Atheists as Vulcans without Machismo? An e-mail exchange…

I recently received the following e-mail query:

What do you think about the fringe criticisms against atheism that talk about the setbacks of overly concrete/logical thinking and a lack of abstract, emotional capacity commonly associated with atheists?

They criticize atheists (especially Dawkins and people like Dawkins) for being dull, unpleasant, lacking machismo and being unappealing to women. They argue that overly concrete thinking is detrimental to living the dynamic and largely abstract life outside of scientific institutions and number crunching facilities. Popular psychology even attested and perpetuated this bullshit with labels like Aspergers which describes people who are book-smart but have no people skills. I can’t cite any source that surveyed people with Aspergers and how many of them are religious or irreligious but I can guarantee a majority would be atheists.

The question is, is being 100% logical all the time really the right way to live an awesome and successful life?

You got things like music and art that you can’t build or enjoy without a level of spiritual capacity. As an example, to fully enjoy the spirit of Christmas, you gotta suspend some logic about Santa Claus and just let loose to enjoy the holiday, especially for the children whom you wouldn’t wanna ruin the fun for. Or watching cartoons and coming across many things that just don’t make sense, like the characters not falling off a cliff as long as they don’t look down and other inconsistencies in the plots of long-running anime episodes that you just don’t wanna over-analyze or be too logical about because it ruins the fun and the whole point of the show which isn’t to take it so seriously.

So essentially they are calling atheists a pack of basement-dwelling empty nerds who don’t know how to have a good time, which I gotta admit isn’t too far from the truth.

What do you think about all this?

My response was brief:

I don’t think their accusations are remotely accurate…and tell us much more about those making those accusations than the target of them.

And apparently insufficient…so the author asked for more information:

Why not? Is it not true that those prone to atheism are much more concrete thinkers than those prone to religion? You have to admit there is a correlation.

Here’s my response…

The fact that we’re not prone to accepting fantasy-as-reality doesn’t mean that we’re emotionless robots or Vulcans, incapable of appreciating beauty.

I’d argue that, in fact, the opposite is true. The individuals that I’ve met in the atheist community, are rarely dull. To the extent that we’re unpleasant, it stems from the frustrations of seeing reality treated as a minority position by individuals who credulously accept the supernatural while attempting to impose their religious views on other by legislation, coercion and indoctrination.

With respect to the lack of machismo or being unappealing to women, I find those claims absurd and sexist. They are particularly stupid charges that would be beneath response if it weren’t worthwhile to expose the ignorance and privilege of those making the claim.

There’s not a single public atheist figure that is advocating logic at the expense of emotion, humanity, beauty or empathy. (And if they’re were such a person, the rest of the public atheists would be the first in line to point out that this individual certainly doesn’t speak on behalf of other atheists).

There is no “spiritual” requirement for enjoying beauty or art…and such statements only demonstrate that the individuals have no concept of either the people their criticizing or the human condition. Most of my atheist friends greatly appreciate beauty, art, literature, fantasy, science fiction, music, films….the list goes on and on.

In addition to the television programs, podcasts, speaking engagements and activism efforts, I not only work a full-time job, but I take time to enjoy the world I live in. I read books (often fantasy and sci-fi), visit zoos, caves and museums, shop at craft fairs, hike and explore nature. I also crochet, make chain mail jewelry and oil paint. I play board games, card games, computer games and billiards. I am moved by great musical and artistic performances – occasionally to tears.

I do these things with my wife and with many other members of the atheist community. Dawkins has spoken many times about the beauty of nature. Hitchens has done so as well. I was fortunate to hear both of them speak publicly about this subject at the convention this past weekend.

As I said, the accusations aren’t remotely accurate and can only be made by someone engaged in a quixotic and xenophobic dismissal of a perceived enemy. What a sad existence one must have to presume that those who don’t share one’s imaginary friend are somehow deficient and sub-human. Curiously, they’ve often adopted religious positions that relegate the entire glory of existence to the status of a doormat – a place to wipe one’s feet while waiting for an afterlife. While their perceived enemy, to the extent that they’ve established anything akin to a religion, have largely adopted humanist positions.

And, as I’ve now wasted two e-mails responding to this absurd subject, I’ll be posting it on the blog so the reply might help prevent others from asking this.

Thanks for the question and for pushing for a follow up…but I’m most definitely finished with this particular subject.

Texas Freethought Convention / Atheist Alliance America Convention

This is going to be a fairly quick and dirty review of the weekend. I’ve got work to catch up on, a wedding to plan and there are a number of things that have fallen through the cracks (the winners of the wig and dress will have their items soon, I promise)… I’m sticking with first names (with some exceptions) as I don’t want to out anyone . This is probably the worst event write-up in history, and I don’t plan to edit it. This is stream-of-memory brain dump, so that I don’t forget the event.

Thursday, Beth and I packed up the car and made the 3-hour trek to the convention in Houston. While we were checking in to the hotel, Natalie spotted Beth and came over to talk about Godless Bitches…and that kick-started both of our weekends. Beth went upstairs to wash her hair and change and I headed directly to the hotel bar where some convention attendees and speakers had already started to congregate. Had a chance to talk to Karen and Jimmy and a few dozen other people while drinking and laughing and speculating about the fun that was about to commence. PZ Myers arrived around 11pm and despite claiming that he wouldn’t have time to drink with us on Thursday, he quickly succumbed to peer pressure.

Friday morning started in the basement with a quick welcome from Nick Lee (AAA) and Paul Mitchel (TFC) and then PZ Myers took the stage to start the convention off with an entertaining and informative talk on mutants. Yes, there were a couple of scary “science” slides but they were tempered by great explanations and humor. It turns out that comic book superhero tales have it all wrong about mutations, how they work and what they do…and that we’re all mutants!

After lunch, I did a quick 30 minutes with the Secular Student Alliance. I don’t recall what I said, but it must have been acceptable, as I’m still on their Speakers Bureau list. I then ran downstairs to sit in on the last half of “The Magic Sandwich Show” with AronRa and Thunderfoot. While I was running around to these events, Michael Shermer explained “Why People Believe in God” in one room while a panel of speakers talked about “Diversity” in another. I wish I could tell you what they said, but we have yet to figure out a way for me to be everywhere. (I’m working on it, though.)

After a quick break, I sat in on a panel discussion on “Growing Local Organizations” with Jim Parker, Terry McDonald and Staise Gonzales. Staise gave some great information and talked about the amazing growth that Houston group has enjoyed. Terry and Jim also had lots of great advice. I pretty much just encouraged people to let their group be whatever the membership needed it to be. Our group is so unique that I really wasn’t the right person for that panel, but I enjoyed it, shared what I could – and took away a few ideas that might help our local group.

While that panel was going on, Beth was in the main room listening to Sikivu Hutchinson talk. I’ll see if I can coax her to offer a quick summary of that talk. As I was on a panel and Beth was at Sikivu’s talk, we both missed the exceptional Margaret Downey (who was absolutely charming the entire weekend). One of the problems with these simultaneous break-out sessions is that you are going to miss some events. Fortunately, we knew that Margaret would be on a second panel on Saturday – so Beth took the only opportunity to hear Sikivu speak.

After a quick break, Michael Shermer was supposed to give a talk about “The Believing Brain” but it was too similar to his previous talk, so he shifted focus and gave a different talk. I really wish that I could tell you what it was called, but I honestly can’t recall. It culminated in a video of a reworking of the famous Milgram experiment.

I ran into Matthew Chapman just prior to dinner and told him we were looking forward to his screening of “The Ledge“. He went on to have dinner with Christopher Hitchens while Beth and I trotted off to the local Hard Rock with some old and new friends from the convention.

We watched “The Ledge” when we returned, but there was a bit of confusion over the time that the film would start. As it happens, the film started early which means that it ended early. This wouldn’t have been a big deal, except that Chapman had been misinformed about the times and wasn’t around to start the Q&A session after it ended. Fortunately, I was able to get in touch with him and he scrambled downstairs to answer questions.

There was much drinking and partying on Friday evening. It’s absolutely surreal to be sitting in the hotel bar visiting with so many attendees and speakers. One minute I might be  meeting someone new, the next I’m talking to Myers/Chapman/Dawkins, the next I’m talking to people I met at a previous event and then we’re all jostling about taking pictures, laughing, drinking and generally having an exceptionally good time.

Unfortunately, Beth became ill and was confined to bed for most of the rest of the weekend. We were both sad that she missed so many of the events that she’d been looking forward to and this will easily go down as the “worst convention ever”, for her. Had she not come down with a bug, this would have probably been her favorite.

Saturday was fairly crazy for me. I started with Dale McGowan‘s talk on “Humanity at Work” and then had to scramble over to my own room for the next break-out session. I honestly didn’t think we’d have much turnout for my talk. First of all, I’d already spoken for the SCA, AronRa’s “Magic Sandwich Show” and a panel discussion…so I figured most of the people who might want to hear me speak had already done so. Secondly, it was billed as ‘Matt Dillahunty “Atheist Experience” (Podcast?)’. This caused quite a bit of confusion, as many people thought I was going to a live version of the show. It’s pretty difficult to do a live, call-in show, driven by theistic calls…when you don’t have a phone and aren’t on at the regular time/channel/stream. And finally, I was up against Darrel Ray (talking about Sex and Religion, in the main room) and a panel discussion with Margaret Downey, Sunsara Taylor and Staise Gonzales talking about women in the movement.

Despite my concerns that I’d be talking to a handful of people, we filled the room to overflowing! Our audiences are absolutely amazing and they made this one of my favorite convention moments from any convention. Jen Peeples had arrived Friday evening and we decided that in order to make this meet as many people’s expectations as possible, she’d join me on the stage and we’d do a ‘mock’ show. We played the theme song, I spoke for a few minutes and then we had a lot of fun passing the mic around to “callers” in the audience while Jen and I answered questions.

After lunch, I went to the main room to hear Eugenie Scott talk about “The Rise and Fall of Evolution Education in Texas”. While I was familiar with the content of her talk (having lived through much of this fight), I thoroughly enjoyed her summary of the problems, failures and successes that occurred.

I skipped the SCA talk in order to check in on Beth…and then I had to make a very difficult decision. The original plan had been for me to go to Vic Stenger‘s talk, “Faster than Light? The theological implications” while Beth went to the panel discussion on “Secular Family” (Kendall, Haynes and  McGowan). This meant that we’d miss Sunsara Taylor’s talk (“The Emancipation of Humanity and a World without Gods: A Revolutionary Perspective”), but we’d have covered more ground. With her sick, and cloning still illegal, I opted to go to the Secular Family panel. As it turns out, Beth was feeling slightly better and managed to join me for this discussion.

All three speakers offered good information for secular families – but the Q&A portion was one of the best of the weekend. Why? Because there were real people in the crowd, with real issues – and they were looking for help. How do we build our community to better support families? How do we help our kids deal with bullying? How should we deal with religious family members proselytizing? How do we best teach our kids to handle grief? The questions kept rolling and while I can’t speak for anyone else, I got a lot out of it. We definitely need more panels like this one.

We then went to the “National Activism” panel with Sean Faircloth, Margaret Downey and Richard Haynes. This occurred at the same time as the “Science Education” panel with Barbara Forest, Eugenie Scott, Vic Stenger and PZ Myers as well as Todd Steifel‘s “Adopt-a-School Campaign” program. We had originally planned to split up for these, but when your wife is sick, you stick close by.

As this panel was about to start, we noticed that attendance for all of the panels had dropped off rather sharply and that the 4th floor balcony was full of people standing in line. Christopher Hitchens had arrived and agreed to spend some time signing books. This wasn’t part of the schedule but the word had spread quickly. The “National Activism” panel was pretty straight forward and while I greatly admire all 3 speakers, I was a bit pre-occupied. I sat near one of the two doors to the room and every few minutes someone would open the door, peak in and then close the door. It was a frustrating distraction.

The keynote address and banquet pretty much deserve their own post, which I probably won’t have time to write. Briefly, though:

This is an evening I’ll remember for the rest of my life. Dawkins and Hitchens arrived together to a thunderous standing ovation. Hitchens was thin and appeared weak – but only at first glance. There’s just something indescribable about the man. Beyond that first glance there is strength. Beyond that first glance there is a fighter who demonstrated grace, strength and courage. After a beautiful introduction and keynote from Dawkins, Hitch came up to accept the “Richard Dawkins Award”…

One might have expected a brief acceptance speech, but he spoke at length and as beautifully as ever (despite problems with his voice) – and then he took questions from the audience. When I say he took questions, I mean the man sat there and answered queries about his thoughts on everything from the situation in Turkey to his thoughts on the misogyny of patriarchal systems. And then, when his time was up, he continued answering questions. Much has been written about his response to an 8-year-old girl who asked for a suggested reading list…I highly recommend that you check it out.

Hitch was, well, Hitch. For a brief moment during the entrance he was unrecognizable…but that doesn’t last. I certainly hope this wasn’t his final speaking engagement and I’m saddened by the fact that he and I have never had an opportunity to speak, but this was a night to remember and I’m thrilled that I was present.

I skipped the final two events of the evening in order to try to spend some time with Beth before heading out to socialize.

I wound up drinking until about 2:30am – at which time, Paul Mitchell informed me that I needed to be at the “Celebreakfast” at 8. I’d say he ‘reminded’ me, but I missed the initial e-mail notification. So Sunday started off with Beth and I eating breakfast with some of the convention’s VIP guests. I had a great time, despite being tired, but Beth was still sick and went back to bed right after breakfast.

I missed part of Barbara Forrest‘s talk, “They Call it Academic Freedom” but what I saw was exceptionally informative. Her work with the Wedge document and the Dover trial is legendary, but this talk chronicled the shifting language that creationists have used to try to weasel their views into science education.

At this point, the event transformed into the “Richard Dawkins Foundation for Science and Reason – Superfestival!!!!”. They didn’t actually call it that, but that’s what it was. Elisabeth Cornwell spoke first, explaining the need for reason and science…which lead into Sean Faircloth’s call-to-action which never fails to excite and motivate the crowd….which lead into Richard Dawkins’ wonderful talk about his new book, “The Magic of Reality”.

It may have been written with 12-year-olds in mind, but I’m not going to wait until I have a 12-year-old to read it. I’m reading it now…and if we have kids, it’ll be something they grow up reading. I was very jealous of the CampQuest youth who were invited on stage to play with the app for the book. 🙂

The convention was over, but there was one more thing I needed to do. I’d been invited to an SCA dinner event on Sunday evening and Beth was feeling well enough to go with me – and I’m very glad that she did. It was a great way to close out the weekend, especially as she had spent so much of it in bed.

In all, this was a successful weekend. There were a number of mistakes, but we’ll chalk them up to “lessons learned” and I’m optimistic that next year’s Texas Freethought Convention will be even more successful. While it’s doubtful that we’ll have Dawkins or Hitchens, I’m sure that the speakers and events will make for a great convention – while we wait for the Mayan calendar to wind down…



New Heights Middle School (SC) still doesn’t get it

So, we moved the blog and I’m sheepish about how to work this new-fangled thang. And Martin sends me a wrist-slap to say (basically), “Hey, you need to get over to the new blog and try it out, you lump!” So, now I’m at the point where I’m thinking “What do I talk about?” And three things immediately spring to mind that merit mention:

1. Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffers’ endorsement of Rick Perry that was just an open promotion to vote on purely religious grounds, completely disregarding or demonstrating unawareness of what “no religious test for office” means, and also no comprehension of the problems that arise from the unholy union of church and state. History alone should be sufficient, but if not, look at the many nations where they are under an active theocracy to get an idea of how well that works.

2. A Muslim Advice website I came across that has both depressed and shocked me. I very strongly suggest everyone go and spend some time there and poke around to see how your life would change if you had to live a Muslim life. Consider what it might be like for people born into Islam (and Muslims believe you are born into it, just like Jews) for whom the indoctrination doesn’t sink in, or who come to a conclusion later that it’s not correct. What would it be like to know this is bullshit and still have to live this life? If I started listing all the letters and answers that disturbed me, this would become the Islamic Critique blog for the next 10 years.

But I’m going with the last one, number 3, because it’s the easiest one to analyze, and as someone who is verbose in the best of cases, this is probably best. It simply doesn’t take a lot of words to describe what is wrong with this: A public school in South Carolina has stepped up to demonstrate, one more time, that Christians in the U.S. South just can’t get certain things to sink into their heads. No matter how many times you trot out their own Golden Rule to them, they seem to have a marked inability to actually understand it. They fully get the first bit, “Do unto others.” It’s the second part that gives them trouble, “as you would have done to you.”

New Heights Middle School in South Carolina brought in a Christian rapper and had the kids rap along about Jesus. Don’t get me wrong. I get that religious bands don’t have to do a show that would be considered religious, but in this case the reports are that it was clearly religious in nature. Is this even rare, though? How many times do we hear about public school sponsored prayers or rallies in the Bible Belt? The two most common criticisms are the illegality of it and the pure lack of understanding by the families that this is even a problem on a basic good will level. Those most likely to comment on these stories with stupidity such as “Good for the school!,” would be the first ones to have a total melt down if the rapper had been promoting some other religious view. So, they appear to “get it” when you put them in the shoes of people outside their religion; but, the moment you put them back in the majority Christian seat, the lesson dissipates like so much smoke into thin air—a sort of religious amnesia?

OK, so let’s try this again, Muslim rapper OK? No, that would be an outrage. Then the Christian rapper is an outrage, get it? No. OK, so let’s try this again, Hindu rapper OK? No, that would be an outrage. Then the Christian rapper is an outrage, get it? No. And so on, and so on, and so on.

This is the danger of “I’m right and they’re wrong” when it comes to religion. It completely destroys perspective and the capacity to judge one’s own behaviors as problematic for others. When something would completely outrage and piss you off if someone else did it, there is no reason it should be a mystery or shock to you when others are outraged or pissed off when you do it to them. It’s just not hard enough to cause this sort of cognitive difficulty. “How would that make YOU feel?” is a tool used to teach toddlers how to think before they act. There is just no explanation for so many adults being unable to grasp such a simple concept. Beyond “it’s not legal,” their own basic human decency should kick in and help them understand what is wrong with what they’re doing. Even their own religion commands them to consider this. They label it their “Golden Rule,” but they still can’t seem to actually understand it. They “get” that the non-Christian thinks, as they do, that the other guy is incorrect (or even just that they could be incorrect), but in their heads, THEY’RE right. And, so, if “I” was wrong, and “you” were right about what god wanted, then I’d want “you” to promote “the truth” to “me.” And so, when it comes to Christian perspectives over those of others, in a nation where a majority is Christian, in a very sick way, they ARE following the Golden Rule—shoving “the truth” down the throats of everyone else who is “wrong” and who needs “the truth.” I think, in a twisted way, they think they’re helping and not being offensive assholes.

Of course, I could be wrong, as someone else suggested on another strand, and they could just be passive-aggressive people who want to piss people off. That certainly wouldn’t be anything new on the religious scene, either.

Why you should argue in public and private

Greta asks a question of the FTB community today: Atheist Arguments — Public or Private?  My answer is: both.

There’s no pat answer to how you should conduct yourself in an argument, any more than you can encapsulate morality in a set of ten laws that are followed unfailingly without question.  Obviously, I’m a big fan of taking arguments public, which is why I love being on a TV show with lots of callers.  (Well, that, and I’m a big old narcissist.)  But what I generally say as a rule of thumb is that you should only have an argument if the argument is beneficial to you and your position in some way.

Argument is a performance, and a performance only has an audience.  But there are three different kinds of audience you might want to entertain, so there are basically three styles of argument you may wind up having.

  1. The audience is… someone else.  This is what happens when Greta posts an argument on her blog, or we do one of those cute “we get email” posts, or we take calls on TV, or there’s a public debate happening in an auditorium.
  2. The audience is the theist.  Bear in mind that you do not have to enter such arguments with the expectation of completely changing the theist’s mind and making him an atheist.  If a theist drifts across the spectrum from fundamentalist to liberal theist to agnostic to atheist to outspoken atheist, then you’ve done a good job.
  3. The audience is… yourself.  And that’s the most likely motivation for keeping an argument private.

Don’t underestimate the importance of the third audience, because atheists aren’t omniscient.  There are some difficult arguments that people butt up against as they learn to explore the philosophical implications of their beliefs, and sometimes you’re going to lose.  Seriously, it happens to everyone, because unless you are the single best debater in the whole world, tautologically there is somebody better than you.  So don’t fall into trap of thinking that “only stupid people disagree with me,” because that’s really not the case.

Never forget that arguing with somebody is essentially a game, and there are good players and bad players — or rather, there are better players and worse players.  You may be a pretty good chess player against your friends, but I don’t see you beating either Deep Blue or Garry Kasparov.  But the great thing about losing is that it’s a learning opportunity.  When you lose an argument, you’ve discovered a weak spot in your understanding of the issues.  Then one of two things is true: either you were wrong, in which case — hooray! — you can change your mind and now you’ll be right!  Or else, it turns out that you lost with a winning argument.

In this second case, now you have some direction to take your reading.  You should read more about this argument that beat you.  Find out what other people would say against it; find out what philosophers have said about it; find out whether it butts up against some important scientific principle that we know about.  The overall tournament doesn’t end just because you lost the game.  And once you learn exactly where you made the mistake, then the next time you run into this argument, you’re going to nail it.  That’s what arguing for yourself really does for you.

So really, there’s nothing wrong with taking an argument private.  There is always that chance that the theist is a reasonable person who will actually soften his position on some of his misconceptions.  Don’t tell me it never happens; it happens all the time.  And there’s also an equal chance that by practicing an argument in private, you will become a better player, which in turn will help you out with future public arguments.

And then those public arguments will help you sway more people who don’t have a vested interest in picking one answer… but only if you get good at it.  Don’t be so arrogant that you think you’ve won when you’ve actually lost.  That way lies victims of Dunning-Kruger.  If you’ve honed your abilities through practice, then by all means show off and win some souls.

A Sunday without AETV is like a day without rainbows and kittens

But that is the kind of day we’re having today, folks. Another stupid studio cancellation. But AETV will return next weekend with Matt and Jen, followed by Russell and myself the following weekend.

Word may have gotten out that we have a new building. I haven’t actually toured it myself yet, but I’m hopeful some of it can be McGyvered into a studio of our own where we can do AETV and NPR shows all the live-long day with no interference from anyone. While we still like being on local access, the fact is we really don’t need them any more. Ultimately it’s not my choice to make, but I know we’re sick of a lot of the random crap that Channel Austin throws at us. It would be nice to be able to take total control of our media once and for all.

Matt Slick defends “honor killing”: a woman’s hymen is worth more than her life

By way of introduction, some of you will remember Matt Dillahunty’s on-air debate with apologist Matt Slick of the CARM website, which was recorded on February 22, 2009. If you missed it, here you go. Keep in mind this is the first of nine parts.

Recently one of our viewers emailed us about a rather alarming article by Slick on the CARM site that stands as an exemplar of just how religion’s confused notions of what constitutes “morality” has led religion to be the foremost enabler of atrocity in history. In brief, when Christians insist that morality itself is impossible without Christianity, and atheists reply by rattling off endless examples both from scripture and real life of the devout behaving badly, the spin machine kicks into gear so fast you can practically see the Higgs boson particles zinging off it in all directions. Justify, justify, justify, is the order of the day.

Here, Slick justifies what may be one of the most appalling crimes there is: the “honor killing” of daughters (yes, it’s always daughters) who are not acceptably virginal in the eyes of their fathers and grooms. In this context, “father” and “groom” is a term interchangeable with “owner.”

Slick begins by quoting a lengthy passage from Deuteronomy in which God’s laws for dealing with an insufficiently chaste bride are detailed. The passage first declares that any groom who is caught trying to weasel out of his marriage by lying that his bride was not a virgin will be fined 100 shekels and then forbidden from ever divorcing his wife as long as he lives (which I imagine is considered the worse punishment). On the other hand, if it turns out that the bride was indeed not a virgin at her nuptials, then the skanky ho is to be taken out and stoned to death.

So let’s review. Man at fault = fined money. Woman at fault = murdered. Yeah, that sounds ever so egalitarian!

To attempt to defend a practice so primitive, inhumane and frankly monstrous, one would, you’d think, have to be not only an idiot, but someone plumbing hitherto unexamined depths of idiocy just to see how far he could go before imploding into something like a black hole of idiocy so dense that nothing, not even light, can escape. Well, folks, we have that intrepid explorer right here. Step right up, Mr. Slick.

When you got nothin’, you got nothin’ to lose, and so Slick leads with his worst punch.

Critics of the Bible must be careful not to impose their present day moral system upon that of an ancient culture found in Scripture and then judge Scripture as though it is inferior to their own subjective morality. The above verses were written 3,000 years ago in a very different culture and location.

Uhhh…yeah. Let’s see, how do I explain this to someone so intellectually impacted?

What is at issue here is the notion of treating a human being as property, denied any sense of personal agency. By slipping in that favorite of all apologetic weasel phrases, “subjective morality,” Slick doubtless believes he’s scored a home run right out of the dugout, when in fact it’s a pop fly. If anyone here is exhibiting “subjective” morality, it’s Slick, making the above quote one of the most awesome irony-meter-melting sentences you’re likely to read from an apologetics source.

Slick appears to accept that our moral precepts are different from those of 3000 years ago. Thus he suggests that while we may be right to be appalled at savage acts of cruelty towards young women in 2011 CE, we have no reason to be appalled by the same acts in 989 BCE. (Yeah, I used a calculator.) I guess time heals all wounds, eh? And yet, Slick gives us no reason why we should suspend our “subjective” morality in this way. Beyond basically saying “This is how they rolled back then,” we are given no valid moral justification (hell, I’d have even taken a mildly coherent one) for why we should think misogynist brutality is A-okay as long as it happened long long ago.

Moreover, is there a statute of limitations (maybe in the fine print at the bottom of the decalogue tablets) for this kind of thing? Is there a cutoff period where my “subjective” morality just becomes straight-up morality and it’s okay for me to call an atrocity an atrocity? Can I just look at American slavery and say, “Well, I must must be careful not to impose my present day moral system on the culture of 160 years ago.” Or is it too soon?

Let us briefly consider what is involved in stoning someone to death.

Matt Frauenfelder at Boing Boing (too many Matts in this piece, I must say) has helpfully provided us with an illustrated guide. This graphic shows how they do it in the Muslim world, which is the only contemporary culture I know of still goat-fucking barbaric enough to pull this crap. The details might have been different when the ancient Jews did it, but I suspect the results were the same: a dead girl.

First the victim is partially buried standing up, because it’s no fun if the stonee is running around frantically for her life. You might miss and hit your mom or something. Then, the actual process of killing the victim can take anywhere from 20 minutes to a couple of hours, depending on, I don’t know, whether the victim’s skull is especially thick, or whether the stones are nice and hard or soft and crumbly, or maybe it’s just a matter of how goddamned sadistic the killers are feeling that day.

Imagine being in the pit. You can see nothing, but you hear the deafening roar of the crowd’s bloodlust. Your pulse is hammering, and you have probably already shit yourself in blind terror. Then, after what seems like an agonizing eternity, the first rock clips you. Maybe it hurts like a bastard, but wasn’t hard enough to kill you. (In Islamist countries, there is in fact a law that the rocks used cannot be so heavy and large as to kill with the first blow. Not nice spoiling everyone’s fun.) But after the explosion of pain, you start feeling light-headed, dizzy. A few more blows, and you go into shock. Your vital signs plunge, your whole body begins to feel cold, and if you haven’t shit yourself already, now you do. You slip out of consciousness. If you’re lucky, you’ll die very soon after this.

I suspect this is as terrifying and brutal a way to die 3000 years ago as it is today. I see no reason to think a young girl experiencing the above back in the distant past would have felt any less horror, agony and despair than her modern-day counterpart. So why is Slick telling me that it’s okay to be appalled by modern-day stonings, but that I’m out of line for being appalled by 3000-year-old stonings? Is there some “moral absolute” at play that I’m just not Christian enough to get here?

Anyway, let your imagination run with all this as you continue to read Slick’s apologia. Remember the above is what he’s defending.

Sexual purity was very highly valued, unlike today, and when a man would marry a woman, her virginity was critical. In ancient times a dowry was paid to the father of the bride and the rightful expectation was that the bride would be a virgin.

So there, you see? She’s his property, so that makes it okay. And notice the snide aside about “sexual purity [being] highly valued, unlike today.” Yeah, because we all know a woman’s hymen is of more value to her male owner than her fucking life. There’s your religious “morality,” gang.

When you’re in a hole, stop digging, unless you’re a Christian apologist. Slick goes on yet some more, reiterating that really, it’s just all about teh mehnz.

In the culture of the time it was the father who was charged with the covering, care, and well-being of his daughter. Her sexual purity was representative of the father’s ability to raise her according to the laws God. Therefore, in that culture, a man’s reputation, as well as the family’s reputation in the community, could be adversely affected by the fornication of his daughter. If his daughter had been promised to a man to be married, and a dowry had been paid, there was every expectation from the bridegroom that she would be a virgin. If the contrary was discovered after the marriage, then the implication is that there had been a deception in which the father could be implicated, or it would mean that he was unaware of her sin and this would bring great shame to the family and the community, not to mention it being a display of outright rebellion against God’s law. In this case, to insure the integrity of the family, and to remove the evil of adulterous/fornication from the community, stoning was advocated.

Again with the “in that culture” business. Here is why Matt Slick is a moral imbecile: S.F.W. if this activity was the norm “in that culture”; does Slick think it’s right or wrong to do this to another human being, period? Especially — especially — for reasons as pitifully selfish and banal as your own “shame.” Slick steadfastly avoids passing any moral judgment upon the killing, while telling “critics of the Bible” they are in no position to pass a moral judgment either, which is itself a moral judgment. Somehow, you can’t condemn death by stoning (if it’s ancient and Biblical, that is, because something tells me Slick would flip-flop in a picosecond when presented with the spectacle of modern-day Islamist stonings), but you can condemn those who’d condemn it, on the ground that they are somehow applying “subjective” moral standards.

So what is the Godly “moral absolute” on this issue then, Mr. Slick? Can young women be treated as chattel by their fathers and husbands, or not? Can they be murdered for making men embarrassed about their pee-pees, or not? If a “morally subjective” approach is the wrong way to think about all this, then clearly a “morally absolute” approach is the right way. So what does the absolute moral lawgiver have to say, Mr. Slick? Is he pissed off that we no longer stone our women to death? If his morals are absolute, shouldn’t this still be common practice today?

I think I’ve said enough. If any article demonstrates better than this one how badly religion can screw up a human being’s fundamental sense of right and wrong, I’ve managed to miss it. Religion, far from providing anything like morality, simply sets a list of arbitrary rules that allow any number of vile acts to be visited upon the helpless, and it is all elaborately justified with feeble rhetoric later. Secular morality may not be perfect either, but it is immeasurably stronger for being rooted in basic human empathy and reason. Not only do I not need a God to tell me that “honor killings” are a horrible evil, but it appears that people who do have a God don’t think it’s all that evil after all. Lord, protect me from your followers!

(That was sarcasm.)

Introductions: Matt Dillahunty

So, we’ve moved the blog over to a new home and the obligatory introductions have commenced.

Hi, I’m Matt and I’m an atheist and a former Christian. As this sounds a bit like an Alcoholics Anonymous introduction, allow me to shred the nonsensical victim-promoting 12 steps by turning them on their head:

1. I’m not powerless and my life is not unmanageable. I’m responsible for my own actions and I can change my mind and my behavior – though I’ll occasionally need assistance from other humans.

2. I’ve come to recognize that I’m not divorced from sanity and that I don’t require any “Power greater than ourselves” to fix me.

3. I’ve made a decision to base my life decisions on reason and evidence and this lead, inevitably, to the rejection of god-claims…but I wouldn’t turn my  life over to a god even if one existed. It’s my life…go live vicariously through someone else.

4. I have made and continue to make a searching and fearless moral inventory of myself. (One of only 3 ‘steps’ that I’ll support, as written.)

5. I’ve admitted to others that I’m wrong…but I see no need to admit this to a god, even if one existed.

6. I won’t be needing any gods to remove defects of character.

7. I won’t be humbly asking any gods to remove shortcomings. (Are there really 12 steps, if so many seem to say the same thing? Is this the ‘let go and let god’ program, or what?)

8. I didn’t make a list of people I’ve harmed, but I’m willing to make amends where they’re needed.

9. I’ve made amends…where possible. This 12-step thing is really tedious.

10. I’ll continue to take personal inventory and admit when I’m wrong.

11. I have no use for prayer and couldn’t care less what “God’s will” is.

12. Nope…no spiritual awakenings here – but I will be carrying a message to others.

I’m currently the president of the Atheist Community of Austin, host of our public-access and internet-streaming television program, “The Atheist Experience” and a regular contributor to our other podcast, “The Non-Prophets“. I’ve been hosting the TV show for nearly 6 years, though the show has been around for 14 (it was started while I was still a Christian). I’m also on the Secular Student Alliance’s Speakers’ Bureau and enjoy travelling around to universities and conventions for talks and debates on morality, religion, skepticism, atheism…and a host of other subjects.

In addition to those volunteer efforts, I work a full time job and I’m helping to plan my wedding to Beth Presswood (who is now hosting her own podcast covering feminism and atheism: Godless Bitches), on October 30th, 2011.

I’ll try to get out additional information, but I’m preparing my talk for the Texas Freethought Convention/Atheist Alliance America Convention that is happening next weekend in Houston, TX.


Pushing to outlaw abortion even in cases of rape

Reacting to this has been on my to-do list for about a week now.  I thought I’d just comment on it during Saturday’s Non-Prophets, but it got canceled, so I guess I’m blogging it instead.

Personhood amendments are constitutional amendments that declare that human life begins at conception, no matter what the circumstances.  This human life — no matter what stage of development, including a zygote — has constitutional rights.  Terminating the development of a fertilized human egg is akin to murder under personhood amendments. Generally, under personhood amendments, the circumstances of the pregnant women are irrelevant because the fertilized egg has a constitutional right to life.

In an effort to promote its cause, Personhood Mississippi has started a “Conceived in Rape” tour featuring Rebecca Kiessling, who says she was conceived by rape and was slated for abortion.   Kiessling states on her website,

Have you ever considered how really insulting it is to say to someone, “I think your mother should have been able to abort you.”? It’s like saying, “If I had my way, you’d be dead right now.” And that is the reality with which I live every time someone says they are pro-choice or pro-life “except in cases of rape” because I absolutely would have been aborted if it had been legal in Michigan when I was an unborn child, and I can tell you that it hurts. But I know that most people don’t put a face to this issue — for them abortion is just a concept — with a quick cliche, they sweep it under the rug and forget about it. I do hope that, as a child conceived in rape, I can help to put a face, a voice, and a story to this issue.

In reply, some have said to me, “So does that mean you’re pro-rape?” Though ludicrous, I’ll address it because I understand that they aren’t thinking things through. There is a huge moral difference because I did exist, and my life would have been ended because I would have been killed by a brutal abortion. You can only be killed and your life can only be devalued once you exist. Being thankful that my life was protected in no way makes me pro-rape.

The thing is, calling the question “ludicrous” doesn’t actually put it outside the realm of discussion, it’s just an attempt to poison the well.

Trying to make the fetus legally a person is a tactic they’re using in order to do an end-run around the fact that most people don’t think it is one in reality.  Yes, they want to convince everyone that a fetus is equivalent to a person with constitutional rights, but appealing to the fact that it is would be begging the question.

A few months ago I wrote some hypothetical questions about what constitutes “potential life.”  These were some thought experiments of mine which revolve a time traveler preventing a person’s birth, asking basically: In which of these cases has the time traveler committed murder?  Are you murdering someone by preventing their parents from having sex?  Are you murdering potential siblings by allowing a person to be born, knowing that if he hadn’t been then his parents would otherwise have had other, different kids?

Naturally, some people dismissed the post as pointless because “time travel isn’t real.”  Well, sure.  But neither is the imaginary alternate universe that Rebecca Kiesling proposes, in which Rebecca Kiesling was never born.  In this universe right here, circumstances have caused Rebecca Kiesling to be alive today, and no amount of hypothetically retroactive changing of the rules can alter her existence unless time travel becomes a reality.  So if we’re refusing to accept alternate universe scenarios, we can’t reasonably discuss whether Rebecca “shouldn’t have been born”; we can only discuss whether we should force mothers now to bear a rapist’s baby that isn’t a person yet.

The way that Rebecca has framed the issue is, of course, emotionally manipulative.  On purpose.  She says that she hears people saying “If I had my way, you’d be dead right now.” Sounds pretty rude, doesn’t it?  But let’s just push back the question to the circumstances that caused her birth in the first place.  I wish her mother hadn’t been raped, because I’m against rape.  It is no less valid to frame that opinion as “If I had my way, you would never have existed.”

Putting side effects in personal terms can easily be used to make the audience feel like the person is a real jerk, when in both cases their primary concern is a goal of preventing undesirable suffering.  Being anti-rape, it’s “I sure wish somebody would have stopped that guy from forcing your mom to have sex with him.”  Being pro-choice, it’s “Since your mom was unfortunately raped, I hope that she retains the option to spare herself the emotional trauma of having to bear a rapist’s baby.”

Whether those two desires are actually different from each other completely revolves on the not settled philosophical matter of whether a blastocyst with no brain function or nervous system is distinct in any important way from a sperm and an egg that never combined in the first place.  And that’s a matter worth arguing about, but it shouldn’t be “settled” by the minority ramming their religiously-motivated answer through as law.

My brain is processing excitement!

Hi all. This is Martin Wagner, cohost of the show and blog founder, checking in with my introduction and greeting as Kazim has asked. I am delighted we’ve arrived (fashionably late, of course) to the Freethought Blogs party, and my thanks go out to the illustrious Mr. Glasser for setting it all up, and in particular taking over admin duties.

I was the host of The Atheist Experience for about two years, from early 2002-04, a fact which may surprise some of you who doubtless see me as the most jokey and frivolous of all the current cohost rotation. In the early years of the show, we were anything but professional, learning the ropes as we went and mostly making it all up as we went along. After all, at that time there were no other programs quite like The Atheist Experience being done by anyone. Reggie Finley was making strides in internet radio (that’s what they used to call podcasting) with The Infidel Guy, but ours was kind of the only live call-in cable access atheist show of its type, and it wasn’t as if we had a syllabus to follow. To all the fans who keep asking for recordings of those days, trust me when I say you aren’t missing much and today the show is the best it has ever been. It may have taken close to a decade to find a formula that worked, but we seem to have done it (though it’s up to you to determine our degree of success) and I’m proud to be part of it all.

I founded the blog in 2006, without leave from anyone from the ACA (which I had not yet rejoined) as a way of getting myself back into the zone after taking a couple of years off to concentrate on my career. That still needs quite a lot of work until it gets where I want it to be, but I suppose that is what you call life. The ACA hadn’t yet trademarked the show’s title, so I went ahead and gave the blog the same name, made it unofficial, and invited as many current and past hosts and cohosts as I could track down to sign up as contributors. Everyone accepted but Jeff Dee, who didn’t feel like he could commit the time.

But for quite a while, I wrote the majority of the posts and it took a while for AXP to develop fully into a true group blog. Now it has, with the majority of posts coming from Russell and Tracie while other obligations in my personal and working life have made me cut back my own contributions a little. With the move to FTB, I’m eager to get back, if not all the way to my original levels, at least to a more regular blogging schedule again. All that might distract me would be keeping up with reading the work of all the other awesome bloggers in the FTB family. (Achievement Unlocked: Group Hug!) These days, the blog has become about as well known and popular as the show (those of us who prefer abbreviations and such referential shorthand use AXP and AETV to distinguish the blog from the show, respectively), and so its readers deserve a good steady diet of godless love.

Today, I am sitting on a balcony overlooking Lake Travis, writing this on a glorious, clear and cool Saturday afternoon before heading into town for the ACA Bat Cruise. There are days when life is really, really awesome, and this is one of them! Thanks for dropping by. Wipe your feet and stay awhile. And if you get what I’m making an oblique reference to in my post headline, add a few coolness points to your character sheet.

Introductions: Russell “Kazim” Glasser

Now that the new blog has been introduced, hopefully some new people have had a chance to learn about the show.  There are seven people involved with posting to the blog, and I’d like to introduce myself.

My name is Russell Glasser.  I’m a software engineer, with a BS from UC San Diego, and a Master’s from the University of Texas.   I am also a fourth generation atheist.  My parents are both physicists, my father’s family is full of very staunch atheists, while my mother’s family leans towards extremely reform Judaism.  My son, Ben, is nine, and he is a fifth generation atheist — at least so far.  I currently work as the primary mobile applications developer at a technology-based marketing firm.

I’ve been involved with The Atheist Experience TV show in various capacities since 2000, and helped Jeff Dee launch our first podcasting effort, The Non-Prophets, a few years after that.  As a lifelong atheist, I’m very interested in promoting what I refer to as “Evangelical Atheism” — not just being satisfied with our own opinions, but testing them out in a public arena and not being intimidated by religious pushback.

For a broad overview of my perspective on atheism, you should check out two of my activities that I’m proudest of.  One is a lengthy exchange I had with Chuck Colson a few years ago.  The other is a lecture I gave on standing up for atheism.

In addition to The Atheist Experience, I also occasionally blog about politics, gaming, and entertainment at my other blog, Kazim’s Korner; and Castles of Air is a blog targeted at novice Computer programmers.  If you want to know why I’ve gone by the online screen name “Kazim” for so long, here’s the story, but it’s not much of a story.  It’s just distinctive.

I also sing in a community chorus and play a lot of video games.  Next month I’ll be marrying my fiancee, Lynnea.

Finally, if you’d like to get in touch, you can email, or join my Facebook page.