When I use a dictionary, it means exactly what I choose it to mean

Apparently dictionary atheism means that, if you’re an atheist, you should just shut up about abuses committed against atheists, because atheism is exclusively about “not believing in gods.” The words “decency” and “respect” don’t appear anywhere in the dictionary definition, and therefore atheism is not about atheists treating each other decently and respectfully. As an atheist, you’re allowed to say that you don’t believe in gods, and that’s it.

Unless, of course, you want to complain about the people who are speaking up about abuses against atheists. Then it’s a different story. Complaining about other atheists is perfectly acceptable, regardless of what the dictionary definition of atheism is, as long as the atheists you’re complaining about are reporting genuine problems. Somehow, magically, the dictionary definition of atheism only rules out legitimate complaints of abuse. It can do that, somehow.

And we think that believers are the ones who get their authority from magical books.

Truth-seekers and god-slayers

PZ Myers is annoyed by the fact that, when it comes core, fundamental, human values, many atheists are as bad as believers, if not outright worse. In the eyes of some, “atheism” means only “lack of god-belief,” which means atheism cannot imply anything more than that, which means that atheism implies some kind of amoral anarchy, above and beyond mere unbelief. So which is it? Does atheism imply nothing more than absence of belief, or does it imply that “they’re right and you’re wrong?” You can’t have it both ways.

In truth, atheism absolutely does have implications beyond mere absence of belief in supernatural father figures. A world without gods to take responsibility for everything is a world where we ourselves are responsible. Atheism implies that we have work to do, morally, socially, and scientifically. And maybe that’s the reason why some unbelievers would rather not acknowledge anything more than just the absence of gods. But I suspect it goes deeper than that. I think what we’re seeing today is the emergence of two broadly-defined tribes within atheism, two different types of atheists, whom I designate as truth-seekers and god-slayers.

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The rise and fall of the nerd Eich

Perhaps you’ve used the Firefox web browser. If you’re an old nerd like me, you might remember the Netscape web browser, whose source code formed the basis of the Mozilla code that lies behind Firefox. If you’re really hard-core, you might know the name of the man who wrote the original JavaScript language, without which things like ad revenues and blog networks like FtB might not exist.

Brendan Eich was that man, and for a very brief number of days he was the CEO of Mozilla—until word leaked out about his tangible support for Proposition 8 and for discrimination against gays. The uproar was immediate and impossible to ignore. Other board members resigned rather than work with/for him. OkCupid put up a notice, visible specifically to FireFox users, naming and shaming Eich for his anti-gay efforts and urging users to switch to a different browser. Facebook, Twitter, and the blogosphere erupted with calls for his resignation and for boycotts. Eich resigned after only 10 days in office.

The aftermath has even some liberals frowning. True, it’s a sign of the times that bigots can no longer act with impunity when trying to promote discrimination against gays. That’s a positive step and a sign of the long overdue decline in society’s willingness to condone bullying and harassment. But has the pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction? Have gay rights activists stepped over a line, and become guilty of “witch hunts” themselves? Is it anyone else’s business what Eich’s personal beliefs are and how they relate to his job, if he himself is careful to maintain a professional separation between the two?

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Much better

Now this is a refreshing change.

I’m a developer. A few years ago, I moved to a new city and met some new friends who talked about racism and sexism more than I had ever thought about before. At first I was uncomfortable and didn’t like a lot what they were saying – and I definitely didn’t like when they told me something I said was racist or sexist. Then I remembered that I’m a developer, and I’m good at figuring out unfamiliar systems. So here’s what I did.

via Epicodus — How a Developer Learned Not to Be Racist and Sexist. Nicely done.


One of the things that really puzzles me is the number of women who are opposed to feminism. And not just reluctant, either. I’m talking hackles-raised, eyes-blazing hostility against the very people who are fighting to win them equal rights. It boggles my mind.

But, as the saying goes, a boggled mind is of no use to anyone, so I want to understand this counter-intuitive phenomenon. One of the possibilities that occurs to me is that there are actually two different forms of feminism, each pursuing radically different goals. Call them feminism and counterfeminism. The feminist is working to establish women as autonomous and respected individuals who are equal in status, opportunity, and financial compensation, as compared to their male counterparts. The feminist assumption is that the ideal condition for women is equality. But that’s not necessarily an assumption shared by all, not even by all women.

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Fire brigades

Thanks to the Atheism+ debate, I’m getting to learn about something called “equity feminism” versus “gender feminism.” The difference seems to revolve around the degree of activism required. I’m new to this particular debate, so take what I say with a grain of salt, but I thought I’d put my initial impressions out there so I can see what people say in response.

The equity feminist seems to be saying, “Look, I know that women are equal, and so I don’t personally discriminate against them, and that should be good enough. We don’t need to be gender feminists and try to make society better for women in general.” If that’s not an accurate assessment, feel free to inform me where it goes astray, but if it is, then I have to say I don’t think that equity feminism is sufficient, and I can explain why, using the analogy of the fire brigade.

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Bridges and barricades

Atheists are a pretty diverse group, and maybe absolute unity lies somewhere between unrealistic and undesirable. We have enough in common, though, that it makes sense for us to form a united coalition, and that means being willing to build bridges instead of barricades.

In that light, consider the following hypothetical post and comments:

POST: It would be foolish to try and build a social movement based on antisocial behaviors.

COMMENT #1: Oh, so you think everyone who disagrees with you is stupid. Great.

COMMENT #2: I think that’s an oversimplification. Antisocial behavior is annoying, but we need everyone’s support to succeed.

Everyone is entitled to express their opinion, but comment 1 isn’t actually an opinion. It’s an attack on the original poster, and a barrier to dialog—reading it tells you nothing about the original poster’s actual position on the issue is, nor does it inform you as to the commenter’s position, other than to express a certain vague hostility. This is the kind of approach that creates divisions and animosity within a movement.

Comment 2 also disagrees, but instead of erecting barriers, it builds a bridge—it expresses both the commenter’s position and the reasonings which led to that position. There’s enough information here that the commenter and the poster can have a dialog about whether tolerating antisocial behaviors actually does increase the amount of support. Maybe one has misunderstood the other, maybe further dialog will shed enough light on the topic that they can come to an agreement on at least a subset of the issues that divide them. But at least they’re being open, and the coalition as a whole can benefit.

Comment 1 was probably more satisfying to write, in a vent-your-spleen sort of way. But we should stop and think before posting. Is this sort of thing going to produce results that will make my life better? I think more often than not, the answer will be “no.”

Atheism+: A legitimate concern

One thing that’s mystified me regarding the Atheism+ movement is why anyone would be against it. I’ve seen and heard about various forms of opposition and/or abuse aimed at trying to kill it off and silence those who speak up about it, but so far I haven’t seen anyone offer a thoughtful and reasonable argument about why Atheism+ should be opposed.

Until now. FtBlogger Edwin Kagin raises what I think is a valid concern.

Atheism means without a belief in a god. That’s it. Within that shell are many many different points of view. This became clear a few years ago when several life members quit the organization American Atheists because it’s then President was actively working for the defeat of President George Bush. The quitting life members liked Bush and thought the organization had no business being against him, or for or against anyone else for that matter. I know this because they told me.

I could not imagine any atheist being in favor of Bush. But these folks were. I have also met atheists who are members of American Atheists and who oppose a woman’s right to choose. And who are opposed to gay marriage. And all sorts of things like that. The only thing that they all have in common is being atheists. Start taking sides on social issues and learn what chaos is all about.

He gives the example of the National Rifle Association losing half its members over taking a stand on abortion, and fears that a similar fate might befall organizations such as American Atheists, severely crippling their ability to fight for the rights of atheists in society.

That’s a valid concern, but I believe it’s one that can be addressed.

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What you are, not what you aren’t

I have to say, I’m tremendously encouraged by the emergence of a new “Atheism+” movement as the logical outgrowth of the New Atheist movement. The problem with atheism (if you’ll pardon me phrasing it in those terms) is that it’s a definition based on what you’re not, or in other words on the things you don’t do. That’s a negative beacon. Sure, it draws in people who have thought things over, and rejected superstition based on reason and evidence, but it also draws in people who disbelieve in God as part of a larger pattern of antisocial attitudes, as well as people who reject religion as a way of drawing attention to themselves.

Atheism+ is a much needed refinement of the original raw idea. It’s not enough just to disbelieve in God for whatever good or bad reasons you might have. To be part of this new movement, we need to be atheists PLUS we need to be decent people committed to making life better for ourselves and those around us. And that means breaking down all the pernicious vices by which we oppress and destroy one another: superstition, patriarchy, bigotry, sexism, racism—whatever penalizes the innocent in order to profit the privileged.

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