Sunday, December 19, 2010

4 in 10 Americans are still Young Earth Creationists/Evolution Deniers; No Change in Attitude in 30 Years.

The latest Gallup poll confirms the dismal news.  About 40% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form within 10,000 years.  About 38% believe that humans evolved but God guided the process.  And a mere 16% believe that humans evolved without God’s involvement. 
Some other results, many of which have been discussed here before:  Education is positively correlated with belief in evolution.  A whopping 47% of those with a high school education or less are young Earth Creationists, while 74% of those with a post graduate education believe that humans evolved on their own or with God’s guidance.  Most Americans believe in God, with about 85% of them claiming a religious identity.  And the percentages of people subscribing to evolution only, evolution with God, and young Earth creationism have remained relatively stable since 1982. 

A few thoughts.  First, what the strikingly high number of YECs and their low levels of education should illustrate to us is that our backsliding scientifically, culturally, and historically into some modern form of a dark age is not uninformed alarmism.  Humans have a powerful and dangerous urge to be religious.  Couple that longing with ignorance and scientific illiteracy and their minds can be overtaken by the most farfetched and bizarre religious fantasies.  Part of the blame for these stagnant and dismal numbers lies with science educators and their failure to adequately confront superstition, ignorance, and tribalism.  I’ll speculate about the pressures that seem to be contributing to their timidity. 

The notions of religious freedom, freedom of belief, and religious identity in the United States have become curiously warped.  Legally and morally we want to insure that everyone is able to pursue the religious traditions of their choosing, and to be able to freely affiliate themselves with any religious ideology.  But somehow those concerns have morphed into a sense of entitlement on the part of the religious to adopt any half-baked, bizarre religious view they like without any concern for justification, evidence or the truth.  Religious belief is all too often treated as a matter of personal taste or preference as if we’re picking from the smorgasbord at Shoney’s Big Boy.  There appears to be no reckoning for what you believe other than you want to believe it.  Whether or not it’s true, supported by the evidence, or there’s are reasons to believe it are strange, ill-formed concerns.  “It’s a free country; I can believe what I want to.” 

Any challenges to these beliefs, no matter how outrageous they are, are taken as affronts.  It’s offensive to even ask, “Why would you think THAT is true?”    Many of seem to think that nothing else is required of us that the mere fact that we choose to believe it.  And if anyone presses them for more than that, then they are accused of being angry, strident, hateful, and intolerant. 

As I have argued here before, religious freedom should be considered the right to be unrestricted in your investigation of various religious ideas.  You should be able to read what books you want, say what you choose, and assemble with people of your choosing.  But your freedom of religion does not absolve you of the general requirement on all of us to be reasonable and seek after the truth. 

Nor does it absolve you of your social, moral, and political responsibilities to the rest of us.  Our fates are intertwined.  Religious beliefs inform who my neighbor votes for, who she elects to the school board, which bond measures she supports, how she educates her children (and mine), who she wants to go to war with, who she wants to make peace with, who she’s willing to execute, which laws she supports, and what sort of society she contributes to.  If a sufficiently large percentage of our population has their good sense eclipsed by Iron Age religious nonsense, we’re all put at risk. 

I think that the only way that so many Americans can continue to believe something as patently false as YEC is that the people entrusted to teach them are either too ignorant, or too timid to hold the bar where it should be. 

Here, again, are the facts.  It is only a slight exaggeration to say that these are as well confirmed by science at this point as the existence of oxygen:

Approximately 13.7 billion years ago, the universe went from a state of infinite curvature and energy to a rapidly expanding chaotic state, the Big Bang.  During the first pico and nano seconds of this period of rapid expansion, the types and behavior of particles that existed rapidly changed as the energy levels  dropped.  Within a few nanoseconds, the kinds of matter and the way they act settled into, more or less, the sorts of material constituents we find today.  Matter continued to expand and eventually, several billion years later, gravitational pull congregates clumps of it together to form stars.  Some of these stars are of sufficient mass to ultimately collapse on themselves, explode outward and spray new types of elements formed in their cores out into space.  That matter eventually coalesces into smaller stars, planets and moons like our own. 

The Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. (We can find ancient rocks older than 3.5 billion years on all of the continents, and some crystals have been found that are thought to be 4.3 billion years old.[1])  Life in the form of the simplest, self-replicating molecules occurs on Earth around 4 billion years ago.  Natural selection and random mutations lead to the evolution of more and more life forms, many of them of increasing levels of complexity.  The dinosaurs emerge from this  process.  The Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous periods range from about 208 million years ago to 65 million years ago.  Placental mammals arise about 54 million years ago.  

Modern humans (homo sapiens) originated in Africa about 200,000 years ago, 60 million years after the dinosaurs have gone extinct.  A variety of early hominid groups vie for survival until all related lines except homo sapiens are extinct. 

In 2009, Lady Gaga  releases her first album. 

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Religious Belief as Evolutionary By-Product

One of the most important areas of research in evolutionary psychology now is the possibility that evolutionary circumstances actually selected for a propensity towards certain false beliefs.  That is, more and more research is presenting us with evidence that natural selection built us to have some false beliefs.  It turns out that in the right sorts of circumstances, some false beliefs may have provided early hominids with survival advantages.

The ubiquity of religious belief, and the long list of peculiar cognitive behaviors surrounding it, suggest that it should be on that list of evolved misbeliefs.  

Daniel Dennett and Ryan McKay give a thorough overview and analysis of the latest research into these questions in The Evolution of Misbelief from Behavioral and Brain Sciences.  Then a long list of prestigious scholars respond to their arguments.  

Dennett and McKay argue that of all of evidence that has been presented for evolved misbeliefs, the case for positive illusions about oneself and ones close to you is the strongest. 

"The evidence indicates that there is a widespread tendency for most people to see themselves as better than most others on a range of dimensions. This is the “better-than-average effect” (Alicke 1985) – individuals, on the average, judge themselves to be more intelligent, honest, persistent, original, friendly, and reliable than the average person. Most college students tend to believe that they will have a longer-than-average lifespan, while most college instructors believe that they are better than-average teachers (Cross 1977).Most people also tend to believe that their driving skills are better than average – even those who have been hospitalised for accidents (see, e.g., McKenna et al. 1991; Williams 2003). In fact, most people view themselves as better than average on almost any dimension that is both subjective and socially desirable (Myers 2002). Indeed, with exquisite irony, most people even see themselves as less prone to such self-serving distortions than others (Friedrich 1996; Pronin et al. 2002; Pronin 2004)."

Researchers have argued that these biases produce false beliefs that are the result of the proper evolved functioning of our cognitive faculties.  

Religious belief, one might think, is prime for this sort of explanation.  But Dennett and McKay contend that the consensus now is that the propensity towards religious belief is the by-product, not the direct result, of evolutionary pressures.  It may be the result of a Hyperactive Agency Detection Device, selection pressures against cheating, or selection for cooperation in social settings.  

Read the article for the state of the art on research on these topics.  And here's a small portion of their bibliography, mostly the portion focusing on religious beliefs:

Atran, S. & Norenzayan, A. (2004) Religion’s evolutionary landscape: Counterintuition, commitment, compassion, communion. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 27: 713–70.
Atran, S. (2004) In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press.
Barrett, J. L. (2000) Exploring the natural foundations of religion. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 4(1):29–34.
Bering, J. M. & Johnson, D. D. P. (2005) “O Lord ... you perceive my thoughts from afar”: Recursiveness and the evolution of supernatural agency. Journal of Cognition and Culture 5(1/2):118–42.
Bering, J. M. (2002) The existential theory of mind. Review of General Psychology 6:3–24.
Bering, J. M. (2006) The folk psychology of souls. Behavioral and Brain Sciences 29:453–98.
Bloom, P. (2004) Descartes’ baby: How child development explains what makes us human. Arrow Books.
Bloom, P. (2005) Is God an accident? Atlantic Monthly 296:105–12.
Bloom, P. (2007) Religion is natural. Developmental Science 10(1):147–51.
Boyer, P. (1994) The naturalness of religious ideas: A cognitive theory of religion. University of California Press.
Boyer, P. (2001) Religion explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought. Basic Books.
Boyer, P. (2003) Religious thought and behaviour as by-products of brain function.  Trends in Cognitive Sciences 7(3):119–24
Boyer, P. (2008a) Evolutionary economics of mental time travel. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 12(6):219–24.
Boyer, P. (2008b) Religion: Bound to believe? Nature 455(23):1038–39.
Bushman, B. J., Ridge, R. D., Das, E., Key, C. W. & Busath, G. L. (2007) When God sanctions killing: Effect of scriptural violence on aggression. Psychological Science 18(3):204–207
Guthrie, S. E. (1993) Faces in the clouds: A new theory of religion. Oxford University Press.
Hinde, R. A. (1999) Why gods persist: A scientific approach to religion. Routledge.
Johnson, D. D. P. & Bering, J. M. (2006) Hand of God, mind of man: Punishment and cognition in the evolution of cooperation. Evolutionary Psychology 4:219–33.
Johnson, D. D. P. & Kru¨ ger, O. (2004) The good of wrath: Supernatural punishment and the evolution of cooperation. Political Theology 5(2):159–76.
Johnson, D. D. P. (2005) God’s punishment and public goods: A test of the supernatural punishment hypothesis in 186 world cultures. Human Nature 16(4):410–46.
Johnson, D. D. P. (2008) Gods of war: The adaptive logic of religious conflict. In: The evolution of religion: Studies, theories, and critiques, ed. J. Bulbulia, R.
Johnson, D. D. P. (2009) The error of God: Error management theory, religion, and the evolution of cooperation. In: Games, groups, and the global good, ed. S. A. Levin, pp. 169–180. Springer.
Kelemen, D. (2004) Are children “intuitive theists”? Psychological Science 15:295–301.
Norenzayan, A. & Shariff, A. F. (2008) The origin and evolution of religious prosociality. Science 322:58–62.
Norenzayan, A. (in press) Why we believe: Religion as a human universal.  In: Human morality and sociality: Evolutionary and comparative perspectives,  ed. H. Hogh-Oleson. Palgrave/Macmillan.
Premack, D. & Woodruff, G. (1978) Does the chimpanzee have a theory of mind? Behavioral and Brain Sciences 1(4):515–26.
Randolph-Seng, B. & Nielsen,M. E. (2007) Honesty: One effect of primed religious representations. The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 17(4):303–15.
Randolph-Seng, B. & Nielsen,M. E. (2008) Is God really watching you? A response to Shariff and Norenzayan (2007). The International Journal for the Psychology of Religion 18(2):119–22.
Randolph-Seng, B. (2009) Nonconscious vigilance: Preconscious control over the influence of subliminal priming. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Texas Tech University. [BR-S]
Rappaport, R. A. (1999) Ritual and religion in the making of humanity. Cambridge University Press.
Rossano, M. J. (2007) Supernaturalizing social life: Religion and the evolution of human cooperation. Human Nature 18:272–94.
Shariff, A. F. & Norenzayan, A. (2007) God is watching you: Priming God concepts increases prosocial behavior in an anonymous economic game. Psychological Science 18(9):803–809.
Sosis, C. Genet, R. Genet, E. Harris & K. Wyman, pp. 111–117. Collins Foundation Press.
Sosis, R. & Alcorta, C. (2003) Signaling, solidarity, and the sacred: The evolution of religious behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 12:264–74.
Sosis, R. & Bressler, E. R. (2003) Cooperation and commune longevity: A test of the costly signaling theory of religion. Cross-Cultural Research 37(2):211–39.
Sosis, R. (2000) Religion and intragroup cooperation: Preliminary results of a comparative analysis of utopian communities. Cross-Cultural Research 34(1):77–88.
Sosis, R. (2003) Why aren’t we all Hutterites? Human Nature 14(2):91–127. [JB]
Sosis, R. (2004) The adaptive value of religious ritual. American Scientist 92:166–72.
Sosis, R. (2005) Does religion promote trust? The role of signaling, reputation, and punishment. Interdisciplinary Journal of Research on Religion 1(1):1–30.
Wilson, D. S. (2002) Darwin’s cathedral: Evolution, religion and the nature of society. University of Chicago Press.
Wilson, D. S. (2005) Testing major evolutionary hypotheses about religion with a random sample. Human Nature 16(4):382–409. 

Teaching Atheism

The topic of teaching courses on atheism has come up over at John Loftus' blog Debunking Christianity.  

My course has come up.  And the question of indoctrination vs. liberal arts teaching has invoked some confusions (and ire).  
So here's a slightly dressed up version of some comments I've posted over there.  

I've taught one of the few university level courses about atheism in the country.  Syllabus and readings here: 

The difference between what we do at a typical accredited liberal arts university and what they do at Bible colleges where they are cranking out so many bogus Ph.D's in bible studies is that we study and discuss the works without any prior presumption that they are correct. My students are reading Plantinga and Craig right along with Martin, Flew, and Hume, and we critically analyze all of their arguments. The irony is that since we are reading so many atheist works, I end up playing devil's advocate, as it were, and arguing the position of the Christian or theist. Here, by contrast, is the mission statement from the Talbot Theology school at Biola: 

"Talbot School of Theology is committed to biblical inerrancy. By biblical inerrancy, we mean that the Bible is without errors of any kind in its original manuscripts. Biblical inerrancy is an essential part of our ministry training and helps define our view of biblical authority."

By contrast, my course asks questions, consideration objections, develops critical evaluations, and explores with no ideological presumptions or dogmatism: 

"In this course we will consider a range of important philosophical contributions on the topic of atheism. It will also consider a number of responses and criticisms from the theistic camp, and then the range of responses open to the atheist. We will consider the tension between science and religion. We will address questions such as: Does science motivate atheism? Is religious faith compatible with science? Can science give us positive evidence for the non-existence of God?"

My purpose in teaching philosophy classes is the liberation of the intellect and the development of critical reasoning capacities. Their purpose is the propagation of a particular ideology, whether it is correct or not, regardless of the evidence. That distinction is vital.   

There's a potential misunderstanding in the way we're talking about "defending" a view here. When I teach the problem of evil, first I present a challenging statement of the problem. Then I explain and defend John Hick's soul building theodicy at great length. That produces a great deal of discussion. Then I present some powerful criticisms of that view. So in the course of an hour, I'll end up "defending" three different, contrary positions. I don't pretend to give the final answer to the issue, nor do I claim to have settled the question. The net effect of all of this back and forth is to 1) show students that the problem is not easily dealt with or dismissed, 2) educate them about various important responses that have been given, and 3) get them to develop more thoughtful and sophisticated ideas about it. In the end, I don't really care if they come out as theists or atheists. I've got enough confidence in their intellectual capacities and the power of liberal arts education ideals to let them work it out for themselves. I measure progress in terms of intellectual development, not in adherence to an ideology. The purpose of a religiously based education is to foster and entrench a particular set of conclusions or beliefs. The goal of religious education, if you can call it that, is to propagate beliefs.  What sermons from the pulpit and classes in religious education seek is a world where more people believe a particular set of ideas.  The methods or approaches to achieving that state are secondary, as long as the result is more of those beliefs. 

The proper goal of a liberal arts education, and of science education, is to develop critical methods for figuring out which conclusions are most reasonable to believe. This is the fundamental mistake that so many people make when they try to conflate science as a kind of religious faith. The essential goal of religious institutions is to subjugate minds and promote a particular set of beliefs, regardless of the facts or the contrary evidence. The essence of science is the application of a set of methods for best gathering and evaluating evidence in order to draw the most reasonable conclusions, whatever they may be. 

For some students, if they suspect that the instructor is not a believer, the unfortunate reality is that they will be immediately suspicious of your motives and your integrity.  Many of my students haven't ever heard an argument for atheism before and they've come to expect that being an atheist just means you are an amoral nihilist intent on destroying their faith.  There's also a growing body of research about people's tendency to simply become more entrenched in bad religious ideas when they encounter powerful counter evidence and arguments.  The ironic and perverse result of exposing many people to contrary views, at least in the short run, is that they just dig in deeper and become more adamant about their original views.  See this study, for instance:

Batson didn't study the long term effects here, and I don't know if there is any research to support this, but my guess is that even if people get more dogmatic in the short run, the long term effect is liberalize and soften their attitudes.  My philosophy of religion students have an online discussion group.  For an interesting read, see what they're saying here about what they think they've learning this semester.  (This is not prompted by me in any way--they post whatever questions or ideas they want to.)  

or here:  

Atheists and nonbelievers are a tiny minority in an ocean of belief.  I think one of the most important things that an atheist can do outside of the classroom is to be an exemplar of thoughtful, careful reasoning.  We've got to patiently and repeatedly explain the various problems with God beliefs because religious thinking has such a stranglehold on the culture and people's personal lives.  The vast majority of people have never even heard a thoughtful argument in favor of atheism; they don't know what it is, or what reasons might lead one to think it is true.  What little information they are getting about it is distorted and maligned through religious sources and it's tainted with emotional and moral animosity.  As you can see from my students' comments, many of them had no idea that there are atheists out there who are reasonable and who aren't axe-wielding, homicidal maniacs.  Since there are so many of them and so few of us, and their information is so poor, we’re stuck having to explain over and over and over what the basics are.  The additional challenge is that religion has often actively undermined the capacities in them that would allow them to think critically and objectively about religion. 

What some atheists need to be doing is comparable to what many gays have done--educating, living by example, and presenting themselves and their ideas out of the closet as a viable alternative.  But I do think there is room and need for more militant voices too.  The civil rights movement needed both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X.  We need both Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens. 

Here's a big question:  which should be more important to us fundamentally:  A) believing that there is no God and promoting that viewpoint, or B) believing those conclusions that appear to be supported by our best efforts at broad, balanced evidence gathering and objective critical analysis?  The latter project might well lead a reasonable person to conclude that God exists, but I submit that it's still more important to pursue B) than A).  And THAT'S the difference between what I'm doing when I'm teaching atheism and what they are doing in seminaries, bible colleges, and other religion factories.  

Friday, December 3, 2010

Evolution, Theology, and Pseudo-Profundity

Here's an interesting lecture given by Daniel Dennett about the way that religious ideas take hold of our minds.  As with many things he says, I think he's right on the money with much of this:

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Naturalism and the A Priori

Developments in epistemology over the last 100 years have shifted the ground under the feet of philosophers of religion, including many fighting the good fight for atheism.  In particular, the a priori aint what it used to be.  Once upon a time, philosophers thought that a priori reasoning provided us with the strongest, and most compelling forms of arguments in natural theology and atheology.  But after Godel, Carnap, Quine, and many others, a priori knowledge has taken on a decidedly conventionalist flavor.  

I've been reading an article by Penelope Maddy called Naturalism and the A Priori that is very interesting.  While her topic is not proofs or disproofs of God, much of what she has to say about naturalism and the epistemological foundations is directly relevant.  A couple of choice paragraphs:

To describe naturalistic philosophy in general. Quine appeals to a favourite image:

Neurath has likened science to a boat which if we are to rebuild it. we must rebuild plank by plank while staying afloat in it. (Quine 1960: 3) The naturalistic philosopher begins his reasoning within the inherited world theory as a going concern. He tentatively believes all of it, but believes also that some unidentified portions are wrong. He tries to improve, clarify, and understand the system from within. He is the busy sailor adrift on Neurath's boat. (Quine 1975: 72)

For the naturalist, there is no higher perspective, where transcendental or other extra-scientific considerations hold sway. The naturalist operates 'from the point of view of our own science, which is the only point of view I can offer' (Quine 1981b: 181).

A similar rejection of the transcendental level is found in Arthur Fine's 'natural ontological attitude', or NOA?l The context here is the realism-anti-realism debates of the late 1970s and early 1980s, exemplified, for example, by Putnam's attack on 'metaphysical realism' and van Fraassen's agnosticism about unobservables.  As Fine understands it, the impulse towards realism is actually based in 'homely' beliefs, which, he says,

I will put it in the first person. I certainly trust the evidence of my senses, on the whole, with regard to the existence and features of everyday objects. And I have similar confidence in the system of 'check, double-check, check, triple-check' of scientific investigation, as well as the other safeguards built into the institutions of science.  So, if the scientists tell me that there really are molecules, and atoms, and y/J particles, and, who knows maybe even quarks, then so be it. (Fine 1986: 126-7)

From this point of view, we can ask after the relations between humans, as described in psychology, physiology, linguistics, etc., and the world, as described in physics, chemistry, geology, etc., and draw conclusions about the relations between sentences and the world, an investigation that may result in a correspondence theory of truth or a deflationary theory of truth or some other theory of truth or no theory of truth at all, depending how things go.  But however they go, this theory will be just one part of our overall scientific theory of the world.

On these matters, Putnam and van Fraassen agree with the NOAer [someone who adopts a Natural Ontological Attitude], but they don't stop here; each, in his own way, goes beyond science, to a higher level. There Putnam distinguishes metaphysical realism, which adds to NOA's core an extra scientific correspondence theory of truth, and internal realism, which  adds to the same core a Peircean analysis of truth as warranted assertability in the ideal limit.  Focused on the problem of ontology rather than truth, van Fraassen adds an extra level of epistemological analysis where we must abstain from belief in molecules and atoms and electrons, despite our acceptance of these same entities for scientific purposes, Here the holder of our homely beliefs will be tempted to object that atoms really do exist, thus embodying  Kant's 'incautious.. listener', faced with 'a question. . . absurd in itself', who then gives 'an answer where none is required' (A58/B82-3): he wants to insist on the reality of atoms, but all the genuine scientific evidence, though accepted at the lower level, has been ruled out of bounds at the higher level; the frustrated Scientific Realist ends by stomping his foot. Fine's proposal is that we rest with the natural ontological attitude and resist the temptation to engage in extra-scientific debate.

To subject our naturalism to the same challenge put to both Kant and Carnap, we should ask: is naturalism itself a scientific thesis? I think the right answer to this question is that naturalism is not a thesis at all, but an approach. The naturalistic philosopher is the Neurathian sailor, working within science to understand, clarify, and improve science; she will treat philosophical questions on a par with other scientific questions, insofar as this is possible; faced with first philosophical demands-that is, questions and solutions that require extra-scientific methods-she will respond with befuddlement, for she knows no such methods; from her scientific perspective, she is sceptical that there are such methods, but she has no a priori argument that there are such methods, but she has no a priori argument that there are none; until such methods are explained and justified, she will simply set aside the challenges of first philosophy and get on with her naturalistic business. Naturalism contrasts with both Kantianism and Carnpianism in forgoing any 'higher-level' considerations.