Dawkins and the recent PEW survey

According to the PEW religious landscape study released in May, 22.8% of Americans are religiously unaffiliated. 7.1% of the religious “nones” identify as atheist or agnostic. Some atheists are encouraged by the growth of the unaffiliated, but Richard Dawkins is less positive. At the Skeptics Society Conference in Pasadena, CA., Dawkins said, “One of the problems is that the so-called ‘nones’ often give up religion for something even worse.” The something worse in Dawkins’ mind is the spirituality of a figure like Deepak Chopra. You can watch Dawkins’s exchange with Michael Shermer below:

The historical context of Sura 4:11

The dreaded phrase historical context often comes up when discussing the state of Qur’anic inheritance law. Rather than relying on the much less defensible point that men should bear the burden of economic responsibility to the disadvantage of women, some use the supposed barbarity of the time period as a conversation stopper.

I am glad that Alexander Delorme is keeping the conversation going with his semi-regular pieces on the Qur’an. In his latest post, he read and commented on An-Nisa:

Men with multiple wives are given near-absolute freedom, with minor exceptions made in the interest of “cleanliness” and “honour”, but said wives are forced into absolute prostration. In this surah we also find the famous verse which grants men twice the inheritance of women, as well as many other weird and idiotic attempts to orchestrate competent marriage laws.

I’ve placed the part that interests me in bold. Alexander is referring to verse 4:11:

11. Concerning your children, God commands you that a son should have the equivalent share of two daughters. If there are only daughters, two or more should share two-thirds of the inheritance, if one, she should have half.

The rest of the verse goes into the nitty-gritty details of inheritance, instructing Muslims on what they should do for parents, childless fathers, brothers of the deceased, etc. Regarding barbarity, many have argued that women were in a bad place in the 7th century and by including them in the inheritance, even at a disadvantage, Muhammad was progressive for the period. Karen Armstrong is a big fan of this angle, claiming that the Quran “gave women rights of inheritance and divorce centuries before Western women were accorded such status.”

Armstrong and others who share her opinion are guilty of overreaching, but even those who are critical of Islam’s treatment of women tend to acknowledge that the religion was at least slightly more progressive than what was available at the time. Once you dig a bit deeper, however, you begin to realize how little information we have about the tribal cultures backgrounding Muhammad’s flight from Mecca to Medina.

We should take care to avoid romanticizing Islam. Even within Islam, the issue is a bit more complex than a world laid waste by cruelty. Take Khadijah for example. She was Muhammad’s first wife and the first convert to Islam. She was apparently married three times, was a successful merchant, hired Muhammad, and apparently asked Muhammad to marry her through a friend. Although Khadijah is only one example of a woman from the period, and it’s likely she’s an exaggerated figure, she did not seem to suffer terribly because of her gender.

It seems that most of the accounts of a barbaric pre-Islamic Arabia come from Muslim sources that often repeat the claim that women had no rights before the rise of Islam. Let’s say for the sake of argument that conditions for women were worse before the rise of Islam. This should still leave one feeling dissatisfied regarding Sura 4:11. I do not want to leave it there, however, as it’s worth looking at groups about which we have more reliable information.

I am largely recalling this from memory, but other religions and cultures from the period put women at par with their standing in Islam. Ireland gave women some limited property rights and legal protections that look almost modern in comparison to Islam’s allowances. I don’t want to make the same mistake as Armstrong, falling into a different but no less worrisome trap of romanticizing Ireland’s indigenous system of law, but if we’re going to be generous with Islam, we should be generous with Gaelic society and the later innovations brought with Christianization. We might also want to take a look at the women of the Tang Dynasty in China, who had a relatively brief respite from poor treatment during the same period as the rise of Islam. Widowed women could own land and be independent; divorce and remarry; take part in sports and the arts; and they also had access to education. I mention these two examples to illustrate that simple characterizations of the 7th century often fail the test of history, fuelling either unnecessarily dismissive critiques on the one hand and eyebrow-raising apologetics on the other.

Coyne vs. Plait

Jerry Coyne provides a sound critique of Phil Plait in Debate postmortem II: Phil Plait goes all accommodationist « Why Evolution Is True. I would, however, like to expand on his post.

Coyne concludes his critique by pointing out that Plait is not a theologist (go read it to find out why). Neither is he an expert on science education or advocacy. At the risk of sounding like Massimo Pigliucci, allow me to remind everyone that people (experts) professionally study stuff like science communication, religion, and what people believe about the relationship between science and religion.

Let’s take a look at some of Plait’s claims.

Plait: “Facts and stories of science are great for rallying those already on our side, but they do little to sway believers.”

Plait’s claim here is difficult to prove. Which believers? In one study, undergraduate biology students—most of whom were raised as creationists—came to accept evolution (in a Christian university setting!). The authors argue that all the “participants that transitioned from creationism to an acceptance of evolution had to reorder their long-held perspectives on the literalness of Genesis and the requisite conditions of salvation.” In other words, they had to change their religious beliefs rather than their beliefs about science.

Plait: “The conflict over the teaching of evolution is based on the false assumption that evolution is antagonistic to religion.”

Plait goes on to argue that the problem is with a particular brand of religion, and that “Evolution takes no stand on the existence or lack thereof of a god or gods.” The authors quoted earlier found that many Christians “decode words like ‘chance,’ ‘spontaneous,’ and ‘random’ as anti-theistic as demonstrated by the many participants … who interpreted ‘arose by chance’ to imply a direct challenge to the legitimacy of God.” Resolving such a conflict would be quite difficult for scientists, even if they were religious. Believers would have to alter their perceptions of God’s place in the universe.

From the cognitive science end of the spectrum, Blancke et al. (2012) challenge the notion that science and religion are compatible. They conclude that it is often necessary for religious people to change their “anthropomorphic God concepts into more abstract notions” to reconcile their “intuitive modes of reasoning that hinder their understanding of evolutionary theory.” One point in Plait’s favor is that the authors agree that “pupils will not modify their beliefs if teachers bluntly confront them with the incompatibility between their faith and evolutionary theory,” but one point in Coyne’s favor is that it is the religious believer that needs to reconsider and revise their tendency to see God as an intentional agent. The idea that a religious believer who already understands the “reality of science” can just sweep in and persuade someone with rigid beliefs is naïve because at the end of the day the less sympathetic believer would need to undergo a significant transformation (the same transformation that atheists desire). Also, science-friendly religious believers can be just as confrontational as science-friendly atheists.

As far as persuasion is concerned, Thagard and Findlay (2010) argue that there are three pedagogic strategies worth considering: detachment, reconciliation, or confrontation. The authors argue that which strategy is best “depends on a host of philosophical, scientific, psychological, and political factors,” which I notice is more compatible with the confrontationalist’s position than the accommodationist’s stance. In my experience, confrontationalists recognize that other strategies might be important depending on context, while accommodationists tend to overwhelmingly support reconciliation. Detachment is the position that science and religion occupy separate realms, which used to be the dominant position taken by scientists, religious or otherwise. Detachment didn’t work out all too well. Although it has political benefits, understanding evolution does not lead to a belief in evolution, that is, people are “unlikely to expend the substantial effort required to overcome the conceptual difficulties that impede understanding.” They learn evolution because they’re required to do so, but they don’t tend to appreciate the scientific value of the theory because there is no pressure to do so.

Reconciliation has its own difficulties. For one thing, it tends to be “highly relativist, asserting that there is not real competition between Darwinian and creationist accounts because they are just different ways of talking about the world.” I don’t think Plait advocates relativism, but that’s mainly because he’s ignorant of what a lot of religious people actually believe. He doesn’t think it’s necessary to threaten their core beliefs to get them to accept evolution, but believers know better. Another problem is that reconciliation forces the science advocate to do some pretty impressive yoga poses to accept science and religion as being compatible.

One approach to reconciliation, similar to detachment, is Stephen Jay Gould’s non-overlapping magisteria, but it “fails to deal with conflicts over specific claims such as how the human species came to be,” which, whether Plait likes it or not, is hugely important to many religious believers (not just a small faction). Theistic evolution, which I sort of discussed earlier, requires the religious believer to change their beliefs about God (or gods). For many believers, it will be just “as repugnant as Darwin’s theory, because it violates their deep faith in the literal truth of their favorite religious texts and the ongoing intervention of God in human lives.”

Now we come to confrontation. It won’t work everywhere, especially in places where criticism of religion is prohibited. To be effective it needs to “address cognitive and emotional issues that tend to be neglected by advocates of science.” Skeptics face the same sort of problems when they’re dealing with pseudoscience and the paranormal. Some people in the skeptical movement have decided that science can be taken to “supersede religion when cognitive conflicts about facts and theories occur.” Atheists could take a similar strategy to science education, but they are limited in one important respect: creationists make empirical claims, which are in turn bound up with believer’s values. In these types of conflicts, I think it’s vitally important than scientists stay on message with their advocacy because there’s no way to get around the conflict. Religious moderates aren’t going to be able to do it. Atheists aren’t going to be able to do it either. It’s simply a battle that scientists have to win, and perhaps brute force is the only solution.

Debating the debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham

There has been a lot of talk in all the usual places about whether Billy Nye should debate Ken Ham. Some prominent people think it’s a bad idea. I see where they’re coming from, at least as far as exposure is concerned. I bet a lot of folks will watch the debate and figure the differing positions are equally valid, and it may be true that Ham has more to gain from the debate than Nye. But, I can’t help myself from thinking “So what?” Think of all the times a prominent scientist/atheist has debated a creationist. Can we honestly say that the consequences have been bad for the public understanding of science or education or rationalist movements?

via Will evolution debate blow up in the Science Guy’s face? It’s debatable – NBCNews.com.

Is religion losing ground to sports?

Chris Beneke and Arthur Remillard, both professors—history and religious studies respectively, discuss whether sport has been elevated to religion, or as they put it:

sports are succeeding by the measures that have traditionally defined success for religious institutions: regularly immersing people in a transcendent experience and keeping them ardently committed over the long term.

Social scientists have long recognized that sport involves superstition and ritual, but does modern sport have a religious existence? I think it’s rather difficult to separate the “sacred” and “secular,” and so, it would be rather surprising if there wasn’t some overlap in social behaviour.

via Is religion losing ground to sports? – The Washington Post.