Squirrel buries nuts in a guy’s clothes

This video, taken in Battery Park, Manhattan, shows a biological instinct gone awry. This squirrel, given several peanuts, buries them in the clothes of the guy who proffered the nuts, hiding them in his hood and his pockets.  What was that squirrel thinking—that the guy would remain on the bench all winter?

h/t: Barry

My new Republic post on Hart and Douthat is up

As I’ve always claimed, I learn more from the commenters at this site than they learn from me. When I put up a post like Monday’s piece on Ross Douthat and David Bentley Hart’s views of God and religion, I pay attention to the readers’ comments, seeing whether I’ve made a misstep, been unclear, or missed some good points.

So let me offer the readers some kudos for the rewritten version of that post which just appeared in The New Republic under the title, “Religious believers’ favorite new book is a failed argument for God.” It’s been tightened and clarified, and my beef with Hart (and Douthat) is now disseminated more widely.  If you wish, go over to the site and give it a click, or perhaps engage in some discussion. It still delights me that such a prominent venue is willing to promulgate fairly explicit secular points of view.

I’m not sure I’m going to post a full review of Hart’s book here, as my comments are long and complicated, but I’ve begun pointing out its weaknesses, and will try to continue that by presenting and analyzing a few of Hart’s quotes over the next week. Suffice it to say now that this is NOT the book that you need to come to address if you’re to be a credible atheist. You’ve already encountered the main arguments before. They are these:

1. God is an ineffable Ground of Being who is neither anthropomorphic nor refutable by any empirical observations. He is the creator of all things, the sustainer of all things, and is immanent in everything. In fact, he could be considered to BE consciousness, bliss, and rationality.

2. Despite that, there is palpable evidence for God—in our consciousness (which, according to Hart, defies and will always defy scientific explanation), in our rationality and appreciation of beauty (also inexplicable by science), and in the fact that something exists instead of nothing. Hart gussies up these God-of-the-gaps arguments with fancy modern language, but, despite his denial of Gappism, that’s what his arguments boil down to.  And he’s also incorrect in denying that he’s not presenting evidence for God, but only clarifying the conception of God common to all religions. In fact, most of the book comprises the evidence for God that, says Hart, is so palpable in this world that you’d have to be deranged to remain an atheist.

If you’ve read Karen Armstrong and her apophatic theology (which says stuff about God despite claiming that you can’t say anything about God), you needn’t read Hart.

Russia’s lies about Ukraine

Today’s New York Times has a longish piece (“Russia is quick to bend the truth about Ukraine“) about how Moscow is doing its best to destabilize the eastern Ukraine, while at the same time pretending that it has nothing to do with the situation and urging the international community to bring peace. The object, as far as I can see, is to allow Russia to take over the region under the pretext of stabilizing it. That’s not rocket science.

It reminds me a bit of the beginning of World War II, when in late August of 1939 the Germans killed a few Poles and left their bodies on the border as evidence of Polish aggression, and then used that “evidence” as a pretext to invade Poland. It was the same kind of lies that Moscow is promulgating now. But read the Times piece; here’s a snippet:

The Facebook post on Tuesday morning by Prime Minister Dmitri A. Medvedev of Russia was bleak and full of dread.

“Blood has been spilled in Ukraine again,” wrote Mr. Medvedev, once favored in the West for playing good cop to the hard-boiled president, Vladimir V. Putin. “The threat of civil war looms.”

He pleaded with Ukrainians to decide their own future “without usurpers, nationalists and bandits, without tanks or armored vehicles — and without secret visits by the C.I.A. director.”

And so began another day of bluster and hyperbole, of the misinformation, exaggerations, conspiracy theories, overheated rhetoric and, occasionally, outright lies about the political crisis in Ukraine that have emanated from the highest echelons of the Kremlin and reverberated on state-controlled Russian television, hour after hour, day after day, week after week.

It is an extraordinary propaganda campaign that political analysts say reflects a new brazenness on the part of Russian officials. And in recent days, it has largely succeeded — at least for Russia’s domestic audience — in painting a picture of chaos and danger in eastern Ukraine, although it was pro-Russian forces themselves who created it by seizing public buildings and setting up roadblocks.

In essence, Moscow’s state-controlled news media outlets are loudly and incessantly calling on Ukraine and the international community to calm a situation that Ukraine, the United States and the European Union say the Kremlin is doing its best to destabilize.

Even the United Nations weighed in. In a report released Tuesday, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that threats to ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine, cited repeatedly by Russian officials and in the Russian news media as a potential rationale for Russian military action, were exaggerated and that some participants in the protests in the region came from Russia.

. . . “It’s all lies,” said Lilia Shevtsova, an expert on Russian politics at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “The Russia leadership doesn’t care about how it’s being perceived in the outside world, in the world of communication, in the world where we have plurality of information and where information can be confirmed and checked. This is a radical change in attitude toward the West.”

Ms. Shevtsova added: “We can’t trust anything. Even with the Soviet propaganda, when they were talking with the Soviet people, there were some rules. Now, there are no rules at all. You can invent anything.”

I gather some of our readers are sympathetic to the Russia’s drive to expand its borders, fuellng Putin’s megalomania for an old-timey, Soviet-style agglomaration of states.  Putin is an extremely dangerous man, the international community is timorous (who wants a war?), but at least we must start by admitting that this situation was created, engineered, and manipulated by a group of Russian warmongers who will stop at nothing to take over another sovereign nation. There’s a lesson to be learned from Crimea.

Finally, Dawkins converts people to Christianity

One of the staple criticisms of Richard Dawkins—the Official Lightning Rod of New Atheism™—is that his stridency turns people away from evolution as well as from atheism, so that he actually converts people into both creationists and, if they were originally nonbelievers, religionists.

The former criticism is nonsense, of course. I’ve never in my life met someone who told me, “You know, I’d accept the truth of evolution if only Dawkins would shut up about atheism!” In contrast, there are hundreds of people whom Richard has drawn to the truth of evolution through his many books and lectures on the topics. For those who says he’s hurting the cause of science, let them adduce some evidence!

Until today, the other criticism—that his strident and shrill “militancy” has the same counterproductive effect on nonbelievers, turning them into Goddies—has also gone unevidenced. But there was, again, plenty of evidence to the contrary. Exhibit 1 is what used to be called Dawkins’s “Converts Corner,” now called simply “Letters, Converts.  There are 120 pages of these, each page containing 12 letters. If you do the math, that’s 1440 people who wrote in, most testifying that Richard’s writings, especially The God Delusion, helped wean them from their childish superstitions.  And until now that mountain of evidence completely refuted any claims that Richard turned atheists into believers.

Now, however, we have precisely two testimonies of how Richard has changed atheists back into believers.

They’re both recounted in an article in the Torygraph by Damian Thompson, “Is Richard Dawkins leading people to Jesus?” That’s a pretty provocative title given that the “people” number two—or rather, as we’ll see, 1.25.

Here’s Thompson’s first story about a friend:

My schoolfriend Michael – an atheist for decades – rang me the other night and told me he’d returned to the Catholic Church. “And you’ll never guess who converted me,” he said.

“Your wife?”

“No! It was Richard Dawkins!”

He explained that he was, and is, a huge admirer of Dawkins the biologist. (I’m with him there: I read The Blind Watchmaker when it first came out and was blown away.) “But then I read The God Delusion and it was… total crap. So bad that I started questioning my own atheism. Then he started tweeting.”

Like a loony on top of the bus, no?


Well, this person’s atheism must have been pretty shaky to begin with if it was finally overturned by tw**ts. After all, the strongest argument for atheism, the lack of evidence for Gods, isn’t much affected by what Richard says on Tw**ter.  And if “Michael” said that The God Delusion was “total crap,” well, even if he didn’t like the lack of Sophisticated Theology™ in that book, it’s hard for me to see anything there that would drive someone into the arms of Jesus. It’s as if you read a bad critique of homeopathy on the internet by someone who, say, mistook it for herbal medicine, and became so incensed that you started taking homeopathic medicine. As with God, the lack of support is widespread if you simply look beyond one source. There are, after all, more books on atheism than just The God Delusion.

Thompson also links to an article by Judith Babarsky at the “Dead Philosophers Society” at the Holy Apostles College and Seminary, “Reading Richard Dawkins led to my conversion.” An excerpt:

Truthfully, I found [The God Delusion] a waste of my time as it afforded me no cogent arguments concerning the existence or non-existence of God. In fact, not only was Dawkins disrespectful of opinions other than his own, I found his statements about Jesus to be so ill-informed (and, mind you, I was no fount of scholarly information myself) that I resolved to actually learn something about Jesus Christ.

Reading Dawkins challenged me to go beyond my comfort zone and honestly confront the issues holding me back from a full commitment to faith. My sense of The God Delusion is that it is written as a testimony to Dawkins’ belief system (which I call fundamentalist atheism) and that the author cherry picks convenient quotes to bolster his opinion that esteemed scientists (such as Einstein) couldn’t possibly be ignorant enough to actually believe in a supernatural God, no matter what they may have said to the contrary. In fact, anyone with any intelligence at all couldn’t possible believe in a supernatural God. Dawkins is preaching to his atheist choir and evidently they loved the book based on their many five-star recommendations of it. But in that sense, Dawkins is no different than the many Christian authors who write in a similar manner. There is a pre-judgment that whoever disagrees with the premise of the book is, essentially, an idiot! Well, I don’t like to be called an idiot.

. . . And that was the beginning of the last leg of my journey to conversion to Catholicism.

Babarsky gets this wrong: Dawkins wasn’t preaching to the choir, but to those on the fence. And the evidence (yes, that’s right, evidence) suggests that he was extraordinarily effective. The notion that he was calling believers “essentially, idiots” is Babarsky’s own take, not something Richard says in this book. Her “conversion” was apparently based on a reflexive reaction to her own offended sentiments.

Unfortunately, Thompson misrepresents this letter, for at the beginning Babarsky says this:

Recently returned from a Mission Trip, we headed straight to our family week long beach vacation. On fire from my week in Canada surrounded by mostly Catholics, I must have appeared overly zealous to my eldest stepdaughter. An avowed atheist, she recommended I read Richard Dawkins’, The God Delusion, which had been suggested to her by her fallen away cradle Catholic boyfriend. Never one to shrink from a challenge to my admittedly unexamined faith in one God, I was intrigued and logged onto Amazon to check out the book. I immediately bought it and began reading.

She was already religious, and not just superficially so, as she’d been on a “Mission Trip.” She was also primed for Catholicism. All Dawkins’s book reportedly did was give her the shove to fully embrace the Catholicism she must have been contemplating.

So let’s calculate. If we count Babarsky as, say, 0.25 of a reverse convert, since she was apparently a committed Christian to begin with, we have 1.25 reverse converts to Christianity here, compared to about 1440 converts to nonbelief. The ratio of Dawkin’s effectiveness, then, if you count a ratio of 1 as “neutral” (as many converts to nonbelief as to belief) and 0 as “totally ineffective” (no converts to nonbelief, some to belief) is 1152.   I’d say that’s a high index of effectiveness!

But Thompson, riding the Journalistic Gravy Train to Hell, must conclude otherwise (you can’t praise Dawkins in the Torygraph), and ends his piece like this:

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might conclude that Prof Dawkins secretly converted to Christianity decades ago, and then asked himself: “How can I best win souls? By straightforward argument, or by turning myself from a respected academic into a comic figure fulminating against religion like a fruitcake at Speakers’ Corner, thereby discrediting atheism?”

Really? REALLY? Dawkins has converted over 1100 individuals to nonbelief for every person he’s reportedly turned to Christianity. How does that make him effective as a tout for Jesus?

I don’t like to call people names here, but Thompson, in this last paragraph, not only completely distorts the facts, but gratuitously insults a gentle though passionate man, one deeply wedded to reason who, because of that, has attracted the opprobrium of faitheists and underemployed journalists everywhere. I’ll equate Thompson to the south end of an equid facing north.


Making wols: Burrowing owls in flagrante delicto

Yes, more burrowing owls!  This photo is from reader John Chardine, reproduced with permission, and with his notes:

I recently spent a couple of weeks in Florida photographing birds. I photographed this mating pair within a 100 meters or so of the Cape Coral Public Library. They seem to thrive in suburban areas in Florida. Copulations in this species are not photographed too often. We were very lucky.

John Chardine



Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Hili: This is a very beautiful bush.
A: What are you trying to say by that?
Hili: I cannot understand why there is not even one nest in it.
A: Did you check?
Hili: I’m checking every day.


In Polish:
Hili: To bardzo piękny krzak.
Ja: Co chcesz przez to powiedzieć?
Hili: Zupełnie nie rozumiem, dlaczego nie ma w nim żadnego gniazdka.
Ja: Sprawdzałaś?
Hili: Codziennie sprawdzam.

Ken Miller gets big Catholic prize

According to Karl Giberson, who wrote a piece about this at the Daily Beast (“Meet the Prizewinning Catholic creationists can’t stand”), biologist Kenneth Miller of Brown University has won a big prize bestowed by the Roman Catholic Church:

At commencement on May 18, the University of Notre Dame will honor Miller with the 2014 Laetare Medal, an award given annually to a Catholic “whose genius has ennobled the arts and sciences, illustrated the ideals of the Church and enriched the heritage of humanity.” The award was first given in 1883 and previous recipients include former President John F. Kennedy, and West Wing’s popular acting president Martin Sheen.

Miller is of course an indefatigable opponent of creationism, a textbook writer (who boldly defended his and Levine’s book’s treatment of evolution in Texas), and an author of two popular books attacking intelligent design. He’s told me he’s an “observant Catholic”, and as Giberson notes in his article, I reviewed one of Ken’s books (along with one of Karl’s) in The New Republic. This is from Karl’s piece:

Despite Miller’s tireless support for evolution—the popularity of his text and popular books make him one of the most influential “teachers” of evolution in America—many of his fellow evolutionists recoil from the old-fashioned religion that sits so comfortably in his soul, seemingly at peace with his science. In a wide-ranging essay in The New Republic,new atheist Jerry Coyne took a joint look at Miller’s Only a Theory and my Saving Darwin that came out about the same time.  Coyne had many nice things to say and recommended both of our books. But in an extended examination of our mutual theological confusion, he chose to lump us with the creationists we had so strongly critiqued in our books, concluding—absurdly—that our “sincere but tortuous efforts to find the hand of God in evolution lead [us] to solutions that are barely distinguishable from the creationism that [we] deplore.”

Miller certainly cannot be accused of inserting God’s hand into evolution. He even rejects the label used by many Christian evolutionists—theistic evolution—insisting that “evolution” is simply evolution. He told a popular science and religion blog: “I always reject the term ‘theistic evolutionist.’ I am a theist and an evolutionist, to be sure, but the combined term makes no sense to me. Never heard anyone described as a ‘theistic chemist,’ have you?”

Well, let me briefly explain my opinion. In his first book, Only a Theory, Miller not only broached the notion that God may work subtly in the universe, though affecting quantum fluctuations, but also raised the “fine tuning issue”:

The indeterminate nature of quantum events would allow a clever and subtle God to influence events in ways that are profound, but scientifically undetectable to us. Those events could include the appearance of mutations, the activation of individual neurons in the brain, and even the survival of individual cells and organisms affected by the chance processes of radioactive decay.

Isn’t that theistic evolutionism? Miller goes on:

The scientific insight that our very existence, through evolution, requires a universe of the very size, scale, and age that we see around us implies that the universe, in a certain sense, had us in mind from the very beginning…. If this universe was indeed primed for human life, then it is only fair to say, from a theist’s point of view, that each of us is the result of a thought of God, despite the existence of natural processes that gave rise to us.

Fine-tuning, i.e., God’s creation of the laws of physics so that humans could exist and evolve, is a form of creationism: it’s the laws, not the organisms, that were created.

Further, both Giberson and Miller asserted the inevitability of humans evolving, something I don’t accept. Despite being a physical determinist, I think that mutations are probably largely unpredictable quantum phenomena, and if mutations aren’t determined, neither is evolution.

As Miller said:

But as life re-explored adaptive space, could we be certain that our niche would not be occupied? I would argue that we could be almost certain that it would be–that eventually evolution would produce an intelligent, self-aware, reflective creature endowed with a nervous system large enough to solve the very same questions we have, and capable of discovering the very process that produced it, the process of evolution…. Everything we know about evolution suggests that it could, sooner or later, get to that niche.

I don’t agree with the degree of assurance evinced here. But of course for Giberson and Miller the appearance of humans must have been inevitable, for we are made in the image of God. If we didn’t evolve, who would worship Him: wombats?

Giberson himself, besides accepting the inevitability of humans evolving, also sees the hand of God in our appreciation of beauty, so that nature evolved in a way that’s not purely materialistic:

Why is [bird] song so pleasant to hear? Why, for example, does almost every scene of undeveloped nature seem so beautiful, from mountain lakes to rolling prairies? If the evolution of our species was driven entirely by survival considerations, then where did we get our rich sense of natural aesthetics?… There is an artistic character to nature that has always struck me as redundant from a purely scientific point of view…. I am attracted to the idea that God’s signature is not on the engineering marvels of the natural world, but rather on its marvelous creativity and aesthetic depth. Scientists are not supposed to talk about God this way, for it raises questions that can’t be answered.

Well, of course there are evolutionary explanations for this biophilia, including that of E.O. Wilson that environments harboring lakes and hills and birds would be conducive to our survival, so we’d evolve to find them attractive.  I’m not saying I agree with this, only that there is an explanation that doesn’t involve God.

Finally—and this is the first time I learned this—Miller accepts certain supernaturalist doctrines of his Catholic church. From Giberson’s piece (my emphasis):

Many consider Miller a paradoxical figure who occupies the thinly populated no-man’s land between science and religion, embracing both with enthusiasm and finding no conflict. He is a life-long practicing Catholic and accepts church teachings on salvation, the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. He described himself in the PBS “Evolution” series as simply a “traditional” Catholic, one who has not had to abandon or distort his beliefs to accommodate his other passion: evolutionary biology.

All of this is, to my mind, different in degree but not in kind from the superstition behind fundamentalist creationism. Such views are antiscientific, based not on evidence but on faith. Further, if Miller is a “traditional” Catholic, does he reject the Church’s doctrine that humans did evolve theistically, for they were the only animal God endowed with a soul? Does he further accept the Church’s continuing doctrine that Adam and Eve were the literal progenitors of humanity? If so, then Miller is surely a theistic evolutionist, and rejects the evolutionary genetics that tells us that humanity could not have had only two ancestors at any time in the last several hundred thousand years. I would challenge Ken (for I like the guy) to answer these questions, as I’d love to hear his answers. I’d also like to hear how Karl feels.

So I congratulate Miller on his prize, as well as on his numerous and salubrious achievements for evolutionary biology. Since he is a Catholic, he will be proud of this honor, and I am happy for him. But I still think that, pending clarification, both he and Giberson must be counted among theistic evolutionists rather than naturalistic evolutionists.  If you think humans were inevitable, or uniquely endowed with a soul; if you think that God helped the process along by twiddling with electrons—then you are a creationist, for you’re saying that God inserted himself into the evolutionary process. Why isn’t that creationism?



A tw**t from The Worldwide Times. I assume the picture is authentic:



h/t: Grania

Salon jumps the shark, becomes official secular atheist-bashing site

I hereby declare the official editorial policy of Salon to involve atheist-bashing, especially in the form of  the “I-am-better-than-everyone” stance so effectively portrayed in this famous xkcd cartoon on atheists:


And if a picture’s worth a thousand words, than the picture above is worth the 1,666 (!) words of Andrew O’Hehir’s new piece in Salon, “America: stupidly stuck between religion and science.” O’Hehir’s piece says absolutely nothing new, but simply reiterates the idea that fundamentalism is dumb, but not all religion is fundamentalism, that the New Atheists like Dawkins and Harris attack religion as if it were fundamentalism, and therefore they’re dumb too. Have you heard that one lately? O’Hehir’s looking for some kind of middle ground between science and religion, but, bizarrely, admits in the end that it doesn’t seem to exist. I wonder why that is?

Here, in words, is the supercilious first paragraph of O’Hehir’s piece, which could serve as a caption for the cartoon above:

Karl Marx’s famous maxim that history repeats itself, first as tragedy and then as farce, can apply just as well to the history of ideas as to the political sphere. Consider the teapot-tempest over religion and science that has mysteriously broken out in 2014, and has proven so irresistible to the media. We already had this debate, which occupied a great deal of the intellectual life of Western civilization in the 18th and 19th centuries, and it was a whole lot less stupid the first time around. Of course, no one on any side of the argument understands its philosophical and theological history, and the very idea of “Western civilization” is in considerable disrepute on the left and right alike. So we get the sinister cartoon version, in which religious faith and scientific rationalism are reduced to ideological caricatures of themselves, and in which we are revealed to believe in neither one.

Yes, we have had this debate, and it has continued, though I don’t think it was more active in the 18th and 19th centuries than it is now. And no, it’s not more stupid this time around, because we know a lot more about science, and we’ve seen how science has made even more hash of religious claims.  And note how O’Hehir implies that he, but nobody else engaged in these arguments, understands their philosophical and theological history. Such hauteur! In fact, many of the New Atheist arguments against religion are either the old and supposedly “less stupid” ones (viz. those of Russell or Hume), or newer responses to the defensive but unconvincing lucubrations of Sophisticated Theologians.™ You want stupid? Pick your side: Karen Armstrong or Steven Weinberg.

O’Hehir does indeed go after “young earth creationism” and its spinoffs, but then says that these worldviews are “a tiny fringe” movement in Christianity, implying that most decent Christians are of the liberal Eagleton stripe. He fails to note that 46% of Americans—hardly a tiny fringe minority—are indeed young-earth creationists when it comes to human evolution; that about 70% of us believe in Satan, angels, and Hell; and that 30% of Americans see the Bible as the direct word of God, while another 49% see it as “inspired by the word of God.”  O’Hehir clearly doesn’t get out enough, but at least he notes some of the dangers of melding Christianity and politics. Yet even those he hedges in a strange way:

This creationist boomlet goes hand in glove with the larger political strategy of Christian fundamentalism, which is somewhere between diabolically clever and flat-out desperate. Faced with a long sunset as a significant but declining subculture, the Christian right has embraced postmodernism and identity politics, at least in the sense that it suddenly wants to depict itself as a persecuted cultural minority entitled to special rights and privileges. These largely boil down, of course, to the right to resist scientific evidence on everything from evolution to climate change to vaccination, along with the right to be gratuitously cruel to LGBT people. One might well argue that this has less to do with the eternal dictates of the Almighty than with anti-government paranoia and old-fashioned bigotry. But it’s noteworthy that even in its dumbest and most debased form, religion still finds a way to attack liberal orthodoxy at its weak point.

He’s right about the “persecuted minority” canard, but I fail to see why gay rights, vaccination, and climate-change avowal are either “liberal orthodoxy” (they happen to be things that are either true or moral) or “weak points,” but never mind.  Certainly creationism and persecution of gays are strongly based on religion, and, of course, bigotry is not something that is separate from religion. Religion is certainly one of the main sources of bigotry.

After he gets religion out of the way, O’Hehir goes after his real target: atheists. And here he gets just about everything wrong:

Things can’t possibly be as bad on the scientific and rationalist side of the ledger, but they’re still confused and confusing. [Neil deGrasse] Tyson has made diplomatic comments about science and religion not necessarily being enemies, a halfway true statement that was never likely to satisfy anybody. (Meanwhile, “Cosmos” thoroughly botched the fascinating and ambiguous story of Giordano Bruno, a cosmological pioneer and heretical theologian burned by the Inquisition.) 

I didn’t see this show, but my impression, and that of others, was that the Bruno example was not used to show a conflict between religion and science per se, but a conflict between faith and rationality: how blind faith impeded and persecuted free thinking. O’Hehir argues that Tyson’s aim was to show that, à la Gould, religion and science occupy separate magisteria, but I don’t recall any viewers mentioning such a claim appearing in “Cosmos”.

O’Hehir then takes off the gloves and uses New Atheism as a punching bag, but again gets a lot of it wrong:

Creationists and other Biblical fundamentalists, needless to say, are having none of it: For them, the empirical realm is always and everywhere subservient to the revealed word of God. Meanwhile “New Atheists” like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, along with their pop-culture sock puppet Bill Maher, espouse a similar view from the other direction. Their ahistorical or anti-historical depiction of religion is every bit as stupid as Ken Ham’s. Since there is nothing outside the empirical realm and no questions that can resist rational inquiry, the so-called domain of religion does not even exist. These debased modern-day atheists conflate all religion with its most stereotypical, superstitious and oppressive dogmas – a mistake that Nietzsche, the archangel of atheism, would never have made – and refuse to acknowledge that human life possesses a sensuous, symbolic and communal aspect that religion has channeled and accessed in a way no other social practice ever has. Strangely, their jeremiads urging the sheeple to wake from their God-haunted torpor haven’t won many converts.

First, nobody claims that “the so-called domain of religion” doesn’t exist, if that’s conceived as religious practices. If O’Hehir means that there is no evidence for any of the empirical claims of faith, then yes, we have no evidence of that sort. And that is completely independent of history or even the human longing for spirituality. After all, Sam Harris’s next book is on spirituality without religion.

O’Hehir thinks that somehow, because these human longings exist, they give credibility to religion. Well, they do, but only religion as a social or philosophical organization—not as a purveyor of truth. Further, who among us has “refused to acknowledge” that humans do long for symbolism, sensuality, and communality, something that religion tries to channel (along with its other less palatable aims)? Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell was in fact an attempt to show why, given the human character, religion has gained purchase. Finally, O’Hehir is simply wrong to say that the efforts of New Atheists “haven’t won many converts.” Has he ever looked at Dawkins’s “Converts Corner” site? That site has 120 pages of letters from people whom Dawkins has helped “convert” to unbelief. In contrast, I know of not one secularist who has become religious because he or she was turned off by the “militant atheism” of people like Dawkins. O’Hehir is a journalist who simply hasn’t done his homework, one who spout soothing platitudes without checking his facts.

What O’Hehir is missing is simply this: despite religion’s catering to some human needs, New Atheism opposes it on three grounds. First, its truth claims are false, and lead people to abandon rationality in other areas of inquiry. Second, that abandonment of rationality, and adherence to dogma, has pernicious effects on today’s world (O’Hehir himself cites America’s religious right, which even he admits has a malignant affect on society, but fails to mention Islam). Third, we can have the good things of religion—the communality, the sensuality, and yes, the spirituality—without the false, corrosive, and divisive claims of faith. After all, Scandinavia, France, and Germany do. And they’re doing fine.

And have a look at this deepity:

While [Ken] Ham’s beliefs are avowedly irrational and Dawkins claims to represent absolute rationality, both come off as passionate extremists within the cool, denatured, post-ideological space of the mass media — where in any case there is no obvious difference between those things.

“Cool, denatured, post-ideological space of the mass media”? What does that mean? (“Denatured”?) And does O’Hehir really see no difference between Ham’s crazed religiosity and arguments about the Flood and the Ark, and Dawkins’s refusal to accept these things because there’s no evidence for them? Yes, there is passion on both sides, but only one side has the evidence. Somehow “evidence” seems to have gotten lost in O’Hehir’s tirade.

I won’t reprise the rest of O’Hehir’s self-satisfied but unconvincing argument, except to reproduce his last paragraph, which I find thoroughly confusing:

Eagleton claims that our “post-theological, post-metaphysical, post-ideological [and] even post-historical era” is reacting with intense anxiety to the rise of a renewed fundamentalism, and the news flash that God isn’t dead after all. But he’s writing from the context of Britain, one of the world’s most thoroughly secularized societies. The American dilemma lies in the fact that we’re not post-anything. The Enlightenment never entirely took hold on this continent, as Thomas Jefferson accurately predicted, and the faithlessness or supermarket spirituality of consumer culture coexists uneasily with intense religious feeling and intense mythological nationalism. If Americans keep fighting the old philosophical battle between faith and reason over and over again, in increasingly silly forms, that reflects an unresolved spiritual contradiction at the core of our national identity. We long to be a shining city on a hill but cannot build it; we long for a mystical synthesis of science and religion but cannot find it.

On the one hand, O’Hehir bemoans the continuing conflict between Enlightenment values and religion. That’s a very real conflict, not a “silly” one.  And while it may be more intense in America than in, say, northern Europe, this conflict is not at “the core of our national identity”. Rather, it’s simply a holdover from the bad old days, combined with the adverse social conditions in America that has kept religion from waning as it has in much of Europe.

The reason the debate goes on is not because it’s been taken over by those “silly” New Atheists who don’t have the proper historical and theological grounding, but because there is a fundamental incompatibility between seeing the world through faith and through the spectacles of reason.

I, for one, do not long for a mystical synthesis of science and religion. Given religion’s methods for finding “truth,” which don’t find truth because each religion has settled on a different version of reality, and can’t find truth because faith accepts things without evidence, no synthesis is possible. That’s why we can’t find one. It’s beyond me why O’Hehir cannot see this simple fact. But perhaps he’s blinded by his animus towards atheism, and by his protruding chest, which, like that of a courting prairie chicken,  has become so puffed up by his preening and strutting that it has occluded his vision.

If anything is “silly” in all this, it’s O’Hehir’s futile effort to straddle the fence between science and religion. His article comes off as saying nothing beyond “both sides are stupid,” and he offers neither a synthesis nor a cogent analysis of the problem.


h/t: Marcel

Readers’ wildlife photos

One of my hosts at Davis, Luke Mahler, is a postdoc who specializes in evolutionary biology of reptiles. He’s been all over the world chasing these ectotherms, and has taken some crack photos. On the way to the airport for my return home, we stopped and looked for some burrowing owls (Athene cunicularia) in North Davis.  There was indeed a colony; they nest in ground squirrel holes, but here is a telltale sign of an owl-inhabited burrow: tamped down grass around the hole and owl pellets nearby (my photo):


And we did see one owl. My own photos were lame, as I had a point and shoot camera, so from here on in, including the herps, I’ll show Luke’s photos from two days ago. His commentary is indented.

Look closely at the owl – it’s both banded and radio tagged!  In both photos you can see a long antenna on its back.  Looks like this is a research animal.


It took flight, and Luke got a good shot:


Some reptiles and amphibians (collectively, “herps”) from Luke:

The newts are Rough-skinned Newts (Taricha granulosa), made famous by Butch Brodie and colleagues for their variation in toxicity (which covaries geographically with toxin resistance in garter snakes, one of their principal predators). These ones are from Stebbins Cold Canyon Reserve [near Davis] from last spring during breeding season.
The colorful snake is the Pacific Ring-necked Snake, Diadophis punctatus amabilis. These little guys are pretty harmless, but will flash their bright underparts to predators. I’m not sure quite how this is effective, although they exude a nasty cloacal musk, and that may play a role. I believe it’s been suggested that this widespread species mimics coral snakes and is more similar to them in areas where they overlap (i.e., the Deep South and Southwest). They eat a wide variety of invertebrates and small vertebrates (e.g., slender salamanders) typically found in leaf litter or under rocks or logs, which is where they occur.

Finally, the turtle is a young Pacific Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata) from Putah Creek, just west of the UC Davis campus. 




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