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So you’ve seen the Pew survey, that shows that, among other things, atheists and agnostics tend to know a lot about religious doctrines and practices.  Of particular interest to me in the ensuing discussions was Larison’s distinction between academic religious knowledge and lived religious experience.  It’s simply not all that surprising that a religious believer who grew up with her faith culturally would not have high-level academic knowledge of the particulars of it.  High-level academic knowledge is for Jesuits and converts.  (Mutatis mutandis, natch.)

But it also speaks to a broader puzzle, especially regarding the recent games in the press and in blogs concerning Islam.  Any fool can Google up a copy of a religious text and pull out verses to prove almost anything; the connection between disinterested academic discourse about the interpretation of a passage, breezy bloggy interpretations, and the experiences and beliefs of the average believer will wildly diverge (and may be indistinguishable from other cultural practices.)

In any case, it’s unfair to talk about the Pew results without offering an explanation of why atheists and agnostics tend to be well-informed about religion.  My ex recto position: atheists tend to be highly educated; highly educated people tend to run into courses on world religions; and, it is also, in my experience, a common trait among the highly educated to have extraordinarily good memories for trivia.  My knowledge of the Noble Eightfold Path is tucked somewhere between the book of Daniel and the Star Trek episode where Picard has to communicate in literary metaphors.   And indeed, the results mention educational attainment as one thing that correlates with better academic religious knowledge; but apparently with that held constant, atheists still retain more religious knowledge.

Revised theory: the trivia gene eats God.

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Via feministphilosophers, an intriguing collection of summaries of articles, accompanied by intelligent commentary, on the psychology of beauty.  So often journalistic science writing on these kinds of topics can be parodied very quickly, but not unfairly as, “back on the veldt, men had to hunt down the wild jungle tigers while the women stayed home to tend the children and weave the straps of those cave girl bikinis, and this explains why I am attracted to interns”, but this blog strikes me as very good, as it notes the implications, strengths, and offers a word of caution about most of the studies.  So I thought you might find it of interest.

Plus, this is just cool.

I’m not crying; it’s sand in my eye.

It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools, they say. Jorge Colombo drew this week’s New Yorker cover on his iPhone.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Tone matrix. (Sound; NSFW.)

Move over, Newton and LeibnizArchimedes may have beat you by 2,000 years:

Two of the texts hiding in the prayer book have not appeared in any other copy of Archimedes’s work, so no one but Heiberg had studied them until now. One of them, titled The Method, has special historical significance. It could be considered the earliest known work on calculus. […]

The Greek philosopher Aristotle built defenses against infinity’s vexing qualities by distinguishing between the “potential infinite” and the “actual infinite.” An infinitely long line would be actually infinite, whereas a line that could always be extended would be potentially infinite. Aristotle argued that the actual infinite didn’t exist.

Archimedes developed rigorous methods of dealing with infinity—still used today—in which he followed Aristotle’s injunction. For example, Archimedes proved that the area of a section of a parabola is four-thirds the area of the triangle inside it (shown in red in the diagram below). To do so, he built a straight-lined figure that’s an approximation of the curvy one. Then he showed that he could make the approximation as close as anyone could ever demand to both the section of the parabola and to four-thirds the area of the triangle.

The writings had been hiding in plain sight, in a palimpsest underneath a book of prayer.  One wonders about the monk who scraped the parchment clean.  Did he have any idea?  Could he have…?

The postulation of a lost age, where human beings had made great advances in science, medicine, and mathematics, has always made for wondrous fiction (especially when the ancients had steampunk spaceships.)  This discovery leaves me despairing at the fragility of progress.


From Gallup’s neat collection of presidential “trial heat” polls from 1936 onward. Via Pollster.

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