Thursday, March 29, 2007

World's Tallest Wooden House!

Towering over 144 feet into the air, this thing just looms ominously over the neighborhood.

Now why didn't I go this route when I built my house?

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

God is on our Side. Does this mean war?

Apparently even the suggestion of a divine mandate for violence promotes aggression in a variety of people....even non-believers - if you can believe it! ;-)

Shamelessly Quoted From:

New Research Shows How Religion Is Used to Justify Violence

Does believing that "God is on our side" make it easier for us to inflict pain and suffering on those perceived to be our enemies? If we think God sanctions violence, are we more likely to engage in violent acts?

The answer to both those questions, according to new research, is a resounding "yes," even among those who do not consider themselves believers.

Social psychologist Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan led an international research effort to find answers to these questions, and said he is very "disturbed" by the results, though he found what he had expected. Bushman has spent 20 years studying aggression and violence, especially the impact on human behavior of violence in the media, but most previous research has focused on television and movie violence, not such things as scriptures and texts held sacred by many.

He wanted to take it a step further and see if simply exposing someone to a text that implies God sanctions violence would increase their level of aggression.

Fought in the Name of God

"I think many people use God as their justification for violent and aggressive actions," Bushman said. "Take the current conflict in Iraq as an example. Bush claims that God is on his side. Osama bin Laden claims that God, or Allah, is on his side."

History is replete with other examples of wars fought in the name of God, involving nearly every religion on the planet.

To find his answers, Bushman assembled teams of researchers at two very different universities, Vrije University in Amsterdam, Holland, where he also holds a professorship, and Brigham Young University in Utah.

Only half of the students who participated in the study at Vrije reported that they believe in God, and only 27 percent believe in the Bible. At Brigham Young, 99 percent said they believe in God and the Bible.

Biblical Descriptions

Here's the fundamental issue the researchers addressed, as stated in their study published in the current issue of Psychological Science:

"We hypothesized that exposure to a biblical description of violence would increase aggression more than a secular description of the same violence. We also predicted that aggression would be greater when the violence was sanctioned by God than when it was not sanctioned by God."

Because violence in a classroom is a bit hard to justify, the researchers relied on a widely used tool to measure aggression. Students in the study were not initially told its true purpose. Instead, they were told they were participating in two separate studies, one on Middle Eastern literature, and one on stimulation of reaction time.

Each student competed against another student in the reaction time phase. Those who pushed a button first won the competition and could punish the loser by blasting him or her through a set of earphones with a loud noise.

The Blast of War

The volume of the noise was controlled by the winning student. Those who hit the loser with a mild blast were considered less aggressive than those who gave the loser the loudest blast — approximately the volume of a siren.

"The noise is very, very unpleasant," Bushman said. "It's a combination of somebody scratching their fingernails on a chalkboard and screaming and sirens."

The idea behind the test, used widely in laboratories, is that only someone who feels very aggressive would blast someone else with the loudest screech, about 105 decibels.

Biblical? Or Not?

Before the blasting phase, the students read a description of the beating and raping and murder of a woman in ancient Israel. Half of the students read a version of the story that included an assertion that God commanded the friends of the woman to take revenge. The other half read a version that did not mention God sanctioning violence. Half of the students were told the account came from the Bible, and half were told it came from an ancient scroll.

"What we found is that people who believed the passage was from the Bible were more aggressive [than those who did not know it came from the Bible], and when God said it is OK to retaliate they were even more aggressive," Bushman said. "We found that both at Brigham Young, which is a religious school, and at Amsterdam, where only half believe in God.

"Even among nonbelievers, if God says it's OK to retaliate, they are more aggressive. And that's the worry here. When God sanctions aggression, when God says it's OK to retaliate, people use that as justification for their own violent and aggressive behavior."

When asked why nonbelievers would become more aggressive, Bushman suggested that perhaps some nonbelievers are not all that sure that there is no God. However, nonbelievers did not show as much of an increase in aggression as believers when told violence was sanctioned by God.

At the end of the interview, I intruded into Bushman's own religious feelings and asked if he is a believer.

"Yes, I do believe in God, and I do believe in the Bible," he said. "In fact, I read it every day."

So it's a personal, as well as a professional, search for Bushman.

"What worries me is when people use God as a justification for their violence. There are scriptures that say you should not take God's name in vain. This is the most extreme version of taking God's name in vain," he said.

Yet his own research shows that whether people consider themselves believers or not, they are more likely to be aggressive, perhaps even willing to start a war, if they think God is on their side.

Evolution Science 101


Monday, March 26, 2007

Size Matters

How insignificant are we, anyway?

Shamelessly quoted from:

Order of Magnitude - 1

Order of Magnitude - 2

Order of Magnituded - 3

Order of Magnituded - 4

Order of Magnitude - 5

Humbling? Perhaps. But hubris has never been a personal strong suit for me.

Friday, March 23, 2007

If only Gay Marriage Caused Global Warming...

Shamelessly Reposted from:,0,7539379.story

Why we're more scared of gay marriage and terrorism than a much deadlier threat.

By Daniel Gilbert, Daniel Gilbert is a professor of psychology at Harvard University and the author of "Stumbling on Happiness," published in May by Knopf.
July 2, 2006

NO ONE seems to care about the upcoming attack on the World Trade Center site. Why? Because it won't involve villains with box cutters. Instead, it will involve melting ice sheets that swell the oceans and turn that particular block of lower Manhattan into an aquarium.

The odds of this happening in the next few decades are better than the odds that a disgruntled Saudi will sneak onto an airplane and detonate a shoe bomb. And yet our government will spend billions of dollars this year to prevent global terrorism and … well, essentially nothing to prevent global warming.

Why are we less worried about the more likely disaster? Because the human brain evolved to respond to threats that have four features — features that terrorism has and that global warming lacks.

First, global warming lacks a mustache. No, really. We are social mammals whose brains are highly specialized for thinking about others. Understanding what others are up to — what they know and want, what they are doing and planning — has been so crucial to the survival of our species that our brains have developed an obsession with all things human. We think about people and their intentions; talk about them; look for and remember them.

That's why we worry more about anthrax (with an annual death toll of roughly zero) than influenza (with an annual death toll of a quarter-million to a half-million people). Influenza is a natural accident, anthrax is an intentional action, and the smallest action captures our attention in a way that the largest accident doesn't. If two airplanes had been hit by lightning and crashed into a New York skyscraper, few of us would be able to name the date on which it happened.

Global warming isn't trying to kill us, and that's a shame. If climate change had been visited on us by a brutal dictator or an evil empire, the war on warming would be this nation's top priority.

The second reason why global warming doesn't put our brains on orange alert is that it doesn't violate our moral sensibilities. It doesn't cause our blood to boil (at least not figuratively) because it doesn't force us to entertain thoughts that we find indecent, impious or repulsive. When people feel insulted or disgusted, they generally do something about it, such as whacking each other over the head, or voting. Moral emotions are the brain's call to action.

Although all human societies have moral rules about food and sex, none has a moral rule about atmospheric chemistry. And so we are outraged about every breach of protocol except Kyoto. Yes, global warming is bad, but it doesn't make us feel nauseated or angry or disgraced, and thus we don't feel compelled to rail against it as we do against other momentous threats to our species, such as flag burning. The fact is that if climate change were caused by gay sex, or by the practice of eating kittens, millions of protesters would be massing in the streets.

The third reason why global warming doesn't trigger our concern is that we see it as a threat to our futures — not our afternoons. Like all animals, people are quick to respond to clear and present danger, which is why it takes us just a few milliseconds to duck when a wayward baseball comes speeding toward our eyes.

The brain is a beautifully engineered get-out-of-the-way machine that constantly scans the environment for things out of whose way it should right now get. That's what brains did for several hundred million years — and then, just a few million years ago, the mammalian brain learned a new trick: to predict the timing and location of dangers before they actually happened.

Our ability to duck that which is not yet coming is one of the brain's most stunning innovations, and we wouldn't have dental floss or 401(k) plans without it. But this innovation is in the early stages of development. The application that allows us to respond to visible baseballs is ancient and reliable, but the add-on utility that allows us to respond to threats that loom in an unseen future is still in beta testing.

We haven't quite gotten the knack of treating the future like the present it will soon become because we've only been practicing for a few million years. If global warming took out an eye every now and then, OSHA would regulate it into nonexistence.

There is a fourth reason why we just can't seem to get worked up about global warming. The human brain is exquisitely sensitive to changes in light, sound, temperature, pressure, size, weight and just about everything else. But if the rate of change is slow enough, the change will go undetected. If the low hum of a refrigerator were to increase in pitch over the course of several weeks, the appliance could be singing soprano by the end of the month and no one would be the wiser.

Because we barely notice changes that happen gradually, we accept gradual changes that we would reject if they happened abruptly. The density of Los Angeles traffic has increased dramatically in the last few decades, and citizens have tolerated it with only the obligatory grumbling. Had that change happened on a single day last summer, Angelenos would have shut down the city, called in the National Guard and lynched every politician they could get their hands on.

Environmentalists despair that global warming is happening so fast. In fact, it isn't happening fast enough. If President Bush could jump in a time machine and experience a single day in 2056, he'd return to the present shocked and awed, prepared to do anything it took to solve the problem..

The human brain is a remarkable device that was designed to rise to special occasions. We are the progeny of people who hunted and gathered, whose lives were brief and whose greatest threat was a man with a stick. When terrorists attack, we respond with crushing force and firm resolve, just as our ancestors would have. Global warming is a deadly threat precisely because it fails to trip the brain's alarm, leaving us soundly asleep in a burning bed.

It remains to be seen whether we can learn to rise to new occasions.

by Daniel Gilbert,

Knowledge and Belief are Episodic...

We each know a number of things, and we each believe a number of things - but we don't have to have these bits of knowledge or belief on top of mind at all times to retain them.

I "Know" that If I take one apple and put it in a pile with 2 more apples, I will have three apples.

I "Believe" that when I go to sleep at night, I will wake up the next day and the sun will have risen just as it has many times in the past.

I don't need to think about how 1+2 Apples = 3 Apples at all times to be able to retrieve this knowledge at any time...thus the knowledge is episodic. When I need to think about the apples, the knowledge "should" always be there for me to retrieve.

I don't need to examine the rationality for my belief that I will awaken tomorrow and the sun wil rise/have risen just as it has so many times in the past...thus this belief is episodic...always available should it be challenged in some way but not on top of mind unless, for some reason, i need to recall it.

That being said, how many episodes (re-runs?) do we require to cement a piece of Knowlege or a snippet of Belief into our permanent repository, and how cemented do these items need to be to affect our outlook/worldview from outside our current episode? (subconsciously)

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Is there a Homosexuality Gene?

Shamelessly Quoted from:

Is there a homosexuality gene? Discussion at PhysOrgForum

Although biologists are still far from answering this question, scattered evidence for a possible gene influencing sexual orientation has recently encouraged scientists to map out a guide to future research. Because many possibilities for such a gene exist, scientists Sergey Gavrilets and William Rice have recently developed some theoretical guidelines and testable predictions for explaining the evolutionary causes of homosexuality.

“During the 1990s there was a short surge of interest by a small number of labs in finding major genes that might mediate homosexuality,” Rice told “However, for a variety of reasons, this effort waned by the turn of the century. I think that—when studying humans—many people shy away from studying sexual phenotypes in general and homosexuality in particular. Much of Sergey's and my motivation in writing our paper was to rekindle an interest in studying the genetic basis of homosexuality. I personally think that if a firm genetic foundation for homosexuality in humans were established, then many people would view this fascinating human phenotype more objectively.”

During the past several decades, scientists have discovered some interesting patterns that may point toward genetic causes of homosexuality. Among the findings is that male homosexuality appears to be inherited more often from the mother than the father (Pillard). Also, natural selection might maintain a gene that may decrease the fecundity of one sex because the same gene also increases the fecundity of the other sex. In fact, recent data shows that female maternal relatives of gay men have higher than average reproduction capacity (Camperio-Ciani).

Another interesting result from previous research is that a male’s chance of homosexuality increases with the number of biological older brothers he has—even when he grows up away from his older male siblings (Blanchard and Bogaert). Scientists explain that, with each male fetus, a mother develops an increased immunization to an antigen produced by the male fetuses, and this antigen likely plays a role in masculinizing the brain.

These studies and others—while unable to point to a specific gene—do point to the idea that homosexuality may be inherited through a polymorphic gene, which is a gene that has more than one different form, and can exhibit either form. Studies have shown that this gene inheritance must be more complex than for common Mendelian traits.

To take the next step, Gavrilets and Rice have developed several mathematical models that make contrasting predictions for the possible factors responsible for the polymorphism of genes influencing homosexuality. Hopefully, the predictions generated by these models will guide future tests and help zone in on the correct genetic characteristics involved in sexual orientation. As Rice explains, past research has shown the complexity inherent in determining the cause(s) of homosexuality.

“We know that homosexuality (gay or lesbian) can be caused by simple genetic changes in fruit flies, and since so many reproductive and neurological genes are shared by flies and humans, it seems highly likely that there are major genes influencing homosexuality in humans,” said Rice. “However, we also have firm evidence for a birth-order effect on male homosexuality, and discordance in the expression of homosexuality of identical twins, so clearly there is also an environmental influence on the trait.”

Gavrilets and Rice identify two main factors that may explain the polymorphism of a gene (and how the gene spreads): overdominance and sexual antagonism. Overdominance refers to phenotypes that come from heterozygous genes, and the advantages promoting genetic variation. Sexual antagonistic traits are those that are advantageous in one sex, but may cause homosexuality in the other sex. For a variety of different gene inheritance patterns, the scientists provide mathematical models that require, in essence, that the benefits for one sex must outweigh the costs for the other sex.

In their study, Gavrilets and Rice make predictions for the likelihood of certain types of genes (e.g. autosomal or sex-linked, recessive or dominant, with small or large effects) favoring either overdominance or sexual antagonism under different conditions. However, many possibilities remain, and research into each one will determine how well they satisfy the requirements provided in this study.

“The research so far that I think is most illuminating on this topic are the studies showing that homosexuality can have a simple genetic foundation in fruit flies,” said Rice. “I think that it is too early to decide which of our models (or one yet to be formulated) is most feasible. However, based on the abundance of sexually antagonistic variation found in fruit flies, the sexually antagonistic variation seems like a probable candidate process leading to polymorphism for homosexuality.”

Citation: Gavrilets, Sergey and Rice, William R. “Genetic models of homosexuality: generating testable predictions.” Proceedings of the Royal Society B (2006) 273, 3031-3038.

By Lisa Zyga, Copyrght 2006

Thought for the day...

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

The Authoritarian Followers - Web Book by Bob Alemeyer

A web book about those people who follow Authoritan Figures - specifically pointed at Modern U.S. Politics.

Exerpt: The Right Wing Authoritarian test:

Score each question from -4 through +4 where -4 = Strongly Disagree, and +4 = Strongly Agree.

For compound statements (with more than one idea, combine your scores – so a strongly disagree (-4) combined with an agree (+2) should score out as a -2.

1) The established authorities generally turn out to be right about things, while the radicals and protestors are usually just "loud mouths" showing off their ignorance.

2) Women should have to promise to obey their husbands when they get married.

3) Our country desperately needs a mighty leader who will do what has to be done to destroy the radical new ways and sinfulness that are ruining us.

4) Gays and lesbians are just as healthy and moral as anybody else.

5) It is always better to trust the judgment of the proper authorities in government and religion than to listen to the noisy rabble-rousers in our society who are trying to create doubt in people's minds.

6) Atheists and others who have rebelled against the established religions are no doubt every bit as good and virtuous as those who attend church regularly.

7) The only way our country can get through the crisis ahead is to get back to our traditional values, put some tough leaders in power, and silence the troublemakers spreading bad ideas.

8) There is absolutely nothing wrong with nudist camps.

9) Our country NEEDS free thinkers who have the courage to defy traditional ways even if this upsets many people.

10) Our country will be destroyed someday if we do not smash the perversions eating away at our moral fiber and traditional beliefs.

11) Everyone should have their own lifestyle, religious beliefs, and sexual preferences, even if it makes them different from everyone else.

12) The "Old-fashioned Ways" and the "Old-fashioned values" still show the best way to live.

13) You have to admire those who challenged the law and the majority's view by protesting for women's abortion rights, for animal rights, or to abolish school prayer.

14) What our country really needs is a strong determined leader who will crush evil, and take us back to our true path.

15) Some of the best people in our country are those who are challenging our government, criticizing religion, and ignoring the 'normal way things are supposed to be done".

16) God's laws about abortion, pornography and marriage must be strictly followed before it is too late, and those who break them must be strongly punished.

17) There are many radical, immoral people in our country today, who are trying to ruin it for their own godless purposes, whom the authorities should put out of action.

18) A "woman's place" should be where she wants to be. The days when women are submissive to their husbands and social conventions belong strictly in the past.

19) Our country will be great if we honour the ways of our forefathers, do what the authorities tell us to do, and get rid of the 'rotten apples' who are ruining everything.

20) There is no "ONE right way" to live life; everybody has to create their OWN way.

21) Homosexuals and feminists should be praised for being brave enough to defy "traditional" family values.

22) This country would work a lot better if certain groups of troublemakers would just shut up and accept their group's traditional place in society.


Ignore questions 1 and 2 for scoring purposes.

For questions 3, 5, 7,10, 12, 14, 16, 17, 19 and 22 score each answer as follows:
-4 = 1 point, -3 = 2 points, -2 = 3 points, -1 = 4 points, 0 = 5 points, +1 = 6 points, +2 = 7 points, +3 = 8 points, and +4 = 9 points.

For questions 4, 6, 8, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18. 20 and 21 score each answer as follows:
-4 = 9 point, -3 = 8 points, -2 = 7 points, -1 = 6 points, 0 = 5 points, +1 = 4 points, +2 = 3 points, +3 = 2 points, and +4 = 1 points

Now simply add up your twenty scores. The lowest possible total is 20. The highest is 180.

Around the House - Home Theater Update

Nicole and I have been plugging away in our Home Theater. We've got the drywall about 3/4 installed and are now facing the hard part. Mudding.
I "could" hire some people to come in and do it for us - to the Tune of about $3000-4000. That's nearly 1/2 my budget for the entire theater room, so I think I'm going to take a pass on this one and Nic and I will do the mudding ourselves.

Since I'm not a professional drywall mudder, I know that the job we do will be less than perfect. I'm tossing around ideas for wall panels that will help disguise my 'non-pro' mudding job and enhance the appearance of our home theater room. Now don't panic. I'm not talking about the cheesy faux wood panels that we all grew up with in our family rooms. I'm talking hand-built wainscotting from scratch.

Here are a few inspirational images. I really like the one with the brown walls above.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Quote for Today

From an anonymous poster on a Formula-1 Discussion Forum:

Why do people insist on being treated the same, while going out of their way to make sure that we understand and embrace their differences, while at the same time, being offended when anyone acknowledges that difference?

Designer Babies Bad, Modified for "Morality" Babies Good?

Reverent Albert Mohler - Baptist Minister with a Congregation of 16 million believers.

In response to negative feedback to his comment that there is a "Biblical Justification for modifying babies "in eutero" to eliminate homosexual tendencies, due to the biblical definition of homosexuality as sinful".

To my fellow evangelical Christians:

1. Let's get this straight -- God's condemnation of sin is not determined by science, but by God's Word. The Bible could not be more clear -- all forms of homosexual behavior are expressly condemned as sin. In so doing the Bible uses its strongest vocabulary and places this condemnation in the larger context of the Creator's rightful expectation of our stewardship of the sexual gift. All manifestations of homosexuality are thus representations of human sinfulness and rebellion against God's express will. Nothing can alter this fact, and no discovery in science or any other human endeavor can change God's verdict.

? Which version of the bible? The original Greek version that uses an oft mistranslated word for homosexuality? (the one referring to catamites, IIRC)

2. There is no conclusive research that indicates any biological basis for sexual orientation. But -- and this is a big "if" here -- if science were ever to discover a correlation or causation with biological factors, Christians should not be surprised. We believe in the catastrophic and comprehensive effects of the Fall and God's judgment upon sin.

? Way to remove self-determination from humanity as a species by attributing a mythical crime carried over to all individuals to the nth generation.

3. Such a discovery, if it were to be accepted, would not change God's condemnation of all forms of homosexual behavior, nor would it mean that this represents the inviolable "identity" of any individual. As I argued previously, moral responsibility does not require absolute moral choice. A soldier in battle may not have chosen to be in a situation of moral anguish, but he is still absolutely responsible for his decisions and actions. Those who commit homosexual acts, whoever they are and whatever their biological profile, are absolutely responsible for their sin. Regardless of any actual or hypothetical orientation, those who commit same-sex acts are responsible for the choice to commit the sinful act. Those who claim that they did not choose their sexual attraction are nevertheless fully responsible for choosing to perform sexual acts the Bible condemns as sin -- period.

? Yup. Typical church talk. Repress thy impulse to be sexual, for sex and sexuality is evil.

4. Some Christians seem absolutely convinced that there is no such thing as sexual orientation. There is a point to be made here. No "orientation" can alter the sinful status of sinful acts. Some have written me to say that there is no such reality as a homosexual, only those who perform homosexual acts. This flies in the face of the Bible, however, which speaks of those who commit such sins by their sin -- murderers, liars, adulterers, gossips, etc. It does not help to deny this. But, even though no "orientation" can alter the moral status of actions, the fact remains that some persons are sexually attracted to persons of the same sex while the majority are sexually attracted to persons of the opposite sex. There are other terms to use here, ranging from "sexual attraction pattern" to "sexual arousal profile," but sexual orientation seems a bit less explicit and is generally understood within the culture.

? Repress! Repress!

5. Research into the human genome and the possibility of germ-line therapies raises all kinds of moral concerns, ranging from the creation of designer babies to the redefinition of humanity. In one article, I was said to advocate genetic therapies. I never said that, and I resolutely oppose such proposals. I would not advocate the use of genetic therapies to create heterosexual babies -- or any other therapy of this type. The hypothetical question I addressed had nothing to do with genetic factors at all. Furthermore, genetic factors are likely to be so complex and inter-related that no single genetic factor or set of factors is likely to be found to cause anything as complex as sexual attraction.

? So what are you saying. Its ok to modify babies in eutero or its not ok to modify babies in eutero?

6. Caring Christians will be aware of the fact that many persons who struggle with homosexuality -- males and females -- testify as Christian believers or as those troubled in conscience that they simply have no idea where same-sex desire originated in their lives. They do know that they did not choose this pattern of attraction. Again, that does not reduce their moral responsibility in any way or to any degree. But caring Christians, fully committed to the sole authority of the Bible, must want to help persons to understand and deal with this specific temptation to sin.

? Like send them to the same rehab center that made Ted Haggard into a fully reformed, 100% Heterosexual Man despite years of homosexual dalliance?

7. The causes of same-sex attraction are likely to be very complex. The research of Joseph Nicolosi and others points to specific social and environmental factors as a prime cause. Boys who do not identify themselves with Dad by age two are clearly at risk. Dr. James Dobson addresses many of these factors in his book, Bringing Up Boys. Given the devastating impact of the Fall, we should not be shaken to our foundations if other causative factors are found. In any event, Christian compassion must lead us to want to know how this would happen in order that we can help those struggling with this sin. We should be thankful for those who, through biblical counsel and guidance, are helping homosexuals to find victory in Christ.

? Once more with the fall. An innocent 2 year old child who does not associate himself with Daddy should not be burdened by a mythical crime commited by mythical figureheads in a bronze age manual for faith that is grossly out of context for the 21 century.

8. Let's remember that all of us are born with a huge moral defect -- we are sinners from the start. Christians who have responded with claims that God would not allow a person to be born with a bent toward sin miss the clear biblical teaching that all of us are born with a bent toward sin and with a sin nature. We are born marked by Adam's sin and already under God's just condemnation for that sin.

? Humanity IS EVIL. Sinners all. Sorry I just can't buy that identity-crushing responsibility-destroying identity foisted onto an 'imperfect humanity'.

9. The only cure for sin itself is the cross of Christ. No therapy will cleanse us of sin, no treatment will atone. Only the shed blood of Jesus Christ will save, and salvation is found in Him alone.

? this just makes no sense at all.

10. Thanks are due to all who wrote or contacted me about these issues. That is not an easy thing to write, given the caustic tone of many communications and the fact that so many did not even bother to read my article. Nevertheless, I learned from your responses, and I am sure that God intended them for my good. I also want to be humble in asking fellow believers to join me in thinking about these crucial questions. If I have missed something, point it out. If I have violated Scripture in any way, bring this to my attention. If I am confused in any way, point to clarification.

? Clarification: you are basing your moral stand on a mis-translated moral story that requires the assumption of an invisible sky being that wants us to be happy, but has spitefully invested us as a species with (from your mythology) a lingering taint of evil sinfulness that was produced by a mythical figurehead deep in the distant past failing to follow instructions, thus condemning us all to roast in an eternal BBQ in celebration of the omni-benevolent sky-beings spite.
Are you confused? Indubitably.

Intelligent Design - The Fence at the Edge of Ability

As described brilliantly by Neil Degrasse Tyson at the Beyond Belief 2006 Conference, many scholars of the past have attributed complexities of the universe that they could not explain to an Intelligent Designer. Even Isaac Newton - yes THE Isaac Newton, fell back on a divine architect when he was unable to invent the differential calculus required to calculate gravititc influences on the perturbations of the planets he could observe in our own solar system.

We read some very pithy comments about Intelligent Design - or rather on how the minds of proponents of Intelligent Design function. It is possible that these visionaries reach a limit to their understanding, a demarkation, if you will, between what they can imagine and what they observe. ID Proponents who use the structure of the human eye as an argument against evolution, and an argument for a hidden architect simply cannot imagine a natural selection process that could result, over time, in a structure as complex as the human eye. Thus stumped by their inability to concieve of that process, the fall back to the "architectural default position" that there was a designer who made it that way.

What often gets overlooked is that these statements of belief about a hidden architect function solely as a personal decision to believe, rather than a universal norm for the conclusion. They may find many people of faith who are prone to be sympathetic to the idea of a hidden architect (read: god) simply because their faith based structure allows them to absorb the idea of "Hidden Architect" into their notion of "Divine Creator".

What this shift of opinion does, however, is simply close a perceptual door on further research or thought.

Now it is possible that the person who comes to believe in a hidden architect may have reached the edge of their ability. They have come so far, but simply cannot go farther due to lack of training, ability or even techniques or knowledge not providing the skills or knowledge they need to step further (as in Newton's inability to plot the gravitational forces affecting the planets because he lacked the differential calculus required to make the mathematics possible).

I think the question I have about this whole process is where does the ability to come to create such a "thought terminating" conclusion, and then simply partition off any further questions about the process/object/research at hand?

Tyson's Speech at Beyond Belief:

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Instruction Manual for Living

I wrote this on a discussion forum in response to a stranger that had had a change of perspective (faith) and was feeling lost and confused without their habitual paradigm of thought pattern. It was offered as an anonymous piece of advice by a complete stranger with no personal info about the other's life or experiences. I like it and I think I want to share it with you.

"Revel in your LIFE. You have family. Cherish them and treasure the time you spend with them - embrace their company and companionship. You have Friends. Cherish them and treasure times together with them - embrace the company and companionship that they offer you, and return that in kind. If you have a Spouse and/or Children - Revel in the fact that you get to share their lives and experiences and be a positive impact for them, a mentor, friend, parent (and for your spouse, lover and confidant). If you have pets, cherish them for the associated pleasure and joy the bring to your life. Few things compare to the unadulterated affection displayed by a cat or a dog, or the trusting interaction between you and your pet. If you have a job, strive to excel at it, and be a good influence and positive mentor for those around you. Be good at what you do. Strive for harmony, balance, happiness, joy and companionship in your life.

Do this for a day. Then try it for a week. Then give it a month. Then another. Pretty soon you'll find that those things that made you happiest in your previous paradigm - which were closely related to your life interaction with your friends, family and peers, have not changed all that greatly within your new belief structure.

Then finally, on a quiet introspective evening, consider how wonderful it is to be married to your spouse, parent to your children, guardian of your pet(s), a positive influence to your peers and co-workers, and alive at this very moment at this very time. Then go give your spouse/child/pet/best-friend a squeeze and start again tomorrow.

May you and yours have a life filled with health, happiness and harmony. - Jefe"

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Denial Machine

A prime example of the tension between credulity and skepticism. The question: Is human produced CO2 Causing/Contribuiting To/Accellerating/Affecting Global Warming?

The response? I don't know. But I do know that I'm in favour of a cleaner earth, and I do know that Humanity Produced Pollutants are having a detrimental effect on our environment in many cumulative ways.

Should I embrace the "responsible stewards of the earth" platform of the Enviro-Debate, or the Laissez Faire, big oil centric platform?

I'll let you know when I decide.

Shift Happens

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Faith or faith?

Quote for the Day:

"...when [SOMEONE] says "I have faith in god" - it is nothing like the same thing that religious people mean when they say they have the same faith. No, [SOMEONE'S] faith in god is quite simply a faith in being able to recognize the best human potential that exists in the particular human agent, also exists in all human agents regardless of their "other beliefs." But this is the basic hope of the atheist, we all have this sort of "faith" that the best aspects of who we are (intellectually, sensually, emotionally, aesthetically, empathically) as individuals are also present in every human being on every corner of this planet. (Calling this hope "god" is a deceptive ploy aimed at provoking alarm amongst the humanists, and also it is a vain attempt to put oneself "above" everyone else by claiming for an authority where no such external thing exists.) "

Shamelessly quoted from:
Thanks to poster Canzen.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Americans get an 'F' in religion

Shamelessly quoted from:

By Cathy Lynn Grossman, USA TODAY
Sometimes dumb sounds cute: Sixty percent of Americans can't name five of the Ten Commandments, and 50% of high school seniors think Sodom and Gomorrah were married.

Stephen Prothero, chairman of the religion department at Boston University, isn't laughing. Americans' deep ignorance of world religions — their own, their neighbors' or the combatants in Iraq, Darfur or Kashmir — is dangerous, he says.

His new book, Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know — and Doesn't, argues that everyone needs to grasp Bible basics, as well as the core beliefs, stories, symbols and heroes of other faiths.

Belief is not his business, says Prothero, who grew up Episcopalian and now says he's a spiritually "confused Christian." He says his argument is for empowered citizenship.

"More and more of our national and international questions are religiously inflected," he says, citing President Bush's speeches laden with biblical references and the furor when the first Muslim member of Congress chose to be sworn in with his right hand on Thomas Jefferson's Quran.
FIND MORE STORIES IN: Christian | Bible | Churches | Literacy | Gomorrah | Sodom | Rev. John Hagee

"If you think Sunni and Shia are the same because they're both Muslim, and you've been told Islam is about peace, you won't understand what's happening in Iraq. If you get into an argument about gay rights or capital punishment and someone claims to quote the Bible or the Quran, do you know it's so?

"If you want to be involved, you need to know what they're saying. We're doomed if we don't understand what motivates the beliefs and behaviors of the rest of the world. We can't outsource this to demagogues, pundits and preachers with a political agenda."

Scholars and theologians who agree with him say Americans' woeful level of religious illiteracy damages more than democracy.

"You're going to make assumptions about people out of ignorance, and they're going to make assumptions about you," says Philip Goff of the Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture at Indiana University in Indianapolis.

Goff cites a widely circulated claim on the Internet that the Quran foretold American intervention in the Middle East, based on a supposed passage "that simply isn't there. It's an entire argument for war based on religious ignorance."

"We're impoverished by ignorance," says the Rev. Joan Brown Campbell, former general secretary of the National Council of Churches. "You can't draw on the resources of faith if you only have an emotional understanding, not a sense of the texts and teachings."

But if people don't know Sodom and Gomorrah were two cities destroyed for their sinful ways, Campbell blames Sunday schools that "trivialized religious education. If we want people to have serious knowledge, we have to get serious about teaching our own faith."

Prothero's solution is to require middle-schoolers to take a course in world religions and high schoolers to take one on the Bible. Biblical knowledge also should be melded into history and literature courses where relevant. He wants all college undergrads to take at least one course in religious studies.

He calls for time-pressed adults to sample holy books and history texts. His book includes a 90-page dictionary of key words and concepts from Abraham to Zen. There's also a 15-question quiz — which his students fail every year.

But it's the controversial, though constitutional, push into schools that draws the most attention.

In theory, everyone favors children knowing more. The National Education Association handbook says religious instruction "in doctrines and practices belongs at home or religious institutions," while schools should teach world religions' history, heritage, diversity and influence.

Only 8% of public high schools offer an elective Bible course, according to a study in 2005 by the Bible Literacy Project, which promotes academic Bible study in public schools. The project is supported by Freedom Forum's First Amendment Center, a Washington, D.C., non-profit that promotes free speech.

The study surveyed 1,000 high schoolers and found that just 36% know Ramadan is the Islamic holy month; 17% said it was the Jewish day of atonement.

Goff says schools are not wholly to blame for religious illiteracy. "There are simply more groups, more players. Students didn't know Ramadan any better in 1965, but now there are as many Muslims as Jews in America. It's more important to know who's who."

Also today, "there is more emphasis on religious experience as a mark of true religion and less emphasis on doctrine and knowledge of the faith."

Still, it's the widely misunderstood 1963 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court that may have been the tipping point: It removed devotional Bible reading from the schools but spelled out that it should not have been removed from literature and history.

"The decision clearly states you can't be educated without it, but it scared schools so much they dropped it all," Goff says.

"Schools are terrified of this," says Joy Hakim, author of several U.S. history textbooks. She's in her 70s but remembers well as a Jewish child how she felt like an outsider in schools that pushed Christianity in the curriculum.

But she says the backlash went too far. "Now, you can't use biblical characters or narrative in anything. We've stopped teaching stories. We teach facts, and the characters are lost."

Religion, like the arts, has become an afterthought in an education climate driven by "the fixation on literacy and numeracy — math and reading," says Bob Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a group critical of the standards-based education movement. "If the ways schools, teachers, principals and superintendents are judged all depend on math and reading scores, that's what you're going to teach," he says.

Still, it's a tough tightrope to walk between those who say the Bible can be just another book, albeit a valuable one, and those who say it is inherently devotional.

The First Amendment Center also published a guide to "The Bible and the Public Schools," which praised a ninth-grade world religions course in Modesto, Calif., and cited a study finding students were able to learn about other faiths without altering their own beliefs. But it also said the class may not be easily replicated and required knowledgeable, unbiased teachers.

Leland Ryken, an English professor at evangelical Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill., tested a 2006 textbook, The Bible and Its Influence, underwritten by the Bible Literacy Project. Ryken favors adding classes in the Bible and literature and social studies. But he cautions, "Religious literacy and world religions are not the same as the Bible as literature. It's a much more loaded subject, and I really question if high school students can get much knowledge beyond a sense of the importance of religion."

The Bible and Its Influence has been blasted by conservative Christians such as the Rev. John Hagee, pastor of the 18,000-member Cornerstone Church in San Antonio. Hagee calls it "a masterful work of deception, distortion and outright falsehoods" planting "concepts in the minds of children which are contrary to biblical teaching."

Hagee wrote to the Alabama legislature opposing adoption of the text, citing points such as discussion questions that could lead children away from a belief in God. Example: Asking students to ponder if Adam and Eve got "a fair deal as described in Genesis" would plant the seed that "since God is the author of the deal, God is unfair."

Hagee prefers the Bible itself as a textbook for Bible classes, used with a curriculum created by a group of conservative evangelicals, the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools, based in Greensboro, N.C. The council says its curriculum is being offered in more than 300 schools.

Sheila Weber, a spokeswoman for The Bible Literacy project, says their textbook has been revised in the second printing issued last month with the examples cited by Hagee removed. The teachers' edition was reissued in August. The first printing was approved by numerous Christian scholars and seminaries and is already in use in 82 school districts.

Mark Chancey, professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, looked last year at how Texas public school districts taught Bible classes. His two studies, sponsored by the Texas Freedom Network, a civil liberties group, found only 25 of more than 1,000 districts offered such a class.

"And 22 of them, including several using the Greensboro group's curriculum, were clearly over the line," teaching Christianity as the norm, and the Bible as inspired by God, says Chancey. One teacher even showed students a proselytizing Power Point titled, "God's road map for your life" that was clearly unconstitutional, he says.

The controversies, costs and competing demands in the schools have prompted many to turn instead to character education.

But classes promoting pluralism and tolerance fail on the religious literacy front because they "reduce religion to morality," Prothero says, or they promote a call for universal compassion as if it were the only value that matters.

"We are not all on the same one path to the same one God," he says. "Religions aren't all saying the same thing. That's presumptuous and wrong. They start with different problems, solve the problems in different ways, and they have different goals."

Contributing: Greg Toppo

The sidebar quiz is quite a test of general knowledge.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

Hamburger Heaven?

Allow me to preface this with the following snippet from the article: "They even go so far as to wheel out "patients" who are able to down a Quadruple Bypass Burger—featuring two pounds of beef, four layers of cheese and 12 slices of bacon—to their car in a wheelchair."

By Kristin Edelhauser

Updated: 4:34 p.m. MT March 6, 2007

Aside from maintaining a website, Jon Basso hasn't spent one dollar on advertising. And yet his restaurant has garnered international attention thanks to the controversy he's created. "We purposely try to generate controversy, there's no question about that," Basso says. After all, with menu items like the Quadruple Bypass Burger and Flatliner Fries, who needs marketing?

Yet even Basso, owner of Heart Attack Grill in Tempe, Ariz., agrees with his health-inclined critics on one point: Because of his 8,000-calorie burgers and french fries cooked in lard, the 40-stool burger joint isn't a place customers should frequent daily. "I tell everybody, 'Don't come here every day of the week; it'll kill you,'" he says.

For Basso, who also goes by "Dr. Jon, chief surgeon," what began as a marketing thesis has turned into a diner with a world-wide reputation. Though he started out operating a chain of personal fitness training studios, Basso heard so much talk from clients about what they did on their "diet cheat days" he decided the Heart Attack Grill he wrote about in his thesis could be the ultimate place to go for a dose of gluttony.

The controversial grill, which claims on its website to offer "taste worth dying for," officially opened its doors in January 2006 — and it didn't take long for public debate to begin. Basso figured people would speak out against the ingredients in his burgers or the items on his menu—including filter-free cigarettes and beer—but was surprised when the biggest source of contention became the way his waitresses, or "nurses" as he calls them, dressed. The grill drew criticism from the Arizona Board of Nursing and the Center for Nursing Advocacy for putting the female-only "nurses"—the males are called doctors—in naughty nurse uniforms, saying they degraded the profession and that the restaurant shouldn't be allowed to use the title "nurse."

Basso fired back by saying it was a matter of free speech and turned the controversy into a public debate on his website. He gained the support of his internet audience and received plenty of media attention, and shortly after posting letters and communications he received from Arizona's attorney general on his website, the suit was dropped.

Basso, however, doesn't take the issue lightly. He recognizes there's a very serious nursing shortage going on and believes his restaurant is helping publicize the problem. "The Heart Attack Grill is actually glorifying the job for a younger workforce," says Basso.

From the scantily clad nurses to the fat-filled, take-it-or-leave-it menu, it's easy to see this restaurateur doesn't care if his restaurant is politically correct. The grill instead embraces everything considered "bad," from male chauvinism to fatty foods to cigarettes. In today's health-conscious society, it's surprising that the grill has done so well. But to Basso, it all makes sense. "People don't want the salad bars; they want to have fun," he says.

This entrepreneur refuses to give in to the diet wars. In fact, he won't even allow lettuce on the grill's burgers. And if you ask for a Diet Coke, you won't get it. Basso says the grill only sells full-sugared soda from Mexico. Why? "Because if you're going to party, enjoy yourself. That's really the message."

Basso adds that today's consumer demands entertainment as well, something he's tied into the theme of his theatrical restaurant. At the Heart Attack Grill, waitresses don't take an order, they "write prescriptions." They don't have customers, they have "patients." And while on duty, the waitstaff gets into character while interacting with customers. They even go so far as to wheel out "patients" who are able to down a Quadruple Bypass Burger—featuring two pounds of beef, four layers of cheese and 12 slices of bacon—to their car in a wheelchair.

Basso also has drawn in customers by creating theme days at the Heart Attack Grill, including his "Valentine's Day Massacre," during which he offers free food and beverages—excluding alcohol—all day long. This year, he estimates the restaurant gave away approximately 900 free burgers in a 10-hour day. But according to Basso, it's all part of his anti-marketing plan. "Sure, I give away thousands of dollars worth of food, but it does much more advertising and word-of-mouth than anything else could."

His advice for wannabe entrepreneurs? "I'd tell people to create controversy," suggests Basso, who refers to himself as the Patch Adams of the restaurant industry. Though he won't release any financial information, Basso insists that word-of-mouth marketing has given the grill plenty of business. "What I've got, in marketing terms, is the purple cow," he says. "We've designed something that people talk about naturally. We've never spent one penny, and never will spend one penny on advertisements. We simply have a website, and that's it."

The grill's location is low-key as well. Basso says it's located behind a gas station, with no real exterior signage. And yet the tourist dollar has been good to them. "Tourists come in and say they're here to see the Grand Canyon, check; the Fiesta Bowl, check; the Heart Attack Grill, check," he says.

Mention the obvious competitor, Hooters, and Basso says they're on a different playing field. "I believe wholeheartedly that Hooters has overextended," says Basso. "There're about 500 Hooters in the world, and I don't think it's special or unique for the clientele that enjoys that type of service because there are so many of them."

As for future plans, Basso says he has no intention of franchising the Heart Attack Grill. His overall goal is to make his restaurant into what he says the Hard Rock Café used to be before the chain widely expanded. "Now, there are over 100 Hard Rock Café locations, and they lost the ability to be special. We're not going to make that mistake," he says. Instead, Basso plans to have 10 locations built over the next 20 years. So far, he's looking at real estate in Amsterdam and other cities that he says have "mystique," like New Orleans, Hollywood, Honolulu and Rio de Janeiro.

For now, he is in the process of purchasing another building in Arizona, this time in Phoenix, where he'll create one of the first drive-thrus to offer commuters the full package—a burger, fries, case of beer and pack of cigarettes. And his plans don't stop there. Basso says the restaurant will be involved in filming its own "American Chopper"-type reality show beginning in March. The show will be produced by IVNET.TV, an international online broadband network. "But the difference between 'American Chopper' and us is we have sex and they don't," he says. "We have commercial endorsement possibilities, they don't."

With such a strong vision of where he wants to take the Heart Attack Grill, the possibilities—and controversy—could be endless for Basso. But criticism is what he has so cleverly turned into marketing opportunities that have helped make his restaurant such a hot spot. Not sure you have the guts to plunge into controversy as deeply as Basso? That's OK. The message here is that it's all right to be different and try something new, even if you raise a few eyebrows in the process.

Copyright © 2007, Inc.

Canada is Popular World Wide


Canada is ranked No. 1 in a new world popularity poll that looked at attitudes toward 12 major nations. Israel received the worst rating of the group. News Staff
Canada tops world popularity poll, Israel is last

The survey polled more than 28,000 people for the British Broadcasting Corp.'s World Service, asking them to rate 12 countries as having a positive or negative influence on the world. The countries on the list included: Britain, Canada, China, France, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, North Korea, Russia, the United States, and Venezuela.

Canada was viewed positively by 54 per cent of respondents while 14 per cent held a negative image.

Israel had the worst rating with only 17 per cent sharing a positive view of the country and 56 per cent with a negative rating. For Iran, 18 per cent were positive and 54 per cent negative.

The United States had the third highest negative rating with 51 per cent citing the country as negative and 30 per cent positive. North Korea had a slightly better rating than the U.S. -- 48 per cent negative and 19 per cent positive.

Japan and France followed Canada with the best rankings. Britain, China and India were all viewed more positively than negatively.

Meanwhile, Russia had more negative than positive responses while opinions on Venezuela were evenly split.

The 27-member European Union received a 53 per cent positive rating and a 19 per cent negative rating.

"It appears that people around the world tend to look negatively on countries whose profile is marked by the pursuit of military power," said Steven Kull, director of the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes, which conducted the research along with pollster GlobeScan.

"Countries that relate to the world primarily through soft power, like France and Japan and the EU in general, tend to be viewed positively," he told the Associated Press.

About 1,000 people in 27 different countries including the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, India, Brazil, Mexico and Australia were surveyed. As well, four predominantly Muslim countries -- Egypt, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Indonesia -- and two countries with large Muslim populations -- Lebanon and Nigeria -- were polled.

The respondents were interviewed in person and over the phone from November to mid-January. Depending on the country, the margin of error ranges from 3.1 per cent to 4.9 per cent.

With files from The Associated Press

The Self-Reproducing Inflationary Universe


"Recent versions of the inflationary scenario describe the universe as a self-generating fractal that sprouts other inflationary universes"

by Andrei Linde

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

What if Humanity designed....humanity?

Thanks to Pantokraterix for posting about this article on her blog.

"We challenged experts across fields to imagine a new way to solve the problems of human aging. Our question:

What if Humans were Designed to Last?

By S. Jay Olshansky, Robert N. Butler, and Bruce A. Carnes"

Its good reading!

Canada gets in bed with US Oil Interests

Canada gets in bed with US Oil Interests

Canada will stay top U.S. oil supplier for 20 years
Ashok Dutta, CanWest News Service; Calgary Herald
Published: Tuesday, March 06, 2007

CALGARY -Canada - which in 2005 replaced Saudi Arabia as the single-largest supplier of energy to the U.S. - will continue that position over at least the next two decades, thanks to the multi-billion dollar oilsands developments in Alberta.

"The projects in Fort McMurray and Athabasca will ensure that Canada remains in the top spot until 2030," Guy Caruso, administrator of the U.S. Energy Information Administration, said Monday on the sidelines of an industry conference in Calgary.

According to EIA estimates, Canadian exports to the U.S. will reach 2.6 million barrels per day by 2030, compared with current levels of just over one million bpd.

Monday, March 5, 2007

Towering Inferno

WTC Collapse - Science or Subterfuge

Get your tinfoil hats ready folks. It may be true, it may be false, but there are some interesting bits of info in this video.

Note: Some graphic images of planes impacting the building. Watch at your own risk.

Quirky Notes:

1:01 - Marvin Bush (George W.'s Brother) is President of the Security Company contracted for the WTC from 1996-2000.

1:10- First Responder Rescue Workers suffering from symptoms of Toxic Inhalation are being refused compensation.

It's worth watching, even if you don't believe what you're seeing.

Credit Card Company Charges for Positive Balance

MBNA Charges Card-Holders for maintiaining a Postitive Balance

Hidden charges, service fees, un-notified interest rate changes - and now if you keep a positive balance on your card, MBNA will charge you anyway.

Credit Card or "Charge" Card?

Religion 101 - Final Exam

Shamelessly re-quoted from:

This is the final examination for the course. Anything below 60% will be treated as an F. The essay at the end is optional. Writing it will add an automatic 10% to you total grade based on the mutiple choice questions. Good Luck!

1.Which of the following is the most compelling evidence for the existence of an intelligent and loving Designer?

a.A Caribbean sunset
b.The screams of a baby seal as it is torn apart by a shark
c.The first time your perfect new baby smiles at you
d.The speed of the Ebola virus converting an African child's organs into liquid

2. A deeply devout Catholic couple has just returned from their fiftieth anniversary celebration, when suddenly the husband falls to the ground, clutching his chest. What is the most productive action for the wife to take?

a.Call 911
b.Put him in the car and race to the hospital herself
c.Administer CPR
d.Fall on her knees and pray to the Lord to spare his life

3.You are a product tester and frequently bring your work home. Yesterday, while dressed in a flame resistant suit (up to 3,000 degrees) and carrying the latest model fire extinguisher, you discover your neighbor's house is on fire. As the flames quickly spread, you stand and watch your neighbor's new baby burn to death. Which of the following best describes your behavior?


4.One day while jogging in the park, you see a maniac with a butcher knife about to attack a six-year old girl. Which would be the most morally proper action to take?

a.Grab the nearest rock and beat off the attacker
b.Call the police on your cell phone
c.Yell "POLICE!" and run toward the attacker in a threatening manner
d.Calmly walk away, because God works in mysterious ways, and what appears "evil" to our finite human mind, may in fact be part of a vaster plan in God's infinite mind, so it's best not to interfere

5.You are the incarnated Son of the all-powerful and all-loving Creator of the universe. What would be a good way to demonstrate your compassion and power?

a.Cure cancer forever
b.Cause all the earth's deserts to bloom with food crops
c.Unite the world with a common language and an end to poverty
d.Conjure up a jug of wine and follow it up by walking on water

6.Since we can never "know" whether or not a God exists - it is fundamentally a matter of "faith" - it's best to be a believer since you have nothing to lose, but everything to lose if your disbelief is incorrect. Keeping in mind that the fate of your soul depends on the right choice, in which God should you place your belief? For extra credit, include a brief essay justifying your choice, along with the reasons why you reject the other three.

d.The Holy Trinity

(*Note: Choice D assumes you were born around 400 A.D. or later, after the invention of the Trinity)

7.You are the Creator of the universe. Your chosen people are a tribe of nomadic herdsmen, presently in bondage on one of the millions of your planets. Their ruler is being quite obstinate. Keeping in mind that you possess not only infinite power but also infinite love, your best course of action would be to:

a.Cause the ruler to drop dead of a heart attack
b.Cause the ruler to fall off a cliff
c.Visit the ruler in a dream and persuade him to let your people go
d.Slaughter a great number of innocent babies who had nothing to do with the ruler's policies

8.You are a Starfleet Federation explorer in the process of cataloging two newly discovered planets. The majority of the inhabitants of each planet believe in a deity, but they are two different deities. Deity "X" is said to be not only all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing, but the designer of a marvelously complex and ordered world. Deity "Y" is said to be indifferent, absent, unconcerned with the affairs of his planet, and some even say evil. Which god rules over which planet?

Planet A: Has apparently achieved a state of advanced benign equilibrium in which there are no viruses or diseases, and only a very small number of natural disasters, which, when they do strike, always eliminate only the sinful and evil. The inhabitants, both plant and animal, have learned to maintain their existence through photosynthesis, and thus do not have to kill and eat each other in order to survive. There are no "birth defects;" every inhabitant comes into existence perfectly formed and equipped for a long and productive life.
Deity X_____
Deity Y_____

Planet B: Adorned with many examples of beauty and order, it is also constantly beset by hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, volcanoes, lightning bolts, viruses, disfiguring diseases, parasites, leeches, flies, crop-destroying pests and many other phenomena which afflict both the innocent and the evil. Every life form on the planet can only sustain its existence through the destruction and consumption of other life forms. Some of the inhabitants are born with a crippling condition called a "birth defect", which condemns them to living extremely limited, short, or painful lives.
Deity X_____
Deity Y_____

9.What is the number of children born without arms or legs that have been miraculously restored by a visit to the shrine at Lourdes, France?

a.Too many to count
b.Over 1,000
c.Several dozen
d.Zero, but only because their faith was not strong enough

10.As we all know, there is only one true religion. What is the one true religion in each of the following circumstances?

a.You are born in Karnak in 3000 B.C.
b.You are born in Bombay in 300 B.C.
c.You are born in Baghdad in 900 A.D.
d.You are born in Mexico City in 1956 A.D.

11.Although you are new at golf, you have just hit a beautiful 200-yard drive and your ball has landed on a blade of grass near the cup at Hole 3. The green contains ten million blades of grass. The odds of your ball landing on that blade of grass are 10,000,000 to one against, too improbable to have happened by mere chance. What's the explanation?

a.The wind guided it
b.Your muscles guided it
c.There is no need for an explanation
d.You consciously designed your shot to land on that particular blade

12.Which of the following is most likely to be true, and why?

a.Romulus was the son of God, born to a mortal human virgin
b.Dionysus turned water into wine
c.Apollonius of Tyana raised a girl from the dead
d.Jesus Christ was the son of God, born to a mortal virgin, turned water into wine, and raised a man from the dead

13.Conceding that torture is permissible under certain conditions, which of the following would be the best justification?

a.Your prisoner is the only one who knows the date and time of an assassination attempt on the Pope
b.Your prisoner is the only one who knows where a nuclear device has been planted in Washington, D.C.
c.Your prisoner is the only one who knows where a vial of nerve gas has been placed in the London water supply system
d.Your prisoner has announced that the earth revolves around the sun

14.We know that Christianity is true because the Gospel writers, inspired by God who can make no error, recorded the founding events. For example, on the first Easter morning, the visitors to the tomb were greeted by which of the following:

a.A young man (Mark 16:5)
b.No, no, it was no man, it was an angel (Matthew 28:2-5)
c.You're both wrong, it was two men (Luke 24:4)
d.Damn it, there was nobody there (John 20:1-2)

15.According to inerrant Scripture, the Savior prayed alone in the garden while the three disciples who accompanied him had fallen asleep. How did the gospel writer know the words of that prayer?

a.Jesus left them written down under a rock
b.They were recorded on a primitive taping device
c.The gospel writer was psychic
d.The three disciples were later hypnotized and asked to recall the prayer

16.According to at least one sainted church father, one of the pleasures of the saved will be to behold the agony of the damned. What would be the best time of day in heaven for a mother to behold the agony of her only son?

a.Early in the morning before it gets too crowded
b.Mid-day when she can compare notes and share the celebration with other mothers
c.Late at night when she can enjoy the flames in starker contrast

17.In the Judeo-Christian tradition, we always look to the Bible as a guide. In this example, your teenage son has returned home from the prom intoxicated. The Bible's instruction is:

a.Sit him down for a heart to heart talk
b.Enroll him in AA
c.Take away his driving privilege for one month
d.Smash his head in with rocks

18.In this example, your son-in-law, returned from his honeymoon, has just told you he suspects your daughter was not a virgin on their wedding night. Wishing to abide by God's holy rules as laid out in the Bible, you should:

a.Ask him if he was a virgin before you do anything
b.Advise him to forgive her
c.Talk to your daughter
d.Go find those rocks

19.You are eating lunch at a crowded fast food restaurant, occupied mostly by children, when suddenly a gunman bursts in, screams "Do not question or test me," and sprays the room with bullets. Ten people are killed instantly, many more grievously wounded, but somehow you escape unharmed. His ammunition expended, the gunman collapses to the floor. What should you do?

a.Call the police and wait for them to arrive
b.Call the police and leave
c.Risk death by asking the gunman why he did it, even though he told you not to
d.Fall on your knees and give thanks and praise to the gunman for sparing your life

20.Why did God show his backside to Moses, as described in Holy Scripture, Ex.33:23?

a.He invented everything, and this was simply the first mooning
b.He was really ticked off when Moses dropped the tablets
c.He was piqued, having just discovered His almighty powers were useless against chariots of iron (Judges I:19)
d.Moses was too serious and needed to lighten up a little

21.Jesus was God, and God knows all things, including all the medical knowledge that will ever be known. Why did Jesus blame demons for the case of epilepsy he cured?

a.He was suffering from a temporary case of "brain freeze"
b.The Aramaic word for "demon" is the same as the word for "cranial malfunction"
c.Neurology was not his specialty
d.In first-century Palestine, demons really did cause epilepsy. This affliction only began to be caused by electrochemical brain activity after about 1850 A.D.

22.This morning's paper carries a story about a suburban father who became so enraged with his disobedient children that he carried them both to the backyard pool where he drowned them, along with their puppy, their kitten, and their hamster. How should this father be treated?

a.He should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law
b.He should be banished from the town
c.He should be lynched to save the taxpayers' money
d.The townspeople should gather together to sing hymns of praise to him

23.This morning I started my day by insulting my mother in public, then punched out my father, my brother, and my sister. Then I gathered up all my clothes, sold them to a second-hand store, and with the proceeds bought a used Uzi and 50 rounds of ammunition. Next, I went down to the animal shelter and injected all the dogs with a drug that caused them to go insane and dive into the nearby canal where they all drowned. By this time I was hungry, so I went over to my neighbor's apple orchard and burned it down, because I wanted an orange and there weren't any. On the way home, I stopped at the local steel mill to discuss my philosophy of life with some of the guys. They laughed at me and said to stow it, so I tossed them all into the blast furnace. That night I discovered my son looking at a copy of Playboy. Concerned for his future welfare, I cut off his right hand. What historical character did my activities today most resemble?

a.Genghis Khan
b.Charles Manson
c.Adolph Hitler
d.Jesus Christ

24.Down through the ages, who has been most responsible for the medical discoveries that have relieved untold amounts of suffering and pain, and extended the length of that most sacred of creations, human life?

a.Medical doctors
b.Research biologists
d.The Catholic Church

25.A great sadness has come into your life which you feel you cannot bear. A friend informs you of a free counseling service which has never failed to aid and comfort many others. You call the counselor; the phone rings and rings with no answer; you finally hang up. What is the most likely explanation?

a.The counselor is sitting by the phone but not answering in order to test your faith in him
b.The counselor always stands ready to hear your pleas for help, but sometimes the answer is "no"
c.The counselor will not answer because he wants you to profit by the spiritual strength that only comes through suffering
d.The counselor is not home


While it is true that there have been and still are many different gods and many different religions, they are really just the various names by which various cultures approach the same God. Explain how and why each of the following is the same God:

Quetzalcoatl, who wants you to skin a young virgin alive, then put on the skin and dance;
Shiva, who wants you to pray over his penis;
Allah, who wants you to fly airliners into buildings;
Catholic God; who speaks directly through the Pope;
Baptist God, who most definitely does not;
Jesus, who wants you to castrate yourself to ensure arrival in heaven
Jehovah, who any day now, is going to kill everyone on the earth except for his Witnesses

Shamelessly re-quoted from:

Thanks to poster Stardust!

Friday, March 2, 2007


Yes, I've been playing with templates for my blog, looking for one I like.
This seems to be the one for now. I make no promises that I won't change it around again at some point in the future.

Darwin's God - Robin Henig

*Shamelessly quoted from NYTimes Magazine*

March 4, 2007

Darwin's God
God has always been a puzzle for Scott Atran. When he was 10 years old, he scrawled a plaintive message on the wall of his bedroom in Baltimore. "God exists," he wrote in black and orange paint, "or if he doesn't, we're in trouble." Atran has been struggling with questions about religion ever since — why he himself no longer believes in God and why so many other people, everywhere in the world, apparently do.

Call it God; call it superstition; call it, as Atran does, "belief in hope beyond reason" — whatever you call it, there seems an inherent human drive to believe in something transcendent, unfathomable and otherworldly, something beyond the reach or understanding of science. "Why do we cross our fingers during turbulence, even the most atheistic among us?" asked Atran when we spoke at his Upper West Side pied-à-terre in January. Atran, who is 55, is an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris, with joint appointments at the University of Michigan and the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. His research interests include cognitive science and evolutionary biology, and sometimes he presents students with a wooden box that he pretends is an African relic. "If you have negative sentiments toward religion," he tells them, "the box will destroy whatever you put inside it." Many of his students say they doubt the existence of God, but in this demonstration they act as if they believe in something. Put your pencil into the magic box, he tells them, and the nonbelievers do so blithely. Put in your driver's license, he says, and most do, but only after significant hesitation. And when he tells them to put in their hands, few will.

If they don't believe in God, what exactly are they afraid of?

Atran first conducted the magic-box demonstration in the 1980s, when he was at Cambridge University studying the nature of religious belief. He had received a doctorate in anthropology from Columbia University and, in the course of his fieldwork, saw evidence of religion everywhere he looked — at archaeological digs in Israel, among the Mayans in Guatemala, in artifact drawers at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Atran is Darwinian in his approach, which means he tries to explain behavior by how it might once have solved problems of survival and reproduction for our early ancestors. But it was not clear to him what evolutionary problems might have been solved by religious belief. Religion seemed to use up physical and mental resources without an obvious benefit for survival. Why, he wondered, was religion so pervasive, when it was something that seemed so costly from an evolutionary point of view?

The magic-box demonstration helped set Atran on a career studying why humans might have evolved to be religious, something few people were doing back in the '80s. Today, the effort has gained momentum, as scientists search for an evolutionary explanation for why belief in God exists — not whether God exists, which is a matter for philosophers and theologians, but why the belief does.

This is different from the scientific assault on religion that has been garnering attention recently, in the form of best-selling books from scientific atheists who see religion as a scourge. In "The God Delusion," published last year and still on best-seller lists, the Oxford evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins concludes that religion is nothing more than a useless, and sometimes dangerous, evolutionary accident. "Religious behavior may be a misfiring, an unfortunate byproduct of an underlying psychological propensity which in other circumstances is, or once was, useful," Dawkins wrote. He is joined by two other best-selling authors — Sam Harris, who wrote "The End of Faith," and Daniel Dennett, a philosopher at Tufts University who wrote "Breaking the Spell." The three men differ in their personal styles and whether they are engaged in a battle against religiosity, but their names are often mentioned together. They have been portrayed as an unholy trinity of neo-atheists, promoting their secular world view with a fervor that seems almost evangelical.

Lost in the hullabaloo over the neo-atheists is a quieter and potentially more illuminating debate. It is taking place not between science and religion but within science itself, specifically among the scientists studying the evolution of religion. These scholars tend to agree on one point: that religious belief is an outgrowth of brain architecture that evolved during early human history. What they disagree about is why a tendency to believe evolved, whether it was because belief itself was adaptive or because it was just an evolutionary byproduct, a mere consequence of some other adaptation in the evolution of the human brain.

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?

In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

"All of our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs . . . are equally organically founded," William James wrote in "The Varieties of Religious Experience." James, who taught philosophy and experimental psychology at Harvard for more than 30 years, based his book on a 1901 lecture series in which he took some early tentative steps at breaching the science-religion divide.

In the century that followed, a polite convention generally separated science and religion, at least in much of the Western world. Science, as the old trope had it, was assigned the territory that describes how the heavens go; religion, how to go to heaven.

Anthropologists like Atran and psychologists as far back as James had been looking at the roots of religion, but the mutual hands-off policy really began to shift in the 1990s. Religion made incursions into the traditional domain of science with attempts to bring intelligent design into the biology classroom and to choke off human embryonic stem-cell research on religious grounds. Scientists responded with counterincursions. Experts from the hard sciences, like evolutionary biology and cognitive neuroscience, joined anthropologists and psychologists in the study of religion, making God an object of scientific inquiry.

The debate over why belief evolved is between byproduct theorists and adaptationists. You might think that the byproduct theorists would tend to be nonbelievers, looking for a way to explain religion as a fluke, while the adaptationists would be more likely to be believers who can intuit the emotional, spiritual and community advantages that accompany faith. Or you might think they would all be atheists, because what believer would want to subject his own devotion to rationalism's cold, hard scrutiny? But a scientist's personal religious view does not always predict which side he will take. And this is just one sign of how complex and surprising this debate has become.

Angels, demons, spirits, wizards, gods and witches have peppered folk religions since mankind first started telling stories. Charles Darwin noted this in "The Descent of Man." "A belief in all-pervading spiritual agencies," he wrote, "seems to be universal." According to anthropologists, religions that share certain supernatural features — belief in a noncorporeal God or gods, belief in the afterlife, belief in the ability of prayer or ritual to change the course of human events — are found in virtually every culture on earth.

This is certainly true in the United States. About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from "distant" to "benevolent."

When a trait is universal, evolutionary biologists look for a genetic explanation and wonder how that gene or genes might enhance survival or reproductive success. In many ways, it's an exercise in post-hoc hypothesizing: what would have been the advantage, when the human species first evolved, for an individual who happened to have a mutation that led to, say, a smaller jaw, a bigger forehead, a better thumb? How about certain behavioral traits, like a tendency for risk-taking or for kindness?

Atran saw such questions as a puzzle when applied to religion. So many aspects of religious belief involve misattribution and misunderstanding of the real world. Wouldn't this be a liability in the survival-of-the-fittest competition? To Atran, religious belief requires taking "what is materially false to be true" and "what is materially true to be false." One example of this is the belief that even after someone dies and the body demonstrably disintegrates, that person will still exist, will still be able to laugh and cry, to feel pain and joy. This confusion "does not appear to be a reasonable evolutionary strategy," Atran wrote in "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion" in 2002. "Imagine another animal that took injury for health or big for small or fast for slow or dead for alive. It's unlikely that such a species could survive." He began to look for a sideways explanation: if religious belief was not adaptive, perhaps it was associated with something else that was.

Atran intended to study mathematics when he entered Columbia as a precocious 17-year-old. But he was distracted by the radical politics of the late '60s. One day in his freshman year, he found himself at an antiwar rally listening to Margaret Mead, then perhaps the most famous anthropologist in America. Atran, dressed in a flamboyant Uncle Sam suit, stood up and called her a sellout for saying the protesters should be writing to their congressmen instead of staging demonstrations. "Young man," the unflappable Mead said, "why don't you come see me in my office?"

Atran, equally unflappable, did go to see her — and ended up working for Mead, spending much of his time exploring the cabinets of curiosities in her tower office at the American Museum of Natural History. Soon he switched his major to anthropology.

Many of the museum specimens were religious, Atran says. So were the artifacts he dug up on archaeological excursions in Israel in the early '70s. Wherever he turned, he encountered the passion of religious belief. Why, he wondered, did people work so hard against their preference for logical explanations to maintain two views of the world, the real and the unreal, the intuitive and the counterintuitive?

Maybe cognitive effort was precisely the point. Maybe it took less mental work than Atran realized to hold belief in God in one's mind. Maybe, in fact, belief was the default position for the human mind, something that took no cognitive effort at all.

While still an undergraduate, Atran decided to explore these questions by organizing a conference on universal aspects of culture and inviting all his intellectual heroes: the linguist Noam Chomsky, the psychologist Jean Piaget, the anthropologists Claude Levi-Strauss and Gregory Bateson (who was also Margaret Mead's ex-husband), the Nobel Prize-winning biologists Jacques Monod and Francois Jacob. It was 1974, and the only site he could find for the conference was at a location just outside Paris. Atran was a scraggly 22-year-old with a guitar who had learned his French from comic books. To his astonishment, everyone he invited agreed to come.

Atran is a sociable man with sharp hazel eyes, who sparks provocative conversations the way other men pick bar fights. As he traveled in the '70s and '80s, he accumulated friends who were thinking about the issues he was: how culture is transmitted among human groups and what evolutionary function it might serve. "I started looking at history, and I wondered why no society ever survived more than three generations without a religious foundation as its raison d'être," he says. Soon he turned to an emerging subset of evolutionary theory — the evolution of human cognition.

Some cognitive scientists think of brain functioning in terms of modules, a series of interconnected machines, each one responsible for a particular mental trick. They do not tend to talk about a God module per se; they usually consider belief in God a consequence of other mental modules.

Religion, in this view, is "a family of cognitive phenomena that involves the extraordinary use of everyday cognitive processes," Atran wrote in "In Gods We Trust." "Religions do not exist apart from the individual minds that constitute them and the environments that constrain them, any more than biological species and varieties exist independently of the individual organisms that compose them and the environments that conform them."

At around the time "In Gods We Trust" appeared five years ago, a handful of other scientists — Pascal Boyer, now at Washington University; Justin Barrett, now at Oxford; Paul Bloom at Yale — were addressing these same questions. In synchrony they were moving toward the byproduct theory.

Darwinians who study physical evolution distinguish between traits that are themselves adaptive, like having blood cells that can transport oxygen, and traits that are byproducts of adaptations, like the redness of blood. There is no survival advantage to blood's being red instead of turquoise; it is just a byproduct of the trait that is adaptive, having blood that contains hemoglobin.

Something similar explains aspects of brain evolution, too, say the byproduct theorists. Which brings us to the idea of the spandrel.

Stephen Jay Gould, the famed evolutionary biologist at Harvard who died in 2002, and his colleague Richard Lewontin proposed "spandrel" to describe a trait that has no adaptive value of its own. They borrowed the term from architecture, where it originally referred to the V-shaped structure formed between two rounded arches. The structure is not there for any purpose; it is there because that is what happens when arches align.

In architecture, a spandrel can be neutral or it can be made functional. Building a staircase, for instance, creates a space underneath that is innocuous, just a blank sort of triangle. But if you put a closet there, the under-stairs space takes on a function, unrelated to the staircase's but useful nonetheless. Either way, functional or nonfunctional, the space under the stairs is a spandrel, an unintended byproduct.

"Natural selection made the human brain big," Gould wrote, "but most of our mental properties and potentials may be spandrels — that is, nonadaptive side consequences of building a device with such structural complexity."

The possibility that God could be a spandrel offered Atran a new way of understanding the evolution of religion. But a spandrel of what, exactly?

Hardships of early human life favored the evolution of certain cognitive tools, among them the ability to infer the presence of organisms that might do harm, to come up with causal narratives for natural events and to recognize that other people have minds of their own with their own beliefs, desires and intentions. Psychologists call these tools, respectively, agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind.

Agent detection evolved because assuming the presence of an agent — which is jargon for any creature with volitional, independent behavior — is more adaptive than assuming its absence. If you are a caveman on the savannah, you are better off presuming that the motion you detect out of the corner of your eye is an agent and something to run from, even if you are wrong. If it turns out to have been just the rustling of leaves, you are still alive; if what you took to be leaves rustling was really a hyena about to pounce, you are dead.

A classic experiment from the 1940s by the psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel suggested that imputing agency is so automatic that people may do it even for geometric shapes. For the experiment, subjects watched a film of triangles and circles moving around. When asked what they had been watching, the subjects used words like "chase" and "capture." They did not just see the random movement of shapes on a screen; they saw pursuit, planning, escape.

So if there is motion just out of our line of sight, we presume it is caused by an agent, an animal or person with the ability to move independently. This usually operates in one direction only; lots of people mistake a rock for a bear, but almost no one mistakes a bear for a rock.

What does this mean for belief in the supernatural? It means our brains are primed for it, ready to presume the presence of agents even when such presence confounds logic. "The most central concepts in religions are related to agents," Justin Barrett, a psychologist, wrote in his 2004 summary of the byproduct theory, "Why Would Anyone Believe in God?" Religious agents are often supernatural, he wrote, "people with superpowers, statues that can answer requests or disembodied minds that can act on us and the world."

A second mental module that primes us for religion is causal reasoning. The human brain has evolved the capacity to impose a narrative, complete with chronology and cause-and-effect logic, on whatever it encounters, no matter how apparently random. "We automatically, and often unconsciously, look for an explanation of why things happen to us," Barrett wrote, "and 'stuff just happens' is no explanation. Gods, by virtue of their strange physical properties and their mysterious superpowers, make fine candidates for causes of many of these unusual events." The ancient Greeks believed thunder was the sound of Zeus's thunderbolt. Similarly, a contemporary woman whose cancer treatment works despite 10-to-1 odds might look for a story to explain her survival. It fits better with her causal-reasoning tool for her recovery to be a miracle, or a reward for prayer, than for it to be just a lucky roll of the dice.

A third cognitive trick is a kind of social intuition known as theory of mind. It's an odd phrase for something so automatic, since the word "theory" suggests formality and self-consciousness. Other terms have been used for the same concept, like intentional stance and social cognition. One good alternative is the term Atran uses: folkpsychology.

Folkpsychology, as Atran and his colleagues see it, is essential to getting along in the contemporary world, just as it has been since prehistoric times. It allows us to anticipate the actions of others and to lead others to believe what we want them to believe; it is at the heart of everything from marriage to office politics to poker. People without this trait, like those with severe autism, are impaired, unable to imagine themselves in other people's heads.

The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others', that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, a psychologist and the author of "Descartes' Baby," published in 2004, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God.

The traditional psychological view has been that until about age 4, children think that minds are permeable and that everyone knows whatever the child himself knows. To a young child, everyone is infallible. All other people, especially Mother and Father, are thought to have the same sort of insight as an all-knowing God.

But at a certain point in development, this changes. (Some new research suggests this might occur as early as 15 months.) The "false-belief test" is a classic experiment that highlights the boundary. Children watch a puppet show with a simple plot: John comes onstage holding a marble, puts it in Box A and walks off. Mary comes onstage, opens Box A, takes out the marble, puts it in Box B and walks off. John comes back onstage. The children are asked, Where will John look for the marble?

Very young children, or autistic children of any age, say John will look in Box B, since they know that's where the marble is. But older children give a more sophisticated answer. They know that John never saw Mary move the marble and that as far as he is concerned it is still where he put it, in Box A. Older children have developed a theory of mind; they understand that other people sometimes have false beliefs. Even though they know that the marble is in Box B, they respond that John will look for it in Box A.

The adaptive advantage of folkpsychology is obvious. According to Atran, our ancestors needed it to survive their harsh environment, since folkpsychology allowed them to "rapidly and economically" distinguish good guys from bad guys. But how did folkpsychology — an understanding of ordinary people's ordinary minds — allow for a belief in supernatural, omniscient minds? And if the byproduct theorists are right and these beliefs were of little use in finding food or leaving more offspring, why did they persist?

Atran ascribes the persistence to evolutionary misdirection, which, he says, happens all the time: "Evolution always produces something that works for what it works for, and then there's no control for however else it's used." On a sunny weekday morning, over breakfast at a French cafe on upper Broadway, he tried to think of an analogy and grinned when he came up with an old standby: women's breasts. Because they are associated with female hormones, he explained, full breasts indicate a woman is fertile, and the evolution of the male brain's preference for them was a clever mating strategy. But breasts are now used for purposes unrelated to reproduction, to sell anything from deodorant to beer. "A Martian anthropologist might look at this and say, 'Oh, yes, so these breasts must have somehow evolved to sell hygienic stuff or food to human beings,' " Atran said. But the Martian would, of course, be wrong. Equally wrong would be to make the same mistake about religion, thinking it must have evolved to make people behave a certain way or feel a certain allegiance.

That is what most fascinated Atran. "Why is God in there?" he wondered.

The idea of an infallible God is comfortable and familiar, something children readily accept. You can see this in the experiment Justin Barrett conducted recently — a version of the traditional false-belief test but with a religious twist. Barrett showed young children a box with a picture of crackers on the outside. What do you think is inside this box? he asked, and the children said, "Crackers." Next he opened it and showed them that the box was filled with rocks. Then he asked two follow-up questions: What would your mother say is inside this box? And what would God say?

As earlier theory-of-mind experiments already showed, 3- and 4-year-olds tended to think Mother was infallible, and since the children knew the right answer, they assumed she would know it, too. They usually responded that Mother would say the box contained rocks. But 5- and 6-year-olds had learned that Mother, like any other person, could hold a false belief in her mind, and they tended to respond that she would be fooled by the packaging and would say, "Crackers."

And what would God say? No matter what their age, the children, who were all Protestants, told Barrett that God would answer, "Rocks." This was true even for the older children, who, as Barrett understood it, had developed folkpsychology and had used it when predicting a wrong response for Mother. They had learned that, in certain situations, people could be fooled — but they had also learned that there is no fooling God.

The bottom line, according to byproduct theorists, is that children are born with a tendency to believe in omniscience, invisible minds, immaterial souls — and then they grow up in cultures that fill their minds, hard-wired for belief, with specifics. It is a little like language acquisition, Paul Bloom says, with the essential difference that language is a biological adaptation and religion, in his view, is not. We are born with an innate facility for language but the specific language we learn depends on the environment in which we are raised. In much the same way, he says, we are born with an innate tendency for belief, but the specifics of what we grow up believing — whether there is one God or many, whether the soul goes to heaven or occupies another animal after death — are culturally shaped.

Whatever the specifics, certain beliefs can be found in all religions. Those that prevail, according to the byproduct theorists, are those that fit most comfortably with our mental architecture. Psychologists have shown, for instance, that people attend to, and remember, things that are unfamiliar and strange, but not so strange as to be impossible to assimilate. Ideas about God or other supernatural agents tend to fit these criteria. They are what Pascal Boyer, an anthropologist and psychologist, called "minimally counterintuitive": weird enough to get your attention and lodge in your memory but not so weird that you reject them altogether. A tree that talks is minimally counterintuitive, and you might believe it as a supernatural agent. A tree that talks and flies and time-travels is maximally counterintuitive, and you are more likely to reject it.

Atran, along with Ara Norenzayan of the University of British Columbia, studied the idea of minimally counterintuitive agents earlier this decade. They presented college students with lists of fantastical creatures and asked them to choose the ones that seemed most "religious." The convincingly religious agents, the students said, were not the most outlandish — not the turtle that chatters and climbs or the squealing, flowering marble — but those that were just outlandish enough: giggling seaweed, a sobbing oak, a talking horse. Giggling seaweed meets the requirement of being minimally counterintuitive, Atran wrote. So does a God who has a human personality except that he knows everything or a God who has a mind but has no body.

It is not enough for an agent to be minimally counterintuitive for it to earn a spot in people's belief systems. An emotional component is often needed, too, if belief is to take hold. "If your emotions are involved, then that's the time when you're most likely to believe whatever the religion tells you to believe," Atran says. Religions stir up emotions through their rituals — swaying, singing, bowing in unison during group prayer, sometimes working people up to a state of physical arousal that can border on frenzy. And religions gain strength during the natural heightening of emotions that occurs in times of personal crisis, when the faithful often turn to shamans or priests. The most intense personal crisis, for which religion can offer powerfully comforting answers, is when someone comes face to face with mortality.

In John Updike's celebrated early short story "Pigeon Feathers," 14-year-old David spends a lot of time thinking about death. He suspects that adults are lying when they say his spirit will live on after he dies. He keeps catching them in inconsistencies when he asks where exactly his soul will spend eternity. "Don't you see," he cries to his mother, "if when we die there's nothing, all your sun and fields and what not are all, ah, horror? It's just an ocean of horror."

The story ends with David's tiny revelation and his boundless relief. The boy gets a gun for his 15th birthday, which he uses to shoot down some pigeons that have been nesting in his grandmother's barn. Before he buries them, he studies the dead birds' feathers. He is amazed by their swirls of color, "designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture." And suddenly the fears that have plagued him are lifted, and with a "slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole Creation by refusing to let David live forever."

Fear of death is an undercurrent of belief. The spirits of dead ancestors, ghosts, immortal deities, heaven and hell, the everlasting soul: the notion of spiritual existence after death is at the heart of almost every religion. According to some adaptationists, this is part of religion's role, to help humans deal with the grim certainty of death. Believing in God and the afterlife, they say, is how we make sense of the brevity of our time on earth, how we give meaning to this brutish and short existence. Religion can offer solace to the bereaved and comfort to the frightened.

But the spandrelists counter that saying these beliefs are consolation does not mean they offered an adaptive advantage to our ancestors. "The human mind does not produce adequate comforting delusions against all situations of stress or fear," wrote Pascal Boyer, a leading byproduct theorist, in "Religion Explained," which came out a year before Atran's book. "Indeed, any organism that was prone to such delusions would not survive long."

Whether or not it is adaptive, belief in the afterlife gains power in two ways: from the intensity with which people wish it to be true and from the confirmation it seems to get from the real world. This brings us back to folkpsychology. We try to make sense of other people partly by imagining what it is like to be them, an adaptive trait that allowed our ancestors to outwit potential enemies. But when we think about being dead, we run into a cognitive wall. How can we possibly think about not thinking? "Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it," the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote in "Tragic Sense of Life." "The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive of ourselves as not existing."

Much easier, then, to imagine that the thinking somehow continues. This is what young children seem to do, as a study at the Florida Atlantic University demonstrated a few years ago. Jesse Bering and David Bjorklund, the psychologists who conducted the study, used finger puppets to act out the story of a mouse, hungry and lost, who is spotted by an alligator. "Well, it looks like Brown Mouse got eaten by Mr. Alligator," the narrator says at the end. "Brown Mouse is not alive anymore."

Afterward, Bering and Bjorklund asked their subjects, ages 4 to 12, what it meant for Brown Mouse to be "not alive anymore." Is he still hungry? Is he still sleepy? Does he still want to go home? Most said the mouse no longer needed to eat or drink. But a large proportion, especially the younger ones, said that he still had thoughts, still loved his mother and still liked cheese. The children understood what it meant for the mouse's body to cease to function, but many believed that something about the mouse was still alive.

"Our psychological architecture makes us think in particular ways," says Bering, now at Queens University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. "In this study, it seems, the reason afterlife beliefs are so prevalent is that underlying them is our inability to simulate our nonexistence."

It might be just as impossible to simulate the nonexistence of loved ones. A large part of any relationship takes place in our minds, Bering said, so it's natural for it to continue much as before after the other person's death. It is easy to forget that your sister is dead when you reach for the phone to call her, since your relationship was based so much on memory and imagined conversations even when she was alive. In addition, our agent-detection device sometimes confirms the sensation that the dead are still with us. The wind brushes our cheek, a spectral shape somehow looks familiar and our agent detection goes into overdrive. Dreams, too, have a way of confirming belief in the afterlife, with dead relatives appearing in dreams as if from beyond the grave, seeming very much alive.

Belief is our fallback position, according to Bering; it is our reflexive style of thought. "We have a basic psychological capacity that allows anyone to reason about unexpected natural events, to see deeper meaning where there is none," he says. "It's natural; it's how our minds work."

Intriguing as the spandrel logic might be, there is another way to think about the evolution of religion: that religion evolved because it offered survival advantages to our distant ancestors. This is where the action is in the science of God debate, with a coterie of adaptationists arguing on behalf of the primary benefits, in terms of survival advantages, of religious belief.

The trick in thinking about adaptation is that even if a trait offers no survival advantage today, it might have had one long ago. This is how Darwinians explain how certain physical characteristics persist even if they do not currently seem adaptive — by asking whether they might have helped our distant ancestors form social groups, feed themselves, find suitable mates or keep from getting killed. A facility for storing calories as fat, for instance, which is a detriment in today's food-rich society, probably helped our ancestors survive cyclical famines.

So trying to explain the adaptiveness of religion means looking for how it might have helped early humans survive and reproduce. As some adaptationists see it, this could have worked on two levels, individual and group. Religion made people feel better, less tormented by thoughts about death, more focused on the future, more willing to take care of themselves. As William James put it, religion filled people with "a new zest which adds itself like a gift to life . . . an assurance of safety and a temper of peace and, in relation to others, a preponderance of loving affections."

Such sentiments, some adaptationists say, made the faithful better at finding and storing food, for instance, and helped them attract better mates because of their reputations for morality, obedience and sober living. The advantage might have worked at the group level too, with religious groups outlasting others because they were more cohesive, more likely to contain individuals willing to make sacrifices for the group and more adept at sharing resources and preparing for warfare.

One of the most vocal adaptationists is David Sloan Wilson, an occasional thorn in the side of both Scott Atran and Richard Dawkins. Wilson, an evolutionary biologist at the State University of New York at Binghamton, focuses much of his argument at the group level. "Organisms are a product of natural selection," he wrote in "Darwin's Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society," which came out in 2002, the same year as Atran's book, and staked out the adaptationist view. "Through countless generations of variation and selection, [organisms] acquire properties that enable them to survive and reproduce in their environments. My purpose is to see if human groups in general, and religious groups in particular, qualify as organismic in this sense."

Wilson's father was Sloan Wilson, author of "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit," an emblem of mid-'50s suburban anomie that was turned into a film starring Gregory Peck. Sloan Wilson became a celebrity, with young women asking for his autograph, especially after his next novel, "A Summer Place," became another blockbuster movie. The son grew up wanting to do something to make his famous father proud.

"I knew I couldn't be a novelist," said Wilson, who crackled with intensity during a telephone interview, "so I chose something as far as possible from literature — I chose science." He is disarmingly honest about what motivated him: "I was very ambitious, and I wanted to make a mark." He chose to study human evolution, he said, in part because he had some of his father's literary leanings and the field required a novelist's attention to human motivations, struggles and alliances — as well as a novelist's flair for narrative.

Wilson eventually chose to study religion not because religion mattered to him personally — he was raised in a secular Protestant household and says he has long been an atheist — but because it was a lens through which to look at and revivify a branch of evolution that had fallen into disrepute. When Wilson was a graduate student at Michigan State University in the 1970s, Darwinians were critical of group selection, the idea that human groups can function as single organisms the way beehives or anthills do. So he decided to become the man who rescued this discredited idea. "I thought, Wow, defending group selection — now, that would be big," he recalled. It wasn't until the 1990s, he said, that he realized that "religion offered an opportunity to show that group selection was right after all."

Dawkins once called Wilson's defense of group selection "sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity." Atran, too, has been dismissive of this approach, calling it "mind blind" for essentially ignoring the role of the brain's mental machinery. The adaptationists "cannot in principle distinguish Marxism from monotheism, ideology from religious belief," Atran wrote. "They cannot explain why people can be more steadfast in their commitment to admittedly counterfactual and counterintuitive beliefs — that Mary is both a mother and a virgin, and God is sentient but bodiless — than to the most politically, economically or scientifically persuasive account of the way things are or should be."

Still, for all its controversial elements, the narrative Wilson devised about group selection and the evolution of religion is clear, perhaps a legacy of his novelist father. Begin, he says, with an imaginary flock of birds. Some birds serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which is doubly harmed: by keeping watch, the sentry has less time to gather food, and by issuing a warning call, it is more likely to be spotted by the predator. So in the Darwinian struggle, the birds most likely to pass on their genes are the nonsentries. How, then, could the sentry gene survive for more than a generation or two?

To explain how a self-sacrificing gene can persist, Wilson looks to the level of the group. If there are 10 sentries in one group and none in the other, 3 or 4 of the sentries might be sacrificed. But the flock with sentries will probably outlast the flock that has no early-warning system, so the other 6 or 7 sentries will survive to pass on the genes. In other words, if the whole-group advantage outweighs the cost to any individual bird of being a sentry, then the sentry gene will prevail.

There are costs to any individual of being religious: the time and resources spent on rituals, the psychic energy devoted to following certain injunctions, the pain of some initiation rites. But in terms of intergroup struggle, according to Wilson, the costs can be outweighed by the benefits of being in a cohesive group that out-competes the others.

There is another element here too, unique to humans because it depends on language. A person's behavior is observed not only by those in his immediate surroundings but also by anyone who can hear about it. There might be clear costs to taking on a role analogous to the sentry bird — a person who stands up to authority, for instance, risks losing his job, going to jail or getting beaten by the police — but in humans, these local costs might be outweighed by long-distance benefits. If a particular selfless trait enhances a person's reputation, spread through the written and spoken word, it might give him an advantage in many of life's challenges, like finding a mate. One way that reputation is enhanced is by being ostentatiously religious.

"The study of evolution is largely the study of trade-offs," Wilson wrote in "Darwin's Cathedral." It might seem disadvantageous, in terms of foraging for sustenance and safety, for someone to favor religious over rationalistic explanations that would point to where the food and danger are. But in some circumstances, he wrote, "a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better." For the individual, it might be more adaptive to have "highly sophisticated mental modules for acquiring factual knowledge and for building symbolic belief systems" than to have only one or the other, according to Wilson. For the group, it might be that a mixture of hardheaded realists and symbolically minded visionaries is most adaptive and that "what seems to be an adversarial relationship" between theists and atheists within a community is really a division of cognitive labor that "keeps social groups as a whole on an even keel."

Even if Wilson is right that religion enhances group fitness, the question remains: Where does God come in? Why is a religious group any different from groups for which a fitness argument is never even offered — a group of fraternity brothers, say, or Yankees fans?

Richard Sosis, an anthropologist with positions at the University of Connecticut and Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has suggested a partial answer. Like many adaptationists, Sosis focuses on the way religion might be adaptive at the individual level. But even adaptations that help an individual survive can sometimes play themselves out through the group. Consider religious rituals.

"Religious and secular rituals can both promote cooperation," Sosis wrote in American Scientist in 2004. But religious rituals "generate greater belief and commitment" because they depend on belief rather than on proof. The rituals are "beyond the possibility of examination," he wrote, and a commitment to them is therefore emotional rather than logical — a commitment that is, in Sosis's view, deeper and more long-lasting.

Rituals are a way of signaling a sincere commitment to the religion's core beliefs, thereby earning loyalty from others in the group. "By donning several layers of clothing and standing out in the midday sun," Sosis wrote, "ultraorthodox Jewish men are signaling to others: 'Hey! Look, I'm a haredi' — or extremely pious — 'Jew. If you are also a member of this group, you can trust me because why else would I be dressed like this?' " These "signaling" rituals can grant the individual a sense of belonging and grant the group some freedom from constant and costly monitoring to ensure that their members are loyal and committed. The rituals are harsh enough to weed out the infidels, and both the group and the individual believers benefit.

In 2003, Sosis and Bradley Ruffle of Ben Gurion University in Israel sought an explanation for why Israel's religious communes did better on average than secular communes in the wake of the economic crash of most of the country's kibbutzim. They based their study on a standard economic game that measures cooperation. Individuals from religious communes played the game more cooperatively, while those from secular communes tended to be more selfish. It was the men who attended synagogue daily, not the religious women or the less observant men, who showed the biggest differences. To Sosis, this suggested that what mattered most was the frequent public display of devotion. These rituals, he wrote, led to greater cooperation in the religious communes, which helped them maintain their communal structure during economic hard times.

In 1997, Stephen Jay Gould wrote an essay in Natural History that called for a truce between religion and science. "The net of science covers the empirical universe," he wrote. "The net of religion extends over questions of moral meaning and value." Gould was emphatic about keeping the domains separate, urging "respectful discourse" and "mutual humility." He called the demarcation "nonoverlapping magisteria" from the Latin magister, meaning "canon."

Richard Dawkins had a history of spirited arguments with Gould, with whom he disagreed about almost everything related to the timing and focus of evolution. But he reserved some of his most venomous words for nonoverlapping magisteria. "Gould carried the art of bending over backward to positively supine lengths," he wrote in "The God Delusion." "Why shouldn't we comment on God, as scientists? . . . A universe with a creative superintendent would be a very different kind of universe from one without. Why is that not a scientific matter?"

The separation, other critics said, left untapped the potential richness of letting one worldview inform the other. "Even if Gould was right that there were two domains, what religion does and what science does," says Daniel Dennett (who, despite his neo-atheist label, is not as bluntly antireligious as Dawkins and Harris are), "that doesn't mean science can't study what religion does. It just means science can't do what religion does."

The idea that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon might seem to require an atheistic philosophy as a starting point. Not necessarily. Even some neo-atheists aren't entirely opposed to religion. Sam Harris practices Buddhist-inspired meditation. Daniel Dennett holds an annual Christmas sing-along, complete with hymns and carols that are not only harmonically lush but explicitly pious.

And one prominent member of the byproduct camp, Justin Barrett, is an observant Christian who believes in "an all-knowing, all-powerful, perfectly good God who brought the universe into being," as he wrote in an e-mail message. "I believe that the purpose for people is to love God and love each other."

At first blush, Barrett's faith might seem confusing. How does his view of God as a byproduct of our mental architecture coexist with his Christianity? Why doesn't the byproduct theory turn him into a skeptic?

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people," Barrett wrote in his e-mail message. "Why wouldn't God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural?" Having a scientific explanation for mental phenomena does not mean we should stop believing in them, he wrote. "Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me — should I then stop believing that she does?"

What can be made of atheists, then? If the evolutionary view of religion is true, they have to work hard at being atheists, to resist slipping into intrinsic habits of mind that make it easier to believe than not to believe. Atran says he faces an emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world, and he suspects that is where his little superstitions come from, his passing thought about crossing his fingers during turbulence or knocking on wood just in case. It is like an atavistic theism erupting when his guard is down. The comforts and consolations of belief are alluring even to him, he says, and probably will become more so as he gets closer to the end of his life. He fights it because he is a scientist and holds the values of rationalism higher than the values of spiritualism.

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the "God of the gaps" view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

Robin Marantz Henig, a contributing writer, has written recently for the magazine about the neurobiology of lying and about obesity.