Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Common Misconceptions

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Nothing demonstrates that better than the way some religious fundamentalists with little or no familiarity with science use random bits of information from the popular press or casual conversation to claim that science validates God and religious dogma. A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with a theist who had apparently heard about work being done in physical anthropology to trace the genetic ancestry of the human race. She ecstatically proclaimed that it had been scientifically proven that Adam and Eve were real. For anyone actually following the research this kind of statement is stunning in its ignorance. Of course I will say that many researchers tend to fan the ardent fire of these believers when they use Biblical names or Biblical references in their research. And journalists can’t resist headlines like; Have Scientists Discovered Adam and Eve? It’s a sure way to sell magazines. The problem is that many lay people don’t get past the title and a quick skim of the opening paragraph. Their conclusions aren’t really surprising. It actually seems that people are telling them that science has found Adam and Eve.

Of course, if they bothered to read the actual research (assuming they could understand it) they would see that it does not remotely support Biblical genesis stories – nor could it. Yes, we do all have common ancestors but no one is seriously claiming that two people suddenly appeared and started a family that led to the entire human race. Even if that had happened, this research is statistical analysis of a fairly small number of DNA samples and there is no way for it to trace back to specific people. It is abundantly clear that we did not all descend from one mated pair of humans a long time ago. However, this kind of research has concluded that all living humans have two common ancestors, one female who is a everyone’s common ancestor and one male who is a common ancestor of all living men. These are called our most recent common ancestors (MRCA). This does not imply that we have found their bodies. As I said, it has only been calculated through DNA analysis.

The analysis suggests that our female MRCA lived about 140,000 to 200,000 years ago and our male MRCA lived about 60,000 - 90,000 years ago (determined through molecular clock and genetic marker studies). They were obviously not contemporaries. They were separated in time by tens of thousands of years. I think it's safe to say that these two people didn't even know each other, much less have babies together. Mitochondrial-Eve is the female MRCA of all humans as traced via mitochondrial DNA passed only through the maternal line. Y Chromosome Adam is the male MRCA all living men as traced via the Y Chromosome passed only through the paternal line. We all have Mitochondrial DNA but only men have the Y Chromosome.

Another misconception theists take from this research is that it is tracing lines back to when only one set of people lived. However, Mitochondrial Eve was not the only woman in her day and Y Chromosome Adam was not the only living man in his day. If that had been the case, the human race would be extinct. The existence of a most recent common ancestor does not imply that there was a population bottleneck or a first couple. It is very likely that they were part of large populations. Each of these other people who were their contemporaries potentially has living descendents today although some lines have died out. As a matter of fact, the MRCA will change when a line dies out. This all might seem like a paradox but it can be easily explained, if the nature of genetic lineage is taken into account. I won't go into it. You can look it up if you are interested. There is something about this that theists can gloat about if they want. For what it’s worth this research does indicate that humans originated in Africa which is the continent where the Bible stories take place.

Note: I will be on vacation for the next week so don't expect any new posts or responses for a while. WF


Anonymous said...

Did you get a chance to read my comments left on your other posts? There is a setting in blogger if you wish to be e-mailed any time someone leaves a comment on your blog, just fyi. Just curious to your response on my comments. you can reply to me @ tajinaz36@yahoo.com

Dragnet said...

I have been experiencing a number of interesting conversations lately since I "came out" as an atheist.
I recently spoke with a co-worker about my belief in the NON-existence of god. I should say that I do NOT recommend talking politics or religion at work as these types of discussions can leave bad feelings between people and then be unable to work together in any meaningful way. But I digress.
One of the things we talked about was how he felt he could give me evidence of creation because of a Discovery channel show that explained the big bang in a way that was "not in conflict" with the bible.
Well, he started it. So I pointed him to a few places where he could get some information. and proceeded to converse about how stories in the bible could and were ripped off from earlier civilizations and combined to make a theology work for the group that had strung them together.
In civilizations, if you want to control your population you give them something to believe and educate them in the things you want them to know and you can then reap the rewards as you sit in your temple/palace and everybody pays you to keep god happy. It is easy to blame them for sinning if things don't go right them. After all you are having a fine time so it must be them. As we grew in population and new ideas (or old ones) came about people tried to isolate themselves from these different ideas and became more and more segregated. Differences of opinion are a byproduct of more than one person occupying a room at the same time. In today's world, religion is going to either kill us all or cease to exist. It is like a quote from Frank Zappa. Communism won't work, because people like to own stuff. It the same for religion. It can't work because it is imperfect. In order for it to be perfect , everybody has to think the same way. As long as the text of any system has flaws, (ALL OF THEM DO) then the interpretations will differ. If god wanted all people to believe that same thing then asking some poor schmuck to write it down was a huge mistake. If God can make mistakes then it is not a god.
This is really just re-iterating the same old stuff from others but it makes me feel better to have said it.

prav said...

Just came across ur link from an IMDB post u had left.. Very interesting and thought provoking.. Will try to read more of your earlier blogs.. Am an agnostic, btw.

Thom said...

Will, I came to find your blog from godisimaginary.blogspot.com. I am looking forward to reading what you’ve written here.

I did want to propose a thought to you (indirectly related to this post). I am assuming that anyone who claims Atheism is asserting at least some confidence in the non-existence of any God. Now, from a science perspective, I hear that God is un-provable, so therefore He does not exist. I want to propose this for thought. I propose that since science, by definition, is limited to the "natural" world, that by declaring the possibility of the existence of a "supernatural" world - meaning a world that is not bound by nor even operating under natural law - the possibility, then, of God does exist.

Now, ill take a moment to say, yes, I’ve heard of the famous Flying Spaghetti Monster. And if one were to claim that such a creature existed and was also unattainable through the 5 natural senses then there must be a possibility of existence. -I do not represent the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I will leave it up to his followers to pursue that matter.

Moving on... my point here is to test the theory of scientific limitation. Once upon a time, educated men believed that that earth was flat – due to limited data. By definition, science is limited to the 5 natural senses – perhaps it will not always be. But for now, yes, and so are we calling the earth flat when we say that God does not exist because He cannot be proven, tested, observed, etc. under our current capabilities?

Simply something to ponder

(if anything I’ve stated above concerning the atheistic pov is askew, please let me know – most of what I’ve learned thus far is a combination of past public education and some internet resource including Richard Dawkins among others) -tg

Dragnet said...

I just read your post.
I cannot speak for Will, however from my perspective I will make these observations.
First I must assume based on your comments that you have a belief that there is a supernatural being responsible for ALL creation.
I will grant you this. Science does NOT state that god does NOT exist. Science state that God is not testable or provable. I can allow for the possibility of a supernatural being, I am highly skeptical and find multitudinous evidence to the contrary, but I still can allow for it in science.
Faith on the other hand does NOT allow for the possibility of NON existence. When you can accept the possibility of there not being a God then we can speak on equal terms regarding natural and supernatural laws...
Just MY 6.3452789 cents worth.

Thom said...

I feel that this is still in line with the topic to an extent…
…Will, if I’m wrongfully taking up room on this post, let me know.


Thanks so much for reading and posting. I appreciate that. It was brief, but chock full of points that I would like to discuss each individually. I only hope I can be as concise.

1. must assume. Truth be told, yes, I am a Christian – for what that’s worth. However, I think we should nip in the bud the practice of assuming predispositions for the sake of this communication. To be hard predisposed would be bane to any rational discussion.

2. science grant. Just so we’re on the same page here, according to science, God cannot be naturally observed, tested, etc., and science makes no claim to any absolutes towards the existence of God. It merely raises the question of probability. Yes?

3. evidence. I am happy to hear that you can allow (internally I assume) for the possibility of God and skepticism is all good. You do mention that you have access to the evidence that directly points to the non-existence of God – I would love for you to share.

4. faith. Lets define this. Now, after reading further in Will’s posts yesterday, I did find the answer (I think) to my original posted pondering. Will did write to great length about this word on an earlier post. To quote -

"It is up to reasonable people to infer the condition that faith should be based on evidence and experience... They [religions] ask for faith without factual evidence..." (bracketed insert is my own). Now, Will, I’m not trying to slice and dice here, I just wanted to bring out the points that I wanted to address directly.

So… so as defined by Will, I would say you are incorrect to say that faith does not allow the possibility of non-existence. Rather, I believe that Will would say that ‘rational’ faith would lean more towards non-existence than the contrary because there is no factual evidence for existence. Example: I would say that Richard Dawkins has faith in the fact that God does not exist due to the evidences as he has perceived them. –yes? But I would like to propose a redefinition – that trust should be used as a term that implies some credibility based on factual evidences, but faith should refer soley to a type of trust that is completely lacking verifiable evidence. (and yes I use verifiable on purpose) :]

Okay, okay, now if that sounds completely stupid… Stupid is a word too, right? And no one would want that term applied to them, but nonetheless it is a term reserved to describe those who are, at least from the first persons pov, stupid. And so I propose that we establish this term as stated above – which I would guess any of you would loath to be associated with – so that it can be used to quickly distinguish exactly what a supernatural belief system is founded upon. –agreed?

Now, as if that horse wasn’t dead enough… On that change in definition, I would still say that you are incorrect in saying that FAITH does not allow the POSSIBILTY of non-existence. It is a personal choice that one must consciously make. As I’ve heard it said, “a conscious decision to remove all rationality and logic.” Just because I say I believe God is real, doesn’t mean that He is. He either is or He isn’t, regardless of what I believe (some would argue this point, that reality is in the mind – I would say that there is only one reality. Just like with children – there’s his story, her story, and then there’s the truth).

5. “When you can accept the possibility of there not being a God then we can talk on equal terms.” See point #1

6. supernatural law. I must admit when I saw this, I did giggle a little. I didn’t know that we had laws established that governed the unknown, undiscovered, un-testable supernatural realm. That’s good. :D

7. pointless. This isn’t really one of my points. I just wanted to say that I enjoyed the 6.3452789 and it reminded me of yesterday the fact that Will has exactly 42 problems with religion (I had wondered if that was on purpose or not). :D

Thanks again for you comments. I would love to continue this conversation. We could move it to either of our own blogs if Will is not seeing his place in this conversation. I’m at http://isthatlifesnotfair.blogspot.com/ or http://whatisimaginary.blogspot.com/


cool… I just noticed that my last pointless point was #7 :D

Will Friday said...


I enjoyed reading your comments. I can see that you have been putting a lot of thought into these questions. I don't know how long it has been since you started your metamorphosis but I can certainly sympathize with your struggle to navigate around the flaws in theological explanations. I think one place we differ is in our attitude toward our involvement with Christianity. I don’t look on my Christian period as a good thing. I think of it as wasted time. Unlike you, I did not start out agnostic and then convert to Christianity. I was indoctrinated into the faith as an infant. I had little choice. It was constantly drummed into me from the day I was born that God was real and Jesus died to redeem us from our sins. The fact that I was eventually able to recognize and admit the utter failure of religion is what made me leave it behind. I don’t regret it.

I’m sure I already said this but, I didn’t make the break with theism until I was almost thirty. However, I began to have questions long before then. I feel like I lost a lot of time in my progress toward understanding reality and the universe so I try to make up time by studying and pondering so much that some would call it obsessive. The quest to understand and resolve these problems has been a consuming endeavor. I have been seriously trying to rationally comprehend and collate all the evidence for over half of my life. I learn new things all the time. And each new thing I learn generates more questions. Like Einstein, the more I know, the more I realize I don’t know. Now, please don’t think I consider myself the intellectual equal of Einstein. The extent to which I understand my lack of understanding may be the only way in which I resemble him.

You succinctly pointed out that the first hurdle in transitioning from theist to atheist is overcoming the fear of hell and of losing all that religion promises. It also is very insightful of you to recognize that the element of self-doubt that is instilled by religion is a key factor in keeping people mired in religious dogma. As you say, many Christians (and other theists) can’t get past that part. They are even emotionally attached to that very fear and self doubt. So much so in fact, that they will vehemently defend it as if it is precious to them. As you can see, it works very well. That is why the fear motivation and psychological bondage is used. It is very difficult for most people to overcome. The notion that our “heart” can be used as a guide to the truth is clearly religious misdirection. Hearts do not think. They pump blood. We should use clear terminology as well as focus on rational arguments. What religion refers to as our heart is essentially emotion. They try to rein us in by appealing to our emotions when our intellect starts to lead us away.

The next difficulty is getting past the ingrained tendency toward magical and mystical thinking. It is a large part of our theistic lives and there is layer upon layer of erroneous dogma to get through. To paraphrase something from Shrek, I think it is a bit like peeling away the layers of an onion. As I was able to shed one layer of religious indoctrination, I found there was another layer underneath that I had to deal with. Each layer seemed to be more firmly attached and more difficult to dislodge. No matter how long I live, I’m sure I will always have to consciously push aside the doctrine and dogma that creeps into my mind in times of stress. I know it is of no value but it haunts me like an old ex-girlfriend.

My journey of discovery evolved through many stages. First I tried to make everything jibe with my theistic perspective and magical thinking. Then I moved to a less dogmatic but still mystical perspective. It took a long time to arrive at what I consider a completely rational perspective. I started out trying to theorize ways that God could fit into the observable phenomena. One of my early attempts was to envision God's love as the force that holds subatomic particles in place. When you say that I “had your number” in “Just God, hold the religion”, I think you mean that you did something similar in your life. But how could it be otherwise? Religious indoctrination is a very persistent thing. In any case, I realized somewhere along the way that if we want to speculate wildly and allow for magical answers, we will always be able to make room for God. It is only when we limit our explanations to verifiable and testable hypotheses that we can discover real usable answers and overcome the need for the God hypothesis.

I apologize for taking so long to respond. Life has been making a lot of demands on my time lately and I've missed my writing.

Dragnet said...

I think moving this discussion to the next post from Will is better than taking it elsewhere, as this is the place it started.
My answers to your points will be there.