June 29, 2014

Richard Dawkins Stirs Up New Outrage on Twitter

You know that moment when you are scrolling through your Twitter feed and see something that makes you think, "Oh boy, this isn't going to end well" or something along those lines? This is what it looks like:

That this tweet from Richard Dawkins was greeted with swift outrage was predictable. The surprise, at least I found it somewhat surprising, was that much of the outrage came from people who do not seem to understand that "social justice warrior" means something very different from "social justice activist" or "social justice advocate."

June 26, 2014

Mubarak Bala Receiving Media Attention

Mubarak Bala
Mubarak Bala with his mother
It took awhile, but Mubarak Bala, the 29 year-old engineer hospitalized against his will in Nigeria for being an atheist, is beginning to receive some attention by the news media. Without looking too hard, I have seen reports from the BBC, The Independent, and the Associated Press in the last couple of days.

I think it helped considerably when the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU) looked into the case and spoke with individuals in Nigeria. This should help to reduce the understandable skepticism many had about a situation that began with emails from Nigeria.

The picture now emerging from Nigeria is not a pleasant one. According to the IHEU, Bala's attorney has confirmed that he has been involuntarily hospitalized and medicated in a psychiatric unit based on the complaint that he is an atheist. They are characterizing this as a human rights violation, which seems appropriate.

The Loss of Privilege

Bumper sticker car parked in Santa Cruz, Calif...
Bumper sticker car parked in Santa Cruz, California. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It makes sense to me that the loss of privilege would be difficult. Even if one doesn't perceive the privilege one has, as is often the case with privilege, I have to think that its sudden loss would likely be noticed. But what sort of privilege could be lost suddenly? As you might have guessed, I am thinking here about Christian privilege for those of us living in the United States and other countries where Christian privilege thrives. There are many things about leaving Christianity behind that I do not miss at all; however, the loss of Christian privilege is one that I do sometimes miss.

If we take a moment and remember what we mean by Christian privilege, the kind of things that we lose by walking away from Christianity become obvious. When I was a Christian, merely telling someone that I was a Christian led them to have positive impressions of me. Upon hearing that I was a Christian, they assumed that I was a moral person, that I shared their values, that I could be trusted, and that we probably had a great deal in common. None of this was necessarily true, but the fact that they assumed it gave me a powerful social advantage. The reactions I would receive from telling someone I was a Christian stand in sharp contrast to what happens today when I tell someone that I am an atheist.

June 25, 2014

The Point of Atheist Invocations

Invocation by Gustave Doré.
Invocation by Gustave Doré. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
We have seen the following scenario countless times. The Christians who run a local government decide to erect a nativity scene in a public building. They do not expect to encounter any problems, and thanks to Christian privilege, they rarely do. But this time, a group of atheists lobby to add a non-religious display of their own. The government officials now have to decide whether to take down their display or allow those from other groups.

What is the point of the atheist group asking to add their display to the public building? It isn't that the atheist group feels left out and wants to participate in cluttering up the public building with another display, is it? I've always thought that the point was to discourage the Christians in power from continuing to erect sectarian displays. The atheists' aim is to have the government officials decide to eliminate future displays. If they refuse to do so, the atheists will contribute one of their own and hope that many other groups do as well (e.g., Satanists). While this second outcome solves the church-state violation, it is the less desirable of the two. Again, what the atheist group would prefer would be for the officials to decide that there would be no more displays.

When atheists deliver non-religious invocations at government meetings following Greece v. Galloway, isn't their thinking the same? If so, I wish that reports about atheists delivering invocations at local government meetings (see Atheist to offer invocation in N.Y. town at the center of public prayer case for an example) would explain why atheists are doing such a thing.

June 24, 2014

The Atheist Community Isn't About Me

English: Goals Football pitches at Aulton
Football pitches at Aulton (Photo credit: Bill Harrison, Wikipedia)
I often share posts I have enjoyed from other atheist bloggers on social media (e.g., Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Tumblr). When I remember to do so, I also like to share their content on StumbleUpon and Reddit. I do this because I want others to see it. It is one way I can contribute to the flood of material critical of religious belief we atheists have placed on the Internet, and it is a way to promote atheism.

When I encounter content I find interesting, relevant, or thought-provoking, I want to send some traffic to the person who wrote it. Maybe this will help to show them that they are appreciated and help convince them to keep writing great content. But most of all, I share the content of others because I realize that the atheist community, movement, or whatever you prefer to call it is a hell of a lot bigger than me.

On occasion, I am asked why I tweet posts written by others. "Why would you share something you didn't write?" I share it because I think it is worth being seen by others. Maybe it is far better than anything I could have written and it bugs me that the author doesn't have a much larger audience. Maybe I found something inspiring there and just want to promote it. Maybe I'm not sure what I think about it and want to see what others think.

June 22, 2014

Godless Mom Seeking Help to Free Mubarak

MubarakHave you seen the #FreeMubarak hashtag on Twitter and wondered what it was about? According to Godless Mom, a man by the name of Mubarak Bala has been beaten, medicated, and hospitalized in Nigeria for being an atheist.

Evidently, his father decided that atheism is a mental illness and had Mubarak involuntarily hospitalized on the psychiatric unit of Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. Mubarak is reportedly in fear for his life, which is understandable given that he's an atheist in Nigeria. Godless Mom has provided additional information here.

Godless Mom is asking for help in spreading the word about Mubarak and has posted some ideas about how you can help here. In addition, a petition has been started on Change.org.

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The Real Victims of Intolerance

Mike Huckabee in 2007 in Washington, DC at the Values Voters conference
The reactions of conservative Christians in the United States to the issue of same-sex marriage have been interesting to watch. Embarrassing, sick, and twisted, but interesting nonetheless. Here's how JT Eberhard summarized them in a recent post:
The narrative from the anti-gay crowd has been either “We’re not discriminating by insisting gays shouldn’t be able to do what straight people can do!” or “It’s we who are being discriminated against when gay people are allowed to do what we do!” In both cases, discrimination is being treated as the horrible thing everybody acknowledges it to be.
Admittedly, the claim that they are not engaging in discrimination by legally prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying is sufficiently absurd that someone using it can likely be mocked with confidence. We should know by now that the whole "separate but equal" thing doesn't work. As long as opposite-sex couples are going to be allowed to marry, same-sex couples must be allowed to marry. This narrative, while comical, strikes me as much less interesting than the second.

June 20, 2014

Atheist Happiness and Humanity

Smiley from the sMirC-series. laughing
Smiley from the sMirC-series. laughing (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Snowbrush recently wrote a thought-provoking post that is worth a read. He makes many points worth highlighting, but I'll limit myself to mentioning two of them here:
  1. Some atheists are not the "happy atheist" types who celebrate life without gods.
  2. Based on the behavior of many atheists, there is little reason to think that the rise of atheism will necessarily solve many of the problems we like to attribute to religion.
I found his first point quite interesting, but I'm still trying to figure out what to say about it. I have trouble relating to the desire to believe in gods or the pervasive sense of loss related to atheism. At the same time, I have never fit the "happy atheist" image either. When I moved from Christianity to atheism, I did experience a great sense of relief, newfound freedom, and better mental health. For at least a few years, I did feel much happier as an atheist than I had as a Christian.

June 19, 2014

Social Justice Activists vs. Social Justice Warriors

English: Rally for social justice, Beersheba, ...
Rally for social justice, Beersheba, Aug 13 2001 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
When a blogger links to something in a post, he or she assumes that readers follow the link to learn more about the subject. Suppose I were to write, "The meaning of atheism is quite limited." I would assume that anyone curious what I meant by the "meaning of atheism" would see that those words are linked to another page and would click on that link to go to the other page. Bloggers use links like this because it is far more efficient than to have to define terms in every single post. It works quite well most of the time, but there are occasions when it falls apart.

Imagine that a reader who has no idea what atheism means but thinks that he or she knows reads the sentence above. This reader is unlikely to click on the link and will misinterpret the post as a result. Who cares? Much of the time, we do not need to care much. What I want to highlight in this post is a specific example of where this sort of thing can lead to a breakdown in communication.

June 18, 2014

Promoting Atheism

Wonder (emotion)
Wonder (Photo credit: Frode Inge Helland, Wikipedia)
Of the suggestions I made in my Four Things We Can Do To Make More Atheists post, the one about promoting atheism probably requires the most elaboration. I noted in that post that we have done an excellent job of criticizing religious belief and have devoted less effort to the promotion of atheism. When it comes to reaching religious believers who have started to experience some doubt about their faith, I think this task becomes essential. For most people, being right is not going to be enough to persuade them to abandon religion for something as stigmatized as atheism.

I can remember being a Christian, experiencing significant doubts, not knowing what to do, and fighting the doubt as long as I could. I did not have accurate information about atheism or know any other atheists. All I knew was that atheism was to be avoided at all costs. It would have been so helpful at the time to have heard de-conversion stories and to realize that many atheists feel that they benefited from losing their religion.

June 17, 2014

Proselytizing Mormons Peeking in My Windows

A door in Topkapi palace
A door in Topkapi palace (Photo credit: j0sh (www.pixael.com))
My feelings about the door-to-door proselytizing in which many evangelical fundamentalist Christians engage are extremely negative. I tend to interpret these knocks on my door as an invasion of my privacy. When I am home, with the little free time I have, the last thing I want is to do is interact with evangelical Christians. When they come knocking, it feels intrusive. And in spite of everything I have tried, I continue to receive occasional visits from Southern Baptists, Mormons, and Jehova's Witnesses.

I've done more than enough complaining about proselytizing, so that won't be the focus of this post. Instead, I want to address how many of these Christians behave when they come to my door.

I figure that I should have the right not to have to open my door for anyone, especially if I am in the middle of doing something and do not want to be disturbed by something so ridiculous as someone's religious beliefs. Thus, I often try to ignore the knocks. I assume that the person who knocks will leave when I do not answer the door. Unbelievably, I have found that this is almost never what happens. Time-and-time again, these Christians continue knocking, knock louder, and ring the doorbell repeatedly. On a couple of occasions, they have hit (or kicked) my front door so forcefully that I thought it might result in damage. And just last week, I actually caught a pair of Mormons peeking in my windows!

June 16, 2014

Different Opinions Are Often Thought-Provoking

Thinking (Photo credit: Moyan_Brenn DeLight (back again))
I have referenced the writing of Chris Stedman (Faitheistheist at Religion News Service) here a few times. I enjoy reading Chris' work even though I disagree with much of what he says. Wait, what? No, that was not a typo. I enjoy much of Chris' work not because I agree with it but because I find it thought-provoking. Sure, sometimes this means that it provokes me to think about why I disagree with him on some point. But even in those cases, I find that it usually provides me with some insight into a fairly different way of looking at religion.

I think it is good for us to be exposed - or to expose ourselves - to ideas different from our own. Those of us who are atheists living in religious areas may feel like we get more than enough of this from religious believers; however, there is great diversity within the atheist community itself. It can be helpful to explore that, as we are probably more likely to learn something of value from people who are not mirror images of ourselves.

June 13, 2014

Praying for the Trivial

Hemant Mehta with Victoria OsteenWhen Christians pray to their god, what do they say? I suspect the answers are quite diverse. Ask 20 Christians, and you'll probably get 20 different answers. But it is an interesting question because how an individual Christian answers probably reveals something about how he or she views the god in which he or she claims to believe.

I have had Christians angrily insist that they would never dare to pray for trivial things. "God is not some sort of genie," they exclaim. "Prayer doesn't work like that!" Some really seem to take offense at the idea that they might pray for things that were not earth-shattering in importance.

And yet, this refusal to pray to trivial things (or at least to admit that one prays for trivial things) is not universal. Some Christians, it seems, are perfectly willing to admit that they ask their god for all sorts of trivial things. Perhaps some Christians are comfortable with the god-as-genie notion after all.

June 12, 2014

Some Small Parts of the Atheist Movement May Be a Joke

The meme that the atheist movement is a joke is quickly gaining popularity in the atheist social justice warrior crowd. Here is one of many recent examples of what one now finds with some regularity on Twitter:


In other words, "anybody who disagrees with me should just fuck off." Maybe I was wrong to dismiss the claim that the atheist movement is a joke as quickly as I did. Maybe there is something to this. I'll get to that, but first, I'd like to share some general reactions here.

First, I think that Matt Dillahunty was correct that characterizing the atheist movement as a joke is a "grossly unfair generalization" in this exchange. This point about it being an unfair generalization was what I sought to examine in the previous post I wrote about this subject. Still, Dillahunty did not go far enough, and neither did I.

June 11, 2014

Criticizing Religious Belief

I am a sensitive artist
I am a sensitive artist (Photo credit: kevin dooley)
I had not initially planned to write follow-up posts to my Four Things We Can Do To Make More Atheists post, but I have decided that I'd like to do so. This one focuses on the first of my four suggestions for what we can do, as individuals and collectively, to make more atheists: criticize religious belief.

As I mentioned previously, I think that we have been doing this very well and we've certainly been at it awhile. We have effectively flooded the Internet with material criticizing religious belief. In so doing, we have made it far more likely that a religious believer will encounter material critical of his or her religion than ever used to be the case. What I want to do here is expand a bit on what this can look like and mention what it probably shouldn't look like.

Consider the Audience

I think that it makes sense to aim content critical of religious belief at each of two fairly different audiences. First, we have religious believers who have not yet experienced significant doubt. Some have been sheltered by others who have control over them, and others are sheltering themselves because they have been taught that doubt is evil and will lead to hell. Assume that much of this audience has not encountered significant criticism of their beliefs, and this may mean that they have never given much thought to their beliefs. They may think that everyone believes as they do (a foundational aspect of religious privilege).

June 10, 2014

Liberation Atheology

Austin Cline (About Agnosticism/Atheism) wrote an excellent post back in April that I have been meaning to share since I first read it. In "Goals of Liberation Atheology: What Should Liberation Atheology Strive For?" he posed a fascinating question about the goals of atheists when it comes to liberating ourselves from various aspects of religion. He tackles the most likely objection to come from other atheists right at the start by asking whether it even makes sense for atheists to have goals.
Atheism is not an ideology, world view, belief system, philosophy, or anything similar. This does not mean, however, that atheists as individuals or even as groups cannot have goals, desires, intentions, or agendas. These goals can't be a part of atheism per se, but they can be part of what atheists do individually and collectively. Thus questioning why atheists would have goals means questioning why atheists would ever do anything politically, either as individuals or as groups. It presumes that atheists don't care about improving society, politics, culture, economics, etc., which is a bigoted presumption against atheism. Of course atheists care, which means atheists can, will, and should act politically.

June 9, 2014

Speech to Text Software for Blogging

For those of you who are bloggers, have any of you tried using speech to text software when you write blog posts? I'm not quite sure why I have been thinking about it lately; it might just be the opportunity to try something different. I am using the dictation capabilities built-in to the Mac operating system to dictate this post. It works fairly well for what it is, but I have been thinking about trying one of the more advanced products from Nuance.

I have never been able to type very quickly or accurately, and there is something appealing about being able to write a post as fast as I can speak it. The accuracy of even this basic speech to text function is fairly impressive. I expected I'd see a few errors by now, but nothing yet. Adding punctuation as I speak - even though I am not at all used to doing so - is proving to be much easier than I thought it would be. So far I have to say that the experience of speaking a post aloud rather than typing it is fairly different than what I'm used to. I wonder if I'd be able to write more in less time if I got used to it.

June 8, 2014

Mischaracterizing the Atheist Movement

Feminist Suffrage Parade in New York City, May...
Feminist Suffrage Parade in New York City, May 6, 1912. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some errors in reasoning are innocent in that they are unintentional and made out of ignorance. When we engage in confirmation bias, overgeneraiztion, dichotomous thinking, and the like, we do not always realize we are doing so. We may only realize our error in hindsight or when others bring it to our attention. Assuming we are serious about striving to be more rational, this can be a corrective process. But not all of us strive to be more rational. Some of us have very different motives for what we do or say. We may refuse to acknowledge our errors in reasoning, and in some cases, what appear to be errors might even be intentional tactics to accomplish other goals (e.g., provocation, attention-seeking).

Suppose that a major newspaper such as The New York Times ran a story about a national feminist organization firing their director after a couple employees were caught embezzling funds. Now suppose that I were to tweet something like the following with a link to the story:
hahahaha the feminist movement is such a joke
I'd be guilty of overgeneralization, wouldn't I? The fact that this one organization fired their director or that a couple employees broke the law is inadequate to support my characterization of the entire feminist movement. Even if I had solid evidence that this organization was thoroughly corrupt at every level, it is still just one organization. Even this would not be sufficient to paint the entire movement as a joke. It is difficult to imagine that anybody would rush to my defense if I was to publicly say something so ridiculous.

If I were to make such a statement, I would have to expect that I might hear some disagreement from at least a few of the people who were part of the feminist movement I had just mischaracterized. I'd have to expect that they would take issue with my statement. Some would undoubtedly feel that I had just insulted them and everything they have worked for. I'd owe them an apology.

June 5, 2014

The Worst Thing About Christianity

Christian views on Hell
Christian views on Hell (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you were to ask me once a day for seven consecutive days what I thought the single worst thing about Christianity was, you might get seven different answers. There are many bad things about Christianity, and settling on just one or even trying to list several would be challenging. But if you were to ask me this question right now, the answer you'd get would focus on the fear of one's own mind instilled by Christianity.

Although I was raised in a Protestant denomination that was neither evangelical nor fundamentalist and was what I'd describe as liberal-to-moderate, this fear was instilled in me from an early age. The path to salvation - the only path to salvation - was found in belief and not in acts. To escape hell, one had to believe. Good acts were encouraged, but they would not be enough. Belief was the key. Without belief, hell was one's final destination.

It did not take me long to discover a couple of hard truths about the human mind. First, I sometimes had thoughts and images pop into my mind that did not seem voluntary. I might be daydreaming and have a scary or disturbing image pop into my head. I didn't want it there, but there it was. I know now that this is a common experience, and the point is simply that we are not 100% in control of our thoughts 100% of the time. Even today, I sometimes have thoughts I don't particularly like or wish I didn't have. I did not understand this at the time, and it used to terrify me that these thoughts or images might be "unholy." This fear was reinforced at church. As I neared adolescence, some of them involved the sorts of sexual content I was told was unacceptable for good Christians. Thoughts over which I had no control could send me to hell, and that was terrifying.

June 4, 2014

4 in 10 Americans are Creationists

Creationist car

As you've undoubtedly heard by now, Gallup came out with some depressing news this week:
More than four in 10 Americans continue to believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago, a view that has changed little over the past three decades.
Pause for a moment to reflect on all the other changes we have witnessed over the past three decades. And yet, creationism remains quite stable with Gallup's most recent poll showing that 42% of Americans reported that some sort of god created humans in our present form.

June 3, 2014

Why People Hate Atheists

reflection (Photo credit: greg westfall.)
Should we respect racist beliefs? How about sexist or misogynist beliefs? Homophobic beliefs which justify the hatred of LGBT persons? How about Holocaust denial? Suppose we decided that we should respect all of these beliefs. What would that say about us?

If we decide that we are not interested in respecting such beliefs, does that make us any less "nice" or any less tolerant of others? Of course not! These beliefs are harmful, and suggesting that they warrant respect is ludicrous. This is evident to most of us right up until religion enters the picture, and then some people find things far less clear.

While perusing Tumblr recently, I saw a post titled "This is why a lot of people hate atheists." It seems that an atheist parent was unhappy to receive a permission slip from his child's school to attend a Christian presentation on the origins of Easter. He responded to the school chaplain by expressing how little he thought of the Christian faith in a very funny way. You can see the permission slip and the subsequent email exchange here (update: it appears that this content was deleted for some reason).

June 2, 2014

Traffic Drop During a Blogging Break

English: a chart to describe the search engine...
English: a chart to describe the search engine market (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As regular readers know, I was away for a bit recently. Specifically, I did not post between May 15 and May 24. When a blog suddenly stops posting, traffic plummets, right? I figured it might be fun, at least for the bloggers among you, to take a look at some Google Analytics data and see what happened.

I selected two weeks for comparison:
  1. May 7 through May 14, the week before my break
  2. May 15 to May 22, my first week without writing any new posts
Was there a significant difference in traffic between these weeks? Yes. Between May 7 and May 14, Google Analytics reports 22,973 pageviews. Between May 15 and May 22, this dropped to 15,472 pageviews. Clearly, there was a drop. It was not as dramatic a drop as I might have predicted, but it was certainly a drop.

June 1, 2014

Be Cautious When Applying Social Pressure to Shape Discourse

English: Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and ...
English: Los Angeles Lakers Magic Johnson and Boston Celtics Larry Bird in Game two of the 1985 NBA Finals at Boston Garden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the United States today, using racial slurs is not a criminal offense. As distasteful as most of us find the use of such words, we have stopped short of criminalizing their use. Calling someone a racial slur will not generally land someone in jail (although doing so while committing a criminal offense might trigger hate crimes legislation). Given that the use of racial slurs is legal for the most part, why don't we hear far more of them in our day-to-day lives? The answer, at least in part, is that so many of us deem the use of such words as unacceptable that there is now considerable social pressure discouraging their use.

When a public figure uses a racial slur or makes disparaging comments aimed at a racial group, the news media often covers it, and we typically pay attention. The comments are greeted by public outrage, and this outrage serves as a deterrent against others making similar statements. Even if the owner of another NBA team were to share the views of Donald Sterling, he or she would probably be more careful about expressing them now.

I have spoken out repeatedly against political correctness. I do not care for the manner in which it has resulted in efforts to police what others say, particularly in the modern incarnation we see today among social justice warriors. I generally oppose efforts to silence people, as I believe that more communication is generally preferable to less. Efforts to restrict free expression make me very nervous, including those that fall well short of censorship. This includes efforts to restrict the expression of speech I do not like and would prefer did not exist.