Can Religion Be Reproduced?

I saw this quote from famed magician/atheist/television personality Penn Jillette‘s new book on kottke.org:

There is no god and that’s the simple truth. If every trace of any single religion died out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

Now, this might be true or it might not be true – it’s a thought experiment with no way of verification. It’s an assertion, not an argument. Thus, from the very beginning, the appeal to empiricism is weakened.

But this claim – “it would never be created exactly that way again” – is true of anything rooted in the passage of time: history, art, literature, even the progress of science itself. Continue reading

Are Smarter People More Liberal?

Sculpture of man emerging from ape

Emergent Man

Ah, yes, another article proclaiming that smart people are liberal. Elizabeth Landau of CNN reports on a soon-to-be-published article by evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa that claims higher IQ is associated liberal politics and religion, as well as “sexual exclusivity” (a.k.a. monogamy).

I haven’t seen the article (it’s not available yet), but there are a couple of problems with the simple equation “smart = liberal.” First, notice how “liberal” is defined:

The study takes the American view of liberal vs. conservative. It defines “liberal” in terms of concern for genetically nonrelated people and support for private resources that help those people. It does not look at other factors that play into American political beliefs, such as abortion, gun control and gay rights.

Strange definition. In America, conservatives favor the use of private resources to help people. As far as the “genetically nonrelated” issue, I have no idea what that’s supposed to mean. Part of the problem here – as with most discussions of liberalism and conservatism – is that the terms can mean many different things. Continue reading

The Running Animal, Part 2

2252094080_73913ef22f.jpgUsain Bolt might be the “world’s fastest human” at nearly 30 mph – or is it Haile Gebrselassie, the world-record holder in the marathon, who can run 26.2 miles at about 12 mph? Cameron Stracher at the WSJ notes that Bolt, over short distances, is only the 30th fastest animal in the world (even housecats are faster!), but only Siberian Huskies and Arabian horses can beat Gebrselassie over long distances. (HT: Dave Parry via Twitter)

My addition: where did Huskies and Arabian horses come from? Human beings, who bred them specifically for long-distance running. The genetic accomplishments of our ancestors are consistently under-appreciated. Yesterday, a story on NPR noted that, during the 19th century, there were 7,000 named varieties of apples in the United States. Named. As in, someone, somewhere, had created or found the variety, named it, and passed it on to others. Today, there are only 300. I marvel at people from the long past who were able to breed a dog or horse to fit a specific need.

I’ve seen this long-distance running phenomenon up close and personal. We are the proud owners of a 5-month-old Borador. She is fast. But I’ve taken her running with me a few times, and she simply has no wind – after less than a mile, she starts dragging. It will be interesting to see if how much endurance she can build up. (She’s also recovering from a broken front paw and doesn’t quite have full strength back.)

I’ve mused on humans as running animals before. Maybe I’m more sensitive to this topic right now because I’m training for a half-marathon in October. Someone told me that I would be amazed at how quickly I can add miles to my runs, and it’s true. Though I’m in good shape (much better shape than I’ve been in years), I’ve never done any kind of distance running, and I’m pretty slow (11 to 15 minute miles). Last Saturday, I ran 6 miles and could have run 2 or 3 more. Praise God for how he has designed us.

Photo: That is NOT me. A model running with his huskies, from David of Earth via Flickr.

Religion Solved, Scientist Says

One of my favorite blogs, GetReligion.org, posted about a very strange story from ABC News , headlined “Religion is a Product of Evolution, Software Suggests.”  James Dow, an anthropologist at Oakland University, claims to have written a software program that explains how religion evolved.  But, as always, the devil is in the details – or, more accurately, the devil is in the presuppositions.  Here’s how ABC News described the set-up of Dow’s software:

To simplify matters, Dow picked a defining trait of religion: the desire to proclaim religious information to others, such as a belief in the afterlife. He assumed that this trait was genetic.

The model assumes, in other words, that a small number of people have a genetic predisposition to communicate unverifiable information to others. They passed on that trait to their children, but they also interacted with people who didn’t spread unreal information.

The model looks at the reproductive success of the two sorts of people  those who pass on real information, and those who pass on unreal information.

Under most scenarios, “believers in the unreal” went extinct. But when Dow included the assumption that non-believers would be attracted to religious people because of some clear, but arbitrary, signal, religion flourished.

“Somehow the communicators of unreal information are attracting others to communicate real information to them,” Dow says, speculating that perhaps the non-believers are touched by the faith of the religious.

 As one of the commenters on the GetReligion post noted, it’s interesting the subtle jump that Dow makes from “unverifiable” to “unreal” information.  Note, too, his clear distinction between “believers” and “non-believers,” when the reality of personal belief is a bit cloudier.  Further, when you consider the communications of actual religious teachers, such as Jesus, Buddha, Muhammad, Francis of Assissi, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., and not hypothetical prehistoric figures like Dow does, it becomes clear that they are not merely “communicating the unreal.”

It’s an interesting experiment, but methinks that Dow could benefit from some philosophy to clarify his terms and examine his presuppositions a bit more closely.  At least he’s upfront about what he is assuming.

Here’s the link to Dow’s actual published study, Is Religion an Evolutionary Adaptation?, published in the Journal of Artificial Societies and Social Simulation vol. 11, no. 2 2. 

Francis Collins Stepping Down

Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Research Institute and one of our featured speakers at Following Christ 2008, announced yesterday that he is resigning in order to “explore writing projects and other professional opportunities.” Here is the official news release. 

Dr. Collins has been one of America’s premier scientists, and he is also a Christian.  His book, The Language of God, is subtitled “A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief.”  He’s also an incredible speaker, who is very comfortable discussing both his professional work and his personal testimony. 

Back in February, Dr. Collins spoke at Stanford University at an event co-sponsored by the InterVarsity chapter there; you can download audio or video from his talk.  It’s well worth it.  In addition to presenting a clear case for Christianity, his personal testimony is inspiring – from hardcore atheist to devoted Christian, all while being confronted daily with the realities of suffering and death as a practicing physician. Like so many other thoughtful Christians, Collins credits C. S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as one of the key influences in his journey toward God. 

I will be very interested to see what he does next.  May God bless him in his endeavors.