Chris Stedman Interviews Dale McGowan

Chris Stedman has an interview with my friend (and boss) Dale McGowan. Dale participated earlier this week in the kickoff event for the President’s Interfaith and Community Service Campus Challenge at George Washington University, representing the secular and humanist community. In the interview, he makes a powerful argument about why it’s important for humanists to participate in interfaith events:
[Read more…]

Maybe it would help if we fired all the oracles and listened to the criticisms

I have my disagreements with Chris Stedman — he’s kind of representing the ooey-gooey side of atheism, while I’m typically on the harsh, strongly worded side (I know, you’re surprised). So, goddamn it, I hate it when I have to admit that he’s right, and that my side has been too accommodating to the fanatically godless side, which just luuurves ’em some alt-righties.

I’m still an activist, but after nearly a decade of active participation in online atheism (a loose community of forums, blogs, YouTube channels, and fandoms of figures like evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and writer Sam Harris), I mostly stepped away from the online side of atheism a few years ago. One of the biggest reasons for this was my growing concern over its failure to adequately address some of its darker currents—such as overt sexism, racism, and anti-Muslim bias.

I’ve been backing away myself, and I was smack in the middle of online atheism for years. It’s for the same reasons.

By neglecting to address its darker currents, online atheism has perhaps unknowingly planted the seeds for the alt-right’s harvest. Three years ago Reddit’s atheism subforum, perhaps the largest community of atheists on the internet, was found to be the website’s third most bigoted—meaning not just tolerant of overt displays of bigotry, but actively supportive of them. Last year, the Daily Beast revealed that the study’s most bigoted Reddit subforum, the Red Pill, was founded by Robert Fisher, a Republican state lawmaker who is also an atheist.

The problem is more widespread than figures like Spencer and Fisher, too. While championing liberal views on some issues, many of atheism’s most prominent advocates—the majority of whom are, like me, cisgender white men—have expressed troubling sentiments that align with views held by the alt-right and faced little to no consequences.

Last year Sam Harris hosted Charles Murray—who has famously argued that black people are genetically predisposed to lower IQs than whites—on his immensely popular podcast, calling Murray a victim of “a politically correct moral panic.” Harris has in the past called for profiling “Muslims, or anyone who looks like he or she could conceivably be Muslim.” (When I challenged him on this, he suggested I “wear a t-shirt stating ‘There is no God and I am Gay’ in Islamic countries and report back on [my] experiences.”) Outspoken atheist Bill Maher rightly came under fire last summer for using racist language on air. He has also argued that “most Muslim people in the world do condone violence,” told “transgendered” [ sic] people to be quiet, and gave alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos a sympathetic interview on his HBO show. Lawrence Krauss, a popular skeptic who now faces numerous sexual harassment allegations, has criticized the #MeToo movement. Richard Dawkins, perhaps the most famous atheist in the world, has mocked women for speaking out about experiences of sexual harassment, shared a video ridiculing feminists, and railed against “SJWs” (short for “social justice warriors,” a derisive term for social justice activists). Look beyond atheism’s biggest names and you will find vocal Trump supporters like author Robert M. Price and immensely popular atheist YouTubers with more than a million subscribers. Their views are likely shared by more atheists than many would like to admit.

Yeah, what good is atheism as a philosophy if it can’t even find within itself a reason to condemn Nazis, bombing campaigns against Muslim countries, and discrimination and harassment against women? I know that several of the big organizations, like the Freedom From Religion Foundation and American Atheists, are quite clear that they are pro-feminism and anti-Nazi, but it seems like the base have been drifting away to the siren song of the anti-Muslim, racist right (or, as they prefer to call themselves to the point that the word has lost all meaning “centrists”).

Trav Mamone has identified one of the deeper problems in the atheist movement.

One thing I suggest is getting rid of the concept of the atheist celebrity. By declaring just a handful of prominent atheist activists to be the movement’s leaders, it creates a hierarchal system where the same arguments against God get repeated ad nauseam, and newer ideas about how to put humanist values into action are ignored. Everyone should be a leader in the atheist movement, whether that person is fighting for church and state separation in a small town in Pennsylvania or creating a community for liberal atheists living in the Bible Belt. Martin Luther King once said, “You don’t have to know the theory of relativity in order serve.”

There’s always got to be a figurehead, apparently — even MLK has become one. I agree wholeheartedly that we have to get out of that stupid “four horsemen” mindset and recognize that an effective movement has ten thousand leaders, and no one is just a follower, and we’re always ready to criticize, and listen to criticism. Another of our problems is that our “leaders” have been remarkably thin-skinned and unwilling to tolerate disagreement, let alone act on it to change course. We need to be more adaptable.

Until we achieve that kind of breadth and resilience, though, clearly we need to make Trav the King of Atheism. All bow down and worship their wise words.

Ask a stupid question, get a stupid answer

Tezcatlipoca, god of hurricanes

It happens every time a natural disaster occurs: the ghouls creep out of their crypts and get national press coverage for their rationalizations. One example: Rick Stedman, generic Christian pastor and apologist, has emerged to ask a stupid question.

When hurricanes like Harvey devastate so many lives, where is God?

That’s a really good question—one which I’ve heard whenever a hurricane, tornado, or tsunami wreaks havoc—and it deserves an honest, though maybe surprising answer.

No, it’s not a good question. Where is Harry Potter? Where is Dread Dormammu? Where is Aquaman? These would also be stupid questions, because they are fictional characters, and we know exactly where they are: in the pages of books and comic books. They’re not going to emerge when a catastrophe strikes.

The only people who ask that question are religious apologists. It never occurred to me, for instance. This is the kind of question people ask when reality comes up and smacks their mythologies in the face, and they have to figure out an excuse for why their all-powerful superhero didn’t show up to help out. The rest of us…nope, we have known all along that nature isn’t necessarily our friend, that good and evil don’t apply in the cosmic scheme of things, and we have no expectations of beneficent super-beings feeling obligated to ride to our rescue.

As you might expect, though, Stedman is going to give us his stupid answer to his stupid question, and — big surprise — it’s not going to be surprising at all. His excuse is that his God was there, expressing himself in the charity and kindness of human beings in the face of adversity, because, apparently, people are incapable of recognizing the importance of their friends and neighbors and family, or even strangers, unless they are possessed by a supernatural entity. Whenever you see someone doing something nice, that’s God, not actually that person acting ethically. I think it might be part of that odious Christian doctrine that says we’re all evil sinners who deserve Hell, except Jesus somehow ‘saved’ us. How the idea that goodness is a manifestation of God could be compatible with Christian versions of Free Will that say our actions are our choice, so evil is our problem, not God’s, I don’t know.

It seems simpler to me to cut out the imaginary phantasmal middle man and credit human beings themselves with the good and evil they do, but then, I’m not soaking in Christian dogma.

Then there’s also a purpose to God unleashing hurricanes on us:

In a world that assumes there are no objective rights and wrongs, tragedies recalibrate our moral compasses and remind us that some things are always right.

See, God killed those people and destroyed their homes and livelihood sorta like how he tortured Job: it’s a test to help them see what is right and what is wrong. It really makes it crystal clear that when someone kills your dog and your aunt, turns your home into a mudhole, blows up your workplace, and spews chemical poisons all over your neighborhood, it reminds us that there is an objective good and evil, and if your moral compass is properly calibrated, you ought to realize that the omnipotent agent (if there is one) who spawned that death and destruction to wake us up to the nature of what is good and evil is Himself an evil mofo, and we ought to stop making excuses for him. Right? If your moral compass is still so fucked up that you scribble out apologias the deity you love, then presumably you are now in need of a colossal natural death strike on your home to straighten you out.

I don’t think even that would help Stedman, though. He’s drunk so much Kool-Aid he’s oozing Purplesaurus Rex and Incrediberry out of his pores. Look at this bullshit:

Families wept over the death of loved ones, just as Jesus wept near the tomb of his friend Lazarus. Could our tears and sorrows be reminders that death was not part of our original design, that we were created to be like God—immortal?

I have never in my life grieved over the death of a loved one because it reminds me that, oh yeah, I’m supposed to be God-like and Immortal, and gosh, the loss of this loved one sure is a painful prod to make me think of how I got stiffed out of my Cosmic Destiny by that Eve chick. I’m not crying for them, it’s for getting cheated out of my supernatural inheritance.

Jebus, but I despise Christianity.

And then he has to top it off by sniping at evolution.

(Think about it: if atheistic materialism is true, don’t you think we would have become used to death in 3+ billion years of life on planet Earth? Wouldn’t we have settled the case that human deaths are par for the course and shouldn’t trouble us more than the death of a plant or pet?)

Any time a Christian says something along the lines of If evolution is true, then…, you can predict that they’re going to say something that reveals the depth of their ignorance.

It seems to me that if evolution would predict anything along those lines, it would be that successful lineages would evolve mechanisms to promote survival and to resist death, even inevitable, ubiquitous death. Getting “used to death” is such a weirdly narrow anthropomorphism, since most organisms are going to lack the awareness that is behind the concept of “getting used to”, and because we would expect that successful organisms would resist death.

But then, maybe this is part of the Christian experience. They get used to the unutterable boredom of having to sit through miserable church services every week, so they imagine that is what life is all about — getting accustomed to the intolerable. That’s what they think their imaginary afterlife is all about, too…an eternity of repetitive, predictable slavery. They expect they’ll get used to it. Rick Stedman will help them!

The Pros and Cons of Antitheism

Well, since every other atheist blogger is debating whether or not antitheism has merit, I guess I better throw in my two cents.

When I first became an atheist, I was in the Chris Stedman faitheist camp. After seeing so many angry atheist trolls online, I didn’t want to join their camp. Plus, shortly before deconverting, I was (loosely) involved with the liberal Christian scene, so I knew not all Christians were fundamentalists. In fact, I still have progressive Christian friends who are just as passionate about social justice as I am, like AnaYelsi Sanchez (for whose blog I wrote a guest post). So while, like Tony Thompson, I will never break bread with people who think I shouldn’t have basic human rights, I have no problem partnering with progressive believers for secular social justice work.

And yet when it comes to religion as a system and an institution, I don’t see any reason why we still need it.

Christopher Hitchens once said, “I challenge you to find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.” I tried, but couldn’t. Community? You can find that at a bowling league. Music? Go to a local Open Mic Night. Wisdom? Try the library. Wonder and awe? Look at the stars at night. Morality? Try either John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism or Virginia Held’s The Ethics of CareThere is literally no need for religion in the 21st century. That doesn’t mean religious people are fools; most of them just don’t know you can have a fulfilling life without a god.

Plus, even though I’m happy to work with progressive believers for secular social justice work, progressive religion still has a lot of fucked up theology. For example, a lot of my progressive Christian friends love to quote the parable of the sheep and goats, and while it’s a nice story on the surface, I’ve seen way too many progressive Christians turn it into another form of shame. I can’t tell you how many blogs posts I’ve read from Christians flogging themselves because they deliberately walked away from a homeless guy on the street. Don’t get me wrong; I’ve lied to homeless people and said I didn’t have any spare change, and then felt guilty about it. However, Christians don’t see it as failing to help a fellow human being; they believe they actually failed the Creator of Heaven and Earth. Talk about extra pressure!

So does that make me an antitheist? I don’t know, and I really don’t care. I find labels like “antitheist, “faitheist,” “firebrand,” and “diplomat” to be superficial. I just do whatever I can to make the world a less shitty place. Sometimes it includes calling out religion’s bullshit, and sometimes it’s working with a religious person for a common goal. Sometimes it’s having conversations with people who disagree with me, and sometimes it’s telling them they’re full of shit. Make of it what you will.

Reason Rally 2016 Was A Family Reunion

reasonrallysjw

Left to right: Ari Stillman, the Prophet Jeremiah, me, Ms. Ashley, and Eli Bosnick

There’s some debate about whether or not Reason Rally 2016 was a success or not. Hemant Mehta recently wrote about several factors that may have had something to do with why there were only around 10,000 attendees compared to the estimated 30,000 that went to the first one, and while he brings up several good points, I still think it was a success. I didn’t get a chance to hear all the speakers, but the ones I did hear–David Silverman, Lawrence Krauss, Cara Santa Maria, and Bill Nye–were fantastic. But the main reason why I say it was a success was because, to me, it was a family reunion.

Ever since I started the Bi Any Means podcast and writing for The Humanist last year, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with countless bloggers, writers, podcasters, and activists online. Reason Rally was my chance to finally meet them all in person. And let me tell you–I’ve never felt more welcome ever in my life than I did this past weekend!

Friday night before the Rally, I had drinks with the folks from No Religion Required, The Gaytheist Manifesto, Bill and Suzy from Bar Room Atheist, Eli Bosnick of The Scathing Atheist, Korrine of the Ehtheist Podcast, Heretic Woman from Beyond the Trailer Park, Wyatt Matthers from Atheist Avengers, Andrew Garber from Atheist Roundtable, Phil Ferguson, Shelley Segal, and a few others. We hugged, we drank, we laughed, and we took selfies. On my way back to my hotel room, Chris Stedman walked up to me and said, “Hey, Trav!” I hardly got any sleep that night from trying to process the fact that all the people I hear on my iPod week after week are actually real people!

Then came the Reason Rally where I met even more awesome people:

reasonrallyseth

Seth Andrews of The Thinking Atheist podcast. Nicest guy in the world!

reasonreallystephanie

Stephanie Guttormson.

reasonrallymandisa

Mandisa Thomas

reasonrallyjessica

Jessica Xiao of the American Humanist Association

reasonrallymatthew

Matthew Facciani

reasonrallycallie

Callie Wright

reasonrallysincere

Sincere Kirabo

reasonrallydamien

Damien AtHope

reasonrallyadam

Adam Collins (who is a damn good kisser)

reasonrallyderrickrachael

Me, Derrick, and Ms. Bea Haven from Promoting Secular Feminism

reasonrallyjenica

Jenica Crail

And that’s just a handful!

Near the end of the Rally (right when Nye was spreaking, actually), Jenica and I talked about how, while the speakers were great, the event was more than just hearing a bunch of people saying cool things on stage.  It was about meeting online friends in person for the first time, and making new friends. It was about not feeling like the token freak, like I told Stephanie. It was about being surrounded by people who feel just as strongly about separation of church and state as you do. It was about being in a safe space where no one judges you based on who you are. As Bobby C would say, it’s about family. Bobby often says the atheist community is family, and based on my experience, he’s right.

And that’s why I can’t leave the atheist movement. Despite all the assholes online, the community in general is extremely welcoming. Groucho Marx once said, “I’d never join a club that would allow me as a member,” but based on all the love and support I received this past weekend, I’m glad to be a part of this family.

Dogmatism is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

beware-dogma

In light of the recent terrorist attack in Brussels, I’m sharing a blog post I wrote a few months ago shortly after the Paris attack.

Remember that thing I wrote the other day, about how everyone thinks their interpretation of reality is the right one? At best, this mentality leads to petty arguments on the Internet, but at its worse it leads to yesterday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut and Paris.

I really don’t want to debate whether Islam is “a religion of peace” or “a religion of dashing your enemies to pieces” because a) I’d rather have ex-Muslims like Heina Dadabhoy and Sadaf Ali tell their stories instead of talking over them, and b) neither statement tells the full story. Like the Christian Bible, there are several ways to interpret the Quran, ranging from liberal Islam to Islamism. However, just like with fundamentalist Christianity, fundamentalist Islam has its roots in scripture. So I don’t agree with Reza Aslan; religion did play a part in yesterday’s attacks, along with other factors.

Instead I want to talk about the one thing that ties Christian fundamentalism, Islamism, and other dangerous ideologies together: dogmatism.

Google defines dogmatism as “the tendency to lay down principles as incontrovertibly true, without consideration of evidence or the opinions of others.” Most people use the word fundamentalism as a synonym for dogmatism, but there’s a slight difference. Fundamentalism, as Google defines it, “upholds belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture.” This is why, as James Croft explains, there’s no such thing as a “fundamentalist atheist” because atheism has no Bible.

Dogmatism, on the other hand, can happen with any ideology, whether it’s religious or secular. It’s what happens when one is so sure that one’s own interpretation of reality is the right one, and everybody else is wrong. Of course not all beliefs are automatically dogmatic. After all, as the diagram below illustrates, when use beliefs and truths to gain knowledge:

Epistemology

However, sometimes our beliefs do not align with the facts. I can believe all I want that I’m a millionaire, but one look at my bank account will show that’s not true. But what if I refuse to acknowledge the facts? What if I still believe that I am a millionaire, and I keep spending money like one? Eventually I won’t have any money left, and I’ll be shit out of luck. That, my friends, is how dogmatism works.

This is why epistemology and skepticism are so important: they remind us that we could be wrong. It’s scary to think we could be wrong because we wrap our entire identities around our beliefs. But as Ricky Gervais famously said, “Beliefs don’t change facts. Facts, if you’re rational should change your beliefs.” Plus, with the events of Paris and Beirut, the only alternative, dogmatism, is literally killing us. As Sam Harris wrote in The End of Faith, “If religious war is ever to become unthinkable for us, in the way that slavery and cannibalism seem poised to, it will be a matter of our having dispensed with the dogma of faith”

Talk about free speech but don’t mention Raif Badawi

See update at the end.

Chris Stedman wrote a public Facebook post a couple of days ago about a little misunderstanding between him and the people at The National, an English-language newspaper based in the United Arab Emirates. They invited him to write an opinion piece.

I decided to use this opportunity to look at what I think are the most constructive aspects of a UAE-sponsored UN resolution that calls for interfaith dialogue, free expression, and the open debate of ideas.

I would still rather see more secular dialogue (which of course religious people can perfectly well engage in) than interfaith dialogue (which excludes non-religious people). But if the UAE is a fan of free expression and the open debate of ideas that has to be a good thing. Maybe they can exert some pressure on their neighbors to let Raif Badawi and Waleed Abu al-Khair out of prison.

Oh wait. [Read more…]