Are All Toddlers Theists? Researcher Says Yes. I say: Eh?

July 29, 2008

Via Hemant at Friendly Atheist comes a story on the work of Oxford psychologist Olivera Petrovich, who claims in a recent interview that her research has shown that the concept of God is essentially endemic to toddlers, while atheism has to be learned later on. She bases her conclusions on several cross-cultural studies, primarily relying on Japan as a cultural foil to Western theism. Since Japanese culture (by her characterization) “discourages” metaphysical speculation and the idea of a God as a creator, finding children instinctively leaning towards a God-like being as the cause of natural things supposedly implies that children instinctively believe in a God.

As one blogger puts it: Atheism is definitely an acquired position.

Or is it? The main problem I have with her reasoning is that Petrovich seems to conflate the idea of “inherent belief in God as a developmental stage” with “an idea that’s very likely to occur to someone if they are confronted with a particular question.”

That is, she doesn’t actually present any evidence that most, let alone all, children who are not exposed to theistic beliefs as a normal practice, go around regularly and actively believing in God (i.e. seeing a dog, and always then thinking “oh, God made that”) Rather, her research seems to imply that many children will, when presented with the question of ultimate origins, eagerly jump to the offerred conclusion that a powerful, psychological entity would be behind otherwise inexplicable events and causes.

That’s not really the same thing at all.

Read the rest of this entry »


Conservapedia’s “Reasonable Explainations” for Atheism

July 28, 2008

Oy. Via Daniel De Groot at Open Left comes a glimpse into the minds of people that cannot win arguments outside of their own little sandbox:

As De Groot notes, it’s not entirely clear what the unreasonable explanations for atheism would be, in light of this list.

But I have an excellent relationship with my father, Conservapedia. Thanks for the concern.


Another Intelligent Design Supporter Enters the “Witless Protection Program” (Casey Luskin Graduate Award)

July 28, 2008

It’s that time of year again: time for the “Intelligent Design Undergraduate Research Center (IDURC)” to announce the winner of the prestigious Casey Luskin Graduate Award for the promotion of Intelligent Design.

Of course, by announce, I mean, announce the mere existence of such a person and not, you know, reveal the name of the winner. That’s because, as I noted last year, the apparent true purpose of the award is to gain press off of the supposedly “protective” anonymity of the recipient:

The recipient of the 2008 Casey Luskin Graduate Award will remain anonymous for the protection of the recipient. The many students, professors, and scientists who have been denied degrees or tenure and removed from positions and jobs for no other reason than acceptance of—or even sympathy to—intelligent design theory is very telling of the importance of keeping these bright young minds out of the crosshairs of those opposed to open-minded investigation and critical thought.

But, just as was the case with the previous recipient, the air of secrecy is sheer nonsense. The winner, as described by IDURC director Samuel Chen, was himself the president of an ID-promotion club (IDEA) and even worked directly with IDURC: i.e. he held a public position supporting Intelligent Design. That sort of gives the game away right off the bat: someone who is openly on record as supporting ID in the first place is not in any serious need of secrecy because of an obscure crackerjack award.

I guess we can all thank our lucky stars that Samuel Chen is not in charge of protecting the covert identities of CIA agents.

But then, CIA agents face real dangers when their identities are exposed. Intelligent Design proponents only face professional problems when they try to repeatedly pass off untestable claims and sloppy arguments as science: the same treatment that any scientist would receive if they did the same in any field. And with countless religious biologists at the top of their fields scratching their heads over allegations of discrimination, that makes the anonymity of the “Casey Luskin” award little more than a PR gimmick.

Which is, I suppose, perfectly fitting for an award named after Luskin, grand pontiff of pompously confused PR.

(Note: “Witless Protection Program” trademarked by Reciprocating Bill with HT to Quidam.)


Church Gunman’s Anti-“Liberal” Vendetta Confirmed, Note of Interpretive Caution

July 28, 2008

It seemed like a strong possibility from the moment the story broke, but apparently the recent gunman who attacked the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist chuch was, in fact, angry with the percieved “liberal” views of the people he gunned down.

Jim D. Adkisson, 58, ranted that “liberals and gays” taking jobs had prevented him from finding work. He wrote that he expected to keep shooting parishioners until the police showed up and killed him, Knoxville, Tenn., Police Chief Sterling Owen told a news conference.

I don’t think this sort of political violence is common, conventional, or particularly instructive when it comes to judging the character of any normal person on any side of the “culture wars.”

But it is a sad reminder that for some disturbed individuals, imbibing a sufficient degree of politicized character caricatures can make you lose sight of the real people standing in the way between you and your by-proxy “revenge” on whatever larger forces you’ve come to despise.

We’ll surely learn more about Jim Adkisson as time goes on, but whether his problems are psychological, environmental, or ideological, knowing that screwed-up people like him are out there should give us all pause when we feel the temptation of unequivocal condemnation. The vast majority of us can handle overblown political and cultural rhetoric without succumbing to sociopathy. But a scattered few cannot.

And while we cannot reasonably hold people culpable for “inspiring” the unpredictably extreme acts of maniacs, I’d never want to come home to find that someone has gone on a rampage with my angry words inflaming his twisted heart and pouring out of his lips as he pulls the trigger. Morally responsibile or not, it’s still a chilling possibility that, I hope, makes us all think twice whenever we carelessly abandon rhetorical moderation. Whenever we seek, often for mere short-term political gain, to paint even a loyal and sincere cultural opposition as craven and unequivocally evil.

Not everyone who’s listening is in on the joke.

More on this, I’m sure, to come.

Update: Also sounds like wasn’t so hot on the Bible and Christianity either:

She said she was surprised by his reaction when she told him she was a Christian. “He almost turned angry,” she told the newspaper. “He seemed to get angry at that. He said that everything in the Bible contradicts itself if you read it.” She also said Adkisson spoke frequently about his parents, who “made him go to church all his life. … He acted like he was forced to do that.”

Though if he really had a vendetta against Christianity over the Bible contradicting itself and people being forced to go to church as kids, a UU congregation is just about the last organization any sensible person would want to target.


Wafer Desecrated: PZ Myers Makes Good on His Threat & More Besides

July 24, 2008

Well, for better, and probably for worse, PZ Myers has done as he promised and treated a communion wafer in a manner unbecoming of the sacred, all to definitively demonstrate that, indeed, he doesn’t think these things are sacred. For good measure, he trashed not only the wafer, but also some torn pages of the Koran, and even torn pages of Dawkins’ writings.

This is one of those odd situations in which I know what other people will likely think far better than I know what to think.

Read the rest of this entry »


When Theism Cannot Explain Anything (Origins Especially)

July 24, 2008

In having a bit of a debate with blogger Eric Kemp, we hit an impasse at which he declared that “God” is a sensible explanation for an otherwise presently inexplicable event (in this case, the nature and/or origin of the universe). It seems like as good a time as any to explore what I see as the intellectual impotence of theistic “explanations.”

Just what is it to explain something, anyhow? It is to come away with more information than you began. To have a set of distinct causes, effects, and overall processes, in place of what was once complete ignorance. It means being able to state what needs to be done for some event to happen: what specific capacities are necessary for something to do it.

To say that the standard theistic God has caused phenomenon X is essentially to say that it was done by a being that is hypothetically capable of doing anything. In short, it is a truly ingenious means of avoiding having to give any specific explanation for how X happens. No ignorance is dispelled.

Using God in this way is much like answering a multiple choice question by filling in every option, and then claiming that you have answered the question correctly. But while you are indeed sure to have filled in the correct bubble at some point in the process (unless of course, we’ve tricked you by simply not offerring the right answer there at all), your “answer” doesn’t actually tell you or anyone else which option was the correct one.

Read the rest of this entry »


James Carse: Yet Another Atheist Who Just Doesn’t Get Atheism

July 22, 2008

Yesterday, Salon featured an interview with James Carse, longtime Religious Studies director at NYU, covering his new book The Religious Case Against Belief.

Now, a lot of what Carse has to say about religion is interesting and engaging, if not always convincing. But when it comes to the now-standard near-content-free dismissal of the “New Atheists,” Carse falls flat:

In the current, very popular attack on religion, the one thing that’s left out is the sense of religion that I’ve been talking about [i.e. being endlessly fascinated with the unknowability of what it means to be human]. Instead, it’s an attack on what’s essentially a belief system.

Well, pardon me sir, but duh. Carse acts as if Dawkins, Dennet, and all the rest are somehow honor-bound to a) care about Carse’s obscure religious mysticism b) oppose it as a matter of principle and yet c) fail to justify their opposition. But Dawkins, Harris, and Dennet explicitly say that Carse’s sort of “religion” is not the sense of the word “religious” that’s in their crosshairs.

In other words, they’re focused on a specific target. That’s a good thing, not a failing.

So the fact that Carse uses a far broader definition of “religion” than the New Atheists is no excuse for holding them to that broad definition, let alone then claiming that they sloppily miss the mark and that not all “religion” is susceptible to their critiques. Of course it isn’t.

And while Carse absolutely refuses the word, it’s pretty plain that he’s an atheist himself:

Salon: And yet, you’ve just told me that you yourself don’t believe in a divine reality. In some ways, your critique of belief systems seems to go along with what the new atheists are saying.

Carse: The difference, though, is that I wouldn’t call myself an atheist. To be an atheist is not to be stunned by the mystery of things or to walk around in wonder about the universe. That’s a mode of being that has nothing to do with belief. So I have very little in common with them.

I’ve got some bad news for Carse: if he actually sat down and read their books, he’d find that he’s got exactly that in common with them (Dawkins and Harris in particular)… plenty of atheists. You think I’m not stunned and humbled by the mystery of things? That not a single atheist ever walks about in wonder about the universe? These are mere childish stereotypes of atheism: the old equivocation that because we don’t believe in metaphysical souls that we don’t have soul, baby.

Now, Carse is welcome to think that his own critique of modern religion is “deeper and much more incisive,” but that’s clearly in part because he happens to be very interested in religion (nothing wrong with that), and wants people to get more out of it (good for him). In fact, I think there is plenty of synergy between his feelings and mine in regards to even liberal theologies not taking things far enough, not leaping full bore into the sort of poetic innovation that built their traditions in the first place.

But the New Atheists are specifically concerned primarily with the perniciousness of faith beliefs, and there’s simply nothing wrong with having that focus either. Outside of that focus, they really don’t have much beef with Carse or anyone else wandering around in his secularized state of agape. So why is he so eager to pick fights with them, when he seemingly can’t even be bothered to raise a single substantive criticism against their specific arguments, or a single substantive difference between their position and his?

The best he musters is to claim that the New Atheists have their own belief system to offer in place of religion: one that is just as dismissive of ignorance and mystery as religious dogma. But this is surely a cheap shot. All of the people he talks about have all written tons of material on science as a neverending, never-certain method, not a dogma. Carse is basically attacking people like Dennet for trying to explain things like consciousness and “free will” that Carse, perhaps, thinks should not be explained, but doing it under the guise of falsely accusing Dennet of arrogantly thinking that he can solve or answer every question. That’s just a low blow.

And then there’s clueless claims like this which make me wonder if he’s ever really thought about atheism much at all:

To be an atheist, you have to be very clear about what god you’re not believing in. Therefore, if you don’t have a deep and well-developed understanding of God and divine reality, you can misfire on atheism very easily…

This is like saying that to not be a platypus, you have to have a deep and well-developed understanding of platypi. Nonsense. To be an atheist, all you have to be clear about is that there is no concept close to or akin to ANY sort of God belief inside your head. You don’t have to know every possible deep insight into what a god might be to know that you’ve yet to happen upon a convincing reason to believe in God, period.

And Carse seems no different on this point anyway. His answer as to whether he believes God exists is “[Laugh] Frankly, no.” So if even Carse, supposedly deeply steeped in theistic understanding hasn’t found anything to convince him to believe (and Carse pretty much rejects the entire “belief claim” side of religion), why should atheists who don’t happen to be interested in religious studies in the first place worry their pretty little heads about it?

A lack of deep insight into theology is neither laudable nor contemptible, any more than a lack of deep insight into botany is necessarily a gaping hole in your life. You can’t appreciate or be interested in every single subject equally deeply, and everyone has their favorite subjects. Carse enjoys religion even without the belief claim side of it, and good for him. But without compelling, universally relevant belief claims at stake, and lacking much other than subjective appreciation, Carse hasn’t made any sort of case as to why atheists, or people in general, must care about appreciating the poetic side of religion.

Of course, I just so happen to have a taste for religious studies. And for all my carrying on over this particular point, Carse’s book sounds like one I’ll be adding to my already bulging reading list. I just wish people that celebrate the mysterious and unconventional sides of life would stop pushing such conventional and dogmatic slanders of non-belief.