Tag Archives: religion

Census 2013 – religious diversity

Statistics New Zealand has released preliminary figures for religious affiliation from the 2013 census.

The raw figures show for the major affiliations (Christian and No religion) the following:

Religious affiliation Number
No religion 1,635,348
Christian 1,879,671
Total Responses  4,343,781
Total People  4,242,048
Double Dipping?*  101,733

It is interesting to compare the last census figures with those for the previous four.

census-2013-1

As we can see, the godless trend has continued unabated.

One thing for sure – Christians can no longer claim to make up the majority of the country’s population.


*Double Dipping arises from people putting down more than one answer to the question. Eg – “Born again” and “Assembly of God.” It most probably occurs for the Christian, rather than No religious group. If this is the case we should adjust the Christian total to 1,879,671 -  101,733 = 1,777,938.

This would cut Christians as a proportion of the total population to 41.9%.

The No religion is accordingly 37.7%.

The other major religions have Hindu – 2.1%, Buddhist – 1.4% and Islam – 1.1%.

For more detail see 2013 Census where  tables of data can be downloaded.

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Source of moral authority has shifted

A recent poll in the UK confirms a trend I have noticed elsewhere – the movement of younger people away from organised religion, and to a slightly lesser extent, from religious beliefs. But also to a decline in respect for religion and its leaders.

The YouGov poll for the Sun  shows a decisive turn against religion among 18 – 24 year olds. And a very low belief in a god (see Poll: Young people turn decisively against religion).

Fifty six% of people in this age group say they have no religion while 38% don’t believe in a god.

Religion-2

In common with other polls there is still substantial support for not believing in a god but believing in “some sort of spiritual greater power” – the halfway house.

religion-4

Only 12% said religious leaders have any influence on them – lower than for politicians, who scored 38%, brands, which scored 32% or celebrities, who scored 21%. Eighty two% declared religious leaders have no influence.

religion-what

Finally, a high 41% told pollsters ‘religion is more often the cause of evil in the world’ while only 14% said it was a cause for good.

religion-3

I think we might find the same attitudes in this country.

But it does raise some important questions about the public perception of the role of religion in today’s society. It’s commonly described as a source of good. But Andrew Copson, chief executive of the British Humanist Association and first vice president of the International Humanist and Ethical Union, won’t have it. In a commenting article, Religion is in decline – so why are people so well behaved?, he says:

 

“One of the most mystifying aspects of recent governments’ emphasis on religion as a source of individual and social values has been its total mismatch with reality. Survey after survey has shown the population as a whole, and young people in particular, increasingly turning away from religious beliefs and influences entirely – and yet there has been no detrimental effect on the wellbeing of the nation.”

He concludes “there has been a change in recognised moral authority away from religion and towards secular influences.” And asks “when a government is going to realise this change and accept the implications for public policy.”

With polling like this it is about time that we all recognised that religion is not the source of our morality and public utterances claiming it is should stop.

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Fiddling with census figures for religion in New Zealand

Despite the bad publicity dogging the Catholic church internationally,  Karl du Fresne reports that many NZ Catholics have a positive picture of their church in New Zealand (see Catholicism: Holy smoke, NZ Listener). His subtitle conveys the message – despite all the scandals and controversies, Catholicism is emerging as the country’s most popular denomination.

Du Fresne wrote:

“Statistics suggest their optimism may be justified. Although the number of New Zealanders declaring no religious belief is steadily increasing, making this one of the most secular countries in the world, the 2006 census showed the Catholic population had risen by 4.7% over the previous five years. In the same period, the number of Anglicans and Presbyterians sharply declined. If the trends have continued, the just-taken census should show Catholicism overtaking the Church of England as the denomination with the greatest number of followers in New Zealand.”

A friend queried the claim of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population. After all, weren’t recent census results showing a decline in numbers of religious people?

So – I had a look at the data for the 1996, 2001 and 2006 Censuses (No data available for the 2013 Census yet). Du Fresne’s figure of 4.7% increase in the Catholic population between 2001 and 2006 is correct – but easily misinterpreted.  He is referring to absolute numbers, not the proportion or percentage of the total population, which also increased in that time – an important difference.  Here are some figures and graphics to clarify the census results.

1996 2001 2006
Total People 3,618,303 3,737,277 4,027,947
No Religion 867,264 1,028,049 1,297,104
Anglican 631,764 584,793 554,925
Catholic 473,112 485,637 508,437
Presbyterian 470,442 431,139 400,839
Methodist 121,650 120,546 121,806
Pentecostal 69,333 67,182 79,155
Hindu 25,551 39,798 64,392
Baptist 53,613 51,423 56,913
Buddhist 28,131 41,634 52,362
Ratana 36,450 48,975 50,565
Latter-day Saints 41,166 39,915 43,539
Islam/Muslim 13,545 23,631 36,072
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 1,584 11,016 13,836
Orthodox 6,933 9,576 13,194
Salvation Army 14,625 12,618 11,493
Sikh 2,817 5,199 9,507
Judaism/Jewish 4,809 6,636 6,858
Baha’i 3,111 2,988 2,772

Catholic-1Clearly, as du Fresne said, Catholics have slightly increased in numbers  while other major religions have declined. Possibly Catholics may overtake Anglicans in the 2013 census. But the 4.7% increase in absolute numbers can be misleading because the total population increased by 7.8% in that time.

Maybe, from the perspective of the specific religion, the increase or decline in absolute numbers is important. However, the “no religion” and smaller religions have performed better on this criteria than Catholics. In the table below I have ranked some of the religions in order for that criteria – the increase from 2001 – 2006 expressed as a percentage of the 2001 figure.

numbers 2006

%age increase 2001-2006
Sikh 9507 82.9
Hindu 64392 61.8
New Age 669 59.3
Islam/Muslim 36072 52.6
Orthodox 13194 37.8
Spiritualist 7743 32.2
Satanism 1167 30.5
No Religion 1297104 26.2
Buddhist 52362 25.8
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 13836 25.6
Pentecostal 79155 17.8
Baptist 56913 10.7
Catholic 508437 4.7
Methodist 121806 1.0
Jehovah’s Witness 17910 0.5
Anglican 554925 -5.1
Presbyterian, Congregational and Reformed 400839 -7.0
Baha’i 2772 -7.2

Finally, many people would interpret (incorrectly) du Fresne’s 4.7% as the increase in percentage of Catholics as a proportion of the total population. The table below shows the data for that calculation – in this case the proportion of Catholics changed from 13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006 – a decline of 0.4%.

% in 2006 Change from 2001
Sikh 0.2 0.1
Hindu 1.6 0.5
New Age 0.0 0.0
Islam/Muslim 0.9 0.3
Orthodox 0.3 0.1
Spiritualist 0.2 0.0
Satanism 0.0 0.0
No Religion 32.2 4.7
Buddhist 1.3 0.2
Evangelical, Born Again and Fundamentalist 0.3 0.0
Pentecostal 2.0 0.2
Baptist 1.4 0.0
Catholic 12.6 -0.4
Methodist 3.0 -0.2
Jehovah’s Witness 0.4 0.0
Anglican 13.8 -1.9
Presbyterian 10.0 -1.6
Baha’i 0.1 0.0

Du Fresne speculated on the figures for Catholics in NZ:

“That increase is thought to be partly related to the increasing number of Asian Catholic immigrants, which in turn reflects the growth of Catholicism in the Third World. Four out of every 10 New Zealand Catholics under 25 are Asian, Maori or Pasifika. That gives hope to Catholics who are otherwise dismayed at the secularisation of society and the decline in attendance at mass. Most of the older Catholics contacted by the Listener said their children and other family members had drifted away from the Church.”

Conclusions

  • Yes, Catholics in New Zealand increased in absolute numbers between 2001 and 2006 (by 4.7% from 485637 in 2001 to 508437 in 2006) but slower than the rate of growth of the total population. Consequently their proportion in the total population declined by 0.4% (from  13.0% in 2001 to 12.6% in 2006).
  • Yes, their relatively slow decline (0.4%) contrasts with the much more rapid decline of the other major Christian denominations (1.9% for Anglicans and 1.6% for Presbyterians).
  • Some smaller Christian denominations and other religions like Hindu, Buddhist and Islam increase dramatically in numbers, but because of their small size did not really figure as changes in the proportion of the total population.
  • The stand out group is the “no religion” one which increased as proportion of the total population by 4.7% (from 27.5% in 2001 to 32.2% in 2006) [Or by 26.2% (from 1,028,049 in 2001 to 1,297,104 in 2006) in terms of absolute numbers].

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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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Why won’t Inland Revenue subsidise my life expenses?

Here is an interesting research report How Secular Humanists (and Everyone Else) Subsidize Religion in the United States. OK it looks at the United States and the data is not directly relevant here, in new Zealand. But the principles certainly are – the way we all subsidise supernatural religious beliefs and their propagation via exemption from taxation and local body rates.

Ryan T. Cragun, assistant professor of sociology, Stephanie Yeager, senior business management major, and Desmond Vega, senior psychology major, all at the University of Tampa, did the research.

Their Figure 1 summarises religious finances and subsidies in the US. Many of these are similar in this country. I know the theologically inclined try to argue that there is no subsidy because tax exemption does not involve providing direct revenue to religions. However, religions do not pay taxes that they would otherwise be required to pay, purely on grounds of supernatural beliefs and their promotion. But they get all the same advantages as the normal taxpayer gets from publicly funded benefits and necessities. This means that honest taxpayers are paying more than they should – they are subsidising religions.

More than $71 billion subsidies

The authors attempt to quantify these subsidies for the USA. This exercise is far from simple and clearly their final figures grossly underestimate the true subsidy. However, even that underestimate is an incredible US$71 Billion! Their Table  2 shows the breakdown. Have a look at the report for details of the different subsidies.

Alongside these privileges of subsidies, regulatory authorities treat religions with kid gloves. This means that while they are supposed to keep financial records they are not required to report the sources of donations, and may be exempted from actually reporting donation totals or proper auditing.

As the authors say “donations to religions are largely unregulated.” This lead them to the realisation that:

“religions would be an ideal way to launder money if you were engaged in an illegal enterprise. . . . Drug money could be laundered through the church’s bank accounts with little risk of being caught by authorities. If drug cartels and the Mafia aren’t already doing this, we’d be surprised.”

The report makes the case that while genuine charity involves “the giving of something,” and not providing a service for payment this is not so for “spiritual charity.” The later involves payment to a religious executive (their wages, accommodation, pensions, etc.) for the spiritual service they provide. “If someone is paid to address spiritual concerns, it is not charity when they do so.”

In fact, in their “spiritual” and “supernatural” roles “religions are more like for-profit corporations providing entertainment (such as movie theatres or  amusement parks) rather than charities. . . .religions largely provide entertainment for their ‘consumers.’”

I think that’s a useful way of looking at the situation. So I really like the cheeky conclusions this enables them to draw in their closing remarks:

“These subsidies should be phased out. But since that is unlikely to happen, we’d accept the following alternative: the ability to write off our annual entertainment expenses as “donations”; the subsidizing of all of our housing expenses, including utilities and maintenance costs; being exempt from paying taxes on businesses we start related to our primary purpose in life (say, a micro-brewery); direct cash transfers to us from the government for trying to convert people to our worldviews while claiming to provide social services; and, most important, the right to host games of bingo without reporting our income as gambling revenue”

Incidentally, I think any similar subsidies to “spiritual charity” performed by atheist and non-theist organisations should be looked at in the same way.

Thanks to: Council for Secular Humanism.

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Belief and morality

We humans are mentally very complex – and often contradictory in our beliefs and actions. This must be a real problem for sociologists who often rely on surveys and self-reporting of beliefs.

I have often wondered about the reliability and interpretation of survey data on religious beliefs. In particular the religion question in our own Census statistics. So I was intrigued by the results presented in the Ispos MORI survey Religious and Social Attitudes of UK Christians in 2011.” This specifically questioned people who recorded their religion as “Christian” in the 2011 UK Census.

Two questions were interesting:

1: What do you mean by “Christian.”

The questions was “Which is the one statement that best describes what being a Christian means to you personally?” Nine choices (including “prefer not to say” were provided. The figure below shows the responses.

Interesting!

Most people (65%) think the word means something about how they were brought up or their attempts to be good! And 40% simply see it as a description of their wish to be good!

While only a little over 20% interpret the word to have anything to do with the teachings of Christ or their acceptance of him!

I can’t help thinking that people use their religious “affiliation” as something to do with their reputation, rather than any meaningful understanding of ideology or specific teachings or beliefs.

2: Where do you get your morals?

Here the question asked: “When it comes to right and wrong, which of the following if any, do you most look to for guidance?” Seven choices (including “prefer no to say”) were provided. Results below.

Again, interesting!

Despite declaring themselves as “Christian” only 16% got their morality from Christian teachings and belief. This certainly undermines the argument of militant Christians who argue that because Britain is a “Christian Country” it should not have laws against discrimination against homosexuals, women, etc. And it undermines their argument for retention of existing Christian privileges in policy.

Most people claim they rely on their own inner moral sense. Personally I think that even many providing other reasons actually also rely on their own inner moral sense. How else, for example, do they determine which religious teachings and beliefs to accept and which to reject?

At first sight these two results appear contradictory. The largest fraction of Christians self-identify because they think that means they try to be good. On the other a similar fraction admit they don’t get their morality from Christian teachings or beliefs!

Conclusions

I can’t help thinking that when people answer the religion question in surveys and the census they are seeing it as a matter of reputation, not of community or beliefs. They wish to be known as good people and think self-identifying as Christian will achieve that. perhaps this attitude also explains why so few people will self-identify as “atheist” – preferring something less harmful to their reputation like “non-religious.”

This presents an educational problem for those who work to remove religious privilege in society and ensure a secular state. It also is an educational problem for those who wish that atheism, humanism, and similar non-religious identification were more acceptable. The facts are that religion has no monopoly on being good and this message needs more awareness.

Finally, the results certainly undermine  the way that militant Christian spokespersons make judgemental statements on social attitudes, argue for retention of religious privilege and attempt to justify religious discrimination against various social groups.

These leaders actually do not represent the views and beliefs of the people they claim to – those who self-identify as “Christian.”

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Science and the folly of faith

Book Review: God and the Folly of Faith: The Incompatibility of Science and Religion by Victor Stenger.

Price: US13.46; NZ$22.60
Paperback: 408 pages
Publisher: Prometheus Books; Original edition (April 24, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1616145994
ISBN-13: 978-1616145996

Victor Stenger wrote recently: “A majority of scientists at all levels do not believe in any god. Yet most are unwilling to challenge the religious beliefs of others.” That’s also my impression. The situation reminds me of our Prime Minister John Key’s reactions to many apparently important questions – “I’m relaxed about that”; “I’m comfortable with the situation” – even when we all know he should be taking problems more seriously.

Apathy of scientists

There really does seem to be a bit of confabulation going on here. Stenger describes what he calls The party line among scientists- believers and non-believers alike -:”

“science and religion are what Stephen Jay Gould called “non-overlapping magisteria”. In 1998 the US National Academy of Sciences issued a statement asserting “Science can say nothing about the supernatural. Whether God exists or not is a question about which science is neutral.”Yet according to a survey the same year, 93 per cent of the members of the academy do not believe in a personal god.”

As if this apathy were not bad enough it is accompanied by religious interest in co-opting science.  Dan Barker, in his Forward to this book, describes the situation as “theistic mosquitoes buzzing around pretending to understand the science (and only managing to misrepresent it).” A personal experience recently bought this home to me. I did an internet search attempting to locate a specific quote of Galileo’s referring to the importance of deriving scientific ideas from the real world. Almost all the links returned were from theological writings, websites or blogs. I also notice that many theologians and philosophers of religion actively write and comment of scientific philosophy and history.

Of course it’s good the theologically inclined take an interest in important fields outside their own. Even comment on them. But the inevitable ideological bias in such writings produces  many anti-science ideas and ideologically motivated interpretations of history and philosophy. The apathy of scientists towards these issues means such ideas are not often challenged and sometimes squirm their way into academic writings on science method, philosophy and history.

Stenger’s “God and the Folly of Faith” directly challenges many of those ideas. As Barker says Stenger “swats away the theistic mosquitoes”.  His “unflinching and uncompromising attitude” and his scientific and philosophical background makes him ideal for the job. And, as the many readers of a long series of books* on science and pseudo science know, Victor Stenger’s writing style means the issues are communicated clearly and understandably.

Conflict – myths and reality

I have often commented that the “warfare model” of science and religion is a myth. That science and religion are not always and everywhere inevitably in conflict. This is the model that some of the theologically inclined attribute to anyone who sees any conflict between science and region.

Such an extreme claim is obviously mythical – after all there are many scientists who are also religious. However, scientific and religious epistemology, “ways of knowing” are completely different. This leads to inevitable conflicts when the areas of interest of science and religion overlap. And they do – consider the debates over evolution, consciousness, life after death, and morality.

The warfare model is often blamed on two books written in the 19th century: John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom.  Stenger puts Whites book into context:

“His book was largely in reaction to attacks from the religious community for his refusal to impose religious tests on students and faculty” at Cornell University. “nevertheless, White’s efforts at Cornell helped lead to the conversion of the great private universities in America and Europe from the church-centered institutions they were originally to the secular ones they are today.”

 “Modern historical scholars, some with ideological motives of their own” have been sharply critical of Draper’s and White’s books – but in the process have ignored, even covered up, the real ongoing conflict between science and religion.

Stenger is quite clear – this epistemological conflict does sometime lead to real conflict and difficulties in acceptance of science. For example:

“many religious people will say they believe in evolution, but evolution guided by God. Darwinian evolution by natural selection, as the overwhelming majority of biologists now view it, is unguided.”

To introduce divine guidance into evolutionary science is to throw away a central part of that science.

Faithful reason

This epistemological difference also shines through in the different approaches to reasoning. Stenger is adamant that:

“the conflict between science and religion should not be regarded as a conflict between reason and unreason” – as some people present it. “The distinction between theology and science is in the objects on which to apply reason. Nothing can be learned from reason alone. A logical argument contains no information not already embedded in its premises.Reason and logic must be supplement by additional hypotheses about the nature of reality and the sources of our knowledge about that reality. In the case of science. that source is solely observation. In the case of theology, that source is primarily faith, with some observation thrown in as long as it does not conflict with faith. Theology is faith-plus-reason, with some observation allowed. Science is observation-plus-reason, with no faith allowed.”

Faith-plus-reason quickly deteriorates to rationalisation supporting preconceived beliefs. There is no mechanism to keep one honest.

Chauvinistic history

Some of the theistically inclined have a habit of claiming their religion (or their god) is responsible for so may things. From the “big bang” to human ethics. From human reason to social laws. And – something that gets up my nose – for modern science. Inevitably this creates conflict.

An example are the snearing predictions of the content of “God and the Folly of Faith” made by critics at  The Quodlibeta Forum. These included the forum’s administrator James Hannam – Catholic apologist and author of God’s Philosophers and The Genesis of Science: How the Christian Middle Ages Launched the Scientific Revolution).  Their predictions were wrong – because they relied on their own mythology about science, the history of science and atheism. Their active promotion of the myth of the conflict myth. By this I mean the habit of some students of history to vilify anyone who disagrees with their ideology-based histories as promoters of the “conflict thesis” – the idea that science and religion are always and inevitably in conflict.

Of course the real world is not like that. Religion and science may be epistemologically exclusive but they are not always and inevitably in conflict. Nor is an author who writes about the history of science and religion guilty of promoting the “conflict thesis” because they are a scientist (rather than historian) or not a card-carrying religious apologist.

Stenger is actually relatively balanced in his treatment of the relationship between science and religion throughout history.Where Stenger and Hannan deal with similar issues their factual history is basically the same. Mind you,  interpretations of facts can differ – and ideology plays a role here. Hannam, for example, interprets the 1277 condemnations (a list of “errors,”  issued by Bishop Tempier of Paris, which would lead to excommunication for anyone teaching or listening to them) as a good thing: 

“placing limits around as subject is not the same as being against it.” The condemnations “protected natural philosophers from those who wanted to see their activities further curtailed . . philosophy was safe to develop in peace and without fear.” (from “God’s Philosophers”).

In contrast Stenger mentions that interpretation (a speculation of Pierre Duheim) but points out that in contrast  the historian David Lindberg described the condemnations as “a ringing declaration of the subordination of philosophy to theology.” (28 – p 75)

In fact , I think Stenger is so balanced that he has conceded too much in at least one case -  his treatment of the history of the Galileo affair. He says that “Galileo brought much of his trouble on himself:”

“Galileo used a foolish character, foolishly named Simplicio, to express some arguments that had been advanced by Pope Urban VIII, a long-time friend and supporter of Galileo. The pope must have said, “We are not pleased.””

“Although the Inquisition had worked out what we today call a “plea agreement” that would have left Galileo with little more than a slap on the wrist, the Pope intervened in his case, and in 1633 Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, found guilty, and sentenced to house arrest.

It’s true that much of Galileo’s behaviour must have been provocative, but any balanced consideration should also include the pressure on Pope Urban to make an example of Galileo – hence his intervention. These included personal opposition within the Vatican as well as the reformation and the religious wars.

As for the Simplico issue – this does not appear to have been an issue until after the trial. Historian Maurice Finnachiro (who specialises in the Galileo affair and the subsequent history of its reporting) writes in Retrying Galileo, 1633-1992:

” this accusation is not mentioned in any documents prior to December 1635; . . . Thus, it seems more accurate to regard the Simplicio-as-Urban allegation as a new slander against Galileo”

An eternal battle?

Reading the history of science one becomes aware of an ongoing battle between ideas driven by evidence and reason, and those driven by faith, even when reason is used. And if we look around today at the debates over consciousness, evolution, climate change, etc., we see that the battle continues. It didn’t stop with Galileo and the blossoming of the modern scientific revolution. The science-religion conflict is not just a matter of history.

On his final page Stenger concludes:

“Religious faith would not be such a negative force in society if it were just about religion. However, the magical thinking that becomes deeply ingrained whenever faith rules over facts warps all areas of life. It produces a frame of mind in which concepts are formulated with deep passion but without the slightest attention paid to the evidence that bears on the concept. Nowhere is this more evident than in America today, where the large majority of the public hold onto a whole set of beliefs despite a total lack of evidence to support these beliefs and, indeed, strong evidence that denies them.”

But what about the future? As he points out:

“Science is not going to change its commitment to the truth. We can only hope religion will change its commitment to nonsense.”

And Stenger makes an appeal to “scientists and all thinking people:”

“The eradication of foolish faith from the face of this planet.”

He doesn’t think this will be achieved “in the lifetime of the youngest amongst us.” But it is required for the survival of humanity.

Somewhat pessimistic!

Personally I think that a certain amount of wishful thinking, faith and irrationalism is probably inherent to being human. It is certainly expected from human diversity. Perhaps this issue is not the final eradication of “foolish faith” but its minimisation and/or neutralisation with its accommodation by the rest of humanity.

Conclusions

If these subjects interest you this book is a “must read.”

This is just the last of a series of Stenger’s books on science and its relationship with religion and pseudoscience.* For those interested in a scientific viewpoint on these subjects these books are a valuable resource. They deal with issues such as quantum theoiry and it misuse and cosmological issues like fine-tuning arguments, the “big bang” and the origin of the universe, the eternal universe and the multiverse. To some extent he briefly repeats some of the content of his previous books here – useful for those not wishing to read further. And  arguably this current book is his best yet. But, for more detail I also recommend his other books.


* Victor Stenger’s books on science, religion and pseudo-science

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Christmas gift ideas: One for the kids

Books are ideal Christmas presents. And as I am spending some time dealing with family business I thought reposting some of my past book reviews over the next few days could be useful am repeating some of my past book reviews.

I should have reviewed more books for children. But here’s a good one – about an important scientific topic.


Book Review: Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Reading level: Young Adult
Price: US$12.89, NZ$40.99
Hardcover: 56 pages
Publisher: Kids Can Press, Ltd. (February 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 1554534305
ISBN-13: 978-1554534302

Today, February 12, is Darwin Day. The anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth 201 years ago. So I have decided to review a new book on evolution.

It’s a short book, but an important one. Important because it’s for kids – it’s aimed at children of ages 8 – 13. It’s about an important area of science, evolutionary science. I think kids will learn from this book, and they will enjoy the experience.

“Evolution” is beautifully illustrated and clearly written. Important evolutionary ideas are well explained in brief sections, often illustrated with examples and metaphors as well as pictures. Daniel Loxton is the editor of Junior Skeptic and regularly writes and illustrates for children so he is the ideal author for such a book.

I like the way that many of these sections use questions as chapter headings. “What about us?”, “Survival of the fittest?”, “If evolution really happens, where are the transitional fossil?”, “How could evolution produce something as complicated as my eyes?” are a few examples. The sorts of questions kids will commonly hear. Loxton devotes the second part of his book to such questions, ones commonly raised by creationist critics of evolution. This is good technique for capturing the reader’s attention and encouraging them to read further.

Loxton uses many examples and metaphors, as well as pictures, to illustrate ideas. His illustration of mutations acting over time with the metaphor of the children’s’ game “telephone” is done in both words and pictures.

My main criticism is that he didn’t use a metaphor to illustrate the important idea of “deep time.” A simple description of rock layers and differentiation of fossils is inadequate – even for an adult. One needs to compare the immensity of time with something pictorial, like the distance between people, houses, cities, countries, planets, and so on. An illustration of the process of fossilisation could also have helped.

However, kids of this age are continuously learning. They are always confronting ideas and words needing further explanation. So I think it is great that this book includes a short glossary (which does include a description of fossilisation) and index. This helps encourage the young reader to explore further – especially when they come across unfamiliar words.

The religion question

Several reviewers have expressed reservations about Loxton’s short answer to the question “What about religion?” Perhaps it would have been better to leave this out – but on the other hand it is a common question which kids will have to confront. Loxton’s inadequate reply was unavoidable, given the unwritten social rule that religion has a special role in our society. That we are not allowed to criticise religion. Any properly adequate reply would have lead to people being “offended” and campaigns to exclude the book for schools.

So perhaps the best advice is that he gave – kids should discuss this with family and friends. I think there are many things in this book which will raise further questions in the reader’s minds. Maybe it’s religion, the way fossils are formed, how life began, the age of the earth or universe. If this leads to discussions with family, friends and teachers – great. It’s all part of education.

So, I can highly recommend this book. It will be a great gift for the target age group – but even some of us older “kids” could probably learn from this short clearly written and beautifully illustrated book.

That’s my opinion. Now I must pass it on to my 9 year-old granddaughter and get her reaction.

See also:
Evolution: How we and al living things came to be – available from Fishpond.co.nz.
forgoodreason Interview with Loxton about the book
Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe Interviews Daniel loxton
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Is Keith Ward really that naive about science?

Credit: Jesus and Mo

I am really amazed by some of the rubbish theologians and philosophers of religion think they can get away with when talking about science.

The Guardian article Religion answers the factual questions science neglects is just one recent example. It’s written by Keith Ward, a professorial research fellow in the philosophy of religion at Heythrop College, London. With these qualifications I would have expected something much better.

He loosely bases his arguments on Stephen Jay Gould’s concept of Non-overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) (see my post Overlapping Magisteria? for a brief description of NOMA). Ward claims:

“Many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact – Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death, and these are factual claims. So Stephen Gould’s suggestion that religion only deals with value and meaning is incorrect, though it is correct that scientists do not usually deal with such questions.”

Here are some points

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Martydom of the priveliged

It never ceases to amaze me how some people who have gained a privilege through an accident of history will whine and moan when they fear their privileges may be removed. We saw this recently in local politics when the idea of introducing a capital gains tax was floated.

I guess it’s not surprising. Many people think with their wallet.

But I also saw this last week at the NZ Diversity Forum on The State and Religion. There was a discussion on the fact that while New Zealand is largely a secular country with freedom of religion and belief, Christians still had some historical privileges over other religions and over the non-religious. Several Christians there argued that the parliamentary prayer be retained – because they “believed in a god.” To hell with what other people believed.

But this defense of privilege gets really childish when conservative Christians present any attempt at removal of privilege or discrimination as an attack on their religion. As an attempt at “eradication of religion from public life.”

I have seen a local theologian, Matt from MandM, seriously argue that evolutionary science should not be taught in schools because a fundamentalist family with children attending the school would be offended! Everyone else should suffer because a fundamentalist might be offended by reality!

Now that takes a real sense of privelige!

Parliamentary prayers

The same person attacked the NZ Rationalist and Humanist (NZARH) document The Tolerant Secular State for pointing out the “New Zealand parliament opens with a Christian prayer rather than having a secular statement that allows all politicians to reflect on why they are they are there.” He claims this “states religious prayers should be banned from parliament”. He sees introduction of an inclusive ceremony as an attack on Christianity – what warped thinking.

I guess this is the same as those men who opposed universal suffrage because they saw it as an attack on men. Or marriage equality whoicxh recognises same-sex marriage as somehow an attack on heterosexual marriage!

Another privilege described in The Tolerant Secular State is “the advancement of religion as a charitable purpose. This gives religious/supernatural beliefs an advantage over other beliefs in being subsidised by the taxpayer.” My experience is that this is a privilege conservative Christians will defend to the last. They bring all their theological training, their mental gymnastics and obfuscation, into play when they see that threatened.

Wallets as well as dogma – a powerful combination!

Secular education

Madeleine at MandM has also attacked The Tolerant Secular State – using the same tactics of misrepresentation and distortion. She particularly likes to distort the meaning of the word “secular” (meaning neutrality towards religion) into somehow meaning anti-religious or atheist.

Therefore she refers to The Tolerant Secular State statement “The NZARH strongly believes that public education should be free, secular and available equally to all children” as somehow being anti-religious. She says it means “Taxpayer dollars of all citizens must only be used to support their secular viewpoint and their viewpoint alone” (Here she uses “their” to mean NZARH). And whines: “What about citizens (like me) who do not want their tax payer dollars going towards secular schools?”

Perhaps she doesn’t want to pay for children to learn anything – except religious indoctrination which of course is not secular. Actually she is specific – she considers secular education to suppress her “right to manifest one’s religion including the raising of children. This gets overridden by the practice of sex education in schools.” She opts her son out of those classes. Does she also opt her son out of mathematics, science, history, social studies, and all the other secular subjects.

Poor kid.

Madeleine claims that the  NZARH don’t want schools to talk at all about religion. Ignoring completely the document which says:

“While public education should remain free from religious observance and instruction, it is fine to educate about religion. Teaching about different belief systems, both religious and non-religious, is important. Doing so encourages greater tolerance by broadening students understanding of other beliefs, and challenging the notion that any currently held beliefs are somehow superior to other beliefs.”

And Matt  also has a go at “secular eduction.” He claims that “religious parents are required by law to fund a secular education they disagree with and do not use.”

So religious parents and their children do not use their education in mathematics, science, social studies, history, etc.? All those subjects dealing with the real world and therefore defined as secular?

Matt plays the martyrdom card by claiming that “parents who want to teach there child a religious education pay twice, first they are compelled on threat of jail to pay for other peoples children to be given a secular education, and then on top of that they pay for their own childrens religious education.”

Well Matt, any parent wishing to give their children an agnostic, atheist, Marxist, or any other ideological education must do the same. Pay for the secular education (which is required by law and is neutral towards these ideological and religious beliefs) and on weekends or after school give the ideological education they desire.

Matt finally concludes that New Zealand discriminates against religious parents!

See what a mess you can get into when you start distorting the meaning of words.

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