Mark Twain, Charles Lindbergh, and the art of seeing like a beginner

A strange thing happened the other day when I walked past a tree. It was a mature pine with the rough, crevassed bark that you expect to find on such a tree. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.

Image of Pine tree bark backroung texture in brown color

Pine bark similar to what I saw. From

The strange thing happened when I remembered the locust tree that stood in my front yard when I was growing up. I’m old enough to remember when that locust had smooth bark, and how over the years it began to split and roughen as the trunk gained girth.

So as I walked past the pine, suddenly I saw the patterns in the bark for what they were—evidence of the tree outgrowing its skin and literally bursting out of it. By mentally closing the crevasses I could imagine a smaller, smooth-barked tree in its place. I’ve walked past that tree hundreds of times, but now it felt like I’d never seen it before. Same thing with the other trees I passed on that walk. A simple realization—not particularly original or profound, and pretty obvious in hindsight—but it altered my perception and brightened my day. Continue reading

Are religious people more charitable than nonreligious? It depends.

File:Daniel Gran - St Elizabeth Distributing Alms - WGA10354.jpg

How we see ourselves when we give to charity. “St. Elizabeth Distributing Alms.” Daniel Gran [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A study released last week by the Chronicle of Philathropy “found that residents in states where religious participation is higher than the rest of the nation, particularly in the South, gave the greatest percentage of their discretionary income to charity.” (From Associated Press report via NPR).

I haven’t read the report in enough detail to have an opinion about how good the research is. I suppose I could invoke the usual disclaimer about correlation not proving causality, but there’s something else that interests me, an angle that I haven’t seen in the news reports. According to an article on the Chronicle of Philanthropy’s website, “the study is based on exact dollar amounts released by the Internal Revenue Service showing the value of charitable deductions claimed by American taxpayers.”

So the study is about any form of tax-deductable giving, and makes no distinction between that which funds religious or political activities—such as preaching, proselytizing, or opposing evolution and gay marriage—and that which actually helps people with things like food, housing, or medical care. Religious believers fund both, but in what proportion?

This doesn’t lessen the generosity of the people giving the money, and there’s nothing wrong with funding institutions that exist mainly to promote your beliefs (as long as those beliefs aren’t harmful), but let’s not confuse that with our usual understanding of “charity.”

Why creationism is bad for America: we aren’t the only game in town

Dan Colman at Open Culture has posted a link to a two-minute video in which Bill Nye (The Science Guy) explains why teaching creationism to kids is a bad idea. It’s a good, concise explanation of the real-world consequences of failing to grasp the unifying theory of biology.

But one of Colman’s own comments is worth repeating:

Now you might be inclined to say that America has always had creationists, and that didn’t stop the country from becoming an economic and military superpower. Perhaps that’s true. But you need to recall this. America reached its zenith when every other power had blown themselves to smithereens. We were the only game in town. And it almost didn’t matter what we thought, or how much we thought. We just needed to show up to work. Nowadays, we don’t have that luxury. We face stiff competition from ambitious nations that take science and education seriously. A country that scoffs at scientific reasoning, that dismisses it all as “elitist,”  has only one way to go, and that’s down.

Open Culture is such a cool site. A few days ago they posted a link to this killer Aretha Franklin concert from 1968, and today it’s the Talking Heads from 1975. (Just in case you’re not in the mood for anything sciencey, like blowing up asteroids with Neil deGrasse Tyson.)

Orwellian language and religious “liberty”… the latest from the ACLJ

It may be shooting fish in the proverbial barrel to criticize the American Center for Law and Justice for faulty reasoning, but today I’d like to look at a specific example of how the religious right uses deceptive language to frame the discussion of religious liberty.

In an article posted a few days ago, “Atheism on the Rise as Groups Seek to Censor Faith,” the author warns about the rising number of challenges from groups that are “attempting to remove every vestige of our religious heritage as a nation from public life.” Continue reading

How belief in the soul distorts the abortion debate

Why did Missouri Congressman Todd Akin so uncritically accept the false notion that women can’t get pregnant by rape?

Before you answer, “Because he’s an ignorant dick who hates women,” let’s go a little deeper. This isn’t about Akin. It’s about an idea that allows people like him to be taken seriously by a large part of our population.

Rape pregnancies pose a dilemma for pro-lifers. It’s obviously a harsh thing to tell a rape victim that she must carry her attacker’s baby to term—or to tell a twelve-year-old incest victim that she’s required to deliver her father’s baby. But mainstream pro-life organizations are still doing this. (And see this from National Right to Life.)

It’s more comfortable for these people to believe the dilemma doesn’t exist. They would wish it away if they could. Akin tried.

But I wish people would talk about the way belief in the soul underlies this discussion. The debate over reproductive choice isn’t only about misogyny and people trying to drag us back to some imagined golden age when women raised the kids and kept their mouths shut. Those people haven’t gone away, but I think most ordinary pro-lifers (and I speak as a former one myself) are cornered by the logic of their beliefs into accepting brutalities that they would never consider otherwise. Continue reading

What is Pretentious Ape?

You. You are the Pretentious Ape, you silly human, you.

OK, me too. All of us.

In naming this blog, I was partly inspired by John Janovy, a biologist at the University of Nebraska, who wrote:

A human being is, in the final analysis, an ape that tells stories, only a fraction of which are true, then acts on the lessons of those stories regardless of their veracity. (Pieces of the Plains, 2009, p. 158)

But I thought a blog called “The Storytelling Ape” might lead to disappointed parents and children coming in from Google and expecting some virtual gorilla to tell them stories. (What a blog that would be! What wonderful stories might an ape tell? So much better than, say, dog stories, which would mostly be about chewing things and getting toys stuck under the couch.) Continue reading