Sunday, March 23, 2014

Kathryn Schulz: On being wrong

Some excellent advice for us all to remember...

"Trusting too much in the feeling of being on the correct side of anything can be very dangerous...[T]o me, if you really want to rediscover wonder you need to step outside of that tiny terrified space of right-ness and look around at each other, and look out at the vastness and complexity and mystery of the universe, and be able to say 'Wow. I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong.'"

Reminds me of one of my favorite Asimov essays and Feynman's comments in the BBC interview.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

The Legacy of Fred Phelps

Recovering From Religion released a statement on behalf of Nathan Phelps (who is on their board of directors) about the death of his father, Fred Phelps - the infamous founder of the Westboro Baptist Church. Nate also spoke to Seth Andrews recently after he learned that his father was in hospice:

And here's a interview Nate did with a Calgary radio show after his father's death...

Nate inspired a friend and I to action with his speech at the Reason Rally in 2012, and we started a local chapter of Recovering From Religion in the Charlotte metro area as a result. Nate has had a positive impact on so many others in the secular and LGBT community. So when I think about the legacy of Fred Phelps, I will always think of Nate as the most enduring part of that legacy.

BANG! Five sigma r of .2

Update: May 16, 2014 - Washington Post: Big Bang backlash: BICEP2 discovery of gravity waves questioned by cosmologist.

Some big news this week of a major discovery in physics. Andrei Linde, one of the "founding fathers" of the theory of inflation supported by this "smoking gun" evidence for the "BANG" in "Big Bang" was pretty excited about the news when he first found out about it:

The other founding father of the theory, Alan Guth, answered a few questions about the scientific significance of the discovery (For those interested in the theological significance of inflationary cosmology, see this summary by Victor Stenger - or these creationists in complete denial, or this embarrassing piece by a scientist for CNN).

Lawrence Krauss also has a good overview in the New Yorker, and National Geographic has a piece on the implications for a multiverse. Finally, PhD Comics has pretty good explainer.

Everything may never be the same again...

Friday, March 14, 2014

The threat of "conspicuous atheism"

A quarter of Americans apparently do not understand that the Earth revolves around the Sun and not the other way around, and just over half of us understand that antibiotics are not effective against viruses. Yet three quarters of us are "convinced God exists," and almost half of us believe in ghosts.

But how many of us are aware of (much less observed) any actual evidence that the Earth spins on its axis every day and revolves around the sun once a year? Earth feels quite stationary to me, and you can watch the Sun, Moon, planets, and stars move across the sky with your own eyes! Still I suspect there are a fair number of dogmatic heliocentrists among us who would be hard pressed to explain (much less show) why we think this counterintuitive fact about our world is true.

And unlike the real world that we cling to as it spins and revolves around the Sun, "God" is a concept that means many different things to many different people. Einstein's "God" is very different from Ken Ham's or Fred Phelps' concept. Neil deGrasse Tyson points this out before explaining that he is unconvinced about the traditional "God" of religion, but he avoids the "atheist" label "because it causes people to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions." He is "agnostic" about the traditional "God" in the same way that he is agnostic about tooth-fairies and unicorns, but he still enjoys watching Jesus Christ Superstar and stands for the Hallelujah Chorus.

The secular community includes many agnostics, freethinkers, humanists, and skeptics who shun the atheist label for these and other reasons. Some still go to church for community (or to preach). Others wear the scarlet 'A' as a badge of honor, or to combat prejudice and distrust, or to simply be honest. And far too many still suffer negative social consequences for revealing to others that they just don't believe in a "God." An editor at The Atlantic sees "conspicuous atheism" as "intellectual snobbery" while others see it as the work of Satan - with "secular humanist" being just as bad as "atheist" to some of the former and many of the latter. Some want atheists to stay in the closet while others encourage atheist clergy and politicians to come out.

In some countries, "conspicuous atheism" can still result in your arrest by the "authorities." In the US, "out" atheists can lose their job or be shunned by their family and community in some areas. Atheism may be intellectually fashionable, but not all "conspicuous atheists" are intellectual snobs (nor are all agnostics indecisive, or all conspicuous theists ignorant Neanderthals).

Doubt and disbelief comes with many labels. Atheist is the most despised. I avoided it for a long time. And I agree with Tyson that labels sometimes cause us to avoid having a conservation, but sometimes they can also clarify conservations with someone who's concept one seriously doubts.

I am an atheist, out and out. It took me a long time to say it. I've been an atheist for years and years, but somehow I felt it was intellectually unrespectable to say one was an atheist, because it assumed knowledge that one didn't have. Somehow, it was better to say one was a humanist or an agnostic. I finally decided that I'm a creature of emotion as well as of reason. Emotionally, I am an atheist. I don't have the evidence to prove that [everyone's conception of] God doesn't exist, but I so strongly suspect he [most*] doesn't that I don't want to waste my time.
 - Isaac Asimov
If that causes you "to make all sorts of unflattering (and often untrue) assumptions" about me, or to accuse me of "intellectual snobbery," then you should ask yourself why my (conspicuous) existence is such a threat to you. I suspect it has more to do with your doubts than mine.

* Unless you just mean the Cosmos, or awe and wonder or other human feelings - in which case I guess I'm really a theist? - but that seems misleading...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cosmos: On the matter of Giordano Bruno

Cocmos co-writer Steven Soter responds to critics concerning the new series' handling of the story of Giordano Bruno. He was an interesting choice, but I confess that I had only heard bits and pieces of Bruno's story prior to the premiere. And I learned as much, or more, from the criticism as I learned from the way he was animated for the premiere. But thanks to Cosmos, some people are actually talking about the importance of freedom of thought and testing our intuitions. Carl would be proud...