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“We Are Starstuff Contemplating Starstuff…”

Sometimes when you get back from a long discussion with religious people, you wonder how creationism and scientific ignorance can still pervade so much of our society. I will continue to dedicate my life to helping people think freely, to reason critically, and to appreciate rational methods of inquiry like science. Carl Sagan said it best.

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Two Different Histories of Mankind

Watch the following two summaries of human history. Which one is more likely to be true? Which one do you want to be true? Which one is more inspirational?

 

Advice From A Republican

Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and former governor of Utah, is running for the Republican presidential nomination. He had this to say in a debate against his fellow Republicans.

…when you call to question evolution, all I’m saying is that in order for the Republican Party to win, we can’t run from science.

Of course, it wasn’t met with applause or anything, but he hits the nail right on the head. The world is quickly changing, and people are learning more and more about science. People who want to be taken seriously can’t resort to the philosophy and worldview of Ken Ham.

Know that you pay a price for profound religious ignorance. The 7th Day Adventists, the Answers in Genesis crowd, the Discovery Institute, Rick Perry, Michelle Bachmann, the Jehovah’s Witnesses and all the other crazy nutters out there–you have got to get your act together and stop running from science.

Why The Religious Should Give Up

If there’s fifteen minutes of conversation that captures the common religious desperation to reconcile man-made fairy tales with objective scientific truths, it is the conversation PZ Myers had last week with Muslims in Dublin.

These are people who approached PZ at first with a vomiting of philosophical bullshit, using fuzzy First Cause arguments and nonsense like “occam’s razor must be uncaused, therefore it must be eternal.” And then, after being pressed for any kind of evidence for their theistic god, the Muslims turned to pseudoscientific embryology and a very odd understanding of why mountains exist, as detailed in the video above. After the event, the same group also talked to Richard Dawkins, and explained to him that evolution can’t be true because it is a “noncomplementary paradigm” with physics.

It is quite sad to see people so hopelessly devoted to their beliefs that they’ll twist and turn meaningless garble in religious books and claim that these words are in fact scientific truths that could have only come from revelation (like from some illiterate dude in a desert, for example). PZ is right that these same tricks are used by Christian and Jewish scholars. And PZ is even more right when he notes that comparing the Qur’an or other holy books to actual science is equating crude understandings of the universe with detailed and verifiable scientific evidence.

For example, how many times have Christians come up to you and said that the Genesis account is amazing because it predicted that the Universe had a beginning? It’s quite insulting to science, really. They purposely leave out one inconvenient truth: pretty much everything else in Genesis is completely wrong. Not just troubling or hard-to-read. Just dead wrong. It’s quite sad, therefore, that there’s another manufactured scientific controversy on Christianity Today. Apparently in Christian fairy-land, they still aren’t sure whether Adam or Eve actually existed, and that’s why there’s a scientific “search” for the historical Adam and Eve.

Give us a break, Christians. Just like there is no controversy about the fact that living things evolved or that the earth revolves around the sun, there is no controversy about this question of human origins either. It’s just another religious attempt to confuse people and to make it appear like their beliefs have a possibility of being true. UChicago’s Jerry Coyne delivers the point.

Genetic data show no evidence of any human bottleneck as small as two people: there are simply too many different kinds of genes around for that to be true.  There may have been a couple of “bottlenecks” (reduced population sizes) in the history of our species, but the smallest one not involving recent colonization is a bottleneck of roughly 10,000-15,000 individuals that occurred between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago.  That’s as small a population as our ancestors had, and—note—it’s not two individuals.

There’s a real parallel between these manufactured Christian controversies and the “embryological” Muslims. All are so convinced that their beliefs must be true and must be rooted in reality that they’ll go to any length, however intellectually dishonest, to gain temporary credibility. And when science actually does reach its limits and says, “there’s more to be discovered,” religion steps in and tries to fill in the gaps.

But notice the pattern. Religion, after initially attacking science by flinging false controversies and pseudoscience all over the place, then hijacks the later discoveries of science and claim them as its own. They’ll never win, of course, because they’ll always be followers and pirates and copycats, not leaders. As Isaac Asimov brilliantly said, science stands alone.

Don’t tell me, then, that those clever Eastern (Celtic, African, Greek, or even Biblical) sages have spoken of something that sounds like the big bang or like endless expansion. That’s idle speculation.

Show me where those sages worked out the isotropic radio wave background, or the red-shifts in galactic spectra, which alone support those conclusions on anything more than mere assertion.

You can’t. Science stands alone!

And so this post ends with the inspirational quote above, as well as the following advice: If I were a person of faith, I would just call it “faith” and not bother with science or evidence.

Creationist Bingo

There are some wacky things in life that are just so amazingly fun. Snowball fights, Nerf gun wars, Apples to Apples, and now, thanks to the UChicago SSA, Creationist Bingo.

My favorite video:

The square for this was “Life can’t come from non-life,” but I was about to put it on “Simple Stupidity/Ignorance.”

Anyways, I was very inspired to find a video more awesome than Ray Comfort’s intelligently designed banana.

Not Very Inspiring

Yes, there’s a lot of debate about “bad teachers” and “competency” in an increasingly large discussion about school reform. How much professional training do we owe teachers, and at what point do we choose to let teachers go?

Whatever your view is on these topics, I hope you agree that there’s at least one thing we cannot tolerate from science teachers: the deliberate attempt to teach creationism in the public schools.

It’s not only illegal, it’s insulting to the millions of people around this country who don’t want more religious nonsense to be subsidized by taxpayer money.

So when a Libertyville High School science teacher taught creationism, the school board decided to intervene. How? By doing nothing, apparently.

The teacher in question is a long standing D128 educator, cooperated fully with administrators looking into this concern, and we will not be recommending his termination as this is remediable behavior.

Remediable? Okay, if this was a science teacher whose students didn’t quite make the expected improvements on their standardized tests, perhaps we can “remediate” this teacher.

But this is someone who deliberately sought to violate law, undermine Illinois science standards, and mislead students about science. This is not a teacher wanting to improve his teaching; this is someone who think he has a God-given, Biblical right to teach his set of superstitious beliefs.

As posted before, an estimate 13% of public school teachers in America teach creationism. This is setting a very very bad standard. For students who want to learn real science–for secular students who feel out of place with their religious surroundings especially–this is not very inspiring.

Keep Trying and Never Give Up

If there’s anything that new-age Christians and “liberal” religious people do, it is that they keep trying and they never give up.

I’m writing this somewhat in response to the graduate advisor for the UChicago Secular Student Alliance. He writes a blog called Sleeping in Sundays, and apparently this Sunday, he couldn’t find a better example of ignorance and dishonesty than from a post by Sam Harris, who, after citing a myriad of verses from it, merely concluded that the Quran gives “a unified message of triumphalism, otherworldliness, and religious hatred” and that Muslims who deny this are being dishonest.

Note that this in no way obstructs what Muslims in particular and religious people in general want to do anyways: interpret and metaphorize every verse that conflicts with 21st century morals. There’s no denying that this is what religious people do. But should this impress us?

The usual argument goes like this:

The reason that we have so many crazies (creationists, genital mutilators, suicide bombers, etc.) and backwards societies (theocracies, religious laws, religious education, etc.) is that there are a few fundamentalists. Why do millions and millions of people take to the streets to call for governments to shut down newspapers? Why do religious societies treat women so horribly? Why do we open therapy camps in this country to treat homosexuality? It’s the fundamentalists. They ruin it for everyone else. Simple as that.

How do they ruin it for everyone else? Fundamentalists: they aren’t as fancy and sophisticated as us. They don’t think about the text. They don’t look at context. They don’t look at history. And most important of all: they don’t “struggle” and “wrestle” with the text. They just give up.

The solution? Let’s have the determination to wrestle with the text. When there’s something in the Bible that is outrageous, you must be reading it wrong. When there are entire stories in the Quran that show the overwhelming superiority of Muslims over atheists, you must be ignoring history. Indeed, if you ever ever have an interpretation of a Holy Book that is upsetting, you just aren’t trying hard enough to contextualize it. The solution to all these social ills is to keep trying, to never ever give up.

When countless societies and millions and millions of religious people fail again and again and again at reaching the “correct” interpretation (one in line with secular humanistic values), let’s keep trying again and again and again to fix it, by wrestling with the text.

Real Education Reform

Skip to 8:20. People who think that science denial is limited only to Protestant Christianity are fooling themselves.

In America, fewer than 30% of high school science teachers really teach the theory of evolution. The majority science teachers avoid the topic.

13% of high school science teachers teach creationism.

Indeed, the religious have a lot of catching up to do. So what’s the solution? How are we going to change this?

The Problem with Islam

It is suggested that Muslims and Atheists are the in the same boat. We’re both distrusted minorities in America. So it makes perfect sense that we hold hands and sing together.

I find this to be a very nice trick not particular to Islam but true of religion in general. When it is weak and marginalized, it wants acceptance and pity from everyone else. But in places where it does have real power, it betrays and insults the very humanism that they claim to share with us.

You don’t have to look further than the fact that Muslims too have a poor grasp of scientific reality in their denial of evolution. Statistics like these tell you almost everything you need to know about people who claim to understand divine truth: they don’t have a clue.

We are also sick and tired of the fact that whenever we point out gross violations of human rights perpetrated by Islamists, we are often asked to change the topic to Israeli violations. As much as we want to help with the humanitarian crisis in Palestine, it is inexcusable how the theocratic actions of Gaza’s Islamist rulers are conveniently overlooked.

All of this stems from and results from a group of human beings who don’t just believe in God, but who also think they know and understand the Final Revelation of God, who believe that the angel Gabriel literally communicated through an illiterate man the words of the Koran.

The specific problem with Islam is that a) Muslims are not secular enough b) there aren’t enough people leaving the religion. The latter is true for religion in general, and the former comes from the fact that there aren’t enough people willing to metaphorize and interpret away things that should be outrageous to them.

As much as I dislike religious “intellectuals” who come to us with a smiling face and an intellectually-dishonest, watered-down view of their religion, I view it as a bittersweet sort of secular progress: a testament to the fact that religion has had to give up so much in the light of science, reason, and common sense. I would very much welcome the secularization of Islam, and I believe it is happening in many circles in the Muslim world, especially amongst young people.

And we must address the shameful treatment of apostates, not just in Islamic countries but also in secular ones. It’s utterly unacceptable for a group of people to want to be treated with dignity and respect when the fact is that they don’t allow for that same level of respect in their own communities. You don’t have to look any farther than America to hear about young adults and teenagers wanting to “come out” as atheists, but are unable to do so because they would lose the entire community they grew up in.

The good news is that you can always sense a high level of embarrassment from Muslims about the Islamic penalty for apostasy, which is somewhat inspiring.

Why Darwin Matters

I finally got around to writing this:

Creationists do annoy us very much. But the idea of evolution by natural selection is not just incompatible with the idea of creation, it also is positively and absolutely irreconcilable with the Bible. I’m not impressed at all, therefore, when Christians tell me they believe in both theories.

It often surprises me that, after nearly a century of insisting that evolution is an evil, ridiculous idea, Christians are finally starting to catch up with the reality that has been described by ordinary, secular science for over a century. Now they insist that evolution and Christian theology make a harmonious whole.

Think of all that had to be established before Darwin could even conceive of his ideas. He not only had to fight against those who insisted in design and special creation and a young earth, but he also faced resistance in areas that we take for granted: extinction, for example, was widely seen as a dangerous, irreligious idea. After all, why would a perfect God (before the arrival of sinful man) create creatures that simply died out?

It’s a very fascinating question that relates to our contemporary understanding of the history of life on Earth. We now know that over 99.8% of the species that have ever lived are no longer in existence. This may or may not be problematic for the Christian apologist; I don’t know. But I do know they are more than willing to turn pretty much any concrete thing into a metaphor.

But what I’m arguing for is much more fundamental, and it strikes at the heart of Christianity, and it’s frankly what many of Darwin’s contemporaries realized: that his ideas didn’t just naturalize creation, they refuted Biblical theology. That’s the legacy of Darwin I want to explain, and that’s why Darwin matters.

1. The Problem of the Creation of the Soul

For Christians, there must have been a point when humans became human, when souls were breathed into our material bodies. But when exactly did those descendants of our ape-ancestor have souls, and when did they not, if there was only gradual evolutionary change and no single moment when we could say we were “human”?

This is very important because the Bible says that humans are supposed to be distinct from animals; we are made in God’s image and have dominion over other life forms on Earth. Evolution, on the other hand, says this distinction is vague and unclear, lies on a spectrum that barely changes over millions of years.

2. Hominids and the Soul

We also know that at least three different human-like species lived with us in our evolutionary past. Some of these creatures buried the dead, were able to make tools and glue, and probably had language and complex thoughts. Not only are these fascinating cousins of ours non-present in the Bible, but we are forced to speculate if they had souls (if they could go to Heaven).

3. Adam and Eve, Another Metaphor

It’s a very sensitive idea that few Christian apologists are willing to answer. Were there two people on Earth at some point in time, or is this whole thing another metaphor/myth? After all, evolution doesn’t completely rule Adam and Eve out, but the probability that the homo sapien population dwindled to only two (one male, one female) is practically zero, and even if it did, it would be incompatible with the idea that Adam and Eve were the first two humans on Earth.

4. The Evolutionary Timeline

The Bible’s history of life on Earth is a very peculiar one because it misses out on the overwhelming majority of the history of “creation”. The bulk of evolutionary history is of micro-organisms, which are so incredibly important to biology and medicine, and whose existence is not even mentioned in the Bible.

5. The Human Timeline

We know that our species has been around for over two hundred thousand years (human-like organisms have been around for much much longer). What the Bible implies is that through all of this time, through all this extinction and struggle for survival, through all the multiple human-like species that lived and died out, through all of their religions and false gods, Heaven didn’t do anything about this condition of human affairs for hundreds of thousands of year until a couple thousand years ago. Only then did it talk to prophets privately on mountain-tops and send a messenger to illiterate parts of the Middle East. And that’s the salvation of mankind. And what if you use your brain that evolution has given you to disbelieve Christian claims? You’ll be sorry after you die.

Well, believe what you will. I hope you had a happy Darwin Day yesterday.

Inspiration: