09 February 2009

Darwin Day Debate (Columbia, SC)

South Carolina Darwin Day Debate: Dan Barker and Kyle Butt


Note: This is a global event that appears on all event calendars.
Thursday, February 12th at 6:30 pm
Thursday, February 12th at 9:00 pm
Russell House Ballroom, 1400 Greene St., Columbia, SC

05 February 2009


Dear AFS, we have had several people interested in this on-going discussion that have been unsuccessful in locating it on the blog.  For all who wish to add future comments, could you please do so under this new header?  Thank you!



rnnyhoff said...
The Augusta Freethought Society is a great addition to the culture of Augusta. Perhaps unwelcome by a majority of citizens in the CSRA, it is, nonetheless, a vital outlet for sharing and providing viewpoints that, in my opinion, are held by more individuals in our community than a secular humanist might expect.

06 January, 2009 10:53
mikeledo said...
This really wasn't what I had in mind for a forum, but here goes. Debates. I used to love them. Watch, them, participate in them, on line, via mail, or in person. However, it gets old after a while. The same old hack lines and the same results. Eventually, the Christian loses the intellectual debate (while claiming victory) then retreats to their corner, wih their fingers in the ears and scream "FAITH!" at the top of their lungs to block out any rational discussion. What 2,000 years of debate has boiled dowm to is that religious belief is a matter of faith. This of course is what godless people say all along. The best debates are the ones that I lose. That forces me to rethink my position.

06 January, 2009 18:24
rnnyhoff said...
So like a scientist, mikeledo, to describe your "best debates" as the one you lose. People mired in their own, set, immovable belief system are truly the losers. This life of ours is far too shaded in myriad grays to allow one point-of-view to dominate. It is the individual who hypothesizes, investigates, encourages others, and is open to dialogue and difference that is the true seeker of meaning.

08 January, 2009 08:00
miles said...
Mike...sorry we don't have any Christian zealots to debate against at the moment. Perhaps we could open an internal dialogue, and here's the topic: ATHEISM AND VEGANISM AS BEDFELLOWS. Let me preface this first by recognizing that being an atheist and being moral are not equivocal. However, I suspect that most of us would claim to be moral individuals. Now, with that having been said, HOW CAN YOU BE AN ATHEIST AND NOT ALSO BE VEGAN? I would further extend this out to any members of the UU Church - in particular, the upholding of the 7th value which follows: "Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part." This statement, and claiming a non-vegan position are mutually exclusive values.

08 January, 2009 19:20
augusta freethought society said...
I would argue that atheism and veganism are not organic bedfellows because veganism is a moral choice and atheism is simply a statement of non-belief. However, atheists that are self-reflective about ethics have the unique charge of constructing morality based on what tends to be in the best interest of themselves and others (unlike the religious, who get their morals from books and preachers), and when they include all species as "others", then it follows that they should be vegan (particularly when most animal products in modern times are FAR from cruelty-free). Your reference to the 7th UU value as incompatible with a non-vegan lifestyle is probably true in a pure sense in modern times, unless a meat-eater/dairy consumer goes to great lengths to consume animal products that are cruelty-free, which is unlikely and quite a difficult task. So, as moral humans (atheist, agnostic, humanist, theists, whateverists), we should educate ourselves on factory farming and learn the truth about where our animal flesh, dairy, and eggs come from, as well as the amount of cruelty that we support with our dollars when we purchase these items.

09 January, 2009 10:35
mikeledo said...
I remember when the Atlanta Freethought Sociey had a debate, "Is God Necessary for Morality?" I thought a more interesting question would be, "Is God Necessary for Immorality?"

Morality is generaly dictated by a religious or legal code of somekind, tenets which a majority of humans agree upon in a particular place and time. To me a "freethinker" by definition would ignore such codes.

I personally have no problem killing animals to make my life easier, as long as I am the one not doing the killing. In fact the only reason many animals are alive is because humans bred them to be eaten or worn.

Atheists are not all moral, like Miles stated. Stalin, I would claim, was on the dark side of the force. Since one cannot connect morality to atheism, it would be impossible to connect it to vegan. I got better things to do than to care about how chickens are treated right before we kill them. We do less for humans.

10 January, 2009 19:27
miles said...
Mike, your statements are contradictory. You state "I personally have no problem killing animals to make my life easier, as long as I am the one not doing the killing." I think what you meant to say was, "I have no problem with animals being killed, as long as I am not the one doing the killing." Also, just out of curiosity, why would you think that the destruction of animals for our use makes life any easier? It necessarily complicates things. Consuming only plants and wearing only plant fibers cuts the middle man out. With a cow, you have to grow the plants, to feed the cow, to get the leather. Why not just grow the plants?

"In fact the only reason many animals are alive is because humans bred them to be eaten or worn." Really? show me any evidence that this is true. Animal husbandry and domestication has allowed us to accumulate large numbers of animals that already existed, but these creatures existence isn't owed to us.

"Since one cannot connect morality to atheism, it would be impossible to connect it to vegan." This is a non-sequitur, and it's not true. Under which circumstance is the reduction of suffering immoral?

"I got better things to do than to care about how chickens are treated right before we kill them. We do less for humans." Mike, you finally got something right, "We do less for humans." This is exactly why, as a species, we are unconcerned with the lives of non-human creatures and are able to look at these beings and quip "Well so what, they're just animals"...an axiomatic sentiment by the way that non-vegans share with the Nazis at Auschwitz.

13 January, 2009 00:24
miles said...
Oh, and one more aside: I don't think that the question "Is God Necessary for Immorality?" is interesting at all. You already answered your own question when you brought up Stalin.

"Morality is generaly dictated by a religious or legal code of somekind, tenets which a majority of humans agree upon in a particular place and time." No. Morality is based on the principles and values of a given individual. Morals are not arrived at by a democratic process. After all, the majority of Bronze Age, Middle-Eastern goat herders believed that is was acceptable to stone and flog your children to death if they disobeyed their parents. Punishments can be enforced by groups claiming morality (might makes right...there it is again). I think you are getting LAW and MORALITY confused.

13 January, 2009 01:18
mikeledo said...
I happen to like the taste of meat. It has nothing to do with energy consumption or cutting out the middleman.

Animals are bred and raised on farms to be eaten. I don't know how to prove that Miles. I assumed everyone knew that.

You claim Stalin was immoral. How do you make that judgement? What says he was mmoral? A legal code or a religious creed?

Laws are derived from the morality of a community. In many ways they are the same.

You connect Vegan to morality, and morality to atheism. That is non-sequitur. So is it okay to eat an animal that hasn't suffered? How about road kill? Eggs haven't even been fertized. What is immoral with eating them? The problem with vegans is that hey have created their own religion of animal worship.

13 January, 2009 16:54
miles said...
Mike, are we the only people on here...or is our pissing contest not engaging enough? Who knows?

Anyway. So you like the taste of meat, and you don't mind that animals were killed so that you can consume them. O.K. Would you eat your dog? Would you knowingly eat any dog? Would you eat a horse burger? Would you eat panda nuggets or bonobo bacon? Do you think there is anything reprehensible about setting cats on fire or dog fighting (a la Michael Vick)? If you honestly don't have an issue with consuming any other non-human animal, would you have an issue if we found an isolated population of Neanderthals, bred them on factory farms and then packaged them up for our dinner? I just have a hard time understanding the hypocrisy of the standard american diet. So many people will protest the clearing of the rainforest and the decimation of the oceans but then turn around and eat a surf 'n' turf combo meal over their lunch break.

You're right, animals are raised on farms to be eaten. I misunderstood you original comment. I thought you were saying that the only reason that cows and pigs, etc. exist is because we basically saved them from wild. I apologize for the confusion.

When did I claim Stalin was immoral? You said he was on the "dark side". I think YOU were making the claim that he was immoral. But, for the record, I do think various aspects of his career were immoral...that whole genocide thing. I make that judgement based on the immense suffering he caused to others. The notion that causing unwanted suffering in others is immoral is outside of legal codes and religious creeds. There is nothing illegal about causing suffering, and albeit, there are certainly religious notions that causing suffering is not morally sound, the morality of inflicting such suffering exists independent of the religion that propounds it.

I don't think I connected atheism with morality. I believe I qualified that from the outset: "Let me preface this first by recognizing that being an atheist and being moral are not equivocal." Your last statement is conditional. "Is it okay to eat an animal that hasn't suffered." No, because you are still exploiting the animal for your own selfish benefit. Is it okay to have sex with a woman who is braindead? Please say "no". "Is it okay to eat roadkill?" I don't know, did you intentionally run the animal over, or was it killed ahead of time. Would you actually eat road kill? If not, then that question is mute. The immorality with eggs comes not from the eggs themselves, but the manner in which the eggs were collected. If you have no idea how eggs are collected, you should read-up on battery-cage hens. Much of the vegan side of this issue distills down to exploitation. You wouldn't want to be exploited Mike, so why do you think these animals want to be exploited. As an atheist, by definition, you concede that this life and this planet (at least for now) are the only ones that we have been afforded. Acknowledging the fleeting and ephemeral nature of life, why do so many atheists not recognize that every creature on this earth is unique and equipped with their own agendas. Because we exist, we necessarily are going to have an impact upon the globe in one way or another. Part of the beauty of being a vegan is knowing that I am at least in some small way helping to reducing my inevitable impact of my surroundings and all who share it with me. I honestly don't know how such an selfless stance can be criticized, and yet, you found a way to do it Mike.

"The problem with vegans is that hey have created their own religion of animal worship."

P.S., don't ever associate me with the "r" word.

20 January, 2009 22:01
anonymous said...
In my opinion the Mike/Miles atheist/vegan debate is just silly. There is no logical link between atheism and veganism. In fact there is no logical link between atheism and anything. Atheism stands alone as a lack of belief--we don't beleive in theism--we don't believe in God. Beyond that we atheists don't necessarly have anything in common, including veganism or a common moral standard. I suspect some atheists have a personal morality that almost mirrors what has been called "Christian morality" while others of us approach absolute hedonism. I'm pretty much of a hedonist and unlike Miles I eat meat every day. Also unlike Mike I have many times killed what I ate.

When Miles says "HOW CAN YOU BE AN ATHEIST AND NOT BE A VEGAN" he links atheism and veganism and seems to imply that I should give up meat-eating or atheism. That, of course, won't happen because it is not necessary--the two things are really totally unrelated.

If Miles wants to argue vociferously for veganism, he should do so as an individual not as an atheist. As an atheist he shouldn't try to bind his lifestyle choices on the rest of us. We get enough of that from our Christian neighbors.

24 January, 2009 00:33
miles said...
Dear Anonymous,

You have made a very good point - "we atheists don't necessarily have anything in common..."

This fact is what many theists don't understand. Atheism has no central philosophy, their are no rules, no dogma, we do not have seven principles which we try to affirm or promote (e.g., UU Church), there is no moral code by which we live. I personally do not think that atheism and morality are linked (I made this qualification from the outset). Thinking about it a bit more, I suppose one could argue that someone could be a non-ethical vegan, or that someone could be a vegan and not support animal rights, i.e., they might be vegan simply due to allergies (milk, honey, eggs, seafood), and/or they don't like the taste of meat. I have yet to meet a vegan where this was really the case, but it is not all-together impossible.

The "link" that I am insinuating between veganism and atheism is not an absolute...it is more of a question for others to satisfy my own curiosity. I am certainly not implying that anyone should give up atheism (that's not possible since you don't get to choose what you believe), and although I would prefer that people didn't consume animal products, I am only questioning their reasons for doing so - I am not implying that they should stop.

When I promote veganism, I do do so as an individual. My lack of belief in a God or gods never comes into play. Actually, when theists ask me why I became vegan, my usual answer is that the Book of Genesis says that we should be vegan, and that I am trying to live a lifestyle consistent and in harmony with the Earth prior to the Fall of Man. When it comes to pass that I am an atheist, I never link my convictions to my food choices. This topic is merely a thought-exercise. And why is this argument silly? Is it any more silly or insipid than posting opinions on a community forum without claiming authorship?

All I am trying to show, is that I find it interesting how similar the mindset of atheists and vegans are - at least many that I know (not ALL). Many of the reasons people have for being atheist are similar to the reasons that people give for begin vegan.

For example: Americans tend be follow a Christian faith. While people in India tend to be Hindu. Indoctrination often follows geographic patterns. Various beliefs separated by natural barriers (albeit our extensive globalization now allows for a ready mixture of ideas and beliefs). People do what they do because their culture has influenced them. People in America eat beef and pork for the most part because our parents ate beef and pork and fed it to us when we were growing up. Why do we cringe and joke about Asian cultures eating dogs and cats or the absurdity of starving Hindus worshipping cows. Filet-o-hound in all likelihood isn't any less tasty than sirloin, Islam isn't any less inane than the Aborigine Dreamtime, but how would you know unless you were able to think past your upbringing. Religion and Diet are cultural. If you were raised in another part of the world, your concepts of what is edible and what is believable would almost certainly be different.

My general curiosity is thus: if as an atheist, you are able to relieve yourself of the mental constraints of religion and to recognize the brainwashing effects that religion carries, how is it that you can't see that you only eat the food you do because these were the biased food choices of those who came before you and they have led you to think it is alright to eat such items. How can you not see that by supporting fishing industries and the beef and dairy industry you are contributing to the destruction of our planet. And, if nothing else, with overwhelming evidence that animal products in our food are generally not as healthy (or healthy at all), why would you do that yourself. Why would you knowingly ingest food items that can damage your body and shorten your life span (especially as an atheist who doesn't believe that there is another life after this one)? If we only have one life and one planet, why wouldn't you want to make the most of it? I am not suggesting that people become vegan, I am only saying that IF you really do care about your health and the environment, why wouldn't you take the path of least resistance to augment both?

As I mentioned at our group meeting, my aim is to promote rationalism. Atheism is only the topic. My rationalism however does extend and must necessarily extend to my food choices. Similar to religious beliefs, I have yet to hear a rational, well thought out justification for why not being a vegan is a better option than being vegan. Any and all reasons that I have heard are similar to the reasons people give for being theists - often hypocritical and usually non-objectifiable and entirely based on cultural brainwashing and personal experience (e.g., meat just tastes good, God speaks to me,etc).

24 January, 2009 08:16
miles said...
One additional afterthought: in regards to the anonymous poster's comment, if this on-going debate between Mike and myself is in fact silly, then PLEASE open a new post (if you have access on this blog) or at least offer ideas for topics that you would like to have discussed. Mike and I obviously have a difference of opinion concerning the current topic, but at least Mike has an opinion about something - ANYTHING, and I respect that. Perhaps there are only 4 or 5 people looking at this blog, in which case, my romantic notions of hotly debated open-forum discussions are wasted. However, if there are others checking out these threads, then please take this opportunity to disagree, refute, contend, argue, debate,enlighten, supplement confirm or simply comment on what is being discussed.

24 January, 2009 09:32
david said...
Hey- here's another perspective about being a vegan or not and an atheist. I was once a vegan but still ate eggs, dairy and fish. I was also a member of PETA. Unfortunately, I have restless legs syndrome and celiac disease. The diet I was on made the RLS far worse because whatever causes severe primary RLS also affects how ferritin is absorbed. I had to make a choice between being an ethical (or so I thought) wreck- or not. Atheism really had nothing to do with it as I have those diseases regardless of what I belive. I also better understood why humans evolved to be omnivores, and how genetic issues with health are poorly understood by people fortunate enough not to have such issues to deal with 24/7. So I chose quality of life and began eating meat again. The RLS got a little better but I still had to go on meds to get any sleep at night.

I now support ethical animal use in research. Am I selfish? Absolutely. I do enjoy getting a full night's sleep. I'm also less judgemental about choices. These choices, whether about beleif in the supernatural, diet or intimacy are up to each individual and not the business of churh, state or those who would inflict their beliefs on others.

24 January, 2009 11:22
anonymous said...
My previous post as "Anonymous" was not an attempt to be silly or insipid or even conceal my identity, but an expedient. My post was made at midnight thirty, I had a 6:00 AM committment the next day, and one cannot post a comment without creating a profile. Anonymous is the quickest profile to create.

Check out the website donramon.net and all identity questions will be answered. If you check out the website you will also discover that I have no inherent objection to silliness--almost everything on the website is silly.

The vegan/meateater debate is a perfectly fine topic for discussion. Linking veganism to atheism is not. Saying, or even implying, that atheists should be vegans is very much like the, "What would Jesus Do" that we've all heard. In each case it is irrelevant to almost any issue, hence silly. So have your debate, just don't frame it in an atheist context.

As for my personal contribution to the discussion, I did not evolve to the top of the food chain in order to eat vegetation. I'm a hedonist. I like meat and the fact that I like meat is sufficient justification for me to eat it. That's the way we hedonists are. If you want to debate the merits of hedonism, that's a whole new ballgame.

Regarding opinions--I have opinions about almost everything. Most of them, however, are not worth serious debate. You have yours and I have mine. Mostly I don't care about yours unless you try to force them on me.

Other than that--can't we just be friends?

24 January, 2009 12:14
seacoast said...
I think veganism and atheism are two insights along the same road toward enlightenment.

I think the Atheist insight is a realization, whether arrived at early or far along the life path, that the archaic view of spirituality is not a self truth. Free Thinkers, fraternal twin to the Atheist, are no so resolute, and are curious about how the uinverse realy works. They are constantly exploring and comtemplating information from sources. No longer inhibited by religious and false spiritual boundaries, they fearless degest all information.

I think that the Vegan/Vegetarian insight is one where the idividual feels that the sanctity of life extends to all non plant species. Now having a greater degree of awareness, they are able to share empathy with other species that we share our universe with.

Since I am both, I know that they can be compatible with each other. It happens only when the two tributaries converge the life path.

Ultimately it is about Ego. When one can detatch from Egotistical viewpoints, logic and reason prevail. One desires escape from the mental prison of religion and one whose appreciation for other life forms finds alternative means for sustanence.

If you are either, you are doing something right. Lol, and that my view.

24 January, 2009 14:30
anonymous said...
Some thoughts on seacoast's posting--

"...the sanctity of life extends to all non plant species."

Sanctity is a curious term for an atheist to select. The definition of sanctity generally includes such terms as saintliness, holiness, sacred, etc., not terms generally advocated by an atheist to support his/her position. As Mike noted in an earlier posting, veganism seems to be supported with almost religious fervor.

"Since I am both[vegan and atheist?], I know they can be compatible with each other."

I know that too. However, since I have a granddaughter who is a Republican, a vegan, and one of the most committed Christians around, I realize that veganism and conservative Christianity are equally compatable. The basic fact is that veganism is not incompatable with atheism, but it is no more compatable with atheism than it is with Christianity and certainly veganism is not a necessary condition for atheism. So far I have seen no good argument to make veganism and atheism bedfellows.

"...they fearless[sic] degest[sic] all information."

I am as willing to digest all information as I am willing to digest animal flesh. I do reserve the right to reject faulty, poorly argued, poorly reasoned information.

"Ultimately it is about ego"

I don't know what the hell he is talking about.

Anonymous aka don@donramon.net

26 January, 2009 12:39
miles said...
Sorry, I have been away for a bit. This response is for David:

David, you noted that "I was once a vegan but still ate eggs, dairy and fish." That is not veganism. Vegans don't eat anything that comes from an animal. It would be similar to saying "I am completely faithful when it comes to my wife, but I still receive oral sex from other woman at my work". That's not fidelity.

Also, when you mentioned the following: "I have restless legs syndrome and celiac disease. The diet I was on made the RLS far worse because whatever causes severe primary RLS also affects how ferritin is absorbed". This has more to do with your ideas of what constitutes good nutrition and a proper diet than it does the particular lifestyle that you were trying to cater to. There are plenty of overweight vegans and there are plenty of world class athletes who are non-vegan. If you as an individual are making poor food choices, you can't blame it on the dietary label you have given yourself (incorrectly). If you don't know where to get iron in your everyday food, you can't blame veganism. Every doctor I know, and, as a doctor myself, I can personally say that I would never recommend nor have I ever heard it recommended that people should get more meat in their diet. There is no health benefit that a non-vegan diet can offer that is not also available to vegans (breast-feeding infants is perhaps an exception, but that is not really a vegan issue). Further, I run ultramarathons using only plants for fuel, and am more fit than pretty much everyone I know, so I think you would be hard pressed to make a convincing argument that a non-vegan diet is somehow superior to a vegan diet.

Next, you mention that "I also better understood why humans evolved to be omnivores". This really makes my skin crawl when people discuss evolution in such a colloquial parlance. 1) you make it sound like becoming omnivorous was premeditated and that humans somehow made a conscious effort to "evolve" physiology and anatomy capable of facilitating an omnivore diet. Did we also "evolve" a nose so that we could wear glasses? Just because we can eat an omnivorous diet doesn't mean that we evolved to do so. I am VERY curious to know what exactly it is about humans that you think has evolved to drive us towards an omnivorous diet. And, I am even more curious to know how it is that in the 12 years I spent in dental school and completing my Bachelor's and Master's degree in human evolution and cladistics I wasn't able to come to arrive at the same conclusions you did.
Further, If you disagree, then please tell me your thoughts on why it is that the vegan diet of the lowland silverback gorillas hasn't produced failure to thrive issues.

"So I chose quality of life and began eating meat again. The RLS got a little better but I still had to go on meds to get any sleep at night." So, in other words, eating meat really didn't produce any real, significant benefit to your pre-existing health condition. Perhaps you are not among the 20% or so of people with RLS that have issues with your ferritin levels? I don't know, that's probably better addressed by a gastroenterologists or your PCP, but it's just a thought.

I appreciate that you finally conclude at the end that you are indeed selfish. I don't know why people can't just acknowledge that from the outset? I eat Oreos because they taste good. That's it. I bake cake and cookies all the time - because they are tasty. That's it. It's offensive when people try to rationally defend an irrational position - whether it's food or religion. I agree with you David when you note that our choices are decided upon by the individual and would be best to not have them imposed on others. It should be noted that I am in no way trying to impose my convictions or principles on anyone else, all I want to know is, what is it that you believe and why...and what reason do you give for your beliefs? In a forum like this, we should feel free to criticize and contend the viewpoints of others.



04 February 2009

Hitchens v D'Souza

The Samford Socratic Club is bringing Christopher Hitchens and Dinesh D’Souza together again for a debate at the Samford University in Birmingham, AL on March 3rd 2009.

Blair Scott, National Affiliate Director and Alabama State Director for American Atheists said, “I have worked with the Socratic Club in the past and they are enthusiastic about the exchange of ideas. Theological differences aside, they are an amazing group of students.”

Is God Great? will pit these two authors and spokes-persons against each other in what is sure to be a lively debate. Doors will open to the public at 5:15 on the night of March 3, 2009, and the event will last until 8:00 with a book signing to follow. Books will be on sale in the lobby.

For more information about the debate and the authors:
Is God Great?

Tickets are $20 ($10 for Samford Students).
You can purchase tickets online.


23 January 2009

Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act:

Hello Group!

Just wanted to get everyones opinion on this. I will share my thoughts later! I have posted the Silent Reflection & Student Prayer Act below the article for all to read.


CHICAGO – A federal judge has ruled that a state law requiring a moment of silence in public schools across Illinois is unconstitutional, saying it crosses the line separating church and state.
"The statute is a subtle effort to force students at impressionable ages to contemplate religion," U.S. District Judge Robert W. Gettleman said in his ruling Wednesday.
The ruling came in a lawsuit designed to bar schools from enforcing the Illinois Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act. It was filed by talk show host Rob Sherman, an outspoken atheist, and his daughter, Dawn, a high school student.
Gettleman's ruling was not a surprise. He had already ruled in favor of Sherman in two previous decisions.
As passed by the Illinois General Assembly, the law allows students to reflect on the day's activities rather than pray if that is their choice and defenders have said it therefore doesn't force religion on anyone.
But Gettleman backed critics such as the American Civil Liberties Union, who say the law is a thinly disguised effort to bring religion into the schools.
The "teacher is required to instruct her pupils, especially in the lower grades, about prayer and its meaning as well as the limitations on their 'reflection,'" Gettleman ruled.
"The plain language of the statute, therefore, suggests and intent to force the introduction of the concept of prayer into the schools," he said.
It remained unclear if Gettleman's decision would end the dispute or merely signal a fresh battle in a federal appeals court.
State Sen. Kimberly Lightford, D-Chicago, the chief sponsor of the legislation, said she hoped Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan would appeal.
"I strongly feel and I still believe that children should have a moment of silence at the beginning of the school day," she said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where she celebrated the inauguration of President Obama.
Madigan spokeswoman Robin Ziegler said the attorney general was reviewing Gettleman's decision and would have no immediate further comment.
Adam Schwartz, senior staff counsel of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the organization was pleased with the decision "to strike down a statewide law that coerced children to pray as part of an organized activity in our public schools."
Last year, a federal court threw out a challenge to a 2003 Texas law that allows children to "reflect, pray, meditate or engage in any other silent activities" for one minute at the beginning of each school day.
U.S. District Judge Barbara Lynn upheld the constitutionality of that law, concluding that "the primary effect of the statute is to institute a moment of silence, not to advance or inhibit religion."

SB1463 Enrolled LRB095 09404 NHT 29600 b

1 AN ACT concerning education.
2 Be it enacted by the People of the State of Illinois,
3 represented in the General Assembly:
4 Section 5. The Silent Reflection and Student Prayer Act is
5 amended by changing Section 1 as follows:
6 (105 ILCS 20/1) (from Ch. 122, par. 771)
7 Sec. 1. In each public school classroom the teacher in
8 charge shall may observe a brief period of silence with the
9 participation of all the pupils therein assembled at the
10 opening of every school day. This period shall not be conducted
11 as a religious exercise but shall be an opportunity for silent
12 prayer or for silent reflection on the anticipated activities
13 of the day.
14 (Source: P.A. 76-21.)
15 Section 99. Effective date. This Act takes effect upon
16 becoming law.

19 January 2009

The Evolution of Religion

The following is a sermon delivered at a UU church for Darwin Day 2008:

The Evolution of Religion is a very recent phenomenon in the process of evolution. But evolutionary time frames are enormous compared to human existence.

From the Big Bang to Life on Earth took 10 – 12 billion years.

From the beginning of Life on Earth to Socialization took nearly 3 billion years.

Socialization has been an evolutionary effector for about 100 million years.

Bipedalism in mammals originated 4 – 5 million years ago. Birds, well that’s another story.

Cognition followed closely by Religion has been around maybe 200,000 years;

Extensive tool use and primitive cultures about 40,000 years

Scientific Observation about 500 years;

In the last 500 years we have made considerable progress learning about our 15 billion year past.

Let me lay a little background from a scientific perspective. In the beginning, 13 - 15 billion years ago, an extremely dense black hole with crushing weight blew up creating tremendous energy and forming the simplest of elements, hydrogen. From the beginning hydrogen was fused into helium with the release of even more energy and as the stars and the planets were born, so too were the heavier elements. This process continued until all of the other elements necessary for life as we know it EVOLVED, carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, calcium, magnesium, sodium, potassium, each in its own time.

Although they can’t be quite sure, most cosmologists estimate that our sun originated about 4.5 billion years ago and our planet about 4 billion years ago.

During its first billion years Earth both grew (i.e., it attracted more debris from space) and cooled (from a liquid-gaseous sphere to a solid rock) at least externally. Water was formed in abundance.

As water accumulated and other elements dissolved in the water, the primordial soup became a good incubator for the formation of RNA and amino acids. These reactions have been shown to occur under conditions that likely existed on the early planet Earth.

Over the first billion years (wrap your mind around that time frame) RNA bases formed, amino acids formed, rudimentary proteins formed, rudimentary cells formed and the chemical reactions that occurred within these cells were protected from outside interference, creating an advantage for those reactions. Those developments might be considered the first step of life, a very primitive form of reproduction. Over an extended period of time the preferences led to increased concentrations of the molecules that protected each other, EVOLVING into the genetic code that is ubiquitous in the biological realm today.

From its chemical beginning life’s evolutionary process appears to have been at work selecting the molecules that could work best in a cooperative arrangement to produce evermore complexity leading eventually to the process that today we call life. Remember that this process took about a billion years and the life it produced was simple.

The effectors of the evolutionary process are important. In addition to reproductive efficiency and survivability, they include environmental change, adaptability, death, and in the latter stages sex. Each has a role to play in driving the process.

Reproduction must be able to rebuild the model close to the standards that have brought success. Wholesale changes in the plans that have been successful would be counterproductive.

Capacity for survival insures that the individual with the best set of survival traits in the environmental milieu survives to reproduce. Survival traits might be more appropriately defined as the luck of the draw under the conditions prevalent at the time.

Death is important because the old models have to be removed from the system to improve the efficiency of the new and improved models. Competition from ancestors would create an evolutionary disadvantage. Besides the remains of the old models become resources for the new models.

Environmental change forces adaptation. There have been five mass extinctions, all caused by environmental disruption. All five mass extinctions reworked the species list considerably. The species list expanded slowly after each mass extinction as the remaining species proceeded to adapt to the new conditions forming other new species over time. The sixth mass extinction is in progress. This environmental disruption has a different source from the other five. This one is driven by one of the species rather than a cataclysm. Or, considering the time scales we are dealing with maybe we are a cataclysm. If we continue to drive the extinction, it may continue until the driver is gone or at least incapable of driving the process.

Adaptability appears to be at least partially genetic (i.e. DNA dependent), but given the similarities among the DNA compositions across the phyla, it appears that other factors, not yet understood, may be involved. For example, microorganisms tend to produce more of the genetic products, usually proteins, needed to adapt to changes in the environment when challenged by environmental stimuli. This mechanism does not change the DNA sequence, it simply creates more copies of a specific gene or genes. The organisms that do this create an advantage for their survival and therefore increase their relative populations. Presumably this mechanism has evolved into the higher organisms but with more complexity.

Sex is a late addition to the effectors. Sexual reproduction started with microorganisms because it led to a greater potential for adaptation, an increased capacity to adjust to environmental conditions. The more complex species today all reproduce sexually because it has an evolutionary advantage.

And biological complexity has led to an evolutionary advantage, the creation of community (socialization). Socialization has been a relatively recent addition to evolutionary progress. It has been around for a mere 100 million years. Insects and mammalian ancestors alike introduced the practice of socialization long before we humans existed. Socialization was already part of our inheritance before we evolved into Homo sapiens.

In our more complex world socialization, itself, provides an advantage for survival, more eyes and ears and noses to look for food, better defense, better capacity to carry forth successful methods of survival (group memory), increased specialization and efficiency, and the advantage of numbers in competitive situations. In these advantages evolution has found a bedfellow, a process that further enhances the survival of species.

However, the drivers for socialization are somewhat different from those for non-social species. While reproduction, capacity for survival and sex are still drivers, they are drivers only as they fit best into the social context. While aggressiveness may be awarded with evolutionary success in the non-social framework, it would have significant disadvantages in the social framework. Reproduction, or, in more complex systems, sexual activity, is rewarded in non-social evolution for frequency and in the sexual system for genetic variation (numbers of partners). And here we find, especially in humans, problems between social and non-social evolution. Non-social evolutionary drivers promote the survival of the individual so that he/she can reproduce. Social drivers promote the survival of the community necessarily suppressing some of the drivers that promote the survival of the individual.

Cognition or intelligence has become a factor as well in the more complex species, especially Homo sapiens. It entered the realm of evolutionary effector much more recently than did socialization. It has been driving human population successes for about 200,000 years.

In humans, socialization combined with cognition has been so successful that we have not only spread our population throughout the planet, we have eliminated thousands of other species in the process. But the codes of behavior that support socialization are often antithetical to the more primitive evolutionary drives. Fortunately in humans, cognitive abilities allow us to recognize the conflict, but that doesn’t mean we are always able to prevent the conflict from arising. Regression into the more primitive behaviors driven by more primitive parts of our still evolving brain gives rise to antisocial behaviors, sometimes referred to as sin (individual values trumping community values).

This dichotomy of human behaviors has been recognized by religions for millennia, but I don’t think that it was a factor in the evolution of religion. The dichotomy of human behaviors has been a topic of religious discussion for all of recorded history, but religion goes back much farther than that. As our cognitive abilities developed to the point where we could ask questions about cause and effect and later about mortality, we demanded answers to those questions. Of course we didn’t have the scientific data to actually answer the questions at the time so we invented the answers. And of course those answers were anthropocentric. The human species or the “chosen peoples” were the center of the cosmos and all of the resource of the universe was at their disposal. But then the known universe at the time was pretty small. Moreover, I think that religious thought did not begin to address morality issues (community values vs individual values) until much later when the dominance of alpha males started to wane as interactions between clans began to increase.

Religion was likely a part of the human psyche as we moved out of Africa to populate other parts of the world. Over time the religion that moved from Africa with our ancient ancestors progressed independently by geographic region into the world religions we have today. Each of those religions attempts to explain the human condition in its own way. Each is more or less anthropocentric. Of course, why would we invent explanations for muskrats or amoeba?

Religion provided answers and hope where previously there had been only fear in the cognitive brain. It explained thunder and lightning. It explained night vs day. It explained rain and snow, storms and floods. It explained how we got here and it explained where we go when we die. Once we were capable of understanding personal mortality, religion helped by providing meaning. Our cognitive abilities recognized that life would be pretty meaningless without some kind of reward. Religion has provided that reward, even if imaginary. Thus by providing explanations for natural phenomena and by providing meaning, religion has provided an evolutionary advantage over several tens of thousands of years. This evolutionary advantage of having answers vs not having answers allowed those individuals with active imaginations (religiously developed temporal lobes) an advantage in survival. The ability to ascribe meaning and cause whether real or not provides a comfort to the cognitive process that lends stability to the individual’s interaction with the community. That stability provides an advantage in both survival and reproduction that will yield an evolutionary advantage to individuals presenting those characteristics. During the evolution of Homo sapiens, short though it has been, this advantage has likely produced a majority of individuals with a biological tendency toward religion. Unfortunately, the tendency to accept historical, imaginary explanations because “the Bible or the Koran says so” does not facilitate understanding the real world.

Like the discordance between socialization and the success of the individual described above, so too is there a discordance between human cognition and the evolutionary advantage of religion. The success of socialization has produced a species that is capable of dominating all of the other species in spite of (or maybe because of) its capacity to create a system in which individual survival is second to community welfare. So too the evolution of human intelligence is producing a species capable of understanding its real role in the process so that it no longer needs to revert to imaginary explanations. If the species can accomplish that, it may be able to put itself back into equilibrium with the system that created it, and possibly survive.

To do that we must realize that life, the process we are obsessed with because it is OUR corner of the universe, seems to be just another development in the much bigger evolutionary process. Evolution may keep life or discard it depending on what happens in the experiment of life. This concept is in line with the sequence of discoveries that has provided us with perspective over the past 10,000 years during our developing capacity to understand:
- We really are not the only humans on the Earth. There are other civilizations.
- The Earth is round not flat.
- The sun does not revolve around us. Our planet is part of a bigger system.
- Our solar system is just a very small part of the Milky Way.
- Our galaxy is only a small part of the universe.
- Our species is only one of millions on this planet.
- All of the above are important in the evolutionary process.
- The evolutionary process formed the elements, the galaxies, the stars, the planets, the air, the rocks, the oceans, life, the species, socialization, cognition. What next?
- The bottom line on this sequence of realizations is that life is not particularly important in the sequence of evolution, and human life even less so, but in my mind all parts of the process are sacred, me and the rock.

This knowledge leads to the conclusion that we have considerably overstated our importance in the system for millennia. Now that we have the information and intelligence to recognize our place in the cosmos, are we willing to take our place and act accordingly, or will we continue to allow hubris to trap us into thinking we are special? Unfortunately, we are special, not because we have been ordained by God to dominate, but because of our evolved socialization and cognition, we have developed the capacity to destroy ourselves by our own success. We may be the first species capable of doing that. And if we continue to live beyond our resources, we may do just that.

May we learn to trust Science as the provider of truth and the Bible as the provider of ancient myths, a useful but not literal tool? And may we learn to live simply and sustainably so that the Earth can continue to support us?

12 January 2009

Atheist Bus Campaign

Can you imagine this in Augsuta, GA?