3 Reasons Science Deniers Are Freaking Out About Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “Cosmos”

Source: AlterNet

Author: Chris Mooney

The following post first appeared on Mother Jones. For more great content, subscribe to Mother Jones here. 

If you think the first episode of the new Fox Cosmos series was  controversial (with its relatively minor mentions of climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang),  Sunday night’s show (16 March) threw down the gauntlet. Pretty much the entire episode was devoted to the topic of evolution, and the vast profusion of evidence (especially  genetic evidence) showing that it is indeed the explanation behind all life on Earth. At one point, host Neil deGrasse Tyson stated it as plainly as you possibly can: “The theory of evolution, like the theory of gravity, is a scientific fact.” (You can watch the full episode  here.)

Not surprisingly, those who deny the theory of evolution were not happy with this. Indeed, the science denial crowd hasn’t been happy with Cosmos in general. Here are some principal lines of attack:

1. Denying the Big Bang: In the first episode of Cosmos, titled “Standing Up in the Milky Way,” Tyson dons shades just before witnessing the Big Bang. You know, the start of everything. Some creationists, though, don’t like the Big Bang; at Ken Ham’s Answers in Genesis, a  critique of Cosmos asserts that “the big bang model is unable to explain many scientific observations, but this is of course not mentioned.”

Alas, this creationist critique seems very poorly timed: A  major new scientific discovery, just described in detail in the New York Times, has now provided  “smoking gun” evidence for ” inflation,” a crucial component of our understanding of the stunning happenings just after the Big Bang. Using a special telescope to examine the cosmic microwave background radiation (which has been dubbed the ” afterglow” of the Big Bang), researchers at the South Pole detected ” direct evidence” of the previously theoretical  gravitational waves that are believed to have originated in the Big Bang and caused an incredibly sudden and dramatic inflation of the universe. (For an easy to digest discussion, Phil Plait  has more.)

2. Denying evolution: Sunday’s (16 March) episode of Cosmos was all about evolution. It closely followed the rhetorical strategy of Charles Darwin’s world-changing 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, beginning with an example of “artificial selection” by breeders (Darwin used pigeons, Cosmos used domestic dogs) to get us ready to appreciate the far vaster power of natural selection. It employed Darwin’s favorite metaphor: the “tree of life,” an analogy that helps us see how all organisms are living on different branches of the same hereditary tree. In the episode, Tyson also refuted one of the creationist’s  favorite canards: the idea that complex organs, like the eye, could not have been produced through evolution.

3. Denying climate change: Thus far, Cosmos has referred to climate change in each of its two opening episodes, but has not gone into any depth on the matter. Perhaps that’s for a later episode. But in the meantime, it seems some conservatives are already bashing Tyson as a global warming proponent.  Writing at the Media Research Center’s Newsbusters blog, Jeffrey Meyer critiques a recent Tyson appearance on Late Night With Seth Myers. “Meyers and deGrasse Tyson chose to take a cheap shot at religious people and claim they don’t believe in science i.e. liberal causes like global warming,” writes Meyer.  Over at the pro-“intelligent design” Discovery Institute, they’re not happy. Senior fellow David Klinghoffer  writes that the latest Cosmos episode “[extrapolated] shamelessly, promiscuously from artificial selection (dogs from wolves) to minor stuff like the color of a polar bear’s fur to the development of the human eye.” In a much more elaborate  attempted takedown, meanwhile, the institute’s Casey Luskin accuses Tyson and Cosmos of engaging in “attempts to persuade people of both evolutionary scientific views and larger materialistic evolutionary beliefs, not just by the force of the evidence, but by rhetoric and emotion, and especially by leaving out important contrary arguments and evidence.” Luskin goes on to contend that there is something wrong with the idea of the “tree of life.” Tell that to the scientists involved in the Open Tree of Life project, which plans to produce “the first online, comprehensive first-draft tree of all 1.8 million named species, accessible to both the public and scientific communities.” Precisely how to reconstruct every last evolutionary relationship may still be an open scientific question, but the idea of common ancestry, the core of evolution (represented conceptually by a tree of life), is not.

Actually, as Tyson explained on our  Inquiring Minds podcast, Cosmos is certainly not anti-religion. As for characterizing global warming as simply a “liberal cause”: In a  now famous study finding that 97 percent of scientific studies (that bother to take a position on the matter) agree with the idea of human-caused global warming, researchers reviewed 12,000 scientific abstracts published between the years 1991 and 2011. In other words, this is a field in which a very large volume of science is being published. That hardly sounds like an advocacy endeavor.

On our most recent episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast, Tyson explains why he doesn’t debate science deniers; you can listen here (interview starts around minute 13):

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Neil deGrasse Tyson Squashes Creationist Argument Against Science on National TV

The evolution of humans anc culture

The evolution of humans anc culture

Source: AlterNet

Author: Dan Arel

“Episode two of “Cosmos,” hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, aired this week. Toward the end of the program, Tyson made one of the best statements one could hope would sink into the minds of young and old viewers alike and—most importantly—creationists.

The astrophysicist proclaimed that there is no shame in admitting you do not know something and that the real shame is pretending to know everything.

Just as we saw Ken Ham do when debating evolution with Bill Nye, Ham was able to claim he knew everything Nye honestly claimed he did not know by simply saying, “Bill, I do know how X happened, it’s all explained in this book,” referencing the Bible. Ham is ashamed about the fact that he cannot admit what he does not know. Instead, he would rather go on pretending to know things he does not know, which is the definition of faith.

Ham even claimed he believes in his views so strongly that nothing can change his mind — a sure sign of someone who believes to know things they do not know and does not care about finding the truth, only sticking to what he wants to believe.

During this week’s episode, Tyson discussed the evolution of the eye, something declared for years by creationists as unexplainable by evolution, and thus evidence that life must be intelligently designed. Tyson masterfully explained how the eye evolved and how well scientists understand this evolution.

The “Cosmos” host also touched on how many species have evolved an eye, but did leave out the fact that there are over 40 known independent eye evolutions, something that very clearly discredits any intelligent design.

However, these facts mean nothing to creationists. Not long after “Cosmos” aired, Jay W. Richards, a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute (DI), a non-science, religious based foundation that fights to discredit evolution and replace it with faith based creationism,  tweeted:

On eye evolution, the #Cosmos editors again failed to do a Google Search[.]

Richards’ Twitter missive linked to a Discovery Institute  PDF download that supposedly debunks the evolution of the eye claim. Yet the PDF is nothing more than praise for the Christian Right pundit Ann Coulter and a lambasting of Richard Dawkins, DI’s public enemy number one.

Watching the Christian Right, especially the creationist wing, struggle to counter “Cosmos” each week is like watching a frightened, cornered animal that knows it is about to die. What else could explain the weekly grasping at straws, and the unremitting blasting of social media links meant to reel their following back in as their eyes are opened to the scientific method’s greatness.

Those like Richards, Ham and the creationist lobby will simply stop at nothing to protect the industry they have created. A series like “Cosmos” will inspire a new young group of future scientists to put down their bibles and pick up “On the Origin of Species.” Countering make-believe with facts will encourage young people to leave church and walk into a science lab, to stop putting money into coffers and instead direct their resources toward research facilities.

Creationism’s days are numbered. “Cosmos” frightens the conservatives more than anything has in a very long time. Every day their numbers grow smaller and their grasp on America becomes weaker.

The time is now for a scientifically literate America to return, for scientific innovations to flow out of our borders and spread around the world. We can no longer take a backseat to the world of science and must return once again to the driver’s seat.

“Cosmos” is just the program we need to inspire people in this country and around the world with the wonders of science. Doing so, we realize that the facts offered through the scientific method are more beautiful and satisfying than the offerings of any religion on this planet. A series like “Cosmos” shows the world that facts are always better than fairytales.

Dan Arel is a freelance writer, speaker and secular advocate who lives in San Diego, CA. Follow him on Twitter @danarel.

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See: http://www.alternet.org/news-amp-politics/neil-degrasse-tyson-squashed-creationist-argument-against-science-national-tv?akid=11610.123424.QucU1A&rd=1&src=newsletter971566&t=15

Texas: Publishers refuse to include creationism in science textbooks

Source: Examiner.com

Author: Michael Stone

“In a victory for science education and the children of Texas, publishers are refusing to include creationism in science textbooks despite fierce pressure from conservative Christians.

The Texas Freedom Network, a nonpartisan watchdog, released a statement Thursday, Oct. 17, declaring “All 14 publishers are refusing to water down or compromise instruction on evolution and climate change in their proposed new high school biology textbooks.”

The following is from a press release issued by the Texas Freedom Network announcing the news:

Materials submitted to the Texas Education Agency and examined by the Texas Freedom Network and university scientists show that publishers are resisting pressure to undermine instruction on evolution in their proposed new high school biology textbooks for public schools.

“This is a very welcome development for everyone who opposes teaching phony science about evolution in our kid’s public schools,” Texas Freedom Network President Kathy Miller said. “Texas parents can applaud these publishers for standing up to pressure from politicians and activists who want to put their personal beliefs ahead of giving Texas students a 21st-century science education.”

Conservative Christians on the Texas State Board of Education have been attempting to insert religious superstition into science textbooks for years by attempting to smuggle into the Texas science curriculum materials supportive of Biblical Creationism, also known as Intelligent Design.

Science advocates argue Creationism, or Intelligent Design, is not a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution. Indeed, critics would claim Biblical creationism is a religious superstition that does real harm to America – a symptom of a willful ignorance and an anti-intellectualism that thwarts scientific progress at home and humiliates America abroad.

Lawrence Krauss, theoretical physicist, cosmologist, best-selling author and Science and Public Policy Advocate argues teaching children creationism as a legitimate scientific alternative to the theory of evolution is a form of child abuse. Many rational people agree with Krauss.

Science is the key to our future, and if you don’t believe in science, then you’re holding everybody back. And it’s fine if you as an adult want to run around pretending or claiming that you don’t believe in evolution, but if we educate a generation of people who don’t believe in science, that’s a recipe for disaster. … The main idea in all of biology is evolution. To not teach it to our young people is wrong. – Bill Nye

For more political news, information and humor see Left Coast Lucy on Facebook. For more news, information and humor relevant to atheists, freethinkers, and secular humanists, see Progressive Secular Humanist Examiner on Facebook. On Twitter follow Progressive Examiner.

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see: http://www.examiner.com/article/texas-publishers-refuse-to-include-creationism-science-textbooks?CID=examiner_alerts_article

The Value of Evolution, and the Poverty of creationism

From: http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/

By: Mark Trodden

“…In the example of evolution, the basic concepts are much easier to grasp, and should be within the reach of anyone who chooses to think about them with an open mind. However, here the challenge to acceptance is not one of the inaccessibility of the theory, but the implications that it has for existing powerful world views.

“On the other hand, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, the ramifications of natural selection are multiple. And, relatively, they are easily, if uneasily, understood: the Earth and life on it are far older than the Bible suggests. Species are not fixed entities created at one time. They rise, fall, become extinct, and there is no purpose, no forethought in these patterns. We can explain these processes now without reference to the supernatural. We ourselves are related, however distantly, to all living things. We can explain our own existence without reference to the supernatural. We may have no purpose at all except to continue. We have a nature derived in part from our evolutionary past. Underlying natural selection are physical laws. The evolved material entity we call the brain is what makes consciousness possible. When it is damaged, so is mental function. There is no evidence for an immortal soul, and no good reason beyond fervent hope that consciousness survives the death of the brain.

It is testimony to the originality as well as the diversity of our species that some of us find such ramifications horrifying, or irritating, or self-evidently untrue and (literally) soulless, while others find them both beautiful and liberating and discover, with Darwin, “grandeur in this view of life”. Either way, if we do not find our moments of exaltation in religious awe and the contemplation of a supreme supernatural being, we will find them in the contemplation of our arts and our science. When Einstein found that his general theory made correct predictions for the shift in Mercury’s orbit, he felt so thrilled he had palpitations, “as if something had snapped inside. I was,” he wrote, “beside myself with joyous excitement.” This is the excitement any artist can recognise.  This is the joy, not of simple description, but of creation. It is the expression, common to both the arts and science, of the somewhat grand, somewhat ignoble, all too human pursuit of originality in the face of total dependence on the achievements of others.”

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ID, Please Come Out

From: Religion Dispatches

By:Paul Wallace

(N.B.: We cannot make progress on addressing Climate Change until science is accepted, and science cannot be accepted while ID is given equal status.)

“Another week, another piece of anti-science legislation. This time it’s Missouri (again), where a deep incongruity of the intelligent design (ID) movement has made its way into the mouth of a local politician.

State Rep. Rick Brattin (R), the sponsor of HB 1227, wants ID to be taught alongside evolution in Missouri’s science classrooms. According to the Kansas City Star, Brattin says the bill is “not about religion.”

Yet in the selfsame report he says, “I keep pointing to a Gallup poll that shows 90 percent of Americans believe in a higher power. And yet our schools only teach that we emerged from primordial ooze. I think students should get both sides of the issue and get to come to their own conclusions.”

The logical fallaciousness, scientific ignorance, and overall naivete of this statement aside, what’s amazing is the absolute transparency of Brattin’s doublespeak: It’s not about religion, you see; it’s about religion.

The obviousness of this reminds me of my three-year-old, holding half a cookie in her hand and speaking out of a chocolate-smeared mouth, No, I didn’t take the cookie.

Yet Brattin, as confused as he seems, is only parroting the ID party line. His legislation is not about religion in the same way ID is not about God. Which is to say, religion is exactly what his legislation is about.

And he’s doing it in the spirit of ID, too. In hopes of sounding scientific, ID eschews the word “God” in its official work, opting for an unnamed “designer.” In the same way, Battain goes for the vague and unoffending “higher power.”

I have long believed that ID is on its deathbed. It is a scientific non-starter and a theological travesty. It is intellectually infertile. But Brattin makes me think what will ultimately kill ID is its inability to be honest with itself and admit what it is: religion and politics, masquerading as science.”

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Creationism evolves by jerks

By PZ Meyers – see Below

“I think one thing Razib says is exactly right:

One of the most interesting things to me is the nature of Creationism as an idea which evolves in a rather protean fashion in reaction to the broader cultural selection pressures.

Creationism has evolved significantly, but it’s not exactly protean: it’spunctuated equilibrium. If we had a time machine and could bring a typical creationist who came to age after Whitcomb and Morris’s The Genesis Flood face-to-face with a pre-Scopes trial creationist, there would be a fabulously ferocious fight, because their theology and their basic beliefs would be so radically different. They do change in response to the environment, but reluctantly and not without a lot of hysteresis.

I’d say there were four major shifts in the last century.

  • The Scopes trial, 1925. Even though the creationists nominally won this case, it was a public relations disaster for them: this was the polarizing event that split the country into the righteous rubes and the smug scientists.
  • The Genesis Flood, 1961. The creationists struck back with this popular book of pseudoscience, in which miscellaneous myths drawn from sources such as the Seventh Day Adventists were laundered and whitewashed and propped up with sciencey talk, in addition to religious justifications. You want to understand modern creationists? Read this. It’s the new dogma, and it’s what Ken Ham and Kent Hovind preach.
  • McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, 1982. This was a major defeat for the creationists, and provoked a new change in tactics: skulking. They realized they couldn’t be quite so brazen in the courtroom anymore, and so began an era in which they’d claim the mantle of science more and more. They were still making the Genesis Flood arguments, but they’d hide away the Bible references.
  • Intelligent Design creationism, 1990. One could argue that this is just more post-McLean shifting, but the Discovery Institute, Bill Dembski, and Michael Behe did greatly influence the rhetoric. “Specified complexity,” “irreducible complexity,” and “teach the controversy” became the new catch phrases.

Where I disagree with Razib, though, is in his impression of eloquence in this clip of Richard Land defending creationism. Maybe it’s because I’m so familiar with this stuff, but I was completely unimpressed: he may have spoken confidently, but the impression of fluidity is false, because that was a rote recital of done-to-death creationist talking points. It was Duane Gish spiced with a superficial seasoning of Michael Behe, a lot of 1961 mixed with a bit of glib 1990s, and rather than supporting the idea of a flexible creationism that evolves in response to cultural pressures, that was a beautiful example of stasis.

Here are Land’s arguments distilled down:

  • “significant majority of Americans don’t believe [in evolution]”. Slightly less than half, actually, but I think it was a fair point in defense of Rick Perry’s denial of evolution as a pragmatic political move. But still, it’s part of an ancient and fallacious argumentum ad populum. That uninformed people believe in something doesn’t make it true.
  • “I believe in evolution within species, don’t believe in Darwinian theory of origins.” This is extremely standard creationist tripe, I’ve been hearing it for ages. Modern creationists blithely accept a kind of hyperevolution within “kinds” and erect imaginary boundaries to delimit it. You’ll hear this story in Ken Ham’s Creation “Museum”, for instance. It ignores the fact of molecular evidence linking whole phyla together.
  • “It takes far more faith to believe nothing became something than to believe in a Creator.” Tired. Old. Boring. Yeah, I’m supposed to find it easier to believe in a magic invisible superman that I’ve never seen than to believe in natural forces that I see in operation every day.
  • “irreducible complexity.” This has become a stock phrase reduced to meaninglessness — it sounds impressive, though! These are the creationists’ new magic words. I suspect that Land doesn’t really understand the concept, let alone that it has been refuted.
  • “Single celled organisms that Darwin could not know about because those microscopes hadn’t been invented yet.” Oh, please. Microscopes had achieved the theoretical limit of resolution (the Rayleigh limit) in the 19th century. Darwin had microscopes that were just as powerful as the high-end scope sitting on my lab bench today, although he wouldn’t have had the range of contrast-generation techniques we now enjoy. Darwin wrote papers about microorganisms.

I would grant Razib the point that creationists do know how to lie boldly, which allows them to sail through unchallenged in many situations. The clip is a good example: it’s from a bloggingheads dialog with Amy Sullivan, that apologist for liberal Christianity, who looks on like a stunned fish while Land regurgitates creationist tropes, and then ignores all the wrongness to move on to a completely different point.

I think that’s another source of the impression of eloquence: too often, creationists are paired with incompetent or unprepared opponents who grant them the privilege of lying smoothly. If Sullivan had a bit of wit or even a tiny bit of knowledge about what Land was saying, he could have been exposed as a dishonest fraud fairly easily. And that would have been entertaining.

(Also on FtB)

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Five myths about atheism

An article well worth reading by Susie J: no matter hard hard they try, religionists wouldn’t be able to create a schism in the ranks of FreeThinkers!

Susan Jacoby:

“I was somewhat taken aback recently when I found myself on a list of “kinder, gentler atheists”–most of them women–compiled by a religious historian attempting to distinguish between socially acceptable atheism and the presumably mean, hard-line atheism expounded by such demonic figures as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. This nasty versus nice dichotomy is wholly an invention of believers who are under the mistaken impression that atheism is a religion in need of a good schism.

The list of “kinder” atheists was compiled for USA Today by Stephen Prothero, an On Faith panelist and professor of religion at Boston University and author of “Religious Literacy” (2007), a lively and incisive account of Americans’ ignorance about religion in general and their own religious history. Pleased as I was to find myself on a list in the company of such other spirited atheists as Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of the witty, recently published “36 Arguments for The Existence of God: A Work of Fiction,” and Jennifer Michael Hecht, author of “Doubt: A History” (2003), it is nevertheless slightly insulting to find your name used not only to place female atheists in a special category but as a foil for a mythical enemy known as the New Atheists. The latter consist, in Prothero’s view, mainly of Angry White Men who believe that all religious people are stupid and that “the only way forward is to educate the idiots and flush away the poison.”

I don’t mean to pick on Prothero, whom I greatly respect as a scholar of religion (this must be the sort of observation that he considers kinder and gentler), but his piece is a perfect example of all of the distortions of atheism cherished by anti-atheists.

Myth No. 1: The “new atheism” is a phenomenon that differs radically not only from atheism as it has existed since antiquity but from the views held by forerunners of modern atheism, including deists and Enlightenment rationalists, like Thomas Paine, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison, who played such a critical role in the founding of this nation. Try as I might, I find little in the works of Dawkins, Harris et. al.–apart from their knowledge of modern science–that differs significantly from the views of secular thinkers of earlier eras. What is different is that today’s atheists are not hiding behind other labels, such as agnosticism, in order to placate religious sensibilities. It is this lack of deference, more than anything else, that has outraged religious believers–particularly those on the right–in America. Most have confused their constitutional right to believe whatever they want with the idea that the beliefs themselves must be inherently worthy of respect.

Myth No. 2: Atheists think all religious believers are stupid. It is true that Dennett coined the unfortunate term “Brights” to describe atheists–which does imply that he considers believers dimwitted. But I disagree with Dennett on this point, and so do a good many atheists I know (some of whom didn’t even make the “kinder, gentler” list). I am quite prepared to concede that there are a fair number of intellectually challenged atheists, and I have no interest in arguing about whether the proportion of dunces is higher among the religious. As for the intelligence of religious believers, I doubt that many educated atheists would consider Aquinas, Abelard, or, for that matter, Prothero stupid. What we do think is that their ideas are wrong and irreconcilable with the laws of nature.

One point, however, is indisputable: there is a strong correlation between simplistic fundamentalist beliefs, relying on a literal interpretation of sacred texts, and lack of education. As the level of education rises, the number of people who believe in materially impossible tales such as the creation of the universe in six days; the literal resurrection of the dead; and the Virgin Birth diminishes. That is why fundamentalists have been tireless in their efforts to inject religious teaching into public schools. So it is generally true (although there are of course many exceptions) that the less people have learned about science, history, and different belief systems, the more likely they are to cling to a rigid form of faith.

Nevertheless, education and intelligence are hardly identical. Holders of doctoral degrees, whether in philosophy or biology, are less likely than high school dropouts to believe in the supernatural, but plenty of people with more than 16 years of formal education are quite susceptible to a wide variety of non-supernatural but equally muttonish notions dressed as lamb. One need only consider the number of grownup atheists who are still as entranced as 15-year-olds with the sophomoric Ayn Rand, whose basic philosophy, as expressed in her turgid novels, is that the only proper relation of one human being toward another is “hands off.” History is filled with atheists who have embraced every crackpot notion from eugenics to the desirability of eternal life facilitated not by God but by science. Of course, there have also been a great many religious believers who find that their godly philosophy include racial superiority and the inferiority of the poor. (Let’s not forget the most recent example of a stupid Christian politician, South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer, who thinks that free school lunches encourage the poor and stupid to reproduce.)

What ultimately distinguishes atheists from religious believers, however, is that no intelligent atheist can ever claim that his or her ideas constitute absolute truth.

Myth No. 3: This brings us to the most common false stereotype about atheism–that it is a religion and, furthermore, that “atheist fundamentalism” is as intolerant as conventional religious fundamentalism. Prothero uses the revealing word “genuflection” to describe the supposed attitude of atheists toward the writings of Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens. Other critics of atheism have described these writings as “sacred texts” for atheists. I hate to break it to the anti-atheists, but another crucial distinction between us and them is that we have no sacred, authoritative texts. Dawkins gave me a very generous quote for the jacket of the British edition of “The Age of American Unreason,” in spite of the fact that I have often written (and wrote in this particular book) that I do not agree with him or with Harris about the dangers of “moderate” religion to the body politic. Dawkins is not the Pope, science is not God, and all of these purportedly gentler women in the ranks of atheists are not handmaidens of the Lord. (I should add that Prothero did provide a separate list of “kinder, gentler” male atheists, whose chief qualification seemed to be that they had all struggled to free themselves from unquestioning faith. As someone who, as far back as I can remember–certainly from around age 12–never accepted what I was taught in Catholic school and suffered no pangs of conscience when I realized that I did not believe in God or in any religion, I probably qualify as a “hard” rather than a “soft” atheist.)

Integral to the myth of atheism as a religion is the false proposition that atheists claim to “know” there is no God. Robert Green Ingersoll, the 19th-century orator dubbed the “Great Agnostic,” put it succinctly in 1885 when asked a question by a Philadelphia reporter who was trying to get him to denounce atheists. “Don’t you think the belief of the Agnostic is more satisfactory to the believer than that of the Atheist?” the reporter asked. Ingersoll replied, “There is no difference. The Agnostic is an Atheist. The Atheist is an Agnostic. The Agnostic says: “I do not know, but I do not believe that there is any god. The Atheist says the same. The orthodox Christian says he knows there is a god: but we know that he does not know. He simply believes. He cannot know. The Atheist cannot know that God does not exist.”

Today, as in the past, atheists can say only that on the basis of the available evidence, we don’t think an omnipotent deity has anything to do with either the ultimate origins of the universe or the ethical dilemmas that human beings confront every day. Indeed, we do not “know” how the first particle of matter came into being any more than believers “know” how God came into being. We admit this. They don’t.

Myth No. 4: Atheists believe that science explains everything. No. We believe that science offers the best possibilities for explaining what we do not yet understand. Science–in contrast to religion–is a method of thought and exploration, not a set of conclusions based on unchallengeable assumptions. Science is always open to the possibility that its conclusions may be proved wrong by new evidence based on new experimentation and observation. Monotheistic religion’s bedrock assumption is the existence of a god who always was and always will be. Atheists (at least those with a scintilla of scientific knowledge) would never claim that the universe always was and always will be.

Myth No. 5:
Atheists deny the possibility of “transcendent” experience. They can’t see beyond the material world. This stereotype is partially true, but it all depends on what you mean by transcendent. If the concept is understood, as it is by many religious believers, as an experience that goes beyond and defies the usual limits of nature–including time, space, and the flesh-and-blood essence of human beings, then atheists do not accept the transcendent. But if the word is understood as something that pushes us beyond our everyday experience–that enables us to scale previously unknown heights of love, creativity, or wonder at what other members of our species have created, how could any man or woman of reason deny the possibility? We simply believe that such experience lie within, not outside of, nature.

As an atheist, I highly doubt that my subjective experience differs qualitatively from that of a religious believer who thrills to Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Michaelangelo’s David, Leonardo’s Adoration of The Magi, or, for that matter, the immensity of a night sky. I do not have to believe in God, or any supernatural entity larger than myself, to feel overwhelming awe upon holding a newborn baby or upon experiencing the reciprocal, passionate love that comes rarely–the kind of love, as Nietzsche observed, that “compels me to speak as though I were Two.” But I do interpret these experiences differently from a believer, because I do not ascribe any mystical or supernatural character to them. Such transcendent experiences do not make us greater than ourselves; they help us realize our best selves–the best of which our species is capable.

I see very little difference between the religious believer’s insistence on the existence of an immortal soul and the insistence of some secular philosophers and psychologists on the existence of a consciousness or a mind that is, in some inexplicable way, independent of our physical corpus. I do not consider the fruits of our love and labor–which will outlast our finite existence–less valuable because they depend on functioning neurons and because the neurons that produced them will eventually die. This insistence on an independent consciousness, mind, soul, or spirit is a product of human limitation and human arrogance. Because we are the most intelligent animals on the planet, we can imagine our own extinction. We hate that knowledge–atheists and religious believers alike–so we invent a variety of non-material concepts to explain away the inevitable end of a consciousness that depends entirely on our physical being.

Speaking only for myself, I find that awareness of my inevitable extinction enhances rather than diminishes my life. This awareness makes me want to leave something behind, if only a piece of scholarship that will be useful to some seeker of knowledge in a library of the future. I will admit that I am deeply disturbed by the possibility that libraries may become extinct, although the digital world offers a kind of eternal life that neither an atheist nor a religious believer could have predicted when I was a child. The novelist Milan Kundera has written about a number of developments the Creator never imagined–among them surgery and humans’ relationship with their dogs. To that I would add the internet. The digital world, because it is a product of human intelligence, is a part of the nature (for better and for worse) of which men and women also comprise a finite part. To fill our portion of the universe with the best achievements possible, through our love and our work, is purpose enough for a lifetime and requires no transcendence of nature and no afterlife.

see: http://newsweek.washingtonpost.com/onfaith/spirited_atheist/2010/02/atheists_–_naughty_and_nice_–_should_define_themselves.html

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Intellectual rigor vs. Intelligent Design

Perhaps we are at times a bit harsh on our Roman brethren…

From Pew:Backers of ID were barred from a Vatican conference – see below.

Note that in the detail, the organizers said that the Templeton Foundation had nothing to do with this.

“ROME – A Vatican-backed conference on evolution is under attack from people who weren’t invited to participate: those espousing creationism and intelligent design.

The Discovery Institute, the main organization supporting intelligent design research, says it was shut out from presenting its views because the meeting was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, a major U.S. nonprofit that has criticized the intelligent design movement.

Intelligent design holds that certain features of life forms are so complex that they can best be explained by an origin from an intelligent higher power, not an undirected process like natural selection.

Organizers of the five-day conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University said Thursday that they barred intelligent design proponents because they wanted an intellectually rigorous conference on science, theology and philosophy to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s “The Origin of Species.”

see: http://pewforum.org/events/?EventID=212