No Greater Miracle

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Back in the days when I was a religious nut job, I used to categorize miracles as big or little. That classification was entirely arbitrary, I now realize. But then, I was under the mistaken impression that one type of miracle might have a higher level of difficulty than another. My problem was that I underestimated the forces it would take for one to override the natural order of things for any purpose, in any way. It is not a matter of degree. All miracles are the same miracle. It is the miracle of dismissing nature so that something else can take place. The something is inconsequential compared to that.

If, however, it was ever appropriate to categorize miracles based on the level of difficulty, then prayer must surely rank near the top of the list. People talk about it as if it was just a simple thing that bears little mention. “I’ll pray for you” is said almost flippantly, as if that was the least we could do. But if we really believed in prayer, and thought seriously about its implications, we would realize that prayer was the most we could do. It is more impressive than moving mountains with nothing but faith. Even reanimating necrotized cells (raising the dead) is a trifle compared to the monumental miracle of prayer. Try to consider everything that is involved:

Our Father…

The first magical part of prayer to consider is that there is a magical being to whom we can pray. Many formulations of magic posit that it is not something that we do directly, rather, that it is something that we bind magical beings to do on our behalf. In popular fiction, those magical beings are demons of one sort or another. I offer the Bartimaeus trilogy as an example. I only mention it because prayer is the polar opposite of magic, only in that it calls upon a different source of power: the good instead of the evil. The believer offers magical incantations to the cosmic embodiment of good, or one of his surrogates. In both magic and prayer, incantations are used to call forth magical beings to do one’s bidding.

This is the point where even liberal religion breaks down for me. There are many people, even Christians who do not believe in a literal god, especially the literal god of the bible. However, these people still pray. That’s a problem. They cannot break the habit of thinking that there is someone out there listening to every word and thought they have. They might say that it is not so much a god that they pray to, but the universal life force. To me, that is simply a less personal god by another name. They may also claim to be practicing aloud, the power of positivity. Both of these explanations fail to common sense.

In one explanation, there is still a consciousness who is able and willing to listen to your words and thoughts. In the other, you are using the magic of thought power. You think up a positive reality, and it somehow is manifested by the sheer amount of positivity thrown at the problem. In either case, there has to be something able and willing to listen to your spoken or mental incantations, then act upon your stated desires. Conservative or liberal, no one prays unless they believe they are sending a real message, and that there is something or someone willing and able to pick up the signal. The first, big miracle of prayer is that there is someone who can pick up the signal.

Who art in Heaven…

Let’s take a closer look at the signal. We pray by speaking words, either audibly, or telepathically. Most believers tend to believe that either is acceptable. Words are grunts and sighs that move air in a very specific way. If those sound waves do not physically connect and vibrate a receptive piece of material in just the right way, then the signal cannot be received. Audible signals are limited in range and intensity. Any words spoken aloud must be picked up by something physical, that is in close proximity to the speaker.

I cannot speak with authority on the subject of telepathy. I can say that thoughts are electrical impulses. We can place certain equipment tightly on the outside of the head, and pick up some of what a person is thinking. I have never seen these experiments done with equipment that is not making contact with the thinker’s head. At the very least, this suggests that if telepathy is possible, it would be for very simplistic, very short-range communications. Again, physical access is required.

Yet prayer assumes a great, unknowable distance between the participants of prayer. The father to whom Christians pray is located in the unlocateable Heaven. We have established that prayer in both forms, requires physicality and close proximity. God cannot just be close to us in some spiritual way. To hear words and thoughts, he must be physically present, and very nearby. The very idea of sending thoughts and words over great distances through space, time, and dimension is so exotic, even science fiction writers shrink at the task of fantasizing how such a thing might happen.

Signal to noise

Imagine yourself at a football game. I’ve been to a handful where the noise was soul-shattering. The sound rising up from the stadium becomes little more than white noise. White noise is the presence of all frequencies at once. In a noisy stadium, it is nearly impossible to understand what is said by the person next to you. It is beyond impossible to hear anything distinguishable from two sections away. The idea of understanding words spoken by someone on the opposite side of the stadium is stretching the ability of science fiction writers. If it was just you and that person, then it might be possible. But with a hundred thousand people all yelling at the same time, the signal to noise ratio is just too low.

There are over eight billion people on the planet. At any given moment, a significant fraction of them are sending up prayers to the god of the bible. It really doesn’t matter what that fraction is. God is said to be monitoring all communications and activities of all people at all times. He is monitoring the actions and thoughts of eight billion people, plus everything that is going on in the ecosystem, the stars, the planets, and every variable presented by the quantum foam. The individual signals at any given second are greater than any number I know how to invent. This is the stuff of God’s attention from one moment to the next.

Yet somehow, he is supposed to be able to pick your prayer out of the noise whenever you send one in his direction. Despite all he has to do, he keeps a special channel open for you at all times. You must be so very special. I don’t know which is more fantastic: the idea that you can transmit a prayer to Heaven, or that God can distinguish your signal from the noise. More to the point, he can distinguish all the signals with no noise, giving his full attention to everything at once. It is hard to imagine any greater miracle.

Faster than light

Light travels very fast, light speed, to be exact. But it is not instantaneous. There is travel time involved. Nothing in this universe travels faster. Light is the speed limit we have to work with. Sound travels much slower than light. If you were sitting across from me at a small table, there would be a measurable interval of time  between when I speak a word, and when you hear it. Even lip reading does not get us to instant communication. It takes years upon thousands of years for the light of some stars to reach our eyes. When we gaze into a starry night, we are gazing at history, not the present.

For prayer to be meaningful, the prayer must be transmitted almost instantly. Light speed is far too slow for a god who is physically located outside of the known universe. Even telepathy does not buy you much, as that too, would be bound by the speed of light. But when words or thoughts are transmitted as prayer, then concerns about speed or mode of transmission just go out of the window, likely at light speed, or faster.

Answered prayer

The whole point of a prayer of supplication is to make something happen in the hear and now. Furthermore, that something we are trying to make happen has to be something that we, otherwise, would not be able to do ourselves. Prayer is an attempt to manipulate real things that exist in space/time. It is a request from one person, for another to perform an act on their behalf. Because I can’t beat up the bullies myself, I commission someone else to do it for me. That’s prayer. The number of miracles required to answer a prayer, far outweigh the number required to deliver it.

Physical agency

Prayer is a requisition for someone outside of the physical world to do something within the physical world. We are fond of saying that God is a spirit. But by spirit, we usually mean, insubstantial. We might also mean that he is of a substance so different, as to be incompatible with what we think of as the physical universe of stuff. Christians tend to think of themselves as spiritual beings housed in physical bodies. The bodies are so that we can live in, and interact with this physical universe. Outside of a physical body, our spirits are no good in this place. When the spirit is parted from the body, Christians call that death.

For God to interact with this world, he either has to physically incarnate, or use angelic surrogates. Jesus was an example of an elaborate incarnation. It was a way for the essence of God to take physical form, and interact with the world of stuff. Mostly, though, the bible has angels taking care of physical interactions when necessary. The angels seem to act as God’s hands and feet, eyes and ears, and even, voice. If God could do it all himself, he probably wouldn’t need the angels. After all, angels are somewhat unpredictable, considering all the bad ones that supposedly followed Satan in his rebellion. Angels seem to act as God’s physical agency so that he can do things in this realm, like answer prayers.

Angels and ghosts

Unfortunately, we can’t seem to decide if angels are more like humans or ghosts. Sometimes, in the bible, angels appear as men, never women or children. They can grapple and wield a sword. They can deliver messages, serve as body guards, and move large objects, such as boulders that block the entrance to caves. As men, they are subject to the limits of physicality. They cannot walk through walls, or subdue other men without the expedient of fighting. Unlike ghosts, they are visible to the naked eye, and can clearly communicate so that they are both heard and understood by other men.

But that is only sometimes. At other times, angels are more like ghosts. They might appear as the flames in a bush that do not burn, or a disembodied voice that sounds clear to one person, but like thunder to everyone else. Angels are sometimes described as being locked in immortal, invisible combat with dark forces all around us, but without substance that disturbs our sleep at night. When speaking as unintelligible,disembodied voices that can easily float through walls and other structures, they sound a lot more like the popular description of ghosts. Guardian angels seem to be able to provide aid to us in a physical, or non-physical state. It is all very confusing. It is one of those things that Christians never, fully, think through.

No small prayers

I used to grade prayers in the same way I graded miracles in general, as being big or small. But I now realize that, just as there are no small miracles, there are no small prayers. I am not alone in the way I thought about miracles. It seems all religious people feel the same way. I know this because I can see what people feel comfortable with praying for in public. No one wants to sound like a fool when they pray. That is why everyone makes a point to pray for safe things. A safe prayer is for something small and mundane. It does not challenge God to do something obviously miraculous, nor does it insist upon immediacy. It is the kind of prayer that does not make us sound like a lunatic, even among believers.

An example of a lunatic prayer would be to publicly stand up and request that a mountain be relocated. Though Jesus offers this as an example of things for which we should be able to confidently request, we, and everyone else around us would consider it lunacy to do so. Absolutely no one really believes that a mountain will get up and move just because a faithful believer requested it to be so. It would certainly be a neat trick. But no one expects it to happen.

Instead, we offer the safe prayers. We pray for things like a safe commute, or a pleasant flight. These are safe requests because, if we get them, we can claim that God answered our prayers without the need to produce an overt miracle. These are likely things that would happen anyway. The chances of us not having a safe commute are very small. Therefore, we are praying for the thing that is most likely to happen even if we didn’t pray. It is like me commanding my dog to ignore me. What a brilliant dog. He does it every time. I made it to work and back home without an accident. You see, God answers prayers.

By my estimation, though, moving the mountain is the smaller miracle, by far. A mountain is just a single collection of atoms. There is no free will to manipulate. There is no “butterfly effect” to navigate. It is just a matter of relocating one pile of insensate atoms to some other place. I’m no miracle worker or wizard. But I have read all of the Harry Potter books. I can tell you that from the perspective of a person steeped in the world of science, science fiction, and fantasy, moving around piles of rock and dirt is not remotely interesting. However, it requires real power to ensure a safe commute.

Let’s consider the types of manipulations involved in insuring a safe commute. We must again acknowledge that the best assurance of a safe commute is doing nothing at all, as the vast majority of commutes are safe and uneventful. However, let us presuppose that your next commute would end in tragedy without supernatural intervention. Before we can even begin the intervention, we have to know the exact type of calamity you are slated to face. If you are going to meet your doom due to a mechanical malfunction, then God only need focus his attention on a single, mechanical detail. If, on the other hand, your accident will be precipitated by the carelessness of someone else, there is a lot more involved. Even a little bit of the butterfly effect complicates the matter exponentially.

Either way, for God to insure you have a safe commute, he will first, need to be able to see the future. If you are keeping score, that’s a miracle, and a big one. He has to know every possible event that is going to take place that leads to the accident that is slated to ruin your day. Then, he has to preemptively alter those events so that they happen differently, or not at all. He has to violate free will, and change someone’s mind about checking that text while they drive.

Perhaps there is a couple in the middle of an argument, and does not notice the texting driver until it it almost too late. The driver swerves just in time to avoid an accident. Though not in the direct line of fire, you see them swerve, and oversteer your way off the road, and into a tree, and into the loving arms of your maker. Come to think of it, if you end up in the loving arms of your maker, why would you want a safe commute? My point is that there are so many interactions that God has to foresee and manipulate to provide you with a safe commute, it pales in comparison to moving piles of dirt and rock.

Conclusion: Moral Justification for answered prayers

So far, I have attempted to show that prayer requires miracles of epic proportions. It is not a small thing. It is a very big thing. There are no small prayers. There is no greater miracle than prayer. One would actually be demonstrating less belief in magic if one were to stand up in the middle of a funeral, and attempt to reanimate the deceased. That is a smaller act of magic than getting an other-dimensional being to insure a hefty tax refund, despite the fact that you know nothing about filling out tax forms. We would almost never tell a crippled person to arise and walk. Yet, how casually we tell that same person that we will pray for them, as if that were somehow the smaller, less superstitious thing to do.

Now, I turn my attention to an even greater and more miraculous aspect of prayer. It may, in fact, be the greatest miracle of all. How does one justify the moral implications of an answered prayer? The mental gymnastics of this exercise humbles my best attempts. Consider the morality of granting a request for money. You left your wallet at home, and asked me to slip you a ten so that you can buy lunch. Let’s assume that we are both gainfully employed and well paid. Neither of us wants for anything, and the $10 means nothing to me. I don’t think it would be immoral for me to refuse your request, but it may be immoral for me to grant it.

Suppose I give you the money. How do I justify giving you $10 that you really don’t need, while refusing to give even a dollar to a homeless person who could obviously use a bite to eat? I gave you the money because I like you, and ignored the homeless person because he annoyed me. That might actually have moral implications. Refusing a request requires little explanation. We refuse all requests. All are treated equally. When we grant a request, the same cannot be said. We now, have to justify why we do for one, and don’t for another. That can get pretty sticky. For God, the challenge is magnified by an order of magnitude.

At this very moment, a small child, a little girl, is being abused in unspeakable ways. We have already establish that the prayer answering god can see clearly into the future. Not only does he know of the abuse, he knew of it before it took place. He knew of it in the planning stages, he knew of it long before the abuser did. Despite all his foreknowledge, and ability to alter events to keep it from ever happening, he chose not to intervene. Instead, he threw all of the forces of Heaven behind the imperative of insuring your safe commute. Unlike the decision to give someone a Hamilton, that requires some explanation.

The prayerful Christian has to believe that God has a moral justification for the prayers he answers, versus the ones he does not. The level of narcissism it takes to pray for anything is off the charts. You have to believe that you are so special, relieving your cold symptoms is more important than curing the millions who are suffering from AIDS. You have to believe that there is a moral justification for God to attend to your request, while so many go unattended. To even pray for the outcome of a football game is obscene!

We thank God for granting us our $100 glass of wine, while a significant portion of the population does not have clean drinking water. Why does anyone thing that a moral God loves them so much, that he attends to their most insipid requests, while ignoring the physical needs of entire nations? Many Christians are so deluded, they believe that their grandmother’s bunions rate priority treatment over the innocent victim of the drive-by shooting happening at this very moment. How does a Christian ask for help with a mortgage payment in the face of so many homeless people? They must assume that God has already passed judgement on those people, and deemed them unfit for homes. I would not want a blessing from such a god as that. Those who pray not only want such blessings, but are convinced that God loves them so much, they are worthy to receive said blessing. God bless America.

If you have figured out why all the forces of Heaven should break all the natural laws of the universe to make your wishes come true, then there is truly no greater miracle than that.

David Johnson

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Beyond religious hate speech

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I confess that I do not fully grasp the subtlety that defines one type of speech as offensive, but allowable, and another as hate, and unallowable. It seems we have determined that racial epithets are hateful. I tend to agree. But what about epithets that slur ones sexual orientation? Should “queer” be more acceptable than “nigger”? I don’t think so. Yet it certainly seems to be. Our language is also peppered with a whole host of words that betray a deep-seeded misogyny just beneath the surface of our thin veneer of civility.

But I contend that none of those words and epithets are anywhere near as hateful as those of mainstream religion. We have just lived with them for so long, we fail to realize just how hateful much of religion’s speech really is. Here are a few examples of what I mean:

Gentile is a hateful word. It does not label a person for behavioral or moral lapses. You are Gentile just for the crime of not being Jewish. You are an outsider. Since the God of the Hebrew scriptures chose the Jews to be his special race of people, then calling someone a Gentile has even more significance. It says that you are not only an outsider, but that you are outside of God’s protection. It is a rather more hateful word than we imagine.

Sinner might be the most hateful word of all. Think about what sin is supposed to be. It is a violation of God’s laws. More than that. it violates God’s very nature. Even more, it is that which nailed Jesus to the cross. We are guilty of crucifying Jesus because of our sins. To be called a sinner is to be accused of killing Jesus without remorse. A sinner is not just a person who occasionally has a moral lapse, but one who lives a life of offense and abomination in the eyes of God and his people. As an unrepentant sinner, the only thing left for you is to burn in Hell for all eternity. And if you get hit by a bus on the way to Hell, no decent person is going to morn for you. You had it coming. See also, heathen, and infidel. Frankly, as a black male, I would rather be called a nigger.

While the bible depicts all sin as worthy of an eternity in Hell, it specifically calls out homosexuality as an abomination, unnatural. That makes the one who commits that particular sin unnaturally abominable. Can any of you imagine the level of hate and scorn that can be poured out on a person who is seen, not just as a sinner, but as one who is unnatural and abhorrent to God? I bet you can. This is how religion teaches people to think about those with a same-sex preference.

I’m sure you can think of other examples, but these are a few that come to mind. If you think about the message of Christianity, it is a bundle of hate wrapped in the cloak of love. The “good news” of the Christian scriptures is only made possible by the bad news inherent in the bible. That news is that we are all hopelessly fallen. Without God, we are worth less than kindling. “The heart of man is deceitful and desperately wicked. who can know it?” Every evangelist that has even brought the good news of Christ, has done so to people assumed to by horribly broken on a spiritual level. Offering a person the good news is like offering makeup to a woman. The implied message is that she really, really needs it.

As a non-theist, I do not find humanity to be fundamentally broken. We did not fall from heaven. We came up from the slime, and our progress continues apace. Religion would have us believe that we are hopelessly evil, cut off from any positive forces in the universe, and bound for an eternity of unspeakable torture. Real Christians think this way. They are taught this hate language from early childhood. The next time hate speech is the topic, don’t forget about religion: hate speech at its finest.

David Johnson

Student expelled for casting a spell and making a teacher sick

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…And just like that, we are down the rabbit hole, through the looking glass, and into an alternate dimension.

Last week, I published a roughly, 6,500 word piece on NOMA, and the myth of religious education. It probably alienated what few religious friends I had left. They probably shook their heads in a combination of disgust and pity over how bitter and misguided I have become in my post-Christian life. They might have thought I took a vaguely interesting point, and stretched it out of all realistic proportions. Then, along comes a story like this that makes me realize I didn’t go far enough, not by a long shot.

The following link is from the department of, I can’t make the stuff up:

Student Expelled for Casting a Spell

There are a few things you need to know about this story that are not clear from the source link. I have done quite a bit more research for more information. To begin with, this is a very old story. The events took place back in the year 2000, if not a bit earlier. The girl’s family sued the school, and lost. The religious implications were sanitized from the court proceedings. The girl was branded a troublemaker who routinely threatened students with spells and hexes. It was her threatening behavior that was the problem, not some mysterious illness suffered by a teacher.

The teacher in question, was not even the one who brought the charges. He had to leave school, suddenly, during what might have been a bout of appendicitis. I am unclear on who brought the charge against her. It was said that she had a pentacle on her hand at the time. She was working on a story about witchcraft, and had gained the reputation of being a which, and practicing member of the Wicca religion. She denied these accusations. Before her parents could get involved, she was harshly interrogated, said to have confessed to, something, and summarily expelled.

What does not seem to be in dispute was that the school accused her of making the teacher sick via some magical practice of the dark arts. She was labeled a witch by her peers, and became the victim of a modern-day witch hunt. This simply could not have happened without people believing in magic. These people are considered reasonable, responsible, and fit to oversee the education of the nation’s children. This is the public practice of private beliefs. This is what happens when religious nut jobs are placed in positions of responsibility, especially in positions of education.

Joann Bell, executive director of the ACLU’s Oklahoma chapter was quoted as saying, “I, for one, would like to see the so-called evidence this school has that a 15-year-old girl made a grown man sick by casting a magic spell.” The girl’s father stated, “It’s hard for me to believe that in the year 2000 I am walking into court to defend my daughter against charges of witchcraft brought by her own school.”

These things did happen, and very likely, continue to happen. In places that are heavily influenced by conservative religion, such things are almost inevitable. I found this description of the area:

The social and cultural tone in Broken Arrow, including its school district, is set by three hugely powerful fundamentalist Christian organisations: the Rhema Bible Training Center, whose founder Kenneth ”Dad” Hagin (http://www.clothdiapernation.com/vbforums/../h00.html#haginken) believes the Bible is a more effective healer than modern medicine and that wealth is a sign of God’s blessing upon the faithful; the Victory Christian Church; and, in nearby Tulsa, Oral Roberts University (http://www.clothdiapernation.com/vbforums/../o00.html#oru), best known for a notorious fund-raising appeal by its eponymous founder, who said God would kill him if he did not receive $4m from his supporters. (Miraculously, he survived.) According to the ACLU, the fundamentalists have consistently sought to erode the separation of church and state in Oklahoman schools, piping prayers through the intercom system and having school marching bands play evangelical hymns at sports events. At the same time, non-evangelical Christians and members of other religions are looked down upon and sanctioned whenever they display symbols of their own religious beliefs.

Catholics are regularly belittled by fundamentalists as idolators and told they will rot in Hell; occasionally, such views are expressed by teachers. Anyone sporting a pentacle – the proper term for the Wicca symbol – can expect to be accused of Satan-worship and membership of a criminal gang, as occasional ACLU lawsuits attest.

”We see a lot of problems with violations of individual religious liberty within public school systems in Oklahoma as the result of actions by over-zealous Christian fundamentalists who are often in charge,” said Michael Canfield, who works at the ACLU office in Oklahoma City.

(Regrettably, I was unable to locate the original source for the article.)

This happened here, right under our noses, and we were not paying attention. I like to think that we were not paying attention, because the alternative is that we were, and that we approved of what was going on. Never mind the implications of religious freedom, or separation of church and state. For the moment, those are side issues. The real horror is that there were enough people in powerful places who sincerely believed that the universe operates on the basis of ad hoc magic, wheedled by whomever seizes power at any given moment. It is also telling that these fundamental Christians believed that their omnipotent god could not protect one man from the magical incantations of a 15 yo girl. I am quite certain that this ironic, little fact has never crossed the laughably small minds of any of the religious nut jobs involved.

David Johnson

NOMA, and the myth of religious education

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NOMA stands for non-overlapping magisteria. It literally means the separate and exclusive areas of teaching authority distinctly held by science and religion, as espoused by Stephen Jay Gould in 1997:

http://www.stephenjaygould.org/library/gould_noma.html

There have been many excellent rebuttals to this work. Mine will be brief, as it is only the launching point to a larger theme. Education is the particular focus of this writing. My contention is that NOMA runs counter to the interests of quality education. More to the point, it makes religious education an oxymoronic proposition.

The biggest problem with NOMA is that it is a philosophy of appeasement. It is not an attempt to win the argument, but merely to end it. But ending an argument is not a terribly noble goal when higher ideals are at stake. Gould seems to abandon all scientific rigor and intellectual integrity for the sake of making peace. Arbitrarily, and without critical judgment, he elevates religion to religion’s equal. By fiat of himself, and without qualification, he grants it the unchallengeable teaching authority on any subject for which science has no current answers. That is not peace, but surrender, and a limp-wristed surrender at that.

From Wikipedia:

He draws the term magisterium from Pope Pius XII’s encyclical, Humani Generis (1950), and defines it as “a domain where one form of teaching holds the appropriate tools for meaningful discourse and resolution“,[2] and describes the NOMA principle as “the magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap, nor do they encompass all inquiry (consider, for example, the magisterium of art and the meaning of beauty).”[2]

Take note of the places where I have added emphasis. Gould writes religion a blank check in matters of ultimate meaning and moral values. Without qualification, he simply declares that religion has the tools for meaningful discourse and resolution with regard to these matters. Though he claims that the blank check offered to religion is limited to his narrowly specified areas, in practice, the magisterium of religion extends its tendrils in every aspect of human endeavor. This includes such matters as medicine and personal finance. In giving religion’s teaching authority an inch, Gould surrendered a mile.

While Gould’s position is an affront to intellectual integrity, it poses even greater risks to the integrity of our system of education. It opens the door to legitimizing religious education. Wile trying to elevate religion, Gould demotes education. That is because religion is a device without standards, while education is a device of the highest standards. When the two collide, something must give, and that something is educational integrity.

Containing religion

The problem with containing religion in its assigned magisterium is the problem of the camel’s nose under the tent. It starts with the nose, followed by the humps and the legs. Before you know it, the camel is in the tent, and you are on the outside. Religion has no desire to be contained. Being given half a loaf cannot appease it. While non-religious adherents of the NOMA doctrine may find it an acceptable compromise, religionists most certainly do not.

Of course religionists accept the unquestioned domain of ultimate meaning and moral values. They see that as their natural right. They believe that religion is the only place that such can be found. But they are also equally convinced that their domain includes art, politics, beauty, origins, and anything else for which science offers no definitive answers.

Even that is not the whole of it. Religion also claims as its domain, anything that science has not yet answered, even though those things may be within the magisterium of science. Once they claim the issue, even after science has an answer, religion almost never lets go without a fight. There was a time when rules of how to think about and deal with sickness were written into the sacred texts. Long after we learned about germs, religion still considered itself the authority on medicine. To this day, religion still retains for itself, ultimate authority in many matters of medical treatment.

The Judeo/Christian story begins with an origin story that, for many mainstream Christians, takes precedence over any and all scientific discoveries to the contrary. Since holy books do not confine themselves to matters of ultimate meaning and moral values, religionists are not inclined to do so, either. Arbitrarily assigning it a limited domain of teaching authority cannot contain religion.

Religion and ultimate meaning

The fact Gould assigned religion the domains of ultimate meaning and morality makes one wonder how much knowledge of religion Gould had. It is a bit like assigning wolves the ultimate meaning for sheep. They will be happy to do it. But you might want to check their history before giving them the job. For the church, the ultimate meaning of life is to fear God and keep his commandments. That is the whole duty of mankind. This is almost an exact quote from Ecclesiastes.

Of course, religion is the sole interpreter of God’s commandments. So those commandments are quite literally anything religion needs them to be. Give a tenth of your income to the priestly class, comes to mind. The church also retains the authority to define marriage and divorce, diet, and what you should do on your day off. God’s commandments are always very favorable to the church. Your ultimate purpose is to keep those commandments, as articulated by the church.

Gould mistakenly assumed that ultimate meaning as defined by the church, would be positive. He is only right if you are a Jew from the Hebrew scripture, or a Christian from the Christian scriptures. Outside of that, the outlook for your ultimate destiny is pretty bleak. Even if you are in one of those groups, your outlook is still questionable, as the bulk of the Jews were, themselves, destroyed in horrible ways. The Hebrew scriptures do not really end happily for the Jews. The Christian scriptures make it clear that the vast majority of the population is headed for destruction, and there is nothing they can do about it. Apparently, God habitually makes vessels meant for destruction. So much for life having a positive, ultimate meaning.

Religion and moral values

I think I would be more comfortable with an atheist serial killer in charge of morality. He has senselessly killed fewer people than has the god of the bible and his followers. God treats human life more casually than does bacteria. According to Genesis, on day six, he creates one family of humans. By chapter six, he wipes out all but one family of humans. He said he was sorry, and promised not to do it again. That promise, however, does not extend to the way life on earth is supposed to end. All but his chosen elite will once again be destroyed, this time, by fire instead of water. I’m sure he will be sorry for that, too. A few chapters later, he is back to mass executions, only this time, it is on the scale of great cities. And that was just the morality taught to the patriarchs.

Moses learned the morality of a god who specifically targeted the innocent to punish the guilty. The Egyptian lesson was the fertile soil from which the Ten Commandments grew. We can spend a lifetime debating what they mean. But at least we know they were consistent with the morality God taught Moses. Innocent babies are legitimate targets. The mass abduction, rape, and forced marriage of virgin girls are part of the spoils of war. Speaking of war, why stop at victory, when genocide is within your grasp?

Part of the moral law we get from Moses is that adultery is a sin punishable by death. We cannot legitimately say, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, without also saying, “Take the offenders to the edge of the city and stone them to death!” The same is true for homosexuality, and a whole host of offenses too numerous to mention. The prescription for the sin was not optional, but mandatory. My point is that the prescription for the sin is a part of the moral judgment.

That same moral judgment is also writ large in the Christian scriptures, particularly in the book of Romans. For much of that book, the subtitle could be, “Sin equals death”. That is a very consistent message throughout the bible. Like the most rabid, suicide bomber, the average Christian believes that morality requires you to die for your sins. It is just a minor disagreement over who should do the killing, and when it should be done. For the Christian, God should do the killing in his own time and way. But make no mistake about it; unrepentant sinners must die, and worse, as required by God’s moral judgment.

Gould blithely places the magisterium of morality in the hands of those who consistently prescribe the death penalty to all moral offenses. Whether said penalty is to be applied in this life or the next is irrelevant. Either way, sin equals death, and for that sin, somebody has got to die. The bible is inconsistent on the matter of exactly who should pay for sin. It is a constantly moving target. It starts out with one sin equals all pay. Then, one sin equals offspring pay. That shifted to one sin equals one pays. Finally, there is all sin equals one pays. That is not even all of the formulas one can derive from the bible. But it is enough to make the point. The last represents the most egregious moral atrocity.

I am, of course, referring to the sacrifice of Jesus. The gospel story is based on the human sacrifice of the most innocent of beings. This is not a moral prescription for moral offenses. This is an obscene barbarity! It is the precise equivalent of tossing babies into volcanoes to save the villagers from the wrath of the gods. Only, in the Christian version, it is God tossing the baby in the volcano for the sake of the villagers. Only then, can his wrath be appeased. Those are the people who Gould handed the keys to determining ultimate meaning and moral value.

Recovering lost ground: the magisterium of science

It is ironic that the burden of proof Is most often placed on the discipline of proof. Though science does not shrink from this burden, it does place science at an unfair disadvantage. Religion is required to prove nothing. It need merely assert that a thing is true for it to be considered warranted. Science cannot merely assert, hypothesize, or theorize. It must codify as scientific law, anything it wishes to insert into public discourse. Otherwise, it is viewed as suspect, especially if it contradicts what has been asserted by religion.

The irony is that religion cares nothing for evidentiary epistemology. Without evidence, it positively asserts that there is a god, and dares you to disagree. Taking the dare, you disagree, positively asserting that there is no god. Without hesitation or blush, religions shouts, “Prove it!” Holding true to the rigors of its discipline, science says, “I cannot.” Having no such rigor, religion says, “Therefore, you’re wrong.” Religion is very good at this game; science, not so much.

In this way, science has lost a lot of ground to religion, ground that it must win back. But that is not the only way science loses to religion. From the beginning, religion did a major land grab that encompassed everything. Religion already owns the ground Gould tried to preserve for science. Before science can make any claims about evolution, it has to fight for the ground already occupied by creationism. Science cannot simply make a clean presentation of the hard won facts. They first have to disprove creationism to the degree that no aspect of any of its assertions could possibly be true.

Origin stories were in the domain of religion long before anyone knew that science had anything to contribute. Now, no matter how much evidence science presents, it must compete with religion’s leftover, incumbent theories, many of which, religion has long discarded. Just because the Catholic church no longer denies evolution, does not mean that the authority of science is unchallenged. Many religious strongholds within religion still hold to the old, party line. The bad ideas of science get washed away in a day. The bad ideas of religion are seldom acknowledged, and often never go away entirely. Science still has to fight those religious holdouts that have not heard that the war is over.

So it is with everything religion touches. Stem cell research, a wholly scientific endeavor, cannot be pursued without running the gauntlet of religious battlements long established in that area of study. Religion loudly declares absolute certainty of when human life is formed in the womb. As it happens, science has no teaching authority in this particular domain. Religion insists on having the right of it. So science has to fight an entrenched opponent for every inch they can gain. To this day, the battle rages on, and it is not over the ethics of murdering children. Neither side is advocating that. Rather, it is over defining life at the cellular level. There should be no doubt about in which magisterium this matter belongs. But there is.

Medicine is another example where religion refuses to get out of the way, in an area where they clearly do not belong. All to tragically often, we can read stories about children who died because the parents were taught by religion, that the best way for healing to take place was through prayer, and the avoidance of secular medicine. Wellness through faith, not pharmaceuticals, is the only way to go for the true believer, and their helpless children.

Even mainstream churches practice some form of anointing the sick with oil and praying that their sins are forgiven, as prescribed in the latter part of the book of James. I have both seen it done, and had it done. In neither case was it intended to be a substitute for medical treatment. It was just one of those things that, otherwise, sane people did to be true to the dictates of religion, perhaps in the off chance that it had some healing benefit. Religion does not cede the field of medicine to science. Rather it endorses the use of approved treatments along side religious ritual. Even in this, science has to fight for ground that it should have for free. Such is the nature of the magisterium of science. It is a constant battle, and a battle for inches, at that. It is little wonder that education is suffering.

Religious education

Contrary to what you may have come to expect, I have no problem with religious education (oxymoronic as it is) as long as it was confined to the teaching of religion, and that all such education remained private, with $0 public funding. Anyone should be allowed to teach anything to anyone who wants to learn it, at any price, without any credentials. At that level, we’re just talking about commerce. If you want to take bicycle lessons from a vertiginous quadriplegic, you have every right to do so. Buyers beware.

At their core, religious educators are vertiginous quadriplegics who simply do not have the tools to teach what they say they can. The ultimate purpose of religion is to answer the existential questions that cannot be answered by other disciplines. Unfortunately, religionists are no more equipped to tell you the meaning of life, the universe, and everything, any more than is Scot Adams. 42 is just as valid an answer as anything that comes from a religious educator. What religious educators are left with is hardly worth the fees they charge. I can think of four areas fit for religious education that have nothing to do with answering the unanswerable: history, doctrine, and comparative religion, church leadership and administration.

There is little point in going to a church school to take a course in church history. All history is religious history in one form or another. No special affinity for religion is required if what you want to do is learn how religion has effected history, and history, religion. Just be a student of history, and the rest will take care of itself. Doctrinal studies are definitely something that a religious educator can teach, as doctrine is wholly fabricated by religion. However, this is taught for free at every church, every weekend. There is no need to take out a student loan for that.

Comparative religion is frequently taught at secular universities. Such studies are likely classified as philosophy. Again, no religious guru is required for this study. Outside of evangelistic efforts, there is little reason for anyone to care. Church leadership and administration are the only areas that make sense as a legitimate subject matter for a religious school. Churches have a great need of talented leaders and administrators. Secular schools can turn out great speakers, but not necessarily great preachers. And church administration is a bit more involved than general accounting.

But making church leaders and administrators is not a four-year endeavor. It is two at the most, and that is quite a stretch. Secular education provides the proper background for business leaders and administrators. Converting those skills for use in a church is trivial. Give me an MBA with a minor in psychology, and I will give you a head pastor in six months.

Religious education institutions know this as well. That is why they delve into areas of study beyond religion. There lies the problem. Secular studies are used to thicken the otherwise, thin gruel of religious studies. The blending does violence to both. Religious schools cannot help but teach secular courses with a religious taint. It may not show up in a subject like math, as technique trumps opinion in that discipline. In everything else, the effects can be seen and felt.

Preconceived notions foreign to the author’s intentions can easily taint the study of literature. Many books will be subtly banned because they do not advance the religious agenda. The same thing happens in philosophy. Opinions are easily skewed based on the dictate of the dominant agenda. Science suffers the most from this unholy marriage, as science is the biggest threat to religion. Neither literature nor philosophy can challenge faith-based truth claims. Science, on the other hand, can absolutely obliterate the truth claims of religion that happen to impinge on turf belonging to science.

Philosophy knows nothing of the age of the universe. Nor does literature. Math is utilized, but care nothing about how it is used. Only science possesses the tools for studying the question. This is rather inconvenient for religion, as it has already made definitive statements on the matter based on its own lights. Religion, therefore, has the unpleasant choice of reinterpreting what it has previously said on the matter based on scientific discovery, or reinterpreting science so that it accommodates what religion has already proclaimed.

Historically, the Catholic church has adjusted its message to stay in line with modern science. However, there is more to the story. The Catholic church has no interest in changing its doctrine in a way that will harm itself. There is often a long period of time between a scientific discovery, and the church’s acceptance of the discovery. During that time, the church examines the discovery against its doctrine. If there is a conflict, it is initially resolved in favor of the church. That stance will be maintained until the church can come up with a sufficient justification for being wrong, and a sufficiently graceful way to amend its former teaching.

This process ensures that the Catholic church will never be on the cutting edge of science. There will always be a time when students are encouraged to disregard what science is telling them, until the church has had an opportunity to sanitize it. Religious education is all about sanitizing information so that it suits the religious agenda.

Learning to think: the core of education

One may think of the core curriculum as the basic subjects every student has to master. However, the true core of all education is to teach students to think for themselves. Memorization of information is not the same as education. Learning how to research, study, and comprehend the important facts about information are far more valuable skills. Being told what to think has questionable utility. Knowing how to think supplies a lifetime of benefits.

Magical thinking: the Imaginarium

Imagine yourself in a bar, and find yourself one table over from your daughter’s physics professor. Your daughter is a gifted student who hopes to be an accomplished physicist. After one too many drinks, the professor starts waxing on about the way the universe really works. Interest piqued, you listen a little closer. The professor reveals that reality is crafted moment by moment based on who has the strongest imagination.

There is a smattering of uncomfortable laughter at the other table. Certain the professor was telling a joke, you continue to listen. Unperturbed, the professor offers an example of how at that very moment, the only reason everyone doesn’t just fall through the floor is because everyone imagines the floor is solid, and holds them. This time, no one is laughing.

Concerned, you keep listening. The professor assures his audience that the drinks would poor themselves back into the bottles if someone in the bar imagined it strongly enough. Hearing this, you decide that your daughter would be much better off at another university. You may not know much about physics. But you know that matter is not held together by imagination power.

Later, you discover that the professor is just one of many faculty members who recruit students into the cult of the Imaginarium. The brother and sisters of the Imaginarium devote their lives to systematically imagining some aspect of the universe. Some are devoted to imagining solid ground beneath our feet, while others imagine that we do not simply float off into the imaginary ether. Things like earthquakes and tsunamis occur when there are not enough imagineers properly doing their job.

The History department offers special courses on the influence of imagineers throughout history. You can also learn about the great, Imaginerium digs and archeological discoveries that bolster their truth claims. Imaginarium literature and music are also central themes at this university. Every department is heavily influenced by Imaginarium dogma. Thing is, they also teach enough Shakespeare, math, accounting, and science to maintain accreditation. Despite the true things they teach, everything from that university must be considered suspect.

Magical thinking: theistic religion

To my knowledge, there are no Imaginarium universities. There are, however, religious universities, about which, one should be equally dubious. At religious universities, faculty encourage students to seek a relationship with the invisible, magical friend who lives in the sky, and holds the universe together with his irresistible will on a moment by moment basis.

The invisible, magical sky friend likes to be loved and worshiped. After saying nice things about him and bad things about yourself, you can telepathically make requests of him that will shape your reality on a moment-by-moment bases. These reality-shaping requests include personal safety during travel, storms, and home assaults. Your friend will also help you with personal finance, employment issues, and even jigger the outcome of football games in the favor of your favorite team.

Naturally, your reality-shifting power includes at least one miraculous healing for yourself, and someone you love. By telepathic request, you can also effect the health and life situations of other people in your life, as well as random people you meet throughout the day. Frankly, there is more magical thinking promoted in the average, Christian university, than there is in all of the imaginary Imaginariums, combined.

This being the case, one would expect more skepticism about religious education than what seems to exist. A physics teacher who believes in the routine application of magic, is as suspicious as a doctor who asks for magical intervention just before he makes the incision. In the case of the doctor, he seems to be acknowledging that he is only partially competent to practice medicine. The real life or death events are dictated entirely by magic.

The physics teacher who prays before class either has a problem with integrity, or he is a truly bad teacher, espousing magic in the place of science. He simply cannot accurately teach about the nature of the universe while, in his mind, routinely and casually exercising magical powers that shape and order the workings of the universe. If he honestly believes that his prayerful incantations can alter the uncountable trillions of interactions that determine if he lives or dies on his commute, then he is truly unfit to teach science to impressionable minds. Either he is only pretending to be a scientist, or pretending to be a Christian. If he is sincerely trying to be both, then he cannot be very good at either.

Epistemology: the philosophical basis of knowledge

I’m not going to lie to you; this is a deep subject. If you do not have your hip boots on, are not intellectually muscular, and have a few trillion neurons to spare for a questionably useful enterprise, you might want to avoid the topic on an academic level. I will not be going anywhere near an academic discussion of the subject. Because knowledge is the fundamental building block to education, I cannot avoid the topic altogether. But I sincerely want to.

Keeping it on the most basic of levels, the fundamental question epistemology attempts to answer is, how do you know what you know. What is the basis of your thinking that you know anything at all? What constitutes knowledge? Is it the certainty of accurate information, or can it be something less? Can it simply be the reasonable belief in something that might ultimately prove to be inaccurate?

For example, I know my name. I know it with the highest level of certainty that a human can have on any matter. If I am wrong about this, then I might be wrong about everything. I also know my best friend’s name. However, I will allow that I could be wrong about the spelling of his name, or whether or not he even has a middle name. I know his name. But if I happened to be wrong about it, even in a material way, that would not shake my confidence about other things I know. In both cases, I know what I know. But in one case, I know it much more strongly, and on a different basis. This is the stuff of epistemology.

Education and knowledge

Though education is much more than the acquisition of accurate information, can it really be called education in the absence of accurate information? I think not. If one can be an educator without imparting any knowledge of accurate information, then anyone can be an educator. There would be no difference between the accomplished physicist, and the barfly who holds court every Friday night on how imagination, not gravity, keeps us all bolted to the floor. Why should one be allowed to teach at a university, while the other is confined to blathering on at a bar?

Cliff Clavin, the beloved character on the hit series, “Cheers”, routinely held forth on subjects about which he clearly knew absolutely nothing. Though delivered with the confidence of a Harvard professor, his explanations grew increasingly outrageous the longer he talked. That’s what made it funny. With Cliff, we knew he was full of it, even if he didn’t. He made a career of being certain about things he only pretended to know.

We expect more of our university professors. Religion, however, is based on pretending to know things that cannot possibly be known. Much of religion is about creating a salve for our existential angst regarding death. This leads religion to say things about death that are wholly unscientific, and speculative at best. To fight that angst, religion posits that the true nature of humanity is eternity. Death only refers to the physical body. The true person is not physical, but spiritual. We are made up of spirits or souls. The bodies we currently inhabit are but temporary containers in which we are passengers. Once our bodies expire, our souls move on the next phase of a never-ending life.

I have no objection to this type of speculative fiction just as long as it stays in the realm of fiction. Purveyors of religion can invent any origin story that pleases them, and sell it to all the emotionally vulnerable people who want to buy it. For me, it only becomes a problem when speculative fiction masquerades as education. At that point, the mask must be forcibly removed.

To be perfectly clear, when a preacher stands before an audience and proclaims that a deceased person is alive in a better place, he is lying! Even if it is somehow true that the person is still alive and in a better place, the preacher would have no certain knowledge of this. The best he can ever do is make his best guess on the matter, and acknowledge that he hopes that is the case, but otherwise, has no idea. Religionists are not in the business of admitting that they are utterly clueless.

Even if one argues that religionists offer a valuable service to their clientele, it cannot be said that what they offer is knowledge. In fact, what comes from religion tends to interfere with the free exchange of information that leads to knowledge. It is not that religion offers additional insight into science; rather, it offers an alternative, a challenge to scientific knowledge. Religious acolytes who wish to stay true to the dictates of their calling, cannot in good faith, freely accept the pronouncements and discoveries offered by science. Only after a new discovery has been acceptably filtered through the story of religion, will it be considered acceptable knowledge.

Knowledge always suffers when filtered. As knowledge filters go, religion is the harshest of them all. Whatever knowledge may be contained in a piece of information simply cannot survive unscathed, when run through the filter of religion. Before the Catholic church could accept evolution, it had to get the OK from the pope. First, there had to be a filter that stipulated that evolution is a directed work of the creator god of the bible. This is neither the message of science, nor the direction in which the evidence leads. To put it in scientific terms, the filter taints the sample. There can be no true education if the knowledge sample is tainted.

Costly detours

Chasing religion is an expensive hobby due to costly detours. If a family wants to take a vacation, and decides to take a random, left turn every 30 miles, just to see where it might take them, more power to them. They will likely never arrive at their destination, but that is their choice. If, however, an ambulance driver decided to take unnecessary detours on the way to the hospital with a critical patient onboard, those detours are more costly. They simply cannot be allowed to occur.

Religion is constantly throwing up roadblocks and detours in front of science that ultimately slow down, if not halt, the progress of human civilization. How much progress might we have made if we had not spent the last 150 years arguing over whether the universe was created by a benevolent alien over the period of six days, about 6,000 years ago? Where might we be today, had we not lost so much time debating fact versus myth, and allowing myth as if the two were equal? How advanced might medical care be if the church hadn’t gotten into the business of diagnosing illness and prescribing magical treatments?

Chasing religious superstition has cost us knowledge cycles in the areas of astronomy, biology, phycology, and physics. There is no area of hard or soft science that has not suffered from the roadblocks and detours erected by religion. It is still happening to this day, and to deadly effects. The AIDS epidemic in Africa can be directly tied to the religious teachings of the Catholic church.

For ages, the Catholic church has had a prohibition against birth control. Because of this strict prohibition, condom use is forbidden. Because of rampant prostitution, a problem the good Christians seem incapable of easing, condoms might be the things that saves the continent. But the people are deeply Catholic, deeply superstitious, and deeply ignorant of the way the world works. The Catholic church is actively spreading misinformation in that population, claiming that condoms actually cause AIDS. The will say and do anything to support their religious position:

The Pope says condoms cause HIV AIDS. Catholic charity worker agrees, by ranting uncontrollably on live TV.

At this very moment, religion is actively killing people. Faith healers are killing people by pretending to heal their desperate clients, and telling them to stop taking their medications. Parents are killing their children by refusing medical care for the children, replacing it only with the spiritual healing of the clergy. Part of the justification of killing so many slaves in the Middle Passage is that many good Christians were convinced that it was their duty to Christianize the black Africans at any cost, even if it killed them. You may be inclined to dismiss these examples as fringe extremes that do not in any way, represent the teachings of mainstream religion. The thousands upon thousands of dead victims would vehemently disagree. It was mainstream religion to them. What do we expect when both implicitly and explicitly, we teach at the university level that prayer is an effective way to deal with medical issues?

Religion: the enemy of education

No one would ever accuse a slave master of wanting to educate the slaves. Education is opposed to the interest of slave masters. That is why during the slavery times, it was illegal for slaves to learn to read. Blacks in the South still suffer from the prohibition against education all those many years ago. The Catholics would know something about this sort of thing, as they also strongly discouraged their members not to read the bible, lest they be confused by what they encounter. All spiritual instruction was to come from the priestly class. It was also opposed to the church’s best interest to have an educated laity.

Seeing Catholics claim respect for education is as laughable as if slave masters were to make such a claim. Unfortunately, the Catholics are not alone when it comes to men of the cloth discouraging and disparaging secular education. If the Christian scriptures are to be believed, the lack of formal education seems to be a badge of honor. Education is derided and avoided throughout the Christian scriptures. The Hebrew scriptures seem to have very little to say about education. God’s chosen people were nomadic agrarians. Their time with God did not enhance their status as an educated people. The Egyptians were known for their education; the Jews, not so much. God never prioritized it.

Jesus was never presented as a man of education. Perhaps he was a fine, country speaker, but not an educated man. He went out of his way to choose disciples who were equally unlettered. His main audience was the illiterate peasant class of the countryside. Almost all of the interaction Jesus had with educated people was hostile. When Jesus encountered a Pharisee who was interested in his teaching, Jesus found a way to insult him. When a rich young ruler wanted to follow him, Jesus found the one thing to say that sent the would-be acolyte on his way, dejected. Of all the people Jesus could have called to his cause, he settled on the ones who likely couldn’t write their own names.

The one educated man recognized as an apostle by some, Paul, spent an inordinate amount of time denigrating the very idea of education for believers. He made sure to reject his own education as something worth nothing more than a steaming pile of poop. Then, he derided anyone with education by suggesting that the wisdom of God seems like foolishness to men, and those who think themselves wise (educated) are nothing but fools. He made it very clear that there was no point in secular education for his followers.

It is little wonder that religion quickly became a tool for the educated, to manipulate the uneducated masses. When general education became available to the masses, the church made sure to get ahead of the problem by offering their own version of education. To this day, it remains the type of education that leaves students confused and distrustful of scientific discovery. It is the kind of education that can ban books and art, and skew medical discussions in the wrong direction. Religious education is not just oxymoronic; it is a plague that has wreaked havoc on society, and must be abolished if true education is to have a chance. Christian education produces good Christians, but bad thinkers.

Conclusion: bad thinking leads to bad results

A physics professor who believes that tiny filaments of Swiss cheese hold the universe together, a biology professor who is certain that Elvis and Hitler go bowling every Tuesday night, an astronomy professor who insists that the sun revolves around the earth, a history professor who believes that there is an angel with a magic sword guarding the entrance to a garden that contains a magic tree, a paleontology professor convinced that humans routinely lived for hundreds of years, and that animals talked like humans: all have at least one thing in common. They are all welcome at religious universities.

Swiss cheese physics is more sensible than the physics of the bible. Biology professors at Christian universities believe in human resurrection, not just in the next life, but this one, as the bible has many such examples. All of these beliefs are based on bad thinking. Bad thinking does not lead to good ideas, or good outcomes. Even reputable universities have such teachers in them. That goes a long ways towards explaining why education in this country has gone straight to hell.

David Johnson