Horse yoga!

This video is my going-to-India present from Matthew Cobb, who wrote “Maybe you’ll see this in India!”

I doubt it. . .

And I don’t know how the hell they train a horse to do this.

The Pope’s views on animals and heaven go viral

With my post on “The Dog Delusion“, I was ahead of the curve, though I thought of it as a humorous Papal remark that wouldn’t go anywhere. I was wrong: the Pope’s implication that all animals go to Heaven (implying they have souls), as well as the discovery of an earlier and similar statement by Pope Paul VI*, have unleashed a frenzy of theological speculation, as well as musings by meat producers and vegetarians about the implications for eating animals. What all this shows is how intellectually depauperate religion is, and how believers fervently discuss questions that have no hope of ever being resolved. Theologians, and even the New York Times, think that the Pope’s remarks, and the uproar they’ve caused, are both serious and newsworthy.

In fact, Pope Francis’s pronouncements on animals and the afterlife made the front page of yesterday’s New York Times, in a piece called “Dogs in Heaven? Pope Francis leaves pearly gates open.” And the controversy was on the evening news last night as well. The Times article raises many questions (quotes from the piece are indented):

Does this cause a theological ferment? Yes. 

Charles Camosy, an author and professor of Christian ethics at Fordham University, said it was difficult to know precisely what Francis meant, since he spoke “in pastoral language that is not really meant to be dissected by academics.” But asked whether the remarks had caused a new debate on whether animals have souls, suffer and go to heaven, Mr. Camosy said, “In a word: absolutely.”

Did the Pope really mean it? No, it was meant “casually” (i.e., metaphorically).

In his remarks, as reported by Vatican Radio, Francis said of paradise: “It’s lovely to think of this, to think we will find ourselves up there. All of us in heaven. It’s good, it gives strength to our soul.

“At the same time, the Holy Scripture teaches us that the fulfillment of this wonderful design also affects everything around us, and that came out of the thought and the heart of God.”

Theologians cautioned that Francis had spoken casually, not made a doctrinal statement.

Did the Pope mean it? Yes.

The Rev. James Martin, a Jesuit priest and editor at large of America, the Catholic magazine, said he believed that Francis was at least asserting that “God loves and Christ redeems all of creation,” even though conservative theologians have said paradise is not for animals.

“He said paradise is open to all creatures,” Father Martin said. “That sounds pretty clear to me.”

NOTE: That last sentence, which was there yesterday, has mysteriously disappeared from the article this morning. It may be because Martin learned that “paradise is open to all creatures” came not from Pope Francis, but from Pope Paul VI (see below).  But a Pope is a Pope. And Martin is quoted later in the article saying this:

Father Martin said he did not believe the pope’s remarks could be construed as a comment on vegetarianism. But, he said, “he’s reminding us that all creation is holy and that in his mind, paradise is open to all creatures, and frankly, I agree with him.”

Do all the Popes agree that animals have souls? No.

The question of whether animals go to heaven has been debated for much of the church’s history. Pope Pius IX, who led the church from 1846 to 1878, longer than any other pope, strongly supported the doctrine that dogs and other animals have no consciousness. He even sought to thwart the founding of an Italian chapter of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

Pope John Paul II appeared to reverse Pius in 1990 when he proclaimed that animals do have souls and are “as near to God as men are.” But the Vatican did not widely publicize his assertion, perhaps because it so directly contradicted Pius, who was the first to declare the doctrine of papal infallibility in 1854.

John Paul’s successor, Benedict, seemed to emphatically reject his view in a 2008 sermon in which he asserted that when an animal dies, it “just means the end of existence on earth.”

But were these Popes speaking ex cathedra, the only time when they’re infallible (or, as Archie Bunker once said, “inflammable”)?

Is it good news for animal lovers? Yes! Not only will you see your pets in heaven, but there are other beneficial results:

Ms. Gutleben of the Humane Society said Francis’ apparent reversal of Benedict’s view could be enormous. “If the pope did mean that all animals go to heaven, then the implication is that animals have a soul,” she said. “And if that’s true, then we ought to seriously consider how we treat them. We have to admit that these are sentient beings, and they mean something to God.”

Sarah Withrow King, director of Christian outreach and engagement at PETA, one of the most activist anti-slaughterhouse groups, said the pope’s remarks vindicated the biblical portrayal of heaven as peaceful and loving, and could influence eating habits, moving Catholics away from consuming meat — which she asserted had already been happening anyway. “It’s a vegan world, life over death and peace between species,” she said. “I’m not a Catholic historian, but PETA’s motto is that animals aren’t ours, and Christians agree. Animals aren’t ours, they’re God’s.”

It’s interesting that in the last sentence PETA, which I haven’t thought of as a religious organization, suddenly buys into faith. They will in fact say anything that helps their cause. (I have mixed feelings about PETA, but think they’ve done some good things by calling attention to the horrendous mistreatment of animals raised for consumption or their eggs or milk.)

Is it bad news for meat producers? It would seem so, for killing something with a soul is murder. But the purveyors of meat don’t think so, and, as always, can cherry-pick the Bible to support their views:

“As on quite a few other things Pope Francis has said, his recent comments on all animals going to heaven have been misinterpreted,” Dave Warner, a spokesman for the National Pork Producers Council, said in an email. “They certainly do not mean that slaughtering and eating animals is a sin.” Mr. Warner quoted passages from Genesis that say man is given “dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on earth.”

“While that ‘dominion’ means use for human benefit, it also requires stewardship — humane care and feeding — something all farmers who raise animals practice every day of every year,” Mr. Warner said.

It’s news to me that “all farmers” practice humane care and feeding every day of the year. Tell that to those who confine pigs or calves in small stalls, or cut off the beaks of battery chickens.

Is this whole debate insane? Yes! 

Laura Hobgood-Oster, professor of religion and environmental studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Tex., and an expert on the history of dog-human interaction, said she believed that there would be a backlash from religious conservatives, but that it would take time.

“The Catholic Church has never been clear on this question; it’s all over the place, because it begs so many other questions,” she said. “Where do mosquitoes go, for God’s sake?”

Indeed! I await the Vatican’s pronouncement about which animals get to go to Heaven, and which are Left Behind. Which species have souls, and which don’t? It reminds me of the barminology debate about how many “kinds” of animals there are.

This kerfuffle simply demonstrates what Andrew Bernstein said in an article about the uselessness of religion during the Dark Ages (a quote that I reproduce in The Albatross; reference below):

Here is the tragedy of theology in its distilled essence: The employment of high-powered human intellect, of genius, of profoundly rigorous logical deduction—studying nothing. In the Middle Ages, the great minds capable of transforming the world did not study the world; and so, for most of a millennium, as human beings screamed in agony—decaying from starvation, eaten by leprosy and plague, dying in droves in their twenties—the men of the mind, who could have provided their earthly salvation, abandoned them for otherworldly fantasies.


Bernstein, A. A. 2006. “The Tragedy of Theology: How Religion Caused and Extended the Dark Ages.” Objective Standard 1:11–37.

*Pope Paul VI’s statement, made to a child distraught over the loss of his dog: “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.’’

As an update, reader Pliny the In Between contributed a cartoon:

Toon Background.001




Caturday felid trifecta: Cat on piano, cat running in wheel, and Ceiling Cat decal

I hope to keep the Caturday Felids going while I’m traveling, as I haven’t missed one since the series started. So here’s today’s trifecta.

First, a cat who apparently doesn’t like music as much as personal attention tries to interrupt its staff. Note the plaintive meow near the end.

Many readers complain that their cats are overweight. This device, which is actually inexpensive, might solve the problem, although it seems you have to use a laserpointer (or a feather) to get the cat moving. As some readers have noted, laserpointers might serve to frustrate a cat, as they never get the satisfaction of catching their “prey.”

At any rate, the wheel, called “One Fast Cat,” was the subject of a wildly successful Kickstarter Campaign (they asked for $10,000 and got $345,000!), and you can get one for only $249, with free shipping anywhere in the U.S.

And if you have a Mac (or even a PC, if you’re one of those), you can order this spiffy Ceiling Cat decal from Amazon for only $4.99. I know I’ll be getting one. Show your Fealty to the One True God:


Screen Shot 2014-12-11 at 9.33.04 AM

Finally, as lagniappe, I proffer this picture, which rings true. Does anybody’s cat enjoy car trips? Actually, my Teddy did, and would sit in the front seat with paws on the dashboard, peering out the windshield



h/t: Larry, Michael, Diana

Readers’ wildlife photos

This will probably be the last batch of readers’ wildlife photos for a while, though I’m bringing my file with me to India. Reader John Harshman, a birdophile (is there a word for that?), submits some photos of our feathered friends from Australia (as well as one mammal).
 A brown booby (Sula leucogaster) on Michaelmas Cay in the Great Barrier Reef. You can walk from one end of this island to the other in about 3 minutes, but there are thousands of breeding sea birds on it.

booby cropped

A brahminy kite (Haliastur indus):

brahminy kite cropped

 A chestnut teal (Anas castanea):

chestnut teal, Botanic Garden, Sydney

A couple of flying foxes; sorry, but they’re mammals, and I don’t know the species. Taken in Darwin, if that helps. [JAC: readers?]

flying foxes cropped

An eastern yellow robin (Eopsaltria australis), which needless to say is not closely related to any of the birds called robins in North America or Europe, or in fact to any of the birds in North America or Europe:

yellow robin, O'Reilly's

Saturday: Hili dialogue

I am off to India this afternoon, and, as I said, posting will certainly be lighter than usual, though you’re spoiled by a high number of posts! I’ll do my best to fill you in on my travels, including, of course, pictures of noms. Hang in there until I return in very early January. As my email will be sporadic, I’d appreciate it if readers would be sparing in sending me items of interest. Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili continues to mystify us all. Asking for an explanation, I got the following:

Many dialogues ago Hili was wondering whether she was able to move so quickly as to be in two places simultaneously. She claimed that with practice she could. Well, she still is at it.

A: Hili, leave this rug alone!
Hili: I can’t. I have to check whether I’m under it.
In Polish:
Ja: Hili, zostaw ten dywan!
Hili: Nie mogę, muszę sprawdzić, czy mnie pod nim nie ma.

Head control in the saw-whet owl

The first bird shown in the last post was a northern saw-whet owl (Aegolius acadicus), America’s second smallest owl—the elf owl, at 1.4 oz or 40 grams, is the smallest in the world—weighing in at a hefty 2.3–5.3 oz (65–151 g). Like many birds, owls have a remarkable ability to keep their heads absolutely steady as their bodies are rotated. This enables them to keep their gaze fixed while performing aerial maneuvers, such as catching mice.

A demonstration:


Owls are, of course, Honorary Cats™, being the most feline of all birds. Several days ago, Bored Panda published a collection of 74 nice owl pictures. I’ll show just a half dozen of my favorites, but the site has 68 more. If you’re an owlophile (I’m sure there’s a technical name for this), go see.

Look at this little guy (is it a saw-whet owl?)! It’s from hometownperch:


Takeoff in the snow; from, with the caption

The northern Hawk Owl is an explosive killer, and extremely hard to capture. 1/2000 of a second shutter speed and 5 hours in -22 Celsius got me the shot :)


From Austin Thomas, who says this is “A little owl out for a stroll.” He’s strutting his stuff!


From Donald M. Jones (species, please?):


A great horned owl from Peter Krejzl:


From; can you spot the owl?


h/t: Su

Is religion good or bad for humanity?

The thesis of “New Atheist” books like The God Delusion and God is not Great is that the net effect of religion has been bad, both in ancient times and today.  Yes, the authors argue, religion has sometimes motivated people to do good things, but that is far outweighed by the misery, death, and divisiveness produced by religion since it arose thousands of years ago. And certainly, the argument continues, religion today is not a force for good; we have science and secular philosophy to turn to.

Although I agree with that thesis, I can’t say that there are data that make an airtight case for it. After all, how do you weigh any beneficial effects of religion (making people behave charitably and so on) against the repression it’s caused, the deaths that have accrued in inter-religious wars, and other malfeasance? All we can do is make a judgment call, and although to me religion comes down as harmful on balance, I couldn’t prove it.  One can only cite anecdotes, and the other side has their anecdotes too. And in fact I do say exactly this in The Albatross (soon to be on sale in fine bookstores everywhere).

My beef against religion is that for some religions in the modern world, like Islam and Catholicism, it’s easy to point to the bad stuff they do, and hard to find the good stuff, so the harmfulness of those faiths (and others like Scientology) seems self-evident.  But most important to me is that if religion does indeed motivate people to do good, it’s based on lies, or rather on the assertion of truths about the universe that cannot be demonstrated and seem highly improbable. The question then comes down to this: “If you can get people to behave better by making them believe in things that aren’t true, shouldn’t you favor that?”  It’s not a question that can be rejected out of hand or sneered at.

My own belief is that it’s better to base your actions and philosophy on things you know, for if you do good because you think that this is what God wants, or in hopes of having a nice afterlife, you’re basing your actions on things that likely aren’t true. But one could respond that after one is dead, and goes nowhere, you’ll never know you were wrong, so—even if based on lies and false promises—religion has still promoted net good.  In the end, I suppose, it’s my scientific penchant for wanting to know what’s true that makes me an atheist, although my lack of belief in Gods is buttressed by the feeling that those beliefs have been harmful in net to humanity.

I’d recommend, if you automatically say that religion is a bad thing for our planet, reading a piece that’s free online in the July/August issue of the Skeptical Inquirer, an issue devoted to “Science and Religion” (please, someone send me this issue!). The piece, by Scott O. Lilienfield and Rachel Ammirati, is called “Would the world be better off without religion? A skeptic’s guide to the debate.” Their thesis is the one I raised above: we can’t make a knockdown case from data or scientific studies that religion is a bad thing.

On religion’s good side, they cite psychological studies showing that religion promotes charity, altruism, and so on, and on religion’s bad side they point to religious wars, coercion—and all the bad stuff we know so well.  It’s a long piece, but I think everyone who argues against faith should read it.  Two objections I have to the data are that the studies cited are the usual psychological tests measuring short-term effects of reading faith-soaked literature (and we have no idea if those effects persist or are actuated in the real world) and the fact that all those studies are done in the West. That is, they ignore Islam, which in our world is hard to see as anything other than a faith that has harmful effects.

And I wish the authors had mentioned more about Scandinavia and Western Europe, countries that have, by and large, rejected religion but are certainly no worse as societies than the highly religious United States. Data by Greg Paul and others show that secularist societies in the West show more “well being” than religious ones: there’s a negative correlation between the religiosity of a country and its well being, at least as measured on Paul’s “Successful societies scale.” The negative correlation would, I think, be even more striking if one included sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, places where many countries are both highly religious and deeply dysfunctional. But of course correlation is not causation (my own view is that social dysfunction breeds or perpetuates religiosity).

As I said, my atheism stems from a lack of evidence for gods, but I suppose it’s possible in theory that one can increase social well being by promulgating the Big Lie about God.  That doesn’t seem to be the case in today’s world, at least in the West. But I’m really writing this to ask readers two questions:

1. How do you support your claim that religion is on the whole a bad thing for humanity? NOTE: This is an empirical question and requires empirical data for an answer, not gut feelings or anecdotes. 

2. If religion were really shown to have net beneficial effects, regardless of its truth, should we promote it, even as atheists? Should we evince “belief in belief”, as Dan Dennett calls it?

Do weigh in below, maybe after you’ve read the long Lilienfeld and Ammirati piece. I’m quite interested in these questions.


Reader’s wildlife photos, bonus edition: Spot the deadly viper

I’m back, and found these nice photos waiting from reader Lou Jost, a biologist who works in Ecuador (and who discovered the world’s smallest orchid). Recently Lou came across something not as harmless. . .

I just came back from a trip to our Rio Zunac Reserve, and walked right past this pit viper on the side of the trail. Easy to see when you know it’s there, not so easy when you’re looking for birds high in the trees! The person behind me saw it after I passed it. This is Bothrocophias microphthlamus, one of the most deadly pit vipers (and one for which antivenom is not very effective), but most individuals are not particularly aggressive. [JAC: Wikipedia gives its common name as “the small-eyed, toad-headed pit viper.”]

Snakes are like bears though–lots of individual variability. Years ago when I was a guide in Costa Rica I once had a tourist guest actually sit on a deadly fer-de-lance (Bothrops asper), her butt pinning the snake down but leaving the head free. It didn’t strike. But in the same area, another individual of the same species came jumping out of the undergrowth to strike at me from a long distance away and chase me.

Can you spot the snake? ‘Cause if you can’t, you better not hike in the tropics:


Here it is!




The Venomous Animals Database says this about the species:

Venom Characteristics

Potent hemotoxin, but not well characterized. Venom of this species may be the most toxic of any in this genus. Preliminary studies have indicated that this snake’s venom is poorly neutralized by some commercially available antivenoms.

Pope Francis puts his foot in it again, this time with retrograde views on women

Religion News Service, was, I thought, a news organization pretty sympathetic to faith, but you couldn’t prove it from its article on Wednesday, “Lost in translation? 7 reasons why women wince when Pope Francis starts talking.”

What it shows is what people on this website already know, but many faitheists and even atheists don’t realize: the Pope really does embody all the retrograde doctrine of the Catholic church, and his reputation for being a “new Pope” comes from his few offhand statements that made people think he’s leading the Vatican into a new age of tolerance and modernity.

Well, not when it comes to women. As author David Gibson reports:

But when he speaks about women, Francis can sound a lot like the (almost) 78-year-old Argentine churchman that he is, using analogies that sound alternately condescending and impolitic, even if well-intentioned.

Indeed, Francis has spoken repeatedly of the “feminine genius” and the need for a church to develop “a deeper theology of women,” and of his determination to promote women to senior positions in Rome. He also points out that some of his remarks are meant as jokes, the fruit of a sense of humor that is part of his appeal.

Still, not everyone is amused.

“I am at a loss to see how this could be other than insulting to women who’ve already given up having families of their own to serve God,” The Washington Post’s Melinda Henneberger wrote after a speech in which the pope warned nuns not to become spiritual “old maids.”

And in a Los Angeles Times column this week, New Testament scholar Candida Moss of Notre Dame and Yale Bible professor Joel Baden blasted Francis’ granny comments to the European Parliament as “nothing other than crass chauvinism.”

For all his positive comments and reforms, they said, the pope “reveals a highly patriarchal view” of the value and traditional role of women.

The Pope seems to have an obsession with fostering reproduction (of course, that’s traditional in the Church), but along with that goes his general criticism of what he calls “old maids” and “spinsters”. It’s simply insulting to childless women. Here are a few of the seven quotes that Gibson uses to instantiate Francis’s backwardness on women’s issues:

“Be a mother and not an old maid!”

“Please, let it be a fruitful chastity, a chastity that generates sons and daughters in the church. The consecrated woman is a mother, must be a mother and not an old maid (or “spinster”). … Forgive me for speaking this way, but the motherhood of consecrated life, its fertility, is important.”

Address to nuns from around the world, May 8, 2013


“Europe is a ‘grandmother’, no longer fertile and vibrant.”

“In many quarters we encounter a general impression of weariness and aging, of a Europe which is now a ‘grandmother,’ no longer fertile and vibrant. As a result, the great ideas which once inspired Europe seem to have lost their attraction … “

Address to the European Parliament, Nov. 25, 2014

and, finally (the article has four others):

“A church that seems more like a spinster than a mother.”

“When the church does not (evangelize), then the church stops herself, is closed in on herself, even if she is well-organized, has a perfect organizational chart, everything’s fine, everything’s tidy — but she lacks joy, she lacks peace, and so she becomes a disheartened church, anxious, sad, a church that seems more like a spinster than a mother, and this church doesn’t work, it is a church in a museum. The joy of the Church is to give birth … “

Homily at morning Mass, Dec. 9, 2014

Even if two of these are metaphorical, it’s still insensitive. But of course what does the Pope know about women?

h/t: Bruce


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