January 28, 2015

Most Social Justice Advocates are Not Social Justice Warriors

Occupy Oakland Nov 12 2011 PM 40
By Mercurywoodrose (Own work)
The term social justice warrior has a specific meaning that is clearly distinct from "social justice advocate" or "social justice activist." Most social justice advocates are not social justice warriors. I tried to address this distinction previously, but I did not do a very good job of it. In fact, I did a rather poor job of it. Among other things, I made the mistake of sticking too closely to an imperfect definition and focusing too much on internal states (e.g., motive and intent). In this post, I'd like to take another stab at highlighting the primary differences between social justice advocacy and "social justice warriorism."

Why is this a relevant topic for an atheist blog? First, we regularly encounter it. Many atheists have been affected by social justice warriors at least since the emergence of Atheism+. More recently, we have seen it in #GamerGate, #ShirtStorm, #manspreading, and even in the aftermath of Ferguson. Second, the distinction continues to be widely misunderstood. I regularly see atheists and humanists complaining that they are being criticized for advocating for social justice. This is almost never why they are being criticized; they are being criticized for engaging in specific behaviors associated with social justice warriors. Third and most important, the behavior of social justice warriors undermines valuable social justice advocacy on a number of issues about which many atheists are concerned. Thus, much (though certainly not all) of the criticism of "social justice warriorism" is coming from people who care about social justice issues.

January 27, 2015

Redefining Faith

English: 1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, sh...
1857 lithograph by Armand Gautier, showing personifications of dementia, megalomania, acute mania, melancholia, idiocy, hallucination, erotic mania and paralysis in the gardens of the Hospice de la Salpêtrière. Reprinted in Madness: A Brief History (ISBN 978-0192802668), from which this version is taken. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Since I picked up a Chromecast back in August, I've been watching lots of atheist-oriented videos on YouTube. One of my favorites so far would have to be this brief talk on faith by Dr. Peter Boghossian from 2012. In the video (embedded below), Dr. Boghossian suggests that we redefine faith as "pretending to know things you don't know." He suggests that this will have at least three benefits:
  1. It will bring greater clarity by helping us avoid some of the more "slippery" definitions used by religious believers.
  2. It will help us separate faith from morality.
  3. It will help us more clearly distinguish between faith and hope.
All three of these benefits strike me as worthwhile. I have encountered many religious believers, mostly Christians, who seem to change their definition of faith (and many other words) on the fly as it suits their purposes. This complicates any sort of meaningful discussion. And Dr. Boghossian is absolutely correct to suggest that the popular association of faith with morality is one of the most significant obstacles we face in promoting reason and working to overcome bigotry toward secular persons. Lastly, the distinction between faith and hope should be obvious in the sense that one is a knowledge claim and the other is not. This rarely seems to be the case, however, and Dr. Boghossian's proposed definition of faith might help make this a bit more clear.

January 26, 2015

David Cameron on the Right to Cause Offense

David Cameron at the 37th G8 Summit in Deauville 104
Guillaume Paumier, CC-BY
One of the real problems with guilt-by-association is that it often prevents us from encountering good ideas from sources we don't particularly like. And even when we do encounter such an idea, we may have difficulty acknowledging it as a good one.

This pattern has been evident in "the great rift" dividing the atheist blogosphere for some time. Fans of Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ are reluctant to recognize the valuable points made by those of us who criticize them, and fans of the critics often have trouble acknowledging the contributions of Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+. While one could certainly argue that this is a trivial example, the world of politics offers plenty less trivial ones.

Far too many political conservatives hastily dismiss the ideas of their liberal counterparts without giving them proper consideration. And far too many political liberals reject any idea a conservative offers without bothering to evaluate the merits of the idea. It seems to me that this is one of the most unfortunate consequences of routinely demonizing one's political or ideological opponents.

With this in mind, I come to  British Prime Minister David Cameron. Admittedly, I'd have a hard time characterizing myself as a fan of his politics; however, I think it is important to acknowledge when those who hold different political views get something right. And I think it is especially important to do so when they end up being on the right side of controversial issues on which some of those with similar political views as one's own are getting wrong.

January 24, 2015

Base Rate Fallacy: Gender and Atheism in Britain

Union flag 1606 (Kings Colors)If you are an atheist living in the U.K., you might have noticed that your local secular activist groups seem to attract more men than women. What might this mean? Does this mean that the secular movement in the U.K. is "hostile to women" like some have suggested it is here in the U.S.? Are women refusing to join such groups because of rampant sexism and misogyny? I suppose that is possible, but a recent study from the UCL Institute of Education offers at least one alternative explanation: we may see more men in the secular movement because men are more likely to identify themselves as not believing in gods.

According to the National Secular Society, the study sampled the 1970 British Cohort Study, meaning that it included roughly 9,000 Britons in their 40s. This is an interesting age range since we tend to hear far more about younger samples. Using this sample, they found that men were about twice as likely to identify themselves as atheists as were women. If this is the case, wouldn't we have to expect to see more men involved in secular activism?

January 21, 2015

Difficulty Explaining Something is Not Useful Evidence

German garden gnome
By Colibri1968 at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons
Suppose I planted a small vegetable garden in a corner of my yard. In spite of my lack of any real gardening ability, it is coming along well. Everything is growing as it is supposed to, and I am thrilled that I will soon have fresh vegetables. But then disaster strikes. I go out one Saturday morning to do some weeding and discover that something has been digging up my garden. Some of the plants have been completely uprooted. I repair the damage the best I can, but it keeps happening. I consult with the staff of the local garden store and try a variety of solutions they recommend, ranging from a small chicken wire fence around the perimeter of the garden to various chemical compounds supposed to safely repel rodents and other small animals. Nothing works.

What is digging up my garden? Suppose I were to tell you that I believe the culprit is some sort of magic gnome. After you were finished laughing, you'd inquire about my evidence for such an implausible scenario. "I've got plenty of evidence," I tell you, "just look at my garden!" I remind you that my garden is being dug up every few days. I list off the various solutions I have tried, all of which has been ineffective. I remind you that nobody has been able to explain what is causing the damage. "You see, it has to be a gnome."

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