The Only Way to Win Is to Fight
My earlier post, "Storming the Ivory Tower", discussed the real harm that religion is doing in the world, harm that Very Serious People overlook while tut-tutting at atheists. The natural follow-up question is how to respond. I want a soft landing as much as anyone; the question is how we get there. Will strong criticism of religion aid our cause by bringing people over to our side? Or is it the case that religion is already on the decline and the best thing we can do is to say nothing at all?
In the comments on this thread, a commenter expressed this sentiment:
I also believe that actively fighting religion only makes it stronger. Like most large organisations, it is far more cohesive and focused if it has an enemy. Like a country devoting its all to war, it bands its adherents together.
There's a parallel that's so good, I have to point it out: This is the same argument that was once made about slavery - leave it alone, don't interfere with it, and it will die out of its own accord. It's hard not to suspect that the reasoning is similar: wishful thinking by people who want an evil to go away without any effort on their part.
Does opposition make fundamentalist cults cling more tightly to their beliefs? Yes, quite possibly. But they do that whether there's real opposition or not. They see enemies everywhere they turn, and if there isn't a plausible threat, they'll just invent one to serve the purpose.
The Jehovah's Witnesses, for example, hold the belief that every non-Watchtower organization in the world is controlled by Satan. The religious right makes paranoia its stock in trade, fantasizing about how Christianity is on the verge of being banned or an Antichrist-led one-world government is on the rise (and don't forget the annual "war on Christmas" nonsense, a proud tradition since the days of anti-Semitism). And, of course, the Republican party in America, de facto the party of Christian evangelicals, regularly indulges in fantasies about how Barack Obama, a conciliatory, moderately right-wing president, is an evil Kenyan socialist Islamist atheist Marxist who hates Christians and white people. They didn't need permission from atheists to spread these lies, and they won't stop if we cease speaking up.
If atheists don't speak out, there's only one result: these delusional beliefs go unquestioned and unchallenged. When we're invisible, we're defenseless against religious leaders who demonize us and spread pernicious stereotypes about who we are. A vocal, visible atheist movement can counteract these attacks by demonstrating what we really stand for.
Even if the atheist movement is emerging as a result, rather than a cause, of religion's decline, we can still act as a catalyst that accelerates the process. We can and do win converts by challenging religious ideas in public, giving a different side of the story to people who've never heard it or thought about it before. We can and do persuade people by opposing religious privilege, breaking down the exemption from ridicule and criticism that religion has historically enjoyed. But we can also make inroads by letting closeted nonbelievers know that it's okay to come out, and by establishing a safe harbor for them to do so, a secular community that offers support and encouragement. Richard Dawkins himself says that the primary audience for The God Delusion is people who wanted to leave their religion, but didn't know they could.
Of course, when presented with this argument, we hear this fallback:
How do you know that you haven't militarized three for every one convert?
This silencing argument could have been used against any social reform movement. The civil rights movement: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three white racists for every one convert?" The women's suffrage movement: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three anti-suffrage men for every one convert?" Jewish people fighting against defamation: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three anti-Semites for every one convert?" The gay rights movement: "How do you know that you haven't militarized three straight people for every one convert?"
We know our movement is having an impact because we have evidence: the statistics showing the growing number of atheists, and the testimonials of people who were persuaded by our arguments and are happier leading lives free from religion. If you want to argue that all our efforts have produced a greater, counterbalancing harm, then make that case, but do it with evidence. Don't just present it as sheer speculation and expect us to change course based on nothing more than that.
No broad social movement has ever achieved its objectives by sitting back and waiting for everyone else to come around. Speaking out to challenge popular prejudices is bound to cause anger, dismay and agitation ("the roar of many waters", as Frederick Douglass called it). This isn't evidence that we're failing, it's evidence that we're succeeding - that the defenders of the status quo feel threatened.
International poker champion Liv Boeree teaches decision-making for Big Think Edge.
"I was so moved when I saw the cells stir," said 90-year-old study co-author Akira Iritani. "I'd been hoping for this for 20 years."
- The team managed to stimulate nucleus-like structures to perform some biological processes, but not cell division.
- Unless better technology and DNA samples emerge in the future, it's unlikely that scientists will be able to clone a woolly mammoth.
- Still, studying the DNA of woolly mammoths provides valuable insights into the genetic adaptations that allowed them to survive in unique environments.
Tracking project establishes northern Argentina is wintering ground of Swainson's hawks
- Watch these six dots move across the map and be moved yourself: this is a story about coming of age, discovery, hardship, death and survival.
- Each dot is a tag attached to the talon of a Swainson's Hawk. We follow them on their very first migration, from northern California all the way down to Argentina.
- After one year, only one is still alive.
Discovered: destination Argentina
Young Swainson's hawks were found to migrate to northern Argentina
The Buteo swainsoni is a slim, graceful hawk that nests from the Great Plains all the way to northern California.
It feeds mainly on insects, but will also prey on rodents, snakes and birds when raising their young. These learn to fly about 45 days after hatching but may remain with their parents until fall migration, building up flying skills and fat reserves.
A common sight in summer over the Prairies and the West, Swainson's hawks disappear every autumn. While it was assumed they migrated south, it was long unclear precisely where they went.
A group of researchers that has been studying raptors in northern California for over 40 years has now established exactly where young Swainson's hawks go in winter. The story of their odyssey, summarized in a 30-second clip (scroll down), is both amazing and shocking.
Harnessing the hawks
A Swainson's hawk, with tracking device.
The team harnessed six Swainson's hawks in July, as they were six weeks old and just learning to fly. The clip covers 14 months, until next August – so basically, the first year of flight.
Each harness contains a solar-powered tracker and weighs 20 grams, which represents just 3% of the bird's body weight. To minimize the burden, only females were harnessed: as with most raptors, Swainson's hawk females generally are bigger than males.
The first shock occurs just one month (or about 2.4 seconds) from the start of the clip: the first dot disappears. The first casualty. A fledgling no more than two months old, who never made it further than 20 miles from its nest.
By that time, the remaining five are well on their way, clustering around the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas. Swainson's hawks usually travel at around 40 mph (65 km/h) but can almost double that speed when they're stooping (i.e. dive down, especially when attacking prey).
There's a strong genetic component to migration. As usual, the Germans have nice single word to summarize this complex concept: Zugunruhe ('tsook-n-roowa'), literally: 'migration unrest' (1). It denotes the seasonal urge of migratory animals – especially birds – to get on their way. Zugunruhe exhibits especially as restless behavior around nightfall. The number of nights on which it occurs is apparently higher if the distance to be traveled is longer.
The birds may have the urge to go south, but genetics doesn't tell them the exact route. They have to find that out by trial and error. Hence the circling about by the specimens in this clip: they're getting a sense of where to find food and which direction to go. Their migratory paths will be refined by experience – if they're lucky enough to survive that long.
Each bird flies solo: their paths often strongly diverge, and if they seem to meet up occasionally, that's just an illusion: even when the dots are close together, they can still be dozens if not hundreds of miles apart.
Panama snack stop
The Central American isthmus is a major bird migration corridor
They generally follow the same route as it is the path of least resistance: follow mountain ranges, stay over land. Like most raptors, Swainson's hawks migration paths are land-based: not just so they can roost at night, but mainly to benefit from the thermals and updrafts to keep them aloft. That reduces the need to flap wings, and thus their energy spend – even though the trip will take longer that way.
As this clip demonstrates, the land-migration imperative means the Central American isthmus is a hotspot for bird migration. Indeed, Panama and Costa Rica are favorite destinations for bird watchers, when the season's right. A bit to the north, Veracruz in Mexico is another bird migration hotspot.
It's thought most hawks don't eat at all on migration. This clip shows an exception to that rule: on the way back, one bird takes an extended stopover of a couple of weeks in Panama, probably spending its time there foraging for food.
So, when they finally arrive in northern Argentina, after 6 to 8 weeks' migration, the hawks are pretty famished. Until a few decades ago, they fed on locusts. For their own reasons, local farmers have been getting rid of those. The hawks now concentrate on grasshoppers, and basically anything else that's edible.
For first-time visitors, finding what they need is not easy. Three of the five dots go dark. These birds probably died from starvation. But two birds thrive: they roam the region until winter rears its head in South America, and it's time to head back north again, where summer is getting under way.
Both dots make it back across the border, but unfortunately, right at the end of the clip, one of the surviving two birds expires.
Harsh, but not unusual
This old lady is 27 years old, but still nesting.
While a one-in-six survival rate may seem alarmingly harsh, it's not that unusual. First-year mortality for Swainson's Hawks is between 50% and 80%. Disease, starvation, predators and power lines – to name just a few common causes of death - take out a big number.
Only 10% to 15% of the young 'uns make it past their third or fourth year into adulthood, but from then on, annual survival rates are much better: around 90%. Adult Swainson's Hawks can expect to live into their low teens. There's one documented example of a female Swainson's Hawk in the wild who was at least 27 years old (and still nesting!)
The Californian population of Swainson's Hawks plummeted by about 90% at the end of last century but is now again increasing well. The monitoring project that produced this clip has been going for about four decades but is seeing its funding dry up. Check them out and consider supporting them (see details below).
Migration trajectory of B95, the 'Moonbird'.
Not all migrating birds shun the ocean. Here's an incredible map of an incredible migration path that's even longer than that of the Swainson's hawks.
In February 1995, a red knot (Calidris canutus rufa) in Tierra del Fuego (southern Argentina) was banded with the tag B95. That particular bird, likely born in 1993, was recaptured at least three times and resighted as recently as May 2014, in the Canadian Arctic.
B95 is more commonly known as 'Moonbird', because the length of its annual migration (app. 20,000 miles; 32,000 km) combined with its extreme longevity (if still alive, it's 25-26 years old now) means its total lifetime flight exceeds the distance from the Earth to the Moon.
As many other shorebirds do, the red knot takes the Atlantic Flyway hugging the coastline and crossing to South America via the ocean.
B95 has become the poster bird of conservationists in both North and South America. A book titled Moonbird: A Year on the Wind with the Great Survivor B95 (2012) received numerous awards, B95 has a statue in Mispillion Harbor on Delaware Bay and the City of Rio Grande on Tierra del Fuego has proclaimed B95 its natural ambassador.
Perhaps one day the nameless Swainson's Hawks in this clip, fallen in service of their ancestral instincts – against the odds of human increasing interference – will receive a similar honor.
Strange Maps #965
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(1) 'Zug' is a wonderfully polyvalent German word. It can mean: a train, a chess move, a characteristic, a stroke, a draft (of a plan), a gulp (of air), a drag (from a cigarette), a swig (from a bottle), and more.
The blood of horseshoe crabs is harvested on a massive scale in order to retrieve a cell critical to medical research. However, recent innovations might make this practice obsolete.
- Horseshoe crabs' blue blood is so valuable that a quart of it can be sold for $15,000.
- This is because it contains a molecule that is crucial to the medical research community.
- Today, however, new innovations have resulted in a synthetic substitute that may end the practice of farming horseshoe crabs for their blood.
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