Thursday, December 27, 2007


A mythical child-god
Poops his pants in a stable;
Shit-stained swaddling clothes
Give lie to pristine legends
About an almighty become cuddly child.
Persian astrologers
Have shit-strewn straw flung in their faces
By the laughing, sinless son of god
As they describe their horoscopes
About the purported inscrutableness
Of it all.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Religious Right numerology lunacy

Because Isaiah 35 says: “A highway shall be there,” a small group of churches is proclaiming I-35 the “Highway of Holiness” across the six states it traverses.

First, where’s U.S. 35? Or various state highways 35?

Second, this is the most stupid example of numerology since people kept pushing for U.S. 666 to be renumbered as 491, saying the number of deaths on the road showed it was “Satan’s highway.”

The nutbars neglected many hills, narrow shoulders, curves, and, above all, drunk Navajos, as being primary factors in all the vehicular deaths.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Yet another empirical swift kick in the pants for Charles Murray and “The Bell Curve”

Romanian children moved from orphanages to foster care show a 12-15 point gain on IQ, if placed before the age of 2.

So much for that high heritability of “q,” a mythical intelligence factor that’s never even been proven to exist.

Scott Atran does a disservice to “new atheism”

Anthropologist Scott Atran, an atheist himself and author, most notably of In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion, but a strong critic of the so-called “New Atheists,” even to the point of approaching talking about the “ineffability” of religious belief, was recently in an extended conversation with Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris about their critics of the degree of harm religion causes.

The discussion also included side points on the validity, and degree of validity, of ideas of evolutionary group selection vs. individual selection.

Here’s my take on the whole thing, which is well worth a read.

The “new atheists” are right, in my opinion and empirical observation, that religion is harmful from the standpoint of groups, whether that be individual religious groups, faiths, sects, etc. other social groups, or the largest group of all, Homo sapiens. However, that then said, Atran is right that religion can be very valuable for the groups holding on to it.

That said, religion may well still have value for individuals. The psychological value of greater control that religion appears to give, greater control through its apparent, even if now known to not be real, explanatory value is still strong. But, its value minus its detriments is fading, especially in countries scientifically advanced not named the United States.

That said, the cohesiveness value of religion for groups still appears to offset those detriments in this country. But, as the United States exhausts its natural resources, faith-based stances from a fair amount of more literalist Christians on environmental issues, blank-check defense of Israel, and other items, will certainly grow more costly, especially to individuals within religious groups as individuals.

And, that said, while not dismissing David Sloan Wilson’s ideas on group selection, as many of the Dawkinses of the world do appear to do, and while noting that Darwin himself discussed group selection, ultimately, individual selection trumps group selection. Genes are passed on at the individual level.

So, Atran is somewhat right in an oblique way. Until individuals feel for their own selves the costs of religious belief, especially of a literalist or semi-literalist fashion, at the individual level, individuals won’t break out from the group benefits they get.

But, contra Atran, since at the group level, we have a conflict between in-group value and out-group cost for religion, Dawkins, Hitchens, etc., are absolutely right to expose the cost that religion imposes on outgroups.

In the U.S., the amount of tax deductions for religion would be one example. From President Bush on down to school superintendents, the increasing preference given to “faith-based” social organizations to perform government services, the cost religious groups impose on other groups, as well as individuals, across metagroup swaths of society is a big issue.

In other words, not as individuals within a particular group, but religious groups as “individuals” within metagroups, there is a huge, highly legitimate “free rider” issue.

In other words, let David Sloan Wilson talk about group selection with religion. He’s hoisting himself by his own petard.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Evolution’s acceleration and the evolution of religious belief

Recent news that the pace of human evolution may have accelerated in the last 40,000 years, and accelerated a lot in the last 10,000, seems like it would fit both with books I’ve read on cognitive science and evolutionary psychology’s connection with religion by others such as Scott Atran and Pascal Boyer, but also with the dating of cave paintings in sites such as Lascaux.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

John Haught straw-mans atheism in the name of progressive theology

I appreciate that Haught, the only theologian to testify at the Dover Intelligent Design school education trial, believes Darwin is good for theology to counter a literalist understanding of God, scriptures, etc.

I can halfway accept that Christopher Hitchens, et al, “cheat” in their “New Atheism” books by just talking about the worst of major religions.

But, Haught sets up a straw man by claiming, in essence that atheism is psychologically impossible or nearly so, per “old atheist” literati like Sartre and Camus.

First, he is right that the “old atheists,” Camus above all, did give a hat tip to the social justice of traditional religion. Nonetheless, in the same speech where Camus most directly did that, he told his Catholic religious audience that he wouldn’t be critiquing them on social justice issues if more people actually followed Christian social justice teachings.

On the social justice angle of Christianity, if literalist metaphysical verities are thrown out, that's all that's left. And Christian social justice improved in the modern world, post-Renaissance, precisely as the metaphysical verities faded away.

Second, in claiming atheism can’t justify any hope it does have in this world, he argues from an a priori, a logical equivalent of Aristotle’s Prime Mover. That is, after saying too many fundamentalists and new atheists alike have too much faith in science as being able to provide ultimate answers, he insists the world does have ultimate answers. That is the backdrop for his unspoken assumption that most, if not all psychological stances in this world, can be justified.

Third, Haught basically ignores evolutionary psychology, and the degree to which things like altruism are in our genetic make-up, by indicating one must be religious to hve a sense of social justice.

Fourth, after rejecting Stephen Jay Gould’s idea that science and religion are “separate magisterial,” he criticizes scientists for ever making comments about “purpose” in life, trying to reserve that for a religion-philosophy magisterial.

Here’s an example:
What intelligent design tries to do — and the great theologians have always resisted this idea — is to place the divine, the Creator, within the continuum of natural causes. And this amounts to an extreme demotion of the transcendence of God, by making God just one cause in a series of natural causes.

But, per Christian theology, historical errors of the Bible aside, the Christian God is one who intervenes in history, who makes plans for history, and who ultimately becomes immanent in Jesus.

Ttherefore, claims about God’s actions in this world have to be considered empirically reviewable, unless …

Fifth, and most importantly, after his high-faluting language, he pulls out one of the theologian’s oldest dodges in the book: Finitum non capax est infinitum, or, “The finite cannot comprehend the infinite”:
We have to refer to (transcendent reality) in the oblique and fuzzy but also the luxuriant and rich language of symbol and metaphor.

That didn’t fly when the author of Job put that on the lip of Yahweh, nor when Paul quoted that. And it doesn’t fly today. And, in fact, he gets called on it a bit later in the interview.

Haught does that again with resurrection stories:
If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that.

I guess he is OK with ignoring what Paul said in 1 Corinthians about bodily resurrections, even if Paul hedges his bet by talking about “spiritual bodies.”

Sixth, Haught simply covers his eyes when scientific explanations run over his stances like a Mack truck. Haught can’t accept that modern neuroscience and related disciplines show “the mind is the brain,” no matter how that’s understood in terms of mind being an emergent property?

Dismiss it away. Say that cognitive science and neuroscience not only haven’t explained consciousness, but can’t.
Don't get me wrong. I want to push physical explanations as far as possible. I'm a man who loves science. I'm in awe of science. I don't ever want theology to put restraints upon science. I believe every thought we have has a physical correlate. But at the same time, I believe there's something about mind that does transcend, while at the same time fully dwelling incarnately in the physical universe. I see that as a microcosmic example of what's going on in the universe as a whole.

In other words, practice intellectual dishonesty.

Beyond that that, his claims to embrace science aside, he’s actually being antiscientific, not just nonscientific, with his a priori rejection of what cognitive science and neuroscience may well continue to discover about the nature of consciousness.

Finally, we have this howler:
That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe.

Science admits its knowledge is provisional, but non-literal? This sounds like the intellectual relativists found in places like Stanley Fish lectures and the pages of New Social Review.

In other words beyond that, justify the Hitchenses and Dawkinses of the world for pointing out that people like you don’t necessarily have much more clothes than ayatollahs or hellfire preachers, or even than popes and dalai lamas.

That said, Haught’s theological mentor is the late Belgian Jesuit, Teilhard de Chardin. Chardin’s “Omega Point” is certainly out of the scientific realm of empirical study, and, in terms of religion, it’s essentially a Catholicized version of Whitehead’s process theology.

But, all of this skirts an even deeper point.

Haught refuses to look squarely at the fact that Darwinian evolution guts Christian ideas of divine perfection. In other words while Haught has read plenty of Camus, Sartre, Paul Tillich and de Chardin, he hasn’t read enough David Hume. In other words, Haught doesn't consider this world might be the product, even as a process, not literal creation, of a divinity immature, incompetant, immoral or all of the above.

The only way Darwinianism can be squared with theology is if one accepts a God who is “less than all,” unless Haught trots out the “incomprehensible” chestnut again. That’s true in spades of quantum theory.

But, Haught sure doesn’t seem willing to do that.

That said, I find it interesting that many theologians will talk readily about “dialoging” with Darwin or Einstein, with evolution and relativity, and their effects on religion, but you’ll never hear one talking about dialoging with Heisenberg and quantum indeterminancy.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Human evolution running at breakneck speed

And has been doing so for the past 5,000 years. Humans today are more different from humans of 5,000 years ago than those humans were from the last of the Neanderthals 30,000 years ago.

Among the main driving forces? The explosion in human population and the invention of agriculture. The main changes caused include digestive abilities, per the rise of agriculture, and resistance to disease, per the density growth in human population, which largely was an Old World phenomenon, as the disease non-resistant pre-Columbian Americans were to learn.

Global warming, increased human migration and other issues will certainly get a new look in light of this.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Moonbeams for a nutbar

Richard and Monica Chapin have built the first device designed to collect and concentrate moonlight. Why?

They claim moonlight could have yet-unknown medical, agricultural and industrial applications.

Yeah, right. Like, can I get a razor blade held at the center of the focused moonbeam to sharpen itself overnight?