Old news: why atheists celebrate Christmas

January 3, 2012

For the next few weeks I’m going to be catching up on some links I’d saved throughout December on account of my broken wrist; that, coupled with general laziness and craving more quality time with the Man, made updating this blog something of a low priority. First up, a December 5th article out of Live Science. It focuses on a study published in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. Researchers used results from an earlier survey of elite U.S. universities and their science departments and pulled 275 of the 2,198 respondents to be their sample. In the original survey, about half of the scientists had declared themselves religious but they noticed that some of the ones who declared themselves atheist were still willing to spend time in church and the like.

The atheist parents surveyed had multiple reasons for attending religious services in the absence of religious belief. Some said their spouse or partner was religious, and encouraged them to go to services as well. Others said they enjoyed the community that attending a church, mosque, temple or other religious institution can bring.

Perhaps most interesting, Ecklund said, was that many atheist scientists take their children to religious services so that the kids can make up their own mind about God and spirituality.

“We thought that these individuals might be less inclined to introduce their children to religious traditions, but we found the exact opposite to be true,” Ecklund said. “They want their children to have choices, and it is more consistent with their science identity to expose their children to all sources of knowledge.”

I don’t know if I would have thought that was “most interesting” but whatever. I can see it as making sense, though. To limit kids and never expose them to the other side of the belief coin would make an atheist parent just as out-of-touch and fundamentalist as the worst of the religionists. In order for a person to make a real choice, choices have to be made available. In the article they use an example from the study of a man who’d been Catholic. He later decided religion and science weren’t compatible enough to keep that up but has chosen to let his child experience Catholicism, Islam and Buddhism, too. He’d rather she be equipped to make an informed choice later rather than insist only his way is right.

I’ve wondered how I’d deal with that were I in a parenting position. I think I’d wind up modifying what my dose of religious studies taught me in terms of the sheer variety of belief out there. Some people think this way, some think that way, these ones don’t get along at all because they each claim the same slab of rock as having religious significance and nobody is entirely sure who found it first. Here’s what seems to be the best of what they have to offer and here’s the stuff that made me question why…

I don’t recall asking my parents about this thing called God when I was a kid. I went to Catholic school and mass every week with classmates but there wasn’t much at home to encourage more than the bare minimum in terms of that business. They let me spend many Saturdays with my cousin and her church-going parents but I don’t recall many Sunday school excursions with her so I don’t think I was allowed much in the way of overnights. (Not necessarily for that reason, mind you. My early morning habits started pretty damn young and most of my cousins were weekend layabouts by preference.)

I don’t know if I’d want to set a kid up by saying, “There absolutely is no god and anyone who tells you different is deluded.” I see the overall value of believing in something bigger than we are, but I’d quibble on the need to name that inner need “God” and anthropomorphize it into a vast supernatural creature capable of giving a damn. The universe is already bigger than we are and most of us don’t stand around expecting it to notice us and give out hugs. No treats expected for the best behaved — unless you count those who still buy into karma.

Maybe it’d be worthwhile to transform the god crap into a belief that compassion truly has the power trump greed and villainy. That winds up being a basis for some of the better beliefs already out there anyway. Promote the belief that most people do want to be good and helpful instead of selfish and arrogant S.O.B’s all the time. Maybe they just never learned how and could benefit from a new approach. Maybe they learned the wrong lessons from their past actions or failed to get encouragement when the opportunity arose to make the more humane decision. Plus, some people get a skewed idea of what a reward for effort ought to look like. Sometimes it ought to look like a smile instead of dollar sign, for one thing. More could be done to support that outcome, I think, and in better ways than “You’ll go to hell otherwise.”

To end, to end.. how to end. I guess I end by saying that we need to do whatever is necessary in terms of bettering ourselves and our children. If making room for religious experiences helps with that a little, then make a little room for it. And we can all hope that at some point maybe people won’t need that step anymore.

“Scientists say Turin Shroud is supernatural” — what kind of scientists…

December 20, 2011

…would suggest something like that? The Independent has the story:

Italian government scientists have claimed to have discovered evidence that a supernatural event formed the image on the Turin Shroud, believed by many to be the burial cloth of Jesus Christ.

After years of work trying to replicate the colouring on the shroud, a similar image has been created by the scientists.

However, they only managed the effect by scorching equivalent linen material with high-intensity ultra violet lasers, undermining the arguments of other research, they say, which claims the Turin Shroud is a medieval hoax.

Good gravy. Two years ago it was other Italian scientists that proved it could be duplicated a lot easier than that. Curse those bloody scientists! Can’t they see that all this waffling confuses a public already tending toward lower scientific awareness? Who are they supposed to believe?!

Which begs the question, why the desire to prove their faith can be backed up by scientific evidence? I thought the whole point of faith was to believe without needing proof.

Another question comes to mind, why get “government scientists” involved with that kind of ridiculous make-work project? Aren’t there better uses for government money that would result in.. well, useful results for the world at large, or at least Italy? Why piss around trying to prove the shroud’s validity? It’s such a waste of time and resources. And money. So much money.

Religious Canadians distrust atheists, too…

December 2, 2011

… going by results of a recent study published in the Vancouver Sun, at least.

Religious believers distrust atheists more than members of other religious groups, gays and feminists, according to a new study by University of B.C. researchers.

The only group the study’s participants distrusted as much as atheists was rapists, said doctoral student Will Gervais, lead author of the study published online in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

That prejudice had a significant impact on what kinds of jobs people said they would hire atheists to do.

“People are willing to hire an atheist for a job that is perceived as low-trust, for instance as a waitress,” said Gervais. “But when hiring for a high-trust job like daycare worker, they were like, nope, not going to hire an atheist for that job.”

The antipathy does not seem to run both ways, though. Atheists are indifferent to religious belief when it comes to deciding who is trustworthy.

“Atheists don’t necessarily favour other atheists over Christians or anyone else,” he said. “They seem to think that religion is not an important signal for who you can trust.”

I’d agree with that last line. Ideally one’s religion (or lack of) won’t even come into play when it comes to deciding who you can count on. Morality and ethics are not the sole (soul?) property of one particular group, religious or not. I wonder if people who are religious get cause and effect mixed up a bit sometimes. Their religion might not be the reason they’re good, just, honest people. They might have been that way even if they didn’t have a religious explanation to fall back on. Can’t turn back the clock and send them down a different future to test that, sadly, but exposure to religion might not be the main reason a person’s decent anyway. What if it has more to do with who their parents were and knew and what sort of upbringing and education they were able to get besides that? I think it really comes down to the kind of person you are, regardless of the kind of beliefs you hold. It’s hardly the only trait with merit.

Gervais was surprised that people harbour such strong feelings about a group that is hard to see or identify. He opines that religious believers are just more comfortable with other people who believe a deity with the power to reward and punish is watching them.

I’d bet a cookie that it has to do with the same fear that Invasion of the Body Snatchers preyed upon back in 1956. Communists were feared not just because of their ideologies but because you couldn’t tell just by looking who was a commie. They could be anyone! Some probably would like it if every atheist stamped themselves with the big red A and relieved the confusion. That would almost be useful though; then when atheists inevitably stop getting served at various restaurants, or get fired, they could argue in court that it’s account of their atheism. And perhaps win. But anyway, on with the article.

“If you believe your behaviour is being watched [by God] you are going to be on your best behaviour,” said Gervais. “But that wouldn’t apply for an atheist. That would allow people to use religious belief as a signal for how trustworthy a person is.”

Not just the thought of God watching, though. Other studies have been done showing how behaviour varies no matter what people think is watching, be it eyes by the “On your Honour” tea kitty or an invisible princess who might see you cheat at a game and report you.

Religious belief is known to have a variety of social functions. Past research has found that common religious beliefs can promote cooperation within groups.

Sure, but humans aren’t the only creatures on this planet that know how to cooperate in a group. Ants and termites can do it. Birds do it every day when they take wing suddenly, seemingly on cue. Many animals act as a team to take down their prey. Prey will often cooperate to avoid that. It might be possible to make the case that cooperation is simply an evolutionary by-product of herd/group living. Some might be better or worse at it, of course, and maybe in humans it made sense to further encourage cooperation by adding religious thought-processes into the mix. Animals don’t always cooperate, either. If you have two bulls after the same cow, neither will yield gracefully. Maybe religion has more to do with creating a means to combat our selfish instincts. Maybe the bigger pity is that it does take the fear of hell to make some people do the right thing.

Gervais started his line of inquiry about the exclusion of atheists after seeing a Gallup poll that suggested the majority of Americans would not vote for an atheist presidential candidate. Gervais and his colleagues conducted a series of six studies on a group of 350 American adults and a group 420 UBC students.

But even in more secular Canada, distrust of atheists ran high.

“We see consistently strong effects,” he said. “Even here in Vancouver, our student participants still say atheists are really untrustworthy.”

I got this story from friend and fellow Freethinker koinosuke, who’s made the point at various Sask Skeptic‘s pub nights that it’s always better to find the actual study and read it, but not all of us have that kind of dedication to the truth, I guess. Or the time. Or the ability to parse what’s hidden in there, for that matter. What I’m curious about with this is where these respondents got their information about atheists being untrustworthy. Not from actual/known-to-be atheists, probably. Where did they develop this bias? In terms of the students in Canada, where were they born? It’s probably the same everywhere, but universities in Canada are notorious for luring foreign money students over. I don’t know where I’d find the statistics on it, but I think Vancouver has a pretty high ratio of immigrants to “natives”, as well. If most came from countries that are typically anti-atheist, that’ll skew the results. If most were born here, where exactly? Some areas of the country are a lot more religious than others. Hell, some towns are super devout compared to a town 20 minutes away. There’s a lot of variation.

It definitely points to signs that atheist groups need to work a bit harder in the Vancouver area, and the rest of the country, too. Even though people like to say the opinions of others shouldn’t matter, I don’t particularly like the idea of strangers making that kind of assumption about me without evidence for it. It’s a stereotype that needs a serious shooting down.

I feel kind of bad for Reverend Peter Anamo

November 9, 2011

Maybe he’s getting more press locally in Ghana, but there’s not a lot to be found online about him and his predictions for the end of the world this month. Harold Camping and his followers certainly knew how to stir the waters and got a hell of a lot more press. I can’t find much about Anamo’s predictions beyond this article from April.

Promising to do better than biblical men of steel, Prophet Anamo said he was relying on numerology to make his prediction. “Numerology is the mystery of numbers which the Church does not know but that is unfortunate because our divine God is God of numerology that is why the Bible has a whole book on numbers.”

“I am a prophet; my job is to make sure God is able to redeem a lot of people in November.” Grounding his argument, Prophet Anamo cited Japan which was hit by a disastrous earthquake on March 11 and also on April 11, and that that was a prelim to what will happen to the world on 11 November (the 11th month of 2011).

There is this interview, though.

He uses the Book of Daniel as the basis for all his goofy numerology math, and 5/6 minutes in he uses some other funky number trick on the woman doing the interview. She adds up 80 (1980 being the year she was born) and her age (31) and gets 111 for an answer. He tries to sell this as a sign the end is nigh because everyone who tries the same thing will get the exact same number and the longer he goes on, the more loony he starts to sound. I’m almost surprised he got to speak as long as he did but I suppose everyone’s allotted a certain number of minutes for their segment no matter how ridiculous they may get.

It’s stated in the article that he’ll turn himself in if his predication fails so I’ll make sure to check if anything gets written about him later on. Statistically speaking, he may wind up right by accident about an earthquake hitting this weekend, especially since he isn’t being very specific as to where it’ll be. The National Earthquake Information Center registers at least 50 a day with their sensitive equipment and it’s also noted that if it seems like we’re having more earthquakes these days, it’s mostly because we have a lot more equipment around the world tracking the earth’s constant shifting.

In 1931, there were about 350 stations operating in the world; today, there are more that 4,000 stations and the data now comes in rapidly from these stations by telex, computer and satellite. This increase in the number of stations and the more timely receipt of data has allowed us and other seismological centers to locate many small earthquakes which were undetected in earlier years, and we are able to locate earthquakes more rapidly.

Another factor has to do with just how many humans are on this planet (we’re nearing or past the seven billion mark already) and the fact that some of us can’t help but live in regions where earthquakes have a higher probability of being large enough to be damaging. The site lists more explanations than these, too.

Bottom line, I think the bulk of us will be able to rest easy on Friday and spend the day however Remembrance Day tends to be spent. I expect mine will go quietly; I’ll be away to Dial Up Land for the weekend since it works out to be a long one. Aside from getting my fix of Canasta and Hoarders, I have no plans.

Richard Dawkins VS William Lane Craig – who cares?

October 21, 2011

Lots of people, probably. Dawkins recently admitted the reason he won’t debate the guy and it has to do with the apparent condoning of child massacre in the bible. Lane Craig claims it’s because God had the right to do it simply because he was God. QED. This blog out of the Guardian shits all over Dawkins, calling him “either a fool or a coward” over his unwillingness to debate the guy using theological arguments.

We are left with two possible conclusions from Richard Dawkin’s flimsy sick note. The first is that he doesn’t understand Christian apologetics, which is why he unintentionally misrepresents Craig’s piece [regarding the deaths of Caananite children and conflicts with that morality then and how we think today]. The most frustrating thing about the New Atheism is that it rarely debates theology on theology’s own terms.

The second is where the cowardice comes into play. Dawkins is just plain scared of going to battle against someone that intelligent and well spoken. He’d rather spend his time mocking the stupid ones… The last part is possibly true, but the first part?

William Lane Craig makes appearances in Saskatoon once in a while. One of our Freethinker members debated him at the University of Saskatchewan in January and it was fun to watch, but brutal to watch at the same time. George did what he could against the guy but Lane Craig makes his living off apologetics and all its bizarre arguments to justify God’s existence and behaviour. It’s hard for an ordinary philosophy professor to compete with that. That’s hardly been his area of focus. Plus, it wouldn’t matter what kind of theological arguments George might know and could have brought to the stage because he’s aware that theological arguments have no basis in reality. They’re just thought experiments and there are far better ways to use one’s brain than contemplating what a god might do and why.

That’s why I think Tim Stanley missed the point with his post. Dawkins has a good reason to skip debating a guy like Lane Craig. You can’t get anywhere doing it. Lane Craig could never best him in a science debate about biology and evolution because that’s not where he’s focused his education and career – except in terms of what he can point at and claim God had a hand in. (Usually with a smarmy smile on his face while he does it.) Debating him accomplishes nothing. I wish everyone would turn him down, frankly. Of course, he’d likely count them all as debates he won by default, but what can you do.

For one thing, you can put the time into battles that have a better chance at being won for real. Keeping science in schools. Teaching critical thinking skills and encouraging skepticism. Stopping teachers from overtly preaching in public schools via prayers or posters. Stop employers from employing similar tactics. Making waves when people want to put up monuments that are meant to speak for all but only seem to apply to a specific religious group. Seriously questioning politicians about their belief systems and what those beliefs might mean for the climate change debate, gay marriage or women’s rights to abortion.

Put the emphasis on the things that matter most in this world and fuck William Lane Craig.

I’d do better if I studied

October 20, 2011

JustSayHi - Science Quiz

Created by OnePlusYou – Free Dating Sites

I found the link on an old blog I haven’t used since 2007 and then I scored a C.

And thankfully you don’t have to sign up with the free date thing in order to get your test score.

Sleep paralysis still the best explanation for demonic visitation

October 20, 2011

At least, I think so. I’d found an article about this a couple years ago and wrote up a post and today I’ve run across another article on this topic suggesting that sleep paralysis may have been behind the Salem Witch trials, and the feeling of aliens in a room (for those who’ve smartly given up believing in demons).

Brian A. Sharpless, clinical assistant professor of psychology and assistant director of the psychological clinic at Penn State, noted that some people who experience these episodes may regularly try to avoid going to sleep because of the unpleasant sensations they experience. But other people enjoy the sensations they feel during sleep paralysis.

“I realized that there were no real sleep paralysis prevalence rates available that were based on large and diverse samples,” Sharpless said. “So I combined data from my previous study with 34 other studies in order to determine how common it was in different groups.”

He looked at a total of 35 published studies from the past 50 years to find lifetime sleep paralysis rates. These studies surveyed a total of 36,533 people. Overall he found that about one-fifth of these people experienced an episode at least once. Frequency of sleep paralysis ranged from once in a lifetime to every night.

I can’t imagine what that would be like. I’m not in the percentage that experiences these episodes. It must be such a weird thing to go through so it’s no wonder people would historically attribute sinister reasons for it happening.

People experience three basic types of hallucinations during sleep paralysis — the presence of an intruder, pressure on the chest sometimes accompanied by physical and/or sexual assault experiences and levitation or out-of-body experiences.

Up to this point there has been little research conducted on how to alleviate sleep paralysis or whether or not people experience episodes throughout their lives.

“I want to better understand how sleep paralysis affects people, as opposed to simply knowing that they experience it,” said Sharpless. “I want to see how it impacts their lives.”

Depending on the prevalence of religious upbringing, it could be major impacts. I hope it occurs to him to check that angle. Growing up in a house where demon belief is commonplace and then having an episode in the night.. what other conclusion would get reached?

Which weirdly reminds me – I’ve seen websites advertising pajamas for children on a Christ’s militia theme, meant to protect their souls while they sleep. Isn’t that ghastly? That’s worse than the “If I die before I wake” prayer kids get taught, if you ask me. Note: the link to the site that sold the pj’s no longer exists. Good thing the pictures still do.

Reiki found to be no better than placebo for cancer patients

October 12, 2011

Seems like kind of a “Duh!” headline, but there you have it. I had a friend in university who trained as a reiki master and took another friend and me through the paces of learning how to do it, too. Masters claim they can heal from afar, but our buddy just gave us lessons on the laying of hands and waving away the bad chi after a session. I always felt like a tool performing that last part, but the laying of hands at least had a little benefit – nowhere near as good as a decent massage, though. Body heat radiating from your own hands warms the area, even though you aren’t physically touching the person. The residual heat still provides some comfort, though, and the patient’s own gullible mind provides the rest. It’s too bad that there are people drawn into believing it’s a legitimate cure for what ails you.

The Guardian reports on a study out of the States involving trained reiki practitioners, who promised patients they’d channel healing energy into them, and untrained fake practitioners who claimed they were trained but just went through the motions. The results are pretty unsurprising to these eyes. Each technique worked equally well for making patients feel better.

The scientific stance may appear heartless and cruel in light of the suffering of cancer patients, while the attitude of the nurses seems patient-centred and caring. This impression is wrong. By insisting that patients must not be treated with placebos like reiki, scientists also advocate that they receive treatments that demonstrably work better that placebo. For instance, massage has been shown to improve the wellbeing of cancer patients beyond a placebo effect. If a patient receives a massage with empathy, sympathy, time, understanding and dedication, she would benefit from the placebo effect – just like the reiki patient – but, in addition, she would also benefit from the specific effect of the treatment that massage does and Reiki does not offer.

Like I said. Many of my relatives have had to undergo chemotherapy for their bouts with the disease, with varying degrees of success. One of them had prayer for a placebo on top of all that but it didn’t stop the bone cancer from decimating every piece of her. Of course people would rather find ways to cure cancer in ways that don’t involve radiation and the like. But reiki not the course to take in order to do that.

Was reminded last night..

September 28, 2011

about Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I hadn’t forgotten it existed, but it had been a while since I checked out the site. Today’s comic had me snickering pretty hard, I must admit:

And while hunting around for another comic strip I vaguely recalled but can’t remember the name of, I landed on Ape, Not Monkey, a science vs religion strip that’s also entertaining. I like this one:

Happy Wednesday.

Australian Christ of interest to neuroscientist

September 18, 2011

A sudden boost in hits on an earlier blogpost about Alan John Miller, a man in Australia claiming to be Jesus, got me wondering what led up to it. Apparently he was recently featured on television and a neuroscientist by the name of Dr. Louise Faber has been studying some of his followers to see how their experience of “divine love” affects their brains. She happens to be a follower as well but hopes her work will pass peer review.

As part of the research she performed an EEG on believers to test electrical activity in their brain as they experienced Miller’s “divine love”.

Dr Faber said the results were similar to brain activity seen in monks during meditation. “We’ve found the divine love causes quite a lot of changes to the brain,” she said.

She added: “It’s the first study that’s ever been done of this kind so it’s very exploratory.”

Brain reactions to the belief that divine love is being experienced is probably what she’s actually measuring but whatever. At least she’s curious about why this guy elicits such a mental response. What is it about a charismatic personality that can change people to such an extent?


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