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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Shermer Speaks Up

Michael Shermer is publisher of Skeptic magazine, and author of several books on reason and rationality. He has written a letter that appeared in the September 2007 issue of Scientific American. It addresses what many are calling the "new Atheists" who have been writing some books on atheism that many have described as quite aggressive and confrontational. Examples ranging from accusing religious moderates of aiding in the causes of terrorism and extremism, to calling religious parents child abusers, to an outright rejection of religious tolerance where theists are concerned, and more.

Shermer's position is a brief but concise summary of many of the arguments against this approach, which support my stance and the fourth of five basic concepts on which the notion of the Humanist Contemplative is based.

If you would like to read the article, you can order back issues from Scientific American, or read it on their website by clicking the link below. To subscribe to Scientific American you can click here:

It is best if you can read the article from the original source. However, if the link above has expired or been lost, I have archived on my philosophy site, LINK HERE.

Many thanks to
Mary Beaty, who first alerted me to this letter.

Health Care & Religion

Earlier this week I had an interesting discussion with Dr. Cayla Teal from the Baylor College of Medicine. She is studying issues of how health care quality is effected by racial and ethnic issues. In the process, she discovered that issues of religion also played a role. Now she is putting together some survey questions designed to measure people's preferences and attitudes about their health care service as it pertains to all of these issues.

She had contacted me, as president of the local Humanist organization here in Houston, in order to get perspectives and input from Humanist and nontheist points of view. This was specifically in regards to the sections of the survey dealing with religion.

I wasn't being asked the questions themselves (I'm not part of the survey). Rather, I was being asked for input on how the questions could be formulated so as to be of most relevance to the widest religious variety of people, and how they might better gather the specific information being sought without misunderstanding.

We talked about how different groups use terms like 'religious', 'spiritual', 'God' and so on. We also talked about instances where one could answer a question in a way that was technically correct, but gives an opposite impression from the reality of the subject's position - because of unfounded assumptions inherent in the wording of the question. This often took the form of bias in the questions that assumed the subject was some form of theist; a common bias that atheists probably notice more than theists.

Another interesting issue was how differences in people's conception of 'faith healing' could result in meaningless answers to the questions. For example, some people might say that faith helps one get better because they think something supernatural is going on, while others may say the same thing, but because they believe it is a placebo or other biological process effected by a hopeful and positive psychological attitude. These differences can make a huge difference in what a person actually believes, even though they might answer questions in the same manner, if they are not carefully worded.

Similar issues arose because different subjects have different ideas about how God works, how the 'idea' of God works, and what role (if any) such a deity plays in our lives. Do we pray for the strength to accept whatever is God's will for our heath, or do we pray for God to actively change our health? These sorts of questions went beyond what would be relevant to a naturalist such as myself, but they are important things to consider when phrasing questions about faith and health.

I can't tell you what the questions are, as I promised Dr. Teal I would not. But they were generally about discovering what patient's desires were for their health care provider, given their religious views (or lack thereof). However, Dr. Teal has told me she will inform me once the study has been completed and published, which I look forward to seeing - and will post some information on here.

Monday, August 20, 2007


We have a new kitten. I was out walking one morning under a covered area during heavy rains. I saw, in the middle of the wet pavement, what appeared to be a small wet rat and started to walk around it. As it turned out, it was a baby kitten, soaking wet and abandoned. It was so young it couldn't even raise its head. Her paws were pink and not even covered with fur yet. She was barely moving so leaving her would probably mean her death, either by starvation, the elements, or animals. I took her home and warmed her up and dried her. We took her to the vet when they opened and they checked her out. She was healthy, and the vet set us up with a lady named Betty, who specialized in raising baby kittens up to an age where she could eat solid food and we could leave her at home when we're gone. So, that's what she's doing now for us.

We've decided to name her Cassiopeia (or 'Cassie' for short). In Greek mythology, the original Cassiopeia was the beautiful wife of King Cepheus, who boasted that she was more beautiful than all the Nereids, the nymph-daughters of Nereus the sea god. Poseidon then brought his wrath upon her kingdom. It seemed a fitting name given the puddle in which she was found.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Political Compass Graph

There is a very interesting little test that defines the subjects' political and social views. One axis defines the spectrum of left to right economic views (left meaning socialistic/communistic, right meaning free market/capitalistic). The other axis defines social authoritarianism (what they call fascism, which is questionable) to libertarianism (or anarchism at the extreme). I thought readers might be interested to take the test themselves, and I also thought it might be nice to document where I fall here on my blog.

If you would like to take the test, you can visit and click the 'take the test' option in the upper left of the screen.

I would advise doing so before reading the rest of this blog post, as reading some of my comments on the test questions may taint your results...

As for my results, you can click on the image here to see a larger version of it. I have combined my results with those of famous people as provided on the website, and have combined labels from several of the graphs they provided, into one for ease of use.

It did seem to me the test had several shortcomings. Too often the questions seemed to use inexact terms, sloppy phrasing, and assume that we would think along conventional lines. It says things like "x is natural". It's obvious the statement is implying that x is ok. What if we think its natural but not acceptable or proper? One could easily give an opposite impression of what they really think by answering accurately.

Another example would be the question as to whether violating 'international law' is sometimes necessary. What if you don't believe such a thing as 'international law' actually exists, because no political legislative body has ever been created on an international level that has the legitimate popular mandate to create 'laws'? It becomes somewhat of a 'did you stop beating your wife' question.

One other question was "A significant advantage of a one-party state is that it avoids all the arguments that delay progress in a democratic political system." Now, what if I believe that is a significant advantage of a one-party state in many cases, but I believe that other advantages of democratic multi-party states far outweigh that advantage? If I answer honestly, the test program will likely think I view one-party states as favorable in some way.

Another problem with the test is that one can easily see the political liberal mindset in the phrasing of the questions. Perhaps due to a lack of imagination or role-playing ability, what is assumed and what is taken for granted gives the neutrality away. For example, no one who thought that the interests of trans-national corporations was beneficial to humanity would have stated it as, "If economic globalisation is inevitable, it should primarily serve humanity rather than the interests of trans-national corporations." This either/or leaves such people with truly no representative answer to give. And people who have agreed with "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" in some cases of international politics of late, would never state that as an absolute. They would say, rather, something like, "In some cases it is useful to make cooperative deals with the enemy of my enemy, even if we normally would not approve of such people."

Having said that, the test probably measures what it sets out to in fairly close-enough terms. I say that judging by my own results and the results of many people I know well who have taken it. Perhaps those difficulties with the questions are some advanced psychological technique to make us answer without being able to 'figure out' the test. That may well be the case :)

Sunday, August 5, 2007

Television Program with Comments

As I mentioned a while back, I was recently a guest on the Houston PBS television program The Connection. Online video of that program is now available here, along with commentary (it may take a few moments to load):

LINK: The Connection

At the bottom of the page, I make some additional comments on things we didn't have time to get into in the program.