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.

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

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.

Guest post: Evils of constructive empiricism

This is a Guest Post by Frank Bellamy, a reader and content manager for the eMpirical, the newsletter for the Secular Student Alliance. He recently wrote an interesting article on why Humanists should not deliver invocations, but today he’s going to talk a bit about philosophy. So, discuss your hearts out while I’m away!

Evils of constructive empiricism

Philosophers routinely entertain and foster ideas which are not only stupid, but also an affront to science: dualism, intelligent design, qualia, the list goes on. Another item on that list that I have only recently discovered is constructive empiricism. That phrase may sound harmless enough, after all, scientists like empirical evidence, and being constructive is good, right? It’s anything but harmless when one looks at its meaning. According to the Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy, “the constructive empiricist holds that science aims at truth about observable aspects of the world, but that science does not aim at truth about unobservable aspects.” In other words, science gives us no reason for thinking that the unobservable constructs posited by scientific theories actually exist.

A few concrete examples may be useful here. According to the constructive empiricist, we have no good reason to think that atoms exist. After all, no one has ever seen, heard, felt, tasted, or smelled an atom. Atoms may be a useful computational tool for determining what will happen when we mix two substances together, but that is not a reason for attributing actual existence to them. Scientists may even believe that atoms exist, but if they do they go beyond what the evidence warrants.

Evolutionary biologists are in equal trouble. Since we can’t actually observe history, we have no reason for believing historical claims. The idea that humans and chimpanzees share a common ancestor more recently than humans and cats may be useful for explaining and predicting various features of the genomes, morphology, or cognitive capacities of these species, but that is not a reason for thinking that any of these species share common ancestors, or indeed that they even have ancestors at all.

To use a more every day example, I have a theory that Jen believes that the christian god does not exist. This theory may be useful in predicting what sorts of things Jen will write on her blog in the future. It allows me to predict, for example, that the next time Jen writes about some amazing new scientific discovery, she will explain it in naturalistic rather than theological terms. But according to the constructive empiricist, that is no reason for thinking that Jen actually has such a belief. Since I can’t directly observe any of Jens beliefs, I am completely unwarranted in believing that she has beliefs at all. So much for theory of mind being a positive aspect of human cognition.

Lets set aside the fact that constructive empiricism entails that scientists are liars and consider its practical implications for science. A scientist who believes in constructive empiricism doesn’t have to waste time considering such irrelevant questions as whether his pet theory is true or not, or how it relates to other theories in other parts of science. All that matters is whether his pet theory can account for the available data.

One implication of this is that it completely undermines the motivation most scientists have for doing science in the first place. Scientists don’t just want equations and models that predict data, we want to understand whatever phenomenon we have chosen to study. We want to know what’s actually going on in the world. We want to know how what we’re doing relates to other parts of science. If constructive empiricism is true, then we are deluding ourselves. Science isn’t in the business of telling us how things really are.

Another implication of constructive empiricism is that it doesn’t really matter how well theories in different domains of science match up with each other. If we explain the movement of objects on earth in terms of forces and masses, and the movement of objects in the sky in terms of Ptolemy’s spheres, so long as we can predict the data that’s ok. If we have physically, neurally, or evolutionarily implausible theories of human cognition, that’s ok, so long as we can predict the behavioral data. If scientists were to truly adopt this view, it would change the face of science forever, and not for the better.

And why would I, a grad student with many other non-philosophical demands on his time be worrying about constructive empiricists you may wonder? It’s because I’ve recently discovered that my adviser is one. Frack me.

Guest post: Canadatheism: The Northern Perspective

This is a Guest Post by Jon, a reader from up North who wanted to shed some light on atheism in America’s Hat. Er, I mean Canada. He writes over at his fiction blog, Our Man Jonesy. Take it away, Jon:

Canadatheism: The Northern Perspective
(Or: “Fundamentalism in Canada has been cancelled due to snow”)

Greetings from the frozen wastelands of Canada! While Jen’s away, I’d like to give you a general feel for atheism as it exists in the land of hockey and maple syrup. Those readers actually from Canada: feel free to sit back and talk amongst yourselves while I toss off pearls of Canadian stereotype to keep the Yanks entertained. If you’re from elsewhere, just play along for now and you’ll be able to tell your cocktail/hookah/opium den chums about how much you know about about foreign cultures.

If you’re living in the ‘States, you’ve probably heard of us before. We’re the place that everyone threatens to move if the Republicans win another election. A lot of us speak French, we use the metric system, and if you ask us, it’s not actually that cold out. And how’s the religion like out there? Well, it’s pretty mild, actually . Fiercely mild. If general polling is correct, up to a third of us acknowledge ‘No Religion’, and in a country with the population the size of the state of California, that’s rather an accomplishment, if I may be so bold. It’s at the point that the leader of the opposition party (Michael Ignatieff) can say things like:

“Some people will have no difficulty thinking human beings are sacred, because they happen to believe in the existence of God the Father and believe He created Mankind in His likeness … Far better, I would argue, to forego these kinds of foundational arguments altogether and seek to build support for human rights on the basis of what such rights actually do for human beings.”

Yeah, baby. That said, Canadian politics is a morass of apathy. Our parliament has been prorogued for the second year running, and our current head of government is a rather Christian individual. Nonetheless, we’ve really only got a few problems when it comes to openly displaying our ability to say ‘Godless’ in both official languages.

First, I’m going to blatantly appeal to stereotype here and point out the general level of pathological politesse present. We’re rather polite about others’ beliefs, and their prerogative to go on believing. We go so far as to apologize for how polite we are about it. One of the big reasons why religiosity is less of a visible factor in Canadian politics is that we’re a mostly pluralistic nation. It’s not just that we have the French Catholic crowd occupying Quebec, or the Spiritual traditions of our Aboriginals; Canada also has the largest immigration rate in the world. While a lot of it is from the East Asian countries- Vancouver, our Westernmost metropolis, has jokingly considered adopting Mandarin as its second official language- we also have a not-inconsiderable level of migration from the Middle East. The difficulty arises when the more hard-core religiosity they bring comes in conflict with our own “well, if you must, I suppose” social etiquette. We’ve shrugged off the attempts at Sharia law time and time again, but at the same time, we’re far from making minarets illegal architecture. One of the central reasons why we’re so at odds to talk against fundamentalist dogma in Canada is because we seldom talk about religion at all.
Another foot-hold for stronger theism in Canada is that our populace is scattered. We have a fraction-of-a-million people each in Montreal, Vancouver, and Calgary, as well as Ottawa and Quebec City; Toronto features an above-average population of 2.5 million. The rest is rural, and far from unreligious. Non-metropolitan religiosity is more notably strong in those populations living outside those few cities, to say nothing of the populated Maritime provinces. Even excluding that, only Vancouver might be said to be predominantly atheistic. Toronto’s comparative migratory draw results in a higher population of transplants from religious areas, and Montreal has, as one of its prime attractions, a huge frigging cross on its namesake hill.

But what, then, supports the noticeable secularism in Canada? I would strongly implicate the disenfranchised Anglicans that made up a lot of Early Canada. Come on- we founded a church on divorce. Why carry on the tradition if we’re on another continent entirely- though, in reality, we’re still technically headed by the British monarchy, and have a person appointed to represent it. Perhaps more relevant is that level of politesse I keep harping out about (sorry if it’s bothering you); perhaps one of the reason for the separation of church and state is precisely the ‘I’m okay with it’ pluralism that has such a hold on Canada; perhaps letting go of the gun-grabbing dogmatism that has infected other states just lets you see all the sides with equal fairness– and in the end, you get the conclusion that theism is a rather silly idea from the get-go.

…I mean, SURELY it can’t just be the [amazingly] good Canadian beer keeping everyone in a state of paralytic drunkenness, preventing extremism of any kind. The comparative poor quality of American beer might well be keeping you folks in the ‘boisterous’ stages of intoxication, thus giving rise to Megachurches, rednecks, and the frank need to satiate one’s pastorly urges with some crystal meth and pay-per-screw man-love. Just a theory. Get better beer, America.

For other Canadian Atheist Resources:
Center for Inquiry:

Nota Bene: The author will not, contrary to stereotype, apologize for a belief in the general superiority of Canadian beers. There are, however, some notable American beers.

(American) Ed.: And there are some terrible Canadian ones.