Sunday, November 27, 2011

Facing disinterest in science

Is science faith-based? Is truth just a matter of opinion? If we are to believe debates found over the Internet; pitting atheistic and theistic ideas against one another; for people of faith the answer to this question seems to be a unanimous "yes". In fact, there appears to be a strange agreement among an alarming number of religious people stating that science is comparable to religious faith. Out of respect for intellectual freedom, shouldn't we just let people think what they want? Perhaps, yes; and yet, what if they plan to indoctrinate their children with this misrepresentation of science? Are any of us, in this day and age, morally entitled to handicap future generations by spreading confusion about what intrinsically distinct words like facts, doctrines and theories genuinely mean?

Of course, there are quite a few clearheaded believers out there; lucid people who can provide rather decent reasons for still believing in God. That’s great. But sadly, the general trend seems to be a lot closer to something along these lines: “I realize that truth is not a matter of opinion and that there can only be one truth. But look, this is what I believe. Faith is a personal issue that deals with feelings and personal experience with God. Very deep in my heart, I know God’s word to be truth and faith in my God is what leads me to know that he is true. It is my own personal truth and nobody should try to push his beliefs on me. Why not respect each other and just let people make up their mind about why God is true?” If you’ve never heard about circular reasoning, this is a great example for starters. Considering how much of our daily life is dependent on scientific discovery and how much our future is bound to be directly influenced by scientific advancement, it truly scares me to think that so many people around would rather not try to understand any of this.

What's so bad about having ape cousins really?
We should avoid confusing mere ignorance with an actual lack of intellectual faculties; holding this view doesn't make us any better than most theists; besides, it is doomed to be completely biased. Considering our limited time and capacities as human beings, isn't it true that we are all ignorant about an infinity of subjects? The difference is that we actually don't let dogma limit our quest for knowledge. But how are we supposed to face profound ignorance without being at least a little condescending? First, whenever trying to introduce someone to a new idea, it is always better if we don't look profoundly ignorant ourselves about what his beliefs are. We can draw attention to ideas he already believes in and provide enough interesting evidence that contradicts them; if these ideas are presented coherently, chances are that he will want to question them in private. This is not just about us trying to feel good for scoring points during a debate; the primary aim should be to share pertinent knowledge with people who deserve a lot better than what religions are providing.

Perhaps should we also focus more effort on breaking counter-productive myths about science, making it clear that many religious questions are well within its scope. Believers are often fond of the idea that science and religion ought to be mutually exclusive; it is a comforting thought for them. They easily forget that centuries ago, there was a lot more that religion not only pretended to explain by supernatural causes but went as far as threatening those who doubted it with eternal suffering in hell. As science gradually figured out naturalistic explanations to an increasing number of subjects, religions were then forced to abandon many of their preposterous claims of knowledge.

Today, mainstream religion focuses on morals, insisting that we cannot be moral without God. That's because there aren't a lot of subjects left for it to have anything to say about. But it may be interesting to ask: When during the course of evolution did we humans start having an immortal soul and why? What qualified one particular generation of apes for eternal heavenly life that previous ones did not have enough divine worth to be entitled to? Supposing we all go to heaven, will the good bacterias (e.g. probiotics) also be living there with us? If not then on what basis can one species expect to have an eternal soul and not others? Did Neanderthals not have souls too..?

Most try to avoid ideas like these because they create cognitive dissonance. This dissonance can easily make us sad and depressed. Quite understandable; nobody likes to feel wrong, let alone having to admit that someone else was right all along. We also avoid most questions about death, probably because they remind us of the people we lost. To a person who is open-minded and curious enough to be reading this, it must be quite easy to realize that the theory of evolution does not say that from one day to another, a monkey mom gave birth to a human baby; or that one fish decided to come out of the water and suddenly realized it could walk. Without needing to consult a science book, you could probably guess that amphibians came in between. But when speaking to people who were never exposed to any of the scientific evidence for evolution, it is often quite difficult to come up with a simple way to explain how evolution works. Often, your interlocutor will simply dismiss the idea as ridiculous by stating overused straw man arguments like: “You've never seen any fish with hands, have you?” or “How could you explain the complexity of the human eye?”

Well... well... what have we here?
As a good conversation starter, let me propose a nice analogy that seems to succeed with most, simply because it bases itself on a concept that anyone even slightly familiar with Europe can easily understand: Language. Let's take the example of Latin which evolved to become several other languages like Spanish, French, Portuguese and Italian. The main thing that sets French appart from Latin is that it's not extinct yet. There was no way to prevent Latin from changing over time and the only reason why we gave each a different name was because we decided to. In fact, French is Latin; and so are Spanish, Italian and Greek. Did one Latin-speaking mom ever give birth to a French-speaking child? Parents simply teach their offspring to speak the language(s) they know. They teach it imperfectly and in turn, children teach it imperfectly too. Evolution is inevitable.

Given that your interlocutor is honest enough to admit that he gets it, we could say that you’ve just discovered light in a seemingly very dark room. It wasn’t so hard. It’s now time to help your friend make the connection and realize that children are not identical to their parents either. They can’t possibly be since their parents are both different from each other in the first place. Evolution is a simple, unforgiving and never ending process over the course of which change cannot help but happen. Just like any language can split into a multitude of completely different forms over vast time periods, living bodies adapt to changing environments and eventually end up giving root to completely different species. Suddenly, it turns out that your colleague understood the concept of evolution already. A few late (yet not too late) neural connections have now been made in his brain and for good. Perhaps are you now both in the mood for a little conversation about reincarnation? :)

"We're made of star-stuff." -Carl Sagan-
I believe it should be a priority to keep this frank but respectful; a dialog between science and religion must be maintained at all cost. Understanding the importance of science, as well as its role in our daily lives, may prove to be vital for our future. The intent is not to hurt anyone's pride but to help others use their mental capacities in a way that perhaps they never tried before (courtesy of religious indoctrination). You could point out that although the concept of immortal soul isn't very plausible, we have all been lifeless for an eternity before we were born. We know exactly how it feels not to be alive; there's nothing scary about it. The atom particles that constitute our bodies came from dead stars. These particles do not belong to us. They are passing by; for a brief instant.

We are made from the same components as anything else that surrounds us. This stuff we're made from, which we now know came from galaxies light-years away, will possibly allow other living beings to survive and thrive long after we're gone, as long as time exists in this universe. For a small instant in time and from an incredibly rare point of view, we are having the privilege of witnessing it happening. Unlike reincarnation, this is more than just unfalsifiable speculation. The fact that all of our body constituents will survive and remain somewhere as part of the cosmos, is real and demonstrable; much more poetic and stirring than anything that ape-inspired mythology or individualistic wishful thinking could ever hope to rival. We are dealing with truth now; simple truth...

Friday, November 18, 2011

Angering the religion of peace

September 12, 2001, Montreal, Canada

About 500 kilometers down south, something big has just happened. People are praying, hoping that what they're witnessing is just a terrible nightmare. Mildly unaware, I'm at the grocery store, buying milk. As I look at them uncomfortably, I can feel a hopeless mix of shame and anxiousness as their eyes turn away nervously. And suddenly it hits me. How is it even statistically possible that every Arab I've ever met, is a Muslim? Doesn't look like a choice to me...

Ten years have passed; since then, I've had a chance to meet people from many parts of the world, including Muslims. After all, this is Montreal. Considering my experience as a person with a genuine atheistic interest in trying to make sense of religious subjects, I think it's only fair for me to express what I think about the mega-religion known as Islam. Although I'm not aiming to be uselessly provocative, I'm going to be terribly honest and say that it seems dangerously troubling how a large number of Muslims I've spoken to seemed unable to acknowledge some very important modern facts; it's as if something seems to be keeping them from it. Yet, in order for things not to go terribly wrong, it is necessary for everyone to be able to criticize a broadly accepted ideology, openly and without fear of retaliation. It appears to me very problematic that most public criticism coming from outside of Islam is hardly analyzed but instead dismissed, even by the non-Islamic world, as if it were nothing more than primitive xenophobia.

Yet another honor killing on the horizon?
But in reality, even inside their own culture, courageous critics are most often met with extreme violence (including death threats), repression or denial. Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali come to mind, both threatened with death, not for having commited violent actions but for their ideas, books, or even fleeing an arranged marriage in the case of the latter. It really doesn't seem to matter to most Muslims whether such critics originated from sheer ignorance or well-researched and carefully constructed arguments. Besides, even when the immediate response turns out to be a moderate one, chances are that the proposition will never be dealt with in a manner that's even remotely constructive. This is a problem not only for us but for Muslims too, I'm pretty sure. It's becoming increasingly foolish to deny this; we hear about it all the time. Every once in a while, you can read depressing news stories about little girls stabbed to death by their dad because they were abandoning the faith; even worse, they were commiting the preposterous sin of becoming too "westernized". Talking of xenophobia...

This kind of violence is almost unique to Islam; no matter how much we try to ignore it, it keeps happening and happening. Strangely, when I read articles about this, I can rest assured not to find much being mentionned about the religious nature of the crime. Let's be serious here, the father isn't denying the murder nor his religious motive; he's the one who called the police to brag about it, only to be sentenced to life-time prison with a smile. He knows it was God's will, he knows deep within his heart that he did the right thing; his miserable earthly life doesn't matter because he'll be rewarded in heaven when he finally gets his own chance to die. Quite suspicious for a religion claiming to be fundamentally peaceful, indeed. Whenever asked why the Islam-only censorship, the reply from mainstream media is something along these lines: we don't want to offend our moderate Muslim friends by rubbing salt into the wound. Let's face it, in the "religion of peace" when it comes to freedom of speech, a disturbingly large minority of people indeed seems to be moderate about the "peace" part. Really, what is there to be "moderate" about if the fundamentals of something are supposedly about peacefulness? Too many questions we dare not ask.

Why of course - cartoonists too can be a threat to world peace
When it comes to freedom of expression, Islam is by far the most difficult religion to deal with. Even where I live in Canada, all it takes is one sentence to realize that whenever the subject of religion comes up, Islam remains the only big religion that you cannot talk about without making everyone really uncomfortable. Whatever the problem is and whatever the sources of this problem are, there is a problem. It causes discomfort and is not just an irrational fear caused by media. It always seems so vague and difficult to pinpoint but does seem to have a lot to do with the idea that criticizing Islam is mistaken for racism even by Muslims who should know that Islam is not their race but their religion. If even they manage to confuse race/culture/religion as being some kind of indissoluble melting pot, then imagine how difficult it can be for other people. So we get to a point where we feel as if what Muslims really want for us is nothing more than to be afraid of offending their "sacred" ideas. And that didn't happen just by watching some idiotic and misleading Fox News program. It is their reaction that people tend to be afraid of and deep in our subconscious, we all know why. The cowardly way by which we handle this particular issue is ridiculous to such an extent that thinking about it leaves most people speechless and terrified.

Dear moderate Muslim: It is only ironic that part of any Muslim faith has to do with hoping for the end of the world, for a final godly judgment during which everyone who rejects your faith is supposed to perish in a big war that possibly even involves human weapons; about the necessity of spreading Islam throughout the world to accomplish some holy prophecy; and despite these clear facts, whenever we talk about your religion to you, all we get is this apparent state of denial about what Islam really is about: a wish for things to end, a wish for us "infidels" to either convert or die, by whatever mean your invisible God deems appropriate when the time comes for me to pay for my lack of belief. People like myself know perfectly well that Islam is not centered around just flying planes in buildings and that the majority of you are peaceful beings, but we also know that literal interpretation of ancient Islamic text can easily lead (and have lead) to such acts. We know that much of the Qur'an is not peaceful at all; we just don't buy your ridiculous "lost in translation" plead to misinterpretation, by the way.

Afghanistan: Female USA soldiers encouraged to "blend in"
We all know for a fact that Islamic laws only give half the value to a woman's testimony in Shariah court; apparently they're too stupid to have more than half a grasp on reality. We know, just as well as you probably see when you compare your culture to Western cultures, that your religion is sexist and that just like all the other religions and cultures out there including mine, there's a lot of space for improvement. The rest of the educated world also thinks that you really should get over with the fact that we're just a very lucky mammalian species, and stop rejecting the theory of evolution. It may be "just a theory" as you like to say; it's been proven out of any reasonable doubt to be true by thousands and thousands of experiments. We know that you are not stupid; your ancestors contributed a huge share of the science we have today, while the Christians were stuck in a dark age of violent religious nonsense themselves. But today, you're just looking like fools for rejecting serious scientific knowledge. All that's needed to understand the basic framework of evolution through natural selection is curiosity, as well as humility. It requires not a shred of faith.

If you've read this far, without shutting your mind off at the mere sight of honest, albeit mildly-aggressive common sense, you're pretty good. You're probably starting to understand that what people like me think of your religion is not necessarily as ignorant as the paradoxical notion of "islamophobia" would like to have you believe. A lamentable attempt to portray any kind of outside criticism as some sort of racism against (I hope you see what's wrong here...) your religion, designed so that you can be shielded from external ideas, instead drawing comfort in thinking that you're being persecuted. You're not being persecuted; you're being offered a chance to start a bullshit-free kind of dialogue with a secular world in which religion is slowly disappearing. If you're not yet cursing but still thinking straight after all this hurtful reading, then please realize that you are part of a very small and slowly growing minority. The entire world is crossing fingers, hoping that your religion will not take as much time as Christianity did to evolve into a more peaceful one.

Theo Van Gogh: Murdered for making a 10-minute movie critical of Islam
During the Christian inquisition, nuclear weapons didn't exist. We do not have the luxury to wait centuries; we need you to hurry before it gets too late. Anything you can do to help Islam get past its own dark age is not only welcome, it can help ensure the short-term survival of our species. When we look at the millions of moderate Muslims, we don't want to see you just praying and waiting for peace, no; we wish to see a massive as well as outspoken rejection of extremism. We are not feeling it yet, whatever it is that you pretend. If you were part of a political party acting like this, you would have either kicked all the crazy people out, or have left it in disgust a long time ago. Your inaction is interpreted by the entire world as silent acceptance. When Bush wanted to attack Iraq, you could see the massive demonstrations all around the western world, voicing their disgust at all the obvious lies; we didn't see a lot of public outrage from you after 9/11. Considering there are over a billion of you, I don't think we would have missed it. Were you all too busy praying about it? Now that I think of it, tons of Palestinians were indeed out there, dancing in the streets. Not sure if that counts.

Your people have inspired the world in a beautiful way, last spring. Your refusal to submit to injustice and your will to express yourself in spite of the threat of violent repression, all of this leaves a lot for everyone to learn from. But when it comes to that which you deem holy, your general understanding of free speech still leaves much room for improvement. Let's be serious for once. If Allah needs to defend Islam against cartoonists who broke his religious laws, and if he's so powerful, then why don't you let him? Why is it that nobody ever gets death threats from their parents for leaving Christianity nowadays? Although they're not the only problem obviously, to tell the truth, divisive and conquering religions such as Islam, Christianity and Judeism have never been of much help to world peace. We don't care about your imaginary end of the world but it does worry us that it might turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy if the Iranian people do not wake up and overthrow their sick religious leaders. Let's stop shifting the blame. It won't do either of us any good when crazy religious fanatics get ahold of nukes and start believing that God wants them to press the button. These people are not just religious, they're mentaly ill, and they're in power for all the wrong reasons; religious reasons.

Although I cannot possibly speak for everyone here, I'm very confident that most if not all of us atheists, just want this present world to regain some of its sanity. Denying the existence of inherent problems within Islam to outsiders and possibly even to yourself is counterproductive in every imaginable way. When I see interviews like the ones in Bill Maher's movie Religulous, I find it very difficult to tell if you really are in denial... or if you know that something isn't right, but are choosing to lie because you cannot think of an alternate behavior. Do you seriously think that your religion has all the answers? Can't you see that it doesn't? If we talk about this to you and inevitably get that kind of evasive reply, how are we supposed to deal with it when it clearly seems to us that your political agenda is not peaceful at all towards those of us who refuse to believe? How can we really respect you when we can't know whether you're attempting to be genuine or just being deceitful in order to foster your religious leaders' clear interest for world domination?

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How friendly can religion get towards science?

Have you ever read the story of Jesus' resurrection? Perhaps you might want to read it again, this time from a fresh and “science-friendly” point of view:

You see, there's this very interesting part, shortly after Jesus rises from the dead, where he briefly appears in a room in which his disciples are gathered. One of them, named Thomas, has been insisting on remaining skeptical about the issue of resurrection. He doesn't want to believe yet; at least, not until he's witnessed some evidence. After all, might he be thinking, perhaps it is just hype; perhaps the others have been honestly mistaken. He certainly wouldn't want to spread false information and since his friends have no evidence, no pictures and no recordings, he decides that before he's going to believe any of it, he needs to see it with his own eyes.  Fair enough?

Well, it doesn’t seem so. Not satisfied about having been able to convince Thomas, Jesus now deems essential to tease him by making a little speech about it. This great philosopher of his time goes out of his way to put a strong emphasis on how foolish it was from Thomas to insist for evidence. Because it's obviously foolish to dare questioning the resurrection of someone whom you’ve witnessed dying a slow death on a cross, tortured and punctured. From this moment in biblical “history” it becomes clear why science (as we know it today) will not be discovered for a long time after Jesus. And we’re also getting a pretty good feel of the many hardships our very first scientists will have to overcome before they even start being taken seriously. People tend to believe that trust is better than inquiry. Since biblical times, we’ve made quite a lot of progress. Whoever you are today, for example, you most certainly know that epilepsy isn’t caused by demonic possession. You also know that bats are mammals, just like us; not birds, as divinely revealed in Leviticus. But doesn’t this leave you wondering how far the scientific enterprise would be today if we had had more people like Thomas and fewer like Jesus?

I was read this story by my parents, back when I was pretty young. They were sincerely convinced that the entire story of the bible literally happened. Up until today, they still believe that Noah's ark really existed. Unlike you and me, they never really stopped to wonder how it is that the kangaroos and polar bears managed to even get on the ark. They’ve never really thought about how Noah and his family were able to find anything to drink after getting out of the ark, considering that all oceans had been mixed with any available source of drinking water for forty days and forty nights. Neither did they stop to wonder just how ridiculously huge the ark would have needed to be in order to store all the food needed for each species to survive or the excrement produced by the entire ecosystem they were supposedly carrying along. The bible says you shouldn’t question the bible, simple as that. And yet, even as a child, I could already feel the cognitive dissonance going around in my head as a result from hearing such nonsense. Today, I find it quite interesting how the narrative so strongly and shamelessly suggests that a person who honestly wants evidence should be publicly ridiculed by someone who’s supposed to be an ultimate moral guide as well as wise, loving and perfect.

Anyone who understands the very basics of scientific inquiry would probably find that Thomas at least had somewhat of a scientific mind, otherwise he wouldn't have been inclined to skeptical thinking. But few of us really stop to think about what science is and why it's so important. We leave it to the elite, pretending that it's extremely complicated. We easily forget the simplicity of what actually makes science work. Science can even be applied to thinking, in the form of  rules of logic and evidence, eliminating bias by trying to prove oneself wrong rather than right. This ability to think freely is exactly what, unlike religious people, allows us atheists to say: Perhaps there is no God; perhaps we’ve been wrong all along. It has given us the means to think without faith-based restraints and even an incentive to do so. Science says: "If there really is truth to it, then we shouldn't fear trying to disprove it. Let's test if prayer actually works, for example; let’s do it in a scientific environment." Science doesn't require us to reject certain views on the basis that they contradict previous notions. If the truth happens to be very inconvenient, we want to know anyway, because it’s the truth we’re interested in.

Thomas should have trusted his comrades without questioning or so does the narrative naively wants you to believe. Although his character's role clearly shows mild signs of scientific awakening, he isn't a very important character in the biblical story; it's quite obvious why. We'll probably never know if he even existed, but one thing we do know is that people usually do not rise from the dead. Of course, anyone could argue that it did happen, but on what basis other than faith? Come to think of it, we wouldn’t believe it either if a bunch of excited people came telling us that they saw John Lennon walking in the street. Scientific improbability as well as a lack of evidence leads us to believe that none of the Gospel's many resurrections ever happened. Most of of the strangest parts of the bible are obviously very likely to have been made up, or at least exaggerated by people who didn't quite realize just how ridiculous their claims would sound to us, thousands of years later. The one about Jesus and Thomas, from the perspective of science, stands today as an awfully bad moral lesson. It was clearly intended to mock and discourage skeptical inquiry while at the same time praising blind faith in claims of divine revelation.