Dogmatism is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

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In light of the recent terrorist attack in Brussels, I’m sharing a blog post I wrote a few months ago shortly after the Paris attack.

Remember that thing I wrote the other day, about how everyone thinks their interpretation of reality is the right one? At best, this mentality leads to petty arguments on the Internet, but at its worse it leads to yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris.

I really don’t want to debate whether Islam is “a religion of peace” or “a religion of dashing your enemies to pieces” because a) I’d rather have ex-Muslims like Heina Dadabhoy and Sadaf Ali tell their stories instead of talking over them, and b) neither statement tells the full story. Like the Christian Bible, there are several ways to interpret the Quran, ranging from liberal Islam to Islamism. However, just like with fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam has its roots in scripture. So I don’t agree with Reza Aslan; religion did play a part in yesterday’s attacks, along with other factors.

Instead I want to talk about the one thing that ties Christian fundamentalism, Islamism, and other dangerous ideologies together: dogmatism.

Google defines dogmatism as “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” Most people use the word fundamentalism as a synonym for dogmatism, but there’s a slight difference. Fundamentalism, as Google defines it, “upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.” This is why, as James Croft explains, there’s no such thing as a “fundamentalist atheist” because atheism has no Bible.

Dogmatism, on the other hand, can happen with any ideology, whether it’s religious or secular. It’s what happens when one is so sure that one’s own interpretation of reality is the right one, and everybody else is wrong. Of course not all beliefs are automatically dogmatic. After all, as the diagram below illustrates, when use beliefs and truths to gain knowledge:

Epistemology

However, sometimes our beliefs do not align with the facts. I can believe all I want that I’m a millionaire, but one look at my bank account will show that’s not true. But what if I refuse to acknowledge the facts? What if I still believe that I am a millionaire, and I keep spending money like one? Eventually I won’t have any money left, and I’ll be shit out of luck. That, my friends, is how dogmatism works.

This is why epistemology and skepticism are so important: they remind us that we could be wrong. It’s scary to think we could be wrong because we wrap our entire identities around our beliefs. But as Ricky Gervais famously said, “Beliefs don’t change facts. Facts, if you’re rational should change your beliefs.” Plus, with the events of Paris and Beirut, the only alternative, dogmatism, is literally killing us. As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith”

How This Free Speech Thing Actually Works

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A few months ago, Godless Mom posted a video explaining what free speech actually means. In summary, she explains that free speech means the government can’t prosecute you for things that you say. It does not mean people can’t be pissed off about something you say, or that a corporation can’t refuse to do business with you because you’re prone to saying bigoted shit. It just means the government can’t censor you or punish you.

Which is why I’m really disappointed that she recently wrote a blog post blaming the “playdate generation” for the outrage over #TheTriggering. She puts herself on a pedestal as having a “free range upbringing” which gave her a thick skin, while everyone nowadays is just offended by everything, including calling FtB’s very own PZ Myers “mommy’s special little man” with “Buzz Lightyear Band-aids.” She writes:

Well, I was raised in the sticks and stones generation, and from my vantage point, these people are nothing short of absurd. #TheTiggering was not aimed at offending people. The ultimate aim of anything defending free speech, is to protect our valued right to say what we want, even if it does suck. It’s about facing the fact that assholes exist and shit is not always going to go your way and the best fucking way to deal with it, is to “point and laugh at an idea” as Aaminah Khan so eloquently put it.

Now I’ve been corresponding with Godless Mom trying to explain all the complexities of the social justice vs. free speech debate (which shouldn’t be an either/or debate at all), including sending her a link to an article I wrote for TheHumanist.com about trigger warnings (which she enjoyed) and the latest episode of The Gaytheist Manifesto (which she hasn’t responded to yet). Forgive me if I’m misreading Godless Mom, but it seems as though she is jumping on the “SJWs are trying to take away our free speech” bandwagon.

It seems as though ever since Peter Boghossian went on The Humanist Hour to declare that many universities are now “held hostage by the Regressive Left” and that the current discourse over trigger warnings and microaggressions is the “PC Police’s” latest ploy to to suppress free speech, atheists online are split into two categories: those who think the hooplah over safe spaces is overblown, and those who think Big Brother is watching us. And as someone in the former camp, it’s really exhausting trying to explain all the subtle nuances of the debate to the latter camp.

For example, when the whole Richard Dawkins/NECSS thing happened, I got into an argument with someone on Twitter who not only thought that it was wrong for NECSS to un-invite Dawkins after he posted that crappy video, but that anyone who didn’t like the video was a crybaby. Now I can understand why some people think NECSS shouldn’t have uninvited him (this was before they re-invited Dawkins), but I find it odd that so many atheists are offended by the fact that I was offended by the video. I didn’t try to shut Dawkins’ Twitter page down, neither did I petition NECSS to ban Dawkins from all future conferences. All I said was it was a shitty video. Shocking, right?

Despite all the frustrations, let’s try to set the record straight about free speech, shall we? First, here’s what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution actually says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It doesn’t say privately operated conferences can’t un-invite speakers they find controversial, or that I can’t criticize something problematic, or that I can’t block anyone from commenting on my blog. It just means the government can’t limit what you say. That’s it! And yet, whenever I get into these debates, I have to whip out my pocket edition of the Constitution constantly.

I think the reason why all my friends are fighting each other about the free speech vs. social justice debate is that some people confuse having a legal right to say something with making a bigoted statement morally right. The two are not mutually inclusive. I may have a legal right to make prejudiced generalizations and stereotypes about groups of people, but having that legal right does not make my bigotry morally right. In other words, if I blog something racist, and PZ Myers decides to drop me from FtB, he’s not violating my First Amendment rights.

The same goes for blocking people from commenting on my blog. I welcome different opinions in the comment section because 1). there’s always a chance I could be wrong about something, and 2). I figure my readers are smart enough to defend their positions on their own. However, if you start dropping racist slurs, calling me names, or threatening to harm someone on my blog, I will block the fuck out of you. I’m not preventing you from commenting on other people’s blogs; I’m just throwing you out the same way a bartender would throw out a violent drunk.

Now of course the whole safe space thing can go too far. For example, the incident with Maryam Namazie and Goldsmiths University. Given her outspoken criticisms of both Islamism and the far-right anti-immigration group Pegida, Namazie was not “creating a climate of hatred,” as Goldsmiths Feminist Society claimed she was. Also, to be fair, the Pew Research Center claims 40% of Millennials support censoring offensive speech. which led Matthew Facciani to write, “Suggesting that the government should intervene when something is offensive is a clear violation of free speech.” But once again, Facciani is talking about the government intervening, not privately operated organizations or individuals.

So for all of you who think I’m coming to take away your First Amendment rights, don’t worry. It’s not as bad as you think. I might call you the fuck out on it and tell you why that thing you just said dehumanizes an entire group of people, and I might block you from spewing your bigotry on my blog, but I’m not going to prevent you from speaking elsewhere. Got that?

Bi Any Means Podcast #43: An Atheist Goes to CPAC with Justin Scott

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For my new readers, not only do I blog, but I also host a podcast. Joining me again today is Justin Scott. For those who have been following me for a while, you may remember him from a few weeks ago when he came on my show to talk about asking the current presidential candidates about religious freedom. Well, he’s back to talk about his experience volunteering with American Atheists at this year’s Conservative Political Action Conference (or CPAC for short). This is a conversation you don’t want to miss!

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Notes Towards an Intersectional Humanism

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While I try to figure out how to import all my stuff from my old blog to my new one, here’s something I originally wrote a few months ago. The opening is slightly outdated because Reason Rally has since added more speakers, including more people of color. The rest is still relevant though. Enjoy!

Last week, Ashley F. Miller wrote about the lack of racial diversity among the seven scheduled keynote speakers at this year’s Reason Rally. Out of the seven, only one, Cara Santa Maria—who is part Puerto Rican—is of color, which is strange because the 2012 rally included Hemant Mehta and Jamila Bey. I don’t have a full list of events for this year’s rally, so perhaps there will be other speakers, and hopefully they will be of color. However, this brings up something that I hear a lot of critics say about the atheist movement, and that it’s mostly a white, straight, cisgender, male thing.

Last year my friend Sincere Kirabo interviewed Sikivu Hutchinson for his blog about the lack of black representation in the atheist community. According to Hutchinson:

Simply put, secular white folk have the luxury and the privilege to focus exclusively on [creationism and prayer in public school] because they do not have to worry about being criminalized, policed and dehumanized by a regime of mass incarceration which begins in elementary school for African American children. Black children are the most suspended, expelled and incarcerated youth population in the U.S. and this fact shapes their limited access to and long term prospects for a college education, professional jobs and housing . . .The only way I could see an atheist of African descent becoming a mainstream commodity like Dawkins or Harris is if they espoused similar views, i.e., views which are not threatening to the existing patriarchal capitalist white power structure. Truly critical black intellectuals are reviled by the dominant culture and politically radical or progressive atheist black thinkers would be perceived as doubly traitorous/dangerous.

The solution to this lack of representation, according to Hutchinson, is intersectionality, which she defines as “respecting and validating the full nexus of difference that makes up our identities, experiences and world views.” Some skeptics, like Peter Boghossian, dismiss the term “intersectional,” saying that it’s just something a “morally motivated ideologue” would say “to sound intelligent.” However, intersectionality can help us see systems of injustice that extend beyond our limited peripheral visions.

In Adrienne Rich’s essay “Notes toward a Politics of Location”, she talks about how her limited peripheral vision had been shaped by her identities:

I was born in the white section of a hospital which separated black and white women in labor and black and white babies in the nursery, just as it separated black and white bodies in its morgue. I was defined as white before I was defined as female. The politics of location. Even to being with my body I have to say that from the outset that body had more than one identity. When I was carried out of the hospital into the world, I was viewed and treated as female, but also viewed and treated as white—by both black and white people. I was located by color and sex as surely as a Black child was located by color and sex-though the implications of white identity were mystified by the presumption that white people are the center of the universe. To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and clitoris and uterus and breasts. It means recognizing this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go.

She goes on to explain how she has faced oppression as a woman, but has also inadvertently participated in the oppression of women of color. She concludes her essay by challenging white feminists to look beyond their peripheral visions to explore black feminist and social theorists. “To shrink from or dismiss that challenge,” she writes, “can only isolate white feminism from the other great movements for self-determination and justice within and against which women define ourselves.”

As atheists, we all face similar discrimination. We’re less likely to be hired for child care services, less likely to be elected president, and least desired to be potential sons- or daughters-in law. We face discrimination in child custody hearings, the Boy Scouts, and volunteer organizations. I even know a few public school teachers who are afraid to be openly secular because they live in the heart of the Bible Belt and might lose their jobs. However, those of us who belong to other marginalized groups—women, people of color, LGBT people, disabled people, etc.—face even more discrimination than those who are white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, and male.

Let’s use an example, shall we? Kirabo and I share similar experiences being marginalized as atheists, but in terms of race, gender, and sexuality, we couldn’t be any more different. He is a black, straight, cisgender man. I’m a white, bisexual, genderqueer person. Kirabo will never know what it’s like to be afraid to hold his lover’s hand in public without being harassed. I will never know what it’s like to be followed around in a store. He will never have that moment of panic trying to decide which public bathroom to use. I will never have that moment of panic about possibly becoming another statistic when a cop pulls me over for speeding. We both know this, and we work together for each other’s liberation.

As the third Humanist Manifesto states, we humanists “are concerned for the well being of all, are committed to diversity, and respect those of differing yet humane views.” This, I believe, includes a more intersectional approach to humanism where we, as Audre Lorde famously said, “recognize, accept, and celebrate” our differences, and work together for each other’s liberation.

So Who’s Trav? Listen to my Interview on The Secular Barbershop and Find Out!

So is this Trav person? What’s their backstory? Just take a listen to Uber4ortyse7ven’s interview with me on his podcast The (Secular) Barbershop!

A few things about the interview, first. I talk about suicide, depression, and gender dysphoria, so there’s your CN. Also, I was drinking an IPA during the interview, so hopefully I don’t sound too drunk.

What the Hell is a Social Justice Warrior, Anyway?

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Hi, I’m your friendly new FtB blogger Trav! Welcome!

I want to start my new blog with a question I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: What the hell is a social justice warrior (SJW), anyway?

Back when I first started becoming aware of social justice issues on the wonderful world of Tumblr (I don’t use it much anymore because of reasons), SJW was a slur towards anyone who talked about racial justice, feminism, LGBTQ rights, disability justice, economic justice, and how they all intersect. Which pretty much describes me, so I wore the SJW badge with honor. Whenever some asshole online ragged about how SJWs were ruining everything, I’d jump right in and tell them flat out why they’re wrong and they’re the ones who are ruining everything. My motto was, “If you ain’t down for smashing the white supremacist cisheteronormative capitalist patriarchy, GTFO!”

Then I realized there was another definition of SJW. According to Urban Dictionary, an SJW is:

A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation. A social justice warrior, or SJW, does not necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of. They typically repeat points from whoever is the most popular blogger or commenter of the moment, hoping that they will “get SJ points” and become popular in return. They are very sure to adopt stances that are “correct” in their social circle.

Well gee, I don’t think I’m that bad, am I? In fact, my friend Paul Sating of the Q Podcast did an episode a few weeks ago praising me for having conversations with people who disagree with me.

Of course I wasn’t always this pragmatic. I used to be the kind of person who thought only the Atheist Plus atheists were the “good atheists” and everyone else was a bastard. But the more I got to know other atheist activists online, the more I realized people are way too complicated to fit into either the nice box or the naughty box. We’re all learning, and we all fuck up. This is something I’m still learning, to be honest.

Yet even when I do calmly explain feminist issues using facts and nuances, I still get called an SJW.

At this point, the phrase SJW has been tossed around so much, it’s lost all meaning. The same goes for the phrase “regressive left.” Now I’m not saying there aren’t toxic people online who do block everyone who disagrees with them. Trust me, I’ve met quite a few. However, what started as labels to describe that kind of behavior is now a pejorative people toss out to avoid tough conversations about racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, and ableism. A friend recently shared a satirical article that imagines Milo Yiannopoulos blaming the regressive left for locking his keys inside his car. Of course it’s silly, but one look at the real Yiannopoulous’ Twitter feed will show it’s not too far from reality.

So am I an SJW? I don’t know, and I frankly don’t care.

If you think trying to start civil conversations about racism, sexism, misogyny, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, ableism, and classism automatically makes me an SJW, fine. If you think an SJW is just for extremists, fine. I just say what I need to say and hope that people will listen.

Better yet, you can just call me a humanist.