Fossilized Opinions

Sam Harris is famous for the argument that religion, even moderate religion, does harm by teaching that faith is a virtue that should not be questioned, which encourages militant and violent strains of fundamentalism. Today, I want to talk about another way, subtle but unmistakable, that religion causes harm to human beings.

Because of its tendency to treat all the statements of its founders and sacred texts as holy truth, religion has the effect of "freezing" the prejudices in vogue at the time of that religion's founding - encouraging followers to view them not as contingent or arbitrary cultural biases, but as the received will of God. And when a community of the faithful sincerely believes this, they'll perpetuate those prejudices for decades or centuries, long after the rest of the world has made enough progress to leave them behind. These preserved opinions are like fossils, surviving remnants of a more ancient era. But unlike fossils, they're still alive and malignant and able to do harm.

Consider the belief, still all too common, that rape victims are partially to blame for being raped if they drink or dress provocatively. This is a pernicious myth that's long been used, and is still being used, by rapists to excuse their actions and discourage rape victims from reporting the crime. It springs from the ancient prejudice that men can't be expected to exercise self-control in such situations, while women who are raped must have done something to tempt or incite the man into raping her. This is the sort of vile misogyny that our society should long since have discarded - but not only is it alive and well, it's still being propped up by patriarchal, male-dominated religions. Consider this story about a religious leaflet given to a woman in Virginia:

"You may have been given this leaflet because of the way you are dressed," it begins. "Have you thought about standing before the true and living God to be judged?"

..."Scripture tells us that when a man looks on a woman to lust for her he has already committed adultery in his heart. If you are dressed in a way that tempts a men to do this secret (or not so secret) sin, you are a participant in the sin," the leaflet states. "By the way, some rape victims would not have been raped if they had dressed properly. So can we really say they were innocent victims?"

This loathsome argument, though presumably from a Christian source, has much in common with the Muslim cleric who proclaimed that women who refuse to veil their faces are like "uncovered meat" that gets eaten by stray animals. Both of them justify their woman-hating, blame-the-victim attitude by passing it off as the word of God.

The same attitude is behind a new and worrying trend in American schools: religious-right legislators who've supported teaching creationism in science class are now broadening their sights to demand the teaching of "alternative views" about global warming, as well as other favorite right-wing targets. As the article notes, white evangelicals are among the least likely to accept the science behind climate change (and I've written before about similar views from both sides of the theological aisle).

It's no surprise that people who are hostile to the scientific worldview would oppose not just evolution, but other well-established scientific truths as well. A worldview founded on faith, fallacy and magical thinking is unlikely to accord scientific research the respect it deserves. (To cite another example, prominent creationists Philip Johnson and Jonathan Wells also belong to a pseudoscientific group which argues that HIV does not cause AIDS.) And since Christianity has, for the most part, become fused with the Republican Party in America, it was to be expected that there's hardly any daylight left between the political goals of those two groups. It started with Christians infiltrating and taking over the Republican Party platform, but it's fascinating to see how this connection now runs in the other direction as well - how the corporatist, social-Darwinian agenda of the GOP has become fossilized as the de facto position of evangelical Christianity.

The harm done by fossilized opinions is most obvious in Islam, where the status of women has scarcely advanced in fourteen hundred years. Laws still in force throughout the Muslim world allow men to take multiple wives, forbid women from getting an education or traveling outside the home without a male relative, devalue their testimony in court, and more. Just a few weeks ago, Muslim tribal elders in Bangladesh ordered the flogging of a rape victim - and Bangladesh is relatively advanced when it comes to women's rights, at least when compared to most other Islamic countries.

The next time you hear some mealy-mouthed accommodationist denouncing atheists for claiming "intellectual superiority" over believers, remind them of facts like these. If atheists' opinions are better, truer, more valuable than religious opinions, it's not because we're intrinsically smarter - it's because we are willing to change our minds when new evidence presents itself. Millions of religious believers' minds are mired centuries in the past, clinging to beliefs that we now know to be false and moral tenets that we now know to be atrocities. We have every right to feel superior to people who still hold such fossilized opinions.

March 6, 2010, 6:18 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink27 comments


Last month, in "Dreams of a Better World", I considered some of the immediate problems humanity could solve if we had the collective will to do so. I want to continue that theme in this post, but from a longer perspective.

Historically, humanity's knowledge has exceeded its wisdom. As soon as we invent a new technology, we begin adopting it on a wide scale, without asking whether we should or what the consequences might be. Many of our most pressing problems - multidrug-resistant diseases, global climate change, air and water pollution, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the ongoing extinctions of species and destruction of habitat - trace back to this impulse.

Our powers of reason have brought us amazing advances in understanding and controlling the world; but those rational faculties have not, as of yet, mastered the baser instincts of greed, xenophobia, violence and tribalism that underlie them. Instead, our reason is too often enslaved to that darker side of our nature, becoming the servant of our destructive passions rather than their master. Hence, we see absurdities such as Islamist fanatics, who reject every other scientific advance of the last several hundred years, struggling to create nuclear weapons. The only scientific knowledge they accept is that which they can use to destroy. Doubtless, if evolutionary theory offered the key to creating deadlier biological weapons, all the universities in Islamic theocracies would have top-notch biology departments as well, next door to the theology departments still repeating the narrow dogmas of a medieval desert nomad.

But it's not just on those easy targets that I want to pin the blame. Too often, we in the allegedly enlightened West have been guilty of similar deeds, selectively using the fruits of science that offer us the most immediate benefit rather than asking what is moral or sustainable in the long run.

We invent ever-more efficient fishing technologies to scour the ocean of the increasingly few remaining fish, refusing to recognize the downward spiral our actions have created. We fuel our economy with dirty, polluting, high-carbon coal and oil because it's cheap - at least by the usual accounting - and to get it, we think nothing of drilling oil wells in delicate habitat, or bulldozing whole mountains and dumping the rubble into nearby streams and watersheds. We drain rivers dry to build ever more lavish cities and communities in the middle of the desert. We run industrial agriculture on vast quantities of fertilizers and antibiotics, and let someone else pay the cost for poisoned groundwater, dead zones in the oceans, and multidrug-resistant staph and tuberculosis.

To build a human society that can survive over the long term, we need to turn away from this. What we need, and what I hope, is that we'll begin asking ourselves not just whether we can do something, but whether we should - and if the answer is that we should not, that we will then collectively agree to forbear.

I don't mean to imply that there will be a single global authority dictating which technological avenues will or will not be pursued. That would be an abhorrent tyranny. I have in mind a different future: a world where people have as much as or more liberty than they do now, yet where the human race can come, freely and without coercion, to a universal consensus on which courses of action should be taken and which left alone.

This may strike you as an impossible dream. I admit that the evidence so far is against me: historically, if one person or group has been unwilling to cross a boundary, there's always another that will. But that's precisely the attitude that needs to change if humanity is to survive and prosper. As technology grows more and more powerful, smaller and smaller groups of people wield destructive potential that the entire human species didn't have even a hundred years ago. We need to make the transition to a world where this kind of power is used wisely by all who have access to it, and I believe we will.

How can the human race reach this level of unanimity? I answer that the things that hold us apart are mainly irrational impulses - racism, sexism, nationalism, religion - which encourage their followers to value one group, one land or one belief more than a rational accounting of its value would suggest. Thus, the answer is simple: Humanity will come together when we learn to overrule those superstitions and fully acknowledge - and live out - the supremacy of reason as a guiding principle. When that happens, we will be able to reach agreement on all the things that matter.

This isn't going to be a single event, nor will the world be transformed overnight. It may take centuries to complete. But I believe we're on the cusp of the transition, and we may even witness the beginning of it in our lifetimes. We'll begin to see consensus breaking out, unanimity gradually developing. By the time agreement finally arrives, it will doubtless seem so easy and natural, we'll wonder why it took us so long in the first place.

The literal meaning of the word "apotheosis" is "elevation to divine status" - and as I've previously said, I reject the idea that this should be our goal. The gods are petty, jealous, easily provoked creatures; they embody our worst traits, not our best, and we shouldn't be seeking to emulate them. But "apotheosis" has another, more fitting meaning: "the supreme or the best example", and that's a goal I can support without hesitation. We should all seek to become the best example of humanity, to unleash the potential for goodness inherent in every person. This state may seem to be impossibly far off, but if each of us does what we can to bring it into being, we may find it isn't as far as we think.

May 27, 2009, 6:46 am • Posted in: The LoftPermalink23 comments

The Secular Case for Vegetarianism

Guest Post by Rob Schneider

[Editor's Note: In my third anniversary post, I mentioned that I wanted to have more guest essays on Daylight Atheism, as well as more posts exploring issues where atheists don't all agree. This post accomplishes both those aims. Please welcome Rob Schneider (not that Rob Schneider) and his first appearance on Daylight Atheism.]

Veganism and vegetarianism have a bad reputation in our society. Those who identify as vegan or vegetarian tend to receive odd looks and questions like, "doesn't that burger look good?" We get labeled as "tree-huggers" and "extremists." It's remarkably similar to being out as an Atheist. I hope to answer some common questions and present a secular case for vegetarianism as a sound ethical choice.

I'll start by clarifying my terms. Vegan means refraining from the consumption of anything that contains animal products, especially things that come from animals with nervous systems. Yeast is ok, but a Vegan will avoid eating any food containing dairy, eggs or meats, and will carefully check ingredient labels to avoid additives from animal sources, such as gelatin (from hooves) or certain enzymes. Vegans also avoid any products containing animal hide, bones or other bits. Most vegans will use life-saving medicines made from animal components. The Vegan Society has a comprehensive list of animal products commonly found in food here.

Vegetarian covers a broad range of consumption choices. Strict vegetarians will use the same food guidelines as vegans, but use non-food products made from animal parts, such as leather shoes. Ovo-lacto vegetarians will consume eggs and dairy, but not meat. Some people will use the term vegetarian to mean that they avoid red meat, so they will eat fish and sometimes chicken. For this post, vegetarianism means the removal of all chicken, beef and pork from the diet.

I myself am a vegan, although I will be defending vegetarianism in this post. Without going into the animal welfare issues (which are well-documented elsewhere), my argument will focus on the environmental disruption and social justice issues caused by most large-scale farming practices.

Large-scale farming, also known as factory farming, is by far (pdf) the source of most animal products consumed in the West. Factory farming emphasizes size and concentration by confining a large number of animals into a small space. This causes numerous problems with waste management, greenhouse gas emissions and diseases.

Factory farming is often criticized for waste-management issues. Feedlot waste has been shown to have negative effects on the environment. The standard factory farm uses waste lagoons and spreader fields to hold the large amount of urine and feces generated by the animals. As you can imagine, the stench from a small lake of poop is vile, and has adverse effects on those who live nearby. Several studies (pdf) have shown that the fumes from feedlots cause health problems for those living nearby. Ammonia, Hydrogen Sulfide, Volatile Organic Compounds such as Methane and particulate matter are commonly found in the fumes coming from feedlots.

The feedlot lagoons and spreader fields often lack adequate runoff controls, so heavy rainfall or snow melt can cause direct leakage of the feces and urine into natural bodies of water and potable water sources for humans. This most commonly results in fish kills, but has also been shown to cause a long-term issue with mutated fish in streams.

According to The New York Times, "an estimated 30 percent of the earth's ice-free land is directly or indirectly involved in livestock production, according to the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization, which also estimates that livestock production generates nearly a fifth of the world's greenhouse gases — more than transportation." The amount of fossil fuel needed to grow meat is also considerable; "...if Americans were to reduce meat consumption by just 20 percent it would be as if we all switched from a standard sedan — a Camry, say — to the ultra-efficient Prius." According to Ulf Sonesson of the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, roughly half the diet-based greenhouse gasses come from meat production. Replacing 50% of the protein from meat with protein from soy in the western diet would dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, "on the order of 70%."

In addition to the pollution issues, industrial animal farming is an incredibly inefficient food source. The grain fed to cattle in the USA alone would feed 800 million people. Livestock are also water-intensive sources of food. According to the Stockholm International Water Institute, a kilogram of grain-fed beef needs at least 15 cubic meters of water.

Thus far I have primarily talked about the environmental problems with using meat as a food source. There are numerous social problems with our modern meat industry as well. The modern US slaughterhouse industry has a history of food and worker safety violations, with the now-closed plant in Postville, IA, being just one example. Other abuses are regularly uncovered. Workers in US slaughterhouses are expected to work nearly twice as fast as workers anywhere else in the world. According to Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, "...they [slaughterhouses] cut wages, they cut benefits, broke unions. And now it has one of the highest turnover rates of any industrial job." The modern US slaughterhouse has a turnover rate between 75% and 100% per year. The workers, mostly poor and many recent immigrants, are also working in what the Bureau of Labor Statistics says is the most dangerous job in America. Injuries are common due to the frantic pace of the work, the fact that power cutting tools are involved, and the amounts of blood and fat that end up on the floor while workers are moving around.

The modern industrial animal farm has many environmental and social costs that are not reflected on the in-store price tag. Our water and air are poisoned and our poor work in a dangerous job for little pay. While the modern steak is easier to buy than ever before, it is far more expensive than we as a society realize. We need to carefully re-think the true cost of our diet before we discover the bill is far more than we can afford.

April 26, 2009, 10:04 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink214 comments

Bands of Iron

On a wintry day late last year, I visited the Museum of Natural History in New York City. While touring the geology wing, I came across this boulder-sized chunk of a rock formation:

A banded iron formation from the geology exhibit of the Museum of Natural History. Photo credit to Erich Vieth.

It was out in the open with no ropes or glass around it, inviting visitors to touch it. I brushed a hand across its polished surface, which was as smooth and cool as a sheet of glass. Nothing about that touch hinted at the stone's age or history; yet it had traveled down immense vistas of time to come here, to our era, so that I could see and touch it on that day. And in the moment of that touch, I knew, I as a modern Homo sapien was briefly reunited with predecessors ancient beyond imagining, perhaps some that date back almost to the origin of life on Earth itself.

The curious, gorgeously colored strata of this stone are called banded iron formations. The dark bands are layers of metallic iron oxide compounds such as magnetite and hematite, while the reddish layers are silica-rich quartz minerals like chert, jasper and flint. Banded iron formations occur almost exclusively in very ancient rocks, and are common in strata dating to between 2.5 billion and 1.8 billion years ago. This is the period commonly called the Precambrian, although its more technical name is the Proterozoic Eon.

True multicellular life first appears in the fossil record at the very end of the Proterozoic, in the form of the bizarre and famous Ediacaran biota that would become the precursors of the Cambrian explosion. But for most of the Proterozoic, the most common fossils are stromatolites: puffy accretions of sedimentary rock laid down by vast colonies of bacteria.

The Earth in this eon was a different place. Most notably, from chemical and geological evidence, we know that its atmosphere had no oxygen. The only life was colonies of purple bacteria, making a living using the chain of chemical reactions called photosystem I, which converts light, carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulfide into sugar and releases sulfur as a byproduct. But the Proterozoic was when this began to change: this was the time when evolution invented photosystem II, the more advanced version of photosynthesis that uses water and carbon dioxide to make sugar, liberating oxygen as a byproduct. This is the very same set of reactions that sustains all green plants, and ultimately all animal life, today, two and a half billion years later.

At first, oxygen was an annoyance to Proterozoic life, but it soon became a menace. Unlike today, there were no oxygen-breathing animals to expire carbon dioxide and close the cycle, and so it quickly built up in the atmosphere as photosynthetic bacteria spread and thrived. To us, it's the breath of life, but to these bacteria, it was a deadly toxin.

At the same time, another process was taking place. Weathering of the Earth's primordial rocks had been releasing iron, most of which washed down to the sea and ended up as iron ions dissolved in the oceans. Until then, that iron had had nothing to react with, but when it encountered oxygen, the two chemically combined into iron oxides like magnetite and hematite. These compounds are insoluble, and when they formed, they precipitated out and sank to the ocean bottom, gradually building up those dark silver layers.

With iron reactions steadily removing oxygen from the atmosphere, anaerobic bacteria thrived for a time. But eventually, there was no more free iron. Once that point was reached, oxygen started to build up in the atmosphere. Heedless, the bacteria kept churning it out - until a toxic tipping point was reached, and the Earth's atmosphere was changed to such an extent that it became poisonous to Earth's life. The consequence was mass death among the planet's abundant bacterial colonies - an oxygen holocaust that knocked life back down to nearly nothing. Only a few anaerobes survived, in isolated nooks and crannies where the deadly gas did not reach.

After this catastrophe, the planet would have seen several million years of relative quiet. In this life-poor era, layers of silica minerals were deposited on the ocean floor. But in the meanwhile, erosion continued to free up iron atoms, which slowly scrubbed the atmosphere and oceans of oxygen. Eventually, the world was cleansed, and life bounced back, spreading from its refuges to once again cover the planet. Of course, this exuberance contained the seeds of its own downfall - bacteria still spewed out the waste oxygen that they could not abide - and the cycle repeated, not just once but many times. Each time, a layer of iron oxides was deposited, followed by a layer of iron-poor silicates in the aftermath. And that leads me back to the Natural History Museum, on that cold winter day where I stood and brushed a hand across a banded iron formation.

Looking at this stone, you get some idea of the dizzying vistas of geological time, as well as the turmoil that life has endured to reach the present day. Each of those colorful red and silver layers represents what was, in its own era, a disaster beyond imagining, one that reset life to its starting point. Each of those layers, as well, is a silent testament to life's tenacity in the face of overwhelming odds. Of course, the cycles of growth and destruction did not last forever. Eventually, evolution found a way, as evolution nearly always does, and oxygen was tamed to become a power source in an entirely new metabolic cycle. The oxygen-breathers arose, the remaining anaerobes retreated to the deep crevices of rocks and the sea, and life found a new equilibrium, with the balance of the atmosphere permanently changed. All the oxygen we breathe today is biologically produced, a tangible proof of life's power to reshape its own world.

As well, these banded iron formations may be a metaphor for our own foolhardiness. In our time, we too are changing the composition of the planet's atmosphere, this time through the release of greenhouse gases. In the process, we are becoming the first species since the ancient photosynthetic bacteria to have such a global effect. The danger we face may not be as severe - but it is severe enough. Those bands of iron are not only a record: they are a warning of what happens when life reshapes its own environment without thought for the consequences.

February 13, 2009, 7:56 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink23 comments

On the Morality of: Conservation

Today's post on morality concerns environmental conservation and sustainability. Human civilization has historically behaved (and many still do behave) as if the Earth was there to be conquered and natural resources were limitless. Environmental devastation is not solely the product of industrialized society; ancient cultures did the same thing, even those with tools no more sophisticated than the hand ax. For instance, as Jared Diamond wrote in his book Collapse, the reason for the disappearance of the Easter Island civilization was that the natives completely deforested the island (in part to make the log rollers used to transport the moai, the massive stone heads they are famous for), resulting in severe soil erosion and the collapse of agriculture.

But, of course, environmental destruction is most serious in industrialized societies with the technology that gives them the power to do the most damage. The damages we are still inflicting on the planet are legion: the collapse of fisheries and the mass extinction of species, tropical deforestation and the destruction of vanishing habitats, pollution in the air and water, the exhaustion of fresh water and the spreading of desert, and last but not least, the emission of greenhouse gases that accelerate global climate change, with potentially catastrophic effects worldwide.

The secular moral system of universal utilitarianism offers a set of principles through which to judge these actions. UU's main tenet is that we should maximize opportunities for human happiness over time. This leads directly to the conclusion that any use of natural resources which can be sustained indefinitely should be preferred to a use which destroys, or exhausts, the thing being used - for destructive use offers at most a single opportunity to improve human welfare, while sustainable use offers unlimited opportunity. This sweeping conclusion applies to everything from the preservation of species, encouraging the protection of living things and habitats threatened with extinction, to energy, where we should prefer indefinitely renewable energy sources such as solar and wind and immediately begin to phase out those that are not renewable.

Although conservation has numerous benefits for people who are alive today, its greatest repercussions will be felt by those in the future. As I wrote in a past comment, we cannot rationally apply UU to the desires of merely potential people - for there are a limitless number of these, and trying to anticipate their wants would result in paralysis. But there is a special case: we should try to anticipate the desires not of individuals, but of the next generation as a whole, because barring some unprecedented disaster, we know that there will be a next generation. This means that the impacts of our decision will be multiplied "down the line", affecting all our future descendants, which makes it all the more vital that we use the earth sustainably, with an eye to the future, rather than sacrificing it for short-term gain.

For cases where wealthy nations destroy the environment for the sake of convenience or luxury, all this should be uncontroversial. But one of the complicating issues is that environmental degradation is usually linked to overpopulation, as increasing numbers of people have an ever heavier footprint on the natural world. UU entails the pragmatic principle, that we cannot reasonably make some rule a moral obligation if it would impose unrealistic burdens on the people asked to follow it. By this principle, we cannot ask people to preserve the environment - it would be immoral to ask them to preserve the environment - if that required them to sacrifice their lives or the lives of their loved ones, or to give up hope of attaining a standard of living that many wealthy nations enjoy.

Defeating this problem requires tackling it from both ends. The world's wealthy nations absolutely should give up their use of unsustainable luxuries to show that they are making a sacrifice in this effort (although in the long run, most of those sacrifices will pay for themselves). Moves to reduce urban sprawl, increase the amount of protected habitat, and migrate away from fossil fuels are essential. In the meantime, we should initiate an aggressive effort to stem the tide of global population growth, through female empowerment, education on family planning and the distribution of contraception. Helping these societies to become industrialized will also help in the long run to reduce family sizes and level off population growth. All these measures will put a stop to the necessity of colonizing previously uninhabited land for survival.

In the long run, the interests of humanity are not opposed to the goal of protecting nature. Safeguarding species and habitat, fighting pollution and global warming, and investing in a sustainable infrastructure that treads more lightly on the planet will lead to stability, security and good lives for billions of human beings. Only in the near term, driven by unsustainable growth and short-sighted profit motives, does the conflict arise. And if we let the short term win out over the long term, the consequences will be disastrous. Rising seas and shifting weather patterns could turn cities into deserts, lead to staggering mass exoduses and catastrophic natural disasters, and trample the few remaining untouched parts of the planet underfoot. Global poverty will explode, as will famine, disease and drought; and we will enter into what E.O. Wilson called an "age of loneliness", when the beauty and the grandeur of biodiversity has been all but erased.

This is one track. Down the other lies a quieter, richer and more beautiful world: a place where we have learned from our mistakes, where we have drawn back and allowed nature to recover, and where human beings live within the world and not at its expense. Even beside its freely given beauty and grandeur, nature provides us with countless services we rely on, yet often take for granted: waste recycling and remediation, fresh air and clean water, productive soil and crop pollination, and many others as well. It still remains to be seen which of these two worlds we will bring into existence.

Other posts in this series:

October 26, 2008, 5:29 pm • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink45 comments

TV Review: Planet Earth

I recently finished watching Planet Earth, the award-winning BBC nature documentary series narrated by David Attenborough. As its title implies, Planet Earth is an effort of considerable ambition: the filmmakers set out to produce a series that would provide a survey of our world's natural grandeur and biodiversity. To a remarkable extent, I think they succeeded. Of course the full richness of Earth's biosphere could not be exhaustively chronicled, but this series touches on many of the high points. It sweeps across every region of the planet, documenting our world's remaining wildernesses and some of the more important species that live in them, in the process filming things that have never been caught on camera before. In its scientific breadth and scope, in the beauty it depicts, and in the reasons it gives us both to fear, and more importantly, to hope, Planet Earth compares favorably to Carl Sagan's Cosmos.

The series consists of eleven episodes, each of which chronicles a different type of ecosystem flourishing on our planet. Over the course of the series, we're taken from icy tundra and boreal forest to tropical jungle, from the rich shallow seas to the blackness of the ocean abyss, from soaring mountains to desolate deserts to the eerie dark worlds of the cave systems beneath the planet's surface. Each episode is fifty minutes, plus a ten-minute ending segment called "Planet Earth Diaries" that shows how some of the more difficult-to-obtain shots were filmed - a nice touch that gives one appreciation for the truly heroic dedication of the photographers who traveled to some of the most remote, wild areas of the planet, braving all manner of harsh and grueling conditions, and worked in some cases for weeks on end just to catch a few moments of action on film. Three additional episodes, collectively titled Planet Earth: The Future, make the case for conservation using footage from the series and interviews with prominent advocates for the environment.

But the focus of the show, as I said, is on the breathtaking natural beauty of our planet and the wonderful, intricate tree of life that flourishes upon it. I couldn't do justice to all the high points in this one post, but here are a few that particularly stood out to me:

The one caveat I would offer is that Planet Earth is a nature documentary, which means most of the sequences are of animals doing what animals normally do in the wild. If you're the kind of person who finds that boring, you'll probably be bored by this as well. There are plenty of hair-raising moments, but the purpose of the show is not to keep viewers constantly on the edge of their seat. Personally, I found it a spectacular glimpse of some of the Earth's last remaining places of wild beauty. If that description appeals to you, then I can safely say that you'll love Planet Earth, and I would definitely recommend it.

March 31, 2008, 11:15 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink17 comments

A Solstice Sermon

Today is - at least to my northern hemisphere readers - the winter solstice, shortest day of the year. For three months now, we've seen the sun set and the night fall progressively earlier each day. But this date marks the terminus of that trend, and though the heart of winter still lies ahead, from now on the days will start to grow longer again.

The solstice has always been a date invested with great importance. In the bitter depths of winter, our ancestors surrounded themselves with all the plants they could find that stayed green and grew - conifers, mistletoe, holly - perhaps as a form of sympathetic magic intended to speed the return of spring, or perhaps simply to draw comfort from the presence of life around them when so much else was barren and dead. On this day, those defiant celebrations came to their high point. The ceremonial kindling of flame; the feasts and the good cheer; the companionship and gift-giving - all are meant to remind us that the dark and the cold do not have exclusive power over our lives, and that the spring will come again.

As we can imagine, our ancestors were utterly dependent on the cycle of the seasons, and it's no surprise that they imbued this date with vast symbolic significance. Mythologies and traditions clustered around this date, and the calendar soon became cluttered with the dying and rising gods of the harvest. At first these religions were living metaphors, reflecting humanity's rudimentary understanding of the annual pattern of plant death and rebirth. But as time went by, the symbol gradually took precedence until it superseded the reality, to the point that many people today are ignorant of the harvest metaphor and think that the mythology is all. Yet even today, when so many of us are divorced from the land, we still feel nature's rhythms. We too feel the sinking of the sun in our veins, and we too kindle lights in anticipation of the sun's annual return. Not for nothing is the humanist reinvention of these ancient agricultural holidays named HumanLight.

As I say, humanity was once at the mercy of the seasons. Indeed, to a much greater extent than most people realize, that is still very much the case. We depend on the natural world for a huge variety of vital services - fresh air and water, fertile soil, natural waste disposal and remediation, the fertilization of our crops, buffering against storm and drought, ore and timber and fuel, new pharmaceuticals and other products - services that would cost us trillions of dollars if we had to supply them ourselves. The critical drought facing Georgia reminds us that, despite the emancipation of science and technology, our well-being is still very much tied to the ebb and flow of nature.

However, the balance of power is no longer tilted completely to one end. As the natural world influences us, so too do we influence it - and often, not for the better. Rather than treating natural capital as something valuable in its own right, both economically and for less tangible reasons, humanity for most of its history has taken the view that the world is valueless until we harvest and exploit it. And now that humanity is a planetary civilization, that outlook necessarily has planetary repercussions.

The most serious of those repercussions that we are now confronting is the threat of climate change, caused by the extraction and burning of fossil fuels which every year sends billions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. After many decades of unwise use, we are now facing the real prospect of permanently altering climate patterns worldwide, with drastic consequences both for thousands of other species and for tens of millions of members of the human species. We're gambling recklessly with our own future, and though it's not too late to turn things around and avert the worst possible effects, the time to act is short, and the changes we must still make are vast.

It may help to put our struggle in perspective if we realize that climate change is the defining issue of our time. In two hundred years, or five hundred years, or a thousand years, conflicts like the "war on terrorism" will be historical footnotes however they turn out. But people may be living for tens of thousands of years with the repercussions of what we do to our planet here and now, in this generation. For better or for worse, we will be remembered.

Thankfully, there are signs that the global community has at last woken up to the impact of climate change, and is taking steps - frustratingly slow, but still promising - steps to solve the problem. The recently concluded 2007 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali, Indonesia, successor to the Kyoto Protocol, seems to have been a qualified success, with many nations agreeing to take concrete steps toward reducing their emissions - despite opposition by the U.S. that weakened the language of the final agreement. (I'm ashamed that my country, out of all the nations in the world, was the roadblock to solving this serious global challenge. We still have far too many anti-science ideologues polluting our government.) This is a problem that can only be confronted and solved collectively, and much work remains to be done.

Nevertheless, on this solstice season, we have seen the way leading to the future, and there is still reason to hope. Like almost all the problems we face, this is one where we lack neither the ability nor the resources. All we need is the will of the global community of nations and of humankind itself.

December 22, 2007, 10:32 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink21 comments


Last month, while I was on vacation in Puerto Rico, I had a chance to visit the great radio observatory at Arecibo. That was one of the highlights of my trip, but there was another.

Puerto Rico has the only tropical rainforest in the United States national park system. On the northeast coast of the islands, at the foot of the Luquillo Mountains, is the 28,000-acre preserve of El Yunque National Forest. Set aside in 1876 by the Spanish king Alfonso XII, El Yunque is one of the oldest nature reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

There wasn't the chance to do much hiking, but even the paved roads in the park cut through deep jungle. The walkway leading into El Portal, the visitors' center, was elevated to treetop height, so visitors on their way in were at eye level with the canopy of the rainforest. The sunlight streaming down through the trees gave a gloriously beautiful cast to it all:

A view from the walkway into the treetops:

I did my best, but I doubt any camera could capture the most overwhelming impression of the forest: the sheer sense of rich, exuberant life, unbounded in its creativity. Every ecological niche was filled by an exultant diversity of species, living side by side in a dense, thriving tangle abounding with interaction and competition. Everywhere you looked, there were whole ecological communities in miniature - in the steaming light of the trees' high branches, in the cool, mossy damp at their feet, in the crumbling remnants of fallen logs - like a fractal web of life, revealing more scales of complexity the deeper your search goes. In all of Earth's multibillion-year history, the tropical rainforest is likely the richest and most diverse ecosystem that has ever existed. Standing beneath the tall trees' cathedral light, it wasn't at all difficult to believe that.

Of course, not all the rainforest's countless interactions are harmonious. Despite the environment's richness - or more accurately, because of its richness - life in El Yunque is a constant struggle, a silent battle being waged on every scale of space and time. Individuals of different species, and of the same species, are always fiercely thrusting each other aside, striving for space, for light, for nutrients, for water. In the midday silence of the forest, it almost seemed possible to hear natural selection: a quiet, relentless ratcheting pressure on every side, like the grinding of interlocking gears. In the cauldron of the forest, gene frequencies are shifting, mutations arising, and new innovations being born in the great evolutionary chess game of move and countermove. Sadly, it's a conflict that many of the native species are losing: some of the most common plant species to be seen in El Yunque, including bamboo and palm trees, are alien interlopers, introduced either deliberately or accidentally and now thriving at the expense of the natives.

There was one feature of my trip there that I treasure above all others. While we were at the visitors' center, the thing that I had been hoping for happened: it started to rain. (Admittedly, not a rare event in a place that gets 240 inches of rain each year.) The visitors' center was like a long passageway with a high, vaulted ceiling: open to the air, but with a roof, so there was no need to get rained on. However, I wanted to be rained on.

I stood on an outlook overseeing the endless green of the forest and the shimmering blue of the ocean in the distance beyond, and let the rain come. It was a gentle shower, not a hammering deluge: the kind of rainfall that comes on sunny spring days and soon passes by, leaving the world washed in glistening brightness. In the humid, earthy heat of the forest, it was welcoming, warm like lifeblood. As the rain fell on me, I reached out and brushed the broad, dripping leaf of a tree growing within reach of the balcony, and thought of the unbroken chain of generations that united us both with our long-gone common ancestor.

It wasn't long before the rain cleared and the sun returned. But the memory of that shower is still with me; even now, I know, I carry some of those molecules of water in my skin. And as far as I'm concerned, the priests in their dusty churches can keep their silly, self-important dabblings and splashings. Let them persist in their delusion that muttering archaic words over a basin of water makes it specially holy. I've stood beneath the sweet sacred rain of El Yunque, and I think it was a finer baptism than any that human beings have yet invented.

And yet, I think I understand those believers a little better now. I think what I felt was the origin of the religious doctrine of immanence, the belief that God's spirit imbues the things of the natural world. But I think the theologians who invented this concept have misconstrued its origin. Before an awe-inspiring natural landscape, we imagine that we feel a vast love surrounding us - and, in fact, we do. But it's not God's love surrounding us from outside, as many religious believers would have it. What it is, instead, is our own love for the world, projected outward. It's the rapture of being alive, of realizing our true depth of interconnection and solidarity with all living beings, that priests and churches try to recapture with ritual and ceremony. But their efforts are, at best, a pale shadow of the real thing.

If more people knew what this feeling really is and what really causes it, we might be able to foster a true sense of human spirituality: one that captures what is best in the religious impulse, without tying it to the barren earth of ancient myth and superstition. My brief time beneath the living green of El Yunque persuades me that it is possible. I only wonder if enough people can be brought to the same realization while there are still places like this left.

November 28, 2007, 8:36 am • Posted in: The GardenPermalink13 comments

Georgia's Rain Prayer Farce

It may be the 21st century, but you wouldn't know it from stories like this:

Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue stepped up to a podium outside the state Capitol on Tuesday and led a solemn crowd of several hundred people in a prayer for rain on his drought-stricken state.

"We've come together here simply for one reason and one reason only: To very reverently and respectfully pray up a storm," Perdue said after a choir provided a hymn.

These past few months, the American South has been suffering from its most severe drought in decades. So far this year, northern Georgia has received half the amount of rain it would usually have gotten by this point. Lake Lanier, Atlanta's main reservoir, may run dry in as little as three months if the rains don't come. Undoubtedly, this is a serious crisis - which makes it all the more ridiculous and embarrassing that the governor of an entire state is engaging in a superstitious magical ritual which he hopes will change the mind of his omniscient, infinitely intelligent god.

The logic behind intercessory prayer makes no sense. Does Gov. Perdue suppose that Georgians' prayers will bring to God's attention a need of which he was not previously aware? Is God forgetful, so that he needs to be reminded to send rain each year? Or did God knowingly cause the drought for reasons of his own - and if so, what arrogance it would be for a Christian to assume that they know better than God what God should do and that they can persuade him to alter his plan!

Worst of all, it seems clear that this event made no effort to be inclusive, but instead employed the full machinery of the state to promote a Protestant Christian belief system in an atmosphere resembling a revival sermon:

A church choir belted out "What a Mighty God We Serve" and "Amazing Grace" as a keyboardist swayed to the rhythm. While preachers spoke, worshippers chanted "amen," and some stood with eyes closed and arms outstretched.

...The hourlong event was billed as an interfaith ceremony but only three Protestant ministers joined Perdue, who is a Baptist, and Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle.

Thankfully, this egregious violation of separation of church and state did not go entirely unchallenged. The Atlanta Freethought Society was in attendance to protest, with some welcome words of reason, and most of the media articles about this event that I've seen at least noted their presence. Their press release put it best:

This is embarrassingly foolish, a great mistake, a waste of taxpayer money, and unconstitutional on its face.

Defenders of the faith may say that the state is in crisis, human efforts can't help bring rain, and there can't be any harm in praying, so why not try it? But if that were the case - if this truly was a desperate last resort - then we should expect the governor to try everything that might help. Why not sacrifice some livestock? Perform a rain dance? Bow towards Mecca? It can't hurt, right? But Gov. Perdue hasn't tried any of these things. Doubtless, that's because the real purpose of this event isn't to seriously petition God for rain; it's to put on an ostentatious show of public piety for his constituents. If it were otherwise, he could simply have encouraged people to pray at home - which would have been bad enough, but less offensive than this farce.

If Lake Lanier runs dry, the consequences would be catastrophic. On the other hand, if the rain returns in time to avert disaster - which is not unlikely, considering that rain is statistically inevitable given enough time - we can be sure that Gov. Perdue and his religious cronies will claim that their prayers saved the day. But even in the worst-case scenarios imaginable, it's a certainty that no one will call prayer a failure or think to blame God. In this scenario, as in others, religion has positioned itself in a no-lose situation. A more rational government, meanwhile, would not waste time imploring the gods for help, and would instead have used the crisis as a springboard for setting up water-conservation measures (such as reuse of graywater), in the hope of averting a similar disaster in the future. As Mark Twain once said, "It is better to read the weather forecast before we pray for rain."

November 14, 2007, 8:00 am • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink84 comments

Subduing the Earth

Christianity's relationship with the environmental movement has always been a rocky one. While some groups of Christians view protecting the planet to be a sacred imperative, others - an alarmingly large number of others - believe that God gave us the Earth to use and exploit in any way we deem fit, and since Jesus is coming back real soon to destroy the world anyway, it really doesn't matter what we do to it in the meantime.

Now, Pharyngula gives us not one but two examples of prominent religious conservatives voicing the latter view - from opposite sides of the theological aisle, no less. First, Catholic Cardinal Giacomo Biffi, whose highly appropriate former title was Archbishop of Bologna:

An arch-conservative cardinal chosen by the Pope to deliver this year's Lenten meditations to the Vatican hierarchy has caused consternation by giving warning of an Antichrist who is "a pacifist, ecologist and ecumenist".

...Cardinal Biffi said that Christianity stood for "absolute values, such as goodness, truth, beauty". If "relative values" such as "solidarity, love of peace and respect for nature" became absolute, they would encourage "idolatry" and "put obstacles in the way of salvation".

And on the Protestant side, Jerry Falwell, whose position on just about any issue is pretty much guaranteed to be the wrong one:

[Falwell] said Sunday the debate over global warming is a tool of Satan being used to distract churches from their primary focus of preaching the gospel.

"If I decide here as the pastor and our deacons decide that we're going to get caught up in the global warming thing, we're not going to be able to reach the masses of souls for Christ, because our attention will be elsewhere, " Falwell said in Sunday's sermon at Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Va. "That's pretty wise for Satan to concoct."

...Falwell quoted a scientist saying the west Antarctic ice shelf has been retreating two inches a year for 10,000 years. "I would back it up to 6,000," Falwell quipped...

...Falwell cited two Bible verses that he said apply to the global-warming debate: Psalm 24:1-2, which declares "The earth is the Lord's, and the fullness thereof," and Genesis 8:22, which says there will be seasons of spring, summer, fall and winter for "as long as the earth remains."

"Now that alone ought to let you sleep better at night, after you read Al Gore and attend his 'Inconvenient Truth' film," Falwell said.

Yes, that certainly calms my fears. The Earth is warming so rapidly that entire new islands are emerging out of melting ice in Greenland and Inuit people in the Arctic Circle now need to use air conditioners, but relax! A book written two and a half thousand years ago by an Iron Age tribe living in a small region of the Middle East explains quite clearly that their tribal god will not allow the Earth to change too dramatically, so we have nothing to concern ourselves about. I, for one, will sleep much better now that I have that reassurance.

Falwell and Biffi are not by any means the only Christians to voice this view. Here's a similar sentiment stated even more bluntly by pastor John MacArthur:

The earth we inhabit is not a permanent planet. It is, frankly, a disposable planet — it is going to have a very short life. It's been around six thousand years or so — that's all — and it may last a few thousand more. And then the Lord is going to destroy it.

I've told environmentalists that if they think humanity is wrecking the planet, wait until they see what Jesus does to it.

...This earth was never ever intended to be a permanent planet — it is not eternal. We do not have to worry about it being around tens of thousands, or millions, of years from now because God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth.

Interestingly, as Falwell and MacArthur's remarks show, the young-earth creationist view in particular devalues the planet and regards it as "disposable". Perhaps these believers' lack of appreciation for the true, vast tapestry of geologic history blinds them to what a glorious place the Earth is, and renders them less likely to care about its fate.

Statements like these are a dramatic illustration of how belief in an afterlife makes the theist more likely to view this life as unimportant, as I wrote in "No Heavens". But these views are especially dangerous, because they impact not just these individuals or their followers, but the rest of us who must share the planet with them. We all live on this world together, and we are all connected by what happens to it. Sulfur emitted into the air in one country causes acid rain in another; fertilizer dumped into a river upstream causes toxic algae blooms that deprive fishers of their livelihood downstream; carbon emitted by the United States causes melting glaciers in India and Africa and global warming in the Arctic. We cannot solve the problem of environmental degradation in one place without solving it in all places, and we cannot do that until people around the world are united in purpose to work together.

As a result, the irrational and dangerous faith-based views of fundamentalist Christians and others who view the planet as theirs to abuse as they see fit can completely undermine the efforts of any number of informed, devoted people. These Christians are confident - suicidally confident - that Jesus is coming back soon and that this makes any major effort at environmental protection pointless, even a Satanic deception. Two thousand previous years of Christians have lived and died believing the same thing, but this does not give the ignorant, history-blind fundamentalists any reason to hesitate. But as the ability of human technology to reshape our environment grows ever greater, and as we draw ever nearer to a tipping point after which any action will be too late, it is increasingly urgent that we stand up to these dangerously irrational beliefs now and defeat them. The task that lies before us is large and grave enough without uninformed bigots nipping at the ankles of responsible people and hindering their way.

Thankfully, not all Christians are as arrogantly complacent as these three. There are many influential Christian individuals and organizations that have signed onto "creation care" initiatives like the Evangelical Environmental Network or the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. (Credit to Slacktivist for those links, who also points out that even a few apocalyptic "dispensationalist" Christians, like Jack Wyrtzen of Word of Life Fellowship, came aboard on the bizarre grounds that it's God alone, not human beings, who has the privilege of destroying the Earth. Well, we'll take what we can get.) Of course, this halting step toward rationality has been fiercely opposed by other, more conservative Christians, but the fact that there is such a movement at all is a hopeful sign. Not all Christians are content to sit by and cheer as the world careens toward destruction. There are good ones who understand the moral obligations in giving human beings a safe and clean environment, and who expect the planet to have a future and understand the need to protect it so that it will still be around for generations to come. Whether they - and we - will succeed remains to be seen.

UPDATE: After posting this article, I came across an example of the kind of fierce opposition that progressive, pro-environment Christians face from fundamentalists. The vice president of the National Association of Evangelicals, Richard Cizik, is a well-known environmental advocate who has spoken about the need to fight global warming. Now the leaders of several prominent conservative Christian groups, including well-known rogues' gallery members like James Dobson, have sent a letter to the NAE demanding that they either silence Cizik or force him to resign. As usual, these sex-obsessed theocrats claim that protecting the environment is drawing attention away from what they believe should be the only priorities of Christians, namely bashing gays and outlawing abortion and birth control.

"We have observed," the letter says, "that Cizik and others are using the global warming controversy to shift the emphasis away from the great moral issues of our time."

Global warming is one of the great moral issues of our time, whether or not James Dobson, Gary Bauer or Tony Perkins want to admit that. I suspect that these people, if asked, would say that giving meat and drink to the hungry, sheltering strangers, clothing the naked, and visiting those who are sick or in prison are likewise "issues that draw warm and fuzzies from liberal crusaders", whereas real Christians know that those things are just insignificant distractions from the really important moral issues, like making sure that gay couples can't get health care.

So far the NAE's president Leith Anderson has stood behind Cizik, but only time will tell how this plays out. This is not my fight and I cannot assist in it, but nevertheless, I wish Cizik and his allies the best of luck.

March 4, 2007, 7:24 pm • Posted in: The RotundaPermalink32 comments

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