The christening of MS Roald Amundsen

On November 7, as I wrote on the next day, the MS Roald Amundsen, the ship I inhabited for five weeks in Patagonia, Antarctica, and the South Atlantic, was actually christened in Antarctica.  I believe this is the first ship of any kind christened there, and, as the ship’s website notes, the christening involved not the traditional breaking of champagne over the bow, but the breaking of a chunk of polar ice.  This in fact was how the Norwegian explorer Amundsen himself christened his ship Maud in 1916, though the ship wasn’t in Antarctica and the ice wasn’t polar:

It is not my intention to dishonor the glorious grape, but already now you shall get the taste of your real environment. For the ice you have been built, and in the ice you shall stay most of your life, and in the ice you shall solve your tasks. With the permission of our Queen, I christen you Maud.

— Roald Amundsen
I find these words strangely moving, and I have to say that I teared up a bit as Karin Strand repeated them before she released the rope holding the chunk of ice. You can see the event below. Most of us were outside the ship, hovering nearby in Zodiacs to watch the ceremony. The Amundsen’s sister ship, the MS Midnatsol, was nearby, with passengers on both ships cheering.  Karin Strand is the Field Operations Manager and Expedition Teams Manager for Hurtigruten (and therefore my Highest Boss), and is regarded as “the godmother of the Amundsen.” She’s been on trips to Antarctica over 140 times. Beside her is the ship’s captain, whose name I can’t recall.

Here’s the official video of the christening:

And an official photograph, probably taken from the Midnatsol. I was in the row of Zodiacs to the right, second from front:

My own photographs of what it was like to be in the Zodiac. You can see the unbroken hunk of ice hanging from a rope.

The Midnatsol (“Midnight Sun”), with everybody watching from the top deck:

And, appropriately enough, a group of gentoo penguins porpoised by during the ceremony, as if to affirm “In the ice you shall stay.”

Here’s Karin and the captain greeting people after the ceremony. They look quite happy!

It was, I must say, a unique experience. Karin’s words about the uniqueness of Antarctica are absolutely accurate, and I still miss the place greatly.

Banana duct-taped to wall makes artist $240,000

I have to say that much modern art eludes me, including all-black paintings, urinals signed “R. Mutt”, and so on. I tend to keep quiet about these things, for I’m sure there are erudite scholars around who will artsplain to me the enormous significance of such things, and then I’ll just feel dumb. Or, the riposte could be “it’s art because it’s displayed as art.” That leaves me cold.

But on last night’s news I saw something labeled as “art” that was so bizarre that I can no longer keep silent. I refer to a banana, duct-taped to a wall in Art Basel of Miami Beach, that sold for a cool $120,000. CNN gives the story (click on the screenshot):

The report:

A banana, duct-taped to a wall went on a sale at Art Basel Miami Beach this week — priced at around $120,000. And, according to the gallery behind the work, two of the three editions have already sold, with the last now going for even more.

The work, by Maurizio Cattelan, was presented Wednesday by Perrotin, a contemporary art gallery founded in Paris that has had a long association with the Italian artist.

It is Cattelan‘s first contribution to an art fair in 15 years, the gallery said.

Entitled “Comedian,” the artwork comprises a banana bought in a Miami grocery store and a single piece of duct tape. There are three editions, the gallery said, all of which were offered for sale.

Prior to the reported sale, the gallery’s founder, Emmanuel Perrotin, told CNN the bananas are “a symbol of global trade, a double entendre, as well as a classic device for humor,” adding that the artist turns mundane objects into “vehicles of both delight and critique.”

And the pricey “installation”? See below.  Some sap actually paid $120,000 for this! But, as CNN asks, what happens when the banana rots? Will the work lose its value?

So why did I say $240,000 in my title? Because, as the following piece from New York Magazine reveals (note author’s name!), Cattelan found two saps to buy duplicate works:

The new work has been produced in his usual edition (not to say “bunch”) of three pieces plus two artist’s proofs. Two of the three have already been sold to unnamed collectors; Cattelan knows one of them, and the person “totally makes sense as the buyer.” He’s not in Miami for the fair — he doesn’t go — and, in his New York apartment this morning, he said, “I just ate one of the two artist’s proofs.”

He ate $120,00 worth of art! But that article also gives an “explanation” for what the work means:

“I [Cattlan] was trying to imagine something to symbolize my love of New York, and it was difficult,” he told New York today. “There was a time when the Greek coffee cups were everywhere, and I thought somehow the banana was something that now you can find at every street corner. And [my thinking about this] goes on forever from there — but for sure an eggplant, say, would not have been so effective.” As for the duct tape, it’s the material that holds together half of this aging city: “In my apartment, the pipes are held together with it — I always say that I’d be more concerned if I ran out of that tape than out of toilet paper.” I noted to him that his total materials cost is a little lower, this time, than with the gold toilet. “With one you lose money, and the other you break even,” he responded, and then laughed.

Break even, my tuchas! This guy is cleaning up by confecting tortured explanations for the artistic significance of a banana taped to a wall. And the poor saps that pay $120,000 for a piece of “art” that will rot within a week are even worse. Do you know how many lives in Africa could be saved if that money were used not to buy affixed bananas but to buy Plumpynut nutritional supplement?

I’m sorry, but I’m not buying it—literally or figuratively. The whole thing stinks, as it surely will, literally, within a few days.

Two quick touchstones of ideological compatibility

I like to think I made this up myself, but I suspect that somebody—I can’t remember who—gave me this idea. It goes something like this:

You can gauge someone’s ideological credibility by examining their reaction to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. 

That is, if someone respects Hirsi Ali for her activities—activities that have put her life in danger from extremists Muslims—her ideas, her eloquence, and her dedication, they’re likely to have views that are, in general, ideologically compatible with my own. If, on the other hand, they decry her for “Islamophobia” or for irrelevant issues like her marriage to a conservative, then you should be very cautious.

Remember, this is a touchstone and a potential red flag for me and for those who generally agree with me. I have in fact lost a friendship after someone who had never read a word by Hirsi Ali—and couldn’t name any of her books—started criticizing her because of what appeared on Facebook. It turned out that this person’s views on Hirsi Ali were simply the tip of an ideological iceberg whose woke darkness floated well below the surface.

But the trope below I made up myself:

You can also gauge someone’s ideological credibility by examining their reaction to Linda Sarsour.

If they idolize Sarsour, an anti-Semite who, I suspect, is also an Islamist, then beware. If they see through her—and Sarsour is about as opaque as plastic wrap—then they’re savvy.

Of course many will disagree with these, and you can always try to persuade people to change their minds, but in general there’s a lot of ideological baggage correlated with views on these two people.

Of course you can use Donald Trump as a similar gauge, but that’s neither fun nor subtle. And there are others whom you can use as similar touchstones, but you can name them yourselves.


“The world is much more than I ever knew”: the constricted lives of Haredi Jewish children

Haredim” refers to ultra-Orthodox Jews, who constitute over 10% of the population of Israel. There are also many in New York State. They willingly live a cloistered life, having very little contact with other communities or even with less orthodox Jews.  In fact, they’re the most cloistered religious community I know of, though Jehovah’s Witnesses and some Islamic communities can be pretty cloistered, with all of these having the practice of disowning those who leave the faith.

The worst part of all such groups, and especially the Haredim, is their inculcation of the religion in children who never have a choice. This propagandizing, and forcing children to live in a restricted way, is considered by Richard Dawkins to be child abuse, and I agree. If I had my way, children wouldn’t be forced to adopt a religious belief until they had the maturity to choose, but that’s hardly possible with groups like the Haredim, whose children are raised entirely in the faith. And what a constricted life it is! Cut off from the rest of the world, boys are forced to study the Torah for hours a day, while girls are groomed to be wives whose duty is submission and breeding. Education is almost entirely religious, and few go to college. They know virtually nothing of the outside world.

The costs of this abuse are graphically outlined in a new article in the Washington Post (click on screenshot below), detailing the life of Ruth Borovski, an Israeli Haredi Jew who left the faith—and was of course shunned by her family afterwards—after turning to an organization called Hillel, which specializes in integrating ex-Haredim into the “regular” world. (This is not the same Hillel that is an organization on college campuses.)

And it’s a hard job. Until now I hadn’t realized how very isolated these children are. Here’s a list of things that Borovski faced as a girl growing up in this oppressive sect. Note that she was 27 years old when she left, and yet:

  • She never heard of a smartphone
  • She never rode a bus
  • She never heard a radio or saw a television, nor even knew of their existence
  • She never used the Internet nor knew of it
  • She never traveled further than 500 yards from her house
  • She had never talked to a stranger
  • She had 12 brothers and sisters (Haredi women are breeders, as I said)
  • She was denied any secular education. (The result is that now she spends her days in the library voraciously reading anything and everything)
  • She had never eaten non-kosher food (of course)
  • She never swam in a pool nor sat on a beach
  • She was married at 23 to a man whom she met only once: when she was introduced to him by the rabbi. (The marriage was a disaster.)
  • She spoke only Yiddish, and didn’t know either Hebrew or English (she’s learning both)

If this isn’t child abuse, I don’t know what is. And it’s Borovski who said “The world is so much more than I ever knew.”  Ultimately, her story is heartening as she discovers all the good things she was denied as a prisoner of orthodox Judaism, but think of all the Haredi children who, propagandized in the faith, don’t even contemplate ever leaving it. And even Borovski lost nearly three decades of her life.  Would such children choose to live that way if they were exposed to the world before they could choose a religion?

All I can say is thank g-d for Hillel and organizations that help these people find their footing in the nonreligious world. (The Haredim regularly remove Hillel’s posters offering to help those contemplating deconversion.)

This kind of child abuse angers me immensely, for it robs children of their lives, forcing them into a constricted and regimented existence in fealty to a god who doesn’t exist. People may quarrel with Hitchens’s statement that “religion poisons everything,” but in the case of Borovski and her fellow Haredi children, it’s certainly poisoned their entire existence.

h/t: Chris

Readers’ wildlife photos

I’m starting this feature up again, and I also have several “photos of readers” to post in that separate category. Please send in either your good wildlife photos (be sure to include Latin binomials) or one or two (no more) pictures of you doing something characteristic or interesting. Thanks!

Michael Glenister sent some diverse photos from Canada; his notes and IDs are indented.

I was recently part of a teacher excursion to the Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre in Bamfield, British Columbia.  It was organized through the Vancouver Aquarium to give us an idea of the student field trip options that were available there.

We were warned that there were two young cougars that had been sighted in the area, probably recently kicked out by mom to fend for themselves, but unfortunately I didn’t see them.  However we did see plenty of other wildlife during the 2½ day visit.

Not long after we arrived, we noticed a couple of humpback whales [Megaptera novaeangliae] in the bay.  I snapped a couple of pictures including the tail while diving, and it blowing after surfacing.

American black bears [Ursus americanus] come down to the shore at low tide to hunt for food.  I have some videos of this one turning over rocks to get at the crabs and other snacks underneath.
Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias):
We went on a boat trip to visit some of the local islands.  This one had both Stellar and California Sea Lions on it (Eumetopias jubatus and Zalophus californianus, respectively).
Another island had some Harbour Seals (Phoca vitulina).

Friday: Hili dialogue (and Mietek monologue)

Good morning on a chilly but not freezing Friday: December 6, 2019. (At 4:30 am, the Chicago temperature is 41ºF or 5ºC.) It’s National Gazpacho Day, but eating that delicious soup is cultural appropriation unless you’re simultaneously cognizant of the historical oppression of the Spanish people (ignore the conquistadors). It’s also Faux Fur Friday (only those who grow fur on their bodies are allowed to wear that fur), Bartender Appreciation Day, and, in Canada, National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Timely reminder: there are only 19 shopping days until the beginning of Coynezaa.

Stuff that happened on December 6 includes

  • 1534 – The city of Quito in Ecuador is founded by Spanish settlers led by Sebastián de Belalcázar.
  • 1877 – The first edition of The Washington Post is published.
  • 1884 – The Washington Monument in Washington, D.C., is completed.
  • 1897 – London becomes the world’s first city to host licensed taxicabs.
  • 1912 – The Nefertiti Bust is discovered.

Below is a photo of that lovely bust, which now reposes in the Egyptian Museum of Berlin despite persistent Egyptian demands to return it to the country where it was found. Wikipedia says this about it:

The Nefertiti Bust is a painted stucco-coated limestone bust of Nefertiti, the Great Royal Wife of the Egyptian Pharaoh Akhenaten.The work is believed to have been crafted in 1345 B.C. by the sculptor Thutmose, because it was found in his workshop in Amarna, Egypt. It is one of the most copied works of ancient Egypt. Owing to the work, Nefertiti has become one of the most famous women of the ancient world, and an icon of feminine beauty.

More stuff from this day in history, including events centering on two books controversial for their erotic scenes or themes:

Here’s a grainy video of part of that match.

  • 1967 – Adrian Kantrowitz performs the first human heart transplant in the United States.

This was only the second heart transplant after Christian Baarnard’s in South Africa. In Kantrowitz’s operation, a heart was transplanted into an infant, but it lived only a few hours. (Barnaard’s patient lived 18 days before dying of pneumonia.)

Here’s a video of the incident, with Mick Jagger looking on, that appears in the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter. The man who stabbed Meredith was acquitted on grounds of self defense, for Meredith had a gun.

  • 1973 – The Twenty-fifth Amendment: The United States House of Representatives votes 387–35 to confirm Gerald Ford as Vice President of the United States. (On November 27, the Senate confirmed him 92–3.)
  • 1998 – in Venezuela, Hugo Chávez is victorious in presidential elections.

Notables born on this day include two famous photographers:

  • 1896 – Ira Gershwin, American songwriter (d. 1983)
  • 1898 – Alfred Eisenstaedt, German-American photographer and journalist (d. 1995)
  • 1898 – Gunnar Myrdal, Swedish sociologist and economist, Nobel Prize laureate (d. 1987)
  • 1901 – Eliot Porter, American photographer and academic (d. 1990)
  • 1908 – Baby Face Nelson, American gangster (d. 1934)
  • 1948 – JoBeth Williams, American actress.

Below is a photo by Eisenstadt, perhaps his most famous after the “sailor kissing woman” photo on V-J Day. Taken in 1933, the photo caught Josef Goebbels unawares, and Goebbels didn’t like it (see the backstory here):

Few notables “passed” on December 6; they include:

  • 1889 – Jefferson Davis, American general and politician, President of the Confederate States of America (b. 1808)
  • 1951 – Harold Ross, American journalist and publisher, founded The New Yorker (b. 1892)
  • 1955 – Honus Wagner, American baseball player and manager (b. 1874)
  • 2017 – Johnny Hallyday, French singer and actor (b. 1943)

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is now occupying much of the bed at night, including sleeping on Malgorzata’s face:

A: Hili, we are going to sleep.
Hili: I hope you will find some room in the bed.
In Polish:
Ja: Hili, będziemy się kłaść spać.
Hili: Mam nadzieję, że znajdziecie sobie trochę miejsca w łóżku.

Over in Wloclawek, Mietek has now gained 500 grams—over a pound! And you can see why: here’s a photo of Andrzej II eating dinner with Leon and Mietek. Roast meat for the cats!

And a Mietek Monologue:

Mietek: Which one will roll best?

In Polish: Która będzie się najlepiej turlać?

Some tweets. In the first one, I’ve been anointed by my contrarian soulmate Bari Weiss:

From Simon. Look at the difference between the younger people and total populations in 2018-2019:

Anti-Semitism at a school in Ohio; story here.

Reader BJ sent this tweet that links to a report on anti-Semitism in the Labour party (report here). It’s pretty clear that Labour is infested with Jew hatred. Weetman has 24 followup tweets that document Labour’s bigotry:

From reader Michael: Taylor Swift, who has three cats, polls her “itty bitty pretty kitty committee” to see if she should put out a Christmas song. They unanimously say “no,” but she did it anyway. LISTEN TO THE KITTIES!

Tweets from Matthew. When I retweeted this remarking on the ability of natural selection to modify different life stages (all coded by the same genome) independently, some killjoy replied, “Well done on ruining some caterpillar footage with science.”  Such is Twitter, and the reason I rarely read the comments on my few tweets. 

The second tweet below is the good one:

And a lovely protozoan:

Bari Weiss on America’s rising anti-Semitism

Segments of the Right have of course always been anti-Semitic, particularly the Far Right and conservative Christians. But my brief here is the Left, and it maddens me to see much of the Left also becoming anti-Semitic, both in Britain and the US. Sure, they mask their anti-Semitism by saying that they’re not anti-Semitic but only anti-Zionist (in my view they’re the same thing), or by supporting organizations like BDS that, they claim, aim only at correcting the bad behavior of the Israeli government (another lie: BDS’s goal, which the organization keeps quiet, is to eliminate the state of Israel).

It maddens me, but I understand why this is happening. Jews are perceived as “whites”, and Palestinians as “people of color”. When a white underdog clashes with an Underdog of Color, the latter wins. (This is also true for Western feminists who give the misogyny of Islam a pass.) But do remember that the per capita rate of hate crimes against Jews in America is twice that of crimes against Muslims, and that around the world Jews are being attacked not just because they support Israel, but simply because they’re Jews.

I don’t think we’re on the way to another Holocaust, but I am concerned at how readily the Left, traditionally champions of the underdog, now demonizes and dismisses Jews.

And that concerns Bari Weiss as well, as she explains in her New York Times editorial today (click on screenshot below). Weiss, of course, has alienated many of her colleagues at the paper not only by her attacks on anti-Semitism (the NYT is full of young woke reporters), but also by her criticisms of the Left in general. Yet she’s still a liberal, and I feel a kinship with her even though I think she may actually believe in God.

Anyway, read this piece; it’s not long:

Weiss begins with a story I’ve heard of (it’s got its own Wikipedia page), but didn’t know the outcome, which is unbelievable:

Two years ago, a 27-year-old man named Kobili Traoré walked into the Paris apartment of a 65-year-old kindergarten teacher named Sarah Halimi. Mr. Traoré beat Ms. Halimi and stabbed her. According to witnesses, he called her a demon and a dirty Jew. He shouted, “Allahu akbar,” then threw Ms. Halimi’s battered body out of her third-story apartment window.

This is what Mr. Traoré told prosecutors: “I felt persecuted. When I saw the Torah and a chandelier in her home I felt oppressed. I saw her face transforming.”

One would think that this would be an open-and-shut hate crime. It was the coldblooded murder of a woman in her own home for the sin of being a Jew. But French prosecutors decided to drop murder charges against Mr. Traoré because he … had smoked cannabis.

If France’s betrayal of Sarah Halimi is shocking to you, perhaps you haven’t being paying much attention to what by now can be described as a moral calamity sweeping the West of which her story is only the clearest example. A crisis, I hasten to add, that’s perhaps less known because it has been largely overlooked by the mainstream press.

Traoré remains in a psychiatric hospital, and might not even be tried for anything (that will be decided December 19). The judge didn’t even consider it an antisemitic crime until the prosecutors force him to.  Now it may be that the killer is mentally ill, and can be considered “not guilty by reason of insanity” (I’m not sure that verdict is possible in France), but certainly he should be tried for murder. If he’s ill, then appropriate punishment/sequestration, coupled with therapy and rehabilitation, is indicated. But dropping charges, well, that’s not so cool, nor is saying the crime had nothing to do with Judaism.

Regardless, Weiss continues by calling out the anti-Semitism of Britain’s Labour Party and of Jeremy Corbyn, something that’s hardly contested these days, and then moves to Italy, where politicians recently decided against establishing a Holocaust memorial because it was considered “too divisive”. There’s the anti-Semitism of McGill University’s student council, something I described the other day, and the continuing bigotry of Linda Sarsour, who is a “surrogate” for Bernie Sanders—someone authorized to campaign on his behalf. She’s also considered a hero to many on the Left.


Elsewhere in the Democratic Party, Linda Sarsour, the activist who was removed from her leadership position in the Women’s March thanks to her history of anti-Semitic scandals and who now serves as a surrogate for the presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, gave a talk on Friday to a group called American Muslims for Palestine. The part of her talk that circulated online focused on the apparent hypocrisy of progressive Zionists: How, Ms. Sarsour asked about people who are the No. 1 target of white supremacists, can they claim to oppose white supremacy when they support “a state like Israel that is built on supremacy, that is built on the idea that Jews are supreme to everybody else?”

Lest you think this is “just anti-Zionism,” consider that the Sanders surrogate was speaking at a conference that printed the following sentence in its program: “Zionism has come in like a disease to destroy the purity of Al Quds.” (Al Quds is the Arabic name for Jerusalem.)

Finally, there are the recent physical attacks on Jews simply because they appear Jewish. But read Weiss on that.  Her conclusion: things look grim for Jews, especially in Britain and France, where a respectable number say they’re considering leaving their countries and moving to Israel (see here and here). Weiss concludes this:

There is a theme here. The theme is that Jew-hatred is surging and yet Jewish victimhood does not command attention or inspire popular outrage. That unless Jews are murdered by neo-Nazis, the one group everyone of conscience recognizes as evil, Jews’ inconvenient murders, their beatings, their discrimination, the singling out of their state for demonization will be explained away.

When you look at each of these incidents, perhaps it is possible still to pretend that these are random bursts of bigotry perpetrated by hooligans lacking any real organization or power behind them.

But Mr. Corbyn’s electoral prospects in Britain tell a different, far more distressing story — that a person with some of the same impulses as those hooligans can stand within spitting distance of the office of prime minister. This is what happens when a culture decides that Jewish lives are stumbling stones.

Will the Left embrace a hashtag like #JewishLivesMatter? Don’t count on it.

FFRF places full-page ad in the New York Times attacking the theocracy of the Trump administration

I don’t have a paper copy of the New York Times (I’m an e-subscriber, and unsure whether I’ll renew), but, according to the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), their organization ran a full-page ad in today’s paper attacking the pervasive theocracy of the Trump administration. (They weren’t 100% sure it would run today.) The FFRF also put the ad on their own website, so I’ll reproduce it below along with an excerpt from their description.

I’m not sure what full-page ads cost in the New York Times, but they’re not cheap; you can see some of the rates here, though they’re hard to decipher. Given that this ad is in color, I’d say it cost in the ballpark of $200,000. But the FFRF isn’t poor—it’s one of the best-funded of all secular organizations, and on top of these ads they give out lots of cash awards and scholarships.

Here’s a bit of the FFRF’s explanation of the ad, along with the name of the artist:

The Freedom From Religion Foundation is running a dramatic full-page ad this week in The New York Times warning that a theocratic deluge could drown us. The ad will likely appear on Thursday, Dec. 4.

The striking ad has a stark depiction of the Statue of Liberty holding a cross while large waves labeled “Theocracy” surround her and overwhelm buildings. The image is drawn by Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Steve Benson. “Help stem the theocratic tidal wave,” FFRF’s ad urges.

. . . “Our constitutional right to a secular government has never before been in danger of being so engulfed,” says Annie Laurie Gaylor, FFRF co-president. “We will fight to the utmost to ensure that reason and our secular Constitution endure.”

The ad includes a coupon at the bottom enabling people to become members or supporters of the state/church watchdog organization. The Freedom From Religion Foundation, a national nontheistic group with more than 30,000 members and several chapters all over the country, has received a four-star rating plus a “perfect score” this year from Charity Navigator as a carefully run nonprofit.

Yes, the organization is run as a tight ship. You should consider joining it (I’m a member as well as on the honorary board of directors); it’s only $40 per year and you get a fat monthly newsletter with all kinds of good stuff in it. And of course you’re helping a secular group that really fights hard to keep the church-state wall in place, and has had numerous legal successes. To join, go here.

Nick Spencer returns to defend religion in Prospect magazine

Does the ubiquity and supposed beneficial effect of religion constitute evidence for God? Well, at least one intellectual (and I use the term loosely) thinks so.

Reader Michael sent me a link to Nick Spencer’s favorable review in Prospect of Stephen Asma’s 2018 book Why We Need Religion (click on screenshot below). Michael added this: “Maybe you’ll find this reviewer’s uncritical nonsense of interest. The reviewer, Nick Spencer, is a beneficiary of Templeton’s pieces of silver and you’ve written about him before.”

Actually, I didn’t write much about Spencer; I asked a reader, Mark Jones, if he’d say a few words about Spencer’s BBC program,  The Secret History of Science and Religion. Jones’s words about Spencer were not favorable, nor were mine after I watched one episode of the show. I did say this about Spencer:

Nick Spencer is a Senior Fellow at the Christian think tank Theos, and is responsible for the 2009 Templeton funded project “Rescuing Darwin” (to the tune of $600,000!!, according to page 214 of this book).

It also turns out that I’ve already discussed a New York Times article by Asma written before his book came out, and summarizing the thesis of that book, which is that regardless of its truth claims, religion is good for humans.  In his Prospect review, Spencer simply reiterates that thesis, adding that he, Spencer, thinks that the prevalence and value of religion is evidence that there is indeed a God.  (Prospect is a general magazine “of ideas,” and doesn’t seem to be particularly religious in its orientation.)

Click on the screenshot below, but be prepared for a new and mushy argument for God:

According to Spencer’s review, Asma (a professor of philosophy at  Columbia College Chicago) once disdained religion, and still sees it as “irrational”, but now thinks that its irrationality doesn’t override its value as a mechanism for coping with life:

Most of [Asma’s] early publications were “strenuously” critical of religion. He wrote enthusiastically for various sceptical and secularist publications, and even found himself listed in “Who’s who in hell,” a publication of which I was heretofore blissfully unaware.

However, some challenging encounters, wider reading and deeper reflection began to change his mind. “I’m an agnostic and a citizen of a wealthy nation,” he confesses towards the end of his provocatively-entitled 2018 Why We Need Religion, “but when my own son was in the emergency room with an illness, I prayed spontaneously.” “I’m not naïve,” he goes on to say. “I don’t think it did a damn thing to heal him. But it is a response that will not go and that should not go away if it provides genuine relief for anxiety and anguish.”

. . . [Asma] now views religion—his focus is primarily on Christianity and Buddhism, but much of what he says applies more widely—as natural, beneficial, humanising, and, indeed, indispensable.

The key is the body. Why We Need Religion takes our embodied and affective nature very seriously and shows, in detail and with impressive supporting evidence, that religious commitment—beliefs, practices, rituals, etc.—help protect and manage our emotional life with unparalleled and probably irreplaceable success. Religion is, in effect, a management system for our emotional lives that helps the human organism stay healthy and well.

Yes, there are studies that show that religious commitment can have salubrious effects on your personality or emotions. But that has no more bearing on whether it’s true than does the placebo effect of sugar pills on the hypothesis that sugar has a physiological effect on arthritis (Spencer disagrees; see below). Indeed, one can envision religion as a placebo effect on your brain: it can make you feel better regardless of whether the content of religious claims is true.

But to Asma, the truth of religion doesn’t matter: it’s still good because it makes people feel better. You’ll recognize that as the “Little People’s Argument”—the claim that religion is good for the masses because it soothes and placates them (a thesis advanced by Karl Marx), even though Asma himself doesn’t believe in God. This is an enormously patronizing argument, and also fails for reasons I discussed in my critique of Asma’s NYT article:

. . . here Asma lumps himself with “the secular world”, implying he’s an atheist too. In that case, he’s making the Little People Argument: “I don’t buy religion, but it’s good for the Little Folk.” And, in fact, you cannot fully embrace a religion, or reap its supposed consolations, if you don’t believe it’s true—really believe it’s true. If you don’t buy the Jesus story of Christianity, then you’re not going to be consoled about meeting your son in Heaven. Asma doesn’t take up this issue: if religion is irrational, and impossible to believe for many, then such people can never force themselves to believe, no matter how much they’d be consoled if they did.

Further, if religion is good because it provides this consolation, then what about those religions, like Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, in which you don’t get to meet your relatives and friends in the hereafter? Are those religions also good because they have other benefits?

Asma, and apparently Spencer, seem to want us to suspend our disbelief in religion—or at least stop criticizing it—because some studies show that it’s helpful. And yet other studies support Marx by showing that the religiosity of countries is negatively correlated with the happiness of their inhabitants. That negative correlation also holds among the 50 US states. Here’s a graph for countries produced for this site by reader Michael Coon; it shows a strongly negative relationship between how religious a country is and the United Nation’s assessment of its “Happiness Index” (higher values mean happier countries):

Now this doesn’t disprove that religion makes you happier and better able to cope with life. It is, after all, a correlation. But it surely doesn’t support that thesis, either. My own theory, which isn’t mine but one advanced by many sociologists, is that countries tend to become more religious when their inhabitants are not doing that well. When the government or your fellow humans can’t help you much, you turn to God, thinking that, even if things are crappy in your life, it will all be rectified in the next life.

Look at the happiest countries on that plot. They’re countries like Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden, and the Netherlands—countries that have a large number of atheists. The unhappiest countries are ones from sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, where people are religious but not particularly well off.  As I wrote in my earlier critique of Asma:

Never does [Asma] mention that countries like Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and France—countries in which people who really believe in Heaven and other such nonsense are in the minority—manage to sustain themselves quite well, with people finding meaning in nonreligious activities and philosophies. And those countries, as we well know, tend to be better off than religious countries in most ways, including having a populace with greater material and psychological well being, and, importantly, being happier.  If religion brings us so much consolation and happiness, and so much emotional well being, how come studies repeatedly show that a populace’s perception of their well being, and their assessment of their own happiness, are negatively correlated with the religiosity of their country? Why are the countries with the happiest and most secure people the most atheistic, while those with the least secure and unhappiest populations are the most religious? Why does religiosity go up after indices of social success go down? Shouldn’t it be the opposite, Dr. Asma?

Two more points. First, while I’ve suggested that secular humanism is a good replacement for religion, and has the advantage of not forcing you to believe silly things, Spencer—and perhaps Asma—sees secular humanism as a “substitute religion.” This is a common but ultimately ridiculous way to defend religion in general (my emphasis in the passage below):

 Human grief has both elaborate cognitive and neurochemical dimensions. . . Mammalian brains are hardwired for the calming comfort of a caregiver’s touch, and when that is denied us, especially permanently, the brain experiences a “major reduction in opioids, oxytocin and prolactin.” Religious belief attenuates the severity of that separation, and religious practices develop, codify, and authenticate grieving customs that serve to offer a kind of emotional surrogate for loss. Both cognitively and affectively, religion helps us cope with grief. That, of course, is one of the reasons why non-religious religions like Secular Humanism so often get into the funeral business. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

In what way is secular humanism a religion? Spencer doesn’t tell us.

Although Spencer casts doubt on some of Asma’s claims about the psychological values of religion, Spencer ultimately buys the thesis that religion is salubrious. But again, just because something is salubrious, does that mean it’s true? And what about the negative effects of religion? Spencer doesn’t discuss the second point but he does take up the first. And, in a stunning move, Spencer argues that the ubiquity and salubrious effects of religion are indeed evidence for a god, using arguments about our senses that have been advanced by, among others, Steve Pinker (my emphasis in Spencer’s passage below):

. . . it seems to me to be a natural step to move (or at least to edge) from religion’s affective importance to its cognitive reliability; i.e. from the kind of goodness (or at least usefulness) of which Asma writes, to its truth. Now, to be clear, this move need not be made. Just because something is (or can be) good, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. However, we should, at least, pause here. You can make a very strong argument that religion has played a positive role in human evolution, enabling individual and group survival, strength and cohesion, thereby being selected for in the evolutionary process. True, evolution selects for survival, not truth… but the two are hardly independent.

Broadly speaking, an organism whose cognitive functions are capable of tracking “that which is the case” is likely to do better than one that doesn’t. Whether you are finding prey, sensing a predator, or responding otherwise to your environment, it helps if your evolved senses are trained on the truth. It strikes me that the same point can be made of the apparently ubiquitous human need for religion (or in some places now, religion-like substitutes). As Steven Pinker (of all people!) once remarked “we have colour vision because there are differences in wavelength in the world.  We have depth perception because the world actually does exist in three dimensions. By the same logic someone might be tempted to say that if we have a ‘God module’ there must be a God it’s an adaptation to.” Pinker of course is not tempted to say that. Nor, it seems, is Asma. I am.

“I am!”  LOL!

While there’s no strong evidence that religious belief has a genetic component, much less was installed in our species by natural selection, let’s go ahead and accept that claim. Does it then show that God exists? Not at all! For if religious belief evolved, it was likely during the period of our species’ infancy when had little understanding of how the world worked. Baffled and saddened by disease, death, natural disasters, and other enigmatic phenomena, perhaps our ancestors—as Pascal Boyer suggests—invoked a supernatural agency as an explanation. Such an “agency detection module” may well be the ultimate cause of religion, and itself might have been adaptive. After all, if you think a rustle in the brush indicates the presence of a predator, you’re more likely to survive than if you just fob it off as wind.

But if religion is a byproduct of something like that, or simply an evolved tendency to believe your elders (something that’s also adaptive), then superstitious beliefs can become embedded in our culture regardless of whether they are true. Is our “afterlife module”—part of many but not all religions—evidence that there really is an afterlife? Or is it simply a way of coping with the fact that our species is unique in apprehending our earthly mortality?

As I noted previously, there are all sorts of religions, ranging from theism to deism to panpsychism, and even the theistic ones ranging from Scientology to Hinduism to Mormonism to Catholicism. Are these simply different manifestations of the same God module? Spencer doesn’t answer, nor did Asma in his NYT piece (the book may, but I don’t know). I think a more parsimonious hypothesis is that the existents of tens of thousands of diverse faiths doesn’t attest to the truth of a single god, but to the various ways in which humans can find solace in superstition, and in which they can exert power over others by making them adhere to those superstitions.

Neither the ubiquity of a belief nor its positive effects on human psychological well being say anything about the truth of that belief. Religion is not like vision or smell; it’s a psychological rather than aphysiological trait, and many people get on perfectly well without faith. If Spencer thinks that there’s a god because belief in one brings well-being, and because religion is ubiquitous (but disappearing in the West!), then he is pretty ignorant of the way we use empirical observations to establish truth.

Curiously, the well-regarded site 3 Quarks Daily, a site that for some reason I don’t often read, has linked to Spencer’s review of Asma, not mentioning that that review takes the claim that religion is “natural and beneficial” as evidence for God. 3 Quarks is largely an aggregator of other sites, and in this case doesn’t seem to have vetted the Prospect piece very carefully. Clicking on the 3 Quarks screenshot below will just take you to a link back to the Prospect piece; I put it here just to show you how uncritical people can be, and how far the rot has spread:

h/t: Michael

Readers’ wildlife videos

We’re back to the “readers’ wildlife” feature, and I’ll put up one video from a reader and supplement it with two penguin videos I took.

First, reader John Runnels from Louisiana sent a video from Baton Rouge with a gazillion pelicans. His notes simply say this: “White Pelicans, University Lake, Baton Rouge, LA, 14 November 2019.”. The American white pelican has the binomial Pelecanus erythrorhynchos.  

By the way, if you have anything to do with Cornell’s great All About Birds site, could you tell them to put the scientific binomial of the birds on their pages? I can’t find it, and thus don’t often link to their site. Tell me, for instance, where you can find the Latin binomial on the page for white pelicans!

John’s videos:

Here’s another one of John’s from late October, called “Pelicans cleared for takeoff”:

My penguin videos. Here’s a gentoo penguin (Pygoscelis papua) walking clumsily around on Greenwich Island (see post here). After tumbling a bit, it toboggans, stands up, and has a satisfying scratch:

And here are some gentoo penguins porpoising in the waters around Vernadsky Research Base, the Ukrainian science station that we visited on November 20. (I miss Antarctica!) They may be clumsy on land, as above, but in the water they are agile and beautiful.