May 31, 2013

Does Case of Rush Limbaugh Hold Lessons For Atheist Community?

Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest in...
Rush Limbaugh booking photo from his arrest in 2006. These charges were eventually dropped by the local prosecutor. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When someone repeatedly spews the sort of divisive nonsense that can harm a community, we should ignore that person, right? The more we respond to such a person, the more we elevate him or her to the level of someone to whom attention should be paid. The more attention we pay, the more traffic we drive, and the more we increase the ad revenue he or she receives. By ignoring them, we deprive them of the attention they crave, and this is the way to reduce their influence, right? I know you have heard this argument many times. You have even heard it with reference to some in the atheist community.

Early in May, Wendy Gittleson (The Big Sauce) provided an interesting counterpoint to this common argument: the case of Rush Limbaugh. Gittleson noted that calls for those of us on the left to ignore Limbaugh never made much sense because there is almost no audience overlap between us and Limbaugh. She certainly has a point here. Limbaugh's audience would not know whether we were ignoring him or rebutting him because they would not be paying attention to us.

May 30, 2013

Is the Secular Movement Hostile to Women?

Hostile Ambient Takeover
Hostile Ambient Takeover (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Blogger Sarah Moglia (RantaSarah Rex) recently stated on Twitter that the secular movement is hostile to women. While I question the merits of depicting the whole of the secular movement in this manner, I am interested in hearing what she has to say. After all, there do appear to be pockets of hostility toward women within the secular movement, as well as in the broader culture surrounding us.

Sexism occurs in the atheist community, as does sexual harassment, and other non-sexual forms of harassment. It is great that there are plenty of women active in the atheist community who have not experienced any of this in our community and who feel perfectly safe and welcome. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there are also plenty of women who have had far less positive experiences and who have come forward to talk about it.

May 29, 2013

Prayer in School: All Eyes on Mississippi

Historic Wechsler School in Meridian, MS
Historic Wechsler School in Meridian, MS (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first post in this series asked why silent prayer isn't sufficient. The second examined a few of the reasons I believe we should be determined to keep school-sanctioned prayer out of our public schools. Now I want to take a closer look at the logistics of implementing the new Mississippi law designed to encourage school prayer and the many perils it entails.

The Mississippi law attempts to bypass the illegality of school-sanctioned prayer by having the students do the praying and accompanying their prayers with a ridiculously transparent disclaimer that their prayers are not school-sanctioned. Let's take a look at how this is likely to work.  

May 28, 2013

Introducing Godless in Dixie

Sheet music for "Dixie"
Sheet music for "Dixie" (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Godless in Dixie is an atheist blog you should be reading if you are not already doing so. It is written by a former evangelical Christian who is now an atheist and skeptic living in the Deep South.

I'd like to draw your attention to a recent post, What Has Atheism Done For Me? The author provides several examples, with which most of you will be able to relate, of how atheism has changed his life for the better. I could relate to every one of them.

He also acknowledges that there have been some costs associated with atheism. I think this is an important point that some of us have been too reluctant to address.
While this is no place to go into details, there have been some harsh social consequences for my loss of faith. If you crave the approval of people (and you live where I live), I wouldn’t recommend atheism for you.
Absolutely. As awful as this might sound, I cannot advocate open atheism for everyone. If you live in a religiously oppressive environment (e.g., the Deep South) and/or have strong needs for social approval, you may want to wait a bit before announcing your atheism to the world. In more progressive areas, there is some evidence that things are slowly starting to move in the right direction (i.e., toward increased awareness and acceptance of atheists). However, such progress has been much harder to detect in places like Mississippi and other hotbeds of Christian extremism.

I have really enjoyed what I have found at Godless in Dixie so far. This is not only because I can relate to so much of what I read there from my vantage point here in Mississippi. The writing has a certain maturity and thoughtfulness that I find refreshing.

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May 27, 2013

Memorial Day Reflections

Illinois monument at Vicksburg National Military Park
Illinois monument at Vicksburg National Military Park, Vicksburg, MS
Memorial Day is a federal holiday in the United States devoted to remembering those who have died while serving in the armed forces. While some mark the day by visiting cemeteries and war memorials, the holiday has taken on somewhat different meanings for others. Some look forward to the ubiquitous sales, parents of school-age children tend to brace themselves for the beginning of of the summer vacation season, and many others are content to use the day as another excuse to grill meat.

For me, Memorial Day means that the short break I enjoyed between the end of the spring semester and the beginning of the summer term is over and that it is time to return to work. I'm usually rushing around to complete last-minute tasks and wishing I had planned better so I could have a relaxing weekend. Over the last decade or so, however, Memorial Day has also served as an occasion for me to wonder why the U.S. is still at war. On this Memorial Day, I find myself thinking about a different sort of war.

May 25, 2013

What Can Atheist Drama Teach Us About Harassment?

Ready for some atheist drama? Sure you are! At least this drama is relevant to something that has been and will continue to be important in the atheist community: how we define harassment. This is why I am sharing it and not merely for whatever entertainment value it may have.

If the concept of harassment is to be meaningful, it has to mean something more than "you did something I didn't like." If we insist of defining it this way, we render the word meaningless, and we make it more difficult for victims of actual harassment to get the support and assistance they need. To illustrate this point, brace yourself for the following tale.

Our story begins when Reap Paden posted a photograph of some of the Freethought Blogs gang, which had obviously been digitally altered to change the content of the signs the individuals pictured were holding, on the Slymepit. Justin Vacula then posted the same photo on his Facebook page, where Reap tagged some of the individuals pictured.

Encouraging Reader Engagement on a Blog

English: Second version of File:Enwikinews-LQT...
English: Second version of File:Enwikinews-LQT-edits.png, showing LQT as well as normal comments. Red is comments submitted with LQT, blue is comments submitted via normal editing to Comments namespace (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I previously recommended that new bloggers hoping to build an initial readership and establish their reputation shoot for writing 1 post per day. I still think there is merit to this suggestion; however, I also believe that there is an important exception. For those bloggers who are more interested in encouraging reader engagement (comments in particular), 1 post per day may be too many.

Some posts, especially those in which the blogger asks questions of his or her readers or those that invite controversy, will produce a fair number of comments. These posts tend to be more popular, be shared more often, and are more likely to be sought out by readers. But for most of us, not all posts are going to be like this. How might we encourage reader engagement on other sorts of posts?

May 23, 2013

Feminism is More Than Equality

Woman-power symbol (clenched fist in Venus sig...
Woman-power symbol (clenched fist in Venus sign). עברית: כוח נשים (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I believe that some - but not all - of the difficulty the secular community is having with feminism is due to (1) the inherent complexity and dynamic nature of the feminist movement, (2) widespread misconceptions about the nature and meaning of feminism, and (3) the behavior of a small group of atheists who identify themselves as feminists yet behave in ways that seem markedly inconsistent with many forms of feminism. I've already addressed #3 and will not repeat myself here. Instead, I'd like to take a look at some of the challenges involved in one popular way of defining feminism.

One of the most popular lay definitions of feminism is that it is simply the belief in the equality of women and nothing more. By this definition, we would say that anyone who believes that women are equal to men is a feminist. This would mean that the overwhelming majority of us are feminists, regardless of how we choose to label ourselves.

There are at least two problems with this narrow definition of feminism that I will examine in this post. The good news is that both are fairly easy to fix. In fact, all that is required is some added precision in our language and a willingness to explain the terms we are using in conversations with others.

May 22, 2013

Humanist Funerals in Ireland

Political map of Ireland.
Political map of Ireland. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Religion News Service had an interesting story out of Ireland yesterday. As you probably remember, the Catholic Church in Ireland was finally exposed for "decades of rapes, humiliation and beatings at Catholic Church-run reform schools for Ireland's castaway children." As evidence emerged that the Vatican knew about the child rapists among them at least as far back as the 1930s, I suppose you could say the church faced a bit of a PR nightmare in Ireland.

As often seems to be the case, the manner in which Church officials responded to the news made it worse. These scandals and the response to them, appear to have done exactly what one would think they should: drive growing numbers of Irish away from the church.

According to the Religion News Service, non-religious funerals have become popular in Ireland after one too many Catholic abuse scandals.
Although many observers have noted the impact of secularization and child abuse scandals on church membership and finances, only now are the Irish seeing the cultural and socioeconomic reverberations. These include a class of people willing to observe life’s most significant milestones outside the church.

May 21, 2013

Help Oklahoma City

English: Downtown Oklahoma City from the north...
English: Downtown Oklahoma City from the northwest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You can file this one under things that piss me off about politics. But it would probably be more accurate to file it under things that piss me off about what happens when we buy into ideologies that lead us to view the world as if we are competing against an opponent in a zero-sum sort of contest. As you know, Oklahoma City was hit by a major tornado yesterday in which at least 24 people lost their lives. As encouraging as it was to see the public outpouring of support and many people advocating for donations to the Red Cross, I observed a few things that made me feel more than a little disgusted with my fellow humans:
  1. Many Christians took to social media (especially Twitter) to use this as an excuse to promote prayer as if that accomplished any good at all. How about doing something to actually help those who just experienced a tornado?
  2. Some people took to social media in what looked primarily like an effort to scold anybody living in tornado-prone areas (e.g., much of the midwest and south). As someone who lives in a tornado prone area, I realize I may be overly sensitive to this, but again, I found the timing of such comments disgusting. Besides, there are not many regions of the U.S. where one can be free from every type of natural disaster.
  3. Last and perhaps least of all, some of my fellow progressives decided to use the disaster as an opportunity to bash political opponents. Yes, I agree completely that Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK) and Sen. James Inhofe (R-OK) are monstrous hypocrites, but can we at least wait on pointing this out until the situation on the ground is not quite so dire?
Am I just being a big whiner here? Probably. I'm in a foul mood, and this is likely the result. Still, I can't help wonder about our priorities when I see this sort of thing. Here is where you can join me in donating to the Red Cross if you are so inclined.

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Supreme Court to Hear Public Prayer Case

US Supreme Court building, front elevation, st...
US Supreme Court building, front elevation, steps and portico. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case out of New York involving public prayer at governmental meetings. The case, Town of Greece v. Galloway, may have important implications for efforts to preserve the separation of church and state.

Of particular interest in this case is that the town has adopted what sounds like an inclusive policy in which many different types of prayers or invocations are acceptable. Instead of the usual sectarian prayers in Jesus' name which are so common where I live, Greece's policy permits atheists and Wiccans to give invocations too.

Policy aside, Americans United for Separation of Church and State has noted that only two of the prayers given at these meetings during the past 10 years have been non-Christian. Moreover, most of the prayers given have not been nonsectarian but explicitly Christian.

The problem I have with this sort of thing is that while an inclusive policy is better than an exclusive one, it still amounts to the government promoting religion. Governmental meetings should not include prayer of any kind.

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May 20, 2013

My Letter to the CFI in Support of Ron Lindsay

A number of people have taken to Twitter to call for the resignation or ouster of Ron Lindsay from the Center for Inquiry (CFI). He has even been labeled a misogynist for his remarks at Women in Secularism 2. I am concerned that he may be forced out, and so I wrote to the CFI to express my support. If you feel similarly, please consider contacting the CFI to express your support too.

To: info@centerforinquiry.net, tflynn@centerforinquiry.net
Cc: rlindsay@centerforinquiry.net
Subject: In Support of Ron Lindsay

Dear Secretary Flynn and CFI Board of Directors:

I am writing to express my support for Ron Lindsay and my agreement with the comments he made at Women in Secularism 2.

The Center for Inquiry is almost certainly receiving a high volume of angry complaints about remarks made by Dr. Lindsay at Women in Secularism 2. I fear that some complainants may even be demanding his resignation or removal. I believe these complaints are based on a serious and willful misinterpretation of what Dr. Lindsay said, fueled by an ideologically-driven perspective which is at odds with CFI's core mission. Unfortunately, there are some people in the secular community who have made a name for themselves by attacking others with outrageous accusations. Dr. Lindsay mentioned a couple of them by name in a follow-up post, and so they and their supporters are now trying to remove him.

I want to make sure you are aware that there are many of us in the secular community who support Dr. Lindsay and appreciate his willingness to address some important issues regarding the use of privilege to silence others. I sincerely hope that the CFI continues to support him as he weathers this unfortunate storm. Thank you for your consideration.


Sincerely,

vjack
Atheist Revolution (http://www.atheistrev.com/)

Update: It sounds like the Center for Inquiry's Board of Directors is planning to discuss the matter of Ron Lindsay's comments at their June meeting. If you are going to contact the Board to express your support, I recommend doing it sooner than later.

Evil

All About Evil
All About Evil (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have known Christians who insist that evil is not merely a morally-relevant adjective but something that actually exists. Some talk of Satan and make it sound like evil is a force or entity that can infect people, taking control of their actions. Others seem to view evil as the natural state in which humans exist without "salvation" by their preferred god. Not surprisingly, these views do not appear to be held by most atheists. Atheists, it seems, are more likely to use "evil" as a descriptive term and apply it to people who act immorally or to immoral actions.

One of the most common questions asked about evil acts concerns how a person comes to commit them. That is, what leads an otherwise decent person to engage in acts we describe as evil? We ask such a question of school shooters, mass murderers, serial killers, sex offenders, and so on. We typically recognize that there are no easy answers because there is almost never a single cause. Biological factors interact with the individual's learning history and environmental influences, and so on. We also recognize that "god (or Satan) did it" is not a reasonable answer. And so we are left to confront the age-old question: what leads a good person to do bad things.

May 19, 2013

Ron Lindsay Stands His Ground

The Women in Secularism 2 conference wraps up in Washington DC today, but I have a feeling that many in the secular community will be talking and writing about it for some time. While I hope to move on after this post, there is no telling what might happen today.

The controversy that erupted on Friday in response to Ron Lindsay's opening remarks at the Women in Secularism 2 conference intensified yesterday. From what I saw, Lindsay received quite a bit of criticism on Twitter in response to what he said about the concept of privilege sometimes being used to silence people (i.e., "shut up and listen").

After some complained that he did not provide any specific examples of what he was talking about during his remarks at the conference, Lindsay wrote a post in which he provided some clear examples, including a quote from PZ Myers that seems to illustrate the manner in which the "shut up and listen" approach to privilege can interfere with productive discourse:
When a member of a marginalized group tells a member of a privileged group that their efforts, no matter how well-meaning, are wrong, there is one reasonable response: Shut up and listen. You might learn something. There is also a terrible response: arguing back. It always makes it worse. It’s not that they are infallible and we are totally stupid. It’s that THEY are the experts and the subject of the discussion.

May 18, 2013

Women in Secularism 2 Opens With Controversy

As you can see in the following Twitter exchange, captured by Elevatorgate, it sounds like the Women in Secularism 2 conference got off to an interesting start yesterday. Dr. Ron Lindsay, president and CEO of the Center for Inquiry, opened the conference. From what I observed on Twitter (#wiscfi), the reactions to Dr. Lindsay's opening comments were quite negative. Some felt that he minimized the role of privilege. Others accused him of "mansplaining." And many seemed to be upset primarily because Dr. Lindsay, a man, opened the conference.


Dr. Lindsay said that he will post his comments online so they can be read by anyone who is interested. He was true to his word, and you can find the text of his talk here. I think this is a wise move, and I look forward to reading it.

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May 17, 2013

Atheist Blogging: Would I Do It Again?

Email Icon
Email Icon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In spite of my chronic disorganization when it comes to email and not checking it nearly as often as I should, it has inspired a great many posts and continues to do so today.

I was recently asked an interesting question via email by an atheist who indicated that she is feeling disillusioned with the online secular community due to what she described as the "irrationality" and "intolerance of dissent" she attributed to some prominent bloggers and many of their more vocal fans. I can certainly understand that sentiment. After telling me that she is thinking of having nothing further to do with online atheism because of this, she posed a question I wasn't expecting:
If you were just starting out today and had seen all this shit, would you even bother starting an atheist blog?
This question caught me off guard, and I was not initially sure how best to respond. I knew where she was coming from. I have heard this sentiment from others, and I'd be lying if I were to say that I'd never had similar thoughts. Yes, I think I would start an atheist blog today. I do not think I would be deterred by the toxic elements in the atheist blogosphere. There are plenty of things happening in the online secular community today that might give me pause in considering whether I would want to start a new atheist blog, but I do not believe this would be one of them.

May 16, 2013

On the Relationship Between Atheism and Feminism

Userpage icon for pro-choice
Userpage icon for pro-choice (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Women in Secularism 2 will be held in Washington DC this weekend, and many in the secular community are using it as an occasion to reflect on the relationship between atheism and feminism. Some of the resulting discussion has been thought-provoking and productive; some has not.

Feminism continues to be a controversial topic for many atheists. Some in our community have had difficulty separating feminism from the bad behavior of a small minority of prominent atheist bloggers who identify themselves as feminists; others have found it tough to separate disagreement from misogyny. And so the atheist world turns.

The controversy received a recent jump-start in the form of a recent article on Women in Secularism 2 in The Houston Chronicle. The author, intentionally or otherwise, seemed to pit Justin Vacula against Amanda Marcotte on the subject of whether atheism is consistent with feminism and/or pro-choice positions. Justin has been getting some heat for one part of the article in particular:
As Justin Vacula of Skeptic Ink Network said in response to another piece from conference speaker Amanda Marcotte, “I fail to see how refusing to believe in God leads to the ‘logical conclusion’ of abandoning the belief that women exist to serve men.”
I come to this as someone previously unfamiliar with Marcotte's work and as someone who has the impression that some of the parties involved in discussing atheism and feminism seem to be talking past each other. This may be amplifying disagreement unnecessarily. Frankly, I think that both feminism and atheism are important enough that we should be able to have meaningful discussions of them.

The Public Forum

The "free speech zone" at the 2004 D...
The "free speech zone" at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I've always operated from the perspective that we all benefit from a public forum where free speech is protected. In such a forum, the assumption is that good ideas will rise to the surface while bad ideas will sink to the bottom. The problem with this is that it doesn't always work. That is, some truly bad ideas never seem to sink into obscurity and some good ones never gain traction.

Take Fox "News" as an example of what I'm talking about. It seems to have been created, at least in part, to preserve bad ideas by insulating them from criticism. This keeps discredited ideas (e.g., "trickle-down" economics) relevant long after they should have disappeared.

Organized religion is perhaps the best example of all, as it has managed to convince many people that their claims should be exempt from criticism. Those who dare to criticize religious claims are viewed as insensitive or intolerant, and the discussion quickly shifts from the content of the criticism to the act of criticizing. Far too many bad ideas have been preserved in this manner.

As we have all observed, my quaint idea of the public forum may not reflect the modern reality of "he who yells the loudest wins." Perhaps the public forum only works when all parties are willing to participate "in good faith." If not, the process can be manipulated to the point where it ceases to function for the public good. Maybe the public forum is merely a convenient fiction, one that must be maintained because we lack a viable alternative.

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May 15, 2013

Game of Thrones and Pascal's Wager

Fire and Blood (Game of Thrones)
Fire and Blood (Game of Thrones) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We do not hear much about polytheism in the West these days. This is surprising when one considers that some contemporary religions have polytheistic components (e.g., Buddhism, Shinto, Hinduism, Serer, and trinitarian forms of Christianity) or that pagan religions have seen something of a revival in recent years (e.g., Wicca, Odinism). I suppose many Christians must continue to feel threatened by other religions. Better we don't hear about the alternatives.

At the repeated urging of a friend, I watched a few episodes from a previous season of Game of Thrones. One of the things that struck me was how some of the characters on the show swore loyalty oaths in which they mentioned both "the old gods and the new gods." I thought this was a brilliant illustration of the absurdity of the Pascal's wager argument of which many Christians are so fond.

As I have noted previously, Pascal's wager need not lead someone to the Christian god any more than it lead them to any other sort of god(s). The characters in Game of Thrones seemed to be hedging the bets by trying to acknowledge all the various gods in which their group had believed. And why not? It isn't like there is more evidence for one god over another. If one really bought into Pascal's wager, wouldn't it be wise to worship as many gods as possible to maximize one's chances of being correct?

I realize that Game of Thrones is fictional; however, I found myself wondering if there was a historical precedent for people feeling trapped between the old gods of their ancestors and whichever new one(s) they are expected to worship. It seems like there would have been many ancient societies in which that could have been the case. During the Christianization of Norway, for example, I wonder if there were Norwegians who tried to split their allegiance both the the pagan gods of their ancestors and to the new Christian faith. It seems likely.

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May 14, 2013

Before You Accuse Someone of Being a Troll

Internet troll
Internet troll (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know what an Internet troll is, right? Of course you do! You might not be able to define the term, but you know it when you see it. If you visit atheist blogs regularly, you are probably used to seeing Christian trolls from time-to-time. They tend to be easy to spot because they seem to appear from nowhere, spout nonsense, and disappear before anyone realizes what happened.

Just one little problem - without any sort of definition, we may be labeling different people as trolls for very different reasons. And yes, some of those we are calling trolls may not in fact be trolls.

Before you accuse someone of being a troll, you may be interested to know that there is a reasonable definition of the term available. From the Wikipedia page:
In Internet slang, a troll…is someone who posts inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as a forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion.

May 13, 2013

Dear Muslima Revisited

English: Richard Dawkins at New York City's Co...
English: Richard Dawkins at New York City's Cooper Union to discuss his book The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm going to go back a couple years for this one. I'm not sure what made me think of this recently, but I'd like to revisit this incident to see if we might learn something from it with the benefit of hindsight.

We've all had the experience of being sick with a bad cold, so it is something we should each be able to relate to quite well. Imagine you have had a really nasty cold over a weekend. You barely slept on Sunday night because you kept coughing yourself awake. Still, you manage to drag yourself into work on Monday because staying home sick is not a realistic option. A co-worker who does not know that you have a cold asks how you are doing, so you tell her. You complain about your cough and how you were up most of the night because of it. You tell her how you are just trying to get through the day so you can go home and have a nap.

As you finish, you see tears in her eyes and catch an odd tone in her voice. Caught off guard, you ask what is wrong. She breaks down and tells you her husband was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness. Something about your description of symptoms brought her recent experience back. She tells you that she hasn't slept a full night ever since they got the news about his health.

May 12, 2013

A Humanist Couple in Colorado Springs

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you know nothing else about Colorado Springs, you probably know that it is the home of the Air Force Academy and Focus on the Family (the Christian extremist organization). I have visited Colorado Springs a few times and known a few people who have lived there. Rumors of its conservative Christian influence seem to be well placed.

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) shared a great article from The Colorado Springs Gazette about Becky Hale and Gary Betchan. They founded the Freethinkers of Colorado Springs and run EvolveFISH together. Hale is also the President of the American Humanist Association. The article, written by Steve Rabey, does an excellent job of describing what Hale and Betchan have had to endure in the evangelical Christian epicenter that is Colorado Springs.
As Betchan and Hale sit in their comfortable, north-side home talking about the past quarter century, a picture emerges of two reluctant radicals who only enlisted in their hometown culture wars after being forced to defend their deeply held values.

May 11, 2013

Pew Data Paint Grim Picture of Muslim World

English: The Muslim population of the world ma...
English: The Muslim population of the world map by percentage of each country, according to the Pew Forum 2009 report on world Muslim populations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you want to learn what people think, just ask them. This is part of why public opinion polls are so widely used. They do have their flaws when it comes to predicting behavior (e.g., voting), but they can be quite useful in assessing public perspectives. The Pew Research Center's Forum on Religion & Public Life recently produced a report, The World's Muslims: Religion, Politics and Society, based on face-to-face interviews of over 38,000 people in 39 countries with large Muslim populations. The results of this ambitious project are in, and they are not particularly encouraging for those who want to claim that Islam is a "religion of peace" and that extreme views are only held by a tiny fraction of Muslims. In fact, it appears that some what we in the West are fond of labeling extremism may be too common to warrant such a description.

In combing through the results, one must acknowledge the variability one finds from country to country. Only nations with at least 10 million Muslims were polled, but there is still considerable variability on many questions. For example, 96% of Muslims living in Bosnia-Herzegovina said that suicide bombing is rarely or never justified, while this number dropped to 74% in Malaysia, 71% in Bangladesh, and 58% in Afghanistan.

May 10, 2013

Adventures in Education: Reducing Bias in Grading

Students taking a test at the University of Vi...
Students taking a test at the University of Vienna at the end of the summer term 2005 (Saturday, June 25, 2005). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My final exam started at 8:00 am and took the full two and a half hours allotted by the university exam schedule. Most of the class finished after about two hours, but a few needed every minute they had. I suppose this is to be expected. After all, this was a comprehensive final exam in a graduate course, and it included no multiple-choice questions.

After sitting in the room for two and a half hours to answer questions that came up during the exam and deter cheating, grading would require the next four hours. I have a very particular method I use when grading these exams. It starts with preparing a detailed key in the weeks before the exam so that I know exactly what I am looking for when I evaluate students' responses to each question. Next, I place removable opaque tape over the students' name on each exam to prevent me from knowing whose exam I am grading. My colleagues make fun of me for insisting on doing my grading only after I am blind to the identity of the students, but I am convinced that it helps guard against unintentional bias.

May 9, 2013

Problems With Jesus: Lack of Contemporaneous Evidence

The Temptation of Christ, 1854
The Temptation of Christ, 1854 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of all the problems with the Jesus narrative contained in the Christian bible, I find the lack of contemporaneous evidence to be one of the most interesting. While most Jesus scholars appear to agree that he existed and that he was crucified, disagreement remains as to how closely his life resembled the biblical accounts. Without non-Christian contemporaneous historical writing from the time in which Jesus is supposed to have lived, died, and returned (as a zombie), many questions remain unanswered.

Critics of the Jesus narrative have pointed out that the nature of the contemporaneous historical writing we do have from the time period is such that it seems highly likely that Jesus would have received considerable attention if the events described in the Christian bible had taken place as described. Where are the alleged miracles and the resurrection itself? Without this sort of record, it is difficult to determine which - if any - portions of the biblical narrative should be regarded as historical vs. mythical.

To be clear, the problem is not simply the lack of written records of Jesus at this time. It is even worse than that. The problem is that the evidence we have leads us to expect that if the Jesus story contained in the Christian bible was accurate, portions of it would have been present in the written records (e.g., the miracles attributed to Jesus). Because these events are nowhere to be found, it seems unlikely that it happened much like what was described in the Christian bible.

What we know from the contemporaneous non-Christian records is that someone named Jesus probably lived around the time of the biblical Jesus, that he was crucified, and that some of his contemporaries may have considered him to be a messiah of sorts. Beyond that, we seem to have lots of speculation and little else.

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May 8, 2013

Defend Dissent in Bangladesh

English: Bangledesh orthographic projection
English: Bangledesh orthographic projection (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The predominately Muslim nation of Bangladesh has been getting a great deal of attention in the atheist blogosphere lately and for good reason. Outraged Muslims have taken to the streets to demand that apostates and blasphemers, including atheist bloggers, be put to death for criticizing Islam. They want a new anti-blasphemy law, and as of this report from The New York Times two days ago, at least 19 people have already died in their riots.

While some mainstream news media outlets in the U.S. have acknowledged that the riots are related to blasphemy, the plight of atheists in Bangladesh and other Muslim nations has largely been ignored (see here for a notable exception). Most of the coverage I have seen has also not been particularly clear about what the rioters are seeking. This is not random violence; the rioters have demands. Their demands include more extreme penalties for anyone who dares to criticize Islam. Some are even calling for the death penalty to be used against anyone who criticized Islam. Clearly, the riots are about Islam.


I Owe Matt Dillahunty an Apology

I recently explained that I was going to repost some old content from my Posterous account that I had salvaged as they were discounting their service. Unfortunately, my first such post was a disaster, and I owe Matt Dillahunty an apology for it.

Nearly a year ago, Matt had commented on his Facebook page that he was going to block anyone who regarded the Elevatorgate incident as an overreaction. A screenshot of this comment was picked up and shared on Twitpic. I posted this screenshot and a snarky comment about litmus tests on Posterous. Again, this all happened nearly a year ago.

Because I was planning to revisit the issue of litmus tests to determine membership in the secular community in the future, I selected this old Posterous post as the first to repost here. I reposted it yesterday with a poorly-worded introduction which I thought explained that this was a repost from my now defunct Posterous account.


Those Who Do Not Believe We Will Have a Future Should Not Be Placed in Charge of It

The Earth seen from Apollo 17.
The Earth seen from Apollo 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Natural resources and the environment. Debt and the economy. The long-term costs of war on a nation's standing in the world and future diplomatic efforts. The food and water supply. The sort of the world we are leaving to future generations. There just a few of the things about which most sane people are at least somewhat concerned. But what if absolutely none of it mattered because the world was going to end soon? What if there was no point in being future-oriented because the entire show was about to come to an end?

Among the many things I find toxic about evangelical fundamentalist Christianity, one that consistently rises to the top of the list is the manner in which the belief that we are living in the "end times" undermines the efforts of those who are trying to improve our world. Ask yourself what you would do differently if you truly believed that the world was going to end in your lifetime. You sure as hell wouldn't worry about the environment, saving for your children's future, your legacy, or much of anything else, would you?

May 6, 2013

Atheism Before the Internet

"Doubts", Henrietta Rae, 1886
"Doubts", Henrietta Rae, 1886 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Can religion survive the Internet? The Internet has been referred to as "where religions come to die" (video) and as the single greatest boost atheism has ever received. I'd have to agree. I am old enough to remember life before the Internet quite well, and I have little doubt that atheism is far easier to discover now than it used to be. The impact of the ease with which the Internet allows today's youth to learn about atheism cannot be overstated. I thought it might be fun to take a brief stroll down memory lane to explore how different things used to be for those who were questioning the religious beliefs in which they had been indoctrinated.

In the days before the Internet, one had to expend considerable effort to obtain information. As a child around the age of 12-13, I really only had three viable options:
  1. Asking questions of someone I knew (e.g., a parent, friend, or teacher),
  2. Consulting an outdated set of encyclopedias my parents had bought several years earlier, or
  3. Hoping I could get a ride to the public library on the other side of town.

May 5, 2013

Conservative Atheists Who Enjoy Discussing Religion

The Conservative Club, Wisbech.
The Conservative Club, Wisbech. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As the secular community grows, it is reasonable to predict that individuals who are new to atheism will go online in an effort to find information and resources. Being partial to blogs myself, I am excited about the prospect of new atheist blogs emerging to cater to smaller segments of the secular community. I imagine that we will see blogs written by atheists with somewhat different perspectives to reflect the growing diversity of our community.

Cephus (Bitchspot) has an interesting post in which he wrestles with the difficulties he has encountered in writing an atheist blog from a conservative political orientation. While atheists do seem to lean left-of-center, there are certainly conservative atheists out there. What Cephus notes, however, is how few of them seem interested in atheism and the issues typically addressed on atheist blogs (e.g., religion, separation of church and state). To be sure, there are a few conservative atheist blogs. What I am not sure about is what sort of traffic they get.

Cephus is seeking an audience of conservative atheists who are interested in discussing matters of religion. Does such an audience exist? If this sounds like something of interest to you, check out Bitchspot. The poor guy has to be getting tired of liberals like me stopping by.

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U.S. Tortured Detainees After 9/11

English: Torture device used by SAVAK (U.S.-ba...
English: Torture device used by SAVAK (U.S.-backed Iranian secret police) to pull out fingernails of detainees (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It has been quite awhile since I wrote anything with an explicitly political focus, and I can't say I've missed it too much. However, there was one huge story that came out recently that the corporate-owned media in the U.S. effectively buried that deserves mention.

The Constitution Project, a highly regarded nonpartisan think tank, released a report on how the U.S. treated detainees following 9/11. The report, described by ProPublica as "the most comprehensive public review to date," concluded that the U.S. did in fact torture detainees.

I realize that we have known this for some time, but this report is noteworthy for being both thorough and nonpartisan in nature.
“Perhaps the most important or notable finding of this panel is that it is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” the report concludes. The task force says that despite overwhelming evidence of torture, both government officials and many in the media have continued to present the issue as a two-sided debate.

May 4, 2013

How to Set Up a Facebook Fan Page to Promote Your Blog

Profile shown on Thefacebook in 2005
Profile shown on Thefacebook in 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I detest Facebook, but I cannot argue with its utility in helping to drive traffic to one's blog. There are simply too many people using it to ignore it as part of a comprehensive social media strategy. In this post, I am going to give you some tips on how to set up a fan page in Facebook to promote your blog. Fan pages can be used to promote all sorts of things - even people - but I am focusing on their use to promote your blog.

Some bloggers use Facebook effectively to interact with readers, get ideas for blog posts, and all sorts of other things. That's fine, but I am not going to address any of that here. As I said, I am focusing solely on the goal of driving traffic to your blog. I am assuming that this is the main thing you are hoping to accomplish. To the degree that you have other goals for Facebook, you will want to adapt some of what I will suggest.

May 3, 2013

Genuine Misunderstanding vs. Axe-Grinding

Communication
Communication (Photo credit: krossbow)
One of the problems faced by anyone who writes something others read is that one's words may be misunderstood or misinterpreted. It is a frustrating experience but also an inevitable one. After all, people vary in intellect, reading comprehension, personality, and all sorts of other variables that may have something to do with their likelihood of misconstruing what someone else has written. And of course, we also vary in our ability to communicate clearly in writing. It can be helpful to remember that most cases of misunderstanding can be cleared up quite easily (e.g., "That is not at all what I said. You are reading something into my words that simply isn't there.").

Of course, there is at least one case where no amount of clarification or correction will fix the sort of misinterpretation I am referring to: intentional twisting of one's words to further some axe-grinding. When the misunderstanding is not a misunderstanding at all but a dishonest attempt to make it look like someone said something different from what they actually said, clarification is likely to be a waste of time.

The dilemma for the blogger - or any other sort of writer - is that is can be almost impossible to tell whether what appears to be a misunderstanding is a case of genuine misunderstanding or something a bit more sinister. As you can imagine, assuming one when it is the other is something we'd all like to avoid.

Jeff Hanneman Will Be Missed

Jeff Hanneman of Slayer
Jeff Hanneman of Slayer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Jeff Hanneman, guitarist and one of the founding members of Slayer, died yesterday of liver failure following a spider bite. He was only 49. His death is a major loss to metal fans everywhere, including this one. Hanneman was more than a great guitar player; he was responsible for writing some Slayer's best songs.

I'm not usually one to go on about the loss of public figures I have never met personally, but this one is different. I vividly remember exactly where I was and who I was with the first time I heard Slayer's classic Reign in Blood album in 1986. I had never heard anything like it, and I bought one for myself the next day. I have loved thrash metal ever since. I have every album Slayer has released, and I still listen to them all regularly. I have seen Slayer in concert a few times and never been disappointed. I suppose it will sound silly to some for me to say that Slayer's music had a significant impact on my life, but that is exactly what I am saying.

My thoughts are with Jeff's family, friends, bandmates, and the legions of other Slayer fans around the world. He will be missed.

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May 2, 2013

Best Selling Books on Atheism

Cover of "The God Delusion"
Cover of The God Delusion
I am often asked to recommend decent books on atheism, and while it has been awhile since I read one, I remain comfortable recommending these books as a great place to start for people just beginning to explore atheism. I also like to check with Amazon.com periodically to see what their best selling books on atheism are.

Excluding the Kindle-only titles, Amazon.com's ten best selling books in atheism are currently as follows:
  1. The God Delusion
  2. The God Argument: The Case against Religion and for Humanism
  3. The Portable Atheist: Essential Readings for the Nonbeliever
  4. Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion (Vintage)
  5. Letter to a Christian Nation
  6. God and the Atom
  7. Godless: How an Evangelical Preacher Became One of America's Leading Atheists
  8. Christianity Before Christ
  9. The God Virus: How religion infects our lives and culture
  10. Atheism For Dummies (For Dummies (Religion & Spirituality))
This looks like a great mix of the old standards and some new ones that sound interesting. I may have to pick up a couple of the ones I haven't read yet in case I have any more time to read this summer than what I'm expecting.

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