Obama’s coddling of faith

President Obama just paid his first visit to a mosque, which is good insofar as it lets people know that Muslims are Americans too, that they enjoy the same rights as other Americans, that demonizing Muslims as individuals will not be tolerated in a diverse society, and that all religions enjoy the same Constitutional freedoms. What I didn’t like was this bit:

“An attack on one religion is an attack on all religions,” President Barack Obama says while visiting a U.S. mosque for the first time as president.

Seeking to rebut what he views as perilous election-year bombast about Muslims, Obama spoke at the Islamic Society of Baltimore on Wednesday.

If by “attack” Obama meant “physical attack,” it just isn’t true; in fact, it’s meaningless. Besides, there’s no physical attack on a religion: there are physical attacks on believers or religious structures or books.

But I don’t think he meant that; I think he meant “verbal attack.” And if that’s the case, then he’s dead wrong. You can attack one religious doctrine without necessarily attacking other religious doctrines, as not all religions make the same claim. Nor are all religions equally pernicious. If you attack Catholicism for its stand on abortion, or Islam for its stand on homosexuality, you’re not attacking Quakers or Buddhists. In fact, because not all Catholics or Muslims believe the same thing, or even the accepted dogma of their sects, you’re not even attacking the beliefs of every adherent to a given faith.

There’s only one way that what Obama said can be construed as true. If he meant that “attacking the basis for belief in one religion is attacking the basis for belief of all religions,” then what he said is largely true. For, with a very few exceptions, the basis for belief in all religions is dogma, revelation, authority, and wish-thinking.

Another fail for the New York Times’s science section

This is the third time I’ve gotten the paper copy of the New York Times and read its “ScienceTimes” section, determining the proportion of all science articles that are about “pure” science that has nothing to do with our species, versus those articles about health, global warming, and the like that are relevant to human well-being. The previous two times I found a distressing surfeit of articles having to do with humans and a corresponding paucity of “pure science” pieces.

(I won’t be able to do this again for a while as I’m going on some trips: I get the Times in the student union, where they distribute copies to the university community.)

Sadly, the results this time are even worse, so that makes three out of three times I’ve had to chide the Times. But I emphasize again that this is just a quasi-random sample, so I can’t say anything about whether the paper is becoming less and less interested over time in articles that aren’t about humans. I suspect that’s the case, but it’s just a hunch.

The ScienceTimes comprises two sections: this Tuesday it was a three-page front section followed by a three-page “Well” section about human health (sometimes there is non-human stuff in “Well”). I counted all articles, big and small, in both sections. Here are the results:

Total articles: 18

Total articles not having to do with humans: 2 (one full article and two “half articles”)

These include an article on a museum exhibit demonstrating principles of Truchet tiles by letting people run mechanical beavers around on a track, with the track configured so that the beavers should never meet. I counted this as 50% of a “pure” science article, since most of it was about the difficulties that the National Museum of Mathematics was having with the exhibit. (The beavers kept running into each other.)

There was a very short Q&A piece asking why some carrots are cracked, and whether those were safe for us to eat (answer: probably, if you clean out the cracks). Feeling generous, I counted that as half a “pure science” article.

Finally, I counted as a full article a piece by James Gorman in the “Well” section on the Venus flytrap, showing that the plant can count: it doesn’t spring its trap unless two of its “hairs” are triggered within 20 seconds, but secretion of its digestive enzymes requires more than three hair flicks. That’s a very cool result, and the kind of stuff I love to read about. (Do read it yourself; it’s nice to see how plants can count.)

Sadly, the NYT, based on my admittedly scanty sample, apparently thinks that people want to read about humans and human-related science. So much the worse for the readers’ education. And so much the worse for the employment of science journalists.

Total proportion of “pure science” articles among all science articles: 2/18, or 11%.

That’s pathetic.



Why do zebras have stripes? II. It’s the flies, stupid!

Referring to the above, it may be flies; we still don’t know for sure. What I wrote above was clickbait inspired by James Carville.

Four years ago (has it really been that long?), I reported about a paper in the Journal of Experimental Biology showing that, on Hungarian horse farms, striped patterns are repugnant to horseflies (tabanids), for the flies prefer to land on solid colors than on stripes. That in turn suggested that maybe zebras are striped to reduce the number of fly bites they get, bites that can not only produce a serious loss of blood, but also spread disease (see below). There were, however, problems with that paper, and so the results were very tentative.

A few days ago I reported on a paper in PLoS ONE testing an alternative theory for zebra striping: the popular idea the pattern breaks up the outline of the animals, making them less visible to predators like lions and hyenas. That theory wasn’t supported by the data, but other theories for stripe evolution remain, including confusing predators in a herd by presenting them with a mass of strange patterns, “warning coloration” (a pattern that tells animals like hyenas to “stay away because I can bite and kick you”), thermoregulation, recognition of individuals of your herd or members of your species, and, of course, reduction of fly bites.

A 2014 paper by Tim Caro and colleagues in Nature Communications seems to eliminate most explanations in favor of the “fly hypothesis”.  The study I mentioned earlier, and two that have also appeared, give experimental evidnce that both horseflies and tsetse flies are averse to landing on striped surfaces. The Caro et al. paper doesn’t give direct experimental evidence, but supportive correlational evidence.

What the authors did was examine the historical Eurasian ranges of zebra species and subspecies, as well as those of other equids, and then match those up with the ranges of horseflies, tsetse flies, temperature (for the thermoregulation hypothesis) and the historical ranges of predators (lions, hyenas, tigers, and wolves). They were looking for a selective factor whose historical ranges would correspond to the ranges of the zebra before humans changed range sizes. (Stripes evolved before humans changed the face of the planet.) The factor Caro et al. looked at was not the ranges of the species themselves, but of the ranges of striping on various parts of the equid body, for it’s the stripes themselves that are thought to result from selection.

The major results were these:

a. The striping patterns of zebra subspecies and species correspond more closely by far to the ranges and climate preferences of tabanid and tsetse flies than to any other factor, although lion ranges are also associated with a few measures of striping, like leg stripes.

Here’s the association between the historical (not present!) ranges of equids and of tabanids and tsetse flies; equids at top (zebra ranges striped!) and flies at bottom. Note that tsetse flies (Glossina) aren’t found outside Africa. E. kiang is an unstriped wild ass, E. africanus is the African wild ass, having thin stripes on its legs, E. hemionus is the onager, an unstriped wild ass, and E. ferus przewalskii is Prezewalski’s horse, a rare wild horse thought to be the closest living relative of the domestic horse.


The correspondence is pretty good, although not perfect, since flies live in some areas where zebras don’t. The crucial observation, though, is that biting flies always occurred in areas where zebras lived.

Note, too, that unstriped equids don’t generally coexist with either kind of fly, though the African wild ass, which does have thin striping on its legs, does live in areas with horseflies.

Here’s another figure showing the degree of association of leg striping among the equid species with activity of tabanids in the species range. The outer circles show the intensity of tabanid fly activity (see key), the next row in gives the intensity of leg striping, and the lines show the evolutionary relationship of the species. The quagga is extinct, but is part of the same clade as zebras, showing that full body striping evolved only once (this means that the correlation between striping of the species and presence of flies may not reflect independent evolution in each group, which is a problem for the authors’ conclusion, though one they admit). But the key observation here is that stripe intensity is highest in species that experience more tabanid activity.



b. No other factor supposedly associated with striping, including group size, thermal highs, or presence of predators, was as consistently associated with striping as was the presence of flies. The authors thus rule out the species and individual recognition hypotheses, the thermoregulation hypothesis, and the predator confusion or camouflage hypotheses as forces promoting the evolution of stripes. The predator hypothesis was also largely ruled out by the paper I posted about last week (Caro was also an author of that one). This points to the fly hypothesis as the most viable one. But that raises an immediate question:

c. Can flies really be a significant selective factor in the evolution of striping? Apparently yes. The authors note that tabanids can take significant amounts of blood from horses and cows, and that flies can also carry diseases that kill equids:

At an ultimate level, blood loss from biting flies can be considerable. Calculations show that blood loss from tabanids alone can reach 200–500 cc per cow per day in the United States. For example, in Pennsylvania, mean weight gain per cow was 37.2 lbs lower over an 8-week period in the absence of insecticide that prevented horn fly (Siphona), stable fly (Stomoxys) and horse fly (Tabanus) attack, and in New Jersey, milk production increased by 35.5 lbs over a 5-week period with insecticide. Milk loss to stable flies was calculated at 139 kg per cow per annum in the United States. Similarly, blood-sucking insects have been shown to negatively affect performance in draft horses.

That’s a lot of blood and a lot of milk loss (which could, of course, reduce offspring survival). But the authors favor the disease hypothesis, although there’s no reason that both blood loss and disease could act as joint selective factors:

Alternatively or additionally, striped equids might be particularly susceptible to certain diseases that are carried by fly vectors in sub-Saharan Africa. We collated literature on diseases carried by biting flies that attack equids in Africa (Supplementary Table 1) and note that equine influenza, African horse sickness, equine infectious anaemia, and trypanosomiasis and are restricted to equids, all are fatal and all are carried by tabanids. Currently, we are unable to distinguish whether zebras are particularly vulnerable or susceptible to biting flies because they carry dangerous diseases or because of excessive blood loss, but we are inclined towards the former because Eurasian equids are not striped, yet demonstrably subject to biting fly annoyance.

Here are those nasty flies, with a blood-engorged tsetse fly at the top and a tabanid below (a video of a biting tabanid is here):



d. Stripe width in zebras, especially the thin stripes on the legs, is small enough to deter flies. The graph below shoes the limits of stripe width in zebras (colored vertical lines) versus the preference of three kinds of flies for difference stripe width. Flies like to bite less when the striped pattern is thinner, and zebras are all in the stripe range that flies don’t like. Note that the thinnest stripes are on the face and legs, and that flies like to bite on the animal’s legs, as it’s shaded underneath the belly. (Remember that the African wild ass has thin stripes on the legs.):


This is getting long, so one more point:

e. Why, among the many African grazing mammals, are only the zebras so stripey? After all, other species of horses and asses, as well as many antelopes and artiodactyls, also have to deal with tabanids too, but only zebras have stripes. The answer may have to do with hair length and density. The authors show that among grazing animals, zebras have the shortest hairs and smallest hair depth, and that enables the flies to bite more easily through the coat to the flesh. That could mean either that the zebras evolved stripes because their short coats exposed them to more biting, or they evolved their short coats because it’s advantageous to have such short coats for other reasons (perhaps thermoregulation?), and the earlier evolution of zebra stripes sufficiently deterred flies to enable the evolution of shorter coats.

That’s the upshot. I think the fly-bite hypothesis is a good one, and now has both experimental and correlational evidence to support it, but there may be other advantages to being striped, like helping you find other zebras when you’re lost (granted, the authors found no correlation between stripiness and zebra group size). One crucial experiment, which can’t be done, is to release equids dyed with stripes into zebra territory, along with unstriped controls, and see if the former suffer fewer bites. Or dye zebras gray and see if they get bitten more often. For the time being, though, we’ll just have to say that we’re approaching the explanation for zebra striping slowly and asymptotically.

h/t: Diane Morgan

Caro, T. A. Izzo, R. C. Reiner, Jr., H. Walker, and T. Stankowich. The function of zebra stripes. Nature Communications, doi:10.1038/ncomms4535.

Social media excoriates British teacher for claiming there’s more evidence for the truth of the Bible than of evolution

This incident was reported on January 26 by the Godless Spellchecker: the head teacher of a British faith school, one Christina Wilkinson of St. Andrews Church of England School in Lancashire, pushed back against another teacher (Tom Sherrington), who had earlier posted his support of evolution.

Screen Shot 2016-02-03 at 7.46.36 AMBelow is Wilkinson’s tw**t that caused all the trouble (note that her handle is “WilkinsonHead”, which gives a bit of official imprimatur to her claim; Sherrington’s—”headguruteacher”—is similar).


The Godless Spellchecker (may the peace of Ceiling Cat be on him) wrote an open letter to St Andrew’s Primary School, politely calling attention to the problem and offering to help finance a visit of the students to London’s Natural History Museum to see the evidence for evolution. I joined in a bit, directing my first ever to-a-person tw**t to Ms. Wilkinson, offering to send her a copy of Why Evolution is True (I never got a response, and I don’t think Spellchecker did, either).

Now today’s Guardian continues the story, reporting the criticism of Wilkinson on Twi**er:

A primary school headteacher has been mocked on Twitter after claiming that evolution was “a theory” and there was “more evidence that the Bible is true”.

. . . Amid criticism and calls for her to resign on Twitter, Wilkinson issued a statement saying: “I’d like to make it clear that we teach the full national curriculum in school and that our pupils receive a fully rounded education.”

She also said her tweet was sent from a personal account and “represents my own views”. However, her Twitter handle was @WilkinsonHead, apparently referencing her role as headteacher. The tweet has since been taken down and the account closed.

Since Wilkinson’s account is closed, I can’t look at the responses on Twi**er, but mine was polite, and others, while perhaps less polite, were within the bounds of critical discourse (i.e., a minimum of name-calling and no threats):

Wilkinson’s assertion was met with scorn on the social media site. One person suggested she retrain as a vicar, while another said: “That’s an unacceptable level of stupidity from a headteacher.”

Liv Boeree tweeted: “This is horrifying. I’m still holding out hope her response is some kind of performance art. Pls pls pls tell me this lady doesn’t work in education. Please.”

Sherrington, whose pro-evolution tw**t ignited the whole issue, also responded politely:

Sherrington wrote: “Sigh. I sincerely hope your students aren’t told that. Take them to a natural history museum.”

His original posts, which sparked the exchange, had read: “For me, it is critical that teachers do not water down the science to accommodate religious perspectives if that means sacrificing the acceptance of evidence.

“This applies to science and RE teachers. New Earth creationism and more subtle variants of Intelligent Design are a denial of science and I think all teachers need to be conscious of that.”

Richard Dawkins and others have corrected Wilkinson on the meaning of the word “theory” in science (a perennial task), and of course she’s dead wrong about the evidence supporting evolution vs. the “truth claims” of the Bible.  Nevertheless, there are those who still offer a weak defense of Wilkinson’s views, including a Labour MP!:

Graham Jones, Labour MP for Hyndburn, whose constituency includes Wilkinson’s school, said: “It’s a Church of England school and it will, of course, teach the Bible. But it should also teach the children about other religions and beliefs.

“The national curriculum requires a more broad-based perception of evolution and a balance of opinions has to be struck so pupils can make up their own minds.”

That’s ridiculous. British law requires that there be no teaching of creationism in science classes, with the warning that a violation could lead to withdrawal of government funding. I’m opposed to government-funded faith schools of any stripe, and am still amazed that Britain has them, but there should be no teaching of creationism as science in any class, including religion classes. You can say, I suppose, that “some Christians believe this” in religion class, but that itself is misleading, as it may signal approval.

And Jones’s statement that there should be a “balance of opinions” so that “pupils can make up their own minds” is completely off the mark. We’re not talking about opinions but facts, and to allow the presentation of every opinion about the origin and diversity of organisms is sure to confuse rather than enlighten students. You might as well teach alchemy in chemistry class and faith-healing in health class, and let the students make up their own minds. Some British reporter ought to query Jones about what he means.

At any rate, there should be an investigation of what is being taught in the science classes at St. Andrews School, and a fix to assure it’s conforming to government standards. Wilkinson should not be threatened with losing her job unless it was shown that she was teaching creationism in science class or allowing others to do so—and even then I think that firing is too draconian a punishment. Just ensure that she doesn’t promulgate creationism in school. If she wishes to do so on her own Twi**er account, preferably not identifying herself as a “head teacher,” well, she’s free to privately disseminate her misguided views about biology and the Bible.

The one heartening thing about the whole affair, at least for Britain, is that such a tw**t by a teacher wouldn’t cause a social media storm in the U.S.; indeed, such a teacher might be seen as a hero in certain parts of the country.

Here are a few responses, pro and con, to the Guardian article about Wilkinson:

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This is why the Guardian shouldn’t ban comments on some controversial issues, as it seems to be doing. The comments section often affords an enlightening look at what people think about the topic at hand.

Jesus ‘n’ Mo ‘n’ Pakistan

The new Jesus and Mo was, the artist noted, inspired by an article by Maajid Nawaz in The Daily Beast, “How the Mullah Mafia is Destroying Pakistan,” an article I publicized on Twi**er (but didn’t discuss) last Sunday. It’s well worth reading, outlining the latest damages inflicted on that vibrant country by Islamic theology. These include the failure of the Pakistani legislature (after pressure by the Council of Islamic Ideology, or CII) to pass a bill outlawing child marriage, and the sad tale of a 15-year-old Pakistani boy who cut off his own hand after accidentally raising it in a mosque.

Nawaz is losing hope for Pakistan as it slowly creeps towards Islamism, but offers a bit of optimism, too:

But then I think of this boy. And I think of the child “brides,” and the acid victims, and all the brave voices—military and civilian—who have given their lives to fight this madness; and I think of the assassinated Governor Salman Taseer’s son, Shahbaz Taseer, and former Prime Minister Yousuf Gilani’s son, Ali Haider, both still missing after terrorists kidnapped them hoping to ransom them. And it wrenches at my gut.

When I see the protesters lighting candles at Liberty Chowk after every major terrorist attack, when I hear of brave new Pakistani voices boldly proclaiming their counter-extremist message from within, when I behold the slightly paralyzed left side of Malala’s face looking back at me in her photograph, I am forced to remind myself, amid all the depression: Pakistan Zindabad, Pakistan Lives.

Yes, that’s written by the man called a “Muslim validator and a “lapdog” by the odious Nathan Lean and a “house Muslim” by the even more odious C. J. W******n, and a “porch monkey” by one of Glenn Greenwald’s colleagues, Murtaza Husain (see link for proof). It seems that a moderate, anti-Islamist Muslim can’t catch a break these days. Is there any Muslim or ex-Muslim critic of extremist Islam who is still admired by most Lefists?

But I digress. Today’s strip is clearly about Muhammad’s sexual violation of his nine-year-old bride, as well as the statement by the head of the CII which blocked the child-marriage law: “Parliament cannot create legislation that is against the teachings of the Holy Quran or Sunnah,” he had said while backing his arguments with relevant laws and a few references from the Holy Quran and Hadith.”


If the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, were to see his country’s shenanigans, I’m sure he’d be appalled. Although he was a Muslim and a dubious character, he was not a theocrat. India and Pakistan were once a single nation, sundered in 1947 after Jinnah’s endless importuning of the British. Now, after 70 years, India and Pakistan have gone different routes. India, though loaded with problems, is a vibrant and largely secular democracy, although the ruling BJP is turning it a bit more Hindu-centric. Pakistan, in contrast, is on the road to a medieval theocracy, and I don’t share Nawaz’s optimism.

Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Damon Williford sent some photos of an interspecific interaction between birds over food; I’ve numbered the photos to correspond to his text below:

Attached are a series of photos featuring competitive interaction between a Black Vulture (Coragyps atratus) and several Crested Caracaras (Caracara cheriway) in South Texas during January of this year. A pair of adult caracaras claimed the remains of what appeared to be a rabbit (1). They were driven off by a an adult Black Vulture (2). But before the vulture could enjoy its ill-gotten meal it was challenged by a juvenile caracara (3-7). The vulture won Round 1 but was being stalked by another juvenile caracara (8). Round 2 ended with the vulture being chased away by the second juvenile caracara (9-16). The juvenile was confronted by an adult and the adult managed to convince the juvenile to abandoned its hard-earned meal without the use of violence (17-19). This might be because a juvenile caracara has a lot more to fear from an adult of its own species than from an adult New World vulture.



































19. The winner!!!


Wednesday: Hili dialogue (and squirrel lagniappe)

It’s hump day and, if all goes well, in exactly a week I’ll be sitting behind a pint and a lunch of fish and chips (and mushy peas) at the Turf Tavern in Oggsford. On this day in 1637, the tulip-mania bubble collapsed in what is now the Netherlands, the 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed, ensuring that we’ll all pay income tax forever, and, in 1947, “The lowest temperature in North America, −63.9 °C (−83.0 °F), was recorded in Snag, Yukon” (we won’t see that again!). On this day in 1924, Woodrow Wilson died, something students won’t be observing at Princeton, and, in 1959, February 3 was “the day the music died,” with a small-plane crash killing the Big Bopper, Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and pilot Roger Peterson (I still remember hearing the announcement; I was nine).  Finally, in 2005, Ernst Mayr, one of my scientific mentors and a great evolutionary biologist, died at the age of 100; I wrote an assessment of his life and career for Evolution that you can read here, and an obituary in Science that, sadly, remains behind a paywall (I’ll send a pdf to those who ask). Meanwhile, reports from Dobrzyn are that it’s unseasonably warm (12°C or 54°F), and Hili is enjoying the weather:

Hili: I’m skeptical.
A: What about?
Hili: This weather is not compatible with the calendar.


In Polish:
Hili: Jestem sceptyczna.
Ja: W jakiej sprawie?
Hili: Ta pogoda nie zgadza się z kalendarzem.
Reader Anne-Marie Cournoyer has proven herself very good at photographing squirrels. Here’s a lovely rodent she photographed at Mont St Bruno National Park near Montreal. It’s an American red squirrelTamiasciurus hudsonicus. The animal is in fine nick, and have a look at at its lovely white eye rings and soft white belly! Note, too, its flexible clawed feet, highly adapted for climbing trees.

Raccoon rides the Toronto subway

Some animal fun for the afternoon from Blog TO: a raccoon rides the Toronto subway, and just this morning!

Toronto’s unofficial mascot was spotted on the TTC earlier today, to the surprise, amusement and chagrin of morning commuters. The raccoon was seen lurking around the subway platform sniffing at people’s feet before boarding the train at Spadina station.

As reported by CP24, trains were briefly delayed before our furry bandit-eyed friend disappeared into the subway tunnel. It’s unclear how the raccoon got into the station.

I hope it’s okay in the tunnel. Raccoons need to be aboveground! Remember that Toronto loves its raccoons (see also here).



Is it looking for poutine?

h/t: James

Maybe there are fundamentalist atheists

I’ve criticized those people who say that atheism is like religious fundamentalism, as well as those believers who demonize New Atheists as “fundamentalist atheists.” How can nonbelief be “fundamentalist”? But after reading a new piece by Wendy Kaminer in Spiked, I’m not so sure. Now I’m thinking that some types of atheism—the brands wedded to rigid ideologies that have nothing to do with religion per se—might be called “fundamentalist.”

Kaminer’s article, “The self: fear, loathing, and victimhood,” is about self-styled victimhood—not just of oversensitive college students who criticize the cultural appropriation of sushi, but also of Christians and, yes, there’s a paragraph on the victimization complex of some atheists. Kaminer’s an equal-opportunity critic, and she notes this:

Visit a progressive campus immediately before attending a Donald Trump rally or browse a right-wing Christian website and your head will be spun by polarised versions of reality and victimisation.

Kaminer, a long-time liberal, feminist, rationalist, atheist, and expert on the self-help culture of America, is always worth reading.  I’ve finished three of her books.

After surveying the pervasive rise of the Victimhood Narrative, and suggesting why it emerged, Kaminer concludes that courts must protect equality but not prevent “hate speech” or offenses to  “dignity and emotional well-being”, something that the Perpetually Offended demand. (Kaminer was a long-time member of the governing board of the American Civil Liberties Union, a group I hold in high esteem since it defended us in Coyne et al v. Nixon et al.)

I’ll leave you to read her piece yourself, but a few passages from it got me thinking about Fundamentalist Atheists. To wit:

There are, after all, substantial advantages to declaring yourself disadvantaged. Victims never have to say they’re sorry. Apologies – and accountability – are for victimisers. Victims are creditors, owed not just compassion but practical relief, like the power to censor whatever they consider offensive speech. The expression of unwelcome images or ideas in the presence of self-identified victims is labelled another form of victimisation, as student demands for trigger warnings and ‘safe spaces’ suggest.

. . . Free inquiry is unnecessary to people convinced they have absolute truth on their side. It’s considered unfair or abusive to people presumed to require the suppression of contrary ideas in order to be ‘free’ to express their own. In this perverse and nonsensical view, freedom lies not in de-regulating speech but in re-regulating it, to protect a growing list of victim groups.

Do those paragraphs remind you of anything? They sure do to me—those dogmatic atheists on the Internet who not only insist that certain viewpoints are ideologically correct, but that you must conform to them, passing purity tests to be acceptable, and that those who merely question those views are to be demonized and cast out.  Such people never apologize or revise their narratives when they’re mistaken, and they never say they’re sorry for vilifying someone unnecessarily. In a very real sense, they see themselves as victims, “owed not just compassion but practical relief.” They also arrogate to themselves the power of censorship: determining who is and who is not allowed to speak. They mock free speech as “freeze peach.” Yes, fundamentalist atheism is deeply infused with the Victimhood Narrative.

Finally, the Fundamentalist Atheists are convinced, as in Kaminer’s description, that they have absolute truth on their side. But that truth is not about God, as the religious atheist-bashers claim. Rather, it’s about politics and society. For the True Fundamentalist Atheists™ are those who insist on not only wedding atheism to social problems, but to social problems whose solution cannot be questioned. They are at once victims and authoritarians.

I do think that atheism and liberalism, born of Enlightenment values, are natural partners. Both are based on reason, doubt, and empiricism. But there are also conservative atheists like S. E. Cupp, and one can make a case that atheism might fit with a pragmatic conservatism. It’s just that conservatives see society as benefitting from actions and ideologies different from those espoused by liberals. (I happen to think they’re wrong.) I thus prefer to keep my nonbelief separate from my liberalism, except to say that I think religion is best effaced by creating societies based on progressive values.

There are real debates to be had about these issues: debates about immigration, about feminism, about abortion, about affirmative action, about Islam, about how to deal with faith, and so on. By all means let the public forum ring with discussion and argument. But let us not demonize our fellow unbelievers for not holding the Right Views. Let us not call them “douchebags” or “scum” or “toxic sludge.” Yes, by all means debate them, but do not demand that they be fired, that they be no-platformed, that they be cast into the darkness with curses. Let our views be aimed at helping society—global society—rather than at demonstrating our own moral purity. Let us remember that society benefits most when speech is free rather than constrained. And let us echo what Oliver Cromwell said when writing to the Church of Scotland in 1650 (paraphrased):

I beseech you, in the bowels of Ceiling Cat, think it possible that you may be mistaken.

For atheism is more closely wedded to science than it is to social welfare, and if science tells us anything, it’s to keep in mind that we may be wrong.



An Oxford event

One week from today, while I’m visiting that Meyer Wolfsheim called “Oggsford” in The Great Gatsby, I’ll be doing a book event at Blackwell’s, sponsored by Five Books. The announcement is below (click on screenshot to go to the page). Since the London Darwin Day talk is sold out, this is a cheaper alternative: only three pounds admission (needless to say, I receive none of that).

It will begin as a discussion with Five Books editor Sophie Roell, followed by a Q&A with the audience. Books will of course be on sale, and if you say the Latin name of the only wild felid native to Britain*, I’ll draw a cat in your copy.

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*I’m not sure whether the Scottish wildcat is the remnant of the ancestral species, or comprises domesticated cats that have gone feral.

p.s. If someone can tell me where in Oxford I can get a pint of Landlord in good condition, I’d be most grateful. The White Horse used to have it, but those pints were in poor condition, and it’s not listed as being there now on the Timothy Taylor site.


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