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Yes, even in a 4th year class on developmental biology.

I decided to take a seminar class on dev-bio for the following reasons: the topic is pretty damn interesting, I really liked my dev-bio and evo-devo classes last year, and the profs teaching the course are the most engaging instructors I have had at university. What I had failed to take into account was that class content would be highly determined by the students enrolled and that some student would have managed to get through three years of a biology degree believing in Intelligent Design. Apparently, this was a huge oversight.

It didn’t help that the person presenting decided to spring this on us as a wild change of topic. He started off doing a pretty good overview of some aspects of sex determination in mammals and how one model of this was creating. After about an hour of this he finished and put up a slide about how the stuff we learn in class and in the labs should effect the way we view the world. My immediate thought was: “Awesome, we’re going to talk about sex/gender/intersex people/etc!” Oh, how wrong I was. The segue wasn’t for that; it was for a slide with the words intelligent design plastered all over.

*Sigh* What followed that was an entirely uncomfortable 45 minutes.

He started off with an exercise involving us pretending we knew nothing about several objects and trying to intuitively place them in either designed, natural, probably designed. I, of course, decided to object because if I don’t know anything about these object I can make no judgement about their origins. It’s also pretty damn hard to pretend you know nothing about a lion or a pyramid. As you can guess, this was all about making us go “complexity = design” because obviously our “cognitive biases = reality”.

This was all to prime us for the magic that is — wait for it — Kirk fucking Durston. Was it rude to giggle at that point?

My problem right now is that I need to give this guy a mark (wee! for peer marking), but I have nod idea how to go about that. Do I give him a good mark because he did a good job presenting the science-y bits? Do I give him a terrible mark because he used the science-y bits to legitimize wasting my time on inane, drivel? Is it right to give him a zero because, while he can parrot biology he seems to have not learned the core of the subject?

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I’ve avoided writing much on religion and atheism because there are plenty of people on these internets that do a much better job of it, but when a review of David Adams Richards’ new book God Is. peppered with some of his pretty asinine quotes popped up in my RSS reader – well, I couldn’t resist.

I haven’t read the book, and based on several reviews I doubt I’ll be reading this, so this is not a review or critique of the actual book. For all I know the quotes may be out of context and the context given by the articles may be skewed, but having seen these same things said and written by others I’ve decided to address them as they are.

“I believe that all of us, even those who are atheists, seek God – or at the very least not one of us would be unhappy if God appeared and told us that the universe was actually His creation,” Richards writes in God Is.

And I believe this is where I say Richards is wrong because he is. Unless he’s decided that the many atheists saying “no, I’m not interested in this whole God business” are not part of “all of us”, he’s wrong. I don’t “seek God”, whatever that means, and in the unlikely situation that there is a God I doubt I would be pleased. Maybe I’m alone in thinking this, but the idea of an all-mighty creator watching over me is as annoying as my mother sitting behind and watching as I surf the internet.

But that part of the quote is just usual feel-good nonsense from the religious, it’s not really that offensive and ignorant. This is:

Oh, we might put him on trial for making it so hard, and get angry at Him, too, but we would be very happy that He is here. Well, He is.

I’m so insanely tired of religious people regurgitating the idea that atheist are just angry at God for making things hard. I’m guessing this partly originates from the fact that many atheists rightly use the problem of evil to demonstrate that some conceptions of God are self-contradictory. However, some dimwits seem to hear this as atheists being upset at God for their shitty lot in life. These dimwits are wrong and made of fail. I’m not going to claim that it’s impossible to be upset by something that doesn’t exist because I’ve been upset by fictional characters before. Hell, reading parts of the Bible make me pretty disgusted with the God character. That is, however, very different from actually acknowledging that a particular character exists. The anger I feel toward fictional characters is also different from anger at actual people and actual atrocities. [snark] But what can you expect from people who have a hard time telling fiction from reality[/snark].

Note the word in bold below, it’s important:

Richards uses incidents from his own life to underscore his belief that God is present in everyday life.
Others might call them coincidences or luck, like the day when he was a child and he was run over by a car. All four wheels missed him leaving him unhurt.
He also rolled a car end over end in his younger years driving at a 175 kilometres per hour and survived. In that case, his forgetfulness in not buckling up probably saved his life…”There are things that happen in life which seem to be absolutely ordained for us,” he says during an interview.

Seriously, can we stop selectively picking seemingly unlikely good things a giving God and/or that ritual goat sacrifice credit? I know we’re wired to see patterns everywhere and that when we’ve decided on a conclusion it’s easy to ignore contradicting evidence, but is it that hard to think up examples where we see patterns that don’t exist? Also, why is it that when these examples are brought up it’s always the good things being used as evidence for God’s plan? Sure there are the times when someone will console themselves after a tragedy by saying that God has a plan, but there’s always that undertone of tragedy being turned into a good thing.

Apparently, Richards also brings up Stalin and uses him as an example of what happens when you accept atheism. Because, you know, only atheists become a tyrannical, paranoid megalomaniac bent on killing millions of people. It’s not like there have ever been any Catholics who’ve committed atrocities, right? But that’s not the point. It’s not about whether people of X religious beliefs have done worse or better things. Using Stalin in this manner is like taking a sociopathic murderer as an example of what being human will lead to. It’s a dumb argument.

Richards also repeats the tired old refrain of religion is special and those mean atheist are well mean and disrespectful:

Richards staunchly defends “a person’s right to believe,” which he considers sacrosanct to a person’s humanity.
The glib comments of non-believers strike him as sanctimonious.

Really, that’s one great straw atheist being built there. I’m loving the implication that atheists want a world were people don’t have a right to believe whatever they wish. I’ve never seen that implied before and atheists have never ever said flat out that that’s not what they want.

But then again I have dealt with this all my life in my work, the idea that hubris and self-righteousness promotes sins against others. It’s the one thing humanity continually tries to overcome and that they overcome it by recognizing in themselves and others a universal truth and that if this is denied as Harris and Dawkins and Hitchens kind of mock it

*Yawn* So now we’re back to the whole “atheists can’t be moral” schtick because we don’t see the “universal truth”. It’s not like being moral is related to the way our brains work. Empathy and all those wacky feeling things our brains do don’t contribute to how we treat others. And hell, social constructs aren’t as meaningful as TEH TRUTH because we can all decide tomorrow that killing everyone we want is okay, even if we don’t actually do that. Who cares if there is no evidence that seeing TEH TRUTH makes you a better person.

“The church has done enormous harm in the world but that doesn’t mean that everyone who practises religion has done enormous harm,” he says.

If he means the Catholic Church, a correction should be made: The church is doing enormous harm in the world but that doesn’t mean that everyone who practises religion has done enormous harm. Now I agree. What he’s missing is that the many good religious people give money and time which supports the church in its endeavour to fuck over the world.

The Islamic fundamentalists have done harm but that doesn’t mean Islam has done harm … these things get very confused in our society. They get confused because there’s a benefit to those who want to confuse these things. I know many Catholics who are tremendous people and who have never done wrong.

Yes, the old argument the X religious extremists are bad, but that doesn’t mean that X religion is bad. Yeah, sure, the only thing that counts as X religion is that stuff that you picked out that’s made of fluff and cotton candy. Of course, this works only if you ignore the fact that the religious extremists are using the same texts and general frameworks and just picking out different parts to justify their actions. You can’t justify your cherry-picking any better than they can. Live with it.

The only time man pretends he does not need God is when he thinks or she thinks they are themselves God or are in a position of such comfort that God cannot trouble or touch them. Once the man or woman finds himself or herself in deep trouble or despair, they search for what was always there.

Now we’re back were we’ve started. Yes, tell me again, Mr. Richards, how you know what I believe better than I do. And while you’re at it why don’t you also tell me that I pretend to believe what I say I believe because I’m arrogant and think highly of myself. It’s not like assuming you know know better than me isn’t arrogant. You’re not a hypocrite at all. And no, the sentiment of “no atheists is foxholes” isn’t trite and stupid. All atheists have completely perfect lives filled with unicorn farts and lollipops. That’s why they don’t believe in God. If only they had shittier lives so they can see TEH TRUTH.

Conclusion: I. just. sadfja[pkl. Why are some people so full of fractal wrongness?

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But it’s too hard…

Last Wednesday, I attended and event hosted by the Hart House Debate Committee on the friction between science and religion. The format was good, and I might steal it for a future events I plan, but otherwise it was boring. One of the two speakers on the religious side, Yiftach Fehige, was possibly the most vacuous person I have ever heard speak. Seriously, he had about as much content as cotton candy (i.e. sugar and air, lots and lots of very warm air).

From what I understood, the event was not planned as a debate, but even as a discussion there was way to much backing down and nothing remotely provocative was said by the speakers. The audience was a bit more daring in regards to provocative questions. When to topic came to the curriculum and what should be taught in schools, everyone agreed that science should be taught in science classrooms. One audience member, however, suggested that maybe when it comes evolution the topic is to “complicated” to teach in schools and so we should just stick to easier topics in science.

Personally, I call bullshit. School and learning, in general, are not about what’s easiest. Yes, evolution is not the simplest topic, but that argument could be used for not teaching anything harder than arithmetics. In fact, I’ve seen it used to argue that calculus, amongst other topics in math and sciences, shouldn’t be taught in high school.

Furthermore, I don’t think the problem is that it’s too hard to teach the basics. In my experience, the problem is that many teachers are ill equipped to teach evolution. If you don’t understand it yourself you’re hardly in a position to teach it, right? But then the solution to this type of problem isn’t to take the subject away. Not teaching evolution in primary or secondary schools will just mean that the next batch of teachers will know jack shit about it too.

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