The Fireplace Delusion

The Fireplace Delusion – Fascinating as a piece of science, and also as a metaphor for considering what we grapple with when contemplating religion.

Reshared post from +John Poteet

Normally I think Sam Harris is an asshole; except sometime he nails it.

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The Fireplace Delusion :
Sam Harris

Sam Harris, neuroscientist and author of the New York Times bestsellers, The End of Faith, Letter to a Christian Nation, and The Moral Landscape.

1.5 Million Twitter Users on “A Steve Jobs of Religion”

Came across what I thought was an interesting piece in the New York Times, Americans: Undecided About God?, about the rising percentage of Americans who declare their religious/spiritual affiliation as “None” but who still feel a personal need for the connectedness that organized religion brings. In it, the author (Eric Weiner) made the perhaps too-flip remark:

“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone who can invent not a new religion but a new way of being religious.”

The article was about a lot of stuff, and the Steve Jobs reference was just an aside, an analogy. But that’s the bit I quoted in a Tweet

not because I necessarily agreed or disagreed, but because I thought it was an intriguing thought. Nothing more, nothing less. What happened next was an interesting lesson in just how little attention people pay, and how ready people are to unload half-cocked thoughts, work from assumptions, and to have loud opinions without bothering to actually, you know, read. Because a few minutes later, Tim O’Reilly retweeted the quote to his 1.5 million followers, and the switchboard lit up.

I’ve stitched together a bunch of screenshots to show what the stream looked like, which is quite amazing (see below).
Continue reading “1.5 Million Twitter Users on “A Steve Jobs of Religion””

Religion a Product of Evolution?

New Scientist: Evolutionary anthropologist James Dow has written a program – called Evogod – that simulates the evolution of religion, attempting to determine whether the impulse to pass on unverifiable information might have evolutionary benefits. When run, the software concludes that, yes, the impulse does sustain itself, but only if non-believers help believers out.

Other attempts to explain the origins of religion contend either that A) Religion is an artefact of other brain functions (cf Julian Jaynes’ The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind), or that B) Religion is an adaptation in its own right (my take on #B: when non-believers are persecuted, of course belief becomes a survival benefit).

The article explains the idea that religion only flourishes if non-believers help out believers by suggesting that belief could be an impressive trait to non-believers. I think it could also correlate with the history of non-believers being forced to help build pyramids/cathedrals, or to otherwise participate in believer culture. Religion generally has an imperialistic (evangelistic) trajectory, a tendency to overcome non-believers in the local culture, so that non-believers come under control of believers (even today non-belief carries stigma, which is itself a cultural force that confers evolutionary advantage to believers).

Not addressed in the article is any kind of scrutiny of Evogod’s actual code or algorithms. If the principles in the source code aren’t sound, neither is the theory.

Music: Johnny Cash :: The Man Who Couldn’t Cry

Easter Billboard

Free speech is one thing, but come within a mile of religion and people are going to get tweaked. In Orange County, FL, a week before Easter, a billboard suddenly appeared, reading simply: “All religions are fairy tales.” Almost overnight, a nearby restaurant watched business drop by 2/3. People started calling the media. I’m imagining the reports went something like this: “Hello, media? Someone is expressing an opinion and I have to be exposed to it when I drive by!”

I think the business angle is especially interesting – it provides an instant concrete measurement of public opinion. What is it about religion that strikes so deeply? I can hardly imagine another opinion being expressed on a billboard – no matter how controversial – that could impact local businesses on such a broad scale. It’s just weird.

The billboard company claims the signage was not paid for, but put up in the middle of the night by anonymous pranksters.

Update: The article has been removed from WFTV’s site without explanation. Google for coverage elsewhere.

via Sean Graham

Creationist Diorama-Rama

1Stplace Utne Reader, on a Creationist Science Fair that recently took place inside a shopping mall in Roseville, Minnesota, including a diorama explaining how a broken motor disproves evolution, plus fossil evidence that people lived at the same time as dinosaurs.

The projects all used classic high school science language: Start with a hypothesis, move on to testing, and then draw a conclusion. The problem was that much of the science was backwards. In good science, you start with a piece of evidence and try to find a truth. With creationist science, you start with a truth (the Bible), and try to find the evidence.

Music: Isaac Hayes :: Going In Circles

Does God Exist?

In the car with Miles yesterday, he suddenly chirps up: “Daddy, does God really exist?” As I’m formulating a response, he answers his own question with some flavor of techno-contemporary agnosticism: “I bet not even Google knows the answer to that!”


Of course, the same question WRT Santa is very much on his mind right now. It’s unclear whether he puts Santa and God on the same or different epistemological / mythological levels. I know he knows that not all grown-ups believe in God; I’m not sure he realizes the same about Santa.

I think he thinks that grown-ups do believe Santa is real – interesting that he would question God’s existence before Santa’s (I promise I’ve had no hand in that!), though I guess it’s understandable since he sees Santa all over the place. God, not so much.

Music: Wilco :: Spiders


Baraka0225 I am feeling at peace, and sort of speechless after having just watched Ron Fricke’s 1992 film Baraka, a follow-on to his 1983 journey Koyaanisqatsi. No words (but not silent), no script, no actors or plot. Just existential film imagery from seemingly half the countries in the world, depicting humans in all their meditative, strange, indescribably gorgeous religious splendor, juxtaposed with footage of humans in all their violent, herd-like, strange, indescribably gorgeous cultural porridge.

Baraka is, ultimately, an environmental film, but not in the way we’ve come to think of the term – it’s about the environment of our existence, our ways of being in (and with, and without) the world. There is an environmental subtext in a more traditional sense as well, but that’s not Fricke’s primary thought – it’s more about human life and the myriad ways our quest for meaning manifests.

The wisdom of making such a film without words cannot be underestimated. While there are many sequences that leave you dying to know more about what you’re seeing, any speech or text would have diluted the experience by intellectualizing something intensely experiential.

Watching Baraka had me revisiting thoughts on religion I’ve expressed over the past year. Religion is strange and arbitrary, but only because existence is strange and arbitrary. Our world is ineffable, and so therefore are our expressions of it. Religion is no more irrational than being in the world is.

I feel peaceful tonight, in a way I have not for a long time. I’ve been living in stress for months on end, feeling my nerves begin to fray, my mind atrophy as external inputs have all but ceased. Watching Baraka made me want to travel the world, open my eyes, close them, then open them again. It made me want to taste dirt, stare into the sun, kiss every human, sing Ketjak, wander through the desert, taste every food, scale the pyramids, swing from vines, paint my body, read every scripture.

I feel washed.

God, Sex, and Family

Posted a while ago about the Moral Compass produced by some of our recently graduated students as part of the News 21 Initiative on the Future of Journalism (News21 is a collaborative effort between four J-Schools). This year’s theme is “Faces of Faith in America,” and the Berkeley piece of that is called “God, Sex, and Family.” Most of the content from all four schools is in now, and the project has shaped up as an extremely well-rounded snapshot of the myriad ways religion plays out in American life.

So much at the site I’m not sure what to point to (and I haven’t begun to read it all). The tent city multi-religion conference inside Second Life was incredibly ambitious (catch a full video snapshot of the event here), and the Data Road Trip provides some fascinating perspectives into everything from Bronx abortions to Arkansas divorce rates. I appreciated this brief interview with atheist Sam Harris, who (to my surprise) says he prefers not to be called an atheist: “atheism is not a good term because it requires defining oneself in opposition to an arbitrary group.” I really appreciated that he made the point that atheism does not imply not having a spiritual life.

Anyway, there’s tons there – dig in. And leave comments if you got ’em – the fellows would love to hear your feedback.

Music: Black Heat :: Wanaoh

Moral Compass

Very proud of our News21 (News Initiative for the Future of Journalism) team for the work they did on the Moral Compass, which asks the question “How do different religions view certain issues on sex and morality?” Spin the wheel and get answers on a host of questions covering masturbation, homosexuality, premarital sex, etc. from representatives of faiths including Catholicism, Judaism, Muslim, Buddhism, Methodist, Baptist, and more. Video interviews with clergy and others included. Nice work on the Flash interface!

The Moral Compass is part of Berkeley’s contribution to this year’s News21 project, Faces of Faith in America.

Music: Mungo Jerry :: Open Up