Skeptimus Prime » Creationism One atheist's thoughts on politics, religion, and philsophy Mon, 11 May 2015 01:55:18 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Why non-overlapping magisteria doesn’t work. Fri, 22 Feb 2013 05:54:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Non-overlapping magisteria is an idea presented by Steven Jay Gould which basically argues that religion and science can coexist because they focus on different claims.  In non-overlapping magisteria or NOMA for short it is said that science rules over the examination of the physical or empirical realm, and religion rules over issues relating to “ultimate meaning” and morality.  

I take a number of issues with this position not the least of which is that I don’t think religion should or does hold total control of some of these ideas. Morality for instance, may not be completely understood using pure empiricism but philosophers, even some of them religious themselves, have been discussing moral claims without explicitly claiming a religious basis for them for thousands of years.

However, the philosophical problems I have with the NOMA isn’t actually what I want to talk about here. I want to talk about why the argument and other similar arguments don’t work on a practical level. The point of the argument is to attempt a diplomatic resolution with theists who have a problem with certain scientific discoveries.  The idea is that rather than trying to convince them to abandon their religion (which isn’t likely to happen) we can convince them that their religion and the science are compatible with each other.  In a sense it’s a noble goal but I would argue it is also almost certainly doomed to fail.

First we need to understand that an argument like NOMA is typically only used when addressing the fundamentalist type of religious believers.  Of course it can be hard to define what a fundamentalist believes exactly at times because people don’t always fit neatly into a box.  There is a continuum between liberal and fundamentalist believers and even strong theological differences between some fundamentalist groups but there is one generalization we can make about fundamentalists. They believe that their holy book (the bible for Christians) is inerrant and contains true history, science, and theology. There is some debate on how to interpret context among Christian fundamentalists but they all generally agree that the bible is inerrant. This is important because more liberal believers are usually willing to interpret much of their holy books metaphorically so they usually have no problem with science to begin with, but fundamentalists have a problem with most metaphorical interpretations.

To understand why this creates such a problem for NOMA type arguments let’s look at the concrete example of creationism. I choose this for several reasons, one it is one of the most common areas where religion and science conflict in the U.S. and two as a former fundamentalist I was once a young earth creationist years ago so I am familiar with both sides of the discussion.

To understand why evolution presents such a problem for fundamentalists we will actually start with Jesus and work backwards to the Genesis creation story. Most of my readers probably know that Christianity teaches that Jesus is our savior but if you haven’t been steeped in Christian theology you may not know exactly how that salvation is provided, or for what reason. Jesus is suppose to save us from sin, but in Christianity the idea of sin is far more complex than just bad actions that you as an individual take. The concept is called original sin and the notion is that people don’t just commit sins their very nature is corrupted by sin. Jesus’ death is offered as a way to actually alter basic human nature and remove said sin nature.

Understanding that we can now look at Genesis. See the question becomes what gave us this nature, if it was built into us by god then his creation would not be perfect and also God would be blaming us for his failure. This will not do in fundamentalist theology so they have an explanation for this. Adam and Eve were created perfect but through an act of free will introduced this sin nature into human nature by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the Genesis story.

Now, it is unavoidable that in order to believe in evolution one must take the Genesis story as a metaphor or allegory. It cannot be a literal historical event because it would directly contradict the evolutionary picture of early history. Fundamentalists will argue that if the story was not a historical event then there was no event to introduce original sin into human nature and if there was no original sin then Jesus’ death makes no sense.

My goal right now is not to analyze the rationality or evidence for such claims, but to elucidate as to why NOMA type arguments don’t work on the one group of people that they exist to convince. The argument NOMA tries to make is that people can both believe in their religion and the science at the same time, but to a fundamentalist belief in evolution requires a denial of things they feel are intrinsic to their religious beliefs. It doesn’t help that most fundamentalists view themselves as embroiled in a fight between the godly believers and the worldly unbelievers and they take a gateway drug approach to any ideas that they view as worldly. If a person drops even one of their core beliefs they take a step towards worldliness and who knows where that will stop. I am not guessing that this is what many fundamentalists think either, when I was a believer I read many books by theologians and preachers who made these exact arguments about NOMA.

The thing is in a sense one could say they are right, and they would use me as an example. To take the creation story as metaphorical one must deny the typical interpretation of biblical inerrancy and interestingly enough that was one of the first beliefs that I jettisoned on the way to becoming an atheist. It was over historical inaccuracies not evolution but as soon as I let go of the idea that the bible was perfect I began to accept other ideas because the evidence supported them and the more I read about these other ideas the less the bible made sense. My story is not unique either, few people just drop firmly held beliefs all at once but one piece at a time. This is why even though a non-overlapping magisteria approach may be more diplomatic than marching up to a fundamentalist and telling them science proves their religion wrong I’m not convinced it will be any more effective.

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Louisiana is in a worse state than I imagined. Wed, 21 Nov 2012 23:08:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> I wrote a while back about Louisiana passing a voucher program that was likely to push creationism onto students by sending them to Christian private schools.  Well the bill passed and has been put into effect this year.  Thanks to a friend I got a link to a website which had scanned three pages from a 5th grade text book currently being used in in Louisiana voucher schools and being paid for by tax dollars.  Anyway, here is the link.

The book is not teaching “strengths and weaknesses” or “Intelligent design” it is overtly and explicitly teaching science from the perspective of Christian religious bias.  It goes as far as quoting bible verses as evidence that dinosaurs lived with humans and claiming that the flood is responsible for the geological column.

Here is a couple of gems from the book.  A table that explains the big bang as a “sudden explosion” and describes humans as the “highest level of animal” according to evolution.

One thing that struck me was there insistence that the findings of science are nothing more than the results of the biases injected by the people doing the science.

They say:

Man makes judgments about the evidence of fossils based up his beliefs. A man who believes God’s record of creation and history will look at fossils in one way.  A man who believes in evolution will view fossils in a different way.

They then go on to give the student an activity to read several articles written by “creationists” and “evolutionists”  to try to determine what the writers bias is.  This is such an absurd and jumbled approach to science it is difficult imagining children getting anything out of it.  It is bad enough they are teaching these kids bad biology, but they are teaching them a horrible approach to science in general.  It is, of course, obvious that everyone has a bias, but the whole point of the scientific method is to attempt to eliminate those biases.  A person can start from any hypothesis they want and no matter how biased it is the predictions it makes will either turn out to be true or false.  If the predictions are false then the hypothesis fails.

The main thing they fail to mention is that the reason creationism doesn’t count as science is because it makes no meaningful predictions about the world.  Take big bang which they inaccurately describe as a “sudden explosion,” when it was first proposed the calculations predicted certain types of radiation should still be present in the universe as a result.  Measurements were taken and the radiation was found, thus there was evidence that it happened. (though not definitive proof)

Now take the creationists view point, “God created the heavens and the earth” by their own description.  What predictions can one make from that?  To ask the question differently what differences would we expect to see between a universe that God created and one that he didn’t?  The fact is we don’t know, we have no idea what differences there would be between those two things if any.  So with no predictions there is no way to test, or falsify as Karl Popper would have put it, the hypothesis that “God created the heavens and the earth.”  Thus this is not a mere matter of competing beliefs as this text book wants to present it as.

The science in this book is so bad it should be criminal to lie to students this badly.  Late elementary school is a great time to cultivate students interest in science and instead they choose to squash it with ludicrous pseudo-science.  Now thanks to Louisiana they are using tax money to promote this stuff to students who may not even share their religion, because their parents have been told that sending their child to a private school is a guaranteed way to get a better education.  The evidence in this book says differently.

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Vouchers and schools and creationists, oh my! Sat, 28 Jul 2012 09:39:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> I wrote last weekend about a school voucher program going on in Louisiana.  While I am against vouchers for several different reasons this is understandably a complicated issue with a lot of competing issues to consider.  NCSE published an article about it and I decided to revisit it in a bit detail.

Many people favor vouchers based upon an argument that says that people should have a right too choose.  I don’t really see this as a solution to our problems in this area.  I think what I notice is that in politics there are two sides, one that argues that more government control will fix our issues and one that argues that less control will fix our problems.  Politics seems bereft of people, like myself, who wish that policies were made rationally instead of ideologically.  Sometimes more government control is good, sometimes less is, on a lot of issues the amount of government control seems to have nothing to do with the problem at all. 

In the school voucher debate, this seems to be much the same quandary, some people think by getting government out of education the problems we have will simply disappear.  I remain unconvinced of this.  It seems that our problems with education are more complex and require more thoughtful solutions than simply throwing up our hands and privatizing the whole thing.  After all, many other countries with public education seem to be doing just fine.  Further, I think that many politicians in favor of vouchers are simply using it as a smoke screen to promote their personal religion in schools.  Rep. Valarie Hodges that I wrote about in my earlier post basically admitted it was her goal when she backed out upon realizing that Muslim schools would receive money as well.  

Clear evidence that evolution is false…I guess.

For one thing, when the state starts giving money to the private schools now the state starts enforcing more limits and controls on those private schools, so it ends up in many ways not really different than the current system.  There are a few questions that are not answered though.  For instance, under the current law, teachers are unable to lead students in prayer in a public school, but they can in a private school, and the majority of private schools are religious.  Does the government step in and say no school organized prayers?  This would not go over well with the religious right, but if the state is providing funds to these schools allows these school organized prayers to continue are they not allowing states funds to be used to promote religion?  Do we want to allow that? What about creationists text books that teach the Loch Ness monster disproves evolution?  Yes, those books from ACE are, in fact, in use in some of the private schools in Louisiana.

However, some may say, what about the standardized test scores.  It is true that scores on standardized tests are usually higher in private schools, doesn’t that prove that moving kids to the voucher system will improve their grades too?  Well, maybe, but then again maybe not.  Let’s examine this a bit more closely.

I found a good break down of various statistics about private schools here: 
The statistics for their breakdown comes from the national center for education statistics so I think we can assume they are pretty reliable, a read though the statistics reveals that scores in private schools are indeed better, but this does not automatically mean that the voucher system will improve education.  There are a few things that need to be considered.  The question to be asking is why exactly do people in private schools do better.  I know people of the libertarian mind set seem to believe that the explanation lies in the natural checks and balances that exist in private enterprise which have no analog in government.  Lets just say I do not find that explanation very satisfying.  They may turn out to be right, but both government and private enterprise are run by humans, I have seen no evidence to convince me that private enterprise is less prone to corruption than government or that the reality checks in it are more effective.
First, I am going to point out something obvious.  Correlation does not equal causation.  I know we have all heard that before, but it is an important concept, there are other possible explanations for private school students doing better on tests than private schools are all better and education.  Don’t misunderstand, many private schools probably are better in certain respects, but consider a few other hypothetical causes for this.  
  1. There is also evidence that students do better when their parents take an interest in their education.  Statistically speaking I would bet that parents willing to spend money educating their children take a more active role in it.  
  2. Another observation is that children who eat better diets growing up tend to have higher IQ’s.  People who can afford private school are going to be more wealthy and therefore more likely to eat better. 

I could probably think of others if I tried but I came up with these two just setting around between calls at work.  Do they totally account for the difference? Probably not, but they do need to be considered before just assuming that vouchers will fix the problems facing education in this country.

There is one other thing I think needs to be considered.  Near the top of CAPE’s page they give a breakdown of the tuition costs of private schools.  The numbers are from 2007-2008, but that is the most recent numbers I found online.  
The big thing I noticed here was that religious ($7,073) schools are much cheaper to attend than the non-sectarian variety ($16,247).  Cheaper by more than half in every case.  They give no reason for this, but I suspect that they are cheaper due to being supported in part by churches or other religious organizations.  The reason this is important is because of a piece of information I only discovered a few weeks ago in a conversation I had at TAM.  The amount that the state will pay in your voucher will not exceed the amount that the state spends per student in the public school.  In my state of Arizona this is 7,608 dollars, in Louisiana it is 10,684 dollars per student.  (Yes, Louisiana outspends my state)  

Combining these two figures together should paint an interesting picture.  If you are poor, having 10k of your child’s tuition paid is still not likely to get them into a non-religious private school, instead you are left with the religious schools, some of which are (at least in Louisiana) painfully bad.  On top of that, the statistics gathered on this topic may mislead people into thinking that by merely moving their child to a private school they will fix their performance problems and increase their grades.  Which, as I pointed out earlier, may not be the case.

I am sure that there are solutions to the current education woes in our country, but they will not be as simple as moving students to private schools.  Doubly so when you consider that the voucher programs are often a thinly veiled way for fundamentalist Christians violate church state separation, by pushing inaccurate and biased versions of science, and history on U.S. children.  Thanks to people like Don McLeroy we already have enough of that to fight in the public school system, but at least we have the ability to fight it there.

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Loch Ness Monster disproves evolution somehow… Sun, 01 Jul 2012 11:43:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Yeah, this is a real thing:

Actual quote from what Accelerated Christian Education (ACE) apparently thinks is an actual science book.

Are dinosaurs alive today? Scientists are becoming more convinced of their existence. Have you heard of the ‘Loch Ness Monster’ in Scotland? ‘Nessie’ for short has been recorded on sonar from a small submarine, described by eyewitnesses, and photographed by others. Nessie appears to be a plesiosaur.

So, just in case anyone was wondering, even if Loch Ness existed and was thought to be extinct dinosaur (which is unlikely) it would not prove evolution in any way whatsoever.

It also claim that solar fusion is a myth and that a Japanese whaling vessel caught a dinosaur, which of course turned out to most likely be a shark if one bothered to read a scientific abstract about it.  Though expecting creationists to read something that doesn’t already fit their preconceived notions is probably unreasonable of me.

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Question 2: Why don’t you just leave believers alone, their beliefs aren’t hurting anyone? Tue, 18 Oct 2011 22:15:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]>
The first thing that comes to mind when theists bring this up is how evangelistic they are.  Though truthfully, many theists are, in fact, not very evangelistic.  Some believe religion to be a private affair, and many say they believe in the idea of evangelism but very rarely make any effort to “convert” anyone.

“I should totally convert her to Christianity…well maybe tomorrow”

The thing is, most atheists don’t really do this either.  Of course there are exceptions, there are people in any group who aren’t satisfied unless everyone else sees the world the same way they do.  

Stop believing in god or so help me I will end you with this spork.

However this behavior seems rather rare from atheists, at least no more common than it is from theists.  As a theist I frequently engaged in forms of evangelism, including walking up to strangers in a beach to convert them.  As an atheist I have yet to approach one stranger to start evangelizing them.  Every serious conversation I have ever had about religion with someone I was not very good friends with were initiated by the theist trying to convert me or someone else in the room.
I imagine atheist evangelism looks something like this.
Personally I think this problem is in part due from the normal bias that anyone has with beliefs they disagree with.  I’ve often found myself discussing interviews/debates done between famous atheists like Hitchens or Dawkins with theists and I am surprised that they say how abrasive or mean that the atheist was; even during interviews where I felt that the atheist was rather tame or circumspect and the theist was.
I had just such a conversation about the above interview between Dawkins and O’Reilly in which Dawkins comes across rather gentlemanly and O’Reilly comes across, as usual, as a jerk who immediately attacks Dawkins’ atheism despite the fact that Dawkins had not mentioned religion or god at all.  Don’t get me wrong I’d happily admit Dawkins can come off insulting at times, just not this particular time.
Now, that being said, there are a few topics which often invite the ire of atheists.   Things like church-state separation related issues or religious based bigotry tend set quite a few of us off.  I believe that one of the main reasons this question gets asked is often because our weighing in on these topics is often viewed as a type of evangelism.  
I, of course, disagree with this assessment, but it does bear some discussion.  I think part of the problem is that, in this country, theists (Christians in particular) have a certain natural sense of entitlement when it comes to their beliefs.  
It seems a little like this to us.
 I have had many conversations with Christians who are offended that other groups, Muslims for example, should have certain freedoms that they feel are an intrinsic right of their group.   Those of you who question my assessment may want to give a moment of consideration to the significant group of Christians who believe that prayer and creation science should be reintroduced in public schools.  Yet the Christians who argue for this are unlikely want Muslim prayers or Hindu creationism taught in school.  
Exactly what evolution predicted humans evolved from.
Our early manophant ancestors were strange and wonderful creatures.
 This is typically where we atheist step in and say that given the disagreements among these groups the safest thing to do is not have any prayers from any religion publicly endorsed by any teachers in the school.  This is where we recommend simply teaching scientific facts about our universe and limit the teaching of creation myths to that of history class.  The best way to allow society to flourish is to keep government out of the business of mandating beliefs.
Some disagree.
 Unfortunately despite not being evangelistic in the least it is often interpreted as such by theists largely, I suspect, because atheism is viewed as just another competing religion to most theists.  They do not want to allow non-prayer in schools for the same reason they don’t want to allow Muslim prayer in school.  They try to remove the teaching of evolution in schools for the same reason they reject the teaching of the Japanese creation myth in science class.  
If you have ever heard a fundamentalist Christian say that evolution is just a creation story for atheists then you may have an idea what I am referring too.  I have heard them say, indeed, when I was a young believer I said it myself, repeated from sermons I heard.  To them non-prayer is viewed as a sacrament of atheism the same as prayer to their god is a sacrament to them.  Science, rather than a process by which we explore the natural world, is viewed as part of the “religion of secularism.”  Too many theists who ask this question secularism is just another competing religion that is seeking to drive their religion out of the public square and replace it with our own.
Extremism does differ a bit from group to group.

I wish a knew a way to win this particular debate because I truly think a secular government is not only better for me, but its better for theists of all types as well.  However some theists strongly believe that their religion should be given favored treatment by whatever government they live under, and any attempt to undermine that will be seen as an attack on their beliefs.
How dare you make laws saying we can’t burn people at the stake!  Stop interfering with our religious freedom.

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More proof that Creationists are idiots. Mon, 31 Jan 2011 18:32:00 +0000 Continue reading ]]> Dinosaurs Survived Mass Extinction by 700,000 Years, Fossil Find Suggests 

Until recently the common agreement among scientists was that Dinosaurs had been completely wiped out between 65.5 and 66 million years ago.  However researchers from University of Alberta have recently dated a dinosaur fossil to be only 64.8 million years old.  Of course given the complexity of the dating process they may eventually find this initial dating to be erroneous.  However, further study may also bear out the date, effectively rewriting the paleontological history books.

This made me think of something that comes up very often in the creationists propaganda.  Very often creationists and intelligent design proponents claim that scientists are being intentionally duplicitous, or at the very least are so wrapped up in their own biases as to have no idea how to do science properly.

In the area of fossil examination they often claim that the dating methods used are wildly inaccurate and unreliable, that scientists rely only on circular dating methods, and merely walk lock step with each other pretending that what amounts to wild speculation is fact.  Answers in Genesis for instance believes the earth to be less than 10,000 years old and that radiometric dating is completely unable to produce consistent results without insisting on an old earth age bias at the start of the process.

The reason I bring this up, is that discoveries like this directly contradict the claims of creationists.  If the dating process is as false as creationists claim then discoveries like this, which fall outside the bounds of the dates scientists have previously found, should never exist.  Moreover, there is no conspiracy to keep these researchers findings from being published, or to hide these findings because they might embarrass the scientific community.  The scientists who made the discovery do not seem phased by the inaccuracies of their previous dates, but in fact, seem excited by this new revelation.

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