Friday, February 29, 2008

Dissatisfaction with Religion Growing

According to the latest opinion poll from Pew Research, dissatisfaction with religion seems to be growing in the US:

More than one-quarter (28%) of American adults have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion -- or no religion at all.... In addition, about 44% of adults have either switched religious affiliation, moved from being unaffiliated with any religion to being affiliated with a particular faith, or dropped any connection to a specific religious tradition altogether.

One of the most interesting aspects of the survey is the fact that young people are less likely to be religious than older people.

The survey finds that the number of people who say they are unaffiliated with any particular faith today (16.1%) is more than double the number who say they were not affiliated with any particular religion as children. Among Americans ages 18-29, one-in-four say they are not currently affiliated with any particular religion.
There's a couple of takeaways from this survey. While the US is still far more religious than most of the other western democracies, especially those in Europe, we may be starting to see a turning point. As the population ages, it's clear that religion will become less of a factor in public life. Young people today are less likely to be religious, and less likely as they grow up to pass that onto their children.

With all the disturbing news about science education and creationism, religion in politics and the intolerance of many of the more fundamentalist christian churches here in the US, it's refreshing to note that time is on our side.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Mapping light pollution

An astronomy post, for a change!

A majority of people now live in cities, so they have not seen all the wonders of the night sky from a truly dark environment. I live in the middle of nowhere, so it's less of a problem here, but there's still pollution from nearby streetlights and the town.

Well, now there's an effort underway to quantify how much light pollution is affecting stargazers around the world. The GLOBE project is asking for your help. It's pretty straightforward:

1) Find your latitude and longitude.

2) Find Orion by going outside an hour after sunset
(about 7-10pm local time).

3) Match your nighttime sky to one of their magnitude charts.

4) Report your observation.

5) Compare your observation to thousands around the world.
GLOBE will then be able to compare pollution levels to last year, when they had 8491 observations. They're hoping for more this year. It's a great excuse for you to go out and look at the stars - and, if you can, encourage others to do the same, especially kids. Generating an interest in Astronomy now will pay off down the road with more educated people in all aspects of science.

So, go out and enjoy the sky. They're accepting observations from now until March 8th.

When Garfield goes missing..

..what you end up with is:

an even better comic about schizophrenia, bipolor disorder, and the empty desperation of modern life?
according to Garfield Minus Garfield. Some of the strips are great. My favorite at the moment could easily apply to creationists:

Some others that make me laugh are here and here.

I got a Big Word!

Just started up is a new site aiming to redefine every word in the English language. For a small fee ($1 per letter), you can own a word in The Big Word Project's dictionary, and have it linked to your site.

The Big Word Project is redefining words. You pick a word and link it to your website. Your website is then the new definition. Simple.
How cool is that!

You have to act fast, because words are being snapped up pretty quickly. Good news though!

I scored "atheist"!!

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Losing the Faith

As I recounted in an earlier post, my wife and I lost a child at the end of the year, stillborn at 22 weeks into the pregnancy. It's been difficult getting over the loss, and we're still not there yet.

We're undergoing bereavement counseling, and attend regular support group meetings to help us through, and it's been comforting knowing that we're not alone in this process.

But, onto the point of the post. One of the things I've noticed as we attend counseling and the meetings is that there's a lot of people in similar situations to us who've lost the faith that they've had. To be sure, there are some whose faith has been strengthened, but they're certainly in the minority from what I can tell.

Many people are dealing with anger with God, and, from my perspective, it's just one more level of pain to deal with that I, as an atheist, don't have to worry about. I hear constantly "Why did God do this to us?", "What did we do wrong?" and so on.

The bottom line is that people are rationalizing that they believed in a God that is omnipotent, omniscient, and benevolent, but the horror of losing a child indicates that God directly caused their suffering if he is such a being. So, the theory goes, he is not omnipotent, or if he is, he is not omniscient or if he is both, he's not benevolent. So why worship and pray if it's not going to do any good? What follows is a loss of faith, compounded by a church that frequently doesn't know how to deal with child loss. As a case in point from our own example - two weeks after our son died, my wife's church sent us additional offering envelopes for our other children as if to say "Sorry for your loss - please give more".

It seems to me that this loss of faith has not been a bad thing in many people's lives - indeed, it has been freeing to an extent. I know for a fact from my personal experience that not having to worry that some psychopathic sky fairy was out to get me reduced the weight of the loss.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Science Education in the US

While we're on the subject of ignorance (see the last post), The Washington Post had an editorial this week on the "Dumbing of America":

Americans are in serious intellectual trouble -- in danger of losing our hard-won cultural capital to a virulent mixture of anti-intellectualism, anti-rationalism and low expectations.

They posit a number of reasons for this (and to my mind, they focus a little too much on the internet killing newspapers, but they are a little biased!), but the bottom line is correct.

Dumbness, to paraphrase the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, has been steadily defined downward for several decades, by a combination of heretofore irresistible forces. These include the triumph of video culture over print culture (and by video, I mean every form of digital media, as well as older electronic ones); a disjunction between Americans' rising level of formal education and their shaky grasp of basic geography, science and history; and the fusion of anti-rationalism with anti-intellectualism. (emphasis mine)

So what do we do about it? Well, the presidential campaign isn't helping - candidates are pandering to the lowest common denominator, as usual. We need to elevate the debate, focus on where we're losing out as a nation, where we're letting down today's kids - tomorrow's scientists who will drive the future of this country. Sciencedebate2008 is one place to start, but we also have to push at the grassroots level - at the local school board level, at the state government level to make sure that we're not left behind.

There was one glimmer of hope this week - Florida adopted new science standards that include the word "Evolution" for the first time, despite the pleas of the religious right who pushed to have creationism taught alongside science:

Florida Science Standards
There's a story on the vote here.

We're behind again. Big Surprise.

This time, it's nanotechnology, which it seems is "morally unacceptable" to the majority of Americans, according to a University of Wisconsin study, reported in the Wall Street Journal.

nanocarIn the study, just 29.5% of the 1,000 or so interviewed found nanotech research morally acceptable.

My guess is that 70% of the country don't know what nanotechnology is, due to the abysmal state of science education here. It's clear that there's an obvious anti-science, anti-reason movement in the US right now so anything equated with the "evil science" has to be against religion.

Interestingly, Europeans don't appear to have that problem, not surprisingly.

I swear, if we don't get our act together as a nation, we're going to be left behind in the race for the future.

Friday, February 15, 2008

ScienceDebate 2008 update

I've blogged about ScienceDebate2008 before - it's an opportunity for the presidential candidates to let the country know what their science policies would be as President. Well, the invites have gone out!

Science and technology are responsible for half our nation's growth in GDP over the last half century, and have changed every aspect of our lives, our economy, our health, and our environment.

The next president of the United States will face unprecedented scientific and technological policy challenges and opportunities, three classes of which poll at the top of voter concerns: the economy and economic competitiveness; healthcare; and the environment. Candidates should have ideas about what kinds of policies will best address these issues, and should inform the voters of their views.

There's been no response from the campaigns yet (Obama, Clinton, McCain and Huckabee were invited), so make sure you contact your representatives, or the campaigns themselves to urge them to attend.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Happy Darwin Day!

Couldn't pass up the opportunity to wish the big guy, over there on the right hand side of this blog, a happy birthday. He's 199 today!
From the Darwin Day Website:

Darwin Day is an international celebration of science and humanity held on or around February 12, the day that Charles Darwin was born on in 1809. Specifically, it celebrates the discoveries and life of Charles Darwin -- the man who first described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor. More generally, Darwin Day expresses gratitude for the enormous benefits that scientific knowledge, acquired through human curiosity and ingenuity, has contributed to the advancement of humanity.

There's plenty of events being run around the world, so go ahead and party - but don't forget to leave something in reserve for his 200th next year!!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Please no...

I know it's unlikely, but stranger things have happened, especially here.

If Mike Huckabee wins the presidency, I'm moving to Canada.