Thursday, January 1, 2009

Atheist fertility

“If they want to spread their gospel, then, one might half-seriously conclude that atheists and agnostics ought to focus on having more children, to help overcome their demographic disadvantage. Unfortunately for secularists, this may not work even as a joke. … Having a large family might itself sometimes make people more religious, or make them less likely to lose their religion. Perhaps religion and fertility are linked in several ways at the same time.

“Mary Eberstadt, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution … has suggested several ways in which the experience of forming a family might stimulate religious feelings among parents, at least some of the time. She notes that pregnancy and birth, the business of caring for children, and the horror of contemplating their death, can stimulate an intensity of purpose that might make parents more open to religious sentiments. Many common family events, she reasons, might encourage a broadly spiritual turn of mind, from selfless care for a sick relation to sacrifices for the sake of a child´s adulthood that one might never see.

“If family life does contribute to religiosity, then having larger families might backfire on unbelievers. It might make them more religious. And since faith is still largely a family affair, their children would then be more likely to be religious, too.”

- Anthony Gottlieb, writing on “Faith Equals Fertility” in the winter issue of Intelligent Life

The birds and bees

“But in attacking the notion that sex roles are invariably ordained by culture and not biology, [Pope Benedict XVI] has said something that needed saying. As the Pope is finding out, anyone who criticizes this ‘gender theory’ invites vitriol from its liberal champions. Scientists such as Simon Baron-Cohen and Steven Pinker, who suggest that differences between typical male and female behavior may be biologically influenced, have been accused of rationalizing patriarchy and discrimination.

“The work of these researchers and others shows that gender theory is built on sand. Anatomical variations between the sexes are not the only ones with natural roots. Women tend to be better at empathizing, while men are more likely to excel at understanding systems from motorbike engines to offside laws, and there is growing evidence that these traits are influenced by testosterone exposure in the womb. They may also be linked to the recent discovery of hundreds of variations in the way that genes are switched on and off in male and female brains. If social factors are important in shaping gender roles, it is increasingly apparent that biology matters too.”

- Mark Henderson, writing on “Why the Pope is right - and wrong,” on Dec. 24 at the Times of London

Not without honor

“There are, according to the received wisdom of our day, two sides to the greatness of John Milton, who was born in London on 9 December 1608. First and foremost he was a great poet (despite being religious). Also, he was a champion of liberty; a key architect of the English-British tradition of liberalism (despite being religious) …

“This subtly misrepresents what Milton was about. It’s a variant of the Whiggish fallacy, that the history of ideas is essentially about how freedom unfolded into its present-day fullness. To call Milton a key figure in British liberalism is like calling Karl Marx a key figure in British political history. True, his thought was influential, but it is far more important to note that the entirety of his vision was shunned, rejected, reacted against. The nation defined itself in opposition to Milton’s vision, considered as a whole - and still does. …

“It is far more accurate to say that Milton was a key founder of the American liberal tradition, than of the British one. This is not just because of his republicanism: even more important to him than republicanism was his aversion to religious establishment … if Milton were to revisit us today he would not rejoice at the progress of liberty since his death. He would be depressed to see that the country of his birth retains a monarchy, and even more so an established church.”

- Theo Hobson, writing on “John Milton’s Vision,” on Dec. 9 at openDemocracy)

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