A Point Raised from Dawkins’ “storm in a teacup”

Richard Dawkins recently posted a detailed response to various responses he got on Twitter when he (unsurprisingly) wrote something that could have (and was) taken as offensive to Muslims. Dawkins (as well as various other atheistic academics) have been under fire lately for being particularly scrutinizing of Islam and it would appear this hasn’t stopped Dawkins from being, well, a bit of a Twitter troll.

While much of what he says in the post I agree with (Muslims are not a race, faith based education is counter intuitive to excellent learning, etc) he makes one point which I’ll quote in it’s entirety below:

“How many Nobel Prizes have been won by atheists?

Now that’s a really interesting question, one that I would sincerely love to see answered. I suspect that the truculence with which the question was posed might turn out to be misplaced – and that’s an understatement. Polls of the US National Academy of Sciences and of the Royal Society of London give almost identical results and suggest that an overwhelming majority of elite scientists (and a lesser majority of scientists as a whole) have no religious faith, although many might nominally be recorded as, say, baptised Christians or Bar-Mitzvahed Jews. I would love to see a well-conducted study of the beliefs of Nobel prizewinning scientists. My guess is that a large majority would self-describe as atheist or agnostic. And a further substantial number would say something like “I might characterise my awe at the universe as ‘spiritual’ but, like Einstein, I have no belief in a personal god and follow no religion.” I’d be very surprised if a single prize-winner were to say “I believe Jesus was born of a virgin and rose from the dead” or “I believe Mohammed rode through the sky on a winged horse”. But those are all conjectures and I would love to see the research done.”

I believe Dawkins is missing his own point, or at least missing a point that he would benefit from greatly, that being that his assumption that most atheists were not raised atheists. While a comprehensive study on how many scientists (and how many Nobel Prize winning scientists are atheists) I believe a better way of framing the question would be how many scientists, and how many Nobel Prize winners have differing beliefs and religious practices from how they were raised to such an extent that one could not reasonably say that they are still of that belief set or religious faith. To put this differently, instead of asking how many scientists are atheists we should be asking how many scientists have departed from their religious upbringing?

I would very much suspect that for someone who was raised in a devout family and taught from an extremely early age to accept the family’s belief system to depart and perhaps even renounce said belief system would have to be very bright. Religious education for children does not reinforce critical thinking and for a young person (or even an old) to turn their back on what has in all respects been delivered to them as the Truth would require quite a bit of critical thinking skills (and depending on the family, some courage).

As a personal aside, I am not implying as an atheist myself that I must be particularly bright (no, this isn’t one of those “Haha! Atheists are smart, everyone else is dumb!” arguments). I was brought to church and Sunday School as a child, but it is important to note that as most children do I approached my mother (my father did not go to church with us, which clearly bolstered my position) and told her I did not want to go to church anymore, my mother responded that she didn’t want to either and I never went to church again (my mother would attend holiday services for a few years after, albeit to appease my grandmother only). It is also worth noting that I was born and raised in Toronto, which even by Canadia-and-religion standards is quite liberal. I’ve noticed that what would typically be minor teenage rebellion in many more homogeneous societies against family religious beliefs has turned into full fledged denunciations. It’s a lot easier to turn your back on a religion when literally none of your friends even attend the same church as you.

My question above does offer an interesting issue however, that is, out of all the scientists who have departed or renounced the religion that they were raised by, how many of them became atheists/atheistic? How many converted to a different religion? How intense was their religious upbringing (as in, were their parents like mine or were they extremely devout)? Dawkins main point is that Islam appears to him to have a detrimental effect on education of its practitioners so I would think that those who have converted to Islam would have to be not included in the Nobel Prize count (which is none).

However interestingly enough from a bit of research on the four Muslims who have won the Nobel Prize (removing those who have one for Peace) two have certainly departed from their family’s traditions (Naguib Mahfouz and Orhan Pamuk, both for literature, Pamuk explicitly claims to be an atheist, but identifies with Muslim culture) while Ahmed Zewail (for chemistry) appears to be at least not completely a fundamentalist but rather an advocate for youth groups in Egypt currently (as in, not working with the Muslim Brotherhood or it’s more fundamentalist rivals). Abdus Salam (for physics) appears to be the only extremely faithful who has won the prize.

While Dawkins extended question may be “Why aren’t there more people like Abdus Salam?” which is certainly contentious, it is unsurprising that there aren’t more people like Mahfouz or Pamuk. If you are a Muslim in this world, statistically speaking you have a very high chance of being raised in a highly devout family that lives in a religiously homogeneous society that is equally as devout there is a good chance that no matter how bright you are, you are going to believe what your family and society believes. Just as I am sure there is a good chance I would be a Christian if both my parents insisted I go to church and we lived in a small predominantly devout Christian community somewhere in middle-America and if this small Christian community taught me that evolution is wrong and Christ truly was the product of a virgin birth and rose from the dead, I would bet there’s a very low chance that I would ever win the Nobel Prize for anything.

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Pride

It’s Pride Week and unsurprisingly myself and others will be finding themselves thinking about pride. For myself when the concept of pride is brought up there are two primary examples that ultimately are on two opposite ends of the oppression spectrum (or at least pretty close) there’s gay pride (which is used often as the all encompassing term for LGBT pride in general) and white pride.

While proponents and believers in white pride would probably disagree, the origins of pride over one’s whiteness does not arise from the same conditions that pride over one’s sexual orientation or sexual identity that is not heteronormative. Yet the same basic emotional core remains in that the pride talked about isn’t the same pride as, for example, one feels when completing a difficult and rewarding task but rather it’s pride (essentially strong self-affirming emotion towards one self) over who one is based on in our two examples. one’s sexual identity and one’s ethnicity.

Many, myself included, find it quite silly to be proud of something you have no control over, nationalism is an extension of this, and that to be proud of one’s skin color or sexual identity is much like me being proud that I have two arms (I was born with them and due to a long genetic history, in no way was it something special pulled off by me). Yet there is still a massive difference between LGBT pride and white pride and that’s whether the real source of this pride is authentic. In other words, pride over these two things is reactionary. In the first instance the reaction is to strong prejudice and oppression, by an oppressed person being proud of the very thing they are oppressed for they undo the shame that is systematically imposed on them. White pride advocates certainly would claim that these conditions apply to them as well, but there is no need to examine this line of thinking as it has been picked apart by plenty of very qualified people (see also the examination of “Men’s Rights” advocates).

Ideally, Pride Week wouldn’t be necessary. Unfortunately because of oppression it will be necessary for a very long time. So next time you talk to one of those lame straight people who say “I have no problem with gay people, but Pride is just too much…” kindly explain to them that just by saying that Pride is going to have to continue along, and go even harder.

[As an aside: In Dan Savage’s new book “American Savage” he makes a compelling case for a “Straight Pride” night which is ultimately Halloween. I would argue that what he describes is not actually straight pride, but rather sexual pride in general. Being proud of one’s heterosexuality seems quite silly, but in our contemporary Western culture being proud of one’s promiscuity, active sexual life, etc is not (see also Slut Walk).

The Importance of Parks

via: http://tr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taksim_Gezi_Park

As anti-government protests continue in Turkey people all around the world are beginning to see that the people of Turkey are not just protesting the demolition of a city park, but rather protesting the government itself. The demolition and rebuilding of a commercial mall in the spot where Gezi Park now stands is, so to speak, the straw that broke the camels back for the Turkish protesters. As news agencies around the world so obviously point out, this isn’t just about a park.

Why can’t it be? I don’t want to attempt to even pretend that I have any extended knowledge of politics and history of Turkey that even makes me remotely qualified to comment on the protests – but I do think I am qualified to point out the importance of municipal parks. I’ve recently been staying with my partner and her father in an apartment that is a short walk away from Toronto’s High Park. Wandering through the park almost daily now, and drawing on research I have done of municipal parks in the past I have been thinking more and more on how important public natural spaces are to cities.

The practical reasons are numerous and varied. From examples such as Central Park being highly valued for cooling down New York City, as well as almost countless environmentalist reasons for having parks anywhere. Yet the social and political reasons are less general. While Central Park’s head designer, Frederick Law Olmsted had a certain vision of what his park would become, he was vocally opposed to what it became in reality. That is a public space for people of all classes and ethnicity’s to come together and use the park in various ways. While I would have to agree with Olmsted that children ought not to be allowed to trample around and pull out handfuls of plants as they please, his Victorian styled recreation intentions depart greatly from the reasons why I and most others enjoy public municipal parks.

Public parks are not only a space where one escapes from the hustle and bustle of city life, but as well from the socio-economic hierarchy that pervades it. While it is true that someone can drive into the park with their expensive sports car to find a parking spot, they are met with the reality that driving just isn’t fun at the twenty kilometers per hour speed limit that is enforced within High Park for example. It is also evident to anyone who has been to a municipal park on a sunny Saturday afternoon that driving, let alone trying to park, is nearly impossible which leads to most visitors to the park relying on public transportation no matter whether they have a car or not.

This lack of any social hierarchy is extended upon, especially among families. Weekend wear at the park is nearly uniform in its practicality, as well as its quality. Only a fool going to the park with their children would wear one of their “good shirts”, lest they wish to ruin it with ice cream, grass stains and who knows what else can happen in an afternoon in the sun. The philosophical value of public parks aside from the lack of social hierarchy can be best defended by looking at Martha Nussbaum’s defense of “Other Species” and “Play” being central capabilities within her capabilities approach to human development. Due to this I will not attempt to elaborate why public parks are important in this respect.

To return to Gezi Park in Turkey however, we have to see what the intention of turning a public park into a commercial retail space entails. To support such an action would be to devalue all the activities and events that happen in parks, it would also support the elimination of space where socio-economic hierarchy lacks power. I believe it obvious why a mall, opposed to a park, is highly dependent on as well as reproductive of further social divide as well as consumerism.

Within democratic elections all candidates should be asked what their opinion of public parks is. What Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown is that he does not value what parks are and do. It is because of this action alone that it is clear to me that the protesters in Turkey are just and the world ought to stand in solidarity with them. For anyone to devalue municipal parks so much that they would go so far as to remove them from the world are truly committing a wrong.

Sorry, You’re Not Really Progressive

I’m a Torontonian, born and raised (and now permanently living) so I took some interest in reading Mitchell Anderson’s piece that was essentially an anti-amalgamation piece about the city of Toronto. In a nutshell it argued that the massive central power that is now the City of Toronto is not only harmful to Toronto (in the purest, downtown sense) financially, but also politically. Those damn suburban conservatives keep mucking everything up! What the piece doesn’t blatantly say, but still is obvious is the doctrine of isolationism.

Over the past several years I’ve had my fair share of conversations with fellow leftists on the subject of what the source of the problem is with society, and a common opinion that pops up is that the problem is those damn reactionaryconservativereligiousrightwingbackwardscooks who are constantly fighting good positive progress, or even worse, reversing and making things more terrible for everyone but themselves. Then all too commonly my fellow leftist will propose decentralizing power, starting a commune, or in extreme cases giving up and becoming a libertarian.

Admittedly, I’ve had dreams of moving to some faraway socialist Scandinavian paradise. It could also be argued that my internet browsing habits are intellectual isolationism (or “filter bubbles”) but I don’t think I’ll move to Finland anytime soon, nor am I anywhere close to even considering internet communities hold the same importance as real life societies.

What the real life tendency towards isolationism reveals one of two things; A) giving up or B) the person speaking it is not really progressive. We all have obligations to one another, and isolating yourself from others and disavowing any responsibility to even interact with those who generally disagree with you (heck, let’s just even call them wrong) is completely missing the point of what progressive ideology is all about. Let’s return to the Toronto problem; you can disassociate yourself from all the idiots surrounding you…but your still surrounded by idiots. The belief that the terrible decision making that happens on the other side of some border, or on the other side of the world, does not effect you negatively is the exact belief that supposedly died out when liberalism won the West. Say what you will about liberalism, but let’s face it: the tragedy of the commons isn’t the non-preferential outcome it’s that we are all thrust into the commons whether we like it or not. Don’t even get me started on future generations, the moment you start condemning areas of the world as none of your concern, you are turning your back on children that could benefit from progressive policies being placed now.

Every time a fellow leftist of some kind advocates isolationism a part of me dies inside. The moment you start thinking “Well at least [insert group I belong to] will benefit!” and you disregard the consequences for other groups you are not being progressive, you’re being a reactionary asshole.

Abortion and Animals

I have been thinking recently of a discussion on abortion and the term “pro-life” that I had with a friend and (at the time) fellow philosophy undergraduate. In a nutshell we both came to the agreement that, I as far-vegetarian (I don’t buy leather, eat gelatin, etc) and they a vegan, could potentially take a “pro-life” argument seriously if it was coming from a vegan or vegetarian.

While I can think of plenty of ways an argument could go about, the pro-life argument would probably be quite secular in nature, or at the very least not rooted in the typical context that those opposed to abortion operate in today. What this reveals however is that in the abortion debate that is seemingly unending (in the United States of America most obviously) is that those interested in animal rights end up losing no matter what.

Of course, it is safe to assume that the typical “pro-life” supporter and the typical “pro-choice” supporter both eat meat (this is a statistical fact) and do not think much of the topic of animal rights at least when discussing abortion but their positions both ultimately on the face of it support that animals do not have rights and the entire abortion debate is inherently quite anthropocentric. On the pro-choice side you will be hard pressed to find a supporter who at least would not call a fetus a potential human, and ultimately if a potential human can be terminated in an ethically defensible way then it stands to reason that animals do not mean much in the grand scheme of things. In other words, if a potential future member of your own species is not considered something inherently important and sacred so to speak, then members of other species probably do not have much importance.

Conversely, the pro-life side of the argument rests (most commonly) on a religiously founded form of anthropocentrism. Abortion is wrong in the eyes of the pro-life supporter because it is ending either a potential, or fully realized human life.

 

This seeming lose-lose situation for the animal rights supporter is somewhat remedied by dividing humans from animals, or by placing heavy importance on utilitarianism or the wishes of the mother. Of course an easy fix is by identifying abortion as a specific human problem, and any concerns of reproduction should be left to individual species to work out (be it through evolution, instinct, or what have you).

The issues for the animal rights supporter still remain. I will make the assumption (I could very well be wrong, but I would be surprised to find so) that most vegetarians and vegans are of the pro-choice camp when it comes to the abortion debate. Yet the heavy anthropocentrism still remains in that if humans are allowed to end potential human lives, the idea of ending other animal lives seems quite trivial. While the easy fix above gets around this for the animal rights supporter, it doesn’t solve the problem of how the abortion debate reinforces anthropocentrism quite heavily.

 

It would appear that aside from the easy fix, a form of utilitarianism could also rectify this, such as Peter Singer’s. Singer however remains a controversial figure on the topic of abortion, and even remains one within the realm of animal rights (the most damning and common critique of him would be his position as a “welfarist”). While I am personally drawn to Singer’s ethics, I do not think it be necessary on this topic. The animal rights supporter can easily rectify their beliefs with a pro-choice position if one views abortion as a human problem, and that generally concerns of reproduction should be left to individual species.

This however raises issues of activities that humans participate in, such as population control and encouraging breeding of endangered animals. An obvious answer to these issues is that of Singer’s utilitarianism or variations there of. Yet I would take my easy fix and apply it more generally, as in many cases population control and encouraged breeding are viewed as ways of fixing problems, problems caused by humans. So to take the easy step one step further, we should just leave animals to their own devices and stop interfering with them all together.

 

[Two examples that come to mind in terms of population control and encouraged breeding is that of white tailed dear and pandas respectively. White tail deer have had their populations culled due to them over-eating their sources of food and killings were done in order to avoid mass starvation, what is often not talked about however is that the reason the white tail deer population needs to be culled in the first place is because they lack natural predators, namely wolves which humans have effectively killed off. Giant pandas are endangered due to hunting and habitat loss, direct actions taken by humans. The general position I propose should not be taken as an abrupt abandoning of the help we lend to animals now, but rather a policy of non-interference in that similar problems that we experience now do not arise again in the future.]