It must be “Pick on Indiana Day”

No hard feelings, people, I lived there for a while…but Hoosiers sure can pick ’em. I was there when Dan Quayle was the hero of the hour, and I had no idea they could sink even lower. Here he is, though: Congressman Mark Souder, who claims that the highlight of his year was appearing in Expelled. Seriously, and with fervor.

I personally believe that there is no issue more important to our society than intelligent design. I believe that if there wasn’t a purpose in designing you — regardless of who you view the designer as being — then, from my perspective, you can’t be fallen from that design. If you can’t be fallen from that design, there’s no point to evangelism.

Well, there you go. The economy is a mess, we’re in a war, and the most important thing in the world to an Indiana congressman is proselytizing for Jesus in a crappy Intelligent Design creationism movie.

Now, how that occurred — whether you believe in the young earth theory, gradual evolution, or whatever — is disputed. Those become religious. But whether there was a fundamental designer who developed a complex DNA molecular structure is critical. Since I view that as the most important thing in the world, yes, being in a movie that advanced that cause was the personal highlight of the year.

Hey, I was in that movie, too! I still haven’t seen it, though. Maybe Souder’s performance would turn me into a born-again Christian if I saw it.

Nah…I predict that he was a corn-poney dope in the movie, just like he is in the interview.

A suggestion for Elwood, Indiana

Rename the town “Peckerwood”.1 It would be more fitting. Addition of the modifier “two-bit” is entirely optional.

Here’s the story. Local citizen walks into the Public Library, and notices that it is displaying a Christian nativity scene. He asks to meet with the library director to complain. This, of course, violates the God-given right of Christians to use state resources to trumpet their piety in the public square exclusively, so stark raving hysteria erupts. The director makes counter-accusations, lies to the local media, and suggests that the nasty little atheist ought not to use the library if he dislikes it. Other library employees post an exaggerated version of the incident to the web. Now the poor guy is worried about his safety and that of his family.

Let this be a lesson to you. If you are an atheist, you do not have a right to object to religion being thrust in your face. Sit down and shut up.2 Especially if you are living in a place like Peckerwood, Indiana.


1I’m not being original. I bet half the kids in that town already call it that.

2You know I’m being sarcastic. The real message is that you might as well stand up and holler louder — polite restraint gains you nothing at all.

Another atheist bashing

Ho hum, it’s Madeleine Bunting, who we’ve encountered before. Her essay starts out well enough, cheering on the coming Darwin celebrations, explaining how this is a great opportunity for the promotion of science, etc., etc., etc., but—there’s always a but—oh, deary me, it’s going to be hijacked by those dreadful atheists. We have to do something about all the baggage that has been piled on poor Darwin’s deceased back.

So the first imperative for the anniversary is to strip away the accumulation of mythology that has made Darwin such a villain.

Wait…for an article that is supposedly praising Darwin, what is this about his villainy? I certainly don’t think of him as one; the scientists I know are all on his side; it’s only those crazy ideologues, the creationists, who attach such opprobrium to his name. We quickly discover what equals villainy in Bunting’s mind: atheism.

In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Darwin kept his pronouncements on religion to a minimum, partly out of respect for his Christian wife. Despite continuing claims that he was an atheist, most scholars acknowledge that he never went further than agnosticism.

Yes, yes, we know. We’ve read his memoirs. We know he was unreligious, but was also conservative and cautious, and preferred to call himself an agnostic. No one knowledgeable is saying otherwise.

However, he would not have been baffled at all by atheists celebrating his ideas. He well knew himself that evolution stripped the need for a creator as a guiding force in the history of life — it’s one of the reasons he hesitated to publish, and he knew that it would be detested by the clergy. He felt that revealing his secret was “like confessing a murder,” and he knew that evolution was fully compatible with atheism but in conflict with many interpretations of religious belief. Baffled? Heck no. He expected us, even as he feared the consequences. Darwin removed one of the last obstacles to dispensing altogether with the notion of gods, and he knew it.

So certainly atheists will be celebrating this year. Is there something wrong with that? To Bunting, this is apparently deplorable.

The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up). Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin’s theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events. It’s a position that infuriates many scientists, not to mention philosophers and theologians.

Well? Should Dawkins and Dennett stay home this year? Should only professing Christians who are scientists be allowed to speak in praise of Darwin in public? She seems upset that atheists will actually be given a voice in the Darwin bicentennial!

Let those philosophers and theologians, and even those scientists, be infuriated. Religion is ridiculous, and we aren’t going to be silenced because a few people maintain a ludicrous deference for old myths.

Oh, no! The New Atheists are getting attacked again!

Well, it’s nothing to be concerned about. Just more of the same ol’, same ol’, with nothing much of substance to grapple with. Let’s tackle Andrew Brown’s complaints first. Brown is not a stupid fellow, but I see here a hint of irrationally roused hackles, with little explanation of what exactly he is complaining about. First he names a few of the people he identifies as New Atheists, and then he lists what he considers to be defining characters of this group. Look who he names: I made the grade!

So, who are they? The ideas I claim are distinctive of the new atheists have been collected from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Jerry Coyne, the American physicist Robert L. Park, and a couple of blogging biologists, P Z Myers and Larry Moran. They have two things in common. They are none of them philosophers and, though most are scientists, none study psychology, history, the sociology of religion, or any other discipline which might cast light on the objects of their execration. All of them make claims about religion and about believers which go far beyond the mere disbelief in God which I take to be the distinguishing mark of an atheist.

It’s an unfortunate paragraph, though. He reached for a couple of bloggers to throw in the pot and notes the dreadful lack of philosophers in our ranks…but alas, he seems to have neglected a few rather more prominent names, which damage his premise rather severely. Where’s Dan Dennett? Shouldn’t he have been named right there with Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens? Perhaps because he is a philosopher, he isn’t really a New Atheist. And what about A.C. Grayling? He always seems to be vociferously godless, and he certainly ought to qualify.

I don’t think it is required that one be a philosopher to be able to be loudly atheist, anyway. Brown notes that this is a political and social movement, which is true, and denies that there’s anything intellectual about it, which I deny. Philosophers do not have a monopoly on social, political, or intellectual issues, so it is rather irrelevant. He might as well have noted that there is an absence of plumbers in his list, which means we must all be unqualified to discuss politics or the economy. Neither are any of us named Joe.

But let that pass. Brown does something interesting: he attempts to define the six characteristic premises of the New Atheism, and invites everyone to keep score. OK! Let’s see how I stack up.

  • There is something called “Faith” which can be defined as unjustified belief held in the teeth of the evidence. Faith is primarily a matter of false propositional belief.

Hmmm. “Unjustified” I’ll accept, but I don’t agree that faith is necessarily false. Still, I’ll give it to him in my case: +1 for PZ.

  • The cure for faith is science: The existence of God is a scientific question: either he exists or he doesn’t. “Science is the only way of knowing – everything else is just superstition” [Robert L. Park]

Again, there are two things muddled up here, and I accept part but not the other. The existence of a god certainly is a scientific question. If there exists a prime mover or a cosmic watchmaker or a meddling tinkerer or a thunderbolt-flinging patriarch, and if it had or is having an effect on the universe, then yes, god is something we should be able to detect. If god is some nebulous entity that is not part of or is not involved in affecting our existence, then it is irrelevant and can be ignored.

But I don’t think science is the cure for faith. It can be, for some of us, but for others there is a welter of emotional and social issues that are tied up in belief, too. I can give myself only ½ point here, but maybe I’d deserve a full point if the assertion weren’t so confused.

  • Science is the opposite of religion, and will lead people into the clear sunlit uplands of reason. “The real war is between rationalism and superstition. Science is but one form of rationalism, while religion is the most common form of superstition” [Jerry Coyne] “I am not attacking any particular version of God or gods. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural, wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.” [Dawkins]

He does it again! I like the quotes, but Coyne’s comment rather clearly states some complexities in the two concepts that belie the Manichean conflict Brown tries to set up. I can only award myself ½ point here, although if he’d just presented the quotes without his strange interpretation it would have gotten a full thumbs up from me.

  • In this great struggle, religion is doomed. Enlightened common sense is gradually triumphing and at the end of the process, humanity will assume a new and better character, free from the shackles of religion. Without faith, we would be better as well as wiser. Conflict is primarily a result of misunderstanding, of which Faith is the paradigm. (Looking for links, I just came across a lovely example of this in the endnotes to the Selfish Gene, where lawyers are dismissed as “solving man-made problems that should never have existed in the first place”.)

Nope, I disagree 100% with this one. I don’t see religion as doomed at all; there’s plenty of evidence that many people will happily swallow all kinds of fabulous pixie dust to think that atheism is destined to succeed. It’s going to be an uphill struggle all the way. I also don’t believe that being godless is sufficient to be a good, wise person, nor that people afflicted with superstition must be evil and stupid. That does not mean, however, that we shouldn’t vigorously oppose stupid ideas…like religion.

0 points.

  • Religion exists. It is essentially something like American fundamentalist protestantism, or Islam. More moderate forms are false and treacherous: if anything even more dangerous, because they conceal the raging, homicidal lunacy that is religion’s true nature. [Sam Harris]

Another goose-egg for Brown, I’m afraid. His first two words are OK, but the rest is garbage. My personal image of religion isn’t fundamentalist at all, but the quietly gullible, unquestioning, moderate faith of my mother’s family. I don’t think it usually causes serious conflict, let alone “raging, homicidal lunacy”, but it does undercut critical thinking, and as we’ve seen in the past few years in America, that’s dangerous.

Just because that faith doesn’t lead to loud rants against perceived wickedness or parishioners spasming on the floor or mobs with torches doesn’t mean it isn’t wrong, though, and it’s that to which I object.

  • Faith, as defined above, is the most dangerous and wicked force on earth today and the struggle against it and especially against Islam will define the future of humanity. [Everyone]

Man, this is getting bad. No, all the way through. I don’t especially pick on Islam — it’s not a major force in my neighborhood — and hey, doesn’t this contradict his previous claim, where we’re supposed to find more moderate forms of religion “even more dangerous” than Islam? I think religion is an enabling error that is patently false, and one that is made worse by the studious attempt of so many to make excuses for it. But if, for instance, religion evaporated in the Middle East tomorrow, I don’t think peace and fellowship would descend on the region: nationalism, ethnic bigotry, and historical grudges would guarantee that danger and wickedness would continue. It would remove one obvious contributor to stupidity.

Well, crap. I got a grand total of 2 out of 6. Andrew is going to have to strike my name from the distinguished list of New Atheists. Maybe that will make room for Dan Dennett…but somehow, I don’t think he’ll get a very high score, either.

I guess he’ll have to try again. Maybe next time, Andrew can also lay out what he finds objectionable about the New Atheists himself, rather than just tossing out definitions and pretending their heinousness is self-evident.

The advantages of being a biologist

A reader sent me this photo of a lovely monument in Antwerp, and I just had to post it. You see, when you’re a biologist, it’s not just all about the squid and the barnacles, there’s also all the hot babes.

i-eeaea16a3c17de7b5302e208785b88ad-Antwerp -Darwin.jpeg

The voluptuous young lady is, apparently, the personification of Nature. I just knew she was gorgeous, but I understand she also has a cruel streak.

To be fair, if anyone has a picture of, say, a Barbara McClintock monument with a nude Adonis snuggling up to her, I’ll post that, too. Both sexes are equally attractive in this field, you know.

In my mailbox

Checking my mail today, I discovered one curiosity, one holiday card, and one piece of Very Official Stationery from the University that employs me.

The curiosity: I actually got a reprint request. Those are very strange — it used to be that you’d always get a flurry of these after publishing something, and you’d be sure to order lots of extra copies of your paper so you could send them out, but nowadays they are going the way of the dodo. It’s so much easier to download the paper from the journal’s electronic archives, and even when I get a request because of limited access, I can just email a pdf. I usually only get these from third world countries anymore. This one, though, was from the US. From Liberty University. Asking for a copy of my review of Miller’s book. Weird. Sorry, but I don’t have any paper copies of that article…and the request didn’t include an email address. How quaint!

The holiday card: it was from the OSU Students for Freethought. May the FSM nod benignly upon you, and caress you all with his pastalicious appendages.

The Official Notice: my request for a sabbatical leave next year has been Officially Approved! Huzzah! I have big plans for some serious writing, new course development, and new research directions, and now I may actually get the time to do it all.

False equivalence

I’ve been seeing this argument a lot lately: it’s a brand of exceedingly indiscriminate relativism that is being prominently peddled by Answers in Genesis.

Creationists and evolutionists, Christians and non-Christians, all have the same evidence–the same facts. Think about it: we all have the same earth, the same fossil layers, the same animals and plants, the same stars—the facts are all the same.


The difference is in the way we all interpret the facts. And why do we interpret facts differently? Because we start with different presuppositions; these are things that are assumed to be true without being able to prove them. These then become the basis for other conclusions. All reasoning is based on presuppositions (also called axioms). This becomes especially relevant when dealing with past events.

It’s true, I do have some presuppositions. I think that explanations should deal with as much of the evidence as possible; they should avoid contradictions, both internal and with the evidence from the physical world; they should be logical; they should make predictions that can be tested; they should have some utility in addressing new evidence. It’s not too much to ask, I don’t think. “Darwin” is not one of my presuppositions, however. Charles Darwin provided a set of explanations that, after some modification, meet my criteria. I am quite prepared to throw Darwin out, however, if a better explanation came along or if evidence that contradicted his ideas were discovered.

I am not prepared to throw out logic and consistency. The creationists are.

Their cartoon version of equivalence highlights their problem. If we all have the same facts and just different interpretations based on what book we use as a starting premise, how do we discriminate between better interpretations? Are they all equally valid? Imagine “Darwin” replaced with “Koran” — do they really want to argue that the Islamic vision of the world is just as useful as the Christian view? (I would, of course, but that’s because I think both are foolish and narrow.) Swap in the Book of Mormon: that does not mean that suddenly there is truth to the notion of pale-skinned Hebrews warring across the New World in bronze chariots. The existence of Lord of the Rings does not imply that Tolkien fans should believe the world really was populated with elves and orcs, once upon a time.

There are presuppositions, and then there are presuppositions. We should at least try to test our premises, and I think we can all agree that it is possible to rank different presuppositions on the basis of how well they describe reality. Most of us can recognize that Lord of the Rings, Star Trek, and Star Wars are fictions, that what they describe doesn’t exist, and that they probably aren’t very good filters to use in evaluating paleontological evidence. That someone who has accepted The Force as his one true religion does not mean that his claim that Homo erectus is a Wookie requires recognition as a reasonable interpretation.

Similarly, the Bible does not hold up well as a rational presupposition. Its descriptions of how the world works (and, as every rational person knows, it was not intended as a science textbook) are inadequate and full of errors. The portions of the book of Genesis that creationists use as their sole source for the origin of life on Earth is only a few lines of vague poetry, with two self-contradicting accounts of the sequence of events…and it’s a sequence that does not correspond at all well to the observed record of events, and that blithely lumps fish and birds into one useless catch-all category. If this is their lens for viewing the world, it’s a cracked one that is almost entirely opaque.

And no, the fact that the Bible contains one line that mentions a mythical creature called Behemoth does not mean it adequately accounts for all of large animal zoology, nor can one simply claim it is equivalent to a dinosaur, and therefore the Bible is a complete account of the history of life. Dinosaurs were diverse. And shouldn’t it be a greater omission that the Bible fails to mention anything about bacteria?

The patently incomplete nature of the Bible’s descriptions of Earth’s history led honest creationists to admit that further understanding of the Creation required evaluation of the physical evidence. You can’t just claim that humans and dinosaurs coexisted 6,000 years ago: there is no fossil evidence that they were contemporaries, there is no sign of dinosaurs existing so close to the current time, and even within the period of the Mesozoic we can find evidence of faunal succession — the forms found in the Triassic are different from those of the Jurassic are different from those of the Cretaceous. It is not sufficient to simply claim the Bible is your presupposition, therefore you can freely invent facts to fit it — there ought to be some corroborating evidence that shows your interpretations are reasonable. There aren’t any.

And please, when your presuppositions lead to ridiculous assertions, it’s time to question your premises. One of the examples this silly AiG article uses to justify its peculiar relativism is the interpretation of dating methods. Can you see the glaring problem in this rationale from the disgracefully sloppy work of Russell Humphreys?

Consider the research from the creationist RATE group (Radioisotopes and the Age of The Earth) concerning the age of zircon crystals in granite. Using one set of assumptions, these crystals could be interpreted to be around 1.5 billion years old based on the amount of lead produced from the decay of uranium (which also produces helium). However, if one questions these assumptions, one is motivated to test them. Measurements of the rate at which helium is able to “leak out” of these crystals indicate that if they were much older than about 6,000 years, they would have nowhere near the amount of helium still left in them. Hence, the originally applied assumption of a constant decay rate is flawed; one must assume, instead, that there has been acceleration of the decay rate in the past. Using this revised assumption, the same uranium-lead data can now be interpreted to also give an age of fewer than 6,000 years.

Using their Biblical presupposition, they need to explain away the evidence of the accumulation of radioactive decay products by assuming that decay rates were roughly one million fold greater in the recent past. They are making a “revised assumption” that would mean that the planet should have exploded into a great glowing cloud of hot vapor a few thousand years ago! Shouldn’t that sort of compel you to rethink your excuses? But no, these guys just sail past the glaring contradiction with empirical reality as if it didn’t exist.

There’s a good reason creationism is not regarded as a fair equivalent to the scientific point of view. It’s because the former fails to pay attention to the physical evidence, while the latter is built, not on presuppositions, but on that evidence.

Old news: abstinence pledges don’t work

Another study finds that abstinence-only sex ed is a failure. Not that it will matter, proponents of such fantasy solutions will just close their eyes and pray harder.

Teens who take virginity pledges are just as likely to have sex as teens who don’t make such promises — and they’re less likely to practice safe sex to prevent disease or pregnancy, a new study finds.

You know what might work? Maybe the fans of abstinence only sex ed ought to distribute this study by Rosenbaum far and wide. It’s saying that the people who make virginity pledges are more likely to be dangerously diseased or fertile, which might discourage a few randy young men. “Oh, you’ve sworn to be abstinent? I won’t try to dissuade you…and excuse me, I have to go wash my hands and take a bath in disinfectant.”

A few more results from this study:

Teens who had taken a pledge had 0.1 fewer sex partners during the past year, but the same number of partners overall as those who had not pledged. And pledgers started having sex at the same age as non-pledgers, Rosenbaum found.

The study also found that teens who took a virginity pledge were 10 percent less likely to use a condom and less likely to use any other form of birth control than their non-pledging counterparts.

“Sex education programs for teens who take pledges tend to be very negative and inaccurate about condom and birth control information,” Rosenbaum said.

The study also found that, five years after taking a virginity pledge, more than 80 percent of pledgers denied ever making such a promise. “This high rate of disaffiliation may imply that nearly all virginity pledgers view pledges as nonbinding,” Rosenbaum said.

Charming. How much money has our country sunk into these ineffective sops to the controlling dimwits of the religious right?