A Critical Thinking Course You Just Won’t Believe

I asked and received permission to share the following story. I was told that was fine, so long as I withheld the student’s last name, which I am glad to oblige…

Dear fellow atheists,

I’ve been having an ongoing issue in my Critical Thinking class that I’m taking this semester at college; it’s a private for-profit secular institution. The problem is not so much with the class itself, but with the professor who teaches it. I’ve brought up the issue casually with my academic department and they have expressed their belief that it is a non-issue. Unless I’m willing to withdraw from the course and have it appear on my transcript, I’m forced to stay in it for the remainder of the term. That’s why I’m coming to you in the hope that you could provide me with some coping advice. I’m not kidding; this class is driving me completely insane.

A couple of weeks ago I had a conversation with my professor along with another student during our class break. At one point she asked me to provide an example of a belief I had that I didn’t realize I had. Confused by the question, I asked her to elaborate. She gave me her own example of how she used to believe God was a punishing God, but then came to know Him as a loving and caring God. Right off the bat I informed her that I couldn’t think of anything as significant as her example, since I personally do not believe in anything supernatural or paranormal. It was then that she moved forward with the conversation by asking me, “You don’t even believe in the paranormal?” My adamant stance on the subject clearly bothered her, especially when I stated that many supernatural and paranormal claims could be easily refuted with scientific evidence. My professor’s adult son passed away several years ago, and she replied “My son is around me all the time and communicates with me every day”. I assured her that I was not intending to take away any personal experience she had.

The next day, she asked a couple of students what we had learned from Chapter 2 of our Critical Thinking textbook. The answer I gave was, “I interpreted the chapter to mean that beliefs are subjective truths and facts are objective truths”. For some reason my answer appeared to offend her. Out of all the students’ answers, she wrote mine on the board and asked me to give examples of beliefs and facts. I explained to her that my personal opinion on what makes something a “fact” is something that was observable, measurable, and testable. She then brought up the subject of ghosts and EVP recordings, and challenged me to refute the “evidence” shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures provide. “How do you explain the EVP recordings, and the fact that the voices respond directly to the questions!” I’ll be honest with you, I truly wanted to laugh and ask her if she seriously thought those shows were conclusive evidence of paranormal phenomena. In fact, I did, I just didn’t laugh. I explained to her that these shows were not reliable evidence for anything since they are entertainment programs. EVP’s were easily explained away by many sources of interference including the pareidolia effect. But she insisted on reminding me that I still could not prove that they were not, in fact, actual recorded ghost voices. I agreed and ended by saying that it was up to her and anyone else in the class to research natural explanations on their own if they wanted to.

The following week, one of the students felt the need to bring up a story of how she had seen a ghost in her house “last night”. Her totally unbelievable and laughable story included the ghost calling out her name, leaving a black hand-print on her shoulder which lasted for two hours (but no photographic evidence), and how her hair floated up in the air. Maybe it was just the way she told it that made it seem so unconvincing, nevertheless the entire class, including the professor, was captivated by her haunting story. So what does the teacher do? She looks right at me and asks me to explain her story. I guess being the only skeptic in the class meant I was the only one capable of dissecting it. “Do you believe her story?” I asked the professor to which she replied with a “yes”. I asked her what evidence she had to believe the claim, and she stated, “Because she told me. I have no reason to disbelieve her”. I then went into the whole spiel about how all claims are not created equal, such as someone telling you a ghost left a black hand print on their shoulder as opposed to her ordering pizza for dinner last night.

Sadly I never got a chance to provide alternative explanations for the student’s claim, as the teacher decided to interject with the story of her “astral projection” experience. She explained how in the middle of the night she awoke only to find that she couldn’t move a muscle. She couldn’t call out for help and felt completely paralyzed. Her “soul” (or whatever it is she called it) came out of her body and floated around the room and out the front door which is when she woke up. I explained that what she experienced was most likely an episode of sleep paralysis. This was a text-book case of SP in my opinion, and I have had a few episodes myself where I have had similar experiences. I explained to her what sleep paralysis was, both the physiology and psychology of what takes place during an episode. In fact, there was a student in class that worked for a sleep-study center that could back up my claim. Nevertheless, the teacher quickly dismissed my explanation and said that it “explained nothing”. She refuted by saying that science gets things wrong all the time and that “some guy in a white lab coat” could not disprove that what she experienced was not astral projection. Her claim was that it may be the current explanation in science but that this could change and eventually scientists would discover that these episodes were actually astral projection all along. I actually refused to counter her argument after 2 hours of going in circles and simply said “Okay”.

Now I really don’t care what she, or anyone else, believes. Everyone is free to choose whatever explanation makes the most sense to them, even if I do think it’s silly to ignore mountains of evidence. Nevertheless, this is a critical thinking class. What should have been a valid discussion of weighing evidence to support a belief was nothing more than the professor feeling that her beliefs were being threatened. Time and time again I reassured her that my intentions were never to disprove anything, only to provide alternative explanations. Throughout the course of the discussion science was ridiculed and only evidence supporting her belief was considered. Not once were any of my explanations validated or considered seriously. The entire experience left me feeling humiliated and aware of the fact that I really AM a minority with my anti-spiritual worldview. “Critical Thinking” has turned into “Magical Thinking”, and class time is now about sitting around a campfire telling ghost stories. Am I wrong for feeling just a tad pissed off about that? I actually thought this may have been the one class where skeptical thinking would be appreciated. Clearly I was wrong.

As I mentioned earlier, academics can do nothing about this situation. I can withdraw but having a “W” on my transcript is not something I want. I’m really left with no choice but to tough it out. I haven’t really been able to get any useful advice from anyone, and so that’s why I’m writing to you. I have five more weeks left of the term and although I don’t want to talk about ghosts anymore, I may find myself in a situation again where I am the target of debate. Is there any advice you can give me under these circumstances? My biggest fear is the impressionable minds in this class that are being poisoned with affirmation by the professor that her worldview makes more sense. After all, she is promoting it heavily. I know that confirmation bias and attitude polarization plays a huge part in all of this, but I’m not sure how I can present evidence without the receiver feeling threatened. And personally, I wish that she wouldn’t call on me to explain myself if she really doesn’t want to know my answers.

Thank you for any help you could provide,

Maya

I did offer Maya some advice. And offered to share the story here. She said she will be following comments, so please feel free to post to her here. I can’t promise she’ll respond, but she will be able to see your notes.

God-based Abortion Policy: FAIL (Open thread on episode 719)

I’m going to talk about abortion again this week. This time, I’m taking a completely different tactic. I’m going to apply my own personal moral principles to the problem and see how well I do against those of the religious right, supposedly backed by their god.

Guess which one will come out objectively better? Hopefully, this leaves the question of why an individual atheist is doing better than American Christendom backed by the Author of morality.

Feel free to treat this as an open thread on episode 719.

Postscript: I found out late that Greg Paul was to be a special guest caller on the show, so I wasn’t able to get to my topic. I’ll save it for next time.

It’s time for the Blag Hag BLOGATHON for the SSA!


I’m not just on the Secular Student Alliance‘s Speaker’s Bureau, I’m a fan of the work they do and as supportive as I can possibly be. (Which basically means that I talk them up whenever I can and then run around to whatever schools ask me to speak.)

Well, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag fame, is gearing up for another BLOGATHON to raise more money for the SSA. It seems that some people actually find time to not only blog, but blog for a good cause. In 2009, she raised $531.17 and last year she raised an amazing $2753.10…and this year, she’s trying to raise BILLIONS (or at least “more”).

So, if the SSA is your bag (and why wouldn’t it be?!) and you have some money that you were saving for a good cause, get over there and donate!

Yes, I know, I’ve asked people to donate to the ACA, Camp Quest, American Atheists, The Atheist Community of Austin, Atheist Alliance America, The Texas Freethought Convention, The Texas Freedom Network, The Seculare Coalition for America, The James Randi Educational Foundation, Atheists Helping the Homeless and a few others…and it will continue. Why?

– Because these are organizations that are doing good work and need funding.
– Because everyone can’t donate every time (or any time, for some) but without reminders donations tend to drop off.

Don’t worry, I don’t assume that you’re a bad person for not donating. I’ve been poor (more than I’d like to admit) and unable to donate money.

I won’t even think you’re a bad person for not donating time – everyone isn’t comfortable helping out.

But for those who can, or feel like the should, I’ll happily show you a picture of intellectually-starved college and high-school students that should tug at your heart and purse strings…

The drag episode…pre-show notes.

Tomorrow (later today, actually) I’ll be heading down to the studio, in drag. I wanted to take a few minutes, before the show, to talk about the process of making this happen and why it’s unlikely to happen again (I think you’ll agree I’ve got good reasons). That said, this is a positive post – because the process has been educational and that’s something that I tend to enjoy.

First, I’m probably not going to be very attractive (but I’m sure someone out there will certainly disagree). I’m a big guy and it was difficult to find clothes that fit, so this won’t be any sort of slinky, sexy number…because my body just won’t do that.

We had difficulty finding a dress in my size that didn’t cost a fortune. We ended up settling on the Urban Nomad versatile skirt from Earthbound Trading Company. It’s actually a pretty cool item and I think I can safely recommend it. Beth got one as well and mine won’t be going to waste as I already have a good friend who would like mine after the show is over. (It’s late, so I’m not linking all of these items…Google is your friend).

I wear a 48R suit jacket and we had one hell of a time finding any bra that would actually fit. We settled for a cheap 52DD bra from Walmart that we’re going to stuff with socks and other things to give me the breasts I’ll need to hold up the dress. We also grabbed a plus-sized camisole, which will give me a layered look. The bra and camisole probably won’t find a home, so I’ll box them up for future costume events that are less extravagant.

We picked up cheap jewelry at the mall, but I only had one of my ears pierced. I didn’t want to take too many shortcuts, so we went ahead and got the other one pierced as well. (Actually, we re-pierced the one that had previously been pierced, as it had partially closed up.) I actually like wearing the earrings, so that will probably stick around.

Shoes just weren’t going to happen. Any shoes in my size were a ridiculous expense for what is, most likely, a one-time event. We settled on some cheap, but stylish, orange flip-flops and Beth hot-glued some sunflowers on them.

Saturday morning, I went to the nail salon for a full manicure, pedicure and eyebrow waxing. No, I’m not joking. I now have gorgeous red fingernails and toenails – and much less bushy, though still far-too-dark eyebrows.

This evening, we attempted to use a Nair-like product to remove hair from my legs and upper body. Absolutely no hair was removed by this cheap, dollar-store knock-off. So…as it was late, out came the clippers that I use to trim my head and beard and off came the body hair. This was followed by a couples shaving session that, I’m pretty sure, strengthened our relationship.

We didn’t remove all of my body hair, though – which prompted Beth to point out that having hair from my nipples to mid-thigh gives the impression that I’m wearing a girdle of hair.

Later today, I’ll get dressed, put on my wig, drive to a friend’s house for the final make-up and then down to the studio.

I’ll spend some time tomorrow talking about what I learned, but the past few weeks have been very informative. I have a great deal more respect for what women and drag queens and people with gender-identity issues have to go through – and I’m not just talking about the shaving and shopping (when nothing fits). More on that tomorrow.

Now for the reason this probably won’t happen again: it’s expensive.

I’m extremely grateful to everyone who donated to Camp Quest and I’ll do almost anything for a great cause. I’m proud of our team, I’m proud of PZ, I’m proud of Camp Quest and I’m very proud of everyone who helped send kids to camp…but the money I spent on nails, makeup, outfits and other expenses will, in the future, simply be donated directly to Camp Quest (or whichever organization I’m raising money for).

Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did this and I think the money was well spent for what I learned – but I’ll try to come up with cheaper incentives in the future, and just donate money directly to the charity involved.

And now, on with the show…

A humanist short film

A viewer emailed us asking if we wouldn’t mind alerting our vast armada of fans to his short film project on Kickstarter, Genesis 51:33-51, that “explores the relationship between God and evil.” As a film person who is myself about to explore the hazardous world of getting my own documentary project off the ground, I am simpatico. Good luck to Mr. Rogers.

Social graces, who needs em?

Russell here. I haven’t really thrown myself fully into the Watson / Dawkins dust up, apart from a Facebook thread and a few choice remarks in comments. Rest assured, though, that I and pretty much every Atheist Experience participant I’ve seen in email agrees (as far as I can glean) with the main thrust of Martin’s post on the subject, to wit: “Dawkins is wrong, Rebecca is right.” We’ve gotten email trying to insist that we should inject some fake balance into this discussion, saying both sides have blown it out of proportion. Nope. IMHO, they haven’t, all the proportion blowing out of has been in one direction.

A thread that is pushing towards 400 comments probably doesn’t need more people repeating what’s already been said, but I want to take some time out to address one of the most… confused… comments that I saw thrown out and repeated a few times in there. It’s this:

This is embarrassing. I feel the need to comment on this because Martin, Tracy, and Matt are clearly being hypocrites here.

“Lets make a TV show where we call all religion false. People will feel offended/threatened/fearful for viewer’s salvation, but in the name of free discussion, its worth it. After all, people don’t have right not to be offended.”

And now look whats happened. “Its good for Rebecca to set incredibly subjective social rules for all men (applying to all women as well) because she might be frightened.”

Of course people don’t have the right not to be offended.

And by the same token, people don’t have the automatic right of association with people that they’ve offended.

Look, I don’t spend time talking about atheism because I think it’s naturally fun to offend people. I talk about atheism because I feel that it’s an intelligent point of view which has been unfairly misrepresented by a large number of religious people. When I’m on the show I have different goals depending on who I’m talking to. The three most common goals, for me, are as follows:

  1. Hello, fellow atheist! Don’t feel bad that you’re an atheist, because many other smart people agree with you and have good reasons for doing so! We support you and appreciate what you’re going through.
  2. Hello, theist! We may disagree with you, but we’re not a danger to you. We have values, we don’t harm people, and we aren’t on a mission to destroy your freedom to believe what you want. We think your beliefs are wrong, but we’d like to discuss why rather than drawing the knives. Yay for pluralism, am I right?
  3. Hey, audience! Get a load of this guy! His religion has caused him to have an extraordinary number of obviously false beliefs, so hilarious that they are transparent even to his fellow religious people! Let’s all enjoy him for entertainment value, since it would obviously be a waste of time to try to convince him of anything.

That’s the formula in a nutshell, and all three types of caller are valued. Caller #3 is the most likely to be “offended” by our topics, but that’s okay with me. He is free not to watch, and if he watches anyway, well, offense is part of the package deal.

But I also don’t expect to hang out with those people. I usually don’t come into their church, tell them things from their pulpit that will offend them, and then get angry because they don’t immediately hire me as the new pastor.

So the question is: do we, in fact, give a crap about having women like Rebecca and Tracie and and Greta and Jen Peeples and Jen McCreight feel comfortable as a part of the atheist activist and outreach community, or don’t we? If several of our existing activists explain what it is that is making atheist conventions a potentially uncomfortable environment, are you gonna say “Suck it up, babe, I have the right to offend you”?

Well, yeah, you have the right to do it. But you’re kind of like a guy who is sitting in a public place for hours making armpit fart noises. It’s not illegal to make armpit farts, it’s probably not “threatening behavior” per se, but you can rest assured that the vast majority of people will find you annoying and stay far away from you. Some might even approach you and say “Please stop doing that, it’s obnoxious.” As Richard Dawkins might point out, the amount of discomfort it causes people is quite trivial compared to what oppressed women in the Middle East have to go through, but it doesn’t change the fact that it will cause a lot of people not to like you.

So if I say “Please stop with the armpit farts,” I am not curtailing your free speech. And if you insist on your “right” to do it, and then as a result I choose to avoid you, I am also not curtailing your free speech. And if I later throw a party, and I say “Don’t invite him, that’s the armpit fart guy,” I am still not curtailing your free speech. I’m just exercising my freedom of association because I don’t like you.

Sometimes in the past I’ve talked about debating atheism as being a kind of competitive game, much like chess or poker or Starcraft II or football. In all competitive games, there is a certain amount of luck involved with the circumstances under which you play, but the main way to increase your skill is to play a lot. When you lose, you observe what your opponent did and see if there is anything you can specifically borrow from his style so that you improve the next time. When you win, identify why you won and keep doing that, but also review where you were weakest and how you can stop doing those things.

Being socially effective and well liked is no different, but this is a difficult thing for some atheists to get their heads around because a lot of us are — show of hands, please! — nerds. It’s not a coincidence that there are strong nerdy tendencies among a group that emphasizes intellect, rationality, and scientific literacy. It comes with the territory. I’m a nerd, I’m engaged to a nerd, I love talking to nerds.

But one thing that characterizes some nerds is that they care more about their chosen area of passion — whether it’s physics or Greek poetry or getting really good at Starcraft II — than about their personal interactions with other people. And that, of course, leads to frustration when they recognize that social acceptance doesn’t come for free; you have to work at that too.

Let me throw out a chess analogy here. I prefer to use chess rather than other games because I feel most people (particularly nerds) are likely to have at least a little bit of familiarity with it. At all skill levels, most players start the game by moving the king’s pawn. A smaller number move the queen’s pawn first, often as part of a queen’s gambit. It’s also possible to open with any other pawn or even a knight, but it’s very rare for good players to do this for a lot of reasons: you give up early control of the center, you delay your ability to move out key pieces on the board, etc.

Now suppose you’re just learning to play chess, and you decide that you want to open every game by moving your rook’s pawn, way over on the side of the board. After I watch your games a bit, I say “I think you should stop using that as your opening move, try something more traditional.” A player who wishes to improve at chess will seriously consider this suggestion and most will eventually recognize it as correct. This improvement comes in two stages: first unders
tanding the reasoning behind the strategy, and second, trying it out and observing that, yes, you win more when you do it.

But another reaction to this advice would be to throw a temper tantrum, saying “What an unfair demand! That’s the problem with this dumb game, it’s so rigid and has all these unspoken ‘rules’ that I’m expected to follow even though they aren’t part of the official rules of the game! I think you’re just imposing on my freedom to open with the rook’s pawn, and you can go fuck yourself.”

That player is always going to be bad at chess. He’s right, of course, to think that you “have the right” to make a rook pawn opening. But what he’s missing is that you don’t have the right to open with the rook’s pawn and then win the game. Being good at chess is not a right.

Forgive the incredibly convoluted analogy, but I do have a point. There is a way of acting which will be regarded as offensive and out of line by most people who give any actual thought to the matter. People who insist on their “right” to act this way do not have the right to be respected or appreciated for their independence, which would constitute “winning” the social game.

Periodically we’ll see discussions going on about why there are so many white dudes in the atheist activist movement. Atheist men would like to have more women around. Atheist women, minority that they are, would like to have more women around. Black atheists, and non-racist white atheists, would like to have more black atheists around. We don’t want that so that we white men can have more chicks to hit on, or so we can smugly say “I have some black friends!” It’s because we would like atheist activism to be an open and inviting community for all people of like minds to be comfortable congregating and exchanging ideas. We don’t want to be forever hiding our atheism because Christians are the only ones who know how to apply social pressure.

Because, see, Rebecca Watson does not presume speak for all women; but if you look around at the reaction to her story among female bloggers, you’ll see that she obviously speaks effectively for a lot of them. The atheist community is either going to be a place that welcomes and embraces guys being obnoxious douches for the sake of celebrating their freedom to do what they want… or it’s going to be a place where women like to be. It can’t be both. You can offend people if you want, but you can’t be aggressively, unapologetically offensive to people whom you then also hope will like you.

Those are the rules of the game. Sorry if it cramps your style. Learn to play or go find a different game that you’re better at.

One night stand with Jesus (…or, we get mail)

Here’s an e-mail from someone who made a video rebuttal to something Russell and I said, then begged us to comment on it and then didn’t like that I called him out for rationalizing away the horrible doctrines he accepts by implying that we’re all God’s playthings to do with as he pleases.

He was moved to write (unedited):

You know, i watched quite a bit of your stuff a few months ago, just when i was realy beginning to go deeper in to my relationship with Christ. After i had listened to the things you guys where saying i began to feel attacked for some reason. And started questioning my own character. Your poison started to pull me away from a God who has loved and looked after me all my life, despite the ravages of religion. Christ told me in 2003 to follow him. That night was very real to me. Theres no other way to explain what happened to me, and i think it had to happen that way otherwise i would never have beleived. I would have fallen away as soon as someone would try to pull me apart. Like you try so hard to do.
I mite not be a seasoned christian with all the answers like you. But i will always have that night. I will always have the times i cried out to Jesus in the back of ambulances and he pulled me through.
He gave me hope that i will see my Brother again. And so much more.
And that alone, you and your goons will never take from me.

I dont know why you never felt or herd Christ in your 25 years of “being a Christian”
And im sorry for what it has done for you.

You guys are like naughty kids who dont like the fact you have to follow the rules, thet what God says goes. You reject him because you know whats going to happen to you and you hate him for it.
So your going to do your level best to take as many with you as possible.
With the rubbish that flows like efluient from your mouth. Just like the great deciever.
I dont push my veiw on anyone, if people read my stuff. Its up to them. If the kids ask me about Christ i tell them. Otherwise i grow my faith in Christ. And i do this because deep inside, despite the poison of people like you and the doubt you breed. I know Christ is real, and you can chuck off as much as you want about it and be little it as much as you want.
But you are the one that twists his word and takes it it out of context, that is obvious from your show. You pray on Christians searching for answers. And enjoy the the easy game.

Ive seen what mans religion has done, and yes it is mind blowing how people can cause such pain and suffering in a Loving Gods name.
But that still doesnt change the person of Christ and his love for us and even you.
You need to turn from this and go back to Christ as you already know you should, or fight him and blame him for all the worlds problems and die alone.
The things you said to me in your last letter were quite character destroying and demoralising. But thats because you dont know me. Just like you dont know all those people whose lives you may have already destoyed by taking there hope away from them. Without Christ in your corner and regardless of how smart you think you are against a mans undertanding of God. You will still have to stand before him. And that you can do nothing about.

If you regect him then he will give you what you want, because you wanted it.
As for me your smuggness has made me feel ill. And i am going to continue to love Jesus despite Religion, including yours.
You have nothing good to say.

EDIT: For clarity:

I probably shouldn’t have posted this. I didn’t think about the fact that you’re all not familiar with the discussion (and I won’t be posting the full discussion or the video, for privacy issues).

I realize, now, that it looks like I’m simply poking fun at someone – that’s not the case.

This was much more about demonstrating the sort of road blocks people put up and the way the rationalize their position. Instead of honestly assessing the issues (which may simply be beyond comprehension due to preconceptions), it’s easier to imagine that the person you’re arguing with is simply lying and evil.

It’s the result of the protective mechanisms built into many religions – and in some cases it’s virtually impossible to overcome.

Oh hell, is Elevatorgate going to ruin TAM9?

“What do women want?” Sigmund Freud once famously asked. Aretha Franklin answered him just as famously: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me!”

If you haven’t been keeping up with the current online eruption surrounding Elevatorgate — and I suspect most of you have at least heard about it, as Skepchick and Pharyngula are just slightly more widely read than our little blog — I will just direct you to those sites for the full-immersion experience. But to recap, here are the main bullet points…

Rebecca Watson of Skepchick fame attends a conference overseas. Gets hit on by clueless doof in the hotel elevator at 4 AM, brushes him off. Mentions the incident in her talk, as well as online, saying, in effect, “Hey guys, don’t do stuff like that, thanks.”

This being the Internet, the situation Escalates into full-on web drama. Loser guys with same sense of clueless entitlement blow Rebecca’s reaction all out of proportion, make her out to be stick-up-the-ass prude who pilloried some poor Nice Guy for the ghastly crime of asking her for coffee. Larger group of Rebecca defenders jump in, including PZ, Jen at Blag Hag, and many others, chiding the guys for not getting it and pointing to a very real problem of acculturated sexism that infects the skeptical/atheist community just as it does the wide world.

Then, out of the blue, Rebecca gets a “Methinks the lady doth protest too much” note from no less a luminary than Richard Dawkins, the boneheadedness of which stupefies everyone (except, of course, the clueless doof brigade). Short version: in a world in which women are undergoing such horrors as genital mutilation and death by stoning, any chick who has nothing more to complain about than an unwelcome pass in an elevator is clearly a petulant whiner. Seriously.

Understandably incensed — I mean, way to miss the point, Prof! — Rebecca publicly chastises and disowns Dawkins. And now, it appears the godless Internet is splitting into Team Rebecca and Team Richard camps.

From such pebbles do avalanches begin.

I will make my position so clear even a gerbil with dyslexia should be able to get it, because this is the Internet, and it appears one’s words can be wildly misunderstood and misrepresented here. (Who knew?) In six words: Dawkins is wrong, Rebecca is right. Dawkins’ point — which is fundamentally no different than telling atheists that in a world where the godless are burned at the stake, we’re being kind of petty to complain about “little” things like God in the Pledge or creationism in the classroom — is simply wrong. He’s as wrong as a wrong thing with the word wrong written on it by someone who can’t spell.

Now, TAM9 is coming up, and I am concerned that the backwash from all this is going to cast an ugly pall over a convention that ought to be the community’s annual high point. It isn’t that Rebecca and her supporters (hello, I am one) aren’t justified in their anger. They are. But…

The whole “throwing Dawkins under the bus” thing is, I think, unproductive. We are rationalists. We pride ourselves on our capacity for reason, which we boast of having more of than anyone else. So what do we do about this? Do we employ our reason, and turn this event into the teachable moment it needs to be? After all, Dawkins wrote TGD, in his words, in the interest of “raising consciousness.” Clearly, acculturated sexism is a matter about which Dawkins desperately needs his consciousness raised. Will we give him the chance to do this? After all, the man’s achievements over the last decade in the service of promoting atheism and reason — culminating in both topics today being suitable for bestselling books, rather than shameful topics you just cannot mention in polite society — are considerable, and the debt atheists worldwide owe him is incalculable. I am simply acknowledging a fact, not putting the man on a pedestal or anything. He’s done a lot, and that deserves recognition.

So how do we pay him back for this? Do we say, “You helped us gain stature and credibility. Now you apparently need our help, getting over some ideas of privilege you seem to have a problem with. Here. This is why you are wrong. Please think about these things and man up to your mistake.” This, is seems to me, is the path of rationality.

Or, do we abandon rationality, give ourselves over to emotion, anger and ego, and circle the wagons around the sense of righteousness gained from believing that we’ve taken the right side of a split? (Note: I do not accuse Rebecca of this, as she’s responding to a personal insult and has every right to respond as she chooses. But I think such a thing would be the case if skeptics en masse did so.) I can think of nothing that would disappoint me more than to witness the drama of a mass walkout of Dawkins’ speech at TAM. I would understand it, but I’d wish a path had been taken towards allowing this conflict to be something the godless community saw as an opportunity for education and problem solving, rather than digging in trenches.

Attitudes of sexism and male entitlement do exist among those of us who consider ourselves rationalists. You should see some of the fratboy bullshit that pops up in the chat room when either Jen or Tracie are on the show. It’s like, WTF? Who are you people?

I know that I myself had to unlearn a lot of my own acculturation, and I am equally sure I’d get a “Needs Improvement” grade on my efforts even today. But I know that when I was younger, less secure and a bit more arrogant, I reacted poorly to rejection in ways that I can only now, years later, understand were wrong and, yeah, pretty damned creepy. I had to outgrow feeling sexually entitled, just like I had to outgrow homophobia. My perceived loneliness and need to dip my wick was not, I had to learn, any woman’s problem to solve. There is so much about my 20-24 year old self that embarrasses me to remember.

But I learned, and am still learning, and I want those who still need to learn — even if they are 70-year-old celebrity scientists — to be able to do so. It’s harder to change your attitudes as you get older, as you get set in your ways. But I think it can still be done.

For the most part, I do see an effort to correct and educate Dawkins has been made. Dawkins has asked to be led to understanding of where he is wrong, even if, as far as I could tell, he may still not yet get it.

What I want to happen out of this is consciousness-raising. Will TAM9 be the event that helps that occur, or that divides us further? I guess we will see.

Don’t Be a Dick redux — now with Real Life Adventure!

Had an absolutely insane personal encounter today that I’m still having difficulty processing, because it was the sort of display of flagrantly irrational, histrionic and emotional behavior that we as atheists and rationalists criticize, but which you in fact rarely get to experience right in your face. It reminded me of a great many basic axioms though. For one thing, being an atheist is no guarantee you’ll come with rationality pre-installed. For another, it never fails that people who have fanatical views that they refuse to see challenged will be the first to praise themselves as beacons of reason. It’s a human flaw I suppose we must all watch out for.

So I’m at a nearby mall today, when I pass by a fellow — who Shall Remain Unnamed — who, many years ago, used to be an ACA member. He left a while back, to the disappointment of few, it must be said, and I recall not liking him much personally for some prima donna behavior he exhibited in regards to the TV show at the time. But anyway, I caught his eye and decided it never hurts to be friendly, so I waved and said hi. I soon had cause to regret my sociability.

We spoke for a moment, and everything was gas and gators. Then he demonstrated that, since leaving the ACA, he’s travelled to a much weirder place, by turning the conversation towards — are you ready? — 9/11 conspiracy theories. Basically, he buys them.

Now, before I continue, I’m sure this is futile but the point of this post is not to start a sprawling endless comment thread debating such theories. (Just go here if you want to have that discussion.) It’s to talk about, well, behavior. And I think it dovetails with a lot of current kerfuffle that’s playing itself out among the online godless community right now — like Rebecca Watson and the Elevator Incident. In other words, part of living the rational life is having a sense of self-awareness. How you interact with others has much to do with how your message will be received. This is basic common sense and socialization, not an advocacy of tone trolling. Indeed, there are times in-your-face rudeness is the way to respond. But in most cases — and certainly in public — how you behave reveals more about you than you might wish people knew. Not only does it reveal what your beliefs are, but it reveals how those beliefs inform whether you’re a normal, cool person that others want to interact with. In short, if you cannot control yourself, expect to be an embittered loner, whose sense of victimhood is shored up by righteousness. Which brings me back to the person at hand.

So the guy shows me the new issue of Skeptical Inquirer, and indignantly denounces its cover story debunking 9/11 conspiracy mongering as “propaganda.” He then goes on to speculate that the Center for Inquiry has been infiltrated by the CIA, who planted the story in the magazine. (He did not, in his genius, consider that if the CIA was doing this sort of thing, they certainly have the wherewithal to plant such a story in bigger and better-selling publications than Skeptical Inquirer, whose global circulation is around 50,000, compared to, say, Time‘s 3.3 million.) Anyway, it was a farrago of absurdity, and I could tell he was passionate about it.

Now, you know me from the show. I’m snarky. So when he mentioned that the airplanes that crashed into the towers had “nothing whatsoever to do” with their collapsing, despite destroying support columns and causing fires in excess of 1000 degrees, I replied, “So what, was it just special effects on TV, when we witnessed the planes actually hit the buildings?”

Rule #1 when dealing with the fundamentalist mindset (which is something one sees displayed often in non-religious environments, you know): Mock them, or even make them think you’re mocking them, and they will completely lose their shit. Which this guy did. Right there, in public, in the middle of a shopping mall.

So he leans in, and starts shouting at me. No really…shouting. And it has now become a “violating personal space” issue, in addition to the plain inappropriate public display of temper. So, not being one to take this kind of crap, let alone from someone whom I approached for a friendly social chat despite not especially liking him in the first place, I put up both hands and said, “No! Wrong! I’m not doing this in public. Goodbye.” And I walked off.

Naturally, he followed me, keeping up his harangue. How could anyone believe that “gravity could make buildings fall”? Etc etc. Now I am seriously pissed, and begin making my way towards a nearby jewelry store, where they usually employ a cop. Really. I am not making any of this up.

Finally, I stop, in the hopes of just convincing him to fuck off before I have to go and make things really ugly, like pressing public nuisance charges. After another few seconds of heated exchange, he wailed that he has “lost all respect for every atheist blah blah blah.” I say, “Good, so goodbye! Stop following me!” And he leaves.

Gang, this happened. I mean, this happened.

What is it that turns a person into something like this? I understand ideologies, I understand being someone who gets too emotionally involved in what you believe, and I understand a lack of self-awareness and poor social skills. But outside of street riots — where the environment seems to be conducive — you don’t tend to encounter someone whose complete lack of anything resembling basic respect for others and common sense is so proudly on display.

At the core of it all, I think, is irrationality married to poor social skills. Irrationality is not necessarily about what you believe (though yeah, it often is), but how you believe it, why you believe it, and how your beliefs inform your personal interactions and behaviors. After all, why would a rational person choose to take a friendly greeting in a shopping mall as an invitation to start a shouting match about whatever political thing you have up your ass today? And if you expect the person you’re trying to pick this fight with to disagree with you anyway (he began by saying that he expected I, like “most atheists,” to have “swallowed the official 9/11 story”), then what other than arrogant stupidity would provoke you to go ballistic at them when they give you the expected disagreement? If he really hoped to persuade me I’m wrong for not believing in a conspiracy, did he really think totally jumping my shit in the middle of a fucking shopping mall was the way I’d have my mind changed?

I reiterate that this fellow is an atheist, and that his reason for leaving ACA was that we weren’t the group of political agitators he wanted us to be, plus the part he doesn’t mention, which was that he also didn’t like the way we reacted negatively to his being a douche to everyone. But his behavior today was entirely in keeping with his behavior of the past. When in the group, he angered the entire TV crew — of which he was not a part — by turning up at the studio one Sunday holding a bunch of signs he’d had printed, pronouncing himself “art director,” and proceeding to redecorate the backdrop (which took 45 minutes longer than it usually did) with these signs, which had type so small they couldn’t be read onscreen. When repeatedly told this, he flounced off in a huff, making a misogynist insult against one of our women crew and deriding our “amateurishness.” I followed him into the parking lot and chewed him about six new assholes, and never saw him again, until today. Guess I shouldn’t have been shocked.

So, why am I belaboring you all with this? Well, in part, it’s cathartic. In other part, it was a healthy reminder of the dangers of irrationality — the unwillingness to have your views challenged or to entertain that you may be wrong, the blindness to how your behavior affects others, the inability to what what behavior is appropriate and when, the failure of letting temper control you rather than vice versa. We all talk about crazy fundies and how they impose themselves where they aren’
t wanted. But if we wish to consider ourselves on the side of the “angels” of reason, if you’ll pardon my phrasing, then we should be vigilant and self-aware, strictly applying our own standards to ourselves before we demand them from others. I guess what I’m saying is — “Don’t Be a Dick!” I don’t, like Phil, think we all do it, and I certainly don’t agree that challenging anyone in any way is dickish. But with a little too much ego and self-absorption, and too little sense and rational thought, anyone can be a dick if they don’t watch out. An encounter like today’s is upsetting, sure. But you can take it as a cautionary tale, and get the positive from it.

And that’s your drama for today. And I bet you thought Matt got all the wackos. Now, I’m going to go hang with my dogs.