Archive for the ‘Science and Religion’ Category

A Philosopher of Science Explains the Importance of Scientific Consensus

August 3, 2013
Massimo Pigliucci

Massimo Pigliucci

by Doughlas Remy

I’ve been blogging on conservative Catholic websites for about as long as those sites have existed. Why I chose Catholic ones and not, say, Evangelical ones, has more to do with my early (i.e., post-graduate) literary interests than my religious background (Southern Baptist). I read Catholic authors because my specialty was French and Italian literature. Then a French literary critic, René Girard, captured my attention in the 70s, and for the next thirty years, I was reading and re-reading his books. From his reading of great European literature—especially the works of Cervantes, Stendhal, Flaubert, Shakespeare, Dostoevsky, and Proust, he had developed and beautifully articulated a theory of mimetic desire, a theory that seemed to have vast implications for all the human sciences. I was enthralled, and I still am. But then something almost inexplicable happened: René Girard had a conversion experience and became folded back into Catholicism. I still do not understand his conversion, even in the light of his own writings, but his re-induction into the faith of his ancestors now had me wondering anew about the power of faith and about the anthropological role of Christianity in the evolution of human morality. Looking for conversation about this issue, I discovered Gil Bailie’s site (The Cornerstone Forum), and then other conservative Catholic sites. Though I was never Catholic myself, I became fascinated by the Church’s millennial struggles with the secularizing forces of Western civilization. I understood that Catholicism—quintessentially emblematic of the sacred in Western history for the last 2000 years—is now in steep decline. The laity is going its own way, ignoring Church teachings about homosexuality, contraception, and a host of other issues. Conservative Catholics know this and resist the trend by discounting every idea that does not either emanate from the Church or receive its stamp of approval. In many cases, as I have discovered, this resistance amounts to nothing less than a repudiation of the scientific understanding of the world that has been accumulating since the Renaissance. 

The topic that drew me into discussions on conservative Catholic sites  was almost invariably homosexuality—because I am gay, because it was a “hot” topic on the blogs, and because I could see that conservative Catholic opinion was flagrantly out of touch with scientific understanding about homosexuality.  And the homosexuality issue took on added significance because it was, and is, one of Catholicism’s current “flash-points” with secularism.

But other “hot” topics on these blogs, such as contraception and climate change, were too compelling to ignore, and so I diversified, but always with a view to offering secular perspectives and encouraging more empirical approaches to issues.

I cannot even count the number of times I’ve cited consensus scientific opinions about these issues, only to be told that these opinions don’t count. Never mind that  98 percent of climate scientists believe that climate change is caused by emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, because a certain university professor somewhere has published a peer-reviewed study claiming that the whole anthropogenic climate change theory is a conspiracy and a hoax! These denialist bloggers say they are only giving equal time to both sides of the question, but in fact they are ignoring consensus opinion on the matter while looking for confirmation of their biases. (Otherwise, they would give unequal time to the two sides of the question, at a ratio of 98 to 2.)

And never mind that all the major medical and social welfare associations in this country, as well as the World Health Organization, have unequivocally stated that homosexuality is not a disorder. The Church says that it is “intrinsically disordered,” and that’s that. Again, consensus opinion doesn’t matter, and if a veneer of scientific respectability is needed for the Church’s archaic stance on the issue, then any one of several socially conservative think tanks can be depended on to provide one.

With these frustrations roiling in the background, I came across a passage from Massimo Pigliucci’s “Answers for Aristotle” (2012), one of the best and most accessible guides I have found to understanding the roles of science and philosophy in modern life. Pigliucci, a philosopher of science at CUNY-Lehman College, has this to say:

Answers for AristotleScientific knowledge is both objective and subjective, because it results from a particular perspective (the human one) interacting with how the world really is. The result is that our scientific theories will always be tentative and to some extent wrong,… but will also capture to a smaller or greater extent some important aspect of how the world actually is. Science provides us with a perspective on the world, not with a God’s-eye view of things. It gives us an irreducibly human, and therefore to some extent subjective—yet certainly not arbitrary—view of the universe.

Now, why should any of this be of concern to the intelligent person interested in improving her or his well-being through the use of reason? Because a better understanding of how science actually works puts us in the position of the sophisticated skeptic, who is neither a person who rejects science as a matter of anti-intellectual attitude nor a person who accepts the pronouncements of scientists at face value, as if they were modern oracles whose opinions should never be questioned. Too often public debates about the sort of science that affects us all (climate change, vaccines and autism, and so on) are framed in terms of alleged conspiracies on the part of the scientific community on one side and of expert opinion beyond the reach of most people on the other side. Scientists are just like any other technical practitioners and in very fundamental ways are no different from car mechanics or brain surgeons. If your problem is that your car isn’t running properly, you go to a mechanic. If there is something wrong with your brain, you go to the neurosurgeon. If you want to find out about evolution, climate change, or the safety of vaccines, your best bet is to ask the relevant community of scientists.

Just as with car mechanics and brain surgeons, however, you will not necessarily find unanimity of opinion in this community, and sometimes you may want to seek a second or even a third opinion. Some of the practitioners will not be entirely honest (though this is pretty rare across the three categories I am considering), and you may need to inquire into their motives. Scientists are not objective, godlike entities, dispensing certain knowledge. They have a human perspective on things, including the field in which they are experts. But other things being equal, your best bet—particularly when the stakes are high—is to go with the expert consensus, and if a consensus is lacking, you’re better off going with the opinion of the majority of experts. Keeping in mind, of course, that they might, just might, be entirely wrong.

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Peter Atkins: Science as Truth

February 14, 2013

Irresistibly Cute Gay Ortho-Catholic Graduate Student Rejects Scientific Consensus on Homosexuality, Opts for Celibacy

February 7, 2013
Joshua Gonnerman

Joshua Gonnerman

The consensus among medical professionals, all the way up to the World Health Organization, is that the so-called “conversion” therapies, which promise to “cure” homosexuality, are both ineffective and dangerous. Nevertheless, the Catholic Church has long maintained that homosexuals are “intrinsically disordered,” leaving gay parishioners a range of options that, unfortunately, do not include joyous self-affirmation. Among these are therapy, guilt, denial, sexual repression, celibacy, guilt, self-loathing, life-long confusion, self-destruction, secrecy with its attendant blackmail, and guilt.

A recent article by gay-but-celibate Catholic writer Joshua Gonnerman suggests that the Church is beginning to countenance skepticism regarding the efficacy of conversion therapies. The article—“False Hope and Gay Conversion Therapy,” First Things 2/2/13—counsels caution. While Gonnerman speaks of “positive effects” in many therapeutic cases, he also acknowledges certain “dangers:”

Too often, I have seen people who placed their hope in orientation change in this way come crashing down when they realized it wasn’t working. On a psychological level, it can lead to depression, to self-loathing, to suicidal tendencies. The message that the absence of successful change makes one a lesser Christian or some kind of failure is always present, either explicitly or implicitly.

Given orientation change’s low rate of success, and the apparently precarious status of that success, the odds of eventual failure are far, far too strong. Our response to homosexuality [orientation change] is playing with souls; surely, we should play the game that has most hope, rather than the one that seems more neat and tidy?

Gonnerman, studying for his Ph.D in historical theology at the Catholic University of America, is deeply committed to finding a path of reconciliation between his faith and his sexual orientation. No longer trusting reparative therapies, and unwilling to question the Church’s teachings, he has but one remaining option, and that is celibacy. “The path of celibacy,” he writes, “is really dependent on our struggles for Christian virtue, rather than struggles for a heterosexual functioning.”

One can only wonder why Gonnerman considers celibacy to be a surer bet than therapy. The Catholic Church itself has acknowledged that more than 50% of its priests are not celibate. Psychological consequences of dishonoring the chastity vow may include all the negatives that Gonnerman associates with “failed” orientation change: depression, self-loathing, and suicidal tendencies, especially for those who genuinely believe they were “called” to chastity.

The failure of chastity vows entails other, more far-ranging problems as well. Men and women who not only repress their sexuality but practice deceit and denial about their lapses are more likely to project their own guilt onto others. The high positive correlations between homosexuality and repressed or closeted homophobia have not gone unnoticed in recent years. A single Ted Haggard can become a scourge of gay men everywhere.

Nearly all the initial combox responses to Gonnerman’s  article were from conservative Catholics. Considering how thoroughly they chewed over what he had written, I was struck by how little knowledge any of them had of current scientific thinking about homosexuality. I refused to believe this was accidental. I left the following comment:

These discussions about conversion therapy are taking place in an echo-chamber that is hermetically sealed to exclude the consensus opinions of health and social welfare professionals on the subject of homosexuality and its discontents. I searched both the article and the comments and found not one mention of them.

Are you not aware that every major professional association of doctors, psychologists, pediatricians, and social workers in this country has unequivocally declared there to be nothing disordered about homosexuality? The World Health Organization has also made this very clear. Practitioners who ignore the consensus are usually motivated by religious teachings that have no basis in evidence.

Are you also not aware that there are millions of “out” LGBTs who do not struggle with either their orientation or their identity and who have done a complete “end-run” around all the problems that you seem to think inhere in homosexuality?

A British Medical Journal editorial almost ten years ago put it very succinctly:

“In spite of every mental health and medical association in the U.S. stating unequivocally that there is no scientific evidence that homosexuality is a disorder, many religious organizations continue to declare homosexuality or homosexual behavior as sinful and immoral. This creates spiritual crises for many people who have grown up within anti-homosexual religious families and communities.”

It seems to me that the Church is far more interested in showing that homosexuality is a disorder than it is in helping homosexuals, whose path to psychological well-being will never, in the long-run, be through either celibacy or reparative therapies. And it will not result from the ministrations of the pious folks who have caused the very problems they are trying to cure.

Don’t you see that your “cures,” together with all the horribly toxic body- and sex-hating theology that they bring with them, are the problem?

Mr Gonnerman, before your life is completely spoiled by self-denial and guilt, my advice is: look for a better way. There is one, and you will find it if you look. Believe me, I have been through all this and have come out in the sunshine. I am about to be married to my partner of 13 years, and life has never been better. I simply cannot believe I was ever confused about this. I see your confusion and just want to tell you: Don’t miss your life. It’s the only one you’ll ever have.

deviant behavior

deviant behavior

Anon wrote:

Doughlas: The world is full of credentialed misfits. The truth is same sex acts are deviant regardless of how many credentialed people claim otherwise.

I responded:

Anon, the medical and social welfare associations that I am talking about have well over a million members all told, and they represent many more millions of practitioners and researchers. I would not dismiss them lightly. These are the people you go to when you have a medical or psychological issue. If you are going only to your priest with such issues, then you are denying yourself competent and qualified care. The Church has no expertise in mental health and it cannot give accreditation or certification in medical fields. Instead, it has a set of doctrines to which it gives absolute priority over any fact-based source of understanding or treatment. The closed nature of the system poses real dangers to those who get drawn into it. This is just as true of Catholicism as it is of Scientology or the Mars Hill Church, and among those most at risk in this current political climate are homosexuals. What particularly alarms me is to see “out” gays and lesbians turning to Church teachings for guidance. This is exactly the wrong thing to do, and I would urge them to “break the spell” and break out of the closed system of Catholic thought on this subject.

David Nickol and Howard Kainz discussed whether Freud believed homosexuality to be a neurosis. I interjected:

David and Howard, why are you even concerned about what Freud thought of homosexuality? As the founder of psychoanalysis, he was a hugely important figure, but he was wrong about almost everything, and his theories were based on very limited numbers of case studies and were unfalsifiable. For the latest and greatest on homosexuality, you’ll need to look to sciences that didn’t even exist in Freud’s time, starting with neuroscience. There’s an abundance of reliable information out there. You could start with the APA. Or you could just google a few terms and be careful to avoid any so-called “studies” that emanate from religious institutions, because they are likely to be biased. Remember: religion starts with conclusions; science starts with data.

David Nickol responded:

You are, of course, correct. The consensus about homosexuality among psychiatrists and psychologists, and the agreement of the AMA and almost all other medical associations counts for almost nothing in discussions about homosexuality here. However, studies that purport to show negative aspects of homosexuality or gay people are accepted without question.

Yan wrote:

SmokingHow can you possibly quote approvingly the BMJ statement that there is no basis in evidence for homosexuality being a disorder? What about all the evidence that made the profession almost universally conclude that it is was a disorder prior to 1973? Did this evidence disappear? Has all the evidence stopped coming in?

What both you and the BMJ statement do is conflate evidence with a conclusion based on the evidence. What has changed is the conclusion from the evidence, not the evidence itself. It is fair to observe that this conclusion is what most of the smart people think and to give it the weight due to the opinion of smart people generally. But it is also fair to observe that previously most of the smart people thought the opposite.

When you say there is no evidence, that is shorthand for saying, ‘don’t argue with me. My mind is made up.’

Apparently you have no use for Church teaching in this regard. However, it is not right to say the Church has no competence in the area of mental health. Psychology is the study of psyche, the soul. The Church has deeply concerned itself with the health of the soul for 2000 years. You should acquaint yourself with some of the treasures it has accumulated in that regard over these past 2 millennia.

To which I responded:

ComputerYan, you ask why I discount pre-1973 science about homosexuality? It’s for the same reason that I discount pre-1973 science about aeronautics, cancer, electronics, climate change, the effects of smoking, and just about everything else. Science progresses. Why look to Kepler for information about the stars when you can visit the NASA website?

And no, the evidence hasn’t stopped coming in about homosexuality or about climate change. But we do know that homosexuality is not a disorder and that anthropogenic climate change is a reality.

I maintain that the only real purpose of these bizarre, evidence-free discussions about homosexuality is bias-confirmation. You and other bloggers here are studiously avoiding the scientific consensus about homosexuality because you are committed to upholding the Church’s teachings, which, in your view, will always trump any amount of science.

What is dishonest about these discussions is that they pretend to respect science when they don’t. To maintain this pretense, they will draw support in the form of “scientific” studies that are in fact only junk science pumped out in support of foregone conclusions about homosexuality. This is not science. It is the antithesis of science.

What would it take to convince you that homosexuality is NOT a disorder? I maintain that nothing could convince you, because you’re not honestly interested in evidence.

(more…)

A Catholic Opponent of Marriage Equality Asks, “How do we move forward?”

January 6, 2013

Archie Bunker

Toward the end of an animated discussion about same-sex marriage, Catholic blogger “Misplacedbook” asks me,

How do we move forward?

Can we?

You find our teachings bigoted. So what should be done? We won’t stop professing them. Are we to be shunned, relegated to a cultural ghetto, disinvited from the cocktail parties, and marginalized? Is that a recipe for unity?

My answer:

Misplacedbook, I am optimistic about the outcome of these cultural quarrels that we’re having, and, though they are painful at times, I believe there will be healing, both in the short term and the long term. True, the Shias and the Sunnis are still fighting over something that happened more than a thousand years ago, the Irish Republicans are still steamed about Cromwell, and there are Southerners who still haven’t gotten over their defeat in the Civil War. On the bright side, however, the Berlin Wall fell almost overnight and, in this country, racial segregation is a thing of the past. In my state and in much of this country, gays and lesbians no longer have to hide themselves and live in fear. These are ways that the world has improved just since I was born.

I don’t agree with you that same-sex marriage will deepen the cultural divide—at least not over the long run. It will bring us together just as it brings couples together. Over time, those who fear it will realize there is nothing to fear, and it will become normalized, just as racial integration did. This is already happening.

The Church’s position on homosexuality cannot be sustained without an unacceptable level of damage to its credibility and moral authority. Its staunchest allies on this issue are in countries where ignorance is rife, and medical science has universally repudiated its premise that homosexuality is disordered.

You ask what will happen to Catholics who continue to channel these teachings? They will continue for a while to find support in their own ranks, and then even that will dwindle, as we are already beginning to see. Voice for the Faithful, The National Catholic Reporter, Hans Küng, and the LCWR are at the gates of the fortress and are running Ethernet cables under the walls.

The Internet has the highly salutary effect of aerating sites like this one [Crisis magazine]—or in fact any site that attempts to promulgate only one point of view. You’ve noticed what happened here. Hard-line Catholics like yourself kept asking why I was here, as if this were a closed meeting in the basement of the parish church. Hello, it’s the Internet. You’re in the public square.

But to focus more sharply on your question about being relegated to a cultural ghetto: I don’t think that will happen to you if you are savvy. It needn’t. You will do what my father did, starting in the seventies: he stopped talking like Archie Bunker. He gradually stopped disparaging African-Americans at every opportunity. He wasn’t getting positive feedback for his remarks. I didn’t like them, my brother didn’t like them, our neighbors didn’t like them. He wised up. I think he was racist until the day he died, but he learned to keep the lid on it.

Response to Dale O’Leary, author of “The Defense of Marriage Requires Honesty About Homosexuality,” Crisis Magazine, 12/20/12

December 20, 2012

[Read Ms. O’Leary’s article here.]

Ms. O’Leary, how ironic that your article calls for “honesty” about homosexuality but is so starkly and fundamentally dishonest in its claims. You would have us believe you are speaking as a professional, an expert, and perhaps even as a scientist: “It is long past time to educate the public and particularly the younger generation as to what we know about SSA,” you write. Who is “we?” Surely not the medical community, which has time and again denounced the reparative therapies that you advocate.

Maybe by “we,” you means the Catholic Church? But the Church doesn’t “know” anything about homosexuality. It is not in the business of research or the accumulation of scientific knowledge; it is in the business of propagating certain views of society that are often at odds with scientific knowledge.

So let’s be honest about where we’re coming from, Ms. O’Leary. This is a propaganda piece masquerading as health science, and one sure sign of this is the conspicuous absence of journal citations or even names of researchers. You refer to “numerous well-designed studies” without a hint as to their origin. You make easily disprovable claims from beginning to end, in the apparent conviction that none but the “faithful Catholic laity” for whom Crisis articles are intended will read your piece.

Identical twins don’t share the same sexual attractions? Check again. More than half of them do. There is “no evidence” of a genetic or hormonal cause? Time to read up on the literature. By “the literature,” I mean the scientific literature, not junk-science articles in Catholic magazines. You want evidence? Just ask me. I’ve got it waiting in the wings. Homosexuality is caused by “masturbation with fantasy?” I suppose masturbation also causes pimples? … and hair to grow in the palms of your hand? All this is early 20th-century Catholicism redux.

If you are interested in disease control and prevention, follow commenter “Tim’s” advice. Go to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website and read what they have to say about HIV.  Here’s what I found:

“The effects of homophobia, stigma and discrimination can be especially hard on adolescents and young adults. Young MSM and other sexual minorities are at increased risk of being bullied in school. They are also at risk of being rejected by their families and, as a result, are at increased risk of homelessness. A study published in 2009 compared gay, lesbian, and bisexual young adults who experienced strong rejection from their families with their peers who had more supportive families. The researchers found that those who experienced stronger rejection were:

  • 8.4 times more likely to have tried to commit suicide
  • 5.9 times more likely to report high levels of depression
  • 3.4 times more likely to use illegal drugs
  • 3.4 times more likely to have risky sex”

I hope that before you write another article about HIV, you will do some serious soul-searching about  the issue of responsibility for the HIV scourge. Blaming HIV on “troubled childhoods,” “narcissistic attitudes,” “[early] wounding,” “rebellion against the moral law,” and “[psychological] disorders” all adds up to homophobia, which is one of the three causes of HIV as identified by the CDC. If anyone needs conversion, it is you.

Doughlas Remy (The Bent Angle)

propaganda-despair

Catholic Media Begin Piling on Sister Farley’s “Just Love.”

June 11, 2012

Sister Margaret Farley

Robert Royal, editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, doesn’t care much for Sr. Margaret Farley’s new book, though he admits (in “The Real Taboos,” June 11, 2012) that he has only dipped into it here and there. Farley’s Just Love, which has catapulted from 142,982 to 16 in Amazon’s rankings due entirely to the Vatican’s recent censure of the work, approaches masturbation, homosexuality, and divorce from an ethical perspective that does not perfectly match the Vatican’s own.

Royal characterizes the book, which he hasn’t read, as “utterly tired,” and “not Catholic” (though she disclaims any intent to channel Catholic moral teachings), and he dismisses her positions as “essentially congruent with the untroubled assumptions of the Zeitgeist.” What Royal fails to do, however, is address any of her arguments. Maybe that’s because, not having read her book, he doesn’t know what they are.

He concludes,

But the advocates of new approaches aren’t really interested in [fresh, alternative voices] and instead dedicate themselves to defending ideas and currents that over the past half-century have wrecked families, harmed children, and made the proper taming of erotic impulses – a task every civilization prior to ours has known is crucial to human happiness and calls for great wisdom – one of the real, not imagined, taboos in American society.

Mary E. Hunt, herself a Catholic a regular contributor to Religion Dispatches, hits the nail on the head when she writes apropos of Sister Farley’s comments about masturbation: “Sexual power is power, and more and more women have it. Apparently the struggle to wrest it back is high on the agenda of those who live on the 110 acres called the Vatican.”

Indeed, the Vatican’s teachings about sexuality seem intended for one purpose only: to uphold a patriarchal system of power over people’s very bodies and the most intimate aspects of their lives. And those teachings are consistently out of step with current medical knowledge about sexual and reproductive health. The Church’s sorry record in dealing with clergy sex abuse and with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa is only matched by its obstinacy in challenging the entire medical community over homosexuality and reproductive health.

It’s one thing to deplore or dismiss “new approaches” to these issues. It’s quite another to demonstrate their inefficacy, and this is where Royal’s critique falls short.

Vatican Scolds Nun for Book on Sexuality

June 5, 2012

By Laurie Goodstein and Rachel Donadio / The New York Times, 6/4/2012

Image

Sister Margaret Farley

The Vatican’s doctrinal office on Monday denounced an American nun who taught Christian ethics at Yale Divinity School for a book that attempted to present a theological rationale for same-sex relationships, masturbation and remarriage after divorce.

The Vatican office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said that the book, “Just Love: A Framework for Christian Sexual Ethics,” by Sister Margaret A. Farley, was “not consistent with authentic Catholic theology,” and should not be used by Roman Catholics.

Sister Farley, a past president of the Catholic Theological Society of America and an award-winning scholar, responded in a statement: “I can only clarify that the book was not intended to be an expression of current official Catholic teaching, nor was it aimed specifically against this teaching. It is of a different genre altogether.”

Continue reading this article.

What if Jesus Had Been Aborted? A Reader Responds

January 3, 2012

A reader writes,

The Manhattan Declaration’s list seems a bit frivolous. Sure, we love the architecture and the art and the great music, but one doesn’t need religion, much less Christianity, for those things. Artists can always find their inspiration somewhere. Why didn’t they mention the Quakers’ opposition to war and slavery, or the efforts of the Protestant churches to civilize the American South and West in the 19th century? They could have also cited the churches’ roles in the Civil Rights movement and in South African reconciliation movements. The list of real, solid achievements would be long, so I’m disappointed that MD focused so much on superficialities.

Your list, on the other hand, was much too harsh and biased toward the negatives. Would have us believe that Christianity has contributed nothing to civilization? Can’t you take a more balanced approach?

My list was an application of force majeure. There was just SO MUCH artillery lying around unsecured! But maybe my riposte was (and not just about) overkill. It was an attempted deicide in retaliation for many successful democides.

But I maintain that Christianity has never been a consistent force for peace. Despite its claims of divine provenance, it has historically been shaped by social and intellectual movements perhaps more than it has shaped them. The Catholic church was, as Martin Luther King, Jr. would have said, “the tail-lights when it should have been the headlights,” changing its positions on slavery, geocentrism, scriptural literalism, marriage, anti-semitism, and a host of other issues only after prolonged intransigence. The same church cooperated with Fascist regimes in Germany, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Croatia during the 20th century.

The record is mixed, and we could all throw lists at each other until the cows come home. My own inclination is to try to avoid bias. Realism doesn’t mean serving equal portions but recognizing that sometimes the portions are already unequal.

What if Jesus Had Been Aborted? (Continued)

December 28, 2011

The pious folks at the Manhattan Declaration organization are, by their own account, focused on three issues—abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom. Their inspirational message for this holiday season is that the world would be a much worse place if Jesus had been aborted. There would be no towering cathedrals, no great requiems or cantatas, no Sistine Chapel. The New World might not have been discovered, and there certainly would not have been a Declaration of Independence or a United States as we know it. The list gets even sillier toward the end. No Veteran’s Day? No wine? My hunch is that someone at MD ought to lay off the wine.

But okay, now that they’ve started their ridicu-list, let’s keep it going.

If Jesus had been aborted, …

  • Approximately one million Jews and Muslims would not have been murdered by the Crusaders on their way to retake Jerusalem from the Muslim Turks (1095-1208, ME). (All figures from R. J. Rummel: Statistics of Democide.)
  • The Cathars of Languedoc, numbering about 200,000, would not have been exterminated by the Papacy in collusion with the King of France. (13th century).
  • Approximately 350,000 conversos would not have been tortured and killed in the Spanish Inquisition.
  • Martin Luther would never have written On the Jews and Their Lies, a rabid anti-Semitic tract that even the Nazis might have found shocking.
  • The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572), in which approximately 30,000 Huguenots were slaughtered by French Catholics, would not have occurred.
  • Giordano Bruno (philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician) would not have been burned at the stake  for heresy. (1600).
  • Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) would not have been threatened with torture and placed under house arrest for teaching heliocentrism.
  • The European Wars of Religion (1520-1648) would not have occurred. In only one of these—the Thirty Years’ War—5.75 million people died in the area now called Germany.
  • Witchcraft trials would not have occurred in Europe and the American colonies. Between 1480 and 1750, approximately 50,000 people were accused of witchcraft and executed.
  • Ireland and the Balkans would never have been torn by sectarian strife.
  • Slavery might have ended much earlier. (In the U.S., Southerners quoted the Bible—including the New Testament—for support of the slave trade.)
  • The Holocaust (Shoah) would not have occurred. (See photos.)
  • Women might have won full civil rights much earlier.
  • Rampant sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests would not have occurred.
  • Millions of Catholics throughout the world would not have died from AIDS and other STDs as a result of the Vatican’s long-standing ban on condom-use (finally reversed in November, 2010).
  • There would be millions fewer AIDS orphans in areas dominated by Catholic missionaries.
  • Untold millions of women would not have died from abortions performed under primitive and unsanitary conditions.
  • More family planning in African and Latin-American countries might have been possible, resulting in lower population growth and overall improvement of women’s lives.
  • Pat Robertson could have had a car dealership, and Jerry Falwell could have been a carnival barker.
  • Ted Haggard would not have become one of our era’s most confused men.
  • Jim Jones, founder of Peoples Temple, would have been unable to include Jesus Christ among those he claimed to reincarnate. (Others were  Akhenaten, Buddha, and Vladimir Lenin.)
  • Millions of gay children would not have been bullied, told that God “hated their sin,” disinherited, and dis-fellowshipped by their churches.
  • There would be far more marriages because gay men and lesbians would have been able to marry the ones they love.
  • There would be far fewer divorces because gay men and lesbians would not be pressured to marry opposite-sex partners.
  • 45% of the U.S. population would not believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old.
  • Darwinian evolution would have been introduced into the public schools curricula shortly after publication of The Origin of Species.
  • A brawl between clergymen of different Christian faiths would not have occurred after this year’s Christmas celebrations at Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity.
  • There would be no Second Coming, no Rapture, no Millennial Reign (of Christ), no Armageddon.
  • Hal Lindsey could write science fiction or cheap romances.
  • In Pampanga, Philippines, there would be no Lent ceremony in which the faithful flagellate themselves until they are covered with blood.

I have to stop somewhere, so I’ll leave it to our readers to suggest other ways in which our world would be different … if only Jesus had been aborted.

Is There Too Much Morality in the World? (Continued)

December 23, 2011

Steven Pinker, author of "The Better Angels of Our Nature"

A reader asks:

How does one argue successfully that morality pre-dates religion? It seems difficult to prove that religion hasn’t always been wedded to the moral impulse through the codifying of social behavior in some way.

It’s not at all hard to show that morality pre-dates religion and even human speciation. Not all of our morality goes back that far, of course, but most of the relational models that govern our interactions can also be found in other species. An anthropologist named Alan Fiske (cited by Pinker in his book) identified four models, three of which pre-date homo sapiens sapiens.

First there’s Communal Sharing, which is thought to be facilitated by the release of certain hormones such as oxytocin, the “trust hormone,” particularly in females during and after childbirth. Many species exhibit strong bonding behavior, share resources freely, and synchronize their movements and in some cases their feeding. In humans, the communal sharing mode manifests in a variety of ways: commensal meals, rituals of bonding, singing in unison, synchronized dancing, and the co-mingling of bodily fluids.

Then there’s Authority Ranking, which Pinker characterizes as “a linear hierarchy defined by dominance, status, age, gender, size, strength, wealth, or precedence.” And he adds, “Presumably it evolved from primate dominance hierarchies, and it may be implemented, in part, by testosterone-sensitive circuits in the brain.”

Third is Equality Matching, which involves tit-for-tat reciprocity and is the basis of our sense of fairness. Pinker writes: “Few animals engage in clear-cut reciprocity, though chimpanzees have a rudimentary sense of fairness, at least when it comes to themselves being shortchanged.” But he adds, “the neural bases of equality matching embrace the parts of the brain that register intentions, cheating, conflict, perspective-taking, and calculation.” These are all behaviors that other animals engage in to greater or lesser degrees, especially the primates.

Only the fourth model, Market Pricing, is unique to our species.

If the first three of these moral models pre-date homo sapiens sapiens, then religion must have inherited them. And so there you have an anthropological answer to the question that theists and atheists have recently been debating: “Can one be good without God?”

Yes. The answer is, unequivocally, yes.

Religion may have been a vehicle for moral models, but these models were on the scene long before religion was there. And if religion were to evaporate, they would still be there to guide and regulate our behavior.