The Chapel Hill murders: a rush to judgement of atheists by atheists

Jeffrey Tayler, the Russian-based contributing editor to The Atlantic, continues his series of anti-theistic and pro-atheist articles in Salon, with the latest an analysis of atheism and Craig Stephen Hicks, the man who gunned down three young Muslims in Chapel Hill—for reasons that are completely opaque. Immediately after the shooting, not only theists but also some “social justice” atheists declared that, since Hicks was an atheist, the killing was clearly the product of New Atheism, with at least one person—the noxious C. J. Werleman—declaring that Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins had blood on their hands: that this murder was the harvest of their anti-Muslim animus.

I can understand theists making this argument, for, after all, they hate atheists and would pin on us anything they could; but I was a bit surprised at the atheists’ rush to judgment. After all, the motive for the killing wasn’t at all obvious. Hicks didn’t say anything, and still hasn’t, his wife claimed it was a dispute over a parking space (who knows if that’s true?), and Hicks’s own Facebook page, though providing much evidence of his unbelief, gave no clue that he had any rancor against Muslims in particular. The subgroup of atheists eager to pin the crime on New Atheism could be explained only as their way to get back at those people, like Harris and Dawkins, whose ideologies (or age, or gender, or race) they found repugnant or oppressive.

Tayler’s piece from March 1, “Religion’s new atheist scapegoat: Why the Chapel Hill murders weren’t about Islamophobia,” emphasizes the lack of obvious motivation for the murders, but also excoriates those atheists who blamed them on other atheists. He concentrates largely on Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, a Ph.D. candidate at the notoriously p.c. Brown University, who wrote a wrongheaded attack on atheists in The New Republic called “The Chapel Hill Murders Should Be a Wake-Up Call for Atheists. ” Her piece not only blames the murders on New Atheism, but indicted the “movement” (whatever it is) for a host of other sins: racism, misogyny, Islamophobia, and “modes of thought and expression that privilege educated white men.”

Tayler sticks to the blood-on-the-hands trope, and simply takes Bruenig apart. A good takedown of a bad argument is delicious, and I’ll let you savor it. Here’s just one bit, when Bruenig reproduced a sympathetic tw**t from Dawkins:

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 1.44.24 PM

She then made this confused argument:

Dawkins takes the obviousness of his moral frame for granted; he doesn’t feel the need to offer an earnest denouncement of these murders because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of. But this is a persistent problem with the New Atheist movement: Because it is more critical of religion than introspective about its own moral commitments, it assumes there is broad agreement about what constitutes decency, common sense, and reason. Yet in doing so, New Atheism tends to simply baptize the opinions of young, educated white men as the obviously rational approach to complicated socio-political problems. Thus prejudice in its own ranks goes unnoticed.

What Dawkins’s tw**t had to do with a lack of earnestness or sincere morality, or “young educated white men,” eludes me. But Tayler has a few pungent words:

Stoker Bruenig then presses Dawkins’ (above-instanced) tweet into service to show New Atheism’s culpability in the shootings, “because he does not honestly believe any person could view them as an outgrowth of a system decent people like him are a part of.” This is textbook begging the question. She has provided no proof – nor has Hicks, nor have investigators – that New Atheism or anti-theism had anything to do with motivating the crime.

Stoker Bruenig then flashes her credentials as a postmodernist and highlights the gender of the atheists (mostly male), their average ages, their high level of education (which Hicks did not share), and conflates all these factors to assert that “the id of New Atheism tends toward ordaining modes of thought and expression that privilege educated white men.”

This statement is, to borrow a phrase from the Honorable “slayer of intelligent design”Judge John E. Jones, a “breathtaking inanity.” None of these factors in any way bear on the veracity of atheism, its merits or demerits, or the “id” presumably impelling its advocates. People of all genders, ages and races would benefit by abandoning stone-age myths and morals – and especially women, who suffer the most from them, with their rights to do as they please with their bodies under threat from Neanderthals with high pulpits and deep pockets, and, in certain well-known parts of the world, their very genitalia threatened by razor-mad butchers. To ignore these realities is to miss the genesis of said “id.”

It goes on in that Hitchensian vein, and Bruening comes out no better. In end, we simply know nothing about Hicks’s motivations, and perhaps we never will. But one thing is for certain: pinning the blame for the murders on the New Atheists is simply dumb, since none of them have ever sanctioned, encouraged, or approved of violence against anyone. They have criticized the tenets of faith and the bad actions they inspire—period. It’s time to stop using this tragedy, and the death of three young people whose lives were all ahead of them, as an excuse to bash your favorite atheist. As Tayler says at the end (and I love his last sentence):

The Chapel Hill murders are a tragedy, and must be investigated carefully. Perhaps Hicks will, after all, unbosom his motive as hatred of Muslims. By doing so, he would not, after all, enhance the severity of his punishment, given that North Carolina’s statutes do not provide for this. Moreover, he could not believably or demonstratively justify his homicidal actions by citing works by atheists or anti-theists. But whatever his motive, one fact remains: the answers, ultimately, to the growing problem of violence perpetrated with religious sanction lies not in more religion (that is, in more superstition and irrationality), but in a collective determination to resolve our problems through reason, discussion, and secularism.

If the promise of youth for the Chapel Hill victims has been tragically shattered, the promise rationalism and the renunciation of dangerous myths, void of prescriptive value ab initio, but openly called into question by atheists over the past decade or so, remains ours to realize.

Reason, consensus, and secularism – I defy anyone to exploit these lofty, laudable concepts to arrive at anything but progress.

A squirrel three sheets to the wind

It’s Friday afternoon, and I can’t brain very well, so we’ll have animal videos. How about a drunk squirrel? This video, over a year old, has somehow been rediscovered and is all over the Internet.

Apparently this squirrel became intoxicated after eating too many fermented crabapples, and the result is hilarious (I assume it’s not ill). It’s so boiled that it simply can’t squirrel. And if it could talk, it would say, “I love you, man!”

The disingenuousness of some British Muslims

This 15-month-old video, with Maajid Nawaz as the relentless interlocutor, shows how odious and duplicitous some prominent British Muslims can be when it comes to saying what they really think.

Nawaz, now a liberal and moderate Muslim, has an interesting history: he was born to Pakistani parents in the UK, educated in England, and then became radicalized and spent a year in Egypt, joining a revolutionary group dedicated to establishing the Caliphate. He was arrested in Egypt for belonging to the group, and spent four years in prison.

During his imprisonment, Nawaz became de-radicalized, and now speaks vociferously against extremist Islam, though I believe he still considers himself a Muslim (I don’t know how religious he is). He founded the anti-extremist Quilliam Foundation, and speaks extensively on the dangers of Islamism. He is a brave man: were I he, I’d fear for my life. (By the way, Nawaz and Sam Harris have collaborated on a book exchanging views about Islam; it will be published fairly soon by Harvard University Press.)

This 7-minute video shows Nawaz asking a number of British Muslims, some quite prominent, to lay out how closely they adhere to sharia law. Do they decry the chopping off of thieves’ hands? Would they oppose the stoning of adulterers, or the killing of apostates? None of them will give a flat and unqualified “no” to these questions, and you just know that they really approve of these things but can’t say so publicly. Here we see some Plantiga-grade theological waffling.

You may think that Nawaz is hectoring some of them, but really, how much time do you need to think about whether you think stoning people is a good idea? The point is obviously that many of the “non-extremist” Muslims of Britain hold very retrograde and brutal views, a point that was made in a recent BBC survey of Muslim opinion.

Of course, their answers are all ultimately based on the resentment of the colonialist West . . .

h/t: Yakaru

Snow-covered eagle broods its eggs

This series of photos, from WTOP in Washington D.C., will of course make you go “awww” as you see the lengths an eagle will go to to keep his/her eggs warm (I don’t know the sex of this one). But of course it’s instinct, just like our own protective instincts towards our kids, for the eagles who didn’t sit on eggs when snow was falling didn’t leave as many descendants.

Still, it’s an amazing series of photos. Here’s one of ten, and the others show what happens when the other eagle comes in to change places.

Screen Shot 2015-03-06 at 11.00.26 AM

Photo from the Pennsylvania Game Commission


Remember that the eagle is covered with nice warm feathers, and the snow acts as an insulator from the wind, so she may actually be warmer than if she wasn’t covered with snow.


Tanya Luhrmann in the NYT: I melted a bicycle light with my mind!

What on earth has happened to the New York Times? I can’t imagine that it’s suffering from a dearth of contributors, as America is full of good journalists and writers with lots to say and no place to say it. Instead, the paper hires Tanya Luhrmann to write regular pieces on its Op-Ed page, pieces that are becoming increasingly full of woo and superstition-coddling.

Luhrmann, an anthropologist at Stanford University, did respected work on an anthropological analysis of psychiatry. But right about when her 2012 book came out—When God Talks back: Understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God, an anthropologist’s look at a Christian evangelical sect—she began slipping off the rails. To me, she now seems to be going down the track built by Deepak Chopra: making nebulous statements about spirituality—statements whose meaning is hard to pin down—to corral the many people in this country who, even though disaffected by traditional religion, want there to be Something More than Reality. And, like Chopra, Luhrmann uses her cachet as “scientist” to sell the woo.

If you read When God Talks Back, as I did, you’d see that she vehemently claims “objectivity,” passing no judgment on whether the members of the Vineyard sect, who practice talking to God, actually heard back from the old guy. In other words, she said nothing about her own beliefs, although there were subtle hints that she was sympathetic to religion. (Her work on that book, by the way, was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation.)

That sympathy seems to have gotten stronger and stronger over the past few years, and I’ve pointed it out in my many posts on Luhrmann’s enabling of religion.  At one point one of her friends emailed me, chewing me out for saying that she was a faith-enabler, which he adamantly maintained she was not. Well, I wonder what her friend would say about her new NYT op-ed, “When things happen that you can’t explain.” The piece is not only embarrassing in its sycophancy towards All Things Numinous, but makes some elementary errors of inference.

Luhrmann’s thesis is that spooky things sometimes happen—one happened to her, in fact—and when they do we just don’t know whether there’s a rational scientific explanation or one that involves Something Beyond Our Ken. She recounts an incident that occurred when she was riding a British train and reading a book about Buddhist mysticism:

The author wrote that all these were just names for forces that flowed from a higher spiritual reality into this one, through the vehicle of the trained mind. And as I strained to imagine what the author thought it would be like to be that vehicle, I began to feel power in my veins — to really feel it, not to imagine it. I grew hot. I became completely alert, more awake than I usually am, and I felt so alive. It seemed that power coursed through me like water through a chute. I wanted to sing. And then wisps of smoke came out of my backpack, in which I had tossed my bicycle lights. One of them was melting.

People believe what they believe for a range of reasons, but one of the most puzzling — at least for those who have not had events like these — is an explanation from personal experience. Such moments have cherished roles in conversion narratives, of course.

She then recounts similar experiences from other people—people who feel “electricity” course through them when worshipping God, or an Englishman who, waiting to bat at cricket, felt that “[s]omething invisible seemed to be drawn across the sky, transforming the world about me into a kind of tent of concentrated and enhanced significance.” In other words, she reprises all the experiences of the spiritual, numinous, and divine that fill William James’s book The Varieties of Religious Experience. In that book, James argues that such personal experiences are the main reason why people turn to God, though he was careful not to say whether he thought they were genuine evidence for the divine.

Luhrmann is equally careful, but in a bad way, for she simply characterizes such experiences as if there were a roughly equal probability of their having either a natural or a supernatural explanation:

I walked off that train with a new respect for why people believed in magic, not a new understanding of reality. Sometimes people have remarkable experiences, and then tuck them away as events they can’t explain.

. . . I’ve talked to hundreds of people who have had remarkable, unexpected experiences that startled them profoundly. Some see them as clear evidence of the supernatural and others do not. And there are those who come to a conclusive view of what these events mean, and those who hold them as evidence of the mystery of the human imagination itself.

As for me, I never did figure out what was going on with those bicycle lights.

But of course Luhrmann didn’t really try to figure out what was going on with the bicycle lights! Did she take them to an electrician, or even open up the lights and see what happened?

And so Dr. Luhrmann dangles before us the tantalizing possibility that maybe Something We Don’t Understand melted her lights. Was it her imagination? Was it God, sending her a message? We don’t know, and so everything is on the table.

But what was probable?  Maybe there was an electrical short, maybe one of the batteries malfunctioned: there are many non-supernatural possibilities. But she doesn’t want to know, for by holding out the possibility that it could have been something numinous, she caters to the audience she wants to retain: New Age spiritualists and Seekers, as well as the Templeton Foundation, which loves this kind of ambiguous take on the supernatural. But possiblities aren’t the same as probabilities or likelihoods, as Greg Mayer points out below (and which philosopher David Hume realized in 1748 in his discussion of the likelihood of miracles).

When Greg Mayer sent me this link, along with a lot of words like “charlatan” and “loon,” he added his own take:

She seems to think that her anecdote makes it plausible that the batteries were melted by the power of her spiritual experience, and that this hypothesis is to be accorded as much deference as any other (some of the others being 1. she’s misrecalling the whole thing; 2. there was a natural explanation, like an electrical problem; 3. invisible Wellsian Martians used a very concentrated heat ray on the batteries; 4. Cthulhu was attempting to reenter the world of the living, but failed, giving off a puff of smoke and heat in the process; or 5.  any other crackpot idea you might have). Since she has no evidence for her spiritual hypothesis, but no evidence for any of the others (in her estimation), she regards that as a warrant for believing her hypothesis.

Because she can’t explain the melting, then we are entitled to believe anything we want about it. It’s a “believe-anything-you-damn-well-please-of-the-gaps” argument. In her epistemology, a gap in knowledge is filled not by God, but by whatever the hell you want.

From a Bayesian perspective (and I’m not a Bayesian), my hypotheses 1) and 2) have substantial prior probabilities, while the others (including hers) have a prior probability near 0; and if you regard the data as uninformative (as she apparently does), then misrecalling the incident or electrical problems win the Bayesian analysis by a landslide.

Her whole argument seems like a potpourri of the elemental errors of reasoning in a book like Schick and Vaughn’s “How to Think about Weird Things”.

Greg teaches a course at his university called “Science and Pseudoscience,” and added some information he gleaned from the material he assigns his students, including the book cited above:

Here are some of Schick and Vaughn’s (Schick, T. and L. Vaughn. 2014. How to Think About Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age. 7th ed. McGraw-Hill, New York) principles of reasoning that Luhrmann violates:

Just because a claim hasn’t been conclusively refuted doesn’t mean that it’s true.

Just because you can’t explain something doesn’t mean that it’s supernatural.

There is good reason to doubt a proposition if it conflicts with other propositions we have good reason to believe.

The more background information a proposition conflicts with, the more reason there is to doubt it.

When there is good reason to doubt a proposition, we should proportion our belief to the evidence.

Just because something seems (feels, appears) real doesn’t mean that it is.

It’s reasonable to accept personal experience as reliable evidence only if there’s no reason to doubt its reliability.

(And the book details why there’s much reason to doubt it’s reliability: selective memory, confirmation bias, errors in perception, etc. Much of the above is explicitly Humean.)

I could go on– the book really does demolish the “Appeal to Mystical Experience”. And it’s an undergraduate freshman general education text! Her piece is the sort of thing you assign to students in a critical thinking class and say, “OK, list as many errors of reasoning found here as you can.” Normally you have to use back issues of the Weekly World News to find so rich a lode of intellectual malfeasance! And she’s got a Ph.D. herself, and slipped this by the editors of the NY Times—there’s a lot of shame to go around!

I won’t psychologize Luhrmann here, for the possibilities are many: she could actually believe that a paranormal/goddy explanation is likely or at least has a substantial likelihood; she could simply be catering to an audience she wants to get; she could be saying what she thinks Templeton wants to hear, and so on. But whatever the explanation, it doesn’t speak well for her objectivity and rationality as an analyst of human behavior.

I would love to ask the Times‘s op-ed editor why the hell he put this piece on the page. I surely agree with Greg, though, that this is a black mark for the newspaper: a slice of tripe masquerading as informed opinion.

A note to readers

I’ve mentioned this once before, but some people have either missed it or disregarded it. I get a huge volume of emails from readers giving me feedback, suggested topics or links, and even errors or typos in my posts (please do let me know if there’s a typo or howler). I welcome that, as I like to think that the site is the locus of a community of interacting people, and I also get many of my topics from readers.

But as readership has increased, the emails have gotten overwhelming. To try to reduce the volume, I ask readers again to email me no more than once per day. I can’t handle more than that, and there’s also a chance that your emails will get lost or mixed up.



Readers’ wildlife photos

Today we have a special edition, with readers’ paintings and videos as well. Or rather “a reader’s” paintings and videos, for the reader is tropical biologist/photographer/artist Lou Jost, who lives and works in Ecuador, and whose pictures show up often on this site. This week he sent two videos (one made by him), and one painting of a raptor we rarely hear about.

But I’ll let him tell the tales:

Here are a pair of videos of two top predators, an ocelot and an eagle, in our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, who may
sometimes eat each other!

The ocelot [Leopardus pardalis] was devouring large numbers of the local people’s chickens and guinea pigs (raised for meat here). The Ecuadorian Ministry of the Environment was called, and they live-trapped the cat. They decided to release it on the edge of our Cerro Candelaria Reserve, where it would have thousands of acres of safe habitat. This video (made by our reserve guard, Fausto Recalde) shows its release. The loud snapping sound in the first second of the video was made by the ocelot’s teeth as it threatened the handler through the cage’s side window.

The Black-and-chestnut Eagle (Spizaetus isidori) is another top predator in the same forest. My video, made in the reserve a month or so ago, is of a first-year bird calling its parents to be fed. My still photo is of the same bird, and my painting is of the dark adult. Our reserve guards have witnessed this giant eagle carrying large monkeys through the air. Lots more information on this bird, and much better pictures of it by our guards and others, are at this site.

Notice that the cat has a good old-fashioned claw scratch as soon as it’s free of the cage. Apparently they didn’t give it a scratching post in captivity!

Some local people told us that they had once seen one of these eagles eating a spotted cat (ocelot or margay, it was not clear which it was), and had also seen an ocelot eating one of these eagles. Both these nomming events happened in what is now the reserve. So perhaps the subjects of these two videos will some day face each other….

Here’s Lou’s photograph of the juvenile eagle:


And here’s another photo by Roger Ahlman of the adult eagle (Ahlman is an expert bird guide and photographer, whose webpage is here). Note the striking difference in pumage between young and adult. I don’t know what explanation birders and naturalists have for this difference, but if you know of one, please add it in the comments:


Some information on this bird from the Fundacion EcoMinga website:

This eagle is distributed along the lower and middle slopes of the Andes from Venezuela to Agrentina. It is a very scarce bird, with an estimated 200 adult birds in Ecuador and between 375-1500 adults throughout its range. It needs large tracts of good forest, where it hunts large birds such as guans, and mammals ranging in size from small squirrels to large and heavy Woolly Monkeys. Unfortunately it eats many chickens in areas where people have invaded forests, and this often earns it a death sentence. Our caretakers say they have solved this problem by letting turkeys run with their chickens; apparently the eagles are afraid of them. In 2014 the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) raised its conservation priority status from Vulnerable to Endangered, “on the basis that its declining population is estimated to be very small, with fewer mature individuals than previously thought. The destruction of its montane forest habitat, as well as direct human persecution, are inferred to be driving a continuing decline.”

And here’s Lou’s own painting of the adult:



Sixteen Miles

We’re continuing right on along with the songs from Gordon Lightfoot’s 1966 album Lightfoot!, I realized that most of the songs on that album fall into two categories: 1) Lightfoot spurning a woman, and 2) A woman spurning Lightfoot. Today’s song, one of my favorites on the album, falls into class 2. “Sixteen Miles (to Seven Lakes)” falls into class 2. I don’t know much about it save that it’s an original Lightfoot composition, and incorporates his recurring image of the Canadian wilderness.

It’s also the only song, as far as I know, that includes a mention of the puma, also called the cougar (Puma concolor).


The lonely puma call

Friday: Hili dialogue

The work week (for punters) is nearly over, and although we’ve had only a smidgen of snow in Chicago, it has been below the freezing point the whole time. People are talking more about the weather than at any time since I’ve been in Chicago (1986), and they want winter to be over. My response is, “Well, at least we don’t live in Boston.”

Meanwhile in Dobrzyn (Poland!), winter looks as if it’s receding. Hili, as usual, whiles away the time wheedlng her staff for noms. I won’t fat shame her, but let’s just say that she could use a trip to the gym.

Hili: This is a very special occasion.
A: What’s the occasion?
Hili: The time eat something scrumptious.
(Photo: Sarah Lawson)
unnamed (1)
In Polish:
Hili: To jest bardzo szczególna okazja.
Ja: Do czego?
Hili: Do zjedzenia czegoś dobrego.
(Zdjęcie: Sarah Lawson)

Riddle me this: how did these twin sisters come about?

These are twins: two girls (now women, really) born at the same time from the same mother. They’re clearly not identical twins, but are they twins in the sense of having the same father? It is known, after all, that a single “litter” of humans can be fathered by more than one male—if the woman had intercourse with more than one man at roughly the same time (within a few days, I suspect).

When I first saw the photos, I though, “Different dads.”  I was wrong—probably.

Meet Lucy (whiter skin) and Maria (darker skin). If you saw them, you’d probably say that Lucy was white and Maria was black (or of mixed race).

They are from Gloucester, and now about 18.

‘No one ever believes we are twins,” the newspaper quoted Lucy Aylmer as saying. “Even when we dress alike, we still don’t look like sisters, let alone twins.”

Appearing Tuesday on “Good Morning Britain,” the sisters said they’re always facing doubters who can’t believe they are related, much less twin sisters.


Lucy said: ‘We were in the same class, but no one had a problem telling us apart. Twins are known for swapping identities. But there was no way Maria and I could ever do anything like that.

‘Most twins look like two peas in a pod – but we couldn’t look more different if we tried. We don’t look like we have the same parents, let alone having been born at the same time.’

The twins’ interests are as different as their looks. Lucy studies art and design at Gloucester College whilst Maria studies law at Cheltenham College.

Lucy explained: ‘Maria was outgoing whilst I was the shy one. But Maria loves telling people at college that she has a white twin – and I’m very proud of having a black twin.’

. . . Images of the Aylmer sisters of Gloucester, United Kingdom, rocketed around the Internet this week when a British newspaper carried their story.

“I can’t stop crying! This is all so amazing,” Lucy Aylmer posted on Facebook.

This is from Maria’s Facebook page: the twins when young.

Screen Shot 2015-03-04 at 10.58.10 AM

Okay, so assuming they had one mom and one dad, neither is adopted, and they really are twins, explain to me the genetics behind this. The picture below gives one clue, and then you can check the CNN and The Daily Mail stories for more information about these twins. But don’t click on the links until you’ve guessed!

Your answer must be complete for full credit.

Here’s a clue—the whole family some years ago:


Finally, two twists in the story: neither of the sources above (from where the quotes originate) say that the girls’ twin status has been verified via genetic testing, which would be necessary to rule out double insemination. Further, the Daily Mail adds that the parents split up shortly after their birth.

h/t: Pyers


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 32,144 other followers