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Evolution

Theists Are Not Just Their Theology

By | Religion | One Comment

Recently, a Christian man from Brazil reached out to me to apologize for the actions of some of his “brothers” that I’d been interacting with on Twitter. It’s a stark reminder that there are probably millions of theists out there that you could almost categorize at “humanist” – no matter their religious beliefs, they do love and respect their fellow man, and value the diversity in people’s backgrounds and beliefs.

It’s easy to get caught up in the conflict and the perceived ignorance, and forget that those theists you’re arguing with online are more than just theists: they are fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, students and social workers, sports fans and .. well, you get the idea.

What I explained to my new Brazilian friend is that, on a human level, atheists generally don’t have a problem with believers – I’m friends with many christians, and I even dated one for a couple of years! What angers us is not the people in the church, but their behaviour when representing the church.

Prosthelytizing, door knocking, and preaching on street corners – such behaviour assumes that the theist is coming from a more moral position, or has access to some truth that atheists aren’t aware of. The fact of the matter is that atheists probably know more the theist’s beliefs than they do, because we’ve actually looked into it – we haven’t just accepted what’s been preached from the pulpit.

I know Christians think they are out their saving people’s immortal souls, but they really don’t understand that it comes off as arrogance on their part – they think that they have something to offer that we don’t know about. If a Muslim knocked on a Christian’s door early on a Saturday morning, asking if they know the truth about Islam, would the Christian react any different to an atheist confronted with a Christian?

But that’s not the real issue – in modern society, we’re all confronted with unsavoury elements on a regular basis.

The real issue is religion’s influence on society in general. For example, the rejection of evolution in favour of creation – it is incomprehensible that this idea that the world was created in six days has taken hold with so many people. Here’s the thing – you don’t have to understand evolution, you just have to understand how science works!

In science, something is observed, then once it’s observed enough times, a hypothesis is formed. Once a hypothesis is accepted – after many different people try to disprove it – it becomes a theory. So the fact is, any scientific theory is based on many observations and only survives after many people try to disprove it. Creation just does not stack up compared to evolution, no matter what your preacher tells you.

But it’s the rights of women, the rights gay, lesbian and transgender people, the rights of atheists and even minority religions, that are all held back by religion. This is why atheists are finally standing up and saying “This isn’t right!”

Atheists haven’t just turned up – there have always been atheists – but in the past, it wasn’t safe for them to speak out. It still isn’t safe in some corners of the world, but we have reached a turning point. We are now speaking out, and I really don’t think religion will survive against it.

The point I left my new friend with is one made my Penn Jillette:

“If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly the same way again. There might be some other nonsense in it’s place, but not the exact same nonsense. If all science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.”

And that’s how you know what the truth is…

Why is religion bad?

By | Beliefs | 69 Comments

Today on Twitter, I was asked “Why are you so fixated on religion if you believe it is so untrue?”:

Twitter comment: why is religion bad?

Twitter is an amazing tool for engaging with people in real time, but it’s not brilliant for answering questions like this or really getting your point across, especially when I have a propensity for verbosity. I mean, in less than 140 characters, this guy asked three different questions and made two statements I disagree with absolutely. (And “so untrue”? There are scales of untrue now..?)

So let me attempt to do this query justice and explain in detail why I am so fixated on religion, even though I believe it to be untrue.

Or to put it another way, why is religion bad?

I used to be satisfied just smiling and nodding whenever anyone would begin on the topic of religion. After all, I’m a civilised man – there’s no need to argue with someone over something as frivolous as their supernatural beliefs. I mean, it’s just not polite, is it?

But over time, I started to see what religion is doing to the world in which we live.

I’ll admit, at the grassroots level, it almost seems like a good idea; certainly, harmless enough. Religion provides a good deal of charity to communities, it offers support and guidance to those in need, and it fills advocacy roles which may be missed in government policies.

But at what price?

Before we continue, it’s not my intention to pick on any one religion – most of them have the same attributes: 1) belief in the supernatural, 2) a moral code with supernatural origins, and 3) the need to spread their “truth” to the uninitiated.

The only religion that doesn’t fit the above three characteristics is buddhism. Buddhism’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, is quoted as saying “Don’t become a Buddhist. The world doesn’t need more buddhists. Do practice compassion. The world needs more compassion.” Can you imagine the Pope saying don’t bother becoming a catholic?

(More: Why Buddhism Gets A Free Pass)

But let’s be clear here: christianity is the most pervasive and influential of all the religions, and their fundamentalist members are probably the biggest threat to civilised society. Islam is influential in that civilised society feels the need to tiptoe around their beliefs, and extremist muslims may appear prone to committing acts of violence, but muslims don’t hold the same amount of sway as christians do in the west.

So back on point: why is religion bad?

Well, here’s the thing – it isn’t so much what a person believes, but what follows as their behaviour that is harmful.

Westboro Baptist Church

We’ve all seen the members of Westboro Baptist Church picketing military funerals, their kids in tow, waving their “God Hates Fags” signs. I think it’s safe to say, everyone outside of the WBC congregation find this behaviour appalling. Most of us would categorise these people as extremists, so perhaps they are an extreme example, but do you reckon they think they’re doing the Lord’s work?

So let’s look at some of the moderates: the Catholic church. They are opposed to using contraception because of a belief that dates back to the first centuries of Christianity, that sex must only be for procreation. Therefore, the only form of birth control permitted is abstinence. This hardline stance lead the current Pope Benedict XVI to claim that the use of condoms could make the African AIDS crisis worse. Every single study (not funded by the Catholic church themselves) has concluded that abstinence-only education does not lead to abstinent behaviour.

In fact, in the United States, where teen pregnancy rates are falling, teen pregnancy is highest in states that only offer abstinence-only education. A lack of sexual education also contributes to the spread of the disease. Abstinence-only is a fundamentalist christian-backed policy, and this abstinence-only education policy is an example of how it hurts society.

Another policy broadly supported by all the Abrahamic religions is the belief that homosexuality is wrong. In this modern age, it is understood that homosexuality occurs naturally, not only in humans, but all the animal species. (Homophobia, however, only occurs in one…) And you know what? There’s nothing that happens between a homosexual couple that doesn’t happen between hetrosexual couples.

But now we are getting closer to what I believe to be the answer to the question: why is religion bad?

As we’ve learned more and more about the world in which we live, the need for a supernatural explanation for questions on where we came from and why we’re here has diminished. It’s known as the “god of the gaps” argument: if science can’t explain how something happened, then god must be the explanation. Two thousand years ago, god was the explanation for a lot of things. These days, god has become an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller as time goes on.

And thus, as we learn more and more about the universe, our need for a supernatural explanation should be being diminished. Bertrand Russell said, “Religion is something left over from the infancy of our intelligence. It will fade away as we adopt reason and science as our guidelines.”

It should be fading away, but it’s not.

Religions are fighting back, recruiting the naive and the uneducated, and attempting to discredit the science and have their supernatural explanations taught alongside. For me, this is what makes religion so bad.

Someone didn’t just “make up science” one day. Everything we take for granted today, started out as an observation, which became an hypothesis, which lead to experiments, repeated experiments, the results of which are eventually submitted for peer review. Should the results eventually pass peer review and get published, other scientists (hoping to disprove the results) analyse the data for years, looking for inconsistencies. Should a hypothesis survive this treatment, only then does it become a scientific theory.

So when I hear “Evolution is only a theory” I’m just dumbfounded. That’s exactly right – what’s your point? As Tim Minchin says, “it is only a theory, it’s good that they say that. I think, it gives you hope, doesn’t it? That… that maybe they feel the same way about the theory of gravity, and they might just float the fuck away.”

That’s right, you know? There is just as much evidence for evolution as there is for gravity. Think about that for a minute…

The “creation” theory, on the other hand, does not stand up to peer review, no matter what you’ve learned in church. The bible is not proof of anything, the bible is the claim, or hypothesis. If it were to stand up to scientific scrutiny, I’d be more than happy to look at it, but the simple fact is, it does not.

Penn Jillette says this on the subject of science and religion: “There is no god, and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly the same way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.”

The Dalai Lama has the right attitude about his religion: “If science proves some belief of Buddhism wrong, then Buddhism will have to change.” All other religions see science as a threat. But a threat to what?

It’s a threat to their vested interest, their way of life, their income, their livelihood. If people stopped going to church, and stopped tithing, religion would shrivel up and die. These new mega-churches don’t pay for themselves, you know..?

I find it ironic that the guy who asked me the question today – @GospelGuidance on Twitter – is launching a new website in the coming weeks which offers “gospel guidance” on a per minute rate, like a spiritual 1900 number… no, that’s not cynical at all!

Creationism is a last ditch effort for religion to remain relevant in an increasingly educated and secular society. While attempting to discredit the science, creationists only manage to muddy the waters, instilling enough doubt in the uneducated masses that their alternate theory might seem just as convincing.

And therein lies the problem. Why is religion bad? After centuries of scientific advancement, there is a movement afoot to drag us backwards so a supernatural belief system can survive another few years before finally fading into obscurity.

It would be a quaint notion, if it wasn’t for the fact that it’s affecting society as a whole: bans on condoms and abortions threaten families; bans on using stem cells holds back medical research; justifying sexism and homophobia create an atmosphere of hate and separation; and forced genital mutilation of children is just about the single most fucked-up, barbaric throw-back to the bronze age I can think of.

Finally, amongst any group, you’re going to have your extremists. Islamic extremists are in the news a lot, but the fact is that it’s right-wing extremists (often fundamental christians) who commit have committed the most acts of terrorism in recent years:

The bottom line is that, as religions attempt to remain relevant, they are – whether inadvertently or deliberately – actually hurting our society.

Richard Dawkins says “I am against religion because it teaches us to be satisfied with not understanding the world.” Well that’s true, but I’m afraid religion is far more insidious than just wanting to stick their collective heads in the sand when it comes to the scientific evidence.

Religion matters to me as an atheist because it imposes it’s capricious morals on me in the form of laws.

Religion matters to me as an atheist because it acts to stifle funding for progression in science and technology. For example, religious institutions are pushing to prohibit stem cell research, which is one of the most promising medical fields known to us today.

Religion matters to me as an atheist because it imposes all sorts of psychological turbulence on it’s members, and cages children’s minds with indoctrination.

Religion matters to me as an atheist because atheists are actively discriminated against in supposedly public institutions. Take for instance, the boy scouts – a tax-payer funded institution – which do not allow atheists to take part in it’s program.

Religion is trying to remain relevant by discrediting scientific fact in order to dupe people into believing their lies. Religions are wrong, they are lying to you, and we can no longer afford to smile and nod politely.

10 Myths About Evolution

By | Evolution | 7 Comments

I first found this article on Tumblr, but tracked the source down to the Skeptics Society. A downloadable PDF version with pictures is also from Atheism Resource.

If you have been looking for a simple, easy to follow quick guide to evolution, this is it. Below is the text. Learn it. Share it. Enjoy it… it’s science. It’s true. There isn’t a “debate” anymore over this stuff, so stop letting creationists say otherwise.

Original Text:

1. If Humans Came From Apes, Why Aren’t Apes Evolving Into Humans?

Humans, apes, and monkeys are only distant evolutionary “cousins.” We come not from apes but from a common ancestor that was neither ape nor human that lived millions of years in the past. In fact, during the last seven million years many human-like species have evolved; some examples include Homo habilis, Homo erectus, and Homo neanderthalensis. All of these went extinct at different times, leaving just us to share the planet with a handful of other primates.

2. There Are Too Many Gaps in the Fossil Record for Evolution to Be True

In fact, there are lots of intermediate fossils. Archaeopteryx, for example, is one of the earliest known fossil birds with a reptilian skeleton and feathers. There is now evidence that some dinosaurs had hair and feathers. Therapsids are the intermediates between reptiles and mammals, Tiktaalik is an extinct lobe-finned fish intermediate to amphibians, there are now at least six intermediate fossil stages in the evolution of whales, and in human evolution there are at least a dozen intermediate fossil stages since hominids branched off from the great apes six million years ago. Considering the exceptionally low probability that a dead plant or animal will fossilize it is remarkable we have as many fossils as we do. First the dead animal has to escape the jaws of scavengers. Then is has to be buried under the rare circumstances that will cause it to fossilize instead of decay. Then geological forces have to somehow bring the fossil back to the surface to be discovered millions of years later by the handful of paleontologists looking for them

3. If Evolution Happened Gradually Over Millions of Years Why Doesn’t the Fossil Record Show Gradual Change?

Sudden changes in the fossil record are not missing evidence of gradualism; they are extant evidence of punctuation. Species are stable over long periods of time and so they leave plenty of fossils in the strata while in their stable state. The change from one species to another, however, happens relatively quickly (on a geological time scale) in a process called punctuated equilibrium. One species can give rise to a new species when a small “founder” group breaks away and becomes isolated from the ancestral group. This new founder group, as long as it remains small and detached, may experience relatively rapid change (large populations are genetically stable). The speciational change happens so rapidly that few fossils are left to record it. But once changed into a new species, the individuals will retain their phenotype for a long time, leaving behind many well-preserved fossils. Millions of years later this process results in a fossil record that records mostly stability. The punctuation is there in between the equilibrium.

4. No One Has Ever Seen Evolution Happen

Evolution is a historical science confirmed by the fact that so many independent lines of evidence converge to this single conclusion. Independent sets of data from geology, paleontology, botany, zoology, biogeography, comparative anatomy and physiology, genetics, molecular biology, developmental biology, embryology, population genetics, genome sequencing, and many other sciences each point to the conclusion that life evolved. Creationists demand “just one fossil transitional form” that shows evolution. But evolution is not proved through a single fossil. It is proved through a convergence of fossils, along with a convergence of genetic comparisons between species, and a convergence of anatomical and physiological comparisons between species, and many other lines of inquiry. (In fact we can see evolution happen – especially among organisms with short reproductive cycles that are subject to extreme environmental pressures. Knowledge of the evolution of viruses and bacteria is vital to medical science.)

5. Science Claims That Evolution Happens by Random Chance

Natural selection is not “random” nor does it operate by “chance.” Natural selection preserves the gains and eradicates the mistakes. To illustrate this, imagine a monkey at a typewriter. In order for the monkey to type the first 13 letters of Hamlet’s soliloquy by chance, it would take 26 (to the 13th power) number of trials for success. This is 16 times as great as the total number of seconds that have elapsed in the lifetime of the solar system. But if each correct letter is preserved and each incorrect letter eradicated, the phrase “tobeornottobe” can be “selected for” in only 335 trials, or just seconds in a computer program. Richard Dawkins defines evolution as “random mutation plus nonrandom cumulative selection.” It is the cumulative selection that drives evolution. The eye evolved from a single, light sensitive spot in a cell into the complex eye of today not by chance, but through thousands of intermediate steps, each preserved because they made a better eye. any of these steps still exist in nature in simpler organisms.

6. Only an Intelligent Designer Could Have Made Something as Complex as an Eye

The anatomy of the human eye shows that it is anything but “intelligently designed.” It is built upside down and backwards, with photons of light having to travel through the cornea, lens, aqueous fluid, blood vessels, ganglion cells, amacrine cells, horizontal cells, and bipolar cells, before reaching the light sensitive rods and cones that convert the light signal into neural impulses, which are then sent to the visual cortex at the back of the brain for processing into meaningful patterns. For optimal vision, why would an intelligent designer have built an eye upside down and backwards? This “design” only makes sense if natural selection built eyes from available materials, and in the particular configuration of the ancestral organism’s pre-existing organic structures. The eye shows the pathways of evolutionary history, not intelligent design.

7. Evolution is Only A Theory

All branches of science are based on theories, which are grounded in testable hypothesis and explain a large and diverse body of facts about the world. A theory is considered robust if it consistently predicts new phenomena that are subsequently observed. Facts are the world’s data. Theories are explanatory ideas about those data. Constructs and other non-testable statements are not a part of science. The theory of evolution meets all the criteria of good science, as determined by Judge William Overton in the Arkansas creationism trial:

  • It is guided by natural law.
  • It has to be explanatory by reference to natural law.
  • It is testable against the empirical world.
  • Its conclusions are tentative.
  • It is testable and falsifiable.

If you can find fossil mammals in the same geological strata as trilobites then evolution would be falsified. No one has ever found such contradictory data.

8. Evidence for Human Evolution Has Turned Out to Be Fake, Frauds, or Fanciful

Eager to discredit evolution, creationists ignore hominid fossil discoveries and cherry pick examples of hoaxes and mistakes in the belief that mistakes in science are a sign of weakness. This is a gross misunderstanding of the nature of science, which constantly advances by using both its mistakes and the successes. Its ability to build cumulatively on the past is how science progresses. The self-correcting feature of the scientific method is one of its most powerful assets. Hoaxes like Piltdown Man, and honest mistakes like Nebraska Man, Calaveras Man, and Hespero-pithecus, are, in time, corrected. In fact, it wasn’t creationists who exposed these errors, it was scientists who did so. Creationists simply read about the scientific exposé of these errors, and then duplicitously claimed them as their own.

9. The Second Law of Thermodynamics Proves That Evolution is Impossible

The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to closed, isolated systems. Since the Earth receives a constant input of energy from the sun – it is an open-dissipative system – entropy may decrease and order increase (though the sun itself is running down in the process). Thus, the Earth is not strictly a closed system and life may evolve without violating natural law. As long as the sun is burning, life may continue thriving and evolving, just like automobiles may be prevented from rusting, burgers can be heated in ovens, and all manner of things in apparent violation of Second Law entropy may continue. But as soon as the sun burns out, entropy will take its course and life on Earth will cease.

10. Evolution Can’t Account For Morality

As a social primate species we evolved a deep sense of right and wrong in order to accentuate and reward reciprocity and cooperation, and to attenuate and punish excessive selfishness and free riding. As well, evolution created the moral emotions that tell us that lying, adultery, and stealing are wrong because they destroy trust in human relationships that depend on truth-telling, fidelity, and respect for property. It would not be possible for a social primate species to survive without some moral sense. On the constitution of human nature is built the constitutions of human societies.

It’s a “Miracle”

By | Science | No Comments

I was listening to a couple of Christians discuss science over the weekend, which is always entertaining, but in this instance, it did get me thinking. The pair weren’t all that sure on any of the specifics, but the gist of it was this: it’s a miracle that we exist here in this little corner of the universe.

Now, I can’t say I’ve ever heard the term “miracle” thrown around in any scientific research I’ve ever read. What they probably should have said is that it’s a mathematical improbability we exist.

It reminds me of the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes in France, where the spring water from the grotto is believed by some to possess healing properties. An estimated 200 million people have visited the shrine since 1860, and the Roman Catholic Church has officially recognized 67 miraculous healings in that time.

With no scientific evidence to back this up, I would say this spring water has the same healing power as a peanut butter sandwich. That’s a mathematical improbability I wouldn’t be betting my life on.

I digress. The point is that there are 100s of factors that had to be just right for life to develop on this planet: our proximity to the sun, the size of the planet, oxygen content of the atmosphere, liquid water, a ready supply of peanut butter sandwiches. So standing here on the surface of the Earth and looking up, it’s easy to believe there was a guiding hand in our creati… *ahem* I mean evolution.

However, if you look at the big picture, there are 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars in the observable universe (approximately – if that were an exact number, I might have found myself batting for the other team as it were…) If you apply the 100s of factors to the planets orbiting these 1021 stars, it would be ludicrous to assume life has only appeared on our tiny planet.

In my humble opinion, the universe too big even for God to have created.