Tag Archives: social justice

Science is Intersectional. Our Activism Should Be, Too.

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

The week after the world ended, but before I wrote five posts in a row about how the world is ending but how you can stop it, I attended a professional conference for my engineering field. Regular listeners of the podcast will know that I am a chemical engineering graduate student, and part of being a student is actually attending conferences. If your department can cover your expenses, it’s almost like a paid vacation. It’s like a paid vacation where you still have to watch forty PowerPoint presentations, but graduate students aren’t usually allowed to have fun anyway.

I was interested in seeing a lot of the things at this conference that some of the less social-justice minded atheists would have cringed at. There was a harassment policy that was far more comprehensive than Reason Rally 2016, yet the conference somehow

aiche-lgbt-photo

Image: A sign with details for an LGBT+ reception at my conference. There are also details for a disabled engineer convocation at the bottom.

lasted over a week without some kind of meltdown or without people getting unnecessarily upset about a woman not wanting to be approached alone in an elevator. There was a safe zone workshop for queer and trans engineers (see picture), yet there was no whining about having to respect trans people by having to undergo the odious task of using the correct goddamn pronouns. There were also social events celebrating LGBT+ and disabled engineers. I also thoroughly enjoyed the diversity at the event. Of the thirty-five talks I attended, over half were by people of color, and I’m pretty sure only a minority spoke English as a first language. At the same time, my peers and I were still able to learn lots of new things, present new ideas, go back and forth and rigorously discuss novel research techniques, and critically examine each others’ work. The days we weren’t presenting were filled with practicing our slides and worrying about what questions people would ask. Yes, this conference somehow managed to accommodate minorities and enforce policies that made everyone behave in a safe manner, but somehow we were able to engage in critical thinking at the same time for the progress of science. Somehow those two concepts aren’t in conflict!

There’s a couple of simple explanations for the difference between this and the atheist movement, of course. I have to be honest and can’t compare apples to oranges, and the disseminations of research findings within academia serve a vastly different purpose than rallying cries for a social movement. The speakers and attendees at this conference are often looking to network or learn new techniques, and these research results are borne of many late hours of tedious and difficult work or long nights tweaking sentences so that a paper will be accepted into a good journal. Speeches at an atheist conference, on the other hand, are filled with pathos, and are presented at a far more basic level, because we don’t have to have an academic specialization to campaign for Separation of Church And State. Even the most sophisticated of secular conventions are set up for friendly, personal connections, while a science meeting is almost entirely for professional purposes (even if grad students like myself take the opportunity to hit the bars around the city after getting out of our suits later). Besides this point, my professional organization has been around for over a century, and has had a longer time to figure out what works and what doesn’t.

I could make a long post about things that social justice detractors in atheist communities complain about, and why they aren’t really problems if you look outside the lens of secular activism. I don’t see a need for that for now, but I would like to focus on one aspect of scientific dissemination that highlights the importance of social justice focused activism within the secular movement. And that is the aspect of intersectionality.

As a refresher of the term, intersectionality in a social justice context is a term that focuses on how certain forms of oppression and ways the combat those forms of oppression are interrelated and often related to each other. For example, there are certain ways that black people are oppressed in America, and black Americans disproportionately feel the effects of this oppression. Due to cultural and religious differences between black and white Americans, however, black women or female-presenting people often experience oppression at an elevated level due to sexism. This sexism also ties into traditional gender roles, which oppress queer and trans people of all stripes. Many of the aforementioned problems tie into harm done with the hands of religion. In many ways, unraveling the problems with one form of oppression undoes the harms of other forms of oppression.

This has affected me on a practical level, and in fact, directly led to me becoming a secular activist. My best friend in high school was gay, and even though I was a Christian I always supported gay rights. It should come as a surprise to nobody that when I critically examined what prevented gay people from achieving equality in my country I found that religion was at the root of the problem. This led to a thorough re-examination of my beliefs, a deconversion, and a subsequent rebuilding of my values. Now I fight for the separation of church and state, as well as trying to eliminate religious ideology on a social level.

What does this have to do with my conference, though? To my knowledge, nobody tends to refer to anything outside the context of social studies as intersectional, and that’s fine. But there are a lot of aspects that parallel intersectional activism with how we go about communicating research findings.

For one thing, people outside of academia may not realize how incredibly specialized any given scientific field is. At my university, chemical engineering is only one of sixty-five programs in which someone can earn a degree. If I’m going to focus on something for my career, I have to pick a program that represents roughly 1.5% of available knowledge at my campus (and of course, not everything can be learned at a university, obviously). When I attended my conference and submitted and abstract for my presentation, I had to choose from one of thirty-five topics to present in. After choosing which topic to present in (Nanoscale Science and Engineering), there were thirty-five sessions at the conference that I could present in, ranging from topics like “self-assembly”, “nanomaterials manufacturing”, and “carbon nanomaterials”. Yes, there was a 2-hour session dedicated entirely to research about carbon nanotechnology. Hopefully this gives an idea of just how specialized this research can become. For a period of time at my conference, there was a specialized room of people within a particular topic within a particular focus within a broad research area within an academic field that focused intensely on a very specific topic.

It’s a useful strategy to focus on something very specific when trying to solve certain problems. A typical scientist will often pick an incredibly narrow research topic and focus on that for the rest of their lives. While it’s true that a given scientist may be a biologist or a physicist, they often become an expert in a very specific system. I’ve known professors who have labs that study one specific biochemical. Similarly, I’ve attended a one-day conference that focused entirely on the environmental breakdown of a single molecule. If you want to know a specific technique or process, it’s not uncommon to find maybe two or three groups that have a bunch of papers on it. If you want to have groundbreaking research, you’re not going to become one by being a jack-of-all-trades. You have to find a good niche that nobody else has explored, and explore what you can little-by-little. Your specialization will keep you at the boundary between what we know and what we don’t know, and it’s simply impractical to try and hold a specialty within more than a few specific areas.

It is for this reason that “identity politics” (or at least some non-strawman version of it) exists. We need people focusing on a very specific cause. While it’s a noble thing to be concerned about many things, we are limited beings with finite time, energy, and resources to carry out specific tasks. It’s also very difficult to mobilize large groups of people when interests become broader and broader. If you don’t believe me, try and hold a discussion on what specific actions humanists should focus on, and you will immediately start a shitstorm. This is the reason that advocacy groups exist for a certain purpose. There are humanist groups that specifically work to help the homeless, there are humanist groups that fight legal battles, and there are humanist groups that simply exist for community. The fruits of their labor are clear, tangible, and effective.

It’s for this reason that making the argument that “everyone should have equal treatment” doesn’t get us very far. It’s a valid sentiment, but not everyone has equal problems, and certain problems have not made as many progress as others. If you want LGBTQ people to have equal rights, then telling your conservative representative that doesn’t get you anywhere. To him, gay people always had equal marriage rights (since everyone has the equal freedom to marry someone of the opposite sex anyway). When advocating for LGBTQ rights, you need to engage on the specific needs of queer and trans people, lay out why they are marginalized, and why they should care. If those specific needs or grievances are not laid out specifically, than nobody outside of that group is even going to be aware that there is a problem in the first place. So yes, we need to engage with the needs of specific identities based on how they are perceived and treated.

What does that have to do with intersectionality? Haven’t I just made the case that we need to do our own thing and focus on our own very specific projects?

There’s a bit more nuance to the story. It’s true that on an individual level we may want to focus our attention on maybe one or two things at a time. In my lab, it’d be very difficult for any student to get anything done if they had more than a couple of projects they were working on. At the same time, while each researcher does their own thing, it’d be a mistake for someone to only interact within their own focus. A technique that helps one researcher may easily help another one, especially if they have similar work. One investigator may have a question about their focus that can be solved by another investigator’s technique.

Not to mention, there’s really no solid line that divides one discipline from another. I mentioned earlier that my program is one of sixty-five programs I could choose from. This is true, but what makes an area of study in my program (chemical engineering) different from another isn’t always clear. Lots of chemical engineers work with catalysis, which crosses over with chemistry and materials science. The same could be said of people in my program who study nanoelectronics, which are also studied by mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, and physicists. I also have peers who work with cells, which cross over into work like genetics, molecular and cellular biology, and medicine. What helps me in one field could easily help someone else in another.

When I went to my conference, I saw a lot of talks that superficially didn’t have much to do with what I specifically study. I focus on the chemical kinetics and physical forces that cause DNA to hybridize and dissociate at a solid-liquid interface (or in layman terms,  how DNA sticks together on a surface). It’s a fairly unique project, and I didn’t see a lot of talks that did many similar things. But I saw a talk on nanoparticle coatings which may inform the way I design my experiments in the future. I saw a talk on data organization that could inform the way I perform analysis in the future. Their scientific techniques were different from mine and we studied different things, but we are both operating on the same fundamental physical laws and on the same scientific principles to figuring them out. Temperature still means the same thing if you’re trying to measure it on a star or a cell. A chemical reaction is still the rearrangement of molecular structure, and it doesn’t matter the reaction is being studied by a chemist or a biologist.

While I am far and away not an expert on intersectionality, this makes sense as a parallel in how I look at it. Many social justice causes are focused on fighting privilege and bigotry, and both are linked towards pushing people to recognize their implicit biases. Certain problems in one “area” of social justice affect another. I could make a causal web tying different forms of inequality to each other in a web detailing systems of oppression (though, as a non-expert, I’d rather someone else with more knowledge and better aesthetic taste do it, lest it turn out like a kindergarten macaroni project).

It’s okay to make a focus of activism, as long as you recognize that what you do will affect other peoples’ focuses. When atheists campaign merely for separation of church and state, they don’t just affect prayer in public schools or religious imagery in courtrooms. The justifications for “traditional marriage” stop holding up in legislation, and we stop treating queer and trans people as second-class citizens. We also stop allowing people to cite “sincerely held religious beliefs” for denying healthcare for women and people assigned female at birth. We allow more death with dignity without unjustified supernatural belief get in the way. And when we shift the laws, this puts a little more pressure on the culture to become more accepting. When people complain about the secular movement engaging in too many things that aren’t related to atheism I am baffled, because the actions of movement atheists have never exclusively affected atheists.

As another quirky parallel to my conference, I also think of the utility of people having certain focuses. I attended a variety of sessions that week, and some of them had almost nothing to do with my research. My roommate had a presentation on hydrogen fuel cells, which is not very similar to my work which is focused on biophysics. I understood some of the various thermodynamic and chemical kinetic principles of the talk since they are fundamentals of my college major, but I missed a lot of the details. I didn’t understand enough to understand the context or the significance of the work during that session. Had I asked something about the catalytic property of platinum during the session, for example, I would have likely wasted everyone else’s time who already had learned that years ago. Afterwards, I was able to ask my roommate about the material properties of his fuel cells and how they worked. Everyone should be encouraged to ask questions, but keeping context in mind and waiting for the opportune time to ask it does nothing to curtail critical inquiry. In fact, it just makes it more efficient. Such is often the case when asking people of privilege to keep silent. When addressing the needs of the marginalized, we should pay attention and listen to the people of that group who need help. Given that many secularists routinely misunderstand or misconstrue basic concepts like privilege, trigger warnings, microaggressions, etc., it’s difficult to imaging they would get the larger point when discussing higher-level concepts. The difference between me in that situation and some punk being asked to remain silent is that I was thoroughly aware of my ignorance on the subject, and acted appropriately.

For me, I’m happy to recognize that secularism doesn’t just affect me and other atheists. It affects everyone. A lot of my detractors fail to recognize this, and often paint social justice minded atheists as immature or uncritical. In fact, a lot

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What Obama’s Conversation With Bill Maher Says About Privilege

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

Recently, our current president Barack Obama held an interview with Bill Maher to discuss a range of topics, from smoking to the nuke-happy carrot with corn hair that is running for president. Among the things brought up by Maher, an outspoken and famous atheist, were the rights of atheists and agnostics in America. He mentioned some of the current statistics on atheists in congress, and how we deserve more representation. As a supporter of Obama, the president’s response somewhat disappointed me.

“You know, I guess — my question would be whether there is active persecution of atheists. I think that there is certain… well, I think for a candidate… I think you’re right, that there are certain occupations — probably, most prominently, politics — where there would be a bias against somebody who’s Agnostic or atheist in running for office. I think that’s still true. Outside of that arena, though? You seem to have done alright with your TV show… I mean, I don’t get a sense… to the extent that they’re boycotting you, it’s because of your other wacky views rather than your particular views on religion…

…I think the average American, if they go to the workplace, somebody’s next to ’em, they’re not poking around trying to figure out what their religious beliefs are.”

This is an excerpt. You can read and watch the entire exchange on the topic here, it’s well worth your time. Obama definitely advocates some good ideas regarding religious culture and how we should curtail it. It’s just that… I’m disappointed with this particular statement.

obamaatheism

[Image: Barack Obama and Bill Maher have a conversation seated next to each other]

Obama certainly had good reason to acknowledge that at the very least there is some discrimination against atheists in the political arena. Maher’s statistics aside, discrimination against atheist politicians hit the mainstream this year when it was revealed that a member the Democratic National Convention had conspired to out Bernie Sanders as an atheist. It’s clear that merely being a member of the “atheist” category in politics is perceived as smear-worthy. In fact, according to Gallup, atheists are a religious category (within the categories polled in the survey) that the least amount of people would vote for in America. 40% of respondents stated that they would not vote for an atheist, which was a higher rate of disapproval than Muslims, gays/lesbians, and women (38%, 24%, and 8%, respectively). The only group that had it worse than atheists was the socialist category, which 50% of respondents said they would not vote for.

Political statistics aside, the rest of Barack Obama’s statement leaves a sour taste in my mouth. He comes across as dismissive to the concerns of nonbelievers, and the best evidence he has to support what he says is merely Maher’s success. I find this to be a remarkably empty response. This is almost to say, “Well, atheists can’t have it so bad, since you did so well!” This is incredibly ironic, coming from a president of African descent. I live in his country where people on the right will often state that there is no more racism in America since, after all, we have a black president. This is a terrible argument for anyone who thinks about it for more than a second, and it’s disheartening to hear it not only used against me, but it’s also disheartening to hear it from the first person I voted for president.

Obama’s words here lack substance in the same way that there is faux-skepticism regarding how other marginalized groups are treated. Like the laypeople who insist that racism no longer exists, there are those who will flat-out assert that there’s no discrimination against women anymore. In August, the Pew Research Center released a poll asking people whether they thought women still had obstacles for achieving equal access to society. 63% of women polled stated that they felt that there were still obstacles, while only 34% of men agreed. Such is often the case when members outside of a marginalized group are blind to the everyday sub-par treatment of those who are in that group.

In fact, it’s not hard to find evidence of discrimination against atheists in society, even outside of the political sphere. The Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) regularly protests violations of  the first Amendment’s separation of religion and government, and a large proportion of these violations are within public schools. Looking just at the examples FFRF provides, this includes prayer by school boards, disallowing freethought clubs while allowing religious clubs, the teaching of creationism, Bible distributions, Church meetings at public schools, prayers at graduation, forcing children to state the pledge of allegiance, mandatory prayer, overtly religious music in schools, religious fliers being sent home, “See You at the Pole” gatherings, and promotion of religious baccalaureate services. In every one of these cases, teachers in public schools across America overwhelmingly tend to side with those who are religious over those who are not. And for those nonbelievers who do challenge these violations, they face severe social consequences. Such was the case when in 2012 high school student Jessica Ahquist challenged a poster hanging in her public school making explicit references to a “heavenly father”. She was subsequently bullied by her school and her hometown, to the point of receiving death threats.

Atheists are judged as untrustworthy and immoral in general. It has been demonstrated through multiple studies that atheists are frequently viewed as people who would engage in immoral acts. Another Pew Study finds that in the United States a majority of people believe that someone has to believe in a god to be moral, which  is not true of any of the other developed nations within the study. A study by psychologists at the University of British Columbia and University of Oregon found that atheists are one of America’s most mistrusted groups, and in certain situations are roughly as trustworthy as rapists. Is it any wonder that there are atheists that are afraid to be out, particularly within the Bible Belt?

These are a couple of examples, but I could go on. I could talk about young atheists getting kicked out of their parents’ homes for expressing nonbelief, which Dogma Debate has set up a fund for. I could talk about atheists losing custody of their children. I could talk about how atheists aren’t trusted to do charity, such as when a soup kitchen turned down atheist volunteers or when a Children’s Home refused to accept over $28,000 from an atheist. I could talk about atheist advertisements getting turned down from billboard companies. I could talk about the atheist leaders I’ve watched who have had difficulty getting the right job because they were public figures associated with atheism. These and more forms of discrimination happen regularly in the United States. As someone who keeps up on religion based news regularly, I see this a lot. But as a Christian who is keeping his mind busy by running a country, Barack Obama is likely completely unaware.

In that case, could we attribute Obama’s ignorance on this issue to his privilege as a religious person? To be clear, while he certainly lacks white privilege (unlike me), he has the distinction of being a Christian just like 75% of the country he leads. No matter where he goes in America, people will value his faith*. He will never be discriminated against for having the “wrong” religion. While people will say terrible, awful things about him and threaten to have him assassinated, it will never ever be because he is a Christian. Were he a middle-class worker in America, he would never be treated poorly in the office because he’s a Christian, and in a job interview his faith would likely be seen as a bonus if he were to bring it up. He would never feel the fear that I and many other atheists have felt in disclosing their nonbelief in the office environment.

Privilege is sometimes hard to recognize if you have it, and it’s not a problem that only Obama has. It’s difficult to recognize that you may have unearned advantages in society, especially if despite these advantages you have everyday difficulties. If you aren’t part of a group that is marginalized, you don’t see the effects your privilege has on everyday life. Even if you are someone who is willing to recognize that you have privilege, it’s hard to know where that privilege lies unless someone brings it to your attention. I suspect this is the case with Barack Obama. It’s hard for me to blame him when he has the entire country on his mind, but his ignorance still exists, and that’s still a problem.

Barack Obama is not going to read this blog post, and that’s fine. The people who will read this blog post, however, are atheists, and they are likely aware of these many forms of discrimination they could potentially face. I would like them to consider how dismissed they felt when Obama said these things. If his words bother you, then maybe this is a chance to look at yourself in relation to other marginalized groups and how you view them. If you’re white, consider what it means to a black person when someone says “Black people have equality now, we have a black president.” If you’re male, consider how meaningless it is when someone says “there’s more women in college than men.” If you’re an atheist who is aware of the discrimination and bias we face everyday, then you should be more sensitive to the disadvantages of others, not less.**

Part of being a humanist and a skeptic is recognizing our human biases, and correcting them. If you can recognize Obama’s ignorance in his statement, then you should recognize that you likely have similar ignorance for other issues as well. I’m frequently appalled at how terrible many atheists are about speaking up for other marginalized groups, considering that atheists as a group also lack certain privileges. Perhaps Obama’s mistakes here can help inform us. From there we can move forward.

While I have been very critical of this one mistake that my president made talking to Maher, this was one problem in an overall positive message. In the rest of the segment, Obama did emphasize that we should not value people because of their religious beliefs or the lack thereof.  Not only does our president speak well of the separation of the church from the state, he makes it clear that in America that people of no religion at all should be treated as equals in social situations, not just legal ones. I appreciate that he mentions that here, and I’m happy that he has mentioned us in past speeches to the nation when he wasn’t talking directly to a left-leaning figurehead. I thank him for that. And because of that, I will end this piece on what I think he did get right.

“We should foster a culture in which people’s private religious beliefs, including atheists and Agnostics, are respected. And that’s the kind of culture that I think allows all of us, then, to believe what we want. That’s freedom of conscience. That’s what our Constitution guarantees. And where we get into problems, typically, is when our personal religious faith, or the community of faith that we participate in, tips into a sort of fundamentalist extremism, in which it’s not enough for us to believe what we believe, but we start feeling obligated to, you know, hit you over the head because you don’t believe the same thing. Or to treat you as somebody who’s less than I am.”

 


*Granted, not the conspiracy theorists who still think he’s a Muslim from Kenya.

**Keep in mind, the struggles of atheists are not the same as those of women or people of color. There are certain aspects that we can compare and contrast, and we can learn from each others’ struggles, but to draw equivalence between them would be a mistake.

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.

atheist-neckbeard

[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.

minnesota-atheists

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.

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.

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[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.

Hewitt

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.

Intent vs. Consequences: A Middle-Ground Model

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

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

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

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

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

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

sadkittenmeme

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Jeremiah Traeger

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

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

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

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

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

jesus christ offended

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


 

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

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

The Atheist Movement’s Ultimate Concession

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

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

 

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Jeremiah Traeger

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 


 

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

 

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

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