September 30, 2013

The Hammer of the Social Justice Warrior

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.
- Abraham Maslow (1962), Toward A Psychology of Being

You have undoubtedly heard this quote or one of its many variants. Lately, I have come to suspect that it may have applicability to much of what we have seen from some of the social justice warriors in the atheist movement. Their hammer appears to be angry accusations of sexism, misogyny, harassment, and abuse. It is a hammer capable of doing real damage, as many of those hit with it are not sexists, misogynists, harassers, or abusers of any sort. Their "offense" is disagreement.

Even polite, respectful expressions of disagreement bring the hammer. Not sure you want to take their side and accept their views uncritically? Fine, you're an asshole! You cannot just be a person with a different opinion. No other opinions are valid. You are with them or against them. If you are against them, you are the enemy.

Once you are the enemy, your reputation will be assailed. You see, it is okay to label perceived enemies as "gender traitors," "rape apologists," and "sister punishers." That such accusations are largely unwarranted does not matter. These are enemies, and this is war. Think PZ Myers might have been wrong to post criminal allegations against Michael Shermer? You are blaming the victim and are likely a rape apologist (see Mr. Deity). In fact, if you question PZ's judgment and suggest that due process is valuable when criminal allegations are involved, you are probably only doing so because you are a serial harasser.

We have long been used to seeing behavior like this from Christian extremists. Seeing it from atheists is something I find disconcerting. I should be used to it by now, but I am not. I think that is because I really don't want to get used to it.

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September 26, 2013

The Value of International Perspectives on the U.S.

Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Marylan...
Headquarters of the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland. Español: Instalaciones generales de la NSA en Fort Meade, Maryland. Русский: Штаб-квартира АНБ, Форт-Мид, Мэриленд, США (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the things I've always liked about the Internet in general and social media in particular is how easy it makes it to interact with those outside the U.S. The mainstream media in the U.S. devote relatively little coverage to international issues - except in so far as they affect us directly - and almost zero time to providing international perspectives. Our news media are too busy telling us what to think and pushing what often amounts to nationalistic propaganda to be overly concerned with exposing us to what those outside our borders think about or foreign policy or baffling lack of domestic progress. This is where the Internet comes in.

Here are a few of the things I've learned from interacting with people outside the U.S.:
  • Our excessive militarism is often perceived as short-sighted and dangerous to global stability.
  • Our rampant creationism, fundamentalist religiosity, and anti-science attitudes baffle those living in more enlightened nations. We have so much potential being squandered on superstition.
  • Our American exceptionalism and blind nationalism suggest that we really do think we are better than everyone else.
  • Our refusal to provide our citizens with universal health care while continuing to allow our people to go bankrupt due to excessive medical costs make us look like savages.
  • Our approach to international law is often perceived as hypocritical (e.g., we prevent our leaders from being punished for war crimes while claiming the moral authority to intervene when others commit acts which similarly violate international norms).
  • Our constant blathering about "freedom" is difficult to reconcile with the reality that our NSA spies on our own people or fact that we incarcerate a far great portion of our population than the nations we are taught to fear for their repressive nature.
  • Our insistence that other countries should adopt a political system most of us complain about as being broken makes little sense.
  • We are often perceived as being hopelessly ignorant, largely because of our widespread superstitious beliefs and lack of interest in learning much of anything about what lies beyond our borders.

September 25, 2013

Boredom Among Atheists

Boredom (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The Thinker (Atheism in the City) recently posted about how the Internet has eroded the experience of boredom. While I disagree with the author's statement that it is no longer possible to be bored, I acknowledge that my experience of boredom has changed quite a bit as a result of the Internet. I experience boredom today far less often than I did in my youth. I attribute this mostly to the fact that I have a long to-do list these days that I can never seem to get ahead of. There are so many things I have to do - whether I want to do them or not - that boredom is a luxury I rarely get to have. However, I do find that the ability to quickly find almost anything on the Internet has further reduced my boredom during those rare moments of down time when it could creep in.

A great example of how the Internet has reduced my experience of boredom involves how I interact with television. Before the Internet, boredom often led to channel surfing, an experience that almost always intensified the boredom. I rarely do this anymore. If I don't quickly find something I really want to watch on TV, I turn the TV off and get on the computer. I simply no longer have the patience to watch something I don't really want to watch.

September 24, 2013

Leaving the Faith: De-Conversion as a Process

Bust Of Bertrand Russell-Red Lion Squ...
Bust Of Bertrand Russell-Red Lion Square-London (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
You know what I love most about the atheist blogosphere? It is when bloggers informally collaborate to extend the conversation. Huh? One blogger writes a thought-provoking post, another then writes a post extending what the first blogger said or taking it in another direction, and so on. When the atheist blogosphere is working well, this is how it works. This is what I like to see.

Staks (Dangerous Talk) has a recent post asking the formerly religious about who or what was instrumental in our de-conversion. My answers have much in common with his own. Like him, the so-called "four horsemen" had zero influence on me because I was an atheist for over a decade before their books were published. Also like Staks, I came to atheism in a time when it was tough to even know where to look to find material on atheism.

I have described how influential Bertrand Russell's Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects was in my de-conversion process and how it was an accidental discovery one day in a used bookstore. I have also written about the role of skepticism in my eventual de-conversion.

September 22, 2013

Lessons for Atheist Leaders From the Republican Party

Ted Cruz at the Republican Leadership...
Ted Cruz at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I recently tweeted something about how the mistakes the Republican leadership have made with regard to how they've tried to handle the far-right extremists at the fringes of their party may hold some lessons for the leaders in the secular community for how to deal with the "social justice warriors" in our midst. In this post, I'll explain what I meant.

The Republican Party's Identity Crisis

In the U.S., the Republican Party has been an uneasy collection of fiscal conservatives and social conservatives for some time. Many of the social conservatives are evangelical fundamentalist Christians, and their presence has been essential to the success of the party. However, it has been necessary for the establishment Republicans (e.g., the more traditional fiscally conservative segment which usually end up holding most of the leadership positions) to reign the social conservatives in from time-to-time. When they are able to do so, they can harness the power of their numbers and energy reasonably well. When they fail to do so, they party starts to look sufficiently fanatical so as to scare away voters. But for the most part, this alliance has been successful.

September 19, 2013

How to Get More Comments on Your Blog

English: comments
English: comments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I often see bloggers asking how to get people to leave more comments on their blogs. It is an excellent question, and I wish I had a clear answer where I could say, "Just do this one thing, and you'll be fine." Unfortunately, I have not yet stumbled upon such a magic bullet. I doubt that there even is one. I will offer some suggestions in this post, but you should realize that they are based only on my experience and may not apply to every situation or blog.

Preliminary Considerations

Try to take a look at your blog as if you are a first-time visitor. Is it readily apparent within 2-3 seconds what your blog is about? Is your blog layout conducive to commenting? Will it be clear to a first-time visitor that you want comments and how to leave one? Is it clear which social media services you use and how to follow your blog? Are your recent posts (or popular posts if you prefer to feature those) positioned well on your sidebar?

September 18, 2013

Policing What Others Say on the Internet

Wikimedia Womens Namecalling
Wikimedia Womens Namecalling (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
One of the issues that often seems to come up on social media these days is whether individuals have any business attempting to police the sort of language used by others. I have seen countless people ask others to stop using certain words and then block them or label them as misogynists because they refuse to do so. Those on the receiving end of this often complain of "censorship" even though this term rarely seems to apply. I can understand how both sides in these disputes feel, and I hate to see them escalate to the point where communication ends. But this was not always true. In this post, I aim to explain how I came to be able to see both sides and what I learned about myself in the process.

As I have written previously, I tend to avoid profanity and gendered slurs in my writing here. I do so not because I am easily offended or overly prudish but because I find that such language adds little value. I will use two potentially offensive words frequently in this post as examples to illustrate what I have learned about how our experience informs the meaning we assign to words and the emotional reactions we have to certain words. These two words are "bitch" and "cunt." If either of both of these words bothers you to the point where you cannot tolerate seeing them on the page, you have been warned.

September 17, 2013

A Skeptic is Charitable

The Kindness of Strangers (Heroes)
The Kindness of Strangers (Heroes) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This is another post in the ongoing series on skepticism. I know it has been awhile since the last one, but my commitment to this topic has not wavered. The post that introduced the series can be found here.

A Skeptic is Charitable in Making Inferences About Others' Intent

I am using "charitable" here to refer to how one interprets the intent of others with whom one is unfamiliar. A rational skeptic recognizes that first impressions may be inaccurate and seeks to avoid making overly negative inferences about the intent of others without sufficient evidence to support such inferences. When a skeptic encounters someone unfamiliar, the skeptic gives him or her a chance and reserves judgment. The skeptic recognizes that there are many ways in which one can misinterpret the statements of others, and so the skeptic is cautious about prematurely dismissing someone or inferring malevolent intent when it may not be present.

September 16, 2013

Atheists Depicted as Unpatriotic and Ungrateful

Dana Perino starting a daily White House press...
Dana Perino starting a daily White House press briefing. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After former White House Press Secretary, Dana Perino, and her colleagues on Fox News' "The Five" spewed forth some anti-atheist bigotry on the air, I wondered whether this sort of thing was any less acceptable than it was when George H. W. Bush did it in 1987. I am not sure we have a clear answer yet, but I was more than a little surprised by the lack of response to this one.

It certainly seems like there are more outspoken atheists now than was the case in 1987; however, our response to these comments was rather mild. I suppose this could be due to our difficulty in coming together because of our infighting, but I'm not convinced this is the main reason or even terribly relevant here. I wonder if we have become so used to this sort of bigotry that we do not notice it as much as we would if it was directed at others. Imagine what would have happened if Ms. Perino had said that she was "tired of" Jews or Blacks and that they should leave the country. I suspect that many atheists would have been even more upset by this than they were by what she actually said, including those who were neither Jewish nor Black.

September 14, 2013

Obama's Speech on Syria

During the recent speech in which he attempted to justify military strikes against Syria, President Obama said:
...when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act. That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional. With humility, but with resolve, let us never lose sight of that essential truth.
In an article for Religion Dispatches, Peter Laarman provided one part of a much-needed response. But before telling you what Laarman said, I need to tell you who he is. Religion Dispatches identifies Laarman as the executive director of Progressive Christians and notes that he has served as the senior minister of Judson Memorial Church in New York. In other words, he is a Christian. Now keep that in mind when you read the following from Laarman:
Here he alludes unmistakably to the hoary and dangerous idea that the United States has a special pipeline to the divine, and vice versa.
Not only does Laarman characterize this insistence that the U.S. has a special relationship to a god - a god in which he presumably believes - as dangerous, he goes on to explain that the American public is tired both of the world cop routine and the idea that we have some sort of "divinely-imparted mission to bring light and truth to the nations." I certainly hope he is right.

I said above that Laarman provided one part of a much-needed response. The second part was provided by The Daily Show with Jon Stewart beginning at about 02:25 of this clip.

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September 12, 2013

Understanding Safe Zone Programs

An LGBT American flag in Philadelphia, Pennsyl...
An LGBT American flag in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I want to take up the topic of the Secular Student Alliance's recent announcement that they are launching a Secular Safe Zone program once again because I think it is important and because I've noted some misconceptions about what such a program entails. Since their announcement indicated that they are basing their program on LGBT safe zone programs and since I have been involved in an LGBT safe zone program at the university level, I thought I'd share some of my experiences to help people unfamiliar with these programs understand them a little better.

I realize that a few of my readers have a negative visceral reaction to "safe zone" because they have heard this term thrown about by the Atheism+ crowd as part of their efforts to police what others say on the Internet. This has next to nothing with what the LGBT safe zone programs are about and what I expect the Secular Safe Zone program will be about. I know the term may have negative connotations for some of you, but please recognize that we are talking about something quite different here.

As I mentioned in my previous post on this subject, the idea behind the LGBT safe zone program in which I participate involves identifying adults (university staff and faculty) who are willing to provide LGBT students with "a friendly ear, support navigating a system which is often hostile to them, or just a safe environment in which they can be themselves." While this brief description may have captured one part of the program, I did not adequately convey the rest of it. So I'd like to try again.

September 11, 2013

The Atheism+ Block Bot vs. Banning Books

Banned Books Week 2006
Banned Books Week 2006 (Photo credit: wanderingone)
When someone tries to ban a book, they are seeking to prevent others from reading it. Such a person considers the contents of the book to be so objectionable - maybe even dangerous - that they wish to prevent others from reading it. Others cannot be trusted to read the book and form their own opinions of it; they should not have access to the book at all. For the parent trying to have a book banned, it is not enough that his or her child will not have access to the book; other people's children must not have access either.

Even if we were to set aside any suggestions of censorship from this discussion for a moment, I think we could agree that our book banning stance seems difficult to reconcile with freethought or skepticism. Freethinkers and skeptics typically encourage people to ask questions, think critically, try new things, and ultimately make up their own minds. Depriving someone of the raw data that would be used to make up one's mind seems inconsistent with skepticism and freethought. Moreover, our book banning scenario smacks of an argument from authority (i.e., I know what's best for you, and I've decided you shouldn't be exposed to that material).

September 10, 2013

Secular Organizations

Freedom From Religion Foundation Logo
Freedom From Religion Foundation Logo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I figured it might be time to update the list of secular organizations I pulled together in 2009 to  see what has changed and determine which ones I find myself most likely to recommend these days. Please note that this is not intended to be a comprehensive list of every secular organization that exists; it is my list, and it includes the organizations I find myself recommending regularly. If your favorite organization is not included here, this is because I am unaware of it, have not noticed much activity from it lately and uncertain whether it is still around, have some other reason for choosing not to recommend it here, or just forgot about it.

September 9, 2013

Allegations of Voter Fraud Concerning the Secular Party of America

English: Ballot Box showing preferential voting
English: Ballot Box showing preferential voting (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Having previously mentioned the National Atheist Party on this blog, I felt I should let you know that allegations of voter fraud have surfaced concerning this organization, now calling themselves the Secular Party of America (Update: link no longer active). In fact, the allegations appear to center around the group's recent name change.

According to Lee Moore (A-News Reports), two individuals previously involved with the organization have come forward to report that the vote by members to approve the requested name change was manipulated. The allegations involve the use of fake email addresses to vote in favor of the name change to make sure it would pass. Moore posted what appear to be messages between the parties involved and a screenshot of what are described as fake email addresses.

I will be interested to see how the Secular Party of America responds to the allegations reported by Moore. Should you see a response from them before I do, please share a link to it in the comments section, and I will be sure to update this post to include it.

Update: It sounds like there may have already been a couple of resignations prompted by Lee's report. This has now been confirmed in a statement released by the Executive Board of the Secular Party of America. And here's a second statement from the Executive Board (Update: links no longer active).

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September 8, 2013

Anti-Atheist Bigotry Then and Now

Anti-Atheist Bigotry Then

During a news conference in 1987, then Vice President George H. W. Bush infamously replied to a question from a reporter with the following:
I don't know that atheists should be regarded as citizens, nor should they be regarded as patriotic. This is one nation under God.
Official portrait of George H. W. Bush, former...
Official portrait of George H. W. Bush, former President of the United States of America. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
This statement would go on to be one of the most quoted examples of anti-atheist bigotry I have seen and would have a great influence on me personally. In fact, I quoted it in the first post I wrote for Atheist Revolution back in 2005. It was in my mind as a started this blog, and it has never strayed far from my awareness in the years since. When I think about giving up or letting "the great rift" burn me out, those words come back and remind me that there is much work left to do.

Interestingly, there have been several attempts to discredit the above quote as inaccurate. Those who are embarrassed by the rank bigotry it reflects want to explain it away or pretend that it never happened. Fortunately, Rob Sherman, the man to whom the statement was made by Bush, obtained documents from the Bush Library in 2006 supporting the authenticity of the quote. It appears that former President Bush did in fact give this bigoted reply.

When Bush uttered those words in 1987, there was a quiet response from American Atheists but little else. There was no massive public outrage, large protests, well organized letter writing campaigns, and the like. But we must remember that we are talking about 1987. If something like this were to happen today, the response would be massive…or would it?

September 6, 2013

Skepchick 'Speakergate' Allegations and American Atheists' Response

Still reeling from the recent "Tabelgate" incident, we have more Skepchick drama in the form of a post about comments allegedly made two years ago by Richard Dawkins to David Silverman (American Atheists) about Rebecca Watson. Here is Sarah Moglia's (Skepchick) description of some of a conversation she claims to have heard two years ago between Dawkins and Silverman:
As I walked the ten feet back, I couldn’t hear everything Dave was saying, but I heard the name “Rebecca Watson.” Richard suddenly had a very angry look on his face and I heard him almost shout, “No, absolutely not! If she’s going to be there, I won’t be there. I don’t want her speaking.” and then Dave immediately replied, “You’re absolutely right, we’ll take her off the roster. It’s done.” Richard huffed for a moment, Dave continued to placate him, and then he made the video.
Not surprisingly, Sarah interpreted what she heard as Dawkins attempting to "keep someone else off the lineup" and Silverman as acquiescing.
Yes, Richard Dawkins is a big draw. Yes, the Reason Rally was (for the most part) successful. But at what cost? Are we okay sacrificing the voices of some people in order to get others involved? Do we have too much of a culture of celebrity, so that we are willing to do things we otherwise wouldn’t do in order to get those celebrities involved? Is this indicative of a mindset that some people’s opinions are more important than others?

September 5, 2013

Christians Carrying the Cross Through Town

Jesus carrying cross
Jesus carrying cross (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have seen my share of strange things since I moved to Mississippi approximately 10 years ago. Even though I had lived in a few different states before ending up here, the culture I found is very different from anything I had previously experienced. Some of the initial shock has worn off, but there continue to be times when I have to shake my head in disbelief over something I have seen or heard.

I find that many of the times when I still feel out of my element or experience a touch of culture shock involve the behavior of the evangelical fundamentalist Christians that are so prevalent here. In this post, I'd like to share an example of one of the common cultural practices I have seen many times but that I continue to find fascinating.

September 4, 2013

Atheism Among University Administrators and Faculty

English: Administration Building of Jagannath ...
Administration Building of Jagannath University (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
An anonymous author writing under the pseudonym "Madalyn Dawkins" recently wrote a fascinating article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about the subject of college and university administrators needing to remain silent about their atheism. The main point of the article is that atheist administrators (and their spouses) must often remain closeted because their jobs would likely be threatened by internal pressure from others within the institution and external pressure from community stakeholders, alumni groups, donors, and the public at large. As someone working in such an environment and subject to some of the pressures described, I could relate to much of what was described.

The Plight of Atheist Administrators

College and university administrators certainly face many pressures, both internal to the institution and external from the public. They occupy positions that are often highly political in nature, and this makes them vulnerable in a number of ways. I have seen what this looks like around subjects like prayer at university commencement ceremonies where an administrator ends the practice after receiving objections from students, staff, and faculty and then faces considerable pressure from the community to restore it. And in this example, we're not even talking about an administrator who discloses that he or she is an atheist. I would like to think that there might be some regions where such a disclosure would barely be noticed, but here in Mississippi is certainly not one of them.

September 2, 2013

Rebecca Watson vs. DragonCon: Biting the Hand That Feeds

Gandalf (DragonCon 2007)
Gandalf (DragonCon 2007) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I am not familiar with DragonCon, but the pictures I have seen from it online make it look pretty damn cool. It appears to be large and diverse convention that includes a hodgepodge of science fiction, fantasy, comics, gaming, and multi-media. It looks like it would be a good time for those who are into such things. Even though I'm not, I can imagine the appeal.

Scanning the list of "attending professionals," I noticed a familiar name: Rebecca Watson. The cynics among you might predict some sort of drama would likely result, and you would probably point out that drama seems to follow Ms. Watson around almost as if she was creating it herself. Shame on you! And yet, it appears that you would be right in this case. The atheist blogosphere, Twitter, and Facebook are buzzing with reports of Ms. Watson's DragonCon drama.

September 1, 2013

Secular Student Alliance Launches Secular Safe Zone Program

Secular Safe Zone

According to a recent press release received from the Secular Student Alliance (SSA), the group has launched a new Secular Safe Zone program with the goal of defending atheist students against religious bullying in their schools. From the release:

With bullying an increasing concern in the nation, one overlooked minority group is about to get help: atheist students. The Secular Student Alliance announced today that it is kicking off the 2013 school year by launching a new program called the Secular Safe Zone. Modeled after the LGBT safe zone programs, the project trains mentors in student communities to create safe, neutral places for students to talk about their doubts without fear of religious bullying.
I think this is an excellent idea and one we should all support.