CBS’s moral lapse

Yesterday, I asked if anyone caught the offensive description of the results of the Pew study on religion on CBS. Crooks and Liars did. Here’s Wyatt Andrews’ comment on the results:

The unprecedented survey of religion answers many concerns about a secular, morally void America.

I don’t even know what that means. He seems to be linking “secular” with “morally void”, but I don’t understand what concerns it answered for him — I found the results reassuring, but I want more secularism and and don’t see it as moral problem at all.

The Fall

I’m pretty darn sure after seeing the trailer that I want to see this movie, but there’s one little fillip, one name that gets briefly dropped, that really makes me wonder what’s going to happen. It isn’t explained in the clip, unfortunately, it’s just there, so I’ll have to cough up $5 to find out.

Baby loves…disco?

Usually I’m complaining about some fresh inanity from the religious side, but I have to be fair: this is an example of secular child abuse. It’s the Baby Loves Disco franchise, that is driving parents to bring the little kiddies to a club, where they are forced to relive the horrors of the 70s, with Travolta-esque dancers and the shrill falsettos of the Bee Gees ringing in their ears.

I lived through the 70s. I was on the dating scene in the 70s. I have been to a KC and the Sunshine Boys concert; I have seen the glitter and the flash, and heard the maddening, endless beats. I would never inflict such a nightmare on my children, nor would I want to be in a room with a disco ball — it might trigger flashbacks.

Oh, well. It could be worse. It could be Christian disco (yes, there is such a thing.)

Cafe Scientifique tonight

Today is my very, very long day, but it’s going to be loads of fun. This morning, my intro biology students and I are going to shred creationism in lecture; this afternoon, I teach our first fly labs in genetics (warning to colleagues: there may be escapees); and this evening at 6, it’s time for our Cafe Scientifique, down at the Common Cup Coffeehouse in town. The first 7½ hours of my teaching day you only get to join in if you pay tuition here, but Cafe Scientifique is free and open to the public!

Tonight, Jamey Jones of the Geology discipline will talk about “Using rocks to tell time and reconstruct Earth history” — so if you’ve been wondering how we know something is 10,000 or 10,000,000 years old, come on down.

America: slouching towards the Enlightenment


So…have you all read the latest Pew report on American religion? It’s been reported in the NY Times, too, and I heard that it was the lead story on CBS News (which, unfortunately, said something about a “secular, morally empty America” — did anyone catch it, or better yet, record it?).

It’s mostly good news. We’ve got a fragmented, shrinking Protestant population, Catholics are abandoning ship in droves and what’s keeping it afloat is Catholic immigration from the south, and the “unaffiliateds” are growing fast, especially among young adults.

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.

16.1% is still a minority, but keep in mind that Catholics are 24% of the population — we could pass them by in a few years. Look at that table on the right. We’re huge (but not at all organized or unified, of course) and growing fast. It’s worth looking at past assesments: in 1990, the nonreligious were about 7.5% of the population; in 2001, 13.2%; now, 16.1%.

The Pew people break down the “unaffiliateds” a bit more, and it looks like a significant number of them do still have considerable affection or perhaps dependency on religion — they just don’t seem to like the existing sects. I suspect we can blame that not on the attraction of atheism, but the repulsion from overreaching, grasping American religion.

Like the other major groups, people who are unaffiliated with any particular religion (16.1%) also exhibit remarkable internal diversity. Although one-quarter of this group consists of those who describe themselves as either atheist or agnostic (1.6% and 2.4% of the adult population overall, respectively), the majority of the unaffiliated population (12.1% of the adult population overall) is made up of people who simply describe their religion as “nothing in particular.” This group, in turn, is fairly evenly divided between the “secular unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is not important in their lives (6.3% of the adult population), and the “religious unaffiliated,” that is, those who say that religion is either somewhat important or very important in their lives (5.8% of the overall adult population).

But don’t try to argue that this “new” muscular atheism is driving people away. 1.6% self-identifying as atheists is a big leap forward: in 2001, that number was 0.4%.

It’s not all good news, though, and this one point here is something we must address.

To illustrate this point, one need only look at the biggest gainer in this religious competition — the unaffiliated group. People moving into the unaffiliated category outnumber those moving out of the unaffiliated group by more than a three-to-one margin. At the same time, however, a substantial number of people (nearly 4% of the overall adult population) say that as children they were unaffiliated with any particular religion but have since come to identify with a religious group. This means that more than half of people who were unaffiliated with any particular religion as a child now say that they are associated with a religious group. In short, the Landscape Survey shows that the unaffiliated population has grown despite having one of the lowest retention rates of all “religious” groups.

So we’re growing fast, but our children have a significant chance of ‘backsliding’ into some religion later in life. I suspect that is a consequence of the fact that most non-religious households will not provide any specific training in beliefs (I know I didn’t!) and godlessness is often presented as simple disbelief without a body of associated positive values. We need to change that.

Although there is also an alternative interpretation: how often have you heard the theistic testimonial that begins “Once I was an atheist…”? It’s practically a cliche. Another possibility is that a lot of born-agains will report their childhood as being unaffiliated with any religion, when what they really mean is that there was religion, it was just less fervent than their current zealotry. I’m not entirely convinced that the supposed low retention rate is real.

Anyway, we have something to feel good about — the trends are running towards a return to a more secular America, although obviously we have a ways to go yet. And of course, when the Rapture comes and all the charismafundagelical loonies vanish in a puff of incense, we’ll have an even greater forward lurch in the percentages.

Are our high schools teaching evolution?

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed Research

The Ecological Society of America has just published an article that surveys the state of science teaching in the US. Some of the results are somewhat reassuring — the majority of our college-bound high school students are at least getting exposed to evolution to some degree — but they’re also getting taught creationism to an unfortunate degree. Here’s the abstract to give you the gist of the story.

How frequently and in what manner are evolution, creationism, and intelligent design taught in public high
schools? Here, I analyze the answer to this question, as given by nearly 600 students from major public universities nationwide in a survey conducted during the spring of 2006. Although almost all recent public high-school graduate respondents reported receiving evolution instruction, only about three-quarters perceived that
evolution was taught as a “credible scientific theory”. Creationism and intelligent design were reportedly presented almost one-third and one-fifth of the time, respectively, though respondents recalled that both concepts
were presented as lacking scientific credibility much more often than not. The survey results are presented in
composite form and also disaggregated with respect to the strength of evolution-related state standards, red
state-blue state divisions, and the regional location of states within the country.

You can also hear the author discussing the methodology and results in a podcast, which I think is a wonderful idea. (Maybe every paper should be accompanied by a 15 minute podcast in which the author explains the work to a general audience…).

Here’s the good news/bad news data.

The good news: look at that, 92% are getting taught about evolution to varying degrees. I also think it’s good news that 26% say they’re getting “in depth” instruction, although, of course, this is self-reported by students who probably don’t know how much depth there is. At least this tells me that a solid majority of teachers are trying, and are not silenced by pressure from the public.

The bad news: 30% are getting taught about creationism, and 20% are learning about intelligent design. That’s a waste of time and resources, and it’s an indicator that the urgings of creationists for a false “fairness” might be having some effect.

Now, of course, maybe they’re learning about creationism in high school because the teacher is slamming it as bogus nonsense, as I do in my university classes. There’s a little good news there, too: over 70% of the time, evolution is taught as credible theory, but as for creationism…

Additionally, when intelligent design is taught, it is
perceived to be presented as a credible scientific theory at
a rate higher (34%) than that for creationism (18%).
This confirms one of the few narrow points of agreement
between intelligent design’s proponents and critics: intelligent design is intended to look more “like science” and
less “like religion” — and to these recent public high-school graduates, it does.

So we can say that the majority of the time creationism is taught, it is disparaged to some degree and is not taught as a credible scientific theory. That’s reassuring. Of course, we could take a glass-half-empty view and note that in those cases where ID is taught, it’s taught as a credible theory an appalling third of the time, and it’s also a successful strategy for boosting the reputation of creationism.

The situation isn’t quite as bad as I feared, although there is a significant minority that are getting taught creationism uncritically in the public schools. What I’m missing is a couple of things. This is information taken from a select population of college bound students, and those students are more likely to have had exposure to science, and are also more likely to be attentive. I’d like to know what impressions other students have of their science instruction.

This is also a collection of exactly that, student impressions. I’d like to see a complement to this study that surveys actual curricula and faculty attitudes. I know how tuned out students can be, so I can’t say that I entirely trust student reports.

Bowman KL (2008) The evolution battles in high-school science classes: who is teaching what? Front Ecol Environ 6(2):69-74.

John West caught quote-mining

It’s no surprise that a fellow of the Discovery Institute would distort his critics, but it’s still entertaining to see the quotes lined up with the manglings. If you’re a real masochist, you can catch West droning out the same old lies on Book TV. I’m not; I heard him speak on this subject once before, and it was infuriating in the depths of his bad history and even worse science.