Monthly Archives: September 2016

Disagreements and Differences of Opinion are Overrated

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

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

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

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

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

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

For this reason, perhaps diversity of opinion is overrated.



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Choosing When To Engage With Wrong Beliefs

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

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

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

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

Addressing Accusations of Intolerance or Hubris

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Differences of Opinion Are Simply Problematic

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Homophobia

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


[Image: Churchgoers in pews]

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Transphobia, sexual and violent threats, suicide


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


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


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



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


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


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



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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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




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


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

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


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


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


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


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



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


** I love statistics!


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


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

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

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Letter to Atheist Movement Denialists

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

I’ve been on the fence about writing this, mostly because I think it’s wasted on the type of person who it’s addressed to. Movement denialists appear to be confined to online forums and comment sections, I have yet to hear a prominent blogger, broadcaster, or other type of thought leader express that there isn’t a movement. But then I realize that most people will read this are not the people that the title is addressing. It helps to be reminded that, yes, there are communities of atheists that are there to support each other.

And also, I just want something to link to so I don’t have to waste another fucking typed word on this.

With the rapidly rising percentage of “nones” in the United States, as well as the rising number of self-identified atheists, it’s become commonplace to reflect on the state of our movement and look how its performing. Recently, there has been a sizeable amount of infighting amongst atheists. Perhaps this has always been the case. It’s certainly not new, as Dawkins notably made his comment about mobilizing atheists like herding cats a decade ago in The God Delusion (2006). It may be the case that we simply have so many voices speaking out that the infighting is no longer brushed aside and now our warts and all have been brought to the forefront. Whatever the reason, we have been forced to confront a large amount of severe confrontations, and we’ve witnessed some ugly fallout as a result. As is natural for people who have assured each other that we value critical thinking and skepticism, it makes sense that we should look at ourselves and see how our movement is doing.


[Image: A standard image mocking atheist stereotypes, where an overweight atheist male sits at his computer. Surrounding him is typical atheist imagery, a My Little Pony, a fedora, a photo of Richard Dawkins, and a whiteboard tallying “internet arguments won”]

Without fail, once “the atheist movement” is addressed, then denialists will come out of the woodwork.

“Atheism isn’t a movement, it’s just a non-belief”


“Just because I’m an atheist doesn’t mean I’m obligated to be in lock-step with every other atheist”


“I don’t believe in a god, but why does that mean I’m part of a movement?”

All of these claims fail to address the fucking point. Nobody claimed that “atheism” was necessarily a movement any more than being gay ropes someone into fighting for equal rights, but there is a “LGBTQ rights movement” nonetheless. Furthermore, it doesn’t make sense to say that being an atheist will necessitate that someone should fight for any given human rights cause, but when atheists mobilize as atheists to get others to help fight, they are often appealing more to common human decency rather than any sort of lack of faith. And when we ask you to join us in our cause, it is hardly an obligation. You have the freedom as an individual to take up or reject any cause that you would like.

Mostly, these outcries are addressing a strawman. No reasonable thought leaders are making any point that these statements purport to address. However, there is one claim that seems to have snuck around everywhere and is always ready to come out snarling. As that is the claim that there simply isn’t an atheist movement.

This claim is often bolstered with statements that the nation is simply filled with independently acting atheists. There is no atheist code or dogma, so why would we all have a reason to join together and work for a cause? We are freethinkers, therefore we shouldn’t care what anyone else thinks whether or not they are a believer. No, the people fighting for the eradication of religious privilege are simply working on their own behalf, with no collaboration, companionship, or community involved tied together by a shared nonbelief.

That is all fucking bullshit. It’s bullshit on stilts.

First of all, since when has any movement required total agreement? Since when has there been a movement for a cause that didn’t have its squabbles and disagreements on certain issues? I may be overstating here, there may very well have been a movement that doesn’t allow for dissent whatsoever. But if you are the person who is going to bring it to my attention, it will be news to me.

Perhaps these people have a bitter taste in their mouth when social justice causes are brought up, and are quick to fall in line with atheist YouTubers’ insistence that causes such as feminism are a cult. Perhaps the problem here is that they aren’t intimate with any movement, since if they were they’d realize that every movement is far more diverse, nuanced, and multifaceted than it appears at first glance. As a self-identified feminist (or supporter of feminism, as I am male), it would be a mistake to characterize it as a monolith, as my dear friends from Promoting Secular Feminism have taught me*. I’ve certainly disagreed with many feminists, and I support many feminists who will often disagree with each other on women and gender issues. There are self-identified Christian feminists such as Megan Fox who insists that her local library promotes porn. There are anti-porn feminists and pro-porn feminists. There are feminists who are trans exclusionary and sex work exclusionary (for some bizarre fucking reason). I can’t really make the case here, so if you are unconvinced maybe Wikipedia’s list of 18+ movements within feminism can make the case for you.

The point of the matter is, the existence of a movement does not even come close to implying that everyone must fall in line with the thoughts of everyone else. We can mobilize for similar causes, but do it for different reasons, in different ways, and through different avenues. But it hardly means we have to be beholden to each other’s opinions. The only thing I think you should be beholden to is morality and decency to your fellow man, which is not an appeal to your atheism, but your humanity.

Of course, regardless of all this, I have not gotten to the main point, which is that so many people claim that there simply is no movement. And that is absolutely nonsensical.

If there is no collective group of atheists fighting for social change, then why are so many secular conferences happening regularly? A cursory glance at the secular directory shows 28 state and regional atheist and secular conferences in 2016 alone.  And off the top of my head I’ve noticed that they’ve missed at least one. Conferences require a significant amount of involvement, travel and hotel costs, registration, time off from work, etc. And apparently a sizeable number of atheists are willing to put in their time and effort into attending these gatherings all over the nation, in order to hear prominent atheist voices and to engage in camaraderie with like-minded folks.

We have a significant number of conferences despite many annual conferences taking a year off to make room for the Reason Rally. Let’s talk about the Reason Rally. Naysayers will make the (highly motivated) claim that a bunch of skeptics were turned off from attending because there was a harassment policy as a result of SJW authoritarian control (despite it being a pretty standard policy you’d find at any gathering or conference of any sort). It’s true that there was a low attendance at the event this year. You can see the reasonable considerations for why it was low, including a complete board overhaul leaving a mess for the rally a mere six months before the rally was set to take place. But did you realize that during that weekend we got over 250 secular activists meeting with two thirds of congressional offices to speak about evidence-based policies (In SCA’s words, their “largest and most successful event ever”)? Do you realize we had two US politicians speaking alongside us that day speaking for secular values? Have you talked to anyone who attended the event about how enjoyable they thought it was, instead of just sitting at home and assuming it was some SJW fest where you have to flush yourself down the toilet if you misgender someone? Nevertheless, this was a significant atheist gathering, and it didn’t happen because a bunch of freethinkers independently decided to show up at the DC mall for the fuck of it. This was a movement behavior.

If there isn’t an atheist movement, then please explain why there’s such a ridiculous amount of explicitly atheist media that’s getting bigger every day. This media is not only springing up all over the place, but it’s largely collaborative, involving many discussions, debates, and dialogues between each other. There are three major blogging platforms that we have (count ‘em!), and the smallest has 21 blogs. We have a ridiculous amount of atheist podcasts, possibly too many. It’s difficult to quantify, but the a cursory look at iTunes’ religion>other category list gave me at least 46 explicitly atheist/agnostic/secular podcasts. And I know that it’s not even close to comprehensive, as I’m missing a few really big ones in that list (The Atheist Experience, The Thinking Atheist, The Gaytheist Manifesto, Dogma Debate, and The Imaginary Friends Show are in other categories). Check out some of our YouTube channels, or don’t, since I wouldn’t blame you. The list is, after all, missing my personal favorite atheist channel, Matt Dillahunty’s Atheist Debates.  And while we’re talking atheist media, check out our independent atheist book publisher!

If there isn’t an atheist movement, why are there so many mobilized organizations fighting for so many causes? Off the top of my head we have:

  • American Atheists
  • The American Humanist Association
  • Center for Inquiry
  • Freedom From Religion Foundation
  • Foundation Beyond Belief
  • Secular Student Alliance
  • Sunday Assembly
  • Americans United for Separation of Church and State
  • Camp Quest
  • Military Association of Atheists & Freethinkers
  • Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science

Not to mention, the hundreds of local and state groups that are merely there for atheists or otherwise nonreligious people to organize and meet up.


Snarky caption: atheist sheeple mindlessly joining in groupthink. Snarkier caption: atheists actually doing productive shit. [Image: Minnesota Atheists protest for separation of church and state in a capital building. Source: Wikimedia Commons]

If this isn’t a movement, what is it?

I can answer that for you. It’s not a movement. It’s many movements. Like other social justice movements throughout history, there are many focuses of atheist, humanist, and secular activism. I’m echoing voices like Matt Dillahunty and Galen Broaddus, who have noted that there are many communities, groups, and organizations across the nation and the globe who are fighting against religious privilege from many perspectives and with many motives. There happens to be a lot of overlap within each distribution of perspectives, since these causes intersect so closely. There is no reason that any solitary atheist is beholden to any one of these causes. There’s no reason that an atheist can’t do their part by making dick jokes to ridicule religion one minute and aid secular-based humanitarian efforts the next. We can fight against religious privilege on philosophical, scientific, ethical, or social grounds, and we can fight on the basis of community, social need, or because it’s just damn fun.

All of these can be valid for many reasons. And it’s not my job or anyone else’s to tell you why you should care about how religion poisons us and our societies. Personally, I’d like to see us stop trying to focus on the overall movement, and instead we should work on issues at the grassroots level, focusing on local activism as well as specific focuses of our humanism that religion damages in particular (LGBTQ, gender, education, health, race, right-to-die, etc.). We are becoming too large to expect that we are all going to get along, and that’s a good problem to have. That, however, will be the focus of a separate post.

For now, I hope it’s apparent that the statement that there is no atheist movement is complete nonsense. There’s simply too much mobilization on such a large scale that we cannot take the claim that one doesn’t exist seriously. So please stop denying it.

Perhaps if you are making this claim, you are comfortable speaking out against religion within the confines of the four walls of your room, commenting on Reddit and YouTube. This is not a criticism, just a postulation. Perhaps you have a romantic idealized picture in your mind of how an atheist is supposed to act. Atheists act perfectly rationally, so they have no need to go out and organize with other atheists, as that’s merely what religious people do. Atheism doesn’t necessitate community, we are perfectly fine doing our own independent thinking, thankyouverymuch. All we need to do is win the discussions and the arguments against the religious, and once the majority of the country deconverts, our problems will evaporate away.

This, admittedly, is probably not what atheist movement denialists all think. It’s probably not even what most of them think. I don’t know what they think. They are welcome to make comments here to correct me (I won’t delete them until there are personal attacks or abuse involved). But the point is, it’s absurd to think that there isn’t a large joining together of prominent atheist voices joining hands to accomplish great things. The truth of the matter is, if we want to make the world better for atheists (and other identities affected by religion), a movement is how we get shit done. Atheists are gathering together and mobilizing, and we are causing change. We have protested our governments and met with our state leaders for evidence-based solutions. We have challenged childhood indoctrination in schools. We have won lawsuits challenging Christian hegemony in America. We have led to better inclusivity in society for queer and trans people. And we have done this not in spite of our lack of faith, but because of it.

The atheist movements we have are not synonymous with atheism itself. Atheism is merely a single conclusion. Once you don’t believe in gods, then what? You need more than nonbelief to affect change. There are many tools we have to do that. And one of the best tools we have is our capability of working with our fellow humans.

I close, then, with an invitation. Not a compulsion, but an invitation. There’s lots of work to be done. Will you join us?


*These women have taught me a lot on the history of feminism. Perhaps you’d be interested in their episode where they discussed the history of third-wave feminism. Or some of the historical context behind the branching of feminist movements due to disagreements on pornography. Or where they focused on non-western feminism. Or even the one where they criticized a feminism supporter for debating on behalf of feminism while treating it as a single movement with a single stance. Or maybe if you just want some information on safe sex practice, learn what type of lube you should use.

Anti-Prescriptivist Pedantry: Faith and Belief

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Language Prescriptivism is the idea that words have inherent meanings. This leads to very unproductive conversations and other problems. As a descriptivist, I’ve started a regular series talking about the various usages of different words that come up here and there that cause regular problems in theological and other debates. While I will always have a preference for certain word usages over others, the label we apply to ideas is not as interesting as the ideas themselves, so I will do my best to present multiple usages behind words in the most charitable way while still defending my preference.

The words “faith” and “belief” cause all sorts of problems within theological debates, because it means so many different possible things. One might question why I am bringing two words into the blog post, but that should become immediately obvious. The way people use both these words, they can sometimes become synonymous! But these two words come up so often in theological discussions and they both carry such widely different meanings that just going into them will illustrate the importance of clarity and transparency in the vocabulary we use. Otherwise, it won’t just be people with different religious perspectives misunderstanding each other, it will be people with similar religious perspectives misunderstanding each other.

Between the two words, the one with more theological baggage is undoubtedly the word “faith”. Sometimes, people will refer to it when discussing their entire religious worldview. That is what we seem to imply when we refer to “people of all faiths”. When we talk about a person “of faith” we are talking about a religious person. When we talk about a “faith-based initiative”, we are talking about a political action based on religious actors. No matter what we do with the term, faith seems inseparable from a religious context.

With regards to discussing faith with religious folks, I’d highly recommend Matt Dillahunty’s video here. He, as usual, is able to thoroughly dissect the concept of discussing faith and give some thoughts on how to use it in conversations, and I’d recommend that everyone watch the whole thing. The relevant content for the usage of faith falls around 6 minutes, 32 seconds, where Matt discusses the Bible’s definition:

“Hebrews 11:1 – Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

As Matt points out, this verse has two seemingly different usages of the word faith: one that chalks it up to “confidence” in an idea, and one usage that means the actual evidence of an idea. In this sense, if somebody has confidence that their god exists, then they can use that confidence as evidence that the god exists. This is a circular usage that basically assumes the premise. If the faith that someone had in their god could be uses as good evidence, then appeals to faith could be logically justified. However, since confidence has nothing to do with how true a proposition is (unless you’re talking about statistical confidence intervals, perhaps), then appeals to faith cannot be taken seriously.

However, “faith” is a common victim of equivocation. People will often use this definition of faith in one context, and then pull a bait-and-switch on you and use faith to mean something slightly different. It’s common for religious folks to claim, “Don’t you have faith that the chair you’re sitting in will support you? Don’t you have faith that the sun will come up tomorrow? The chair that you’re sitting on could break, or we could get struck by a meteor that breaks up the Earth into tiny bits overnight.”

There’s a lot of truth to that statement, in all honesty. I’ve sat down on a chair and broken it before, so it’s within the realm of possibility that the next time I sit down on a chair it falls apart. And while it’s ridiculously improbable that something will collide with Earth with enough mass to destroy us all overnight is ridiculously improbable, there’s still a small chance that it could happen, as we never have a 100% probability of anything happening.


[Image: Scale from 0% to 100% of “evidence that we have to be able to be confident in something”. In order from least likely to most likely, the Christian god exists, I’m getting laid soon, Aliens exist, My coin will land on heads, We are causing global warming, gravity will pull me downward, I think (therefore I am)]

However, having confidence in something that is not 100% likely is far from the same thing as having confidence in something that otherwise has no evidence to back it up. In terms of things you could have confidence in, those two things are about as far apart as you can get. In fact, I have far more confidence that a coin will land heads-up than I have confidence that a god exists. I have more evidence that the next time I flip my coin, it will land heads-up. Yet, I have no confidence that it will do so. So it is ludicrous to assign “faith” to confidence in both things that have good evidence and confidence in things with bad evidence. This equivocation basically assigns “faith” to confidence in anything that we aren’t absolutely certain of, and since we can’t be absolutely certain of almost anything, it is a useless definition. If you’re having a conversation where this happens, it will be best that you call it out.

This leads to “belief”. There are a lot of people, atheists included, who will use “belief” as synonymous to the word “faith”, as in confidence in something without any supporting evidence. You can look at all the atheists who got a bit miffed when Hillary Clinton said, “I believe in science” in her nomination speech this year. You can look at science communicators who are considering taking the term out of scientific textbooks. Or you can follow an atheist Facebook page and come across a variety of memes that look like this:


[Image: four hominid skulls, with the caption “I don’t believe in evolution, I understand why evolution is true”]

Even though I think equating belief and faith is a bit silly, I have to admit that there are occasionally contexts where the word has been painted with religious connotations. After all, how many times have we heard the canard, “You have to believe in something!

As such, there are atheists who will proclaim that they have no belief, just as they would say that they have no faith. I find this to be an unnecessary place for atheists to plant their flag, as there appears to be far more philosophical ground for using belief to describe thoroughly justified or otherwise secular things. After all, one of the standard philosophical definitions of “knowledge” is, “justified true belief”. While there are still minor issues with this definition, this clearly distinguishes faith from belief, as faith can never be justified if it is mere confidence without evidence.

As such, I contend that it makes far more sense to use belief for anything you hold as true. You can believe something for good reasons, or for bad reasons. You can be dogmatic with your belief, or you can be non-dogmatic in your belief. You can believe that some things exist based on evidence, such as gravity or evolution. Or, you can believe that some things exist for bad reasons, like believing in Heaven because you want it to be true. The point is, there is a perfectly acceptable usage of the word belief without any supernatural baggage, so why should we get all worked up about it?

It’s also worth noting that for both these words, there’s another usage that can be used both in a religious and secular context, which is the confidence in something’s abilities. For example, if you are going to cheer on your kid doing track and field, you might tell them that you believe in them to let them know that you think they can do well. I’ve told my peers that I believe in them when they are about to go give a speech, which is a vote of confidence that I can give them. In the same sense, people may say, “I believe in God.” Not in the sense that they have confidence that a cosmic creator exists, but that they think that the cosmic creator is capable of doing a good job.

This is a non-trivial distinction. In this last usage, it already assumes the existence of such a thing. This means when atheists say “I don’t believe in God”, then they may be talking past somebody else. They might mean that they don’t think that such a god exists, while the theist that is listening hears that the atheist merely doesn’t think that the god they have proposed is very competent. This is important if we want to have clear discussions across the aisle. Instead of saying, “I don’t believe in God”, we might want to say that, “I don’t believe that your god exists.” Unless you actually think that the god exists and is not doing a very good job, but then I’d wonder why you’re calling yourself an atheist.

Hopefully pointing out all these distinctions is useful for the conversations we have, both when we are talking to theists and atheists. Both words appear to have a large amount of varying baggage depending on the person using them. As such, it’s good to clarify what we mean when it seems we are on different terms. Remember that you can always stop everything, take a step back, and breathe, before asking to clear up what the other person means. I believe that we are capable of that, if we are all interested in a good-faith discussion.

4 Examples of Mind-Reading that Hurt Skepticism

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog post on our lack of ability to actually determine the intentions that other people have. To summarize: you can’t do it. While it’s ok to call out actions that betray what someone says, we will never be able to read into what someone is actually thinking. And to do so muddies conversations and causes the disagreeing parties to take each other less seriously.

I had a few examples, but they were very broad and focused on lofty  issues. To drive the point home about how “mind-reading” stifles the conversation, I wanted to come up with some examples that come up in everyday arguments. So, last week, I kept my eyes peeled for a few examples of people trying to read into the intentions of others to illustrate the point of why they don’t bring the discussion anywhere productive, but they are often unjustified claims. And if we care about being good skeptics, we should avoid both of those.


[Image: “marvelous feats in Mind Reading”. A lithograph of a blindfolded woman trying to guess numbers drawn on a chalkboard.] Photo by the US Printing Co at Wikimedia Commons.

So, within the span of just a week, I was able to come across a few examples of this type of harm. Hopefully this drives the point home.

Science communicators are all about posturing, apparently

My first example I came across when I was listening to The Skeptics Guide to the Universe Episode 581, where they discussed an article in The Guardian by Richard P Grant. The rogues on SGU tore this one sufficiently apart and you are capable of listening to their commentary, so I won’t waste time on all the problems with this post. One section of the post, however, was problematic.

Most science communication isn’t about persuading people; it’s self-affirmation for those already on the inside. Look at us, it says, aren’t we clever? We are exclusive, we are a gang, we are family.

That’s not communication. It’s not changing minds and it’s certainly not winning hearts and minds.

I’m leading off with this example because it’s so incredibly unjustified. First and foremost is the claim that the skeptics and science communicators are apparently stroking off to their big brains. I don’t know how he gets to this conclusion.

At best, the thesis of his essay is that science communicators are doing a poor job. That’s certainly within the realm of possibility, and we must always be critical of the ways that we communicate to the public. He may have some (flawed) reasons why he thinks we are doing a poor job of getting across our message. But if that’s the case, he simply has to make the point that SciComm is doing a poor job. He has no justification jumping from “people do poorly” to “people don’t want to do well”.

If Grant had simply kept with the rest of his message, then he could have simply made a somewhat reasonable point. Instead, he made a personal attack at the skeptical community. This paints the entire movement as filled with hoity-toity know-it-alls for no reason. This is a poor faith statement, and extends no charitable contribution in the discussion towards the people he criticizes. If he wants to make SciComm better, he could do better without any unfalsifiable claims, stop the strawmanning, and engage in actual discussion.

Kapernick doesn’t actually care about inequality

I have a couple of examples for this one. Both of these address NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick sitting down for the national anthem before a football game to speak out against inequality. This upset a large portion of America, because they dismiss protests unless they’re active marches.

Oh wait, they dismiss those too? Weird.

The first person I want to bring up is pathological sayer-of-wrong-things Matt Walsh (things he calls absolute truths on his blog). He has weighed in on this statement, insisting that Colin Kaepernick is just doing it to stir up controversy a couple of weeks before he is presumably going to lose his job. According to Walsh, this is another job at posturing. It’s funny how often posturing seems to come up when we try to read others’ minds, isn’t it?

Walsh tried to give evidence that Kaepernick didn’t care, among which is that Kaepernick gets a football player’s salary and has lots of shoes. Seriously? Walsh is perfectly able to use this as evidence if he wants, but he should eat some crow when he finds out that Kaepernick is perfectly willing to use his wealth and privilege towards his cause. This is one problem with making unjustified claims that you have scant evidence to support. You look like an asshole when your narrative is disrupted.

Of course, let’s make the totally unjustified assertion that Walsh is making and assume that Kaepernick indeed realized he probably would be out of the job soon, and began his protest as a result of that. This does not automatically mean he’s going to go and play victim as soon as it happens. That remains to be seen. Until then, I’m perfectly capable of constructing my own narrative, with just as much justification. For example, Kaepernick realized that he would be out of the job soon, realized that he is losing the largest platform he would likely have, and knows that there is an inequality problem in the United States. As such, time was of the essence for him to speak out. I have no grounds to make this assertion, because I’m human and cannot read minds, but neither can Walsh. Now we’re on even grounds. Since our narratives can’t be demonstrated either way, let’s stick to the facts from now on, shall we?

Side note: while it’s incredibly unlikely Matt will ever see this, we have an atheist podcast with a pretty sizeable audience that I’d love to welcome him on. Reach out, Matt.

While I expect that right-wingers and Christians will tend to make arguments on gut instincts instead of demonstrable facts, I’m no stranger to atheists and skeptics making similarly terrible claims. I’m disappointed that skeptics will say stupid stuff not supported by the evidence, but we’re all human so I can’t say I’m surprised. One such skeptic weighed in on this Kaepernick controversy-that-shouldn’t-be-a-controversy. While I have blocked out his name, he is a somewhat well-known atheist activist who is a veteran.


We already know what’s going on in this country. Then he’ll never stand because there are always issues.

This skeptic effectively knows what Colin Kaepernick is going to do in the future. How, I don’t know. Apparently on top of being a mind-reader, he can see into the future.

What I find funny is that both of these criticisms of Kaepernick appear incompatible. This guy claims that everyone in America already knows that there are racial-based issues in America, while Walsh claims that there aren’t really any race-based problems. As such, Kaepernick is wrong to protest for two entirely different, conflicting reasons. I’d love to see these two people duke it out to say exactly why Kaepernick is wrong. Until then, perhaps the best thing to do is to rally against police murdering people.

Atheists want to donate to impoverished children… cause… they’re… evil?

Another big news story came out this week involving atheists from Muskogee, Oklahoma. This story was notable for teaching me how to spell and pronounce Muskogee, but it was also a bizarre clusterfuck of human interactions. Briefly and avoiding details, the events occurred as follows:

-Matt Wilbourn of the Muskogee Atheist Community tried to donate $100 to the Murrow Indian Children’s Home.

-Said Children’s home said, “no way, Jose” because they were atheists.

-Wilbourn set up a gofundme, raising $28,280 for the home.

-The home continued to refuse the money.

-Wilbourn offered to give it through another local church so it wouldn’t be “from atheists”.

-The Children’s home said, “Nu-uh!”

Such is the case when you set up an arbitrary moral system based around the words in an ancient tome from some guys who said the guy they are collecting money for totally exists. While the Children’s home was incredibly silent about the reasons why they refused the money from the atheists (but still begged for money after refusing multiple times), plenty of Christians tried to frame it as a power grab, tending to emphasize that Wilbourn wanted to advertise that the donation was made by atheists (these donations were for a pow-wow, which would list the donors who contributed).

This was pretty bad, but the biggest harm came from a spiteful Christian named Tracy Hoos who tried to fundraise against the atheists. While Wilbourn has since demonstrated that he doesn’t need the notoriety (as he was willing to donate via other Churches, exempting himself from recognition), the counter-gofundme doubled down on knowing what Wilbourn’s true intentions were.

A powwow is a sacred event that in my opinion was selected by this organization not out of their goodwill but to only stir the pot. I am inspired by Murrow’s faithfulness. So we are starting another go fund me page to support their powwow. If you feel led to support then please do, if not do not. Second if the other group is so inclined to donate, just cut them a check. No strings attached, no need for recognition. But that is not your intention.

Wow, Tracy Hoos. I’m so glad that you’re an expert on what they really feel.

Of course, atheists started donating to his campaign, which of course meant that Hoos had to shut that one down since it had been touched by filthy heathen dollars. So much for the kids!

The other examples I’ve provided have tended to be pretty dialogue and opinion heavy, based in political and social discourse. While there is certainly harm in preventing this open discourse and misrepresenting the other side, this example more concretely shows the harm into trying to “read into” someone else. Because a few Christians thought that atheists were only donating money to earn a few social brownie points for their side, some impoverished kids missed out on almost $30,000! That is a big fucking deal. Especially since, as noted before, The Murrow Indian Children’s Home is behind on funds this year.

What would have happened if the Christians had simply accepted the money? I can’t be certain, but the most likely thing would have been that the home would have had a hundred more dollars, the home would have printed “atheist” in their pow-wow bulletin, and nobody would have looked like an asshole. If they had refused initially, but realized later that the atheists had nothing but goodwill in their hearts, then they would have been $28k richer, at the expense of still kind of looking like jerks. But now some kids are going to probably starve. Great job.

Reading into intentions has real world consequences

I’m not saying you should take everyone at their word. I’m not saying you shouldn’t keep your guard up for possible hidden reasons that people may have. That would be anti-skepticism. I’m just saying that reading too far into what other people think, something that anyone without a spare fMRI on hand can’t come close to demonstrating, has actual harms come of it. Not only can it stifle discourse, but it has actual casualties in the culture wars.

What happens when we have made up our minds that the other side cannot possibly have an ounce of goodness in their heart? What happens when we assume a narrative for someone else, and we have decided for ourselves that everyone else is just a jerk? We should take a cue from Hanlon’s razor, which states, “don’t assume bad intentions over neglect and misunderstanding.”

For a few of these examples, I could very easily come to the conclusion that a lot of these come from ignorance, and we shouldn’t fault anyone for that unless it’s willful. For example, the religious children’s home has a Christian narrative that likely informs them that anyone who does not follow Jesus Christ cannot truly do any good, and thus they have an active interest in stopping anything that shows otherwise. To be clear, this is wrong. This is ludicrous and demonstrably wrong. But it fits within the fundamentalist Christian narrative. We must hold them accountable, but at the same time, we must avoid their pitfalls. What if we just assume that all Christians are evil charlatans trying to score points for Jesus? This makes us look like we are jumping to conclusions just as much as all the examples in this article. It makes us look like mindless zealots for our own cause. And by the time the next children’s home pops up, there will be no hope of reaching across the aisle for a good cause. And the victims will not be us, but the innocents.

If you care about discussion and putting your best foot forward, then don’t make any unjustified claims. You can’t know what someone’s thinking better than they do, so stop pretending that you’re capable of filling in the gaps. So stop doing so, and prove that you’re better than any of these examples. If more people did this, then maybe we could truly bridge the gaps, be constructive, and truly have open dialogue as a result, and perhaps avoid collateral damage along the way.

%d bloggers like this: