The second half of the transcript, by Kate Donovan

Part 2 of the transcript of the Google hangout conversation video by the heroic Kate Donovan

Al Stefanelli: [from previous] 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.


Ian Cromwell: Based on what?

Ashley Miller: I think that’s ridiculous.

Al Stefanelli: based on my opinion.

Ian Cromwell: I got to tell you, Al, if you’re expecting any group of people to be totally rational about everything, you’re not being rational.

Al Stefanelli: Oh, no, I don’t expect it. And I’ve got, look, you all know I’ve got my moments of irrationality. And it’s just the part and parcel of being a human being. But it’s not really a bad goal to have, to try to at least remain as reasoned as we can. It’s not going to work all the time.

Ashley Miller: I think this is a huge problem in our community, where we make this assumption that we are better than other people, because we are non-believers. And I think that’s a huge mistake. And I’m not saying that you’re doing that intentionally, or trying to put down other people. But when we sort of operate under this assumption that we are better than other people,  and smarter than other people because we’ve come to different conclusions, and have different values, we make it absolutely impossible to have reasonable conversations with them.

[Al and PZ both talk]

PZ Myers: It’s not that we’re better people, it’s that what we have to emphasize is that we have a better idea, and that this idea can be shared with everybody. So those people are not dumb. They’re not stupid. They’re not to be thrown away. They are people who can learn.

Ian Cromwell: Again, people who have religious beliefs, when we say we have a better idea…it’s the exact same thing as people who have really backwards ideas about gender and who are atheists. It’s the same exact thought process. It’s the same handful of cognitive biases, of heuristics. So when we understand how one of them works, and we see someone else using the same exact tools, it’s entirely reasonable to say, well, we could use this same process. So I don’t think we should be talking about how us as atheists, with our Vulcan brains, can stretch rationality over a teaming herd of nincompoops. [everyone talks] We have the same limitations.

Al Stefanelli: I stand corrected. Ashley made a very good point, and I appreciate you calling me out on that. I probably shouldn’t have used the word ‘better’. My intended thought was maybe ‘better informed’ or maybe better…something or another. But—

Ophelia Benson: Just better habits?

Al Stefanelli: I wasn’t trying to promote the idea that we’re better people because of any lack of belief.

Russell Glasser: Well, I think specifically, atheism is better. [noise interruption] I think atheism is better. Taking a scientific worldview is better. But atheist often fall into the trap of thinking, well, I know that I’ve got this one thing that I believe that is a smarter thing to believe that all these other people, therefore everything else I think, like my undying devotion to Ayn Rand, must also be correct. Because I am smart, and therefore, infallible. I mean, they don’t say it that directly, but….

Brianne Bileyu: Well this idea that we have that we’ve come to atheism rationally—it’s true for a certain subset of the atheist population, but we gotta remember, it’s just a belief. And people believe that there is no god for all sorts of reasons. But because some of us who got here rationally also talk out about how we got here rationally, I think that bleeds over into the non-atheist community, the believing community, that we think we’re so rational. And some of the biggest arguments I’ve gotten into with friends who are maybe questioning their religion, questioning their beliefs, is, when they come into some place like FtB, and get swarmed by all these people who have an idea that they’re rational because they don’t believe in God, make really bad arguments. And the people who have come in asking questions are surprised that they’re finding atheists who cannot think critically or back away emotionally and look at something more objectively. So it’s—in the population of atheists, some are rational, some are not. As we’re fond of saying, atheism just means you got this one thing right.

Ashley Miller: And then, when we refuse to acknowledge that we’re being emotional, and I think that’s the major problem. It’s not that being emotional is problematic. People are emotional. That’s just how we are. It’s that we make emotional arguments and then we act like they’re not emotional.

Ian Cromwell: I’m concerned by this dichotomization of emotion and reason. Simply because I don’t accept Brianne’s claim that there are a subset of atheists who came by their atheism rationally. I think at some point if you think about it it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but then you have to make a decision, you have to make a jump. It has to matter to you that the facts are in error. And that’s not a non-emotional process. To say “I care enough that this thing”—cause you can spin belief. You can hold contradictory ideas. And a lot of people do, who are de facto atheists, who—that’s not as important to them as something else. And so that thing about how I went all bleep-bleep-bloop, and now I’m an atheist [fyi, I think Ian is trying to sound like a robot, but it makes less sense in transcribing], I don’t think that’s a fair characterization. And I don’t think—

PZ Myers: You’re denying the experience.

Ian Cromwell: [laughs] I also don’t think that it’s accurate to talk about….[loses train of thought]

PZ Myers: Well, but I think you’re kind of conflating a couple of things there, that having values does not necessarily mean that you’re making emotional judgments. You know, I would say that I came into atheism from a scientific perspective, and my point of view there was yes, I value the truth, and I want to know the right answer, not the one that makes me feel best. And I wouldn’t characterize that as an emotional decision. It’s more a matter of here are the priorities in my life, here’s what I think is really important, I’m making a calculated decision to live my life by those values. And I think a lot of atheists do think that way. And I agree 100%, I know a lot of atheists who arrived at this because for instance, a sense of outrage over the Catholic Church. And that really is an emotional decision. But at the same time, an emotional decision can be an extremely rational decision.

Justin Griffith: I think youre absolutely right. For me anyway, I debunked myself from my creationist beliefs from reading as a thirteen year old. I cried for three days because I felt lied to. It was an emotional, rational response. It was both.

Al Stefanelli: Well, I’m looking down at the screen right now, and I see seven faces. I see seven very individual people. And I see seven people who have formed very strong opinions on things, most of which I agree with. Some of which I don’t, but the point of this is that each one of us here on this panel, and a truth for a lot of people is that whatever methods we’ve used to arrive at where we are now, they be emotional, scientific, or what, they do not include a belief that a man rose from the dead and that an invisible being is telling us what to do, what not to do, how to treat what individual demographic in a certain way. And that—

Ian Cromwell: I believe that.

Al Stefanelli: And that commonality that we have, is our cohesiveness. And I think yes, we are all entitled to our different approaches. Some of us are more emotional than others. Some of us are more rational than others. Some of us are more anarchistic than others. But the important point is, is that, bringing it back to social justice, is that from whatever point of view we come, we all understand that there is a need in our community of humanity to do what we can to make sure that these issues, such as equality, and the other things we address on a regular basis, have some cohesiveness. We have to have—and it’s just my opinion—there are certain times when cats need to be herded. Whether or not they’re tomcats or calicoes or whatever, there are times we need to come together as a group—my opinion, anyway—and get behind something that is important to all of us. Such as equality and feminism and the issues that we attack on a regular basis. Just my opinion.

Brianne Bileyu: Now are you saying we need a mission statement?

Ian Cromwell: I think Al’s saying we need a shepherds’ crook.

Ashley Miller: I think the question that brings up is: is this an atheist value, is it a skeptic value, or is it a humanist value? And I think a lot of atheists and skeptics make the argument that it’s a humanist value, and not a skeptic or atheist value. I don’t agree with that conclusion, but I see where they’re coming from when they say that.

Al Stefanelli: Agreed.

PZ Myers: So, what are atheist values? I mean, that’s what hangs me up every time. You know, that people do try to make this distinction that there are atheists [and] there are humanists. Atheists believe one thing, and humanists believe another. But But when you talk to atheists and you try to get down to what they actually think, you know they’re always saying the same stupid thing: I’m an atheist simply because I don’t believe in God. That’s not informative. That doesn’t tell us what is driving your ideals, what’s constituting their values. And I think that’s the important question they have to answer. Speaking as an atheist myself, you’ve got to acknowledge that there’s more than just, oh, I don’t believe in God.

Ashley Miller: Well, that’s the inherent problem with the label.

Justin Griffith: Yeah, but I don’t think you need another replacement label. If you look at like, Darwin, what was the name of his book—On the Origin of the Species, right? So we’re a community based species, and now we’re a global community. So we’ve got some hiccups, but now we’re trying to catch up with the evolved concepts of caring about a large, extended group of people, which includes like, subsets now. We have to care. I don’t need a label for that, just because I’m a member of the human race. I don’t need to say, oh, I’m an atheist and a humanist. I’m an atheist human. And it’s just the right thing to do, because ethically, that’s the way we have evolved.

Ian Cromwell: There are some people—

Russell Glasser: There’s Tea Partiers. I mean, it’s not enough for me to just be a member of the same species. I have certain differences with other subsets of the population. [long pause] Go on, Ian.


Ian Cromwell: Okay. There are people who want to have a conversation about religion. About atheism. About issues centering on theology and science. That’s where they want to have their conversation and what they see from us is this conflation of ‘well, if you’re an atheist, then you also have to believe this and this and this.” Many people aren’t there yet. They don’t want to be there. And to have someone impertinently telling you, well, this is what an atheist believes….they’re going to come back with the same thing: well, not all atheists believe the same things. But I think it comes from a misconception that our writing is somehow declarative. That this is how you must behave.

Ashley Miller: That it’s prescriptive.

Ian Cromwell: Exactly—that it’s prescriptive. We don’t—we are just a lot of people who like to play around on keyboards. If you get some value fro what we’re saying, then that’s great. But we’re not on a mission to tell you what to say. At most we can identify something that you’re doing, that we think is wrong, and explain why. And then you have a question to answer, I suppose. But we’re not kings of atheism and queens of atheism, or whatever. That’s not who we are. Even though some people like to pretend, apparently, that we’re going to ruin the movement, because we exist.
Ophelia Benson: Well maybe what we need is not a different label, but an adjective. And maybe what we are is political atheists. And there’s a way in which atheism itself is fundamentally political, because it’s a kind of rebellion against an invisible arbitrary monarch.

[everyone talking]

Justin Griffith: Just real quick, don’t call me political. I would have to stop blogging. I mean, it’s illegal for me. I mean, just in the future, let’s not make that our mission statement, please.

Ophelia Benson: Okay

Russell Glasser: But you are political, under a certain definition of political.

Justin Griffith: It’s a military thing. I can’t influence, politically.

Russell Glasser: How does the military define political? I’m curious.

Ian Cromwell: They can define it however they want!

Justin Griffith: Two different ways. It depends on if you’re in trouble or not. Now, if you’re in trouble for blogging, and they just don’t like what you’re saying, political means ‘oh, it’s of/relating to policy, you should stop that blogging.” And I have to look it up, and bullshit, because the regulations actually tell you that it’s referring to political campaigns and election cycles and stuff like that. But it’s a bullying tactic. Like, someone who’s not prepared to look it up would definitely believe that it can mean lots of things, and all this stuff. But it is written and spelled out, what it means.

Ophelia Benson: Well, I was actually thinking of it in more theoretical terms, as opposed to—I mean, not something we have to paste on the blog, or anything. But I think most of us are secularists, or probably all of us are secularists. And if you’re rebelling against God, which you sort of are by denying its existence, to some extent that implies rebellion against the whole principle of arbitrary authority. And also of hierarchies. So I think in that sense to some extent you can tie equality and social justice stuff in with atheism without loading it down too much with stuff that’s not intrinsic to the word.

Ashley Miller: Well I’m sure a lot of people came to atheism from that fundamental sense of fairness against the celestial dictator as [someone] puts it.

Ophelia Benson: Yeah.

PZ Myers: Yeah, and I suspect that a lot of the atheists in this movement are here as a reaction to fundamental political movements in the United States. And what that does is automatically throw you into the camp that opposes that. This progressive, liberal, Democratic, social movement. That’s one reason we’re here…is because the opposition is a bunch of fundamentalist assholes.


Al Stefanelli: And we may not be kings and queens of atheism, as Ian pointed out, and I would agree with that. But we do have voice.  And our voice, or at least mine, and from what I read—and I read everyone’s blog on FtB, because I have a shitload of time on my hands—and the thing about it is, not only do we put our opinions out there—and I love everybody here, seriously—not only do we put our opinions out there, and tell people why we come to the conclusions that we do, but we also—myself, I have no compunction whatsoever, to not only put my opinion out there but to tell the people who are believers why they’re wrong. I have no problem telling someone, look, this is my opinion, and this is why I think you are wrong. And there’s a lot wrong out there. If there wasn’t a lot wrong out there, we probably wouldn’t be doing what we’re doing, to the extent that we’re doing it. And my function as a blogger and as a radio show host, and for whatever the hell else I do, is to point out why I think that I am right about what I put out there, and why I think the other people, another person, might be wrong about what they put out there. And the things that I think are wrong are the issues that we are addressing, or we address regularly. Inequality, racism, and etcetera. And I’m going to call out everyone I possibly can on that, and tell them. They think I’m an arrogant asshole, and they’re probably right. I have no problem with that. That’s a good label. Atheist Asshole. And sometimes you just have to be a dick. Sorry, Phil Plait.

PZ Myers: Yeah, another this is, Ophelia mentioned a moment ago how we oppose hierarchies. And I think that’s a key thing. You know, we’ve been talking about how we care about the good of humanity and so forth. And how that is is fundamentally an opposite view of a hierarchical view of how society should be run. We are not kings and queens of atheism, and we actually resent the whole idea that you think we are. Except of course, for Justin [who is currently wearing a paper crown]. And what we are constantly doing, what generates this pushback, is that we’re people in privileged positions, that know you don’t deserve it. We need to knock you down a notch, and bring everyone else up a notch.  And that makes people unhappy, which gets back to another theme we were talking about earlier, is we are, of necessity, going to make people unhappy, because we are going to be challenging their privilege. And so, of course the most privileged groups are going to be pissed off at us. [long silence] I have just silenced the entire panel. Amazing!

[lots of joking around]

Russell Glasser: I heard Michael Newdale talk once, and he said something that I rip off often, which is: if you’ve got a footrace where traditionally, one of the players gets to start with a mile head start, and then you say from now on, this guy has to start at the starting line, same as everyone else, he’s going to say “oh, you’ve just made new rules that harm me!” And he’s right! It’s true that equalizing things harms the people that start out in the unfair position. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do it.

Ian Cromwell: And what ends up happening, in the long run, is that a lot of those supposed—you know, when you knock someone down from their privilege, when they lose something, it’s not a zero sum game, where those on the bottom gain as much as those on the top lose. What usually ends up happening is that when you enhance equality, you start seeing better development. Especially if we’re going to take this out of the abstract, sorta Platonic way we’ve been talking about it. Where you look at diversity, particularly gender diversity, and how groups work together, groups function better when there’s a more balanced gender ratio. It’s one of those weird things. But when you have a variety of different types of experiences, a variety of different types of management, you get better outcomes. You get to troubleshoot problems before they happen, and you get to see the full board, as opposed to one restricted piece. So the people who are complaining that they’re losing their privilege, that they’re privilege is being denied to them, if they recognize that they have it at all, which is very rare, the fact is that they’re arguing against something that is going to make life better for everyone in the long term.


Ashley Miller: Right. Addressing privilege makes a difference in everyones lives. It’s like stereotypes that were aimed at women also meant that there were stereotypes aimed at men. So that women are allowed to be more masculine now, means that men are allowed to be more feminine. And obviously it hasn’t progressed nearly as far as it should, but there is just as much a limit on the privileged class because of that as there is on the unprivileged class. It just doesn’t hurt them as much.

PZ Myers: I also think another effect is that, you know, the worst thing that can ruin a meeting is when you’ve got someone who comes in and thinks oh, well, I’m in charge, I get to get my own way every step of the way, and everyone else just has to bow down and obey me. And when you start incorporating diversity into these groups, you immediately send a subtle signal that, ‘oh, wait a minute, there are people who have differences of opinion here, and who have a voice, maybe I’m not going to get my own way every step of the way. Maybe I need to make better arguments. Maybe I need to better defend my position. “ And I think that improves the quality of the group.

[silence. PZ jokes about quieting everyone again]

Ian Cromwell: We’re just all so gobsmacked by your wisdom.

[everyone talks]

PZ Myers: No, you’re just sitting there, thinking, “what kind of sarcastic comment can I make to knock him down a notch?”
Ian Cromwell: It’s going to be a joke about my genitals, too.

Al Stefanelli: That’s how religious cults and congregations are ordered. You know, there’s the guy in charge, and whatever he says goes. If you disagree with him, you can’t be part of the group any more. As opposed to a group of people that value input. Whether or not you agree with it or not.

Ophelia Benson: Well, that’s the thing about theism.

[Ian suggests not using apps while chatting, discussion resumes]

Ophelia Benson: Well, that’s the thing about theism. That’s one reason we are political atheists, and one reason it’s good to recognize it as a struggle against hierarchy, because theism itself models that thing where there is one guy at the peak, who does all the talking, and everybody’s supposed to listen to. You know, the clergy, that’s modeled on the relationship that God and all of the human species. The priest stands in for God. The mullah stands in for God. The pope stands in for God. If you don’t have a god at the peak of th whole arrangement, then the whole thing makes less sense. It becomes less obvious why some guy is supposed to be at the top of some pyramid, running everything.

Al Stefanelli: I’ve had people ask me ‘well, what’s the difference between a church service, and when one of you guys get up and deliver a talk?” And my stock answer is I’ve been to a lot of church services and not once, when the pastor was done preaching, was there a Q&A session.”


Ian Cromwell: But also, I mean part of the social justice—and this is language I’m borrowing from Occupy, to a great deal—but a lot of the philosophy underpinning social justice movements, is the opposition of hierarchy. That tearing down hierarchies is a necessary function of social justice movements. So atheism—to go back to what Ashley said at the beginning of the session—atheism itself, expressing your atheism, is a social justice movement, because you’re explicitly about tearing down hierarchies between the supernatural beings and natural beings, and those who are aligned with God and those who are not. So when you say we all have equal right to makes these claims because we’re all humans and there’s no supernatural force endowing some of us with greater value. As soon as you make that statement, you’ve plopped yourself right in the middle of a social justice movement, and we’re your blogs.

Ashley Miller: And if we’re going to be part of this social justice movement, I think it’s really short sighted not to reach out and be part of other social justice movements.

Al Stefanelli: Absolutely.

PZ Myers: You know, the Minnesota Atheists, for instance, are aligned with the gay groups in Minneapolis. A lot of them are involved with the Occupy movement. Yeah, we find ourselves naturally gravitating to those things all the time.

[silence, followed by jokes and laughter again]

Russell Glasser: You know that when we’re here talking about how we don’t have a leader and we don’t have an official party line, and we allow disagreement, this is exactly the nature of the accusations that get hurled at us when we try to come up with common values. That we do, here at FtB, have this official stance, that youre not allowed to disagree with, under penalty of being banned from everybody’s comments and so forth.

Ophelia Benson: Yeah, it’s really clear from this discussion that we have an elaborately worked out, uniform policy!

PZ Myers: But it’s also not true. You know, we don’t ban people for disagreeing with us. We ban people for being jerks.

Ian Cromwell: It’s easier to throw rocks at the monolith than to say “oh, the reason they’re out to get me is because they’re biased.

Russell Glasser: Yeah, it’s the same thing creationists do.

Ian Cromwell: Yeah. “If they weren’t a hivemind, then they would totally see that it’s alright to XYZ. I’m not going to give specific examples, because all the ones that come to mind…I don’t think we want to talk about them anymore. It’s much easier to rail against ‘Free-From-Thought Blogs, which I think is—if you’re going to come up with insults, I mean, come on. Work a little harder!

PZ Myers: They’re not very good at the insults. I should give them lessons.

Ian Cromwell: I work hard at my writing, and to see this kind of laziness from people who are criticizing me, at least say something funny! Don’t just be—

Ashley Miller: That’s right! I worked really hard in writing that blog. Could you at least put some effort into insulting it, please?

Ian Cromwell: Please? Like, come on. But, anyway. It’s easier to get upset and spout off these conspiracy theories that they’re not disagreeing with me because I’m wrong, they’re disagreeing with me because it conflicts with their pre-ordained values. Which is ridiculous.

PZ Myers: Well, partly. It is partly because they disagree with certain values we have. And that’s one of the things I’ve been trying to get across here, is that we do have a whole body of values beyond simply not believing in God. And when we find people who disagree with those, we tend to think less of them. People who are against equality, who think that harassment policies at meetings are ridiculous, things like this, those are people who we’re going to disagree with, who we’re opposed vigorously. We’re going to argue ferociously with them. And that’s reality. We should acknowledge it.

Justin Griffith: I mean, I agree, you acknowledge it a few times, but like if you take it to their turf, like I famously recently did, I noticed these people would say things like “and this is why I don’t even go to atheist events”, “this is why I would never go to an atheist event”. Why are they spending a year of their time criticizing the way we craft a policy to an even they will never go to? These people aren’t rational. Some of them can be helped and reached. I believe that. I’d sa the vast majority of people, when they say something like that, game over. Don’t even waste your breath.

Russell Glasser: Well, It’s because they would like there to be atheist events that they feel free to both go to and be flaming pricks at.

[everyone talks]

Russell Glasser: There’s the same kind of thing that happens like with the video game tournament community, where there’s a similar discussion going on, and it’s like “hey, we’re videogamers, we call each other fags”—

Ashley Miller: So it’s okay!

Russell Glasser: “—and we want to keep that culture”

Brianne Bileyu: You know, on one of our skeptics groups, someone came online and said, you know, is there anyone here whose a libertarian, because I’m an atheist and a libertarian, and I can’t find anyone else who thinks like me. And I’m like…there’s a reason for that. There’s a reason you’re not going to have your libertarian atheists’ convention. Because you got to find people to go to it. And you’re in the minority.

Justin Griffith: We have 5 or 6 that show up to all of our military atheist meetings here, and they let you know that they are libertarians. And they have their own little mini-meeting within the meeting.

[everyone talks]

Ashley Miller: In my local group, are libertarians. And they’re very vocal about it. And it’s awesome. [sarcastic]

Brianne Bileyu: Because you can identify them or…?

Ashley Miller: Not awesome. That was sarcasm. It’s horrible.  It’s also 99% male. So…there’s that.


PZ Myers: so why don’t they just do that? Why don’t they organize their own parallel set of conventions and meetings and blog networks, and—

Ian Cromwell: Because they would be very very small.

Ashley Miller: Well, and they’re libertarians. So they’re even more like cats than even normal atheists.


Al Stefanelli: They’re like feral cats.

Ian Cromwell. Anyway. I think that same argument is being used against us: if you’re going to have a social justice movement, why don’t you just go and do that and leave us with what’s been going on so long? And I think telling people, well, just go do your own thing, I think that’s a mistake. Because where I see what we’re doing, is we are new types of participants, who are coming in and who are saying this is important to us, and this is our movement. And we are not saying it only has to be about this, but that this is part of what we are. This is what is important to this group of us that grows every day. That we have increased participation, beyond the sort of classical well of people from whom you would draw a group of out atheists. We’re now getting people who are out atheists and who have other values as well, that are connected to their atheism. And when we start saying to those people, “you are welcome to go and do your own thing, but that’s not relevant to us”, then I don’t think it’s valid to exclude them. Nor do I think it’s valid to exclude people who have maybe, perhaps,  less evidence based beliefs about politics. I’m going to try to be as euphemistic about libertarians as possible. But you know, to say, “let them go do their own thing”, I mean, not even as a joke. I don’t think that’s the approach I feel comfortable taking.

PZ Myers: Well, I have two points to make about that. One is, we’re a bunch of bloggers. It’s not like we go knocking on people’s doors on Saturday morning and tell them to come read our blog. Right?

[various sarcastic remarks…apparently everyone’s been canvassing neighborhoods]

PZ Myers: So this is an entirely voluntary participation sort of interaction that we’ve got. It’s all pull, not push. We’re not forcing ourselves at anyone. So it’s very weird to hear people complaining about the direction we choose to take. Because that is the direction we choose to take.

Russell Glasser: Well, DJ Grothe, for one, seems to disagree.

PZ Myers: And the other point I want to make is that one way to look at this is, this is an experiment. We’re running a cool little experiment here, where we are trying to set up a community with certain social values. And again, because it’s entirely voluntary, what will happen is either, people will flee in horror and not participate, and we’ll wither and die, or we’ll grow. And if we grow, that’s—as an empiricist, a Darwinian—it sort of sounds like, well, that’s what we ought to do! See what happens. And ten years from now, are we gone? Are we bigger? Are we more popular? Whatever. That’s the result. That’s the experiment.

Al Stefanelli: Well, life for us—atheists, secular humanists—is going to be vastly different in ten years than it is now, touching on what PZ just said. And I think the question we need to ask ourselves is, are we going to be the agents of that change? Or are we going to allow the religious fundamentalists to make those changes for us? And because we are a free society, and because our group is voluntary, we have a unique opportunity, that maybe we didn’t have fifty years ago, to be the agents of our own change. Because of the voices that we have, and the people that respond to that, in whatever way, and because of the other groups that most of us align ourselves with, we’re gaining ground. And I would hate for anything to happen that would be detrimental to the progress that we’ve made. I don’t want someone who believes that a two thousand year old man rose from the dead making choices about my future. Which is why I do what I do, and why I think many of us do what I do. I don’t want someone else being responsible, or someone else being an agent for the future of people like us.

Ophelia Benson: Especially when the someone else is invisible.

PZ Myers: But also, we don’t want people shaping our future who think that women belong barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen.

Al Stefanelli: Yes, exactly.

PZ Myers: That’s what I’m saying, that there’s this whole bunch of other things that we think are important. That, interestingly, are all tied up with patriarchal religion, as well.

Ophelia Benson: That was the thing that I was going to add a little while ago, is that another thing—the idea of God models, along with hierarchy and arbitrary authority and a pyramid and all that, the idea that males are supposed to be in charge. Because God –whatever people say about God being gender-neutral—God is always thought of as a boy.

PZ Myers: Yes, and he’s always a singular being. Which is kind of interesting, because either he’s extremely frustrated and lonely, or he masturbates a lot.

Al Stefanelli: Or he’s bisexual.

PZ Myers: But he’s all alone.

Ian Cromwell: But he’s always ‘he’.

Ashley Miller: But there’s three people, but they’re the same person. And one of them’s blonde and white…even though they’re from the Middle East. And one of them is in the sky.

Ophelia Benson: And one of them’s a bird.

Ashley Miller: It’s very confusing.

PZ Myers: On that note of confusion, let me just mention, we should wrap this up here. Does anybody want to just say a final word or two, and then we’ll close it up.

Ian Cromwell: I actually do.

PZ Myers: Oh, of course someone does! Yes?

Ian Cromwell: The question that we have to start asking ourselves is, do we want participation from groups of people who haven’t been participating so far? If we do, then we have to start making changes to make that more possible. And I think that’s the question that you sort of have to answer for yourself. That if youre not willing to make the accommodations, and youre not willing to listen, then you don’t really want those people to participate. So, you’ve got to make that decision for yourself.

Al Stefanelli: The enemy of my enemy is my friend. We need to be supporting feminists. We need to be supporting the LGBT community. We need to be supporting a lot of those who are being suppressed by the same groups of people that are oppressing us. That’s my point of view.

Justin Griffith: I just want to say real quick, it’s probably going to get a little worse before it gets better, but it’s for the best when you put in policies that lead to self-improvement and sustaining this movement and this blog or this experiment, or whatever. I think it’s going to get a little worse first. But we can make it.

Ashley Miller: To bring what Greta says into this, I think that these arguments that we have as a group are really important and they’re horrible, and often very upsetting, but I think that they mean positive progress. And that they’re changing minds. Look at how many conferences have adopted sexual harassment policies. We’ve made huge strides in the last year. And I think that as horrible as going through all of this is, and as horrible as it is to know that there are people out there who disagree very vehemently with equality, it’s for the best, and we’re making huge progress.

PZ Myers: Okay. Very good. Well, why don’t we wrap it up there. And we will convene again in probably, two weeks? And we’ll find something else to talk about. It’s been fun.



  1. GordonWillis says

    There seems to be an assumption that atheism is a fundamental. I don’t think it is. I think that atheism is a consequence of a willingness to think dispassionately, away from what one prefers, towards what is — I mean, a preference for understanding what is the case, as far as one possibly can, and living with that, rather than preferring something cosy and self-serving (in the sense that it is self-serving to prefer what seems to offer coherence over and above genuine explanatory power — i. e., a system of interpretation over the unpleasantness of mere facts). I think that it would be more productive to abandon atheism as a fundamental and concentrate instead on “free thinking”, on thinking unfettered by adherence to any orthodoxy of any kind. Such thinking must of necessity be rigorous, disciplined, unselfcentred. Because atheism represents a stand against an orthodoxy that has been promulgated for millenia it easily comes to represent true freedom of dispassionate thought, but I think that this is a profound mistake.

    If one assumes that atheism is in itself sufficient to guarantee freedom from irrationality, then one is making a thoroughly irrational assumption. Furthermore, it can be a self-serving assumption, because one can easily get into the way of thinking that if one is rational (because an atheist) then one’s instincts and personal drives must also be rational. This is exactly similar to those religious people who justify their own personal desires on the grounds that as they are believers (and therefore in receipt of god’s grace) they automatically do god’s will.

  2. says

    I think that it would be more productive to abandon atheism as a fundamental and concentrate instead on “free thinking”

    Funny you should mention it – I’ve been coming to the same conclusion (partly in the wake of that hangout discussion), and I’m writing a piece about it for my first column for – wait for it – The Freethinker.

    Tidy, isn’t it.

  3. says

    I mean, it’s really tidy. I looked up “freethought” in a reference book yesterday and there were Bradlaugh and others and…The Freethinker.

    It’s, like, cosmic.

  4. davidmc says

    When is it due Ophelia?
    And thanks to katie , who has clearly been bullied into doing those transcripts.

  5. GordonWillis says

    Yes, well, cosmic, and wow and all that. I have been surprised at how often “Atheism” has been taken as some kind of coherent plan or worldview, instead of being merely an acceptance of nonbelief in the supernatural, concomitant upon a naturalist view of the world. And I have been dismayed at how easily selfish people have adapted the unthinking assumption that “Atheism” is “it” to serve their own selfish ends. Perhaps we should concentrate on Naturalism and its ramifications. I believe absolutely in freedom of thought, and systems and doctrines and politically correct attiudes are in every way anathema to me. On the other hand, freedom of thought cannot exist without honesty and openness. This is hard, but it means that one of the most fundamental attributes of the truly free thinking is virtue. Only, it can’t be assumed, ever.

  6. karmakin says

    But also, I mean part of the social justice—and this is language I’m borrowing from Occupy, to a great deal—but a lot of the philosophy underpinning social justice movements, is the opposition of hierarchy. That tearing down hierarchies is a necessary function of social justice movements. So atheism—to go back to what Ashley said at the beginning of the session—atheism itself, expressing your atheism, is a social justice movement, because you’re explicitly about tearing down hierarchies between the supernatural beings and natural beings, and those who are aligned with God and those who are not. So when you say we all have equal right to makes these claims because we’re all humans and there’s no supernatural force endowing some of us with greater value. As soon as you make that statement, you’ve plopped yourself right in the middle of a social justice movement, and we’re your blogs.

    This is where I stand. (I’ll be honest, I find that in these Hangout things I tend to stand with Cromm. A lot. Maybe it’s the Canadian thing.) But I want to add one thing on to that.

    I don’t like skepticism as a core idea. I know, it’s something that we atheists have kind of sort of tried to co-opt, to obviously mixed ends. Skepticism, at least to me, has always had a natural intellectual element..a very strong element actually..of maintaining the status quo. It’s inherently a conservative (little “c”) mindset.

    Atheism, like modern feminism, seeks to tear down those hierarchies, while skepticism seeks to reinforce them. Now of course not everybody lines up with this like ducks in a row, but I do think the tendencies are there.

    In the end, Atheism and Skepticism are probably going to have to be extracted from one another, as they’re simply incompatible. At least that’s my hairbrained opinion.

  7. says

    Ophelia Benson: [political atheism / secularism] …to some extent that implies rebellion against the whole principle of arbitrary authority. And also of hierarchies. So I think in that sense to some extent you can tie equality and social justice stuff in with atheism…

    Hierarchies are fundamentally very efficient structures, and as such very resilient to challenge. And how could a pyramid scheme work without the pyramid?

    I already felt Ophelia’s “extremely equal” feminism was a bold undertaking, but does it also require a restructuring of society?

  8. karmakin says

    You can never entirely eliminate hierarchies of course. I think they’re a natural result of socialization. But you can take steps to work a system that minimizes the effects of hierarchies.

    As an example, a strong welfare state reduces the negative impact of people being less social connected/powerful.

  9. roland72 says

    I found the discussion of rationalism/scientific scepticism vs social justice to be interesting – but also unresolved. Much of it revolved around the idea of “happiness” in a society (especially “average happiness”) – which is surely something it’s hard to measure precisely enough to be able to draw conclusions from.

    Having said that, the attempts have been made and they seem to show that greater income equality produces greater happiness – see for example.

    Now income is only one measure of participation in society; but this, together with PZ’s remark that more diverse panels seem to make better decisions, supports the idea that more equal societies are, in fact, better places to live. And I don’t find that surprising. If everyone really does have an equal opportunity to make their best contribution to society, society has a bigger pool of talent to draw from and generally things are done better, one might argue.

    So if you desire a society where on average people are happier, you should work for greater equality. Of course, you might not desire such a society – if you’re very rich then you might want to preserve all the privileges that wealth brings, which will be at the expense of many other people most likely.

    I think the political issue is not “how do we bring about a happier society?”. I think it is “what do we do about the people who don’t want to bring about a happier society?”. As it happens, I think that pretty much everyone (including many of the very wealthy) are likely to be happier in a more equal society – less fear of a criminal underclass, for example, and a greater potential social circle – so the issue then becomes how do we persuade them of that?

    I can see a relationship here between apparently paradoxical outcomes – first, on social equality, that the wealthy will see an improvement in their lives by being made to give away some of their money, and second, on atheism, that recognising the truth about the universe (that there’s no god and that ultimately nothing has any purpose) leads to a more fulfilling life, since we have to make our own meaning. That’s a kind of connection between atheism and social justice which I think it might be worth exploring.

  10. GordonWillis says

    Atheism, like modern feminism, seeks to tear down those hierarchies, while skepticism seeks to reinforce them.

    Well, no. Re skepticism, it has no agenda except to discover what is true. It doesn’t seek anything else — otherwise it wouldn’t be skeptical, would it? Atheism is not a movement like Feminism (whether ancient or modern) it is simply a word meaning lack of belief in any kind of god, and it happens that people who don’t believe in a god are finding that they can speak out. In every other respect, atheists are as like as chalk and cheese.

    What you are saying suggests that you are constructing a system of belief around atheism. Such an activity would be anathema to any skeptical worldview, but is typical of authoritarian belief-systems like Communism or Fascism — or, for that matter, religion.

  11. says

    @10 Ophelia Benson

    Which “extremely equal” feminism was that?

    Oops, was it “extreme equality”?

    I remembered (apparently incorrectly, and Google refuses vindicate me) that you appreciated this adjective from some exchange I read.

    Anyway, I still feel it suits you, as a counter to “equal but different” rhetoric.

  12. says

    @9 karmakin

    …a strong welfare state…

    Redistribution of wealth (down and across that is) has many social benefits, including an erosion of religiosity. Reducing fear makes everyone friendlier and less vulnerable to propaganda.

    Many people are unaware (or willfully ignorant) of the pain and suffering inequality causes. However, learning about it is not much fun, so there is a strong inclination to turn away and just watch TV. How can we make compassion more entertaining?

  13. Haydn Sikh says


    So if you desire a society where on average people are happier, you should work for greater equality.

    This echoes the philosophy of the late John Rawls. If I have understood correctly, his ideal society was one in which, if everyone’s position in the heirarchy were to be scrambled at random overnight, nobody would be too unhappy with the change.

  14. avh1 says

    Haydn there’s also a game I’ve heard about which you play with two participants. You tell them that they have a cake and that one of them will choose how to cut it. But the *other one* will choose how it is distributed. That sounds like the sort of thing a utilitarian thinker might come up with.

    And Ophelia are the comments in square brackets Katy’s?

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