Ja, we shall invade this Austrian poll

Hey, I thought Europe was more secular…so why is this poll going the wrong way? Oh, because it’s in Catholic Austria.

In German:

Sollen Kruzifixe aus den Klassenzimmern verbannt werden?

17,68% – Ja, denn Religion soll Privatsache bleiben.

77,04% – Nein, denn das Christentum hat in Österreich jahrhundertelange Tradition.

5,28% – Egal, es liegt sowieso an den Eltern, ihren Kindern Religion nahezubringen.

Auf Englisch:

Should crucifixes should be banned from classrooms?

17.68% – Yes, because religion should remain a private matter.

77.04% – No, because Christianity has centuries-long tradition in Austria.

5.28% – Doesn’t matter, it is up to the parents to bring their children up in a religion.

Can a bunch of Americans reverse this trend? That would be weird.

Job opening at American Atheists

I’d apply, except that 1) I already have a job, 2) I don’t meet most of the qualifications, and 3) my ferocity might frighten David Silverman.

Public Policy Director

American Atheists, Inc., a non-profit and nonpartisan educational and advocacy organization dedicated to the separation of religion and government and the equality of atheists, is seeking a qualified individual to take a leadership role in the development and implementation of its public policy activities. Responsibilities may include:

• Arranging and taking meetings with Congressional and Administration officials.
• Drafting action alerts for mass emails to American Atheists members.
• Collaborating with coalitions of national nontheistic and secular organizations to create better outcomes for the nontheistic community in everyday life.
• Monitoring federal legislative and administrative policies.
• Monitoring state actions for bills and laws that violate the separation of religion and government.
• Developing policy proposals related to secularizing the tax code
• Preparing comments and other position statements.
• Other tasks as assigned.

Candidates should have at least 3 years of professional experience in public policy and legislative affairs and have a degree in law or related to public policy as well as knowledge of the Constitution, federal government, and the tax code; excellent analytic and problem solving skills; creativity and leadership; knowledge of the legislative process; ability to work independently; and excellent written and verbal skills.

Well-qualified candidates will have Capitol Hill experience and a demonstrated commitment to the nontheistic community or separation of religion and government issues.

American Atheists’ headquarters is in New Jersey; this position will be based at a satellite office in Washington, D.C.

Salary will be commensurate with experience. Additional benefits include paid sick, holiday, and vacation days; health insurance and dental insurance.

Please send a cover letter, resume, and a writing sample related to public policy or a public policy issue to careers@atheists.org. Applications will be considered on a rolling basis until June 3, 2013.

Ooh, “Developing policy proposals related to secularizing the tax code”? Hint, hint. More of that please.

“We”?

So Daniel Loxton comments on his tent. I found it exceptionally revealing, just not in the way he probably intended.

(From another commenter) Again, it would result in much less heat to declare that atheism/religion in not wiyhin your focus or interest, rather than insisting on a controversial position that plenty of scientists apparently don’t agree with.

(Loxton) I’m not about to accept the controversial positions of handful of atheist activists as representative of the wider view of scientists. (These are, you realize, positions novel enough to them that they felt they were good hooks for controversial books?) But regardless, many skeptics have argued just as you ask: that for reasons of division of labour, skeptics will stick to the testable paranormal claims that we do best. Paul Kurtz, for example, argued in 1999 that,

As I have said, I do not believe, however, that CSICOP or the Skeptical Inquirer should in any way, except tangentially, deal with religious issues. But my reasons are pragmatic, not theoretical. It is simply a question of the division of labor. We lack the resources and expertise to focus on the entire range of scientific questions about religion: biblical archaeological, biblical and koranic criticism, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, sociology, the genetic or environmental roots of religion, etc. It would take us too far afield. We have focused on fringe science and specialized in the paranormal, and we have made important contributions here. Skeptical inquiry in principle should apply equally to economics, politics, ethics, and indeed to all fields of human interest. Surely we cannot possibly evaluate each and every claim to truth that arises. My reasons are thus practical.

Atheist hardliners are no more willing to accept that pragmatic argument than any other. The only answer that will satisfy atheist activists, apparently, is that skeptics must accept that atheist activism is the most important cause in town.

That’s an impasse that skeptics resolve by getting back to our own work.

I think he’s feeling a little exasperation — it’s a cheap and ineffective shot to complain that some scientists write “controversial” books, therefore…what? The only worthwhile books are bland and uncontroversial? And if he’s thinking of, for instance, Dawkins’ book, wrong — atheism wasn’t controversial among scientists at all. It was just a bold move to slap the facts down in front of the public.

But it’s the Kurtz quote that is most remarkable. What jumps out when you read it?

I. I. We. Us. We. We. Who, kemosabe?

Who has specialized in those particular subsets of skepticism? Why, Kurtz, and Loxton, and Swiss, and Shermer, and Dunning, and Radford, and many others. And that’s fine; they should do what they know and what they’re good at. Yet somehow they’ve got this amazing close-minded privilege that what they are doing, their local “we”, is what their entire constituency, the more global “we” of all skeptics, should be doing.

Are these people even aware that their movement should be more than the desires of a few so-called leaders? That their group is made up of individuals, each with unique talents and interests, and that what determines the focus of the skeptical movement ought to be the ever-changing concerns of the people in the movement, and that as the movement grows (as we hope it would), the wider pool of talent would broaden the range of interests?

If an atheist joins the skeptical movement, and says she wants to work on the harm religion does to society, what are you going to tell her? “No, you have to study the wily chupacabra”? If an atheist joins the skeptical movement, does that mean some High Poo-Bah goes up to Daniel Loxton, and orders him, “Put down that keyboard, Loxton, we’re sending you off to rural America to blow up a church, because we’re all atheist hardliners now”?

No. And it’s idiotic to fret over it. I’ve been listening to the gay marriage debate in the Minnesota House this afternoon, and the skeptics sound so much like the conservatives — somehow, opening the door to different views means that their personal interests are compromised. No, they’re not. Keep on chasing Bigfoot, guys! Keep on doing “your own work”! No one is telling you to stop!

But, you know, if skepticism really is an analytical tool set for examining the world, stop being so damned possessive of it, and let people apply it in ways that reflect their expertise, not yours. Skeptical inquiry should, in principle, apply to all fields of human interest, as Kurtz said. What is impractical is policing skeptical inquiry and straining to keep it from being applied by people who aren’t members of the skeptical elect, who have goals different from the usual white male magicians and libertarian dilettantes. You don’t get to do that.

It’s not your damn tent. It belongs to everyone.


I should have mentioned, and will do so now since it was brought up in the comments, that Kurtz’s “we” was focused on just the organization he was running, and in that it is perfectly appropriate for a specific organization to limit it’s brief to what the personpower within the organization can manage. It requires a deliberate administrative commitment to focus on a topic. An example would be NCSE’s recent expansion from a group that addresses evolution education to one that addresses evolution and climate change. This is very different from what a larger movement can do; there, expertise can bubble up from the base.

John Shook weighs in now

And he offers a historical perspective on Skepticism and Religion.

Enlightenment theologians had to strike a bargain with scientific skepticism since they were terrified by a different, far older kind of skepticism: ancient Greek Skepticism. This rationalistic skepticism demanded high standards of provability before accepting anything as knowledge. The basic idea for a rationalist skeptic during the Enlightenment was something like this: Where reason and empirical inquiry cannot confirm, it must be disbelieved as unreasonable. For this rationalist skepticism, all the gods must go. The core of religion, and not just the claptrap, is entirely unreasonable and unbelievable, since no theological argument demonstrates a god’s existence and no empirical evidence is sufficient to support a god’s existence. Instead of saying "No Comment" to religion’s core claims, rationalist skepticism says "That’s unreasonable for anyone to accept."

To this day, many skeptics rely on both scientific skepticism and rationalist skepticism. It’s all about the appropriate use of reason. That is why being a genuine skeptic means being a disbeliever and being open about disbelieving everything religions talk about. But joining up with this current Skeptic(TM) movement means never having to tell the faithful how their god isn’t real. Is that too big a price to pay, to get more science accommodated by society?

To answer that last question, yes, it’s much too high a price to pay, especially since we aren’t getting a reasonable return on the investment. Science is a disruptive, revolutionary force, and lying about its implications does not lead to acceptance — it leads only to acceptance of an insipid shadow of science.

Sean Carroll is wise

In a piece explaining why he won’t take Templeton money, Sean Carroll says why promoting godlessness is important. It’s how the universe works, something quite fundamental to how science operates.

Think of it this way. The kinds of questions I think about—origin of the universe, fundamental laws of physics, that kind of thing—for the most part have no direct impact on how ordinary people live their lives. No jet packs are forthcoming, as the saying goes. But there is one exception to this, so obvious that it goes unnoticed: belief in God. Due to the efforts of many smart people over the course of many years, scholars who are experts in the fundamental nature of reality have by a wide majority concluded that God does not exist. We have better explanations for how things work. The shift in perspective from theism to atheism is arguably the single most important bit of progress in fundamental ontology over the last 500 years. And it matters to people … a lot.

Or at least, it would matter, if we made it more widely known. It’s the one piece of scientific/philosophical knowledge that could really change people’s lives. So in my view, we have a responsibility to get the word out—to not be wishy-washy on the question of religion as a way of knowing, but to be clear and direct and loud about how reality really works. And when we blur the lines between science and religion, or seem to contribute to their blurring, or even just not minding very much when other people blur them, we do the world a grave disservice. Religious belief exerts a significant influence over how the world is currently run—not just through extremists, but through the well-meaning liberal believers who very naturally think of religion as a source of wisdom and moral guidance, and who define the middle ground for sociopolitical discourse in our society. Understanding the fundamental nature of reality is a necessary starting point for productive conversations about morality, justice, and meaning. If we think we know something about that fundamental nature—something that disagrees profoundly with the conventional wisdom—we need to share it as widely and unambiguously as possible. And collaborating with organizations like Templeton inevitably dilutes that message.

For the ambitious budding cancer biologist

I’m teaching cancer biology in the fall, and if you want to get a head start over the summer, here are the texts we’re going to be using:

Biol 4103: Cancer Biology

Introduction to Cancer Biology, by Robin Heskith
Cambridge University Press, 1st ed.
ISBN 978-1107601482

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Scribner, reprint ed.
ISBN 978-1439170915

Last time around, I used Weinberg’s The Biology of Cancer, which is an excellent, in-depth text, but was really heavy going for an undergraduate course — it’s more of a graduate/MD level reference book. The Heskith book is very good, giving more substantial introductions to the difficult concepts, and also as a bonus, is one third the price. Just having general chapters on cell signaling in normal cells, for instance, will be a big help in bringing students up to speed.

For you outside observers, sorry, but this class won’t be going the supplementary blogging route. I’ve got some other cunning schemes I’m going to try on the students instead.

Today is the day

Today, the Minnesota legislature is supposed to vote on gay marriage. I know because the pressure has been at fever pitch — I got three phone calls yesterday from advocacy organizations calling to get me to call my representative. I’ve told NOM to take a flying leap, but Minnesotans United, despite the annoying dunning, have my favor.

Apparently, my representative, Jay McNamar, is one of those dumbass undecideds. He’s been waffling over the issue, an uncertainty which doesn’t just leave me cold, it makes me actively dislike him. I’ve called him several times to tell him that this is the civil rights issue of our era, and if he can’t make up his goddamn mind about something as basic as human decency, he’s not on my side. If he votes against it, he’ll never have my vote ever again; if he can muster a little integrity and principle, maybe I’ll reluctantly put a mark next to his name on a ballot next time around.

But the word is that we’ll know today. Don’t disappoint me, Minnesota!