Archive for September, 2009

Saqib Ali – my new hero

2009/09/29

Saqib Ali, an American politician and a Muslim, supports gay marriage. Not personally – it goes against his faith. But he understands that his job as a legislator is to represent his constituents and to uphold democratic values.

In an editorial, Ali says “If I tried to enforce religion by law — as in a theocracy — I would be doing a disservice to my both constituents and to my religion.” So, as a legislative policy, he supports extending marriage rights to same-sex couples. He is not subverting his values to those of the society he finds himself in. He is simply finding a path that allows him to stay true to his values, while upholding his responsibility to the people he represents. (There are many ways to oppose gay marriage without making it illegal; just as there are many ways to oppose abortions without making them illegal.)

Thanks to the Friendly Atheist for making me aware of this.

Meditation on the origin of life

2009/09/27

In the Cosmic Calendar, the Origin of Life falls somewhere around now.* About three and a half billion years ago, the great abundance of life on Earth began, probably with a single replicating molecule – a precursor to DNA. Every living organism today, from the tiniest bacterium to the largest whale, descends in an unbroken line from that tiny bundle of atoms.

Today, I invite you to consider this:

We still reproduce as single-celled organisms.

Every act of human reproduction involves one cell from each parent. A single cell. For all our wondrous complexity, our bountiful organs and tissues, our towering intellects and tender thoughts … for all that, we still have to humble ourselves to the level of our distant, millions-of-generations-past ancestors in order to participate in that most ancient, most definitive act of life: reproduction.**

Footnotes:

* In fact, the details of this event, including its exact date, are difficult to pin down. The Wikipedia article on abiogenesis gives possible dates ranging from 4.2 billion years ago (bya) to 2.4 bya – that is, 11 September to 29 October. However, today falls somewhere in the middle of the range, just over 3.5 bya. The fact that 28 September is also my daughter’s birthday makes me even more prone to contemplating life’s origins today.

** Not all multi-cellular organisms are so constrained. Many plants do a significant part of their reproduction by sending out shoots or otherwise cloning themselves, rather than going through the whole one-cell business. Who’s superior now, eh?

Defending Dawkins

2009/09/25

I recently came across Bettynoirbettyblanc’s blog, and this post in particular, where she discusses her problem with Richard Dawkins. I was composing a response to post in the discussion, but it grew into something a little long for a comment. Here it is, with relevant excerpts from her post.

In the post, Betty discusses her take on Richard Dawkins – a man who, for good or ill, is the first person people think of when atheism is mentioned in Britain, especially in connection with evolution. I encourage you to read what she writes before continuing here, as I will not cover all of what she says, nor present her thoughts in the order she does.

Why do I find him interesting? I just wonder about his dogged obsession with religion and with those that practice it. He is a scientist and yet he seems to spend [much] of his time trying to argue that following a religion is at best ridiculous and at worst positively harmful. I just don’t understand why.

I’ve read several of Dawkins’ books, and I think that this misrepresents him. While I think his tone regarding religion is not particularly helpful, it’s worth noting that of the ten popular books he has written, only one is about religion (yes, it’s The God Delusion).* Not exactly a dogged obsession. More of an unavoidable side-note for someone in his field who wishes to engage the public.

A whopping 40% of Americans are creationists and Dawkins compares them to holocaust deniers. This is highly offensive. A holocaust denier is someone who twists the facts of the historical record in order to bolster a racist agenda. These people are motivated by their hatred of Jews. The facts do not matter. For a creationist, evolution has not been proven beyond reasonable doubt. There are questions about the theory that they believe have not been adequately answered. They believe the story of creation not in order to further a hate campaign, but as part of a belief system.

While I wouldn’t personally choose to compare evolution-deniers to Holocaust-deniers, I understand Dawkins’ choice of such an analogy. First, it is accurate inasmuch as both holocaust-deniers and evolution-deniers reject the overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favour of a position that is based entirely on ideology. As Betty says, they “twist the facts of the historical record in order to bolster an agenda. … The facts do not matter.” At least that part applies equally well to both sorts of deniers.

For someone in Dawkins’ position – someone who has spent his life working to learn more about our biological origins – it is certainly understandable that he will view creationists as the enemy. He feels passionately about his work. Every one of his books that I have read (even, at times, The God Delusion) bursts with enthusiasm about what we, as a species, have learned about our origins through dogged scientific effort. He has committed his life to this pursuit. He has submitted himself to the scientific community, which tends to be ruthless in its attempts to disprove new ideas, and which only accepts them after repeated failures to disprove them. (One prominent example is the idea introduced in the mid-19th-century that the diversity of species is due to the accumulation of small changes accumulated over time and channelled by natural selection.)

Not only that, but for much of Dawkins’ career he has also engaged in the admirable task of sharing this wonder and these discoveries with the public, in his very readable and accessible books of science.

Creationists belittle not only Dawkins’ work, but the careful work of hundreds (thousands?) of scientists leading back to Darwin. They belittle it without any good arguments, without any good evidence, and usually with a complete failure to grasp the evidence they’re trying to refute.

They are not interested in submitting themselves to the rigours of science. They are not interested in letting the evidence rule on which answer is right. Their actions suggest that they are only interested in convincing everyone that the scientists are wrong (and/or evil) and that we should set science aside in favour of their ideological commitment to a disproven belief. (I’m referring there to young-earth creationism and ID, not religion in general.)

Either he wants people to know about evolution and to ‘convert’ the creationists or he just wants a nice argument to bolster his book sales. I think if it was the former then he would be wise to act in a more conciliatory manner, and watch his language (ie the use of the word ‘ignorant’, I would also like to point out at this point that some of the people I know who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists).

While it may not be nice of him to call evolution-deniers “ignorant”, it is difficult to see how the term is wrong. The only way to confidently proclaim evolution false is to set aside (deliberately or in ignorance) the entire geological, molecular, geographical, and experimental bodies of evidence that support evolution. Though I’m sure most creationists’ motivation for this is simply to carry on believing what they wish to believe, not to promote hate (has Dawkins or anyone else ever claimed that?), that doesn’t change the facts. One has to remain ignorant (ie, not knowing of or understanding the evidence) to honestly deny evolution. (I can’t say much about the claim that “some of the people [Betty knows] who are most knowledgeable about evolution are in fact creationists”. Would they seem knowledgeable to a biologist, or only to someone like Betty who confesses little understanding of or interest in the science behind this “debate”?)

I can’t verify much of what he says because I don’t have access to the research or fully understand the terms and the processes involved. It’s been a long time since I did higher biology and chemistry! I suspect that for most of his vociferous cheerleaders on websites and forums across the globe, this is also the case. Perhaps they don’t wish to seem stupid for questioning?

In this respect, I find his followers similar to those of religious faiths. They are taking what he says at face value because they believe in him. They may well be correct – I don’t know. The argument seems reasonable, but who knows?

Is that a rhetorical question, “who knows?” Because there’s an obvious answer. The actual biologists (ie, people who dedicate their lives to understanding this stuff) know. And a good number of them have produced books that Betty and I and any of our readers can understand. These outreach biologists (Dawkins, Gould, Wilson, etc) don’t make arguments of the form “I believe this, and I’m and expert so just take my word for it.” They make arguments of the form “Here’s some evidence. Here’s why it supports evolution.” With plenty of references to original research so that you can independently verify their claims if you don’t trust them.

On the other side of the issue, I have read creationist apologists like Lee Strobel and John Blanchard argue for an evolution-denying ideology. They consistently fail to accurately represent the case for evolution, and then inexpertly demolish the straw men they have invented. (I’ve discussed Blanchard’s attempt here. Strobel is being taken apart in exquisite detail by Ebonmuse here.)

So, the supporters of evolution rely on the evidence, occasionally spending some time pointing out the flaws in the deniers’ arguments. The deniers of evolution paint caricatures of the evidence, attack the caricatures, and pretend that they’re doing science too. They don’t do real science: they don’t make falsifiable predictions, and they certainly don’t do experiments to test them.

When I read Dawkins, I can trust that most of what he says about science is based on the scientific method. He’s reporting conclusions that have been carefully tested, which qualified people have tried and failed to disprove. I take what he says at face value because I trust the procedure that has been followed to arrive at those conclusions. When I look further, the people who are qualified to understand the evidence all tend to agree with him.

On the other hand, he clearly isn’t speaking as a scientist in many of his comments about religion, and so I don’t take them at face value. In fact, I often disagree with him, vocally, in settings where that sets me apart (ie, among other humanists). I’m not treated as stupid for questioning because my humanist acquaintances – like Dawkins, like most atheists and humanists – value questioning. We believe that any claim should be open to question, no matter how popular it is. If the question has nothing to back it up – no evidence to motivate a shift in our beliefs, then we set it aside. But if the questioner has a sound reason for dissenting from popular opinion and solid evidence to back up their dissent, then that dissent spreads.

It was that sort of questioning that led to Darwin’s great breakthroughs. It is that sort of questioning that has led to every refinement and revision in the theory of evolution since then. It is that sort of questioning that has driven science for the past few centuries, with countless concrete benefits as proof of the process.

And, although religion is not uniformly anti-knowledge or anti-progress, the opponents of science have almost uniformly been religious.

Worse, I believe his words convert more people to fundamentalist ideas than anything else as they engender a sense of victimhood and persecution amongst those who don’t agree with what he says.

I would object to the use of the term “fundamentalist” here, as it seems completely divorced from any useful definition I’ve come across. But yes, to the extent that he overstates the religious antipathy to science, and exaggerates the incompatibility of science and religion, he does encourage an unhelpful us-versus-them mentality among atheists, and it’s one that I try to combat where I can. There are many, many religious believers who have nothing wrong with atheists or with evolution. Many of them are acquaintances and friends of mine.

Recent centuries and decades have seen a dramatic reduction in institutional discrimination against the non-religious. Keep in mind, however, that “victimhood” is not always an inappropriate feeling. Sometimes you are a victim, and you need to be aware of it. Some laws favouring religious over non-religious belief still remain, even in the enlightened West (even in uber-secular Finland). Dawkins is a scientist, and as Betty says, 40% of Americans deny the evidence that is at the foundation of his field. To the extent that they try to challenge the teaching of that science in schools, and seek to warp people’s perceptions of it in universities (for example, see this development), there is a concerted attack on precisely the field of knowledge Dawkins has devoted his life to. It’s worth noticing and acknowledging that scientists (and everyone who benefits from their work) are victims of the creationists’ campaign of science-denial. That way we can do something constructive to counter it.

I really don’t like my first mention of such an apparently pleasant person as Betty to come off so negative and critical. (I enjoyed this post of hers, and this one.) I hope that I have made it clear that Dawkins has by no means a free pass to my credulity, particularly when he talks about religion. Whether that helps encourage her to look deeper into the whole evolution/creation thing is up to her.

I hope Betty will respond to what I’ve said, either in the comments here or on her own blog post (where I’ll point her to this post). And of course, anyone else who agrees or disagrees with either of us is invited to comment too.

—–

* From the same list of publications, using just the titles as a guide, I count no more than 8 of 16 popular articles dealing with religion (at least 11 of the 16 have a scientific slant), and only 3 of 30 academic articles can plausibly be said to be about religion, the remainder being biological. So, out of 56 items listed, no more than 12, or about 21%, are about religion – most of these being popular articles. At least 48, or about 86%, deal primarily or exclusively with science. (Totals exceed 100% because some articles seem to deal with both science and religion. Also note that I think one or two articles appear both in the scientific and the popular list.) Readers can decide whether this amounts to a “dogged obsession with religion”. Perhaps the dogged obsession belongs to those apologists who wish to diminish his influence, Dawkins being a well-known and widely-respected public figure.

Quote on love

2009/09/25

This quote appeared in a page-a-day calendar recently.

Love doesn’t sit there like a stone, it has to be made, like bread; remade all of the time, made new.

I have been unable to verify who the original author is. The page-a-day calendar credits Ursula K. Le Guin, one of my favorite authors, whose style is certainly consistent with the quote. But in trying to find where she said it, I discovered competing attributions of the same quote to Og Mandino. (There’s even this page, which attributes it to both, though it credits Le Guin with more variants of it.)

I don’t know how to resolve the question. I really wish those sites that deal in quotations would provide more details – where they said it and when, or link to someone who does give those details. After all, I think writers should get appropriate credit for their words. In this case, I suspect one of these two writers quoted the other, and subsequent readers misattributed the words. For what it’s worth, my guess is that Mandino is the original, and Le Guin quoted him because she loved the sentiment. That’s only based on the fact that he was born earlier (1923 rather than 1929), and has already died (1996), so statistically he may have got around to saying it first.

But, at another level, it doesn’t really matter. After all, I share quotes not because I want to connect myself to famous people, nor because I want to help increase their fame. I share them because I find the sentiments valuable – because they reflect or affect my own sentiments.

Anyway, take what lesson you like from this attribution dilemma – the quote itself is wonderful.

Defending Christians

2009/09/23

From the Friendly Atheist, I have learned that there is a couple in Liverpool facing criminal charges for saying things that hurt the feelings of a Muslim woman who was staying at their hotel.

According to the Telegraph,

Among the things Mr Vogelenzang, 53, is alleged to have said is that Mohammad was a warlord. His wife, 54, is said to have stated that Muslim dress is a form of bondage for women.

The couple now face fines up up to £2500 each and a criminal record under Section 5 of the Public Order Act (causing harassment, alarm or distress).

Now, I generally don’t trust the press’s ability (or inclination) to accurately portray events such as these. However, if we assume for the moment that the Telegraph isn’t distorting the facts, then this is an abominable application of a (probably) bad law. Sure, statements like those reported above aren’t particularly pleasant. But illegal?

According to the paper, the statements were made during a conversation the woman was participating in. She wasn’t being harassed; she wasn’t being bullied or proselytized. She was engaging in a conversation about her religious beliefs with people who didn’t share them. Certainly she should have been prepared for challenging statements?

Anyway, we’ll keep an eye on how this pans out. I’d really like to think that this country can learn to set aside or amend bad laws whose only function is to censor honest opinions which harm nobody.

My definition: Christian

2009/09/22

For the second in my running series of personal definitions, I define what I mean by the term “Christian“.

Let me preface by reiterating that I’m not trying to produce an authoritative definition, or devalue others’ definitions (particularly the definitions that Christians themselves hold). I’m simply letting you know what definition I am normally working with when I call someone “Christian”.

So here it is:

I take to be a Christian anyone who uses the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as a guide to leading an ethical life.

In practice, this definition will catch pretty much everyone who self-identifies as Christian. Of course, many “Christians” under this definition will not be considered True Christians by many other “Christians” (if you follow me).

I can live with that.

It also means that “Christians”, under my definition, are a varied bunch indeed – Gnostics, Catholics, Fundamentalists, Mormons, Quakers, some Unitarians, and others. So varied, in fact, that I should be very wary of making sweeping generalizations about “all Christians”. You’ll tell me if I slip up, won’t you?

Here are some other definitions on offer for what a Christian is:

OED (access to dictionary not free): “Believing, professing, or belonging to the religion of Christ.” (This is pretty vague – depending on how restrictively you define “the religion of Christ”, this definition is almost circular.)

Wiktionary: “An individual who seeks to live his or her life according to the principles and values taught by Jesus Christ.” (Basically what I said.)

Dictionary.com and Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary: They each give a range of definitions, including something close to mine.

And of course, I encourage you to explore the discussion of this issue at the Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance.

Blasphemy law in Finland!

2009/09/21

Helsinki city councillor Jussi Halla-aho has been fined 330 Euros for a blog post [in Finnish, English translation here] in which he criticised the Muslim prophet Mohammed for being a paedophile. While I don’t particularly like his tone, it worries me that his prosecution was under an anti-blasphemy law. As far as I can tell, blasphemy tends to mean “someone claims offense due to their religious beliefs”. And hurt feelings – even really hurt feelings – are never a good excuse to limit free speech. To anyone who supports blasphemy laws, let me suggest that you look for alternative ways to deal with the matter. Ways that don’t involve trampling other people’s rights.

Thanks to Friendly Atheist for bringing this item to my attention.

WHO rejects homeopathy

2009/09/18

The WHO has publicly stated that homeopathy is not a good way to treat serious diseases such as tuberculosis, malaria, and HIV. This is excellent. Placebo and hydration are the only medically-measurable effects that homeopathic “remedies” exhibit, and these are not effective in combating serious diseases. It is encouraging that an international health body like WHO is willing to publicly side with the evidence on this.

Thanks to Steve Novella at Neurologica for this bit of news.

Positively unjust?

2009/09/18

The latest issue of Humanitie magazine just arrived in the mail. In this issue, Mike and I discuss our (somewhat different) thoughts on positive discrimination. Make sure to read his thoughts here.

I was all ready to deliver a column arguing against “positive discrimination”.

I was going to argue that the solution to discrimination is not counter-discrimination. Two wrongs don’t make a right. I would point out that even the people supposedly helped by it are, really, just being patronised: “You can’t get this job on merit, so we’ll give you a hand up because of your sex/race/etc.”

I’d have pointed out that the statistics you run across in the media about pay gaps and hiring biases are probably rife with holes. For example, the workers at my daughter’s nursery are almost all women. Does this imply discrimination against male nursery workers? More likely, it’s simply a consequence of free choice: more women than men choose to be nursery workers (for whatever reason). Trying to “equalize” this with quotas would devalue the choices those women and men are freely making.

I was even ready to loftily concede that there are situations of extreme, institutional discrimination where positive discrimination as a temporary counterbalance – as part of a wider program promoting education and social change – might be justifiable as a lesser evil.

And of course, I would have generously acknowledged my potential conflict of interest on this issue: I am a white man. I hate the idea of being passed over for a job in favour of a less-qualified candidate because of my sex or race (what “positive discrimination” means to many people).

But then, at Deena’s suggestion, I started looking into what programs actually exist here, and my righteous indignation vanished.

Because, you see, so-called “positive discrimination” is illegal in Britain. Existing human rights legislation, and the proposed new Equality Bill, specifically prohibit the hiring or promoting of one job candidate over another on the basis of sex or race – or any other protected category, such as sexual orientation, religion, and age.

What is promoted is “positive action”. An employer can encourage under-represented categories of people to apply for a job or promotion; an agency can target disadvantaged groups in promoting training courses. This means things like advertising in media that target these segments of the population, or using language in job adverts that encourages them to apply. (“Women and minorities welcome!”, for example.)

While people might argue about the effectiveness of such measures, it seems clear that positive action hardly constitutes inappropriate discrimination against “dispreferred groups” (such as white male columnists). In fact, it seems to be just the level at which opponents of “positive discrimination” (like me) suggest we should be channelling our efforts.

I think we probably do still have low-level discrimination (both conscious and unconscious) in our society, and it needs combating. Even accounting for self-selection and shortcomings of popular statistics, some unfairness does exist. I have plenty of loved ones in “disadvantaged” groups – women, older people, people with mental health problems, etc. So, in addition to my above-mentioned interest, I have a strong personal interest in trying to make our employment landscape fair.

So I say, keep positive discrimination illegal, and keep positive action around.

Talk Like a Pirate Day

2009/09/16

Talk Like a Pirate Day is almost upon us. Marrrk your calendar: September 19, this Saturrrday. Arrr you ready for it? Thanks to that old salty dog, the Fiendly Arrrtheist, for makin’ me awarrre of this. Arrr.

(What do ya say, me mateys? Be I ready for Talk Like a Pirate Day?)


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