First rule of holes…

I can only think that what was on Richard Dawkins’ mind when he composed his most recent series of tweets was that he hoped to reassure critics of his, erm, often problematic approach to social issues that he wasn’t really saying or suggesting the awful things they thought he was. The result has, I fear, made an awkward situation worse. For starters, the tone of scolding condescension doesn’t help.

Date rape is bad. Stranger rape at knifepoint is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of date rape, go away and learn how to think.  Mild pedophilia is bad. Violent pedophilia is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of mild pedophilia, go away and learn how to think. X is bad. Y is worse. If you think that's an endorsement of X, go away and don't come back until you've learned how to think logically.

Someone might have tapped Dawkins on the shoulder at this point and gently suggested that addressing rape survivors as if they were creationist numbskulls who never grasped the whole thinky thing might have been the wrong approach. So he attempted to clarify some more.

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An observation on the concept of “callout culture”

So if you call yourself a skeptic, that means — or should mean — that you embrace the notion that no idea is sacrosanct, there is no dogma, and every idea and statement should be subject to criticism and rebuttal.

Crazy talk, right? But check it: there are some people, even in our august society of self-styled skeptics and freethinkers, who don’t actually hold to this. Oh, sure, they pay a great deal of lip service to it, but that’s easy to do as long as safe ideas are all that are brought under critical scrutiny: young earth creationism, Stanley Kubrick faked the moon landing, UFO abductions and crop circles, “I had a three-way with Bigfoot and Slenderman,” or whatever fortune cookie word salad Deepak Chopra tweeted today.

But the minute they say something stupid, suddenly, the core principle of skepticism doesn’t apply. It is a thing to which they should be immune, because how could they be wrong!? Dammit, they are rationalists! Says so right there on their T-shirt.

So what happens is that sometimes a person like this will say something other folks think is really stupid, and instead of doing what skeptics pride themselves on doing — entering into a dialogue involving argument, rebuttal, and counter-rebuttal — they’re just so sold on the complete unassailability of their ideas that the only rational conclusion is that their critics must be just doing everything wrong in every way.

Well, that's settled then.

Well, that’s settled then.

See? It can’t be that one of our own might be a fallible person who doesn’t actually get everything right all the time. You’re just getting something wrong. Haven’t we already established that we’re the skeptical community, which my character sheet tells me gives us an automatic +20 on our “smarter than everyone else” die rolls? Indeed, if someone from within the ranks is criticizing your ideas, well, they are simply malcontents and agitators who are looking to create…


So it’s like this.

To sum up:  Atheist YouTuber makes humorous video mocking the worst aspects of callout culture.  Atheist public figure tweets said video.  Atheist callout culture warriors freak out and overreact, pretty much like in the video.

Atheist YouTuber: Here is my new video in which I put on a wig and mock people I think are wrong.
Response: Okay, but this whole thing is a big straw man fallacy. If you’re going to criticize people, why not just criticize what they actually say?
Atheist YouTuber: SEE? CALLOUT CULTURE! And I totes predicted it. Where is my million dollars, Randi!?

All you have to do is slap a dismissive term on anyone critiquing your critique, and voila, you are immune from critique. Anyone who disagrees with me is just wrong about everything, because SKEPTICISM.

Let’s see how else we can play this game.

Creationist: “Look, I posted another video about how the universe is only 6000 years old, and evolutionist callout culture warriors freak out and overreact, pretty much like in the video.”
Psychic: “Look, I went on Montel and talked to the dead relatives of everyone in the audience, and those James Randi callout culture warriors freak out and overreact, pretty much like in the video.”
Moon landing hoaxer: “Look, Alex Jones posted another video about how the government totally faked all this shit, and the brainwashed sheeple callout culture warriors freak out and overreact, pretty much like in the video.”
9/11 Truther: “Look, I posted another video in which I scientifically explained how exploding jet fuel burning at thousands of degrees could never in a million years structurally weaken a skyscraper and cause it to collapse, and the police state callout culture warriors freak out and overreact, pretty much like in the video.”

Huh…when those people talk that way, suddenly it sounds kind of stupid.


Well, fuckin A.

Here’s an idea.

Be a skeptic.

Step one: realize that you could be wrong too!

If someone else’s ideas are stupid, then it should be enough to address them accurately, not misrepresenting them, and on the sole basis of their merits. And if someone thinks you are wrong, then you should listen to what they say, and pick apart their criticism based on its merits, rather than simply slapping labels on them that are little more than the rhetorical equivalent of “lalalala I can’t hear you!” Because maybe it isn’t “callout culture” coming after you after all. Maybe you actually just said some stupid bullshit. People do. And you’re a people.

I know. No one ever said this skepticism thing was easy, or that handling its sharp edges would mean you’d never get cut yourself.

Sorry if that’s what someone told you when you came on board. But some men will just tell a pretty lady anything. You should have been more skeptical.

Determining the Attributes and Effects of Gods

So, I was on The Thinking Atheist the last two weeks with Matt. And before going on the final night, the show’s host, Seth Andrews, submitted a very long, well organized e-mail that he’d received from a listener regarding the prior episode. It included a number of questions and concerns about statements made by all of the guests on the program, including me.

Whenever, I receive criticism regarding things I say, from someone willing to put the time in to communicate their concerns clearly and thoroughly, I try to listen. I was especially interested in this, as the topic of the program was “counter-apologetics”—something about which I’m not classically informed. So, I was already prepared for some justified correction, as I was clearly out of my depth. People who hear me on TAE know I’m informal and prefer a conversational style. I’m not out in the world doing formal debates—and, honestly, that’s not a format I suspect I’d enjoy. When I was initially invited on the podcast, I asked why I was included, since it was my view that Matt and AronRa (who was also on) were more than sufficient to cover a “Counter-Apologetics” topic. My inclusion seemed, at the very least, redundant. But it is what it is (to wax tautological). And I agreed to do it.

Out of several comments in the e-mail, only one was directed at me. I don’t know whether to feel flattered or slighted, but I would like to take the opportunity to reply to the author, G, here, starting with his original comment in full:

11:55 Tracie: “People want to talk about the attributes of God or the effects of God before they’ve actually demonstrated a God.”

I found this to be circular. If one doesn’t know at least some of the attributes that a God may have, how does one know when and if the demonstration is successful? Going back to our oak tree, if one knows none of the attributes or effects of an oak tree, how does one know when he is looking at an oak tree? How does one determine that tree X is an oak tree without comparing it to attributes of an oak tree? Must we first demonstrate it is an oak tree before we can talk about the attributes of an oak tree? In the same manner one must talk about the attributes and effects that a god would have in order to determine if that god actually exists.  Luckily, the concept of God does carry with it necessary implications; so, we can look at those and work from there. Various concepts of particular gods carry with them distinct implications, as does the concept of no God at all; by examining all of these implication we may be able to come to some sort of conclusion; but, without knowing any attributes we cannot demonstrate anything at all.

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Atheist in trouble for renouncing Islam

A couple of weeks ago, we at the Atheist Experience were contacted by several people about a story that many of you are probably familiar with by now, the story of Mubarak Bala. According to news reports, Mubarak is 29 years old, and has been active on Twitter under the handle @MubarakBala for quite a while. He came out publicly as an atheist on social media a while back, and his father — a Muslim public figure named Bala Mohammed — is a prominent newspaper columnist. Mubarak let several of his Twitter contacts know that his father had committed him to a mental ward at Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, characterizing his atheism as a mental disease.

We chose not to spread the story for a while, because several details aroused our suspicion. We weren’t familiar with the individuals involved, we got contacted by relative strangers, and the story originated in Nigeria. Many of you are familiar with the rampant 419 scams that come out of Nigeria. Most of us have been trained, by long experience with the internet, to assume that any time that we hear about a mysterious prince seeking asylum, or an international lottery we don’t remember entering, to watch out for advance fee fraud. People have been known to chase a greedy dream and throw away thousands of dollars of their own money to recover imaginary millions that they think they stand to gain. This crime is so rampant in Nigeria that by some accounts it may constitute a significant portion of their economy, and in 2009 was estimated to take in $9.3 billion.

Before I go on, I should clarify that I have been fully convinced at this point that Mubarak Bala is a real person, and that he is, or was recently, in Aminu Kano. I’m bringing up these points only to anticipate the same suspicions I originally had while looking into the story. I’ll outline the reasons I changed my mind shortly, but I wanted to make this clear up front.

Initially several activists contacted us with what sounded like wild rumors. We were all fairly dismissive towards them in the beginning. A few days later, we began hearing that the International Humanist and Ethical Union had decided to get involved in the case. They put out a press release, saying they were getting reports of Mubarak’s condition through a lawyer specifically recommended by one of the Nigerian Twitter users who had brought the case to our attention in the first place. We remained skeptical. At that point, I was still suspicious that all three of them — Mubarak, the activist, and the lawyer — might be working together to build confidence. I got in touch with Bob Churchill, communications director of IHEU, and told him about my concerns. Bob informed me that the Twitter user, Bamidele Adeneye, was an activist known to him by another source he trusts.

I still wasn’t willing to accept the story at this point. It struck me as suspicious that after more than a week, no one pushing the story had been able to get a clarifying statement from either the hospital — which, despite being in a fairly poor city under heavy Muslim influence, is considered to be a fairly reputable organization — or the father, who is a known public figure. I even thought it possible we would eventually hear something from Mohammed Bala along the lines of “I never heard of this guy, he’s not my son.” Even when the BBC picked up the story, it seemed to me as if they were only reporting information given directly by IHEU, whom I presumed to be taking direction from rumormongers and their recommended lawyer.

During this time, I was also in contact with a fellow blogger at Freethought Blogs, Yemisi Ilesanmi, who writes over at YEMMYnisting. Yemisi is a Nigerian human rights activist and trade unionist who is currently based in London. Like me, she had heard the story from multiple sources and, being familiar with 419 scams, felt like this was an obvious candidate for such a trick. Unlike me, Yemisi had reputable contacts living in Nigeria who were able to seek out independent confirmation of the story. However, I didn’t hear any updates for several days. Yemisi tells me now that she had some initial difficulty getting people to send her contact information for the lawyer, as some of those involved might have resented her skepticism. During this time I continued to exchange emails with Yemisi, Bob Churchill, and several other members of The Atheist Experience and Freethought Blogs.

On Sunday several new pieces of information came to light which finally cleared up any doubts I previously had.

  1. Leo Igwe, a noted humanitarian, wrote his own article confirming that he has a working relationship with Bamidele, the Twitter activist.
  2. Yemisi’s contacts finally got back to her. As she detailed in a post written yesterday, Yemisi was greatly surprised to learn that Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital does indeed acknowledge they were treating a patient named Mubarak Bala there. In addition, sources at the Daily Trust newspaper, where the father works, confirmed that Mubarak was his son, and there were many prior indications that he was treating Mubarak badly due to his public atheism.
  3. This press release from Aminu Kano surfaced to corroborate the story. Although they acknowledge that they have him, they do contradict Mubarak’s story by asserting that they are not holding him prisoner.
  4. The family put out a press release as well. They acknowledge they had their son committed for treatment. They dispute that it is due to his atheism, and say that Mubarak is experiencing a “challenging psychiatric condition which needed close treatment and supervision.”

At this point I think the evidence confirms the following facts to be true beyond reasonable doubt: Mubarak Bala is a real person. Mubarak is an atheist. His father is Bala Mohammed, a newspaper columnist at Daily Trust. Mubarak is, or was recently, in Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital. By his own statements, he is there against his will.

I suppose it remains to be seen whether the family and the hospital are telling the truth, that Mubarak has a mental illness. However, currently I’m strongly inclined to side with Mubarak. He is 29 years old, long past being a dependent child, and unless he is a serious danger to those around him, treatment at this hospital should be voluntary. IHEU’s lawyer claims he has been beaten, although no pictures have surfaced to back up that claim, but if true then that’s pretty scary. Nigeria in general, and Kano in particular, does indeed have a history of Sharia Law. As such, it is plausible to me that an atheist can expect to receive worse treatment than someone “properly” following Muslim traditions. That isn’t generic Islamophobia speaking; these are the hardcore groups we’re dealing with.

Now I’m hearing that Yemisi may be working to bring other groups in on this case, and hopefully Mubarak will wind up with a dedicated human rights lawyer who can promote his interests. I will be very interested to hear more developments as they arise.

In summary, I would like to acknowledge the people who have worked hard to bring this to light:

  • Godless Mom, a blogger who first publicized this story.
  • Bamidele Adeneye, a citizen of the Nigerian city of Lagos, also known as @deezer234 on Twitter. We know now that he was genuinely concerned about this case and worked hard to bring it to light. Although I hope our initial skepticism about him was understandable under the circumstances, he didn’t deserve the personal invective he got early on.
  • IHEU, for bringing more people into this, and investing their time and resources into getting more answers about the case. They are doing good work and deserve your support. Bob Churchill in particular, who devoted a remarkable amount of time to personally explaining the case to me despite what must have come across as relentless criticism. Thanks very much for giving me your ear.
  • Yemisi Ilesanmi, who was added to our group as a Freethought Blogger just last year. She has been a tireless skeptic in the best way, not just looking for inconsistencies but gathering real evidence to satisfy those doubts. Thank you Yemisi.

In conclusion I’d like to say that it is good to be skeptical, but it is also vital to be willing to change your mind as new information comes in. Here’s hoping Mubarak’s situation will improve soon.

(Correction: Previously I identified Bala Mohammed as a former Senator and current columnist. I think I mixed up two different people of the same name, and the columnist was not a senator. A mini bio of the columnist can be found here.)