Sunday, December 02, 2007


Great Pharyngula post.

Some highlights:

82 percent of Americans believe in God, according to a poll (I would have thought it was higher, actually, so an 18% being atheists or agnostics was pleasantly surprising).


Most of this 82 percent are not exactly the rational deistic sorts who deplore superstition and religious intolerance. You know, like the founding fathers. Almost all of this 82 percent believe in miracles, a literal fluffy angel land above and a literal firey demon land below, etc. 62 percent believe in the devil and hell.

And less than 50 percent believe that evolution happens.

Let's hope this turns around before we all die of antibiotic-resistant staph.

This sort of thing just makes me want to abandon the country like a rat from a burning building. Not, of course, that just getting out actually helps America, but I wouldn't be living in it.

Anyway, some more highlights:

Some dude:
I think there's a kind of a silliness to banging away at religious beliefs for their obvious falsehood, when in fact, if you're an evolutionist, the only way you would want to evaluate these beliefs is to examine what they cause people to do. Do they help people function in their communities? Then this might be an explanation for why they exist. It also makes it unnecessary to criticize these ideas, again and again, because they depart from factual reality. We should be more sophisticated in the way we evaluate beliefs.

In other words, these beliefs exist, so it's completely unnecessary to point out that they make no sense. I'm all for explicating the existence of religion in rational ways. I'm not sure I really see what the other option is, if one takes a rationalist, secular view of things. Ignoring it entirely, maybe?

My view is this: we humans are really good at finding patterns in things, at discerning cause-and-effect relationships, at creating models that explain the world. Sometimes we see patterns where they don't actually exist. There are lots of cognitive biases that keep us from discarding a view of the world, even if there is plenty of data to contradict it.

I don't think this is because cognitive biases are beneficial per se. I think this is because they are an outgrowth of other aspects of human cognition, perception, and self-perception. I can't see that continuing to adhere to cognitive biases confers any benefit which could not be countered by the benefits that come from not believing in bullshit, though if someone wants to argue the contrary i'd be happy to hear it--and it's silly to think that said biases must be helpful or they would not exist. It sort of seems like a version of the naturalistic fallacy to me, replacing "adaptive" with "moral" or something.

Is this guy even an evolutionary biologist? Sometimes traits keep existing, not because they're beneficial, but because they're not so deleterious that it makes the whole organism and/or species crash and burn. Sometimes these traits may be related to, or a more extreme version of, traits that are helpful. I immediately think of, for instance, sickle cell anemia. It sucks to have. No one would argue that it somehow confers great advantages upon the person with sickle cell anemia; it can be really painful and your life expectation is shortened. But if you are heterozygous for the sickle-cell genes, you're okay, and you've got some protection from malaria. Which is beneficial, if you live in a place with a lot of malaria.

Anyway, so apparently scientists should view religion as existing because of natural evolutionary causes. (As opposed to concluding that it exists by divine fiat?)
That doesn't mean it's not at odds with reality, and that we should nod and smile because in some vague, unsubstantiated way it might be "good for the community." I'm sure there are sociocultural reasons for the existence and popularity of Santa Claus mythology.

And a quote that makes me laugh, by PZ Myers:
If scientists won't stand up for accuracy, empiricism, and an honest evaluation of reality, who will? The priests? Wilson is plainly in denial.
Seriously. Apparently the polite and enlightened thing to do is either a) believe in religion, or, if you don't believe in religion, b) nod and smile and pretend that it's perfectly rational, or if not rational, that it's still just fantastic and is doing the world a lot of good, no doubt, and we'll just ignore all the insanity, wars, etc. that are directly because of people's religious beliefs. Those don't count. Because we all know that religion is a good thing, and it's saying anything to the contrary that is silly.

I remember reading a very interesting book, "God against the Gods," which was basically about the historical rise of monotheism and its eventual prominence over polytheism. And it's an extremely good book, and presents a convincing and devastating case to the effect that certain elements of monotheism, or at least this monotheism, are inherently conducive to intolerance.

Then the author ends the book by saying, "Uh, but despite all this, we mustn't forget all the good things that monotheism has brought to the world." Possibly because he actually thinks that, but likely to cover his ass. And of course he doesn't mention any of these good things. Because they're just so self-obvious and ineluctable that you don't need to, I guess, any more than you need to explain in what way, exactly, the sun makes it warm.

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