No longer a friend of the center…

Rather than writing a long post, I’ll just link to Jerry Coyne’s comments as he and I seem to perpetually be on very nearly the same page.

I’ll be speaking to CFI Tampa on October 16th. I plan to talk about whatever they want to talk about and I have no intention of walking into their home and telling them everything that I think is wrong with the organization.

Why not?

Because the organization, on the whole, is one that I still respect and would like to support. CFI members at the local level are some of the best people that I’ve met and have been great promoters of reason, discussion, conversation and fellowship (a word I’ll use with a grin, and mean it).

But, as I’ve said before, I’m disturbed by a number of individuals in leadership positions in various skeptic and secular organizations that have explicitly or implicitly tried to ostracize outspoken atheists from their organizations. Some of them seem to be doing it for ‘big tent’ reasons, some are opting for a style over substance accommodationism and some have simply been duped by lies (“skepticism has nothing to say about untestable claims” or “outspoken atheists hurt the cause”).

I love the idea of CFI and the JREF and dozens of other organizations. I love the people in those organizations. I greatly admire and respect many of the leaders of those organizations – even those with which I strongly disagree on some subject.

The difference is that I’d never implicitly or explicitly attempt to make them feel like they didn’t belong or that they shouldn’t be permitted to present their views or any of the other nonsense that has been directed at atheists.

Dr. Shook, you’ve been duped and dazzled by sophistry and intellectual masturbation. The “contempt for religion’s intellectual side” is the result of understanding, not misunderstanding. But hey, if you’d like to send out a few free copies of your book, let me know. I think I’d like to read it…and then I’d like to have myself, Jerry Coyne, PZ Myers, and others offer reviews and commentary on it.

Let’s actually promote inquiry and discussion. Now there’s a thought.

Clearly this is a discussion that is long overdue

Before a dozen people send me a link to this article: A Rational Approach to Irrationality let me just say that I’ve read it, it’s more accommodationist dribble and as I agree with Jerry Coyne on the subject, I’ll just send you over to read his response.

The only thing I’ll add is this:

Pretending that religious delusions are harmless makes you part of the problem.
Promoting your kinder, gentler skepticism by way of decidedly unskeptical methods (unsupported assertions, emotional appeals and encouragements to be less critical with one’s critical thinking) betrays the principles that make skepticism something people should aspire toward.

For the accommodationists, I’ll put it bluntly, as the more diplomatic responses seem to go unanswered: You’re still skeptics. You can still call yourself a skeptics (anyone can). You can still be part of the group and attend events and talk about skepticism…. but you’re a very poor skeptic in this area. You’ve demonstrated a preference for style over substance and shown that you’re willing to water down your skepticism for marketing purposes.

That’s your prerogative – but if you continually try to pretend that you hold the skeptical high ground while encouraging others to water down their skepticism or disparaging those who most consistently apply skepticism, you’ve become part of the problem and the unapologetic defenders of reason, inquiry and skepticism will continue to call you out on this.

Good cop, bad cop?

Here’s a chance to really demonstrate a problem (although it might guarantee that I’m not asked to speak at the University of Oregon)…

Lucy Gubbins has weighed in on the recent discussions about the skeptic schism.

She and I seem to agree on some things but she’s managed to frame this entire subject so poorly that the good points almost get lost in the fray and she finishes it off with a call for the “firebrands” to be more accommodating of the accommodationists.

“In interactions with religious people, do we need the Good Cop, or the Bad?

As often as I hear this dialogue, the answer seems to be, surprisingly, the same: we need both.”

I’m in agreement that we need many different voices to present information in many different ways to ensure that we have the best chance of reaching the largest audience, but when we start portraying this as “good cop” and “bad cop”, we’ve already erred. Those of us who are most likely to be tossed into the “bad cop” category simply don’t belong there because that category doesn’t exist.

In reality, if we’re going to stick with the cop analogy: we have an entire police force watching the highways and we all have discretionary control over when we’re going to give a warning and when we’re going to give a ticket or make an arrest.

“What happens when a nonbeliever appears who doesn’t loathe religion, and doesn’t find religious mockeries all that funny? And what happens when this nonbeliever is a vocal opponent of what the “Bad Cops” are doing?”

That’s actually pretty simple: they’re entitled to their opinion but it doesn’t mean that they get to define the skeptic or atheist community for others.

Sticking with the cop metaphor, these are the cops who are happy to give out tickets for reckless driving but they don’t like giving out speeding tickets until someone is exceeding the speed limit by more than 30 MPH…and they’re telling the cops that give out speeding tickets that they don’t like what they’re doing and they wish they’d stop.

Who are the bad cops? Are they the ones who cut too many breaks or too few? I’d say that both extremes are problematic…but I don’t think we really see those extremes. What we see are people pretending that someone has crossed a line when they haven’t and it all comes down to ego and personal offense. Here’s a scenario that better represents the problem:

I pull someone over for a busted tail light, check their license and registration and notice that their inspection sticker expired 3 months ago. I could give them a ticket for both, either or neither.

I decide to write a ticket for one and give a warning for the other.

My partner steps out of the car and says “Hey, don’t give them a ticket, it happens to everyone.” And when I point out that I’m going to give them a ticket for one of the infractions, my partner says “Now you’re just being a dick.”

My partner may be trying to claim that giving people tickets:
– isn’t effective in correcting the problem
– makes people dislike cops
– gives cops a bad name
– demonstrates that I’m an inflexible bully

My partner’s view is that you shouldn’t give people tickets unless there’s a very serious violation of the law. My view is that this is nonsense because that’s when you should arrest them.

” However, I’m willing to take a leap of faith and concede that yes, if we want a strong, diverse community, we need both sides. But to make this happen, folks: we need to start practicing what we preach.

That means that if we want to continue touting the idea that the secular movement is one with diversity of opinion, and that the “Good Cops” and “Bad Cops” are equally welcomed, we need to act like it. We need to stop decrying the “accommodationists” and start supporting them, especially because they’re so underrepresented. “

If we’re going to support many different views, do we need to support the people who claim it’s wrong to support many different views? Because that’s what you’re suggesting. Of course not, that’s absurd – and that’s the point.

“And if you happen to be a firebrand who isn’t such a big fan of the diplomats? I humbly ask you to reconsider. You might be able to rally the secular troops, but you won’t have much chance reaching out to the vast majority of the world: the believers.”

I’ll go ahead and assume that I probably fit the “firebrand” category in Lucy’s opinion. (As far as I know, we’ve never spoken, so I may not fit that category…but the examples she provided make me suspect that I would.)

In that case, I not-so-humbly ask you to provide EVIDENCE to back up your assertion about the effectiveness of honestly and aggressively addressing religion. Because I’ve received many e-mails over the past 5 years that serve as evidence to the contrary – and Dawkins has an entire portion of his website devoted to that purpose as well.

What do the accommodationists have?


“And without the ability to reach out, you lose a conversation, a dialogue, a chance to make the world a more secular-friendly place. And when that chance is gone, we lose everything.”

Clearly they have chicken little predictions based on gut feelings and a desire to “just get along”.

How has that worked out so far?

On the difference between religion and woo

Rob Knop has a blog post called “The Difference Between Religion and Woo“. It’s yet another in a long line of passive-aggressive posts, comments and lectures that attempt to disparage skeptical critics of religion by simply claiming that they don’t understand the subject enough to make their criticisms valid.

Bollocks. If anything, it is Knop and his ilk who demonstrate that they don’t understand skepticism.

He begins with a question that, evidently, he feels is a stumper:

What makes Robert Frost so much more important to human culture than the stories I wrote when I was 7?

The answer is: nothing beyond personal preference. Neither his story nor a Frost poem have any intrinsic value. Their value, like all value, is the result of a mind attributing worth to an item. The fact that we, as similar creatures have many shared values and appreciate similar things is sufficient to explain why, on the whole, more people are more likely to value a Frost poem than his story. What makes a Frost poem more important to human culture? Humans.

There is no puzzle here and it’s not analogous to the subject of comparing religion to woo. This question is a bit of well-poisoning designed to imply that there are subjects that we cannot easily assess, quantify, measure or explain because they are matters of personal opinion.

Ironically, he expands on this theme by flatly asserting that skeptics offer trite, unfair analogies when discussing religion and claims that:

If you cannot see the difference between Russell’s teapot and the great world religions, then you’re no more qualified to talk about religion than the fellow who thinks that cultural bias is the only reason any of us believe in the Big Bang is qualified to talk about cosmology.

Unfortunately, it is Knop who demonstrates that he’s unqualified to talk about the skeptical analysis of religion as the point of Russell’s teapot is to demonstrate that untestable claims are, by their very nature, devoid of supporting evidence and acceptance of those claims cannot be rationally justified.

Religious claims fall into two categories: testable and untestable. Knop clearly identifies that testable religious claims (like creationism) can be assessed skeptically and rejected, but he doesn’t seem to note that there are two categories to rejection. The first is demonstration that a claim is false and the second is a demonstration that the claim has not been sufficiently supported by evidence to justify belief.

Untestable claims, by default, fall into that second category.

While it can be difficult to consistently apply skepticism, it’s fairly simple to describe skepticism:

Skepticism is the ideology that belief is proportioned to the evidence and skeptics strive to only accept those things as true which have been sufficiently supported by evidence.

Which means that untestable claims, by default, should not be accepted.

Even those who agree that ridiculing people for their beliefs is not only counter-productive, but just bad behavior, often don’t seem to think there’s any difference between the brand of religion practiced by Pamela Gay (or by myself, for that matter) and Creationism

Actually, I don’t really think that’s true. I can clearly see a difference between different religious claims and I’ve written about it many times (including here). Some claims are testable, and some aren’t.

The problem is that skeptical theists like Pamela Gay (I named a category after her and clearly Knop fits that category) want to claim that their beliefs address untestable claims and that skepticism simply doesn’t apply to those beliefs.

That’s not only nonsense, it’s the entire point behind Russell’s teapot and it’s not surprising that a theistic skeptic like Knop would miss this.

What skepticism has to say about untestable religious claims is very simple:

You cannot possibly meet the burden of proof and, therefore, acceptance of your claim is irrational and unjustified.

Yes, there is absolutely no scientific reason to believe in a God or in anything spiritual beyond the real world that we can see and measure with science. But that does not mean that those who do believe in some of those things can’t be every bit as much a skeptic who wants people to understand solid scientific reasoning as a card-carrying atheist.

Actually, it means EXACTLY that. It means that, of the two of us, I’m the one who is willing to be skeptical about ALL claims, including your untestable claims and by asserting that skepticism doesn’t apply to those claims, you are demonstrating that you are NOT “every bit as much a skeptic”.

It doesn’t mean you’re not a skeptic, or even a good skeptic, on other subjects. It doesn’t mean you’re an idiot and it doesn’t mean that you should be excommunicated from some non-existent skeptical cabal.

What it means is that you are not consistent in applying skepticism and that you’re rationalizing the reason why. In Knop’s case, he’s taken the popular route of trying to make those who disagree with him appear to be rigid thinkers, unable to see the subtleties of the human experience. It’s not only not true, it’s exactly backward: understanding the subtleties of human experience is what allows skeptics to identify the mistakes they make.

We all make mistakes. We are all unskeptical about something. We are all idiots on some subject or another… the best skeptics are those who strive to eliminate these mistakes, instead of making excuses for them. The best skeptics are those who strive to make their beliefs as consistent as possible with the truth, to the extent that evidence can support it. The best skeptics are those who, having had a gross rationalization exposed, seek to prevent it from happening in the future, instead of trying to shield it from critical examination.

If someone believes that an untestable, deistic god exists, that’s their prerogative and they need not ever defend it…but they don’t get to pretend that they’re being skeptical about this belief or that skepticism shouldn’t apply. And when they do attempt to defend it, they should do so honestly and not by trying to claim that those who challenge their beliefs managed to misunderstand skepticism.

They should do so by presenting evidence to support their beliefs and not by trying to claim that their beliefs should be immune from skeptical inquiry.

If his only point were to claim that religious beliefs are nothing more than personal opinions, he’s already lost because religious beliefs make claims about truth — not opinion. The idea that whether or not a god exists is merely a matter of opinion is as laughable and absurd as the idea that whether or not the Big Bang happened is merely a matter of opinion.

Your opinions have no bearing on truth. You’re entitled to them, but if you pretend that no one can evaluate your opinions about reality with respect to reality — you’re engaged in a sort of self-delusion that beggars credulity.

Prince Albert

Jerry Coyne has posted on the “don’t be a dick” subject and he seems to have written many of the same things I’ve written.

It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, Phil says in response.

He could choose to be dishonest and dismissive, as he was with me.
He could address it fairly and actually participate in the discussion he claims is long overdue.
…Or, he could ignore it.

I know some people are sick of the subject and that’s understandable, but I’ll be making at least one more post on this subject – and I’m pretty sure that won’t be enough. This entire fiasco has simply demonstrated the schism that I’ve been talking about for more than a year and it’s unlikely to go away without some sort of resolution.

Fan mail, I guess

“How big a man are you or woman to go and attack the memorials set in
place for the men and women who have died protecting this great
nation, that has even protected your rights to be idiots.When the
families come with the torches and pitchforks they will even protect
you and after they are killed you will spit on them because you
wouldnt want to see the cross that reminds you that you are a sinner
and you will burn in hell. Unless you change your ignorant
ways.regardless the Christians put up with a bunch of your ignorance
but we only have 2 cheeks Lord says I have to turn the other cheek and
I will but dont forget how many we have this is not a threat just
important information you may want to know.”

Don’t be a dick, part 2: looking beyond the foreskin…

Phil Plait posted part 2 of his response to the conversations spawned by his “Don’t be a dick” speech at TAM8.

In his response he addresses my previous post on this subject and I think he does so very dishonestly. I posted the following, but I don’t want it to get lost in the list of comments:

“The author of this one says I don’t give specific examples, and therefore because he hasn’t seen the insults they don’t exist”

Actually, what I said was: “First of all, who is Phil talking about? This seems a bit quixotic and exaggerated to me. Where are these people who scream in your face on behalf of skepticism? Where are these people whose primary tactic is to yell at someone and call them a retard? Since Phil didn’t provide any examples to support the claim, we can only guess.

That isn’t an assertion that the problem doesn’t exist, it was a legitimate objection. I even specifically mentioned that I felt it was exaggerated – which clearly means I’m not saying that the insults don’t exist, I’m saying that I haven’t seen evidence to support your implication that this is a serious and escalating problem.

You failed to provide examples, leaving us to guess. What I said was accurate…but instead of addressing it, you misrepresent it, so you can shrug it off committing yet another straw man right here.

“… and then accuses me of a strawman argument!”

Which, ironically, you’ve just done – again.

“I find that funny; finding examples about which I was speaking is trivially easy.”

Then please provide them. This is the same sort of reply we get from the woo-clan. They claim something is true (vitriol is on the rise) and when someone asks for specific examples, they misrepresent the comment, laugh at it and claim that the evidence is all around you (or similar).

I’m legitimately trying to figure out the specifics of the problem here and find out why some people don’t see this.

“The author also says I set up a false dichotomy and call people who don’t agree with me dicks… all without the benefit of having heard my talk.”

I had read the transcript and now I’ve watched it.

It is, in fact, a false dichotomy to present the options as “warrior” or “diplomat” to the exclusion of other options and combinations. That was my charge and it stands. Why not honestly address that charge instead of hand-waving about the fact that I hadn’t yet heard the talk? I quoted the transcript for this charge, it was accurate and my response stands…unanswered.

And again, what I wrote was: “And maybe I’m missing something, but isn’t Phil basically calling those who disagree with him, “dicks”? Granted, he’s being very polite about it, but that seems to be what he’s doing.

I was pointing out the potential irony. Your entire point was to object to the unnecessary name-calling which makes it harder to sell something that is already difficult to sell. My reason for pointing this out was that it’s ironic that you couldn’t even do this in your own talk.

“As far as appealing to emotion… hello! It’s an emotional issue. That’s the point. Note that my appeal to emotion was logical because it sets up my premise that being a dick doesn’t help.”

No, sir. I was pointing out the fallacy of making an emotional appeal. It doesn’t become “logical” simply because it sets up your premise. Setting up (flawed) premises is the entire point for using emotional appeals and it’s the reason that it’s often noted as a fallacy – because it’s insufficient to the task, epistemologically, yet remains convincing because humans respond to emotional appeals.

At least you provided a link so that people have the opportunity to read what I actually wrote.

You and I actually agree on the bulk of this (which I noted in my response) and it’s distressing that your response to legitimate and accurate objections and questions is to misrepresent what I’ve said and scoff.

The irony runs pretty thick on this one.

Compassionate Woman Stops Reluctant Robber With Lie

ABC calls this story: “Faith Stops Florida Robbery” and “Christian Woman Stops Robbery With Faith”.


“I’m here to rob you.”
“Let me tell you about Jesus, I’m a Christian.”
“I am too and I hate doing this, but I still need to rob you.”
“Do you have a family?”
“That’s why I’m doing this.”
“I can help you get a job.”
“I’ve got a job.”
“Then why do this?”
“I need $300 or I’ll get evicted.”
“I’m sorry, I have to take every cent.”
“Well, they’ll charge me for this.”
“They’ll charge you for the money I’m stealing?”
“I’m the one responsible.”
“OK, I won’t rob you. And, hey, it’s a BB gun.”

The dishonesty-in-reporting brigade ignores the fact that he didn’t stop until he thought he’d be robbing her…and it gets chalked up to a robbery stopped by faith.

Are people more willing to steal from a corporation than an individual? Yes.
Are people less likely to victimize people once some personal connection is established? Yes.
Did a shared religion help establish a connection? Sure.
Would this robbery have been averted by almost anyone else letting the gunman know that they would have to personally pay back what he stole? It seems likely to me.

The claim that she’d have to pay is also, as far as I can tell, a lie. Essentially, she talked him out of robbing the place by explaining how he’d be robbing her, and not just the store.

So, why doesn’t the headline read “Compassionate Woman Stops Reluctant Robber With Lie”?

The moral compass

A fan just wrote in with a quote from a Catholic instructor who offered their moral opinion on both rape and masturbation:

“Rape is better than masturbation because there is a chance of a child to be conceived rather than wasting that of which God gave us.”

This probably doesn’t represent the view of every Catholic (or even most) and may not even map to orthodoxy – that’s not my reason for posting it.

Navigating the moral landscape can be difficult and religions give the illusion of simplifying the process while actually making it more difficult. Even the most flexible cognitive contortionist will struggle to reconcile the web of confusing, vague or contradictory conclusions that result from flawed religious premises.

I understand the appeal. Religious adherents get to be intellectually lazy. They get that comforting “problem-solved” feeling that you get when someone else does the work for you. They get to avoid responsibility for their moral views by shrugging and pointing to their imaginary scapegoat.

The big problem is that religious moral claims gradually surround one’s moral compass with magnets.

We may be able to discuss and debate the moral impact of masturbation (I’d say there’s no moral assessment to be made), but if you believe that masturbation is worse than rape, you’re no longer eligible to participate in the discussion. You’ve sacrificed your humanity on the altar of laziness and blind servility and you won’t be allowed to rejoin the discussion until you correct that.

The rest of us are trying to put the pieces of the puzzle together and we don’t need you spilling your coffee all over the table while you try to force pieces together – especially as you seem to have brought pieces from some other puzzle.

Answering the right questions…

Reposted from my Facebook notes, by request:

“What proof and evidence can you provide that atheism is accurate and correct?”

Atheism is not a world view or a philosophy, it does not assert claims that could be viewed as accurate and correct – it is the rejection of theistic claims. It is disbelief of the claim “some god exists” – there is no requirement that one believe that no gods exist in order to be an atheist.

The question, as phrased, represents a misunderstanding of both atheism and the burden of proof. It’s an attempt to frame atheism as if it is asserting that no gods exist and it does so in order to shift the burden of proof. It’s not only hand waving…there’s a big, rotten, fallacy-ridden, red herring in that hand. Why phrase the question that way? Because, to those who don’t understand the burden of proof or the subjects at hand, it sounds so much more clever than “can you prove that there are no gods?”

In my case, I reject theistic claims because they have not met their burden of proof. That’s it. I’m an atheist because no one has been able to provide sufficient evidence to support their theistic claims. They’ve failed to answer a question similar to the one they aim at me…and after being called on that failure they’re desperately trying to point the finger in any direction except where it belongs.

If you believe you can read minds, why would you ask a non-believer if they can provide proof and evidence that you can’t — instead of simply demonstrating the truth of your claims? The simple answer is that you can’t, and you know you can’t.

Consider the following:

I get e-mails from Christians on a regular basis. Many of them are convinced that the Holy Spirit has instructed them to contact me and give me valuable evidence that will change my mind. These people believe that their god is real, that he wants me to know that he’s real and that he’s charged them with providing me with the evidence.

We can, via reductio ad absurdum, demonstrate that these people are simply wrong:

If their god exists, then it knows precisely what information they’ll need to convey to convince me and it would communicate this information to a person who is capable of accurately presenting it in a way that achieves the stated goal. (I’m not going to draw out a syllogism for this…it’s all from the definition of the god that they believe is real.)

Why then do these people consistently present the most obviously flawed arguments and absurd anecdotal evidence? Why then do these people often say the very thing that confirms that they have no clue what they’re talking about?

Are they just inept at communicating the needed information? Then their god has made a terribly stupid mistake, inconsistent with the character of the god they believe in.

Is their god incapable of accurate communication? Not according to their beliefs. Their god is perfectly (or nearly) wise, intelligent, capable, powerful, etc…and clearly directed them to present the information.

No matter how you break this down, the god they believe in simply doesn’t exist. There may be a god, and it might even be the one that they’re trying to represent, but they’re clearly wrong about its desire and ability to demonstrate its existence. At best we’re left with something that is, to a third party, indistinguishable from delusion.

Is there something that you’re really good at or knowledgeable about? Perhaps you’re a bit of an expert at a game, or at repairing cars, or you’re a trivia wiz about a certain show. Perhaps you’re highly educated in a particular scientific discipline or you’ve been doing a particular job for many years.

If so, then you’ll have some idea of how easy it is, in many cases, to determine (roughly) how skilled someone else is in that same area. You probably also have some sense of the extreme frustration you feel when someone who clearly has no clue what they’re talking about is trying to “educate” someone else. It’s almost as frustrating as when they’re trying to “educate” you. You can spot the bullshit from a mile away and it’s almost physically painful to watch someone get away with poisoning another mind with nonsense.

That’s what I feel like when I read many of these e-mails. That’s what I feel like when I see apologists videos or blogs.

I’ll continue to take on all callers, including (especially?) the overly-glib bullshit artists who willingly lie to promote their beliefs…because it’s something that I find important and something that I’m pretty good at.

The phone lines are open.