Wednesday, December 22, 2004

Brief Blog Break

I will be out of town for much of the next two weeks. Next week I will be in Washington D. C. participating in the Eastern Open chess tournament. Then right after New Year's I will be journeying down to Atlanta for the annual AMS-MAA Joint Mathematics Meetings (that's the American Mathematical Society and the Mathematical Association of America for those not in the mathematical know. Please, no Life of Brian jokes).

Blogging will be very light over the next few weeks. I wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

Monday, December 20, 2004

A New Record!

EvolutionBlog is now averaging over three hundred hits a day. That's a new record! A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has stopped by (including the critics :)).

Sunday, December 19, 2004

Is Atheism Mediocre?

Actually, Scarborough Country was doing the God thing quite a bit last week. On Tuesday's show they did a segment about “The God Gene” that I discussed in several of last week's posts. The transcript is available here. This time the panelists were Catholic League president Bill Donohue, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, and Ellen Johnson of American Atheists.

That the discussion was incredibly stupid goes without saying. What was interesting, however, was how incredibly vicious Donohue and Boteach were toward Johnson. For example:


BOTEACH: No, because we all agree Islam, Christianity, and Judaism all agree that God is the truth. That man is not self-made, that man must live by a moral code. We all agree on the 10 commandments. God may have spoken to these different faith communities in different languages, but the essentials we all agree on. But to hear Ellen‘s philosophy of life is so sad and so mediocre, that there‘s no capacity within the human consciousness to think above ourselves, to really, to self negation, abrogation of self. Ellen, how could you teach your kids that they are everything, that there‘s nothing that they - no obligations they have to society, that they should help others because it‘s good for them. You teach your kids selfishness? You really think...


Earlier in the segment Ellen Johnson was asked why, as an atheist, she teaches her children to be altruistic towards others. Her answer was that it is good for them to be nice to other people, and that a society in which people were consistently mean to each other would not be one worth living in. Of course, she was not given any chance to elaborate on that. Nor was she given any opportunity to respond to Boteach's little sermon above. You see, while Boteach and Donohue were allowed to speak in paragraphs, she was only allowed to speak in sentences.

Anyway, Boteach's statement above is an obscene caricature of what Johnson said. Johnson made it perfectly clear that she believes everyone has obligations to society, she just doesn't believe those obligations come from God.

Boteach behaved this way throughout the entire interview (indeed, as he does in all of his television appearances). To get the full effect you have to picture him saying it in his loud, shrill, never-come-up-for-air speaking style. Here's another example:


BOTEACH: By the way Ellen, they do have a place for you in the public schools. There‘s a lot of blank walls, which is what you believe in, absolutely nothing.


Lovely, if you don't believe in God you believe in nothing at all.

Many people have tried to make me ashamed of my atheism. Now it seems I have good reason to be ashamed of my Jewishness.

Boteach's remark that atheism is a sad worldview is one that I have had thrown at me at various times. I can only reply that sadness is in the eye of the beholder, and I for one find Christianity infinitely more depressing than atheism. When I try to view the world as being the product of a kind and loving God, my attention is immediately drawn to all of its misery and suffering. As Bertrand Russell put it, “If I had omnipotence and millions of years in which to experiment, I would not consider humanity much to boast of for my efforts.” When I view the world as the product of purely natural forces, I am immediately struck by the fact that anything good exists at all. Surely a worldview that immediately calls your attention to what is good in the world is more inspiring than one that calls your attention to all that is wrong with it.

Personally, I don't understand people who are inspired by the thought of being slaves to an omnipotent God. Yes, slaves. What else do you call it when disobeying the master is rewarded by an eternal swim in the lake of fire?

And while I'm at it, I wish someone on one of these shows would point out that the issue is not moral relatvism vs. moral absolutism. The issue is how we go about defending moral assertions. Religious people take it for granted that God exists, that he is perfectly good, that we can know his thoughts on moral issues, and that we should obey him in all things. They base their moral claims on this foundation. Atheists take it for granted that human happiness is good and that a just and fair society is the best device for maximizing human happiness.

There is no such thing as moral absolutism. There are only the logical consequences of whatever assumptions you make about the foundation of morality.

Perhaps that's too mathematical an approach for some people. So be it.

Pharyngula has some further comments on this segment here.

Evolution on Scarborough Country

As I mentioned in Thursday's post, the MSNBC show Scarborough Country (guest host Pat Buchanan) recently did a segment on the issue of teaching intelligent design alongside evolution in public schools. The transcript is available here (scroll down). Every time I think cable news has reached a new low they go and do something even lower.

Here's Buchanan's teaser for the segment:


It's a debate that's brewing in schools all across the nation. Should we teach only evolution in public schools or should we let kids know there are other theories about the origin of life on Earth? We'll tell you about the latest uproar. And guess who is behind it?


Since evolution has nothing to do with the origin of life on Earth, this should have been my first clue that the segment would not, to put it mildly, be worth watching.

As for who's behind it, why, that would be the ACLU and American United for Separation of Church and State. Certainly the Dover, PA school board had nothing to do with it, right?

Anyway, the second clue that nothing of value would be said during this segment came when Buchanan announced the panel:


Joining me now, Dr. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, David Silverman, a spokesman for American Atheist, Christian music artist Natalie Grant. And Republican strategist Jack Burkman is still with us.


If you thought that maybe a scientist should be asked his opinion about what ought to get taught in high school science classes, then you must be some sort of idiot. Clearly the appropriate panelists are an ultra-conservative religious rightist, a Republican hack, a Christian singer, and a token atheist (you know, for balance).

Normally, at this point, I would go line by line through the transcript and explain why various things the panelists said are wrong or misleading. But in this case I am simply struck dumb by the enormity of the task. Virtually everything that anyone said during the segment was ignorant and mindless. There was no discussion of evolution as that term is understood by scientists, and there wasn't even any discussion of the ACLU lawsuit. Instead the entire segment came down to the four braying, right-wing know-nothings blustering about how the complexity of nature can only be explained by invoking God, with the atheist left to wonder about who designed God.

There was the usual silliness about how ID is not creationism and that it's a valid scientific theory. There were the pleas for fairness and open mindedness. There was the casual likening of evolution with atheism. There was the implication that evolution seeks to explain the origin of the universe (!!) and not just the development of life on Earth.

And reading the transcript doesn't even do justice to what really happened that night. Everything may seem sedate when printed on the page, but when you actually watch you realize how viciousm rude and nasty Mohler and Burkman in particular were. These are people who love complaining about what a cesspool television has become. Meanwhile the lies and distortions they spew on national television do far more harm than some bit of a sexual humor on a sitcom.

There were two exchanges worth commenting on, however. Here's the first:


BUCHANAN: Look, and, you know, look—you can say—we didn‘t even discover the laws of mathematics that govern how the Earth goes around the sun and the moon goes around the Earth and the other planets go around the sun and what‘s going on in these other universes. We only recently in terms of human history discovered the secrets of—there.

SILVERMAN: That‘s right.

BUCHANAN: And we can fit them out mathematically perfectly. And you‘re telling me this all happened because of some big bang way back when?

SILVERMAN: I‘m telling you because of...

BUCHANAN: It‘s not an intelligent answer. And if I can‘t ask you, you either have to say, I don‘t know how this came about. It does seem to indicate intelligent design, just as the molecular structure does. And I don‘t know how it came about, but it must have been some outside force.

SILVERMAN: Pat, I‘m going to go right back at you at that, OK?

If you‘re going to tell me that something very, very powerful and invisible and magical invented the universe, you must then tell me where this magical invisible person came from. If you‘re going to say the universe is too complex to be...

(CROSSTALK)

SILVERMAN: ... always existed.

BUCHANAN: All right.

SILVERMAN: Now, wait a second.

(CROSSTALK)

BUCHANAN: All right, hold it, Jack.

SILVERMAN: You‘ve got to say, OK, well, then, let‘s look at the creation of the creator. Where did he come from?

BUCHANAN: OK, that‘s exactly—a good point.

Let me bring in Natalie Grant.

Natalie Grant, look, I think Dave‘s got a good point, then. I think we can say, look, we have an effect here, this incredible universe which works in perfect mathematical synchronization, and that is the effect. There has got to be a cause that is greater than the effect. We may not know what it is, but there has got to be a cause out there. And that is what the whole idea of intelligent design teaches, does it not?


Silverman has it exactly right here. If you are going to argue that great complexity requires a designing intelligence, or as Pat Buchanan put it “a cause that is greater than the effect”, then that designing intelligence will require an explanation for exactly the same reason. Then you are stuck with an infinite regress of designers, each one needing to be explained in terms of something even more complex. And if at any point you stop and say that God is eternal, then you are simply refuting your initial assumption that great complexity requires a desgining intelligence.

It really is that simple. Notice that Buchanan had no answer to this. That is because there is no answer to it (well, no convincing answer anyway).

Here is the other exchange:


BURKMAN: What this is, Pat, look, under the guise of defending the separation of church and state, this is nonsense. What they want to do is attack Christianity. This is a not-so-thinly-veiled attack on Christianity. All of these...

(CROSSTALK)

SILVERMAN: How is it an attack on Christianity, when you guys are attacking science?

BURKMAN: They want to make sure that there‘s no spirituality in the schools. They want a decentralized, they want a despiritualized, they want a...

(CROSSTALK)

SILVERMAN: Secular, neutral, free school system.

BURKMAN: It is a Stalinist version. They want to do what Joseph Stalin did.


To understand the significance of this, you need to keep in mind who Jack Burkman is. The tagline under his name when he appears on these shows is usually “Republican Strategist”. In practice this means that his job is to defend whatever it is the Republican party has been doing lately. More precisely, his job is to attack whoever it is that is criticizing the administration. He is one of these people with a nice loud voice who has mastered the art of cutting people off for the purpose of spouting canned talking points.

When he speaks, it is the voice of the Republican establishment that you hear. And here he is offering a vigorous defense of creationism. I take that to mean that the Republican party is now the party of creationism.

Of course, the other reason this exchange is significant is that Burkman pretty much just told the world that this has nothing to do with science education. It has to do with getting Christianity back in the schools. Usually the ID folks are more careful about saying such things in public.