Monthly Archives: October 2016

ALL Freedom of Religion is Freedom from Religion

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

As per the last couple weeks, I will only have one post this week. Along with grad school actually making me do productive things with my life, I have a few other very important responsibilities. These include band practice, a Tool concert tonight, and getting my Zombie Phyllis Schlafly Halloween costume together. Responsibilities, you know? But as a result of these responsibilities, this week’s post will be pretty short, and treading some usual ground, but I want to emphasize a particular point.

American Secularists are well aware of the Religious Right’s tenuous grasp of what religious freedom actually is. Sure, they’ll say that they champion religious freedom all day, but the politicians use it as a dogwhistle phrase to signal that they will continue to reinforce Christian hegemony over the rest of the country. When former Texas Governor Rick Perry signed Texas HB 308, he made sure to also state, “Freedom of Religion doesn’t mean Freedom from Religion.” I’m not sure what’s more embarrassing: that he was the first of the 2016 GOP candidates to suspend his campaign, or that his words at the signing of the bill are echoed on this website which looks like a high school Web Design Project from 2002.

However, we as secularists need to point out that this is a false dichotomy. In fact, not only are both freedom of and from religion compatible, but you simply cannot have freedom of religion without freedom from religion. Every time you decide to worship in the manner you choose, you are able to do so without state coercion forcing you to worship in a manner contrary to your beliefs. If you are a Christian in America and you go to church regularly, then you have the freedom from every religion that you do not participate in. Likewise, if you are a Muslim and you go to Mosque, you have freedom from every religion that is not Islam. And for each of these examples, you have freedom from all sects and denominations within that religion. Baptists have freedom from being forced to recognize transubstantiation as the Catholics do, and Shia Muslims are free from the Sunni doctrine that Abu Bakr was the rightful successor to Muhummad.


[Image: The Philosoraptor Meme. “If freedom of religion doesn’t mean freedom from religion, what if freedom from religion is my religion?”]

In western cultures with religious freedom, we have the express freedom to choose a religion, and therefore are not forced into a specific belief system. That is unarguably freedom from any religion that we don’t choose. This also applies to any of the “nones”, who claim no religion. We are given the freedom of any religion, even if it’s no religion at all. The government could, in principle, force us to practice a particular religion, but that would be a violation of both freedom of religion as well as freedom from religion. There is simply no way to divorce freedom of religion from its opposite.

To be thorough, you could have freedom from religion without its opposite. If the government were to force us from practicing any religion at all, then it would violate freedom of religion. Keeping this in mind, it would violate just as much freedom for the government to coerce its citizens into a particular religion while disallowing any other form of religious expression. Even if the government enforced a religion that I hypothetically practiced, I still wouldn’t have religious freedom since I would never be allowed to change my mind. None of these situations are secularism, including a ban on religion altogether. Fortunately, as secularists, we must fight against all of these forms of oppression. We champion freedom of thought, even the freedom for thoughts that are hateful, misinformed, or complete bullshit.

We often aren’t granted the same courtesy. Anyone who isn’t Christian in America is subjected to government coercion of belief systems we don’t hold. This is often in the form of government-led prayer, religious symbols on public ground, and Christian indoctrination in public schools, among other things. The aforementioned house bill that Rick Perry signed was specifically signed so that students could say religious-tinged language like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Hannukah” without repercussion, as if there was some threat to the students being allowed to say that. However, when even the basic facts of Islam are taught such as the pillars of Islam or what god Muslims worship, Christians get up in arms. Perhaps this is the best point to point it out to them that freedom of religion works in their favor, and it protects children from being indoctrinated, which is something we should all value.

Therefore, the next time a Christian complains about the Freedom From Religion Foundation, maybe it would be best to point out that they freedom from religion works in their favor as well.

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

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

CN: Sexual Assault, Abusive Language, Homophobia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dillahunty-Slick Debate: Can Chemicals Produce Logic?

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

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

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

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

You can watch the debate here:

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

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

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

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

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



















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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

So, to sum up:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Five Reasons Why I Criticize Other Atheists

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

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

  1. I hold a higher standard for my peers

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


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

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

  1. I want to improve the communities I partake in

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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