“Atheist church”: one week later

So last week I posted a Monday “think piece” in which I examined the arguments against and for a community for humanists, and explained why I thought it was not a bad idea. I followed it up with a spitballed example of what I thought one could look like. My basic position, boiled down to a couple of sentences is that I think there is a positive role that a humanist organization modeled after a church can play, particularly for those who find home and community in the church environment (but may not agree with all the positions stated there). I don’t think that all components of church, including ritual, are necessarily harmful, and that we should try to take as much good as we could, while leaving behind the bad.

This issue got more responses than just about anything I’ve ever blogged about, and I’m taking this opportunity to go over them and summarize. [Read more…]

I don’t believe in ‘agnostics’

As someone who believes strongly in his opinions, and who doesn’t shy away from debate, I often find myself having heated discussions with friends. They’re not always about atheism (in fact they rarely are), but they often end up back at the same point: “look, you believe that, but other people disagree – I think there’s truth on both sides.” They seem to think this is some kind of profoundly meaningful truth that I, in my zeal, couldn’t possibly comprehend. “Here I am,” they say “happily ensconced in my island of neutrality, not dirtying myself by having an opinion on something.”

I’m not a big fan of theists as a group, but I have a great deal of respect for honest ones who are at least willing to expose their beliefs to scrutiny and will drop a bad argument once it’s been exposed as fallacious. There’s precious few of those around, but when I find them I go out of my way to express my appreciation. I hold those kinds of people in much higher esteem than I do self-proclaimed “agnostics” who are just soooo over the whole religion question. Indeed, there are few people I have more contempt for than someone who archly sits on the sidelines, piping up only long enough to shit on people on both sides for being so crass as to believe in something being true or not.

First, I would be remiss if I didn’t clear up an important issue of semantics. Atheism is a response to a claim: that there is a god. If you are going to classify yourself with respect to the god question, simply ask yourself “do I believe in a supernatural entity responsible for the creation of the universe that involves itself in human affairs?” If the answer is anything besides “yes”, then you are an atheist. If your answer is “I believe that there is some kind of superior intelligence out there responsible for the universe, but not one as defined in any religious tradition” then you might describe yourself as a deist, provided you also believe that this ‘intelligence’ doesn’t interact with humans in a meaningful way. Deism is incredibly lazy, but whatever I don’t care. [Read more…]

Movie Friday: Witchboard

Happy Hallowe’en, everyone. Well yes, technically Hallowe’en is Monday, but it’s Movie Friday! I can’t rob you of some seriously spoooooky content!

When I was a kid, my sister and I rented one of the corniest horror B movies I’ve ever seen. It has it all – terrible acting, cheesy special effects, a stupid plot, and to top it all off, the lamest twist ending of all time. That movie, dear readers, was called Witchboard:

Warning: This might make you laugh, so maybe don’t watch it at work.

Sadly, the video montage above doesn’t give you what I think is this movie’s most excellent moment. The protagonist, Linda, is becoming more and more connected to a murderous Conquistador ghost through the Ouija board that she foolishly used by herself. In a dream sequence, she wanders through a dream realm until suddenly, there is Malfador! In a stroke, he chops her head off with an axe. I’d describe the rest of the scene to you, but you should just skip to 1:59 of this movie:

Man, that’s some scary shit!

There is a skeptical point to be made here though. The whole premise of the movie is that you’re not supposed to use the Ouija board alone, or you’ll get possessed. Of course the actual reason is because Ouija boards, like ghosts and psychics and other ‘supernatural’ things, require at least two people to work: one to run the scam, and one to give away their money. Using the Ouija board alone would, unless you’re particularly prone to delusion, simply result in you sitting in the dark alone, feeling ripped off. Much like I felt at the end of this movie.

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Why are you hitting yourself? Part 4: the self-hating 99%

This is part 4 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1Read Part 2. Read Part 3.

In this morning’s installment, we explored the phenomenon of implicit valuation of members of high-status groups. Despite what we may say, or what we may consciously believe about ourselves, our actions reveal subconscious attitudes that we may have. Our wish to approve of, or make excuses for, the status quo of our social lives leads those who are on the top of power gaps to exhibit bias towards themselves. At the same time, that same desire puts those at the bottom of those divides in the somewhat bizarre role of showing the same bias – toward those at the top. This effect is not seen when measuring explicit attitudes – what people are willing to admit to – but shows up when we can find ways to ‘bypass’ conscious processing.

In this installment, I’m going to look explicitly at one aspect of how system justification theory manifests itself: political ideology. [Read more…]

Why are you hitting yourself? Part 3: this post contains implicit content

This is part 3 of an ongoing discussion of a paper by Jost, Banaji and Nosek discussing System Justification Theory. Read Part 1. Read Part 2.

We left off last week looking at the ways that factoring in someone’s desire to approve of the way the world works (“I like things the way they are”) will lead her to defend the status quo, even if that status quo puts her at a disadvantage. The authors suggest 5 different mechanisms by which this effect might be seen: 1) rationalizing observed events by seeing the likely as the desirable; 2) using stereotypes to rationalize differences in power between groups; 3) using stereotypes more often when there is a cognitive ‘threat’ to the status quo; 4) accepting explanations regardless of their legitimacy; and 5) misremembering those explanations as being more legitimate than they are. When these factors work in parallel, we can explain much of the seemingly-idiosyncratic ways in which members of disadvantaged groups will sometimes defend the very system that holds them down.

In this installment, I will be delving into their discussion of what is one of the recurrent themes within my own analysis of racism: the fact that many of these mechanisms operate below the level of conscious awareness. Freud postulated the existence of three separate agents within the mind: the ego, the superego, and the id. His argument was that while conscious beings were able to be aware of their actions, many of the things that influence our behaviour happen without our even realizing it. While this idea has been around for decades and has a great deal of face validity, it is often ignored when we examine why people around us behave the way they do (another psychological concept called the Fundamental Attribution Error). [Read more…]

Occupy the ‘Hood

This one is just going to be a stub. I would have liked it to be a full-length post, but a) I’m running out of time in the week, and b) there’s other stuff that I want to get said before Movie Friday. So I will instead just invite you to read about something I think is very cool and important:

Just one week into the Occupy Wall Street movement, some activists identified what they considered a major flaw in the organising process, saying that people of colour in the United States were left out of the initial mobilisation. From the start, the Occupy movement has prided itself on representing “99 per cent” of the population, meaning they have vastly different experiences from the highest earning one per cent, who have a much stronger ability to control and affect both the financial system and the government.

But some activists view the 99 per cent claim critically, saying that they were not included, and therefore the claim is problematic. As soon as Malik Rhaasan began to use Facebook and Twitter for his idea of “Occupy the Hood”, an Occupy sub-organisation that would aim to bring people of colour into the organising process, it began to catch on. Between the two outreach tools, the group has more than 7,000 followers from around the world, and at least five major US cities have organised their own chapters.

I mentioned some aspects of this phenomenon before, but the fact is that the problems plaguing the middle class in the United States have been the reality for black and brown Americans for many years. The police brutality leveled against peaceful protesters is also nothing new to black Americans – at least nobody has been shot for wallet possession yet.  [Read more…]

Fuck you, Oakland

I don’t usually shoot from the hip like this, but what happened in Oakland last night is disgusting:

Police in riot gear have used non-lethal weapons on a crowd of more than 1,000 people attempting to march on to Oakland’s city hall to condemn arrests made at an “Occupy Wall Street” camp. Police dispersed the crowd with what appeared to be stun grenades and set off tear gas to drive the demonstrators away from a plaza in Oakland’s business district that had been at the centre of Tuesday’s conflict. Ali Winston, a journalist at the scene, described to Al Jazeera the police’s tactics. “There have been two incidents of tear gas, flash-bang grenades and less-than-lethal projectiles beanbags being fired at the crowd,” he said. “In one instance, they used CS gas – which is a stronger version of tear gas that affects your respiratory system as well as your eyes, as well as burning your skin. So that’s happened twice since then.”

Thus adding to the list of cities that I will never visit unless circumstances force me to. Mayor Jean Quan – you’re scum and the world would be a better place if you had never been born. Police have sworn a duty to protect and serve the people, and attacking a peaceful protest, no matter how otherwise unruly, does neither of those things. Arresting people for “assembling without a permit” directly contravenes the First Amendment, and I hope that a lot of the officers involved serve prison terms. I hear they’re not too nice to pigs in the joint – maybe they’ll like you better if you tell them the story of the totally badass time you opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians.

Even if it wasn’t evil, responding to peaceful protest with violence is stupid. All it does is galvanize people against the police and grant the movement legitimacy. I’m amazed that we keep allowing stupid people who have learned nothing from history make our political decisions. So Jean Quan:

Fuck you.

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A Hallowe’en Public Service Announcement

I always forget until it’s (almost) too late to do this every time Hallowe’en comes around. But it is that time of year again, when college students and young adults all over this great continent dress up as their favourite racial stereotypes because they lack the creativity and human decency to dress as something that isn’t incredibly offensive.

Luckily, there’s a student group in Ohio who are more on the ball than I am:

These posters act as a public service announcement for colored communities. It’s about respect, human dignity, and the acceptance of other cultures (these posters simply ask people to think before they choose their Halloween costume). Although some Halloween costumes aren’t as racist as the blackface minstrel shows back in the day, they harken to similar prejudices. What these costumes have in common is that they make caricatures out of cultures, and that is simply not okay.

It’s points like this that I despair over. Casual acts of racism committed unwittingly by people who are simply products of a system are frustrating, but people simply flagrantly ignoring basic human decency in the service of a Hallowe’en costume makes me sad. It is around this time of year that I find myself having the same fight I always do, and hearing the arguments I always hear. Let’s go through them. [Read more…]

How do you know when you’re wrong?

Well there’s no definitive answer to this, but it’s a pretty safe bet you are if you’re considered too conservative for Texas:

Conservatives in the United States’ toughest crime-fighting jurisdiction — Texas — say the Harper government’s crime strategy won’t work. “You will spend billions and billions and billions on locking people up,” says Judge John Creuzot of the Dallas County Court. “And there will come a point in time where the public says, ‘Enough!’ And you’ll wind up letting them out.” Adds Representative Jerry Madden, a conservative Republican who heads the Texas House Committee on Corrections, “It’s a very expensive thing to build new prisons and, if you build ‘em, I guarantee you they will come. They’ll be filled, OK? Because people will send them there. “But, if you don’t build ‘em, they will come up with very creative things to do that keep the community safe and yet still do the incarceration necessary.”

I’ve spoken before about the terrible clusterfuck of ideas that is the incoming omnibus crime bill. It’s a mishmash of ideas, some of which are good, most of which are bad. Legal authorities, criminal law enforcement, opposition MPs, pretty much everyone who knows what they’re talking about when it comes to crime, they’ve all said that it’s a bad idea. Then again, our mighty ruling party has demonstrated repeatedly that it is relatively indifferent to outside criticism.

Until, apparently, they went to Texas. It’s not a trivial issue – arguments that work in Texas work for the Republican North party’s base. If there was anywhere that this type of bill should receive a warm welcome, it’s in “common sense” Texas. The only criticism one would be likely to expect is that Canada’s crime bill, coming from the great socialist north, would be seen as a bit “soft on crime”.

The problem is that Texas has about a 10-year crystal ball look into the future to know that this kind of approach just doesn’t work: [Read more…]

My day at atheist church

So unlike others at Freethought Blogs, I am not a writer of fiction. I used to be, once upon a time, but gradually migrated toward polemic. The nature of what I want to talk about today lends itself well to fiction though, so I am going to give it a go. This is my offering for what an “atheist church service” could look like.

My day at atheist church

I’ll confess to you that I was a bit nervous going to the new atheist church in Phoenix. Circumstances had forced me to uproot my job and relocate to Arizona – not exactly my idea of ideal living conditions. Luckily, my freemam from back in Vancouver called ahead to Leslie, the freemam of the parish closest to my new apartment to let her know I was coming. While I hadn’t gone to church much in Vancouver, Jacob (my old freemam) suggested to me that it would be a good chance for me to get my foot in the door, maybe make some friends. Shortly after I arrived, Leslie had stopped by after work to welcome me to the area.

So, it was with mixed feelings that I showed up at the library that morning, and headed into the back room where the service was happening. Unlike how we ran things in Vancouver, there was a greeter at the door offering me a nametag – I thought it was a nice touch. “You don’t have to take one,” he said “but it helps people know who’s new. If you’re not a fan of being hugged, I’d suggest writing your name in red pen – yeah it seems like a weird rule but we’ve had problems in the past. Curtis has boundary issues and some people were uncomfortable so we figured this system was easiest.”

I chuckled. My old parish had a “Curtis” too – an overbearing French woman named Amelie who reeked of cigarettes and decided that everyone was her best friend. I opted for the blue pen anyway – what are the odds, right? [Read more…]