Monthly Archives: August 2016

If the Alt-Right Actually Cares About Free Speech, they Need to Ditch Donald

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I haven’t tended to write about potential existential-threat-in-chief Donald Trump, because most of the important things have been said about him already. I would think that all it would take to point out that he is simply unfit for office would be for the news to report the words that he says. Unfortunately, I appear to have a pathological disorder where no matter all the evidence in front of me that tells me I should keep my expectations low for human behavior, as I never cease to be disappointed. Americans are more than willing to vote for this nationalistic four-time bankruptcy filer with no sign of slowing down.

However, I don’t think it has been emphasized enough just how much of a threat Trump is to our most cherished amendment: the one that gives us license to free speech, free expression, and religion. He’s built a platform on “saying what he thinks” and avoiding “political correctness”, but his words indicate a backlash from these things far worse than mere social consequences. Say what you will about the Regressive Left and the SJWs, and complain that your voice isn’t needed in a queer-only safe space or that white people are asked to move to the back of a BLM protest. These aren’t requests enshrined in law, but a mere grassroots effort to shift the focus to the people who aren’t the dominant voice. As such, these “politically correct” behaviors are hardly the authoritarian left they are made out to be, contrasting to what Donald Trump proclaims to want to enact. He wants to use government force to make people to speak the way he wants to, and does so proudly as he proclaims himself as the “Law and Order” candidate. His avoidance of political correctness extends far beyond that of himself, but he wants it explicitly encoded into the rulebooks across the United States. Anyone who remotely values free speech should honestly be terrified.

Donald_Trump_by_Gage_Skidmore_2

[Image: Donald Trump] Photo By Gage Skidmore at Wikimedia Commons

For one thing, he clearly doesn’t value the free press whatsoever. In his own words, “We’re going to open up those libel laws so when The New York Times writes a hit piece, which is a total disgrace, or when the Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected”. It says a lot about a potential president’s perception of free speech if he wants to make it far easier to literally prevent people from legally sharing their opinions. Do I really need to dredge up my high school government notes to share why a free press and the ability to criticize is so important? I might think that the Breitbarts, the Blazes, and the Foxes are absolute trash and have blood on their hands for the sea of bloodshed and bigotry that has harmed the marginalized across the country. My issue is not, however, that they have the right to criticize liberals and president Hussein Obama, but that they do a terrible job. Trump, however, cannot seem to take any criticism and has no compulsions of using the force of law to prevent it.

Indeed, Trump is no stranger to the SLAPP suit, which has plagued all kinds of activists in the skeptical movement for merely criticizing others (the last link is a bunch of scientists doing a mere study, not activists). The point of these often pointless lawsuits is to force the victim to choose between being extorted tens of thousand dollars on legal fees or to shut up. According to Trump, “I spent a couple of bucks on legal fees, and they spent a whole lot more. I did it to make his life miserable, which I’m happy about.” There is a mantra from free speech advocates that I largely agree with that the best cure for bad speech is more good speech in response, and this absolutely defies it. Instead of this, according to the Donald, we should just enshrine criticism as categorically unallowable.

In theory, these libel suits could be filed by anybody, against anybody, and therefore anyone has equal access to it. However, due to the defense costs, it has the effect of only working for the rich and silencing the poor. It is infected with the corporate-dicksucking attitude that plagues the rest of America of allowing the rich to buy off the law for their own benefit. Donald Trump won’t have to even consider whether he should file a SLAPP suit in the future if he gets his way, but the nearly 30% of people in America (and increasing) that fall under the lower class have no hope. This is textbook “free speech for me, but not for thee”.

There’s another prong of free speech regarding Trump that shouldn’t even be disputed, but I live in a country with approximately 50 million assholes who will dispute it, so I suppose I’m obligated to. I’m referring, of course, to his complete disregard for actual religious freedom.

Trump will say that he supports religious freedom, but he says a lot of things. He actually cited religious freedom within the context of free speech in his RNC acceptance speech, stating that he wants to repeal the Johnson Amendment. This will effectively give special privileges of churches above other nonprofit organizations to endorse candidates and invoke political speech, something tax-exempt organizations are unable to do. This is an explicit government endorsement of religion, which violates the second prong of the Lemon Test (and possibly other two prongs) which states that “its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion.” For this, it values religious speech over secular speech. So much for free speech for everyone.

This is no surprise, coming from a guy who needs the evangelical vote to even hope to get elected. He has no problem doing this sort of pandering to his voter base. This advocacy for evangelical speech is in his contrast to explicit denial of the freedom of religion for Muslims. This is practically a pillar of his platform, so I shouldn’t really need to go into it, but it would be irresponsible to mention it. This is a man who wants to ban Muslims from immigrating “until we can figure out what’s going on”. This is a man who wants surveillance of mosques. This is establishing an institutional thought crime for having particular beliefs. I may agree with the right that it’s silly that Democrats tend not to name and criticize the ideas of Islam, but that barely contrasts with fascist authoritarian ideal of punishing the people who hold these ideas. But this fascism is hardly out of place from a man who would like to kick a man out of the United States for not pledging a mindless loyalty oath to a country that continues to denigrate people who look like him.

It’s absolutely baffling the lengths that Donald Trump will go to actually swing against “political correctness”. Sure, he’s welcome to make “anti-political correctness” as part of his platform just as much as Barack Obama is able to talk about “hope and change”. But to enshrine anti-political correctness into law? Trump seems perfectly happy to do this, judging by his comments showing that he doesn’t take kindly to stores saying “Happy Holidays”, and would apparently want to improving America by saying “We are going to start saying merry Christmas again.” Besides his laughably false premise that stores can’t say Merry Christmas, it’s an absolute false equivalence. People are “politically correct” around the holidays because they want to be inclusive to people of diverse religious beliefs. Stores are “politically correct” likely because they also value lots of customers and want to make everyone feel welcome to shop there. By contrast, this anti-political correctness of forcing America to avoid these is an overreach into the personal lives of citizens, and is drastically more authoritarian than any trending politically correct phrase.

donald-trump-racist

[Image: Donald Trump meme. “How could I be racist? My President is one of the blacks”]

And do I even need to mention Donald’s apparent desire to censor that bastion of open dialogue and discussion, the internet? Apparently so, because so called free speech advocates apparently don’t care to address it, so I have to. It’s astonishing that anyone could support this man with such a laughable idea, which is not only laughable as a law in the United States, but has the potential to overreach and censor other countries.

None of this is surprising from a man who apparently doesn’t even understand the First Amendment. Demonstrating that Trump definitely needs some better fact-checkers in his campaign, he sent out a complaint on Twitter that protesters in Chicago were violating his First Amendment rights. This isn’t the broad usage of “free speech” that refers to open dialogue, avoiding shouting down, and getting all sides represented regardless of how absurd*. He literally invoked the word of law. It took constitutional lawyer and professional taker-of-no-shits Andrew Seidel to set him straight.

 

TrumpSeidel

[Image: Andrew Seidel trashing Donald Trump on Twitter. Transcript below]

@realDonaldTrump: The organized group of people, many of them thugs, who shut down our First Amendment rights in Chicago, have totally energized America

@AndrewLSeidel: The First Amendment protects citizens from the government, not from unfriendly audiences. The President couldn’t “open up libel laws against the media without violating two 1st Amendment rights: free speech and press. The President couldn’t assault reporters or have his staff rough them up so as not to dirty his tiny hands. The government didn’t shut down your rally. In fact, the police didn’t even raise safety concerns (despite what you’ve said). The protesters were exercising their First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly. That’s why the police didn’t shut them down. You see @realDonaldTrump, the First Amendment protects everyone, including fascists like yourself. The First Amendment is the only thing that allows you to be such an insufferable, insubstantial blowhard.

In fact, the best thing I can say about Donald Trump’s policies regarding free speech is that they are about as impossible as creating a 2,000 mile-long wall, which is to say that his best quality is that he won’t be very good at doing his job. Many of his proposals are blatantly unconstitutional, and far out of the reach of a president. It bears repeating that the president is not a dictator and he will still have to go through the checks and balances of other branches of government to enact any sort of substantial change on the country. And considering Trump’s apparent lack of knowledge on any of this and his total lack of government experience, he will not be able to accomplish much. Still, the president is allowed to make executive orders, and I don’t think any free speech advocate should be willing to allow him any of that power.

In light of this, I don’t understand how any of the alt-right lets this slide. It baffles me that speakers like gay-against-his-best-interests Milo Yiannopoulos will go to campuses on a supposed platform of free speech and open dialogue, and then openly fight for Donald Trump to become the leader of the free world. The violations against dialogue on the left are simply incomparable. Maybe you’re upset that you get social backlash from using “faggot” and “tranny”, but that’s merely a cultural shift and there’s no law against you being an asshole or a bigot. Maybe you’re upset that you’re kicked from a conversation, but that’s simply someone blocking you from Facebook or rejecting you from a support group or safe space. If you want to talk about harassment or banning policies on social media or campuses, I’m willing to have the conversation, but those are policies for those spaces. By contrast, Trump threatens an authoritarian regime that literally forces Americans everywhere from expressing themselves or saying what they want. It’s a blatant totalitarian enforcement of what people can say or think, and unlike most leftist stances, it explicitly wants the backing of the government behind it. This is a no-brainer. The alt-right can go on all it wants about being shouted down or getting backlash on social media. If they truly want to be seen as advocates of free speech, they need to explicitly denounce Trump and fight against a blatant push for fascism in this supposed land of the free, instead of proudly endorsing him. Until then, they cannot be taken seriously, and this double-standard must be called out.

 

EDIT: The day this post went up, as if Trump wished to prove my point, he and his campaign stifled free speech not once, but twice.

-The campaign, after allowing University of Arizona newspaper The Daily Wildcat to get credentials to report on Trump’s speech in Phoenix, removed the team from the press area with no explanation.

-At this speech, he demanded that we screen immigrants through an ideological test, stating that we should only keep people  who “share our values”. This is thought crime.

Republicans don’t share my values either, can I send them to war-torn Syria and trade them for the refugees?

 


*There are two different usages of “free speech”, the legal usage and the idea of “free and open dialogue”. I still think it’s ludicrous to conflate the two and rope in the second usage, but I’ll use it if I must.

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Intent vs. Consequences: A Middle-Ground Model

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

There’s always a topic going around social media feeds that cannot be divorced from perpetual flame wars and arguments in the comments. At the time of writing this, the flame war flavor of the month is Ellen’s recent tweet of the Olympics, where she put out a humorous photo of her riding on the shoulders of Olympic athlete Usain Bolt, with the caption, “This is how I’m running errands from now on.” I don’t care to get into the specifics of the debate, but I will attempt to summarize in a fair way. The negative reactions stem from people who bring up America’s racist past of treating black slaves as literal beasts of burden, such that even on occasion slaves were forced to literally carry masters on their backs. The pushback to this insists that there is no foul, since Ellen is clearly a strong social liberal with a history of promoting equality, and Usain Bolt clearly found no problem with the post since he retweeted the photo.

I don’t feel qualified to discuss whether or not this was racist, but this argument has dredged up the debate over whether intent matters or not. For the purposes of this discussion, I’m going to grant two things, each one conceding an important point to each side of the debate:

  1. Ellen genuinely meant no harm or malice to either Bolt or the black community. We have little evidence of bad intent, and we can’t read her mind.
  2. By posting the tweet, she subtly reinforced a harmful narrative that still exists within a deeply racist America that degrading physical labor is a suitable role for colored people.

I’ve seen people on either side of the issue concede both these points. Not everyone, mind you. However, from what I can tell, people seem to think that one is a far more important focus than the other. If we both concede these points, then we agree on two relevant things: that Ellen did not intend for there to be harm, but there was harm anyway.

The struggle appears to be with how we set up our moral model. Most secular humanists subscribe to a consequential ethics model. We characterize something as good when it promotes well-being or reduces harm. It is immoral if it causes someone harm. So, clearly, we value it when someone’s actions improve the lives of others. However, if we are going to promote actions that improve the lives of others, shouldn’t we incentivize that people perform actions in the future that they think will also benefit others? If someone thinks an act improves the well-being of someone else, and they are justified in that belief, shouldn’t we encourage them to follow through?

sadkittenmeme

[Image: a fucking adorable sad kitten with the words “I didn’t mean it”]

Part of the struggle appears to be that we don’t want to punish someone for not having malicious intent. After all, accidents happen all the time, and humans are far from perfect. Why would we treat someone poorly for causing something they didn’t intend to happen? However, we do recognize that we have to own up to our harms regardless of what we meant. This is the main point of the “intent is not magic” side, of which I generally consider myself a part of. A classic example is one that Ania Bula discusses in her take on the issue. Her example is that of stepping on someone else’s toe. Most toe-steppings are unintentional, yet we would seem like a dickhole if we did it to someone without apologizing and trying to rectify the situation.

I think this is a perfectly good analogy, yet it might seem less analogous if we are talking about non-physical harm. In this case, Ellen reinforced roles of humiliating labor that black people are apparently fit to perform. There is an extra layer of abstraction from mere physical harm, since Ellen had the medium of culture to spread the message of the meme and for it to make its impact on other humans. Yet that harm still exists. Even if Ellen didn’t purposefully try to reinforce those race-based roles, she did. If she actually cares about making sure that harm isn’t further perpetuated, then shouldn’t she apologize and try and rectify it. We don’t even have to think she had malicious intent against black people to spread racism, as a lot of racism is unconscious and unintentional. Does it make sense that racists are intentionally trying to screw over an entire group of people, or does it make sense that they think they have verifiable facts and reasons for treating people of different races worse? My mind’s on the latter.

We have an analogous state to racism that also unintentionally causes harm: ignorance. While racism and ignorance are hardly exclusive to each other (the latter undoubtedly perpetuates the former), we can look at them separately and find they have similar consequences. Ignorance causes children to not get vaccinated or understand evolution properly. It causes people to spend money on homeopathy. It causes policies to allow humans to dump carbon into the atmosphere and increase the temperature of the Earth. But would we call the people who do these things immoral? Only if they’re not ignorant and willingly causing these harms in spite of the evidence.

As skeptics, we have a lot to say about ignorance. We don’t think it’s immoral, and in fact we find it’s usually the product of our environment which we have varying degrees of control over. If someone is uninformed on an issue and says something completely wrong, we don’t jump to the conclusion that they are automatically a terrible person (or at least we shouldn’t). Rather, we try to inform them or give them resources to improve their situation. If the person appreciates the gesture and reacts in a way that seems like they acknowledge that they were uninformed, then we even value their behavior. We even give them brownie points for doing the research and informing themselves afterward. However, it’s only willful ignorance, where they double down and refuse to acknowledge any points you give that we label their actions as harmful. They are purposefully wanting to disregard any contradictory info, which will lead to harm down the road, which is immoral.

It is here that I suggest the middle ground between people who think that we need to focus on one or the other in terms of harm. We don’t think ignorance is the mark of a bad person, it can easily be the mark of poor circumstances. However, we recognize that it does harm. For that reason, the ignorance is bad, but the person is not, unless they are consciously promoting that ignorance.

Under this proposed model, the intent and the consequences are both important, but for different reasons. Intent is important for assessing the moral character of the person. Did they want to be ignorant, racist, or malicious? No? Then they aren’t a person of questionable character, at least not based on this interaction. However, the damage is still there. This is why the consequences are so important, as they’re important for assessing the nature of the behavior. If the person is a person with strong morals, then they should want to rectify that harm, or at least acknowledge that harm was performed. If they seem to put the focus on their intent instead of the harm, as Ellen disappointingly seemed to do, then we are less likely to trust that they actually care about doing their best.

Perhaps this rubs the humanists who rely on consequential ethics the wrong way. If we judge actions on the consequences they cause, isn’t this rejecting consequential ethics? This is currently the best model that atheists have for a moral system, and it relies on our ever-useful skepticism that follows evidence-based methodology.

I’d argue that it’s not a rejection, seeing as a person could conceivably think that they are informed and think they are performing an action that causes the best possible outcome and still fail. If a person is acting on their best evidence and their evidence is flawed, can we really hold that against them? I don’t think we should. However, we should still expect that if they care about the consequences of their actions, that even if they weren’t fully informed in a particular situation, they were an active agent and a component of the harm that was perpetuated.

Furthermore, holding people somewhat accountable to the harms they’ve unintentionally caused is actually rooted in consequential ethics. If we don’t want someone to make the same mistake twice, we need to call them out on their actions and point out the damage they have caused. For rational and ethical people, this causes them to be more aware in similar situations in the future and act accordingly. If we care about the consequences of someone’s actions then we should make sure those consequences are the best they can be, which includes raising flags when someone trips up. This is how we already behave in multiple areas of life, such as setting interpersonal boundaries or bringing up specific needs that someone has. If I share some brownies with my coworkers and someone is allergic to one of the ingredients, nobody should call me an immoral person for bringing the dessert to work. I would feel an obligation to apologize for bringing something to work that they were specifically singled out from enjoying.

For that reason, we should keep in mind that a statement telling someone that they have done harm is not an accusation of immorality. I think this is where the people who value intent over consequences get it entirely wrong. When someone is accused of hurting someone else, it could very easily mean that they have made a mistake, not that they are a bad person. Similarly, I have been ignorant on a good many things, but that doesn’t mean someone should call me stupid or immoral.

This ties into racism as well. I recognize that as a white person raised in a predominantly white environment for most of my life that I almost certainly have unconscious biases that lead me to act in a way that treats non-whites as inferior. I am more likely to support policies that marginalize blacks, even though that is not my intention. As a result of my biases, I recognize that I am probably racist to an extent. This is not a malicious indictment of people who don’t look like me, but rather an unfortunate consequence of being human. It is for this reason that we as a culture shouldn’t be defensive so much when we are accused of perpetuating racism or being racist. In this light, it’s less of an attack on character and simply something we should both recognize and try to consciously counteract.

Ultimately, I don’t think either “side” is working from completely different sets of assumptions, but rather their focus. To me, both intent and consequences are important, but for different reasons. For assessing the moral character of the person, we are allowed to assess their intentions. This helps us realize that even if they hurt someone we can still value them as an individual and the good things they continue to bring to the table. But the consequences still mean we need to hold people accountable for their actions. It’s very similar to the common skeptical ideal of criticizing ideas and not people, but rather in this case we are criticizing actions. As skeptics, we know we make mistakes, and being criticized doesn’t usually feel good, but if we care about improving ourselves and the world around us we will need to constantly improve. Accepting criticism is a must. Therefore, get on the defensive less and change your behaviors that are harmful. And if your intentions are sincerely good-natured, then you should be able to recognize that harm and have better actions in the future.

Are You a Skeptic? Yes? Then Stop Pretending to Read Minds

Jeremiah

Jeremiah Traeger

In the last blog post I made, I set aside the last paragraph to specifically admonish people for pretending to know someone’s intentions. This was a significant portion of the point I wanted to make in that piece. To summarize, when people speak out against being wronged in a social justice issue such as separation of church and state, detractors characterize them as acting out because “they’re just offended” and then moving on without addressing the points they raise about being harmed. This leads to unproductive conversations and people talking past each other.

 

I was proud of that paragraph because I thought that it summarized my thesis quite nicely, but apparently it didn’t sink in very well. A commenter on social media purportedly liked what I had written in my post, and then went on to rant about how people who say that they’re offended are just trying to play the victim. Anyone who read my post can tell that the person didn’t address anything I wrote in my post at all, which I consider disrespectful. But another point is that they apparently could tell exactly what people were thinking.

 

I’d really love to know how that person learned how to do that. I’m coming off of a week of heated arguments and in-fighting among some close friends, and I’ve also seen a good handful of accusations of what the other person actually believed. “You don’t want to resolve this issue, you just want to be outraged!” “You are trying to posture to look cool to your friends!” “You’re doing this all for money!” I will admit that I even made occasional arguments along these lines. Perhaps we as humans have been embedded with psychic powers that allow us to discern the true intentions of others by pinging our extrasensory energy through the screen across thousands of miles of electronic signals, ultimately revealing that what the other person posted wasn’t really what they were saying.

 

Or perhaps that’s all bullshit.

 

Why are so many supposed skeptics telling me what I am thinking when I talk to them?  These are the people who will be quick to bring up that the James Randi Educational Foundation held a challenge for two decades that offered a million dollars to anyone who was able to demonstrate any supernatural phenomenon, and it remained unclaimed for its whole lifetime. These are people who will cite multiple refutations to quacks and Choprites who claim that psychic or mental energy has any discernible everyday effect on anything outside the human body. And yet any time they claim someone else’s motivations, they are deliberately or unintentionally invoking that they can do that. Since my audience is composed of skeptics, I don’t have to make the case that people can’t. Therefore, we should stop pretending that we can.

"You ESP bro?"

[Image: South Park “PC bros” asking, “You ESP bro?”]

Of course, it’s easy to make the cognitive leap and assume that the other person has bad reasons for their position. It’s easy to think that someone has ulterior motivations for making an argument, since obviously you are the only one who has all the rational arguments and facts on your side. Clearly, someone else is trying to look good, or is lying to gain the upper hand in an argument.

 

This is a common enough trope on “The Atheist Experience” that it might as well show up on TAE Bingo. Believers will call in telling the hosts what they believe, prompting the conversation to be halted so that the hosts can tell the caller their actual beliefs. In an ideal world this would leads to the caller realizing their mistake, and continuing the call in a more respectful manner. In practice, some callers will continue making the same assumption of what the other person believes even after they are corrected. One of the examples I find more entertaining is this clip which plays out between Jeff Dee and a somewhat clueless caller. The woman calling in had assumed that because Russell and Jeff are atheists, then it follows that they worship the devil. She thought this because her pastor had told her that.

 

Ma’am, we will tell you what we believe. We’re happy to share that with you. Stop putting words into our mouth. You have no business telling us what we believe. I don’t care if it’s your preacher that told you that. He has no business lying about what we believe.

 

I linked at the quoted part, but listen to the whole clip. Do it. It’s pretty entertaining.

 

Ironically, despite the caller making some pretty terrible assumptions in her call, this was actually one of the better examples of how this usually plays out. She realizes that she is in error, and then starts to go through other (similarly ludicrous) questions about what Jeff and Russell believe, such as aliens and the afterlife. Despite the rather silly things she wanted to ask about, at least she recognizes her need to ask and clarify instead of assume. Jeff even admits partway through the call that she’s doing the right thing by asking lots of questions. Whether or not this caller is a troll or not, it’d be a better model for conversation than the way some discussions go.

 

When she does make assumptions that aren’t true, though, it has the effect of stalling the conversation. Furthermore, if someone is going to insist on their assumptions, then it makes that person appear to be unwilling to change their stance. Ironically, it makes that person appear like they don’t really want to have a discussion and would rather win brownie points by “winning” the argument. Of course, I wouldn’t ever advocate going on that assumption because it’s silly. There are plenty of other coherent reasons why someone would do that. Perhaps they are unprepared, they are incompetent in vocalizing their arguments, or maybe their logic is just plain terrible. Reading into someone else’s intentions gives the same result as any of these other assumptions, which is a possibly wrong motivation that you have no evidence for assuming over any other reason.

 

But what if somebody’s actions betray what they are saying? Isn’t that a good reason to assume that they are actually lying about their intentions? It’s possible that they are. However, being the imperfect humans that we are, we are amazingly capable of some pretty odd things. We are capable of holding multiple contradictory thoughts in our heads (as anyone familiar with the psychological phenomenon of cognitive dissonance will tell you). We are also, strangely enough, capable of holding an opinion and acting on it in an incompetent manner. This has been addressed by another TAE regular, Matt Dillahunty, who dipped into this in his fantastic speech titled Hyperbole will Destroy the World. Please watch the full video when you have thirty-five spare minutes, it’s well worth your time. The relevant portion, though, is when Matt discusses reading into the intentions of Republicans who create unnecessary laws that violate the bodily autonomy of women. While Matt is a self-proclaimed feminist, he doesn’t think this is the best strategy.

 

This idea of reading minds is a conversation my wife and I have had a number of times, because she and some her friends when talking about the religious right when it comes to women’s issues would say things like, “The religious right just want to control sex! The religious right just want to punish women for having sex! The religious right just want to punish women for trying to control their own bodies! The religious right want to make women slaves to their biology!” Don’t say any of those!…

 

…When I was part of the religious right, I didn’t want to make women slaves to their biology. I didn’t want to control sex. I didn’t want to punish women. Not even loose women. I wanted to find loose women, I just couldn’t tell anybody about it. Don’t say what their intentions are unless you can demonstrate it.

 

Instead, say that the religious right want to institute policies that have the effect of punishing women for their biology, making them slaves to their biology, and controlling sex, because that’s what they’re doing. And you haven’t adopted a burden of proof with regard to their intentions. You say, “Their policies do these things and they don’t care about them enough to stop!” And now you’ve hammered them just as strongly as before without the added weakness of pretending to read minds.

 

I thoroughly agree. I was anti-choice at one point, and I would have never wanted to control a woman. However, I thought that for the sake of the fetus, it was a necessary evil. Otherwise, it was murder, and I couldn’t allow that. If someone told me that I was only interested in controlling women or people assigned female at birth, I would have been able to rightly dismiss them. I can say that, even though in retrospect I was also for abstinence-only education and against birth control of condoms. These are currently the best-evidenced strategies for reducing unwanted pregnancies, and therefore abortions. Even looking back, I honestly didn’t think it was about controlling women. A combination of religious upbringing, anti-sex attitudes, and falsehoods about reproductive health shaped my beliefs into thinking that outlawing abortion while simultaneously reducing access to things that would prevent abortions from being necessary was the best course of actions. There are plenty of anti-choicers who have similar beliefs to what I thought back then, and are now being told what they believe. Once someone is giving them false information about their own thoughts, that conversation seems far less worth their time. This is one less anti-choicer we can plant a seed in, since they have dismissed us once somebody made a claim that they couldn’t possibly demonstrate.

 

This situation does bring up some good things to consider, though. Sometimes we read into the intentions of others because their actions betray their words. Shouldn’t that be license to call them out? I think it should, but it shouldn’t start with leaping to accusations of lying or having true ulterior motives. What Matt has proposed in this situation is to not immediately leap to these accusations, but demonstrate the effect of someone’s actions. If someone says one thing but acts in a way that seems to imply something else, point to the harms that the effect that their actions have. If you point out that someone’s words and their actions don’t match from your perspective, you aren’t making any unfalsifiable claims. This certainly seems “in bounds” for skeptics who want to make a justifiable point.

 

Making unjustifiable points, though, is disappointing to see from self-described skeptics, because I actually do see it from the worst of Christian believers who want to ascribe our intent for us. Professional hipster-yelling-at-clouds Matt Walsh wrote about how liberals were so tewwible and really wanted to create some sort of authoritarian no-discrimination-ever dystopia. This was regarding Georgia’s HB 757, which among other things would protect businesses’ “sincerely held religious beliefs”*. Of all the things in his ostensibly-grown-up-but-not-really tirade that is his standard fare on The Blaze, he starts off with the following nonsense:

 

It may be a matter of some interest to you that the American left is now openly declaring its intention to shutdown your church and outlaw your religious expression entirely. If you’ve been paying attention, you won’t be terribly shocked by this revelation. They plan to come after the churches. That’s what they’ve always wanted, and now they intend to do it.

 

How many of the atheists reading this paragraph felt that this accurately portrayed what we wanted? My guess is that it’s very few. The most extreme position that holds any sway in atheist circles is that we want to treat Churches like any other 501c(3) organization, which is still tax-exempt but must demonstrate a charitable benefit to the community.

 

To any atheists reading that paragraph, do you feel like reading the following 27 paragraphs of that nonsense? I mean, logically, just because one paragraph is shit, it doesn’t make the rest of it shit. Still, for me, I want to allocate my time to things that are worth my time. Therefore, if I’m going to read some conservative drivel, I’m going to at least try to read something that isn’t fundamentally founded on something that only I could possibly know, something that Matt Walsh couldn’t possibly determine, and something that is completely false.

 

Religious people have the excuse of their omnipotent buddy who couldn’t possibly be wrong. Anyone who goes against that dude’s church has to be wrong. Anyone who goes against the teachings of that dude is wrong. And religious people feel personally justified by closing their eyes, holding their hands together, and praying, which in all likelihood will lead them to the conclusion they already came to themselves, since the almighty and all-loving god people worship coincidentally tends to have morals that coincide with what they already believe.

 

Skeptics, we are better than that. We know we don’t have some mystical, unfalsifiable authority that gives us license to speak on behalf of him, and we know that they don’t either. We know that ESP and psychic abilities aren’t real. We don’t have any excuses. We know that we are only accountable to each other, and it is our responsibility to keep that in check. Elevate the conversation, and stop making assumptions about the other person’s private thoughts. Not only will you appear to be an asshole who is wrong, you might actually be the asshole who is wrong.

 

Start the skepticism and the accountability with yourself.

 


*Walsh insists this is only about private religious groups in his piece, but that’s far from true. There are religious businesses involved too. For everything wrong with allowing those businesses to discriminate, look at everything that’s wrong with allowing the Ark Encounter, a private for-profit business, to discriminate.

I’m Taking “Offense” Out of My Vocabulary, and Why You Should Too

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Jeremiah Traeger

“Why are you people so offended about everything?” This is a common rhetorical question that is bantered about the internet about just about everything. Whenever someone shows the tiniest sign of being upset in their criticism (and sometimes even when they don’t), they are accused of just getting offended about something, after which their argument can be dismissed as simply a result of high emotions instead of logic. It’s gotten to the point where “offense” has abandoned any usefulness, at least from my perspective.

Think of the last time that you had a problem with what someone said. Did you object to it on the grounds that “this was offensive”? Think of the last time somebody said that they were offended to you. Do you have a clear example in mind? For me, I can’t think of either.

I may as well lay my cards on the table for context. I’m a leftist progressive concerned with social justice issues. I support feminism, LGBTQ rights, Black Lives Matter, and humanism in general. I am regularly called an SJW (enough that I cohost a podcast called the SJW Circle Jerk, which you definitely should not listen to). I’m a millennial. I fit a lot of the caricatures of the early-20s kid looking for radical social change. Why is someone like me dismissing altogether “being offended”? Isn’t that what we are all about? Aren’t we offended about improper pronoun usage or that women get catcalled regularly? Well, we are, but being offended is not the point of our disagreement.

For atheists who might have qualms with the more social-justice side of the movement and may find this confusing, I’m going to try and illustrate this with an analogy that will make more sense to them. Take a look at the work of the Freedom From Religion Foundation or the American Humanist Association Appignani Center. They frequently challenge religious privilege* by writing letters and issuing lawsuits involving government displays of religious symbols, prayers at public schools, and any other violation of church and state. I challenge any atheist to look up a news story involving these organizations, and look at the comments. You’ll find religious zealots jeering at the atheists and secularists getting so offended at their god or their Christianity. It doesn’t matter on what grounds the FFRF or AHA objects to these violations, according to the lay Christian people are issuing lawsuits because the atheists are so goddamned butthurt that there’s a cross somewhere. They think so deeply that atheists’ real problem is religious symbolism period that they seem to think that it’s a victory when religious displays are visible on private property, even though it’s been repeatedly explained that all we want is separation of religion and government, so private property is perfectly fine to us.

I personally was in an argument with a religious person that went exactly like this. A person was upset about secularists wanting to take down a nativity display from a local courthouse. She went on about HOW “atheists and secularists are just acting this way because they’re OFFENDED.” It took me multiple times explaining to her that the issue wasn’t that we were offended. We want this display off of government property because it’s unconstitutional, and it’s unconstitutional because we value religious freedom and government endorsement of one religious viewpoint over another dissolves that.

jesus christ offended

[Image: Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior, is done with all this bullshit. He says, “Oh my dad, this page is so offensive”]

This is exactly what social justice activists face when they raise concern over something seemingly innocuous, in the same way that a mere cross in a local school seems harmless. We recognize that we still live in a society that is deeply racist and sexist, or otherwise marginalizes certain groups over others, and we wish to challenge that privilege. Our concerns aren’t that some incidental phrase is offensive to us, we just want to minimize damage to certain people that have faced institutionalized damage. We challenge “offensive” rhetoric because changing the mainstream narrative, however innocuous an offhand statement may seem, seems like a decent way of going about doing something. If someone speaks out against street harassment, it’s not because it’s offensive to women (even though it is), but because it makes women feel unsafe, promotes the narrative of women as sex objects, and enforces patriarchy in general. When we correct someone misgendering another person, we do so not because it’s offensive (even though it certainly is), but because doing so erases trans identity, and further promotes violence and abuse against trans people by dehumanizing them.

Someone may want to challenge me on the existence of these privileges, and that’s to be expected. I’m not intending to argue about those in this piece. What I’m more interested in challenging is the idea that people get outraged or mobilize because they are merely offended about something.

I am going to try and take “offended” out of my vocabulary. For one thing, I’ve never complained that something was offensive. I’ve complained that something is harmful for certain people, or that it marginalizes people, or it enforces a false narrative. Like the government displays mentioned above, I’ve never spoken out against violations of separation of church and state because the baby Jesus offends my heathen sensibilities. I’ve spoken out against it because we function as a society better when religion and government are separate, and diversity of religious opinion is allowed to flourish.

I’m going to stop using “offended”. Not because it has been a problem when I used it. I’m going to stop using it because I overwhelmingly see it used to accuse someone else of objecting to a problem merely because their feelings got hurt. It’s an easy way to dismiss an otherwise defensible argument. All you have to do is tell the person that you don’t care if they’re offended, knock down the strawman that you’ve constructed, and walk away with your chin held high having “won” the argument. This is largely one of the ways that social justice activism has been dismissed. Shitlords have the easy job of painting the whole community as simply “being offended”, and after that the whole movement is able to not be taken seriously because it’s a bunch of whiny millennials being upset and they just can’t handle being upset.

At this point, I should be clear that this is largely based on my perspective and experiences. I rarely see people cite “being offended” as the foundation of any of their arguments, but perhaps other people do. I’ve stopped using this terminology, but that doesn’t mean you should. But before you make your decision I’d like to challenge you to pay attention to how people use the word “offended”. The next time you see someone call something offensive, look at who is saying it. Is it the person who has a problem with something? Or is someone objecting to that concern and just saying “stop being so offended all the time!” Is the “social justice warrior” telling someone to stop being offensive? Or is it the anti-SJW who is whining about getting all offended these days? If people are genuinely citing offense as the reason for their concern, then by all means you should continue as you were. However, I’d really like for you to take a look at the people speaking out and their reasons for doing so. If you see people calling out problems, but calling them out overwhelmingly for actual reasons other than hurt feelings, then maybe you should stop calling people offended all the time as well.

To be clear, I’m not saying that it’s 100% okay to be offensive all the time. I’m interested in productive conversations, and conversations where name-calling, slurs, and personal attacks tend not to get anywhere. I’d argue that if you want a good, open conversation where everything is open to discussion, the best way to go about doing that is to do it without putting any party on the defensive, and without making anyone feel attacked.

At the same time, there is a time and place for offense. I’ve even written an entire post on why offense is not only not against social justice, but in fact a tool that social justice activists often use. Sometimes people need to be offensive. If someone thinks killing lumps of cells housed in a uterus amounts to murder, then granting women bodily autonomy will inevitably offend that person. To the fundagelical, the mere existence of an atheist is offensive. But these conversations need to happen to change hearts and minds, so their offensive nature should not deter us.

Ultimately, I’ve simply been tired of people just accused of merely being offended all the time, regardless of their reasons. For a community of supposed skeptics, we should eschew “mind-reading” and trying to look into the motivations that others have, since we aren’t going to be able to truly know what someone is thinking until those brain scanning technologies get off the ground. Until you can demonstrate that someone just wants to be outraged, then you should engage with what they are actually saying. If they truly don’t have anything substantial to back them up, then by all means dismiss them. But until then, leave “offended” at the door.

 


 

As an necessary addendum, I can’t speak for every social justice minded atheist/humanist. There certainly are going to be people who do act this way. I like to think that secularists are much better at this than random Tumblrites, but again, this is my experience.

*By the way, work towards Separation of Church and State is also a form of social justice activism. Along with organizations like American Atheists, these organizations are working to decrease the elevated privilege of religious persons over nonreligious persons. In fact, pretty much any activism that people would categorize as “atheist activism” is social justice activism.

How Self-Loathing Gays Learned to Stop Loving and Hate the Queers

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Jeremiah Traeger

It’s become an easy punchline that any given politician or religious figure will eventually be “caught in the act” of engaging in gay sex. Obviously, there’s no problem with two adults engaging in private acts under informed consent of all involved, but we can take great joy in exposing their hypocrisy. I don’t know about anyone else, but I am looking forward to the day that one of the David Mannings and the Steven Andersons of the world get their gay sex tapes leaked across the internet.

 

This leads to the question, why is this occurrence somewhat commonplace? As one study found last year, the more passionate homophobes actually have a high likelihood of actually being gay. The concept of repressed and internalized homophobia is not a new concept to us, but why would actual queers be the most vocal on these issues? I propose that the simplest answer is that it comes back to the conservative and authoritarian religious “morality”, the one that places arbitrary rules on silly “sins”. This ideology leads to a lot of harm down the road, which is one of the biggest reasons it would be best for religious morality to be eradicated altogether.

 

I will demonstrate this by comparison. First, look at the foundational principles of secular morality. We know that if an action that we take causes harm to someone else, it is immoral. We can demonstrate things that cause harm, because we can see that people are generally better off when they are wealthier, healthier, and less dead. Compare this to religious morality. Something is wrong when it’s a “sin”. What is is a sin in Christianity? A sin is whatever the god of the Bible says.

 

This is not new information at all, but it’s important to keep these in mind when discussing our motivations for discouraging immoral behavior. For secular humanists, we want to discourage immoral behavior because by our definition it causes harm to people. If someone has been murdering people, we want that to stop immediately. We want them to stop not because someone said so, and not because we found it in some ancient text written by disparate authors who thought making goats look at sticks while they fuck gave the offspring stripes. We want them to stop because as secular humanists we recognize that as far as we know we have one life and we value the precious time we have to experience it, and thus we want to prevent anything that will cause innocents to have that life taken away. We arrest the perpetrator not to merely give punishment to that person, but to isolate them from the general public, and hopefully rehabilitate them such that they will change their behavior in the future. Since religious morality doesn’t have this motivation, non-seculars are left with merely acting “moral” for the fuck of it.

 

Up to this point, I don’t think I’ve said anything particularly novel, but I propose that we need to put ourselves in the perspective of the fundamentalist religious person. From birth they are taught not to physically harm people, not to steal, and not to be gay. All of these are wrong merely because they fall under the category of sin. For the first two sins listed here, practically everyone has had the urge to do these. Right or wrong, it’s a somewhat common instinctual response to lash out physically at someone who has said something inflammatory or made a threat. And it makes sense that we would want to take something that we didn’t earn. Both of these have perfectly coherent natural instincts behind them that explain the impulse, even though we can also recognize that they are harmful. But if you asked the religious person why someone might want to do those things, a common response would be “temptation”. The person would want to sin because “demons” or “the devil” are tempting them.

 

If this is how the religious model works, then consider a hypothetical evangelical who also happens to be gay and closeted. From an enlightened modern understanding of sexuality we know that this person doesn’t really choose their orientation. Even if they cite the Bible or their traditions as reasons to decry gay sexual behavior they will still have urges they can’t control. This person might, at some point, also have a compulsion kill someone, this person might have an urge to take from a store without paying, and this person will have a temptation to act upon their sexual urges with someone of the same sex. To a conservative evangelical, these are all sins. And the reason that we want to do all these things is apparently because we are broken beings tainted with original sin, it’s simply in our nature. In this religious model, it absolutely makes sense that “being gay” is a choice. From the closeted gay evangelical’s perspective, everyone could be having the same urges to act upon their sexuality, just as everyone occasionally has an impulse to act in other ways that harm other humans. From his perspective, parents in a traditional nuclear family have the same gay urges that he does, but they are vindicated by not acting on their assumed same-sex urges and putting up with each other.

 

For this reason, the motivations behind legally banning gay marriage and banning murder are the same. They are both affronts to the creator of the cosmos, who conveniently just so happens to have all the say on what is moral or not. It doesn’t matter that gay consensual sex gives pleasure and happiness to the two participants and murder takes away everything for someone. To the gay homophobe, the person who has gay sex is simply someone who has given into the evil despite scriptural teachings. This is no different from murder, which under fundagelicalism is bad because someone gave into the temptation to murder. The murder may have taken someone’s life, but under an authoritarian religious worldview the part of that which is wrong is the mere disobedience of scripture. The gay person and the murderer have committed the same slight against the creator of the cosmos, which is not harm against a fellow human, but mere disobedience.

 

This creates a problem for a closeted gay evangelical. They are epistemologically blocked from explaining why being gay is wrong. In a world where people are increasingly becoming more and more accepting of queer folks, religious leaders need to become better at defending themselves. Perhaps they are baffled that they can’t call something merely “immoral” without being questioned. If a pastor talks about some current event like a shooting or an assault in the news, it’s pretty safe to say that he won’t get any pushback if he calls it “immoral”. But with the changing cultural tide, he now requires justification for saying so. In a church, he’s allowed to point to the Bible. He’s allowed to point to certain verses to justify why murder is immoral, and he’s able to point to certain verses why homosexuality is immoral. This works fine in a church, but it holds much less water in the real world.

 

This perspective may seem nutty, but it falls within the realm of their apologetics. After all, one of the supposed arguments against atheism are, “If there is no god, then what’s stopping you from killing and raping everyone you can?” This has been discussed on national outlets. It’s prominent enough that perpetual homeless GI Joe lookalike Phil Robertson used a similar argument last year in a speech detailing the gruesome murder of an atheist family, or that Penn Jillette felt a need to respond to it on his Sunday School. To an evangelical, the only thing stopping people from murdering is the rules laid down from on high. Apparently the existence of suffering that everyone experiences, any screams that a victim may give out, pale in comparison to a set of arbitrary rules form a creator. And to the closeted gay evangelical, the only thing that is stopping him from putting his dick into another dude’s butthole is the Good Book and the grace of the Good Lord Jesus Christ.

 

It doesn’t help that there are multiple bible verses that can support the case that all sins are equal:

 

James 2:10 – For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one, he is guilty of all.

 

1 John 3:15 – Whosoever hateth his brother is a murderer: and ye know that no murderer hath eternal life abiding in him.

 

Matthew 12:31 – Wherefore I say unto you, All manner of sin and blasphemy shall be forgiven unto men: but the blasphemy against the Holy Ghost shall not be forgiven unto men

 

It’s true that there are verses that say the opposite (Jesus explicitly refers to a “greater sin” in John 19:11), but that has other problems not relevant to this post. The point is that all sin is apparently wrong because it has been ordained to be wrong. If almost any sin has the same price of eternal damnation unless you repent, then it makes sense to think they’re equally important. If murder and buttsex are perceived on the same moral level and a surge of people come out saying that the latter is ok, then it only makes sense that people would speak out about this. Of course, this only serves to detail how warped the authoritarian morality system is.

 

It’s important that if we want to stop harmful ideas, we understand the perspective from the disagreeing party, no matter how deplorable. If we can get to the source, it will help us cut off the problem. I don’t advocate pretending that we can read minds, so I will never be able to say what pastors are truly thinking. But this model makes sense to me in a world of vocal anti-gay religious leaders and politicians who end up having secret gay underpinnings. I would love to probe one of these David Mannings of the world, ask him about his attractions, why he’s so outspoken about this particular sin, etc. But that doesn’t seem likely to happen, so for now I’m content to watch them scream and cry as society catches up with true morality.

The Fog

Finding my way through the fog
Looking for the answers to what is right and what is wrong
But for me the reality of these questions and the answers that followed became full of distorions
Nothing was as it seemed
It was the fog slowly closing in around me
A fog filled with fears, nightmares and paranioa
Feeling that your worst fears can become reality at any moment
A reality that is so terrible and painful that all I could do was run
Running from or running to… I could not tell the difference
No matter what direction I ran all I saw was fog
As the fog grew thicker and thicker I began to feel myself falling
As the fog began to finally disapear I found myself in a hole
A deep, dark hole
A hole filled with sadness, pain, hoplesness and dispare
As time went by these things consumed me
I did not know any other way to exist
Life in the hole was all I knew
I had no memories of life before it
The hole became my only comfort, my only friend
I didn’t even think about leaving
I did not know how
I had no hope
I was in a deep, dark, hole lost in a sea of fog
And I did not think that anyone even knew I was there
I was doomed to live a life of fear, pain and such horrible sadness that at times I wished that the hole would just collapse in on me and end my pain
The pain had become more than I could bear
And at the moment that I could bear no more a faint ray of light hit my shoulders
How long had it been since I had seen a light such as this?
I did not know
My first reaction was of fear
So I dug deeper into my hole
Then I saw a hand slowly reaching down
Not knowing what to do I dug even deeper
What did the hand want?
Why was it there?
What did it want from me?
A fear of the hand grew intense
I sat weeping, not knowing what to do
Not knowing how to feel
I began to hear  a comforting voice coming from the hand
A voice that I did not know for it had been many a year since I had heard such a voice
I was told that I would be helped out of the hole but I would have to make the first step alone
I would have to stand up and reach for the hand
I felt nothing but fear
My body trembled as I slowly reached for the hand
I felt a sense of warmth and comfort from the hand
It was an unfamiliar feeling
But the fear still dominated my emotions as I was slowly helped out of the hole
It was a very long and hard journey before I was finally free from the hole
And in days to come I would search long and hard for it again
For there were times that I again disired its comfort
But with all my searching I could not find it again even to this day
The struggles that came after were hard and challanging
I learned many new things and met with many comforting voices
The journey to freedom has been difficult and not without it’s trips and stumbles
But it was a journey that was well worth taking and it continues to be so
Because the journey never really ends, it just changes shapes and colors
The way that the seasons come and go. Always changing
But changing for the good
For now I finally have hope that I will never return to the depths of the hole within the fog
I have the strength to keep them in my past
And the disire to never return

~Wendy Kay

The Atheist Movement’s Ultimate Concession

This is a cartoon that on occasion I have an urge to tattoo on everyone’s forehead that I can. I’m tired of explaining this to people who invoke free speech after getting blocked, banned, or otherwise thrown off a platform they never were entitled to in the first place. The best part, though, is the text you get when you hover your mouse over the comic on xkcd.com.

I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.*

 

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Jeremiah Traeger

I love this because it so succinctly expresses that just because you are capable of saying something doesn’t mean it’s worth listening to, especially not in any given environment you’d like. Expressing your legal right to express an idea is in no sense a defense of the actual idea. As Randall Munroe has put it here, it is an ultimate concession that you don’t care to defend the idea in the first place, you just want to be capable of spouting it without considering its implications.

 

There’s a similar diversionary tactic in atheist circles, and of course it comes as an objection to intersectional humanist activism. Whenever an atheist speaker comes out to talk about a social justice cause instead of debunking Pascal’s Wager or Creationism for the four billionth time, the dictionary atheists come out of the woodwork to once again remind us what the definition of atheism is. “Atheism: noun. The lack of belief that any gods exist.” Thanks, everyone was completely unaware of the definition that we’ve been using to describe ourselves for years. Those dictionary atheists are super helpful, as you can see. How would we get anything done without them providing a major usage of a vocabulary term?

 

Of course, they aren’t wrong; that is probably the most productive usage of the term “atheism”. The problem is that for some reason, they think this a justification to not only not care about major social issues, but to actively silence people that do. Apparently, if a content creator produces anything as an “atheist blogger” or an “atheist podcaster” or an “atheist YouTuber”, etc., then apparently anything other than “atheism” doesn’t need to be talked about. Why? Because it doesn’t fall under the definition? Bullshit.

 

The time this is most brought up is when someone refers to the “atheist community” or the “atheist movement”. On its face, it seems silly to refer to such things since atheism isn’t really a thing, it’s a non-thing, or a non-god belief to be specific. Of course we can bring up that it would be silly to gather people who don’t do something together. Why don’t non-golfers or non-stamp collectors get together?**

 

Of course that would be ridiculous, unless ~70% of the country comprised of stamp collectors who not only tried to institutionalize a privilege of stamp collectors over non-stamp collectors, but also tried to take away women’s bodily autonomy and tried to get everyone to stop masturbating because of stamp collecting. If stamp collectors had a culture of going door to door and proselytyzing then I’d definitely have a problem with that. If stamp collectors taught their kids that stamps were the only things that they could collect, and as a result they couldn’t collect other things like baseball cards or Pokemon, then I’d have a problem with that. If stamp collectors rallied against science because communication technologies like email or social media eliminated the need for stamp collecting in everyone’s life, then I’d have a problem with that. If transgender people were treated as less than human because there were only cisgender people depicted on stamps, then I’d have a problem with that. And while I would appreciate anyone who would fight against such injustices, the first place I’d start is the non-stamp collectors. All that non-stamp collecting involves is not gathering a variety of stamps into a collection, yet I’m pretty sure my fellow non-stamp collectors would also be pretty pissed off if we and other groups of people were marginalized and would be prodded into mobilizing. As such, it would make sense to band together under a “non-stamp movement”, regardless of how tenuous the connection the hobby has to social change.

 

As such, the claim that the dictionary atheist makes is unintentionally a concession that there is nothing of substance to say against forming a community or cause with atheism as a common interest. Apparently the best someone can say against an atheist movement is that the arbitrary label we have placed on our identity doesn’t include being active. They can’t even make the argument that our label says that we can’t be active, because by the own definition they have given it doesn’t exclude activism under the banner of atheism. It says nothing about it, as it should.

 

Status quo defenders will state something like, “I’m just an atheist, which means I don’t believe in gods, that’s it. It doesn’t imply that I should care about transgender issues.” To be clear, this is true, but it’s the wrong response as it distracts from the real issue. I’m not going to say that everyone needs to be involved in LGBTQ activism, as there are many noble active causes and we can’t be involved in all of them. But if you’re an atheist who cares about the harm that affects other humans, it would help to be informed about them. Gender and sexuality is an excellent example of something religion unfairly targets, and you should care about being a decent and informed person regardless of your theistic beliefs. If I’m making the case that this is an issue that it would behoove you to know about, I’m not appealing to your lack of belief in gods. I’m appealing to your decency, humanistic values, and potential to affect positive change. If your response is that “my atheism has nothing to do with that”, then you’ve signaled that your label that designates you as someone who doesn’t believe in gods is more important than your capacity to be a good, informed humanist. This is why appealing to the dictionary regarding your atheism is such a concession, it reads not only that you have nothing negative to say about intersectional issues, but that you have nothing better to say against atheists who do even though you’d rather that they stop. To me, that reads that you’re conceding to being an asshole.

 

Perhaps this is confusing because many of the platforms that bring up social justice issues along with atheism don’t bill themselves as “The Friendly but also LGBT-inclusive Atheist” or “The Thinking and also Feminist-Friendly Atheist” or “The Intersectional Atheist Experience”. They just bill themselves as atheists without any additional descriptors. When abortion comes up on The Atheist Experience, it’s inevitable that the show receives comments and emails asking, “aren’t they supposed to be discussing atheism? I didn’t realize this was the feminism experience.” Apparently once you designate yourself as an atheist, you can’t talk about anything but not believing in gods anymore.

 

Of course, no atheist is just an atheist. We all have multiple interests, desires, passions, and beliefs. It would be silly of us to only restrict our platforms to that singular descriptor if we don’t want to. In fact, nobody only does atheism. All atheism describes is a non-belief in gods. Once you talk about counter-apologetics, that isn’t atheism, since all atheism is is a non-belief in gods. Plenty of atheists go their whole lives without ever engaging with apologists, so clearly that’s not atheism. Neither is separation of church and state, nor promotion of evidence based biology classes in school. Once you start doing any work outside of not believing in gods, you have ceased to merely be an atheist. Appealing to atheism’s definition is the concession that atheist media should only reflect atheism and that’s it, and any work outside of that is not as important, including the work of American Atheists and Freedom From Religion Foundation.

 

If that’s the case, then isn’t the “atheist movement” or “atheist community” nonsensical? Since I’ve already agreed that atheism is a very narrow thing that doesn’t involve much of anything, wouldn’t it be unreasonable to suggest that we would unite on an interest as silly as that? It would be ludicrous if all anyone was proposing was a get-together based on such a narrow part of our identity, but that’s not really what anyone is proposing.

 

Take a look of the surge of people across the United States joining together to fight Church and State, becoming members of Freedom From Religion Foundation, attending Reason Rally and secular conferences. They are making podcasts and YouTube channels identifying proudly as atheists. They fight against issues that negatively and disproportionately affect atheists. They write books on why atheism is a superior intellectual position compared to theistic religious beliefs, and why abandoning those beliefs will lead to a better world and life overall. It’s obvious that this is a movement, which is apparent after the swelling of media and political mobilization on these issues over the past 15 years. It should also be obvious that these people largely identify as atheists, and for good reason. While that particular religious identity is hardly a panacea for moral behavior, it certainly eliminates the bullshit religious reasons that cause social harm. And as David Silverman is eager to tell you, it’s important that we identify as atheists, largely because that is the term that most of the country understands and gets the message across, and it’s also a term that will soften the blow that atheists in the future will receive from religious bigotry. The atheist movement is far from an outpouring of people merely wanting to state that we share a lack of belief in gods, it is a collective force for positive change. Appealing to the definition of atheism is the concession that what a few words mean to you in a dictionary is more important than the effect that mobilizing millions of people across the country can have.

 

Besides the fact that this movement overwhelmingly comprises of people who identify as atheists, we hold literally no other group to the same standard. The LGBTQ movement is not merely comprised of queer and trans people getting together to merely exist, it is to bring visibility and equality to the forefront. The same is true with women’s rights. Appealing to that definition is the concession that you don’t understand the difference between what identifies people in a group and the causes that affect those groups.

 

Furthermore, why shouldn’t there be an atheist community? Having a group of atheists hardly means uniting under exactly the same beliefs in some type of cultlike groupthink. In a world where people can be abandoned or isolated due to exclusionary religious behaviors, shouldn’t people have a place to go to escape that? It makes sense that social creatures like humans would like to gather where those negative pressures aren’t present. I’ve personally met listeners of the No Religion Required Podcast who don’t have any sort of friends or community outside of the chatrooms and the Facebook groups, merely because their towns are soaked in religion bigotry that excludes anything else. When nonbelievers are going through tough times or are grieving, doesn’t it make sense that they should have a group of people to talk to who will do more than say, “I will pray for you”? As Matt Dillahunty has mentioned before, whenever religious people move to a new town they are able to instantly find a home and make friends by going to church on Sunday. Shouldn’t nonreligious people have similar options to find likeminded folk?

 

This comes back to the common comments left by shitlords and status quo defenders. “I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I want to be associated with any sort of movement or community.” All I can say is that it seems really obtuse. This type of comment seems to imply that once someone falls under the umbrella of a certain identifier, then they must by default be part of the movement associated with that identity. Listen, if you care so much about not being part of an atheist movement because you can’t bear to be associated with it, then by all means, please do not join the atheist movement. We will be better off without you.

 

As a final point to dictionary atheists out there, I’ve made my point here without once disputing the proposed definition. The point here is not that atheism means something more than the definition provided in the third paragraph. The point is that appealing to that definition says nothing. It makes no point whatsoever.

 

Therefore, if someone brings up the “atheist community”, please don’t feel the need to point out your definition for the term. It is a waste of time, and you have conceded that you find it important that atheists aren’t seen as a force for good in the world. I agree that atheism doesn’t necessarily imply social justice causes, but it absolutely doesn’t imply that we can’t pursue them either. Furthermore, atheism doesn’t imply that someone isn’t an asshole. And you will certainly demonstrate that if the best you can do is divert the conversation just to point out a short string of words in quotes. When you say “I’m an atheist, but that doesn’t mean I have to support social justice”, that doesn’t mean that atheists should stop focusing on multiple social justice causes. All it means is that if you are against intersectional atheism, we can’t stop calling you an atheist. And as you are apparently eager to point out, that hardly means a thing.

 


 

*There has been a fairly recent trend in people invoking “free speech” as not just a right granted and protected by government and society, but as a principle of open dialogue and discussion. I have issues with this, largely because even though both are absolutely valuable, they have enormous differences in how they work as well as how we enforce and treat them. That, and trollish or abusive dialogue actually tends to reduce productive dialogue and discussion. I may expand on this in the future.

 

**The points in this paragraph have been brought up approximately 11.5 billion times already. I’d ignore such an obvious point on its face, but for some reason it keeps popping up over and over, so apparently I have to bring it up for the 11,500,001st time.

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