On “Sincerely Held Religious Beliefs” and Being a Counselor

Via JT, here’s a new bill that recently passed in the Tennessee State Senate Education Committee by a 7-2 vote:

Republican state Sen. Joey Hensley encouraged fellow senators to pass SB 514 to “prevent an institution of high education from discriminating against a student in the counseling, social worker, psychology programs because of their religious beliefs.”

Hensley’s bill would protect any student who “refuses to counsel or serve a client as to goals, outcomes, or behaviors that conflict with a sincerely held religious belief.”

Here’s another relevant quote:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

I don’t have to cite this one, right?

Forcing public universities to allow their graduate students to use their religion to avoid doing what they’re supposed to do is absolutely “respecting an establishment of religion.” And, contrary to the apparent opinions of the seven senators who voted yes, allowing public universities to require their graduate students to do what they’re supposed to do does not constitute “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion unless you view your counseling work as a form of religious worship. Hopefully, nobody does.

All of this relates to the larger problem of people believing that the First Amendment gives them the right to do a crappy job at work without being fired. When you’re choosing a career path, you should consider, among other things, whether or not you are willing to do the things that your chosen job requires. For instance, I started out college planning to be a journalist, but I realized that pestering people (especially survivors of traumatic newsworthy events) for interviews went against my personal ethical code. Rather than expecting the profession of journalism to adjust itself to my ethical code, I found a different field.

If you are unwilling to help people simply because of who they love, don’t become a counselor.

If you are unwilling to drive a bus simply because it has an ad about atheism, don’t become a bus driver.

If you are unwilling to give someone their prescribed medication simply because it will prevent them from getting pregnant, don’t become a pharmacist.

If you are unwilling to perform an elective surgery on someone simply because it will change their assigned sex, don’t become a plastic surgeon.

If you are unwilling to teach actual science simply because it includes evolution, don’t become a science teacher.

When I was applying to my social work program, I read through the list of requirements for acceptance. I needed a B.A. from an accredited college/university, at least 60 credits in the liberal arts, a decent GPA, and so on. There was also a list of attributes that social work students should have: empathy, interpersonal skills, and a bunch of others. On the list was also this:

The social work student must appreciate the value of human diversity. He/she must serve in an appropriate manner all persons in need of assistance, regardless of the person’s age, class, race, ethnicity, religious affiliation (or lack thereof), gender, ability, sexual orientation and value system.

There you have it. It’s a requirement. If I’m unwilling to do it, I shouldn’t go into the field.

Of course, with counseling things can get a bit tricky. If a counselor realizes that their personal bias may prevent them from working appropriately with a given client, it is their responsibility to refer the client to another counselor. Not to just say, “Sorry, can’t help you,” but to try to ensure that they get the help they need somewhere else.

Furthermore, counselors should not attempt to practice outside of their expertise, so if a client shows up with problems that you have no idea how to work with, you should also refer them to someone else. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you should refer out every LGBT client who comes your way, of course, but if they’re struggling with issues like coming out, dealing with homophobia, or trying to have children, and you have no experience counseling LGBT individuals facing such issues, this is probably not the client for you and you are probably not the counselor for this client.

But there’s a fine line between being unable and being unwilling to do something. There’s a difference between lacking the training or experience you’d need to work with someone and simply not wanting to work with them because you disapprove of their “lifestyle.” There are plenty of “lifestyles” of which I suppose I “disapprove,” but all that really means is that I wouldn’t want to do the same thing and don’t necessarily understand why someone would. That doesn’t mean I can’t still affirm that person as a human being worthy of sympathy and help.

I don’t know how it is everywhere else, but in the programs I’ve looked at, graduate psychology students who are interning tend to work with clients on a sliding scale, which means that these interns are often the only type of counselor that some people can afford. The silver lining of a bill like this is that these clients, who may already be disadvantaged, will be spared from homophobic counselors.

However, the bill’s language does not suggest that it was written to protect LGBT clients, but rather homophobic counselors. And crucially, the bill contradicted advice from psychologists, social workers, and those who oversee graduate psychology programs. They noted that programs could lose accreditation, that part of the job of a counselor is to put their “sincerely held religious beliefs” aside when they do their work. But no, the Religious Right won out again.

Quotes from some Tennessee senators are very telling:

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, couldn’t understand why psychology departments aren’t teaching their students how to pray away the gay with homosexual clients.

“So if someone were to, say, come in and—I’m just going to throw an example out there—say they were a homosexual and a person did not believe that was a natural act and they suggested, say, change therapy?” Campfield asked. “Would that be something you could allow a student to do?”

Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, said, “I would think that you should be up front and truthful and tell them if they are doing wrong and try to counsel them to do what’s right. That really disturbs me.”

I have sympathy for people whose sincerely held beliefs, religious or otherwise, make it difficult for them to do what they need to do. As I said, I’ve been in that boat. And a certain amount of accommodations for religious people at work and school is, I believe, reasonable. It’s not a huge deal for professors and employers to allow people to occasionally miss a day for a religious holiday or to wear religious garments. It is a big deal for them to exempt students and employees from a crucial part of their training or job.

Allowing people to freely observe their religion does not necessitate bending over backwards to allow them to keep doing jobs with which their religion clashes. Sometimes you just gotta get another job.

Besides, such counselors are free to go practice at any of the many religiously-affiliated counseling centers that exist in this country, which is a topic for another post.

Stop Hating On Female Condoms For No Real Reason

Every time I do this I feel like I’m a really lazy blogger who’s just going for the low-hanging fruit*, but I feel compelled to once again criticize a Jezebel article.

Tracie Egan Morrissey, whose writing is usually quite good, has written a post called “Stop Trying to Make Female Condoms Happen.” The post is what I can only call a screed against female condoms–a strange target for an online takedown.

Morrissey writes:

After never really catching on in the 30 years since its invention, the female condom has received a redesign with the hopes that women will change their minds about wanting to line their vaginas like a waste paper basket.

She then notes that female condoms absolve men of the responsibility for providing birth control, which they hardly ever have to do:

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great that these methods afford us the ability to control our own bodies. But putting on a condom is like the only time that men are ever held accountable in their role of preventing pregnancy or the spread of STDs. They shouldn’t be exempt from that obligation. And it just seems like female condoms enables them to think that they are. Or worse: to not think about it at all.

On a different note, female condoms are just ew.

It’s a short post; that’s about all there is to it. In the process, Morrissey ignores a whole slew of relevant facts about female condoms:

  • Female condoms are made not out of latex but out of polyurethane or nitrile, which means that people who have latex allergies can use them.
  • Because they’re not made of latex, you can use them with oil-based lube in addition to water- and silicone-based lube.
  • Many male-bodied folks say that female condoms feel better than male condoms because it’s less restrictive and there’s more friction on the penis.
  • With female condoms you don’t have to worry about losing your erection or having to pull out immediately after you cum, and they’re also much less likely to come out than male condoms are to slide off.
  • Because female condoms also cover some area around the vaginal opening, STI transmission may be reduced.
  • Unlike male condoms, you can put them in hours before having sex if you don’t want to worry about it in the heat of the moment.
  • The outer ring of the female condom can stimulate the clitoris.
  • They can also be used for anal sex if you take the inner ring out.
  • Because they’re not stretched tight over a penis, female condoms are much less likely to break, and also, unlike with male condoms, there’s really no chance that the penis will be too big for the condom.
  • If you don’t have health insurance and don’t have sex very often, female condoms can cost less than hormonal birth control (although they do cost more than male condoms).
  • If your partner refuses to use a male condom, they may still be willing for you to use a female condom (a reality for victims of abuse that Morrissey completely denies in the comments section)

Do female condoms have disadvantages? Sure. They can be a bit tricky to put in until you’ve had some practice, and if you’re not paying attention the penis can slip in between the outside of the condom and the vaginal wall, which defeats the whole purpose. As I mentioned, they do cost more than male condoms, although you can sometimes get them for free at health centers. Like male condoms, they can cause chafing and you’ll need lube.

But all birth control methods have pros and cons, and it’s important to know about them in order to make an informed choice. Morrissey ignores both the pros and the actual cons of female condoms, instead dismissing them because “ew.” Which I don’t even understand, because they’re just the inverse of the male condom, so they’re not ickier than that.

The point she makes about male condoms being the only type of contraceptive that male-bodied people have responsibility for is a good one. It’s reasonable to expect that a male-bodied partner help with contraception, and it is really unfortunate and unfair that most of that responsibility falls on women. However, partners can still split the cost of birth control to make it more fair, and furthermore, because many people simply prefer female condoms, it’s not necessarily the case that women are being “forced” to take responsibility for it when they don’t want to.

However, the more salient point, which Morrissey also ignores, is that female condoms can be literally life-saving for victims of abuse and for sex workers, whose male partners may be unwilling to use male condoms but who may nevertheless accept the use of female condoms (and maybe they wouldn’t, but sometimes they do and that makes the effort to increase awareness and access to female condoms worthwhile). That’s why female condoms are being used to help prevent the spread of HIV, for instance.

Not every method of contraception will work for everyone. If Morrissey is so grossed out by female condoms, that’s perfectly fine! She doesn’t have to use them. But a blog about women’s issues should be promoting accurate, helpful information about birth control that will help people make these important decisions, not just knee-jerk reactions like “ew” that have no grounding.

This is especially the case with methods that are less popular and not very well understood even though they could potentially be very helpful to people. Morrissey’s post was actually a response to a news story saying that the female condom has been updated and improved so that they no longer make an awkward rustling sound, except that this actually happened in 2005 and the website Morrissey linked to seems to be a bit slow on the uptake. Even if you don’t like female condoms, isn’t it good that they’re being improved?

In any case, I for one am very glad that people are still “trying to make female condoms happen” for those who may really need them.

*There’s a good chance that this article was just clickbait, in which case it’s feasible that someone might disagree with my decision to write about it. However, it’s good to keep in mind that Jezebel is an extremely popular blog whereas mine is, let’s just say, indie, so whatever relatively meager number of hits I give them will be offset by the fact that a bunch of you have probably just learned a lot of useful facts about female condoms that you didn’t know before. Yay!

And look, at least Kate and I are really excited about female condoms!
[Read more…]

Occasional Link Roundup

First, updates from Miri’s Grad School Saga: it’s over! I’m going to Columbia University next year, which means my very very long-awaited move to New York City is happening in less than six months. Needless to say, I AM EXCITED. If any of you live there, you should let me know! I plan to get involved with CFI-NY and whatever else is there, so you’ll probably see me around. :)

Now, links:

1. Ania Bula is raising money for a book about her experiences with chronic illness as a skeptic. There are eight days left to contribute money; please consider it if you have some to spare!

Chronic illness is an invitation for everyone to comment: either with regards to a cause, a treatment, or otherwise. Suddenly, everyone’s aunt is an expert and everyone’s fad diet a cure. You wade through a constant stream of ignorance and lies, in a desperate attempt to find peace and a stop to pain. In my years  living with both disorders I have been faith healed, poked, prodded, stuffed with powders and magic potions, and now is my opportunity to tell everyone about it.

2. Kate writes about how therapists are trained in the U.S. and what’s wrong with it:

I want budding counselors to begin their education by learning about ALL kinds of people and systems. I want to stop assuming that living in the world gives you enough life experience to counsel anyone. Because you know who can afford to go to college for two degrees, who are encouraged and supported in doing so? Mostly privileged people. Do you know who we’re really bad at providing mental health services for? The underprivileged.

3. Nico Lang responds to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ piece about “the good racist people” and reiterates that bigotry is not necessarily borne out of anger and hatred:

No one thinks of themselves as a bigot. They don’t look in the mirror and say, “I hate gay people. I am a homophobe.” Those women didn’t hate me. They loved me so much that they didn’t want me to stay the way I was. They didn’t want me to experience an eternity of damnation. They wanted to save me, just like my mother did. My mother didn’t want me to come home crying or have to stay up late with me because I was too scared to go to school the next day. She didn’t want the world to break my heart at such a young age, and it was too hard to ask everyone around me to change. So she asked me to change and broke my heart her own way. I was the one being punished again for not understanding what being different meant.

4. Beckie discusses Reeva Steenkamp’s murder and how most of the media coverage of it focused on her killer, Oscar Pistorius, and his achievements:

Of course, Pistorius must be considered innocent until proven guilty; nevertheless, the focus on the athlete as victim in the case is misplaced. Whatever anguish the former hero might be feeling, it is Steenkamp who is the victim. Many articles on the subject seem to be treating her death merely as an addendum to the story of Pistorius’ trial and the demise of his sparkling reputation. She in mentioned only in passing: as collateral damage in the fall of a sporting great.

5. Ozy suggests that education could be improved if we taught less stuff.

6. Foz makes the case for public breastfeeding:

Because at the end of the day, while having children is certainly a choice, our insistence on categorising the decision as a mere affectation of lifestyle – as though, if parenthood were to suddenly drop out of vogue like 70s decor or the poodle perm, we’d all just move on to shoulder pads and rollerblading instead – is a blinkered refusal to acknowledge its necessity. It might be an ugly, dirty job as far as some are concerned; but like rubbish collection and sewage maintenance, we still need someone to do it. Allowing for the inevitable, ongoing presence of children in public – and, as a consequence, admitting that their best interests must are also the best interests of society – doesn’t mean you have to worship at the altar of parenthood. Rather, it’s simply an acknowledgement that public spaces are shared spaces, and that sometimes, our personal comfort levels are going to be transgressed or trumped by the rights and needs of others.

7. Why Yahoo’s recent ban on telecommuting matters for women, parents, and people with disabilities.

This is a feminist issue because women, no matter their economic status, are expected to have flexible schedules. Men, on the other hand, are expected to have rigid, 9-5 type jobs that they just couldn’t possibly take a day off from. Society is structured so that women are expected to leave early when a child falls ill at school or pushes the school swing-hog off the swing set and gets suspended for the day. Anyone who is or knows a mother knows the hell moms get for having to take off, but fewer people recognize that we set up this structure by not allowing people to telecommute or by ridiculing the male parent into pressuring Mom to take care of it. If we allowed for one or two days a week of telecommuting in fields where this is reasonable, then we might have a chance of breaking down that structure.

8. Ally Fogg has some reflections on anger and feminism:

Anger is not incompatible with compassion and empathy, it is often the product of them. Indeed, unless it is tempered with compassion and empathy, anger can easily be misdirected into fascism and hatred. When I despair of debates on gender (which is often) it is usually because those involved, on either or both sides, have found their anger but lost their compassion. That is a dangerous mix.

9. An anonymous Harvard student wrote a heartbreaking piece in their school newspaper about living with schizophrenia and being unable to get adequate treatment:

What they never tell you about schizophrenia is that you never really believe it, internalize it, identify with it. Mornings are agonizing because every day in the haze of waking up I briefly remember all over again who I am and what I have lost. I remember the friends that I am terrified will see me differently if I tell them; I remember that on my bad days I scare people in class and on the subway; I remember that the academic career for which I had worked is now improbable. I remember that the measure of success for too many of my days will be that I have not killed myself.

Self-promote and all that! (Links to specific posts work better than links to entire blogs.)

Blaming Everything On Mental Illness

The Associated Press has revised their AP Stylebook, the guide that most journalists use to standardize their writing, to include an entry on mental illness. Among many other important things that the entry includes, which you should read here, it says:

Do not describe an individual as mentally ill unless it is clearly pertinent to a story and the diagnosis is properly sourced.

And:

Do not assume that mental illness is a factor in a violent crime, and verify statements to that effect. A past history of mental illness is not necessarily a reliable indicator. Studies have shown that the vast majority of people with mental illness are not violent, and experts say most people who are violent do not suffer from mental illness.

That first one is important because there is a tendency, whenever a person who has done something wrong also happens to have a mental illness, to attempt to tie those two things together.

Some things I have seen people (and, in some cases, medical authorities) try to blame on mental illness:

  • being violent
  • being religious
  • being an atheist
  • abusing children
  • spending money unwisely
  • raping people
  • stealing
  • bullying or harassing people
  • being upset by bullying and harassment
  • enjoying violent video games
  • being shy
  • being overly social
  • being too reliant on social approval
  • having casual sex
  • being into BDSM
  • not being interested in sex
  • dating multiple people
  • not wanting to date anyone
  • not wanting to have children
  • being attracted to someone of the same sex
  • being trans*
  • wanting to wear clothing that doesn’t “belong” to your gender

You’ll notice that these things run the gamut from completely okay to absolutely cruel. Some of them involve personal decisions that affect no one but the individual, while others affect others immeasurably. All of them are things that we’ve determined in our culture to be inappropriate on varying levels.

That last one, I believe, explains why these things (and many others) are so often attributed to mental illness. It is comforting to believe that people who flout social norms, whether they’re as minor as wearing the wrong clothing or as severe as abusing and killing others, do so for individual reasons or personal failings of some sort. It’s comforting because it means that such transgressions are the acts of “abnormal” people, people we could never be. It means that there are no structural factors we might want to examine and try to change because they contribute to things like this, and it means that we don’t have to reconsider our condemnation of those behaviors.

It’s easier to say that people who won’t obediently fit into one gender or the other are “sick” than to wonder if we’re wrong to prescribe such strict gender roles.

It’s easier to say that a mass shooter is “sick” than to wonder if we’ve made it too easy to access the sort of weapons that nobody would ever need for “self-defense.”

It’s easier to say that a rapist is “sick” than to wonder if something in our culture suggests to people over and over that rape isn’t really rape, and that doing it is okay.

It’s easier to say that a bully is “sick” than to wonder why we seem to be failing to teach children not to torment each other.

It’s easier to say that a compulsive shopper is “sick” than to wonder why consuming stuff is deemed so important to begin with.

Individual factors do exist, obviously, and they are important too. Ultimately people have choices to make, and sometimes they make choices that we can universally condemn (although usually things aren’t so black and white). Some things are mental illnesses, but even mental illnesses do not exist in some special biological/individual vacuum outside of the influence of society. In fact, in one of the most well-known books on sociology ever published, Émile Durkheim presents evidence that even suicide rates are influenced by cultural context.

In any case, it’s an understandable, completely human impulse to dismiss all deviant behaviors as the province of “mentally ill” people, but that doesn’t make it right.

It’s wrong for many reasons. It dilutes the concept of “mental illness” until it is almost meaningless, leading people to proclaim things like “Well everyone seems to have a mental illness these days” and dismiss the need for more funding, research, and treatment. It leads to increased stigma for mental illness when people inaccurately attribute behaviors that are universally accepted as awful, like mass shootings, to it. It causes those who have nothing “wrong” with them, such as asexual, kinky, and LGBTQ people, to keep trying to “fix” themselves rather than realizing that it’s our culture that’s the problem. It prevents us from working to change the factors that are actually contributing to these problems, such as rape culture, lack of gun control, and consumerism, because it keeps these factors invisible from us.

People disagree a lot regarding the role of the media in society. Should it merely report the facts as accurately as possible, or does it have a responsibility to educate people and promote change? Regardless of your stance on that, though, I think most people would agree that the media should at the very least do no harm. Blaming everything from murder to shyness on mental illness absolutely does harm, which is why I’m happy to see the Associated Press take a stand against it.

That said, it’s not enough for journalists to stop attributing everything to mental illness. The rest of us have to stop doing it too.

[Liveblog] Real World Atheism Panel at DePaul University

In a little under two hours, my friend Andrew Tripp and his student group, the DePaul Alliance for Free Thought, is hosting a fantastic panel called Real World Atheism: A Panel on Godless Activism and Cultural Relevancy. I’ll be liveblogging! The panel starts at 7 PM CST.

Some of the panelists should be familiar to you:

So, watch this space. (Unless I fail to get internet, in which case, womp womp.) It should be a really great discussion.

7:06 PM: We’re starting a bit late because Stephanie has not arrived yet. #ruiningeverything

7:18 PM: Stephanie’s still not here, but Andrew’s opening it up to questions. Ian’s introduction is up first! He says not to throw things at him, by which he of course means to throw things at him.

7:20 PM: Ashley’s introducing herself. She is studying Honey Boo Boo and the representation of poor white trash on television. Cool.

7:23 PM: Ian: “Atheism operates like other social justice topics. It intersects like other social justice topics….They are one and the same. They cannot be separated.”

7:25 PM: Sikivu is connecting the anti-abortion movement of the Religious Right with the commodification of Black women’s bodies throughout history; as slaves they were forced to bear children for their masters. Humanism, social justice, racial justice, etc. are all linked.

7:27 PM: Ashley came into atheism from the perspective of other social justice movements, such as women’s and LGBT rights. In LGBT and women’s activism you see that religion is a major factor, so she was initially surprised to see that many atheists didn’t see these issues as going hand-in-hand. “Atheism is necessary to have these discussions…having an awareness of religion and the problems that it brings” is necessary for these movements.

7:30 PM: Anthony is discussing African American humanism and the idea that this life is all you have, so you have to make the most of it–for instance, by doing activism. “We tend to think that atheism and humanism involve an embrace of everything that is modern,” but with African American humanism, you can actually deconstruct atheism and modernism. It’s a way for African Americans to say, “We’re human and we matter.”

Sikivu: There’s a contradiction in that we’re living in a state of first-world exceptionalism, and yet there is still such extreme racial segregation in America in terms of class, neighborhoods, etc.

7:34 PM: An audience member asks Ian about exceptionalism and racial inequality in Canada. Ian on exceptionalism: “America is not exceptional in doing that.” Canada does it too, but America does it bigger!

But there are elements of it that are unique to America. For instance, the KKK made it up to Canada but they basically got “laughed out of the country….Everyone kinda went, ‘Seriously guys, bedsheets?'” The way Americans from the North think of Americans from the South, that’s how Canadians think of Americans. I think everyone in the room just winced.

Ian thinks that’s not quite right, though. Canadian exceptionalism manifests as Canadians thinking of themselves as “the nice ones.” Americans were Mean and Evil and had slavery, and then the Black people escaped and went to Canada and everything was great! That’s what’s taught in schools. But not really though. Evidence: you hear the same awful stereotypes about First Nations people in Canada as you hear about Black people in the U.S. “Canadians are ‘nice,’ but only because nobody’s talking about it.”

7:39 PM: For a while, Canada’s immigration policies were “explicitly racist,” then they were “implicitly racist,” then they were “quasi-racist,” and now, Ian says, people think they’re too liberal and “let’s make them racist-er!”

Ian: “Because Christianity is such an integral part of colonialism…atheists can take it back in a way that non-atheists cannot and say that the founding principles are false.” But until we start listening to those who criticize colonialism and until we learn to look at how atheism fits in, we’ll only be repeating the same problems.

7:41 PM: Stephanie’s finally here, y’all! She’s talking about how we as atheists tend to keep seeing ourselves as “the reasonable ones.” Ashley: many atheists blame everything on religion and think that if it went away, everything would be fine. Blaming the South is wrong, too. Racism doesn’t just happen there. (Although, as a South Carolinian, she admits that, of course, it happens there too.) In some ways, the Enlightenment and the idea of empiricism can contribute to the problems.

7:43 PM: Sikivu points out that this framing of atheism is very narrow. Unbelievers of color see it differently. They know that religion has everything to do with white supremacy, the legacy of slavery, and global capitalism. She mentions that when she was growing up in South L.A. and it was predominantly white, there were almost no storefront churches. Now that it has so many more communities of color, there are many more. Why? Because of de facto segregation in business practices.

7:46 PM: Anthony on the idea that science is the answer to everything: “Science takes place in the context of cultural worlds.” The proof is things like the Tuskegee Experiment, scientists who claim that you can scientifically prove the inferiority of Africans, etc. So, science isn’t enough. If you still believe that atheists could never do this, talk to some people of color.

7:47 PM: Stephanie’s introducing herself belatedly. She’s been associate president of Minnesota Atheists for exactly 8 days now! (Congrats!) Stephanie grew up in Minnesota and Georgia. “In Georgia, everyone looked like me.” Her graduating class had one person of color, who was an adopted Asian man. She says she had a lot to learn in this subject.

7:48 PM: Debbie Goddard is here and she says she’s glad she came! She’s asking about the idea of “scientism” and the idea that African American humanists are poised to deconstruct it–how can people actually do this? How can they help educate the rest of the atheist movement?

7:50 PM: Ashley makes a disclaimer: “I’m obviously not part of the African American atheist movement. [audience laughs] Sorry! Spoilers!” Ian: “I don’t see color.”

She says that the critique of “scientism” is starting to move beyond the African American humanist community, though, even though it can be a tough sell for self-described “skeptics,” who make up a lot of atheists.

Sikivu: Prisoners of color are still being used for scientific experimentation, without consent. So science is continuing to use the bodies of people of color just as it did in the past.

7:54 PM: Ian: “I am a scientist. I science all day long.” He says he is able to deconstruct religion, sexism, racism, etc. by using his scientific training: recognizing where there is likely to be bias, where something might be explained by something else that we’re not seeing, and so on. When someone says that “women are just more nurturing than men,” he says that that’s just one explanation. Could it be something else? Ditto for Asians dominating at school because they’re “super smart,” for instance. So, maybe it’s not that science or skepticism are the problem; maybe it’s that we call something “science” and consider it infallible, and that’s not actually a scientific view.

7:58 PM: Ashley is pointing out, though, that there’s a difference between the process of science itself and the history of the scientific enterprise. Science creates hierarchies about which knowledge “matters,” such as quantitative over qualitative, empiricism over other methods of inquiry. The idea that you should look for alternate explanations and use the scientific method is a good one, but you’re doing it in the context of that hierarchy.

8:00 PM: Stephanie: We might be talking about two types of hierarchies. AHHHHH A;LSDF;ALKSDF.

Ashley: There are valid reasons for those hierarchies, but it means that there are some people and some types of knowledge that “don’t count.”

Ian agrees that we shouldn’t throw out everything that isn’t a randomized control trial. He refers to a survey of women who went to atheist conferences, asking them whether or not they felt safe. There are methodological problems with the survey and it’s not a randomized sample, but it still has useful data as long as we acknowledge the bias. But apparently some YouTube guy disagreed with him and basically said NO EVERYONE’S LYING. Well then.

8:02 PM: Anthony: Most of the invitations he gets to speak are about “diversity in the movement.” But we need to actually change the structure of these organizations. Who’s on the board, for instance, determines what they think is important. Make sure that people you think have the right agenda are holding positions of leadership. “We’re always talking about diversity, but the look of these organizations with respect to leadership doesn’t change.”

8:04 PM: Stephanie: Back to science for a bit. Apparently she’s writing a book. OOOOOO. Anyway. She has a question for the panel: Do those of you who are in leadership positions feel hampered by the constant need to address diversity?

Anthony: What’s important is when other people in leadership positions start talking about diversity, not just us.

8:06 PM: Audience member: Back to science. We idealize it. It’s very elitist; articles are not accessible to everyone, and all we see in the New York Times is “science has found…” Researchers have to compete a lot for funding and are under pressure to publish. So we end up talking about the findings that are “popular,” even if they’re not necessarily the best science.

Sikivu: African American girls are very eager to be involved in science at the middle school level, partially because they’re involved in civic and religious activities where they get a lot of encouragement. But when they get into their classes where they have white/male instructors who don’t perceive them to be as analytical, intelligent as their white male counterparts, it disabuses them of the notion that they can be scientists. And in the media, all you see in terms of scientific achievement are white males. Humanists/nonbelievers of color recognize that it’s not necessarily religion that prevents people of color from exploring science: it’s educational apartheid, institutional racism, etc. in secondary and higher education.

Anthony: This movement needs an appreciation for a diverse range of knowledges, not just science.

8:11 PM: Kate is asking about the fact that STEM education gets so much more attention/funding than other types of education, especially in terms of standardized testing. How does that play in?

Sikivu: Rigorous learning when it comes to science is getting closed out, in part because of Obama’s Race to the Top (or Bottom) initiative. You need college prep classes to get into college, and that’s not necessarily there.

8:12 PM: Debbie is asking about the idea that we need to do social justice work as atheists. When we try to work with others on topics like feminism, etc. because we’re threatening to them and critical. “Part of the atheist identity is, ‘Hi, and I’m an atheist and I think you’re wrong.'” It’s not like, say, a Jew and a Catholic working together, who can apparently bond over their mutual love of god. “How can we get into things like feminist activism and LGBT activism when the idea of being an atheist itself is so offensive?”

Stephanie: part of it is persistence. Minnesota Atheists has worked with the LGBT community for a while, so there’s a relationship. Finding a speaker about abortion rights was more difficult because there wasn’t a relationship like that already. Part of it is the need for destigmatization of atheists.

Ian marched with the BC Humanists in the Pride Parade, which is a really big deal in Vancouver. They carried a huge banner that said, “There’s probably no god so stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The religious groups were all in front of them, though (“There were a whole bunch of Christian groups, cuz they can’t just be Christians!”). He was expecting pushback but Vancouver is one of the most atheistic cities in the country (which is already pretty atheistic), and people were actually cheering out loud. Awww, brings a tear to my eye! But that didn’t happen in a vacuum; it happened after a long process. There were a lot of people who are very involved in the LGBT community and out atheists marching with the BC Humanists. Granted, atheists don’t have the same stigma where he’s from.

Sikivu: Black Skeptics has experience working with the faith community. “That’s been a long, arduous process. We’ve had to meet them on their own terms and on their own turf.” They’ve also been partnering with an LGBT African men’s group to address issues like suicide, homelessness, etc. and develop some sort of mentoring or other resources in the school system. You do have to be able to reach across the aisle and really listen to where people are coming from.

Debbie: “Maybe not using the word atheist sometimes?”

Sikivu: “We use the word atheist!”

Stephanie: Minnesota Atheists obviously does as well.

8:24 PM: Andrew made a face and I’m trying not to burst out laughing, dammit.

An audience member just asked a question about science and culture that took a very long time and I can’t really parse what he’s saying, but let’s see where the discussion goes!

Ian: “Unethical science is bad science. Ethics is part of scientific education, part of scientific process.”

Anthony: People who do unethical science think they’re being ethical…

Sikivu: Who determines ethics?

Audience member: “Without science, society is lost. Without heart, it is doomed. Without science, we are in the dark. But we have to be careful to understand what science means.”

Ian: “Oppression makes empirical sense from some people’s standpoint.” You want something that someone else has, so you’re going to take it. But that’s not a universal value system. Someone made the point that gender oppression creates benefits for men, but actually it doesn’t. You can use scientific inquiry to demonstrate that, and that it benefits everyone–men included, if you eradicate sexism. “Destroying systems of oppression also benefits the oppressor. Only in a very narrow sense does oppression benefit those at the top.”

Audience member disagrees. He doesn’t think oppression hurts the oppressor at all.

8:30 PM: Another audience member: We seem to be separating the hard science from soft science. If you say that we shouldn’t deify hard science, fine. But if you’re saying we shouldn’t deify all science, then you’re ignoring sciences that do take cultural context into account. We should be encouraging people to think scientifically. “We should push back against 73% of people saying Adam and Eve are real.”

Anthony: There has been no deification of the humanities and the social sciences; that’s not the problem.

Sikivu: “You have people waltzing around saying ‘We are all Africans’ without recognizing the offensiveness of that totalizing statement vis-a-vis the conditions of Africans on that continent and here in the United States.”

Ashley: That hierarchy of “some sciences are better than other sciences” is part of the problem. Your question demonstrates that this hierarchy exists.

Audience member: This relates to capitalism. The hard sciences drive profit, so they get the funding/attention.

Stephanie: There’s also the appeal to rationalism. It’s easier to understand physics than biology than sociology. UM I DISAGREE. But she’s got a point. Sciences like sociology are very complex, whereas “hard sciences” are more simple.

Ian: It’s easy to refute religious claims with “Fossils!” “But to understand how ‘Fossils!’ is part of a larger structural system that is subsumed within Christiano-capitalist histories…that takes a lot of work.” Ian cribs stuff other people wrote about capitalism (like Sikivu and Anthony!) because he just doesn’t have time to read all of that. There are purists out there who say “we can’t have these conversations” and who think that we can only talk about atheism, not social justice. “But until they clamp something over my mouth—well, over my fingers, because I blog–until they clamp oven mitts over my hands,” he’s going to keep talking about what he wants to talk about.

You have to use different methods for different questions.

8:38 PM: Stephanie: changing the topic a bit. Do we value people with social intelligence and leadership skills, or do we value the people who are able to stand up in front of the room and talk for an hour?

Ashley: There are definitely organizations who look towards those social things, but individuals in the movement are probably less drawn to that than people who are looking for leaders for an organization.

Stephanie: “If we want to act in the real world, is this something we need to value?”

Ian: Different situations require different skills. In some organizations there’s a huge turnover of leaders because people have different skills, and the needs of the organization change. He doesn’t think this is an answerable question.

Ashley: The Secular Student Alliance does a good job at this, at putting people in roles where they have to learn skills. (YAY!)

8:42 PM: Debbie: “I’m sorry. I have so many questions though!” It seems that at atheist/skeptic conferences, a lot of the people on stage were often scientists/researchers, not organizers/educators/activists, which may be why there was little diversity. But now there’s more of the latter group, and they are more tuned into what’s going on with the grassroots. Blogging helps. Wait, what was the actual question.

8:50 PM: Audience member: There isn’t just one atheist movement, but if there is one, what is the main goal?

Ian: “I would draw an analogy between the atheist movement and the Black community. What is the Black community? There is and there isn’t one.”

Audience: You didn’t answer the question.

Ian: I’ll let someone else answer the question.

Ashley: equality for nonbelievers, and critique of religion as an institution. The goal of critiquing religion fails if you’re unwilling to recognize all of these other things (social justice).

8:52 PM: Audience member: Is there a concern among atheists that instead of deifying a god, people will deify government, think that someone’s smarter than them and should make choices for them?

Ashley: “I don’t think any atheist thinks anyone’s smarter than them.”

8:53 PM: Stephanie: What common missteps do people make regarding social justice issues? For instance, telling you some fact they learned during Black History Month that shows they have no idea what’s going on?

Sikivu: People think that African Americans are so religious because they’re not educated or because of “failure to be enlightened by the science god,” and that’s something to push back against. So is the idea that science is going to be the “silver bullet” against Black religiosity.

Ashley: People wonder “How do I make people want to be a part of what I’m doing?” not “How do I reach out and do something for them?” Ian: “with them.”

Ian: “One thing I really despise is laissez-faire anti-racism.” The idea that if we just stop treating people like they’re different, then we’ll all just be equal! Yay! It’s not a liberal vs. conservative thing. The problem is that racism requires more attention, not less. You have to actually understand how it works. “Whenever someone says race doesn’t matter or race isn’t important, I immediately know they have no idea what they’re talking about.”

Anthony: One problem is the idea that what will produce the society we want is the complete eradication of religion. Rather, we should ask, “what can we do to lessen the impact of religion?” What can we do to prevent the most tragic consequences of it?

Stephanie: We have five minutes left, is there anything anyone wants to leave us with?

Ian: Everyone should read my blog.

Ashley: No, everyone should read my blog.

Ian: After you read my blog.

Stephanie: They’re all really close to each other.

Read all the FreethoughtBlogs!

AND IT’S A WRAP. Thanks, everyone! What an awesomesauce panel.

Totally Unsolicited Advice For Feminist Guys

Jezebel has a pretty good piece up about feminist men and what “we” (by which I take it the author means feminist women) want from them. Some excerpts:

[E]ven allegedly unfunny feminists acknowledge how extra-dry fighting sexism can be, and so we hope that when men join us, they, too can have a good, not always so self-serious laugh about gender roles and the complications in working to level the playing field….That said, it’s nice when a dude can see how utterly unjust the way women are still treated the world-over, and get a little pissed about it.

[…]You don’t have to call yourself a feminist to be welcome at this party. Not every dude is going to fly the feminist flag proudly, and that’s totally cool (not to mention, lots of kickass women don’t identify as feminists either).

[…]We don’t care how you got here, as long as you mean it. That means no sensitive ponytail man schtick to get more ‘tang. I’m sure more than one woman has met a male feminist who seems a little too preoccupied with our safety, a little too willing to jump in and rescue us, a little too into the narrative of the vulnerable woman and the man who’s here to show her he’s not like those “other guys.” Gross. Women need men who want to work as our equals and helpmates, not our protectors and guardians.

[…]You don’t have to be perfect….Feminism is about change and progress, and unpacking prejudice, not hairsplitting the backstory of every person who is out there saying good things.

[…]Dudes are important influences on other dudes when it comes to changing how gender divides us, and men who support these advances shouldn’t be afraid to point out when something is utterly sexist and bullshit.

[…]Don’t be afraid to challenge masculinity….When men show a comfort level with the spectrum gender exists on, it shows other men that gender isn’t binary, and redefines what being a “man” is anyway.

I think the piece brings up a lot of really good points, especially the one about not having to be perfect. Something I hear from many progressive men is a lot of anxiety about being “good feminists” and toeing the party line. My advice would be to not rely entirely on Internet Feminists for validation and criticism; try to find some trustworthy female feminist friends that you can ask for feedback that is actually constructive, as opposed to the destructive and counterproductive “call-outs” you see online. That said, if you’re a male feminist and a ton of women keep telling you that they disagree with a particular stance you have or feel uncomfortable with something you’re saying or doing, then it may be time to seriously reevaluate it.

The point about labels is also important. Many men call themselves “pro-feminists” or “feminist allies”; that’s cool. I’ll even accept the “humanist” and “equalist” and “egalitarian” thing as long as you don’t refuse to acknowledge that, in most societies and for most of history, men have had privilege over women. Ultimately, what you do matters much more than what you call yourself.

I have some suggestions of my own to add to Jezebel’s list. Note that these are my personal suggestions; the typical disclaimer that I Do Not Represent Feminism Unless Someone Has Nominated Me For Official Ambassador Of Feminism Without My Knowledge applies.

1. Do not lecture women about their own oppression.

Something really awkward that happens fairly often is when a feminist guy comes across an anti-feminist woman and proceeds to lecture her about how sexism is still hurting women and how she needs to be a feminist. Although the guy might be correct in this situation, and I would probably agree with him, feminist men should be mindful of the fact that most women spend our entire lives getting talked down to by men who think they’re experts on our personal experiences. If a woman says she hasn’t been impacted by sexism and doesn’t need this feminism stuff, perhaps respectfully point her to some resources on sexism and agree to disagree. It’s not your place to tell her how to interpret her own life, because even though you’re probably right, she can easily just tell you that she knows her own situation better than you do. And she’ll be right, too.

This, by the way, applies to all allies. White people shouldn’t lecture people of color about their own oppression. Straight people shouldn’t lecture queer people about their own oppression. And so on. Patrick put this really well:

it’s not my job to tell woman-identified persons how to be feminists, even if I disagree with something they have said. My job is to talk to male-identified persons, and *with* people who are not male-identified.

2. Understand and try to accept that you will not always be welcome in all feminist spaces.

Yeah, I get that it really sucks when you know that you’re a caring, informed, supportive ally, but some of the people you’re trying to ally yourself with still don’t necessarily want to include you all of the time. Personally, I believe that the vast majority of feminist activism should include people of all genders, but I also understand that many non-male people who are struggling to overcome the effects of sexism on their lives–harassment, assault, abuse, discrimination–need spaces in which they can feel safe, and sometimes feeling safe means being away from men. As a feminist guy, please try to understand that, even if it hurts to feel “rejected” from these groups or events.

3. Don’t expect a cookie.

I know this sounds harsh, but you are not entitled to extra praise or attention from women because you’ve deigned to support issues that are important to them. You may get that extra praise and attention in due course, though, and that’s great. And, luckily, most of the feminist men I know aren’t like this at all. In fact, many of them have told me that it’s actually almost uncomfortable when women tell them what wonderful people they are for supporting causes like reproductive rights or rape prevention. They feel that they’re doing the bare minimum of being a decent human being, but many women, accustomed to male friends, family members, and partners who treat feminism with hostility, feel compelled to praise guys who see it differently.

To sum it up, you probably will get a cookie respect and admiration from women. You just shouldn’t feel entitled to it.

4. Remember that your feminist credentials don’t mean you can pretend to be a sexist.

Just because you’re a badass feminist doesn’t mean that people are necessarily going to feel okay with you making sexist jokes “ironically” and “reclaiming” words like bitch and slut. If you do something like that and are asked to stop, your response should not be “Yeah well you know I’m totally a feminist!” You should either stop, or accept that the people you’re hurting with your language are not obligated to continue interacting with you.

(Of course, people really vary on this. When I genuinely trust people, men included, there’s actually very little they can say that would offend me. I have plenty of male friends who make sandwich jokes to me and I find them hilarious, not because “hur hur women can’t do anything but cook and clean and serve men” but because I trust these guys so much that the irony actually reads as irony. )

But the fact that you’re a Bona Fide Feminist Dude doesn’t mean that non-male people are required to be comfortable with everything you say and do, especially if it involves stuff that can read as sexism to those who don’t know you very well.

5. Use feminism to address issues that affect men.

Men are harmed by sexism in many of the same ways as women are (gender roles, for example). In some ways, though, their issues are a bit different. Because men make up such a substantial part of the prison population, they are more likely to become the victims of sexual assault in prison, and, in general, male victims of sexual assault face unique and serious difficulties in understanding what happened to them, speaking out, and seeking justice. Men are more likely to be the victims of violent crime and police brutality. And where being male intersects with marginalized identities, such as being queer, trans*, non-white, disabled, or poor, these issues become even more pronounced.

Many people (not just men) have noticed this and, unfortunately, decided to blame it all on women and feminism. These are called MRAs, but what they advocate for isn’t really “men’s rights” at all. It’s just anti-feminism.

MRAs do rightfully point out that non-male feminists don’t spend a lot of time addressing uniquely “male” issues. While I think that addressing power differentials in society will eventually bring about equality for everyone, I do think that these issues are important and should be discussed.

But women can’t take leadership of efforts to address problems that they have never experienced. I can’t tell people what it’s like to be a male rape victim–or how to support male rape victims–because I am not one and can never be one. Men, however, can use the “toolbox” of feminism–examining power differentials, paying attention to intersectionality, critiquing pop culture, etc.–to advocate for their own causes. That’s why we need feminist men who will be allies to non-male feminists while also leading initiatives to support other men, reduce violence against men, and eradicate sexism for everyone.

Edit: Alright, alright, I was just kidding about the damn cookies. Here, have one.