How to spot a hidden religious agenda

Thanks to reason 42 for this link to New Scientist.

How to spot a hidden religious agenda

Amanda Gefter

AS A book reviews editor at New Scientist, I often come across so-called science books which after a few pages reveal themselves to be harbouring ulterior motives...

[article continues]

Amanda Gefter is an editor for the Opinion section of New Scientist
Issue 2697 of New Scientist magazine


Anonymous said…
..and talking of religious agenda I noticed that there is to be a TV show on this evening (C4 7PM GMT) with Cherie Blair discussing Christianity and its role in public life. There is a write up in the Telegraph here.

Rather amused to see this

".. her fourth child Leo was conceived during a stay with the Queen at Balmoral, after she had left her contraception at home. She said she was too embarrassed to take her "contraceptive equipment" because the previous year all her belongings, including her toilet bag, had been unpacked."

So embarrassment is a sufficient reason to bring a child into the world? Not fear of God.
Matt M said…
Whilst annoying, I think the fact that certain religious individuals and groups are so desperate to have their ideas labelled scientific shows just how much more influence the latter has compared to the former.

Back in the day, religion was its own justification. Now it often has to ride on the coat-tails of science in order to seem credible.
Anonymous said…

This is quite an amusing read along similar lines - the crackpot index for judging revolutions in physics. However, most of it is applicable to various pseudosciences, intelligent design seems to score highly gaining big marks on points such as #s 19, 26, 28, 33 and 35.
georgesdelatour said…
It's interesting you post this.

I've been a regular reader of New Scientist for some time, and last week I decided I was becoming too exasperated by the magazine to continue.

Two weeks ago there was a book review accepting uncritically the current Islamophile view of "Islamic Science". It goes something like this:

1. Practically everything of value in the whole corpus of western scientific endeavour comes second-hand from the "Islamic science" of the Abbasids and the Berbers of Al-Andalus (this makes the unspoken sinophobic assumption that the west didn't get any of its knowledge from China, but hey, let's only deal with one oppressed non-western group at a time).

2. The science and learning that flourished under the Abbasids and others was not the consequence of having a large, prosperous empire built on the territory, resources and human capital of two previous great empires (Persian and Roman), but because of the wonderful, enlightened religious teaching of Muhammad and the Qu'ran. Okay?

3. If, apart from A.Q. Khan and the "Islamic bomb", Muslim-majority societies are nowadays the least scientific in outlook, that's not because of Islam, but Western Imperialism. Or something...

This week, virtually the whole magazine is taken up with Global Warming Alarmism. This blog is not the place to go in for a detailed discussion of Michael Mann's hockey stick graph, the question of due diligence in climate science peer review, or the politics or the IPCC. But even if you accept the whole theory of catastrophic man-made global warming without qualification, you'd have to admit that there's virtually no science in these articles. It seems the editor of NS will publish any stupid rubbish article, just as long as it says, "global warming - be very afraid - we are all doomed".

So I want to support Amanda Gefter. But her magazine has become almost as occult in outlook as the creationists. She really needs to speak out against the rubbish currently getting past her own editor if she wants to be taken seriously by me.
jeremy said…
I know it's off topic, but spotting a hidden religious agenda takes on a different meaning in this story, where more children have been branded as witches in central Africa. It's really heartbreaking. This quote is particularly interesting (especially considering the debate on this site, in a previous post, re: their motives)

"Locals say the main factor is greed on the part of the self-proclaimed pastors who have proliferated in the area in recent years.
"You have to be seen to spiritually powerful to draw the crowds and in the process collect lots of money in offerings," said Ikpe-Utauma.


"There is an explosion of fake evangelists," said Herbert Batta, a university lecturer in the state capital Uyo, adding that the self-made pastors know very well there is nothing wrong with the children they brand.
"Some people are making brisk business out of defenceless children. It's greed, targeting gullible and susceptible rural people," said Akwa Ibom State spokesman Aniekan Umanah."
anticant said…
Sounds just like American televangelists. Not to mention global bankers.

Puzzle: why does such arrant twaddle pull in so much money?
MrFreeThinker said…
So Descartes and dualism had a hidden religious agenda? Who knew?
MrFreeThinker said…
"When evolution is described as a "blind, random, undirected process", be warned. "

“[E]volution works without either plan or purpose … Evolution is random and undirected.”
(Biology, by Kenneth R. Miller & Joseph S. Levine, pg. 658 (4th edition, Prentice Hall, 1998))
Oh that's it.Ken Miller and American biology textbooks have a religious agenda too.
Kosh3 said…
I find the whole tone of that piece quite disagreeable.
MrFreeThinker said…
I dislike how they equivocated on the word random. Everyone knows what someone means when they say "random". Saying evolution is not random because it follows the laws of natural selection is like saying a coin toss isn't random because it follows the laws of physics. This is just wordplay.
Kosh3 said…
I take issue with "If an author wishes for "academic freedom", it is usually ID code for "the acceptance of creationism".

If an author wishes for 'academic freedom', it is usually code for 'the acceptance of creationism'"

Not just sometimes, but usually. What is the proposed alternative? Materialism as authoritarianism? A stifling of any variation or plurality of thinking? It is not said, but it is in any case true that many epistemic benefits derive from having basic tolerance (for lack of a better word) of deviation from the standard.
Anonymous said…

Although mutations are random, only mutations that prove advantageous within the environment of a creature are passed on with a high rate.

Therefore it is not intellectually honest to imply that "blind, random mutations" are always succesful.
Anonymous said…

This is what the original quoted statement implies due to its selective use of language (semantics, if you will).
Jac said…
Decartes was obviously religious. I'm not aware of it effecting his scientific works (were there any?), but it did effect his philosophy.

Mutations are random like a coin flip. Natural selection is not random: individuals that are bad at surviving and/or reproduction are less likely to pass on their genes. Therefore evolution is not a blind, random process.
Jac said…

In the USA, bills have been introduced in several states in order to allow teachers to teach creationism in name of "Academic Freedom." Creationism and ID are not science, thus, they do not belong in science class. Furthermore, we don't teach competing scientific theories in high school. You're not going to see school children learning about String Theory or the various theories about why/how the Big Bang occured. They don't have the background to understand such theories, and we don't have time to waste on what might be true when the body of well tested knowledge that they should be learning is so huge.
Kyle said…
I found this piece a bit sinister, so I have posted a reply to it on my blog:
anticant said…
I agree with Kyle's blog post. It really is very nannyish of Amanda Gefter to exhort us to "read between the lines". That, surely, is what most discerning people do anyway.

To my mind, a glaring flaw in much discussion of evolution - whether from a 'scientific' or a 'religious' standpoint - is the importation of anthropomorphism in the form of predicated 'intention'. Evolution and natural selection seem to me to be very sensible and satisfying ways of describing what in fact occurs in nature, but to imply that the result is 'intended' by any of the actors strikes me as highly dubious.

Darwin's explanation of WHAT happens, and HOW it happens has yet to be bettered. But "why" it happens is another kettle of fish altogether.
Anonymous said…
"If common sense were a reliable guide, we wouldn't need science in the first place."

Of course, many of your ideas, stephen, are "common sense" appeals... for example, the idea that it could be "pretty obvious" there is no God due to the existence of evil...

And what is "the God of Eth" if not an appeal to common sense? It's not really a hard and fast philosophical argument, just a way to get people to apply common sense to theology.

If it's true that "If common sense were a reliable guide, we wouldn't need science in the first place."... couldn't the same thing be said about theology?

After all, some kind of godlike creator being would be infinitely more complex than the world that science can observe.
Anonymous said…

I agree with Kyle's blog post. It really is very nannyish of Amanda Gefter to exhort us to "read between the lines". That, surely, is what most discerning people do anyway.

I thinks some bills in America have been passed that allow science teachers to distribute heavily veiled creationist textbooks to school-age children.

In which case it would be useful for parents to spot such literature.
Anonymous said…
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said…

After all, some kind of godlike creator being would be infinitely more complex than the world that science can observe.

Well OK everyone who states that their personal beliefs don't have to be verified scientifically cannot expect them to be taught scientifically.
Kosh3 said…

I wasn't advocating the epistemic advantages of theoretical plurality for school curriculum.
Anonymous said…
Right, so I stumbled upon your blog, immediately began to read heaps of posts and could almost feel my brain getting wrinklier and more powerful. Thanks for a most enlightening resource. I shall delve deeper.

As I read, I noticed repeated references to this 'Sinner's Ministry' thing. Proof that God exists? Wowser! How could I resist? So I followed the link over there. Preposterous. It's disappointing. I thought you'd have a worthy adversary.

One presses a virtual button for several yes-or-no questions: do the laws of logic, then mathematics, then science, then morality exist? Laws of logic, mathematics and science, I said yes. Because they do exist, absolute in the sense that, for any practical, human purpose, oddments like the function of zero or the influence of gravity on bits of stone are absolute (in the sense that they can be known beyond question, except for the most cryptic rhetorical sorts of inquiry that have no application outside sheer cleverness). Laws of logic might be a little broad, but I'll grant there are some fairly immutable aspects to the thing.

Then the question comes up: do you agree absolute moral laws exist? I said no. The reason I responded in that way, as a common pseudo-intellectual, is that morality is received, and there is not a standard of proof. How did the ministry's argument proceed? These are my new choices, based upon my previous answer: 'molesting children for fun is absolutely morally wrong', or 'molesting children for fun could be right'. Now, I may be old-fashioned, but this seems like a pretty wacky pair of options. 'Molesting children' presupposes it's immoral to diddle the kiddies, for a start. While I personally find the practice repugnant and immoral, I can't honestly claim my position on the matter is 'absolutely' anything.

The ancient Greeks whooped it up with minors 'till the goats came home, and they were a pretty engaging bunch. For them, it wasn't 'molesting', and it wasn't 'morally wrong'. Come to that, it's also morally wrong to wear tennis shoes made by an eight-year-old slave in a sweatshop in the Philippines, to wage war, to take human life. And yet there is a variety of opinion on all of these issues, and it is generally understood that the jury is still out, so to speak, on such matters as capital punishment: is it justice, or is it state-sanctioned murder? How about an old man marrying a 12-year-old girl? The Victorians didn't object to that practice at all, and we get most of our so-called Christian morality from them. So I can't get past the word 'molesting' before I knew there was a logical box canyon ahead. Despite the absurdly leading wording of the propositions, I clicked 'molesting children for fun could be right' -- not because I think it's right, but because the notion that it is absolutely morally wrong is incorrect. O tempora, o mores, and all that.

What am I confronted with next? A long, shrill screed stuffed to the limits of its gills with rhetorical questions of an increasingly agitated nature, culminating in: "Why do we condemn the Nazi society for following their self-imposed morals? Why did the Nazi society not have the right to break from the tradition of morality in western civilizations?" Now I seem to recall the Bible contains quite a few God-sanctioned acts of genocide -- I thing God Himself even got in on it somewhere in the book of Noah -- and it was all in good fun as long as the Hebrews or Yaweh were doing the deed, so context would appear to be an important factor. But the argument-killer for me is right there in that question: "the tradition of morality". Maybe I'm just an ignoramus -- I know I am -- but even those nuts over at Merriam-Webster define a tradition as "an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (as a religious practice or a social custom". That's not exactly a law, is it.
I stood by my earlier position, and was ejected with sorrow from the path of righteousness. Apparently if a two-step argument isn't enough for me, there's no point adding a third step on there. I'm like a concrete patio in the backyard of logic. Any more than two steps and the argument would be above me.

Anyway, I could go on (I have, in fact) but to make a short story proportional, I went back and answered the questions the ministry's way, and this is what I got for my troubles: "The Proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn't prove anything." This rather astonishing assertion seems to be mostly antanaclasis or epistrophe or something; it smacks of Wilde's remark: "the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about." I went back and examined the previous argument, hoping for some proof. The only proof offered is that it's in the Bible, so it's true. There's a quotation from Romans in there, as if that explains it all. What I did find is there's a first half of this 'proof' on the previous screen that joins up with the final trump: "Only in a universe governed by God can universal, immaterial, unchanging laws exist. Only in a universe governed by God can rational thinking be possible. We use rational thinking to prove things. Therefore..." [press button] "The Proof that God exists is that without Him you couldn't prove anything."

I'm sorry, I can't believe this is worth discussing. And yet, I'm discussing it. Thanks for a most interesting blog, if not perhaps the most interesting nemesis!
MrFreeThinker said…
@Benn Tripp
Are you certain that molesting children for fun could be right? Do you have any little children or nephews or cousins?

There are not many atheists I know who would bite the bullet like that and say that molesting little children for fun is not absolutely wrong. And as to the Greeks, you shouldn't bother with them. I happen to think the Greeks were wrong about morality as well as a good deal of other things. We are not talking about what the Greek believed (by that same logic we would have to say Zeus existed) but rather what you believe.
Stephen Law said…
Thanks for the kind words Benn. You are right that Sye's argument on his website is, well, crap. But he's got a lot more moves, some rubbish, but some at least worth thinking about. I pursued Sye for a long time mostly out of fascination with what was going on in his head. He is a bizarre specimen.
Anonymous said…
Thank you SeƱor Law!

Mr. Freethinker, the question is not what I believe -- that's the entire point. It's 'absolute laws of morality' we're talking about. Is prostitution moral? Depends where and when. Murder is a popular example: when is it right, wrong, or justifiable to take a human life? I said in my post I am personally opposed to "molesting children" -- but that's me. I don't make any claims to absolute righteousness. How old is a child, for example? Statutory age is 18. Did you get your hooks into anybody before that age (even at that age yourself)? If not, was it for moral reasons? How about masturbation: is that immoral? Eating meat, is that immoral? Do you wear leather? Smoke marijuana? Jaywalk? Gravity is unambiguous. Logic has some immutable truths. Morality, whether you approve or disapprove, is an elastic concept, and reverting to the Bible for proofs to the contrary is like drawing a picture of OJ Simpson with a bloody knife and then saying "see? He murdered those people with that knife!"

I'm just sayin.
Martin Cooke said…
the most cryptic rhetorical sorts of inquiry that have no application outside sheer cleverness (Ben Tripp)

The context is, are there absolute laws of logic and mathematics? As taught in most schools, such laws aren't absolute. E.g. standard maths is ZFC set theory, and there is the option of adding further axioms, or not. Standard maths is the one that tends to get applied. E.g. I one attended a course in Applicable Mathematics, where they deliberately used Lebesgue intergration (which is based on set theory) instead of Riemann integration. As for logic, standard logic is a very rough-and-ready structure, and it needs to be finessed in various ways to avoid paradoxes. In short, the situation with logic and math is very similar to the situation with ethics and morals. The difference is that most people come up against ethical problems, and only philosophers logical problems; moral codes differ noticeably between existing societies, math rules not so noticeable. There's no hidden agenda to this comment, I just thought that it was worth noting this truth because it's true.

...some religious groups are now appealing to aspects of quantum weirdness to account for free will. Beware: this is nonsense.

In fact, QM indeterminism under the Copenhagen interpretation does allow for a hypothetically free-willed and non-physical mind to affect physical particles without violations of the conservation laws; as does Heisenberg's uncertainty principle. It's not the whole story, but it does address the most common objections to Cartesian dualism (that biologically relevant physics is deterministic, and that any hypothetical force would have to be physicsl, whence there could be no sensibly non-physical mind). The obvious justification for my claim that that's not nonsense is Sir John Eccles, but the truth is (of course) independent of such sociological issues as how many - or whether anyy - people agree with it. If such statements (of truth) are considered to be signs of a hidden religious agenda, then they will of course end up being expressed largely by those who have a religious agenda, who would not be embarrased by such. The danger there is that scientific writers end up caring less about the truth than superficialities (whether by writer's choice, to ensure publication, or the selection of writers by reviewers and publishers).
Anonymous said…

I agree with your point about 'absolute laws' in general. I confess I was abandoning every scrap of solipsistic ambiguity in order to reach out to the author of the quiz, who is operating on a very basic primary school level of discourse.

My willingness to answer 'yes, there are absolute laws of mathematics', for example, has more to do with the context of the exercise, than the truth or Truth as it is known. In fact nothing is absolute. Everything feathers off at some distant point into something ambiguous. But the button-pressing format with which I was presented permits of so few options, so baldly stated, that for the purpose, its was expedient to answer 'yes' to the various choices, simply because that was the obvious 'right' answer to move the thing along. It was only when I came to the moral question, which is certainly the least settled matter among the options presented, that I balked. As I say, the whole thing is a box canyon that presents no real alternatives to the Biblical proof of absolute law = God.
Anonymous said…
About Descartes :
his scientific works (were there any?)

Well, not much, he just created analytic geometry and first stated the basic laws of optics.
cf. W
Anonymous said…
You might be interested to know that the New Scientist article has been removed at this time (17/3/2009 09:53 GMT) in response to a legal complaint. How odd.
Stephen Law said…
Very odd!

I have cut down the pasted text to the (surely not legally actionable) opening para.
Anonymous said…
Do we have any idea what the legal complaint was?
Anonymous said…

Am amazed. Hope this works out soon -- let us know what happens.