Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Mea culpa

Mea culpa - mea maxima culpa!

OK, I've gotten a lot of heat about saying that atheism is a religion - even a special case of religion where "god" is represented by the null set. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but on reflection (and a big "Thank You!" to all of you who assisted in that reflection), it just doesn't work. So, for the record:

Atheism is not a religion.

There, I'm glad I got that off my chest.

Still, I think that if one specific religion gets some classroom time in our public schools (I refer, of course, to the religion that is trying to sneak "Intelligent Design" into our science curriculum), then - in the spirit of fairness and equal representation - all religions should get some time to pitch their dogma. And, of course, it would be terribly unfair - not to mention unbalanced - if the kids didn't also get to hear from those whose position is that God (or Gods) doesn't exist.

I bet that the ID folks would have a cerebral hemorrhage over that - don't you? Imagine the school flyer on that one:

"Following the discussion on 'Intelligent Design', there will be a short presentation from the American Atheists on the non-existence of God. Refreshments will be served afterwards."

I think that you'd want to send that one home with a warning label.

Clearly, the ID'ers aren't interested in scientific debate - you don't have a scientific debate in a courtroom (or in a school board meeting - trust me on that one!) - they are interested in getting their religious ideology presented (and thereby affirmed) in the public schools. That's what "Intelligent Design" is all about. I mean, do you really imagine that this much heat would be generated by a debate about teaching punctuated equilibrium? OK, maybe in biological circles, but certainly not among the general public.

I suppose I can't blame the ID'ers- I'd like to get my religious dogma (if I had one) taught in school too - but the only way to do that would be to teach every religious dogma - and atheism (which is definitely not a religion - let's not start that again) as well. And that would require that our kids go to school 180 hours a week, 55 weeks a year.

So, unless we want to turn our public schools into a bigger mess than they already are, I think that we ought to just let "Intelligent Design" go away. Just turn off the life support and let it die the death it has been trying to die since it was first created (excuse me, "Intelligently Designed").



Blogger Bob Cross said...

Actually, when I was in undergrad, this sort of survey class was usually called something like "philosophy" or "comparative religion." In the public school world, I think serious consideration should be targeted towards the idea of teaching a comparative religion course as a part of the HISTORY curriculum.

True, not everyone would receive the not-very-hidden message if we drew a line from Babylonian mythos through all the intervening fables all the way up to Scientology (or whatever the newest one is). However, quite a few people would.

More importantly, some non-zero number of parents would explain to their children: it doesn't matter which fables are your favorite, what matters is that you grow into a good (and smart) person.

16 November, 2005 20:30  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Is is customary for truth seekers to bully and slander that which they don't understand? Some ID proponents, to be sure, have allowed their faith to affect sound judgment in matters of science. But I think many of the ID persuasion are just tired of scientists pushing their atheistic religion on them, or, as Axiom so aptly put it, to teach comparative religion as part of the history curriculum. Sorry, the reports of God's demise are a bit premature.

I have placed atheism firmly in the religion column because it, a) involves a belief system that directs major patterns of thinking and moral decision making, b) requires an element of faith to believe, c) cannot be empirically proven or disproven, d) lies outside scientific critique and inquiry.

I, for one, would like to see an honest discussion of the weaknesses of ID, along with some of the alleged weaknesses of evolutionary theory. But I have found neither the ID camp nor the evolutionist camp wants to do this. Both sides are too busy posturing!

As far as the weaknesses of ID, I've already ceded that it isn't science, and, from a scientific viewpoint, isn't very interesting.

Well, what say you, oh noble seekers of the truth? Are there any weaknesses in evolutionary theory, or should we just chalk this one up as a hard fact? For example, can you recommend a good reference that addresses the difficulties leading up to the first cell that could reproduce itself accurately (but not too accurately), in order for natural selection to commence? Any other problems/issues come to mind?

16 November, 2005 23:54  
Blogger Clark Bartram said...

The theory of evolution doesn't comment on the origin of life or even the very first cell. It is a common misconception that it does. There are honest discussions of the weakness of ID and evolution all over place. Have you looked? Probably the best I've ever read is Tower of Babel by Robert Pennock.

17 November, 2005 05:44  
Blogger Prometheus said...

RE: Weaknesses of evolution

There are plenty of "issues" in evolution, and you can find them discussed at every level from high school to post-graduate. However, the basic concept of evolution - that organisms change over time in response to selection pressures from the environment - has withstood ALL challenges so far.

The major weakness of "Intelligent Design" is that it "solves" the questions of the fossil record and speciation by saying "God did it". That may be a satisfactory answer in church, but not in science. In science, saying "God (or the "Intelligent Designer") did it" is equivalent to "I don't know", just not as honest.

So, evolution gives answers to fossil record, speciation, antibiotic resistance in bacteria, viral coat protein changes and etc., AND gives us a tool to use to predict what will happen in the future.

"Intelligent Design", in stark contrast, gives no insight into the past, answers no questions and gives no tools for predicting what might happen in the future. All it does is give a "warm fuzzy" to people who happen to share that particular religious view. In short, "Intelligent Design" is not a "theory" at all - it is religious dogma dressed up as a "theory" in order to sneak a particular religion into the public schools.

That, in a nutshell, is the Evolution vs "Intelligent Design" debate.

Finally, evolution does not adress the "Origin of Life" question - it is solely involved in what happened after life began. If the "Intelligent Design" promoters would confine themselves to the origin of life, they could at least operate in an area where there is no well-supported scientific hypothesis.

By trying to take on evolution - which has withstood thousands of tests and successfully predicts events at all scales of life - the supporters of Creationism (dressed up as "Intelligent Design") have placed themselves in a situation where they will ultimately lose - and lose big.


17 November, 2005 08:08  
Blogger cube said...

I don't think some people appreciate the difference between people who are against ID and those who are against ID being taught in science class. I belong to the latter group. Our kids get precious little science in schools as it is without throwing a philosophical debate into the mix.

17 November, 2005 08:45  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First, thank you all for your responses. I agree with almost all of your points. But I don't think the intent of ID is to supplant the teaching of evolution. Perhaps to add a short statement that says that we don't possess all of the answers with regard to the origin of life and evolutionary theories and that ID may be one way to explain some of these, albeit not scientifically. This, mostly to counteract some overzealous atheists who want to teach their religion in the classroom (i.e. There is no God. See, we've killed him. How foolish of you to think otherwise!)

W.r.t. the redefinition of science issues, I'd have to see the before/after phrases first, but my bias would be against redefining something that has proven its worth time and time again. That is, unless the current definition unwisely precludes the possibility of an intelligent designer.

You may disagree with me on this, but I think that postulating an intelligent designer neither promotes a particular religion nor does it discourage science. A true scientist will just be piqued to study further -- the design is the thing. A militantly atheistic scientist will carry on just to spite the idea of an intelligent designer. A nominally atheistic scientist will ignore the statement as unscientific and irrelevant. A faith based scientist will carry on to explore the intricacy of the design, and seek to understand exactly how it works in exquisite detail. In every case, good science is performed and our knowledge of life's processes is expanded.

17 November, 2005 09:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have strong religious beliefs, but I don't want them taught in any public classroom. If the teacher was someone of my faith, he or she could not help but let some of that influence his or her teaching, but hopefully it wouldn't be to the point of teaching the faith.

I wouldn't want someone not of my faith teaching my faith anywhere.

Classrooms need to teach acceptance and not disdain of religious ideas and religious people... in my opinion that *shouldn't* include acceptance of religious people starting wars... but there we get into politics. To be clear, I think most, but not all, relgions contribute to the starting and continuation of wars.

When my kids were in school they were in a very small religious minority (we still are, actually) and when they were in school in a place that was populated with people of a certain religion, the teachers were mainly of that religion and some of those teachers were deliberately rude to me and my children because we didn't agree with their religion, they did NOT want to accomodate my kids in a respectful way.

Christmas and Halloween are religious celebrations - I think. But they get taught in public school. There observation is almost enforced in public schools. I don't understand that at all.

I don't care if evolution is taught in schools or not. I think science can be taught without it, myself. I am afraid that "ID" is really born-again Christian religion in disguise. But, I really oppose "creationism".

18 November, 2005 12:37  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In the 1970’s, a U.S. national debate raged on whether to teach sex education in public schools. The arguments opposed were many, mostly on religious and moral grounds. The arguments for went something like:
1) A large number of students are receiving little or no instruction from their parents.
2) Sex is a significant part of human thought, culture and biology.
3) If students don’t get proper information in an educational setting, they’ll get inaccurate, incomplete, and possibly harmful information elsewhere.

The identical arguments can be applied to the argument for teaching religion in public schools. Religion permeates almost all, if not all societies. It affects our concept and practice of society, morality, reasons to live, and, in some extreme cases, reasons to die. If there is one subject that cries out for critical thinking, the thoughtful study of comparative religions is one of them.

For example, Jane asks her teacher why the U.S. is still at war in Iraq. The PC answer might be: “Because the insurgents proved stronger than we anticipated.” A more accurate, non-PC answer might be: “In President Bush’s attempt to ‘seed’ democracy into Iraq, he placed the U.S. in the middle of a sectarian religious conflict that has been raging since the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in 632 AD.” At least the second answer would provide enough search terms for Wikipedia or Google, provided the school’s internet gateway didn’t block the query on religious grounds!

18 November, 2005 18:10  
Blogger Prometheus said...

OK, this is getting a bit confusing with everyone calling themselves "anonymous" - how about at least a nickname?

To the "anonymous" who feels that ID is a response to:

"counteract some overzealous atheists who want to teach their religion in the classroom (i.e. There is no God. See, we've killed him. How foolish of you to think otherwise!)"

[1] Evolution does not say anything for or against God, god or gods.

[2] I have two children in public school and cannot remember a single time that anyone has taught them anything about God, god or gods. Certainly, they have not been taught that "God is dead".

This argument is below a straw man fallacy - it's the "missing man" fallacy. If it were true that the public schools were teaching that there is no god, then I might be persuaded to allow the ID supporters to have their "day in class" - but not in the science class.

However, I challenge "anonymous" to document a single instance where children in public school have been taught that god doesn't exist. This is not the same as not commenting on god or not allowing prayer or discussion of religion in class - I want to hear about incidents where children have actually been taught that "God is dead".

[3] Even if children were being taught that there is no god or "God is dead", the proper place to argue this would be in a history class or a social studies class - not in a science class.

You see, ID is not good science, it's not even bad science - it just isn't science at all. It is all about trying to blow enough smoke in people's eyes to get them to allow a particular religious viewpoint to be taught as if it were supported by data. Which it isn't.

Remember - even if the ID'ers could prove that evolution was dead wrong, that still wouldn't provide any support for ID. ID needs data to make it a scientific theory, and I haven't seen any data presented in favor of ID - just lots of trivial complaints about evolution.

Show me the data, then we can talk about ID having a future in science. Until then, its just a lot of noise about religion.


18 November, 2005 19:32  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I’ve read that the opposite of love is not hate, but apathy. When some societal groups ostracize a member, they treat him as if he were dead. Some hold a mock funeral, complete with an empty casket. It is forbidden to make eye contact with, talk to, or even speak the name of the individual. In modern U.S. society, we’ve twisted the establishment clause of the constitution to mean “separation of church from state”, or, more appropriately, “elimination of any religious expression from any public venue”.

To answer your question directly, no, I don’t have specific evidence of a teacher teaching a student that God was/is dead. But that’s the beauty of it. To kill God, you just turn him into He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and use assigned reading from openly humanistic atheists like Carl Sagan to do the rest. “The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be.” Sound familiar? To make matters worse, in our public school system it is quite acceptable to teach about humanism, eastern mysticism, animism, or anything else non-western in a positive light, but mention the Judeo-Christian God or religion in a positive context and you are subject to being censured.

As for teaching ID as science, I have repeatedly denied that ID is science, so that is a straw man that you’ll have to get someone else to tilt at. I don’t believe it is “religion” either, at least in the normal sense of the word. To me, it represents a philosophy of humility, acknowledging that one does not have all the answers, allowing for the possibility of intelligence much, much higher than our own. If humility isn’t valued, then it seems that arrogant humanism will always rush in to fill the vacuum.

P.S. I’m still working on an appropriate “handle”. A survivor hasn’t been naturally selected yet!

20 November, 2005 15:00  
Blogger Prometheus said...

To Anonymous ID Fan (AIDF):

Since you have failed to select a name, one has been provided for you - there will be no charge for this service.

Also having failed to give concrete examples of atheism being taught in public schools, you procede to make more accusations without providing concrete examples. Just having heard it - on the web, in the grocery store or at a party - does not make it so. Next time, remember to give an example with place and approximate date.

You then go on to say:

"As for teaching ID as science, I have repeatedly denied that ID is science, so that is a straw man that you’ll have to get someone else to tilt at."

It doesn't really matter if you think ID is supposed to be a scientific theory (it's not) - the people behind ID are promoting it is such. I don't believe that any of them are suggesting that it be taught in the Social Studies, History or Mythology classrooms. They want it in the Science classroom face-to-face with evolution (if not in place of evolution).

So, my argument that ID is not science isn't really a straw man fallacy, since it is an argument that is intimately tied to the concept of "Intelligent Design". If it wasn't supposed to be "science", then what is the point?

As for ID being a philosophy of "humility", all I can say is "What?!?"

"Intelligent Design" doesn't say "We don't know how the species came about.", it says "We know how the species came to be - an Intelligent Designer made them the way they are now."

Except for the idea of switching from random mutations selected by environmental pressures to deliberate design by a supernatural being, I don't see any greater humility in ID compared to evolution. If anything, the idea that we should accept the promoters idea of an "Intelligent Designer" without any shred of data seem the absolute opposite of humility: hubris.

Nice try, AIDF, but the "humility" angle won't wash. Both positions (ID and evolution) claim to explain how the species came to be and neither of them posits that humans had anything to do with it. The huge difference is that evolution doesn't require an unknown, unseen, undetectable and unmeasurable supernatural being to make it work. Oh, and evolution also makes testable hypotheses that have been tested and found correct.

So, AIDF, ID is not science, it's not humility and it's not (according to you, anyway) religion. I guess it's nothing - so why should we be asked to teach that to our children?

Please give actual examples.

Show your work.


20 November, 2005 19:49  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank your for your thoughtful answer. I wouldn’t take too much pride in forcing me to admit that I can’t produce a specific place, date, and time for an event I am not in a position to personally witness, and that would be reported third or forth hand by the time I received it. Even if I did personally witness it, it would be on my word alone, unless I was thoughtful enough to catch it on video tape. By asking for a specific place, date and time, you went from a scientific argument to a historical/forensic/legal one.

I have already stated that ID is not attempting to supplant the theory of evolution by natural selection. When you posit that ID proponents say “We know how the species came to be - an Intelligent Designer made them the way they are now”, that is only slightly true. The ID that I’m familiar with, and the only one I’m willing to defend, proposes that evolution is a key element – just not absolutely, without doubt, the only element. There are various “sects” of creationism that would make the statement you suggest, but that isn’t ID, and so it is moot.

But consider this. How can a well respected scientist like Carl Sagan say with certainty that this is all there is? Has he been everywhere in the universe? Does he know all? Do you? As an astronomer, can he look back in time before the big bang to its cause? Yet you as a scientist let his remark go unanswered, even though it was blatantly religious. Why didn’t that remark bother you?

Lastly, the scientific method has humility built-in -- I’m just trying to see that it is acknowledged. For a theory to be scientific, it must be consistent, parsimonious, useful, empirically testable and falsifiable, based upon controlled, repeated experiments, correctable & dynamic, progressive and tentative. Tentative means “admits that it might not be correct rather than asserting certainty”.

20 November, 2005 22:39  
Blogger Michael said...

A nice degree of double-think there:

Lastly, the scientific method has humility built-in -- I’m just trying to see that it is acknowledged. For a theory to be scientific, it must be consistent, parsimonious, useful, empirically testable and falsifiable, based upon controlled, repeated experiments, correctable & dynamic, progressive and tentative. Tentative means “admits that it might not be correct rather than asserting certainty”.

Science doesn't purport a scientific theory to be fact. However, within a scientific theory, it does encompass a large body of empiric facts. That some people cannot tell the difference is not a failing of science, rather that of education. Also, your above definition is a beautiful representation of science.... and also nice describes just about everything that "Intellegent Design" is not. As per the author of this blog, ID is not a scientific theory and as such, should not be taught in science class.

I would also like to further that atheism is not taught in schools. I went to a public school and not once was I ever taught that "God does not exist". As argued in various places, atheism is not a religion. Go to wikipedia for a definition of religion and then to atheism and it should be fairly clear that atheism is not a religion. The core of a religion at a minimum involves a supernatural belief (deity/deities/higher being/boogieman) to which you have some sort of personal relationship with.

Furthermore, don't confuse moral principles, values or a philosphy with religion. They are very different things. Certain religions feel that they can appropriate "morals" as something belonging exclusively to them. It is completely appropriate that schools teach their students socially acceptable values and codes of behaviour without invoking the spectre of religion. This is not teaching atheism by stealth. It is common sense. Atheism is simply a lack of belief of god(s) (weak atheism) or a belief in no god or irrelevance of human worship of god (strong atheism). It says nothing about being a good person or how to be a good person. Or perhaps your beef is with secular humanism?

I believe that you can be a good and moral person without having a religion and I choose to judge people by their actions, not because in their private lives they choose to worship some deity I have an affinity with.


22 November, 2005 05:53  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What part of my argument is “double-think”? Perhaps you can point out the contrasting views of thought.

You say that some people can’t tell the difference between “empiric facts” and scientific theory (I think this is what you meant). If that is the case, I agree, and that is the point of this entire discussion! And I trust that you’re not implying that I am uneducated. I’m not intending to be defensive here, just to understand your points.

I have already declared, on numerous posts, that I don’t believe that ID is science, and so I am in agreement with you and the blog author on this. As for teaching non-scientific topics in a science class, it’s done all the time. For an example, I’ll present the ethics of falsifying experimental data.

As you bring up your educational experience, so shall I. I don’t recall much of my (prehistoric) primary education, but I had a few professors in college that were openly atheistic and extremely hostile toward any belief in “deity/deities/higher being/boogieman”. Specifically, this was at UC San Diego, in the Humanities department.

Regarding your statement that atheism isn’t a religion, I’ll reference Princeton University’s WordNet ( Atheism is: “1) the doctrine or belief that there is no God; 2) a lack of belief in the existence of God or gods.” I’ll take the first definition, and you’ll undoubtedly take the second. “Doctrine” and “belief” pretty strongly suggest the “specter” of religion to me.

Putting on my atheistic student hat, you can try to teach me morality all you want, but I don’t see any reason to be “moral”, “ethical” or “good” when no one’s looking and I can be pretty sure that I won’t suffer the consequences of my actions. Furthermore, can you give me a good reason why the ends shouldn’t justify the means?

Lastly, I’m astonished that neither you nor Prometheus had any response to Carl Sagan’s openly religious credo, which is taught in science classes across the nation. Secular humanism is religion, and it shouldn’t be given preeminence over any other form of religion just because it fails to mention God.

22 November, 2005 10:37  
Blogger Prometheus said...

OK, AIDF, I'll bite.

I didn't respond to your comment about Carl Sagan's "openly religious credo" because it didn't make sense. I assumed you had written in error. "Secular Humanism", as you call it, is another way of saying that humans don't need a belief in god in order to be moral, ethical and decent people.

In other words, "Secular Humanism" is not a religion at all, since it has no belief in the supernatural or in unseen forces, spirits, etc.

I think that what you're alluding to as another "religion" is simply the rejection of religious beliefs.

For example, my rejection of the existence of fairies does not imply that I believe in a different sort of supernatural beings that inhabit the woods and meadows. Likewise, a rejection of belief in god (or gods) does not imply a different supernatural belief.

So, if AIDF feels that his/her/its religious beliefs are being trampled by the rejection of those belief by others, that is a problem for AIDF to remedy - and not by teaching those beliefs to children against the will of their parents. And certainly not by teaching religious dogma as a scientific "theory".


22 November, 2005 11:31  

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