A Month’s Worth of Links and Comments

New York Times, March 20: In the Age of Information, Specializing to Survive

The Internet makes it easy to learn almost anything. And yet

And yet, even as the highbrow holy grail — the acquisition of complete knowledge — seems tantalizingly close, almost nobody speaks about the rebirth of the Renaissance man or woman. The genius label may be applied with reckless abandon, even to chefs, basketball players and hair stylists, but the true polymaths such as Leonardo da Vinci and Benjamin Franklin seem like mythic figures of a bygone age.


NY Times Magazine, March 29: Debunking the Myth of the Job-Stealing Immigrant

Immigrants don’t just increase the supply of labor, though; they simultaneously increase demand for it, using the wages they earn to rent apartments, eat food, get haircuts, buy cellphones. That means there are more jobs building apartments, selling food, giving haircuts and dispatching the trucks that move those phones. Immigrants increase the size of the overall population, which means they increase the size of the economy. Logically, if immigrants were “stealing” jobs, so would every young person leaving school and entering the job market; countries should become poorer as they get larger. In reality, of course, the opposite happens.


NY Times Op-Ed, T.M. Luhrmann: Faith vs. Facts

MOST of us find it mind-boggling that some people seem willing to ignore the facts — on climate change, on vaccines, on health care — if the facts conflict with their sense of what someone like them believes. “But those are the facts,” you want to say. “It seems weird to deny them.”

And yet a broad group of scholars is beginning to demonstrate that religious belief and factual belief are indeed different kinds of mental creatures. People process evidence differently when they think with a factual mind-set rather than with a religious mind-set. Even what they count as evidence is different. And they are motivated differently, based on what they conclude. On what grounds do scholars make such claims?

This then, would be a problem with religion.


Jerry Coyne, Two readers testify that evolution helped them give up religion

It’s very rare for anyone to leave religion on the basis of being exposed to facts religion denies, but it does happen. The two examples here also illustrate how some religions — in these cases, Jehovah’s Witnesses — simply lie about the evidence for, say, evolution…

I found out (in part thanks to your book) that the people who lead the religion, whom I had trusted implicitly, had been shockingly dishonest about the evidence surrounding evolution. I was absolutely appalled at the quotes taken out of context, logical fallacies (I had to learn what a logical fallacy was), and thoroughly biased presentation of the subject. None of this was apparent to me when I was a believer because of the information control that the religion imposes (including not trusting ‘worldly’ sources of information, and completely shunning apostates – refusing to even look at anything they have to say).

… and how they shun you once you wake up and leave. (Scientology, notoriously, does this too.)


Wall Street Journal, Daniel Dennett: Why the Future of Religion Is Bleak

This dovetails with the previous item, that religions survive by controling what their adherents know. But this is getting more difficult in the modern internet world. Dennett notes the growing proportion of “Nones” in America.

If this trend continues, religion largely will evaporate, at least in the West. Pockets of intense religious activity may continue, made up of people who will be more sharply differentiated from most of society in attitudes and customs, a likely source of growing tension and conflict.

Could anything turn this decline around? Yes, unfortunately. A global plague, a world war fought over water or oil, the collapse of the Internet (and thereby almost all electronic communication) or some as-yet unimagined catastrophe could throw the remaining population into misery and fear, the soil in which religion flourishes best.

Dennett goes on,

With hardly any significant exceptions, religion recedes whenever human security and well-being rises, a fact that has recently been shown in numerous studies, but was suspected by John Calvin in the 16th century.

And concludes,

If we are lucky—if human health and security continue to rise and spread around the globe—churches might evolve into humanist communities and social clubs, dedicated to good works, with distinctive ceremonies and disappearing doctrine, except for a scattering of reclusive sects marked by something like institutional paranoia.

If we are unlucky and calamity strikes, our anxiety and misery will provide plenty of fuel for revivals and inventions of religions we have happily learned to live without.


Business Insider cheerfully shows 5 ways the world could really end.


The history of the world in one chart (I have a copy of this)
Related: The Histomap of Evolution

And on the topic of the supposed abnormality of homosexuality, this book: Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity. 450 species!


Salon: The GOP’s demonic alliance: How the religious right & big business are dumbing down America

Anti-intellectualism in America goes way back.

Today, the Republican party still supports these basic social and economic ideals. But the social issues are what truly gain votes, and they inevitably result in a hostility towards intellectualism and science. Many of Republicans seemingly vote against their economic self-interest in support of the conservative social values, which results in a vicious cycle of ignorance and poverty. Social conservative views, whether it be abortion or homosexuality, all sprout from the Christian faith, and the Christian faith inevitably clashes with modernity and science.

We see it around the country, with schools teaching creationism and politicians denying man-made climate change. In states like Texas, Louisiana, and Tennessee, public school teachers are allowed to teach “alternatives” to evolution, while in the states Florida, Indiana, Arizona, Ohio, Washington, and elsewhere, taxpayer money goes to funding private creationist schools. Evolution is quite incompatible with biblical stories, and the lack of scientific education in many states shows itself in polls – according to Gallup, 42 percent of Americans believe that God created humans in the present form.

Specifics about Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker.

Anti-intellectualism is an American tradition, and these new contenders denying scientific facts and calling Harvard a communist institution are simply embracing a populace that individuals like Billy Sunday and Joseph McCarthy once embraced. The alliance of religion and big business has fully incorporated America’s unfortunate anti-intellectualist culture, which has resulted in millions of people voting against their interest because of their own ignorant hostility towards anything that could be deemed elitist. It is a cycle of ignorance and poverty, and it is exactly what the real elites, like billionaire oil men, aim for.

And a quote from Isaac Asimov.


The latest from Jeffrey Tayler, Bill Maher, American hero: Laughing at religion is exactly what the world needs, also quotes Isaac Asimov (who wrote two big books about the Bible).

“Properly read,” declared the science-fiction author and biochemistry professor Isaac Asimov, “the Bible is the most potent force for atheism ever conceived.” He was right. The same may be said of the Quran, the holy book of Islam, which the late, dearly missed Christopher Hitchens called “not much more than a rather obvious and ill-arranged set of plagiarisms, helping itself from earlier books and traditions as occasion appeared to require.”


I’ll paste this and see if it works:

If the only thing keeping you from behaving badly is fear, then you're saying you're not a good person at heart.

Posted by David Gerrold on Sunday, April 26, 2015

David Gerrold on Facebook responding to a priest’s typical suspicion of atheists: you can’t trust an athiest president because he wouldn’t fear eternal damnation.

This is the problem with claiming your morals are derived from a holy book: it means you have none yourself.

Related: Amanda Marcotte in Salon/Alternet: 10 egregious myths the religious perpetuate about atheists, debunked.

6) Atheists don’t have a moral code. Atheist are routinely asked how people will know not to rape and murder without religion telling them not to do it, especially a religion that backs up the orders with threats of hell. Believers, listen to me carefully when I say this: When you use this argument, you terrify atheists. We hear you saying that the only thing standing between you and Ted Bundy is a flimsy belief in a supernatural being made up by pre-literate people trying to figure out where the rain came from. This is not very reassuring if you’re trying to argue from a position of moral superiority.


Here’s a couple counter-intuitive articles about history. In The Week, How Christianity invented children. Because in ancient Greece and Rome, children were nonpersons.

Back then, the entire social worldview was undergirded by a universally-held, if implicit, view: Society was organized in concentric circles, with the circle at the center containing the highest value people, and the people in the outside circles having little-to-no value. At the center was the freeborn, adult male, and other persons were valued depending on how similar they were to the freeborn, adult male. Such was the lot of foreigners, slaves, women…and children.

The frightening power of our emboldened police High infant mortality rates created a cultural pressure to not develop emotional attachments to children. This cultural pressure was exacerbated by the fact that women were more likely to develop emotional attachments to children — which, according to the worldview of the day, meant it had to be a sign of weakness and vulgarity.

Times change and morality evolves.

And a letter to Dan Savage challenges the assumption that medival attitudes about sex were very conservative.

I’m not saying that the Middle Ages was a great period of freedom (sexual or otherwise), but the sexual culture of 12th-century France, Iraq, Jerusalem, or Minsk did not involve the degree of self-loathing brought about by modern approaches to sexuality. Modern sexual purity has become a marker of faith, which it wasn’t in the Middle Ages.

The thing that really screwed up a lot of us religious kids was that engaging with our sexuality destroyed our religious identity: We stopped being Christians or Muslims when we started having sex, or sometimes, just started desiring to have sex.


The New Yorker: Mute Button

How to control the narrative: Kill the atheist bloggers, kill the satirical journalists.

The value of intellectual freedom is far from self-evident. It’s hardly natural to defend the rights of one person over the feelings of a group; to put up with all the trouble that comes with free minds and free expression; to stand beside the very people who repel you. After the massacre at the satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in January, even defenders of free speech couldn’t help wondering why the cartoonists hadn’t just avoided Islam and the Prophet, given the sensitivities involved. Why be provocative? And when freethinkers are a tiny minority in a terribly poor and overwhelmingly religious country on the other side of the world, with no First Amendment or republican tradition of laïcité, it’s easy to feel that they’re admirable eccentrics who speak for nothing and no one beyond themselves—which may explain why they’ve received so much less attention than their brethren in Paris.


Brief article in The Atlantic summarizing numerous mental biases, and how even scientists are prone to superstition.

Matthew Hutson: The Science of Superstition.

With references to studies that identified them. Now the last sentence here is really interesting:

Magical thinking is not just a result of ignorance or indoctrination—it appears to be a side effect of normal, socially adaptive thinking: we attribute intentions to the natural world in much the same way that we attribute intentions to other people. Indeed, a recent paper from a lab at the University of British Columbia reported that the better study participants were at reading others, the more strongly they believed in God, the paranormal, and the notion that life has a purpose [6]. Meanwhile, one of the few true avenues to atheism may be autism. The same lab found that the more autistic traits a person had, the less likely he or she was to believe in God. [7]

Makes sense: the very mental biases that lead to magical thinking (including religion) are useful (i.e. they promote survival) because they enable interpersonal communications. But this doesn’t mean there really are faeries in the garden, or the Virgin Mary in a tree stump.


Still a bunch of links, which for now I will just link without comment. And perhaps return to another day.

  1. Paul Di Filippo: Ten Essential Utopias
  2. Adam Lee: The Sci-Fi Fans Who Fear Change (Note that the extremists among these are also racist, anti-evolution, anti-gay, and given to conspiracy theories)
  3. Science Mag: To foster complex societies, tell people a god is watching. Another reason magical thinking is actually evolutionary adaptive. Connor Wood has an essay on this, which I haven’t yet read: Is religion evolutionarily adaptive?
  4. Some atheists debate whether there is, in principle, any kind of evidence that would convince them God exists. PZ Myers takes except to the way the challenge is framed: It is not close-minded to demand reasonable kinds of evidence
  5. An excerpt from Dan Barker’s Losing Faith In Faith: From Preacher to Atheist: Leave No Stone Unturned. He challenges Christians to examine the gospels and explain what happened on Easter, exactly.
  6. Freeman Dyson’s favorite novelist of all time is the late SF author Octavia Butler
  7. Think Progress: How To Tell If The Article About Climate You Are Reading Is B.S., In Four Easy Steps
  8. Americans Go to Church About As Much As Godless Europeans: America is not a Christian nation. We’re a secular nation that suffers a small but vocal minority of theocrats.
  9. Republicans cling to discredited ideologies: Paul Krugman: Zombies of 2016
  10. And if you have the magical thinking itch but can’t religious claims seriously, just redefine your terms: More nonsense at NPR about God


Finally a fine essay by Frank Bruni from nearly a month ago: Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana.

But in the end, the continued [Christian] view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.

Very nearly words I’ve written myself. Going on:

It disregards the degree to which all writings reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.

It ignores the extent to which interpretation is subjective, debatable.

And it elevates unthinking obeisance above intelligent observance, above the evidence in front of you, because to look honestly at gay, lesbian and bisexual people is to see that we’re the same magnificent riddles as everyone else: no more or less flawed, no more or less dignified.

Meanwhile, Republican politicians like Rick Santorum keep saying things like [He’d] Make a Great President Since He Fought to Keep Gay Sex Illegal. Huzzah.

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