Consent is One of the Best Things Secular Humanism Offers, and We Need to Emphasize That

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Sexual Assault, Abusive Language, Homophobia

At this point, Trump’s “October Surprise” is old news. I have no interest in rehashing what he said on this post, but anyone reading this likely knows about his comment about openly sexually assaulting women. This post isn’t about that.

Rather, it’s about the response to some of his people that publically decided to defend what he said. When Trump’s tape of him bragging about sexual assaulting women broke the internet, it cost him a lot of followers and supporters. However, there were a lot of people who thought this claim was trivial, and something that “men just say to other men”, like the motherfucking former mayor of New York, for example. Trump later gave a non-pology for his actions, claiming in an apology message and at his second debate that it was just “locker room talk”. Dissappointment-to-millennials-everywhere Tomi Lahren berated Trump abandoners, acting as if it was completely normal for men to behave that way.

I’m not surprised, but I am disappointed that people want to continue to defend the manchild cantaloupe in a wig. However, I’m most disappointed in those who think that people are just outraged because Donald used some sexually explicit language. For example, Tea Party blogger Mark Meckler thought it was hypocritical for the left to be upset about Trump’s comments while being supportive of Beyonce, who writes about wanting to be fucked and then taken to Red Lobster in her song, “Formation”. He couldn’t tell that Beyonce outwardly expressing her sexual desires was not the same thing as assaulting someone.

For a more high-profile case, Rush Limbaugh attempted to whine about the left by trying to make fun of the mere concept of consent.

“You know what the magic word, the only thing that matters in American sexual mores today is? One thing. You can do anything, the left will promote and understand and tolerate anything, as long as there is one element. Do you know what it is? Consent. If there is consent on both or all three or all four, however many are involved in the sex act, it’s perfectly fine. Whatever it is. But if the left ever senses and smells that there’s no consent in part of the equation then here come the rape police. But consent is the magic key to the left.”

This rant is equal parts hilarious, sad, and enlightening. It’s hilarious, because he more or less hit the nail on the head about what leftists and liberals value when it comes to sexual behavior* and he doesn’t even realize it. It’s sad, again, because he doesn’t realize it. But it’s enlightening, because it underlines the true problem we have in these discussions amidst the culture wars.

At some level, all of these defenses ignore the importance of consent. Sometimes they don’t factor it in, or in Limbaugh’s case they actively mock it. This does a lot of damage and dismissal to the amount of trauma that can go into unwanted physical contact, sexual or otherwise. But it’s all too clear at this point that conservatives have a fundamental problem grasping consent. They can’t tell the difference between a rape situation on television or a depraved sex scene, because it’s all just explicit content with naked bodies going at each other. To them, it’s all immoral.

Cultural conservatives largely base their morality off of religious narratives. If we look at their source material, the Bible, we can why their understanding of consent is so lacking. Frankly, the Bible doesn’t appear to give two shits about consent. Not only does it not give any credence to the important of consent, at times it completely dismisses consent altogether. If you’re curious, take a peek at what the Bible has to say about being sexually immoral.

Corinthians 7:1-4 dismisses any sex outside of marriage as “sexual immorality”. But it doesn’t stop there. Within the context of a married couple, one spouse is not capable of withholding sex from the other. They own each others’ bodies, so if one person wants to have sex, the other must comply.

“Now concerning the matters about which you wrote: “It is well for a man not to touch a woman.”  But because of cases of sexual immorality, each man should have his own wife and each woman her own husband.  The husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does; likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.”

At least it’s equally terrible for women and men in this passage?

The Old Testament laws don’t so much as give lip service to consent. In fact, they are fairly content with simply listing things that they find immoral, and saying it’s immoral “for I am the Lord your God.” Leviticus 19 is a particularly rife offender, and we can take a look at some of what it has to say in verses 19-23.

“You shall not approach a woman to uncover her nakedness while she is in her menstrual uncleanness. You shall not have sexual relations with your kinsman’s wife, and defile yourself with her. You shall not give any of your offspring to sacrifice them to Molech, and so profane the name of your God: I am the Lord.  You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination.  You shall not have sexual relations with any animal and defile yourself with it, nor shall any woman give herself to an animal to have sexual relations with it: it is perversion.”

The book lists off a bunch of acts it characterizes as immoral, but gives very flimsy justifications why it gives those labels. It’s immoral to sleep with the wife of your relative simply because it would defile you to do so. It’s not immoral to sacrifice children to another god because it violates their right autonomy and life, it’s immoral because it profanes the name of their god. The reason you’re not allowed to have gay sex is just cause “it is an abomination”. There’s no justification for why it is an abomination. It just is.

The foundations of sexual ethics are on shaky ground for the fundie Christian. When your foundation for ethics are simply based on what a book says or what your pastor says is immoral, it warps and poisons your worldview and causes serious damage to clear critical inquiry about what causes harm to others. It makes people focus on the acts that are labeled immoral, instead of why they’re immoral in the first place.

One of my formative experiences of becoming a humanist was arguing at my university with Sister Cindy “tampon lady” Smock, the wife of hellfire fetishist and college campus nuisance Brother Jed. She was happy to bring up the story of Lot to demonstrate that her god wanted to destroy people who engaged in homosexual behavior. I told her that the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah weren’t wrong because they were gay, but because they were rapists. They wanted to have sex with the angels in the story, and the angels did not comply. Cindy replied with, “they were gay rapists!” She was completely unable to divorce the immorality from the type of sexual behavior displayed. There was no consideration of the angels’ desires (or the desires Lot’s daughters, who were offered up for sex from the supposed most immoral man in the city). She was stuck behind a wall because she had been taught that gay sex was bad, and due to conformation bias anything that remotely mentioned sexual contact between men verified that she was correct.

Humanists don’t have this barrier to overcome. Humanists ground themselves in compassion, understanding, and evidence. We are able to discern the right thing based on the needs of other humans. We know that if someone doesn’t reciprocate our sexual advances, that we should stop immediately. We know that if someone doesn’t give us a “yes” when we ask if they want to fool around with them, then that isn’t a yes and we aren’t given the go-ahead. We know that if someone is incapacitated due to drugs or alcohol, then they don’t have the best judgment to consent, and that we shouldn’t take advantage of them in that state. Deviation from this behavior is sexual behavior without consent of one of the parties, or in other words, rape.

This is something that society at large is largely ignorant of, and you don’t need my examples to demonstrate that. I know that in my sex ed classes in junior high that I was never taught to value the consent of my sexual partner. I was taught about the bodily effects of puberty, contraceptives and their failure rates, and STDs, but not so much as a mention that unless both parties have informed consent, that is rape. In fact, the idea of consent between two parties wasn’t even introduced to me until college, and I was introduced to it via my peers. Young humans are going to seek out sexual fulfillment behind their parents’ backs, and if they are going to do so without recognizing the value of the autonomy of other humans then it is going to lead to some pretty big messes. This becomes a major problem when they turn into adults without even considering the consent of another person as they seek out sex.

While humanists are still fighting for recognition from society, consent is possibly the best thing we have to demonstrate our values. It is possibly the most triumphant example of humanist behavior, and it shows off our compassion for humans and the importance we give to individual bodily autonomy. It embodies the platinum rule, stating that we should “treat others the way that they want to be treated”, giving us a leg up over those stuck on the rule’s golden counterpart. If humanists were to make their voices heard under the banner of consent, and make the concepts of humanism and consent inseparable in most peoples’ eyes, then it’s one of the best things we could do to make atheists and nonbelievers accepted. To a layperson observing the culture war, they may see people on one side championing one sexual ethic based on an ancient book, and others championing an ethic based on the needs and boundaries of every individual involved. Who do you think will win out for the outsider?

By pushing a culture of consent, we mitigate the risk of violating boundaries of others. We aren’t met with the confusion of why the Trump Tape was bad, thinking that he did something bad just because it involved sex organs and married women. We recognize that it is bad because Trump violated someone’s body without her allowing it, and whether or not she was married had fuck all to do with it.**

Consent culture gives us a more robust toolset for our sexual ethic, whereas deciding what is and isn’t allowed based on what a book says is like memorizing multiplication tables without understanding what multiplication actually is. Sure you can know that six times seven is 42, but you won’t understand why. Once you come to a problem that goes beyond what you have memorized, you won’t have a clue what to do. If you’ve memorized the multiplication tables all the way up to twelve, then you won’t really know what to do when you have to multiply twenty-four by nineteen.

Sexual ethics are the same way. If a fundamentalist religious person comes across a sexual situation that the Bible or their pastor have said nothing about, they won’t have a robust tool for them to use in that situation. For example, maybe their partner wants to try butt stuff, and the Bible says nothing about butt stuff (I’ve checked). They are clueless as to what the right thing to do is. However, the humanist has everything to work with. They are able take into account the sexual needs of their partner. They are also able to look at the evidence to find out if it can be done safely and how. Once they communicate with their partner, then they are able to make a rational, informed decision that doesn’t violate any boundaries. Not only do they avoid harm, but they may actually make each others’ lives better as a result of trying something new in their sex life.

How is anyone able to argue against this? Arguing against a culture of consent is essentially arguing that it should be ok to treat others however we want no matter what the other person says. You aren’t able to say consent is wrong without implicitly stating that you’re ok with someone violating you.

Furthermore, while I’ve spent this post focusing on sexual consent, everything good about consent can be applied to other areas of life. Informed consent ties into assisted suicide, organ donation, and other medical decisions. It ties into reproductive rights, and how much we value the bodily autonomy of individuals. It ties into substance use, and why we’re okay with people temporarily harming their bodies. Furthermore, it ties into the laws that we establish based around these issues. If we look at these issues from a perspective of establishing consent of all parties involved, then this gives more legal freedom and autonomy to individuals, and establish legal areas where more information is necessary for the individuals. Who can argue against that?

Pushing a culture of consent should, then, be one of our top priorities as secular humanists. As our ultimate goal, we can create a culture where people value the autonomy of others, and learn how to respect each others’ bodies in a way where everyone is happy. It will create a world where people are more willing to seek out fulfillment, sexual or otherwise, and less fearful of being taken advantage of.

Until that culture arrives, it remains possibly the best example that we can give outsiders for why secular humanism is such a powerful force for good. Perhaps they won’t understand why we care so much about critical thinking and evidence, it’s not within their paradigm of values. They may not understand the causes we fight for, such as gender equality or LGBTQ rights, and that’s unfortunate. But if we are going to give people a starting point, consent is such a beautiful, perfect idea that we can provide for them. If you are a compassionate, ethical person, you can’t argue against it. So, as humanists, let’s make sure we keep pushing consent as part of our platform. It’s one of the best things we can do for both our movement and the world around us.

*The only addition I’d add is that it should be informed consent. This means that since minors don’t have the maturity to be truly informed, for example, sex acts with minor shouldn’t be condoned even if they attempt to give a go-ahead.

**Though if she did want to have sex with Trump for some reason then it would be good to communicate that with her partner.

The Dillahunty-Slick Debate: Can Chemicals Produce Logic?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I’ve had to slow down my blogging output recently, because graduate school has decided to make me drink responsibilities from a fire hose. A responsibility fire hose. I’m bad at metaphors.

However, in the past week, while I’ve been making figures dance on my computer screen, I’ve been listening to the debate between Matt Dillahunty and Matt Slick, hosted by the Bible and Beer Consortium, titled Is Secular Humanism superior to Christianity? I should emphasize that while that is the title of the debate, only Dillahunty appeared to want to have a discussion on the merits of Secular Humanism. Slick, on the other hand, decided that it was a trial of Glenn Beck-esque chalkboard free-association exercises to try and refute Secular Humanism by debunking naturalism instead. The debate went roughly as follows:

  1. Matt more or less rearranged his superiority of secular morality talk into the format of an opening argument, citing the foundation of human well-being as its source, and also citing its ability to change with new evidence as a strength.
  2. Slick tied Secular Humanism to philosophical naturalism (a position Dillahunty doesn’t hold), and then knocked it down utilizing many of the standard presuppositional apologetics, largely focusing on people not being able to trust physical evidence because they could be wrong.
  3. Whenever Dillahunty responded to Slick in a way that Slick appeared to not want to answer, Slick was able to dismiss it by giving the non-answer of, “that’s just your brain chemicals making you say that.”
  4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 for two hours.

You can watch the debate here:

For anyone who isn’t a fan of these types of debates (especially against presuppositionalists) I would recommend skipping it. This debate was a bit of a chore to listen to. However, this presented an opportunity to discuss some cool science shit, something I have neglected to do as NRR’s science expert.

Throughout the entire two hour, forty four minute debate, Slick appeared to only have one analogy in his analogy toolbox, which he brought up as a response to whether brains could do logic via purely naturalistic means. This response focused on brains functioning purely based on electrochemical signals in our neural networks, without any supernatural factors such as a soul weighing in. Slick repeatedly stated that a brain acting purely on physical mechanisms is like a vinegar and baking soda reaction, and that we could not gain “logical inference” from it.

Logical inference is a rigorous type of reasoning where the premises lead logically to its conclusion, synonymous with “deductive reasoning”. Simply put, you start with certain premises, which should lead to a certain conclusion. If the conclusion follows from the premises and the premises are true, then we can also state that the conclusion is true. However, if one of your premises aren’t true, then you can’t logically lead to your conclusion. For example, you establish that if A and B are true, then C is also true. But if A or B aren’t true, then you can’t infer that C is also true. For more concrete examples, check out this handy-dandy Wikipedia page.

Matt Slick brings up that purely physical reactions cannot use this reasoning, and therefore secular humanists “can’t account for logical inference”, while Christians can by inserting “god” in gaps as needed. Matt Dillahunty gave most of the reasons why this is a faulty argument against secular humanism, but I thought I’d use the opportunity go into how we can get reasoning out of purely physical processes.

In 2016 we rely on purely physical processes performing logical inference every day. If you are reading this on a screen, then you are relying on that process right now. Matt Slick relied on it through the whole debate as he took notes on his laptop. Circuits use logical inference every time we use them, as a result of simple inputs and outputs. Instead of “true” or “false” like the logic example above, integrated circuits rely on ON or OFF states in parts like transistors that your electronic device holds. If an electronic current is flowing through a transistor, then it is ON, which is a 1 in binary code. If there is no current then it is OFF, or a 0. Circuits can use these ones and zeros to perform all kinds of functions. In our logic example above, we required two true inputs to create a logically true output, which is analogous to an “AND gate” in a circuit. An AND gate has two inputs, and it will only output a 1 if both of the inputs are also 1. All the possibilities of inputs and the resulting outputs can be seen in the following truth table:



















If you look at the abstract logic example from above and submit 1 where you see “true” and 0 where you see “false”, you get these same inputs and outputs. This details how logic in circuits are directly analogous to abstract logical proofs. This is just one type of logical function that circuits can have, there are others too. There’s the OR gate, which requires just one of its inputs to be 1, or the XOR gate which requires either A or B to be 1 but not both. There are many other functions beyond just these.

Not only do purely physical processes perform logical functions, transistors are doing this constantly. If you’re reading this on a phone, you could be holding two billion transistors in your hand, which are constantly going on and off into their respective 0 and 1 states. Were physical processes unable to perform logical inference, none of our computers would work. Considering how integral computers are to our infrastructure and livelihood, if this type of functioning were to fail we would be what logicians refer to as “fucked”. Fortunately, circuits can perform this functionality.

Slick, as a former computer tech, knows how circuits work at a basic level under binary thinking. He establishes this in the Q&A when one audience member brings up a neural network. Of course, before the audience member even finishes his question, Slick interrupts him and insists that a computer model can’t show that a brain produces logical inference. The reason? Basically because it’s really damn hard to model the brain’s neural network and a brain and a circuit are not the same thing. Those statements are true, but then again, no analogy is perfect*. I’m really curious as to what the question actually was going to be. Slick seemed very insistent on shifting the conversation in the way that he wanted. I’m wondering if he would acknowledge that physical circuits produce logical inference or if he’d have some apologetic to explain that away as well.

Slick doesn’t state outright within the debate that physical processes can’t produce logical inference; he merely claims that chemicals cannot produce logical inference. Chemical processes are indeed a type of physical process, but there are physical processes that aren’t changes in chemical states (like circuits). When this audience member asks him whether physical processes can produce logic, he retreats to stating the following:

“One chemical state that leads to another chemical state… There is now way that has presented that we know of in any way, shape or form, how one state that leads to another chemical state produces proper logical inference.”

I find this interesting for two reasons, one because based on this answer he doesn’t rule out logical inference entirely from pure physics. I’m genuinely curious whether or not he thinks physical processes that aren’t chemical signals can produce logical inference. However, if he does think that circuits can produce logic, then he should have no problem accepting that chemicals can also produce the same thing.

Slick is right when he states that the brain is not the same thing as the model, particularly when comparing it to circuits. Circuits give their signals through the flow of electrons via wires, while the neurons in the brain go off of electrochemical signals like transferring calcium ions from one axon to another. However, in principle, they can do many of the same things. While, it’s true that neurons don’t give the same signal as a circuit, what’s important is that it gives a signal.

In fact, it’s simply not true that you can’t get logical functions out of changes in chemical states. Chemical state behaviors rely on inputs and outputs all the time. This is how we get things such as molecular circuits, molecular switches, and signaling pathways. At a very basic level, biochemicals undergo logical functions all the time, relying on certain inputs which create certain outputs. For example, a certain hormone will interact with a protein at a cell wall, which will release a signal comprised of something like ions into the environment, which will further come into contact with other proteins or receptors, releasing more signals, etc. Such behaviors are known as a signaling pathway, where the introduction of one chemical to the system may cause an output of a completely different chemical. A certain input gives a certain output, much like logic.


[Image: Signaling pathway in a cell, detailing the incredibly complex pathways chemicals go through in the cell to create certain outputs based on certain inputs. Source- Creative Commons by Roadnottaken]

In fact, there are people who are able to create genetic “circuits” that give logical outputs much in the same way that electronic circuits give logical outputs. Christopher Voigt is a researcher at MIT who has essentially created a programming language for cells, titled Cello software. A researcher is able to design a simple genetic circuit that has similar logical gates discussed above, but instead of wires, the genes output chemicals through a particular pathway of gates until there’s a final output. The paper which discusses this (which is unfortunately behind a paywall) states that 37 circuits that they designed gave a clear ON or OFF output as a result of a desired input, meaning that they were following through logical processes to produce a desired state. To put it in Matt Slick’s terms, there was a difference between one chemical state and another, which was achieved through the use of a logical process.

Let’s look at the brain then, keeping in mind that I’m far from an expert in neurology. We know the basic functioning of how neurons work, transferring an electrochemical signal from one neuron to the other, which can change the total state of the brain when neurons in bulk give signals. We know that the brain receives many inputs from neural pathways that reach across the body and multiple sensory organs, as well as giving outputs to other organs. Is it too much of a stretch to think that the brain can receive inputs like words and numbers from sounds and visuals, translate them through a series of complicated neuron signals, and create a brain state that produces a correct answer? Given that we can do that for simple circuits and molecular reactions, it’s not exactly far-fetched to conclude that a complicated organ such as the brain can do the same thing. It doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, as no physical process is, but absolute certainty doesn’t appear to be attainable for most beliefs anyway.**

We don’t know a lot about the brain, still. Even in 2016 neurology seems like a wide-open frontier, and there’s a lot to discover. Is consciousness just a certain pattern of signals that we perceive as our own identity? How do we store memories? Could we “solve” the brain, such that we could read someone’s mind or make our own? There’s a lot to say about it, but one thing we know for sure is that it’s complex, and we have far more to learn. When Slick interrupted the questioner, he made sure to push his answer towards emphasizing that the brain had been designed and it’s far too difficult to model, at least for now. From my perspective, maybe there’s some mystical soul, a ghost in the machine, driving our bodies to move, but I see absolutely no reason to accept that as true. While I don’t claim to have perfect knowledge of how brains work, it seems perfectly reasonable that they could perform amazing, though imperfect, logical tasks, especially considering its complexity. Perhaps Slick is content in saying that our brains can never perform logical inference, but I’m not. That seems like an unjustified claim. This uncertainty means that we have to put more work into figuring it out, and a mere appeal to the supernatural doesn’t do anything but make us curtail our attempts to understand it. Our brain is far more than fizz, so let’s investigate what it is!

For the record, Slick poo-pooed the questioner for drawing an analogy between a brain and the model comprised of circuits, saying that since we can’t model the brain and it’s so complex that it would be silly to compare the two. I find this incredibly dishonest coming from a man who spent almost all of his speaking time comparing the brain to a simple reaction between vinegar and baking soda. He does not get to make a ridiculously reductive comparison, and then shame someone for someone making something that is far closer in design, even though it’s imperfect. For this reason I found his treatment of that questioner incredibly dishonest.

So, to sum up:

  • Simple processes like electron currents in a circuit can create logical inference.
  • Chemical reactions can change chemical states in a similar way, going through a logical pathway much like we treat logical arguments.
  • Brains are comprised of a network of neurons, which transfer signals to each other from cell to cell through simple electrochemical processes that give rise to much more complex behavior.
  • It would be special pleading to say that neurons can’t send simple chemical signals to each other in a way that other chemicals can.
  • We still have a lot to learn, and a simple statement like “the brain can’t work like that” is unsatisfactory.

These are the lessons for this blog post. The lessons from the debate are entirely separate. I would hope, though, that the biggest lesson that Slick took away from this debate is that if he’s going to argue against secular humanism, he’d better stick to the topic he signed up for if he wants to be taken seriously.

Edit: Matt Dillahunty responded to me on Twitter regarding my points.

@Matt_Dillahunty: That wasn’t Slick’s point. This is about whether there’s a solid, objective foundation for the reliability of reason

@nrrprophet: Not saying it was the foundation of his arguments, but he made claims that chemicals couldn’t create logical inference, no?

@Matt_Dillahunty: Not at all. He’s pointing out that a materialist worldview can’t ever move beyond the brain to justify reason.

@nrrprophet: I quoted him stating that chemical rxns can’t produce logical inference. I really value your feedback though.

@nrrprophet: if he thinks that circuits can’t produce logical inference, then my points here are moot except as a science lesson

@Matt_Dillahunty: may have been a slip… Because that’s not his objection

It may have been a slip up, but he raised it multiple times. Dillahunty addressed the meat of the issues they were debating, I have no reason to go into that further. The point of this post is to address whether or not physical processes can perform inductive logic, and Slick claims that they can’t. The logical absolutes are irrelevant to my point here, but if they are the foundation of Slick’s arguments, then I haven’t addressed them here. Hopefully this is informative to readers, though.


*As my partner-in-crime Ari has stated once, the only perfect analogy is a tautology. That is, the only time an analogy will not break down is when you are comparing something with itself, which is not particularly useful.

**It’s worth noting that in this debate, Matt Slick claimed not to be appealing to absolute certainty. This is wise, as Dillahunty has made it clear at his debate with Sye Ten Bruggencate that he doesn’t care about absolute certainty. In real physical processes, circuits fail, molecules decompose, and in a reaction the chemicals will never be used up 100%. That’s ok. We can still discuss the logic being formed recognizing that sometimes you will get the wrong logical output due to occasional failure. As long as we look at the inputs and functions of the logical process, we can determine its most likely output, recognizing that we won’t be absolutely certain.

Five Reasons Why I Criticize Other Atheists

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

It has not gone unnoticed by me that a lot of my posts are not focused on the harms of religion specifically. In fact, many of my posts specifically admonish behaviors I see largely in atheist groups and communities. A cursory glance at the posts I’ve made with the most views shows that I spend a considerable amount of time criticizing nonsensical atheist positions, criticizing atheists I disagree with, and criticizing behaviors I find unhelpful in atheist communities. You’d almost think that I have a thing against atheists, but that’s far from true, especially considering I am an atheist. There are a lot of reasons I spend my time criticizing atheists, and I’d like to go into a few of them.

  1. I hold a higher standard for my peers

Perhaps this is the least rational conclusion why I criticize other atheists. After all, atheism is only a response to a single question. In a largely Christian America, the question usually means, “do you think there’s a conscious entity that made the entire universe without any evidence that he did so, created everyone wicked and sinful and destined to failure, redeemed people through arbitrary rules that he created making him sacrifice himself to himself, and also he doesn’t want penises in buttholes?” The answer to this question is not a hard one. It’s difficult to come to the conclusion that anyone who doesn’t accept this claim is legitimately smarter. You can find some data that conclude that atheism is correlated with higher IQs, or more education. However, that doesn’t mean that there’s a causal link between the two (correlation doesn’t mean causation), and some people even dispute the correlation entirely.


However, a large amount of my friends are atheists. I enjoy talking to atheists about things that atheists are typically into (the harms of religion, podcasts, which gelatinous fluid Pat Robertson’s face most resembles, etc.). I value the conversations I have with most of them, and we tend to share the same values. This does not mean that they are necessarily smarter, but I do happen to think they, like me, are generally on the right side of the culture wars and have the best ideas for making the world a better place. I want our shared values to be excellent values, and therefore the ones that we share should be the best we can possibly make them. As long as we use conversation as a means to explore our thoughts and positions, I am going to do my part and try to hold us all to a high standard.

Even if my atheist peers weren’t as smart as the general population and we didn’t have the best ideas, that would be all the more reason to correct them more. I want to make my groups and friend circles be the best they can be. Which leads me to my next point.

  1. I want to improve the communities I partake in

For readers who are unaware, No Religion Required is a podcast, and it has a wonderful listener base. Every week you see the same friendly faces in the chatroom. We have a loving community that Bobby and Ashley have wonderfully cultivated. We have a Facebook group lovingly called the No Religion Required Family, which is entirely apropos as it reflects the inviting and loving space that it is. There are people of all walks of life who are welcome as long as they are respectful of each other. It’s not even explicitly atheist, as there are many who aren’t sure of their beliefs, and there is at least one friendly Christian.  I have mentioned before that I think one of the things that I think atheists need to focus on in the future is developing small communities with specific focuses, and this listener base is one of my good examples.

While we have many shared values, it hardly means there’s groupthink restricting our thought, and there are many diverse perspectives. We have progressives, centrists, anarchists, and libertarians. We have firebrand atheists and diplomat atheists, and people who aren’t atheists at all. The group is a respectful space for discussion, but sometimes it may not get so friendly. There have been times when the discussion wasn’t so respectful, and there were legitimate fights. I’m not for that. I’m for respectful discourse. When I criticize atheists, I am usually criticizing terrible ideas and behaviors that lead to unnecessary conflict. Granted, my ideas are not only applicable in atheist spaces, but in any space where there needs to be more respect in discourse. When I share my ideas, it’s largely so that the groups I inhabit can benefit from them. If anything I have to say has merit, then we can all share it. This doesn’t just go for me, but for anyone in the family. They are always welcome to post in the group, or even make a post on this blog (you can too by submitting your posts here). But when we share our good ideas, our communities benefit. While I have plenty of things to say about the poor ideas that religious people have, I don’t spend my time in religious spaces, and therefore I don’t get as much personal benefit from this. However, If I’m able to say something that makes the conversation better in my communities, then not only do I benefit, but also the people I care most about.

This doesn’t just go for the small atheist groups that I’m a part of. There are also problems that atheists run into in the larger communities and movements. I don’t tend to make large, sweeping posts criticizing problems from all across the atheosphere, because this blog doesn’t get much reach. However, sometimes I say something that resonates with other atheists, which allows people to share them and spread ideas that they think have merit. Such was the case when I wrote my piece criticizing atheists who insist that there isn’t really an atheist movement. It turns out that people I admire, such as Seth Andrews, Dave Silverman, and Ed Brayton found in it things they had wanted to say for a long time but haven’t, and they shared that piece around. Now, if they get annoying critics in the peanut gallery who trot out lazy denial of the atheist movement, they have an easy thing to link to and share so they don’t have to say much. Perhaps even the naysayers came across it and may have had their minds changed a bit. If that happened at all, that’s good. Because it’s relevant to my next point.

  1. Atheists are the most likely people to listen to me

I’m not really a famous person. Even the most famous atheists in the world (currently Dawkins and Harris) are barely household names. Even the “monsters of atheism” like Matt Dillahunty and Hemant Mehta are only recognizable in places like secular conferences and gatherings. No Religion Required is a somewhat popular podcast, but only popular within atheist circles, and I’m a co-host who at this point isn’t even appearing regularly on it. I’m not going to be a public figure anytime soon, which is perfectly fine by me.

However, since joining the crew to regularly say dick jokes into a microphone and make fun of the Bible, I’ve met a lot of atheists. By my estimate, I’ve probably made 400 atheist friends on Facebook in the past two years because of this. I’ve made a Facebook and Twitter page exclusively for the show, and I have ~350 followers on each platform. These are largely atheists, or at least people who don’t rely on faith in their daily lives. As such, whatever I say is going to be seen and heard by atheists.

Atheists usually don’t need me to tell them that faith is an unreliable tool to gain knowledge, or that Christianity is full of flaws, or that we have a thorough understanding of evolution and its mechanisms. Even if I do think these things, and even if I think more people should recognize these, I don’t need to preach to the choir. There are much more prominent voices who are saying these things, and often much better. When I do go into counter-apologetics, or get into flaws of Christianity, it’s if I have things to say that haven’t really been said before. I’m coming in after of multiple atheist movements have been here for decades, and have largely responded to religious nonsense in many, many ways, so I’m not going to say much that hasn’t already been said before. And I’m perfectly happy with that.

The point is that we have largely made our case against the religious. We are gaining momentum and that’s good, we should keep doing that. But there’s other work we can do. Now that we’ve made a dent in today’s culture, we need communities that help each other decide how to live, using tools like secular humanism and critical thought. That is one of the roles I see myself in partaking in. So while I’m not out protesting church and state violations on foot, I can still do the work that needs to be done here.

  1. I’m most likely to listen to other atheists

I love arguing with other people, and dishing out disagreements with my friends. While being an atheist doesn’t logically lead to being smarter or better critical thinkers, you can find plenty of them who occupy atheist spaces, and often times the stereotype of the argumentative internet atheist holds very true. Atheists and skeptics are never going to agree on everything, and they will often let that be known proudly. If I’m wrong about something, they are often the first to let me know. And that’s good, I don’t want to spread misinformation, so I’m glad that they’re here to keep me honest and factual.

It also helps that we often have common ground in our conversations. Again, atheism only implies a lack of god belief, but there do tend to be a few shared values and opinions among nonbelievers and freethinkers. It’s often nice having conversations where there isn’t a huge gap in worldview. Both of us know that we can safely ignore what the Bible says, and we aren’t worried about blaspheming. We can focus on real-world problems, and not waste time on the supernatural. We can talk about honing our skepticism skills and developing our toolbox for dialogue and critical inquiry. When we disagree, even violently, it’s not about how many angels are dancing on a pin. It’s about policy and ethics, and they are often firmly grounded in evidence. This isn’t the same for many god-believers. I’m happy to argue with them, and I will. But if their argument starts with, “The Bible says…” then I know that the conversation will not be that productive. Again, I will still debate them, but my conversation will not so much focus on something like a real-world issue, but more of a focus on why we should follow religious rules from a holy text at all. There’s nothing wrong with having this discussion, but I’ve had it a million times, and I know how it will likely go. Perhaps I have a chance of planting seeds, but ultimately I will not grow that much or learn from that conversation, because I’ve had it before. When I’m talking to another skeptic, we both have far more of an opportunity to learn from each other, and they are far more likely to raise something I hadn’t considered before.

Some of my favorite debates are between atheists for this reason. I, like many of my peers, are looking forward to the debate between Bart Ehrman and Robert Price on whether a historical Jesus existed. I also learned a lot in Matt Dillahunty’s debate with a representative from secular pro-life. And there was much to be gained from the three part debate series on Atheistically Speaking between two prominent atheist voices on social justice issues. None of these had to be justified with “because the Bible said so” or had to do with the existence of souls or had any ties to a church doctrine. These were based on facts where people didn’t have to overcome a massive spiritual divide to converse an issue. I’m not going to pretend I didn’t have a side on any of these debates or think that they were equally matched. At the same times, these debates were productive and informative to me specifically because there wasn’t that barrier to overcome, so we could get to the real meat of the issues more effectively.


[Image: Matt Dillahunty and a Secular Pro-Life representative, Kristine Kruszelnicki, square off in a debate over abortion at the 2012 Texas Freethought Convention]

This is also true of conversations I have with progressive Christians who have shared values with me. We may not agree with each others’ supernatural views, but we don’t have to talk about that. Likewise, we have a mutual interest in helping the marginalized, because we have a shared sense of empathy between us. We often don’t have to spend time focusing on why we want to help people, we can discuss how, or share personal uplifting stories of how to help others. There are plenty of Christians that I am far happier to converse with about death with dignity, reproductive health, LGBTQ issues, etc. compared to some atheists I know.

Again, this doesn’t mean that I require a certain amount of agreement for a discussion to be worth my time. I do have to pick my battles, though. I’m willing to converse with people over wide ranges of disagreement. I just find that the ones that are most worth my time are ones where we don’t have to focus on fundamental facts of how things work. For the sake of my sanity and mental health, I just tend to spend those out a bit more.

  1. Ultimately, atheists as a collective have flaws, just like any other group

To state the obvious, atheists are humans. This means they are imperfect. As atheists, this doesn’t mean that we think that we deserve to burn forever for eternity. However, within our own circles, we tend to perpetuate misinformation. We have our own biases, and sometimes we may tend to spread something around that makes us feel good but isn’t totally correct. We may be willing to pass around a meme or two without fact-checking it. It’s good to keep ourselves accountable just like any other humans.

At one point, I made a rather incendiary post directly targeted at atheists in particular:

“For atheists who think that words don’t matter and don’t hurt people, you should STFU about:
Childhood indoctrination
Thoughts of hell leading to panic attacks
Bullying in schools
Donald Trump
Domestic Abuse

When you’re done talking about these, maybe you’ll have a consistent worldview that I’m willing to discuss”

Some of these are tied to religious harm, which admittedly not all atheists may care about, but my audience tends to do so. I got a ridiculous amount of backlash for it on social media. Most of it didn’t even disagree with the bulk of the post, but rather that I had the audacity to criticize atheists specifically who think that these examples are harmful. Anyone could have the hypocritical view that words don’t hurt, but those things are harmful, not just atheists. So why have the audacity to call them out?

Because atheists are people too, and they deserve to be called out. Sure, I could have easily called out “people” who do something wrong, but would that have the same impact? The examples I listed are common problems that atheists will often discuss. But there’s also a large contingent of atheists who show a large amount of verbal disrespect and condescension towards other human beings under the guise of “rational discourse” and “I can’t hurt you, I’m just using my words.” This is a big problem endemic to atheist communities, largely because atheists are flawed beings just like the rest of us. And it’s our job to keep each other accountable.

If I just said, “people” instead of atheists, would I have had as much impact? Perhaps the atheists scrolling by may have thought I was making a criticism of people in general, and wouldn’t have taken the time to look through the list. Perhaps due to my internet moniker, an atheist thought this was a post by a religious person attacking atheists, only to discover that I’m “one of them”, and really lobbying a criticism at my own community to improve it. Either way, I’m not particularly swayed that I should have generalized my criticism because #allpeoplemakemistakes. I’m glad I focused my criticism on my own tribe, and I think more people noticed it as a result.

Hopefully this makes sense. As atheists, we can learn from each others’ mistakes and criticisms, and learn how to grow together. We should recognize that it’s not our nonbelief that makes us better people, it’s our actions and how we treat others, and we can always stand to grow. I want to help other atheists grow, and I’m happy when they help me grow.  Let’s grow together.

Disagreements and Differences of Opinion are Overrated

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

For those who are unaware, it’s election season. For those of us actively informed in the election process, this means looking at the policies and opinions that our current candidates hold, and comparing that to our own. For many of us, this also means discussing and arguing among our peers over which candidate we should vote for, causing us to re-evaluate our own positions based on what others say.

Skeptics, true to our nature, have a wide array of opinions this season. Elections and politics have a lot fuzzier evidence than the hard sciences and medical science, and all the major candidates (four, if you want to include the two that won’t get elected) engage in bullshit to some degree or another. To the skeptics, it’s a game in determining whose bullshit we are willing to support along with the rest of their platforms. Among the skeptics, the major opinions are to vote for Clinton (including votes to stave off authoritarian and potential existential-threat-in-chief Trump), voting third-party, or avoiding voting altogether to protest the entire shitshow that’s been going on.

If I wasn’t in a purple state, I’d be more inclined to vote for a candidate that certainly won’t win, but I’m not going to waste time thinking about that. My voting values include doing the least harm, so for now I will do all I can to prevent nine electoral votes from going to a man who uses abuse tactics as a campaign strategy and has a worrying relationship with the truth, and say that #imwithheriguess. I can’t say I’m not sympathetic to the third-party voters though. One person I respect a lot who will be doing so is Patheos blogger Dan Arel, who has stated that he is joining the Socialist Party USA, and will likely vote for them simply to help promote the ideals of the party and help them gain traction. He, like me, can respect the diversity of opinion of progressive voters, and I certainly can’t criticize him for contributing to a Trump presidency, as he lives in California.

However, in the linked blog post above (and elsewhere) he has stated that he won’t tell others how to vote. I’ve been meditating on this for a long time. Who this country elects as commander-in-chief has severe implications for the next four-to-eight years. Who a large number of other humans vote for can severely affect me. Why wouldn’t I want to tell others where I think their vote will be best placed? I wouldn’t force someone to vote a particular way, or even coerce them. However, I think it’s perfectly within reason that I should be able to petition people’s reason and compassion by telling them what I think. As autonomous human beings, they are more than welcome to consider what I say freely, try to refute what I say, or even refuse to engage as I am not entitled to have a conversation with anyone. Fortunately, I don’t really have any serious disagreement with Dan, this small difference between us is merely a convenient topical frame for a larger point that I want to discuss in a blog post.

As skeptics, we profess that we value diversity of opinion all the time, and that we enjoy having people around that disagree with us. But I often wonder how true that is. If a friend and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a matter of fact, then at least one of us is wrong. That has implications with the way that we lead our lives. If we see the world in a faulty manner, then we are more prone to behaving in ways that don’t align with the world surrounding us. If someone thinks that vaccines cause autism or that homeopathy works, that could easily lead to somebody wasting their money on a scam, getting sick, or even endangering the lives of those around them. In these examples, major harm can come of people simply because they don’t have an accurate view of the world, and sometimes this can affect completely innocent parties. Therefore, we have a moral obligation to make sure as many people as possible are informed on these facts.

For this reason, perhaps diversity of opinion is overrated.



[Image: two shots from the Marvel Studios film Captain America: Civil War. On the left, Steve Rogers (Captain America) shouts angrily at Tony Stark (Iron Man), who looks bewildered in the second frame]

What? Did you just hear that from a self-identifying skeptic?

Yes, there are trivial differences between humans such as what ice cream flavor is the best or who played the best Doctor. Yes, often the best way to improve our understanding of issues is to have our own perspectives challenged. Yes, the human perspective is fundamentally incapable of understanding 100% of the facts on anything for many reasons, and therefore our knowledge will always be incomplete and flawed. But what that implies is that we are all running around as beings who don’t see the world as it really is. This is a problem. It may be a small problem. It may be a miniscule problem. But it is a problem nonetheless. How big of a problem is it? That is left as an exercise to the reader.

Some differences of opinion are not trivial. Thinking that gay people are inherently perverted and don’t deserve Civil rights has fundamental implications for how society treats them. Thinking that what matters is preparing our life for an eternal afterlife implies that we won’t treat our current lives with the respect and actions that it deserves. Believing that running a plane into a building will reward someone with paradise and 72 virgins could lead to the killing of thousands. How many people are willing to shrug these examples aside by chalking it up to diversity of opinion?


[Image: Bill Nye giving a presentation. The caption reads, “If I agreed with you, we would both be wrong.”]

This is one reason that the simple phrase “diversity of opinion” has become almost meaningless. There are objectively good ways of enacting certain policies. There are objectively good ways of treating other humans. There are objective facts about the world around us. When someone criticizes me for not respecting someone for simply “having a different opinion” when they want to control which fucking bathrooms people can use, I have to roll my eyes. Yes, I value differing personalities and the different ideas that humans share. That is a good thing. But some ideas are also genuinely ill-informed, have little to no redeeming value, and genuinely harm people. I don’t particularly value “diversity of opinion” when one side of an issue has facts and the other simply doesn’t. And even when both sides have some facts to support their case, I see that as a situation that hasn’t been resolved, which means that some people are at least partially wrong. This is not optimal. To me, “diversity of opinion” is not as much something to be celebrated, but rather an inevitable result of imperfect humans interacting with each other.

Part of this comes from the perspective of someone from an engineering education. It’s hard to not look at things as an optimization problem. If an engineer is operating a chemical plant, they have to make it function the best way possible within certain constraints. For an oil refinery, they might want to produce the best oil possible, but this usually isn’t optimal. A refinery could try and produce pure propane or butan, but this would involve high equipment costs, meaning they have to spend more money the purer they want their products, and this ignores that no chemical is really going to be 100% pure. It would also mean that the company has to produce less chemical per day, meaning they sell less, leading to lower profits. Conversely, they could try to make as much product as possible, but this may make the quality of the chemical lower, so that certain clients will stop purchasing in the future. This also incurs higher equipment costs of its own (faster pumping, more equipment replacements, etc.). It’s an engineer’s job to help the plant operate to the best of its abilities, which for a business means getting the most money. This often involves finding a happy minimum, where there is the best balance of things like low equipment cost, quality product, and high production rate, to get the biggest income at the end of the day.

My model is similar. I want to optimize how close my perspective of the world is to the actual world I occupy. If I want to do this, then I should be continuously refining my perspective and seeing how well it matches with further observations, and then adjusting my beliefs accordingly. I have a vested interest in, as Matt Dillahunty has stated, “Believing as many true things as possible, and as few false things as possible”. However, since I inhabit a world with humans that are similarly flawed as I am, I also have a vested interest in holding them accountable to that as well. Furthermore, they have a vested interest in doing the same to each other and to me. If we want everyone to make the best decisions that they can, shouldn’t we want everyone to have an accurate worldview? And if there’s only one natural world, shouldn’t that imply that we would be best off once we are all on the same page?

Choosing When To Engage With Wrong Beliefs

Of course, we do have limited time and energy to correct for inaccuracies, so of course we are going to have to choose our battles. This is why we are largely able to set aside small differences of opinion to work for a common goal. I have plenty of progressive Christian friends who I am happy to work alongside with, perhaps at a homeless shelter or to protest a certain injustice with. I’m happy that we have, for example, the Reverend Barry Lynn as the executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State. He is an ordained minister that also recognizes the value of eliminating religious privilege, even though he would personally benefit from it. That is undeniably a good thing. At the same time, I can’t help but shake the fact that it’s a bad thing that we disagree on other things. If I am right, then he is largely devoting a significant portion of his livelihood to something that is a complete waste of time, and he is devoting his life to a lie. If he is right, then I am not acting in accordance with the wishes of his god, and could easily suffer consequences as a result of that (though the god he conceives of is decidedly less fire-and-brimstone than many protestants, so I probably wouldn’t suffer eternal hellfire). This isn’t a true dichotomy, but we certainly can’t both be right, and therefore at least one of us will have consequences of not having an accurate worldview. If one of us actually is more right than the other, then the ideal situation would be for the more inaccurate person to change their opinion. Even if it’s a minor shift in perspective, it would be a moral act to do so.

Ultimately, though, it’s often not a big enough problem for me to care. I’m not convinced that I can change any given person’s opinion on most things, and religious opinions are often so closely tied to the identity that any challenge is perceived as an attack on the person who holds them. When I pick and choose my battles, I have to consider both how much energy I’m willing to contribute to a discussion, and how effective I will be. It’s possible that by challenging someone’s deeply-held beliefs, I will create a backfire effect and cause that person to hold on to their beliefs even stronger. If I perceive a Christian’s principles as mostly harmless, I’ll be happy to give their inaccurate beliefs a pass most of the time. However, in a different context, it will be more beneficial to challenge small differences of opinion. I happen to enjoy going back-and-forth on small differences of opinion with my friends, and if I found another Christian who got that same level of enjoyment out of it, then of course we should engage with each other. Even if neither of us changed our opinions by the end of the conversation, the elevated levels of dopamine from a respectful, engaging conversation would be good enough to warrant it.

My ability to actually convince people to change their minds also plays a lot into where I pick my battles. If I am going to engage in a debate, I want to make sure I can represent my position effectively. Otherwise, I run the risk of appearing dishonest or misinformed, therefore tarnishing my position and everyone else who holds a similar perspective. If I am engaged in a discussion with a Christian apologist, I will tend not to have debates over what the Bible says, save for a few verses that I know very well. While I probably know the Bible better than most people, I’m not willing to say that I know it better than any given apologist. For that, I would defer to my bossman Bobby Cary, who has much better Biblical knowledge than I do. If I were to say something untrue about the Bible, then my opponent feels a bit more justified in thinking that atheists are incorrect. However, I understand epistemology and science very well, and I am happy to challenge religion on those grounds. I can make a good case for why faith is not a very good reason to accept that the Bible is accurate, then I should attack religion on those grounds instead. Furthermore, I can build a better, more accurate, and more testable worldview than my opponent by appealing to scientific evidence, and I’m certainly well-informed on that. If I’m going to spend my limited energy and time challenging perspectives, it’s going to be spent on battles I can justify.

This exemplifies the importance of staying in our lane. I can’t just rush into a conversation with people who are clearly wrong about something if I’m not thoroughly informed as well (I admittedly have a problem following my own advice). Even if my position is actually correct, if I don’t have good reasons for holding my positions, then I am not rationally justified in making any of my claims. That is problematic, and if someone were to point out that I have bad reasons for holding my beliefs, then it would be a morally good thing for them to do so. This is one reason I tend to avoid things such as gun control debates. I don’t spend as much time informing myself on those types of issues as others, but I do happen to hold the position that we should at least implement some common-sense restrictions. However, ammosexuals tend to come in headstrong and challenge anyone who wants to implement any sort of control whatsoever (I won’t be surprised if I get a few as a result of mentioning it here). As a result of me not being entirely informed on this particular subject, it’s likely that they could find a few things that are incorrect about my position, and it would be good for them to do so. However, even if they were capable of doing so, this does not mean that their overall stance is correct. Even if I think they are wrong, I will choose to allow someone else who is more informed than I am to take up that fight.

Addressing Accusations of Intolerance or Hubris

The point remains, though, that if people disagree on an issue, then at least one person is wrong. The optimal situation would be for everyone to get on the same page, the page that is correct. Therefore, it is a moral good for people to challenge each other when they perceive someone to be wrong. At this point, the challenger is often criticized for being intolerant of other viewpoints for merely contesting a claim that someone else is making. It’s either that, or they are accused of thinking that only they are right, and they couldn’t possibly wrong about this. I’m not going to say that nobody is ever intolerant of mere differences of opinion, or that nobody thinks they are correct on everything. However, if someone thinks that they are justified in calling someone out, then why wouldn’t they?

If I believe something to be true, then I must necessarily think I’m correct in holding that belief. If I didn’t think that something is correct, then I wouldn’t believe it to be true. If I’m a rational human being, then I should only believe things that I think are true. This all sounds tautological, but some people perceive someone’s belief that they are correct on an issue to be an indication of cockiness or hubris. But why would we hold an opinion that we don’t believe is true? We wouldn’t, and in fact, it’s impossible to do so. If you ask me my opinion on any given issue, I can tell you my opinion. If you ask me if you think I’m right on something, and I’m being consistent and honest, then I will tell you of course that I think I’m right.

I may not, however, be speaking as an expert on a topic, and therefore I will not have a high degree of certainty in that belief. I happen to think, for example, that consciousness is a pattern of chemical and electrical signals happening within a brain. However, as a non-neurologist, I am well aware that my perception of consciousness could be wildly inaccurate. Therefore, I am not willing to rush into a heated discussion between neurologists, psychologists, or any related persons to try to make my case. Furthermore, since I recognize that I am ill-informed, I can recognize that due to my lack of certainty that my position could drastically shift with new information. But, as with all things, the more informed I am on a topic, the smaller and smaller those shifts in my opinion will be. It will be useful for experts to correct me, and it is good for them to tell me when I’m wrong. This does not, however, mean I can’t share my opinion if asked or get into a discussion with another non-expert, though I will feel obligated to disclose my non-expertise.

This uncertainty should not deter us from having discussions, though. In fact, this uncertainty should encourage us to discuss with others. I we are ill-informed, then we can become informed by someone with better information. This doesn’t change that we think we are right on any given belief we hold. We can also doubt our capabilities at the same time, the two notions aren’t exclusive. As skeptics, we should doubt ourselves, even if we think we are justifiably correct. It reminds me of this particular quote from Richard Feynman,

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things. But I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don’t know anything about…”

Even when we are well-informed on a topic, we are well within the bounds of being wrong, and that’s ok. As someone working towards a PhD, it’s the job of my peers and my boss to correct me when I’m wrong. I know my subject better than 99.999% of the United States population, but I still don’t have an absolutely clear picture of how chemicals work, and that’s ok. But if I’m going to devote my life’s work to advancing human knowledge or engineering better devices, then won’t I do the most good by being accurate? Therefore, won’t I benefit from being corrected by those around me?

Therefore, when someone wants to correct us on something, we should not immediately jump to the conclusion that said person is a know-it-all who thinks they’re right on everything. In most circumstances, we should allow for charitable discussion and consider that they could be informed about something that we aren’t aware of. Once they give their case, we can evaluate whether they are justified in their position based on the evidence that they provide.

Differences of Opinion Are Simply Problematic

Ultimately, for matters of fact, diversity of opinion is not terribly useful. I don’t have to claim that my opinion is necessarily the most correct one to make a statement like this. This is not an appeal to ideological purity, but rather a recognition that there are people who are more correct than others, and that we should prefer correct beliefs over incorrect ones. Often, when people appeal to a “difference of opinion”, this ends the conversation on a bit of a sour note. To me, it implies that the person recognizes that at least one of us is wrong, but that’s a good thing. I don’t think that’s valuable. I’d rather end the conversation recognizing that the discussion isn’t fruitful anymore, and while it’s undesirable that someone still has an error, we aren’t obligated to focus on that for the time being.

To be clear, I don’t think disagreements are a terrible thing either. As detailed above, it’s unavoidable that two people will simply disagree on something. Mostly, I’m just pointing out that we don’t live in a perfect universe, and we should recognize that more. It’s not some grand evil, it’s more like an itty-bitty evil. It could potentially cause problems, but we probably want to spend our time and energy on things we find more problematic. The sky is not falling because everyone disagrees with each other on at least some things. The point is that we value mere “differences of opinion” far too much, perhaps as lip service to the other side, at the risk of avoiding productive discourse. We would be better suited recognizing that as small of a problem our disagreements are, they are still a problem.

Appeals to differences of opinion are often used to shut down conversations. Often times, after a heated debate between a Christian and a nonbeliever, the Christian will find themselves unable to justify their claims. At that point, they are able to say, “well, we can just agree to disagree”, and end the conversation there. By doing this, they end the conversation propping up both sides as having equal merit. Since once side believes there’s a cosmic entity that created the entire universe and also cares about you masturbating, and one side emphatically does not believe that it is a justified claim, it’s highly unlikely that both sides have merit. Appeals to differences of opinion justify the ignorance of the side without good support. To pull a bit from Asimov, it props up the notion that, “my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.” This is also a tactic pulled by trolls in comment sections, which serves to paint social justice minded skeptics as people who cannot tolerate diversity of thought. It’s certainly good to treat individuals with respect and to allow people to share their thoughts, but making this appeal often ignores that some people are simply wrong.


[Image: a duck meme, known as the actual advice mallard. The caption reads, “If you’re losing an argument, ‘agree to disagree'”]

What this does not mean is that we as skeptics should demand ideological purity, and that we should force everyone to think like us. Quite the opposite, recognizing that disagreement is at least a small problem means that we should invite conversation more. While any given discussion may not change anyone’s mind, we should recognize that we should all work towards a common goal, the truth. Disagreements are a reminder that we aren’t there yet. In that sense, being aware of our disagreements are a good thing, since it reminds us that we still have work to do. We will never have perfect knowledge, but it’d be good to work towards our best knowledge possible if we can do something about it. It may not be our priority, and that’s ok, it’s just something to keep in mind, and being aware of our own ignorance has its own merit.

I should close by saying that while I have come across as rather disparaging of appeals to differences in opinion in this post, I love talking to people whose views differ from my own. It is not in spite of this dislike of disagreement, but because of it. When I engage with my friends over something that we disagree on, it provides us with an opportunity to get that much closer to the truth. Both parties get an opportunity to become a bit more justified in our beliefs, and we should be excited at the opportunity to do so. But let’s not kid ourselves that the disagreement itself is the good thing. Rather, it’s the opportunity to correct ourselves on the disagreement. This may sound minor to some people, but this shift in perspective could make us value conversation even more. Appealing to a difference of opinion stops the conversation, props up mutually exclusive claims as having similar merit, and celebrates ignorance akin to “mysterious ways”. We are better than that.

Recognize disagreements for what they are. Itty-bitty problems at times, but problems nonetheless. It’s not my job to tell you which ones to iron out between your friends or acquaintances. And we can be respectful of each other while recognizing that they’re still a problem. But we should take time to see them as opportunities to do better, which is something that we should all strive for.

Local Churchgoers Preach Eternal Hellfire, But In A More Loving Way

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Homophobia

BOULDER, CO – In an effort to show a much kinder, gentler face of Christianity, members of the local Third Baptist Church of South Boulder have started to shift their message of eternal torture to be  more loving and accepting. For the longest time, these evangelicals only pushed the message that everyone is inevitably born as a loathsome sinner, and as a result they are destined to go to Hell unless they repent for their sins and follow the Bible. Upon realizing that this approach was largely unsuccessful, they have decided to deliver this message in a kinder, gentler, and more loving way. The church’s preacher, Stephen Handerson, was invited to speak on the matter. He said to our team of reporters, “While atheists and other people who do not accept Jesus Christ as their lord and Savior are destined to have their bodies seared and singed over and over and over, and their organs punctured pitchforks, and they will have sulfur and lava poured down their throats for the rest of eternity, it’s important that we spread this message while telling them that Jesus loves them.”


[Image: Churchgoers in pews]

When asked why a god that loves him would create a universe with such a fate for nonbelievers, Handerson responded, “It’s all a part of his loving, caring message. God created each and every one of us to be special, with unique gifts and talents. He made you and I to spread love throughout the world, and God is so happy with you and he loves you very much. Which is why he will damn you to eternal hellfire and torture and suffering if you don’t love him back.”

Members of the church wanted to emphasize that they weren’t just spreading this message to nonbelievers. Rather, they are also working towards having a more inclusive message. They want to spread their loving message of eternal punishment towards wicked, irredeemable, worthless sinners of all shapes and sizes. This is exemplified of their street preaching they brought out at Denver Pride this past summer. Their message was clear, that God only created marriage between one man and one woman, and that everything outside of this construct was outside of his plan. Therefore, at the pride event, this group set up a booth with literature letting them know that homosexuality was an abomination, and that the Lord detests all sorts of immoral sexual behavior, and anyone who acts upon their same-sex attraction deserves to be thrown into a lake of fire, have their tongues burned apart, and have their skin ripped off of their flesh for infinite time. But the booth also gave everyone free homemade cookies, so that the queer folk passing by knew that they were loved.

One church member thinks this approach has been shown to be more effective at gaining converts. Kristen Wick, one of the women who attends Third Baptist Church regularly, spoke to us about her experience at the pride event. “They came up to us very eagerly once we talked to them about Christ’s love! We had so many great conversations with the attendees! We were able to teach them that they were very special to our Lord, and he has a special plan for each one of them. And his love is infinite, which he will share for us when we get to spend eternity with him in Heaven.”

Wick went on to say, “Of course, we still had problems as usual when discussing the ever-looming threat of damnation. Of course, we had to let them know they were faggots and reprobates, and they needed to change that immediately. Because if they don’t stop their immoral behavior, the lord will righteously punish them for their transgressions, and send them to an infinite life of agony. For whatever reason, once we brought this up, they began walking away or they would stop listening. I guess they aren’t interested in Christ’s love!”

The church also made sure to make changes when spreading their message to their children. Third Baptist Church holds Sunday School for the younger attendees, and they have been teaching children for decades that they are born as wicked, vile sinners who deserve to be tortured forever. The church realizes that this message is not sufficient. Sunday School leaders state that now they make sure to teach the children these lessons, but now they deliver the message through fun skits and hand puppets. These methods allow the Sunday School teachers to tell the children that they are the scum of the Earth in a much more loving and inviting tone.

The Church also wanted to emphasize that this in no way invalidates the teachings of the scriptures. According to Third Baptist, the only way to truly be saved is to accept Jesus Christ as your personal lord and savior. Anything short of that, and you will be damned to Hell for all eternity. This is simply a better way of spreading the message. That way, the Church can speak to even more vile, irredeemable blasphemers and repugnant, contemptible degenerates, and share their love.


[Note: The above article was satire. All persons listed above are fictional, and any similarities to actual persons, living or dead, are hilarious but also kind of sad]

Matt Walsh, You Can’t Pretend to Be “Pro-Science” Using Transgender Issues

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Transphobia, sexual and violent threats, suicide


I’ve written a few posts specifically on LGBTQ issues, despite not being queer or trans identifying. Sometimes I wonder if I should stay in my lane better regarding this topic, since I will never have to personally deal with the attacks such people face on a regular basis. They should be telling their story, while I support them on the sidelines, or get involved when they ask for help. For someone who advocates that people stay in their lane, I realize I’m susceptible to being a white knight more than I’d like to admit. However, since I’m known as a “science guy” in my circles, I’ll take this one up, and then do my job of sitting down and listening. I can’t do allyship wrong anyway, since my partner is trans. If I’m doing allyship wrong by addressing something so unsubstantiated and baseless and giving a modicum of credence to the idea that transgender identity is up for debate, I apologize up front.


Matt Walsh, professional Catholic and spinner-of-Conservative-narratives, recently wrote an article titled Liberals, You Can’t Pretend to Be ‘Pro Science’ While You Claim That Men Can Have Babies.The title sets himself up to be an arbiter of what the science actually says about transgender issues, pointing out that left-leaning people tend to be those who espouse the virtues of utilizing science to inform our worldview except in certain select areas. What he actually accomplishes in this piece does is nothing of the sort.


I probably wouldn’t feel the need to speak out against this, except it appears to be a relatively common objection to transgender people existing. Last Spring, I made a minor chink in the internet with a Facebook post that spread much further than I had intended. While I’m happy to have gotten overjoyed responses from people whose identities (or even better, their children’s identities) were supported, I certainly received some hate mail. A few of them brought up “biology” as an objection (one coming from a pastor, who as we all know may have few objections to biology in the first place). One objection to this was the following.



Oh keep cryin in your dress, buddy. Love how to have comments blocked for everyone but who agrees with you. For someone working towards their phD, you seem to be rather confused on what defines a gender. Oh wait, that’s probably has something to do with liberal university you attend, with an acceptance rating as high as Colorado’s pot smokers. Should have just attended phoenix university if you’re ready to believe genitals don’t define gender. Understand, every biologist in the world disagrees with you. How would you handle being in a grocery store, and seeing a man like you, in that dress, walk into a woman’s bathroom, after you saw a 14 year old girl walk in alone? You’re ignorant ass isn’t gonna try and tell me that not allowing that man into that bathroom is ‘hateful’ or is intended to establish fear in the contrarian? You obviously lack any parenting bone in your body, I really hope you’re not intending to be a family doctor. I’d really love to entertain your rebuttal to my question, without using the liberal rhetoric you so glad spewed all over social media. I contend you are NOT well read on the subject, if you are telling me your dick doesn’t make you a man. If you disagree, I have a few awesome friends that’d love to make you feel as pretty as I’m sure you felt in that dress.


Yes, even ignoring the grammatical and spelling errors, there’s much to address. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but here goes:


  • Genitals do define sexual characteristics, which aren’t the same as gender identity.
  • Every biologist disagrees with me? Clearly he didn’t google very well. (I sent him links before I blocked him, I didn’t feel like engaging with that rhetoric)
  • Fun fact, both of my parents are Christian family practice doctors, and fully support trans identity (one is even politically centrist, and has voted Republican).
  • Regarding the bathroom, it’s ridiculously rare that anything dangerous would happen in a bathroom like that, and even if it did, it’s already illegal to assault someone. Another law making it extra super duper illegal by banning the dick wouldn’t deter anyone.
  • Is that a rape threat? I’m pretty sure that’s a rape threat of the “you’ve got a purdy mouth there” variety.



Clearly, though, this is a persistent meme among transphobes. They think that it’s a good gotcha against progressives who normally tout the benefits of science, yet fall short on this particular issue. It would be, but honestly, the transphobes don’t have anything to work with.


Surprisingly (maybe), while Matt Walsh’s entire point was that science was against transgender people, one thing he did not use to make his case in his article was any scientific evidence. Seriously! He shares a variety of links to stories he thinks are examples of transgender acceptance gone too far, such as a trans man giving birth, or tampons in the men’s restroom. The closest he comes to giving actual evidence is citing a report from The American College of Pediatricians (ACPeds) titled Gender Ideology Harms Children. It looks pretty spankin’ cool and professional and shit, until you realize that the ACPeds is not even a formal medical organization. Rather, they are a conservative advocacy group and hate group as stated by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They have been denounced through the National Institutes of Health by Francis Collins, director of the Human Genome Project* and a generally science-loving dude who is also famously a Christian.


The “report”, which has apparently undergone zero peer review and hasn’t been published in a scientific journal of any notability, even gets some easy things wrong. These are things that I, a cis man outside the field of medicine, could tell were wrong at first glance.


Human sexuality is an objective biological binary trait: “XY” and “XX” are genetic markers of male and female, respectively – not genetic markers of a disorder”


I’m surprised that someone so invested against transgender identity would make this type of mistake, as it’s a pretty easy mistake to avoid. Of course, statistically speaking, you do see a large representation of XY and XX chromosomes. In the distribution of human genetics, you could very easily call it bimodal, or characterized by two peaks, meaning that there are two large populations**. However, you couldn’t even call it a strict binary. You couldn’t really characterize anyone solely based on their chromosomes, as this would cause people with extra chromosomes, such as those with Down syndrome or Klinefelter syndrome, to have an entirely different sex from those with the expected XX or XY chromosomes.


However, even if ignore those conditions and look strictly at XX or XY conditions, we run into problems defining sex by these characteristics. When a physician assigns the sex of a child at birth, they overwhelmingly do not even look at the chromosomes. Rather, they make a first glance of the primary sexual characteristics, the genitalia. This is a problem, particularly for intersex people, whose external genitalia do not necessarily align with what we would call “male” or “female”, or they do not align with what we would expect as a result of their chromosomes. You may come across a child where the clitoris is large enough to superficially resemble a penis. Or you may find a malformed or absent penis in someone with XY chromosomes, causing the child to be assigned female at birth. You may even find someone with both ovarian and testicular tissue, and they may even have both an ovary and a testis, and this could happen with either XX or XY chromosomes. A paper from the American Journal of Human Biology estimated that this condition may be more common than we think, as high as 2%, meaning that while humans will commonly have a phenotype displaying one of two common sexual characteristics, this dimorphism is not as common as one would think. These simple outward features may not get so much as a second glance from a physician, which could easily assign them something “opposite” their chromosomes.***


A person’s belief that he or she is something they are not is, at best, a sign of confused thinking.”


Obviously the rhetoric used in this question, “belief that he or she is something they are not”, already assumes the conclusion that their identity is not valid. It’s not particularly compelling to someone who doesn’t already agree with them.


This bullet point cited the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) further down, making sure to throw in the outdated term “Gender Identity Disorder” before recognizing that it is now referred to as Gender Dysphoria. This is an important distinction, as the American Psychological Association (APA) has made it absolutely clear that, “gender nonconformity is not in itself a mental disorder.” The only reason that gender dysphoria is listed in the manual, as stated by the APA, is to increase access to necessary care such as hormone replacement therapy, counseling, and gender reassignment surgery, as insurance companies may be far less willing to provide coverage for patients without a diagnosis behind them.


It should also be noted that not all trans people experience this dysphoria. Since the defining feature of a trans person is that their gender identity does not align with their sex assigned at birth, this does not include gender dysphoria as a necessity.


According to the DSM-V, as many as 98% of gender confused boys and 88% of gender confused girls eventually accept their biological sex after naturally passing through puberty”


This is based on flawed work by Zucker and Bradley in 1995 that purported to include a longitudinal study of gender nonconforming children. This study stated that a large number of trans children did not actually turn out to be transgender, implying somehow that this is something that people grow out of. Rather, this has since been dismissed as a flawed conclusion, as the category of children that were “gender nonconforming” in the study merely acted more feminine or masculine than expected. Girls would like more rough-and-tumble activities or boys would like playing with dolls. The study was based on gender stereotypes, not based on gender identity. Notably, when the children were asked at the beginning of the study what gender they were, 90% responded with their sex assigned at birth.


Yes, of the supposedly gender nonconforming children in the study, most of them explicitly were not transgender by their own admission. The Gay and Lesbian Medical Association has dismissed his work, which includes reparative therapy that, “may lead to increased self hatred and mental health problems”. His mental health center has been under review starting in 2015, and his collaborators have since expressed regret for working with him. This work is based on terrible, terrible science and has only survived as a result of reinforcing the heteronormative narrative preferred by the religious right. Hopefully the Largest-Ever Study of Transgender Youth, funded by the National Institute of Heath, will yield far more fruitful results.


Rates of suicide are twenty times greater among adults who use cross-sex hormones and undergo sex reassignment surgery, even in Sweden which is among the most LGBTQ – affirming countries.”


Yet again, the ACPeds cite a study that is based on flawed science that has been blown out of proportion by conservative media. It has been used to prove that reassignment surgery doesn’t work. It states that the suicide rate is around twenty times greater for people who undergo transition therapies and treatments than those who don’t†. Of course, even the first author on the study does not agree that it indicates that the actual surgery causes trans people to be suicidal. Rather, she notes that the surgery cannot divorce a person from discrimination, bigotry, and social pressures that cause suicide in the first place, which will all occur with or without surgery. Of course, conservative media outlets, if they had good science communication skills would have probably known that if they had thoroughly read the paper. If they had, then they probably would have noted this paragraph within the article itself (emphasis mine).


“It is therefore important to note that the current study is only informative with respect to transsexual persons health after sex reassignment; no inferences can be drawn as to the effectiveness of sex reassignment as a treatment for transsexualism. In other words, the results should not be interpreted such as sex reassignment per se increases morbidity and mortality. Things might have been even worse without sex reassignment. As an analogy, similar studies have found increased somatic morbidity, suicide rate, and overall mortality for patients treated for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. This is important information, but it does not follow that mood stabilizing treatment or antipsychotic treatment is the culprit.”




Ultimately, the only “science” source that Walsh uses within his post is a single, non-reviewed, highly flawed statement from a small, ideologically motivated advocacy group with all the scientific credibility of the Ghostbusters cast. It’s cargo-cult science. It doesn’t matter how fancy and dressed up it looks or how many apparent citations they have, it’s full of holes.


[Image: The Principal from Billy Madison. The text reads, “I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul!”]

At this point, I’m going to do something that Walsh failed to do, and admit that I am not an expert within the field of psychology or medicine. I can read academic papers and draw some very basic conclusions from the abstracts or the results sections in these papers. However, I will never have a thorough understanding of the methods that the researchers used, or how they got to their results. At this rate, considering the caliber of “science” that Walsh used in his article, I’m at least a step up from him in that I can distinguish a decent journal from nonsense, and that I have the ability to defer to the experts within the field instead of pretending that I know “the science” myself. With this in mind, recognize that I am a non-expert presenting some studies that indicate that yes, the science favors my side.


A study in 2009 showed that among 59 Swedish individuals undergoing surgery, 95% indicated a favorable outcome after undergoing treatment (with 62% of clinicians agreeing that these outcomes were favorable. Another in 2010 indicated that lack of facial feminization and gender reassignment surgery statistically diminished mental health-related quality of life in trans women compared to those who did undergo those procedures. There was also a meta-analysis in 2009 of 28 studies of people who underwent reassignment surgeries and hormonal therapies. This showed significant improvements in gender dysphoria, psychological symptoms, quality of life, and sexual function.


I’ve also come across a 2011 study in the Journal of Psychiatric Research that indicates that in sexually dimorphic regions of the brain involving white matter microstructure, trans people’s MRI results most closely resemble the microstructure of cis people with the same gender identities. This seems to indicate there is neurological support for gender identity, beyond simplistic notions of matching genitalia to gender. A 2014 article in the Journal of Neuroscience Appears to indicate similar findings.


My only qualm with bringing out these scientific findings is that it ignores the biggest point that transphobes seem to ignore. Even if we had none of this evidence to show off, and we didn’t have verified treatments for trans people, we still would have no reason to treat them as subhuman or somehow lesser. We have no reason to treat them different, period. We also have no distinct inherent link between genitalia and identity. There is simply no known mechanism that links the two. Physical characteristics such as body type and chromosomes are relatively easy to analyze, and we can point them out, but we still have so many questions to answer regarding identity. While we wait for neurologists and psychologists to discover these, treating transgender people as anything less than equal to the rest of us is being an asshole. Unfortunately, as the above science seems to indicate, this causes a ridiculous amount of undue stress and burden upon trans people, which we know causes mental health problems. Are 1.4 million Americans “pretending to be something they’re not” just for the attention? In today’s ridiculously transphobic climate, I have a hard time believing that.


To Matt Walsh, who’s trying to trip the left up on science issues, I would suggest something easier. If you want to call us out on science issues that progressives repeatedly fail on, call out behavior on GMOs. Call out progressives when they’re being anti-vaccine. Call out progressives when they think Wi-Fi causes cancer. But you can’t pretend you’re right on this issue. The science is not on your side, no matter what you pretend to say. And while you’re fact checking yourself and figuring out what science really says about the issues, start treating transgender people with some respect.



* Note for transphobes and Matt Walsh fans, this is a big science project. With fancy people in official lab coats and shit.


** I love statistics!


*** I credit learning most of this from my science segment on Episode 108 of the podcast, where Ari (whose surname has since been changed to Stillman) did a well-researched science segment on queer and trans identity. Yes, a science segment. Hmm. The point is, they did all the hard work here. There’s a lot more facts in that segment that are worth listening to, I learned a lot!


† I’m also leery of the control group, though since this is out of my field, I don’t feel comfortable commenting on it within my article itself. Is the control group transgender people who don’t receive surgery? Or is it people in general who don’t receive reassignment surgery? If it’s the latter, then there’s no way you can draw that conclusion from this study. What defines a trans person isn’t that they get “the surgery”. It’s their identity.

Stop Worrying About The Overall Atheist Movement. Focus on What’s Important to You.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

In my last post, I discussed a lot of the disagreements that cause the atheist movement to be rife with infighting. This broad spectrum of disagreements leads many to think that there isn’t even an atheist movement. This is absolutely nonsensical, for the multitude of reasons I detailed in that post. Of course, I also don’t think there is a single atheist movement. I’ve arrived at the conclusion that several prominent atheists have come to, which is that there isn’t just one movement, but many movements put together. There’s a lot of overlap, and there’s no distinct line between any of the movements. But the point is there are many contingents fighting for the eradication of religious privilege coming from multiple perspectives and from multiple reasons. Today I would like to discuss the implications of these multiple viewpoints, and how once we know that these exist how we should move forward.


[Image: The crowd at the 2012 Reason Rally. The Washington Monument towers over the crowd in the background. By BDEngler – Own work, CC]

Obviously, one of the larger movements is the more intersectional branch of the atheist movement. This is led by humanistic efforts to fight for social justice through a secular lens. Obviously, eradication of religious influence is important for many branches of social justice, and equality for people of all religious beliefs is a social justice cause of its own, which is why this branch makes the most sense for me to focus my efforts on. Despite recent efforts of characterizing it as something caused by SJWs from Tumblr infecting the movement, there has been a focus on social justice for much of the lifespan of the recent atheist movements. There has been a large focus, for example, on feminist issues since Anne Nicol Gaylor founded the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF). She wrote Woe To The Women: The Bible Tells Me So in 1981, focusing on the Bible’s subjugation of women. Shortly after that, in 1982, the Feminist Caucus was established as a wing of the American Humanist Association (AHA). Since then many intersectional atheist causes have sprung up. We have always had a hand in the fight for LGBTQ equality, as the objections to acting outside of heteronormative traditional gender roles were overwhelmingly religious in nature. And as the evangelicals have taken over politics, secularism has been important in the fight for reproductive justice. Furthermore, in recent years it has become more and more apparent over that religion has infused bigotry against many identities in society, causing groups like Black Nonbelievers to spring up to focus on those issues specifically.

Of course, these social justice causes have been meet with a lot of backlash for causing mission creep within “the atheist movement”, since it’s not focusing on merely atheist issues. I’m not sure what these “mere atheist issues” could be, since there’s a lot of spillover into people outside of “mere atheism”. However, we could look at the focus on the Separation of Church and State (SOCAS) as a movement. This is certainly a noble goal, and I don’t have to make the case for readers of this blog why a nonreligious government is the best kind of government.  This may be one cause that is the most “atheisty” of any focus, since it affects atheists most directly. Religion has infected governments all over the globe, negatively affecting anyone outside of the religious identity in power, and even largely secular governments such as those in Europe have residual effects of that dominance. It’s important that we have organizations challenging government-led prayer, displays of religious messages in public arenas, and promotion of religion in public schools. The first two reinforce a culture of religious dominance and allow religion to have a foot in the door, giving religious people the excuse to enact more superstition-based legislation upon all of us. After all, how many times have you heard “In God We Trust is on our money!” and “We are a Christian nation!” used as excuses to legislate on religious grounds? As for secularism in schools, why would we ever want to teach children anything that isn’t based on fact and evidence? This leads to atrocious things such as abstinence-only education, which is a failure in every sense possible and leads to relatively avoidable public health crises. This leads to bullying in schools, such as the abuse and death threats that Jessica Ahlquist underwent when she challenged a prayer from the auditorium of Cranston High School West in 2012.

This type of activism has been spearheaded by multiple organizations, such as the aforementioned FFRF, American Atheists, and the AHA’s Appignani Humanist Legal Center. Such activism has been criticized as frivolous, working on “harmless” things such as ten commandments monuments and Christian-only prayers in government meetings. However, if we’re interested in nipping the big problems in the bud, we must focus on the relatively small problems, as the bigger problems stem from them. And regardless of how “big” a problem something appears, it is still a problem, and somebody has to fix them. Considering what a joke public schools and partisan politics have become recently, I’m not convinced that they even are petty problems. For that, these organizations do important work, and I salute them for doing the dirty nitty-gritty stuff and fighting the hard fights.

Of course, many atheists aren’t even capable or interested in enacting policy changes or engaging in protests. Many atheists, once they lose their supernatural beliefs, find themselves ostracized from the communities they have been raised in or where they live. For a religious person, all it takes to build a support system once they are in a new town is to go to the local church and meet people. The nonreligious have no such opportunity, especially in the American south, but that has fortunately been changing. With the advent of the internet, atheists are now able to join meetup groups simply so they can find a community of people without the prayer or the woo. There are even secular organizations that are there to help create gatherings specifically for nonreligious people. There is the Sunday Assembly, which has often been characterized as “atheist church”, but allows secular folk together to celebrate life without any spiritual nonsense. The Oasis Network has similar goals to the Sunday Assembly, providing weekly services that value secular ethics, humanism, and critical thinking. These organizations fill a niche of a sort of secular gathering or service that you might see at a Unitarian Universalist Church, but without any deference to supernatural or spiritual thinking, and instead focus on critical thought and skepticism.

Perhaps someone is not into that and would rather join a local group that’s interested in get-togethers with fellow secular people, where they can just go get some beer, or perhaps get a movie night together. Or they could get together and do some community service, or they could do some grassroots activism. There are tons of these groups springing up every year around the country, and they show no sign of slowing down.

This is hugely important. These groups are often derided for doing the same thing religious people do, which is engaging in dogmatic groupthink, and as atheists we shouldn’t need to be gathering together as we are free thinking individuals (maybe they are the same jerks I wrote a letter to in the previous post). This is complete nonsense. I’d challenge these people to go to any of these gatherings and see any chantings or “amens” or uncritical dialogue. These are the same skeptics and freethinkers as usual, just in a group setting, sharing ideas and gathering for fellowship. Churches don’t own communities, and there are nonreligious people who need communities. I’ve met listeners of the No Religion Required podcast that have no community outside their online friends simply because everyone in their local community has ostracized them. That is bullshit, and nobody should have to put up with it. Nobody is forcing atheists to go to these gatherings, but they are important for so many people. In effect, if you say that atheists shouldn’t gather and form groups and communities because atheists should be freethinkers, you aren’t following your own advice. Freethinkers can behave as freethinkers however they want, and as social creatures we can benefit from the fellowship of one another. If you are against the gatherings of atheists, you are effectively saying that they are doing atheism wrong, which is nonsense.

These are just a few of the types of atheist movement that I value, and you can see where they all intersect. The people who run these large atheist organizations are also often supportive of their local groups. The “militant atheist” groups fighting for Separation of Church and State often partner with the intersectional groups, and the smaller communities often benefit from the larger organizations in either camp. Like I said, there’s no firm dividing line for any movement. Furthermore, people often have hands in all these facets of our communities, and that’s a good thing.

There’s a few obvious disconnects, though. An obvious one is over the social justice issues, if we’re going to speak plainly. Anyone who is a regular reader of the blog or listener to NRR knows that I’m firmly pro using people’s proper pronouns, anti-harassment at conventions, and working towards all kinds of peripheral issues that religion infects and not just the obvious ones (aka, the social justice side). Anyone who has spent a cursory look at intra-atheist conflict knows this is a big divider within many atheist discussions. For some reason treating marginalized communities with respect is controversial. Regardless of the discussion points, this has caused lots of backlash. Even just mentioning “black atheists” or “feminism” within an conversation between atheists can turn it into a dumpster fire if you’re around the wrong people. Should we not stop this in-fighting? Should we just get over our differences and work together towards making atheists have a friendlier face, and help each other to destroy religion?

I don’t think so. I’m all for eradicating the harms done by religion alongside as many people who share my same goal. But some people simply don’t share my same goals. I’d be more than happy to set aside my differences at, say, a protest for secularism alongside a couple TJ Kirk or Thunderf00t types (I can’t speak on behalf of the minority atheists they regularly bully, though). The problem is that these people aren’t willing to extend the same courtesy. These are the people who will actively tear down atheist gatherings for regularly having harassment policies. These are the people using their platforms to call black culture a victim cult. These people are speaking out as atheists explicitly against some causes that are incredibly important for me. If I’m going to set up a friendly community for atheists I have no interest in accommodating these folks. If I set up a secular community, you bet your ass it’s going to be inclusive, and free of misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, and other bigotry that these people face every goddamn day. This is the type of behavior that these folks love to disparage. If I have a facebook group or a blog, I see no point to keeping these type of people around just for the sake of “the movement”, especially if they’re actively hurting the people I care about.

Look at what it means to be an atheist. Almost nothing. All you have to do is not believe in any gods. After that, you’re good. There’s no rulebook to being an atheist activist. You don’t have to do any specific duty to be an atheist activist, you don’t even have to care about SOCAS or want to put a friendly face on atheism. As such, you have no obligations as an activist, and you have no duties. So what are we supposed to do? I propose that no group is supposed to do anything as an atheist group, and no individual is obligated to do anything under some atheist code.

So what is the way forward for our movement(s)? I propose that we let go of the gas a bit on the collective movement as a whole, and focus on the communities that are important to us.

Let’s say I’m going to set up a local group for atheists. In real life I’m in the progressive republic of Boulder, but for this example let’s assume that I’m living in Podunk, Georgia. All I’m trying to do is escape the onslaught of Republican bullshit and religious nonsense that’s shoved down my throat regularly every day. It’d be nice if I could merely meet up with people who don’t think there’s an omnipotent being who infused me with sin and will punish me eternally for acting on it and also wants me to stop playing with my penis in private. That would be, if you’ll excuse the phrasing, a godsend. I would just want to have human contact with other people who have positions I think are sane compared to the surrounding environment. I wouldn’t say that I’m obligated to use this group to petition my local government on secular issues. I wouldn’t be obligated to use this group to fight on social justice causes. Getting just ten atheists to gather in Podunk, Georgia might be a tall order to fill in itself. Getting ten atheists who care enough to engage in the same activities might be too difficult. But that’s ok. Merely wanting a community is a sufficient enough reason to create one. As a freethinker, the only standards I have to live up to are my own.

That being said, it’s still my community that I choose to set up. I have no interest in entertaining bigotry. It doesn’t matter if it’s just an atheist community and that being an atheist doesn’t require that people are compassionate people. I have decided for myself that any community that I willingly partake in will require that people are compassionate and respectful. That’s one of the great joys of being a freethinker. I am allowed to act upon my atheism in the way that makes the most sense to me, and that allows me to reject people on the basis of their character, and not keep them around simply because they don’t worship a space king.

This goes for any given atheist organization. It’s a given that no organization can do everything. It’d be nice if I could form an organization that focuses on combating climate change, removing religion from classrooms, fighting for trans-inclusive healthcare, spreading education on vaccines, and enforcing the Oxford comma. But we know that things just don’t work like that. And that’s fine. Every organization is well within their rights to gather together and fight for the things that they find are most important. It could be something as simple as atheists helping the homeless. They aren’t any of the things on the list I just made, and they don’t have to be. We have finite resources and only so much time in the day, so as a necessity we will have to choose the things that are important to us. If an organization doesn’t have a particular cause under its focus, that does not mean that the people within that organization don’t think that it’s important. It’s just not the focus of that particular group. So we should have secular organizations that do exclusively community service. We should also have secular organizations that focus exclusively on LGBTQ issues. And we should have secular organizations that fight for right-to-die, or go overseas for humanitarian aid. We should have all of these and more. It’s not mission creep if these are the goals any organization sets out to do in the first place. Atheism has never had a mission, but various atheist organizations always will, and that’s a good thing.

I will say that while doing specifically intersectional work is not something any given organization or community should have as a goal, they should feel obligated to be inclusive with membership and with organizational policies. This is not because there’s some imaginary atheist rulebook that they need to follow, but because they should care about creating space for marginalized persons if they care about having compassion towards fellow humans. The marginalized have to put up with so much bullshit in everyday life, especially at the hands of religion. If atheists lack many of the arbitrary constructs of bigotry that religion enforces, why wouldn’t we care about creating a space that is welcoming to those people? Your group of atheists helping the homeless isn’t required to spend time and resources on petitioning your local government if the city trying to enforce a bullshit bathroom ordinance, for example. If you are compassionate, however, then the space you are constructing should be welcoming to trans people nonetheless and you should feel obligated to respect pronouns, etc. This is not an appeal to atheism, but to your strong morals and to your humanity.

I should also say that when I refer to local atheist communities, I mean that in more than a geographical sense. The internet is able to bring people together in a way that was unpredictable before the last decade. There are atheist communities of all types on the internet now, and they are completely decentralized in terms of geography but very close-knit in terms of kinship. There are discussion groups for particular podcasts, atheists of color, atheist polyamorous people, and even atheist Pokemon Go players. This is not merely limited to social media groups. Plenty of organizations have board members that live all across the country, but they can still work towards a particular focus with others without being restricted to meeting in the same physical location. This is one reason why I’m particularly impressed with the AHA’s social justice alliances, where people can talk about race, gender, and sexuality issues through a secular lens, and use that as their community despite the limitations of physical distance. The leaders for those boards are spread all across the country, yet they’ve come together to focus on the issues that affect their identities the most. For example, the LGBTQ alliance has set up support groups specifically for queer and trans nonbelievers. Through the power of the internet and focusing on a shared interest, they are able to gather together and form a community that will help queer and trans people grow without the burden of religious thought. Now there is a community that focuses specifically on atheist and LGBTQ issues, and that is wonderful for those who need that focus. This would not be possible if we only focused on “merely atheist issues”.

This is why I have largely lost concern for keeping the broad movement united. Focusing on narrow interests simply gets things done. It’s up to every individual how broad or how narrow they would like their focus to be, and I see no use in trying to tell people that they must care about only the broad interests. That is distinctly anti-freethought. I’m happy to have mere disagreements with other atheists. But I’m not happy to share organizations and communities with the assholes and the trolls. I’m not content to work towards progress on something that isn’t “merely atheism”, only for it to be disrupted or destroyed by someone else who is firmly against it. You want me to try and get along with that person for the sake of atheism, a single position on a single question that I merely have? Count me out. I’d rather work alongside kind progressive Christians than alt-right atheists.

As secularism grows in this country at a rapid rate, we have to consider that keeping a single united movement will become less and less practical overtime. The more atheists we have, the more assholes are going to join us. It’s simply inevitable. Despite the fact that atheism is not a guarantee against assholery, at least secularism will help remove many of the barriers that keep people marginalized today, and it behooves us to keep that in mind. While secularism in and of itself is a noble goal, it is simply not enough to solve all our problems. I see no purpose to trying and unite everyone for the sake of mere secularism. I can fight for secularism independently of racists and bigots that happen to inhabit secular spaces. Perhaps that makes atheists less “unified” against the religious right, but I honestly don’t care how unified we are as long the spaces that I contribute to and inhabit are hostile to the people that I care about. For that reason, fighting to bridge the gap with people who are viscious and vile is simply a waste of time for me.

However, if I’m going to be consistent in my activist approach, I don’t think it’s my job to tell anyone else that what they do is a waste of time. If someone wants to spend their time trying to explain to the slymepitters and the Thunderf00ts of atheism why social justice activism is so important for secularists in an attempt to bring all sides together, they are welcome to be my guests. I certainly spend a lot of time arguing with assholes, but it is not a priority to me, nor am I under the illusion that I will change anyone’s mind on the spot. There is often merit in plenty of these arguments, though, and if any social justice advocate is able to plant seeds of compassion and education in this process, then that is a good thing that we can point to. And if they “unify” people of all types and help us get along, then all the better. I’m just not holding my breath that it’s an inevitability.

Ultimately, focusing on the smaller and more immediate communities will allow for a more hands-on approach for members within it. It will allow us to more effectively address the needs of atheists within our own circles. At this point, then, perhaps we should also back off our large organizations and conferences focused on atheism and secularism. It’s good that we have our large groups such as American Atheists and FFRF, they are incredibly important and do a lot of valuable work for us, but we don’t need more of them. They are already fulfilling that need.

We don’t need more large-scale atheist conferences that bring people from all over the country. The larger gatherings such as Apostacon and the Reason Rally have already begun to show a lot of strain with budget and organizational issues. Travel is expensive and not everyone can afford conference fees, and people often have to choose perhaps one atheist gathering they can attend per year. Rather than making these gatherings an enormous spectacle, we should realize that the conventions are largely for community. We should have conferences, but maybe we should focus on local conferences that draw people from nearby so travel plans aren’t such a strain on attendees. We should bring out maybe a high-profile speaker or two, but we should recognize that one of the biggest appeals of conferences is not the speakers, but of the people that attend and the community we build as a result of that. Again, I’m not the atheist conference police telling people how they should organize (I’m one of the last people qualified to make that assessment), but I’m calling it the way I see it.

Ultimately, if you are an atheist and are involved in the community, you should work towards the causes that are important for you. I’ve settled on how I want to be a secularist. For me, I’m going to podcast and blog to promote education on science issues and work towards being a better ally towards marginalized communities. I’m going to support secular and evidence-based humanitarian efforts. I will criticize un-skeptical woo such as anti-vaccine narratives, and push towards combating climate change (in my opinion, the largest problem the world currently faces). I’ve always been a supporter of the LGBTQ community, and I will continue to do that through secular work. I’ll keep an eye on the AHA humanist alliances and join with the organizations they partner with when I have the spoons to do so. These are my contributions, and this is where I think I can leave my mark. You, dear reader, may not feel a particular calling towards any of things and that’s fine. One of the joys of freethinking is that nobody can tell you how to atheist properly, and that includes me. Find what makes your heart sing and do it.

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