August 31, 2013

Name Calling vs. Public Outing

Renee Montoya is outed. Art by Michael Lark.
Renee Montoya is outed. Art by Michael Lark. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Assume for a moment that you are a gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individual who is not yet completely open about your sexual orientation or gender identity. You are employed as an elementary school teacher in a religiously conservative region. After much deliberation, you have decided that it is not in your best interest to disclose this information to everyone yet because you this information becoming public knowledge would likely have adverse consequences. With me so far? In such a situation, would you rather:
  1. Be publicly outed against your will or
  2. Have a stranger make some disparaging comments about you on Twitter without revealing anything about you personally
If you had to have one of these things happen to you, which would you pick and why?

August 29, 2013

Praise Jesus!

English: A sewn Flying Spaghetti Monster craft.
English: A sewn Flying Spaghetti Monster craft. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know how many people, including more than a few atheists, use exclamations like "Oh my god" in day-to-day conversations to communicate surprise? Someone tells you about something really amazing that recently happened to them, and you reflexively utter "Oh my god," realizing afterward that that seems like an odd thing for an atheist to say. I've certainly been there. The expression is quite common, so much so that I rarely think anything of it when I hear someone say it.

At work the other day, a co-worker used a different exclamation in this context: "praise Jesus!" Instead of other viable options like "Oh my god," "holy shit," "damn," or "no way," what came out of her mouth was "praise Jesus!" I have to admit being a little taken aback by the expression. It seemed like an odd choice of words in the context, but I did not give it much more thought until my drive home.

August 28, 2013

Overcoming Indoctrination

Front view of the San Juan Cathedral in San Juan.
Front view of the San Juan Cathedral in San Juan. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a child is taught a set of beliefs and values from birth by people on which he or she is dependent for basic survival, the beliefs and values tend to endure. This appears to be the case even when the beliefs are false and the values are morally suspect. Take something like overt racism or sexism as an example. A child who is raised in an environment where racism or sexism are modeled and taught will adopt these beliefs and values at least temporarily. This should not be surprising to us, as we generally agree that hate and bigotry are learned. The young child does not know any better, and he or she has little choice other than to trust the primary caregivers.

Fortunately, the effects of such an upbringing are not necessarily permanent. With age and life experience, the individual can question aspects of his or her upbringing. Parental values can be critically examined, rejected, and replaced with healthier alternatives. And yet, this process is often lengthy, difficult, and dependent on environmental events. That is, such an individual may need prompting of some sort in order to begin such a critical examination in the first place. This is probably one of the reasons that racist beliefs tend to be a bit more difficult to maintain when one has regular contact with members of various racial groups.

August 27, 2013

A Quick Reminder to the Christian Commenters

VCU Proselytizing
VCU Proselytizing (Photo credit: Gamma Man)
The last few weeks have brought a noticeable spike in the number of Christians commenting on Atheist Revolution. I suspect that the most likely explanation for this is that a blog promoting "intelligent" design linked to us awhile back.

Many of these comments have gone to moderation, and I have approved most of them. However, many are not consistent with the comment policy, especially the parts about no proselytizing or Christianspeak. These comments are unlikely to find their way onto the blog. We are not interested in hearing about how you are going to pray for us, how you think your imaginary god is "The Spirit of Truth and Rightness," or about how atheists are in danger of losing their "soul" because we do not believe in fairy tales. While we find your bizarre capitalization of random words funny for awhile, it quickly becomes tiresome when repeated.

I have let more of these comments through than I probably should have because I find some of them quite funny and my atheist readers have shown remarkable restraint in ignoring them. That said, I am not inclined to continue approving comments that are not consistent with the comment policy. If there is one place atheists should be able to expect being relatively free from religious proselytizing, it is an atheist blog.

There are a number of places on the Internet set up for Christians to argue with and/or try to convert atheists. Blogs generally aren't designed for this and do not work nearly as well as debate-oriented forums. If you are a Christian and you are here primarily to argue with and convert atheists, I suspect you'd be happier elsewhere.

August 26, 2013

Divisive Bloggers at Atheist Conventions, Part II

Long Division (Low album)
Long Division (Low album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first part can be found here. I had no idea this would end up being a two-parter when I wrote the previous post. However, there has been considerable discussion about American Atheists' upcoming convention and how many people are upset with some of the speakers. American Atheists' president, Dave Silverman, recently posted on Facebook that he is tired of hearing from those who are planning to skip the convention because they do not like a speaker or two. I can't say I blame him. On Twitter, one of his replies indicated, "And yet I'm getting it from all 'sides'." It is truly an unenviable position.

I have read quite a bit of discussion and debate among those who are upset at seeing PZ Myers and Greta Christina on the list of speakers. Among the options I have seen being discussed are:
  1. Skipping the entire convention
  2. Attending the convention but not presentations given by the individuals named above
  3. Attending the convention and the presentations by the above named individuals with plans to engage them during the Q&A portion with what would probably be perceived as hostile questions or comments
Personally, I think #3 is a really bad idea and hope that nobody opts for it. The upside of doing this seems virtually nonexistent and the downside quite massive. Fortunately, it also seems to be far less popular than the other two. As for the other two options (e.g., skipping the entire convention or just the talks from speakers in which one is not interested), I think both have their respective pros and cons.

August 25, 2013

How I Used to Feel During Church

English: Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey
English: Jesus entering Jerusalem on a donkey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When asked why I blog, I usually answer that I do it because I find that it helps me sort things out and clarify my thinking. I have written previously about how I sometimes find blogging to be almost therapeutic and that I do it primarily for myself. Having said that, I occasionally write something here that I don't want to post, something that makes me hesitate for a few days before I muster up the courage to hit the "send to blog" button. This is that sort of post.

A recent post opened up some clearly unresolved emotional crap for me, catching me by surprise. I'd like to stuff it back down wherever it came from and move on. I'm usually good at doing that. Instead, I am going to force myself to come back for more and see if I can finally put into words something that I've never been able to express.

Is it possible that there are some of us who not only realized that we do not believe in gods fairly early in life but who also had negative visceral reactions to religion that we find difficult to verbalize? Maybe our brains are wired a bit differently. Maybe we have just the right combination of personality traits and early life experiences. Maybe we're just fucked up. And maybe (gulp) I am all alone in feeling like what I am trying to describe and nobody reading these words is going to have a clue what I'm talking about.

When my family dragged me to church with them over my objections during my early to middle teenage years, what I felt inside was not just that I didn't want to be there because I'd rather be doing something else. I certainly did feel that, but there was more to it than that. And what I felt inside was not just about teenage rebellion and the distaste for being forced to do anything against my will. This was certainly part of what I was feeling too, but there was something else that is so hard to describe.

August 22, 2013

Ghosts

An image of Zhong Kui, the vanquisher of ghost...
An image of Zhong Kui, the vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings, painted sometime before 1304 A.D. by Gong Kai. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some atheists believe in ghosts. There is nothing in the definition of atheism that precludes belief in the existence of ghosts, spirits, demons, monsters, or any other entities besides gods. Atheism (i.e., the lack of belief in gods) does not say anything about the existence of ghosts, and so an atheist can indeed believe in them. How do I know that some atheists believe in ghosts? Several atheists have told me that they do indeed believe in ghosts. You can see a few examples in the comments on this post.

I do not believe in ghosts (or spirits, demons, angels, or any other supernatural entities). My reason for not believing in them is the same as my reason for not believing in gods: lack of evidence. My lack of belief in ghosts does not come from atheism; both come from skepticism. Having said that, I am not quite ready to conclude that belief in ghosts has nothing whatsoever to do with atheism. Besides skepticism, I think there might be a bit more of a connection.

August 21, 2013

Addressing Conflict is Sometimes Necessary

English: Lots of frustration spikes experienced
English: Lots of frustration spikes experienced (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You live in a town without an active atheist group. It is isolating, and you crave the opportunity to interact with others around whom you can disclose your views on religion without fear of repercussion. There are no atheist conventions held near where you live, and you cannot afford to travel to them. Besides, you'd rather cultivate meaningful relationships with others living in your town than listen to a handful of pompous bloggers give the same talks you've already watched on YouTube. You head over to Meetup.com, pay their fee to start a new group in your town, and hope for the best.

It turns out you were not the only one interested in hanging out with other atheists. Your new group takes off right away. Five members turns to 10, and you have 15 regularly attending members before interest seems to level off a bit. A few more attend sporadically, but you are quite content to have a stable core group of 15. Your efforts were more successful than you thought they could be, and you have met some great people.

August 20, 2013

My Path to Skepticism

Map of the Bermuda Triangle
Map of the Bermuda Triangle (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am an atheist because I am a skeptic. Skepticism was what led me to atheism. I might have eventually found atheism had I not been a skeptic, but I am fairly confident that it would have taken me at least a few more years to do so. I know this is not the case for every atheist. I've certainly known my share of atheists who were unfamiliar with skepticism. While they might have applied some of the aspects of skepticism to the god question, I rarely saw them do so elsewhere.

When I look around the online atheist community today, I see many atheists who are skeptics and many who are not. In fact, I think it is possible that "the great rift" may be, at least in part, a clash between those of us for whom skepticism is a central aspect of our worldviews and those for whom it is not. In any case, I am reminded that skepticism is far from being universal among atheists.

I have written previously about my journey to atheism and how I began to question the mainline Protestant form of Christianity in which I was raised around 14 and realized I no longer bought it by around 16. But I had been on a path to skepticism long before that.

August 19, 2013

Reasons for Encouragement Amidst the Infighting

Reasons for Existence
Reasons for Existence (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Conflict can be quite stressful, especially prolonged conflict with few obvious solutions. It is easy to feel demoralized and question one's commitment. Some will not make it through such a conflict at all, burning out along the way. This is easy to understand. And yet, the astute observer can often find a few diamonds among the coal - reasons for hope.

In spite of everything that has been happening in the atheist, skeptic, and secular movements lately, Conservative Skeptic reminds us of some reasons to feel encouraged. Admittedly, I'm not naturally inclined to view things in such an optimistic light, but I think he's right when he says:
I’m encouraged that the secular community did not swallow the kool-aid.
I’m encouraged that those accused did not lay down and cower against those horrendous charges, but fought back.
I’m encouraged that all that has been accomplished here, is that a certain segment of the community has been discovered to be nothing more than a cult.
I sincerely hope he is right in suggesting that something of value has been learned from the latest incident.

Amidst our squabbles, some of which are quite petty, skepticism is not dead. Many people are willing and able to apply reason, critical thinking, and healthy skepticism, even when dealing with emotionally-charged issues. That is certainly reason for encouragement.

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August 18, 2013

Southern Baptists as a 'Prophetic Minority'

Vectorized Southern Baptist Convention logo, d...
Vectorized Southern Baptist Convention logo, derived from File:Image:SBC logo.jpg ( edit · last · history · watch · unwatch · global usage · find cats · logs · purge · w · search · links · DR · del · undel ) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Russell Moore was recently announced as the choice to take over as president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) of the Southern Baptist Convention. We wondered what changes his leadership might bring, noting that he has a reputation for being more tech-savvy and comfortable with other aspects of modern culture than his predecessor (Richard Land). The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article on Moore, and there were several parts worth noting.

The opening sentence of the article quotes Moore as claiming, "The Bible Belt is collapsing." He goes on to say that this is actually a positive thing for the church because "we are no longer the moral majority. We are a prophetic minority." Yes, for a group whose identity largely seems to be wrapped up in a persecution complex, I suppose this would be somewhat welcome.

August 17, 2013

Action Alert: Urge Obama Administration to Support Church-State Separation

petition
In a recent post, I suggested that we ask ourselves what the top priority of the secular movement should be. As far as I am concerned, the top priority of the secular movement is the separation of church and state. This may or may not be the top priority of the atheist movement, but I suspect it is at least one of the top few.

With that in mind, I'd like to bring your attention to this petition at the White House's We the People site. Essentially, it calls on the Obama administration to withdraw their amicus brief supporting legislative prayer in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway and uphold the separation of church and state.

I know a few of my readers have somehow managed to convince themselves that President Obama is a closet atheist despite considerable evidence to the contrary. This is wishful thinking without much basis in reality. What we see in this case is that the Obama administration has taken sides on the issue of legislative prayer, and they are not on our side. Instead, they are urging the Supreme Court to allow prayers during government meetings.

For more information about Town of Greece v. Galloway, I refer you to this post at Friendly Atheist. The Supreme Court is expected to hear this case in October, and it will have obvious implications for those of us who value church-state separation.

You can take action here.

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August 16, 2013

PZ Myers Says it is Time to Pick a Side

English: "Social Justice," founded b...
"Social Justice," founded by Father Coughlin, sold on important street corners and intersections. New York City Medium: 1 negative: nitrate; 2 1/4 × 2 1/4 inches or smaller. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In an August 15 post, "This is not an update" (Freezepage link), PZ Myers told his readers that it is "time to pick a side" and "build a better secular movement" even if he ends up being "squeezed out." He wrote this post shortly after the timeline given in the cease and desist letter from Michael Shermer's attorney expired. PZ does not appear to have complied with this letter. As of this date, the post containing the allegations against Shermer is still up on Pharyngula.

As tempting as it is to use this as an opportunity to conduct a critical examination of what PZ's side has contributed to the secular movement to date, I'm not going to do that here. Instead, I'd like to suggest that we all take a step back from picking sides for a moment and ask ourselves two questions:
  1. Do I place a higher value on reason, critical thinking, and skepticism or on the interpretation of feelings as accurate indicators of truth (e.g., if I feel harassed, I was harassed), arguments from experience, and the uncritical acceptance of third wave feminist ideology?
  2. When it comes to secular activism (i.e., the efforts of the secular movement), what do I see as the top priority?

August 15, 2013

How to Link to Content Without Promoting It

Barbed tape behind a chain link fence


Links (i.e., URLs) are what makes the web great. We love them, use them regularly, and depend on them for all sorts of things. But once in awhile, we run into problems with our use of links. There are two problems associated with sharing a link to a site you do not wish to promote on your blog or social media accounts (e.g., Twitter, Facebook), both of which are solvable with a little effort:
  1. Sharing the link will drive traffic to the site (i.e., when someone reading your content clicks the link, it will take them to the site and boost the site's traffic).
  2. Sharing the link will give the site a boost in search engine rankings.
You know that homeopathy website you like to mock? Each time you share a link to it on Twitter, you are contributing to its search engine rank. And you know that awful creationist site you like to use as an example of how evangelical fundamentalist Christianity can rot the mind? When you link to it on Facebook, you are giving it a boost in the search engines. Fortunately, it doesn't have to be this way.

August 14, 2013

If You Defend Due Process, You Might Be a Harasser

In a word, due process refers to fairness. According to the 'Lectric Law Library:
Due process is best defined in one word--fairness. Throughout the U.S.'s history, its constitutions, statutes and case law have provided standards for fair treatment of citizens by federal, state and local governments. These standards are known as due process. When a person is treated unfairly by the government, including the courts, he is said to have been deprived of or denied due process.
I do not think it would be an understatement to suggest that our legal system rests on the fundamental notion of due process as defined by the U.S. Constitution and substantial case law. Our due process rights include some of our most basic rights (e.g., notice of legal proceedings, an opportunity to defend oneself, etc.), and the presumption of innocence may be the most basic of all.

Most of us feel extremely fortunate to have the due process rights we have and become quite upset if we see them being violated or even threatened. But this sentiment might not be shared by everybody. Take a look at this comment and the response to it from a recent post on Ophelia Benson's blog:
critics as abusers

Here we see an association being suggested between those who are speaking out about "let's not judge…innocent until proven guilty…" and those who subsequently had "credible accusations" of harassment and other crimes brought against them.
But it does seem that some of the people who have been very vociferous about "innocent until proven guilty" actually know for a fact that sexual harassment and worse are taking place - because they're the one's doing it.
I wonder if this means that most attorneys and judges, persons who presumably take due process quite seriously, are running around harassing people? No, of course not. And I doubt that either the commenter or Ophelia would make such a claim. And yet, the suggestion here that those who have dared to speak out in defense of some of our most basic rights might be doing so primarily because they are criminals is...well...disgusting.

What Does Our Prison Nation Say About Us?

English:
English: (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Back in 2008, I wrote a brief post titled Christian Nation, Prison Nation. In it, I noted that the U.S. has less than 5% of the world's population and nearly 25% of the world's prison population. I described the roughly 2.3 million people incarcerated at the time as "an invisible society of dysfunction within our borders."

My main point in writing that post was to draw a contrast between the claim that the U.S. is a Christian nation and the harsh reality that we rank #1 worldwide in incarcerating our own people. I wrote:
I am intrigued that the people most likely to proclaim that the United States is a Christian nation also tend to be those most responsible for perpetuating our status as the world's leading prison nation. They tend to support mandatory minimums, prefer expanding vice crimes, and seem to care little for correcting social conditions which breed crime. Do they see incarcerating their neighbors as the Christian thing to do?
For reasons I'd rather not get into at the moment, I've been thinking a great deal lately about the damage done by our system of incarceration.

August 13, 2013

Before We Make Too Much of the Intelligence and Religiosity Study

Standard deviation
Standard deviation (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The abstract of a meta-analysis by Zuckerman, Silberman, and Hall (2013) recently appeared online pending publication in Personality and Social Psychology Review, and it is getting quite a bit of attention in the atheist community. The title will clue you in to why it is generating so much discussion: "The relation between intelligence and religiosity: A meta-analysis and some proposed explanations." I have not had the chance to read the paper yet, and I'm cautious about making too much of it based on the summaries I have read. Still, there are a few points that should be considered when trying to understand studies of this sort:
  • Studies relying on large sets of aggregate data are informative in understanding group trends but tell us next to nothing about individuals. That is, the results of such a study - no matter how big or how well done - cannot reasonably be interpreted as suggesting that a particular religious person is any less intelligent than a particular atheist.
  • Intelligence, as assessed by modern intelligence tests, appears to be normally distributed throughout the population. Using the mean and standard deviation from modern IQ tests (typically 100 and 15, respectively), we can calculate the portion of the population which will obtain IQ scores in various ranges. Most people (68% to be precise) will fall within 1 standard deviation of the mean (i.e., they will have IQ scores between 85 and 115). Another way to frame this would be to point out that most people are, by definition, of average intelligence.
  • Very small differences become statistically significant when the sample size gets large. This is important because these some differences, while statistically significant, are too small to have much practical importance.
  • Finding a negative correlation between intelligence and religiosity is certainly interesting, but is a far cry from indicating that religious belief somehow causes people to be less intelligent.
I mention these points for two reasons. First, I am seeing quite a few atheists gloating about the results of this study, and I expect few understand the limitations. From what I have read so far, these include but are not limited to the narrow definition of intelligence used by the authors, the reliance on studies conducted in the West and emphasizing U.S. Protestants, and the inclusion of studies that have been criticized by other researchers in the data set. Second, I am seeing too many comments like, "Duh! Was there ever any doubt?" Because we are likely talking about small differences here, I'm not sure such reactions are warranted based on this one study. This stuff tends to be quite complex and far from obvious.

This post originally appeared on Atheist Revolution. If you are not reading this via email or RSS feed from Atheist Revolution, it may have been stolen.

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Shermer Sends Cease and Desist Letter to PZ

English: Self made Law & Order logo
English: Self made Law & Order logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
PZ Myers received a cease and desist letter from Michael Shermer's attorney asking him to remove the post containing the accusations and issue a retraction and apology. PZ initially posted this letter at http://freethoughtblogs.com/pharyngula/files/2013/08/shermerslawyerletter.pdf but removed it soon after posting it. Not surprisingly, the letter was downloaded and is now available in many locations. It is an interesting read for those who have been following this situation. While I realize that many are trying to tune out the infighting in the atheist movement, I believe that this situation in which a prominent figure in the skeptic community is pursuing legal action against a prominent blogger for allegedly posting libelous material is relevant to many of us.

It is not yet clear whether Shermer will sue PZ for defamation; however, this seems more likely based on the letter than it did previously. Of equal interest is the question of PZ's immediate response. At the time I am writing this post, PZ has still not removed the post in question or issued a retraction. He says that he been in touch with Ken White at Popehat to arrange legal assistance for himself. This could mean that he's planning to fight, but I suppose that will be evident soon enough if the post containing the accusations against Shermer remains much longer.

Based on the relevance to the atheist movement, skeptic community, and blogging in general, this seems like one to watch closely. It could end up having far-reacting implications.

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August 12, 2013

Bloggers as Journalists

journalism’s public service functions: account...
journalism’s public service functions: accountability, timeliness and accessibility @melaniesill #openjournalism (Photo credit: planeta)
Comments on a recent post, the allegations PZ Myers recently posted, and Conservative Skeptic's commentary on PZ's post prompted me to write this one. However, this post is not about the latest drama in the atheist movement; it aims to explore the larger questions of whether all bloggers are necessarily functioning as journalists and if so, whether it makes sense to expect a comparable level of "journalistic integrity" from what we might expect of a print journalist. I believe these are important questions with implications for all bloggers and all blog readers.

Investigative Reporting vs. Opinion in Traditional Print Journalism

I'd like to begin by considering what we can reasonably expect from a print journalist employed by a legitimate news organization (e.g., The New York Times, The Washington Post). I think it is fair to say that we do not expect that same thing from all print journalists, even those who are all employed by the same agency. We understand that some are functioning as investigative reporters and others are serving as opinion columnists. As long as we can clearly identify which is which, we are usually comfortable applying different standards to them.

August 11, 2013

Unanswered Prayers

English: A Muslim raises his hands in Takbir, ...
English: A Muslim raises his hands in Takbir, marking the beginning of his prayers (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It seems to me that the phenomenon of unanswered prayer is something atheists and skeptics do not bring up as often as we could when talking to religious believers. It is something with which every religious person has had to contend, and it can call their faith into question to some degree. Naturally, some dishonest religious people will deny unanswered prayers, claiming that every prayer they have ever offered up has been answered in some manner. But I have to think that the honest ones will not resort to such a blatant form of denial. They will likely use more subtle forms in which they try to explain away the failure. "This particular prayer might not have been answered in the way I was seeking," they might say, "but that just means that God had something else in mind for me." Mysterious ways and all that.

August 9, 2013

More Internet Vigilantism as Shermer Accused of Rape

Skeptic Michael Shermer
Skeptic Michael Shermer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
PZ Myers (Pharyngula) recently published an email he allegedly received from a woman accusing Michael Shermer of raping her at a convention. PZ says that too much time has elapsed since the alleged incident for law enforcement to be a viable option. He also notes that he has "no personal, direct evidence" that the alleged incident occurred as described but says that he knows the author "and she has also been vouched for by one other person I trust." Evidently, that is enough to let us bypass any sort of investigation to determine whether the allegations have merit and proceed directly to damaging Shermer's reputation. Mob justice at its finest.

Can PZ's decision to publicly disclose this information in this manner be fully separated from the ongoing conflicts some of his colleagues on Freethought Blogs have had with Shermer? Can it be fully separated from the sort of call-out culture, public shaming, and Internet vigilantism being modeled by some of these bloggers and their fans? I don't think so. It is difficult for me to imagine that someone without a history of conflict with Shermer would jump the gun like this in a public disclosure that seems calculated to harm his reputation. It is similarly difficult to imagine that PZ would have done this had the accused been someone with whom he had no prior conflict.

Divisive Bloggers at Atheist Conventions

Convention crowd - Chicago  (LOC)
Convention crowd - Chicago (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
Two of the big atheist conventions recently announced their lists of speakers: American Atheists' 40th Annual Convention and Skepticon 6. From a quick perusal of the lists, it is apparent that these conferences are selecting a different sort of speaker from those featured at TAM 2013. While many potential attendees are undoubtedly thrilled to have yet another opportunity to hear from their favorite bloggers, others are asking whether conventions interested in promoting a cohesive atheist movement might be making a mistake by selecting speakers with a reputation for being divisive within the atheist community.

Good speakers are often controversial, as they tend to be opinionated and passionate about what they do. It is difficult to imagine a good atheist speaker who will not rub some people the wrong way. Of course, we are not terribly worried about atheist speakers who rub religious people the wrong way. This is why I italicized the words "within the atheist community" in the paragraph above. The concern some have expressed with some of the speakers these conventions have selected is not that they may be seen as divisive by religious individuals but that they have been divisive among atheists

August 7, 2013

Giving Atheists a Voice: The "Not Alone" Project

NotalonelogoIt has been great to witness the growth of atheism over the last several years. Regardless of whether there are many more atheists today than there were a few years ago, I think we can agree that the general public probably knows a bit more about atheism than they did ten years ago and that the stigma around atheism is beginning to decline in some parts of the world.

Unfortunately, there are still many places in which atheists are not safe to express their thoughts on religion. The most obvious examples come from predominately Muslim countries in the Middle East, but there are others. As anyone who has lived in a place dominated by religious fundamentalists will attest, the experience can be quite isolating. There are many good reasons why atheists living in such areas are still reluctant to identify themselves as atheists.

Martin (Martin S Pribble) announced a new effort today, The "Not Alone" Project. The project aims to use the Internet to provide closeted atheists with a means of telling their stories without having to reveal their identities. Here is how he describes it:
My hope is to create a place where the non-believers stories can be published, in a completely safe environment, which doesn’t judge its participants in any way. This is an internet “safehouse” for those who fear coming out, an a place to share stories, freedoms and inspirations that atheism allows you. Those who publish their work here have the choice of remaining anonymous, or publishing their names in their articles.
I think this is a valuable effort, and I hope it succeeds. Atheists living in religiously oppressive environments need a voice, and it is not always feasible for them to start their own blog like some of us did. By setting up a site and a submission form, Martin is making the process easier.

The "Not Alone" Project can be found at http://notaloneproject.wordpress.com/. Check it out.

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Becoming More Conservative With Age?

An election sign in a residential property.
An election sign in a residential property. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is commonly assumed that people become more politically conservative as they age. I have not looked into whether there are data to support this claim, but it would not surprise me if such data were available. The most common reasons I have heard offered for the presumed trend toward conservatism with age include increased wealth, increasing numbers of dependents (i.e., family), and a gradual shift of priorities from changing the system to protecting what one has.

Even if we assume that data show that there is a trend toward increasing conservatism with age, such data would apply to groups of people and not necessarily to any particular individual. There are always outliers, so we should expect that some people might actually become more liberal and others might not change at all. And that brings me to the questions I'm looking at here:
  1. Have I become more conservative with age?
  2. If so, why?

August 6, 2013

Requiring Theistic Oath for Air Force Officers Sends Wrong Message

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) brings us the story of Jonathan Bise, young man who is about to become an officer in the U.S. Air Force when he graduates today. There is just one thing standing in his way:
However, he’s been told he will have to say an oath with the phrase “so help me God” in order to graduate — no substitutions allowed.
According to Mehta, the Air Force intends to require Bise to say these words in order to complete his transition. Fortunately, the American Humanist Association is trying to help Bise. This is clearly a church-state issue. As Hemant notes,
No one would force a Christian soldier to pledge an oath stating “God doesn’t exist” and no one should force an atheist to do the opposite.
Requiring Bise to take this oath without omission or substitution seems like a clear violation of separation of church and state. And while I agree that this is important and applaud the American Humanist Association for their effort, I'd like to come at the issue from a different angle here. Instead of focusing on the illegality of the oath, I'd like to encourage those reading this to put themselves in Bise's shoes and imagine what his experience or the experience of someone in similar circumstances would be like.

Atheist Havens

Piece of Time
Piece of Time (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Being a teenage atheist with a religious family can be challenging under the best of circumstances. Some atheist youth have actually been disowned and thrown out of their homes by religious fundamentalists. Fortunately, helping these youth is something on which some atheists have decided to focus their efforts. It is not something everyone is going to be able to do, but for those who are able and willing, it can be a vital way to make a difference.

Pete Marchetti, the founder of Atheist Havens, wrote a guest post on Friendly Atheist that I encourage you to read. I first wrote about Atheist Havens back in 2011. It has grown considerably since that time. Here is how Marchetti described the origins of Atheist Havens:
Many people said they would be willing to take these young adults in their own homes if necessary — to help them break free from their religious families, or help them escape unwanted arranged marriages, or to help them get a real education. But how could they find each other? Thus, r/AtheistHavens was born. The idea was to provide a central place where volunteers could advertise their offers to house, feed, and otherwise help young atheists who had nowhere else to turn.
Those who are willing to open their homes to an atheist teen in distress can post their location and the sort of help they are able to offer. That allows teens in need to contact those in their area who have created such a listing.

August 5, 2013

Atheists Who Pray

Jesus in Pray
Jesus in Pray (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the many things that leads me to think that the mainstream news media in the U.S. is essentially broken is the manner in which various news organizations seem to recycle stories. It is as if they are determined to ring as much as possible out of each story because it is far easier to do so than something like investigative reporting, which tends to be resource intensive. For an example of what I'm talking about, consider the story about how polling data indicate that some atheists report that they pray.

From what I have been able to gather, the original source of the countless articles written about praying atheists is a report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released in October of 2012. The report was covered when it first appeared, and yet, we are seeing "new" articles about this report appearing in reputable media sources as recently as June of 2013 and being distributed as recently as last week. Notice how the article which appeared in the June 24, 2013 edition of The Washington Post refers to "New research on atheists by the Pew Research Center" and then links to the October 2012 report.

August 3, 2013

AlterNet Reminds Us That Christian Terrorism is Real

Scott Roeder
Alex Henderson's post on AlterNet, 10 worst examples of Christian or far-right terrorism, has been receiving quite a bit of attention around the Internet. I mention it here because I think it provides the sort of reminder many need to see. It is an example of how to counter the frequently heard claim from conservatives and Christian extremists that terrorism is the purview of Muslims and is not something Christians would do.

The issue is not that Muslims do not commit acts of terrorism - we know some do. The issue is that many Christians refuse to acknowledge that there is such a thing as Christian terrorism. Even the mainstream news media rarely uses the label when it is justified.
From Fox News to the Weekly Standard, neoconservatives have tried to paint terrorism as a largely or exclusively Islamic phenomenon. Their message of Islamophobia has been repeated many times since the George W. Bush era: Islam is inherently violent, Christianity is inherently peaceful, and there is no such thing as a Christian terrorist or a white male terrorist. But the facts don’t bear that out.

August 1, 2013

Newsnight Acknowledges Controversy, Misses Point

In the video you can find here, Newsnight's Paul Mason acknowledges that his story about the Atheism+ Block Bot has generated considerable controversy. However, he continues to make what I consider to be a serious error in what he chooses to communicate about the nature of the controversy.

In the video, Mason notes that he has been contacted by many Twitter users who have been "put on the annoying list" (Level 3 of the Atheism+ Block Bot) who see being put on this list as a form of harassment "because they've been named as in the same ballpark as the serious stuff." Right so far. Here's where he misses the point entirely:
So it's a he said, she said situation.
No, no it isn't that at all. Calling it a "he said, she said" situation implies that there are two equally valid points of view and the whole thing is just a difference of opinion. This is not the case here. As many of us listed on the Atheism+ Block Bot have explained (and as Mason himself appears to be at least somewhat aware), the issue is that we are being put on a list he publicly described as a list of abusers in spite of the fact that we have not abused anyone.

Whether we belong on a list of people James Billingham finds "annoying" may be a matter of opinion, but this is not the issue. Whether there should be a Block Bot at all is a matter of opinion but also not the issue. The issue here is with the manner in which Newsnight has chosen to cover this subject. Specifically, the issue is that they described the Atheism+ Block Bot as a list of "abusers" even though many of the people included on it have done no such thing.

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BBC's Newsnight Botches Block Bot Coverage

Atheism+, declared dead more times than I can count, came lurching back into the public eye in a big way on July 30 thanks to an episode of Newsnight which aired on BBC Two. James Billingham (@ool0n, @The_Block_Bot), creator of the Atheism+ Block Bot, was interviewed on this program.



The Atheism+ Block Bot was designed to block atheists on Twitter who James and his friends consider to be "general bigots, assholes and fools." It includes some genuinely abusive trolls (Level 1). However, it also includes many people who are guilty of nothing more than expressing disagreement with Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ (Level 3). I am on the list, and I am reasonably confident that anyone who wants to review my Twitter timeline (@vjack) will see that I have not been abusive of others.

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