The Vatican, Harry Potter, and Why My Brain Wants to Flee

Wait a minute. Let me get this straight.

According to Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist — and doesn’t it just gladden your heart that, in 2011, the Vatican still has a chief exorcist, or indeed any exorcist at all?

Sorry. Getting off topic. Although not really. Anyway. According to Father Gabriele Amorth, the Vatican’s chief exorcist, the Harry Potter books are bad because, quote, they “encourage children to believe in black magic and wizardry.”

Okay. Wait a minute. Let me get this straight.

The Harry Potter stories encourage people to believe in black magic and wizardry.

And exorcists don’t.

I think my brain just tried to escape my skull by gnawing its own foot off.

The Religious Right Vs. Every Woman on Earth: Rebecca Watson’s Talk at Skepticon 4

Rebecca Watson has an incredible superpower. When she does public speaking, she has an approach that’s casual, friendly, chatty, hilariously funny, and just generally pleasant and enjoyable to listen to… and then, without you even realizing it, she slams these hard and powerful ideas into your head. (It’s a power she shares with Jen McCreight. Together, they will conquer your brain. Bwa ha ha ha ha ha ha!)

Her talk at Skepticon 4 — on the appalling war being waged by the Christian Right on, you know, half the population — is no exception. Watch it. You’ll have a ball, and then your brain will explode with the anger and the brilliance. Enjoy!

#mencallmethings: “uglyass librarian”

Comment posted on the YouTube video of my Skepticon 4 talk:

“Damn…now they are going to think all unbelieving women look like uglyass librarians!”

Right. And now they are going to think all unbelieving men sound like misogynist assholes.

I’m devastated. No, wait. What’s that other thing? Annoyed. Exasperated. Facepalming so hard my eyes are spinning in their sockets.


And please, unless you’re a personal friend or someone I’m having sex with, don’t try to make me feel better by saying that I’m not ugly. If I write about fashion or post the hot pic of myself in the Skepticon calendar, you can say nice things about how I look… but please don’t do it here. I’m not calling this out to garner reassurance about my appearance. I’m calling this out to show people the kind of shit women routinely deal with on the Internet. I have a thick skin, and I don’t get my feelings hurt by sexist jackasses calling me names on the Internet. That isn’t the point.

The point is that women routinely get our ideas dismissed by attacks on our personal appearance. The point is that many men value women solely or primarily for our value as ornaments, sexual playthings, and/or babymakers — and these men think that, if they can undercut our value in these areas, it’s the same as undercutting anything we say or do. The point is that this attitude is widely prevalent in our culture, and has been for centuries… and the only way to stop it is to point it out when it happens, and laugh, and talk about how stupid and repulsive and fucked-up it is.

The point isn’t that I’m not ugly. The point is that it should not fucking well matter.

The Straw Vulcan: Julia Galef’s Talk at Skepticon 4

I know, I know. I keep saying “This was one of my favorite things from Skepticon 4.” That’s just how it is. Skepticon 4 was loaded with awesome. And Julia Galef’s talk on “The Straw Vulcan” was one of the awesomer pieces of awesome. She talks about pop- culture depictions of skepticism and rationality, especially in movies and TV — and how the form of rationality that’s depicted by Hollywood as hyper-rational is actually not rational at all. It’s a caricature, a straw-man version of rationality.

Galef’s talk is funny, smart, informed, informative, and highly engaging. It’s an excellent exposition of common myths about rationality — myths that even many rationalists and skeptics sometimes hold. It gives us excellent ammunition in debates and conflicts about the value of rationality with people who want to dismiss it. And it has lots of funny clips from “Star Trek.” How can you go wrong? You totally want to check it out. Enjoy!

Mental Illness and Why The Skeptic Community Should Give a Shit: JT Eberhard’s Talk at Skepticon 4

Everyone and their great-aunt Martha has been talking about this video — as they should be. I don’t know if I have anything to add. All I can really say is: If you have not seen this talk, I passionately urge you to do so. JT Eberhard speaks, with intense honesty and courage and eloquence, about his experiences with mental illness. And he calls on the skeptical community to take on mental illness: to speak out about it, to dispel myths about it, and to champion an evidence-based, non-fear-based, non-superstition-based approach to it. See it.

Why Are You Atheists So Angry? My Talk at Skepticon 4

My talk at Skepticon 4, “Why Are You Atheists So Angry?”, has been posted on YouTube! In what I hope is both an entertaining rant and a rousing call to action, I talk about atheist anger. I talk about whether the perception of the so-called “new atheist” movement as a fundamentally angry one is even accurate. I talk about why — specifically — many atheists are angry. I talk about whether or not that anger is valid. And I talk about whether this anger helps or hinders our movement. (Take a wild guess as to what I say…)

If you wanted to see this talk but couldn’t make it to the conference, here’s your chance. I did a pretty darned good job, if I do say so myself: Skepticon inspires me to be my very best. Many thanks to Rob at Hambone Productions for the excellent video work, and for getting it onto YouTube so promptly. There are lots more Skepticon 4 videos already up on his channel, and I’ll be continuing to link to them over the next few days. Enjoy!

Intransitive Gratitude: Feeling Thankful in a Godless World

If you don’t believe in God, what does gratitude mean?

I don’t mean specific gratitude towards specific people for specific benevolent acts. I mean that more broad, general, sweeping sense of gratitude: gratitude for things like good health, having food to eat, having friends and family, the mere fact of being alive at all.

I started thinking about this when I was watching the “Thanks for Skepticon” video that the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas put together, where they asked participants at Skepticon 4 to say what they were thankful for. Most of the folks in the video — myself included — took the question at face value, and spoke of our intense gratitude: for science and medicine, for friends and family, for jobs in an unstable economy, for trees, for the very fact that we exist at all.

But some participants — specifically PZ Myers and American Atheists president David Silverman — questioned the entire assumption behind the project. Silverman simply reframed the question: instead of saying what he was thankful for, he spoke about who he was thankful to. And Myers took on the entire enterprise directly. He said that asking people to be thankful for something was an attempt to “anthropomorphize the universe.” He said there were lots of things he liked — being alive, his wife, his kids, squid — but he wasn’t going to express gratitude to the universe, since the universe wasn’t capable of expressing any gratitude back.

Hm. Interesting point.

So this video — and the subsequent discussion of it on my blog — got me thinking: If you don’t believe in God, does it even make sense to say that you’re grateful for stuff? Not to specific people who did specific nice things — that kind of gratitude makes sense, obviously — but just general gratitude for the good things in our lives? Does the emotion of gratitude have to have a specific object, a conscious actor who made choices that affected our lives in positive ways? Or can we feel grateful without an object?

Is there such a thing as intransitive gratitude? [Read more…]

Brother Sam Singleton’s Atheist Revival: Video from Skepticon 4

Brother Sam Singleton. Easily one of the highlights of Skepticon 4. Okay, there were a whole lot of highlights of Skepticon 4, and over the next few days, I’m going to be saying “This was one of the highlights of Skepticon 4” a lot. And I’m going to mean it every time. But I want to start here.

You know how a lot of atheists — myself included — keep yammering about how the atheist community needs to acknowledge the human needs that religion is fulfilling, and find ways to fill them ourselves? Brother Sam Singleton is one of the folks on the ground actually doing that. Whatever else you may say about them, Christian evangelist prayer meetings fill some real human needs and desires: the need and desire for ritual, for shared ecstatic experience, for inspired and inspiring oratory, for letting loose and going wild in a safe and loving place. In his atheist evangelist performances — and especially in his new “Revival” show, which he debuted at Skepticon 4 — Brother Sam provides all that… without all the bullshit about an invisible friend in the sky who loves you more than anyone and is going to totally fuck you up if you don’t love him back exactly the way he wants.

Mimicking/ mocking a Holy Roller church service — complete with singing, praise, testimony from the audience, the whole nine yards — this is a much more participatory show than his previous ones, and it’s even more wildly fun. It is a hoot and a holler… laced with serious ideas, wild humor, and invective that’s like a razor blade dipped in venom. If Brother Sam comes to your area, I urge you to drop everything and make room in your calendar to see him. Especially if he’s doing “Revival.” I would happily see this show again and again. Goddamn!

This, by the way, is the infamous performance that ticked off Gelato Mio owner Andy Drennen and sparked Gelatogate. So if you just want to know what all that fuss was about… well, this is it. Enjoy!

Thanksgiving Religious Debate — All in the Family

Ingrid saw this on Facebook, and it was too priceless not to share. It’s a clip from an “All in the Family” episode from the ’70s… where the families get into an argument about religion and atheism. It’s amazing:

a) how relevant it is — the exact same argument is happening all over the Internet today, and probably at Thanksgiving dinner tables all over the country;

b) how casual they are about mentioning Mike Stivic’s atheism — it’s just assumed to be the case, and the “A” word gets used almost in passing, without any fanfare;

c) how skillfully Mike and Gloria shred the problem of suffering.

Enjoy — and have a happy Thanksgiving!

What Atheists Are Thankful For

What are atheists thankful for?

At Skepticon IV, the Fellowship of Freethought Dallas were videoing attendees/ speakers/ organizers/ vendors/ passers-by, asking us what we were thankful for. The results are thoughtful, sweet, giddy, funny, joyful, touching, occasionally freaky, and almost uniformly inspiring. I found myself riveted for the entire fifteen minutes. (I weigh in at 4:49, with my own excitable, somewhat grandiose effusions.)

I really liked how some participants — specifically PZ Myers and David Silverman — questioned the entire idea of thankfulness in a world without God or any sort of cosmic intentionality. (I’m actually planning an entire post on the whole concept of intransitive gratitude, and whether it makes any sense.) And the contrast between the atheists’ responses and the lone theist’s is startling: almost all of the atheists have clearly thought carefully about what their lives mean and what matters most to them, and are grateful for very specific, concrete things and people… while the theist just sort of yammers on vaguely about Jesus.

It’s perfect for Thanksgiving. Have a happy one!