Reader Barry sent me a screenshot of this tw**t, which is indeed hilarious:
I’ve verified that this quote is indeed real: it comes from a Gawker article written last year by Brendan O’Connor.
Reader Barry sent me a screenshot of this tw**t, which is indeed hilarious:
I’ve verified that this quote is indeed real: it comes from a Gawker article written last year by Brendan O’Connor.
I know that I’m insulting the author of this piece, Sam Kriss, in my title, but his whole article in The Baffler, “Village atheists, village idiots“, is just so crazily misguided that I can’t help but turn his invective back on him. As far as I knew, The Baffler was a respectable literary journal, often sold in bookstores, but this one article has put me off it forever. What editors could possibly approve such an odiferous hunk of tripe?
I don’t know Sam Kriss, though his website says he’s a writer living in the UK. One thing’s for sure, though: he deeply, deeply hates “new” atheists, although he has no problem with “old” atheists. Below in bold I’ve put the major points he makes in his screed (excerpts from the piece have quotation marks around them):
“Something has gone badly wrong with our atheists. All these self-styled intellectual titans, scientists, and philosophers have fallen horribly ill. Evolutionist faith-flayer Richard Dawkins is a wheeling lunatic, dizzy in his private world of old-fashioned whimsy and bitter neofascism. Superstar astrophysicist and pop-science impresario Neil deGrasse Tyson is catatonic, mumbling in a packed cinema that the lasers wouldn’t make any sound in space, that a spider that big would collapse under its own weight, that everything you see is just images on a screen and none of it is real. Islam-baiting philosopher Sam Harris is paranoid, his flailing hands gesticulating murderously at the spectral Saracen hordes. Free-thinking biologist PZ Myers is psychotic, screeching death from a gently listing hot air balloon. And the late Christopher Hitchens, blinded by his fug of rhetoric, fell headlong into the Euphrates.
Critics have pointed out this clutch of appalling polemic and intellectual failings on a case-by-case basis, as if they all sprang from a randomized array of personal idiosyncrasies. But while one eccentric atheist might be explicable, for all of the world’s self-appointed smartest people to be so utterly deranged suggests some kind of pattern. We need, urgently, a complete theory of what it is about atheism that drives its most prominent high priests mad.”
What we learn from this is that Mr. Kriss likes to use pejorative language, but it’s hyperbolic and, worse, just plain wrong. Dawkins a lunatic? Tyson catatonic? Harris paranoid? Hitchens falling into the Euphrates? (What does that mean, anyway?) One could use the same language about famous theists, but we refrain from that kind of ad hominem stuff.
“In the time of Kierkegaard and Marx and Parallax, there was still some resistance to the deadness of mere facts; now it’s all melted away. Kierkegaard’s villagers saw someone maniacally repeating that the world is round and correctly sent him back to the asylum. We watched Tyson doing exactly the same thing, and instead of hiding him away from society where nobody would have to hear such pointless nonsense, thousands cheer him on for fighting for truth and objectivity against the forces of backwardness. We do the same when Richard Dawkins valiantly fights for the theory of evolution against the last hopeless stragglers of the creationist movement, with their dinky fiberglass dinosaurs munching leaves in a museum-piece Garden of Eden. We do it when Sam Harris prises deep into the human brain and announces that there’s no little vacuole there containing a soul.”
Seriously? The “last hopeless stragglers of the creationist movement?” Is Kriss aware that about 42% of Americans are young-Earth creationists, with another 31% thinking that evolution happened, but was guided by God? Does he know that 71% of Americans believe in God, with 63% being certain there’s a God? Does Kriss know that 72% of Americans believe in Heaven and 58% in Hell? The “atheist truths” that Kriss sees as boring and self-evident are, in fact, rejected by a majority of Americans—reason enough to not just keep repeating them, but to keep showing why they are truths.
“All these falsehoods are beautiful, tiny, glittering reminders that the world can be something other than simply what it is; we should nurture them and let them grow. Instead, they’re crushed, mercilessly, in the name of a blind, stupid, pointless truth. But who’s more wrong—the person who droningly insists, jerking like an automaton, that the world is round, has always been round, and will always be round? Or the one who knows that this earth is not a given, and that we can imagine a whole weary planet into new and different shapes?”
When I read the part in bold, I thought that Kriss must be writing satire. Clearly, the person who insists on truth, even if he’s “jerking like an automaton” (a bad attempt to imitate the prose of Tom Wolfe) is less wrong! And what is this crap about “imagining a whole weary planet into the shape of a pancake”? Or that the earth “is not a given”? This is so bizarre that it’s beyond the bounds of even postmodern craziness.
Finally, and I’ve already wasted too much time on Kriss, he says this:
“The real cleavage, in other words, isn’t between those who believe in God and those who don’t, but between those who want to change the world and those who just want to repeat it. Watch one of those interminable debates between an atheist and a believer—anything involving Bill Nye is best, but they’re all on YouTube, endless stultifying hours of two people babbling Aristotelian at each other and convincing nobody—and you’ll notice something strange. Both of them will, inevitably, enter into some orgasmic rhapsody about how beautiful the universe is. The theist, gazing upward to his heavens, will chant awestruck odes to the majesty of God’s creation, His churning nebulae, His shining tapestry of suns, all the wonders built from His cosmic perversion.
Meanwhile, the atheist, glancing down at his own miraculous hands, will say something similarly soppy about mountains and rainbows and how incredible it is that all this came about by a happy accident of chance. When they encounter a poetic-humanist critique of cold scientific rationality, the atheists will often argue a similar line: Keats was wrong, science did not unweave the rainbow; the natural world is all the more beautiful if you know how it works. (Dawkins even published a book in 2011 called The Magic of Reality.) This accordance ought to be very worrying. What it shows is that, for all their fiercely expectorated differences, these two people are actually on the same side.
It’s sometimes charged that fundamentalist atheism has become just another intolerant religion; here, at least, religion as it’s actually practiced is only a minor species of atheism. What if you don’t think the universe is beautiful? What if you wake up every morning in a tiny brick cell slotted into a lifeless city under a gray and miserable sky, and you think that the whole thing, as it stands, is utterly wretched? For most of history, religions have tended to hold the natural world in various forms of contempt: it’s cursed by sin, it’s the Devil’s playground, it’s Dunya or Māyā. God, the great theologian Karl Barth wrote, is a ‘No’ to the world.”
Here Kriss is criticizing atheists for a brand-new reason: he sees the world as horrible and atheists misguided because atheists have “so thoroughly trained themselves out of believing in Hell that they can’t see the real one right in front of them.”
Jebus. Yes, the world isn’t great for many people, but one reason it’s getting better is because secularism and reason are replacing religion and superstition. It’s better to promote that incremental change than stand around, as Kriss does, and kvetch about how crappy everything is.
Why did The Baffler publish such a worthless pieces of pablum? I have no idea, but shame on them, and of course on Kriss as well!
Reader Mark Sturtevant has another “spot the. . ” picture. Click the photo to enlarge, and I’ll reveal the answer at 11 a.m. Chicago time. (I’d classify this one as “hard”.) As always, try not to give it away in the comments below, though you can say whether you spotted it.
This summer has been a summer full of photographic adventures, and it included a multitude of mantises, which is great because there is nothing in the insect world like a preying mantis. The lady hiding in this scene was a big one, perhaps the largest of this species that I have come across. I will let the readers identify her, and that will not be hard once she is spotted.
She stayed with me for about a week, and I have plenty of candid shots to show of her later. Some of those are gruesome since she was always hungry. In any case, here I have released her again near where I found her. Can the sharp-eyed readers of WEIT find her? She is lurking in there somewhere, and woe to any grasshopper or katydid that gets in her line of sight!
Reader Lou Jost has some spectacular photos and videos from a recent foray into the rain forest. There will be several parts of this trip spread over the next week. Lou’s notes are indented:
Tambopata Research Center Part 1: Clay licks
I’ve just come back from a visit to a remote part of the Peruvian Amazon, which humans have not yet messed up too badly (though they are trying hard). Big animals and birds that are rare and shy near humans are abundant and unafraid here.
The best places to find these animals are the clay licks along certain rivers. Large numbers of parrots, macaws, and some herbivorous mammals visit these exposed banks of soil every day. Researchers speculate that they come either for sodium or because the clay neutralizes toxic substances in the plants they eat.
About 12 species of psittacids (parrots, macaws, parakeets, and parrotlets) come to these clay banks. The ones we saw most often were Blue-headed Parrots (Pionus menstruus), Mealy Amazons (Amazona farinosa), Orange-cheeked Parrots (Pyrilia barrabandi), Scarlet Macaws (Ara macao), Blue-and-yellow Macaws (Ara ararauna), and the very large-headed Red-and-green Macaws (Ara chloroptera), known locally as “Cabezon” (“Big Head”). The Red-and-green Macaws were a special treat to see in such numbers. Back in 1990 I sometimes saw them at Rio Napo clay licks in Amazonian Ecuador, but they had disappeared there by 1995.They seem especially vulnerable to human encroachment.
It’s September 23, 2016, a Friday, and National White Chocolate Day, a useless comestible that perhaps finds its best instantiation in white chocolate macadamia nut cookies. On this day in 1642 occurred the first commencement at Harvard University, now ranked the best university in the world (suck it up, Oggsford–you’re #10!). On this day in 1980, Bob Marley played his last concert, in Pittsburgh. He died of melanoma the next year at the age of 36.
Notables born on this day include Walter Lippmann (1889), Mickey Rooney (1920), and Bruce Springsteen (1949, just a tad older than I am). Those who died on this day include Wilkie Collins (1889), Sigmund Freud (1939, jaw cancer from too many cigars), Pablo Neruda (1973), and limnologist Ruth Patrick (2013). Meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili has a bit of an enigmatic dialogue, lying as she is on the kitchen floor. I asked Malgorzata for an explanation and got this:
People are praying for peace, people are fasting to please God so he would give the world peace. Hili decided to add her own effort; but the impact of Hili’s fasting on the world’s peace is absolutely equal to the effort of millions praying people, including the Pope and all possible clerics. So, why not? One of our readers already asked Hili how many minutes she intends to fast for.
A: What are you doing here?Hili: I’m fasting for peace.
Ja: Co tu robisz?
Hili: Poszczę dla pokoju.
This is the kind of post I originally intended to go on this site. When I started this website, I thought that every few weeks I’d publish a bit of new (or old) evidence for evolution, supporting Why Evolution Is True, which was a new book in 2009. Well, as you see, things kind of got out of hand. . .
But here is some information and links imparted by reader Charleen about the famous Texas blind salamander, Eurycea rathbuni. As you might suspect from its name, it lives in dark underground abysses, caves, and artisian wells, and has retained into adulthood its juvenile gills. It’s also lost pigmentation, as is the case for many cave-dwellers. Finally, it’s endangered, its distribution limited to the Balcones Escarpment near San Marcos, Hays County, Texas You can find this animal only in the green area below; it’s been listed as endangered since 1967. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) notes:
The Texas blind salamander has been listed as endangered since 1967. It remains vulnerable, says San Marcos ARC director, Dr. Ken Ostrand. “They are impossible for scientists to sample underground, so we collect them in nets when they pop out in wells and springs, young ones, too small to fight currents,” said Ostrand. The young go into captivity at San Marcos ARC where they are held in refugia as a guard against potential harm that could come in the wild. Ostrand says their habitats, which he describes as a ‘limestone honey-combed sponge,’ are quick to recharge with surface precipitation, which could be accidentally laden with unwanted chemicals or spills. Preserving Texas blind salamanders in captivity is a security measure.
Here’s what they looks like:
Behold it in its habitat; the first salamander shows up at 3:44. What weird creatures they are!
The USFWS has just put out an information sheet about the species, first discovered in the 1890s, giving notes about its morphology, behavior, and adding that 135 of these beasts are being kept at the San Marcos Aquatic Resources Center.
What’s relevant for our purposes is the salamander’s vestigial eyes, which appear to be small black dots of pigment below the skin, accompanied by a vestigial optic nerve that doesn’t appear to carry any impulses to the brain. As the USFWS notes:
Recent research on the salamander has yielded other useful information. San Marcos ARC scientists collaborated with Texas State University faculty on a study of eye development in the Texas blind salamander and two other salamander species that live in the Guadalupe watershed: the San Marcos salamander and Barton Springs salamander, both of which are sighted animals that live near sunlight. Both are held in refugium at the ARC as well.
The research revealed that the blind salamanders retained a vestigial optic nerve with no eyes while the other species had well-developed eyes with structures for focus and variable light adaptation. The findings will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal, and have already yielded a master’s thesis.
It’s hard to imagine anything but evolution that would explain the presence of these vestigial eyes and nerves. Here are three photos I found of the pigment-spot “eyes,” which, like many vestigial traits, vary in their degree of development (e.g., human wisdom teeth and ear muscles).
The last one has no visible eyespots at all. Now I could write some more about eye loss and how it gives evidence for evolution, but I’ll ask you, the readers, to answer two questions:
Put your answers below; there is no prize save the joy of thinking.
You don’t often see an op-ed on Islam this straightforward, especially in a major newspaper like the L.A. Times. So the September 9 op-ed by Shadi Hamid, “From burkinis to the Koran: Why Islam isn’t like other faiths,” is refreshingly candid—albeit worrisome. The refreshing bit is that it doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of Islam. The worrisome bit is also that it doesn’t pull any punches about the nature of Islam.
Hamid is described by the Times as “a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Islamic Exceptionalism: How the Struggle Over Islam is Reshaping the World.” Because the Brookings Institution, a think tank, is on the liberal side, this makes the editorial especially compelling.
At any rate, Hami singles out two aspects of Islam that, he says, make it qualitatively different from other religions. We’re familiar with both of these, but it’s unusual to see them expressed so openly and their implications for acculturation of Muslims into Western societies made so plain.
The first is the literalism of the Qur’an, still widely accepted among Muslims:
Contrary to what many think, there is no Christian equivalent to Koranic “inerrancy,” even among far-right evangelicals. Muslims believe the Koran is not only God’s word, but God’s actual speech — in other words, every single letter and word in the Koran comes directly from God. This seemingly semantic difference has profound implications. If the Koran is God’s speech, and God is unchanging and perfect, then so is his speech. To question the divine origin of the Koran, then, is to question God himself, and God is not easily put in a box, well away from the public sphere.
This fundamentalism is worrisome, as it seems, at least now, recalcitrant to change. If you’ve read Ayaan Hirsi’s latest book Heretic, you’ll see that among the five solutions she requires for a “reformation” of Islam is the abandonment of Qur’anic literalism. Yet for now this is a futile request given the ubiquity of such literalism, shown in the chart below from the 2012 Pew Survey of the World’s Muslims (survey involved Muslim-majority countries, and didn’t include some like Yemen and Iran):
And many believe there’s only a single way to interpret God’s word:
How much better is it in the U.S? Well 50% of American Muslims are still Qur’anic literalists, and 90% believe in angels (a higher proportion of Christians, which I think is about 65%).
The second brute fact about Islam emphasized by Hamid is its fusion of religious dictates with civil governance:
Differences between Christianity and Islam also are evident in each faith’s central figure. Unlike Jesus, who was a dissident, Muhammad was both prophet and politician. And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined. To argue for the separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate.
Ergo the large proportion of Muslims who feel that sharia law should be the law of the land (I don’t have data for the U.S. or U.K.):
Hamid only makes one error, I think: when he insists that the hijab is worn largely as a matter of choice, even in places where it’s clearly not:
If you’re a Muslim woman who wears the hijab — covering the hair and most of the body — you can’t wear just any swimsuit. Some women, of course, are pressured or even legally mandated to wear the hijab (as in Saudi Arabia and Iran), but most choose to do so; it’s about their personal relationship with God.
. . .The hijab, by contrast, is ubiquitous in Muslim communities, and in some Muslim countries, such as Egypt and Jordan, the majority of Muslim women cover their hair. Again, this is often a conscious choice: Many Muslims take their religion so seriously that they want to observe seemingly restrictive and pre-modern dress codes. This is the case even in Turkey, where millions of women cover their hair despite decades of secular government and forced unveiling in state institutions.
I think Hamid needs to take a more expansive view of “choice” here, especially given the pressure that Muslim women are under, even in places like Turkey, to conform to the standards of their peers and family by covering their hair. The question of choice boils down to this: if wearing the hijab is a “conscious choice,” not compelled by social pressure, then no opprobrium will fall upon those who choose not to wear it.” Take a look via Google Image of “women, Cairo, 1970”, and then again using 2015 as the date. You will be enlightened.
To his great credit, though, Hamid doesn’t soft-pedal these results as most American journalists would. His interpretations don’t bode well for the full assimilation of Muslims into Western democratic states:
I realize that some of my fellow American Muslims will view such arguments as inconvenient, portraying Islam in a not-so-positive light. But it is not my job to make Islam look good, and it helps no one to maintain fictions that make us feel better but don’t truly reflect the power and relevance of religion.
In the West, the common response to the challenge of theological diversity has been banal statements of religious “universality.” All too often, interfaith dialogue, however well-intentioned, is about papering over what makes us — or at least our beliefs — different. It is a tenet of our American faith that we’re all basically the same and ultimately want the same things. This is true in some ways, but not in every way.
The crisis of culture and identity — one that sees the rise of the far-right and white nativism in our own country — makes it clear that our differences and divides are real. We would all be better off acknowledging — and addressing — those differences rather than pretending they don’t exist.
I think that some of our politicians, especially Democrats, need to recognize this. The Republicans already do, but unfortunately combine it with calls for banning immigration and for the demonization of Muslims as a whole. But it won’t help matters by hiding our heads in the sand.
Here’s a 70-minute dialogue between Hamid and Leon Wieseltier. I haven’t listened to all of it yet, but it seems to be an explication of his book’s thesis, and that book sounds well worth reading, and not at all to the liking of people like Reza Aslan and Glenn Greenwald. (Note that Wieseltier is wearing his signature cowboy boots, made by Pablo Jass of Lampasas, Texas.)
When Grania sent me this tw**t this morning, I thought for sure the guy’s statements were a joke:
This guy is going to vote. Make sure you do too. pic.twitter.com/W44yf5jDBv
— Jenn Martinelli (@jennmartinelli) September 21, 2016
Well, never underestimate the credulousness of those who support Trump. Even I couldn’t believe some of the stuff you’re about to hear:
Here’s Jordan Klepper from yesterday’s Daily Show interviewing some attendees at a Trump rally, including the guy in the tw**t above. Their ignorance and willingness to believe conspiracy theories is unbelievable, but remember: half of Americans are dumber than average. (I must admit that I have some worries about Hillary Clinton’s health, but not enough to prevent me from voting for her.) At least I know why Barack Obama wasn’t in the Oval Office on 9/11!
I’ll be in Hong Kong on Election Day, but have already ordered my absentee ballot.
Matthew emailed me that he was lecturing at Isaac Newton’s house today, and would send a picture of the apple tree that supposedly inspired the theory of gravity. I responded that I thought the story was apocryphal, and here was Matthew’s response (along with two photos):
“Yes, the tree. And here’s the window the light came through that he split with a prism.”
UPDATE: How do we know that this is the window? Matthew says that the distances given in Newton’s own drawing of the experiment match that of his bedroom above. Here’s the drawing, which is included in Patricia Fara’s Roy. Soc. paper on Newton’s experiment:
Newton’s House, Woolsthorpe Manor (pictured below), is in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, England. This is where Newton was born and then, when Cambridge University closed in 1666 due to the plague, Newton repaired home. And it was here that he did many of his famous experiments, including the splitting of light with a prism. I still think the apple-falling incident is apocryphal, but readers are welcome to weigh in.