The morality of atheists

That atheists can be virtuous is so obvious that it is not something that needs to be stated. But we know that it was not always thought so, especially in early modern times. And even now, we often hear the specious argument being advanced that since god is the source of moral values, an atheist cannot be expected to have any. I won’t even bother to respond to that silly argument. But I came across this interesting article by Michael Hickson, a professor of philosophy, who describes the evolution of attitudes towards atheists.
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Short quiz on evolution

The BBC website has a short quiz consisting of seven true-false questions about evolution that seek to challenge many popular misconceptions. Although I am not a biologist, I do write about evolution from time to time so I took the quiz to see how many misconceptions I had. I got six out of the seven questions right.

But what I want to highlight is the seventh question that I got ‘wrong’. I knew that I would get my response to that one marked wrong even as I answered it. Take a look at the quiz and you will see what I mean.

Cuba moves to legalize same-sex marriage

In a long overdue move, the government of Cuba is seeking to change many elements of its constitution, one article of which currently declares marriage to be between a man and a woman.

The proposed new Constitution, drafted by a special commission within Cuba’s National Assembly, was unveiled in July. If the National Assembly and President Miguel Díaz-Canel approve the document after a Feb. 24, 2019 public referendum, marriage would be defined as a “union between two people.”

Beyond legalizing gay marriage, the new Constitution would protect private property, limit the presidential term to five years and introduce the role of prime minister.

Intense debate has surrounded the possibility of marriage equality in Cuba, and not just within the government’s official public meetings. Cubans are also discussing and debating gay marriage with neighbors and friends, in the streets and online – a departure from Cuba’s traditionally more top-down style of government.

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Tide turning against Catholic Church

In a recent post, I noted the fact that in many other countries, investigations of abuses in the Catholic church were undertaken nationally by government commissions because of the wide range of abuses that occurred and the large number of clergy and nuns who participated in them and the higher officials (bishops, archbishops, and cardinals) who helped in the cover ups. In Germany, an internal report that was commissioned by the church and conducted by three universities and was leaked to the press says that 3,677 people were abused by clergy between 1946 and 2014. But given the limitations of the information accessible to the researchers, the actual number is likely to be higher.
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Rewriting religious anticipations of science history

Nir Shafir is a historian of the early modern Ottoman Empire at the University of California, San Diego. In preparing to teach his class on Science and Islam he was looking at some books and discovered something about the illustrations that seemed a little off.

As I prepared to teach my class ‘Science and Islam’ last spring, I noticed something peculiar about the book I was about to assign to my students. It wasn’t the text – a wonderful translation of a medieval Arabic encyclopaedia – but the cover. Its illustration showed scholars in turbans and medieval Middle Eastern dress, examining the starry sky through telescopes. The miniature purported to be from the premodern Middle East, but something was off.

Besides the colours being a bit too vivid, and the brushstrokes a little too clean, what perturbed me were the telescopes. The telescope was known in the Middle East after Galileo invented it in the 17th century, but almost no illustrations or miniatures ever depicted such an object. When I tracked down the full image, two more figures emerged: one also looking through a telescope, while the other jotted down notes while his hand spun a globe – another instrument that was rarely drawn. The starkest contradiction, however, was the quill in the fourth figure’s hand. Middle Eastern scholars had always used reed pens to write. By now there was no denying it: the cover illustration was a modern-day forgery, masquerading as a medieval illustration.

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The scandal of Catholic orphanages

In the US, the focus of outrage against the Catholic church has been on the abuses by priests and the cover ups by higher officials. In other countries, there has also been widespread reporting on the appalling abuses that took place in orphanages run by the Catholic church. Two excellent films The Magdalene Sisters (2002) and Philomena (2013) were both based on true stories and the sheer cruelty of the nuns and priests involved is astounding.
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Correcting false assertions about the history of science

As a scientist interested in the history of science, I have become acutely aware that much of the science ‘history’ we picked up in the course of our scientific training is largely folklore (what Richard Feynman referred to as ‘myth-stories’) and highly unreliable. Hence it is advisable not to make sweeping conclusions based on them. Via PZ Myers over at Pharyngula I came across an interesting article that looks at a recent discussion between Sam Harris and Ben Shapiro, where they use history to draw conclusions about the relationship of science to religion. You could not pay me enough to listen to these two people but Tim O’Neill, an Australian atheist who writes the blog History for Atheists: New Atheists Getting History Wrong did, and he has done a thorough analysis of the historical assertions made by both and finds them, especially those of Harris, utterly wanting.
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