Counting Chromosomes

Question from Ken:
I’m agnostic. There’s one thing I’ve always wanted to understand about evolution for a while, and I hope this is the place to get it answered.

When I learnt about it, in school and university, they expressed the idea of increment changes (whether modifications of traits that were already there, or new traits through mutation) over time, passed on through generations, “chosen” by the ability to procreate and pass on genes. That, I think I get for the most part.

But what I never really understood is how the number of chromosomes could change over time. How can chromosome numbers increase and decrease? I mean… let’s say an individual somehow has it happen, shouldn’t he or she be unable to produce viable (or fertile?) offspring with others of the species because of the wrong numbers of chromosomes? How does chromosome number change at all? The only way I know is through issues that happen in meiosis, the kind of stuff that causes Down’s Syndrome, and the XXY and X gender chromosomal abnormalities that cause problems in humans.

So, my question is: How can chromosome number change in to produce a viable, fertile individual for it to be able to spread to an entire species?

Answer by SmartLX:
It’s a good question because a sudden whole extra chromosome full of junk, or a whole one gone missing, can indeed cause serious defects. That said, it helps to remember that a chromosome is merely a container of genes, and the number of chromosomes has very little to do with the amount of genetic information in each.

The addition of a chromosome is the more complex process, so I’m linking to an explanation of one mechanism by PZ Myers. Essentially, one chromosome’s worth of genes ends up being shared by two, and at first it can interact just fine with the old combined chromosome because the total sequence is the same. This does introduce a higher rate of error until individuals with the split chromosome start mating with each other, at which point there’s no longer a downside. Once the new number of chromosomes is settled, each chromosome is free to mutate independently and add new genetic information in the usual ways.

As for a reduction in chromosomes, we need look no further than our own genome. Our #2 chromosome pair is equivalent to two separate chromosome pairs in our closest ape relatives, but fused together. You can tell because there are two end markers (telomeres) right in the middle of it. No genetic information was lost, it was merely repackaged. This, importantly, is a very clear example of the kind of predictions one is able to make using evolutionary theory: the number of chromosomes in our genome compared to our ancestors’ (i.e. one less) tells us that exactly one fusion must have occurred, and we can then check the genome for only one extra set of markers.

And The Rest: You Finally Made A Monkey Out Of Me

Question:
If we evolved from monkeys, why are there still monkeys?

Answer by SmartLX:
Welcome to And The Rest, a potential new series where visitors and I try our best to create serious, concise, easy-to-understand answers to the most ignorant, misguided rhetorical questions and other hopeless arguments posed by theists who think they’ve got the ultimate trump card.

When you get one of these it betrays such lack of understanding and willingness to parrot propaganda that you may get angry and refuse to answer it; most of the time this will simply send the message that it works as rhetoric. I’d rather work on a library of straightforward answers which can be passed on and spread as wide as the questions themselves, until it’s inconceivable in each case that the question was ever given merit by anyone.

Right then, the monkey question is the classic example, so here’s my attempt to clear it up as quickly and simply as possible:

“Because not all the monkeys evolved into humans. Most of them evolved into other kinds of monkeys. They had different offspring like any family does. [Bonus semantics if you’re snarky:] And technically it was apes, not monkeys.”

Think you can come up with something more elegant? You’re probably right, so have a go in the comments. Otherwise, comment with some other faux “stumpers” we should cover in this series. Cheers.

If Evolution Is True…

Question from Josh:
If evolution is true,why did an EVOLUTIONIST admit that Archaeopteryx was/is a PERCHING BIRD!?

Also,what about the sabretoothed herbivore,or the fact that Trilobites have such perfect vision that there was no distortion (at ALL!)?

Answer by SmartLX:
Archaeopteryx is indeed currently classified as a bird rather than a dinosaur. It’s still descended from dinosaurs or other reptiles, which is obvious because despite its birdlike characteristics putting it over the line it’s still replete with reptilian characteristics. Its common ancestor with dinosaurs was just a bit further back. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Tiarajudens was indeed a herbivore with a pair of “sabreteeth”. We know it ate plants because the teeth around it are well suited for the purpose of grinding plant matter. The big fangs would either have been a holdover from a carnivorous ancestor or a useful defence and deterrent against its contemporary predators. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

Trilobites had highly advanced eyes, developed at great speed as a primary tool for hunting food and avoiding predators (and therefore a major “selection pressure”).

One type of trilobite-style eye
One type of trilobite-style eye, courtesy of Wikipedia

The trilobite-style eye evolved quite separately from the eye we see in mammals and reptiles today; since it was adapted for use in water, it wouldn’t be much use to us anyway. Some of its components, for instance the signalling system, had already existed for millions of years in lifeforms as diverse as protozoa, plants and yeast. Some trilobites effectively lost their eyes over time because they were living so deep underwater there was no light to speak of. This has no bearing on whether evolution is true, except that it makes sense in light of it.

The Dating Game

Question from Bryan:
Why is radiometric dating considered accurate? I will give two examples, one speculative and one based on actual observations:

I understand half-life, log base-2 calculations and radiometric decay. What I don’t understand is how we assume a starting point for radionuclides v/s daughter nuclides. For example, what if the meteorite that hit the earth and killed the dinosaurs (or any other large meteorite) was a big ball of lead? We have not found traces of it, therefore, we can only speculate what it could have contained. If it were a big ball of lead and mixed with the elements on earth, it would give the appearance that more U-238 half lives had occurred and give falsely high age outputs. (Granted, this is probability based, so is the statement that the meteorite wasn’t lead). This is just one possibility of something that could throw off parent-daughter nuclide ratio. It could have easily just been that there was more lead on earth than we previously thought at the beginning.

This one is not speculation. C-14 dating depends on two things:
1. That production rate and loss rate have been in equilibrium for an extended amount of time, and
2. The equilibrium ratio has not changed in an extended amount of time.

C-14 is produced in the upper atmosphere when various forms of cosmic radiation produce thermal neutrons. A N-14 atom nucleus collides and absorbs the neutron and ejects a proton, thus, making C-14. This process is attenuated by the existence of the earth’s magnetic field. The stronger the magnetic field, the lower the production rate of C-14, therefore, the ratio of C-14:C12 would be initially more weighted to C-12, and therefore, give a falsely older output. The earth’s magnetic field has decreased 10% since Mathematician Gauss started observing it. This decrease is exponential. In the year 7800 BC (rounded) the magnetic field would have been approximately 128 times stronger than it is now, based on current observations of the decay rate of the magnetic field. This would have caused 100% decrease in C-14 production. (Which also begs the question, how C-14 is in fossils that are millions of years old? – throw in the half life of C-14 being only 5700 years (rounded) with that question too). In fact, Dr. Libby noted that the C-14:C-12 ratio was NOT in equilibrium when designing the test, and subsequently decided to assume equilibrium anyway. So why is this test considered accurate when there is definite evidence to the contrary?

Answer by SmartLX:
Radiometric dating is not considered universally accurate. It’s a measurement like any other, there are any number of ways to get it wrong, and there are documented examples of when it has gone wrong. Despite this, it’s been successfully used to accumulate a mountain of evidence that the world is older than a literal interpretation of the Bible would lead one to believe. The threat to Biblical literalism really is the only reason anyone challenges the principle anymore, and it’s also the only reason why you would ask a question like this on Ask The Atheist instead of an actual science site. Mind you, it wasn’t all used explicitly to disprove the Bible like the scientific conspiracy some believers imagine. Scientists were investigating all sorts of questions; the answers just happened to lie between tens of thousands of years and billions of years in the past.

There are almost 20 independent methods of radiometric dating, each based on the decay of a different parent isotope into a daughter isotope. Each has its own starting point, a known past event when the substance to be dated theoretically contained known proportions of the parent and daughter (which could be all of one and none of the other). This is non-negotiable because a method is useless without a reliable starting point, as you would agree. The implication, then, is that the knowledge of serviceable pre-conditions is a major reason why each of the ~20 methods was developed in the first place, out of the multitude of unstable isotopes in the heavier half of the periodic table. It’ll always be there, if you pick a method and look it up.

If a method’s starting point is the least bit ambiguous, say, vulnerable to contamination by outside sources of the daughter isotope (like your meteorite that’s already full of lead), one or more other independent methods are used in conjunction, taking advantage of other elements in the object. The fact that unrelated methods consistently return almost precisely the same result is a major reason for confidence in the principle as a whole, since their reasons for potentially failing are so different.

As an example we’ll look at carbon dating animals in more detail.

Artwork by Randy Russell at Windows to the Universe
Artwork by Randy Russell at Windows to the Universe

As you wrote, Carbon-14 is formed when radiation strikes nitrogen in the air, which means it happens all the time above ground. It’s absorbed by plants in the carbon dioxide they breathe, and then eaten by animals. The starting point is therefore when the animal dies and stops accumulating it. Afterwards the carbon-14 decays back to nitrogen-14, which normally dissipates as gas but is trapped with the body if the specimen is buried. Dating it is then a matter of comparing the amount of N14 to the remaining C14. This works for about 50,000 years post-mortem. Afterwards the amount of remaining initial C14 is so low it cannot be distinguished from the small amount of C14 produced in a different way: alpha or gamma radiation from other radioactive materials in the earth (with millions of years more longevity) can re-irradiate atoms of the N14 and convert it to C14 a second time. This effect is the reason why C14 would have been detected in dinosaur fossils, which are WAY too old to retain their own C14. Hence, other elements with longer half-lives are used to date them instead.

On to your other point. The observation that led to your claim about the Earth’s magnetic field was merely that the dipole field has apparently decreased since 1835.
– That it is a consistent exponential decrease is only an assertion, so raising it exponentially as you go back is unsupportable. The line of best fit between only two data points cannot be assumed to be a smooth curve.
– That it has consistently decreased at ANY rate contradicts other evidence collected from the magnetisation of iron particles in ancient clay pottery (mentioned here), which indicate very clearly what the magnetic field was like earlier on. From just other two data points in history we know it was 45% stronger 3,000 years ago and 20% weaker 6,500 years ago (so in this case, the line of best fit is a wiggle).
– The initial observation only took the dipole field into account. Geologist Brent Dalrymple wrote that increases in the nondipole field, discovered from the very same measurements, resulted in no significant change in the overall strength of the field at all over this particular interval.
– As stated, most or all radiometric dating methods rely on the proportion of the daughter isotope to the parent. The magnetic field affects the generation of carbon-14 in the atmosphere, but this would have no effect on the proportion of C14 to N14 in an already-buried corpse if the N14 is all coming from the C14.
– Does the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field so directly affect the production of every radio-isotope used in every form of radiometric dating? I don’t know, but you’re the one claiming they don’t work, so have you checked?

It’s worth pointing out that carbon dating is the best-known dating method but it’s the least of a young-earth creationist’s worries, as it only goes up to 50,000 years. That’s only one order of magnitude off the desired scale, as opposed to the six orders of magnitude of the actual discrepancy between the Biblical timeline and the evident reality of geological time.

We Are Of The Spirit, Truly Of The Spirit

Question from John:
My question concerns words that have such broad constellations of meaning that they sometimes seem to mean nothing at all, but are nevertheless deeply embedded in the English language.

Here’s the question: Consider the word, “SPIRITUALITY.” When you hear this word, how do you interpret it? Can you think of any common, standard, interpretations of the word which differ from your own personal interpretation? If you were asked to write an all-inclusive dictionary definition, what would it be? (Many English words have multiple meanings which are numbered by frequency of usage in dictionary listings. Do the dictionary definitions which comes to mind for the word “spirituality” adequately cover the broad variety of common applications?)

Consider how the term “spirituality” compares to the word “love.” “Love” is highly context-dependent, and the nuance of its meaning changes radically with the application: “I love pizza,” “I love you, Darling,” “I love my mother.” Nevertheless, there’s a core component of the meaning which is fixed and doesn’t vary at all: “to feel a strong fondness for.” Assuming that it exists, what is the core component of the word “spirituality” which doesn’t change from context to context?

If you were given the power to strike the word “spirituality” from the English language and replace it with a different word, what would that word be? You can use any word you like, or coin a completely new term. The only rule is that this new term MUST adequately cover ALL current meanings and nuances for the old term. It can’t overlook ANY of the popular meanings. (It’s permissible, however, to choose, or to coin, two separate words which, together, cover all of the nuanced meanings of the word “spirituality.”)

My guess is that most atheists will answer these questions differently from theists, but this hypothesis could be completely wrong. I also suspect that, though many atheists would love to strike the term from the English language, doing so is harder than it might seem.

Answer by SmartLX:
Right then.

To me, spirituality is being aware of, and attempting to nurture, the parts of ourselves that rise above considerations of survival and other mundane, primitive concerns. Our spirit is our essence, the qualities which make us sapient beings and those which make us us as individuals. It’s our sense of the transcendent and the sublime, of the beautiful and the elegant. It’s our wonder at everything and our awareness of ourselves.

Obviously, there’s a common interpretation of “spirituality” which conflicts with most of this. It’s the interpretation in terms of literal, ethereal spirits floating around – in our heads, under our beds and in separate, vaguely defined “planes” and “dimensions” – and our efforts to get in touch with and influence these entities, whether or not they are ours to control.

To reconcile the two interpretations in a single definition of the word, I would take what I must admit feels like the cheat’s way out and say that spirituality is simply actions, thoughts and philosophy concerned with spirit.  This allows the multiple meanings of “spirit” to feed through and cause “spirituality” to mean whatever it needs to in a given sentence.  I wouldn’t replace it, because I think its ambiguity can actually be useful.

What if a “god” showed up?

Question from John:
This is a playful, tongue-in-cheek question, but I think it’s an interesting one to consider. Suppose that a scientific breakthrough were to prove conclusively that our universe was either a computer-generated Matrix or a lab-grown artificial world. In Carl Sagan’s novel, Contact, Ellie Arroway (played by Jodie Foster in the film) is told by an advanced extraterrestrial race that, if one calculates certain irrational numbers out sufficiently, taking them out to trillions of trillions of digits, one will eventually find a message.

Suppose that this was the case in our own universe, and that we found one of the messages. The message contains a wealth of scientific information including a unified field theory, and informs us of the fact that our own universe is one of many, all of which appear to be artificial. The message praises us for developing the science necessary to discover it and unlock its secrets, but also warns against belief in magical, infinite, supernatural gods. The message insists that belief in the supernatural, particularly on the basis of dogma and in the absence of hard evidence, is foolish, unscientific, and ill-advised. Our civilization will not advance, it warns, if we participate in such nonsense.

This would mean, essentially, that God, the creator of our universe, is an atheist. Not only does this God embrace the worldview of an atheist, but It also lacks belief in the religious persona that Christians, Jews, and Muslims have used for millennia to portray It. (I say “It” because this God may not have gender. It may not even be biological.)

How do you think theists and atheists would feel about this? Would theists be willing to worship a God who is an atheist? Would atheists be willing to worship, or at least honor, an atheist God? Who would take over the churches, or would they all be torn down?

Answer by SmartLX:
If there were truly incontrovertible evidence that a god-like superbeing existed, atheists would acknowledge it willingly because its existence would at last be supported. They’d probably be more eager to do so than most, because they wouldn’t have any existing religious beliefs contradicted by the being and thus no good reason to deny its obvious presence. (It would be even easier if the being were non-supernatural like you describe.) They might argue over whether this being was technically a god, and whether the term “atheist” still had meaning in the context of the being, but both would be semantics and we’d get over it before too long.

As for worshipping or honouring this being, it would depend a great deal on what the being wanted. If it were the kind of tyrant the mythical gods often are, we’d probably worship out of well-justified fear. One way or another, we would know exactly what it wanted from us, and this would inform whether we tried to obey, rebel, or simply co-exist.

Hullo

Order. Why?

Question from Gene:
How did reality come to be structured such that there are fundamental laws of nature and a hierarchy of intelligence in the natural world?

Answer by SmartLX:
The “hierarchy of intelligence” is the easy part. Sentient life forms on this planet have diversified and subsequently evolved in different directions, and some animals’ brains grew more than others, so different animals have wildly different levels of intelligence. Individuals are also subject to different genes and environmental factors, so even within one species there are relative geniuses and relative idiots. It’s exactly what we would expect in the circumstances. If all animals with intelligence had exactly the same amount of it, now that would be a remarkable thing.

As for the apparently universal consistency of the laws of nature, I don’t know why they’re there, though of course if they weren’t so consistent then I wouldn’t have a functioning brain to wonder about it.

Maths

It might simply be that way as a result of the physical properties of all matter and energy. The constants might have varied significantly in some ancient epoch, and stabilised around the time of the Big Bang (if that phrase even makes sense given the nature of time) so that we’re now enjoying the benefits of a stable universe. There could be many universes, some with fixed constants and some without. Perhaps one day we’ll discover the reason.

Let’s say, though I won’t assume at this point, that you believe a god structured the laws of nature the way they are. If I don’t know how it happened and admit as much, is that a good reason for me to adopt your position? No, because it’s merely an assertion. There’s no substantive evidence for the existence of a god, let alone its influence on the form of the universe. I have no desire to grasp at any answer presented to me if there’s nothing to support the idea that the answer is right.

We can take this a little further. Let’s say that we did both believe that there’s an almighty god, but didn’t adhere to the specific doctrine of any one religion. Could we then say confidently that He structured the universe? The answer is still no, because there’s still no evidence that it happened. Unless we can establish that uniformity can ONLY be deliberately structured, which we can’t, our god might only have happened across our universe and adopted it like one adopts a puppy.

Finally, if we both adhered to the doctrine of a religion that stated that God structured the universe, we would both accept that idea. We would not, however, have arrived at this particular position through logic, other than through the logical fallacy of accepting an argument from authority.

So, if even taking the existence of a god as a given doesn’t necessarily lead to the conclusion that a god structured the universe, we certainly can’t arrive at that conclusion when the existence of a god is in question. As for using the idea to argue for the existence of the god, forget it.

Is Faith Crazy?

Question from Alfredo:
The “What is an Atheist?” video did a terrific job of explaining the terms “atheist,” “agnostic,” and “theist,” pointing out that it is possible to be an atheist-agnostic. Logically, if one can be an atheist-agnostic, one can also be a theist-agnostic, but the video made no mention at all of theist-agnostics. (Logically, it should even be possible to be an atheist-gnostic in the same way that one can “know” that super-position, quantum-entanglement, and quantum tunnelling are real phenomenon, but be unable to (really) believe that the universe works this way in one’s gut.)

At one point in the video, Jake addressed the popular notion that an agnostic falls somewhere between an atheist and a theist. He used the analogy of being a little pregnant to convey the idea that believing and not believing at the same time seems a bit muddled. I’m inclined to think that the reason that most people think of an “agnostic” as being half-way between a theist and an atheist is that popular culture often muddles “belief” and “knowledge.”

A theist believes in God, but also KNOWS that there is a God. An atheist doesn’t believe in God and (as many understand the term), KNOWS that there is no God. Therefore, an “agnostic” is someone who doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t know FOR SURE, the way that an “atheist” does.

My question addresses the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, and how it contrasts with the DISBELIEF-AGNOSTICISM of the “weak atheist” and the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong atheist.” (I’m posing this question within the context of the full-broad issue of whether or not there is a god or gods– not the narrower, and much easier to answer, question of whether or not the Islamic-Judeo-Christian God exists.)

Even Richard Dawkins defines himself as an atheist-agnostic with regard to the full-broad question of whether or not any sort of god or gods exists. I’m going to tentatively assume that we all agree that the DISBELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the “strong” atheist is just as absurd as the BELIEF-KNOWLEDGE of the typical theist, as long as we aren’t talking about profoundly anthropomorphic, logically self-contradictory entities.

Belief and faith are intimately interconnected, but there are two kinds of faith. There’s conventional religious faith, in which one defines one’s belief to be knowledge– to be fact– either because one wants it to be fact really, really badly and thinks this justifies defining it as fact, or because one is incapable of distinguishing between belief and fact. Then there’s secular faith– the faith that one has in one’s children, in one’s country, or in the human race. If my daughter has cancer and I say that I have faith that she’ll be okay, I’m actively and willfully marginalizing the thought that she may die in my mind, but I’m not denying the possibility. I also have some rational justification for believing that she’ll be okay, otherwise my secular “faith” is actually nothing more than hope. Secular faith is more than hope, but less than knowledge.

So, here’s my question in a nutshell: If we can differentiate between agnosticism and atheism, why can’t we differentiate between faith and psychosis? Why can’t we make a distinction, conceptually and verbally, between a religious person who believes and has faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of god– in the same way that Richard Dawkins disbelieves and lacks faith, but is agnostic with regard to the existence of God? Why, in other words, is being a theist synonymous with being batsh*t crazy?

Answer by SmartLX:
Being a theist, from the perspective of an atheist, is simply synonymous with being wrong, or at least likely to be wrong. There’s no need to lump crazy in with it at the conceptual level. Of course it is sometimes accompanied by some level of crazy, but so is atheism or any other position. I wrote about this once before, and I’m still happy with my earlier piece.

A rational mind can accommodate an irrational faith if it has a “rational justification” which is flawed, and does not see the flaws. Rational is not the same as infallible, and no one expects us to be right about everything, only to try to be.

Otherwise, the “rational mind” can simply be somewhat irrational with regard to the object of faith, not accepting its flaws, and mostly rational the rest of the time. A parent with a deathly ill child might be like this. Some degree of irrationality is intrinsic to our nature as instinctive, emotional beings. It’s why we should try to be rational when we can, to compensate for the other times.

Everything’s A God These Days

Question from John:
I’m having difficulty grasping the concept of an “atheist.” Perhaps you can clarify it for me.

The concept of a person who doesn’t have belief in a particular god, or a person who is certain that a particular god doesn’t exist, is quite clear. (For example, a person who doesn’t believe in the Judeo-Christian god, or who is convinced that the Judeo-Christian god doesn’t exist.) That’s different, though, from someone who doesn’t believe in ANY god of any sort.

A person might claim that they are an “atheist” because there is no scientifically-acceptable evidence for ANY god. Fair enough, as long as that person is also agnostic. But, is there really no evidence for any sort of god? Most atheists would challenge the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of dinosaurs in spite of the fact that no (non-feathered) dinosaurs exist today, and in spite of the fact that there is no direct evidence of them. (So-called “dinosaur bones” dug out of the earth aren’t bones at all. They’re stones with impressions or forms that resemble bones.)

Wouldn’t a highly technologically-advanced extraterrestrial meet every criterion for a god, as dictionaries define the word “god”? (Like many English words, the term “supernatural” has multiple definitions. Some popular dictionaries define “supernatural” as defying natural law in principle, while others define it as appearing to, or seeming to, defy natural law. Go ahead and do a survey of dictionary definitions for yourself.) If “appearing to defy natural law” is one popular definition for the term “supernatural,” then technologically-advanced beings have “supernatural” powers and meet any and every definition of a polytheistic god.

Modern, technological humans have “supernatural” powers, too, compared to tribal peoples. We can bring the dead back to life, fly through the air faster than the speed of sound, and vaporize a forest with the push of a button. Could Zeus or Thor do much better? Even if our powers don’t seem fully god-like now, they will be in a few generations. Additionally, is there not ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations with technology far superior to our own? We don’t need to see and touch a living dinosaur to accept the reality of their existence. Do we need to make first contact with an extraterrestrial species to accept the reality of their existence, given the data we do have?

Is the claim that there is no evidence for the existence of any sort of god a reasonable justification for being an “atheist.”

Answer by SmartLX:
The more you broaden the definition of a god, the more likely it will include something which exists, because more entities both known and hypothetical fall into the category. Hyper-advanced aliens are one thing, but you talk about counting modern humans as gods, which means you’re taking into account practically any possible use of the word “god”. In a nutshell, atheists do not.

Atheism is literally the absence of theism, which is religious belief in a god figure. You could broaden that too, but belief in humans or belief in aliens doesn’t generally qualify as theism. The ontology of a true “god” is often debated, but enough of its hypothetical qualities are near-universally agreed upon by believers and non-believers alike that they can have a coherent discussion about gods together, and one more or less settled point is that a god does not have a natural origin. As Richard Dawkins wrote, advanced aliens might well appear to be gods, but they wouldn’t BE gods because they would have come about naturally like we did, probably via a process like Darwinian natural selection – unless of course they had a hand in our development, in which case they came about MORE naturally than we did.

To look at this from another angle, consider that if there were no religion, no one would bother to identify as an atheist, any more than the term “abolitionist” persisted in America after slavery was successfully abolished there. Vocal, activist atheism is a reaction to religious faith, and thus concerns itself with the same kinds of gods that people believe in, the gods people worship, and importantly the gods in whose names people act. In other words, theistic gods. Atheists claim that there is no good evidence for the gods which are the subjects of religious faith. This is not redundant or circular because the faithful do not define their gods in terms of atheism. They’ll happily tell you what their gods are like, what they’ve done and what they want from us.

Since you mentioned agnosticism: Most atheists are also agnostic because they do not claim to KNOW there are no gods (as gods are defined above). They will make the positive claim that there’s no available evidence for gods, but absence of evidence is not necessarily evidence of absence. Besides, incontrovertible evidence might turn up tomorrow in Guam for all we know.

Incidentally, you completely lost me when you said there’s “ample evidence supporting the existence of extraterrestrial civilisations”. There’s currently no unambiguous evidence at all, just a lot of probability-based arguments along the lines of the Drake equation and the unsupported claims of a community of UFO enthusiasts.

Christianity vs Science

Question from Moonrunez:
Yo, talk about cover ups and denying bull, I have been trying to find books that list how Christianity killed and abused science, the study thereof, the torture and death of people studying science, and all I get is how Christianity started science, really, who was Hypatia? N.american Indians practised Tesla mathematics thousands of years before Tesla, look at the serpent mound, or the astro-mathematics of Chaco canyon, not one ounce of land has been gained in N. or S.america except by killing American Indians for practicing witchcraft. this was commonly done to get land, Christians from pagans, Christians from Christians, no one seems to know that one half the town of Salem was accused of witchcraft, the ones who admitted as much lost all there land to the other Christians, why? Why the bullshit, or how Christianity is the cause of extinction and justification for animal abuse and scientific study, animals don`t have souls, Black Beauty was written by a man who witnessed the abuse of animals in his time and wrote about it, and I conclude do you know why I have the right to face my accuser, because in the witch burning times you could accuse your neighbor of heresy have them killed, via torture first to get land, that is why the constitution has this, I can`t find a single book listing groups of scientists, and the types of science destroyed, all I find is Christian websites stating they created science, those idiot Egyptians never built pyramids, had math, science, knew the world was round, star charts, physics, medicine, herb lore, surgery, writing, read 42 laws of Mayet! Can you recommend books that tell the truth of how science etc. was held back by Christianity, thanks.

Answer by SmartLX:
Firstly, Christians appear to have a lot of material for arguing that Christianity was responsible for the rise of science because so many of the great scientists were Christians. Where the argument stumbles is in establishing that their Christianity actually helped in their work, rather than that they were simply great scientists who, like nearly everyone else in those times and places, happened to be Christian. People like Hypatia, who was a fourth century Egyptian pagan scholar, demonstrate that plenty of good work was going on outside of “Christendom”.

Anyway, the persecution of individual scientists isn’t good material for a lot of books because there aren’t many well-known cases. There’s Galileo, of course, and in very much the same category there’s Giordano Bruno who was burned at the stake for claiming there were planets outside the solar system (possibly with life on them). William Buckland, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, and Adam Sedgewick set out to investigate the Biblical flood, but ended up dispelling their own beliefs in it and brought condemnation upon themselves from the Church. Feel free to add more, folks, but that about does it for the famous ones.

It’s worth being very specific about the measurable effect Christianity has had on science, rather than simply saying that it held it back. For as long as Christianity has seen itself as a political power in the world, it has encouraged technological advances to keep itself powerful. Strong armies, good medicines and so on were extremely important.

The issue is that Christianity contains a number of doctrines (claims, if you like) which we now know contradict the scientific evidence and have been accepted by the majority as simply false. Special creation of each plant and animal is a big one, but there’s also the idea that the Earth or the Sun is the centre of the universe, that diseases are caused by demons instead of germs and that stars are small enough to be capable of “falling from the sky” onto the Earth. Some of these are claimed outright by the Bible, others were added later by popes and other authorities. Once the reality became clear in each case, even if the scientific community accepted it, majority Christian populations were very slow to adopt the new thinking because it contradicted something that was supposedly sacred. This wasn’t enough to stop the science from advancing, but it sure slowed it down. Scientists need funding and freedom, and the religious tend to be in positions where they can allow or deny both.

And now a little surprise: I didn’t say there weren’t any books at all. In 1896, Andrew Dickson White wrote A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom, summarising every conflict he could find. That link is to the entire book, hosted at the University of Michigan. It’s been derided by theologians and accommodationists as propaganda, but whatever you think of it you can’t deny that it’s all there.