Monday, December 27, 2010

Children learning the scientific method

Biology Letters, a peer-reviewed journal from Britain's prestigious Royal Society, published a report Wednesday conducted and written by a group of 8- to 10-year-olds from an English elementary school investigating the way bumblebees see colors and patterns (see the story on Yahoo). The scientific organization — which is more than three centuries old and includes some of the world's most eminent scientists — said the children reported findings that were a "genuine advance" in the field of insect color and pattern vision. "The experimenters have asked a scientific question and answered it well," neuroscientists Laurence Maloney and Natalie Hempel wrote in commentary alongside the children's report.

I love this story so much: children learning and applying the scientific method. Learning how to make a fact-based argument. And learning that anyone can discover something important. When you use the scientific method, you constantly form and test a hypothesis - and proving your hypothesis wrong is still a positive, because it's lead to the truth -- they learned that lesson too!

I don't care if these children are, or turn into, Atheists, but I do care that they have learned what science and academic research is, and what it is not.

The sad reality is that, even when presented with concrete and irrefutable evidence, there is a growing number religious adults who will still choose belief over facts - that the Sun goes around the Earth and the Earth is only a few thousand years old and all you need is prayer to cure an illness or injury, because that's what's in, or inferred in, the Bible - and who insist that those beliefs are on the same level as science, and should be treated with the same respect. They want those beliefs taught in schools, presented as equal to science, and balk at the idea of having standards for scientific research and scientific reporting. They promote pseudoscience, "a claim, belief, or practice which is presented as scientific, but which does not adhere to a valid scientific methodology, lacks supporting evidence or plausibility, cannot be reliably tested, or otherwise lacks scientific status," and they want such in our classrooms.

Creationism is not a scientific alternative to natural selection any more than the stork "theory" is an alternative to the sexual reproduction "theory" (Hayes, Judith. In God We Trust: But Which One? (Madison Wisconsin: Freedom From Religion Foundation, 1996).

In the essay "In Front of Your Nose," George Orwell wrote, "We are all capable of believing things which we know to be untrue. And then, when we are finally proved wrong, impudently twisting the facts so as to show that we were right. Intellectually, it is possible to carry on this process for an indefinite time: the only check on it is that sooner or later a false belief bumps up against solid reality, usually on a battlefield."

Ofcourse, not all Christians, Muslims and others think their faith is incompatible with science. There are many churches in the USA that celebrate Darwin Day on February 12, for instance.
Many religious people adhere to theistic evolution, such as the Episcopal Church, which has said that the theory of evolution does not conflict with Christian faith: In 2006, the General Convention said, via Resolution A129, that "the theory of evolution provides a fruitful and unifying scientific explanation for the emergence of life on earth, that many theological interpretations of origins can readily embrace an evolutionary outlook, and that an acceptance of evolution is entirely compatible with an authentic and living Christian faith."

There's some great web sites out there where you can download scientific worksheets to use with children to help them learn about science-based investigations. In fact, there is a great web page on how to teach students to debate, to facilitate analytical thinking.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

I can witness too

My Christian friends sometimes post acknowledgments of their faith on their Facebook status updates. Same for my Muslim friends. They will post how grateful they are to their god, how much they hope everyone will pray for them or someone else in need, a favorite verse from the Bible or the Koran, etc. It's usually an expression of their happiness or an invitation for support from their friends. It's most definitely a witnessing for their faith.

Sometimes I like to post particularly exciting science news to my Facebook status, or a quote that I find really inspiring or comforting, or a link to something that's made me feel really good and that I'm thankful for, like that fantastic Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais "Why I'm An Atheist". I guess I also sometimes post for the same reasons they do: as an expression of my happiness or as an invitation for support from friends.

One of my Christian friends posted this in response to my comments and link to the Gervais essay:
Who really cares what anyone believes. I don't!!

He would never post this in response to any of his Christian friends' affirmations of their faith. Yet, he saw nothing wrong with this as a response to my post celebrating my values.

I fully admit that, in many of these posts, I'm not just celebrating feeling good; I am trying to make a point. I am challenging people to think. I'm witnessing for my lack of faith.

But the idea that Atheists are rude when they talk about their values and try to promote them, but for religious people, it's just dandy to do, really irks me.

I found this December 10 blog from the Friendly Atheist, which reads, in part:

I’m so sick of hearing that argument. Why do you atheists have to tear everyone else down? If you don’t believe in god, fine, but just sit there and shut up about it.

We actively fight against extraordinary claims like the ones in the poster because those claims cause harm.

They can drain your wallet.

They will waste your time.

They can become the basis for irrational, unnecessary, and dangerous laws.

They offer false hope that will never come to fruition.

They can make you kill or hate or injure others.

They can make you take placebos when actual medicines are available.

They make you believe in fiction.

They make you fight against reality.

They brainwash children and adults alike.

... no one is flying planes into buildings because they don’t like basketball.

We can’t “live and let live” when we see how much damage these beliefs — as silly as some might seem — have inflicted on people we love, and how much pain these beliefs have caused by people who took them too seriously.

Yeah, that's it. Me too.

Read the entire blog from the Friendly Atheist for more.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

There Were Pageants Before Christmas

In a story about the Winter solstice, NPR asks, "Why do we celebrate Christmas just a few days after the winter solstice when almost no one thinks Jesus was born on December 25th?"

The lights on houses, the decorated trees, the Yule log, the holly, the mistletoe - these are all pre-Christian traditions associated with celebrations of the solstice, in celebration of pre-Christian Gods. After at least a few hundred years of practice, these tradition were adopted by Christians for a holiday that gained its current popularity only in the last two hundred years (Christmas celebrations were banned by the Puritans in the USA because of the pagan practices associated with such; Christmas gained ground as a big holy day -or "holiday"- in the USA in the 1800s). I don't mind one religion appropriating the practices of another -- it happens all the time -- but I don't understand why Christians say things like, "Christ is the reason for the season." Do they really not know that not even most Christian theologians think Jesus was born in December?

Why is it okay for so many Christians to practice winter pagan traditions, Christianizing them for their own purposes, but it's not okay to do the same thing with the traditions for Halloween? I have more respect for someone who believes their religion prevents them from engaging in any of these rituals rather than deciding Christmas is okay but Halloween is evil.

Cue Dar Williams.

On a side note: I met my husband because we were both visiting the Neolithic monument at Newgrange, which is profiled in the NPR story. Love you, babe.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Thank you, Ricky Gervais!

In the Wall Street Journal yesterday, there is this: A Holiday Message from Ricky Gervais: Why I'm An Atheist. It's beautiful. I hope people of faith in particular will read it -- not to convince them that their imaginary friend is, well, imaginary, but rather, so they can perhaps, finally, understand who we, Atheists, really are.

I'd quote my favorite part, but that would require me re-posting the entire thing.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Fishy Feasibility Study for the Ark Encounter

The Barefoot and Progressive blog, originating from and focused on my home state of Kentucky, wants to know why the media is ignoring credibility questions surrounding the Ark's Encounter's "extensive independent feasibility study" by "the renowned America's Research Group" that Governor Steve Beshear has repeatedly cited as the reason the state is supporting this religion-based project with $37.5 million in tax incentives. The study was conducted by Ark Encounter Ken Ham's fundamentalist friend and business partner, yet even local papers like the Herald Leader or Courier Journal have shared this tiny bit of information with their readers.

The blog then does what the media need to be doing: it compares the Ark Encounter's staffing and visitor projections against non-religious based, much-more-popular theme parks and attractions. And it blows holes in those projections. You won't find any such questioning in the mainstream corporate media, of course.

Once again, the Kentucky media -- and Kentucky elected officials -- are letting us down. Is it fear of religious-based voters? Incompetence? Laziness?

Friday, December 10, 2010

The right to criticize religion

A lot of Americans are outraged when people criticize Christianity. Kathy Griffin has taken a huge amount of heat for her comments, as has Bill Maher. But most of those same Americans who are oh-so-upset by these criticisms also begrudgingly say that, indeed, in our country, these two, and everyone else, has the legal right to say what they say about religion, including to insult adherents. In the USA, we can shun those we disagree with, we can encourage TV shows not to book them, we can encourage people to not buy their books or go to their movies, and we can respond verbally however we want, short of threats of physical harm -- but Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher and others aren't under any threat of arrest in the USA for their comments about Christianity.

(Full disclosure: I adore Kathy Griffin and Bill Maher)

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant, is a satirical musical play that will be staged this month at American Stage Theatre in St. Petersburg, Florida. It's about L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology. It features characters of famous Scientologists, including John Travolta, Tom Cruise and Kristie Alley, and most of the dialogue comes from the writings of Hubbard and church literature. Sure to offend some and delight others. Editorials will be written. There may even be protests. Regardless, it's completely legal to write, produce and talk about this play in the USA (although the Church of Scientology will probably sue for copyright infringement - their favorite way to shut down criticism of their church).

Sadly, the freedom to criticize -- even to insult -- religion is not something that is found worldwide. In fact, many countries want to stop all criticism of religion. These countries have pushed a UN Human Rights Council draft resolution on “Combating defamation of religions” that would, if adopted by the UN General Assembly, encourage governments around the world to create (if they don't have such already) and enforce blasphemy laws, which outlaw any criticism of a country's dominant religion. In the name of preventing religious discrimination, the resolution would add legitimacy to individual country laws that insulate religious orthodoxy from all criticism -- and imprison those who dare to challenge that orthodoxy.

Dan Shapiro, a research associate with the Sheldon Chumir Foundation for Ethics in Leadership, said this in a commentary for Troy Media:

The resolution claims, disingenuously, that it aims to combat discrimination based on religion. Of course, we should combat actual religious discrimination. For example, if you don’t get a job because you are Muslim or a Jew, that is unjustifiable discrimination. But this doesn’t mean that Islam or Judaism should be protected from criticism and debate.

In an Op Ed piece in The New York Times, Paula Schriefer of Freedom House says:

Because no one can agree on what constitutes blasphemy, laws that attempt to ban it are themselves vague, highly prone to arbitrary enforcement and are used to stifle everything from political opposition to religious inquiry. Particularly when applied in countries with weak democratic safeguards — e.g., strong executives, subservient judiciaries, corrupt law enforcement — blasphemy laws do nothing to achieve their supposed goals of promoting religious tolerance and harmony and instead are disproportionally used to suppress the freedom of religious minorities or members of the majority religion that hold views considered unorthodox.

While UN General Assembly resolutions are utterly unbinding -- they have no legal standing whatsoever and most are ignored by the majority of governments -- they are purposeful, deliberate statements by a group of people representing their governments. They often don't even represent the views of UN staff . But they do represent the views of the delegates that voted for them, as well as the governments they represent. So I'm not angry at the UN, per se -- rather, I'm angry at the member countries that voted for this reprehensible resolution.

December 10 is International Human Rights Day, as declared by -- guess who? -- the UN General Assembly. And on this day, I celebrate the global human right of freedom of thought and freedom of speech -- including to think and say disrespectful things about religion. Or Atheists, for that matter. I look forward to the day this right is recognized all over the world.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What Atheists & Religious People Don't Know About Each Other

Atheists, Secular Humanists, Non-Theists -- whatever it is that I am and others like me are -- are an incredibly diverse group when it comes to how we view religion and how we view ourselves. Most Christians and Muslims -- and probably other religions -- don't realize there is such diversity among Atheists in terms of how we view people of faith, how we do (or do not) congregate or work together, etc.
  • There are some Atheists actively trying to encourage people to abandon their religions, but a lot, and maybe most, are like me -- we're not.

  • Some Atheists join an association (or even more than one) of people who also do not believe in invisible friends, but the vast majority do not.

  • There's no one spokesperson or one organization for Atheists. There are lots of outspoken Atheists and there are a log of organizations for such. But not only are most Atheists a member of an Atheist group -- they don't even know about Atheists pundits, bloggers, etc.

  • Some Atheists would never walk into a church or mosque for a religious service; some Atheists are happy to observe such (I do -- I find it interesting, even when I disagree with some, most or all of what is said).
As I said in my very first blog here: While I wouldn't mind at all being responsible for turning people of away from fundamentalist religious beliefs that promote things like the enslavement and oppression of women, that cultivate hatred of gays, that discourage an understanding of science, that encourage revisions of history to be kinder to their religious beliefs despite the facts, etc., I'd be perfectly content if those folks didn't abandon religion altogether and, instead, all became oh-so-tolerant and reasonable Universal Unitarians, Sufi Muslims, adherents to Confucianism, etc. In my experience, those people who believe there are many paths to a god or gods tend not to block the teaching of scientific principles like biological evolution and plate tectonics, tend not to encourage gay teens to kill themselves, and tend not to tell women who have HIV positive husbands that they are forbidden from using condoms, and I really appreciate them for that. We can co-exist quite well.

The discovery at Mono Lake, California of what is apparently an entirely new form of life -- a bacteria based on toxic arsenic rather than phosphorus, one of the six building blocks of all life on Earth -- has set many abuzz. It's a confirmation of biological evolution -- of biological adaptability -- and the discovery has LONG been predicted (I can't count how many times it's been talked about as only-a-matter-of-time on oh-so-many science shows I've watched), either on our own planet in some extreme environment (which is exactly what happened) or on another planet. For a religious person who doesn't believe the Earth is flat, who doesn't believe the Sun goes around the Earth, and who doesn't believe the Earth was created in six days and is just a few thousand years old, this discovery is not a challenge to their faith at all: they don't see science as in opposition to their faith in some kind of conscious meaning behind the universe, because they don't take their religious scriptures literally. Like Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit at the Vatican Observatory, (the Catholic Church has, thankfully, accepted the teachings of Galileo and other scientists they formerly persecuted); he wrote this in an email to a religious blog: "Any scientific discovery that broadens our knowledge of creation, deepens our understanding of the Creator." That's not a person I worry about trying to keep science out of schools, who is going to use religion to shut down scientific discovery and innovation entirely (although what his views are on stem cell research would probably make me shudder, so let's not go there).

A lot of Atheists don't know that there are Christians or Muslims or other religious adherents like this -- people who believe in science, including evolution, that don't see faith in an invisible friend and science as enemies, and think scientific discover and innovation are just dandy. Those Atheists don't know this for two reasons: because so many newspaper and television reporters and producers get comments from only extreme and/or fundamentalist religious folks, and because many science-adhering religious folks do not speak out in support of science.

Maybe this latest news can encourage religious folks who support the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment to speak out, now and in the future, about the importance of science education and exploration? Myself and many other atheists would welcome that!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Religious do not have monopoly on virtue, says Queen

The Queen of England told the Church of England's governing body, the General Synod, that believers and atheists were equally able to contribute to the prosperity and wellbeing of the country. "In our more diverse and secular society, the place of religion has come to be a matter of lively discussion. It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue and that the wellbeing and prosperity of the nation depend on the contribution of individuals and groups of all faiths and none." You can read the article about the event here.

Wow. To have such a high-profile public figure say such to a church's governing body is astounding -- and hugely appreciated by this Atheist. This is a moment that's up there with President Obama's inauguration, when he said, “We know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus -- and non-believers.” As the International Humanist and Ethical Union put it, "It was the first time a U.S. President had acknowledged atheists and agnostics in an inauguration speech, and one of few times a politician had referenced non-theists in an inclusive, positive light."

I love my country, and I'm passionate about contributing to variety of causes, financially, as a volunteer and through my career. It's terrific for such non-theist-based contributions to be acknowledged!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

John Shore's Two Big Failures

In response to Atheism’s Two Big Failures.

Christian blogger John Shore fails in these two ways in his most recent blog: by claiming Atheists cannot be in love—nor passionate, joyful, enraged, depressed, moved by art, or inspired, and are, therefore, out of touch with their emotions. And by claiming it's more desirable to believe we have an invisible, omnipotent friend watching over us (and not just any invisible, omnipotent friend, but John Shore's specific invisible, omnipotent friend) than it is to be an Atheist.

I have no idea if it's more desirable, on a personal level, to believe we have an invisible, omnipotent friend watching over the World than not to. I know some really joyless, uptight, hate-filled Christians and some really loving, fun Secular Humanists, but I also know some happy Christians and some cranky Atheists. Believe it or not, I know a LOT of cranky Buddhists. I also know some eternally-happy mentally-impaired people -- doesn't mean I want to be one.

In his recent blog, Shore paints a picture of Atheists as joyless, emotionless drones who have never danced on a table. I guarantee you that there are many Atheists and Secular Humanists that dance on tables as much, if not more often, than Christians. Some of us have wept at the Grand Canyon or Jasper National Monument or a documentary about the planets on the History Channel. Some of us have decided it would be really cool to be irrational and sing or dance while in public, just because we're in the mood at that moment (yes, I have). None of these acts are rational, but they are a heck of a lot of fun. You see, we don't need to believe in a bearded man on a throne in order to enjoy the splendor and wonder that the universe can hold. Perhaps we non-theists are even more wowed by reality, by all of the billions and billions of years and all the various natural forces that have lead us here.

Do all Christians think like John Shore? I hope not. I know that many of my Christian friends -- and Muslim friends, for that matter -- wish I was a believer, so we can all be raptured up together (you knew Muslims believed in the "Rapture", right?). And I respect their wish as a desire to continually hang out with me, and I just can't be offended by anyone wanting to continually hang out with me (unless that person is creepy). But I would be really hurt -- and have to rethink our friendships -- if I found out my Christian or Muslim friends think like John Shore: that I never experience silly, mindless joy, that they think I am incapable of being thrilled to the point of doing a cartwheel... though I am, indeed, now incapable of actually doing a cartwheel...

It isn't the first time he's grossly mischaracterized Atheists. It won't be the last.