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Posts Tagged ‘religion

nones, rinos and new australians – we’re becoming more secular, but also more religiously complex

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So the census data on religion, and everything else, has just come out, and it wasn’t as I’d predicted (in my mind). I expected a rise in the nones but I opted for a more conservative result, partly because of so many wrong predictions (in my mind) in the recent past, but mainly because I didn’t really expect the accelerating rise in recent censuses to continue for too much longer, I expected a few wobbles on the path to heathenism. Not so much two steps forward and one step back, more like a mixture of giant strides and baby steps.

So the result is encouraging and more people are taking note and it has clear implications for areas of social and political policies in which religion plays a part, such as funding for religion in schools, marriage equality, abortion rights, euthanasia, tax exemptions for religious organisations, school chaplains and the like.

So let’s take a closer look at the findings. The graph I present at the top of this post is identical to the one I posted about 5 years ago, except that the last bar, representing the 2016 figures, is added. And it’s quite a spectacular finding, showing that the acceleration is continuing. The drop in the assertively Christian sector is way bigger than expected (in my mind), from a little under 60% to just over 50%. That’s really something, and there’s no doubt that figure will be well under 50% by next census. So much for the twilight of atheism – at least in this benighted backwater. The figure for the assertively non-religious has taken a bigger jump than in any previous census – we only started measuring the category in 1971. That was a surprise, as was the size of the drop in Catholics (and the Anglican population continues to diminish). The figure of 30.1% for the nones, up from 22.3% in 2011, should be supplemented by a goodly percentage of the ‘not-stated/inadequately described’ category, which makes up about 10%, barely changed from last census. This would make for a figure of more than a third of our population professing no religion.

The figure for ‘other religions’ continues to rise but it’s still under 10%. It’s hardly cause for concern exactly, but we should always be vigilant about maintaining a thoroughly secular polity and judiciary. It has served us, and other secular countries, very well indeed. Meanwhile the mix of other religions makes for greater complexity and diversity, and hopefully will prevent the dominance of any particular religious perspective. We should encourage dialogue between these groups to prevent religious balkanisation.

These results really do give hope that the overall ‘no religion’ figure, now at around 30%, will overtake the overall Christian figure, at about 51%, in my lifetime. If the trend continues to accelerate, that may well happen by 2026. Meanwhile it’ll be fascinating to see how these results play out in the political and social arena in the near future, and what Christian apologists have to say about them.

Of course, the census hardly provides a fine-grained view of the nation’s religious affiliations. I’ve not said much about the ‘rino’ population before – that’s those who are ‘religious in name only’. In fact I only heard that acronym for the first time two days ago, but I’ve long been aware of the type, and I’ve met a few ‘Catholics’ who fit the bill. It really does gripe me that more of these people don’t come out as non-believers, but of course I can’t get inside their heads. Certainly church attendance has dropped markedly in recent years, but it’s impossible to know whether these nominal believers would follow religious lines on hot-button topics like euthanasia or abortion.

The census results, as always, have been published with accompanying ‘expert’ commentaries, and on the religious question they’ve said that the figures don’t really give comfort to Christians or atheists. It’s cloud cuckoo talk, but it doesn’t surprise me. The results speak volumes and give plenty of comfort to those who want religion to be kept well out of politics, and who never want to see a return to powerful Christian lobbies and their incessant and often ridiculous propaganda. Politicians, please take note.


patriarchy, identity politics and immigration – a few reflections

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Germany. Muslim migrants  being threatening. Note the female presence.

Germany. Muslim migrants being threatening. Note the female presence.


A conversation between ‘apocalypse man’ Sam Harris and Gad Saad (evolutionary psychologist and producer of a Youtube channel critiquing inter alia various shibboleths of the left), together with some overheard comments at my workplace, as well as other promptings, has led me to consider writing about some major issues confronting our increasingly secular society and it maintenance…

As everyone  knows, in Australia as in other western countries, the influx of refugees from such countries as Iraq and Afghanistan, relatively small though it has been, has ignited a response of what has been called ‘Islamophobia’ amongst a certain sector of the public. This is of course connected to a more generalised xenophobia and nationalism. My own response to all this has been a fairly unconcerned dismissiveness, though coloured by a definite distaste for such items as the niqab, and such customs as the strict segregation of males and females, which I’ve long been exposed to as a teacher of English to Arabic-speaking families. Insofar as I gave it thought, I tended to believe that the children of these immigrants would become more drawn to western secularism and everything would be more or less hunky dory. But the more I read, listen and observe, the less sanguine I’ve become about all that. We may need to defend secularism more robustly in the future.

I think it’s true, though dangerous, to say that the greatest threat to secularism today is Islam. Previously, I’m not sure that I’ve been able to admit this, even to myself – even though it’s been articulated clearly enough by concerned thinkers I admire, such as Sam Harris and Ayaan Hirsi Ali. So now it’s time to face the issue more resolutely and to think about solutions.

Here’s an example that illustrates the problem. In my workplace as a TESOL educator, dealing with mostly Chinese students, together with a substantial proportion of Vietnamese and Arabic speakers, I have a colleague who is an Israeli-born Muslim. She doesn’t wear any kind of head-dress or make any outward display to show that she believes in Islam, she is very professional and hard-working, and she’s very well-liked by and supportive of  her colleagues. In fact, in the first few months of working there, having heard that she was born in Israel, I assumed naturally enough that she was Jewish. Only later did I learn that her native language was Arabic, and even then I wasn’t sure whether she was a practising Muslim. In fact apostate Muslims are rare, but as a sometime member of atheist and humanist groups I do encounter them, and this has probably skewed my views on the possibility of abandoning Islam for those born into it. In any case, three experiences in recent months have brought home to me the difficulty of dealing with even the most apparently liberal Muslims on issues which, for virtually all secular liberals, are no-brainers. First, during a brief staff-room discussion of the marriage equality plebiscite being mooted here in Australia, she quietly stated that ‘we think homosexuality is wrong’. Second, on a video I watched in which she was assessing a seminar on political violence given by a student, she quietly, and very briefly, stated her doubts about the truth of the holocaust (it’s unlikely that her students had the language skills to comprehend her comment). Third, in another staff room discussion, she stated that ‘we don’t believe in evolution’. So herein lies the problem. It is, and I think plenty of research bears this out, a standard view of even the most liberal Muslims, that homosexuality should not be allowed, that natural selection is false and shouldn’t be taught, and that Jews are liars, or worse, and can’t be trusted.

These views are a part of identity politics, hence the regular use of ‘we’ in their delivery. Intelligent though my colleague is, I’d be willing to bet she wouldn’t be able to explain the mechanism of natural selection from random variation that’s the basis of our understanding of life on earth, nor would she be able to give a detailed explanation of how the holocaust ‘myth’ became widespread, or of why homosexuality is so wrong. My guess is that her very being, as part of a rigid collective consciousness, would be threatened if she disavowed these beliefs, and it’s the collective consciousness of Islam that’s my main concern here. Of course this consciousness isn’t absolute, because if it were there would be no apostates and no possibility of apostasy. However, it’s also very powerful and compelling, because if it wasn’t the opprobrium and the violence meted out to apostates wouldn’t be so extreme. So the situation in the Muslim world bears similarities to that of the Christian world in Europe before sceptical individuals such as Cristovao Ferreira, Jean Meslier and Julien de La Mettrie began to proliferate in the eighteenth century – a situation that prevailed for over a thousand years. However, there are important differences between contemporary Muslim collective consciousness and the Christian variety that’s now fast disappearing in Europe. The most important difference, of course, is that European Christendom wasn’t faced with the external pressure of sophisticated societies on its borders, demanding trade deals and seeking to impose universal, largely secular values more or less in exchange. So today there is very much a clash of cultures, though probably not as described in various books on the subject (none of which I’ve read). It’s quite possible, though by no means certain, that this clash, and the greater fluidity of human movement in the 21st century, will speed up the process of change, of a Muslim enlightenment, in coming decades, but there seems little sign of that at present.

So what with Muslim identity politics and no Muslim enlightenment on the horizon, issues arise with respect to immigration, multiculturalism and the like. And I have to say I’m very much torn on this issue. On the one hand I’m disgusted by our former PM Tony Abbott’s portrayal of Syrian refugees as largely economic migrants who need to be turned back if their lives are not in immediate danger, despite the worse than horrendous conditions they suffer under. On the other hand I recognise the difficulty and the danger of accepting people who have been living on a diet of violence and hatred for decades into a peaceful country. The evidence is clear that though the majority of these refugees want nothing more than to find a peaceful place to restart their lives, there will be a certain percentage that bring their grievances with them, and most disturbingly their long-held grievances against western values.

So this is one of the biggest problems facing western society currently. As I’ve said, I’ve tended to minimise the problem in my own mind up till now. After all, Muslims make up only about 2.5% of the Australian population and haven’t caused too many problems as yet (with apologies to the families of Tory Johnson, Katrina Dawson and Curtis Cheng), and my own experience of Muslim residents and students here, which has been quite considerable of late, has been almost entirely positive. However, events in Europe and the USA in recent years give cause for grave concern, as have statistics relating to the growth of Islam worldwide. While projections about the growth of Islam in the the future are never going to be entirely reliable, being based on a host of assumptions, it’s pretty clear that it’s growing faster than Christianity or any other major religion. This has more to do with fertility rates than any other factor, but the fact that it’s generally dangerous to abandon the Muslim faith doesn’t help much.

At the moment, this is not an Australian problem, even though we have a rise in thuggish xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiment, but it’s clear that if the Muslim population continues to rise, and screening of extremists isn’t adequate, there will be incidents (to use a euphemism), and reactions to incidents, which will adversely affect our civil society. But of course things have changed already in this ‘distant’ western society. When I was growing up (and at 60 I’m no spring chicken) there were no Muslims whatever in our very Anglo working class community – Italian market gardeners were our version of exoticism. Now, in my workplace, we have to provide ‘multi-faith’ (but actually Muslim) prayer rooms and deal with the guardians of (rare in comparison to male) female Arabic students who refuse to shake hands with our course co-ordinator who happens to be female. This is a far more challenging and personally offensive situation than anything I’ve experienced before, as someone brought up on and profoundly influenced by seventies feminism, and part of the challenge is having to counter absurd arguments by members of what has been termed the ‘regressive left’ who have actually suggested, in discussion with me, that western women are coerced into wearing bikinis and short dresses in much the same way as Muslim women are coerced into burqas and niqabs.

Anyway, now that I’ve ‘come out’ on this major issue, I plan to deal with it further in future posts. I want to look at the European situation as an object lesson for Australia, because what I’ve been learning about it is quite alarming. I’m also keen to connect what I’ve been learning about all this – the Saudi guardianship system and the macho jihadist culture – to patriarchy and its obvious deficits. I still think this is the area in which Islam can be most constructively critiqued, with a view to reform.

Written by stewart henderson

November 13, 2016 at 9:34 pm

who says women should be modest?

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Does my body look too real in this?

Does my body look too real in this?

The French government is copping lots of flack for its ban on face covering in public, and rightly so, for outright bans are rarely effective, and this one is seen, rightly or wrongly – and probably rightly – as discriminating against Moslem women and the burqas that some of them wear.

However having said that, I’m no fan of the burqa, or any form of dress that sharply divides women from men (I love women in suits, and I wish I had the courage to wear skirts in public – I’m still considering buying one of those kilts I saw advertised on Facebook recently). But the burqa seems particularly regressive, and it’s clearly not a coincidence that it’s an outfit favoured by the Taliban and the Islamist Saudi government. Of course there are many variations of Islamic head-wear for women, but according to the women themselves, from what I’m always hearing, they choose to wear these head trappings as a sign of modesty.

It seems to me that modesty is the ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ term for these women, because modesty’s a virtue, and who’d criticise a woman for wanting to be virtuous? However, given that men and women are equal in intelligence and ability, I see no reason whatever for modesty to be a woman-only virtue. So why aren’t men wearing burqas? It isn’t a rhetorical question – I note that there’s a movement in Iran for men to wear hijabs in support of female associates targeted by the government there for being ‘improperly dressed’. Government imposed modesty.

This kind of modesty is of course highly dubious, it’s about not putting yourself forward – for education, for advancement, for leadership. It’s about knowing your circumscribed place. It’s a shame because the term ‘modesty’ has I think a value that has been demeaned by this more recent cultural usage. The modesty I value is where people tend to avoid trumpeting their achievements, however impressive those achievements might be. This kind of modesty is obviously not gender based and surely has nothing to do with head coverings.

However, this modesty-in-women malarky is about more than just trying not to be seen as, or even not to be, a great achiever. It’s about sexual modesty, and that’s what the covering is all about. One of the key features of patriarchy is controlling women’s sexual freedom. It really is about women as objects which need to be hidden from the lusty urges of male subjects, though women themselves are subjects only insofar as they must effectively hide or cover themselves from male appetites, otherwise they’re blameworthy and need to be punished.

So all this stuff about female headcovering is essentially about female sexual control, which is of course most effectively achieved if females internalise the idea and exercise the control themselves, thereby assenting to and bolstering the patriarchy that deprives them of sexual and other freedoms. Banning these head-coverings isn’t the solution,  though it might be necessary in some places for practical purposes. What we need to do is win the intellectual argument against the stifling restrictions of patriarchy, and engage women on the hypocrisy of female sexual modesty where there is a different standard and expectation for males.

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

men in burqas, not popular in Afghanistan, I wonder why

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2016 at 1:12 pm

The Roman Catholic Church: how to slowly kill off a seriously patriarchal institution

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Catholic patiarch, tastefull and elegantly dressed in a classical red 33-buttoned cassock of watered silk with matching baretta and sash. For simplicity's sake he appears to have eschewed the traditional laced undergarments, and his gold cross with tastefully inlaid jewels is clearly a mark of humility and servitude. Only one kissable ring is on display

Catholic patiarch, tastefully and elegantly vested in a classical red 33-buttoned cassock of watered silk with matching baretta and sash. For simplicity’s sake he appears to have eschewed the traditional laced undergarments, and his gold cross with tastefully inlaid jewels is clearly a mark of humility and servitude. Only one kissable ring is on display

The Roman Catholic Church is one of the few institutions in the western world permitted to discriminate, in terms of employment, on the basis of gender. Recently it announced that it would allow women to become deacons. The term deacon comes from ancient Greek, meaning servant, which of course accurately expresses the RCC attitude to women. There’s no upward employment pathway for women who become deacons, and I’d strongly advise any woman against applying for such a position. Of course I’d also strongly advise them to reject Catholicism altogether, as the religion, or business organisation, whatever it is, clearly has an attitude towards women which should have no place in modern society.

So given the outrageous discrimination practised by the RCC, why do so many women sheepishly accede to its restrictions? Well, maybe they don’t. I know this is anecdotal, but in a recent trip around Europe I took a few tours of major European cities. These unsurprisingly involved visits to quite a handful of historic cathedrals, featuring tombs of popes and sculptures of saints and such, but what impressed me more was that each of our tour guides felt obliged, apparently, to say that though their city was nominally Catholic, few of its residents actually practised the religion today. Maybe there was collusion among the tour guides, maybe they were all keen not to frighten the many Asian tourists, but they were surely speaking the truth. Roman Catholicism is the largest non-practiced religion in the world (though of course in some parts it’s practised fervently).

So since the RCC isn’t yet dead from indifference, perhaps something should be done to kill it off legally, and mounting legal challenges to its discriminatory policies on employment and other matters would be a good way to speed up the dying process. Sadly, I can’t find any legal or rights-based organisations keen to take up the challenge. The influential American Civil Liberties Union has many strong statements about Catholic and other religious charities and health providers discriminating against the women they serve, on issues such as abortion, family planning and homosexuality, but nothing about employment within the religious orders of the RCC. Of course the RCC doesn’t discriminate against women in their welfare arm, because to serve is a woman’s vocation. And of course the ACLU only highlights issues, it doesn’t have the resources to go any further, nor would it succeed, as religious groups are routinely exempt from anti- discrimination laws.

In Australia, the Sex Discrimination Act, particularly sections 37 and 38, provides the legal backing to religious sex discrimination. The sections are written with ‘religious freedom’ in mind, and with an eye to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Religious Rights. These freedoms, though, aren’t absolute and are to be balanced against other human rights, such as equal opportunity based on gender.

There are of course good reasons why nobody is legally challenging the RCC on this issue. Women as priests, bishops, cardinals, popes – this is hardly low-hanging fruit, it’s the heart of the Catholic system. Better to focus on discrimination against homosexuals and LGBT individuals employed in, or just attending, RCC schools. This chips away at the edges of this dreadful patriarchy and slowly weakens it. Every concession the RCC makes to modernity is like another gulp of poison it’s forced to take. Its strength will ebb away…

Written by stewart henderson

August 22, 2016 at 7:11 am

Good Friday? We object..

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profound spirituality lives on

profound spirituality lives on

Canto: I’m sitting here thinking I’d like to take a ride to the beach and then breakfast at a seaside caf but I can’t because it’s ‘good Friday’ and every such outlet in this state is shut down.

Jacinta: Right, and so what’s so good about Good Friday? I’ve heard tell it’s good for us to have a complete day off from shopping or having paid servants wait on us – a bit like having a day off from using electricity or motorised transport or – imagine it – a whole day in which smartphones couldn’t be used. We would somehow be better human beings, more appreciative of the first-world splendour we bask in, if we experienced the horrendous suffering of being deprived of it for a day.

Canto: Well I’ve had thoughts of that kind in the past, but I’d rather be up-front and call it first-world-free day or some such, because we both know good friday isn’t about deprivation of our favourite indulgences, or, if it is, that deprivation is supposed to remind us that on a ‘good day’ around 2000 years ago someone was crucified. A horrible death but not so horrible in this case because this particular guy was an immortal being in disguise who is now still alive and all around us and loves us terribly much. So it’s all good.

Jacinta: Yeah…right… sooo…

Canto: Okay the reason they say it’s good is because this immortal being died, or pretended to, or went through enormous suffering, because this allowed us to be saved.

Jacinta: Ahh right… saved… saved… ummm

Canto: Look Jass … I know this seems confusing to you but if you take a thorough-going theology course, and maintain a deeply spiritual lifestyle for the next several years you might be offered a glimmer of the revelation enveloped in this outwardly mysterious form of knowing-as-being.

Jacinta: Ohhh… shit… but all I really wanted was a caffe latte..

Canto: Okay well the reason you won’t get your latte today is because a certain dwindling section of our society believes this story of Jesus on the cross is literally true, or symbolically true or true in some deep sense which is beyond our shallow faithlessness, and this section of our society, though now a shadow of its former all-powerful self, once had complete control of our polity and economy and thus dictated what holidays we should have and why. And since we really like to have holidays and it would be a pain in the national arse to rename or reconfigure them, the ship of state being very difficult to shift from its course and all that, we’re stuck with good friday until the dwindling near-minority dwindles to such a level that it becomes a national embarrassment that we’re still pretending to respect such inconcinnities.

Jacinta: Well I saw on the morning news that the Sydney fish market’s open today.. wherever that is..

Canto: I think it’s in Sydney.

Jacinta: … but nothing’s open in dear old Adelaide, the shitty of churches. I don’t think we should just sit back and accept this. Why aren’t people protesting?

Canto: Okay, yes, let’s protest. What do you suggest?

Jacinta: Well, ummm, we could write to our local MP?

Canto: Yes, that would turn the ship of state around quick smart.

Jacinta: How about a petition?

Canto: Now that’s original. We could put it out over the net through or some such, and sit back and watch the overflow of community outrage…

Jacinta: Well the fact is, as you say, we love our holidays, so many people are prepared to be completely hypocritical about the reason for the season, even to the point of accepting the inconvenience of one complete shut-down day…

Canto: So that’s the end of our protest?

Jacinta: Pretty much. Join me for a nice breakfast out somewhere tomorrow morning?

Canto: You’re on.


Written by stewart henderson

March 25, 2016 at 1:24 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part two, the problem of macroevolution

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So, in Darwin’s day, there was a clear problem. Fossilised bones turning up everywhere, sometimes of gigantic creatures unlike anything on earth, sometimes of creatures very like those then living but not quite the same – in any case all indicating change, change, change. And there were many other oddities, some of them observed by Darwin himself on his Beagle voyage. Marine fossils embedded in landscapes way above sea level. Darwin had a great interest in geology, courtesy of Charles Lyell, whose landmark work, Principles of Geology, he carried with him on his great voyage. He was very interested in Lyell’s view, derived from Hutton, that landscapes changed slowly, with mountains rising from the sea, over periods of time much greater than the biblical account. So imagine his mind, full of Lyell’s speculations, when on March 4 1835 he was exploring the cliffs above Talcuhano Harbour, near Concepcion in Chile, shortly after the devastating earthquake, and found maases of seashells embedded in the rock. The Andes had risen from the sea, surely! Yet he might well have been in two minds – slow change, yes, perhaps, but the earthquake had also changed the physical landscape in an instant, bringing rocks dripping and oozing with marine life up several feet above the sea surface…

Meanwhile, dinosaurs. Of course the bones of these critters have been unearthed for millenia, but it was only in the early nineteenth century that they were treated scientifically. It was Richard Owen, later to become Darwin’s bête noir, who coined the term in 1842 (it’s from the Greek, roughly meaning ‘terrible lizard’ though dinos weren’t lizards, and they weren’t all terrible, or terribly large). These huge beasts (dinos come in all sizes, but large bones are more easily preserved than small ones, giving a false picture, and of course bigness grabs the public imagination) had clearly disappeared, but when? Why? How long ago? It all made the question of the earth’s actual age and history rather more urgent.

Darwin, back in England after a richly stimulating voyage in which he’d collected and ruminated over a vast number of exotic species, was exercised by a number of problems. Why did whole species disappear? Surely this had some connection with changes of landscape and habitat? He’d been making observations with regard to predators and prey, how species depended on other species, how individuals competed for mates. It seems that, unlike Wallace who came upon the insight of natural selection more or less in one fell swoop years later, Darwin was piecing things together painfully slowly, with hesitation, scepticism and uncertainty, but also with a dogged accumulation of evidence, so that when, finally, impelled by the famous letter from Wallace in the late 1850s to express his views, he was able to do so fulsomely, in spite of a lack of writerly ability. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The theory of natural selection is the most spectacularly successful and productive theory in biology, and is in fact its foundation stone. It has been reinforced by all that has been discovered since, especially in genetics and microbiology, fields that didn’t exist in Darwin’s time. The basis of the theory is quite simple, though it has been much misrepresented. Creatures reproduce, and generally the offspring are pretty well identical to the parents, but sometimes mutations occur. The offspring is in some way different. Usually the difference is ‘negative’, disadvantaging the offspring. The offspring is thus unable to reproduce and its line dies out. Sometimes the difference is ‘neutral’ and the line continues to reproduce, until or unless natural (environmental) conditions change and that line becomes either positive or negative within the context of those conditions. In other words it thrives compared to others or it dies out. Sometimes the difference is immediately positive, and this line outcompetes the others. The variation is random, but the natural environment ‘selects’ the best fit – the birds with the best beak for pecking out food; the worms with the best chemistry for thriving in a particular soil; in more recent times, the bacteria that can best resist the antibiotics we throw at them.

So the theory of natural selection describes incremental, gradual change. Its effect upon species is more difficult to explain, and it’s with this that creationists like to play, raising lots of dust and fog with respect to the species concept.

So what exactly is a species? The first more or less universally accepted classification of living things into groups was that of Linnaeus in his Systema naturae of 1735. It was a thoroughgoing system, from kingdom at the top, ranging down through phylum, class, order, family, genus and species. It’s still used today, of course, with various additions intercalated with these layers, but in the 20th century a new taxonomic system called cladistics, based on a more scientific understanding of descent from common ancestry, and so incorporating the new science of genetics, has won increasing favour.

One of the main reasons for this new development is that the term ‘species’ has historically been  frustratingly vague. Originally it was based on morphological characteristics – in other words, visible similarities. Nowadays, though, with the emergence of population genetics and genomics, we can be more rigorous about species and speciation. Basically, a species becomes separated from another when it no longer breeds with that other. More often than not, this is due to geographic separation. Early on in the separation interbreeding is still possible, but over time, with continued lack of opportunity, the two groups become increasingly distinct and unlike (and one or both groups may go extinct). This branching has of course occurred oodles of times, creating an evolutionary bush, each twig of which can be traced back to the original stem.

So far, so clear, I hope. So where do the creationist terms micro-evolution and macro-evolution come in? Well, off the top of my head, I think that, since creationists really really dislike the theory of natural selection as presented by Darwin, they have to account for obvious changes somehow without abandoning divine creation, especially of humans, as soul-blessed, dominion-holding, image-of-god types. So, they distinguish micro-evolution, changes within species (e.g. different breeds of dogs) from macro-evolution, transformations from one species to another, which they claim doesn’t exist. Presumably they think that every species was specially created by their god, though why he should have created so many and rendered the vast majority of them extinct before humans even came on the scene is a mystery. This points up a major problem for those who believe in directed evolution as well as creationism.

Okay, to be clear, micro-evolution and macro-evolution aren’t terms invented by creationists, though they’ve taken to them like babies to their mothers’ milk. The terms were first used by evolutionary biologists early in the 20th century to characterise not different processes but different scales of evolution. Micro-evolution plus time (in which minute changes accumulate) equals macro-evolution. Creationists, then, are reduced to claiming that, because we don’t ‘see’ speciation, it doesn’t exist. Presumably they can say the same for the big bang and black holes, but we can detect such objects and events through increasingly precise instrumentation, and we can pretty well map the relations between species, and the branchings-off, by examining genomes. They tell us, for example, that we share an ancestor with our closest living relatives, the chimps and bonobos, dating back between 5 and 7 million years ago. We are equally related to these two species because they branched off from each other later, between one and a half and two million years ago. Richard Dawkins, in his monumental work The Ancestors’ Tale, attempted to trace these nodes of connections between the ancestors of humans and other species, back to the first life forms. There are gaps in our knowledge of course, but they’re being filled in on an almost daily basis.

As Dawkins points out in another of his books, River out of Eden, the DNA ‘revolution’ that got underway as a result of Watson and Crick’s unravelling of the molecular structure of the gene, is a digital revolution. The genetic code is quaternary, with four nucleotide elements – adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine which can be combined in specific ways. Therefore the difference in the coding for different proteins, leading on the large scale to all the variation we see, can be worked out mathematically. This allows us to define more precisely our cousinship to other species – which are the more distant cousins, horses or pigs? Or, how closely connected are bees and butterflies? We can illustrate these relations using cladograms:



The technology we now have at our disposal allows us to map whole genomes increasingly cheaply and efficiently, and so we’re finding some surprising relationships. For example, recent DNA analysis has revealed that falcons, previously thought for fairly obvious reasons to be closely related to other birds of prey such as eagles, are in fact more closely related to parrots, songbirds and passerines such as the humble sparrow – a significant shift in taxonomic placement.

The obvious connections between species, and the fact that we can draw the evolutionary bush with increasing confidence, makes a mockery of creationist claims against natural selection, which not only explains speciation but also extinction. We may not know exactly why the neanderthals, or the trilobites, or the Australian megafauna died out, but natural selection points us in the right direction for answers – climate change, food scarcity and the introduction of new predators into the environment being the obvious candidates. The creationist, on the other hand needs to answer the question – why would their god keep creating these species, endlessly, only to have them snuffed out? No answers about the opacity of their god’s intentions are acceptable. And of course that’s far from being the only question they can’t answer.

Written by stewart henderson

June 13, 2015 at 5:14 pm

why is evolution true? (if it is): part one, the problem of fixity

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some Galapagos finches

some Galapagos finches

Much of my writing, especially about sciency stuff, is an attempt to own the knowledge. It’s perhaps never completely successful, especially for the non-specialist, the dilettante, who tries to own so much and to keep all those possessions together. You read about it, you cast it in your own words, you grasp it, you think you’ve grasped it completely, you move on to other things, and six months later you’re asked a curly question and in trying to answer it you find you’ve forgotten the half of it, and you wonder – did I ever really understand it after all?

So. We have the theory of evolution, or natural selection from random variation, and we have the theories of special and general relativity and quantum theory and so forth. And we have those in science who tell us that ‘theory’ is a technical term constantly misunderstood by the general public and deliberately misconstrued by those with particular agendas. And we have general talk and a lot of general ignorance about evolution.

Several years ago, when I was starting out as a teacher of ESOL (English to speakers of other languages) I observed a small community centre English class. The elderly teacher was asked by a well-dressed middle-aged African man, did she really think evolution – that we were descended from monkeys – was true? It was a polite, puzzled question. The teacher, understandably not wanting to dive down that rabbit hole, replied, ‘well, you know, it’s just a theory’, and the subject was changed. It unsettled me, to put mildly. It’s not how I would’ve dealt with the matter, and in fact I’ve twice since been placed in that position in recent times, and I’ve responded with ‘oh yes, it’s true, the evidence is in and it’s overwhelming,’ or words to that effect. Bam bam, take that and let’s back to grammar.

But of course, that response, too, is unsettling. After all, I could’ve given the exact same response to the question ‘Does God exist?’. It was just saying, an argument from my own authority.

Of course I had back-up from years of science and evolution-reading, but still I felt I was just imposing my authority as a teacher. I half-hoped for and half-dreaded being asked to elaborate.

The other night, at an atheist meet-up, the group was ‘invaded’ by three or four young street-preachers, self-confessed fundies who were apparently keen to debate evolution (they didn’t believe in it) and cosmology (the universe can’t create itself, ergo god). I didn’t engage with them myself, as I’m still recovering from a chest infection and want to avoid stress, but things got very heated over in their corner and I’ve since received an email asking for help to convince one of them of the evidence for evolution. It may be that the young man’s ignorance is wilful, but maybe not, and in any case it provides me with a useful opportunity to answer as best I can the title question.

Questions were raised about the fixity of species well before Charles Darwin was born. The most important figures in this early questioning of orthodoxy came from France. One of the founders of naturalism, Buffon, speculated that the earth might be much older than the standard biblical 6000 years, and that change, both geological and organic, might be endemic and constant. He mostly kept his views to himself, as the idea that the earth was maybe more than ten times older than the accepted figure was incendiary for the time. Lamarck, however, was the first to really go public with a theory of evolution. His essential view was that creatures adapted to their environment over time through the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Although he was generally incorrect as to his mechanism there is still some interest in his ideas today, but above all Lamarck strongly influenced future thinking on the subject as he was a first-rate scientist.

It should be noted though that all this speculation was brought on by the problems posed by evidence. The biblical fixity of species account was becoming increasingly difficult to reconcile with the discoveries of fossils of creatures not to be found anywhere, yet apparently related to current species. And then there were the fossils of ‘giants’, which had been discovered here and there for centuries, but which were not described scientifically until the nineteenth century. How could all these remains of  ‘disappeared’ creatures be turning up in a world where creation was fixed? The most popular explanation was ‘catastrophism’, a view held by Cuvier, a younger contemporary of Lamarck and one of his strongest critics. It was an attempt to reconcile fixity with a conveniently biblical diluvian view, but it continued to move thinking in a scientific, evidence-based direction.

Meanwhile, however, other fields of research, such as geology, were also becoming increasingly scientific, especially in Britain, with the work of Hutton and Lyell. Through inference from present conditions, they developed a gradualist, uniformitarian theory of physical change, with a more open-ended view of the earth’s age. This was the scientific background to Darwin’s naturalism. His own grandfather, Erasmus, dabbled in evolutionary ideas, and proposed that the earth had existed for ‘millions of ages’.

Now I know there’s a view out there among fundamentalists called ‘young earth creationism’, but I don’t know much about it. It would seem to be an absolutely crackpot notion, a denial of modern geology, astronomy and cosmology as well as biology and palaeontology, and I presume people who think this way consider the whole of modern science a massive conspiracy theory. How could they not? Yet the young man mentioned above has suggested we go and see a lecture by John Hartnett, an Adelaide University Associate Professor of Physics who’s also a young earth creationist. How could this be? Well I know something of cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias, but still I can barely imagine what he would say to justify his worldview, and I’m not really interested in trying to rebut his specific arguments, if he has them. These people tend to have martyr complexes about their positions, and I suspect they’d be happy to spend hours trying to bamboozle you. The main thing is to be clear about your own understanding of the evidence.

However, I also have an interest in the psychology of belief. Take the case of Hartnett, which I can only speculate about, but this is an obviously intelligent person who has apparently written scientific papers on dark matter and other aspects of cosmology and astrophysics. He knows, surely, how vast the universe is, that the Andromeda Galaxy, our nearest neighbour, is a barely-conceivable 2.5 million light years away, and there are billions of them beyond that, and yet he manages to square this with a six-day creation 6,000 years ago because it was written down by someone and collected much later with a whole mess of other writings by other people, compiled into a book and pronounced ‘holy’. Surely such thinking is more of a mystery than the gods themselves?

I can only speculate again, but Hartnett’s middle name is Gideon, a name inevitably associated with bible-bashing. Can it be that a person gets locked in, from earliest childhood, to a religious schema that they would never think to escape from, no matter how intelligent they are? Can cultural-familial influences have such a vice-like grip? Apparently so, but it’s unusual for someone to be regularly crossing the boundary between a rigid and dogmatic religious belief system and a highly speculative, often free-wheeling but rational and profoundly naturalist enterprise in the way that Hartnett must do. Ain’t people fascinating?

I’ve just read an article about rapid speciation among cichlid fishes in the African lakes. The authors note that this speciation, involving some 500 new species in Lake Victoria, has taken place over less than 15,000 years, unlike the famous speciation among ‘Darwin’s’ finches in the Galapagos (14 species, several million years). It’s called adaptive radiation, where ‘one lineage spawns numerous species that evolve specialisations to an array of ecological niches’, to quote Axel Meyer, writing in the April 2015 edition of Scientific American.

Yet this rapid speciation is still too much for young earth creationists, who believe the earth is less than 10,000 years old. What they make of stromatolites is anyone’s guess. Note that the term ‘earth’ is central, and presumably the universe or multiverse is of little concern to them, existing perhaps only as a fireworks show for our delectation.

As an Australian, this is all good for a laugh – though some Australians, such as John Hartnett, are full-on believers of a six-day creation a few thousand years ago – but apparently in the USA a substantial proportion of their very large population actually believes this (though to be honest, I can’t bring myself to believe the survey figures).

So, I wonder how I would deal with these young-turk young earth creationists who come to our atheist meet-ups spoiling for an argument. My hope is that I would have the wherewithal to ask these questions.

Is it your hope to convert the whole world to your view?

If you were successful, wouldn’t science classes be a lot shorter?

What would you do with those who insisted on being heretical? Preaching that the universe has existed for 13 billion years? Would you have them liquidated, or just permanently incarcerated? How about public recantations?

How come your god allowed us to be led astray by the evidence into getting it so wrong?

What would science be like if young earth creationists controlled all the levers of power? What would scientists do?

Of course I’m yet to hear what young earth creationists, many of whom are apparently highly intelligent, have to say about star formation, black holes and the big bang. They may well have the talent to bamboozle me with ingenious arguments. In the end, though, the best argument is to just keep doing the science, following the evidence. As long as we’re still allowed to.

Meanwhile, I haven’t yet answered the question – why is evolution (or more specifically, natural selection of random variation) true? But before I answer that, I believe that creationists do accept evolution of a particular kind, and distinguish between ‘micro-evolution’ and ‘micro-evolution’. I’ll pay some attention to that – but perhaps not too much – in my next post.

Written by stewart henderson

June 8, 2015 at 6:56 am