April 24, 2014

© 2014 Microsoft CorporationMore Than Half of Americans Aren’t Confident in the Big Bang Theory
While scientists believe the universe began with a big bang, most Americans put a big question mark on the concept, an Associated Press-GfK poll found. Yet when it comes to smoking causing cancer or that a genetic code determines who we are, the doubts disappear. When considering concepts scientists consider truths, Americans have more skepticism than confidence in those that are farther away from our bodies in scope and time: global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and especially the big bang from 13.8 billion years ago. (Seth Borenstein and Jennifer Agiesta, Associated Press)

Can Feeling Pleasure From Meaningful Activities Protect Teens From Developing Depression?
In a new study, researchers aimed to figure out how the tender brains of adolescents reacted to the more bacchanalian rewards, like video games and drugs, versus the more prosocial ones, like “helping others in need, expressing gratitude, and working toward long-term goals.” Would the teens who get their jollies from volunteering be happier, in the long run, than those who live only for Grand Theft Auto? (Olga Khazan, The Atlantic)

Why Were All of the Artifacts at a 4,500-Year-Old Site in California Removed and Reburied?
The story is actually a lot more complicated than Good Archaeologists vs. Bad Developers. The actual decision to rebury the artifacts wasn’t left to the town or to the developers. The call was made by the Federated Indians of Graton Rancheria, the likely descendants of the ancient people who lived on the site. (Mary Beth Griggs, Smithsonian.com)

The Faith-Based Environmentalism of “Noah”
Chris Mooney: No matter what the Christian right may say, Noah is a deeply religious and spiritual film containing an authentic moral message. And that message feeds strongly into a vital and growing religious tradition of our time, one that especially appeals to younger believers: faith-based environmentalism, or what is sometimes called “creation care,” which uses biblically based moral imperatives to impel conservation and stewardship. (Mother Jones)

Q&A
Jeremy Pritchard

The Conversation organized a public question-and-answer session on Reddit in which Jeremy Pritchard, senior lecturer in biology at the University of Birmingham, explained the science of evolution and tackled the contentious issue of science and religion. Here are curated highlights. (The Conversation)


Science and Religion: 5 Questions

science and religion 5 questionsGregg Caruso sent us a note about this newly published collection of interviews—based on five questions—with 33 leading philosophers, scientists, theologians, apologists, and atheists. (Regular readers of this blog will recognize many of the names.) The work is edited by Caruso, the editor of the recently launched journal Science, Religion and Culture.
Steven Pinker has blurbed the book, as has theologian Philip Clayton, who writes:

Imagine that some of the world’s best-known scientists, philosophers, and religionists were to offer up their answers to an identical set of probing questions. Imagine that these articulate statements, composed by scholars who think deeply about science and religion, are then assembled in a single collection. That’s the volume you’re holding—a fascinating snapshot of where the dialogue stands today, and of what it has (and hasn’t yet) achieved.


Week Off

We’re taking a break next week and will return on April 22 (but you can always follow us on Twitter).

Thanks for reading SRT!


April 10, 2014

GenePeeksScreening Digital Embryos
A service that creates digital embryos by virtually mixing two people’s DNA will give a clearer glimpse of their possible child’s health, and perhaps much more—before it has been conceived. The Matchright technology will be available in two U.S. fertility clinics later this month, allowing people to screen out sperm donors who, when their genes are combined with those of the intended mother, could increase the risk of a child inheriting genetic diseases. The company that markets the technology, GenePeeks, hopes to expand worldwide. But the technology’s patent also includes a list of traits that aren’t necessarily related to health. (Catherine de Lange, New Scientist)

Enhancing Intelligence
Julian Savulescu: Researchers at Cardiff University discovered that children with two copies of a common gene (Thr92Ala), together with low levels of thyroid hormone, are four times more likely to have a low IQ. This combination occurs in about 4 percent of the U.K. population. Importantly, if you had just one of these factors, but not both, there did not appear to be an increased risk of low intelligence. These are early results, but suggest that it might be possible to treat children early with thyroid hormone supplementation to enhance their intelligence. This raises many ethical issues. (The Conversation)

Scientists Regenerate an Organ in Mice
The team manipulated a single protein in very old mice that caused their bodies to rebuild their thymuses—an organ that produces white blood cells. After receiving the treatment, the senior citizen mice not only had thymuses that were similar in structure to a young whippersnapper’s, but they were also twice as large. Scientists have in the past grown organs using stem cells, but this is the first time a living organism has repaired its own organs via a chemical trigger. (Carl Engelking, D-brief, Discover)

Marble-Hand Illusion
No matter how much of a critical thinker you consider yourself, your brain is pretty gullible. With a few minutes and a couple of props, your brain can be convinced that one of your limbs is made of rubber or invisible, or that your whole body is the size of a Barbie doll’s. All these illusions depend on your senses of vision and touch interacting. But a new illusion trades sight for sound. By hearing the sound of a hammer striking marble each time it tapped their hands, subjects came to feel that their limbs were made of stone. (Elizabeth Preston, Inkfish, Discover)

Are the Australopithecus Sediba Fossils Actually the Remains of Two Species?
The first fossils of A. sediba were found at Malapa, South Africa, in 2008. At 2 million years old, they show a mix of features, some similar to the ape-like australopithecines, others more like our genus, Homo. To its discoverers, this hotchpotch means A. sediba was becoming human, and that the Homo genus first evolved in South Africa, not east Africa as is generally thought. But a new analysis suggests A. sediba didn’t exist. “I think there are two different hominin genera represented at Malapa,” says Ella Been at Tel Aviv University in Israel. (Colin Barras, New Scientist)

BOOKS
A History of Religion in 5 1/2 Objects

Jenna Weissman Joselit: Taking the measure of stone, incense, drums, crosses, and bread, S. Brent Plate’s book is an extended exercise in the materiality of faith. You might even call it a manifesto. Blurring the lines between inquiry and advocacy, it doesn’t just ask us to consider the multiple ways in which religion is a tactile phenomenon. It also calls on us to affirm and perhaps even to celebrate the sensory elements of faith. “The religious point is to pay attention, to feel, now,” he writes. (New Republic)

Expert Opinion

From Gregory Paul, an independent paleontologist and researcher who examines the relationship between religion and society:

In recent years, there has been lots of discussion and debate about whether atheism or theism is on the rise around the world. A good deal of the answer can be found in results from the International Social Survey Program. In its Religion II survey conducted in 1998 and Religion III survey sampled in 2008 and just released (why the ISSP is so tardy in releasing its results is obscure), the ISSP asked the same set of questions in 28 countries, allowing assessment of gross longitudinal trends over a decade (because their Religion 1 poll in 1991 asked different questions in far fewer countries, it is not very longitudinally useful).

% Don’t believe in God % Theists overall % No doubt God exists
1998           2008 1998          2008 1998           2008
Great Britain 9.6              17.7 46.2           36 22.5            16.8
Austria 6.8              9.3 51.3           40.8 32.4            20.8
Netherlands 17.2            19.8 44.2           36.7 26.4            21.1
Australia 10.2            15.6 52.2           43.5 28.6            25.1
Norway 11.7            17.7 42.5           37 18.4            15
Ireland 2.4              4 77.3           67.5 49.8            45.1
New Zealand 7.9              12.5 52.9           46.4 30.9            28.2
Spain 8.6              9.7 64.7           59.5 45.8            39.2
Italy 4.1              5.3 73.5           69.5 48               42.9
Sweden 16.8            19.5 25.8           24.9 12.3            10.3
France 19.1            21.9 38.8           37.3 20.1            17.5
Denmark 14.7            18.4 34              33.4 13.6            13.4
United States 3.2              2.8 77.5           78.2 62.8            61.3
Switzerland 4.3              8.5 44.5           45.1 28.3            28.8
Germany west 12.1            10.5 41.3           48.1 23.4            27.2
Germany east 54               53 15.7           16.5 9.4              8
Japan 10.6            8.7 13.2           16.4 4                 4.4
Northern Ireland 3.7              6.8 74.4           67.4 50               45.2
Portugal 1.9              4 84.8           72.9 60               54.4
Czech Republic 20.3            37.3 30.4           23.9 17.1            23.9
Hungary 12.8            15.3 51.6           42.4 31.1            23.2
Latvia 9.2              18.3 38.9           36.9 22.9            21.7
Poland 2.4              3.3 81             76.4 70.5            62.9
Russia 19.7            6.1 40.2           58.2 23.8            33.9
Slovakia 11.1            10.4 56.7           59.8 40.8            41.6
Slovenia 14.2            13.6 39.4           40.7 22.9            24.2
Chile 1.5              1.7 91.4           90.5 81.4            82.3
Cyprus 1.6              1.9 84.8           70.2 65               59
Philippines 0.7              0.8 82.3           92.5 79               82.7

(Note: Bold lines indicate an increase in atheism. First World countries are ordered starting with largest decrease in overall theists and progressing downward.)

A complaint I have about the new ISSP survey is that it failed to requery on opinion on the Bible in a large number of countries, including the United States (!), leaving us unable to reaffirm the Gallup record of a strong long-term decline in American biblical literalism. Nor did it repeat the question on regular attendance at religious services, another serious loss of longitudinal sampling that will hopefully be corrected in 2018.

Because there are only two samples, at each end of the 10 years, the trends for a given country must be taken with a dose of demographic salt, especially when the difference is not statistically significant. Even what looks like a major shift in a particular nation may be a statistical fluke. If there were no general overall pattern apparent, there would be little change to report.
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Is Atheism Increasing at the Expense of Theism?


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