An excess of optimism

I read this article, Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris are old news — a totally different Atheism is on the rise, with considerable disbelief.

More and more, the strongest atheist voices are talking about nonbelief less as an end in itself, but as part of a larger conversation about social justice. It could hardly be any other way: atheism is growing not only in numbers, but in diversity. When Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens were at their most prominent, a frequent (and credible) criticism was that the faces of atheism were all white, male and affluent. To make the same claim now is to deliberately ignore some of the most vital atheist and skeptic voices that have emerged in the last 10 years.

I wish.

It’s what I want to happen, and maybe I just have a distorted perspective, but when I look at my email and see the hate pouring in, all from atheists who are deeply resentful of women and minorities, and somehow blame me for letting them in (which is twisted enough as it is — these people are so far gone that they can’t imagine this situation occurring without an old white guy being responsible), and I don’t see what change this author is seeing. The same white, male, affluent (or white, male, not-rich-enough-and-hating it) faces are still here, still dominating the conversation, still smugly confident that they are right and in control, still flooding any women or minorities with concentrated bile.

I’m disillusioned. I’m not seeing any substantial improvement at all. And as just another old white guy, there’s not a damned thing I can do about it without getting all the blame/credit from the same old bigots.

#HumanismPlus? How about just plain humanism

Suddenly, my Twitter mentions and email are full of the usual assholes who have found a new bone to chew on. It seems the gamergaters and anti-feminists and alt-right twits have discovered that Sincere Kirabo is the Social Justice Coordinator at the American Humanist Association, and they are freaking out about “Humanism+” and how it must be destroyed. In addition, they’re ranting at me because, in their little minds, I must be behind it all, or am about to step in and take over humanism.

I know this will not matter to people so out of touch with reality, but I’m going to explain it slowly and carefully.

This is nothing new. Humanism has always been concerned with morality and ethics. Social justice is something that has always been a major focus. The American Humanist Association has merely launched new initiatives to specifically pursue social justice for black, LGBTQ, and feminist humanists. If this is surprising to you, well, we already knew you were a bunch of ignorant, regressive loons. This is precisely within the purview of humanism, and always has been, and it would only be unusual if a humanist organization rejected the idea of social justice.

Also, thank you for thinking I must be the mastermind behind a social justice initiative — that’s the kind of reputation I would like to have. However, I have had absolutely nothing to do with this program at AHA, and have no expectation of ever being asked to contribute to it. As for all the kooks calling it Humanism+ pejoratively and comparing it to Atheism+, I had nothing to do with the establishment and support of Atheism+, either, although I do think it was a great idea and that it was unfortunate that it was harassed into hibernation by you jerks.

It was a great idea, and it’s still a great idea — to attempt to make it clear that not all atheists were horrible, awful, rotten people. What seems to be a bad idea is the ongoing effort to make it clear that atheism is the domain of horrible, awful, rotten people, and drive all those who despise reactionary bigotry into the arms of humanism.

At least I like humanism. If you think you can remake it in the nature of YouTube atheism, I don’t think you’re going to succeed.

Laird Scranton wants to have a conversation

He has made an appearance in my thread ridiculing his superficial approach to history, and has invited me to join in his facebook discussion of the same. Unfortunately, he’s picked the worst time — I’m in Minneapolis, and will be flying off to Korea in the morning.

So far, he hasn’t managed to justify building elaborate and bizarre histories based on the similar sounds of words in Egyptian, Dogon, and Faroese, so I don’t see much point anyway. But you might find the rationalizations of his friends entertaining.

Skepticism will not fix its problems by denying their existence

Nature has a short news piece on the Horgan/NECSS spat. I’ve read several of the rebuttals now, and I’m not impressed: I can agree that Horgan’s talk was kind of scattershot, but let’s not go the other way and pretend that organized skepticism is a happy clappy land where all the issues are objectively evaluated and treated with the weight they deserve. There is a terrifyingly substantial number of skeptics who are rank assholes who hate anyone who introduces the concept of social justice into the organization; they are dominated by us privileged white guys, too.

Anyway, the reporter asked me to comment, and I’ve got teeny-tiny mention in the story (which is appropriate, it’s not about me), but since I sent him a longer argument, and I have a blog, I’m including it here.

Steve is correct that there has been frequent discussion about priorities. What he left out, however, is that the conclusion of such discussion has typically been to shout down anyone who argues that there are major social issues that ought to be on the skeptical slate, like war and racism, as Horgan mentions, and I would also add that feminism has been a hot-button issue. Novella is one of the more open people on these topics, so he sees a more benevolent skepticism than I do. I found the intolerance and narrowness of a great many skeptics so frustratingly oppressive, that I had to simply announce that I would have nothing more to do with the skeptical organizations, and stepped away from them as a waste of effort.

There is a fair amount of diversity in the skeptical movement. There are a substantial number of skeptics who buy into scientific racism, for instance, or are climate change denialists, or even, I’ve discovered, a few who believe in flying saucers. At least those latter people get laughed out of the movement, but the others have been dealt with by largely avoiding the topics, because they would bring on too much dissent. And when they do deal with them, they tread far more carefully than they do when addressing psychics or Bigfoot hunters.

On the other hand, Horgan commits the fallacy of relative privation. Bigfoot and chupacabra are silly topics, but as long as a significant number of people believe in them, they are part of the skeptical purview…and they also represent easy learning exercises, a kind of skepticism with training wheels. It’s just that too often, skeptics think they’re smart enough to dismiss UFOs, and then use that cockiness to also dismiss sexism or racism as equivalent. It makes for a very unpleasant environment for a lot of us.

Another concern that should have been brought up is skepticism’s treatment of women. You should definitely get a few women’s voices in your article. Karen Stollznow has had a less than happy experience with organized skepticism; Rebecca Watson has worked happily with Novella in the past, but has some general grievances with both the skeptical and atheist movements. They can tell you about another problem: that chronic harassers are tolerated and even rewarded within skepticism.

I would hope that rather than pretending all of Horgan’s objections are irrelevant, that the next meeting of NECSS makes an effort to include a few speakers who broaden the range and who gore a few dangerously sacred cows, not just the spavined beasts that make for light entertainment.

Just another murder in Bangladesh

Another intellectual, a professor of English, Rezaul Karim Siddiquee, was hacked to death in Bangladesh for the crime of being an atheist. The twist here, though, is that he wasn’t an atheist at all.

But according to his daughter, Rizwana Hasin, 23, he was not an atheist.

Siddiquee participated in cultural activities and wanted to open a music school in nearby Bagmara.

“He loved music. A concept is growing in Bangladesh these days that those who are interested in music, culture, are not believers in religion,” she told CNN.

First they come for the atheists, an easy target. Then they go after the artists, the poets, the writers, the musicians, the poets because they love the world too much and are not sufficiently fanatical. Then the teachers and other educators. This is one way to change the culture to make everyone believe as you do: chop down everyone who isn’t as ignorant as you are.

The future Bangladesh of their dreams will contain only people who know how to pray and how to use a machete, nothing more.

Please don’t, Bill Maher

Here comes another misbegotten idea from an obnoxious atheist. Bill Maher wants to make another documentary about religion. He wants to call it The Kings of Atheism. Yes. That’s all we need. Another atheist praising an elitist, authoritarian mindset in support of the status quo.

He really doesn’t get it.

Et ses mains ourdiraient les entrailles du prêtre,
Au défaut d’un cordon pour étrangler les rois.

No gods, no masters.

The man is completely tone-deaf. I felt that way about his previous movie, Religulous, too. But he might have a popular formula there, since a lot of atheists seem to be looking for secular priests to lead them.

I should have warned John Horgan

He gave a talk at a skeptics’ conference, and he called them out on their screwy priorities. You do not question movement skeptics on the importance of fighting Bigfoot.

The references to “Bigfoot” in the headline above and text below were inspired by a conversation I had with conference Emcee Jamy Ian Swiss before I went on stage. He asked what I planned to say, and I told him, and he furiously defended his opposition to belief in Bigfoot.

I can picture this — I’ve seen Swiss in Indignant Fury mode.

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Atheists vs. Theists

Back in the dim, distant past, I dispatched some of you to participate in a survey of atheists and theists. The data has come back now, and who knows, maybe you’re a few bits in this data set.

You’ll have to order the book to see the whole thing, but there were a few tidbits. You weirdos really do have some different perspectives than the god-believers, unsurprisingly.


We’re different, but that’s OK, because we’re also right.

#ParadigmSymposium: Why?


I’m back from the Paradigm Symposium, and one question I get is “Why do you waste your time with such crackpots?” Trust me, I was asking myself the same question while sitting there! So I thought I’d take a moment to explain why I subject myself to a weekend of torment.

  • Responsibility. We should know the actual views of the people you are opposing. This is why I visited the Creation “Museum”, why I’ll go to the Ark Park sometime after it opens, why I attended church services last summer, and why I attend creationist lectures when they come to Morris. I force myself to go because if I want to criticize, I have to know what I’m criticizing.

  • Curiosity. This is also an important reason — don’t you wonder what the crackpots are saying? There’s also a bit of morbid fascination at play, since it’s often like watching a train wreck. But honestly, I do want to know what their arguments are. What is their reasoning?

  • Humanizing. It’s really easy to think of The Other as subhuman, especially if you never engage with them. It’s important to be able to see people with different ideas as people like you, so I go to remind myself that the people at these things are not drooling monsters. They are ordinary, they are our neighbors, they share an interest in the universe with me.

  • Self-awareness. I go to many atheist/skeptic meetings with enthusiastic audiences; have you ever heard an atheist attendee declare, with relief, that they are so happy to be in a friendly environment, with people who think like they do and won’t disdain their ideas? I have, many times. We generally think that is a positive benefit of getting together in a community. Guess what? People at wacky paranormal conferences say exactly the same things! They are just the same as our meetings! Except for the content.

    This is why I sit quietly and respectfully through the Paradigm Symposium. I appreciate that atheist meetings serve a community purpose, I have to respect that it serves a similar purpose for other fringe elements, and that I should not be disruptive of that part of the gathering. (And yes, think about that: atheists are as fringey as conspiracy theorists and alien astronaut believers in the common culture, maybe more so.)

  • Community. We primates are enthusiastic participants in community. What are we looking for? It’s good to see others pursuing similar social goals, even if their commitment to rationality is weaker, and ask “What works for them? Why are they doing it?” We may have different goals, but the business of building bonds of cooperation is universal.

    Sad to say, one thing I’ve learned is that Alien Astronaut proponents form a community that is just as diverse and just as dysfunctional as atheism. What seems to work for them is a willingness to incorporate any nonsense into their belief system (“I believe in angels. You believe in space aliens. I think we can reconcile this by accepting that aliens are angels.”) I also see signs that being an outcast in their more traditional communities drives them together, which also fits with the atheist experience. I want us all to break away from the idea that we need persecution to bring us together, though.

  • Education. These people are seriously wrong, and are using a tragically erroneous method for figuring out how the world works. Can I find ways to get through to them?

    I don’t have a good answer for that one. It’s clear that just hammering them with the facts — pointing out that their view of evolution, for instance, is completely wrong — is not sufficient. They have a set of other needs, such as their belief that the universe has a purpose, that there are necessary functional connections between every event, and that they are uniquely special which inform their willingness to accept a sloppy stew of all kinds of nonsense, from the Bible to von Däniken to chemtrails. Tackling individual misconceptions are a small part of what we need to do; more important is to address bigger differences in their world view. Conspiracy theories are appealing because they affirm their belief that everything is interconnected with a web of causality. Genetic tinkering by aliens is attractive because they want to be told there is a purpose for the way they are, and the way the world works.

Attending this event was worthwhile for me for the above reasons. It was most definitely not worthwhile for the content, which was freakin’ distilled lunacy. But these are my fellow human beings, and I want to see where these beliefs come from, and how they survive.

And one thing I can say is that the people at these events are mostly harmless in any direct way. They hold beliefs that do indirectly cause harm to our culture, but otherwise, they’re nice, friendly people who aren’t there because they hate someone. If I really wanted to see the malicious side of a human community, I’d attend a Trump rally. I don’t have the fortitude for that.

#ParadigmSymposium: Scott Wolters, the Kensington Runestone, the Holy Grail, the Secret Treasure Vault of the Templars, and the Founding of America

Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) acquisition journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters?) one day's journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil. (side of stone) There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days journey from this peninsula (or island). Year 1362

Eight Götalanders and 22 Northmen on (this?) acquisition journey from Vinland far to the west. We had a camp by two (shelters?) one day’s journey north from this stone. We were fishing one day. After we came home, found 10 men red from blood and dead. Ave Maria save from evil.

(side of stone) There are 10 men by the inland sea to look after our ships fourteen days journey from this peninsula (or island). Year 1362

This is the Kensington rune stone. It’s a broken 200 pound block of stone, with Norse runes carved on it, that was dug up by a Swedish immigrant farmer in 1898. Kensington is just a short drive north of where I live, and the stone is currently on display in Alexandria. I’m unimpressed, but there are a fair number of people in this area of Scandinavian descent who really, really want to believe that Minnesota was settled by Vikings in the 14th century.

It’s a very silly ‘artifact’, clearly cobbled up by immigrants at a time when there was a lot of Scandinavian pride movements (I grew up in a family of Scandinavian descent, and I can tell you…yes, there is quite a bit of cultural pride, not undeserved, but sometimes getting a bit carried away). But the true believers can get a bit obsessive.

Scott Wolters is a true believer. He claims to be a forensic geologist, but his credentials in geology are practically non-existent (he used to claim he had a Master’s degree. He doesn’t). He was host of a very bad pseudo-archaeology show, America Unearthed, on the History Channel. His crap has been debunked many times, but that’s no obstacle to being at the Paradigm Symposium. I saw him here a few years ago, where the highlight of his presentation was noting that two points on a globe could be connected by a straignt line.

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