They say that everything here in Texas is bigger. One thing that sure is bigger here is right-wing Christian hypocrisy. A rider to a finance bill in the Texas State Senate would outlaw any procedure that would result in the destruction of an embryo, effectively reinstating the Bush ban on stem cell research for Texas scientists. This is bad enough, but to really savor the irony, you have to consider that here in Texas we lead the nation in the number of citizens with no health insurance, including 1.6 million children. Again, that is one million six hundred thousand children with no health insurance. Truly, in Texas life begins at conception and ends at birth. To be fair, the fundamentalists have been distracted by a bigger issue lately–trying to make sure that public school students are informed about the “weaknesses” of evolutionary theory. Why, surely, they huff, students should be informed about the strengths and weaknesses of all scientific theories, right? Why, what could be fairer than that? But when you inquire about the specific “weaknesses” they would like mentioned, you get the same old tired litany of creationist complaints (“no transitional fossils,” “can’t explain the Cambrian explosion,” etc.) that they have been trotting out since the Cretaceous. The State Board of Education is chaired by Don McLeroy, a fundamentalist dentist, and scientific ignoramus, from Beaumont. The other “social conservatives” on the SBOE include one Cynthia Dunbar, graduate of Regent University (Pat Robertson’s diploma mill) and a true head case (she posted on a “Christian” web site that Obama would bring in gangs of terrorists to take over the government). Alas, despite the fundies’ best efforts, the SBOE as a whole voted to take out the “weaknesses” language, a rare victory for science here deep in the heart of Jesusland. Republican members of the SBOE who voted withthe majority against the “weaknesses” language have been viciously attacked as “not true Christians.” It has always amazed me that the vitriol fundamentalists ladle out for atheists is nothing compared to the flamethrowers they aim at other Christians who depart from the doctrinal straight and narrow.

bookmark_borderFake diversity

[ Some notes based on a book I’m reading. I want to see how much any of this makes sense, and writing it out might help. ]

In America, belonging to a religion—a community of worship, defined by individual faith commitments—is the only acceptable way to be different.

We have, especially in the past, been eager to look for racial differences, but we have also seen race as a matter of inferiority and superiority. We pretend class does not exist. We tend to think of gender differences as natural or God-given.

We are usually suspicious of ethnic differences. People should assimilate. We do not like deeper forms of political difference. American politics provides a notoriously narrow range of options. In public and business life, we want a dependable sort of sameness we expect from our strip malls and chain restaurants. We enforce sameness with “diversity” policies—we “celebrate difference” and congratulate ourselves for allowing everyone to do the same sort of jobs in the same sort of cubicles, regardless of race, religion, or ethnicity.

Religion is the one area of life where we are supposed to be able to make an individual choice of faith, to be Jewish or Protestant or Catholic or Muslim or Hindu or whatever. We can have vestiges of community allegiances, as long as it’s all fake. After all, all large-scale religions in the US become versions of Protestant Christianity. Rabbis and mullahs become pastors, not judges and interpreters of divine law. Catholicism becomes acceptable by acting like another denomination. Buddhists form Buddhist churches.

To the extent that all this is true, I don’t entirely mind it. By and large, I’m against tight-knit communities. But it could also mean that religion is too important a component of the way we lie to ourselves to lose vitality any time soon. It’s too socially useful, even in an ultramodern, thoroughly marketized society such as the United States.

bookmark_borderIs it possible to be a Muslim atheist?

It’s possible to be a Christian atheist, a Jewish atheist, a Buddhist atheist—in the sense of identifying with a religious tradition while disagreeing with its supernatural doctrines.

It’s especially possible to be a Jewish atheist. My wife is Jewish, and I’m a physicist, both which mean I get to hang around secular Jews a lot. More than half of the Jews of my acquaintance have no supernatural beliefs. Now, that is certainly not a representative sample, but nontheistic Jews are still common enough to become almost a stereotype.

Socially and doctrinally, Islam is pretty close to Judaism. The class of religious scholars (the de facto clergy) among Muslims, for example, are much like rabbis, rather than priests or ministers. But in the Islamic case, it’s very hard to speak of nontheistic Muslims. I know lots of secular Muslims, lots of nonobservant Muslims. But among those who lack interest in God or actively disbelieve in a God, a very small number to begin with, I have a hard time thinking of any who would also identify themselves as Muslim. Maybe one or two, and I haven’t actually asked. Nonbelief tends to push Muslims away from their identification with Muslim culture and tradition as well, perhaps.

I’m not sure if this is significant, but I think it’s mildly interesting anyway. At any rate, I’d be curious to know if my observation is accurate, or if it’s just my unrepresentative experience so far.


Last night I was on a panel discussing religion, as the token skeptic. For me, such events often highlight differences in mentality and temperament, as much as differences in ways of describing the world.

There was a Hindu and a Buddhist on the panel, both Westerners following Westernized versions of their traditions. So predictably enough, their views of spirituality came across as a form of therapy mixed in with magical beliefs about minds. Their pronouncements on peace and happiness weren’t too objectionable, if you could remove the magical thinking from the picture. If mental peace is the sort of thing you want, well, maybe meditative techniques and all that sort of thing can help. It’s not implausible. Mind you, I’m not sure I want to turn into a zombie who drivels about universal benevolence with a strange smile on my face. And for all the talk of selflessness, I can’t help but think there’s something egocentric about the therapeutic focus of Western Buddhism and so forth.

The Catholic, the Muslim, the Jew and the Mormon talked about the teachings of their faith, and about trying to get closer to God. They didn’t say much about why they should believe their particular teachings rather than those of their neighboring panelists’. It seemed like it came down to loyalty to the tradition they were brought up in. It worked for them, after all. Which is, I guess, a reasonably pragmatic attitude to have. They all did a lot of squirming, however, when some audience members questioned them about the less woman-friendly aspects of their traditions. I’m not sure why they bothered. Women are generally more inclined toward supernatural beliefs than men, regardless of whether women are allowed to be priests or imams or whatever.

The Protestant representative, a religion professor, was interesting. Much of what he said revolved around quasi-liberal Biblical interpretation, especially trying to get into the head of Paul. Interesting, and since much of this sort of thing tries to twist the writings of ancient religious fanatics into something acceptable for modern political correctness, harmless enough. But I have to admit, I don’t see why anyone should care about what the Bible says, even assuming it any coherent “message” at all, which I am fairly sure it does not. No, I didn’t say anything. No point in antagonizing colleagues, especially by implying I don’t think their discipline should exist.

I probably gave the impression that I was an arrogant bastard who had a very science-centered way of looking at things. Which is accurate enough, I suppose.

bookmark_borderOnly a theory

Another talk about science and religion in contemporary Islam to an audience with a high percentage of Muslims, another encounter with the “evolution is only a theory” meme. Sigh.

This time it was a hijab-wearing Iranian student. She asked what the problem would be if Muslim scientists were to favor alternatives to evolution. After all, it’s only a theory, isn’t it? As I understood it, the implication of the question was that disputes about theory shouldn’t matter too much, and that scientists should deal with hard facts.

This isn’t just a problem of being misinformed about how “theory” as a scientific term differs from the colloquial equivalent of a mere guess. It’s hard for anyone without a close acquaintance with natural science to appreciate the role theories play in doing science. Without close interaction and mutual correction between theory and experiment, you simply do not have a mature science. Theory is not optional to scientific activity. It’s not something you can brush away if it doesn’t appeal to your religious sensibilities.

It is especially galling that people who dismiss theory very often do so in favor of religious convictions that, by scientific standards, typically do not even rise to the level of being a respectable mistake.


bookmark_borderDivine certainty

Usually I don’t have a huge interest in philosophical wrangling over divine attributes. It’s easy to find all kinds of paradoxes concerning omni-whatsit attributes of God, but then again, I figure a determined philosopher can always fix these by restricting the omni-whatsitness of God in appropriate ways.

For example, omniscience is a hard idea to make sense of. There is no such thing as a set of all truths, so “knowing absolutely everything” has to be understood differently. And by the time we ask questions like whether God can know by acquaintance what it is to be guilty of a crime, the whole idea of omniscience turns into a massive headache. Still, it might just about make sense to talk of someone knowing all possible facts about the universe, say.

Even so, omniscience is puzzling. Presumably divine knowledge is 100% certain knowledge, not subject to error. But how could God be certain about his own infallibility? I imagine an answer might be that God knows directly, in an unmediated fashion, without having to reason or perceive. He has instant and total awareness of all facts about the universe—facts that are, after all, facts only because God has willed them to be so.

But that doesn’t quite solve the problem of divine certainty, even if we accept this very odd form of knowledge. After all, how does God know that this direct, unmediated knowledge is in fact infallible? We start talking about divine self-knowledge, introduce some nasty self-referential paradoxes, and thereby depart from the restricted sense of knowing everything that might avoid problems with the intelligibility of omniscience. Perhaps it is somehow impossible—logically impossible—for God to be mistaken about facts. I can’t see how this could be so. That argument is asking for at least the same sort of trouble that sinks ontological arguments, and maybe even more.

None of this would mean a restricted-omniscient God is impossible. You could, I guess, have an entity who was, as a matter of fact, infallibly correct about all facts, and hence, as a matter of fact, correct in its self-assessment of certainty. But that would still be a strangely unwarranted form of certainty.

All right, now I do have a headache. I’m not even sure why anyone should care about all this.

bookmark_borderDarwin too controversial for Turkish science magazine

In the US, creationism is a menace that can do real harm to science. But at least the US is not a Muslim country.

In the latest news about creation and evolution from Turkey, it appears that the leading, government-supported popular science magazine in Turkey has been prevented from running a cover story on the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth. Ömer Cebeci, a high official in the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey (who incidentally is an engineering Ph.D. from Iowa State University), intervened at the last minute to change the cover story and delete the 15 pages of Darwinian material.

From the news I’ve read, I’m having trouble reading between the lines to figure out what must have happened behind the scenes. Perhaps Cebeci is a creationist. Creationism is not uncommon among engineers, quite common among Muslim engineers, and very common indeed among Turkish officialdom under the current Islamist ruling party. On the other hand, it may just be an attempt to protect the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey from being associated with “controversial” ideas such as evolution, which may draw unwanted attention, or worse, budget cuts, from the Islamists.

bookmark_borderGreg Paul on Baylor Religion Study

The Council for Secular Humanism has put out a report by Greg Paul, “Is The Baylor Religion Study Reliable?”. It criticizes the recent book published by Baylor, with lead author Rodney Stark, that reported that US religiosity remained stable and that there were no signs of secularization.

Paul points out some very serious errors in the report. (I can’t say I’m wholly surprised; I’ve lost a lot of respect for Stark over the last few years.) I’m less confident about the picture of secularization he presents. My reading of his data (worth exactly what you pay for it; I’m not a sociologist) is that while old-fashioned, organized religion is clearly in decline in technologically advanced nations, there’s not necessarily a corresponding gain for a stance that is skeptical about the supernatural.

The Baylor people lump everyone who is not a convinced atheist together into a religious camp. (They’re not the only ones; I’ve read sociologists who argue that people who express an interest in “the meaning of life” in polls show signs of religosity.) But Paul lumps too many types of dissenters from traditional religion together. Throwing atheists and agnostics together might be justifiable, though I even wonder about that, since popular ideas about an agnostic label are remarkably mushy. But just expressing a degree of doubt does not put anyone in the nonbelief column. Also note that the survey data Paul discusses focus exclusively on conventional theistic beliefs. Large numbers of the ostensible nonbelievers counted, I would guess, have shifted to a more individualist style of spirituality, with a less personal and authoritarian concept of God. This is, in a sense, secularization, but it also does not represent a decline in supernatural belief.

My guess is that the secularization trend represents a muddled middle gaining ground. Westerners are not so much becoming atheists as becoming more individualistic in spirituality, more secular in public behavior, and less orthodox in supernatural beliefs. Naturalistic atheists in particular remain a tiny minority.