Guest Post: Apologies from a Christian

The following is a guest post from Joshua Gardner, a musician in the “rogue folk band” Girls from Ipanema and a Christian who was brave enough to write on my blog.

I had something in mind to write here, but the more I thought about it, the more difficult it became to say with any semblance of clarity of thought. So bear with me if I ramble or express myself poorly.

A trend, although depressingly small (to me anyway), among the more socially conscience religious types as of late is to apologize for the terrible things done in the name of religion, specifically Christianity. And things certainly do need apologizing for. We Christians must apologize for burning Korans. We must apologize for the misogyny perpetrated in the name of Jesus. We must apologize for marginalizing the gay community and the individuals within it. We must apologize for carrying banners of war disguised as democracy to developing nations. We must apologize for many, many horrible things that we, as a group, have done.

I’m just one person and can’t really apologize on behalf of others. But as far as it concerns me, I do apologize for these things.

But, then what?

Those of you who consider yourself atheists are, in my experience, pretty familiar with the things Jesus said, and are even more familiar with the way followers of Jesus, at best disregard and at worst, contradict and insult those teachings. And it probably makes you angry. And rightly so. Imagine how much more angry it would make you if you were committed to following Jesus’ teachings of love and forgiveness when you saw others spreading hate in Jesus’ name. So, it makes me angry, too. It also makes me incredibly sad.

And that’s why I felt I needed to say this. We Christians, every day, do so many things we really need to stop doing and apologize for.

We, as a church, routinely tell people how they must think and feel, ignoring how they do feel. We distort normal, healthy views of sexuality and create confused, repressed young people. We treat women as separate and unequal to men. We declare that people choose who they are attracted to, that people choose to become part of a minority that is routinely mistreated, sometimes violently so, because of who they are attracted to.

We say and do a lot of things that hurt a lot of people, which is ironic, considering the fact that our holy book commands us to treat others the way we would like to be treated; it commands us to “love our neighbors as ourselves,” and to “love our enemies and do good to those who hate us,” and to “do violence unto no man,” and to “live at peace with all people.”

So, if you’ve been mistreated because of your religion, race, sexuality, or gender, in the name of Jesus, as much as I am able, I would really like to apologize.

And I mean that.

But I’m unclear on where I’m going with this because my apology does nothing to end the suffering committed in the name of Jesus.

So what’s next?

I don’t really know. Which is why, as I said, the more I think about what to say, the less I know what to say.

I wish the church, and the people within it, were more interested in reconciliation instead of retaliation. I wish the church were more aware of the fact that the same Jesus who said “don’t be greedy” never once said “don’t be gay.”

I don’t pretend to be an expert at this whole “love everyone” thing, but I think if we, as Christians, tried a little harder to do it then we all, as people, would be a lot happier.

Over the years, people you know like Leo Tolstoy and Martin Luther King Jr., and people you might not know, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, have said and written similar warnings that if the church doesn’t get its act together and take this whole “love everyone” thing seriously, that it would become an obsolete social club.

Maybe that’s happened already.

A lot of you probably see it that way.

Sometimes I do, too.

So what’s the point?

I don’t know.

But I do know that I’m interested in righting wrongs. I’m interested in loving people. I’m interested in helping the needy, marginalized, and forgotten in our society. I’m interested in respecting the beliefs, traditions, and lifestyles of others. I’m interested in reconciliation.

I hope you’ll take this apology as a step, however small, in that direction.

Guest Post: Skeptical dog training

The following is a guest post by Julie Lada, a veterinary student and skeptic who blogs at My DVM Vacation.

Dog training is a hot button issue right now. Dozens of TV, magazine and book personalities are dying to tell you the best way to get your dog to stop jumping up on your guests or going through your trash. In some ways, that is a great thing. Traditionally, dog training consisted of a rolled up newspaper. Getting the issue of dog behavior and training into the public awareness is a huge step for behaviorists and people who are passionate about pet welfare. However, as usual, anytime a topic becomes popular and a profit can be made off of claiming to be an expert, you get bad ideas and bad information being promoted just as heavily as the good. Television shows in particular focus on which host is the most charismatic rather than the most knowledgeable or accurate.

Part of the challenge for me personally, being a vet student and passionate animal behavior geek as well as a skeptic, is the pervasiveness of bad ideas in my field of study. From acupuncture and homeopathy being commonly accepted practices within veterinary medicine to witnessing a colleague perform an “alpha roll” right in front of me, it’s a daily struggle to balance my desire to address these issues with the need to still maintain good relationships and not become known as the token naysayer.

Dog training is one of those topics that must be handled with a delicate touch. A method isn’t purely a method anymore when you’re talking about its application toward an animal that a person feels a strong emotional connection with. The method becomes the person employing it, and its effectiveness becomes intrinsically tied to their value as a pet owner. Like it or not, as any trainer or behaviorist will tell you, the moment you say something like, “Dominance-based training is not as effective as we previously thought and can actually have detrimental effects on an animal” it becomes translated by the person you’re talking to as, “You’re a bad owner and you abuse your dog.”

The problem with any topic in medicine is that bad arguments can be made to sound very persuasive and convincing by using the lingo. The argument behind dominance-based training methods is an excellent example of this (BARF diets are another good example). Advocates such as Cesar Millan point to wolf pack hierarchy models as an example of “natural” applications of dominance-based behavioral conditioning. They tell dog owners to be their dog’s “alpha” by using techniques employed by wolves such as throat holds and alpha rolls. They also attempt to shame owners by telling them that disobedience is a form of dominance which proves that their dog doesn’t respect their status as “pack leader.” The appeal to nature fallacy is something we skeptics are well aware of but it is unfortunately remarkably persuasive with the general public.

A huge, glaring problem with the dominance hierarchy argument is that it makes the assumption that behavior models which we have obtained based on the study of captive wolf packs are reflective of natural behavior in the wild. This is patently false. Firstly, the dominance-based hierarchy suggested by Millan only occurs in captive wolf packs. Wolf packs in the wild consist of genetically related members with the breeding pair being the “alphas.” The frequent displays of aggression and dominance seen in captivity do not occur in a natural setting. Secondly, feral dog “packs” – the aggregates formed by stray dogs – do not display this hierarchy model, so even if it were true of wolves in the wild this model does not appear applicable for domestic canines. (Mech, 1999; Taylor & Francis, 2004)

And then there’s the problem with the word “dominance” itself. Common usage would lead most people to believe that dominance is a personality trait; something a dog just is. A common thing we hear from our clients is, “She’s just so dominant!” Or claim that their dog is trying to be dominant over them. Dominance has a very specific meaning within the context of animal behavior and it isn’t something an animal just is. This is a common misunderstanding and something I’ve even seen my colleagues use. Dr. Sophia Yin, a DVM with a Master’s in animal behavior and a widely renowned expert in dog behavior does a pretty good job of summing it up here. She has written extensively on the topics of dominance, aggression and training and I highly encourage anyone with a dog to spend several hours reading her articles. The American Veterinary Society of Animal Behavior reinforces Dr. Yin’s position with their official statement on dominance theory:

“Dominance is defined as a relationship between individual animals that is established by force/aggression and submission, to determine who has priority access to multiple resources such as food, preferred resting spots, and mates (Bernstein 1981; Drews 1993)… In our relationship with our pets, priority access to resources is not the major concern. The majority of behaviors owners want to modify, such as excessive vocalization, unruly greetings, and failure to come when called, are not related to valued resources and may not even involve aggression. Rather, these behaviors occur because they have been inadvertently rewarded and because alternate appropriate behaviors have not been trained instead.”

But beyond the implausibility of the theory behind the use of dominance and physically aversive stimuli in dog training, as well as the misuse of the term “dominance”, there is the added factor that it just doesn’t have a wide range of practical use. Meaning in the majority of cases, it doesn’t work. Several recent studies have confirmed that dominance/positive punishment training methods have a number of negative effects on dogs (including physical injury and death in cases of choke chains and prong collars being used incorrectly) and can actually impair learning ability. These methods also cause fear and escalate aggression in terms of frequency, magnitude and situational aggression – meaning a dog that wasn’t previously aggressive becomes aggressive, or a conditionally aggressive dog begins to display aggression in situations where it previously did not (Husson et al, 2009; Hiby et al, 2004; AVSAB, 2008). This is particularly worrisome for vets and shelter workers. An owner employing dominance-based techniques toward their dog who is aggressive toward other dogs can actually cause that dog to not only be more aggressive toward other dogs, due to the added negative association with pain and fear, but also cause the dog to redirect its aggression toward its owner. In which case the problem goes from being something that could possibly be solved via proper training to what is a probable euthanasia case.

Positive reinforcement techniques such as clicker training are gaining in momentum, and it’s got behaviorists cheering in the streets (or rather, their offices). These techniques avoid the negative associations with pain and fear seen with dominance-based techniques and thus the ramping-up effect on aggression.

Finally, I know that this is a contentious topic and no doubt the comments will be full of anecdotes from those who have used Cesar Millan’s or other dominance-based techniques successfully. A few words on that.

First of all, there are always outliers. I saw something recently that I quite liked and determined to borrow that said that between 80-90% of smokers will develop lung cancer, which means that 10-20 out of every 100 smokers will not develop lung cancer. So you will often hear claims such as, “My father smoked two packs a day for forty years and died in his sleep at 85 years old!” And while true, it does not disprove the fact that overall smoking is highly associated with lung cancer.

Also consider that the effect of fear on the cessation of all forms of behavior is fairly well documented. Simply put, a fearful animal will stop doing anything, including what you wanted them to stop doing. A dog that is fearful of inviting a painful stimulus can appear to an owner to be “cured” of the unwanted behavior. In fact, the underlying issue of why this dog was exhibiting the unwanted behavior is still unaddressed. A dog that is fear aggressive toward strangers, for example, is still terrified of strangers but simply stops reacting. Don’t confuse this with being a happy, healthy, well-adjusted dog. An animal that has stopping displaying observable fear signals is still fearful, and the use of punishment can contribute to a more unpredictable animal that will give no warning before attacking (AVSAB, 2007)

Just to sum things up on a personal note… A couple of years ago while in undergrad, I was finishing up a meeting with my animal behavior professor and Millan’s name came up. He told me, “You know, every conference I go to, at some point we behavior types get together for drinks and he always comes up. We take turns bashing him over martinis.” So the next time you’re tempted to watch his show or buy one of his books, do so knowing that Millan is the Ray Comfort of the canine behavior world. And dominance theory is the Crocoduck.

This hilariously awkward run-in made my Reason Rally trip worthwhile

I was sitting in the Indianapolis airport waiting for my flight to DC when I ran into Reba Wooden, director of the Center for Inquiry Indy (where I just spoke on Monday). In a funny coincidence, she was on my flight! We started talking about the rally, and the couple sitting next to me said they were going to the rally too, and were really excited other people from Indiana were going.

As we were chatting about the rally, another woman sitting by us chimed in. She apologized to Reba for butting in and said she’s from the Indiana Family Institute and has been meaning to talk with CFI about teaming up about the recent creationist legislation in Indiana.

I thought to myself… an organization with the word “Family” in their title isn’t some crazy right wing religious institution?

Reba recognized her because apparently they’ve testified in front of the Indiana congress before for similar bills. The woman kept talking about how that creationist law was so poorly written, and that IFI and CFI should team up to write a law that can actually pass. It’s getting a little awkward until Reba points out that CFI is against the creationist legislation.

Her: Oh, I must be confused…maybe it was another organization we wanted to team up with.
Me: …Are you thinking of the Discovery Institute?
Her: Yeah, that’s it!
Me: …They’re in Seattle.
Reba: Yeah, we’re on opposite sides. In Congress I was always testifying on the side that disagreed with you.
Her: Yeah, I’m pro-creationism and pro-life…whoops.

And then we all laughed and continued to have a congenial (though slightly awkward) conversation about random stuff.

Guest Post: Play Dates, Religion and Knock-Knock Jokes

The following is a guest post by Amy Watkins, a poet, artist and host of the weekly poetry podcast Red Lion Square. She writes about atheism and parenting at OffBeatMama.com.

Making friends as an adult is awkward, slightly less awkward than dating only because there’s rarely sex involved. All the same issues apply. Do we have things in common? Are we compatible emotionally, financially, and ideologically? It’s not like I have list of friendship deal breakers, but I’m a broke, introverted, atheist teacher with an art habit and an 8-year-old. Some friendships just aren’t going to work out.
For my daughter, making friends is still simple. She just marches up to the other kid and says, “Hi. I’m Alice. Let’s be friends.” That’s how she became friends with L. L and her mom J cut through our apartment complex on their walk home from school. Alice, playing outside, befriended L simply by being friendly. Soon L and J were stopping most afternoons to play in the apartments’ common area, and J and I eventually struck up brief conversations about the kids, the weather and preschool.
I was nervous when they invited us over for a play date. When Alice was a toddler and I was a stay-at-home mom, I never hit it off with other parents at the park or story time. None of them ever talked about themselves, sticking instead to the one thing we had in common–our kids. The small talk quickly bored me or made me feel vaguely judged or, worse, vaguely competitive. Our kids were a mask that let us pretend we were all middle class with no political opinions or controversial problems. Sometimes I felt a strong urge to swear or shout, “I have $80 in my checking account! I don’t care about choosing a preschool! I have a master’s degree, for fuck’s sake!”
At J’s, I sat in the living room as anxious as a girl on a blind date, relieved that the house was a little messy and the baby was toddling around in a diaper. Turns out we had a lot in common. We both had daughters and had been both stay-at-home and working moms. She had been a theater major in college–not the same as my creative writing degree, but we both knew Shakespeare, loved art and had often answered the question, “What are you going to do with that degree?” It was a great first play date, and we invited them to an open house at Alice’s dance school the next week. While the girls were in class, J and I had coffee and didn’t talk about our kids. She was smart and funny, talkative but interested in what I had to say. I liked her big curly hair and her openness. It felt like I was making a friend.
On the way home from dance class, L pointed out the car window, “Look, a church.”
Without pause, Alice replied, “I don’t go to church. I’m not ever going.” In the front seat, I kept my eyes on the road and held my breath, thinking, You can’t just jump into a religious discussion on the second play date! You have to ease it into conversation around play date eight or ten after casually swearing and name dropping Chuck Darwin. You’ll offend them and then neither of us will have a new friend.
What matters in friendship, the big or the little things? And which is religion? Is it too big to overcome, something with which we will always hurt or offend each other if we don’t see eye to eye, or is it one of the little things we can agree to disagree about, like reality TV or Thai food? I have friends from a wide spectrum of faith and skepticism—agnostic recovering Catholics; militantly anti-religious atheists; thoughtful, devout Christians; hip young churchgoers who picture Jesus as the sort of guy you could take out for a beer. On hopeful days, I believe we enrich each other’s lives, help each other see the world through a different lens. Other days, I feel only the disconnect between our points of view. When it comes to making friends with other parents, the assumptions we make about each others’ religious views are another mask to get past. I think of a lesbian mom friend saying she doesn’t want to “pass” for straight but is exhausted by having to come out over and over. I feel the same.
In the backseat, they kept it simple. “Well, I’m going to church,” L said. “When I grow up, I’m going to church all the time.”
“Well,” Alice said, “I’m not.” Then they told knock-knock jokes all the way home.

Greta Christina’s new book: “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”

You all should know who the fabulous Greta Christina is by now. And now she’s become even more fabulous by writing a book!

Available on Kindle and Nook

I was originally going to wait for the print version since I don’t have an ebook reader, but I couldn’t stand the wait. So I downloaded the Kindle App for my iPhone, prepared to squint at my screen during my flights to and from the Reason Rally. Then I made the mistake of starting to read it early… and I plowed through the whole thing in a day. I couldn’t put it down.

But it’s not surprising. Greta has always had the special power to calmly and pointedly explain even the most rage inducing or complicated topics. I often find myself reading her posts on a topic I’ve talked about, thinking “I wish I would have said it that way!”

And this book is no different. As someone who has been reading Greta’s blog for 6 years and has been an atheist activist for 5, most of the stories and arguments weren’t new to me. But they were put so eloquently that I still gobbled them up, and stored them away in my brain for future debates. Especially the various hilarious quotes involving peanut butter, hair dyers, drowning in chocolate, and parrots.

So in short: buy it now. You won’t be disappointed.

Blag Hag meetups at the Reason Rally!

With the Reason Rally predicted to get 30,000 to 50,000 visitors, you probably won’t run into me randomly. But here’s where you can find me on Friday and Saturday, in case you want to say hello!

On Friday, March 23 I will be going to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum. If you want to join me and let me be your unofficial genetics/evolution geeky tour guide, meet me outside of the main entrance at 2:30pm. This is assuming I don’t have any major flight delays – make sure to check my twitter feed for updates.

I also do not have any plans for dinner on Friday night. If you would like to join me for dinner near L’Enfant Plaza around 8pm, leave an RSVP in the comments. I need to know how many people are interested in order to pick a dinner location. I will update this post and tweet the final location by Friday morning.

EDIT: I have a reservation at 8pm under “Jennifer” for a big group in the dining room of:

Jenny’s Asian Fusion
1000 Water St SW
Washington, DC 20024
(202) 554-2202

Please bring cash because they won’t do individual bills. And I’m not buying, haha. They have a full bar and are open until 11pm.

On Saturday during the Rally, you can find me at the Secular Student Alliance table in the sponsor tent from 1pm to 3pm and then 4pm to 6pm. Note there are two different tents next to each other that will each have an SSA table – so if I’m not at one, I’m at the other.

Finally I’ll be at the FtB/Friendly Atheist afterparty here. Well, maybe. Only the first 150 get in and I have to help the SSA take down their tables, so I may not even get into my own event. But I will try my hardest, even if it just results in me sadly peering into the window as you all point and laugh.

Who’s excited?!?!?!

On complaints about Reason Rally speakers

It’s 5:30am, I’m boarding a flight in 10 minutes, and I’m typing this on my phone, so I’ll be brief:

What PZ said?

Bullshit.

Why?

Hemant nailed it.

I also can’t speak for the Rally as a whole, but I can speak from my personal experience. I’m on the board of the Reason Rally as the representative for the Secular Student Alliance. I’ve put hours and hours of volunteer work into making sure this event will be as fun and successful as possible. Did you read that? As possible.

And right now, it’s impossible to find the “perfect” atheist politician. Some of the celebrities are going to have said stupid or sexist bullshit. But the Reason Rally is about getting secular people who have never heard about the atheist movement to know it exists and to get involved. If we crossed off every name that ever said something wrong, we’d have no draw or media appeal.

So, am I jumping for joy that Penn Jillette, Bill Maher, and Lawrence Krauss are speaking? No. But you know what I’m going to do? Go use the bathroom during their talk.

You know what does make me jump for joy? The Parks Department estimates 30,000 to 50,000 people will attend the Reason Rally. Yes, you read that figure right. That’s tens of thousands of people who have never heard of an atheist movement or organization that will now know we exist. And that’s what this event is about. It’s not a science lecture, and it’s not an attempt to convert people to atheism. It’s making our numbers larger and motivating our existing members so our movement grows stronger. So that in the future we will have skeptical atheist politicians, and will have celebrities that don’t make us occasionally cringe.

Kitty guest post!

I’m going to be running a couple of guest posts this week while I’m traveling for my speaking tour (you’re coming, right?). Since I’m away from Pixel, my usual source of cute kitten photos, you get a guest kitty. I’m staying with fellow SSA board member Brendan Murphy, and here he is with his adorable cat Europa:

This is my view as I edit slides for my presentation:

After Greta’s full out kitten cuteness assault and this, Crommunist is surely weeping somewhere.

Catch me on the radio tomorrow morning!

I know you’re all a bunch of godless heathens who have their Sunday mornings wide open, so you should tune into Atheist Talk tomorrow! I’ll be on with fellow Freethought Bloggers Greg Laden, Stephanie Zvan, and Brianne Bilyeu:

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 [email protected] during the live show. If you miss the live show, listen to the podcast later.

The topic is blogging – does it make a difference, or is it just a giant internet circle jerk? It will be especially interesting because I’m going drinking tonight, and the show starts at what will feel like 7am my time. I might be extra loopy and caffeinated.