Category Archives: Atheism

Whether gods are dead isn’t a relevant question

HB, H. D. Thoreau

H. D. Thoreau from Wikicommons
Henry David Thoreau
(public domain image)

On this day in 1817, Henry David Thoreau drew his first breath in Concord (MA, US). Among his many accomplishments, one that I especially admire was his essay entitled “Resistance to Civil Government,” which was published in 1849 as “Civil Disobedience” in Aesthetic Papers. In his venerated discussion of government and individual responsibility, Mr. Thoreau set an important standard for generations that followed his.

Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them, or shall we endeavor to amend them, and obey them until we have succeeded, or shall we transgress them at once? Men generally, under such a government as this, think that they ought to wait until they have persuaded the majority to alter them. They think that, if they should resist, the remedy would be worse than the evil. But it is the fault of the government itself that the remedy is worse than the evil. It makes it worse. Why is it not more apt to anticipate and provide for reform? Why does it not cherish its wise minority? Why does it cry and resist before it is hurt? Why does it not encourage its citizens to be on the alert to point out its faults, and do better than it would have them?

Visit the Thoreau Society. Link to the Thoreau Reader (courtesy of Iowa State University) where one can read “Civil Disobedience.”

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Anthropomorphism explained

That guilty look that the pet gives you? It’s a reaction to you, not an expression felt by the dog. Just another example of human’s theory of mind run amuck.

Condition Owner told dog obeyed Owner told dog disobeyed
Dog was given treat Should be guilty;
human behavior conveys “not guilty”
Should be guilty;
human behavior conveys “guilty”
Dog does not eat treat Dog’s not guilty;
human behavior conveys “not guilty”
Dog’s not guilty;
human behavior conveys “guilty”

Alexandra Horowitz of Barnard College in New York (US) studied the cause of the “guilty look” in dogs and reported about it in “Disambiguating the ‘guilty look': Salient prompts to a familiar dog behaviour” in the academic journal Behavioral Processes. She set up situations in which a dog’s master or mistress was told that it had obeyed or not obeyed the owner’s command to not eat a treat, either accurately or inaccurately (see table for conditions). The owner (1) placed a treat near the dog and told the dog not to eat it; (2) left the room briefly; (3) could not see whether the experimenter did or did not fed the dog the treat; (4) returned to the room and was told to greet the dog (it hadn’t eaten the treat) or to scold the dog (it had eaten the treat).

The 14 dogs in the study did not show more guilty look behaviors (e.g., avoiding eye contact, lying down, moving away from the owner, etc.) when they ate the forbidden treat than when they didn’t eat it. They did show more such behaviors depending on whether their owners scolded them or greeted the. That is, their guilty behaviors were responses to the humans’ behavior, not to their own behavior.

Anthropomorphisms are regularly used by owners in describing their dogs. Of interest is whether attributions of understanding and emotions to dogs are sound, or are unwarranted applications of human psychological terms to non-humans. One attribution commonly made to dogs is that the “guilty look” shows that dogs feel guilt at doing a disallowed action. In the current study, this anthropomorphism is empirically tested. The behaviours of 14 domestic dogs (Canis familiaris) were videotaped over a series of trials and analyzed for elements that correspond to an owner-identified “guilty look.” Trials varied the opportunity for dogs to disobey an owner’s command not to eat a desirable treat while the owner was out of the room, and varied the owners’ knowledge of what their dogs did in their absence. The results revealed no difference in behaviours associated with the guilty look. By contrast, more such behaviours were seen in trials when owners scolded their dogs. The effect of scolding was more pronounced when the dogs were obedient, not disobedient. These results indicate that a better description of the so-called guilty look is that it is a response to owner cues, rather than that it shows an appreciation of a misdeed.

Read others’ takes: Elsevier’s Science Blog. Sean Couglin of the BBC in “Can dogs really look ‘guilty?’.” Henry Fountain of the New York Times in “It’s an Owner’s Scolding That Makes a ‘Guilty’ Dog.” Rob Stein of the Washington Post in “Is the Hangdog Look for Real?.”

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Science and religion

Lawrence Krauss, the Arizona State physicist who writes clearly about science, had an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal based on his participation in a panel discussion about “Science, Faith, and Religion.” He writes that he was invited to participate after suggesting that just as there was no need for a panel on science and astrology, there wasn’t a need for one on science and religion.

I ended up being one of two panelists labeled “atheists.” The other was philosopher Colin McGinn. On the other side of the debate were two devoutly Catholic scientists, biologist Kenneth Miller and Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno. Mr. McGinn began by commenting that it was eminently rational to suppose that Santa Claus doesn’t exist even if one cannot definitively prove that he doesn’t. Likewise, he argued, we can apply the same logic to the supposed existence of God. The moderator of the session, Bill Blakemore, a reporter with some religious inclination, surprised me by bursting out in response, “Then I guess you are a rational atheist.”


Link to Professor Krauss’ editorial, “God and Science Don’t Mix: A scientist can be a believer. But professionally, at least, he can’t act like one.”

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Point of Inquiry

Point of Inquiry provides a free public outreach service of the Center for Inquiry. It’s associated with Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (publisher of Skeptical Inquirer), Council for Secular Humanism, Commission for Scientific Medicine and Mental Health, and the Committee for the Scientific Examination of Religion.

Here’s a blurb about Point of Inquiry:

Point of Inquiry is the premiere podcast of the Center for Inquiry, drawing on CFI’s relationship with the leading minds of the day including Nobel Prize-winning scientists, public intellectuals, social critics and thinkers, and renowned entertainers. Each episode combines incisive interviews, features and commentary focusing on CFI’s issues: religion, human values and the borderlands of science. Point of Inquiry explores CFI’s three research areas:

  1. Pseudoscience and the paranormal (Bigfoot, UFOs, psychics, communication with the dead, cryptozoology, etc.)
  2. Alternative medicine (faith healing, homeopathy, “healing touch,” the efficacy of prayer, etc.)
  3. Religion and secularism (church-state separation, the effects and proper role of religion in society, the future of secularism and nonbelief, etc.)

Learn more about these resources Center for Inquiry.

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B. F. Skinner’s b-day

Today is the anniversary of the birth of B. F. Skinner, the eminent student of behavior. Professor Skinner, who was born 20 March 1904 in Susquehanna, PA (US), changed the way that people understand behavior first by conducting micro-analyses of the effects of immediate environmental conditions on longer-term patterns in behavior and second by explaining how those effects of environmental conditions made mincemeat of person-in-the-street psychology.

Contrary to popular mis-perception, Professor Skinner did not argue that all behavior was learned from stimulus-response (or S→R) relationships. That view is mistaken on two counts: He both acknowledged the importance of genetic contributions to behavior and he showed that lots of learning is, in fact, a result of the consequences of behavior (R→S relationships).

Based on Professor Skinner’s analyses of behavior and society, behaviorism leads pretty directly to a rejection of mentalism and its kissing cousin, deism. We are left with a scientific perspective on unraveling the not-so-mysterious, but-still-challenging subject matter of human behavior. It’s a lot of work, but it’s worth doing, because that improvement in explaining behavior will provide the basis for a more humane and human world.

Link to the B. F. Skinner Foundation. Link to the 2007 bd announcement.

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Thanks are in order

If you do not yet know about the campaign to express appreciation to legislators who have counseled resistance to the teaching of creationism, here’s an alert for you. Clay Burrell, who teaches English in South Korea and contributes to (Note: That’s .org, not .gov), published a piece recognizing Texas legislators Rodney Ellis and Patrick Rose for promoting oversight of the US state of Texas education group, the State Board of Education, that has too strongly supported anti-scientific treatment of evolution.

This is how Mr. Rose characterized the problem:

As scientists and educators across Texas and the nation mark the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin with calls for a renewed commitment to science education, the State Board of Education continues to engage in narrow theological debate about the validity of evolution. If Texas schoolchildren are to succeed in the 21st Century economy, the SBOE must focus less on internal philosophical differences and more on improving science instruction.

Mr. Burrell headed his post, “Thank Two Congressmen for Saying No to Creationists,” even though neither legislator is a representative to the U.S. Congress. Still, it seems like a good thing to do!

Read Representative Rose’s statement. Fortunately, some savvy folks (e.g., PZ Myers) have warmed to this idea. I’ve posted before about evolution, creationism, and Texas (see, Texas schools and creationism and TX profs on ID: Skip it. I suppose my site could be considered by some to be “messin’ with Texas,” and that’s purportedly a bad thing. Sigh.


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What’s with Scandinavians and god?

In an article headed “Scandanavian Nonbelievers, Which Is Not to Say Atheists” in the New York Times, Peter Steinfel reported about Phil Zuckerman’s current study of atheism Scandinavian countries.

Phil Zuckerman spent 14 months in Scandinavia, talking to hundreds of Danes and Swedes about religion. It wasn’t easy.

Anyone who has paid attention knows that Denmark and Sweden are among the least religious nations in the world. Polls asking about belief in God, the importance of religion in people’s lives, belief in life after death or church attendance consistently bear this out.

Continuing his studies of religion as a social phenomenon, Professor Zuckerman (Pitzer College) revealed that Scandinavians may not believe in God, but they do not necessarily consider themselves atheists. In fact, many have participated in the religious ceremonies associated with religion (e.g., baptism), but they simply don’t spend much time examining the matter. “He concluded,” Mr. Stienfel reported, “that ‘religion wasn’t really so much a private, personal issue, but rather, a nonissue.’”

Professor Zuckerman publishes his work in many places. In the Chronicle of Higher Education he had an essay entitled “The Virtues of Godlessness: The least religious nations are also the most healthy and successful” (30 Jan 09) in which he counters the view that societies without religion are doomed. He’s also published on the topic in the Skeptical Inquirer (“Secularization: Europe-Yes, United States-No”) and elsewhere. In 2008 his book Society Without God (New York University Press) on the subject appeared; it’s going on my reading list.

Read Mr. Steinfel’s article. The disconnection between religion and societal goodness reminds me of the work by Gregory Paul I mentioned here.

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Tree of Life

As a part of the 200th celebration of the birth of Charles Darwin (‘m supposing that there were some sorts of birthday parties for children in the early 1800s, so that there have been 199 previous celebrations; do you think that in those days fathers distributed bubble-gum cigars?), the wonderful Wellcome Trust and the BBC joined together to produce commemorative products. One of my faves is a video featuring Richard Attenborough narrating a ~7-min recounting the evolution of species as we now understand it: Watch the video and explore the very fine resources at

Please be aware that there is a Web site with a very similar domain name (just an extra dot separating wellcome and treeoflife, which I won’t enter or link as I don’t want to send traffic to the home page), but it does not refer to the excellent product I’ve described here. Instead, it features the text “Gloria In Excelsis Deo,” an image of a sprouting plant, and a favicon ico that, if I had to guess, was an image of a cross (as in the Christian crucifix).

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Religious discrimination?

Mr. Richard Mullens, who has been a teacher since 1971 and in in Brookeland (TX, US) for 6 years, resigned his position after the Brookeland Independent School District placed him on paid administrative leave. Brad Watkins of Democracy for America published an account of events by Mr. Mullens in which Mr. Mullens said that being placed on leave and then resigning had followed confrontations with a parent who accused him of being an atheist and of being “too liberal.”

According to Emily Guevara of the Beuamont (TX, US) Enterprise, writing under the headline “Brookeland ISD teacher resigns under pressure from school, parents,” Mr. Mullens believes that he was forced to resign because of his views on religion and government (a parent apparently accused him of being an atheist and a liberal).

Richard Mullens, a teacher for more than 30 years, resigned his position as history teacher after being placed on paid administrative leave by the Brookeland Independent School District.

Richard Turner, the high school’s principal, said parents had voiced concerns about Mullens’ classroom management.

These parents told school board members at a January board meeting that Mullens ran his classes too loosely and allowed students to discuss inappropriate topics, Turner said by phone Thursday.

According to Ms. Guevara’s story, Nicole Ard (who has been a student of Mullens’ for five years and is senior class president) “said that two students started a petition to get Mullins back, but were told by the school principal to stop. Turner said he had not heard of any students starting a petition.” That sounds pretty questionable to me. I’d like to know what some free speech folks would say about whether it’s appropriate for a school administrator to squelch students’ speech in that way.

Of course another issue is the question about whether a teacher’s purported atheism should play a role in hiring and firing decisions. I do not know Mr. Mullens’ religious views, but if they were a factor in the events, I have to bet that it’s going to blow up in the Brookeland schools’ faces.

This should be an entertaining story to follow! I wonder if the TJ Center will pick up on it.

Link to Ms. Guevara’s story from which I quoted. Link to the post by Mr. Watkins of Democracy for America that includes Mr. Mullens’ recounting of events (and some interesting comments). Flash of the electrons to Liz Ditz for this one. Liz noted that PZ Myers had an entry on this topic at Pharyngula.

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Texas schools and creationism

Under the headline “Evolution wins a round in Texas education debate,” Jordan Lite of Scientific American reported that the Texas Board of Education has passed a preliminary recommendation that students learn to evaluate explanations for phenomena using scientific criteria, a move that would make it more difficult to teach creationism.

Board members voted eight-to-seven last night to drop controversial language in the state’s curriculum that requires science teachers to discuss the “strengths and weaknesses” of scientific theories.
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