Tag Archives: atheism

Why Are Rocks Pointy?

Pointy rocks at Garden of Gods - mind your bum! (photo Ryan Schwartz)Anyone with a young child in the back of the car on a long journey will be familiar with the incessant questions that they can ask. Sometimes it may just be, “Are we there yet?” but for many, a long road trip can be an ideal opportunity for intellectual torture. My youngest could grind you down into submission after a couple of minutes.. “Why are trees green and not blue? How heavy are clouds and why do they float if they weigh something?” On and on and on and on….after a while you give up the will… “BECAUSE THAT’S JUST THE WAY THEY ARE!!!!”

Don’t get me wrong. After all, I am a scientist who studies children but it is quite clear that children seemed compelled to ask questions and find solutions. Sometimes it can get exasperating. “Because that’s just the way they are” is not a satisfactory answer and if you get suckered into starting to give a causal chain of reasoning such as, “Well, trees are green because of the chlorophyll they use to convert sunlight into energy,” well you know what happens next… On and on and on and on

When we don’t give them answers, children generate their own explanations and from their perspective, everything is the way it is for some purpose. Rocks are pointy to stop animals sitting on them. Trees have leaves to provide shade. This is called teleology – giving a functional reason for things that just happen to be the way they are for non-purposeful reasons. In the natural world there are all manner of things that appear complex and designed for a purpose. But that’s not the way the natural world works. It has no purpose and that’s one reason people find it so difficult to understand evolution through natural selection. Adopting the teleological stance that things have been designed purposefully is the intuitive way to think about the world and that’s one reason why children may be so inclined to creationist stories. Most religions (I don’t know if all) have some creationist account about origins usually in the form of God.

This is the point that my colleague Deb Kelemen at Boston University has made in her research. In fact, she calls it “promiscuous teleology” to reflect the pervasive nature of this way of thinking. You might think that once children are provided with non-teleological explanations than education can eradicate these naïve notions. However, in a paper published earlier this year in the prestigious journal “Cognition” she reports how science-educated adults can revert back to giving teleological explanations when forced to answer questions under time pressure. Is this simply the easiest answer to give? It may well be but my hunch that I give in my book is that we never truly abandon childhood ways of interpreting the world and that we have to work to ignore them. And that takes effort which is why putting someone in the spotlight can get them to think like a child again.

BTW I am also blogging over at t5m. So drop over there if you have a spare moment.


Filed under Research

Should We Use the ‘C’ Word in a Science Class?

This week I was at the British Science Festival where I was interviewed by the BBC about the resignation of Prof Michael Reiss who was effectively forced out of his post as Education Director at the Royal Society. At the 2008 meeting last year, Prof Michael Reiss suggested that science teachers should be prepared to discuss creationist beliefs in the classroom if asked about them by pupils.

Many scientists think that it is simply unacceptable to use the “c” word in a science class. By even discussing creationism, teachers may be giving it an air of plausibility as an alternative to natural selection. I am not so sure. If anything, it may have been a missed opportunity to address the importance of discussing empirical evidence when evaluating what makes something scientific. This is especially important if the natural inclination in children is towards a creationist stance. Simply ignoring the issue doesn’t make the problem go away.

I would have thought that it must be better to see an argument demolished through reason and evidence than by testimony alone. Creationism is such an easy target that any science teacher could easily dismiss it. There again, people seem to have such a hard time accepting the truth of human evolution through natural selection, then maybe those class hours are better dedicated to fixing this problem. What do you think?

Here’s what I said. I am on 24 mins into the piece.

UPDATE: I spoke to Prof Reiss yesterday as we are on the same advisory panel for the @Bristol Science museum. He confirmed what I suspected, namely that his view has been totally distorted by the press. I thought he was very balanced and not evangelical in the slightest. We must be wary of witch-hunts.


Filed under atheism, In the News, Radio

A Master’s Degree In….. Creationism

noahs_ark_photo6Well, those of us in higher science education have long known that standards have been slipping for some time but this latest move from the creationists takes this beyond belief. Actually beyond belief and well into faith.

Texas State Representative Leo Berman has proposed House Bill 2800, which would exempt any private non-profit institution that requires students to complete “substantive course work” from having to acquire a certificate of authority from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). 

What does that mean? Well that any institution can offer higher degrees. Apparently he has the Institute of Creation Research Graduate School in mind who have been trying to get certification in Texas for two years. These are the so-called “Young Earth” creationists who take the Old Testament literally and believe the Earth is no older than 10,000 years. These are the über creationists not to be confused by the intelligent design bunch.

When Michael Shermer and I visited Anthony Bush as his Noah’s Ark Zoo, Anthony was quick to dismiss these Young Earth creationists as “American loonies.” Which was kinda of cute coming from someone who had dedicated his life to teaching intelligent design. And once these young earthers get their MSc degree, it will become increasingly harder to distinguish the scientists from the believers.


Filed under atheism, In the News

What’s The Meaning of Life?

monty-pythons-the-meaning-of-lifeOne of the striking features of the human mind is that we seek reason and purpose for all manner of phenomena. This tendency to see purpose in the world is known as teleological reasoning…. In other words, “What’s it for?”

The trouble is that when we apply such reasoning to the natural world then we fall into the trap of regarding everything as being designed and hence we are susceptible to creationism.

That’s the theory of my friend Deb Kelemen at Boston University. She has just published a paper in “Cognition” where she reports a study where adults had to rate the following sorts of statements as true or false.

• Earthworms tunnel underground to aerate the soil

• Mites live on skin to consume dead skin cells

• The Sun makes light so that plants can photosynthesise

• Earthquakes happen because tectonic plates must align

When they were put under rapid time constraints, adults were significantly more inclined to adopt the teleological stance. When they had ample time, they were still more inclined to endorse teleological interpretations, especially those related to the design of the Earth. It did not matter whether they were believers or not.

She also found with colleagues Tania Lombrozo and Deborah Zaitchik similar patterns of intuitive biases in aging populations with Alzheimer’s Disease. I also wonder whether this is related to Dan Dennett’s ‘intentional stance’ where humans deliberately anthropomorphize inanimate things simply because it makes it easier for us to interact with the toaster, the car or the computer if we treat them as if they were alive. Maybe, I’ll ask him next week. (Blatant name-drop).

Anyway, these natural ways of interpreting the world suggests that such ways of thinking never really go away but rather, are suppressed. Arguably, such a bias in our reasoning makes creationism that more easy to accept rather than natural selection which is so counter-intuitive to most people.

Provocatively, my colleague Paul Blooms wonders, “It might turn out that if you put Richard Dawkins or Einstein or whomever [to the test], no matter how expert or educated they are, they might still make these mistakes.”

Now that’s a study I would like to see.

Ok… clearly a more academic post coz I have some meetings coming up where I have to be clever but I will get back to describing the underbelly of mankind shortly.


Filed under Research

God IS in Your Brain

Michelangelo was not only a gifted artist but a bit of a Renaissance neuroanatomist according to one Dr. Meshberger. Like many artists of the day such as Da Vinci, Michelangelo studied human anatomy so as to perfect his own artistic techniques representing the body. creation1

It would appear that the centre piece of his most famous commission, the “Creation of Adam” on the ceiling of the Sistene chapel in the Vatican, contains an artistic representation of the sagital plane of the human brain with God in the middle reaching out the divine touch to Adam. Dr. Meshberger insists that the artist was allegorically portraying the moment when God bestowed Adam with intelligence.creation2

As I point out in my talks and “SuperSense” the trouble with this theory is that the human brain is wired to detect patterns in otherwise random events. This is why it is so easy to see evidence of divine signatures in all manner of mundane patterns. Nevertheless, believers see what they want to see and treat these patterns as auspicious. For example, spontaneous shrines (often with respect to the Virgin Mary for some reason), pop up in the most unusual places such as the site of a salt stain on the wall of an underpass in Chicago……


or as a refraction pattern in the plate glass windows of an insurance building in Florida….jesus026

This tendency to seeing significant features is known as pareidolia and is particularly associated with religious imagery. One the factors that appears to shape the patterns we see is our relative expertise and previous experiences. Dr.Meshberger is a gynecologist which may make him inclined to see patterns where the rest of us dare not look. There again if he was a vet then this one should have been glaringly obvious..angusassjesus_350x450


Filed under General Thoughts, Weird Story of the Week

Losing My Religion


Ariane Sherine gives us a thought for the day!

Ariane Sherine gives us a thought for the day!

This is the face of the young lady who has launched a thousand atheist buses. She is Ariane Sherine, the TV comedy writer who came up with the atheist bus campaign. From the photograph I can only see her swelling the  ranks of many an atheist as a more acceptable face of youthful atheism. She is also presenting the first ever non-religious ‘thought for the day’ on tomorrow’s Radio 4. For those of you not familiar with this British institution, every morning on BBC Radio we hear some pearls of wisdom from a religious person. Up till now, they have never had an atheist, an agnostic or even a humanist. So you go girl!! I, for one, will be tuning in.


Filed under atheism

The Atheist Bus Gathers Up Steam

atheistbus460Apparently there have been 50 complaints about the atheist buses that are currently touring the country and about to set off in Spain. They want the advertising standards authority to remove them. I have just done a quick head count of positive and negative 70 comments just posted within hours on the article website and all but one come from enthusiastic atheists.  I can only imagine that the name calling will continue as this bus looks like it is going to run and run.


Filed under atheism

…And Now You Can Take the Atheist Bus as Well

_45350460_bus_paToday, London unveiled the new slogan, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life”, to be displayed on 200 buses in London and 600 across the country. 

This campaign was thought up by Ariane Sherine who got fed-up seeing Christian advertisements on buses that threatened eternal damnation for non-believers. 

I find advertising beliefs like brands of soap powder rather ridiculous but I guess it gets people thinking (and blogging…and commenting???).  But where will it end?

Hopefully, we can get through this nonsense soon enough.


Filed under atheism

Atheists Can Go to Heaven…. But They Can’t Get Elected!

The Pew Foundation published the results of a survey last year that I only became aware of following the Op-Ed piece in the New York Times last week. It would appear that a majority of Americans are tolerant on the criterion for getting into heaven. A survey of over 2,900 American adults revealed that the majority of Christians thought that other faiths could lead to eternal life.

But here’s a surprise… almost half (56%) thought that those of no religious faith and even atheists (42%) could also go to heaven so long as they were good people. One blogger quipped they would be needed in heaven as someone has to scrub the floors.

So in the US, the religious majority are apparently much more tolerant than usually assumed. Shame that doesn’t apply to politics. Atheists were at the bottom of the list of candidates that people said they would  vote for even though the candidate was “a generally well-qualified person for president.” Hmm sound familiar?


Filed under atheism, Research