April 30, 2013

Shunning Justin Vacula

Justin Vacula
Justin Vacula is no stranger to controversy. He is an atheist activist who has received national media attention for his efforts to defend the separation of church and state in Pennsylvania. That is more than enough to make him a controversial figure to many religious individuals. But Justin has generated even more controversy within the atheist movement by being publicly critical of a few of the bloggers who write for Freethought Blogs and Skepchick. His tell-it-like-it-is attitude has earned him many enemies among these bloggers and their supporters. You may recall that Justin was one of those who received DMCA complaints from Skepchick blogger, Surly Amy.

The controversy surrounding Justin peaked - or so I thought at the time - when some of the bloggers on the Freethought Blogs network and their supporters pressured the Pennsylvania state chapter of the Secular Coalition for America to remove Justin as co-chair. Stephanie Zvan launched an online petition demanding that the Secular Coalition remove Justin, prompting him to resign. While there were a few relevant lessons to come out of this debacle, the primary one appears to have been the one so eloquently summarized by a commenter (KickSexistsOutOfAtheism) on one of the blogs celebrating their victory:
I hope the supporters of Justin realise that we can intimidate people like him out of his position. It sends out a strong signal to the rest of the community.

We will come after you as well, if you are a misogynist. We will launch petitions to harass you. We will get you in the end.

There is no room for people like Vacula in our community Let this be a lesson.
At the time, I speculated that this comment was a Poe. I now think I was probably wrong. In any case, I was definitely wrong to think that Justin's removal as co-chair was the peak of the controversy surrounding him.

April 29, 2013

Being Quoted Accurately is Not Harassment

Français : Some many tweets for the Communicat...
Some many tweets for the Communicating the Museum conference ! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have never used Storify, so it is entirely possible that what I am about to write is based on a misunderstanding of how it works. But I think I'm on track here and have at least a basic idea of what it does. Storify appears to be a web-based service one can use to compile bits of media from across the web to publish and share with others. I see it being used quite a bit in the online secular community to display Twitter conversations.

For reasons that escape me, some people seem to become extremely upset when someone else uses Storify to display their tweets, so much so that the person using Storify is accused of "harassment," "bullying," "stalking," or worse. I have seen many of these accusations from the Freethought Blogs/Skepchick/Atheism+ crowd, including some of the bloggers themselves, and I am sincerely puzzled as to what is going on here. I've seen posts in which my own tweets have been included in conversations posted via Storify, and I've never been remotely bothered by it. What am I missing?

Question Everything

Question everything. Think for yourself, and keep asking questions. Accept nothing purely on the basis of someone's appeal to tradition or authority. "Because that's how we've always done it" is not an acceptable explanation for continuing to engage in a behavior. "Because I said so" is not an acceptable answer to any question. These are efforts to stifle free inquiry. Do not accept them.

When someone tells you that a particular subject - any subject - cannot be questioned, do not accept it. Push back. Ask why you are being discouraged from thinking. We learn by asking questions. We think in terms of questions. Let nothing be off limits to free inquiry. Nothing.
  • Question religion, and question atheism too.
  • Question your government, especially those you think are on "your side."
  • Question yourself, as none of us are free from bias, irrationality, or weakness.

April 27, 2013

Catholic Hospitals Are Scary Prospect

A physician visiting the sick in a hospital, G...
A physician visiting the sick in a hospital, German engraving from 1682 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Hospitals are not exactly fun places. Going there typically means that there is something terribly wrong with you or someone you love. The stakes are incredibly high, and while we do not like to think about it, each of us is almost certain to spend more time than we would like in a hospital during the course of our lives.

As someone who already has an irrational fear of hospitals, I could tell by the title of Sara Lin Wilde's (Friendly Atheist) recent post, Why Catholic Hospitals Should Scare You, that I would not need much convincing. It turns out I was right.

Sara's post describes a trend where Catholic organizations are merging with previously non-religious hospitals and imposing strict adherence to Catholic doctrine on the resulting institutions. And of course, the imposition of Catholic doctrine is not limited to Catholic patients but apply to anyone receiving care in the hospital.
The implications for patient care can be very serious, especially if you’re a woman or an elderly person… but many people don’t know about the possible ramifications until it’s too late.
She notes that Catholic hospitals often have a way of placing the teachings of their church over the freedom of their patients to make medical decisions and that this can impact the quality of care received.

The implications are obvious when it comes to reproductive health, but Sara also discusses some of the ways in which Catholic doctrine can influence end-of-life care. This was the part I found most troublesome. As if the thought of having to make end-of-life decisions for an aging parent was not difficult enough, it sounds like some viable options could simply be removed in some Catholic hospitals because they happen to conflict with church teaching.

Sara makes two particularly disturbing points in her post that I found worth highlighting: (1) Catholic hospitals can and do place religiously-based restrictions on all patients, including non-Catholics; and (2) those of us living outside of large urban areas may not have the option of seeking care elsewhere because we may not have access to other hospitals. That is more than enough to scare me.

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April 26, 2013

Secular Woman and the Abort Theocracy Campaign

Abort Theocracy

Secular Woman gained some negative attention recently for their refusal to sign on to the open letter to the secular community on incivility. In reading their rationale for this decision, I understand that they did what they thought was in their organization's best interests, but I believe it was a mistake. It made them look like they were placing a dogmatic ideology ahead of secularism, and I imagine this will alienate many who might otherwise support them. Secular Woman is making news again with their new Abort Theocracy campaign, and the early reactions have not been particularly positive.

April 24, 2013

Should Atheists Be Expected to Repudiate Stupid Statements from Prominent Atheists?

Pat Robertson
Paparazzo presents a photo of televangelist Pat Robertson taken during his February 12, 2006 Operation Blessing visit to Victory Fellowship Church in Metairie, Louisiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a prominent Christian figure, such as Pat Robertson or Bill Donohue, says something incredibly stupid, what are you certain to hear from atheists? You will hear us call on the liberal to moderate Christians to repudiate their comments. We know the liberal and moderate Christians do not agree with them, and their silence drives us crazy because we see it as enabling the extremism to continue. I think we are correct here. If faith can serve as acceptable justification for their beliefs, it can justify the extremists' beliefs. And so, we repeatedly call on the liberal and moderate Christians to disown their extremist brethren. If they really want us to believe that the extremists do not represent them, we insist, they need to stand up and publicly say so.

Suppose a moderate Christian responded to us by explaining that the reason he or she is not doing this is that to do so might lend credibility or attention to the extremist. Would we accept this as a reasonable excuse? I don't think we would. I think we would point out that the extremist already has an audience and that letting him or her continue to make outrageous statements without expressing disagreement makes it look like there is minimal disagreement. I do not think we would let the moderate Christian off the hook here; I think we'd still want him or her to repudiate what the extremist said.

April 23, 2013

The Inevitability of Terrorism: A Role for the Reality-Based Community

Cabinet Terrorism Drill
Cabinet Terrorism Drill (Photo credit: MDGovpics)
I did not follow the recent tragedy in Boston very closely, mostly because I am no longer watching television news. I caught bits and pieces on NPR, Twitter, and other atheist blogs. I was interested to see how quickly some blamed the bombing on atheism - this happened well before there were any suspects. Of course, even more were quick to blame Al Qaeda. It seems that in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, assigning blame is the top priority for some, even to the point where it is more important than conducting any sort of investigation.

I am aware of the controversy over whether the suspect who survived should be declared an "emery combatant" and stripped of all rights or tried in the criminal justice system, you know, like what would happen if the U.S. still bore any resemblance to the just nation we claim it is. But this is not what I want to address here. Instead, I'd like to look ahead to the next attack, the one after that, and the one after that. You see, I believe that incidents like this are part of our future, and I'd like to suggest that we in the reality-based community seek to combat hastily made decisions based on raw emotion with a calm, reasoned approach.  

April 22, 2013

Less Angry After Turning Off the Cable News

Ben Affleck at the MSNBC studios on the set of...
Ben Affleck at the MSNBC studios on the set of The Rachel Maddow Show (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I started an experiment of sorts back in December of 2012. I turned off the cable news I had been watching nightly (mostly the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC). I missed it for a few days but have not watched it since. I stopped writing my politically oriented blog in January and opted not to renew the domain. In the same month, I gradually stopped watching the only other television news program I had been watching nightly - the PBS NewsHour. I have watched it maybe three times since then. And finally, I stopped reading the large collection of political blogs and websites I have in my RSS reader. These changes have had a real impact, some of which was quite unexpected.

Admittedly, I do somewhat less informed about current U.S. and international news. But only somewhat. I manage to pick up quite a bit from NPR, Twitter, and the atheist blogs I read. It has actually been a bit of a surprise to discover that I do not feel much less informed than I do.


The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) passed the U.S. House of Representatives and is heading for the Senate. Learn about why it must be stopped, and join me in taking action.

April 21, 2013

The Process of Embracing Atheism

Bertrand Russell
Bertrand Russell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
For most atheists I have had the pleasure to know, leaving behind the religion in which one was raised in exchange for atheism in anything but sudden. It does not usually happen in response to a particular event, it is rarely associated with hating gods, and it is best thought of as a gradual process that unfolds over years. I am sure there are exceptions to this pattern, but I find it consistent with what I have heard from most atheists.

For me, the process of transitioning from Christian to atheist took a few years and really was a process. It looked something like this:
  1. Doubts about the religious beliefs I had been raised to accept gradually emerged. These doubts were fueled by my education (both formal and informal), the observance of countless instances of hypocrisy by Christians, and the recognition that there was nothing responding to my prayers or any evidence of the supernatural.
  2. I attempted to resolve these doubts through a combination of reading pro-Christian material, prayer, and asking questions of my family. This produced nothing satisfactory and left me with even more questions.
  3. I begin to realize that I no longer believed that there were any gods or other supernatural entities out there. I fought against this realization as hard as I could for as long as I could because it terrified me. I had no idea what an atheist was, and I didn't know anybody else who did not believe. I felt alone and was convinced that there must be something terribly wrong with me.
  4. In reading many of the classics of Western philosophy after hearing about some philosophers who sounded interesting from a high school teacher, I learned that people had been questioning gods for at least as long as they had been writing. I discovered Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects, and I finally realized that I was not alone in my lack of religious belief.
  5. I informed my immediate family that I no longer believed in gods. I did not use the atheist label yet because I still wasn't completely sure what it meant.
This was not the end of my journey to atheism by any means. I had tentatively started using the atheist label by the end of high school, but I often found myself hoping I was wrong well into college. It was not until I took several courses in philosophy and religion during college and got to know other atheists that I became truly comfortable applying the atheist label to myself.

I think we do people a disservice when we suggest that every rational person should embrace atheism without hesitation or when we impatiently urge others to profess their atheism. Everyone will have a different journal, and some will take awhile. I like to think that those of us who are writing about atheism may be assisting with or even accelerating someone else's journey, but it is still theirs to make and the pace that works for them.

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April 18, 2013

Prayer in School: Why Isn't Silent Prayer Good Enough?

English: Young girl prays before eating school...
Young girl prays before eating school lunch of soup, milk, and an apple. 1936. Part of U.S. Works Progress Administration Surplus Commodities: School Lunch Programs during the Great Depression. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been thinking about the issue of school prayer quite a bit lately as a result of the new law we have here in Mississippi aimed at promoting it. Conservative politicians, pundits, and evangelical fundamentalist Christians have apparently decided that virtually all social ills could be solved through a return to formal school-sanctioned prayer such as what we experienced prior to Engel v. Vitale and Abington School District v. Schempp. Many recognize that teacher-led prayer is prohibited, and while some seek to overturn these rulings, others are content to bypass them in various ways.

Undoubtedly, the subject of prayer in school is a big one. I'd like to take it up in what is likely to be a series of posts to see if I can shed some light on what remains a confusing and commonly misunderstood topic. I recognize that some religious believers are going to cling to the view that school prayer is a magic solution to nearly every problem, but I hope that far more will come to recognize the ill effects of school-sanctioned prayer and join us in opposing it. This post begins the series by exploring why silent prayer is not sufficient for some religious believers.

April 17, 2013

Compassion for Boston Requires No God Belief

2013 Boston Marathon
2013 Boston Marathon (Photo credit: soniasu_)
It certainly did not take long for some Christians to blame the Boston bombing on atheists. I was surprised to see so many of Pat Robertson's core audience on Twitter. While some in the mainstream U.S. news media were obsessing about Al Qaeda and not bothering to consider the possibility of a domestic terrorist along the lines of Tim McVeigh, Eric Rudolph, or Jim Adkisson, a sizable group of Christians were blaming the tragedy on atheism, secularism, and "godlessness." While some have managed to convince themselves that the perpetrator(s) must have been an atheist, others prefer the argument that the bombing was divine punishment for the rising tide of secularism.

In spite of their bigotry, I cannot help feeling just a bit sorry for the sort of Christians who would make these outlandish claims. They are scared and confused and are trying to make sense out of their world in the only way they seem to know how - by clinging to the primitive superstitions in which they have been indoctrinated. And yet, I am well aware of the damage this sort of bigotry can produce. This leads me to suggest an alternative to the desperate attempts to reconcile a senseless tragedy with a loving god: perhaps there aren't any gods looking over us.

Freed from the mental gymnastics required to reconcile something that cannot be reconciled, one can devote one's energy to real-world efforts that might make a difference. We can set aside all the god nonsense, roll up our sleeves, and try to help those who need it. Compassion requires no god belief.

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April 16, 2013

Gender Traitors, Sister Punishers, and Chill Girls

wall-hypocrisy- (Photo credit: Wall in Palestine)
There is an obvious objection to my recent post about secular feminists having a point about the use of gendered slurs, and it has already been raised. Some will object that I am presenting an overly favorable view of secular feminists, especially if they think I was referring exclusively to those associated with FtB/Skepchick/Atheism+ and their supporters. They will point out that some of these individuals seem to have their own preferred set of gendered slurs, insults in which some of them seem to delight.

Let me be clear that I do indeed find it unfortunate that some secular feminists use terms like "gender traitor," "sister punisher," and "chill girl" as gendered slurs against women who do not share their particular ideology. It does seem hypocritical to complain about gendered insults aimed at women while using gendered insults aimed at women. And yes, "gender traitor," "sister punisher," and "chill girl" are gendered insults. They are aimed at women who disagree and not at men. And no, I do not support their use either.

April 14, 2013

Improving Your New Atheist Blog

Google Analytics map
Over the years, I have written quite a few posts designed to share tips with other atheist bloggers about what I have learned from blogging. Unfortunately, many of these tips become dated quickly. The atheist blogosphere changes, once effective methods stop working, new social media services appear, etc. With this in mind, I've been trying to decide whether it makes more sense to revise and update old posts or write new ones. This one will be a new one designed to pull together several useful tips for improving your new atheist blog.

My frame of reference for this post assumes that you either have a relatively new atheist blog or that you are finally getting around to asking yourself why you have so few readers, little interaction around your posts, etc. and want to see what you might be able to do to improve things.

April 12, 2013

We Lost Mark Pogue

Mark PogueLong time readers will remember Mark Pogue for his excellent blog, No Godz. It was one that inspired me regularly while he was writing it. And even after he gave it up to devote more time to his family and other pursuits, Mark remained a regular and valued commenter here. He was always eager to share his insights.

I have just been informed by a friend of his that Mark died earlier this week from a heart attack. I'm still shocked by this news, as I was enjoying Mark's contributions on his Google+ account as recently as last week.

Mark was not only a fellow atheist; he was a fellow atheist coping with life in the bible belt. We always had that in common. He was also a great guy and someone I always looked forward to reading. He will definitely be missed, and I am saddened by the news of his departure.

Here is a link to Mark's obituary.

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April 11, 2013

Feminists Have a Point About Gendered Slurs

The Bitch Is Back (Roxanne Shanté album)
The Bitch Is Back (Roxanne Shanté album) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
While I might not agree with them on every issue, I believe that some of the outspoken feminists in the secular community have made some good points about the need for healthier communication and increased civility. The example I'd like to address here involves the sort of gendered slurs (e.g., "bitch," "cunt") frequently directed at women. I think we would all be better off without using such slurs in our communication.

As I have explained previously, I avoid using gendered slurs because they are inflammatory and add no value to any of the conversations I am interested in having. I understand that not everybody is bothered by such words and that their usage varies considerably across cultures (e.g., many of the Brits I know use "cunt" frequently in very different ways than what we are used to in the U.S.). I am not suggesting that everyone must be equally upset by these words; I am suggesting that these words are often directed at women in online communication and used in ways that are intended to be degrading and hurtful.

April 10, 2013

When the Involvement of a Christian Makes Something Newsworthy

reading the bibleI have been looking through some of my old posts from 2005. In some ways, it has been a humbling experience. Many of my early posts were quite poor. But it has also been nice to see how I have developed over the years as a blogger. I have found a few posts that needed to be deleted because they were little more than links to news articles which are no longer available. I have found many others that have given me ideas for future posts. That brings me to this post.

One of the stories that caught my eye in 2005, initially reported in the Tennessean but no longer available online, concerned the host of a Christian radio program in Nashville who was arrested for downloading child pornography from the Internet. In my 2005 post, I asked what made this particular story newsworthy and whether it might have been the implicit assumption that such behavior was out of character for a Christian.

April 8, 2013

Support for Same-Sex Marriage Makes Sense

Same Sex Marriage
Same Sex Marriage (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am neither married nor gay, but I wholeheartedly support same-sex marriage. I would like to see gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered persons have the same rights under the law as heterosexual individuals, and this includes the right to marry. When I have explained my position to those who oppose same-sex marriage, I have tended to provide a rationale similar to the one I give when explaining why I am an atheist. That is, I often explain that I have not encountered one solid argument for why same-sex marriage should be prohibited, much as I have encountered no evidence sufficient to support god belief.

Of course, there is also an important difference between my support for same-sex marriage and my atheism. With same-sex marriage, we are talking about people legally prohibiting something in such a manner as to deprive others of equal rights. In this sense, same-sex marriage is a matter of equality and a civil rights issue. Same-sex couples are being denied the right to do something that opposite-sex couples take for granted. While atheism can certainly be a civil rights issue too, it becomes one when atheists face discrimination and bigotry. The fact of being an atheist, all by itself, does not automatically raise such issues.

April 7, 2013

A Joyful Sunday Morning Without Church

It is Sunday morning, and the weather could not be any better for those who enjoy being outside. It is bright and sunny with not a cloud in the sky and only a slight breeze moving the tree tops. The unbearable heat and humidity of summer in Mississippi is on the horizon but seems remote on a day like today. I will be outside for some yard work as soon as I finish my coffee - not the sort of work I feel I must do but the sort I want to do because I enjoy it.

As I look out my window, I see car after car driving by. Each is covered with the pollen the pine trees dump on us this time of year and filled with uncomfortably dressed families on their way to church. As the neighborhood empties around me, I can't help feeling happy that I am not in one of those cars. I endured that for many years, but I am free now. I'm free to enjoy the day as I see fit without squandering my time on fear-driven magic.

Reason, Emotion, and Atheism

English: Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions
Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
On many atheist blogs, including this one, one can expect to encounter the notion that reason and faith are opposites. In the context of atheism, I suppose that makes sense. Faith is anything but rational, and reason needs no faith. But it is helpful to remember that the opposite of reason in some circles (particularly in the field of psychology) is not faith but emotion. This raises a question in my mind: Do you think that emotion is undervalued among atheists? I think it may be, at least if we focus on what we find in in much of the atheist blogosphere.

I bring this up now for a few reasons. First, I wonder if the preference for reason over emotion, which is evident in much atheist-oriented material, may be a bit off-putting to some. Might it lead some to feel unwelcome? From a strategic standpoint, it seems like we atheists ought to make sure that we are becoming overly sterile or academic in our discourse. This can sometimes happen when reason is placed above emotion, and I will acknowledge that it is a trap I fall into with some regularity.

April 4, 2013

I May Have Been Wrong to Be So Skeptical of Acoustic Treatment

B Room of Supernatural Sound Recording Studio ...
B Room of Supernatural Sound Recording Studio - under construction ... digidesign ProTools HD Soundcraft DC2000 ;monitors KRK V8 YAMAHA NS-10M (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I wrote a post on skepticism in the audiophile community back in August of 2012. I noted that being an audiophile often seems to be antithetical to skepticism; however, I also pointed out that I had found evidence of skeptical currents during my visits to online audio forums. I've continued to explore the hobby of trying to make the music I listen to sound even better, and I've discovered something I hadn't expected: one of the things I considered to be a myth might not be one after all.

I have long known that professionals who work in recording studios utilize acoustic treatment to modify the sound of their recording spaces. What I had not realized until recently is that many home audio and home theater enthusiasts install acoustic treatment in their listening areas too. A number of companies sell this stuff, and it is not cheap. Naturally, I was rather skeptical when I first learned of it.

April 2, 2013

Secular Leaders Address Incivility in the Atheist Community

As you have probably heard by now, a letter was drafted during a recent meeting of the leaders of several major secular organizations. Given the importance of the subjects addressed by the letter to the atheist community, I am reproducing it in its entirety below. While it is not the letter I would have written, I support the bulk of it and hope that it receives a generally positive reception.


An Open Letter to the Secular Community

It is an amazing time to be part of the secular movement. Look at what’s happened in 2012 alone. We held the Reason Rally, the largest event our community has ever had, which brought over 20,000 atheists, humanists, and other secular people together on the National Mall. We are growing, attracting new people, and drawing more attention than ever before. A big part of that growth is thanks to our large and dynamic online community. Online secular communities have helped people encounter new ideas, deepen and broaden their thinking, and even change their minds.

April 1, 2013

Problems With Jesus: Lack of Originality

Rising Mitra
Rising Mitra (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In addition to the low likelihood of a god like the one described in the Christian bible making any sort of sacrifice for humanity, one of the things that has bothered me about the Jesus story ever since I first read some of the pre-Jesus mythology is how unoriginal the story was. Once one has familiarized oneself with Horus, Mithras, Dionysus, and several other predecessors, it strikes me as quite a stretch to confidently regard them as myths while simultaneously accepting the Jesus narrative as fact. There are far too many similarities to avoid the conclusion that the Jesus story was based, at least in part, on prior tales. And if that was not damning enough, it seems that similar myths (which some refer to as prophecies) were widespread throughout the ancient world. Thus, the authors of the Christian bible were almost certainly familiar with them.

Of course, I understand perfectly well that originality is not synonymous with truth. Even if the tale of Jesus was completely original, that would not necessarily make it any more likely to be true. And yet, when one learns just how derivative it was, it becomes quite difficult to see it as anything other than a borrowed myth, a reworking of a previous narrative. It would be a little bit like someone telling you a modern version of the plot from Clash of the Titans and expecting you to take it seriously even though you recognized the source.