For whom the (Angelus) bell tolls

Now here’s a genuinely novel idea. “Religious leaders need to be held accountable for their ideas. In my state of Arizona, Sister Margaret McBride, a senior administrator at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Phoenix, recently authorised a legal abortion to save the life of a 27-year-old mother of four who was 11 weeks pregnant and suffering from severe complications of pulmonary hypertension; she made that decision after consultation with the mother’s family, her doctors and the local ethics committee”.

The bishop of Phoenix, Thomas Olmsted, immediately excommunicated Sister Margaret, saying that the mother’s life cannot be preferred over the child’s. “Ordinarily, a man who would callously let a woman die and orphan her children would be called a monster; this should not change just because he is a cleric”.

So writes Lawrence Krauss in the current edition of Scientific American. “I don’t know which is more dangerous, that religious beliefs force some people to choose between knowledge and myth or that pointing out how religion can purvey ignorance is taboo. To do so risks being branded as intolerant of religion”, he continues.

The US National Science Board publishes a report every two years designed to assess the public’s understanding of science issues. This year, the Board chose not to publish the findings in this area, arguing that the questions were flawed indicators of science knowledge because “responses conflated knowledge and beliefs”. Translated into English, it’s best not to highlight the fact that people’s religious beliefs cause them to flatly reject scientific facts. This is no trivial matter.

When presented with the statement: “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” just 45% of US respondents indicated “true.” Compare this figure with the equivalent scores in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%) and South Korea (64%). Only 33% of Americans agreed that “the universe began with a big explosion.”

Add in the results of a 2009 Pew Survey: 31% of US adults believe “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” When responses are sorted by levels of religious activity, it suggests that the most devout are on average least willing to accept the evidence of reality. White evangelical Protestants have the highest denial rate (55%), closely followed by the group across all religions who attend services on average at least once a week (49%).

“Keeping religion immune from criticism is both unwarranted and dangerous. Unless we are willing to expose religious irrationality whenever it arises, we will encourage irrational public policy and promote ignorance over education for our children”, concludes Krauss’s article. Ireland and the US have both suffered badly – and continue to suffer – at the hands of religious zealots. The Murphy and Ryan reports expose an indelible stain on the first century of our new Republic, when this State allowed one religion to gain a stranglehold on both education and health, and to wield political power without accountability – the classic recipe for corruption.

Thankfully, this grip has been loosened as the tidal wave of clerical crimes and cover-ups too sickening and pervasive to be explained away have come to light and we finally begin to evolve towards the vision of a tolerant, secular Republic that respects all faiths and none equally. In the US, tragically, the reverse seems to be happening.

The pact between the Republican Party and the religious right has deepened that party’s schism with science. The consequences of this Faustian bargain are almost unfathomably grave. There was a time when most reasonable people agreed on the immutable scientific facts, while differing widely on interpretation.

That was then. The toxic politicisation of science understanding in the last two decades has ended that uneasy truce. Now, as a rule, the great majority of Republicans reject out of hand any and all scientific findings that don’t fit with their ideologically tinted world-view. Gemma Hussey once famously talked about turkeys voting for Christmas; she could have had these same Republicans in mind.

Anyone who claims to follow US politics and still clings to the notion that the climate crisis is in any way capable of putting a dent in the business-as-usual paradigm has simply not been paying attention. In the heel of the hunt, we are not an especially rational species, despite our pretentions to the contrary. The iron grip of religions (in all their splendid contradictions and irrationality, not to mention just plain silliness) on the minds of so many underlines this.

Once upon a time, our clinging to arcane and illogical belief systems and rejection of empirical evidence was of interest mainly to anthropologists. Now, it’s the existential issue that is set to define the limits of our success and, in time, the nemesis of our species.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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29 Responses to For whom the (Angelus) bell tolls

  1. Tony Smith says:

    You say:
    “Now, it’s the existential issue that is set to define the limits of our success and, in time, the nemesis of our species.”

    That’s an ideological statement not a scientific one. You reject any argument that doesn’t fit your ideological world view – not on scientific grounds but on ideological grounds. What’s the difference between you and the hardline republicans or religious people you deride?

  2. reasonable person says:

    John, you can do better than this.

    The conflation of unrelated evidence, non-sequitur and chucking in of trigger issues reads much more like a climate skeptic than something which deserves space on this site.

    You start by quoting an (unlinked) article by Laurence Krauss which starts with an ethical question and then moves straight to a discussion of knowledge, myth, ignorance. There seems to be no issue of knowledge or ignorance in the abortion case referred to; have you left something out or simply repeated Krauss’s non-sequitur?

    In the next paragraph you discuss a report (unlinked) on the public understanding of science in the USA some of which hasn’t been published because the “responses conflated knowledge and beliefs”. You interpret for us: “Translated into English, it’s best not to highlight the fact that people’s religious beliefs cause them to flatly reject scientific facts.” There are a few problems with this.

    Firstly I doubt it’s accurate to suggest that that’s what the quoted text meant.
    Secondly your own evidence further down (added to information on level of religious belief in the USA) suggests that many people’s religious beliefs do not cause them to reject scientific facts.
    Thirdly you will be aware of various scientists whose scientific beliefs cause them to reject scientific facts. (Some are ahead of their time, some are behind their time, some are mistaken, some are charlatans.)

    Then we get the truly shocking statistic that only 45% of US respondents accept that humans evolved! This is worth more attention and understanding, but you have an axe to grind instead.

    You then chip in a comment about the big bang which really doesn’t help the article as most people don’t know enough physics to form a view on how the universe started. (I certainly couldn’t give one fact which I consider to be solid evidence that the big bang theory is correct.)

    Not to worry though, you move on at speed, to another (unlinked) survey. 31% believe humans have existed since the beginning of time. (One wonders where the 14% who think we neither evolved nor existed since the beginning of time think we came from!) But you have an axe to grind so we’ll move on – to a very confusing sentence which suggests that white Evangelical Protestants and “the group across all religions who attend services on average at least once a week” are separate groups.

    The next paragraph leaps to a discussion of clerical child abuse and cover-up in Ireland. Then its swiftly back to the US Republican party and the US religious right’s attitudes to science; which you then characterise as entirely based on self-interest.

    You follow that with your first reference to climate change and a comment that religion shows that we aren’t especially rational. And an unexamined comment that we’re probably doomed because we’re a religious species.

    All very far from QED and very far from satisfactory. What’s the purpose of your article – to convince religious people to abandon religion? to convince religious people to act to prevent climate change? to convince climate activists to abandon religion? to convince atheists to do all they can to eradicate religion as it’s the cause of the climate crisis? to get your various hobbyhorses off your chest?

    John, if you have a thesis, set it out for yourself and look for the evidence for it. If your thesis is that some or all forms of religion (remembering the astonishing diversity of religion on the planet) is a cause of the climate crisis, then it’s worth discussing: let’s hear the evidence.

    Here are two interesting articles on the wider issue of religion and ecology:

  3. John Gibbons says:

    Is it ideological to point out that clinging to ancient belief systems and superstitions, often dressed in the robes of one religion or another, threatens our ability to understand and thus respond to the existential crises that confront us? The Black Death swept through the Medieval world and struck down bishop and peasant alike.

    The plague was not amenable to prayer, piety or other forms of wishful thinking, and since modern science, Based on evidence, experimentation and observation hadn’t yet emerged, people were helpless and millions died.

    Our ability to reason using the best available evidence has progressed hugely since then, but what has not kept pace is society’s willingness to shake off magical thinking and irrational reasoning. Religion is one of many sources of this; not the only one, but certainly an important one. The role of the religious Right in the US in promoting hostility to climate science and pushing crapology such as ‘Creation Science’ deserves nothing but contempt. And if saying as much makes me an Idealogue in your eyes, well that’s something I can live with.

  4. Bob Cousins says:

    “Our ability to reason using the best available evidence has progressed hugely since then,”

    It is an interesting conundrum, that while our society has progressed knowledge to incredible levels, a big chunk of the population clings to 2000 year old superstitions. And these people are not in some poverty stricken backwater, they are in the heart of the wealthiest and technically advanced nations.

    But the thing is, the advanced knowledge is in the heads of a relatively few people. It only takes a few to know how to make a microwave oven, yet the billions without such knowledge can easily use it. I suspect that our technology has been so successful precisely of that. If every user had to understand the physics of microwaves, there would be a lot less users.

    So science and technology have been spectacularly successful at solving problems where the knowledge is only required by a few. However this becomes a huge issue when the majority are required to understand a problem in order to solve it. If AGW can not be solved with another easy to use techno fix; it will require a change of lifestyle of millions.

    Scientists and activists don’t seem to understand they will need to market their ideas as carefully and intensively as those who sell toothpaste and cornflakes. I realise that PR is anathema to science, but simply presenting people with the scientific evidence, and expecting them to appreciate or believe it, is expecting too much. The anti-AGW campaign has no qualms about adopting such tactics, and unfortunately it seems they are carrying the debate.

  5. John Gibbons says:

    @ ‘reasonable person’,

    First off, thanks for such a scarily detailed critique of my posting. As per my reply to Tony above, I’m not sure how to answer your query re. what’s the “purpose” of my posting, as you seem to need to know. What, for example, is the purpose of your critique – to correct my erroneous views, to reach a wider audience, or something else again? Convincing climate activists to abandon religion, c’mon, you’re having a laugh, right? As for getting atheists to eradicate religion, jeeze, and you think I’m the one with issues here?

    This blog has been running since Nov 07. Its general focus is pretty much self-explanatory. My tuppence worth on religions is that people are of course entitled to hold whatever beliefs they wish, as long as these do not harm others, and that these beliefs do not become an obstacle to our clearer understanding of the world as it is, as opposed to riddles and fabrications wrapped in the garb of ‘truths’ that we are apparently not permitted to hold to account.

    If you find this deeply insulting to your religious beliefs, how do you feel about Scientology? There’s another religion for you, a total fabrication dreamed up by its entrepreneurial founder, and complete and utter garbage designed to soak funds from vulnerable, needy people. But it’s a “religion”, so we’re supposed to grant it ‘respect’ automatically, and to point out that it’s complete bollocks might well find one dragged to Court on Dermot Ahern’s farcical Blasphemy legislation.

    Religions exercise tremendous power over the lives of millions. This is rarely balanced with meaningful accountability – which is why corruption is so rife in these all-too-human institutions.

    Anyhow, thanks again for correcting my homework. I will strive to do better next time, while reserving the sacred right to be a pain in the ass to some. If you have some original comments or observations, feel free to send them in (I might even critique them for you!).

  6. Tony Smith says:

    Read something like Sean b Carroll’s, ‘The Making of the Fittest’ and you’ll see the majority of Churches have no problem with evolution. The problem with people who believe Creationism is a lack of education of the scientific method. This is as much Science’s problem as it is anyone elses.

    When I reffered to your ideology, I didn’t mean your criticism of religion I was reffering to your views on existentialist questions.

    There’s quite a lot of spin in climate change information as well. For example, as someone else pointed out the title of this web site ‘thinkorswim’ is a false dichotomy.

  7. John Gibbons says:


    Can I ask: what do you mean by ‘existentialist issues’? My use of the phrase ‘existential’ is literal, not figurative and certainly without any spiritual overtones. Climate change is an existential issue as it directly threatens our very existence as a species. Not in theory, not the likelihood of there being a heaven or a hell, just the mundane fact that the 6C trajectory humanity has locked itself onto is one that the best available science tells us over and over again is not compatible with an abundant, prosperous humanity. Period.

    I still contend it’s not ideological to point out that letting a 6C disaster unfold and choosing to do sweet FA about it is humanity’s greatest failure in the historical record. A +6C world is almost certainly the end of human history, in any form you might today recognise, and perhaps entirely. Try Gwynne Dyer’s ‘Climate Wars’ for a taste of what lies ahead as our climate systems unravel in the coming decades.

  8. Tony Smith says:

    It is not ideological to argue that +6C could wipe out the human race that is a statement of objective fact. But it is ideological to argue that “to do sweet FA about it is humanity’s greatest failure in the historical record”. Because that is not a statement of objective fact. It is indicative of your beliefs and ideology.

    The majority of ideologies have nothing to do with religion, spirituality, heaven, hell.

    For example a feminist may think that the worse thing that has ever happened to the planet is the treatment of women. Feminism is another ideology. So is social darwinism. So is communism. So is neo-liberalism. So is nationalism. So is anarchy. So is environmentalism.

  9. reasonable person says:

    Hi John,

    “I’m not sure how to answer your query re. what’s the “purpose” of my posting, as you seem to need to know.”

    Yes, I think a reader should be able to form an idea of the purpose of an article. I asked because I thought you didn’t know and it seems I was right.

    “What, for example, is the purpose of your critique – to correct my erroneous views, to reach a wider audience, or something else again?”

    I would have thought my critique was self-explanatory; I hope to encourage you to engage with the topic in a reasoned manner. I think the question of the philosophical/religious/spiritual aspects of the ecological crisis and our responses to it is very important and interesting. Thus the two articles I linked to.

    “Convincing climate activists to abandon religion, c’mon, you’re having a laugh, right? As for getting atheists to eradicate religion, jeeze, and you think I’m the one with issues here?”

    I didn’t say you had issues, but they are questions your piece raised. If you believe for example that only by getting rid of religion will we be able to address the climate crisis then, with all due respect to your views on miracles, you really are hoping for one! (that or global Bolshevik/Maoist/Khmer Rouge revolution;-)

    If (and I remind you that you haven’t even argued the case) religion has contributed to climate change then the question arises as to whether it can instead help to address it.

    “If you find this deeply insulting to your religious beliefs…”
    I don’t. And I agree with you about Scientology and blasphemy laws.

    “Religions exercise tremendous power over the lives of millions. This is rarely balanced with meaningful accountability – which is why corruption is so rife in these all-too-human institutions.”
    Indeed. But is that not off-topic? While a lot of our problems are due to corruption, it’s not a direct cause of most climate change.

  10. Tony Smith says:

    Hi John,
    I checked that Gwynne Dyer book on amazon. I think I am correct in saying that this person is not a scientist. When climate change skeptics wave their flags we often hear “oh but these skeptics are not scientists”. Surely this argument goes both ways. We should only be reading science books from scientists.

    BTW Sean B. Carroll is a scientist. I generally only read science book written by scientists because I find that people who are just “writers” misunderstand what they are writing about. For example Bill Bryson.

  11. denis says:

    If you believe in God, you will believe in anything.
    You have thrown away the logic invested in your wonderlul neocortex.

  12. Bob Cousins says:

    “A +6C world is almost certainly the end of human history, in any form you might today recognise, ”

    The thing is, I’m not so sure about that. I accept that we face a huge problem, and don’t wish to detract from that.

    But considering which species are most likely to survive rapid environmental change, I think it will be the species that are most adaptable (straightforward Darwinian evolution theory). If you are looking at which species are the most capable of adaptation, humans would have to be high on the list. No other species has ever had the ability to alter its environment as much as we do.

    It seems likely that humans will survive while other species perish. I am sure that humans will make their own survival a priority by whatever means necessary.

  13. Tony Smith says:

    I disagree with Denis. For a start just because you don’t believe in God doesn’t mean you are any good at logic. If we look at Leaving Cert results for Maths, I think only about 20% do honours and only about 10% of that group get an A. That means there are 2% who are pretty good at logic and 80% who can’t even sit honours which isn’t exactly that difficult.

    Look at the amount of people who try to play Chess and are useless at it and compare to amount of people who are good at it. And look at the amount of people that don’t have a good technical understanding of their computer and compare that to the number of people who would be pretty good at computer programming which is exceedingly low.

    Maths, Computers, Chess anything where the emphasis is on pure logic and has little room for BS, spin or rhetoric – the results are pretty conclusive. Humans are cr*p at logic. All that said, there are some very clever people who do believe in God and are reasonable at Science. Robert Winston, Robert Pollack and Francis Collins for example.

    I don’t myself but I just think a bit objectivity wouldn’t go amiss here

  14. John Gibbons says:


    Would it be ideological to describe the collapse of the civilization on Easter Island resulting from an ecological crash as a ‘failure’? What term would you prefer? If/when industrial civilization crashes due to resource exhaustion, ecological collapse and runaway climate change, what term would you use to describe our failure to address these threats when we had the chance? I’d consider it an epic failure.

    Everything I’ve read about a 6C world suggests few if any land mammals being capable of survival, certainly not the larger ones anyhow. The pattern from previous extinctions is that the animals at the apex of food chains are most vulnerable when those chains break down. That’s us, unfortunately. It’s possible some pockets of resourceful and ruthless humans will continue on, especially if existing in well-stocked underground locations. Problem is that they may need to remain there for centuries, as conditions on the surface are likely to be very hostile indeed far into the future.

  15. John Gibbons says:


    Yes, Gwynne Dyer is a journalist, and expert in international affairs. Us journalists are generally not scientists; the job of honest journalism is to collate the best available information in a given field, seek the opinions of the thought leaders and peer-reviewed journals in this field, and attempt to convey their findings to a wider public audience. That is how I see my job. How well or badly I do is for others to decide.

    Skeptics do an entirely different function, ie. to cherry-pick bits and pieces of information, conflate it with opinion, ignore the stuff that doesn’t support your argument and then bang on about the entire scientific community being enaged in a giant scam – without, of course, producing a shred of hard evidence to support this paranoia. While of course all the time comically overstating their own expertise in fields they barely understand, and grossly understating the expertise and experience of those scientists they slander.

  16. Tony Smith says:

    To answer your questions:

    “Would it be ideological to describe the collapse of the civilization on Easter Island resulting from an ecological crash as a ‘failure’?”

    It is just as ideological as a feminist the lack of women’s rights as a failure.

    “What term would you prefer?”
    It’s not about what I prefer it’s about what is objectively accurate. Ideology is defined as:

    A system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic, political theory and policy.

    This entire website is ideological. You are an ideological person.

    “If/when industrial civilization crashes due to resource exhaustion, ecological collapse and runaway climate change, what term would you use to describe our failure to address these threats when we had the chance? I’d consider it an epic failure”.

    I don’t think it is a binary operation and the question is posed as such.

  17. Tony Smith says:

    Hi John,
    Just on your point about journalists and skeptics.

    The term “skeptics” is generally used in a sense of someone who is supportive of the scientific method. I am sure you know this is already so there is no need to harp on about it.

    The problem is you can give out about journalistic style of those who take a different opinion of you. But they are saying the same stuff about people like you. So that just goes around in circles. The reality is neither of you are experts. Neither are my. I do have a Maths degree and an Engineering degree and I know that there is huge complexity in climate change such that it is very difficult for the average person to understand it and very easy for a journalist to misunderstand it. I disagree with you that the majority of science writers are not scientists. The best science writers past and present are all scientists. Stephen Hawking, Robert Winston, Sean B Carroll, Martin Rees, Richard Feymen, Oliver Sacks, Richard Dawkins, James Watson, Ben Goldacre, Robert Winston, Carl Sagan and of course Charles Darwin.

    May I ask what training do you have?

    Just trying to establish some facts here.

  18. John Gibbons says:


    Sorry, am rapidly losing interest in your game of semantics re ideology. Everything I say is ideological, so am I. Bully for you, Tony. Well spotted. Don’t know how I’ve gotten by these last several years without you to set me straight.

    Am fascinated at your sudden interest in this blog, and in my fitness to write here, not to mention my qualifications. Unlike you, I’m entirely upfront about my background, experience, etc. You have a couple of degrees, again, bully for you. Of the 160+ postings on this blog, this is the first I’ve heard from you, so pardon me if I’m not preparing 1,000 word rebuttals for your every posting.

    Here’s the deal, Tony. I know nothing about you, don’t even know if it’s a real name, so please stop trying to hold ME to account. Am fast losing interest, and if you persist, it’s the Spamo-Matic for you. My club, my rules. Ain’t life cruel. Guess that’s the problem with “people like me”.

  19. Tony Smith says:

    Not everything you say is ideological. And so what if it is? We all have ideals and believes. I’ve plenty myself some of which more than likely overlap with some of your’s. What’s wrong with that?

    The only reason I asked for your background is because I was prepared I was just curious and I was prepared to give mine. A lot of times in these discussions people give out about the other person’s lack of scientific acumen. This time it was me giving out about Gwynne Dyer’s. Perhaps if you have time you could recommend a book that is written by a respected Scientist. I’d be interested in knowing about it.


  20. John Gibbons says:

    “Forgive me my nonsense as I also forgive the nonsense of those who think they talk sense.”
    – Robert Frost

  21. Paddy Morris says:


    A few recommendations:

    IPPC AR4 – summary for policymakers

    Storms of my grandchildren – James Hansen
    About climate science, by a climate scientist

    Climate cover up – James Hoggan
    About the denialist pr campaign, by someone whonworks in pr

    And a website, climate science by climate scientists…


  22. Tony Smith says:

    Thanks Paddy. I will read that book. John that quote is like saying something like: “empty vessels make the most noise”.

  23. Toby says:

    Just to add to Paddy’s recommendations:

    Skeptical Science is a very well moderated blog that sets out to refute every single denialist argument (I think they are up to 120) and succeeds admirably.

    A must-read is Oreskes and Conway’s “Merchants of Doubt”. This shows how the climate change denialists are employing the strategies previously used to delay action on tobacco, second-hand smoking and acid rain. Often, they are employing exactly the same people. O&C suggest a holdover from the Cold War in a fanatical defence of the “free market”.

  24. Paddy Morris says:

    Hi Toby,

    Excellent point, forgot to mention SkepticalScience.

    They also have a very handy iPhone app that lists their refutations as well.

    I’ll check out that book you recommended, many thanks.

    The ‘Global Climate Dashboard’ on NOAA’s site is also quite good –

  25. Paul Barry says:


    Apologies for raising a website question here, but the message I sent to was not delivered. Can you pass this on to someone who can help me.

    I’d like to subscribe to this excellent blog so that I can get notifications of new posts etc. Is this possible? Perhaps I am just dumb, but it is not obvious to me how this is done (if it can be done). You might also need to investigate why the contact e-mail address for is not working.

    Kind Regards,

  26. Tony Smith says:

    Bad logic is everywhere. Read something like:
    “The Duck that won the Lottery” by Julian Baginni. It would be naive to think the environmental movement isn’t immune from bad logic.

    Things are black and white in mathematics but as soon as you get into language it’s not so easy to have irrefutable arguments.

  27. John Gibbons says:

    First, apologies for delay in responding to your query. When this blog was first set up, it did indeed have a ‘subscribe’ field where people could enter their emails and receive notifications as new posts were issued. This function still works for those who signed up, and a couple of hundred automated email notifications are indeed sent out with ever posting…but alas, the functionality disappeared for reasons beyond my technical competence. I am, however, working on a fix, and expect to have this back in its rightful place in the coming days.

    Regarding the ‘info@’ address, it may have been acting up the day you tried it, as subsequent tests on my end indicate it’s working OK…could you try sending another ‘test’ message to it, just to be sure? Thanks again for the heads-up on these issues.

  28. Paul Barry says:

    It seems to be working fine now. Thanks. I’m looking forward to getting notifications of new posts. Thanks for the great blog.

  29. John Gibbons says:

    No problem, Paul, thanks for the reminder to get that function fixed! JG

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