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ResearchBlogging.orgA famous study by the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster showed that as the global number of pirates has decreased historically, the climate has warmed up. That is, there is a negative correlation between increasing global temperatures and the number of pirates. The FSM drew on this link to demonstrate that pirates are devine beings and that their decline is responsible for global warming. Arrrhh!

Of course, this study was a parody. Whilst it may be true that there are less pirates today than when climate was cooler, this is an example of pure correlation, not causation. Pirates do not keep the climate cooler, there is no mechanism for them to do so, however, the correlation in the data cannot be denied.

At the other end of the scale is, for example, the negative correlation between increased vaccination rates and the incidence of targeted infections. This is a particularly strong negative correlation, but it also has a causative basis. This is because we know the mechanism by which a vaccine protects the vaccinated, and thus can predict that in a population, there would be a negative correlation as described. This is a causation relationship that results in correlation – statistically and scientifically, the strongest possible result. Put another way, it is a hypothesis about the positive benefit of vaccination that is strongly supported by the evidence.

In the middle is the great big grey area of intellectual inquiry, also known as ‘everything else’. Recently a large meta-analysis (a study of studies – comparing different studies to draw over-arching conclusions) concluded that there is a negative correlation between intelligence and faith (Zuckeman, Silberman and Hall, 2013). That is, the higher your intelligence (analytic intelligence, such as that measured by IQ tests) the less likely you are to be religious.

Your personal reaction to that result is, perhaps unsurprisingly, likely to be influenced by your opinion on religion, and your opinion on intelligence.  But what does this result really mean? Are religious people dumb? Are atheists smarter? Does high intelligence ‘cause’ un-religiousness? Does religiousness ‘cause’ low intelligence?

The short answer is ‘no’. This is just a correlation. It just suggests that on the whole, really intelligent people are less likely to be religious. However, this study went further, discussing mechanisms to explain the correlation, and here is where it moves into the area of causation.

Of these, perhaps most interesting is the notion of sense of control. A person’s sense of control over their lives is influenced by numerous factors, both internal (within their control) and external (outside of their control). The report discusses studies that have shown that if you challenge someone’s sense of control, their belief in God increases. This suggests that religion provides a means of explaining one’s life; that what you can’t control is in the hands of God (and isn’t it instructive here that we have idioms such as ‘in the lap of the Gods’?). Higher intelligence can provide a person with greater self-control, that is, they have the means to have greater control over their lives, therefore, less reliance on faith. They see and understand themselves as in control, not an external power. They also found that intelligent people are less conforming, thus less likely to be influenced by the dogma of religion.

The most common explanation they found though was that intelligent people prefer rational explanations to irrational ones. Analytical thinking is preferred over intuitive thinking. An intelligent person may view the world rationally on the basis of logical conclusions, rather that by some grand supernatural design. As a result, the build-up of rational conclusions results in a decrease in religiosity.

All this then suggests a causative mechanism – that higher intelligence fosters a greater sense of personal control and that a preference for rational thought processes reduces the need for faith, thereby reducing belief in the supernatural. If we were to take that as a hypothesis, we would expect to find, in a population, the exact negative correlation that was found if the hypothesis were to be supported.

Clearly though, I have made a circular argument, by taking a result, finding an explanation, proposing a hypothesis from that explanation, and then, completely unsurprisingly, getting the same result. Not good science on my behalf there. But what we can recover from this is that there might be a mechanism that accounts for the correlation, and that therefore, this is not simply a pure correlation. In other words, there might be a causative relationship. The existence of a number of studies that show psychological phenomena such as the personal control study discussed above demonstrates that there exists a way in which higher intelligence could lead to lower religiosity. Whilst this does not completely explain the negative correlation, it puts it firmly into the camp of ‘possible causation’, making the overall finding of a negative correlation important scientifically, pointing strongly towards the value of further research, especially into the psychological mechanisms behind religiosity.

Of course, whilst you’re not likely to be able to improve your IQ by reducing your faith, you could at least put yourself in the ‘upper half’ of the curve and tell people how you’re one of the intelligent ones!! 😉
Zuckerman M, Silberman J, & Hall JA (2013). The Relation Between Intelligence and Religiosity: A Meta-Analysis and Some Proposed Explanations. Personality and social psychology review : an official journal of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Inc PMID: 23921675

Well that was ugly! A recent tweet from Prof. Richard Dawkins, probably the most famous atheist in the world, seriously upset people. His tweet consisted of neatly cherry-picked figures relating to the distribution of Nobel Prizes between Trinity College, Cambridge, and Islam. The point made, albeit incredibly droll and unenlightening, was that Islam had not produced as many Nobel Prizes as even just one very well regarded university college. His tweet:

“All the world’s Muslims have fewer Nobel Prizes than Trinity College, Cambridge. They did great things in the Middle Ages, though.”

Well that really stirred the pot, and the general complaint was that he was being a bigot, or as one writer eloquently put it “dressing up bigotry as non-belief”. It is hard not to see it this way.  I’m certainly not keen to get carried away on the ‘offensive’ argument, tending to agree with Stephen Fry on the value of claiming to be offended, but it was grossly provocative and quite lame, argumentatively.

Prof. Dawkins has responded in a longer blog post, and now we get to see what he really meant. His point is more subtle than the tweet and contains some interesting ideas (whilst also continuing on the theme of boring facts about Nobel Prizes though). To me, his longer post reminds me of what is great about Dawkins, and it is a crying shame that he has allowed his Twitter account to become a pariah.

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This blog is mostly about science, and about how people understand science, and hopefully it also attempts to explain some science from time to time. I try to keep atheist tirades out of it, because that is not the purpose of this blog. However, because the way people think is central to their understanding of science, and because religious thinking can have an impact on the way science is viewed, I consider it a rationally appropriate side-topic and will venture there from time to time.

In my haste and sleepiness at the time, I missed an argument in the comments, by Daniel, on my last post. I don’t mean to single Daniel out for this, however he made the comment and in the interests of furthering the debate, I’m reposting it for discussion. Isn’t the internet and the world-wide-web wonderful! Daniel wrote:

Medicine, planes, and cars do not oppose the knowledge of God, and neither does science. People do.

At first this seemed quite unremarkable to me. After all, no one was suggesting that other species oppose the knowledge of God. But then I noticed a classic misstep in the understanding of science: that science is a thing that exists apart from people. It is quite common, I think, for people to mistake the products of science for science itself. Science is a methodology; a set of tools, techniques and ways of thinking that allow a rational exploration of the world about us in the quest for knowledge. It has also helped us create some nifty devices and tricks, like planes and medicine.

Science is most definitely a creation of humans and human minds. The products of science, like medicine and automobiles, are not science themselves. The same can be said for “facts” about the world. That cheetahs eat gazelles on the African plains is not science. However, science has helped us understand the remarkable evolutionary arms race that has resulted in some of the fastest land animals that have ever existed.

So, when Daniel says that people oppose the knowledge of God, and that science doesn’t, he makes what is, to a large degree, a nonsensical argument. Science is created by people. If science develops explanations for things that do not require a God or Gods, then by implication, people have opposed the knowledge of God. The very same people who “oppose the knowledge of God” in Daniel’s argument may also substitute that knowledge with their own, scientific, explanations. Science and people are intimately intertwined. Indeed, inseparable. Likewise, religion and people.

To me, in this lies the fundamental problem with ideas like Stephen J. Gould’s ‘Non-overlapping Magesteria” which holds that science and religion are concerned with such different things that they do not and should not step into each others territory. The fact is that they do, and they both exist in people’s minds. Sometimes in the same mind. They both make claims about the way the world is, and both provide evidence, in different forms. Assessing the quality of that evidence is precisely the kind of task at which science has proven itself so adept. I, and many others, would hold that religion has done a pretty poor job at providing evidence for its claims about the way the world is, whereas science, in as much as it does give to us, has been pretty good.

Yet, there may be things that science helps us little in. It may tell us what varieties of moral system there are and why we have a moral system in the first place (hot research and debate here), but it science may still never actually tell us how to behave. For that we must make choices, decisions based on what we know. That is a property of our minds that is poorly understood, though we have reason to believe that it is one of the things that makes us unique. Our remarkable brains gave us science, and they also give us enough ‘free will’ to oppose science, even make choices that defy evolution. That does not mean that our brains didn’t get like this through evolution.

There is one more position to hold, one that is still scientific. That is to accept that there are things that we don’t know. Richard Dawkins asks, in a famous TED talk,

Are there things about the universe that will be forever beyond our grasp? Are there things about the universe that are, in principle, ungraspable?

These are important questions, and one cannot help but think that the only way forward is to apply the best tools of rational inquiry we have to the task, in the search for answers. The best tool we have is science. Lets get to work!

I suspect that when religious types have a spiritual moment that they really do feel like they are in the presence of God. A sense of awe, rapture and love not achieved normally in everyday life. I think also that many of the great communicators of science (most of whom are atheists) have had exactly the same feelings when contemplating something wonderful that science has revealed to them.

Myself, I get this too. It comes in a few different flavours, and this depends largely on the subject of my awe and wonder. Love, awe and even rapture really are emotions that I feel (not all of me is a scientific robot). But my subject is reality and the natural (or at least my perception of stuff, lets not even go down that psycho-philosophical path!).

Sometimes, I look out into the cosmos on a clear night, and I am struck with my puniness on that vast scale. I am almost overwhelmed with the span of time that it all represents. That light, that speck of illumination that teases the rods in my retina; it has been on such a spectacularly long journey that it seems almost whimsical that I should be there to see it. To think that after their journey of millions of years my eye is a few photons’ final resting place.

Other times, I have looked down through a mineralogical microscope, and have simply been amazed at what a few crystals have to tell, heaved through the Earth in that grand geological story.

I even sit in my garden and watch the wind rustle the leaves of a nearby tree and contemplate the brief little example they provide of the forces of nature at work.

If it were simply beauty that moved me, there would surely be enough in all that to sustain me. But there is more! As those photons excite my eyes and the electrical impulses course through my neurons to alert me to all the activity in the world, I am doubly moved by my ability to understand. To understand what is going on. That knowledge, itself made from the stuff of my brain, is an additional layer of beauty. An embellishment of wonder that has no parallel. My education, and particularly the discoveries of science over the ages that have fed that education, is the source of that wonder, that understanding. How can I not be moved by this? How can I want for more, other than to escalate the majesty through more knowledge and more understanding? It is not overstating the matter to say that this is the stuff of poetry; the very core of wisdom to be had.

So now, as we celebrate Carl Sagan Day, in honour of one of the great communicators of science, a man who brought the cosmos into the living room, I want to quote part of Pale Blue Dot, and I know I break no new ground here. However, it bears repeating. Before I do that though, I want to grab a little part of The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s at the end and it shows how its not just science that understands, but art also. Lest there be any idea that science and art are not good bedfellows, compare the two passages and see how, in literary mode and in scientific mode, we are united by a sense of the unknown, and a sense of what might be known.

And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder.

And from Carl Sagan:

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there–on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.

Amen to that!

I am hardly the first person to examine the interview with Richard Dawkins and come out a little surprised. It has had a small rash of internet discussion, but being an Australian interview, has not yet captured the crazy creationist ire. Mostly it appears that neither Dawkins nor Denton did enough research on each other. This would have been an easier task for Denton than Dawkins given the quantity of material out there on Dawkins’ views and indeed his life. Denton is less famous outside Australia and has a career in journalism and TV making him perhaps more adept at only letting out what he wants. Either way, as one person said to me, Dawkins looked at Denton as though Denton was from Mars at some points throughout the interview. Denton’s style is usually to try and wrong-foot interviewees into revealing more about themselves by asking old-hat questions in unexpected ways. He triangulates on people, and it usually works, making him one of the best interviewers I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately, when faced with a person who is professedly largely ignorant on topics outside his own field, this tactic fails. This is what has happened with Dawkins’ interview. A very straight bat to Denton is a good form of defensive play. In fact I had never seen that weakness until this interview.

Dawkins has been accused variously of being ivory-tower-dwelling, arrogant, pompous, strident (one he is particularly fond of) and narrow minded. However, this interview made Dawkins look humble when he explained that he doesn’t think that people should be interested in him, but that he does want to contribute his scientific knowledge to the world. His ideas about the value of truth and evidence I think were profound in the sense that rarely do people talk about it like that – the distinction between his views about life on other worlds versus the tooth fairy (or god) were very interesting. Perhaps he is right about the influence of fairy tales on children to prime them for religion. At no point did he distinguish himself from anyone else or make himself seem superior to others. Which is interesting considering that is precisely the sort of accusation frequently levelled at him. I think he did a good job of elucidating the difference between “belief” and “faith” and even distinguishing between religious faith and the kind of “faith” a scientist has in another scientist.

No doubt those who don’t like Dawkins will hold that up as an example of a boring, nerdy man who wants to take Christmas and tooth fairies away from children. Which is a shame since that is not what he said at all… And remember that Douglas Adams regarded him as a close friend, so he cannot possibly be humourless!

People seem incapable of grasping a central point to the philosophy of Dawkins and co. That is that there are seemingly infinite sources of wonder in the real world. There are new and exciting things to discover, and well worn paths to hold dear. There is little harm to be done in exploration, as long as a proper ethic is taken to the task. Not from god do we get to an ethics, but from analysis and reflection on life and its interrelationships.  What is not known may never be known, but we do not yet know that! Wonder, beauty, love, happiness, suffering, these are all real things in the real world that do not require a heavenly explanation to make them worthy of experience. The methods of science have revealed to us much of which we would otherwise be ignorant. It is an ignorance that carries no bliss.

Perhaps Charles Darwin said it best, as he penned these words, a man no longer accepting faith, seeing instead a wonderful connection between natural processes over geological time and the diversity and beauty of life on earth:

“There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

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