such as creating new laws, more tenable than whatever it is we're supposed to be doing to make people more rational. I understand that there are people who think such promotional techniques are antithetical to science - I don't know that PZ is one of them - but personally I disagree.

I'd reject the argument from revision that Christopher just gave, for example; I think schools should teach the best available science, regardless of whether it's presented as being "open to revision" (by people other than the official bodies stated) in law. I can't think of anyone better to categorise what is and isn't the best available science for schools than our scientific institutions. There's a need to take care when doing something like this, but I don't think it's antithetical to the scientific method. Teaching science and doing science are two different things.

I think the emphasis on science being open to revision has unfortunate political consequences too. The idea is too easily generalised. Yes, science is open to revision, but not all theories are equally open to revision and even then they are only open to revision within the context of scientific discovery. In other contexts, such as political discussion or the classroom, scientific facts are facts of a strength not usually encountered by the politician or student. You could even say they're closed to revision in those contexts. I'd even argue that this too is an important norm in science, one closely tied to its being open to revision: only science gets to revise science.

Why haven't the philosophers stepped up to the plate to let us know how destructive irrational (and even thoughtless) belief has been? Because the vast majority of what we call "philosophers" are incompetent. They don't make logical arguments, they talk about logical arguments.

Most quality philosophy (and quality philosophers) are quickly absorbed into branches of science: mathematics, cognitive psychology, physics, and the like.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

I would recommend Dennett's latest book pleading for a scientific analysis of religion to all of you. PZ gave it some bad press, without reading it, because he had seen some quotes from the first part of the book, in which Dennett tries to persuade religious folk to continue reading despite the overall skeptical cast of the book. Indeed, the first section is more conciliatory than anything PZ would write. But, stick with it - the book addresses just about all the points here. The book is "Breaking the Spell". Dennett is an excellent writer, despite being a philosopher by trade.

poke

I think the emphasis on science being open to revision has unfortunate political consequences too. The idea is too easily generalised.

I agree and it's depressing to see folks who claim to be on the side of science engaging in false generalizations which serve the agenda of creationists. Doubly sadly, my experience is that the folks who lazily engage in such low level discourse are exceedingly reluctant to admit their errors.

The fact is that much of what is taught to children in public school science classes really isn't "open to revision" anymore than the fact that 2+2=4 is "open to revision." Shall I waste my time listing a hundred examples of such incontrovertible propositions?

I'm not going to. But Christopher should reconsider his statements and the careless way he recited them.

As for PZ, he seems to want to maintain a distinction between local politics and state politics, wherein local politics is not politics at all but merely ... what? ... the pure expression of some "principles" of science education that are whispered amongst a certain breed of science educators but are too lofty to articulate as legistlation?

It's baffling.

I suppose the next time we can expect to hear more is when the bill is ultimately voted on, and all these vague half-baked "arguments" are trotted out again -- verbatim -- by the same naysayers.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

I love this blog but sometimes â and this is one of those times â find the black-and-white, us-versus-them approach to science and religion just as sophomoric as the approach the Christian right takes toward science and its methods.

PZ quotes Chris Clarke as saying:

[Lincoln] called on his fellow Northerners to press on to victory "with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right," he clearly saw the unique wisdom and power embodied in the great truths of religion â wisdom certainly different from scientific wisdom, but equally certainly, just as valuable.

What's wrong with her statement? Is there not wisdom that springs from a source different than the scientific method? Is the mere occurance of the word 'God' now a flag for silly thought? I'm an atheist but can read text that refers to God without going off the deep end.

It's the broadbrush condemnation of all religion that bothers me. Buddhism for instance has no God. Not all religious people are fundamentalists. In fact some very religious people are strong supporters of science and more importantly supporters and teachers of much important "wisdom" that science doesn't address. Gandhi comes to mind. Yes, non-religious people do this as well which makes the point more clear: it's not us-versus-them.

Caledonian's question 'Who says science isn't capable of dealing with ethics?' is a good one. My own answer is that not that it isn't capable it just has no results to offer and to my knowledge not even a research program for such a thing. The Center for Naturalism is trying to make a start.

Dennett is an excellent writer, despite being a philosopher by trade.

LOL! Right on.

Most quality philosophy (and quality philosophers) are quickly absorbed into branches of science: mathematics, cognitive psychology, physics, and the like.

Or law.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hold on there captain angry, what's with the scare quotes around "core value"? Honestly, I'd like to see how you could formulate science without the idea that all ideas are open to revision if contrary evidence appears.

You know, I think in some ways the news articles about this bill are misleading, because reading them I came away with the impression that this bill had language specifically referring to Intelligent Design.

In some ways, reading the actual bill, I'm more ambivalent then I was about it when I first posted.

Among other things it continues to make the distinction between the natural world and some nebulous other world. In reality, anything that has observable, consistant qulities is part of the natural world.

When people act like the supernatural is outside of science, it confuses the layman. They think, "God has had an observable, measurable effect on the world, but scientists refuse to look at it because of some arcane philosphical aversion to god".

In fact, objections to intelligent design all come from a lack of evidence, and emphatically not because scientists refuse to look at certain kinds of evidence.

I really think this needs to be made clearer.

Additionally, as I was clutching my Teddy bear (NOT a blankie, which shows how much you know GWW), it occured to me that nobody actually addressed my objection, which is that creationists are going to spin this in a certain way.

Everybody just called me a douche without actually explaining how they would counter this particular avenue of attack.

Hell, the fact that a strongly atheistic evolution enthusiast like me is at least a bit open to it shows it to be a strong line of attack. Additionally, calling anybody who accepts it a pussy only makes it a stronger attack, because the whole point is to say that scientists can't support their position intellectually, and have to shout down the opposition.

So, since you're all so concerned with pragmatism and successful attacks, how would you handle this?

By Christopher (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

"Doubly sadly, my experience is that the folks who lazily engage in such low level discourse are exceedingly reluctant to admit their errors."

It's possible that this happens because when you talk to them you act like a giant ass.

Generally, that makes people want to disagree with you on principle, even if they think you have some good points.

By Christopher (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Christopher

it occured to me that nobody actually addressed my objection, which is that creationists are going to spin this in a certain way.

I addressed it.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Christopher

Everybody just called me a douche without actually explaining how they would counter this particular avenue of attack.

How about like this:

Creationist: This bill shows that scientists are cowards.

Scientist: I have no idea what the creationist is talkinga about. Passing a bill to ensure that our children receive an honest science education doesn't show cowardice. Rather, it shows that science educators are going to take a stand in the face of the relentless assault on science education perpetuated by elitist fundamentalists who run a theocratic science-smearing propaganda machine that would make Goebbels proud.

Gosh, Christopher, that was easy.

I can think of about a dozen other responses given ten minutes but tell me: what's the matter with your brain? Why are you so happy to drink the creationists kool-aid in this instance and recite the creationist script?

Hell, the fact that a strongly atheistic evolution enthusiast like me is at least a bit open to it shows it to be a strong line of attack

LOL! Nothing smug or arrogant or about that statement ...

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

When people act like the supernatural is outside of science, it confuses the layman.

In 2006, the American layman is confused about science because he has been fed mostly garbage by anti-science religious propagandists whose interests are served as long as the layman remains confused about every fact except one: the name of his deity.

The layman is more likely to digest the reality objectified by 100 pundits stating that "Ken Ham is a lying creationist idiot whose principles are harmful to our nation's welfare" than he is to digest 1000 pundits explaining what science is and how it works.

Remember this when you consider what these lawmakers are attempting to accomplish in Wisconsin.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Missing from this discussion is Hamlet's appreciation of our condition: What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! And yet what is this air-sucking, disaster-fearing, belching, shitting, trembling hairless primate scampering around on an accidental hothouse planet? This world is a hall of doom and we animals, the "quintessence of dust", are rewarded only with death.
So stay busy, stay driven.
Keep yourself intensely occupied with your promotion, your accomplishments, your bank account, your evangelizing, your safety, your canonization, your recognition. Perhaps even embark upon the heroic project of changing, saving, converting, educating or correcting the other peoples of this world. Imagine the planet as a holy temple or pray for Jesus to save you or watch movies or daydream about time travel or study the reproductive organs of insects or fantasize about the disappearance of religion or pretend you're reading a book written by an elephant. But use your god-like imagination because that is precisely, and ironically, the mind's adaptive advantage: to mechanically restrain the deep ocean of potentially overwhelming terror of our absurd and hopeless situation. Man is a driven and useless passion.

Gosh, I feel like a weakling to admit it, but I kinda see the point Ms. Bass seemed to be attempting to make. Shastra captures the idea even better, I think, with:
Religion . . . gives (people)a quick, easy, thought-free basis to justify all those reasonable morals and meanings which they actually arrived at through living as human beings in relationship with others"
Like most of us, I suspect, I learned about good behavior as a child, not by figuring it out as I went along, but by guidance in a (now defunct) belief. I no longer base my moral judgements on what I was/am told "God says," but it wasn't a terrible starting point.
And I think religeon serves other good purposes, too. As much as I hate to admit it, when my spouse went in for surgury, I really wanted to believe that there was some mystical all-powerful force I could confide in and appeal to--I wanted a God. When my 10-day old son went into Neonatal Intensive Care, I wanted someone to pray to.
I knew there wasn't such a God, but I gotta admit, at those times, believing in one would have made everything easier for me. Clearly, It wouldn't have changed a damn thing about how events actually turned out, because there isn't any fairy godmother, but y'know, it would have maybe helped me cope just then.
At least speaking for myself, it seems the world can be awfully damn tough and bewildering, and I suffer from weakness and confusion sometimes. At those times, having some sort of religeon wouldn't seem so bad. (Would it?)
No, what makes religeon seem evil to me is when it is USED by people as a means to judge or control other people.
(But cant science be used in just such an evil way?)
Science, as a way of knowing, is a darn good way of unearthing objective truth, but for some things (and maybe this is because I haven't had the right sort of objective experiences) it does seem somewhat inadequate.
Look, I'm not claiming that anyone should cast aside rationality, I'm just saying that irrational beliefs can sometimes offer comfort. And while dogma is typically employed to hateful ends, codified morality can at times provide good guidance.
I suppose this makes me a fool.

By rubberband (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Look, I'm not claiming that anyone should cast aside rationality, I'm just saying that irrational beliefs can sometimes offer comfort. And while dogma is typically employed to hateful ends, codified morality can at times provide good guidance. I suppose this makes me a fool.

Nope. Just honest.

But it's the sort of honesty that is not articulated often enough outside of microforums like this thread.

By Great White Wonder (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Religion provides answers, true. However, my parrot also answers when I talk to him. Giving an answer is not synonymous of giving a correct answer. The answer has to be proven right with evidence, has to be questioned and has to be tested. Religion, does not question, does not test, therefore its answers cannot be proven right. In the other hand, someone may believe the answers are right in belief in a fantastic world.

All praise Dr. Marco's parrot!! The parrot is the intelligent designer!

You are right, of course. I guess there are must some times the truth is a bit hard to take. And other times where the "true course" (the course of justice, I mean) is deeply obscured.
Religion would just be a "fall back" for those times--but it's not for us grown-ups to take the easy way out, is it?

(ps-I finally learned how to spell religion)

By rubberband (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Notwithstanding Caledonian's comments, and way too late in the thread, a response to 'why aren't philosophers doing more to challenge religion?'
Religion is easy; philosophy is hard. Religion offers easy apparent answers which require no thought; philosophy demands a lot of difficult thinking. It comes up against all the same obstacles science does, plus some. Science at least can point to empirical, physical evidence for those who might be prepared to consider it. Philosophy however relies on reason and logic - the very capacities that people possess in inverse proportion to how religious they are.

By english rose (not verified) on 13 Feb 2006 #permalink

Hugechavz: There are lots of us philosophers who are perfectly secular, and many of them have even written against religion from time to time. The problem is most of the traditional great philosophical systems are bankrupt, even the secular ones. Philosophers these days are generally wary about developping comprehensive systems in part because of the difficulty in doing so in an age of science, and in part because they feel the failure was instructive. IMO, these are bad reasons, and I have studied with one philosopher who has developped such an appropriate system and am slowly out one of my own. Religion has the advantage that it does sort of supply all the components of a system of philosophy, whereas most people's philosophical opinions are fragmentary without it - or even with it - but at least then there's a fallback. Philosophers also have trouble collaborating; developing a new comprehensive world view might take a team. (I'm doing mine with a coauthor.)

As for the "reason evangelism", well, a lot of that is incompatible with the attitude I feel people should learn. I do think science popularizers are needed and "world view builders", which I take to be one task of philosophy. Another is to nurture general concepts until they slowly mature into science and technology proper. This is basically what happened historically, even in the twentieth century. (For example, philosophers developed alternative logics and they eventually got adopted in computing.)

You could also argue that belief in God is semantics, that "god" is a word used to describe belief about things that are as yet unknown.
I think that a lot of people unknowingly embrace this attitude.
Science does not even come close to answering everything and proponants fall short when then try to argue otherwise. Can it eventually? Sure, and a lot of religous people believe it will.
Recently my doctor told me that my son's stroke, which had rendered him temporarily blind, had been overcome by his brain. He can see perfectly again.
I knew what my mom would say - her prayers had worked. Personally, I think it's crap but as a theory it is as provable as "Sometimes these things happen." (What the doctor said)
I have no doubt that someday it will be clear that a stroke+genes+chemistry at time of stroke = vision being regained but until then she can have her theory.
Im hoping that scientists will spend time thinking of other theories and trying to prove them then worrying about what my mom's theory is. Until they do, they are really wasting everyones time.

'why aren't philosophers doing more to challenge religion?'

I think that the major reason is simply that almost nobody listens to philosophers.

Unfortunately, most people think that "philosophy" is something eastern mystics do, and/or that Western academic philosophers are just intellectual wankers who don't really know their asses from their elbows.

And one reason for that is that philosophers are overwhelmingly atheists, who accept that Hume and Kant pretty well killed the standard arguments for religion over 200 years ago, and that Darwin pretty well killed the rest. Most people haven't caught up to that, and still confuse religion and philosophy, and think that (their) religion is better than secular philosophy.

(Even among educated people including scientists, "philosophy" is widely misunderstood. For example, most of the postmodern relativist "philosophers" are not in Philosophy departments---they're in the humanities, e.g., English departments.)

That makes philosophy a hard sell. If the general public was more aware that academic philosophy is mostly a bunch of rationalists who know that religion is generally stupid and can prove it, it'd be a big problem. There'd be a furor over that hotbed of atheism, if philosphers were more influential.

However poor the general understanding of science is, philosophy is in a worse position with respect to public opinion.

So when, say, the Dover case comes up, nobody really wants to drag in philosophers to say that yes, science and religion do conflict, and science is better because it fits with good philosophy. (That would just escalate the culture war, and we'd lose because there's more of "them" than "us," and it takes way too much explaining.)

Instead we get a Catholic biologist and the nominally Quaker philosopher Rob Pennock to say that science and religion don't really conflict, and we fight the narrower battle over whether ID "is science."

(By the way, I don't mean to bash Rob, a former colleague at the U. of Texas; I don't know what his "religion" really amounts to. He's clearly a good and smart guy, and his book Tower of Babel is excellent. It clarified some important things for me, about what really matters to fundamentalists, and why.)

"In its own "ballpark," religion, as Lincoln knew, wins every time.

How nice it must be to have all the answers. That "ballpark" consists of circular irrational arguments, mixed with a healthy dose of idiocy. Of course it's going to win. We are foolish to compete in a game with constantly changing rules. Instead, we need to defeat religion by fighting outside the box, by attacking the thought processes, not the thoughts.

shorter prof myers:

"ms bass seems like a well-intentioned person whose idle scribblings intially suggest that she knows a few things but ultimately reveal that due to religion-corrupted thinking and ignorance of several things key to her point she has nothing significant to say."

so, why waste your time and (much less important, at least in my case) our time rebutting her obscure and trivial article? biological illiterates like yours truly can actually benefit from "evolution of a polyphenism"-like posts which help arm us against arguments from less biologically illiterate anti-evolutionists.

Personally, I hold quite deeply to the principle of freedom of religion, albeit in an irrational, emotional, simplistic and idiotic sort of way. It is a belief unsupported by empirical evidence so far as I know. But because life is essentially pointless and frequently unhappy, I am deeply committed to allowing my neighbors to think whatever they want. And currently all of my neighbors believein some form or anotherthat their eternally frustrated needs for respect, power or security must be somebody else's fault. So we have that in common.

re the wisconsin bill:

the proposed legislation seems to raise difficult subjective questions which offer escape hatches: how does one decide if (sic) "material is testable" or "natural"? or "consistent with ..."?

wouldn't it be more to be effective to get at the desired result via an objective competency requirement for the teacher, eg, a biology degree from a credible institution? of course, that doesn't preclude an appropriately credentialed teacher being incompetent, but it hopefully lowers the probability and should preclude travesties like the recent el tejon, CA dustup. and it might be unofficially, if not officially, understood that teaching creationism (under the deceptive label du jour) is presumptive evidence of incompetence (ie, subject matter ignorance) per dawkins, dennett, prof myers, et al.

BTW, I'm embarassingly aware of the failure of the credentials approach in the person of ms crocker at NVCC since she's a local educational "resource".