Category Archives: superstition

So you think science has a problem?

There are a number of opinion piece writers, usually  philosophers of religion or accomadationist atheist philosophers who really hate  today’s vocal atheists. Particularly if those atheists are also scientists. They often pretend to be concerned about the reputation of science. “These gnus should STFU,” they argue, “because it’s just turning people away from science.” And science needs all the friends it can get with the current attacks on climate and evolutionary science.

In my review of Elaine Ecklund’s book Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think I argued this position, which she also was pushing, is mistaken (see Are scientists hostile to religion?). That in fact the data just doesn’t support it. If these people were really looking at the data properly perhaps they should be telling militant Christian activists to STFU – because polls show that people are losing the respect they used to hold for ministers, priests and the church. The data I referred to is in the graph below.

%age of US public considering professions of “very great prestige.”

Now the Gallup polling organisation has revealed data showing a steady decline in the public confidence of the church and organised religion:

Forty-four percent of Americans have a great deal or quite a lot of confidence in “the church or organized religion” today, just below the low points Gallup has found in recent years, including 45% in 2002 and 46% in 2007. This follows a long-term decline in Americans’ confidence in religion since the 1970s.

See the graph below:

via U.S. Confidence in Organized Religion at Low Point.

Perhaps its time for these writers of opinion pieces to start considering the data that is staring them in the face. Rather than their knee jerk whining about the gnus and public respect for scientists they should write about a real phenomenon.

After all there are plenty of  factors they could speculate on as explanations for the public decline of confidence. As the article points out child molestation by Catholic priests and cover-up by church leaders appears to have had a noticeable effect. One could also consider the role that conservative religion plays in US politics today, the ongoing demands to be allowed to continue discrimination by religious bodies, interference in education, moral hypocrisy, and so on.

Perhaps these horrible gnus may have also been having an effect. Just not in the way these commenters claim.

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You CAN be good with God!

OK – we have become used to the slogan “You can be good without God.” Versions of it have popped up all around the world over the last few years.

Even in little old New Zealand.

It’s really only stating the obvious – being a non-theist doesn’t make you a bad person. In principle most Christians probably agree – or say they do. However it hasn’t stopped many of them from finding such slogans offensive.* Because alongside these campaigns to put up such billboards, there have been campaigns to prevent them – or remove them.

Mind you – perhaps there is poetic justice. An Ohio church happened to own the land on which a Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) billboard was. The advertising firm was unaware of the ownership – they just rented the site. The Christ Cathedral Church in Columbus, Ohio had the billboard removed back in June.

Billboard removed by Christ Cathedral Church from their commercial land - on which they evaded taxation by declaring it a "place of worship"

Problem (for the church) is this  bought to public notice the fact they owned the land, that they were earning an income from the land – but they were not paying tax on that income. (One wonders how much this sort of tax evasion goes on in New Zealand where religion can also earn a tax-free and local body rate free charity status – just because they are religious!)

The FFRF looked into this, found the church owned several commercial properties which they evaded taxation on by declaring them as “places of worship!” (see Columbus Church must “render unto Caesar”).

I guess they were worshiping the almighty dollar!

FFRF Co-President Annie Laurie Gaylor commented:

“Apparently this church doesn’t heed the scriptural advice in Matthew 22:21 ‘Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,’

“Has this church, that was so offended that a grad student could be ‘good without God,’ been good with God?”

Can you be good with God?

I like that question “can you be good with God?” I guess some people might be asking that these days – there seem to be many cases of priests and religious ministers caught with the hand in the till (or in other places they shouldn’t be). So it’s natural to wonder.

However, I would like to assure Christians and other believers that there is no reason that their beliefs will necessarily stop them from being good. I say that with some confidence because over recent years there has been a lot of progress in the scientific understanding of human morality. And this overwhelmingly indicates that human morality is actually a secular activity. It’s involved with the real world, the non-“sacred” world. Just like accountancy, scientific research, plumbing, etc., it is a secular activity we can all indulge in – whatever our beliefs about a supposed “supernatural” world.

So it doesn’t matter if you believe in a god or not. These beliefs are irrelevant. You can still be an accountant, a scientific researcher, or a plumber. Just as you can sill do morality.

Because morality is a secular activity – its got nothing to do with gods or other supernatural beliefs.


*This hostility is interesting – perhaps at heart many Christians actually don’t think you can be good unless you hold the same supernatural beliefs they do. After all, their holy book says in Psalm 14.1:

The fool says in his heart,
‘There is no God.’
They are corrupt, they do
Abominable deeds,
There is none who does good.”

Perhaps they think that atheists are supposed to be immoral (after all this is the “word of their god”)

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Historians of science sometimes miss the wood for the trees

I came across this nice little quote recently:*

Philosophy of science without history of science is empty;
history of science without philosophy of science is blind.

It’s attributed to  Imre Lakatos, the Hungarian philosopher of mathematics and science.

This really appealed to me as I have been somewhat surprised lately how some historians of science approach their subject mechanically. They look on the history of science as a sequence of events, discoveries, etc., without ever seeming to recognise the significance of what is going on. I can’t help thinking about woods and trees.

One example is the intensive debate about the Galileo affair which questions why Galileo should have argued for heliocentricism when no parallax evidence could be found. Or that his explanation for tides was wrong. Or that he was rather abrasive with a tendency to polemics. Or that he was ambitious. Etc., Etc.

These historians seem to impose too much of their own understandings, values and ideology onto the historical events.  They are also treating history as a dead collection of unconnected events while ignoring the underlying evolution of methods and approaches. The changes in the philosophy and epistemology of science.

Galileo’s real contribution

To me the real importance of studying such history is to see the changes in approach lying behind the great discoveries. Galileo is often called the father of modern science, not because he was the first astronomer to use a telescope, or because of the discoveries that ensued. But because he challenged the old approach, the old way of thinking influenced by theology and religious philosophy, and not objective reality. His contribution was basically epistemological. And it was a necessary part of the modern scientific revolution.

I commented on this before in Galileo’s revolutionary contribution. To me Galileo’s real significance and contribution is summarised in his comments of theology. In part:

“therefore, whatever sensory experience places before our eyes or necessary demonstrations prove to us concerning natural effects should not in any way be called into question on account of scriptural passages whose words appear to have a different meaning, since not every statement of Scripture is bound to obligations as severely as each effect of nature.”

Elsewhere he expressed this in terms of discovering the truth about nature in the “book of nature”, rather than the scriptures.

I just wish more historians of science appreciated the history of the philosophy or epistemology of science.


*This quote was used as an introductory message by Peter Dear in his chapter “Philosophy of Science and Its Historical Reconstructions” in the collection Integrating History and Philosophy of Science: Problems and Prospects.

Some of the other chapters also have interesting quotes. For example, this one in Jan Golinski’s chapter “Thomas Kuhn and Interdisciplinary Conversation: Why Historians and Philosophers of Science Stopped Talking to One Another.”:

“Paradigm was a perfectly good word until I messed it up.”

Thomas S. Kuhn

So true!

Then what about this one in Dean Rickles’ chapter “Quantum Gravity Meets &HPS”:

Science is what scientists have done, not what a philosopher tells us the scientist meant to do, were really doing, or should have done.

James Cushing

Yeah – doesn’t that attitude of some of the philosophically minded annoy you?

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Approaching morality scientifically

Yeah, right! So why leave morality to theologians?

In his recent criticism of Jerry Coyne’s* USA Today article As atheists know, you can be good without God, local theologian Matt Flannagan repeats his rather tiresome warning that scientists should not try to understand morality – “leave that to us theologians.” He says:

“Of course, like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and a host of other popular writers, Coyne has not bothered to actually read the literature on contemporary theological ethics before wading in. Instead he hopes that his stature as a biologist and his confident tone will convince many unfamiliar with the field that he has offered a devastating criticism.”

Yeah, right!

Well, my response is:

If scientists are not the people to investigate and develop an understanding of human morality, who are?

Certainly not theologians!

History show they have not been up to that task. Matt’s theological article demonstrates this – it is simply an attack on Coyne. His own explanation for human morality is “divine commands!” And he doesn’t supply any evidence either for “commands” or “divine agency.” Only faulty argument.

Two points in Matt’s article are worth expanding on.

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Ethicists have problems with ethics!

I picked up this article recently – The Self-Reported Moral Behavior of Ethics Professors. So I couldn’t help laughing when I came across this other one – When Scientists Make Bad Ethicists.

A title like “When Scientists Make Bad Scientists” would be more newsworthy (as the first article is implying the ethicists are not actually very good at personal ethics).

I will get back to Matt Flannaghan’s little rant against a scientific approach to understanding morality in a later post. It’s an important issue and I can appreciate why theologians like him worry about the scientific work in this area. (Their response is rather like the Roman Inquisition telling Galileo he had no right to believe that contrary to the Church’s teaching the earth goes around the sun – or King Canute’s command to the tide not to come in).

But – here I just wish to bring attention to the research in the first article suggesting that professional ethicists perhaps don’t behave too ethically as individuals. These researchers compared the:

 “self-reported moral attitudes and moral behavior of 198 ethics professors, 208 non-ethicist philosophers, and 167 professors in departments other than philosophy on eight moral issues.”

“Ethicists expressed somewhat more stringent normative attitudes on some issues, such as vegetarianism and charitable donation. However, on no issue did ethicists show significantly better behavior than the two comparison groups. Our findings on attitude-behavior consistency were mixed: Ethicists showed the strongest relationship between behavior and expressed moral attitude regarding voting but the weakest regarding charitable donation.” (Quotes from abstract)

Senior author Eric Schwitzgebel expressed concern about these findings on his blog :

“I do think that our research raises questions about the extent to which studying ethics improves moral behavior. To the extent that practical effect is among one’s aims in studying (or as an administrator, in requiring) philosophy, I think there is reason for concern. I’m inclined to think that either philosophy should be justified differently, or we should work harder to try to figure out whether there is a *way* of studying philosophy that is more effective in changing moral behavior than the ordinary (21st century, Anglophone) way of studying philosophy is.”

I can’t say I am too surprised. I have often noted how specialists in some subjects appear very bad at handling their own particular problems in the specialist area. How often do we find psychologists or counsellors who don’t seem to follow the advice they dish out to their clients? (How often do we find priests . . .  No, let’s not go there).

But, perhaps more importantly, ethics at the individual level is usually not a conscious activity. It is based on ingrained intuitions and emotional responses.

So it’s easy to imagine how professionals may teach and intellectually justify ethical positions in the day job. But in their personal ethical and moral behaviour they will instead be exhibiting their emotional and intuitional behaviour.

See also: Ethicists, Courtesy & Morals.

How do you know that?

PZ Myer at Pharyngula has produced another of his gems. A letter to a nine-year old girl who had been fooled by the creationist Ken Ham to think the question “Were you there?” is a clever response to scientific information (see via Dear Emma B ).

(I have always thought that response by creationists was really silly, and self destructive. After all, aren’t they making huge claims about the past – a past where not only they were absent, but one they consider they can describe without any evidence).

As the girl, Emma B says:

I went to a NASA display of a moon rock and a lady said, “This Moon-rock is 3.75 billion years old!” Guess what I asked for the first time ever?

“Um, may I ask a question?”

And she said, “Of course.”

I said, in my most polite voice, “Were you there?”

Love, Emma B

Myers see Emma B as having been manipulated by Ken Ham and he has written a hypothetical letter outlining what his response to Emma would be, if he had the opportunity. It’s considerate, thoughtful and educational – somewhat along the lines of Richard Dawkins’ Prayer for my Daughter.”

I recommend you read the whole text at Dear Emma B .

He starts positively:

“I’m glad you were asking questions — that’s what scientists are supposed to do — but I have to explain to you that that wasn’t a very good question, and that Ken Ham is a poor teacher. There are better questions you could have asked.”

He conveys some of the wonder that inquisitive children must have to the world around them:

“we live in a big ol’ beautiful world, far older than your 9 years, and there’s so much to learn about it — far more than you’ll ever be able to see for yourself. There’s a gigantic universe beyond South Carolina, and while you probably won’t ever visit a distant star or go inside a cell, there are instruments we can use to see farther and deeper than your eyes can go, and there are books that describe all kinds of wonders. Don’t close yourself off to them simply because you weren’t there.

I’d like to teach you a different easy question, one that is far, far more useful than Ken Ham’s silly “Were you there?” The question you can always ask is, “How do you know that?”

Right away, you should be able to see the difference. You already knew the answer to the “Were you there?” question, but you don’t know the answer to the “How do you know that?” question. That means the person answering it will tell you something you don’t know, and you will learn something new. And that is the coolest thing ever.”

Myers devotes soem space to explaining to Emma how scientists have established the age of the moon rocks. A useful and relevant example of the scientific process.

He finishes the letter with:

I think you’re off to a great start — being brave enough to ask older people to explain themselves is exactly what you need to do to learn more and more, and open up the whole new exciting world of science for yourself. But that means you have to ask good questions to get good answers so that you will learn more.

Don’t use Ken Ham’s bad question, and most importantly, don’t pay attention to Ken Ham’s bad answers. There’s a wealth of wonderful truths that reveal so much more about our universe out there, and you do not want to close your eyes to them. Maybe someday you could be a woman who does go to the moon and sees the rocks there, or a geologist who sees how rocks erode and form here on earth, or the biologist who observes life in exotic parts of the world…but you won’t achieve any of those things if you limit your mind to the dogma of Answers in Genesis.

Best wishes for future learning,

Compulsory payments for advancement of religion – let’s get rid of that.

I read  recently how cynically humans use the word “freedom.” (I think it was in Jennifer Michael Hecht‘s Doubt: A History)  How often do you see a fascist or otherwise undemocratic organisation with freedom in its name or slogans?

This came to mind again when I saw this post Students: Free at Last. (At Say Hello to my Little Friend – a blog which has a smoking gun in its heading. The blogger justifies the graphic saying “it depicts the way I like to ruthlessly “whack” bad ideas.” Rather unfortunate use of gangster terminology – especially as he uses the blog to advance his own “bad ideas”).

This particular post is “whacking” the “bad idea” of compulsorily union membership. I agree that, in this case, it is a bad idea  – in principle. During most of my working life I supported unionism – and the union I belonged to was voluntary, a comparatively strong and active union because of that. In fact people of my “socialist” persuasion saw compulsory unionism as a right-wing fetter, promoting class apathy and, in most cases, ensuring a leadership complaint with employer interests.

But, in my experience, most of those who have campaigned against compulsory unionism did so because they were more opposed to the “unionism” part than the “compulsory” part. They had their own ideological reasons for their campaign and it wasn’t desire for freedom.

This is why I find this, and similar campaigns, by conservative Christian groups and blogs (as “Say Hello” is) hypocritical. Some of these groups don’t allow their own members to join unions, compulsory or not. And many of their policies are the very opposite of freedom.

For example – I oppose the classification of “advancement of religion” as a charitable purpose for purposes of tax exemption – and local body rates. In practice these means part of my taxes are used to subsidise the tax-free status of people, organisations and buildings whose only purpose is proselytization of ideas I find abhorent. I don’t see that a charitable purpose, nor would most New Zealanders. Yet provided these organisations or people are proselytising a supernatural world view they can get tax exemption. No real charitable work is required for this.

Sure, many religious organisations do genuine charitable work – and I have no problem with their receiving tax exemption for that part of their work. None at all.

But this subsidy for the “advancement of religion” is undemocratic on two grounds:

  1. It is available only to those who hold supernatural beliefs;
  2. We all pay for it through our taxes and rates, we have never been asked if we wish to and most people are just completely unaware of this imposition on their earnings.

I think it is hypocritical for conservative Christians to argue on the one hand against compulsory unionism, or deduction of union fees or their equivalent. Then, to argue on the other hand that the compulsory payment of taxes to subsidise their specific supernatural beliefs is somehow OK.

It is not.

If we want to talk about freedom lets not be hypocritical about it. Let’s recognise that this compulsory deduction from our earnings to subsidise the advancement of supernatural ideas also violates our freedoms – specifically our freedom to be treated equally, irrespective of religion or belief. And our freedom of, and freedom from, religion or belief.

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William Lane Craig’s “logic”

I don’t know how long this video will survive on YouTube. It’s a takeoff of William Lane Craig and his “logic.” Apparently Craig has made several attempts to remove it.

Personally, I think there is room for many more of these videos – Craig’s debates could be mined for multiple examples of faulty logic.

William Lane Craig Is Not A Meatloaf – YouTube.

Science and the “supernatural”

I have discussed the issue of “supernaturalism” and science before but return to it having just read  Can Science Test Supernatural Worldviews?  by Dr  Yonatan I. Fishman. It’s an excellent paper which I recommend you read as it may challenge some of your ideas. You can download the full text here.

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Approaching a Middle East peace

Came across this song of Tim Minchen’s Peace Anthem For Palestine.

Actually think he might be on to something