So Stay Wrong

As I mentioned recently, I’ve been following the news about Skepticon on Twitter. Yesterday, a link to a recap on Damion Reinhardt’s blog came up. So I read it. Then I laughed.

Then I tweeted, “TIL: A presentation on psych research on a cognitive bias stops being about skepticism when you mention social justice. Who knew?”

You see, the post isn’t a recap. It’s a rehash of the question that popped up, back when Skepticon started getting big enough to rival TAM, of whether it was entitled to use “skeptic” in its name. You’re excited by this question, right? We should get the Skeptics Council right on that?

It’s funnier than that, because there aren’t even broad operational definitions being applied here. So humanism–historically an outgrowth of the fading belief in an interventionist god–doesn’t count as atheism. A presentation on what free speech means and doesn’t mean historically doesn’t count as skepticism, presumably because only science makes appeals to reality over bias. (Those people fighting Holocaust denial? Not real skeptics.)

It was yet more hilarious to find my presentation on a common belief that warps our perceptions to the point that it’s often called a fallacy described as “other”. I mean really? Be better at this.

Or, apparently, not. [Read more…]

Announcing the Atheist, Humanist, and Skeptic History Index

Here it is, the Atheist, Humanist, and Skeptic History Index. This is the project I’ve been working to make come to pass for the last few months. It is here. It is ready to go. In fact, it’s already underway.

It needs help, however. It needs visibility, volunteers, and a moderate amount of funding. Read on to find out what the project is and what you can do to support it if you want to see it succeed. And once you understand it, I think you’ll want to see it succeed.

Line graphic of an open magazine with a magnifying glass with "AHSHI" in the lens. Text below: Atheist, Humanist, and Skeptic History Index

What is the AHS History Index?

What is the AHS History Index? The Atheist, Humanist, and Skeptic History Index is a project to make the information contained in the publications of these movements easily discoverable by historians and anyone else with an interest in the history of these movements. Several organizations have done a good job of collecting this information and making it accessible to people who ask to see it, but it’s difficult to ask for things you don’t know exist. This project aims to fix that problem. [Read more…]

Not About the Ability to Harass

It’s not about wanting to harass, they say. Of course harassment is bad, to the extent it exists, they say. Our stake in this is objective and civil minded, they say. We object to your authoritarian attitudes, they say. It’s definitely not about protecting our ability to harass, they say.

Then you follow Skepticon news on Twitter and this comes up.

But it’s not about the ability to harass, they say.

Saturday Storytime: Bloodless

This story by Cory Skerry continues F&SF’s long and honored tradition of making us think hard about who the monsters are and what makes them monsters.

Fresh snowfall had softened the world that afternoon, and as dusk fell, the sky cleared enough to release a bright moon. Kamalija leaned against the wall’s stones, rough and pitted with centuries of weather, and watched the shadows of the woods. She wanted to kill something, wanted to feel the hum of her knives in the chill air. They were carved from her grandfather’s bones, etched with sigils of silver and set with garnets. He’d been a gate guardian, like her, and she imagined she could feel his ghost’s approval when she set the blades to their task.

A leather wineskin slapped into the powdery snow at her feet, emanating heat and the reek of fresh death. It contained a well-fitted wooden stopper carved in the shape of a wolf’s head.

Now that he’d given his presence away, Lafiik sauntered out of the blackness between the firs. “I noticed your heirs forgot to feed you tonight,” he said.

Kamalija didn’t move. “Life should never be stolen.”

“You’d take mine, wouldn’t you?”

“If you come so close, you offer it to me.”

Lafiik chuckled. “It was a deer, O Exalted Guardian. Drink with a clear conscience, but drink now, before it cools.”

“We wouldn’t feed a gift from you to even the most ill-behaved of our dogs, joskri,” she said.

His smile faded, but he walked closer. Closer. Her fingers tensed on the handles of her knives.

“Do you think we’re so different, that what you name joskri is a beast, like a wolf or lion?”

“I’d sooner sup with a wolf or sleep beside a lion.”

“Neither you nor I sleep,” Lafiik said, amused. He stopped just outside her circle—he must have been watching her for days or weeks before he’d shown himself, because he knew exactly how far she could reach. Kamalija’s witch star burned its righteous warmth in her chest, a gift for the bloodless warrior against the bloodless anathema. He’d been stalking her.

“They told me everything they told you,” he said. “They’re lying.”

Lafiik gripped the hem of his tunic and peeled up his shirt.

And then he stepped into her circle, as vulnerable as she ever could have wanted. Kamalija knew it must be a trick; she darted forward, knives out, but fell to a crouch three steps short. Snow piled in furrows in front of her boots.

Lafiik waited, his silver-brown skin so like hers, his nipples and navel dark against that expanse of cold flesh. Purple scars, like hers, ragged down the center of his chest. Was that supposed to prove something? All the bloodless she’d killed had those scars—the demons could propagate in an honorless parody of the sacred ritual.

“I mean it,” he said. “Feel my star.”

“You don’t have a star.”

“A landslide destroyed my city’s wall, and my blood circle along with it. When your circle is broken, you are freed—not dead. Feel my star,” he repeated.

He was so still he might as well have been truly dead. They would be there all night, she supposed, waiting to fight. She couldn’t understand what ruse this was, and after so many years of nothing, she found peculiarity, and the curiosity that came with it, intoxicating.

Before she could talk sense to herself, she tucked one blade into the sheath in her sleeve, and still holding the other, she placed a palm against his chest.

The heat struck her hand a half of a second before she even touched his skin. The contact didn’t burn—it was pleasant, just like her star, the only heat in an otherwise dry and cold existence—but the act burned something else, some part of her she didn’t have a name for.


The voice came from behind her, from the gate.

Keep reading.

I Am Afraid

I’ve spent much of my life afraid, but I’ve only been afraid like this once before. The fear I feel today is twin to the fear I felt after the terrorist attacks of September 11. This will surprise no one. The parallels are too many. The city has changed. The name used to organize the terrorists was different. Still, so much is the same.

But I am not afraid of the terrorists. I mourn their victims. I have mourned them in all the attacks between then and now. I feel the weight of the knowledge that there will be more. There were more today, in Mali. I grieve for the interrupted lives, dead and survivors alike. But I am not afraid of the terrorists.

I am afraid of us. [Read more…]

“The Fear Babe”, Kavin Senapathy on Atheists Talk

Being concerned for our health is big business these days, and marketing that business relies on making us just as concerned. Unfortunately, much of that marketing involves spreading bad information, making us afraid of the things that will drive business, not the things that threaten our health. When our world is made out of chemicals, making us indiscriminately afraid of chemicals does nothing but add to our stress. Unfortunately, stress is also bad for our health.

This week’s guest, science writer Kavin Senapathy, is working to defeat this fear-based marketing through a number of initiatives. From the book she co-wrote with Marc Draco and Mark Alsip, The Fear Babe: Shattering Vani Hari’s Glass House, to using the tactics of the fear industry against them, she is working hard to replace sensationalism with good information. Tune in this Sunday to hear more about her work and why it’s so important.

Related Links:

Listen to AM 950 KTNF this Sunday at 9 a.m. Central to hear Atheists Talk, produced by Minnesota Atheists. Stream live online. Call in to the studio at 952-946-6205, or send an e-mail to during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

Follow Atheists Talk on Facebook and Twitter for regular updates. If you like the show, consider supporting us with a one-time or sustaining donation.

Skepticon, and Getting It Right When Things Go Wrong

I push pretty hard for organizations to do things better. I suggest changes. I criticize what I think are obvious mistakes. I even helped run a conference this summer aimed at making people better activists.

Occasionally, people look at that and think I’m demanding perfection. I’m not. If I were, I’d be in trouble, because I personally have never run an event where something didn’t go wrong. I don’t know any other organizer who has either. Perfection isn’t nigh unto impossible and even harder when you’re being ambitious.

I actually advocate for two things. First of all, I want people to make new mistakes instead of old ones. I want us to share information with each other about our challenges and solutions. I want us to listen to people who tell us we’ve failed them and either do better or be up front about the needs we can’t meet. I want us to get good enough at what we do that we can spend energy on trying new things instead of scrambling when something predictable goes wrong.

I also want us to get better at dealing with mistakes. I want to stop seeing people vilified for pointing them out. I want to see us keep taking responsibility like adults even when things go badly. I want us to learn instead of asking our friends to comfort us and tell us we did nothing wrong.

None of this is impossible, but it is often hard and uncomfortable. In light of that, I’d like to talk about a few things that went wrong with Skepticon this year and give the organizers some kudos for how they handled it they figured out they’d screwed something up. [Read more…]

Saturday Storytime: Love Will Tear Us Apart

There is literally nothing I can say about this story by Alaya Dawn Johnson that won’t lessen it. You’re just going to have to read it.

Think of it like the best macaroni and cheese you’ve ever had. No neon yellow Velveeta and bread crumbs. I’m talking gourmet cheddar, the expensive stuff from Vermont that crackles as it melts into that crust on top. Imagine if right before you were about to tear into it, the mac and cheese starts talking to you? And it’s really cool. It likes Joy Division more than New Order, and owns every Sonic Youth album, and saw you in the audience at the latest Arctic Monkeys concert, though you were too stoned to notice anything but the clearly sub–par cheesy mac you’d brought with you.

And what if he—I mean “it”—were really hot? Tall and lanky and weirdly well muscled, with bright blue eyes and ginger hair? So, he smells like the best meal you’ve ever eaten, but you kind of want to bone him too. Can’t have it both ways. You aren’t a necro. But a boy’s got to eat—maybe you could just nibble a bit at the edges? A part he won’t miss, and then fuck the rest of him. Eat an arm or something. He can still fuck with one arm. Not that well, though. Probably wouldn’t like it. Okay, a hand. Who ever needed a left hand? Then you remember that Jack—that’s his name, the mac and cheese—plays lacrosse. That’s probably where he got all those yummy muscles. You need two hands for lacrosse.

A pinky? Damn, you might as well starve yourself.

And you had it all planned out. You and Jack have shared an art class for the last three weeks. You were going to admire the mobile he’s been making (a twisted metal tower dangling with shattered CDs and beer tabs), look deep into his eyes, invite him back home with you to play Halo or smoke hash or whatever, and then devour him in the woods off of Route 25. Those woods are the local hunting range. You’ve done it at least a dozen times before, though not to your actual classmates at Edward R. Murrow High, your newest school.

Liking your meal too much to kill him? That’s a first.

“Pizzicato Five?” you say, catching on to the tail end of Jack’s sentence. “Who’re they?”

His eyes light up. Not literally, but they get really large and you can see the blue of his irises all spangly and flecked around his dilated pupils. Bug eyes, you usually call that look.

“Dude, they’re awesome,” he says. “Harajuku pop. Yeah, I know, you’re thinking about that Gwen Stefani crap, like, ‘I totally thought Jack had better taste,’ but don’t worry, this is the real stuff. It’s all ironic and postmodern. James Bond on a Nipponese acid trip in a bukkake club.”

“Wow,” you say, ’cause honestly you can only deal in monosyllables at this point.

“Hey, we can walk to my place from here. You wanna come over? I have a few of their albums.”

So you don’t get anywhere near Route 25. Which is good. You don’t want to eat him, and you can still smell your leftovers there. The whole thing is weirding you out. You—I don’t know—you like him. Like like him. You think you had a little sister once who would say it just like that. You don’t remember eating her, but you can’t be sure. And what would Jack think if he knew you were some monster who couldn’t even remember if he ate his sister alive?

Keep reading.

“The Accidental Terrorist”, William Shunn on Atheists Talk

“Nineteen-year-old Bill Shunn was a man on a mission—a Mormon mission, that is, trolling for converts door-to-door a thousand miles from home. A seventh-generation Mormon, steeped since birth in the gospel according to Joseph Smith, Shunn had to place his life and writing career on hold in order to fulfill his two-year mission, and faced challenges along the way that led to the ultimate confrontation with both his spiritual and secular authorities. Now, with hard-won wisdom and compassion for his younger self, Shunn recounts the harrowing pilgrimage—rife with good intentions, noble ideals, and deep-seated insecurities—that pushed him to places stranger than any fiction. That story is ‘The Accidental Terrorist’.

Bill Shunn is a graduate from the University of Utah in Salt Lake City with a degree in computer science. Soon thereafter he began finding success as a science fiction writer. His short fiction has appeared in Salon, Storyteller, Bloodstone Review, Newtown Literary, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Science Fiction Age, Realms of Fantasy, Electric Velocipede, and various anthologies, including year’s-best collections. His work has been nominated for the Hugo Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, and twice for the Nebula Award.”

Join us this Sunday as David Pacheco speaks with William Shunn about “The Accidental Terrorist”

Related Links: 

[Read more…]

Getting Ready for Skepticon

Me? Oh, I’ve just been doing major fall housecleaning, preparing for Skepticon, working on behind-the-scenes FtB stuff (including FtBCon4, January 22-24!), and butchering a deer. All, you know, more or less simultaneously. This is why I laugh at whoever decided to put NaNoWriMo in November. Couldn’t they have chosen March, when cabin fever is starting to take effect?

I digress. I would share more of all this with you, but pictures of rooms with the vast majority of allergens removed aren’t exciting to anyone but me, and pictures of huge, dog-fur dust bunnies are just kind of gross. Then there was the Ziploc bag labeled “cheese” I found in the radiator in a room that hasn’t been a kitchen since at least 1999. For the record, it was empty.

More information is coming on FtBCon4 soon, though, so start thinking about what you want to propose for a panel. Yes, you.

If you’re coming to Skepticon, definitely come see me. I’m running a slightly modified version of the Ada Initiative’s impostor syndrome training as a workshop (part of the Secular Women Work track of workshops) on Friday at noon, and my talk, “Justice in a ‘Just World'” on the challenges presented to activists by just world beliefs, is on Sunday at 2 p.m.

In between, I’ll be spending a bunch of time at the Secular Woman table, where we’re announcing a new project that I proposed and am heading up. I’m excited about it, so let me explain it to you! Also see this space over the weekend for more information on the project.

And now, back to more dealing with venison. I promise, no pictures.