Category Archives: Religion

The new Cosmos

Guys, I just watched the first episode of the new Cosmos.

It is so good.

Cosmos

Sitting in the dark in my living room while Neil DeGrasse Tyson walked me from planet Earth to the edge of the observable universe, I cannot describe how Small I felt, or how Large science seemed. It is remarkable what we have done in so short a time, and what we have learned about so long a timespan. I’ve read about all this before, and yet every time it gets me.

Along with the splendor of what I was watching, I couldn’t help but feel something less positive. I thought of my little cousins, who, by sheerest accident, happen to have been born to parents who don’t accept evolution. And it made me angry.

In Cosmos, Tyson tells us that we’ll need imagination to explore the natural world, but “imagination alone is not enough, because the reality of nature is far more wondrous than anything we can imagine.” It’s true – the natural world is full of phenomena that we’ve only been able to grasp by pulling back layer after layer. Gravitation, the atom, the evolution of life – none of these were easy to get right, and it took us many tries before we successfully developed models that were as weird as reality. We really weren’t able to imagine these things beforehand.

But as my cousins grow up, their minds will be stunted by parents who present them with ideas that are easy to imagine.

I want more for them than that.

It’s a beautiful thing that Tyson is doing – exposing young (and old) minds to some Big ideas. I imagine that Cosmos will play a part in creating a lot of future scientists. So spread the word.

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Filed under Creationism, Evolution, News, Religion, Science

A friend visits the Creation Museum

Creation Museum
My friend Tiarnán visited the Creation Museum today. It is a museum in Kentucky which supports a literalist interpretation of Genesis, with exhibits on Noah’s ark, humans and dinosaurs living together, and the like. Tiarnán didn’t enjoy his time there.

I’m finding it hard to even explain how bad I felt. The only time I’ve ever felt this bad because of somewhere I visited was a concentration camp. I’m not comparing the crime, only how it affected me. The juxtaposition of lies, smiling children and a gift shop freaked me out.

Emptiness, sadness, a cruel parody of museums. Children running around, enthusiastic to learn, parents proudly reading lies to them. Children gathered around the animatronic Noah explaining how there was room on the ark for all the dinosaurs.

I felt I was at a funeral for someone I loved and everyone else wanted dead.

Relentless, creepy disembodied voices “The lord said…”, “Eve was created as man’s helper”, “dragons are dinosaurs”. It was soul destroying.

Museums scream of progress to me. They have problems (Anyone seen the receipt for the Elgin marbles?), but they are cathedrals to learning. They show how far we’ve come. They promote and value education. To sit in one with such a corrupt purpose is obscene.

Nobody got a t-shirt. I couldn’t do it. I needed to leave.

What is the solution to this problem? I don’t know. But I imagine it starts with more education, more rationality, and more questioning our beliefs.

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Filed under Creationism, Religion, Science

Beatriz lives

I’m really happy that this woman lived.

Beatriz is a 22-year-old mother of one. She waited months for the government of El Salvador – a highly Catholic country – to approve a medically necessary abortion. They would not approve, even though Beatriz’ fetus was non-viable. Many people, including myself, signed a petition by Amnesty International to change the government’s decision.

In the end, the government didn’t approve of the abortion. However, the fetus became old enough that doctors could deliver it and it would count as a “birth.” The baby died within hours (it was missing most of its brain), and Beatriz is recovering.

I’m happy that Beatriz lived, but I’m angry that this ever became a problem. El Salvador’s laws on abortion are the kind of laws that organizations like the Catholic Church would like to have in America. Even though there’s no evidence that such laws do any good whatsoever, people still push for them to become reality. (For a look at the harm that El Salvador’s abortion laws do, see this harrowing report from the NY Times.)

As someone who used to be anti-abortion, I can say that many abortion opponents do not display half of the humanity that is displayed in that NY Times article. We are taught by our religions or our cultures to think in absolutes, to ignore grey area, and to believe something because somebody told us to. We should never make decisions for other people based on so little understanding of their experiences. Doing so leads to the death of women with hopes, plans, fears, lived experiences, and social and familial ties to others.

If anyone disagrees, I’d love to hear what you think here or in private (you can email me through my Google+ profile).

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Filed under Catholic Church, Human Rights, Morality, News, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Women's Issues

Some happy news

WBC Protest Two sisters have left the Westboro Baptist Church! Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper, ages 27 and 19, have left everything they know behind and are starting new lives.

There’s a good profile on Megan and the story behind her decision to leave over at Medium. I don’t have much comment to add, other than “Good for them.”

Damsel, Arise: A Westboro Scion Leaves Her Church

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President Jimmy Carter writes about women and religion

I have just come across an article that President Jimmy Carter wrote in 2009 on the intersection of religion and the status  of women in society. The article appeared in the National Times in Australia and is titled, Losing my religion for equality. I find the piece to be mostly good, with a few not-so-good parts mixed in.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

President Carter at the LBJ Library in 2011.

In the article, Carter describes how he severed his ties with the Southern Baptist Convention, after sixty years of membership, due to their scripture-based stance that women should be subservient to men. Specifically, the SBC,

…claiming that Eve was created second to Adam and was responsible for original sin, ordained that women must be “subservient” to their husbands and prohibited from serving as deacons, pastors or chaplains in the military service.

Carter notes that this philosophy isn’t just limited to Southern Baptists.

This view that women are somehow inferior to men is not restricted to one religion or belief. Women are prevented from playing a full and equal role in many faiths. Nor, tragically, does its influence stop at the walls of the church, mosque, synagogue or temple. This discrimination, unjustifiably attributed to a Higher Authority, has provided a reason or excuse for the deprivation of women’s equal rights across the world for centuries.

Carter goes on to list tragic consequences of this type of thinking, from the restrictions and injustices heaped selectively on women in many third-world countries, to the discrepancies in pay and status between women and men in Western society. Carter makes the case that this sort of thing really matters.

And that’s what I think is good about the article – Carter’s outright rejection of the idea that women are inferior to men, and his insistence that we stand up to people and organizations who say so. What I dislike is the way he excuses the Bible for its misogyny.

Carter blames the problem of misogyny in the Bible on “interpretation,” and a self-serving bias on the part of religious leaders:

The truth is that male religious leaders have had – and still have – an option to interpret holy teachings either to exalt or subjugate women. They have, for their own selfish ends, overwhelmingly chosen the latter.

While I agree that many religious teachings are invented for self-serving reasons, it cannot be true that religious texts are completely malleable to any interpretation. For example, how can the following passage from the Bible possibly be interpreted to exalt women?

A man ought not to cover his head, since he is the image and glory of God; but woman is the glory of man. For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. (1 Corinthians 11:7-10)

How about this passage?

I will make your pains in childbearing very severe; with painful labor you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you. (Genesis 3:16)

Or this?

Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.24 Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything. (Ephesians 5:22-24)

There is no way to interpret these verses in a positive light; the best one can do is pretend they don’t exist. The problem with the texts of the Bible then is not just one of interpretation, but one of content. The inferior nature of women is a theme that runs throughout. Carter is right to speak out against this, but wrong to try to exonerate the Bible (or other religious texts) in a way that isn’t rationally doable.

Why do I think this is important? Because if we ignore the parts of religious texts that we don’t like, we are never forced to face the obvious fact – that those texts are full of passages that are wrongheaded, immoral, or factually incorrect. In the United States alone, there are millions of christians who are anti-science, anti-women’s rights, and anti-gay. Their religion forms part of their defense against better, more humanistic ideas. What these christians need to do is not ignore questionable passages from their holy book, but pay attention to them, so that at some point they realize that maybe they shouldn’t put so much faith in something so full of error.

On this point, President Carter seems to be still in denial. He finds fault with the humans who interpret religious texts, but he gives a free pass to the idea of putting faith in texts that are morally and factually questionable. Carter encourages us to think for ourselves when it comes to women’s rights. We know that women are just as smart, talented, and capable as men. I would just take that idea one step further, and say that we should think for ourselves on every subject, and not give credence to silly ideas simply because they have been held up as holy.

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Filed under Freethought, Human Rights, Humanism, Morality, Religion, Women's Issues

Does it matter if atheism has a terrible retention rate?

In my last post I examined the question, Was the US founded as a christian nation? The point of the post wasn’t to answer the question, but to examine the implications of the possible answers. If the answer to the question were “yes,” what would this entail? If the answer were “no,” what would this entail? I decided that the question didn’t have great implications for how we should run our government today, even though in political debates it is often assumed to be decisive. The fact is that there are ways of governing that work demonstrably better than others. We should do what works, not do what we did in the past simply because of tradition.

The point I tried to make is that not only do people skew facts to support their argument – they skew facts to support their argument even when doing so doesn’t actually support it. “The United States government was based on christian principles, therefore it should still be based on those today” is a logical fallacy. It is an argument from tradition. Nonetheless, people are swayed by such arguments, and that is why people like David Barton distort the facts about US history (as I linked in my previous post) in order to affect decisions about government today.

Another arena where you can see this logic at play is in statistics about religion. There are all sorts of (reputable) statistics out there, about what percentage of Americans are Protestant, about how many Catholics follow Catholic doctrine, about how the various religions are increasing or decreasing in number of members. These facts, too, can be cause for alarm. “My religious sect is losing adherents! That could mean there is something wrong with my beliefs! I must explain away this data somehow!”

As I noted in my previous post, I have definitely felt this urge to “explain away.” Most recently was when I saw this data showing that atheists have the lowest retention rate of all religions surveyed (and it was accompanied by the obligatory “this proves there’s something wrong with atheism” shtick by religious bloggers.)

US Religious Retention Rates

Here was my initial thought process: “Oh no! Only 30% of Americans raised as atheists remain atheists as adults! I must defend atheism!”

…But do I really need to defend atheism because of some statistics about retention rates? (And I will assume for now that the statistics are accurate, even though they may be somewhat off.) Again, the best way to think about these things is to set aside the facts for a moment, and think in hypothetical terms. Does it matter if a particular religion or non-religion loses child adherents as they become adults? Why do we think this happens? What does it mean?

The first thing to observe is that atheism’s low retention rate has no bearing on the fact that it’s true. There really isn’t any credible evidence for the existence of the supernatural (or as I often say, “the supernatural” isn’t even a coherent concept). So whatever popularity means, it isn’t an indicator of truth.

The next thing to consider is that there must be many factors that influence retention rates – culture (is questioning of authority encouraged?), the presence or absence of competing religious ideas, degree of religiosity (Mormons may be more religious than Methodists), the degree of social pressure to remain in the religion, etc. A low (or high) retention rate could mean a lot of things. We simply don’t know – but that doesn’t mean we should try to explain it away.

Now it just so happens that the proportion of atheists is increasing, both in the United States and in the world. Children “raised as atheists” (read: taught to think) may not always remain atheists, but this is made up for by all the adherents of other religions who convert to atheism (see the graphic at the bottom). This doesn’t mean atheism is true, but it demonstrates that retention rates are not the only thing to look at when you want to know how a religion is “doing.” So sometimes what the data entails is that… you need to look at more data.

One final comment: there may be studies that have been done, or could be done, to find out why so many children “raised as atheists” become religious adults. If we knew the answer to this question, we might be able to do something about it. And considering that atheists are better at acting in accordance with evidence than members of any religious group, this seems like an issue we’re well-suited to addressing.

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August 14, 2012 · 9:00 am

What should have been a no-brainer…

It isn’t difficult to find stories of Jehovah’s Witnesses who were willing to die, or willing to let their children die, rather than receive a life-saving blood transfusion. Here an ER physician tells about an interaction he had with the family of a severely injured young man.

It was around that time that his parents showed up and informed us that the patient was a Jehovah’s Witness and would not accept blood products under any circumstances. Even if that meant his death. They were adamant on this point even after I explained that we were not in hypothetical territory any more — that his injuries were quite life-threatening and the blood loss might be the factor that caused him to die. They were firm and well-prepared and even showed us a piece of paper signed by the patient, fairly recently, expressly refusing blood transfusions.

Blood transfusion

God has a problem with this.

The author expresses his frustration at this state of affairs, and his contempt for the beliefs that brought it about. I share his feelings, but I disagree with his analysis of the situation:

[The parents] valued some abstract, imaginary fantasy of the afterlife and their idiosyncratic reading of scripture over the real, actual living, breathing son whom they had loved and nurtured for two decades.

Yes, but this isn’t a fantasy to them. Given the option between a relatively short, relatively miserable current existence and an eternal life filled with happiness, the latter is a great choice. The problem isn’t, as the author implies, that the family has messed up priorities. The problem is that they believe things about reality that are simply false.

Image source: makelessnoise

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