Wednesday, April 30, 2008

When I was a kid....

Once upon a time, when I was a kid, I played the iconic Dungeons and Dragons game with my friends.

One of my friends, many years ago, when we were young, stumbled upon a game called Champions, where you could role-play super heroes.
One of my first and favorite characters was named Argos. He was ex-CIA, parapellegic, vastly knowledgeable about tactics, covert ops and counter-espionage.
He had, at his disposal, a cybernetic suit of motorized armor. He Flew. He Shot
Rockets from shoulder launchers. He had a repeater stun-gun that strobed from a chest launcher. He had enhanced senses. He was Awesome.

I directly owe his creation to my early love of

Iron Man

(My wife is taking me to see this movie on May 2, the day before my birthday.
I luv my wife!)

I have no personal philosophy....

At least that was an accusation from a quasi-anonymous poster on a discussion forum I frequent, using a photograph of my dog, and a high-school nickname as my avatar. We'd been having a long, disjointed discussion about "the future of life" and how (from his/her perspective) atheism is a philosophy that embraces death.

I had posted a response post to another anonymous poster who'd given up faith and was confused and feeling sort of lost and lonely. I polished this response up a bit and presented it as my personal philosophy. I'm now posting it here. I think this may be a repeat post, but I'm too lazy to go looking through my historic posts for the quotation, so I'm just going to put it up here again, and worry about being repetitive later (if I get around to worrying about it at all).

Here it is. My Personal Philosophy of Life:

Revel in your life. If you have family, cherish them and treasure the time you spend with them - embrace their company and companionship. If 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 or a partner 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, a role-model, a friend, parent (and for your spouse or partner, lover and confidant). If you have pets, cherish them for the pleasure, companionship and joy they bring to your life. Few things compare to the uncomplicated, unpolitical, nonjudgmental affection displayed by a cat or a dog or pet, 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. Strive to excel at what you do. Strive for harmony, balance, happiness, joy and companionship in your life. Pay attention to these things a little bit every day.

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 make you happiest are those things that you concentrate on most frequently.

Then finally, on a quiet introspective evening, consider how wonderful it is to be married to your spouse or paired with your partner, parent to your children, guardian of your pet(s), a positive influence to your peers and co-workers, close with your friends, 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.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Truly Expelled

Quoted from above:

Steve Bitterman was an instructor who taught the Western Civilization course at Southwestern Community College in Red Oak, Iowa. In 2007, at the age of sixty, he was fired because he did not teach the story of Adam and Eve as literal truth. (How many faithful Christians there are in this country who see that story as an allegory, and a powerful, meaningful one, of the loss of innocence!) “I just thought there was such a thing as academic freedom here,” he said afterward. “From my point of view, what they’re doing is essentially teaching their students very well to function in the eighth century.”

Alex Bolyanatz was an assistant professor of anthropology at Wheaton College, a Protestant liberal-arts college in Illinois. He had been popular with both students and his fellow teachers, but in the spring of 2000, he received a letter from his provost issuing a stern rebuke: “During your term at Wheaton College,” Stanton Jones wrote, “you have failed to develop the necessary basic competence in the integration of Faith and Learning, particularly in the classroom setting.” Jones castigated Bolyanatz for not treating creationism with respect and instead teaching evolution as the plain, scientific truth. Bolyanatz had repeatedly made the point that evolution did not conflict with his own religious faith, but claiming that “The evolutionary model does not discount faith” was not enough to save his job. His experience parallels that of Howard J. Van Till, who taught physics at Calvin College in Michigan. When Van Till made the modest claims that evolution had been scientifically proven and that Biblical texts were influenced by the cultures in which they’d been written, angry community members pressured Calvin College’s Board of Trustees into forming an investigative committee, which subjected Van Till to four years of inquiry. He was, eventually, cleared, but not until the committee had performed, he said, “a test of the entirety of my theological position.”

Likewise, Richard Colling graduated from Olivet Nazarene University and taught there for twenty-seven years. A man of strong religious convictions, he argued that one could believe in the Christian God and still accept the scientific truth of evolution. In 2004, he published a book about this belief, and for his pains, he was barred from teaching general biology or having his book used in the school.

Colling had been granted tenure, so that at least his job and paycheck were secure, even though the ejection from the community he loved brought him significant anguish. Nancey Murphy of Fuller Theological Seminary did not have that shield, and so when her negative review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial aroused Johnson’s ire, she had to fight for her job. Johnson, a lawyer who was one of the instigators in rebranding creationism as “Intelligent Design,” has never displayed a grasp of basic biological facts, but that didn’t stop him from calling up a Fuller trustee and starting a campaign to get Nancey Murphy fired.

Gwen Pearson taught biology at the Permian Basin branch of the University of Texas, located in the city of Odessa. Her three years as an assistant professor ended with assaults on her integrity and her physical self:

This all became a great deal more serious when I began to get messages on my home answering machine threatening to assist me in reaching hell, where I would surely end up. I also received threatening mail messages: “The Bible tells us how to deal with nonbelievers: ‘Bring those who would not have me to reign over them, and slay them before me.’ May Christians have the strength to slaughter you and end your pitiful, blasphemous life!”

An envelope containing student evaluations from my evolution class was tampered with. A student wrote a letter to the president of the university claiming that I said in class that “anyone who believes in God gets an F.” Despite the fact that she had never been in my class, and it was clearly untrue, a full investigation of the charge ensued.

There were other problems. Often I arrived in class to find “Dr. Feminazi” scrawled on the blackboard. An emotionally disturbed student assaulted me on campus. In town, Maurice Sendak’s award-winning book Where the Wild Things Are was removed from school libraries, as it might “confuse children as to the true nature of Beelzebub.” The California-based Institute for Creation Research (ICR) preached in the county stadium to 10,000 local people.

I finally resigned when I received an admonition from the dean in my yearly reappointment letter to “accommodate the more intellectually conservative students with a low threshold of offensibility” in my evolution course. Rather than compromise my academic freedom, I chose to leave what seemed to be a dangerous place.

Pearson was faced with an intolerable situation — people who had seemingly never contemplated the nobility of forgiveness — and left of her own volition, but Chris Comer was not so lucky. A dedicated employee of the Texas Education Agency, Comer was serving as Director of Science when she forwarded a brief e-mail message mentioning that the philosopher Barbara Forrest would be giving a talk at an Austin public events center. Forrest and her colleague Paul Gross are authors of Creationism’s Trojan Horse, a book which details how creationism has masqueraded as serious science in order to slip particular religious beliefs into the public schools. For sending a brief “FYI,” Comer was forced to resign.

Paul Mirecki was professor of religious studies and department chair at the University of Kansas. He planned to teach a class called “Special Topics in Religion: Intelligent Design, Creationism and other Religious Mythologies,” but canceled those plans after two men beat him in the street one December morning. He had displayed an acerbic tongue in online discussion forums, and he later apologized for his less temperate remarks; neither that apology nor sympathy for a physically assaulted human being stayed the KU administration, who forced him to step down as department chair.

The real occurrence of violence gives death threats a certain cachet of intimidating force. Eric Pianka, a biologist at UT Austin, gave a speech before the Texas Academy of Science, which was presenting him with a distinguished-service award. In his speech, he articulated his fears that overpopulation will lead to a disaster for the human species. The story then took a twist which a fiction writer would be hard-pressed to surpass: a creationist named Forrest Mims claimed that Pianka advocated releasing the Ebola virus to eliminate 90% of the world’s population. Other creationists, like William Dembski, soon picked up the story, leading to online hysteria. Within days, Pianka himself and others in the Texas Academy of Science received death threats.

“I don’t bear any ill will towards anybody,” Pianka told one reporter, and elaborated: “I’ve got two granddaughters, man. I’m putting money in a college fund for my granddaughters. I’m worried about them.”

The issue of creationism has been simmering for decades, sometimes frothing up into great legal battles which attract widespread attention. The most recent of these watershed events happened in Dover, Pennsylvania, where a school board tried to push “Intelligent Design” into the science classrooms.

Judge John E. Jones III, a Republican and faithful Lutheran, delivered a landmark verdict in which he summarized the claims of Intelligent Design proponents as “breathtaking inanity.” Once the verdict was revealed, Judge Jones became the target of character assassination and even received death threats for the crime of doing his job.

His decision put Judge Jones on the cover of Time Magazine, but you don’t have to be famous to have someone get very upset about you. Michael Korn sent threatening letters, adorned with skulls and crossbones, to several biology professors at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Several of the messages were delivered by slipping envelopes under the professors’ office doors after working hours; Korn’s missives referred to “killing the enemies of Christian society.” He then skipped town and is currently a fugitive from justice.

When will one of these threats come to fruition? When will self-righteous anger, fueled by ignorance, unchecked thanks to prejudicial culture, meet a loosening of inhibitions and end in grief? If you think this is such a long shot that it could never happen and isn’t worth bothering about, what about the sad story of Rudi Boa?

A 28-year-old graduate of Edinburgh University with degrees in chemistry and forensic science, Boa was backpacking across Australia with his girlfriend, Gillian Brown. At a bar in Tumut, New South Wales, Boa had an argument over religion with another traveler, Alexander York. Later that night, it appears, York attacked Brown and in the ensuing fight, Boa was stabbed, once, in the chest. York was found guilty of manslaughter. A community center in Phnom Penh, through which Boa had traveled shortly before his death, was later founded and named in his honor, using donations from the Boa family.

I wonder: when will this happen in America? All the ingredients are already here. It doesn’t take an organized conspiracy, just a culture in which the enemy has already been defined.

We fight over scarce resources, whether they be oil or cocaine, and we invent new scarcities over which to wage war, treasures whose very existence depend upon human perception and whose value can never be tested through experiment and rational investigation. Even when this contest does not lead to physical violence, it deranges lives and brings anguish.

Many of the names I’ve mentioned in this essay belong to faithful Christians. These people, who have suffered because they accept the scientific truth of evolution, are not raving atheists or infidel interlopers. They learned the hard way that some folks just aren’t satisfied with “theistic evolution,” with the idea that the Creation took a long time or that science and religion answer different kinds of questions. Compromise and coexistence are, quite simply, not good enough. Those who advise such a friendly relationship find themselves, dare I say it, expelled.

And stories which begin with unshakable hate do not end very well.

UPDATE (20 April 2008): I should have known that my Gentle Readers would have additional items to offer. See, for example, the story of Kanawha County, West Virginia and this list of incidents, which overlaps with my own.

Oh, and I’ve also been alerted to the unfortunate case of Terry Gray, a Christian biochemist whose negative review of Phillip Johnson’s Darwin on Trial sparked an unhappy response from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, which eventually forced Dr. Gray to recant.

UPDATE: In addition to that, Christopher J. O’Brien describes his correspondence with Richard Colling, the professor at Olivet Nazarene whose experiences I summarized above. Colling writes to O’Brien thusly:

I am deeply saddened that the entire situation has come to this point of misrepresentation and organized attempts to discredit and malign my reputation. My heart has always been to offer a means to students and to the general public by which science and faith can be viewed as compatible. My faculty colleagues and students will attest that I have done this accurately, as well as faithfully and sensitively in the classroom and in my book, Random Designer. Yet sadly the university leadership, without willingness to accept responsibility for questionable actions and misleading communications, has apparently chosen to ignore these facts. I have discovered that some of the most fundamental voices in the Christian church and culture only want war, and seemingly will stop at nothing to discredit/destroy anyone who understands the biology/evolution and makes an intellectually honest attempt to communicate peace between Biology and the Bible. This grieves me deeply.

I believe the anguish in Colling’s voice can reach out to others of different faiths, or of none at all. We all listen to human stories.

UPDATE (21 April): The problem is not restricted to the United States. Christopher diCarloour ancestors all lived in East-Central Africa. A student became incensed when diCarlo explained that human beings had evolved and filled up the world by migrating around it; she complained to the administration, and diCarlo found himself explaining his case again to the Associate Dean. Almost certainly in consequence, diCarlo was passed over for a full-time professorship. He hasn’t done too poorly for himself in the years since, but it’s worth noting that his supporting the fact of human evolution caused him at least as much trouble, if not more, than that suffered by the “martyrs” whom creationists like to trumpet as victims of “Darwinism.” was teaching a critical thinking course at Wilfrid Laurier University in Waterloo, Canada, when one day he wore a T-shirt he had made which said, “We Are All Africans.” It’s true: go back a mere eyeblink of geological time, and

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Just a Theory


Lucid Dreaming - The Zombie Apocalypse

Ok, every once in a while I have lucid dreams that stick with me for hours or days afterwards.

Here is one from last night.

The scene was the house I grew up in - 43 Lk Sundance Pl. Only it was enlarged and sprawling like a set from a 70's sitcom, or the house from the graduate, with seemingly infinite space.

The Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse were over for a congenial visit. Yup. Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens were over for a 'cordial visit'. Everyone was sitting around chatting in the living room that was set like the Three's Company Show...all light and no shadows anywhere.

I remember distinctly that Sam Harris was far more interested in my collection of computer games, and wanted to know if I played World of Warcraft - (He was a Blood Elf Warlock - there may be an endorsement contract in the making here...). Richard Dawkins was the culinary expert and not only wanted to give tips toward our dinner repast, but wanted to take over, wielding his own personal gourmet chef-knife that never leaves his side. (We gave him free reign in the kitchen....hoping for the best).

Dan Dennett was particularly interested in my collection of power-tools and the workshop in the basement that was a direct reminiscence of yesteryear, with my dad's old workbench in the corner, complete with old military bench vice, and a 1 hp belt driven table saw that was more rust than saw. Hitch was perusing my book collection, with mixed reviews of my eclectic mix of canonical literature from my college days and my extensive collection of sci fi classics.

It was when we were stitting down to dinner that things became a little weird, because that was when the zombies attacked.

As a group, we all formed up with various tasks. Dan Dennett was in charge of fortifications, using the power tools in the basement to good effect - barricading windows and doors to keep the unholy undead from sucking out our brains. Sam Harris, predictably (I guess) wanted to research the internet for information on how to fight of and slay zombies, but our connection was 'cut'.

Richard Dawkins was in a bit of shock and was more of a helping hand for the amazing impromptu carpentry of Dan Dennett. Hitch, it turns out, was a direct descendant of dr. van Helsing (quel surprise!) and had even come equipped with a 'monster fighting kit'.

We determined to fight a tactical retreat through the house into the attic, as the zombies advanced through our multiple lines of defense. On the way to the attic, we ran through my parent's traditional bedroom - from back in my 'growing up days'. There we disturbed, in bed, in slumber, my mom and my dad (who's been passed away for (~15 years now). They lept out of bed, tossed on their "leathers" (monster fighting gear?!?!) and joined in without a blink of an eye. Hitch van Helsing had plenty of accoutrement to go around?

Yup. That was my dream.

Freud that up, loosers!

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Richard Dawkins - Open Letter to His Daughter

Dear Juliet,

Now that you are ten, I want to write to you about something that is important to me. Have you ever wondered how we know the things that we know? How do we know, for instance, that the stars, which look like tiny pinpricks in the sky, are really huge balls of fire like the sun and are very far away? And how do we know that Earth is a smaller ball whirling round one of those stars, the sun?

The answer to these questions is "evidence." Sometimes evidence means actually seeing ( or hearing, feeling, smelling..... ) that something is true. Astronauts have travelled far enough from earth to see with their own eyes that it is round. Sometimes our eyes need help. The "evening star" looks like a bright twinkle in the sky, but with a telescope, you can see that it is a beautiful ball - the planet we call Venus. Something that you learn by direct seeing ( or hearing or feeling..... ) is called an observation.

Often, evidence isn't just an observation on its own, but observation always lies at the back of it. If there's been a murder, often nobody (except the murderer and the victim!) actually observed it. But detectives can gather together lots or other observations which may all point toward a particular suspect. If a person's fingerprints match those found on a dagger, this is evidence that he touched it. It doesn't prove that he did the murder, but it can help when it's joined up with lots of other evidence. Sometimes a detective can think about a whole lot of observations and suddenly realise that they fall into place and make sense if so-and-so did the murder.

Scientists - the specialists in discovering what is true about the world and the universe - often work like detectives. They make a guess ( called a hypothesis ) about what might be true. They then say to themselves: If that were really true, we ought to see so-and-so. This is called a prediction. For example, if the world is really round, we can predict that a traveller, going on and on in the same direction, should eventually find himself back where he started.When a doctor says that you have the measles, he doesn't take one look at you and see measles. His first look gives him a hypothesis that you may have measles. Then he says to himself: If she has measles I ought to see...... Then he runs through the list of predictions and tests them with his eyes ( have you got spots? ); hands ( is your forehead hot? ); and ears ( does your chest wheeze in a measly way? ). Only then does he make his decision and say, " I diagnose that the child has measles. " Sometimes doctors need to do other tests like blood tests or X-Rays, which help their eyes, hands, and ears to make observations.

The way scientists use evidence to learn about the world is much cleverer and more complicated than I can say in a short letter. But now I want to move on from evidence, which is a good reason for believing something , and warn you against three bad reasons for believing anything. They are called "tradition," "authority," and "revelation."

First, tradition. A few months ago, I went on television to have a discussion with about fifty children. These children were invited because they had been brought up in lots of different religions. Some had been brought up as Christians, others as Jews, Muslims, Hindus, or Sikhs. The man with the microphone went from child to child, asking them what they believed. What they said shows up exactly what I mean by "tradition." Their beliefs turned out to have no connection with evidence. They just trotted out the beliefs of their parents and grandparents which, in turn, were not based upon evidence either. They said things like: "We Hindus believe so and so"; "We Muslims believe such and such"; "We Christians believe something else."

Of course, since they all believed different things, they couldn't all be right. The man with the microphone seemed to think this quite right and proper, and he didn't even try to get them to argue out their differences with each other. But that isn't the point I want to make for the moment. I simply want to ask where their beliefs come from. They came from tradition. Tradition means beliefs handed down from grandparent to parent to child, and so on. Or from books handed down through the centuries. Traditional beliefs often start from almost nothing; perhaps somebody just makes them up originally, like the stories about Thor and Zeus. But after they've been handed down over some centuries, the mere fact that they are so old makes them seem special. People believe things simply because people have believed the same thing over the centuries. That's tradition.

The trouble with tradition is that, no matter how long ago a story was made up, it is still exactly as true or untrue as the original story was. If you make up a story that isn't true, handing it down over a number of centuries doesn't make it any truer!

Most people in England have been baptised into the Church of England, but this is only one of the branches of the Christian religion. There are other branches such as Russian Orthodox, the Roman Catholic, and the Methodist churches. They all believe different things. The Jewish religion and the Muslim religion are a bit more different still; and there are different kinds of Jews and of Muslims. People who believe even slightly different things from each other go to war over their disagreements. So you might think that they must have some pretty good reasons - evidence - for believing what they believe. But actually, their different beliefs are entirely due to different traditions.

Let's talk about one particular tradition. Roman Catholics believe that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was so special that she didn't die but was lifted bodily in to Heaven. Other Christian traditions disagree, saying that Mary did die like anybody else. These other religions don't talk about much and, unlike Roman Catholics, they don't call her the "Queen of Heaven." The tradition that Mary's body was lifted into Heaven is not an old one. The bible says nothing on how she died; in fact, the poor woman is scarcely mentioned in the Bible at all. The belief that her body was lifted into Heaven wasn't invented until about six centuries after Jesus' time. At first, it was just made up, in the same way as any story like "Snow White" was made up. But, over the centuries, it grew into a tradition and people started to take it seriously simply because the story had been handed down over so many generations. The older the tradition became, the more people took it seriously. It finally was written down as and official Roman Catholic belief only very recently, in 1950, when I was the age you are now. But the story was no more true in 1950 than it was when it was first invented six hundred years after Mary's death.

I'll come back to tradition at the end of my letter, and look at it in another way. But first, I must deal with the two other bad reasons for believing in anything: authority and revelation.

Authority, as a reason for believing something, means believing in it because you are told to believe it by somebody important. In the Roman Catholic Church, the pope is the most important person, and people believe he must be right just because he is the pope. In one branch of the Muslim religion, the important people are the old men with beards called ayatollahs. Lots of Muslims in this country are prepared to commit murder, purely because the ayatollahs in a faraway country tell them to.

When I say that it was only in 1950 that Roman Catholics were finally told that they had to believe that Mary's body shot off to Heaven, what I mean is that in 1950, the pope told people that they had to believe it. That was it. The pope said it was true, so it had to be true! Now, probably some of the things that that pope said in his life were true and some were not true. There is no good reason why, just because he was the pope, you should believe everything he said any more than you believe everything that other people say. The present pope ( 1995 ) has ordered his followers not to limit the number of babies they have. If people follow this authority as slavishly as he would wish, the results could be terrible famines, diseases, and wars, caused by overcrowding.

Of course, even in science, sometimes we haven't seen the evidence ourselves and we have to take somebody else's word for it. I haven't, with my own eyes, seen the evidence that light travels at a speed of 186,000 miles per second. Instead, I believe books that tell me the speed of light. This looks like "authority." But actually, it is much better than authority, because the people who wrote the books have seen the evidence and anyone is free to look carefully at the evidence whenever they want. That is very comforting. But not even the priests claim that there is any evidence for their story about Mary's body zooming off to Heaven.

The third kind of bad reason for believing anything is called "revelation." If you had asked the pope in 1950 how he knew that Mary's body disappeared into Heaven, he would probably have said that it had been "revealed" to him. He shut himself in his room and prayed for guidance. He thought and thought, all by himself, and he became more and more sure inside himself. When religious people just have a feeling inside themselves that something must be true, even though there is no evidence that it is true, they call their feeling "revelation." It isn't only popes who claim to have revelations. Lots of religious people do. It is one of their main reasons for believing the things that they do believe. But is it a good reason?

Suppose I told you that your dog was dead. You'd be very upset, and you'd probably say, "Are you sure? How do you know? How did it happen?" Now suppose I answered: "I don't actually know that Pepe is dead. I have no evidence. I just have a funny feeling deep inside me that he is dead." You'd be pretty cross with me for scaring you, because you'd know that an inside "feeling" on its own is not a good reason for believing that a whippet is dead. You need evidence. We all have inside feelings from time to time, sometimes they turn out to be right and sometimes they don't. Anyway, different people have opposite feelings, so how are we to decide whose feeling is right? The only way to be sure that a dog is dead is to see him dead, or hear that his heart has stopped; or be told by somebody who has seen or heard some real evidence that he is dead.

People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise, you' d never be confident of things like "My wife loves me." But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little titbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn't a purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favors and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn't even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can't trust them.

Inside feelings are valuable in science, too, but only for giving you ideas that you later test by looking for evidence. A scientist can have a "hunch'" about an idea that just "feels" right. In itself, this is not a good reason for believing something. But it can be a good reason for spending some time doing a particular experiment, or looking in a particular way for evidence. Scientists use inside feelings all the time to get ideas. But they are not worth anything until they are supported by evidence.

I promised that I'd come back to tradition, and look at it in another way. I want to try to explain why tradition is so important to us. All animals are built (by the process called evolution) to survive in the normal place in which their kind live. Lions are built to be good at surviving on the plains of Africa. Crayfish to be good at surviving in fresh, water, while lobsters are built to be good at surviving in the salt sea. People are animals, too, and we are built to be good at surviving in a world full of ..... other people. Most of us don't hunt for our own food like lions or lobsters; we buy it from other people who have bought it from yet other people. We ''swim'' through a "sea of people." Just as a fish needs gills to survive in water, people need brains that make them able to deal with other people. Just as the sea is full of salt water, the sea of people is full of difficult things to learn. Like language.

You speak English, but your friend Ann-Kathrin speaks German. You each speak the language that fits you to '`swim about" in your own separate "people sea." Language is passed down by tradition. There is no other way . In England, Pepe is a dog. In Germany he is ein Hund. Neither of these words is more correct, or more true than the other. Both are simply handed down. In order to be good at "swimming about in their people sea," children have to learn the language of their own country, and lots of other things about their own people; and this means that they have to absorb, like blotting paper, an enormous amount of traditional information. (Remember that traditional information just means things that are handed down from grandparents to parents to children.) The child's brain has to be a sucker for traditional information. And the child can't be expected to sort out good and useful traditional information, like the words of a language, from bad or silly traditional information, like believing in witches and devils and ever-living virgins.

It's a pity, but it can't help being the case, that because children have to be suckers for traditional information, they are likely to believe anything the grown-ups tell them, whether true or false, right or wrong. Lots of what the grown-ups tell them is true and based on evidence, or at least sensible. But if some of it is false, silly, or even wicked, there is nothing to stop the children believing that, too. Now, when the children grow up, what do they do? Well, of course, they tell it to the next generation of children. So, once something gets itself strongly believed - even if it is completely untrue and there never was any reason to believe it in the first place - it can go on forever.

Could this be what has happened with religions ? Belief that there is a god or gods, belief in Heaven, belief that Mary never died, belief that Jesus never had a human father, belief that prayers are answered, belief that wine turns into blood - not one of these beliefs is backed up by any good evidence. Yet millions of people believe them. Perhaps this because they were told to believe them when they were told to believe them when they were young enough to believe anything.

Millions of other people believe quite different things, because they were told different things when they were children. Muslim children are told different things from Christian children, and both grow up utterly convinced that they are right and the others are wrong. Even within Christians, Roman Catholics believe different things from Church of England people or Episcopalians, Shakers or Quakers , Mormons or Holy Rollers, and are all utterly covinced that they are right and the others are wrong. They believe different things for exactly the same kind of reason as you speak English and Ann-Kathrin speaks German. Both languages are, in their own country, the right language to speak. But it can't be true that different religions are right in their own countries, because different religions claim that opposite things are true. Mary can't be alive in Catholic Southern Ireland but dead in Protestant Northern Ireland.

What can we do about all this ? It is not easy for you to do anything, because you are only ten. But you could try this. Next time somebody tells you something that sounds important, think to yourself: "Is this the kind of thing that people probably know because of evidence? Or is it the kind of thing that people only believe because of tradition, authority, or revelation?" And, next time somebody tells you that something is true, why not say to them: "What kind of evidence is there for that?" And if they can't give you a good answer, I hope you'll think very carefully before you believe a word they say.

Your loving

There is some beautiful rationality contained in this missive.

Friday, April 4, 2008

A Dream of Elephants

When I have migraines, or when I am ill and suffer fevers, I often have vivid fever dreams that I can remember for months or years afterwards. I'm not wholely sure what to attribute the lasting memory of these dreams, but nonetheless, I do experience them.

Years and years and years ago, I had a dream that I was a research biologist experimenting in higher intelligence in elephants and teaching them sign language. Presumably this occured sometime after I learned of their brain mass, and relative emotional attachment in family groupings. It could also have come shortly after reading "Footfall" by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle.

Perhaps I should have taught them to paint signs?