To My Conservative Friends and Colleagues

Who needs to die before you speak?

We’ve already had one death arguably attributable to this insanity of refusing to recognize the authority of a duly elected president and Congress. How many more will it take?

Sure, the guy was a raving loon, but there are a lot of people out there right now who are being told insane things and believing them. They believe a man could be elected president without anyone verifying his citizenship. They believe Congress could and would pass a bill that mandates euthanasia. They believe they’re about to be rounded up and shipped to gulags or concentration camps for disagreeing with the administration’s policies. It doesn’t matter that those things are insane. These people have been whipped into a fine state of paranoia.

It’s easy to tell yourself you’re not like them, that you merely disagree with the changes that are happening. After all, you’re not insane, just conservative.

Will that matter when the next person dies over this? Representative David Scott has had a swastika painted on his office sign. Another representative was hung in effigy. Representative Brad Miller received a death threat. Senator Arlen Specter invited people to tell him what they thought about health care reform–held back the police who were concerned about violence and disruption–and still people screamed in his face and called him a tyrant. A man showed up to protest the president’s town hall meeting today wearing a gun and carrying a sign that said, “It is time to water the tree of liberty” (referencing Jefferson’s “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.”).

Those are just some of the politicians who are on the receiving end of violent anger. Fights are breaking out outside these meetings on health care. My husband was accused earlier this week, by someone who should know better, of planning to turn an old friend in for an “incorrect” political position. I can’t buy ammunition right now to go target shooting because it’s all sold out and has been for months. This whole thing is teetering on the edge. Someone else is going to die soon. Maybe lots of someone elses.

It will be your fault.

“Why?” you ask, “I’m not the one feeding their paranoia.” No, you’re not, but you’re the only people who can stop it.

They’re not going to listen to us. We liberals are already traitors and, somehow, simultaneously Nazis and communists. They believe we’re going to round them up and put them to sleep. They believe that if they listen to us, they die.

Some of them will listen to you because they know you’re on the same side. Some won’t listen, exactly, but will find their first reasons to doubt the lies because you speak against them. Some won’t listen to anyone but Rush and the rest of talk radio and their friends at Fox.

That’s where you need to do your most talking. Talk to the stations and tell them you won’t watch or listen while they refuse to speak against the violence. Tell them you can see how they’re dividing the country and they have a responsibility to do better. Tell them the same thing I’ve told you: Unless they speak against it, they who have so much influence, they are complicit in the violence. They condone with their silence.

Then tell their advertisers the same thing. Then the conservative politicians.

Unless you want the violence, you have to tell those in a leadership position to lead their people in a different direction. They represent you, and you haven’t argued up to this point that they don’t. If they lead us into more violence and death, they are doing it in your name.

If you don’t speak now, the next death will be your fault.

“Thank God for PZ Myers”

One more follow-up on civil atheism, with a somewhat unexpected conclusion.

To put it differently, thank God for PZ Myers. That man chaps my behind. He and I have no reasonable hope of ever coming to a perfect agreement on the social good, though we might achieve overlapping consensus. But he usually takes the issues of belief and reason seriously, and even when he doesn’t, he forces me to do so. For that, he is “good health to me nevertheless.” I am a better man and a better citizen for having to consider his perspective, even if I do wish he’d go jump in the lake more than just occasionally.

Loving Local Media

Big newspapers may be dying, but I’m loving what I’m getting in their place. We’ve got three donor-supported online news sources in the Cities that I read regularly. All of them also rely on the community for tips or for covering events. Not one of them is the combined police blotter and traffic fatality feed that my local big, bankrupt paper is (yes, there’s more than that, but it does tend to get buried).

The UpTake is one of the better-known local media outlets, as it provided the full coverage of the various Coleman-Franken hearings. Video is their big thing, and while they’re a little slow at the moment with the state legislature not in session, they’re still updating with features like Kyle’s iPhone interviews as he hitchhikes across America and asks people about the economy. They’re also hosting the White House videos debunking the anti-health care reform lies. Those videos come in handy far more often than I’d like.

The Minnesota Independent is part of the Center for Independent Media, so they cover national issues more, but they keep an eye on the local slant. For example, their Religious Right Watch covers the political actions of local and national groups.

Jan Markell of Maple Grove–based Olive Tree Ministries called on her radio listeners to attend congressional town hall meetings in August. “Here’s what you can do, your congressmen and senators are coming home for much of August,” she said on last week’s program. “They are going to have town hall meetings all over the place. You need to go there and give them an earful. The ideal thing to do is to go to their town hall and read them the riot act — in Christian love — but read them the riot act on this issue of health care.”

But she implied Rep. Michele Bachmann should be spared, heaping praises upon her: “[Michele Bachmann] is one of my favorite people. She is doing just an outstanding job in Congress standing up for what is right. She’s got a target on her back. You need to pray for her and her family.”

They do still cover solely local issues, such as how instant runoff voting will change our Minneapolis city elections this fall.

This year, Hofstede (now the incumbent, again the DFL endorsee) must contend for three more months with all four of her challengers: Libertarian Raymond Wilson Rolfe, Republican Jeffrey Cobia, DFLer Allen Kathir, and Melissa Hill, who is running under the banner of “Civil Disobedience.”

Due to personal circumstances, Hill isn’t able to run the full-bore campaign she had planned on earlier in the year — when, she says, she was courted by several political parties, including the Greens.

But thanks to IRV and the lack of a primary election, Hill is guaranteed time to get out her message about the value of political protest and civil liberties.

The MinnPost is my favorite of the three sites. Why? Well, they do a bit more analysis in addition to the straight reportage, but I don’t think that’s all of it. Maybe because they do a better job of looking critically at the behavior of both political parties, not in some kind of false dichotomy, but simply in the sense of keeping everyone on the straight and narrow.

They’ve already started talking to Michele Bachmann’s DFL challengers for next year to get a sense of where they stand on the big, controversial issues. Sen. Tarryl Clark is pretty comfortably standard for a DFL endorsee, which could be a problem in the general election but makes me fairly happy with her. Dr. Maureen Reed is either coy on the big topics or a poor communicator with fairly nuanced positions.

The MinnPost is also tracking Minnesota’s big national Republican hopeful, Governor Pawlenty. He’s expected to try for a national leadership position in the party and for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. By the time either of those come around, the MinnPost will have documented his stances (and veracity) on, well, just about everything he decides to talk about. Last week, it was health care reform.

Here’s what Pawlenty said:

“…many Democrats in Washington want a government-run plan that would require states to comply with dozens of new mandates and regulations. One study by the Lewin Group recently concluded that an estimated 114 million Americans could be displaced from their current coverage under such a plan…”

Truthfulness rating:

Half true. There was indeed such a study, but the governor’s statement oversimplifies the study and is misleading.

I have to admit, I don’t necessarily know a lot about the details of individual crimes in my city, and I have to go looking if I’m concerned about weekend road closures, but these sites are going a long way toward keeping me from missing the papers that look to be drying up and blowing away.

More Reading on Civil Atheism

It all started with a little lament that we atheists allow people to convince us that pointing out unequal (and even illegal) treatment is being strident. It went from there to an elaboration of the social pressures used (even by our friends) that make us think that. And then it exploded into a classic example of the consequences of telling an articulate minority to pipe down.

Lou didn’t care much for having a Christian step in to tell him he was the person being too uncivil.

The non-delusional have been trying for a couple of centuries now to have a quiet, rational discussion with the religious and what’s it’s gotten us is more, not less, marginalization. What it’s gotten us is a society hell-bent on theocracy and longing for the dark ages. What it’s gotten us is suffering of innocents and willful ignorance that is cartoonish and nearly unparodiable.

Phil debated whether Lou’s post meant he should just give up on us atheists.

So, rolling all this around, what should I do? I’ve stayed in the fight thus far, in part because I do believe that America as a nation can benefit from a lot more discussion, and a lot less internal warfare. I am also of the belief, based on what I was taught in church, that my response as a Christian needs to be acceptance of everyone, and the extension of as much understanding, compassion, forgiveness and tolerance as I can to those who do not share my beliefs. And, if they are being discriminated against, in any way, I have to stand with them against that discrimination.

(Still no recognition, though, that I woke up Friday morning to being told I should die as soon as possible. Just for the record, Phil, when one of my atheist friends sees that and doesn’t say anything, I know they’ve gotten similar treatment. When you don’t say anything, as part of that majority, but instead talk about your feelings, I don’t even know that you’ve seen it, much less whether you care about it.)

Jason put together a nice summary of the different issues at play in the discussion.

Thirdly, not every theist is as irrational as the people who are actively trying to abridge our rights, however they are also not stepping up to the plate when people say things like “atheists are worthless fuck stains and should die”. However, they do get the vapors when someone dares to suggest that all religious folks feel the same way. In the thread over at Almost Diamonds, you’ll see a so-called reasonable theist jump as soon as he realizes Lou gets paint on him in his characterization of religion as a whole as damaging to human rights. I know a number of very reasonable theists who are able to reconcile their belief systems with the universe as it exists and as science has come to understand it; and this is fine. As an agnostic atheist I do allow for the sliver of possibility that something “caused” all this; I just don’t feel the evidence as presented at the moment by theists is compelling (or even truly amounts to anything worth considering in fact). So, to those that do not directly attempt to abridge the rights of gays, the faithless, women, or any other group that is not WASPy enough for their liking, I apologize in advance when you get tarred with the same brush as the whackjobs, but if that’s the case, then you’re obviously not doing enough to distance yourself from said whackjobs. Get in the fight or get out of the way!

Skeptigirl points out to the moderate Christians that they can do more good by actions other than telling atheists to “play nice.”

Many don’t understand, or won’t, that when we try to get Christianity out of school, we’re not attacking Christianity. If they want to believe that Jesus was awesome, great. But they should do it at home or in church where it belongs — they should not force kids in public school to have to sit through revised science and history classes for the sake of Christianity. This isn’t only about atheists — it’s about every single other religion that’s marginalized by this practice. And I don’t for one second believe that if they were in our position, they wouldn’t fight buildings being adorned with Muslim scriptures or Greek/Roman mythology being taught as literal interpretations of creation.

Rystefn tells them what we hear when moderate Christians think they’re being so reasonable.

Every day, I hear some asshole say we’re alienating potential allies by being so vocal. Really? There are people out there whose willingness to see us get the freedoms that are our right hinges on how polite we are? You know what I say to that? Fuck those people! I’m not interested in trading angry oppressors for kinder, gentler oppressors. I will not allow my rights to hang on the whim of another, whether that other wants to deny them as a matter of course, or simply because I said the word “fuck.”

And finally, Dan does his gentle best to explain what civil is all about.

You see, I’ve been missing the fact that the moderates have been out there all along, and they do have the majority over the fundamentalists. I was just confused about the name. You see, the other members of the church have a name that they’ve used for the moderates all along, but I had failed to make the connection. Not to worry, though, as I’ve got it now.

Anybody I missed?

Votes Needed

I love it when the talented people I know get together and make something cool happen. In this case, my husband, Ben, and our friend Analiese set up a vintage-look photo shoot at a St. Paul landmark. In Ben’s case, it was an opportunity to get a beautiful shot he’s been wanting to do for a while. For Ana, it was an entry in a contest for a walk-on part on Mad Men, and for that, the shot couldn’t be more perfect.

However, taking time to get that perfect shot means that there’s very little time for Ana to accumulate votes in the contest. So, please, now and for the next four days, click over to Ana’s contest page and vote her up. Five stars, once a day per unique IP. Ben and Ana would appreciate your votes, and I would too.

Let’s not see such a beautiful collaboration go to waste.

Physics Graduate School

I encounter the second year grad students. The ones who earned their class the name “The Class From Hell”. They had a poster up in the TA office the previous year with a running total of how many female students came to see each TA. These amazing specimens move from dirty looks or come-on looks to comments: “You wear that just to show off your legs, don’t you?” “Not many skirts around this place.”

The thought that I would dress to show off my legs is so funny it takes my breath away. I’m in grad school, struggling and trying to stay sane, and I’m going to wake up and say “I think I’ll wear those tights that make my legs look good. Maybe that asshole second year will notice.” I didn’t even brush my hair every day. I washed it, braided it, and only rebraided after it got too messy by the third or fourth day. I had custom wrist braces which limited my hand mobility. (Keys on a carabiner clipped to my belt loop, since I couldn’t stick my hand in my pocket.) Obviously my only purpose for being there was to tempt him.

Today’s post at Quiche Moraine is a little different. This is something a friend of mine, chair of her physics department, posted somewhere else. I told her more people needed to see it, and she agreed. Go read.

Atheism and Alienation

How polite do atheists need to be? There’s always a current of this particular conversation going on in the atheist blogosphere, but Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum’s attack on PZ Myers’ actions in Crackergate seems to have thrown it into high relief. A bunch of people are popping up in various places to suggest that PZ’s actions “just didn’t help.”

Even this blog isn’t immune. Philip H. from DC Dispatches started it by praising Jeff Wagg’s tactics.

I would also add that the dialogue you posted was, at least in print, civil, even cordial. I detected no hint of explative throwing, no threats to dessicrate a Denny’s Apply Strudel, and thus no reason that Denny’s shouldn’t tkae the threat seriously. I know many atheists will disagree, but tactics matter. And in this case, the tactics, as reported, were probably very effective.

He got a response from me that I don’t think he was expecting.

Phil, define desecrate. Do you mean like two guys kissing on the front steps? There are good reasons to be very leery of that word, not the least of which is the fact that my continued existence and happiness is desecration by some people’s definition.

With some later elaboration.

The thing is, Jeff’s is a very reasonable response to a meal costing a dollar more for a non-churchgoer. Complaining to the manager is not a reasonable response to death threats.

In fact, what PZ did in Crackergate was pretty merciful. It had no real-world repercussions. He could have turned over all the threats of violence to the FBI. They have jurisdiction for terroristic threats made electronically. Instead he hurt their feelings. Badly, maybe. Still feelings.

I know you appreciate that I’m fairly polite and reasonable about these things. You may not notice it, but I never forget that it’s the people who take a stronger, more “outrageous” stand who give me the space to do this. Without them, it wouldn’t matter how nice I am on the subject. I’d be in the same position as the Jews PZ talked about in his cracker-piercing post: different, therefore suspect, therefore game, therefore dead.

I may reach out more than they do, but I can only do that as long as I’m alive and free to speak.

There are a few things that Phil and I don’t agree on, but one of the things I like about him is that he argues fairly. He tries to understand what’s going on on “the other side.” In fact, the first time I really became aware of him was in the middle of an argument, and he ended up by reading my blog. (He’s not the only one that happened with. Is that weird? Anyway.) So, when Phil asks for more information, I’m more than happy to give it, and he’s asked for more on this.

Wow. Perhaps I’ve been in too many academic communities in my life, where this sort of freedom is taken for granted. Perhaps its my forgiving nature, where I labor against all evidence to look for good intent. But reading my words my first reaction was that you had personnally been threatened due to your atheism. As in threatened with death. If that’s so, I am sorry to have touched a nerve. If not, perhaps you can elaborate, so the simple verbal literalist in me can get where you are going.

No, Phil, I haven’t been directly threatened personally. I have seen others threatened for doing something I might do.

Webster Cook was threatened and assaulted and removed from office for mistaking the conventions of one Catholic service for another. I’ve spent time in Catholic churches to admire the art and architecture. They’re open to the public for that purpose as well as for worship, but they don’t come with guides. Even being respectful by my definition, I’m in an alien culture there. If a kid walking back to his seat without swallowing is worthy of assault and death threats, how difficult would it be for me to cross someone unknown line and become subject to the same?

PZ received death threats for mocking people’s sense of proportion. I don’t think I need to explain how this one is directly relevant to my life. Do I get to die now?

There are things that are said directly in conversations I’m a part of that tell me there are religious people who think that because I’m an atheist, I’m less than human.

  • I can’t love.
  • I have no morals.
  • I can’t find any meaning or joy in life.

How big a step is it from that last one to “it doesn’t matter if I live”? How big a step from the first two to deciding that it’s better for the world if I’m not here?

Me being visibly atheist, polite or no, offends people, even when I’m talking to other atheists. See the bus ads that were just pulled in Iowa. They literally tell atheists they’re not alone, but they were pulled because of complaints. “DART claims it received numerous phone calls from people who were offended by the ads”.

This is something I do have direct experience with. I’m involved in a number of activities designed to raise the profile of atheists, precisely so people feel less alone. I’m not as active as I could be, but I don’t keep silent either. Someone I know posted this in a discussion at Greg’s.

I’m a Christian who chooses not to preach to others. I have an incredibly devout Catholic friend who doesn’t preach to me. However, I’m finding some of my other friends are very irritating with all their atheist proselytizing.

Let’s live and let live, already.

Now, that looks pretty simple on the face of it, but as I said, I know this person. I know what kind of “proselytizing” they’re exposed to. My response:

I post about atheism on Facebook and on my blog because I find the topic interesting, because I want people to know they do know an atheist, and because a large number of the people who read my stuff in both places are atheists. I don’t do it because I’m trying to change anyone else’s mind about their religion. Maybe their assumptions about mine, but that’s somewhat different.

If you mention a sermon you found interesting, are you trying to convert me? If you mention a TSA agent you found annoying, are you trying to get me to rebel against the government? If you wax enthusiastic about knitting, are you suggesting I need to take up needles? No, you’re just talking about your life.

That’s exactly the problem that an atheist faces in a situation like this. As far as society in general (in the U.S.) is concerned, mentioning religion is just talking about your life. Mentioning atheism is somehow encroaching on someone else’s. Do you do it anyway, or do you hang out in the closet?

My behaviors are interpreted differently, even by people who know me, because they involve atheism. Being nonreligious is seen as a direct challenge to religion. I’m annoying because I address other atheists, publicly, on the topic of atheism.

So, I’m annoying, offensive, subhuman. Other people in situations similar to mine have been threatened and assaulted. They’ve been silenced. People not that much further away have been killed.

Do I expect PZ’s actions to reach moderates and make them feel warm and fuzzy about atheists? No, of course not. I expect his actions in Crackergate did two things. I saw that it gave Catholic extremists someone to focus their hate on in a very public, educational way. I suspect that, for a number of people, it deflated some of the drama of desecration. After all the buil
d-up, the reality was downright prosaic. Secular even. And, well, look at that, that blog post had some interesting points.

What PZ has done is make it harder for people to look at me, minding my own business with a bunch of my atheist buddies and a few people who don’t hold anything sacred, even if they think its sacred, chatting about what we’ve got in common, and think I’m doing something wrong. What PZ did? Well, you know, that wasn’t very nice, but that well-spoken little atheist chick over there is much more reasonable. People will–and do–reserve their arguing for him and talk to me. Or to plenty of other people who sound much more moderate.

We get to be good cops, but we couldn’t do it without the “bad” ones. That is why we need atheists who are less than polite.

Update: And the very first comment….

Update 2: Quite a ways down in the comments, Steve apologizes and blames the whole thing on a prank by a friend. The apology has been accepted.

A Few Good Posts

Huh. Turns out that yesterday’s Eddie Izzard post was the 500th post on this blog. I knew it was coming, but I still wasn’t paying attention. Oh, well, a base-10 system is pretty arbitrary anyway. So, instead of talking about my blog posts, I’m going to ask people to talk about others.

With the relaunch of Atheists Talk, we’re adding a few semi-regular features to the podcast. One of them is meant to bring good web material to people who don’t necessarily read blogs…or to people who don’t read particular blogs. Even I can only read so many blogs, which is why we need your help.

Point us to good blog posts that would be of interest to an audience of atheists. These will be converted to audio, so they can’t be too context or visual dependent, but aside from that, just about anything goes. Posts about religion, separation of church and state, science, culture, education, skepticism–we’re looking for any of that. New, old, doesn’t matter.

Don’t worry about getting permission from the author. We’ll take of that before we record anything. From you, we need ideas.

I Love Eddie Izzard

And not just for his great taste in eyeliner. Or for this:

More for this:

I had always wanted to do a big physical running challenge, and this seemed a great way to do it and also raise money to help Africa and the poorest countries in the world as well as projects that Sport Relief fund in the UK I was also going to be advised by Olympic experts who have worked with Sport Relief before. They would help me keep running in the right direction.

So I told them I wanted to try to run around the whole of the UK. London to Cardiff to Belfast to Edinburgh and back to London, running through as many parts of the UK that lie in between our 4 capitals.

Long, amusing story short, he’s running about 1,100 (or 1.100) miles in six or seven weeks. That’s more than a marathon a day, with the occasional day off.

So far, he’s made it to Cardiff. If you want to support him in this Herculean effort, donate here.

When to Speak

If you follow any atheists on Twitter, you may have already heard about the situation Jeff Wagg of the James Randi Educational Foundation recently ran into.


ME: I’m wondering how the millions of people like me who don’t attend church can take advantage of this offer.

MANAGER: I’m sorry, you can’t. It’s for people who go to church.

ME: With this promotion, Denny’s is encouraging people to go to church. Is that right?

MANAGER: No, it’s just a way to bring in more business.

ME: How is this different from offering a discount to white people?

(I’m aware that there are differences between racial discrimination and religious discrimination, and this probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say. However, it is what I said. By the way, the manager was apparently Pakistani.)

MANAGER: No one has ever asked these questions before.

CASHIER: This is just a corporate policy.

ME: I see the address for the corporation here. I’ll take this up with them.

That’s bad enough. It’s more than bad enough. However, that wasn’t the part of Jeff’s post that hurt. That was this:

Now, I must admit, I don’t feel comfortable with all this. The entire experience smacks of knee-jerk militant atheism that I fear does more harm than good. But upon analysis, I have to conclude that it isn’t. There is no question that Denny’s, be it the local corporation or the parent organization, is encouraging people to go to church, supporting churches financially, and requiring non-church goers to pay more than their religious counterparts. And while one could make the libertarian argument that a business should have the right to offer whatever discounts it pleases, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 states clearly that this is not the case. They can offer discounts based on many things, but race and religion are not two of those.

Are these the choices that spring to mind? Do harm or give up our rights? Jerk a knee or roll over? Militancy or self-effacement?

If you want to know why we atheists dig in our feet when someone tells us we need to be careful of our message, this is the reason. You can find militant atheists, yes, but you have to look for them. They are not the people who explain why we believe what we believe or the people who point out when a religion gets something demonstrably wrong. Nor are they the people who insist on our right to exist despite the presence of people who would prefer we don’t.

That doesn’t stop the people who want us gone from pointing to the people who dare to say anything and calling them militant. That doesn’t stop fellow atheists from worrying about anger and shushing us. That doesn’t stop our friends from telling us that now is maybe not the time–anytime.

You know that kid in school? The shy one with the hunched shoulders and bowed head who wanted everyone to look away? The silent one who did everything possible to avoid answering questions in class? The one who made the teachers frustrated? The one who, thinking back, had to have had a craptastic home life to flinch that hard?

Do you remember those few occasions when that kid spoke? How loud and rough that voice was? How it startled even that kid?

Yeah. There’s a bit of that kid in atheism. Among the eloquent voices are those that have been silent under threat. Those voices are bound to be rusty when first used. They’re not going to be articulate, however well they may express the raw emotions that have been locked behind closed lips.

So maybe some of them are angry. So what? Is it a problem that some people can’t handle anger, even or especially anger they’ve helped cause, and if it is, is it our problem? Maybe it is if we’re being untruthful or unfair, but otherwise?

I don’t think so. There’s something wrong if we’re trying to shut those voices down instead of celebrating that they can finally be used. And there’s definitely something wrong if we’re starting to wonder whether we should question the situation when someone breaks the law.