7 things @ 11 o’clock (7.18)

1. Let me echo Rob TsinaiJim Burroway and many others in offering my hopes, prayers and best wishes for Thomas Peters, and in soliciting yours for him as well. Peters, the communications director of the anti-gay National Organization for Marriage, sustained a major neck injury in a swimming accident. As Burroway wrote:

We all hope and pray for Peters’s epiphany on the central questions surrounding our families. More so, we hope and pray for his speedy recovery so that epiphany can occur. But in any case, whether that epiphany will ever occur or not, we hope and pray for his speedy recovery.

2.Same-sex marriage becomes law in England and Wales.” This seems appropriate.

3. After the dismal experience of watching Doc Gooden struggling through his appearance on Celebrity Rehab, I’m happy to learn that Darryl Strawberry is doing well. Make that the Rev. Darryl Strawberry. The 12 steps, I think, are excellent preparation for pastoral ministry and an education in the theology of grace. Here’s hoping he abides in that grace. I’d hate to see him wind up on Dr. Drew’s couch.

4. My initial reaction to Russell D. Moore replacing Richard Land as the Southern Baptist Convention’s new “ethics” spokesperson was that we were in for just more of the same, but with a younger, smiling face and bit more media savvy. But it’s impossible to imagine Richard Land ever saying something like this. Granted, a measure of skepticism is reasonable here, and Moore’s comments may in part be a savvy response to Land’s earlier, awful comments on the slaying of Trayvon Martin. Yet for all that, it’s a surprisingly apt response from an unexpected source. (I was also pleasantly surprised by the empathy expressed by Moore’s mentor, Al Mohler.) The SBC has a long way to go, but these are small steps in a better direction.

5. Rep. Michele Bachmann continues to astonish. Earlier this week there was her interview with the right-wing website WorldNetDaily in which she said, of President Obama, “He has a perpetual magic wand and no one’s given him a spanking yet and taken it out of his hand.” That’s the sort of thing one can only say if one is too innocent to realize one is not innocent at all. Marcus Bachmann is a clinical psychologist. He’s studied Freud, so he knows that sometimes a magic wand is just a magic wand — but sometimes it isn’t.

Which brings us to the second Michele Bachmann story this week, courtesy of Buzzfeed: “Documents Detail Implosion at Leading Conservative Christian Political Firm.” That’s not the fun part. The fun part is in the subhed: “Strategy Group for Media CEO Rex Elsass lost the faith of his employees and the control of his office. Also, he may have accidentally mailed a vibrator to Michele Bachmann.”

An email thread from May 29 … featured Strategy Group’s former voter-contact consultant P.J. Wenzel making reference to Elsass sending “female pleasure machines” to Bachmann. … One person familiar with the story told BuzzFeed that Elsass had intended to give Bachmann a vibrating head massager to help alleviate her migraines, and that the employee he sent to buy the gift accidentally purchased something that more closely resembled a sex toy — and sent it to her office.

Now go back and re-read Bachmann’s comment on Obama. OK, then.

(Oh, and speaking of politicians and their wands — Bob Filner, the Democratic mayor of San Diego, needs to step down. I don’t think every politician who gets caught having an affair necessarily needs to resign, but affairs are consensual. This isn’t. He should go away now.)

6. In an odd coincidence, shortly after I posted this yesterday, MaryAnn McKibben Dana posted her own musings about religion, improv, and a magician. She tussles with a quote from Penn Jillette — one that I think means both more and less than he thinks. Wholly apart from the tired theist/atheist sparring, though, I think there’s something in that quote that could be fruitfully mined by all kinds of storytellers, Here’s what Jillette said:

If every trace of any single religion were wiped out and nothing were passed on, it would never be created exactly that way again. There might be some other nonsense in its place, but not that exact nonsense. If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

There, I think, we have the set-up for at least two — but probably many more — speculative novels. His point about science is narrowly true, but there’s no reason to assume that scientific discovery must always follow the same precise path at the same pace. There’s all manner of world-building fun to be had by toying with that history and making it unspool in a different order — accelerating some discoveries or postponing others. And set aside the silliness of thinking that because religion is rooted in the context of human experience and human history it must be nonsense and instead just focus on the delightful storytelling possibilities of the hypothetical scenario Jillette provides.

Science fiction writers have been doing both of these things for a long time, of course, creating alien worlds with wholly different scientific and religious histories, but Jillette’s remark, it seems to me, neatly frames the challenge and the possibilities.

7. The photo for yesterday’s 7 things post was of former Pittsburgh Pirates second baseman Rennie Stennett. He was holding up seven fingers because he had just set a new Major League record with seven hits in a nine-inning game (a 22-0 rout of the Cubs). Stennett’s record is one of several that I think will never be broken — the others are held by Cy Young, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Vander Meer, Fernando Tatis, and Chan Ho Park. Of all of those, Park’s is probably the most secure. No one would ever want to break Park’s record, but I doubt they’d ever get the chance, since if you’ve given up two grand slams to the same batter in one inning, there’s no way you’ll be allowed to pitch to him again if he comes up a third time with the bases loaded.

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  • fencerman

    Penn Jilette could probably stand to watch more “connections” – http://topdocumentaryfilms.com/james-burke-connections/ – The underlying facts of the natural world may remain the same, but the unfolding ways they are understood would never happen the same way twice.

  • JustoneK

    He could also stand to play Civilization. Nothin’ says fun like developing space travel when your nearest neighbors just got the steam engine.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    They need a new console version of that, like NOW. I’m so tired of playing Civ Rev

  • Eric Boersma

    Civilization 4 is totally playable on pretty much any kind of laptop these days, and is still probably the best entry in the series, especially if you’re willing to mod it and use the absolutely incredible Fall From Heaven 2 alongside.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    Unfortunately, I’m poor and I don’t PC game. So it’s awaiting a console release for me!

  • JustoneK

    civ1! it’s abandonware! you don’t need big fancy graphics and animations, you just need little square icons and a smug grin.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    In all honesty, I liked Civ1 better than 2 or 3. After civ1, I felt they crossed the threshhold past which the game was so complicated and visually noisy that it detracted from me focusing on the things I enjoyed in the game.

  • JustoneK

    I p much agree with that, but I do wonder about “balance” therein, if there was a slightly better internal computating thingy about how fast different AI civilizations moved along compared to you, etc. The main thing Civ1 needed? Multiplayer.

  • Baby_Raptor

    4 is also the best, in my opinion. I play Beyond the Sword. Tried 5, didn’t get into it.

  • http://kingdomofsharks.wordpress.com/ D Johnston

    Especially the older ones with the really weird tech trees that let you get to the modern age without discovering the wheel.

  • histrogeek

    James Burke remains one of the greats in outlining the human and social side of the history of science. Alas not that many people have tried to follow in his footsteps.

  • MaryKaye

    Everything Mendel needed to discover the basic laws of genetics had been available for hundreds if not thousands of years. As a geneticist I’m intrigued by the idea that we might have figured that out much sooner, and had high-end genetic engineering before we had internal combustion or powered flight.

    You’d have to overcome a few bumps; the molecular end of genetics made a lot of use of radioactive labels. On the other hand, almost anything you can do with those you *can* do with dyes, with enough effort (a lot of labs are moving away from radioactives now because they are a pain to handle).

    An early development of genetically engineered crops would have changed world food dynamics a lot. An early development of vaccination would have changed population growth dynamics a lot. (Would they counterbalance? Who knows?)

  • Brad Ellison

    There’s an Australian movie called Perfect Creature that plays a little with genetics being discovered a few centuries early. There are also vampires, who end up coming out of the shadows after the new science emerges and become the backbone of the Church with a symbiotic sharing of blood becoming the new communion, but steampunk genetics play a key role.

  • Boidster

    Penn Jilette could probably stand to watch more “connections”…The underlying facts of the natural world may remain the same, but the unfolding ways they are understood would never happen the same way twice.

    Let’s not ascribe more to Jilette than he actually said:

    If all of science were wiped out, it would still be true and someone would find a way to figure it all out again.

    He said nothing about order of discovery, or pace – only that the same truths would be discovered again, in time.

    It was Fred who expanded on Jilette’s idea, suggesting that there is great opportunity for novels to explicitly build worlds where the timing of discoveries was significantly different.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Of course, one wonders if the New Religion wouldn’t reach some of the same philosphical conclusions as the old ones: Some part of the self is eternal and lives after death, good and evil exist as discrete forces, love is the best way to live, and so on. You know, the important stuff is.
    Of course, that’s not what Jillette believes the important stuff of religion is. Like most evangelical atheists, he thinks the meat is in the mythology.

  • brulio2415

    I agree with you in spirit, but I think you have to acknowledge that those are all pretty broad statements. The terms within them are very flexible (define “self” “eternal” “good and evil” “love”). These are all important concepts, but the breadth of their importance throughout many cultures and faiths is undeniable, but the nature of that breadth has as much to do with their malleability as terms.

    Science gives us stuff like “Light moves this many units of distance in this many units of time” and “gravity exerts this much force on objects this close to a body this size”. Those terms are a bit firmer, to say the least.

    Moreover, it’s hardly as though evangelical atheists are the only ones talking up the mythology.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Glad I’m not the only one whose first thought was of James Burke.

    (A few years ago, something or other caused me to finally put together who James Burke was before he did Connections, and finally understand what the whole thing was really about)

  • Bruce Gottesman

    Also Jack Chesbro’s 41 wins in 1904…

  • TheBrett

    5. What they need to do is bring him up on charges. Sexual harassment can become a crime when it’s frequent enough to create a hostile work environment according to the Equal Opportunity Commission, and that clearly seems to be the case with the Mayor – he had a reputation for being a creeper, and had done certain types of harassment so often that they even had nicknames in the office. I doubt there’s any lack of witnesses to get him on it.

    The sad thing is that if he clings on to office, he probably won’t be forced out until the next election unless he’s criminally charged.

    6. I’m not so sure religion would emerge on the scale it has now if suddenly everyone forgot about it, although you probably would see various cults and superstitious behavior spreading. A lot of the spread and endurance of religion has to do with endemic institutions that promote it (particularly among the next generations).

  • histrogeek

    It wouldn’t be the same, but it doesn’t take long for humans to turn any experience or belief into an institution. It would take a few generations probably before they were as strong as they are now. However, given the monetary resources, communication resources, and knowledge of effective organizing, it might take less time than it did originally. Probably a lot of the impetus would come from intentional communities with resources or from charismatic teachers who stumble onto big bucks.
    The biggest if I’d say is what would be the government reaction to these groups. It boils down to the same three reactions that have always been there: tolerate, co-opt, or persecute. The first seems obvious to people today, but if no one has any knowledge of past church-state relations, tolerate isn’t necessarily the obvious choice for a government.

  • P J Evans

    I suspect what he needs a through physical exam. AIUI, this behavior is recent, within the last 6 months or a year, and that suggests something like a brain tumor or a stroke.

  • LoneWolf343

    It took time for it to have the scale that it has now. The pagan mythologies were actually groups of cults that worshiped a particular god, and they cooperated. This is most obvious in Egypt, where the civilization was around for so long that the various gods moved up and down in their pantheon in direct correlation to the influence of their cults.

  • Freak

    6. If history had been different, I could imagine, say, jazz, impressionism or fair-play mysteries never being developed. On the other hand, science would converge on an inverse-square gravitational law, the same periodic table of the elements, and so on.

    This is fair since music, art, and literature are viewed as a cultural construct, while science is viewed as developing truths of the universe.

    If religion were only portrayed as cultural, then Penn’s observation would be nothing unexpected. When it’s portrayed as having a basis in fact, it’s a big problem if things can develop differently.

  • alfgifu

    I think there’s a further wrinkle here with religion (or anything else) that is assumed to be a cultural construct. Because culture comes from humans, and we’re still working with humans in the alternative history.

    The same underlying human nature – based on brains with the same range of perceptions and biases – causes some things to replicate across different cultures. There’s also progression in culture, just as in science – you have to have instruments before you can have jazz. I don’t know if you have to pass through realism to get to impressionism, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

    If anything, I’d expect cultural concepts to reappear (looking a bit superficially different) in the same sort of order they already have. So you’d probably see a range of cooperating cults before polytheism before monotheism, for example, with one sort of understanding giving rise to the next. With science, because it’s all out there to discover rather than in there to construct, the order could be far more scrambled depending on when different discoveries were made by chance.

    I think this would be the case even if religion is seen as being based on reality (and, as a believer, this is the camp I fall into personally) – because religion is a journey of understanding which varies a lot from person to person, often tries to express the inexpressible, and is communicated and interpreted very differently by different people. So even if it is underpinned with facts (as in real things that actually happened) the interpretation – which is most of the mythology and the ritual and the theology – will remain a cultural construct.

  • aunursa

    I doubt they’d ever get the chance, since if you’ve given up two grand slams to the same batter in one inning, there’s no way you’ll be allowed to pitch to him again if he comes up a third time with the bases loaded.

    If you’ve allowed 15 or more runs and 18 or more baserunners in the inning, I suspect that the game is already out of reach, and your team has no other available pitchers.

  • Carstonio

    Even an ostensibly consensual affair between an official and a subordinate amounts to abuse of power. The official can fire the subordinate if the latter wants to call off the affair, or in some cases, use the power and the influence of the office to harass the subordinate. There’s also the potential for the subordinate to retaliate by going public with the affair, but that’s merely a response to the official’s abuse of power.

  • dr_ngo

    I’d add in, among unbreakable records, Byron Nelson’s winning 11 PGA tournaments in a row (1945) and Don Bradman’s lifetime cricket batting average of 99+ (next highest is in the 60s, I believe).

  • aunursa

    I like the fact that Penn Jillette will take on any controversial subject or common misconception, and is an equal-opportunity offender.

  • Hth

    When his stances are absurdly reductive and ignorant, the fact that he’s “brave” enough to piss people off by being extraordinarily loud about them isn’t actually all that likeable to me.

  • aunursa

    I appreciate his candor even when he promotes stances with which I vehemently disagree.

    How is he “extraordinarily loud”?

  • LoneWolf343

    It’s a metaphor for being outspoken.

    Then again, Penn does shout a lot.

  • Daniel

    He is a pompous bellowing arse.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    For some reason, this just makes me want to see a spoof commercial. “HI, BILLY MAYS HERE, BRINGING YOU LIBERTARIANISM!!”

  • aunursa

    Here is a recent interview in which Jillette discusses his journey to atheism and how his views on a couple of issues have changed since they were aired on his show.

  • AnonaMiss

    I hate it when I agree with Penn Jilette because he adopts such a smug, self-satisfied manner, and invites the viewer to come be smug and self-satisfied and shit on everyone who disagrees.

    He’s often right, but he – or his public persona, anyway – is never cordial.

    Which is something of a tone argument, I guess, but I’m not saying it to imply that he’s wrong – just that I’d rather change the channel than watch someone make such a shit-eating spectacle of how right they are.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I used to have great appreciation for him until he spent some time trying to convince everyone that it’s a good thing Walmart uses sweatshops and how much we should admire them for doing so.

  • http://kingdomofsharks.wordpress.com/ D Johnston

    I stopped watching BS in season 2, when it became less about skepticism and more about Jilette pushing his libertarian views. A lot of the “research” in the later seasons got pretty dubious – I remember him talking to Dennis Prager about health issues, of all things.

    That said, I will give him credit for one thing – the episode on religion was about the most even-handed take on a controversial topic I’ve ever seen. A lot less mockery, just invite people of divergent beliefs on the show and let each one give his/her side.

  • Lori

    My issue with Jilette is that I think he’s become less a skeptic than a guy wildly in love with his own cleverness. That works OK on issues where he is quite clever, but much less well for issues where he’s just not as smart as he thinks he is.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    “The failure mode of clever is ‘asshole.'” —John Scalzi

  • aunursa

    I would be surprised to find someone who, if the person watched the entire BS series, would not be offended by at least one episode.

  • histrogeek

    Well, I suspect Jillette himself wouldn’t be. A lot of the time it seemed like he was picking his topics so he could preach against things that pissed him off.

    To me the one that turned me off was the environmentalism episode. I don’t recall him taking to a single environmental scientist, and focused the whole episode on the noble art of hippie punching.

  • themunck

    Mine was the anti-smoking episode.

  • LoneWolf343

    I wouldn’t say I was offended, but I made the mistake of watching the capital punishment and the gun ownership episodes back to back. They operate on completely contradictory premises regarding the value of human life.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Eh, there were plenty of things which offended me, most on different levels. Right around the time someone starts justifying slavery, though, they cross one of my taboo lines. I don’t know how to accept someone who values human life so little.

  • aunursa

    Are you referring to Jillette? If yes, can you provide a link?

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    That was the Walmart episode. I equate sweatshop conditions with slavery — the amount being paid doesn’t come close to justifying the work conditions, and such businesses have ways of recouping the loss so that they’re effectively paying no wages at all (easy one: charge the worker for a mandatory uniform and the cleaning and repair associated with keeping it in a certain condition, just deduct it from their wages and take the choices out of their hands entirely) and in fact putting the worker in debt to the company so that they can’t ever stop working.

  • SisterCoyote

    This strikes me as disrespectful, in a world where classic slavery still exists. There are people currently being kidnapped from their homes and forced to work on plantations as kids for zero compensation and brutal punishment – I dunno that sweatshop is really comparable, though both are horrible.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    When the workers in question can be as young as in the single digit age range and be working 80 hours a week, being forced to live in the factory and watching their family members get beaten if they protest the conditions, I honestly don’t see the slightest difference between “classic slavery” and “you work here until you die or we send someone to kill your parents.”

  • Space Marine Becka

    There may be a matter of degree. Most people (myself included) consider debt peonage and chattal slavery to both be slavery and sweatshop workers are often debt peons.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    The fast food episode drove me nuts even though I agreed with a core point Penn was trying to make, that many people knowingly choose fast food because they want a cheap source of lots of calories. But he had to create this false equivalence by showng the cost and how many calories are in a meal at a French restaurant, including (if I remember right) a rich dessert, as if that’s how people who don’t eat fast food eat every night! He also showed some anti-fast food people guessing wrong on which item at Wendy’s or somewhere had the most calories. But why would they know the answer to that? And isn’t the point that fast food is misleading about what is and isn’t healthy?

  • aunursa

    I would think the point of comparing the French restaurant is to show that fast food is an easy target. I presume that few (or none) are protesting the number of calories in the coq a vin or the crème brûlée.

  • themunck

    But those restaurants are an entirely different market. Nobody* eats there as often and they don’t cater to children**. Fast food is an easy target precisely because it”s a big part of the problem. We don’t call the coal industry an easy target in climate change, we call them the actual problem.
    —-
    * Fine, if you must be pedantic, Almost nobody.
    ** See previous footnote.

  • aunursa

    As a libertarian Jillette would probably advise you that if you consider a particular restaurant or chain to be part of the problem, then don’t eat there.

  • Lori

    Yes, he would. And his response would fail to address the actual issue in exactly the same way the Libertarian response often fails to address the actual issue.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    I think that was the point, but it struck me as irrelevant to the actual issues raised by the other side. If I say (rightly or wrongly) that eating McDonalds every night is a bad idea, I don’t see how pointing out that I eat a particularly unhealthy meal every month or so is a meaningful response.

    Like I said above, I mostly agreed with Penn’s points in the episode; I just found his presentation of the opposing side so comically misleading (the French restaurant was just one example of many) that it soured me on the whole show and made me more critical of my positive responses to some of the others topics covered in previous episodes.

    Like Daniel Dennett says, “There’s nothing I like less than bad arguments for a view that I hold dear.”

  • aunursa

    Fair enough. But then the opposition should make clear that they oppose eating fast food on a regular basis, rather than the perception that they are opposed to fast food period.

  • Veleda_k

    I’ll never understand why “equal opportunity offender” is used as a selling point. For one thing, it indicates a lack of coherence. If everyone is offended by what you say, then what kind of meaningful message could you actually have? That might be excusable in, say, a pure comedy act, but if you’re claiming to take on serious issues, then I ask a little more.

    For another thing, I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an “equal opportunity offender” who wasn’t actually just a jerk. It’s easiest to be a jerk if you have little to no set stance, and can jump around, being unpleasant to as many people as possible.

    Then again, I don’t view offending people as a noble goal, so there may be an essential disconnect here.

  • Lori

    The conceit behind praising the equal opportunity offender is that they simply tell the truth and since everyone (except the EOO) believes something that’s not true the EOO will eventually offend everyone. I suppose that’s theoretically possible, but IME you’re right and EOOs tend to just be jerks who like making people angry.

  • aunursa

    If everyone is offended by what you say, then what kind of meaningful message could you actually have?

    Everyone is not offended by what you say. Everyone agrees with something you say, and everyone is offended by something else you say.

    And I don’t get the idea that he wants to offend as many people as possible. Rather, he doesn’t protect a base of supporters whom he’s not willing to offend. He’s willing to call it as he sees it, without regard for the feelings of those who may have previously cheered him when he demolished their political or social villain.
    I appreciate that over those who refuse to take a position that might offend a core base.

  • Lori

    Several issues:

    -He doesn’t really present his views as “calling it as he sees it”, he presents them as being true. Objectively, rationally true.

    -He’s not as even-handed in his handling of various topics as he likes to pretend. He stacks the deck, and in true magician fashion does so in a way designed to keep you from seeing that he’s done it. And that’s after he choses the topics, which obviously has it’s own built in biases. It’s his show so there’s no problem with the fact that it reflects his biases, but it’s not some objective, even-handed display of truth and shouldn’t be treated as such.

    -He does have a core base and he does play to them. The fact that his base isn’t explicitly political doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. He’s an entertainer, he has fans, he wants them to continue to provide him with the lifestyle to which he has become accustomed, he tries to give the people what they want. His fan base has significant overlap with the internet libertarians and BS plays right to them.

    IOW, I think you’re giving him more credit that he deserves. You’re obviously perfectly entitled to like the show, but I don’t think there’s any benefit to make it out to be something that it’s not.

  • Wednesday

    I’ve never seen the show, but I’ve had a lot of bad experiences with _fans_ of the show, to the point that I’m wary of anything associated with either of them. The first thing I heard about P&T’s BS show was that they “proved” anti-semetism never ever occurred in US academia, because Jewish people are over-represented in academia.

  • Lectorel

    . . .what.

    That’s like arguing medieval serfs never experienced abuse because they were over-represented in the population. Total numbers within a group do not matter as much as distribution of power and social influence. That’s why tiny groups of ‘elites’ can maintain control. That’s a fucking basic formula of power and control.

  • Wednesday

    It’s not _quite_ the same thing; over-represented in this context means the proportion of Jewish people in academia
    is higher than the proportion of Jewish people in the general
    population. Over-represented doesn’t mean majority, or even plurality.

    My guess/hope is that Penn & Teller were arguing that _at present_ there is probably not systemic anti-semetism within US academia on the grounds that if there were, they would expect Jewish people to be under-represented in academic jobs, rather than over. That’s the closest to a rational argument I can reverse-engineer from what their fanboy told me. (This is still not conclusive, as illustrated by the fact that people of East Asian descent are definitely
    over-represented in some fields of study in college in the US, but also
    experience systemic discrimination in college.)

    It’s still a spectacularly bad piece of logic fail to go from “this
    piece of data does not necessarily suggest systemic discrimination at present” to
    “any and all claims of discrimination against Jewish people in US
    academia at any point in history are false.”

  • Hth

    I think Jillette is making the common mistake of confusing “religion” with “the specific tenets and historical development of Abrahamic religion.” Obviously *Christianity* wouldn’t be recreated in the same way a second time; it’s too much a product all the way down of its specific cultural contexts (note the plural — of its *many* cultural contexts). Same with any one specific religion. But the evidence is irrefutable that religiosity in general — the belief that the mundane world interacts constantly with a nonordinary reality and the search for ways to improve the relationship between Here and Over There — is a human universal. It wasn’t passed in an unbroken tradition from some dude who thought up religion into the present — or at least, that’s a pretty startling claim, if it’s the claim Jillette is making. Religious sensibility seems to be much like language capacity — a capacity hardwired into the human brain that has been simply too adaptive in various ways for people *not* to make use of. (Note that I’m making no argument here as to objective truth. Means of perceiving the world can be adaptive and wrong or adaptive and right, from an empirical standpoint.)

  • Carstonio

    My wiring must be different, because religion has never seemed real to me. Even in my teens, the idea of a god or a “nonordinary reality” seemed like nothing more than an intellectual construct, although I didn’t know how to articulate it.

    In the years since, I’ve realized that concepts and constructs in general don’t seem real or understandable to me. I can only appreciate money if it’s in a tangible form. Celebrities don’t seem real if I never meet them in person. (Imagine a society where all famous people were secretly CGI or holograms.) Even with a simple task of finding an unfamiliar product at a store, I have difficulty finding it on the shelf I don’t have a mental image of the product. I’d be lost if someone asked me to buy rutabagas, which I’ve never even seen.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    (Imagine a society where all famous people were secretly CGI or holograms.)

    1. That would be truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

    2. Fairly sure I saw that Macross sequel.

    3. Fairly sure I saw that early 90s NBC miniseries.

    4. Justin Bieber was created by man. He evolved. He rebelled. And he has a plan.

  • http://www.nicolejleboeuf.com/index.php Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    (Imagine a society where all famous people were secretly CGI or holograms.)

    1. That would be truly outrageous. Truly, truly, truly outrageous.

    I see what you did there. (And now I have an earworm, thank you VERY much.)

  • caryjamesbond

    I THINK this is the bottom of the actual atheist discussion, so I’ll post here.

    First- there is some evidence that a tendency towards religion is somewhat hardwired- I’ll just leave the link to Bruce Hood’s wikipedia page and let y’all do the clicking.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Hood_(psychologist)

    Second, atheism as a religion is something I’ve thought a lot about as an atheist, and I do think that it is a religion. Primarily because atheists, as opposeed to agnostics, make definitive statements about the existence of god. Agnosticism is the properly scientific viewpoint, because, scientifically speaking, a god or gods is not unknown, it is UNKNOWABLE. We can at least try to test for certain supernatural entities, but given that practically any god is defined as immeasurably more powerful than a ghost, there is no way, in practice, to test for a god. Even your weaker pagan type gods would be able to confound my readings without difficulty.

    From a scientific perspective, we cannot know if there is a god. Therefore, to say that we know, with certainty, that there IS no god (the most basic tenant of any sort of atheistic belief) is a statement that goes beyond what is knowable through pure scientific inquiry. Therefore it is a statement of belief as opposed to something that can either be demonstrated from current knowledge or is potentially demonstrable from future knowledge.

    tl;dr: statements about god(s) are not scientifically testable. Therefore to make definitive statements about the existence of gods is an extra-scientific statement, therefore is a belief, therefore atheism classifies as a religion.

  • dpolicar

    Saying that we know with certainty that there is no god is not the most basic tenet of any atheistic belief.

  • caryjamesbond

    I would disagree- what separates atheism from agnosticism or nontheism is the definitive statement- agnostics say that the question is unanswerable. Atheists say the question is answered- and the answer is no.

    Can you give an example of another basic tenet of atheism?

  • Daniel

    That’s not “atheism” that’s “antitheism” Atheism just means you don’t believe in God, not that you believe there isn’t one- it’s an absence of belief not a belief in an absence. I am atheist because I think there is insufficient evidence for me to believe there is a God of any kind- that doesn’t mean I actively believe one doesn’t exist just that no one has proved any of them do.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I’d say atheism, like any school of thought, comes in different forms per the exact beliefs of the people you ask. I picture kind of a sliding scale between being anti-theistic and being “technically agnostic” (where the answer is “in theory, gods could exist, but I don’t think they do”).

    I tend to think my own beliefs–pantheism–overlap with atheism as well, although I’ve contemplated that the primary difference is largely one of semantics.

  • caryjamesbond

    ” Atheism just means you don’t believe in God, not that you believe there isn’t one”

    I cannot parse that sentence in any way so that the first half does not mean exactly the same thing as the second half.

    If you don’t believe in gods, you believe there are no gods. The only way I can separate those two clauses if is the first clauses uses “don’t believe in” as meaning “have no trust in”- sort of a Malcolm Reynolds thing.

    The wikipedia article has a nice rundown of things:

    “Atheism is, in a broad sense, the rejection of belief in the existence of deities.In a narrower sense, atheism is specifically the position that there are no deities. Most inclusively, atheism is simply the absence of belief that any deities exist.”

    If you have an absence of belief in things, it means you don’t think there are any of them. I have an absence of belief in Gods- which by definition, means I think there aren’t any.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    When someone says “God”, I substitute that for “the god of the Abrahamic religions.” That would allow it to make sense, although I don’t really get “atheism = disbelieves Christianity but agnostic toward, say, Shintoism.”

  • Daniel

    “If you don’t believe in gods, you believe there are no gods.”
    No you don’t. The first can be completely neutral- I don’t believe in uyiuoip. That could be because I don’t understand what that is, I don;t have any reason to think it’s there, no one has ever explained to me what uyiuoip means or is, I have never seen it etc.

    To believe there are no Gods means you know and understand the definitions of all of those possible deities and you actively think they do not exist.
    In my case I have never seen anything that could only be explained by God, and not by anything else. I don’t have an active belief in God’s non-existence, but I don’t have an active belief that there is a God either, because everything works perfectly well without there being one.

    I don’t know the details of all the Gods in every pantheon in every religion that has ever existed, therefore I cannot say that I believe none of those Gods exist. However, in not being aware of them or having only a very sketchy knowledge of them I also cannot say I believe in them. Atheism is literally “without God” so any position that does not require God or A God to explain things is atheist, even bullshit that makes no sense at all. If it has no god in it, it is atheist.

    Therefore, atheism is the absence of a belief rather than the presence of a negative one. It entails nothing else- you don’t have to believe evolution, the big bang, or relativity to not believe in God. Therefore as it entails no actual belief at all it is not religious.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    Agreed 100%.

  • dpolicar

    Can you give an example of another basic tenet of atheism?

    That our confidence that there exist any gods is properly extremely low.

  • caryjamesbond

    Then thats, essentially, agnosticism. If you’re saying “We’re pretty sure there aren’t any deities” then you’re saying “there is a slight chance there may be deities” in which case you’re functionally saying that you don’t KNOW the answer, which is agnosticism.

    Atheism, like theism, is a positive statement about the nature of reality. Theism is stating “There is at least one god” atheism is saying “There is no god.” You can argue whether or not its a religion, but to be an atheist requires the definitive statement “There are no gods” “a-theos” to get all greek about it- “not god”. That’s what the “a-” prefix.

    I’m not trying to be exclusionary, but words mean something, and all beliefs have boundary lines. You can’t say you’re a Christian and then worship Kali on Sundays, you can’t be a Hindu and say there is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet, and you can’t be an atheist without saying “There are no gods.”

  • dpolicar

    On this model, I am agnostic about whether the sun will rise tomorrow, agnostic about whether the guy currently sleeping in my bed is really my husband, agnostic about whether my name is really David, agnostic about whether I have two legs.

    I mean, I’m about as certain of all these things as it’s reasonably possible to be, but, hey, I’m a human being with a human brain. The chance that I suffer from some weird neurological glitch that causes that certainty even when they aren’t true is small, but non-zero.

    So if saying I don’t KNOW the answer, rather than that my confidence in the alternatives is properly extremely low, means I’m agnostic on these questions (as you suggest) then I’m agnostic on these questions.

    But this is just not the way people use the word! Nobody I know would say on this basis that I’m agnostic about my name, my husband, or how many legs I have.

    As you say, words mean things, and that simply isn’t what “agnostic” means.

    So I reject your model on that basis, and go on comfortably identifying as atheists people whose confidence in the existence of gods is sufficiently low.

  • hf

    If you’re saying “We’re pretty sure there aren’t any deities” then
    you’re saying “there is a slight chance there may be deities” in which case you’re functionally saying that you don’t KNOW the answer

    No, you’re not. I don’t know what you’re trying to say. You can’t simultaneously argue that “science” is the only rational way to examine the question, and that “science” excludes the only known way of extending logic to deal with uncertainty (ie, with any question outside of pure math).

    If you mean to say, ‘The evidence, together with some absurdly basic assumptions, demands that we assign theism a vanishingly small but nonzero probability,’ then we agree.

  • Nick Gotts

    What is this “irrefutable evidence” of which you speak? Surely if religiosity were a “human universal” atheists wouldn’t exist – or at least, atheism would appear as a severe disability, as lack of language does.

  • LoneWolf343

    Au contrar, Jillette believes his atheism quite religiously.

  • Nick Gotts

    Yeah yeah.

    War is Peace
    Freedom is Slavery
    Ignorance is Strength
    Atheism is Religion.

  • Nathaniel

    Geez, I thought that the people on this site would be smarter than to lend credence to the notion that baldness is a hair color.

    And if calling Atheism a religion is supposed to be an insult, what does that make religion?

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Calling atheism a religion isn’t an insult. Those words are antonyms, not synonyms. Words mean things.

  • LoneWolf343

    Not really. The problem is that atheism is something very specific, while religion is something very broad, and its edges are fuzzy. Anyone who knows anything practical about the various religious faiths would say there is very much in common between Christianity and Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or even Judaism, yet we express all of these ideas with a single word. “Atheism” and “Religion” are not on the same level of abstraction, so you really can’t say they are opposed to each other. In fact, Atheism could easily be construed as a religion based entirely on how you define “religion,” and it seems to me that many atheists want to define “religion” as “everything that isn’t atheism,” which is really arbitrary. I call atheism a religion because it has a declared interest in the things outside of the physical world, even if it is interested enough to deny that such things exist. You might say that it is like calling bald a hair color, but I would ask in return if you are asked on a form your hair color, do you write “bald,” or do you write “This question enforces follicle-normalcy, and I am very much offended?” One of these is a rational answer, and the other is missing the point of having no religion at all.

    Besides, agnosticism is less of a religion than atheism could ever be.

  • Lori

    If I’m bald and I’m asked for my hair color I write “none”, and atheism isn’t a religion.

  • Freak

    Don’t most bald people have eyebrows, maybe a mustache or beard for men? (I think bald as a hair style would be more accurate.)

  • Lori

    Yes, most bald people have places other than the top of their heads. In most contexts were you’re asked to supply hair color on a form though they’re asking about the hair on the top of your head.

  • themunck

    It’s often different, anyway. Case in point, my hair is brown-ish, while my beard is significantly closer to red.

  • Carstonio

    A positive belief that gods don’t exist would likely qualify as a religion, but that doesn’t mean that atheism in general is a religion. I don’t have the answer to that question – I say instead that atheism counts as a religion only in First Amendment terms, where religious freedom includes the freedom to be an atheist.

  • Daniel

    Atheism isn’t a belief. It doesn’t entail anything. You can be completely irrational and not believe in God.

    “I would ask in return if you are asked on a form your hair color, do you write “bald,” or do you write “This question enforces follicle-normalcy, and I am very much offended?”

    I would simply tick the box marked “none” or leave the space blank, as I think most people would in your analogy.

    Atheism therefore doesn’t have “a declared interest in the things outside the natural world” because that interest has entails a belief that there is something outside the natural world. That would be an actual belief, which atheism cannot contain given as it means only “not having a belief in God”, it doesn’t mean “having a belief that there isn’t a God” or “believing in other supernatural things that aren’t a deity”.

    Given that, agnosticism is basically the same thing- the belief or otherwise in a supernatural being that rules the universe is entirely irrelevant as they live their lives without that being taking any role in their decision making. I know many people do identify themselves as agnostic, but to all intents and purposes that means they live without God taking any part in their lives and therefore God has the same role as for atheists. None.

    Other people have put this much more pithily than I have, but this “atheism is a religion” thing shows a total misunderstanding of what the word means, and I think it is generally quite cynically deployed by the religious to suggest some form of hypocrisy on the part of non-believers.

    “there is very much in common between Christianity and Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, or even Judaism, yet we express all of these ideas with a single word”

    What’s the “even Judaism” bit mean? Of course it has a lot in common with Christianity- Christianity began as a Jewish cult. And of course it has a lot in common with Islam- all three religions believe in the same God, have narratives set in the same locations, and feature many of the same protagonists. This is why I find it very interesting to know why you’d believe in one of them instead of either of the other two.

  • LoneWolf343

    “What’s the “even Judaism” bit mean? Of course it has a lot in common
    with Christianity- Christianity began as a Jewish cult. And of course it
    has a lot in common with Islam- all three religions believe in the same
    God, have narratives set in the same locations, and feature many of the
    same protagonists. This is why I find it very interesting to know why
    you’d believe in one of them instead of either of the other two.”

    Well, I would say that the Devil is in the details. Yes, they are similar, as they should be similar, but the differences are more important than the similarities when it comes to picking a religion. In fact, the differences are why we pick anything.

  • Daniel

    I was getting at your use of the word “even” for Judaism, implying that it’s surprising that the other two Abrahamic faiths have anything in common with it. And I accept that the differences are more important than the similarities when it comes to choosing one, which is why I’d like to know which differences would make someone pick one over the others. I’d guess mostly the deciding factor is which is the most common and powerful in the society you live in.

  • LoneWolf343

    I used the word “even” because even thought they are similar, they are different enough to worth noting.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    Answering “bald” when asked your hair color isn’t defining baldness as a hair color, it’s defining the question as unanswerable or irrelevant.

    Change the terms a bit. “What is your favorite color?” “I’ve been blind since birth.” “Okay, so Blind is a favorite color.”

  • themunck

    Why do we have favorite colours, though? Are our favorite colours what they are because they’re aesthetically pleasing to us, because of what we associate them with, or a combination of both? And if it’s one of the two latter, then being blind doesn’t invalidate the question. What does this have to do with the actual point regarding atheism and religion? Nothing, I just wanted to be pedantic.*
    —-
    * And also, yes. This line of thought was indeed inspired by Lilly Satou’s path in Katawa Shoujo.

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam

    I’m glad you confirmed it, or I would have had to ask, because the reasoning seemed to lead directly to that source.

  • BaseDeltaZero

    Atheism is a religion like zero is a number.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    So, “It just is, absolutely, and only the mathematically illiterate think otherwise?”

  • Michael Pullmann

    It is the way he does it.
    As an aside, I’ve wondered if fervent Eastern atheists spend all their time railing against Hinduism or Buddhism.

  • Nick Gotts

    It’s the way who does what?

    You know this “internet” thingy? There are actually eastern atheists on it, believe it or not. See for example here.

  • histrogeek

    Not to get too deep into this, simply because “human universal” is a pretty iffy thing in itself, “religion” (another problematic term since it has such a wide variety of applications it’s not difficult to connect a lot of often contradictory activity under its umbrella) is a common feature in all known societies prior to the modern era.

    That doesn’t make it “universal” for all individuals, but I would say that it is extremely common for nearly all human societies. Emile Durkheim point out that some basic religious features, paticularly rituals and division of the world into “sacred” and “profane,” were being reproduced by secular societies from national governments, to socialists, to various secret societies. (He was working in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century. If anything the behavior of governments based on atheistic ideologies in the 20th Century has tended to confirm his hypothesis.)

    I’d say religious features in the Durkheim mode are common enough to point to some type of emotional hard-wiring that is common enough in human beings to be repeatedly adapted in widely different societies.

  • Nick Gotts

    Obviously, religiosity is a universal human capacity, but that doesn’t mean there is religious “hard-wiring” in the brain maintained by selection, which is what I take “human universal” to mean. Take a look at Phil Zuckerman’s Society without God: What the least religious nations can tell us about contentment, and this survey of the relationship between religiosity and personal insecurity at a societal level. Basically, when you have a properly-functioning welfare state, religiosity declines steeply. Can you point to another putative “universal” that has declined so sharply in certain modern societies?

  • histrogeek

    It may well be. Arguably though the Gulf emirates have the best welfare systems in the world (arguable because “citizen” and “inhabitant” are more pronounced that in the West) but are examples of the most repressive practice of religion in the world.

    I’m not arguing that it’s impossible to have a society without religion, just that it hasn’t been the case in the past. As I said (or at least meant to say), I’m pretty skeptical about human universals (that is a trait physical or psychological that is innate to all humans but not other animals) in general. Individuals are too varied for that. So to answer your question with a question, I’d need to know what counts as a universal?

    Xenophobia and class oppression, arguable universals, seem to decline considerably when people are better educated and society is prosperous, though they are harder to measure than religious practice.

    I do think though that your point, correct as it is in the West, is not quite germane to what Penn Jillette was saying. The decline in religiosity follows the creation of effective welfare states as religion’s role as a safety net becomes redundant without any clear new function. It doesn’t precede it. Therefore hypothetically eliminating existing religion would not produce that effect. Maybe, maybe not.

  • Nick Gotts

    It’s hard to judge religiosity in a society where expressing scepticism could get you killed; and states with high levels of inequality (very high in the Gulf states) tend to generate high levels of insecurity and social pathologies (on this see Wilkinson and Pickett’s The Spirit Level).

    I’d count as a universal a feature dependent on specific brain structures existing across all human populations, and produced andor maintained by selection. So language certainly counts, as does sexuality.

    I’d agree with you w.r.t. what Jillette was saying, if you’ve got that right – I think the direction of causation is more from other features of societies to levels of religiosity, not the other way round. But wasn’t he saying that the current forms of religion would not reappear, rather than that religion itself wouldn’t?

  • Carstonio

    My understanding is that those emirates are oligarchies. Perhaps the effects of the welfare systems are undermined by not just the religious repression but also the lack of true representative government.

  • histrogeek

    I agree. I think that an empowered people producing a welfare state out of their government (emphasis on the their) leads to the contentment described, not just an efficient welfare state. Those systems also leads to a strong sense of community and less alienation from the government.

    The communist systems were sort of the same problem as the emirates, basic material needs more or less met through a welfare system, but one that was imposed from above causing it to be alienating and repressive .

  • MaryKaye

    Reproduction. Many if not most modern societies have birth rates below replacement.

    I think humans have innate capacities and capabilities and drives, but that the range of their expression is almost unimaginably vast and complex.

    I am also skeptical of the definitions of “religiosity” in these studies; as a Pagan I am very familiar with definitions of religion that exclude my practice completely, and my atheist Pagan friends, even more so. (The fact that “atheist Pagan” and “atheist Jew” are meaningful labels to quite a lot of people–self-labels in many cases, I know some of both–suggests that the question is quite complex.)

  • Nick Gotts

    Reproduction is not a putative universal capacity; at least I’ve never seen it described as such.The desire to reproduce might be, but I’d take the fact that many people now choose to be child-free as evidence that it isn’t one: sexuality is, and in the absence of contraception, that sufficed to keep rates of reproduction up.

    It rather looks as if there is no conceivable empirical evidence that could change your mind about whether there is an innate religious drive. Can you specify anything that would?

    What definition of religiosity would you suggest for such studies?

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    I’m curious: what is an “atheist Pagan”?

  • histrogeek

    I can’t speak for Mary Kaye or her friends, but my understanding is that atheist Pagans view their ritual practice as having a value that is more psychological than effectually supernatural or that they view Pagan moral systems as ones to follow without believing the gods worshipped are anything but symbollic.

  • MaryKaye

    Most modern Western people tend to define “what religions are like” in Christian-centric terms: religions are primarily what you believe and secondarily what moral code you follow. This is not universally how religions are defined, and is not how the community I belonged to defined our Paganism; we were more ritual-centric: a Pagan is someone who participates in Pagan ritual and finds it of value.

    So our atheist Pagans were people who participated in ritual but did not believe in gods. (Some of them, I think, did believe in magic; others did not.) When it came up in discussion, they tended to treat the gods as symbols. We found that it was not necessary to have agreement on anything but ritual practice, and a good thing too, as even theistic Pagans are in wild disagreement over the nature of the gods. (For example, we had several adherents of “all the gods are One God”, several people who strongly disagreed, and several who were agnostic or conflicted or didn’t find the question meaningful.)

    There are tons of reasons someone might do this; for the psychological effects, for connection with the community, for enjoyment (ritual is fun for some people), for artistic expression, etc.

    Someone who attends Catholic Mass because they love the music and the pageantry is probably not Catholic, as that’s a belief-centered faith. Someone who performs Pagan rituals because they love the music and the pageantry might well be Pagan (I would ask if they define themselves that way).

    This is why I’m skeptical of surveys of “religiosity”. I can’t define religion very well myself but I do know that Western default definitions are *very* belief-centric and if that doesn’t capture my own practice well I don’t have much confidence in it capturing anything else (except Christianity).

  • histrogeek

    Karen Armstrong called this orthopraxy (right practice) as opposed to the more common Christian expectation of orthodoxy (right belief).

    Armstrong actually talking about Islam but it applies to modern Paganism and my own Anglican tradition to a large extent.

    I think Christianity has badly harmed itself getting bogged down in the minutia of very specific belief and expelling all that isn’t that belief to outer darkness. The tradition comes from Hebrew monotheism though Judaism had several guards against that temptation, but also Greek philosophy, which provided the tools to be super-specific, and Roman imperialism, which provided the desire for uniformity. it’s become a very bad model for religion in pretty much every way.

  • chrisalgoo

    Rituals might stick around, just because rituals can be really fun/calming/other good things.

  • histrogeek

    That was sort of Durkheim’s point. And to a large extent I think he realized the dead end anthropological studies of religion was crashing into by concentrating on belief apart from communal practice. (This was the high point of imperialism and super-judgmental studies of indigenous people, not that M. “Elementary Forms”-read primitive- was immune.)

  • MaryKaye

    Sexuality is expressed in every human society and culture. Yet some individual people are asexual. I don’t think this makes sexuality a purely cultural construct; it’s something that is innate and widespread in humans, but not universal. Hardly anything is universal in the sense that every human has it. But the religious drive is extremely widespread, like the sexual drive, and would seem just about as hard to eradicate.

    It’s very possible, however, that there are things which would satisfy the religious drive which wouldn’t be perceived as religion by most modern people.

  • histrogeek

    OK, you did that way, way better than me.

  • Nick Gotts

    See my reply to histrogeek above. If religiosity were “just about as hard to eradicate” as sexuality, it’s hard to see how it could have declined as much as it has.

    Your second paragraph looks to me like a universal get-out clause. If things that “wouldn’t be perceived as religion” can satisfy the “religious drive”, it’s question-begging to call it a “religious drive”.

  • dpolicar

    At some point this becomes a purely semantic question.

    I mean, OK, maybe we agree not to call it a “religious drive”; instead, maybe we call it “boolybooly,” and we all agree that boolybooly exists, and has been a strong and differential driving/enabling force behind the popularity of human religions throughout history, though boolybooly might also be satisfied by other things.

    Is that formulation different in some important way from MaryKaye’s formulation?

  • Nick Gotts

    Yes. Because it allows for the possibility that religion could disappear altogether.

  • dpolicar

    Whereas MaryKaye’s formulation merely allows for the possibility that religion could be replaced by something which wouldn’t be perceived as religion by most modern people.

    I’m not sure how I could tell those two conditions apart, or why I ought to prefer one to the other.

  • Nick Gotts

    Maybe you’re right; but I wouldn’t agree that there’s good evidence such a “drive” exists, whether you call it religious or boolybooly.
    (Added later)
    One of the remarkable things about the Zuckerman book I linked to is that a large proportion of non-religious Danes and Swedes don’t seem to have any apparent substitute to satisfy this supposed drive: they just get on with their lives without bothering about the “meaning of life” or whatever. Religion is gone or vestigial, and they don’t miss it.

  • dpolicar

    Excellent! That’s a much more interesting basis for disagreement than what we ought to call the thing.

    So would you say, as MaryKaye suggested is the alternative, that religious orientation is a purely cultural construct with no innate widespread cause in humans? Or do you have a third option in mind? (Or are you merely interested in “drive” vs “not-drive” and not in the root causes of religious orientation more generally?)

  • Nick Gotts

    So would you say, as MaryKaye suggested is the alternative, that
    religious orientation is a purely cultural construct with no innate
    widespread cause in humans?

    Given the huge cross-cultural variation in religiosity, yes, that seems most likely; although as I’ve already said, the capacity to develop religiosity is clearly innate, just as the capacities to read, write, trade on the financial exchanges, play chess and develop a sceptical mindset are.

  • dpolicar

    (nods) OK, thanks for clarifying.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Which sounds sort of uncomfortably like what Nietzsche predicted would happen if some great man (hint hint) didn’t take life by the balls and show mankind how to take control of his own destiny and become the Ubermensch and all that jazz.

  • Nick Gotts

    Why “uncomfortably”? What do you see as wrong with people getting on with their lives without bothering about its “meaning”?

  • Lupus753

    An odd thing about religion is that even when it seems to go away, it comes back with huge fervency. It varies greatly between social classes – I believe that no one really took it seriously during most of the middle ages, even when “theologist” and “scientist” were essentially synonyms. In other words, I’m unwilling to ever say it has declined, or if such a decline is permanent.

  • Nick Gotts

    What is the evidence for your belief that “no one really took it seriously during most of the middle ages”? What about the Crusades, heresy trials, cathedral building, monasticism, pilgrimages, religiously-motivated persecution of the Jews? All these continued for centuries: the Middle Ages were saturated in religion. Incidentally, the term “scientist” did not exist during the Middle Ages.

    More recently, there is clear evidence of a sustained decline in religiosity in Europe, Australasia, Canada and to a lesser extent the USA over the past century: in what people say about their beliefs, in church attendance, in the closure of churches, in priestly “vocations”. For Europe, where the evidence is best, see here and here. Just in the 10 years between the 2001 and 2011 censuses in the UK, the proportion of those identifying as Christian has declined from 72% to 59% (and no, the difference has not been made up by the growth in other religions – it’s gone almost entirely to “no religion”).

    Of course, you will always be able to deny that the decline is permanent – such a claim is by its nature unfalsifiable; but if you are at all interested in actual evidence, I really don’t see how you can maintain the claim that it has not declined.

  • alfgifu

    Speaking as someone in the UK who participated in both the 2001 and 2011 census, I’m fairly sure that the fall in the numbers of those identifying as Christian was to do with a general shift in the default option.

    There’s this perception that the UK is ‘Christian’ and its one of our defining characteristics – we have more churches than mosques, we have an established Christian church, we have a lot of history in which religion = Christianity.

    Anecdotally (so, you know, caveats), lots of people who are not believers and would self-identify as atheists if pressed on their actual position, put ‘Christian’ down even in 2011. These people, and those like them (who would have been called ‘Christian but not religious’ in the past) are now more comfortable putting ‘none’ instead.

    So I see this as a measure of how socially acceptable it is to not belong to the dominant religion, not necessarily a measure of how many people would a) consider themselves a believer, b) take part in religious activities, and/or c) self-identify as religious to their friends or people they trust.

  • Nick Gotts

    Speaking as someone in the UK who participated in both the 2001 and 2011
    census, I’m fairly sure that the fall in the numbers of those
    identifying as Christian was to do with a general shift in the default
    option.

    Also speaking as someone in the UK who participated in both censuses, I’m fairly sure you’re wrong. Of course, the fact that we both took part in both censuses is irrelevant, but if it was relevant, our participation clearly cancels out, so can you produce any actual evidence for your view? The decline is in line with the broader multi-decadal trend across Europe, for which I provided references. What appears to be the case from those references is that self-identified religious identity is fairly stable once one is an adult, but each cohort has been less religious than the last.

    Church attendance in the UK has been in steady decline, according to this Christian source, while the average age of attendees has been going up. So there’s direct evidence contradicting your view with regard to religious activities.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    The example I would have used for another “as good as universal” for humans would be marriage. Not everyone gets married or has the desire to do so, but almost every culture has had marriage in some form or other.

  • http://xaonon.dyndns.org/ Jim Wisniewski

    That’s not a mistake, that’s exactly the point. If all scientific knowledge today were wiped out, people *would* eventually re-discover the same, specific pieces of knowledge. Not all at once, or in the same order, or even with the same names – but pre-Reset and post-Reset sciences would both converge towards the same real-world answers, since they describe the same physical system. Future scientists would eventually discover (even if they described it with different notation) that the mass of the electron is 9e-31 kg, and that water is composed of two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom, and that plants make food via photosynthesis, etc, etc.

  • Baby_Raptor

    I am an Atheist. I call lie to your “irrefutable proof” that humanity is universally religious.

  • Morilore

    MICHELE AND MARCUS BACHMANN HAVING SEX

    Thanks for that image, Fred, I don’t know what I would have done without it.

  • http://www.aeryllou.tumblr.com/ Aeryl

    Sleep easier?

  • LoneWolf343

    Oh, relax, is doesn’t happen that often.

  • John (not McCain)

    They probably do it only after he’s watched an episode of Sons of Anarcy.

  • Nick Gotts

    And set aside the silliness of thinking that because religion is rooted
    in the context of human experience and human history it must be nonsense

    That’s not why it’s nonsense: science is equally rooted in the context of human experience and human history. It’s nonsense because it has no reality check.

  • themunck

    2. Gone, but never forgotten. Rock on, Freddie.

    5. Female Pleasure Machines? Is that what we’re calling it now?

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    Well, in some states they’re legally designated “marital aids”, so there’s that alternative.

  • themunck

    I…suppose I can see the reasoning behind that, but I must admit, I wonder what’s wrong with the word “dildo”. Is it just that it sounds a bit vulgar?

  • Daniel

    Also “marital aids” suggests a dildo will actually help your marriage overall- as though when you’re having problems paying the bills, or you’ve had a row about the in-laws or you need to decide on a punishment for the kid you pick up a dildo like a magic eight ball and it might just give you an answer.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    To be fair, sex toys can at least distract you and relieve stress. So there’s that.

  • Daniel

    Again my brain’s not functioning properly- I’ve got hay fever and have sneezed it so hard against the inside of my skull it’s pretty dazed. So reading that comment I’ve got an image of a couple sitting fretting over a table full of unpaid bills and a dildo doing a little dance to distract them and relieve their stress in a wholesome nineteen fifties sitcom setting. They smile happily “Oh Dildo!”

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    *snerk* I used to bill some vibrators as, “Does everything but your dishes…”

  • Daniel

    That’s why, to quote Jeremy Kyle, you should “put something on the end of it!” – in this case a sponge. Turn that baby up to 11 and apply it to plates, saucers, cups- it’ll even clean inside vases! I’m Billy Mays for CockBlock, the dildo-based cleaning accessory to really aid your marriage! Cleans wet or dry, but it’s best when wet to be honest.

  • Launcifer

    Bang and the dirt is gone?

  • Daniel

    You little bastard…that’s brilliant.

  • Launcifer

    Madison Avenue here I come…

  • Daniel

    They were bloody awful and I’d only infect you with this because you beat me to a brilliant joke. Let this be a lesson- I will, periodically, seek revenge for imagined defeats:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tn-qE-h7s84

    I’ve almost certainly lowered the tone. I am sorry.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Well it is; marriage is about sex; that’s the only thing it’s about. That’s why we can’t allow TEH GAYZ to get married, because if my precious child sees two men being married that is LITERALLY THE EXACT SAME THING as showing him hardcore gay porn.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    If you want to get technical, a dildo is a more-or-less penis-shaped toy without any mechanical bits, while a vibrator may or may not be penis-shaped, but definitely has vibrating mechanical bits.

    I worked at two sex toy shops.

  • Daniel

    simultaneously?

  • Daniel

    I notice from your profile you’re Canadian so… was either of those shops in Dildo in Newfoundland?

  • Launcifer

    I used to have a pet Newfy, so I’d just like to take a moment to tell you that reading this gave me a truly horrifying image from which I may never recover, m’kay?

  • Daniel

    Mwah ha ha ha ha! Technically Dildo is in Newfoundland and Labrador so there may be a dog involved too.

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Consecutively, and no.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    It’s an issue of labeling and accuracy.

    “Marital aids” is a nice marketing euphemism for “sex toys” in conservative areas, because it implies only married people are having sex, and that these items are used only as part of marital intercourse.

    The other thing to remember is that It’s a broad category that includes not just dildos, but vibrators, lubricants, and other items.

  • Lori

    In some places a “dildo” is illegal because dildo is all about the nasty, nasty S-E-X, but marital aids are not illegal because who could be against aiding marriage?

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    And sometimes the euphemisms are even sillier: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GaUl6x1YXpg

  • Lori

    I miss Molly so much.

  • themunck

    *A shattering crack is heard as themunck’s jaw hits the floor at terminal velocity* But…that’s…what…how…why…gah?!
    That’s insane!

  • Lori

    That’s Texas politics.

  • themunck

    But that’s…I mean, I knew stuff was bad, but at least I thought the discrimination and “moral legislation” was at least trying to be effective, but this…This calls for an official statement.

    Dear United States of America. It has been brought to my attention that your country has a law that forbids a full 8% of your entire population of buying a dildo, with said item being referred to -only- by name and not function, thereby making the law meaningless. I am sorry to say that this, especially combined with your refusal to abandon the first-past-the-post voting system, or the electoral count system that has resulted in 5%* of your presidents being elected despite more popular alternatives, is the final straw and has tipped the scales. I, and the people I represent** hereby consider the Unites States of America, to be more insane than the State of Japan. This state of affairs will continue until such a time that you’ve either fixed your electoral system, changed to the metric system, or banished Texas or Florida from the union. Other metrics may also once again tip the scales, but I can’t think of any off the top of my head.

    -themunck, random internet commentator.
    —-
    * 1876, 1888 and 2000
    ** Absolutely nobody.

  • JustoneK

    that is amazing. and everyone _in_ the session is just cracking the hell up. how is “instructional aid” for safe sex better when at the same time it’s all abstinence only?

    (anyone know the etymology of the word dildo, incidentally? it’s always been one of those inherently silly words to me.)

  • http://anonsam.wordpress.com/ AnonymousSam
  • Daniel

    The etymology of the word dildo is unclear. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) describes the word as being of “obscure origin”.[1] One theory is that it originally referred to the phallus-shaped peg used to lock an oar in position on a dory (small boat). It would be inserted into a hole on the side of the boat, and is very similar in shape to the modern toy. It is possible that the sex toy takes its name from this sailing tool, which also lends its
    name to the town of Dildo and the nearby Dildo Island in Newfoundland, Canada. Others suggest the word is a corruption of Italian diletto (for “delight”).[2]

    According to the OED, the word’s first appearance in English was in Thomas Nashe’s The Choice of Valentines or the Merie Ballad of Nash his Dildo (c. 1593).[Note 1] The word also appears in Ben Jonson’s 1610 play, The Alchemist. William Shakespeare used the term once in The Winter’s Tale, believed to be from 1610 or 1611, but not printed until the First Folio of 1623.[Note 2]

    The phrase “Dil Doul”, referring to a man’s penis, appears in the 17th century folk ballad “The Maids Complaint for want of a Dil Doul”.[3] The song was among the many in the library of Samuel Pepys.

    Olisbos (pl. olisboi) is a classical term for a dildo, from the Greek ὄλισβος.[4] i.e. a dildo that was usually made by leather. A godemiché is a dildo in the shape of a penis with scrotum.

    In some modern languages, the names for dildo can be more descriptive, creative or subtle—note, for instance, the Russian фаллоимитатор (“phallic imitator”), the Hindi darshildo, the Spanish consolador (“consoler”), and the Welsh cala goeg (“fake penis”).

    With thanks to Wikipedia.

  • Daniel

    Seeing the woman in the sex shop denying they sold dildos with a case full of them in front of her made me wish it was John Cleese and Michael Palin instead “it’s not much of a sleaze shop, is it?” “Finest in the district!”

    I want to get this straight too- big government, which is bad, is one that intrudes on a person’s life to an unnecessary degree. Small government, which is good, is one that doesn’t intrude except to tell you how and with what you may wank. Is this correct?

    And finally, do Texans think there may be some questions that desperately need answering when it is easier to buy six guns than six dildos? And do they think there may be any link between the legislated difficulty in wanking and the enthusiasm for guns?

  • http://shiftercat.livejournal.com/ ShifterCat

    Or “adult novelties”.

  • Matri

    They were originally medical treatment devices.

  • Baby_Raptor

    So does that mean that us non-married people cannot have them?

    If so, I might be in trouble.

  • Daniel

    I’m pretty sure there was an eighties synthpop band called “Female Pleasure Machines”. Lots and lots of neon. And keyboards you could play like a guitar.

  • themunck

    I believe the term is “keytar”. ^^

  • Daniel

    Thank you. I have absolutely no idea why this happened, but reading the word “keytar” made an image of Nicholas Cage playing one leap into my head.

  • Daniel

    Possibly because of this.

  • Matri

    … dafuq?

  • Launcifer

    Y’know, I’m starting to suspect that there’s a correlation between the evolution of Nicholas Cage’s wigs in film and the general collapse of respect for America on the world stage.

  • Jessica_R

    “Female Pleasure Machine” is my least favorite Scissor Sisters track TBH.

  • http://kingdomofsharks.wordpress.com/ D Johnston

    There, I think, we have the set-up for at least two — but probably many more — speculative novels.

    Interesting that this came up. I’m currently working on a post-apocalyptic story where, due to the response to the catastrophe, most of the survivors were teenagers or younger. As a result, there are few people who have a good memory of the old world.

    Originally, the plot ignored religion as a component of the world. However, I’ve since considered adding a subplot involving an itinerant preacher with a “golden mean” religion based on what scraps of information he acquired in his travels. The main problem is that I have no idea how I’d resolve that story.

    (For the record, there is a kinda-sorta science subplot involving a woman trying to get a pre-disaster computer working so that she can find out how people used to live)

  • P J Evans

    all the books were lost?

  • http://kingdomofsharks.wordpress.com/ D Johnston

    No, but intact, readable books are phenomenally rare. The woman rebuilding the computer also has a collection of textbooks that she stitched together out of what scraps she could find. Most good-quality books are in the collection of a local despot (who also owns a lot of religious icons), all of them salvaged from settlements he’d conquered.

  • Space Marine Becka

    (Hopefully this won’t be a duplicate)

    Unfortunately what’s passed in the UK is in no way equal marriage, because it actually makes a bad situation worse for transgender people http://www.leftfootforward.org/2013/07/we-have-won-same-sex-marriage-now-we-must-fight-for-trans-rights/

    Why? Because now the cis spouse of a transgender person can now stop them getting their gender recognised.

  • Daniel

    Thanks for this information- I’m not still in the UK so would you please let me know how this is being covered? I’m guessing with a lot of very smug self congratulation but with no telly here I can’t check my theory…
    Oh and in a previous post you mentioned that BBC “we all pay your benefits” programme- I managed to see some of that and I see why it made your blood boil.

  • Launcifer

    In all seriousness, I haven’t noticed that it *is* being covered in the British media, aside from a couple of page somewhere-near-the-middle columns in the two newspapers I’ve read today. Don’t recall seeing it on the news, either, though I can’t remember if I did yesterday.
    Huh, it’s got me curious to know, now.

  • Daniel

    I imagine it’ll be in the Guardian somewhere, and in the Daily Mail as the final blow against all that this proud nation has ever stood for etc etc. I’m making predictions based on previous form but I guess (if they report it at all):
    BBC will be equivocal, suggesting approval but trying not to piss off the Mail
    ITV will broadcast it as though it’s kinda good but also scary and a bit funny- two men! What next! And if Alastair Stuart or that guy with the massive eyebrows is presenting the story it’ll be heavily implied in their bombastic voice over that NOTHING ANYWHERE WILL EVER BE THE SAME AGAIN!
    Channel 4 will be over the moon and will deliberately invite the most entrenched right wing stereotype on to debate it with Peter Tatchell just so they can goad said right winger into spluttering incoherently
    And Channel 5 will just run a piece about Elton John.

    Which no one will watch.

  • LoneWolf343
  • themunck

    In short, this is the sort of thing we need 10 O’Clock Live for. Or maybe it’s just my crush on David Mitchell talking :/.

  • Lori

    If I’m reading the article correctly an unhappy spouse always had the ability to block a trans person from getting their gender legally recognized by fighting the divorce that was a requirement for the recognition.

    If your spouse is so unhappy with your transition that they won’t sign off on the paperwork then it seems to me that your marriage is over and you’re going to need to get a divorce. Which your spouse can cooperate with or fight. Which puts the trans person exactly where they were before marriage equality.

    What am I missing?

  • Space Marine Becka

    Previously a transgender person was given a temporary GRC that was used to get a legal annullment on the grounds of being the wrong sex. The partner could try and fight a divorce prior to that point but once a person had their temporary certificate they were powerless to stop the anullment. Now they can tie people up for months and years.

  • Lori

    It would seem that the solution to that is for the courts to expedite divorces in such cases. At least in the US it’s tough for a person to drag out a divorce for years if the court won’t play along.

  • http://thatbeerguy.blogspot.com Chris Doggett

    On #6, I think Penn is wrong about religion. Scholars like Joseph Campell have pointed out that we see the same mythological archetypes emerge across religions, and that once you remove the culture-specific elements, there’s a lot of commonality. (see also: “The Hero’s Journey”, “Trickster Makes the World”, etc.) If you wipe out all traces of religion and begin again, you won’t ever get Eastern Orthodox Catholicism again, but you’ll still have a resurrected god, a trickster, fathers and son, teachers and students, holy laws about cleanliness and food.

    Religious folks argue that this commonality is evidence of a “higher truth”, while skeptics point out that if you have human beings telling stories about the human condition, humans in South America will (adjusting for culturally-specific elements) be telling the same kinds of stories as humans in Persia. Penn’s missing the forest for the trees. We probably wouldn’t get kosher dietary laws or the pantheon of Catholic saints, but we’d get churches with rules and lesser figures, rituals for deaths and new lives, for adding new members to the tribe.

    Science… well, “there’s no reason to assume that scientific discovery must always follow the same precise path at the same pace” misses the forest for trees as well. Precise path? No, but a very similar one. Same pace? Actually, history has shown that once a society has reached certain thresholds, a certain level of scientific discovery seems inevitable. We’ve seen it dozens of times, from the spontaneous creation of written language springing up across the fertile crescent all the way to the near-simultaneous discoveries of electromagnetic induction in the U.S. and Britain happening within six months of each other. We’ve seen that scientific discovery does follow a path, and there is a pace to it. (sourcing to “Guns, Germs, and Steel”)

  • Carstonio

    It’s possible that what religious folks call a “higher truth” comes from the way that human brains have evolved, instead of existing on another plane like these folks insist. The burden of proof is on the latter.

  • plectrophenax

    Most religions also contain the idea of ego-death, leading to a higher Self or Brahman, or whatever you want to call it. I think this is rooted in human experience, that of self-annihilation, leading to a sense of the numinous, a holistic identity, as opposed to a fragmentary one, non-dualism, and so on. Of course, the terminology varies a lot, but you can see these elements all round the world.

  • Lupus753

    Hundreds of years ago, China was the most scientifically advanced place on Earth. Then, it all came to a halt. Fewer discoveries were made, letting Europe and the Middle East surpass it. There are several possible reasons why, but it seems that it’s impossible to predict which paths scientific history will take and how far or fast it can go.

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    I’ve also heard it speculated that if you put off heliocentrism, you might get calculus a few centuries early (Once you start plotting the motion of the planets in detail, you pretty much either have to give up on the idea of them orbiting the earth or you need to invent calculus to describe really complex geocentric orbits.)

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The Greeks had a form of Integral calculus. The story goes that it was called the method of exhaustions.

    Given that calculating the limit of a continuous sum by creating clever mathematical frameworks to compute sums arbitrarily close to what you want is pretty damn exhausting… :P

  • http://blog.trenchcoatsoft.com Ross

    Ack. Riemann sums flashback!

  • Jenny Islander

    Here’s an interesting AH:

    Long ago in the universe next door, there was a green and fertile coastline tucked beneath a curving string of glaciated mountains. The mountains are still there, but we call them the Aleutian Islands now. As our story begins, people had been living in the western part of the green coast for a long time. Life there was as easy as life ever got for hunter-gatherers. Between the tide pools, the salmon runs, the sea mammal hunts, and the berry thickets, they could find pretty much everything they needed within a day’s walk of their homes. And if the food supplies failed along the coast, they could go over the passes to hunt with their cousins in the Interior.

    Now, life was easy enough that a certain amount of eccentricity was allowed. Hence Dog Man. That was the name he had ended up with as an adult, and while dogs were valuable as draft animals and watchdogs, the name wasn’t exactly a compliment. He didn’t care about anything but dogs. He slept with a pile of dogs in his house, he talked mostly to his dogs, and he obstinately refused to marry or declare himself double-souled and take up with a man. Solitariness was frowned upon along the coast, but he actually moved out of his mother’s house–an unmarried son, scandalous!–and built his own tiny house (without asking for anyone’s help, how antisocial), where he lived with all of his dogs. They were fantastic dogs, true, and if anybody asked for the loan of a dog or three he would agree immediately, but still–!

    His mother worried about him all the time, and when she worried, she nagged. They used to have awful screaming fights. So one day he did something that in our timeline he stopped short of doing. He made an obscene gesture at his own mother that was so awful he basically burned all of his bridges right then and there, packed up his things, and took his dogs over the pass that ran beside the eastern glacier. But he didn’t stop there. He went around the mountains, asking the nomadic inlanders as he went for news of a pass further east. And he found one. And he and his dogs settled down together at the head of the next bay past the eastern glacier, alone.

    And the next spring, he was surprised to see a straggling line of kayaks headed for his beach, because a local landslide had created a devastating wave that swept his home village nearly clean of life. His mother was among the many dead.

    Now, that isn’t the real point of departure. The real point of departure was the birth, that spring, of a pair of gigantic pups among his dogs. One dog, one bitch. These dogs were never born in our timeline. They grew to be so big that children could ride them, like going piggyback with an uncle. (I based them on a giant malamute born to a normal sized bitch, whose owner’s daughter could indeed ride him around.) And there were so few people left in the village that they needed every bit of muscle power those dogs could provide. So Dog Man, who never showed grief for his mother or anyone else, threw himself into the problem of ensuring that the biggest strongest dogs would be born consistently. All on his own, he pioneered controlled breeding–it had been left to the dogs before–and created better harnesses and pack systems. And the people of the village married some of their cousins inland, who were extremely impressed by the big dogs and asked to be allowed to join the new breeding program. And their material culture flourished thereby, and they carried the idea of animals that could be ridden (if only by children) and carry heavy burdens eastward with them, and one of the great-great-great-great grandchildren of the villagers looked at the weirdly unwary horses grazing in a meadow in British Columbia and said to her companion, “Hey, you know, these are kind of dog shaped and they are so darn approachable. Do you think–?”

    And that is how, 14,000 years later, when the Norsemen landed in Nova Scotia, they were greeted by people on horseback.

  • AnonaMiss

    While that’s a good story, proto-horses died out in the Americas during prehistory. American wild horses in human memory were all descended from horses brought by Europeans.

    I thought you were moving to full-size riding dogs, which would have been awesome; or bison, which would also have been awesome.

  • Lee B.

    I assumed the story was taking place during the Pleistocene. In which case, why stop with horses when you could also have DOMESTICATED MASTODONS!

  • Jenny Islander

    Lee B. is correct. Note that I set the story 14,000 years ago, when the Aleutian Islands were the peaks of a mountain chain at the edge of Beringia and there were probably two species of horse in North America: the familiar Equus horse that came across the land bridge and the native form, which was more like a burro. (Nerd note: Genetic study of North American extinct equines here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1159167/ ) So really, the descendants of people who had acquired the ideas “We can control the breeding of our livestock,” “We can increase the ability of our livestock to haul and carry stuff,” and “People can sit on animals and be carried around” much earlier than in our timeline could greet the Norsemen while riding two distinct species of horse/y critter and for all I know mules as well. First domesticate the native species, which is much less wary of humans and therefore more liable to be captured alive; then go after the species that came over the land bridge with your ancestors and is therefore much more wary.

    Note that I am using the hypothesis about the Pleistocene/Holocene transition that suggests vast upheavals all over North America, maybe several decades of one weather disaster after another along with massive flooding caused by the patchy melting of the continental ice sheets, sea level and water table changes ditto, and huge dieoffs in local vegetation followed by new growth of some other type. This transition would have occurred many times in North America as glacial and interglacial periods alternated. In this model, the extinctions of so many species in North America within a relatively short time was caused by the arrival of humans, who had no way of knowing that (for example) the herd of mastodons they had trapped in this valley was the last one anywhere and after they were gone there would be no more mastodons for their children to live on. That kind of big-picture vision requires data storage and analysis capabilities and widespread communication networks that did not exist anywhere on Earth at that time. For all they knew, the mastodons were still there, over the horizon, and would migrate back in their direction before their stock of mastodon hides had worn out.

    So anyway, in my model, certain species are domesticated by the first people in North America and therefore conserved through the chaos at the end of the Pleistocene. The increase in material culture and the increased ability to save the very old/sick/weak enable the mostly nomadic North Americans to live more comfortable lives over much of the continent, and give the inventors among the tribes more leeway to fiddle with stuff. When farming begins, horses vastly increase the amount of muscle power available wherever horses can live; ditto with large-scale building projects. So the Indians who ride up to greet the Norse ships might be much closer to the Norsemen technologically and therefore more able to meet them as equals. If they ride around on horses and use other technology familiar to the Norsemen, they are more likely to be treated (cautiously) as funny-looking but fully human people with whom it would not be wise to mess, and thus technological exchange becomes more possible. Animal-powered farming plus Norse smithwork creates denser populations, and perhaps regular infusions of new folks from Scandinavia inoculate the North Americans against disease relatively gradually, forestalling the terrible plagues that came with the late European explorers in our timeline.

    And so, in my timeline, Dog Man’s flaming argument with his mother produces a culture living along the East Coast of North America which is able to (for example) meet the Pilgrims with crossbows cocked and a rental agreement written in a Native language with lots of loanwords from Old Norse.

  • EllieMurasaki

    I’d love to read that novel.

  • Jenny Islander

    The implications are extremely complex. For example, historically the Plains Indians were among the poorest groups materially and risked starvation often, because they were traveling between widely scattered/rapidly moving resources with only dogs pulling travoises for cargo hauling. When they got horses from the Europeans, their material well-being went up dramatically. They could travel rapidly between resource areas and carry much more food, tools, etc. Combined with guns, horses made them among the wealthiest of the Native peoples–so well off that neighboring farming tribes sometimes quit farming and moved out onto the plains!

    Now, imagine horse-riders moving onto the Great Plains while they are still coming out from under the ice (in the north) or transitioning from mammoth steppe (further south). Prey species are in trouble. Killed back due to droughts, etc., the buffalo number, not millions, but perhaps only a few thousands. Could the addition of horses bring people into their post-glacial refuges before they had managed to build their numbers back up to a level at which hunting was sustainable? Could horse-riding Paleo-Indians actually drive the buffalo into extinction on the brink of the Holocene, leaving the Plains to the elk and the pronghorn?

    Conversely, if they could always ride off and find more buffalo, might the first people of the Plains have decided to quit hunting mammoths, or hunted them at a low enough rate that they were able to breed back and establish themselves in postglacial habitats? Might the alternate timeline have herds of Columbian mammoths migrating seasonally to and from the foothills of the Rockies in search of nutritious plants?

    As for Lee B.’s question about mastodons, domestication of elephants in our timeline had to wait on establishment of largish, richish civilizations that could afford to devote the manpower, pen space, etc., to elephant control. So mastodons probably would be doomed anyway. However, Santa Rosa Island mammoths were very small as elephants go. In our timeline, they were eaten up by humans as best we can tell. But in a timeline in which people had already learned to ride horses before they found these draft-horse-sized animals on the Channel Islands of California, perhaps somebody on the first boat would look at them and go, “Dude, if we can move the jerky from 1 buffalo on 2 horses, what if we had one of these things instead?” Maybe they would be shipped to the mainland as calves and raised as draft and wool animals. Milk animals, even? Who knows?

    Other possible North American candidates for domestication (besides, of course, the turkey) include the two species of North American horse as I said above, plus the American camel (Camelops hesternus), bush pronghorns (Capromeryx minor et al., possibly driven extinct by combined hunting and destruction of their habitat to allow for more oaks to grow), and perhaps the shrub-ox (Euceratherium). All of these appear to have gone extinct on the brink of the Holocene.

  • Michael Pullmann

    Now I’m thinking of Asimov’s Nightfall, where, thanks to living in a much more complicated solar system, Lagashian science took centuries to work out the mathematical mechanics of gravity.
    And, of course, astronomy was right out…

  • Fusina

    Apropos of nothing in this post, fundymum called me to see how I was doing, and out of the blue started discussing the Trayvon Martin case. Let me see, her take was that Martin should have called the police on his cell phone, and Zimmerman was justified because Martin jumped him when he was heading back to his car after getting out to check the street sign to figure out where he was, and anyway Zimmerman thought Martin was Hispanic so it wasn’t racially motivated. I’ve also heard that Martin tested positive for marijuana use and a large variety of other things.

    For me, at least, it all boiled down to this. Guy with gun and guy without gun meet. Guy with gun survives, guy without gun dies of gunshot wound. Guy who survives tells his story. We can’t get the other guy’s story…he is dead. Was guy with gun guilty? I don’t know. We can never know. But I know who I would choose as the agressor with what I do know.

    Thanks for listening. I am frustrated about this, and getting to listen to crap from people who have determined that Trayvon Martin was “asking” for trouble when he went out looking for candy and a bottle of ice tea.

  • Carstonio

    No argument there. Many people seem to want to believe that Martin had it coming, and not just for racial reasons. Sort of like female jurors in rape cases who are more likely to believe that the victim provoked her attacker.

    I’ll see your non-apropos and raise you the Rolling Stone cover with Tsarnaev – I don’t get why many retailers think the photo glorifies him or makes him look like an attractive rock star. To me, his blank expression looks at best like he’s stoned, and at worst like he’s no different from David Berkowitz or Timothy McVeigh.

  • banancat

    I think it really bothers a lot of people that Tsarnaev looks not just normal, but actually attractive. It’s scary for them to live in a world where monsters aren’t identifiable by sight alone. If an attractive young man can be a murderer, then literally anyone in your life could be a monster too. Everyone is trying really hard to forget this fact of life and they’re mad to be reminded of it. And frankly, it is scary. But pretending it isn’t true won’t make it go away.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t see how he could be attractive, and not because of my orientation. His eyes remind me of other infamous killers.

  • Mark Z.

    I’m glad you’re not on the jury.

  • Carstonio

    A juror’s job is to look beyond appearance and weigh the evidence. If I were on the Tsarnaev jury, I would strive to do the same.

  • Amaryllis

    I don’t get why many retailers think the photo glorifies him or makes him look like an attractive rock star.

    Because, by definition, if you’re on the cover of The Rolling Stone, you’re a rock star. Because there’s no thrill that’ll getcha when you get your picture On the cover of the Rollin’ Stone. Because, while hopefully no one would commit mass mayhem just to get his picture on the cover of anything, the idea of all that attention, even after they’re dead, is supposed to be one of the attractive factors to somebody evil or unbalanced enough to be considering such an act, and therefore it’s not a good idea to play into that mindset.

  • Carstonio

    I don’t remember any such accusations when the magazine had Manson on the cover. I’m assuming for the moment that the article itself doesn’t glorify Tsarnaev but instead examines how he became a murderer. Are you suggesting that RS shouldn’t attempt this type of journalism at all because of its reputation? Or if the article itself is good, then what image should the magazine have used?

    To me, Tsarnaev looks like a stoner version of Jim Morrison with the same undertone of menace. Hardly dreamy or attractive. More like he would scare off any rational woman.

  • themunck

    “Zimmerman thought Martin was Hispanic”
    Erhm…3 words. “He looks black”. – George Zimmerman, during a 911-phone call.

  • banancat

    I’ve heard others use this excuse that Martin should’ve just called the police, although usually it’s framed in a wishy-washy that they were both at fault or something. One woman decided to wax poetical about how she always teaches her children to just call 911 and never resort to physical defense. I’ll go out on the tiniest limb here, but I’m pretty sure this woman and her children are not black, or if they are, they live in a very different geographical area and type of culture that Martin lived in. If Martin had just called the police himself, there’s a good chance that they wouldn’t have taken him seriously. He has grown up in a world where police act as enemies of black men nearly as often as they act as protectors. In an environment like that, it’s no wonder Martin’s first thought wouldn’t be to turn to them for help.

  • Tom

    I don’t take Jillette’s comment to say that the path would be the same. It’s that religions would differ on their details, but in science you would still eventually figure out that F=ma, gravity depends on masses and the square of the distance, and that evolution occurs, etc. The rules of nature are the rules of nature. Mythology/religion is not.

  • We Must Dissent

    Scientific trivia: Though it’s what gets taught in high school and basic college science, Newton didn’t describe his second law as F=ma. It’s actually F = d(mv)dt, i.e, the time derivative of momentum. It’s just that in most cases mass is constant so d(mv)/dt = m*dv/dt = m*a. It’s why that train in physics class still has to exert force with its engine if it’s moving while being filled, even on frictionless tracks with no air resistance.

  • MaryKaye

    Mightn’t it make a big difference whether you stopped for a long time at one of the good-enough approximations, or went straight to the more complex and more correct form? Thinking of physics here, and how almost all the laws we’re taught in freshman physics are wrong–they ought to have c in them, but at everyday speeds you don’t notice. The physics of an alien species which for some reason had to grapple with c from square one might develop *quite* differently.

    There are also parts of science that are less cut and dried than physical laws. We struggle to define “species” but despite being fuzzy the concept really matters in thinking about evolution. If the people who first tried to nail down “species” had been botanists–especially tropical-tree botanists!–instead of zoologists I think we would define it very differently. If they had been bacteriologists I’m not sure we would have “species” at all. All of the twisted and entangled lines of descent that make up the real world would still be there, but our understanding of them would not be the same, and I think it would matter.

    To point out one practical way in which it matters–UC Berkeley got a century plant to flower while I was there. I asked what they were going to do with the seeds. Nothing, they said; it’s a hybrid; not valuable. I heard the exact same thing from the sanctuary that had the last half-dozen buffalo wolves. Why did you sterilize them? There aren’t enough to repopulate…. If either group had thought in terms of gene pools rather than of species, they might have used a different strategy, one that saw more value in hybrid individuals.

    (I am still really sad about those buffalo wolves. We could have a lot of not-purebred buffalo wolves by now; instead they’re all dead. Damn.)

  • caryjamesbond

    Well, yes, that’s all true- although I don’t think you give modern science enough credit for already overcoming a lot of difficulties. Probably the biggest breakthrough in scientific thought was Karl Popper’s assertion that we can no longer look at science as a puzzle, with each new discovery being a pure bit of fact Instead, as one of my professors so neatly put it its a “pile of constantly superseded theories.” Newton described F=MA which is true for certain cases but isn’t quite there. Einstein came along and added Relativity and an understanding of what happens at high speeds, someone else will come along and add something new.

    It’s not that Newton was WRONG, its that Einstein was MORE RIGHT. And yes, different cultures would discover different things in a new order- one of the most interesting things I’ve heard was that all the knowledge necessary to build decent telescopes/microscopes- that sand could be melted into glass, that some substances could be worked into tube even that glass blobs could magnify- was available for pretty much the entire known history of humanity- but only because a big deal with Galileo and his contemporaries. A society that developed microscopes at the time of the egyptians (nothing they couldn’t handle, technologically speaking) would be extremely different.

    But, and the point that Penn is making there- they would still, eventually, discover that the simplest atom had one proton and one electron. Which is why we send representations of hydrogen on gold tablets that we shoot into space- they may not look, think, act, believe or be anything we can understand- but if they interact with the physical universe at a level significant enough to notice this plaque, they know what hydrogen is, and what it looks like. They know what Pi is, as well.

    Although, I don’t think religion would be as varied as Penn might thing. If everything was walked back to square one- no stories, no knowledge, no nothing, I think we’d still have the sacrificial god that led to the Christian mythos. We’d have fertility gods, the Egyptians would probably create some myth about the Nile that would look almost exactly like Egyptian mythology as we knew it, because the Nile will still flood every year.

    Honestly, given how deeply it seems to resonate across cultures, the story I would expect to come back and be almost assured of finding again, in some form, is Oedipus Rex.

  • Lupus753

    6. This sounds a lot like A Canticle for Leibowitz. Science has been almost completely destroyed and forgotten, but thankfully the Catholic Church has managed to preserve enough knowledge so that civilization could make a comeback. A very well written sci-fi book.

  • Amaryllis

    Well.. it has its issues. It was of its day. But I admit, it’s pretty fascinating. (Didn’t care for the sequel, but I can’t remember now, why not.)

  • caryjamesbond

    Hmm- as per my other comment- a lot of stories and archetypes seem to arise independently of each other, or resonate deeply across many cultures, indicating that in the situation Penn describes, we probably WOULD see something very similar arise- a sacrificial god, and fertility gods, and so on.

    SO question- in the event that all human knowledge was wiped, and you came back 10,000 years later, after civilization had been rebuilt- what stories would you expect to find pretty much unchanged, albeit with different names? I’ll wager you could find something that was almost exactly Oedipus Rex, and whoever lived along the Nile would have pretty similar mythologies about the flood.

    Any other suggestions?

  • alfgifu

    I think it likely that the idea of spirits / gods dwelling certain places or objects would prove tenacious. Or perhaps a slightly more abstract concept of a holy place – that one goes right back to ancient days.

    It also does depend a bit on what happens with scientific development. Just-so stories that fill in gaps in human knowledge would still exist, but the gaps they fill in would vary according to the progress of science.

    In particular, I’m imagining a world where genetic techniques are developed early and widely understood, so evolution is utterly uncontroversial – but outside genetics an understanding of the properties of matter is really delayed / confused, so alchemists are still trying to make gold and eternal youth.

    Bonus points if the biologists develop actual life-extending techniques before the alchemists give up on gold.

  • MaryKaye

    I think that myths which tie into fundamental and emotionally charged aspects of the natural world would reappear. Sun-origin myths are all over the place–I like to tell the Pacific Northwest one and the Mayan one back to back–and they are emotionally meaningful even to people who also have a scientific understanding of where the sun came from. For people far from the equator, seasonal myths are obvious, especially if the winter (or summer) is dangerous and hard.

    I think there will always be myths about death and the dead as well.

  • dpolicar

    I’d expect immortality myths of all sorts… afterlives, undead, immortals, resurrection, reincarnation, ghosts, etc. In an agricultural context I’d expect resurrection myths, particularly.

    I’d expect myths about supernatural judges who punish the guilty.
    In a culture with significant inequality and limited mobility, I’d expect myths about supernatural redeemers.

    I’d expect mythological structures that project the default family unit for the society on a cosmic scale. (E.g. “God the Father” in a strictly patriarchal culture.)

    I’d expect “just-so stories”… that is, myths about how the seasons got that way, and how the constellations got that way, and more generally explaining any regularity in the environment for which available evidence didn’t support a compelling explanation.

    I’d expect mythological cultural origin stories and myths about culture heroes.

    The specifics of all of these would vary wildly.

  • Jenny Islander

    This may be instructive. It’s the mythology of the street children of Miami in the late ’90s.

    http://www.miaminewtimes.com/1997-06-05/feature/myths-over-miami/

  • William Burns

    Can’t believe no one’s mentioned Hack Wilson’s single-season rbi record when it comes to unbreakable records.


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