The Skeptical Teacher

Musings of a science teacher & skeptic in an age of woo.

Archive for November, 2015

Progress on Evolution… Slowly But Surely

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 30, 2015

Over the years, I’ve spent much time on this blog discussing science education and the need to combat pseudoscientific notions in the sphere of public education. In the United States, this fight is most evident in the seemingly endless attempts by creationists (and by “creationists” I mean young-Earth creationists, though there are many other kinds of creationism) to insert their religious ideology into the public school science classroom by either trying to disguise it as science or by undermining the teaching of evolutionary science.

Fortunately, due to many high-profile defeats (such as court decisions like Edward v. Aguillard and Dover v. Kitzmiller), the creationist movement has failed utterly in trying to convince anyone who isn’t already one of their followers that their ideas are in any way scientific – the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) does a good job of explaining why creationism shouldn’t be taught as science.

This failure on the part of creationists to push their ideas as science leaves them only one route: to tear down or block the teaching of evolutionary science in public schools. Often this takes the form of trying to pass so-called “academic freedom” laws to demand “equal time” for creationism or by advocating for “teaching all views” (which is easily refuted with a witty counter-argument), though those efforts have been met with, at best, mixed success. Another tactic employed by creationists is to try dumbing-down science textbooks by using various political and procedural maneuvering – such as ignoring expert scientific advice and even by watering-down the definition of an “expert” like the Texas Board of Education has done.

But, over time, it seems the creationist movement in the United States has suffered defeat after defeat, and all they appear able to do is adopt a bunker mentality wherein they attempt to keep the teaching of evolutionary science away from their children and others within their immediate sphere of influence.

Well, it appears that they are failing even at that, because – according to a new poll from the Pew Research Center – the number of Americans who accept evolution is at an all-time high. But the best news in this poll is the breakdown of who is most accepting of evolution: the youngest demographic…


… That idea [rejection of evolution] appears to be changing according to recent data released by the Pew Research Center. According to the most current survey, around 73 percent of young people now believe that species evolved over time as opposed to beginning in their actual state at the dawn of time.

Young people aren’t the only ones drifting away from an opposition to evolution. In every age group, a majority of people said that they believed the genetic makeup of species had undergone change. In the 65 and older range, which had the smallest margin, 54 percent agreed that evolution had taken place. …

Now I, for one, view this as a positive development, because as this younger generation, which is most accepting of evolution and least accepting of creationism, ages and matures it will signal a significant demographic shift in favor of good science education and against the creationist movement. Whether or not this has to do with wider societal trends regarding the rise of the non-religious in the United States is an open question, but regardless I think the creationist movement is going to have an even harder time of promoting their nonsense in the future. And that’s good for all of us 🙂


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Religious Extremism, the ISIS Attacks on Paris, and the Need for Honest Dialogue About Religion

Posted by mattusmaximus on November 14, 2015

**UPDATE (11-21-15): For those wishing to get informed about the way ISIS thinks (as in “know your enemy”), take a serious look at this article; it provides solid evidence that, yes, they really are an apocalyptic, fundamentalist religious cult. And you might want to pay particular attention to point #3 regarding what ISIS *really* fears (hint: it isn’t death).**

Like many, it was with both great sorrow and frustration that I read this morning about the attacks in Paris, France by members of ISIS. As I’ve argued many times before on this blog and elsewhere, such as on my post about the Charlie Hebdo attacks and Draw Muhammad Day and my numerous posts regarding creationism plus the one about the religiously-motivated attacks on Planned Parenthood, I think it is absolutely critical for us to openly and honestly examine religion and religious belief and their roles in our modern society in a critical manner.

Let me begin by stating that I am not inherently anti-religion, though I openly declare myself to be an atheist. I can and do see how religious belief can serve to give many people a feeling of purpose or hope where they might otherwise have none, and I understand how it can help motivate many others to do works of great good. That said, too often I hear people speak of religion in terms that are only positive, as if things like religious belief and faith can only be good. For example, how many times have we all heard some believers state that one cannot be moral without a belief in God? I view this argument as detrimental for two reasons:

  1. It argues that people who either don’t believe in God (or who believe in the wrong god, whatever that may be) are inherently immoral. The counter to this argument is that there are many forms of useful and functional secular morality, so one can be moral without religion. This is, I think, especially relevant given the fact that secularism and non-religiosity is on the rise here in the United States (up to ~25% by some recent surveys).
  2. It seems to implicitly assume that religion necessarily promotes morality. Given the recent events in Paris, I think this assumption is highly questionable, not to mention the fact that recent studies have shown that the religious are no more moral in their daily behavior than are the non-religious.

I think we should stop placing religion and religious belief on a pedestal, and we should take a reasoned and critical look at religion just as we do with any other human endeavor. We need to understand that there is nothing inherently special or moral about religion, and it can be used for good or ill regardless of the beliefs espoused by the faithful; yes, the reality is that religion doesn’t lead to any kind of objective morality. Some people think this critical analysis of religion is not only not necessary, but they say they are offended by it. To that I respond the same way I did in my post titled “The Dangers of NOT Offending Religious Sensibilities” in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks earlier this year:

First, I think that there has been a fundamental error in how much of this discussion has been framed. Too many people, mostly those who wish to not have their “religious sensibilities” offended and their weak-kneed allies, are asking the question of what are limits to free speech and should “offensive” speech which attacks and/or ridicules religion be allowed? This viewpoint isn’t to be dismissed as trivial in light of the fact that almost 20% of Americans think religion shouldn’t be satirized.

I think this is entirely the wrong question to be asking, for the simple reason that it appears to place the onus for responsibility of religious violence in the wrong place: on people whose only crime is to speak their mind openly and freely. There is an implicit and dangerous naivety behind such framing: it makes the assumption that if only people wouldn’t be critical of religion or poke fun at religious figures then murderous violence such as that on display recently in Paris would be curbed.

Really?! Not mocking religion means that there’s going to be a reduction of religiously-motivated violence? Try telling that to the thousands upon thousands of Muslims (and others) who are, even now, being enslaved, victimized, and barbarically killed by the extremists in ISIS. I’ll wager that the vast majority, if not all, of those being brutally oppressed and killed by ISIS never said or wrote one offensive word about Islam or Muhammad. Yet they are being slaughtered in the name of radical Islam none-the-less.

In my mind, a much more proper question to ask is this: What is it that it can so easily generate such a murderous certainty among the most ardent, fundamentalist believers of religion? The right way to respond to the Charlie Hebdo attacks and atrocities committed by ISIS isn’t to demand less scrutiny of religion but quite the opposite; we must demand more scrutiny of religion, especially radical, fundamentalist variations. …

… if we allow “offensive” speech to be curbed or outlawed, we run the risk of letting these vague notions of what is offensive to be defined by the most extreme members of religion. Take, for example, the case of Saudi Arabian blogger and dissenter Raif Badawi, who is undergoing a brutal punishment involving receiving 50 lashes a week for 20 weeks, followed by years in prison and hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. His crime, according to the Saudi Arabian authorities, was “insulting Islam”; Raif had the audacity to run a website called Free Saudi Liberals (now closed down) where he advocated for a secular government in Saudi Arabia. Yes, political dissent is viewed as an insult to religion, justifying – in the minds of the extremists – the most brutal of tortures and disproportionate punishment. Raif Badawi’s torture makes the case that, if anything, religious sensibilities need to be questioned, and if that makes some people uncomfortable or offends them, so much the better!

Now, lest you think this discussion is exclusively about Islam, think again. It has become clear of late that many more than just some Muslims are jumping aboard the “curb offensive speech” bandwagon. Consider, for example, the reaction from various branches of Christianity to the Charlie Hebdo attacks:

Famous religious right and fundamentalist Christian broadcaster Bryan Fisher suggested that God allowed Islamic terrorists to carry out their attack in Paris as punishment for blasphemy. Further, in his radio broadcast he stated “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain… They [Charlie Hebdo] made a career out of taking the name of God, the God of the Bible, the father of the Lord Jesus [in vain].” So, according to Fisher, it wasn’t the satire of Islam that led to the attacks, it was the satire of Christianity and Jesus that is to blame! It should also be no surprise that Fisher is among those who would impose so-called anti-blasphemy laws in the United States.

Not to be outdone, prominent radical Catholic and head of the Catholic League Bill Donohue stated that the victims of the Paris attacks only had themselves to blame for insulting religion and angering people. “Killing in response to insult, no matter how gross, must be unequivocally condemned. That is why what happened in Paris cannot be tolerated,” he explained in a press release. “But neither should we tolerate the kind of intolerance that provoked this violent reaction.”

Now one would expect such nutty rhetoric from commonly-known Christian fundamentalists such as Fisher and Donohue, but what is more disturbing is that the most widely known religious figure on the planet, Pope Francis, who is regarded by many as a “progressive Pope” appears to agree with these sentiments! “One cannot provoke; one cannot insult other people’s faith; one cannot make fun of faith,” the Pope stated on a recent trip to the Philippines. “If my good friend Dr. Gasparri says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others. You cannot make fun of the faith of others,” he continued. Wow, so much for that “turn the other cheek” nonsense that Jesus espoused.

What I see now is an emerging unholy alliance between right-wing extremists and naïve left-wing multiculturalists against secular critics of religion. The former want little more than power and control, and they view silencing criticism of religion and its related power structures as a way of attaining these goals. The latter are often well-meaning but clueless and unrealistic idealists who believe that sitting in a circle and singing “Kumbaya” will result in less religiously-motivated power grabs and violence. Both groups view secular critics of religion as either an enemy of the faith or callous and disrespectful loud-mouths who are somehow a threat to a healthy society. And this is not simply an academic debate; political correctness, introduced by the naïve among the multicultural left, has now been co-opted by right-wing fundamentalists to justify everything from the denial of contraception to women to the inclusion of pseudo-scientific notions of creationism in public schools. Under the guise of “religious liberty”, these fundamentalists insist that not allowing them to impose their religious beliefs upon the rest of society is offensive.

In closing, allow me one more criticism of religion and religious believers; but this criticism is not directed at the fundamentalists, it is directed at the moderate religious believers who, either knowingly or not, provide cover for the fundamentalists and their dangerous ideologies. As author Sam Harris argued so eloquently in his essay “The Problem with Religious Moderates”:

… While moderation in religion may seem a reasonable position to stake out, in light of all that we have (and have not) learned about the universe, it offers no bulwark against religious extremism and religious violence. The problem that religious moderation poses for all of us is that it does not permit anything very critical to be said about religious literalism. We cannot say that fundamentalists are crazy, because they are merely practicing their freedom of belief; we cannot even say that they are mistaken in religious terms, because their knowledge of scripture is generally unrivaled. All we can say, as religious moderates, is that we don’t like the personal and social costs that a full embrace of scripture imposes on us. This is not a new form of faith, or even a new species of scriptural exegesis; it is simply a capitulation to a variety of all-too-human interests that have nothing, in principle, to do with God.

Unless the core dogmas of faith are called into question-i.e., that we know there is a God, and that we know what he wants from us-religious moderation will do nothing to lead us out of the wilderness. …

… Religious moderates seem to believe that what we need is not radical insight and innovation in these areas but a mere dilution of Iron Age philosophy. Rather than bring the full force of our creativity and rationality to bear on the problems of ethics, social cohesion, and even spiritual experience, moderates merely ask that we relax our standards of adherence to ancient superstitions and taboos, while otherwise maintaining a belief system that was passed down to us from men and women whose lives were simply ravaged by their basic ignorance about the world. In what other sphere of life is such subservience to tradition acceptable? Medicine? Engineering? Not even politics suffers the anachronism that still dominates our thinking about ethical values and spiritual experience. …

… With each passing year, do our religious beliefs conserve more and more of the data of human experience? If religion addresses a genuine sphere of understanding and human necessity, then it should be susceptible to progress; its doctrines should become more useful, rather than less. Progress in religion, as in other fields, would have to be a matter of present inquiry, not the mere reiteration of past doctrine. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now, and describable in terms that are not an outright affront to the rest of what we know about the world. By this measure, the entire project of religion seems perfectly backward. It cannot survive the changes that have come over us-culturally, technologically, and even ethically. Otherwise, there are few reasons to believe that we will survive it.

Moderates do not want to kill anyone in the name of God, but they want us to keep using the word “God” as though we knew what we were talking about. And they do not want anything too critical said about people who really believe in the God of their fathers, because tolerance, perhaps above all else, is sacred. To speak plainly and truthfully about the state of our world-to say, for instance, that the Bible and the Koran both contain mountains of life-destroying gibberish-is antithetical to tolerance as moderates currently conceive it. But we can no longer afford the luxury of such political correctness. We must finally recognize the price we are paying to maintain the iconography of our ignorance.

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