Can we dispose of the four horsemen?

A comic panel showing the four horsemen on horses. Dawkins: We held a calm, rational debate and came to the consensus that we should initiate doomsday!! For we are the four horsemen of the atheist apocalypse! The world as you know it ends this day!

Source: Virus Comix. This is from circa 2008, and you can judge for yourself how well it has aged.

“The Four Horsemen of Atheism” is first and foremost, a marketing term. The term was coined almost exactly a decade ago, in 2007, in order for the horsemen to sell recordings of themselves.  From there, the term had runaway success.

It appears that the reason that Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens were chosen (instead of other well-known atheists) is that they were all best-selling authors of atheist books in 2007. It also arose from media coverage, such as the famous 2006 Wired article, which coined the term “New Atheists”, and interviewed Dawkins, Dennett, and Harris. (Hitchens hadn’t published his book until 2007.)

But for me, it was never the books which were important, it was the blogs. I started reading Pharyngula in late 2006. I only ever read one of the books, and I read it in 2008 and didn’t care for it. To me, it has always seemed odd how much we venerate book authors. There are other media outside of books, after all! What about bloggers, journalists, youtubers, podcasters, and artists? Or for that matter, any more recent authors?

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Dawkins being “deplatformed”

I will only make a brief comment on this, because I don’t think it is really worth more than that.

In Berkeley, where I live, Richard Dawkins was invited to give a talk about his new book, Science in the Soul: Selected Writings of a Passionate Rationalist.  The sponsors of his talk, KPFA, a progressive radio station, decided to cancel the talk because of “abusive speech” by Richard Dawkins.  This story has hit some of those frozen peach buttons, with Jerry Coyne declaring it “a terrible blow for free speech”.

The one and only time I ever saw Dawkins speak was at the very same venue, talking about another book he wrote, The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution.  There are many things I find objectionable about Dawkins, but I am personally able to separate that from his science writing, which seems fine.  So I don’t really agree with KPFA.

But geez, by turning this into a free speech issue, you’re making me take the opposite side!  Obviously, the KPFA, being the sponsors of the talk, has a right to cancel their own talk.  In fact, it would practically be a violation of KPFA’s free speech, if they were forced to sponsor a talk from someone they didn’t like.  Also, doesn’t sponsoring talks cost them money or something?

People are always thinking of these issues in terms of the speaker’s free speech, but if anything, it’s about the inviters’ free speech.  If speakers have a right to platforms, where are all my speaker invitations, and why isn’t anyone standing up for my free speech?

Educating atheists on religious aces

This is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

Recently, I wrote an article for A Trivial Knot about how aces are affected by Evangelical Christian beliefs about pre-marital sex. This is an important topic, but also an iffy one for me to talk about. While I’m ex-Christian, I’m not ex-Evangelical, and the experiences described are not so similar to my own. Basically, I’m repeating and condensing stories I’ve heard from primary sources, such as the Aces in the Church zine and various bloggers. I worry that maybe I shouldn’t be talking about it at all, except to boost other voices.

But the fact of the matter is that a lot of atheists, especially politically active atheists, already have their own prejudices and presumptions about the experiences of religious aces. I have this platform that reaches a moderate number of progressive atheists, so I feel at least a bit responsible to get them on the right track. Also, atheist activists are not such a friendly group that I want to just send them to primary sources.

This was fresh on my mind at the 2017 SF Ace Unconference, so I attended a session for religious aces. The personal stories shared in that space were confidential and I will keep them that way. I did, however, ask them if they wanted me to share any particular message with my atheist readers.

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Scientism in the atheist movement

Larry Hamelin pointed me to a recent Existential Comic which criticizes Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for scientism. The explanatory text below the comic goes on to criticize the New Atheist movement as a whole. It argues:

The real goal [of scientism] is often just to draw a border around what we should or shouldn’t question, because they don’t want any of the fundamental aspects of society to change.

Larry Hamelin has a couple good posts responding to the comic commentary, and looking back on the New Atheist movement as a whole. Partially following Larry, these are my critiques:

  • Harris and Dawkins don’t represent the atheist movement. Harris and Dawkins are widely criticized within the movement, and many (myself included) are positively disposed to philosophy.
  • To the extent that scientism is or was present in New Atheism, it was not motivated by an attempt to maintain status quo. I believe that scientism was primarily a reaction to the way people would hide behind the authority of philosophy, insisting that there exists a complex and subtle defense of religion or belief in God. Of course, the complex and subtle defense did not materialize, and failed to address religion or belief in God as they are popularly practiced.
  • Of all the strengths of philosophy, I do not think effecting social change is one. Certainly academic philosophy is not a force for change. And though my writing is often infused with philosophy, that just makes me a more effective thinker, not a more effective activist.

This might be a bad idea, but let’s read the comments on this comic to see what other people are saying.

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If you think there’s no atheist movement, tell me why

One of my pet peeves is when people say that there is no atheist movement. At many times, I’ve reacted angrily to the suggestion. I don’t understand how anyone could believe that, especially when I hear it from people who are involved in, or interact with atheist organizations.

Dear readers, help me understand. If you don’t believe there is an atheist movement, please explain your thinking in the comments. I will listen, and as long as you are polite to me I will be polite to you, setting pet peeves aside.

Here are some questions which you may use to guide your responses:

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Three views on social justice in atheism

Previously, I wrote a post framing social justice as a meta-movement, a movement which seeks to change how all other movements are run. Here I’ll talk about how that applies to atheism.

Why should the atheist community pay attention to social justice? The reasoning is quite elementary: The atheist community is a community. All communities should pay some attention to social justice. Therefore the atheist community should pay some attention to social justice.

Some atheists like to argue that social justice is beyond the scope of atheism. The argument goes that the community should take a neutral position, thus being inclusive of people with various relationships to social justice. However, this is missing the point. The “scope” of the community doesn’t really matter for the argument. All that matters is that it’s a community. As I said before, the same argument applies to the physics community, despite it being obvious that social justice is outside the scope of physics. The “neutral” position is not really neutral, but directly in opposition to the goals of social justice.

However, there are various degrees of “pay attention to social justice” which I describe below.

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Practical advice for struggling atheist clubs

Following my bitter retrospective on 9 years of participation in atheist university groups, here are some concrete tips for how you can do better than what we did. They are roughly in order from high priority to low priority.

1. Have a mailing list and a Facebook group. Announce every meeting and event through both channels.  Don’t have more than one.

2. Register your group with the university, and keep it registered every year.

3. Reserve room space for regular meetings. Weekly meetings in the evening are common practice. This must be done far in advance.

4. Know the dates of the activities fairs at your university. You probably need to register for them far in advance, so look it up immediately. The minimum requirement for the activities fair is a large sign and a sign-up sheet for your mailing list.

5. Make a good impression at the first meeting of the year. The first meeting is often the one with the most people, so make sure you know how to run discussions for various group sizes (see below). You may think that it will be exciting to discuss your upcoming plans for the year, but it usually comes across as sharing boring administrative details, so don’t do it unless it’s absolutely necessary. Your main objective is that students should meet each other and make positive social connections. That means that each person should learn, and remember, the name of one or two people who are not in the leadership.

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