September 17, 2007

Art of Living

bearhalluncw.jpgYesterday I received a letter in the mail (the real mail) from Tom Schmid, the chair of the Dept. of Philosophy & Religion at UNC Wilmington where I was an undergrad. The letter was about signing up for the department alumni listserv. A rush of emotion hit me with his letter because it was signed - a rarity these days - and it included a handwritten note that referenced one of my blog posts from over two years ago (predating Nomadic Thoughts).

During the 2005 Spring semester at UNC Wilmington I took a philosophy course taught by Dr. Schmid entitled "The Art of Living." It was my senior year, and in retrospect proved to be one of the most important learning experiences of my life. The class was a seminar that focused on various philosophies related to what it means to live a fulfilling, moral life. Far from being some new age checklist of how to become one with God or nature, it was more an exploration of what it means to live a life in the best way possible, for yourself and everyone you come in contact with. The course didn't teach me what I needed to do to be happy. It taught me what I needed to do to figure those things out on my own. It was a refreshing alternative to what I had been taught in church and in popular culture, both of which I became disillusioned with as an undergraduate.

Part of the Art of Living course was to keep a blog for the semester where we talked about readings, philosophers, personal reflections, etc. Mine was appropriately entitled Will's Art of Living. I was browsing it tonight for a little nostalgia and came across the following passages. It reminded me of those all to short critical semesters when I learned much more than any textbook or academic could teach me. Sometimes while writing my thesis I get very frustrated and want to throw my research materials out of the window. This wouldn't be a good idea because library books are rather expensive. Instead, I take a break and think about what's really important in my life: family, friends, and freedom. My philosophy courses, and one teacher in particular, truly made me the type of person I am today. If you're so inclined, I've included some passages from my Art of Living blog that helps me put my current situation in perspective. They're below the fold. Thanks, Dr. Schmid.

Thursday, February 10, 2005
How about I talk about some light-hearted things for a change? This whole Art of Living thing is starting to drag me down ever so slightly...the class...the journal...the people. I've never taken a philosophy course before in my life. You don't have to ask such tough questions in archaeology. I'll stick to digging up old pottery sherds and medicine bottles as a profession. It's "what's the meaning of life and death?" vs. "what does this stratigraphic sequence of pottery suggest about the social status of those living here?" It's like philosophy is going into a dark cave to seek out the things you don't really want to think about but have to to give meaning to your life. And just when I think that it really, really sucks I tell myself that it's worth it. Philosophical inquiry is worth it.
Tuesday, March 08, 2005
Another aspect of my metamorphosis has been the realization that I lead an unusually comfortable and privileged life. I am healthy, live in a relatively free and safe society, I have no money problems, I have two parents who are married (to eachother!) that love and support me, I have friends who are there for me, and I have opportunity and a future. There is so much hatred, poverty, and negativity in the world but I have somehow managed to grow up in a privileged situation. That is not to say I am blind to this negativity but the fact that I have only recently realized the true scope and nature of it leads me to believe that it is because of that realization that I am growing as a person. I used to have a very bad temper but I almost never get angry anymore. I used to get very upset with my routine was disrupted or things didn't go my way, but now I just take things as they come and deal accordingly. While it still bothers me when things seem out of my control, I do not let the emotions rule me, which has proven disastrous in the past. For some reason I have matured to the point where I am now able to step back for a moment and really think about a potentially troublesome situation and how I should handle it. I can't tell you exactly where or when I learned how to do this, but I do feel it is connected with my trip to Belize and my present philosophy classes. One day it just snapped, and my temper and attachment to things going my way all of the time took a back seat to the more important things in life, which includes thinking more about other people and how I view them instead of how they view me.
Tuesday, April 05, 2005
Over the past four months, I have experienced a metamorphosis in the way I think about and view the world. This change, I feel, has much to do with the material covered in Philosophy 101. I believe that the format of the class has allowed me to not only learn about existential philosophy from an academic standpoint, but to apply existential concepts and themes to my own world. I have rejected many of the more extreme philosophies, such as nihilism and other overemphasis on death and despair. Conversely, I have embraced Heidegger's discussions of conscious awareness of death as the key to understanding and appreciating the nature of our existence. Although I have yet to fully grasp the intricacies of many of the philosophies discussed in class, they have made me realize that there is far more to life than simply existing.
Sunday, April 10, 2005
On a personal level, I can't think of a single more important concept than dialogue. Everything we do in life, every aspect of our existence, is governed by the idea that we are able to interact with those around us. Even the most reclusive hermit is influenced in his ways by the outside world. For this reason, it seems ridiculous to assume that anyone can progress through life by ignoring the ideas of others and not considering all reasonable options. In terms of my Art of Living, I have begun to incorporate dialogue into my everyday existence, the most significant manifestation of that being discussions via the internet. From reading blogs to posting my own thoughts on message boards, not only am I giving my opinion but I am nurturing and informing it at the same time. I am constantly disheartened at the amount of stubbornness that dominates many people's thought process, sometimes to the point of complete ignorance. While it is not my place to judge anyone for the way they think, I can only hope that science and reason will prevail in the end.
Saturday, April 23, 2005
So, as to avoid any awkward cliches, I will leave this journal the same person but with a new view of the world. In conjunction with my other philosophy course, I now fully realize that too much of our collective existence is centered around the individual...the "I." In a burst of bright light I came to the realization that my own existence does not begin and end with me. Unfortunately, I must live in a world where this concept goes unrealized. I do not loose all hope, however, as I refer back to my previous statement that such diversity is the only basis on which my life can have meaning and be worth living.

Posted by Will at 07:32 PM

March 20, 2007

Religious Literacy

If you caught The Daily Show last night you saw an interview with Stephen Prothero, chair of the Religion Department at Boston University and author of a new book entitled Religious Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know--And Doesn't (watch the interview below the fold). I was very pleased to hear about this book and about the initiative the author took in addressing the problem of religious illiteracy in the United States. Considering that much of the political debate has religion at its core (terrorism, abortion, separation of church and state, etc.) I've always found it shocking how little most Americans know about world religions, especially Christianity and Islam. Even more disturbing is the gap in the knowledge of our lawmakers. An easy way to know if you should read Prothero's book (or do some internet research in your spare time) is to ask yourself two questions: what are the Ten Commandments and what is the difference between Sunni and Shi'a Islam? Hint: both of these are very basic and fundamental aspects of two major world religions.

Watch the Daily Show interview:

Posted by Will at 01:13 PM

March 04, 2007

NYT Magazine: Darwin's God

Be sure to check out this easy to understand and well-written piece from the New York Times Magazine. It follows Scott Atran, an anthropologist at the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris. The piece touches on what in my opinion are some of the most important questions that we can ask about our world:

Which is the better biological explanation for a belief in God — evolutionary adaptation or neurological accident? Is there something about the cognitive functioning of humans that makes us receptive to belief in a supernatural deity? And if scientists are able to explain God, what then? Is explaining religion the same thing as explaining it away? Are the nonbelievers right, and is religion at its core an empty undertaking, a misdirection, a vestigial artifact of a primitive mind? Or are the believers right, and does the fact that we have the mental capacities for discerning God suggest that it was God who put them there?
In short, are we hard-wired to believe in God? And if we are, how and why did that happen?

So why are these questions important?

About 6 in 10 Americans, according to a 2005 Harris Poll, believe in the devil and hell, and about 7 in 10 believe in angels, heaven and the existence of miracles and of life after death. A 2006 survey at Baylor University found that 92 percent of respondents believe in a personal God — that is, a God with a distinct set of character traits ranging from “distant” to “benevolent.”

And the central conclusion:

This internal push and pull between the spiritual and the rational reflects what used to be called the “God of the gaps” view of religion. The presumption was that as science was able to answer more questions about the natural world, God would be invoked to answer fewer, and religion would eventually recede. Research about the evolution of religion suggests otherwise. No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

Posted by Will at 10:49 AM

February 25, 2007

Stick to sinking ships and aliens, James

Update: skip below for some links and a video of the documentary trailer.

File this post under the "um, this is random" department: director James Cameron is set to unveil a documentary he is making that among other things, claims that Jesus did not actually rise from the dead and that he had a son with Mary Magdalene. Not that I need James Cameron to provide evidence of either tidbit, but what's really strange (and unsettling) is that he claims to have archaeological and DNA evidence of it all, including the coffins of Jesus, Mary, and Mary Magdalene. From a blog post:

Ever the showman, (Why does this remind me of the impresario in another movie,"King Kong", whose hubris blinds him to the dangers of an angry and very large ape?) Cameron is holding a New York press conference on Monday at which he will reveal three coffins, supposedly those of Jesus of Nazareth, his mother Mary and Mary Magdalene. News about the film, which will be shown soon on Discovery Channel, Britain's Channel 4, Canada's Vision, and Israel's Channel 8, has been a hot blog topic in the Middle East. Here in the Holy Land, Biblical Archeology is a dangerous profession. This 90-minute documentary is bound to outrage Christians and stir up a titanic debate between believers and skeptics. Stay tuned.

It's important to remember that we live in a post-Da Vinci Code, quasi-academic world where the lines between entertainment and science are blurring faster than ever before. We'll have to see what really happens at the press conference on Monday, but I'm having a hard time believing that this is legit (legit in the sense that Cameron is serious about his evidence).

Update: a story from

Update 2: Now you can watch this morning's press conference online by clicking here (a direct link to the video that will open in your default player). The Lost Tomb of Jesus show is to air this Sunday night at 9pm ET on the Discovery Channel. Like a good scientist, I'll reserve judgment until I see the show, but in the meantime you can watch a series of interviews with the filmmakers and browse the official website about the's very shiny and soooo Indiana Jones!

Also, I did some Googling and Talmor Media is behind the promotion of the film. They have a truly over-the-top website at with all sorts of "archaeological" information and a section on theological implications. Talmor Media's YouTube Page has a bunch of video clips if your anxious for a preview. Below is a trailer for the documentary that comes across more like a Hollywood production than a documentary. It has a bitchin' soundtrack that I want to play every time I'm on a dig, regardless of the situation.

The whole production and hype is interesting and the show itself will probably hold my attention, but the archaeological discovery of the millennium? Sheesh...

Posted by Will at 07:56 PM

February 12, 2007

Science, academia, and religion

Where should institutions draw the line between doing good science and permitting religious freedom? What is the value of research that is sound but is later used to mislead students? The New York Times has published an article today about Marcus R. Ross who was awarded a PhD. in geosciences from the University of Rhode Island. Not a small achievement by any means, except that now he now teaches at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University in Virginia. The article brings attention to the Creationist movement and their lust for young students with advanced degrees from legitimate universities. Although unsettling, I don't see it as becoming too much of a problem but it's important to know that it is happening and needs to be called out for what it is: a misuse of good science. I agree that good and relevant research can be carried out whatever your personal beliefs, but I find it a travesty that the degree that results from such research should be used to propagate a completely faith-based (and thus unsupportable) view of the world.

Read the article here.

Posted by Will at 07:50 AM

December 29, 2006

"How then is conversation between us possible?"

As 2006 comes to a close, I can only hope that we survive 12 more months as a society. I'm not a pessimist, however, because I believe in dialogue, like Elie Wiesel (see below). Upon entering 2007 I am optimistic that America and other parts of the world will experience the beginnings of what may one day be progress. The key is talking and keeping open lines of communication between all sides of whatever the issue is, whether it be as contentious as religion and politics or as infinitely critical as America's Middle East policies. It is even more important to recognize one's own ignorance; to admit proudly when you don't know something. It's ironically rewarding to proclaim, without a hint of timidity, "I don't know" when debating religion, politics, or science. It gives pause to your debate opponent because the dogmatic nature of opinion forming in American society is so pervasive that people are often bewildered that you so readily admit you don't something that they think you should. Accordingly, my New Year's resolution is to embrace my ignorance and strive to eliminate it as much as possible, constantly reminding myself that there will always be someone out there smarter than I am. Almost invariably, dogmatism breeds arrogance and this is no more true than with the current debate in America about the intersection between religion, politics, and culture.

The Washington Post and Newsweek have teamed up to assemble a rather impressive panel of observers and critics to discuss the current "state of religion", if you will, in American politics, culture, and society. The series is called "On Faith" and every week the two moderators ask post a question, elicit responses from a rather impressive panel, and open the topic to discussion. There are perspectives from all sides of the debate. The panel list reads partly like a who's who of my favorite authors: Sam Harris, Susan Jacoby, Karen Armstrong, and Daniel Dennett are among the panelists and provide a voice of reason. Richard Dawkins is listed but doesn't seem to have posted a response yet. There are scholars, musicians, politicians, and writers. The questions are thought-provoking and the answers equally so. The website is a good way to explore the current debates on religion in America and the rest of the world so you can form your own opinion. To give you a sample, I quote a few of my favorite responses below:

Karen Armstrong on how no one can have the last word on God:

karen_armstrong.jpgThe reality that we call God, Brahman, Nirvana or the sacred is transcendent. That is, it goes beyond our mundane experience. Nobody can have the last word on God. That should be the principle that underlies religious dialogue. Throughout history, Jews, Christians and Muslims have all insisted that the ideas we have about the divine can never measure up to the reality itself. The Greek Orthodox believed that every statement about the divine should have two qualities. It should be paradoxical, reminding us that the idea of God cannot fit neatly into a human system of thought; and it should be apophatic ~ it should reduce us to silence, in the same way as a great poem or piece of music. Sometimes at the end of a symphony, there is a beat of silence in the concert hall before applause starts. That is what every theological statement should do. In the modern West, we have lost sight of this apophatic vision, and imagine that our statements about God and the ultimate are accurate expressions of this transcendence, whereas in reality, they must point beyond the limitations of our human minds.

Daniel Dennett on a no-longer-silent minority:

daniel_c_dennett.jpgIn the meantime, can we public atheists have productive conversations with believers? Certainly. We can discuss every issue under the sun, and particularly the great questions of ethics and public policy, respecting each other as citizens with honest disagreements about fundamental matters that can be subjected to reasonable, open inquiry and mutual persuasion. As I said in my first posting to On Faith, we all need to agree to live by the principles of rational discourse. That, and common courtesy, is the only rule we need–-just as in science.

Susan Jacoby on America as a "Christian nation":

susan_jacoby.jpgOne of the most repellent examples of this kind of thinking appears in Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's dissenting opinion in one of the so-called "Ten Commandments" cases. The Court was wrong to order the removal of Ten Commandments plaques from courthouses, Scalia wrote, because the nation's historical practices clearly indicate that the Constitution permits "disregard of polytheists and believers in unconcerned deities, just as it permits the disregard of devout atheists."
That is precisely what the Constitution does not allow. It has nothing to say about God, gods, or any form of belief or nonbelief--apart from its prohibition, in Article 6, against any religious test for public office, and the First Amendment's declaration that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
If the founders had wanted to establish a "Christian nation"--as opposed to a nation in which everyone possessed the freedom to believe or not to believe in any type of religion--they would have ended the First Amendment with "free exercise thereof--as long as the faithful worship one Christian God."

Sam Harris on dialogue:

sam_harris.jpgAs to whether atheists and believers can have “a productive conversation,” I am quite sure that the answer is “yes.” But I am uncertain whether this conversation can bear fruit quickly enough to keep civilization from becoming fully engorged by Iron Age stupidity and horror. Our capacity for self-destruction is now spreading with 21st century efficiency, and yet our beliefs about how we should pass our days and nights on this earth still spring from ancient literature. This marriage of modern technology and preliterate superstition is a bad one, for reasons that I should not have to specify, much less argue for—and yet, arguing for them has taken up most of my time since September 11th, 2001, the day that nineteen pious men showed our pious nation just how beneficial religious certainty can be.

And finally, from Elie Wiesel (a Holocaust survivor and author of "Night"), an eloquently brief post that almost completely encapsulates the debate between faith and reason. This is destined to become my favorite quote in a long time:

elie_wiesel.jpgThe fanatic does not believe in dialogue; I do. How then is conversation between us possible?

Posted by Will at 12:42 PM

November 12, 2006

I've been touched by His noodly appendage!

Via Brian Flemming comes a link to this miraculous video from Germany of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. I didn't think it was real. This is a glorious day...I am a Pastafarian.

Click here if you're still confused.

Posted by Will at 09:12 PM

October 22, 2006


DiwaliSwastika.jpgOne aspect of religious traditions that I love is the ceremonial. In fact, it's perhaps the main reason I pursued an undergraduate Philosophy & Religion degree. The beauty of the the world's religions (including Christianity and Islam) has always fascinated me and made me wish I could study it more. This time of the year, throughout the world, people are celebrating the Hindu festival of lights, Diwali. From Wikipedia:

Diwali, also called Deepavali (Sanskrit: दीपावली) is a major Hindu festival. Known as the "Festival of Lights," it symbolises the victory of good over evil, and lamps are lit as a sign of celebration and hope for mankind. The festival of Diwali is about harvesting. Celebrations focus on lights and lamps, particularly traditional diyas (as illustrated). Fireworks are associated with the festival in many regions of India.
Diwali is celebrated for five consecutive days in the Hindu month of Ashwayuja. It usually occurs in October/November, and is one of the most popular and eagerly awaited festivals in India. Hindus, Jains and Sikhs alike regard it as a celebration of life and use the occasion to strengthen family and social relationships. For Jains it is one of the most important festivals, and beginning of the Jain year. Jains celebrate Diwali because Lord Mahavira achieved Moksha. It is also a significant festival for the Sikh faith. In 2006, Diwali will occur on October 21, 2006.


Some more links: slide show guide

Posted by Will at 11:27 AM

October 20, 2006

Worldview Quiz

As PZ notes, "compass quizzes" tend to be oversimplified, but they are telling to a certain degree. Based on the famous Political Compass, there is the Worldview Compass. Here's my result, followed by other notable people:



Posted by Will at 10:14 AM

October 18, 2006

Richard Dawkins on Colbert

Richard Dawkins was on the Colbert Report last night. As expected, Colbert's goofiness played well against Dawkins' seriousness and made for an entertaining interview. The genius of Colbert is how rediculous he sounds while accurately representing how many Americans think about God and evolution.

Previously on Nomadic Thoughts:
The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason

Posted by Will at 08:18 AM

October 02, 2006

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

dawkinsphoto.jpgJust after finishing up Sam Harris' fantastic new book Letter to a Christian Nation, I received Richard Dawkins' latest that just came out, The God Delusion. A review, if I write one at all, won't be for another several weeks but suffice it to say that these two books are on track to being two of the most important books since On the Origin of Species (ok, that may be a slight overstatement but definitely the most important books published since September 11th, 2001).

dawkins.jpgI was pleased to discover in one of the footnotes in The God Delusion that Richard Dawkins and others have launched a foundation dedicated to supporting the quest of science and reason, which is essentially (as I understand it) to supplant religious dogmatism in the world, especially in the United States. Dawkins notes early on in his book that atheists and humanists have been reluctant to organize and mobilize in order to achieve real progress in world and national politics because of the very nature of nonbelief. The Dawkins Foundation is a good start and I'm amazed at the wealth of resources already gathered on the site (I'm not sure when exactly it was launched, but it must have been recently).

There is an excellent introductory video that explains the objectives and is a good summary of the goal of the science- and reason-based movement. To everyone, I highly recommend Dawkins' latest book. As Penn and Teller are quoted on the back of the dustjacket: "The God Delusion is smart, compassionate, and true like ice, like fire. If this book doesn't change the world, we're all screwed."

Visit the and poke around.

Posted by Will at 06:04 PM

July 18, 2006

Atheism in America

Joseph Gerteis, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Minnesota has a fantastic piece up at The Secular Web discussing a recent article he published in the American Sociological Review called “Atheists As ‘Other': Moral Boundaries and Cultural Membership in American Society” (American Sociological Review. Albany: Apr 2006. Vol. 71, Iss. 2; p. 211). The insights discussed by Gerteis in the Secular Web piece are, as he mentions, not surprising to me and other nonbelievers:

When we were putting together the survey, we thought that it would be Muslims that topped the list in these post-9/11 times. We asked about atheists mostly as an afterthought, as a kind of counterbalance to our questions about conservative Christians. But it was indeed atheists at the top of the list of the folks Americans rejected--and the finding was robust; we asked the question in two ways just to be sure. Our "private" measure was to ask whether or not people would object if their son or daughter married a person of a given type, with the idea that this would tell us whether Americans would welcome different kinds of people into their own homes and families. Our "public" measure was to ask whether or not such groups agreed with the respondents' vision of America. Here the idea was that we may not want to associate with some people, but we might still accept them as part of the fabric of the country.

The study seems to suggest the difficulty in gauging any sort of public perception in America. Clearly, it is logical to assume that Muslims would top a list of most rejected group of people. Even homosexuals seem a natural heir to the tile of “most threatening to the American way of life” (Gerteis discusses this as well). Is the term “atheist”, as Gerteis suggests, a catch-all term for anyone who holds different political views or worldviews? Perhaps, but I think it is mostly a misunderstanding of what it means to subscribe to an atheistic worldview and the stigma that has dogged the term since the 18th and 19th centuries. People know what “atheism” is, even if it is a general and vague notion. My experience has been that individuals who have made the decision to reject religion and spirituality have not done so on a whim. They have thought about the existence of God and the supernatural at length. For some, myself included, this was not an easy process and involved many restless nights and countless hours of contemplating the implications and meaning of nonbelief (sometimes for credit hours).

Another problem that clouds public perception of atheism and nonbelief in America has to do with social construction. It is easy to forget (and some would argue not true) that one is not born into this world with a belief in God or the supernatural. Like language, religion and spirituality has to be learned; etched onto a blank slate that has the potential to go any number of directions. If one holds that a human is imbued with a spirit at birth, then the “blank slate” mindset is pushed aside in favor of a God-bestowed reason to breathe. In the haze, it is forgotten that even deep-seeded religious beliefs are socially constructed, subject to the same mechanisms that govern biological evolution (see Daniel Dennett). This, I feel, is one of the main impediments to atheism in America and why so many Americans (according to Gerteis et al.) place atheists at the top of their list of most threatening group. More from Gerteis:

So where does this leave us? The findings are the findings. As a scientist, what I can say for sure is that there is a widespread rejection of atheists, that it is manifest in assumptions about who atheists are as both public citizens and as private individuals. As someone who cares about this issue, what I can say is that I am convinced that it turns on issues of morality and how we understand it. And I think that it is not as black-and-white as it might seem.

Posted by Will at 10:25 AM | Comments (1)

March 30, 2006

Prayer and Health

Here is an interesting article about prayer and health:

Prayer Does Not Help Heart Bypass Patients
NEW YORK (AP)—In the largest study of its kind, researchers found that having people pray for heart bypass surgery patients had no effect on their recovery. In fact, patients who knew they were being prayed for had a slightly higher rate of complications.
Researchers emphasized that their work can't address whether God exists or answers prayers made on another's behalf. The study can only look for an effect from prayers offered as part of the research, they said.
They also said they had no explanation for the higher complication rate in patients who knew they were being prayed for, in comparison to patients who only knew it was possible prayers were being said for them.
Critics said the question of God's reaction to prayers simply can't be explored by scientific study.

Interestingly, I had just posted a question today on my class' online discussion board about religion/spirituality and health. The book I mentioned two posts ago about the cholera epidemic in Venezuela mentions the role of indigenous or folk remedies. Another article I read today for class* discusses patient compliance vs. noncompliance when receiving medication for mental illness, and appeals to God (including prayer) are cited as one possible type of noncompliance as a means for the patient to gain control over his or her illness. Anyway, here is my question:

If we subscribe to the notion that everything we do as anthropologists should be placed in the context of a particular society or culture (i.e. cultural relativism), how are we to reconcile the importance of health and disease prevention when so many people are blinded by irrational beliefs (i.e. religion, spirituality, etc.)? Put another way, is it ethically and/or morally responsible to refrain from criticizing another’s worldview when that worldview is contributing to the maintenance or spread of disease and sickness?

*Kaljee, Linda M. and Robert Beardsley
1992 Psychotropic Drugs and Concepts of Compliance in a Rural Mental Health Clinic. Medical Anthropology Quarterly 6(3): 271-287.

Posted by Will at 05:19 PM

February 12, 2006

Sam Harris on Islam and the Danish cartoons

One of my favorite authors, Sam Harris, has written another extraordinary piece, this time on the website Truthdig (archaeology meets media criticism). In it he offers his opinion on the recent violence over the Danish cartoons that have resulted in anger and violence among outraged Muslims (see my post here). He articulates why Muslims are outraged and proceeds to lay the smackdown:

It is time we recognized—and obliged the Muslim world to recognize—that “Muslim extremism” is not extreme among Muslims. Mainstream Islam itself represents an extremist rejection of intellectual honesty, gender equality, secular politics and genuine pluralism. The truth about Islam is as politically incorrect as it is terrifying: Islam is all fringe and no center. In Islam, we confront a civilization with an arrested history. It is as though a portal in time has opened, and the Christians of the 14th century are pouring into our world.

Read the piece and be enlightened. And if you haven't already, pick up The End of Faith by Sam Harris. It is the one book that has most profoundly changed my life.

Posted by Will at 11:09 PM | Comments (1)

February 11, 2006

Tabsir: Insight on Islam and the Middle East

I normally don't mention every great blog I come across but this one is worth special mention, especially in the wake of the Danish cartoons that are causing so much unnecessary violence across the globe. Tabsir is a blog written by "scholars concerned about stereotypes, misinformation and propaganda spread in the media and academic forums on Islam and the Middle East." The lineup is quite impressive and includes a handful of professors and chairs of anthropology departments in the US. I'll be reading with a critical eye, however, because as I argued in a previous post I have yet to be convinced that Islam is not an inherently violent religion, with blood spilt over the Danish cartoons being the single response consistent with Muslim theology.

Posted by Will at 01:16 AM | Comments (1)

January 15, 2006

The God Survey

PZ of Pharyngula linked me up to a blogger who recently carried out a two-month informal study of Christians on message boards where she asked a variety of questions related to Christian ideas about the existence of God and atheism. She found some interesting tidbits, nothing new but good to see in writing. She posts basically a bunch of lists like the "10 most common misconceptions about atheists" (Jealous of theists is #1), etc. More interesting was her receptiveness (or lack thereof) on the message boards and how she concludes that one of the main problems in initiating a dialogue between theists and atheists is a language barrier:

The entire experience can be summed up fairly easily. Generally speaking, they know next to nothing about atheists, they are extremely emotionally attached to their deities, and they are just people looking for truth as we are. The animosity that sparks between atheists and theists seems to stem from the two camps speaking two different languages - atheists speak in terms of empirical evidence and logic; theists speak in terms of faith, emotion, and the unknown. An atheist expects proof before acceptance, a theists sees acceptance as proof.

This is essentially an anthropological approach to studying a group of people (however informal and unscientific the study is). Here we have an interested individual who sets out to gain insight into the worldview of what can be described as a different culture. As with any study of "the Other" there are meanings that cannot be translated, ideas that cannot be adequately put into words, and implied hostilities that cannot be reconcilied. Trying to understand how an atheist or theist thinks without actually being one or the other is incoherent and ultimately impossible. In other words, you'll never find a Christian that fully agrees with an atheist's characterization of Christianity and vice versa.

Posted by Will at 12:56 PM | Comments (2)

January 05, 2006

Science and Religion

I don't usually post links to Pharyngula because virtually all of PZ Myers' posts are fantastic reading. But this one really stands out because it gets to the heart of an issue that's very important to me: the compatibility (or lack thereof) of science and religion:

It is entirely correct that the scientific community is full of Christians and Muslims and Buddhists and agnostics and atheists, and I think that's reasonable and fair—we're even pleased to point out to the creationists that many of our leading lights have been and are religious (Dobzhansky, Ayala, Miller, Collins: it isn't at all difficult to find people who can do both good science and follow a religion in their private life). It is self-evident that scientists are not necessarily derisive of religion, and also that science as an abstract concept can't be derisive at all. However, I do think that the processes of science are antithetical to the processes of religion—personal revelation and dogma are not accepted forms of evidence in the sciences—and that people can encompass both clashing ideas is nothing but a testimony to the flexibility of the human mind, which has no problem partitioning and embracing many contradictions. There are also many scientists who are capable of suspending disbelief and reading fantasy novels with pleasure; that doesn't mean that magic is a valid way of manipulating the world.

Here, PZ raises an interesting point: the human brain is extremely talented at balancing opposing concepts and ideas. We can believe one thing and then turn right around and simultaneously believe something completely contradictory. This is why the science-religion debate exists. PZ observes that if one takes a step back and looks at science and religion for what they are, they are completely antithetical and simply cannot be reconciled. This of course is not a new idea and one that I have only recently subscribed to. I used to believe that one could have a personal God on Sunday and go to the lab on Monday morning and become a person who "believes" in science. This is not to say (as PZ notes) that religious individuals cannot do good science. It does, however, highlight the inherent contradictory nature of subscribing to both a religious worldview and one based on science and reason.

The problem of science and religion is more pronounced in the biological and natural sciences relative to the social sciences but the pitfalls of holding religious beliefs still apply. As an anthropologist, I am as dedicated to empirical evidence as a chemist. The difference is that the evidence I study (artifacts) was created by living, breathing, thinking beings with the capacity to develop ideas based on a number of observed and imagined criteria. Although every branch of science looks at different things, some animate and some not, we are all bound by a quest to achieve the greatest possible degree of certitude in our results. This is done via the scientific method and relying on the observable evidence as opposed to supernatural phenomena. You cannot do both and be called a scientist.

Scientists with a religious worldview sometimes succeed at keeping these two parts of their world separate, but with great detriment to the latter. Sometimes it is the other way around: one may be so dedicated to their religious beliefs that it interferes with their attempt at scientific inquiry. This is why intelligent design has been knocked down time and time again. I have always believed that a person is free to hold whatever worldview they wish, be it Christianity, Buddhism, Scientology, Atheism, or any other way of viewing the world around them. I am becoming increasingly convinced, however, that the coexistence of a consistent theistic worldview and science is not possible.

Posted by Will at 10:09 PM

January 01, 2006

Creationism's Wedge Strategy

Austin Cline has a good post today on the blog about the wedge strategy that some supporters of creationism/ID advocate as a way to "overthrow" Darwinism:

If you wonder why so many creationists falsely claim that evolution entails atheism, this is why: the assertion is necessary for their larger goal of getting people to read the Bible and accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and saviour. It is, in effect, yet one more example of people lying for the sake of converting people to their religion.

I've always believed (and this is not a new idea) that if ID is a valid alternative to evolution via natural selection there needn't be any sort of subversive strategy at all. If ID really does stand on its own then it shouldn't have a problem gaining widespread acceptance in the scientific community. Granted, Darwin and his contemporaries had to convince alot of people when natural selection started causing tremors but eventually the evidence spoke for itself and it continues to do so. This is why we are seeing the intelligent design movement: creationism failed in the scientific arena so its proponents had to regroup, repackage, and offer up a revised edition that was more effective.

Posted by Will at 05:52 PM

August 12, 2005

Start Shouting: My Atheism Story

My decision to enter graduate school was a decision to dedicate my life's work to the study of humans and their material remains. There are no "changing majors" in a master's program and thus I am bound to anthropology as both a career path and as a life philosophy. The American academy is an institution like no other; it has its own rules and politics and is governed not by a board of directors or a chief executive officer, but by your peers, fellow researchers, and students. But that is not what this post is about. It is about the unending search for reason that I have chosen to undertake.

I've never come out on either of my blogs and said that I'm an atheist. My unbelief usually manifested itself in such ambiguous phrases as "my rejection of religion" and "my dedication to reason." Among my peers, I was always secretly excited when I was able to proclaim my rejection of God or anything supernatural. Indeed it was a coming out of sorts, the kind that excites little children when they're showing off a new toy. My girlfriend accepts me as an atheist, although she jokingly believes my wedding is going to be in a cave, with bats. My sister, three years my senior and a believer herself, also accepts the fact that I find truth in a different book than her. I don't worry too much about the opinion of anyone else except my parents. I'm sure that they have a good idea because of those ambiguous phrases mentioned above that I used quite liberally in a blog I had to write for a philosophy course. Perhaps I was so "careful" with them because I had an unfounded fear that I would disappoint them. Part of that fear will always remain with me. They did, after all, invest so much love and attention during my formative years in the context of Christianity.

As a boy scout I took an oath to do my duty to God (although the scouts never taught me what that duty entailed other than blind acceptance). I went though confirmation at church but at that age I was still under the impression that God's work was arts and crafts and maybe a cheery song or two. I didn't know it then, but I was a zombie in training. I was being told fairytales and nightmares that were supposed to somehow make me a good person. Looking back, my church experience was nothing more than teaching me that I wouldn't get my dessert if I didn't clean my plate. All through high school I went intellectually unfulfilled. It's not that the courses weren't challenging enough, it's that I just didn't care. I received good grades, but I got them because I had to, not because I wanted to. College would change all that.

In the fall of 2001 I was a freshman at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. On September 12 of that same semester, I was a freshman who no longer believed in the God that I had grown up with for eighteen years. As I was sitting in my dorm room watching the World Trade Centers aflame, I remember thinking to myself that the world is going to be different from now on. I didn't know exactly how or to what degree, but it was going to be different. I went through that Tuesday like any other, unaware of the future implications of these terrorist attacks. One of my fondest memories of my first semester in college was walking through the center of campus, alone, on the night of September 11th. I had to be alone but I didn't know why. It's not that I get stressed out easily. I cried for a few minutes thinking of the thousands of people that had vanished from the earth in a matter of minutes. For the first time in my life, death was real and the fragility of life took on a new meaning. Around the time I entered college I was already starting to think about my personal religious beliefs. Sometime on or shortly after September 11th I remember saying to myself "even if God does exist, I do not want a personal relationship with a being that would allow something like this to happen." There was nothing that could possibly change that.

By the next year I had declared Anthropology as my major but I had no idea that my newly-realized unbelief may have played a role in that decision. I was now on a quest for truth in reason, the kind that could be found in dirt and DNA. But I did not emerge from my transformation completely ridded of the shackles of religion. I would soon declare Philosophy and Religion as a minor and eventually a second major. Although traditional religion and spirituality do nothing for me on a personal level, I still find them fascinating and worthy of inquiry. I am still amused by the possibility that people may think I'm religious just because I have a religion degree. One of my favorite books is Karen Armstrong's A History of God. One of my most enlightening college courses was Old Testament Literature. It didn't take long to realize that my fascination with religion was a quest to try and understand how so many people can be so obviously wrong about the world. I am not saying that I have all the answers, or any answers at all, but I do know a fairytale when I read one. If I do end up being wrong about the whole thing and I find myself engulfed in the flames of Hell, I will still manage to smile because I know I lead a fulfilling life without fear of my ultimate demise.

You may be wondering why I decided to write this entry in this blog (as opposed to my personal blog). Inspiration came from a number of sources. I will preface these remarks with the observation that it takes courage to "come out" as an atheist in the United States. Unfortunately, there is still a stigma attached to anyone who doesn't believe in something. Often times this is simply the result a general apprehension of deviating from the social norm and a fear of being rejected by society. Indeed, to be an atheist is by its very definition, among other things, a DESIRE to be rejected by the religious mainstream on ideological grounds. That being said, I overcame my childish fear of rejection by realizing that science provided a much firmer philosophical ground on which to stand than did religion. Secondly, Sam Harris' The End of Reason gave me more confidence in my five year old conclusion that there is no God and that a belief in one is dangerous. I decided to author this post itself by one of my favorite authors, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who posted on another blog that in order to prevent religion from destroying us we must "start shouting, to encourage the others." On the same blog, Sam Harris had this to say:

The only thing that permits human beings to collaborate with one another in a truly open-ended way is their willingness to have their beliefs modified by new facts. Only openness to evidence and argument will secure a common world for us. Nothing guarantees that reasonable people will agree about everything, of course, but the unreasonable are certain to be divided by their dogmas. It is time we recognized that this spirit of mutual inquiry, which is the foundation of all real science, is the very antithesis of religious faith.

Posted by Will at 12:09 AM

August 11, 2005

Mormons Taste Like Chicken

The Evangelical Atheist, taking a hint from Jonathan Swift, has an interesting idea for curbing the recent trend in Mormon communitues of expelling teenage boys because their numbers threaten the institution of polygamy. The solution is two-fold because it takes advantage of the Chinese and Indian practice of female infanticide. Everybody wins, including cultural relativists!

The solution is a swap. I propose an intercontinental, unwanted child-trading program in which male, teenage Mormons are flown to China and India in exchange for imports of female babies. I know what you’re worried about. Utah’s population is about 0.1% of China and India combined. That’s OK. The exchange rate would be set at 1,000 female babies for each male Mormon. Finally, a good exchange rate with China! Everybody wins. The Chinese and Indians get some extra boys, and the Mormons get more wives than they know what to do with. As a bonus, they’re still babies. The sick bastards can start raping and molesting them immediately instead of using their own daughters like they do now.

(File under "Social Irony", right next to A Modest Proposal)

Posted by Will at 01:20 PM

August 10, 2005

Reconciling Religion and Evolution

Ektopos, a philosophy news portal, has links to two interesting pieces related to religion and science. Both have to do with individuals that believe religion and science needn't be opposed to each other. The notion that natural science, particularly evolutionary biology, necessitates atheism is rejected by both men and it is interesting to read about how they achieve their conclusions. While I stop short of admitting there is a valid debate between Creationism/ID and Evolution, the increasingly visible segment of scientists who are trying their hardest to reconcile faith and science deserve serious philosophical contemplation. Granted, most can be dismissed as nothing more than misguided fundamentalists who are severely ignorant of the facts, but there are an enlightened few who are making sincere attempts to link both sides into one seamless philosophy of life:

Breaking the Science-Atheism Bond (BeliefNet) - Alister McGrath, a professor of historical theology at Oxford, explains what led him to eventually reject atheism as a personal philosophy despite having a firm scientific education. While I disagree with his assumptions about atheism and the leaps of faith he takes in regards to his Christianity, I respect his views because they work for him and aren't completely off base, as many theologies are when speaking of science:

To this day, I have never seen the sciences and religion as being fundamentally opposed to each other. As an historian, I am fully aware of important tensions and battles, usually the result of specific social conditions (such as the professionalization of science in late Victorian England) or the unwise overstatements of both scientists and theologians. Yet I judge that their relationship is generally benign, and always intellectually stimulating. My Christian faith brings me a deepened appreciation of the natural sciences, and although I am no longer active in primary scientific research, I keep up my reading in the fields that interest and excite me most: evolutionary biology, theoretical physics, biochemistry, and biophysics.

Priests in lab coats - has this interview with Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science, who takes the interesting stance of subscribing to Darwinian evolution on the one hand and defending scientists who find no fundamental oppositions between science and religion. Not an atheist, he rejects Creationism and Intelligent Design as "intellectual dead ends" and avoids religious fundamentalism at all costs. His agnostic philosophy enables him to support both sides of the religion-evolution debate, although this article correctly surmises that the evolution side isn't very happy (they tend to be a little defensive sometimes:

Above and beyond that, Ruse makes a heretical argument in "The Evolution-Creation Struggle" that will not endear him to members of his own team. Creationism and evolutionism, he says, are siblings, born of the same historical crisis, and they provide distorted reflections of each other. "The two sides share a common set of questions and, in important respects, common solutions," he writes. More explosively, he thinks both are essentially theological in character; they are "rival religious responses to a crisis of faith -- rival stories of origins, rival judgments about the meaning of human life, rival sets of moral dictates, and above all what theologians call rival eschatologies -- pictures of the future and of what lies ahead for humankind."

Although you have to register or get a free "site pass," definitely try to read this article/interview in full. It's very enlightening and raises some useful questions.

Posted by Will at 12:45 PM

July 26, 2005

A Momentary Art of Living: The Documentary

This past Spring semester (my last at UNC-Wilmington) I took a Philosophy course called "The Art of Living." It was an upper level, rather free form discussion-based course looking at various arts of living. We read things like Epictetus (one of my favorites), Thoreau's Walden, and even some Dr. Phil (not to imply that he's in the same league as the other two). One of the assignments for the course was to maintain our own "Art of Living" blog (mine is still up here).

Anyway, one of the guys in the class, a film student, made a short documentary film consisting mostly of interviews with students plus some footage of class discussion. He did a great job editing and adding a soundtrack and it turned out really well.

It is currently up only on Google Video so in order to view it, you have to download the Google video player (a small file that seems to integrate well with IE). The link to the video is here. And just in case you were wondering, I'm this guy in the video:


Posted by Will at 05:45 PM

July 03, 2005

Social Neuroscience

The Guardian reports on recent findings about the nature of beliefs and the growing field of social neuroscience. Previously reserved for philosophers, the subject is crossing over into the realm of imperical science. How are beliefs formed? How are they maintained and changed? The answer seems to be complex interactions of biology, culture, and environment:

"Beliefs are mental objects in the sense that they are embedded in the brain," says Taylor. "If you challenge them by contradiction, or just by cutting them off from the stimuli that make you think about them, then they are going to weaken slightly. If that is combined with very strong reinforcement of new beliefs, then you're going to get a shift in emphasis from one to the other."

What does this mean for anthropology and other social sciences? If social neuroscience begins answering the many questions it has raised, then we will be better equipped to understand such things as social interactions and behavior and the dynamics of culture and spiritual beliefs. Temporary relief from my fear of not having anything to research in the future.

Posted by Will at 11:23 PM

When's the "drugs, sex, and devil-worshiping" seminar?

Fascinating piece in the New York Times a few days ago about a secular summer camp geared toward children from non-religious families. Camp Quest in Ohio has all the typical summer camp activities but with presentations and skits that attempt to alleviate some of the anxiety many non-religious children can feel in a society dominated by conservative religious traditions. The goal of the camp is to help them realize that there is nothing wrong with not believing in the Bible, God, or any other supernatural spiritual worldview.

I'll quietly await the "get 'em while they're young" criticisms of such a program, but I don't think that will happen in the national press. Camp Quest seems to be a legitimate and enriching program for children and that's the last thing the mainstream religious establishment wants publicized.

Posted by Will at 10:48 PM

June 30, 2005

Greatest Philosopher

The BBC Radio 4 program (programme, rather) "In Our Time" is having an online vote for the greatest philosopher of all time. You can read about the candidates and listen to other philosophers make a case for each. Even though I just earned a philosophy second major, I am hardly knowledgeable to make a fully qualified decision, but I would have to vote for Kierkegaard because his writing has the ability to turn my brain into a soupy mess, and I tend to like that.

Posted by Will at 08:57 PM

June 16, 2005

Omelet, anyone?

One of my favorite writers, Gerry Lower, gives a naturalistic explanation of the old "chicken or egg" conundrum. It's almost humorus in its complexity:

First, we must realize that the terms "hen" and "chicken" are technical terms from human cultural evolution that do not relate directly to the biology of wild fowl. Rather, these terms specify a wild fowl designated to become a domestic farm animal. The first "chicken" emerged on earth sometime around 2,500 B.C. in India, not as a result of mutation and selection (the red-combed wild jungle fowl, Gallus gallus, emerged that way), but as a result of the humans who first chased down Gallus gallus and put it in an enclosure allowing collection of eggs. Eureka, the first "chicken" was born, already fully grown, ready and able to lay eggs for breakfast.
... The age old "chicken and egg" dilemma exists because we are trying to answer what is conceptually a vertical question (i.e., where did chickens come from?) with a horizontal answer (i.e., they come from an egg which comes from a chicken). We are trying to answer what is conceptually a spiral question with a circular answer. In other words, some questions refer to horizontal and some to vertical natural processes and they must be answered accordingly. Some questions refer to linear processes and some to circular processes and they must be answered accordingly.
The chicken and egg can be seen to exist in a continuous horizontal cycle - as do the seasons of the year, the plantings of spring, the harvests of autumn, and the washing of dishes. These natural cycles comprise the circular conceptual world of the traditional Oriental ethical systems, providing for their closeness to these earthly realities. In complementary contrast, alpha (beginning) to omega (end) timelines comprise the linear conceptual world of the traditional Occidental religious systems. Neither the east or the west has it quite right.

Well, that settles that. The next time someone casually drops the chicken-or-egg question, paraphrase this article by Lower and watch them give you a blank stare. Yes folks, these are the kind of party tricks that nerds like me fantasize about using but rarely have the opportunity to.

Posted by Will at 10:03 PM