Monday duck report

July 13, 2020 • 2:00 pm

I have some videos of Dorothy’s babies (yes, still six) preening, dunking, and engaging in other watersports, but I’ll leave those until later this week. Today I’ll try to catch up on the photographs.

First, the red-eared sliders, which are coming out often in the heat:


No matter how old these are, they always look ancient (and wise):

A formal head shot of Honey, the most famous mallard hen in America (or so I like to think). Her bill pattern is distinctive, though it’s darkening up a bit as the season progresses.

Honey began molting around two weeks ago, right when her youngsters began their first awkward flights. Here you can see, in contrast to her offspring in the rear, with those big wing feathers, that Honey has lost her primary flight feathers. For a while she was flightless, but they’re growing in and, when a Cooper’s Hawk flew over the pond yesterday morning, and Dorothy sounded a “QUACK” alarm, all the ducks flew out of the pond, including Honey! Even without fully-formed feathers she was able to fly.

The hawk, by the way, appears to show no interest in ducks or ducklings, but often munches on songbirds as it sits perched in a tree next to the pond. But I am wary, and the ducks even more so. (A pair of Cooper’s Hawks fledged three babies in a tree only about 150 yards from Botany Pond.

Part of Honey’s brood dabbling. They’re finding more of their own food these days, having less interest in my yummy duck pellets. Honey eats very little from me, but still loves her corn and mealworms.

Her brood was originally 17, but they’ve been leaving in ones, twos, and three, and, yesterday, in fives. We’re down to Honey and five offspring today.

Honey’s brood sacked out in the water on a hot July 4. Remember, less than two months before this photo was taken, those full-size ducks were just hatching. How they’ve grown!

Here’s a photo I took of Dorothy on June 5 to verify her identity. And you can see the black dot underneath her right nostril that gave her the name “Dot,” which became formalized as “Dorothy”. At this point she was coming to the pond sporadically and then disappearing, sometimes to various windowsills. But I didn’t know she was re-nesting.

On June 22, much to our surprise, she produced seven ducklings from her old nest on the third floor. As I’ve related with sadness, one of them disappeared (a predator?), but the remaining six are big and thriving. Dorothy seems proud, and I like to think she’s happy to have her own family at last. After a rocky start, she seems to have shaped up after losing that one duckling, and now she’s an excellent mom, guarding her brood and chasing away every other duck save Honey, who still rules the pond. (Don’t forget that about 8 of Honey’s brood were actually produced by Dorothy.)

Dorothy’s brood on June 25, when she still had seven. That was the day when they learned to get up on the bank by walking the Duck Ramp. (Dorothy looks proud!)

One of Dorothy’s at the “most adorable” stage:

After we lost one, now there were six. Here they are resting in the grass as Dorothy stretches a wing. Note how they’ve grown.

July 9: At a bit more than two weeks old, the fluffballs have become fuzzy little ducks. They stay together onshore, and Dorothy guards them nearby, either from the front. . .

. . . or from above. Four days later (just this morning), they’ve lost more of their fuzz.

Dorothy’s ball o’ ducklings. Their crops are distended as they’ve just had a meal (I feed them 4 times a day):


In a few days: videos!

Examples of government-funded Islamic whitewashing in public schools

September 7, 2017 • 10:00 am

Several days ago I wrote about a government-funded project, “Access Islam,” designed to be used in American public schools. Supported by the US Department of Education, as well as by the Smithsonian Institution and the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) the project is objectionable because it not only singles out Islam (there are no comparable projects for other faiths), making it unconstiutional, but is also patronizingly designed to whitewash any doctrine of Islam that could be seen as oppressive or injurious. I have no idea whether “Access Islam” was in fact used in any schools. (If readers know, do tell me.)

I see that several readers have argued for government-designed programs of “religious education” in public schools, dismissing my arguments against that as not dispositive. And, indeed, they might not be. But I think it would be very hard— in an America imbued with a sense of fair play—to design a religious curriculum that was not so sanitized and egalitarian that it didn’t teach kids anything they couldn’t learn by simply living in American society.

Don’t believe me? Here, found by reader Matt, is a quiz from the “Access Islam” course materials. It’s from the segment called “Roles of Woman”—the same sanitized and duplicitous segment (original lesson here) that I wrote about yesterday. And here is the quiz the students are supposed to take after reading that material; it appears on the website of WNET, a PBS station:

Look at some of those questions!

You want religious education in American public schools? This program, designed by the government and approved by the Smithsonian and PBS, is the kind of thing you’re gonna get.

It’s untenable to try teaching what “good” and “bad” things each faith has led to, for not all faiths are equal in that respect, and yet they must be presented as equal to conform to the First Amendment.

Given that, there are two solutions. Just list the beliefs of each religion (and you know the issue with that: which beliefs do we prioritize given diverse beliefs?), or sanitize all religions so they appear to be wonderful, empowering, and egalitarian.

That is no way to teach anything so divisive and controversial. And that’s why we shouldn’t have religious education in our public schools. Exhibit 1 is above.

Why comparative religion courses are untenable in American public schools

September 6, 2017 • 8:45 am

 A comment made by reader Matt on my post about the whitewashing of Islam in American public schools proves the point I wanted to make: teaching comparative religion in American public schools won’t work.

There are good reasons, of course, to teach comparative religion in secondary schools, the most prominent being that religion has been an important factor in human history, and without knowing something about it you’d be unable to suss out things like the Crusades, the religious wars and conflicts of the Middle Ages, the transformation of the Roman Empire to Christianity, and so on (my bias is showing since I’m mentioning only religious conflicts). Richard Dawkins always emphasizes that the Bible itself—at least the King James version—is great literature that should be read for its beauty. I emphatically disagree; there are some good parts, but the vast bulk of it is stupefyingly boring. (Try most of the Old Testament.) But allusions to religion abound in literature (think Shakespeare, Milton, and Dostoevsky), and that’s a good reason to study scripture.

Finally, if you’re interested in the history of philosophy, ethics, or human thought in general, you’ll need to know something about religion. How, for instance, can you make sense of debates about abortion, gay marriage, or stem-cell research without knowing the dictates of Catholicism and other brands of Christianity?

That’s the upside. But I think it’s counterbalanced by several downsides. Which religions do we teach? It’s impossible to teach them all given that there are more than 10,000 species of belief on our planet, and you can’t teach “comparative” religion without at least a broad sampling—including the faiths of eastern Asia, Oceania, and Africa. Too, how do you teach them? You can imagine the squabbles between Sunni and Shia Muslim parents over the relative weights given to these faiths.

And what about the bad stuff that religion has inspired: the Inquisition, the Crusades, ISIS, and the doctrines of many faiths that oppress women, gays, or even unbelievers, as well as terrorize children. Do you neglect those issues, which, after all, comprise one reason to teach religion as a major force in history? How can you understand the colonization of America without understanding religious persecution? How can you teach about religious wars without mentioning the emnity produced by thinking that you, as opposed to your neighbor, have the absolute truth. And how do you deal with the Holocaust? Was that purely a cultural phenomenon?

The American solution, of course, is “fair play”: teach that all religions are not only good, but equally good, and that anything bad associated with them can be imputed not to religious beliefs but to culture. That is, you sanitize the entire endeavor to such a degree that students fail to understand religion. At best, as is done in Europe, you might learn learn a few of the milder things believed by adherents to different faiths.

But what beliefs do you present? Do you tell kids that Catholics think that unconfessed masturbation will send you to fry forever, that many Muslims believe it is right to kill apostates or infidels, and credit a woman’s testimony in court as worth only half a man’s. Of course not! That’s not the American way! You must sanitize all beliefs so they appear either good or at best neutral

To see how this would be done in schools, look no further than the whitewashing of Islam done by the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), partly funded by the U.S. government. They have a “lesson page” on Islam (part of their “Global Connections” site) that covers terrorism, the roles of women, U.S. foreign policy, and so on. To see how Islam would be taught in American public schools, check out the “roles of women” page. What you’ll find is pure whitewash: the repeated contention that Islam is a woman-friendly religion, with its female adherents enjoying privileges that until recently weren’t given to Western women. There is lie after lie—or distortion after distortion—that makes us simply unable to understand why on Earth anyone would see the faith as misogynistic. The page is implicitly ideological, with the aim of showing Islam in the best possible light. Given the authoritarian-liberal bent of PBS, we know why this is the case.

Here are three bits from that page:

Let’s dispose first of the ridiculous comparison between American domestic violence and Islamic oppression of women. While some extremist Christians may beat their wives because they read it in scripture, most domestic violence in the U.S.  has nothing to do with religion.  That is not the case for Islamic “disciplining” of women (see here for evidence). Remember, too, that far more Muslims take their scripture literally than do Christians.

Most important, note that the oppressive practices of Islam are imputed to “culture”, not religion. That’s a lie, especially when you realize that in much of Islam one cannot separate culture and religion because the faith dictates all sorts of cultural practices. Is the forced veiling of women “culture”? If so, why did Iranian, Egyptian, and Afghani “culture” change so drastically in the late Seventies—changing in a way that women suddenly acquired the “cultural” habit of veiling? Was it just a coincidence that the Islamic Revolution began about then?

Reza Aslan and other apologists argue that the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) is “cultural” and has nothing to do with Islam. While there’s some truth in that, Heather Hastie has shown repeatedly that Islam not only helped spread the practice, but approves of or even mandates it. Here’s a bit from one of her posts:

Most imams will admit that the Qur’an and hadiths do not require FGM, but many still teach that it should be done, especially in Sunni Islam, which accounts for 80-90% of Muslims. There are four main schools of law in Sunni Islam: Hanbali, Shafi’i, Hanafi, and Maliki. The first two consider FGM obligatory and the other two recommend it.

And from another:

. . . there have been several fatwas issued regarding FGM over the years, the majority of which favour it. (Fatwas are not compulsory, but devout Muslims consider them morally imperative.) For example, Fatwa 60314 includes statements that express the importance of FGM within Islam and dismiss the opinions of doctors.

The belief that FGM is an expression of faith if you are a good Muslim is widespread, insidious and promoted by religious leaders. Even in those Muslim countries where it has been banned, there is push-back by religious leaders. In Egypt for example, FGM was finally banned after several failed attempts in 2008. However, it is still being carried out outside hospitals and the Muslim Brotherhood has a campaign to get the law overturned. Mariz Tadros reported in May last year that “the Muslim Brotherhood have offered to circumcise women for a nominal fee as part of their community services”.

As far as the “rights of women” enjoyed by Muslims but not Westerners, none remain. A Muslim woman can, in many places, be divorced simply by her husband saying “I divorce you” three times, and then she’s completely screwed (she has no similar ability to divorce her husband). In some places she can’t drive, in many she can’t appear in public unveiled, or without the company of a male relative. She must worship separately from men, and often is barred or discouraged from going to school or entering some professions. In Sunni Islam, a woman inherits only half as much property as her brothers (if a woman has one brother, for instance, he gets 2/3 of all the inheritance, while she takes a third). None of this is mentioned in the PBS “lesson,” and none of it is cultural. The bit above is simply a whitewash.

As is the bit below, for what the Qur’an states is not what has become practice, for practice depends also on the hadith and the sunnah. And actual practice has overriden many of the “Qur’anic” dictates below.

If we’re to teach religion, are we going to concentrate solely on what scripture says (but, of course, leaving out the bad bits, like Yahweh’s repeated genocides and the Qur’anic dictate to kill infidels)? Or are we going to include the practices brought about by religious custom?

There’s also a section on “Women political leaders” in Islam that mentions Aisha, Muhammad’s “favorite wife” who had “great political clout,” but conveniently leaves out the Muslim belief that she married the Prophet at six and was deflowered at nine—a tradition that has led to the widespread practice of child brides—who don’t, by the way, have the right to refuse a prospective husband.

Finally, there is veiling. Here’s what PBS says about that:

This is a bit more accurate than the bits above, but also flirts with the truth. Men’s “modest” dress is very different from women’s, and in many places men can dress as they do in the West while women must remain covered. Even if the veil was historically restricted to social class, that is no longer the case: in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Afghanistan all women are veiled, for that’s what the law says. I’m not aware of any place where upper-class Muslims are veiled more often than those of lower social class (I may of course be wrong).

What about this statement: “covering of the face was more common in the past than it is today, more so in some regions than others”? Well, if by “the past” we mean fifty years ago, I suspect the statement is wrong. Whether it was true in, say, the eighteenth century I have no idea.

As for those veiling laws, the statement “Veiling rules vary from country to country. In the modern period, strict laws about women’s dress are often used to emphasize the religious orientation of a particular government, as in Iran or Saudi Arabia” is sort of true, but the purpose is more than just “emphasizing the religious orientation of a particular government.” Nowhere is it mentioned that women are covered to prevent them from exciting the lust of men, who are seen as sexually uncontrollable creatures in the face of an uncovered ankle or a wisp of loose hair. The very purpose behind veiling—which, once in place, can then become an “exaptation” for displaying one’s faith—is simply omitted.

I’ve used Islam here to show the way comparative religions would undoubtedly be taught in America, for PBS has an educational “unit” on that faith. (There are no comparable sections on any other religion.) But the treatment of other faiths would surely resemble that of Islam. Their doctrines would be sanitized via cherry-picking only the good bits of scripture—and the oppressive customs would be imputed to “culture” rather than dogma. The students would be taught that all religions are good, and all religions are equally good. (And would they be taught atheism or humanism? Those aren’t, after all, “religions.”)

Perhaps other countries would do it differently, but I know America, and I know the American sense of “fair play” that would mandate that no religion could appear better or worse than another. That would of course require sanitizing them all. I find it preferable to not  teach “comparative religion” at all than to whitewash it in this way. It’s like teaching the history of twentieth century Europe and not saying anything bad about Germany.

h/t: Diane G.

Newsweek strongly questions the Bible, but still coddles faith

February 3, 2015 • 9:30 am

Newsweek is hardly known for going after religion, but you couldn’t tell that from the large article by Kurt Eichenwald that was published in December, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.” Apparently heavily informed by conversations with Bart Ehrman, who’s quoted several times, the piece is designed to let readers know that the Bible is not a unified work of scholarship (hence carrying the implication that it’s not the direct word of God, or inspired by him), that it was pieced together over centuries from scattered writings, and that it’s full of errors.

Now the readers here are pretty savvy, and you probably know all this. But I’ll just repeat a few points that Eichenwald makes before I discuss his final and shameful capitulation to believers. Here’s what he says:

  • The Bible is an error-ridden translation of the Greek original (oddly, Eichenwald doesn’t mention until the end that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, not Greek), and a lot of the translation is bad—including the famous rendering of the Greek “young woman” into “virgin” when referring to Mary. This, of course, has led to erroneous dogma.
  • Likewise for false interpolations in the Bible, like Jesus’s famous “let-he-that-is-without-sin-cast-the-first-stone” story, which was apparently confected by Middle Age scribes.
  • Critical parts of dogma, such as the doctrine of the Trinity, don’t appear in the Bible, but were decided in big conferences like the council of Nicea, where the Nicene Creed originated. Sometimes these issues were divided by vote, putting the lie to the notion that the Bible is the source of such truths. (I discuss this dogma-by-vote issue in The Albatross.) Not everyone agreed with these decisions, precipitating a lot of bloodshed over things like the divinity of Christ.
  • The Bible contradicts itself in different places. We all know of the discrepancies between Genesis 1 and 2, and between the accounts of the Resurrection in the four Gospels.  Presumably the many Americans who are deeply ignorant of what the Bible really says are unaware of this stuff.
  • Accounts of the life and doings of Jesus are unreliable because they were written decades after the fact, often by people who weren’t on the scene. Thus the existence of Jesus, and details of his life (if he existed) are less reliable than those of Socrates.
  • The Bible sees a lot of things as sinful that right-wing politicians are actually doing now. For instance, we all know that Paul (in I Timothy) tells women to be silent (are you listening, Sarah Palin?); in Romans the faithful are admonished to avoid criticizing the government; and the Bible says repeatedly that prayer should be a private matter, practiced on your own and not exercised loudly in public. Newsweek notes that Republican politicians (Rick Perry comes to mind) regularly violate this dictum.

Well, most of us know this stuff, but it’s useful that it’s laid out in black and white for the religious American public, and that the lessons are given pointedly to politicians. But after all this demonstration of the fictitious and erroneous nature of much of Scripture, does Eichenwald find any merit in the Bible?

What do you think? This is America, so he has to. First, after a long disquisition on the contradictions about the Resurrection, he says this:

None of this is meant to demean the Bible, but all of it is fact. Christians angered by these facts should be angry with the Bible, not the messenger.

Of course it’s meant to demean the Bible, as he says so clearly in the second sentence. But Eichenwald’s osculation of faith’s rump gets worse at the end:

This examination is not an attack on the Bible or Christianity. Instead, Christians seeking greater understanding of their religion should view it as an attempt to save the Bible from the ignorance, hatred and bias that has been heaped upon it. If Christians truly want to treat the New Testament as the foundation of the religion, they have to know it. Too many of them seem to read John Grisham novels with greater care than they apply to the book they consider to be the most important document in the world.

But the history, complexities and actual words of the Bible can’t be ignored just to line it up with what people want to believe, based simply on what friends and family and ministers tell them. Nowhere in the Gospels or Acts of Epistles or Apocalypses does the New Testament say it is the inerrant word of God. It couldn’t—the people who authored each section had no idea they were composing the Christian Bible, and they were long dead before what they wrote was voted by members of political and theological committees to be the New Testament.

The Bible is a very human book. It was written, assembled, copied and translated by people. That explains the flaws, the contradictions, and the theological disagreements in its pages. Once that is understood, it is possible to find out which parts of the Bible were not in the earliest Greek manuscripts, which are the bad translations, and what one book says in comparison to another, and then try to discern the message for yourself.

And embrace what modern Bible experts know to be the true sections of the New Testament. Jesus said, Don’t judge. He condemned those who pointed out the faults of others while ignoring their own. And he proclaimed, “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.”

That’s a good place to start.

 Most of this is fine—except for the conclusion. If we excise all the interpolations and contradictions from the Bible, and subtract the extra-scriptural dogma imposed later by religious authorities, what do we have left? What we have left is still a book of fiction, comparable to the Bhagavad Gita or Epic of Gilgamesh. Eichenwald doesn’t mention that the Biblical stuff that isn’t overtly fraudulent, or wasn’t added later, is also dubious, including the entire creation story and that of Noah’s Flood, the movement of the Jews to Egypt and their later exodus and wanderings in the desert, and so on. While Eichenwald wants us to stick to the earliest Greek manuscripts as the authentic Bible, how does that help us? Are we supposed to embrace those “true” sections? Ten to one those “true” sections include all the horrible stuff in Deuteronomy and Leviticus, as well as Jesus’s pronouncements about leaving your family and about the world soon coming to an end very soon.

Eichenwald gives us no hint about “how to discern the message for yourself.” If that’s the case, could he give us a hint as to what the message is? Or, if it’s simply up to each person’s judgment, how do we resolve conflicting “messages”? And of what use are churches and theologians?

Finally if the Bible’s message is simply bromides like “love thy neighbor” and “don’t kill,” well, do we really need the Bible for that when we’ve got Confucius and the secular Greek philosophers, all who wrote without the heavy veneer of superstition, deities, and the supernatural? Why read the Bible at all if we have lots of secular philosophers like Kant, Plato, Mill, and Singer, who convey even better messages, and whose writings are actually genuine?

If we must heap our own preconceptions on the Bible to get anything out of it, what’s the use? The book then becomes just a mirror of our feelings and biases. Better to read philosophers who actually make us think about things we hadn’t pondered before.

My TLS review of Darwin’s Cathedral

December 7, 2014 • 12:55 pm

As promised, here’s my old review of David Sloan Wilson’s book, Darwin’s Cathedral, which criticizes the theory of “cultural group selection” for the spread of religion mentioned in the last post. The full reference is below (there may be slight differences between what was published and the version I give here, which was the submitted version; I have no access to the online version nor possess a pdf file of what was published).

Coyne, J. A. 2002. They shall have their rewards on earth, too. (Review of Darwin’s Cathedral by D. S. Wilson). Times Literary Supplement, London. Nov. 1, 2002, p. 31.


They Shall Have Their Rewards on Earth, Too

Jerry Coyne

David Sloan Wilson
Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society
268 pp. University of Chicago Press. £17.50

Altruism may be a boon to society, but it’s a problem for Darwinism. “Unselfish genes” causing true biological altruism, in which an individual sacrifices its own reproductive success for the benefit of others, should in theory be eliminated by natural selection. Yet such altruism seems to occur. Many songbirds, for example, give special alarm calls when a predator appears. These warn the flock, but may make the caller especially visible and vulnerable to attack.

One biological explanation is “group selection,” a form of natural selection entailing differential success of groups rather than individuals. An alarm-calling bird may be at a relative disadvantage, but groups of birds containing many callers enjoy lower predation. Such groups can thus proliferate, spreading genes for alarm-calling.

One of the pioneers of this theory is David Sloan Wilson, an evolutionist at the State University of New York. In Darwin’s Cathedral, a thoughtful and provocative work, Wilson turns his spotlight on religion, which, he claims, can be explained only by group selection.

According to Wilson, a religion is the human equivalent of a pack of lions: by cooperating as a group, people attain benefits beyond their reach as individuals. By “benefits,” Wilson does not mean spiritual or psychic rewards, but purely material ones: food, prosperity, and health. As first proposed by Durkheim, religions are therefore vehicles of “secular utility.” Early Christians, for example, nursed each other through plagues, and were more likely to survive than their non-nurturing pagan neighbors. Balinese religion enforces an intricate system of irrigation to ensure an egalitarian distribution of water. In the US, Korean Christian churches provide recent immigrants with homes, jobs, and money.

Many scholars have similarly emphasized the social aspects of religion, but where does group selection enter the equation? Wilson’s explanation is subtle, expressed most clearly in a footnote: “Group selection has been a very important force, but not the only force, in the cultural evolution of religions and in the genetic evolution of the psychological mechanisms relevant to religious beliefs and practices”. His argument thus involves both cultural and genetic evolution.

Cultural evolution is simply the spread of beliefs or practices through assimilation. Such evolution differs from genetic evolution in two important ways. While genes spread only from parent to offspring (‘vertically”), cultural traits can also spread “horizontally”: in the case of religion, by imitation, conversion, or conquest—processes much faster than the spread of genes. Second, while genetic evolution depends on a single criterion of fitness—the number of offspring produced by the carrier of a gene—cultural traits spread by many different psychological and cultural mechanisms. The forces responsible for the spread of Marxism differ from those causing the success of Madonna.

Wilson believes that all successful religions share critical attributes. These include psychological altruism (helping others in a way that may reduce your well-being), codified egalitarianism (so that nobody feels he’s getting a raw deal), policing practices (to prevent cheaters from reaping benefits without paying costs), and conduct-regulating edicts such as the Ten Commandments (morality enforces group harmony). Spiritual symbolism, the defining feature of religion, is to Wilson merely an emotional lever for obtaining goods: “Even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world.” Stories such as Christ’s crucifixion can arouse emotions that secure group benefits. Because the most persistent and widespread faiths are those whose principles provide the greatest material benefits for adherents, religions are products of group selection.

This idea has some merit. Most religious communities function as social units, improving the lot of at least some members. And group attributes clearly affect the success of religions. The Shaker policy of renouncing reproduction obviously contributed to its demise. In early Christianity, women enjoyed high status, which lured low-status women from surrounding communities, who in turn brought male converts and thus Christian children. But Wilson’s emphasis on the predominance of group selection, which he preaches relentlessly, suffers from problems.

One difficulty is that some popular religions have tenets that are not good for everyone, and also spread by processes other than group selection. Hinduism, for example, codifies inequality via the caste system. It is hard to see what material benefits were enjoyed by the oppressed untouchables, many of whom fled to other faiths. Much of Hinduism can be understood only as a historical relic of Aryan invasion and the subjugation of the vanquished, as well as the perpetuation of cultural control by the promise of nonmaterial benefits—a rise in status in the next incarnation. Similarly, the spread of religions in post-Reformation Europe followed the principle of cuius regio, eius religio: people adopted a faith not because of its rewards, but because it was practiced by their ruler. As Wilson admits, “the factors that cause one social experiment to succeed while others fail are probably so complex and historically contingent that they will never be fully understood, and they certainly extend beyond the conscious intention of the individual actors.”

Wilson’s views also suffer from a posteriori-ism: one can always make up a story about why a religion’s success was due to group utility. This makes the theory nearly unfalsifiable. He attributes the persistence of the Jews, for example, to their reluctance to accept converts, making Judaism a “cultural fortress” and forcing new members to demonstrate strong commitment. But the success of Christianity and Mormonism is attributed to the opposite trait: their ready acceptance of converts!

Finally, as Wilson admits, his theory of cultural group selection also applies to non-religious social groups, from Freemasons to Marxists, which rest on emotional symbols and supposed benefits to members. Thus his is a theory of cooperation, not of religion. He fails to address the essence of religion—whatever it is that sets, say, Catholicism apart from Rotary Clubs. Rates of martyrdom are higher among Catholics than among Rotarians. Understanding the root of this difference would reveal the essence of religion, but here Wilson has nothing to offer.

The problems become more severe when Wilson turns to genetic evolution. He claims that religion rests on aspects of human nature that evolved by group selection. These “genetic” traits include conformity, docility, sociality, a yearning for respect, a capacity for symbolic thought, the desire to root out cheaters, and psychological altruism.

This raises sociobiology’s perennial problem: how do we distinguish between behaviors directly encoded in our genes, and those that are mere byproducts of our big brains and complex culture? Humans evolved in small social groups, and it is likely that many traits, such as longing to be with others, are genetic products of that history. But other behaviors may simply be nongenetic effects of sociality. Are we docile and altruistic by instinct, or do we learn as children that obeying our parents and sharing our toys pay dividends? Although all human behaviors are “evolutionary” in the trivial sense that they originate in our evolved brains, there is no scientific basis for Wilson’s claim that religion-promoting behaviors are hard-wired in those brains.

Finally, even hard-wired social behaviors may have been beneficial to individuals, obviating the need to invoke group selection. As Lee Dugatkin emphasizes in Cooperation among Animals: An Evolutionary Perspective (Oxford University Press, 1997), cooperation can evolve because it is advantageous for each individual involved. A group-hunting lion will always be better off than a solitary hunter. Likewise, moral systems and psychological altruism may benefit the individual by increasing group solidarity. After all, psychological altruism is not biological altruism: I sacrifice no reproductive potential by driving a blind person to church.

Curiously, Wilson’s work was funded by the John Templeton Foundation, which is dedicated to promoting harmony between science and religion. But Darwin’s Cathedral creates no such rapprochement, for it sees religion as an offshoot of evolutionary biology. It thus represents one more foray in sociobiology’s continuing quest to ingest all areas of human thought, including sociology, psychology, aesthetics, and ethics. Wilson’s “reconciliation” between science and religion recalls the old story of the Biblical Zoo, containing a cage in which a lion and a lamb snuggle peacefully together. Amazed at the sight, a visitor calls over the attendant. “A lion and a lamb together—this is the very fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy! How did you do it?” It’s easy,” replies the attendant. “We just put in a new lamb every morning.”

Jerry Coyne is a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago

Once again: Was there a historical Jesus?

October 3, 2014 • 5:47 am

This question is of perennial interest, and of course won’t be settled, at least by those theists who proclaim, wrongly, that “you can’t prove a negative.” (Really? You can’t prove that I don’t have two hearts, or a brother?) Even if, after decades, we fail to come up with good evidence for a historical Jesus, Christians will still maintain, based on Scripture, that he existed.

Again, the question is not whether Jesus was the son of God/part of God as Christianity alleges, but whether there was even a historical person around whom the Jesus myth accreted. While people like Bart Ehrman give an adamant “yes,” others, like Richard Carrier (and our own Ben Goren) are “mythicists,” claiming that there’s no convincing of any real person who could have been the model of the Jesus figure.

I have to say that I’m coming down on the “mythicist” side, simply because I don’t see any convincing historical records for a Jesus person. Everything written about him was decades after his death, and, as far as I can see, there is no contemporaneous record of a Jesus-person’s existence (what “records” exist have been debunked as forgeries). Yet there should have been some evidence, especially if Jesus had done what the Bible said. But even if he was simply an apocalyptic preacher, as Ehrman insists, there should have been at least a few contemporaneous records. Based on their complete absence, I am for the time being simply a Jesus agnostic. But I don’t pretend to be a scholar in this area, or even to have read a lot of the relevant literature. I haven’t even read Richard Carrier’s new book promoting the mythicist interpretation, though I will.

Because of the paucity of evidence, we can expect this question to keep coming up. And so it’s surfaced once again, in a PuffHo piece by Nigel Barber.

Barber, who has a Ph.D. in biopsychology and a website at Psychology Today (“The Human Beast”), has also written six books.  And in the Sept. 25 edition (is that the right word?) of PuffHo, he takes up the question of the historicity of Jesus. His piece, “If Jesus never existed, religion may be fiction,” briefly lays out the mythicist case. Of course religion itself is not a fiction, but what Barber means is that Christianity’s empirical support, like that of Scientology or Mormonism, may well rest on a person or events that simply didn’t exist.

Here’s the crux of Barber’s argument. (I have not yet seen the piece in Free Inquiry to which he refers, as it’s behind a paywall, but if a reader wants to send it to me, I’d be much obliged.). I’ve put the critical part in bold:

In History, Jesus Was a No Show
Various historical scholars attempted to authenticate Jesus in the historical record, particularly in the work of Jesus-era writers. Michael Paulkovich revived this project as summarized in the current issue of Free Inquiry.

Paulkovich found an astonishing absence of evidence for the existence of Jesus in history. “Historian Flavius Josephus published his Jewish Wars circa 95 CE. He had lived in Japhia, one mile from Nazareth – yet Josephus seems unaware of both Nazareth and Jesus.” He is at pains to discredit interpolations in this work that “made him appear to write of Jesus when he did not.” Most religious historians take a more nuanced view agreeing that Christian scholars added their own pieces much later but maintaining that the historical reference to Jesus was present in the original. Yet, a fudged text is not compelling evidence for anything.

Paulkovich consulted no fewer than 126 historians (including Josephus) who lived in the period and ought to have been aware of Jesus if he had existed and performed the miracles that supposedly drew a great deal of popular attention. Of the 126 writers who should have written about Jesus, not a single one did so (if one accepts Paulkovich’s view that the Jesus references in Josephus are interpolated).

Paulkovich concludes:

“When I consider those 126 writers, all of whom should have heard of Jesus but did not – and Paul and Marcion and Athenagoras and Matthew with a tetralogy of opposing Christs, the silence from Qumram and Nazareth and Bethlehem, conflicting Bible stories, and so many other mysteries and omissions – I must conclude that Christ is a mythical character.”

He also considers striking similarities of Jesus to other God-sons such as Mithra, Sandan, Attis, and Horus. Christianity has its own imitator. Mormonism was heavily influenced by the Bible from which founder Joseph Smith borrowed liberally.

Barber goes on to talk about how the origin of Mormonism was a sham promulgated by a con man (an interpretation I accept). Yet even in that case there’s better evidence than we have for Jesus, for the Book of Mormon opens with two statements from eleven witnesses—people who were contemporaries of Joseph Smith—who swore that they saw the golden plates that became the Book of Mormon. Those people are historical figures who can be tracked down, and so the evidence for the existence of the plates is stronger than for the existence of a historical Jesus.

Barber finishes by describing how credulous people have started sects based on phony gurus and leaders, and, indeed, how an Indian film director decided to create his own religion by pretending he was a guru.  And of course we all know how L. Ron Hubbard started Scientology based on a bunch of science-fiction writings and a phony theology involving Xenu, volcanoes, and thetans. How people can buy that stuff—and there’s a lot of them—is beyond me. But of course you don’t get to learn the theology of Scientology until you’ve spent thousands of dollars, and so are inclined to accept it (bogus as it is) because of the “sunk-costs fallacy.”

At any rate, if there is no contemporaneous record of Jesus, there should have been, how seriously should we take his historical existence? I am not inclined to accept the Bible as convincing evidence for a historical Jesus

Is there anyone in history with so littlec ontemporaneous attestation who is nevertheless seen by millions as having really existed? There is of course Socrates, but of course we have a historical figure, Plato, who attests to his existence. Yet even that is overlain with a patina of mythicism, and I don’t think most scholars would say that Socrates existed with the certainty that Christians (or even atheists like Bart Erhman) would say that Jesus existed. And there’s no religion based on the historical existence of Socrates. As for Shakespeare, well, we have his signature and a fair amount of contemporaneous evidence that he really did exist; we just don’t know for sure that he wrote those plays (absence of evidence).

p.s. If you want to comment saying, “I am not concerned with this tedious question,” please don’t bother. If that’s your attitude, there’s no need to inform us all about your lack of interest.



Stephen Prothero on “Are all religions the same?”

September 20, 2014 • 9:54 am

Well here’s something refreshing: a professor of religion, Stephen Prothero, professing that all religions are NOT the same!  (The video is from 2010.) Not only that, but he claims that many evil acts really are motivated by religion rather than culture, politics, and other things. Heresy!

It seems to be a trend that the faithful (especially Christians) want to insist that all religions are at bottom the same: they worship what is really the same God. Of course, when this claim is made by Christians, that God bears traits strikingly similar to the Christian God. As Prothero says, “There’s too much of the insinuation of Christian values into this sort of generic human religiosity that people want to talk about.” And of course there’s a strain of secular apologetics, exemplified by Robert Pape, who claims that at bottom “religous” acts of terrorism are really motivated by politicus and culture (especially a history of Western colonialism), with religion playing virtually no role. (Pape’s arguments, by the way, have been severely criticized.)

Here’s Prothero’s cred from Wikipedia:

Stephen Prothero. . . is a professor in the Department of Religion at Boston University and the author of numerous books on religion in America.

He has commented on religion on dozens of National Public Radio programs and on television on CNN, NBC, CBS, Fox, PBS, MSNBC, The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and The Colbert Report. A regular contributor to USA Today, he has also written for The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Slate,, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe and The Wall Street Journal.

Prothero has argued for mandatory public school Bible literacy courses (along the lines of the Bible Literacy Project’s The Bible and Its Influence), along with mandatory courses on world religions. Prothero describes himself as “religiously confused.”

Of course not all religious scholars and theologians agree—William Lane Craig, for example, whose insistence that Allah is not the TRUE God, as we learned yesterday.

His comments on the spread of Islam are enlightening (and to me, frightening), and he has an interesting theory why Jews are so drawn to Buddhism (“Bu-Jews,” we call them).

What is most striking to me is his discussion of Nazi Christian theology beginning at 5:06. He takes up the issue of whether the Nazis were “true Christians,” and his answer is an unqualified “yes.” This, of course, resembles our discussion of whether adherents to ISIS are “true Muslims.”

Prothero does add that while jihadis are indeed “Muslims,” they weren’t “good” Muslims—that is, they didn’t transform the “evil” parts of their theology into something good. My response is that one person’s “good” is another person’s “evil.” We can tell Muslims that their misogyny and draconian laws are bad for their society, but if they don’t believe in a consequentialist ethics, and actually know what the consequences are, they’re not going to listen. (I think many Muslims adhere to a Craig-ian form of voluntarist Divine Command Theory: what the Qur’an says is simply the moral truth.) Prothero notes, though, that jihadis “use resources within the Muslim tradition.”

In other words, he advocates picking and choosing among “religious resources” to transform religions into vehicles for good. While I agree with him that if you want to be religious, that’s the way to go, why bother to be religious in the first place if you’re going to force your superstition into the Procrustean bed of an ethics that is at bottom secular?

In the end, he makes a good case for why all of should learn something about religion.

“The fact that you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean that people around the world and throughout world history haven’t been motivated by their understandings of God, or Jesus or Allah or Buddha or Confucius or whomever it is.  Religion is one of the most powerful forces in world history, and we need to know something about it in order to make sense of the world.”


h/t: Adam