Skepticism, Religion Archive

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Thoughts on the Removal of the Okalahoma Ten Commandments Monument - From Cowboy Churches to Silly Memes

Ten Commandments Monument RemovalIt's been a few weeks now since the monument of the Ten Commandments at the Oklahoma Capitol has been removed. But a story that just made the headlines here locally has reminded me of it, Local pastor plans to deliver Commandments on horseback. That's right. A pastor from Wichita Falls, John Riggs, upset by the Supreme Court decision that the statue must be removed, is going to personally deliver a hand-held sized granite tablet to the governor of Oklahoma, Mary Fallin, who herself opposed the removal of the monument. Apparently, Riggs thinks that Christianity is under attack in the U.S., that "The ACLU is trying to wipe it out." Riggs "never thought we would have to defend our Christianity, especially here in the Heartland. It's a sad day in America." Yes - it's terribly sad when the Supreme Court upholds the First Amendment's establishment clause, and doesn't let politicians impose their religious beliefs on their entire constituency.

In another article, Cowboy Church takes 10 Commandments to Capitol by horse, Riggs further explained his motivation.

We're going back to the grassroots, because it's not easy, but we want people to know we need to go back and not forward. Go back to things we've left behind, which is primarily one nation under God.

I understand nostalgia, but one thing our country doesn't need to do is go backwards, turning back all the progress that's been made. When the country was founded, women couldn't vote, while black people could be owned as property. After the Civil War, at least slavery was illegal, but Jim Crow laws kept black people disenfranchised for generations. It wasn't until the '50s and '60s that the Civil Rights Movement finally got these laws overturned. Universal women's suffrage wasn't enacted in the U.S. until 1919 - over a century after the ratification of the Constitution. And it's only been this very year that marriage equality has been extended to homosexual couples. And that's not even addressing issues like poverty rate, violent crime, literacy, or any other host of factors that show that the modern day U.S. is a much better time to be alive for most Americans. Progress isn't always inevitable or smooth, and there are troubling trends right now that do need to be addressed (like income & wealth inequality), but at least that progress has happened.

Well, Briggs and the others traveling with him plan to make it to Oklahoma some time tomorrow. We'll see if they make any more headlines.

Related to this monument removal, I saw a really bad 'meme'* the other day on Facebook. I now forgot whose Facebook feed I saw it on, but I came across it again on Ed Brayton's Dispatches from the Culture Wars. Here it is:

Stupid Meme

That image would have it seem that in the name of secularism, the U.S. is destroying religious iconography in exactly the same way as radical Islamists are destroying iconography from other religions. What that meme conveniently leaves out is the same scene from just a bit later:

Ten Commandments Monument Removal

Those damn destructive secularists seem to be taking awfully good care of that religious monument. And according to the New York Times article from which that picture was taken, the monument is currently standing, intact, just a few blocks away.

The meme also leaves out the history of this particular monument. It wasn't installed until 2012**, when the lawmakers of Oklahoma already knew it was controversial and that they'd likely face legal challenges. It's not some timeless artifact, but a very recent breach of the separation of church and state.

Anyway, I'm glad the monument was removed from public property, and I'm glad it was done in such a way that the people who like the monument can save it and put it up somewhere else, as long as that somewhere else is private property, not government property.

Thumbnail Image Source:

*The scare quotes around meme are because I prefer the original definition of the term coined by Dawkins.

**Actually, the monument being removed is a replacement, installed in 2014, after the original was destroyed when a man crashed his car into it. Of course, it should go without saying that even though I disapproved of the monument in the first place, I strenuously disapproved of somebody intentionally destroying it.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Ben Carson Being Noticed by Popular Science Writers

Ben CarsonI've been pointing out Ben Carson's anti-intellectual stances in regards to science for a while, now (you can see all my Carson entries here). But just recently, he seems to have caught the attention of many popular science writers. This seems to have a lot to do with a recent YouTube video, which I've embedded below. More specifically, it seems to have a lot to do wtih a Buzzfeed article commenting on the video, Ben Carson: Big Bang A Fairy Tale, Theory Of Evolution Encouraged By The Devil. The video is a speech Carson gave back in 2011, but which was just uploaded this year. It was posted by Adventist News Network, who pretty much agreed with everything Carson was saying. In other words - as bad as the video makes Carson look, they weren't intentionally trying to embarrass him.

I've seen a spate of articles and blog entries about Carson recently that seem to coincide with that Buzzfeed piece. The most prominent article was in The New Yorker, and was written by Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson's Scientific Ignorance. Being a physicist and cosmologist himself, Krauss commented mostly on Carson's mangling of the Big Bang theory and the history of the universe. Here's what Krauss had to say after quoting a particularly bad series of statements by Carson.

It is hard to find a single detailed claim in his diatribe that is physically sensible or that reflects accurate knowledge about science. His central claim--that the second law of thermodynamics rules out order forming in the universe after the Big Bang--is a frequent misstatement made by creationists who want to appear scientifically literate. In reality, it is completely false.

Krauss went on to address many of Carson's erroneous statements, giving real explanations for many of Carson's misunderstandings. Towards the end of the article, Krauss moved past simply correcting Carson, and presented some commentary that I agree with completely:

It is one thing to simply assert that you don't choose to believe the science, in spite of a mountain of data supporting it. It's another to mask your ignorance in such a disingenuous way, by using pseudo-scientific, emotion-laden arguments and trading on your professional credentials. Surely this quality, which reflects either self-delusion or, worse still, a willingness to intentionally deceive others, is of great concern when someone is vying for control of the nuclear red button.

On his website, Why Evolution Is True, Jerry Coyne wrote his own entry on Carson, Ben Carson on evolution: an ignorant (or duplicitous) Presidential candidate. Coyne himself is a biologist, and so the bulk of his article was devoted to correcting Carson's untrue remarks on evolution. He did offer a bit of commentary, though such as his introductory paragraph.

I don't care how good a surgeon Ben Carson was (and he was reportedly a terrific one), he's still pig-ignorant when it comes to evolution, geology, and cosmology. And that ignorance--regardless of whether he doesn't know the facts, knows them but eludes them and is lying for Jesus, or truly believes that the facts support creation ex nihilo--makes him unqualified to be President. For the first possibility means he's uninformed (especially as a doctor); the second means he's dishonest; and the third means he's blinded to reality by his fundamentalist faith, Seventh Day Adventism.

Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy also got in on the act, writing Ben Carson: Evolution is Satanic and the Big Bang Is a Fairy Tale. Here was the introduction to his article.

At one point in time, GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson may have been best known as an excellent, even groundbreaking, neurosurgeon. In recent years, though, he's done everything he can to throw that reputation away.

Plait had references to a lot of Carson's statements, not just the 2011 speech, as well as a lot of information refuting Carson's claims. Of course, being the Bad Astronomy website, Plait focused on the Big Bang, but he also spent a bit of time on evolution. After explaining how he tries to be polite when dealing with rank and file creationists, Plait went on to say this.

I take a different stance when it's a politician who espouses these views, especially when he's running for the highest office in America. If someone wants to run this country, then he better show that he has a solid grasp on reality. Dismissing and actively denigrating strongly understood science--whether it's astronomy, biology, or climatology--is at the very least cause to dump him.

Although he can be a bit brash for many readers, I'll also mention P.Z. Myers of Pharyngula, who wrote You don't have to be smart to be an MD. He wasn't insulting medical doctors in general, but making the valid point that expertise in one field, even particularly noteworthy expertise like Carson's in pediatric neurosurgery, doesn't translate to expertise in other fields. Here were Myers' closing remarks.

Being a neurosurgeon doesn't preclude being knowledgeable, but clearly we have to overcome this bias of using an MD degree as a proxy for intelligence. / Fortunately, Ben Carson is working hard to demolish that preconception.

I know I've been writing quite a bit about Ben Carson recently. But now it seems that notable science writers are starting to pay more attention to him, as well. So, if you want to see what other people have to say about the man, as well as corrections to his mangling of science by people actually in the fields he's criticizing, go read those articles.


Added 2015-10-02: I finally took the time to watch that whole video embedded in this post, and not just rely on the excerpts that other people have provided. Wow. And I do mean wow. I'd read short interviews of Carson's beliefs on evolution, and some of the comments he's made, but they don't illustrate the depth of his ignorance and arrogance like this video. This was a 40 minute speech, a prepared speech that he had time to research, where he knew the topic ahead of time. This was not an off the cuff remark, or an answer to an interview question he wasn't expecting. This was a neurosurgeon, with the respect that goes along with that profession, giving a presentation to an entire crowd of people. And this speech is what he came up with.

His misunderstandings and ignorance of evolution are absolutely appalling, worse than I would expect from a high school biology student. So many of his misconceptions could have been cleared up just by reading a popular introduction to evolution, like Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True, or Donald Prothero's Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why It Matters. If he was too cheap to buy a book, he could have gone to the Internet and sites like The TalkOrigins Archive. His misunderstandings of astronomy and cosmology were equally egregious, not to mention his mangling of a few other topics he brought up.

Now, this type of ignorance on its own is forgivable in most people (though I would expect a surgeon who had to study biology to be a bit more knowledgeable, and I'd certainly expect presidential candidates to have good enough educations to understand basic science). What makes it so bad in Carson's case is that despite his dreadful ignorance, he was still arrogant enough to give a 40 minute speech to an audience who trusted that he was knowledgeable on the topic. That attitude on Carson's part is the worst part of this. Most people are ignorant about a whole range of issues, but we don't go around giving speeches about those issues. And if we were invited to talk about something we didn't know about, we'd at least do some research on it. It just boggles the mind that Carson felt he was qualified to speak on a topic about which he is so obviously completely ignorant.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

What Really Caused the Civil War?

Civil War SoldiersI remember being taught in my history classes back in my school days that the primary cause of the Civil War was slavery. But as I got older, I saw a lot more contrarian views that said it was about other issues, like states rights, tariffs, or other economic issues. This topic has come up a lot more recently with the mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, and I even had a conversation with a friend who thinks the Civil War was mainly caused by tariffs. Looking at the survey results in a Pew article, Civil War at 150: Still Relevant, Still Divisive, nearly 48% of people think the war was primarily about states's rights, with only 38% thinking it was primarily about slavery.

Had I been misled all those years in history class? It wouldn't be the first time school had gotten something wrong. I decided to look into it, and what better source is there than the secession documents the states themselves wrote listing their justifications for seceding from the U.S. ? Below is a link to the full text of the secession documents from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. These are the official reasons those states themselves gave for seceding.

Civil War Trust - The Declaration of Causes of Seceding States

If you go through and read those documents, there's one primary issue that jumps out as being repeated over and over - slavery. Even when the documents discuss states' rights, it's in the context of slave-holding vs. non-slave-holding states, or as a rationale of why the states should be allowed to secede. But if the seceding southerners themselves are to be believed, slavery was the primary reason for their secession.

Here are a few highlights from the various documents. First, here are the first two sentences from Georgia:

The people of Georgia having dissolved their political connection with the Government of the United States of America, present to their confederates and the world the causes which have led to the separation. For the last ten years we have had numerous and serious causes of complaint against our non-slave-holding confederate States with reference to the subject of African slavery.

Here're the first two paragraphs from the Mississippi document:

In the momentous step which our State has taken of dissolving its connection with the government of which we so long formed a part, it is but just that we should declare the prominent reasons which have induced our course.

Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery-- the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun. These products have become necessities of the world, and a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. That blow has been long aimed at the institution, and was at the point of reaching its consummation. There was no choice left us but submission to the mandates of abolition, or a dissolution of the Union, whose principles had been subverted to work out our ruin. That we do not overstate the dangers to our institution, a reference to a few facts will sufficiently prove.

South Carolina mentioned 'slaveholding States' in the first paragraph, but most of its introduction was about the states rights justification for being allowed to secede. But after that, all their reasons for wanting to leave are slavery related. Here's one of those paragraphs (note the way it callously refers to owning slaves as 'rights of property'):

We affirm that these ends for which this Government was instituted have been defeated, and the Government itself has been made destructive of them by the action of the non-slaveholding States. Those States have assume the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection.

The Texas document started off with a little background on Texas's admission into the U.S., and had a couple paragraphs about the federal government not providing sufficient security, but the bulk is about slavery. Here's an especially bad paragraph:

In all the non-slave-holding States, in violation of that good faith and comity which should exist between entirely distinct nations, the people have formed themselves into a great sectional party, now strong enough in numbers to control the affairs of each of those States, based upon an unnatural feeling of hostility to these Southern States and their beneficent and patriarchal system of African slavery, proclaiming the debasing doctrine of equality of all men, irrespective of race or color-- a doctrine at war with nature, in opposition to the experience of mankind, and in violation of the plainest revelations of Divine Law. They demand the abolition of negro slavery throughout the confederacy, the recognition of political equality between the white and negro races, and avow their determination to press on their crusade against us, so long as a negro slave remains in these States.

The Virginia document was very short, without much justification given for why they were seceding. The first paragraph was about the extent of their justification. Note that it does specifically mention 'Southern Slaveholding States'.

The people of Virginia, in their ratification of the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted by them in Convention on the twenty-fifth day of June, in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty-eight, having declared that the powers granted under the said Constitution were derived from the people of the United States, and might be resumed whensoever the same should be perverted to their injury and oppression; and the Federal Government, having perverted said powers, not only to the injury of the people of Virginia, but to the oppression of the Southern Slaveholding States.

Now, it's true that the full causes of the war are a little more complicated than that. While the north (i.e. the United States) was generally opposed to slavery, I'm not sure most people were so opposed that there was majority support to go to war over it. Many in the north supported the war to maintain the country. But it's rather clear that the primary cause for secession in the south was slavery.


As an aside, I'll mention how I personally feel about this shameful aspect of our nation's history. Although I grew up in 'Yankee' states, I have ancestors from southern states, so I have heritage from both sides of the war. And while there are lots of aspects of my heritage I'm proud of, this certainly isn't one of them. When I see the Confederate flag, the feeling I get is what I'd imagine a German has when they see the Nazi flag. Slavery was a horrible, disgraceful institution, responsible for untold suffering through this country's history, culminating in a population of 4 million slaves at its peak. That slavery was ever practiced here is bad enough, but that it took a war to bring it to an end, that there were people willing to fight to the death to defend their right to own other human beings, is simply shameful.

We shouldn't necessarily demonize the people of the past, recognizing the Zeitgeist that permeated the culture ("no man can surpass his own time, for the spirit of his time is also his own spirit"). But we definitely shouldn't celebrate that part of our history, with monuments and memorials to the leaders of that shameful period, nor by proudly displaying any symbols of the Confederacy. That's not to say those symbols should be hidden and forgotten about. They should be maintained in museums. Slavery and the Civil War are a part of our history, and like the concentration camps in Germany, they must be remembered to remind ourselves of what normal people are capable of in the wrong circumstances, guarding against similar atrocities in the future.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Eben Alexander Follow-Up, Part II

Eben AlexanderLast year, I wrote two blog entries about Eben Alexander, Eben Alexander Misrepresenting Carl Sagan, where I described how Alexander had completely misrepresented one of Sagan's positions from his book, The Demon Haunted World, and Eben Alexander Follow-Up, where I described how he had doubled down on this misrepresentation when confronted with it. Like I wrote then, it's not so much the fact that he made a mistake that was troubling, but that he did it with such supreme confidence, even citing the page number, and then refused to back down once his mistake had been pointed out, even going on to misrepresent the person who had pointed out his mistake. These were not the signs of an honest person.

Just recently, an old article about Alexander that had been hidden behind a paywall has once again been made public. It's an article investigating Alexander's main claim to fame, his supposed near death experience where he spent a week in heaven, and which was the subject of his best-selling book, Proof of Heaven. It's a bit of a long article, but well worth the read. Not only does it reveal some of Alexander's troubled past before his near death experience, it also shows the inconsistencies between Alexander's recollection of events and the recollection of the medical staff caring for him. One could be charitable and suggest that perhaps Alexander's memory of the events had changed (after all, as illustrated in The Challenger Study, memory is rather plastic), but at the very least it calls into question the central premise of his book, and makes it seem like hallucinations and misremembered events at best (or outright lying at worst).

Anyway, here's the link to the article:

Esquire - The Prophet

I highly recommend this story to anyone who's heard about Alexander's claims.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Does Evolution Imply the Meaning of Life Is to Reproduce

The Meaning of Life, the Universe, and EverythingI've seen quite a few people who seem to think that evolution implies that the meaning or purpose of life is to reproduce. Just Google the phrase, the purpose of life is to reproduce, and you'll find plenty of examples of people proposing or debating this interpretation. Even Scientific American has a blog entry, Is the Meaning of Your Life to Make Babies?, which partially supports this view. While that article does recognize that we can have other meanings besides evolutionary ones, it still implies that this evolutionary meaning is real:

So is making babies -- and having genes survive through the generations -- the meaning of life? The answer is yes -- from an evolutionary gene's eye view. Making babies, and also other actions and social structures that result in the survival and reproduction of one's gene, such as protecting one's relatives. Differential reproduction is a process which, in conjunction with environmental interactions, has led to all life as we know it, with all its diversity and grandeur, including conscious experience itself. This is modern knowledge that is not to be taken lightly, and has impact on how we view our own meaning.

But from almost every other perspective -- individual, group, moral, environmental, or concern for life as a whole -- the answer to the question is no. Meaning from these perspectives -- from life as it is actually experienced -- is up to us. Reproduction and genetic survival may be the meaning of Life, but it is not inescapably the meaning of your life.

However, I think any interpretation that says the meaning of life is to reproduce is misguided, since it's an answer to a misguided question. Other than meanings we ascribe to ourselves, life has no meaning. Reproducing and leaving copies of our genetics isn't meaning, it's just a description of what happens. When a boulder falls off a cliff, gravity means it will fall. Does that mean the meaning of the boulder was to fall, or is it just that the act of falling is what happens due to gravity?

Or consider a river. Do rivers have a meaning? Do they have a purpose? Sure, they return water to oceans, but that's simply what happens due to water flowing downhill and collecting in the lowest regions. There's no meaning to it. It's just the result of physics.

That's how it is with evolution. Organisms that are more 'fit' in whatever sense that means for their environment have more offspring, which means their genes become more prevalent. But that's no more a meaning or purpose than a river flowing downhill. It's just a description of what happens.

Meaning and purpose only make sense in relation to a conscious entity. Genes are not conscious entities. Nature is not a conscious entity. Evolution is not a conscious entity. So it makes no sense to describe the results of evolutionary processes as having any meaning or purpose. They're simply results.

Image Source: I made it myself. And if you don't get the reference - 42.


Selling Out