A series on NPR examining the science of God brings up a lot of interesting points, focusing primarily on brain chemistry and structure. Titled Is This Your Brain On God?, the series has five parts, each with accompanying articles and multimedia. The part that I found the most interesting was The God Chemical. Evidence has been slowly amassing for decades showing that certain chemicals or mind states can induce spirituality. These types of experiences have been documented by Barbara Bradley Hagerty in her  new book Fingerprints of God.

In her interview with Diane Rehm, Barbra says that these experiences reaffirm her personal belief in god, and insists that the science is still inconclusive on whether or not god exists. The evidence could either say that god is simply a creation of certain brain chemistry or that god has set up these conditions in order to communicate with us. She seems to subscribe to the “god on a mountain” idea, that all religious experiences are different paths to the same diving being at the top. This is a lovely idea that could help bridge the divide between adherents of different religions and encourage believers of one religion to accept and value the beliefs of others. However, the similarity of spiritual experiences across religions may be evidence that these experiences are simply due to brain chemistry.

Atheists, agnostics, and non-religious people may have “religious experiences” while taking mind altering chemicals but do not believe there is a supernatural component. If these same chemicals are taken with the presupposition of the supernatural, the experience may be seen as communication with god. Is either view right or wrong? Could these shared experiences somehow help non-religious to better understand the fervor of the religious? I look forward to having this as a discussion topic in the fall semester for our student group. Any thoughts to get us started?

Crossposted at the Atheist and Agnostic Society blog.

Well, no, of course not.  But why not?

When I was on Atheists Talk with Mike last year discussing theistic evolution, it struck me that many if not all of the questiotheistic embryology vs intelligent developmentns I faced were about belief and not about theistic evolution per se.  Nothing wrong with that, of course, in fact it was fun and stimulating (for me, at least).  But we really didn’t deal with theistic evolution as a particular kind of thought.  We discussed (briefly) the problem of evil, and PZ Myers brought out a paragraph-long question that focused (among other things) on the concept of an “interventionist” God.  Those are interesting and important questions, but they don’t seem to me to hit anything unique to theistic evolution.

So I’ve been thinking about this off and on, and when I was asked to give a talk at a symposium at the North American Paleontological Convention in Cincinnati this summer, I decided to speak on a device that I think helps to get people thinking about what (if anything) is unique about theistic evolution.  The device is “theistic embryology” and I’d love to get some feedback on the basic premise.  So here’s the title and abstract, and let’s see what people think.

Why is there no controversy surrounding theistic embryology? Dissecting critical responses to theistic evolution.

Those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm evolutionary theory are said to espouse a position called “theistic evolution.” The view holds the peculiar distinction of being reviled by both hard-line creationists (who call it “appeasement”) and prominent atheist commentators (who deride it as fallacious). I argue that these critics typically fail to articulate objections that are specific to the view. Most creationist critics of theistic evolution object to one or both of these characteristics of the view: 1) its reliance on naturalistic explanation, a feature common to all scientific theorizing; or 2) its embrace of “random” causal events, a feature common to myriad scientific explanations. Most atheist critics of theistic evolution object to its openness to supernatural explanation, a feature of religious belief in general. Such criticisms, valid or not, fail to address anything specific to theistic evolution. In other words, attacks on theistic evolution are usually attacks on theism or attacks on evolution, but rarely represent specific criticisms of the theistic evolution position. To better understand the controversy surrounding theistic evolution, I propose that critiques of the position be considered in light of a lesser-known position we may (with tongue in cheek) call “theistic embryology.” Theistic embryology describes the thinking of those who simultaneously express Christian belief and affirm basic theories in human developmental biology. Although the logic is indistinguishable from that of theistic evolution, the view is uncontroversial and the term “theistic embryology” is practically non-existent. I suggest that critiques of theistic evolution be subjected to the “theistic embryology test.” Most critiques that claim to identify weaknesses in theistic evolution make arguments that are equally damaging to “theistic embryology” and so fail the test. Critiques that fail this whimsical test are likely to be arguments against belief, or against naturalistic explanation, and should be considered as such.

Parents Teaching Each Other

Skeptical Parent Xing

Skeptical Parent Xing

I have hosted many blogging carnivals, but this is the first time that I have hosted a parent’s carnival.  I am a divorced dad, with three kids (one of whom is about to make me a grandfather.  Yes, I am happy about it.)  One thing about this carnival that bothers me is the amount of irrelevant content that was submitted through the carnival submission process.  It seems that the whole concept of using social networks to enhance one’s exposure (or to drum up business) is catching on.

What I mean is this; there was more than one post submitted that shilled a product or a website.  I don’t think that this is appropriate for a carnival because as a skeptical parent I don’t like reading posts that are poorly-concealed advertisements.  What I am looking for is good discussion on how to raise children with an ability to discern between crap and fact.  It’s more than just a game, it teaches them how to approach life.  Which things will help them make better decisions?  Which things will help them lead more fulfilled lives?  Which things will teach them how to have good fun?

If your submission didn’t make it, this was the reason.  I had one submission that was merely a linkfest for Christian families, including a link to the Quiverfull movement.  Did they not even notice that this is a Skeptical Parent’s Carnival?  I don’t mean to say that religious people can’t have some skeptical approach to rasing their children, but a post that focuses on religious resources just doesn’t fit the purpose of this carnival.  Another submission was a post in which the writer explained the differences between why men cheat and why women cheat, using some sort of faux-phsychology based on our caveman/cavewoman roots.  Please, please study a little anthropology prior to sending dreck like that to a Skeptical Parents’ Crossing.

Now, before I come off too strongly as an elitist bastard (which is a different carnival altogether,) I want to say that I appreciate the bloggers who sent in these posts with some original thought based on some original experience or research.  Thank you, and without further ado, I present the carnival!

So let us begin with this contribution from Detentionslip.org. We want to know why there are still schools whose administrators and teachers rely on corporal punishment.  It has not been proven to alter behavior.  It teaches fear, and not respect.  There is a difference.  Even the Catholic Church has come out against the practice. WTF is up with hitting kids?

So why then, do educators hit? We spoke with Dr. Kenneth Adams, Dean of the School of Education at Edinboro University of PA, and he told us:

“It appears that those who were on the receiving end of corporal punishment are more likely to endorse its use. Managing a school and leading change requires approaches that embrace actual research as opposed to seat of the pants ‘it was good enough for me’ philosophy. When I encounter someone who says that beatings actually helped make them the person they are today, I ask…’can you imagine how much better a person you would be if you weren’t beaten?'”

Let’s be clear, if you have to resort to hitting a child to correct their behavior – you aren’t capable of being a teacher / principal. The truth is, there are other school districts tougher than yours, with kids from worse families, where they are having better success than your school without hitting the kids. Join the good fight, and help end corporal punishment!

Miss Kim Dance Blog wonders why there is now so little play time involved with kindergarten and early childhood education. This damn “No Child Left Behind” is pushing schools away from teaching and into testing. Kids learn by playing.

When I walk in my son’s playschool class I am not worried about what he knows but rather can he share, take turns, interact with others, listen and follow directions, and is he getting to just play. When I saw this article I thought to myself…..this is something I want all parents to read and think about. I know from experience that all that “knowledge” that some parents drill into their children is just memorization. They will get it later anyway. I am not saying that you should not work with your preschooler if they show an interest. Great, if they want to read, write, count, then let them go for it.

When you read this next post, you should know that the acronym “CIO’ refers to “Cry it Out.”  It is a means of teaching kids how to sleep through the night. I include it because it discusses the issue of approaching a sleep-teaching technique by examining the evidence that has been studied in relation to CIO. If you are familiar with the jargon and acronyms, it is likely quite meaningful but I was lost in reading it because there were no definitions for the reader first coming into the controversy. I agree that Observational data is far from worthless, courtesy of Mainstream Parenting Resources.

I often come upon AP/NPers responding to stuff that I’ve written which is referenced online. Most of it is an embarrassing demonstration of their lack of reading comprehension (and indeed, it’s quite obvious this poster did not initially read the links provided), but this case refers to something slightly different which, I think, could use a bit of elaboration, as it reveals a bias and error of thought common in AP/NP philosophy.

Here’s a question that it worth answering. “Is our culture too overprotective of our children?Principled Discovery is frustrated by the lack of details in a news story of a child left in charge of siblings. A fire breaks out, and the reporter possibly rushes to judgment on whether or not the parents were in the wrong. There are questions left unanswered:

I’ll play that “reasonable person,” but there are too many other questions in my mind that would need to be answered before I could definitively say that this thirteen year old lacked the judgment and maturity to be put into this situation.

I wondered about including this one, because it is more about dogs as pets than it is about parenting. The story does include a subtext of teaching the daughter in the family the responsibility of owning a business. I am sharing it in this carnival because, well, I love dogs too. I am happy to see that there are families like the one at Cute Dogs and Puppy Pictures. Why I love my dog:

With our new dog, we were lucky because my daughter has a small neighborhood business of caring for pets. Because either my wife or myself is always reminding my daughter to walk or feed the dog or cat, this has become somewhat of a family enterprise.

It’s gotten so we often take in the dogs we dog sit. We are lucky with this kid’s business. Our daughter has gradually learned to take more responsibility, and we have had some really terrific dogs to care for. They each are very different in size and personality. Every one of the dogs is very friendly. In fact, it is through our daughter’s business that we got our new dog.

Shen-Li’s son is a picky eater, to the point that he was becoming undernourished. She and her mother-in-law were puzzled. Shen-Li tested out a pro-biotic food supplement to see how that works. Babylicious presents Fussy Eaters, probiotics and pediasure:

Ever since he was little, Gavin has been selective about food. That said, it wasn’t that he didn’t eat, he would only eat the foods that he liked. And if he liked it, he would eat a lot. If he didn’t like it, he wouldn’t go near it with a ten-foot pole. Thought frustrating at times, I have come to accept the fact that this is my retribution for all those times I was difficult with food as a child. For my MIL who has always been around children who love to eat, I guess this perturbs her far too much for her to accept it for what it is.

I would like to revisit the practice of spanking. Coincidental with revelations of the torture memos, the question of the efficacy of physical punishment is raised again. Is it more about hurting someone that makes you angry? With spanking, kids may stop what they are doing right now, but what do they learn in the long run? Are advocates of torture grownups who had been spanked as children? The Fat One in The Middle talks about Spanking, but not the good kind. (Caution, some may not want their kids to see the video in the post.)

When your child goes into the “real” world, they will not be allowed to hit the people they disagree with, nor will they have someone there to “whack” them when they make a mistake. The purpose of parenting is to raise children who can make decisions in a critical manner with rational thought.

Violence as a behavior modification system is neither rational nor ethical. I truly believe that people spank because it makes you feel good to hit something that pisses you off, bottom line.

I don’t have a recent post of my own regarding skeptical parenting. I will end the carnival with my own thoughts on raising children. As parents we need to remember that we don’t “own” them. We are responsible for taking care of them, for teaching them how to grow up to be independent adults (even if they have a disability that prevents them from being free of some sort of assisted-living arrangements.) We need them to be open to, yet wary of, the world.

There are a great many problems in the world that can be solved with proper parenting. We can teach them the difference between vengeance and justice, between forgiveness and surrender. We can teach them how to be responsible for their own actions while empathetic towards those who need help in life. We can teach them how to make their own decisions.

We may not agree with the choices they make as they become adults, either. Children of atheists can end up religious, and the opposite can also happen. It doesn’t mean that we have failed if our children leave our religion. What we can do is show them that we respect them, and then we have to be able to trust them.

The next edition of Skeptical Parents’ Crossing will be at Babylicious. Submit your posts through the Blog Carnival Submission process. Please, mind the theme of the Carnival. Respect the host, okay? If it doesn’t relate to skeptical parenting, don’t submit it. Unless it is about dogs.

If you follow the creation-evolution debate, you’ve no doubt encountered the name Ken Ham.  He’s the CEO of Answers in Genesis, the multimillion dollar organization that built the Creation Museum in Northern Kentucky a few years back.  (The same museum I once visited, but did not enter, but still wrote about elsewhere.)  Back to Ham, I think ‘character’ is an appropriate word to describe him.  And his organization’s abbreviation is AiG.  Wait a minute! Isn’t that a large company brought down by unmasking fraud?

The Clergy Letter Project‘s periodic email newsletter relayed an account of how Ken Ham declared moral outrage over an encounter strikingly similar to activities he had been complicit with about a year ago.  Yes, I know it’s easy to point out hypocrisy in others.  So before I go any further, I will admit that there are plenty of times in my past that I’ve not “practiced what I’ve preached.”

Any way, this blogworthy item falls well within the definition of hypocrisy!

On his blog yesterday, Ham railed against the BBC for “ambushing” a member of his staff.  As you’ll see if you read the link, Ham claims that his astrophysicist Jason Lisle was surprised to find that a scheduled interview on the BBC was actually to be a debate with Genie Scott of the National Center for Science Education. (I’ve not been able to track down the segment.  I’m guessing that the debate was more like an interview of two people with opposing opinions. )  Anyway, on his blog,  Ham summarizes the situation as follows:

By the way—the BBC has not responded to our publicist who has challenged them concerning their deception. Then again, for those people who don’t believe in God and there is no absolute authority, not telling the truth and deception would not be ethically wrong—as they have no basis for right and wrong!


So far, this just sounds like typical spin.  What makes Ham’s complaints hypocritical is that he participated in a similar “ambush” a year ago.  Only it was the head of the Clergy Letter Project and Dean of Butler University’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Michael Zimmerman who was ambushed.  He was scheduled to do an interview on a fundamentalist Christian radio show only to discover, upon going on the air, that Ken Ham was also on the line, ready to debate.  When asked why neither the host nor Ham had the courtesy to inform Dr. Zimmerman that he was to participate in a debate rather than in an interview, they told him they thought he wouldn’t have accepted their offer had he been told the truth.  The best part of there response (in Zimmerman’s own words) is:

When I questioned them about the deception, I was told that since the debate was to further God’s wishes, a minor deception of this sort was acceptable.

I wonder what else counts as a minor deception…

In the end, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the tactic of debates is one that works well for creationists when they rig the game.  And as soon as the tables are turned, they cry foul.

Much of this account was adapted from the Clergy Letter Project‘s periodic email update and was used by permission from Michael Zimmerman.

Wasting Stem Cells

It’s been too long since I’ve posted here, so I hope you’ll bear with my first post back being of the cupcake variety.  As a scientist who is also a religious Christian, you may be surprised to know that I approve of the president’s impending action to lift funding restrictions on human embryonic stem cells. (I actually used Bush-approved stem cells as a graduate student.)

While I’ve not had the time to post much about this issue in recent months, I have been reading others’ takes. Folks that find their way to this blog probably already know that The Washington Post with Newsweek have a nice blog/column about religion called On Faith.  Generally it gives good face time to science and religion topics. A piece likening stem cell ethics to organ transplantation caught my eye because I’ve thought about this connection before and wanted to read what an ‘expert’ would say about it. I’d recommend you check out the article by Susan Brooks Thistlewaite, and the counterpoint by Thomas J. Reese, but what I did a doubletake on was this image on the Post’s main page:


This type of tube is commonly used to store frozen cells, including stem cells. The tube pictured is thawed, because the red media is translucently clear and not a chunk of ice. I’m guessing the photographer wanted an illusion of pipetting into the vial. But in the picture, the scientist is actually pipetting into the cap. There is a good chance that the diagonal tube is a forceps (tweezers) holding the tube up, but with the cinematic techniques used so often on CSI and other science-enriched TV shows, I’m still putting my money on the theory that we’re supposed to think there’s pipet action going on.  And those precious stem cells are going to have to be thrown away once they touch a non-sterile surface!!!

Which is all to say, LOL.

On this blog, we’ve often discussed the evolution / intelligent design / creationism “debate”. Lately, I’ve been wondering if any of it really matters. I think society would benefit if as many people as possible had a strong grounding in science, especially biology, but there are a lot of people for whom this knowledge would have little or no meaning and a lot of people for whom the idea of evolution causes spiritual anguish. Should we have mandatory education in the theory of evolution? Who actually needs to understand the complicated subject of evolution, anyway?

I’m obviously playing devil’s (god’s?) advocate here but I think we should examine the reasons for and against teahing science, particularly evolution. While’re we’re at it, what about higher math, chemistry, physics, and history? Perhaps the time spent on these should be spent on everyday living topics such as how to balance a check book and how to preform first aid. As important as I think the sciences (and even history) are, these real-life subjects might have a greater positive effect on young people’s lives. We can always offer optional advanced courses, for those young people who are considering a career that requires additional education, right? I would worry that this system might result in a two-tiered society with educated and uneducated classes, but we already have that.

Thou shalt not kill
Image by danny.hammontree via Flickr

How to Reduce Abortions

This is important to me. I love babies. I love that I am going to be a grandfatther in June. I love children, both first decade and teen. I love women (as a general rule,) and think men are just great for the most part. In short, I am glad to be human and that our species should continue just as long as possible. So, I am not for murdering babies, but I am pro-choice and pro-life. Those two terms mean something different to me and most people who believe that the right to have abortions is a basic civil right than the political slogans imply. If you wish me to state a position based on the commonly understood meanings of the terms “Pro-Life and Pro-Choice,” then call me “Pro-Choice.”

But, and this is an important “but,” read what I have to say about it before insisting that I am in favor of murdering babies:

Women are going to have abortions. They are going to have them for reasons known often only to themselves and the people in whom they choose to confide. A law or constitutional amendment making abortions illegal is not going to stop that, no matter how draconian the penalties. I am not even going to run through the litany of reasons that women will choose not to carry abortions to term, suffice for the sake of this posting that no matter what the laws try to regulate, women will have abortions.

My goal, and I think that society’s goal, is for the women that have abortions to survive them without seriously endangering their own lives. And this is one of those areas in which science should and can guide ethical and moral decisions.

Prior to Roe V. Wade, there were abortions in the United States. Many people will be shocked, I am sure, but it is true. However, the means and methods of these abortions were variable based on the economic class of the women who had them, and also varied greatly based on other circumstance of the carrier’s social context. Abortions were performed in secret, by practitioners who didn’t have proper facilities to deal with emergencies. Abortions were performed in places that did not meet hospital or clinic standards of cleanliness. Abortionists were often not specifically trained on how to do them safely.

This placed the life of the carrier in great danger for post-procedure infections, and women died. Women were unintentionally sterilized by abortionists who were poorly trained. It was a horrifying situation for women who didn’t have access to clinics, but they would make that decision anyway, aware of the risks.

It is important that law reflect human needs, or it will have unintended consequences (this is where it gets tricky.) There has to be a way to create a hierarchy of needs that is both ethical and moral and in ways that do the greatest good for the whole of society; and in abortion law there needs to be a recognition that no matter what the courts or the legislature decides, women will make the decision to end pregnancies. Law needs to recognize this, and protect the lives and health of the women who make this choice.

In Peru, Abortion is Illegal

Peruvian abortions are performed, despite the law. It hasn’t stopped abortion, it has made it much more dangerous for the women who make this decision. (Canadian Medical Association Journal (2009, February 3). Peru Study Shows Restrictive Law Fails To Limit Number Of Abortions. ScienceDaily. Retrieved February 3, 2009, from Peru Study Shows Restrictive Laws Fail To Limit Number of Abortions.)

Clandestine induced abortion is a significant public health issue in many countries where access to abortion is severely legally restricted. Abortions are often available only in cases of rape or incest or when a pregnancy threatens the health or life of the woman, causing many women to pursue clandestine abortions, which are often unsafe. Forty percent of women live in countries where abortions are legally restricted.

As comprehensive official statistics are lacking, this study provides valuable public health data.

The researchers conducted a population-based survey of almost 8000 women aged 18-29 years in 20 Peruvian cities. They found that 11.6% of women reported having abortions and 7.5% of sexually experienced 18-year-olds – the youngest age surveyed – reported having had abortions.

The political faction which calls themselves “Pro-Life” seems deliberately blinded to this aspect of the abortion issue. I honestly feel their pain and struggle because I don’t like abortions. I would love to see an ideal society in which every baby was lovingly conceived and carried to term into a welcoming social family structure. It ain’t so, though, despite my wishes. I am also not able to make such a blanket statement that all abortion is immoral and must be proscribed by law. Human pregnancy is a dangerous period in a woman’s life even under the best of circumstances, and far too often the worst of circumstances make a choice necessary. When the choice is made, it can only be made by the woman who is carrying the baby with the counsel she chooses.

August Berkshire points out why such a blanket statement that “Abortion is Murder” is ethically impossible:

Beginning with some premises (#1-6) that few Religious Right anti-choice people would disagree with, we follow with a scientific fact (#7), leading to a couple surprising conclusions (#8-9).

  1. God is all-powerful.
  2. God is all-good.
  3. Everything God does is good.
  4. God wants humans to be good.
  5. If humans imitate God, who is all-good, then humans will be good.
  6. God created the human reproductive system.
  7. At least 25% of fertilized human eggs are spontaneously aborted.
  8. This makes God the world’s biggest abortionist.
  9. Humans should have more abortions.

(January 22, 2009 marks the 36th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wade legalizing abortion.)

While there may be a bit of snarkiness in this, the point is that one would almost have to consider miscarriage and nature-induced abortions to be suicide by the fetus. I don’t think that we can consider that. Death during pregnancy is far too common, and modern medicine can’t prevent all of these. If failure to prevent a crime is as morally wrong as committing the crime, then there is a serious ethical dilemma.

The far better approach to the issue is to reduce the frequency of abortions by making the incidence of unwanted pregnancy a rare thing. And how do we do this? Sensible birth control policies.

I have a daughter who is about to be 17. She recently found herself in a situation in which a boy tried to take advantage of her using alcohol. She escaped the situation, although she is fuzzy about the details when discussing them with me (she has confided more deeply about it with her mother.) If she had been penetrated sexually, it would have been rape. If she had conceived a child for lack of contraception, it would have been cause for an abortion.

Finally, I went to a Catholic High School for my senior year. There was a much sex among my schoolmates as their had been at the public school at which I had been a student the years prior. We had just as many, if not more, pregnant teens at the Catholic School as we had in the public school. Merely teaching kids that premarital sex is “bad, mkay” doesn’t prevent them from having sex. Access to solid, reliable information about sex and how to prevent pregnancy is important not just for your kids and my kids, it is important for society in order to make abortion “Safe, legal and rare.”

Consider the choices honestly. The “War on Drugs” and the “War on Poverty” and the “War on Terrorism” have been ineffective societal attempts to reduce the incidence of negative social functions. Laws in the United States against abortion would be just as ineffective as they were before Roe v Wade, and just as ineffective as they are in Peru. The added danger to women’s lives would cause far more death and mutilation to women than lives of fetuses a “War on Abortion” would do.

Safe, legal and rare. It’s the humane and sensible path.

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Cross-posted from Tangled Up in Blue Guy.