Question of the Week: 1/17/2018

In the PRRI survey of young Americans, atheists ranked very low among the groups that respondents associated with discrimination. Do you think this reflects a positive sign for atheists, or do you think the respondents got it wrong, and why?

Our favorite answer will win a copy of Brief Candle in the Dark by Richard Dawkins.


Want to suggest a Question of the Week? E-mail submissions to us at qotw@richarddawkins.net. (Questions only, please. All answers to bimonthly questions are made only in the comments section of the Question of the Week.)

The Necessity of Secularism, pg 35-36

“The principal argument that has been advanced for the view that the First Amendment permits the government to deviate from is secular character and involve itself in religious matters, at least to the extent of supporting religion in general, is the so-called nonpreferentialist interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Pursuant to this interpretation, the government can support religion, even financially, as long as the government does no favor or prefer one religious denomination over others.

Although this interpretation of the Establishment Clause has had its adherents, including some justices on the Supreme Court, the non-preferentialist reading of the Establishment Clause has been rejected repeatedly by a majority of the Supreme Court, and with good reason. In interpreting the Constitution, as is true in interpreting any legal document, we should of course, focus on the final language of the document, but the evolution of that language can also be instructive. A review of the proposals that were considered in the House and Senate reveals that one of the specific proposals that was rejected was a draft amendment that limited itself to forbidding Congress from giving preference to one religion over others. In other words, the First Congress considered a nonpreferential version of the First Amendment but declined to adopt it. ”

-Ron Lindsay, The Necessity of Secularism, pg 35-36

Gut bacteria linked to cataclysmic epidemic that wiped out 16th-century Mexico

By Beth Mole

In the wake of the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in 1521, waves of epidemics slammed Mexico. By 1576, the population, which had been more than 20 million before the Spanish arrived, had crashed to two million. One brutal outbreak in 1545 was estimated to have killed between five and 15 million alone—or up to 80 percent of the population.

But, like the other epidemics, the disease behind the 1545 outbreak was a complete mystery—until now.

Genetic evidence pulled from the teeth of 10 victims suggests that the particularly nasty bacterium Salmonella enterica subsp. enterica serovar Paratyphi C contributed to the scourge of fever, bleeding, dysentery, and red rashes recorded at the time. The genetic data, published Monday in Nature Ecology and Evolution, offers the first molecular evidence to try to explain what’s “regarded as one of the most devastating epidemics in New World history,” the authors conclude.

For decades, researchers have speculated on the disease—or diseases—that caused the population collapse. Spanish invaders are thought to have unleashed a throng of pathogens and plagues from the Old World, including small pox and typhoid. In addition, some experts think that severe drought during the time may have awoken some dormant, native plagues. But it’s been a hard issue to settle with so few surviving clues and vague historical accounts. The series of epidemics, including the one in 1545, are simply referred to as cocoliztli, the generic Aztec word for pestilence.

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Diversity, Division, Discrimination: The State of Young America | MTV/PRRI Report

By Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Daniel Cox, Ph.D., Molly Fisch-Friedman, Robert P. Jones, Ph.D.

Executive Summary

I. Perceptions of Discrimination, Personal Experience with Bias, and Concerns about Safety

Experiences with bias and discrimination are relatively common among young people age 15-24.
One in four (25%) young people report having been targeted or treated unfairly themselves in the last 12 months because of their race or ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or gender identity, immigration status, or religious beliefs.
• Asians and Pacific Islanders (35%), black (30%), and to a lesser extent Hispanic young people (24%) are more likely than white young people (4%) to have experienced racially-motivated discrimination in the last 12 months.
• Nearly one-third (32%) of young people who identify as LGBT report that they personally have been mistreated or targeted because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.
• A majority (54%) of young women report witnessing or personally experiencing incidents of gender bias, while young men (34%) are far less likely to report the same. One in five (20%) young women say they have personally experienced discrimination because of their gender.

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In Rural Nepal, Menstruation Taboo Claims Another Victim

By BHADRA SHARMA and JEFFREY GETTLEMAN

The last time anyone saw Gauri Kumari Bayak alive, she was gathering grass and firewood. Considered impure because she was menstruating, she was about to sleep outside in a cold hut.

She never woke up.

According to the police, Ms. Bayak is the latest victim of a very old tradition in rural Nepal, in which religious Hindus believe that menstruating women are unclean and should be banished from the family home. She was found dead on Monday, apparently having asphyxiated after building a small fire inside the hut to keep warm.

In Nepal, one of Asia’s poorest countries, dozens of women and girls have died in recent years from following this tradition, despite activists’ campaigns and government efforts to end the practice.

Menstruating women often trudge outside at night to bed down with cows or goats in tiny, rough, grass-roofed huts and sheds. Many have been raped by intruders or died from exposure to the elements.

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After a Debacle, How California Became a Role Model on Measles

By Emily Oster and Geoffrey Kocks

In December 2014 something unusual happened at Disneyland. People came to visit Mickey Mouse, and some of them left with measles. At least 159 people contracted the disease during an outbreak lasting several months. This is more than the typical number in a whole year in the United States.

The leading theory is that measles was introduced in Disneyland by a foreign tourist. That could happen anywhere. Medical experts generally agree that the fact that it took off was probably a result of California’s low vaccination rates, which in turn was a result of an inability to persuade a significant share of Californians that vaccines were important.

The episode made national news, but in the next few years, another development was striking but attracted less national attention: Because of a policy change, California was able to turn it around. Data from a county-by county analysis shows that in many schools with the lowest vaccination rates, there was an increase of 20 to 30 percentage points in the share of kindergartners vaccinated between 2014 and 2016. One law changed the behavior of impassioned resisters more effectively than a thousand public service announcements might have.

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What’s Hiding Inside Egypt’s Great Pyramid? Tiny Robots May Find Out

By Owen Jarus

Using cosmic particles called muons, and possibly tiny robots, scientists hope to figure out what created two mysterious voids inside the Great Pyramid.

Possibilities range from a new burial chamber to a sealed-off construction passage.

Built by the pharaoh Khufu (whose reign started around 2551 B.C.), the Great Pyramid of Giza stands 455 feet (138 meters) tall and was the tallest human-made structure in the world until the Lincoln Cathedral was completed in England in the 14th century.

Scientists with the Scan Pyramids project reportedthe discovery of two previously unknown voids in the Great Pyramid in an article published in November 2017 in the journal Nature. The larger of the two voids is at least 98 feet (30 m) long and is located above a giant passageway known as the grand gallery that leads to Khufu’s burial chamber. The smaller void is located behind the north face of the pyramid and consists of a corridor whose length is unclear. Muon detectors and thermal imaging were used to make these discoveries.

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Synthetic species made to shun sex with wild organisms

By Ewen Callaway

Maciej Maselko has made wild sex deadly — for genetically modified organisms. A synthetic biologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis—St Paul, Maselko and his colleagues have used gene-editing tools to create genetically modified fruit flies and yeasts that cannot breed successfully with their wild counterparts. In so doing, they say they have engineered synthetic species.

“We want something that’s going to be identical to the original in every way, except it’s just genetically incompatible,” says Maselko, who is due to present his work on 16 January at the annual Plant and Animal Genome Conference in San Diego, California. The research was co-led by Michael Smanski, a biochemist at the University of Minnesota.

The technology could be used to keep genetically modified plants from spreading genes to unmodified crops and weeds, thereby containing laboratory organisms, the researchers hope. It might even help combat pests and invasive species, by replacing wild organisms with modified counterparts. Other scientists say that the approach is promising, but warn that it could be stymied by technical hurdles, such as the ability of modified organisms to survive and compete in the wild. “This is an ingenious system and, if successful, could have many applications,” says evolutionary biologist Fred Gould of the North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

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W.Va. proposal for Bible requirement brings mixed reaction

By WSAZ News

A bill before West Virginia lawmakers would require the Bible in school.

If passed, Senate Bill 252 would make it an elective for students, but not for school districts, even the public ones.

It’s no surprise, it’s getting some strong opinions on both sides at Pullman Square.

“I think it’s a good idea,” said Joseph Hardwick.

“I think it’s arrogant and silly,” said Patrick Stephens.

But according to current wording, the bill would require it in all schools — public, private and parochial.

The stated purpose is to teach students the history, literary style and its influence on society like law, art and government, focusing on either the Old Testament, the New Testament or the entire Bible.

Those like Hardwick like the proposal.

“I think it would help people grow and open their mind.”

“It gives an opportunity for the kids to learn about the Bible,” added Cadyn Turley.

But Stephens said the Bible doesn’t have a place in school and blurs the line between church and state.

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An Atheist’s Invocation Request is Met With Cry of “Fake News” in FL

By Hemant Mehta

On Thursday, atheist Joseph Richardson spoke during a meeting of the Winter Garden City Commission in Florida as part of his effort to deliver a secular invocation.

He’s been trying to do this for years… with no luck. (Another atheist delivered an invocation in Winter Garden once, in 2015, but the commissioner who invited him won’t invite Richardson for some reason.)

In his brief address to the Commission, Richardson gave examples of recent secular invocations (or policy changes) that went off without a hitch, and the commissioners listened, but nothing happened.

The reason I mention this is because of what happened at the end of his speech:

In the last few seconds of that video, just after Richardson finishes his plea to include secular voices in the invocation rotation, a woman in the audience yells out “Fake news!”

No one on the commission reprimanded that woman.

No one even said anything against it. They just asked if anyone else wanted to make a public comment.

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