Category Archives: Atheism

An Open Letter to Ron Lindsay

So Women In Secularism 2 is happening this weekend (live blogging from Miri, Kate and Jason) and unfortunately I was not able to attend. But I’ve been following online, and in an odd twist, CFI President Ron Lindsay decided to open a conference about the under-representation of women in the Atheist Movement by talking about how we need to pay more attention to what men have to say. Rebecca Watson and PZ Meyers have both posted about why this was a problem. So far Lindsay’s main defense seems to be “but that wasn’t what most of my talk was about“.

Dear Ron,

As a general rule, I like to believe that people have the best of intentions, so I do think that you sincerely don’t understand what the problem here was. I’d like to try and explain the reaction to this (admittedly short) part of your speech in terms of a different sort of privilege that I think you will have an easier time understanding.

I suspect that you would agree with me that atheists lack privilege in our Christian-soaked culture. So let’s imagine the following scenario: An atheist conference (pick your favorite), specifically created to bring together a lot of similar-minded people and discuss the usual issues invites as its opening speaker a Christian. Now I’m not talking about a hate-spewing WBC preacher or anything like that; I’m thinking someone with whom we might share goals like separation of church and state, marriage equality, or a woman’s right to bodily autonomy. There are many atheists and Christians alike whose views on these issues line up, just as there are many men who take the feminist position on issues.

So it may seem odd to open an atheist conference with a Christian speaker, but it’s not completely out there.

But then let’s say that speaker devotes a section of their talk to the persecution that atheists face, and begins that section with “Now let me tell you something about persecution…” followed by the usual tone-deaf ravings about how the government is targeting believers. You know the drill. And I’m sure you know why what that speaker is saying is bullshit. I’m also sure you can imagine the kind of uproar you would get from attendees, who paid a not-inconsiderable amount of money to be there. All of this, despite the best intentions of the speaker.

This is essentially what you have done. You have gone before a conference dedicated to giving a voice to women in the movement and told them that they need to spend more time listening to what men have to say. As though it’s possible to live in our society without knowing what men generally have to say. As though it’s possible to live in our society without knowing what Christians generally think.

Now, the meme you’ve described does actually happen. I won’t deny that there are men who are told to “shut up and listen”. But this is good. It asks them to be silent long enough to hear what minority voices (more than one!) have to say. And after that, they’re welcome to bring up any concerns that they have but they need to shut up long enough to let someone bring their voice to the table.

Unless, of course, they just keep bringing up the same point over and over again, never actually responding to what the minority has to say. In which case, they just need to shut up for good.

You were asked for examples of people being told to shut up and listen and the ones that you gave were of what I’ve described above: people being told to shut up long enough for a minority voice to have a chance to speak. I’d like to provide my own examples of people being told to shut up:

  • Ophelia Benson’s Page o’ Nonstop Monitoring and Harassment in which she records all the bullying she receives to try and silence her voice
  • Skepchick’s Page o’ Hate where Rebecca Watson posts a tiny sample of the hate she gets, trying to silence her for speaking up (ironically) about harassment
  • Jen McCreight was bullied out of the atheist movement and had to quit blogging about atheist topics because of the level of harassment that she (and her family) received. It got so bad that people were trying to trigger her depression and telling her to commit suicide.
  • Natalie Reed also abandoned the atheist movement after Thunderf00t started threatening her when he got kicked off of FTB for being a bigot.

These stories are not unique, and when you trivialize them by comparing them (indirectly) to men who have been asked to allow a more diverse range of voices in the atheist movement; you are doing a disservice to the victims of actual harassment and bullying.

I hope you will come to realize that.

Sincerely,

A guy with privilege.

PS: When people who paid to attend your event are unhappy; you should probably listen to them and address their problem instead of telling them why they’re wrong. They are, after all, your paying customers. Try to make them happy.

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Racial Diversity in the Skeptical Movement

A couple weeks ago I had the delight of attending Skepticon for the first time. It. Was. AMAZING. Honestly, I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that it was the most fun I’ve ever had in my life. I made a bunch of new friends, battled to the death in a backyard arena filled with Nerf guns, and partied with a bunch of my skeptical heroes. I got to high-five Rebecca Watson, meet Brendan Powell Smith the creator of The Brick Testament (who combines two of my favourite things in the world), have a drink with Heina of Skepchick, watch Matt Dillahunty perform closeup magic, and discuss the American-centricity of much of the skeptical movement with Debbie Goddard. I will definitely be going back next year.

None of that, of course, mentions any of the talks that were given: all of which were amazing. I want to take a moment, however, to share with you the final talk of the weekend, given by Professor Anthony Pinn on the topic of how to promote racial diversity within the skeptical and atheist movements.

It’s unfortunate that this was the last talk, as a lot of people had already left what with flights to catch and treks home to make, but from what I understand this was not the fault of the Skepticon crew: evidently he was originally to open the weekend, but couldn’t due to a scheduling issue. Professor Pinn expressed that he feels many people of colour are disillusioned with their churches and would be prepared to leave them if only there was somewhere else to go: that the Skeptical movement needs to meet the black community “where [they] are.”

There was one particular moment in the Q&A when a woman in the audience asks (paraphrased) “You say that the skeptical community needs to meet you halfway. What steps can we take to accomplish this?” And while Professor Pinn answered the question very well, I’d just like to point out one thing:

He never said the skeptical community needs to meet the black community “halfway”. The skeptical community needs to go to where the black community already is.

This should be a pretty obvious notion. Not everyone is going to be aware of the skeptical community, and it might not even occur to them to look for us. But more than that, people of colour face a lot of challenges that white folks (simply by virtue of being in the majority) don’t have to deal with. They have specific issues that they have to deal with that are going to be much more important to them (understandably so) than whether Bigfoot exists, or how to defeat Pascal’s Wager for the bajillionth time. If the skeptic community wants to attract more members from more diverse backgrounds, then they need to address the issues that those potential new members want to see addressed.

At a local level, churches understand this. That’s why you see a lot of them providing services like daycares and rehab programs; or even just social functions like potlucks. There are very specific things that churches do in order to make themselves essential in the lives of their congregations. If the skeptical movement is going to compete, we need to meet them on the battleground where they already are, and not at some ambiguous halfway point that requires the people we’re trying to attract to take the initiative themselves.

So what are these issues that people of colour want us to address? I don’t currently know. They’re not necessarily going to be issues that affect me. And that’s why we need to ask people of colour what they need and listen to their answers.

And finally, if you don’t think that diversity is something we should strive for: ask yourself what you’ve gotten out of being a part of the skeptical community. Read the stories of all the people who had a great time at Skepticon and events like it (including mine above). Think how much better your life is without religious guilt or superstition or false beliefs. Think about any benefits you’ve received by being a part of this community and ask yourself why you don’t think other people deserve those same benefits.

There’s No Such Thing as Presuppositional Naturalism

I was watching one of Matt Dillahunty’s recent debates, Is Belief in the Christian God Rational?, versus Cliffe Knechtle today and one of the many, MANY things that I took issue with that Cliffe said was a bit about Naturalism.

The gist of it was that, if you have a naturalistic worldview, then he agreed with Matt that you could discount the Bible as being true because it contains miracles which are, naturalistically, impossible. But! he continued, this line of reasoning requires that you presuppose naturalism. The implication was that you can’t prove naturalism any more than you can prove Christian presuppositionalism, and thus both positions rely on faith, which makes Matt’s position (that faith is irrational) inconsistent.

If you’re not familiar with the terminology, I’ll take a quick aside for that. A presupposition is something you accept in order to create an argument. It is different from an assumption (or a supposition) in that it is usually an unexamined and not directly a part of the argument. Often they can be hidden and much harder to identify. It’s a bit easier to explain with examples. If you’re trying to form a logical argument, using premises and deductions to arrive logically at a conclusion, then one of the things you’re presupposing is the validity of the logical system you’re using. When apologists try to prove the truth of Christianity by pointing to the Bible and telling you what it says, they are presupposing that the Bible is 100% inerrant (this, incidentally, is called presuppositional apologetics).

Naturalism is the philosophical position that all which exists is the natural world: people, trees, rocks, starts, protons, quarks, really awesome cars, etc… But not things like ghosts, demons, souls or anything else that would typically be called “supernatural”. Generally speaking, “natural” means anything which can be observed to exist.

You might be able to see the problem here: If all the stuff that is observable is part of the natural world, then what exactly is left? Keep in mind that in scientific terms, “observable” doesn’t just mean “can be seen” there are many other ways of observing stuff either directly (using other senses, or even apparatuses we’ve built such as telescopes to detect distant stellar objects) or indirectly (observing the effects of gravity to deduce the existence of dark matter). So if something  interacts in any way with the world, it is by definition “natural”.

This is why the term “supernatural” is so frustrating. At the end of the day, “natural” basically just means “anything that exists”. So when people start talking about the existence of supernatural ghosts or souls or gods, they are talking about things which, by definition, don’t exist. If they did, then they would be part of the natural world.

So to say that you have a naturalistic presupposition is to say that you are presupposing that all things which exist… y’know… exist. It’s a purely a priori, analytical tautology.

So to claim that miracles are impossible only under a presuppositionally naturalistic worldview is to agree that miracles are impossible. Leastways, it’s to say that the things we consider miracles are explainable, just we don’t currently have the explanation available to us. Either that or they never actually happened.

Stalemate

A friend on my Facebook posted this image:

Spock says:
“Neither of you can prove or disprove God”
“Checkmate Christians & atheists”

I replied as follows (and wanted to repost it here):

Ignoring that science is not actually in the business of “proving” things, but rather gathering evidence through investigation.

Ignoring that if you’re going to use a standard of knowledge that requires “proof” or “absolute certainty” then you actually can’t prove or know anything. And I mean *literally* anything. You can’t prove that the sky is blue because for all you know we’re in the Matrix right now and the actual sky is violet.

Ignoring that Christians can’t even agree among themselves as to the characteristics of the god they believe in; let alone the hundreds of other religions in the world.

Ignoring that, actually, if your claims about gods require preconditions that contradict things that we know about reality, then yeah… you can eliminate the possibility of that god existing. Further, if your the preconditions of that god are logically impossible then you’ve again precluded the possibility of his existence.

Ignoring that absence of evidence is, in fact, the only *possible* evidence of absence, and that you don’t believe in leprechauns, unicorns, fairies or mermaids for the exact same reason that atheists don’t believe in gods (ie: complete and utter lack of evidence for their existence).

Ignoring all that and supposing for the sake of argument that we have absolutely no idea whether or not any gods exist:

Without being able to prove that religion is correct, you don’t get to impose it on other people. There’s no reason to deny loving same-sex couples the right to marry. There’s no reason to institute mandatory prayer in schools. There’s no reason to splash acid in the faces of women for wanting to go to school or drive a car. There’s no reason to refuse to help the poor because they’ll just get some really good shit in their next life. There’s no reason to deny women their rights to bodily autonomy. There’s no reason to deprive children of necessary lifesaving medical technology like vaccinations or blood transfusions.

In the argument between atheists and religious folks guess who’s fully on the side opposing all those things?

That’s right, the atheists.

We don’t do it for ourselves, we do it for everyone. So that nobody has to be oppressed by the religious segments of society.

And you know what? If nobody on the planet were harmed in any way by religion, then I’d still argue with religious people, but it would be in the same way I argue with people who think that Star Wars is better than Star Trek: at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter because neither of us are going to go home and starve our children because of our religious beliefs (or lack thereof).

But we don’t live in that world. We live in a world where all the things I listed above happen. A lot.

And before you throw up the “not all religious people are like that” argument, let me just tell you: I don’t care. I don’t give one half of the tiniest shit about that. The fact that it happens AT ALL is the problem.

That’s why the atheists fight.

And if you’re a religious person who lives their full life without harming anyone in the slightest, whether inadvertently or not, because of your religious beliefs? Good for you. Captain Kirk could still kick the shit out of Han Solo.

On a related note, the bit about going home and starving one’s children over religious belief is a reference this story. I worry that it seems like I’m just picking a recent bit of news that proves my point, but the sad thing is whenever I go to write about the horrific things that people have done in the name of religion, I don’t need to dig back very far in recent news to find something. Like, ever. There’s a constant source of terrible, depressing things done by religious people, in the name of religion, easily available for reference in the news stories of the past week or so.

Remind me again how you can’t have morality without God?

Can We Have a New Atheist Movement Now Please?

Fuck. I’ve been putting off writing this, because I don’t really have the words. There are so many things right now, and through the last year, that just piss me the fuck off about the Atheist Movement. I’m an atheist, and I want very much to be a part of *an* atheist movement, but the one we have right now is failing on so many levels.

Sure we have publicity, and record numbers of people showing up to conferences. Huge spikes in secular student groups. Blogs. Billboards. Television exposure.

But for all our successes, we have a lot of fucking problems. Natalie Reed sums it up brilliantly (no, seriously, read the whole thing):

And, of course, the endless controversy over the most basic principles of feminism and women’s rights. Elevatorgate, now ongoing for over a year. The treatment of the 15 year old girl on r/reddit. The “controversy” of Staks Rosch’s all-male atheist-of-the-year list, and his ridiculous claims that it would be “tokenism” to have ANY women on a five person list, with insinuations that it would only start “making sense” for just ONE of half the world’s population to show up if it were a list twenty people long. The endless discussions of the merits of using the word “cunt” to harass and intimidate women. DJ Grothe’s insistent apologism for any dudes being “attacked” by the “radical feminist” contingent of Atheism who had some basic level of sense that all this fucked up shit was kind of fucked up. The sexual harassment issue. The blatant misogynistic appraisals of female atheist’s worth by their appearance. Mallorie Nasrallah. Paula Kirby. FTBullies. The Amazing Atheist’s meltdown while trying to deliberately trigger a rape survivor. Justin Trottier. The increasing incursion and overlap between the internet Atheist Movement and the Men’s Rights Movement. I got so sick of all that, having to same the sexist garbage rehashed endlessly, with so much vitriol and fervor.

(links added by me)

And to be perfectly honest, as important as I think the Atheist Movement is, as crucial as it is to promote reason and skepticism and secularism; I’m fucking tired of having the movement I believe so much in associate me with people like that. I’m fucking tired of it, and honestly, I don’t even have to deal with it on a day-to-day basis. I can’t imagine what Natalie, Jen McCreight, Greta Christina, Ophelia BensonRebecca WatsonElyse Anders, the rest of the Skepchick crew and probably dozens of other women (some of whom I probably haven’t even heard about yet) have to deal with on a day to fucking day basis. Not to mention women outside of the movement, like Anita Sarkeesian who are victims of the same Internet culture in which the Atheist Movement thrives. And yet we’ll turn to defend women like Jessica Ahlquist so long as the people threatening to rape her come from outside of the movement; and then quickly turn around and pat ourselves on the back for how much better we are towards the womenz.

I don’t want to be associated with those kinds of people anymore but I also don’t want to give up on fighting for something that I think is this important now that I’ve finally found a place (albeit a mostly digital one) where I actually feel like I belong.

So here’s what I propose: we need a new atheist movement. Not the “New Atheist” movement as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris, as described by Christians: it’s been well pointed out that the current Atheist Movement is nothing new at all: philosophical objections to Pascal’s Wager, the Watchmaker analogy and the ontological argument are almost as ancient as the arguments themselves. What we need is an actually new atheist movement. One that actually cares about the people. While I enjoy many privileges in life (being white, male, cisgendered, able-bodied, etc) I’m tired of a movement that clothes itself in these privileges and then claims that they’re better for it.

I want a new atheist movement that actually cares about people. An atheist movement that will look at the way religion poisons our views on gender, race, or sexuality and actively tries to combat that. I want an atheist movement that will reach out help other people, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, ability, education, wealth, visibility, or even religion. Yes, religion, we don’t have to agree with them, we don’t even have to be nice about it, but we can still be the goddamn compassionate ones who will reach across and help anyone in need, regardless of whether they can refute Pascal’s Wager or not.

I want a new atheist movement that isn’t going to call women on the internet cunts for having an opinion.

I want a new atheist movement that is open and inviting and accessible to everyone who wants to be there.

And I want a new atheist movement where we can tell the people to fuck off and leave if they have a problem with creating a safe space for the people who want to be there. Because fuck those guys.

Science vs Philosophy – A Reply to Brian Lynchehaun

Hello to everyone visiting from Brian Lynchehaun’s article over on Crommunist Manifesto responding to an earlier post of mine about philosophy and science.

I would like to start by clarifying that I’m not entirely unfamiliar with philosophy, as it was the subject in which I did my minor. I will mention, for the sake of full disclosure, that about 60% of my requirements were spent on classes specifically focused on logic, so I would never claim to speak authoritatively on any other area of philosophy such as metaphysics or epistemology.

I also want to say that I do have a higher opinion of philosophy than I think Brian gives me credit for. When I wrote my post, The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth, part of the reason the title was so long is because every word in there was being used to narrow down what my specific objection was. I don’t say that philosophy is “totally useless”, but rather relatively so; and even then only in the specific domain of determining truth. And while this wasn’t specified, by truth I mean any objective factual claim about the nature of reality: what things exist, how they work, etc…

Actually, I’m not entirely convinced that Brian and I really disagree, but I can’t really blame him as I’m also not convinced that I was particularly clear in my previous post.

First off, I don’t actually consider philosophy and science to be any sort of dichotomy. On the contrary, if philosophers and scientists are doing their job properly they each ought to be doing at least a little bit of science and philosophy, respectively. Personally I like to think of it as an Ouroboros: a cycle with neither beginning nor end. Philosophy takes observations about the world and then speculate on the implications of those observations. This is how we arrive at a hypothesis, which science can then test. Science produces results to determine whether the hypothesis should be rejected or not and then we can proceed to make more observations on the results of these experiments. And so we arrive back at philosophy.

The difference, in my experience, is that philosophers focus more on the speculative aspects, and scientists focus more on the experimental ones. But philosophers still sometimes have to gather data (for example, by doing surveys regarding people’s ethical intuitions on complicated moral problems) and scientists still sometimes have to use reason and logic in order to come to conclusions. In these cases you have philosophers doing science and scientists doing philosophy. Far from being a dichotomy, I believe the two things are intrinsically linked.

With that said, I’d like to address the assumptions that Brian suggests that I am making.

Assumption 1: Philosophy is nothing more than people speculating from their intuitions.

I think I cover this fairly well above, but of course it is. My point is that typically when philosophers come up with an interesting idea, they usually need to do some science on top of it: philosophy alone isn’t enough to get you to truth and people who say that it is (presuppositional apologists, for example) are not going to arrive at anything true, except perhaps by accident. You need science to take the next step.

Assumption 2: “Actual scientific discoveries” trump axioms.

I stand by this. When you cling to “from nothing, nothing comes” in the face of the evidence discussed in Krauss’ A Universe from Nothing, then you are being absurd. When you cling to “we must have a soul, otherwise we could not have a mind” in the face of the evidence that everything in “the mind” seems to be a neurochemical reaction in the brain, then you’re doing yourself a disservice by refusing to update your model of reality.

Of course, everyone does have axioms, including scientists. The difference is that scientific axioms are not generally clung to in the face of evidence. We don’t have scientists who refuse to accept special relativity because it violates Newton’s axioms: you just don’t see that. Even more fundamental are axioms like regularity, where we assume that the universe behaves fundamentally the same in one place/time as in another: this is the basis for most (all?) of our physical laws. But if evidence were to overturn this view, you can be that scientists (once it had been properly verified) would abandon regularity, or at least come to treat it as an approximation.

Even Brian’s example of empiricism (“[the] idea that we can get new, accurate information from examing the world, and plugging that information into our existing beliefs to help figure out which of them (if any) is true.”) could potentially be falsified if it turned out we couldn’t get accurate information from examining the world, or if having accurate information did not help us figure anything out. So far, however, this appears not to be the case.

Assumption 3: One doesn’t understand things by thinking about them really hard.

I’ll stand by this one too, with one minor alteration: One doesn’t understand things merely by thinking about them really hard. Of course it takes thought and reason to properly come to conclusions, but the idea is that this isn’t enough. I reject the notion of a priori knowledge. You also need to have some facts, evidence or data on your side. I do think I was unclear in my original post, but this was the main point I was trying to get at. In order to figure out facts about the reality, you need to have facts about the reality: you can’t just brute force your way through using the power of pure reason.

On a side note, this is why apologists like William Lane Craig drive me up the wall when they debate: They spend 15 minutes setting up how classical logic works before claiming that their god is a necessary precondition for the universe; ignoring the fact that the classical model of logic is not universal and there are many contexts in which it doesn’t apply (as a simple example, classical logic doesn’t have any way of handling propositions whose truth values may change over time). You can’t get to truth by the brute application of logic and reason: you also need observations and facts.

Which I suppose brings us to a valid question: what is more important, reasoning or observation? Obviously both are extremely important, but when it comes to describing the way the universe is, I honestly believe that we could get by on facts alone. It wouldn’t be pretty, but imagine a hypothetical machine intended to simulate the universe. If you were to simply plug in every fact about reality into the machine, such as physical laws or properties of objects in the (simulated) universe, devoid of any interpretation; you could get a pretty close approximation of the actual universe. Philosophy and science both have their uses, but when it comes to determining truth, in my opinion, science is the more valuable (and trustworthy) choice.

Assumption 4: Ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… don’t actually tell you about the world.

It depends what you mean by “don’t actually tell you about the world”. Specifically, what I mean is that branches of philosophy such as the ones mentioned above don’t tell you what sorts of things physically exist or how they physically work, ie: none of these branches help you arrive at facts about physical reality. I’m going to take ethics as an example. Ethics is great at figuring out if you should kill someone, when that’s okay (or not), and why. But an ethic isn’t a thing: it’s not something that exists that we can observe or measure or point at. For lack of a better term, it’s not real. It’s a model of how we should behave, but it’s not a thing that actually exists. It’s useful and important, but it’s not a feature of the universe; rather it’s a feature of how we’ve constructed our society (or how we ought to).

Metaphysics, on the other hand does try to make claims about the universe. For example, when I took my metaphysics course, we learned about nominalism, which as I understand it (or as it was explained to me) makes various claims about, say, what it means to be red. Perhaps there is some ephemeral class of objects, and to be red is to be a member of that class; or that there is some inherent redness that is possessed only by red objects and this redness is shared between all red objects.

Ask a scientist what red is and they’re much more likely to give you an answer akin to “‘red’ is a linguistic marker we use to denote objects which reflect a certain segment of the visible electromagnetic spectrum, with a wavelength of roughly ~620-740nm”. Done.

To me, branches of philosophy such as metaphysics or theology which try to stake a claim on the nature of reality (which, again, is to say what things exists or how they work) without doing any sort of science-y stuff, are branches of philosophy that I just can’t bring myself to take seriously.

Assumption 5:  Data has nothing to do with Philosophy.

I reject this, as much as I imagine Brian does. Data is the starting point for philosophy. It’s where we jump off from before we can go looking for more truth, and it’s ultimately where we come back to, with a whole bunch of science in between.

At the end of the day, philosophers and scientists are in the same boat: we’re all just looking for truth. There are philosophers (such as William Lane Craig) who are doing it wrong, but philosophy properly done really is the underpinning of science, which is what feeds back into philosophy.

So why, then, do I say that philosophy is relatively useless compared to science when it comes to determining truth, considering that the two are nigh-impossible to separate? Well, okay, I’ll admit that I may have been a little bit hyperbolic in attacking all of philosophy when really I was just trying to go after a couple of positions I keep hearing over and over again (“you can’t get something from nothing!”). But (and I say this knowing full well the bias that I carry with me as being primarily a scientist), I do believe that science is doing most of the leg work when it comes to the “figuring out what’s true” part of the cycle. Maybe that’s petty, seeing as how crucially philosophy underpins science. I’ll think some more about it.

On Shouting Down the Opposition

A quick shout out to anyone who’s coming over from Jason at Lousy Canuck! Willkommen! Bienvenue! Welcome!

Today I would like to address two points that seem to be cropping up over and over again in regards to the Sexual Harassment/Feminism “debate”.

  1. “I have freedom of speech, you can’t tell me to stop talking.”
  2. “By telling me to stop talking, you’re just bullying me into silence.”

Obviously these two points are related, but I have separate things I’d like to say about them.

Freedom of Speech

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Freedom of speech is an important thing. In fact, it’s the cornerstone of a free society: the government cannot prevent you from expressing any particular view. Furthermore, even though I quote the American constitution above, I am Canadian, and these points are not specific to the US, but rather a more general notion of free speech. It’s worth noting that this applies directly to unpopular or offensive speech: nobody needs a law to protect popular speech. But there are a few things that free speech does not mean:

  1. Freedom of speech is a relationship between governments and persons. It doesn’t in any way affect relationships between people. If I, as a private citizen prevent you, another private citizen, from being able to make your point, then your rights have not been violated. As a random, completely hypothetical example, say a popular vlogger (let’s call him LightningH4nd) joins a popular blogging website (let’s call it Freethinking Diaries, or FTD) and proceeds to make an idiot out of himself. FTD decides that they no longer want to host LightningH4nd’s lunatic ravings (for whatever reason, maybe they don’t like being disagreed with, or maybe H4nd’s behaviour behind the scenes was not very professional: it doesn’t matter) and so they take his blog down. This is not a violation of his free speech. In the same way I have the right to evict you from my house if you’re being an asshole: you still have the right to be an asshole, you just don’t have the right to do it in my living room.
  2. Freedom of speech is not freedom from consequence. Just because you’re allowed to say something doesn’t mean that you’re free from the consequences of what you said. If you are vocally pro-choice, your pro-life friends may stop wanting to hang out with you. If you’re vocally pro-life, your pro-choice friends might do the same. If you march into your boss’ office and tell her she’s an idiot (or deserves to be kicked in the cunt), you’re probably not going to have a job tomorrow. And if you post something stupid online, people might just go ahead and embarrass you for being an idiot. None of this violates your rights to say things.
  3. Freedom of speech does not guarantee respect. If you say something stupid, just because you’re allowed to say it doesn’t mean that we have to take is seriously. In fact, it usually means we have a rational obligation to disagree with you. The stupider the thing you say, the louder we get to disagree. For example, want to whine that creationists just aren’t given their fair chance to get their crap into science classes; I have no problem with people calling you an idiot.

So can you please stop whining that we’re not respecting the “Harassment Policies will ruin my lolz” crowd’s freedom of speech? We’re not required to.

Bullying into Silence

The other complaint that keeps getting leveled, particularly at the Freethought Blogs crowd, is that by arguing fiercely with people who think that sexual harassment isn’t a problem, or that conferences don’t need anti-harassment policies, or that the people who complain are just a bunch of crybaby pussies; the people on the “Sexual Harassment Bad. Let’s Stop it.” side are somehow “bullying” their opponents.

For the sake of argument, I will accept that what they are doing constitutes “bullying”.

In this particular case, for this particular issue, the “bullies” are right.

When the side you’re opposing is a) horribly wrong, b) giving arguments that are causing actual harm, and c) there’s already been enough discussion that anyone who is honestly interested in educating themselves has the resources to do it; shouting down the opposition is actually a perfectly reasonable tactic.

I want to take a moment to compare the anti-anti-harassment policy folks (whom I will refer to as misogynists for the sake of brevity) to creationists trying to get their crap into science classes:

a) Horribly wrong:

Creationists: Views contradicted be the overabundance of evidence to the contrary.

Misogynists: Views contradicted by the overabundance of women who say they would rather have anti-harassment policies at conferences, as well as the fact that when TAM instituted such a policy, their female attendance rate skyrocketed.

Creationists: Don’t understand well-defined terms like “theory”.

Misogynists: Don’t understand well-defined terms like “harassment” (hint: it isn’t “talking to women” contrary to the strawman arguments).

Creationists: Don’t understand the proper context for particular conversations (eg: science class is not the place for religion).

Misogynists: “But men are the victims of just as much oppression as women!”

Creationists: Play the victim card by claiming that they’re being denied academic freedom to pander their bullshit in classrooms.

Misogynists: Play the victim card by claiming that they’re being denied intellectual freedom to assert their opinion that bitches were asking for it, and just need to take it like a man.

b) Actually causing harm:

Creationists: When you refuse to teach children proper science, their science skills plummet, and they won’t be equipped to dealing with the real world.

Misogynists: When you refuse to listen to women who are complaining about sexual harassment, you leave a door open to the perpetrators to keep getting away with what they’re doing.

Creationists: Cause a drop in enrollment in science programs, as kids don’t have the proper background (or haven’t had their interest properly sparked) to pursue science.

Misogynists: Cause a drop in female attendance at conferences, as WOMEN DON’T WANT TO BE GODDAMNED HARASSED!

c) Opportunity for people to educate themselves

Creationists: These guys could easily read talkorigins or wiki-fucking-pedia for 5 minutes to get a grasp on what they’re arguing against.

Misogynists: As much as you might want to complain about Rebecca Watson or Freethought Blogs just shouting down the opposition, more words have probably been written on this subject within the atheist community in the past year than any other single issue. You can’t possibly expect me to take seriously the claim that the Feminazis aren’t leaving room for discourse. There’s just been so much room for discourse so far that you’re either not bothering to participate or you’re willfully ignorant of the claims against you. In either case, it’s time to shut the fuck up.

It’s truly amazing how much two groups can really have in common…

Sisterhood of the Oppressed – A Critique

Paula Kirby is a writer whose work I have never read who, this weekend, posted an essay called “Sisterhood of the Oppressed” criticizing (no, wait, go on… guess) the segment of the atheist/skeptic movement who think that harassment is bad and we ought to do something about it. While this should be a pretty non-controversial point, apparently it is not and the internet has exploded in a firestorm of rage over the last few weeks. I’m not familiar with Kirby’s work at all, so without any context other than what she wrote in her essay, here we go:

(Incidentally, if you’re new to this discussion, Jason Thibeault over at Lousy Canuck has a decent timeline of what’s been going on in this conversation in case you need a little bit of background.)

We start off with a defense of the term “feminazi”. Now I don’t really have a problem with namecalling when you’re trying to make an emotional appeal. I don’t have an issue with terms like “anti-choice” or “idiot” when you’re just trying to get in a quick jab at the person you’re arguing with. But when it comes to “nazi”, can’t we at least agree that that’s a little extreme? You don’t win argument points by pointing wildly at something bad and saying “YOU’RE JUST LIKE THEM!” (complete with caps-lock). Nazis killed millions of people in an attempt to exterminate entire segments of the human population. Kirby is arguing against a group of people whose “crimes” are literally things like saying “Guys, don’t do that“, or that sexual harassment is a thing that happens sometimes. The thing about analogies is that they should scale properly. Comparing people saying words to other people killing millions is more than a little bit out-of-sync. On top of which, 99% of the time that you compare your opponent to Nazis, you’ve already lost the argument: it’s just not a point that people tend to respect.

But! (says Kirby) we’re not comparing them to actual Nazis, but rather to a general notion of Nazisim “used to simply mean ‘extremist’ or ‘obsessive'”. While this is still a stupid rhetorical point, let’s look at what Kirby considers totalitarian”

Hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent? Attempting to make it so unpleasant for anyone who dares to oppose them that others are deterred from trying it? Utter conviction that their own ideology is absolutely right and just, and that no questioning of it can therefore ever be permitted?

So, hyperbole aside, we’re talking basically about conviction towards an ideology that you feel compelled to defend. You know, like the Republicanazis and the Democranazis. The Christinazis and the Athenazis. Don’t forget about the GLBTN with their totalitarian gay rights agenda. Look, if that’s your definition of a “Nazi” extremist is someone who has and defends an ideology, then you’re going to get caught in your own trap. But maybe I’m wrong, maybe the “hysterical, bullying overreaction to dissent” really is over-the-top enough to warrant the label. So with (what I imagine would have to be) a world full of examples of how the feminazis are suppressing dissent, surely Kirby can find us three REALLY good examples.

Let’s not forget the abuses of speakers’ “privilege” at certain conferences, where audience members holding “the wrong attitudes” have been picked on by the speaker from the platform.

For those not aware, this a reference to Rebecca Watson giving a talk at the 2011 CFI Leadership Conference regarding the “elevator incident” where she mentions a particular comment about the incident:

So apparently “publicly disagreeing with someone” is suppressing dissent. There’s a valid argument to be made that what Watson did was bad form in that it wasn’t the proper forum to call someone out over a disagreement by placing her next to comments advocating that Watson be slapped or raped. But this is a far cry from “silencing dissent”. Disagreement with people happens, and sometimes people are going to be hurt by it. But there’s a difference between “here’s what a person said and I disagree with them and here’s why” and over a year’s worth of telling someone that you’re going to rape them, or that they’re too ugly to rape, and using the name “Rebecca Twatson” as though you think you’re being clever when really it’s impossible to be clever by repeating the same insult for OVER A GODDAMNED YEAR.

Saturday saw someone on Twitter being harassed by one of the Sisterhood for having had the temerity to simply follow the decidedly unapproved @AngrySkepchick. Not even your “Follow” lists are now safe from the prying eyes of the Sisters, and be sure you will be subject to interrogation if your choices appear to deviate from the required standard!

This second example, I actually hadn’t heard about and it took some Google digging to figure out. I guess on Saturday, Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) of Skepchick fame challenged one of the speakers at the upcoming TAM 2012, Sharon Hill, over the fact that she was following a twitter account called @AngrySkepchick that was mocking Rebecca Watson (people’s hatred of whom always seems to enter into these things…). As a public figure, her tacit endorsement of an insult campaign versus Watson could be viewed as a inappropriate, and Roth called her on it by saying that she would no longer follow Hill on Twitter. At its core, that’s pretty much it: A woman on Twitter unfollowed another woman on Twitter over something she felt was inappropriate… Ergo, FEMINAZI SILENCING OF DISCUSSION AND OPPRESSION OF DISAGREEMENT!

As for Kirby’s third example of silencing dissent:

the blogs, of course.

Specific as that is, I’m not really sure what to say to it. Maybe she’s talking about comment policies? I’m not really sure. So these are (one assumes) the best examples of how radical feminists are oppressing discourse on issues: publicly addressing comments and unfollowing people on Twitter. And blogs.

But fine, let’s assume that they are radically suppressing the voices of those who disagree with them. Let’s look at the point that’s actually being disagreed upon:

  • Some women at conferences feel harassed.
  • Women who feel harassed at conferences are less likely to go.
  • Such women have said that instituting an anti-harassment policy would make them feel more comfortable.
  • An anti-harassment policy would not negatively affect the experience of anyone who wasn’t harassing women.
  • Therefore, institute a fucking harassment policy.

Honestly, this battle is pretty much won. American Atheists, Dragon*Con, CFI, SkepchickCON, Skepticon, SSA Con and more all have instituted harassment policies. Even TAM, at the centre of all the controversy, had a harassment policy last year, which one assumes will be carried over seeing as how last year’s TAM was the largest turnout of women they’ve ever had (ie: anti-harassment policies get more women to come).

That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Some people want a harassment policy and feel don’t comfortable coming without one. Anyone who doesn’t care won’t be affected and anyone who actively opposes a harassment policy should think long and hard about what exactly their reasons are for opposing it. Do you think it’s because such policies are anti-sex? Then you should check out the anti-harassment policy of a goddamned sex-based conference: OpenSF.

This should be such a non-controversial point that anyone defending it has the right to treat their opponents like idiots. Harassment bad. Don’t do it.

Kirby, however, would rather continue comparing feminists to Nazis.

Let’s consider 1930s Germany for a moment. How did the Nazis gain popular support? By exploiting a sense of grievance post-Versailles, by continually telling the German people they’d been treated abominably, had their noses ground in the dust, been unfairly penalized, that they were the victims of an international, Jew-led conspiracy, that they needed to rise from the ashes and gain their revenge and their proper, god-ordained place in the world.

(snip)

Change the terminology a little and you have the poor, oppressed, victimized, unfairly ignored women being urged to rise up against the evil conspiracy of those men, women-haters, sister-shamers and gender-traitors who are responsible for all their woes.

Except that there was no Jew-led conspiracy out to keep the German people down; whereas the effects of misogyny can be felt by how any woman who dares speak up against it gets threats of rape and violence. Even if the two situations were comparable, Nazis went on to kill millions of people and the feminists are simply saying “hey guys, don’t harass women”.

Speaking of harassment, did you know that it’s not actually a problem?

Absolutely anyone can find themselves being sexually propositioned at any conference at all if they hang out in the bar long enough, and late enough at night. (snip)  For those who engage in the propositioning and those who respond positively to it (and many do), it is presumably one of the fun bits of life. I simply do not accept that any reasonably mature, rational adult does not know exactly how to avoid getting into this kind of situation if he or she would prefer not to, or how to deal with it if it occurs.

Nobody other than the concocted strawmen in the heads of those who oppose the anti-harassment policies actually has a problem with this situation, in principle. Some people like to have sex at conferences. That’s great! They should go out and have a blast. But some people like to go to bars and hang out, and they should be able to enjoy themselves too. The point is, don’t make sex the primary thing. If you’re having a conversation with someone and one thing leads to another, then you’ve lucked out. But if you’re just having a good conversation and it doesn’t lead anywhere physical? Guess what, you still lucked out! You got to talk to some cool people and maybe make a few new friends. Heaven forbid that you not get laid after all your hard work of making conversation with people. Find yourself in a conversation with someone who you don’t think wants to sex you up? You’re free to leave and talk to someone with more similar intentions. If the people who want sex can get it, and the people who just want to hang out can do that EVERYBODY WINS. All you have to do is not start out your conversations with “Want to go back to my room?” and a wink.

I am talking about normal, non-violent situations in which no assault takes place.

Well you know what? Some of us are. Because in addition to the issue of constant but non-violent string of sexual propositions from certain attendees there are other issues of women being groped, or stalked or possibly having upskirt photos taken of them that need to be dealt with. An anti-harassment policy does this too. It gives conference staff the explicit ability to throw people out harassing women when they’re doing things as extreme as this. It’s not an admission that this sort of thing happens all the time. It doesn’t. But it also doesn’t have to in order to have a negative effect. We don’t want to hear that sexual harassment never happens at conferences, because that’s probably not true. We want to hear if  it happens what does the conference plan to do about it.

Kirby then attempts to address the criticism that there aren’t enough female speakers at conferences by spending a few pages talking about how men don’t keep women from speaking out, women just naturally don’t speak out. She does this by talking about her time organizing events or meetings for business people, and how the women would always stay silent.

My background is in business. I have lost count of the number of times I have been present at meetings when the women said nothing and left it all to the men. I’ve been guilty of it myself, many a time. Was it because the men weren’t willing to listen to the women? I don’t think it was. Did the men dismiss our comments if we made them? No, they didn’t. Did they try to stop us making them? No, they didn’t do that either. Were the women lacking in ideas? No, of course not. We just didn’t speak up. Crucially, many of us didn’t speak up, even when openly invited to do so.

It’s their own fault, dammit!

Let’s put aside the notion that maybe, just maybe, women stay silent because often when the speak up about an issue, they’re met with a backlash that is either because of their gender or focused on their gender. For a recent example of this, check out the story of Anita Sarkesian who started a project critiquing the depiction of women in video games. Before she even started working on the project (having merely announced it) she was called a bitch, whore, slut, feminazi (of course) and cunt, told to get back in the kitchen, make a sandwich and show her tits.

Let’s put aside the notion that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Kirby is trying to make the argument that women don’t actually have an interest in speaking up and presenting at conferences. I’ll admit, I don’t know much about the business world. Maybe this is true there (I doubt it), but the atheists and skeptic movement is a much different place, and there’s no shortage of women available to speak at conferences. This list includes:

  • Ayaan Hirsi Ali
  • Ophelia Benson
  • Susan Jacoby
  • Jen McCreight
  • Taslima Nasrin
  • Christina Radd
  • Natalie Reed
  • Greta Christina
  • Maryam Namazie
  • Sikivu Hutchinson
  • Amanda Marcotte
  • Rebecca Watson
  • Tracie Harris
  • Jen Peeples
  • Ashley Paramore
  • Julia Sweeney
  • Jessica Ahlquist
  • and Paula Kirby, herself!

Not to mention the Women In Secularism conference which took place a couple months ago, which only goes to show just how many great female speakers are out there who could be invited to speak conferences. Since this issue has started coming up, conferences have started focusing on exactly this, with a greater and greater percentage of female speakers (and, consequently, attendees). But Kirby somehow views it as ironic that these women would have a place to speak, rather than giving it up to “new names” or “fresh new women secularists” but this ignores a huge aspect of conferences: the networking. It is about getting new faces to come out to conferences, and whether or not you’re up on stage, you’re now involved with the movement just by being there. And when you reach out to women (by, for example, instituting the anti-harassment policies they ask for) you (surprise!) get more women to attend. TAM, of all places, were the ones who proved this last year.

So if you say that women being invited to be speakers means there’s not a problem, you’re an idiot. It simply means that we’re winning.

The Relative Uselessness of Philosophy in Determining Truth

"Atheism: The belief that there was nothing and nothing happened to nothing and then nothing magically exploded for no reason, creating everything and then a bunch of everything magically rearranged itself for no reason what so ever into self-replicating bits which then turned into dinosaurs. Makes perfect sense."

What atheists believe. Apparently.

This image showed up on a co-worker’s Facebook page. I want to take a quick moment to dismantle it before I get to my main point.

Atheism

The belief

Oh man, we’re already off on the wrong foot. Atheism: not a belief. You might be thinking of strong atheism, or antitheism which are beliefs that there are no gods (although that has nothing to do with what you’re about to start blithering on about) but atheism is a lack of belief.

To spell it out in logic speak “I don’t believe in god” (atheism) is \neg B G and “I believe there is no God” (strong atheism/antitheism) is B\neg G (where B is a modal belief operator and G is the proposition “God exists”). The placement of the “not” symbol is extremely important. The first one expresses no belief and the second one expresses a belief that something is not. Additionally, the first does not imply the second, but if your beliefs are consistent, the second implies the first.

that there was nothing

Again, this is not a belief of atheists, but depending on your definition of “nothing” this is the general consensus of cosmologists, whose opinions should bear much more weight than that of a collection of people who just happen to not believe in the same thing. For more on this, I highly reccomend Dr. Lawrence Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing.

and nothing happened to nothing

Most boring story ever. Except for the part where something happens, which comes up right… about…

and then nothing magically

Y’know, the science-y kind of magic with particles and antiparticles and stuff. Unlike the magic-y kind of magic with talking snakes and Jewish zombies and Harry Potter.

exploded for no reason,

Except for physics.

creating everything and then a bunch of everything

So far so good.

magically

NO!

rearranged itself for no reason what so ever

Arguably correct, but the stochasticity of the system ensures that very unlikely things will happen. In the words of Tim Minchin, to assume that things with a one-in-a-million odds of happening by chance never happen is to vastly underestimate the number of things that happen.

into self-replicating bits

I know, right! Isn’t that fucking awesome! Oh, and if you don’t believe that it’s possible, guess what: we’ve done it in a lab. Stuff that’s not alive can turn into stuff that is alive. That is so cool.

which then turned into dinosaurs.

First off, dinosaurs are awesome. Secondly, it depends on your definition of “turned into” if you mean changed like a fucking Transformer, then, no. Not what scientists believe. If you mean, gradually and incrementally evolved over several billion years of random mutation and natural selection which built upon beneficial traits to increase survivability and the number of offspring who could in turn pass those traits along to their own offspring, ultimately arriving at FUCKING BADASS DINOSAURS, then yeah. That’s about it.

Pictured to the left: Science.
Pictured to the right: Not so much.

Makes perfect sense.

Glad you think so. Scientists agree.

So anyways, the point I want to get to, which brings us to the title of this post and why philosophy doesn’t really help to answer questions is this:

Our brains seem to have very specific intuitions about the world. Unfortunately sometimes those intuitions don’t match up with the actual world. “Something can’t come from nothing” seems like a pretty valid axiom if you inducing it from our common day-to-day experiences: people come from their parents, trees from acorns, planets from the remains of exploded stars. But at the end of the day, our intuitions are not a valid way of knowing something. As I mentioned, Dr. Krauss’ book A Universe From Nothing explains how, in fact, something can come from nothing, and in fact we’ve observed it.

There are some really hard-to-grasp concepts out there. Relativity: time doesn’t move at the same rate for all observers. Quantum mechanics: photons may be polarized in two different directions at once. Evolution: tiny changes in individual specimens result in large changes in a population over time.

These concepts are not intuitive: nobody is going to figure them out by sitting there and thinking about them really hard. It takes observation and concrete data. But once we have the data and observations to demonstrate a hypothesis, it’s ridiculous to cling to some point like “something can’t come from nothing” just because the observations are counterintuitive. This is why philosophy is not a method to truth, and fails especially spectacularly when you compare it to something like science. There’s no better way to figure out how the world works than going out and checking it for yourself.

That’s not to say that philosophy doesn’t have it’s uses: it’s great for ethics, rhetoric, epistemology, law, logic, etc… But when it comes to working out how the world actually is by using metaphysics, ontology, theology, etc… philosophy can’t really hold a candle to science. And when you cling to axioms that you came to from an armchair in the face of  actual scientific discovery, then you’re an idiot.

On Converting People to Atheism

Last night one of my roommates asked me an interesting question just as we were going to bed. It came at the tail end of an hour-and-a-half long debate about feminism, it was after 1 in the morning, and neither of us really felt like starting another conversation. I’m sure we’ll come back to it at some point, but it was a good question and I wanted to address it here.

The question at hand: How do [I] feel about converting people to atheism?

First off, I want to discuss how I feel like the language used actually makes this a loaded question vis-à-vis the word “converting”. I think of “converting”  as being the abandonment of one set of beliefs in order to accept a new set. Becoming an atheist is not this, it is only the first half: it is an abandonment of one set of beliefs. Full stop. People don’t accept atheism dogmatically, or at least they shouldn’t. Becoming an atheist because you really like Richard Dawkins, or because you’re upset about the onslaught of religious sex scandals, or because you’re angry at God are not good reasons to do so. There is only one good reason to become an atheist: because you don’t believe in any gods. However I will acknowledge that no offense was intended by the term and for the purposes of discussion I will accept “converting” to mean “convincing someone to leave their religion”.

This is still a nuanced question. There are absolutely forms of conversion which I reject as appropriate. For example, I would be as bothered by a government actively seeking to convert people to atheists as I would a government-sponsered program to convert people to Islam or Hinduism or Christianity. That’s simply not the job of the government. I am also opposed to the idea of atheist street evangelizers. The idea of walking up to someone on the street uninvited and attempting to disconvince them of their faith is repulsive to me as a form of harassment. I would feel the same way about the idea of door-to-door atheists, going around like Jehovah’s Witnesses to preach the faith.

There are really only two situations when I would personally consider attempting to convert someone to atheism: 1) if they are actively interested in a conversation about religion; or 2) their beliefs about religion are actively causing them to harm others. Situation 1) should be obvious: if somebody wants to talk about religion with me (including situations where they are trying to convert me) then I am going to participate in that conversation, and my honest participation demands that I attempt to counter their claims and convince them why they are wrong. I have no illusions that by the end of the conversation I will have added one more atheist to the world, but at the very least I would hope to have given them (or anyone listening) something new to think about, which might eventually lead them down the path of reason.

In situation 2), the attempt to convince someone to abandon their beliefs evolves from a mere intellectual exercise to an actual moral obligation. If you believe that your religion entitles you to torture and kill children you think are witchesconvince third world countries that condoms cause AIDSfinancially cut off or threaten to rape students whose only crime is asking their schools to obey the law; or to fly fucking planes into skyscrapers then you’d better believe that I support any effort to convert you to atheism. Anyone who doesn’t at least try to convince someone whose religious is forcing them to actively cause harm to people that they are being stupid is morally reprehensible.

But to go back to my first point, what does it actually mean to convert someone to atheism? As much as it might sound otherwise, I have no loyalty towards atheism. Instead, my loyalty lays with truth, and honest thorough inquiry (also called skepticism). If some religion were proven correct tomorrow, any honest  atheist and skeptic would change their mind. That’s the beauty of atheism: it isn’t faith that there is no god, but rather just the lack of reason to think that there is. If such reasons become available, we’re free to change our minds, liberated of any dogma that we stick to for reasons of mere tradition.

So at the end of the day, what is an attempt to convert someone to atheism? In my opinion, it’s simply an attempt to convince them that beliefs should be informed by evidence and facts and that skepticism and honest inquiry are the real path to truth. Once you convince someone of that, atheism should follow naturally. QED.