Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Scale of the Universe

Cary Huang has developed a very impressive interactive model for demonstrating exactly how small the very small actually is and how big the really big really is. You can check it out here. Just move the slider. It's fascinating.

Do Americans Hate Atheists?

A pair of writers at the Washington Post ask why Americans don't like atheists. I don't know if it's true that Americans don't like atheists, although, given the hostility of anti-theistic books like those of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, et al., I think the question could certainly be asked why atheists don't like theists.

Anyway, the WaPo article is replete with misunderstandings, misconceptions, and falsities of sundry kinds. Take as an example this sentence in their lede:
[N]onbelievers are one minority still commonly denied in practical terms the right to assume office despite the constitutional ban on religious tests.
This is patently ridiculous. There's no constitutional right to make people vote for you. Citizens are free to withhold their vote for any reason they please. Certainly atheists withhold their votes from Christians, Pro-choicers withhold their votes from pro-lifers, and blacks withhold their votes from whites, and vice-versa. To make it seem as though atheists are being denied some constitutional right because people don't vote for them is absurd.

There are a number of other problematic passages in the article. Here's one:
Rarely denounced by the mainstream, this stunning anti-atheist discrimination is egged on by Christian conservatives who stridently — and uncivilly — declare that the lack of godly faith is detrimental to society, rendering nonbelievers intrinsically suspect and second-class citizens.
Who in this country is a second class citizen because they're an atheist? I doubt anyone could point to any atheist who is denied any rights simply because he's an unbeliever, and to suggest that atheists are victims or an oppressed minority is risible. Indeed, if there's a group in this country which is in danger of losing it's rights to free speech and free exercise of religion, it's Christians. If there's a religious group that is the object of more derision and contempt from entertainers, artists, and journalists than are Christians, I can't imagine who it would be.

Here's another strange claim:
On basic questions of morality and human decency — issues such as governmental use of torture, the death penalty, punitive hitting of children, racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, environmental degradation or human rights — the irreligious tend to be more ethical than their religious peers, particularly compared with those who describe themselves as very religious.
In order to say that one group is more ethical than another we have to know what the ethical position is on these issues, but what is the ethical view on, say, the use of torture or the death penalty? If one is opposed to the death penalty is that more ethical or less ethical than being in favor of it? How can an atheist decide this question other than by simply pronouncing his own feelings on the matter? What answer does the atheist give to one who asks why it's wrong or unethical to execute criminals or to torture terrorists for information, or, for that matter, to be a racist? On atheism, none of these are really wrong, they're just unpopular, perhaps, or distasteful.

The writers then offer this peculiar assertion:
Even within this country, those states with the highest levels of church attendance, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, have significantly higher murder rates than far less religious states such as Vermont and Oregon.
This is straight out of Richard Dawkins' God Delusion and it's so fallacious it's a surprise that someone didn't take the writers aside and counsel them not to make such fools of themselves as to include it in their essay. The implication is that church attendance doesn't seem to exert much positive influence on behavior, but this argument would only make sense if it were shown that the population of church-goers was identical with the population of murderers, which is, of course, never demonstrated. Presumably church attendance only meliorates the behavior of those who go to church, not those who don't. There are a number of plausible explanations for the higher murder rates in these states, but a correlation with church attendance is hardly one of them.

Finally, there's this:
As individuals, atheists tend to score high on measures of intelligence, especially verbal ability and scientific literacy. They tend to raise their children to solve problems rationally, to make up their own minds when it comes to existential questions and to obey the golden rule. They are more likely to practice safe sex than the strongly religious are, and are less likely to be nationalistic or ethnocentric. They value freedom of thought.
They do? Then why are atheists at such pains to keep their children from being exposed in school to the possibility that the universe is the product of intentional engineering? Or that life is more likely to be the result of intelligent agency than of random chance? Why are they so fearful of a teacher presenting arguments both pro and con for Darwinism? Evidently freedom of thought means something like the freedom to be sheltered from any challenges to naturalism. How does that teach them to "solve problems rationally"?

And why is the Golden Rule something that children should be taught to obey? Why not let them make up their own minds whether they want to adopt an arbitrary rule that in fact demands behavior that's counter to both human reason and human nature? This doesn't sound much like freedom of thought to me.

The essay goes on in this vein trying to convince the reader that atheism and atheists are reasonable, virtuous, and harmless, and that Christianity is the source of many social ills. It's an argument distinguished, if by nothing else, by its philosophical, social and historical illiteracy.