On Alienating Moderate Believers

At Evolution Blog (a site you should visit) author Jason Rosenhouse discusses a review of his recent book Among the Creationists (a book you really should read) by Panda’s Thumb contributor Matt Young. In the review, Young claims that Rosenhouse “has the same narrow view of religion as the creationists – that it is all or nothing – and he risks alienating moderate theists who are otherwise on his side.” As it turns out, this claim isn’t really accurate (as is often the case with such claims) – as you’ll learn when you read Rosenhouse’s entire response.

I felt compelled to leave a comment (slightly edited here for syntax), as I find the notion of alienating moderates during honest discussions of science to be a non-issue – and if it is an issue, well, anyone who’d feel “alienated” by an honest discussion of scientific facts probably isn’t a moderate anyway!

My comment:

If a “moderate” is so easily offended by a frank discussion of the current state of evidence for X that they would prefer to side with fundamentalist X-deniers than participate in that discussion, it is neither the fault of X nor the fault of those doing the discussing.

We do no favours to moderates by coddling them; in fact, we infantilise and condescend to them when we do so. Were I a moderate and someone patronised me by soft-peddling the truth about something that happened to sail near the waters of my faith, I’d be a lot more offended than if they just presented the facts and the evidence without qualification. You simply don’t read about this aversion to “offence” when discussions of particle physics arise; it’s inevitably biological subjects that get this special treatment because a large proportion of the population still objects to being apes. Again, that’s not the apes’ fault, nor is that the fault of the scientists whose lines of inquiry cross over this topic.

I’m aware that the religious culture in the US is different to that here in Australia, and that accommodationist positions regarding the discussion of [theologically] uncomfortable scientific facts seems prudent given the vehement fundamentalist opposition to them. Having said that, I think that anyone calling themselves moderate should be treated as though they have the requisite intellectual honesty & courage to be able to see a fact as it is and not require an abridged, sanitised version of it designed to assuage any fears [of theological conflict] or doubts they may have. If a religious believer is unable to comprehend and appreciate a scientific fact (and its metaphysical implications, if any), without storming off to join the fundamentalists in “shooting the messenger”, then I must question any person who would describe that believer as “moderate”. As an aside, I would also question the harm done by alienating a person who behaves in such a childish manner.

Given the well-known extremist elements of religious culture in the US – and that country’s overtly religious nature when compared with other first-world nations – I’m of the opinion that the only way to combat the influence of religious extremism [in science] and the only way to encourage more input from moderates is to be honest about scientific facts, theories and processes, give said moderates some credit for maturity and intelligence and not to allow the discussion of said facts to be plagued by frets about who will be offended.

To continue that line of thought, placing such overwrought concern over who may be offended by an unequivocal discussion of the current state of scientific knowledge merely validates the frequent claim of fundamentalists that there are some scientific facts that are indeed devastating enough to a person’s faith to render it mute, dilute it to meaninglessness or destroy it. But if someone does abandon or modify their faith because it, or crucial aspects of it, have been falsified by verifiable knowledge, I must again question whether any real harm is being done. A person led away from fundamentalism (which, being inherently dishonest, intentionally ignorant and therefore unavoidably harmful) to a more moderate faith – or away from faith entirely – by facts and evidence should be celebrated. In fact, isn’t leading people from a state of ignorance to a state of knowledge the primary goal of science and science education? Should really we spend much concern on people who will turn their backs and sulk when presented with knowledge?

I do not advocate getting in the faces of religious people and barking at them that Scientific Theory X proves their god is a bunch of hooey and nonsense and that they should abandon it; but I will advocate frankness when discussing any & all aspects of scientific inquiry. If there happen to be metaphysical or theological implications that make some believers feel uncomfortable or ask questions or experience religious doubts, that’s for them to grapple with. Scientific familiarity among laypeople does not advance when facts are cushioned; moderates gain nothing when they’re pandered to by well-meaning science advocates acting as if they know what’s good for others.

The bottom line: we should show people enough respect for their intelligence and maturity that we present the unvarnished truth as it is currently known.

To close, a note for Matt Young: when reviewing a book, we should show its author enough respect to present their arguments and views as they are written; to do our best not to project whatever existing opinions we may have onto the words of others.var gaJsHost = ((“https:” == document.location.protocol) ? “https://ssl.” : “http://www.”); document.write(unescape(“%3Cscript src='” + gaJsHost + “google-analytics.com/ga.js’ type=’text/javascript’%3E%3C/script%3E”)); var pageTracker = _gat._getTracker(“UA-5094406-1”); pageTracker._initData(); pageTracker._trackPageview();

A cdesign proponentsist in Randi’s Court

At a recent thread at James Randi’s JREF website, a commenter named wdunlap began positing the necessary existence of an intelligent designer and seemed to have some difficulty grasping the answers being put to him by the local Randiites. Being blessed with nothing better to do, I weighed in. I recommend you read the post and the entire thread (as well as my bits :)); it’s interesting and entertaining and will provide context.

Sayeth wdunlap:

Coyne in his evolution book states that male testes were originaly developed withing the abdomen of a fish and later migrated outside in land males. How the heck did this come about? From what I can see, the testes need to be outside or the sperm would be damaged by too much heat. It is almost like someone intellectually decided this.

Speaking of fish, you should read “Your Inner Fish” by Neil Shubin. A great read on humanity’s fishy ancestry.

Now to answer your question with a question: have you ever touched a fish?

Fish don’t need external testicles because fish (a) live in a cold environment and (b) fish, being cold-blooded, don’t generate the same amount of internal heat as warm-blooded land animals do. The danger of fish sperm being damaged by heat simply isn’t there to the extent faced by land animals. Indeed, because of the low temperature of their environment, fish sperm need every little bit of the heat available in a fish’s body, hence the internal testicles. “Your Inner Fish” describes this and many other anatomical rearrangements.

I find it strange how you report first-hand observation of fish in your own home changing gender but you can’t imagine how external testicles could have developed about over several million years. I think it’s time you took some members’ suggestions on board and did some serious reading on evolution and not just wikipedia either: actual books by actual scientists involved in the fields they’re discussing. “Your Inner Fish” is a great one to start with. Or you could just visit talkorigins.org!

BTW, it mentions that an intelligent being wouldn’t do it this way because it cause potential for hernias. Still, this is taking for granted that a creator would simply know how to do this instead of not knowing and having to do trial and error.

Oh, come now. No God/intelligent creator/Great Galactic Squid worth his salt should have to use trial and error. If he/she/it can create an entire Universe out of “nothing” just because it wants to, re-jigging a pair of fish balls shouldn’t be worth more than an idle thought. Are we meant to believe that this intelligent pan-dimensional immortal being needs to tinker about like some garden-shed hack?

I think the fact that Coyne, a mere human, could think of a better way to re-design fish testicles than you’d have us believe your God did is evidence either to that God’s non-existence or his rank incompetence (google “recurrent layrngeal nerve” for another great example of crappy design). The fact that almost everything in biology appears to be a dodgy, incremental re-jig of a previous feature suggests neither design nor intelligence. Except, of course, if you approach the question already believing in one or both and are happy to perform mental gymnastics, goalpost-shifting, logical contortion and other athletic metaphors to justify your presupposition. If an intelligent designer really does exist, he’s clearly used that intelligence to go to great lengths to convince us that he doesn’t exist and has never, ever intervened either in life on this planet or space-time itself.

Really, I’ve read this entire thread over the past few days and I think you’ve gone as far as you can with “I don’t see how this could have happened” as your stock answer. It’s time to ask questions honestly without any preconceived ideas of what the answers should be according to what you believe (or what you’ve been taught to believe). There are innumerable resources to answer those questions equally honestly (in the case where an answer isn’t known, there are innumerable resources which will honestly say “we don’t know yet!”). Many have been suggested in this thread. Some you actually appear to have read parts of – and seemingly stopped when they made you uncomfortable. Whenever something you read starts making you uncomfortable it’s a good sign you should keep reading it!

I said

something about fish

I think it’s worth noting in this context the existence of aquatic mammals: whales, dolphins, orcas, manatees, dugongs etc. These all breathe air and are warm-blooded but all have internal testicles like fish. This is because their ancestors entered the water from the land and, over aeons, the testicles of these ancestors receded into the body to provide a proper mammalian environment for the sperm (and perhaps prevent them from being snagged on narwhals). This shows that evolution works in more than one direction, rather than being (as some caricatures suggest) A mystical one-way street to biological perfection. Whale evolution is actually one of the most fascinating stories in the history of mammals and there are abundant transitional forms, documenting the early days of semi-aquatic furry carnivorous quadrupeds up to the variations, big and small, that we’re familiar with.

that coming).

Ask yourself: would you design a monkey that moved, ate and reproduced entirely on land but had gills, which required it to go for a swim every half-hour so it didn’t die? If you wouldn’t, why would you accept the reverse from the alleged creator of the entire Universe? “Mysterious ways” perhaps? I think not. Non-mysterious non-existence or plain, simple non-competence.

[Quote by wdunlap]

I am not wishing that a creator is fact. I am just looking for answers.

Considering that people have spent days and thousands of words doing their best to provide you not only with answers but places to find more answers, forgive me if I have trouble accepting that statement at face value.

You might not be actively wishing for the existence of a creator, but you seem determined to ignore or deflect anything which doesn’t point in that direction.

I am suggesting that, if a god exists, it may not be all knowing, but may have had to do trial and error.

If any kind of god exists, it’s not only a rank failure at design but is for all practical purposes invisible (or very good at appearing so). If your designer/god does exist, it may as well not exist for all the input it appears to have had in the universe’s layout and function. If this god exists and has indeed been using “trial and error” on Earth for 4.5 billion years, I still call failure. You’d think that would be enough time to do a little better than a hernia-prone ape with back problems who’s basically a re-jigged fish, especially if this god exists – as many insist – outside of time.

The problem with saying “god did it” is twofold: first, there’s absolutely no evidence either of a supernatural plane of existence (let alone evidence of an entity existing in it) and second, there’s absolutely no explanatory power in the answer. “God did it” is just putting up a stop sign on the road of inquiry. You may as well say “I created the universe five minutes ago and you’re all dreaming!” (Some actually do say things like that; they’re called solipsists and they’re utterly pointless creatures). There is as much evidence for “you’re all dreaming” as there is for “god did it.” Exactly none.

Finally:

I WISH you would stop referring to my conclusions as wishful. I’m merely expressing that certain situations appear to lack a natural explaination.

You’re right, of course; many situations do currently lack explanations. All the more reason to keep looking for them. Noone wins by inventing a scenario which superficially answers a question but which really closes the question off from further inquiry!

I repeat: “god did it” is not an answer; it’s an extra layer of mystery where none is required. If you say “god did it” the only logical response is more questions: what’s a “god”? Where did it come from? What’s it like? Why did it do this? Why did it do this in this way? Is it constrained by the laws of physics or did it invent them? Does it want anything? Is there more than one? Should we be afraid? Are any of the religions on Earth even close in their description of it? Why does it hide so well? Is it a ninja?

The lack of explanations for observed phenomena are the reason so many people do that little thing called science. Scientists do science to explain what is not yet explained; to fill gaps in our knowledge with more knowledge – not with whatever seems to make sense on the surface or makes people comfortable. I hope you understand this point; it underlies everything people have been saying to you.

A thought on the “supernatural”.

If we are to accept that a certain thing – such as a supernatural plane of existence – exists, we need to know its properties, attributes and perhaps location. Bascially we need to know how to know it when we see it. Thus far, noone has ever been able to agree on the properties and attributes (let alone location) of the supernatural. Noone has ever made any testable prediction of what we should see or experience should we ever encounter the supernatural. Indeed, because we humans are of the “natural” plane of existence, even if the supernatural did exist in whatever form, it’s by definition impossible that we’d be able to recognise it even if we interacted with it directly. If we could perceive the supernatural, it would by definition be natural, i.e. able to be perceived by us.

What I’m saying is that we wouldn’t know the supernatural if we saw it; but if we saw it, it wouldn’t be what we thought it was, because it wouldn’t be supernatural – because would could see it.

Further, any entity from the supernatural plane of existence would necessarily have to employ natural means to communicate with us or interact with our universe. In doing so it would be perceived as a natural entity; anything ‘supernatural’ that it did or said would be imperceptible to us (unless those actions had consequences here; the consequences would be perceived by us and not the supernatural activity itself). Even if the entity was successful in explaining the supernatural realm to us in terms we could understand or even allowed us a visit, paradoxically our ability to understand or perceive it would render it no longer supernatural. Unless, of course, we humans are able to experience the supernatural – but if we are, why even give it a separate term?

Disclaimer: I may be talking out of my fishy testicles, but I thought whatever that was^ needed to be said.

Stay tuned – it’s a good thread and probably won’t die any time soon.

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Papacy: "evolution is too science-y!"

PZ Myers expertly excoriates the ecclesiastic like noone else can, so instead of ranting myself I’ll link you to his post about a “Vatican evolution congress” (maybe I should have an ‘Atheist Prayer Meeting’ in response, it would make as much sense) entitled “Science Is Not Your Merkin” (LOL) and tease you with some choice quotes:

“[Jesuit Father Marc Leclerc, a philosophy professor at the Gregorian] said arguments “that cannot be critically defined as being science, or philosophy or theology did not seem feasible to include in a dialogue at this level and, therefore, for this reason we did not think to invite” supporters of creationism and intelligent design.””

What an out — they’re only going to allow arguments critically defined as scientific, oh, and theology. Those are two different things, you know.

I eagerly await the announcement of the associated banquet for the participants. They will only be serving the highest quality food, made by master chefs of Europe, using only the freshest, best ingredients, oh, and there will be dollops of runny, rancid fecal material splattered over the tables and dishes. But the meal will be a magnificent gourmet experience, and the world will know that Vatican shit deserves to be served to the greatest minds of science.

I’m sure they’ll get some good smart people to go along with this, because there is no shortage of competent scientists willing to compromise the public face of science by associating it with wishful thinking and the supernatural. And the Vatican will, of course, throw buckets of pomp and money and somber news quotes at this, all to decorate the rotting flesh of their decrepit dogma with the jewels of science.

And look! Their exclusivity runs the other way, too!

“Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the other extreme of the evolution debate — proponents of an overly scientific conception of evolution and natural selection — also were not invited.”

“Overly scientific conception of evolution”? What the heck? So the problem with evolution, to these Catholics, is that there’s too darned much science in it? I guess Richard Dawkins won’t be pining by his mailbox, hangdog with disappointment that his papal invitation hasn’t arrived yet. Why, the whole problem with evolutionary biology is that we don’t have enough religion in it, to poison and distort and attenuate the science. But not just any religion: it seriously needs more Catholicism.

Evolution, too science-y for Catholics…what the holy poo-spattered fuck is wrong with these people? I’m flabbergasted. I’m lost for words. There really isn’t anything I can write to express how completely & utterly fucked, wrong and arse-backwards that concept is. Imagine if I read a bible, put it down and said “OK, very good, very interesting. But it’s a little heavy on the God-talk, isn’t it?” Any Catholic – any Christian – would instantly have the right the look at me with an eyebrow raised and say to me, “That’s actually the ENTIRE POINT OF IT, you fucking halfwit. Now give it back before you drool all over the fucking thing.”

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Papacy: no apology to Charles Darwin

VATICAN CITY, Sep. 16, 2008 (Reuters) — The Vatican said on Tuesday the theory of evolution was compatible with the Bible but planned no posthumous apology to Charles Darwin for the cold reception it gave him 150 years ago.

[newsdaily.com via rd.net]

Well, no surprise there. Everyone (especially Galileo) knows the statute of limitations on Papist apologies to people who were correct all along is around the 500-year mark. Not that any scientist or any one else really needs the Vatican, the CoE, or any other religiolith to apologise though. As the old saying goes, success is the best revenge and there’s nothing quite like the success of Darwin’s Evolutionary Theory, which is supported not just by biological evidence but also supports and is mutually supported by evidence genetic, geological, palaeontological, medical, pharmacological, genealogical, animal, vegetable, mineral – the list goes on…

But, of course …

“In the United States, and now elsewhere, we have an ongoing public debate over evolution that has social, political and religious dimensions,” [Professor Philip Sloan of Notre Dame University] said. “Most of this debate has been taking place without a strong Catholic theological presence, and the discussion
has suffered accordingly,” he said.

Well, Prof, that’s the States for you – not that I think a “strong Catholic theological presence” would clarify anything other than the ninja-like mental gymnastics needed to be a Catholic theologian in the first place. What the current evo/creationist debate in the US needs is for theology of any kind to be hacked out like dead, rotting wood and for the discussion to return to objective, verifiable facts such as those which support evolutionary theory. Creationists debating evolution is like me debating quantum physics – I know some of the words involved and have a shallow understanding of the concepts but that’s where my actual knowledge of it ends. To continue pretending (a) that I know what I’m on about and (b) that I can actually debate quantum physics with people who have dedicated their lives to understanding it would only reveal me as a rank ignoramus. Although, now that I think about it, that analogy is actually giving way too much credit to the creationists. People whose understanding amounts to “evolution = we came from a monkey but I aint no monkey and how come there are still monkeys anyway” really just need to shut the fuck up and read an eighth-grade biology textbook.

Even when the CoE and the Vatican (of all places) come to their senses and publicly accept evolution for the fact it is (though the Roman Empire qualify their acceptance by calling it “theistic evolution”, which I suppose means “God did it and continues to do it”), many, many American Christians still cling tenaciously to their “it’s a 6000 year-old Earth & I aint no monkey’s uncle & Adam & Eve rode dinosaurs who didn’t eat them because they were vegetarian dinosaurs” lackwittedness. One of these daft mammals has been in the Whitehouse for eight years (with great success) and another hopes to be there in about three months as deputy to a cranky old flip-flopper who’s around 33% likely to shuffle off during his term and leave the country to a pitbull with lipstick who believes Iraq is a mission from God and life on this earth doesn’t matter a pinch of shit because she’ll be kickin’ it with Jesus in the afterlife. Holy fucking crap, America! Wake up and steer the car away from the precipice because you’re gonna take us all down with you. Hell, going by the latest news from the stock market it’s beginning already! Like I was (and many other people were) telling people a few years ago – don’t get too comfy in the US exchanges because a serious Republican-induced recession is nigh, unless the Fed has another Greenspan-style miracle up its sleeve … seriously, how long did these idiots think they’d get away with spending billions of borrowed dollars a week in Iraq while simultaneously propping up a strung out Federal Reserve? Idiots. You don’t need to be a freaking economist to be able to smell a recession from a mile away.

[/tangent]

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C of E: sorry, Chas

For some reason, the Church of E has decided it should apologise to Charles Darwin for lambasting & ridiculing him and his theory of descent with modification, first published in 1859 under the title On The Origin Of Species (which I have abridged because it’s rather long) [Telegraph].

What the holy swaddled Christ for? Chas’ grandson has, unsurprisingly, called this pointless act of nothingitude “pointless”. Apologise to a man for the crime of being too wilfully, blindly retarded to recognise what a work of simple, elegant genius his theory of evolution was (and still is), sure, but … he’s frickin‘ dead. Much as I love the man and what he achieved (against many & varied odds, not the least being his own struggle with the faith he was raised in), apologising to him won’t change a thing. Even issuing some broad CoE statement indicating their acceptance of evolution won’t actually do anything (I’m not actually sure what, if anything, the CoE hopes to achieve by this anyway). It’s not the gentle CoE or any other mild form of Christianity that’s the problem when it comes to evo-deniers and creobots.

Apologise to Chas Darwin for being twats all you want, gentle vicars, but the world will still be chock full of creationist evophobics of all stripes, be they the ever-numerous and oft-times rather frighteningly retarded American Jesus freaks, Muslim sub-mammals like Harun Yahya (or whatever his name is today) or illiterate fuckwits of the type who pollute the comment threads on youtube with their incoherent ramblings/pasted scripture (what is it about fundamentalism that strips a person of their ability to spell and use the shift key – or in some cases overuse the CAPS LOCK?). Look, the Cat’licks apologised to Galileo (after 500 years) and there are still people who doubt heliocentrism. Shit, the Papacy still maintains their ludicrous and murderous contentions that condoms are (a) evil, (b) ineffective, (c) actually spread disease rather than prevent infection even though the rest of the reasonable world has used them daily since their invention to prevent overpopulation & disease and occasionally decorate peoples’ houses for parties in lieu of traditional balloons.

The thing is, Charles & evolution don’t need your damn apology or your way-too-late admission of guilt (which isn’t yours to admit to anyway – I’ll take “Empty Gestures” for one thousand, please). Since its publication in 1859, the theory of evolution has either kickstarted or been shown to underpin and/or cross-support fields of enquiry as diverse as (but not limited to) genetics, geology, palaeontology, pharmacology, immunology, modern medicine and it pretty much underwrites the entire current understanding of the enormous field of Biology itself. Evolution has done rather well in the absence of a forced, hollow mea culpa, wouldn’t you say?

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This ecclesiastical “my bad” might have some merit if the CoE spoke for all of Christianity. But, as we all know, it doesn’t do any such thing, the CoE being brought to life (and brutally sustained, enriched and empowered) because Henry VIII wanted a do-over marriage and the Pope wouldn’t have a bar of it (hey, I’m all for telling a Pope to go fuck himself, but Hank 8 and his meanies did go rather too far on more than one occasion. Torture and murder and theft are bad things, kids, no matter who inflicts which upon whom).

So, if you’re not CoE, or if you’re not part of the CoE which still believes in the bible, or if you’re just one of zillions of anti-think god-droids who have a metaphorical sticker reading “I AINT NO MONKEY’S UNCLE” stuck to your brain’s rear bumper (next to your little Jesus fish), rest assured you may still chant “EVIL-UTION = ATHEISM” or “Darwin = Hitler” at your next prayer meeting.

No, Charles doesn’t require a “sorry” from the Church of England. What Evolution needs, my friends, is an apology from New Creos like Ben “science leads you to killing people” Stein, Ken “Creation Museum” Ham (I’m so fucking ashamed he’s Australian), Kent “In jail for fraud” Hovind, Ray “Banana Hammock” Comfort (hey, New Zealand – he’s all yours bro), Kirk “Crocoduck” Cameron – or anybody else of their wilfully-ignorant-of-the-motherfucking-facts ilk who’s had the misfortune to appear in any of the “Why do people laugh at Creationists?” youtube series by thunderf00t. These cretins are doing their level best to confuse the minds of young people by perpetuating the myth of a controversy over our origins that allegedly exists in the world of science (a controversy that the creos have manufactured themselves).

CoE, if you had any sway over these kinds of people – who are the real problem, I’d say “don’t spare the horses”. But the fact is you’re a Christian splinter group, formed for the convenience and pleasure of a hotheaded monarch who wanted things his way, and your words will have as much weight with people who have already made their minds up as the air you breathe them into.

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