The power of subconscious theories

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

The existence and history of religion tells us that people are willing to believe things for which there is no evidence and that they will fight to hold on to them even in the face of overwhelming evidence and arguments to the contrary. But when those beliefs collapse, as they sometimes do, the switch to disbelief can often be quite sudden. I know that in my case, I had been struggling (unsuccessfully) to reconcile my scientific ideas with that of a god for some time. The realization that everything made a lot more sense if there was no god hit me like a Gestalt switch.

One specific creationist religious belief whose origins I have been curious about is the bizarre argument that is advanced by anti-evolution religious people about how the lack of transitional fossils is undermining the theory of evolution. This argument mystifies scientists because it is so palpably wrong and the fossil evidence is so strong. So where does this weird idea come from? And why does it persist?

As much of research in science education has shown, robust misconceptions are often not simply bits of false knowledge (like thinking that Portland is the capital of the state of Maine) that can be easily corrected, but instead are the manifestations of elaborate theories that emerge from a deeply rooted but fundamentally flawed premise. As long as that flawed premise remains intact and unexamined, the misconceptions that flow from it will reappear even if countered in specific cases.

I have seen this phenomenon in my own teaching of electricity to people without a science background. One of the strong misconceptions that people have about electric current is that it emerges from a source (a battery or an electrical outlet), flows through the wire, and is then ‘used up’ by the radio or light or whatever device it is connected to. They also think that a battery always supplies the same amount of current. Based on this model of electricity, they will then make wrong predictions about how current will flow in more complicated circuits, say by connecting two or more devices to the same source of current.

In actuality, current is never used up. It just flows around in a circuit. Current flows out of one end of the battery (or other source), goes through one wire to the device, passes through the device, and then flows back through another wire into the other end of the battery. The amount of current flowing out of the battery at one end is exactly equal to the amount of current flowing into it at the other end. But it is extraordinarily hard to persuade novice learners of this model, even when they want to learn about electricity and have no reasons to resist it. After all, the Bible does not say anything about electricity. When I tell them how current really behaves, they believe me because I am an authority figure. But yet the misconceptions persist.

If you teach the right model of current to people and then ask them a direct question about how current flows, they will give back the right answer. But when they are asked something indirect, like giving them a circuit and asking them to predict how current will flow, very often they will come up with an answer that is at variance with how it really will behave. If you trace the reasoning of the wrong answer back to its source, you will find that it arises from their original misconception of current being used up and the battery producing a fixed amount of current, even though they consciously thought they had rejected that old way of thinking. When you point this out, they will think that this time they have definitely overcome the misconception. But when they are given a yet more complicated circuit, very often they will make a wrong prediction again, based on the same underlying misconception.

It is only after it has been repeatedly pointed out to them the important role that their basic deep misconception plays in their surface thinking that they switch to seeing the current flowing in a circuit. Once they make that switch in their basic misconception, there is no going back. They cannot imagine that they could have ever thought otherwise.

The reason this particular misconception about current is so deeply held is because people have constructed it on their own. Most of them are not even aware that they have this underlying theory of electricity because they have not consciously thought about it. The theory is built intuitively. Nobody taught it to them, they just ‘picked it up’ because it makes sense. After all, they know that appliances have a power cord that must be connected to an electrical supply system in order to work. They know that electrical devices ‘use up’ power because batteries eventually die. The power cord looks like a single tube, like a garden hose, and thus electricity seems like it can flow only in one direction. All these things make sense by assuming their simple model. Most people do not look more closely and wonder why the plug has two prongs and they do not break open the wires or their devices and find that there are incoming and outgoing pathways for the current.

The theories that people intuitively create for themselves are the hardest to refute because they are buried deeply in their thinking and are not consciously articulated by them. The consequences of these misconceptions are often erroneous but if we only correct the consequences without understanding and addressing the source, then we will find that same misconception rearing its head each time a novel situation is encountered.

The misconceptions about how evolution works are of the same kind. They are created deep in the minds of people at an early age, often by well meaning, science-supporting adults who tell their children that ‘we evolved from monkeys’ and by some of the visual images that we have of the process of evolution, such as the one that draws it as fish→amphibian→monkey→human (with the drawing of each showing what a current typical specimen looks like).

Once these misconceptions about evolution take root at an early age by a process of intuitive thinking, they become, just like the false electricity models, hard to dislodge in adulthood even by confronting people with the most clear reasoning.

As Jonathan Swift said, “You cannot reason a person out of a position he did not reason himself into in the first place.”

Next: The role that deep misconceptions play in evolution

POST SCRIPT: How not to stalk off an interview

It is not uncommon for guests on TV or radio to get miffed about something, throw a fit, and stalk off the set. Some may even do it deliberately as a strategy, knowing it will get them publicity. But it sometimes doesn’t work out well, with some forgetting to take off either the earpiece or the mike and getting yanked, resulting in a less-than-impressive exit.

But the award for the worst interview termination must surely go to Carrie Prejean. Remember her? Here are some keywords to jog your memory: Miss California who was stripped of her title, supporter of ‘opposite marriage’, breast implants, topless photos, Donald Trump, lawsuit against Miss USA pageant, sex video.

While on a tour promoting her book, she was irked by a question posed by Larry King of all people, who is notorious for his softball questions. So she removes her mike but instead of then walking off the set, she just sits there, talks to someone off-camera, and smiles at the camera as if she was competing in a pageant, leaving King baffled as to what is going on. Watch.

The key steps in adopting evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

Making a Gestalt-type switch is often aided by nudges from outside sources, and in the case of evolution, two such factors came into play: the age of the Earth and concerns about the effects of human population growth.

Darwin was fortunate that he lived in a time when advances in knowledge in other areas, such as the idea of uniformitarianism in geology, were coming along at the same time that he was pondering all the things he was observing on his voyage on the Beagle. The first edition of the first volume of Charles Lyell’s highly influential book The Principles of Geology was published in 1830 and was given to Darwin to read on his voyage on the Beagle that began in 1831. Its argument that small changes (such as erosion) can accumulate over long periods of time to produce major geological features such as mountains and gorges had an impact on him.

By measuring the rates of erosion and sedimentation that were occurring in his own time and calculating how long it would take at that rate to produce the existing rivers and canyons, Lyell concluded that the Earth must be hundreds of millions of years old. Furthermore, Lyell’s books discussed some of the fossil evidence that existed at that time because he used them as aids in arriving at the ages of rocks, although Lyell himself believed in special creation.

The fact that the Earth was now possibly hundreds of millions of years old, rather than merely thousands, created an intellectual environment that was more open to acceptance of the idea that new species can gradually evolve from old ones, because that needed long time spans too.

Darwin (and also Wallace) had a Gestalt-type switch when he was struggling to find the mechanism that causes species to evolve in a way that seemed to indicate directionality. The trigger was Thomas Malthus’s Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) that argued that populations would grow exponentially, except for the fact that they encounter limited resources that restricts growth because of starvation and premature death. This gave Darwin the idea that natural selection could serve as the mechanism he was looking for. In The autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809-1882 (Nora Barlow (ed), 1958, page 120), he describes his epiphany in ways that suggest a Gestalt-type switch:

In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement Malthus on Population, and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here, then, I had at last got a theory by which to work. (my italics)

Darwin and Wallace saw that if there are variations, then it makes sense that some variations are more likely to survive to adulthood and produce more offspring than others. If this advantageous property is heritable and passed on to its offspring then, over time, that particular variation will dominate the population. And by a very long series of such small changes, new species would emerge.

Once Darwin saw the world in this new way, there was no going back. And the rest, as they say, is history.

I have argued that the kinds of switches in viewing the world that Darwin and Wallace experienced are like Gestalt switches in perception. When one changes one’s perspective, suddenly things fall into place and new patterns emerge. What seemed inexplicable, mysterious, and even impossible before suddenly seems clear and even obvious. And once the new way of seeing things is pointed out to others, they immediately see it as obvious too. As Thomas Huxley said after learning how the theory of evolution worked, “How extremely stupid not to have thought of that!” As a result, the new view spreads like wildfire.

But even when told what to look for, not everyone makes the switch. There are some people who never see the new pattern, either because of a rigidity of attitude or, as we will see in the next posting in the case of evolution, because they do not want to see the new pattern because they cannot bear to give up the old one. For them the duck remains a duck and they never see a rabbit.

Next: The mental block of creationists

POST SCRIPT: Well, that didn’t take long!

On Tuesday, I wrote about the atheist billboard campaign in Ohio, putting up three billboards near Cleveland, Columbus, and Cincinnati. Some godly people in the Cincinnati area have already taken offense and threatened violence, requiring the billboard to be moved to another location.

See here for more details.

Gestalt switches in evolution

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

After Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species in 1859, large numbers of people were convinced in a very short time by his arguments, although full acceptance of the mechanism of natural selection took longer. But the idea of evolution had been in the air for some time. Why didn’t people before him see what Darwin and his co-discoverer Alfred Russell Wallace saw, since they had access to much of the same evidence that he had?

A possible reason is because the theory of evolution also required a Gestalt-type switch. People had been viewing the world through a prism of Platonic ideal forms. In the Platonic view, real objects are approximations to their ideal forms and it is only the ideal forms that matter and from which we get true information. So for example, for any triangle that we draw on paper, the angles will not add up to exactly 180 degrees because of the inevitable imperfections of our drawing and the inaccuracies of our measuring instruments. But the angles of all ideal triangles (that we can only conceive of in our minds) will always add up to 180 degrees, and it is the properties of that ideal form that is important to understand, not our real-life approximations.

While this way of looking at things is perfectly suited for mathematics, it leads people hopelessly astray when applied to biology. In the case of biological organisms, the Platonic model translates into thinking of each species as having an ideal form and of real organisms as just approximations that can and do deviate from the ideal in unimportant ways. So real chickens, with all their variety, are just imperfect manifestations of the ideal, perfect chicken that we can only conceive of in our minds. It is this perfect chicken that we need to study to understand what makes a chicken a chicken, the essence of chickenhood.

But the problem is that the ideal perfect chicken will necessarily always remains the same and cannot evolve into anything else, just like a triangle will not become a square nor will the sum of its angles slowly change with time. Platonic thinking rules out change but is perfectly consistent with the idea of a god creating every species as perfect unchangeable beings and part of a grand plan.

Darwin and Wallace both realized that it is the real forms of organisms that are important, not its idealized version, and furthermore that there are no ideal forms in biology. There is no idealized chicken. The variations found in real chickens, rather than being a nuisance detracting from our understanding of the ideal chicken, actually contain the key to understanding the nature of chickens and how they and other things can change. This shift in perception made the variations in a species central to our understanding, and not peripheral.

The likely reason that Darwin and Wallace may have been able to make the switch is because they spent some time traveling to other parts of the world and saw much more of the variety of life than those who stayed pretty much in one locality. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle confronted him with so much new information about the diversity of life in so many new locations that it forced him into new ways of thinking. Alfred Russell Wallace also had his epiphany while travelling through Asia collecting biological specimens that were exotic and new to him.

Once Darwin and Wallace had made this switch, things started falling into place. They realized that if one adds up these small variations cumulatively over a long time, then even though each one is so small that it cannot be observed with the naked eye or even in one’s lifetime, it can add up to huge changes, resulting in the emergence of new species, something that was ruled out by Platonic thinking.

Two things stood in the way of making such an idea workable. It seemed to require an inordinate amount of time, much longer than people at that time thought the Earth had existed, and it lacked a plausible mechanism for species change. An obvious objection to their model that they needed to find an answer for was why should the variations in organisms cumulatively add up to result in large changes? Why could they not simply vary randomly leaving, on average, no net change?

This is where other factors can play a role in making a Gestalt switch in perception.

Next: The key steps in ‘seeing’ evolution

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart parodies Glenn Beck

This clip has been all over the political blogs but it is well worth seeing. Utterly hilarious.

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Perception changes in physics

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here. You can also listen to the podcast of the interview on WCPN 90.3 about the book.)

In an earlier post, I suggested (following Thomas Kuhn) that Gestalt-type switches can play an important role in the creation and adoption of new theories in science. Today I want to look at specific examples of such changes.

Take the case of a simple pendulum, made by hanging a small weight from a fixed point by a string and setting it in motion by pulling it back and releasing it. What had been observed from time immemorial is the weight swinging back and forth with decreasing amplitude before finally coming to rest at the lowest point in its trajectory. People used to interpret this motion as the pendulum weight, when released, ‘seeking’ (to use anthropomorphic language) to get to its final resting place at the lowest point in its trajectory, but initially overshooting the mark, trying again to get to the lowest point, overshooting again by a smaller amount, and so on, until it finally reaches its destination and stays there.
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Atheist billboard campaign comes to Ohio

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

The North East Ohio Coalition of Reason (NEO-CoR), affiliated with the nationwide United Coalition of Reason (United COR), announced that the first billboards promoting atheism in Ohio have gone up as of today.

In our region it will be on I-480.


Many of the NEO-CoR’s members involved in this project come from the Cleveland Freethinkers and the Center for Inquiry Northeast Ohio (CFINO).

Similar billboards will appear in Columbus and Cincinatti.

Religious people tend to get in a real lather about public statements of disbelief, even though religious messages are all over the place. When a similar campaign by the Big Apple COR put ads on New York city subways that said, “A million New Yorkers are good without God. Are you?”, Sean Hannity said that people would be outraged if Christians put up religious signs in subways.

But as Think Progress pointed out, such religious signs are in fact commonplace. All that Hannity’s statement shows is that he must never take the subway.

Fred Edwords, former communications director of the American Humanists Association (AHA) and now head of United COR, appeared on Bill O’Reilly’s show in November of last year because of another ad campaign on buses in Washington DC that said “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness’ sake” that O’Reilly saw (of course) as part of the war on Christmas.

(Speaking of the War on Christmas, where has the time gone? Here it is November again already, and I haven’t made any preparations whatsoever for this year’s war against the godly. Tsk, tsk, shame on me. All you warriors out there, remember that you have only 45 days left to ruin Christmas for everyone by wishing people “Season’s Greetings” or, if you are feeling really mean spirited, “Happy Holidays.”)

In Des Moines, Iowa, an atheist ad campaign that merely said “Don’t believe in God? You are not alone” was deemed to be too offensive and removed from buses. The governor of the state Chet Culver was “disturbed” by the ads, the poor baby.

One bus driver in Des Moines even refused to drive a bus that carried the ad, saying that the message was against her Christian faith. That is truly pathetic.

The Arizona COR has a nice video explaining what this movement is all about and the benefits of reason over faith.

I am curious to see what the reaction to the billboards will be in Ohio, which is quite a religious part of the country.

POST SCRIPT: The indefensible history of the Catholic church

The BBC sponsored a debate on the proposition “The Catholic church is a force for good in the world”. Speaking in favor was John Onaiyekan, an Archbishop from Nigeria, and Ann Widdecombe, a British MP who used to be an Episcopalian but became a Catholic when her former church began ordaining women priests. Speaking against were Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry.

It was a rout. Hitchens and Fry utterly trounced their opponents. This is not just my opinion. Even the Catholic columnist for the Guardian newspaper said so, but the voting of the audience was the most decisive:

Before the debate: In favor 678, against 1102, undecided 346
After the debate: In favor 268, against 1876, undecided 34

Over 400 initial supporters of the proposition actually switched to the opposite side, which was an unprecedented swing in the history of these debates.

You can see the debate below.

Gestalt switches in science

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

In the history of science, we have often seen a theory being accepted and used over a long period and then replaced with a new one, with the transition occurring over a relatively short time. Sometimes the new theory is fairly simple and we marvel as to why people did not think of it before. For example, the Copernican heliocentric model is not a complicated idea when compared to the previous geocentric model. Similarly Newtonian mechanics can be formulated in terms of laws that are very simple mathematically and easy to understand. The essential ideas of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection can also be stated in a few simple sentences.
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Ray Comfort’s shamelessness

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

You may recall the series of posts where I critiqued Ray Comfort’s introduction to his reissue of Charles Darwin’s classic work On the Origin of Species (part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5). I said that the first part consisted of a brief biography followed by a timeline of Darwin’s life. These sections seemed straightforward and so I did not say anything, apart from making fun of him for using the euphemism “went to meet his Maker” instead of the simpler “died”. (The original document disappeared for a while and has reappeared in a slightly revised form. One of the changes is that “went to meet his Maker” has now been replaced by “died”. I don’t think my comments had anything to do with it.)

It was only the rest of the introduction, dealing with his laughably inane arguments against evolution and his final come-to-Jesus plea that I strongly critiqued. At that time, I thought that Comfort was merely ignorant and stupid, which are no crimes, but I now realize that he is also willfully deceptive and totally shameless. Eugenie Scott, head of the National Center for Science Education, called him out on the fact that his reissue left out four chapters of Darwin’s book: chapter 9 where Darwin looks at transitional fossils, chapters 11 and 12 where he examines the powerful arguments from biogeography which he found so persuasive, and chapter 13 where he examines the morphological arguments (i.e., arguments based on the similarities in body structures of organisms). In response, instead of squirming with embarrassment at being caught, Comfort merely says that the second printing would contain the missing chapters, as if this were some minor issue and not a gross attempt at deception.

But the horrors do not end there. It now emerges that the reason his brief biography of Darwin was so inoffensive was that most of the words were not his own. Comfort seems to have cut and pasted large chunks of it from a handout prepared for Darwin Day by biologist Dr. Stan Guffey at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville without any attribution whatsoever. And even the timeline that followed the biography was lifted in its entirety from a press release from Britain’s Natural History Museum, with only a footnote as to the source, rather than accompanied by the customary statement or other indication (such as indented text or quotation marks) that it was being used verbatim.

To judge how blatant is Comfort’s appropriation of Guffey’s work, I reproduce Guffey’s text in its entirety below, with the bold portion being exactly the same words that appeared in Comfort’s introduction. As for the rest, Comfort has paraphrased Guffey’s text. The length of ‘Comfort’s biography’ (I put ironic quotes since he cannot claim credit for it) is almost the same as Guffey’s, so you can see how similar the two documents must be. (Comfort spells Guffey’s “Downe” as “Down” and I have ignored that difference.)

Charles Robert Darwin was born February 12, 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. His family was of the newly emerged, newly wealthy, provincial professional class. Early in his youth he demonstrated predilections for hunting, natural history, and scientific experimentation. In 1825, after public school education, he enrolled at Edinburgh University. His intention was to follow his father in the practice of medicine, but he soon found such studies rather distasteful.

Two years later Darwin enrolled at Christ’s College, Cambridge to study theology—a subject which he didn’t enjoy either, with the intention of a career in the Church of England. As at Edinburgh, he often neglected his studies. In spite of this, he managed to pass his examinations in 1831 and left Cambridge.

While pondering his future and whiling away the time hunting and exploring local natural history and geology, he was presented with an opportunity that would change the course of his life. John Henslow, Professor of Botany at Cambridge, had recommended him for a position on a British Navy survey vessel. The HMS Beagle was outfitting to sail on a two year coastal survey expedition to South America, and her captain was anxious to have a naturalist and gentleman companion on board. The voyage ended up lasting [nearly] five years, during which time Darwin was able to explore extensively in South America and numerous islands in the Pacific Ocean, including the Galapagos.

On returning to England in 1836, Darwin set to work examining and disseminating the extensive collection of natural history specimens acquired during the voyage. He quickly established a reputation as an accomplished naturalist on the London scene. In 1839 he married Emma Wedgwood, and saw his journal of the voyage of the Beagle published. In 1842 he and Emma moved to Downe house, Kent where Emma would bear 10 children and she and he would live for the rest of their lives.

Shortly after his return England Darwin had begun the first of his “species transmutation” notebooks. On his great adventure as the Beagle’s naturalist Darwin had noted and begun to ponder certain aspects of the morphology and biogeography of the many species of plants and animals that he had observed. In particular, he had begun to explore the possibility, and eventually concluded, that species exhibited varying degrees of similarity because they are to varying degrees related. It appears that by 1838 his concept of descent with modification by the mechanism of natural selection was largely formed. And then he mostly, but not entirely, abandoned the enterprise for the time being.

However, in 1858 Darwin learned that a naturalist working in south Asia, Alfred Russell Wallace, was developing ideas about the evolution of species similar to his own. At the urging of friends he prepared a brief paper which was read before the Royal Society along with the paper Wallace had written. He then published in 1859 On the Origin of Species, which he considered an abstract of a larger future work.

During the remainder of his life Darwin continued his research, publishing three additional books on explicitly evolutionary topics, and other books on topics including climbing plants, insect-orchid mutualisms, and earthworms. The gentle and unassuming Charles Darwin, loving and devoted spouse and parent, dedicated scholar, intellectual giant, died at Downe House on April 19, 1882 with his wife Emma by his side.

In his previous efforts to discuss evolution, Ray Comfort has shown that he is ignorant and stupid and a spreader of misery and fear. In this latest episode, this alleged man of god shows that he is totally shameless. Does he not realize that this kind of behavior discredits the very god that he wants to praise?

In the link to his introduction given above, Comfort also supposedly has the full text of On the Origin of Species. No one should trust Comfort to have reproduced it faithfully. He has shown that he is willing to modify that text to serve his purposes. If anyone is interested in reading Darwin’s classic works which are all available freely online, I suggest that you go to a trustworthy source.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the vacuity of TV punditry

This was broadcast on election night Tuesday before the results were out.

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Introducing the ‘Unapologetic Atheist’

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

The term ‘new atheists’ has been used to describe those people like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Victor Stenger, and Christopher Hitchens who have called for an end to the undue deference paid to religious beliefs and have a leveled a broadside attack on all religious beliefs, not just those of so-called fundamentalists. They (and I) argue that statements of religious beliefs should be treated like any other propositions and subject to the same level of scrutiny. The fact that such beliefs are deeply held by many people is no reason for giving them a pass, any more than we would give a pass to beliefs about astrology or homeopathy or crystal-ball gazing or any other evidence-free superstition.

But the label ‘new atheism’ does not sit well with some ‘new atheists’ because it is seen as inaccurate. After all, there is nothing really new in the arguments of the new atheism, except in so far as new science is making the god hypothesis increasingly superfluous. And many of the ‘new atheists’ have been atheists for almost all their adult lives and are not recent disbelievers.

In a previous post titled Being a new atheist means not saying you’re sorry, I said that what really distinguishes the so-called ‘new atheists’ from other atheists (such as those who are labeled accommodationists) is that the new atheists do not feel the need to feel sorry about their unbelief, as if it were something they should not have or would prefer not to have. The expected behavior of atheists seems to be that they should go to extraordinary lengths to soothe the feelings of believers, by prefacing any statement about atheism by sighing regretfully and saying things along the lines of “I hate to say this but I don’t believe in god. But this is a personal belief that I have reluctantly accepted and I can understand why others might choose to believe in god. In fact, I envy the emotional satisfaction that religious beliefs provide. I hope you are not offended by my saying I am an atheist and if you are I sincerely apologize.” This is an absurd expectation.

In a comment to that post, ‘Wonderist‘ made the excellent suggestion that instead of the term ‘new atheist’, we should use the term ‘unapologetic atheist’, and that what we advocate is ‘unapologetics’ to counter the ‘apologetics’ of religious believers. In further comments to that same post, he says that looking around the web, the term ‘new atheist’ originally had a somewhat neutral meaning but later began to be applied by accommodationists like Chris Mooney and Michael Ruse in a negative way by implying that it carried with it all the old stereotypes of atheists being arrogant, rude, uncivil, etc.

Wonderist’s idea makes a lot of logical sense but I am not certain that this term will catch on. For starters, it will have to be picked up by more prominent people and repeated in more prominent media to gain traction. Wonderist says in his comments that he has made a start in this direction by triggering discussions elsewhere on various sites and the feedback seems to have been positive so far.

Simply from a marketing standpoint, there is some advantage to staying with the word ‘new’. The word new has very positive connotations, despite its vagueness and inaccuracy. It is short and snappy. ‘Unapologetic’ is undoubtedly more accurate but it has two major disadvantages: it is six syllables long, and is defined negatively, as not something else or opposite to something else. These may or may not be fatal flaws to its final adoption. As I value accuracy more than marketing, I am going to start using the label ‘unapologetic atheist’ unless ‘new atheist’ is required by the context.

There are many ways that this could go. Control over the meaning of the term ‘new atheists’ may be taken over by those to whom the term is applied and branded positively, the way that the gay community took the formerly pejorative word ‘queer’ and are starting to make it their own. The word ‘feminist’ is currently undergoing a similar struggle for meaning with feminists trying to retain the positive meaning of the word from those who are trying to make it into a negative stereotype.

The ownership of ‘new atheist’ is up for grabs. While advocating for the label of ‘unapologetic’, I think we should not cede control of the term ‘new atheist’ to those who want to use it pejoratively. We should use it positively and proudly and make people realize that it in this context, new is just a synonym for unapologetic.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart on how Fox ‘News’ works

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Why Ussher’s calculations undermine the credibility of the Bible

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Bishop James Ussher actually did quite an impressive feat of calculation, careful and thorough, to arrive at his creation date of 4004 BCE. Once he had got the year of creation fixed, Ussher was able to provide precise dates for other key events in the Bible:

2348 BC – Noah’s Flood
1921 BC – God’s call to Abraham
1491 BC – The Exodus from Egypt
1012 BC – Founding of the Temple in Jerusalem
586 BC – Destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon and the beginning of the Babylonian Captivity

Although creationists take Ussher’s work as correct, this causes problems for them. For example, since Noah’s flood in 2348 BCE supposedly wiped out everything (except those living things that could swim or float or were saved in the Ark), according to Biblical literalists, all history must be compressed within the last 4,500 years, even less time than the commonly used figure of 6,000 years.
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Ussher’s calculation methods

(My latest book God vs. Darwin: The War Between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom has just been released and is now available through the usual outlets. You can order it from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, the publishers Rowman & Littlefield, and also through your local bookstores. For more on the book, see here.)

Bishop James Ussher arrived at his creation year of 4004 BCE by going backwards, starting by first fixing the date of the earliest event in the Bible that could be corroborated with other historical sources. This occurred after the capture and taking into exile of king Jehoiachin of Judah by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in 597 BCE. The death of Nebuchadnezzar in 562 BCE (the date of which was known from other sources) is reported in the Bible to have coincided with the 37th year of exile of Jehoiachin, as stated in the Bible in 2 Kings 25:27. (Note that the dates are sometimes off by a year or two because of the differences in the calendars in use at that time.)

From that fixed reference point he worked backwards using the Bible alone, first by adding up the years that the successive kings ruled the divided kingdoms, the southern one of Judah and the northern one of Israel, and then going further back using the famous ‘begats’ in the Bible which gives a genealogy that goes back to Adam. For example, Genesis 5 gives the chronology from Adam to Noah, and then after a lot of stuff about the flood, Genesis 11 gives the genealogy from Noah to Abraham.

It is interesting that in addition to saying how long each person lived, it gives the crucial information as to the age of the person when his eldest son was born, without which Ussher’s calculation cannot be done. I am intrigued as to why the authors of the Bible put in that gratuitous piece of extra information, which is not an obvious thing to do, unless they wanted to create a timeline.

It is interesting that from Adam to Abraham, there is an unbroken line of males. The youngest age at which any of them had their first son was 65 but Noah is the clear record holder for the oldest father, his oldest son being born when he was 500! The oldest man ever was Methuselah who lived to the age of 969, though he had his first son when he was a mere child of 187. Oddly enough, after Noah, although the men still lived for hundreds of years, the age at which they became fathers for the first time drops suddenly to the early thirties, until it gets to the father of Abraham who was 70.

Although the genealogies say that sons and daughters were born, only males are named. As far as I can tell, after Eve, all the women who are born are nameless until we get to Sarah, Abraham’s wife, about 1,800 years later.

Ussher’s choice of the Hebrew Bible to obtain his chronology may have been influenced by the fact that this particular Bible gives a nice round date of 4000 BCE for the year of creation. The then current belief was that the world would last only 6,000 years, this being the interpretation of the six days of creation in Genesis combined with the statement in Psalms 90: 4 that “For a thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night” and the New Testament statement (2 Peter 3:8) that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” Thus according to his chronology, Jesus was born 4,000 years after the creation and the world would end in 2,000 CE (also called the Anno Domini or AD calendar), which provided a nice symmetry, no doubt showing that god was a careful planner.

However, that rounding of dates had to be adjusted because the creator of the CE calendar had made a mistake. When corrected, it was noted that King Herod had begun his reign in 37 BCE and died in 4 BCE, so Jesus had to have been born sometime during that period because the New Testament says Jesus was born during Herod’s reign. Ussher fixed Jesus’s birth year as 4 BCE and this required the shifting of all the dates by 4 years, moving the year of creation to 4004 BCE.

Wikipedia has an summary of how Ussher managed to pin point the very day when god created the world.

The season in which Creation occurred was the subject of considerable theological debate in Ussher’s time. Many scholars proposed it had taken place in the spring, the start of the Babylonian, Chaldean and other cultures’ chronologies. Others, including Ussher, thought it more likely that it had occurred in the autumn, largely because that season marked the beginning of the Jewish year.

Ussher further narrowed down the date by using the Jewish calendar to establish Creation as beginning on a Sunday near the autumnal equinox. The day of the week was a backward calculation from the six days of creation with God resting on the seventh, which in the Jewish tradition is Saturday — hence Creation began on a Sunday. The astronomical tables that Ussher probably used were Kepler’s Tabulae Rudolphinae (Rudolphine Tables, 1627). Using them, he would have concluded that the equinox occurred on Tuesday October 25, only one day earlier than the traditional day of its creation, on the fourth day of Creation week, Wednesday, along with the Sun, Moon, and stars (Genesis 1:16). Modern equations place the autumnal equinox of 4004 BC on Sunday October 23.

Ussher stated his time of Creation (nightfall preceding October 23) on the first page of Annales in Latin and on the first page of its English translation Annals of the World (1658).

You can read the first page of his book (a revised edition with the English updated to be easily intelligible to the modern reader) here. Sometimes one hears that he fixed the time of creation as 9:00 am but that claim was made by someone else before Ussher and has been mistakenly attributed to him.

I have to admit that I kind of like Ussher’s calculations. The fact that it is totally wrong and that to take it seriously now is to live in an alternative reality does not diminish his achievement.

POST SCRIPT: How to choose your religion

Looking for a religion but not sure which to pick from the wide variety of choices? GrrlScientist has put together a nifty little flowchart to help you out. (via Pharyngula)