Interesting discussions that I don’t have time to address right now

How peculiar — I’ve gotten several requests in email to comment on this plaint from Theodore Dalrymple, a fellow who doesn’t like those “New Atheists” like Sam Harris and Dan Dennett. It’s peculiar because I’m here at a conference with Sam Harris and Dan Dennett (and others who do not consider themselves “New Atheists”)— should I just ask them what they think? Actually, if anyone wants to pass along any brilliant questions that I can use to dazzle the luminaries with my insight, go ahead, toss them into the comments.

It’s one of those annoying opinion pieces by an unbeliever who wants to make excuses for belief: the premise is “To regret religion is to regret Western civilization.” It contains many strange arguments, like this one.

The thinness of the new atheism is evident in its approach to our civilization, which until recently was religious to its core. To regret religion is, in fact, to regret our civilization and its monuments, its achievements, and its legacy. And in my own view, the absence of religious faith, provided that such faith is not murderously intolerant, can have a deleterious effect upon human character and personality. If you empty the world of purpose, make it one of brute fact alone, you empty it (for many people, at any rate) of reasons for gratitude, and a sense of gratitude is necessary for both happiness and decency. For what can soon, and all too easily, replace gratitude is a sense of entitlement. Without gratitude, it is hard to appreciate, or be satisfied with, what you have: and life will become an existential shopping spree that no product satisfies.

For my own part, I think Western civilization was built on the talent and hard work and ideals of its people, and that if you stripped religion from its greatest artists and heroes and leaders and thinkers, they still would have been great.

I detest the argument about gratitude. It’s a deep error: we should exult in our life and a community of purpose that we build, but there is no one to be grateful to, and displacing our sense of obligation to our human aspirations onto a nonexistent deity represents an abandonemnt of rationality. And the reduction of reason to a mere “shopping spree” or feelings of entitlement is simply the old canard that atheists are amoral hedonists in more high-falutin’ pious language.

You can all discuss this for a while. I’m going to go listen to philosophers and historians explain the Enlightenment to me.

Research into adult neural cell integration

I found an article about new brain cells that I thought was really interesting. Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine discovered the mechanism behind how new neural cells are integrated into the adult brain. It turns out that new neural cells take a while to mature and fully integrate themselves into existing neural networks in the brain. While they are maturing, they rely on signals from other brain regions so that they do not disturb ongoing functions of the brain. They can receive input from these other regions for up to 10 days before they are ready to make any of their own outputs. So how long does it take to fully develop their synaptic connections so that they can talk to one another? Up to 3 weeks.

So why do we care; what is significant about this discovery? This mechanism sheds light on how neural cells integrate themselves into existing networks, which will impact how stem cells are used to replace neurons lost to injury or disease. The main concern is about neurons firing inappropriately, which could cause seizures or cognitive dysfunction.

The full article can be found in the Journal of Neuroscience, Vol. 27

Cafe Scientifique — tonight!

Tonight’s the night for the inaugural meeting of Café Scientifique-Morris for the 2007-2008 school year. The topic is:

Food or Fuel? A simple multi-scale integrated analysis of agroecosystems

It will be presented by Abdullah Jaradat of the North Central Soil Conservation Research Lab; I suspect he’ll be talking about their research into newer, better crops for the production of energy. It should be good, come on down to the Common Cup Coffeehouse at 6!

Unfortunately, this will be one I have to miss. I have to catch a plane to San Diego for the Beyond Belief conference (perhaps I shall be live-blogging it tomorrow…or perhaps I’ll be too busy and you’ll have to wait for my summary in the evening). Instead of me doing the introductions, the delightful MC Skatje will be hosting tonight’s event, which will improve it immensely.

That holy flail

Guilt-ridden Christian: If I don’t obey God, he’s going to make me suffer for all eternity.

Evil-angelical Christian: I don’t make you obey God, I’ll be responsible for your eternal suffering.

That link will take you to a despicably manipulative video on GodTube — a dramatized letter from Hell in which a young fellow about to be thrown into the Lake of Fire screams at his still living, Christian friend for not doing enough to save him. It is genuinely vile. It is an attempt to turn a positive social value, friendship, into a rationale for browbeating people into abandoning reason and accepting a superstitious lie.

Christianity is all about death, suffering, fear, guilt, and coercion. It’s a damnable doctrine that preys on the good people want to do and turns it into a corrupting servility to a wretched dogma.

Should this student have been suspended?

This is a troubling story if you just read the right-wing perspective: a student at Hamline University (an excellent liberal arts college in the Twin Cities) was suspended for writing a letter to the university administration. That shouldn’t happen, I’d say — we want to encourage free speech. Even if the student seems to be a bit of a far-right nut, and if the letter was supporting that lunatic idea that school massacres wouldn’t happen if everyone were carrying a concealed weapon, people should have the privilege of expressing their opinions.

So I read John Leo’s opinion piece on the issue and was actually agreeing with him, which was a curious sensation in itself. He didn’t actually quote any pieces of the letter in question, though, which was a little odd. So I looked up the letter from Troy Scheffler on the web. Uh-oh.

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