Seeking “objective morality,” an atheist blogger became a Catholic

This story is a couple of years old, but I  just heard about it, and find it fascinating. Leah Libresco, who writes at the Patheos website Unequally Yoked (on the Catholic Channel), was an atheist blogger but became a Catholic in 2012. The American Conservative names her as one of its employees:

Leah Libresco is an editorial assistant at TAC. She is a graduate of Yale University and lives in Washington D.C.

In this video interview of CNN, Libresco explains her decision (see also her written explanation below):

The reason she came back to Catholicism? “I’m really sure that morality is objective.” Libresco affirms that Christianity, in the Catholic form, offered her explanation that she found compelling. (I guess she doesn’t find evolutionary or secular explanations compelling. The rejection of those alternatives, especially given the evidence for them, baffles me.

So what “objective” morality does Libresco choose? Catholicism! What’s the objective morality there? That gays are “disordered” and doomed to  hell if they don’t confess their “immoral” acts. That a fertilized egg is a fully human creature? That birth control is wrong? That sex outside of marriage is a sin, as is having sex with someone if you’re civilly divorced but haven’t had an annulment?

If I were the CNN reporter, I’d immediately ask Libresco exactly what aspects of morality—what moral dicta—she considers objective. I’d ask her if she buys into the espoused “morality” of the Catholic church. And I’d ask her how she knows that Catholic morality is the real objective morality rather than, say, the “objective” morality of Islam, Jainism, or Judaism.

There’s nothing more cringe-making that a naturalist who becomes a supernaturalist, especially if they go over to something like Catholicism. Their reasons always seem wonky.

Libresco explains more at her website:

And, ultimately, I decided the bit of my model of the world that didn’t fit was my atheism.  Theism seemed like the most plausible bridge across the is-ought problem.  Christianity seemed like the theism that best matched the moral laws I was most sure of. And Catholicism seemed like the most trustworthy form of Christianity.  So I bit the bullet, signed up for RCIA (again), and am to be received into the Catholic Church on November 18th.

I got to where I am by thinking about how morality works (working through a lot of thought experiments and case studies) and then trying to figure out what that system implied. So the best way to understand my conversion might be to page through some of the posts in the Morality in Practice category (or, more specifically, the “whence moral law?” “sin-eaters/dirty hands” “radical forgiveness” “pride” and “high mask theory” tags).  If you agree with me about what’s right, then we can fight about how that system has to work.  If not, then we should probably start arguing at the first point where we diverge.

I wonder if CNN would give equal time to a religious blogger who became an atheist. I doubt it, for that wouldn’t sit well with religious America.

Adam Lee questions her at the Big Think.

h/t: Barry

Louisiana judge rules against creationist teacher

UPDATE: The ruling was actually published on Marc. 17, and I have no idea why I thought it was this week. At any rate, the story stands, and the update is still an update to what was previously published.  Thanks to a reader for pointing this out.


Here’s some good news from Louisiana, home of institutionalized creationism in schools (the voucher schools in that state, which are supported by taxpayers, still teach creationism). In January I mentioned a Raw Story piece that Negreet High School in Louisiana had humiliated a Buddhist student who dared question the Christian creationism rampant in the school, including in science classes. The student and the American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit against the school. The report from January’s Raw Story said this (my emphasis):

The American Civil Liberties Union and the ACLU of Louisiana on Wednesday filed a federal lawsuit against Negreet High School in Sabine Parish on behalf of two parents, Scott and Sharon Lane, and their son, “C.C.” The lawsuit claims the school has “a longstanding custom, policy, and practice of promoting and inculcating Christian beliefs,” including the teaching of creationism.

Sixth-grade teacher Rita Roark has told her students that the universe was created by God about 6,000 years ago, and taught that both the Big Bang theory and evolution are false, according to the lawsuit. She told her students that “if evolution was real, it would still be happening: Apes would be turning into humans today.”

One test she gave to students asked: “ISN’T IT AMAZING WHAT THE _____________ HAS MADE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” The correct answer was “Lord,” but C.C. wrote in something else. Roark responded by scolding the boy in front of the entire class.

When informed that C.C. was a Buddhist and therefore didn’t believe in God, Roark allegedly responded, “you’re stupid if you don’t believe in God.”

On another accusation, she allegedly described both Buddhism and Hinduism as “stupid.”

When the outraged parents confronted Sabine Parish Superintendent Sara Ebarb about the incidents, she allegedly told them “this is the Bible belt” and that they “shouldn’t be offended” to “see God here.” Ebarb advised that C.C. should either change his faith or be transferred to another District school where “there are more Asians.”

That steonewalling reminds me of what the Lebanon School District RIII is doing now. And, as in Lebanon, the creationism was endemic, not just a one-off thing by one teacher:

. . . The lawsuit claims that other teachers and faculty members also push Christian beliefs on their students. Prayer is often lead by teachers in classrooms and during school events. Religious literature that denounces evolution and homosexuality has been distributed by faculty members to students. The school’s hallways are filled with Christian iconography and electronic marquee in front of the school scrolls Bible verses.

But according to an article in Monday’s Raw Story, the parents of the student (the complainants) and the ACLU just won their suit against the school.

Judge Elizabeth Foote of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Louisiana sided with C.C. and his parents, citing that Roark’s behavior — and the school’s decision to defend it — clearly violated “the Free Exercise and Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.”

With regard to the specific behavior of Roark, Judge Foot wrote that “[t]he District and School Board are permanently enjoined from permitting School Officials at any school within the School District to promote their personal religious beliefs to students in class or during or in conjunction with a School Event.” Furthermore, “School Officials shall not denigrate any particular faith, or lack thereof, or single out any student for disfavor or criticism because of his or her particular faith or religious belief, or lack thereof.”

She also ordered that all members of the school board, as well as all faculty — both current and incoming — be trained by an attorney approved by the ACLU and the ACLU of Louisiana as to their responsibilities with respect to the First Amendment. The training will emphasize the “the psychological and developmental impact of religious discrimination on students.”

I love that the school board and faculty will have to take lessons from and ACLU attorney about the First Amendment. Can’t you imagine how they’ll be fuming about that?

Now Louisiana is even more conservative than Missouri, home of Lebanon High School and its hyperreligious school board, and yet a Louisiana federal district judge faulted the school for violating the First Amendment. The school district there will, of course, have to foot the bill for substantial court costs.

You can see judge Foote’s decision here.  Here’s one part relevant to the case in Missouri:

Screen shot 2014-07-18 at 7.43.52 AMAre you listening, Lebanon?


h/t: Haggis for Brains

Unlimited reading through Kindle: $9.99 per month

This sounds too good to be true given that e-books cost about ten bucks each, but I’m calling it to your attention. Amazon has announced a “kindleunlimited” plan in which, for $9.99 per month, you get unlimited reading (go here for the information).

I haven’t investigated it thoroughly to see if there’s a catch (I don’t read e-books since I must have dead trees in my paws), but readers who use e-books will want to have a look.  They claim that there are 600,000 titles available.

nb:  Some commenters below say the offer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be:



h/t: JB, Steve

When did people become “souls”?

While listening to NBC News report last night on the crash of another Malaysian Airlines plane—this time caused by a missile strike—I noticed that newscaster Brian Williams said that the plane went down and “all 295 souls were lost.”  He used the word “souls” to refer to people at least twice more in the one-hour broadcast.

This is what’s known as a synecdoche: the use of a part to stand for a whole, as when a cowboy refers to 50 “head” of cattle. It can also be the reverse, with the whole standing for a part, as when someone says, “Let’s get out of here: the police have arrived.” (The police as an institution is used here to stand for individual members of the force.)

In Williams’ reporting, “soul” was meant to refer to “people.” But of course we know that souls are not part of people, because we don’t have souls. It seems, in fact, to be an unwitting sop to religion. When I mentioned this to a friend, she said that she’d heard the same usage in several other places, and that it was becoming more common.

This is, of course, not a big deal in our struggle against religion’s hegemony, but I thought it was interesting.  Why can’t they just say “people”? You never see “souls” used as a synonym for “people” in newspapers, for instance.

Today’s Google Doodle: Nelson Mandela

Sadly, Mandela is no longer with us, but, had he lived, today would be his 96th birthday. Google has celebrated that with an animated Google Doodle (click on screenshot below to see it), which, when you click on each frame, goes to a new picture and a new quote from Mandela.

Screen shot 2014-07-18 at 7.49.45 AM

The Independent gives more information:

Google Doodler Katy Wu said she at first thought she would have to make a very serious, sombre kind of Doodle about such an important figure. However, as she learnt more about Mandela, Wu says she started to understand that he was a man with a lot of character, a realisation that gave her fresh ideas for the tribute. On the choice to incorporate his quotes, she says: “Something that stood out to me about Nelson Mandela was his eloquent way with words.  I thought his words gave a great insight into the kind of man he was, so I wanted to focus the creative direction of the doodle on his quotes against a backdrop of the history of South Africa.”

The Doodle shows the village where Mandela grew up, and follows his journey through his incarceration to his election as the first black president of South Africa in 1994.



Readers’ wildlife photographs

 Note to readers: I’ll be travelling tomorrow, and emails will be accumulating en masse. I’d ask that people not send me photographs (or emails with interesting items for the site) until MONDAY, as I don’t want them to get buried.

We have owls today (or, as “Owl” in Winnie the Pooh would spell it [see next post], “Wols.” Reader Bruce Lyon has sent us a lovely series of photographs of the Great Horned Owl (Bubo virginianus). They were taken at the University of California at Santa Cruz (see below), which I consider the most beautiful college campus, at least as far as location, in the U.S. Visit it if you can. Bruce’s notes:

For the second year in a row, Great Horned Owls have successfully nested very close to my office on the campus at the University of California Santa Cruz. The campus is hidden away in a redwood forest and seems more like a camp than a campus, and it is a haven for predators. Mountain Lions, Bobcats, Golden Eagles and Great Horned Owls are all campus residents. Last year a pair of Great Horned Owls nested in a huge redwood tree beside one of the campus libraries and fledged three chicks. The female often roosted with one or more of the chicks right beside a busy path and a good chunk of the campus population got to enjoy watching them. The owls started up again this year—in the same redwood tree—but for some reason the nest attempt failed. I figured that was it for this year but then a colleague recently told me that that they had fledged two chicks, so they sneakily pulled off a successful renest. Here are some photos of the birds from this year and a couple of favorites from last year. Owls are so catlike—particularly the chicks—that perhaps they should be awarded honorary feline status on the WEIT website.

I believe I already did award owls status as Honorary Avian Cats™. (Click all photos to enlarge.)

Below: Adult female hunting at dusk. The female is a prettier bird than the male—nicer plumage coloration and pattern and a more attractive facial disk.


Below: Another photos of the female:


Below: One of chicks. Backlighting shows that the head is still downy while the back and wings have the non-baby feathers the bird will have for the next year.


Another photo of the chick. It is interesting that the chicks have small ear tufts (‘horns’) even with their down feathers. Not all owls have ear tufts, which raises the question of the function of ear tufts, if any. In a short note, Michael Perrone (Adaptive Significance of Ear Tufts in Owls, Condor 83: 383-84, 1981) noted that ear tufts only occur on nocturnal species (many owls are fully or partially diurnal). He concluded that the tufts likely function in concealment rather than as a signal of species identity or as a way of mimicking a mammalian predator.


Below: The female in a redwood reacting to some mobbing Steller’s Jays. Her plumage matches the redwood bark pretty nicely. Can a computer game of Spot the Owl be a logical follow-up to the Spot the Nightjar game?


A couple of photos from last year, including the adult female perched in the nesting redwood tree and adult female roosting in the day with one of the chicks. The first photo below is one of my all time favorites—I love the patterns on the redwood bark and the female’s breast.











Friday: Hili dialogue

As always, it’s all about the cat!

Cyrus: You’ve got roses!
Hili: No, Malgorzata got roses for having such a beautiful cat.


In Polish:

Cyrus: Dostałaś róże!
Hili: Nie, to Małgorzata dostała róże, za to, że tu jest taki piękny kot.


Photos of the day: real tweets and a felid

Here is what tweets should really be instead of those 140-character snippets of self-promotion, beach selfies, and rage-fighting that afflict us on Twi**er:


The books were found by my friend Andrew Berry from Harvard, teaching an evolutionary biology course at Oxford this summer.

And, as lagniappe, a local sign. Cave Hollow Village is apparently near Hannibal, Missouri, home of the young Mark Twain. Here’s its sign:


My question is this: Why not “Pop. 7“?

h/t: Gregory

The Deepakity continues his “million dollar challenge,” and I have one for him!

The WooMeister is up to his old silliness, offering a million bucks to anyone who can explain how neuronal events become subjective experiences. (He did this a while back, and decided to keep himself in the public eye by making another video on Monday about exactly the same stuff .)

That’s the “hard problem” of consciousness that people are working on. But of course Chopra doesn’t want an answer: he wants to show that Science Doesn’t Know Everything.  But what he really wants us to infer from his ludicrous challenge is that because science doesn’t know everything, his Quantum Woo theory of a Conscious Universe is right. It’s just like religion: because we supposedly can’t explain where human morality came from, or why laws of physics are “fine-tuned”, there must be a God.

If you can stand to listen to this, do: it’s only a bit over two minutes long, and you get to hear that unctuous voice going after the militant atheists:

Okay, I’ll offer Deepak a challenge: Professor Ceiling Cat’s Hundred Dollar Challenge!

Here it is:

Deepak Chopra has said that when nobody is looking at the moon, it doesn’t exist. If he can prove that, I will give him a hundred dollars. 

A new feathered and four-winged dinosaur

Now that my book’s turned in, I have a chance to catch up on the stack of biology papers I’ve had to neglect. I hope to be posting more about them in the next couple of weeks, but be aware that the Dreaded Edits to the book will come back when I’ve returned from Poland, and that, along with dealing with references, formatting, and the like, will probably take a few months of work.

But, in the meantime, there’s a a cool new paper in Nature Communications by Gang Han et al. (reference and download below) describing the discovery of a four-winged dinosaur in fossil deposits from the Early Cretaceous (about 125 million years ago) in China. As you know, most of the good feathered dino fossils come from China, for that country has marvelous deposits of silt that produced good preservation of feathers.

Your first question will be this: could it fly? The answer is “we don’t know.” (That’s often true of these feathered dinos, which could have been gliders rather than fliers). And this is not the first “four-winged” dinosaur. What’s notable about it is its size (BIG) and its highly feathered tail.

Also, do remember that four-winged dinosaurs didn’t really have four wings: they usually had front appendages that were winglike and highly feathered, but legs that were less feathered. They also had bony tails, like all dinos, which were also feathered.

None of them, as far as I remember, can definitely be said to have flown: they could have been gliders, and could have glided to escape predators, to move from tree to tree, to glide down on prey, or all of the above.  The first one discovered was Microraptor gui, which looked something like this:


That out of the way, the new species is named Changyuraptor yangi. “Changyu” means “long feather” in Chinese, “raptor” refers to the fact that it was a predator—see teeth below—and the species name honors Professor Yang Yudong, who apparently provided the finances to purchase the fossil.

It’s a theropod dinosaur, the ancestors of birds, and falls in the family Dromaeosauridae, a group of bipeda (walked on its hind legs) and predatory theropods. The specimen, shown below, is remarkably well preserved, at least below the neck. But there are parts of the head and the teeth remaining. In the fossil below you can make out the feather impressions along the neck, the forelimbs, the hindlimbs, and along the long, bony tail (remember, this was a dinosaur, not a tailless bird!). The length of the black line at the bottom is 10 cm (about 4 inches), so the thing was about 132 cm long from the tip of the beak to the tip of the tail. That’s 51 inches, or about 4.25 feet, so this is a large specimen!


Screen shot 2014-07-17 at 8.31.13 AM

Here’s a reconstruction of the skeleton with the feather impressions shaded in. The section at the bottom is a bit of the femur impression, showing the “LAG,” or “line of arrested growth,” from which the authors conclude that this was an adult specimen, at least five years old.

Screen shot 2014-07-17 at 8.31.30 AM

Some details of the skeleton: a. tail vertebrae, b. some of its teeth (notice they’re sharp; these things, like other feathered dinos, these were predators; c. furcula (“wishbone”) and shoulder girdle, and d. a foot. The scale bar is 1 cm.

Screen shot 2014-07-17 at 8.31.49 AM

Here are impressions of the feathers (see caption below the photo for details). The authors conclude that this species had the longest feathers of any known “non-avian dinosaur” (I’m checking with the experts to see exactly what distinguishes a “non-avian dinosaur” from either an “avian dinosaur” or a “bird”). The tail feathers were up to 30 cm long—almost a foot.  That exceeds by several inches the longest known feathers in similar dinosaurs, but of course this was one of the largest flying/gliding dinosaurs.

Screen shot 2014-07-17 at 8.32.09 AM

Figure 4 | Details of the plumage of HG B016 as preserved on slab A. (a) Graduated distal rectrices, (b) feathers surrounding the shoulder girdle, (c) portion of the left hindwing and (d) portion of the right hindwing. Scale bar, 2 cm.

As I said, this is a well-feathered dino, but the authors still can’t conclude that it flew. That, I suppose would depend both on finding better feather impressions (flying feathers are asymmetrical) and knowing something about the musculature, which isn’t preserved. This is above my pay grade, but I suppose it’s almost impossible to conclude from a fossil of this type whether it flew, even if the feathers were asymmetrical. But at the very least it glided, and probably well.

The authors make a big deal about the feathered tail, wondering what function it served for a glider. They conclude it controlled “pitch”, or the ability of the animal to control its movement from “head up” to “head down”. That is, imagine the bird with wings extended and a rod stuck through the wings from one side to the other. You could then move the body up and down like a seesaw (head goes up, tail goes down) around this axis (see here for a demonstration).  That would enable the bird to make a good landing if it were coming in from above.  But here, I’ll let you read the conclusion, since it’s not too technical (my emphasis):

Combined with the possibility of passive flexion of the distal tail to take on both positive and negative angles of attack, this caudally oriented combination of lift and drag may have acted to reduce descent speed while simultaneously providing passive stability in the pitching axis, which could be critical to a safe landing or precise attack on prey. Such pitch stabilization could be particularly important for larger microraptorines (since they would tend to fly and/or descend more rapidly than small individuals), and this effect explains why the tail fan is exceptionally long in HG B016 [the specimen]. A pitch control function also explains why the feathered tails of microraptorines are proportionally much longer than in other maniraptorans, as this would extend the moment arm for pitch control by the tail. The discovery of HG B016 thus supports the hypothesis that the extended tail and long, fanned retrices of microraptorines played a key aerodynamic role, allowing them to retain aerial and/or semi-aerial competency at relatively large body sizes. The remarkably long-feathered tail Changyuraptor yangi helps us understand how such low-aspect-ratio tails operated as pitch control structures that reduced descent speed during landing.

If I had a time machine, and could go back to, say, five periods of evolutionary history, one of them would be this time, so we could see exactly what these beasts looked like and whether they flew. (A thought experiment I often think about is this; if you’re given a machine to go back to one time in evolutionary history, and were given only a notepad and pen, where and when would you go to answer the most pressing and difficult questions of evolution?)


Han, G., L. M. Chiappe, S.-A. Ji, M. Habib, A. H. Turner, A. Chinsamy, X. Liu, and L. Han. 2014. A new raptorial dinosaur with exceptionally long feathering provides insights into dromaeosaurid flight performance. Nature Communications : doi:10.1038/ncomms5382


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