Links and Comments: Evolution of Evolution Denial, and American Gullibility

A ‘Retro Report’ article in the NY Times, Questioning Evolution: The Push to Change Science Class, summarizes the by-now familiar litany of how objections to Darwin’s theory of the evolution — along with the many lines of supporting evidence and detailed implications of the theory, of which Darwin was unaware (he knew nothing of genetics, for example), that have been discovered since Darwin lived — have changed over time. Evolved.

Darwinism has long been under siege in parts of the United States, even if its critics have practiced their own form of evolution, adapting their arguments to accommodate altered legal circumstances. This installment of Retro Report shows the enduring strength of the forces that embrace the biblical account of Creation or reasonable facsimiles of it. For some of them, the rejection of broad scientific consensus extends to issues like climate change and stem-cell research.

The article is accompanied by a 10-minute video. The article starts with the infamous Scopes Monkey Trial, followed by the ploy of Creationism, followed by its ‘stepchild’ intelligent design. That last, also, was rejected by the courts.

And so, once more, the anti-Darwinists were forced to evolve. What emerged were state laws with descriptions like the “science education act” and the “academic freedom act.” One of the earliest and most successful of these endeavors, the Louisiana Science Education Act of 2008, carried echoes of a “wedge strategy” advocated by the Discovery Institute — a step-by-step program to “reverse the stifling dominance of the materialist worldview and to replace it with a science consonant with Christian and theistic convictions.”

The Louisiana law permits public schoolteachers to use materials critical of established scientific thought, with “evolution, the origins of life, global warming and human cloning” singled out as targets. No blatant advocacy of creationism or intelligent design is authorized. But those concepts make their way into classrooms all the same, as a means of fostering “critical thinking skills, logical analysis, and open and objective discussion of scientific theories.”

Of course, the deep motivations of evolution-deniers are revealed by their singling out of that topic and others that threaten the verities of religious fundamentalism, and more particularly, that threaten human vanity. If the Bible is literally true, then surely the fields of geology, astronomy, and astrophysics are as misguided and wrong as are the entirety of modern biology, about which one scientist remarked “Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution.” But you don’t see the advocates of ‘teaching the controversy’ concerned about physics or astronomy.

The article goes on, “Georgia Purdom, a molecular geneticist who is also a creationist, offered much the same view. ‘I am a scientist, and I have looked at the science, and I see that it confirms God’s word,’ Dr. Purdom said.” This would be called motivated thinking; that is, you can be sure Dr. Purdom was raised as a religious fundamentalist and then went on to learn biology and strove mightily to reconcile the two. No one without such a background, looking at the evidence of the world, of biology and geology and astronomy, would come to the conclusion that the Earth and all life is only 6000 years old, any more than they might conclude the world, with all of its evidence of antiquity, was created 5 minutes ago.


This topic aligns with several other items recently:

Op-ed by David Leonhardt: America Is Now an Outlier on Driving Deaths

The reason?

Over the last few decades, however, other countries have embarked on evidence-based campaigns to reduce vehicle crashes. The United States has not. The fatality rate has still fallen here, thanks partly to safer vehicles, but it’s fallen far less than anywhere else.

Evidence! The strategy of drawing conclusions from evidence is antithetical not only to religious fundamentalists, but also to the current US administration.

And the themes of several recent books…

Slate: The Long Con: Hoaxes, fake news, and phonies are nothing new in America. But has it ever been this bad?, about Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists, Phonies, Post-Facts, and Fake News, just published last week.

And Kurt Andersen’s Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History.

And Tom Nichols’ The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters.

American exceptionalism!

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Evolution | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Evolution of Evolution Denial, and American Gullibility

Link and Comments: Fractured Reality

The cultural theme of this second decade of the 21st century seems to be the fracturing of consensus cultural norms, even of consensus reality, especially in the US. I’ve observed this in tandem with reading about advances in psychology, over the past decade or so, that identify various cognitive errors and mental biases that largely ‘explain’ these differences; these understandings have been filtering down into the consensus understanding among intellectuals, at least, if not ordinary people, hiding in their silos, or bubbles, of cultural identity. Yet examples among intellectual writers of op-ed essays keep mounting. Here’s another.

Timothy Egan: We’re With Stupid. (The print title was “Look in the Mirror: We’re With Stupid”>

But the problem is not the Russians — it’s us. We’re getting played because too many Americans are ill equipped to perform the basic functions of citizenship. If the point of the Russian campaign, aided domestically by right-wing media, was to get people to think there is no such thing as knowable truth, the bad guys have won.

As we crossed the 300-day mark of Donald Trump’s presidency on Thursday, fact-checkers noted that he has made more than 1,600 false or misleading claims. Good God. At least five times a day, on average, this president says something that isn’t true.

We have a White House of lies because a huge percentage of the population can’t tell fact from fiction. But a huge percentage is also clueless about the basic laws of the land. In a democracy, we the people are supposed to understand our role in this power-sharing thing.

Fake news is a real thing produced by active disseminators of falsehoods. Trump uses the term to describe anything he doesn’t like, a habit now picked up by political liars everywhere.

The essay matches Roy Moore’s Christian theocracy with that of Islamic Sharia law.

Lost in the news grind over Roy Moore, the lawbreaking Senate candidate from Alabama, is how often he has tried to violate the Constitution. As a judge, he was removed from the bench — twice — for lawless acts that follow his theocratic view of governance.

Shariah law has been justifiably criticized as a dangerous injection of religion into the public space. Now imagine if a judge insisted on keeping a monument to the Quran in a state judicial building. Or that he said “homosexual conduct” should be illegal because his sacred book tells him so. That is exactly what Moore has done, though he substitutes the Bible for the Quran.

The essay closes with examples of Americans’ historical ignorance — how one in three fail the citizenship test that legal immigrants are required to pass.

There’s hope — and there are many ways — to shed light on the cave of American democracy. More than a dozen states now require high school students to pass the immigrant citizenship test. We should also teach kids how to tell fake news from real, as some schools in Europe are doing.

But those initiatives will mean little if people still insist on believing what they want to believe, living in digital safe spaces closed off from anything that intrudes on their worldview.

Posted in Culture, Psychology, Religion | Comments Off on Link and Comments: Fractured Reality

What We Learned from This Morning’s Newspaper

Robert H. Frank, Molly Worthen, Anthony Doerr, and Nicholas Kristof on cutting taxes for the rich, rejecting Roy Moore-style evangelicalism, how even the conscientious among us react to warnings of climate change, and how Blue States do better at practicing the family values that Red States preach.

Robert H. Frank: How Cutting Taxes Makes Life Worse for the Rich.

This speaks to the known cognitive error whereby we evaluate our good fortune not to any absolute or historical standard, but to a relative standard in comparison to those around us.

It is perfectly natural, of course, to believe that extra cash will help them buy the special things they want, such as more spacious homes or better performing cars. But that belief is a garden-variety cognitive error.

The mistake occurs because “special” is an inescapably relative concept. A spacious home is one that is larger than most other homes. A high-performance car is one that outperforms most other cars. Successful bidding for such things depends almost entirely on relative purchasing power. Taxes affect absolute purchasing power, not relative purchasing power. The upshot is that the ability of the already rich to bid successfully for special things is not enhanced by tax cuts.

Little wonder, then, that context shapes our evaluations of virtually every purchase we might consider. The standards that define “special” are therefore highly elastic. When everyone buys larger houses and faster cars, or stages more elaborate wedding celebrations, standards adjust accordingly.

Failure to appreciate that reality has also contributed to the tax resistance that has made it so difficult to restore America’s crumbling public infrastructure. Even proponents of minimal government concede that private cars would be of little use without public roads. And although it’s difficult to reach agreement on the best mix of public and private spending, studies show that the current mix in the United States is strongly biased against public spending.

The irony of his discussion is that if the wealthy can buy even more expensive high-performance cars, they won’t be able to use them if the infrastructure supported by taxes deteriorates.

Suppose that the Ferrari would universally be judged better if both cars were driven on good roads. But since the Porsche already has every design feature that affects performance significantly, the Ferrari’s edge would be tiny at most. No one could reasonably claim that the Ferrari would be more pleasing to drive on pothole-ridden roads than the Porsche on well-maintained ones.

Yet, among the super-wealthy, the actual quality mix of cars and highways in the United States more closely resembles Ferraris on potholes than Porsches on smooth asphalt. That’s puzzling, since the latter combination could be achieved at much lower total expense.

What Frank doesn’t note is that this observation won’t change the dynamic of how Republicans will try, for any reason whatsoever, to cut taxes for the wealthy, because the wealthy are their biggest contributors. The wealthy, like all of us, always want more; and they can afford to buy politicians.


Molly Worthen (author of The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism): How to Escape From Roy Moore’s Evangelicalism.

The writer considers an evangelical woman with a “sterling pedigree” at Liberty University and other places, who is troubled by evangelical support for Roy Moore.

This “liturgy” is the nightly consumption of conservative cable news. Liberals love to complain about conservatives’ steady diet of misinformation through partisan media, but Ms. Schiess’s complaint is more profound: Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson aren’t just purveyors of distorted news, but high priests of a false religion.

“The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing that people do every night,” Ms. Schiess told me. “It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America. This is convincing on a less than logical level, and the church is not communicating to them in that same way.”

With discussion of Rod Dreher’s “Benedict Option” — the idea that Christians should withdraw from modern society and live in a kind of permanent cultural bubble; another woman who tried that idea before it became trendy; and her reaction.


Anthony Doerr (a novelist): We Were Warned.

Twenty-five years ago this month, more than 1,500 prominent scientists, including over half of the living Nobel laureates, issued a manifesto titled “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity” in which they admonished, “A great change in our stewardship of the earth and the life on it is required if vast human misery is to be avoided and our global home on this planet is not to be irretrievably mutilated.”

Since then, he describes, even those of us conscientious to this warning have found it hard to act in way that would reverse this trend; try as we might, it’s difficult to make sacrifices in behavior that would truly make long-term difference.

Since the “World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity,” humans have done extraordinary things. We stabilized the stratospheric ozone layer; we connected people in instantaneous and previously unimaginable ways; we landed a golf cart on Mars and drove it around. We even got every nation-state on earth (except ours, apparently) to agree to try to achieve net zero greenhouse-gas emissions by midcentury.
But we’ve also removed enough forests to cover Texas nearly twice, pumped almost half of the carbon emitted in human history into the atmosphere, grown the population by over two billion and cut the number of wild animals on earth by something close to half.

And now there’s a new warning. He concludes,

For decades science has been warning us that we are compromising earth’s systems, and that none of us will be immune to the consequences. Everywhere you look, people are trying: adopting renewable energy, working to guarantee women control over their reproductive decisions, fighting food waste, shifting to plant-based diets. Maybe the most important thing the rest of us can do is take our fingers out of our ears and join them.

Needless to say, the evangelicals and the current US administration are not helping; they are aggressively making the problem — the survival of our species — worse, by the day.


Nicholas Kristoff: Blue States Practice the Family Values Red States Preach

[I]f one looks at blue and red state populations as a whole, it’s striking that conservatives champion “family values” even as red states have high rates of teenage births, divorce and prostitution. In contrast, people in blue states don’t trumpet these family values but often seem to do a better job living them.

Red states have higher rates of teen pregnancies, shotgun marriages, lower rates of average age of marriage and first births. And higher rates of divorce. And of adultery and prostition. The big exceptional group: Mormons. Kristoff concludes:

More broadly, conservative values don’t directly lead to premarital sex or divorce. Rather, statistical analysis suggests that religious conservatives end up divorcing partly because they marry early, are less likely to go to college and are disproportionately poor.

So the deeper problem seems to be the political choices that conservatives make, underinvesting in public education and social services (including contraception). This underinvestment leaves red states poorer and less educated — and thus prone to a fraying of the social fabric.

So let’s drop the wars over family values. Liberals and conservatives alike don’t want kids pregnant at 16, and we almost all seek committed marriages that last. It’s worth noting that Bible-thumping blowhards like Roy Moore don’t help achieve those values, while investments in education and family planning do.

Posted in MInd, Politics, Psychology, Religion, Science | Comments Off on What We Learned from This Morning’s Newspaper

Passages from Pinker

As a palette cleanser from my last post, here are some thoughts from my ongoing reading of Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, a history of the world with focus on violence, that summarizes that history through phases: the Civilizing Process; the Humanitarian Revolution, in concert with the Age of Reason and the European Enlightenment; the evidence of the Long Peace of the latter 20th century; and Rights Revolutions since the mid 20th century.

I’m working out of order here, since I haven’t yet summarized his chapter about the Humanitarian Revolution. But from the later chapters about the apparent “New Peace” of the past few decades, and the recent Rights Revolutions, some quotes.

“A world that is less invigorated by honor, glory, and ideology and more tempted by the pleasures of bourgeois life is a world in which fewer people are killed.” (p309.8)

“The mind’s habit of essentialism can lump people into categories; its moral emotions can be applied to them in their entirely. The combination can transform Hobbesian competition among individuals or armies into Hobbesian competition among peoples. But genocide has another fateful component. As Solzhenitsyn pointed out, to kill by the millions you need an ideology.” (p328)

“Religion thrives on woolly allegory, emotional commitments to texts that no one reads, and other forms of benign hypocrisy.” (p367) Echoing earlier comments; it’s just as well.

A long section about the ‘Rights Revolutions’ is about how, in the past 50 or 60 years, tolerance of violence has diminished toward “vulnerable classes of victims that in earlier eras fell outside the circle of protection, such as racial minorities, women, children, homosexuals, and animals.” p380.

Key insight: “The code of etiquette bequeathed by this and the other Rights Revolutions is pervasive enough to have acquired a name. We call it political correctness.”

You realize that those who rail against ‘political correctness’ are those who still wish to demean the various classes mentioned above.

Posted in Humanism, Social Progress, Steven Pinker | Comments Off on Passages from Pinker

Links and Comments: Roy Moore and Religious Hypocrisy

The Roy Moore scandal fascinates me for several reasons.

First, because Roy Moore has been a villain, a sort of comic-book villain, for years and years, among progressives who observe his brand of religious zealotry as a sign of the most regressive aspects of American society (especially in the South). He’s a Biblical fundamentalist; he insists on mounting monuments about the Ten Commandments in defiance of law (and regardless of the fact that our judicial system does not, in fact, endorse all of those commandments — the law does not insist on worshiping one god, closing on Sundays, etc. etc.) Again and again, I think religious zealots are just not too bright; they basically don’t understand, or refuse to understand, the American system of government.

And second, because the support for Moore reveals the deep hypocrisy of the religious right. Apparently, as far as I can gather, they’ll support Moore (and Trump) because the conservative agenda, especially the drive to repeal Row v. Wade [which, even if accomplished, would leave progressive blue states with laws that permit abortion], overrides any concern about the morality of elected officials.

Many items to link, of which here are just a few.

Right Wing Watch: Roy Moore: A History of Bigotry, Extremism and Contempt for the Rule of Law

A comprehensive catalog, that includes his contempt for gays, whom he would outlaw.

Slate: One Group That Thinks Grown Men “Courting” Teen Girls Is Natural? Fundamentalist Home-Schoolers.

No surprise here. Morality in the world has progressed over the past two millennia; those who adhere to Biblical morality have not. (Much evidence in Steven Pinker’s history of the world The Better Angels of Our Nature, which I’m still working my way through.)

Joe.My.God: Alabama Rep. Mo Brooks Stands By Moore: The Right Wing Agenda Is More Important Than Sex Charges

The hypocrisy of the right.

Slate: We’ve Always Known Roy Moore Is Lawless: “It’s why Alabama Republicans voted for him.”

Via Morning Heresy, Max Boot in USA Today says the Moore episode has to be the last straw for the Republican Party, which just needs to die now:

In the final analysis, no indictment of their candidate will convince the faithful. As Trump once said, “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters.” Or, more to the point, Roy Moore could molest a 14-year-old girl and not lose votes. Because for Republican partisans, their opponents are “the forces of evil,” and anything is preferable to that. Even Donald Trump. Even Roy Moore. So in ostensibly fighting evil, Republicans have become complicit in it.

This is a party that does not deserve to survive.

More to the point– Valerie Tarico at Alternet: Alabama Conservatives Are Right: Roy Moore’s Behavior Is Perfectly Biblical—and That Is the Problem

Citing Biblical passages about the ownership of women, how rape is a violation not of the woman but of her male owner, and so on.

Another example of primitive morality, that has been overcome in the modern world.

The Bible contains fragments that are uplifting and beautiful—verses that contain timeless wisdom and elevate humanity’s shared moral core. But that’s not all it contains. When it comes to relationships between women and men, the contents of the Bible confront modern Jews and Christians with a difficult choice. Believers can treat the “good book” as the literal and perfect word of God or they can embrace an egalitarian view of men and women, one in which sexual intimacy is rooted in shared desire and consent. These two options are mutually exclusive, and people who say otherwise are engaged in a desperate attempt to protect the Bible from itself.

Roy Moore has made his choice. You can call him disgusting or vile or sexist, but don’t use the word hypocrite. Moore is living the script.

Posted in Bible, Religion | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Roy Moore and Religious Hypocrisy

Links and Comments: The Profound and the Pernicious

From NPR, The Answer To Life, The Universe — And Everything? It’s 63.

The headline is a riff on the famous episode in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Wikipedia) in which a vast computer called Deep Thought is assigned to calculate the “Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, The Universe, and Everything” (Wikipedia), and responds with the answer, “42”. And then explains that the answer is incomprehensible because the question wasn’t properly formed…

Now we have a new book by Caleb Scharf, The Zoomable Universe, which explores the magnitude of the universe, from the very large to the very small. An order of magnitude difference of… 63. He summarizes a key point of the book in this NPR piece.

It’s on our biological scales that the universe does something very, very funky. Billions of years of elemental and chemical brewing have produced structures capable of awareness, and capable of trying to decode the very thing out of which they’ve come. It’s the ultimate bootstrap, going from a near featureless primordial reality to something that deduces its own existence.

That’s what exploring 63 orders of magnitude leads us to. The nature of us.


On a completely different matter, noting current political controversies, we have Valerie Tarico pointing out that Alabama Conservatives Are Right: Roy Moore’s Behavior Is Perfectly Biblical — and That Is the Problem.

Indeed, Biblical morality reflect the primitive tribalist past of our species, an era when, as the Bible explains, “females are created for the benefit of males”. Tarico cites many passages and examples.

Just another reason why the Bible, I think, is a fascinating historical document, providing keen insights into the childhood of our species, but is not just wrong-headed but actually pernicious as a guide for any kind of morality, let alone insight into the actual nature of the world and humanity’s place in it, in the modern world.

Roy Moore has made his choice. You can call him disgusting or vile or sexist, but don’t use the word hypocrite. Moore is living the script.

And, given the tribalistic loyalty of conservatives discussed in the previous post — despite any signs of contemporary morality — Alabama might yet elect him to the Senate anyway.

Posted in Cosmology, Morality, Politics, Science | Comments Off on Links and Comments: The Profound and the Pernicious

Links and Comments: Conservative Susceptibility to Lies; Contempt for Science; Existential Threats

» Slate: Why Are Conservatives More Susceptible to Believing Lies?. Subtitle: “An interplay between how all humans think and how conservatives tend to act might actually explain a lot about our current moment.”

Longish article about how conservatives are more given to believing “fake news” or alternative facts — that Obama is a Muslim, that Trump’s inauguration crowds were bigger than Obama even when looking right at comparative photos, that Hillary Clinton was involved in a pizza parlor sex trafficking ring — than liberals are. “The left is certainly not immune to credulity (most commonly about the safety of vaccines, GMO foods, and fracking), but the right seems to specialize in it.”

And then goes on to explore why. It’s not a matter of stupidity or education. It’s partly that the right specializes in manufacturing fake news, going back to how the business interests of the tobacco industry downplayed evidence of linkage to cancer. But ultimately it’s about psychology — and here we are deep into Haidt territory (my comment; the article doesn’t mention him):

But, the gullibility of many on the right seems to have deeper roots even than this. That may be because at the most basic level, conservatives and liberals seem to hold different beliefs about what constitutes “truth.” Finding facts and pursuing evidence and trusting science is part of liberal ideology itself. For many conservatives, faith and intuition and trust in revealed truth appear as equally valid sources of truth.


Psychologists have repeatedly reported that self-described conservatives tend to place a higher value than those to their left on deference to tradition and authority. They are more likely to value stability, conformity, and order, and have more difficulty tolerating novelty and ambiguity and uncertainty. They are more sensitive than liberals to information suggesting the possibility of danger than to information suggesting benefits. And they are more moralistic and more likely to repress unconscious drives towards unconventional sexuality.

Fairness and kindness place lower on the list of moral priorities for conservatives than for liberals. Conservatives show a stronger preference for higher status groups, are more accepting of inequality and injustice, and are less empathic (at least towards those outside their immediate family). As one Tea Party member told University of California sociologist Arlie Hochschild, “People think we are not good people if we don’t feel sorry for blacks and immigrants and Syrian refugees. But I am a good person and I don’t feel sorry for them.”

“Conservatives’ greater acceptance of hierarchy and trust in authority may lead to greater faith that what the president says must be true.”

(You can fool some of the people all of the time, is my take.)

And so on. This issue blurs together with the latest example of our current president’s horrible choices for cabinet and other leadership positions — mostly people chosen to dismantle the institutions they are in charge of, as if our president is actually a clever foreign infiltrator bent on destroying our country.

Amanda Marcotte: Trump’s terrible NASA nominee and the GOP attack on science. Subtitle: Jim Bridenstine, Trump’s choice to head NASA, is only the latest symptom of Republican contempt for science.

He’s a climate-change denier with no science or engineering background at all; he was a business major and has an MBA, and held an administrative position at a Tulsa Planetarium.

This pattern strongly indicates that Trump holds science itself in contempt. (The fact that actual science requires education and expertise probably makes him feel stupid, which he notoriously dislikes.) Trump clearly sees these scientific positions as opportunities to reward his supporters with paychecks, titles and offices, not as jobs important to America’s future that need to be filled with qualified people.


And there was a segment on today’s Science Friday radio program about the Paris Agreement about climate change deniers — their arguments are never about the science, but about supposed conspiracy theories and the unwillingness to sacrifice short-term advantages for long-term survival [another flaw in human cognition built into us by evolution, where long-term effects were out of anyone’s control] — or more simply, resentment at the idea the government can tell them what to do.

The US Will Be The Only Country Not In The Paris Agreement. Now What?


All of this boils down to the varying ways individual humans perceive and understand the world. Per Haidt (review of his book here and in two later posts), I’d rather not designate traits of conservatives or liberals, but rather understand the range of human psychological attitudes, which can vary along five or six axes. They all exist for reasons of genetic diversity — in different situations throughout humanity’s evolutionary history, one or another attitude has been best at any one time for the species’ survival. The world would not be a better place if everyone were like me, or like you; it takes a range. That is, one understands that people who have certain attitudes along those five or six axes as exhibiting traits that Americans currently identify as conservative, and others as liberal. They are all equally valid ways of expressing human nature.

But they are not equally valid ways of dealing with the real world, or with long-term threats. Human nature has been refined by evolution for survival in a particular kind of world, and not as an accurate perception of reality. And now the world is changing, in ways that bring human nature into conflict with reality — the reality of a world undergoing a climate change that could spell the extinction of the species, in the worst case. The denial of that evidence could really have dire consequences. It’s fine to think as I have that everyone can believe whatever they want to believe, that in some sense it doesn’t matter, because they still perform the quotidian activities of living their lives and raising families and carrying on the next generation. But it does matter if those beliefs don’t take into account existential threats.

Over human history, in fact, many cultures have died before. There’s a Jared Diamond book about this — COLLAPSE, which Wikipedia summarizes here. I’ve browsed it but not read it thoroughly, but a glance at the detailed Table of Contents reveals themes all-too-familiar from discussions of conservative thinking, the values of the religious, and the activities of the current administration… “Failure to anticipate; Failure to perceive; Rational bad behavior; Disastrous values…”

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Species Reset | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Conservative Susceptibility to Lies; Contempt for Science; Existential Threats

A Very Short Book by A.C. Grayling

A.C. Grayling, AGAINST ALL GODS (2007), subtitled “Six Polemics on Religion and an Essay on Kindness”

I saw this referenced from Tim Crane’s book that I mentioned a couple posts ago, and ordered it without realizing that it’s very short, almost incidental, especially compared with Grayling’s later, much more substantial, book THE GOD ARGUMENT [terrible title] (reviewed here). But I wrote it up anyway. And it does have one striking idea, about the apparent resurgence of religious activity in the past couple decades, described in chapter 7 below. As usual, my personal comments are [in brackets]; otherwise I’m just summarizing the text.

– – –

These are very short chapters, the entire book comprising just 64 pages. The author alludes to the essays having been published as journalism, presumably columns in a newspaper or magazine, but doesn’t say where; and oddly, there are repetitious passages across several.

1, Intro summarizes the questions to be discussed. Admits discussions are brief, and refers to 2 other books and 5 collections of essays that expand on these ideas.

2, Are Religions Respectable?

Not any more so than any other special interest group. 16.0: “To believe something in the face of evidence and against reason – to believe something by faith – is ignoble, irresponsible and ignorant, and merits the opposite of respect.” He suggests religious beliefs be confined to the private sphere, like sexual proclivities.

3, Can an Atheist be a Fundamentalist?

Well, what would a non-fundamentalist atheist be? Someone who believed that gods exist only part of the time, etc? Christians forget how their religion has changed over time; it constantly reinvents itself, with examples p25, and how far from the teachings of Jesus many modern religions operate. Author charges religions with inculcating children in their ‘intellectual infancy’ in order to survive, and challenges them to wait for children to become adults, before presenting them with the many religious options.

Author doesn’t care for the term atheist (we don’t speak of a-fairyists for people who no longer believe in fairies, as many did in the 19th century, p28); he prefers naturalist, while religious people would be supernaturalists.

Nor is atheism a religion. It is not because it is not premised on belief in supernatural agencies. It is a philosophy or theory, in that “it proportions what it accepts to the evidence for accepting it, knows what would refute it, and stands ready to revise itself in light of new evidence.” P30. There have been no wars over rival theories of astrophysics, as there have between rival religious movements.

4, Re Secularist, Humanist, Atheist

Secular means desiring the separation of Church and State. Religious organizations should welcome the idea, lest one religion take over the state and suppress rival religions.

Humanism means that the best ethical system derives from an understanding of human nature and the human condition in the real world.

And atheism refers to people who do not share the supernatural beliefs of the religious.

Of course, everyone religious is also an atheist about other religions, though it’s not appreciated how arbitrary [or contingent on circumstances] it was for Christians to latch onto the tale of Jesus, rather than any of the many similar tales of that era, p35. Why not a religion around Spartacus? [with gospels written decades later to amplify dicey testimony of miraculous events surrounding his life…]

The issues are not about whether supernatural beliefs are true or false; it’s about whether one is rational or irrational. Example of rain, umbrellas, the world, and whether a deity is benevolent or not.

5, The Corrosion of Reason

About the 30% of people who believe in creationism or intelligent design (in the UK at the time). University standards have fallen as ‘polytechnics’ have been allowed to call themselves universities. [this is a UK thing, I assume]. To some extent ‘political correctness’ plays into this, as any manner of alternate beliefs and superstitions are accorded respect, leading to the detriment of valuing evidence and reason.

Example of, again, why the Jesus story is true and the similar stories of Zeus and his earthly paramours are myths.

Would an invented religion about gnomes be granted political recognition?

Nor do Stalinism and Nazism show that secular arrangements are worse; these are, like religions, ideologies, which are happy to oppress when given the chance. P46: “But give them the levers of power and they are the Taliban, the Inquisitions, the Stasi.”

6, Only Connect

Three items in the news: one about how evolution produces new systems by adapting existing structures to new purposes; one about the discovery of 375m year old fossils; a third about the discovery of an ancient ‘gospel of Judas.’

And how Michael Behe claims ‘irreducible complexity’, which author finds absurd; it explains one [not yet understood] mystery by introducing the existence of a far greater one. As Karl Popper said: a theory which explains everything explains nothing. [that is, God] A theory must specify what counter-evidence would refute it. [because God works in mysterious ways and thus no disaster or evil in the world can discredit the notion]

7, The Death Throes of Religion

Author considers three recent commentaries that claim a resurgence in religion; author differs. (He describes one of these about how the US has become a de facto theocracy: “the home of faith-based politics, faith-based science (creationism), faith-based medicine (‘pro-life’), faith-based foreign policy (conducting jihad for American/Baptist values) and faith-based attacks on civil liberties.”

On the contrary author sees religion waning, and the evidence cited by others as reactions to provocation. It began with the Muslim world becoming aware of the western world, which disdained its values, and then emboldened by the Afghan victory over Soviet Russia, to take up arms against the west; this in turn prompted other religious groups to demand their share of attention. And so they make gains here and there, even as surveys show devotion to traditional religions decreasing and eroding.

–example: p56, “Yes, over half the population claim vaguely to believe in Something, which includes feng shui and crystals, but they are functionally secularist and would be horrified if asked to live according to the letter of (say) Christian morality: giving all one’s possessions to the poor, taking no thought for the morrow, and so impracticably forth.”

8, The Alternative: Humanism

The alternative is humanism, a rich ethical tradition derived from the roots of Western philosophy. Humanists aspire to respect their fellow human beings, to give them the advantage of good light; to understand human nature and human circumstances through art and literature, history and philosophy, science, personal experience and reflection, and so on; but not superstition or ignorance. Humanists are humbler than the religious with their certainties of faith. “All the enquiries that human intelligence conducts into enlarging knowledge make progress always at the expense of generating new questions. Having the intellectual courage to live with this open-endedness and uncertainty, trusting to reason and experiment to gain us increments of understanding, having the absolute integrity to base one’s theories on rigorous and testable foundations, and being committed to changing one’s mind when shown to be wrong, are the marks of honest minds.” (p63)

Words I looked up:
Emetic, 17.1, causing vomiting
Votaries, 17.6, people who’ve made vows of dedication to religious service
Tu quoque, 31.7 “an informal logical fallacy that intends to discredit the opponent’s argument by asserting the opponent’s failure to act consistently in accordance with its conclusion(s).”
Inspissate 31.7, thicken or congeal
Latitudinarian 32.5, showing no preference among religious creeds or forms of worship

Posted in Atheism, Religion | Comments Off on A Very Short Book by A.C. Grayling

Sfadb progress toward ultimate Top 100 Lists

Over the past two weeks I’ve made much progress on the next stage of my site — the compiling of all awards references and citations references into overall scores and rankings. One product of this effort will be Top 100 lists of SF novels, and fantasy/horror novels: ultimate lists based on data crunching of thousands of awards records and citation records. (These aren’t actually my primary goals; I’m more interested in developing some cool timelines, of these top 100s spread across the decades, and more elaborated timelines of top ranked books and short fiction within each calendar year.)

These are concepts I’ve had in mind for nearly 20 years… though they began as ideas about short fiction, to expand the crude rankings of reprint statistics of stories in anthologies, with data about awards. (Bill Contento’s Locus Index on the one hand, and Aurel Guillemette’s 1993 book on the other hand.)

Almost two years ago, in January 2016 (, I described how my approach would be similar to the Open Syllabus Explorer project, that compiled the syllabuses of thousands of colleges to see which titles were most mentioned. As I’ve worked my own project, I’ve decided to dismiss the fourth step I described then: I will not adjust the highest rankings in my ranking to 100%, but will instead display the actual rankings, by percent, of actual scores (or points) against possible scores (or points), given the year any particular book was published — and, as it’s developed, the awards or citation sources that any particular book was actually eligible for.

And I’ll actually display a tickertape of abbreviated links, for each title, of all potential scorers and actual scorers. If some top ranked title, say, DUNE, gets only a combined percent score of 75%, then what were the 25% others who didn’t award or cite it? You will be able to see.

The process of developing these rankings has involved quite a bit of back and forth about the significance of ordering steps, about compiling points, adjusting them against potential points, and so on. One firm decision I’ve made is that the universe of books to be ranked must be divided by genre. Science Fiction vs. Fantasy/Horror. Mostly this is because the many awards and references for citations are heavily weighted to SF. To rank every book against all sources of awards and citations that I’ve compiled, would place very few fantasy/horror novels in any combined top 100. It makes much more sense to consider the genres as two separate realms. So far, I’ve worked steps for ranking SF titles first. I’m thinking perhaps that the F/H titles might be scaled in some sense so that a merge of all genres would make sense. And similarly, eventually, for short fiction. (I have in mind, eventually, producing pages of rankings for individual authors, that would merge book and short fictions rankings, to indicate for each author what are their truly best regarded works, of any length.)

Making much progress, as I’ve said, and this progress entails new insights about the process and what it means, almost daily. It helps to take long walks in the woods. Over the past two days I’ve developed steps for integrating ‘series’ titles into the overall rankings — most prominently, The Foundation Trilogy, and The Book of the New Sun. These are working out; examination of the results are intuitively correct — but I need to make sure they are statistacally correct, given the mass of data I am crunching.

As of today, the process for integrating the thousands of awards records and citation records I’ve compiled over the past 20 years, into a set of definitive top 100 lists, is as follows.

1 tallying raw counts of number of awards, number of citation sources
2 weighing total points from awards and sources, where points are weighted by significance of source
3 scoping separating sf and fantasy; not scoring many books against awards they’re not eligible for
4 scaling compute maximum possible points by genre and category
5 merging merging multiple book records into a single series record, and allocating actual and possible points appropriately
6 scoring calculate percentage of actual points to possible points
7 ranking sort records in descending order by score
8 tracking expanding records to examine which sources do and don’t contribute to every point total, for output onto the site

I think I can finish final rankings of SF and F/H books within another couple weeks, certainly by the end of this year. But doing the same for short fiction is a separate task, for next year.

Posted in science fiction, Website Issues | Comments Off on Sfadb progress toward ultimate Top 100 Lists

Pinker and Crane: Quotes and Comments about Faith and Religion

Still working my way, slowly, through Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE. In Chapter 4, The Humanitarian Revolution, he discusses various kinds of violence over human history, beginning with human sacrifice, and then to violence “against blasphemers, heretics, and apostates”. I found this paragraph striking and typed it out. (page 149)

People become wedded to their beliefs, because the validity of those beliefs reflects on their competence, commends them as authorities, and rationalizes their mandate to lead. Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the beliefs that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali was the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammed. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them – or worse, who credibly rebut then – they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.

“Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.”


I just acquired a new book by Tim Crane, THE MEANING OF BELIEF, about which I blogged a week ago about a New York Times Book Review review. The book is petite, smaller than a standard hardcover, with under 200 pages of text. The prose is carefully worded, as written by a philosopher, careful to define his terms and qualify his claims. Crane’s stance is that he doesn’t dispute the issues discussed by the ‘New Atheists’ — Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens, as well as A.C. Grayling — but wants to understand, even if the cosmological claims of religions are easily dismissed, why and how religion forms such a fundamental part of the human experience. So I am on his side; my discussions in this blog, about books by E.O. Wilson and Jonathan Haidt and many others, are more to try to understand the human experience, than to dismiss religious claims (which is easy). My theme is the disconnect between human nature, human perception of the universe, how those are understood as protocols for human survival, in a natural selection sense; and what is actually real about the universe, that vast universe we can barely perceive and which is so much more vast than anything imagined by the ancients.

So… here’s Tim Crane’s definition of religion. He waffles for a few pages before realizing he has to define his central term in some sense, before he can write a book about it. Page 6:

Religion, as I am using the word, is a systematic and practical attempt by human beings to find meaning in the world and their place in it, in terms of their relationship to something transcendent. This description has four essential elements: first, religion is systematic; second, it is practical; third, it is an attempt to find meaning; and fourth, it appeals to the transcendent.

He goes on to expand on each of these elements, in this first chapter, and in later chapters.

Posted in Book Notes, Quote at Length, Religion | Comments Off on Pinker and Crane: Quotes and Comments about Faith and Religion