November 30, 2013

Breathing New Life Into Old Posts

English: Data from April 2011 Editor Survey th...
English: Data from April 2011 Editor Survey that lists Social Media activities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As a blogger, one of my favorite things about social media is how effective it can be giving old blog posts some additional life. I have been re-reading some of my old posts lately, going all the way back to 2005 to uncover some I nearly forgot writing. While many are embarrassing duds that make me wonder what I was thinking at the time, there have been a few gems worth dusting off. I've cleaned up a few, fixed some typos, added appropriate labels and/or images, and sent them out on Facebook, Google+, or Twitter.

I know that some bloggers take old posts like this and essentially re-post them on their blogs as if they were new. I do not have any problem with doing that, but I decided I'd rather preserve the old posts as old posts and try exposing people to them through social media. I have received a bit of pushback in the form of people complaining about the age of the posts they are seeing, but this has been fairly minor and does not seem to be an annoyance for most of my audience.

For the bloggers among you, have you tried using social media to expose your audience to your older posts? If so, has it been helpful? Have you found other ways to stimulate interest in your older posts that you might recommend to others?

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November 29, 2013

Black Friday: Save a Few Bucks on a Book at Amazon.com

If you live in the U.S. and are not sure you want any part of the local retailers and their crazy Black Friday sales but wouldn't mind saving a few bucks on something you were planning to read this holiday season, Amazon.com has a coupon code where you can take an additional 30% off any book sold and shipped by Amazon.com up to a maximum discount of $10.

I realize that saving $10 probably doesn't seem like much and that this offer excludes Kindle books and audio books, but it is a simple way to save a few bucks on that atheist book you were planning to read over the holidays.

Enter the promo code BOOKDEAL at checkout to receive the discount.

November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving 2013

Today is Thanksgiving in the U.S. and many atheists are celebrating in various ways in spite of the often repeated claim from Christians that we have nobody to thank and nothing for which to be thankful. Of course, this is a ridiculous thing to say. Atheists have plenty of people to thank and most of us, whether we celebrate Thanksgiving or not, have all sorts of reasons to feel thankful.

If I were asked what I am thankful for this year, I suppose the first thing that pops into my head is that I feel extremely thankful for the recent church-state victory right here in Mississippi. This sort of thing does not happen often enough, and when it does, it certainly grabs my attention. And of course, I am still thankful for the existence of an atheist movement and a secular movement. The tireless activists working to make our world a better place deserve our thanks today and every day.

On a personal note, I am thankful for having a day off, for not having to celebrate Thanksgiving, and for being reasonably confident that Christianity will not intrude on me today like it has on some prior Thanksgivings. What I most needed this year at this time was a break - a couple days off to unwind, relax, and summon the strength to face the end of the year. This has been a rough year, and I am certainly thankful to have such an opportunity.

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November 27, 2013

Mississippi Student Wins Lawsuit Challenging Proselytizing Assemblies

This map shows the incorporated and unincorpor...
This map shows the incorporated and unincorporated areas in Rankin County, Mississippi, highlighting Flowood in red. It was created with a custom script with US Census Bureau data and modified with Inkscape. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in Mississippi, it is nearly impossible to exaggerate the manner in which evangelical fundamentalist Christianity is intertwined into the fabric of daily life. It is present everywhere and emerges in practically every conversation. It is about as central to the identity of most of the locals as anything else could be. Evidence of clear separation of church and state, on the other hand, is difficult to spot. Christian flags can be found in area courthouses, and it is not uncommon for judges to run for election by telling voters which Baptist church they attend. Egregious violations of church-state separation are the norm here. Again and again, the courts have had to step in to compel the local Christians to follow the law.

In April of 2013, we learned that Northwest Rankin High School in Flowood, MS, was being sued by the American Humanist Association after forcing students at this public high school to attend school assemblies in which a Christian video and presentation were featured for the purpose of proselytizing. The lawsuit alleged that the assemblies concluded with sectarian prayer and that school personnel physically blocked the exits to prevent their captive audience from leaving.

November 26, 2013

The Price of Outrage

Outrage! (game)
Outrage! (game) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The major political parties in the U.S., with the assistance of cable news and talk radio, manipulate voters' emotions by manufacturing outrage. The "war on Christmas" is a seasonally relevant example with which you will undoubtedly be familiar. The political right has learned that voters can be persuaded to vote against their economic self-interest by inflaming them over social concerns. It even works when the social concerns are largely made up. Instilling outrage is far preferable to engaging in good faith discussions around points of disagreement. And so pointing out the problems with the Affordable Care Act is not enough to motivate action; we must get people riled up about the threat posed by "Obamacare." And the political left uses the same tactics. They too have learned that outraged voters are more likely to show up to vote. It is not enough to inform the populace about the procedural tactics Republicans use to block legislation; we must inflame the base by persuading them that the Republican Party is "running us off a cliff," "holding us hostage," and the like.

Of course, we'd be making a serious mistake if we pointed the finger at politicians and the news media without recognizing that we often use the same approach ourselves. Pick practically any cause you like (e.g., environmentalism, animal rights, social justice, science education, secularism, reproductive rights) and give yourself a moment to think about how the organizations devoted to your cause operate. What sort of messages do they distribute? What is the emotional tone of their messages, particularly their calls to action? They too utilize outrage above all else.

In the short-term, there is little doubt that outrage is an effective tactic for soliciting donations, increasing voter turnout, and stimulating activism. An outraged person is far more likely to engage in activist efforts than someone who is largely content. Outrage helps people overcome apathy. My concern is whether there is a downside to over relying on outrage, especially in an age of technology and social media where we are exposed to a constant barrage of outrage-inducing messages. What, if anything, are the long-term effects of this type of messaging?

November 25, 2013

Others Do Not Always Share Our Perspectives

English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for ...
English: Oven roasted turkey, common fare for Christmas and Thanksgiving celebrations. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the things I have always noticed about the people with whom I interact regularly, regardless of the context or where I am living, is the difficulty many have in looking beyond their own experiences and realizing that not everyone shares their perspective. I am sure that I have my own blind spots and that I probably am guilty of doing this at times. And yet, I am equally sure that I go out of my way to prevent doing so. I rarely assume that everyone else thinks like I do, shares my experiences, or values what I value. In fact, I am more inclined to assume that they probably do not. But from most of my daily interactions with others, I seem to be an outlier in this regard.

Unfortunately, I do not have the opportunity to have daily offline interactions with other atheists. This means that what I am about to suggest is based on little evidence and is more conjecture than anything. I think that atheists and members of religious minority groups may have a somewhat easier time avoiding the sort of error I mention here than those who belong to the religious majority in a particular area.

November 24, 2013

Speaking Ill of the Dead

Detail of the Guanajuato mummies, Mexico. Blac...
Detail of the Guanajuato mummies, Mexico. Black and white version. Photo taken at Museo de las Momias de Guanajuato. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Social convention dictates that when someone dies, even someone who was utterly despicable in many ways, that we are supposed to wait an acceptable amount of time before publicly criticizing them. It is thought to be unseemly to appear to celebrate someone's death even if that is what we might feel like doing. Why? In part, this is likely due for the consideration of any family the deceased may have left behind. We recognize that family members may be grieving, and we have little desire to rub their faces in how awful the person they just lost really was. It probably also has something to do with our difficulty reconciling our image of ourselves as civilized with idea that we might want to celebrate someone's death. And I'd also guess that the social prohibition on speaking ill of the dead has roots in ancient superstitions, beliefs to which a large portion of humanity continues to cling (e.g., belief in spirits).

In a recent post about the passing of talk-show "psychic" Sylvia Browne, blogger Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) noted that many well-known skeptics held little back in the statements they released about Browne's death. While stopping short of celebrating her death, the statements appeared to converge around one important point: Browne hurt a large number of people during her life. We might be reluctant to appear to celebrate her demise, but we have the sense that the world is a bit better without her.

November 23, 2013

Empires Crumble From Within

Map of Economic Inequality in the United State...
Map of Economic Inequality in the United States using the Theil index. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
With Black Friday approaching, we in the U.S. find ourselves in an odd situation when it comes to our economy and the question of how our economic recovery is coming along. On one hand, the stock market is booming and corporate profits are again on the rise. This suggests that an economic recovery of sorts is well underway. On the other hand, unemployment remains high, jobs are scarce, and the middle class appears to be shrinking. Consumer confidence seems questionable when many indicate that they will be spending less on gifts this year. Undoubtedly, the rich are doing very well. They have seen a true economic recovery. The rest of us, not so much. Is it any wonder that the public is not happy with the direction the U.S. is heading?

In many respects, it seems fair to say that we have two very different economies. The rich are not only getting richer and benefiting tremendously from our present economy; they are increasingly able to live their lives without ever coming into contact with the rest of us. Out of sight, out of mind perhaps. But the point is that they really don't have to worry much about us.

November 21, 2013

Ridicule and Mockery of Religious Beliefs


There is a scene in The Waterboy where Adam Sandler's character, Bobby, answers a couple of questions in a college class by repeating incorrect information he learned from his uneducated mother.
Professor: Now, last week we talked about the physiology of the animal brain as it pertains to aggression. Now, is there anyone here that can tell me why most alligators are abnormally aggressive? Anybody? Anyone? Yes, sir. You, sir.
Bobby: Mama says that alligators are ornery 'cause they got all them teeth but no toothbrush.
What happens next? The class laughs at Bobby, and the professor delivers a gentle mocking. Bobby looks around the room, almost as if he is surprised by the reaction of his classmates. He tries to answer another question with similarly poor information and is again greeted with laughter and ridicule. And eventually, Bobby appears to learn not only that there is a social consequence for providing blatantly incorrect information in class but that his information may in fact be incorrect. He begins to learn.

November 19, 2013

Here in Mississippi...

The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind by El ...
The Miracle of Christ Healing the Blind by El Greco, c. 1570 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in Mississippi, nobody asks whether I believe in gods. They assume I believe in one - the same one in which they believe. No one asks whether I am a Christian either. They assume I am and behave accordingly. And while I am frequently asked where I attend church, I have yet to be asked if I attend church. They all assume that I do. When it comes to matters of religion, much of this state seems to be afflicted with a form of "cultural blindness," an affliction in which everyone takes it for granted that everyone else believes as they do. I have little doubt that this is merely another manifestation of Christian privilege.

I cannot think of many examples outside of religion where this happens. The overwhelming majority of Mississippians are politically conservative, and I have certainly encountered some who assume that I share their political ideology; however, most seem to realize that not everybody shares their political views. I have had people ask me about my political views instead of merely assuming that I share theirs. It is also true that many Mississippians continue to struggle with sexual orientation. I have had some assume that I am heterosexual (which I am), but I have had others ask first. And I have encountered even more people who know enough to use the sort of language that does not force them to make assumptions of any sort (e.g., asking about a relationship instead of a marriage or about a partner instead of a spouse). This still lags behind what I have experienced in other parts of the U.S., but it is a step in the right direction. No, the cultural blindness around here seems to be primarily about religion.

November 17, 2013

A Great Gift Idea for Your Atheist Friends

Believe it or not, some atheists do celebrate various holidays this time of year. Some of these holidays even involve exchanging gifts. It is also not terribly uncommon for people, regardless of whether they are atheists, to have a reason to buy gifts for atheist friends or family members. You find some gift ideas for atheists in a post I wrote in 2008 and updated last year, and I've got another one here.

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) brings us news of a news illustrated book that would make a wonderful gift for your atheist friends. It is called Awkward Moments (Not Found In Your Average) Children's Bible - Vol. 1, and it looks incredible. You see, the book is a collection of several verses from the Christian bible which most Sunday schools omit and most Christian parents would be horrified to learn are contained in the bibles they push on their children.

Author Horus Gilgamesh notes that, despite the title, the book is really not meant for children. The humor is fairly adult-oriented. While looking at some of the examples at awkwardmomentsbible.com, I found references to glory holes, drinking beer, and other things that most parents probably would deem unsuitable for their children.

Here's hoping the book does well and leads people to actually read the Christian bible. I suspect if more people knew what was in this bible, we might hear less about it being "holy." Perhaps there would be more atheists too.

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November 14, 2013

The Only Book You Must Believe Before You Can Understand

Jester reading a book
Jester reading a book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Of all the books I have ever read and studied, I have only encountered one where I have been told repeatedly that I cannot understand it unless I first believe everything it says. Yes, I am referring to the Christian bible and the magic that protects it from being deciphered by non-Christians. This claim has always struck me as being thoroughly ridiculous and has led me to laugh in more than a few faces. It is not that I dispute the need to interpret some books, reading meaning into the author's words. Many books require this, and I can accept that the Christian bible might too (although interpreting what many claim is at least divinely inspired strikes me as arrogant). What I dispute is that the claim that one must believe a book prior to being able to understand it is anything but nonsensical.

I studied many books during my years in school. I don't mean I read them, although I did that too. I mean I studied them in the sense of critical analysis and interpretation. In elementary school, this largely focused on reading poets like Robert Frost and discussing what they were communicating. By grade 5, we were reading some of the less complex literary classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, and this would continue into junior high. In high school, the books become more complicated (e.g., Moby-Dick). The complexity continued to increased in college where I encountered everything from short stories written by African authors, modern literature (e.g., Beloved), and classic non-fiction relevant to my major (e.g., Man's Search for Meaning). Graduate school would bring more focused technical non-fiction reading, necessary due to the increasing specialization.

November 13, 2013

Atheist Churches

What do you think about the Sunday Assemblies, labeled atheist "mega-churches" by the mainstream news media? Personally, I don't understand their appeal one bit. Try as I might, it is a struggle for me to comprehend why someone would want the church experience - or anything remotely similar to it - without the religion. I detested the whole of the church experience, and stripping out the religious aspects wouldn't have made it much more palatable. Then again, it is clear that some atheists feel like something is missing in their post-religious lives. For some, it is the sense of community they found in church; for others, it is something as simple as enjoying the experience of singing with a large group of people. I don't get it, but I don't have to get it. I'm not the sort of atheist to which the Sunday Assemblies are supposed to appeal.

Andrew Hall (Laughing in Purgatory) recently attended a Sunday Assembly and described his experience in the video below.



It sounds like he went into it not sure he would like it and found himself enjoying it enough that he would consider going to another one.

November 12, 2013

Changing My Mind About Online Harassment

English: Infographic on how Social Media are b...
English: Infographic on how Social Media are being used, and how everything is changed by them. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Online harassment (i.e., cyber-harassment) has been a hot topic both in the atheist community and in the mainstream news media for some time now. Many of our attempts to discuss the subject have been impeded by the use of vastly different definitions of harassment (i.e., should we use existing legal definitions or those that have been promoted by some atheist feminists?) I certainly recognize that this can be problematic, but if online harassment is truly a problem in our community and elsewhere, it seems that we need to find ways of discussing it even if such discussions end up being somewhat unpleasant.

In this post, I want to tell you about a conversation I recently had with a woman on the subject of online harassment. This was an actual face-to-face conversation offline. We initially disagreed quite sharply and I was even mocked a bit. But in the end, I was persuaded that I've been mistaken in some of my beliefs about online harassment. I think that I've underestimated its potential to do real and lasting harm.

What I've Been Skeptical of About Online Harassment

There are a few things relevant to online harassment of which I have been skeptical and of which I remain skeptical today:
  1. Claims that being quoted accurately is harassment,
  2. Claims that disagreeing with someone or criticizing their ideas are forms of harassment,
  3. Claims that merely attempting to communicate with someone on social media is a form of harassment, and
  4. Claims that publicly defending due process via social media is harassment.
I remain skeptical that these things - labeled harassment by some atheist feminists - are forms of harassment. I do not think they warrant labels like "abuse" or "harassment" at all.

November 11, 2013

Why There Is An Atheist Movement

S is for Secularism
S is for Secularism (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Throughout the life of this blog, I have heard from several of you on a similar theme: atheism is not a movement and is an insufficient concept around which to build a movement. I have heard the arguments, and while I may not agree with every point made in support of this position, I think you have raised some good ones. My own views on this topic have changed a bit over the last several years; however, I continue to believe that there can be (and should be) something that it makes sense to call an atheist movement. And that thing I want to call the atheist movement is not the same thing as the secular movement we all recognize. It is much smaller than the secular movement, not terribly influential, and not everything I wish it was. And yet, I am still glad it exists.

But how can there be a movement around not believing in gods? Easily. It happens when people who do not believe in gods face discrimination and bigotry because they do not believe in gods. The atheist movement is about promoting atheism and celebrating the atheist part of one's identity. It is about protecting atheist civil rights. It is about combating anti-atheist bigotry.

November 10, 2013

The Immoral Person was Never a True Christian

A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheis...
A sign posted by the Connecticut Valley Atheists in Rockville's Central Park in December 2007. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Every group of people will have some some bad apples, individuals who commit bad acts that are not consistent with the values held by the rest of the group. Consider the example of Christian parents who kill their children by depriving them of life-saving medical care, resorting instead to ineffective prayer. Most Christians recognize that this is horrible parenting, that allowing a child to die like this is criminal, and want nothing to do with such parents. Some will readily disown such parents, and they should be praised for doing so. Clergy who molest children provide another example. Aside from a few hopelessly brainwashed members of their congregations, few religious individuals are going to argue that child molestation is acceptable or consistent with their values. Most religious people recognize that sexually assaulting a child is a criminal offense and agree that one who does it should be punished. Some will publicly disown a member of clergy who commits such an act.

Among atheists, one will find bad apples too. It is inevitable that some atheists will commit crimes and other acts which are inconsistent with the values held by the vast majority of the atheist community. We should not be surprised when this happens, and we should not be reluctant to disown those who engage in such behavior.

November 7, 2013

I've Joined the iPhone Tribe

English: Picture of my Blackberry
English: Picture of my Blackberry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I understand why religious belief is as divisive a force as it is today. Claiming that one has the "truth" and that everyone else is not only wrong but headed for eternal damnation tends to create a divide. But why should one's choice of cell phone operating system be so damn divisive? Aside from religion and politics, few things seem to inflame the passions more than whether one opts for iOS or Android on their phone. How incredibly silly!

I came to Android from Blackberry a few years ago and from Android to iOS a few weeks ago after buying my first iPhone. In the process, I read several comparative reviews and talked to several people with various phones about what they liked and disliked about them. The level of animosity, bias, and misinformation was astounding. I often found myself asking, "You know its only a phone, right?" but some clearly don't see it that way. Perhaps I'll just never understand tribalism, whether it involves religions or phones.

November 6, 2013

Supreme Court to Hear Oral Arguments in Greece v. Galloway Today

United States Supreme Court building.
United States Supreme Court building. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The U.S. Supreme Court is scheduled to hear oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Gallowway this morning around 10:00 am. This is a case secular activists will be watching closely, as it is expected to have far reaching implications for the separation of church and state.

The case centers on the common practice of invocation prayers to begin city council meetings; however, some are predicting that the court could open the door for prayer at government meetings more broadly. For more information about the case and how Americans United for Separation of Church and State has been working to protect our interests, see the information compiled here.

A worst-case-scenario sort of ruling in Town of Greece could have the effect of abolishing important legal precedent around the Establishment Clause, opening the door to sectarian prayer at government meetings. Here's how Jesse McKinley (The New York Times) recently summarized what is at stake here:
On Wednesday, the United States Supreme Court will hear arguments on whether those prayers — almost always delivered by Christian clergy members to the assembled audience — violate the First Amendment clause that prohibits the establishment of religion. The court’s ruling, expected next June, could be one of the most significant church-state decisions in 30 years, and could affect the nature of such invocations in municipal meetings nationwide.

November 5, 2013

Intoxication, Consent, and Sex

Drunk Pumpkin
Drunk Pumpkin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It it possible to be under the influence of alcohol and consent to sex? Of course, it is. Many of us have done so on multiple occasions. But what if someone is not just under the influence but what we would label drunk? Can a drunk person still consent to sex? It depends on how drunk such a person is, as there are many degrees of drunkenness. The fun, happy sort of early-stage drunkenness almost certainly involves some impairment in judgment. An individual is such a state might be said to have "beer goggles" and could end up having sex with someone to whom he or she was not previously attracted. But impaired judgment is still a distance from non-consensual sex. The individual who does this may have some regrets, but being tricked in some manner or raped are not usually among them.

At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that there does appear to be a point past which it is difficult to argue that consent of any sort is possible. The sort of drunkenness that we might call "blacking out" would be an example. A person is such a state can still function to some degree, but it is tough to argue that anything he or she does here is consensual. In fact, an individual in such a state may be so impaired that he or she is unable to give meaningful consent. It is in this area that it probably makes the most sense to talk about how something that could look like consensual sex to an observer is not in fact consensual.

November 4, 2013

Assertive Atheism in the Face of Christian Ignorance and Bigotry

Penn Jillette
Cover of Penn Jillette
I hope everybody had a great JesusWeen. I was surprised to discover that the local Wal-Mart does not sell bags of Christian bibles in the Halloween candy aisle for distribution to the neighborhood children. Thanks for ruining my JesusWeen, Wal-Mart! Oh well. November is here now, and I suppose it is time to move on and leave all the fun behind. Next up on our list of annual holiday themed subjects will be the garbage about how atheists cannot be thankful on Thanksgiving because we have no gods to thank. I suppose the Christians who insist on making this silly claim every year are incapable of experiencing feelings of gratitude toward their fellow humans. How incredibly sad for them! But this is not a Thanksgiving post, and we have most of November for addressing such things.

In this post, I'd like to address a topic about which I have been thinking a great deal lately: patience. And by patience, I am really thinking of how patient atheists have been with religious believers when it comes to the ignorance and bigotry that frequently comes our way. This is particularly true for those who represent the public face of our community to the news media. We have taken great pains to be civil, to be polite, and even to be respectful when met with ignorant statements made about atheism and about atheists. We have smiled in the face of these statements and sought to provide what might be described as firm but gentle correction. For the most part, I think this has been successful. I doubt we've changed many minds in the media, but I imagine some in the audience have questioned their preconceived notions about us.

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