Of the latest FTB hangout. Kate writes at at Teen Skepchicks and the Friendly Atheist.
PZ Myers: Freethought [after now, to be FtB, for my hands] bloggers, and what we decided to talk about this time was all the stuff other than atheism that concerns us in this movement. So we thought, well, one of the things that unites all of us here concern for social justice! So what we thought we’d do is we’d just sit here and chatter about all these wonderful essential things we thought were a key part of the atheist/freethought movement that need to be acknowledged. And that means things like equality, social justice, feminism, anti-racism, anti-sexual harassment—all this grab-bag of things we’ve been chattering about on our blogs recently. And…here’s a panel! You guys….say something!
Ophelia Benson: So what we’re doing is laying out exactly what people mean when they call us the hivemind and the borg, right? Well, we’re making it easy for them, we’re giving them the list that they can deal with.
PZ Myers: Right. And also one way to think about it is, here we are, laying out a sort of ‘general mission statement’ for FtB.
[Ashley Miller, Al Stefanelli laugh]
Ian Cromwell: Uhhhhhhhhhh…
PZ Myers: Yeah yeah, we hate mission statements. But face reality here, people, that the FtBlogs group does have an identity, does have certain values in common, that we’re all expressing all the time. We might as well come out and acknowledge this is who we are, this is what we think.
Russell Glasser: Right. I was mentioning earlier that, you know, there are a lot of good blogs that I read that are political, or about games or TV shows, but we actually have a theme at FtB. Actually, it’s kind of similar to something people think a lot on [The Atheist Experience], which is, “Do all atheist think about XYZ the way you do?” And I say “No, you know the Raliens, the guys who believe the bible was written by space aliens instead of God are technically atheists.” But, having said that, the kinds of atheists who congregate and hang out and talk about their atheism tend to have a shared set of values. And usually I say that is centered around science and rationality, but more and more I think we’re finding that this social justice topic is something we all prefer to have in common also. Because it’s like, we’re all atheists, now what do we do, living in the world?
Ashley Miller: I think that being and atheist, and atheism in general, is a social justic issue. We are a minority, and a lot of what we’re trying to do is make this minority acceptable. And that’s a lot of what social justice is about. It’s aboug creating an environment where minority perspectives are known and understood. I think, by definition, by being an atheist activist, you are a social justice activist. And I think a lot of atheists don’t seem to realize that.
Russell Glasser: Yeah. Good point.
Al Stefanelli: That’s very true. Both Russell and Ashley bring up good points in that because we are a minority, and because those of us who are here, and the rest of us who operate in the blogosphere, or on internet radio or internet TV, or whichever, we get to lend our voices to social justice issues. And like it or not—which I’m guessing most of us do—a lot of people listen to the words that we write, to the words that we speak, and read the words that we write. So we kind of have an obligation to put something out there that;s at least midly coheasive.
Ian Cromwell: So I want to—there’s two disagreements I have so far. And one centers around what I think is a misconception about the way FtB came together, which is that we had this Machiavellian plan to unite the tiny minority of people who care about other people.
PZ Myers: Yes, we did!
Ian Cromwell: Well that’s…it’s mustache-curling nonsense. It started with a few people, and then it was like, okay, whose blogs do you like? It was a few more people, and it was, whose blogs do you like, and by the time we hit about thirty, we said “we should put in some rules.” This myth that it’s those who worship at the alter of PZ Myers is nonsense, just absolutely laughable.
PZ Myers: Wait a minute, come on.
Ian Cromwell: We sacrifice goats at your altar, PZ. We don’t worship at it. That’s for the chapel. Anyway, so that’s the one part. The other is that, at least for me, I see social justice issues in a much more…utilitarian term: that we spend a lot of time recognizing there are a lot of atheists out there, who don’t identify as atheists, or for whom their atheism is unimportant, or a non-motivating factor for their actions. There are people who know they are atheists, but don’t spend the time, who are afraid or inhibited somehow, to get involved. I guess what I’m saying is make a note of all these people who aren’t participating, and then say gee, I wonder why they aren’t participating, and say gee, I wonder why they aren’t participating? And a lot of that has to do with social justice issues. If we improve social justice, make atheism more accessible, we will find more people to join us. I don’t necessarily think it’s just this high-minded “oh well, we should be [muffled] people with diversity, blahbity blahbity blah” There’s a reason for it. It’s useful. It’s important. And I don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to talk about it.
PZ Myers: Well, yeah. There’s…you are making it sound kind of Machiavellian, I mean, it really isn’t. You’re right that we see utility in trying to make the atheist movement grow by incorporating a more diverse body of people in it. But also, we like those people, right? So it’s like, several years ago, when I was first starting out going to all these atheist conferences, it was very noticeable that you saw very few women there, and I just wondered wny. And I often asked organizers why haven’t you invited more women. Ad it was this stupid argument that was always made: oh, I didn’t think of that, I didn’t realize that. And that’s the kind of attitude I’m really against. We have to be conscious of the wide range of people we want participating here.
Al Stefanelli: Well, that also reflects to the amount of people who are on the other side of their computers, or the other side of the podium that any one of us might be standing—or the video camera. There’s a lot of people who cant, by default, get involved. They can’t even open their mouth. They can’t even tell anyone they’re atheists. They don’t have….if it weren’t for those of us who are out there, doing what we do, there would be really, no venue for people to congregate—for lack of a better word—around, to understand what’s going on in our community. And I know there’s a lot of people who really despise when you put those two words together: secular community or atheist community, but we are a community. Whether we like it or not, how much of an anarchist one might want to be, we’re a group of people who do share some common goals. And we do share some common insights and foresights. And we have that responsibility to put out the things that we do. Particularly what PZ just brought up, the fact that a lot of the female representatives of our movement are under-represented in our conferences. And that reflects to the general freethought, secular, atheist, humanist population feeling that they are not being addressed. And that does need to change. And I think that as a group, FtB has been doing a wonderful job in getting that message out there and letting the women in our movement feel a little bit more represented, and feel like their issues are being brought to the forefront where other important issues are.
PZ Myers: Except for the ones who aren’t. Because we also have a problem that there are conflicts in this, you know, the deep rifts all over the place. Where there actually are atheists who think it’s not so important to promote equality. There are people who have literally come out and said–
[stops to deal with noise interference from Justin Griffith’s microphone]
Russell Glasser: Okay, so now I’ve forgot what I was going to say. Oh yeah! It’s not just a matter of them saying it’s not important. Because I understand that not all issues are of equal weight to all people. But it seems that whenever we blog on any topic that touches on social justice—well, when we blog on anything actually, we get a bunch of people saying “I don’t care about this particular topic, why don’t you change your blog back to something I care about?” But it seems to be especially pronounced lately, when it’s an issue of feminism, or gender equality, or gay rights, or whatever it is that people have not just decided not to care about, but decided to aggressively insist that other people not care about.
Ashley Miller: Well, it’s because people feel like someone is trying to steal their movement. As thought it belongs to them. As though we are invaders, trying to take it over. Which I think is a mistaken way to look at it. Rather than—
Al Stefanelli: It’s not a competition.
Ashley Miller: Exactly. It’s an expansion of interests, not trying to prevent people from talking about what they were already talking about.
PZ Myers: Also, what’s really annoying is all those commenters and bloggers who sit there pounding furiously “I don’t care about this topic! I don’t care about this topic!”
Ashley Miller: I don’t care so much I have to comment 20 times!
Justin Griffith: Actually, I notice that a lot of the trolls are, theyre brutal. And they get a kick out of makings some of us ‘cry’ or whatever. And it’s been sustained for over a year. And if you talk to these people, you find that they say things like “I don’t even attend conferences.” But they spend a whole year talking about it? What? There’s a big disconnect.
Ashley Miller: I don’t think that’s FtB. I think that’s the internet. Because I haven’t gotten any comments nearly as bad as when I wrote about Ron Paul on my personal blog, like six months ago. You know, I haven’t gotten any rape threats.
Al Stefanelli: You must have wanted a lot of comments—[sarcastic]
Ashley Miller: Yeah, so you know,
Al Stefanelli: The people who want a lot of comments, write something about Ron Paul. It’ll blow up your computer.
PZ Myers: Or zeitgeist. I found that. I wrote about Ron Paul—I actually linked to Ashley—and it just blew up with all these strange people I’d never heard of before, suddenly showing up to tell me I was all wrong about Ron Paul.
Al Stefanelli: Either that or vaccinations. Pick one of those two.
PZ Myers: Oh, yeah. Oh, and also, circumcision.
Ian Cromwell: I just want to make a note that we’ve been joined by Brianne, who hasn’t had an opportunity to introduce herself.
Brianne Bileyu: Hi there.
[everyone says hi, confirmation that Brianne can be heard]
Brianne Bileyu: Sorry I was late. I just got off of the radio. So, a little bit late trying to catch up on the topic, soo.
Ian Cromwell: Well, we’re just giving a once over to why it is that the bloggers at FtB seem to find social justice issues, these issues that aren’t necessarily specifically restricted to atheism and scientific skepticism. Why it is that we seem to find those so important, why it is that we think that they’re relevant to the larger freethought movement.
Ashley Miller: Because they are about scientific skepticism! Let’s start with that. Let’s start with it’s a problem of ignorance of other people’s perspective in life. This is important. It’s not because we care and have big hearts—it’s not just because of that. It’s because it matters from a scientific, rational point of view.
Al Stefanelli: The religious community does not have the market cornered on righteous indignation.
Ian Cromwell: Or delusional thinking or faith based claims. [laughter] No, but seriously. I mean, I spend a lot of time talking about race, because that’s my thing, and you run into these people who have very….first of all, they’ve spent no time thinking about it. So they’re scrambling. Something seems vaguely wrong to them in their worldview, and they spend five minutes thinking about it, and they say, now that I’ve given it a good deal of thought, here’s my informed perspective on things. And they’ll come up with these wacky arguments. Like, ‘you know, just look at Africa. Maybe there is something to the theory that black people aren’t that intelligent.” And you’re like, okay, well, because you don’t know anything, I can see how you would find that. But again, we see the same pattern of reasoning. Take these heuristics, these tiny brain tricks, cram them together on a new topic that’s important, and you end up with the same exact “why are there still monkeys!?” and “what about pygmies and dwarves?”. You get these same kind of, these same pattern of responses. Because it’s the same thought process. When we talk about freethought, when we talk about inquiry, we’ve got tools. You’ve got a toolbox, and we’re using the same tools. And a lot of the same tools used to critique religion apply in exactly the same way to things like sexism, racism, transphobia, &c.
Russell Glasser: And this does come up for atheists a whole lot. Because when you say to somebody “I’m an atheist”, you get one of two kinds of belligerent arguments. They’re like “aha, atheism, that doesn’t make any sense, everybody knows there’s a god, how did the universe make itself?” or you get “you’ve got to believe in God, or you won’t be moral.” I mean those are the two broad categories of things people complain about atheism about. Questions of fact and questions of value. And the questions of value end up being a lot fuzzier and harder to address for a lot of atheists. Because religion does provide this sort of rigid framework for coming up with right and wrong. It doesn’t generally come up with good answers to that, but it comes up with things people feel they have to follow. And the question about, well, if you’re an atheist, where do you get your morals from, which is both a big philosophical question, and incredibly insulting at the same time. Talking about social justice in a way that’s sort of practical about how this—a decent world to live in for everybody—is a really important question to answer if you’re going to be an atheist and nihilist.
Ophelia Benson: But at the same time, it can be kind of giving a hostage to fortune to rely to heavily on the idea that it’s part of skepticism or part of the scientific method because what if the scientific method finds stuff that seems to be in contradiction to social justice. And the fact is, I think most of us put the commitment to social justice first. And even if we can find facts that pull in the other direction, the commitment is prior. To some extent we sort of have to acknowledge that the social justice thing is a commitment, is a value as opposed to a fact, is an ought as opposed to an is, and argue from there, so we don’t get trapped in trying to defend it as purely a factual position. When it isn’t, really.
Ian Cromwell: Could you give me an example of a time when scientific discovery would conflict with—like, it’s a scientific fact that if we grind up the homeless into chum, we can feed the rest of us with homes? I’m just trying to understand what that would look like.
Ophelia Benson: One handy example of it was done by Plato, in the dialogue The Gorgias [sp?], where you boil the whole thing down to the essence, and the big, strong tough guy stands up and says “What are you talking about Socrates? What do you mean, the virtuous life is actually the best life? I’m strong, I’m big, I can take what I want, and that works for me, and that’s what I’m going to do.” And it’s hard to answer that with facts.
Al Stefanelli: Well that’s—a lot of the disconnect that comes from the foundation of the common goals and points of view that we have, revolve around ‘is it a what or a why?’. I’ve founds that when I’m engaging a religionist, fundamentalists, no matter what question I ask, I’m looking for an answer that’s framed along the What, not the Why. And that’s where I think a lot of the problems come on all of the social issues, is when I ask a question, I always get an answer—or I often get an answer that revolves around ‘this is why I believe this needs to be done’ or ‘this is why this particular group of people should be discriminated against’. I never get an answer that revolves around the What. What is your evidence? And that’s what it all comes down to. I believe what the bible says. My moral base is thus and so. And they fail to provide the What. What is your evidence that says this is true, outside of the bible? And that circular logic is what presents such a problem for us. Because, like Stephanie said, it’s very difficult to argue the factual when youre dealing with someone whose complete and totally worldview and points of view revolve around their belief in deity. And because there’s so many of them, our arguments tend to sometimes get lost in the fray.
Ophelia Benson: But at the same time, if the only question is what is your evidence for that, that’s not a great question to answer if you’re talking about the evidence for equality.
Al Stefanelli: Exactly.
Ophelia Benson: It’s hard to explain what the evidence is that equality is better. You have to come up with reasons. And it is a Why thing, and it is a commitment.
Ian Cromwell: Okay, so Ophelia, what I’m understanding you saying is not that the facts would come into conflict with social justice, but that a stance on social justice may not be able to be informed by rigorous methodological observation…?
Ashley Miller: It’s not primarily informed by that. We have a commitment to humanism and treating people well, instinctively really—
Ian Cromwell: But there’s a difference between—
Ashley Miller:–and we back it up with facts.
Ian Cromwell: Sorry.
Al Stefanelli: But we know that, Ashley. And we’re all very aware of that, and I’m not trying to step on you, Ian, just give me ten seconds.
Ian Cromwell: I’ll step on you, Al.
Al Stefanelli: Well, I’m big and I’ll take what I want, dammit! [Ophelia approves of this reference, others laugh] But it’s just such a fluid and a liquid conversation, because there are aspects of both the What and the Why. The point I was trying to make with what I said just previously is that we have to try as hard as we can to get past their What. Because if we can deconstruct their What—what is the evidence—then we have a solid, a very good foundation to build up on the Whys, the aspects of the issues that we’re talking about, about social justice and civil rights, and whatnot.
Ophelia Benson: I have been able to think of an example of when the evidence might conflict. And that is that there are surveys that show that people who live in societies with low equality are happier than people in liberal societies. And that’s a real stumper for me. And we had to sort of talk about that when we were writing Does God Hate Women? Because it’s not necessarily true that equality makes everybody happier. And then you have to start figuring out, well, is happiness the only value? And can you come up with other values that can compete with that and I think yeah, you can. I think justice competes with happiness in a way because what’s at stake isn’t really happiness, but a sense of fairness. And that’s different from happiness. But it can trump happiness. You know, people will give up a dessert to keep a younger sibling from having a dessert. There are studies that show this. That if, you know, you offer a competitor a bigger thing, the subject will say well, no, I don’t want my competitor to be rewarded more than I am, so I’ll sacrifice myself, just to deny it to [the] competitor.
Al Stefanelli: Who’s happy in those—and this is just a question—in those societies with inequality, who are the individuals who are happy? Are the ones who are getting their way—is the majority happy? Or is…I don’t find it to be a…at least in my experience, a truism that those who are in an unequal society, who are a minority, are happy.
Ian Cromwell: But it’s not a truism, Al. It was a study. This was something that was observed.
Al Stefanelli: Alright.
Ophelia Benson: I don’t find it a truism at all. I find it the opposite of a truism.
Russell Glasser: I’ve got actually another social example that some people seem to find convincing. This guy Charles Murray, who wrote, what is it, The Bell Curve, yeah, you know he seems to come out every couple of years, and it’s just that he’s right again. And The Bell Curve basically said that he proved scientifically, I guess, in a nutshell, that black people are inferior to white people. And there’s two problems with that. One is, everybody thinks his methods are horribly flawed, and two is, even if he’s right, in a deeper sense, so what? What does that mean about the way we should act toward this supposedly inferior race? Should we, for instance, codify hiring discrimination, saying, well, you know, on average, black people are dumber? Even if he were right, which, I don’t think he is—
Ian Cromwell: He’s not.
Russell Glasser: –it would be a terrible—
Ian Cromwell: Just for the record, he’s not.
Russell Glasser: I know. Even if he’s right—
Ian Cromwell: He’s not.
Al Stefanelli: What are you trying to say, Ian?
Ashley Miller: It wouldn’t change the commitment. Even if that was true. Which it’s not!
Russell Glasser: We should still be concerned about non-discrimination. But, like Ophelia might be saying, white people might be happier in a society where they get free perks for being white
Ophelia Benson: Yeah, I wasn’t actually making the argument that the powerful branch is happy, and that makes it okay, because despite everybody else’s misery. The surveys I’m talking about actually show that broadly, in the population, you know, correcting for who’s up and who’s down, that broadly speaking, happiness is greater. Aggregate happiness is greater. And yeah, it is easy to deconstruct that by saying, well, separate groups aren’t. But if it were shown that, in fact, everybody was a little bit happier in an unequal society, as opposed to one like ours, I would still want to defend one like ours. Or one like ours, only better. One with equality as opposed to an unequal one. Even if it did mean a little bit less happiness for everyone. And I have to think of ways to justify that. And the way I do it—
Al Stefanelli: Well, I agree with you—
Ophelia Benson: The way I do it is that fairness, in some sense, trumps happiness.
Ian Cromwell: But that’s not an issue of the facts and social justice being in opposite. It just means that we have to have a more informed framework than just aggregate happiness, or… So again, I think it’s not that the facts contradict it. It’s that we have to understand what we’re going to do with those facts. I mean, I just cant think of an example where it would contradict with reality. If reality is what it is, then we have to decide what we do about that, and if our approaches to solving problems—whatever problems we identify—if our approaches don’t comport with reality, then they won’t work…? So I guess I’m just having a hard time agreeing with the statement that my social values trump, you know, cause I don’t see it being possible for them to be in conflict.
Russell Glasser: What’s involved with calculating aggregate happiness? Because you know, if you have a society where like, one percent of the population is horribly tortured for no good reason, but it happens to wind up making the 99% much happier, is that—I mean I think you could argue that that would increase the average happiness. But it just specifically lowers the happiness of a very small group of people by a lot.
Ophelia Benson: Right. Well, and this is the kind of issue you have to think about when you’re trying to justify these commitments. But they’re not simply factual, and they’re not simply based evidence. They’re based on arguments too. I mean, what Ian was just talking about, that’s arguments. Comparing, for instance, justice and happiness, and trying to figure out how you weight them, that’s interpretation, that’s argument. It’s not just factual, and it’s not just evidence based.
Ian Cromwell: Right, okay, yes.
Al Stefanelli: And a lot of that pushback, that we’re getting, especially lately, around all the social issues that we’re dealing with, you know, gender equality, LGBT, the laundry list of issues that we’re dealing with, we’re getting a lot of pushback because the segment of society that is happy, because we are in the situation that we’re in, they are crying persecution. And what they fail to understand is that it’s not persecution when one group is seeking the same rights that the other group already has by default. They’re feeling threatened. And because they’re feeling threatened, they’re lashing out. And the arguments that they’re using when they lash out are all based on their beliefs, on their religious constructs. On the things that they, ignorantly, hold to be self-evident truths. Which they are not. We all know that. Most of the people that are in our—that are activists in one form or another—understand what the situation is. And we work very hard to combat that. But the pushback we’re getting from the believing community, from the religious community, is difficult enough to deal with. But when we’re getting that same pushback from our own camp, it makes our efforts even that much more difficult. Because now we’re arguing amongst ourselves. Nothing wrong with discourse, nothing wrong with disagreeing with each other. But when it gets to the point where it becomes toxic, it doesn’t help us at all. We’re supposed to be the reasonable ones. We’re the ones who are supposed to be able to rise above particular methods of particular arguments.