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BrisScience and BrisReligion

August 13th, 2006

The next in the BrisScience lecture series is on tomorrow (Monday) night, at City Hall, 6pm for 6:30. Continuing to diversify the range of topics, the speaker is Margaret Wertheim, on the topic ” Space and Spirit: Why Science and Religion Together are Driving us Crazy”. As the extract over the page suggests, Wertheim thinks that we have a fundamental pyschological need for a reconcilation of science and religion.

I’m not so sure about this. One of the most striking features of the late 20th century was the collapse of active religious belief in most of the developed world, with the glaring exception of the United States. This didn’t result in any direct sense from scientific discoveries about the universe. And, surprisingly, it didn’t seem to produce any big changes in behavior (there have been changes in sexual mores, but these have been just as noticeable in the US as elsewhere) or any obvious rise in cosmic angst. You can find some statistical differences between believers and non-believers, and between those who regularly attend religious services and those who don’t, but they are a lot smaller than much of the discussion of this topic would suggest.

Unfortunately, I won’t be able to make it, as I’ll be presenting at the IAAE Conference in the Gold Coast so maybe some Brisbane-based reader would like to put in a brief report on proceedings.

Space and Spirit

Science and religion are often viewed as two competing and utterly opposed epistemologies – one based on faith, the other on reason.

Yet both are systems that attempt to make sense of the world and of humanity’s place within a wider cosmological scheme. Religions usually posit that the material realm is just one part of a larger whole that also includes an immaterial spiritual domain, while modern science speaks only of a physical realm.
At the birth of modern science in the seventeenth century no one imagined that science was articulating the whole of reality, but increasingly, since the Enlightenment, that has been the claim. Hard line materialists today assert that any other view is philosophically naïve and psychologically childish.

In this talk, writer and commentator Margaret Wertheim will trace the history of how, with the rise of modern physics, any notion of a spiritual realm was written out of the Western world picture. Wertheim will examine the social, psychological and cultural effects of this excision and suggest that science and religion together are driving us crazy. She will suggest that indeed we need to reexamine the foundations of our epistemic framework and that we cannot find collective sanity without some acknowledgement of the resources provided by both fields.

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  1. Ernestine Gross
    August 13th, 2006 at 16:44 | #1

    Sometimes I wish some writers and commentators would be a bit more careful in the usage of the word ‘us’.

  2. August 13th, 2006 at 17:38 | #2

    I’ve found Wertheim’s writings on this issue very unimpressive in the past, basically boiling down to ‘lots of people believe it therefore it must be true” and if a belief is religious it is beyond scrutiny.

  3. steve munn
    August 13th, 2006 at 23:51 | #3

    PrQ says:

    “there have been changes in sexual mores, but these have been just as noticeable in the US as elsewhere”

    I’m not quiet sure about that. Acceptance of homosexuality in the USA for example seems to be less than in the rest of the Western World.

  4. August 14th, 2006 at 00:03 | #4

    Pr Q says:

    One of the most striking features of the late 20th century was the collapse of active religious belief in most of the developed world, with the glaring exception of the United States. This didn’t result in any direct sense from scientific discoveries about the universe.

    It was a consequence of modernity providing a kind of heaven on earth. And the fact that pre-modern theists endorsed the Great War.

    There is still some need for some institutionalised morality. which was the traditional function of religion. This need is now fulfilled by schools and media outlets and corporate organizations. But it is mostly secular, rather than spiritual, in nature.

    So we have a secular clergy who continue to lecture us on our misdeeds and impure thoughts. They just do it in a prosaic, rather than poetic, way.

    Pr Q says:

    And, surprisingly, it didn’t seem to produce any big changes in behavior (there have been changes in sexual mores, but these have been just as noticeable in the US as elsewhere) or any obvious rise in cosmic angst.

    Surely this is wrong in the case of the onslaught of totalitarianism. The collapse or suppression of religious belief in the Bolshevik states laid open the way for terrible crimes. The fact that the Nazis did not suppress religion in their jurisdictions probably attenuated some of their atrocities.

    Pr Q says:

    You can find some statistical differences between believers and non-believers, and between those who regularly attend religious services and those who don’t, but they are a lot smaller than much of the discussion of this topic would suggest.

    Religious observance and education, when controlled for sociological and biological differences, still makes a big difference in behaviour. For the better.

    The best apples-to-apples comparison for religious to non-religious societies is the USA to CIS. The crime victimizing rate for poor Caucasian Christians in the US appears to be much lower than the rate for Caucasian non-Christians in the CIS. Ditto in the UK.

    It looks like non-Christians are more likely to commit crimes in their respective jurisdictions. Steve Sailer, as usual, cuts through all the politically correct post-modernist bs:

    Here is the 2000 International Crime Victimization Survey report of the UN Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute.

    The 17-country average was 2.4%. For the U.S., though only 1.9 % of the overall population had been victimized, putting the U.S. 13th out of 17 affluent countries in violent crime victimization prevalence.

    The most violent country in 1999 on this measure was Australia, at 4.1%, followed by England & Wales, Canada, Scotland, Poland, Finland, Northern Ireland, Denmark, Sweden, France, Switzerland, Netherlands, and then, finally, the USA (1.9%).

    And, for American whites, that violent victimization prevalence figure would be significantly lower, perhaps down around, say, 1.2% — because whites get victimized a lot less than blacks and Hispanics.

    This suggests that for American whites, the chance of being violently victimized in a year would probably be below even Belgium, Catalan Spain, and Portugal. Japan, though, would still be off in its own nonviolent universe at only 0.4%.

    Of course, what matters for the question of whether the greater religiousness of American whites makes them behave worse than European whites is not the chance of being violently victimized, but the chance of them violently victimizing someone else.

    Since a moderate fraction of the victimizations of American whites are committed by nonwhites, further research might show that as of the last few years, Americans might be the least violent whites on Earth.

  5. Seeker
    August 14th, 2006 at 04:02 | #5

    I’ve found Wertheim’s writings on this issue very unimpressive in the past,

    I’ve found Wertheim’s work generally unimpressive. Nice enough as a person, and undoubtedly sincere, but an intellectual lightweight who hasn’t offered me any new insights.

  6. August 14th, 2006 at 10:47 | #6

    I read Wertheim’s “Pythagoras’ Trousers” which was great, but admittedly not nearly as exciting to read as Bill Bryson’s “History of Nearly Everything”. Anyway, one of the points she makes in this book is that the cutting edge of physics right now — ie. string theory which, to me, lacks falsifiability — shows many of the same characteristics as a religion.

    Although I can think of a few criticisms of that statement, if we imagine the year is 1006 instead of 2006, a religion can indeed seem like a valid, even reasoned, explanation of the earth and life itself. Clinging to such ideas which no longer seem reasoned is at first glance just a kind of neo-Luddism, but likely to be a backlash against the fact that scientific reasoning rarely offers the emotional comfort of a religion. So I think there is some merit to the idea that some people have “a fundamental pyschological need for a reconcilation of science and religion”, even tho it would be a stupid and pointless excercise.

    I think her talk would be really interesting and well worth attending – pity I’m not in Brisbane today.

  7. wilful
    August 14th, 2006 at 11:15 | #7

    Religious observance and education, when controlled for sociological and biological differences, still makes a big difference in behaviour. For the better.

    Do you have any actual evidence for this? What you’ve quoted is very poor ‘evidence’.

    It should be easy, if there is an actual difference, to work out whether middle class educated sorts with an income are any different depending on whether or not they go to church. I suspect the answer is either no difference, or very very weak. But I don’t know and you claim to. So put up.

  8. Terje (say TAY-A)
    August 14th, 2006 at 11:55 | #8

    I’m not quiet sure about that. Acceptance of homosexuality in the USA for example seems to be less than in the rest of the Western World.

    In what way is acceptance less in the USA?

  9. steve munn
    August 14th, 2006 at 18:44 | #9

    Terje, note this wiki link and in particular the Pew Attitudes Survey results for 2002. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Societal_attitudes_towards_homosexuality

    America is significantly less tolerant of homosexuality than all the other long established liberal democracies shown in the Pew Attitudes Survey wiki table.

    Even some developing countries, like Mexico and Bolivia, exhibit more tolerance of homosexuality than America.

    I also wonder if American religiosity leads to a belief that social welfare is a task for charities more so than the Government.

  10. wilful
    August 14th, 2006 at 21:49 | #10

    Interesting link Steve. Good stats at the bottom:
    73% of the general public in the United States in 2001 knew someone who is gay, lesbian, or bisexual according to a study by the Kaiser Family Foundation. This is the result of a steady increase from 1983 when there were 24%, 43% in 1993, 55% in 1998, or 62% in 2000. The percentage of the general public who say there is more acceptance of LGB people in 2001 than before was 64%. Acceptance was measured on many different levels — 87% of the general public would shop at a store owned by someone who is gay or lesbian all the way down to 46% of the general public would attend a church or synagogue where a minister or rabbi is openly gay or lesbian. 51% of the general public think that “homosexual behavior” is morally wrong. Males and people over 65 years old are more likely to think it is wrong. Among people who don’t know someone who is LGB, 61% think the behavior is wrong. Broken down by religion, 60% of evangelical Christians think that it is wrong, whereas 11% with no religious affiliation are against it. 57% of the general public think that gays and lesbians experience a lot of prejudice and discrimination, making it the group most believed to experience prejudice and discrimination. (African Americans come in second at 42%).[62]

    In terms of support of public policies, according to the same 2001 study, 76% of the general public think that there should be laws to protect gay and lesbian people from job discrimination, 74% from housing discrimination, 73% for inheritance rights, 70% support health and other employee benefits for domestic partners, 68% support social security benefits, and 56% support GL people openly serving in the military. 73% favor sexual orientation being included in the hate crimes statutes. 39% support same-sex marriage, while 47% support civil unions, and 46% support adoption rights.

    A separate study shows that, in the United States, the younger generation is more supportive of gay rights than average. For example, a Kaiser Family Foundation study found that 18-24 year olds strongly supported gay rights in 2001. However, polling data also shows a trend among Americans in general toward rejection of homosexual-specific legal expansion of rights, especially homosexual marriage. A poll commissioned by CNN/USA Today Gallup in 2005 asked the question, “Do you think marriages between homosexuals should or should not be recognized by the law as valid, with the same rights as traditional marriages?” 56% said “should not be valid”, while 39% said “should be valid”, and 5% were unsure.[63] In addition, eleven states rejected homosexual marriage in ballot initiatives during the 2004 elections.

    Doesn’t sound too bad. But note that it’s the atheists that are the least prejudiced!

  11. August 17th, 2006 at 16:41 | #11

    But, clearly, in relation to problems like violent crime, the important issue is _not_ whether “middle class educated sorts with an income are any different depending on whether or not they go to church,” but whether people of less education and less human capital are better behaved. They are the ones more likely to commit crimes.

    Over the last 15 years or so, the more religious white working class in the U.S. has been significantly less violent than their less religious cousins in the UK and Australia. Is that proof that Christian faith is good for avoiding crime? No. But it’s hardly an implausible hypothesis.

  12. stephenl
    August 20th, 2006 at 22:53 | #12

    I find it very hard to believe that the study Steve Sailor relies on is comparing apples with apples.

    The notion that Australia has more than double the rate of violence of the US beggars belief. Compare murder rates (the one thing that is hard to fake). Or the proportion of the population incarcerated for violence. Even allowing for more lenient sentencing here it is simply not credible that we could have twice the rate of violence and a fraction of the number of people imprissoned.

    What is more, the violence that does occur in Australia is disproportionately concentrated in remote Indigenous communites, where religious belief is probably higher than the general population (that’s a guess I’ll admit).

    Finally, I walk around the inner city of Melbourne at two am and seldom feel scared, stand at railway stations at 11pm on Fridays in some of the most disadvantaged parts of town with only a little alarm. It’s a long time since I was in LA, but somehow I doubt the same could be said there.

  13. jquiggin
    August 21st, 2006 at 06:49 | #13

    “Over the last 15 years or so, …” This alone is sufficient to invalidate the claim, since the differences in religiosity are long-standing, and the rising trend in US violent crime to the mid-90s occurred at a time when the gap was already large.

    As Cosma Shalizi said recently, you can’t explain a variable with a constant.

  14. Chris O’Neill
    August 28th, 2006 at 01:15 | #14

    It’s a pity that the report that Steve Sailer refers to, http://www.minjust.nl:8080/b_organ/wodc/publications/08-icvs-h2.pdf is unavailable at its server. Makes it difficult to check what he was actually talking about when he said in his blog:

    “Figure 5 shows what % of respondents in 17 advanced countries said they were victims of “selected contact crimes” (robbery, sexual assault, or assault with force) in 1999.”

    In particular, what the word “selected” refers to.

    Also, for some reason Jack Strocchi left this sentence, which I would have thought was pretty significant to the issue, out of his quotation.

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