Damon Fowler interview

Hemant Mehta has conducted an interview with Damon Fowler. It can be found here, and it’s an interesting read, but the best part? Damon now has a $16,000+ scholarship for college.

Religion and the fear of death

One of the motivators for religious belief is the comfort it provides. For many people it provides an immediate comfort because it allows one to be a part of a bigger group, and people like to belong. For others, it provides a comfort of ‘knowing’. For instance, we all want to know the answer to a lot of basic questions like “How old is the Earth” and “How did humanity begin”. Religion – while it has either always been wrong or been forced to defer to science in order to be correct (and even then it usually mangles things) – makes strong claims that it has the answers. But for so many others, religion provides comfort against the fear of death. Many of us want to believe we keep on existing, that all we’ve done in our lives has some unending meaning, and maybe ultimately, that we are never alone. It is this final sort of comfort that indirectly forms the basis of some new research:

Researchers at the University of British Columbia and Union College (Schenectady, N.Y.) have found that people’s ‘death anxiety’ can influence them to support theories of intelligent design and reject evolutionary theory…

The researchers carried out five studies with 1,674 U.S. and Canadian participants of different ages and a broad range of educational, socioeconomic and religious backgrounds.

In each study, participants were asked to imagine their own death and write about their subsequent thoughts and feelings, or they were assigned to a control condition: imagining dental pain and writing about that.

The participants were then asked to read two similarly styled, 174-word excerpts from the writings of Behe and Dawkins, which make no mention of religion or belief, but describe the scientific and empirical support for their respective positions.

After going through these steps, participants who imagined their own death showed greater support for intelligent design and greater liking for [Michael] Behe, or a rejection of evolution theory coupled with disliking for [Richard] Dawkins, compared to participants in the control condition.

However, the research team saw reversed effects during the fourth study which had a new condition. Along with writings by Behe and Dawkins, there was an additional passage by Carl Sagan. A cosmologist and science writer, Sagan argues that naturalism — the scientific approach that underlies evolution, but not intelligent design — can also provide a sense of meaning. In response, these participants showed reduced belief in intelligent design after being reminded of their own mortality.

While it was creationism intelligent design that was chosen for this experiment, I see this study as representative of religion at large. When shown two different arguments, a sizable portion of the participants clearly chose to reject evolution on the basis that it provided them with no sense of meaning. It isn’t particularly relevant that the alternative was specifically creationism intelligent design since there is no science to be found within any religious idea anyway – nor is there any science supporting any religious claim of significance. Any relatively mainstream religious idea could have been presented in science-y terms – just as creationism intelligent design is – and then used as a tool for comparison.

This isn’t all to say that the primary motivator for religious belief is the fear of death. I suspect it’s actually culture and upbringing – the biggest indicator of what one’s religion will be is what his or her parent’s religion is. But the fear of death – the fear of the unknown – frightens people and makes them uncomfortable. Religion helps to ease that discomfort with its made-up stories and fairy tales, and so it acts as a tightly woven net that catches people before they can fall into reason or even momentary consideration of their beliefs.

While the results of this study are obvious (and while they will be distorted by believers), I think there is another interesting point here, albeit an obvious one. There are a lot of accomodationists (Collins, Giberson, Miller, etc) out there who will argue that religion and science are compatible. While their position is one that is in some ways a small improvement over the current situation, there is comfort in the fact that they aren’t winning over too many adherents. People still recognize that evolution does largely eliminate their particular, cultural god. The fact that we know humans were not inevitable (or any other animal, for that matter) means that most of the gods in which people believe are untenable. That is, the sort of gods people praise are almost always the ones that deemed the inevitably of humanity. That inevitably takes away the random components of life and gives credence to why a god would care about us at all. I think the recognition that evolution takes this all away is ultimately good because it shows that while these people do not understand evolution in its details, they do understand its implications. That is a good thing – even if they falsely associate those implications with a lack of meaning in life.

Source

New 3-D map of the Universe

This is pretty awesome:

Astronomers have created the most complete 3-D map of our local universe, revealing new details about our place in the cosmos.

The map shows all visible structures out to about 380 million light-years, which includes about 45,000 of our neighboring galaxies (the diameter of the Milky Way is about 100,000 light-years across)…

The map was assembled using data from the Two-Micron All-Sky Survey (2MASS) Redshift Survey (2MRS), which took 10 years to scan the complete night sky in near-infrared light. The survey used two ground-based telescopes, the Fred Lawrence Whipple Observatory on Mt. Hopkins, Ariz., and the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile.

Near-infrared light, which is of a longer wavelength than visible light, can penetrate the opaque clouds of dust common in galaxies. This allowed the 2MRS survey to extend its “eyes” closer to the plane of the Milky Way galaxy than has been possible in previous studies, because that area is heavily obscured by dust.

“This covers 95 percent of the sky,” Masters said. “In the infrared, we’re less affected by the gunk in the milky way so we’re able to see down closer to the plane of the galaxy.”


(Click to enlarge.)

And yet people believe that our solar system is somehow special.

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