I’ll be at Women in Secularism 3. Will you?

Women in Secularism 3 is coming up fast, running from May 16-18 in Alexandria, VA. Among the speakers are Ophelia Benson, Barbara Ehrenreich, Melody Hensley, Susan Jacoby, and many other spectacular secularists you won’t want to miss. Also, I’ll be appearing on the following panels on Friday, May 16:

  • 1:15 pm – 2:45 pm
    Online Activism
    Moderator: Lindsay Beyerstein, Panel: Soraya Chemaly, Amy Davis Roth, Zinnia Jones, Miri Mogilevsky
  • 3:00 pm – 4:30 pm
    Intersectionality and Humanism
    Moderator: Soraya Chemaly, Panel: Miri Mogilevsky, Heina Dadabhoy, Zinnia Jones, Debbie Goddard

This is going to be really awesome and you should totally be there. Register early for discounted rates!

Siding with hate: Michael L. Brown

In February of 2008, 15-year-old Lawrence King was killed at E.O. Green Junior High School by his classmate Brandon McInerney. He was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range in the middle of a computer lab full of students, and then shot again as he lay on the ground. Lawrence had often been bullied by other boys for being openly gay, and Brandon had been teasing him for weeks. Lawrence responded by flirting with him. Brandon invited his friends to gang up and attack Lawrence, but none of them took an interest, so Brandon announced that he was going to get a gun and shoot him.

Several months after the shooting, Brandon told a psychologist that he was driven to kill Lawrence because he was insulted by his advances and because he wore makeup and high heels at school. On the day of the shooting, Brandon claimed to have had second thoughts about it, until he overheard Lawrence claiming to have changed his name to Leticia. The psychologist testified that this caused Brandon to enter a “dissociative state” for the duration of the killing. A mistrial was recently declared after jurors couldn’t agree on whether to charge Brandon with first-degree murder or voluntary manslaughter.

In a case like this that so exemplifies the defense strategy of blaming gay victims, even children, for provoking their own death, it’s no surprise that those who bristle at the very idea of gay youth would be desperately searching for a way to twist this to their own ends. And Christian commentator Michael L. Brown has seized this opportunity in the most vulgar way imaginable.

In a column on the American Family Association’s news site, Brown tries to blame just about everyone except for the murderer. Instead, he blames the school because they didn’t stop Lawrence from wearing makeup, which would have been a violation of California’s anti-discrimination laws. He blames gay people for opposing “any form of counseling that does not affirm homosexuality”, as if that would have been even remotely helpful here. He blames gay-straight alliances for allowing students to identify as gay “without their parent’s knowledge”. I didn’t know anyone needed their parents’ permission to have a sexual orientation. I’m pretty sure that’s not how this works.

But most of all, he blames gay rights groups for supporting gay students and encouraging them to be themselves in an environment that’s potentially dangerous to them. According to Brown, they should be telling these students to live in secrecy for their own protection during the entire time they’re in school. You know, it takes some real effort to miss the point so badly. Is this how we address bullying and harassment in schools now? By making the victims responsible for concealing themselves, and letting fear and violence prevail unchallenged?

If this wasn’t about the harassment of minorities, no one would even entertain such an insulting idea. If schools were plagued by anti-Christian violence, would we see Michael L. Brown blaming Christians themselves for working to make schools safe for Christian students and encouraging them to stand up for their rights? Would Christians be at fault for allowing students to wear crosses at school and identify as openly Christian? Would he tell these students they should just keep it a secret for the duration of their youth?

And yet gay rights groups are now expected to be complicit in the silencing, erasure, and closeting of gay students, for no reason other than to placate those who despise them. They’re supposed to fall back and appease these threats instead of fighting for a learning environment that’s safe for every student. No one could possibly believe this is an effective, responsible, ethical or humane way to address any kind of bullying.

Unless, of course, you don’t think the harassment of gay students is something to fight against. Unless you think the goal of reducing bullying is somehow compatible with having counselors tell students that their gay classmates are sexually disordered deviants who are acting contrary to God himself. Unless you think that not committing violence against gay people is simply too much to ask of everyone else, and their victims should be expected to pay the price. Unless you lack any genuine concern for students who just want to go to school without being in danger every day. Unless you’re a miserable, hopeless wretch with a Bible for a heart!

Anyone who thinks this is a viable solution must not realize that this has been tried before. Gay people have had to stay closeted for centuries simply for their own safety, and this did absolutely nothing to eliminate the hatred that put them in danger. That wasn’t good for anyone. But when being gay didn’t have to be a secret anymore, that started changing. People who personally know someone who’s gay are much more likely to have positive attitudes, and schools that support their gay students and specifically prohibit anti-gay bullying are safer as a result.

We don’t need secrecy to be safe, and no child should have to live with the terrible bargain of fear that forces them into hiding. Yet that is what Brown demands of them when he asks that we do nothing. There is a better way, and it’s not hard to see that the problem lies with the bullies rather than their victims. So why not start acting like it? When students are being harassed, attacked and even killed for being gay, the last thing we need is more of the same. And if your first thought after the murder of a gay student is that they shouldn’t have been so gay, what the hell is wrong with you?

Questions for Dr. Jillian T. Weiss

At The Bilerico Project, Dr. Jillian T. Weiss writes about a man who has been seen at various airports while wearing women’s clothing (picture at the link). Citing his particularly revealing manner of dress, she expresses concern that such attire could be covered under protections for gender expression that she’s been working to promote, and hopes that it would not:

No amount of “gender expression rights” talk is going to pretty this one up. I do not support this man’s right to fly clad only in female underwear.

However, her specific objections to his activity bring up a number of provocative issues that merit further exploration. First of all, must this even be an issue of gender? Certainly many would see it as such, and in the comments, Weiss claims that his clothing would not be a problem if he were female:

The thing is [...] that it would not be inappropriate for a young woman to wear that attire.

I find this improbable. On a woman, the same clothing would likely be considered just as inappropriate – suggestive, improper for the setting of air travel and excessively revealing. In his case, it also emphasizes the outline of his genitals. Note that this is only incidentally the result of his male anatomy, and not inherently due to cross-dressing and wearing women’s underwear; Speedos for men have a similar structure and would pose the same problem. It’s unlikely that this would be seen as any more appropriate, given the setting. So what’s the real issue here? Tastefulness aside, it’s his incomplete performance of femininity – wearing clothes associated with women while remaining visibly male. Is that, itself, reason enough to object to this? That someone is neglecting to adhere to a consistently masculine or feminine presentation? Weiss hints at this when elaborating on her standards:

I respect the right of everyone to dress how they wish, but only up to a point. Why draw a line, you ask? Am I not engaging in dressing behavior, as a transsexual, that was once not only considered improper but illegal?

Yes, I am. But that doesn’t mean there are no boundaries whatsoever. True, the boundaries are artificial, socially created constructs. But I live in a real world, not a theoretical one. I dress like a 50-year old female academic (in law, not fashion or the arts), and, frankly, I look like one.

There may indeed be boundaries, but where are they drawn? Defending your own choice of dressing counter to your assigned birth sex by citing your consistently and traditionally feminine appearance, as well as your transsexual status, suggests that while this should be considered acceptable, anything beyond that may not be. Where does this leave bigender, genderqueer and other people who may present as both masculine and feminine, and whose gender identity may not cluster near male or female or even fall on that spectrum at all? Assuming the passenger in question is a cisgender man, suppose he presented as fully female in traditional and conservative attire – would that still be a problem? Is cross-dressing out of bounds? What about drag queens and other such performances?

It seems unreasonable to say that dressing against one’s birth sex is something to be restricted to people who are actually transsexual. What cause is there for designating any variance outside of that to be an unacceptable expression of gender? If it’s a question of gender-congruent appearance, this could even encompass trans people who, for whatever reason, are often read incorrectly and not seen as their target gender. Though I doubt this is what Weiss intended, her reasons for objecting in this instance have unfortunate implications:

When older gentlemen demand the right to fly while dressed only in female undergarments, it undermines the argument that gender identity and expression are serious issues deserving of protection, because the demand stretches the concepts involved beyond all recognition. [...]

It is heartbreaking to me to think of all those people who have worked so hard simply to have the plain dignity and respect that every human being should receive, to see this man playing dress up on airplanes “just for fun.” This isn’t subverting gender norms, it’s strengthening them because it makes gender variance ridiculous.

Molding oneself and one’s movement to avoid public ridicule is a dangerous game. The same pattern appears elsewhere: masculine gay men will sometimes demean femmes as an image problem and a shameful liability, and LGB people will blame trans people for holding back the progress of gay rights. Does this mean that such groups should be disowned by everyone else because they scare people away and hold back the movement? If we’re to steer clear of whatever gender variance that people may find ridiculous, this will include far more than one oddball airline passenger. Even modestly dressed and gender-conforming trans people like Dr. Weiss may not be any more palatable to the wider public, simply due to the fact that they’re transsexual. That’s hardly a reason to cast them out for being politically inconvenient – but that’s the price you pay when you restrict your movement to include only that which the majority approves of.

This accomplishes nothing. Those who are unable or unwilling to recognize that this man is distinct from trans people are ignorant enough that they likely wouldn’t see trans people as any different in nature – while you may try to placate them with your normalcy, they’ll still regard you as anything but normal. But those who support gender identity and gender expression protections will likely understand that his behavior has nothing to do with the genuine identities of transsexual, transgender and gender-variant people. Pandering to common bigotry is a hopeless endeavor that only serves to diminish your own base of support.

As if to prove her point by example, Weiss goes so far as to suggest that this is cause enough to disavow gender expression protections:

Is this what ENDA is going to mean — that he can come dressed to work like this? Is this what we’re asking employers to support? I am not fighting for that. I do not find it fabulous, and I do not find it amusing.

I’m not advocating arrests of crossdressers, and I uphold anyone’s right to dress however they want in private. But I’m not defending this one. Is this what all my work on including statutory protections for “gender expression” comes down to? This makes me rethink that. Very seriously.

I tend to be suspicious of people whose support of minority rights is conditional rather than principled. It brings to mind the person who thinks their racism is justified by bad experiences with people of color, the person who would support marriage equality if they weren’t so disgusted by pride parades – someone who sees their own personal discomfort as a reason to deny someone else their equal recognition as a person. And it raises the question of just how firm their support really was to begin with. Do they truly stand for people’s rights, when someone exercising them in a manner they disapprove of is all it takes for them to change their minds?

Objecting to gender expression protections which would protect expressions of gender that you disagree with seems to be missing the point entirely. If such an attitude were universal, the emerging consensus would ensnare far more people than Dr. Weiss would likely be comfortable with – and it certainly would not be kind to trans people in the current social climate. If these laws only protected gender expression that everyone found acceptable, why would we even need them? She may be uncomfortable with this, but I’m far more uncomfortable with the alternative.

Announcing the Rational Day of Dialogue

The Day of Silence has been one of the most successful grassroots protests for gay equality in the past decade – so it’s no surprise that it’s also succeeded in drawing the ire of conservative Christians. Yes, apparently something so simple as students being silent to stand in solidarity with their gay classmates requires a response from the religious right. They’ve tried pulling their kids out of school on the Day of Silence, or at least claimed they were going to. They’ve tried setting up a so-called “Day of Truth” for their kids to tell people that being gay is a sin – which they decided to cancel because dozens of gay kids were killing themselves. You’d think that after this, they might give it up and stop trying to refute an anti-bullying campaign. But, like a bad case of ignorance, it just keeps coming back.

This year, Focus on the Family has rebranded it as the “Day of Dialogue”. A dialogue about what, you might ask? Well, it’s about “supporting those who want to express their faith-based viewpoints about homosexuality”. Because when people are standing up against anti-gay bullying, we can’t let that pass without an opposing viewpoint!

But if a dialogue is what they’re after, maybe that’s just what we need. When religion is being used to tell gay students that who they are is wrong, we should have a dialogue about that. If they’re going to talk about “what the Bible really says”, let’s talk about what the Bible really is. If they want to talk about how God made us, let’s talk about how we made God. If they want to have a Day of Dialogue, I say we make it a Rational Day of Dialogue. Because if they’re going to tell us that who we are is sinful, and expect us to take it on faith, that deserves a real answer.

Anti-gay proselytizing isn’t something that should go unchallenged in schools. Students should know the truth behind these religious claims: they’re not as unquestionable as they might seem. On April 18th, let’s have a real dialogue – a rational dialogue.

Find out more at Rational Day of Dialogue.

Status quo bias, charity, and the trolley problem

The excuses for supporting the Salvation Army, rather than one of the many non-discriminatory charities out there, are becoming progressively more flimsy. But even after I’ve addressed a number of objections to a boycott of the Salvation Army, there are still a few arguments that are very persistent. And while some of them may not actually need to be refuted, I do hope to at least disfigure them beyond recognition.

Some people have cited the Salvation Army’s near-ubiquity in providing social services, the relative accessibility of donating to them, and really just the sheer scale of their operation. But none of these constitute a reason why the Salvation Army should be considered more preferable than other charities. Even if the Salvation Army is responsible for the largest portion of charitable activities, it doesn’t mean you get more bang for the buck, so to speak, from giving to them. Your money isn’t necessarily doing more good for the dollar when it goes to the Salvation Army instead of another charity.

Besides, it’s not like charities are competing in some kind of first-past-the-post election, where whichever one provides a plurality of all charity services should receive all of the funding that would have gone to other charities. They may be the largest, but that doesn’t mean we have to support them, and it doesn’t mean the rest should be ignored. They’re only the largest because we support them, and if we stop supporting them, eventually they may not be the largest anymore.

And even if a certain charity places people practically everywhere to collect donations, that’s still not a very good reason to give to them instead of another group. Really, would you give your money to just any people who go to the trouble of putting a collection plate in front of you? Convenience alone is hardly the most relevant factor in choosing which charity you should support. And the entire purpose of drawing attention to the Salvation Army’s anti-gay beliefs is to reach people who want to make an informed decision about where their money is going and what it’s being used for.

Others claimed that the Salvation Army wouldn’t be prepared for a significant drop in donations, and that a major reallocation of funding from the Salvation Army to other charities would incur a great deal of administrative overhead that would ultimately take away from the actual charity services that they provide. But it seems obvious that an organization the size of the Salvation Army already has to be prepared to absorb shortfalls in funding that can result from a declining economy or just periodic fluctuations. This is the kind of thing they’d have to deal with regardless of whether we boycott them. Likewise, it’s not as though other charities would be completely unprepared for more donations than usual. If anything, they would almost certainly welcome this. They’re not going to be totally clueless about what to do with it all. Do you think they’ll have no choice but to spend it on Ferraris for everyone?

Perhaps the most enduring argument against a boycott is the claim that poor and homeless people would freeze to death or suffer some similar fate, and that we’re responsible for this if we choose not to give to the Salvation Army. People really love to tell me this, over and over. It’s easier to understand this argument if we split it up into two separate parts. First, there’s the attempt to persuade us with a vivid example of people dying in the streets for lack of food and shelter if we don’t support the Salvation Army. The second part, which is usually left unsaid, is the implication that we should consider this a compelling reason to keep giving to the Salvation Army. It’s important to distinguish between these two points, because I can fully acknowledge that depriving them of our money could actually mean that more homeless people will die this winter. I just don’t see why I should care. And I’ll explain why.

While the problem of poverty and homelessness is definitely something that needs to be addressed, this just isn’t a good argument for why we should give to the Salvation Army and not other charities. It relies on the kind of dramatic emotional appeal that could be made in favor of practically any cause. If this is supposed to be a valid reason to support the Salvation Army, someone else could just as easily say, “If you don’t support this charity, children in Africa are going to starve to death, slowly.” Would we then be compelled to give to that charity instead? The argument being made here is identical. Of course, someone else could then respond with another striking example of families going hungry if we don’t give to the Salvation Army, and then we’d once again have to donate to them.

So, would this ever-escalating exchange of emotional appeals force us to keep bouncing back and forth between giving to one charity, or another, or another? That seems kind of absurd, and it’s easy to realize that this isn’t a sound basis for deciding which charities we should support. And once we understand that this isn’t so persuasive after all, it’s plain to see why this argument doesn’t work for the Salvation Army either. So when someone tells me, “Homeless people are going to freeze to death and it’s your fault!”, I can feel completely confident in saying, “So?” I have nothing against the homeless, of course – just like I don’t have anything against the myriad other causes that I haven’t donated to. But in this case, the Salvation Army simply isn’t special.

What’s interesting is that even once I’ve pointed this out, people are still reluctant to choose not to give to the Salvation Army. Even when they’ve been doing essentially the same thing all along by choosing not to give to other charities, they still insist that we should support the Salvation Army only. Somehow, supporting the Salvation Army at the expense of other charities is good, but supporting other charities at the expense of the Salvation Army is bad. But there’s really no reason why the Salvation Army should be considered exceptional here, any more so than any other charities. Many of them do just as much good, usually with equal or greater efficiency.

It seems that for some people, their perspective here isn’t derived from the actual outcome of giving to one charity and not another – which is roughly equivalent – but rather based on another factor entirely. I suspect that there may be some, to use the technical term, “weird stuff” going on in their heads. Obviously, feeding a starving child in India is in no way inferior or less valid than feeding a starving child in America. People are people, and people are equal. There’s no particular reason to prefer giving to the Salvation Army versus another charity, so there’s nothing wrong with choosing a group that doesn’t endorse openly homophobic religious views. So why do people still insist on supporting the Salvation Army, even to the point of claiming that anyone who gives to another charity is basically killing the homeless?

I’m inclined to think that they consider donating to the Salvation Army to be a sort of default state, almost like something that’s been chosen for them ahead of time, and they don’t seem to act like they have as much responsibility for that. But once we make the decision to give to another charity instead, it’s like we might as well have unleashed a pack of rabid wolves on families in poverty. What’s up with that? It seems like there’s something about actually thinking about this, and then making an intentional choice, that makes people more uncomfortable with the results of this, and causes them to feel more personally and directly responsible for the ultimate outcome. Even if that outcome is effectively identical.

This is actually a well-studied phenomenon in the field of ethics. There’s a certain thought experiment known as the trolley problem which helps illuminate the differing attitudes toward making choices like this. For example, just hypothetically, would you prefer for one person to die, or five people to die? Most people would say that one person dying is preferable.

Now suppose that a train is speeding out of control, and there are five people on the track directly ahead of it who can’t get out of the way. However, there’s another track with only one person who can’t get out of the way. You have the opportunity to pull a switch that will divert the train onto the other track, killing one person but saving the other five. Should you pull the switch? In this situation, not as many people are willing to choose for one person to die rather than five, when they’re the one who’s actually pulling the switch.

For another scenario, suppose you’re standing on a bridge above an oncoming train that’s about to run into five people. There’s also a very large man next to you, large enough that if you push him off the bridge, his body will stop the train and save the other five people. Should you push him off the bridge? In this case, even more people refuse to do it, regardless of the fact that it would have the same result: one person dies instead of five.

Overall, the trolley problem isn’t really about figuring out what the right choice is, so much as it’s meant to demonstrate the interesting variations in people’s decisions under different circumstances. It seems that people aren’t as concerned about the actual results of their actions as they are with their perceived degree of personal involvement: from making an abstract choice, to pulling an actual switch to kill a person, to actively pushing someone in front of a train. Even when the outcome of taking action would be objectively better, many people still don’t want to have anything to do with this.

And something similar seems to be going on here. For some people, continuing to give to the Salvation Army like they always have is viewed as the equivalent of just not touching the switch. They see it as something that was already going to happen, and they don’t want to make an active choice to change this. But when we do consciously decide not to donate to the Salvation Army, they see us as becoming more personally involved, like throwing someone in front of an oncoming train. And that’s when they tell us that we’re effectively leaving homeless people out in the cold because we chose another charity instead. All of a sudden, we somehow become morally culpable in a way that they seem to think they aren’t.

What they’ve failed to realize is that they’re already just as involved as we are. They flipped that switch when they decided to let children around the world die for lack of food or clean water or medical care, so they could give to the Salvation Army instead. Yet this doesn’t seem to bother them. So how can they expect us to be persuaded by the same argument that they themselves don’t find convincing? They’ve made practically the same choice already. Why is it okay for them, but not for us?

Again, the Salvation Army is not special. There’s no reason to think that they’re the best charity out there or the only good option, and as I’ve explained, there are actually plenty of reasons not to give to them. And we don’t have to feel bad about supporting other charities instead. Someone’s probably going to die no matter what. But someone is going to be cared for, too. So don’t be afraid. Pull the switch.

The Salvation Army and “the most good”

In the brief time since I proposed a boycott of the Salvation Army for their anti-gay policies, I’ve received quite a wide variety of responses. It’s clear that there are a lot of people who weren’t aware of this, and many of them have decided not to give to the Salvation Army for this reason. And that’s exactly what I was hoping for – and I hope even more people will learn about this, too. At the same time, there are a significant number of people who defended the Salvation Army, and for one reason or another, don’t see this as a sufficient cause to boycott them.

In particular, it was striking to see how many people are willing to ignore their policy of official homophobia, and don’t consider this a dealbreaker in terms of giving them money. And I have to wonder if people would be so forgiving of an openly racist or anti-semitic organization. If they knew that a certain group had an official position stating that the white race is inherently superior, or Jews are just “imperfect Christians”, would they still go right ahead and keep supporting them? Would that not make them stop and think that maybe they shouldn’t involve themselves with such a group? It’s interesting that they’re apparently much more tolerant of discrimination against gay people – like this just doesn’t matter to them. It really does seem to be one of the last acceptable prejudices.

Of course, some people have tried to turn this around and claim that we must be discriminating against the Salvation Army, and that not supporting them because of their anti-gay beliefs is somehow a kind of bigotry all its own. It’s rather amusing that anyone would even attempt such a ridiculous argument. It’s quite obvious that standing against bigotry, and taking action to discourage it, is not itself bigotry at all. Indeed, this stands in direct opposition to bigotry. It’s kind of like saying that if you oppose racism, you must be “bigoted against racists”. (Or racist against bigots.) The real bigotry at work here is the passive bigotry of those who would allow such discriminatory attitudes to proliferate unchecked, without ever lifting a finger to stop them. Arguably, choosing to let bigotry proceed without interference can mean being complicit in it yourself. But actively opposing it is most certainly not just another kind of bigotry.

Other people have attempted to minimize this issue by saying that the Salvation Army doesn’t have a problem with gay people, only with the act of gay sex. But I don’t see how that’s supposed to be any better. There’s still no legitimate reason to be against gay sex, just like there’s no reason to object to being gay in and of itself, either. Besides, who do they think is having all the gay sex, anyway? Even if this is what they believe, it doesn’t make their anti-gay policies any more acceptable. Really, is it supposed to be a good thing that they expect people to never have a loving, intimate relationship with another person, for no good reason at all? I don’t see how. A position like that is still just as deserving of a boycott.

Meanwhile, some people have accused us of depriving the poor and the homeless of food and shelter by not giving to the Salvation Army. Obviously, this is not our intention whatsoever. If people do withhold their support from the Salvation Army, I certainly hope they’ll give to another charity instead. We don’t want to undermine services for those in need. But we also don’t want to fund a group like the Salvation Army. And if not giving to the Salvation Army means we’re letting the poor go hungry, you could just as well say that supporting the Salvation Army means letting children in Haiti die of cholera.

I would have to ask why people aren’t willing to hold the Salvation Army itself accountable for attaching completely irrelevant homophobic policies to an otherwise very helpful operation. Where is their responsibility for driving people away from a worthwhile cause with needless bigotry? It’s rather unreasonable to demand that people support your openly anti-gay organization under the implied threat that you’ll have to throw poor people out on the street. That’s just repulsive, and it really amounts to a kind of blackmail. In boycotting them, we’re simply refusing to take the bait. So yes, we do want to make an impact on the Salvation Army itself. By making our support for them contingent upon whether they withdraw their anti-gay policies, they now have an incentive to do so. If we gave them our money regardless of what their policies were, they would never have any reason to change. And that’s kind of the point of a boycott.

Others have said that the Salvation Army are the only ones providing vital services in some areas, and so there is no option but to support them. But clearly, there is another option, and this is really a self-reinforcing argument whose validity relies upon its own application. Of course there won’t be any other groups providing these services, if everyone always donates to the Salvation Army. That’s never going to change if you keep giving them your money – nobody else could ever get off the ground! If this is the reason you have to keep giving to the Salvation Army, it’s only a reason because you keep giving to the Salvation Army.

Most significantly, nearly all of the objections to a boycott shared one common thread: that regardless of their anti-gay policies, the Salvation Army does a lot of good. The implication seems to be that this makes their homophobia more acceptable – as if that somehow makes up for it. It’s surprising how many people think that this is what charity is about.

Certainly we’re all familiar with the concept of penance, even in a secular context: when we’ve done something wrong, we try to make up for it. But what happens if you reverse this? Can you do something good in advance, so as to earn a certain amount of “moral currency” you can spend to permit yourself to do something bad? Not really. The entire point of making up for something bad is that you recognize that you were wrong to do it, you try to make things right, and hopefully you’ll avoid doing that again. But there is no recognition of this wrongdoing, or intention of avoiding it in the future, when you continually use your good deeds to grant yourself a perpetual license to do harm. This seems rather inconsistent with the purpose of a charity.

Even the Salvation Army’s own motto is: “Doing the most good.” And that’s a goal I would completely agree with. But many people, perhaps even the Salvation Army themselves, apparently have a concept of what “doing good” means that is completely at odds with this. Quite simply, they don’t seem to actually care about doing the most good – emphasis on the “most”. Instead, they’re only concerned with maintaining a moral surplus of sorts, and staying out of the red. As long as they do enough good to break even and stay in the black, then they can squander as much of that goodwill as they want on doing bad things.

But this is obviously self-defeating. Why go to the trouble of doing so much good if you’re just going to detract from it by doing harm? That’s not “doing the most good” – it’s only “doing mostly good”. You aren’t maximizing the good you do, you’re just staying out of debt. That’s not what a charity is for. If they truly want to do the most good, then they can do more good by doing less harm. And really, if this is supposed to be an excuse, then just how much does it excuse? How much harm would you allow them to do before you would no longer support them? And, once they’ve reached that point, how much more good would they have to do before you would support them again? This is certainly worth considering when your idea of morality is nothing but a balanced budget.

Once again, I’d like to thank everyone who watched the video and decided to join the cause. I hope you’ll share it with people so more of them will know about this, and we might just make a difference here.

(crossposted from YouTube)

I bet I can find at least one good reason for what I do

Hi, Aaron. As you’ve probably come to expect of me, I’m just going to jump right into analyzing some of the things you said.

Your central point appears to be that my videos make no difference – that they fail to influence people’s religious views, and are thus a waste of time. You seem to place all potential viewers into two distinct categories: either they already agree with me, making my videos superfluous, or they don’t agree and are completely beyond the reach of any kind of persuasion, firmly and inextricably entrenched in their views.

This probably isn’t the case. Not all of the people who don’t share my views are forever inaccessible and totally unable to be convinced otherwise. Some are, but they certainly don’t comprise the entirety of everyone who disagrees with me. There are actually plenty of people whose belief systems, while different from my own, are capable of changing when challenged in one way or another. They are potentially “vulnerable” to that – they have not all placed themselves off-limits to argument.

One case of someone who may be open to persuasion would be a person who perceives that there may be something not quite right about their religion, and harbors some primordial doubts about it, but lives in an environment where their culture and even their own life has been thoroughly infused with religion, to the extent that actively rejecting and leaving their faith is unthinkable. These influences may deter them from further pursuing any doubts they may have, and they’ll instead simply “go with the flow” as their family, friends and culture expect of them, remaining observant of their religion. They may not even be aware that outright nonbelief is possible, let alone capable of offering a more richly developed and satisfying outlook on life than their current faith. Exposing such people to the atheistic worldview can open doors for them that they might not have even realized were there.

Another example would be the people who simply don’t think very much about the religion they follow. If it’s something they’ve always been a part of, they might not have contemplated the possibility that there are other religious views available, or that they could be wrong. Some people really have just never considered these things, instead operating on “autopilot” for a large part of their lives without critically examining their own beliefs. In this case, there could definitely be certain arguments that might make them think about their religion in ways they never have before. It’s quite possible that such people can have various different “threads” hanging from the sweater of their beliefs which, when pulled, kickstart the process of unraveling the entire thing. Some people really do have weak spots in their belief systems that can be targeted by specific arguments.

In essence, there is still a movable middle here of people who, while religious, can be persuaded to change their views. Religion is not always a fully-enclosed, impenetrable and unfailingly self-reinforcing system for everyone who believes in it. For instance, I’ve received numerous responses from Christians and other nonspecific believers who acknowledge that I have good points, even if they don’t fully share my views. There are also many atheists who were previously religious, but eventually settled on atheism because something happened that helped to change their beliefs.

You said that, if someone is capable of becoming an atheist, they can “get there on their own” without our assistance, and that they can only “see it and realize it for themselves”. But not everyone truly is capable of reaching these conclusions on their own. It isn’t an inevitability; simply being capable of arriving at a position of atheism does not mean that one necessarily will. Individuals are not fully complete, independent and self-reliant fonts of rationality unto themselves. By sharing our ideas, we fill in the gaps in each other’s abilities, the different areas that were missed and left blank by our varying faculties. Outside perspectives are valuable because they present ideas that people may not have realized or discovered by themselves – or it may have taken them a much longer and circuitous route to get there. So, while you maintain that “if someone’s smart enough to connect the dots, they’re going to do it with or without your help”, we can still accelerate this process by smoothing the path ahead of them. Even if they are smart enough to connect the dots – and I certainly hope they are – they could nevertheless benefit from having the dots clearly pointed out, in the form of pre-digested and easily accessible arguments. They aren’t equally obvious to everyone, even among potential atheists.

You are right to point out how important it is to reach people as early as possible and provide them with the intellectual tools to recognize, resist and reject religious belief systems. Prevention should certainly be a significant component of atheistic outreach. But religion, once acquired, is clearly not an incurable condition. These people are not forever lost, and it’s just as important that we try and reach them as it is for us to keep religious belief from taking hold in the first place. Not all of them can be written off, because there is a real possibility that some of them could change their views – given the proper approach. It would be foolish to ignore all of them as hopeless when many may not be.

So, am I really making no difference here? Is it true that “no number of YouTube videos will win people over”? I don’t think so. The format in particular lends itself to easy, widespread dissemination of ideas and arguments. YouTube is an immensely popular platform, and there are many people who prefer to simply watch videos as a “passive receiver”, rather than having to actively read something which requires greater effort on their part. Perhaps unfortunately, video can be more popular than the written word, and it appeals to a very different kind of audience. I consider it worthwhile to present my views to them, because I think it’s possible that they could find it helpful, and it could ultimately effect some kind of positive change in their beliefs. Posting videos also makes it simple for viewers to share them with their own networks of acquaintances, and expose more and more people to these ideas. In this way, it can take on a life of its own, and grow into something more than I could accomplish alone.

Are there “better battles to fight” than this? Quite possibly – I certainly wouldn’t doubt it. But religion is still a very important one. Working to reduce the prevalence of religious belief and observance holds the promise of, in turn, reducing the problems it causes, and that is not a minor issue. If this can realistically be achieved, it’s worth fighting for, and I hold that my efforts can be effective in influencing people’s beliefs here. While it’s obvious that the unreachable people are unreachable, not all people are. And the ones who can be reached, should be.