Category Archives: Skepticism

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

A Letter to My Heroes

Giving it some reflection, I’ve had a pretty good year and I’d like to take a few moments to thank the people who I feel are at least partially responsible.

It all started when a man asked a woman in an elevator at 4am in Ireland if she would like to come back to his room. That woman, of course was Rebecca Watson. I remember my first time watching the now-infamous video where she says, fairly simply, “don’t do that”. And I have to admit that at the time I kind of thought to myself “I don’t get it” and went on about my life.

But some people took didn’t get it even more and these people decided to take Rebecca to task for her comments in what would soon become termed “Elevatorgate”. And while most of these people were assholes and behaved as such, I owe them a tremendous debt, because they sparked a conversation that it turns it I desperately needed to hear.

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, but it turns out the whole time I had no idea what that actually meant. I thought we could get away with just saying “equality=good” and that was all the was to it. I quickly learned that I was wrong. I didn’t realize the scope of actual problems still faced by women in modern times. I don’t really feel equipped to talk about the subtle (or sometimes not-so subtle) ways women are put down in our society, but I’ve had a great time these past few months realizing just how much there is that I don’t know about women’s issues and filling in those gaps in my knowledge. After Elevatorgate I added Skepchick, Blag Hag, and Greta Christina among others to my blogroll and it’s been an eye-opening and educational experience.

So Rebecca Watson, thank you.

A few months after I started learning about Feminism, I saw a talk from Skepticon IV where JT Eberhard talked about mental illness. I ha never heard of JT before, but that was (is) a brilliant talk that literally brought me to tears. I realized some of the subconscious prejudice I had had against the mentally ill and why hat was stupid. (Watch it. No, seriously, watch it. You have no idea how great this talk is.) I find it difficult to word exactly what those prejudices were, since they were subconscious. Not major prejudices like not wanting to associate with them, or thinking they should be locked away, but little things like not understanding “Why can’t they just make themselves better?” Which I freely admit is probably one of the stupidest things I’ve ever believed: but that’s the point, it was subconscious. And in its own way, that’s a much more sinister type of belief. Without realizing you even hold it, it can cause you to mistreat fellow human beings and you don’t even realize enough to reevaluate your position. It took JT to grab me by the collar and shake me until I realized that this is the kind of thing I thought. The point of the talk is how people need to reevaluate how they think about mental illness and for me (and I suspect a lot of other people) I think it worked.

I got the chance to meet JT this weekend at the Reason Rally, and while I didn’t have a chance (or, due to my shyness, the words) to tell him the specifics of this story, I did muster up the courage to go and talk to him and to thank him for dramatically changing how I view mental illness, even if I didn’t elaborate. The next day at the American Atheists National Convention, I even got to hang out with him for an hour or so and it was probably one of the best moments of my life to be around someone just so awesome and full of life. When I left back to my hotel, he even gave me a hug, which is an amazing moment: to hug one of your heroes. While I’m embarrassed for the prejudices I used to hold about mental illness, I feel like JT has made me a much better person.

So JT Eberhard, thank you.

In my course of reading Skepchick, there was one woman who really stood out to me as someone else who made me think about things. That woman was Natalie Reed who blogs (primarily) about trans issues. Never before in my life have I had one writer bring up so many different issues that have never even occurred to me to think about before. Having been raised in the gay community, I think I felt like I had some sort of grasp on transgender issues because the GLBT community all gets lumped into one acronyms. Reading Natalie’s words, I realize not just how little I know about the trans experience and the prejudice they face, but the enormous gulf of just how much more there is for me to learn. She now has her own blog at Freethougt Blogs called Sincerely, Natalie Reed, which is updated twice-daily.

One of her biggest complaints about cis people like me is how we don’t call out anti-trans prejudice when we see it. If we see someone call someone else a faggot or a nigger, I think most civilized people are going to call them out on it. But if someone calls someone a tranny or comments that some girl “looks like a dude”, we’re a lot less likely to say anything. Natalie is trying to change that, and as someone who tries pretty hard at being a good person, I am trying to listen. At the Reason Rally this weekend one of the attendees had made a sign saying “Shirley Phelps has a penis”. Now let’s be clear: Shirley Phelps is a horrible person, who deserves only the worst things to be said of her. But the idea that she has a penis, or that she has in some way a non-binary gender or sex characteristics is somehow the most horrible thing you can say about her? I confronted the guy who had this sign to tell him why I thought it was offensive and tried to make him see why it wasn’t appropriate. In the end, I doubt I changed his mind, but I think actions like this are how we start to do so somewhere down the road. Calling out religious people who hurl “atheist” as an insult and not putting up with their prejudice was a big theme of the Reason Rally this weekend, and I suspect most people there agree with this notion. We should absolutely extend this to any denigrated minority, and I want to commit right now to doing this.

I’m not trying to tell this story as sort of a “look how good an ally I am” moment. If anything I’m trying to acknowledge that I need to stride to be a better ally to the trans community, and Natalie Reed is the person I owe for making me realize this.

So Natalie Reed, thank you.

The three of you, Rebecca, JT and Natalie, have challenged my own privilege and the only things I can really offer you is my thanks for the amazing ways in which you have changed by life in the past year towards the direction of making me a better person, and a promise at I will continue to seek out challenges to privileges, prejudices and preconceptions that I may not even realize I have.

Thank you.

Answers to the Wrong Reponses

Rebecca Watson is at it again… terrorizing the Internetz with her whole “being right” thing… When will she learn?

Anyways, yesterday she linked to a Reddit thread in which a 15 year old girl (screen name Lunam) posted a picture of herself holding a copy of Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World. The tactic that many chose to take with her was to then post comment after comment about raping her (mostly via sodomy). Rebecca Watson pointed out (I’m paraphrasing here) that this is bad.

Today Greta Christina posted a similar blog (both about this particular event as well as the larger context of sexism that exists) which begins with a list of “Yes but…” comments which try to trivialize the horrible things that get said against women in situations like this.

Both of those posts say everything much better that I possibly could, but I wanted to take a few minutes and respond individually to the “Yes but…” comments that Greta began her article with. I don’t know if they were meant to be rhetorical or if they were direct quotes taken from idiots on the web (I’m really hoping the former) but either way I’ve definitely seen and heard similar statements by people and would like to clarify (for any confused) why they are stupid.

“Yes, but… not all men are like that. And if you’re going to talk about misogyny, you have to be extra-clear about that.”

Why? If you’re reading this post (or, more likely, Rebecca’s or Greta’s) odds are you’re an atheist. I also think it would be fair to bet that you’ve had your complaints about religion in the past. So do you phrase these as “As nice as most priests are, it sure would be swell if those extra-bad priests would stop raping little kids.” or do you get angry and yell from the rooftops that we need to stop the child-raping motherfuckers from ever touching another kid? For a rationally-minded community, you’d think a little thought could go into the idea that yes, we all know not all men are evil, just as not all women are good. Nobody should have to spell this out every time someone wants to make a point about an offence that’s been committed.

“Yes, but… misogyny doesn’t just happen in (X) community (atheist, black, gay, etc.). In fact, it’s worse in some other communities. So it’s not fair to talk about misogyny when it does happen in (X) community, as if it’s something special that we’re doing wrong.”

I’m going to go back to the pedophile analogy from above because hopefully we can all agree that raping children is wrong, and adding to it the recent Penn State scandal: “Child rape doesn’t just happen at Penn State. In fact, many more children are raped by Catholic priests. So it’s not fair to talk about the Penn State incident as if it’s something special that they were doing wrong.” I’m really hoping that sounds as stupid to you as it does to me. Just because worse things are out there doesn’t mean we should be any less vocal about other injustices that exist.

“Yes, but… (X) community where misogyny happens has some great things about it, too. It’s not fair to paint everyone in it with the same brush.”

Your community has some great things going for it? Awesome! Let’s get rid of the shitty parts (in this case, the stuff that makes women not want to join you) and then we can all be awesome together!

“Yes, but… the woman/ women in question could have done something to avoid the misogyny she got targeted with. She/ they could have stayed anonymous/ concealed her gender/ dressed differently/etc. I’m not saying it’s her fault, but…”

You’re partly right here. To take the example of Lunam from Reddit, she could easily have posted just a picture of the book and (possibly) avoided the deluge of sexual comments that followed. The point is why should she have to? Most any guy could post the exact same photo (with himself instead of her) and presumably wouldn’t have been subjected to the barrage that followed for her. But this girl (and anyone like her) needs to hide her face to be taken seriously? There are already places in the world where women aren’t allowed to show their faces, and I suspect that very few of you would actually want to go and live there. If you want to be anonymous on the Internet, you have that option. But you should also be given the option of being allowed to be yourself and taken seriously by those around you.

“Yes, but… the woman/ women in question didn’t behave absolutely perfectly in all respects. Why aren’t we talking about that?”

For two reasons. Because A) not everybody shares the same interpretation of her actions as you, and B) even if we did, it doesn’t necessarily excuse what was done to her by others. Context matters, but there’s very little context that could excuse telling a 15 year old girl that her blood will form a natural lubricant as you sodomize her.

“Yes, but… the person writing about this incident didn’t behave absolutely perfectly in all respects. Why aren’t we talking about that?”

Because the coverage of an incident has absolutely nothing to do with the incident itself. If you doubt someone’s journalistic integrity then that’s one issue, but when you can see the original story free from any potential bias, it shouldn’t affect the actual facts regarding the incident itself.

“Yes, but… there are worse problems in the world. Starving people in Africa, and so on. Why are you complaining about this?”

If you try to pull this excuse then I hope that everyone in your life resolves to repeat this back to you the next time you mention having a headache or stubbing your toe. Bad things are bad. Worse things are bad. Let’s fix both of them.

“Yes, but… gender expectations hurt men, too. Why aren’t we talking about that?”

Because that’s not typically the topic at hand when this gets brought up. Its a non-sequitur. There are articles about this. In 10 seconds of googling I found these two. I’m sure there are more. Why not try posting there? Failing that, why not start your own blog about how gender expectations hurt everyone?

“Yes, but… people are entitled to freedom of speech. How dare you suggest that speech be censored by requesting that online forums be moderated?”

People are entitled to freedom of speech, but not freedom from the effects of your speech. If I come into your home and start ranting about how Hitler was an okay guy, or the ways in which I would like to bang your wife; odds are you would not find me at all endearing and would kick me out of your house. This is your right. Even if you do, I still have the right to keep saying these things, just not from within your private home. That’s freedom of speech. Similarly, online forums are privately established. Your freedom of speech doesn’t apply. But! even if you don’t kick me out of your home, you may still want to talk to me about how my ideas are stupid or insensitive. We can do this too. And from what I can tell, this is the approach most feminists are taking in calling out the misogynists  in the atheist and skeptical communities. I, for one, prefer that this is the approach they take because it’s more entertaining for me to read when they call you all a bunch of assholes.

“Yes, but… calling attention to misogyny just makes it worse. Don’t feed the trolls. You should just ignore it.”

By allowing the trolls to shut me up and change who I am, they’ve won anyways. This isn’t about them. This is about otherwise well-meaning men (and women) who have had these attitudes about women ingrained into them from a very early age, and trying to effect social change by pointing out that their outlooks are outdated and illogical. We’re not about to let a couple of trolls stop us from getting our message out there. Besides, trolls can’t regenerate from fire or acid wounds.

“Yes, but… do you have to be so angry and emotional and over-sensitive about it? That doesn’t help your argument or your cause.”

Yes. Yes we do. Anger is a powerful tool that is directly responsible for every successful social movement in history. Here’s a video explaining how it works. Yeah, it’s 48 minutes long. Suck it up.

“Yes, but… what about male circumcision?”

It’s bad. What’s your point? Again, this is typically used as a non-sequitur. There are valid points to be made about how horrible male circumcision is, but they need not be made at the expense or the trivialization of other problems in society. You care so much about this issue? Start doing something about it. Spamming the comment sections for unrelated issues just comes across as lazy.

“Yes, but… Rebecca Watson or some other feminist said something mean or unfair in another conversation weeks/ months/ years ago. Why aren’t we talking about that?”

Wait, people aren’t talking about Rebecca Watson? I’m so confused… Did I wake up in the mirror universe again? That could explain the goatee… But seriously, we’re not talking about it because it was weeks/months/years ago and it isn’t related to the topic at hand. Additionally, feminists are not all one huge group. Just because one of them hurt your feelings however long ago doesn’t mean that it invalidates something you’re reading now. Newsflash: you can disagree with someone about one thing and agree with them about another. That’s part of what skepticism is: objective analysis.

“Yes, but… why is it so terrible to ask a woman for coffee in a hotel elevator at four in the morning?”

Because it makes her uncomfortable, she just spend several hours talking about how it makes her uncomfortable, and if your goal is sincere in actually wanting to get to know her over coffee then you should be doing everything in your power not to be making her uncomfortable.

Godless Bitches – Transgender Episode

This is a reponse to episode 1.13 of the Godless Bitches podcast, whom I absolutely love listening to because it’s all about issues that I don’t normally think about and I love being challenged with new things that I haven’t heard before. Really can’t say enough great things about them.

So first off I want to admit that I know very little about transgender issues (“transgender” or “transgendered”?) but I’m trying to learn, so if you disagree with anything I’m about to say, please let me know because I’m here to learn.

This is primarily a response to a part in the podcast where Beth asks how useful the labels of “female” and “male” or “man” and “woman” are, given the diversity that can exist among the spectrum (around the 29 minute mark). Jen identified them as useful rules of thumb and that we shouldn’t consider them as terms that are necessarily prescriptive of behaviors or even physical characteristics. Natalie agreed, but then went a bit into the point that I thought of when I heard Beth’s question: that “male” and “female” can be useful terms for people to apply to themselves. That’s basically what I want to talk about.

“Man” and “woman” may not have rigid definitions, but I hardly think this disqualifies a word from being useful. I want to draw an analogy. Consider the word “dog”. What does that mean? Look at this picture:

What do those two animals have in common? Very little: they’re different colours, sizes, shapes… But we’re still able to recognize them both as falling under the label “dog” even though we might not have a strict definition of what that term actually means. Yes, I’m sure there’s some strict biological definition of what constitutes a dog, but my point is that even people who lack this education in biology can identify both as dogs. Similarly we can often look at people and recognize them as male or female, even without strict definitions of what these things mean.

Tangent: Does being male mean having a penis? I don’t believe so. Does having a penis make you male? I don’t believe that either. And yet, I consider myself male because I do have a penis. So the attributes we associate with a particular gender are neither necessary nor necessarily sufficient to belong to that gender, but can they be sufficient in certain cases such as my own? For the logic nerds (or possibly just for my own masturbatory needs): \diamond(\text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male}) holds, but \Box(\text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male}) does not. Thus, \text{penis}\rightarrow\text{male} may hold sometimes, but not always. Does that make sense to anyone else?

Now of course these terms aren’t exclusive and one of the things I’ve learned from reading about transgenderism (is that the right word? spell check says no…) is that gender identity can fall on a spectrum. As I see it, there are two possibilities: multiple people can fall into the same spot on the spectrum, or they can’t. If they can’t then that means that no two people have the same gender identity. This, to me, is absurd and means we can’t actually use labels for gender identities at all, which seems pretty inconvenient to me. Thus, I currently accept the other option, that many people can occupy the same spot on the spectrum. Thus, we can have many people with the gender identity of “male”, many with “female” and many in-betweens. I believe this is where the problem seems to crop up with labels: what words do you use to identify these people? Part of the issue is one of linguistic usefulness. How many people have to have a particular gender identity before we need to come up with a word for it. I don’t think it would be controversial to say that “male” and “female” would be the largest categories. But what then? Do you name a spot on the spectrum that only holds one person? How big does a group need to be before we give it a name? I don’t have the answers, but I hope it at least makes sense as to why I think we need to keep the labels we already have.

This brings me to a point I would like to make on how I feel about gender roles. I’m going to take what I think might be an unpopular stance: Gender roles in society are important. Adhering to them, however, is not. So that we all have our definitions straight (or in case I don’t) when I say “gender roles” I mean any behaviour that is typically associated with either men or women but not both (for example, wearing a suit is more masculine and wearing a dress is more feminine). I think what’s useful about these is that when you want to identify as a particular gender (whether it’s your birth sex or not) these give you patterns you can fall into that will allow other people to more easily identify you as your gender expression (again, am I using that term correctly?). It’s convenient. If I want to be identified as a man, I can grow a beard. If I want to be identified as a woman, I can wear makeup. These gender roles can be extremely useful, for so many reasons! How much of Monty Python’s humour was based on men wearing dresses? What would drag queens wear if there were no such thing as gender-specific clothing?

Where the problem comes in is the expectation that everyone ought to adhere to their gender roles. They may be important, but not important enough to be forced upon people. Girls can like sports, and boys can like dolls and why should it matter to anyone else? It’s not the roles themselves, but rather forcing them upon people unwillingly that becomes harmful. I have a saying I like to use which is that “Girls can be boys too” (or vice-versa, depending on context), which is to say that girls can do things that other people might associate with boys (or the other way around) but that it really shouldn’t matter at all if they do.

There was one other point I wanted to raise, and it’s in reference to a quote I remember from the podcast that I can’t find the time code for, so if I’m misremembering it, I apologize. But someone (I want to say Beth) mentioned not understanding why people have difficulty grasping that biological sex is different from gender identity. I just want to put forward my hypothesis for why I think this is. For thousands of years, people have been treating gender as a binary, biological thing: having a penis makes you a man and having a vagina makes you a woman. Hell, this is even how I learned it as a kid. I think it can be difficult to get past thousands of years worth of linguistic programming to accept that your junk doesn’t determine your gender. Even I still have some problems with this. When I hear the term “transgender male” I think “person who was born with a penis” and I have to stop and thing “wait, no… that’s a person who was born female and now identifies as male”. It’s a problem that I’m slowly getting better at avoiding, but the point is it hasn’t yet become a natural thought process for me. So I’d just like to put out there that maybe some people who have trouble grasping this concept should be cut a little bit of slack. Unless they’re being dicks. Then feel free to verbally lambaste them all across the interwebs.

That’s all I really have to say on the issue. Once again, please feel free to tell me where I’m wrong (or even where I’m right) because this is just how I see it at the moment, and all of it is open to revision as I learn more and more.

Skepticon IV

So there haven’t been any updates lately. Part of that is that I found Zach Wiener (of SMBC fame) is doing his own teach-yourself-logic sort of thing  on his blog with his posts on discrete math, and doing it much better than I was, so I kind of lost motivation. Maybe I’ll go back to it at some point, but for now I’m done with boring incomprehensible logic posts.

Anyways, the last two days I’ve been watching videos of talks from Skepticon IV. I watched a talk about rationality and Vulcans on Star Trek (which appealed pretty much directly to me). I watched talks about angry atheists, genetics, and feminism. And these were all great.

Then I watched a talk by JT Eberhard about mental illness. I finished watching it about 10 minutes ago. And I am blown away.

I went into this video knowing basically nothing about JT. I had heard his name here and there on blogs and/or podcasts. I knew he was associated with the Secular Student Alliance, which is an amazing organization. But I had never really read anything by him or heard him speak. Three minutes into that video he sings Happy Birthday on stage in front of a crowd of people and I thought to myself “This man is really brave to stand up and sing in front of all those people.” And then the rest of the video happened and I realized how big of an understatement that truly was.

This is hard to write. I’m at something of a loss for words over it. So bear with me as I try to sort this out in words.

I don’t know if I have a mental illness. I don’t think I do, but I’ve never really been checked for one. I feel lonely a lot, and sometimes depressed. I don’t contemplate suicide. But the part of that talk that really made me think to myself was when he spoke about how it felt to be put on pills. Or to admit that there’s a problem. Sometimes when I’ve been depressed I’ve had a friend recommend therapy. I haven’t done it. And part of the reason for that is that it scares me. It scares me to admit that maybe I do have a problem. It scares me to think that I might have something that prevents me from being as happy as I might be. And as messed up as it is, it scares me to think that somehow it might not be my fault that I can’t just make myself happier. Which is odd: you’d think it would be comforting to think that it isn’t my own doing.

I don’t have problems as severe as JT or others. But I can definitely relate to some of the experiences he spoke about and in a strange way, I think that gives me strength: just to know that someone else feels like that and that it’s surmountable.

JT is definitely right, this needs to be something that the skeptical community leads the charge on. Judging from the reception this talk has been getting, we have a lot to look forward to. The future should be pretty cool.