In Which The Universe Revolves Around Robert Sungenis – Part 2

See Part 1, in which I discuss the lecture, here

Let me begin by apologizing for the delay in completing this analysis. Needless to say, it was a daunting task to dissect the debate in a comprehensive way. Although I cannot possibly encompass the extent of ridiculousness that occurred that evening, I humbly offer my very best attempt. 

“A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

– Charles Haddon Spurgeon, often falsely (and ironically) attributed to Mark Twain

After “Dr.” Sungenis’ performance the previous evening, I must confess that I was quite excited by the prospect of having someone debate him. He clearly was an experienced orator, but it was hair-pullingly aggravating to have to sit through a solid hour of his verbal diarrhea. The prospect of someone calling him out on his insane conclusions delighted me, though I must admit that I had trepidations as well. I knew in advance that the individual who had stepped forward to debate Dr. Sungenis was not a professor of Astronomy, or even a graduate of that program. They had recruited, with a week’s notice, an undergraduate student. A knowledgable undergrad, but nonetheless, it hardly seemed fair.That none of the faculty stepped forward to open the can of proverbial whoop-ass was disappointing. I would have sorely loved to see him verbally eviscerated.

Nonetheless, the introductions began on a similar note as the night before. Mr. Adam Cousins, undergraduate. Dr. Robert Sungenis, doctorate! Again, the moderator emphasizes Dr. Sungenis’ penis thesis length, as if this should be impressive. I believe we have happened upon a new fallacy, my friends:

Argumentum ad book length-ium

Although, perhaps I should give some credit, as I confess that unlike the good doctor, I would probably not be able to vomit 700 pages worth of logically untenable text. I suspect I would be all tuckered out by page 40 and be ready for a nice cup of tea and a nap.

In any case, the statement to be debated was “A geocentric system is a false cosmological assumption.” Notice that this put Adam on the positive side of the debate – it was his job to defend reality, rather than to attack Dr. Sungenis’ argument. It was also worded in such a way that it could not be argued that geocentrism can be a useful cosmological assumption, as a frame of reference, say, in the orbit of the moon. Ultimately, the debate was asking Adam to prove Dr. Sungenis as wrong, rather than Dr. Sungenis having to prove himself correct. It is a subtle distinction, but utterly key in maintaining an unfair advantage. As long as Dr. Sungenis could plant some seed of a doubt, demonstrate that in some minute way that geocentrism was possible, the debate was his to win.

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xkcd makes being nerdy awesome

xkcd is my favourite thing on the internet. The lunch area for my research building always has at least two xkcd comics posted (beside the research papers about the zombie apocalypse and tasering sheep). How he manages to capture everything that is fantastic and yet self-acknowledgingly geeky about being in science in a few panels of stick figures never ceases to amaze me. Maybe it’s just a scientist thing though – I send Jusarious comics all the time and he barely finds them amusing. Still, I’m having an extremely dull day, and today’s comic makes it all worth while.

Absolutely. Brilliant.

A loss of faith in Faith

I cannot pretend that there is a single, simple explanation for the precipitous drop in church attendance over the past few generations. Like most sociological situations, it is certainly a multifaceted problem with numerous, concurrent reasons. Certainly, the recent push of New Atheism has found its audience, but the majority of Canadians still identify as religious, even in the absence of any sort of religious involvement. Why do “believers” not attend church – or synagogue, or mosque or temple?

Although self-identification as atheist/agnostic/spiritual is increasing over the past 25 years, so are the affiliated but uninvolved. Notice the at least monthly group would still allow for a subgroup of the devout weekly attendees.

A recently published study by Papyrakis and Selvaretnam in the International Journal of Social Economics partially answers this question. Religious activity, they argue, decreases because our lifespan is increasing. When your average Canadian lives to be 81 years old, the expected “payoff” of religion – heaven, afterlife, reincarnation – is so dramatically delayed that the cost-benefit ratio is quite literally not worth it for most people.

In this respect, a higher life expectancy discounts more heavily any expected benefits and costs in the afterlife and is hence likely to lead to postponement of religiosity and ageing congregations. For the same reason, any contemporaneous benefits linked to religious participation (e.g. in the form of expanding a person’s social circle, communal activities, spiritual fulfilment, support and guidance) are likely to weigh more heavily in the decision-making process compared to what might happen in the less certain and far distant afterlife.

According to our analysis, religious organisations should be hence prepared to attract older members to the congregations… While many religious organisations place particular emphasis on increasing youth membership, they should not lose sight of incentives needed to attract older people… In light of rising life expectancy, it is important to emphasise contemporaneous socio-spiritual benefits, rather than uncertain rewards in the afterlife.

They contrast data from the developed world with that of underdeveloped countries like Nigeria, where with a life expectancy of just shy of 50 years old, the afterlife is something that needs to be attended to much earlier. The paper goes into some intense mathematical modeling that I cannot pretend to fully comprehend, but ultimately the point they are attempting to make is clear. Human actions are at least in part, based on analysis of cost-benefit ratios. If I subscribe to a Christian doctrine, ultimately, church attendance for my entire life isn’t going to help me get into heaven. When I’m old, and Death looms ominously in the shadowy corners of my house, I’ll repent then and deal with a more tangible reward. You can hardly expect people who become impatient with 3 minutes of commercial breaks to be proactive for 50 years down the road, especially if doing it later does not hurt their capacity for reward. Ultimately, this is a glorified restatement of Pascal’s Wager combined with procrastination. I’ll be religious because it can’t hurt my odds – but later.  The afterlife is so rarely a threat to young Canadians that hedging your bets can wait. It is better to be ambivalent than to be committed to something that will not benefit you for decades.

Combine the increasing life expectancy with a dramatically decreased infant mortality rate (grief and comfort surely intensify religious conviction), corruption of church officials,  and frequent denial of scientific reality perpetuated by the church, and you have an excellent cocktail for creating heathens.  And ultimately, if religion functioned as more than fire insurance, if it truly was fulfilling an innate need to have a close personal relationship with God, wouldn’t all of this be irrelevant?

The ‘F’ Word

Why is it that I feel the need to preface my thoughts on feminism with an apology? I feel compelled to justify even mentioning the topic, to add some sort of asterisk to it.  I want to start this with “I’m strongly feminist, but…” as if I need to make an excuse for believing I should be equal to my male counterparts in respect, pay, and rights. Feminist has been hijacked as a dirty word, an adjective for ugly, androgynous women with butch haircuts and a hate-on for men. So often, feminism is dismissed, even by women, with a wave of a hand. Pshaw, they say. Women may have needed feminism in the 60’s, but this is now. We are equal. Feminism is a relic of the past.

It's quite passe, really. That handkerchief is so three decades ago.

The reality is that we are not done fighting that fight.  Sexism may not be overt – federal law prevents that – but what has replaced it is something that I will term “rational sexism.” It’s the sort of principle that is all the more harmful because even the individual that holds the views can justify them as fair. It’s sexism masquerading as reason. How else could you explain that women – even educated, intelligent and skilled women – consistently make less than their male counterparts, are promoted less, are elected to political office less frequently? Why, when discussing the rights of a fetus, do the rights of the mother become irrelevant? There is something subconscious, something which influences our decisions and opinions that we can rationalize away.

Some of the most repugnant rationalizations for sexism are religious ones. I have dealt with these first-hand as I have several devout family members who are prone to literal Biblical interpretations. I was once given a well-meaning relationship advice talk on the basis of the following passages:

“Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as it is fit in the Lord.” (Col 3:18)

“Let the women learn in silence with all subjection. But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence. For Adam was first formed, then Eve. And Adam was not deceived, but the woman being deceived was in the transgression.” (I Timothy 2:11-14)

Though that discussion was possibly the most horrifying conversation I have ever found myself in at a Wendy’s, the manifestation of such philosophies is far from abstract philosophizing about a woman’s role in society.  A woman’s reproductive health, and essentially her freedom and independence, are under constant religious pressure.  Planned Parenthood is at risk of losing all federal funding in the U.S. because it also happens to provide non-federally funded abortions. Numerous states presently have pro-life legislation on the table, including one bill in Florida that would force women to view an ultrasound before being given access to an abortion. These are not just concerned citizens who have an ethical concern with abortion for logical reasons. In a telling example of rationalization, Idaho has approved a bill banning abortions after 20 weeks, even in cases of rape and incest. Why? Well, because the “hand of the Almighty” was at work.

“His ways are higher than our ways,” State Representative Brent Crane said. “He has the ability to take difficult, tragic, horrific circumstances and then turn them into wonderful examples.”

Yep, so don’t worry ladies – if you get raped by your uncle, it’s because God wanted it that way. You’re meant to suffer horribly to serve as an example to others. The women’s opinion is irrelevant because we know what God wants. We’re not being misogynistic, we’re just doing God’s Will.

Of course, we can always hope that these people are the extremists in their own right. A vocal minority, but a minority nonetheless. However, the nuances of our subconscious mind reveal themselves in many other ways. One of the postulated reasons for the gender gap in salaries is that women take more time off work to have babies. Why promote a woman who will likely take time off to pop out kids? Why train a woman who won’t be here for an entire year? Why pay more for maternity leave? Why deal with the hassle of finding a temporary hire? At first glance, these may seem like legitimate questions. However, never do you hear the question raised of 40-55 year old men up for promotion:  why would you promote him if the odds of him dropping dead of a heart attack at any moment are so high? A woman of the same age would work much longer and is far less likely to bleed the company dry on disability insurance. The lack of logic seems obvious here. We cannot discriminate against someone based on statistical probabilities. In fact, women are at an advantage over the (vastly predominant) 40-55 year old men, in that not only are the much less likely to be ill for any reason up to ten years post-partum, but also they have the power to choose to have children or not. Very few people choose to suffer a debilitating disease, and even fewer can choose to keep working rather than go on being ill.

True story - around the lab this guy gets used so much in Powerpoint presentations that he is just known as "Heart Attack Guy." Want to talk about heart attacks? Bring out Heart Attack Guy.

So, I will not apologize for being feminist. I will continue questioning the assumptions that society makes about me, about my fellow women, and about my fellow human beings. As a skeptic, it is the very least I can do.