Why do we want diversity?

A copy of this post appears at Phil Ferguson’s Skeptic Money blog.

The skeptic/atheist movement is an interesting case study in group dynamics. It is a group that is subject to all the same vices and cognitive blindnesses that plague all human beings: self-centredness, arrogance, in-group bias, lack of self-awareness, hostility and stubbornness in the face of dissenting ideas. However, it is simultaneously a group that is acutely aware of human failings and constantly looks for ways to overcome them. As a result, we see pretty regular blow-ups, scandals, and strings of self-righteous blog posts that take opposing sides of pretty much every minor issue that crops up.

I, for one, wouldn’t change that for the world. Political movements thrive on passion, and provided we don’t start splitting ourselves into irreconcilable camps that are too busy tearing each other down to work together, occasional (read: incessant) spats are a small price to pay. Debate is good, debate is important.

One of my favourite aspects of the group is that, despite the diversity of beliefs, we tend to be a fairly liberal bunch. This is, to my mind, the natural result of being a critical thinker – when you replace “obviously” with “evidently” as the sufficiently persuasive criterion, your beliefs become more fluid and nuanced. Things that are “obvious” are seldom so to everyone, and usually coloured with a whole host of assumptions, many of which are unwarranted. Freethinkers have been quick to adopt the cause of the LGBT movement, and are currently struggling through the task of embracing feminism. Freethinkers like Debbie Goddard, Sikivu Hutchinson, and myself (if I can flatter myself and place my name in such august company) are pushing to introduce anti-racist ideas into the freethinkers toolbox.

At the same time, I also recognize that there is a great deal of normative pressure involved in the group dynamic – even among a group of freethinkers, a fair amount of ‘group think’ tends to go on that we try and sweep under the carpet. Some ideas are adopted as slogans without really being vetted by the cerebral cortex. We’re only human and not every idea can be fully chewed over – we’d cease getting anything else done.

I’ve said all the above to say the following. The freethinking community has, of late, embraced the word “diversity” with both arms. Panels are popping up at major meetings to discuss the need for multiple voices, groups are starting to look less monocultural/monosexual, and discussants nod their heads sagely when ‘the D word’ comes up in conversation. We are, as a group, beginning to talk more and more about the importance of including women and visible minorities in the conversation.

Of course, I couldn’t call myself a skeptic if I wasn’t just a little bit cynical about what is fueling this fairly rapid adoption. Maybe ‘rapid’ is a mischaracterization borne of my own recent arrival to the movement, but it seems as though a few people started talking about diversity and then within a span of a year or so, everyone was talking about it. It may in fact be the case that people were flogging this issue for years before I started paying attention, and I just noticed at the last minute. If this is so, then I apologize. However, the salient point is that diversity went from being “not a big deal” to “central to the freethinking movement” very quickly.

The most optimistic explanation of this fact is simple: because the freethinking movement is open to new ideas and stocked with humanists, we are of course going to work to address inequities when they happen within our own ranks. It is no strange feat, therefore, for this particular group to make rapid wholesale changes in how they (we) talk and think about important issues. Diversity of thought is embraced because it is important, and we have recognized that.

A slightly more nuanced explanation is that a small number of opinion leaders started listening to those who had been speaking about the need for diversity, and the audiences of those opinion leaders adopted the new position. When speakers and media figures and bloggers began talking about the need for diversity in the movement, people who watch read and listen incorporated the subject into their lexicon without really needing the kind of understanding that is borne of a full explanation.

The most cynical of the potential explanations is that because the movement is chock-a-block with white liberals, the popularity of diversity is due to a strong desire to avoid appearing sexist/racist/anti-gay. Anyone familiar with the term ‘white guilt’ will immediately understand what I’m driving at – oftentimes being a member of the majority leaves you with a feeling of obligation and the overwhelming drive to ensure that nothing you do can be construed as bigoted. While this is a useful way of getting white people to do what you want (as a minority), it’s an incredibly limited and shallow solution that eventually breeds resentment.

My reason for suspecting the presence of this third motive comes from a few sources, but there is one instance that sticks out in my mind. I shared a link to a blog post I had written on Reddit’s r/atheism subgroup. In the comments section, someone disagreed with my general thrust along a predictable line (“why do people need to identify as black atheists? Why can’t we all just be atheists?”) When I tried to explain my position, the conversation ended with the commenter saying “well you should post an AMA [ask me anything – a common type of post on Reddit] about what it’s like to be a black atheist.” My response was “I have an entire blog about that. You should read it – it’s good.”

My interlocutor seemed to think that his involvement in the conversation was over by telling me that it was my responsibility to explain myself – despite the fact that I had already explained myself to him, and despite the fact that I have an entire website explaining myself. His interest was in shutting down the conversation because the topic was making him uncomfortable. The onus wasn’t on him to learn something, it was on me to make him feel better. This is typically symptomatic of white guilt – I am interested in feeling better, not in learning how to contribute.

I am inclined to think that there is a bit of all three of the above motives going on. As I said earlier, while we are freethinkers and skeptics, we are also human beings, and human beings are full of frailties and flaws. As much as we’d like to believe our thoughts are pure, true skepticism is an ideal only – not achievable in a complete sense. Also insofar as we are talking about a group of people, there are going to be a variety of factors that compel us to act. Given that fact, I am going to take a moment to speak to those who understand that diversity is good, but may not really understand why.

Why do we want diversity?

Most everyone is familiar with the parable of the blind men and the elephant – a group of men who cannot see encounter an elephant and each describes it differently, based on which part they are feeling. The resolution to that story, depending on the cultural context, is that a wiser man (or one who has encountered an elephant before) tells them that they are all right, despite their wildly disparate descriptions.

The truth is rarely accessible from a single perspective – there are often a wide variety of interpretations that bring us a fuller understanding of a phenomenon, particularly when we are talking about topics related to personal interaction. This is not to say that “all perspectives are equally valid” – that’s a load of post-modernist bullcrap. What it is to say is that when it comes to perception, it is rare that any one narrative captures the full experience, and that multiple overlapping points of view brings us a much better picture.

Given that one’s experiences as, say, a black woman or a gay man or a person with physical disability colours one’s perception in ways that someone outside of that group might have difficulty understanding, it is expedient to include members of those groups. Doing so grants us a wider and richer set of experiences that we might not otherwise be able to access. It opens us up to avenues and sensitivities and nuances that we’d overlook unless we were particularly attuned to them.

The typical rejoinder often comes back: “so are you saying it’s impossible for a white person to understand issues facing black people?” No, I am not saying that. If I believed that, then I’d have given up on writing long ago. There are certainly many white people that are scholars of the black experience that probably know the issues better than most black people themselves. What I am saying is that it is far more difficult to find people like that, and far easier instead to include people who have had those experiences personally, rather than by proxy.

Beyond this simple issue of expediency of wisdom, however, there is another reason why diversity is a good thing. I alluded to it last week, and while the example I gave was perhaps not the ‘smoking gun’ type of evidence for me to draw this conclusion, I hope that I may be granted a bit of leeway. It is entirely possible that diversity makes us smarter – that bringing a variety of experiences and types of communication to a group may, counter-intuitively, collectively make us better at solving problems. Failing to foster a diverse environment may be hurting our cause needlessly – surely the monocultural environment reported by minority skeptics isn’t intentional – more likely simply a product of ordinary inattention.

Concluding thoughts

While the freethinking movement has gained a great deal of momentum in the past few years, it is important to reflect and ‘take stock’ of where we are going. We have a number of tools at our disposal, and I think we are doing ourselves a disservice if we don’t begin to see diversity of experience as an asset rather than an obligation. Whatever our reasons for ‘talking the talk’ when it comes to diversity, the sooner we come to realize that it is a boon for us to ‘walk the walk’, the faster this process will take place.

TL/DR: There has been a lot of talk about ‘diversity’ in the skeptic/atheist movement of late, and I am a tad suspicious as to why it has gained such rapid acceptance. There are a number of reasons why this may be so, some more noble than others. Regardless of our motives, diversity is a benefit to the movement, and this should be a good enough reason on its own to work to encourage it.

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Normalizing belief (pt. III) – who are we talking to?

When I initially started this line of argumentation 4 weeks ago, I hadn’t planned on making it a 3-parter, but such is life I suppose.

In the first part of this series, I asked you to engage in a thought experiment in which a population with a distribution of strength/types of belief in a god/gods are exposed to a strong argument against belief. My assertion was that a strong dissonant position would push the overall population away from belief and toward disbelief, even if there were no ‘strong’ believers convinced to change their position:

In the follow-up, I refuted 3 general objections to using confrontation in argument. The first is that people who cling more tightly to their belief if you aren’t nice to them aren’t in the market for a persuasive approach grounded in logic anyway, so trying to convince them is a wasted effort. Second, to postulate that confrontation is “counter-productive” assumes that more people move away from nonbelief when confronted than toward it, when it is more likely that people will simply remain where they are on the continuum of belief if they hear an argument they don’t like. Third, people seldom change their minds on a position in one stroke – it usually happens over time, and confrontation helps plant seeds of dissonance that can blossom into full-blown doubt.

There is a 4th refutation that I want to discuss, and because it is the most important (in my opinion), I would like to dedicate an entire post to it. The accommodationist position neglects an important segment of the audience – those who are de facto atheists but who do not see themselves that way, or who think it is better to “live and let live” rather than oppose religious ideas. I have my own private suspicions as to why that might be the case (mostly revolving around the fact that the “Diplomats” tend to be the “live and let live” types themselves), but regardless of the reasons why, this camp is largely ignored by the “Diplomat” approach.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time on why I am not content to just let people believe whatever nonsense they want, and to illustrate how differences in understanding can lead to disastrous consequences. To summarize for those of you that haven’t been here that long, it is important to vigorously oppose bad ideas (of which religion is one), especially when following those ideas can lead individuals and societies into dangerous territory, and especially when there are those people zealously promoting those bad ideas. Having a shared way of understanding the universe and being willing to toss aside bad ideas can allow us to live harmoniously alongside our fellow human beings, whereas a “live and let live” approach simply silos people into tolerant but disagreeing camps.

I can remember the point at which I was pushed from being a “live and let live” type into a “we have to do something” type – it was when I watched the closing monologue of Bill Maher’s Religulous. Bill lays out a cogent argument for why it is not sufficient simply to leave well enough alone – religion is fueling destruction and widespread suffering among millions (if not billions) of our fellow creatures – it is no virtue to stand aside in the name of “tolerance” in the face of such suffering. That was the deciding factor for me, and I haven’t looked back since.

It is precisely for this reason that confrontational and assertive argument is necessary. While playing nice with the believers is all well and good if you want to make friends, if you are in the business of reducing the harm that religion causes then not only must we convince people to move away from belief, but to press those who merely do not believe to begin to voice their objections. Fence-sitters can be moved off their perch by showing them “look, not only is it absurd but it’s harmful”. “Diplomacy” fails to address this argument, stopping short of calling a spade a spade, and landing in the morass of “religion is okay, but fundamentalism is dangerous”.

There is also something to be said for the reinforcement and encouragement of those that are already in your camp. Insult and mockery can be a “pep talk” for other atheists that are perhaps too shy to speak up on their own. It can be incredibly comforting to those that are surrounded by believers to hear their innermost thoughts expressed in a way that vindicates their own godlessness. “Diplomats” don’t speak to this group, but it is important to do just that.

This also overlaps with the idea of being “counterproductive”, and touches deeply on why I hate that word so much. If we can use our rhetoric to motivate more people to speak openly, this can have a cumulative effect. A chorus of voices are created that are articulating an anti-religious position, which creates strong normative pressure on the status quo. This is where our argument begins to take on the strength of non-rational forms of argumentation, because we add a component of popularity to the underlying core of rationality. As religious belief is no longer seen as the norm, but rather simply one alternative to no belief, faith loses its status as an idea that is above criticism.

It is for this reason that I am incredibly irritated when atheists begin telling each other that they’re “doing it wrong”. It is crucial to the advancement of any position that a variety of approaches are available. Some people feel most comfortable finding common ground with their opponents, then exploring where the differences are. That is a useful and valid approach, but it is not the only one, nor should it be considered the “best”. Others find it easiest to express themselves in strong language, reveling in conflict and clever mockery. This too is a valid way of articulating a position, and can have an audience outside of simply those who oppose us. Why would we undercut ourselves and take away a valid form of debate?

There are no good reasons.

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Normalizing belief (pt. II) – in defense of aggression

Previously, I tried to illustrate my take on the “accommodation vs. confrontation” issue using a model from statistics. In brief, I pointed out that by asserting a strong, persuasive position it is possible to shift a population of people along a continuum from absolute belief toward absolute disbelief. This shift can occur despite the fact that you may not move a single strong believer into a position of disbelief:

In the graph above, the blue line represents the distribution of a priori level of belief in a proposition (to wit, the existence of a god/gods with 1 reprsenting gnostic theism and 7 representing gnostic atheism), and the green dotted line is what I call a “precipice of belief” – the point at which people begin to ask serious questions and doubt the validity of their beliefs. The red line is a hypothetical distribution after someone has made a compelling argument against belief. Notice that many people have crossed the “precipice”, particularly those that were already close to questioning. Note also that none of the “strong” believers (those 1s, 2s and 3s) are atheists now, but are still somewhat shifted.

The question inevitably arises in such discussions: is it necessary to be aggressive? Doesn’t being aggressive and employing mockery of people’s beliefs make them less likely to listen to your argument? Wouldn’t it be better to state your case in a nice non-confrontational way, rather than arguing from an extreme point of view? I outlined my objections to this argument in the first post:

In general, there are 4 major objections: 1) someone who believes in something because the opponents are mean isn’t rational; 2) there would have to be a lot of people turned off for this to be ‘counterproductive’; 3) minds change over a period of time, not at a single instant; and 4) believers are not the only people in the audience.

I feel it’s important to expand on those points.

1. Someone who believes in something because the opponents are mean isn’t rational

If we grant for a moment the existence of people who will simply move further to the left, or completely shut down, if someone isn’t nice to them (and I’m sure they’re out there), this still fails to be a reasonable objection to the use of aggressive rhetoric. If the strength of your belief is predicated on the disposition of your critics, then you’ve abandoned rationality and are doing things from an entirely emotional perspective. As an analogy, imagine someone who believes in science primarily out of a hatred for hippies and anti-vaxxers. Her belief in science has nothing to do with its actual efficacy, but rather an ad hominem rejection of the opponents. Her reasons for belief are therefore non-rational, and a reasoned argument against them would be a complete waste of time.

It is certainly someone’s right to believe or disbelieve for any number of reasons, but then we have to stop pretending that a rational argument, no matter how friendly, will sway them in the slightest. It therefore requires a different type of argument to convince someone with this mindset, one that is based on emotive reasoning rather than logical. Unless “Diplomats” are advocating abandoning reason as a means of dialogue, then we have to accept that a variety of approaches are necessary.

People whose beliefs will not respond to logical reasoning represent only one portion of the population of believers, and those ones are likely in the 1s and 2s, rather than close to the precipice of belief. After all, if you’ve drawn the cloak of your belief around the shoulders of your brain that tightly, you’re probably not interested in hearing dissenting opinions anyway. It’s also nearly impossible to find arguments that aren’t offensive to believers, when any questioning of their faith is seen as an unforgivably rude insult.

2. The issue of ‘counterproductive’

One of my least favourite words that always pops up in this argument is “counterproductive”. The assertion is that being aggressive turns more people off than it turns on. If we look at that curve in the above image, we can see that while no ‘strong believers’ have crossed the “precipice”, quite a number of those living in the middle are now in a position to seriously question their position. In order for this to be a “counter-productive” shift, an equal or larger number of people would have to be pushed away from questioning their belief.

There is no evidence to suggest that such a shift happens. What is more likely is that people simply ignore a given argument if they don’t like the speaker, and their level of belief remains fixed where it was before. Viewed in isolation from an individual level, this may look like a failure of the argument, but we have to remember that we’re dealing with a distribution of beliefs in a population, not the efficacy for any one person. Furthermore, the audience for an appeal that includes aggression is, by definition, those who are mature enough not to dig in their heels every time their feelings get hurt.

3. Changing minds takes time

The “Diplomat” position also makes the implicit assumption that the goal of a given argument is to turn someone from a believer into a non-believer immediately. This is an attractive fiction, but a fiction nonetheless. People do not arrive at their beliefs all at once, but rather over a period of time. It is a rare person who can look at even the most compelling argument against a position and switch their beliefs immediately. More common is that a series of kernels of cognitive dissonance are introduced, whereafter more questions are asked. This process eventually leads to the changing of minds.

As evidence, consider the stories of people who are outspoken atheists. Many of them start from a position of strong belief and then turn to a more liberal form of their religion. Then, as time progresses and they allow themselves to ask more questions, they slowly (over a number of years, in my case) progress toward a complete rejection of those religious beliefs, then of religious beliefs altogether. More rare are stories of people who have a friend point out, in the nicest language possible, that YahwAlladdha is fictional, after which they say “those are good points – I’m an atheist now!”

4. Believers are not the only audience

Once again, I am up against the word limit for this post, and I think I can devote an entire 1,000 to the fourth (and in my mind, most important) of these defenses of aggression. What I will do instead is summarize what I’ve said above and leave off the final part of this discussion for next Monday’s “think piece”.

Much of my objection to the “Diplomat” position is that it demands exclusivity. It says that being confrontational is inherently a bad idea because it fails to convert a believer into a non-believer. My contention is that it is neither desirable nor practical to focus on converting individual believers into atheists, especially given the diversity of belief within the general population, and the fact that changing minds takes time. We must remember that we are speaking to a variety of people, who are at different stages in their journey away from belief. One approach is not going to reach everyone, and pushing hard can move people who are already close.

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In defense of my bigoted moron brothers

Black Nonbelievers of Atlanta is a non-crazy freethinkers group in Atlanta, and you should check them out.

This morning I went on a bit of a tirade against KD and Black Son, two of the hosts of a public access television show called “Black Atheists of Atlanta” for their completely non-scientific rationalization of their anti-gay stance. I got so fired up about tearing them a new asshole, that I forgot to talk about the original point I wanted to make about the show.

The first point was that being a member of a minority group (whether that be a racial or ideological minority) doesn’t make you immune from being a bigot or an idiot. Similarly, being an atheist doesn’t automatically mean you’re intelligent – it just means you have at least one thing right. KD and Black Son are just as seeped in the heterosexism of their society as anyone else. While we might be surprised to see someone that is a religious skeptic use the same kind of nonsensical “reasoning” we complain about in apologists, it’s not completely mysterious. The challenge is to be skeptical about all claims, and to apportion belief to the evidence – KD and Black Son clearly aren’t very skilled at appraising the quality of evidence.

The other thing I wanted to say but didn’t get a chance to was a response to something that Hemant wrote:

At one point, someone calls in to say that there is, in fact, a biological basis for homosexuality. The response?

KD: “Those scientists were white, weren’t they?”
Caller: “Why does that matter?”
KD: “It matters to me because I’m black… if you’re not careful, even science can be racist.”

(I’ll admit it’s true that black people have been victims in some experiments, but that’s the fault of individual scientists, not science as a process.)

Hemant’s comment represents a fundamental misunderstanding of racism, and the climate from which things like the Tuskegee experiment came. It wasn’t simply a handful of unscrupulous scientists operating outside the norms that were responsible for the atrocities of the now-infamous abuses done in the name of science. Rather, the rationalization for using these people as they were used sprang from the societal idea that black people were little better than animals, and as such could be used as instruments of medical testing rather than treated as people.

KD’s remark about science being prone to racism is not then an indictment of the process of science, nor is it a misplaced criticism of a few people. It is justifiable skepticism about truths that come from the scientific establishment – an establishment that has demonstrated again and again its vulnerability to racism, sexism, heterosexism… all the flaws we see in human beings. Seen from this perspective, KD’s point is entirely justified – one does have to be careful to ensure that science isn’t racist. We see this taking place in clinical trials, where medicines are tested in primarily white, male populations, and then distributed to the population at large without checking to see if the results are generalizable. To be sure, this is getting better, but we haven’t reached the point where we have to stop being careful.

That being said, the correct response is to remain skeptical – not to reject the science. Animal studies of homosexuality have been performed by a variety of scientists in many countries, and they are based on observation. They were also not performed with the purpose of proving that gay sex happens in the animal kingdom, they are based on field observations and followup hypothesis testing. This is quite ancillary to the fact that there is nothing inherent in people of European descent that is pro-gay; white people and black people alike hate LGBT people, in equal measure, and with equally little rational support.

So while I am still appalled and horrified by what KD and Black Son said in their broadcast, and find it just as stupid and meritless as I did this morning, I have to defend that particular comment, because it is rooted in a justifiable and rational response to a scientific establishment that is predominantly white and has a long history of racism. Science, properly applied, leads to the acceptance of homosexuality in humans just as sure as it does lead to the conclusion that black people are equal in all meaningful ways to all other people.

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Normalizing belief

Today I want to dive back into the issue of “accommodation vs. confrontation” that is currently a topic of discussion within the atheist community, but which is germane to any social movement. Summarized, this debate centers on what the “best” way is to engage public opinion and advocate your position. The accommodation camp prioritizes civility, compromise and co-operation as the optimum solution, whereas those in the other camp elect to use direct and uncompromising language to spell out their (our) position.

You may find it strange that I put the word “best” in scare quotes in the above paragraph; I will explain why. As best I can tell, the two positions are talking past each other (actually, I think it is more accurate to say that the “accommodation” camp simply isn’t listening to the other side of the argument because they have repeatedly demonstrated their inability to respond to the criticisms of both their position and their approach). The “Diplomats” (a term I use for ‘accommodationists’, because it’s much less unwieldy) consistently invoke examples of one-on-one personal interaction, where the intention of the debate is to change the mind of the other party over the course of discussion. The implication is that insulting someone to their face is a poor way of getting the point across.

The problem with this approach is that it is severely flawed both in its premises and its conclusions. First, the majority of interactions between atheists and believers happens in the course of one-on-one interaction between friends or family members – the idea that atheists are going on rants against their acquaintances is largely fictitious (I will completely ignore the straw man that Diplomats erect of how “Firebrands” speak). Second, the assumption that minds are changed over the course of a conversation or blog post is ridiculous – people are largely resistant to completely changing their minds on positions that are of high importance to them. Third, and what I think is the biggest problem with the position, it presumes that believers are the only audience worth speaking to.

Blog posts, speeches, debates, books – any public exposition of ideas reaches an audience with a diverse range of opinions. As a thought experiment, assume for the moment that public opinion vis a vis atheism is normally distributed, and can be plotted on Richard Dawkins’ 7-point scale of statements of belief:

  1. Strong Theist: I do not question the existence of God, I KNOW he exists.
  2. De-facto Theist: I cannot know for certain but I strongly believe in God and I live my life on the assumption that he is there.
  3. Weak Theist: I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.
  4. Pure Agnostic: God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.
  5. Weak Atheist: I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be skeptical.
  6. De-facto Atheist: I cannot know for certain but I think God is very improbable and I live my life under the assumption that he is not there.
  7. Strong Atheist: I am 100% sure that there is no God.

Both of these assumptions are likely false – there are far more “strong theists” than “strong atheists” in the world, and because of the nature of the variables the distribution terminates at 1 and 7, rather than continuing indefinitely. However, for the purposes of this illustration, violation of these assumptions does not meaningfully impact the point. Granting the assumptions for a moment, we would have a population that looks something like this:

Let us also imagine for a moment that there is something like a “precipice of belief” – a point of confidence beyond which people allow themselves to start asking difficult questions. Arguably, the location of that precipice is entirely dependent on the individual, and there is just as likely to be one for atheism as there is for theism (i.e., it’s theoretically possible for an atheist to begin questioning whether or not there really is a god/gods – in practical terms this is far more rare). But again, looking from the perspective of the general population, there will be an “average” point at which people will start questioning their faith:

It is crucially important at this point to reiterate that I am talking about a population of people rather than any one individual. It is the failure to understand this distinction that is the central flaw of the “Diplomat” position. When an author writes a blog post, or a book, or gives a speech that articulates something from a position of, say, “6”; she/he is speaking to this general audience rather than a particular individual. The goal of the argument is to effect a general shifting of the curve of belief, moving the general population further toward the threshold:

When we consider the new graph, it is immediately clear that while not everyone has crossed the “precipice”, there has been a general shift toward the rightmost edge. But who is it that moved over? It was people who were already teetering on the edge of that precipice, rather than people at the leftmost edge – the “True Believers”, so to speak. True Believers are still believers, but have been subtly moved along in their level of questioning (if it is a particularly effective argument). Even though not a single strong believer has been converted into an atheist, we have accomplished a population-level shift toward atheism, made up of those who were already somewhat predisposed to question.

Doesn’t aggression turn some people off?

The common response to this line of reasoning is to point out that some people will refuse to engage if their feelings are hurt. The general point is that those who are 2s and 3s might move further left, or simply shut their ears, thus blunting the effectiveness of the argument (and further arguments to boot). There are a variety of reasons why I don’t find this line of reasoning compelling, but I am butting up against the word limit of this post, so I will save my response for another post. In general, there are 4 major objections: 1) someone who believes in something because the opponents are mean isn’t rational; 2) there would have to be a lot of people turned off for this to be ‘counterproductive’; 3) minds change over a period of time, not at a single instant; and 4) believers are not the only people in the audience.

To summarize, when we think of belief, we have to recognize that we are dealing with a population that has a continuum of strength of conviction. Not everyone is at the point where they are ready to question their beliefs, but when we address an audience we can expect that some people can be moved towards disbelief, even if we don’t reach everyone.

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Anti-racism: gettin’ skeptical on yo’ ass

I’m a skeptic. For those of you who don’t know, that means that I subscribe to the general principle that the strength of a person’s belief in an idea or position should be proportionate to the amount of evidence. Ideas for which there is no evidence I do not accept, and ideas for which there is mixed evidence I can be persuaded either way.

I take an identical approach to all positions – if you show me the evidence that something works then I believe it. If the only thing you’ve got supporting your position is vague ideas and logical fallacies, you’ll be unlikely to persuade me. However, I’m only human, meaning that you’ll have to work harder to convince me of something I don’t agree with than you would to gain my agreement on a subject I support. This is bad skepticism – I should apply the identical standard to all things.

I care about race and racism, and that desire to understand the topic better has given me a position that is based partially on experience, partially on research, and partially on verifiable evidence (to the extent that these kinds of things can be observed scientifically). However, it behooves me to apply my same skeptical look for positions I agree with as I do for ones I don’t (like this morning’s example). In the interest of being a fair race skeptic, here’s a position that doesn’t pass muster for me:

University coursework should be marked anonymously to deal with concerns that potential bias against a “foreign-sounding name” can cost students marks, a report by the National Union of Students recommends. The report also urges universities to minimise “eurocentric bias” when drawing up curriculums. “This is critical, not only to demonstrate to black students that their learning reflects their own experience, but to promote understanding among their white peers,” it states. It is standard practice for universities to assess exams anonymously because of concerns about preconceptions relating to race, sex or previous knowledge of a candidate, but the NUS report calls for anonymity to be extended across all “assessment procedures”, which would include coursework…

The report, Race for Equality, is based on a survey of 900 students with African, Asian and Caribbean backgrounds. The survey found that, while most students were positive about their institutions, 23% described the universities they attended as “cliquey” and 7% as “racist”. There was also widespread frustration that courses did not reflect non-white backgrounds and views.

I have the same criticism of this finding as I do of the Tufts study – it measures perception and not reality. Are these schools actually cliquey? Are they actually racist? We can’t use the results of student opinion surveys to draw that conclusion, especially given the multitude of possible explanations for the perception. One has to do actual observational work to justify making a huge policy change, not simply jump at every measurement of how people feel.

While I am generally inclined to believe the claims of the respondents (based on my own experience of what institutes of higher education look like as a black student), I think that these responses – like the ones from this morning – are useful and interesting areas for scrutiny. If the scrutiny yields results then a policy change is in order. However, until then, we should remain skeptical of all claims – even those we agree with; perhaps especially so.

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The normal kind of crazy

I might be the only atheist blogger in the world that hasn’t yet talked about the absurdity of the Family Radio rapture announcement last Saturday. For those of you that didn’t read my post that preceded the event, a radio host from the United States (of course) named Harold Camping performed a rigorous mathematical analysis of the Bible (read: pulled some numbers out of his ass) and announced that the world would be judged on May 21st, 2011. Jesus would return in glory and take faithful to heaven. He also ‘prophesied’ that there would be massive earthquakes and millions of deaths on that day, which would continue until the world actually ends in October of this year.

As you’ll remember, he was totally correct, and that’s exactly what happened.

Well, no. What actually happened is that the universe has existed for billions of years. For some of those billions, there has been one star among trillions that had a handful of planets. On one of those planets existed the proper chemical conditions for self-replicating molecules to form and propagate. Some of those molecules spontaneously organized to form multicellular organisms, one of which eventually became capable of organizing into units capable of exchanging ideas. Among the thousands of stupid ideas that this random process inevitably spit out, one of them was about a man who was the son of one of the gods who was killed but promised to come back and avenge his death in a most bloody fashion.

One of the multicellular organisms took the stupid idea to a wacky conclusion based on weird information, and got it dead wrong. Instead of being among the small minority of multicellulars that is willing to admit when it does something wrong, this one decided instead to engage in stereotypical hand-waving and try to change its story:

As crestfallen followers of a California preacher who foresaw the world’s end strained to find meaning in their lives, Harold Camping revised his apocalyptic prophecy, saying he was off by five months and the Earth actually will be obliterated on Oct. 21. Camping, who predicted that 200 million Christians would be taken to heaven Saturday before global cataclysm struck the planet, said Monday that he felt so terrible when his doomsday message did not come true that he left home and took refuge in a motel with his wife. His independent ministry, Family Radio International, spent millions — some of it from donations made by followers — on more than 5,000 billboards and 20 recreational vehicles plastered with the Judgment Day message.

First off, I have a bone to pick not only with this article, but with the slavering hordes of people eager to make jokes at Camping’s expense. Strictly speaking, he did not predict the world would end on May 21st; he predicted that Jesus would judge mankind on that day. All along he said that the final day of the Earth would be in October, and he hasn’t changed his mind about that.

Secondly, there’s a larger point to be made here. Harold Camping is a guy with really weird ideas. They’re bizarre and nonsensical and have only a fleeting and occasional relationship with observable reality. He has taken those beliefs out of the privacy of his head and has decided to plaster them all over the place, gathering followers and collecting vast sums of money in the process. The people who follow him appear to be earnest and kind but simple-minded fools who have fallen victim to Camping’s particular brand of lunacy.

Here’s the point: what Harold Camping believes is different from what the Pope or the Archbishop of Canterbury or Billy Graham or (insert famous religious personality) believes only in terms of magnitude, not type. Belief in a supernatural entity in the absence of evidence is what licenses all kinds of weird beliefs, even those as extreme as Camping’s. I will avoid, for now, the obvious temptation of comparing his nuttiness to fanatics like Ayatollah Khomeni or Joseph Kony – Camping did not advocate violence or totalitarian rule. However, the fundamental basis of his position is rooted on identical grounds: the will of an undefinable and unobservable supreme being.

And so while believers and non-believers alike spent the day laughing at the stupidity of the May 21st Rapture, we were laughing at two different things. Believers (the Christian ones, anyway) were yukking it up at the audacity of trying to pick a date for the return of the human son of the supreme being on the universe:

Tim LaHaye, co-author of the bestselling Left Behind novels about the end times, recently called Camping’s prediction “not only bizarre but 100 per cent wrong!” He cited the Bible verse Matthew 24:36, “but about that day or hour no one knows” except God. “While it may be in the near future, many signs of our times certainly indicate so, but anyone who thinks they ‘know’ the day and the hour is flat out wrong,” LaHaye wrote on his website, leftbehind.com.

Everyone else was laughing at how stupid the idea is.

When black people in the United States jumped on the Proposition 8 bandwagon to pass an amendment to ban gay marriage, I couldn’t fathom how a group that has experienced (and continues to experience) the suppression of its civil rights would be so eager to take the same rights away from other people. It was the same blindness I saw at work in believers who were happy to deride Camping but couldn’t see that their own religious beliefs were simply a diluted aspect of the same irrationality at work. While I’ve discussed the recalcitrance of the religious to examine their own behaviour, I am slowly learning that this is simply a product of human brains, not something unique to religious faith alone.

So what happened on the 21st? As it had for the past billions of years, the particular planet orbited about the particular star in the particular far-flung region of the universe, completely oblivious to the stupidity happening on its surface. Who wants to take bets on what’s going to happen in 5 months?

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Movie Friday: A Girl Like Me – unpacking societal racism

On Wednesday I talked a bit about the subconscious realm in which racist ideologies often lie. If we’re careful, we can measure and observe exactly how these thoughts and ideations affect our decision-making. The question then arises as to where these ideas come from in the first place. Do secret cabals of white supremacists slip into our rooms as children and whisper hate-speech in our ears as we sleep (well, maybe that’s the case for some of us, I have no idea). More likely, we notice patterns of behaviour and external stimuli, and our minds forms patterns and ideas about them long before we are able to put them into words.

We have these ideas sitting in our brains, doing work on our minds without our even noticing them. This may be particularly true for black women, as the above video may suggest, simply because we simultaneously have such a negative view of black features and place such a premium on appearance in women. This kind of implicit attitude formation happens to us as children, as we are surrounded by imagines that imply the superiority of whiteness and the inferiority of colour. It is only natural that not only would white children think negatively of children of colour, but that children of colour would similarly internalize these attitudes and think poorly of themselves.

Of course these kinds of things are hard to unpack, and as we get older our conscious minds can be taught to recognize these attitudes and reverse them. However, if we are so hell-bent on denying our own racist thoughts in some fit of arch-liberal self-righteousness, we will never learn to check our own assumptions. When the chips are down and we’re under pressure, we will continue to make decisions based on these gut instincts that we learn as children.

It’s not a black/white issue either:

Society gives us narratives about the people around us, and we internalize them without thinking. Evolutionarily, this is a useful trait for ensuring group cohesion – we will tend to reach consensus and can do so instinctively. However, when it comes to trying to break out of the evolutionary mould and design a society that is equitable to all people, we run into serious problems if we rely on these instincts rather than consistent introspection and vigilance. That kind of constant self-monitoring isn’t easy (trust me, I have a propensity to say stupid misogynistic stuff in the service of getting a laugh – deprogramming yourself is hard work), but it’s the only way to overcome biases that might otherwise go completely unnoticed.

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So predictable

One of the first posts I ever wrote for this blog was discussing why belief based in science is much better than belief based in religious faith. Even if we were to grant the wildly unsupported and ridiculous assertion that religious narratives and scientific observations are equally accurate methods to describe the way the world came to be, the fact remains that religious narratives are consistently inaccurate when it comes to predicting the future. For all the talk of ‘prophecy’ that is in the Bible, most of it is simply an expression of rudimentary understanding of human nature. If you couch your predictions in vague enough language, everything becomes a ‘fulfilled’ prophecy.

Of course those who do dare to tip-toe outside the safe boundaries of non-specific prognostication and actually put their reputations on the line by selecting a specific date and location for an event are always proved wrong. Predictions of this specific type would actually be useful – being able to, for example, know when a plague or a famine or a natural disaster was going to strike a certain region would be incredibly useful. Assuming for a moment that religious truth picks up where science leaves off, and science isn’t capable of predicting these events, using this other ‘way of knowing’ would be an incredible boon to mankind. We could use the Bible (or Qu’ran or Vedas or whatever you want to use) to predict when this would happen, and then use science to minimize the damage such things would cause.

However, that’s not the case. So instead we get stuff like this:

More than 22 earthquakes struck Italy by noon on Wednesday, as is normal for the quake-prone country but none was the devastating temblor purportedly predicted by a now-dead scientist to strike Rome. Despite efforts by seismologists to debunk the myth of a major Roman quake on May 11, 2011 and stress that quakes can never be predicted, some Romans left town just in case, spurred by rumour-fueled fears that ignore science.

Many storefronts were shuttered, for example, in a neighbourhood of Chinese-owned shops near Rome’s central train station. And an agriculture farm lobby group said a survey of farm-hotels outside the capital indicated some superstitious Romans had headed to the countryside for the day.

Some people I know are superstitious, or believe in horroscopes and the like. Contexually, it is a harmless enough fancy – for the most part they use logic and good sense to make their life decisions. In principle however, these kinds of beliefs can be incredibly destructive. When people begin abandoning their homes and work over a superstition that violates scientific principles it’s not simply something to laugh off. People leaving their jobs means a serious burden to the national economy; people leaving town ties up roads and puts an additional strain on emergency services; the efforts spent trying to disabuse people of a false belief could have been better spent in any number of fields. I’m not saying that people can’t take a day off, but when hundreds do so at the same time for an extremely poor reason, you kind of have to give your head a shake.

When those same people spend millions of dollars to propogate a superstitious belief, you kind of wish you could shake them instead:

Billboards are popping up around the globe, including in major Canadian cities, proclaiming May 21 as Judgment Day. “Cry mightily unto GOD for HIS mercy,” says one of the mounted signs from Family Radio, a California-based sectarian Christian group that is sending one of its four travelling caravans of believers into Vancouver and Calgary within the next 10 days. Family Radio’s website is blunt in its prediction of Judgment Day and the rolling earthquake that will mark the beginning of the end. “The Bible guarantees it!” the site proclaims, under a passage from the book of Ezekiel, which says “blow the trumpet … warn the people.”

You didn’t misread that – Family Radio (why is every fundagelical group ‘Family’ something – as though only Christians have families?) has determined through some serious Biblical research that the final judgment of all mankind is happening two days from now (or maybe less, depending on when you’re reading this). Oh, and when I say “serious Biblical research”, I mean some random shit that he’s made up:

I remember a few years ago, I was reading an article by a Rastafari preacher in a Bajan newspaper. He was telling people that you shouldn’t eat ice cream, because it sounds like “I scream”, and therefore it meant that your soul is screaming when you eat it.

Year earlier than that, a guy in one of my high school classes used the same ‘logic’ as Harold Camping to demonstrate that Barney the Dinosaur was actually the devil – apparently the letters in BIG PURPLE DINOSAUR, when converted to Roman numerals (substituting ‘V’ for ‘U’, as is the style in Latin), and removing all letters that don’t correspond to numerals, add to “666”. At least when Lee said it, he was joking. The followers of Mr. Camping are selling their homes, quitting their jobs, and basically giving themselves no Plan B. This is seriously disruptive not only to their lives, but to the lives of those that depend on them. The sad part is what will happen to all of these people when the sun rises on May 22nd and nothing’s changed.

If I am moved by a spirit of uncharacteristic generosity, I will grant that religion helps people deal with existential crises by giving them convenient and non-falsifiable answers to complicated questions (by teaching them not to deal with them at all, but whatever). However, when it comes to making claims about the material world, religion can and must be completely ignored as a source of reliable information. Faith is simply one of the remainders that falls out of the long-division of our evolution-crafted mental processes. Just like we can control our urge to defecate on the ground and have sex with teenagers (well… most of us anyway), we can control our urge to believe in ridiculous claims of superstition when it comes to answering the only questions that matter – how are we to live in the world?

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Mixed up

Those of you who have read this blog for a while, or who know me personally, know that I am what is technically known as “mixed race”. Generically, this means that my parents identify as two different ethnic groups. More specifically, my father is black and my mother is white, which according to the racist nomenclature of Jim Crow era America makes me a “mulatto” (a word meaning ‘mule’). At various points in my life, my ‘mixed’ status meant different things to me.

When I was very young, it used to irk me that people in my mostly white home town, who knew I had one white parent, didn’t see me as half-white. After all, technically speaking it was just as true that I was half-white as much as I was half-black. However, nobody else seemed to think along those lines. When I mentioned it to my dad, he imparted to me one of the first lessons I ever had to learn about race: it doesn’t matter what you are, it’s what other people think you are that matters. It affects the way they treat you, the way they think of you, and the way they see you.

I had the opposite experience living in Mississauga, where there were white kids, “really black” kids, and then me. As if I wasn’t enough of an outcast, being a recent transplant to Ontario, not knowing most of the kids I went to school with, and not really having been exposed to other black kids before, I was viewed with deepening suspicion and ultimately kept on the outside. As much as the kids I hung out with (mostly white, as that was who I was used to being around) accepted me, I knew I didn’t fit in. Most of them were Italian, Maltese, or of another Mediterranean extraction.

As a result of my mixed heritage, I never really connected with the black community where I grew up, only able to view it from the outside. Being in a special-ed program that didn’t exactly overflow with black kids didn’t help much either. To this day I wonder whether the system passively discriminated against the black kids – failing to identify them as “gifted” (in the language of the time – who knows what it’s called now?) because of pre-conceived notions of how black kids are supposed to be. I wonder if that’s the case, or if kids that were intelligent enough to qualify weren’t encouraged at home. As for me personally, I had tons of support. That’s neither here nor there, vis a vis this story, I just thought I would big up my home environment.

People of mixed race have been around for as long as there have been distinct racial groups, but as a sociological phenomenon, there has been a marked shift in how kids of my ilk are viewed. First, people no longer call us “half breeds” a term I hated when I was younger – my parents aren’t horses or dogs; they didn’t breed. Furthermore, the idea of someone being “pure” anything is mostly nonsense – everyone is a mutt no matter where they come from. We are called “part _____”, which is a much more flexible descriptor that allows for people who are a mixture of many different things. We’ve gotten over our obsession with fractions.

Secondly, people of mixed heritage are no longer seen as an exotic oddity (at least not to the extent that we were before). Perhaps with the rising prevalence of interethnic marriages, some of the shine is off the penny when it comes to the novelty of identifying with more than one group. Even the census and most other questionnaires that ask about ethnicity use a “check all that apply” rather than forcing people to choose one that applies best.

Last week a white supremacist showed up in the comments section. While I’ve dealt with that type before, there’s always a part of me that gets apprehensive because it raises an old spectre that I don’t like thinking about. That is, if genetics (along racial lines) do influence things like intellect and “personal responsibility”, what does that mean for me? They don’t, of course, but what if they did? Is my interest in science and academic topics the result of my “white” half? Is my love of music and dancing the result of my “black” half? Do traits break down like that? Am I a lucky composite of two complementary characteristics?

I am always able to beat those kinds of introspections back with a little bit of skepticism. Are there not many prominent intelligent black scientists out there? White musicians? Haven’t we learned through history and experience that the reasons that one group does something better than another is simply a product of culture rather than genetics? The stereotypes we paint each other with are just the result of sloppy thinking. Still, it’s always a struggle to have to deal with those fears every day.

Through this blog, I am trying to encourage readers to engage in skeptic thinking when it comes to race. Above and beyond my love of skewering religious topics, if there’s one thing I’d like you to do it’s learn to recognize and challenge the nearly-inaudible voice of cultural indoctrination when it comes to race. We all have embedded assumptions about groups not like our own (or even of those within our own group), and learning how to catch ourselves when we start unconsciously following those assumptions is a useful tool for dealing with each other fairly.

I learned this trick by reflex, living my entire life trying to figure out how I fit in. I don’t have the option to turn it off, nor would I want to if I could. We can find a way to make our unique set of interactions work well if we are just a combination of open-minded, careful and honest. If we can all be “mixed” in this way, we can learn important things about each other, and about ourselves.

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