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Mike McRae
A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 1): Fire and Gods

Mike McRae provides a glimpse into the history of two competing systems of biology: life as complex chemistry, and the abandoned theory of vitalism. (Part 1 of 3)

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A History of Life’s Vital Essence (Part 2): Vital Thinking

Mike McRae provides a glimpse into the history of two competing systems of biology: life as complex chemistry, and the abandoned theory of vitalism.

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Daniel Loxton
The Odds Must Be Crazy?

Daniel Loxton shares a video from The Odds Must Be Crazy about a coincidence he experienced at a skeptics convention in 2014.

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What the Heck is a Biostratigrapher?

Listen as a quick and easy 10-minute radio interview explains how fossils help scientists to reconstruct the geological history of the Earth.

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The Latest Episode of Mr. Deity: Mr Deity and the Donations

Mr. Deity asks Lucy’s assistant about some suspicious donations.


About this week’s eSkeptic

Have you ever questioned your faith, or worried about what life would be like without it, or do you know someone who has? Have you ever wrestled with issues of how to replace religious practices and ideas with secular ones? In this week’s eSkeptic, Donald Prothero reviews Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions: a book by Phil Zuckerman that addresses these topics.

Dr. Donald R. Prothero earned MA, M.Phil, and PhD degrees in geological sciences from Columbia University, and a BA in geology and biology from the University of California, Riverside. He is currently the author, co-author, editor, or co-editor of 32 books and over 250 scientific papers, including five leading geology textbooks and five trade books as well as edited symposium volumes and other technical works. He is on the editorial board of Skeptic magazine, and in the past has served as an associate or technical editor for Geology, Paleobiology and Journal of Paleontology. He was Professor of Geology at Occidental College in Los Angeles, and Lecturer in Geobiology at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He has also been featured on several television documentaries, including episodes of Paleoworld (BBC), Prehistoric Monsters Revealed (History Channel), Entelodon and Hyaenodon (National Geographic Channel) and Walking with Prehistoric Beasts (BBC).

The Times, They are a Changin’

by Donald R. Prothero

Last month, a new Pew survey was released that showed that the “nones” or “religiously unaffiliated” in America have become the second largest religious group in America (22.8% of the surveyed population, jumping up from only 16% in 2007). They were outnumbered only slightly by Evangelical Protestants at 25.8%. “Nones” even are more numerous than Catholics, and the numbers of mainstream Protestants is plummeting. “Nones” are ten time more numerous than Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and other faiths (most are only 2–3% or less). Not only are the numbers of “nones” increasing rapidly, but nearly every religious group in America is declining just as fast, including a 0.9% drop even in the dominant Evangelicals. More importantly, the largest percentage increase in unaffiliated people is among the younger generations, especially the Millennials (those born between 1981–2000), who are becoming increasingly non-religious (36–44% or higher). Even more striking, the usual trends of people getting more conservative and religious as they age is not holding true with the Millennials, since the older Millennials show just as high a rate of lack of religiosity as do younger ones. If this is true, then religion may be on a permanent downward trend in this country, just as has already occurred in largely secular countries of the developed world in Europe and Asia.

Naturally, the blowhards in the right-wing political/religious community bemoaned this news, although it has been developing for a long time and is really not news to those of us who have been paying attention. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News blamed it on rap music. Former Pennsylvania Senator and two-time presidential candidate Rick Santorum blamed it on the lack of anti-abortion zealots running for president. Rush Limbaugh (who is losing channels and sponsorships right and left) blamed it on gay marriage. Pat Buchanan blamed it on the Supreme Court, the liberal elites in the media, and the counterculture of the 1960s (even though the Boomers are mostly religious). Ken Ham of the Creation Museum and Answers in Genesis Ministry, blamed it on the public schools as “churches of atheism” and the lack of early indoctrination of children. Similar responses could be heard from Pat Robertson and other evangelical ministers.

Changing U.S. Religious Landscape

As a number of people have pointed out, however, these simplistic cartoon villains of religion need to be replaced with more realistic causes, backed up the poll numbers and demographic trends. The Pew Foundation is set to release another report soon on their analysis of the reasons, but already scholars have pointed to several plausible causes. Professor of Secular Studies Phil Zuckerman of Pitzer College in Claremont, California, has written several books on the religious changes in the United States (Faith No More, Society without God). He just released his newest book on the topic, called Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. Zuckerman and most of the analysts point to several trends that have probably contributed (although it’s hard to decide which ones are most important):

  • The ascendancy of the extreme fundamentalists/evangelicals, and their grip on the GOP, has meant that the ugliest, meanest, most anti-science, most intolerant side of Christianity—anti-abortion, homophobic, racist, sexually repressed and woman-hating, and hating anyone different from them—has become the public face of Christianity. In states where they have enacted their hard-right agenda, the polls show a huge backlash from Millennials and young people who are much more tolerant of gays, other races, and much more pro-science and feminist in orientation. These young people have not switched to more liberal Christian denominations, but left religion altogether. It appears unlikely that they will come back to religion any time soon after they have formed their opinions of Christianity from their younger years. Harvard Professor Robert Putnam wrote: “These were the kids who were coming of age in the America of the culture wars, in the America in which religion publicly became associated with a particular brand of politics, and so I think the single most important reason for the rise of the unknowns is that combination of the younger people moving to the left on social issues and the most visible religious leaders moving to the right on that same issue.”
  • A second factor may be another thing creating a black eye for religion, especially among the young: the acts of religious leaders and fanatics. These range from radical Islam and its terrorist tactics and barbaric treatment of people (especially women), to pedophile priests (probably the single biggest reason Catholicism is declining), to the hypocritical ministers with feet of clay who scold others about their morality, then turn out to be closeted gays, or child molesters, or adulterers, or criminals.
  • Zuckerman pointed to a third important factor: the rise of the internet. Just a generation ago, if you had religious doubts but lived in small-town America, you had no one to talk to. Everyone’s first question after they meet you is “What church do you go to?” You had to keep your ideas to yourself and stay in the closet. Now, thanks to the Internet, you can connect with virtual communities of secularists all over the globe. There are many different secularist meetings where you are among like-minded individuals who also reject religion. In this day of instant information, any bizarre claim by religion can be instantly Googled. In many cases, the sites debunking religious claims will be in the top few hits (e.g, Scientology). In my day, it took me a long time to find a few books on atheism (such as Bertrand Russell’s Why I Am Not A Christian) in the library (if the library dared order such a title). Now, the entire debunking of religious claims is just a few clicks away, and books by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens are best sellers. Anyone with just a bit of curiosity or doubt, especially among the younger generations, can find things in just a few seconds that I never encountered in years of reading and searching when I was young and questioning my family’s Presbyterian faith.
  • Another surprising factor that Zuckerman discovered: the rise of women in the work force, and the profound changes it has meant in all of American society. Women tend to be the religious backbone of most families (my mother sure was!). In conservative religious families, they are the enforcers and the teachers of the faith to their children. But changing economic and demographic factors has led women out of their traditional roles, exposed them to new ideas, and made them less likely to rely on religion when being homemaker isn’t their only job.
Generational Replacement Helping Drive Growth of Unaffiliated, Decline of Mainline Protestantism and Catholicism

The main focus of Living the Secular Life, however, is a follow-up to Zuckerman’s earlier books about secularism—how do American secularists live? In each chapter, he deals with an important personal or cultural issue that is usually defined in religious terms, and shows how American secularists do just fine without religion. These include the common questions, “How can you be moral without God”? (actually, secularists tend to be more moral than religious people). How do you raise kids without church? Where do you go for community without your church group? How do you deal with life’s difficulties and with death without the hope of religious faith? In each chapter, Zuckerman approaches the problem by giving examples of real people and how they address these issues, then shows that religion is not required to deal with any of these issues—just as the vast majority of secular people in most of the northern European countries have long ago concluded.

Zuckerman’s book is an excellent read for anyone who is questioning their faith and worried about what life would be like without it, or for secularists who are wrestling with issues of how to replace religious practices and ideas with secular ones. When Zuckerman gave a talk about his book for the Skeptics Society at Caltech on April 19, 2015, he told a story about how much life has changed in northern Europe. In most cities, huge cathedrals and other religious buildings no longer have any congregations, but have been sold and are now used as meeting houses, public places, and even local pubs and taverns. They have become cathedrals of secularism.

I’m not expecting this to happen in the U.S. next week, but it can happen very fast. The change occurred in Europe over only two generations, mostly before the internet gave it any help—thanks to cradle-to-grave social safety nets provided by their governments, which remove the fear that drives religious belief. In Quebec in the 1960s, the Catholic hierarchy once ruled the entire province, but a series of elections of secular governments led it to become the most progressive and least religious province in all of Canada in a single generation. John Lennon imagined no religion. Now the rest of the country is catching up. END

Watch Zuckerman’s Lecture for free right here, recorded live by the Skeptics Society at Caltech on April 19, 2015


  1. moses says:

    Pls I want you to help me to achieve astral projection Thank

    • gewisn says:

      you already achieved astral projection.
      This is not the plane on which you started. unfortunately, the process wipes your memory, so there’s no way for you to remember your previous existence.

      Welcome to this plane.
      Now please start living your life.
      You’re falling behind.

      • aqk says:

        Perhaps “Moses” was taking about “Astral Plain”. I’m also gettin’ kinda tired of this newfangled fancy Quantum Astral stuff!

  2. Roy Niles says:

    I read the stuff here concerning a History of Life’s Vital Essence, and find it hard to believe that someone associated with modern science and philosophy has honestly presented vitalism as the only alternative to his firm belief in the mechanistic nature of life, when adaptive mutation and self-engineering, among other interesting modern theories, are so clearly available as rational explanations for the fact that the very humans that have come up with these outdated mechanistic explanations are quite obviously capable of using the intelligence that our living mechanisms supposedly weren’t meant to have – since neither vitalism nor mechanistic systems have been reported as operationally intelligent.
    Except of course that mechanisms, lo and behold, have all somehow been intelligently constructed. How in the hell did the teleology that has also been decried here arrange for mechanisms that arose for no known or knowable purposes to acquire the intelligence that serves the purposes of human lives? (Not to mention the purposes of a dolphin here and there, a whale, an elephant, a parrot, and perhaps even the family dog.)
    I know most of the reader’s of this rag will find this comment unintelligible, but perhaps one or two will not, so something will have come from nothing after all. Well, OK, almost nothing anyway.

  3. John says:

    Calculating moves by percentage points is misleading. The 6.7 percentage point increase is a 42% increase in the number of nones. The 3.1 percentage point decrease in Catholics is a 13% drop in the number of Catholics. Take the percentage point change and divide by the original percentage to get the absolute percent of change.

  4. Tzindaro says:

    The number who are religious depends on how you define religion. You need to take into account the large number of young people who describe themselves as “spiritual” or who believe in some form of “New Age” non-systematized cluster of ideas collected from a number of non-western traditions. How large is the Modern Neo-Pagan movement, for example?

    Another problem is the many people who have no religious beliefs, but still identify themselves as belonging to whatever religion they were brought up in. Any poll asking what religion a respondent belongs to has to also ask if they themselves really believe in it’s teachings or do they just consider themselves as members because they were baptized as a child or their family belonged to it.

  5. Bob Pease says:

    I thmk that most people who still ttend “High Church”
    (Roman Catholic and non-fundamnetalist Protestants)
    do so for family tradition or social support.

    If asked to claim understanding and/or support of each article of the Nicene Creed , I could not predict that many
    of these folks would score very high.

    It’s not surptisimg that a lot of folks drift away if they have other means of social support.


  6. Ken says:

    Difficult to know what this sentence means: “As a number of people have pointed out, however, these simplistic cartoon villains of religion need to be replaced with more realistic causes, backed up the poll numbers and demographic trends”?

  7. Ken says:

    And the first sentence says, “a new Pew survey was released that showed that the “nones” or “religiously unaffiliated” in America have become the second largest religious group in America.”

    How does Prothero know they are “religious”? Indeed, he suggests many are “non-religious” later in the same paragraph. How does he know that? He doesn’t.

  8. Ken says:

    The author also appears to believe that the rise of the “nones” is a good thing per se. But we clearly don’t have enough information to arrive at such a conclusion. Whether a lack of religious affiliation is good, of course, depends on a number of factors, including the philosophical outlooks and lifestyles with which religious affiliation is replaced. Assuming, that is, that at least some of the “nones” have become irreligious.

    • Marcia says:

      What is good, is that people feel safe enough to ADMIT that they DO NOT BELIEVE.

      Don’t really care about the effect. It is my right.

  9. Dawit Tesfazghi Ghebrmedhin says:

    what kind/type of skepticism you are following switching skepticism or double notions.

    • Bob Pease says:

      “what kind/type of skepticism you are following..switching skepticism or double notions.”

      I read this to mean that Skepticism
      is not the same as discussion of opposing norions.

      The topic is OK here because of the large amount of Skepticism
      generated by origins Theories in general


  10. John C. Hodge says:

    People are sensing the old morals are failing. The problem humanity must solve is
    how to grow without war and discover the better moral system rather than to discover the moral system.
    We are entering a period of great uncertainty. The rate of change is accelerating. This is caused, in my opinion, by the collapsing US as measured by J. A. Tainter (“The Collapse of Complex Societies”). Collapse means that many of the old assumptions are being proven wrong. Nature is forcing us to go back to smaller societies that our morals can support and the wars such societies have.
    I think some things can be ruled out now. (1) The current religious/church morals will produce smaller societies constantly at war with each other. (2) The current ongoing “Rights Revolution” is an extension of old morals [for example, the support of children and the old that will never contribute or reproduce has been held by humans for thousands of years (nature usually solved this issue by high infant mortality). Some societies grew with infant exposure practices.]. (3) Big Government that started with T. Roosevelt dictating individual laws for all states is wrong because the change is too slow and expensive. (4) Humanity’s oral code must conform to Nature’s laws not human ideas of justice or “higher purpose”.

    • Bob Pease says:

      “”(4) Humanity’s oral code must conform to Nature’s laws, not (to) human ideas of justice or “higher purpose”.

      Do you mean “Moral??”

      “Nature’s Laws” can be summarized in a Neo- Darwin phrase.

      “Conquest and Assimilation by the marginally more fit”

      I think that a Moral Code shou[d diverge from this

      Dr S.

      • John C. Hodge says:

        Yes. Moral code.
        No to “conquest and…”.
        There are many more strategies in nature.
        But all the strategies share one goal – survival. A moral code that does not meet the demand of survival will soon die.
        A species / moral code must be an efficient user of resources (more efficient than the competition) and must be able to adopt to change. Churches in power don’t like to change. Supporting the those who cannot help the society to reproduce or, at least, return their cost is an inefficient resource use. Therefore, the “Rights Revolution” is misdirecting resources causing our decline.

        • Bob Pease says:

          “Supporting (the) those who cannot help the society to reproduce or, at least, return their cost is an inefficient resource use. Therefore, the “Rights Revolution” is misdirecting resources causing our decline.”

          I fear the implication here that they need to KKKlean up their act.


          • John C. Hodge says:

            No. KKK is also an inefficient user. Tolerance allows better use and change. Intolerance in KKK, Churches, and totalitarian regimes fail.

            How did you get the KKK as an implication?

  11. Bob Pease says:

    John C. Hodge says:

    July 2, 2015 at 7:36 am

    No. KKK is also an inefficient user. Tolerance allows better use and change. Intolerance in KKK, Churches, and totalitarian regimes fail.

    How did you get the KKK as an implication?


    “the “Rights Revolution” is misdirecting resources causing our decline.”

    RJ Pease sez

    it seems to me that you are suggesting a 1984 style “attitude adjustment” for

    the Rights Revolution (mainly GLTG)

    My idea is that the KKK has very efficient mrthods for doing this

    A standard rhetorical technique is to get folks to “Pole – vault”
    to cinclusions like this

    It seems to me that this was your intent.


    • John C. Hodge says:

      I referenced my paper. It and I specifically suggest against a Big Brother (Government) approach. I mention this specifically in (3) Big Government is wrong. Your must be projecting your own ideas into this. Are you attempting to follow Saul Alinsky’s rules?
      You think the failed KKK is efficient? It is certainly not efficient.
      I am not sure we have the same idea for the Rights Revolution. I take my definition partially from C. R. Epps “the Rights Revolution” and partially from the observance of the implementation. He limits it to the enforcement of individual rights relative to the Bill of Rights. But the implementation is to provide Federal funds and extraordinary rewards (such as first identify a person’s skin color [isn’t this racist?] and if black, lower the standards). Transfer payments also attempt to have an equality of outcome. These are not nature’s way. The ideal seems good so long as competition is allowed to progress. Since 1960’s, the competition has not been allowed. Nature is judging this as a candidate to die which is what the US is doing.

      • Bob Pease says:

        regardless of the suprising new facts you are supplying,

        I stand with the reaction that your position strongly
        supports silencing of folks whose core values are at odds with
        soi-disant standards of danger to society.

        Sorry, but 45 Calinre solutions are frequently made usng simplification of Flowery ideas whose rhetotic is seldom the intet of the author.

        I can envision folks using your ideas to supress homosexuals,
        which I am sure is not your intent.


  12. tpaine says:

    “Rights Revolution”

    Article 1
    No person may initiate force, threats of force, or fraud against any other person’s self or property.

    Article 2
    Force may be used against those who violate Article 1.

    Article 3
    No exceptions shall exist for Articles 1 and 2.

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