Muslims condemn ISIS

Since I’ve beefed repeatedly about Muslims remaining silent about the malevolence of Islamic extremists, it’s only fair of me to point out (thanks to reader Ryan) that 126 Muslim scholars, imams, muftis, and other authorities have signed a letter condemning ISIS (pdf file at the link). Good for them, and I hope they suffer no violence.

The letter is long, complicated, and loaded to the gunwales with arcane Muslim theology, but the ending tells the tale.

Screen Shot 2014-10-29 at 11.07.03 AM

There’s no hope, of course, that ISIS would listen to this, but perhaps more moderate Muslims can be swayed. Kudos to the 126 signatories.

Now is it too much to ask them to condemn sharia law, the institutionalized marginalization of women, stoning for adultery, corporal punishment for crimes like theft, and execution for apostasy?


UPDATE: Reader Janet has called my attention to an article in today’s Los Angeles Times showing how Iraqi television comedians make fun of ISIS. More brave guys, though there’s a disturbing bit of what looks like anti-Semitism in there, too.

It’s National Cat Day!

As reader Linda Grilli informs me, today, October 29, is National Cat Day. By “national,” I assume they mean “U.S.” or even “North American.” Also, it’s described in a kitty-litter site, so I thought it might be bogus. But that repository of everything true, Wikipedia, verifies that every October 29 is National Cat Day:

The National Cat Day website states that the holiday was first celebrated in 2005 “to help galvanize the public to recognize the number of cats that need to be rescued each year and also to encourage cat lovers to celebrate the cat(s) in their life for the unconditional love and companionship they bestow upon us.” The day is supported by the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a nonprofit organization which also works to encourage pet adoption.

There’s also an International Cat Day (which I remember mentioning), but that’s on August 19.

Now you know that Professor Ceiling Cat has no felid, and that he really wants one. So, as a favor to me, I’d like you to give your cat special fusses today, at least if you’re in the U.S.  Pets are appreciated, but treats and catnip are even better. Put below what you’ve done to celebrate, and send me any photos of the celebration.

One problem with the above: cat love is hardly “unconditional”! That kind of love is for d*gs.


h/t: Linda Grilli

Pope Francis gives evolution the thumbs up, but still avows creationism

A famous anecdote from 19th century New England involves Margaret Fuller, an early feminist and ardent exponent of the spiritual movement of transcendentalism. Besotted by her emotions, she once blurted out, “I accept the universe!”  When he heard of this, the Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle remarked dryly, “Gad—she’d better.”

While the story may be apocryphal, if you replace Fuller with Pope Francis and “the universe” with “evolution,” then Carlyle’s feelings are identical to mine. For, according to many media outlets (for example, here, here, and here), Pope Francis has just declared that he accepts the fact of evolution.

Gad, he’d better.  Evolution has been an accepted scientific fact since about 1870, roughly a decade after the theory was proposed by Darwin in 1859. And there are mountains of evidence supporting it, as documented in my book Why Evolution is True, and no evidence for the religious alternative of divine creation.  As Pope Francis tries to nudge his Church into modernity, it wouldn’t look good if he espoused creationism.

But if you parse Francis’s words yesterday, spoken as he unveiled a bust of his predecessor Benedict XVI, you’ll find that tinges of creationism remain. In fact, the Vatican’s official stance on evolution is explicitly unscientific: a combination of modern evolutionary theory and Biblical special creationism. The Church hasn’t yet entered the world of modern science.

The recent history of Catholicism and evolution is spotty. Pope Pius XII claimed that evolution might indeed be true, but insisted that humans were a special exception since they had been bestowed by God with souls, a feature present in no other species.  There was further human exceptionalism: Adam and Eve were seen as the historical and literal ancestors of all humanity.

Both of these features fly in the face of science. We have no evidence for souls, as biologists see our species as simply the product of naturalistic evolution from earlier species. (And when, by the way, are souls supposed to have entered our lineage? Did Homo erectus have them?). Further, evolutionary genetics has conclusively demonstrated that we never had only two ancestors: if you back-calculate from the amount of genetic variation present in our species today, the minimum population size of humans within the last million years is about twelve thousand.  The notion of Adam and Eve as the sole and historical ancestors of modern humans is simply a fiction—one that the Church still maintains, but that other Christians are busy, as is their wont, trying to convert into a metaphor.

Pope John Paul II was a bit stronger in his support of evolution, yet still insisted that the human “spirit” could not have resulted from evolution, but was vouchsafed by God.

Pope Benedict was more equivocal, occasionally flirting with intelligent design and claiming that evolution was “not completely provable” because it couldn’t be completely reproduced in the laboratory.  (The Pontiff apparently didn’t see that there is plenty of historical evidence for evolution, like the fossil record and the existence of nonfunctional genes in our DNA that were useful in our ancestors.) Showing his misunderstanding of evolution (which is not a process involving chance alone, but a combination of random mutations and deterministic natural selection), Benedict also claimed that “The universe is not the result of chance, as some would want to make us believe. . .Contemplating it, we are invited to read something profound into it: the wisdom of the creator, the inexhaustible creativity of God.”

The Church’s support of evolution, then, has been equivocal: while allowing that humans had evolved, it also affirmed human exceptionalism in the form of our unique soul. And the historical doctrine of Adam and Eve is profoundly unscientific, for we could not have descended from only two people, something that itself implies special creation. The Vatican, in other words, embraces a view of evolution that is partly scientific but also partly “theistic,” reflecting God’s intervention to produce a species made in His own image.

But Francis is seen as a reformer, beloved even by atheists for his supposedly progressive views on issues like homosexuality—a stance that has yet to be converted to Church doctrine. Did Francis’s words on Monday also signal a change in the Church’s view of evolution? Not a bit. Here’s the gist of what he said (see also here):

“When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so. . .

“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fullfilment. . .

“The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it. . .

“God is not a divine being or a magician, but the Creator who brought everything to life. . .

“Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.”

This is simply the Church’s traditional view of non-naturalistic, theistic evolution,  expressed in words that sound good, but that still reflect a form of creationism.

Let’s start with the Big Bang, which, said Francis, requires the intervention of God.  I’m pretty sure physicists haven’t put that factor into their equations yet, nor have I heard any physicists arguing that God was an essential factor in the beginning of the universe. We know now that the universe could have originated from “nothing” through purely physical processes—if you see “nothing” as the “quantum vacuum” of empty space. Some physicists also think that there are multiple universes, each with a separate, naturalistic origin. Francis’s claim that the Big Bang required God is simply an unsupported speculation based on outmoded theological arguments that God was the First Cause of Everything.

As for evolution “requiring the creation of being that evolve,” note that the word “creation” is still in there. But what Francis is saying here is a bit ambiguous. It’s not clear whether that “creation” was simply God’s creation of the Universe through the Big Bang, which then went on to produce Earth, life, and humans through purely naturalistic processes. Alternatively, perhaps Francis meant that God created the first living form itself which then, according to His plan, evolved naturalistically, giving rise to humans and other species. Or perhaps Francis even meant that the human lineage itself was specially created (“He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws. . . “).

What is clear is that creationism of some sort is still an essential part of Francis’s view of life.  Although the media, intoxicated by a supposedly “modern” Pope, is all excited about what Francis said, his views on evolution don’t differ in substance from that of his recent predecessors.  As usual, Francis appears to be a voice for modernity but still clings to old dogma.

What surprises me most, though, is the claim that “God is not a divine being or a magician.” If God is not a divine being, why is Francis calling him a “divine creator”? Well, perhaps the Pope misspoke on that one. But in truth, the Catholic view of God is indeed one of an ethereal magician. What else but magic could create souls on the spot, both during the course of human evolution and during the development of each human being?

Let us face facts: evolution that is guided by God or planned by God is not a scientific view of evolution. Nor is evolution that makes humans unique by virtue of an indefinable soul, or the possession of only a single pair of individual ancestors in our evolutionary history. The Vatican’s view of evolution is in fact a bastard offspring of Biblical creationism and modern evolutionary theory. And even many of Francis’s own flock don’t buy it: 27% of American Catholics completely reject evolution in favor of special creation.

The Catholic Church is in a tough spot, straddling an equipoise between modern science and antiscientific medieval theology. When it jettisons the idea of the soul and of God’s intervention in the Big Bang and human evolution, and abandons the claim that Adam and Eve are our historical ancestors, then Catholicism will be compatible with evolution. But then it would not be Catholicism.


Readers’ wildlife photographs

I don’t feel at ease without a backlog of readers’ photos, and it’s fun to choose which ones I’ll show each morning. Today I’m in a bird mood, which is good because birds are pretty much what everyone sends! Our morning selection is a panoply of nice photos from reader Ed Kroc, who sends the information below:

I just returned to Vancouver after 10 days in Chicago (well, in and around Chicago), during prime autumn colour viewing time.  I got a couple of decent wildlife shots too.  I’m operating on about a one month lag with my photo cataloguing though, so I won’t send those along for awhile yet.

For now, I wanted to send along some shots from around southwest BC.  There are two familiar species I’ve sent before, as well as two new ones.

From Esquimalt Lagoon, a little west of Victoria, BC on Vancouver Island, some Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri) on the hunt.  I love watching these small, probing shorebirds.  They remind me of hummingbirds: tirelessly scouring their surroundings for comestibles at a rapid and nearly constant pace—only sandpipers rely on their legs for most of the locomotion.

Western sandpipers on patrol:

Western Sandpiper on patrol

Western sandpipers on the hunt:

Western Sandpipers on the hunt

Two pictures of a truly regal Wood Duck (Aix sponsa).  This male was just moulting into his winter plumage on Lost Lagoon in Stanley Park, Vancouver last month.  I spotted him in a royal repose atop a fallen piece of his namesake, and crept up through the vegetation to watch him as stealthily as I could.  He spotted me in the first photo and gave me a wonderfully piercing supermodel pout in the second.  The vivid green in the background is the residue of a large green algae bloom on the lagoon from late in the summer.

Wood Duck through the leaves

Wood Duck symmetry

Back on Vancouver Island, a few photos from Sooke, BC, a beautiful area west of Victoria right at the point where the Strait of Juan de Fuca peels off from the rest of the Salish Sea west toward the open Pacific.  First is a photo of a Common Murre (Uria aalge) in eclipse plumage.  The lighting conditions were terrible on such a dark and rainy day, but his/her friendly face is in focus.  I love the deep chocolate colour of the plumage.  In the sunlight, the plumage appears almost black, but in the rain it takes on a totally different tone.  These murres are amazing to watch fish, as they hold their wings out at rigid right angles from their bodies, but bent back perfectly parallel to the body at the radius and ulna, gliding along about a foot underwater like submerged airplanes.

Common Murre

Finally, two pictures of the aptly named Chestnut-backed Chickadee (Poecile rufescens).  A distinctly west-coast species, this chickadee shares the usual cheeky behaviour of its more eastern cousins while maintaining a rich, chestnut cape that helps it blend in with the bark of the local trees.  Here, one chickadee noms part of a pinecone before spotting me snapping his/her snack with my camera.  I can’t help but think that he/she looks a little affronted after spotting me spying!

Chestnut-backed Chickadee noms

I’m sure Diana MacPherson will interpret this expression for us:

Chestnut-backed Chickadee inquiry



Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Halloween

In today’s Jesus and Mo, I’m not sure whether the The Holy Boys are hiding out because it’s a pagan holiday, or just because they’re just too cheap to buy candy:


Protip for kids: Go to the rich neighborhoods: they give out better candy. When I was a kids, sometimes they’d give out entire candy bars! Beware of all fruit, as handed out by Leisure Fascists.

Wednesday: Hili dialogue

Hump Day!  Meanwhile, in Dobrzyn, the Princess has found a new bed.
A: Are you going shopping with me?
Hili: No, you’ll have to take another bag.
In Polish:
Ja: Wybierasz się ze mną na zakupy?
Hili: Nie, weźmiesz sobie inną torbę.


Goodbye, Allman Brothers

One of the best bands in rock history, and the greatest “southern rock” group ever, is playing its last gig tonight at the Beacon Theater in New York City. Although individual members of the band may continue to play (I find it hard to imagine that Greg Allman will ever hang it up, for what would he do?), the group, as presently constituted and named as The Allman Brothers, will cease to exist at the end of this evening.  As CBS News reports (see the video at the link, too), guitarist Derek Trucks and Warren Haynes (good substitutes for the original members, though Dickey Betts and Duane Allman were irreplaceable) are leaving, and that’s all she wrote.

They’ve been playing for 45 years, and have managed, despite breakups, drugs, alcohol, deaths, imprisonment, and other impediments, to maintain a smoking band going for nearly half a century. I can’t think of another group that comes close, though the Rolling Stones (never a favorite of mine) still put on a creditable show.

So long, and thanks for all the songs. Let’s remember them like this:

or this:

or this, the original group:

German fans help an ailing football club

Lord, soccer fans can be cruel to their own clubs. This video showing such behavior was sent by Matthew Cobb, who noted:

In 2012, FC Magdeburg had gone 5 games without scoring, so the fans decided to help their strikers.

How embarrassing this must have been for the team. And, even with this help, Magdeburg still lost!

Starlings take a bath, in slo-mo

All of us, I bet, have seen a bird take a bath, be it in water or dust. And what we see is a quick blur of feathers surrounded by flying dust or splashing water. What happens when you slow the action down?

Earth Unplugged used extremely slow motion to film a starling taking a water bath, and after the singleton bathes, a whole group bathes at once, as if in a Turkish bath.

I was struck by how they manage to get between all their feathers which, of course, is to remove dust and parasites. It reminded me of how my parents would tell me to wash between my toes when I was small.

I wasn’t not clear why the filmmakers talked about how the baths help the birds maintain their waterproofing, but a Stanford University website on why birds bathe has one answer, at least for dust baths:

When birds bathe in water or saturate themselves with dust they are actively maintaining their plumage. In well-watered areas bathing is most common, in arid ones dusting is more often observed. Experiments with quail show that frequent dusting helps to maintain an optimum amount of oil on the feathers. Excess plumage lipids, including preen oil, are absorbed by the dust and expelled along with dry skin and other debris. If quail are prevented from dusting, their feathers quickly become oily and matted. Dusting may also help to discourage bird lice, but no experimental evidence exists as yet showing that to be the case.

Wrens and House Sparrows frequently follow a water bath with a dust bath (one reason to suspect an anti-parasite function for dusting). Overall, the amount of time and effort birds put into bathing and dusting indicates how critical feather maintenance may be. Feathers are marvelous and intricate devices, but keeping them functional requires constant care.

Of course getting rid of parasites and grit has to be an important function of bathing as well. The half-page piece is well worth reading, as it describes how different kind of birds manage to bathe themselves using a diversity of techniques.

h/t: Heather Hastie

Reza Aslan denies that religious belief produces violence, misrepresents Sam Harris again

Reza Aslan is enjoying a spurt of fame (I’d call it notoriety) since the altercation between Sam Harris + Bill Maher vs Ben Affleck on Maher’s show. Always a Muslim apologist, who can’t even admit that Muslims believe that Muhammad deflowered a 9-year-old girl, Aslan has become the Karen Armstrong of Islam.

In an op-ed on CNN, “How strong is the link between faith and terrorism?“, Aslan basically denies that beliefs play a “necessary and distinct” role in actions, although he never defines what he means by “necessary and distinct”:

After all, there’s no question that a person’s religious beliefs can and often do influence his or her behavior. The mistake lies in assuming there is a necessary and distinctcausal connection between belief and behavior — that Bibeau’s [the Canadian Muslim who shot a Candian soldier] actions were exclusively the result of his religious beliefs.

The notion that there is a one-to-one correlation between religious beliefs and behavior may seem obvious and self-evident to those unfamiliar with the study of religion. But it has been repeatedly debunked by social scientists who note that “beliefs do not causally explain behavior” and that behavior is in fact the result of complex interplay among a host of social, political, cultural, ethical, emotional, and yes, religious factors.

Well, I don’t know the studies to which Aslan’s referring, but to say that beliefs do not causally explain behavior seems insane.  What about men who shoot their wives, or their wives’ lovers, because they believe they’re cuckolds? What about gangsters who kill other gangsters who, they think, have muscled in on their territory? What about honor killings? Are those not behaviors that come directly from beliefs? The “complexity” bit is just a canard that Aslan throws in to make us think, “Wow–things are really complicated! Maybe I ought to stop harping on religion.”

In truth, Aslan wants us to think that it’s only religious beliefs that don’t determine (“necessarily and distinctly”) behavior, because his interest is in defending religion, Islam in particular.  But what does “necessarily and distinctly” mean? I’d say that if there is a purported mix of factors that are said to determine a behavior, and that the behavior never occurs without a certain one of the factors (say, religious belief), then, yes, religion necessarily and distinctly influences that behavior. It’s like a multifactoral statistical analysis, in which you partition out the contributors to an outcome and find one has the overriding influence.  Only the willfully blind would say, I think, that the murder of Shiites by Sunnis, the stoning of adulterers, the killing of apostates, and so on, would still occur had religion never inflicted itself on our species (for one thing, we wouldn’t have Sunnis and Shiite sects, which separate people of identical backgrounds and ethnicity).

I don’t think that anyone would claim that many actions that are largely motivated by religious beliefs have no other causes, something that Aslan claims all New Atheists think.  For example, a Muslim growing up in Minnesota probably won’t behead a journalist because of the accidents of geography and history. Yet Aslan claims that, for example, Sam Harris thinks not only that religion is only cause of bad behavior by Muslim extremists, but also that those extremists should be killed before they even do anything—as a sort of preemptive strike. As he says:

But to argue that Breivik’s or Bibeau’s actions were motivated solely by their religious beliefs — or that their religious beliefs necessarily dictated their actions — is simply irrational.

And yet, this trope has become exceedingly common among some critics of religion. Take the following excerpt from the bestselling book “The End of Faith,” by the anti-theist activist Sam Harris (Note: because Harris has repeatedly tried to defuse the significance of his argument and has even gone so far as to accuse those, including me, who quote his words of defamation, I will present the passage in its entirety so that there can be no confusion as to his meaning).

“The link between belief and behavior raises the stakes considerably. Some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them. This may seem an extraordinary claim, but it merely enunciates an ordinary fact about the world in which we live. Certain beliefs place their adherents beyond the reach of every peaceful means of persuasion, while inspiring them to commit acts of extraordinary violence against others. There is, in fact, no talking to some people. If they cannot be captured, and they often cannot, otherwise tolerant people may be justified in killing them in self-defense.”

Harris’ argument is that a person’s religious beliefs do not merely influence his or her behavior. They determine it. In other words, people holding certain beliefs should be killed, not because those beliefs may lead to violent behavior, but because they necessarily will. Therefore, in order to save ourselves (“self-defense” Harris calls it) we may be justified in killing the believer before his or her beliefs turn into action — as they inevitably will.

This goes on, but you get the point. According to Aslan, Harris thinks we should nuke Muslim extremists because we predict they’ll engage in bad behavior. They don’t have to have even done anything; they only have to be threatening.

But of course Aslan, as is his wont, is misrrepresenting Harris. Not only that, but (as we’ll see), Aslan actually agrees with the “preemptive strike” position: he’s more extreme than is Harris!

You can read Harris’s own response to Aslan’s claim, written before Aslan’s article, in a piece at Harris’s site: “On the mechanics of defamation.” Although it’s been a while since I read The End of Faith, that quotation immediately struck me as having been taken out of context. Sure enough, Sam’s post gives the full context, which explains that people deserve being taking out if they have already shown, through their behavior, direct and convincing evidence that they will commit harms in the future (he mentions in an endnote to this passage that Al-Qaeda’s bombing of the World Trade Center is one example). It is when beliefs are translated into malevolent actions that we are justified, or so Harris says, in killing people. One can argue about this, but it’s patently clear that Aslan is leaving out the part about “having beliefs that one is warranted in thinking will produce even more harm in the future.”

I don’t need to defend Harris; as he showed on his discussion with Cenk Uygur, he can do that himself.  What I’m arguing here is that Aslan is intellectually dishonest, and he’s learned that his distortions (which begin with him misrepresenting his own credentials) only bring him more attention.

To top it off, for someone who criticizes Harris for being preemptively hawkish, Aslan has no business saying this in an interview in New York Magazine:

How do you counter the group? [ISIS]
The way you confront an organization like that is twofold. No. 1, you kill their militants. There is no room for discussion or negotiation when it comes to an ISIS or an Al Qaeda militant. They don’t want anything concrete. And if you want nothing that’s measurable or concrete, there is nothing to talk about. You must be destroyed. But that’s not the end of the argument because, as you rightly say, this is an organization that has managed to draw Muslims from around the world to their cause by setting themselves up as a group that is addressing their grievances, whatever those grievances may be.

Aslan also argues that ISIS is not an Islamist organization, but a jihadist organization, and is “transnational” because they don’t want a country (no, they only want the world as a Caliphate). The distinction is lost on me, for their motivations, as nearly everyone but the blinkered admit, are to carry out what they see as the dictates of the Qur’an.

And so Aslan, blinkered himself, cannot see a connection between religious ideology and action. It is as if religion is the sole form of belief that is immune to being translated into action. One more quote from his CNN piece will suffice:

It is true that religious beliefs can often lead to actions that violate basic human rights. It is also true that a great many of those actions are taking place right now among Muslims. But it is ridiculous to claim that the actions of Islamic extremists are either necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam.

“Ridiculous”? Really? What would it take, Dr. Aslan, to convince you that ISIS wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing if Islam had never existed? And what do you mean by “necessarily or exclusively the result of their belief in Islam”?  Yes, there are many Muslims who don’t engage in the barbarities of ISIS, just as there are many Christians who don’t bomb abortion clinics. But what is really ridiculous is to pretend that an extreme belief in the tenets of Islam is not what’s motivating the perfidies of ISIS.


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