Emails from believers: “I know God exists the same way I know my wife loves me”

August 10, 2022 • 12:00 pm

Does your wife love you? If you believe she does, then you’re justified in believing in God and Jesus. Or so says a befuddled believer, whose words I reproduce here.

A comment came in from one “Brad Thorp” (you’ll read it here only) addressing my post “Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading.

If you recall, I addressed Meyer’s ID-generated claims that science couldn’t explain the Big Bang, the “fine tuning” of the laws of physics that permit life, and the “irreducible complexity” of some features of animals and plants. These, he argued, refute pure naturalistic evolution and physics.  After I presented his arguments, I said this:

I’ll give alternative naturalistic explanations for each of the three “proofs of God”. We don’t know the materialistic answers for sure, but at least the scientific explanations are in principle testable, and there is some evidence behind them.

Apparently to some believers, like Mr. Thorp, if science can’t understand something, that counts as evidence for God. One would think that the history of science, which successively replaced divine explanations with naturalistic ones (e.g., lightning, disease, evolution), would make people more cautious about using “The Argument for God from Ignorance.”

But not Mr. Thorp. In fact, his email below suggests that science must bow to religion in its wisdom, for the “evidence for God” seejs stronger than the evidence for many claims that scientists take as provisionally true.

Thorp:

“… we still don’t know…” we still don’t know, we still don’t know…. Ad infinitum…

The only solution is an address where one can go, poke god in the belly, pull his beard… and decide we are smarter than He is!

The issue is not one of evidence. It is wanting absolutely conclusive evidence that forces one to believe, taking away any alternative. This creates a heinous caricature of a masochistic tyrant that anyone in their right mind finds repulsive. It denies the role “choice” plays in all our decision making.

I am an atheist of this misrepresention of the God portrayed in the Bible and revealed through the life and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I for one am not looking for overwhelming conclusive proof that destroys my freedom to choose. I cannot objectively prove my wife loves me. But evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt gives me reason to support that conclusion. The same standard of evidence/proof is what we all use daily.

So in the never ending discussion about God and maintaining atheism re Christianity, let’s keep the standard of evidence artificially high and inconsistent with daily life: “ I won’t believe in god unless I can poke Him in the belly! “

The issue of God, including presumably whether God exists or not, “is not one of evidence”.  But then it does become one of evidence. It’s just that we petulant atheists keep the standard of evidence “artificially high”. I’m not sure what “artificially high” means, but the God hypothesis doesn’t even surmount a bar so low that an earthworm could limbo under it. Science deals in likelihood, not absolute certainty, and it’s telling that, beyond revelation and scripture, we don’t have even a scintilla of scientific evidence for God, even though such evidence could exist. As Victor Stenger used to say, “Absence of evidence is evidence of absence. . . if the evidence should be there.” For God it isn’t.

In fact, I’m not sure what Thorp is saying. I don’t think he does, either. First he says he doesn’t need no stinking evidence because that would “destroy his freedom to choose” (i.e., evidence of God would make him uncomfortable about being a believer). But then he mentions the value of empirical evidence, even if it’s not absolutely conclusive: “I cannot objectively prove my wife loves me. But evidence that is beyond reasonable doubt gives me reason to support that conclusion.”  Presumably he means empirical evidence that his wife acts as if she loves him, like treating him well, being affectionate, not having affairs, and so on.

Does Thorp not realize that the evidence that his wife loves him is a gazillion times stronger than the evidence that God existed and Jesus was his son, a son whose life and Resurrection offers us all a path of salvation? You can hire a private detective to check up on your wife, but you can’t hire one to look for God.

Shoot me again—more creationists adduce evidence for God.

July 18, 2022 • 9:20 am

For some reason I don’t comprehend, my critique of Stephen Meyer’s Newsweek article, “Stephen Meyer in Newsweek: Three scientific discoveries point to God. As usual, his claims are misleading” prompted a fair number of emails and comments, some of which, like the submitted comment below, I didn’t deem fit to put in the comments section but did find worth a standalone post because of what it says about the thought process of some humans.

First, reader Coel corrected me when I said the Big Bang was the “beginning” of the Universe, and Coel was right. He also corrects Arno Penzias (a Nobel Laureate!), whom Meyer quoted with approbation:

Evidence for what scientists call the Big Bang has instead confirmed the expectations of traditional theists. Nobel laureate Arno Penzias, who helped make a key discovery supporting the Big Bang theory, has noted the obvious connection between its affirmation of a cosmic beginning and the concept of divine creation. “The best data we have are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses…[and] the Bible as a whole,” writes Penzias.

Here’s a comment by Coel:

“If the Big Bang did occur, which seems likely since we have tons of evidence for it, then that shows only that the Universe began, not how it began.” {From my post]

The Big Bang doesn’t even establish that the universe “began”. Most cosmologists would say something along the lines that the observable universe came from a quantum-gravity fluctuation around the Planck time, where that fluctuation occurred within a pre-existing state.

Thus “our universe” only had a beginning if one uses the term to refer narrowly to the products of that quantum fluctuation, not to “everything”.

By the way, if one checks what that Penzias quote was actually about (see here), it wasn’t about the universe having an origin, it was about how many “universes” there are. But since the time of that quote, the best data today do favour an “eternal inflation” multiverse, and thus now dis-favour Penzias’s argument.

Lastly, the fine-tuning argument has to start with the axiom that there would be something wrong if the universe did not contain human-like life. The conclusion (that the universe started with human-like life in the form of a god) is thus entirely circular.

Okay, and that’s a good and substantial comment. But then someone called Aeiutuz responded to Coel, and here’s the unposted comment I’m highlighting:

Aeiutuz

In reply to Coel.

I’d go a step further. I think modern cosmology gives at least a 50% chance God exists. Nearly all cosmologists believe the big bang began after a period of cosmic inflation. We know absolutely nothing about what the universe was like before inflation. But we do know, it was incredibly hot. So hot that all of our laws of physics break. There existed a state of mass/energy we can’t describe. The mass/energy was imaginably large, possibly/probably infinite. Inflation could have been going on for an infinite amount of time. Or maybe not.

Modern cosmology tells use, before the big bang, there was an unimaginably large, possibly infinite state of mass/energy that we can’t describe. Some part of that mass/energy broke off creating the cosmic inflation and when the inflation ended, it created the big bang. There was no intelligence in that mass/energy.

Most western religions tell us that before the universe we know today began, there was God. A state of something, maybe mass/energy beyond our description that was unimaginably large. Probably infinite. With intelligence. Some part of the broke off to create the universe, perhaps in a big bang.

Modern cosmology says the universe began from a state of mass/energy that we can’t describe that was unimaginably large, possibly infinite. But there was no intelligence behind it.

Modern religion tells us the universe began from God, as state of spirit, or possibly mass/energy we can’t describe that was unimaginably large, probably infinite. But had intelligence.

The difference between cosmology and religion is this: before our universe began, was there intelligence in the mass/energy that existed before the big bang or not? Religion says yes. Cosmology says no. But if you have an infinitely large amount of energy, or an unimaginably large amount of energy almost indistinguishable from infinity, is it so hard to imagine there wasn’t intelligence behind it? I say the chance is at least 50-50.

Now the state of the universe before the Big Bang is above my pay grade, but not far enough that I can’t criticize a bizarre analogy between what physicists think and what “most Western religions tell us.” For example, I can’t find any hint of this in Genesis:

Most western religions tell us that before the universe we know today began, there was God. A state of something, maybe mass/energy beyond our description that was unimaginably large. Probably infinite. With intelligence. Some part of the broke off to create the universe, perhaps in a big bang.

God was “infinite”? In what sense? Was he also “incredibly hot”? (He must have been a looker!). And where does it say that “some part of God broke off to create the universe, perhaps in a big bang”? You have to have a pretty loose interpretation of Genesis to see that!

Further, where does modern religion tell us that God was either a “state of spirit” (whatever that is) or “possibly mass/energy that was large, probably infinite”? Again, Aeiutuz is tailoring his view of God to what physics says. (I doubt that this was his a priori conception of a deity.) He might as well just go the Einstein route and say that the laws of physics and history of the Universe are God, cutting out the anthropomorphic middleman.

The part I find weirdest, and somewhat humorous, is that after these labored analogies, Aeiutuz says that if we can’t determine if there is a God or not since his God comports with what physicists tell us, then the chance that there was a divine intelligence is “at least 50-50”.

Let’s leave the analogies aside: the real fallacy is this: “If we have two hypotheses and we can’t distinguish between them, then the chance of each being true is roughly 50%. Is there a name for this fallacy?

In fact, the chance that there’s an intelligence seems less than 50% since we’ve never seen any evidence for it, yet we have plenty of evidence that naturalistic physics, which ignores an idea of a Big Intelligence, still leads us to the truth about the Universe. You could obtain the same probability for any imaginary being, like leprechauns (after all, who makes the rainbows?)

Come to think of it, I think I saw this fallacy highlighted by my late Ph.D. advisor Dick Lewontin in a form like “If you have two explanations for something, that implies that the truth lies somewhere near the middle.” For lack of a formal name, I’ll call this The Centrist Fallacy.

There’s another fallacy here as well: “If we don’t understand a physical phenomenon, then God is one explanation worth considering.” The problem is that that hypothesis has been used for centuries, explaining things like the “design” of organisms, lightning, the Black Death, and so on, and one by one these unexplained phenomena got explained—not by invoking a god but by using the tools of science. You’d think that people would have become wary about equating “unexplained scientific question” with the assertion “God exists.”

But now my craw is full of these people and their weird arguments for God. I will stop and move on.

 

Tish Warren preaches about sin in the NYT

March 7, 2022 • 12:15 pm

I’m not sure why the NYT hired Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren to write a weekly column about her Christian beliefs in the Paper of Record, but it’s annoying. You don’t see a weekly column about humanism, or even a weekly personal musing about science, which at least has the benefit of being true. What’s clear is that the paper has some reason for this palaver: probably to cater to the spiritual feelings of its liberal readers.

But what’s also clear is that Warren is very careful to stay away from tendentious preaching and any form of Biblical literalism, though she does believe in Jesus and, I believe, the Resurrection. The Times readers like their religion to be more on the personal and spiritual side, especially with a patina of sophistication. 

As a result, Warren, despite her inability to produce stirring or even well-above-average prose, has been called by Religion News “a rising star in Christian spiritual writing” for her “willingness to merge personal vulnerability with deep theological reflection”. Well, yes, the personal vulnerability is on tap, as it is in this week’s column about sin (see below), but the theological reflection isn’t deep. It’s superficial. I would much rather read about someone’s personal reactions to specific events than to the fairy tales that constitute Christianity. But somehow superficial thought and mediocre writing can be excused if it’s about religion.

Click on the screenshot to read.

I can summarize Harrison’s thesis in two sentences (my words)

None of us is perfect; we all screw up, make messes in our lives, and hurt other people.  But the good news this Lenten season is that we can, just by recognizing our sinfulness and asking for forgiveness, we can be released by God from self-flagellation.

She does throw in the “personal” vulnerability to show how she too is a sinner (all indentations below save one are Warren’s prose):

In college, through a string of failed relationships and theological questioning, I came to understand sin as something more fundamental than rule breaking, more subtle and “under the hood” of my consciousness. It was the ways I would casually manipulate people to get my way. It was a hidden but obnoxious need for approval. It was that part of me that could not rejoice in a friend’s big award or accomplishment, even as some other part told her, “Congratulations!”

This could be said of most of us, so there’s no real insight into human psychology here. Where the religion comes in is her theological doctrine that we are all BORN as sinners (my emphasis):

This is the first Sunday of Lent, a season in preparation for Easter when Christians often focus on sin and repentance. One of the things that’s most difficult to swallow about Christianity is the idea that normal, nice people are sinners, that we are born sinful and can’t elude being a sinner by being moral or religious enough.

This is palpable nonsense. We may be born and doomed, as humans, to do bad things when we grow up,  but we are certainly not “born sinful”.  What does she mean by that? An infant is not born sinful in any meaningful sense except the Christian one: we’re supposedly born afflicted with the Original Sin of Adam and Eve.

Far, far better to reject that nonsense and just say that, as social beings evolved from small groups of primates, we sometimes act badly, usually out of inborn selfishness (perhaps the real “original sin”); and sometimes, in our modern and larger pack of primates, our selfish desires conflict with our need to keep good relations with our fellows. But if you said that it wouldn’t be religious. It would be humanistic.

The other aspect of Harrison’s column is the “forgiveness” part, and why it’s good to know that we’re “born sinful”:

The Eastern Orthodox practice of praying the Jesus Prayer has become important to me over the past few years. This prayer simply says, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” It is usually prayed repetitively and meditatively, again and again.

Notice that here she explicitly is asking for forgiveness from God. It goes on:

In praying it over and over, I noticed how strange and transformative it is to repeatedly identify myself as a sinner. I am not identified primarily as a mother, a writer, a woman or a priest. I am not primarily a Democrat or a Republican or a Christian. I am also not primarily an upstanding citizen or right or reasonable or talented or “on the right side of history.” Instead, again and again, in these received words, I call myself a sinner.

This recognizes that I will get much wrong. That as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful. As a mother, I will harm my children — the people I love and want to do right by most in the world. And it tells me that I will harm them in real ways, not just dismissible “well, shucks, we all make mistakes” kind of ways. As a priest, I will lead people astray. I will not live up to what I proclaim. I will fail. I will hurt people, not just in theory or abstraction. I will cause true harm.

Again, this is Harrison’s personal way to deal with her “sin”, but a humanist might say (you don’t have to say it over and over again) “Yes, I’m human: I screwed up and will screw up again. But I will try harder not to screw up and to be nicer to people.”  That is not sophisticated humanism, but neither is Harrison’s pabulum Sophisticated Theology®. It’s her own personal mantra, and, to my mind, not a particularly useful one.

Finally, there’s the “forgiveness” bit. What’s clever about Harrison’s treatment here is that she must surely believe, as a priest, and as one who believes in original sin, that the Forgiver is God. But she seems to imply that it’s her congregation that forgives her. If the former, then she’s spreading Christian fairy tales; if the latter, well, it’s other humans that must forgive you—if you’re to be forgiven. And that is humanism.

Warren:

But we’re not left to stew in guilt or shame. We aren’t just sinners; we are sinners who can ask for mercy and believe that we can receive it. Living in this posture is what makes forgiveness possible, which is the only thing that makes lasting peace possible.

Without a clear sense of right and wrong, we will end up endorsing injustice, cruelty and evil. But without an equally profound vision of grace, we will end up only with condemnation and an endless self-righteous war of “us versus them.”

After I kneel with my church each week, confessing that I have blown it, I am invited to stand and receive absolution and forgiveness. I’m then invited to “pass the peace” to those around me and extend to them the same mercy and forgiveness that I’ve received.

The Encyclopedia Brittanica (I can’t access the OED in Antarctica) uses this definition of “grace” in the religious sense:

grace, in Christian theology, the spontaneous, unmerited gift of the divine favour in the salvation of sinners, and the divine influence operating in individuals for their regeneration and sanctification.

If this is what Warren means by “a profound vision of grace”—and I’m pretty sure that’s what she does mean—then she’s saying here that true loss of our “sin”, our bad behavior, comes only from God’s forgiveness, not from human forgiveness. And note as well that Harrison has transitioned from the personal to the general here: she’s making a pronouncement that without a religious sense of “grace”, there is no conciliation for any of us with our fellow humans.

That, too, is wrong. One doesn’t have to believe in God to believe that there are ways to eliminate the division between humans. One way, of course, is through humanism itself: the notion that we are all brothers and sisters and must depend only on ourselves to right the wrongs of humanity. Warren’s “sermon” could be couched equally well—indeed, better—in humanistic terms.

What Warren has done is slyly slip her own Christian beliefs into a rather anodyne sermon about doing wrong and making up for it. And I still ask you, dear reader, why you think the NYT continues to publish these unenlightening religious musings. I really have no idea.

But she did get one thing right, noting above that “as a writer, I’ll say things, however unintentionally, that are untrue and unhelpful.”  In this column she does both.

Tish Harrison Warren. Courtesy photo (from Religion News)

Finally, Warren wants to hear how you’re praying for Ukraine! Below the article you can see this:

Like many of you, I have been praying for peace in Ukraine and for the Ukrainian people. As we feel dismayed and often powerless as individuals to respond to the horror of war, it can be hard to know how to pray. Please share your prayers or with us at HarrisonWarren-newsletter@nytimes.com or through the form below. We may mention some of your thoughts in next week’s newsletter.

Praying sure as hell is not going to help Ukraine. They need tangible human assistance, not pleading to a god. I wasn’t even tempted to fill in the boxes.

Dawkins keeps his cool when surrounded by irrationality

January 25, 2022 • 1:30 pm

I would never have been able to keep my cool as well as Richard Dawkins does on this Australian television program where he’s faced with a group of creationists (who refuse to admit what they really believe) as well as religious sympathizers who demand “respect and tolerance” for their views.  All the usual criticisms of atheists come up, and I’m impressed with how well Dawkins handles them. My favorite is his answer to the accusation, “Isn’t your strident atheism like going around and telling children that there’s no Santa Claus?” I would have been stymied for a bit, but his answer is a few short words that stops the argument cold.

Isn’t it odd how atheists are supposed to show respect and tolerance for the palpable nonsense that people embrace, while those same people get heated and strident when faced with those who don’t buy their palaver?

Now if you can watch this and still argue that Dawkins is a “strident atheist”, then you’re engaging in deliberate misrepresentation.

The NYT touts Moses’s “burning bush”

January 2, 2022 • 9:30 am

Once again we see the New York Times printing an article that, it says, “bolsters a claim” from the Bible. The claim? The bit in Exodus 3 where Yahweh appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush, telling him that he will set the Jews free from bondage in Egypt. King James version:

Now Moses kept the flock of Jethro his father in law, the priest of Midian: and he led the flock to the backside of the desert, and came to the mountain of God, even to Horeb.

And the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush: and he looked, and, behold, the bush burned with fire, and the bush was not consumed.

And Moses said, I will now turn aside, and see this great sight, why the bush is not burnt.

And when the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called unto him out of the midst of the bush, and said, Moses, Moses. And he said, Here am I.

And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.

Moreover he said, I am the God of thy father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon God.

And the Lord said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows;

And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; unto the place of the Canaanites, and the Hittites, and the Amorites, and the Perizzites, and the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

Now therefore, behold, the cry of the children of Israel is come unto me: and I have also seen the oppression wherewith the Egyptians oppress them.

10 Come now therefore, and I will send thee unto Pharaoh, that thou mayest bring forth my people the children of Israel out of Egypt.

According to the Times, people have been trying to follow up on this for centuries, most notably looking for the mountain where this all occurred. But how would you know? No bush would be alive after all these millennia, and the Tablets would have long since become pebbles. The NYT, however, gives a clue of what Moses might have seen. The funny but sad part is that it’s not a bush at all, but a cave that gets lit up by sunlight on the day of the winter solstice.

Here’s the article, which poses three questions in a way that they could have been answered “yes”. In fact, by saying the new data “bolster the claim” of Moses and the burning bush, they’re implicitly answering “yes”. (Click on screenshot to read.)

Before I go further, the Biblical scholar Francesca Stavrakopoulou (Professor of Hebrew Bible and Ancient Religion at the University of Exeter and a popular writer) answers the questions in a terse five words.

But she added a tweet. (She is, by the way, an atheist.)

So for years people have been looking for Mount Sinai, the reputed site of the burning bush and proffering of the Ten Commandments. Many mountains have been the subject of this clam.  Now, however, the Bible-believers are turning to Mount Karkom in Israel’s Negev Desert. That’s because, in 2003, a guide happened to be there on the Winter Solstice and saw this:

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

A closer view of sunlight reflecting off the walls of the cave:

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

Yes, the Sun’s angle is such that it lights up the cave entrance on that one day. This of course isn’t a new type of phenomenon: lots of ancient people built structures to help determine when the solstices occurred.

The tsunami of credulousness began:

It was sunlight reflected at a particular angle off the sides of a cave, but the discovery soon made its way to Israeli television and was fancifully named “the burning bush.” Perhaps this, some said, was the supernatural fire that, according to the Book of Exodus, Moses saw on the holy mountain when God first spoke to him, and where he would later receive the Ten Commandments as he led the Israelites out of Egypt.

The burning bush, never consumed by the fire, is symbolic in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and other faiths including Baha’i.

But decades before this accidental astronomical discovery, Mount Karkom was already captivating some archaeologists with hints that the site had played an important spiritual role thousands of years ago.

Yes, there are petroglyphs there, too: signs of ancient inhabitants, along with burial sites nearby and migration trails. (The mountain was rich with flint—useful hard stones at a time when there was no metal.) The date-able sites are around the third millennium BCE.

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

But is a lit-up cave entrance justification for the Biblical story? Of course not! At best, it gives a clue to what might have inspired the Biblical story, but that clue isn’t very convincing. Worse, there’s not a smidgen of evidence for the basis of the whole story: the captivity of the Jews in Egypt and their subsequent Exodus, when, apparently without any GPSs, the Israelites wandered for forty years before settling down. But all that the article says about the Exodus is this:

The Exodus, if it happened, is generally dated to sometime around 1600-1200 B.C.

If it happened? Could the paper possibly have apprised us that there’s no evidence for such an exodus?

But never mind: people who believe that the Bible is true are hell-bent on finding evidence, even though they claim that their beliefs aren’t based on evidence. And so, on weekends, the Israeli Army allows thousands of people to see the site, which of course is packed during the Winter solstice. (Because the area is a few miles from Egypt, and lies on an Israeli Army firing and training area, and because of the danger of terrorist attacks, access is limited):

So, on Solstice Day, the crowds pack in, Christians, Muslims and Jews all seeking evidence that there was some empirical basis for Moses’s “burning bush” story. There are also helicopter flights.

Amit Elkayam for The New York Times

At the end, there’s just one smidgen of doubt expressed by Shahar Silo, “a researcher who manages the Negev Highlands Tourism cooperative”:

Whether this is Mount Sinai and the winter solstice phenomenon the burning bush “is in the eye of the beholder,” Mr. Shilo said.

“But,” he added, “it’s a great myth, you have to admit.”

Meh; no greater than the myth of Peter Pan or Paul Bunyan.

Dr. Stavrokopoulou was right: it’s a big pile of “nopes.” Religion not only poisons everything, but dupes nearly everybody. And I claim once again that religious faith rests on certain factual assertions, which believers seek to confirm to buttress that faith. When confirmation fails, they revert to the familiar and misleading mantra: “The Bible is not a textbook of science.” Our faith isn’t based on “scientific” evidence.

It doesn’t help that the New York Times, with its penchant for touting woo, runs a puffball piece on The Bush That Was Really A Cave.

Two bits of Irish woo

December 23, 2021 • 11:15 am

There’s a time when “blarney” becomes crazy and harmful, and we have two cases that appeared at the same time.  The first represents the New York Times‘s recent presentation of woo in extenso, with almost no critical remarks. The editors are soft on astrology, they’re soft on dowsing, they’re soft on religion, and now they’re soft on a mixture of religion and spiritual healing. Click the screenshot to read:

As the article reports, there are a number of faith healers in Ireland who have what they call “the cure”. It’s nothing new; it’s the old “laying on of hands” by believers, often accompanied by prayer, holy water, etc., to effect cures. The guy in the photo above, Joe Gallagher in Pullough, is the seventh son of a seventh son (not that rare in Catholic Ireland, but increasingly rarer), and this is supposed to give him special healing abilities. Here’s how the author, Megan Specia, describes “The Cure”:

Mr. Gallagher is just one of hundreds of men and women across Ireland who are healers, or have “the cure,” an approach to health care that interweaves home remedies with mysticism, superstition, religion and a sprinkle of magic.

It’s part of a belief in folk medicine, curing charms and faith healers that is still a way of life for many in Ireland, if a fading one.

Some who are believed to have the cure are seventh sons, like Mr. Gallagher, a birth order long thought to bestow special powers.

Others are keepers of family customs that range from rituals, prayers and charms to herbal tinctures, offered up as treatments for everything from burns and sprains to rashes and coughs.

Since his childhood, people have sought out Mr. Gallagher. “I think you must have the belief,” he said, acknowledging that the process doesn’t always work. “I wouldn’t say that I can do miracles.”

Indeed!

People come from miles around to see healers like Gallagher, who are reputed to cure things like:

  • burns
  • sprains
  • coughs
  • rashes
  • warts
  • shingles
  • ringworm (in dogs, too!)

An example:

Bart Gibbons, 57, who owns a grocery store in the village of Drumshanbo in County Leitrim, has a cure for warts that was passed down from his father and his father’s father before him.

It involves taking a bundle of rushes and saying a combination of prayers as they are held over the affected area. Then, he buries the reed-like plants. The belief is that when they decay, the warts are gone.

They don’t get paid, so at least that’s good, but have they done controlled trials with these shamans? I don’t think so. At least they’re cheaper than doctors, but isn’t there a form of national healthcare in Ireland? And, as you know, warts sometimes go away by themselves.

The only comments that are negative in this longish piece are these:

Attributing positive outcomes of the cure to something like a placebo effect makes sense to Ronald Moore, an associate professor of public health at University College Dublin who has spent years researching folk cures and who emphasized there is little scientific evidence for the efficacy of these practices.

Well, then, why not just give the people sugar pills? And the statement above is quickly followed by this:

But that doesn’t mean the medical community completely dismisses potential benefits, with some doctors known to send their patients for the cure, often for skin issues or other minor troubles.

“Modern practices on the one hand pooh pooh this, as scandalous and outrageous and quackery,” Dr. Moore said. “But in fact, and in reality, they utilize it.”

Those doctors are shameful. At least they don’t send patients to the Irish shamans for maladies like cancer and heart disease. (Shamans may, however, try to cure people of more serious stuff.)

Although the practice is “deeply religious”, it works on dogs, too!  Can dogs lose their ailments by “The Cure”? I thought Edward Feser maintained that dogs don’t have souls. But here’s the last picture of healing in the piece; I’ve included the paper’s caption. The picture makes me laugh out loud: a real LOL:

Mr. Keane performing the cure for ringworm on one of the dogs from a neighboring house in Cloghans.Credit…Paulo Nunes dos Santos for The New York Times

Once again the New York Times is touting quackery by publicizing it and only bringing in one lone dissenter, who is immediately countered by a physician enthusiast. What is going on with this newspaper?

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This article with its hilarious title is a serious piece in another Times—the Irish Times. Being a Catholic coutry and all, I suppose papers there have more article like this one. If you read the piece, you’ll see that “lay theologian” (indeed!) Brendan Butler is deeply besotted with God and baby Jesus, the “eternal Cosmic Christ.” And Jesus is said to be the “culmination of 13.8 billion years of evolution.” This implies that evolution in humans has stopped, but yet we’re still evolving and so is every other species.  Read and weep to find out why Jesus is the End of Evolution:

Okay, here’s the whole scientific explanation of why Jesus is the culmination of evolution (it’s part of a longer piece that sounds like a sermon):

How to reconcile a human and a divine nature in one person became the subject of controversy until it was resolved in 431 at the council of Ephesus by declaring Mary as ‘Theotokos’ – the mother of God.

But this led to another question: why did the eternal creator God become a mortal and fragile human creature? Various explanations were put forward, with the most common being that it was necessary for God the Son to become human and die on a cross for the sins of the human race.

However, another explanation associated with the Franciscan theologian John Dun Scotus, fits in with our post-Darwin, post-Einstein and post-Hubble world. In this view the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, was the culmination of 13.8 billion years of the evolutionary process.

He was born with the substance of the stars and molecules of prehistoric life present and active in his body. In this Christology the baby is not just a child of the universe but the eternal Cosmic Christ who released that primal energy which burst forth and created the universe.

Evolutionary process

This Christ remained an integral part of the evolutionary process, sustaining it and driving it forward towards greater and greater complexity until the apex of that movement emerged as homo sapiens.

It was always God’s plan that the creator Christ, already present in the universe as an invisible presence, would become fully human and be born as a human being.

I think Mr. Butler should take a course in evolution, where he’d learn that there is no evidence that evolution is teleological, and that it was going on for 3.5 billion years before Baby Jesus was born. Who sustained evolution until then?  But I’m pleased to learn that Jesus, like the rest of us, was made of billion-year-old carbon. Still, he’s got to get himself back to the garden (of Eden).

It’s just tripe, of course, but why would the Irish times give a millimeter of space to stuff like this?

Below: the author with the paper’s caption; Butler is apparently Jesus’s ghostwriter:

Brendan Butler is a lay theologian and author of My Story by Jesus of Nazareth

h/t: Kieran, Alexandra

“Ways of knowing”: New Zealand pushes to have “indigenous knowledge” (mythology) taught on parity with modern science in science class

December 3, 2021 • 9:15 am

One of the most invidious and injurious side effects of wokeism is to validate “other ways of knowing” as being on par with modern scientific knowledge. Granted, one can respect the mythology and scientific “claims” of indigenous cultures, some of which turned out to be scientifically valid (quinine is one), but their efficacy can be established only by conventional scientific testing.

New Zealand, however, is in the midst of a campaign to teach Maori “ways of knowing” alongside science in science classes as science, on par with modern science, which of course had roots in many places. The reason for this is to give Maori credibility not just as indigenous people with moral and legal rights, but to validate their pseudoscientific views.  Scholars who object to this ridiculous parity are in the process of being cancelled.

Here’s an email I got the other day from a biology colleague in New Zealand:

Now in NZ the Government is trying to insert something called ‘Matauranga’ into science courses. Matauranga means the knowledge system of the Maori. It includes reference to various gods e.g., Tane the god of the forest is said to be the creator of humans, and of all plants and creatures of the forest. Rain happens when the goddess Papatuanuku sheds tears. Maori try to claim that they have always been scientists. Their political demand is that Matauranga must be acknowledged as the equal of western (pakeha) science; that without this, Maori children will continue to fail in science at school.

One rationalisation for this is that they are the indigenous people of New Zealand and that their knowledge deserves respect (mana). it is a very messy situation and a group of science academics of various stripes are engaged in fighting a rearguard action against this. They wrote a letter to the Listener, a weekly publication of reasonable respectability, in which they made the claim that matauranga was not science and had no place in science courses. The kickback against this was astonishing, with some 2000 academics around NZ signing a petition condemning them.

Further,the Royal Society of New Zealand is taking two of the academics involved to task,  with the likely outcome their dismissal from the Society. They have been accused of racism!

Wokism is well under way here.

In response to my question, the colleague told me that the two forms of “knowledge” will be taught to 16-18 years old, and not just to Maori. There will also be exam questions, but it’s not clear if those will require students to parrot the tenets of Mātauranga.

Here is a screenshot of the letter that got its signatories in big trouble (click on it to see the original letter). Note that it’s civil and conciliatory, but defends modern science. The signers are all from the University of Auckland.

This is a sensible letter which is not inflammatory—except to those postmodernists and Wokeists who see “other ways of knowing” just as valid as modern science. They are wrong. But in response, 2,000 academics and public figures signed a heated objection, which included the following:

We, the signatories to this response, categorically disagree with their views. Indigenous knowledges – in this case, Mātauranga – are not lesser to other knowledge systems. Indeed, indigenous ways of knowing, including Mātauranga, have always included methodologies that overlap with “Western” understandings of the scientific method.

However, Mātauranga is far more than just equivalent to or equal to “Western” science. It offers ways of viewing the world that are unique and complementary to other knowledge systems.

I’m sorry, but in general the factual assertions of this Maori “way of knowing” are palpably inferior to “other knowledge systems.” They stand as myths, and ones with no factual basis; and to teach them on par with science, as if rain might really come from the tears of a god, is ludicrous. Yes, there are some practical “truths” to Maori ways of knowing, like how to build an eeltrap, and how to avoid building houses on flood plains, but if you accept this practical knowledge of science, then Maori Mātauranga is no different from any practical methods in any culture. And this doesn’t make it coequal with “modern science”, for modern science is capable of not only building eeltraps, but sending men to the Moon and bringing them back.

Those who signed the letter objecting to the Listener letter above are either completely ignorant of science (which I don’t believe), or are flaunting their virtue. It’s true that Maori have often been mistreated by colonials, and NZ has tried to rectify this inequality over the years, as it should. But one way not to rectify it is to pretend that Maori “knowledge” is really “true” in the scientific sense. To teach that in the schools, as is being proposed, is a recipe for continuing scientific ignorance. It is the same as a letter saying that fundamentalists Christian “ways of knowing”, like creationism, should be taught alongside evolutionary biology in science class. (Such “parity” is not upheld by freedom of speech, for American courts, at least, have long declared that teachers do not have license to teach anything they want in a class—particularly religion.) Indeed, as we see above, Maori “science” is explicitly creationist!

Toby Young discusses the issue in this article in The Spectator (click on screenshot, my bolding):

An excerpt:

. . . the moment this letter was published all hell broke loose. The views of the authors, who were all professors at Auckland, were denounced by the Royal Society, the New Zealand Association of Scientists, and the Tertiary Education Union, as well as by their own vice-chancellor, Dawn Freshwater. In a hand-wringing, cry-bullying email to all staff at the university, she said the letter had ‘caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students and alumni’ and said it pointed to ‘major problems with some of our colleagues’.

Two of Professor Cooper’s academic colleagues, Dr Siouxsie Wiles and Dr Shaun Hendy, issued an ‘open letter’ condemning the heretics for causing ‘untold harm and hurt’. They invited anyone who agreed with them to add their names to the ‘open letter’, and more than 2,000 academics duly obliged. Before long, five members of the Royal Society had complained and a panel was set up to investigate.

The witch-finders disregarded several principles of natural justice in their prosecutorial zeal. For instance, two members of the three-person panel turned out to be signatories of the ‘open letter’ denouncing Professor Cooper so had to be replaced. In addition, all five complainants were anonymous and when the Society asked them to identify themselves, three fell by the wayside. But two remain and the investigation is proceeding apace, with a newly constituted panel.

It’s not too late to save the professor. Letters from members of our own Royal Society, or any distinguished academics in the sciences and humanities, pointing out the absurdity of punishing a scientist for engaging in debate about the validity of science will help. You can email Paul Atkins, the chief executive, at paul.atkins@royalsociety.org.nz. Remember, the only thing necessary for the triumph of intellectual intolerance is for believers in free speech to do nothing. [JAC: Note that Atkins is the new chief executive].

I would urge readers who feel strongly about this to write to the email above, which I’ll repeat: paul.atkins@royalsociety.org.nz

Here’s the official letter from the University of Auckland’s Vice Chancellor Dawn Freshwater about The Listener letter (click on screenshot):

Some excerpts from her statement, which is in the “we favor free speech, but it causes pain ” genre:

A letter in this week’s issue of The Listener magazine from seven of our academic staff on the subject of whether Mātauranga Māori can be called science has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni.

While the academics are free to express their views, I want to make it clear that they do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.

The University has deep respect for has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni. as a distinctive and valuable knowledge system. We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

This view is at the heart of our new strategy and vision, Taumata Teitei, and the Waipapa Toitū framework, and is part of our wider commitment to Te Tiriti and te ao principles.

I believe Aotearoa New Zealand has a unique opportunity to lead the world in this area. The University of Auckland, as this country’s largest research institution, should be and will be at the forefront of this exciting exploration.

This is the letter of a person trying to treat a narrow line between free speech and condemnation of what is said. Further, she notes that the seven academics “do not represent the views of the University of Auckland.” Well, is Vice-Chancellor Freshwater entitled to declare those views, or is that the purview of her boss, the Chancellor? Or has the University itself issued a formal statement of exactly what the views of the University of Auckland on mātauranga Māori are? We don’t know. If there’s some official statement that the University views modern science is on par with Maori ways of knowing, I’d like to see.it. If the University has no official view, and takes no stand at all why does Freshwater say that the seven academics “don’t represent it”?

As for Freshwater’s statement that The Listener letter “has caused considerable hurt and dismay among our staff, students, and alumni”, we have no idea how much hurt and dismay it’s caused. I know from private correspondence that there are plenty of people at the University supported that letter and do not see Mātauranga Māori as a valid competitor to modern emprical science.

Further, emphasizing the “hurt and dismay” among University members is not helpful to the discussion at all, as from the outset it puts the discussion on an emotional footing, when the issues are not hurt and pain but the validity of Mātauranga Māori as an alternative to modern science to be taught in the science class.  That is something that one can argue about validly, and I think that Mātauranga Māori is mostly mythology and not science. For one thing, it’s creationist, so its credibility is shot from the beginning.

Finally, Freshwater’s claim that “We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other” is confusing. They are of course directly at odds if you look at the empirical data, which include creationism and other palpably untrue claims. They are competing as the proposal is to teach both in science class, on the high school and perhaps on the University level.

She has a longer letter as well (click on screenshot), and I’ll give a few excerpts:

It’s long, so just one excerpt from a discursive piece in which Freshwater takes issue with the seven academics who signed the letter:

The freedom to express ideas is constrained neither by their perceived capacity to elicit discomfort, nor by presuppositions concerning their veracity. However, it needs to be clarified that allowing the expression of an idea does not imply endorsement by the University. This has been our position in the debate about mātauranga Māori and science.

Our seven academics were entirely free to express their views, however the University was also free to disagree with those views. That does not mean the University is censoring or trying to silence our academics, it is merely making clear that such views are not representative of the myriad views within the institution; and that the University may at times disagree with the views expressed by its academics. That is healthy in a university.

Well, if that’s “healthy”, then the University of Auckland is very ill.  If there are “myriad views” about this issue in the University, why does Freshwater say that the signers “do not represent the views of the University of Auckland”? Does this mean that seven people don’t stand for the views of everyone? They never pretended they did, but it sure looks as if Freshwater knows that there are more “official” views that diverge from these. If the University of Auckland has no position at all on the issue, then they should say so and stop denigrating the seven signers. But remember, this does appear to be an official position:

We believe that mātauranga Māori and Western empirical science are not at odds and do not need to compete. They are complementary and have much to learn from each other.

That sure looks like an official position!

And the “not censoring” bit is unconvincing: the signers were identified—not by name but as signers of an easily accessible letter—and criticized in the assertion that they don’t adhere to University principles that were never specified.  Further, as we see below, the Royal Society of New Zealand is considering booting out two of its signers who are members. (I doubt that the University instigated that, but its opposition to the letter may have contributed to the Royal Society’s decision to have an investigation).

From Wikipedia, which has an article on the controversy that started last summer:

The TEU, the union which represents academics such as the professors, released a statement saying they “neglected to engage with or mention the many highly accomplished scholars and scientists in Aotearoa who have sought to reconcile notions of science, mātauranga Māori, and Māori in science.” The Royal Society Te Apārangi released a statement saying “The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in [the letter].” The New Zealand Association of Scientists released a statement saying “we were dismayed to see a number of prominent academics publicly questioning the value of mātauranga to science.” The letter writers were supported by opposition MP Paul Goldsmith.

Daniel Hikuroa, also an academic at Auckland, pointed out that Mātauranga Māori like Māramataka (the Māori lunar calendar) “was clearly science.” Tara McAllister said “we did not navigate to Aotearoa on myths and legends. We did not live successfully in balance with the environment without science. Māori were the first scientists in Aotearoa.” Tina Ngata wrote that “this letter, in all of its unsolicited glory, is a true testament to how racism is harboured and fostered within New Zealand academia.” An open counter-letter received more than 2000 signatures.

Here’s part of the Royal Society of New Zealand’s “Joint statement from President and Chair of Academy and Executive Committee“:

The recent suggestion by a group of University of Auckland academics that mātauranga Māori is not a valid truth is utterly rejected by Royal Society Te Apārangi. The Society strongly upholds the value of mātauranga Māori and rejects the narrow and outmoded definition of science outlined in The Listener – Letter to the Editor.

It deeply regrets the harm such a misguided view can cause.

This makes the RSNZ look like a joke, for they are rejecting the idea that the entire collection of mythology, quasi-religion, a few practical methods, as well as outright lies (like creationism) is not a “valid truth.” And the RSNZ rejects the “narrow and outmoded definition of science, which happens to be, well, just science.  And the invocation of “harm” that comes from rejecting lies, myths, and false beliefs is ludicrous.

Finally, as I have to stop somewhere, the New Zealand Psychological Society, equally outraged, also condemned the view of the “Satanic Seven”. Click on the screenshot to read the whole pdf:

A few quotes from the letter, which purports to be from the entire New Zealand Psychological Society (did all members assent?), but was written by the President, Dr Waikaremoana Waitoki, who must be Maori.:

I believe it is important that we express our disappointment in the recent letter to the Listener by professors of psychology, biological sciences and critical studies. We also wish to express our support and aroha for those who were, and continue to be, negatively affected by the letter’s content. We note that the letter was not subject to established protocols of rigour and peer review and as such, the contents reflect opinion, not science. In reviewing the letter, it is readily apparent that racist tropes were used, alongside comments typical of moral panic, to justify the exclusion of Māori knowledge as a legitimate science.

Diversionary claims! Of course letters to a non-science journal aren’t peer reviewed and “aren’t science.” Who said otherwise? And the letter was not racist. But wait! There’s more!

. . . The letter writers express their concern that science is being misunderstood at all levels of education and science funding. They further add that science itself does not colonise – while acknowledging that ‘it has been used to aid colonisation, as have literature and art’. This is similar to saying ‘Guns don’t kill people. People kill people’. Esteemed scholar, Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (and others) established that science has indeed been used, under the pretence of its own legitimacy, to colonise and commit genocide towards Māori and other Indigenous peoples. Science, in the hands of colonisers, is the literal gun. The writers fail to note the overwhelming evidence that the users of the science they favour, are also the ones who set the rules about what counts as science, where it can be taught, learned, published or funded. This issue is extremely relevant to the need to decolonise the power base held in our learning institutions.

. . . The White Saviour trope: This is where Māori are told which elements of our Indigenous knowledge is important and to whom. The writers, speaking for Māori, offer the opinion: ‘Indigenous knowledge is critical to the perpetuation and preservation of culture and local practices and plays key roles in management and policy. The writers (as is their inherent privilege) relegate Māori knowledge to archival value, ceremony, management and policy (although it is not clear what is meant here). Speaking for Māori ignores obligations to honour the Treaty of Waitangi, and ignores the overwhelming evidence that racism is a primary reason that Mātauranga Māori science is undervalued.

No, that last sentence is false. Mātauranga Māori “science” is undervalued, at least by scientists, because it’s mostly wrong. For one thing, it posits an instantaneous creation.  Do its advocates say, “Well, Mātauranga is often right but is also often wrong.”

There’s more:

Māori knowledge is indeed critical to the preservation of our culture and practices because we are resisting epistemic and cultural genocide, while also striving to flourish and develop. Speaking for Māori again, they add that ‘in the discovery of empirical, universal truths, it falls far short of what we can define as science itself’. Māori aren’t asking them to define science. We have done that ourselves despite having obstacles thrown up at all stages.

. . . Psychology has a long history of marginalising Māori knowledge, and it is concerning that two of the writers are professors of psychology. We note that the letter reinforces known racist assumptions about the validity of Mātauranga Māori science that occurs across psychology and academia. We are particularly concerned about the wellbeing of Māori staff and students in psychology who must now navigate the fall-out of this letter.

It is unbelievable that stuff like this can come out of the mouths of reputable academics. “Science, in the hands of colonisers, is the literal gun.” Seriously? Yes, of course science has been used for bad purposes by bad people, as has architecture (gas chambers), and religion. But this says nothing about whether the epistemic value of modern science is on par with the epistemic value of Mātauranga Māori. If the University of Auckland plans to teach the latter on par with real science in science classes, it will be shameful; and I feel sorry for its dissenting scientists, who may be many. But now have to keep their mouths shut lest them be called out like the Satanic Seven.

The Kiwis have been very careful in the past few decades to ensure good relations with the Maori, who themselves colonized an empty New Zealand about 700 years ago. But keeping good relations does not demand that you accept a “way of knowing” that is mythological, spiritual, and wrong.

As my friend said, “Wokism is well under way here.”

*********

Okay, it’s time for me to write to Roger Ridley (above) so that two of the seven don’t get booted out of New Zealand’s Royal Society. If they are, that society will have branded itself as a huge joke.  Here’s the letter I just sent. Note, though, that you should write instead to Paul Atkins, who was recently named the the new chief executive of the NZRS. His email is  paul.atkins@royalsociety.org.nz

Dear Dr. Ridley,

I understand from the news that New Zealand’s Royal Society is considering expelling two scientists for signing a letter objecting to teaching “indigenous” science alongside and coequal with modern science.  As a biologist who has done research for a lifetime and also spent time with biologists in New Zealand, I find this possibility deeply distressing.

The letter your two members wrote along with five others was defending modern science as a way of understanding the truth, and asserting that Maori “ways of knowing”, while they might be culturally and anthropologically valuable, should not be taught as if the two disciplines are equally useful in conveying the truth about our Universe. They are not. Maori science is a collation of mythology, religion, and legends which may contain some scientific truth, but to determine what bits exactly are true, those claims must be adjudicated by modern science: our only “true” way of knowing.

I presume you know that the Maori way of knowing includes creationism: the kind of creationism that fundamentalist Christians espouse in the U.S. based on a literalistic reading of the Bible. Both American and Maori creationism are dead wrong—refuted by all the facts of biology, paleontology, embryology, biogeography, and so on. I have spent a lifetime opposing creationism as a valid view of life. That your society would expel members for defending views like evolution against non-empirically based views of creation and the like, is shameful.

I hope you will reconsider the movement to expel your two members, which, if done, would make the Royal Society of New Zealand a laughingstock.

Cordially,
Jerry Coyne
Professor Emeritus
Department of Ecology and Evolution
The University of Chicago
USA

Should there be religious exemptions from vaccine mandates?

September 7, 2021 • 9:15 am

The other day I had a bright idea for a post on my drive to the store, and, since my short-term memory has always been lousy, I should have made a note to myself. SInce I didn’t do that, I promptly forgot it, though I knew the topic was interesting.

I was, however, just reminded of what I’d thought of by seeing the title below of a NYT op-ed by Curtis Chang (identified as “a co-founder of Christians and the Vaccine, a consulting faculty member at Duke Divinity School and the C.E.O. of CWR, a management consultancy serving secular nonprofits and government agencies”).

I haven’t yet read this op-ed except for the title, so let me first give my own view before I parse the article.

First, I agree with the title wholeheartedly.  The only people who should be exempted from vaccine mandates are those who might be injured by vaccines, including the immunocompromised.  Now adults above a certain age should be allowed to make medical decisions if those decisions don’t endanger anyone else. Thus, if you have appendicitis and are one of those sects that don’t accept medical intervention (Christian Science is supposed to be one, but members often sneak around the restrictions), it’s okay by me if you reject the operation and endanger yourself. (If you have a wife and kids, however, that may be another matter, largely because the kids, who could be left without a parent, don’t get to choose their faith.)

But with vaccinations, you’re endangering not only yourself by rejecting science-based medicine, but others as well. Thus, if you refuse the Covid shot on religious grounds, you’re endangering other people because you might get infected and spread the virus. Even if nearly everyone else is vaccinated, you could still infect the few who aren’t. Even the Bible talks about rendering unto Caesar. Well, Caesar is the state, and to the state belongs the purview of preventing pandemics and epidemics.

The fact that religious people are allowed to refuse medical care for their kids in some places, or get a slap on the wrist when they do—even when the child dies—is absolutely unconscionable. It’s one of the unjustified forms of “respect” that we afford to religious beliefs. The subject of religion and healthcare is largely the subject of the last chapter of my book Faith Versus Fact, and I tell some horrific stories of those who believe in faith healing letting their children die in the vain hope that God would save them. This should be a felony, and it is in some places, but all too often that unwarranted “respect” for faith gets parents either off the hook or with a minimal sentence. And all too often those parents justify their behavior, even when, by withholding medical care, they’ve killed their own child. As I note in my book (p. 234):

It’s not just the parents who are at fault. Religious exemptions are written into law by the federal and state governments—that is, those who represent all Americans. In fact, 38 of the 50 states have religious exemptions for child abuse and neglect in their civil codes, 15 states have such exemptions for misdemeanors, 17 for felony crimes against children, and five (Idaho, Iowa, Ohio, West Virginia, and Arkansas) have exemptions for manslaughter, murder, or capital murder. Altogether, 43 of the 50 states confer some type of civil or criminal immunity on parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.

As for vaccinations, there should be no religious exemptions for getting them, regardless of the dictate of your faith. That’s because refusing a vaccine is not a decision with purely personal consequences, but can have widespread and deleterious effects on other people. And yet, as I note further in my book (pp. 235-236):

Religious exemptions for vaccinations, allowed in 48 of the 50 U.S. states (all except Mississippi and West Virginia) endanger not only the children who don’t get immunized, but the community in general:  not everyone gets vaccinated, and even those who are don’t always acquire immunity. To attend public schools and many colleges, like the one where I teach, students must show evidence of vaccination for diseases like hepatitis, measles, mumps, diphtheria, and tetanus. The only exemptions permitted are for medical reasons, like a compromised immune system—and religion.

Nor are Christians the only believers who oppose immunization. Islamic clerics in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria urge their followers to oppose polio vaccination, declaring it a conspiracy to sterilize Muslims. These efforts may prevent the complete eradication of polio from the human species, something already been achieved for smallpox. Dr. A Majid Katme, spokesman and former head of the Islamic Medical Association of the UK, described by the Guardian as “a respected figure in the British Muslim community,” has come out against all childhood vaccination, claiming that “the case of vaccination is first an Islamic one, based on Islamic ethos regarding the perfection of the natural human body’s immune defense system, empowered by great and prophetic guidance to avoid most infections.”  Taking his advice would, of course, be disastrous.

In all states, immunizations are required for public school enrollment, except for medical, religious and philosophical exemptions. Here’s the latest map (2021) of exemptions, taken from The National Conference of State Legislatures. As you can see, since my book was published in 2015, it appears that four states—Maine, New York, Connecticut, and California—no longer grant religious exemptions for vaccination. That’s good news. Note as well that only 15 states allow philosophical exemptions (the striped ones are also blue, meaning that they allow religious exemptions too). This shows not only that religion gets precedence over philosophy, but also that this precedence makes no sense, since a philosophical exemption is presumably a “reasoned” one (misguided though it may be), while religious dictates come from scripture or authority. Every state in the map below should be white.

Now I’ll read the article, and you are free to at any time by clicking on the screenshot below.

Chang and I largely agree, but diverge in three important ways:

First, though, he notes that the religious exemption comes from Title VII of the Civil Rights acts, which “require American employers to accommodate employees’ religious beliefs.” And those are the grounds on which many people are claiming religious exemption from the Covid vaccination, though Chang believes that these religionists aren’t really doing it on religious grounds (which don’t exist anyway, see below), but are “nonreligious and rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.”

Further, and this is what made me realize originally that this topic deserves a post, how many religions really have dictates prompting their followers to refuse vaccination?  We know about Christian Science, of course, and there are dozens of evangelical Christian sects, largely in the American Northwest, that refuse medical care as part of their faith. But try to find a justification for that in scripture. As Chang notes:

. . . there is no actual religious basis for exemptions from vaccine mandates in any established stream of Christianity. Within both Catholicism and all the major Protestant denominations, no creed or Scripture in any way prohibits Christians from getting the vaccine. Even the sect of Christian Scientists, which historically has abstained from medical treatment, has expressed openness to vaccines for the sake of the wider community. The consensus of mainstream Christian leaders — from Pope Francis to Franklin Graham — is that vaccination is consistent with biblical Christian faith.

Biblically based arguments against vaccination have been rebutted. The project Christians and the Vaccine, which I helped to found, has created numerous explainer videos in an effort to refute attempts by anti-vax Christians to hijack pro-life values, to distort biblical references like the “mark of the beast” and to inflame fears about government control. Christians who request religious exemptions rarely even try to offer substantive biblical and theological reasoning. Rather, the drivers for evangelical resistance are nonreligious and are rooted in deep-seated suspicion of government and vulnerability to misinformation.
Chang is doing a good deed by pointing out the weakness of religious exemptions for vaccination, and by insisting that all employers should get rid of religious exemptions for coronavirus vaccines (he specifies “for Christians”, but I think no religious exemptions should be allowed).

That’s one way we differ. The other is that Chang appears to think that Christians have a “right” to refuse the vaccine in general, though not necessarily to be employed without it:

My plea to my fellow Christians: If you insist on refusing the vaccine, that is your right. But please do not bring God into it. Doing so is the very definition of violating the Third Commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”

I don’t think there’s a “right” for Christians to refuse vaccines deemed essential by the state. They have no more right to do that than to refuse to pay taxes on religious grounds, nor to send their children to public schools without the required shots (except, of course, for those pesky exemptions).  And not paying taxes is far less harmful to society than walking around with a possibly infectious microbe.  Everyone should be vaccinated for diseases like Covid unless there are medical contraindications. I can see no reason not to. People may say that a few people may suffer serious side effects, but those are far less harmful than living through a pandemic.

Finally, many religious schools allow unvaccinated children to attend, and some parents are sending their children there, or homeschooling them, to get around the normal vaccine requirements (right now only older children must be vaccinated). For safe vaccines, as Covid-19 jabs will surely prove to be for younger children, all children everywhere must be vaccinated, just like adults. After all, even religious children mingle with the general public, and endanger them when they’re unvaccinated.

Of course given my view that religion is man-made and generally detrimental to society (this is of course demonstrated by the last chapter of my book), I would object to any favoritism based on religion that doesn’t apply to secular people. (This doesn’t mean, though, that I favor philosophical exemptions to vaccination!) But you don’t have to go that route when making the argument that nobody should be exempt from a Covid vaccination except on medical grounds. The public health argument is sufficient.

Perhaps you disagree, or have other views. By all means, use the comments to air your thoughts.

An academic paper: Which saint is best to pray to if you’ve got Covid?

August 28, 2021 • 10:45 am

Inquiring minds want to know, and three Europeans (perhaps in cahoots with the divine) have answered:

When a reader sent me this article, and I read the online condensed version (it takes two minutes), I thought it as a joke. But no, it’s for real. You can see the journal site here, and a response to the article is the first one listed on the contents page of the latest issue. I’d love to see the response, or the full original paper (you can see a precis by clicking on the screenshot below).  I’ve archived the article’s precis here in case that for some reason they ditch the article.

 

Okay, I’m going to show you the whole “snippet” of the paper as presented by the journal:

Short report

Which Saint to pray for fighting against a Covid infection? A short survey

Summary

Background

In the absence of a treatment still considered universally effective, and of a vaccine validated by the health authorities, we wanted to know which Catholic saint the European Christian community turned to in the event of infection with Covid-19 to request a miraculous healing.

Methodology

An online survey was carried out on a sample of 1158 adults using social media tools.

Results

All results are presented in this research, with a few saints in the majority, and some dictated by the symptomatology of the Covid-19 infection or the personalities of certain « doctor guru ».

Conclusion

This medico-anthropological study is revealing the psychology of Western patients vis-à-vis the magic-religious means used in the fight against diseases, particularly in the epidemic/pandemic context.

Section snippets

Background

The relationship between religion and medicine is well known in human communities since antiquity. Medieval medicine was based on Hippocratic and Galenic doctrines, but it was also characterized by spiritual and divine influences. So, in European countries, in Middle Ages, Saints’ invocation for the curing of diseases was an usual practice.

Despite, the spiritual and religious dimensions have deviated from medicine after the Renaissance and the Late Enlightenment, the intercession to the Saints. . .

Methodology

We conducted a survey on two of the most used social networks: Twitter and Facebook. The survey was conducted between August 21 and 25, 2020. Each author posted on his Twitter and Facebook page, the following question: “Which saint you would pray for fighting against a Covid infection?”. The total number of followers targeted by the question was 15,840 people (92% from Europe).

Results

A total of 1158 adult anonymous participants (mainly from France and Italy) answered to our question. For obvious ethical reason, no sex, age or cultural background are available. All results are summarized in Table 1.

Discussion

Analyzing the results in more detail, from the survey it emerges that the majority saint is St. Rita (Fig. 1). From a young age, Rita of Cascia (Italy, 1381-1457) dreamed of consecrating herself to God, but she was destined to marry a violent man. Rita’s patience and love changed her husband’s character. After the violent death of her husband and two children from illness, Rita decided to follow the youthful desire by entering the monastery of the Order of Sant’Agostino in Cascia (Italy) [4].

Conclusions

This short medico-anthropological study is revealing the psychology of Western patients vis-à-vis the magic-religious means used in the fight against diseases, particularly in an epidemic/pandemic context. The survey confirms that Catholic people continue to entrust their sorrows, their anxieties and their hopes to the divinity, especially in time of global stress, mainly if it is a suddenly-presented difficulty that have changed the people’s lifestyle. Moreover, the choice of the Saints to. . .

Authors’ contributions

AP had the initial idea of the search and contributed to the survey. AC contributed to the survey. PC wrote the first draft of the manuscript, with significant critical input from all other coauthors. All authors have read and approve the final article. PC is the manuscript guarantor.

Disclosure of interest

The authors declare that they have no competing interest.

So if you don’t get vaccinated, you better start praying to Saint Rita.

This is unbelievably stupid. And their research used subjects garnered from Twitter and Facebook!

Note that this isn’t just a survey of opinion, but is somewhat prescriptive: “In the absence of a treatment still considered universally effective, and of a vaccine validated by the health authorities, we wanted to know which Catholic saint the European Christian community turned to in the event of infection with Covid-19 to request a miraculous healing.”

Elsevier should be ashamed of itself. If anybody has access to the letter of response, I’d love to see it.

h/t: Ginger K

Atheist-bashing quote of the day

August 27, 2021 • 9:30 am

I’d never read the Wikipedia entry on “New Atheism” before, and so I just did. It’s pretty good, and clearly not heavily edited by theists. But the section on “Criticisms” of New Atheism reports a bale of the usual twaddle: New Atheism is a religion (I always read this as “See? You’re as bad as we are!); New Atheism is overly strident (one person calls it “mean-spirited” which it’s apparently okay to call Republicans but not religion); New Atheism provides a straw man by going after only “folk religion” rather than sophisticated theology (which isn’t that different from fundamentalism, but just gussied up with fancy words); and New Atheism is “scientistic” (that hit is from Massimo Pigliucci).

But one quote particularly struck me, and I’ll give the Wikipedia entry verbatim. If you don’t recognize the name, Sacks used to be Britain’s Chief Rabbi. Now he’s a fricking baron!

Jonathan Sacks, author of The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning, feels the new atheists miss the target by believing the “cure for bad religion is no religion, as opposed to good religion”. He wrote:

Atheism deserves better than the new atheists whose methodology consists of criticizing religion without understanding it, quoting texts without contexts, taking exceptions as the rule, confusing folk belief with reflective theology, abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity. Religion has done harm; I acknowledge that. But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.

So there’s a tidy bundle of criticisms, but none of them hold water. Let me respond off the top of my head:

a. Many new atheists used to be religious, and thus have a deep understanding of not just practicing and believing, but also of theology and the Bible. You can see this knowledge displayed frequently on this website.

b. As for our supposedly pitiful knowledge of religion, let me refer you to a Pew study of two years ago, which revealed that, overall, Jews, atheists, and agnostics showed a better knowledge of religion than did adherents to more traditional faiths, and also beat the other “nones”: those who believe in “nothing in particular”. Atheists and agnostics were also on par with Christians in understanding Christianity, and much better at understanding “other world religions”.  At the very least, you can say that atheists and agnostics are at the top of Americans in their knowledge of religion. (You can find the full pdf of the study here.)

I’ll throw this in as lagniappe, which shows that atheists and agnostics know a lot more than others about the relationship of church and state in America:

By the way, you can take the 15-question religious knowledge test that they asked here. I got a perfect score! You should take it and report your score below. (It’s an easy quiz.)

But I digress (it happens when I’m looking up references). Back to Rabbi Sacks’s criticisms:

c.  Re New Atheists: “abusing, mocking, ridiculing, caricaturing, and demonizing religious faith and holding it responsible for the great crimes against humanity.” Well, mockery, satire, and ridicule have been staple tools of criticism for years; they’re not just abusive, but, like Jesus and Mo, they are ways to reveal hypocrisy and craziness of religion and other ideologies. Mencken was particularly good at this. And as for holding religion responsible for great crimes against humanity, that’s simply true, and we saw it enacted again yesterday. Of course nobody claims that all the great crimes of humanity come from religion, though many come from tribalism, but I still can’t think of any great crime of humanity motivated by the desire to promulgate atheism. You can argue that the Soviets killed theists and downgraded religion, but I’d respond that that was done more to eliminate a competitor to the religion of Communism than to promote atheism.

Here’s a relevant meme from Barry:

d. This statement is particularly repugnant: “But the cure for bad religion is good religion, not no religion, just as the cure for bad science is good science, not the abandonment of science.” This comes from Sacks’s unevidenced belief that “good religion” (one of them is surely his) creates better societies than does atheism. That’s wrong. Scandinavia, for example, is pretty much a group of atheistic countries, and they are not palpably worse than religious ones, even ones adhering to “good religion”.  (I’d argue that they’re among the most moral and caring of the world’s societies.) The thing is, we’re already doing good science, and don’t need to proselytize scientists to do good science to drive out the bad stuff. (Further, “bad science’ is usually seen as “lame or incompetent science” not “harmful science”.)  Sack’s statement is analogous to saying “the cure for bad delusion is good delusion, not the abandonment of delusion.”

You’re on shaky ground these days if you try to maintain that society absolutely requires some form of religion to give people hope and communality  as a form of social glue. All I have to do is point at Denmark, Sweden, and Iceland and ask, “Well, what have they replaced religion with?”