August 31, 2014

How to Win Any Argument About Social Justice

If it was possible to communicate everything wrong with the behavior of the social justice warrior approach to "winning" arguments on the Internet in one silly graphic, this one would come fairly close:

See more on Know Your Meme

I accept that I may be wrong about this, but I have yet to be convinced that this sort of behavior has little to do with meaningful social justice activism or that it contributes to the sort of change many of us would like to see. The behaviors described in the graphic should be rare among freethinkers and skeptics, including those of us who are interested in social justice.

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August 28, 2014

Separation of Church and State is a Social Justice Issue

English: Rally for social justice, Beersheba, ...
Rally for social justice, Beersheba, Israel, Aug 13 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We don't usually think of separation of church and state as a social justice issue or regard church-state activism as a form of social justice activism. I think this is because when most of us in the U.S. think about church-state activism, we think about efforts to remove nativity scenes and Ten Commandments monuments from government buildings, return the Pledge of Allegiance to the original pre-god language, remove the god references from our currency, persuade our elected officials to stop offering sectarian prayers to open government meetings, and the like. The connection between these efforts and social justice may not be immediately apparent. And yet, I think it makes sense to think of efforts to defend the separation of church and state as a social justice issue.

The cumulative impact of the sort of church-state violations I mentioned above is that they serve to alienate non-religious persons, assuring that we continue to be marginalized. These violations collectively foster an environment of anti-atheist bigotry and discrimination. When government is not neutral on matters of religion but instead opts to promote god belief in general or Christian beliefs in particular, the non-religious lose out. It isn't just a matter of our government no longer representing us; we receive the message that we are unwanted and even despised. Negative public attitudes toward us are normalized and become socially acceptable. It is bad enough that many of our neighbors hate us; when our government behaves like this, we must begin to worry about things as basic as our safety.

August 27, 2014

The Right to Believe

Nest of the flamingo according to old beliefs
Nest of the flamingo according to old beliefs (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We hear quite a bit about one's right to believe certain things these days. I'm not sure why this is such a popular subject. It is almost as if many people are convinced that this right was somehow in jeopardy. But it is not in any jeopardy. None whatsoever. Nobody can take away your right to believe whatever you want. And as far as I can tell, nobody is trying to do so.

We all have the right to believe whatever we want, no matter how wrong we may be. Beliefs, just like all our other thoughts, are our own. They are private unless we decide to make them public. Nobody else can even know what we believe unless we choose to express it.

We do not have the right to express our beliefs without consequence, and we certainly do not have the right to act upon our beliefs without consequence. When someone wears a "god hates fags" t-shirt to a job interview with a politically progressive company, he or she is unlikely to get the job. If I list "atheist activist" under special skills on my resume, I won't get the job. When someone acts on his or her beliefs by shouting racial slurs at persons of color through a megaphone, he or she will probably face some negative consequences for his or her behavior. These consequences are about how one is expressing or acting on one's beliefs and not the beliefs themselves.

August 25, 2014

Is Separation of Church and State Still Relevant?

Mouzinho da Silveira, whose influence during t...
Mouzinho da Silveira, whose influence during the post-War era would result in changes to the economy, the separation of church and state and the reorganization of municipalities (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The question contained in the title of this post seems like an odd one to ask, and perhaps it is. I've found myself wondering lately whether most atheists still consider the separation of church and state to be a relevant area for activism and how it ranks among all their other priorities for activism.

Why do I ask? From what I see on the Internet these days, many atheists would rather talk about Ferguson, ice buckets, Gaza, ISIS, transphobia and trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), whatever Richard Dawkins recently said on Twitter, who said what about various bloggers at the Slyme Pit, and a host of other subjects. To be clear, I'm not saying that there isn't still plenty of church-state content out there. Church-state violations are happening daily, and Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist), as just one example, continues to do an outstanding job of covering them. But it seems like I'm seeing less of this content being shared on social media than many of these other topics.

We can certainly have many interests and be involved in activism in multiple areas simultaneously. The fact that many seem captivated by these other topics does not mean that they are uninterested in church-state activism. But since it seems to receive less attention than it used to and less attention than these other subjects, I wonder whether separation of church and state is still as high a priority for most atheists as it once seemed to be.

August 24, 2014

Christians Disregard Jesus to Pray Publicly

Prayer. Conversations with God

 There are many parts of the Christian bible that are somewhat ambiguous, unclear, or inconsistent. This reality is accepted by many Christians. Other parts of the Christian bible seem quite clear. Take Matthew 6:5-7 for example:
5. And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward.

6. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.

7. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking.
This passage describes how hypocrites pray in public "that they may be seen" and admonishes the audience not to pray like this. Instead, the audience is encouraged to pray in private. Private prayer is good; public prayer is bad. Seems pretty clear, doesn't it? So why do so many Christians in the United States ignore it and engage in public prayer?

August 21, 2014

Confronting Our Own Hypocrisy and Repudiating Bad Behavior

Hypocrisy at Glasgow Cathouse
Hypocrisy at Glasgow Cathouse (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The last of the four suggestions in my Four Things We Can Do To Make More Atheists post was the one that will probably be most controversial. I said that I thought we needed to take a look at ourselves, confront our own hypocrisy, and repudiate bad behavior we see coming from within our community. While I have been trying to do this for some time, I will not pretend that it has been easy or that I am not conflicted over how best to do it.

When we look at religious believers, I have no doubt that most of us find hypocrisy widespread, relevant, and off-putting. I cannot say that hypocrisy made me an atheist; skepticism and lack of evidence did that. I can say that religious hypocrisy helped to shape by attitudes toward religious belief. I have no reason to think that hypocrisy among atheists will not shape attitudes toward atheism. But I am not looking at this primarily as a public relations issue. My main concern is not with how religious believers may view us; I am more concerned with how our hypocrisy limits our effectiveness and our attractiveness to other atheists.

As I wrote previously,
In the last six months, I have met a few atheists online who went so far as to say that they no longer identify themselves as atheists because they do not want to be associated with the garbage they have seen coming from other atheists online.

August 20, 2014

Political Extremism is Part of Our History

English: The western front of the United State...
The western front of the United States Capitol. The Neoclassical style building is located in Washington, D.C., on top of Capitol Hill at the east end of the National Mall. The Capitol was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1960. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here in the United States, our political system often seems broken. The people have little confidence that those we send to Congress have our interests in mind, and we seldom feel empowered to bring about the sort of change we want. The political landscape seems hopelessly divided by a toxic form of hyper-partisanship that makes reasonable discussion all but impossible.

This all seems to be getting worse, and it is likely part of why voter turnout and political engagement continue to decline. Increasing numbers of people have opted out of the political process in a sort of learned helplessness. If what I do makes no difference, why bother?

In a recent post at The Daily Beast, John Avlon, author of Wingnuts: Extremism in the Age of Obama, reminds us that much of what we are experiencing is not new and not necessarily insurmountable. We've been here before.
American political history has been marked by periodic eruptions of the “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” that Richard Hofstadter famously characterized as “the paranoid style in American politics.” Wingnuts have masqueraded under different names and causes at different times, but they have always been committed to an “us against them” framing of domestic debates while inflaming group hatred in the name of politics and alleged principle. They prey on fear and ignorance.

August 19, 2014

The Optics of Community Volunteerism

The Student Volunteer Army after the 2011 Chri...
The Student Volunteer Army after the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Admittedly, I've never been a fan of the argument that atheists should be overly concerned about public relations. I'm still not sold on the notion that we should go out of our way to hoist the banner of atheism when we do good things in our communities to combat stereotypes. I tell myself that I do good because it is the right thing to do and not because I'm trying to teach anybody anything about atheism. Perhaps I'm just being stubborn or allowing my misanthropy to get in the way again.

Maybe I need to make a conscious effort to reframe the situation. I could tell myself that I'm still doing good because it is the right thing to do but that I'm reaping an additional benefit by showing people that atheists do good things too. My primary motive would be unchanged; I'd simply be thinking a bit more broadly about the impact of my actions. It feels unnatural for me to think in such terms, but that may just be because I have resisted doing so for so long.

What made me think about this was this post from Religion News Service about how church volunteers are cleaning up after the protests in Ferguson. This looks good for them. The post hints that not everyone cleaning up was religious (e.g., "The majority arrived as part of the faithful"), but the focus is on those who were. The image of church volunteers coming together to help their community is a positive one. I could easily imagine people hearing about it and thinking, "I'd like to be part of such a group."

August 18, 2014

Atheist Finds Acceptance at Episcopal Church

English: Trinity Parish Church (Episcopal), Fi...
Trinity Parish Church (Episcopal), First Hill, Seattle, Washington. Erected 1902; listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It is no secret that many atheists are rather hostile toward religion, and this seems to be particularly true of those atheists we encounter online. Sharing criticism of religion is an extremely common activity for atheists on the Internet. Some atheists, especially those one is likely to find on Twitter these days, are even hostile toward religious believers.

Some of us have had negative experiences with religion, and many of us believe that religious institutions and/or religious belief have been detrimental to human progress. For many atheists, attending religious services at a church would be a waste of time at best and a way of contributing to a destructive ideology at worst. But atheists are an incredibly diverse group, and it is not hard to find exceptions. Some atheists not only enjoy attending church services but wish they could do so more regularly.

Take this recent post by Snowbrush as an example. He describes attending mass at an Episcopal church and thoroughly enjoying the experience.
It’s not just church I need, it’s the Episcopal Church, and not just any Episcopal Church, but a high church with incense, candles, holy water, altar bells, formality, and solemnity. I can put my heart into every word I say in such a setting without believing them literally. They possess me. Their beauty, their antiquity, the closeness I feel to those who are saying the same words and making the same gestures, is no less strange and beautiful to me than anything that’s strange and beautiful, whether I’m among people or in nature, whether I’m straight or on drugs. I don’t know how anyone could love high church more than I, or approach it more joyfully.

August 17, 2014

Chromecast for My Media Streaming Needs

About a month ago, I asked for reader input on media streaming devices. I received some helpful suggestions, and I finally got around to picking up a Chromecast. As simple as my needs were (i.e., wanting to stream YouTube videos), I figured I'd give the cheapest option a shot.

Setup was a breeze, and I just used it for the first time to watch a video that has been on my YouTube "watch later" list since it was first uploaded, the recent and surprisingly controversial talk by Carol Tavris at TAM 2014. I thought it was excellent, and I recommend it to anyone with an interest in skepticism and criminal justice.



It would be premature for me to post any sort of review on the Chromecast yet. I've only had it for a day and used it once. All I can really say at this point is so far, so good. If it continues to work as well as it has so far, I imagine I'll be happy with it.

I have never gotten into watching much YouTube, primarily because I am nearly always doing other things when I'm sitting at a computer. I'm hoping that being able to stream will let me watch more while I'm moving around and doing other things. With all the interesting sounding atheist content available these days, I feel like a kid in a candy store when it comes to deciding what to watch next.

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August 14, 2014

Even Without Philosophy, I'd Still Be An Atheist

English: Cover of a publication of Baruch Spin...
Cover of a publication of Baruch Spinoza's work (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have little doubt that I'd be an atheist today even if I had never discovered philosophy. I'd be an atheist even if my favorite high school teacher had not inspired me to seek out and read Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus. I would be an atheist even if I had not spent countless hours pouring over the writings of Hume, Spinoza, Russell, Kant, Hobbes, Berkeley, Locke, and many of the other dusty volumes I was able to find on the shelves of the used bookstore where I spent so much time. I'd be an atheist even if I hadn't taken the philosophy courses I took in college. But as certain as I am that I would be an atheist without philosophy, I am equally certain that it would have taken me at least 2-3 years longer than it did to find atheism.

Bashing philosophy has become popular over the last few months following some comments from a scientist who is revered by many atheists. As someone who has long been interested in both philosophy and science, I have found this unfortunate. The field of philosophy has informed and continues to inform many important aspects of our lives, often without us even realizing it. Medical ethics and the ethical standards governing those of us who do research with human and/or animal subjects come to mind as obvious examples. But the value of philosophy extends beyond ethics, especially for those of us who value skepticism and aspire to be more reasonable in our thinking.

Hand-in-hand with psychology, philosophy has helped us to understand reason, critical thinking, skepticism. We have learned about their value, their application, and about the many obstacles that prevent us from utilizing them. Granted, it would be easy for someone like me who is immersed in psychology to claim that most of this knowledge has come from psychology and not philosophy; however, that would be disingenuous because the fingerprints of philosophy are all over psychology. At both the undergraduate and graduate level, courses on the history of psychology almost always begin with philosophy. Many, such as the history of psychology course I took in graduate school, are so heavily rooted in philosophy that they could easily be mistaken for philosophy courses. The influence of philosophy on psychology is difficult to deny.

August 13, 2014

PZ Myers Does Not Speak For Us

Electronic red megaphone on stand.
Electronic red megaphone on stand. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Atheists routinely criticize religious moderates for not doing more about their extremist colleagues. What is it that we expect them to do? For starters, we want them to speak out. We want them to clearly repudiate the behavior of religious extremists. We want them to make it clear that the extremists do not speak for them.

One implication of this is that we must be willing to do the same, especially when individuals with high profiles in the atheist community make serious errors. We certainly do not need to try to destroy such individuals; however, there may be times when it is necessary for us to make it clear that they do not speak for us. Yesterday's post by PZ Myers (Freezepage link) is one such time, and many atheists are using their platforms to repudiate what PZ said. Here are a few noteworthy examples:
While I suspect that PZ has us all right where he wants us, I did find it encouraging to see these clear statements explaining that PZ does not speak for the rest of us. And so, let me say that I agree completely with the following from JT Eberhard (What Would JT Do?):
But in this case of unmitigated toxicity, I want you to know that I am disgusted and that most atheists would also be if they were to read it. I cannot speak for anybody else (though, if you click around the internet, you can find them speaking for themselves), but this man absolutely does not speak for me. I think what he said was cruel and ill-reasoned.
PZ Myers does not speak for me either. Enough said.

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Manipulating One's Audience: A Different Sort of Outrage

Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of mar...
Rush Limbaugh Cartoon by Ian D. Marsden of marsdencartoons.com (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote yesterday about the pattern of social media outrage where a public figure says something insensitive in response to a news story, is met with outrage, and ends up apologizing. We are all familiar with this and have come to recognize it easily. But there is another sort of pattern, one in which many of us actively participate and which not everyone sees for what it is. Since we had a particularly vivid example of it yesterday, I thought I should do a quick follow up post to address it.

Here's what this other pattern looks like:
  1. Someone deliberately says something outrageous in order to provoke outrage in his or her audience (like this recent post from PZ - Freezepage link).
  2. Outrage ensues and spreads quickly.
  3. The person who made the outrageous statement benefits from a massive spike in traffic and/or attention as the outraged share the content far and wide.
  4. We move on to the next outrage.
Yes, I'm saying that this pattern is characterized by someone intentionally inciting outrage because they recognize how they will benefit from it. This should be far easier to understand than the previous pattern, but it does force us to recognize that we are complicit in it. It wouldn't work without our contribution.

August 12, 2014

Robin Williams, Shepard Smith, and the Appeal of Outrage

Robin-Williams
Robin-Williams (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Not every instance of social media outrage is the same. There are bound to be exceptions to the general pattern. What is the general pattern? I think it looks something like this:
  1. A major news story breaks, and everyone is talking about it (e.g., the death of Robin Williams).
  2. A public figure says something insensitive or otherwise inappropriate about it (e.g., Shepard Smith goes on the air and suggests that Williams was a coward).
  3. Other media outlets report on what the figure said, with some managing to do a fairly good job of thoughtful reporting and others doing little more than trying to inflame their audience.
  4. Outrage ensues.
  5. Other media outlets begin to report on the outrage.
  6. The public figure who made the insensitive comment apologizes.
  7. We all move on to the next outrage (perhaps it will be this gem).
We see this pattern regularly. Who is benefiting here? The public figure who makes the controversial statement might benefit in the sudden fame, attention, and traffic. Then again, this may all be unwanted. Benefit to the person who made the initial statement is questionable in many situations. But what about the media who report on it? They benefit considerably from an outraged audience in the form of social media shares and traffic. Outrage = traffic, and traffic = ratings and advertising revenue. They have a clear incentive to drum up outrage.

But what about the outraged? Why do they continue to participate in this cycle over and over? I think this is the most interesting question and perhaps the most challenging to answer. To some degree, I suspect they do so because they are being effectively manipulated. That is, their buttons are being pressed by people who are damned good at pressing buttons. But it also seems that some delight in the outrage because it feels good to vent one's frustration and attack others when one can feel justified in doing so. Maybe there is something appealing about getting to treat people poorly without feeling any remorse about doing so.

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Claims of Offense From the Religious vs. Claims of Offense From Atheists

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)
When an atheist expresses himself or herself and is promptly accused by Christians or Muslims of offending them, how does the atheist generally respond? While the atheist's response will vary depending on the situation and his or her personality, I think we can agree that it will often involve a "so what" reaction and rarely involve a decision to withhold criticism of religious belief. When an atheist blogger writes something critical of Christianity or Islam and is accused of sacrilege or blasphemy by Christians and/or Muslims, the atheist blogger typically keeps doing what he or she is doing. We recognize blasphemy as a victimless offense, and we typically suggest that there may be some merit in criticizing ridiculous ideas. This is not to say that we deliberately seek to offend religious believers (although some atheists certainly do); it simply means that we are neither surprised nor terribly bothered by claims of offense-taking from religious believers. We do not usually allow claims of offense-taking to silence us.

I don't think I've said anything controversial yet. In fact, I suspect that what I wrote above would find almost universal agreement among atheists. The anti-theists will certainly agree; many of them go out of their way to mock religious belief and may even hope to offend religious believers. I suspect that even those atheists and humanists who are fond of interfaith dialogue and encourage atheists and humanists to work alongside religious believers to pursue shared goals would agree that we should not withhold criticism of religion simply because it may offend some religious believers.

As clear as most atheists seem to be that we should not let claims of offense-taking from religious believers stifle our criticism of religious belief, we are far less clear about this when it comes to other groups. We have let claims of offense-taking from many different groups of atheists limit our work. The most recent example of which I am aware involved Hemant Mehta's (Friendly Atheist) decision to shelve a book project after receiving complaints from atheists about the subject matter. This is certainly not the first time this has happened, and it will not be the last.

August 11, 2014

What Does It Mean To Be Secular?

Septimius Severus Secular Games

In the briefest possible sense, I think we can agree that secular means non-religious. Someone who is secular, whatever else he or she may be, is not religious.

In a recent post on The Secular Life, Dr. Phil Zuckerman drew upon the social sciences to unpack what being non-religious means in this context:
So to be secular means that 1) a person does not believe in supernatural beings, entities, or realms, 2) a person does not engage in religious behaviors, and 3) a person does not identify as religious and is not a member of a religious community.
In expanding upon #1, Dr. Zuckerman notes that being secular "is to maintain a naturalistic worldview in which belief in anything is always proportioned to the evidence available." I like this because it gives us a sense of what a secular person does believe. With so many religious believers telling us that we don't believe anything, this strikes me as important.

Later in the same post, Dr. Zuckerman almost seems to contradict #2 of this definition by writing:
Of course, many secular people -- despite their lack of religious beliefs -- do engage in at least some religious rituals.
If being secular entails not engaging in religious behaviors, I'm not sure it makes sense to suggest that many secular people participate in religious rituals. Then again, I suspect that his point is that secular individuals do not participate in religious rituals for religious reasons. If this is accurate, I'd suggest modifying #2 of the definition to read "2) a person does not engage in religious behaviors for religious reasons..." This would cover the secular person who attends church (i.e., a religious behavior) to appease a family member or for other non-religious reasons.

What do you think? Does this brief definition adequately capture what it means to be secular?

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August 10, 2014

Disclosing Bias

Bias is something most of us seek to avoid; at least, we seek to avoid it when we are trying to be objective. This is an important point because we are not trying to be objective much of the time. For example, most of the personal blogs you read, including this one, make no claim to be objective. We are not doing investigative reporting or presenting ourselves as objective journalists; we are sharing our personal opinions on the topics we address (for more on this topic, see Bloggers as Journalists).

What is critical about this sort of opinion blogging is that we freely acknowledge our bias. I have repeatedly informed my readers that this is an opinion blog because I believe that this is important for them to know. The scenario I think we all want to avoid is the one in which someone conceals his or her bias and feigns objectivity. This should erode trust.

There are plenty of situations where we expect much more objectivity that what we are likely to encounter from opinion bloggers. We hope that scientists strive to reduce bias and promote objectivity. In part, this is because we recognize the importance of what they are doing and the consequences associated with undetected bias in their work. We bristle when a journalist writes a one-sided hit piece (for a recent and unfortunate example of what this looks like, see Richard Dawkins: Atheism's asset or liability). We see how misleading such an article can be when sources are selected because they confirm a particular viewpoint, and we are understandably skeptical of the work such a journalist might produce in the future.

We recognize that there are scenarios in which bias is warranted because of the overwhelming data on one side and lack of evidence on the other. But then again, following the data isn't really bias at all, is it? It doesn't make much sense to claim that we are biased in favor of evolution over creationism. Some questions have been answered.

For those of us writing personal blogs, I think it is desirable to make an effort to avoid bias where it makes sense to do so and to disclose our bias when it cannot or should not be avoided. I do not think that most opinion bloggers need to began every sentence with "In my opinion," but it can be helpful to remind one's audience from time-to-time that they are reading an opinion blog. The burden is higher for a journalist. At least, it should be if they expect to be taken seriously.

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August 7, 2014

Time For Reeducation Camps?

Hemant Mehta (Friendly Atheist) is working on a new book, and it seems that not everybody is happy about it.


From what I can tell after reading as much of the outrage as I could stand, the primary complaint seems to be that by using an analogy in which he compares some sort of god with a perpetrator of domestic violence, he is being insensitive to the victims of domestic violence. In essence, victims are being exploited to criticize religion. Another line of attack I've seen is simply that the book contains depictions of women in abusive situations and that this is inherently problematic.

As you know, Hemant found himself in hot water recently for posting a video made by The Amazing Atheist. Bad Hemant! Hopefully someone will be able to "talk some sense into" him so that he does not continue to express himself in ways that some people do not like. Hemant must learn to please everybody all the time.

Okay, so maybe that isn't realistic. Nobody can please everybody all the time. How about if we just focus on learning to please the relatively small but extremely vocal portion of our overall audience that might be described as social justice warriors? Surely, they are the very people needed to talk some sense into us.

When Atheist Gatherings Are Too Church-Like

First Baptist Church, Hope Valley RI

 JT Eberhard (What Would JT Do?) recently wrote a post defending his love of something called KC Oasis. I am not familiar with this group, but based on his description, it sounds like a fairly well-organized atheist/humanist/skeptic community in Kansas City. He really enjoys it, and that's great. I'm happy that he found it. What got my attention was not anything JT said about the group itself but what he had to say about atheists who avoid groups we consider overly church-like.
So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised when a friend told me tonight that she doesn’t like going because it’s too much like church. I’ve heard this from other atheists. Personally, it perplexes me. I associate church with believing things for shitty reasons, not with music.
My suggestion to JT and anyone else feeling perplexed by this would be to ask those saying it to identify what reminds them of church and whether they enjoy any of the activities they associate with church in other non-church contexts. Perhaps they associate different things with church. Different people are bound to have different associations based on their personalities and their experiences.

August 5, 2014

Purging the Atheist Community of Content We Don't Like

Let's get hypothetical for a moment. Suppose that there's an atheist out there somewhere making YouTube videos. This video blogger has been at it for several years, and he's put together roughly 500 videos so far. As would be true of anyone producing content of any kind, we have to expect variable quality. But in this case, we are going to assume much more variability than usual. If we were to take the time to watch every one of the 500 videos, we might conclude the following:
  • 25 of the videos are outstanding, genuinely good atheist content most of us would enjoy.
  • 25 of them are truly vile, containing a mixture of hurtful rape jokes and blatant misogyny.
  • The rest are what we might consider average atheist videos, some better than others but none awful or outstanding.
This is all hypothetical so far. The description of the content is hypothetical, and all these numbers are completely made up.

There are a couple of interesting questions we might consider at this point:
  1. Should the presence of the 25 vile videos obliterate the value of the 25 really good ones?
  2. Should one should condemn the video blogger's entire body of work on the basis of the 25 vile videos?
Now we'll move on to something a little bit less hypothetical.

August 4, 2014

Policing the Atheist Community

Australian Mounted Police Victoria-edit1

I have used the phrase "atheist community" many times to refer to all of us who identify as atheists. A couple of years ago, I wrote:
When I refer to the atheist community, I am using the term in a global way to characterize all of us who identify as atheists. If you identify yourself as an atheist, you are part of the atheist community. This is true even if you never engage in activism, meet with other atheists, or do anything whatsoever to call attention to your atheism.
I noted that the only real requirement for entry into the atheist community is that one identify as an atheist. I recognized that while most of us have at least a few things in common besides atheism, there will always be exceptions. It doesn't sound like much of a community, does it? I've found it to be a useful term, much less cumbersome than "atheists who identify themselves as atheists" would be, but I acknowledge that it is flawed in some important ways.

One of the problems with the term is that "atheist community" makes it sound like we resemble other communities in ways we do not. We have no structure. There are no recognized leaders. It has never been terribly clear that there are people occupying different roles or performing different functions. And what of shared values? Even the few goals that are shared my many of us are far from universal. There are no rules in this community that are specific to it, not even universally accepted minimum standards of behavior.

August 3, 2014

Time to Stop Watching the Discovery Network Channels

Discovery HQ Shark Week 2012
Discovery HQ Shark Week 2012 (Photo credit: Glyn Lowe Photoworks.)
Did you enjoy Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey when it aired on television? Based on the number of favorable mentions the show received in the online atheist community, I'll assume that many of you did. It was refreshing to see something factual on our TV sets for a change, wasn't it? I remember watching the first episode of Cosmos and thinking how nice but unfortunately rare it was to see something on TV aimed at getting kids interested in science.

Cosmos seemed to find a solid balance between providing factual information and being at least somewhat entertaining. Maybe "entertaining" isn't the best word; I like "stimulating" better here. In any case, I remember thinking that I'd really like to see much more of this sort of thing (i.e., shows that present factual content to inform viewers).

For those of us who liked Cosmos, it makes sense that we'd want it to succeed and that we'd like to encourage more shows like it. And yet, it seems like this is really only half the battle because we are also up against a number of channels that regularly broadcast absolute nonsense masquerading as factual information. And given the sorry state of scientific literacy, skepticism, and critical thinking found in much of their audience, that is a problem.

August 1, 2014

Atheist Blogs Inspire Me

English: The choir of Lambrook School circa 19...
The choir of Lambrook School circa 1960/61 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
There is a question that I can almost guarantee every atheist blogger has asked at one point or another: am I just preaching to the choir? We suspect that most of our readership is made up of atheists (and Christian trolls), but we can never be sure who is reading or where any given reader might be in his or her journey.

We know that we are mere specks in an atheist/skeptical/humanist/secular blogosphere that grows larger by the day, and so it is natural that we might wonder about our audience. Why do those who read what we write do so? What do they get out of it? What keeps them coming back?

I can answer the question of why I personally read the atheist blogs I read in a word: inspiration. I read the atheist blogs I read because they inspire me. I read them because they make me think, challenge me to ask questions I am not currently asking, and consider different ways of looking at the world. They inspire me in many different ways. And yes, this still happens daily even though I've been an atheist who reads atheist blogs for some time.

I do think that most of us, myself included, could do a better job of reaching out to people who do not currently identify themselves as atheists. We could certainly do a better job of treating them civilly when they do surface on our radar. Nothing I've said here should be interpreted as suggesting that I think reaching out to a wider audience is undesirable. But maybe preaching to the choir isn't so bad when you are inspiring the choir.

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