Author Archive

Religion and support for torture

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Aught3
Tue Jun 07, 2011 11:01 am by Aught3

An interesting paper in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin details the conflicting influences of religion on support for torture. The researchers tested several possible relationships between these two factors including the influence of other variables such as education level and political conservatism. I found the results fairly surprising, let me know what you think.

The data collected was from two surveys taken in 2004 and 2008 asking 983 and 1,893 people respectively. The first effect looked at was the direct relationship between religion and support for torure. The researchers found a negative correlation on this point. That is, a religious person was less likely – on average – to support torture. This was described as an organic influence, something about the precepts of religion and opposition to torture were simultaneously appealing to the survey respondents.

However, the authors had also expected a discursive influence of religion and torture because of the popular view that religion and conservative politics ‘go together’ in the US and conservative politics lead to support for torture. When they separated out the progressive and conservative respondents, the moderating impact of religion was overwhelmed and a strong positive relationship between religion and support for torture was observed. A discursive relationship is one that arises through common perception, such as an ideological framework. Compare this to an organic relationship caused by innate features which people may not be consciously aware of. To show the three part relationship between religiosity, conservatism, and torture the researchers looked at one final factor: education level.

The authors of this study reasoned that conservatives with higher education levels would hold more consistent political views. Those with less education would be more likely to follow the common, organic, threads even if they were inconsistent with their stated political position. The data were consistent with this hypothesis showing conservative religious people who were highly educated were even more likely to support torture. So there we are, being religious is negatively correlated with supporting torture but being educated and politically engaged is positively correlated with it, at least if you are a conservative.

 

Malka and Soto (2011) The Conflicting Influences of Religiosity on Attitude Toward Torture. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin.

tp://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?term=The%20Conflicting%20Influences%20of%20Religiosity%20on%20Attitude%20Toward%20Torture

Science vs religion: the effect of education

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Aught3
Wed Jun 01, 2011 9:02 am by Aught3

A new sociological study of UCLA undergraduate students has been getting some play in the sceptical blogosphere. Since it relates to some previous blog posts I have written on the LoR I thought I would go through it. Basically, a UCLA organisation called the Spirituality in Higher Education Project (SHEP)1 surveyed the religious opinions of the first-year population on campus. They then followed up with another survey of juniors to identify opinions influenced by several years of higher eduction. The study in question (Scheitle, 2011) focuses on the students’ perception of the relationship between religion and science.

Students could choose between four options to describe their view on this relationship.

  1. Conflict – I consider myself on the side of religion
  2. Conflict – I consider myself on the side of science
  3. Independence – they refer to different aspects of reality
  4. Collaboration – each can be used to help support the other

Categories three and four were lumped together into a ‘non-conflict’ answer.

Of this sample 83% of the students were religious. Unsurprisingly then, this means that 86% of the respondents went with non-conflict (69%) or sided with religion (17%). That leaves 17% non-religious students, 14% of whom sided exclusively with science. Given the large proportion of Christians in the US and that most are not of the fundamental variety, meaning they will have their science and eat it too, this seems a fairly straight-forward result.

Interestingly by their junior year, 73% of those who had originally sided with religion had come to adopt a non-conflict or pro-science position. This shift perhaps reflects the secularising effect of education. However, 47% of those who had originally picked science had also shifted their position. Not as large of a percentage of those who changed from a pro-religion stand-point but a substantial proportion of students. Even when the researcher looked into the data for only science students, the moderating effect of education was still present. Apparently, learning more about science decreased the view that science and religion were in conflict.

What I would have liked to be able to look at is the detailed data for both the independence and collaboration viewpoints instead of having them lumped together in a single category. If it’s correct that more education promotes a more secular viewpoint I would expect to see the ‘independence’ category increase. Whereas if education was actually supporting religion, I would expect to see a growth in the number of students picking ‘collaboration’. With the data in their current form, it’s impossible to make such judgements.

 

  1. SHEP is funded by the Templeton foundation; any true sceptics will now hum the Jaws theme.

Scheitle, C. P. (2011) U.S. College Students’ Perception of Religion and Science: Conflict, Collaboration, or Independence? A Research Note. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 50(1), 175-186.

Pope in-fallacy

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Aught3
Fri Sep 17, 2010 7:17 am by Aught3

A recent speech by the current Pope, in Britain, where he links atheism and Nazism has caused some controversy in the blogosphere and in our own forums. The Pope spoke of “a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society’ and went on to express concerns over “aggressive forms of secularism’. This is such a common trope in debates that I wanted to take an entire blog post to explain what I see as the gaping flaw in this form of argument. What I want to discuss is the way atheism and theism should be properly related to religion and ideology and why it is incorrect to set up atheism as the counter-position to religion.

Atheism, at its most inclusive, describes anyone who has no belief in gods. From even this basic understanding, it is remarkably difficult to see how atheism could be expected to produce any action from an individual atheist. There is no causal line from the absence of a single belief to any other belief or action, be it good or bad. Even explicit atheism (the denial of gods) does not imply any further belief or action. If we say this for atheism, in order to be consistent, we must also say this for theism. Theism (the belief in gods), as a single belief, does not entail any other beliefs or actions by the individual theist. A theist may believe in the philosopher’s god, a non-interventionist god, Allah, the trinity, or a whole pantheon of pagan gods. But even these basic beliefs about the nature of gods are additional to the initial claim of theism, not derived from it. Taking the example of the Thirty Years war, the Pope would have us blame theism for the conflict. However, given both sides of the conflict were theists this conclusion makes little sense. The true dividing factor was the different religions, Catholicism and Protestantism, which each side maintained. My contention is that while atheism and theism are blameless in the great atrocities of history, ideology and religion should be held to account.

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451°C

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Aught3
Wed Jul 28, 2010 1:21 pm by Aught3

In a futuristic American city, Firemen no longer put out blazes – they start them – and the prime target for their arson are the great works of literary history. In the society of Fahrenheit 451 people fill their days by driving recklessly, watching wall-to-wall television, and listening to music through their portable iShell’¦er’¦Seashell radio sets.  The pervasive nature of vacuous entertainment is such that the citizens of this dystopian city have become wholly apathetic to the literal holocaust of the great authors carried out by Firemen. Book-burning is a repellent act and ought to be opposed by every civilised person. Not only is it a public display of censorship, something we all find offensive, but it also represents the destruction of ideas – an attempt to erase important concepts from public knowledge. No one who claims the inheritance of the enlightenment could support such an act.

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You can’t be good without sci-fi

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Aught3
Mon Jul 12, 2010 12:43 am by Aught3

Science fiction provides the perfect backdrop for exploration on the borders of morality because it creates alternate realities which are limited only by the depth of our imagination. Promising technologies can be created, controlled, and finally be seen to unexpectedly turn on their former masters. New planets can be discovered and explored for ancient civilisations or exploited for basic resources. Alien species can threaten our planet with annihilation or they can teach us what it means to be human. In the world of science fiction all these possibilities can occur; new worlds, galaxies, and alien species can be created and destroyed over and over in myriad combinations – then it can all be written again. The remoteness of these new galaxies and the unfamiliar forms of alien species allows for an ethical discussion of current events in a way that does not threaten the personal identity of those directly involved. Science fiction allows a lot of nonsense to be bypassed and lets the viewer to look directly into the heart of important subjects1.

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Could you patent the sun?

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Aught3
Fri May 28, 2010 7:47 am by Aught3

One of the biggest enemies facing critical thinking and scepticism is that of personal bias. Bias is extremely easy to spot in other people, but notoriously difficult to spot in yourself. No one likes to think that they may be biased but everyone is, in one way or another. Bias often appears in science denialism where someone may be religiously biased towards a Biblical interpretation of the fossil evidence (for example) rather than towards the scientific explanation. The best we can do about our biases is recognise them and be extra vigilant when we come across evidence that conforms to our biased pre-judgements. Because bias has such an affect on our interpretation of evidence, scientists especially should try to limit the influence of such outside factors on their impartial research. Yet we see precisely the opposite occurring. As research and industry snuggle into a cosy relationship, scientists have become enamoured with their commercial partners.

The commercialisation of research has exploded in the fields of biomedical science and biotechnology, with industry poised to make millions, scientists are all too happy to take a cut of the action. However, money is a powerful motivator and researchers now have an added incentive to find certain result. The result which favours whatever corporation provides the funding. If scientists are being influenced by their source of funding, then it should be apparent in their results. Industry funded projects should find positive results more often than non-profit funding. Indeed, taking the example of pharmaceutical research, that is what we find.

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Science vs. religion: are they incompatible?

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Aught3
Sat May 22, 2010 10:03 am by Aught3

One question that frequently confronts the New Atheists (especially those with a science background) is whether a religion and science are incompatible. The stock answer is that many religious leaders accept science as a good way to understand the natural world and conversely, many scientists have a religious faith (Ken Miller and Francis Collins come to mind). In a previous blog post I talked about how sociological research had revealed that about half of American scientists are able to both perform cutting-edge science and maintain a religious identity. An even larger proportion is still interested in matters of spirituality despite daily engaging in rational, empirical inquiry.

These facts show there is, at least, a kind of ‘brute compatibility’ between science and religion; a single person can hold both ideas simultaneously. However, the obvious counter to ‘brute compatibility’ is to point out that in certain cases the findings of science conflict with specific religious claims about the nature of the world. For example, if you claim that the world is 6,000 years old, science says you are wrong. According to empirical data, the world is more like 4.5 billion years old and anyone who says the scientific evidence shows otherwise is simply mistaken. Because science can only conflict with specifically defined religious claims, I call this ‘specific incompatibility’. Although this type of incompatibility is important, and probably accounts for a large proportion of science’s moderating impact on religion, it does not completely contradict all types of religious claims. Again, this answer is too superficial; the original question is asking something more fundamental – are religion and science incompatible at the deeper, philosophical level?

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Countering “The Narrative”

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Aught3
Sat May 15, 2010 1:06 am by Aught3

A recurring phenomenon in the spate of Islamic terror attacks has been that the perpetrators are often citizens who turn on their own countries. Mjr. Hasan’s attack on Ft. Hood in America being a prime example. A recent 60 minutes documentary purports to explain how peaceful Muslims can be turned into fanatical extremists willing to engage in suicide attacks on the very countries they live in.

Recruiters for these fundamentalist Islamic organisations rely on ‘the narrative’, a collection of stories, conspiracy theories, propaganda, and outright lies that claims the USA and the rest of Western civilisation is trying to eradicate Islam. This set of stories has been propagating wildly since the terrorist attack on the World Trade Centre and appeals not to the poor and needy, but to prosperous and educated citizens who make foreign countries their home. Consider Mohamed Atta, the leader of the WTC attacks and educated at universities in Cairo and Hamburg. Mohammad Sidique Khan, leader of the London metro attacks, educated at Leeds University and prior to the attack was holding down a steady job. Or the would-be Times Square bomber, Faisal Shahzad. He holds double degrees from American universities, had a good job, a wife, and a nice house in the suburbs. These are the faces of Islamic terrorism in the West.

Even though there are many instances of Western governments defending or supporting Muslims in Bosnia, Somalia, Kuwait, Pakistan and Indonesia (disaster relief), Iraq and Afghanistan (overthrowing tyrannies) belief in the narrative remains strong. This set of beliefs is also being successfully exported to Western countries, with tragic results. Hatred of those who kill Muslims is encouraged yet, despite the fact that deliberate suicide bombings by Al-Qaeda kill more Muslims than drone attacks by American forces, adherents to the narrative still direct their hatred towards the West and their support towards terrorist organisations. The narrative includes the idea that the US government actually encouraged Al-Qaeda to carry out the attack on the WTC as a justification to invade Afghanistan – these fundamentalist Muslims are apparently 9/11 truthers.

Funded by the oil revenues of the Arab states, political Islamism is attempting to spread itself across the globe by going to war with any opposition. Having seized control of many regimes in the Muslim world, Islamists are enlarging the area they control. Conflicts between Muslims and other local populations in Russia, Indonesia, India, North Africa, Europe, and the USA show they have been extremely successful in spreading their ideology and bringing the fight to us. According to Maajid Nawaz (a former Islamic radical) of the Quilliam Foundation, countering the narrative is the most important aspect to preventing the spread of Islamism. I would add that moving away from an oil-based economy and ending the cozy relationship with Saudi leaders would also help by cutting off the economic backing of this dangerous, and deadly, movement.

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