Is Atheism Activism Still Worth our Efforts?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Unless you’re not an active participant in the Atheist Patheosphere, you may have noticed a large back and forth on the merits of anti-theism the past month. I have no interest in contributing to the conversation, as I have little more useful things to say beyond what other atheists have said about the issue, and I am late to the party at this point. However, one of the opinions I thought I’d reflect on is that of my dear friend Callie Wright, who discussed her opinions in her blog post and on the 100th episode of her podcast.

I highlight her because she brings up concerns that I’ve wrestled with a long time. One of the biggest reasons she refrains from calling herself an anti-theist is that even though she hates religion with a passion enough to dedicate her podcast and blog to fighting it, losing one’s religion is often not enough to make the world a better place. I’m well aware of the more toxic atheist communities, and I loathe most of what YouTube atheism appears to offer. The white nationalist movement (commoly called If that’s not compelling enough to most readers, the modern nazi Richard Spencer, famous for getting punched on inauguration day and being turned into a meme and spurring many philosophical discussions on the ethics of nazi punching, has identified as an atheist. Apparently, the detachment from religion is not enough to prevent someone from ethnic cleansing.

Of course, you can find plenty of milder examples of terrible humans who also happen to not believe in gods, and we should not be surprised. As is often acknowledged among activists, being an atheist doesn’t make someone a skeptic, nor does it make them a humanist or a nice person. The only way to be a bad atheist is to start believing in a god again. I certainly know a lot of atheists who I loathe (and I could name a couple of atheists who feel similarly about me). Furthermore, I have some very good friends who are theists, including many of my own family who care about causes I would characterize as humanistic. This leads to me asking the question why we should care at all about atheist activism in the first place. After a lot of thought and some soul-searching (for lack of a better term), the reason I continue to be active in movement atheism comes down largely to a few things.

1. Secularism is demonstrably a good societal foundation

I shouldn’t have to defend this point on this blog, but I’ll spend a paragraph for the sake of it anyway. You cannot expect much good to come of a society that bases its laws on things that aren’t demonstrable. Furthermore, even if you assume that a god exists, stating that we should enact a law based on the god’s holy book is basically stating that we should create a law “because my friend said so”. No matter how you slice it, creating a society or a moral system based on a religious authority is inherently flawed. We should build our values and systems based on evidence. Even if our evidence and methodologies were able to evaluate that a god exists and that this god holds a reliable and moral ethical framework, wouldn’t we be better off using our evidence and methodologies to evaluate further moral questions rather than relying on an authority?

Keeping this in mind, even if there are atheists of terrible moral character, we would be far better off with institutionalized secularism. I can’t pretend that bullying and harassment would go away tomorrow if there were no religious people. However, we would lose out on institutionalized privileging of theistic positions. Think of all the arguments against LGBTQ equality that politicians regularly make, and notice that they only make sense within a theistic framework. Even when there aren’t blatant mentions of a god or a holy book, dogwhistle phrases about the “family” or “values” specifically bring up these appeals to those within a religious mindset. I applaud groups like the Freedom of Religion Foundation and the American Humanist Association for fighting religion’s influence on an institutional level. While many will value religious beliefs over other attitudes, we are better off fighting tooth and claw such that our laws will not privilege Christian belief over other worldviews.

Not only are many laws founded on poor epistemology and irrational beliefs, but many of our internal attitudes have the same foundation. There is no rational reason for gender essentialism, as male and female brains are largely the same. However, Christian culture overvalues the male of the household and demands that women become submissive. This behavior spills over into other toxic attitudes on gender and sexuality, leading to the bullying and harassment of gay and transgender individuals.

Other toxic attitudes include ideas such as the prosperity gospel, which is the idea that individual success and prosperity is directly linked to one’s devotion to the Christian god. On an individual level this is a horrifying idea, as it implies that everyone who is in financial hard times deserves the problems they are currently facing. If we extrapolate this, then we as a society internalize the idea that anyone who is suffering necessarily deserves it. Under this mindset, statistically destitute populations and demographics are poor because they deserve to be poor, which may demotivate us from taking action to giving them a hand up. This mindset is also mildly linked to the attitude that hardships are specifically a punishment from the divine. Keep this in mind when the Steven Andersons or the Westboro Baptist Churches of the world state that the latest natural disaster is a sign from the Lord against abortion or the acceptance of LGBTQ rights. While I’m not going to ignore the fact that there are atheists who have all sorts of terrible sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or classist attitudes, eliminating religion would be one more barrier to escaping these ideas.

2.Believing in true things is better than believing in false things

This ties into my earlier point, but focuses much more on an individual level of behavior and belief. We can see what happens when beliefs founded on superstition and religion enter the public sphere. We can’t ignore, though, that this can have an effect on our everyday decisions.

I’m genuinely happy to come across Christians and other theists in my everyday life who value progressive causes. When I was a Christian I was one of them. I was supportive of gay rights before it was cool (as I put on some hipster shades) and established my romantic relationships such that the women that I dated in high school were my equals. The problem was that none of that was founded in the bible. One of the reasons that I questioned my religious beliefs was the crowd of other Christians who cited the same holy book that I used. When I unburied my head from the sand and actually looked into what I found in the book, I did not find peace and love wished upon my gay friends and I did not find egalitarian attitudes between the husband and wife. What I found was clearly the opposite.

Ultimately, when I held strong humanistic beliefs as a Christian, they were built on shaky foundations. When your epistemology is based on unfounded assumptions and starting points, it leads to poor conclusions. I’m happy to come across people of a religious or spiritual nature who are supportive of humanistic causes, but I have to recognize that those results aren’t a function of good reasoning, and that poor reasoning can lead to poor outcomes in other areas.

In Boulder, where I currently reside, it is difficult to find someone who holds outwardly bigoted attitudes against any given identity. However, new age and “spiritual” attitudes are common, and with that come thoroughly unskeptical positions on modern medicine and science. It’s not uncommon for me to come across a crystal healing booth at a festival in town, or a holistic medicine outlet while strolling downtown. There are plenty of young adults who are anti-vaccine, or think that GMOs give people cancer. Discussions on homeopathy and vaccines seem like boilerplate skeptic discussions, but attitudes on science drastically affect our lives and others. People get scammed and lose money because they think sugar pills heal their cancer. Gullible parents allow their babies to die because they think the vaccines will give their child autism. I can’t pretend that religious or spiritual people of any political bent are exempt from reaching harmful positions based on their preconceived notions.

Embracing reality after losing religion can have a drastically positive effect on our lives. In my case, I was able to recognize many sex-negative attitudes that have been pounded into me since my adolescence, and as a result of purging these attitudes I have been able to celebrate my body and enhance the lives of those who I have been romantically engaged with. I have recognized that my life is the only one that I know that I have, and the same is true for anyone else. As a result, I am infinitely more motivated to be the positive change in the world that I wish to see, and more motivated to make the most of the time I have on earth. I am more willing to think for myself instead of second-guessing what I think based on what is written down in a holy book. These are not sentiments unique to me, they are common attitudes among atheists after leaving their faith, and it’s not difficult to find other reasons why leaving religion can be a positive and enriching experience.

Ultimately, though, believing things that are correct are things that we should all strive for. The truth makes us better people and make better decisions. At times as skeptics we seem to fetishize disagreement between individuals as if it’s necessarily a good thing, but we also have to recognize there can be an uncountable number of narratives and only one will be the truth. Healthy disagreement is a good sign that we are avoiding dogmatic behavior, but we have to recognize that the truth matters. All things being equal, if I were given the choice, I would much rather that my religious friends abandon their beliefs than not.

3. Atheist communities are still needed

This one requires the least amount of explanation, I think. While secularism is growing in America, and the “nones” population is rapidly climbing, anti-atheist stigma is still alive and well, especially in the American south. Whenever I have to make the case for the importance of atheist community, I recall one skype call through No Religion Required where I met a listener who literally had no friends outside of the atheist and secular community, and all her friends she knew in these communities were online.

It’s easy for me everyday being known as the atheist guy, especially since a majority of my time is spent among science researchers in the super-progressive college town of Boulder, Colorado. But all I have to do to disillusion myself from my bubble is drive an hour and a half south and end up in Colorado Springs, home to Focus on the Family and a few other large Christian organizations. I learn a lot from their residents of Colorado Springs when I go to the Denver Secular Hub (where residents from cities near Denver gather for atheism-related activities). It’s shocking how different our experiences can be, and it sheds a new light on things like the atheist billboard that was erected in Colorado Springs by American Atheists that had such controversy surrounding it. I’m reminded that a large amount of our activism is simply making sure that the most vulnerable atheists have a community available to help them feel welcomed and to give them a social support system to address their needs.

Knowing what I know now about inter-atheist conflict and the toxic nature of some of the people behind this drama, I wouldn’t be surprised at an outsider being disgusted at movement atheists as a whole. In fact, I wouldn’t blame someone for avoiding secular activism altogether simply to avoid the conflict altogether. But for me, it’s still vitally important to encourage the ending of religion. Religion is at the root of far too many problems for me to ignore it, and it intersects with far too many issues for it to be completely avoided with almost anything. For me, I’m far from giving up where I’m going to push my efforts.

That isn’t to say that any given person is obligated to be a secular activist. As far as my philosophy goes, we should be the positive change wherever we see fit, however small. It doesn’t matter if certain issues seem “too small” or appear to be a waste of time, if it’s a problem then it needs to be solved and somebody needs to do it. I’m happy to spread the message of humanism and the importance of a secular society, and I feel that it’s important to put pressure on people to get involved in movement atheism, but I’m happy when someone is involved in positive change in any way. I’m happy when Christians do good, when Jews do good, and when Muslims do good, and I’m happy to encourage them and work alongside them.

Ultimately, explicitly atheist activism is still needed. It could be cut-and-dry separation of church and state issues, or it could be intersectional where the focus is on something outside of mere “atheism”, such as race or gender issues. Both are important. To me, it’s not good enough to merely focus on simply separation of church and state issues or to make fun of what Ken Ham said this week or discuss logical fallacies for the bajillionth time. But if I’m going to be honest, those things are still vitally important. Separation of Church and State is important, critical thinking is important, and creating a space not only free of religion but actively defiant of religious culture is important. I am happy when I see all these things, and I’m happy that people still take up these tasks. It takes all types of work to resist.

More Reasons Why Free Will Still Isn’t A Good Apologetic

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Last week, I talked about how libertarian free will is not only a ridiculous concept, but the belief in it leads us to hold attitudes and perform actions that end up being discriminatory and antithetical to human rights. Add it to one more items in the stack of Christian beliefs that lead to poor actions being carried out.

Strangely enough, free will doesn’t fall within the purview of Christianity because of what the Bible says or by the decrees of church official. There’s not really much said about free will in the Bible (go ahead and look!). The reason Christians rely on the tenet of free will so much is primarily because it works well in Christian apologetics and caulks up a few holes in the theology. Largely, free will is useful when solving the problem of evil, as well as explaining why the lord doesn’t reveal himself.

The problem of evil isn’t a particularly strong counterapologetic for atheism in general, but it’s sometimes useful for addressing Christianity. After all, if we have an all-powerful being who cares about what’s best for us, why does this being allow us to suffer? The usual answer is that due to the fall in the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were able to gain the knowledge of good and evil at the expense of creating a fallen world. After this, every bit of suffering is ultimately a result of the actions of Adam and Eve in the garden.

Holocaust? Free will.

9/11? Free will.

Duck Dynasty? Free will.

When asking why the Christian god allows for people to perpetuate horrendous acts, people are able to bring up “free will” as the excuse, as people are allowed to decide to do monstrous things of their own volition*. The problem is that free will doesn’t even account for all the variables here.

Take a horrendous human act, such as the Sandy Hook Shooting. Let’s assume that the perpetrator does have free will granted to him by some almighty force. He is perfectly capable of carrying out his deeds however he wants. But an omnipotent force could easily prevent suffering without restraining his free will. Why doesn’t the lord dissolve the bullets into thin air as the shooter pumps them out? Why can’t the lord redirect the bullets as they fly towards innocent children? Why can’t the bullets magically pass through people? All these could happen and they would impact the shooter’s free will in no way. He is still carrying out the action entirely of his own volition, it’s just that the physical laws (which I assume the Christian deity is in control of) have been manipulated such that they don’t cause unnecessary. In this case, evil has been freely chosen, yet this choice has been made without unnecessary suffering.

It’s not like it’s out of character for the Christian god to do something like this. In Daniel 3, King Nebuchadnezzar throws Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego into a fiery furnace for not worshipping his golden statue, yet they come out of the furnace unscathed for staying loyal to the Lord. While the king certainly was able to perpetuate an evil act of his own volition, there was no suffering or death.**

Of course, free will doesn’t just come up when discussing the problem of evil. In many lay arguments, it pops up when a theist wants to defend why their god doesn’t provide clear evidence that they exist (or more bluntly, why they don’t show their self). After all, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed” (John 20:29). The apologetic is that if the Christian god were to reveal himself, he would violate our free will and force us to believe in him. It’s apparently necessary to our eternal fates to believe in an omnipotent deity on faith over evidence. While my tactic of choice in this situation would be to question why faith is valuable in the first place, can we take some time to examine how ridiculous this logic is?

Apparently the idea is that if the Christian god were to appear right in front of me, it would force me to accept his existence, thus making my free will to believe in him irrelevant. Setting aside the fact that we don’t choose our beliefs, why does this type of thinking stop at observing the lord? After all, as I type at this computer, I am observing my screen fill with the words I type and I feel the resistance of the keyboard against my fingertips. As a result of this, I am forced to accept the existence of my computer. When I look up at the night sky, I have no choice to observe the bright dots among a black background. To make a big picture statement, the mere fact that I observe anything about the world around me means that I am forced to believe at the very least that the universe exists. The lord not showing up to me is just selectively providing evidence to me, and selectively forcing me to believe in different things.

Hell, if the Christian god were to exist, then he would be violating my free will just by making me be born. At some point, to interact with the world I am forced to accept certain things outside my own control. As the supposed creator of these certain things, he is the ultimate reason why I believe them, and thus he has violated my free will since I have no choice but to believe them.

Libertarian free will has problems no matter how you slice it. In my last post about free will (see link in the first line), I talked about how libertarian free will is an incoherent concept, as well as how it inherently prevents us from treating humans in the best way we can. In this post I discussed how it is an insufficient apologetic for the problem of evil and divine hiddenness. Not only that, but it’s effectively impossible for a universe creator to avoid violating our free will, since we are forced to confront the universe in some way. You could also make the case that even the Bible shows that the god of the Bible violates free will (such as when the Pharaoh’s heart was hardened during the ten plagues). Free will seems like a coherent concept and a good way to support basic Christian apologetics, but as soon as you take some close looks at it and turn it around in your head, cracks in its foundation start to emerge. Once it’s fully explored, it reveals itself as yet another flimsy excuse for a philosophical concept propped up by ancient armchair-level theology and ultimately conceptually empty. Libertarian free will belongs in the dumpster pile of bad ideas from the rest of theistic apologetics, and if we want to make the world a better place we will be better off abandoning it altogether.


*While there are apologetics addressing why “natural evils” like natural disasters exist and cause suffering, I’m only going to focus on ones where free will is relevant.

**Also, if you claim that in that case that Nebuchadnezzar’s free will had been violated, then you can’t make the case that the Christian god can’t violate free will.

Matt Walsh Gets it Completely Backwards on Birth Control

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Anyone in my atheist circles who knows me knows that I keep tabs on conservative Catholic blogger Matt Walsh. His work can be found on The Blaze, where he frequently spouts off Catholic dogma and incoherent conservative talking points. I would love the chance to talk to the guy, half so I could record an interview with him so people could point and laugh at his words on a podcast, and half so I could help him give in to any repressed homosexual urges he might have and teach him how to truly love. But I digress.

I follow him on Twitter so I can watch what he’s saying and give a reply if needed. One time he told me the reason that I deconverted from Christianity, since apparently he knows me better than I do (and threw in an “I’ll pray for you” for good measure). He’s no stranger to being a heartless, condescending asshole to anyone wanting to contradict him.

While I think he’s astoundingly bad at reasoning most of the time, he got it profoundly wrong last week when talking about birth control. It started with a tweet saying that the poor were immature or irresponsible, and therefore did not deserve to be having sex.

Of course, Matt Walsh is Catholic, and is therefore of the opinion that sex is inherently tied to marriage and reproduction. I’m not strawmanning him here, he literally thinks that marriage is a cure for unplanned pregnancy, since according to him marriage necessarily entails reproduction. So he would like to see birth control done away with altogether, since married couples should be trying to have babies ever after and unmarried couples shouldn’t be banging. As usual when I see this nonsense from accounts with large followings, I sent a reply. You won’t believe what happened next!

Any woman (or assigned female at birth person) looking at this tweet likely has to pick up their jaw from the floor. For the non-vagina-owning readers here, you may be confused about why this tweet is such a big deal. Let me see if I can put it in words.

BIRTH CONTROL IS NOT NINE FUCKING DOLLARS.

What followed was an amazing cavalcade of women educating his ass. It’s been almost a day since I sent Walsh a response, and I’m still getting Twitter notifications from women chewing him out. And it’s a beautiful to watch.

 

For the record, regardless of how much birth control costs, Walsh is still an asshole. It’s just that this Tweet shows that he’s an exceptionally wrong asshole. I know of no reason why people should be robbed of a basic human pleasure (no Matt, sex is not a “luxury” as you’ve put it). People are going to fuck whether we like it or not, and being able to do it safely and responsibly is in our best interest. I see no reason why helping someone prevent raising a child in poverty because they can’t afford birth control is a bad thing.

In fact, birth control is very much a public health issue. For the past half a decade, the state of Colorado started an initiative to provide free birth control to teenagers, including IUDs and implants, which are long-lasting birth control methods. The results? Teen pregnancy in Colorado has plummeted. This allows most teens to get a better start leaving education and entering the workforce. This reduces poverty. It allows people to make responsible decisions for themselves (at a better time, when their brains have had time to fully develop). According to Governor Hickenlooper, this is a savings on state spending since Medicaid and government assistance are far more expensive than the up front costs of birth control. All these sound like great reasons to support publicly funded birth control (and they’re economically sound, which conservatives should value). I see no way that this could not be interpreted as a smoking gun for how to reduce poverty among teens and increase autonomy.

Due to my (partially) Catholic upbringing, I’ve been infused with the same sex-negative attitudes that Matt Walsh is espousing. Though I’ve been an atheist for four years, I’m still putting the work in to separate the truth from the lies when it comes to sex. I realize that everything I was taught about in a sex-negative culture has tainted my feelings. I still recoil a bit at the thought of people sleeping around with multiple partners. I have an overstated fear of STDs, and when I think about birth control I’m more likely to instinctively think of them as ineffective at preventing pregnancy or infections. I’ve come to see this as a result of being indoctrinated, and part of some hang-ups I still need to work through.

The difference between me and Walsh, though, is that I’m going to stay in my goddamn lane. As a penis-owner, I am woefully uneducated about the costs of birth control. As someone who isn’t currently in a sexually active relationship, I’m not going to tell people that they’re irresponsible for having sex. In this case, I’m not even going to argue with Walsh about birth control costs. I’m going to let the women above (and the many, many others) speak and tell him why he’s wrong. I don’t have an obligation to give my opinion on any damn thing I think is worth talking about, and I’m especially not going to argue about something I’m completely uninformed about. Perhaps Walsh could learn from that.

Libertarian Free Will Is Not Just Bad Philosophy, The Concept Hurts People

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Along with the belief that a cosmic being created the entire universe, was responsible for the entirety of the diversity of life on Earth, and that it’s really bad if you keep fapping, there often comes the idea of the soul. Somehow this soul may or may not be your mind, and is responsible for your moral decisions. The soul represents the “ghost in the machine”, the concept that somehow you are a type of spirit inhabiting a corporeal form, making decisions until your body dies and you get sent to your eternal destination.

The idea that somehow we are making free decisions using our soul independent of our bodily function is one of the guiding assumptions behind libertarian free will. This has nothing to do with the political affiliation, and when most people think of free will this is the concept they are most likely envisioning. It is a basic foundational assumption of Christian apologetics, as it is a common response to arguments like the problem of evil or why the Christian god doesn’t save people in mass shootings. An excerpt from Theopedia illustrates this concept.

Libertarian free will means that our choices are free from the determination or constraints of human nature and free from any predetermination by God. All “free will theists” hold that libertarian freedom is essential for moral responsibility, for if our choice is determined or caused by anything, including our own desires, they reason, it cannot properly be called a free choice. Libertarian freedom is, therefore, the freedom to act contrary to one’s nature, predisposition and greatest desires. Responsibility, in this view, always means that one could have done otherwise.

While as an atheist I certainly don’t think my choices have anything to do with any deity, based on the scientific evidence I cannot decouple my choices from my physical being. As far as I can tell, I am my brain, and my brain is subject to the same physical laws everything else is subject to. Since my mind is mostly a result of patterns of electrochemical signals, which are physical processes, the choices that I make are mostly the end result of matter and forces moving through the universe.

Keep in mind, just because we are simply the result of the laws of nature doesn’t mean that I can treat myself and others the same as the inanimate objects that surround me. I can still recognize agency in humans and other animals. Perhaps I am just matter in motion, but I still value happiness and joy and loathe pain and suffering. I can see the consequences that my actions have on others’ personhood. While the underlying mechanisms behind how people function are nothing more than the natural mechanisms found everywhere else, the fact that we function in an emotional, intelligent way is profound in itself. We have great reason to value the fluorishing of all those around us simply based on the knowledge that we are thinking and feeling beings.

Even absent physical explanations for how our minds work, this type of free will is nonsensical. I came to this conclusion after listening to Sam Harris talk about this. In his speech below (and likely in his book, which I haven’t read), he describes how our minds come to conclusions almost absent our own input. When we try and come up with something like our favorite city, names of cities pop up in our heads absent any effort from ourselves. When we try and come to a conclusion on something, there is a time when we are unsure of our position, and then a time when we have our opinion. The idea that our “self” ever actually gets to decide on anything before we arrive at our conclusions is like coming up with the concept that we decide something before we decide it. This is a nonsensical concept whether or not we have a soul. Libertarian free will can’t exist. Sam Harris illustrates it much better than I can, so I recommend listening to him when you have the time.

Free will is often portrayed as some lofty, ivory tower based concept that old white men debate in philosophy departments. Perhaps that even is the case, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Whether or not free will exists in our universe is a fact, and as a result has an effect on our everyday lives. It’s possible that being wrong about free will doesn’t just mean that we’re wrong about some abstract idea. In fact, I’d submit that thinking that we are free agents holds humanity back in demonstrable ways.

This is actually quite apparent to any atheist who has engaged in debates and arguments with apologists for any amount of time. The apologist is no stranger to telling the atheist that “you choose to believe in god or not”, or that “you choose for yourself to go to Heaven or Hell.” They are still operating on the nonsensical idea that somehow we as free agents are choosing to believe something or not. That simply isn’t the case, though, and we will often come to our beliefs before we even know that we hold a certain belief. Our beliefs aren’t some decision that our soul picks out based on weighing different evidences we have filed away in our brain wrinkles. Our mind has evaluated the evidence we’ve been able to absorb and experience, and tries to create a coherent model for ourselves such that we can function in the real world.

Of course, this means that we ultimately have no choice whether or not we believe in a god, but this is not immediately apparent to the person who still thinks we can choose our beliefs. To the theist, we appear to have maliciously chosen to reject their loving creator and all that is good (especially if they hold the belief that their god has revealed himself in everyone’s heart). It doesn’t matter that many of us have taken a look at the evidence for a divine creator, found it lacking, and our brains shifted to a worldview absent of a god. From the outside, it appeared that some agent flipped a switch on our belief, however inaccurate that is. This means that every instance of discrimination based on belief system is based on something completely out of our control. Every time a parent tells a college student they can’t return home because they’re not Christian, every time someone leaves their spouse for abandoning the faith, every time a school bullies an atheist, it’s for doing something that they essentially had no say over.

We go about our lives acting as if everyone around us is some independent free spirit, choosing whether or not to take a certain action or say a certain thing. To an extent that’s true, but we fail to recognize the sheer amount of cognitive activity going on in our minds subconsciously. We fail to recognize that when someone is irrational, it’s not always due to some independent agent deciding to think poorly. We are all products of our brain functions, and we have plenty of unconscious biases and poor cognitive functions. We all have our mental blocks and irrational beliefs, and sometimes we have faulty memories or unreliable experiences to back up what we think. It makes sense that as a society that we should hold each other accountable when we are wrong or behaving poorly, but it would be best to do this while keeping in mind how our own will works.

Consider how our justice system is constructed. For many of our crimes, we enforce prison sentences, where society locks us away from those who are free. The idea is often that we punish criminals such that they “learn their lesson” and decide for their own selves not to do something poorly. We’ve also convinced ourselves that if we set up a punishment stick by having strict laws that people will be afraid to commit crimes in the first place. As we all know, that really doesn’t bear out. The presence of punishment does not serve to make us “behave”, it simply makes us work to avoid the punishment. Our prisons may be “punishment”, but the mere isolation from society in a harsh environment doesn’t really teach us anything. Prisons are fairly lacking in resources to help us learn better ways to avoid misbehaving in the future, such as psychological services or education and jobs programs. We feel somehow that the people in prison deserve what they get based on their free will choices, instead of considering the environments and conditions that caused them to behave the way they did. It’s much easier to chalk everything up to a lawbreaker’s choices and blame them rather than help them make better choices in the future.

Free will also matters we engage in discourse. The old mantra of “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” rests on the assumption that if we hear something, we can just walk away. We can do this to a large extent, but there are a lot of underlying processes in our head that guide our behavior and our performance. One of the first things I was taught as a graduate TA was that reminding minorities and women of their stereotypes in society caused them to perform differently on exams. This doesn’t happen with white people or men. Most people have the attitude that if something is distressing they should just look away and go somewhere else, but this literally makes people perform worse in schools (in a sexist and racist way, no less).

This also ties into the “trigger warning” debate. A lot of the discourse has been lost on this topic because many think that being triggered literally just means getting offended. But for those who suffer from panic attacks or have PTSD, it’s a lot more than that. If we were just souls controlling some human meat suit, perhaps we could just walk away from something “we don’t like”. But alas, we are performing as a function of our brain activity. A triggering event can easily cause a panic attack, which for completely irrational reasons can cause someone to shut down and stop functioning for a minute or two. They could dissociate from their surrounding environment, often for a period of several days. Conservatives often blame people who suffer from these conditions and say they’re getting whiny and offended. They want those who suffer from mental conditions to “buck up”, and blame them for not trying hard enough. This makes sense under a libertarian free will model, where we actually choose our emotions, our behaviors, and our basic neural responses. The problem is, science doesn’t corroborate this at all. Libertarian free will completely ignores the very real mental barriers that can prevent us from behaving in an ideal manner. We can’t just “choose” how to feel, and what soul would possibly freely choose a panic attack? In that sense, libertarian free will is ableist.

Libertarian free will is thoroughly anti-skeptical. Within skepticism circles, we talk all the time about avoiding biases and correcting for them. I suspect that we don’t do a good enough job correcting for our biases, as a holdover from when we viewed ourselves as pure, independent agents capable of making our own rational decisions. While most skeptics champion the use of eliminating bias, the dominant behavior right now appears to be chalked up to saying “don’t be biased” and stopping right there. What we don’t realize is that regardless of how we want to believe, we are all biased. For example, as a result of our human nature, we are all subject to implicit bias, and there’s very little we can do about it. Without thinking about it, we really do treat people of races other than our own differently, and most Americans at least unconsciously think of white people superior to those who are black. The same is the case with women, as we think of them as worse leaders. This is almost unavaoidable. We are not some free spirit making purely logical evaluations based on our environment, we have internalized many attitudes from our culture as we developed and that has partially made us into who we are. It doesn’t work to just tell ourselves to “not be racist” or “not be sexist”. We have to actively counter our bias, and second guess where our criticisms are coming from.

Hopefully I’ve illustrated some very good examples of why libertarian free will is harmful. We are more susceptible to harm when our model of the universe is inaccurate, and this is just one instance. We aren’t free souls making entirely free decisions independently of our bodily functions. Mind-body dualism is garbage. We need to recognize our own agencies for what they are: physical brains inhabiting a physical universe due to natural laws. We need to recognize all the biases, instincts, and hurdles that come with that. The more we treat people as they truly are, the better off we will be.

Should We Atheists Just Accept the Facts and Admit that America Really Is A Christian Nation?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Often when we atheists are engaging in common political debates, we are faced against the argument that America is actually a Christian Nation. The implication here is that if we are a Christian Nation, we can make laws based on Biblical teachings, and therefore take away birth control for women and fund conversion therapy. The argument usually boils down to the idea that many of the Founding Fathers were Christians, that a majority of the people in this country are Christians, or that somehow our Constitution is based on Christian values.

They’re all bullshit. There are a lot of good arguments to make against them. The most relevant one for me is that even the Constitution at face value doesn’t have an inkling of indication that America is meant to be Christian. So, no. We atheists shouldn’t admit that America Is a Christian Nation.

To be clear: I used a completely misleading headline*. America is definitively NOT a Christian nation.

Mostly I wanted to talk about how we consume our information on social media and how we have discussions.

Every time I write a blog post, I post to the No Religion Required Facebook page. At that point, people look at the headline (and hopefully the short blurb summarizing the post), and make a decision whether or not to read the post or not. I’m happy when they read through the post, and think about what I have said. Perhaps they have some thoughts or disagreements and comment on the post. Perhaps they think I have made some good points (that’s up to you), and share the piece. Or, perhaps my work is is massively flawed and they share it to point out their disagreements.

Unfortunately, a lot of us seem to have a bit of a problem with the middle and most important step, reading the piece. I suspect with this blog post, I’m going to get a few furious comments asking me how I could possibly support a theocratic position. A few people will comment and give long-winded responses explaining that America is not Christian (which they wouldn’t do if they had read this piece). If I’m lucky, maybe I’ll even get some Christians sharing my piece as if I’m an atheist admitting that America is Christian (which to be clear, yet again, I’m not). This is all based entirely on the headline of the piece (Which is 16 words, compared to my  1952 words of content).

What’s terrifying is that so many people are starting to rely on their social media feeds for news, and 60% of people share news stories based on the headline without reading the article. It’s often the case that the headline is written to get clicks, since as news outlets are losing their paid subscribers and therefore often need to make up for lost revenue in clicks for advertisers. It’s not news that headlines don’t always correspond perfectly with the words inside an article (and in larger outlets, the authors don’t even get to pick the headline). Even well-written articles can have their message diverted by a terrible headline, which can mislead those who read it without diving deeper into the article. It’s not hard to see why this distorts the spread of information. Even if I don’t particularly care about a certain story, if I see a hyperbolized or skewed headline just scrolling through my feeds, I will be fed a little bit of misinformation for that day.

I’ve seen this play out even when I write headlines that correspond well with the message of my post. One post I’m still particularly proud of is titled “I’m Taking “Offense” Out of My Vocabulary, and Why You Should Too”. In that piece, I talked about how I think the term is overused, it doesn’t really get to the heart of certain discussions, and that ultimately we label people as offended so we can easily dismiss them. Unfortunately, some people just read the headline and assumed that I was complaining about people getting too offended all the time these days (which is somewhat antithetical to my point in the piece). A commenter on Facebook told me they agreed with me, and then proceeded to write an entire paragraph saying that too many people get offended all the time and they don’t care about offending people. I confronted them, stating that in my article I admonished people who say that, since I think that it is a strawman. They didn’t respond.

I’ve seen this play out many other times in skeptic circles, where people should value reliable information and nuance the most. One of my Facebook friends attempted to disparage Bernie Sanders last year by sharing an article titled “Bernie Sanders Vows to Fight Back Against Islamophobia in the 2016 Race”. We atheists often push back on the term Islamophobia and often substitute in “Anti-Muslim Bigotry” since the former implies that we shouldn’t criticize the tenets of Islam or Islamism. My friend wanted to smear Bernie as an Islam apologist. The problem? Never in the article did Bernie once use the term, the only uses were by the author of the piece. My other friend, Eli of God Awful Movies and Scathing Atheist, has often made posts on his feed, and will frequently have to remind people to READ THE GODDAMN ARTICLE, even in the text of his posts. We are often overeager to share our opinion, and we often think that we are informed enough on a given subject to share what we think even though we are completely devoid of context, so we comment against the headline of a piece without so much as peeking at the content.

It doesn’t even have to be headlines. It could be a long-winded post where people are likely to only read a few lines in, or a catchy meme with a more thorough text explanation at the bottom. There was recently a video passed around on my feeds featuring Simon Sinek talking about millennials in the workplace. I happened to watch the whole video, and to be honest, I liked it.** It was a critique of millennials, but it was actually fairly supportive of my generation. However, it had a horrible banner above and below it, saying “This is exactly what’s wrong with this generation”. This feeds into the common narrative that “t3h millenials are d3stroyzing everything! Oh noez!” To someone who has already made up their mind that millennials are entitled lazy youths who don’t know how to work, they are able to merely glance at the video and feel validated in their assumptions before moving on. Not only that, but many are able to spread an otherwise good video by slapping an accusatory tone onto it, thinking they are helping to educate their friends when they haven’t even listened to a minute of what the speaker said.

As someone who puts time and effort into my blog posts, this is disheartening. When someone misrepresents my work, it feels as if someone has taken my voice away from me and abused it to fit their own agenda. And with plenty of distrust in mainstream news already, there are plenty of people out there willing to twist the words of more legitimate sources for their own motives. I almost feel like punching those who share their opinion on somebody’s work without knowing an inkling about that piece. It makes me want Facebook to implement a policy where you can’t comment unless you’ve actually spent time reading the piece.

Not all of the spreading of misinformation is malicious though, sometimes it’s innocuous. I know I’ve certainly made plenty of these mistakes before and I am no better than most people reading this post. I get how easy it is to share something without vetting it. Usually I’m checking my Facebook feed between tasks at work, and I see a catchy headline that validates one of my opinions. Maybe it reinforces a point I had been trying to get across to others. It’s so easy just to go off the headline, share an article, and say “See?” I get it. We want to get to our next task and we don’t want to spend the next ten minutes reading through something word for word when we think we already know what it says, and our time is valuable. But if we care about cultivating a healthy news feed, we should take the extra effort to make sure we are sharing information responsibly.

Here are some steps I’ve taken to making sure I spread information in a manner beneficial to those who follow me.

  • Reminding myself that Facebook is not a news outlet. If we want to be informed, we should make sure to take time out of our day to educate ourselves based on good, professional news outlets, and cross referencing across multiple sources. (also buying a subscription to your local paper is a good way to support good journalism)
  • I never comment on a piece without reading it. If it’s something short such as a death of a celebrity, most of the relevant information is within the first couple of paragraphs, so I don’t feel too guilty expressing my sorrow without reading the whole thing. However, context matters, and I put extra effort into reading the whole article when it’s presented to me. This is especially the case when something is an opinion piece, as common objections or questions I might have are often addressed within the paragraphs of the article.
  • Never share before reading. Make sure the information you’re spreading is actually the information you want to share.
  • Instead of just sharing a link, I share the link along with a short excerpt of the piece in the text of my post. I usually pick a couple of paragraphs that get to the heart of the article. While I may have read the whole article, some people may still only be interested in skimming headlines. This makes it easier for me to spread important information to those who are just skimming Facebook on cruise control.
  • As always, keep your skeptic goggles on, and be critical of any outlet you get your news from. Remind yourself of ways to avoid bad sources.

 

PS, if you’re going to share this piece, don’t give away the actual content. See if your friends are as responsible as they should be!

 


*This idea is not original to me at all. My friends and fellow atheist bloggers JT Eberhard and Matthew Facciani have done similar things. The difference between their posts and mine is small, but they are discussing the spread of actual news events. I want to cover things a bit more broadly, and how we have conversations on social media. Regardless of how unoriginal this post is, this is a message worth repeating.

**A quick review: It was a nuanced look at how millennials behave differently from past generations, and a critique of their behavior. I am the first to push back against millennial hatred, and I feel like we have been gaslit into thinking that we’re lazy or entitled. Throughout the whole video, Sinek emphasizes that it’s not millennials’ fault that our behaviors are often incongruous from the perspective of previous generations. I think he’s missing a lot of the story by not emphasizing the poor economic conditions we entered the world in, and how we have enormous student debts that we have to pay off when we have trouble getting jobs. However, he uses evidence-based methods to describe at least some of the problem well. Most importantly, it’s miles of quality beyond much of the disparaging discourse focused at millennials lately, and escapes the reactionary anti-millennial narrative that we are regularly bathed in.

Maybe Labels Aren’t a Problem, But the Way We Use Them Are

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

An unusual amount of time within the culture wars appears to be over what labels are appropriate. There are certain labels that have a history of marginalizing certain members of society, and therefore probably should not be used (which is not the same thing as saying we need to be politically correct). A significant amount of Dave Silverman’s activism and book is focused on why we should choose the label “atheist” over other labels like freethinker, nonreligious, or humanist. And it’s been a common narrative among right-leaning atheists that a revolving door of “new” labels like genderqueer and intersectional alienated  centrist voters and caused Donald Trump to be elected. Now, I don’t believe for a section that made up words (as if there are any other kind of word) caused us to elect a tyrant, but it’s no question that we seem to be pretty hung up on labels.

After so many squabbles about labels, it’s common for us to throw up our arms and say we’re just not going to care about labels anymore. Perhaps this is because plenty of people use this as an excuse to dismiss someone, to otherize them, or to put them in a convenient box where they can make a ton of lazy, unjustified assumptions about someone’s character.

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[Image: A variety of small cabinets labeled with numerical index cards]

I don’t blame anyone for coming to this conclusion, as it seems pretty attractive, but I can’t help but believe that it’s the wrong conclusion. In these situations I mentioned where someone gets to take the lazy way out, the person will often use labels as the tool, but the problem is the person. When someone (like my roommate) tries to use a metal fork on a teflon-coated pan and scratches the shit out of the surface, I don’t try and throw out all our metal forks. I ask the person to change their behavior. All in all, I find labels to be pretty useful tools. In reality, all words are labels to convey a concept, and it’d be silly to stop using words because people use words improperly. But there are good uses for tools and bad uses for tools.

Many of us atheists have been on the receiving end of a misuse of these tools. It’s plenty common for us to be dismissed as “not really an atheist, you’re really an agnostic”. Arguably worse is when it’s assumed that we’re sexist assholes like TJ Kirk or Reddit trolls. This sucks, but this is not the label’s fault. This is how some people use the label, and that’s wrong. But in many cases, it’s useful to me. If someone asks me where I go to church, if I tell them I’m an atheist it not only gives them an answer but a reason for that answer. In a discussion with friends, bringing up my atheism means they can be safe in assuming I don’t have religious motivations for my ethical, political, and mundane day-to-day decisions. My atheist label isn’t a restriction on my life, nor is it comprehensive, but it gives a healthy splash of first-glance context to my character.

While there are misunderstandings about what we mean when we call ourselves an atheist, that label is far more accurate and unambiguous compared to “Christian”. When this label comes up, it is often us who take the lazy way out and make a ton of assumptions about the other person. Correcting this error would do us a lot of good in improving our conversations, and by extension how atheists are perceived. A lot of ex-fundamentalist atheists assume that when someone calls their self a Christian, that means that they hold every single letter of the Bible literally, but that’s simply not the case. Anywhere from 40-80% of self-identified Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of their god. This means that if you make the assumption that they think the Earth was literally created in six days, then you have a pretty good chance of being wrong. Christians disagree about a lot of things among each other: dunking vs. sprinkling baptisms, transubstantiation, predestination, works vs. faith, the list goes on. Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all consider themselves Christian, while evangelicals are likely to call them heretical or blasphemous cults. It turns out that when someone calls their self a Christian, there’s not too many assumptions you can make without asking them beforehand.

What do I do when someone tells me that they are a Christian? I do make some assumptions out of practicality, but like all things in science, they are tentative and subject to change with new information. They are likely to believe that Jesus Christ was the son of their god, and that he died for their sins. They likely hold that the Bible is a useful book with good, holy advice (whether or not they have read it). They likely believe in a Heaven or Hell. But when they tell me otherwise, I don’t immediately remove their “Christian” label from the way I view them, I make that adjustment to how I perceive their individual character.

We would to best to recognize labels as starting points when getting to know an individual. I have multiple labels. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in gods, not because I am like Richard Dawkins. I am a feminist because I want women to have equal rights and access to society, not because I am similar to Maryam Namazie. I am a socialist because I think our country would be better if we were more like Norway or Sweden, not because I am like Che Guevera. There are a spectrum of different personalities, opinions, and underlying ideologies behind each individual who take up any one of these labels. I could give you a lot of labels that more or less describe me well: progressive, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, academic, skeptical, humanist, snarky, sarcastic, and environmentally conscious. Even if I were to somehow tell all my labels to someone, they still wouldn’t get the whole picture of who I am, they would still have to get to know me.

This is not a flaw, it’s merely the limitation of the tool. A label is a good shortcut to giving someone a picture of what is important to me or my identity, but it’s still a shortcut. I’m happy to tell someone that I’m left-leaning, because it’s a good shorthand way of not having to say “I support minorities, LGBTQ rights, a social safety net, etc.” among a million things. But after I tell someone I’m left-leaning, it shouldn’t be a drastic surprise to that person that I have a lot of problems with the Democratic party, I think GMOs are useful, and that we on the left tend to underplay the harms of Islam. Left-leaning still describes me fairly well, but it is not the entirety of my being, and we would be best to recognize that. That would be simply getting to know the limitations of the tool, instead of throwing away the tool altogether.

This would be useful for recognizing the spectrum of other identities, helping us recognize, for example, the spectrum of gender and sexual identities. Someone might identify as bisexual, but prefer women to men 90% of the time, and that’s still valid. A trans person may identify as nonbinary, but feel significantly feminine or masculine, and that’s valid to. Even those of us who are not a gender or sexual minority benefit from recognizing the diversity of our own labels. I am a man and am very comfortable under that identity, but how I perceive myself as a man could very much differ from how some other person sees his self as a man. Hell, plenty of conservatives would probably characterize me as “not really a man” since I’ve never hunted, I don’t own a car, and I wore a dress on social media once. Fuck ’em. I’m a man and they don’t have any say in that.

It’s also worth noting that even if we get to the heart of what an individual means when they talk about the importance a certain label gives to them, that’s only a small facet of that person. Every person lives a life with many intersecting aspects of their identities, and while certain labels often imply other labels, we need our perceptions of each other to be flexible and open to new evidence. We know all too well that not everyone that is an atheist is also a skeptic, so we shouldn’t be surprised when two labels seem to contradict each other. There are gay Christians, feminist Muslims, and conservative minorities. The solution to any confusion we have is not to take issues with the labels, but to try and understand the actual person behind them.

So let’s ignore who is and isn’t a true Scotsman and focus on what that label is truly good for. We get to know something about that person, and get a decent first impression about why that identity is important. But like all first impressions, there’s a lot more to the story.

Three Ways to Change Someone’s Mind

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

With the fallout of the election, a lot of us skeptics have been doing a bit of soul searching (for lack of a better term). Skeptics have been fighting the good fight before I was even in diapers, yet many humans seem impervious to pure, demonstrable facts, to the point where our president elect is a denier of clear unambiguous science. Donald Trump denies the existence of anthropogenic climate change as well as the efficacy of vaccines, and his followers are not far behind. Perhaps this is unsurprising, coming from a man who led a movement that literally thinks Obama is a Kenyan (the movement still isn’t dead, soon to be ex-sheriff Joe Arpaio tried to restore legitimacy to birther claims with an amateur investigator in mid-December). As a result of an apparent surge in terrible reasoning, the election has apparently lit a fire under our asses to bring critical thinking, skepticism, and reason to the forefront and redouble our efforts.

Unfortunately, even the cold hard facts are not enough to change the minds of humans, and, in fact, sharing facts can even make things worse. Science has shown us that the backfire effect contributes to our strongly-held beliefs, such that when we are presented information that contradicts what we already think, it can cause us to become even more certain in our poorly-held beliefs.

What?

This means that if we share the cold hard facts and nothing else, this causes people to reject the facts even more? So we shouldn’t use facts to try and convince people?

That’s not necessarily the case. We should of course make sure that all of our arguments and positions are supported by the evidence and the facts. But the point is if we actually care about convincing people to a more evidence-based worldview, merely presenting the evidence alone won’t get the job done. Humans aren’t perfect logic machines; we can’t simply give everyone certain inputs and expect them to arrive at the same reasonable output. Our approach counts for a lot.

Along with other skeptics, I’ve been working on trying to reach out to “the other side” to find people who are reachable. While I’m hardly an expert in interpersonal conflict, psychology, or debate (mostly the opposite, I’m baffled every day at how humans function), there appear to be some approaches that have better efficacy than others. Nothing is a silver bullet, and we should never go into a disagreement expecting to change the minds of others, as that will lead to unnecessary disappointment more often than not. But if we want to set out to plant a few seeds and give the other side some food for thought, and perhaps reach the people on the fence, then it would behoove us to adjust our approach.

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Image: Two people conversing

1. Humanize yourself to the opposition

This approach admittedly has a limited scope, and is mostly applicable to issues of bigotry and prejudice. But when it works, it works incredibly well. Often this is the case when people are biased against certain demographics, such as gender, sexuality, and race.

What does the evidence say? Even a very brief conversation with someone opposed to your nature can drastically change the way you are perceived. A study found in Science set out to find how voters react to meeting gay and transgender individuals. The abstract for their paper is as follows:

Existing research depicts intergroup prejudices as deeply ingrained, requiring intense intervention to lastingly reduce. Here, we show that a single approximately 10-minute conversation encouraging actively taking the perspective of others can markedly reduce prejudice for at least 3 months. We illustrate this potential with a door-to-door canvassing intervention in South Florida targeting antitransgender prejudice. Despite declines in homophobia, transphobia remains pervasive. For the intervention, 56 canvassers went door to door encouraging active perspective-taking with 501 voters at voters’ doorsteps. A randomized trial found that these conversations substantially reduced transphobia, with decreases greater than Americans’ average decrease in homophobia from 1998 to 2012. These effects persisted for 3 months, and both transgender and nontransgender canvassers were effective. The intervention also increased support for a nondiscrimination law, even after exposing voters to counterarguments.

When someone is convinced that we need to ban gay marriage because gay men are depraved perverts who walk around in leather and feathers all day to recruit children, introducing them to a gay person melts away these stereotypes. When someone thinks that trans women are really men in dresses trying to sneak into restrooms, introducing them to an actual trans woman will make them drastically rethink them. It turns out when you live within the bubble of how your go-to media outlet describes an issue, you thoroughly lack the full picture and the human aspect of why something is important.

It’s not hard to see real-world examples of this happening. It’s often most visible in politicians whose positions on certain issues are very public, and will occasionally change drastically. We’re familiar with cases like former Republican Vice President Dick Cheney, who supported the standard Republican position against gay marriage until his daughter came out as a lesbian, and since then has even lobbied for gay marriage. Tim Ryan, a previously “pro-life Democrat”, changed his mind on why people should have access to abortion after discussing with female constituents on why those issues affected them. It turns out that gay people aren’t trying to recruit all Americans into orgies, they just want the same access to society that everyone else has. It turns out that women aren’t just trying to get rid of a fetus because it’s inconvenient for their next vacation, they simply want bodily autonomy. As a straight male, no matter how good my arguments could possibly get against someone, I could never humanize their cause in the same way that a gay person or a woman could.

What does this mean for people who care about issues on prejudice? It means visibility is incredibly important. It means coming out en masse has worked wonders for the LGBTQ rights movement, and why the National Coming Out Day is more than a mere celebration of being one’s self. It’s the reason why the atheist movement has been pushing visibility, in efforts like the Out of the Closet Campaign  or Openly Secular which are based of the successes of the LGBTQ rights movement. It looks like a black man joining the KKK to ease racial tensions. It looks like putting a trans person on the stage of the Democratic National Convention, or making sure there is more racial representation in our films and television shows. It could also mean someone showing that they need access to healthcare despite their pre-existing conditions, and that plans like the ACA are actually necessary for their well-being. This is more than simply making an appeal to giving everyone their fair share, this actively shifts the way we think.

To be clear, the only people who have the ability to use this technique are people affected by prejudice, bigotry, and misinformation. It’s not for me to tell any individual that they should put their self in a position that compromises their safety for the sake of changing minds. But it’d be a mistake to not show that this is a powerful tool. I’m happy to help put a friendly face on atheists, though.

2. Social pressure

Humans are social creatures, and if we’re going to try to influence the behavior of other humans we have to understand the mechanisms behind what causes people to change their mind. This is somewhat related to the first point, but more broad and large scale. This is not something we can accomplish overnight, and it’s not something that we can control directly, but this is something we can do in the spaces we have influence over.

We’ve known for over half a century that the opinions of those surrounding us influence us greatly. This has been known since the 50s when we started doing experiments on this. A good example is the Asch conformity experiments, which found that subjects were likely to give a clearly wrong answer when everyone around them gave a largely wrong answer. Subjects were given two cards, one with a single line, and one with three lines of varying lengths. While only one of the lines clearly matched the length of the other card, when a subject was surrounded by people who give the same wrong answer, the subject was far more likely to pick the same wrong answer. There are many of other examples and experiments that since then corroborate these findings (such as the humorous elevator example).

asch_experiment

Cards used in the Asch experiment. On the left, a card has one line, and on the right a card has three lines of varying lengths, with the medium-length line matching the length of the line on the left. [Wikimedia Commons]

It’s important to note that this is simply an aspect of human behavior. I am not advocating groupthink or tribalism, but simply describing how humans act. As skeptics, we should be aware of the way this can harm people. It’s a contribution to the fact that many Trump voters on Twitter seemed to operate in a completely separate universe from everybody else, likely along with conspiracy beliefs like Pizzagate and anti-vaccine theorists. As critical thinkers, we should be well aware of the effect this can have on our own beliefs, and we should try and ward off any effect this can have.

But we should also recognize the power this phenomenon comes with. Creating environments that allow certain ideas to flourish, while at the same time making it hostile for other ideas, is actually a good thing. This is why even though atheists don’t necessarily have to agree on almost anything, I make it a priority to make sure that the environments that I curate are welcoming to the marginalized and hostile to anti-racism (cue accusations that I’m forming a bubble here). The idea that people of different skin colors are substantially different or that women are weak are evidentially dead ideas, and they should be shunned in every way possible. As I mentioned before, merely showing someone the evidence that “no, their brains are not smaller than ours” may cause them to double down on their beliefs. Instead, once we have evidence that some ideas are bad, outdated, and harmful, we should make it clear that we have no need to revisit them.

We can see the effect this has on people around the globe and over time. We know, for example, that the religious belief you have as an adult is not so much a function of which religious belief makes the most sense to the person, but more of a product of the environment and culture you grow up in. We know that children born in the past couple of decades are far more accepting of LGBTQ people than people born eighty years ago, and that is a good thing. What if we were to create a culture where skepticism and critical thinking were the largest ideological motivators, instead of religion or conspiracy theories?

This also provides pushback against a few ideas that have been floating around since the election. It’s commonplace to make fun of “social media activists”, since speaking out on Facebook and Twitter appears to do nothing. But every time you speak out on a controversial position, or challenge a piece of bullshit on someone’s wall, you provide a small bit of more social pressure towards a certain position. Not only that, but you encourage others to do the same, helping push towards reason. It’s not a silver bullet and it’s not the majority of the work getting done, but it’s a step.

Furthermore, we’ve also been told that we shouldn’t be shaming people or “calling out” others for having bigoted or racist positions. To be clear, simply calling someone a bigot isn’t going to change their minds, but calling someone a racist or a xenophobe to their face directly isn’t what I’m advocating. When we shame someone’s positions, we also induce social pressure against them. When we shame someone for something that’s terrible, we are signaling to others that a certain position is unacceptable. While many positions are worth debating, some things are simply not worth discussing anymore. We’ve settled the fact that gay people aren’t pederasts, we know that homeopathy is a scam, and atheists aren’t evil. Anyone holding those positions should feel shamed. Perhaps we can reach certain people with cautious and respectful discussion, but for those we can’t, we should signal to others that this is an unreasonable position that deserves to be completely disregarded.

3. Appealing to their values, not yours

In keeping with the fact that we humans are not logic machines, we build our opinions and conclusions on a lot more than the mere facts. When we construct a moral and ethical framework, we must have a moral foundation upon which we build our most cherished and important tenets. As members of a social species we would assume that most of these foundations are mostly the same, but that doesn’t appear to be the case.

According to research by Feinberg and Willer, people who tend to identify as either “liberal” or “conservative” tend to value the foundations of their moral systems differently. Those who identify towards the political left tend to value care and equality, while those on the right value things such as tradition and loyalty. Both groups value these things to a certain extent, but in different amounts. You can find a more in-depth discussion on this topic and even discover more about your moral foundations here.

The relevant research, though finds that we tend to make arguments in terms of our own values. For me, gay marriage absolutely makes sense based on the fact that all people should be treated equally, but apparently to someone with a more conservative mindset this argument doesn’t quite cut it. For someone who values tradition more than I do (which is not hard to do), gay marriage seems unprecedented and therefore is something to be wary of. However, according to this study, a good way of convincing a conservative that gay marriage is a good thing is to appeal to in-group identity as Americans.

They then conducted four studies testing the idea that moral arguments reframed to fit a target audience’s moral values could be persuasive on even deeply entrenched political issues. In one study, conservative participants recruited via the Internet were presented with passages that supported legalizing same-sex marriage.

Conservative participants were ultimately persuaded by a patriotism-based argument that “same-sex couples are proud and patriotic Americans … [who] contribute to the American economy and society.”

On the other hand, they were significantly less persuaded by a passage that argued for legalized same-sex marriage in terms of fairness and equality.

To me, appealing to in-group identity seems dishonest and fallacious. However, the American identity is something that conservatives hold dear. And reframing my arguments to focus more on “tradition” and “purity” seem just as bad. In fact, we have named informal logical fallacies after appealing to those values. In that sense, if I reframe my arguments in terms of those values I feel like I am cheating. However, the facts are the facts and it appears to work. I have to consider the desired outcome of my discussion. If someone is not going to be compelled by facts and reason (at least within a reasonable timeframe) would I rather them believe bad things for bad reasons, or would I rather they believe good things for bad reasons? I’m leaning towards the latter. Perhaps, after they start to develop reasons for believing the “right” things, they also reframe their own morals and cognitive processes such that they eventually believe things for the right reasons anyway.

Hell, we know that we occasionally have trouble selling skepticism and critical thinking as a valid epistemology when talking to religious folk. Perhaps after we reframe why critical thinking and skepticism are important using their value system, they could eventually come to better conclusions based on those methodologies as a result.

It’s worth noting, again, that this is hardly a silver bullet. We should not expect to ever change someone’s mind during a single discussion, and even the results of the paper do not indicate that someone who responds favorably to this “reframing” is even likely to completely shift their position. Reframing arguments in terms of these moral foundations only has a small effect, albeit a significant one.

As a skeptic, I really enjoy arguing with other people (perhaps too much). With us going into a terrifying presidency, it will be important for us to establish a better way of helping people come to better positions. What people believe matters, as we all act on our beliefs. I look forward to finding better and better ways to convince people. These are the best I’ve found for now, and they all have their strengths and limitations. It’d be nice if skepticism and critical thinking could always win by default as a result of being stronger, but that’s simply not the case. We need to put in the work, and apparently the approach matters. So let’s care about that in the future.

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