Anne Nicol Gaylor (1926 –2015)

Hemant Mehta’s post on Anne Nicol Gaylor, abortion rights activist, and the main founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, who died on June 14, ends with this tribute,

Think of the world we’d live in if more of us followed her lead.

Metha’s words echo George Eliot’s tribute to Dorothea, the heroine of her novel Middlemarch (1871–2):

But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

Stephanie Zvan cautions,

as a female atheist activist of a prior generation,[Anne Nicol Gaylor is] always in danger of being written out of history. Yes, even having done all that.

Don’t let her be forgotten. Take a moment to celebrate a life devoted to making a difference. Read an appreciation of her life, and recognize the quotes that are used so often and attributed to her so rarely. Read her writing (including her book Abortion Is a Blessing) and share it with others.

This kind of legacy is the only form of immortality we’re offered. If anyone has earned it, Anne Nicol Gaylor certainly did.

The quotes Zvan mentions can be found at Perry Street Palace & Friends:

Abortion is a blessing.


There were many groups working for women’s rights, but none of them dealt with the root cause of women’s oppression–religion.


There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven or hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.


Nothing fails like prayer.

Please take the time to read the “Tribute to Anne Nicol Gaylor” on the Freedom From Religion Foundation website.

Guest Post: Jerry Coyne in Toronto

Guest post by Leslie Rosenblood

On Wednesday, June 10, I had the pleasure of meeting Jerry Coyne in Toronto to hear him speak about his new book, Faith vs. Fact, at an event organized by the Centre for Inquiry Canada.

I have been a reader of Coyne’s website,, for several years, and appreciate his clear, unadorned prose, especially when describing complex concepts. His style in person is quite similar: his speech was organized; his arguments buttressed with research, polls, and quotations, as appropriate; and his slides effectively supplemented his lecture, not replacing his oration with too many words nor distracting from it with too many graphics. (I took notes throughout but did not record his speech; quotations below are as accurate as I can reconstruct them.)

Coyne started by defining science as a methodology for finding what’s real, and not as a body of facts. This echoes Henri Poincaré’s claim that “a collection of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” Thus, many jobs can be considered scientific professions in addition to chemists, physicists, biologists: plumbers, mechanics, and all other occupations that use inquiry, hypothesis testing, and falsification to determine what is and isn’t working and what should be done about it.

This led to the main thesis of his speech: that science and religion are incompatible (also the subtitle of his book). He demonstrated this on several levels, and also addressed several common attempts, often from prestigious scientific organizations, to reconcile the two.

What’s odd, according to Coyne, is that most people act very much like scientists in their day to day lives; religion fades into the background (or to invisibility) with mundane affairs. “When you lose your keys, you don’t pray for a revelation to find them,” said Coyne. “You retrace your steps.”

One of the most common tactics used to demonstrate that science and religion are compatible is showing that many scientists are also deeply religious. “But this ignores the difference between compatibility and compartmentalism,” argued Coyne. “People are quite capable of shedding scientific rigour when attending church on Sunday mornings.”

Coyne then showed compelling research indicating a strong correlation between scientific achievement and lack of religious belief – to the point that very few elite scientists (using membership in the US National Academy of Sciences as a proxy) profess any religious belief. He hypothesized that becoming expert in the tools, techniques, and methodologies of scientific endeavours, and learning more about the way the universe functions, leads inexorably to becoming an atheist.

“Accommodationists” (those arguing in favour of the compatibility of science and religion) often take the non-overlapping magisteria (NOMA) approach favoured by Stephen Jay Gould. Science and religion, in this view, are in entirely separate domains: science holds sway in the realm of facts, while religion informs our values. According to NOMA, we should let scientific inquiry determine what is, and allow religion to inspire us to determine what we ought to do with this knowledge.

Unfortunately, Coyne argued, NOMA simply doesn’t work, because it is rejected by both scientists and theologians. Whenever a religious text made a truth claim about the universe (such as how the world was created), scientists have (almost without fail) shown it to be false. Theologians reject the stricture that limits them to “meanings, morals, and values.” (In fact, Coyne argued, when it comes to ethics, “secular philosophers do it better.”) Thus, despite the separation implied by NOMA, neither party has been willing to agree to its boundaries.

More fundamentally, religion and science are incompatible on three levels:

  • Methodological: “In science, faith is a vice. In religion, faith is a virtue.” This blatant contradiction on the value of faith points directly to the incompatibility of science and religion.
  • Philosophical: Here Coyne quoted Laplace, regarding God: “I had no need of that hypothesis.” The scientific method attempts to minimize its assumptions; most religions assume the existence of an omnipotent Deity as its starting point.
  • Outcomes: If one considers evolution vs. creationism, the historical accuracy of the Flood, or whether humanity descended from Adam and Eve (they didn’t – Coyne stated that the smallest population bottleneck humanity (or human-like apes) ever experienced was approximately twelve thousand individuals), it is self-evident that science and religion conflict.

On many fronts, major religions disagree with each other. (How many gods are there? Is homosexuality wrong? Which of the at least 41,000 Christian denominations in the world is accurate, if any? Is the Christian God one or three?) Ultimately, said Coyne, religion can’t say why something is wrong – or why they’re right.

Jerry Coyne left us with this bon mot towards the end of his speech: “Falsified claims in science are discarded. Falsified claims in religion… become metaphors.”

There was a question and answer session after his speech, which clearly demonstrated that the Centre for Inquiry attracts those on the fact side of the fact vs. faith conflict. When given the microphone, I asked, “While I generally agree with your list of harms that stem from religion, in my view most of the risks to our global civilization stem from secular considerations. Climate change from our ever increasing carbon emissions; agronomy and animal husbandry practices that are almost perfectly designed to one day evolve a super bug; human activity driving species extinctions at an enormous rate; and massive pollution of land and water leading to (among other detrimental effects) huge dead zones in our oceans. None of these threats to our sustained survival have religious motivations at their core; on the contrary, they are exacerbated by the rational application of our current technology and scientific knowledge. Given this, do you maintain that religion is the worst form of irrationality and the greatest threat to our modern way of life?”

Coyne responded by acknowledging that while some scientists are venal, selfish, and corrupt, it isn’t intrinsic to the scientific enterprise. In any case, however, one can’t hold scientists as a whole responsible for how their discoveries are applied. I agreed and reiterated that the thrust of my question was about how people rationally apply technology in their self-interest but at a collective cost. Coyne’s response was to introduce a thought experiment: if you could go back 200 years and eliminate either religion or scientific advances, which would you pick? Of course we agreed on the answer, and Coyne extended that idea to the present day by quoting Sam Harris, “No society ever went extinct due to a surfeit of rational thought.”

Coyne, I felt, hedged and dodged in his reply. I am not a fan of any form of unfounded, irrational, or contradictory belief system, but am not convinced that religion is the greatest threat our society faces. Coyne did not address this directly. But aside from this minor disappointment, I enjoyed his presentation greatly and look forward to reading my (autographed!) copy of Faith vs. Fact.

Leslie Rosenblood took part in the second Chesterton Debate entitled “God’s Politics: A Debate on Religion’s Role in Public Life” and writes on his own website, Opinions and Questions.

The Veritable Superpower Of Super-Recognition

The BBC has been impressing me lately with a series of articles called BBC Future. They’re well-written, seemingly well-informed explanations of topics in science and technology, many of which should be intriguing to skeptics if not specifically to atheists.

A recent installment, by one Madhumita Venkataramanan, concerns so-called “super-recognizers” – individuals who have an abnormally good eye for human faces, such that they’re able to remember the features of near-strangers well enough to recognize them in unusual contexts, after a period of years, and/or based on very poor-quality images. Not surprisingly, super-recognizers can be highly useful in the field of law enforcement, an aspect of the subject that Venkataramanan explores in some detail. The policeman Gary Collins, for example, succeeded in spotting a petty criminal called Stephen Prince on CCTV footage that showed him participating in the London riots of 2011 in clothing that concealed most of his face.

“The last time I’d seen Prince was about six years earlier, but I was positive it was him. I knew it straightaway from his eyes. So we went to court,” PC Collins says. Prince was eventually found guilty and sentenced to six years in prison – one of the longest riot-related sentences.

I don’t doubt the capabilities of Collins and his fellow super-recognizers, even though they sound (as the headline of the BBC article suggests) like a veritable superpower. Everyday experience demonstrates that some people have a much better memory for faces than others, and it stands to reason that a small percentage of us will fall at the very high end of what is clearly a spectrum of ability. Nevertheless, Venkataramanan’s article gives the impression that super-recognizers are still rather poorly understood, despite the fact that a whole blog appears to be devoted to the phenomenon. Venkataramanan quotes Collins as saying that his talent might have “something to do with attention to detail or pattern recognition”, but notes that super-recognizers “aren’t any better than average people at recognising things that aren’t faces, like flowers or chairs”. There may, however, be a connection between facial recognition ability and personality:

Those who are good at facial recognition tend to be extroverts and can establish trust more quickly.

This makes it sound like the continuum between prosopagnosia (a posh word for very poor ability to recognize faces) and super-recognition has more to do with how one is wired socially than how one is wired visually, at least at the high end. Venkataramanan mentions research suggesting that around 1% of us may be super-recognizers, while 2% may be prosopagnosics.

After reading about super-recognizers I found myself wondering if there might be some connection between facial recognition talent and pareidolia, the perception of spurious face-like patterns. When the beatific face of Jesus appears on a tortilla or a moth down in Texas, that’s pareidolia. Could super-recognizers, with their seemingly heightened visual receptivity to facial features, be especially prone to this kind of thing? Pushing the idea a little further, and keeping in mind the link between super-recognition and extroversion, might super-recognizers even be especially prone to religious thinking, which entails an essentially social perception of what sensible people regard as a blind, uncaring universe? (For what it’s worth, there may be a feeble but statistically detectable correlation between extroversion and religiosity – PDF here.)

If there’s an overarching relationship among super-recognition, extroversion, pareidolia and religious belief, it will probably turn out to be a weak and ambiguous one, but that’s par for the course in psychology and the other social sciences. However, I can offer myself as a pretty good example of someone who lacks that cluster of traits. I doubt that I make the grade for prosopagnosia, but my memory for faces is fairly poor, and I’m certainly no extrovert. I’m not immune to non-religious forms of pareidolia, having once distinctly seen the face of Edgar Allan Poe in the fuzzy grey background of a slide at a scientific conference, but I don’t think I’m very susceptible to the phenomenon. I often have difficulty, as a matter of fact, spotting hidden faces in images that have them deliberately worked in. And I swear to God I’m not religious. What more do we need?

No God-Yes God Divide

In an opinion piece for Peterborough This Week, Mike Lacey describes the difficulty of “Finding the Balance in The No God-Yes God Divide”:

I can sympathize with Christians who feel under attack in Canada.

Heck, as an agnostic, I’ve felt like that most of my life. In our society, when it comes to religion, to often one is forced to make a choice.

When Lacey says,

Atheists tend to look at agnostics as wishy-washy and can be as militant as the most Bible-thumping Christians.

he is both right and wrong.  Most atheists do see agnostics as wishy-washy and find the excuse that there is no way to prove there is no God unconvincing, but very few atheists are militant. In fact, very few are militant and most are not militant active enough.

Lacey goes on to say,

while the religious and the atheist are at polar opposites, they seem to have a grudging respect for each other. And both seem to look down upon the agnostic for failing to have strong enough convictions to pick a side.

Therefore, I tend to shut up, never really letting people know where I stand.

However, Lacey ‘s article, “Finding the Balance in The No God-Yes God Divide,” makes it very clear that he is taking a stand:

So, while I can sympathize with Christians for feeling under siege, I would like to remind them that their religion is still the dominant force in Canada. Political leaders still proudly proclaim themselves Christian and, even though Peterborough’s city council may not open up meetings with the Lord’s Prayer, there is nothing preventing individuals stating that prayer any time they choose.

Lacey should be applauded for writing this article and for risking “ridicule” from both the religious and the atheist.

Quebec Government Issues Immigration Certificate to Raif Badawi

Quebec Legislature

Yesterday, Maka Kotto, PQ Member of the National Assembly for Bourget, Quebec, made the following request of the Quebec government:

Mr. Speaker, following the confirmation of the conviction of the blogger of Raif Badawi by the Supreme Court of Saudi Arabia on Sunday, the Minister of International Relations has said, and I quote: “My role is going to be to put more pressure [on the federal government].” Obviously, nothing tangible has come out of this effort. Last week, we asked the government of Quebec to go farther by making a strong gesture for Raif Badawi by granting him a Quebec immigration certificate for humanitarian reasons.

So, is the government is going to accept our proposal to grant him a special certificate to make him Québécois by adoption? (My translation)

Today, Max Harrold from CTV News, Quebec tweeted this news,

Quebec govt issues immigration certificate to @raif_badawi, the blogger imprisoned in Saudi Arabia; all-parties agree

Bravo Quebec!

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