Why are some people religious? Putting aside arguments over whether the claims of particular religions have factual validity or not (up-front declaration: I’m an atheist), the existence of wildly varying degrees of religious sensibility in every society studied is quite perplexing for psychologists, sociologists and anthropologists. Some colleagues and I have just had a paper published (PDF here) which attempts to provide a piece of this puzzle, focusing on the relationship between religious beliefs and general intelligence, or IQ.
This was posted ages ago at The 21st Floor, but for completeness I’m going to put it here too.
Don’t get your flagellum in a knot, but here’s another post about creationism. As promised in a previous post, some friends and I visited Glasgow Caledonian University to see Michael Behe’s talk, ‘Darwin or Design?’, hosted by our dear friends at the Centre for Intelligent Design. It was, in a word, appalling. Here’s why.
The Behe-ast awakens. A Behe-moth of the Intelligent Design movement. Beep Behe-ep – move over, Darwin! You’re nothing more than an old has-Behe-en. And so on.
As you no doubt already know, Glasgow has recently become the victim of a new and particularly unpleasant infestation – creationism. I say ‘new’, but the positions of the group in question, the ‘Centre for Intelligent Design’, appear to be almost entirely based on worn-out arguments dragged from the dog-eared pages of Intelligent Design books of yore, like William Dembski’s ‘No Free Lunch’ and Michael Behe’s ‘Darwin’s Black Box’.
Which brings me back to that delightfully punnably-named Intelligent Design celeb, Prof. Michael Behe. He’s coming to Glasgow! And he’s giving a talk on ‘what the science really says’ about evolution. So he must be going to say ‘evolution is a scientific fact, the basic mechanisms of which are not doubted by any non-perverse human being’, right? Right? Oh.
This post is originally an article written for today’s The Student newspaper. The editors of the Comment section ripped out all the offensive remarks about religion (fair enough – their paper, their choice, and I’m grateful they printed it), so here’s the original. This has been talked about in more detail by Mike, PZ, and The Freethinker.
Suppose that, tomorrow, we find living examples of the ‘Hobbit’, Homo floresiensis, living in a secluded and cave on Flores Island. We’d have several options on what to do. We could ship them off to the nearest zoo, perhaps exhibiting them next to the chimpanzees and bonobos. Undoubtably this is what creationists would be forced to do, their arguments logically requiring them to deny that we have any relation to the ‘Flores man’. The more enlightened amongst us would see an interesting dilemma, however. Paleoanthropologists have discovered that H. floresiensis could use quite complex tools, so despite their small brain size it’s clear that they had a lot in common with us (or at least, us 16,000 years ago) cognitively and, maybe, socially. Would we give them human rights, land and legal protection? How far do we have to go? Is this a slippery slope to arguments like those of the Great Ape Project, who want rights for our closest living relatives?
These are related, though far more improbable, dilemmas to the one discussed in an event hosted by the University of Edinburgh’s worst most interesting new society, our nemeses friends the Life Soc*. They have an interest in the debates over abortion, euthanasia, stem cells and other related matters, like human-animal hybrids. To discuss this latter issue, they brought in Dr. Callum McKellar**, who is part of the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, a body which advises the Scottish parliament, no less. His talk was refreshingly nonpartisan (I had expected Life Soc, bless ‘em, to wheel out some religious bigot who used the phrase ‘playing God’ every ten seconds), and was a simple outline of the main techniques of hybridisation and the issues associated with them. Here I shall attempt to synthesise a hybrid of his thoughts and mine. Or something.
As I sat in Old St. Paul’s Church on Saturday night, listening to an excellent performance of Fauré’s Requiem by the St. Andrew Camerata (it’s not just comedy at the Fringe, you know), some thoughts sprang into my mind. The first thought was, sadly, ‘I really don’t like it when they replace the soprano solo in the famous Pie Jesu movement with a boy soprano. Sure he’s cute, but can he emotionally inflect the music? Thought not’. But this isn’t a music review. Somewhat naturally given the setting, my thoughts wandered to matters of religion, and the current arguments which have rent our atheist movement asunder about how we, as skeptical secular humanists, should approach religious people.
What are these arguments? One of the major ones going on in the blogosphere at the moment was sparked by the new book titled Unscientific America by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum of The Intersection, which amongst other things chastises atheist scientists such as Richard Dawkins and PZ Myers. These ‘New Atheists’, assert Mooney and Kirshenbaum, are turning the public off science with their strident, in-your-face criticisms of religious belief. Their tactics, claim M&K, are not working, and are having a detrimental effect on the public understanding of science. I’ve often discussed this sort of issue with members of the Humanist Society at my university, some of whom are of the opinion that being forthright about atheistic views can be a bad idea. But, as Prof. Jerry Coyne deftly points out in his review of Unscientific America, there’s really very little evidence for this view. How do we know that being nice and ‘accomodationist’¹ to religious people will change their opinions or make them more skeptical? Well, we don’t. It’s just an opinion, regularly trotted out with no backing whatsoever.
There are few things more depressing during a healthy debate about an important subject than the slow realisation that no matter what you say to your opponent, they are utterly incapable of comprehending the argument you’re making. I don’t mean incapable of agreeing with it - fair enough, people disagree, whatever. Here I refer to those arguments that, no matter how frequently or eloquently they’re put across, are still met with an almighty ‘urrhhh?’ from certain groups of people.