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March 22nd, 2010
Freethought San Marcos: ‘You can’t rationally argue out what wasn’t rationally argued in’

Freethought San Marcos: A column

The quotation that serves as the title of this week’s column has been attributed to George Bernard Shaw, although I haven’t been able to confirm its authorship. It is an accurate observation about my review last week of Jerry Coyne’s book “Why Evolution Is True.” The many people who commented on the column included some with doctorates in biology and other fields, proponents of intelligent design, some who preferred name-calling and categorization to rational argument, some who are concerned with evolution’s affect on religion, and others who wanted to discuss tangential matters.

Shaw’s observation (if it is his) seems accurate in this instance: those who hold beliefs about evolution not based on empirical evidence cannot be convinced otherwise by rational argument or scientific evidence. From the comments I received, it is clear that some who oppose the Theory of Evolution do not understand it. One commenter wanted proof by way of a demonstration project that would duplicate the evolution of a monkey by presumably creating on the moon the same conditions that existed on the earth 3.5 billion years ago when a single-celled organism started growing. Anyone who believes that such a project is possible clearly does not understand much about the moon, or the early earth, or the process of evolution.

One commenter thinks that those of us who believe that evolution theory is essentially correct want to remove religion from society. That would never be my purpose for two reasons. I am not interested in such a goal because it offends my belief in the autonomy of all individuals, and I don’t believe it can be done any more than I believe we could reproduce earth’s evolution on the moon.

The only connection that I see between religion and evolution is that most fundamentalist believers seem to think that evolution destroys their religion, but I went out of my way to suggest that this is not my purpose in discussing it. I am much more interested in promoting the creation of a populace that can think critically and logically. The evidence for how poorly our society has done with this goal is that so few Americans believe that the Theory of Evolution is proven, at least substantially. There are many disagreements among experts about many aspects of evolution [see Michael Shermer’s report of the proceedings of the 2005 World Summit on Evolution titled “The Woodstock of Evolution”], but logic leads me to agree with the thesis of Jerry Coyne’s book: Evolution is true.

Another commenter decided that it would serve his purposes to call me an “atheistic jerk.” Saying that someone is an atheist doesn’t say very much about that person. It posits that the person doesn’t believe in a supernatural god–that he is a nontheist–but it tells the reader little else. Those who have read my columns for the past few years should know a lot about my values–values that I was taught as a young person. I have found that the Boy Scout Oath I learned as a teenager is a good summary of the values, simply stated, that I grew up with and still try to follow: I strive to be trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.

Of course, all of these simply-stated attributes of a good Boy Scout require some expansion for an adult. The way one fulfills these aspirations as a child necessarily changes with age. Being helpful, for instance, might involve helping the proverbial older lady across the street as a youth and evolve into supporting charitable work as an adult. Thrift, as a youth, could have involved saving a small amount of one’s allowance or earnings as a child. Today, thrift might encompass living as “green” as possible, a goal I support.

In addition, I have other values as an adult that are missing from the scout oath: I believe in free inquiry unshackled from the tyranny of any authority over the human mind; I believe in the separation of church and government; I believe human beings should be able to make political decisions in a democratic fashion; I believe in personal and economic freedom; I believe my life should be based on reason as opposed to magical thinking. While this is not an exhaustive list of what I value, it helps explain the foundation of my life.

And the last value expressed in the scout oath continues to have meaning, though being reverent has changed for me through the years. As a young person, I associated reverence only with religion. As I matured, I began to see that reverence is not limited to religion. I have always had a special attraction to nature and have often been in awe of it. I am not given to frequent public exclamations of its beauty, but I do have an enormous appreciation for its beauty at both the micro and macro levels. I am able to lose myself in the experience of the natural world. In this sense, I consider that I am reverent.

Another of the ways I am reverent today comes through a greater understanding of evolution. By studying writers like Darwin, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Jerry Coyne, I have learned a profound reverence for all of life. It was revelatory to me to understand the connection of all species. I have come to see evolution as much a miracle as some religious people believe that it was a miracle, so the story goes, when Jesus fed the multitudes with five loaves of bread and two fish. Evolution is an extraordinary process that creates in me the sort of awe my grandmother experienced from speaking in tongues.

We owe Darwin and his followers a great debt for describing to those of us who are not scientists the way life has developed, with all of its complications, complexity, anomalies, wonders, and mystery. To understand that male peacocks have their exquisite plumage to attract the females of their species means more than the expression that describes someone as “strutting like a peacock.” There is purpose in those beautiful feathers with their many eyes (the more the better). It gives me great joy to understand the relationship between whales and hippopotamuses. To learn that in utero humans spend part of their journey very hairy, but are born with mostly smooth skin helps me to see the close relationship humans have to other mammals.

I have a special place in the cosmos. To be alive on the earth at this time (or at any time) is an incredibly special circumstance that I am privileged to have and to share with all living things in a continuous line of kinship that to me surpasses the religious pronouncement that “we are all sisters and brothers in Christ.” To me, all species are relatives, each of which has a unique lineage that binds us all together. I don’t believe this because of some religious conviction. I believe this because it is fact and it is science.

So, to call me an atheist (even if it’s true) tells you nothing about my values, my beliefs, my joys, my concerns, my interests, my loves, my life. It reminds me of the statement attributed to the 20th century British historian Sir Stephen Henry Roberts: “I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all other possible gods, you’ll understand why I dismiss yours.”

© Freethought San Marcos, Lamar W. Hankins

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22 thoughts on “Freethought San Marcos: ‘You can’t rationally argue out what wasn’t rationally argued in’

  1. Actually, “Helpful, Thrifty, Reverent” are three of the twelve points of the Scout Law rather than the Scout Oath. This is a trivial correction. On sobering up, maybe I shall try to absorb what Lamar has written. Regards to all!

  2. Good Evening Sir, salutations.

    It appears you found in responses to last week’s article something I encountered long ago, knee-jerk intolerance to ideas seemingly opposed to one’s religious outlook.

    When I was young I started high school in Mississippi and finished it in Central Texas. Often enough during those years another student in the grips of proselytizing fervor would want to save my soul. My first response was typically “I’m not a Christian, I have beliefs, and I don’t need to be saved.” Often enough the first words in reply were “So, you’re an atheist?” After reasserting I had beliefs in a divine being I usually heard “So, you’re a devil worshiper, a Satanist?”

    Far too often religions which actively seek converts discourage the type of dialogue required for many of their members to accept that others have the right and ability to see the world from a different paradigm. Many of the militant sects of various religions would hold that those who don’t believe as they do are less than animals and worthy only of extermination.

    I admit at times to being on a tangent, but I usually try to make such relevant. In this case your experience indicates how some people see any discourse on evolution as a direct attack upon their faith. As my father used to say, “One thing doesn’t always lead to another.”

    My father was brought up in the 20s and 30s in an old school Baptist Church. The Scopes Trial in Tennessee didn’t make much splash where he lived but he was aware it had happened. Funny things is he didn’t argue against evolution or for it. His sole commentary was “I can’t tell you how to believe on that (evolution) or God, but it wouldn’t surprise me if during creating the world God had used a logic and a time scale men could understand.” My father also held a deep reverence for nature and life.

    In an open discussion of a topic when a person resorts to personal attacks (vitriolic or otherwise) it’s because that person is unable to respond in a rational way. Too often those who make such attacks show not their wisdom, but rather ignorance of and about the topic.

    As for magic, I like the definition I once heard years ago. “Magic is any technology, activity, or body of knowledge, that the viewer is not able to understand simply by seeing it.” By that definition cohering light into a single color of a spectrum and emitting it in a beam that can burn objects is magic while still being a laser…

    On a more prosaic level, don’t be discouraged. There are more people who are actually listening to what you’re saying than are objecting to it. Had that not been the case you would have seen a lot more negatives in the replies.

    Have a great evening.

  3. Sorry Lamar, I wasn’t intentionally labelling you an atheist. I was merely arguing that creation of our world was not an accident.

    I tried to keep religion itself out of the whole conversation except to mention a few profs at SWT back in the day, whom I left unnamed, for pushing an atheistic view alongside evolution.

    Just curious where you think all the water on this planet came from ?

  4. Rick, I think James Hays gave a simple possible explanation of how water was formed on earth and I put it in quotes below. I have heard theories about water laden meteorites crashing on earth’s surface but this seems implausible. Also, those same meteorites were probably crashing onto Venus.

    “All nucleated cells (Eucaryote cells) require oxygen for metabolism. We and all other plants and animals are built of eukaryotic cells so we all require oxygen. Hence early primitive life (procaryote cells) modified our planet by converting CO2 and H2O to organic matter and releasing oxygen to the environment. As a consequence these organisms moved carbon from the atmosphere to the rocks (Figure 11) and broke down water molecules releasing oxygen to the ocean and eventually to the atmosphere. Life therefore is a powerful force controlling the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere which in turn exerts a powerful control on our planet’s climate.”
    -Text by James D. Hays, Spring 2004

    Thank you Lamar! The GRLs choir loves you, get it?

    Everyone come out and listen to Jerry Coyne at the Alkek Teaching Theatre at 7pm tonight. I’ll be there.

    Lynny of

    The GRLs

  5. Water, one could cite various religious traditions or try some of the less controversial planetary formation schemas.

    One example. The early solar disk had various stability points where left over material from proto-stellar formation began to accrete. The early solar system was a bit cluttered and different fromnm that of today.

    Materials would have gases like hydrogen, oxygen, and others as well as dust and ice.

    The early Earth was smaller than today and without a satellite; somewhere between the size of Venus and Mars. Collision with another object approximately the size of Mars lead to (a) the current mass of the Earth and (b) the current Terrestrial moon which formed from the ejecta. Other debris would have escaped local orbit.

    Another oddity is the asteroid belt, which more closely resembles debris left over from a collision of the near miss category. The most reasonable culprit might appear to be the Nemesis companion (specifically an outer planet thereof) referred to by early Sumerian legend. The dim stellar companion to Sol some postulate has an orbital period of 3661 years.

    Whether explained from a scientific or religious view (and due to simplicity I do like the Great Turtle as the beginning of land in the watery beginning) any explanation is bound to take up a lot of time.

    If you want to have an interesting debate, I suggest getting a Shaman, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox priest, a Rabbi, an Imman, a Buddhist, and a Protestant preacher together to debate origins from a religious viewpoint. Trust me, if an interfaith council could arrive at the time a person actually having a soul is the time of their first memories, then the origin of water and life should be equally interesting.

    What a person believes due to their faith and what a person believes due to science are different matters. As an Information Analyst I can match data from different tables in a database using key fields. I can explain the query results in scientific terms or religious terms. Since the field of expertise is scientific, the scientific explanation applies.

    As my father taught me, Lamar’s last Op-Ed, and other public debates have shown discussions that touch upon views of Religion, Sex, and Politics often bring out the best and worst in people. As my father also taught me, you don’t have to agree with everything the other person believes; you just have to accord them the courtesy of allowing them their opinion. Otherwise, if everyone saw the world in the same way the world would be a very bland and boring place to be, with only the quest to survive the imperative.

  6. I was watching the history channel this weekend and it shows many evolutional theories differ on how water occured in such quantities on earth. Some think comets and meteors carried it here, however none seem to believe that would have been enough to get this much water here, or else other surrounding planets would also have an abundance of water as well.

  7. Water can result from both the chemical reactions inherent in life as well as from icy bodies missing from the Inner Oort Cloud. The body that collided with the early Earth was likely a former resident of the Inner Oort Cloud.

    Being able to positively say exactly where the water came from is impossible. The most likely reality is combinations of several factors; large planetary object collision, life, comets, larger icy bodies dislodged from their previous orbits.

    The forces behind those events, I’m betting on that turtle.

  8. “It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into.” ~ Jonathan Swift

  9. I was really glad to see that Jerry Coyne left all discussion of why religion needs to be eliminated out of society and didn’t bother trying to show why christian fundementalist are stupid last night. Yep one solid hour of nothing but solid facts about evolution.

    Well unless you count the last 15 minutes of charts and graphs of why creationist are completely wrong in their beliefs and societies with religion are less superior to those in Europe who are so enlightened with social justice because they have dissolved their belief of a creator. The part where he kept discussing how stupid God was in his creation of the prostate gland, riveting.

    Coyne offers proof that God doesn’t exist , using leg bones from whales, feathers on a dinosaur fossil, and islands that don’t have frogs on them.

    After listening to why creationist are wrong, it occurred to me that this is the only thing anyone wanted to talk about after his presentation was over.

    Perhaps if he kept on topic people might have had actual questions about the process of evolution and less on why we need to get rid of religion. Complete waste of my time.

  10. Why is it that Americans are willfully ignorant on scientific topics?

    Why is it that you are the only western nation to reject evolution?

    See this article

    “Creationism Vs. Evolution: An American Problem, An American Opportunity”

    By Adam Frank

    “The problem is not Science vs. Religion. The problem is not Science vs. a particular religion. The problem is Science vs. one specific interpretation of one particular religion and, in general, the problem is an American one.”

    Apart from the US, only a handful of the most dogmatic Islamic nations reject evolution. What is it that is in both your society and the societies of most fundamentalist Islam states that prevents you both from accepting the evidence in front of your nose?

    Watching Americans debate evolution is like watching grade school children debate the existence of Santa Clause. It’s both entertaining and frightening.

  11. Why is that Canadians insist they are anything more than a mere hat for America?

    Your generalities are not welcome on this side of the 49th.

  12. I had no problem believing his conjecture based on his evidence. For me the kicker was when he tried to say anthropogenic global warming was a fact like evolution. It was obvious that to fill his soulless void he’s inserted his head is way up his own statist butt.

  13. I found it odd he wouldn’t admit to being a statist, I think he actually said he didn’t know what that meant.

  14. An American “Atheist” (although I suspect that you only aspire to Atheism) said:

    “Why is that Canadians insist they are anything more than a mere hat for America?”

    We don’t mind being your thinking cap.

    America – one nation under Canada.

    Have a good eh?

  15. You know.

    We’re the peaceful country to the north (look up) of you with the all of the ice and snow, and a working economy, and energy independence, and a thriving intellectual community that would never let our politicians (The Texas textbook massacre or bible thumpers write our text books.

    Now smarten-up or we’ll be forced march down there an bitch slap you ( Burning of the White House ) again …

  16. A potential new hominid (first encountered in Siberia) is under investigation. It lived as a contemporary of moderns and Neanderthalensis.

    As time goes on the list will grow. Interesting.

  17. LOL, Canadian.

    That’s a pretty funny one. In actually, the White House was set on fire in 1814 during the War of 1812. The blaze was set by the British. Canada didn’t even form until 1867. So, it’s a bit of a stretch to say that Canadian’s set fire to the White House. It’s kind of like saying America captured Montreal in September of 1860 during the French and Indian War. Nice try though, Canadian.

  18. @dan – Do you see the cognitive dissonance of believing in evolution (because it is based on empirical facts…) and not believing in climate change (even though it is based on empirical facts…)? As he told the other raisin-cake: “You don’t know what you are talking about.” You are not a climatologist. You are an example of the Dunning-Krueger effect. It’s not surprising given that 65% of the country will choose their beliefs over facts…

  19. Hey American

    “The blaze was set by the British. Canada didn’t even form until 1867”

    And we’re still British. The Queen is still our head of state. (Although you are correct when you say the the Dominion of Canada did not come into being until 1867.)

    Nevertheless the invasion of the US and subsequent sacking of of Washington was launched from Upper Canada (now known as the province of Ontario) … so watch your step 🙂

  20. Canadian

    If I read your reply correctly, you essentially admitted that Canadian’s are nothing more than a British colony. How sad that must be. See, here in America, a bunch of farmers and merchants were able to defeat the most powerful military of their time.

    It’s funny that Canada is still ruled by a Queen that sits on a throne some 3,000 miles away. That, my friend, is the definition of weakness. The Texas National Guard could wipe the northern hemisphere clean of Canadians over a three-day weekend. 😉

    But don’t worry, we kind of like you all. What’s not to like. Just say the word and Texas will send a few good men to rid your land of that queen and let you experience REAL INDEPENDENCE.

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